Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Enormous Condescension of Posterity

Only a handful of professors I know have left their careers without mixed feelings about teaching, their impact on the world and the institutions they served. When I was younger I never understood why this was the case. Teaching was fun, I was figuring things out, and I always had a sense that I was working up to something better. Still, I often noticed colleagues a half a dozen years from retirement starting to withdraw from academic life. They would creep back into their courses, stop attending meetings and avoid getting involved in any university-wide initiatives.

Now, at mid-career, I am beginning to understand the seduction of slowly fading to gray. Make no mistake, I am still very much involved (indeed, a little too involved), but I can hear the mermaids singing each to each. I would not say there is any bitterness yet, but I understand how such bitterness can arise. There is a kind relentless rhythm to teaching. You go over the same ground, plant the same seeds. And the students keep coming semester after semester. After the first ten years or so, you begin to realize that the entire enterprise has a momentum of its own that isn't particularly dependent upon your unique contributions.

Beyond that is the sense of futility that can accompany committee work. Hang around long enough and you find yourself revising policies you once revised until they resemble what you once felt compelled to revise. Sometimes, too, younger colleagues will propose something that once touched off the academic equivalent of World War Nine. Oddly, you notice that no one but you and few other survivors even seems to remember. Many years ago at my institution we had something that came to be known as the "Entitlement Wars" (don't ask). Few are those today who remember the blood that was shed, the ill will generated, the double-dealing. That does not mean the scars have gone away. It's just that hardly anyone remembers anymore how you came to have them.

Another source of bitterness is the awareness of how quickly you disappear. A few years after retirement and you may as well never have existed. After four years, the students have all changed, and after a half dozen your name will have become a few vaguely familiar syllables: "Professor Who? Didn't he have a moustache, or was it a beard?" Once, years ago, when I was working construction, a foreman asked me how long I thought I would be missed if I quit. To illustrate his point, he placed his hand in a nearby bucket and said, "You'll be missed as long as it takes the water to fill the space of my hand after I pull it out."

Ah, but this is all just mid-year gloominess. I need to get back in a classroom. I hate Winter Break.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Actually Listening and Giving a Damn

I have a colleague that students adore. They keep in contact with him years after graduation. They update him on their changes in careers, the birth of their children, their life crises and personal successes. I am continually amazed by the things he knows about their lives, and sometimes I'm even a bit envious of his ability to relate to students.

I like to think I can connect with my students, but any rapport I establish exists solely in the classroom. In general, I know nothing about my students' lives; nor do I really want to know. They must intuitively pick up on this, too, because they rarely come to my office to unburden themselves, seek advice or shoot the breeze. In 19 years of teaching I have probably heard from only a handful of former students. And most of those were asking me to write a recommendation, something I really enjoy doing.

It's not that I'm complaining. To be honest, I have a hard time relating to students outside of a classroom. We have little in common and I often struggle for something to say. For years I volunteered as a first-year academic advisor. I enjoyed the work but hated the summer luncheon where I had to spend an hour making small talk with incoming advisees. More than anything, I quit first-year advising to avoid sitting through those awkward luncheons.

But there are ways of connecting with students other than getting to know all about them. In the end, what matters is actually listening to what they say and giving a damn. It's always amazed me how much they will respond to even the smallest amount of caring. Here's what I mean. This past semester I had a student in my Intro to Humanities section. He was a bright guy but none too interested in the subject matter at the beginning of the course. He was simply going through the motions. I put the following comment on one of his assignments:
I would like to see a bit more integration of support into your answers. Also, can you tie this response to other material we've read, other courses you are taking, or even your personal experience? It's not enough to summarize what the text says. I need to see you doing something with it, comparing it, connecting it, showing me why it matters or doesn't matter. In short, I want you to do what you're doing now, but then step back and ask yourself, "So what?" Take this to the next level, and I will be an even bigger fan of that wonderful mind of yours than I already am. I want your best and I'll shower you with praise when I get it (Promise).
I meant that part about him having a wonderful mind. He does, but he had fallen into the academic rut of putting forth the least effort for the least objectionable result. Even so, it only took one tossed off sentence on his paper to produce a turn around. For the rest of the course he tried harder. He even hung around after class one day to confess sheepishly that he hadn't tried as much on his last assignment. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was cramming for MCAT exams. He just wanted me to know that it had nothing to do with me, his respect for my class or the subject matter.

I was characteristically uncomfortable discussing his girlfriend troubles, but I was again flabbergasted at how little actual listening and giving a damn it takes to turn a student around. You don't have to become their best friend for life to let them know they matter. I swear, seventy-five percent of them will try to walk through a brick wall if they even half-suspect it matters to you. And caring can be something as simple as saying, "You can do better. I know you can."

I had another student this semester who was just wonderful: great ideas, personable, interesting. She was a delight to have in class, but she was uninterested in playing the academic game and her writing skills were holding her back. I had to give her a low grade and it drove me nuts. I sent her an email after I turned in my grades and told her I thought the world of her and she must never doubt her ability. I said I would love to have her in my class again--anytime, anywhere. I meant it too.

Some of these kids make me want to walk through a brick wall (even if I never hear from them ever again).

Friday, December 17, 2010

One step at a time

Any number of times during the course of a semester I run across a teaching problem and think to myself that I really should make a note to fix it next time around. I inevitably fail to make that note and find myself confronting the same problem the following semester. A good example is getting students to better integrate textual support into their written answers. For years this has been a vexing issue.

Students at all levels continually fail to back up their assertions with a careful and creative manipulation of the texts that documents support, or they do it with some feeble high school notion that "quote bombing" a paper equals good support. And it really doesn't matter if it's a first-year course or a senior seminar. Most students can't textually support their work.

On one level, this is understandable. Analyzing a text for relevant information requires some serious engagement with the ideas in the material. It means distilling the central rhetorical purpose, grasping key parts of the argument, connecting those parts into a cumulative whole, and evaluating the evidence for consistency and relevance. Unfortunately there are just no shortcuts for this kind of critical engagement. You have to learn it by doing it over and over.

So the problem is this: I am asking students to do some fairly high-level critical thinking when they have spent years in an educational system that (for the most part but not always) prizes content regurgitation, mnemonic text-taking gimmicks, and teacher-centered classrooms that stress getting "The Answer" rather than constructing it. Heck, why shouldn't they think there is a formula for the work I am asking them to do?

Only recently have I found a way of attacking this bugaboo. I have been toying lately with "scaffolding." Instead of expecting a high-level of critical engagement the first week and being irritated when I don't see it, I have begun breaking down thinking skills into smaller bits and scaffolding them into the semester. Here's what I mean. Most entering first-year college students can paraphrase a passage in their own words. So that's all I require them to do for the first few assignments. I tell them I don't want to see a single quote. Everything must be in their own words and cited. For some reason, students think the only thing that needs to be cited is a quote. So I break them of this habit right away. Paraphrase, paraphrase, paraphrase--and cite. The early assignments in class are simple paraphrases of what Homer says and their personal reactions to it. That's it.

I even have an exercise to explain why I do this. I ask who in class has read Hamlet. At least one hand usually goes up. Then I announce that I will speak a few lines from the play and my Shakespeare-reading volunteer will paraphrase the main ideas in her own words. I ask the rest of the students to keep their eyes trained on her face. Then I speak nine or ten lines from the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. When I'm done the paraphraser will often pause, scrunch up her face, glance up or down and knit her brow. "Stop!" I yell melodramatically. "Did you see that? Did you see what she was just doing with her face? What was going on there?"

"Well, she was, um, thinking," someone says. "Exactly! You cannot paraphrase without thinking, which is why I want you to do this." Okay, it's a schmaltzy and over-the-top exercise, but it makes the point. I want them to think, not type.

Three weeks in and I up the stakes. Now it's not enough to paraphrase. I want a supported generalization. I usually give them this example:

Warrior heroes in the Iliad have to live with the knowledge of their mortality. The Greek warrior Glaucus speaks of men's lives as leaves blown to the ground (VI, 150-151). Moreover, both Hector and Achilles have foreknowledge that they will die young. Hector acknowledges this to Andromache in Book VI (470), and Achilles has been told by his mother that two fates sweep him to his death" (II, 429). One of those fates, of course, is an early death.
We spend one 50-minute class period making generalizations about the Iliad and supporting them with three citations that must be pulled from more than one place in the text. I tell them from now on I expect every response to have paraphrase and at least one generalization. By the time we get to midterm I am demanding an inter-textual comparison. Paraphrasing and generalizing about materialism in the Satyricon is no longer enough. They need to contrast it with, say, Seneca's stoicism or the martial-warrior heroes' lust for bling in the Iliad. By semester's end, even the weakest student is doing some fairly sophisticated stuff. And the best part is they see it. They get it. They know they're getting better.

And to think, it only took me 19 years of teaching to figure this out. Sheez, by the time I retire I should be half-way good at this job.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Redemptive Endings

I have blogged before about the start of a class and how it's become one of my favorite times in the semester (Where they are right now ). During the first week nothing has gone wrong yet and you think you might just get it right this time. The students also have a sense of optimism that the course will be the one that that works, that won't disappoint. The first day and even the first week is all about expectations and starting fresh. On the other hand, there's much to be said for the end of a semester. In fact, it can be the best part if you structure it right.

I gave up heavily-weighted finals years ago in favor of reflective papers in which students tell me which ideas most engaged them and how those ideas were applied beyond the classroom. I also ask them to describe those accomplishments that gave them the most satisfaction and pride.

As a result I now get to spend finals week reading about what worked rather than lamenting poor performances on some tedious comprehensive final. Here's a sampling of the kind of things I got to enjoy this past week. They come from my first-year Humanities section.

After we finished discussing the Iliad in class, the movie Troy was on cable, which I have always thought was one of my favorite movies. However, after reading the poem, watching the movie was just not the same. That they left out scenes with the gods was very disappointing because the gods are such a huge and crucial part of the story.

For those keeping score, that's Homer 1, Brad Pitt 0.

Here's another gem. At the semester's outset I have students make personal learning goals. One young woman said she wanted to work on turning assignments in on time and revising for a higher grade. By the end of the semester, however, her goal had changed:
In the middle of the semester (around the time I was studying with flashcards for a Western Civ test, trying to memorize information that I would soon forget), my goals in your class changed. I wanted to focus more on gaining a deeper understanding of the material, and less on mundane things like revision and completing the assignments on time. I realized that the purpose of this class was not just to get a grade, but to build knowledge. This class really changed the way I think about education. I realize that it's not about a grade or getting 20 out of 20 on the Analysis Tasks. I want to learn to better myself as a human being. I did this by spending hours not only reading, but also analyzing and trying to understand the deeper meaning. Every one of my texts, even the reader, has my trademark pink ink in it from me scribbling down ideas, reactions and thoughts about the text.
I swear I did not bribe this student. That's what she wrote and it floored me. Here are a few more reasons to keep going at this job:

Every day when I stepped into this class I felt like I was stepping into an interactive movie. I left feeling like the past was closer than it had ever been before.

I know I've already said this plenty of times, but... I am so glad I took this class. The things I learned sitting in that chair by the window will last a long time and they opened my eyes up to different ideas and pieces of work. I'm actually going to reread the Iliad from beginning to end over break (the same with the Inferno).
Okay, okay, I'll stop now. I don't want to appear to brag, but what can I do? I have nobody with whom to share these success stories. The problem with teaching is there's never anyone around to high-five when stuff actually works. I know one thing, though. Reading these papers is a helluva lot more fun than grading final exams.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When "A's" Don't Matter

At the close of every semester I am besieged by grade-grubbing students who have finally calculated their tally and are now in a mad scramble for extra points. Revisions flood in along with anxious requests for extra credit and extra time. Worse, the quality of these last minute assignments is uniformly substandard. Suddenly it's all about the points, not the material. And almost everything we know tells us that extrinsic rewards like grades or higher pay are lousy ways to motivate people. In fact, a more rigorous grading standard can actually cause performance to worsen. The really good students will work only until they receive the reward they want. Then they park it. The poor ones develop learned helplessness and scud along or give up. And this isn't some woolly-headed education reformist talking; it's mainstream economics and behavioral psychology. Every study says the same thing: extrinsic motivators are fine for purely mechanical tasks, but they become impediments as soon as the work involves even simple cognitive or creative abilities. So what does motivate students to learn? It's the same thing that has always motivated people: an interesting and engaging problem, a certain freedom to investigate the issue and the personal satisfaction of getting better at something. As the You Tube video above points out, people will spend hours playing the guitar for no gain other than the satisfaction of getting better at it. They will edit Wickipedia for free, act in community theaters and grow useless flowers in their garden all because it interests them to do so, they have a certain freedom to do the task the way they see fit and they like doing it well. Sadly, I am not free to abolish grading in higher education. I have tried, however, to change the emphasis in my classes. This semester I tried two new things. First, I required students to write a paper the first week of class that summarized their past experience in courses similar to Humanities 101. I also asked them to select a personal learning goal for the semester and gave them several examples: improve critical reading, improve writing, use better supporting arguments, come to class better prepared, etc.. The aim was to emphasize autonomy (i.e., they got to pick the learning goal, not me). I put each student's personal goal on my grading spreadsheet next to their names so I would be reminded of it every time I read his or her work. On the last paper, too, I asked students to describe how well they achieved their personal learning goals. The second innovation was to end the course on the right note. I wanted to diminish the inevitable point-grubbing that concludes every semester. So on the last day of class I had them take out three blank sheets of paper. On one I asked them to write the big ideas or works from the class that most engaged them (the Iliad and the Inferno were big hits). On a second sheet I asked them to describe a time during the semester when they either thought about, discussed or applied ideas from the course outside of the class. This is my favorite question. On the final sheet I asked them to describe what they were most proud of accomplishing this semester. For 15 minutes they wrote their responses. Then I had them stand and scramble all of the papers by handing them quickly to one another for 45 seconds. Afterwards they split into groups of four or five and chose the class's greatest hits (one from each category). Then we shared them as a class. It was a nice way to end the semester. Instead of communicating their success privately to me, we were celebrating each other's semesters and accomplishments. Later, too, after class, I could sit in my office and enjoy all sixty some answers. The result? Hmmm... Well, I need to come back to their goals more frequently than I did this semester; I did not follow through on that as well as I could have done. The last day exercise was wonderful, though. It put the emphasis where it should be. Better yet, that stuff they wrote on those scraps of paper matched rather well with the course outcomes, which I went over next... ahem, just before passing out my teaching evals.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...