Wednesday, April 30, 2014

All blessings to the librarians

My institution just spent five years redesigning its Liberal Arts core curriculum.  I had no small role in this project, but increasingly what I find myself grateful for are the contributions of those colleagues on the committee who weren't primarily classroom instructors.  Most of all, I'm grateful we had our head librarian involved.

She was adamant that information literacy needed to be a key component of undergraduate education. She advocated tirelessly until it became one of the seven outcomes of our core, and she made sure it was addressed across the entire university curriculum in countless assignments and projects. She and her staff also designed, piloted and implemented an embedded librarian program in the first-year seminar and in select courses beyond the first year.  They also provided support and faculty development opportunities.

In an age when some have come to question the cost and even the necessity of university libraries, ours has become more vital to the classroom and more closely allied to delivery of the curriculum.  Indeed, our librarians have helped me to think differently about how and what I teach.

Here's just one example.

In the spring section of Humanities 102, I do a unit on the 18th century debate about progress. Students read Condorcet's On the Future Progress of Mankind, the Third Voyage of Gulliver's Travels and Jefferson's Letter to Roger Weightman.   I also have them watch a Ted Talk of Sherry Turkle on what 24/7 digital connectivity is doing to us. The aim of the unit is to get students to see that the debate over progress is a legacy of the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Progress just wasn't an issue for Dante or Shakespeare like it was for Swift and Jefferson (and still is for us).

I usually have the students vote on who was right: the optimistic Condorcet and Jefferson, or the pessimistic Swift?  But this year, with information literacy on my mind, I tried something new. Instead of simply discussing Condorcet's predictions of increased universal education and gender equality (or Jefferson's prediction of the diminishment of "monkish superstition"), I had students pull out their Smartphones and fact check the claims.  Our reference librarian even provided me with a list of source assessment criteria that could be put on a wallet-sized laminated card:
  • Who is the author? Do they have credentials? Unknown authors should make you question the information.
  • Is there an organization or institution that helps make this information available? Make sure you know the source of the information. Don't blindly accept information because it sounds right. If the info is from a research arm of the federal government, that’s good. If it’s from some guy named Joe Smith who has no credentials or background in this topic, that’s bad.
  • How old is the information?  The more recent the better.  Older information often may be irrelevant since new research may disprove it.
  • Are there signs of heavy bias? The information should be presented neutrally, not with language that is trying to be overly persuasive or emotional.
  • Are there works cited or references? Usually an author or institution will tell you more about their overall work and provide you with other sources to corroborate this information.
  • Why is this information being presented? This ties into bias, but you should know why the information is there in the first place. Authors will not simply give you info out of the kindness of their heart. They want to make a point or strengthen an argument. Make sure the reason it’s there is actually a good one.
In class I asked students to list four 18th century claims about the future in the left-hand margin of a page and then go to work finding reliable sources or current statistics that would prove or disprove the prediction. These they listed on the right-hand margin of the page across from the claim.  Then they had to come to a group consensus and give the authors a score on the accuracy of their predictions. 

What I liked about the exercise was the way the researched information changed students' initial responses.  Most, for example, began in agreement that Condorcet had been right in his prediction of universal education and a more gender equal society.  After 30 minutes of in-class research, their responses became more nuanced. He may have been right in a narrow sense and then only in certain parts of the world.  In a larger sense, he was wrong or at least (in a nod to Martin Luther King) the arc of history is indeed very long.  If it does bend toward justice, that bend is achingly slow. This little in-class exercise, in other words, opened a few eyes and made our staged classroom debate over progress richer and less a matter of uninformed opinion or sentiment. 

Better still, it gave the students a head start on the independent research they needed for the unit synthesis paper in which they were to stake out a position on progress that integrated both 18th century and modern perspectives.  It also gave them another chance to begin thinking about the importance of reliable information for answering relevant questions. I was pleased with how this worked and would love to take credit for it, but the real credit goes to our library staff, who has kindly, patiently and cheerfully made me a better educator.  

Bless them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tempus fugit, lectio fugit

Each spring I formulate a list of things I want to read before fall term comes around in late August.  And every late August I wonder where the time went.  What could I possibly have been thinking with my ambitious reading project?

A few summers ago I decided to set aside time each day to read all 36 Shakespeare plays in the traditional chronology. I never got past Titus Andronicus (sixth on the list according to the Riverside Anthology).   This is to say nothing of my other abandoned projects: reading the King James Bible front to back (never got beyond Second Chronicles); reading Augustine's City of God (don't ask).

So you would  think I would know better than to try this again. Nevertheless this summer I've set myself the goal of reading Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, a novel I've picked up and abandoned at least three other times. So why Proust and why now?  

It's a good question and the only answer I can offer is that I want to re-awaken some long-lost reading muscles. I want the experience of being deeply immersed in a big, demanding book that has the power to create a parallel life that runs alongside my own. For this you need a big book and a big author: a Tolstoy, a Joyce or--I suspect--a Proust.

Lately, too, I've been worried about my students.  Most of them have never had the wonderful, intimate, subversive feeling of weaving their days in and out of long novels. D
aily life takes on a magical quality when you're living with a big book over an extended period. There's the life you are leading and the life you are reading.  Time somehow seems larger, moments more incised. It's almost like when you were a kid and your summers loomed rather than zoomed.

Maryanne Wolf, a professor of Child Development, has written eloquently about how reading functionally rewires the neuronal circuits of the brain. Indeed, unlike speech--something we appear to be designed for by evolutionary biology--reading is a developmental add-on to the mind's architecture.  It requires the formation of unique cognitive structuring and even physiologically alters those who master the skill. Unfortunately these alterations are not passed on like our genes. Acquiring a reading brain necessitates sustained and frequent practice for each new generation, something that just isn't happening for many of my students.

Of course griping about students who don't read is perhaps the hoariest of academic complaints, one easy to dismiss by sniffing that "it has been ever thus." Complain about the caliber of your students and someone inevitably trots out a quote by Plato or Socrates on the indolence of the young (although the particular quote most often cited is a misattribution and only around 100 years old). 

But let's suppose that Maryanne Wolf is right and the kind of reading we do actually shapes our brain circuitry.  If this is so, then it's only reasonable to conclude that a generation that has skimmed electronic pages and text messages will not have the requisite wiring or patience for deep, immersive reading.  More than one student this past semester approached me after class to say that he or she was really struggling with the readings, most of which were not even particularly long or difficult texts.  

In each of these instances, too, there was an odd, almost desperate quality in their voices.  It was as if they felt there was something wrong with them. They liked me and liked the course. They wanted to do well and really tried to read.  They just couldn't do it.  

I am beginning to suspect they're right.  And it troubles me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

This was supposed to be a good dodge

My wife and I attended a child birthing class when she was pregnant with my son. Like an idiot I read all of the material and came to class over-prepared each week with a complicated question ready to ask the instructor. Her answer was always the same. She would smile and say, "Well, all babies are different, so it's hard to say exactly."

That's how I feel about each academic semester. Every one is different. Some come to a close with wistful regret, some with satisfaction and some you want to drown in the river like a sack of cats.

Ah, dear yes, all semesters are different (even when you teach the same thing year after year).  This is what most people fail to grasp about teaching. Those who do other work think teaching must be like any other job: you figure out what the goal is, optimize best practices, seek efficiency and assess the results so you can do better next time. You use the best procedures to get the best results.  It's easy.

The problem is next time is never quite like last time.  Students' personalities, interests and abilities vary from semester to semester.  You have to switch tactics.  What once worked doesn't work any more.  Why? Who the hell knows?  It just doesn't.

Teaching is more like being a film producer or a military general.  There are a few things you can do that will better your odds, but there's just no guarantee that your new movie or the tactics from the last war will be successful.  The raw materials and environment keep changing.

Take this semester, for example.  I don't think I have ever worked harder and been less satisfied with the result.  I've taught five course preps before, but I don't think this was ever as difficult as my five preps have been this spring. I've loaded up my courses with writing assignments for years (on average I grade between 900-1000 individual pieces of student writing each semester).  But I can't recall ever having so many 4:00 a.m.grading sessions.  Five freakin' days a week I am up at 4:00 am just to stay on top of it all.

I also can't remember being as unhappy with my students' effort.  I'm not seeing the improvement in writing, critical thinking or student engagement with the material I want.  Is it me?  That's usually my first suspicion. Maybe I'm just getting rusty or lazy.  If so, why am I running so fast just to stay in the same place?  It never used to be this hard.

Out of curiosity, I recently Googled ACT test averages for the past five years.  They've fallen almost a full point.  In 2013 only 25 percent of high school grads met the college-readiness benchmarks in the four areas they were tested on: English, Reading, Math and Science.  Twenty-eight percent met no benchmarks at all.  I also ran across a stat recently that said 47 percent of my institution's students enter college from the lower two quintiles of wealth distribution in the United States.   We've long known that family income is highly correlated to academic success.  Kids from less well-off families have a harder time succeeding.

So, sure, I could be working harder and smarter.  I could be getting up at 3:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 a.m. Professors who care about the work and their students always feel they should be doing more. It's called teacher guilt and it's endemic to the profession. Show me a prof who doesn't feel guilty and I'll show you a bad one.

Even so, I really do think this job is getting harder.  I'm not imagining it.  And this is not the way it was supposed to go.  I got into this work because I liked teaching, I liked the students and I liked my subject.   It's been a good dodge for the most part, especially for an ambition-less idler like me, but increasingly it just seems like plain old hard work.  And it keeps getting harder.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...