Friday, July 29, 2016

The Opposite of Synedoche

So much of how a course is put together exists only in a professor's head.  Case in point: I've been reading the texts for a colleague's capstone seminar this summer because I will be teaching it in the spring. 

The texts are all great (Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Howard Zinn's autobiography, a graphic novel by Charles Burns).  But without understanding the neural connections of my colleague's pathway through the themes and subjects, I can't see how the course comes into a whole.

And that's the point, isn't it?  A syllabus, a list of texts, some well-wrought assignments, all the proprietorial and tangible parts of a course do not make it whole.  There remains the original connections made by a single mind that knitted some ideas together.   In the end, the dancer is the dance.

Several years ago I tried to package up one of my courses so it could be taught by a colleague who was stepping in at the last minute to cover a new section. I didn't want to add a lot of prep time to her already heavy workload, so I put the entire course into large three-ring binders: the exercises, discussion questions, handouts, photocopied journal articles, essay exams, the works. I also used those handy separators with the acetate tabs and carefully labeled each item.

Even so, I still had to write a long letter explaining the logic of the course, which took me forever and made me realize how much of the material existed in my own head. When I was done, the well-ordered course notebooks looked very neat and professional, but I couldn't help thinking that they were bound to be an incomprehensible mishmash to my colleague. Sure enough, they were. She politely thanked me for them and then did exactly what I would have done in her position: set the damned things aside and begin to find my own way through the material.

A lot people fail to realize how idiosyncratic teaching is. This isn't entirely surprising. You expect some administrators to think this way. You expect legislators, business people and even the general public to think this way too. They look at teaching as a job like any other, which means it can be analyzed to identify strategies that will make it optimally efficient and effective. The problem is that teaching isn't a precise science. You can't control the variables or get uniform results each time.

And few people who have taught for long believe that a magic education bullet exists. The Oxford don and classicist Gilbert Highet wrote The Art of Teaching over 60 years ago, but it's still worth reading. In it he lamented the desire to think of teaching as a science. He wrote,
Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are outside the grasp of science. A scientifically-brought up child would be a pitiable monster. A scientific friendship would be as cold as a chess problem. Scientific teaching, even of scientific subjects, will be inadequate as long as both teachers and students are human beings. Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction; it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter... You must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils and yourself.
I still have a copy of my own three-ringed pitiable monster. It sits in a closet in my office with a lot of other old stuff that I intend to toss out one of these days.

Sunday, July 3, 2016


One of the goals I had when I first began blogging on teaching and learning was to be more open about my struggles in the classroom.  Or let's not mince words: my failures in the classroom.

All too often in higher education, we don't want to talk about our failures.  Even for a tenured full professor, it's risky.  There is an emotional component to owning  one's failures before colleagues, some of whom can be unkind, quick to judge or anxious to tell you how you should have done it.  So, fearful of rebuke, you hold back and find ways to ascribe your failure to factors beyond your control.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer acknowledges the grip that fear has on educators.  He writes,
It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.  To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.  And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face.
I agree with Palmer.  Even so, it has not been easy to own a course I taught last spring.  I worked my rear end off trying to reach a room full of 18-year olds and singularly and definitively had them hand me said rear end right back.  I've been trying to shrug this off for the past two months with the usual rationalizations: maybe it was just one of those bad classes that crop once in a while. Maybe it was a room full of ill-prepared students (I mean, they really were a challenge).  Or maybe I could blame it on events in my personal life?  My mother--widowed only last fall--was diagnosed with dementia in January and it fell to me to sell her home, take over her finances and move her into a memory care unit.

Then two weeks ago the spring course evals showed up and--sure enough--the students in my problematic course were in total agreement. I was the worst professor they had ever had.  Here, let's look right into its face. 

I'm freakin' flat-lining across the bottom.  In 25 years of teaching I've had great evals, I've had okay evals, but I've never had any so resoundingly terrible.  What has surprised me is how seeing these numbers has zapped my confidence and even made me a little gun shy about stepping back into a classroom next fall.  Yeah, I know this is nonsense, but fear by its very nature isn't rational.  Consequently, as Palmer put it, you have to set aside your pride and own it.  

So here goes: yeah, I bombed, I screwed up, I failed in epic fashion. And now I know what that feels like.

Many years ago I had a chance to ask a question to a wonderful and successful writer (and I had hopes of becoming one myself back then).  At a summer workshop there were about fifteen of us sitting in a semicircle and each of us had an opportunity to ask this woman a question about her work, her approach to writing, art, literature, whatever.  I was so impressed by her and I wanted to ask a really good question, one that went to the heart of my struggles with writing.

Then all of a sudden it was my turn, but I had yet to figure out what I really wanted to ask.  Still, I had to ask something, so I just blurted out, "How do you beat the fear?" She stared at me for a long time, maybe seven or eight seconds. Then she smiled and said, "You don't beat fear. You use it."

I always liked her answer, but I'm unsure how I am going to use this. 

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.  ...