Monday, February 28, 2011

The Emperor Has No Clothes (And No Shame)

We all (should) know the tale of the King who was taken by a sweet-talking tailor, convinced that the "clothes" he was wearing were invisible and magical and valuable. When the King goes out to show off his new suit (aka his Birthday Suit) the only person in the crowd who has the courage to say what everyone else knows to be true (or because he doesn't know any better) is a child. There are lots of morals to be taken from this tale, but I think we all need to think about how we, as academics, play the role of the silent crowd in our own tale of the decline of higher education.

I am far from the only one who has pointed at the naked Kind and declared him to have no clothes. We've had videos, long series of essays, shorter missives (and another), and entire blogs all devoted to exposing the fact higher education is not what we think it is, especially as idealistic graduate students, indebted but proud parents, and even professors and administrators. I think that as we keep splitting finer and finer hairs when it comes to our roles, we no longer are able to see the forest for the trees; perhaps for most of us, we just see a naked foot or a flash of genitalia, but nothing to get too worked up over. Besides, it's the life of the mind!

I do not regret my education on most days. But some days, the really bad days, I remember that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Wouldn't I love for my faith, and really, my only faith, in an institution that I love so much to return? For many of us, the university is our secular church, the place that we turn to for stability, security, justice, and answers. But our faiths are eroding, the cracks and inconsistencies are showing, and the corruption is seeping through. Too many of us hold our noses and keep returning day after day for service, because if we don't, what is left? Perhaps a weak or corrupt faith is better than no faith at all? Is this why we keep talking around the problem or burying our heads in the sand?

Or, maybe we're in awe of the King, able to walk around naked without a care in the world. When we discuss the economic realities of doing a PhD in the humanities, most prospective students think either a) it won't happen to them or b) it won't matter to them. When you're in your early twenties and all of your friends are broke and working for little to no money, grad school life doesn't seem that bad. Nor is it easy to see yourself ten years later, when your friends are all making more money than you are with less debt and are getting on with their lives. The life of the mind is, indeed, an excellent and noble life, but is that really all you want for yours? The King running around completely naked is a sign for us all that it is possible, no matter how shameless or corrupt (but who cares, he's in power!) and if we just leave it alone, maybe someday we can run around naked as well.

What perhaps scares me the most, however, is not that we are afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes, it's that we truly don't believe it will make any difference. The emperor has no shame, and we don't have any interest or motivation in instilling some in him. It's as if when the child points and says the King is naked, we collectively shrug, pat him on the head, and tell him that if the King wants to believe that he is indeed wearing an expensive, magical outfit, then we're just going to humor him as long as he leaves us alone. Besides, it won't make any difference anyway. 

We are the ones who should be feeling shame. We know the truth and we refuse to do anything about it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Talking about the Economic Realities for a PhD in the Humanities

I am depressed. I am feeling this way for a few reasons. The first is from a conversation I had with a student yesterday. I mentioned in class, while we were talking about education and personal economic benefit, that anyone who was considering doing a PhD in the humanities should come see me ASAP. At the end of class, there was a student. She wanted to go to a large private university in California where she could do a joint program where she would be working towards a law degree and a PhD in history. Her ultimate goal was to get into entertainment law, "but I could become a professor making $100k if I end up in a crappy firm." 

WHAT? Who told you that? A professor I know. She could see that I was...disturbed by the news that a professor had told her that a) you can make $100K as a history professor and b) then didn't reveal that this eventuality was the exception rather than the rule. I told her that while I had no doubt that that professor made $100k, it wasn't the reality for most PhDs in history (just as the professors at our college). And, you will probably have to live in a place like this (small town) if you want a tenure-track job. You will find yourself 10 extra years behind your peers in terms of career advancement and most certainly more in debt. Chances are, you'll be adjuncting for a long time before even securing a tenure-track job, if you don't give up first.

If you want to become an entertainment lawyer, then focus on that and become the best entertainment lawyer you can be. Don't distract yourself with a PhD. 

Students from my next class had begun to file in. Many of them heard our discussion, where I frankly and honestly described my own situation (in my 30's, just starting to pay off my debt, no TT job, no pay raise anytime soon, I live here, etc). One of them is planning on going into education and didn't want to hear about my economic situation. Don't worry, I told him, you'll make more money than I ever will, with better benefits and more job security. But you have a PhD, he exclaimed. I sighed audibly. Yes, I said, I know. Why did you do it, he then asked. 

Because I did love the research. I knew what my PhD dissertation was going to be on while I was still finishing my BA. I also wanted the intellectual challenge; I'm not going to lie, I felt like I hadn't really pushed or challenged myself when I was done my BA. Part of it was my own fault, but part of it was that most of my classes really didn't challenge me. At the time, that suited me just fine, but when I was finishing up, I asked myself, is this it? So I went to grad school. And I did get the elusive tenure-track job but keeping it meant sacrificing my family. 

And now I make less than a high school teacher who has less education and less debt. Reason number two.

The next reason is that I am not alone. I had my first "girls' night out" in a long, long time last night. All of the women were either tenured or on the tenure-track at the same university where I work. And they had the exact same difficulty making ends meet as my family does. We all are a part of duel income homes, but they only had one kid each, as opposed to my two. I know they make more money than I do. I know they are paying half as much as I do for child care (our kids all go to the same preschool). And yet, we all got boneless wings, not because we particularly wanted them, but because it was boneless wing night and thus cheap. 

At first, it was comforting to know that I am not alone in my financial struggles. We were able to commiserate about our students, our kids, our husbands, and everything in between. But when the buzz had worn off, I was faced with the sobering reality that the tenure-track job doesn't really solve anything, at least financially. I guess part of me was still deluded, believing that even though I have given up on the tenure-track job, it could maybe ease some of the financial burden.  

Apparently not.

So to all you professors who are still telling students that they can earn $100k being a history professor, please stop, or at least give your starry-eyed students all of the information. To my younger self, please rethink the importance of being intellectually challenged (even though you'd never trade your husband and kids for anything). And, to all of my colleagues out there who struggle financially even though we hit the proverbial lottery of getting a tenure-track job, you are not alone. As depressing as that is for the health of our profession and the institution that we (once) loved.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

If You Won't Be A Disruptive Influence in Class, Then I Will

Nothing like shaking the intellectual foundations that students hold to be self-evident to get them out of their apparent stupor. Suggest that education could and does serve a purpose beyond financial gain? Heresy, and they let me know it. 

One particular student, before class, was loudly complaining about the quality of the readings on education that they had to do for homework; she sits in the front and timed her comment just as I was walking by. Duly noted. As the class progressed, she clearly indicated that she thought that the ideas about education being put forth in the essays were completely impractical and not at all useful, and thus a waste of her time.

What were these essays about? "Ancient" ideas about what education is for: shaping better human beings (although in the essays, they say and mean men). Education for the purpose of profit or making money was frowned upon, if not outright dismissed as being the dirty work of the sophists. It wasn't all just Ancient Greece, either; we read essays on education from Ancient China and the Ancient Islamic world. But all three shared a few important commonalities: education for the general greater good, education involves hard study, and education to better the human soul.

These ideas are, of course, completely foreign and almost inconceivable for my students. They all agreed that they were in college to get their degrees and get a job and no other purpose, except perhaps to party and move out of their house. This idea that education could be useful and good for reasons other than economic is a provocation, a disruption. And I just. Kept. Pushing.

How many of you have really ever thought about the reasons you decided to come to college? I mean, really thought about it? I asked them what they thought about school, and why, then, does school seem so opposed to what education might or could be about? Eyes rolled and I heard what these Ancients were proposing for education was both impractical and inefficient. And the system we have today is efficient and practical? Why is it that we abandoned these ancient ideas of education at the same historical moment we started educating everyone?

I pushed and I pushed. How is our blind adherence to what our teachers and professors say any different than a bling adherence to what a preacher says? Each is accepted unquestioningly by you, the learner and listener.  Do you do anything during your time here in university other than listen to the teacher, takes notes, and cram for the exams? Do you actually take the time to think and to really learn?

I admitted that, at the end of the day, we're all here for similar reasons: the money. I try to encourage their enthusiasm for the course by pointing out all of the ways that what we are doing will help them be successful in and after college. I know the rules of the game, and I am a product of it. But from now until the end of the semester, I'm going to do my best to be a disruptive influence on their (and my own) education.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creativity, Disruptive Behavior, and Higher Education

My kids are playing with play clay while I type this. It's amazing how a simple thing can keep my almost-four-year-old and barely-two-year-old entertained for, well, an hour, tops. But the different things they can come up with to do with or imagine the play clay as being is amazing. It's a wonder to watch; my mind can't get around how they can keep themselves occupied with a pile of mushy stuff. 

And therein lies the problem. I've always considered myself a bit of a child at heart, but my children have taught me that there is a big difference between being a child and being childish or even immature. My kids are open, honest, imaginative, and inquisitive. Having fun, for my kids, is serious business, and they can concentrate quite hard and find great pleasure in a task as seemingly mundane as putting a cap on a marker or rolling out a piece of play clay.

This, of course, is nothing new nor revolutionary. No less than The Chronicle have featured academics who are looking to save childhood and play. But it is interesting to me to see where my kids may end up in 15 years. Rather, it terrifies me. 

I teach college freshman and sophomores. With my 200-level students, we talk about education and education reform. To kick things off, we watch Sir Ken Robinson's animated video "Changing Education Paradigms." He talks about, among other things, divergent thinking and how it is a skill that we lose the older (and more educated) we get. He asked the questions: How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? At this point in the video, I pause it and ask the students to offer their answers. The looks I get range from bored to mildly exasperated to outright hostility; the students are being asked a question with no direct application nor clear right answer. It is both unfamiliar and wholly unexpected. We're lucky, as a class, if we come up with 15. 

All save for one student last semester. He kept yelling out uses, even after we had moved on to watching the video again. This was a student who was constantly pushing and provoking me, either by saying outrageous things or asking what he thought were awkward questions. I welcomed his prodding as long as it didn't become disruptive which is never did. He was a smart kid hiding behind a smart-ass attitude and a heavy Southern accent. Every single one of his suggestions was a way he had used a paper clip to disrupt his high school classroom, drive his teacher insane, and mostly kill time and try to assuage boredom. 

I now use him as an example; what do you think, I ask my students, the reaction of his teachers were? He is disruptive, he is a nuisance, he is a trouble-maker, he is not school material. In other words, dumb. But this is obviously a smart and industrious kid who was bored out of his mind and found a way to make the time more enjoyable. Imagine, I tell my students, if a teacher had found a way to harness that creative and restless energy in a more productive way? Make something, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, that has value. What if he had listened to his teachers who told him that he didn't fit?

I equate it to George and Fred Weasley from the Harry Potter books; their pranks and tricks were ultimately useful and effective at fooling the Death Eaters. But they had to drop out of school in order to really achieve their goals. They really excelled at divergent thinking, but it was seen as disruptive behavior. I enjoy my disruptive students because they push me, they make the class lively, and they always make me smile; they approach learning with the abandon and enthusiasm of a child.

My classes this semester could use with a little more disruptive behavior. And I struggle with how to encourage divergent thinking in my own children without them being labeled as trouble-makers or disruptive influences in class. I want to support and help guide disruptive behavior because I don't want my kids to be staring at their writing prof like my students stare at me. I want my kids to remember that there is more than one use for a paper clip.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When a Failing Grade is the Only Motivation that Works

I've written about it before, but I've got carrots and I've got sticks. It is up to my students to figure out which one works best for their motivation in my class. Today, in my developmental writing class, we started the peer review process. They were supposed to have brought a full draft of their narrative essays to class; not even half did. The ones who did, after I spent 10 minutes trying to get them to discuss the purpose behind peer review (more feedback from  many people is always better, they need to learn how to do this on their own, and I am trying to get them to practice), half of the class that did bring their draft sat there doing nothing even as I said, "now exchange your papers and start giving and getting feedback!"

I acknowledged their lack of confidence; you're all in the same boat, and you are all here to help each other learn, I said. I provided questions that they should answer that provide guidance as to what they should be looking for in a "good" narrative essay (I tried to get them to come up with it, but after five minutes of dead air, I gave up). I basically provided every incentive and justification I could come up with (the carrots) to get them to take some initiative and take this process seriously. I'm not necessarily proud of this, but let me frustration with them show; the student who sat there for half the class not doing anything because no one either told him who to exchange his paper with or came up to him personally to ask him to make the switch sent me over the edge. Take some initiative and responsibility for your learning, I hollered. 

Today, I reached the limit of my mother-hen approach to teaching; some of my students expect Mamma to do it for them. While I am there for advice, guidance, and support, I am not there to mash their food for them and spoon it into their mouthes. I think that's an apt metaphor for the educational experience many of these students have had: pre-chewed, easy-to-digest education that is bland and tasteless, doing the bare minimum to nourish their minds (if that). When I think of it that way, I do have some sympathy for them. But at the same time, I've given them all the tools they need to do it themselves, and yet they still sit there passively waiting for...what, I don't know.

Thankfully, I am old-school insofar as I give grades. And, for many of these students, that is the only thing that will get their attention: a poor or failing grade. This is a last-chance situation for all of them because if they don't pass my developmental writing class this semester, they will be kicked out of school. They all have the potential to do well in my class, but they have to be willing to put the work in. A big E (we don't have F's) can force even the most apathetic student to grow up and at least attempt to fly on their own in a hurry.

My best students are the ones who had me last semester and didn't pass; they know that they need to be there, do the work, and take it seriously. Maybe I need to have them speak to the class without me in there. Because for the other kids in my class, the lesson will otherwise come a semester too late.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn't a successful reading session if she hadn't marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way "drowning" in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn't need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I'm not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn't find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (, and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn't have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I've worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I'm excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren't necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I've lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn't realize that my emails weren't being automatically archived on the server. As I've already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don't think that they'll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest's letters have been lost because they didn't realize that they messages weren't automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I've lost my wedding pictures when my husband's computer's hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don't actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn't have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I've had my "office" broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest Post: A Different Kind Of Trailing Spouse

This is my first guest post here at CollegeReadyWriting! This is by Heather Scarano (@HeatherScarano on Twitter), a wife, mother, professor, and wife of a college baseball coach. She blogs over at I like her writing, and as a fellow trailing spouse, I wanted to share the similar and yet different kinds of challenges she faces. 


There is something about the fragrance of February that I love.  A walk outside this time of year invigorates the body and encourages the soul. The freshness in the air and the smell of moist earth and wet grass are glad reminders that Spring is near. But there is something else about February that makes me happy: it marks the beginning of baseball season. 

As a college baseball coach’s wife, I look forward to February, when at last the hours, months, even years of preparation are tested in nine-inning contests of skill, speed and strategy. 

Being a coach’s wife has its benefits. I have front-row seats at the games, which I enjoy watching with my two young sons.  Each new season I am introduced to a new group of guys and have the privilege of getting to know them and their families.  I also travel to tournaments and tag along on Spring break trips to warmer, beachier places. 

Whenever our family has moved to a new college or university, we’ve found instant friendships within the institution’s athletic department.  And we have never suffered from being unknown in a new community. 

But being the wife of a coach isn’t eternally pleasant.  We move a lot.  And to places I’d frankly rather not be.  Baseball coaches and their families do not live only in sunny places like Florida, Texas or Southern California.  They live in the rural Midwest, too. 

And now that I am working at the same college as my husband, as a coordinator of a writing center and instructor of developmental English, I’m learning that the label “coach’s wife” isn’t always useful.

It is one thing when you’re not working in higher education to brush off a comment like, “So, have you always been a cleat chaser?” as immature and unenlightened, but it’s an entirely different thing when you are facing these stereotypes while at the same time trying to establish credibility in your first year of teaching.

For the record, I am not a cleat chaser.  Joe and I met during his last semester of his fifth year of college, and we did not go to school together.  The only baseball I ever saw Joe play was as an outfielder for the church softball team.  While we were dating and newly married, he worked as a landscaper, limo driver, newspaper delivery boy and Starbucks barista.  I never imagined he’d be a college baseball coach. 

I’ve also had to deal with people who suspect or infer that I am in my current position – that I got my job -- because of my husband.  Maybe I ought to get around to hanging up that diploma of mine.

I’m discovering that there are other challenges as well.  For example, what do I do when two baseball players in my introduction to composition course do not complete their first writing assignment?  Do I tell their coach, who will undoubtedly chew them out, or do I handle it on my own?

One night last week, at the end of a long day and after the kids were in bed, Joe and I were sitting together on the couch.  I was venting my frustrations about the lack of motivation I was beginning to see in some of my students.  Without thinking about the possible consequences, I mentioned to Joe that his baseball players were two of several students who did not hand in the paragraph that I’d assigned.

Encouraging academic achievement and cultivating attitudes of respect are priorities for my husband.  I should’ve known what would happen next.

Later the following day Joe told me, “I buried those guys.  I embarrassed them in front of the entire team.  I asked them if they thought they should be on scholarship if they can’t complete simple assignments.”

Oops.  I wasn’t trying to get my students in trouble.  Now I felt like a tattletale.  

There are other issues I will need to figure out, too.

With the first home doubleheader of the season just days away, I’m wondering what to do if one of my baseball-player students hits a homerun, or makes a diving play at third base?

Do I stand up, yell and slap my little boys high-five, as I normally would?   Or, would it be better for me to tone it down a bit – stay seated, clap quietly and smile?  How do I transition from teacher, to coach’s wife, and back to teacher again while still maintaining boundaries and some semblance of respectability? 

Or, what if one of my students sees me in my yoga pants, or chasing my wild, two-and-a-half-year old up and down the hallways of the hotel when we are in Florida next month on Spring Break?  Will he still be able to take me seriously at 8 a.m. the next time we have class?

Despite these conundrums, I am enjoying my new career in academia.  It is not the career I envisioned for myself (I was thinking more along the lines of award-winning international journalist, read: Christiane Amanpour) but now that I’m here, I think I’m finding my niche.

Joe is in his seventh year working with college students, and I am now beginning to share his passion for these burgeoning adults.  The college years are a brief but transformative time, and as their tutor and mentor, I have a big role to play in my students’ personal development.

As an English instructor, my job is extremely meaningful.  What could be more valuable than helping students become better communicators, especially in this socially-networked, hyper-communicative world in which we now live?

I could also see my role developing into a faculty advocate for student-athletes.  What many academics fail to see, I fear, is that student-athletes may be some of the most disciplined, hard-working students of all.  The average college student does not get up for 6 a.m. workouts or spend hours in the afternoon at the gym or on the field for practice.  When the other students are at home for the semester break, at the beach for spring break, or in their beds on a snow day – the student-athletes are on campus, practicing or playing games. 

I have a mission, and it is not at all different from my husband’s -- to help develop young adults into responsible, respectful, capable human beings.  Our goals are the same, though admittedly we use different means (and tactics) to get there.

Still, there is one thing that we can always agree on: February is an awesome month.  Just like the scents of the season, the sounds are hopeful, too -- the trickle of melting snow dripping from roof gutters and sloshing down streets, and the cheerful songs of returning robins and sparrows as they titter in the trees. Add to these the ping of a metal bat connecting with a leather-covered, cork ball, and the thump of an 88 MPH fastball meeting the catcher’s mitt, and the ambiance of approaching Spring is complete.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Teaching While Female Confession: I'm a Mother-Hen

My recent post on how hard it is for me to cancel my classes because I care quite deeply about "my" kids/students generated quite a lot of discussion and a lot of reassurance, which I found both surprising and deeply comforting. Surprising because of the general academic discourse that takes place about power relationships between professor and students and issues of being labeled unserious as a female academic because you nurture, but deeply comforting because it reinforces the almost instinctive approach I've taken to teaching my entire life. As far back as I can remember, if I've been teaching or coaching, they've been "my" kids. 

I started coaching swimming when was 16, but even before that, I was one of the people the coaches could count on to help with the little kids. I loved swimming, and somehow I knew that nurturing young swimmers was the best way to give back to the sport I loved so much. I took my role personally; I was constantly reprimanded for being too emotional at swim meets, punctuated by panicky outbursts when I thought I had let my swimmers down somehow. Now I'll admit to being a little over-dramatic in my late teen, but many of my co-workers treated lifeguarding as "just" a summer job and their only interest was to keep it. Looking back, I (either wisely or foolishly) didn't care what my supervisors thought of my work; all I cared about was whether or not my kids were a) learning to swim and b) having fun. Looking back, I must have been an absolute nightmare to have on staff. 

This continued on well past when I had left coaching and had begun teaching. When I was just starting my MA, I taught at English Second Language summer "camp" (the director hated that). The kids were with us for three weeks of intense language immersion. I taught a formal class and supervised their newspaper project. My second summer teaching there, one girl was going through a rough period, and one night, she had a nervous breakdown. I knew that there were issues at home and before the break happened I told her, in French, that if she ever needed to talk, she should come to me.

I was the one, then, who held her hand and talked her down that day as we went from hospital to hospital trying to figure out what was wrong. Once her father arrived and we were dismissed from our duties, the director admitted that if it hadn't been for me, the day probably would not have gone as (relatively) smoothly as it did. He didn't know that I had gone through a similar event with a close friend a few years earlier, but it also just came naturally; as with my close friend, I was the one in bed with her while she cried as my other friends tried to find someone to call for real help. Someone needed to take care of them, and I was that person, whether it be for a close friend or student I barely knew.

This has continued on as I have taught and coached; I was the one nagging the college swimmers about their health, their eating, and often the one they confided in. It's a lot harder now because I have more and bigger classes. There is also a distance that is implied in higher education a lot of the times between professor and student. But whenever and however I can, I get to know my students and find ways to let them know that I take their education seriously. It's one of the reasons moving around so much has been so difficult for me; once I get to know, really know, a group of students, I'm gone. I've told my students, even if I'm not teaching here anymore, track me down and email me if you ever need anything. 

I am a mother-hen, for better or for worse, and I always have been. It's who I am as a teacher and a person. For me, it's a strength that I use along with my expertise and experience. No one taught me how to care about "my" students; it just came naturally. You can be sure, though, because I care, I've worked really hard on everything else. Because that's what good teachers do.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Pump Up The Volume": Lessons about Social Media, Education, and Change

In an interesting coincidence, my post for the University of Venus about why people in higher education should blog (agency and action, people!) came out on the same day that the now-former president of Egypt finally stepped down, a product of a revolution fueled by social media. So while I read comments (ok, one comment) on the post about how futile it was to write about our anger and dissatisfaction, a dictator was brought down by that same seemingly futile anger and dissatisfaction. 

But the comment does bring up a good question: who is really listening? I would argue that if your feelings and perspective are shared by others, then you are speaking to while simultaneously creating a community, and leaving an archive that can be found and read by those who might not even know that such a community even exists. But really, at the end of the day, there is something, as I wrote, really empowering about finding your voice and finally using it honestly and authentically, even if your audience is potentially non-existent. Because you never know what could happen.

The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old's fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that "the man" doesn't want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn't have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers. 
It should be noted that the movie opens with a Billy Idol wanna-be being thrown out of school, along with a couple of other rough looking teens and Hispanics. That same Billy Idol wanna-be is sitting in a field at night and happens to come across the Hard Harry Show. The news of the illicit show and shock jock (Howard Stern wasn't yet in syndication, so I don't even know if the term existed yet) spread like wildfire across the school (the term now would be "going viral"), with students passing around tapes of the show they made themselves. It was bedlam at the school, and soon he was Public Enemy Number One, especially after Hard Harry didn't dissuade a student from committing suicide.

The movie ends with the FCC coming in and shutting down the "illegal" broadcasts (he didn't have a license; which is as laughable as the EPA being the reason that the Ghostbusters were shut down). But before that happens, a sympathetic teacher, informed by questions Hard Harry was asking, uncovers the corruption and fraud going on in the high school; those students who were expelled in the opening scenes were removed because of their low tests scores but the school was still drawing state money for them. It should also be noted that Hard Harry's father was a big-wig working for the school district who was also completely ignorant of the fraud going on under his watch. It was, in fact, the angry and lonely rants of a young teen boy that brought down the system that was failing the students.  After we fade to black, we hear a tentative female voice asking, "Is anyone out there listening?" and she is joined by a number of other young voices, broadcasting themselves, inspired by Hard Harry and the impact he had on his community. 

Now, we have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, facebook, and any number of other means of adding our voice, creating community, and affecting change. And, twenty (gulp, really, this movie is 20 years old) years later, many of the issues the movie addresses, albeit sometimes subtly, have been exploded: focus on test scores, unequal educational opportunities based on race, general fiscal corruption, and the dangers of a powerful and misguided bureaucracy. What goes viral nowadays has more to do with gross-out humor (which Hard Harry did a lot of) and pop culture. But, as we see in Egypt, there is the great potential for ordinary people using their voices for real change. I think Pump Up The Volume can teach us, ahem, volumes about the power of individuals using their voice to create change, especially in education. 

To co-opt the expression from Hard Harry: Blog Hard, everyone, Blog Hard. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Setting Priorities: Choosing Between "My" Two Sets of Kids

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I canceled class today. Both my kids are sick (one has an ear infection, the other has...trouble keeping food down), my husband is out of town at a conference, and I am a sleep-deprived mess. The kids' preschool was closed yesterday as well, and while I found childcare, I almost passed out while I was teaching. The thought of trying to lecture with little to no sleep while my kids were at home, miserable, was too much for me, but it took me forever to finally send out the email to my students officially informing them that class would be canceled. 

Part of my hesitancy is because of where we are in the semester: in the early stages of writing the first major essay. I am trying to treat the whole exercise as a process with lots of different steps, focusing especially on how you can set yourself for success early in said process. I am particularly worried about my Freshman Writing students; most of them are in my class because they were in developmental writing last semester or they failed the class in the fall. I want to help these students be successful; I care about their success and take my role in helping them succeed very seriously. 

My title alludes to how I see my students as "my" kids, although many of them are the same age as I am or older. There was a post on Hook and Eye (it was subsequently removed; I think the author hit post instead of save and I just happened to be looking in my blog feed at the right moment) that talked about the power structure inherent in calling them "my" students, as well as the possible gendered implications as a female instructor. For me, calling them "my" students or kids is not an effort on my part to reduce their position and increase my power and authority, but instead a reflection of how personally I take my role as their teacher. I want them to see me as their teacher, belonging to them, not just now but as long as they need me. Our roles, in my mind, will always be teacher/student; it will evolve, but they can count on me as their teacher and I will always do my best for them because they are my students. It makes canceling class that much more difficult. 

But, as I tell my students all the time, family has to come first. I wouldn't have done them any good coming to class sleep-deprived with my mind elsewhere, worrying about my two small, sick children. And once I pressed send on the announcement that class was, indeed, canceled, I felt like a weight had been lifted; I was no longer worried about two very sick children and fifty very scared writers, just the two sick kids. Taking a day to focus on one challenge will allow me to refocus next week on those very scared writers. And get some sleep. That'll benefit all of us in the end. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Key to College Success: Be Prepared for the Worst

I just finished a class lecture/discussion on being a successful college student with my developmental writers. So much of what I do with those students is related to providing them with the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking skills that they will need to get their degrees. But I know, having been an undergraduate student and an instructor for ten years, it is often the things that happen to us outside of the classroom that derail our best efforts.

And I'm not just talking about the simpler choices we make, like going to a party instead of studying. I'm talking about when you have no money and no food. Or if you or someone you care about gets really sick, hurt or depressed. Or if you find yourself with a stalker. Or your professor just isn't really all that helpful and you can't understand your math homework. Sometimes fate steps in and hands you challenges that are stressful, distracting, and can really negatively impact your studies. I assigned my students for homework to make themselves up a list of university, community, and virtual resources to have on hand in case the worst does happen.

Academically, there are any number of resources out there now to help you study and understand your work when you're stuck. I'd like my students to come to me or to use the tutoring service provided by the college, but I also know that at 3 AM, when they finally get around to their work, I'm not available. Go online, find the sites that you think might help, and bookmark them in advance. Some suggestions include, Quick and Dirty Tips, and even Khan Academy on YouTube. Why wait until your panicked and stressed to Google for help; when you get your schedule, take an hour and do some quick research to find websites that might help you at 3 AM when no one else is around. 

Socially, it's a trickier matter. There are almost always support or activity groups for whatever you might need or be interested in. And if there isn't one, you can always start it yourself. I always find that if students have a good support group around them and des-tress in more healthy ways, they will be better students. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding new and different friends, which can be hard. Knowing what is going on at the university and in the community you are in (obviously easier to do in a big city) can be a lifesaver. Read the student and local community newspaper; you'll thank me.

Have the number and address for the on- and off-campus medical facilities. Know what services your school offers and don't be afraid to use them. Also, don't be afraid to get help for a friend. Nothing will ruin a semester more quickly than illness that goes untreated or a depression that goes unrecognized. Ask around; if students consistently complain about the services on-campus, head to the local hospital or clinic. If you don't have health insurance, don't let that stop you. But, plan ahead and see if you qualify for "free" healthcare. Know where their are free support groups run by community organizations or churches. Students are often too afraid, too ashamed, or too broke to get the mental and physical help they need. This can be devastating.

Finally, don't go hungry. Find the local food back or church that does charity work. If you feel dishonest taking food from a food back, make a vow to pay them back when you have money or volunteer for them as thanks. It's really hard to study and do well academically while you are hungry. But also find ways to make your dollar go further. Get all of the coupons you can and always ask if there is a discount for students. Find the "happy hour" when food can be up to half price. Find the sales at the local grocery stores. And learn to cook; once you can make your own food, the costs go down significantly. 

I know about all of these issues because I've lived them. I almost failed French because I didn't get the help I needed. I watched one friend struggle with bi-polar disorder and another with severe depression, both ended up dropping out of school. Our social group did poorly those semesters, too, because we were worried and trying to help take care of them. I ate a jumbo box of instant rice for the last half of another semester that a friend gave me because I was broke. I also know that joining the school paper and getting involved in student government saved me from different stresses because I had a great group of people surrounding and supporting me. If not, I would have left school because of another student stalking me. 

I learned all of this as I went along and thankfully it didn't derail my studies in any significant way. I know that so many of my students, especially those who are in my developmental classes, are already behind the 8-ball, so to speak, when it comes to the probability of getting their college degree. For me, it's not just about the practical academic skills that will help them graduate; it's about equipping them for anything life at university may throw at them, inside or outside of the classroom.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What I learned as an Undergrad

There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled over the past few weeks about how little our current generation of undergraduates are really learning (just Google it, you'll see); students don't read, don't write, don't think critically. Let the finger pointing begin. Colleges suck, professors suck, the K-12 system sucks, students are lazy and don't care about their education, and we're all on the short decline into post-apocalyptic chaos and destitute.


I've written in a lot of different places (like here and here) that I was not the best undergraduate student: I didn't come to class, I was distracted while in class, and was more concerned with the social side of university life than the educational side. I selected my undergraduate degree because it offered paid semester-long internships in my area of study (professional writing); as long as my GPA was high enough so I still qualified for those internships, then I was fine.

This was not the fault of the (majority) of the wonderful professors who taught in my program; if not for them being just generally great, great teachers, I wouldn't have stuck around to do an MA with them. Sure, there were some duds, but over-all, the quality of my classes was excellent. Could they have sat me down and said, you're doing well, but you could be doing so much better if you just applied yourself (code for actually showing up to class and not being hung over)? Yes, but I give them credit for treating me like an adult and letting me make my own mistakes. Thankfully, because I got good grades, I could learn the life lessons without being forced to drop out, like some of my friends.

No, the fault lies with me. What I learned in college was about life, who I was, and who I wanted to be. I knew, pretty quickly, that I didn't want to be a technical writer, that I loved literature, and I loved to write (not bad lessons, really). I learned how to budget (the hard way), I learned how to (minimally) cook for myself, and I learned that sleep was really important. I learned that I wasn't indestructible or immune from failure. I learned how to recover from said failures; I learned resiliency. Or, perhaps I learned more ways in which I was resilient. You have to have a certain amount of resiliency to survive high school, divorced parents, and participating a competitive sport. Now I knew I could survive other situations as well.

I did develop my critical thinking skills, but mostly through my immersion in another culture and language; I went to a French university in my home province of Quebec just after a referendum. I also improved my writing and research skills, and I was "forced" read books I would not have ever read (or understood) otherwise, even if it took years to come around to them again as a professor. I'm not sure, however, if I would have self-reported any of these developments in a survey or if they would have shown up in a test. My brain, throughout a lot of university, was elsewhere. I remember almost failing a French grammar class because I was unable to answer basic questions whose answers I had known throughout high school and know once again today. But in that moment of my second semester, I didn't know anything about French grammar. And I was trying.

What I learned as an undergraduate directly shaped who I am personally and professionally today. I just don't think that if you had told any of my professors back then that I would now be teaching at the university level that they would have believed you. Just because an undergraduate doesn't look like or even recognize themselves that they are learning anything as an undergraduate doesn't mean that they aren't. Maybe it just means they haven't realized it yet.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Adjuncting and a Modern Literature Disaster

When I was a graduate student, I taught an intro course in comparative literature, comparative Canadian literature, to be precise. This was my exact area of expertise, so, other than the boring early discovery/settler literature, the class typically went well. This was my first experience teaching undergrads; I had previously taught English as a Second Language to bored and resentful teenagers over summers, so the literature thing seemed really easy to me.

When I moved out to California, I taught various levels of writing and composition as an adjunct, from basic developmental writing to an advanced course to upper division students. While I didn't have much experience, I had wonderful mentors, great colleagues, and so, once again, generally ended up doing ok. I even like teaching developmental students because of my experience there.

Then, I hit what I thought was the jackpot: I was asked, at the last minute, to teach a upper-division class in Modern Literature. I was excited because, while not exactly my area of expertise, I longed to teach literature again. I also knew how important it was to have experience teaching upper-division courses while on the job market. I was just beginning to think of new ways to use technology in my courses to enhance the students' learning, and I thought that this would be a chance to try something new.

One problem: I had no idea what I was doing and virtually no guidance in order to do it. When I asked if the title of the course meant what we would consider Modernist literature or just simply modern, as in during more modern times, I was met with a shrug. Looking at old syllabus didn't help because it seemed that the course was whatever the professor wanted it to be. So I decided to focus on the "greats" of the Modernist movement, mixing in some authors who may not have been considered Modernist, but wrote during that period (most notably Langston Hughes and others from the Harlem Renaissance). I found a wonderful and inexpensive anthology of short stories, all virtually from the time period, which allowed me to hit the greats without a tone of large novels intimidating the students. The novels I did pick, I thought, were accessible, interesting, and a good illustration of certain aspects of the Modernist period. Virginia Woolfe's To The Lighthouse, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Langston Hughes Not Without Laughter (I was told not to do poetry; this was a literature class), and James Joyce's, Mr Modernist himself, Dubliners.

The short stories I had selected were not particularly well-known (ie, you couldn't use Google to read up about them), so I had students select one short story each to create a Wikipedia-type introduction to be shared with the class and then lead an online class discussion through Blackboard on that story. I moderated the discussions about the novels and had groups of students create annotated bibliographies for each of them, in some cases limiting them to critical works from the past 20 years. These bibliographies were shared among all of the students before they had to go off and write their major essay assignment, which was an open topic.

If all of this sounds good to you, it was. On paper. I had to teach the class and get the students to buy into what I was selling. I wasn't terribly successful. The students almost universally resented having to participate in online discussion forums (I loved it because it game me a jumping off point for class discussions; they hated that part, too) and didn't understand why I wasn't just teaching them what they needed to know, rather than making them do it. On top of it, they either thought my lectures and expectations were too hard or too easy. The final exam, which I had to give, wasn't fair (although I'll never understand why students complain about getting the essay questions in advance; would you rather go into the exam blind?) and I didn't do enough to prepare them for it.

Which is, in a lot of ways, fair enough. I was used to only having to be one step ahead of 100-level students, and while there were students who weren't too challenging to stay ahead of, many of my students were at the 400-level. It became clear that I was in over my head. I was reading some of these works for the first time cover to cover. Why the Dubliners by Joyce and not the more "Modernist" Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake? Because I didn't want to have to teach them! There were so many different ways that I could approach or access these works that I became overwhelmed. It showed in my lectures. While it was easy to focus in on one element to work on in an introductory writing class, it was really hard for me to do in a 400-level class with works that have inspired thousands of pages of criticism and analysis.

It was the first time I ever received more negative than positive feedback from my student evaluations. One read that I wasn't qualified to teach the course and didn't even have a clear definition of what the course was supposed to be about. Another wrote that I was too demanding and not at all helpful. Yes another resented my attempts to integrate technology, calling it a waste of time and effort. I was chastened. This was my first failure as a teacher, in an area I most wanted to succeed. I figured that because of the poor evaluation, as an adjunct, I would never be asked to teach the course again, and thus never have the opportunity to revise and refine my approach.

I think that this is a huge double-bind that adjuncts often find themselves in: wanting or needing to say yes to a course they have no business teaching. Because I got the course relatively at the last minute, I didn't really have time to prepare, read, and reread any of the works I was teaching. And, while where I worked had an extensive network of people and support to those teaching writing courses, there wasn't anything in place if you happened to end up teaching something else.

But I did end up learning some things about myself and my teaching. I think the majority of the students in the class learned something too, however grudgingly. I am particularly proud of the student who created a multi-media final essay that integrated jazz recordings with an analysis of Langston Hughes' work. Another professor might not have allowed the student to experiment like that. So for those students for whom the class, they felt, was a waste of time, I am sorry. I would promise to do better next time, but unfortunately, I probably never will have the opportunity again. And for that, I am doubly sorry that your experience was, in a lot of ways, for naught.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My Terrible Shortcoming as a Teacher

I am, according to many measurements, a really good teacher in the classroom. I didn't receive ONE negative evaluation this past semester, which has never actually happened to me (there is always one who I don't connect with and they let me know). My teaching evaluations have always been very strong, as have my peer evaluations. As many of my students' wrote, I clearly care about them and their education. My heart melted when one of my students (who is studying to be a teacher) that I was now her professional role model. 


I have one very large shortcoming. I can't learn students' names. After fifteen weeks of handing assignments back, class discussions, emails, and meetings, I might know half of the students' names. And it's usually the ones who have either dropped or about to fail. When I hand back their assignments and I have the name in front of me, by about the middle of the semester I can usually remember the face. The same goes for emails. But without the name in front of me, when I look at the face, I can remember everything about the student (whatever details they've shared about themselves, their last free write response, what they've missed, their major, their career aspirations) except their name.

Learning the students' names is the first thing they teach you in courses or seminars designed to improve your pedagogical skill and classroom presence; in fact my chair, in our new faculty orientation, said exactly that. If you want to make a meaningful connection with your students', learn their names. If you want the students' to be engaged with you, learn their names. The way other professors or facilitators talk about it, knowing you're students' name is the single most important thing you can do; everything else is gravy.

This has been a problem for me since, well, forever. I would forget my new teammates' names for the first three months of the swimming season. When I started teaching swimming lessons, I couldn't remember the names of the six kids in my class; worse, I would think that their name was something that it wasn't, and then that's the name that would stick in my brain. Word to the wise, don't call a 6 year-old by the wrong name; they really, really don't like it. I've tried everything: looking at pictures, having name tags for them, taking pictures with their name tags, memory games based on associations, everything. And every semester, I do no better than about 50%. Worse, by the beginning of the next semester, I've forgotten half of the half.

I admit this shortcoming to my students early and often in the semester, and it becomes a sort of running joke. Some days they'll decide not to raise their hands when I call their name to pass a piece of writing back, just to see if I've finally learned who they are. The thing that they realize very quickly, however, is that I really do know who they are: I remember any and every other detail they've shared with me inside and outside of the classroom the moment I see their faces. They also know that I will remember those details for a long, long time. Names are only one small way we can know someone, really.

Knowing their name is important, no doubt, but it's only one small way to know my students. I learn everything else instead. Doesn't mean I don't still try; just means that I make sure that my strengths far outweigh one of my more glaring weaknesses.

You May Also Like: