Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Standardization of Higher Education = #FAIL

I was at an institutionally-mandated get-together for those instructors who taught the various developmental classes (math, reading, writing) at our institution a few weeks ago. We were hearing about the educational technology the math department was using to get students up to college readiness when the instructor presenting told us a disturbing little anecdote about how she caught a cheater last semester. "It was just like Big Brother!" she exclaimed excitedly. Ugh.

Now, I've already voiced my thoughts about our over-reliance on ed tech as the savior of education, but this statement made me think about one of the unintended (or intended) consequences of the move to standardize higher education, heavily facilitated by educational technology: the constant monitoring of all activity of both instructor and student. If we can standardize and record every instance of learning in a student's academic career, then we can certainly pinpoint where learning failed, exactly which teacher or advisor is responsible for derailing a student's career.

The more we standardize, the more we continue to infantilize our students and undermine our faculty. We are basically telling students that they aren't responsible enough to learn and professors can't be trusted to teach. Think about that for a second. Students can't learn, and we can't teach, so you need to be constantly monitored to make sure that these things happen.

How does this move towards standardization and assessment actually help students? What happens when institutions and accrediting boards rigidly dictate when and where learning happens in higher education? When instead of facilitating "informal" moments of learning, the university is required/requiring rigid reporting/return on investment data on campus talks, meeting spaces, and optional (but really mandatory) activities? Or that students (and eventually instructors/professors) measure success exclusively through test scores?

How do we teach and learn through experience, experiment, trial and error, and failures when Big Brother is always watching us? Does $44 billion really buy the Federal government the right to dictate to us how and what we teach, or how and when students can learn? As I put in the comments of Mary Churchill's post "Can We Afford to Play,"

As we discover with young kids, we can spend all the money we want, but at the end of the day, all they want to play with is the empty cardboard box. I think the same thing goes for higher education, especially on the side of the professors. If professors didn't have to worry as much about constant accountability measures, measurable outcomes, and reporting, we might be more likely to relax along with the students. If more people in front of the classroom had job security and more time, they may be more invested in the students outside of the classroom. If it didn't feel like Big Brother was constantly monitoring all of us, we might relax, let loose, and really, really, learn.
At a certain point, the institution needs to get out of the way and just let learning happen. I have been critical of the type of "leisure" that takes place on (or rather off) campus, but is this behavior a result of the high states, high pressure environment we've created on campus? Most faculty and students can't wait to get off campus at the end of the day; why is that? Universities have invested billions in creating "spaces" for students, faculty, and sometimes even community. Some have been very successful, but I wonder how many of them developed organically, and how many of them were responses to accreditation board requirements (having gone through two at two different universities, this is an important component for any re-accreditation)?

We may end up passing whatever tests they put in front of us, delivering more mandated content in increasingly rigid ways, but at the end of the day, we have failed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Ed Tech Can't Do

In Fahrenheit 451, one of the characters describes what school is like in the near future:

But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That's not social to me at all. It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and then telling us it's wine when it's not.
Now, read a Tweet from a teacher in LA:

f2f is going 2 end up being security aka paras 2 make sure kids dont get on facebook in jr college f2f will disappear.
If Sir Ken Robinson (and many others) are right that the way schools are set up now was to prepare workers for factories, what are we preparing our kids for now, increasingly relying on computers to teach them? How to follow orders from a machine?

This is, of course, a dystopic view of the future, fueled in part by the fact that I am currently teaching Fahrenheit 451. But, I can't help but wonder, are we really helping our most vulnerable students when we increasingly rely on technology rather than more traditional face-to-face instruction. Where are the mentorships, the relationships, the systems of support, of learning how to "think with others"? Certainly, we need to prepare students for a world that is increasingly interconnected through technology, but when do we say, enough, and start valuing, really valuing, personal interactions, rather than seeing it as an unnecessary cost, a budget line that is easy to eliminate.

Apparently, technology and online education is the real disruptive influence in education, allowing us to offer degrees for less than $10k. Having written about this very issue for the University of Venus recently, I remain skeptical. In the comments, the author of the post on creating a degree that costs less than $10k addresses my concern about teachers needing to eat with a response of only wanting teachers who are truly passionate about teaching. Great. More about how teachers are supposed to sacrifice everything for the greater good of "education. " I am all for a more entrepreneurial approach to education, but I think we are trying to think bigger, rather than the true disruption coming from going smaller. If anything, money is being spent in the wrong place, in infrastructure instead of people.

I'm starting to see the movement in education as analogous to industrial farming; we all embraced farming technologies because food got cheaper, safer, more plentiful, and easier to grow (ok, education hasn't gotten any cheaper, but isn't that the goal of increasingly using technology?). But we now see that it might be cheaper, but it isn't any healthier (and in many cases less healthy), it is more devastating to the over-all environment, and only economically beneficial to a handful of massive multi-nationals. Is this really the kind of education we want to offer our children, particularly our poorest and most vulnerable? In poor neighborhoods, they'll be fast food and private online edu.

The disruptive innovation in farming and food isn't in technology; it's in scaling down, finding balance, quality, and over-all sustainability. Organic farmers, growers, and animal ranchers, urban farmers, and others are changing the way we think about food. We might see disruption coming from similar sources in education. Take for example a movement in England where people have taken over abandoned buildings and turned them into schools; curious people, some smartphones, and voila, learning. No bells, no whistles, no nothing. That's disruptive. Not providing standardized pre-packaged education online offered by underqualified individuals with little to no support. Government, school boards, and universities need to reinvest their money in the people who teach and create knowledge; the rest can clearly fall away and not impact education. In fact, it may facilitate it.

Next fall, I will be integrating a lot more technology in my classroom, in part because of forced standardization and accountability. But part of it is trying to make my class more effective. My job is to teach, but it is also to coach my students, particularly my developmental students. It's to disrupt their worlds in order to encourage critical thinking or knowledge creation. A computer program might be able to award a student a "badge" (again, what is that preparing students for in their professional futures?), but  a computer program can't look a student in the eyes and tell them that they can do it, they can write, that they truly did a good job, ask them the right questions to get the heart of whatever problem they're having, care enough to keep asking, or even express sincere disappointment when they let you down.

There's a reason why the children of professors overwhelmingly go to small liberal arts colleges. There's a reason why rich and middle-class parents fight to send their kids to good schools with small class sizes and good teachers, and will continue to do so, no matter how expensive it becomes. Technology is a tool, not a replacement, nor a silver bullet, especially for our most vulnerable students.

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe we are training our most vulnerable students to listen to machines rather than people. Workers of the future.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reasons Why I Blog: An Examination

It's been a year since I've started blogging. It seems like as good a time as any to look back over the year and reflect on how blogging has changed me. 

Yes, you read that right, it has changed me. I am more engaged, more reflective, and, perhaps, more militant, in my own small way. I don't just read about issues on higher education, I think about them in order to write about them here. When I teach (or, more accurately, after I teach), I am forced to reflect a little more carefully about what I am doing and why, because I need something to write about.

I am more connected to the larger community of academics. I write, people read, share, and respond. I know I have not only an audience, but a community of people who read and who I read. We have conversations, and maybe one day will meet face-to-face. Until then, I know more people than I ever did as a traditional academic.

And I know I am having an impact. I figured that between the four institutions I have taught at, I have reached approximately 1100 students (keep in mind, while I was doing my PhD, I only had one class; my other experiences were closer to full-time, but with writing intensive classes with lower caps). At least that many people have read my top post, How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless, especially considering that it was featured on both Inside Higher Education and Ed Leader News. Imagine my delight to find out that no less a figure than Henry Adams of The Academic Bait and Switch  fame on the Chronicle and that he linked to my post in the comments of another Chronicle piece (which I can't find right now). More people than I have ever taught have read that one post. More people than who have seen me speak at a conference. More people than who have read any of my academic essays.

But it is all of the people I have met outside of academia, those who are passionate about topics, rejecting the status quo of education at all levels, caring deeply about meaningful change. For me, blogging has opened my eyes to the world outside of academia. Does that sound like a sheltered academic statement? Indeed, it is. There is a degree of willful ignorance that an academic needs to have in order to survive the demands of living the academic life in higher education. The best thing that has ever happened to me is that I was unemployed for a time; I was forced to see thing differently and to do things differently. I saw others letting go and being successful, and it has empowered me let go.

Blogging has also, admittedly, fueled the more negative aspects of my personality, manifesting itself specifically as an obsessions with my blog's stats. Lurking deep beneath my desire to be an academic is a need for validation, and the stats are one way that I can feel that sense of validation now that I am off the tenure-track. I see sites that do better than I do; College Misery gets the same amount of traffic a week as I do a month, if I'm lucky. Then again, misery loves company, and I'm not sure what thoughtful writing on the current state of higher education as well as teaching attracts. Less hits, apparently. Which is also depressing.

Wait, I'm celebrating here. I'm not perfect, and I still have some things I need to work on.

I'd really like to thank a few people: Mary Churchill who has been so supportive and inspiring me with her great work at University of Venus and Old School/New School; @ToughLoveForX who I have no idea how I "met", but I am amazed at how connected this retired printer is, especially in the world of education; @comPOSTIONblog for founding #FYCchat with me; Worst Prof Ever for just generally kicking ass and doing and saying all the things I'm still not quite ready to; and all of the people who have come here, read my posts, commented, followed me on Twitter, shared my writing, and encouraged me to keep writing.

My goal for the next year? Get big enough to attract trolls. :-) I'm only half-joking.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is College For? Spring Break Vs Reading Week

In Canada, because spring comes around so much later, we call the week vacation that occurs during the semester that occurs during the first months of the calendar year Reading Week. I still call it that, out of habit. My students here, they have no idea what I'm talking about. Spring Break, I say, it's what we Canadians calls Spring Break; it's just cruel to say spring when there's still three feet of snow on the ground. But, I also think that it's a reflection of a different attitude Canadians hold towards higher education. 

I asked one of my developmental writing students what he was planning on doing for Spring Break. He's off to Florida to party. This particular student has missed a great deal of my class because he had strep throat (yes, he had a doctor's note). This student is also repeating the class because last semester he partied too much. If anything, I was hoping that the student would take this week off to rest, recover, and catch up in his classes. But no. I probably won't be seeing him for an entire week after Spring Break because he's recovering from alcohol poisoning, lack of sleep, proper nutrition, or any combination of the three.

I know that this student is not an exception. Many of my students, in fact many of my students who are the most vulnerable in terms of their grades, will be spending the week off unwinding in unhealthy ways on "SPRING BREAK!!! (copyright MTV)." I understand that students (and their instructors/professors) need a break. What I don't understand is how students can justify the time and cost of 5-9 days in Florida/Mexico/wherever. My students constantly complain that they have too much work, no money for food or for printing their papers. And yet, March rolls around and suddenly, there's money to be had and time to be spent.

(And no, I never did Spring Break. The one year my friends went to Florida, I was stuck on a work term. My other trip to Florida in college was for a training camp, which was subsidized by the school; we swam or worked out 4-5 (or more) hours a day. If we had been out drinking, it wouldn't have been pretty the next morning at practice.)

This attitude is not limited to Spring Break; many of my students consistently show up hung over (or still drunk) on Friday mornings, but complain that I am asking too much of them to buy a 45 cent folder for their essays. Students, studies keep telling us, are studying less and less, but seem to be partying just as much as they ever have. College now is about the experience, and the experience is everything and anything except what happens in the classroom. Which is fine, but I tell my students that there are way better ways to spend the tens of thousands of dollars they are currently spending on their college "experience."

There was an essay recently that extols the virtues of learning through hanging out. But when I ask my students what they do when they hang out, they admit that it often involves getting pass-out drunk or stoned out of their mind. What, then, are they learning by "hanging out" that they couldn't learn while not also paying college tuition? Drinking, drugs, and sex are acceptable behavior in college; kids of the same age who are engaging in this kind of behavior and are not also college students are considered deadbeats. What's the difference? Tuition, and a couple hours of courses a week that the student may or may not attend. For some students (and I include myself in this), they can get away with this and still come away with their degrees (and futures) in tact. But for the majority of my students, they can't get away with it; they don't graduate, can't get a job, and are left in debt.

Personally, I wish I had been encouraged to save my money, work, and get the parties out of my system so that I may have actually benefited from my education. It's what my husband did, and it benefitted him immensely.

In fact, the university encourages this kind of laissez-faire attitude towards the educational purpose of college by consistently investing money in the "experience" side rather than in the classroom (for example, building stadiums and then increasing class sizes, hiring adjuncts instead of tenure-track professors).  Why should students take me seriously when the university doesn't, either? So, enjoy Spring Break. Just don't expect me to cut you any slack when you've forgotten everything you've learned; I spent my break reading.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

March Madness and the Hypocrisy of Academia

"Hey, people will finally know where we teach!"

This is what my husband said when our school's team "shocked the world" (or at least over 95% of the people playing online bracket games) by beating a much higher (and more well-know seed) in the first round of the NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament. No one ever knows where we work; now everyone knows at least the name of our college, and which state it is located. If nothing else, this saves us a lot of trouble when it people ask us what college we teach at. Maybe they won't look at us with as much sympathy now, thinking that at least we have a good basketball team.

I have very mixed feelings about college sports. I've coached Division III swimmers at a school (actually, schools - three of them) that takes academics VERY seriously. The swimmers (and other athletes I met) were smart, hard workers, and generally upstanding citizens. Yes, there were exceptions, as there always are, but generally, these kids had to be pretty outstanding to get into the school to begin with. The swimmers knew that this was a highest level they would ever achieve in their swimming careers; the Olympics, or even Nationals, weren't in the cards. But the chose to go to our particular school in no small part because they would be able to continue swimming. 

On the other hand, I know how much our program must have cost the school: coaching, travel, facilities (which were very modest). The school could have probably hired another tenure-track faculty member with the money saved. You can't argue that the programs were money-making, as they didn't even charge admissions to see any of the games. It may have a positive impact on alumni giving, as they fondly remember their experience at the school as student-athletes, but other than that, I can't see any benefit of having formal, organized, athletics on camps. 

It must seem hypocritical of me to question the value of athletics on campus so soon after writing about the importance of physical fitness to mental fitness. But does formally organized sports team really encourage physical and mental health, especially when the programs aren't open to all students? Could we instead put the money in the classroom, maintain the facilities, and encourage students to create their own leagues, clubs, or teams to compete (or not) at any level they want? Inter-murals, club teams (non-NCAA sanctioned sports), and even Masters teams exist all over the country. Why does it have to be organized and sanctioned by a massive governing body, especially when the students aren't even receiving athletic scholarships for their participation in the sport?

Which brings me to Division I sports. Many argue that the scholarships represent an opportunity for students to attend a school (or a better, more expensive school) than they would be able to otherwise. As I've said before, how is that an argument for athletics and not an argument against how we currently admit and fund students? Watching the documentary on the "Fab Five" or "Pony Excess" (both on ESPN), I marvel at the blatant hypocrisy of a system that makes millions and leaves athletes starving. University Diaries is tireless in her effort to expose all of the other ways that major college athletics are sustained on a laundry list of dishonesties, hypocrisies, and outright fraudulent behavior. Why, then, is a school like UC Santa Barbara (a school that is already one of the most popular choices for California students), in the face of massive state budget cuts, still looking to move into full NCAA Division I status? And why is it that we, the faculty, keep on keepin' on, as if nothing is happening?

I think it comes back to my husband's comment. We all love prestige. And if that prestige can't come from historical sources (Ivies, for example), then it'll come from the one other thing all Americans care about: sports. Having lived in California, I know that UCSB doesn't have the greatest academic reputation among the UC schools; I'm not really sure how having a great Div I program changes that, but it would seem to be the thinking. Sure, we're a party school, but we have a fantastic basketball team, so please take us more seriously. We can't honestly think that the money that is supposedly generated by these programs is finding its way into our classrooms and research funding, into increasing the number of tenure lines, or improving the over-all quality of our undergrads. As a contingent faculty, I know all too well how insecure my position is, and I thankful that I have never been on the receiving end of any pressure, directly or indirectly, to pass or give a higher grade to an athlete. But have we, the faculty, lost so much control over the institution that we cannot stop what is going on on our own campuses? Have we given up trying? Or do we just not care? 

I'm not really sure which option is more depressing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaching: Do I Make A Difference? Is it Enough for Me?

I've started reading College Misery. I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Every day, anonymous professors, adjuncts and instructors contribute posts that essentially vent about the worst parts of their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the worst part of their jobs, on many days, are the students. And as I read through the posts, I am struck by how familiar, how real, the situations they describe feel to me. I have taught theses students and classes full of these students before. Like an unending flood, the students keep coming with the same deficiencies when it comes to both their skill level and attitude towards education.

Inevitably, I think, every teacher asks themselves, do I really make any difference? As I went through and graded my students' first major paper assignment, I wondered if my teaching really had anything to do with the quality of the papers, or if the good students would have earned an A whether they had attended my classes or not. And the poor essays, did my teaching and guidance make any difference at all for them? Am I making any impact on my students' learning, or am I simply assigning and evaluating, awarding grades and credits? 

This is not a trivial issue. We are talking about the purpose and nature of education in two of my classes. Am I simply reinforcing what Paulo Freire calls "the banking concept of education"? Actually, I'm not even sure I'm depositing any knowledge (or even information) into my students; as one comment on my post about fear of failing as being the only motivation for students suggested, am I just simply creating a "compliant class"? But I wonder how useful Freire's solution of involving true dialog is even feasible in classroom full of students who have no interest in communicating? I want to disrupt their normal learning pattern and expectations, but I have no idea if my students are even interested in coming along for the ride. Are they just complying to my request to be disruptive in order to give me what I want?

Around and around it goes in my head. I don't know why the same material that I taught last semester is producing such different results in me; last semester, I was invigorated, while this semester, I am despondent. What is the point of all this? Why not do what the university implicitly and explicitly tells us to do, which is to lower expectations, lower standards, keep the kids happy, enrolled, and (eventually) graduated. But then I read about other professors who are as engaged and passionate about "activating the classroom" and disrupting our assumptions as to how and where learning should take place (and why). We're out there, teaching and writing about our experiences. And then I remember, I'm probably not nearly as brave (in terms of the risks I am willing to take in my classroom) as these professors, and given my position as a contingent faculty member, I can't afford to be, either.

And then, something happens. I walked into my developmental writing class, and a student nervously tried to get my attention with a tentative, "They published my essay." Which essay? Who? Turns out, he submitted his narrative essay on an event in his life that shaped his attitude towards education to his local hometown paper and they published it. He was embarrassed because he was so proud of his accomplishment. I almost burst into tears in front of the class I was so proud of him. Imagine, a student goes from hating writing to being a published author, in no small part because of the work we've done in my class. I made a difference.

Any another post about teaching would probably end right here. But mine does not. I've written before about how teachers/instructors/professors are often coerced into accepting less pay because of the "psychic wage" (via Marc Bousquet's writing). And I am drawn to what Worst Prof Ever has to say about teacher burn-out and seeing teaching as a "vocation" (especially the part of about divine calling; sounds a lot like what Freire was talking about, especially when you consider the original educators in the colonies were religious types). Has my own business stalled because I am too burned out from my own teaching? Have I crossed over from loyalty to desperation, or at least into the realm where my devotion to my students outweighs common sense?

To conclude, the answer to the first question, do I make a difference? Yes, I know I do make a difference for my students. Is it enough for me? I don't know anymore.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Is A Thesis Statement? Or, Using Literature in a Writing Class

In my Freshman Writing class, we have just finished reading Fahrenheit 451. The students are writing an essay comparing America in the novel to our present-day society. They discussed the similarities they observed in small groups, then we came together to share our observations as a class. They then had to go and find a variety of sources (one book, two peer-reviewed articles, two others of any kind) that illustrated or backed up their claims about our society. After that, they had to choose quotes from the book and match them with quotes from the sources. 

At this point, 90% of their essay has been written. This is probably the easiest essay they've ever written. Except for one little thing: I asked them to tell me why this comparison matters. So what? What do we learn by doing this comparison? Their thesis isn't just: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 with our current society. Their thesis should be: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 in order to...

From the looks on their faces, I've clearly rocked their world. We had a long discussion on what the similarities could mean and why it is important that they mean something. I used my recent brush with wordlessness as an example: I had many of the same symptoms as a stroke, but I wasn't having a stroke. Their are important distinctions to be made when making a comparison and just because something looks the same, doesn't mean it is. At the same time, if there are lessons that Bradbury wants to teach us using his fictional world, can we apply them to better understand our own situation?

A compare and contrast essay without a clear purpose is just two lists. Any essay that doesn't have a clear purpose is just a long series of words. If a students is able to answer the questions, why am I writing this or what am I trying to say, then they will not have any problems writing any assignment. And the answer has to be something more meaningful than, because I have to. The answer to the question is your thesis; as long as everything you write is in service of your purpose, then everything you write will have meaning. 

One of the most common issues I had with my first batch of essay is that they were writing to fill pages, not fulfill the purpose of the paper (rhetorical analysis); most of their observations were good, but the students didn't tie their observations back into the central thesis. For how many of our students is that ultimately one of the biggest issues, staying on topic or realizing they have a clear focus from which to write from? Or that they need to organize their essays in order to best serve their central purpose?

But, ultimately, this is an exercise in critical thinking. They have to come up with their own purpose, their own thesis, or at least try. Some already have made connections and shaped a thesis. Other have an idea but are having trouble putting it into words. And I know that in two weeks, when the final draft of the essay is due, I'll have some who still won't have a thesis. At that point, I'll give them some suggestions. But I want my students to do the hard work of coming up with one little sentence on their own. 

This is why I still like using literature (or even pop culture) in my writing classes. When we engage with ideas in different ways, we can "force" students to think about our world in a new and challenging way. It is only when a students' pre-conceived notions are disrupted can they begin to form their own ideas, their own thesis statements. It's important not just to give them materials that are engaging, but to provoke different ways of engaging with it. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Physical Activity is Important for Learning

I spent the weekend doing yard work. In fact, I was disappointed that it was raining last weekend because I wouldn't be able to use the brand-new rake I had just purchased. Over the past two morning, I raked up all of the leaves, dead twigs (oh, the dead twigs!), and pine needles as I could. I am clearly new at this, as I didn't think to check to see if we had any large garbage bags to put them in. Once our two garbage cans were full, I then spent the rest of the time re-organizing the piles so that the grass underneath them wouldn't die, leaving brown patches all over our lawn. I tried watering our lawn using the kids' fun sprinkler, with strange results.

I have never been one for house work, yard work, do-it-yourself projects, or anything domestic, stereotypically male or female oriented.  I was a bit of a space-cadet, as it was referred to, and I would much rather spend my childhood afternoons reading, making up elaborate fantasies, or coloring. As I got older, it became a function of swimming 30+ hours a week on top of school; when the weekend rolled around, I just wanted to sleep and do nothing, or maybe hang out with my friends who I never really got to see during the week. Most of my family on the other hand...

Just to give you an idea, our family (specifically, my grandfather and his brothers) owned a cottage up at a lake, and we would often spend our weekends there in the summer. My idea of a great weekend at The Lake (as we called it) involved reading the six or seven books I had brought along with me, mixed in with some quick dips in the lake. My grandfather, mother, and brother, on the other hand, worked the entire weekend. Granddad always had some sort of project that needed to be completed around the cabin (which, to his credit, he had built himself with his brothers' help). It drove him absolutely mad that I would just sit there and read. They tried to force me to help, but would quickly dismiss me when my gross incompetence became obvious. 

But there have always been a few things around the house that I didn't mind doing: cleaning the bathroom, painting, and scraping ice from the driveway. For one, I was able to do the jobs alone and at my own pace. One of the things that I always hated was my mother or someone else hovering over me in order to either rush me or tell me how I could be doing it better. It was also a rather tedious activity that involved some physical exertion. There was a clear goal, and I could just tell everyone to go away, leave me alone, and it will get done. That often stood in stark contrast to the rest of my life, where interference, distraction, and a feeling of not accomplishing anything dominated. It was comforting and satisfying, both physically and mentally, to get the task done; a task that I completed with my own two hands.

All of this to say that it's really weird that I enjoyed doing the yard work today (and by extension, enjoyed hiking last Friday). But I think it's just my body's way of trying to balance out everything that's going on in my mind. It used to be swimming that helped me maintain some sort of balance, but now I am left with little time to make it to the pool. It may also be because we now own our home, and I want to take pride in this little piece of land that is ours (it's a double-lot). Say what you will about class issues, but I grew up in the suburbs with a mom would loved to garden, and while I might now have a green thumb, I am not going to be that neighbor with the shitty lawn. 

My New Year's resolution this year was "stability." Part of that is trying to achieve some sort of balance for myself so that mentally, I remain stable, too. I've been working out more, with friends, to take care of my body, as well as my mind. The Huffington Post recently had a piece begging legislatures and school boards to protect sports from budget cuts. I would have to agree. If one of the things we hope to teach our children is resiliency, then teaching them how physical and mental health go together is important. But it doesn't have to be just about sports; one lesson that my grandfather left for me to learn on my own is that there is a great feeling of pride and accomplishment when you've put your own sweat into a project. And that it can ultimately be relaxing. 

It's a lesson that I am continually learning and one I want to model for my kids, even if they don't hear it until much, much later.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part III: Helping Students Find Something Meaningful to Say

One of my fellow writing instructors and bloggers, Laura at Red Lips and Academics, recently wrote about the challenges of teaching students in our culture of over-share. I've written previously about why I actually don't mind assigning a narrative essay, even if it does reinforce some of their more narcissistic impulses. But the post, my own brush with wordlessness, and being in the middle of grading papers, made me think about what, exactly, our students are saying. 

The idea that I would be devastated if I were no longer able to talk/write/communicate is predicated on the fact that I believe that I have something meaningful to say. I blog here and elsewhere because I want to participate in the ongoing discussion regarding the future of higher education. I teach because I believe that I have knowledge that can and should be shared with students. People read, comment on, share, and compliment my posts, so I imagine that there are at least some people out there who agree with me. And my student evaluations are usually pretty strong, indicating that my students agree that I have something valuable to share with them.

But let's look at what our students talk or write about: themselves, and usually not with very much depth or insight. Part of the narrative essay assignment is to get the students to reflect critically on a moment in their lives. A narrative essay has to have a point, and that point has to come from some self-reflection or self-awareness. When I talk about being a disruptive influence as a teacher, I want to push the "whole person" so to speak, to get them to think about what they say and why they are saying it.

But it has to go beyond just pushing the perception of themselves; they have to pop their heads up and take a look at the world around them. And not just look at it and react, but take the time to think and reflect. One of the things that has always startled me (although at this point, it shouldn't anymore) is the superficiality of the "analysis" I read in their papers. One reason, I know, is that they don't take the time to really think about what they are writing about; they simply grind it out and get it done. The revision process also seems to reinforce this superficiality; the ideas don't get any deeper, even if the words and sentences used to communicate them are cosmetically more pleasing and grammatically correct.

This is where I come in as a teacher. I have a responsibility to assign them readings that challenge them, that make them uncomfortable, either because of the difficulty level or the ideas expressed (usually both). We can try to provoke them into thinking differently about their lives and what they consume (pop culture, etc), but unless we give them alternative models to try, then we are essentially dooming them to only ever being able to superficially engage with a subject. Critical thinking is meaningless unless we give students something meaningful to think about and some examples. 

I go back to my example of "ancient" texts about education. Point me to a place where students can read contemporary arguments about education that explain its value in something other than economic terms? If I limited my students to contemporary texts on education, they probably would not have been exposed to the idea of education as something other than a way to make money and grow the economy. And that we are even talking about education; if polled, my students would almost universally tell you that this was a subject they had no interest in learning about, yet are all readily (and ignorantly) participating in the system. 

I believe that students' should have some say and control over what they want to learn. At the same time, though, they have to accept that learning moves beyond just simply remember facts and information. My job is to push their learning towards knowledge. This is not easy, but it is how we can help our students find something meaningful to say that isn't just confessing something about themselves. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 2: Coming Into Language

Juxtaposed with my brief brush with wordlessness is my son's language explosion. He has just turned two and the language center in his brain finally awoken. All he wants to do is point to things and have us name them for him, then show off all of the words he probably didn't even know he had locked away in his noggin. His excitement is palpable; he always wants us to read to him so he can point out all of the pictures he recognizes. He's starting to sing songs. 

The process hasn't been without speed bumps. While his words are much clearer (and there are even sentences!), there are still lots of times where we don't understand what he is trying to tell us, and he gets frustrated. A frustrated two-year-old who is also trying to assert his autonomy is a force of nature. A really loud force of nature who doesn't like to hear the word "no." But he doesn't give up, for better or for worse.

I marvel at both my kids' enthusiasm about learning. My daughter is desperate to learn how to write and practices without my prompting. She works and works and works at something until she gets it right. My son has started counting anything and everything while also trying to figure out the letters and numbers on license plates (so far, he really likes "B"). He watches and waits until he's sure he can do something before really going for it (like talking). They both absolutely adore school and their friends. They want to learn about anything and everything and have a ton of fun doing it.

I dread the day when neither of them look forward to going to school and reading becomes a chore rather than a joy. I wonder when my kids will start looking as disinterested, unmotivated, and frustrated as the majority of the students who sit in front of me. I wonder how much of it is based on my students' lowered expectations for their educations. Educations that once excited them and now almost repulses them. Educations that should have prepared them and left them enthusiastic for higher education instead of resentful. 

At what point will my kids go from learning to speak to having nothing particularly meaningful to say?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 1: Losing My Words

As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn't gibberish, but it wasn't related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can't talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.

I was shaking and crying, full of panic and dread. My thoughts still seemed coherent, but the words couldn't or wouldn't come out of my mouth, at least not with a great deal of effort. Talking, you may imagine, has always been one of my strong suits. While others shuddered at the thought of doing presentation, speeches, or, say, an oral comprehensive exam, I run straight to them. A high school teacher once gave me a back-handed comment when I volunteered to read my writing, and she exasperatedly exclaimed, "Oh, you always make your writing sound better than it is."  I teach, in part, because it involves public speaking, which I am very good at. What if I couldn't talk anymore, at least not with ease?

I was losing my words. I couldn't express myself. If I was having a stroke, what else would I lose? My other metal faculties? My memory? My intellect? After ten years, heck, thirty years of developing my brain and finally being able to really use it in a meaningful way, what would it mean to lose it? I recently wrote that ignorance is bliss, but, when faced with a very real possibility that I was about to once again have ignorance force upon me, I lost all bearing. This could not be happening.

(Looking back, I wasn't worried in the least about either the loss of my physical faculties or losing the memory of my husband or kids. I was athletic in the water, but I have never been particularly adept on land, and while I have no doubt that any physical disability would be hard, it isn't my most prized skill set with loads of money invested in it. My husband and kids, on the other hand, is much more troubling. Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that "love" would transcend any sort of mental loss, which I know to be false. I'm still working through that question.) 

Who would I be if I was no longer a teacher, writer, educator, thinker? Would I lose my ability to speak, but still be able to read and write? Would I still be a quick study and enjoy pondering and asking questions, or would I stop being able to learn new things and form new ideas? What would be left of me? And a realization that I am not proud of ran through my mind: I could turn into my "worst" students. Or at least, the worst stereotype we have of our worst students. It was more than I could handle. When the doctor told me that my CAT scan was clean and that it was probably "just" a migraine, I wept with relief. 

I still have my words. But I am now at a loss as to what I am going to do with them. And I chose, in part, to be quiet for a few days. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Weekend, Unplugged

Sundown Friday saw the start of National Day of Unplugging. I didn't know anything about that when I decided, on Thursday, to unplug as much as possible over the entire weekend, starting at about noon on Friday. Events this past week have left me...unmoored, and I needed time to think about what happened and what I want to do with the information. Some of it I will write about here. Other things will be referred to vaguely, much later, for fear of my job. 

It started last Saturday when I stepped on a rusty nail in our backyard and ended up in the ER to get a tetanus shot. While the money would be reimbursed by my insurance company, a mix-up over my "official" name on the insurance made me pay my deductible out-of-pocket. Leaving me no money to attend this weekend's THATCamp Southeast. I was fully intending to "attend" virtually, but when I landed in the ER again on Wednesday, this time with symptoms that could have meant I was having a stroke (it wasn't; best guest is it was a migraine), I wasn't sure I had the mental strength to attend virtually a conference I really had my heart set on attending. 

A few other events not related to my physical health forced me to think about what Faber, the old English professor in Fahrenheit 451, says to Montag about books: it's about the time we take to think about what they have to tell us. I needed to take the time to unplug and think about what had happened to me over the past week, and even the past year. Without Twitter as an "easy" outlet for my venting and without the blog to allow me longer rants and rambling. Without the pages and pages and pages and pages of writing on education, higher education, and everything else to distract me with "meaningful" and "useful" reading. I love the people and blogs I follow, but this weekend, I needed to be with my own thoughts for a little while.

I'll admit I didn't unplug completely. An entirely different post is needed on the expectations placed on modern professors to be accessible at all times to their students' via email or other electronic contact mechanism, but I had required that my students complete an online reading quiz over the weekend, and Blackboard is notoriously buggy (to put it nicely). And I didn't want to return on Monday to piles and piles of email in my personal inbox. So I checked my email a few times a day. But I turned the wireless off my computer and ignored all of the vibrations on my phone. 

I also didn't do any grading (even though I should have), nor did I do any reading for my class. I watched as little TV as possible. This weekend was all about my mental health. I went for a hike on Friday afternoon. I finally finished reading a novel I had been trying to get through (it was amazing). I wrote, long-hand, about ideas for a personal research and writing project. I baked. I played with my kids, a lot. I spent time actually talking with my husband (as opposed to right now where we are working next to each other). All of it was an attempt to try and figure out, what next? 

I still don't have any answers. But it did feel good to take the time for myself. I'm hoping that I've gotten enough distance from the events of last week to begin to write about them. I can't wait to read about everything that happened at THATCamp. I have briefly looked at my Google Reader and see a long (and interesting) reading list awaits me; Dr. Davis is blogging at a conference, which is always a treat! And, I think I might have finally found something interesting and not academic to research and write about. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder (gag!), and I miss you all terribly. I hope you'll come with me this week as I try to work through what going on. This time, back online.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rhetorical Analysis Essays and Following Directions

I have just corrected the first batch of my students' rhetorical analysis essays. They were...not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students' inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced. 

For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it's the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?

Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students' resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.

Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.

They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it's not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won't get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.

But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won't receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don't expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It's not just about the grade; it's about their employment future.

So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.

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