1) I love to teach; it is as much a part of my identity as any other aspect of my personality or role (mother, wife, sister, daughter, etc). Not being in front of the classroom (or on the pool deck) is like I am missing a part of myself. When I am teaching/coaching, I feel like I have come home, come to the place where I was meant to be.
We just moved, and as always, the process involved coming face to face with the amount of books I have. They look impressive on the shelves, less so in a never-ending stack of boxes. And in boxes they will remain for the time being because our main bookshelf disintegrated in the move. I’m left wondering, what am I, finally, going to do with all those books?
My husband and I are book “collectors.” We both love having books related to our academic interests as well as books we just like (or, admittedly, should like). My PhD in comparative literature contributed a great number of “classics” to our library which we will never part with. My eclectic teaching history has added to the list of books we own and might not have otherwise. And then there are the piles of science-fiction and fantasy books that are left over from our “youth.” None of those books will ever be parted with, either. Most of my husband’s books are in his office at work.
No, the books I am thinking of parting with are a part of my collection of Canadian literature. A long, long time ago, I was a Canadianist. I taught a year-long intro course in Canadian literature. My dissertation and research interests were in Canadian literature (they still are, but it’s not really all that marketable, so now I call it postcolonial). I am also a bit of a completist, and thus when I found affordable (cheap) Can Lit, I gobbled them up. Now, I have shelves and shelves of obscure Canadian literature (and Canadian literary theory/criticism) that I am pretty sure I will never read or use again.
A study was published just this year showing that the more books that are in the home, the more academically successful a child will be. I’m not tremendously concerned that our children won’t be exposed to books (the number of boxes of their books we had to move was astounding), but I do wonder: is it the quantity or quality of the books that will make the biggest differences? I don’t mean quality in terms of the books being “great” literature or “trash”; growing up, our house was filled with trashy romances read by my mother and pulpy science fiction and horror books read by my father. It was the act of my parents reading them that had the greatest impression on me. I devoured books of my own choosing and felt free to read whatever I wanted to, in part because my parents read what they enjoyed.
And that’s the problem. I own all of these books that I probably will never read. They sit on the shelf in near-pristine condition, spines unbroken, pages almost immaculate, out of obligation. When one of the kids comes up to me to ask, “what’s this book about?” I won’t be able to tell them. There is no connection between myself and the book. We gladly lug all of our old CDs with us, in part because we want our kids to pick them up, look at them, play with them, play them, and ask us about them (this was when I knew I was marrying the right man; when I asked why we weren’t just getting rid of them, my husband said exactly that). The music has meaning to us, or at least had meaning to us. Many of my books hold no meaning to me.
So, over the protestations of my husband, who believes that no book deserves to be discarded, I will be purging books from my library. This will (please, please, please) be our last move for a long time, which means that the books will be unpacked and left on the shelf. But that’s not what I want for my books. I want books that will be pulled down, read, and hold meaning for the reader. Don’t worry; I won’t throw them out. I’ll donate them to a library somewhere, if there is still a library that cares about Canadian literature out there. Either that, or my rural, southern US state college will become proud and confused owners of a very significant collection of Canadian literature.
If anyone has any other ideas, I’ll gladly donate my books to a place where they can do the most good.
I’m not breaking my Christmas vow to focus on engaging with the comments on my blog/writing; this post, in fact, is a long response to my recent University of Venus post, “What is a Course in Higher Ed?” One particularly negative comment focused on how I live in a fairy-land and should never be allowed to teach again. Never mind that the course focused on education and its role in our society, and that the assignment was warmly and enthusiastically received by my students. And while some of my students didn’t do as well as I had hoped, when do they ever?
But that isn’t what this blog post is about. No, my fellow University of Venus blogger Mary Churchill dealt quite well with the issue of instructors and professors being openly discouraged from trying (and potentially failing) in the classroom here.
I want to focus on the critique that I expected too much from my Freshmen in the class (never mind that most of my students were, in fact, Sophomores or higher). One of the comments read:
Freshman are not educators; most of them do not even know how to do critical thinking, much less create a course that develops it. Freshmen are supposed to be somewhat self-centered with a limited worldview. Changing that is the purpose of higher ed. While, along the way, imparting skills and knowledge.
True enough, they are not educators, but they have all chosen to attend an institution of higher education, at great cost to themselves and/or their families. But is it also true that they are “supposed to be somewhat self-centered”? This goes back to the central question of my post, what is higher education? Is its purpose to produce well-rounded, critical thinking individuals? And is it the only place where this could and should happen?
In the West, most people still do not attend college, let alone complete a degree (note that I’ve said college and not community college or technical schools). We are a democracy, and we rely on a population that is capable of making informed decisions when they vote. Why, then, is critical thinking the sole responsibility of colleges and universities? Why has that role been taken away from or fallen away from the high schools? What about the significant numbers of the population who have not gone to college?
We spoke at length about education and its role in our society both with my more advanced 200-level writers, about whom I wrote, and with my developmental writers, who were all Freshmen. All of them agree that their college education, in fact, all of education, is motivated by economics. It was very difficult for them to even contemplate or imagine education serving any other purpose. Why then, I asked, was education historically reserved for the wealthy who didn’t need any sort of education in order to perpetuate their (mostly inherited) wealth? Why did the emerging merchant class insist that their children receive a classical education when their trade was, well, trade?
I don’t think any of us ever came up with a satisfactory answer. Is this a failure on my part as an instructor? Well, I could have told them or lectured them on their self-centered, capitalist worldview, which would have gone in one ear and out the other. Instead, we read, we wrote, and I let them create. And, really, at the end of 15 weeks, is it too much to ask of a student to apply what we have read, discussed, and learned, regardless of what level they are at, Freshmen or Seniors?
I think in our disgust with the level of K-12 education, our increasing course loads/student numbers, our push to standardize courses, and our general disdain for the motivation of our students (or lack thereof), we have severely underestimated their abilities. They don’t want to be challenged; they’re not ready to be challenged; I’m too busy to challenge them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Most Freshmen, heck most students, will rise to the challenge, if you are willing to go there with them.
Back when I was naive, I taught a developmental writing course in California, at one of the state schools. The need for remediation was so strong that they created two levels of developmental writing, one that was one 10-week quarter and another that took place over two 10-week quarters. The only requirement was that the students had to study (read, write, and discuss) a non-fiction book, one that makes an argument. I, in my naiveté, chose Manliness by Harvey Mansfield. The students, I thought, would love it. And they did, eventually.
We spent the final 10 weeks on the book. I told them ahead of time that it would be the most challenging book they’d probably ever read, but if they trusted me, worked hard, we would get through it and they could be confident that they could get through anything college threw at them. It was the hardest 10 weeks of my life and probably the students’ (intellectual) lives. But we did get through it and at the end of the semester, I was more proud of the results they produced than I ever have before or since. Why? One reason is because I never had the opportunity to teach the book again. But another reason is exactly because it was so hard for me as their instructor and thus a deterrent to ever teaching something that challenging to Freshmen or developmental writers ever again. Why should I be surprised at their uninspired writing and ideas when I give them (or am required to give them) uninspired things to read and write about?
My idea to have all of my students, regardless of their level read and write about education and education reform has produced the most satisfying results for me as an instructor since I taught Manliness. And, it was my most challenging teaching experience since then, too. Were all the essays stellar examples of critical thinking and college-level writing? No. But, they all showed evidence of at least an attempt at both critical thinking and college-level writing. It didn’t earn them an A, but it did reinforce my belief that much of the time we expect too little from our students, Freshmen or otherwise.
For Part II, I ask, what can we expect from Freshmen?
I’m good at blogging; I’m not so good at engaging in conversations with those readers who are kind enough to comment on my blog posts. I’m also moving, and heading back up to the Great White North for the holidays. So, for Christmas vacation, I am going to take a step back from writing blog posts (I have a pile on tap for the New Year and New Semester, so don’t worry) and go through the comments I have received here and on Twitter about my posts, and actually engage with them. In other words, respond.
The students are handing in their papers and writing final exams. Once the grades are in (and even before that), it will begin. The grade grubbing. It’s my least favorite part of the semester. It has already started; students who have missed a lot of assignments and then have not done well on major papers are at my desk before and after class, asking if there is anything they can do (build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, do better). But the students who really frustrate me are those students who come to me demanding to know:
This post is in response to a question asked on the Phi Beta Cons blog.
There are a lot of things going on at this time of the year. Students are freaking out about their grades entirely too late for it to make any difference. Professors and Instructors are inundated with essays and final exams to correct. But, it is also time for students in colleges and universities to evaluate their teachers; our final exam on a semester’s worth of work.
The semester is coming to an end. My developmental writers are getting ready to hand in their last essays. Most have shown great improvement and proven that they can write at a level that will mean success at the college level. They are more confident writers who are no longer intimidated by having to write “formal” essays for class. They are more critical and active readers who are more adapt at approaching their work, more aware of the need to adapt their skills depending on the task at hand.
My students’ blog assignment has put in a strange position, caught somewhere between their teacher and their editor. My original “training” was as a professional writer, and part of that training was learning how to edit. I edited our program’s newspaper. I’ve worked as an editor before. I’ve edited a book. I can’t say I ever enjoyed that work, nor that I was any good at it. So it wasn’t with much heartbreak that I gave up heavily editing my students’ work when I became a teacher.
My advanced-level writing students had one final assignment to do after their education reform blog posts; I asked them to design (or redesign) their own university-level course. The bulk of the assignment would be spent justifying their choices (How will it be taught? By whom? Where? How will students be evaluated? What assignments/work will students do? What are the learner outcomes?), but this assignment was an opportunity for the students to re-imagine the university course as they know it.
But, creating this class was still a challenge and an adventure for me. It was unlike any writing course I had taught before. I experiemented, and it seems to have paid off. Next semester, who knows what the course will look like? I’m learning as I go, and expanding what I am willing (and able) to do. I’m also hoping that my students will offer some ideas in their assignments.
Their ideas for courses sound great so far. One student thinks it would be a good idea to offer a cooking class for Freshmen. Another wants there to be a general education course in debating, to teach students how to argue and listen effectively and not just yell at each other. And yet another wants to bring students out into the field to do local sociological studies. I am eager to see how they imagine delivering the course; will it be the same-old lecture-essay-test format that so many of the class they have taken use, or will they try to move beyond that?
I told my students that I was going to miss them and this class when the semester ends next week. The course wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if they hadn’t been willing to come along with me for the ride. I had two sections, forty students, who have worked really hard and have been fantastically receptive to my crazy ideas. Part of my goal in this class was to show them what their education could be. I think that another small goal was to show myself, too.