It’s the beginning of the semester, and we professors/instructors of any and all ilk are always faced with the same challenge: getting our students to read. I addressed it a little bit in my previous post about homework, but at the end of the day, we can (eventually) get our students to write because of a big fat grade attached to it, but it’s really, really hard to get them to read. I went to a PD session this week that addressed this very concern. We were told the session was going to be about our State embracing the Common Core Standards, but instead we learned about “Growing the Readers You Want.”
This semester, I’m teaching Freshman Writing for the first time at my “new” institution; I’ve taught the class before at other places, but as anyone who has taught the “same” class at different schools knows, it’s never the same. New requirements, new textbook, new guidelines, and thus, a new class. I also know that I have a lot of students who took my Developmental English class with me signed up for the class, so I want to make sure I keep things fresh, so to speak, for them. I chose an entirely new and different textbook for my class (we have to choose one, out of an approved list of three); usually, I chose a textbook that has lots of readings and I focus on teaching the writing part. This time, I chose a textbook that exclusively focuses on the writing (and critically reading) part, but is light on texts provided as examples and for students to “practice” on. I selected Everything’s an Argument (searching for the link for this book, I just noticed that there is an edition with readings; that’s not the one we’re using, for whatever reason).
The idea was that this would provide me with more freedom to allow students to find their own readings, encouraging them to take ownership of their education, engaging them in critical research activities, and providing materials that they themselves are interested in. Or force me to do so. I will be looking for my own texts to provide for them, in order to make sure that they are being challenged in their work and in their thinking. I’m also thinking that their final assignment might be to critically “read” and critique the argument in anything of their choosing, reality TV, sports, a novel, the healthcare debate, a video game, whatever they want. This could be controversial.
The issue, for me, comes down to this: is a Freshman Writing class supposed to prepare students for college writing (and reading), or is it to prepare students more broadly for the challenges and reality they will be facing after they leave the university? If my only job is to prepare them for college writing, then asking the students to write about “texts” that aren’t written is a mistake; as many have already pointed out, the university is not the center for curricular innovation. We like our textbooks, we like our academic essays, and we don’t really like all of these trendy topics (like media studies or digital humanities) encroaching on our turf of the classic liberal arts. I’m, of course, not speaking for everyone, but for many, dare I say, most, I should be teaching “the classics” over Jersey Shore.
That’s an argument that holds a lot of power for me. I think that part of higher education is being exposed to (read: being forced to read and examine) texts that we probably would never have picked up on our own, and for today’s student, that usually means anything written over 20 years ago that doesn’t involve a vampire or wizard. I’m being glib, but how many students really enjoyed reading Shakespeare in high school or picked up a copy of Plato’s Republic for the fun of it? I know they’re out there, but they are not in my classes. If we, collectively, in higher education, don’t expose students to the wealth of knowledge and the richness of the written word, who will? It isn’t just requiring that the students read the works, it’s also providing them with the skills to be able to appreciate the work, engaging them in a way that makes the experience meaningful.
This is where I think pop culture can come into play. The “classics” are always concerned about human behavior, for better or for worse; pop culture just seems to exaggerate those arguments writ large. For example, when talking about manly nihilism, we discussed both Nietzsche and Fight Club. If we want to talk about social mobility and empty materialism, then why not talk about The Death of Ivan Illyich as well as our current obsession with game shows and give-aways? Afraid of run-away technology? So have authors as far back as Rousseau, but most “recent” examples can be found in dystopian fiction. These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you probably have better ones (please, share, that’s what the comments are for).
And to say that the works and authors who are generally understood as being a part of the Canon didn’t concern themselves with base interests or popular culture, then what were they writing about when they critiqued religion and religious practices, the popular playwrites, poets, and musicians of the time, or the morality of the population in general? What is popular has certainly changed, but our need to analyze and understand it has not.
I think critical thinking is critical thinking. I think that students are too passive in their consumption of all media: written, visual, aural, etc. It used to be that only those who were in a position of power or affluence could afford to engage in such activities. No more. If we can get students to critically “read” the texts they usually only consume for enjoyment and entertainment, then we can also get them thinking critically about their discipline, their education, and whatever it is we have asked them to read/consume for school. If they can write a well-organized, well-thought out, well-researched, clearly argued essay about reality TV, then I think it’s safe to say that we’ve done our job of preparing them for college writing and beyond.
(For a great example of critically “reading” a show, check out “Should We Watch ‘Bridalplasty’?” I love how the author shines the light back onto the viewer; the show is really informative about what it says about society, but we have to be willing to go an extra, self-critical step)
I didn’t go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I’m not on a job search, I wasn’t presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn’t really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn’t even submit an abstract to be on any panels; each previous year, I submitted PILES of abstracts and my rate of acceptance is dismally low. And when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn’t planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year, or perhaps any year after this (unless by some miracle, it comes to Kentucky, which I doubt).
This week, in honor of #FYCchat, and the fact that I’m working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester all week, I’m posting all about some of the decisions we face as instructors, trying to come up with a plan for our students for the semester. First up, homework!
I have a love-hate relationship with homework. When I was a student, in the dark ages, before computers and word processing programs, I used to be reduced to tears, writing and rewriting my essays and other assignments because I am a terrible speller. “Good copies” could only be written in pen, and we were only allowed three White-Out marks to correct mistakes. I used to sit at the kitchen table as my mom proofread my work, dreading the inevitable: the fourth spelling mistake which meant I would have to start all over again.
(A quasi-relevant aside: my friend who tutored me in biology figured out that I needed a narrative in order to learn; biology was hard for me because it was a lot of memorization. I always complained that I didn’t understand biology, when really, there was nothing to understand, only things to memorize, at least at the high school level. So we wrote stories about the cell and all of the parts and their functions, a tool I used to study for all of my biology tests from then on. I would start each biology test by writing down whatever story or stories I had come up with and then filling in the blanks. It worked, as I passed biology, and my friend went on to become an excellent university professor.)
I’ll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It’s the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I’ve been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that I made. I’ve read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.
*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis” (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I’m already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don’t be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can’t, I won’t, do it.
In honor of the job numbers coming out of the MLA regarding potential jobs for all of us PhDs and ABDs, I want to reexamine an idea I put forward this summer. Last July, I wrote about how loyalty to a university can just as easily mask desperation in contingent faculty (the university that I mention in the post is not the same university where I am currently working). But I have been rethinking the ideas of loyalty and/or desperation in faculty members as it relates to the students I teach. I hope and wish that my institution would show loyalty towards me because of the loyalty I feel towards its students.
I asked, in a recent post, what do we expect from Freshmen? I was responding, in part, to the criticism, that I had expected too much of my students in their final assignment. And then, today, I came across (or rediscovered) the following essay by Alfie Kohn, explaining “How to Create Nonreaders.” In it, he radically proposes that we empower students and allow them to shape the curriculum in their language arts/reading and writing classes at the K-12 level.
We expect even less of students in college classes. Part of it is the institutional tradition: students come to higher education (and pay a lot of money) in order to benefit from our (the professor’s) expertise. If they wanted to direct their own learning, they are free to do so, for free. You get what you pay for, and they are paying for my wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But why does it have to be that way? As Kohn points out, the instructor is not removed from the equation; they are important guides in the process of shaping the educational experience. Why does our experience have to be shared with students in a top-down approach?
When I ask the question, however, what can we expect from freshmen, I don’t just mean what could we reasonable expect a freshman to do in a class. I don’t think that it would be entirely unreasonable to immediately ask a freshman to take control and ownership of their education in order to prepare them for not only the next four years, but their professional lives beyond their degree. No, I am also asking what are we allowed to ask of our freshmen.
Kohn talks about how it’s important that students are given “voice and choice.” Why? Two reasons:
How can we allow students to generate possibilities when the instructors themselves aren’t allowed to generate possibilities, allowed our own autonomy? Instead, we are limited to a selection of pre-approved texts, mandated assignments, and set learning outcomes? My fellow University of Venus colleague Afshan Jafar has written quite eloquently on the McDonaldization of higher education and why it is taking place, but I am interested here in examining the effects on the teaching and course development process. For Mary Churchill, the assembly-line teaching mentality caused her to choose administration over academia. For me, it means that I can’t at least try to empower and challenge my freshmen writers.
This next semester, I am teaching Freshman Writing at my institution for the first time. I’ve taught the course elsewhere, but of course, I have to re-learn a new textbook, fit in all of the mandated assignments, and this semester, the added pressure of being one of the courses whose papers will be evaluated for accreditation and evaluation purposes. Could I, would I, come to class on the first day with the long pre-formatted syllabus with all of the requirements, course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments already in place and pre-selected textbook, and say to the class, here are our guidelines, now we make the class together? I do have the flexibility to assign specific readings, come up with homework/in-class exercises, and a small number of major assignments, as well as the specific schedule for the semester. Could I, would I, hand over the small amount of choice and freedom I do have as an instructor to my students?
I worry about my job. I worry about the perception of me as an instructor. I worry about my students learning. I worry (in my most optimistic moments) that I will upset the expectations of other professors who later have my students, students who now expect a degree of autonomy that they will not receive in other classes. I worry about our accreditation; I have now been at two schools that have completely overhauled their Freshman Writing because of the demands of the same accreditation board. Of course, the accreditation board didn’t demand specifically that Freshman Writing change, but they did demand that there be put in place a program that would impact all students. Freshman Writing it is.
I have about three weeks to decide. I’m not going to lie; I’ll probably take the “easy” and safe way out, developing my syllabus myself, mostly dictating the readings and assignments, according to the limitations that have already been placed on me. But like I did in my 200-level class this past semester, I’ll push the envelope; blogs, self-directed reading and research, and at least one assignment that upsets everyone’s assumptions, students’ and professors’, as to what a freshman can do. It might not be much, but it’s a start. It is, literally, the least and most I can do.
Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt’s call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.
I’ve always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could “geek out” with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever’s parents were out of town/didn’t care.
We weren’t the geekiest kids in high school. We didn’t play D&D, we weren’t a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn’t really a band geek, a la “This one time, at band camp…” I didn’t know how to speak Klingon, didn’t know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.
There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends’ eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.
Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.
So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about “geeks.”
And it is exactly that “geekiness” which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let’s face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You’d have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let’s face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.
In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to “reading” again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.
But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.
Over on the University of Venus Facebook page, the questions was asked, “What’s your word for 2011?” Most came up with words like adventure, change, whatever. For me, my word for is “stability.” 2010, the last five years in fact, have had enough change to last me for a little while.