What am I still doing here? More Thoughts on Now I See It

In the comments of my review of Higher Education?,  capandgown notes:

well said, it’s a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though – why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I’m wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one’s job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?

These are two questions that I have addressed in the past (why I came back to teaching and who will be our future professors). I wrote the former post almost exactly a year ago, when I was about to start teaching again, full-time, after a year of under/unemployment. Many reasons I outlined there haven’t changed; I still need the money and there are very few employment opportunities where I am currently living. Why not move? My husband and I decided, very early in our relationship, that if we were going to decide to be together “forever” that we were going to be together. So I am still place-bound and limited, therefore, in my employment opportunities.

But, and Worst Professor Ever is going to be mad at me for saying this, capandgown is right insofar as that I love what it is that I do. I am invigorated and excited to have the opportunity to completely reimagine and reformulate my classes. I have written elsewhere that it is liberating to “only” be an instructor, and I wonder if I would have had the courage or conviction to do what I am doing this semester if I was on the tenure-track. This job still has something to offer me (other than money), and me to it.

I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. And, that might be the problem. I’ve spoken before about my failure of imagination when it comes to how I see and understand my classes. I have the same problem when it comes to my career trajectory. For so long I could only see myself in front of the class, in higher education, eventually moving up the administrative ladder. Of course, that vision has shifted somewhat, but not much. Maybe it’s in part because of where I am living, with limited economic opportunities. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been particularly entrepreneurial. Or, and I think Cathy Davidson would agree, the vision I’ve had for my life has never really been seriously disrupted enough for me to take a step back and really rethink things.

When I say that my job still has something to offer me, I mean that it allows me to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it’s only in the relatively safe confines of the classroom, a place where I feel most at home. Maybe these small steps I am taking to change the way I look at the educational experience will help me build up the courage and the vision to look at my own career trajectory differently. Four short months ago, I was lamenting my inability to radically change the way I teach. Now, I’m making it happen.

Eight months from now, maybe I’ll see more things just a little bit differently as well. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I love and what challenges me. I’m pretty lucky that way.

Now You See It: Get This Book. Right Now.

I finally finished Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on “The Future.” I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read. 

But, here’s a list of the most important people who should read the book, and why.
1) Educators: This book outline where education reform needs to go, and for those educators who are already there (or desperately trying to get there) who face opposition or derision from administrators or parents, this book is your justification. We love “science” and Davidson makes sure that she has enough science to back up her claims about the benefits of things like social media, video games, and collaboration, to convince even the hardest skeptic. Teachers should assign it to students, it should be adopted as the campus-wide book assigned to students and faculty to read and discuss. 
2) Parents: All of that hang-wringing about how we’re raising our kids? It ends here. It might depress you to know that your child’s school is nowhere near as relevant as it could or should be in order to prepare them for whatever the future economy is going to look like, but at the same time the message (or one of the messages) that I take away is that it’s never too late. I’m making it sound like Davidson advocates a truly laissez-faire style of parenting, but what she explains is that those habits that we chide or don’t understand in this technological age are not to be feared, but embraced. That, and that we should learn from our children about those things that we don’t understand. Not what we want them to tell us, but what they are really saying.
This book is all about getting us to pay attention, to disrupt our perception of the world so we can learn something new and truly change and (to a certain extent) evolve. There was a passage towards the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes:

To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone…When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It’s easy, I always answer. I’ll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That’s what learning is.

I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I’ll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.

Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.

And remember, if you’re on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.


In-Class Distractions Are Nothing New

Or, why you should allow your students to have their phones, laptops, and whatever else they want in class.
(This post originally appeared on So Educated.)

A student who is unengaged will find something better to do if they have technology in front of them or not. When I was in school, I wrote. I wrote notes to my friends, I wrote poetry, I wrote love letters to the object of my affection that I never gave them, I wrote short stories, I wrote anything and everything except what the teacher was saying. I had other friends who drew. Still others stared out the window and daydreamed.

We all clearly recognize that banning pens, pencils, and paper in the classroom isn’t a good idea (or, maybe it is – what if the students couldn’t do anything except sit and listen, or the teacher couldn’t just rely on the students to “take notes” in order to learn). And yet, just because a student is writing (or looks like they are writing) doesn’t mean they are paying attention. In the same way, just because the student doesn’t look like they’re taking notes doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention.

Read this about Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College in California:
If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.
“I’m a better participant when I’m painting,” she contends. “I’m listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I’m painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level.” Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed. 
What if the student who doesn’t appear to be paying attention is actually listening more effectively because they are also doing something with their hands?

There is something to be said about quiet, intense focus on one single task. But is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture the best way to encourage this type of engagement in students? There has been a great deal of work done recently showing that cell phones can be a very effective tool in actively engaging students in the classroom, helping them stay focused. In the writing classes that I teach, it would be ideal (both financially and environmentally) for all of my students to have their laptops or netbooks in order to be able to immediately and actively edit their writing, share their work, and engage in research activities. And for me, the benefit of these devices in the classroom far outweigh the reality that the students will probably also be doing something else instead.

It’s the same reason I don’t ban pens and paper in my classroom, either.

Postscript: There are some legitimate arguments against laptops in the classroom (see here), but I think, especially as I read Cathy Davidson’s new book, that the trick is to actively engage students using their laptops. 

Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I’ve turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I’m finally putting my money where my mouth is; I’m making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I’ve taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it’s about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 
Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the “basics” in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.
If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.
I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will “The Future.” After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that’s the plan. 
I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students’ unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 
Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.

Urban Bias?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.

What do you think of when I say that I am currently living in rural Kentucky, in the Appalachian mountains, not far from West Virginia? Do you hear banjos and think of Deliverance? So you hear a thick Southern drawl? Do you picture mega-Churches and born-again Christians? Be honest. And when you hear that I am teaching students from this area, do you applaud my efforts or feel sorry for me?

One of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome in order to improve rural schools is people’s attitude towards rural populations. Teaching underprivileged children in an urban environment is heroic, and you get to live in or near the big city. Moving out to the country, to the middle of nowhere, to teach a bunch of hicks? More of a punishment to most people.

Big cities offer a lot of advantages, I’m not going to lie. But one of the scariest things for parents and future parents who are thinking of moving to a rural area is that their kids will be going to the same school as everyone else. In urban areas, you usually don’t live in the underprivileged area where you are working, and you certainly don’t send your kids to school there. You live in the nicer neighborhood with the better schools. Out here, there’s one school. There is no better school district or area to escape to. The kids you teach are the same kids your kids will be going to school with.

This, of course, is a major issue when it comes to convincing people to move out to rural areas to help failing schools. Another obstacle is the idea that the rural areas aren’t worth the trouble. Making it in America used to mean conquering the frontier, but now it means conquering the big city. How many narratives do we read or see where the small-town, rural person moves to the big city in order to “make it.” Or, to put it differently, we believe in the phenomenon that the best and the brightest leave their rural homes for the larger centers, leaving behind…the dumbest and least motivated?

There are so many stereotypes of rural people that essentially excuse not doing more to help them and their education system. Why bother, right? They don’t value education, they’re not interested in a “better life,” and they are unwilling to learn what we want to teach them. You might try to say it in more politically correct terms, but think about your attitudes towards people who still live in small, rural towns and isolated farms, trailer parks and mobile homes.

I’m not saying it’s perfect out here; far from it. There is drug addiction, racial tension, crippling poverty, and a lack of resources to provide effective services, including education. But before you dismiss rural education reform, ask yourself if you really think urban kids are more deserving of a quality education than their rural counterparts.

Ed Tech Savvy?

This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I have a confession to make. I don’t know how to use a smartboard. I’ve had one in my classroom for the entire fall semester, and I never used it beyond as an overhead to show students things on the computer. When it comes to class discussions and (yes) lectures, I use good, old-fashioned chalk and blackboard. Or whiteboard, depending on the classroom.
I have no idea how to fix the rss feed for my blog. In fact, I only have a vague notion as to what an rss feed even is.  I don’t subscribe to any feed; I wouldn’t know how if I wanted to. I find out what’s going on or if there’s any new posts, once again, the old fashioned way: I visit their website. 
These luddite-lite confessions may come as a surprise from someone who blogs, encourages her students blog, is actively engaged on Twitter, and is generally open to new forms of technology that can be used to teach, do research, learn, and share knowledge and information. But in the race to stay technologically relevant and on the forefront, I often feel overwhelmed and overmatched. Between teaching, my own (traditional) research and writing, my family, my blogging, and my hobbies (I swear, I’m going to start swimming and reading science fiction again this semester), and, you know, sleeping and eating, I can’t keep up, let alone catch up on all the things I missed while trying my best to be a “traditional” academic.
I often admit this to my students when talking about the magic bullet that some claim education technology to be. How do we help and encourage educators at any level to learn, use, and embrace education technology? I’ve heard some complain that this is yet another education fad that will pass, so why bother learning it? Others wonder why they should bother when the skills they acquire will probably be outdated in six months. And still others, like me, have enough trouble staying up-to-date in their field, let along the ever-expanding field of how to teach my subject matter.
Before we accuse teachers of willfully staying in the dark ages and thus robbing our students of valuable skills and opportunities, we need to make sure that we have provided an environment for them where they can learn and grow their knowledge about educational technology. We also need to understand that every teacher is different, and thus will see different types of educational technology as useful with regards to their styles, goals, and students.
I don’t have any easy answers. We have a whole office at our university devoted to helping faculty use the technology (albeit mostly hardware and proprietary software) available to us. But most faculty don’t use those services.  How can we get teachers to a) take advantage of the professional development opportunities and b) integrate it into their courses?As one fellow higher ed blogger points out, one of the reasons faculty don’t learn about the technology available to them is that the format and content of the training methods (the workshop) just don’t work.
I think it comes down to really involving faculty and teachers in developing opportunities to learn about education technology and to be involved in the decision on what types of education technology the institution or school district purchases. If we can find a way to work together, faculty, staff, and administration, in order to make education technology meaningful and useful.

Accountable to Whom? The Un-measurable in Education

I don’t think I need to go back over for any readers of this blog the push in education, both K-12 and higher education, towards standardization, concrete learning outcomes, and return-on-investment. One has to look no further than what is currently going on in Texas to see that what we do as professors/instructors/educators is under some heavy fire. Increasingly, my job is about counting and measuring. 

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be held accountable, but I wonder to whom we should be accountable to? And if we change who we are accountable to, then we also need to change how we “measure” or evaluate the job we have done. 
As public institutions, we are accountable to the public at large that supports our work. I have some trouble with that assertion if only because the “public” has largely abandoned public higher education. If we look at California, we can readily see the impact of severely reduced public monies going to the university; the list of universities that have had the highest net increase in tuition overwhelmingly come from California. I invite you to check out the work that Remaking the University has been doing to expose the erosion of public support for higher education in California. 
But even if we still looked at the university as serving the public good, much of what the university does do (or, at least, could do) goes “un-measured” by the typical metrics. If all we measure are students taught, graduation rates, and post-graduation salaries, we are missing the rich and complex work that professors do in the university. In fact, I would argue, that it is not in the greater public’s good to limit our judgement on a university’s (or professor’s) success based exclusively on raw numbers; it actively discourages academics from actually engaging the larger community that they are a part of. When the “public good” is defined as test scores, then you can be sure that that is the only good the public will receive. 
But as the students’ burden of paying for their education increases, so, too, then, should we see the individual student as the person we are ultimately accountable to. This, of course, is problematic. There are many ways we are, as educators, already at the mercy of our students’, thus accountable to them. We are, if Academically Adrift is to be believed, simplifying the curriculum, at students’ demand. We are entertaining them at best, enabling them at worst, rather than educating them in order to prop up our evaluations. But these sort of accountability measures don’t actually serve the students, but the administrative (or governmental) dictates of retention and completion rates. In fact, the student is not the one who is holding us accountable. 
When I look at the recent post from the educators at the University of Venus, commenting on the best part of their job, it universally comes down to the relationship we all have with individual students. In a moving defense of the humanities, a professor defends how a liberal arts education enriches the individual, making the world at large a better place. But I want to take his argument a step further and show how self-perpetuating arguments against “impractical” education have become.
Liberal arts degrees are seen as worthless because they don’t provide students with any sort of “hard” skills. But they do provide students with the soft skills necessary to make good choices, both in their professional and personal life. But, why aren’t they then? Why are more and more people acting badly (insert whatever definition of “bad” you’d like; the argument works no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on)? 
Could it be because less and less students are, in fact, pursuing or even have access to this kind of enriching education? 
I teach at a rural state institution, filled with non-traditional, first-generation college students. Our completion rates are, admittedly low. Not for-profit institution low, but low nonetheless. When I see my developmental students, I know the odds are stacked against them. In my mind, I am accountable to them by trying to teach them as much as I can in 15 weeks to attempt to make them not just a better college student, but a better person, period. I teach writing, critical thinking, and, even in this age of narcissism, confidence. Even if my students never complete their degree, or even their freshman year, I act as though my course will serve them outside of university.
They will come out of my class as better writers and more aware of the importance of literacy. Maybe they’ll write a better cover letter, or earn a promotion because of their improved writing and literacy skills. Maybe they’ll come back later to complete a degree because they demonstrated progress in my class. Maybe they will consume media a bit more wisely, carefully, and critically. Maybe they’ll read to their kids, stock their dwellings with books, and take regular trips to the library, increasing the chances that their kids will succeed where they did not. 
These are the un-measurable parts of my job. This is how I am accountable to my students. Are they better people having taken my class? That is one of my most important goals when teaching. No one measures that. I don’t even know if we could. But I see it as my responsibility as a teacher, to my students and to the public, whoever they may be. 

The D Word: Diversity in the Classroom

This post originally appeared on So Educated.
I’ll admit, it was a bit startling to me when I walked into my classroom on the first day of classes this semester and was greeted by a sea of white faces. I’ve never taught at a university where 99% of my students were white. I always took diversity for granted. And because I took it for granted, I wasn’t a huge defender of it.
Now, with the majority of my students coming from similar backgrounds, mostly from the same small geographic area, I really understand the importance of diversity: diversity of ideas and opinions, diversity of experience, diversity of perspective according to race, class, sex, age, and gender identification. But, how does a rural school, or a rural institution, create a diverse experience?
When talking about education reform, one of my students spoke in defense of big schools because they were more likely to provide diversity. But, I countered, you could make a school as large as you wanted, but if the demographics aren’t diverse to begin with, the school will continue to reflect the people it draws from. Kentucky is 90% white. The regions where most of our students come from (and which we are tasked to serve) is probably a higher percentage, as well as representing some of the poorest regions in the state, if not the country. How, then, are we supposed to provide students at any level with a “diverse” experience when the demographics tend towards a homogeneous population?
This is something that rural colleges, especially, deal with. One way to provide students with a diverse experience is to provide them and expose them to a diverse faculty. But recruiting and retaining a minority or “queer” faculty in an isolated community is challenging, to say the least. We are also typically responsible for educating the teachers who will go out into the more rural communities, making it doubly important to try to expose them to a more diverse education.
But what about the student body itself? How does a public university, tasked with primarily serving a specific region, build a more diverse “class”? Much like recruiting a diverse faculty, how do you attract minority students to an area that is typically seen as “redneck country” (admit it, you think that about Kentucky)? And in the age of dwindling resources, is spending money of recruiting trips far outside of our service area the best use of funds?
There are no easy answers to that question. One of the ways the institution has addressed the issues is to bring in a diverse array of guest speakers, artists, and intellectuals. Last year, for example, bell hooks came to speak on campus. I also think that exposing students to the wealth of materials that are available, for free, online can broaden their intellectual perspectives. Why aren’t we using Skype more in our schools, K-12 and in higher education, to connect with people from all walks of life?
It’s easy to talk about diversity, champion diversity, and even vilify the cult of diversity that some claim has been created. I don’t take diversity for granted, but we all need to work, urban and rural, together if we want to ensure that students are exposed to diversity.

Education: It’ll Probably Make You Cry

I was talking on Twitter last week about how the competitors are often reduced to tears during their rehearsals but then come to celebrate the growth they’ve achieved. As one of my Tweeps points out: Any goal I’ve achieved is fraught w/ tears, exhaustion, happiness. If it’s easy, it wasn’t worth it.

A few nights later, I was watching a documentary called Run Run Revolution. A trainer takes 10 ordinary high school students and trains them to run 10km at the Boston Marathon. It’s a fascinating look at how much you need to sacrifice and be willing to do in order to achieve a goal. As the trainer tells the kids on one of their first practices: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Why is it that we embrace pushing ourselves (or others) physically, but shy away from pushing ourselves intellectually? I was taken to task on Twitter for, in one person’s mind, encouraging teachers to make their students cry. I don’t want to humiliate, belittle, or insult my students, but I do want to make them as uncomfortable as possible. And sometimes, challenging students leads to tears.

The harder we work, the more satisfied we are with the results. But we also learn more, achieve more, and grow. I’m not saying that if we don’t cry then we haven’t worked hard enough. But we need to engage our minds in our educations the same way dancers push themselves to become better or runners push themselves to become faster. As a graduate student, I wrote on the most challenging works we read in class, to push myself. I recently wrote an essay on a novel that I’ve struggled with for years. It bugged me that I didn’t get it and I looked for a reason to finally sit down and figure it out (I think I did). And it felt fantastic.

I’m all for making learning engaging. And, yes, it should be ultimately enjoyable. But that education should always be fun every step of the way I think is ultimately false and dangerous; as soon as it stops being fun, students will give up. In the moment, it will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, and not a lot of fun. In the end, it will be fantastic. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“Why High School Sucks”

This post originally appeared at So Educated.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am talking about education reform with my advanced writing students at the rural state college I teach at. At the beginning of the semester, while going over the syllabus, when I mentioned that we would be talking about education reform, I felt the air go out of the room, saw eyes glazing over, and realized I was quickly losing my class on the first day. What was I going to do? Rebrand the section of the course. We were going to talk about why high school sucks (academically), and what could be done about it.

When we came to the unit on education, I started with a free write asking them the first part of that question, reminding them to focus on the academic parts of their high school experience. And, if their high school didn’t suck academically, explain why. Most of my students wrote more in that free write than the entire semester thus far put together. I received spontaneous and passionate reflections on their experiences, many filled with anger, frustration, and regret.

A few themes emerged from their work. The curriculum was too easy and too repetitive, not to mention irrelevant. Teachers weren’t demanding enough of the students and inconsistent in how they distributed grades. For example, if you were on the football team, you got good grades regardless. Teachers didn’t know their material or weren’t engaging (human tape recorders, as one student put it). Students were taught to the test and nothing else. In other words, the students were forced to memorize, but never shown how to contextualize or apply the information. There was too little choice, too few opportunities for students to learn about what they were interested in. And, most significantly, they arrived at college wholly unprepared and ill-equipped academically.

Over and over, I read the words “pointless,” “a joke,” and “boring.” Many of my students probably only realized this once they reached college. Looking back now, they remember most fondly those teachers who pushed them to be their best, and not just on a standardized test.  Out of the forty or so students I had answer this question, only three came back with positive experiences. Each of them had gone to private or magnate school with high academic expectations and excellent teachers. Each one of them also attended school in or near an urban area.

When we talk about school choice, what is forgotten are the large numbers of students for whom the only choice is the local school that serves the entire county or region. The teachers often attended the school themselves, left for a few years to get a teaching degree, then returned home. Because of the decreasing number of students, lack of resources, and lack of expertise, these schools can’t offer students very many academically challenging courses or optional courses. Some of these schools are in areas where there isn’t even high-speed Internet access. When talking about education technology, one of my students pointed to a preschool teacher using a CD player that she had recently seen. For some, the CD player and VCR are the only education technology available.

None of what my students said will sound particularly groundbreaking or revealing to those seeking to reform and transform the way we educate students. The challenge becomes how to solve these problems in rural areas. How do we offer these students choices and variety, or ensure that they have excellent teachers? How can we relate and contextualize the curriculum to the world around them, both preparing them for college but also relating it to the only reality they know? If these schools are ultimately “punished” through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, where are the students going to go?

Many have already (rightly) criticized the film Waiting for Superman along with the image it presents (one hero to swoop in and save us all). For rural students and schools, it is even more telling: Superman left the farm to go and save the city. For these students and schools, the message seems to be clear: you are on your own.