Sunday, November 17, 2013

In Praise of The Instigator

Because Todd and I have already discussed next year’s 9x9x25 Challenge at length, I plan to use this space to accomplish a pair of long-percolating goals.  First, I shall curb my natural propensity for verbosity (staring now) and make this post exactly twenty-five sentences.  No, really, this makes three.  Drat; I had best get creative and conservative fast.  My second goal is to thank Todd for providing us with the carrot, the stick, and, yes, sometimes the whip, that is this project.  When he approached me with the idea over the summer I was flush with post-grading euphoria and a sudden surplus of free time.  It sounded like a great idea, in an abstract sort of way, and I readily agreed to participate.  The check didn’t come due until October, and by then (like most of you), I was staring at a full schedule and piles of work high enough to have their own ski lift.  Motivation was low.

Fortunately, my office is four doors down from The Instigator.  For those of you not lucky enough to exist in close proximity to Todd, it’s a bit like sharing a workspace with a cheerleader, an inventor, an optimist, a friendly IT guy, a happily misplaced John Muir, and The Cat in the Hat.  If this sounds like some sort of manic Hell, I cannot assure you it’s not.  Rather, Todd wanders the corridor of M building, poking his shaggy head in offices, dispensing each personality in just the right proportion.  Of course, the formula might not always feel right at the moment.   

When I’m three hours into grading essays, with another three soul-sucking hours to go, I’m not interested in hearing about Blackboard’s newest doodad, nor what cool things my apparently essay-less colleague has cooked up and put forth on the web for her ever-so-lucky students.  However, like some tech-savvy Johnny Appleseed, Todd knows that not every seed sown will bear fruit.  Instead, he relies on casual tenacity and repetition.  On Tuesday I am frightfully busy, but when he knocks on Thursday (and Todd is never afraid to knock), I’m sipping coffee and tossing around ideas for a new class.  When The Instigator walks in at that moment, he’s just what I need; in fact, he’s just what every good teacher needs. 

Though the life of an educator is rewarding, it can sometimes grow repetitious.  Each semester we teach students roughly the same material, using roughly the same techniques, in roughly the same spaces, and with roughly the same goal.  In this way we can fall into the role of an assembly worker at a large production plant, each day inserting part X into part Y2.  This is not our fault, nor necessarily a bad thing; we each delve deeply into our disciplines, and, over a few years, find effective methods of achieving our goals –after all, if it’s not broke, why fix it?  Nevertheless, we occasionally need someone to get us off our well-worn seats and make us tour the factory, to show us what happens at station X, to examine the finished product, to share what’s going on at the Dearborn plant.  This is what Todd does, and this is what 9x9x25 has achieved.  Perhaps that is why I’ve not felt some momentous change by participating in this project –with The Instigator around, I get to engage in it all the time.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Giving Thanks

Click on the Yavapai College homepage this week and the first image that pops up is this:

Yep, that’s my Hannah, and yes, this is going to be one of those “why I’m thankful to be a teacher posts.”  It’s Thanksgiving time.  Bear with me and I’ll try and keep it short.

Hannah and I started at YC together in the fall of 2009.  She was a wide-eyed freshman and I was a brand-new professor.  She was trying to jumpstart her life, and I was trying to jumpstart my career.  We didn’t know it at the time, but one day her march to pomp and circumstance, her well-earned cap and gown, would serve as supreme validation for us both.  Before we can appreciate her journey, though, we must first examine my own. 

Like most aspiring academics, I had entered graduate school with an eye on ivory towers.  I knew that I would someday be teaching (really, what else does one do with an advanced degree in English), but, as a student enrolled at a research institution, I assumed that such work would be ancillary to the more important pursuit of my discipline.  This mindset was shared by my classmates and encouraged by my professors.  Thus, when offered a Graduate Teaching Fellowship, I adopted the prevailing outlook and viewed it, not as a valuable learning opportunity, but as a meal ticket and tuition waiver.  I would attend class, and read, and study, and read, and write, and read some more, and teach on the side.  This was how it was done; this was the once and present way.
Indeed, my mentor called it a mandate.  Sitting in her dark and hallowed office, she looked at me and said, “Spend as little time teaching as possible.  Don’t dwell on their papers.  Your focus should be on your own classes and your own career.”  I considered this valuable guidance.  Obviously, it had worked for her; she had my dream job.  However, I would have been a fool to think that she wasn’t applying the same advice to herself.  As an associate professor at a research institution, her primary focus was not the two or three classes she taught but the articles and professional conferences that would bring prestige to the university and win her tenure.  Thus, she would only spend a little time teaching me and certainly wouldn’t dwell on my papers.  She wasn’t selfish, just invested -one more cog in a clock that’s been ticking since the 13th century.  I could read the time and knew what I had to do.

There was just one problem: I discovered I liked teaching.  After leaving a five-hour study session in the library, I was often bleary-eyed and resentful, but after teaching I was always energized and optimistic.  At first, this newfound passion was my dirty little secret, but in my teacher training program I found a few likeminded souls.  We gathered in the shadows to discuss pedagogy and scrawled out lesson plans on spare napkins.  One can endure a double life for only so long, and eventually I had to make a decision.  I could soon graduate with my MA and hopefully focus on teaching at a community college, or I could endure another three or four years of academic hazing, earn my PhD, and follow in my mentor’s footsteps.  Surrounded by brick and ivy, it was a difficult decision.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the deciding factor came from outside academia.  My wife’s career involved helping victims of abuse, especially children.  Though this job was emotionally challenging, she could never question whether or not it was socially valuable and important.  I was jealous of this assurance.  My teaching was not without meaning or relevance, but when I looked around the room, I did not see a vulnerable population.  Most of my students came from well-to-do families, with a number of safety nets, and even if I was Professor Keating in the classroom, my English 101 course would likely have little impact on whether or not they succeeded in life.  However, I was a first generation college student myself and had once attended a community college.  I well remembered that demographic and the challenges they faced.  My decision was made.

I was soon hired at Yavapai, willing and eager to teach and contribute to the social good.  Fortunately, validation was not long in coming.  As stated above, Hannah arrived at the same time.  She was a single mom with a troubled past, no child support, and plenty of people, including herself, telling her she couldn’t cut it in college.  And they were almost right.  That first semester there was late work, and tears, and forgotten weekends, but there was also intelligence and drive.  A busy university professor with writing to publish would likely have had little time for this student, but I was in a wonderful environment that encouraged teaching and supported making connections.  My office hours were for students and my primary purpose, really my sole raison d'être, was to help them succeed.  Hannah was my demo and Yavapai gave me a chance to make a social difference, the opportunity to help a young woman climb into the middle class and forever change her life and the life of her daughter.  I relished this chance and did the best I could to help.

Let me be clear though: Hannah did the work, Hannah suffered through the difficulties, and Hannah made the sacrifices.  She deserves the credit.  I was just lucky enough to have a job that helped make such dreams possible, and that’s certainly something to be thankful for.

Friday, November 1, 2013

What's the Point?

I have a confession to make: I hate the exclamation point.  This is, of course, an entirely inappropriate disclosure for an English professor, and I sincerely apologize for denigrating the archetype, but it’s true.  I dislike it for all the same reasons I love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s rude, indiscreet, unsophisticated, and a bit pushy.  As Peter Griffin would say, “It insists upon itself.”  Or, to quote a more traditional literary figure:

And like all good bigots, I’m passing my intolerance on to young people.  Include an exclamation point in your English 101 essay and you’ll likely earn this comment in the margin: “Avoid exclamation points.  If the writing is strong, the reader will recognize the emphasis without being instructed.” Burn, right?  Call me a pedant if you like, but unless we’re in a Monty Python skit, we don’t go around shouting at one another in casual conversation, and so why should we do it in our writing?  A screamer-free piece of prose is a civilized piece of prose.  It exudes grace, speaks eloquently, and requests attention.  It does not simply hand everything to you, crying in its best subaltern voice:

Lookie here

but rather engages you in polite and meaningful conversation. 

Perhaps I’ve gone too far.

Regardless, the point I’m trying to make (emphatically as I can –if only there was some way that I could indicate how strongly I feel in a concise way, maybe even with a single mark. . .) is that I do not like exclamation points.  I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.

And yet, I use them.  I use them in a very specific way and for a very specific purpose.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know that I strongly encourage enthusiasm in the classroom.  After all, if I’m not excited and interested in the material, how can I expect my students to be?  Thus, when at the front of the room, I speak louder and with emphasis.  I move around.  I gesticulate.  I smile –all the opposites of Old Man Stein.  Enthusiasm is more than just good modeling though.  At its best, it’s charismatic and inspiring.  Do you remember Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter?

As his '80s predecessor first taught us, there are a number of khaki-clad Australian men happy to wrestle reptiles for a camera crew, but what earned Irwin worldwide fame was a level of boyish enthusiasm that was obvious and attractive.  He loved what he did and that love inspired others. 

I’m not entirely saying that we should all adopt this Trix Rabbit personae in the classroom, but if we can show excitement and energy to our students we are far more likely to garner their interest and engage them in the material.  In other words, know your stuff but don’t be afraid to be a fool for the subject.
That's all well and good in the classroom, but how do we accomplish this online?   One solution is simply to create videos, and I highly recommend this approach.  However, it’s not practical or even best practice to film everything, and so one must resort to, sigh, distasteful measures.  One must resort to exclamation points.  Though I loathe them in serious or professional prose, I use them dozens of times daily when interacting with online students, and it makes a difference.  Because I cannot be physically there to smile at them, welcome them into my space with body language, and create a comfortable atmosphere with my demeanor, I compose emails like this:

"Good morning, Sally.  I received your assignment this morning and can’t believe how much improvement you’ve shown!  Some work still needs to be done on the analysis portion, but you are headed in the right direction.  Keep it up!  Next week we will be looking more at punctuation, so feel free to get a jumpstart on that reading if you can.  Until then, good luck and have a great week!"

Those three exclamation points are more than I would use in three years in my personal writing, but here they do good work.  They convey positivity, congeniality, and encouragement. As human beings we often overanalyze written communications borne of a power differential: 

“Does my boss really think it’s okay that I come in late on Monday?”
“She seems to be excited for our date, but I really don’t know for sure.”

However, there is little chance of misinterpreting my example above.  The exact nature that makes exclamation points boorish in serious writing equips them perfectly for interacting with students online; they are overly clear and a bit Pollyanna-ish, and this pair of traits perfectly suits them for teaching.

If enthusiasm evinces happiness and interest in the classroom, then the roots of the exclamation point express how the excited little glyph accomplishes this in writing.  The best origin theory states that punctuation derives from the Latin exclamation of joy (io), written with the i above the o, and when the mark first appeared in English printing in the 15th century, it was known as the “note of admiration.”  Though some serious students may find my liberal use of the punctuation a little over-the-top, I’m happy to err on the side of joy and admiration, and I think that's something worth shouting about! 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Putting a Face on Online Learning

“It is common knowledge that a well-bred man should as far as possible have no face. That is to say, not so much be completely without one, but rather, should have a face and yet at the same time appear faceless. It should not stand out, just as a shirt made by a good tailor does not stand out. Needless to say, the face of a well-bred man should be exactly like that of other (well-bred) men and of course in no circumstances whatsoever should it alter. Naturally houses, trees, streets, sky and everything else in the world must satisfy the same conditions to have the honor of being known as respectable and well-bred.”
       -- Yevgeny Zamyatin, Islanders And, The Fisher Of Men

Given the above quote, I’m pleased to report that your online courses are populated by heaps of well-bred individuals.  Indeed, judging by the general pervasiveness of facelessness, your rosters must read like a regular roll call from Burke’s Peerage

What’s that you say?  This isn’t true?

As much as the anglophile in me might wish it otherwise, Zamyatin’s notions of decorum are, of course, at odds with the realities of anonymity and internet trolldom, and sadly, even our best online courses seldom resemble the staid intellectualism of a British tearoom.  Our students often appear faceless but seldom exhibit the haute mannerisms associated with being well-bred.  Thus, lacking any real hopes of emulating Downtown Abbey, I say we just go ahead and give our online students faces.

Really, it isn’t that hard.

You begin with a video.  All good instructors should model the lessons and attitudes they want their students to adopt, and so you should start the semester by immediately pulling back the wizard’s curtain.  "Here I am.  Your instructor.  A real person.  I have a voice and a face; I am human."  This sounds silly, but lacking an introduction video, you are perceived by your students only as some digital force of nature, expressed in text, putting forth commandments and judging your followers.  As tempting as this minor deification can be, I recommend you avoid it.  The image of Godhood is simply too difficult to maintain over a long semester.  Plus, there is always the tiny possibility of committing a mistake, and then the whole mythology might crumble down around you.  This can be very bad.

Once you have presented your face, it is time to solicit the same visual presence from your students.  In a physical classroom most everyone spends the first day eyeballing their compatriots, and it is only fair that we provide them with the same opportunity online.  Fortunately, the prevalence of modern technology makes video introductions easy to construct, and posting them quickly results in a far greater sense of community.  You also get to see them in their natural setting.  This can be fascinating

Now that you’ve met each member of your crew, it’s important that everyone create a face to take with them on the journey.  In many of my own courses, I have replaced the ugly, text-based enthusiasm-slayer known as the Discussion Board with Voicethread.  Voicethread allows your students to upload a picture of themselves, and that picture is present whenever they interact (through video, voice, or text) with their fellow students.  Providing ocular identity clues can completely change the nature of online interaction.  George Smith the name is rescued from the land of bland (and sometimes destructive) anonymity, and is reborn in your course as George Smith, the guy with black hair and a nice smile.  This Smith is statistically more likely to be kind and helpful, and he is easily recognized by his classmates.  “Oh, George, you’re always so funny,” they say, and, “Ah, George was the one talking about stem cells last week.  I wonder what he has to say about this.”  As human beings, we are evolutionarily primed to remember and appreciate human faces, and including them in online interactions greatly benefits the resulting dialogues.

Of course, students sometimes choose to represent themselves with avatars and thereby mask their faces.  While this can result in some protracted anonymity, I remind you of Oscar Wilde’s words: “A mask tells us more than a face.”  When a student represents herself as a castle, a sunset, or a dog, she is making a statement, and though we must be careful not to get too Jungian, this statement is open to interpretation.

Specific avatars can also result in a fair amount of mirth.  Last year an exceedingly bright student chose a picture of her six-month-old baby for her Voicethread profile.  Thus, throughout the semester we all enjoyed nuanced literary comments and in-depth discussions on symbolism originating from the picture of this little sage in a onesie.  Welcome to the 21st century.

Regardless of the chosen image, a visual identity is created and a face given to that student, a face capable of holding positive or negative associations, a face we can become comfortable with, like a neighbor, or even (gasp!), like a classmate in an actual classroom.

Beyond the intuitive benefits of all this, I offer one final anecdote of the change online faces can elicit.  At the beginning of each semester I have to clear each voicethread discussion of the previous semester's comments.  This is a labor intensive endeavor that requires me to click on each student’s face and then select a trashcan button.  When selected, the trashcan asks me, “Are you sure you want to delete this?”  When I first went about this task, it presented a surprising existential crisis.  “No,” I said, “I don’t want to erase Sally.  She’s come so far.  I loved her thoughts about Wide Sargasso Sea.”  This shows just how potent these images can be.  Seeing the student, she becomes more than just a name on a course roster.  She becomes an individual and her various thoughts, ideas, and emotions accrete to her given icon.  More than mere glyphs on a screen, she is a person, and whether well-bred or not, I’ve come to like that face.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Moving the Statue

Read through the 9x9x25 archives (yes, we’re big enough to have archives now -woot!) and you’ll notice several blogs devoted to the composition and aesthetics of learning spaces.  These posts offer apt reminders on the psychology of setting and nicely provoke instructors into taking more ownership of their surroundings –the ultimate goal being an atmosphere more conducive to teaching and learning.  However, how can we translate these important considerations to online courses, where we have little or no control over the given locale?

The first and most obvious step in this direction is to design attractive, intuitive, and effective dashboards using our LMS or website of choice.  Erin Whitesitt (yes, a shameless family plug) has already offered a fine blueprint in this regard, yet I often find myself worrying about the bigger picture.  As an English major, I was trained to evaluate context, and as an English professor, I’m haunted by the unknown compositions surrounding my lessons online.  When a student logs onto Blackboard, what lies beyond and around that little rectangle of learning, informing, supporting, or undermining my instruction?  My greatest fear is that it’s this:

Now, before addressing this den of depravity, I want to travel back several thousand years to the ancient Greek Festival of Dionysus.  Likely no event in history better evinces the importance of ritual and symbolism better than the Dionysia, the progenitor of all Western theater and drama.  And though we could spend a great deal of time discussing the significance of this toga party, let’s focus just on its initiation.  Several days prior to the holy fete, an acolyte would carefully remove the sacred statue of Dionysus from the temple.  Then, on the first day of the festival, in what was known as the pompē, the citizens of Athens would march the statue back to the temple on the Acropolis in a ceremonial procession.  Due to their historical prevalence, such religious activities don't strike us as odd, but consider that the sole reason for the statue's removal was just so that it could be returned again.  There is no logical impetus for such an action, but there are deeply important social and psychological purposes behind the ritual movement.

What does this have to do with learning?  When a student attends college in a traditional classroom, he/she travels through multiple ceremonial spaces that lend significance to what is about to take place.  He leaves the comforts of home, jockeys through the streets of society, and arrives on campus.  The campus itself is a location that denotes learning via its unique physicality.  Despite sharing traits with many other large collections of buildings, it cannot be mistaken for a hospital or governing complex.  It is quickly and easily identified as a college, and as the student steps into this space, she is subtly prepared, through a lifetime of conditioning, to begin learning.  This preparation is heightened when she arrives at her specific destination.  This is my Sociology 101 classroom, her mind and body tell her.  This is where I learn about sociology.  Looking around she sees other students operating under the same geographical mindset.  Although they may fiddle with their phones, or talk with their neighbor, they are in a dedicated space historically and culturally prepped for learning and new ideas.  This truth is telegraphed by each of the five senses.

Sadly, this is not the case with online learning.  With the click of a button, a student can move from Facebook, Netflix, or worse, pornography, to my English 101 course.  How can such a casual juxtaposition not subtly devalue education?  Lacking all locomotion, there is no physical reinforcement of change, and there is no demonstrative spatial indicators that states “learning is afoot.”  Instead, the student is surrounded (most often literally) by all of the comforts of home, and although that picture of grandma and those footie pajamas may feel good, research supports the notion that we often learn best when we are on the edge or even slightly outside our comfort zone.

There is a social aspect to this as well.  While a student may hesitate to rail against the “liberal agenda” or to denigrate “all them feminist” in a physical classroom (where an accepted atmosphere of civility and professionalism generally reigns), that same student will feel far less restraint in his own bedroom.  Whereas a college campus supports and encourages progressivism and new ideas, our homes and personal effects, even our family members, generally cast a conservative
aura: this is who I was, this is who I am, and this is who I will be.  Such an environment lends itself to intransigence, and, coupled with even a notional anonymity (Ha!  You can’t see my face!), sometimes results in troll-like behavior.  Add to this the typical distractions of being at home (crying children, blaring televisions, annoying siblings/roommates, the smell of dinner, the lure of that Playstation) and the result is not exactly an immersive learning space.  In other words, there is no sacred temple.

So what can we do about this?  Well, to some degree, nothing.  When teachers talk about the indefinable “magic” of the classroom, they are partly alluding to what I have discussed above.  No matter how far online education advances, it will never be able to fully replicate the physical act of moving through space in order to gather in a ritualized location to engage in something as a group.  Humankind has been doing this for thousands of years, with varying motivations, and with powerful results.  However, online education is not going to disappear, and so we need to seek out ways to improve the medium.  I encourage my students to develop dedicated work times and spaces even for their online courses.  The coffee shop or the attic may not be as conducive as the classroom, but over time they can come to mirror some of the same associations.  Todd Conaway argues that we should send our online students on field trips.  Regardless of how we do it, we need to develop new and innovative ways to move the statue.  What are your ideas?              

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Milk for Free?

Extra! Extra! Read all About It (online)!  Lloyd’s List, widely thought to be the world’s oldest daily newspaper, is going out of print in December.  Granted, this may not seem as significant as the folding of Newsweek last year, or the many other metropolitan dailies that are dropping like the flies they once swatted, but Lloyd’s has been spilling ink since 1734, and whenever a ducentenarian dies, we should take notice.  The reasons behind the fall of newspapers are multiple and varied, but certainly the most efficient executioner has been the internet.  After all, why should I buy the cow when I can get the milk for free?  A quick internet search will literally put thousands of news stories at my fingertips without once having to venture onto the driveway in my bathrobe or send Junior to the corner market.  And best of all, they come in at the low low price of:
Or course, it wasn’t always this way.  If you can imagine it, once upon a time you may have had to pay for the privilege of reading my words right now.  However, today there are something like one billion blogs to choose from and instead of you chasing material, I’m chasing readers.  And just in case you think this discussion is merely academic, let’s ride that word to my next point.  This is now happening in higher education.
Looking at the two models, one can see that they are actually quite similar.  A fee is paid (via subscription or tuition) and in return access is granted to expertise and information.  Having completed the process, one then walks away an informed individual prepared to engage fruitfully in the important discussions of the day.  Yes, you in the back, the liberal arts instructor; I see your desperate look.  This is a reductionist comparison that denies recognition to the richer and deeper aspects of a broad education, but I will dismiss this quibble with a dollar.  From a business standpoint the two are close enough, and the market bears this out.  The interwebs are full of canned classes, online “degrees,” massively open online courses, and free information.  Ask yourself, what can you tell your students that they can’t find in a Google search?

Sadly, we are already seeing the negative consequences of this.  Academic decisions are made based on market forces.  We offer dual enrollment free to high school students inside local high schools, not because it is the most rigorous education, best practice, good for the student, or the ideal environment for college learning, but  because if we don’t, some other institution will come along and steal that FTSE.  Moreover, students are no longer limited by geography.  Here in Yavapai county, they can attend the local community college, but Grand Canyon University, Rio Salado, and the University of Phoenix are also available and will gleefully accept as much federal aid money as they can get.  Like my blog analogy above, students now have a multitude of choices, and, as the law of supply and demand dictates, institutions must now begin to cater to students to survive.

Education meet free market.

To capture those students we’d best pour money into advertising and make sure that our medicine doesn’t taste too bad.  In other words, add sugar and remove rigor.
And that’s assuming that individuals even want to formally attend college.  MOOCs, Google, the Khan Academy and other enterprising groups can provide education and knowledge without any monetary transactions whatsoever, and if we truly believe in the long term social and individual benefits of learning how can we begrudge a movement working toward a free and readily available education for all?

Is our profession doomed then?  Are our already tiny budgets and puny paychecks in danger of disappearing completely?  For an answer we must return to the newspaper industry.  Some venerable and worthy papers have been forced to fold or downsize into insignificance.  Attempting to compete with free online sources, they made maladaptive moves to shorten story length (you know, because of attention spans), cover more fluff (the Roman bread and circuses stuff), and cater to entrenched political audiences.  While this Faustian bargain worked for a select few, it murdered the majority.  In watering down their product they turned away from their strengths (embedded reporters, in-depth investigative journalism) and ensured a slow (or not so slow) extinction.  Visit any tourist spot and you will see a similar phenomenon.  Shop after shop hocking the exact same cheap baubles and tee-shirts.  None of the owners runs a successful business (most cycle out after 1-2 years), but each ensures a grudging, temporary survival by selling the same safe (albeit crappy) product as his neighbor.

I argue that if higher education wants to survive and thrive in the next hundred years it must do more than offer the interchangeable kitsch of the tourist shop or the diluted product of the failed newspaper.  We must narrow our scope and turn to what we do best.  Steve Student can find out anything he wants about Beowulf on the internet, but I am going to sit down beside him and make it come alive.  I’m going to recite parts of it in Old English.  I’m going to get excited when Wiglaf brings forth the treasure, and, using my own idiosyncratic education and experience, share more relevant historical and literary explanations and real-world hyperlinks than even the most dedicated programmer could provide.  And what’s more, I'll do it real-time and adapt to that student as I go.  When I see the face brighten, I’ll dive in.  When I notice the eyelids droop, I’ll pull back.  Google can’t do this.  The University of Phoenix doesn’t want to.  However, I can, and if we want community colleges to continue to perform their unique and important social role one hundred years, even twenty years, from now, then we need to invest in what is unique and rewarding -what cannot be replaced.  We need to invest in ourselves.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The (E)mail Bag Edition: Wherein I relate a mistake, vent in the guise of offering constructive advice, and briefly discuss response time

I made a rookie mistake this week.  Entering my office on Monday, I flicked on the computer as usual, paid my two minute dues to the start-up gods (I shudder to think what the temporal sum total of this tithe might be over the course of a lifetime), and, like all good little white-collar workers, set about my emails. I scrolled down the long list of black subject lines, all the while resisting the urge to answer them Strong Bad style, and arrived at the oldest missive, from HelloCitty88, descriptively titled “Issue.”  This can’t be good.       

“The video for week six doesn’t work.”

That’s it.  Possibly this student was fleeing a burning building and time was a factor.  Alternatively, he is a superhero of some renown that must closely guard his secret identity.  Regardless, without any identifying information, I must locate and fix the video.  This is my job.  Fifteen minutes later I have checked the clips in each of my four online courses, both in Firefox and Explorer (thank you, free market) and determined that everything is hunky dory (a very Monday phrase).  I then write back to HelloCitty88 the standard it-must-be-your-computer-contact-the-Help-Desk-for-assistance-and-keep-me-posted response.    

Twenty minutes after opening Outlook I now move on to the second email.  Easy one.   Zap!  I get lucky with the third and fourth too.  Zap, Zap!  Email number five is from HelloCitty88 again:

“Nevermind.  I figured it out.”

Over several years of anonymous abuse I’ve learned the hard way to look for multiple emails from the same address and begin with the newest, but occasionally I like to forget this lesson and start my morning with frustration calisthenics:

I’m sure your own emails periodically inspire similar exercises.  Indeed, any instructor (and especially those that teach online) can relate gruesome tales from the Inbox, and as tempting as such swapping is (either in this format, on Facebook, or in the breakroom) I think most of us eventually outgrow the desire to share or vent about it.  While student emails are regularly rude, demanding, grossly informal, panicked, grammatically inscrutable, and inadvertently funny, they ultimately come from a position of subordinance, and it helps to remember this power differential if a response is necessary.  When confronted with a particularly loathsome specimen of online epistle, I often compose two responses: the one I want to send and the one I do send.  The first is pedantic, chiding, and chock full of ten-dollar words sure to test the perspicacity of any college freshman.  It usually contains phrases such as “It’s in the syllabus” or “do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!” As a parent, a teacher, and a fellow human being, this email feels good.  However, like so many things that feel good, it can get you in trouble.  Thus, the second email.  This missive adopts a professional tone, politely points out where the requested information was initially available, provides said requested information, and gently requests that future communiqués come equipped with a greeting and identifying information.  Occasionally it is necessary to also include a cordial addendum on netiquette and what it means to write in all caps.  The "old-school" might bristle at such coddling and kid-gloves, but I’ve yet to regret being kind and polite.  I can, however, recall a small handful of sharp responses I’d like to take back.            

If I can now draw these threads together, let it be said that it is not always and entirely necessary to respond to student emails at once.  Delayed replies offer reflective time for both sender and recipient (time in which frayed nerves may calm) and inspire students to avoid Escalator Syndrome and even problem solve on their own.  That being said, during the week, I keep banker's hours on the web, and endeavor to reply to student emails quickly.  I am consistent about this and work hard to establish a responsive reputation that my charges can rely on.  However, unlike many of my colleagues, I do not check my email on weekends and holidays.  This separation is the result of a promise I made myself and my family as a working graduate student years ago, and it's been a delight to honor this pledge.  I've found that cultivating this bit of distance provides a healthy psychological harbor for myself and encourages my students to be proactive with questions and concerns.  It does create a larger workload the next week, and occasionally an important and deserving email must linger, but in general the policy has weathered the years quite well -even if does occasionally result in a rookie mistake.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Monkey in the Classroom

Last week I promised to explain the monkey atop this page and why he graces the frontispiece of this very serious and academic blog.  Well, besides the rather obvious curb appeal, and the fact that monkeys like to climb, he is a symbol for an endangered species in the classroom.  His name is Stone Monkey and he represents the enthusiastic community college student (note that I did not say stoned monkey –we have too many of those as is).  To understand the reference we must look to sixteenth century China and the folk tale Journey to the West.  Although perhaps the most widely read story in the Far East (and subsequently the world), the epic remains a novelty in the US, relegated to world literature courses, such as my own (a pity, but that’s another post).  The story centers around four traveling companions and their journey to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist scripture.  Although, the priest Tripitika is our nominal hero, it is really the eponymous Monkey that steals the show.  Fathered by sunlight, fructified by the wind, and birthed by a stone egg, Monkey is enthusiasm incarnate.  Active and eager, he plunges forward again and again seeking adventure and wisdom.  This is readily apparent in the scene I am most concerned with here, monkey in the classroom:

“One day the Patriarch, seated in state, summoned all his pupils and began a lecture on the Great Way.  Monkey was so delighted by what he heard that he tweaked his ears and rubbed his cheeks; his brow flowered and his eyes laughed.  He could not stop his hands from dancing, his feet from stamping.  Suddenly, the Patriarch caught sight of him and shouted, ‘What is the use of your being here if, instead of listening to my lecture, you jump and dance like a maniac?’ ‘I am listening with all my might,’ said Monkey.  ‘But you were saying such wonderful things that I could not contain myself for joy.  That is why I may, for all I know, have been hopping and jumping.  Don’t be angry with me.’  ‘So you recognize the profundity of what I am saying?’ said the Patriarch . . .  “What sort of wisdom are you now hoping to learn from me?’  ‘I leave that to you,’ said Monkey.  ‘Any sort of wisdom –it’s all one to me.’"

When reading this passage for the first time, my response was “We should all be so lucky!”  Imagine a classroom full of joyful learners eager to consume that day’s offering, interested in learning for learning’s sake.  I mean, that’s the City of Gold that keeps teachers hacking through the wilderness,  the reason many of us signed up for this gig, and the eternal hope that allows us to overlook that short line of digits on our paycheck.  Yet, we seem to be retreating from the Monkey ideal rather than approaching it.

Why is this?

For our part, teachers seem to moving in the right direction.  We’ve exiled the “all-knowing” Patriarch along with his narrow and pedantic closed-mindedness.  In his place are experts of all stripes and backgrounds, a multitude of voices (none of them shouting at students).  Moreover, as nice as rich attire and a fancy chair sound, we are no longer “seated in state.” Our teachers now roam and ambulate.  And more than just profess like some sacred oracle at the front of the room, we practice varied approaches to teaching and learning that seek out and reward participation and active engagement.

Yet, where are our monkeys?  I see them in kindergarten exhibiting all the symptoms described above (flowering faces, laughing eyes, stamping of feet), but something happens to them on the way to the community college classroom.  John Taylor Gatto explains much of what occurs in his brilliant article “The Seven Lesson School Teacher,” but there’s yet more to it  –something specific about our classrooms– and as is so often the case, it comes down to money.

Since the economic downturn I have seen an alarming rise in reluctant faces, crossed arms, and grudging voices.  They all say the same thing: “I lost my last job and now I’m stuck here until I can get another one.”  “I’m tired of making peanuts and so I have to get through this to something better.”  “Mom said I have to go to college if I want a good job.”  “I’ll get this out of the way and then go to university.”  These voices concern me, for they all share the common theme of transience.  At best we’re an obstacle course; at worst we’re a roadblock.  Too many students attend community college as a type of purgatory, something to be endured until they can move on to that which is bigger and better.  Current political trends exacerbate this scenario by denigrating the teaching profession on one end and enacting increasingly restrictive and invasive educational policies on the other.  Even well-intentioned officials seek to defend  the place of the community college by tying it directly to job placement, job creation, and the economy.  The result is not pretty.  Too many students arrive with the perception that this whole education thing is an economic exchange.  As in, “I pay you tuition and you give me my passing grade.  I collect enough of these passing grades and you give me a piece of paper.”  Expressed as an equation it looks like this:

money+time=diploma=good job

Because of the many variables and potential cross-purposes involved, this may or may not be true.  However, what is true, is that it generates a damaging sense of entitlement, and in the process belittles what actually takes place in the classroom.

I do believe that education makes better employees and studies readily show the dollar value of a degree, and yet the classroom is not job training, and it shouldn’t be looked upon as a speed bump or weigh station on the way to a career.  The classroom is and should be a destination in and of itself, a locus of knowledge, learning, community, sharing, exploration, self-discovery, and change.  These outcomes are not all measurable (much to the chagrin of the pencil pushers), and they cannot all be relied upon regularly, but even in a diminished or altered state, they are worthy pursuits.  Yet, if students arrive with the perception that the classroom is just one more hoop to jump through, they risk missing out on the greater fruits of an education.
So what’s the point of all this?  Should we just cry and eat more ice cream?  Should we curse myopic politicians and administrators to the heavens?  These are attractive options, but, as always, we should focus on what's under our control.  Every pair of crossed arms and disinterested eyes is a challenge, and though many students do not realize it, indeed, they have been conditioned to deny it, their hearts and minds are really piles of dry tinder just begging to be set alight.  Rather than wait for lightning to strike, we need to bring that fire with us into the classroom.  Be enthusiastic, be loud, stamp your feet, jump around.  Be a Steve Irwin and get excited about your subject.  If you want active, engaged and joyful learners you have to model that behavior.  You won’t change all of them, but you’ll get quite a few.  After all, monkey see, monkey do.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

At Play in Pompeii

"And if there be a day when all shall wake,
As dreams the hoping, doubting human heart,
The dim forgetfulness of death will break
For her as one who sleeps with lips apart;
And did God call her suddenly, I know
She'd wake as morning wakened by the thrush,
Feel that red kiss across the centuries glow,
And make all heaven rosier by her blush."
     –from "Out of Pompeii" by William Wilfred Campbell

"O Muse, sing to me!"
     –from Book I of The Odyssey by Homer

For ages we have cornered accomplished men and women and pressed them on their pursuits.  What brought you to politics, Mr. Lincoln?  When did you first pick up the pen, Ernest?  Why did you take to the clouds, Amelia?  How’d you come to live in a jar, Diogenes?
The questions never end and the answers crowd bestseller lists and periodically even win Oscars, proving that, as a society, we seem desperately in search of that spark which provokes greatness.  Yet, the topic of inspiration rarely achieves notice in education.  If so many of the Great Ones can look back on a moment or an individual that urged them forward, why are we not more concerned with providing spurs in college?  The question of education’s end and the point of it all is surely a rabbit hole more convoluted than the current conversation permits, but, even in a small space, we can ponder why the notion of muses now seems as antiquated as the billow-shirted poets who once invoked them.  In Greek mythology the muses are known foremost as the inspiration for great works, but it is not by accident that they were also considered the source of all knowledge.  If the forefathers of western education knew that inspiration and knowledge were intimately and inextricably linked, why have we forgotten it?  

Let’s begin with a story.

As a freshman in college I signed up for an Introduction to the Humanities course.  Not necessarily because I was interested in the topic (although I was) but because it deftly fulfilled a pair of graduation requirements and allowed me to sleep in twice a week.  The instructor was a medievalist, a musician, a thespian, and a bit of a globetrotter.   She was also my first academic crush.  It wasn’t a physical thing; she had a good twenty or thirty years on me and the kind of couture best appreciated in Chaucer’s day.  Rather, I was smitten by her combination of smarts, spirit, character, and experience –what the Anglo-Saxons referred to as mōd.  Each Tuesday and Thursday I sat spellbound for an hour as she held court at the front of the room, and as I watched the sunlight cling to her, I daydreamed of living such a life.

On one day in particular, she was discussing the ruins of Pompeii.  Present, of course, were the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, but in addition, and in quite typical fashion for her, she served up some personal experience as well.  It seems that whilst traveling Italy as a young woman she had visited Pompeii, and, having missed the bus, was forced to spend the night there alone, soul-deep in all that tragedy and history.  As she spun this yarn, her eyes bloomed and her voice grew quiet, pulling us forward in our wooden chairs.  Sotto voce, she told of the long shadows cast by the ruins and the many ghostly figures she could feel pulsing around her.  Then, the hour was suddenly up and the spell broken by the sound of shuffling papers and sliding chairs.
For my adored professor, this likely impromptu tale was but five minutes in a busy day of committee meetings, office hours, grading and much more staid teaching.  Ah, but for me –for me this was a geological event, a great tearing of the earth wherein the previous Jason was swallowed up and a new likeness spit forth.  Imbued with enthusiasm and purpose, I determined that day that I too would visit Pompeii, rub shoulders with the ghosts that haunt that sacred space, and return to tell the tale.

Five years later, lean and hungry from a month of backpacking in Europe, I arrived in Pompeii and realized my dream.  I walked the ancient streets and plumbed the winding ways, breaking the tourist rules and snooping into all the off-limit shadows.  And just as I was really beginning to suck the marrow, I was expelled by a gruff security guard, my hopes of an overnight sojourn shattered, but my larger triumph still intact.  Despite this success, I had not yet travelled full circle.  For that, I would have to wait another eight years.

In 2012 I lucked into teaching an Introduction to the Humanities course, and, not far into the semester we arrived at the subject of Pompeii.  After providing the traditional background notes, slides, and literary quotes, I paused, and, feeling the gravity of the moment, sat down atop an empty desk at the front of the room.  I then, ever so slightly, lowered my voice, and told my adored professor’s story.  And then I told mine.  The earth shook and the circle closed.  My students were delighted.  It was a moment.

Never one to trust to the winds of chance or fail to gild a lily, I then went on to briefly elaborate on the Moral of the whole bit:  I was just like you, a small-town kid sitting at a desk just like that, and though it might sound a tad too much like a song by Journey, if you really want something you can make it happen.  It simply takes inspiration, determination, and time.
Returning now to our initial discussion, as educators, we don’t have much control over the determination of our students, or how they spend their time, but we can, perhaps, if we’re good and just a little bit lucky, provide a spot of inspiration.  And the fact that we can’t quantify, institutionalize, or even necessarily plan for such inspiration doesn’t mean that it’s not worth pursuing.  For, eventually the papers will all be written, the assignments all turned in, and if we are not careful, all that will be left to show for a semester’s worth of work is a grade –a tiny glyph whose entire sum of meaning is increasingly determined by hostile politicians and a disinterested economy.

Thus, if we want our students to walk away with more than debt and a piece of paper, we must inspire them to act beyond the finite dimensions of our assignments and our classrooms.  We must inspire them to read Heaney on their own, far away from campus on a bright Tuesday.  We must inspire them to look at the stars with their children and talk about string theory.  We must inspire them to willfully and deliberately think critically at the polls.  We must inspire in each of them their own Pompeii and then turn them loose on the world.

Tune in next week to find out why there is a monkey at the beginning of this blog.