Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reflections on the 9x9x25 Challenge

Among his many harangues, the Gadfly of Athens once cautioned: “Beware the bareness of a busy life.”  We have our own gadfly on the Verde Campus, and he’s equally skeptical of “busy.”  For example:

“Do you want to do the 9x9x25 again this year, Jason?”

“I’d better not.  Erin’s in grad school, the kids are a handful, and I just took over the Honors College.  I’m going to be too busy.”

“Too busy.  Bah!  You can do it IF you want to.”

One’s immediate reaction to this sort of retort is not positive.  It feels invalidating and dismissive of the daily struggles of a demanding job and an active family.  Indeed, one quickly gains sympathy for the Athenians that sought to exile the nettlesome Socrates.  However, just as history has given us a better perspective on that famous philosopher, so too have Todd and the 9x9x25 Challenge given me a better perspective on “busy.”

Teachers are rarely idle.  Despite ludicrous claims to the contrary, we don’t knock off every day at three, spend our summers on the beach, and our weekends rolling in ill-gotten riches.  The school year is a never-ending cycle of prep, performance, evaluate, repeat.  Compound this with increasing technological innovations, paperwork, and administrative demands and the typical teacher simply has to keep his head down to get his work done.  This mandate leads to the seemingly counter-intuitive state in which teachers are “too busy” teaching to think about teaching.
Of course, we do think about teaching –but not in the large sense, not in a philosophical fashion, not in such a way that promotes regular improvement.  Innovation may occasionally occur, but this is usually in response to a given problem, the pedagogical equivalent of calling the plumber.  To truly improve our craft we need to move past the problems of the present to think on the possibilities of the future. 

And 9x9x25 provides us with this opportunity.  Yes, I have a stack of papers to my right that need grading.  Yes, I have a committee meeting to prepare for.  However, beyond these immediate drivers, I also have a responsibility, to my students and myself, to become a better teacher.  Writing for 9x9x25 forces me to engage this commitment, and, through my writing, and the writing of my colleagues, to invest in future dividends.  As busy as I am, am thankful for this opportunity and even the not-so-gentle reminder that instigated it.

Here’s to the gadflies!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

We are Who We Think We are: or, Fake it 'till You Make It

At the end of every semester I host an open-ended Q&A with my English 101 students.  At this time they can ask me any academic related question.  Typically students attempt to push the boundaries here, dowsing for advantages and sniffing out my pet peeves, but such sallies are punctuated by solid queries –the exact kind my optimistic lesson plan predicted.  Foremost among these is the following chicken soup for the troubled English professor’s soul:

“How can I become a better writer?”

Unfortunately, the answer is decidedly unsexy, consistently failing to offer the type of academic panacea the student is after:

“Read more, write more,” I say with a veteran campaigner’s voice.  

If this sounds like more homework, that’s because it is (hence the often constipated look that comes over freshman faces when this advice is proffered.)

The sad truth is, there’s no magic pen, ivory tower shortcut, or clever secret hidden in the teacher’s lounge.  The wholly mundane and unexciting answer, as so often is the case, lies in hard work.  However, buried within this journeyman approach, there may just be a bit of the sorcery students are looking for. 
Aristotle said that “we are what we repeatedly do.”  This grind-it-out methodology –the “read more, write more” advice offered above- results, over time, in competency.  Taken to its extreme (about 10,000 hours, or so) and it can even result in greatness.  Thus, if you want to be a writer, write every day and this slow accumulation will eventually swell into the skill itself –you’ll be a writer. 

But this is modern America, the land of:

And as much as the old and the wise maintain the contrary, it’s hard to knock instant gratification.  So, it helps to offer students some form of incentive, a little pixie dust to speed them along their journey.  It even comes in a pithy, rhyming quote:

Fake it ‘till you make it.

Imagine that you are a writer, an A student, a better person –whatever your goal is, and you’ll become one.  You don’t even have to wait out Aristotle’s slow-build approach or Gladwell’s temporal equation.  It can happen almost immediately.  The key lies in how identity shapes our habits. Consider someone attempting to become a more sympathetic friend.  Rather than asking himself, “how can I become more sympathetic?” he should assume that identity and then pose the less ambiguous question: “what would a sympathetic person do?”  This provides a clearer roadmap and often suggests a plan of action.  See the following syllogism:

Bill is in the hospital.  A sympathetic friend would go visit him.  I’m a sympathetic friend, so I’ll go visit Bill. 

In this fashion, the change is nearly immediate, relying not on a long and proven track record but rather on a moment’s conceptualization.  And the real beauty here is that while this immediate gratification is taking place, there is also a slow accretion happening.  Take 3-4 identity-driven acts of sympathy and suddenly you have a bit of a habit.  Engage in this habit for a while and you develop a reputation.  Continue to build on this reputation and you arrive at Aristotle’s maxim –you’ve become what you’ve repeatedly done; in this case, a sympathetic friend.

This plan of attack can easily be ported to school and supplied in addition to the long-term “read more, write more” advice.  Encourage students to imagine themselves as writers and then apply this identity to their everyday lives.  In so doing, once idle questions can become actionable practices:

“What would a writer be doing right now?”
“Would a writer ignore this mysterious word, or look it up?”
“Does a writer revise and edit?” 
“How does a writer read?”

By adopting the identify of a writer, even (or especially) if it’s initially a false identity, one can effect immediate life changes based on a sort of subconscious mimicry or role-playing.  Once again, thoughts become actions become habits become reality.  Thus is a little magic offered to students, the light brightened and the tunnel shortened.    
Now, imagine yourself as a commentator, and provide some of your own thoughts and ideas below!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Shooting for Buy-in

“We knew they wouldn’t stand a chance,” Student X said.  “The training we gave them was shit.”  
Class was long over and a conversation about total institutions had naturally led to the military, and from there to ISIS and the current situation in Iraq.  Student X was a vet and spoke freely about his time in the Army.

“We’d give them their shiny new M16, aim ‘em at some makeshift target, and say shoot.  They’d then blow through a few magazines and we’d call it good.”

“That’s it?” I was incredulous.

“Yep.  No range.  Nothing about sighting-in or how to maintain the weapon.  We didn’t want them to know too much.”

“Because of deserters?”

“Yep.  Why would I want to train an Iraqi soldier today who might change his mind and decide to shoot me tomorrow?”

“Weren’t you an officer?  What about your orders to train the new Iraqi army?”

“I was an NCO –in the dust with the grunts.  We went through the motions but given the reality of our world, actually filling that boot on the ground, we weren’t exactly motivated. It’s no wonder they’re getting beat so bad.  We didn’t train them at all.”

A feeling of resignation and distant anger took hold of me.  It was top-down thinking at its best and a common failing of any large institution.  Those in charge, in this case remote politicians and generals, conceive an idea and make a decision.  This plan of action is then kicked down the chain of command for actual implementation.  Thus, a strategy devised in Washington by high level officials must be executed in Iraq by those on the very bottom of the totem-pole.  These sad-sack individuals, living the reality of the conflict, naturally have their own ideas and opinions about what needs and should be done.  Given the vast discrepancy in rank, geography, agency, and personal safety, these ideas are often quite different from those of their far-off superiors.  So, as Student X says, they go through the motions.  They do enough to look busy and avoid getting in trouble, then call it a day.  A report then travels up the long chain stating that Iraqi soldiers were trained today.  This is not true, but because it is properly filed and sent back up through the ranks (like some vast game of telephone) it gains a sort of organizational reality.  After a few months of these reports the politicians and generals at the top assume their plan has been implemented. 

Large institutions are predicated on this sort of magical thinking.  A linguistic imperative is made (in the beginning was the word) and physical reality is then expected to conform.  Now, if this change was anticipated immediately, no one would buy in.  However, because the command is uttered by a figure isolated by his/her own authority and expected to be carried out by distant minions, a seemingly efficacious fantasy is sustained:  “I told them to train the troops.  They said they trained the troops.  Therefore, the troops must be trained.”  Sadly, the devil is in the details. 

Given his position Student X can’t really be blamed for this failure.  Nor can the generals and politicians be judged for believing these generally honest and hard-working soldiers.  Everyone involved, including the tragic Iraqis, is simply a victim of institutional thinking.  

So, why am I relating all of this in a blog ostensibly about education?  Because, for better or worse, we teach within institutions.  The stakes are, admittedly, lower, though perhaps no less important when looking at the long-term health and well-being of our nation. As teachers we occupy a unique role in the hierarchy of the institution.  We have administrators above us relaying commands and expressing expectations, and below us are our students, to whom we relay commands and express expectations.  This makes us the fulcrum of the institution and ideally positioned to combat the perils of institutional thinking. 

We do this by seeking to understand the “boots on the ground” reality of the students –what are their challenges, hopes, and fears?  In turn, we ask for them to buy-in to our vision of what needs to be accomplished.  Working in close conjunction (and this is key) we can then pursue implementation together and track results. 

When looking to our administrators, we must demand the same.  Invite them into our reality, share our goals and concerns and then seek to develop an institutional vision together with broad, vertical support.  If a teacher feels understood and believes in a president’s plan, it’s likely to succeed.  But if not . . . well, we might as well just call it a day.        

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Generation Specs

Apparently, the Millennials aren’t very smart.  No, really, there’s even a book on the subject: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.  Falling just outside this maligned designation, I’m rather fond of Mark Bauerlien’s title, and I enjoy confronting my students with it.  Their reactions generally veer from woeful acceptance: “Yes,” their sad little eyes say, “yes, we are,” to righteous indignation, “who does he think he is!”  Regardless of the student’s emotional response to Mark Bauerlien’s published impertinence, the book is a capital conversation starter and a fine segue into discussions on parenting, technology, consumption, and even philosophy.  On particularly diabolical days, I’ve been known to divide classes, force them into a little research, and then let them go at it Law and Order style.  The resulting class session neatly encapsulates one of the more important debates of our age, and offers a nice rebuttal to Bauerlien’s assertion: these kids are smart, you just have to get them away from them:

Lacking a personal video to prove this, I’ll instead introduce one of my teacher-crushes and let him do it for me.  Mike Rugnetta has made over 100 brilliant and funny shorts for the PBS Ideas Channel, and, this close to Halloween, I’ll go with his talk on Zombies.  Regard:

Great stuff, right?  Well, your opinion might vary according to your age.  Remember the expression, “if it’s too loud, you’re too old”?  In this case, it’s more like “if it’s too fast, too mashed-up, too multi-faceted, too self-referential, you’re too old.”  Rugnetta is delivering a fusillade of fine information on the topic of zombies, his thoughts and ideas ranging carelessly (and pointedly) from pop culture to classical sociology, from low brow to high.  He colors with all of modern human experience, and he’s not afraid to go outside the lines.
Now, the most common invectives lobbed at Millennials accuse them of a lack of concentration, diligence, and the ability to think deeply.  And some studies bear this out.  However, the brain exhibits remarkable plasticity, and while technology and modern life may weaken some skills, it’s actively strengthening others.  Video games and multi-layered social engagements train young people to access and absorb a great deal of information quickly.  Refer back to Rugnetta’s rant on zombies.  Ideas are relayed via video, text, audio, and image simultaneously, resulting in a thought-collage rather than a one-dimensional point.  The advantage of such a system is readily apparent though still undervalued and certainly underserved.

As a literature professor, I can surely appreciate the importance of concentration and deep reading.  However, as a pop-culture teacher, I can also value stimulation and multiplicity.  Reaching students and providing a meaningful education means not choosing one over the other, but rather utilizing both, and in so doing engendering a learning environment everyone can benefit –regardless of generation.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

No Man is an Island

What a strange profession teaching is!  Though we pass our coworkers in the hall, eat with them at lunch, sit beside them at meetings and share supplies, joys and fears, our labor itself is solitary.  In five years of teaching at Yavapai, I’ve had only two colleagues in my classroom.  We’re accustomed to this                      
independence, some of us even celebrate it, but it’s certainly not the norm.  The bricklayer can view his buddy’s growing wall, the lawyer her opponent, the doctor his office partner –their techniques, feats, and foibles are all quite public to the profession. This is not the case with teaching.  Students filter in and out, but our peers do not.  At work, perhaps only the author is more isolated in her practice. 

The result of this is a sort of Galapagos evolution: over the years we adapt and improve but only within a very narrowly defined, self-determined ecosystem.  Yes, occasionally diversity washes up on our shores in the form of conferences, Academe articles, and 9x9x25 Challenges, but, for the most part, our pedagogy plays out in isolation.  This can create didactic dodos –creatures perfectly suited for their own environment but incapable of adapting to new challenges.  In a century thus far defined by ever-evolving technology, increased governmental attention, and administrative pressures, an inability to react and alter course may ultimately prove a genetic dead-end.   

So what’s the answer?  In a career that lends itself to professional sequestration, how do we promote  sustainable adaptation?  Easy.  We just need to introduce a little hybrid vigor.  Now, before you get all hot and bothered, realize that, for us, this means watching other teachers at work.  We need to get into their classrooms, attend their lectures, take their quizzes, complete their assignments, and then shamelessly incorporate anything of value into our own instruction. 

At some colleges this method of career development is institutionalized, but more often teachers have to seek it out on their own.  So let’s do more of that here at Yavapai.  Open your classroom to a colleague.  Take a course from a friend.  Join a MOOC.  Do anything collaborative –just don’t be a didactic dodo.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Don't Monkey with Success

A few weeks ago I did this:

For those of you not versed in my particular brand of poor penmanship, the angry calligraphy at the bottom of this sheet reads: "Don't do this Again -Move back to Discussion Board!!"  This fit of pique was inspired by my online world literature course and its use of Voicethread.  What once was revolutionary (well, for little ol' YC) and progressive, had, over the past few years, grown stale and burdensome.

Voicethread, which allows students to engage in online discussions using voice and video, is seldom welcomed with open arms by new students.  There are some technical hurdles to jump and the ever-present web browser shenanigans to overcome before students can settle into its use.  I would get emails -not many, but enough.  Sometimes they were mean.  Couple this with the requisite work and logistics required outside of Blackboard's traditional grading system, and my enthusiasm had more than flagged.  Why not simply use the built-in, well-worn discussion board feature?  Most everyone else does it, and the students expect it.  I've previously discussed the advantages of having actual faces in an online course, but it had come to feel as if the benefits no longer outweighed the negatives.

The reason for this is related to the unique workspace of an online instructor.  We sit in front of a computer, technically connected to the entire world, and yet, effectively and most often, alone in a room.  Our interactions with students generally come in the from of emails, and, as is the nature of feedback, its usually from the disgruntled.  The silent and happy majority do not make an appearance.  Thus, we encounter a complaint and then set about our work, which is made more onerous through the use of the exact same gadget the student was ragging on.  In my case, Voicethread.  Because Voicethread does not interact directly with Blackboard's grade book, I have to count and identify discussion posts myself.  A crumpled and ugly spreadsheet (shown above) is my method of choice.  This is time-intensive (20 students x 5 video posts each = 100 short videos per week) and is vulnerable to English instructor math mistakes.  After a couple of years of complaints (which, though few in number, loom large in a vacuum) and hard work (after each semester the posts have to be individually deleted by hand: 100 videos x 12 topics =1,200 total), I had decided to revert back to the simpler days of the discussion board.

However, on a whim, I chose to first include an opinion poll in that week's reading quiz:

"Please state which of the following formats for online class discussion you would prefer and briefly explain why:  A,  the voicethread/guestbook method we are currently using, or B,  the traditional discussion board approach with better organization but no video or audio."

The results were surprising.  Two students said they were ambivalent and one student said she preferred the discussion board.  The entire rest of the class indicated they liked or even loved Voicethread.  Some of the endorsements were less than ringing: "A-because I can state how I feel at the time without having to be grammatically correct."  But others were downright awesome:

  • "I would prefer to keep the method that we are using now which is the voicethread/guestbook. I find it to be more personable. I like to see the other students, as well as listening to their responses. It helps with understanding the material especially when students go into detail about what they read, and how it made them feel. I don't think this can be conveyed through mere writing." 
  • "I went to an online high school. I spent my two years of high school video chatting with teachers and answering questions face to face. Through these two years, I liked the way my classes were set up, I’d do work in writing, and multiple choices, like these quizzes, and then do video chatting like in the Guestbook. In college, I’ve taken the majority of my courses online, each one the same, a discussion board post, with two replies, and that was it. I like the way this class is different, the way it allows students to interact such as they would in discussion board, but this just seems to be more personal, it really gives off a sense of connecting with the other students. I know every week, I think, “Oh, I wonder what Rachel’s going to think.” I like being able to listen to other people’s opinions and compare them to my own. It might’ve been a bit awkward at first, but I got used to it, and I honestly look forward to doing the voice threads. This type of format makes it a bit more fin and a lot more personal, which is something that I like."
Needless to say, despite my angry chicken-scratch above, I will be keeping Voicethread in my course.  The moral here being, don't simply bow to what Blackboard does best, and, before assuming what students do or do not want online, don't be afraid to ask them!