9 Chickweed Lane
During a lecture
We all bring such different things to the departmental table. A wildly popular but not-too-rigorous teacher is essential thing for any department, because her courses entice more majors and satisfy the bean counters. A rigorous and stern teacher who students fear and only take because they have to is another valuable department member, performing an essential weeding function and providing cover for the rest of us. The professor does an adequate-but-perfunctory job in the classroom but cranks out eh grants and publications is a godsend at accreditation time and in raising the profile of your department. The colleague who is not a great teacher and has not published in years but does yeoman’s work in advising students how to graduate on time is solid gold.
These are very different things, and a strong department needs them all. And if you are really, really good at one or two things and proud of that, it is way too easy to disparage and diminish the essential roles played by your colleagues–particularly if it is someone you dislike. You mentally count the number of times you see students waiting outside the door of your colleague who often misses his office hours, forgetting that he also took a van full of undergrads to the national conference the week before.
It is also true that there are colleagues who bring nothing to the departmental table. But in 15 years at two different institutions, I have never worked with such a person. I have had colleagues I disliked, who let me down or blocked me on important projects or otherwise offended. But objectively speaking, they all contributed to the department. There are very very few genuinely negligent colleagues.
Look, no student will ever care about the course as much as you do or evaluate the course in the same way you do. They will not notice your innovative pedagogy, your careful scaffolding of assignments, how you stayed up at night thinking of exactly the right way to teach this or that. They won’t. It’s like asking a dog to appreciate your Prada or Armani outfit. The most you can hope for is that they will decide they like chewing on the shoes.
No matter how stellar the course design is, no matter how pedagogically brilliant the in- or out-of-class assignments are, no matter how well your carrots and sticks are set up to reward or discourage given behaviors, in the end you are still ultimately powerless to make change happen. There is no magic assignment structure, no perfect metaphor (and God knows I’ve tried thousands), no enlightenment-guaranteed koan that will make every student go “Oh! NOW I get it!”
… I don’t mean to say that no student will be motivated by your efforts — you will undoubtedly catch the ones who are really genuinely interested in learning. But it’s important to accept that there is no way to craft a net that will catch 100% of the fish. They are more interested in escaping than you ever could be in catching them.
I will not see the light. I will not.
I expect a single PDF attached in the CMS before midnight and it better be. I shall have my single PDF.
I expect one inch margins, stapling on the lop left, and a 12 point serif font. I shall have my staples, margins, and fonts!
I expect debits on the left and credits on the right, no matter what your mother or therapist told you about free expression. Debits, left. Credits, right. Forever.
I expect a salutation in every email. I expect a student name in every email. I expect proper grammar and standard English. I even expect complete sentences, b!tch that I am.
I expect that deadlines are deadlines. Better to learn that from me than your soon-to-be former boss, the IRS, or the SEC. Or, even the county probate judge or your ex-wife’s alimony lawyer. Deadlines are deadlines.
You will take my standards from my cold dead hands and then they will choke you in return because you didn’t read the part of the instructions warning you about the boobytrapped hands.
I will not see the light because I have a dream.
I have a dream that young adults can learn not only to read and follow instructions but also to solve their own problems. We start with small problems to give them some warm fuzzy feelings, then we move on to progressively more difficult situations. It’s called education and personal growth.
I have a dream that
young adults, despite a myriad of disadvantages and a modicum of easy breaks in life, will rise up and learn to meet and even exceed the standards we set for them and that such young people will eventually look for higher standards to achieve and exceed, far beyond our wildest dreams.
one of the most wonderful parts of our job is that we get to keep starting over fresh. Every semester is a new semester with a chance to do (nearly) everything right this time. Even at an SLAC like mine, student memory is brief, and you can reinvent your class, your pedagogy and yourself as often as you need to. In other words, if you think you made some mistakes or there’s something you need to add to your syllabi, make a note of it, and then remember: next semester everything is new again.
Here’s why I and my composition-teaching colleagues do not let students write arguments about certain topics.
First, let’s remember that I’m talking about first-year students who are learning about argument–about logic, fallacies, good evidence, bad evidence, finding common ground with opponents, refutation, and so on–for the very first time in their lives. The three or four short essays that my students have already written for me are the most writing they have ever done in one semester and perhaps more writing than they did in all of high school. Nearly all of my students enter our community college underprepared for high school, much less first-year college work. Many of these students have never used a library and none of them has used a college library.
In the catalog, the title of the course is Composition I. But it could just as well be called “Basic Introduction to College through Writing.”
I’ll begin with a banned topic that rarely has anything to do with religion: gun control. When I allowed students to write about gun control, those who chose this topic were almost without exception paranoid far-right survivalist/militia fanatics who see New World Order conspiracies everywhere, or the children of such people. It was a self-selecting group: those obsessed with the topic were those who chose to write about it. And to these students, the gun-control argument has two sides: people who love freedom, and people who hate America and want to destroy America and want this to become a land of mindless slaves. A person who wants any sort of gun regulations whatsoever belongs to the second group. A person who’d like to see 30- and 50-round detachable magazine made illegal isn’t merely incorrect; he is an enemy every bit as dangerous as any foreign terrorist.
And to those students, arguments that support regulation of firearms simply don’t exist. Any data used to support arguments for gun regulation are fake–simply made up–or come from some foreign dictatorship where the people are already mindless slaves. It’s not that my no-gun-restrictions students didn’t want to consider other points of view. It’s that they simply denied the legitimacy of those points of view, since the students already knew that such viewpoints are lies concocted by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.
My gun-loving students simply couldn’t do real research or construct even part of a proper argument. I think the term is “epistemic closure.” There’s really not an argument to be made when the choices are Good and Absolute Evil, is there? It’s as pointless as explaining why one should prefer Mister Rogers to Hitler. The inevitable poor grade on the assignment merely proved that colleges are controlled by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.
The same kind of thing happened when I and my colleagues let students write about abortion, same-sex marriage, or prayer in public schools. With those topics, the self-selecting group consisted of religious fanatics. Please note that I am not saying that all religious people are wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. But I live in a part of the country where we have lots and lots of fanatics and more than a few wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. Catch John Hagee’s or Rod Parsley’s act on television sometime. To many of my students, that’s what a real Christian looks like. Pope Francis? Not a Christian. Demonic, in fact. I’ve had to shut down such a diatribe this semester.
For the religious fanatics in Comp I, the argument over abortion has two sides: God’s and Satan’s. It ain’t complicated. They don’t write arguments. They write sermons. Other points of view simply do not exist. My students who wrote about abortion always repeated the usual claims: women who have abortions are more likely to get cancer; women who have abortions kill themselves; women who have abortions become sterile. Giving them evidence to the contrary–science-based evidence from good sources–accomplished nothing. The articles are lies; the data are fraudulent; it’s all the work of pagans or atheists who like to kill babies. There is no need to waste time considering the ideas of people who have already proved that they are demonically evil by having such ideas.
Some of our students have been taught to leave a room when ungodly or demonic talk begins. If, say, a beginning-of-class conversation about a science story in the news drifts into mention of evolution or the Big Bang, a student will quietly pack up his or her books and leave, because he or she has been trained to get out of a room when Satan starts talking. It has happened to me and most of my colleagues.
And as with abortion, so with same-sex marriage, prayer in public schools, and other topics with a religious component. The students who write about them will not, can not, consider ideas other than their own because they already know that those other ideas are quite literally lies from Hell. They don’t write arguments. They refuse to. They write bad sermons. And if they get bad grades, they know that the instructor is on Satan’s side.
Again, please note that I am not claiming that all Christians fit a stereotype or caricature. But I live where the stereotypes and caricatures originated. I live where it’s not hard to find ramshackle little churches–old single-wides, as often as not–on back roads, churches that fly the Confederate battle flag next to and sometimes above a cross, and where men go to worship service with their AR-15s slung over their shoulders.
So I proscribe some topics. I try to make students begin arguments and research papers not with an opinion, but with a question about an important topic about which they know little and about which they know that they know very little. Then they need to show me that they have learned to use the college library well enough to find sound evidence that steered them to a point of view on the topic, and that they have examined the evidence for other points of view, and that they can assemble the products of their research into a logical and coherent whole that meets the requirements of the assignment.
It’s easier to accomplish that by proscribing topics that begin and end with Us or Them, Jesus or Satan, Liberty or Slavery. If it’s a topic that sometimes leads to shouting and screaming, pushing and shoving, fisticuffs, or gun play, then maybe it’s a topic that first-year composition students will not handle well.
Then, once a student has constructed a reasonably good written argument, I can say, “See what you did here? This is what grown-up discussion looks like. This–this way of thinking–is how all of should approach everything we think and believe, because everybody believes at least a few things that just aren’t correct. What you did in this assignment is how we can make sure that the things we believe make sense.” And I repeat the old saw: If you never change your mind, what’s the point of having one?
And then, next semester or next year, my composition students can apply their new knowledge in other courses such as sociology and philosophy, and maybe even re-examine some of their own assumptions. My Comp I class, after all, is not the last one in which students will have to make arguments. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to tackle controversies in other courses. My goal is to help them take the very first step in learning how to tackle a controversial topic.
Here’s a lay article about research that indicates you can change your student perceptions in the first two seconds of the class… and that they’ll have those same perceptions for the rest of the semester.
I went and read a scholarly article by Dr. Nalini Ambady (referenced in the article above).
This article found that 10 and 15 second videos from the first day of class were enough for raters to agree with what was said about the teachers in the student evaluations at the end of the semester.
Here’s what I learned from the article:
Stand up. Sitting down is rated negatively. (Not that I would sit down on the first day of class–unless it were in exhaustion.)
Teacher effectiveness (by what criteria?) was not effected, but teacher evaluations were by:
Though they do note that it needs to be genuine.
(So I’m going to get one of my colleagues to text me jokes 1 minute before the first meeting for each class!)
The highest correlation, as far as I understood the study, was with smiles.
The second strongest was with a touch to the upper torso (so, “I’m Dr. Davis” and poke myself in the chest might work? as long as it isn’t too violent and seems natural. Maybe I need to practice till it becomes natural.)
Other things that look like they make a positive difference:
weak gestures (talking with hands)
have your arms be symmetrical (so gesture with both? or use them the same way?)
walk–don’t stand still–move!
The strongest negative was frowning. Do NOT frown.
The second strongest negative correlation seems to have been with touching your head. Do NOT mess with your hair or ear or anything else above the upper torso. Bad, bad, bad. (Just writing that makes me want to mess with my hair. Going to have to think of it as old politeness rules and stop it.)
That’s the advice I found. I wonder if you can change your nonverbal cues so that they stick all semester or if just having them work the first day are sufficient to shape students’ attitudes for the whole semester.
Going to definitely be looking for some jokes to tell. Maybe I can borrow self-deprecating humor from the Brits and use that joke I sent a colleague to use during the interview process?
The article begins:
Gamification, the use of game-design elements for a non-game purpose, interests me because I do not want my classes to be about the grade. I want my students to stop obsessing over what will please me enough to give them an A and instead focus on exploring and experimenting. Every semester and every class I find myself adding more elements of gamification to my classes because I believe gamification supports learning by motivating and engaging students and it supports writing development. And there is something about gamification that encourages community and collaboration that a traditional grading structure does not.