Politics and Professors

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about whether or not professors should talk about anything political in their classes.  Not surprisingly, this question has come up from material I’ve been teaching, as there seem to be times it is unavoidable.  Other times, it would seem to be sheer pretense to avoid the political issues that the literature is raising.

First, in U.S. Literature, I teach Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government.”  Even if I only talk about what Thoreau is saying, I’m expressing a political viewpoint.  Granted, I’m talking about his political viewpoint, but, even then, I’m filtering it through my experiences.  I’ve heard everyone on the political spectrum, from Libertarians to raging liberals, use Thoreau as a defense for their approach to our political system.  I don’t know there’s any way I can read that text and talk about it without letting some of my political views slip in to the conversation, even if I try to use examples from across the political spectrum.

In Contemporary Literature, we deal with a whole host of political issues that the literature raises.  We’ve been reading literature that deals with life after September 11, so we talk about terrorism and Islam, which most people would expect.  However, we also talk about how technology affects us and issues of gender and race and class and ethnicity and on and on.  Again, I can try to keep my political views out, but I’m not sure they don’t sneak out, regardless of what I do.

And I’m not sure they shouldn’t, as long as I don’t turn the class into a bully pulpit, where students feel they must agree with me in order to succeed in the class.  Over a decade ago, just before I was leaving my current job (I came back a year later), I did a survey of one of my classes to see what they thought about a particular political issue.  I was trying to understand how they thought about the subject.  One student came to see me, as she wanted to talk more about it.  We talked openly, and I explained to her that I didn’t want to talk about it in class, as I didn’t want to unduly influence students.  I even told her about the approach that many of us do, where we hide our particular viewpoint under the lead-in, “Well, some people argue…”  She responded that students needed to hear what professors thought about complicated issues, especially if they respected those professors.

I’ve thought about that comment for years, as she was a good student whom I respected.  I wonder if we’re so afraid we’ll influence students that we miss out on an opportunity for meaningful conversations about issues that are truly important to them (and us, I hope).  I have felt perfectly comfortable talking about the fact that I don’t own a cell phone because of the effects technology is having on our society, but I’ve avoided more controversial subjects.  I don’t want to offend students in such a way that they will shut down and avoid any kind of discussion.  I also don’t want them to feel my class is nothing more than a place where I’m putting forth a particular political viewpoint.  When a subject comes up naturally, though, it seems we are doing students a disservice not to discuss it.

Thus, when my class was reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative just before the break, we ended class by talking about what the issues of their generation are and will be.  One student pointed out that we certainly haven’t figured out race, even more than 150 years after Douglass, to which I added gender, as well.  She also added sexual orientation to the conversation, especially focusing on transgender issues.  We talked about how the church says one thing and does another, which is the main point of Douglass’s appendix, and I brought up this quote:  “He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,—sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,—leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.”  I admitted that there’s no way I can read that passage today without thinking about same-sex marriage.

Some would accuse me of pushing an agenda, but I wanted to be honest with them about how I read the work.  I often argue that literature that doesn’t have anything to say to today’s world isn’t worth very much.  If that leads to such conversations, I think I’m willing to have them.  I’m still not sure about when I should go that route, and I’ll keep thinking about how to do so, but I’m beginning to believe that we need to have these conversations more rather than less often.


What They’re Up To

A couple of weeks ago, we had a breakfast for our department alumni as part of Homecoming.  This is only the second year we’ve done this, and it has already become one of my favorite events.  The breakfast officially runs for an hour, but I find myself staying on campus talking to former students for much longer than that.  Despite my willingness to spend more time with them, there are still many I cannot find the time to talk to.

Of course, the most heartening part of the event is hearing about alumni doing well.  They come back to talk about jobs they have (many of which they could never have imagined just a few years ago), families they are starting, classes they are teaching, or places they are living that they love.

This year was especially heartening, as I talked to one alum who graduated at the beginning of the economic downturn several years ago.  I had received emails from some of her fellow graduates (but not her) who were angry when they graduated with an English degree and could not find a job that made use of what they had learned.  Almost all of them now have good jobs and good lives, as best I can tell from Facebook (for those who don’t keep in regular touch).

Several other alumni talked along the same lines, as they found jobs that use their skills and interests, but in ways they wouldn’t have expected.  The transition to those positions might have been challenging, as they did not match with any expected career path, but they ultimately have found their new jobs to be fulfilling.

Not surprisingly, though, most of the alumni who come to such events are the ones who are doing well.  The ones I know about who have not found such employment or whose lives have taken unexpected turns that are definitely not positive usually stay at home and don’t keep in touch.  When I did a survey of our alumni a few years ago, in fact, only one person wrote to say that he was currently unemployed, skewing the data in ways one would expect.

I remember a young woman I dated more than a decade ago just after she had graduated from college.  Like some of our alumni, she was angry about where she found herself in life.  She had pursued a major in another liberal arts field, but she was working at a call center for an insurance agency.  Her comment was something along the lines of, “I did what everyone told me to do.  I went to college and majored in something I loved, and look how that turned out.”

I understand that frustration even though my life didn’t take that path.  As professors, we can’t forget that that result does happen, especially right after graduation.  Almost nobody walks off campus into the job they always wanted (though we do have a few of those), and we need to be honest with our current students about that.  It might not comfort them, but at least we’ll be telling them the truth.

We also need to talk about those students further down the line.  That girlfriend has ended up with a good, meaningful job (or at least she was in one the last I heard) and a family.  She seems to be happy, from all I know.  She’s even still using her major, though perhaps not as she might have expected.

Our students can’t see their futures, but we can share glimpses of it with them.  We don’t know which ones will end up where doing what, but we can draw on the years of graduates we know and talk about how they found their way to what they are now doing.  We can try to provide them with a longer-range vision than they might have when they’re in the midst of a job they hate (or the lack of a job at all).  We should not pretend that everything will work out (or that it will do so quickly), but we should tell them the stories of our past students and help our current students write stories for themselves that end well, if not as they expected.

Thoughts on Grading

It’s that time of year where I do even more paper grading than normal.  Not surprisingly, that’s led me to do more thinking about grading over the past few weeks.  I’ve also had a couple of conversations along these lines, both of which raised good questions.

It’s easy, especially during the busy times, to focus on just getting the grading finished.  We tell ourselves that students don’t really read the comments we put on their papers or they don’t take them into consideration the next time they write, so we try to power through them.  In fact, we often think of our comments as little more than a defense of why we’ve given them the grade we did.  We know that at least one student, if not more, will come and talk to us about their grade, so we preempt that as much as we can by giving them numerous comments.

We all also know that’s not the best approach to grading, even if are in the midst of grading just that way.  Instead, what we should be doing is giving students comments that will make them better writers.  We had an alumni breakfast Saturday before last, and I had lots of opportunities to talk to former students (I’ll say more about that next week).  When I was talking to two of them, one of them just asked me point blank, “How do you grade?”  She chuckled and added, “I should know this, of course,” as she had taken several of my classes.  She’s in graduate school now, though, so she’s beginning to think about how she will grade, as well.

I began by telling her that it varies depending on the level of the student, but the more I talked, the more I realized that the core of what I said really didn’t change.  Of course, the expectations of ability changes depending on the level, but there are three core ideas I repeatedly come back to when I’m talking to students.  I always talk about thesis, structure, and evidence.  These three components make up the bulk of any essay (grammar is important, certainly, but I only talk about it when it distracts from the ability to comprehend the students’ ideas).  I once read an essay or book (I’ve forgotten which) that defined academic writing as thesis-driven and evidence-based.  That’s always rung true for me, and it’s driven the way I talk about writing.

First, students have to have some argument to make.  For first-year writing students those arguments are much more rudimentary than what my senior-level students write, but I always come back to the same types of questions for both levels.  I want the students to have a “so what?” that they answer.  They can tell me that Hawthorne uses symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown,” but they also need to convey to me why I should care.  Another way of asking this, which I’ve just begun using this semester, is, “Now that I know what it is you’re telling me, how does it change the way I read the work of literature?”

On top of that, they need a way to hold it all together.  The longer I teach, the more I find myself talking about structure.  Students have a good deal of information or ideas, but they just don’t know how to hold it all together, especially when the paper start moving into the double digits.  Thus, I spend time in class and in conferences talking about how to contain all of those ideas.  Of course, they also need evidence to support their thesis.  I find that students err one of two ways here.  They either use little to no evidence, as if they think quoting the text and critics will weaken their argument, or their paper is almost all evidence, and I have no idea what the student actually has to say (I was the latter kind of student, for the record).

All of this sounds rather mechanical, easy to talk about, in fact, but it is exceedingly difficult to do well, as anyone who has ever tried to write on a regular basis knows.  There is something else behind it all, though, that makes it even more difficult.  I can help a student understand ways to include more evidence or structure an essay, but talking about the thesis is much more problematic (the same is true for talking about how to analyze the evidence the paper does have, but that’s going to relate to thesis if we think of it as a student’s argument).  Problems with the thesis are often not problems with mechanics, but problems with thought.

I had a conversation with a colleague from another department this week, and we were talking about how to convey this issue to students.  We talked about how we see thesis sentences come through that just don’t have any real argument to them (like the one about Hawthorne I mentioned above).  We talk to the student and try to get him or her to understand that there is no argument, but there are times where the student simply cannot think on the level we’re asking him or her to think on.  The other professor and I talked about the frustration we feel at this point, as we simply don’t know how to help the student at this point.

We could give them an argument, but they won’t have learned anything, and they won’t be able to convincingly argue that angle throughout the entire paper, as they don’t really understand it.  Giving them examples helps to a certain point, but, again, they usually end up imitating, not truly understanding.  I find myself using vague language, such as “say more here” or “push your argument further.”  I don’t know if such comments help, but I don’t know what else to say.  I have students read some of their peers’ papers, and we read a number of critical articles, especially in the upper-level courses, as I hope by exposing them to more writers trying to do the same thing, they will ultimately learn how to do it themselves.  Otherwise, I just don’t know how to teach the way of thinking besides modeling it.

In the end, that’s what I want them to learn, more than anything else.  That’s what talking about thesis, structure, and evidence is supposed to help them with.  I want them to learn not just a way of writing, but a way of thinking.  I structure my classes and assignments around that basic premise.  In the end, though, I’m never sure how much one class or one paper helps with that.  I can just keep trying to find ways to make it happen.

Maybe a Pekingese?

I am not a big dog on campus.  I know this, of course, but I am reminded of it occasionally, and that happened this week.  I was leaving the rec center on campus, and the volleyball coach was there setting up for an event.  She wanted to talk to me about one of her players, she said, so she was glad she had run into me.  She started explaining that the player needed to miss my class in order to serve at the event she was setting up, a lunch for breast cancer awareness.  I had no idea what student she could be talking about.

My confusion must have been clear, as she continued explaining, saying that the student had spoken to me, but that I had said she couldn’t miss the class.  I didn’t remember any student talking to me about missing class, so this just deepened my confusion.  She mentioned the student’s name, and I assured her I didn’t have a student by that name, which then confused her.  Finally, she said something about the class being a lab, and I realized what had happened.

There is another professor here with the same last name, and he teaches in the sciences.  Thus, the coach had simply confused the two of us.  I assured her that it happens all of the time.  In fact, I get email about Physical Chemistry on a fairly regular basis, and I simply reply to the student and tell them who they need to contact.  If he gets emails for me, my students have never told me they sent it to him first, and he’s never mentioned it.

It’s easy for me to forget that not everyone around campus knows me, as I’ve been here for thirteen years, and I’ve been pretty visible during that time.  As a smaller, private institution, we don’t have an overwhelming number of faculty, still under 200 I would guess, and we see each other monthly at faculty meetings.  My conversation with the coach was a nice reminder of the relative anonymity, even on a campus as small as ours.

This interaction led me to think about influence on campus, actually.  There are a few people who know me who probably think I have much more influence than I do have, only because I have influence in a few small, very distinct areas.  However, when I need to get something done, I go through the same hoops anyone else does.  Since I talk to people who have real influence, I can see just how different our situations are and, thus, how different our approaches have to be.

What this means, then, is that I have to be much more persistent than those who have real influence across campus.  I have to take one approach, then another, then another.  I find my ways blocked (or my attempts ignored) just like everyone else does, so I have to drop back, look for another way, then go back and try again, possibly with a different person (sometime in a different area of campus).

As with many work places, those of us who work in institutions of higher education have to be dogged (pun intended) to see real change effected.  It doesn’t happen quickly, and it doesn’t happen easily.  It takes people who are willing to just keep coming back to the same idea again and again, to take whatever approach it takes to make things work.  I could talk about politics here, but that’s a separate post in itself.  I’m thinking more about the perseverance it takes more than the maneuvering that always goes on.  Too many people don’t see changes they want because they are unwilling to put in the time to keep coming back to what they want to see done.  I might be a small dog, but I’ll hold on for as long as it takes.


When I was in college, I planned to be a high school English teacher.  Thus, I was required to take a variety of education classes, including what we called Materials and Methods of Teaching English.  Essentially, the course was designed to give students tools that were specifically geared toward teaching English classes, not just toward teaching, in general.  Our professor for that class once said, “Teaching is 50% acting.”

I thought about that this past week when one of my students referred to my class as a stand-up routine (it’s not really true, of course, as I would be awful at stand-up comedy for a whole host of reasons).  Clearly, though, I tell a good number of jokes in class, and many of them are, by my own admission, awful.  I refer to this (and a variety of other behaviors) as my schtick.  A more professional term would be my teaching persona.

Schtick is a Yiddish word that originally meant “piece,” as in a piece of a performance or a piece that was performed, and Jewish comedians who performed in the Catskills would use it to refer to a particular part of their acts or the entire act they were doing.  One comedian might center his entire routine around his nagging wife, and he (and others) would refer to that as his schtick.

Using this term (as well as the 50% acting comment) makes it sound as if I think I am not truly myself in the classroom, that I am doing little more than taking on a role that I play for fifty minutes or so, then go back to being myself.  On one level, this is true.  I am not the same person in the classroom I am outside.  While I do tell jokes outside of class, if I’m having a conversation with my wife or friends, I use very few jokes or even puns, though I do still tell them.

To some extent, we all play roles in our jobs, especially if part of that job involves talking to any remotely large group.  When I lead a meeting in our department, I am different than if I am simply a member of a group that is having a meeting.  Given that I hate meetings, I am usually very focused when leading, as I want to keep the meeting as short as possible.  When I am not leading it, I become more of the comedian, as I know we’re going to be there the entire time (as I’m not in control of getting us out early), so I want to make it at least passably enjoyable (it almost never is).

In the same way, my schtick varies a bit from class to class.  In the first-year writing classes, we don’t really need to cover any particular material, given that the focus is on helping them write better.  Thus, I have more flexibility in how we spend our class time.  I have more freedom for digressions, stories, and jokes.  In upper-division courses, though, where they need knowledge for future classes (or graduate school or teaching or whatever they hope to do), I am more focused on making sure we talk about certain ideas or subjects.  I do still tell a few stories and jokes, though.

However, the schtick I use in class is not really a role I put on.  At the core of it, that persona is still very much me.  I do enjoy telling jokes and making people laugh, and I enjoy laughing with other people.  I love telling stories, so I do that in class, as well.  I simply do all of these things with greater frequency than I would if I were having a conversation with a small group of friends or talking with someone one-on-one.

To be effective, a schtick has to come from who one truly is.  I could never walk into class and put on a role that is not me and expect it to have the same effectiveness that my current approach has.  I have trouble being the stern authoritarian, though I have had to play that role at times (such as when students cheat).  Similarly, I am not a nurturer by nature, so I cannot play that role in class (or outside, as I have to relate to students there in a way that is honest for me, as well).

I know full well not every student responds well to my approach.  Those students who believe they are serious about learning and serious about their grades view my digressions and jokes as a waste of class time.  They are often frustrated with my ineffective use of class time.  I know this because they tell me, either on evaluations or in person (one of the benefits and drawbacks of my approach is that students often feel free to tell me things).  My schtick isn’t designed for them.  In fact, on some level, it’s not for the students at all.  It’s really for me.

While I hope the persona I use in class is one that works well for students, in the end, it has to be something that works for me.  It has to make my teaching of the class feel natural to who I am, even though it is partly adopted for a period of time.  Standing in front of people for close to an hour, talking about writing or literature, is not natural, even for those of us who have been doing it for a couple of decades.  We need a way to do it that makes it feel as natural as possible.  For me, that involves stories and jokes and digressions.  That’s what I do, and I’m schticking to it (I couldn’t resist at least one).