Two Articles

I ran across two articles over the past few weeks that interested me, so I thought I’d talk about both of them in one post.  They’re not really related, save for the fact that they both strike me as rather positive (the first much more than the second).

The first, “The Small but Cool Moments of Faculty Life,” is exactly what the title promises.  Jennifer Burek Pierce goes through a variety of positive experiences those of us who teach get to have, whether that’s seeing their minds at work in their writing or helping a student find a library book.  For those Harry Potter fans, she even quotes Dumbledore:  “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

I like her approach here, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of full-time teaching (and I say that after I spent most of the Friday of Easter break grading papers).  We go from one stack of papers to a committee meeting to writing letters of recommendation, and it often feels like teaching or having meaningful interactions with students is our last priority.  As we move toward the busy time that is April, this essay is a good reminder of why we do what we do and the joys that can be found along the way.

The second, “It’s Not About Hard or Easy Courses,” hits a theme that is near to my heart.  Maryellen Weimer talks about how we often think that a class needs to be difficult to be challenging or meaningful.  She talks about what makes classes difficult is often not the content, but poor instruction (she’s taking apart an argument that says better teaching causes students to learn less, as it makes the course easier).  She also comes back to the core of the matter, which is that we want students to perceive our classes as hard because we’re worried about our reputations.

This essay touches on something I had to learn early in my career (and still have to remind myself of), as most of us do.  If we care about teaching, then we want students and colleagues to see our classes as challenging and meaningful.  However, we often make those two words mean “difficult” or simply “hard,” and they’re not the same at all.  A quiz can be difficult because it’s poorly designed or it covers material the instructor didn’t cover (or cover well); an assignment can be hard because it’s unclear or the requirements keep changing or the students aren’t prepared for it.  While such situations might help students learn to learn on their own, that’s not the kind of learning we’re aiming for.

A class should be challenging because the professor has high standards and refuses to let students slide by with sub-par work.  However, the professor should also make sure that he or she clearly communicates those standards (and that they are clear).  Those standards should be realistic, given the level of the class and of the students.  Most importantly, though, the professor should be working to make sure those students have the preparation to reach those standards.  That doesn’t mean that the professor has simply talked through what they are or given a detailed handout.  Instead, the professor should design the entire class to give students practice with clear instructor feedback.  Good instruction should make the class more challenging, but only because it gives students the support they need to reach a level they didn’t know was possible when they started taking the course.

In my mind, Weimer’s essay is positive because it reminds us that good teaching matters.  Most of us have had those moments where we did push students beyond what they thought possible because we created a challenging, yet supportive, environment.  That’s yet another cool moment, as Pierce would say.  I hope you have many of those to come in the remainder of this academic year.

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What I Learned on a Film Shoot

A few weeks ago, a student asked me to be involved in a short film she and others were making for a senior-level class.  After some negotiations about when I could meet the director, then after that meeting, I agreed to be involved.  It would require me to give up most of a Saturday, learn only a couple of lines (which they actually gave me right before the scene), and drag a chain around for much of the shoot (that chain was much heavier than I expected).

I learned a good deal about movie-making while I was there, as I’d never been at a film shoot before, despite my love of movies.  I have a great deal of respect now for stand-ins, as much of my job was simply standing around while they worked on camera angles, tried different lenses, or waited for the sun to go behind a cloud or a car to pass.  I also have a new respect for film actors and actresses.  While they’re not the ones standing around, they’re expected to come into a scene after sitting for an hour, then get completely into character and perform an emotionally wrought scene.  Then, they have to film that scene multiple times from multiple angles, all while giving the same level of performance.

This blog isn’t about film, though; it’s about education, and I also learned something about education yesterday.  The entire class was there during the filming, and the project is clearly designed to teach them how to make a film.  The only way to make a film, of course, is to make one, so that’s what they were doing.  The professor was there (another character), but he only put himself into the discussions once or twice that I noticed.  Here are some conclusions about teaching (and especially group projects that I learned):

The students were teaching each other much of the time.  Because the professor wasn’t involved in the discussions, the students had to talk matters out among themselves.  I watched them debate which lens would make the best shot and when they should use a different angle.  They didn’t only debate what they should do, though; they also talked about the why.  They went beyond information they had memorized (which lens would provide the most width, for example) to how to apply that information, using the theory they had discussed.

They had been prepared for this project.  It’s not just that the class they’re enrolled in this semester had prepared for them, as it’s mainly about making the film, but that their entire curriculum had led up to their making films.  They’ve had theory classes; they’ve done film criticism; they’ve taken practical classes about the equipment they were using.  They needed all of that preparation, so they didn’t have to spend hours talking about why they were making their choices.  Instead, they would spend minutes talking about those decisions, drawing on everything they already knew.

They had prepared ahead of time.  Granted, students aren’t known for their advance preparation, and I certainly didn’t find out some information until a day or two before filming began, but we did have conversations before I arrived.  I had a copy of the script a couple of weeks before we met to film; I heard from the young woman in charge of wardrobe, and we talked through what I needed to bring.  The producer had a notebook where all of the shots they wanted were laid out in order, and everyone who needed a copy had a copy.  There was not one time that they needed a piece of equipment or a prop, and it wasn’t there.

Everyone had a job to do, and they did it.  On a project like this, if one person doesn’t do his or her job, the entire production can stop or simply fail.  Because everyone’s role is important–whether it’s the young woman who made my leg look bruised or the director of photography–everyone must do what they are required to do.  This responsibility makes all of them responsible and gives them an investment in the project.

They built a sense of community.  The students had to work together to make this film happen.  Not only did they have to rely on each other, but they willingly helped each other.  They sat around and ate pizza together during a break and talked about life, in general.  They have a shared experience to draw from; they (we, of course) have inside jokes (in fact, at lunch, they referenced one from their previous film shoot, and I was the only one who didn’t get it).  I will interact with those students differently now when I see them on campus, and they will interact with each other differently.

Now, I have no idea how to apply this information to my classes.  I don’t typically do group projects, and writing is a much more solitary endeavor.  I also don’t know how the professor grades these films.  I know he’s on set for much of the time, and I’m sure he’s observing the students’ participation, but I don’t know anything beyond that (I’m sure I’ll talk to him about that now that I’ve seen how it works).  I’ll keep thinking about this experience over the next few weeks and see if I can find anything I can use for my classes.

An Important Professor in My Life

Just over a week ago, one of my favorite professors died.  Unfortunately, such news is becoming rather common, given how old I am and how old most of them were when I was a student.  There have been two who died this year and three over the past couple of years.  I want to take some time this week to talk about Dr. Sharp and what I learned from him.

Dr. Sharp was one of those quirky professors we often stereotype on television and in books.  He had several tics that we joked about among us students, but we did so only because we cared for him so much.  He would make random marks on the board when trying to illustrate a point, yet once chastised me for trying to write them down.  When I was taking a Hawthorne/Melville seminar with him one summer, he began talking about some idea, then walked out into the hall, down that hall into his office, then back all while continuing to talk, seemingly unconcerned or unaware that we couldn’t hear half of what he said while he was outside the classroom.

Such mannerisms could lead people to think he was not approachable, as he could come off as rather abrupt or short in his responses.  In fact, my first encounter with him was over the phone.  After I had been accepted into the program, I called to see about summer assistantships.  When I asked him about the possibility of getting one, he simply responded, “We don’t have those.”  He gave no explanation and didn’t ask me any questions.  I was so flustered, I stumbled through my other question about scheduling summer classes, then got off the phone as soon as I could (I didn’t much care to talk on the phone to people I didn’t know, either).

I later learned that the department could find summer assistantships, as Dr. Sharp found a few for some of us the next year.  In fact, he did so because he know that several of us needed the money, so he rummaged around in the budget and made up several assistantships to keep us working.  There wasn’t much work to do around the department, but that wasn’t the point, of course.  He was more concerned about our well-being than he was about the work we were doing.

This is the main thing I learned from him outside the classroom.  He would do anything he could to help students, which is what made him not only a great professor, but a great graduate director (a position he held one of my two years).  Whenever we had questions, we could go to his office, and he would either know the answer or know who to call.  I have too many memories of his picking up the phone and saying, “Mary [or whatever name], this is Ches Sharp.”

In the classroom, he wanted to engage with students, so he created a climate where we felt comfortable talking with him and with one another.  He asked interesting questions, ones he wasn’t sure he had the answer to, but ones he wanted us to explore together.  He was genuinely interested in literature and in us and in that combination, so he wanted to see what would happen when he asked questions of both that literature and his students.

One of my favorite parts of his class was a section on an exam, which I know sounds odd.  He was interested in linguistics as well as literature, so he gave us an identification section.  He would pick a quote or two from the authors we had read, but it would be from a different work than the one would had read.  Thus, if we had read The Scarlet Letter, he would pick a passage from The House of the Seven Gables.  Our job was to identify the author based, not on the content, but on the syntax and diction and any other linguistic clues we could find.  It sounds much more difficult than it is.  It was a different way of talking about literature than I was used to, and I always looked forward to that section, if one can look forward to any part of the exam.

It was outside of class, though, where I really enjoyed interacting with Dr. Sharp.  I would go by his office in the late afternoon when most people had already gone home.  As a professor myself, I now know he was probably still there trying to get some work finished before he went home.  He never made me feel as though he had more important things to do.  Instead, we would talk about applying to doctoral programs or trying to get published or teaching or interacting with students, whatever happened to come up.  He simply enjoyed (or pretended to enjoy) talking about the discipline with interested students.  I wish, as we often do at such times in life, that I could have one more of those conversations.

Another Anecdote About Dr. Sharp

In the fall of my second year of graduate school, I was taking an American Fiction class with Dr. Ches Sharp, the third class I had taken with him in my first year of graduate school. I had come to know him rather well by then, so it was no surprise that he threatened to throw me off the mini-dome, East Tennessee State’s athletic complex, near the beginning of one of our classes. He had good cause, as I had provoked him. He came into class, and he began talking about repetition in courses. He had been talking with someone about the fact that professors assign students the same works of literature throughout their academic career, so the students end up reading The Scarlet Letter several times over the course of a few years instead of being exposed to other works. He argued that this repetition was fine, as students developed over their career, so they saw the works differently at different points, and professors come to those works with different approaches, so the students receive that benefit, as well.

After he finished, I asked, “So, Dr. Sharp, you’re saying that repetition is OK?” He responded that it was, and I immediately asked another question: “So what you’re saying is that it’s OK to do the same things multiple times, but in slightly different ways?” Again, he commented that he was making that argument, and I jumped in again, “So, let me make sure I understand. You’re pointing out that saying the same thing in different ways is perfectly acceptable?” At that point, he realized what I was doing and threatened to throw off the mini-dome. I have repeated similar threats to students who are as annoying as I was.

A Different Way

My wife picks on me whenever we have students over, and the conversation moves from talking about school to talking about other interests, especially movies.  Inevitably, I will ask about some new movie that I want to see, and I will be met with blank stares.  I’ll then ask, “Have you heard of that movie?” and they almost never have (there’s occasionally an exception, some student who really enjoys movies).

I would say I don’t purposefully watch obscure movies, but that’s not completely true.  I do seek out some foreign language films because I want to expose myself to a world beyond Hollywood.  However, I also watch many of the blockbuster movies, like the new Star Wars or many of the superhero movies.  I’m essentially a mutt when it comes to movie interests.

Some might suggest (and my wife is kind of hinting at this in her picking on me) that I should only talk to my students about the movies that they realistically might have seen.  They would explain to me that I should be trying to make connections with my students, to use examples (when I’m mentioning movies in class) that resonate with them.  That’s true to an extent, though I’ve found that the media landscape is so fragmented these days that there’s no way I could find a movie or song or show that even more than half of them have seen (something like Star Wars might be an exception, but I know I have a number of students who didn’t see the new one and haven’t seen any of the previous six films).

However, if I only have the interests my students have or only reference what they already know, they don’t see a different way of living.  If everyone they encounter, including their professors, watch what they watch or read what they read, then they continue to believe everyone in the world lives they way they do, which implies that they think the way they do.  If I show them a different set of interests, then they can see that there are other ways of living, which is part of what college should be about.

Let me quickly add that my way isn’t better; it’s simply different.  I don’t believe they should all stop watching the latest blockbuster or romantic comedy and start watching Norwegian films.  There are benefits to be found in a wide variety of stories.  By showing them something that is different, what I’m hoping to do is give them options to choose from.  They should watch blockbusters because that’s what they really love after they’ve given other types of movies a chance.  If they’ve seen a different way of living, then they can choose from among them.

I’ve been talking about movies because that’s how this idea comes up most frequently, but it applies to anything.  In my teaching, it comes up almost as often with books.  Many of my students come into the English major because they loved reading the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books.  Some of them are fans of the classics, such as Dickens and Fitzgerald and Shakespeare.  As with movies, there’s nothing wrong with reading those books, but I want to show them that there are writers living today who are just as great, then let them choose among them.  If they read Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer or Chimamanda Adichie or Cormac McCarthy, then still choose Shakespeare or Woolf, then they do so because they’ve chosen to do so.

College is partly about exposing students to a wider world, through the curriculum and through their encounters with people who are different than they are.  While we should certainly try to find ways to connect with students, we should also find ways to show them how our lives are different.  More choices mean a broader view of the world, and that’s what education is all about.