Changing the Culture

There’s one idea I keep encountering in the reading I do about teaching that has been sticking with me.  It’s probably one of the more difficult aspects, of teaching, I think, but also one of the most important.  A variety of writers talk about changing the culture of a classroom (or, really, the classroom) and how to go about doing so.

What they mean by that is that the professor should be intentional about creating the community or culture she wishes to see.  Thus, if she wants a good deal of discussion, she should talk to the students about why discussion is important, then arrange the class in such a way that students are essentially forced (or strongly encouraged, I suppose) into talking.  If she wants to encourage work outside of the classroom, she has to arrange the class in such a way to make that happen and talk to the students about why that work matters.

Most of us simply assume students know why we do what we do, and we hope they’ll go along with what we plan on doing for the class.  Then, when we ask questions and no one responds, we get frustrated with the students (and, sometimes, with teaching, in general).  We expect students to behave the way we would behave (at this point in our lives, I should add, as we were often as bad as or worse than our students, if we’re honest).

For example, I try to encourage discussion in my classes.  When I put students into groups and make people speak randomly, I’m trying to create a culture where everyone knows I expect them to talk and where they feel comfortable doing so.  In some classes, I use posts that they put online the night before/morning of class and call on them to contribute.  At times, these approaches encourage students to speak more freely than they would otherwise.  However, I haven’t done a good job of talking about why I think discussion matters, so I’m not sure I’ve created a culture as much as simply forced students to participate (which is still good, but could be better).

I’ve also begun to wonder about this idea as it relates to a department or university.  How does one, especially a faculty member, change the culture in the wider academic setting.  Unlike our classrooms, where we largely have control and voice, we often don’t when it comes to our departments and beyond.  If one is in a department that doesn’t value teaching, for example (thankfully, not my department), the question of if and how one can change that culture is rather important (at least to someone who values teaching).

Certainly, one can raise the issue again and again, even bringing in examples of good teaching and celebrating it wherever it appears, even if one has no official capacity to do so.  One can also band together with others who want to see the culture changed and work with them to try to change the conversation.  Clearly, such an approach is much more challenging, but just as worthwhile.

In both cases, we need to speak often about what we value and why.  We cannot simply assume that students know why we ask them to do what we do, nor can we assume faculty share our culture, even though we are in the same profession.  If we want to see the classes and departments and universities we want, we need to work intentionally to create them.



The Tyranny of Chronology

Given that our department is doing a program review this year, I’ve been thinking about curriculum a good deal.  That has trickled down into how I think about individual classes.  It dawned on me this week that almost everything we teach, we approach chronologically, even when we don’t have to.  When I say we, I mean that quite literally, as I take the same approach as everyone else I know.

I mentioned this to a class this past week, and a student seemed honestly surprised that I would consider changing a class from a chronological approach.  She pointed out that she had learned how historical events had shaped many works of literature we’ve studied.  That’s certainly good to hear, given that that’s how the class is structured, but what I’m finding is that students only view literature this way (or, at least, initially view literature this way; they sometimes get beyond it).

This realization was reinforced when I started reading rough drafts of papers in two classes this past week.  In both classes, the dominant approach is to set the works in their historical context, then use that to read the works.  Such an approach is certainly valid and worthwhile, but now that I’m seeing that approach dominating, I’m beginning to get worried.  If students are only viewing the literature through one lens, they’re getting a narrow view of literature.

Granted, it’s not like we don’t use other approaches within a chronological setup for a class.  We can talk about gender in Tennessee Williams, though we almost always connect that idea back to how women and sexual minorities were treated in that historical time.  Rather than digging more deeply into sexual identity and politics, we revert back to an historical approach.

This approach leads us to talk about all works from certain time periods in the certain way, to jam literature into boxes where it might not fit.  If someone is writing just after World War I, she must have been influenced by the way to talk about the depravity of humanity, even though she could have been writing that poem because of her Uncle Joe or something she read in Shakespeare or the Bible or a popular magazine of the day.

Writers can be in conversation with writers and thinkers from all generations, and we limit them when we argue that they are only (or at least most importantly) influenced by the historical events of their day.  Just because I write in 2016 doesn’t mean I somehow fit with the other writers of my time, and it certainly doesn’t mean I draw my inspiration from events going on around me.  Sometimes I do, but I often don’t.

As long as we keep teaching our classes using this one method, students will continue to think it is the way we should read literature.  Not surprisingly, at least one of my classes this fall won’t be taught chronologically, and I’m considering changing another.  I’ll be curious to see how that changes how I talk about works I’ve taught before.  I’m looking forward to seeing what we all learn about the literature when it’s in conversation with something other than chronology.

Who Are We Here For?

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we were reflecting on how student-centered our campus is.  We often joke that students have more power than we do, a statement that might not be that much of a joke.  We were talking about a controversial subject, and she said, “I guess we’ll see how student-centered we really are.”

This conversation reminded me of when I worked at a Kroger grocery store in high school.  We had signs on the doors that separated our areas of the store (the loading dock, our break room, and the area where we processed incoming shipments) from the shelves where the customers were.  I saw those signs so often I’ve never forgotten them:  “The Customer is the only reason we’re here.”

On a literal level, that’s true, of course.  If we hadn’t had customers, then we wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.  However, that’s not the way those signs were attended (I hope).  Instead, the conversations management had with us focused on meeting customers’ needs, interpreting the sign to mean that the customer is the end goal of our work, not the bottom line or even our own financial well-being, which is clearly why most, if not all, of us were there.

What I discovered, even as a teenager, though, is that the policies of the store didn’t back that up.  One rather silly example centers around name tags.  I would often get bored at work and try to think up ways to entertain myself.  When I found out that office workers could make us name tags, I decided to have some minor fun with them.  I ended up with three name tags, one that had my real name, two that had fake names: Clyde and Elvis.

The customers greatly enjoyed these name tags.  Even if the customers were not regulars and didn’t know my real name, they often read the names and chuckled, leading to a fun conversation while I was ringing up their groceries.  Management, however, didn’t find these name tags humorous.  Our front end manager pulled me into a hallway off the main area and said that I needed to use one that reflected my real name.  I tried to explain that customers liked them, but she didn’t listen.  Her argument was that the people in the office needed to know who customers were referring to if they called in with a complaint.  I tried to explain that, should a customer call in with a complaint about Clyde or Elvis, it would be easy to see that the complaint was about me, but she wouldn’t hear that line of argument.

Essentially, she was unhappy because I was breaking some unwritten rule, going against the order the company wanted from its employees.  What strikes me as really interesting is that her argument centered around complaints, as if they expected complaints about employees.  One could argue that she was thinking about the customers, and I’m sure she would have framed her argument that way, if pushed; however, I was the one who seemed to be making the customers happy, not her.  Several even complained when I went back to my normal name tag.

In the year when I went up for tenure, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Because it involved people who were working in our department at the time, I needed to publish it under a pen name.  I was proud, though, of having them publish one of my essays (my first one in that particular publication), so I asked my department chair to pass it up the line above her, which she did.  It turns out that the administration didn’t like my essay, mainly one paragraph, the paragraph they quoted back to me when they asked for clarification as they considered my tenure case.  Here’s the paragraph:

“If all goes well this academic year, I will be able to enjoy the long-term benefits of tenure. I look forward to the day when I can turn down a committee appointment that will take up way too much of my time and does not interest me in the least; when I can speak freely in meetings without fear that I’ll be looking for a new job next year; and when I can go for a period of time without feeling the pressure to write something new, and I can actually dig into a long-term project and savor the research process.”

Anybody who knew me then or knows me now will understand that I didn’t mean that I would begin coasting from that point on.  In fact, there is nothing here that says that I will not teach students as well as I had before.  The focus is on the work I will do outside of the classroom, not inside it.

I was asked to respond to the administration’s concerns, which I can, looking back, at least partially understand.  We’ve all seen examples of people who have largely stopped working after tenure, and they were concerned that I would become another one of those professors.  I wrote a letter in response, and my focus was clearly on the students.  I was quite purposeful not to pledge allegiance to the university, but to the students, a focus I still try to maintain.  If I had a copy of the letter, I would quote parts, but, unfortunately, I don’t.

Part of the problem is that I’m anti-institutional by nature, as are many of us in this profession.  Unfortunately, unless we want to begin teaching as Socrates did–which doesn’t offer great pay or any benefits–we need institutional higher education.  However, we can and should work to truly make our colleges and universities student-centered.  That doesn’t mean giving them what they want, but what they need.  That means that we do so even when the administration has other ideas in mind.  I still know where my allegiance lies.

Teaching Them What Lesson?

I had already thought about writing on plagiarism this week when I saw this article by Helen Rubinstein.  Granted, the situation she discusses is much more severe than most of us deal with, but she raises a good question about how we deal with plagiarism, what our goal should be.  I can also identify with the story a bit, as I had a similar experience in my first teaching job.

I taught at a private, boarding high school in Indiana, a place where students attended (or parents made them attend) if they were aiming for the ivy league schools.  In fact, when I once said to a class, “You know, not everyone needs to go to the ivies,” you could see and hear the relief in that room.  One of my junior students plagiarized a paper in an art class that fall semester.  When she was confronted, she responded rather erratically, so they put her on suicide watch.  She had to come and take her final by herself, and, when I asked her how she was doing, she simply responded, “Don’t ask me that question.”

I talked to one of my friends, an intern there, about the guilt I was feeling.  I was one of the ones who was piling on the work and expectations, so I felt partly responsible.  She said that I had nothing to feel guilty about, that I was simply doing my job (for much harsher responses, look at the comments after the article at The Chronicle; it seems people have no compassion whatsoever).  She was right, of course.  I can’t guess how students are going to respond to my giving them a normal load of assignments.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about plagiarism over the past week because I had a student plagiarize a paper in a first-year writing class.  She had already planned to meet with me to see if she needed to withdraw from the class (she was passing, so I wasn’t sure why she was worried, but she was on the borderline), so I told her I would grade her paper before we met.  When I asked her about the change in her writing, she said that she had gone to the Writing Center several times and had her friends read over it to give her feedback.  I then told her I had found it on the internet.

She’s an international student, and she didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of plagiarism, so I made sure she did understand it.  I didn’t do that by turning her in or by failing her, but by explaining why it’s taken so seriously in higher education.  And then I let her write another paper and give it to me the next week.

Some people would say that I let her off way too easy, that I should have punished her to the fullest extent (at our school, that would mean failing the paper and, thus, the class).  I’ve done that in the past, every time I’ve caught someone plagiarizing a paper, actually.  Like many professors, I’ve argued that I’m teaching them a lesson.  The only lesson I think they learn is that they shouldn’t plagiarize or they’ll fail, a lesson I don’t really believe they learn through this approach.

Let me try a comparison.  If you are caught speeding, you hope and hope that the police officer will let you off without a ticket.  If she gives you a ticket, you won’t stop speeding.  You say that you will, but, when you find yourself driving again, especially if you’re late, you’ll speed to get where you need to go.  If she doesn’t give you a ticket, you’re no more or less likely to speed the next time.  The punishment doesn’t change your behavior.  You might argue that plagiarism is more serious than speeding (people don’t lose their job over speeding), but the statistics show that any kind of punishment (see the death penalty, about as serious a punishment as you can get) works the same way.  There’s no real deterrent effect.

Instead, what works is changing a climate, not inflicting punishment.  I need to create a climate where students don’t feel the need to cheat because they can get help from me or elsewhere, and I need to create assignments that are so connected to our class and what we’re doing that there’s no way they can cheat.  I’m not sure what can get me to that point, as I thought I was doing pretty well with both of those, but I’ve had three students plagiarize on the same assignment in the past three semesters (after a few years of no one doing so).  I need to find a way to make that happen.

I will say that there are still times I will punish those who plagiarize papers, as I once did.  I had a student, an English major, turn in a plagiarized paper in a senior-level course.  She, too, was an international student, so she might have had trouble understanding why what she was doing was so serious.  However, she turned in a rough draft, but skipped the peer review.  When I tried to contact her to come and see me about her draft, where I first noticed the plagiarism, she didn’t do so, and she skipped class that week.  I gave her opportunities to avoid the punishment, and she chose to ignore them.  That’s a different situation.

We need to consider each situation individually and understand what our purpose is in our response.  With the student this past week, I wanted her to learn how serious this situation is, but also I wanted her to learn to write a paper analyzing a short story.  She did turn in a paper she wrote on her own, and it showed serious struggle.  However, that struggle is how she’ll learn, if she keeps at it.  It’s not a perfect response, I know, but none are.  It’s the one I can live with for right now, though.