Helping Students Learn

We talk a good deal about how we can better help students learn material or learn how to think or learn whatever it is we think is important (if you’re curious, you can see what I really try to teach here).  We spend our time going to conferences to learn about how students learn or we read articles that give us new teaching techniques (or how to apply techniques we already know in new ways) or we read books about how to better structure our classes.  You get the point.

Now, I’m not disparaging those approaches.  I do spend my time doing those things, and I write about teaching here, often mentioning ideas I’ve gleaned from those resources, so I’m clearly invested in them as ways to improve our teaching.  However, there might be another area that we often overlook when we’re trying to become better teachers.

This past week, over at the Lingua Franca blog (it’s a blog largely about language, but, as you’ll see, if you’re not familiar with it, not solely about language; their thoughts about language are worth your time, as well, by the way) at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anne Curzan shared some quite helpful information.  She and her graduate student asked her undergraduate students to help put together two lists, one gives ten things students can do to promote good learning, the other ten things instructors can do.  The two lists are quite interesting.

First, the student list shows students who want to take responsibility for their learning; they want the opportunity to be involved in creating that learning.  It emphasizes coming to class prepared, participating, asking questions, interacting with others (not just the professor), and getting help when they need it.  For all of the talk about student entitlement, for most students, I’ve found these ideas to be true.  Students might not always know how to do these things, and they might not have the opportunity in a 100-person lecture class where they’re talked at for an hour, but I mostly find them willing to try to act according to this list, when given the chance.

Next, the professor list focuses almost exclusively on classroom environment and relationships with students; teaching techniques don’t get much of a mention (though they’re implied in numbers 8 and 9, which talk about discussion, implying that students would like to have them).  Instead, they talk about respect and getting to know students and showing that we’re human, too.  They want us to treat them like human beings and see us as the same.  As with the student list, I’ve found these ideas to be true, as well.  As I’ve spent more time in teaching and become less concerned with trying to impress students with my knowledge and more interested in hearing what they have to say, my classes tend to be much better.  Students are more engaged, which makes our class time more enjoyable for all of us.

I’m going to continue trying to find ways to improve my classes through reading articles and hearing what other professors have done, and I’ll revamp syllabi and assignments and daily activities, all in an effort to improve my classes.  More than anything, though, I’m going to try to interact with my students, to learn more about them, to get to know them as people who want to learn.  I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.



My Real Student Learning Outcomes

Pretty much anyone involved with higher education knows about Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).  If you teach in the public middle or high school system, you know about state standards.  In both cases, these are essentially descriptions of what students will either know or be able to do once they have finished a particular class.  They can range from something related to content knowledge (Students will be able to recite Pi to 83 places) to a particular skill (Students will be able to add two pages of meaningless writing to a ten page paper without anyone being able to tell).

It’s not difficult to make fun of SLOs, as they’re often terribly specific and, despite the assertions to the contrary, almost impossible to truly measure.  Even when we can measure them, we don’t check in with students a year after the class to see if they can still recall the content knowledge they supposedly learned.  And I’ve read enough papers from students I taught in a first-year writing class to see that, two years later, they’ve completely forgotten to use an actual thesis sentence, despite their having done so for every paper for my class (note that our SLOs don’t measure students’ ability to transfer knowledge/skills to different situations).

Thus, when I’m honest with myself and my students, I admit that I really only have two goals for my students, maybe three, depending on the class I’m teaching. Continue reading

Students as Commodities

We received a number of pieces of good news at a meeting this past week, one of which was about enrollment for the fall.  At a time when schools like ours (very tuition-driven) are struggling to recruit students, our numbers continue to increase at a small, sustainable level.  The downside of that increase is that the numbers of faculty members haven’t kept up, so some of our classes can get rather large.

We’ve made jokes about this issue over the past few weeks, talking about job security and how the lack of classroom spaces large enough to hold those classes is a good problem to have.  Beyond the pedagogical challenges we would normally think of, there’s another, greater problem that comes from the high numbers of students, especially as many of them are first-year students.

Let me tell a story from around a decade ago.  I was teaching a literature survey class that many students take during their sophomore year.  At the time, it was focused exclusively on non-majors, though we now require our English majors to take it, as well.  Earlier in the semester, I was joking with the students about what goes through my mind when students come to drop my class.  They’re often trying to be nice when they do so, and they start explaining why they need to drop the class, insisting that the problem is neither me nor the class.

I told them that I usually cut students off, as I there’s no need for them to apologize to me, in any way.  I said (and say) that I know students have lives we know nothing about and that I’m sure they have a very good reason for dropping it.  I never encourage them to stay in a course, as they have to live with the workload, if they do.  I then said, off-handedly, explaining my thought process:  “It’s one less paper for me to grade.”

Within the next week or so, a student from that class came by to see me, and she needed to drop the class.  As I was signing the paper and handing it back to her, I was saying what I normally say about how I understand they have life issues I don’t know about.  She just chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s one less paper for you to grade, right?”  My guess is that she meant this comment as a joke, as she didn’t sound like she was attacking me, but she still clearly was showing me how that comment sounded.

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we often think of students in this way.  Though we hate for students not to turn in assignments, we often feel relieved when our two composition classes totaling 55 students only has 45 students who turned in their essays for us to grade.  We know 10 of those students will fail the class (or a few will turn them in late), and we might even feel guilty about our relief, but we still feel it.

At our church, we’ve been reading a book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW.  One of the ideas he raises is that our society, with its focus on productivity, has the tendency to turn people into commodities.  Our teaching and grading loads (at least at colleges and universities like mine) often lead us to do the same to students; professors at research universities can do the same, allowing their research to drive their thought process.  We can stop seeing students as individuals and only see them as papers or exams to grade or even interruptions to whatever it is we’re working on in our office.

What’s ironic about this approach is that we professors are often the most vocal critics of administrators who make the university more corporate.  They talk about market share and overheard and retention as if they were the CEO of a company, not the leaders of an institution of higher education.  We professors, though, unthinking commodify students, turning them into a product we put out instead of seeing them as real people with honest struggles and successes.  We view them as papers to grade.

It’s difficult to see past that workload, especially in November and April.  In order to fully teach them, though, we need to see our students as more than exams and papers.  We need to try to remember what it was like when we were eighteen and nineteen years old, away from home for the first time, in wonder and awe at this thing called college, but as scared of our success as of our failures.  I’ve never made that comment again, and I hope I never get to the point where I do so again.

I’m Batman

I was listening to Fresh Air this past week, and Terry Gross was interviewing Julie Klausner, a comedian who writes and directs that show Difficult People.  I’ve never heard of the show or Klausner, but it was an interesting interview.  One question Gross asked was about when Klausner thinks it’s okay to make a joke, about how Klausner makes that decision.  Here’s Klausner’s response:

It’s tough, because I want to be a good guy. … I want to be loved by absolutely everyone, even though it’s shocking to me that I’m loved by anyone — that’s something I discuss at length with my therapist. But the truth of it is that I want to be the person that knows when it’s OK to make fun of someone because they’re more powerful than you, and that’s where I thought I was coming from, and I learned that that is not necessarily how people see it. I have no problem with the insult or the attack. I don’t want to be a bully. I want to be a vigilante, I guess.

I like that ending about being a vigilante, not a bully.  I was thinking about that with teaching as I’ve been in opening meetings as we start a new school year.  It’s especially on my mind as we talk about how we treat LGBTQ students and create safe spaces for a variety of students who don’t fit the norm where I teach.  I heard people are caring and compassionate and want to give everyone the room to find out who they are.  I also heard people who want to use what they see to be the truth to beat other people down, to be bullies, essentially.

I’ve argued rather consistently that the point of literature and teaching literature is subversion.  Literature calls into questions the dominant narratives of its time and our time, and I not only don’t resist those questions, I seek them out and encourage students to do the same.  Essentially, as a teacher, I want to be a vigilante.  I want to speak for those characters and authors and students who aren’t able, for a wide variety of reasons, to speak up for themselves.  I want to speak against the bullies.

One of my colleagues was talking about a professor he had (I think; it might have been a co-worker or a department chair, but I think it was a professor) who said, “You’re not doing your job is twenty percent of your class doesn’t think you’re a son of a bitch.”  I understand the sentiment, in that we should challenge our students, but I don’t agree with the idea that students should perceive me as a son of a bitch.  I can be challenging and supportive at the same, and I should be.  A son of a bitch makes me think of being a bully, someone who exercises his or her power simply because he or she can.

Professors should want their students to succeed, should be on their side, helping them to improve.  We should be vigilantes, going after the power and privilege that keeps students from succeeding.  When students don’t do the work or don’t have the ability to perform at the level we should expect and demand, they should not pass our classes.  That’s justice, though, as it’s simply our allowing students to receive the consequences of their actions or the realities of the world.

Bullies don’t seek justice; they seek to abuse those beneath them, to make them suffer for no good reason, not for a just reason.  They attack the powerless, not those who can defend themselves.  Every year, I take students to the Sigma Tau Delta (English honor society) convention, where students present their critical and creative works.  One year, a student had written a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, using Jacques Derrida’s theories about language.  The professor moderating the session started grilling the student on his understanding of Derrida.  After a few minutes, he must have realized what he was doing and said, “I wrote on my dissertation on Derrida.  I shouldn’t expect you to have that same level of understanding.”  He was on the verge of being a bully before he realized what he was doing.  He didn’t expect the student to rise to the level of an excellent student, at first; he expected the student to be on his level, a level the student had no chance of reading at that point in his academic career.  Thankfully, he caught himself and resolved the situation in a respectful manner.

Those of us who are professors are in positions of power; we have to admit that.  The question, then, becomes whether or not we’ll use that power for good or ill.  We can be bullies and cause our students to fear us and everything we hold dear, or we can be vigilantes, fighting for our students and their learning, teaching them to push back against the power and privilege that pushes them down.  I know which one I’m choosing.

Tackling Tough Topics

The director of our Center for Teaching Excellence recently wrote a blog post about creating safe spaces.  While she definitely didn’t raise such a concern, it’s easy for me to see how someone could take her post and then decide it’s simply easier to shy away from subjects that could lead to conflict.  There’s also the ever-popular complaint that we shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which, for the record, has to be one of the dumbest phrases, linguistically-speaking, ever created).

Thus, the trick is how to talk about challenging issues honestly while creating safe spaces.  Here are a few ideas/approaches that work well for me (there’s also an essay on embracing tension in the August/September issue of The Teaching Professor that’s worth reading).

First, just talking about such issues helps tremendously.  When I talk to students who fall into at least one minority category, their main complaint is that they feel invisible, that no one is talking about issues that matter to them.  Whenever controversial subjects have come up in my classes or on our campus, most students respond simply by saying “I’m just glad we’re talking about this.”  As long as we avoid the issues or avoid talking about them in the complexity we deserve, we continue to propagate this invisibility our students feel. Continue reading

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.

Would You Please Be Quiet, Please

I’m slowly reading through Contemplative Practices in Higher Education by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush.  I wish I could say I’m reading through it slowly because I’m putting into practice what they’re arguing, but it’s really just because the semester has started, and I don’t have time to read for long periods of time any longer.  Still, the fact that I’m forced to read through it slowly is probably a good thing.

I’m still early in the book, but there’s one idea that’s already popped out at me.  When it comes to teaching books at this point in my career, I’m usually happy with just one or two ideas.  I can’t say that I’m convinced with all of their argument or how that might show up in class, and I don’t think people will see significant changes to my classes after I’ve finished the book, but there may be subtle differences.  The one idea I hope to explore is that of silence. Continue reading