Getting By On Flash Cards, or Why I Stopped Giving Exams

I met with a student over the summer, as she was having trouble making the grade she needed on her Praxis exam.  She had taken it several times already and missed by just a few points each time.  When we were talking about the test, she started talking about all of the preparation she had been doing.  Another professor had loaned her an anthology for a class she didn’t take, and she had gone through the table of contents and biographical/background information and made flash cards.  She had looked at a sample test and made flash cards of any terms/ideas she wasn’t familiar with.  She had even ordered some pre-made flash cards from ETS to see if that would help.

She was clearly working hard, but there’s a trend running through her preparation.  After she laid out all of her preparation (which also included a very well-organized notebook that laid out the different sections of the test), she said, “I’ve always gotten through school with flash cards, and they’re not working now.”  I realized then that we had failed her. Continue reading

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Admitting What’s Wrong

Last week I talked about professors who don’t know that something’s wrong with their classes.  They continue doing what they’re doing without any kind of substantive reflection.  As long as their grades and evaluations are at least fair (though sometimes professors simply blame the students for low scores in both areas), they will keep doing whatever they’ve been doing for the rest of their careers.

I mentioned that I struggle with teaching composition, especially, but I also want to talk about a time that I was very much that professor I mention above.  Not surprisingly, it was my first two years of full-time university teaching.  I had taught part-time before, but I rarely had official evaluations, either from students or supervisors.  I didn’t have enough experience to know if the grades were where they should be, either, or, more importantly, whether students were learning what I wanted (at times, I’m not sure I could have talked about what I wanted with any kind of cogency).

The first year, I simply taught first-year writing, which I’ve already talked about.  I wanted to talk about my literature classes, as the major classes should be where I was the strongest.  I taught a U.S. Literature I and a World Literature II that second year, and they both had their struggles.

One day, my then-girlfriend came to visit me, and she sat in on the U.S. Lit. class.  We were talking about Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  I thought we had a good discussion, starting with how I started every class:  “Any questions to start us out?”  We went from there, meandering through a variety of topics.  Discussion went well, as students always react strongly to that piece by Edwards.  When I asked my girlfriend (who had taught high school) afterwards what she thought, she responded, “The classes didn’t really seem to have a point.”

She was right.  None of my classes really had points.  We simply talked about the reading with no clear goal in mind, ending simply when we ran out of time.  I didn’t have any clear objective in mind for that particular class meeting or any way to connect it to a larger narrative of the class as a whole.

World Lit. was worse.  It was a 75-minute class period that met on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.  Since that freed up my Friday afternoons, I would go see a movie every week.  On Mondays, they students would ask about it, and I would then talk about the movie and what I thought of it.  Such a digression would be fine if it lasted five or ten minutes.  We had ample time to talk about the material, and it could have become a pleasant enough way to begin every class.  If I were clever enough, I could have even tied some of the movies to what we were going to discuss that day.

I didn’t, though.  Instead, I would sometimes spend thirty or more minutes talking about the movie.  The reality is that I was teaching material I was unfamiliar with.  Since I didn’t have clear objectives for class meetings or a larger narrative for the class or even enough initiative to do the work needed to prepare for a 75-minute discussion on the work or works we were discussing, I needed something to fill the time, and I used the movies I watched.

Worse yet, I assigned a 15-20 page paper to this class, mainly because I had heard from a student (an English major, no less) that the longest paper he had written in his time at our university was a 10-page autobiography in the Intro. to College course.  I wanted to rectify that problem, so I made sure these students didn’t have that experience.  However, I gave them no real guidance on writing these papers, the longest of their careers.  Not surprisingly, many of them began to fall apart at the 10 or 12 page mark.

One would think that I was savaged in my evaluations, but they were almost all positive.  Essentially, I got by on my youth and personality.  I was only about a decade older than my students, and I still liked what they liked.  They saw me as just a slightly older version of themselves, so they were more forgiving than they should have been.  I also teach at a school that values extroversion.  Though I am not as extroverted as people believe, I certainly give out that perception in the classroom.

What changed was that I left that job to take a librarian position on the other side of the country.  I was rehired the next year (long story), and I came back with a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.  I actually began working on my pedagogy, not just knowledge of my content area (though I definitely worked on that, as well).  Since then, my classes have improved rather dramatically.  I’ll always have a ways to go, as the blessing and curse of teaching is that we never figure it out.  I’m looking forward to more years of trying, though.

Habit of Mind

From time to time, I get concerned about teaching students to write about literature, especially in core classes.  Writing about short stories or novels or poems is not a skill they’re going to need to get a job at some point, and they will never do it again in their lives (as they complain about math classes).  I’m teaching students who will become nurses and ministers and business owners, as well as psychiatrists and speech pathologists and botanists, and they will never have the need to write an analytical paper about a work of literature.

Of course, one could make the same argument about reading literature, which helps explain K-12 schools’ push toward reading nonfiction.  However, most people can easily see a transfer that occurs in skills from reading literature to reading anything.  Reading literature makes people improve at reading, in general, as it slows them down and makes them look past a surface level of reading.  Writing about literature doesn’t have that obvious transfer, so I become a bit bothered when I feel I’m not helping students learn skills that will help them in college and in life. Continue reading

The Anxiety of Influence

Some of you might be familiar with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence from 1973.  Essentially, Bloom argues that poets begin their writing by imitating poets that have come before them, yet they are trying not to imitate, of course.  They want to create original work, so this influence creates a good deal of anxiety.  Ultimately, the poet must break away from that influence to become great.

I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to professors and students’ writing (and thinking) lately, mainly because of a couple of students I taught this semester.  They both have a good deal of ability and are some of the best thinkers in their respective classes.  However, their writing (and thinking) is limited because of the influence of one particular professor.

In one case, the student had a professor who had a few clear rules about writing, and she imposed those rules mercilessly.  First, she told the students that, if they used a quote, they had to talk about it for at least two pages.  Not surprisingly, when I assigned this student various papers, she was hesitant to use quotes.  If she used even a handful of them, her paper would quickly approach the double digits.  I was trying to get the student to see that she needed more evidence to support her argument, but she resisted almost all of my suggestions because of this one rule.

Her professor also insisted that they avoid the intentional fallacy (this is where critics try to impose what they believe the author’s intentions are onto their reading–for example, I might argue that Kurt Vonnegut wanted readers to see how awful the Dresden bombing was).  In this case, the student essentially refused to say the author’s name, always writing that the text illustrates an idea.  While I can agree with such an approach, the student’s blind devotion to this idea kept her from seeing anything else.  When we were talking about grammar one day, and I had given them a short paragraph to edit, she couldn’t see the grammatical mistakes, as she kept wanting to comment on the intentional fallacies she saw everywhere.  As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail.

[Quick side note:  I find it interesting that her professor (she was at another university, by the way) is an odd combination of New Criticism (intentional fallacy) and maybe Reader Response (lack of quotes).]

Another student was also clearly influenced by a professor, this time regarding ideas.  No matter what she wrote about, she essentially gave a reading of the work based on what this professor had said about it in the past.  If her professor had not discussed whatever we were talking about that day, she would still draw on that professor’s ideas or works that they had discussed in that professor’s class.  I had to push her, in fact, not to use that professor’s reading of a text as a structuring device for her paper.

In this student’s case, she can clearly think well about literature, but she can only read it through the theoretical lenses she’s been given by this professor.  In fact, I wanted to take away any theoretical approach to what we were reading and have her talk about the works completely on her own.  I think she would be able to do it just fine, given her abilities, but she always put the same lens between her and the texts.

Professors are always going to influence students, and that’s a good thing, by and large.  I had a professor who was clearly influential in my development as a writer and thinker.  However, he also pushed me to go beyond what he said and thought to develop ideas of my own.  It took me several years to get to that point, but his pushing helped me.

So, what should a professor do to help students break free from this influence?  First, they should bring in multiple voices to their classes.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  One way I do it is to have students read a variety of critical articles along with some of the longer works we read.  That way, the students aren’t limited to hearing about my particular way of reading a text.  If I give them articles that come from different backgrounds, they’ll hear a few more ways of reading that work.  Second, I do a lot of class discussion, as I want them to hear how their peers read the text, as well, and I especially want them to see where they read it differently than me or them.

Last, in the students’ work, we have to push them to go beyond our reading of a work.  If a student comes to us with a paper where they essentially read the text as we would, we have to push them past that.  It’s too easy to let ego get in the way here and see their reading the text through our eyes as evidence that they are truly learning, but it’s simply a different version of parroting.  We don’t want students to just use one critics’ view of the work, nor should we let them use our way of reading.

Most students will ultimately break free of the influence on their own, especially if they choose to go to graduate school.  We can better prepare them for life, though, if we encourage them to see a wide variety of readings before they even graduate.  They’ll have enough anxiety then, unfortunately.

Dinner With a Former Student

My wife and I had dinner with a former student a few weeks ago, and it was an encouraging dinner.  I like keeping in touch with former students to begin with, mainly because I generally like students when they’re enrolled.  Thus, I enjoy getting to see them mature and seeing where they end up in life.  Of course, I’m interested in what kind of jobs they get and whether or not they have families, but I’m much more interested in what kinds of people they become, both as that relates to the discipline and otherwise.

That’s why this dinner was so encouraging.  When we had finished dinner and were driving out of the restaurant parking lot, my wife commented on the student, “He’s like you.  On crack.”  And he is.  We both enjoy reading contemporary fiction, though for slightly different reasons.  I enjoy it as much, if not more, as a reader than I do as a way to improve my own writing, though I definitely learn from the writers I read.  He is much more interested in his writing, as that’s where his passion is, so he talks about them from that angle.  Thus, I can learn from him, and, I hope, he can still learn from me.

He simply attacks the reading with a passion very few students I have ever taught have.  He will read and re-read books he thinks are great, then he will try to learn as much as he can about the author and how he or she wrote the book.  He’ll watch every interview or conversation with the author he can find, in addition to reading reviews and interviews online.  He does so not because he wants to become smarter in some abstract sense, but because he truly loves what he reads.

On top of that, he talks passionately about his writing, but he also sees it clearly.  He is one of the few former students who has continued writing on a regular basis after graduation.  He is not focused on publishing, as most (including me, at times) are.  Instead, he simply wants to improve.  He writes long drafts, then spends weeks revising to try to get down to what the heart of the story is, then goes back and writes more, exactly what we ask of our student writers.  He asked if he could send me a draft when he gets something that he thinks is worth looking at.  He hasn’t sent me anything yet, and I’m sure it will be weeks still before I see anything, as he will want to make the story better before I see it.

What I’m trying to convey, of course, is that he has passion and enthusiasm for what he reads and what he writes.  He loves what he does, in this regard, and he simply wants to improve.  He talks about wanting to spend his life writing fiction, and I hope he has the opportunity to do so.  As long as he is able to keep this kind of passion, nothing will keep him from doing so.

Making Time for Teaching

A few weeks ago, I was reading Rachel Toor’s article on habits of highly effective writers.  I ran across this quote, an idea I’ve certainly seen before, but which struck me differently this time:  “Perhaps it’s confidence, perhaps it’s Quixote-like delusion, but to be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. If you second-guess at every step, you’ll soon be going backward. A writer I know likes to say that over the years he has ‘trained’ his family not to expect him to show up for certain things, because they know his work comes first. You have to be willing to risk seeming narcissistic and arrogant, even if you don’t like to think of yourself that way. The work takes priority.  And they might hate themselves a little if they slack off. Along with the necessary arrogance and narcissism, a dollop of self-hatred goes a long way toward getting stuff done. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.”

This led me to think about making time for teaching.  I wonder if we would ever (or could ever) think about teaching in the same way.  Now, some would say that we already do, that teaching dominates their lives in a way they find unhealthy.  Their challenge is to balance the demands of teaching with the rest of their lives.  But, note, even in the way that thought is voiced, teaching is not the priority; instead, it is something else in their lives, whatever it is that people want to balance teaching with.

When we talk about writing in the way Toor is, we say that it is such a priority that we will offend those in other areas of our life in order to make room for it.  We will train our families and anyone else in our life to see that writing is the priority, nothing else.  When we talk about teaching, we talk about it as the inevitable in life, and we then try to carve out time for what our real priorities are around that.  Teaching is, in some sense, what we are trying to avoid in order to have time to do the other things in life we really want to do.

I used to talk like this when I was first hired.  I often complained that I didn’t have enough time to write or read for pleasure or watch movies because teaching (really grading and preparing to teach, of course) took up much more of my time than I wanted.  I was constantly unhappy because my real priorities were pushed to the side because of teaching.  When I came back to where I currently teach, I decided to try to switch those and make my focus the classroom.

While I certainly don’t watch as many movies as I once did or read as much for pleasure, I am much more content now.  First, my teaching improved dramatically once it became the focus, as would be expected.  But, most interestingly, my writing production also improved dramatically.  Once I stopped complaining about not having time to write, I simply started using the time I did have (early mornings, usually) to do the writing I wanted to do.  Because I am prepared for class and have finished the grading I need to get done, I have more time for that writing.  Focusing on teaching made me a better (and more productive) writer.

I wonder, though, if it would be arrogant and narcissistic to train our families not to expect us to show up for certain things because we need that time to prepare for a class, read a scholarly article (or three), or simply to think about teaching, as we do with writing.   Or perhaps we already do this.  Anyone who teaches well knows that doing so requires us to say no to certain things and pulls us away from events (and people) we would otherwise like to make time for.

But the difference is in our rhetoric.  We talk about teaching as if it is whatever interferes with our real lives, not as if teaching is our real life.  If we view teaching as an integral part of that real life, we can change our attitudes toward how we spend our time.  That might actually give us more time to do those other things we want to do.

Having Students Think Before Class

This past week, I was sitting with some colleagues eating lunch, and I mentioned the great class discussion one of my classes had just had.  I didn’t tell them this part, but it was so good that I had trouble steering them where I wanted them to go, even though they were still talking about really good ideas.  At one point, a student said something that I definitely didn’t agree with, but I didn’t even need to respond, as several other students did instead.  It felt like a real conversation.

When I mentioned to my peers a couple of the students who had spoken, they were surprised.  It’s clear those students don’t talk in other classes.  I then had to admit that those students didn’t talk without my making them do so.  I didn’t cold call on them, as that has long bothered me.  Instead, I had set them up to have something to say in class, so they could have something prepared to say.

We use Moodle, which is similar to Blackboard and other such course software.  I use it so students can see their grades at any given time, which has cut down on the number of end-of-semester complaints significantly, and I put up some readings there they can’t access any other way.  But in the past few years, I’ve started using the forums to have students comment on reading before coming to class.  I began using them for exercises in a poetry writing course, then transitioned to these comments in a 400-level course.

The demand is not great on students, as they only have to write 150-250 words on what they read for the day, and the burden isn’t heavy on me, either, as I can read through them and score them in about 15 minutes or so the morning of class.  I take notes on a post-it of who said what, and I then use those comments to provoke class discussion.  Sometimes, in the middle of a class, instead of making a point myself, I’ll call on someone who I know said something along the same lines in their post for the day.  Since they’ve already written it, they’re more comfortable sharing their thoughts, and I know what I’m going to get.

I’ve tried other methods for this that didn’t work as well.  In 300-level classes, students write one-page papers every week and a half or so, and I once tried using those to guide class discussion.  I would call on a student and ask him/her to tell what the paper was about, then use that to springboard off of.  When I talked with students a few weeks into the semester, they felt that such an approach constrained discussion rather than encouraged it.  There were other topics they wanted to discuss that didn’t fit with what they had written.  They were right.  I hadn’t known that was the problem, but I did know that discussion did not go well.

Last semester, I tried using note cards, as I was trying to move away from the online system.  My class last fall complained about the amount of time they spent on Moodle, given that several of us in the department were using it.  I had a small class (12 students), so I thought that would be a good time to experiment with the note cards.  They handed them to me at the beginning of class, and I would quickly look through them before we started.  I seldom used them in class discussion because I just didn’t have time to process them in the few minutes before class began.  I need the time Moodle posts give me to think through their comments and organize my thoughts around these new thoughts.

No matter what system one uses, though (some people use freewriting at the beginning of class, for example), having students put something down in writing before coming to class helps them think about the material more deeply than they would otherwise.  Having those thoughts before we walk into class helps make our discussions much richer and deeper.