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A Rhodes Scholar compares rowing to his humanities education (essay)

Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.

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Federal Reserve economists say recent college grads are doing better than many believe

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Federal Reserve economists say while recent college graduates struggled during the economic downturn, they did better than most believe.

Hobsons to Buy Analytics Project

Hobsons, a student-success-oriented company, will buy the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework, a nonprofit learning-analytics project that last year was spun off from the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education. The commission began the project in 2011 as a collaboration between six online institutions, which shared data about student learning. Since then it broadened to include on-ground and competency-based institutions. The PAR currently has more than two dozen member institutions, according to Hobsons. The company also recently bought Starfish Retention Services, which uses software to try to boost student retention.

Student activism provides institutions opportunities (essay)

From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.

Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.

The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.

But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.

Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.

All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?

Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.

What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?

We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?

To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.

What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.

What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?

Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.

The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.

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Mizzou Panel Calls for Better Pay for Grad Students

A University of Missouri at Columbia task force is recommending better pay for graduate assistants, increased access to housing and child care for graduate students, and more shared governance, along with other improvements, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The news follows months of turmoil on campus over climate concerns and the news in August that the university was eliminating health insurance subsidies for graduate students because they did not comply with the Affordable Care Act. The health care changes were soon suspended, and a task force on graduate students' concerns picked up the issue.

The task force, formed by Leona Rubin, associate vice chancellor for graduate studies at the request of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin (who has since resigned), looked at three things: quality-of-life issues for graduate students, nonacademic resources and academic experiences. Its newly issued report recommends the university increase minimum stipends for graduate students with 20-hour appointments to $18,000 annually by 2020, whereas some students currently make as little as $14,000, according to the Tribune.

How to help students avoid procrastination (essay)

For many of our students, procrastination is a monster hiding in the closet.

At least once a semester, one of us will receive a last-minute email from a student with a question that, had that student been working on a project in advance, he or she would have asked days before bumping up against the deadline. Or, similarly, we will sometimes receive questions from students an hour before class claiming that the link that we sent for the day’s reading did not work.

These are the telltale signs of students suffering from procrastination syndrome. And it would be easy to say, “Start earlier next time,” and then move on. But as we note the level of anxiety, panic and supercharged emotion that our students express when they come clean about a botched timeline or poor planning, we realize that working through a habit of procrastination is too important a quality-of-life issue for our students to dismiss so easily. As we’ve asked them: Isn’t it better to know what sort of monster is hiding in the closet than to wait for it to come lurching out unexpectedly -- and at the worst possible moment?

It seems to us that the more we understand procrastination and think it through with our students, the more we can help them build lifelong habits that allow them to be successful in our writing classes. Indeed, antiprocrastination habits can also help students manage the many competing priorities in their busy schedules as well as help us all remember what’s really important in life.

The Many Faces of Procrastination

When you get right down to it, procrastination really involves the what-ifs of Murphy’s Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. This should be the main motivator behind procrastination awareness. It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. Don’t put off getting started on a project because it feels like it will be easy to put together. Start assembling resources, outlining, thinking forward and scheduling activities to avoid the unexpected. When a project is due, leave yourself plenty of wiggle room for issues with printing, traffic, parking, finding the drop-off place for paperwork, etc.

A health sciences team that one of us once worked with famously told and retold the story of a National Institutes of Health grant application that was five minutes too late for the FedEx truck. An important project was delayed funding for a whole year because a copy machine ran out of paper and the team had not allotted enough time to the final stages of the job. The more we can help our students realize that these sorts of habits -- being prepared, starting early, problem solving in advance -- can make or break a project, the sooner they can start taking action.

But what about students who have writing or performance anxiety? Such students stand to gain the most from developing antiprocrastination tactics. If they experience the gains that can occur if they start on projects earlier, they will begin to feel their anxiety lessen. If the paper is due in two weeks, they can start right away by analyzing and note taking on the assignment sheet, breaking the assignment down into discrete stages or tasks. That simple act will activate the composing process, launching the task in their minds. Starting earlier on the assignment or task might lead to better time management, including catching any unforeseen time sensitivities well in advance.

Complicating the picture slightly, procrastination does offer some positive possibilities. Sometimes writers need to put a project aside for a later time to let it stew or to allow thinking to mature. And if we teach our students that this approach can be a productive conscious part of their own processes, we can again help them to build more conscientious tactics. People who work hard not to procrastinate develop a good working sense of when to put something off strategically and when to dive into something more forcefully. Sometimes procrastinating on a project might be a sign that we aren’t quite ready to grapple with something about it -- perhaps for good reasons.

Helping Students Develop Procrastination Awareness

Procrastination syndrome is a tough phenomenon to deal with. It can take many subtle and not-so-subtle forms: the student who always seems to have a rough draft, no matter how much time he’s been given to write a paper; the student who always goes missing on the day a draft of a paper is due; the student who just always seems anxious about something.

In line with the context that we’ve offered above, we can take further steps to help students develop strategies to manage and work toward overcoming procrastination:

  • We can discuss with them valid reasons why people procrastinate. If you ask students whether they consider themselves procrastinators, most will say that they are. But then if you ask why they tend to procrastinate, they have to think about it a bit. The beginning of any procrastination-awareness intervention starts with the question of why we procrastinate: because we’re feeling overwhelmed, because we are uncertain about where to start, because we are fearful of failure, because we really would rather not do what we know we have to do.
  • We can start nudging students to think about the different reasons for procrastination and to start to make distinctions between wise waiting and unhelpful delaying.
  • We can share with students our own experiences with procrastination. If we are anxious about writing or performing, we can confess that to students -- many of whom share this anxiety and would appreciate hearing it from an instructor. If we’ve ever lost a significant amount of work due to not saving it in more than once place, students will see that it can happen to anyone. And if we tell students the story of how we arrived late (and embarrassed) to that important interview or conference presentation because we simply did not leave enough time to find what turned out to be a labyrinthine locale, we will be reiterating a lesson applicable to many other circumstances.
  • As teachers of writing and other creative performances, we can try to build antiprocrastination fail-safes into our curriculum. Portfolio assessment systems, for example, offer students the opportunity to experience their writing tasks as works in progress. We can give students opportunities to see just how good a piece of writing can become if they have enough time, space and opportunity to revise multiple drafts of their work throughout the course of a term. The peer pressure involved in working together closely and extensively with a peer writing group can also nudge them to meet deadlines more responsibly.
  • Finally, students can internalize this (almost) procrastination-proof process more deeply if we ask them to write reflectively and critically about what they learned from the process. Most of our students come to realize the benefits of starting early and staying persistent.

Life, Work, Time

So what if students procrastinate? The cream will always rise to the top. The good students will always be more proactive and thoughtful. It’s not really that big of a deal, is it?

Well, it might actually be about as big as a deal can get. In her memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware details her experiences working as a palliative nurse with people in their last three to 12 weeks of life. She discusses the top five regrets, or things they would have done differently, that repeatedly surfaced in all their stories. All of those regrets seem to revolve around important things people kept putting off: not living a life true to themselves and their dreams, not taking time away from work, not sharing their feelings with the people they loved the most, not keeping in touch with friends, and not letting themselves be happy. We always seem to think we will have enough time to get to, start or restart the big deals in life … later.

These quality-of-life questions remind us of Thomas Carlyle’s antiprocrastination exhortation in Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Retailored”). Carlyle proclaims the importance of what he learned from Professor Teufelsdrӧckh about not waiting too long on the most important life choices and actions:

I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even a Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.

(And we might well replace the words “work” in the last sentence with “start.”) If we try, we can perhaps also help our students retailor some of their most pernicious procrastination habits of mind.

But, of course, we must not wait too long in starting to offer our students some of this potentially lifelong good advice.

Steven J. Corbett is a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, and Michelle LaFrance is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the university. They are co-editors (with Teagan Decker) of the collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom (Fountainhead Press, 2014).

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Survey on Competency-Based Education

Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization, recently surveyed faculty, staff and administrators at colleges that offer competency-based credentials. The group found wide agreement on what makes a strong competency-based program. Key elements include clear program competencies, meaningful assessments and learner-centered programs that prepare graduates to enter the workforce.

For example, the survey found that 94 percent of respondents said assessments must give "substantive, meaningful feedback." Respondents also said competency-based programs should be accessible to students from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Turning those goals into reality isn't easy, however. The survey found, for example, that only 69 percent of respondents had fully adopted meaningful assessments.

New study finds that women who are not considered attractive receive lower grades

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Study finds that attractive female students earn higher grades than unattractive female students do. For male students, looks don't seem to matter.

Appeals court upholds U of Hawaii decision to deny student a teaching assignment based on statements on sex and disabilities

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Appeals court rules U of Hawaii was justified in denying student teaching experience to man who was qualified academically but whose statements about adult-child sex and students with disabilities alarmed professors.

Colleges start new academic programs

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