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I read a lot of books. I like to recommend some of them.

Some may consider this ill-timed because for most the school year is getting underway, but my experience is that the start of the semester is the time when I have the most time and energy to focus on considering my work in a larger context. 

The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh 

I went back to the last time I did a post recommending education-related books, certain that I’d already shared this title, but apparently I didn’t, which is a shame because it’s been out since 2016, so my earlier failure may have prevented some folks from finding this sooner.

My favorite pedagogy books tend to orient around a single big question. In this case, the question is, “What role does emotion play in helping college students learn?” My own experience as a teacher and student has led me to believe the answer (or an answer) is “ a big one,” and Cavanagh a professor and Associate Director for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College illuminates the specifics underneath my suspicion.

I understand the reason why “the science of” shows up in the title of books on pedagogy, and to be sure, Cavanagh shares lots of the research behind the role of emotion in learning, but for me that “science” confirms what we already know to be true, learning is a complicated human activity, and should be treated as such.

Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby

Shalaby, a former elementary school teacher and current education researcher builds the book around four “portraits” of “disruptive” students, and in doing so calls to question the fundamental values of our schools and classrooms, even when those classrooms appeal ideally situated and models for others to follow.

Shalaby shows that being “good” at school isn’t necessarily related to learning or growth, but instead privileges traits “docility” and compliance. Shalaby’s subjects are shown to be “outstanding” in all senses of the word. They are smart, creative, and energetic, but also disruptive and demanding when docility is prized above all. These young people are in need of freedom to explore and express themselves, but are instead treated as problems and often segregated from the group.

In the end, though, this is not just about the troublemakers, but all students and how freedom should and must be the fundamental value informing our schools and classes. It isn’t only the troublemakers who are being harmed by focusing on compliance.

I think this is as true for higher education as it is for the elementary students Shalaby observes.

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia by Kelly J. Baker 

Baker is one of my favorite ex-academic writers/editors/scholars, and in a word, these essays are “fierce,” bubbling with anger without boiling over and hitting the target again and again when identifying the systemic problems of academic hierarchies, particularly in how they work against women and those in contingent positions.

Individually, each essay is a dagger. Cumulatively, they are an indictment of what can only be viewed as a corrupt and rotten system designed to immiserate individuals.

Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle 

This is another book I’m chagrined to find out I haven’t championed earlier.

It is essentially a collection of insights from the most experienced and most knowledgeable scholars and practitioners in the field of writing studies. It is like that old video of “We Are the World,” where Stevie Wonder gives way to Paul Simon who hands it off to Willie Nelson to Michael Jackson to Diana Ross, and oh, even Bob Dylan showed up.

Structured as a kind of encyclopedia or guidebook of short chapters each titled with something we “know,”[1] Naming What We Know is the opposite of prescriptive advice because one of the things we know is that the prescriptive teaching of writing is inherently limiting. In many cases, I realized I did indeed know this thing, but didn’t know I knew it until it was expressed so clearly and so well by an expert.

How great is that feeling?

Collectively, the book provides a kind of geography around which one can orient their practices by thinking about the work in the context of what we know. The same way a physicist should understand the theories that outline their field, teachers of writing should work with these concepts.

I found the book so rich in insight, that it’s best read piecemeal, the same way I’d read a collection of poetry, so each concept gets sufficient time to roll around my head.

How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching by Joshua R. Eyler 

In order to not feel bad for failing to write about this book until long after its release, I’m writing about it before its December 2018 appearance thanks to an early copy courtesy of the publisher, West Virginia University Press.[2]

Eyler directs the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, and he organizes his book around big picture concepts, “curiosity,” “sociality,” “emotion,” “authenticity,” and “failure,” each chapter exploring these concepts in the context of teaching in a higher education classroom, moving from the general to the specific, including thoughts to help the reader reflect on the specific application of this knowledge when working with students.

One thing all these books have in common is their capacity to spur and direct reflection about one’s own teaching practice. Eyler isn’t interested in a “how to,” because his own study of these ideas reveals their complexity. There is no one way to rule them all, and the moment we think we’ve grasped some answers, new questions emerge.

Above all, learning is a process. I found all of these books to be tremendously helpful to my own processing.


[1] Examples: “Writing is a Knowledge-Making Activity,” “Writing Is Not Natural,” “Writing Involves Making Ethical Choices.”

[2] Also in full disclosure, I’m thanked in the acknowledgements along with dozens of others who I think of as a kind of teaching and learning kitchen cabinet on Twitter. I list many of the same names in my thanks in my own forthcoming book.

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