I’ve recently completed a stint on the English department hiring committee of my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve read hundreds of written applications for positions in our undergraduate institution, and over the 29 years I’ve taught there I’ve seen dozens of those invited to campus to present themselves and what they do.
What we do at Annapolis is a little different than at many undergraduate schools -- a combination of community college with more esoteric studies. We do offer an English major and honors major, but we still primarily exist to teach the required two-semester English writing-and-literature introduction to freshmen, who by and large are bad writers. (Our average verbal SAT scores, for those who still think in these terms, are about 630, with many in the 500s and even 400s.) What we do at that level is basic. Many freshmen (called “plebes” at Annapolis) assure me that “you can say anything you want about a poem” and have never heard of iambic pentameter. They write papers with no clear thesis and full of mistakes ranging from sentence fragments to utterly misused words to verbs that don’t agree with subjects and modifiers so misplaced the reader gets the opposite information of what was intended.
It sounds depressing, but welcome to reality. Still, we are hiring for tenure-track jobs, and all but a very few hires do subsequently get tenure. So our situation is attractive in today’s beyond-abysmal job market -- not to mention the fact that our campus is pretty and our students at least overtly respectful and snappily, if uniformly (get it? -- it’s military!), dressed.
All our candidates write letters and send CVs and writing samples, and a tiny fraction of these arrive to give us presentations that always highlight and explain their “research” in graduate school (or beyond for those out for a few years). This is almost always on the pattern of “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z.”
Some are more clever than others; the most aha-inducing of them pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat. These works show that certain a widely held view is in fact untenable, with the clear subtext of: come to my class and read these works the way I teach them to be led inexorably to this conclusion, too. Well, I always think, that kind of limits the people who will see the world that way, doesn’t it?
These applications and presentations are the more predictable in that the concept X that is applied to A, B and C is chosen from the same short list of thinkers who have dominated English graduate programs for the last 70 years (in case you need to ask: anti-imperialistic, anti-realistic and anti-phallocratic). It’s astonishing to me that the thinkers who were riding high when I first entered this business in the ’70s still hold a death grip on young minds. In all that time, we haven’t gotten beyond the magical pairing of Derrida, who taught us that the world was really a written text taught in a classroom (no prize for saying why this is so attractive to literature professors) and Foucault, who gave marginalized groups a vocabulary for showing how texts had wrought their marginalization (and so how attacks on these texts could, apparently, reverse that situation). It’s all about texts. You are freed by my class: read my dissertation, hire me!
Perhaps it’s my Fulbright time at the Free University of what was then West Berlin that taught me to be suspicious -- from my journeys over the wall to East Berlin and by following its literary life -- of the necessity of giving a sheen of legitimation to everything by quoting from the short list of what the Party viewed as approved thinkers. There in East Germany, it was Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now it’s the cargo cult of Derrida and Foucault, the bringers of the gospel having long since departed.
The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is thus always: Can this person come out of the graduate school bubble enough to deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to? Can she deal with the fact that nobody she’s talking to (except the three people who come to listen to her paper at the Modern Language Association conference) has ever even heard of the people who seemed so important to her for so long?
Some Ph.D.s can, some can’t. Since, to balance the books, research universities rely on graduate assistants teaching undergraduates (as well as on the gypsy scholars post-Ph.D. that most of these graduate students will become), many are, in fact, aware that there is a world of the uninitiated out there and they have to be able to talk to them, too. But to a person, they let loose in their letters and presentations for jobs, talking -- they seem to believe -- to the one set of people who will understand the importance of their “research.” Advice from the MLA often suggests they should, after all.
The word is borrowed from science, as indeed is the pretense of adding to a store of knowledge; this is the basis of their conviction that we should hire someone who has wandered in realms of gold. Their dissertation wasn’t just an intellectual exercise to see if they could stand the slog, it was research adding to knowledge. Of course this is nonsense. What we do in literature graduate programs isn’t research and the result isn’t knowledge.
The nature of real (scientific) research is that it’s reproducible. Other people can run the same combinations and get the same results. And the idea of research assumes that they would want to, because doing so answers a generally shared question. What we’ve found is a fact about the objective world that all are, or should be, interested in.
The point of writing a literature Ph.D. dissertation, however, is to combine idea with example so as to reach a conclusion nobody has ever gotten before and that nobody will ever get again. That’s because followers’ “research” will be on new examples or with other ideas chosen from the short list of party-approved thinkers. (And when they’re out of favor, they’re out! Remember William Empson? The craze for Wallace Stevens?) Nobody tries to apply the same thinkers to the same texts to see if we get the same results. That’s because you showed your originality by achieving surprising results. Now it’s the turn of the new gal to show her originality. Fireworks: one after the other. Pretty, sure.
The notion of research in literary studies is an untenable combination of faith in Romantic genius with a scientific vocabulary. Besides, one of the clever tenets of the party line in almost all English graduate schools is that there is in fact no such thing as objectivity. Nietzsche and then Derrida are supposed to have slain that dragon for all time, and Foucault is held to have shown that facts are a whip the dominant power uses to keep the marginalized in their place. So how is what English Ph.D. students do anything other than simply keeping themselves amused and their universities in low-cost undergraduate teachers?
It’s no wonder then that English graduate programs, lacking any other basis, hold their own meta paraphernalia to be the basis of objectivity. If you write an article that appears in the MLA listings, you are real and have added to the store of knowledge. The paradigm of the humanities is the ultimate imperialism. Esse est percipi (by us), as Bishop Berkeley would have said.We think of ourselves as creators: we have caused things to exist by writing about them for a journal that is indexed. What if nobody reads it? Students are going to work for McKinsey and so by definition don’t care? We rarely ask this question. If those who do merely pat us on the back for our “brilliant insight” or “trenchant analysis”? What is this but a thumbs-up like on Facebook?
Showing what happens when I alone apply arbitrarily chosen X to arbitrarily chosen A, B and C is not research. I grant it’s facts, as a journal of my moods would be facts. But who cares? It doesn’t prove anything. My lawn has many blades of grass; I have only the most cursory knowledge of it. I could study it all; I could devote a lifetime to it. Why not? Just don’t ask others to care.
Let’s say that one day your Ph.D. adviser makes the revolting discovery that poetry in Borneo before 1850 is an “undertheorized” neglected field. Go for it, she says to the hungry graduate student. To me the lawn looks like a lawn, spotty here, lush there. I have no knowledge of which blades go in what direction, if there are patterns, if square inch 22B differs from 22A, or anything. My ignorance, indeed our ignorance, of the specifics of my lawn is abysmal. This is clearly begging for research. And poetry in Borneo before 1850 is also the subject of a dissertation. But only from a specific theoretical viewpoint! Which the candidate then presents to us in Annapolis.
Nobody will ever reproduce this: first, they don’t care about my lawn, and the point of focusing on poetry in Borneo in 1850 from this one point of view was that others weren’t doing so. Second, the larger issue applicable to others isn’t clear, and third, because the lawn changes and the viewer is a particular one, the research can’t be reproduced. Nobody will ever check the results of either my studies on my lawn or Bornean poetry because they were my personal views of a manifold that nobody else cares about -- one with no connection to the world except the fact that this grass too exists, or that we can place Borneo on an objective time/space grid.
We in the humanities have an erroneous view of science if we believe that what we do is scientific. Most fundamentally of all, nobody cares. Not true in science. Science may be objective, but it too has the subjective basis that others have to care. Certain projects get funded for specific reasons because they seem useful, now or later. There is just too much knowledge in the world to go after it all.
There has to be a reason for scientific investigation -- and for research in the humanities too. It’s high time we started looking for the reasons. And they have to go beyond getting us a Ph.D., a job or tenure. Nobody but us cares about that, just as nobody but me cares about my lawn or what I say about the blades of grass that constitute it.
Remember that when you apply for a job: nobody but you (OK, never say nobody) cares about your research. The question is, can you deal with sleepy students? Do you know what the point is of dragging them through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison? The skill set required for enlivening a classroom is something else entirely. You have to know why you bother. And they don’t teach that in graduate schools.
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. His numerous books and shorter pieces are listed at www.brucefleming.net.
I am four months away from completing my 200-hour registered yoga teacher certification. As part of that certification, I am required to complete a 10-hour yoga teaching practicum. No big deal right? I’ve been teaching college success strategies to undergraduates for a decade. What could I possibly have to learn about teaching? A lot, apparently.
I took my first yoga class when I was eight years old. I was a competitive swimmer and my very intense coach thought that learning yoga would make us swim faster. I’ve been practicing on and off since then and developed a near-daily practice in the past couple of years. Yoga is a part of who I am.
As higher educators, teaching and learning are part of who we are. We forget that this isn’t true for everyone else, including our students. Learning may be something they do, not something they are.
As I teach my practicum courses, I ask my students if they’ve ever done yoga before. Some say that it’s their first class. I try to remember this as I introduce poses. I can’t just tell them to enter Warrior II; I have to show them exactly how to get there. Throughout my yoga classes, I return to the idea of beginner’s mind, remembering how to teach by first forgetting what I know.
Our students need and want us to be seasoned experts who live and breathe education, but they also need and want us to remember what it’s like not to be.
When I planned my first yoga class, I amply sprinkled child’s pose into my sequence. Child’s pose is a resting pose, where you begin on your hands and knees and then release your bottom onto your heels, stretching your arms forward and lowering your head to the ground. It’s one of those poses that I never want to come out of, so I figured it would be a great fit for a gentle yoga class filled with beginners.
I was wrong.
Child’s pose is a great pose for me. What I learned within two seconds of introducing it to my students is that for certain body types, this pose is incredibly challenging. There went that plan. I moved my students out of the pose and offered them another option for rest.
One of the most important things I’m learning in my yoga instruction is that no two bodies are alike and that similarities on the outside can mask differences on the inside. Rounder bodies might find poses where body parts are tightly pressed against one another (e.g. child’s pose) to be very challenging, while straighter bodies might find these poses to be restful. Some knees bend more deeply. Some shoulders are tighter. Some hips flex too much, others not enough. My job as a yoga teacher is to help my students journey into their own bodies and to respect their unique anatomical structure. Yes, all knees serve the same purposes: to enable us to bend down, straighten up, and to walk or run. But within these overarching purposes, there are billions of knees with their own individual knee stories.
Are brains any different? Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that our most important job as teachers is to help students journey into their own minds to understand how they learn best. Remembering that this will be an intensely personal experience with infinite variation can help us do a better job serving as a guide on these journeys.
Off the Mat
Before last week’s class, one of my students told me that she’d started doing some of the yoga poses she’d learned with her children. Another woman told me that she’d taught her mother cat/cow pose. One student shared that she’d been practicing some of the chair poses we’ve learned at her desk while at work.
I didn’t know how good it would feel to hear how my students are taking our yoga classes off the mat and into the world.
Isn’t this what learning is all about? What good is it if our students can correctly answer our test questions if they can’t apply what they’ve learned outside the classroom? Whether this application is with their hands, their minds or both, I want my students to carry their learning experiences with them when they leave, rather than leaving their learning at the door on the way out.
Higher education can and must do a better job of making learning move. Too often it remains static, stuck within the walls or shells of our land-based or online classrooms. Are your students thinking about, writing about or using what they’ve learned in your course in other courses, at work or in their personal lives? If not, what’s the point?
Where do I end and where do my students begin? Am I too soft? Do I serve them better by saying yes or no? I’ve been asking myself these questions for 10 years. I am, and always have been, a professor who believes in going the extra mile to help my students succeed. I am encouraging, flexible and supportive. But do I sometimes go too far? When it feels like I’m working harder for their success than they are, that’s usually a sign that I need to take a step back.
When teaching a physical practice, the recognition that we cannot do the work for someone else becomes even more apparent. I can show you this challenging pose. I can offer you modifications that might be better suited to your fitness level or body type. I can suggest that you move your foot to the left. Some instructors will even use hands-on assists. But no matter what we do as yoga instructors, we cannot enter the pose for our students. That experience is theirs and theirs alone.
What I’ve also come to realize is that sometimes not feeling settled in a pose can be as important as the alternative. Perhaps a student needs to learn to not push herself so hard while another student could challenge himself a bit more. It’s their body, their mat and their yoga. There comes a point when, as teachers, we have to let go.
Yoga teaches us to pour our hearts, minds and souls into our actions, and then to release our attachment to the outcomes. While we have tremendous influence over our students, we do not have control over them. Understanding and accepting this important distinction will serve both our students and us.
There is great challenge, and great honor, in teaching. Ironically, it is a challenge most fully met when we are always ready to learn more about ourselves.
Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.
Last fall, I brought my 1918 Royal manual typewriter into my Communicating Science to the Public class at MIT. I kept a box over the machine and unveiled it at the start of class as though revealing a new car. Oohs and ahs followed. “That’s so cool!” one student declared. Every one of the 18 first-year undergraduates could not take their eyes off the typewriter. Many of them were smiling. It was 9:30 in the morning, and they seemed surprisingly happy, curious and ready to learn.
(What I love most about manual typewriters is that they cannot be turned off. This 1918 Royal has been turned on and ready to write for nearly 100 years.)
I asked the students to get up from their desks to get a closer look at the typewriter. “Go ahead, you can type something if you want,” I said as they circled around the machine. One brave young man stepped forward and typed the word “hello.”
“Wow, this is harder than a computer,” he said while typing. Yep, you’ve got to put some muscle into manual typewriters and really strike down on each key, and if you type too fast the keys get stuck.
Many of the students, I assumed, were wondering why the heck their teacher brought an antique machine into a class where we read and write about the latest scientific and technological advancements. Fortunately, a typewriter can serve as a springboard for kinesthetic learning experiences, and here are two activities that emerged that particular morning.
How Do We Communicate Enthusiasm?
I asked the students to look closely at the keyboard. The familiar QWERTY layout alleviated some of the strangeness of the machine; however, as with all typewriters built before the 1970s, a certain punctuation mark was absent from the keys. I asked the students to identify the missing punctuation. See if you can spot it:
Did you find it?
It’s the exclamation point!
I challenged the students to imagine they were writing an article with this typewriter, and they really wanted to include an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. I asked them to work together as a team and generate as many ways to make an exclamation point as possible.
“How about typing a lowercase ‘l’ and then hit the backspace and then type a period?” one student asked. “Go ahead and try it,” I said. She pressed the keys. Dissatisfied with the outcome of this first attempt, another student made a suggestion: “How about typing a semicolon, then hitting the backspace, then adding an apostrophe?” “Give it a try,” I said. This pattern of trial and error continued for a couple of minutes: a student would approach the typewriter to test her ideas using different combinations of keys as her classmates waited to see whether the plan would work. They chuckled at each other’s efforts. Interestingly, none of them were satisfied with any of the aspiring exclamation points. They wanted the real thing, clean and recognizable, but struggled to create it using the available keys.
We took a break from the typewriter, and I asked them to take out their cell phones. “How could you communicate enthusiasm to someone using your smartphone keyboard?” Answers poured forth: there is an exclamation point readily available, plus many emojis to choose from. “What do you think the keyboard of the future will look like?” I asked. “Entirely emojis!” one student answered.
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once likened an exclamation point at the end of a sentence to a person laughing at his own joke. In other words, the exclamation point implies a forced rather than generative response in an audience. I asked the students, “When it comes to science articles written for the public, rather than putting an exclamation point or emoji at the end of every sentence, how else can we communicate our interest and generate enthusiasm for the topic?” To help ground the class discussion in the reality of our work, students returned to their seats to examine their own article drafts. In small groups, they tried to identify and share instances, if any, in which they communicated excitement through words that might inspire a sense of wonder and enthusiasm in their reader.
Individual Agency in the Daunting Research and Writing Process
Something else happened during the typewriter exercise. After struggling to create a satisfactory exclamation point using the typewriter keys, the students grew quiet. No one touched the typewriter, and the novelty of the exercise seemed to be wearing thin.
“Wait,” said one student. She had noticed a pen next to the typewriter. “Could I just draw an exclamation point?” Interestingly, I had done this exercise twice before in other classes, and no student had ever asked this question, even though I had intentionally placed a pen beside the typewriter each time. “I don’t see why not,” I replied. “Give it a try.” She picked up the pen and drew an exclamation point on the paper. The students laughed, and some even clapped.
When I asked the students to create an exclamation point, they implicitly imposed the false constraint that the only available resource was the typewriter itself. After all, the typewriter seems complete. The machine was built by professionals and seems to have all of the necessary parts to communicate through writing. Yet human agency is still required to operate and maintain the typewriter, and most importantly, to produce writing that impacts an audience. The remarkable student who reached for the pen recognized her own body and mind as resources for problem solving and participation.
The hand-drawn exclamation point led to a discussion of the role of human agency when confronting the challenge of producing original texts as a college student. When I was an undergraduate, I remember reading published journals, magazines and books and thinking, “How can I contribute anything meaningful to this field? Why should I even bother trying to write an essay on this topic when so much has already been written? I’m only a student.”
As novices who are expected to understand and participate in the intellectual territory of experts, students often experience impostor syndrome and may question whether their writing could (or should) be more than a patchwork of citations and paraphrases. I asked the students to try rereading a few of the articles they had read for homework through a new lens -- to identify the writer’s chosen scope, particular use of metaphor, organization of ideas, connections of seemingly unrelated information and instances in which he or she related to the subject through personal experience. That led to a discussion of the rhetorical choices that represent an author’s original perspective and approach to communicating about a range of topics, ranging from the behavior of ants to the formation of black holes.
Why Bring a Typewriter?
To state the obvious: I’m a big fan of typewriters. Although I teach at MIT, I’m a Luddite in my personal life. I enjoy the musicality of writing on a manual typewriter and how it’s always sitting there ready to be used without needing to be plugged in or have its battery charged. The inability to delete, cut and paste text propels me to ignore my inner critic and plow ahead with unpolished thoughts in the early stages of ideation.
I have no doubt that the in-class discussions described above could have occurred without the prop of a 1918 Royal manual typewriter. However, the physical presence of the antique machine launched an out-of-the-ordinary kinesthetic learning experience for students.
Although imperfect and at times unpredictable, the praxis of experiential learning is powerful. In my Communicating Science to the Public class, students could see how excited I was to show them the typewriter, which inspired them to interact with the machine and one another in new ways, to smile and move physically more than they would otherwise in a classroom, and to invest more of themselves in the subsequent discussions.
I’d love to learn from you, readers of Inside Higher Ed, about the physical objects that have catapulted meaningful pedagogical moments in your classroom. Feel free to share in the comment space below.
We can’t always bring our personal hobbies and interests into the classroom, but I think it feels good when we can. As teachers, we model for students how to engage critically with a subject, how to inspire learning, how to interact with others and even how to be excited about something.
Jared David Berezin is a lecturer in comparative media studies/writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Liberal arts education is often thought of in terms of a balance of knowledge across a range of fields and disciplines. Such an approach results, so the story goes, in the well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for the sciences and the humanities, who can work, at turns, with raw data and with subtle hermeneutics, and who understands history as well as the complexities and nuances of the contemporary moment.
This understanding is relatively accurate as a zoomed-out view of how the liberal arts work. But then there are other parts of a liberal arts education. Smaller parts.
David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College graduation speech, talked about some of the more weighty benefits of liberal arts, such as learning to recognize the difference between cultivating awareness and sensitivity, on the one hand, and sliding into the mindless mode of the rat race, on the other. But I’m not talking about this sort of heaviness.
When I think back on my own liberal arts education, I realize that many small things contributed to my overall experience. Those things weren’t necessarily planned in advance nor did they show up on my transcript. But they were absolutely meaningful for me.
For instance, I recall when my English professor drove me up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to hear poet and essayist Gary Snyder read some of his new work. Our little college was about 45 minutes south of the University of Michigan, and we were far less likely to get a speaker like Snyder.
Another English professor, an early modernist, took sympathy on me for my lack of curricular planning. She agreed to do an independent study on Shakespeare and nature so I could satisfy a certain graduation requirement.
Then there was the time a favorite philosophy professor went along with a gaggle of us students to see the film The Matrix when it first hit theaters. We saw the movie and then went to a pub to discuss the film in relation to various readings and class discussions we’d had.
In the spring when the weather turned nice, my Latin professor would take us outside with a big bucket of colorful chalk, and we’d do our translations on sidewalks around the quad, in garish pinks, yellows and blues. That may seem entirely whimsical, but it made some pedagogical sense, too: changing the context of learning to make the lessons stick.
Doubtless, many other small things shaped my education, as well -- but I’m focusing here on the ones that involved my professors. As a professor myself now, I often find myself thinking about all the aspects of the position that go unremunerated but that are also immeasurably part of the job.
This might be a last-minute, unplanned “office hour” with a student that ends up being a walk through the park on my way home. Or it might be helping with a senior thesis, which is a voluntary overload credit in terms of a teaching assignment but which ends up (usually, hopefully) as a student’s capstone experience, reflecting in unpredictable ways the sum total of her or his education thus far. Or it can simply be a coffee or a beer that I buy for a student over an impromptu session of giving life advice or calming near-graduation trepidation.
Such small things add up in at least two ways: they are the uncompensated and incalculable parts of the job, and they are also the things that can result in lifelong memories for students. They are the aspects that can make the whole enterprise seem worth it -- when you actually help someone make a good decision or at least avoid a bad one.
As my own university goes through a prolonged and at times painful financial equilibrium process, dovetailing with a general assessment phase, I am trying to keep all this in mind. I do that both in terms of being aware of the small things I do (and trying not to overextend myself) and in terms of simply remembering that such small things make my position meaningful -- especially during salary freezes or threats of across-the-board cuts.
It is an economic paradox of sorts that the parts of this job that are about uncompensated giving are also those parts that give back -- and that these things might also be the very measures by which we defend this model of education. If we are truly interested in educating the whole person, then we have to be whole people, too -- knowing that this sometimes means delayed gratification and generosity beyond calculation.
Being a professor is still a great job for so many reasons. And a lot of those reasons will always necessarily remain unquantifiable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to be fairly compensated or to try to find ways to recognize much of what we all do.
But it means that we should also acknowledge that many things we do on our campuses (and off) for our students will always fall through the cracks of assessment and reimbursement. Yet they will nevertheless benefit our students in inestimable ways. It’s the small things that count.
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.
Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper posted a message on his college’s website titled “This Is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” in response to a student who was offended during a sermon and feeling victimized. He declared that his university is not a “safe place” and excoriated the student for being self-absorbed and narcissistic. With a tough-love stance, he recommended that the sensitive student consider going elsewhere for his education.
Students in higher education are becoming increasingly vocal and powerful with requests for more sensitivity to their needs. Some professors, viewing their students as thin-skinned, are condemning that trend, and Piper’s voice is but one of many exasperated educators. Earlier this year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” concluding that student requests for trigger warnings and increased protections are a disaster for education and mental health. More even-tempered than Piper’s rant, the article is no less harsh when it comes to castigating students for creating an atmosphere of what the authors call “vindictive protectiveness.”
I agree that shielding students from difficult material and discussion is a mistake. But Piper publicly humiliated a student as a means to remind everyone that higher education must be challenging. I question the need to berate a student for asking for more sensitivity. If we perceive that some of our students are hypersensitive, we should teach them how to gain strength rather than scold them for being weak.
In the recent film Whiplash, J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a music professor who uses drill-sergeant tactics -- including humiliation, intimidation, degradation, physical torture and mind games -- with an aim to push students beyond their comfort zones and force their potential. This professor drives some students to greatness, but the collateral damage includes suicide and violence. Although a work of fiction, Whiplash highlights a real situation: educators have the potential to push vulnerable students over the edge.
Several years ago, I lost one of my students to suicide. I had not known that she was struggling with mental-health issues. The loss was devastating. If she had told me that she required a heightened sensitivity from me in the classroom, I hope I would have been receptive. I hope I would not have castigated her for not being strong enough to handle her problems.
There is not much value in education if students are taught to hate themselves. Removing a student’s self-esteem is not necessary to challenge him or her. Can we, as educators, be positive without coddling? Is it possible to increase a student’s self-worth while simultaneously challenging that student’s comfort zone?
Focusing on Talents
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Piper, Lukianoff and Haidt, is Chris Ulmer, a Florida special education teacher who recently posted a video on his “Special Books by Special Kids” Facebook page showing his distinct way of complimenting his elementary school students before the start of every class. He writes that “instead of focusing on deficits, I focus on talents.” Ulmer reports that, over time, practicing overt positive reinforcement creates better results in his students’ schoolwork. In addition, the positive environment develops support among the students.
Ulmer’s practices for elementary special ed students may not be the answer for higher education, but there is something to be learned from him here. Being positive allows students to accept teaching more readily. Rather than condemning his students for being self-absorbed, Ulmer raises their self-worth before introducing the day’s lesson plan. If he teaches challenging material one day, he has built strength in his students and they are better equipped to handle it.
As a theater professor and stage director, I have adopted similar techniques in my acting classes and play rehearsals. In his 1984 book A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing, William Ball writes that actors (and, by extension here, students) carry with them a “starvation for approbation.” Ball says that we, as mentors, must discipline ourselves to “praise ceaselessly” and to “praise whatever is there.” Since “habitual admiration is not usually a natural tendency,” Ball recommends that we become “purveyors of praise.” If we want the best out of our students, he says that “fear has to be superseded.”
That is not unrealistic, overly optimistic advice. It is a reminder that we tend to overlook the positives because critiquing and criticizing come much more naturally. We must strike a balance. We must work at learning how to recognize the positive stuff in front of us. Pushing a fledgling out of the nest is not the only way to promote strength. Building self-esteem has its merits and should not be ignored.
Whiplash’s Fletcher tells his students, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” I disagree. We are not coddling our students if we compliment, affirm and recognize their strengths.
I am not advocating for trigger warnings or easing up on provocative course work in order to make students’ lives less stressful. But we should look more carefully at those students who are demanding these protections. If a student struggles with personal issues and asks for help, public shaming will not teach the student to cope. It is a cruel world out there. Must we model that cruelty in order to “toughen up” our students?
Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.
The need to “educate for judgment” is as urgent for those of us who teach at universities and professional schools today as it was for Aristotle. Twenty-five years ago, three expert professors at Harvard Business School reminded and guided their colleagues in the professions to do exactly that. C. Roland Christensen, David Garvin and Ann Sweet, the editors of Education for Judgment, rightly noticed that the way we professors teach our students often discourages them from learning how to exercise independent judgment in their scholarship, in their professions, in their lives. The first step in turning this around is for teachers themselves to learn how to reflect on their own practices so that they can encourage their students to exercise judgment, too.
Obvious? Perhaps. But Richard Elmore’s observation in the foreword to the book is not that far off the mark today, noting that “teaching is seldom taken as a subject for serious intellectual discourse in universities.” In fact, most of our students, if they knew, would find this amazing, even troubling: we college teachers have never been taught how to teach, and we generally work in isolation on improving our practice.
If we were lucky, we were teaching assistants in graduate school, placed in charge of smaller discussion sections for the lecture classes given by the famous professors. If we were really lucky, the senior professor gave us some guidance on our pedagogy.
Yet most of us started as college teachers woefully inexperienced and unprepared. Some colleges and universities have recognized that lack of preparation in recent years and have created centers for teaching excellence, offering lectures, workshops and maybe the chance to have your class videotaped. But Education for Judgment signaled a still-missing ingredient needed for learning how to practice our craft wisely: structured ways that those of us who are experts as well as novices can reflect on our ongoing teaching practices.
Outside of academe, this approach is not rocket science. Firefighters routinely do post-incident reviews in the same ways that athletes review videos of the game they just played. Novice public school teachers practice teaching with trained teachers. That’s also how interns and residents learn doctoring. Continuing mentoring and coaching are essential for even expert musicians, singers and athletes.
But when professors start teaching, they are largely isolated in their own classrooms. Worse, with the criteria for tenure traditionally being “publish or perish,” collegial reflection about improving our teaching expertise is not encouraged. Indeed, young faculty members who show a serious concern about their teaching are often warned about “misplaced priorities.”
Many professors would like to improve their expertise in leading discussion classes and lectures so as to foster understanding, deep engagement with the material, curiosity and wonderment, and a passion for lifelong learning. They want especially to foster students’ capacities to exercise the judgment they need to apply their learning to their lives and work. But college and university teachers -- any teachers -- can only develop the judgment that expertise requires the way any expert develops such judgment: by working with mentors, coaches and colleagues to continually reflect on their own practice of teaching.
There is already some coaching of faculty going on. Some colleges and universities (including Swarthmore) assign senior faculty members to mentor young faculty, bring in outside teaching coaches on a paid basis or hold workshops that instruct teachers how to be sensitive to diversity or to teach more effectively. Yet we and some of our colleagues at Swarthmore wanted to go further: to teach faculty to be peer coaches for each other, to combine one-on-one coaching with group reflection, to privilege ongoing observation and coaching over onetime or short-term encounters, and to create a continuous process that could renew and improve the wider culture of pedagogy at the college.
The Faculty Teaching Seminar
Thus, several of us recently set out to identify ways to do just that. We asked ourselves, could we design a structure to foster such learning through reflective practice? Could we figure out a way to learn how to mentor and coach each other -- and then do it at a low cost and in ways that would create a culture of learning about pedagogy across the college?
We decided to make ourselves mutual apprentices -- peer coaches -- observing each other’s classes, reflecting together and practicing again. Instead of the presumption that “teachers teach and students learn,” we flipped the paradigm to “teachers as learners.” What could we learn about the kind of reflective learning we wanted to encourage in students by putting ourselves in the position of learners?
We convinced the college to offer some free food and a token honorarium, and 12 of us (out of 20 applicants) signed up for the ride. The Faculty Teaching Seminar, supported in part by a development grant from the John F. Templeton Foundation and an operating grant from the Aydelotte Foundation, combined peer coaching and observation with tri-weekly faculty seminars.
We faculty members were divided into six pairs, each of which observed classes of our peer coach for the whole academic year -- a minimum of 10 coaching encounters, although many people did more. Every three weeks, the 12 of us would meet for three hours to discuss what we were observing and learning. Among the things we focused on were:
Creating a safe, supportive environment. Almost every faculty member who joined the seminar expressed fears about having another faculty member in their class on a regular basis. Many heads nodded when a senior faculty member laughingly admitted: “As someone afflicted by the impostor syndrome, I had some reservations that I might be found out -- that I wasn’t living up to Swarthmore standards.”
This fear was a central obstacle that had to be overcome. The only way you learn good judgment is from experience, Will Rogers famously said, and most of that experience is the exercise of bad judgment. If trial and error is a necessary condition for such learning, then that meant taking on a demon that plagues collegial relations at most colleges and universities: the continued high-stakes evaluation for promotion and tenure.
We intentionally aimed to create a supportive community of practice. In recruiting the participants, we avoided (with one exception) having people from the same department. We also avoided pairing junior and senior faculty members. We explicitly talked about how to break the culture of evaluation. We worked to keep our discussions confidential.
In two humorous but poignant sessions that senior faculty members first led, we used storytelling to share our worst learning experience as students and our worst teaching experience. “Once those disasters had been publicly aired,” said one faculty member, “we had little to fear from exposure -- and we could all see that moments of failure are an inevitable part of the pedagogical landscape.”
Learning how to coach each other. Being a good teacher does not make someone a good coach of other teachers any more than being a good athlete or musician makes someone a good athletic or musical coach. With the exception of one faculty participant -- the women’s softball coach who provided us with valuable guidance -- few others had much practice coaching, and none had practice coaching other teachers. We recognized that “the coaches themselves must be coached” (with a grateful nod to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach).
We developed a preliminary script to scaffold the pre- and post-conversations each coach had with their peer. We performed a live coaching session with each other in the first seminar to model it and get reactions. Before: What are you aiming at in this course, in this class? What obstacles and challenges will you face? Is there anything you want me to pay attention to? After: What did you think worked well and not so well? I noticed you did such and such -- what made you decide to do that?
Then we tried our hands at observing and coaching. We reported back at subsequent seminars on what worked and what fizzled. Actually learning how to see and listen to what was happening in the classroom was a crucial skill that the participants gained and found important. “Once I learned how to listen actively, I was able to observe the flow of the lecture and identify key moments. The skill of coaching started to focus on, ‘What does he find important, and how can I help him reflect on those issues?’”
Combining reflective practice with skills building. We didn’t need a faculty seminar to know the importance of skills like good listening. Indeed, many of us thought of ourselves as good listeners -- that is, until we did a listening-skills training exercise. We broke into groups of three. Each of us took a turn at being a speaker, a listener, an observer. The listener had to summarize the speaker’s core ideas and feelings. The speaker let the listener know whether he or she had been understood, and if not, they had to try again. The observer then commented on what was happening. We all had to try again: listening was harder than we thought. We all needed more practice and reflection.
We did readings about the traits, skills and techniques of good teachers and coaches. But the central pedagogy was moving in a circle from theory to practice to coaching and mentoring each other -- then re-evaluating the theory or technique and then practicing again. We improved our skills by practicing, observing and questioning each other: When did you ask and when did you tell? What were you thinking when you interrupted that energized conversation? How did you choose whom to call upon today, and why did you allow so and so to talk for so long? That was an interesting learning puzzle you set up in class -- what were you aiming at, and how did you think it up? Let’s discuss some of the tough choices you made when you were grading the last set of papers. What were you balancing?
The synergy between the peer coaching and group seminar discussions became clearer throughout the year. The coaching was vital for improving our teaching. What we observed gave us the grist for an educated dialogue in the seminar on how we learn and teach. And the seminar discussions and exercises fed back into improving our peer coaching and teaching.
Fostering an academic culture that encourages learning about learning should certainly include approaches less labor intensive than our seminar-peer coaching model. Lectures or workshops about teaching methods as well as insider tips can be helpful. But creating a culture that encourages us to continually reflect on and improve our pedagogy -- turning a college into a learning organization -- requires that faculty as well as students find ways to learn from the trial and error of experience. That demands creating a safe, supportive environment where we can observe our teaching practices and learn the skills of reflection, analysis, coaching and mentoring.
We in American higher education can’t just hire brilliant Ph.D.s and expect them to be brilliant teachers. The Faculty Teaching Seminar at Swarthmore is only one approach to help teachers learn the judgment they need to educate their students for judgment. Colleges and universities committed to quality teaching need to explore other ways to institutionalize such reflective practice if the teaching at the heart of a liberal arts education is to be nourished.
Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and co-author with Barry Schwartz of Practical Wisdom (Riverhead Books, 2010). Elizabeth Bolton is a professor of English Literature at Swarthmore and author of Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).