Toward A Science of Learning

In travels around the country, I’ve been seeing signs of a trend in higher education that could have profound implications: a growing interest in learning about learning. At colleges and universities that are solidly grounded in a commitment to teaching, groups of creative faculty are mobilizing around learning as a collective, and intriguing, intellectual inquiry.

This trend embraces the advances being made in the cognitive sciences and the study of consciousness. It resides in the fast-moving world of changing information technology and social media. It recognizes and builds upon new pedagogies and evolving theories of multiple ways of knowing and learning. It encompasses but transcends the evolution of new and better measures of student learning outcomes.

As more and more institutions sign on to administer the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, some see the resulting data as sufficient to close the books on the question of student learning, while others see them as no more than a rudimentary beginning. The advent of new instruments reflects in part the desire to unseat the commercial rating systems that wield enormous influence despite their well-known shortcomings and distortions. The new measurement regimes are responding, as well, to demands from accrediting and regulatory agencies for convincing data on "value-added educational outcomes." But educators know that assessing what students have learned is far less valuable than finding out how they learn.

Uri Treisman’s landmark study at Berkeley a quarter century ago validated this proposition. He compared how students of African and Chinese descent learned calculus, used the findings to export successful strategies from one group to the other, and evaluated the results. Richard Light’s studies at Harvard carry on the Treisman tradition.

Efforts to identify fruitful points of intervention in the classroom and in co-curricular offerings are picking up steam, importing into the councils of higher education -- and strengthening -- a line of educational research that had been largely overlooked by faculty and administrators whose disciplinary allegiances were with the liberal arts and sciences, not the study of pedagogical practice. A number of foundations, notably Teagle, Spencer, and Mellon, are funding empirical studies that are uniting these worlds. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been a leading voice in this conversation for many years as, more recently, has the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Faculty at Indiana University have since 1998 been fostering interdisciplinary communities for innovative course-focused research to improve undergraduate learning, and exporting the work through conferences of a growing International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Georgetown’s Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship is hosting cutting-edge events to feed faculty interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, has been exploring the edges of this new field, drawing, for example, on Polanyi’s distinction between "learning about" and "learning to be," activities that take place in iterative cycles ("I get stuck; I need to know more"). "Learning about" involves explicit knowledge, "learning to be" is more tacit: sensing an interesting question, feeling the rightness of an elegant solution. Now we can enable with ease the "socially-constructed understanding" that fuels the cycles of being stuck and learning more through "interactions with others and the world" in this new digital age, he observes.

"Something is in the air," adds Michael Wesch in a YouTube video that has been watched by over three million viewers. He’s standing in an old-fashioned auditorium at Kansas State University and the "something" that all teachers have no choice now but to reckon with is all of human knowledge instantly available to all students through their wi-fi connections. The pioneers on this new frontier are pursuing novel learning technologies that can be harnessed in the service of greater intellectual connection between students and faculty, enhanced student learning, less drudgery, more creativity, more freedom and more joy for students and faculty alike. Clay Christensen warns that if we fail at this task, "disruptive technologies" will do it for us, and eat our lunch.

Where might this lead? If groups of faculty were to think deeply and systematically over a number of years about student learning and student success, they could create for their own institutions and the wider field a more robust evidence-based culture of learning, a “science of improvement,” as groups of medical leaders are advancing for their profession.

An effort like this at one institution would require the gradual creation of highly-intentional learning (not teaching) cultures with explicit cycles of improvement in place throughout the college or university, starting with academic departments and working up from there. The results would be widely discussed by everyone: faculty, students, staff, trustees. Over time, and without much fanfare, they would influence hiring decisions and criteria for promotion and other rewards. Resources would be re-allocated to activities that were demonstrably advancing student learning in the context (not in lieu) of serious disciplinary scholarship.

This work would necessarily be multidisciplinary, iterative, and methodologically inventive and yet tight. It would come over time to define an inquisitive and ambitious learning community. The findings would not be available for use as a punitive club to force accountability to the state or federal government or to other external groups. Pressure for accountability must not be allowed to confound and corrupt the assessment and continuous improvement of learning outcomes.

I know that this essay is loaded with fighting words. But I believe we need, and are now beginning to see, ways to reframe the problem of learning outcomes, ways that might galvanize positive energy and support within a faculty. Imagine “the administration” saying to faculty, in effect: We want you to be learning all you can about who your students are now, how they learn and what they need to know in order to be successful in a world that is changing faster than we can imagine much less anticipate. And we want you to have the resources and collegial connections you will need to make the pursuit of that question an exciting and fruitful complement to your scholarship. From learning science there are stunning advances that need translation before they can be brought successfully into classrooms, findings and possibilities that at least some faculty might find inherently fascinating if they were approached right, offered a supportive culture with meaningful incentives and rewards and scholarly payoffs.

More than a decade ago, at Wellesley, I watched a group of faculty from several liberal arts colleges, with Trinity in the lead, take up the issue of how to close the academic achievement gap, an issue brought to attention by Bill Bowen and Derek Bok in The Shape of the River and one about which faculty cared deeply, an institutional failure they felt keenly as their responsibility. They found allies in their own and other institutions and created an organization (Consortium on High Achievement and Success), a collaborative learning group that invented an emergent process, adjusting as they went. They assembled data; consulted experts they could respect; found local champions in their own institutions and raised up their work; sought out promising strategies in other institutions; listened to their students’ accounts of challenges they were facing and developed student partnerships to address those issues. They pooled knowledge, shared data, assembled resources, designed honest conversations and entered them with inquiring minds. The element that was missing then was systematic research: testing pilot initiatives and developing intervention studies. Without solid research it’s impossible to know what really works. The learning initiative I have in mind would need to build this in from the start. But, first and foremost, it would have to be rooted, as was CHAS, in the belief among a group of faculty that their students could be better served.

I’m convinced that some faculty could become absorbed in a sophisticated intellectual collaboration to learn about learning. Throughout higher education, we fret about unsound expenditures we know are driven by crude rating systems and the fierce competitive dynamic they fuel. We are not going to eliminate competition between institutions of higher learning, even if we wanted to, which we probably don’t. But could we conceivably change the terms of the competition, put learning rather than amenities at the center of the arms race, spend less on making students more and more comfortable at college and more on making them more and more curious?

Now there’s a question worth asking.

Diana Chapman Walsh
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Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.

What Do Students Remember?

At the end of each semester, as I read the last papers and enter the final grades, I wonder: how much of this will students actually remember a year from now — or a week from now? They ought to remember something. In a typical semester we will have spent some 40 hours together. Something must stick. But what is it? Material from the course? Skills they’ve mastered? The time a kid in the back row had his desk collapse right before a test?

A year ago I decided to try to find out. On each of the final exams I have given over the past three semesters I included the following question, worth one point of extra credit: "What one thing from the course did you find most memorable? Explain why."

I received 359 responses altogether from the nine courses I taught, courses that included everything from Western Civ. and European History to the U.S. History Survey, the American Revolution, and the Age of Jackson. While some of the results were predictable, others were surprising, instructive, and, ultimately, encouraging.

Students named something visual as most memorable more often than anything else. Twenty-nine percent cited a specific video or picture. Another 8 percent mentioned material that we covered only or primarily through a documentary. Thus, for more than a third of the students, the class will be associated with an image.

I expected videos and pictures to be popular, and I use a lot of them in my teaching. I showed documentaries such as The Last Stand of the 300, about the Spartans; Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency; and The Nazi Officer’s Wife, about a young Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust in a very unconventional way. I also showed clips from TV shows and movies ranging from Johnny Tremain and HBO’s John Adams to Mad Men and Gladiator to examine how the past has been remembered.

I did worry, though, about the courses lapsing into mere edu-tainment, with the visual elements amusing the audience of students while providing little intellectual substance. My survey results confirm that entertainment explains much of the popularity of the videos and pictures I showed. At the same time, reading between the lines of my students’ responses suggests that they also learned something important. Many of the Western Civ. students who cited The Last Stand of the 300 were struck by how different the Spartans' values were. The brutal training regimen of Spartan boys, in which they were taken from their families at age seven, attracted particular interest. One student wrote, "I couldn’t imagine my son gone not knowing if he would even survive the training [let alone] become a soldier."

Spartan women wouldn’t have wanted the sympathy. It was Spartan mothers, after all, who said to their sons, "Come back with your shield or on it." Several students remarked on the surprising toughness of these women. One student recalled the "Spartan people, especially the women and how they treated their sons and how the happiest moment for them would be when their sons were going into battle." Spartan mothers were not like the students’ moms today. Dropping off their kids at college, no one shouts, "Come back with your diploma or on it" from the family minivan. It's a basic point of history that the past is a foreign country. Students got that message from the documentary. For a survey class full of students who don’t really want to be taking the course, that's a vital point for them to understand.

A surprising number of students did not choose something visual. Some students even said that a book — a book! — was what they remembered most. Twenty-three students, upper-level majors as well as survey students, designated a book as what they best recalled. Seven students in my 20th-Century Europe class named Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about a group of German police conscripts who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, as the most memorable part of the course. Ordinary Men is an extraordinary book, chilling, challenging, and compelling. It's gratifying to see that students responded to it.

As for topics, responses were diverse. In Western Civ. the Spartans were the champs, followed by gladiators and knights. Interestingly, religion was also popular, with 19 students picking a religious topic (one even said Zoroastrianism). In 20th-Century Europe, World War II and the Holocaust were far and away the most popular responses, and rightly so. In my U.S. history classes, Andrew Jackson was the winner. In particular, students were awestruck by his personality. "The guy was crazy but still led our country. I don’t know how he did it but it happened," a typical response read. I suppose I’ll be known as the guy who told wild stories about Jackson.

At the same time, a satisfying number of students mentioned the experience of slaves and how slavery changed over time as what they recalled best. This was a major course theme, with multiple classes devoted to it. Maybe, just maybe, some students will retain the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society.

About 17 percent of students brought up my teaching style, the classroom atmosphere, or some non-lecture activity as what they recollected best. They seemed to have liked me personally, which is always nice to hear. They enjoyed the discussions and debates we had in class. When I was adjuncting in Buffalo, New York, two classes took field trips: one to a local French and Indian War-era fort and another to an on-campus art museum for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad. Students appreciated the hands-on experience and seeing a piece of local history.

Several students wrote about the friendships they had made during the class. "I think the most memorable time I’ve had in this course is just getting to know everyone," wrote one student. Another offered that the class was memorable "for social reasons, the people that I met in the class. It was by far one of the more sociable classes that I’ve been a part of since community college." One student had a slightly different social priority. What did he remember most? "The three girls in the fourth row. Good eye candy." Well, at least he had some reason to come to class!

I would rather they had improved their writing skills, but if part of the reason for attending college is to have the "college experience," then, I suppose, mission accomplished.

Over all, I have taken three things away from my survey experiment. First, visuals work. As the education theorists point out, some people are visual learners and need some kind of image to make information stick in their minds. But visuals do more than help students retain information for the midterm. Some documentaries today are of such high quality, in both production values and scholarship, that they convey important concepts as well. Even popular movies and TV shows, whose quality may be doubtful, are vital in helping students understand how to be critical about the kinds of information they receive every day.

Second, variety makes for memorable experiences. Even as I was flattered by their praise I was struck by how often students named something I didn’t do: the discussions, the field trips, the visuals, their relationships with each other. Many classes are structured with the professor as the center of attention. Stepping out of the spotlight can be a good thing.

Third, students want to learn. Not all of them, of course, and especially not in surveys where student interest is low and disengagement high. It’s easy to become discouraged looking at blank stares and hearing the tap-tap-tap of fast-texting fingers. At the same time, there are interested minds out there — even in large surveys held in cavernous lecture halls. If you are feeling jaded, focus on those students.

The real test of what students remember will come later on. Did they acquire skills that will help them in their careers? Will they find their lives enriched by learning about the past? Thirty years from now, when those 19-year-olds from Western Civ. are attending their own children’s graduations, I hope they can say yes. And if they can remember some video, some book, some discussion — and recall why it mattered — then I’ll be very happy indeed.

David Head
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David Head is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida.

Humans and the Humanites

An Instructor’s View – Andrew D. Kaufman

From the moment the guard at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center escorted my students and me into the multi-purpose room, where a group of incarcerated adolescents, aged 16-20, in maroon jumpsuits awaited us, we knew that this was not going to be Russian literature class as usual.

To begin with, I wasn’t doing the teaching. My students were.

And by teaching I don’t mean guiding these residents through brilliant analyses of narrative strategies in Dostoevsky, or how mimetic desire works in Tolstoy. No, students in this academic community engagement course, “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership,” piloted in 2009, have a different task: to promote authentic conversation about major life questions raised by short classics of Russian literature: What makes for a “successful” life? How I can be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?

These are the sorts of questions, of course, that many academic humanists these days consider to be too personal, quaint, or irrelevant to take seriously in their classrooms, let alone their scholarship. Over 20 years ago, in 1988, a National Endowment for the Humanities report was already sounding an alarm that the humanities were veering away from pursuing questions of human purpose and meaning in favor of mind-numbing abstraction and captious analytical exercises.

More recently, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Kronman, and Mark Edmundson, among others, have voiced eloquent fresh concern about this continuing trend. Still, relatively few scholars have developed concrete methods for addressing this ongoing problem in the classroom itself. My colleagues and I believe that “Books Behind Bars” offers one successful model for doing just that.

In this course pairs of University of Virginia students lead weekly discussions with small groups of residents at either a juvenile treatment or a correctional center. Before each meeting, students write in their journals about which characters and topics they think will resonate with the adolescents. Afterward, they discuss how their interactions with the residents affected their earlier ideas, not only about literature, but about juvenile offenders, about themselves, and about what it means to read and study literature in a community context. At the end of the semester they write a reflective essay describing their intellectual, creative, and emotional journey throughout the course.

"For once, I was actually able to take literature and apply it to a situation," wrote one student, an English major, in her final essay. "I had almost forgotten that was possible." Another reflected: "I do think literature can change people and that words hold a tremendous, awe-inspiring power. Perhaps this is the most serious and intense transformation I’ve experienced in this class." In anonymous end of semester evaluations students described the course as "powerful," "transformative," "eye-opening," "humbling" and "profound."

The “Books Behind Bars” course appears to be having an equally strong impact on the residents, as well. When one resident found out that she was reading the same books college students study in their classes, her face lit up with pride. When asked to describe the most important life lesson they learned from Russian literature, participants at Jefferson Trail Treatment Center for Children said things like “Love life,” “Be a good person,” and “Never give up on your dreams.” After the semester was over three musically talented residents voluntarily got together to work on a rock rendition of their favorite Russian short stories.

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, a team of faculty from three different schools at UVa is now assessing the impact of "Books Behind Bars" more closely. This study is being conducted through Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. One hypothesis is that UVa students grow in this class because they are asked to move outside of their intellectual and personal comfort zones.

Smart English majors familiar with the latest critical lingo quickly discover that incarcerated adolescents are not so interested in Derrida’s theories about identity, meaning, and power. These are youth, after all, with long histories of economic disadvantage, social delinquency, mental illness, and dysfunctional or nonexistent families, and they live in a secure facility. In such an environment discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly.

To bring alive the themes of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, “Homeland,” for instance, a pair of students gave residents cardboard paper, pencils, and markers, and asked them to create their personal vision of “home.” While some residents created pictures of calm lakes and soaring birds, one 16-year old represented her home as a large black space with a tiny white opening in the middle. My students were astonished to learn that she had lost both parents by the age of 8 and spent most of her teens in juvenile treatment centers, and that a concept as familiar to them as "home" could have such different associations for an adolescent growing up in extreme circumstances.

This is just the sort of discovery, in turn, that deepens students’ understanding of the literature itself. Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.

And relevance is what college students find missing today from too many of their literature classes. What Hannah, an English major at UVa who took the pilot run of "Books Behind Bars," writes below reinforces my own belief that academic community engagement might be a solution to the current crisis in the humanities. Her thoughts also reflect a hunger I see among many students for a humanities education that promises more than the rarefied parsing (or pummeling) of texts by a small cadre of trained specialists.

For Hannah and other students of "Books Behind Bars" the humanities become about actual human beings — university students, incarcerated youth, great writers, and their characters, confronting life’s biggest questions and exploring their common humanity across a great social, economic, and cultural divide.

A Student’s View – Hannah Ehrlinspiel

Throughout my four years at UVa, I’ve noticed that most of my fellow students even slightly interested in reading usually fall into one of two camps: those who believe literature has the power to change your life, and those who, well, don’t. When I first signed up for "Books Behind Bars," I considered myself a member of the former group — but just barely. That is, I thought literature might have the power to change my life, but I wasn’t so sure about everybody else’s.

What’s more, I was a little skeptical of a class that purported to structure itself on a peer-peer model of teaching. The typical teacher-student paradigm was just something I’d grown accustomed to in the world of undergraduate literary studies, and it was the one I assumed I’d put into practice when interacting with the residents.

But not only did the residents in "Books Behind Bars" turn out to be my equals in picking out moments of personal relevance in the texts, they also taught me an invaluable lesson: that the questions raised by great literature are actually the most important questions raised by life itself. Surprisingly, I had never really gotten that from my other classes.

One of the first things that struck me was that the word "discussion" was not a mere code word for "impress the teacher with my incredible wit." The main difference in this class is that we weren’t speaking for ourselves only. We were helping others to speak for themselves — others who truly depended on us and the work we were doing. If I didn’t prepare adequately for class, I would not only let myself and my classmates down. I would also betray the trust and rapport I was hoping to build with the residents.

And rapport was critical. During our introductions, I observed that the two adolescents (John and Claire) my partner and I were working with would only really answer anything (even such banalities as, "Oh, what kind of dog do you have?") if I, too, shared something personal and anecdotal. This democratization of introductions forced me to deconstruct the teacher-student binary I’d built in my head.

I saw that I wouldn’t be allowed any insight into their thoughts if I didn’t make myself vulnerable, as well, which was difficult for me at first because real, personal relevance and human connection had often been discouraged in my other classes. Yet without that authenticity discussions would have gone nowhere.

They almost did go nowhere when I started off thinking I’d ask them for their thoughts on "the structural anachronism of narrative collapse" in Nikolai Gogol’s "The Overcoat." However, such a question would have been utterly ludicrous and totally ineffective. I had to learn to ask questions not just that sounded smart, but ones that really mattered to these kids — and to me: "Do you feel worse for Ivan or Akaky? Did one deserve to die more than the other?" As simple as these questions appeared, they were, surprisingly, the most difficult to answer, and the very ones that generated the most discussion with the residents.

I learned something important about the residents, too. Surrounded by such sensational images as those seen on "Law & Order" and "Maury," it seems that people often dismiss youth in treatment and correctional centers as mere "types." Far from a bunch of rag-tag ruffians and bloodthirsty cutthroats, however, these adolescents were highly feeling, emotive, complex, and even humorous. Above all, they had a huge capacity for sympathy — and it surfaced in their interactions with the texts.

During the discussion of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” John was put into the position of Ivan’s son and asked to describe his father in one word. “Kindhearted,” he said. “If I had to describe my dad in one word, it would be kindhearted.” In previous discussions it had come out that John’s father had been abusive towards him, so I was anticipating some real vehemence directed toward Ivan (who more or less completely ignores his son throughout the entire story).

John’s reaction floored me. How was this boy, abused by his father and condemned to institutionalization for a large part of his life, able to judge another with such purity of intention, with such sympathy? I realized in that moment that incarceration may be a term to describe the residents’ concrete daily lives, but amazingly, they also possess a moral imagination which allows them to rise above their circumstances and bestow upon others far more charitable and nuanced judgments than they themselves have received.

For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. "Books Behind Bars," however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is that if you touch one life anywhere, you’ve touched lives everywhere. And isn’t that what reading literature is all about?

Andrew D. Kaufman and Hannah Ehrlinspiel
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Andrew D. Kaufman is lecturer and Academic Community Engagement Faculty Fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and research affiliate in Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia. Hannah Ehrlinspiel is an English major, Class of 2011, at the University of Virginia.

Revision and Patience

I've taught high-school and college writing for nearly 15 years now. And I've directed a university writing program for three. In that time, I’ve found countless risible examples of student writing. I try not to share these. But temptation occasionally gets the better of me.

Here's a gem from this past semester. A student in a required first-year course recently sought to explain what he had learned. (I require such a written explanation at the end of the semester.) He wanted to show that he grasped something about "presentation," a category including grammatical correctness and stylistic felicity. So he wrote: "My improvement in presentation has improves also, I’ve gone from writing long and confusing sentences, to writing more clear and readable ones."

This is like hearing a cologne-soaked man intone: "We should talk more about how I’ve stopped philandering, perhaps over a drink at my apartment." Nevertheless, I’d like for you to consider something. Something that I had to remember myself. Writing is different from casual romance in a very important regard: the writer gets to revise. And the revision erases the first performance altogether. Would that all were so.

Perhaps, in some teaching practicum or graduate seminar, you were exposed to the glory of composition pedagogy, so you know the glittering magic of process and the transformative luster of revision. Those of us in rhetoric and writing delight in such terms, so we readily forget that others aren’t so dazzled by their appearance. Allow me to illuminate.

The student mentioned above did write a poor sentence at an inopportune time. But I won't say that he learned nothing of grammar and style. Over the course of this semester, I watched as he wrote and revised several papers. The first drafts typically featured many sentences like the above. But subsequent drafts improved. As the class practiced editing techniques, as they learned a few choice grammar rules, I noticed that his ability to improve … well, improved. He got better at sentence-level revision. He learned to write concisely, clearly, and appropriately. Just not in the first draft.

By the way, the ability to revise for correctness and felicity improves all writing. It improves my writing. The second-to-last sentence in the paragraph above started out like this: "He really did learn to write clearer, more concise, and more readable prose." Then it became, "He did learn to write more clearly, more concisely, and more readably." Somewhere during the third iteration, I settled on a form but misspelled "learned”: "leared."

Even the writing teacher needs a chance to rewrite.

Since my students submit their materials in electronic portfolios, I can revisit various stages of their work. I can see evidence to support this student’s claim. His ultimately elegant expressions evolved from hideous, writhing syntactic monsters. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to reconsider the sentence quoted above. While professing his ability to revise for style and grammar, he could not revise for style and grammar.

And so, this end-of-the semester self-evaluation that I require of my students is a cruel little puzzle with no satisfactory solution. This is like evaluating a professional dancer’s merit based on an impromptu oration that describes his most recent and successful performance. Or evaluating an orator based on an interpretive dance version of her best speech. Perhaps the impropriety under investigation is not stylistic but pedagogical, not my student's but mine.

It's easy to chuckle at a single sentence, easy to focus on what's written and to overlook the writing. Good writing instruction, as you may have heard, requires attention to process and opportunity to revise. Or so a diligent, though not initially eloquent, student reminds me.

Mark Longaker
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Mark Longaker is associate chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is grateful for his student’s patience and permission to reprint the quote in this article.

Facing the Freshmen -- II

Last fall I confessed to readers of Inside Higher Ed that, although I’d never previously taught freshmen, I’d signed up to offer a First Year Seminar (FYS) at the University of Richmond, where I serve as provost. Now that the academic year is over and I’ve finished my foray into freshman seminar teaching, I offer a few reflections.

I drew on my previous academic career teaching law and graduate students at another university and decided to offer an FYS entitled "Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World." My first concern was if any students would sign up for the class. To my delight, all 16 slots filled up on the first day of registration. Then I wondered if that quick response was a consequence of the inherently attractive course topic and title, or was it that the class was scheduled from 3–4:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when even the sleepiest of freshmen would be up and ready to go to class?

As it turned out, the students were indeed interested in the topic of working. We began the first class with a discussion of the jobs they had held in high school, which represented a surprising range of positions: lifeguard, hospital emergency room aide, fashion model, babysitter, salesperson (lots of salespeople!), camp counselor, and waitress. We spent our first week exploring the legal foundations of the employment relationship and the harsh realities of the employment at will rule, and then we launched into the semester’s readings and topics.

We read five books, a half-dozen articles, three U.S. Supreme Courts cases, and a case study, all tied to the American workplace. I’m pleased to report that the students did the reading. They came to class prepared and ready to discuss what they had read. Even more satisfying, they sent me newspaper articles that related to the topics we’d discussed in class. For example, when I assigned the seminal 1968 Supreme Court decision Pickering v. Board of Education, which established the free speech right of public employees, one of my students e-mailed me a clipping from her hometown newspaper describing a local teacher who had been fired for blogging about her school principal. Needless to say, class discussion that day was enriched by the comparison of the two circumstances, occurring 43 years apart yet presenting the same issues of justice, fairness, and expectations of loyalty in the workplace.

The students loved Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, which they found authentic, profane, and rich with humor. They were somewhat troubled by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, not so much for the working conditions she described as for the reality that as a writer posing as a low-wage worker she could choose to leave those abysmal conditions at any time. Reading three Supreme Court opinions was a challenge, but the students persisted through the unfamiliar language of concurring opinions and marathon footnotes. Other well-received books included Gig and Nobodies, both by John Bowe.

Writing assignments varied from single-page exercises written in class to a 10-page research paper. The variation in my students’ writing ability was striking. Some wrote beautifully, regularly employing topic sentences, descriptive adjectives, effective transitions, and properly-attributed quotes, all in grammatically correct sentences. Others wrote paragraphs that rivaled Faulkner in length and complexity (but alas, not in depth). Punctuation conventions were many and varied, and sometimes mystifying (why does that semicolon appear here?). I used the old-fashioned technique of correcting papers with a red pen, often rewriting entire paragraphs to show what I was looking for. The good news is that my students’ writing improved over the semester. The not-surprising news is that my students will need to have continuous writing assignments across the curriculum throughout their college careers if they are to graduate as skilled writers.

What surprised me the most was the vast divide between the world I knew and the one my students brought to the classroom. Stated simply, our cultural references were miles apart. Granted, I’m 40 years older than they are, so I expected a certain level of generational difference; after all, I had stopped making references to bands in class many years ago when I realized no one else in the room had ever heard of the Grateful Dead.

An example: when we came across a reference in Gig to the fiery conflagration in Waco, I stopped and asked “Do any of you know what the author is talking about when he refers to Waco?” They solemnly shook their heads. “The Branch Davidians? David Koresh?” I continued. Nope. My students have no knowledge of that event, nor of Timothy McVeigh’s subsequent bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. They did remember 9/11, although they were only 8 years old when it happened.

Another time, while discussing a brief history of union organizing attempts in the South, I asked if any of them had ever seen a textile mill – or indeed a mill of any kind. Not a one answered yes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but as someone who grew up in North Carolina, where two of my aunts spent their entire working lives in the mills, I was a bit taken aback.

The killer was when one of my students was describing the plush setting at a software startup company she had visited, complete with pool tables and a Wii — and she suddenly stopped in embarrassment and asked if I knew what a Wii was. Although my head was in my hands, I assured her that I did indeed know about Wii.

What pleased me the most was the skill my students showed in making class presentations at the end of the semester. All were adroit with PowerPoint, many using embedded videos and creative graphics to underscore their main ideas. Some were nervous, and some hesitated when their classmates or I asked follow-up questions, but they did well. They were comfortable with technology and, more importantly, they were comfortable speaking before the class. Lest you think my praise is limited to their communication skills, the substance of their presentations was impressive as well; in fact, one student’s presentation on the economic effects of the Family and Medical Leave Act was as sophisticated as any presentation my former graduate students might have made.

So will I do this again? Emphatically, yes! After a nine-year absence from the classroom, I was exhilarated by the give and take of class discussion (including one lively 30-minute exchange on whether or not the profession of bookmaker should be legalized), the occasional flashes of insight in some papers, and the bond I formed with my students over the course of the semester. I have to admit that even after grading seven sets of papers, evaluating 16 presentations, and leading four months of discussions, I was sad to see the semester end. I’ll revise my syllabus, drop a couple of reading assignments and add a few others, give some more thought to the number and type of writing assignments I should require, and fearlessly face a new class of freshmen next year!

Steve Allred
Author's email: 

Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.

Two Moments

As the eraser arced through the classroom, I realized with a petrifying shock what a horrible mistake I had made. The student was sleeping in class. She was too far away for nudge or comment. Grabbing an eraser from the blackboard chalk tray, I had lobbed it upward, expecting it to fall gently in front of her or in her lap. She would wake up, everyone would chuckle, class would continue. Such was my fatuity. And now I could see that the eraser, in its arched trajectory would land right in her face. It did exactly that, knocking her glasses off, startling not only her but the entire class.

That happened 36 years ago. Shame has mostly purged my memory of what I said or did immediately after the eraser landed. The class, the term, the year went on. Neither my victim nor I ever brought the incident up. At graduation she introduced me to her mother as one of her teachers. Had she forgotten? Was she just being kind? It seemed better not to ask.

Years went by with no communication between us. I continued teaching (without further eraser misuse) until retirement. At the same time I contracted a mild form of Parkinson’s disease. Its main symptom is a tremor of the right arm, which I can usually hide, plus some loss of strength and dexterity. It did not keep me from agreeing to lead an alumni tour, a cruise on the waterways of Holland and Belgium, in May, 2009.

To my surprise, my erstwhile target signed up for this cruise, along with her mother. To my further surprise, the tone of her pre-trip correspondence was wistful and apologetic: "he may not remember me…. I was not one of his star pupils.” Calling her by her undergraduate nickname reassured her, I hope, that I did in fact remember her. Of course I did not bring up the most indelible episode of our relationship but I began to see the cruise as a possible site for redemption. That did not exactly come about but something much more fulfilling did.

Late in the cruise it became her and her mother’s turn to dine at the tour leader’s table. She was seated next to me. Our conversation:

"Do you have Parkinson’s?" (She had sussed me out.)

"I do."

A little later:

"Are you having trouble with that meat?"


"May I help?"


And then the woman, at whom I had lobbed an eraser 35 years before, cut my meat.

Lauren Soth
Author's email: 

Lauren Soth is professor of art history emeritus at Carleton College.

Telling It as It Is

One of the things I like best about teaching at a smaller college is getting to know my students well. Quite often I will meet a student for the first time during freshman orientation and see that person progress from a doe-eyed cherub to a semi-jaded wolverine during the next four years. Hopefully there has been some growth and maturity during that time as well. One of my favorite tasks during freshman orientation is to participate in a university-required meeting with a small group of incoming students. In this informal meeting, students are meeting a "real" professor for the first time and learning a little bit about academic expectations. Something I added to my session a couple of years ago was (for lack of a better term) a brief "fear of God" speech on personal responsibility. I figured that since many of these kids would be on their own for the first time, perhaps a brief cage-rattling would be beneficial. After briefing students on the machinations of class schedules and the like, I usually break into the personal responsibility speech, which includes some of the following bits of wisdom:

  • "Use at least two alarm clocks because mom isn’t here to wake you up."
  • "Someone in here will fail at least one class. All of you will earn either a D or an F on an exam or paper while you’re here."
  • "If your significant other is attending another college, chances are you’ll be broken up by Thanksgiving."
  • "No one will make breakfast for you."

For some reason, the last two seem to always get their attention. I do this because I want incoming students to realize that while the next four years of their lives will be some of their best, they will also be some of the most difficult. I’m not trying to scare them off or think twice about coming to college; I just want them to be aware of some issues and stresses that can come from the "dark side" of academic life.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty at the end of each session because I have heard terms such as "harsh," "brutal" and "let-down" muttered while the students walked out to their next assigned event, but at the same time I also feel I am doing them some kind of justice. At least they can't say they were never warned about some of the "uncool" elements of college life. I started feeling a lot better about this part of the session the second year I did it. That year, one of the student helpers who was an incoming freshman in the previous year’s session mentioned that when he saw my name on the list of presenters, he wanted to help with my group. When I asked him why, his response was direct and empowering: "You were right. I would have been lost my freshman year without hearing you last summer. You were the only person who told it as it is." Apparently he broke up with his high school girlfriend (at Halloween) and started waking up early in order to have enough time for breakfast before morning classes. I know I’m probably not the most popular guy at the end of my sessions, but I know I’m doing the right thing.

Just a few weeks ago, I got the bright idea of trying this sort of speech again, but modifying it for my graduating seniors in an upper-level course. I got the idea after reading way too many stories about how pathetic the job situation is for 2011 graduates. I learned about recent college graduates who can’t find a job (the unemployed), can only find part-time work (the underemployed), or can only find jobs that don’t require a college degree (the malemployed). One of the stories on a recent episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report featured a 2010 graduate with a degree in anthropology who could only find a job washing garbage cans for the municipality he lived in. Stories like these disturb me. Part of the reason I entered academe was to pay back in some way the professors and students who helped me along my path. This includes telling current students as much as I can about the cold, hard world that they will inherit. This outlook, coupled with the information about the current job market, made me realize that it’s just as important for seniors to be aware of the perils of "real life" when leaving college as it is for freshmen to have their eyes opened at orientation.

So I had it all planned out; I would remind them of personal responsibility. I would regale them with tales of my own experiences with the job market fresh out of college. I would dazzle them with the recent job outlooks and reports in order to drive home the importance of setting one’s self apart from the crowd in order to get that job that seems harder and harder to get. Most importantly however, I would tell them to never give up, no matter how bleak the job market may seem.

The presentation would even apply to juniors and sophomores in the class because they would take the direness of the current situation to heart and spend the rest of their time in college improving themselves to become a leaner, meaner graduate who gets the job the moment they walk in the door. Once the presentation and any subsequent discussion ended, I would briefly review for the final exam and have them complete their student evaluation forms since this would be the last time we would meet for the semester. Armed with my notes and other goodies, I charged upstairs from my office, ready to "tell it as it is."

And I choked.

As I entered the classroom, I noticed that the students were particularly alive for a mid-afternoon class. Everyone was talking, laughing, and chatting in the standard pre-lecture environment we’re all familiar with, but this time they seemed especially energetic. The sun was peeking through the open back window and I half expected to see a bluebird sitting on the window sill. It was late April, two and a half weeks before graduation, and one of the first nice spring days in quite a while. When I stood in front of the room, everyone actually settled down and looked at me, seeming to know that I had something heavy to share.

Looking back at them, I just couldn’t go through with it. Here I was, about to tell them to have confidence in themselves and that hard work pays off and then inform them of how lousy their job prospects were! What kind of message is that? "Hey kids, in about three weeks you’ll start to have your teeth kicked in by a hostile job environment, but you’ll be fine if you try really, really hard! Eye of the Tiger!"

Mix in other issues such as student debt load, avoiding job downsizing, and competing against applicants with more experience just to name few, and I could just see how what I wanted to say would really make them feel better. It just didn’t compute. So I stuck with the brief review on the final exam and student evaluations. I told them to enjoy the nice afternoon and I left, and I have felt crummy ever since.

I've been going over the event in my mind, trying to figure why I caved. Standing in front of the class that day, in the span of about five seconds, three thoughts briefly came to me that I think caused my change in plans. First, I think somehow pride got in the way. As The Professor™, I’m supposed to be the calm, logical voice and here I would be, trying to pump the students up while letting them know in no uncertain terms that the future would be extremely difficult. Not an easy task and one that could upset them right before evaluations. I was also afraid of possibly depressing some of them.

One thing I've noticed about the class of 2011 as opposed to others is that they do a pretty good job of putting on a brave face, but it's painfully obvious that’s all there is. Underneath, the students seems to be an unspoken dread and awareness of what they are facing and I think they’re scared, to say the least. Talk about a "brutal" and "harsh let-down" on such a nice day! Finally, I thought of the possibility that some students (underclassmen as well as seniors) might actually question the veracity of spending four years of their lives (and who knows how much money) on something that may lead to stellar careers such as washing garbage cans or dog-walking.

I think the third thought was the clincher for me. It seems to boil down to integrity. Honestly, as I stood in front of the class that day I had the sense of feeling like a stereotypical used car salesman. "All you have to do is try your best and good things will happen (but don’t read the small print that says all of the hard work you’ve been doing for the past four years may not lead to good things after all)." How could I do this? It just seemed dishonest.

Over the years, I have been accused of being a Humanist. I have often been affected by the human cost of struggle and misery, yet I’ve always been told that it isn’t my fault or problem when people struggle because somehow "they made their own beds." After this experience however, I'm starting to wonder what my role is in this particular struggle. If I go out of my way to try to tell incoming students a bit about the dark side, why am I having trouble telling outgoing students the same thing? How am I helping graduating seniors by giving them information like this? How am I helping them by not telling them?

The ideal graduate, in my opinion, is someone who is at least semi-jaded and willing to accept that life isn’t easy, all the while questioning the status quo. Yet the last thing I want to do is turn off a student by making him or her question the value of the education they just spent four years of their life slaving for. While I want semi-jaded graduates, I don’t want curmudgeons. Where does the line between the two exist and what can I do to make sure no one crosses it?

This experience has obviously left me with several questions, both personal and professional. Upon further reflection, it seems I dropped the ball, and that has me questioning myself in a variety of ways. Contrary to how it may seem, however, I’m not having a Seinfeld-ian "Why am I here?" moment. I have invested way too much personal time and energy into higher education and I have way too much I want to do before I hang it all up. I still believe that what I do serves a strong purpose and leads ultimately to a higher social good. I just have to question and re-evaluate my approach to preparing students at the end of their four years. I seem to be able to tell students the score when they enter college, but it appears I have a long way to go doing the same when they leave.

Craig Stark
Author's email: 

Craig Stark is an assistant professor of communications at Susquehanna University.

The Facebook Mirror

I have one of the world’s greatest jobs. I teach writing to college students. In my off-hours, I listen to complaints about student writing: They can’t spell, write a complete sentence, or use commas appropriately. Often these complaints are accompanied by an invitation to identify the villain(s) responsible for this catastrophe. Television, e-mail, texting -- I may choose one or all three.

This year, in an effort to spice up a few dinner parties, I’ve identified a new candidate for the Hall of Literacy Villainy, and in doing so, throw stones at two favorite demons of civilizations: pop culture and computers. This year I nominate the Hollywood darling Facebook.

Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person "i"s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers' ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers' greatest foes -- the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.

Although Facebook is properly classified as "social software," it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.

On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes — bananas, skiing, taxes — and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.

Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to "like" their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.

With Facebook, we don't need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn't be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.

Although our Facebook friends include those we haven't seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students' intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don't have computers.

So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is — a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers.

Technology is not the smooth broom sweeping the art of writing across the threshold of death. The placing of blame often, if not always, is a means of self-exculpation that renders us powerless. If in reading their words we find that our young people have no sense of others beyond and/or different from themselves, we should supply them with that sense.

Brutus, dear, the fault lies not in our Facebook stars.

Lisa Lebduska
Author's email: 

Lisa Lebduska is associate professor of English and director of college writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Calling the Clicker Vote

Smart Title: 
As classroom devices proliferate, institutions look to campuswide adoptions to ease costs for students.

'Educating the Net Generation'

Smart Title: 

Today's students have different expectations and skills with regard to technology, and colleges sometimes fail to meet those expectations or understand what those skills mean, according to a new e-book.

The e-book, the first published by Educause, is Educating the Net Generation. It is available free on the organization's Web site.

Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president of Educause and co-editor of the book, answered some questions about its themes in an e-mail interview:


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