The article about Spring-Serenity Duvall, a communications professor who banned students from emailing her and lived to blog about it, caught my eye on the same day my own inboxes at two colleges spilled over with bewildered messages from students. Some had been told to purchase the wrong edition of our course text, resulting in their plodding through a chapter on meta-commentary instead of one on contributing meaningfully to group discussions; more simply hadn’t received their textbooks and didn’t know when they would; still others, I suspected, were so besieged by first-week information overload that they needed reassurance from a human who had seemed friendly enough on the first day of class.
When I announced to my Critical Reading and Writing classes the next morning that we wouldn’t cover the assigned reading so we could instead talk about “a professor who doesn’t allow students to email her,” many likely assumed I was using this hook as a launching pad for my own ban. Several — the ones who had dared type a few words or even sentences to me at quiet, unobtrusive hours of the night — looked somewhat repentant. We were going to read this article together, I told them, and in addition to identifying its purpose, audience, context, and noteworthy rhetorical moves, they would be invited to interject their opinions.
“I had a strong reaction when I read this,” I admitted, “and I expect you might as well.”
Turns out, the students generally endorsed Duvall’s policy more than I did. One young man remarked that he initially opposed the idea but began to see its merits as we dug further into the reasoning. Both classes and I settled unanimously on a valuable lesson that could be learned from the spirit of such a ban: Students should try to find the answers themselves, several pointed out, before they bother the professor, who they all (charitably) agreed would be busy with other matters. Others said it would be useful to practice reading course documents more carefully and researching answers on their own or with other peers.
As we identified potential audiences for an article championing such a ban, some responses were obvious, such as fellow professors with hectic schedules. Other responses were disconcerting. More than one student claimed their parents were a perhaps-unintended audience. Parents who foot the bill for this whole venture might be interested (disgruntled?) to discover a brick wall separating their children from the people who are paid to teach them important things.
I have no doubt the email embargo worked miracles for Duvall’s time management. Just because I find student correspondence one of the least complicated demands of the teaching profession doesn’t mean I should impose my preferences on others. And since 47 glowing course evaluations suggest that Duvall’s students not only didn’t feel cheated, but actually thought her in-person-or-by-phone-only rule made her more accessible, I won’t belabor my somewhat obvious challenge that such a policy could deter students — those, perhaps, who are at risk of doing poorly and therefore need the most encouragement — from asking questions down the line or even approaching their future professors.
But isn’t there something to be said for letting young adults — especially those enrolled in a communications course — navigate the delicate rules of student-professor etiquette on their own? For letting them fail at it even? Suppose you email about a problem your professor deems trifling. The two worst consequences are (a) no response or (b) a snippy response. In my own college days, I sent emails that at the time seemed vital but that I now recognize as self-absorbed and/or irritatingly Type A. After a few terse one-liners from professors I admired, I became a less zealous emailer.
There need not be an official ban committed in writing on a syllabus for professors to ignore or even confront messages that are petty or unprofessional. Furthermore, today’s students are attending college in the first place so they can land a job that might one day allow them to emerge from — or even to buoy — this faltering economy. Employers prize communication and collaboration skills more highly than ever, and it’s hard to imagine the 21st-century workplace functioning without people who can competently email.
Do we really want to graduate a generation of students who can’t decide for themselves what warrants pressing the send button? Or, to take this issue to its logical extreme, who think their employers should drop everything to schedule in-person conferences for matters that can be handled in one pithy sentence? If our wading through a bunch of syllabus emails can contribute to a larger discourse about the importance of good professional writing, then maybe we are — in the eyes of the public — one step closer to earning our keep as educators.
Danielle DeRise is an adjunct professor of English, literature, and writing at Piedmont Virginia Community College and James Madison University.
Submitted by Dan Butin on September 4, 2014 - 3:00am
With the start of the academic year upon us, it may be surreal to suggest that the college course is going the way of the dinosaur. Twenty million postsecondary students are streaming back onto college campuses, filing into lecture halls, and bracing for yet another semester of study. Sure, a fair portion of them will be doing this on their laptops. But even then, they’ll still have a professor and all the trappings (a syllabus, an overarching theme, a grade that gets put on their transcript) of a traditional semester-long course.
And yet, “The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated.” So suggest the authors of a just-released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. MIT has spent over a year investigating the question of the future of residential education and has begun to systematically explore, among other things, the “modularization” of the curriculum into smaller Lego-like units that can be taken apart and put together in a myriad of ways.
"This,” the report argues, “in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus. The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook. Modularity also enables 'just-in-time' delivery of instruction, further enabling project-based learning on campus and for students worldwide.”
For MIT and other institutions who have come to similar conclusions (see, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Harvard University), the push comes from both the successes and challenges of digital learning technologies (such as MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last few years. But even more than that, they are well aware of what’s on the horizon.
“Might the Online Skills Academy,” muses Paul LeBlnac in a recent op-ed about the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites” initiative, “be a first step to creating a new alternative pathway to a degree, one that actually creates a new higher education ecosystem that can sit beside and maybe improve our existing system?” For LeBlanc and many others, competency-based education offers a credible alternative to today’s “deeply flawed” system. “I am instead thinking about a nationally offered, extremely low-cost, competency-based model degree program that includes stackable, industry-embraced credentials.”
This, dear reader, is the beginning of the end for the college course. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. Not immediately. But for much of our current postsecondary system, much of what we do in our “chalk-and-talk” educational model can be automated and replaced by cheaper and more efficient systems. And I, for one, can’t wait to see it happen. Because, I suggest, it will allow us and force us to develop a system that sees the college course as not just the transmission of academic knowledge but as its use and transformation.
For the competency-based education (CBE) crowd, this will be about demonstrating proficiency – through portfolios, exams, or other standardized means where “time is irrelevant and mastery non-negotiable” – that shatters the monopoly of the credit hour. It suggests that the product matters, not the process. It is a one-for-one swap: forget the four years on campus; just show us that you have learned.
For the MIT crowd, this will be about finding the sweet spot of deep learning – through a blended mix of online and on-site modules, projects and courses curated by faculty and informed by the learning sciences and data analytics – that shatters the monopoly of an “is it on the exam?” student mentality (yes, it happens at MIT as well). It suggests that we must fundamentally revise the process if we are to change the product. It is backward design approach: the four years on campus are useless if you don’t come out transformed.
But in either case, the traditional course is dead.
I am not simply talking about the fact that, as the saying goes, “online education starts in the seventh row.” Sure, there is nothing to be gained from sitting in a lecture hall when you can watch the archived lecture online while pulling up a tutorial or a peer’s comments about the lecture as you go through it. I am talking about the realization that CBE and digital learning technologies give us the unique opportunity to rethink and revise our models of teaching and learning from the ground up.
I, of course, have to voice some caveats and concerns.
CBE, for all its emphasis on “mastery as non-negotiable,” has no theory of learning. CBE advocates avoid talking about how students will actually learn to demonstrate mastery. This has troubling implications for who supposedly can and can’t learn and the structural impediments to and stratification of academic success.
Similarly, MIT’s model confuses the way we learn with the way we teach. A single module is actually not like a single song, book chapter or newspaper article. A song can stand on its own, as it has a self-contained narrative arc and structure. But to see a module as a “mini-course” – kind of like a highlight reel of best lecture quotes – is to cater to a style of teaching rather than to a way of learning.
If I could mix and match these two perspectives, I might suggest that we view the MIT module in exactly the way that CBE proponents view their competencies: as transmitting information to gain highly bounded skills and knowledge that are linked explicitly to specific learning outcomes.
Think of modules more like a football player training certain fundamental skills and moves that he can then deploy automatically and fluidly and improvisationally in a game depending on the situation. Such skills and knowledge are crucial – as they form the foundation for the habits of mind and repertoires of action that we think of in experts – but they are in and of themselves almost irrelevant if they do not get used in practice. In this vision, a “course” becomes a set of mastered units of knowledge (modules) that are integrated into a project- or practice-based outcome. Put otherwise, the transmission of academic knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition to count as a course, which must be able to apply and transform such academic knowledge.
In either case, though, when both Southern New Hampshire University and MIT are grappling with the future of the college course – which has served as the basic unit and building block for all of higher education – we are seeing a system truly shattering. The question for all of us is what will be built up instead.
Dan Butin is dean and associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College.
Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.
In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.
When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time. This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.
I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.
I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.
My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.
Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.
As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."
I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts. I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.
In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.
I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.
My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years. I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.
But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.
I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing? Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?
No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.
And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.
Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?
Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.
Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.
As summer ends, professors across the country are gearing up for a new academic year: refurbishing old syllabuses, reviewing some alternate readings, perhaps adding service learning or a new assessment tool to their courses. I’m designing one entirely new seminar, plus working with colleagues to rethink our team-taught intro class. It all requires time and energy, and has to be done. But the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is far simpler.
I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works.
Using those names in class is uniquely powerful. As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s [sic] name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” (Of course we know today that this is true for a woman too.) A student who hears his name suddenly becomes completely alert; one who hears herself quoted (“As Hannah said, Machiavelli was just trying to be realistic”) will be replaying those words in her head, over and over, for at least a week.
I used to learn names by taking the class list and scribbling descriptions, and for a time I would videotape students actually speaking their names, then review the tape every morning over my Cheerios. My current technique, at least for larger classes, is flashcards. The first day I line up the students alphabetically (they’ll already be smiling at each other, with a nice excuse for meeting), then take their pictures one by one, bantering like a novice fashion photographer (“Excellent!” “You look sharp,” “Nice t-shirt,” “Great smile,” and so on).
After being photographed, the students write their preferred first and last name, with phonetic guides if needed, on a pressure-sensitive file label, a sheet of which lies on the desk. At the end of the day, I deliver the pictures to a one-hour development kiosk, and by morning have a full deck of photos, each with a name stuck on the back. Before each class meeting I spend a few minutes going through the deck again, memorizing the names. Whenever I pick up a new tidbit about a student I’ll write it on the back: “Plays lacrosse,” “Civil War buff,” “always wears these glasses,” “from Vermont.” The names take maybe four class meetings to learn; last fall, when I had 82 students in two courses, it required about two weeks in total.
And the technique, or at least its principle of individualized recognition, is scalable. With smaller classes (say, 29 students or less), you can make up nameplates – just a folded paper card will work, with names on the front. Within a few days not only will you know their names, the students will also know everyone else’s – a nice side benefit, and very helpful in seminars. With larger classes, learning the names certainly takes more work -- although a dean of students I once knew was famous for knowing and using the names of all 700 or so students at his college, from the day they matriculated. It’s impressive if you do learn so many; even if you can’t, your teaching assistants can learn students’ names in their sections. Or even without knowing any names, a lecturer who pays attention can spot a puzzled student and say, “Do you have a question?” It is possible to connect well, with even a large class.
Why is knowing someone’s name or acknowledging them individually so important? Any person’s name is emotionally loaded to that person, and has the power to pull him or her into whatever is going on. By putting that person at the center of attention, naming takes only a moment from you – but for them, it is deeply affecting, and lasts.
But more than that, calling a student by name opens the door to a more personal connection, inviting the student to see the professor (and professors generally) as a human being, maybe a role model or even a kind of friend. In the 10-year longitudinal study that Chris Takacs and I did of a cohort of students moving through college (for our book How College Works), students who found congenial advisers, or even full-fledged mentors, were more likely to stay in school, to learn more, and to enjoy the entire experience.
Several years ago I saw Jon Stewart, the television show host, deliver a marvelous 74-minute stand-up comedy routine for an audience of 5,000 people, apparently with no notes whatsoever. Stewart worked the crowd, picking up on what we liked, playing off of a few local references, sensing groups in the audience who responded differently, asking questions, riding the laughs but knowing when to quiet our responses. He connected with us; he made us part of the show. It was exciting and memorable.
I’m no Jon Stewart, nor a match for that dean of students. But once about 20 years ago I had a social psychology class of 144 students. Armed with the freshman facebook (small “f,” remember that?) photos and some scribbled hints, I worked on their names for a couple of weeks. Then one day I came into class and started pointing at each student, slowly speaking his or her name. Some were easy, others took a moment; still others I skipped, to return to when I remembered or had eliminated possibilities. As I progressed around the room, students became increasingly focused on what I was doing, smiling and laughing at who was remembered, and who took a minute. Eventually I got to the last few, the people at the outer edge of my mnemonic ability. When I declared that last name – correctly -- the entire class hesitated, and then erupted in a long, sustained round of applause. Some cheers were thrown in.
And the course went well.
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
Regular readers of the higher education press have had occasion to learn a great deal about digital developments and online initiatives in higher education. We have heard both about and from those for whom this world is still terra relatively incognita. And, increasingly, we are hearing both about and from those commonly considered to be to be “digital natives” –- the term “native” conveying the idea of their either having been born to the culture in question or being so adapted to it that they might as well have been.
When we think of digital natives, we tend to think of students. But lest we think that things are easy for them, let us bear in mind their problems. Notably, they share the general difficulty of reputation management or what we might consider the adverse consequences of throwing privacy away with both hands when communicating on the internet. More to the point in the world of higher education, many suffer from the unequal distribution of online skills most relevant to academic success –- yet another factor in the extreme socioeconomic inequality that afflicts our nation’s system of higher education.
But let us turn our attention to the faculty, and first to those relatively unschooled in new information technologies. At the extreme, there are those who view the whole business with fear and loathing. We must find ways to persuade them that such an attitude is unworthy of anyone who has chosen education as a vocation and that they would do well to investigate this new world with an explorer’s eye –- not uncritically, to be sure, given the hype surrounding it –- in order to reach informed positions about both the virtues and the limitations of new information technologies.
Others are more receptive, but also rather lost. They are fine with what Jose Bowen calls “teaching naked” (i.e., keeping technology out of the classroom itself), since they have been doing it all their working lives, but are unable to manage the other major part of the program (that is, selecting items to hang in a virtual closet for their students to try on and wear to good effect, so that they come to class well-prepared to make the most of the time together with one another and their instructor). What these faculty members need is the right kind of support: relevant, well-timed, and pedagogically effective –- something far less widely available than it should be.
Digitally adept faculty have challenges of their own, some of which are old problems in new forms. There is, for example, the question of how available to be to their students, which has taken on a new dimension in an age in which channels of communication proliferate and constant connectedness is expected.
And then there is the question of how much of themselves faculty members should reveal to students. How much of their non-academic activities or thoughts should they share by not blocking access online or perhaps even by adding students to some groups otherwise composed of friends?
Many of us have worked with students on civic or political projects –- though not, one hopes, simply imposing our own views upon them. Many of us have already extended our relationship into more personal areas when students have come to us with problems or crises of one sort or another and we have played the role of caring, older adviser. We have enjoyed relatively casual lunches, dinners, kaffeeklatsches with them that have included discussion of a variety of topics, from tastes in food to anecdotes about beloved pets. The question for digital natives goes beyond these kinds of interaction: To what extent should students be allowed in on the channels and kinds of communications that are regularly –- in some cases, relentlessly and obsessively –- shared with friends?
Not all of this, to be sure, is under a faculty member’s control. Possibilities for what sociologists call “role segregation” hinge on an ability to keep the audiences for different roles apart from one another –- hardly something to be counted on in these digital times. But leaving aside the question of how much online information can be kept from students, how much of it should be kept from them?
Will students be better-served, as some faculty members seem to believe, if they see ongoing evidence that their teachers are people with full lives aside from their faculty roles? Should students be recipients of the kinds of texts and tweets that faculty members may be in the habit of sending to friends about movies, shopping, etc.? Given how distracting and boring some of this may be even to friends, one might well wonder. Some students will perhaps get a thrill out of being in a professor’s “loop” on such matters, but do we need to further clutter their lives with trivia? This is an area in which they hardly need additional help.
To put this issue in a wider context: In her 1970 book Culture and Commitment, anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction among three different types of culture: “postfigurative”, in which the young learn from those who have come before; “cofigurative”, in which both adults and children learn a significant amount from their peers; and “prefigurative”, in which adults are in the position of needing to learn much from their children. Not surprisingly, Mead saw us as heading in a clearly prefigurative direction –- and that years before the era of parents and grandparents sitting helplessly in front of computer screens waiting for a little child to lead them.
Without adopting Mead’s specific views on these cultural types, we can find her categories an invitation to thinking about the teaching and learning relationship among the generations. For example, should we just happily leap into prefigurativeness?
Or, to put it in old colonialist terms, should we “go native”? Colonial types saw this as a danger, a giving up of the responsibilities of civilization –- not unlike the way the Internet-phobic see embracing the online world. The repentant colonizers who did decide to “go native”, motivated either by escapism or by a profound love and respect for those they lived and worked with, sometimes ended up with views as limited by their adopted culture (what is called “secondary ethnocentrism”) as were limited by their original one. This aside from the fact that attempts to go native are not always successful and may even seem ridiculous to the real folks.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of ourselves first as anthropologists. We certainly need to understand the world in which we ply our trade, not only so that we can do our work, but also because we are generally possessed of intellectual curiosity and have chosen our vocation because we like working in a community. We believe that we have much to learn from the people we study and, at the same time, know that we can see at least some things more clearly because we have the eyes of outsiders.
But we are also missionaries, since we feel we have something of value to share –- to share, to be sure, not simply to impose. What might that something be?
In the most basic sense, it is the ability to focus, to pay attention, take time to learn, looking back at least as often as looking forward. Most of our students live in a noisy world of ongoing virtual connectedness, relentless activity, nonstop polytasking (how tired are we of the word “multitasking”?). Like the rest of us, they suffer from the fact that too much information is the equivalent of too little. Like the rest of us, they live in a world in which innovation is not simply admired, but fetishized.
So, even as we avail ourselves of the educational benefits of new information technologies, we might think of complementing this with a Slow Teaching movement, not unlike the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 with the goal of preserving all that was delicious and nutritious in traditional cuisine. We have such traditions to share with our students even as we become more knowledgeable about the world in which they move.
Our students and junior colleagues don’t need us to be them; they need us to be us. Or, as Oscar Wilde so engagingly put it: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.
It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.
As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?
The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore. I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”
“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?
Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.
Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.
Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.
The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.
I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder. As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy. When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.
My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.
Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.
Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.
During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.
Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead. He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?
Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing. And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.
I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .” I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.
I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.
I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it? When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn?
After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.
The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.
Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.
New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.
At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.
When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.
It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?! Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
For over a century, colleges and universities have asked this question with varying levels of interest and commitment. Some have also asked questions more foundational.
Can teaching be taught? Or are some teachers just born with “the gift” -- an inherent ability to connect with young people and inspire learning? Should we devote resources to training teachers? Or should we simply encourage public policies that identify undergraduates who already posses the knack for teaching?
President Obama has ordered his administration to take up similar questions. Recognizing that “recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students,” the Department of Education will issue new rules this summer for programs that train teachers.
Unlike the emerging debate over the Common Core, however, this pivotal moment to shape what gets valued in classroom instruction will draw limited attention. A relatively small subset of policy makers, K-12 interest groups, and schools of education will wrangle over the new guidelines.
And a stakeholder once central to these discussions, faculty members in colleges of liberal arts and sciences, will again be missing from an important democratic conversation.
This renewed attention to teacher preparation is, nonetheless, significant. As the White House explained, “There is no more important factor in successful schools than having a great teacher in every classroom.”
Until now, the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pursued this goal indirectly as part of a multi-faceted, bi-partisan education reform agenda that garners support from key business interests. Obama administration policies have encouraged competition, promoted merit pay, challenged tenure practices, demanded tougher performance measures, and required teachers to prove their instruction is tied to “college and career readiness” goals.
After years of qualified support, some schools of education and teacher unions are pushing back against this accountability agenda. Many will likely object to any proposed guidelines that retroactively connect student test scores to the preparation their teachers received years earlier. But these stakeholders will offer few significant alternatives to address the enduring criticism that the teaching profession draws from lower performing college graduates and benefits little from a surfeit of undemanding credentialing programs.
By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.
Rather than standing on the sidelines as these debates are resurrected this summer, faculty members in the arts, sciences and humanities should offer expert testimony. Federal policy on teacher quality directly impacts the quality of students enrolling in our institutions of higher education and ultimately shapes whether the best college graduates consider teaching as a viable and meaningful career.
We can draw some lessons from the past.
When number-crunching industrialists tried to impose new purposes and teaching practices on the late 19th-century high school, the most vocal opposition came from professors of literature, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, biology, and art. This liberal arts defense of teaching was loudest in the Midwest.
As early as 1879, University of Michigan President James B. Angell reminded institutions of higher education of their crucial role “apprising the public that teaching is itself an art.” Michigan faculty, with appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, spent the remainder of the century visiting schools, experimenting with new courses, and identifying a modest place for “pedagogics” in the curriculum.
More significantly, these scholars joined peers at Northwestern, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere to actively champion state credentialing policies that elevated the importance of preparing teachers with subject-matter expertise. On campus, this broad-based faculty effort led to conferences on teaching, new faculty-alumni networks, and the formation of clubs that openly discussed how this subject matter might best be taught.
But over time this tight connection between the liberal arts and teacher preparation practices fractured. As historians ranging from Frederick Rudolph to Larry Cuban have shown, the 20th-century university became distracted by new purposes and research imperatives. The emergent field of “Teacher Education” soon separated itself from the liberal arts by promoting an increasingly technical conception of teaching. New credentialing expectations were established, not through campuswide collaboration, but by specialists who believed educational science could isolate and measure the constituent parts of good teaching. By World War I, semi-autonomous departments of education had effectively replaced the chairs of pedagogy that were once positioned firmly within the arts and sciences.
This history is relevant today and helps explain a century-long cycle of diminished instruction in American education. Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option.
More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, “the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.”
By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.
This silence has had a disproportionately negative impact in poorer urban communities. The type of liberally educated teacher who once commonly taught in economically diverse public schools now migrates toward private institutions or to affluent suburbs. Meanwhile, policies that emphasize vocational “readiness” — at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking — communicate a dispiriting message of doubt to disadvantaged students who might benefit most from these educational virtues.
This same policy landscape discourages bright, service-minded college graduates from considering teaching as a meaningful lifelong pursuit. Even Teach for America, which has notably placed thousands of teachers in urban classrooms, is increasingly viewed as a steppingstone or worse. Many of its more insightful and talented recruits quickly leave teaching for careers that more readily reward their capacity for independent thought and imagination.
This vocational pattern has drawn far too little attention. And, not coincidentally, a profession that once mitigated inequality now increasingly reflects it.
What can we do to push back against these trends?
First and foremost, professors in the liberal arts need to get back into public school classrooms. Visiting schools and even observing our own former students teaching is not difficult to arrange. Even these modest experiences could profoundly alter our understanding of how much choice, accountability, and testing have shifted the instructional landscape since our own high school days.
Secondly, colleges of the liberal arts need to do more in staking a claim to teacher education and, like our 19th-century predecessors, invite teachers, principals, and superintendents to campus for open conversations about what we all value when hiring teachers.
Third, we can accept that these bridge-building activities can produce expertise and authority. With this new legitimacy -- armed with insight on the ways professional expectations can dehumanize teaching -- we can demand a seat at the table the next time local, state, or federal policy makers meet to make consequential decisions.
Our current ignorance of classroom practice leaves us vulnerable to a powerful media message that repeatedly demeans teachers. Time spent in schools disrupts this narrative and could remind us what masterful teachers continue to do.
They teach for understanding. They encourage and support students with the knowledge that learning can be uneven, contradictory, and even frustrating. They demand deeper thinking, applaud passion, reward accuracy, tap curiosity, and otherwise help students discover the inherent human need to solve problems and experience beauty.
Such noble learning pursuits have long been the domain of the liberal arts and humanities. These fields best reward our creativity, connect us to others, and offer standards for excellence. And they also show us how to handle ambiguity, face disappointment, and recover from failure.
As such, there is a growing understanding that the arts and humanities may offer teachers the most important instruction our children need to address a future only they can imagine.
In this light, we need not agree on whether good teachers are born or made. But if we want committed teachers who ask big questions, model open inquiry, and honor a young person’s mind, college faculty in the liberal arts will need to speak up and properly accept their historical role as teacher educators.
A generation of college students is ready think more holistically about preparatory programs that, like teaching, can be interesting, dynamic, demanding, and meaningful. And they will need a big campus to discover why teaching is, by any good measure, a career worthy of their thinking.
Stephen Mucher teaches history at Bard College and directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.