Teaching & learning


Sprawling oak

The week after spring semester grades are due is devoted to faculty meetings, retreats, and professional development workshops: a chance to sit and talk with colleagues you’ve seen only in passing the rest of the semester. Although I’m no fan of meetings, I appreciate the chance to debrief after the end of a busy semester: what worked? What didn’t? What do we want to do moving forward?

Parking structure

If nothing else, a week of meetings gives faculty a chance to enjoy campus when it is at its lush and leafy best, without any students around to appreciate it. Having pushed so hard to finish the semester and its great gush of final grading, I find it soothing to be around the simple surety of leafing trees and greening grass.

Snowy campus with Steelworker

This past Saturday was a gray and sleeting day to cap off a gray and drizzly week. Despite the weather, I drove to UMass Boston for this year’s Engaging Practices conference: a chance to swap teaching techniques with area composition instructors. This is the third year I’ve gone to this conference, and I always get a bit lost either going or coming. UMass is south of Boston proper on a lip of land that juts into the Harbor, and on Saturday the campus felt even more liminal than usual as the grim, overcast sky scrubbed the horizon with pelting rain.

Campus Center

Because of an interminable construction project that currently encloses much of the UMass campus in chain link fences and concrete barriers, I had to park in a different lot than I have in past years. This parking lot would be within comfortable walking distance of my destination on a pleasant day, but Saturday (unfortunately) wasn’t pleasant. I was mildly doused with sideways-sleet by the time I’d made my way from car to conference, my umbrella being no match for a fierce April wind.

After lunch I took a quick walk from McCormack Hall to the Campus Center and back, these and other campus buildings being connected by a maze of enclosed catwalks. It was a perfect day to be inside talking shop with other Boston-area writing instructors, the sound of slanting sleet on glass the only reminder of the spring nor’easter raging outside.

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

Snowy day

I was in my office grading papers just over a week ago when news broke that billionaire campaign donor Betsy DeVos had been confirmed as Donald Trump’s education secretary. The news came as no surprise, as I knew Democrats didn’t have enough votes to block her confirmation, but it still felt like a punch in the gut: a reminder of how little Senate Republicans value public education and educators.

Framingham ram in snow

February in New England is a bleak time: a month of meteorologic mood swings, when it’s easy to give way to hopelessness. That particular Tuesday was a gray day, with a thick swirl of morning snowflakes tapering to drizzle by midday. It was a day to stay inside listening to plows clearing a shallow sludge of snow…unless, of course, you were one of the ones who skipped class to go into Boston for the Patriots’ victory parade, the ink-wash sky a perfect backdrop for confetti cannons, colorful signs, and cheering fans.

Snowy tables

I am the product of public elementary and secondary schools, and I went to a public college thanks to the generosity of my home state, the University of Toledo offering full scholarships to bright students who offered nothing in return but promise. With an education gained from twelve years in public elementary and secondary schools and four years in a public college, I was accepted into graduate school here in New England, paying my way with teaching assistantships and and a seemingly endless onslaught of adjunct teaching jobs. I was able to earn both a Masters and PhD because my public education got me into those (private) programs. Public schools opened the door, and hard work pulled me through.

Stairwell

All I have to show for the initial investment the state of Ohio put into my schooling is almost a quarter century spent teaching first-year college students, many of them (like me) the first in their families to go to college: each one, teach one. I haven’t leveraged my education to pursue fame or fortune: I can’t (unfortunately) buy Senators or befriend billionaires the way Betsy DeVos does. Instead, I’ve spent nearly 25 years teaching writing and critical thinking to students stretched thin as they juggle work and school, the costs at even public colleges skyrocketing even as the ranks of underpaid part-time college faculty has burgeoned.

It's true. Frederick Douglass is doing an amazing job. Big impact.

But what does Betsy DeVos know of any of this: DeVos, who has absolutely no public school experience? Yesterday I heard a radio story about the hidden problem of homelessness and food insecurity among students at Massachusetts public colleges: do you think DeVos has any understanding of that? When you decide to become an educator, you aren’t motivated by fame and fortune: there are no confetti cannons, signs, or screaming fans when Any Anonymous Teacher succeeds in teaching little Johnny how to read. (The humor of this skit comes, after all, from the very fact that teachers aren’t treated how professional athletes are.) You can tell a lot about a society’s priorities by paying attention to where it spends its cash, and by all indications we live in a world that values billionaires over children, so-called reality TV over genuine news, and self-centered celebrities over public servants.

My favorite part is the wrapping

We’ve reached the almost-end of another semester:  I taught my last Fall semester class this past Tuesday, and now I’m hunkered down at home with my end-term grading.  English professors love to complain about their grading piles, and I’m no exception…but even grading piles of exams and essay portfolios isn’t too terribly bad when you can lounge around the house doing it.

Supermarket snowman

After more than two decades (!!!) of college teaching, I’ve established a tried-and-true routine for the almost-end of the semester. The last week or two of classes, I lose sleep commenting on student papers, offering last-minute feedback on rough drafts my students will revise and re-submit to me in their final portfolios. This final push to the end of the semester feels like the end, but it’s only the first step: I liken it to a mountaineer’s trek to base camp. The way is all uphill, but you haven’t even begun the real climb.

Pellegrino Christmas tree

Finals week is when the big paper piles roll in, but before I get down to the business of grading, grading, grading, I invariably spend an inordinate amount of time getting all my organizational ducks in a row. In the past, I’ve likened this to a painter preparing a canvas: before I can tackle my grading piles, there is a long laundry-list of other, unrelated tasks to tend to, like sending Christmas cards, wrapping presents, and sorting through the bills and other mail that accumulated over the sleep-deprived final weeks of the semester.

Today I almost-finished these mundane chores, so tomorrow I’ll start grading in earnest, my proverbial deck cleared of other demands. So far, the weather has cooperated: today was snowy, so I left the house only when J and I walked to lunch, and tomorrow is supposed to be warm and rainy, a sloppy, snow-melting day that will offer the perfect backdrop for a day at my desk, reading exams and essay portfolios over a bottomless cup of tea.

Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

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