Teaching Goals for This Semester

I finished my classes last May running on fumes. All year I was teaching new classes, trying out new strategies, attempting to keep students engaged with challenging material and projects. The semester wasn’t a flop, but the rewards felt meager when I compared them to all my efforts at professional development, new classroom activities, and stimulating discussion starters. My mind kept returning to a post a graduate school friend wrote now nearly a year ago about conserving energy while teaching, but I kept coming up short on insight into what that might look like in my classroom.

Last year when a more senior colleague and hugely successful teacher observed my classroom, she encouraged me to let students do more of the work and to cultivate a little less formal atmosphere. Her words resonated with me–I didn’t like dominating the classroom with my voice either. But it’s hard not to also hear this feedback as a prompt to change my personality to be more of an entertainer. Still, I spent the summer trying to think of ways to liven things up in ways that wouldn’t feel too weird and contrived.

As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been well aware of the evils of lecturing and hierarchical teacher-student dynamics. But I’ve also been in many classrooms where student-led discussions fell flat and where attempts to get students to take ownership of their own learning resulted in students feel lost rather than empowered. On top of that, working at a teaching institution results in a lot of pressure to be awesome at teaching, and for me that translates to a meticulously prepared lesson plan, non-stop demonstrations of brilliance, and blissfully happy students. No biggie.

At the beginning of this semester I randomly picked up a book left behind by a predecessor, Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Donald Finkel. In the book, Finkel describes a discussion technique where in each class session a different student takes questions from the rest of the class and writes them on the board. The students select the 3-4 questions they most want to discuss, and the teacher sits back while the students dive in.

Yes! A format I can follow!

So I’m using Finkel’s approach this semester, augmenting it by prompting students to prepare three questions/talking points for each class period as part of earning participation points. Then at the beginning of class, I give them time to write these questions down and briefly share with their classmates nearby. Like the classic pair-and-share, this gives students a chance to articulate and vet their ideas before presenting them to the whole group. Only then do we proceed with collecting questions on the board.*

In my Writing as Social Action class, a student scribe listed different conceptions of community represented in the assigned essays. In the second column, students reported what expectations for the individual members would be for each conception/vision of community. Next students discussed among themselves and as a group which conceptions seemed ideal, realistic, problematic, etc.

In my Writing as Social Action class, a student scribe listed different conceptions of community represented in the assigned essays. In the second column, students reported what expectations for the individual members would be for each conception/vision of community. Next students discussed among themselves and as a group which conceptions seemed ideal, realistic, problematic, etc.

It’s still quite early in the semester, so we will see how turning things over to the students in this way works long term. So far I’ve used this technique for both first-year and upper-level classes, and in both contexts, I was very happy with the insights,  level of discussion, and willingness in these polite Midwestern students to gently push back against each others’ ideas. There’s been surprisingly few extended moments of silence and no individuals dominating the conversation. At least 50% of the class is actively participating in the discussions (and I hope to see this number grow).

Some things that still need fine-tuning include getting the quiet ones talking while still keeping participation voluntary and free-flowing. I also worry about the students who don’t enjoy class discussions and who may be tuning out because of that. I worry about the super smart students who appear bored or uncertain. I worry about the students I don’t know yet and have difficulty gauging at all. Hopefully with enough variation in class activities and readings, everyone will get their needs met at least part of the time.

I’ve long been assigning students reading responses in some fashion or another. Sometimes they submit them ahead of time and then I organize their responses around themes that emerge and use that as a basis for class discussions. Other times the reading response is more like a quiz, demonstrating that they’ve done the reading. Whatever the format, the idea is that students have something concrete in front of them to refer to during class discussions. Where this new technique improves upon those approaches is in giving students the unfiltered latitude to determine the flow of discussion. And prompting them to come to class with talking points assures that at the very least they will have a few places to begin the discussion.

As we know, the great thing about teaching is that there is always something more to learn. That can be discouraging too when learning new approaches and techniques feels like a Sisyphean task, requiring great effort with no finish line.

So here I am, rolling one more technique up the hill, but I have to say it doesn’t feel as heavy this time. I feel less drained and more energized after class. Class prep prompts less anxiety because I know the students are carrying more of that weight.

There’s even energy left over to write a blog post.

 

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*Now my class time is divided into three distinct parts: 1) A few retrieval activities that recap the preceding class periods, 2) the student-led discussion, and 3) a wrap-up of the discussion with any points that need clarification/connection/context and setting up upcoming readings, assignments, etc. Hopefully this provides some of the variation necessary to address all the students’ learning needs.

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Donald Trump: Our Scapegoat of the Moment

Responses to Donald Trump’s recent “solution” to the ongoing refugee crisis range from outrage to applause. Many appear to be convinced that closed borders, registries, badges, and internment camps are a matter of national security. An yet, as others are pointing out, such policies are strikingly similar to those of Nazi Germany. Here’s the point I’m afraid too many of us will miss: like Trump, Hitler’s approach wasn’t really unique for his time, just more extreme.

This semester I am teaching a rhetorical theory survey course that draws on the ongoing Presidential primary campaigns for examples of the rhetorical concepts we are learning about in class. Two of the names that come up the most frequently in students’ responses and class discussions are, unsurprisingly, Hitler and Trump. (In fact, I’ve stopped just short of banning their names from class in order to bring more variety to our discussions.) Granted, Trump excels at shock-and-awe statements that attract media attention and we read Kenneth Burke’s “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” so I get it.

In addition to Burke’s thoughtful rhetorical analysis of the strategies in Mein Kampf, we have also discussed the history of race in the U.S. and the legacy of racism institutionalized through eugenics, social policy, and Jim Crow laws. We have learned how pervasive the practices of regulating, marginalizing, and policing the reproduction and behavior of certain ethnic and racial groups were in Western Europe and the U.S. in the early twentieth century. In fact, in the 1930s Nazi Germany based its sterilization laws on California law, and certain U.S. officials expressed admiration for the way Germany was handling its so-called “undesirable” populations (see Dorothy Roberts and Marouf Hasian). In fact, rhetoric scholar Stephen Katz goes so far as to argue that the holocaust was not an aberration in the history of Western civilization, but was the culmination of its emphasis on expediency, efficiency, and rationalism on which the West prides itself.

These discussions have prompted me to think about the way that U.S. politicians, their proponents, and commentators almost reflexively compare opponents to Hitler. In light of these shared sentiments between the U.S. and Germany in the early twentieth century, how is it that Hitler became the benchmark for all that is evil? Sure, the horror of the death camps is beyond words, but the underlying logic was swirling in American waters too. Is it simply a lack of knowledge about our own history?

I want to suggest that just as the Jewish people were Hitler’s scapegoats for whom he blamed all of Germany’s problems, so too Hitler has become a political scapegoat for Americans today. As I’ve discussed with students, scapegoating goes beyond mere criticism, but it is a practice of setting up a particular entity to bear all the blame for all kinds of unrelated problems. It is a process of externalizing all manner of frustrations, disappointments, and failures onto a singular, identifiable entity in order to preserve or construct our own sense of self. In the chaos of post-WWI Germany, Hitler singled out those he deemed unfit in order to preserve a sense of national pride.  Thus when American politicians make–often implied–comparisons to the holocaust and Hitler, Hitler becomes a twenty-first century scapegoat, allowing us to externalize the latent or active racism in our world onto a distant, already-hated entity, allowing us to feel better about ourselves because, after all, we are not personally responsible for the slaughter of millions.

And to take this idea a step further, I want to also suggest that when we denounce Trump for his dehumanizing, unthinkable solutions, we should also remember the ongoing outpouring of hate toward people protesting racist intimidation on American college campuses. We should think about the refusal of the American people to deal with the international trade policies and war profiteering that set off domino-like effects that bring so many desperate immigrants to our borders. We should consider how we have elected and re-elected officials who have helped their friends make millions of dollars by incarcerating massive numbers of Americans of color. In other words, when we denounce Trump’s outrageous ideas (as we certainly should), let’s resist the urge to make Trump our scapegoat by focusing only on him (as he is counting on us to do), but instead, let’s broaden our scope to think about just how normal the logics of his ideas are. That’s the real scandal.

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Comment policy: Please challenge, argue, and contest your heart out–just keep it civil and evidence-based. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face over a cup of coffee, please don’t say it here.

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Why the Duggars Say They’re Not Quiverfull

On Facebook a friend who is familiar with my area of research asked me to weigh in on the Josh Duggar scandal. (For anyone who has just returned from hiking in the wilderness without any access to TV or social media for the past few days, I’m talking about the oldest son of the “19 Kids and Counting” reality TV show who recently admitted to having molested five young girls twelve years ago when he was fourteen.) While there’s been plenty of the typical inane news coverage, there has also been very thoughtful critique from bloggers who are familiar with the social and religious circles in which the Duggars move. Some of these bloggers explain how the absence of consent is at the heart of this situation, the theology behind this absence, how these views warp normal human development, and the frustration with major media outlets who never seem to get it

These writers do such a great job that there doesn’t seem to be much more for me to say about the situation even though I wrote an entire dissertation that traced the social and rhetorical development of “family values” and its legacy in the Duggar’s strain of Christian fundamentalism.

But my friend’s question on Facebook reminded me that I do have something to say, particularly for readers who had normal American childhoods going to public school, summer camp, playing sports, taking dance classes, and watching cartoons Saturday morning. Since the Duggars are white and speak standard American English, it can be very easy to assume they are just like you–only a boatload more kids than were in your home growing up. But they’re not, and this blogger does a great job explaining why that matters.

On the other hand, most mainstream Americans have a very limited vocabulary for talking about people like the Duggars are on the far right edge of Protestant fundamentalism (or getting close to it). There’s the c-word, cult, and that’s about as far as it goes. The problem with using cult to describe these contexts is that it invokes a world that doesn’t capture the reality of this strain of Protestant fundamentalism very well at all. It invokes a world of recruits confined to damp basements, chanting crowds, forced behaviors, members cut off from family and friends, a top-down-structure with clearly defined hierarchies.

This is not the Duggars’ world. Their strain of fundamentalism doesn’t function like a 1970s cult with a rigid boundaries between the in-group and out-group. Rather, its processes are thoroughly post-structural. Everything Foucault said about atomized power applies here. While there are certainly specific organizations such as IBPL, Vision Forum (recently defunct), or HSLDA, like the Moral Majority of the 1980s, no one organization has exclusive influence over other orbiting bodies of related and often overlapping ideology.  And I haven’t even begun to name all the homeschooling conferences, the para-church organizations, and lobbying groups who also circulate in this universe. The leadership of these groups often share personal connections; individuals who attend their conferences, read their materials, and buy into their ideology mix and mingle–they don’t identify with just one organization. Therefore, people like the Duggars can deny being part of “the Quiverfull movement” as so many journalists call it, because to them it’s not about joining an organized movement, but about following a very narrow, (to them) literal interpretation of the Bible.

As a result, unlike traditional hierarchical religious structures where members can be compelled to comply with the institution on the basis of its authority alone, these organizations evolve in a marketplace of ideas where speakers and writers must draw on all available means to draw an audience for what they are selling. As a result, rhetorical appeals in this universe are often fascinating to analyze as they are layered with obscure references, audience identity-building, scapegoating, and fear mongering. Like cults, people are drawn in by the promise of identification with success and goodness and division from all that is wrong with the world.

Where the most disturbing power dynamics play out is in the home. The absolute power typically associated with cults happens not so much in the organization (unless you happen to be so unlucky as to work at its headquarters, or attend its schools), but is reserved for the patriarchal figure who maintains a cult-like control over his family. Yet this control is cloaked in nostalgic “family values” terminology that assumes parental figures must “shelter” children by shutting out the evil of the world “out there” and grooming them to become compliant members of the household. Cultivating the image of successfully shielding one’s family from the influences of the broader world becomes paramount–the means for accumulating social capital in these religious circles.

And the day it is discovered that their child has molested other children in the home, it is far more important to maintain the image of innocence than experience the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they have failed in their life’s mission to keep their children pure from the filth of the sinful world. Since they rejected women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy long ago, there is little impetus for recognizing the personal horror of the assault on the victims. Rather, “forgiveness” becomes a useful term for maintaining the charade that all is well. The only time that Christian fundamentalists like these have any interest in the idea of equality is when it helps them mask the abuse of power.

And they get away with it because of the loose network of organizations that resists any real accountability for heads of households. It allows the Duggars to claim they are just following the Bible, not an abuse-condoning organization. And when this happens to a family that doesn’t have a public image to maintain, this hyper-individualistic structure allows others in their community to turn a blind eye, pretend they didn’t see anything. Because nothing is quite so sacred to these folks as the independence of the nuclear family–not even the well-being of young children.

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More Thoughts on Ed Tech

Today I find myself at the tail end of finals, a brief season of role-reversal where students work while professors Facebook.

As a follow-up to my previous post, I wanted to point out a recent article that made a similar point, Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. The first comments showed how deeply the author’s argument resonated with many (although the defenders of ed tech soon swooped in to defend their turf, reminding readers that chalkboards are technology too–a wet-noodle counter-argument for sure). Technology can only amplify what is already present, offering excellent opportunities for school settings that are already doing well, but doing little good (if any) in schools that are suffering from lack of resources.

In other words, all that tech-rich education can actually promise is making tech companies rich. Doing this in the face of slashed federal, state, and local education budgets shows what a detriment high-tech can be when it is valued more than things such as small classrooms, current text books, arts programs, professional development, and nutritious food.

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“Message” Misses the Point

Recently a Huff Po article, Message to My Freshman Students, has been stirring up discussion on my Facebook feed. The author, Keith Parsons, PhD., is a philosophy professor who expresses frustration with the expectations his first-year students bring to college.  While his overall tone is condescending and somewhat abrasive, he owns those qualities, essentially telling his students to toughen up and take responsibility for their own learning.

I’m divided in my reaction to this open letter. On one hand, the tone is off-putting. I know how difficult it can be to learn when a philosophy of “students are responsible for their own learning” is interpreted as a license for terrible teaching. Even when such classrooms might claim to be student-centered with teachers/instructors refraining from lecturing or offering much of any conceptual framing, students may not actually learn much when they haven’t the foggiest about what do do with the content of the course. Luckily for me, I’ve suffered very little from boring lectures, but I’ve survived enough dense conference presentations to grasp how very painful they must be, especially when accompanied by dismissive attitude. And Parsons seems to be justifying that kind of approach.

On the other hand, as a graduate instructor and now as an assistant professor, I also have been exasperated at some students’ expectations that college will spoon-feed them–not just broccoli and peas, but pureed broccoli and peas. And if they spit them out, their professors should sweeten them with sugar and thin them out with enough water so that the course work can be bottle-fed too.

But when students’ educational experiences have been dominated by testing-taking, we shouldn’t be so surprised by these expectations. What I find far more troubling is when a similar message comes through teaching and learning materials that tell professors to take lessons from computer games to “game-ify” their courses or to offer points as motivation for every little desired behavior. Although I have learned much from these kinds of books such as Teaching Naked and Make it Stick, I’m troubled when these suggestions are accompanied by the implicit promise that if only teachers were to use the proffered strategy of the month, students would magically transform into the white unicorns we’ve been waiting for.

My hunch is that students’ lack of engagement may be less about course content and teaching style and more about being 19 and doubtful that investing effort will ultimately serve them well. It’s more about managing jobs, extra-curricular activities, illnesses (mental and physical), family responsibilities, and school all at the same time. It’s more about being caught between the rock of “you-must-go-to-college-or-you’ll-be-doomed-for-life” and the hard place of “there’s-no-guarantee-you’ll-get-a-job-that-justifies-your-student-loans-in-the-end-anyway.”

So maybe the question of where responsibility for student learning lies–with the hard-nosed professor or with the infantile student–is beside the point. Maybe lack of student engagement has as much to do with an environment of lackluster opportunity for students and too many underpaid, overworked professors. Maybe it’s about an environment where funding for education is slashed year after year and where trade deals ship opportunity overseas while those of us who should know better fight over crumbs.

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