Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening

The false promise of ed tech, part two. Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening.

It’s day two of my university’s four-day-long orientation for entering students. Two steps at a time I hurriedly climb the bleachers of our large auditorium to an empty seat in the very back. Six hundred students have gathered for their first academic experience, a faculty panel discussion of a common reading, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014). First, however, the Associate Provost gives a talk on academic behaviors important for college success; advising students to “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged . . . be open to constructive criticism.”

A long ways from the closest students, a moderator stands at a podium. The students in the back and I look up at a large audio-visual projection of two formally dressed professors sitting at a table across from the moderator. The conversation begins. Question one, “How did your respective disciplines—Psychology and English Literature—help you better understand the novel?” The professors intelligently deconstruct the text. The second question begins similarly, “Again, looking through your disciplinary lenses. . . .” More thoughtfully expressed insights follow. Despite the professors’ expert analysis, something is amiss. Within ten minutes, the students in front of me start to stir, smart phones materialize out of thin air, a few laptops open, two students exchange backrubs. As ten minutes turn to forty, nearly everyone tunes out.

Seymour Sarason offered an apt metaphor for education reform in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform (1993). It is, he explained, like an ocean storm. During an ocean storm, the surface is markedly changed as the result of 100 mile per knot winds, darkening skies, mountainous waves, and incessant lightening strikes. Yet as one descends to the ocean floor, the water chemistry, darkness, and animal life remain completely unchanged. Too often, the modern university classroom, or in this case auditorium, is the ocean floor. Despite the fact that most “always on” young adults text continuously throughout the day, whether they’re in their cars or our classrooms, classroom teaching remains largely unchanged—professors mostly talk and students pretend to listen.

There should be a corollary to the admonition, “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged,” such as “Faculty will resist talking at you. Instead they will capitalize on your energy for learning by developing personalized learning environments characterized by meaningful interaction.” The teaching disconnect so powerfully illustrated by the common reading panel discussion provides faculty the opportunity to model the other highlighted academic behavior, “Be open to criticism.”

Deborah Meier argues in The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling” (1995, p. xi). Likewise, Decker Walker contends inFundamentals of Curriculum, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them” (1990, p. 479). University faculty rarely apply these aphorisms because they think of themselves first and foremost as mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists who also happen to teach. Consequently, scant time is spent thinking about whether conventional teaching methods are working. Even less time is spent crafting alternative ones; as a result, a talking at students status quo prevails.

This lack of introspection means faculty rarely engage in thoughtful conversation about their teaching strengths, styles, and struggles. That’s why the common reading panel discussion was implemented nearly identically the previous two years. No one on the First Year Program Committee has dared to state the obvious—if the goal is to engage students, it’s not working.

There are several reasons why the common reading panel discussion is not engaging students, but to understand the most salient causes, it’s important to know that Fowler’s novel is a riveting and sometimes emotional story that prompts lots of thinking about human-animal relations. One reason the students tuned out the two distant faculty members sitting on the stage is that they both read their rehearsed responses to questions they had received a few months earlier. Their conscientious preparation and obvious insight was not enough to compensate for the impersonal space coupled with a complete lack of eye contact.

Most importantly though, the wording of the questions, and the highlighting of their academic disciplines, meant they spent almost all of their time deconstructing the text as English and Psychology scholars when the story begged a human response. The professors’ intelligence was evident, but not their humanity. That’s why so many students turned to social media. Parker Palmer, inThe Courage to Teach, illuminates why the reading panel went poorly by detailing a typology of teachers’ questions:

• The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question—what subjects shall we teach?

• When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

• Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question—for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

• But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question—who is the teacher? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I related to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? (1998, p. 4)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that educational technology is the key to engaging the “always on” generation. In contrast, I believe the best way forward is to pay more attention to the self that teaches. Based upon the wording of the questions, the First Year Committee thought of the faculty panelists exclusively as scholars. Students would have responded much more positively if the panelists had first talked more spontaneously and authentically about how the story affected them as human beings—vulnerability being a key factor in learning.

This seeming reticence to explore the self that teaches takes me back to a few years ago when I participated in a faculty seminar with colleagues from across our liberal arts campus. During the seminar I enjoyed getting to know Kai, a young English professor, whom I learned was a talented and accomplished poet. At the time, we were both teaching first year writing. Before the start of one of our meetings, I told Kai about a successful class activity that was based upon an essay I had published a few years earlier. Dumbfounded, he said, “You share your writing with your students?!” “Yes,” I replied, “usually a few times each semester.” The thought had never entered his mind. The more Kai and I embrace Parker’s idea of the self that teaches and reveal something of our humanity, the better our odds of truly connecting with our “always on” students.

Embracing the self that teaches in order to reveal one’s humanity is admittedly abstract advice. How might that concept inform a new and improved first academic experience for any university’s entering students? The answer lies in the second half of my university’s common reading experience—small, writing seminar–based discussion groups of sixteen students. My group was relieved when I noted, “That could’ve gone better.” Then I began our discussion by reminding them that people have markedly different feelings about animals. Next, I explained the evolution of my thinking about animals and how that impacted the way I read the novel. The students were interested in how fearful I was of dogs as a child and were amused by my foolhardy attempts to outrun a few. Then, I confessed that as a middle-aged adult I didn’t understand how a few of my close friends thought of their dogs almost as children until my family pressed me to get one of our own. “Now, after nine fun-filled years with our amazing labradoodle,” I said, “I completely understood their special bond.”

I used my story as a springboard for talking about the importance of being open-minded in college to different ways of thinking and being. I also asked them about their relationship with animals and whether they liked the book or not. Forgetting their phones, they engaged one another. We should eliminate the large group faculty panel discussion altogether, in favor of the smaller, more personal discussion groups. And if we can get the faculty small group leaders to reveal something of their humanity, we may engage the “always on” generation in ways that revitalize the university classroom.

References

Fowler, K. J. (2014). We are all completely beside ourselves: A Novel. New York: Plume.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1993). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, D. (1990). Fundamentals of curriculum. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

Teacher Appreciation

Classrooms are organic entities. Each class session contributes in some small way to negative or positive momentum.

This fall my first year writing seminar titled “Teaching’s Challenges and Rewards” began positively and then got better and better. It was a great group of young adults who got to know one another during orientation. From the beginning they decided to give my more student-centered course design and informality the benefit of the doubt.

I lead discussions one and two, and then they paired up and took turns co-leading discussions three through ten. The first pair did a great job preparing their guide, facilitating the discussion, and setting the bar high. Afterwards, I detailed exactly what they had done so well thus nudging the bar even higher. And during that first discussion I purposely sat on the floor, out of sight of most of them, to ensure it would truly be their discussion.

Did their writing improve? For the most part yes as they’re in the process of detailing in their final papers.

One of the students was a Portland hipster who was committed to becoming a nurse. I liked her a lot. Mid-semester she confided in us that she spent a lot of her senior year in high school hiking in and around Portland. She was personable, a thinker, and always had nice insights.

A few weeks ago, after class, she asked if she could talk to me. Turns out she was troubled because the course content had gotten under skin. Now she explained, “I think I want to teach secondary science more than I want to become a nurse.” I told her she had time to learn more about both and that it was a win-win situation, she’d be a great nurse or teacher, both important, selfless professions. Complicating her future was rewarding.

The students’ final papers are trickling into my inbox. Several have added notes like this most recent one, “Thank you for teaching such a wonderful class in my first semester at college! I really enjoyed my time, and I look forward to the next three and a half years I get to spend at this university. This was a very interesting intro class and you were a very good professor to have! I appreciate all of your hard work!”

That’s not meant to be self-congratulatory. I share it knowing I can’t take much credit for the course’s success. It was a great course mostly because they always came prepared, they interacted thoughtfully with one another, and they worked hard on all of their papers. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot I could have done if they came unprepared, refused to engage one another, and threw their papers together at the last minute. If this sample of young people is any indication, I’m happy to report the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

I also share it to highlight how much easier it is to teach adults. It’s rare for elementary, middle, and high school students to write or tell their teachers how much they appreciate them. That’s why K-12 teachers deserve much, much more of the public’s respect. Instead of scapegoating them for a litany of social and economic problems over which they have little to no control, we should compensate for their students’ who too often take them for granted by acknowledging the importance of their work, tangibly honoring it, and making sure they know they’re appreciated.