The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.





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.


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.

My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Your Success at Work Depends Upon This


According to the Wall Street Journal:

The ability to come across as likable is shaping how people are sized up and treated by bosses and co-workers.

Likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven.

More employers track employees’ likability on in-house social networks and chat services. They recruit those who are trusted and well-liked to spread information or push through changes. Some companies take these employees’ social clout into account when handing out raises and promotions.

Is this news? It’s always been the case, but maybe we’re not as cognizant of it as we could or should be. The middle and high school teachers-to-be that I work with sometimes talk about what makes them most anxious when they think about finally having their own classrooms. Most often it’s not knowing enough. When they toss and turn at night it’s because they’re worried about super intelligent students posing difficult, anxiety inducing questions. Inevitably, they find out that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

When teaching, it’s far better to know one’s subject matter inside and out than not, but classroom success most often hinges on one’s ability to create a rapport with students. More simply, to be likable, which you should never confuse with being a pushover.

Here’s how to be more likable according to the WSJ’s workplace experts:

• Be authentic—To be more likable, behave in a way that feels natural and comfortable, rather than stiff or self-absorbed.

• Be curious—Show interest in others, make eye contact and ask questions about others’ opinions and activities.

• Be expressive—Vary tones of voice and smile, and show enthusiasm about what you’re saying.

• Listen—Focus on what others are saying and show that you are listening carefully, rather than getting distracted.

• Mimic others—Mirror the expressions or posture of the person you are talking to, in order to create a sense of familiarity.

• Find similarities—Actively try to find topics of interest you share with a listener, rather than talking only about what interests you.

The experts contend that likability is learned, but I can’t help but wonder, when a work coach of sorts advises an employee to act more naturally, wouldn’t being conscious of that notion make it even more difficult? I’d be skeptical of any stiff or self-absorbed person were to suddenly say, “Okay, watch this, now I’m going to act more naturally.” I want to believe teachers in training and others can learn these skills, I’m just not sure how best to teach them.

What say you?