My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.

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!”

Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

Compared to Teaching, Charles Barkley’s Job is Easy

In a round about way, this provocative Selena Robert’s piece about Tiger Woods highlights what’s unique and especially challenging about teaching well. Robert’s quotes Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers. Most damning, Chamblee says Tiger extracts from the game but doesn’t give back to it.

Usually, the most popular analysts and critics—whether in sports, the arts, or politics—are extremely opinionated. People like analysts and critics who aren’t afraid to rip a failing player, actor, or elected official. In sports, Brandel Chamblee is simply following in the footsteps of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley.

What the best teachers do 180 days a year is infinitely harder than what Chamblee and Barkley and other popular analysts and critics do. Teachers have to thoughtfully provide constructive criticism to young people with whom they work closely day-after-day. Young people whose self esteem is a work-in-progress.

Chamblee knows he’s never getting invited to Tiger’s pad to have dinner so what does he have to lose? When Sports Illustrated wrote about Michael Jordan’s gambling problem he never spoke to any of their writers again. Which of course made it even easier for them to be critical. It’s easy for analysts and critics to rip failing public figures from the safety of their websites, studios, and media stages.

Teachers, on the other hand, often have to tell students up close and personal that their work doesn’t measure up. And most challenging of all, students are sensitive in different ways and to differing degrees meaning teachers have to continuously tweak their message. The best ones challenge students to do better without crippling their confidence or harming their relationship. It requires a mix of respect, tact, diplomacy, and care that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate. I’m most successful at it when I lead with students’ strengths. Encouragement makes everyone more receptive to how they can improve.

Parents face similar challenges on a daily basis. They often have to tell their children, “Sorry, that wasn’t thorough, thoughtful, or responsible enough.” The most successful ones do it in loving and supportive ways that are educative. Their actions communicate, “I want you to become more competent and independent”  rather than “Don’t forget I’m in charge.”

Compared to the teachers at the school down the street from you, Brandel Chamblee’s and Charles Barkley’s television jobs are a piece of cake.

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The Art of Science Teaching

Legions of teachers do amazing work with an incredible mix of young people every school day. Very few people are aware of just how amazing.

I’ve been hired by an independent middle school to help nine faculty strengthen their teaching, develop individual professional development plans, and map the school’s curriculum. Groovy stuff.

Last week I observed a former public high school science teacher who has a reputation for spending an inordinate amount of time in his classroom. A pro, who probably outworks every critic who think teachers have it easy, he spends his summers with other teacher leaders at a midwest university writing case studies and teaching other science educators how to teach them.

The class I observed was sublime. The unit is “Osmosis and Diffusion.” The case, based on true events, was titled “Agony & Ecstasy”. It revolved around three college friends who took their fourth friend to the emergency room after she started foaming at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably the morning after a party. The students assumed the role of the medical intern who had to figure out what was wrong with the sick woman. They thought of important questions to ask the friends, first by themselves, then with a partner, and then as a group. Had their friend been behaving oddly before the party? What was her prior medical history? Did she use alcohol or drugs at the party?

Eventually, the students learned they used Ecstasy at the party the previous night. After a short explanation of brain cells during which the teacher used his fingers, hands, and arms to illustrate how neuro transmitters work, the students logged onto Mouse Party, a University of Utah website designed for middle and high school students to learn about how drugs affect the brain. Using information found on Mouse Party the students filled out a data table on how Ecstasy works and listed what else they needed to know in order to figure out why the young woman was so sick.

Next the class will examine her blood work and learn about why salt/water imbalances lead to tissue and brain swelling. In the end, they’ll learn the young woman drank a tremendous amount of water to blunt the drug’s impact and suffered from hyponatremia.

This brief description of the class doesn’t begin to capture the teacher’s skill. He brilliantly tapped the students’ prior knowledge without getting bogged down on too many tangents, he grouped the students so that they’d work well together, he continually checked in on how each group was doing, and he modeled continuous learning by saying things like “I don’t know” and “You know what I’m curious about”. And he used technology so effortlessly that you may not have even thought about it had you been observing.

Best of all, he really wants my help in getting even better. And there’s always ways to improve. Every class, every day. Among a couple of other ideas, I suggested he “sell” the case better by putting one or more of the students names in it and by explaining that it’s an emergency situation so they have to work especially hard to solve it within two class periods. The only limit to enlivening it, I said, was his creativity. His eyes widened and he started talking excitedly about working with the theater teacher and incorporating props.

I had to wait to conference with him because Claire’s lizard had died the night before. He listened patiently, and repeated, “I’m so sorry.” He and Claire discussed the bad things that happen in lizards’ stomachs when they eat sand. He told her he was going to bring a lizard to the classroom so that her friend and her could have a positive experience. “What kind?” she asked. “A gecko lizard,” he explained.

She left without thanking him, but that didn’t ruffle his feathers. He’s used to it.

Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.

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.