Put A Fork In It

The semester is a wrap. My parting words to my students.

“The very end of my first class as a brand new professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC ended in a humorous manner. I spoke for about ten minutes, doing my best to tie together all the course’s loose ends. I was pulling out my egghead professor vocab and thought everyone was listening closely. After I finished, Josh raised his hand. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘Josh is going to thank me for the brilliant summary and the course more generally.’ Instead, he said, ‘Dude, you have a pierced ear!’ Then the discussion devolved into why I had never came to class with an earring. Lesson learned, keep the end-of-semester spiel very, very brief.

Price writes that ‘the more we train ourselves to notice delights—the everyday beauties and kindnesses and amusing absurdities, the things that make us laugh or that we feel grateful for—we will feel more positive.’ She goes on to suggest we say ‘delight’ out loud whenever we experience anything that sparks joy. I’m trying to adapt this practice. This morning, on my drive in through the Nisqually Delta, I saw a huge flock of birds flying in ‘V’ formation. I said ‘delight’ to myself. Then I immediately thought of this class and what I wanted to say to you now that we’re at the finishing line.

And here it is. Delight.

It’s been a complete and total delight to get to know each of you individually and collectively. I hope the rest of Year 1 goes well and that we cross paths again sometime in the future.”

Ron

The Academically Disengaged

We need more Bill Waltons, the former college and professional basketball legend whose playing days were cut short by numerous injuries and related surgeries.

“My injuries piled up,” Walton explains. “Bad back, broken bones, ankle and foot problems, broken hands and wrists, knee injuries, and broken noses.” By his count, Walton had 38 orthopedic surgeries to mend his various injuries.

Currently, Walton is a wonderfully idiosyncratic basketball analyst whose “glass of life” is constantly overflowing. The list of things he appreciates is exceedingly long. His positivity is contagious. His commentary is 45% basketball and 45% philosophical, interdisciplinary ramblings. The remaining 10% of the time he’s busting his partner’s chops. Their faux exasperation with each other can’t hide their chemistry and mutual affection. It just works.

Midway through yesterday’s UCLA-Oregon game (Bruins off the Duck schneid), Walton said something that instantly clarified my thinking about my teaching this fall. He said, “You can’t learn what you don’t want to know.” Turns out, after a little sleuthing, he was quoting Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who in one of their songs wrote, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.” Shame on Walton, one of the greatest passing bigs of all time, for not crediting Garcia.

Much is being written about the growing academic achievement gender gap. Here is my Reader’s Digest point of view on it based upon my “on the ground” experience. A third of my students are male. At least half of them are excellent, by which I mean they think deeply about what they read, participate actively in class discussions, and write better and better over the course of the semester as a result of working at it. They’re sensitive, caring, and socially conscious. A privilege to work with.

The other subset doesn’t read, participates sporadically in ways that do not deepen our discussions, and pay little to no attention to their peers. They’re way more interested in their phones than what we’re reading and thinking through.

“Well Ron,” the K-12 teachers are probably saying, “your job is to get them interested.” I don’t want to ever become some of my colleagues whose answer to this dilemma is for the Admissions Office to just admit “better” students. My K-12 friends are right, but so is Walton, I mean Garcia, no matter how much magic my engaged students and I can muster, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.”

Compared to my female students, a disproportionate number of my male students don’t like to read and lack curiosity about themselves and others. While still a minority of males, this disengaged subset seems most interested in two things. A diploma and a job. Rightly or wrongly convinced of the need for a diploma for improved job prospects, they are resigned to playing the game of school for four years. At a large cost. 

These students would benefit immensely from a gap year or two. Especially if we had a respected National Service program that they could opt into. 

Absent that, some of the apathetic will do just enough to graduate relatively unchanged. And for many others, their apathy will get the best of them, and all they will have to show for their limited effort is years of debt.

Teaching My Ass Off

Just because I’m oldy and moldy, some might think I should call it a career. But the passion for the classroom still burns bright. I woke up at 2:30a.m. with these thoughts rattling around. Don’t call it a lecture, that’s demeaning. It was more of a homily/sermon.

  • all we’re doing is practicing “thoughtful inquiry”and learning to have “true fun” with ideas— playfulness, connection, flow
  • the cutting and pasting of ideas/approaches to life from other especially thoughtful people
  • social infrastructure . . . we are products of our environments, you are the company you keep
  • how closely have you read the key content, how closely have you listened to your classmates’ ideas, how much time/energy have you invested in examining your inner life?
  • epiphany—a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure

How closely has the student-writer read the key content?

  • there are no references to any of the author’s key concepts . . . the paper could’ve been written completely independent of the reading—35%
  • the student-writer briefly touches upon the author’s key concepts—55%
  • there are repeated, thoughtful references to the author’s main idea(s), the student-writer’s thinking is changed— a little or a lot—as a result of their careful consideration of the author’s main ideas; the student-writer’s ideas are nuanced and demonstrate an appreciation for complexity—10%

Monday Required Reading

School starts tomorrow, so time to buckle down. Plus, Scottie loves assigned reading.

  1. I want one.
  2. Turns out, it’s really hard to scare a seal. Bonus trivia, the Byrnes clan is celebrating the fact that eldest daught lives 5 miles from the Ballard Locks as of today.
  3. Effective altruism has gone mainstream.
  4. The six forces that fuel friendship.
  5. How does it feel to be a teacher right now?
  6. Guilty as charged.

My Total Lack of Self-Awareness

The Good Wife and I are in marriage counseling, not because our relationship is bad, but because we want it to be better.

I deserve no credit for this, the GalPal has taken all the initiative. And therein lies one of the challenges. I think we should be able to improve things on our own if we carefully consider the different dynamics of the alternating peaks and valleys of our partnership. And then accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. You know, easy-peasy, just use more of our brain power.

Now I know that assumption is terribly flawed. We can’t think our way to a better relationship, it’s much more about heart, and dare I say, feelings. If it has anything to do with intelligence, it’s solely emotional intelligence.

Our counselor diagnosed our main problem quickly in a way that resonated with both of us. Most of the time, when we try to resolve conflicts, one or both of us are too angry, or emotionally “flooded” or “unregulated” to show genuine care for one another and have a constructive conversation. We ignore the flooding at our own peril, proceeding to get more and more angry, and ultimately, saying hurtful things we inevitably regret.

One epiphany came when our counselor asked each of us to describe the physiological changes we experience during the initial stages of a challenging conversation. The GoodWife aced that quiz describing in some detail several physiological changes. The weekend warrior athlete who constantly assesses how his body is or isn’t functioning while swimming, running, and cycling, couldn’t describe a single physiological change; earning a donut hole on the quiz.

The point of physiological self-awareness is to make sure we only enter into challenging conversations when each of us is regulated, meaning sufficiently calm to engage in a kind and caring manner.

I wasn’t as embarrassed by my total lack of physiological self-awareness as one might think, more intrigued. How can that be? Why the hell is that? That realization has me now trying to get into some kind of touch with my physiological married self. To quote Bill Murray, “Baby steps.”

I think the answer to “how can that be” and “why is that” is two-fold. I had two great parents, three older siblings who I tried to watch and learn from, and an overall positive childhood, but there was no intentional or deliberate conflict resolution or social-emotional teaching or learning more generally going on in our house. Ever.

Nor was there any intentional or deliberate conflict resolution or social-emotional teaching or learning going at any of the K-12 schools I attended. Extra-curricular activities included. Sunday School and church youth groups included.

So it’s not entirely surprising that I failed the quiz.

By this point, my older sissy has stopped reading, thinking to herself, “Ron, it’s not all about you.”

It’s too bad she checked out because I know my experience is that of damn near every male growing up in these (dis)United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We talk about “food deserts” in poor communities, but what about “emotional deserts” in every community, irrespective of economics?

What would emotionally intelligent parenting for both boys and girls look like? What do emotionally intelligent parents know and what are they doing that’s different?

How can educators, coaches, art and music leaders, youth pastors, anyone in youth leadership positions begin fostering emotional intelligence?

How can parents better partner with other adults in their children’s lives to help their sons and daughters develop some semblance of emotional and physiological self-awareness?

We need more attention and better reporting on these things. Meaning engaging and accessible stories that will educate and inspire ordinary people who only know what they’ve experienced. Stories that spark imagination, challenge the status quo, and foster new and better ways of relating to one another.

How To Make A Positive Difference

A fall semester postscript.

When evaluating their progress at the end of the semester, my first year writing students say the same thing over and over. “In high school, all we ever did was literary analysis. Intro. Three body paragraphs with supporting details. A conclusion. I learned the formula, but it was mind numbing.”

Why are secondary teachers stuck in literary analysis mode? Is it as simple as teaching to Advanced Placement tests? If so, maybe we should risk the ire of parents determined to pass their privilege on and ditch Advanced Placement altogether.

Why not ask students to occasionally write about themselves in the context of big questions? To be introspective. To dare to be personal. To be philosophical. It takes some of my students longer than others to pivot to first person “I”, but eventually everyone sees value in it. Some experience an immediate awakening. For example, in one final paper a student wrote, “I don’t think I truly understood myself until this class because I never contemplated my biggest motivators. Why doesn’t my mom love me? Why do I feel so insignificant? Am I enough?”

K-12 teachers might reply that they’re not therapists so why venture into personal rabbit holes. I’m advocating for public, group-based community; not private, individual therapy.

Another student explained the difference especially well:

“Even on the days with the best attendance, our classroom does not exceed twenty people. This has allowed us to know each other on a deeper level than that of just classmates. I feel as though each person in class is now someone I can call my friend. Through group discussions, the sharing of intimate parts of our lives, and just laughing together in general, we have discovered all the similarities each of us share. As a group, we have formed our own sort of community, filled with people of all different majors and parts of the country. I can confidently say that I have learned just as much from talking to my classmates as I have from the assigned class readings.

Despite the different reasons for each student being placed into Writing 101, we are each leaving the class with one commonality. We formed a special little community built on finding our footing in a new place, trust, and compassion. . . . We made connections that could last a lifetime and learned lessons from one another that changed our perspectives.”

Since classmates don’t assign grades, students are socialized to pay attention exclusively to their teachers. Watch for yourself, in the vast majority of classrooms, students completely tune out one another.

Dig this paradox. My teaching is most consequential when I fade into the background and get my students to listen to, and learn from, one another.

Part Of The Circle

One-on-one conferences with my first year writers are a wrap. At the end of our convos I asked what most contributed to their learning and what if anything I should tweak going forward.

We ended up liking each other, so the feedback was almost universally positive. One recurring theme was, “We sat in a circle and you were part of the circle.”

When the classroom architecture makes it possible, it’s pretty simple isn’t it? Ditch rows. Ditch hierarchy. Ask challenging questions. Listen. And whenever possible, laugh.

Call Me ‘Ron’ Addendum

I like and respect my students, but we cannot be friends. I need to enforce rules, hold them to deadlines, and give them grades. If your friend Steve gave you a D you’d be angry, but if Prof. Lake gave you a D then he’s just doing his job.

The title is needed also to keep a degree of formality in our relationship. This is as much for me as for them. I need to do what is best for them, which is not necessarily what they would want. Thinking of them as peers would leads to a temptation not to challenge them, to be the ‘cool’ teacher instead of the good one.

I also suspect it helps in other ways to maintain this formality. I have only heard of a couple of cases of professors behaving inappropriately with students, but in both cases they were the kind of professors who went by first names.

Besides, I am not at all convinced that the seemingly egalitarian idea of first names is actually egalitarian. Formality makes it easier for those unfamiliar with a culture to navigate it. Being informal just hides the rules and may actually make it harder for those from disadvantaged groups to understand what is expected of them.

My students can call me Steve when they graduate.”

Comment 2. “One thing I’ll add to this excellent post: I am slightly autistic, and one of the ways that manifests in me is that I find rules of social behavior unintuitive. If you put me in a highly egalitarian spontaneous order situation, I don’t really know how to act or how to talk to people. What I need are clearly defined social rules, scripts if you will. Formal, hierarchical relationships like teacher-student or colonel-major make me comfortable because there is a clear script for me to follow.”

Comment 3. “I always ask my students to call me David, but Steven makes a good point that I hadn’t previous considered that formality is easier to navigate – especially given the international nature of the student body.

Nonetheless, I have always found that colleagues that insist on being called Professor or Doctor (or use the titles on Twitter) are almost always insufferable in person.”

Just Call Me ‘Ron’

Stop Calling Professors ‘Professor’. Nicely argued.

I’ve always asked my students to call me Ron. Partly because my first college teaching gig was at a Quaker institution which tried to be egalitarian. Mostly though because I’m wired to be informal. 

Some students are down with it from the get-go, for others it takes getting used to. They’re almost disappointed, as if they want me to be a know-it-all. It doesn’t take me long to disabuse them of that notion.

One of my first high school students in Los Angeles called me a “tough, young buck from UCLA”. That was cool, but don’t use any of my nicknames like Slip or HD (Heavy Duty), that’s a bridge too far. Oh, except one nickname is fine, Birdie*. You can use that one whenever you’d like. 

*Compliments of Lou Matz in high school. Sigh, these days on Western Washington links, I’m known as Bogey Byrnes.