Teaser Tuesday: Education Is Not An App

One of my goals for 2017 29389855was to read Education Is Not an App. It’s been sitting on my shelf since late December, so I picked it up and started reading.

It’s more of a call to arms than I anticipated. Poritz & Rees do lay out the effects of technology on education, such as the tendency to “unbundle” professors’ service digitally or to substitute MOOCs for lectures as a way to increase profit profit without having staff, but as you can probably tell from even these bite sized summaries, they lay out the effects in such a way as to motivate action.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, the call is not to do away with technology but to be aware of its potential to disrupt the learning process, as well as the work and livelihood of faculty members, and to allow the faculty to retain control over how and when they will use technology. I’m really enjoying the read. It’s a bit dire in places, a bit inclined to predicting the future, but it’s still thought provoking.

Following the rules of Teaser Tuesday, here’s a randomly selected excerpt.

When you host an online course on someone else’s platform, your course isn’t really yours. Professor Jennifer Ebbeler learned this the hard way when she wrote an online version of the Roman History course for her home department, Classics, at the University of Texas-Austin. After two years of work, her department replaced [her as] the lecturer. Professor Ebbeler felt the replacement was unqualified. “They think it doesn’t matter who they put in charge because the course will teach itself,” she told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And yet I’ve been clear all along that’s not the case” (Kolowich 2015). Imagine for a moment, a department pulling the same trick with a face to face course. Getting her lecture notes from her would be hard enough, let along the rest of the materials and knowledge that make the class a class. However, Ebbeler poured much of her knowledge into the course’s design, which gave her department enough control to determine exactly who teaches it, whether she likes it or not.

I should note, as I bring this post to a close, that I do teach online and I’ve been privileged to teach at an institution that encourages faculty, even adjunct online instructors, to design and control the technology they use in order to promote learning. I’m very thankful for my employer! Yet that doesn’t mean the problem outlined in the excerpt, and other problems, aren’t real elsewhere, and worth considering.

Here’s a link to its Goodreads page.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

 

Why I Marched

I participated in the local Women’s March yesterday. And I’m proud of it.

While I get that we live in a divided country, and that Trump supporters are unlikely to go march, I’ve still been dismayed by the guff the women’s marches have gotten from conservatives.

I’ve seen claims that the marches are tantamount to whining.

I’ve read comments that suggest the traffic snafus caused by the march are not worth it, and suggestions that we all just accept the new president, pick up, and carry on.

Perhaps most frustrating, I’ve heard at least two people (one our new president) express the belief that the protestors likely didn’t vote.

But I did vote, and the person I voted for did not get elected, and so that leaves the women’s march as an excellent way to make my voice heard at this important point in our nation’s history.

I am not whining. I am standing up for something I believe is critically important, and urging those who think it is important to do the same.

When Donald Trump criticized women and boasted about his sexual conquests on the campaign trail, I was deeply hurt and saddened. I was equally saddened by the reluctance of my fellow believers to stand up and condemn his remarks, and commit to voting against him.

Trump has demeaned women’s intelligence. He has objectified us, commented on the size of our chests and criticized our eating habits. He has freely helped himself to women’s bodies.

So as Trump takes the helm of our nation, then, let’s speak out on behalf of those that he mocked and criticized during his campaign, especially women. I marched yesterday because I wanted to stand up once again and say that women are important.

We are worth more than whether our bodies are conventionally beautiful or whether we are sexually available for men. We are smart and strong. We are thoughtful, capable, creative, and passionate. We too are made in the image of God.

Enough with criticizing women. Enough with objectifying us. Enough with disrespecting us because of our sex.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

I chose a portion of this verse for my protest sign. It read, “Do Justice. Love Mercy.”

It is neither just nor merciful to treat women as Trump has done.

As believers, we can do better. This is why I marched, not to whine but to join my voice with those who are calling for women to be, not maligned, but treated justly: as human beings, worthy of respect, wonder, and love.

 

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Why Intro to Lit?

The other day at the gym, I saw an ad for Reese’s new, very meta candy: Reese’s Pieces inside a Reese’s cup.

Here’s what the ad looked like:

reeses

revolution? 

Really?

Basically, this was my reaction:

you-keep-using-that-word

But The Princess Bride aside, this is partly why I teach Introduction to Literature.

We teach in a world where, as Matthew Crawford notes, our attention is increasingly divided among a growing number of companies competing not only for our money but also for our brain space; they want to be remembered. They want to be noticed.

One way to do this is to be the loudest kid on the block. Such a strategy that naturally leads to such overstatements as calling a new kind of candy (and not even a new kind, but a variation on an old favourite) a “revolution.”

You know how at Yankee Candle, you can smell about seven candles before your nose is so overpowered by the scents that it stops registering anything? The same thing happens with language; the more students are exposed to overstatements like the one in the ad, the less they’re able to register nuance in language and to speak precisely. The language sense is all overpowered. Ordinary language, simple and elegant, no longer registers.

In Introduction to Literature, at the start of every semester, I tell my students I want them to appreciate literature. This is (partly ) what I mean by this: to value words well-used and simply spoken, to attune themselves to the subtle differences, both emotional and intellectual, in word choice.

My hope is that the exercises we do, all the analyzing of imagery and tone and symbolism, helps accomplish this. Whether they do depends on the students of course, and more on my teaching.

But this is the goal: to keep students from swallowing candy ads trying to pass themselves off as a “revolution,” and to use words well. 

My Syllabus

Hands down, my favourite course to teach is Introduction to Literature. While I enjoy teaching Composition, I love teaching literature. There’s more reading and less grading; it’s a win-win.

Every semester, I add a few new stories and poems that have caught my interest, and I keep on a few that I think are important.

Here’s some of the new ones I’m most excited about teaching, mostly scheduled during March and April:

  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC”
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (scheduled immediately before Spring Break. That’ll be fun.)
  • Arthur Clarke’s “The Star”
  • Czeslaw Milosz’s “Song at the End of the World”

And . . . drum roll please . . . I’m finally teaching a movie! I’ve wanted to do this for years. This year, it will be Arrival. It’s a good story, recently released, and probably new to the majority of my students.

A few favourites I’m keeping on:

  • Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”
  • Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. I’ve been listening to Hardcore History’s podcasts on the Persian empire, so my keeping of “Ozymandias” is partly inspired by that.
  • Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Interestingly, many of the texts I keep on not because they’re favourites of mine but because they’re favourites of the students, and/or they do an excellent job teaching what I want them to. Mary Oliver’s “The Swan,” for instance, is great at teaching imagery, and the students last year loved it, while Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” is a fantastic little play that can be read in class to give students more time to work on their first projects.

And, through a last-minute adjustment to my schedule, John Milton’s essay, “Areopagitica,” abridged by yours truly for non-majors. A previous student of mine recently reached out to me, looking for the title of the essay; it turns out that she was going through an experience which made the essay personally relevant. I love the essay but had wondered whether it was in fact relevant to students; the fact that she found it so made me add it back on.

And yes, they’ll be asked to memorize a passage for the test, the same passage I memorized when I took a course in Milton during senior year of college.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees its adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. 

Beautiful. Thanks, Dr. S.

Now, if I could only decide what novel to teach!

 

Faithfulness

Jamie Smith argues in You Are What You Love that we have a tendency to reduce human beings to what they are thinking about, as though they are brains on sticks.

In this context, and more particularly, we tend to reduce faithfulness to adherence to a particular set of theological principles.

Yet it seems to me that faithfulness is as much something as we live out as something we believe.

Lately, I’ve been facing a situation that makes me pretty anxious.

It’s not a health issue, nothing life or death, but it’s always there, lurking at the back of my mind. I feel all the time as though I’ve had one too many cups of coffee.

I could choose to bring this thing which is causing me anxiety from the back of my mind to the front. The other day, I was testing the freshness of eggs by dropping them into a glass of water; the eggs caused the water to slosh over the side of the cup that I was using.

Something similar would happen to my life if I focused on my anxiety. It would become unbalanced.

Things that really matter, like my work responsibilities and spiritual life and physical health, would get pushed out of the way by this new thing.

And because I can’t really even do anything about this new thing currently, I’d wind up doing things that don’t matter at all, like reading Buzzfeed posts about what people wore to the Golden Globes. I don’t even care about the Golden Globes, but the anxiety does not let my mind focus on anything more substantial.

Or I’d hover aimlessly in the kitchen, eating way too many chocolate candy melts and then feeling even more unsettled thanks to the sugar rush.

That’s one option.

The other is what I’ve been trying to do: to choose, moment by moment, to focus on what’s important now: planning my lessons for the end of this week, getting my Mac ready to take in for service, taking care of some important things in my personal life. If all else fails, I clean my apartment; if nothing else gets done, at least my floors will be swept.

This, I think, is what faithfulness is: the choice to do what needs to be done, to act as we are called, regardless of how we feel or what we’re facing.

Faithfulness is as much a way of living as a way of believing.

Being faithful does not make the anxiety go away. It doesn’t even make it easier to deal with; it is impossible for me to just get rid of that little niggling worry at the back of my mind, the catch in my breath, the continual turn of my thoughts back towards this thing.

But the fact that the feelings of anxiety do not go away is no reason not to do the things that need to be doing.

Nor is the anxiety a reason to give into despair.

It’s cloudy out today, and snowing a little; the gloomy day makes it even easier for me to feel nervous and down about everything.

Yet I can choose to cultivate gratitude, to be glad for the things which are good in my life.

To name just two that have been on my mind:

I made homemade bread yesterday; I’ve gotten so much better at this since I started working on this last year!

I am blessed with a God who intervenes in my life, forgiving my sin; what more could I ask than to be free from the monsters that haunt me?

This is faithfulness, this moment by moment choosing to think about the things that need to be thought about, to do the things that need to be done.

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Peanut butter & jelly toast with homemade bread. Yum!

 

 

Taking Action on Teaching Evaluations

evalsI received a batch of student evaluations this afternoon (still waiting on a few others).

Some students were positively glowing, giving me high marks on nearly all standards. Yet a handful of students were displeased with my teaching, primarily because my grading was (from their perspective) far too difficult, as though I were assessing graduate students and not students in an online literature course.

This is perhaps the most common complaint I receive, that I grade too hard.

When I first started teaching, it was an accurate one.

Since then, however, I’ve made adjustments to the way I grade. I use detailed rubrics with that spell out the qualities of every level of work, from the lowest right up to the very best. The standards I hold my students to are the usual in my field; in discussions, for instance, my students are expected to quote or refer to what happens in the story we’re discussing, and explain their thoughts on the story. None of this is particularly hard stuff. I am not a hard grader.

And yet.

I’ve been reading The World Beyond Your Head lately, and in one of the chapters I worked through today, Crawford makes an interesting point.

He notes that in considering whether our actions accurately express who we are, “Some will say that sincerity is the key element here; whether or not an act is a true expression of the self is determined entirely by the inner psychological state of the agent” (152).

This passage reminds me of Ender’s ethical formulation in Speaker for the Dead, that an act is moral or immoral based entirely on the actor’s motive; what matters is not necessarily what we accomplish (since acting in the real world can be messy) but what we mean to accomplish.

Under this formulation, I am not a hard grader, because I do not mean to be; it is my students’ fault, not mine, that they misperceive my rubrics and videotaped feedback as excessively hard.

But Crawford (drawing on Hegel) pushes back on this way of evaluating whether our actions are successful.

He writes, in reference to Hegel, “You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself.” (quoting Robert Pippin). Crawford adds that although there are exceptions to this view, “it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself.” (153).

In reference to my teaching, this means that if imagine myself to be not a hard grader, I am not actually not a hard grader unless my students also perceive me as such. Put more simply, it doesn’t matter if I imagine that I’m a fair grader, unless my students agree with me.

So what should I do about this?

There are two things to be said here, I think.

One, I can adjust the way that I grade. I do not necessarily need to become easier; but I clearly need to become better at articulating why certain grades are assigned and why certain work is expected. This primarily involves providing more feedback: adding notes in the LMS rather than in a Word document I upload for the students, for example, or creating more screencasts.

It also involves providing a different kind of feedback. I could explain more about why the standards I’ve set are necessary, for instance. I could make sure to start feedback with the students’ strengths, not their weaknesses (I thought I did this, but obviously not enough.)

Two, even though I can (and should) make some adjustments, it’s important that I not accept student evaluations are the only valid source of feedback on my teaching. I am prone to self-doubt as an instructor, quicker to see my students’ shortcomings as an error in my instruction than in their work.

Crawford speaks, if not to this doubt as an experienced emotion, at least to the question of whether student evaluations are a sufficient measure of my work’s effectiveness. Developing his example of who judges a carpenter’s work, he writes that “the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond to subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander. Only a fellow journeyman is entitled to say, ‘Nicely done.'”

In reference to my teaching, I make decisions as an instructor on how I assess students and present the material that may not be entirely clear to my students, who are certainly not English scholars and likely not teachers; they lack, therefore, the requisite knowledge needed to make an accurate judgment of whether my teaching is effective.

This is, of course, all the more reason for me to explicitly walk my students through why I make the instructional decisions that I do.

It’s also an important reason for people to work together in community, with colleagues who can serve as a touchstone for whether a particular pedagogical decision is or is not working. I have certainly been grateful for the input of my fellow instructors in my own teaching; they have shaped my work, helped me figure out what worked and what doesn’t, and made me a better teacher.

 

Teaser Tuesday

headWelp, I’m not reading a story anymore. If last week’s book were a chocolate cake, this week’s would be a bowl of lentil soup: yummy, but also nourishing, and slower to digest.

This week I’m reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and though it’s philosophy, not fiction, it’s very good. Crawford has a lot to say about how we understand ourselves, particularly in our relationship to the world and the larger society. His work challenges assumptions that we Western our destiny and  that we Westerners hold dear, but which may in fact be neither correct nor helpful. One such assumption is such as the fact that we are free to choose our destiny, and that this act of choosing constitutes our will and the most essential part our being.

His work is cohesive and as readable, at least as much as any book of philosophy is!

Here’s a sample:

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better and worse) on individual lives. This created a vacuum of cultural authority that has been filled, opportunistically, with attentional landscapes that get installed by whatever “choice architect” brings the most energy to the task – usually because it sees the profit potential.

The combined effect of these liberating and deregulating efforts of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation. Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we are now very fat, very much in debt, and very prone to divorce.

The effects of this have not been evenly distributed. To gain admission to the svelte, solvent middle class, and stay there, now requires extraordinary self-discipline. Such discipline is generally inculcated in families. Two self-disciplined people meet in graduate school, make, and pass their disciplined ways on to their children. But we also make use of external props that are available to those with means: jigs for hire.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self.

Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

The World Beyond Your Head makes sense of an astonishing array of common experience, from the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster. With implications for the way we raise our children, the design of public spaces, and democracy itself, this is a book of urgent relevance to contemporary life.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

 

To Do: 2017

Here are my goals for 2017:

Personal: 

  • Learn to make at least three new cocktails. I know three, currently: the gin & tonic, a bittersweet grapefruit greyhound, and a hot toddy. All of these are yummy, but I’d like to expand my boundaries. Anybody want to come over for drinks?
  • This feeds into my second goal: I want to have more dinner parties. On the one hand, I love making food for people. On the other, I’m highly introverted and reluctant to invite people over. I want to push myself and host a few genuine dinner parties this year. Let’s set the goal at three.
  • I want to take care of my health. Specifically, I want to start flossing regularly and cut my addiction to Brach’s mints. I’ve had trouble with my teeth lately, and I think this will help.
  • I want to start selling, or giving away, some of my handiwork. Over the past few years I’ve gotten into handcrafts: knitting, bread baking, making granola; my hope is to find a way to sell these, or a way to give them away more frequently. I’ve already given away some knitting, including a blanket to Project Linus, but I’d like to formalize this a bit more. And of course, if the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to make money on my hobbies! We’ll see how this goes.
  • And I want to learn to pick up dropped stitches. 

Two less quantifiable goals:

One, I want to improve my bread-making skills. At this point, I’ve learned the basics. Now, I want to try some new and more adventurous things: a sourdough starter, rye flour or wheat flour, bagels or English muffins, homemade pizza. And of course, I want to gain confidence in general; I want to make fewer panicky posts on my Bread Baking group!

Two, I want to do more re-reading. Over the past few years, I’ve really gotten into the Goodreads challenge, amping up the number of books I read in any given year (from 25 to 30, to 45 this past year). Trying to make my reading goal has caused me to re-read very few books, and so I want to return to some of the most formative books in my life: the Lord of the Rings particularly, but also perhaps Laurus, the Divine Comedy; or even just really good books like A Fire Upon the Deep.

A few other wishes in this category: I’d like to travel somewhere new, I’d like to hike another mountain (My aunt & uncle & I picked out Uncompaghre), I’d like to go solo camping.

Professional: 

In this category there are three books I want to read:

  • A Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. This one comes recommended to me by my mother. (She has good taste.) This one is a cornerstone of the classical school movement, and despite a few niggling annoyances I find in the movement, it’s largely solid. I’m interested to see what the book has to say about education.
  • The Marketplace of Ideasby Louis Menand. I can’t recall where I encountered this book, but as universities are going through a fairly massive shift in terms of the service they provide and who they provide it to, this book (I am hoping) will help me understand the context in which I work.
  • Along the same lines, I want to read Education is Not an AppNot only do I teach online, I teach, using technology, to students who are immersed in technology every day. This book promises to analyze and evaluate the progress of education in an increasingly technological world. I hope it will be illuminating.

I want to teach a film in Introduction to Literature. Technically, this has been a goal of mine for the previous three years, but I’ve never made it happen. This year, I think it will; I think I’ll be able to teach Arrival. But if that doesn’t work, I’d really like to teach another film. Film is the primary medium in which my students encounter Story, and so I think it’s important that they be able to interpret it.

I found taking online courses valuable for my professional development, so I would like to take at least one more online course this year.

Spiritual:

I want to memorize a book of the Bible, ideally 1 John. I found 1 John very encouraging and spiritually challenging last year; my hope is that in memorizing it, the words of Christ will abide more closely with me.

I also want to start following the church calendar. Reading Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love articulated a lot of what I’ve been feeling about the importance of liturgies, of ritual and routine, in enriching life. I have friends on Facebook who follow the church calendar, observing not only Christmas but also Advent; not only Easter but also Lent. Such rituals seem to imbue the season with more beauty and meaning. My hope is that in following the church calendar, I will participate more wholly in the Christian story, and become more attuned to the presence of grace in my life.

My hope is to get following the church calendar underway by Lent, so I can participate in that, and then continue for the rest of the year. If I don’t manage to follow the full calendar, I at least want to establish some personal liturgies for my home, to enrich it spiritually.

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