Notes on UDL

I’m halfway through a video on universal design in learning & I wanted to share it here, along with a couple of key takeaways.

Here’s the link:

And here’s what I liked about it:

The video notes that the brain processes information in three big chunks: recognition, skills, and caring/priorities; the video suggests that learning can similarly be grouped into these three same chunks. Put another way, effective teaching about any subject answers three questions:

  • What?
  • How?
  • Why?

I really like this way of divvying up information. When I teach my own subject effectively, I do indeed answer these three questions. If I’m teaching online literacy, for instance, I might teach students what counts as a reliable website, how to tell a reliable website from an unreliable one, and why it matters that we get information from genuinely-reliable sources. There’s a big difference between teaching students the rules that make websites in general reliable, and actually expecting them to decide on their own whether a particular website is in fact reliable; they get it wrong a long at first. So it’s important that teaching answer all three of these questions, in order to help students fully master the topic.

The other thing I liked about the video is that it frames universal design in terms of diversity, instead of disability. While I think there’s value in using the language of disability, I do like the positive framing of student difference, even when that difference comes from genuine learning or physical challenges that students face, such as autism or dyslexia.



On Desiring the Kingdom

I’m reading James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of an online book club hosted by the university where I serve as adjunct instructor. I started the book today over lunch, and this quote struck me.

An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption.

kingdomSeveral observations:

One, I want to push back on Smith’s objection to education meant to produce “skilled workers”. I have a feeling Smith is objecting primarily to university degrees that emphasize career skills at the expense of the humanities, but when I think of “skilled workers,” I think of the trades and vocational school. It’s worth noting that if education is indeed material and embodied, there are few greater opportunities for being material and embodied than the trades, and as Matthew Crawford has written, the materiality of the trades may be good for the soul. Vocational training may be closer to Smith’s ideal education than he assumes.

Relatedly, I’m not sure what Smith’s concern with being a “producer” is. After all, we human beings are created in the image of God, to be creators ourselves. Surely in producing things, especially within the “skilled trades,” allows us to fulfill our created mandate? (The emphasis on finding fulfillment through consumption remains a problem, of course.)

Two, I notice that Smith sets up a contrast between education which seeks primarily to “provide information” and one that seeks to stoke a hunger for “a particular version of the good life.” I think this contrast explains both the reason that so many students are reluctant to take my courses, especially Introduction to Literature, and the importance of that course.

Students are reluctant because they see education primarily as a pathway to a career. They want to get to that career as quickly as possible, and they can’t see what possible relevance a course in literature or writing has to that career. After all, when they graduate and become an accountant or a local business owner or a second grade teacher, they’re hardly going to be called on to interpret the symbolism in T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So they CLEP out of my course, assuring me all the while that it’s not personal, they just want to focus on more “important” classes, where “important” means “informational”.

But if education is about more than information, then the importance of a literature class is clearer. Stories speak to the heart; they sharpen and shape what we hunger for. I’ve long urged my students to take my course as a kind of “applied theology,” a chance to wrestle with what they believe and think to be true in the context of fictive worlds. But perhaps a more accurate, and compelling, reason to take my course is that unlike their other courses, literature does not only tell them what is good and true; it whets their appetite for goodness and truth. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) the beauty of poetry and the tension of the stories we read are soul-shaping in a way more powerful than even students’ theology courses.

This brings me to my final observation about this quotation, that as an instructor it’s important for me to think about not only what I’m teaching but how I’m teaching it. C.S. Lewis once compared his love of writing to the love that a cook feels when pouring hot jam into clean jam jars; there is delight, he said, in seeing his ideas take shape.

I’ve been noticing lately that when my students have a hard copy of the text in front of them, they’re able to speak about it in greater detail; they make more insightful observations. This speaks, I think, to the importance of embodiment and physicality in class, and so the question remains: What am I doing, when I set up my classes, to help bring what my students’ are learning out of their heads and into the real world? This is a particularly difficult question in terms of the online course I teach, and I have no easy answers.

But it remains important that I, as a teacher, guide not only my students’ intellectual development but their development as whole persons, who both know and hunger for Wisdom.



Teaching as Planting Seeds

IMGP7017Lately, I’ve started to feel as though my friends have outpaced me in a career.

My cousin and sister have been promoted.

A close friend is halfway through her graduate program.

A (different) cousin just earned her doctorate degree.

And here I am, plugging away at the same job I’ve been at for the past six years, still living in my apartment, with not much hope for advancement in the near future. (I’m exploring a few ideas, but I don’t have any strong plan yet.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m good at what I do, and I enjoy it. (At least, I do when I’m not grading the nineteenth paper in a row!) But the fact remains that when I was growing up, I thought I’d be changing the world.

There’s an expectation, I think, that in our work we need to go big, as big as possible, as soon as possible. All those “30 before 30” lists only feed this mindsets, as does every article about yet another high school student who is changing the world or starting a business or feeding refugees.

But not everybody achieves big things, in big, visible, immediate ways.

And yet.

One of my former students, Aaron, texted me a month ago, asking for the title of the essay we read about censorship in Intro to Literature. (It was Milton’s Areopagitica.) I knew he’d enjoyed the essay when we read it in class, but not until he reached out to me did I realize how deeply it impressed him and shaped his views on cultural engagement.

The thing is, before Areopagitica impressed Aaron, it impressed me. I teach it because when I read it for the first time ten years ago, it changed my life. Now, I’ve asked more than a hundred Introduction to Literature students to read it too. I’ve asked them to memorize the same passage from Areopagitica that I was asked to memorize. I hope it will bear fruit in their lives as it did in mine, and I think my recent conversation with Aaron shows that sometimes it does.

Yet the professor who taught me Areopagitica does not, as far as I know, know about any of this. She knows, I believe, that I enjoyed reading Areopagitica and that I thought about it after leaving school; she doesn’t know that I teach it; she certainly doesn’t know what kind of impact it has in my students’ lives!

Teaching, especially teaching in the humanities, is not a job with big, immediate, visible results. I know that it’s cliche to say that teaching is like planting seeds, but I’ve been thinking lately how true that is. What I teach my students may germinate for months and years; when it finally bears fruit, there’s a good chance that I won’t get to see that happen, as my teachers don’t see their work coming to fruition in the lives of my own students.

I mentioned at the beginning of my post my discouragement, my feeling that the world was racing on without me. Yet I’ve also been feeling that I cannot let this discouragement define my work. I need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and not let the lack of visible results distract us from our work. I need to be willing to play the long game.

Teaching does not have an immediate, visible payoff. It does not result in yearly promotions and (if you work at a tiny institution like mine) yearly raises, like in the business world.

But if I’m patient, I’m confident that it will pay off richly.

*Student names have been changed to protect privacy. 


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!


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.


The Night Before College

Summer is coming to an end, and so last Sunday, I made the nine-hour drive from my parents’ home in Kansas to my home in eastern Iowa. As I drove back towards my college teaching job, I found myself remembering the night before I left for college as a freshmen, twelve years ago.

I didn’t sleep well. The college I chose to attend was half a country away from my parents’ home, out in one of the Southeast states. We drove for two and a half days to reach it. We crossed seven states. The entire journey was more than a thousand miles. And when I got there, I knew almost no one.

The night before we left, we packed everything we could into the car and set the rest by the door, so we’d be ready to go for the morning. We ate a good supper. And then, right before bed, I stood at my parents’ sliding glass door and looked out into the twilight, eastwards across the fields.

My cousin Rebecca, traveling with us as a company for my younger sister, came up and asked me how I was feeling, whether I was ready.

I don’t recall what I answered or even if I had a good answer. Still, I’ve been thinking about that night, and that question, recently, as we gear up for a new school year. This year, my cousin Hannah is starting college. She and her mom are staying with me tonight, then tomorrow they’re moving her into the dorms. Like me, she’s moving a long ways from family for college, and I imagine she’s as anxious and uncertain as I was.

Western culture lacks the coming of age ceremonies that, in older civilizations, marked the break between childhood and adulthood, but the night before college comes close. That night is literally the last spent as a child under your parents’ roof, the last before you move out, take up the responsibilities of adulthood, and seek to build your own life. 

The night before you move away to college is the night before, as the saying goes, the first day of the rest of your life.

No wonder we’re anxious!

So if you’re moving away to college, a few words of encouragement:

You are going to change. You will develop new interests and new skills. When I left for college, I had just started reading fantasy novels; now I’ve taught a course on science fiction. When I left for college, I considered myself uncraftsy, and now I knit and bake bread. I considered myself unfashionable, and I probably was, judging from my hairstyle in the old photographs! But (thanks to my sister’s good taste!) I wear cute clothing now.


Me in college (I’m on the right.). See what I mean about unfashionable hairstyles?

You’re going to become a much more interesting person, with a much richer life.

You will also become a better person.

The night before I left for college, I was pretty unaware of some of my personal flaws. I discovered those flaws pretty quickly at college. I was intolerant of other people’s messes and judgmental. I was naive and antisocial, preferring to study for tests two weeks in advance than spend time with other people. Now, twelve years in the future, I’m aware of those flaws and working on correcting them.

You will discover your flaws at college, but through the guidance of your new friends and your professors, and your parents’ advice (even over the phone), you will overcome them.

You will have to overcome a lot of other challenges too.

During college, I coped with the stress of bad roommates. During graduate school, I discovered I was a horrible teacher and taught myself to teach well. Since leaving graduate school, I’ve dealt with tight finances and with job rejections. I’m learning to keep a budget.

Adulting is hard, but you’ll learn. Regardless of what challenges you face, whether they be health challenges or money challenges or work challenges, you will get through them.

And you’ll have a lot of fun along the way. 


International Talk Like a Pirate Day

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been looking through old photographs and recalling some of the memories I made on my own, after I moved away to college. I spent a summer in China and another one in Germany, and later I lived in the Czech Republic for six months. I visited the Kansas City Renaissance Festival with friends from graduate school, and with friends from Iowa, I visited Chicago and Madison and the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. I discovered that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a thing and started dressing up in a piratical costume for class once a year.

So yes, adult life is hard. But don’t let your anxiety get the best of you, because adult life is a lot of fun, too! You have so many good memories to make. 

And most importantly, you will see God’s grace at work.

In my experience, grace is not something I see working in the moment. Grace is best seen from a distance.

When I think back to college, to give just one example, I realize how reclusive I was, how snotty; only in the years since then have I become more patient, more kind, and generous. (Please don’t think I’m praising myself! The truth is, I have a long ways still to go.) But the point is, when I compare the person I am now to the person I was in college, I can see that I’ve changed, even if I wasn’t aware of the change happening in the moment. I chalk this up to grace: God, behind the scenes, working patiently with me over a long period of time.

And perhaps this is the most encouraging thing of all: that God is indeed patient, and will always be gracious.

A lot will change when you start college. You will change. You will face scary things. But through everything, God will be with you, patiently working with you, making you like Him.

Welcome to adulthood.



Teachers Take Responsibility


Complain, apparently. 

In a Star Trek: Voyager episode (sadly, I cannot remember which one) the EMH physician declares to Seven of Nine, “I like to complain. It makes me feel better.”

For me personally, the EMH hits the nail on the head.

This is especially true in my classroom. When I don’t know what to make of my students’ writing abilities, when the carefully crafted unit plans I’d made go south, when nobody likes the short story I picked for reading, I tend to complain. Just yesterday I wondered aloud to my father whether my students were raised to be thinking people.

So when I stumbled on this post from the Tattooed Prof (via John Fea’s blog) this morning, it caught my attention. The Tattooed Prof, a college-level history instructor, spells out his teaching philosophy in what he calls a manifesto, essentially a series of resolutions he makes regarding his classroom practices.

A few of these resolutions were convicting:

Kids These Days are just like Kids in My Day, or Any Other Day, if we choose to remember honestly.

Our students are not us. If we merely teach to how we prefer to learn, we exclude a majority of our students.

I am not the one to decide if a student is “ready for college.” That’s the student’s decision. If they’re admitted to my university and they’re in my class, I am ethically and morally obligated to give them my best.

Do my students enter my classrooms with room to grow, intellectually and personally? Sure. That’s part of being a college freshman. But while some students have more growing to do than others, and while some students will not finish their program of study, that’s not my responsibility as their English instructor. My responsibility is to teach them, insofar as it is within my power, to write a thoughtful, well-researched college-level paper. The more time I spend wondering if my students are less thoughtful than students were when I started college nearly fifteen years ago, the more time I spend wondering if a particular student is “ready for college”, the more I abdicate my responsibility as a teacher. This is a good reminder for me.

Not everything the Tattooed Prof wrote was convicting. Some of it was encouraging, like this one:

Everyone is fighting their own battles, some on multiple fronts. Compassion and flexibility >>> being a hardass

I tend to be a bit of a pushover on extending deadlines. When my students actually ask for an extension, I have a hard time saying No; this is especially true if they ask to my face, because as long as they have a good excuse, I find I cannot look them in the eye and decline their request. (I hope none of my students read this blog!) I worry sometimes that I’m not being sufficiently strict, but in general I prefer to be a pushover. I’d rather be the teacher who is suckered in by a false story than the one who does not believe a true story, because she’s too skeptical. I worry sometimes this is a flaw of mine in teaching, but the Tattooed Prof’s blog reassures me that I’m on the right track.

So my resolutions: Be kind. Be flexible. Hold students to high standards, but teach them how to meet those standards. Take responsibility for their learning, and ignore the rest.

You can read the full Tattooed Prof post here.


New Years’ Resolutions: Teacher’s Edition

teachOne of my goals this year was to read The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Milton Gregory (If nothing else, that name of his was alluring!)

I was skeptical when I opened the book and discovered it was published in the mid 1800s and written in part to Sunday School teachers. But this is an excellent book.

My purpose in this post is not to do a full review of the book, simply to highlight a few valuable takeaways. Essentially, I’m recording my ideas here so that in the fall, when I return to teaching, I remember what I learned, and apply it.

Lesson #1: Teach the new skill or idea first, then the words to describe that skill.  

When I teach students to add quotations to their writing, I start by introducing the term “quote sandwich.” When I teach students to read poetry, I start by defining “close reading” for them. Frequently, they get a little freaked out by these unfamiliar terms; they may insist they don’t do poetry, or that they’re not naturally good writers.

Reading Gregory’s book reminded me that when students are first learning something, they learn best when the subject builds on familiar knowledge and is described using familiar vocabulary. “Ideas,” writes Gregory, “must precede words in all but parrot speech”.

Essentially, I see it this way. The stuff I’m trying to teach students is in a box, and on that box there is a label, something like “quote sandwich” or “close reading” or “A-Ha! Moment”. If I teach students the word on the label, all they have is superficial knowledge; they know what’s on the box, but not what’s in it. Knowing that a specific style of shoes is called Manolo Blahnik is meaningless if you’ve never worn a pair of shoes in your life.

But if we take the stuff out of the box, handle it it, play with it, try different things with it, and only at the end affix a label to it, then students understand both how to use the stuff in the box and the term for it.

So here’s my goal for next year: I’m going to stress vocabulary less, skill more; I don’t care if students know the terminology (much of which I make up myself anyway) if they can demonstrate the principles I’m teaching them. When I do want them to know the vocabulary, as much as possible I will try to introduce the vocabulary after the skill – for instance, assigning reading about quote sandwiches only after practicing quote sandwiches (without using that term) in class. When I absolutely have to introduce vocabulary before the concept, I will not only teach the term before we practice the new skill, but afterwards too, so that if the term did not make sense in advance of the lesson, it may be clearer after the lesson.

Lesson #2: Get students talking about and working with the material we learn in class. 

On a related note, Gregory also stresses that if students are to really understand course content, they have to get beyond “parrot speech” and clearly put the new concepts and skills they’re learning into their own words.

A few things. One, this rests on Gregory’s assumption that learning is not transferring data from the teacher’s brain into the student’s, like moving gold nuggets from one prospector’s pan into the next. Rather, learning is about the teacher enabling the student to recreate an experience, to apprehend how what she is learning connects with prior knowledge and applies practically.

Given this, how elegantly and vividly the teacher can explain the lesson is not as important as whether the students have a chance to explain and practice the lesson themselves. If ideas really do come before words, at some point students need the chance to put the ideas and skills they are learning in their own words, and they need to be guided towards the most accurate words.

Since reading Bruce Wilkinson’s book The Seven Laws of the Learner, I’ve taken responsibility for guaranteeing that my students learn, but in general, that means I’ve made a good effort to make my lessons rich in visuals and examples, and to meet personally with students to help them apply what they learn. Now, I’m going to put less work into thinking up visually rich lessons and creating beautiful Power Points, and more work into asking good questions that get students talking about what they learn. I’m going to keep reviewing terminology with students, but instead of just asking (say, for example) to define symbol, I’ll ask them how they know that the birthmark in Hawthorne’s story is in fact a symbol, which gets at not only the vocabulary but (more importantly) the experience and skill behind the words. I want my students not only to parrot back definitions; I want them to explain what they are doing, the experience they are having.

Two, later in the book, Gregory stresses that since learning is about recreating an experience rather than rehashing a lesson, students must be stimulated to independent thinking and independent work on the subject if they are to really learn. Gregory rejects “the notion that [the teacher] can make his pupils intelligent by hard work upon their passive receptivity.” Instead, he suggests that teachers should spent their time “assisting the mind to shape and put forth its own conceptions” of the topic. In my writing classes especially, I have noticed that thoughtful papers depend on students taking time to mull their topic over, and so I’ve urged them to do so.

But in general, I’ve expected that mulling to happen out of class, while we use class time to discuss general writing principles. I see now that I have been trying to make my students good writers by “hard work upon their passive receptivity”: If I just explain the general writing principle clearly enough, and if students are diligent enough to think about their topic out of class, they will become good writers. This is not true. In the future, I am going to give students time in class to actively think about their topic, to practice and discuss and apply the specific writing skills we learn.

Lesson #3: The teacher should make sure she is studied up for the lesson. 

This was a good reminder for me. I confess, when the grading piles up mid-semester and my day is chock full of meetings with students and meeting with colleagues, it’s easy to convince myself that I don’t need to do the same reading I assign to students, because I’ve read it before. I don’t need to brush up on the methods used to create an outline, because I’ve done created so many outlines before. Surely I can wing it in class.

Not so, says Gregory. “Imperfect knowing,” he warns, “will be reflected in imperfect teaching.” Unless we really know what we’re teaching, we lack the ability to correct students’ misunderstandings, to ask guiding questions, to provide clear examples, and to explain the topic in a way that will hep students learn.

The truth is, I probably will skimp on preparation in the future. My time is not an inexhaustible resource (literally, I turn into a pumpkin after 10.00 PM), and some things are more important than being fully knowledgeable about what I’m teaching. But I am also going to hold myself to a high expectation of knowing as much as is reasonably possible about what I’m teaching, and refreshing my memory frequently.

Concluding Thoughts: 

There were, of course, other takeaways from this book.

I was reminded not to use vocabulary or examples that my students were unfamiliar with.

I was reminded of the importance of reviewing, and reviewing not only little bits & pieces of what we learned but the whole topic together, making sure students can see the big picture.

I was reminded to check what my students already know about the topic before starting the lesson, so that we can build on previous knowledge.

I was reminded to be thorough, going fast enough to keep up enthusiasm for learning new things but slowly enough to make sure students can explain the new concepts and skills they are learning.

But I’m going to end with only the three big takeaways from above. When you make life changes, you’re generally urged to make only one or two at a time, lest you get overwhelmed; changing everything all at once is rarely a good idea. The same is true for teaching. Can I improve in many ways as a teacher? Sure. But I’m not going to improve in every area all at once. For next year, my goals are more modest: Put new ideas before new vocabulary, experience and thought before data, and student talk before teacher talk.

We’ll see how it goes!


The Limits of Teaching Writing


Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

One of my projects this summer is to revise the English Composition course I currently teach, making it easier to transfer online (another of my projects for this summer) and guaranteeing that it has objectives and rigor similar to those of writing courses at our sister colleges.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve collected syllabi from other colleges (Spring Arbor University, the Baptist College of Florida, Kansas State University), and this morning I made a list of the things that other college writing courses have in common.

Of everything I noticed, one thing stood out to me: Most other college writing courses have strict formatting and page length requirements, and they penalize students for not meeting them. 

I haven’t done this for years. Partly this is because, all rumors to the contrary, I’m kind of a softie; if a student has a good paper, or if they tried really hard, I feel badly penalizing them because they have one fewer source than needed. After all, maybe I was confusing when I gave the directions, and it wouldn’t be fair to penalize my students.

Partly this is because I’m a big-picture kind of gal, more interested in the quality of my student’s thought than whether they can meet a (somewhat) arbitrary standard or whether they use Times New Roman or Arial font (though I’ll be honest, Calibri drives me nuts. It is hands-down the ugliest font. Future students, if you’re reading this, I never want to receive your papers submitted in Calibri. Wingdings is preferable.)

And partly this is because I want to be encouraging to my students. Writing is scary enough for some of them without worrying about meeting what they perceive to be an arbitrary length, or finding what seems to be a humongous number of sources.

Focusing on quality of thought more than meeting page length and formatting requirements was how I learned to teach, and it’s been how I’ve taught since then.

Yet removing limits does not seem to make my students better writers, or encourage them the way I think it would. In fact, seeing that other colleges do in fact penalize students who don’t turn papers in using the correct font or including the correct number of sources has made me think about the importance of having limits. 

Wendell Berry has pointed out the destructive impact of our refusal to live within ecological limits, always wanting more food or wanting food out of its season or region; he notes that we are less able to cope with grief and difficulty and loneliness in life due to our inability to life within the limits of community. It was Berry who first drew my attention to the importance of limits, and now as I am planning next year’s Composition course, I find it interesting that having limits may help students become better writers.  

Having limits to work within actually made me a better writer. I tend to be a very wordy writer; having professors who held me to a strict maximum word count forced me to use fewer, more powerful verbs and to eliminate filler words. Perhaps the same thing will be true for my students, only in reverse; maybe if they’re working to meet a page length requirement they’ll find new ways to describe their point, new questions about it to answer, new research to include. Maybe they’ll be less likely to let themselves get away with mediocre work.

We can be lazy when there’s no limits. When I’m not running a race, trying to make a good time, I run slower. When my mother does arm exercises, she uses an exercise band to give her resistance; the band is surprisingly stiff, but it’s that stiffness that tones and strengthens her arms. When we have a limit, when we push ourselves to meet expectations, we grow. I think I’m encouraging my students, making things easier for them by removing limits, but perhaps the opposite is true. 

We Americans, I have realized over the last year or so, hate the idea of having limits. Idina Menzel sings about how there are “no rules for me” and yearns to “defy gravity” – and we take these two songs as cultural anthems, things that we aspire to (Okay, I’ll be fair; I love both these songs.) But the truth is, while we hate the idea of having our choice curtailed, or living up to external expectations, having expectations to live up to can make us stronger.

Not all expectations are good, of course. A friend of mine grew up in a strict fundamentalist household and finds “Defying Gravity” freeing. And of course, in my writing class, if I were to require limits that are beyond my students’ ability to accomplish, that too would backfire.

But sensible, manageable, healthy limits do not hinder us. They hone our skills, train us, and make us stronger. My hope is that having limits will push my students and strengthen their skills more than having no limits would. 

There’s a second benefit to having limits, that limits guarantee clear (or at least clearer) expectations. When I don’t have limits for students, that doesn’t mean that I have no expectations for them either. I do: I expect them to explain their point in several different ways, to quote regularly from their sources, to show deep critical thinking and nuanced thought. Some of these expectations are spelled out on the rubric, but some are simply assumed. Who knows what “nuanced thought” means?

My students don’t, but they do know what a four-page paper looks like. And trying to meet that four page paper may encourage them to develop more nuanced thought along the way. After all, they have to fill up the extra pages somehow.

So students: I’m putting you on alert. Expect page length and source requirements next year, with penalties if you do not meet these requirements. Expect a few more reading quizzes.

And to the rest of us: Remember that being encouraging and supportive does not necessarily mean removing limits. Being supportive may actually require limits. After all, what else is a scaffold besides an artificial limit?

If we are to live within our limits, we must teach within them too. 



In Praise of Inefficiency

Yesterday I ran out of papers to grade.IMGP7017

No fear, I’ll have at least twenty again by Monday at the latest.

But for today at least, caught up on grading and even on lesson planning, I found myself at loose ends, professionally speaking. What to do?

Ostensibly, I had a to-do list. On it were things like “return student papers” and “plan online composition course”. And ostensibly, I followed that to-do list. I headed down to the library with an armful of student papers to return, and I checked out a few books and send off some emails relating to planning an online composition course.

But I kept getting distracted. 

Without the pressure of getting my grading done, so I could buckle down to lesson planning, there was no pressure to get stuff ticked off my to-do list, and my tasks spiraled into much larger projects than they otherwise would be.

En route to return student papers, I ran into my colleague Steve in the library and picked his brain about how parents regulate (or don’t regulate) their children’s technology usage. (I’d been thinking about it since reading this post by Rod Dreher yesterday). We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

And in my office, working on an online version of college writing, all I really wanted to do was find a good resource for teaching students to structure persuasive writing. But there too the task spiraled outward, covering much larger territory. I talked books and pedagogy with a colleague across the hall. I read a variety of writing-related essays on the Internet, including a description of a course on personal essays, a Q&A approach to using sources, and the helpful and hilarious “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I made no discernible progress on the online course. I got nothing ticked off my to-do list. In fact, I added a few things.

So no, I was not efficient today. Nor was I productive.

But being productive and efficient is not, or at least not always, the same thing as spending time well.

We modern Americans, immersed in a world of big data, like to think that only when we produce something that can be quantitatively measured are we doing worthwhile work. And of course, the more of this measurable work we do, the more efficient we are, and the better workers we are.

But good work doesn’t always work that way. A student who writes a ten page paper overnight is very productive and efficient, true. But his paper may not be as good as the six page one that was written over a period of two weeks. (I speak from experience here.)

Not all work can be quantitatively measured. Nor does getting a lot of work done in a short period of time always guarantee that we are doing work well.

Some work needs to be done slowly. Sometimes the things which make us inefficient, which cause us to dawdle and dally, actually make us better workers.

I have friends in graduate school who tell me that when they are trying to grade student papers or plan lessons, they are frequently distracted by interesting conversations with their friends. But surely the richness and depth of those conversations nourish in my friend a rich thought life, the kind that contributes to a much more enriching class for her students.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There, he writes that the best soil for growing fruits and vegetables is that which has been nourished by long, attentive care. Dumping some nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soil will not produce nearly the rich food that spending years spreading animal waste, rotating plants, and careful tilling  does. The natural method is longer, but the natural method results in much sweeter corn and juicer tomatoes.

The same with work. We Americans tend to honor work accomplished the nitrogen fertilizer way: Swig some coffee or Red Bull, power through a couple hours of work, and turn in as much final product, whether that be veggies or research papers, as you possibly can.

But the quality will always, always be better if we spend time over our work.

This is not to say that we should never work quickly. Sometimes working quickly is necessary, and indeed, at some point in the near future, I’m going to need to stop all the distracted reading and research that I’m doing for my online course and actually plan the dang thing.

But nor is good work always done quickly, and sometimes even the things which do not seem directly relevant to our project wind up being nourishing in the end. I did not intend to quote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in this blog post; I just read the book, and now my knowledge of it permits me an illustration which makes the blog post (hopefully) richer.

All I’m trying to say here is that sometimes we (or at least I) can feel guilty for not ticking enough items off my to-do list, or for making slow progress. Without items ticked off my to-do list, how do I know that I’m actually worth something? And so to me, or to people like me, I remember that while our culture teaches us that fast and efficient are better, slow work is better nourished, and much richer.