Wednesday, August 29, 2012

IHAD it!

This term I'm sitting in on my colleague Sigmund's honors section of HON 479: Cultivating Global Citizenship, our school's interdisciplinary senior capstone course. (As Director of the Honors Program it will often fall to me to teach this class, and I'd like to see how someone else puts the course together before I do it myself.) The course addresses modern ethical systems, exposing students to these systems and helping them to understand how to apply those systems of ethics as they take part in an incredibly diverse and dynamic society.

The honors section of the course features a service learning component, in which the students tutor for an hour and a half each week at the I Have a Dream (IHAD) Foundation, a privately-funded program which gives academic support to at-risk youth, helping them to build the skills they need to succeed in middle and high school and to continue on to college. Last Thursday the class met at the IHAD's center, located in the Pisgah View Apartments (public housing development) in West Asheville, about five blocks from one of my usual running routes. Kieran, IHAD's on-site director, led the tour and Eugenia, his assistant, helped out. On that day the students were asked to complete their volunteer forms. I filled one out, too, deciding that the best way to become fully acquainted with the class would be to get in on the after-hours activities, too.

Yesterday was my first day at the center, working alongside five students in the class. It's been a long time since I've tutored, and a long time since I've worked with at-risk youth. The experience was a wonderful one, and eye-opening.

Each kid has to complete whatever homework she has for the day and then read a specific number of pages. The amount each kid reads depends on her grade level: sixth graders read six pages, seventh graders seven, and so on. Once done with each task the kids receive special marks on the cards they wear around their necks on lanyards, and they can receive "dots" (made with a Sharpie) for exceptional effort; dots can later be traded in for various treats and honors.

I worked with four kids, one at a time. The first student, Efrem, had no homework, so we went right on to the reading. He was an eighth grader, but after glancing at the print size in the book Efrem had chosen (a digested version of Dickens' Great Expectations) Eugenia asked him to read ten pages. This he did, and quite well, actually showing excitement at several points in the story. (He loved the word "idiot." Who doesn't?)

The next student struggled far more mightily: Umberto, another eighth grader, was clearly behind his grade level in reading and writing. He'd had to write a story for his language arts class, and the paragraph he'd produced was rife with errors, mostly in spelling and orthography. "It doesn't have to be perfect," Eugenia had told me as she'd paired me off with Umberto. Nonetheless, I hoped I could hit on some of the major problems. We went through the paragraph carefully, and each time a word didn't read the way he read it aloud to me, I stopped him.

"Are you sure that's what you said?" I'd ask. And we'd work it out. It took a while. The reading took some time, too. He was clearly not confident in his reading ability, stumbling over every fourth or fifth word, simply omitting words he didn't have any idea how to pronounce. We stopped several times per page as I asked him to say a word over again or puzzle a word out. He was very patient about this, and I rewarded him with a dot for his efforts.

The next two students were the most fun ones to work with. Ulysses is one of the IHAD program's most popular students. He's a precocious and bright seventh grader who had to work with me on his math homework and his reading. His math he flew through, reducing fractions like nobody's business. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he even caught his own errors. When it came to reading, too, he was a pro, but it was like pulling teeth to get him to read his allotment. He slogged through six pages before trying to cut a deal with me at the end of every sentence on the seventh page. "Can I stop here?" "No, you need to read another paragraph." "Can I stop here?" Nope, one more..."

The last student, Bertrand, was a great kid. A tall and slender eighth grader, he was struggling with problems none of the other tutors there that day knew how to handle: reducing cube roots. The center was clearing out: nearly every other kid was done with his or her work, and no one had dared help poor Bertrand. Eugenia turned to me; she knew that I teach at UNCA, but she didn't know what subject. "Do you know anything about this?" she implored.

" do know what I teach?" I told her, and it was as if the clouds parted. I sat down and started to work with Bertrand. The first couple were slow going as he got the hang of what was going on. I tried to explain it intuitively as well as algorithmically, but I didn't know what sort of conceptual basis he had to build on. We worked out four problems of the five he'd been assigned, leaving the last for him to finish later. "Thank you for working with me," he told me. I think it might be one of the slogans they teach the students to use ("I'm sorry for running into you; it was an accident" is another, for instance), but he said it with earnestness and sincerity. I was touched. I shook his hand.

"You're very welcome, Bertrand. It was a pleasure meeting you." I hope I get to work with him again.

I look forward to working with these kids. It was a pleasant an escape from the craziness of campus. It's good to be reminded that education is more than measurable outcomes, curricular reform, and recruitment and retention benchmarks. It can be simple, as simple as helping a student struggle with the word "sputtering" or with reducing 6/8 to lowest terms.

We can all stand a good dose of such simplicity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Grist for the rumor mill

The proposal for curricular reform we (the Summer Working Group of the CRTF) put together this past summer has yet to be released in final form, but already much word of it has spread unofficially across the campus. Some of the rumors are making their way back to me...and so far the reportage has been pretty accurate. ("They're scaling back the Humanities program?" "They're getting rid of clusters?" "They're capping majors at 60 hours?")

My assessment of the situation earlier this summer is pretty accurate, too: I strongly suspect that 100% of the faculty are going to be okay with 90% of the proposal and horrified at 10%...but it's going to be a different 10% for every single person.

You know your committee's been successful when you piss off everyone equally.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Week One is in the can!

Just an hour ago I wrapped up my last class of the first week of the semester. I'm looking forward to Complex this term: it's a small (for me) class, with only 15 students, many of whom already know each other and are comfortable working together. So far I've had no trouble getting folks to volunteer to present solutions at the board, and I think the students' level of experience and sophistication is almost exactly what I'd expected. This is good.

Meanwhile, my first-year seminar is proving a bit more of a challenge, relatively unused as I am to leading discussion-based classes. The conversations were sluggish again today, and I asked the students at the end of the class to give me some feedback by asking each of them to tell me one thing that would better help them get involved in the discussions. The most common response (from five or six people) was that they feel they'll open up a bit more once they know each other better. There were several other very good suggestions, one of which I'm going to try to implement: "Less of an assumption that the teacher leads the discussion. Maybe we have daily/topical discussion leaders."

In each class meeting starting on Monday, I'm going to have two people volunteer to lead discussion in the next meeting. It'll be up to those people to design activities to plan to prepare people for conversation and to come up with questions to ask to prod conversation along when it lags. This will give students more ownership in the process. Moreover, they'll be asking each other questions, rather than waiting for me to ask questions of them, which in turn decenters the classroom further.

There were aspects of today's conversation that were interesting. As an exercise in identity formation, and to indicate the power of naming things, I asked each student to describe herself in three words. Though they were not required to share their words with the class, all but a couple of students did so (my own three are last):

I am happy
absurd/optimistic/playful [arranged in a playful little triangle]
Trying my best
outgoing/intelligent/determined [fittingly, for the first, written in large, bold letters]

What's this say about us? An optimistic bunch, I guess.

It's been a good first week, overall. I'm glad to be back in the classroom, though my adjusting to the role of Honors Director is distracting me from fully focusing on my classes. That'll get better as I settle in. To my students: apologies if I've seemed distracted these first few days. I'll get better, I promise.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Just got back from my third meeting with my HON 179 class. Though many of them are still a bit shy about speaking up in front of one another, they're coming out of their shells a little bit. Notably, every single student contributed at least a little bit to the conversation, and though there were five or six folks who were more talkative than others, no one out-and-out dominated the discussion. It was healthy.

Healthy too was the tone the conversation took about two thirds of the way through class, at which point we were discussing the idea of regretfulness, and whether and in which cases expressions of regret are sincere. For a few minutes the conversation continued for the sake of the conversation itself, and not to impress the teacher. For those few minutes students actually seemed to be responding to one another, following up on each others' thoughts with interest, and speaking directly to one another and not to me. It was delightful!

It reminded me of the way in which the classroom conversation involves in Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. On that album, the interstitial tracks carry a conversation held in a classroom full of adolescents talking about a very difficult (for them) topic to talk about, namely love. At first the conversation is stilted, forced, academic. It begins with the students reading aloud the letters "L," "O,", "V," "E" as they are written on the board before them. It gradually evolves, relaxing, loosening, switching from the rigid code of the academic setting to a lithe and lissome language of the streets. The evolution of that conversation is exactly the evolution I want to see in the conversations in my classroom. As I exhorted the students to try to talk more to one another than to me, I only half-jokingly said that I'd be assigning Lauryn Hill's album to them as required listening.

I might just do that...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

So far, so good

Halfway through the second day, and the semester's chugging along nicely.

The first meeting of my Complex Variables class came off without a hitch yesterday. I've got a relatively small group (15 students), comprising math, physics, and engineering majors. We had a lively first class, in which, after a brief review of operations on and properties of real numbers, we encountered the basic definition of a complex number. Tomorrow will tell if the structure I've designed for this course will work out well. I'm doing a sort of "flipped Moore method," wherein the students will be presenting only certain of the problems they're assigned, while they'll be submitting written solutions to them all. From the second problem set on, they'll be required to submit their solutions in LaTeX, and I'll be giving them all the option of taking part in the study my colleague Beatrice and I have put together for this coming year's Conference on College Composition and Communication (viva, Las Vegas!). Our goal will be to understand the effect that using LaTeX has on students' composition processes.

Meanwhile, I'm busy settling into the Honors office and meeting with Honors students as they drop in. I'm beginning to realize that much of this job entails putting out the dozens of little range fires that pop up on an almost hourly basis. (Welcome to administration, I suppose...?) It's not often the same thing twice, so far, so there's enough variety to make the job interesting. Moreover, the students are fantastic. I'm particularly enjoying meeting majors from departments very far removed from my own (Accounting, Health and Wellness Promotion, etc.).

It's going smoothly. Things are settling quickly enough that I'm already starting to look ahead to my next round of trips. First I'm off to Texas A&M International University in Laredo, where I'll be leading a day and a half of faculty development workshops centering on writing in the disciplines. Next, it's up the mountain to the Wildacres Retreat Center for my fifth Carolinas Writing Program Administrators fall conference (love those people!). Finally, a week later I'm off to my first North Carolina English Teachers Association conference (featuring my first official book signing!). I've got a couple more weeks to get ready, but need to get on it, especially for that first trip.

Speaking of which, let me get back to it...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Day One

My first (official) meeting of my HON 179 course on "Metamorphoses in Math and Language" met just a half-hour ago. The students, almost without exception brand-spankin' new, first-semester students, are a bit quiet, still shy about speaking up in front of one another, especially when called on to talk about hifalutin' things like one's personal sense of purpose and vision.

"Why are you here?" I asked them to reflect on, after reading them Billy Collins's "Monday" and suggesting that the poet seems to presume that everything be in its right place. "Why are you here right now?"

While the students wrote in response to this intentionally vague prompt, I reflected in a brief freewrite in my daybook (my colleague Libby will be delighted to know that I'm asking all of the students in this class to keep daybooks this term):

"Why am I here? I'm here to share some wonderful words, to learn how they affect others (do they affect you the same way they affect me?). I'm here to help you all begin to discover your academic selves, to adjust to expectations, new environments, new settings.

"We've seen so much; we've seen so much, now let us see it all together, let us unpack it, sort it through, try to understand what we can make of it. What do we have here?

"What can you bring? That is what I'm here to discover. That is what I'm here to learn.

"What can we do together?"

It occurred to me just moments ago, sitting here in my new office, across the quad, buildings away from my long-time community in the Math Department, one floor down from my adoptive  home in Literature & Language, the sort of changes I'm making right now. They outwardly appear dramatic ones, a break from my old department (a metonym for the discipline), a move across campus into new functions and duties, a new set of colleagues and coworkers...but it's much as though I've consummated a marriage that followed a long engagement with cohabitation: I've done enough interdisciplinary work for the past several years, and in that time I've worked with so many people across campus that this new move doesn't seem all that new.

I've got this. I can handle it.

Now to get ready for my second first class of the semester, Complex Variables...could I be teaching two more different courses this term?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Looking forward/looking back

I’m more sure than ever before that we’re making a mistake, but I feel powerless to stop it.

I’m returning now from a brief visit to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. There, at the request of my colleague Katarina, I took part in a day of faculty development workshops. That small school’s entire faculty spent two days together in sessions designed to help them craft innovative classroom activities, manage assessment, direct undergraduates in research, and understand the school’s current proposal for curricular change. I’d been invited to give the second day’s keynote, focusing on writing as a means of critical thinking, and to lead two iterations of a brief workshop on mentoring undergraduates in research. Both of these went well, owing more than anything else to Morningside’s very engaged faculty than to anything else. There are a large number of young, as-yet-untenured, faculty at that school, many already making use of progressive pedagogies and eager to learn more.

Most eye-opening for me was the session I attended during the time I wasn’t busy leading my own. The session was led by several faculty who were charged with describing their work in crafting proposals for specific curricular reforms. One faculty member spoke of the school’s new plan to enhance students’ critical thinking. Another spoke on their plan to more intentionally develop students’ communication abilities through a sort of CAC (communication across the curriculum) program. A third focused on the plan to build students’ quantitative literacy. I should note that here, the word “plan” should not be read simply: these plans are robust and elaborate. They include careful vertical integration, course design methodologies, articulation of learning goals, and plans for appropriate multi-stage assessment.

It was the last presentation that struck me most, for it is in stark contrast with particular components of my own school’s current plans for curricular reform. Among the several specific changes the summer working group (SWG) of the Curriculum Reform Task Force (CRTF) has put into its proposal is the out-and-out elimination of a pair of the intensives, including diversity-intensive courses and quantitative-intensive courses. (The information literacy-intensive courses and writing-intensive courses are sliding out from under the axe, receiving a shave but not a grisly end: both of them survive as assessment-driven departmental competencies and not courses approved and overseen by faculty committees.) These intensive programs are victims of our desire to reduce faculty members’ quasi-administrative functions (functions which we see contributing to extraordinarily heavily service expectations) and our attempt to reduce the complexity of the Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) curriculum, which is indeed very convoluted.

Yet…though I’m all for reducing ILS’s complexity, I worry that the SWG’s strayed too far from our liberal arts ideals. As my wonderful colleague Lexi (also a member of the SWG) pointed out in an email I received while taking part in the listening session at Morningside (oh, irony!), our removal of the DI and QI courses, coupled with our elimination of the ILS’s Topical Cluster requirement and our scaling back in the longstanding Humanities program (requiring only 12 instead of 16 hours of this core common experience), moves us closer to a more generalized model for general education which brings us more in line with the UNC system’s non-liberal arts member schools. What is to distinguish our core curriculum from that of, say, Western Carolina University, or Appalachian State University, the two much larger schools with whom we share the mountainous western region of our state?

Though our move might leave us open to criticism that the new curriculum will too closely resemble that of more “comprehensive” institutions, I’m not sure the political climate at UNC Asheville is such that we could “sell” anything less drastic. The faculty in several of the departments whose majors require a substantial number credit hours have lobbied strongly against the restrictions on majors which would have been necessary to free up the time to save some aspects of the ILS curriculum. Our ultimate decision to cap the size of majors at 60 hours is still unpalatable to members in four or five departments. (Their continued insistence that this number of hours is simply necessary for students to receive a robust disciplinary education is wholly unfounded, in my view, but that’s fodder for an entirely different post.) Mix these faculty members’ objections together with an overall sense that ILS is overly complicated, and you’ve got a recipe for dissent: any attempt to take more hours from the majors and give them back to ILS would send about a third of our faculty into open revolt.

So here we are, bobbing about between Scylla and Charybdis. We’ve got a couple of more details to hammer out (regarding the current and proposed requirements for health and wellness and for foreign [second] languages), but once those are forged we’ll be putting the proposal before first the full CRTF and then the full faculty. Buckle up, y’all. It’s gonna be bumpy.

Coming soon: the skinny on my first day of classes, tomorrow!