Thursday, October 24, 2013

Being with

I had a hard night last night, and with very little sleep it carried over into an equally-hard morning.

I stumbled onto campus with eyes blurred from lack of sleep and too many tears. After I'd silently taken care of business for a half hour, the Honors Program assistant, Queshia, asked in a very clipped but still-kind tone, "how are you?"

"Not good."

"I can tell."

I pulled it together, and managed to craft what I think is a solid reading response prompt for my 479ers, who are currently reading Robert Moses's Radical equations. I even ended up having a great meeting with the first of my undergraduate research students (progress! Anyone know about the distribution of differences k - l, where kl = a2?). Then I headed off to 479, feeling totally unprepared, a naked charlatan.

I asked the students for updates on their I Have A Dream experiences and visits to HON 179 classes. Oksana spoke to the latter request, talking about her Wednesday visit to my colleague Samuel's 'Sabbath World" class. Samuel is a practitioner (and a very able one) of contemplative practices in pedagogy, and he began the class Oksana attended with a moment of silent meditation, later asking students to reflect on the saying "Remember to stop, to stop remembering." Some students took this as a reminder to pause now and then and reflect on what's going on in our lives, and others as a reminder that we are continually surrounded with our own and others' pasts.

I then took a moment to confess to the students how underprepared I felt, how I had given serious thought to cancelling class, how I didn't feel up to the task of leading discussion. But, I told them, I then told myself that instead of obscuring where I am and what I bring with me, I should come to them unafraid of being who I was in that place and time. "I need to trust in the community that we've built together here," I said, reflecting on hooks. "I need to recognize that being an authentic member of a healthy community often involves, among other things, being honest about who we are and what we bring to each other. I need to let myself be with you all. I need to trust that this is okay."

I was quietly crying by the end, and I thanked my students for giving me a chance to be with them.

I asked if anyone wanted to follow up on this. One student thanked me for my honesty; a second gave me props: "if I were having the day it sounds like you're having, I would have stayed at home and played with my dog for several hours." At this joke the mood grew cheerier, and we talked a bit more about community in general, and the community of the classroom in particular.

At the end, Sallie, whom I've come to know as one of the class's boldest students (despite her calm and quiet voice), got in the last word. "I feel like you're always here for us," she said, "is there anything we can do for you?"

"Besides not make me start crying again?" I joked, fresh tears welling up. "I don't think so," I said, "other than to just be with me today."

We then took a turn toward normalcy, discussing mass-media portrayals of non-white-male figures and challenges to hooks's idea of "radical openness." I settled in. I felt safe. By the end of class, as we concluded our opening discussion of Radical equations, the first minutes of class had been left behind.

My thanks go to my HON 479 students, a community of some of the kindest, smartest, more courageous students I've ever had a chance to work with. I feel blessed to get to learn with you.

P.S. -- it's turned out to be a pretty good day in the end!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Build me up

Today the focus in 479 was on bell hook's Teaching Community, the current read. Three students delivered presentations relating the reading to some aspect of their lives; one spoke on the portrayal of American Indians in film and another gave a crash course on feminism while their friend talked about the ways in which community theater can help to build a democratic community. In her follow-up discussion, this last student led the class in a round of communal singing (The Foundations' "Build Me Up, Buttercup"), citing studies showing the sense of community such a simple act can help to build.

Liberal arts education, folks. Isn't it awesome?

One of the HON 179 students visiting the classroom (today was the last class meeting for which I've got such students signed up! sadness...) asked "so, why exactly does bell hooks not capitalize her name?" My students posited several potential answers, most of which came back to one core hypothesis: she's making an intentional move to diminish her authoritarian status. "There are a lot of professors who are really laid back and don't go by 'Dr.' or 'Professor,'" one student remarked.

Yet still there are those who are keenly interested in maintaining a remarkable distance between their students and themselves. I dealt with several such colleagues last week when I took part in a round-table discussion on career opportunities for students in the traditional "humanities" fields. Of the eight panelists, I was the only one from outside of such a field, and four were first- or second-year faculty, fresh out of grad school and a few of them still very clearly vested in making sure their students knew just how smart they (the faculty) are.

After twenty minutes of hearing my colleagues pontificate about how graduate school is the most arduous and intellectually challenging undertaking and how only the most intelligent, the most assiduous, the most dedicated, devoted, and perspicacious survive (the unsaid unsaid: those of us on the panel are not only survivors but thrivers), I had had enough and I finally spoke up. "You know, grad school is hard and it will challenge you," I said, "but honestly I had a ton of fun and enjoyed it immensely. It was a rich time of my life, socially as well as academically. It's not all hard work."

In the end, you have a choice. What'll it be?: build a better community and live in it, or build a taller tower and live above it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

479 matters

A question that's been on my mind lately is the following: To what extent do highly idiosyncratic and personal characteristics like charisma, energy, etc. play a role in a teacher's success as a teacher?

This past week I had the dubious distinction of being called to another institution to serve as an external reviewer for a case before that school's post-tenure review committee. Over the course of three days I observed one faculty member's teaching in his several classes and crafted a report detailing his strengths and weaknesses and offering ways he can improve his teaching.

It seems to me that one of the biggest difficulties he was having was in connecting with his students. While to me his concern for his students and their learning is genuine and strong, and while his teaching philosophy is a sound one that's proven effective when implemented well, he struggles to bridge the gap between his students and him. I think that gap is made more wide by the fact that he's simply a naturally quiet person, not prone to public displays of passion.

It's never a bad thing to show passion and excitement for what one does, particularly when one is trying to motivate those who might lack intrinsic motivation for whatever it is they're supposed to be doing...but does this make public and prominent passion a sine qua non of good teaching? I wonder...I'd love to hear folks' take on this.

What else is on my mind?

I've spent some time this semester working on ways to encourage conversation in classes built upon discussion. Given my relative lack of experience in managing such classes, I've asked my students for feedback: what works for them? The other day my HON 479 students hinted (in class and in their reading responses on the nature of a democratic classroom) that they might like to see greater variety in the means we use to structure conversation in class. I therefore put it to them today to offer alternatives to the structure I've used regularly during the semester so far, which generally includes
  1. a brief opportunity for individual reflection (often driven by low-stakes writing),
  2. a chance to share ideas in small groups (to offer all a chance to share, and to minimize the difficulty of speaking in front of a large group),
  3. a brief "reporting out" by sharing ideas on the board and/or by assigning spokespersons to brief the whole class on the small groups' thoughts, all followed by
  4. a reconvening of the whole class as a plenary body.
Though this has worked well, a little variety never hurt anybody. The students offered that they liked the chance to write on the board as ideas came to them, and they liked the idea of small groups but they wanted each group to be tasked with a particular theme to talk about. After a small-group conversation, the groups would be rearranged and reformed, some folks staying behind from the first round to kickstart the conversation in the second round. At the end we would reconvene as a large group, continue discussion, and finally conclude with an opportunity for everyone to go around the circle and share one idea with the class as a whole.

As far as I can tell, it worked very well (HON 479 folks, feel free to chime in in the comments if you disagree). We ended up generating a mess of questions we would like to pose to Cornel West when he visits our campus in a few weeks. (He was supposed to visit tomorrow, but his travel's been delayed by a family emergency.)

Namely, when asked what one question the students would ask of Cornel West, I received the following responses:
  • Do you believe that our international politics have changed for the better under Obama, aside from the obvious benefits of improving the image of America internationally, as we don't seem like a bunch of hick hillbillies as we looked under the Bush administration?
  • Would you prefer to live in another country?
  • Is there a way to reduce the hostility surrounding political issues that prevents people from entering into dialogue?
  • What role could spirituality play in democracy, if any?
  • How can we combat the apathy present in our "democracy"? Is the idea of democracy still relevant when so many people are apathetic or uneducated?
  • How do we get (back) to America as a "cultural democracy" then we're so entrenched in the political mechanics of democracy?
  • At the end of the first chapter [of Democracy matters], you advocate the need for another democratic awakening. What do you think that should look like for this generation? What do you think are the ideal circumstances to make us stand up?
  • Would we know/understand global issues/views if our media did not control the input we receive, assuming the media is controlling? Would we care if we heard/were exposed to the truth?
  • How do we move beyond political partisanship and polarization?
  • What, in your opinion, is the single biggest, specific, practical way to improve America's democracy?
  • How would you explain the political apathy of our (new/upcoming) generation, and how can we begin to combat this suppressing force?
  • How can we reasonably overcome the apathy obstructing democracy?
  • What can we do to make people feel as though they have the individual power to change things in our society?
  • Who do you see as responsible for our current government issues and why?
  • [What do you believe] the future of politics is? More parties? Different system? Is any system better?
Whew! The students have enjoyed reading Democracy matters; I only assigned the first chapter, since I was only informed of Cornel West's visit long after the syllabus had been set and the readings chosen. They recommended that it be substituted in for one of the other texts the next time this class is taught, and I believe I'll take them up on that. This makes four texts I'd like to add in, requiring me to take a few out. I'm thinking that next term the following might be the line-up, including three holdovers from this term and four new ones subbed in:
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism
  • Michelle Alexander's The new Jim Crow
  • Cornel West's Democracy matters
  • Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the oppressed
  • Allan G. Johnson's Privilege, power, and difference
  • Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi's Food justice
  • Mindy Thompson Fullilove's Root shock
Not necessarily in that order. If you have other suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them, in the comments section.

One more question, about which I hope to write in a post of its own soon: to what extent do academics measure professional success by their ability to replicate themselves in their students? Subquestion: is this measure (and the things faculty do to succeed by it) really unhealthy or really fucking unhealthy? Discuss.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Problematizing Honors, or, Thirteen questions

I’m finding it harder and harder to defend what I do. I want to be an agent of change, and not simply a caretaker of the status quo.

What is the Honors Program now? Is it now just a vehicle for perpetuating inequity, reinforcing hegemony, keeping the academic elite (those students who have best learned how to play the “school” game) ensconced in existential safety? Or is it now an opportunity to offer a way out of inequity and hegemony, a place where doctrinaire views can be dissected, interrogated, and challenged?

What can the Honors Program be? How can I do the work to further make it a place where the privileged students who find themselves there encounter a place where their safety and surety, their privileged positions, are challenged?

Is this the best that can come from it? Can it be more still?

While walking together the other day a close friend of mine suggested that I should use my position to dismantle the program from within, to work to replace it with a more equitable support structure, one which offers resources and opportunities to those students who are more marginalized, more vulnerable, less acquainted with the patriarchalist assumptions of a mainstream university education. Such an institution would be something more than a learning resources center, more than an agglomeration of math labs and writing centers. It would be an institution devoted to advocacy for change and not simply to helping students cope with the status quo.

What would I even call such a structure? Where would it be housed? How would the university react to it? What would its charge be? Its day-to-day functions? Is there a precedent for such an entity?

To be continued, no doubt...

Thursday, October 03, 2013

hooks, Ward, and Ladson-Billings

How do you feel about bell hooks's Teaching community?

With hooks's ideas in mind, my students would have made quick work of unspoken assumptions our campus guest Lee Ward (coauthor of First-generation college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement) made during his presentation to faculty and staff which I attended over lunch just now. "They don't come to us with less cultural capital," he insisted, and I agree, "they just come with different cultural capital." Again, I agree. "No one is deficient in cultural capital." Uh huh. "But they will need our help in developing the capital that will help them to succeed in college."



...maybe we could instead reexamine the hegemonic assumptions (the, as hooks would have it, imperialist white-supremacist nationalist capitalist patriarchal assumptions) we have made that make college such a daunting experience for these folks? Might we try to overcome our institutional inertia, the academic conservatism that keeps us from making a more inclusive, less restrictive and prescriptive, radically open higher educational experience that helps students to feel like they matter by not so explicitly undervaluing the cultural capital they come to us with? For all of its faults (and I think there are a few), I must appreciate Gloria Ladson-Billings's emphasis on culturally-relevant teaching. (See The dreamkeepers, the last book my students read for HON 479. For the record, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with culturally-relevant teaching; I just think that Ladson-Billings tends to mislabel pedagogical practices, calling "culturally-relevant" teaching practices that are simply salutary for other reasons...take inquiry-based learning, for example.)

To be continued, no doubt.