Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

Reflections on 20 Years of College Teaching

It recently occurred to me that this semester starts my twentieth year of college teaching, all told — from my first freshman composition class as a grad student to my current teaching assignments.

If you do the math, my first semester of teaching was the Fall 2001 semester. I was teaching at a small, private college in a small New Jersey town with a train station direct to Penn Station in New York City. So yes, 9-11 occurred during my first semester teaching. On top of that, I had assigned essays by Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — two Muslim authors — for our reading the first class meeting after 9-11. I had planned this weeks before. On top of that, our reading by Edward Said was from his book Orientalism, which describes how western cultures misrepresent “oriental” cultures (a term that covers the Middle East to the farthest point in Asia), and how those misrepresentations serve western economic and political ends. And on top of that, some of my students had relatives who had died or were missing after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

From anywhere on campus we could see the smoke rising from the tower site for weeks after the attack. Literally weeks.

So, talk about walking a tightrope. My students were shocked and traumatized. We all were. I sat down at the front of the class and asked them to talk. I let them talk. Then, somehow, we moved on. I covered the reading as carefully as I could. I didn’t register any particularly negative reactions at the time.

This is teaching. It’s what we do as college teachers. College is the real world: somewhat insulated, at least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

Since that first course during that first semester teaching I’ve moved on to teach at other institutions. I’ve served as Program Chair three times at two different institutions and designed dozens of courses from the freshman to the graduate level. I’ve designed undergraduate and master’s level curriculum. I’m the guy who designed the program that trained your kid’s high school English teacher. I found I could picture an entire curriculum in my head, seeing how the courses work together, putting all the pieces in place for students who worked through it, designing the program of study to meet their most likely professional goals for the program. I’ve also published creative and scholarly works since then. I have five books out and two under contract and a number of poems, book reviews, short stories, creative non-fiction works and, while they’re not publications, almost 30 conference presentations.

I did this with almost zero institutional support. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve had one sabbatical that lasted one semester. Two of my terms as Chair were under a 4/4 load with ongoing publications and conferences, usually three conference presentations a year. One term was under a 3/3 load, but I was working on two books simultaneously at the time, plus conferences and other publications.

I’ve been busy.

What I’m going to say next is advice for college bound students and their parents. It may also be useful for graduate students.

First, most small, private, liberal arts colleges are far overpriced. Their faculty mostly lack meaningful accomplishments (they could never get jobs at state universities). They say that they’re so dedicated to teaching that they don’t have time to publish, but the truth is they can’t write and don’t have anything to say. I’ve only met one such faculty member who actually dedicated himself to the study of teaching instead of publishing, and he did in fact have a book. Just one, but he did it. I’ve spent most of my career being evaluated by people who haven’t published, some of whom were less educated than me. What does that tell you about how much these colleges value education? What educational quality are you or your child going to get from that institution?

Furthermore, most small private colleges are functionally racist, including their English departments. By functional racism I mean that the institution is more focused on an image than on its function as an educational and research institution. Small private colleges tend to fall into three categories: sports camp, vacation Bible school, or resort for rich kids. There’s another grouping, the business and professional private college, but they’re to be considered separately. In all of the first three cases, their educational mission is completely subordinate to their other identities, and faculty are expected to accommodate these secondary identities and, additionally, to conform to the image expected of college faculty by their student demographic. These expectations produce a fundamentally anti-diversity mindset that they justify in job searches with the word “fit.” This functional racism isn’t a “white only” kind of racism, but a “certain kinds of colors in certain places” kind of racism. So the department might hire one African American faculty member, but that person will always eventually leave for a state university. They won’t be comfortable there long term, very rarely. They’ll hire Asian and Indian faculty because they’re “whitenorities,” but only one each at most, and they generally won’t hire hispanics, because they’re “the help.” Hispanics clean their homes, not teach their college students.

There’s one more detail I need to add about teaching after 9-11. I was observed that day by the director of composition. It was that person’s job to observe me teach the class, give me feedback, and mentor me as a possible future college teacher. She told me after that class session that she wasn’t going to write up the class session and then never observed me again. Looking back, after serving as Chair a few times, I know why. It wasn’t because I didn’t do a good job or wouldn’t benefit from the feedback. She had no interest in helping to advance my future college career, and she had no interest because I didn’t fit the profile. Choosing not to write up that class session is understandable. Circumstances were unusual. But never scheduling another observation again? There are no good reasons for that.

I’ve done many class observations, been on many hiring committees, and led hiring committees. I’m very familiar with faculty observation. It’s usually clear what’s really going on. I had one member of a hiring committee advise against even interviewing a candidate because of the spelling of her last name. Yes — this faculty member just looked at the candidate’s last name and assumed she wouldn’t be able to speak English well. Racist much? She was yet another faculty member with no accomplishments but was deeply ingrained in the institution. She grew up around there. She fit the profile.

So my first advice is to send your children to state colleges and universities. Faculty are typically held to more objective standards for hiring and promotion and the institution usually has to pay more than lip service to diversity. The race issue matters. Every racist educational institution is anti-educational. It’s doing the opposite of educating students. It is hindering them. We are not living in a world where we can afford racism.

But, a caveat. Are all private colleges the same? No. Were my experiences entirely negative? No. I had some great faculty members who did support and advise me, and I’m grateful for them. But I have accurately described broadly observable patterns across the private college spectrum.

I have to further complicate matters. College teachers teach to the middle. They teach to the perceived middle of their student population in terms of academic ability. So it’s not true that college classes are the same everywhere. A highly ranked institution with a low acceptance rate has high performing students, so the middle is going to be at a higher bar than a lower ranked institution with lower performing students.

That means as future college students and their parents you should be concerned about the ranking of the college. Sorry, it’s true. Especially the college’s acceptance rate. Students need to get into the best colleges they can. They want to be somewhere that they’ll be in the middle or toward the top. If they’re too far beyond their peers, they’ll be undereducated. They should go to a better institution. The class valedictorian at a low ranked private college made a poor college choice. That person should have transferred to the flagship state college. They wouldn’t be valedictorian, but they’d get a much better education.

And here’s where we return to thinking about small private colleges. If the small private college is ranked in the top 100, seriously consider it. But be sure to consider the financial decision you’re making: look at the real cost of attendance after scholarships. Return on investment matters. You don’t want to pay $40,000 a year in tuition to get a degree in Education. Or even $20,000 a year in tuition. Do you want to graduate with $50,000 in student loan debt and then only get a job that pays $30,000 a year? Or even $40,000-$45,000? It’s much smarter to get your ed degree from a state university that only charges $8,000 a year in tuition. We need educators, badly, but high debt for a low paying job is a poor decision no matter what the field.

I have more to say. My next post will be about teaching.

Understanding Advising

Since we’re close to graduation again, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about what faculty advising can and should do, and what it cannot do.

Faculty advising should. . .

  • Listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and/or ask leading questions to help the student figure them out.
  • Recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals.
  • Be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths.
    • For example, right now, Ph.D. study in the humanities and law school are difficult paths. There are far too many graduates for jobs that require these degrees. There are caveats, of course: some institutions have high job placement rates, and if you can get through with low or no debt the risk is low, etc.
  • Provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions.
  • Engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

Faculty advising is not

  • Obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.
  • Obligated to lie to the student about their demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers.
  • Anything other than advising: it gives the students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but it doesn’t make students’ decisions for them.
  • Intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study.
  • Anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to, or is able to, take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Think about them.

Thinking Through Degree Choices

I’ve blogged a few times about the topic of choosing a college and degree over the past three years (on April 13 twice and Nov. 3 of 2013; Sept. 9, 2014), but I’m going to try to reframe the topic here in terms of three central questions:

  1. What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific college or major?
  2. What are the professional facets of that decision?
  3. What are the economic facets of that decision?

Let’s explore these one at a time.

  1. The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major or college matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a college or major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a college or major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you?  Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fairly fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs that they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
  2. The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of B.B.A. and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
  3. The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
    1. Cost of the degree.
    2. Income potential for the degree.
    3. Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.

    So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 1% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university.

    Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.

What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.

In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much.

Questionnaire for English Grads

My friend Paul Corrigan (Ph.D., Purdue U.; Asst. Prof. of English, Southeastern University) has developed the following questionnaire for English majors who did not go into teaching or on to graduate school. He hopes to gather results to develop a guide for other English majors who intend to follow the same path. He will collect responses and make them publicly available.

If you could pass this link along to potentially interested English grads he would very much appreciate it.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1nuMfaj-drN2Cc1PmtEfkbVxUY2wrkBn1WwD4ok4TmY0/viewform?c=0&w=1

Thanks very much,
Jim
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