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

The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why?

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

least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

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.

How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers

I read once that J.R.R. Tolkien came up with the idea for The Hobbit while grading student exams. Bent over a desk, grinding away scoring exam book after exam book, he finally came across one with a blank page at the back. He was so relieved by that short break from grading that he wrote on the blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He wrote the novel The Hobbit to find out what hobbits were.

After eighteen years of teaching college English, during most of which I’ve taught at least one section of first year writing (often more), I’ve come to appreciate how Tolkien felt. Grading papers is one of the worst parts of the job, and I’ve heard that from quite a few fellow English teachers as well. I could quote from my Facebook feed right now.

It’s partly the tedium of grading paper after paper that’s performing the same task, and it’s partly that student papers are always very much early works: students seldom have the time to fully revise, some students don’t attempt to write well at all, and others just don’t seem to have been taught. After spending years in graduate school reading literature, great writing, the best writing, it’s hard to spend that much time reading writing that’s often the opposite.

But then I started listening to myself.

I’ve been telling my students for years that writing is an acquired and then developed skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t shoot free throws at over 60% without standing on the line and practicing shot after shot. You can’t really play guitar or the piano without hours of practice, a lot of it boring: scales. And you can’t learn to write well without writing a lot and without reading a lot. Those two skills — reading and writing — are intimately related.

In other words, I’ve started telling my students, you only learn to write well by writing badly, and by writing badly a lot. And on top of that, even though I’m years past my Ph.D. now, and even though I’ve been publishing since about 1991 (my first poems appeared in a student-run college literary journal, The Valencian), and even though I’ve been reading constantly and like crazy since I was a kid, I still write badly. Sometimes, not all the time, but still sometimes. Even just this year.

At one point I looked at a batch of student papers, some of which were remarkable (in either one direction or the other), and I told myself. . . this is them trying. This is them doing the work of becoming good writers. This is my students following my advice and writing. . . badly, or well, they were still writing. Some of them were on training wheels, some of them were riding wheelies down the street with their hands behind their heads, but they were all on the bicycle, moving forward.

So when I listened to myself, finally, I learned that I loved bad student papers.

Bright Futures Educational Consulting Up and Running

Bright Futures Educational Consulting provides consulting services for high school students who are thinking about college, students already in college thinking about transferring or graduate school, and for colleges and universities

Hello all — I’ve started a new venture, Bright Futures Educational Consulting. It provides consulting services for high school students who are thinking about college, students already in college thinking about transferring or about graduate school, and for colleges and universities. We help with all aspects of the college application process, including choosing a major, choosing a college or university, avoiding debt, writing a good application essay, asking for recommendation letters, applying for financial aid, and more. If you’re a high school student, or a parent of a high school student, think about these consulting services as guidance counseling on steroids.

The nature of our service is such that we can provide consulting services literally anywhere in the world. If you’d like more information, visit our website or email us at home@brightfuturesedconsulting.com.

I’m currently looking for three or four families willing to do test runs on my services. The first four people to contact me can receive my services for free in exchange for honest feedback on a ten question customer service survey.

Dr. James Rovira has seventeen years’ experience in higher education in a variety of capacities, including admissions, financial aid, student advising, administration, course and curriculum design, publishing, and teaching. I know higher ed inside and out, and I am here to be your guide and advocate.

Literary Studies and Professional Studies

[Note: this semester I’m teaching a Survey of World Literature class to Nursing students. I designed the class with a Medical Humanities focus. This blog post is a modified version of an announcement I posted to the class about the importance of this class to their degrees.]

Big picture: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. First, degrees that prepare students for a vocation, and next, degrees that develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests but was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.

An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.

Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.

In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like a Drawing or a Painting class, or some other fine art class), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.

Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information that they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and they’re expected to know these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.

Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds of not just skills but literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.

Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills. The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.

On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.

That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.

In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.

But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.

For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study.

So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. The medical humanities-focused world literature class I developed uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.

As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from us, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.

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