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.

2015 in Review

What I’ve done in 2015. This is what a teaching scholar looks like. I accomplished what follows during 2015 while teaching a 4-4-3 load with a one semester sabbatical in the Fall, for which I am grateful to my current institution. What could your teaching scholars accomplish with better support? I know quite a few, and they deserve it. Everything listed below was written or published between January and December of 2015.

Creative:

  • Submitted my first volume of poetry for consideration to a publisher: Tripping the Light Ekphrastic. Still waiting to hear back. These things take time. The poems for this volume were written between 1991 and mid Summer 2015.
  • Submitted about ten individual poems for publication to different venues. Some were declined, some are still under consideration. They may all get declined. That is how it goes. I know, because I’ve been publishing since the 90s. You need thick skin to be a writer; we all face a lot of rejection. I had four poems published in late 2014, though, so that’s good.
  • Wrote about another forty pages of poetry, all new in 2015.
  • Served as a literary agent for Martin Reaves and helped guide his first novel, A Fractured Conjuring, through the entire publication process from contract to editing to release. It was a pleasure. It’s a dark, disturbing novel, but it’s a great one. It is now available in both print and e-book format through amazon.com. This publication is personally meaningful to me — Marty was my best friend from seventh grade through all four years of high school. I spent almost as much time at his house during those years as I did at my own. His family was great to me. He told me about his first date with his wife Charla in our middle school locker room the day after it happened. I was in his wedding party, got pictures of his two beautiful daughters when they were little kids, and now know them both as beautiful grown married women with children. Marty has been writing excellent fiction for well over ten years with only a little luck. My hope for this book is that it makes him a little money, gets him at least a little recognition, and helps to land his next book with the higher end publisher that he deserves.

Exhibits. The “Exhibit” category falls between the categories of “Creative” and “Scholarship,” I think:

  • Blake in the Heartland. This great exhibit ran in the Spring of 2015. It focused on the work of visiting scholar Dr. Michael Phillips, who I recruited to visit. He curated William Blake exhibits at the Tate, the Met, the Petite Palais, and most recently the Ashmolean. He delivered two lectures open to the public, gave two printmaking demonstrations (one for local high school students and one for my institution’s students and faculty), and guest lectured for an honors class. The exhibit was curated by Associate Professor of Art Lee Fearnside — who is the gallery Director. She suffered through all of the institutional work to make this happen, doing most of the heavy lifting to make it happen. I co-authored a grant to support these events with her. For this exhibit, Phillips provided his facsimiles of pages from Blake’s illuminated books that were printed using Blake’s materials and printmaking methods. The exhibit also featured contemporary art by regional artists inspired by Blake. You can see images from the exhibit linked above.
  • I then came up with the the idea for an exhibit at my institution’s art gallery dedicated to Ohio rock and roll. Lee liked the idea, so we wrote a grant to support it, recruited three Ohio rock photographers to contribute photographs, and I recruited two scholars to come present papers in a roundtable session either about Ohio rock bands or rock scholarship in Ohio. I’ve also contacted several Columbus-based bands to see if any of them are available for performance, pending budgetary approval. So far, things are going well. But, there’s more — one thing leads to another. I then came up with an idea for an honors class that would study the intersections of rock and roll with literature — and they are many and fertile, believe me — so I queried a Romanticism listserv for ideas. It turns out we’re not running honors classes this Spring, but responses to my query were so enthusiastic that I decided to develop an edited anthology titled Rock and Romanticism, which leads to my next category: scholarship.

Scholarship: Books

  • Rock and RomanticismWonderful project. I sent out a CFP, collected over forty paper proposals, sent out three book proposals (waiting to hear back), and since then have received seventeen papers and edited fourteen. I see this as an ongoing project resulting in two to three volumes, so I’m still accepting proposals. I’ve set up a book blog (linked above) and am continuing to receive and edit essays.
  • Interpretation: Theory: HistoryI started this anthology back in 2012 and have been wrestling with it ever since. I was awarded a contract last summer, didn’t like the terms, went back to my contributors and slimmed down then revised my proposal, and now have a very good publisher looking at it. I’ve edited three essays and wrote a provisional introduction to provide the interested publisher a writing sample.
  • The Pretenders: I co-wrote a proposal for this book with a colleague, and we submitted it to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. They received 605 proposals and accepted 16. Ours didn’t make it. I revised, expanded, and resubmitted it as an individual project, and it is now moving through the stages with another publisher. It’s gone through one round of editorial review and is moving into another. We will see. This project was supported by a week of research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives in Cleveland. The archivists there were great.

Scholarship: New Media. Since my institution may be moving toward a professional writing focus in its English major, I’ve started to expand my profile in New Media publishing.

Scholarship: Articles, Edited Anthologies

  • “Late-Romantic Heroes as Archetypes of Masculinity: Breaking Bad, The Fast and the Furious, and Californication,” by invitation for the edited anthology Class, Politics, and Superheroes: Populism in Comics, Films, and TV, Ed. Marc DiPaolo. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with the University of Mississippi Press.
  • “Silly Love Songs and Gender in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron,” by invitation for the edited anthology Assemble!: The Making and Re-making of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ed. Julian Chambliss and Bill Svitavsky. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with McFarland & Company, Inc.

Scholarship: Book Reviews

  • Rev. of Sexy Blake, eds. Helen B. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of The Emigrants, or, A Trip to the Ohio, A Theatrical Farce (1817), by George Cumberland. Elizabeth B. Bentley, ed., and Angus Whitehead, Intro. 2013 for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 by David Sigler for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions, published October 2015.
  • Rev. of William Blake and the Production of Time by Andrew M. Cooper for Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 38.3 (Sept. 2015): 472-4.
  • Rev. of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation by Roderick Tweedy for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, published Summer 2015.

Scholarship: Conferences. I’ve been presenting papers at three to four conferences a year since 2007. Most of them have been national, with some regional and some international. Unfortunately, my institutional support only covers about 25% of my costs at most, so I’ve had to scale back. I had a panel and a paper accepted for the CCCCs conference, but I had to pull out because of costs. I will still list the panel below, though, as the panel itself was accepted and did run. I also had a paper accepted for the Midwest MLA conference, but I had to pull out. I’ve been trying to focus on lower-cost regional conferences near me lately.

  • “Cohorts and Risk Management,” CCCCs National Conference, St. Petersburg, FL 2015. Successfully wrote the panel but did not attend.
  • “Imagining the Mind-Body Relation: The Skull as a Cave in Blake’s Mythological Works.” March 2015 for the national College English Association conference, Indianapolis, IN.

Scholarship: Digital Humanities

  • I attended a coding workshop for the Mary Russell Mitford project (Digital Mitford) in June of 2015 and finished my first round of markup for her poem Watlington Hill. I need to mark up people and places and write site index entries for it now.
  • I created an online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit.

I haven’t included blogging for my book projects or for my personal blog (here), which includes the online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit linked above, but I can provide links to my annual reports for my personal blog and my Rock and Romanticism blog.

All that I’ve listed here is my publishing productivity during 2015. It doesn’t include teaching, advising, or committee service: four courses in the Spring and three graduate courses in the Summer, including being a reader for one Master’s thesis. It also doesn’t include about twenty letters of recommendation, editing books for two friends of mine, and editing a few essays for friends too. This stuff is all part of the job that most college teachers do.

I’ve also tried to be a husband and father, but I think I suck at that.

Support your teachers. I’m just one of them, but they’re all working hard for you, their students, and their schools.

I would like every teacher to post a list like this about their summer work so that people know what we do.

Next up: forthcoming in 2016.

LJN Radio Interview — Technically Speaking: Utilizing Technology in Education

I’m happy to announce that my second interview with LJN Radio, “Technically Speaking: Utilizing Technology in Education” is now available on the LJN Radio website.

From the website:

Various uses of technology can be invaluable when it comes to educational success and improved learning. At the same time, people need to be cautious in seeing all forms of technology as an easy fix to how people are taught. Jim Rovira, associate professor of English at Tiffin University, explains to Tim Muma how important it is to ensure students are matched with the appropriate use of technology. Whether it’s taking online classes or utilizing in-class technology for lessons and assessment, it’s imperative educators understand that each student has different needs and will succeed or fail based on the fit of the technology they use.

On Technically Speaking, we explore the latest social media applications for the modern day workplace. Together we’ll discover the hottest technology jobs on the market and keep up with the latest high-tech trends.

Duration: 18 Minutes

Teaching on 9-11

Dusting of NYC on 9-11I’m not interested here in “Remember 9-11” jingoism or patriotic speeches. I do want us to remember 9-11, of course. I want us to never forget what it must be like to be a bombing victim. I want us to remember how that event brought us all together. I want us to remember what we are still sacrificing in terms of privacy and liberty for a feeling of greater safety. I would like us to remember that we live in a dangerous world, what it feels like to confront that danger up close and personally, and I would like us to ask ourselves what we’re doing as a country to make this world either safer or more dangerous than it already is. But that’s not my focus right now.

What I would like to write about instead is my personal memory of the events of 9-11, particularly teaching college during 9-11. The Fall semester of 2001 was my first semester teaching a college course all by myself as a third-year graduate student. It was Freshman Composition, of course: first year college writing. Freshman Comp. courses aren’t so much content oriented as skill oriented: students need to learn to write certain kinds of essays, and that’s it, so once they learn content related directly to that skill, they can write about whatever they want. Instructors then pick whatever readings they decide are the best and most interesting for that particular class, and students do their writing assignments based on those readings.

For further context, I would like to place myself geographically. I attended graduate school at Drew University, which is located In Madison, NJ. Drew is about thirty miles due west of lower Manhattan, so it takes about an hour to get to Penn Station by train from Madison’s train station, making Madison a commuter town for people working in lower Manhattan. When I first researched the area, I found out it was one of the top ten most expensive places to live in the US at the time. IT and Finance people who work in NYC live in Madison and commute there daily. At least some of my students were local and had parents who worked in the financial district in NYC.

Now, can you guess what I’d assigned that semester? Among all of my readings, I’d assigned readings from Salman Rushdie and Edward Said, both of which related to western imperialism and the Middle East. And can you guess what we were discussing the first day of class after 9-11? You got it. Yes, I was discussing Middle Eastern postcolonial theory in class my first class meeting after 9-11 during my first semester teaching.

Now forget the content for a minute. I had students in class that day who knew someone who died when the Twin Towers collapsed. Everyone was in shock — the whole world was in shock. But it hit my students literally close to home. We could see the smoke rising from the collapsed buildings for weeks after the event. It seemed like it was just always there. I remember hating the sight of it after about a week but not being able to ignore it or look away.

What did I do in class that day? I barely remember. This was my first semester teaching college. I remember I let students express their grief. I remember carefully discussing the content of the readings. I remember more shock and grief than anger at the time. I remember sitting down at the front of the class to talk rather than standing up. I remember over the next few weeks talking to angry male students who wanted to drop out of college to join the Army, and I remember trying to talk them out of it, or at least delay: If you join ROTC now and then finish college you can join as an officer and do more good.

But looking back, I think I got my first experience, without knowing it, of what college classes are really for.

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