Students Are Already Workers

I just discovered Marc Bousquet’s excellent blog based around his eye-raising book, How the University Works (from NYU Press). Two sample chapters are available on his site — I read the Intoduction (.pdf) — a sobering examination of the consequences of the corporatization of academia — and discovered that my pangs of anxiety about this issue were justified and that things are a lot worse than I suspected.

But reading the sample chapter on students and labor, “Students are Already Workers,” (.pdf file) really got me thinking about my students, as I plan for the classes in the year ahead:

The reality of the undergraduate workforce is very different from the representation of teen partiers on a perpetual spring break, as popularized by television (Girls Gone Wild), UPS propaganda (“they’re staying up until dawn anyway”), and Time: “Meet the ‘twixters,’ [twenty-somethings] who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate. They’re not lazy—they just won’t grow up” (Grossman; for more, see Bartlett).

There are more than 15 million students currently enrolled in higher ed (with an average age of around twenty-six). Tens of millions of persons have recently left higher education, nearly as many without degrees as with them. Like graduate employees, undergraduates now work longer hours in school, spend more years in school, and can take several years to find stable employment after obtaining their degrees. Undergraduates and recent school leavers, whether degree holders or not, now commonly live with their parents well beyond the age of legal adulthood, often into their late twenties. Like graduate employees, undergraduates increasingly find that their period of “study” is, in fact, a period of employment as cheap labor. The production of cheap workers is facilitated by an ever-expanding notion of “youth.” A University of Chicago survey conducted in 2003 found that the majority of Americans now think that adulthood begins around twenty-six, an age not coincidentally identical with the average age of the undergraduate student population (Tom Smith).

The idea that college instructors are teaching students to be “pre-professionals” before they enter the workforce is becoming an anachronism. Students are working more and more…whether in work study or in jobs to support their degree. More and more they come to my office door, asking for extensions or accommodations that can work around their employer’s schedules. More and more, I see students in campus offices, doing much of the grunt work. I go out to a local restaurant or a downtown bar, I see my students…but they’re not eating or partying; they’re taking my orders or pouring my drinks.

So what? one might wonder. What’s the harm? Students work, just like everyone else. I have conflicting feelings. For one thing, college can and maybe should be a temporary sanctuary away from the work world. But as someone who also worked in a “real world” job throughout college (and who signed up for the GI Bill and spent a few years in military service just to afford to attend college to begin with), I’ve always felt that these struggles are beneficial, ultimately, because they can teach a person the ethics required to survive in the workforce, like disciplined time management and the art of delayed gratification (e.g. work now, pay later). We “pay to work” when we go to college, in the interest of not only learning skills and information, but also earning the social capital it takes to raise one’s status.

But clearly economic benefits should not be the sole outcome of a college degree. Everyone recognizes — students most of all — that there’s a bit of exploitation that goes on in the minimum wage labor class, but its treated like a natural form of paying one’s dues to raise oneself up economically — and this is the “script” that parents and culture-at-large often hand students. I hadn’t really considered how this script might be a symptom of a larger form of class exploitation, or a symptom of a rising “age of adulthood” that for the most part (as Bousquet argues) serves the interest of corporate employers. As teachers, when we see student workers through the lens of our own similar past work experiences, and treat it as “paying one’s dues,” then, as Bousquet suggests, we might also be guilty of “reinforc[ing] commitments to inequality” systemically, even as we assume that we might be liberating students via their education.

But even beyond the political economy of all this, the increase in student commitment to working for survival (let alone experience) results in a reprioritization of the role of learning in a life-well-lived. Too often, the classroom is an atomized part of a “workweek” schedule that is understood to be, simply, more work just like everything else that is not overtly part of leisure culture. It’s up to teachers to transform that workspace, but it can be difficult.
The problem isn’t just that students are overburdened with work and oppressed by the class system — they also tend to deprioritize learning in order to just survive through the grind of the day. When students arrive in the classroom wearing their work or athletic uniforms, it always signals to me that their outside lives are competing for their time and attention. They are overscheduled. The agenda for the day becomes marching orders, and the mind can only process so much. And some students are not shy at all about reminding everyone in the room that that this class meeting is just a brief pit-stop on the race from point A to point B. It is my job to make that pit-stop a meaningful place that doesn’t just fuel them up with knowledge and send them back on the track; instead, the pit-stop needs to be a temporary but FULL stop — a place where both the track and the rules of the race are better understood — if not revised altogether. Sometimes school can be a place where maps are discovered that leads one into the more exciting and rewarding territories off-road altogether.

Metaphorical ideals aside, I hope to overtly raise issues of economic class in my courses in the year ahead, if only to heighten student awareness about their cultural identity and to learn how I can better accomodate student needs while remaining committed to a liberal arts mission and not some other economic interest. In creative writing courses, I have assigned the theme of work broadly and have always been amazed with what students have to say about it when given free reign to explore their relationship to the workforce. Perhaps I’ll even assign this chapter from Bousquet’s book for a discussion or research. For me, one of the main goals as a teacher is consciousness-raising. Bousquet frames the questions at issue in this debate in a way that might lead to some productive discussions:

For me, the basis of solidarity and hope will always be the collective experience of workplace exploitation and the widespread desire to be productive for society rather than for capital. So when we ask, “Why has higher education gotten more expensive?” we need to bypass the technocratic and “necessitarian” account of events, in which all answers at least implicitly bring the concept of necessity beyond human agency to bear (“costs ‘had to’ rise because…”). Instead, we need to identify the agencies of inequality and ask, “To whom is the arrangement of student debt and student labor most useful?”

The answer to that final question, unsuprisingly, is never “to the student.”

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson’s lecture, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (Technology, Education, Design Summit, 2006) is an inspiring 20 minute lecture on the goals of education.

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not afraid of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they are adults, kids have lost that capacity. They have become afraid of being wrong. [But as they grow up in the classroom and the workplace] we stigmatize mistakes. We are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make…the result is, we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Why is this?”

Here’s the video (with apologies for the BMW commercials):

Robinson’s home page itself is very creative and includes information about his writing on creativity and the arts in education, including a link to his article, “How Creativity, Education and the Arts Shape the Modern Economy” (pdf).

The Ten Commandments of Teaching Creative Writing

Paul Miller has posted an excellent entry on his blog, PaulsPen, called “Thou Shall Have Balance: The Ten Commandments of Teaching Creative Writing.” Here they are. Each is explained in great depth on his blog, so be sure to visit his site:

I. Thou shall teach both theory and practice
II. Thou shall teach students to neither mistake, nor suppress, themselves for their audience
III. Thou shall articulate the difference between vision and revision
IV. Thou shall create a plan and be prepared to improvise
V. Thou shall encourage and practice freedom with restraint
VI. Thou shall boldly state absolutes in the realm of the relative
VII. Thou shall teach reading and writing, and the importance of both
VIII. Thou shall coach students to strive for art but be prepared for life
IX. Thou shall lead as an equal
X. Thou shall temper the dream with pragmatism

I admire Paul’s mission to teach a balanced approach to the art and trade of writing. This is a useful addition to research on creative writing pedagogy — thanks, Paul!

The Kindergarchy (or, Too Much Love in the Home, Not Enough Pain in the Class)

Are we bending under the oppressive rule of children? Do kids have too much power?

There are days, I think, when every teacher wonders this, even at the college level.

Dennis Jerz posts a good response to this idea, particularly in terms of catholic teaching, as raised by Joseph Epstein in his recent lament about the Millenial generation in the conservative journal, Weekly Standard. It’s given me a lot to think about, because I often have mixed emotions about inappropriate student behavior and obvious expressions of immaturity, which sometimes conflicts with my drive to treat all students as adult thinkers and learners.

Epstein grossly broadens this idea to suggest that we’re living under a “Kindergarchy.” [That’s a neologism; as Michael Gilleland points out, the correct term is “paedarchy”]. Epstein has used this term before — in a Wall St. Journal article celebrating Thanksgiving (because, of course, it is the least kid-centered holiday) — so I think it’s safe to say his suspicion of children is something of a leitmotif for him, if not a future book topic.

He’s not alone: Time magazine even did a fascinating cover story on the topic a few years ago, “Do Kids Have Too Much Power?”

And it’s an interesting question, though when it comes to college teaching (which both Jerz and Epstein mention in exempla), I think we need to be careful not to fall for such widespread generalizations about “kids today.” Kids today are just like kids yesterday, but they have different cultural frames of reference, different ways of reading the world. And even while parents seem to be playing a larger role in the academic life of their offspring, I refuse to think of my students as “children” let alone “kids.” (No one old enough to wear a military uniform is a child. A better word would be “initiate”…students are “uninitiated” into our learning communities and undergoing a transformation to join them.)

The adult/child divide is not only an issue of parenting, but — particularly when pushed into abstractions such as “generation” gaps — also a power relationship, complicated by fears of aging and the desire for eternally youthful vim. Often what seems to be a “grumpy old teacher” engaging a “hostile youth” is really a status game of some kind. In some classrooms, the assumed power position of wisdom (only earned by years of disciplined brain training) butts heads against the assumed power of the youthful physique (usually unearned, though it can be earned through disciplined body training); the classroom is a bastion of the mind, so I can understand why it makes instructors angry when, say, a student-athlete cops an attitude of superiority and refuses to “play along” with a teacher’s classroom work. Yet how many teachers channel and project their hostility about their own aging out on the youthful students they have to contend and spar with? How many dream of eternal youth, aligning themselves with their students rather than owning up to their own aged wisdom and experience? To what degree do such psychological hang-ups and unconscious wishes get in the way of teaching and learning?

While it may be true, as many of my colleagues note, that today’s students have a strong sense of unearned “privilege” that earlier generations did not, this does not mean that these students are tyrants who rule us. Unfortunately, however, we’ve all probably heard of — or personally dealt with — students who act like they “pay our salaries” and therefore should not have to follow our rules but in fact can direct us to do their bidding (when most of the time, it’s their parents or the government’s loans and/or scholarships that are “paying” us). The marketing of college campuses as commodities may very well have something to do with this attitude (as Jerz also obliquely suggests). And this, perhaps, is at the root of the problem: students are still “children” in the eyes of their parents and thus they become so to those who market to those parents. To us, on the front lines in the classroom, students need to be treated as adults. Or in the very least, adults-in-progress.

But I always believe it’s a good idea to talk about these things openly; if there is a “power struggle” in the classroom, even when it’s between me and a student, I’m all for calling attention to it. People at a particular stage of development — say, 18-24 year olds — will almost universally be coming “of age” about the world, and will have the same sorts of quirks, assumptions, hostilities, resistances, curiosities, presumptions, and drives. Good college teachers probably recognize or intuit the ways that people of this age group process the world, and can tap into it in order to generate learning. Often this requires dismantling the assumptions that a person of this age group has unwisely settled upon too soon in life, while also remaining skeptical of one’s own assumptions about that age group. This is why I always enjoy teaching “education” as an outright topic when I am running a freshmen level course. It is a good way to get these assumptions about “privilege” out into the air, to be tested and challenged in a collaborative open discussion. Once students see that not everyone has the same economic background and different motivations for attending college, they usually modify and reflect on their own background and motivation and, ideally, how these are influenced by outside forces beyond their own organic will.

In Epstein’s “Kindergarchy,” he slips into a reflection about teaching literature that reveals his persistent struggle against the idealism of the young in his classroom:

…often in my literature classes students told me what they “felt” about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to — but did not — write: “D-, Too much love in the home.”

Call me a softie, but there’s no such thing as too much love, anywhere. This is a primary example of the “power struggle” I was talking about above. Epstein’s secret desire to punish students for being loved as children by their parents sounds awfully sadistic to me, but I have to admit that I have felt a similar twinge of frustration before. (Especially when teaching film, which students are trained to think of as “entertainment” not “art”).

While it is true that an affective response to literature is not wholly relevant to a conversation in a literature classroom, and that literary professionals truck with reason not emotion, these feelings still exist in any reader response and a skilled teacher can — and often must — train students to see how those emotions are constructed by the text, manipulated by the book and its packaging, their own assumptions, etc. Our very job, I think, is to wean students in lower division classes away from “settling” for emotional reactions as a telos for judgment. Yet this emotion is a stepping stone into criticism, and our job is to point to the river and say: look there, a stone that can help you cross over to my side. But of course, sometimes the teacher too must be willing to cross over toward the students side once in awhile too… but there are many rivers to cross.

[Besides, I challenge Epstein’s assumptions about the goal of teaching literature generally: When Epstein says that the focus should be “what the author had put into the book” I would ask how one could possibly know that intention and why not just focus on the “book” not the author’s effort; when he refers to “its moral weight” I would question how he “weighs” morals and if they are really as pertinent as he suggests; and when he mentions “resultant power” I would ask if he does not here mean the very emotion he was hoping to quash in the first place, albeit an informed one?

[And I wonder if in the memory he recounts, they were responding to a Dickens novel? Muhahah.]

Another way to get into this matter is to discuss the very notions of “childhood” and “adulthood” in the classroom and to unpack how the meanings of these terms are socially-constructed. A child in one country is not a child in another (just think of the drinking age or legal marriage age in some countries, and you know what I mean). Some are afraid that childhood no longer even exists. I teach an advanced lit course — when I’m lucky — called “Childhood in Literature” in which we discuss cultural issues like these, while surveying the representation of the child historically and culturally, across a wide range of fiction and poetry (yes, including Oliver Twist!). The course begins with theory by having the class analyze and discuss Neil Postman’s excellent book, The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman argues that childhood is a social construct that operates only in relation to what we think it means to be an adult. For Postman, to be a child is not just an organic age bracket — it means not yet having literacy — which gives one “access” to adult “secrets.” For Postman, the mass media of TV has erased the need for literacy to have this access, producing adultified children and child-like adults. When we teach literacy, we are teaching adulthood.
In another article on aging, Epstein himself seems to recognize the cultural paedomorphism — that is, the extension of juvenile tendencies into adulthood — that Postman has lamented when he writes:

I also grew up at a time when the goal was to be adult as soon as possible, while today–the late 1960s is the watershed moment here–the goal has become to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. The consequences of this for the culture are enormous. That people live longer only means that they feel they can remain kids longer: uncommitted to marriage, serious work, life itself. Adolescence has been stretched out, at least, into one’s 30s, perhaps one’s early 40s.

Many — if not the majority — of the college teachers I know are in their 30s and 40s. Many don’t have “kids.” You might leap to the assumption that these young teachers are perpetual adolescents who are so much “still in school” that it’s become their entire career. (And anyone who wants to be quick to judgment can summon examples easily enough of some teacher they’ve met who dresses too young, or acts too juvenile, or goes out drinking and dating with students beneath their age bracket, or still loves comix, or plays games, or writes horror stories, or relishes stuffed animals in their offic, or watches Disney cartoons, or plays with coloring books and action figures, or does any number of activities that one might associate with youth culture. Does this make them perpetually juvenile, or simply interesting people who actively know where their pleasures lie?)

We as teachers need to be conscious of our outward expression of “age affiliation” as well as our students, but it should not control us or fill us with shame. The psychology of identity behind age affiliation is intriguing but very complicated, and the distinctions between childhood and adulthood are often false binaries. What Epstein might fail to recognize is that the “serious work” of academia is neither to “become adult as soon as possible” nor to “stay as young as possible for as long as possible” but rather to have a more consciously realized life, period. That’s how I prefer to think of it. Shine light on behavior, perhaps even share one’s own feelings, but ultimately let students judge it for themselves. To lash out at students with poor grades for “too much love in the home” is probably fighting childishness with childish behavior. It is not always what we do, but how we do it, that separates children from adults. Thus, we need to treat college-aged students like adults, perhaps most of all when they are acting like children.

Jazzy Teaching: Improv, Collaboration and Expertise

I was browsing through a list of open source academic journals on the web this morning and found Critical Studies in Improvisation — a journal of music and performance theory, mostly — whose latest issue [Vol 3, No 2 (2007)] is a Special Issue on Improvisation and Pedagogy.

Having studied Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro, as a source for ideas in the teaching of writing, I found it a worthwhile follow-up. Teaching is always improvised, to some degree, but what these writers focus on is how improvisation in the classroom generates learning.

Of particular interest to me was R. Keith Sawyer’s essay on “Improvisation and Teaching” which draws on cognitive learning scholarship to define the skills of “expertise”:

1) Deep conceptual understanding. Experts haven’t simply memorized a large repertory of facts. Of course they know a lot of facts, but in the expert’s mind, those facts are embedded in complex conceptual frameworks. Experts understand the mechanisms underlying phenomena and are able to explain surface features in terms of underlying mechanisms and conceptual structures.

(2) Integrated knowledge. Each piece of knowledge is highly interconnected with all of the other pieces of knowledge. Expertise does not result from possessing distinct compartmentalized knowledge; everything known is related in an integrated framework.

(3) Adaptive expertise. Experts have mastered a large range of standard procedures and solutions. When first encountering a new problem, they typically will quickly recall a variety of similar problems they’ve encountered in the past, and they will begin by considering one of the solutions that has worked in the past. But experts do not simply apply these memorized procedures in rote fashion; they are able to flexibly modify the routines they’ve mastered or to combine elements of distinct routines as is appropriate to the new problem.

(4) Collaborative skills. Experts work together with other experts in teams and in complex organizational structures. Unlike the hierarchical corporation of old, where everyone’s job description was quite specific, the boundaries between each team member are fluid, and many tasks require the simultaneous and joint contributions of multiple experts to be successfully accomplished.

Sawyer draws specific connections between these skill sets and the needs of the improvisational musician, but argues that too often, the Industrial age classroom model (chairs lined up in rows, teacher-centered lectures, “banking model” frameworks etc.) inhibits — and even prohibits — these skills from fomenting. Such outdated models, moreover, are inappropriate for contemporary culture, which “requires a new learning environment” that is project-based, inquiry-based, or problem-based. “These new learning environments are unified by their improvisational nature—they place students in loosely structured environments, where they work together in a relatively unstructured, improvisational fashion.”

One of the reasons this article spoke to me was because I recently saw a news report on MSNBC that revealed new studies in the brain function of jazz performers, in which scientists have musicians play keyboards while inside an MRI machine. They hope to unravel the “secrets of creativity,” and so far their findings suggest that the brain of a creative artist in action, performing live, functions in the same way as a dreaming brain does. This does not come as a surprise to me at all, but I think it is important to recognize the way that irrationality and the unconscious always play roles in the overly rational space of the college classroom, and that what we sometimes see as nonsense is often the most productive classroom experience.

As I prepare to teach some graduate learning modules in the Writing Popular Fiction program later this month, this article reminds me to keep the environment improvisational and not to over-plan the courses into dull singalongs. I think I often have approached teaching in an improvisational way, creating an open and collaborative learning environment, but I tend to think of the literary texts or student writing that we employ as “composition” — that is, like sheet music. But, no, perhaps the texts are the instruments themselves in the student hands, not a set of directions. Learning occurs when that texts are processed, following student comments and discussions that riff off one another. The teacher can conduct, or perhaps better yet, play along. In the cacophony of student group work and open class discussion, an outsider might hear chaos — but I need to remember that that’s what learning sounds like, as I try to assist students toward a sense of knowledge mastery and expertise.

The Radical Impossibility of Course Outcomes

“…however effectively one ‘prepares’ for a class, the realities of learning alter the original orientation in a number of creative and unpredictable ways. If the structure is too tight, or the scenario is too predictable, then we move towards a tightly organized outcomes-based approach to learning. We end up confusing the relationship between clear goals (set by the teacher), and an anticipation that the student will meet the expectations of the course, because they have replicated the core meaning of the content. This is, to some degree, summarized by the assumption that teachers need to envision what students should know at the end of a course. Yet, knowledge cannot be packaged in such a simplistic way. We gain an understanding of an idea, for example, through dialogue. The dialogue can lead in an untold number of different directions. The fundamental unpredictability of dialogue is that both interacting parties may have no sense of where they are headed and may, indeed, learn in ways that they had not anticipated. This should be a source of excitement, but it is often a source of anxiety. I believe the anxiety is partially situated in how we define teachers and students.” Ron Burnett, in “The Radical Impossibility of Teaching”

I have not really processed this article as fully as I should yet, but Ron Burnett’s “The Radical Impossibility of Teaching” was a fascinating read for me, because — among many interesting ideas that question the assumptions we have about institutionalized learning — the argument cited above encapsulates my occasional resistance to “outcomes based” assessment. I believe that having assessable goals and objectives gives a class a focus, a common ground, and a sense of direction. But by the same token, there’s a degree to which these outcomes need to emerge organically from the class itself more collaboratively than they typically do. Burnett argues against the notion that objectives be prescribed by the teacher’s hasty, generalized prediction about what students “need” that is handed down from above before the fact — especially if “above” means not only the teacher, but some larger institutional group which the teacher is simply delivering like some enforcer or mediator between the institution and the student. Burnett invites us to think about some radical reconfigurations which cultivate creativity in the classroom. Like, what if the students were allowed to collaborate with the teacher, modifying and revising the learning objectives in the class? (The answer asks for more responsibility from the student than you might think).

In a system controlled universally through “outcome-based” assessment, where curricular administration risks becoming reduced to an act of enforcing policies rather than enhancing the development of teaching, such revision is virtually impossible. And yet at the same time, students do in their very particularity and individuality revise and adapt the learning objectives in their own ways. Assignments like “reflective essays” and “self-assessments” encourage students to gauge their own investment in course outcomes and to pursue them as they feel they need. And as long as teachers are working closely with students in interpersonal ways — such as in individual office conferences — the learning that happens can be guided and modulated to some degree in concert with the teacher.

While a teacher can use the course itself to “play” off the objectives, the syllabus remains the invariable law and point of accountability. The outcomes themselves are never really open to student revision in any way that can be filed, made permanent, or recognized publicly in the name of “accountability” or “assessment.” Thus, I would suggest that the “radical impossibility” at work here is not one of teaching or of learning, per se, but of the very idea of a universal “outcome.” Although grading and assessment have numerous modalities, a self-conscious teacher must recognize the virtual impossibility of measuring outcomes in any concrete way, beyond some abstract/numerical method (evaluations by ranking rather than providing qualitative comments) that reduces the significance of the experience and threatens to rob the quality of the course objective — if not the course itself — of meaningful substance.

Ah well…I’m still mulling these ideas over. Burnett’s essay was originally delivered to the Federation Internationale des Sciences Sociales, in Milan Italy in 1999, and subsequently published in Critical Approaches to Culture, Communications + Hypermedia, his excellent weblog.

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Higher Education (& Technology)

This afternoon I attended a great Teaching & Learning Forum on our campus on the topic of teaching with technology. Mary Spataro — our campus technology-enhanced learning guru and Instructional Design pro — ran a healthy discussion on implementing technology in a way that supports the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education outlined by Chickering and Gamson for the American Assn for Higher Ed. This work was done in 1987, and though I have heard these principles in various guises throughout the years, the citation was new to me, so I thought I’d briefly blog about it.

In a nutshell, Chickering and Gamson argue that it is good practice for a teacher to employ these seven principles in their courses…

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations, and
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

In our development session, Spataro broke the faculty into small groups, assigning one principle to each group to unearth ways that they are using technology in their courses to support such practices. My group discussed “gives prompt feedback” — such as using e-mail to respond to student theses or topic proposals before they actually write their papers, or having some stock “comments” to copy and paste into a response to student writing. Spataro also added that recording oral notes is another way that is gaining popularity (though, as I have argued with my SHU colleague in New Media, Dennis Jerz, there are instances where too much play with this may not be fair to the student writer because it does not, for example, teach direct editing skills by example… on the other hand, such text-to-speech technology can be liberating as Norman Coombs has explained).

In their 1996 article, “Technology as a Lever,” Chickering and Ehrmann similarly illustrated how these principles can be achieved with technology (and the website that this article appears on — hosted by the Teaching Learning and Technology Group — gives a host of good sources on the topic). They mention Coombs (again) and his use of e-mail as an example of how online discussions can get quiet students to raise issues in a more equalizing and honest setting (in this case, Coombs reports that he had taught for many years, but it wasn’t until he began to use e-mail to teach his course that a student finally had the gumption to ask, “What’s a white guy doing teaching black history?” — see Ehrmann’s “Grand Challenges” for more on using e-mail as an educational tool). The article is a great I like how they conclude with the argument that “technology is not enough” and that students need to take action to learn on their own (or to make the instructor aware when they are not “respecting” the diverse ways that students learn).

If it isn’t self-evident from this weblog, I am in favor of technology-enhanced learning and I do try to follow the above principles, though I am always skeptical of pedagogical AND technological dogma. I use technology in many of my courses and in advising, but I would add that there are times when technology can actually get in the way of achieving these principles. Sometimes there are simply “technical difficulties” but at other times there are “faculty difficulties” with the technology, or it is utilized in unconsciously (or even fetishistically) poor ways. If a teacher is not modulating their employment of technology in the classroom with other methods, and aren’t engaging with the course technology to the same degree their students are, then, for example, these tools can only get in the way, lead to passive learning, or discourage other forms of student-faculty contact. Being receptive to student feedback on the medium for communication is crucial.

Simply put, sometimes we use the wrong tools for the job without knowing it; this does not necessarily mean one has to throw out the tool if it isn’t working, but instead try another guage (swap an inch-based wrench for a metric-sized one). As Spataro urged us today, it’s best to start small…you’ll find the right amount of technology to use along the way.

Chickering and Gamson actually mention something similar to this final point in their original article, when they discuss the classroom as an environment that a teacher develops. Here’s how they see the ideal environment for teaching the principles:

  • A strong sense of shared purposes.
  • Concrete support from administrators and faculty leaders for those purposes.
  • Adequate funding appropriate for the purposes.
  • Policies and procedures consistent with the purposes.
  • Continuing examination of how well the purposes are being achieved.

All of this, I would say, obviously pertains to teaching with technology, as well. Technology is not just a tool; it is an element of a learning environment that needs just as much planning, planting, grooming, and trimming as a tree in a backyard.

Do We Always Know When We Are Teaching?

…one question we might ask is: “Do we always know when we are teaching?” I do not think we do. The single most important thing I learned as an undergraduate may have been that I was capable of graduate study. I learned this from a professor who had no idea he taught it to me. Brief remarks that seem innocuous to us may have a lasting impact on our students. Hopefully, the influence is positive. I do not mean to give us more importance or power as teachers than we actually possess. However, a different but equally significant error may be to ignore the potential impact we can have at moments when we are least aware of what we are saying. Peter J. Giordano, Teaching and Learning When We Least Expect It

I had a similar experience, when an American Literature teacher named Beth Ann Bassein answered one of my annoying questions by saying, “Oh, you’ll learn all about that when you get your Masters.” It floored me. She just continued on in her lectures, not missing a beat. I barely even knew what graduate school was, let alone felt I’d be able to get into one, and here this professor was, assuming I would get my master’s degree…heck, she didn’t even bother trying to talk me into it! Beth Ann Bassein taught me many things when I took her classes, especially her poetry writing courses (because she’s a knockout poet herself), but she was one of the toughest teachers on campus and that one passing comment — with all its unexpected acceptance and faith in my ability — alone gave me courage to try. (I had another moment like this when, during my Masters, a Medieval lit professor wrote in the margins of a critical essay: “Oh, shut up and go get your PhD already!”) These little para-educational things mean nothing — and yet they mean everything.

So what a wonderful essay Giordano’s “Teaching and Learning When We Least Expect It” is. He reminds us that we are not always in control, that learning often happens between the cracks of the syllabus, and that what we say and do informally with (or around) our students can often teach them far more than we realize.

In his essay, he raises a very pithy question: “Do we always know when we are teaching?” And the answer is, of course not. All we really have is faith and speculation and a whole lot of intuition. Sure, good teaching is mentored, learned, and practiced, grounded in deep, lifelong study and professional development. It’s based in what people call “best practices”…but I think we often draw on our unconscious well when we are teaching — modeling our strategies and challenges off of how we ourselves learned best, and refining our techniques and personal style in a series of never-ending encores of successful teaching strategies we’ve employed in the past. New teachers really do make it up as they go along — and might be surprised to learn that older teachers (usually the ones who are still engaged and excited about teaching) are making it up even still.

One of the joys of teaching, for me, is coming up with a really good discussion question off the cuff, or dreaming up an impromptu writing prompt, and watching what happens when students get inspired by it. It’s magic. I’ll sometimes run back to my office and make sure I write down what I did, so I’ll remember to do it again in the future. But sometimes we’ll run a really great exercise or discussion prompt one year and it’ll come as a surprise to us just how good it can be, but when we repeat it the following year, it doesn’t click and we wonder what we did wrong. The idea is only half of it; it’s the fuel — but the classroom dynamic provide the fire.

Giordano mulls over metaphors for teaching, and how none of them are quite right, though “midwife” comes closest. I like his idea that teachers need to be “good company” to students. We have to let go of control fantasies for that to happen. Giordano’s essay reminded me of the basic principle of learning: it can happen any time. The best thing a teacher can do is try to create an environment where there’s lots of flint that might spark fire. But it’s up to the student — and an infinite number of variables beyond anyone’s control — to strike it.

I think it’s crucially important to remember these lessons during times of (what Carolyn Segal has termed) Assessmentdelirium.

I found this article on a site I often mention here on Pedablogue: the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list run by Rick Reis out of the Standford CTL program. Their mailing list is worth subscribing to. I’m currently researching “Transormation Theory” for a pedagogy paper I’m delivering next weekend at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, and I found Giordano’s essay very useful.

Questionstorming Revisited

“Half my job is asking questions of those who can’t generate questions, in order to model the will to curiosity.” — from “Creative Writers in the Academy,” by Orante Churm

Churm got me musing over this great line in his otherwise provocatively subversive essay. As a creative writing instructor, I see my role as very similar to Churm’s, particularly when it comes to raising questions, because this is at the core of creative writing, literary interpretation and, well, all forms of critical inquiry. When I teach using the “permeable lecture” method, I am modelling this will to curiosity.

A short while ago, I was asked to guest blog about “critical reading” for author (and SHU WPF alum) Kaye Dacus’ weblog. In response, I wrote a short article called “Questionstorming” that looks at the sort of questions that writers should ask when they read a story — but mostly, I assert, they should ask the question why:

Every drop of ink that you see on a page is a choice that a writer has made. That choice has a motive. A reason. A rationale. Thus, critical reading is — at its base — a search for that reason. It simply involves ASKING THE QUESTION WHY.

What Churm calls “the will to curiosity” is often not merely a desire to raise this question, but also the courage to find the answers, no matter how much work it might require, how complex those answers might be, how radically life-altering they might be.

Why ask why? Because there’s a thrill in the risk, and a satisfaction in knowing that you’ve moved one step closer — but never all the way — toward the cliff-sharp edge of the truth.

Humor in Genre Writing

During my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to be a guest writer for a weekend at the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop — an outstanding workshop for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature, run each summer out of St. Anselm college in New Hampshire (a place you may recognize from the recent presidential primaries) by my former editor from Dell Books, Jeanne Cavelos.

Today, Odyssey posted their latest podcast: a recording of my guest lecture on “Humor in Fantasy Writing” from July 2007. Here’s the full description of the event from their site:

Michael A. Arnzen was a guest lecturer at Odyssey 2007. Michael led the class in a wild exercise that revealed some of the qualities that make us laugh and discussed the fascinating connections between humor and horror. In this fun and illuminating podcast, Mike explores the characteristics of humor. What qualities are necessary for humor? When is the weird and gross funny? Mike reads his amazing story “Domestic Fowl” and discusses how you can develop a comic perspective, how to be funny without trying, and how to make humor arise organically out of your story. How is a funny story different than a joke? What joys does comedy provide the reader?

You can download this lecture on the Odyssey Podcast page, or even subscribe to all the Odyssey lecture podcasts on iTunes.

If any of your students is (or if you yourself are) a writer of fantasy stories, horrific tales, or science fiction odysseys, you ought to consider the Odyssey workshop. We get a number of Odyssey graduates in our Master’s program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill, so I can attest that it is not only a well-run and fun program, but that it also produces great writers who are very savvy about the genre and publishing.

I’ll no doubt be writing a lot about horror genre writing workshops this term, since I’m running an undergrad course in Horror & Suspense this term. See also my horror writing blog, The Goreletter, for a post on this, Odyssey, and other Horror Writing Courses & Academics in 2008.

Professors Strike Back


I’m back. Have been returned to campus after sabbatical, actually, for about six months so far — I just haven’t been blogging, and I apologize, but I’ve been rather busy. I will likely talk more about sabbatical and such later on. But for now, here’s something fun that I found: professor’s responding to comments on video for MTVu.

I found this immensely entertaining for some reason, and spent hours watching profs react, respond and vent about the open-to-the-public online teacher evaluation service. It gives a lot of insight into how teachers see themselves, their profession, and (some of) their students.
Here’s an example, from a science fiction writer/professor I admire, Paul Levinson:

I actually like the responses and comments I’ve received on — and on the equivalent — and while I don’t actually thing RateMyProf is the best avenue for student feedback, it opens up to us another way of understanding our students, whether via their praise or their protest.
[Is it just me, or are students not using this service as much as they used to? Maybe I’ve just been away too long….]

POSTSCRIPT: Browsing around, I discovered that has become a little more proactive about allowing professorial rebuttals across the board. I decided to join up and register, despite my better judgment, simply because I support this move on their part… I don’t think I have any rebuttals to file with them, but there you have it.

On Sabbatical

I am going on sabbatical for the full 2006-7 academic year, in order to secure time to develop my next novel.

While I intend to keep researching and reflecting on teaching during that time, I’ve decided to put Pedablogue on hiatus until August 2007, when I return to full-time teaching. If I write about teaching before then, I will likely do it for traditional publication, and if anything appears in print I will alert you through a comment appended to this post.

If you’re a regular viewer of this site, or if you want to be alerted when it relaunches (because, believe me, you will forget), please enter your e-mail address in the “subscribe” box on your right. This will add you to an announcement list, which will automatically send you a message whenever a new post is made to Pedablogue. Alternately, you could simply add the site as an RSS feed to your aggregrator, if you have one (if not, I recommend FeedDemon).

I want to thank everyone for visiting, reading, and referencing Pedablogue since 2003. I don’t consider this page a dead site by any means — I’ve simply “gone fishing” at the Isle of Sabbitcus for a year — and I look forward to returning to this place to exchange ideas. Since I’ll be focusing mostly on creative writing for the year to come, I will continue to post regularly to my other blog dedicated to horror writing, The Goreletter. If you like offbeat humor or bizarre horror, please subscribe!

It’s been a great year for me: my second novel was published, tenure was approved, my classes were wonderful experiences, sabbatical was awarded, and I’ve got a poetry book presently on the final ballot for the the Bram Stoker Award (decided in June). I’ve also learned a LOT about teaching by maintaining this site and reading pedagogy and edublogs across the net. I will still be out there, reading along with you. As a final post, I will simply share some good links about sabbatical (which is often misconstrued as simply a “paid vacation”)….

Keep teaching well. No matter how hard it might seem, or how little you feel you’re accomplishing, remember that it always matters. — Mike Arnzen

College Professor: The Second Best Job in America?

On cable news this morning, I caught a special report from CNN/Money Magazine on the “Best Jobs in America.” And while I expected to see something like “software engineer” come in first place, I was very surprised to find “college professor” ranked 2nd in the nation, for “best job”!

What’s interesting about the report is that they don’t just look at salary. In terms of rating our job elements, college profs get “A’s” for flexibility and creativity, but lower grades for stress-level and ease-of-entry.

What’s cool: Professors have near-total flexibility in their schedules. Creative thinking is the coin of the realm. No dress code!

What’s not: The tick-tick-tick of the tenure clock; grading papers; salaries at the low end are indeed low.

Obviousness. But look at the stats and see if they match your own experience. In their report, Money gives the job an average salary of 81,500, and notes a 10-year growth in the occupation at 31%. They claim that there are 95,300 annual job openings for college profs.

While the retirement of some late baby boom faculty may account for some of the surges indicated here, there are radical differences in job availability based on field of specialization and salary variables based on the cost of living and the school finances in the campus where a faculty member works. When they talked about this on-air, the commentators lauded the job, but were also full of the usual wise cracks, jealous snarkiness, and ungrounded assumptions about college teaching. “Summer’s off!” and “Students at your beck and call…Get a TA to grade all your papers and you’re set!” and all the usual presumptions about the real work we perform both on campus and off as academics. The correspondent from Money magazine noted that there is a low-entry level for profs, but if they stay in for the long haul — tenure, promotion, advancement to dean or president, work in consulting — they get solid benefits (and this is true, but he lost me when he mentioned that “some professors get up to half-a-million dollars a year!” Yeah, some.)

Seeing a report like this makes me appreciate my job and happy that there are some positive messages out there that might make education more attractive to those who are on the market. But I also have become jaded regarding hyperbolic claims about how easy professors have it, and to see some of the myths broadcast and reinforced by the mass media once again only makes me wish someone would do a special report on the reality of the profession. (I suppose the edublogosphere is a potential counter-voice to all this, but I’m not sure it has the same cultural power.)

See also: The Truth About Tenure from the NEA and the Chronicle’s searchable AAUP Faculty Salary Survey for a reality check.

Getting Tenure

Happy news. I received tenure in my position as Associate Professor of English at Seton Hill University this week.

I’m grateful. To mark the occasion, soon I’ll be writing letters to the important teachers I’ve had in my life, just to share the good news and to let them know how much they really made a difference. I’m joyful, but also almost too busy to celebrate. I have to finish up a conference paper I’ll be delivering next week at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, in addition to grading papers so I can submit midterm grades to the registrar before I leave. Oh, and there’s the search committee dossiers I have to read before I can go to that conference. And the campus litzine editorial meetings I need to attend, as well, so the magazine will be out on time. And then more papers to collect. And then….

Ah, tenure.

I’m no less busy than I’ve always been. But it’s an exciting achievement. There are a lot of myths attached to tenure — mostly that it provides “lifetime job guarantee” (which it doesn’t — nationally, 2% of all tenured faculty are dismissed each year) — or that it means a faculty member can kick back and rest on his laurels (which they don’t, and can’t since there are future reviews, evaluations for promotion to “full” professor, and more … stats say that tenured faculty work an average of 52 hours a week!). But one thing that it signifies, which I hope is not a myth, is the security of academic freedom. As a creative writer, one who works in the taboo-breaking realms of horror fiction, that means a lot to me. (Not that I intend to suddenly start writing satanic bible study manuals featuring nude torture illustrations or anything like that — I realize, naturally, that with tenure comes the responsibility for representing my college, my field, my colleagues, my home, my students, my future… — but when I see articles reporting how professors are being fired for inane things like using the “f-word” in class, I cherish the academic freedom of tenure all the more.)

I don’t have a lot to say here about achieving tenure (other than “whew!” and “now what?” and “hey, is there any more champagne in the fridge?”). But I am trying to take the time to think deeply about what tenure really means, to both myself and to others, because I have never really thought of tenure as the “brass ring” of my academic life (and, frankly, I rarely trust anyone who does… the autonomy granted by tenure is simply a tool enabling one to achieve higher aims). So I’m reading a lot. Here are some excellent sources I’ve come across.

Whew. Now what? Ah yes, to the fridge!

The Interplay Between School and College

Just received this news about an interesting forum on the dynamics between different levels of school, so I’m spreading the word:

The Chronicle of Higher Education will next month publish School & College, a special report that will explore the interplay between primary, secondary, and higher education. The publication will be sent free to all readers who sign up at

School & College will examine how well (or not so well) America is preparing its young people to make the most of a college education. School & College will look into the ways in which society is dealing with the issues that will determine the future of education — day to day, year to year, kindergarten through college.

The issue will include articles that explore how much or how little cooperation there is between schools and colleges; why colleges think schools are failing — and vice versa; whether schools and colleges are meeting the needs of businesses and society; what state governments are doing to coordinate reform efforts to improve the preparation of college students; and whether education schools part of the answer or part of the problem.
School & College will bring together people who often talk past each other: leaders of school districts; high-school principals and teachers; college presidents, provosts, and professors; key people in education schools; government officials; and leaders of community organizations, foundations, and think tanks.