Friday, September 27, 2013

The relatability factor

The Little Professor has a nicely argued, well-bred rant about how "relatability" is supposed by her students to be a core literary value. She raises the issue of David Gilmour, who has had his head handed to him by the media for this:
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
So, no chick lit and no George Eliot, though as several commenters pointed out, he glides lightly over all the Proust on his shelves in his category of "serious heterosexual guys," boasting about how many times he's read Proust and the hours he's logged listening to audiobook versions.

I teach and have written on a lot of "real guy-guys," too, yet I am not in a Manliness Studies department because for me, relatability  is not THE point but A point. It's one to be made when you're trying to convert students from "I liked it/It sucked" reading judgments to something more substantial: critical thinking.

I get what he's saying about loving some writers and not others. Like our students, we find some authors more "relatable"--but the difference is, we don't stop there. It's my job, as I see it, to find value in literature and to find some "way in" to teach it, to find something to get excited about so that I can  honestly convey some of that to students.

As instructors, we always have something more to learn, and if we're closed off to that, either in what students can teach us or in what a piece of literature that we don't automatically like can do for us, we're not learning.  We're stuck in our own brains. We start pontificating instead of listening and learning.

Gilmour may be an inspired teacher, but if your "truly great literature" circle maps 95% onto "middle-aged white men" in a Venn diagram (exception: Virginia Woolf), you may want to think about how that affects the way your students are shaping their literary judgments.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Random bullets of Thursday

  • Warm chocolate brownies with fresh raspberries on top can really start off an evening right. They are baking as I type this.
  • After a long, busy (but pleasant) day of dealing with other people's thoughts and ideas, I get to spend some time on my own ideas. Well, except for doing some grading. 
  • Brownies are out! Time to start the evening. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Off topic: *poofed*

  • *Poof*--sorry, this seemed too much after I had posted it. Chalk it up to fatigue. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Random Bullets of Friday

  • I am saddened and angry but not a bit surprised at the "Death of an Adjunct" news and controversy.  Sadly, this isn't a new situation. I knew older adjuncts when I was a grad student and wondered how they lived and got health insurance. The casualization of the academic work force and 20 years of cutting funding for "safety net" programs hasn't made the situation better, especially now since recent votes are trying to starve the poor by cutting food programs.  The thing is, adjuncts aren't the only ones being treated this way; it's a systemic problem in this country, with workers being treated as disposable widgets (Paging Mr. Dickens!). And why don't we have single-payer insurance not tied to employment like every other rational country in the world? Working to make this better on my own campus is what I (and all of us) can do locally. I am stopping now before I start on a rant. 
  • Good reviews of something I wrote have made it easier to face the messy section of a chapter I'm working with this week and to say "once I wrote something that made sense, and I can do it again." 
  • Any online article with a number in the title is 95% likely to be completely pointless. 
  • There is a . . .  creature that makes a croaking noise outside my window. I can't see it, but it doesn't seem to be a toad or frog. Is it a bird? An insect? A different kind of animal? It goes silent when I go outside to see if I can find it. 
  • When I get to work at home for a day, I feel like a dog that goes and rolls in the grass because it's just so happy to be free. I love my job, students, colleagues, and all, but my brain wants to roll in the grass on a writing day because it's not taken up with other people's requests.  
  • Penn State just eliminated a $1200 fine that it had begun imposing for not answering its mandatory wellness questions: "Among other questions, the online survey asked employees about their plans to become pregnant, about how frequently they drank too much alcohol, and about whether they had experienced problems with violence, depression, or a divorce or separation." Talk about a rhetorical "gotcha": "How frequently they drank too much alcohol" = "When did you stop beating your wife?" 

Monday, September 16, 2013

NYTimes: "No Child Left Untableted"

At The New York Times, Carlo Rotella's “No Child Left Untableted” is a good look at what's happening to those who'll be our students in a decade or so. Rotella calls the businesspeople "smart and well-intentioned," but he does have some reservations. A few quotations, with some thoughts:
  1. There are a lot of people who are trying to make informed, thoughtful choices about educational policies, like Greg Anrig:
Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation and the author of "Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools," [says that]  The research on successful schools and good teaching . . . highlights the importance of relationships among the people in a school: administrators and teachers and students. “None of these studies identify technology as decisive.” Where technology makes a difference, it tends to do so in places with a strong organization dedicated to improving teaching and where students closely engage with teachers and one another. “A device that enhances such interactions is good,” Anrig said. “But kids focused on the device, isolated, cuts into that.” 
2.  But others are focused more on the financial killing to be made. 
The first time I met with Joel Klein, the chief executive of Amplify and an executive vice president of News Corporation, he checked his e-mail on his phone a lot, even as we talked about the concern that technology isolates rather than connects people. I pointed this out, and he, in turn, expressed wonder that I don’t even allow the use of laptops in my classroom.
First, I’m impressed that Carlo Rotella sat through this epic display of rudeness, when most of us would have walked out. Second, I love the irony of this: that Klein can’t be bothered to hold an actual conversation with a person sitting in front of him but is most interested in preaching his vision. Of course, that’s what salesmen do—talk and only listen just enough so that they can interrupt you with selling points--but if you’re buying a car, you have a choice of which pitchmen to listen to. Children in schools equipped with Klein’s lucrative-for-Amplify “vision” won’t have that choice.

 3. But at least Klein still thinks teachers have a role to play: 
They might begin by transferring to it what they already do now — existing lessons, homework, tests — but it can only make the hoped-for difference in how and what students learn if teachers come up with new ways to use it. “If it’s not transformative,” Klein told me, “it’s not worth it.”
 [. . .]
He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.
Should I say "Well, that's big of him"? No? Okay. I won't.

4. But data is the future: 
Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen.
Am I the only one who finds this a little creepy and a little sad?

5. The teaching end of this article fares better, as in the training session with Robin Britt, the “Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF),” which I misread initially as “pelf,” Sinclair Lewis’s slang word for “wealth.”
Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
I hadn’t seen this passage when I used basketball as a metaphor the other day, but in this context, it’s individual basketball. Passing from person to person among the players themselves doesn’t seem to count. Still, it's interaction.

6. What will interacting with screens for six hours a day do to their eyes? Well, what does it do to your eyes?
And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much.
Haven’t you found the same thing—that too much screen time numbs you or can give you a headache? Not to mention the (dead horse topic alert: cursive!) issue of brain connections made when students use pen and paper to write things down.

7. And a big-picture view from Sherry Turkle. 
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids. . . . “There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”

Thank you, Sherry Turkle! “We stop talking to kids.” Or we stop having discussions with each other in classrooms. Or we look at cell phones and check email while preaching our message without listening.

And Britt, the PLEF trainer, gets it, too:
As he told them more than once, “It’s the teacher, not the technology.” 
Asked how to handle students goofing off on the tablet in class, Britt reviewed the mechanics of the app blocker. “But,” he added, “that’s a case where maybe you want to use proximity instead.” Proximity? A couple of the trainees started scanning their tablets’ apps in the hope of finding that feature. Maybe it controlled a miniature drone. But Britt moved up the row of desks to stand right next to the questioner and said to everyone: “You already know how to do this. You keep going with the lesson but you move closer, you show him you can see what he’s doing.”

"You already know how to do this." Yes. Yes, we do. And you can't find everything you need on a screen. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tighten up or chill out? The classroom balancing act

I've been thinking about Steven J. Corbett and Michelle LaFrance's  "It's the Little Things That Count" over at the Chronicle.  Corbett and LaFrance have a lot of suggestions, and probably like most of us who read the article I divided them in my own head into good ones (a.k.a. things that I already do) and iffy ones (a.k.a. things I would not do).  For most of these, the fine line between do and don't probably depends on your classroom persona: how much is you, and how much is too much?
  • Good advice: Get there early to talk to students linger so that they can talk to you after class [to which I'd add "as long as you're not hogging the classroom and keeping the next instructor waiting"].  A little too much, maybe: asking students about a "hot" YouTube video and playing it as they come in.  That might work if you have a process-oriented rather than a content-oriented class (writing class vs. literature) or if it relates somehow to the subject matter--and you'd be surprised at how much does relate--but not as a general rule. 
  • Ask about their lives: maybe good advice, within reason, but don't pry. 
  • Good advice: Perform with a positive attitude, or, as Harry Richman tells us, "leave your worries on the doorstep." Absolutely. If you have energy and a good attitude, they probably will, too, and if they don't, it's not for lack of trying. Not to flood the post with videos, but think about what Judy Garland sings in Summer Stock:  "Forget your troubles, come on, get happy." 

  • Email the students back asap. Yes--within reason.
  • Adjust the thermostat. Would that we could! The thermostat is usually a purely decorative object in any classroom I've seen.  One time I asked someone from maintenance about an overly hot room and mentioned that I had turned the thermostat as low as it could go. He confirmed that, yes, indeed, that had no effect on the room temperature, which was actually set somewhere else ( I'm guessing somewhere in time-travel land by my elderly, frail great-grandmother, who during her last years wore cardigans in 90 degree heat). 
  • Surrender control of the class sometimes.  Yes.
  • Allow students to eat and drink, wear headphones, check their cellphones, and leave class early.  One of these things is not like the others.  
    • Eat in class? I don't care.  Some of them do everything but lay out a linen tablecloth with their lunches, and if you teach at noon, you're bound to get some of this.  They're done in 5 minutes or so and then they have the energy to participate in class. 
    • Wear headphones [edited to add: just during tasks that require concentration. Thank you, Dr. Crazy in the comments] and check their cellphones or laptops (because we all do it, right?). No, I don't, and I don't expect them to, either. I've tried classes both ways, and the cellphone/laptop classes are less engaged with the discussion.  They just are. 
      • Think of it this way: when's the last time you saw a game of soccer or basketball where players were free to stop dead in their tracks and check their cell phones in the middle of the field?  A classroom discussion is exactly that kind of fast-moving game, except that there isn't a losing side, and if you're in a game where the conversational ball is being tossed around, you'd better be ready. 
      • It's not too much to ask that we're all in the same mental as well as physical space for 50 minutes or 75 minutes a few times a week. 
    • Leave class early? If there's genuinely nothing left to do, maybe instructors need to plan their classes better, although during writing workshop days students can leave if they've finished what they were supposed to do.  The problem is that if this happens a few times, they start factoring that into their expectations for the class. Class time becomes something to be measured and maybe cut down, as if it's a punishment rather than an opportunity. 
Your thoughts?

Friday, September 06, 2013

Random bullets of food for thought

In thinking about Madwoman's post on academics leaving academe (more later), I came across a  post with a clickbait title on how feminism went astray. "Where Feminism Went Wrong" at the Chronicle is saying something but I'm not sure exactly what except that women should realize that perfection may not be attainable. Lots of generalizations about how women were misled into thinking they could have it all, yadda yadda, but the conclusion is a can't-argue-with-that "We need to struggle. We need to organize. And we need to dance with joy."

I was interested in this part: "We need to focus less of our energies on our own kids' SAT scores and more on fighting for better public schools; less time on competitive cupcake-baking and more on supporting those few brave women willing to run for office. We need fewer individual good works and more collective efforts."

Two things: 

1. Competitive cupcake-baking, handcrafted Halloween costumes, and the rest are perennial events in the motherhood sweepstakes, and women used to seem demon-possessed to persecute one another over them. Does this still happen? Is it worse now than ever before? The Atlantic deploys Caitlin Flanagan to tell me it is, but is it really? 

2. Time and attention are resources, and resources are scarce. You can say "spend less time focusing on your own kids and more on the collective good of the whole," but is that going to happen? What's more likely is that people would try to do both. Maybe it was easier to take collective action instead of worrying about your kids' futures in the days of "feminist foremothers," since the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6%--basically, full employment. Maybe that's just an excuse, though. 

It seems to be the same issue all over again: we would all like the benefits of the long-term collective action and thoughtful reflection that these changes promise, but the short-term hits to family, jobs, and precious spare time that they require will, we fear, leave us individually worse off than before, and in the competitive world for jobs and educational slots, will leave us permanently behind. Like the Red Queen, we believe we need to do all the running we can just to stay in place and not lose ground. 

Now about the quitting academe issue. Madwoman with a Laptop says that that post generated lots of traffic and a lot of great comments, and Historiann's post did the same.  I've read a fair number of eloquent posts on this issue, but is there evidence that junior academics are leaving en masse? I know that talented people who don't have tenure-track jobs are leaving, and the loss is the academy's; do the same numbers hold true for those on the tenure track?

  • Sunday, September 01, 2013

    The Bottleneck

    (Yes, this is a Melville-like post title, but it's a frustrating and elusive idea, just like the books of Guess Who.)

    I recently completed a writing task that I've done lots and lots of times before. This time, though, for some reason it proved to be a bottleneck.

    I couldn't work on it without getting all angsty and avoidant. I couldn't work on my own manuscript  until it was done.

    It was like pushing writing through a sieve. Of cement.

    It shouldn't have been tricky, but my attitude somehow made it so. Why this task? Why now?

    I don't know, but now I'm leaping about and rejoicing.  It's finished, and the final product shows no signs of what went into writing it.

    Has that ever happened to you--a task that you say "no problem" to and then can't seem to write? How did you get over it?