Topic: Teaching

Teaching is not Customer Service

How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching

When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of  lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.

Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.

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Reading the Writing on the Electronic Wall

Traditional American Higher Education Must Transform or Perish… But There is Hope

Some are sounding the death knells of traditional undergraduate education in the U.S.  Nathan Harden of The American Interest writes: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.” Harden further asserts that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will soon render traditional education “obsolete.” If they can provide education cheaper and more convenient, how couldn’t they?

Make no mistake. MOOCs represent an incredible opportunity. Higher education has become unsustainably expensive for the average middle class student. MOOCs will hopefully expand access to education and drive down costs. As Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust points out, they are a grand experiment, with opportunities for professors to rethink how they approach education, including education in the classroom (see Maria Bartiromo’s interview with her on CNBC).

But Harden and likeminded harbingers of the end-of-education-as-we-know-it  risk conflating education with information. Ironically, in his above-cited article, Harden himself presents  the crux of the matter without integrating it into his argument: “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make.”

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Morpheus vs. the Borg

Helping our Students Unplug so They Can Upgrade their Minds and Renew their Humanity

The average American high school or college student is adept at using technology.  However, many seem unable to refrain from using technology. As educators, it is our duty to provide our students with a basic set of skills: critical thinking; clear communication, both in print and in speech; and careful reading and processing of information, discerning its validity. In the process, we should cultivate their character, that they may develop greater wisdom, moral integrity, patience, empathy, and compassion in a world with a shortage of these virtues.

While technology does provide some compelling avenues for us to train students’ core intellectual skills, it does virtually nothing to enhance character development. We must encourage our students to unplug, so that they can upgrade their minds and renew their humanity. We should not discard technology; it provides useful tools. But we must teach our students that it is not the only tool and not always the best.

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In Praise of Office Hours

There is no substitute for individual meetings with students. This semester I teach three sections of an all-freshmen introductory philosophy/theology course. My students wrote passable papers last year, when I taught the course under similar circumstances , but I realized that most of them consistently made the same mistakes: lack of cohesion; a tendency to summarize the texts rather than use them to illustrate points in their own arguments (something which I am especially keen to point out, knowing that I, too, struggle with this in my own writing); and, generally, lack of a clear and well-structured plan.

This semester, I retained the same the final paper assignment. My standards of grading have not lessened. I have the same high expectations for the finished product; but I have taken preventative measures for helping the students meet them. I told them the common pitfalls, both in print and as a class; I required them to produce an outline and draft of their thesis statement a week in advance of the paper’s deadline; and I required each of them to meet with me in person to discuss his or her outline.

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Who Am I?

(In response to student requests that I provide them with my own answer to a reflection essay on the topic.)

I have no simple answers to the simple questions.

Alaska. Michigan. Ohio. Wyoming. Oregon. That is where I am from.

My father is African-American, apart from some Cherokee and traces of Thomas Jefferson on his mother’s side, and either Quakers or Puritans on his father’s side (hence the last name). He spent twenty years in the Air Force before working for the State of Ohio and retiring again. My mother is Irish-German, probably Jewish-German given her maiden name, but the family secret for a while was that a few generations back there was some Blackfoot, too. She works in early child education. They divorced the year after I graduated college. I have a younger sister who is an Air Force captain. Who they are is a part of who I am.

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Re-Creation is No Vacation

Summers are for work. The myth lingers on that academics enjoy a three month vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We teach, but teaching is but one facet of what we do. Summer is time for everything else. (At least for those of us not teaching summer school.) Are we paid to teach? Yes, but… we can only truly teach others to achieve excellence when we continue to cultivate excellence in ourselves.

Unless I take time now in these brief months to do my own research, think my own thoughts, and write my own words, I will be of little use in helping my students hone their research, thinking, and writing. For that is what we academics are: professional researchers, thinkers, and writers. Or at least that is what we should be. There is too little time for the full-fledged pursuit of these matters September through May. Educators’ summers are for the re-creation of our minds.

Laboratory for Failure

Only with an opportunity to fail do students truly have an opportunity to succeed. I fear that too many parents and teachers have insulated my students from reaping the consequences of their shortcomings, thereby also limiting their potential to flourish. Not in my class.

As my student, you will have ample opportunity to excel – and to fall flat on your face. I will assess you on the basis of the merits of your work. This is your future. It begins now. And if not now, when? Without the chance to sink or swim in this lifeguarded pool of a university, what will you do when your ship inevitably sinks in the open sea? (And all of ours do, at one point or another.)

Should you, in print or in public presentation, produce work of genuine genius, it will be recognized as such. On the other hand, should your work fall short, I will clearly tell you how and to what extent. (Don’t worry; I will do so via email, not in front of your peers.)

No one likes to be wrong. I get it. But a take-home, open book exam is not a test in the true sense of the word. I deserve to find out just how right you can be. And so do you.

What you need is not always what you want.  What is best is not always what is easy. You need the freedom to fail. Only then is true success an option.

Teach Til It Hurts

They are failing. I am failing them. Some of them, at least. On a profound level, I sense that I am selling my students short and it hurts. I do not know how to reach the slower ones without holding back the quicker ones. I do not know how to engage the more indifferent ones without risking alienating the ones who already care.

When I read bad freshmen papers at the beginning of the fall, I blame the entire secondary education establishment. When I read bad papers at the end of the semester, after months of my coaching and exhortation, I cannot help but blame myself.

Some days I am good. But I could always be better. What opportunities did I miss today to inspire, to draw connections, to push someone to excel, to save someone from falling between the cracks? I am a perfectionist, an idealist, and a relatively new educator, and those compound my sense of woe; but there is a true sense in which this is an impossible job.

I cannot reach everyone, much less equally well. In my current capacity, I teach two courses that blend history, philosophy, theology, and literature. I cannot correct everyone’s insufficient grasp of geography, fragmented sense of history, incoherent worldview, and sloppy writing. I cannot convince everyone that it is worth agreeing to disagree and learning more fully the nature of the disagreement. It is my job to try anyway. I must extend an offer to coach all of my students in honing their intellects, even though I know that not all will accept that offer.

Attaining perfection in this job is impossible and I am painfully aware of that impossibility. When I no longer feel the pain, then I will know that I am burnt out and have utterly lost my sense of calling as a teacher, or I am in Elysium.

Of Pearls and Pork

Student evaluations can be harrowing and baffling for those of us who are new faculty. I strive for excellence, but if my students’ feedback is any indication, I am not as excellent as I strive to be, though there are times, apparently, when I am doing better than I think I am.

Section A of one course gave me high marks. Section B of the same course gave me middling marks. I presented the same material in roughly the same way. I enjoyed my time with both sections equally well. It is a difficult lesson to learn that liking and being liked are only tangentially related to excellence in the classroom; for I, in the eyes of some, am mediocre at helping them learn, however well-intentioned and enthusiastic I may be.

I do take some consolation from two things. My students from a different course, with whom I struggled all semester and left not knowing if I had reached anyone, seemed to think I did above average. (Metrics from other sections taught by other instructors indicate as much.) Most importantly, the consensus among my students seems to be that all philosophers since Socrates have been more annoying than useful. However lesser an intellectual, I am in good company.

Grading as Purgatory

Now at the end of my first semester of full-time teaching, I find myself overwhelmed by grading. At a loss for other language, I resort to the archaic and theological.

Grading is my personal purgatory. It is not hell; this is no taste of the unmitigated wrath of God, nor is it an experience of the absence of God’s presence. It is a purifying fire, a place in which I find my patience, compassion, and perseverance tested and honed.

Grading is a character-building experience; but that benefit is not self-evident in the thick of duty’s throes, where there is no light, only tunnel. Hope is the evidence of things unseen and this is a test of hope, for I do not see the end of this ever-growing pile.

Some of what is in this pile I know I deserve. I find evidence of my shortcomings as an educator at every turn: vague explanations on my part resulting in vague papers on the part of my students, pitfalls of which I have failed to warn them, missed opportunities at greatness toward which I did not charge them.

I am learning to love the pain of our growing, the strain of our struggle toward perfection together.