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.

How the GMAT May Be Wrecking America

I do not know whether or to what extent the following issues may contribute to the divided state of America, or whether these may be symptomatic of larger problems. A source close to me is applying to business schools. She encountered a series of strategy recommendations for raising her score on the GMAT on. The recommendations of the test preparation service include:

  • In your essay, fabricate factual information to support your case. The test graders will not fact-check. You will score more points by being persuasive and writing well, with no attention to your accuracy.
  • In your essay you must support either a stated position or its opposite. You may not opt for a nuanced compromise position.
  • For your argument analysis, you may always assert that the premises of the argument are not valid. This may be the easiest way for you to make a superior counter-argument and, thus, score points.

To argue without any basis in fact, without compromise, and without considering the validity of one’s opponents – to the extent that this mentality is representative either of our country’s business education or of broader cultural currents, we are in serious trouble. Without the pursuit of truth, without the pursuit of reconciliation, and without considering that the opposition may have some valid claims (notably that some of their premises are correct, if not their ideas about what to do in light of those premises) – without these traits, we have only nay-saying and no hope of forward progress as a society.

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.

The Other 99.9%

Few things are as disheartening as confronting unrepentant plagiarism. There are the ignorant who, inexplicably failed by the secondary education system, unwittingly commit higher education’s unforgivable sin unwittingly, because they do not know how to correctly cite anything. I do not speak here of these innocent hearts, but rather of those who know the right thing to do and choose the wrong anyway.

I received a paper last week. The first paragraph sounded too good to be true; and it was. It copied verbatim, with some minor punctuation and syntax changes, the Wikipedia page on the same topic. When confronted with their baffling similarities, the student replied that she must have studied the Wikipedia page so much that she copied it by accident.

Moral bankruptcy and a potential lifetime devoid of integrity can begin with the omission of a single citation or pair of quotation marks; but I do not know how to make the case to those who have already crossed the line that they are selling their souls for the sake of an easy paragraph or two. I barely know how to keep myself from lapsing into despair after one such incident. I only know that if I am able to do so and face this waste of human potential again and again, it is because of the other 99.9% of my students. The future belongs to them.

Work as Play

Piaget was right. We learn best when we are having fun. This was true when we were children and it remains true for us as adults. There is no reason why we as college educators cannot blur the line between work and play in a number of areas.

1. In research. I resolve to daydream of what my next projects might be and to pursue what intrigues and interests me the most. This will no doubt involve  stepping outside of my comfort zone and into uncharted territory, perhaps resulting in more hours of work, but with a liberating freshness.

2. In the assignments we create. I believe in the importance of tests and papers; but I know that not all tests and paper assignments are created equal. I have no secret formula for making them fun and I do not suggest that fun equals easy; but I know I must try. I will seek to integrate simulations, mock-trials, dramatic and visually engaging presentations, and online discussions into students’ coursework, for these have the potential to jar them from  complacency and draw them into the epic journey of self-discovery that the study of religion and history should be.

3. In the example we set for our students. I know that if I am bored, they are bored; but if I am enthralled with our process of learning together and with the subject matter, I have hope that some of them, at least, may catch what I’ve got. If only I knew more surefire ways of being infectious with enthusiasm, besides simply having it. Perhaps the best way is for me to find ways to play within the work I am already doing.