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.

Dolphins in a Shark World

Everyone I know who has pursued graduate study in the humanities has done so, at least in part, because they were enamored with learning, with pursuing the subject matter simply out of love for it. We are idealists, for what could be more idealistic than that?

We step out of that dream into the cold shower of life. I see so many of us, now jaded, few spirits intact. I ponder what might help us preserve idealistic hearts. I know that teaching is a part of the answer, connecting with those, like our younger selves, who have not yet faced the oft harsh realities of life. Beyond that, I have no easy answers, only questions.

We must hone a pragmatic edge, a shield for our tender souls, but do so without a hint of duplicity. We must be sharp as vipers and innocent as doves. We are dolphins in a shark world.

The Benefits of Service Learning

Service learning provides the tools for drawing students out of themselves and out of their potential self-centeredness. This is critical, especially in an age when education is increasingly treated as a commodity and students as consumers. Service learning also holds added benefits for me, the instructor. My teaching should always be other-centered. But in the context of service learning, my teaching can be centered on both my official students and on those whom we serve together. By reflecting on our shared experience, we can grow as members of the same academic community and fragile society. By shifting our orientation from “what can we gain?” to “what can we give?” we have hope of elevating the discussion to matters of lasting importance, doing so with maturity and integrity.

Technology: A Double-Edged Sword

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, electronic communication is easier, faster, more various in form, simpler to track and to store. Digital means of discussion and lecture provide convenience for student and instructor alike. Perhaps most importantly, internet-driven forms of student-student and student-instructor contact cater to the strengths of many members of the current generation of first-time college students.

Yet I have failed as an educator if I do not draw my students outside of their comfort zone, even as they draw me out of mine. Technology is a tool, but it is not the only one; and it should not become a crutch. Especially for those of us who teach disciplines in which reflection and introspection are primary, it is perhaps more important for us to find ways of incentivizing time for students to unplug, to face themselves undistracted by the noise of the media in which they are typically immersed, and to face others, giving them the gift of unhurried time.

I am eager to use learning technologies to an increasing degree in the classroom; however, I will do so while simultaneously charging my students to take periodic fasts and retreats from our high quantity, often low-quality culture of electronic communication. They have more to learn from a weekend without email, Twitter, and Facebook than I have to teach on an average PowerPoint.

Going Public, Web-style

Today begins the strange adventure of bringing my professional life to the web. My hope is that this will provide a helpful forum for connecting with students and fellow professional educators and researchers. However, this tool could become a diversion from more tried and tested forms of pursuing and sharing knowledge. Time will tell.