Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When the Teacher Self-Evaluates, or If You Don't Reflect, You Are a Shitty Teacher.

There is no syllabus for being a professor. There is no “how-to.” Even the expectations are unwritten. The reason for such vagueness has something to do with academic freedom, but I think that is crap. It is not that we do not want to be told what to do; it is that we do not quite know what it means to “profess” well. In movies, professors stand before lecture halls and talk at their students, who gaze rapt, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed while the brilliant academic before them gives forth, waxes genius, and inspires. All without notes. I have yet to experience that moment as either student or teacher. The best skill that a professor can master in order to do their job well is the art of reflection. At the end of each year, they must assess what worked and what did not. Based on those lessons, they can change or keep their practices. After years of reflection, I have arrived at some practices that I think serve to accomplish the ends I desire for my students. I choose flexibility. I privilege good humor. I hope to make what I teach meaningful and relevant to my students. My success depends on things I can control and things I cannot. It is like the transaction defined by Louise Rosenblatt that I tout in all my classes: there are the texts--in this case students--and there is I. And meaning is made in the contact zone where we collide. The best teachers are students themselves. This year and this class was different for me because ENG 371 was my first literature class in five years. In that time, my beliefs about how, why, and what we teach in the lit classroom have undergone remarkable change. Truthfully, I wrestle with the way that skills have taken precedence over content in the secondary classroom; however, in my work with EED students, I hope my advocacy of content as a way to teach these skills ameliorates what frightens me (and others) in this new approach. This semester, the challenge was practicing this preaching in my literature classroom. I had to balance my excitement about returning to American literature and my love of this content with those practices and philosophies that now define my teaching. It was a sometimes messy learning experience. Flexibility can look like and can devolve into chaos. Chaos theory suggests that seemingly random events are actually predictable. I have no idea if that is true, but I like to think there is method in my madness. Learning is messy. It is non-linear and unpredictable. I have always believed that schedule building (as opposed to the policies on a syllabus) was a fruitless attempt at divination. It is the same notion that leads me to remind my EED students that they cannot simply take someone else’s lesson and teach it. It must be tweaked for the time, place, audience, and all the other factors that make each day in each classroom sui generis. Indeed, it is that fact that makes me love teaching. I go in with a sense of what I want to achieve, a sense of what I think students need to know (and want to know), and an idea of how to meet these aims. Then I close my eyes and swing away. Although I must begin with a sense of where I think we should go as a community of learners, it is my practice not to plan too far ahead. I must assess, each class period, each week, each paper submitted and graded, where we need or might want to go. After a frenetic start—the result of my China travels—I feel good about the choices I made in terms of our readings. Each unit schedule worked well in representing the ideas I thought were important for the period we studied. Allowing students a voice in one of our novels is always something I like to do, and finding readings outside our text allowed me to tailor—if only a little—course content to students’ interest. For example, the creative writers in my class inspired my Thoreau selection, and I added an excerpt from The Scarlet Letter not only because I love the novel but because it was a student’s request. Such flexibility keeps me engaged with the content and makes me find the best text for the period, for my goals, and, most important, for my students. It also means that I am often reading works with which I am less familiar. Not a bad thing, really. Content includes assessments. The challenges, working within a department as large as ours, are manifold. There are requirements for courses at the 300-level in terms of the amount and kinds of writing tasks. In addition, for good or ill, each faculty member has his or her idea of what writing should entail. And, the degree to which each instructor chooses to “teach writing” in a 300-level course varies. I have believed, since graduate school, that all classes (in all disciplines) are writing classes. My goal is to prepare students to make meaning in the mode or genre that is central to their field of study. In English, the essay continues to rule. However, there is flexibility in the topics we assign in order to assess our students as meaning makes. In the upper-division English classroom writing presents an interesting set of demands. For me, I am not asking students to prove they have read. Read or not, I say. Students are adults, if they do not want to read, I am not interested in forcing them. To this end, my assignments are broadly constructed. At the same time, I realize that many of my students are hoping to pursue graduate study. Thus, I try, in my instruction, to prepare them for the kind of thinking and writing they will do at that level. Similarly, because others in my class will be teachers, I want to attend to the kinds of fundamental writing skills essential to teach in the secondary classroom. Luckily for me, the approach and structure I advocate is applicable K-20. It is the nature of the content and analysis that changes as students grow as writers and thinkers. The reality is, although the method for meaning making that I advocate is structured, the topics are not. For me, this flexibility means I must be prepared to engage with writing that takes on all manner of subjects or texts. This semester, I have read essays that examine the work of barely known women poets, Monica Lewinsky, and bad parenting. All for the same assignment. It makes one’s head spin in the best of all possible ways. I love the challenge of teaching on the fly. To that end, adding student presentations forces me to think on my feet. As my students present, I have to make connections, consider how or if I need to contextualize the information they share, and manage the discussion that follows. I did not do a very good job convincing all students to have fun with this activity. I wanted them to find quirky points or unusual facts. Many were informative, and that is a good thing, but I need to do better inspiring play. I also must remember that, whereas I need chaos to thrive, I have students who need order just as much. I failed those students this semester. My flexibility proved frustrating to a number of students. I need to master balancing what I think students need with what they know they need. So, if I don’t care about dates and deadlines, I cannot assume students do well without them. They are not I. Good humor, good fun, even play—these are things I value in life and in the classroom. Students often do not know what to do with fun. We have beaten them into submission in middle and high school, so the idea of play feels out of place. There is no standardized test, no TCAP, CSAP, ACT or SAT, that measures play. And, yet, it is the key, I think, to learning. It is not incidental; it is essential. I find that it is easier to get students to play in the classroom than on the page. I have always felt confident in my ability to create community in the classroom and to make it a place where laughter is the rule of the day. That said, as I demand of my EED students, all fun must be purposeful. In my ENG classroom, fun involves playing with the ideas, talking about what we read, thinking about content in terms of the here and the now. I try to model a kind of academic or intellectual looseness by making those connections through other texts or popular culture. I want to encourage students to play with the things that strike them—whether it is a passionate defense of The Spy or the observation that children are a pain-in-the ass in the texts we read—play demands openness on the part of the student and the teacher. And meaningful play means that we make the content relevant to the students not only as English majors but as human beings. Ah, and it demands pedagogical and intellectual flexibility. If what we teach does not somehow change the lives of students, then why bother. The notion of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is bullshit and has always been so. That platitude allowed us to ride our own hobby horses and think not a jot about who are our students and what they need in order to make sense of the world around them. Content that is not made explicitly relevant or meaningful to students is so much self-indulgence. That said, students change, and what matters to one generation might be vastly different from what matters to the next. Thinking about “essential” or “universal” questions (EQs) is a method to address this change—and the chaos attendant to it. This semester, I tried to craft the EQs we addressed based on student input. However, I think they were more mine than theirs. In part, I did not use the time at the beginning of the semester to shape more collaborative EQs. I’ll blame that on China, although, truthfully, I did not have a well-developed plan for crafting those questions. In EED, they are, in effect, presented by the Common Core Standards, so my work is done. Not so much in ENG. As a result, this part of my teaching plan was never quite planned. Nonetheless, thinking about the questions we did establish provided an orientation for our approach to the texts we read. Even though these questions—about such issues as identity and otherness, for example—are as relevant today as they were in 1820 or 1865, I am not sure I was vigilant enough in making their contemporary meaning explicit. I am thinking that a “What Speaks to Us Now” kind of assignment could ask students to place historical texts in a contemporary context. The “What Speaks to Me” writing task was intended to reveal to students the importance of their place in that Rosenblatt model of making meaning. This second “Speaks to” essay would take that local connection and make it more global. Another change to make for next Fall, when I will teach ENG 371 again. So what will I do differently in 2014? I will try to be more orderly. I must recognize that not all flexibility is good, and one person’s flexible is another’s chaos. I must, while wanting to keep the class always meeting the needs of the students, remember that they are still learning and growing as students. They are so young. They are not fully formed (which is why I love them), and I must make their way not easy exactly but at least only semi-bumpy. In terms of good humor, I am content. It is my belief that who I am outside of the classroom must be who I am inside of it. There is no game face. I think we laughed quite a bit this semester, and I think I did loosen up many of my students. I hope I humanized American literature and made the idea of thinking hard seem like something worth doing because is it just plain fun. And I hope I showed them that we must not take our subjects or ourselves all that seriously. Everyday should he happy Buddha. Most important to me, I will look for new ways to make what we read in the classroom relevant and meaningful now. An assignment that places this goal at the center—one that allows students to create whatever kind of “text” they think captures the connection—must be added to the list. For this semester, I hope I made students see how looking through literature at our world and at ourselves can help us as we make our way in the world that awaits outside 090 Ross Hall. I hope that “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” made them look at the crowds that swirl around them and see what makes us the same not different. I hope that their travels on the “Merrimack” with Thoreau convinced them that all writing is poetry. I hope that the disturbing and racist words of Jefferson, in his “Notes,” will make them look long and hard at those we call heroes in order to make sure they have earned our praise. And, at the same time, I hope the words of Lincoln showed them that we have a history filled with heroic voices speaking plainly and simply and beautifully. I hope they see what is remarkable about the American experiment and understand that the voices we heard this semester—the proud ones and the brave ones, those that challenged and those that inspired them—are very much like their own. And that they are made by and of much the same stuff and have, inside themselves, all the same potential for, if not greatness, then very goodness. Flexibility: C / Fun: A- / Meaning & Relevance: B = A solid B

Friday, October 19, 2012

An Election Reflection, or How I Went from Cruel to Just Plain Bitch

See, it’s like this, I just don’t think the fact that one has been a successful businessman is a reason to think one will be an excellent president.  Equating a country with a corporation makes me uneasy, having been a citizen of both.  I consider my experiences in the corporate world successful.  I left of my own accord and not because I suddenly decided that the corporate world was a bad place.  It simply was not the right place for me.  I blame the Jesuits for that, for they drilled into me this notion of social justice and public service.  And for six years I tried to convince myself that I was “serving” through my work in the financial sector, first with Merrill Lynch and then with Charles Schwab (which, back in the 80s, in San Francisco, was a corporation with a much different ethos than Merrill.  Chuck--and yes, I knew him and yes that’s what we called him--was the San Francisco/Financial Industry equivalent to his Silicon Valley pals who were concurrently changing the world of … well, everything.)  But I wasn’t serving, at least not in the sense impressed upon me at Georgetown.

I have no interest in big-corporation bashing.  Do I think there needs to be reform?  Of course.  Are corporate profits excessive?  Yes.  Are executive salaries reprehensible? I think so.  But I gained much from my experience in that world.  Shit, my Dad was a banker, and the easy nature of my childhood and adolescence is thanks in part to his career in the financial sector.  (As an aside, he was prescient in knowing that my choice to accept a position at Merrill would not reward me in ways other than the monetary.)  However, there were moments, vivid in my memory, during my years as part of that world, when I would LITERALLY stand before the sink, look into the mirror, and wonder about what I was “making,” whom I was “serving,” how I was somehow bettering the world into which I had been born—and which had served me so well and generously.  And I would tell myself that Merrill employed hundreds of people.  And the companies, whose paper we bought and sold, made things and employed hundreds of people.  And those hundreds of people bought and sold stuff that allowed shops to thrive.  There were factory workers who benefitted because of what I did.  There were local “mom and pop” joints with their doors opened because of what I did.  Innovation, modernization, growth … all a function of the capitalist machine in which I was a part: a small part, but a part nonetheless. And one day I realized that was not so.  That all those things were less a function of what a corporation did and more a function of the people who ran the machines in factories, who unlocked the doors to their stores at 5AM, who every day put one foot in front of the other. 

One of my responsibilities during my training, as part of a cryptically named “Development Group,” was to spend months in Merrill’s Legal Transfer Department.  I was, ostensibly, crafting procedures.  I sat with clerks who spent their days stamping stock certificates—yes, back when securities were paper not transactions in ether.  They would insert as many 10 different stamps between the fingers of both hands and deftly press them into ink pads and then apply them to the certificates in a myriad of combinations that I could never fathom much less master.  “Where do they come from before they get here?” I would ask.  The Legal Transfer clerks could not tell me.  “Where do they go when you finish?” And she would point—or motion with her crowed fingers--to a wire basket on the corner of her desk.  Millions and millions of shares of stock worth millions and millions of dollars in a pile on the corner of a ratty old steel desk on one of the lower floors of One Liberty Plaza.  Across from the World Trade Center, in 1981.   And in the center of the Department, in a glass enclosed room, where smoking was allowed, where fire was not so much a hazard, sat old men with school-bag brief cases waiting to deliver the certificates to broker dealers across lower Manhattan.  That was long ago.  Neither exist any longer.  Actual certificates are as much a dinosaur as were those old men in black shoes and white socks three decades ago.  My grandparents would give me shares of General Motors on my birthday.  They were stamped by some nameless clerk with some confounding composition of stamps and carried in some battered briefcase by a nameless and very poorly-titled runner. And when I sold them quite some time ago, they fetched me a tidy sum.

I must tell you that when I was assigned to the Legal Transfer Department my heart sunk.  It was headed, I knew, by a man, shorter than I, who, for reasons I don’t know and never learned, had lost the bottom half of his face.  The deformation was jarring.  And on those too frequent occasions when I rode the elevator with him (which, we all know, is what happens when you deliberately seek to avoid someone), he was cheerful.  But he had a really hard to understand voice.  And I did the smile and nod.  (I can be bitchy now, but I think I was a cruel bitch back then.)  Assigned to his department, I did my best to avoid him.  And I got pretty good at it.  

True story:  One Friday, while waiting at the information booth in the concourse of Grand Central Station for my pal Felipa Proper (her real name), I was doing the NYT crossword puzzle.  Suddenly, a camera crew approached.  There had been a “scandal” in the news, the New York Times was, it was reported, recycling old puzzles.  As an apparent puzzle-doer, they interviewed me about my thoughts on the matter.  I can’t remember what I said, but it was smart enough that I guess it made the 11 PM news (WABC-TV New York).  I never saw it.  There were no VHS recorders back then. 

That Monday, I went to my office on the upper floors of OLP before heading down to Legal Transfer.  I chatted it up with my colleagues.  I chatted it up with my boss.  I braced myself for Legal Transfer, and armed with my yellow pad, headed once more into the breach.  But with none of the enthusiasm of Hal’s troops.  And at about 4PM headed back upstairs—to the world of mahogany desks and big windows and carpet and secretaries and Brooks Brothers.  At the elevator, the man without the jaw approached me, and in his barely comprehensible voice said, “I think you were very funny on the news.”  I had completely forgotten.  I hadn’t seen it.  I don’t know if anyone else had.  Then he said something else about the paper.  He, too, did the puzzle.  And then I went upstairs. 

I swear this is true.  And I swear that after that encounter I actually would go to his office and talk about his department.  Not a lot.  But more than I had.  He was really funny.  And he was really really smart.  And then I transferred to San Francisco. I left my notes and my suggestions for Legal Transfer behind.  My colleagues had a party for me at Smith and Wollensky’s.   I never went to say goodbye to the people in Legal Transfer.   And even as I write this and wrack my brain, I can’t come up with his name, or the names of any of the clerks I sat with for hours and hours.  But, in a bow to the synecdoche,  I can picture the hand of one of the women I watched, because despite the stamps that turned her hands into claws, she still wore like seven rings—her wedding rings and a bunch of really crappy fake jeweled things.  As I say, a cruel bitch.

I was sent to Legal Transfer to document procedures.  It was part of familiarizing the “JETS”—the new crop of “Junior Executive Trainees, of which I was one—with the “operations” side of the business.  The bulk of the floors in the towering OLP were devoted to “the back of the house” (only now, as a student and teacher of literature and theory, does that notion—back of—resonate), and we were expected to know the back and the front. I spent my day watching and noting what seemed superfluous, what could be cut, how positions could be eliminated.   Because in reality, I was trying to streamline the “back of the house.” Streamline means get rid of people.  Bain Capital got rid of people, and I don’t care what euphemism they use to obfuscate that ultimate aim, it is what they did.  And maybe the jobs the people did were superfluous.  But the people were not.  But you have to see the people.  They don’t.  Neither did I.  If, in the world of big capital, you see the people, then that world becomes untenable.  I ran to San Francisco.  I ran to a kinder-gentler Charles Schwab. And, finally, I had to run from.

I am not saying we don’t need corporations.  But I am thinking that we need to focus a little more on the people.  And that is not what corporations do.  It’s not their job to worry about Nick in Golden with his café (Nick’s Café, fabulous!) where his wife is the only server and he is the only cook.  It’s not their job to care about the gal on the line at a factory who needs day care or elder care or an alternator in her car.  They don’t care about the old men with school-book brief cases or the lady with too many rings.  And I don’t even know if they should be thinking about such things.  Maybe, maybe not.  But that’s not their aim.  They are driven by a bottom line that is measured by dollars.  And, yes, I realize that the government and its spending is also a matter of dollars and cents.  But the difference is, as important as is the economics, the government must think about the people.  It has to.  And, I think, it has to think about them first.  Running a corporation makes one especially unfit for that responsibility.

I left the corporate world and turned my attention to the public sphere.  Mitt Romney could argue the same thing.  But the difference is this:  I am ashamed sometimes not at what I did, but at what I didn’t do or see or realize about the people affected—in so many near and far ways—by the corporate world.  Mitt Romney wants to take what he  did and saw and realized and apply it to the public sphere.  That scares me.

Monday, September 3, 2012

To quote my student Alex, "it's about being fucking human."

The first week of methods … done.  The highlights, from Thursday’s discussion of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter Two) and the wonderful Elements of Teaching,  include a student realizing that, if his teachers had suggested to him that the classroom was a joint quest where the teacher and the student create knowledge together, he might have paid more attention.  Another found that Freire’s observations about power—the subject-object relationship between teachers and students—was eye-opening.  (And an opportunity to look at the metaphorical value of syntax: what happens when SVO becomes OVS?  We get the passive.  And we need to keep the students in the subject position.) We looked at all the ways students are made subject.  My flower-child student Alex (he will not mind my using his name), focused on the idea of humanity.  In the discussions of ethics and character in Elements of Teaching, he—and others—remarked on their emphasis that teaching is more than content and pedagogy, it is about relationships and how we balance those.  And, as Alex enthused, “it’s about being fucking human; you have to show students your humanity if you want them to respect you” (yes, I permit my students to be as expletive free or friendly as they desire). 

We are still reading around the idea of ethics, and what we do next week will, I hope, move us closer to identifying the “safe” subjects for the secondary classroom.  We are beginning to touch on the idea of transaction and Rosenblatt’s notions of aesthetic and efferent.  But, because I let the discussion flow today, we are already behind.  My decision only to provide the first three weeks of the syllabus is turning out to be prescient. 

There was a kind of low (less-high) light, one that reaffirms my decision to re- focus on values and virtues and social justice this semester.  This low-light made me think about the current political campaigns.  Oddly, it kind of put into perspective for me what I see as the right’s cynical view of human nature.  In their celebration of the individual and all of the Horatio Alger-esque narratives from Tampa there is this companion sense that those who have not achieved success simply don’t want to, that they are content to ”suck at the government teat.”  (Aside: This is a curious image to me given the recent spate of articles about mother’s nursing their children into what seems like adolescence.  We might want to rethink that metaphor.)  I didn’t much care for the polemical picture of my fellow citizens they were pedaling.  On the one hand, there are the puck and lucksters who achieve success by working hard and seizing opportunities  (although, they seem to gloss over the luck part).  And then there are the teat suckers, who prefer TANF to hard work.    

Now, at the same time I was watching the RNC and reviewing the results of the survey I mentioned in my last post, the one about social values, I  happened on the movie Dave.   I am a sucker for Dave (and Charles Grodin!) and it’s brother from another mother, The American President.  And, in the curious, serendipitous, coincidental (what Alannis would wrongly call ironic) way that things seem to work in a very deliberate way, as I was tallying the  survey  numbers, on came the speech in which Dave, the ersatz-president, announces his full employment bill.  Employment, he explains, is more than a way to put money in one’s pocket: “Because if you've ever seen the look on someone's face the day they get a job -- I've had some personal experience with this - - they look like they could fly. And unless we start tapping into that kind of spirit again, there's no way we're gonna fix anything in this country.” 

I am inclined to urge that work will set one free, but that phrase carries far too much baggage. But this speech from Dave resonates with me because I adore what I do.  Truly, I love every second and feel blessed beyond words.  But, I have had crappy jobs—or jobs seen as crappy by others.  I was a server for a dozen years.  My first waiting job was the graveyard shift at a HoJo’s.  But, I found, in that work, endless joy.  I served fried clams at 2AM to working stiffs who over-tipped me because I, like their own daughters, was getting ready to go to college far from home.  I learned to run a dishwasher and make eggs on the flat-top when the manager was resting his eyes in his office.  I smelled of fryer grease and was sticky with 27 flavors of ice cream when I got home and fell exhausted into bed.  But I kinda loved that old blue and white checked diner uniform.  I liked putting the tips in my apron.  It was my first job.  And, yes, I knew that something else was waiting for me, but who knew what.  I was studying Theology and not bound to the cloister.  Would I have felt the same way if HoJos was my destiny?  I like to think so. I also know I am a child of privilege and my experiences can’t be separated from that.  But I waited tables through college and then again through grad school.  And in Kentucky I worked with Gaye and Sarah.  Gaye was a professional server and Sarah’s career was as a bus-gal and hostess.  Gaye was in her 40s and Sarah her 60s.  They were two of the most professional women I ever knew. 

I have had jobs others envied, chosen for the most selective corporate training program in the 1970s, I was one of ten international trainees in the Merrill Lynch JET program (junior executive training).  It gave me opportunities to go places, see things, rub shoulders with “important” people from the world of high finance.  I made more my first year (1980) than I do now as a full professor with tenure.  Those who know me can only imagine how much I did not fit into that world.  I wrenched my round self into the square hole until, as my Mom once told me wistfully, “I barely recognized you.”  Unhappy as I might have been doing a job I didn’t much like for six years, I still found things about which to be joyful.  I did my job well, and was proud of what I submitted to my bosses, the analyses I provided commodities traders, the training I provided to branches here and abroad.  I had terrific colleagues, and we laughed all the time.  I had my first taste of teaching—albeit about commodities—and an inkling that the classroom might be a good fit for me.  I didn’t mind the Brooks Brothers suits.  I felt adult as I ran up Vanderbilt Avenue to catch the Lex uptown and meet the girls for a drink after work.  I was Mary Tyler Moore tossing my floppy silk tie in the air, making it after all.  It was a job as rewarding personally as was serving my midnight regulars at HoJos.

And, I don’t like to think I am the exception.  I want to think, like Dave, that all work, that any work, makes one feel good.  That everyone—okay, almost everyone--believes there is value in work for work’s sake, for a job well done, whether that job is a landing an airplane, removing a tumor,  snaking a drain, or building a road.  But I am terrified that I am wrong.  I fear that I am among a minority who see that the dignity of work is a price far above rubies.  You see, in the survey I gave my students, nearly half placed “the Dignity of Work” as the least important value.  Not one of the least.  The absolute least.  7 out of 7.  I guess they have not seen Dave.  And these are students who are about to enter the profession of teaching, where the only rewards are intrinsic.

So, it seems that, if we believe that work serves no higher purpose, that it has no intrinsic value, that it is just about a paycheck, then we might naturally think that those who can get assistance without working would, in fact, choose that option rather than pursue any employment that affords an opportunity for fulfillment beyond the salary.  I am sure there is some kind of syllogism for this, but they are like math with words and hurt my head.  Now, of course my small survey of students was non-scientific.  And, as usual,  I am being histrionic to make a point (not that I don’t incline to melodrama often).  Yes, my students rated the value of work last, but the seven values from which they had to choose were all significant.  What their choices revealed to me is how blithely we prioritize.  Of course,  we think that “dignity” is an important value (half listed that value as #1).  But what does that mean, exactly? What gives one dignity?  Are we just born dignified? Because our values are the lens through we analyze, judge, and act, if those values are only vaguely defined or unexamined, then our analysis, judgments, and actions are un-critical.  Therefore, part of me thinks that the results of my survey are more a reflection of my students’ lack or inability to reflect than of their short-sightedness.  And that hypothesis also confirms for me my choice of topic for this Fall.  I must teach my students (so that they can teach their students) to THINK about what they say they mean.  The dangers in failing to do so are profound.   Those results of that failure were on display for me at Tampa, for it seems to me that the only way the right can believe that the majority would CHOOSE TANF over employment—any employment—is to have fucked up values.  What this belief says about their view of human nature is disturbing.  But more disturbing is that I think they might be kind of right.  I have this horrible feeling that it is in danger of becoming true. 

Our culture privileges those with glamorous—that is, high paying--jobs.  How those individuals serve others or how they represent humanity is insignificant.  They have money and they have things and they are on the cover of magazines.   Our culture sees wealth as a measure of … well … everything: success, character, intelligence, worth to society.  Why else would anyone pay any attention to The Donald or those talentless teens from Twilight?   And the generation I see before me seems to feel entitled to the job they want at the salary they feel they deserve.  And if they don’t get that, then they will, as the latest Romney Ryan riff puts it, move into their childhood bedroom, lie on their beds, and stare at their fading Obama posters.  Why not, GET A FUCKING JOB.  Why not head down to the mall, to the fast food joints, to the lawn care and construction companies.  Deliver a pizza.  Steam some milk.  Stock some shelves.  Because those are not dignified?  Because we value some vague term called “human dignity” more than we do the “dignity of work”? 

When I work at the mission in FoCo, we have folks who have jobs.  They come in the uniform of a Burger King or the t-shirt of a maid service. They have grease under their nails.  They work.  They are proud.  But they need a meal for their family, and we provide it.  And they look us in the eye, and they say thank you, and their kids say thank you.  They choose work, they need help, and they have dignity.  It’s not the poor who don’t want to work; it’s the middle and upper class kids who think they deserve a particular job at a particular salary.  And this is the message those with money and power send through the people we celebrate and privilege—success is about wealth; happiness is money and doing cool shit.   And we cultivate that.  We enable that.  Every time we forget to honor work, to celebrate a job well done.  Every time we talk about dignity and fail to define what that means.  This is the message we need to get out there.  As I think about the values and the virtues I want my students to address with their students—not inculcate, not proselytize—but raise with them,  I realize that first I must teach them how to assess their own values and virtues.  And then I must teach them to teach their own students how to do so as well.  And it is, I am convinced, through literature that we can do this.  By choosing texts that challenge us to confront what we believe, to question our values, to turn those upside down and inside out.  This is the reason why I adore Huck Finn.  I embrace the over-simplified controversy about the word nigger.  I await the moment when students realize that the only character with dignity, the only hero in the novel is, in fact, “Nigger Jim.”  In the world of the novel, Huck has money and power and privilege.  He even has common sense.  But he lacks the most important quality—humanity.  He is, in the end, a coward.  And I see too many cowards at podiums these days.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Establishing a Point A : How Do We Value What We Value

I indicated that I was taking a new tack in methods.  Not the core of what we do but, rather, the content with which we work.

A priori, we begin from the notion that as teachers we must create citizens of our democracy.  That’s Dewey.  Heck, that’s Aristotle (minus the women and slaves, of course).  And I am not suggesting that these should blue or red citizens, liberals or conservatives, democrats or republicans (although, I am not shy about revealing my own ideas, and I say the same to my students--as long as their ideas are not hateful or hurtful).  However, we are colleagues in a University classroom, and what we can do (and say) in our space is different from what they can do or say in the classrooms where they will be teaching.  So, although the ideas we will discuss in my class are not exclusive to the University classroom, the way in which we talk about them might be.  (It is my practice NOT to teach methods like a “let’s pretend” of a high school class.)

So much of what teachers must do is provoke their students.  They must give them things to think about—texts and questions about texts and tasks.  That is hard in our increasingly scripted, increasingly canned curriculum world.  Too bad, I tell them.  You have to find things to read and questions to ask and ways to connect those to the content you are required to teach.  If you don’t want to do that, please do not teach.  Throughout the semester, I will suggest to them that in many ways I am the anti-model of teaching.  I swear and spit and rant (okay, I don’t spit, I whine).  But in terms of how to treat students, I congratulate myself on being an excellent role model.  And the thing I do best is make them think hard about stuff.  (Although, in the past few semester, I fear I have gone a little soft.) I make them read provocative articles.  I challenge them to explain themselves and define themselves and challenge themselves.  And, I hope I create a safe and entertaining space for all this fun.  Good teachers do these things, and I intend that they all be good teachers.

As I noted previously, for Fall this means our theme is Ethics/Virtue/Wisdom.  Although these are murky terms, we'll work them  together.  And we’ll try to come up with a congenial definition of some or all of these terms.  The one thing I do know is this—I think we have lost track of these notions.  And, whether or not it should be so, it falls to teachers and schools to teach and/or cultivate them.  In the ELA classroom the vehicle for teaching and learning about these notions is text, however we choose to define that word.  So, this semester we will use the texts we study in order to examine these ideas.  My job will be to show students how to teach literature with an eye to any theme.  That is, to fill my students' quivers with instructional arrows and not just ways to teach but the theories that undergird why we should teach in certain ways.  And as a class, we will apply these theories and practices to our first text, Huck Finn. 

Among the topics we'll discuss is this prickly one:  Where do we get our beliefs and values? Conventional wisdom suggests that the society in which we live shapes our system of belief … our ideology. After all we are, by nature, social critters. Of course, there are exceptions—think about that American kid who bought into Al Qaeda stuff, or the Amish kid who moves out of the community to join the “English”—those are extremes. But what about the Jew who converts to Christianity, the Democrat who becomes a Republican … changing what we think or believe makes us human. Indeed, in one of those centuries BC, Socrates urged us to challenge our own accepted moral opinions—never to stop. 

Thoughtful beliefs—not the kneejerk bullshit of beliefs that are unexamined and maintained because “that is how it has been always” or “that is what X says”—are the result of the transaction (a word that defines so much of what I do as an academic, a teacher, and a learner)between what we might call “received traditions”—that is, the beliefs, values, morals, of the cultural group/s to which we belong—and our very own personal views based on our individual experiences. That’s how you can have, in the same family (and is there a more influential cultural group than one’s family?), my conservative father, my incredibly liberal aunt, and my libertarian uncle. They all grew up in the same household, but as their lives unfolded, each found that their beliefs took difference courses. Do they share a set of fundamental ideals? Yup. But how those ideals are realized, the best way to achieve them? There they are very different. 

In the battle of ethicists—or people who debate from where we get our ethical views—there are those who privilege the community and those who do the individual. How do our moral or ethical  understandings come down to us? Through laws? Through RELIGION? Through cultural/social taboos?

We tend to associate morality and religion—and the 10 commandments are the big Judeo-Christian ones, although not the biggest-- which, it turns out, shows up in many many religions—the “do unto others …” Some thinkers suggest that by placing morality in the realm of religion—and suggesting morals come to us from a “ higher authority” we can escape our role in asserting them (“it’s not my fault, Moses—or better, EVE--did it.”) The problem with using religion as the basis for moral behavior is pretty clear—there are a lot of them, and often the details are where contradictions arise.  Plus, not everyone believes.  So the question is, "Is there something other than religion that might undergird our moral choices or the moral code by which we choose to live?

;Well there’s the age old question of our inherent nature—are we good guys (a la Locke) or bad (a la Hobbes). And there is a whole slew of geneticists who think our DNA might have a role in our moral inclinations. Note that both of these theories take responsibility from the actors. What are some of the implications of these notions of our being hard-wired as moral or “im”?

So, are we products of our DNA or our social and cultural environment (AKA nature or nurture)? Are we Tabula Rasa (although how we understand that term is not precisely what was meant).  For Locke in “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born "blank.” That said, he emphasized that the individual is free to author the content of one’s character. He believed that one’s basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be altered. Thus Locke believes in a free, self-authored mind combined with an immutable human nature.

This notion of tabula rasa undergirds the sociological view that we are born into a social milieu, and the forces that act on us are many: parents, teachers, peers, media, all of whom have their own ideological issues. Sociologists, thus, discount the idea of any kind of “human nature” and aver that these various forces are far more influential than any genetic predisposition.

So, you can say:  Don’t blame me, my genes made me this way OR Don’t blame me, blame society, it made me this way (OR, you can blame original sin … Eve made me this way)

What makes moral and ethic questions so problematic is that there are so many different beliefs and practices. And, those beliefs and practices seem to change willy-nilly over time. Different cultures believe differently. Different tribes. Different periods of history. But even the same culture can believe differently—think about people you know who have beliefs that differ from yours on topics as significant as abortion, guns, the death penalty, the NCAA ruling against Penn State.  Of course, you think you are right. And those who think differently, think they are right. But when it comes to so many moral or ethical issues, how do we prove who is?

There is a whole bunch of philosophers who need there to be an absolute right moral way. These Universalist or Absolutists stand in contradistinction to the Relativists who embrace the chaos of the variety of ethical beliefs and practices. Can you think of dangers here with RELATIVISM AND ABSOLUTISM?  Well, if one group thinks they have the absolute, they can impose their moral, ethical beliefs on a group with less power (can you say COLONIALISM / MORAL Imperialism)  

Or, if anything goes, can a culture that decides to sacrifice babies to their particular god go ahead and do it?

Are there some absolutes? Absolutists say there are, and we can prove them--we just haven’t yet. And they use the idea of the flat world or the idea of the earth at the center. These were beliefs that were entrenched—until a way of proving them wrong was discovered.
So ABOLUTISTS claim that there are core moral values—foundational ones that allow societies to exist and function. RELATIVISTS would ask … and how do you decide which ones? They believe the only moral absolute is that we don’t interfere with other cultures.

All this hurts my head.  But this is the Philosophical Thinking that I must encourage in my students--and they must in theirs.  What is the role of “ PHILOSOPHICAL THINKING” ?

In 5th century BC Greece, it meant questioning traditional answers, not accepting them without examination. And why then? Well, too much free time. The slave culture (all the big names owned’em), meant the rich dudes sat around and talked about shit. Philosophy was social and communal. Indeed, Plato was not a fan of the ancient “book,” b/c it was antithetical to the idea of ideas that evolve from this communal kibitzing. He had not imagined a world of multiple editions (bite me MLA Handbook). Socrates, as noted above, loved the search for knowledge. And he believed that through questioning and discussion we could arrive at moral knowledge.

So, this semester I will make my students question and discuss. And I doubt we will arrive at consensus on all that matters in terms of morals and values and ethics. BUT, I believe we can arrive at consensus on some key values or ethical ideas that we all embrace and, I would argue, we are obligated to teach. Does that mean some of the values that are important to me or to them as individuals might not be on our “must teach” list? Yup. That’s called compromise. 

 In preparation for our first class this week, I created two survey-type documents about values.  The first was a series of statements about a list of social values I gleaned from a text by Frances Fowler.  It had a Likert scale to assess the students' sense of the significance of these values. 
I introduced the survey with this header:

As I have mentioned in my pre-class emails, our focus this semester will be challenging issues of morals, values, ethics, and/or virtues.  In preparation for our work, I have been reading  Frances Fowler’s stuff on educational policy.  One of her foci is ideology—and that’s another murky term.  For Fowler, ideological beliefs are deeply held and connect to our notions of human nature and our perceptions of reality.  And, like morals or values, ideologies often clash.

Fowler asserts that we must have a sense of our own ideological positions.  The “survey” below, which uses what is called a Likert Scale (the 0-5), asks you to think about some of the hot topics that undergird major ethical issues that challenge us in the present.

And the issues I presented were as follows:

Simply by virtue of their birth, all people have the right to a life of dignity. The measure of any institution if the degree to which it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. All persons—in their diversity in terms if gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual preference, ability—are worthy and due of dignity

As social beings, all people have the right and duty to participate in society and seek together the common good and well-being of all. We must work in solidarity with all people to ensure liberty,  justice and dignity for all.

Every person has a fundamental right to life and all those things needed for human dignity. In turn, we have a responsibility to each other and to the larger society to ensure that these rights are preserved and protected for all. And, when any person or groups rights are threatened by unjust policies, procedures, or actions, we are responsible to challenge the forces that post such threats

As members of a society, we are obliged to care for the least among us—A those most vulnerable.

All work has inherent dignity. Every person has a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to advocate for their working conditions, and to economic initiative.  An economy must serve people, not the other way around.

We are the keepers of our fellow humans and we should do unto them as we would have them do to us. And note, in the global society our fellows are all humans, not just those in our immediate space.

As caretakers of the planet and of the weak, we must be excellent stewards of all creation.

In the second assignment, I asked them to prioritize these seven items—one the Most and seven Least important.  And today, all 22 of my students (finally)  submitted their completed “tests.”  I see these as a kind of pre-test, and I have no idea what to make of the results.  I know only that I am kinda frightened by them.  And, I have been trying to figure out why.  Now, I am not a methodologist, and there are places where I feel like the results from these two assessments of the same values seem funky. For example, in prioritizing these seven values, here’s how the students in my class break down.  After each value—just the heading--I note the number of students who ranked it MOST Important.


I was a bit surprised that not a single person placed Caring for the Poor at number one.  At the opposite end, four students said this was the LEAST  important, and that did disturb me.  Here’s the full line on that value:

1 was 0 students
2 was 1 student
3 was 5 students
4 was 6 students
5 was 3 students
6 was 3 students
7 was 4 students

In my class of 22 pre-service teachers almost half placed caring for the poor and vulnerable in the bottom.  As I look at the list, I can see that each of these values has value (ha), so prioritizing is a challenge.  And, it will be the discussion of how they made their choices that will be interesting, I think (I hope).

Another result that surprised me was about the Dignity of Work.  Only one student designated this, “Most Important.”  10 students considered it “Least Important.”  The rest shook out thusly:

1 / 1
2 / 3
3 / 3
4 / 0
5 / 3
6 / 2
7 / 10

Here, too, the discussion will, I hope, clarify how the students perceive not just these two, but all the questions in the survey.  This survey will be the topic of some of our first class discussion (as both noun and, I hope, modifier!)  I made WORDLs of their responses, and I will share them here once I print them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Year of Teaching Dangerously

At my middle age, danger is relative.  It does not involve heights, unless the platitude of reaching for new ones counts.  It does not involve physical danger, save the risk to my ego.  I put nothing on the line that I can’t afford to lose, except my conviction that what is broken in education can, in fact, be fixed in some small way.
            It is my intent to reflect, during the academic year about to unfold, on the changes I hope to make in the small world that is the University and our English Education Program and my methods classes.  Education and teacher preparation are on a precipice, and what we do here, at UNCo, is at a crossroads, too.  I think.  I hope.  We, in secondary ed, have been discussing how we can change our current practicum and the content of the “education” component.  I have been rethinking the mission of my classes, especially my backing off from raising issues of social justice and critical pedagogy in favor of the more mechanical “how to’s.” Personally, I despair over the state of education—of students and teachers—I lament the quality of the candidates, the content of instruction, the role of administration, and the aggressive role of parents.  But I have had this inkling that any effective changes will be local and not the product of national debate.  Not that the debate won’t affect what we do locally.  But rather than wait for, or even look to, sweeping solutions suggested by those far removed from here, we must arrive at a program that fits our context—the students we teach at UNCo and the students they will teach, mostly in our region.  If that works in other places, great.  But to assume what works here will work there and everywhere seems silly. 
Why write about this year?  It’s a my opportunity for reflective practice.  Freire rightly explains, “In the process of the ongoing education of teachers, the essential moment is that of critical reflection on one's practice.”  And I am nothing if not ongoingly being educated!  As well, putting words on paper forces me to work towards clarity.  It is an indulgence and a practice I wish my students would embrace.  The love of the crafting sentences and paragraphs.  How do we cultivate that, no, how do I cultivate that, in them?  B. Traven has a character in his powerful long short-story, “The Night Visitor,”  named Doc Cranwell.  Cranwell has left civilization behind to live in the jungles of Mexico.  Gerard Gales, Traven’s alter-ego in much of his fiction, meets him there.  The Doc, who has a remarkable library, claims to have written many many things.  When Gales asks to see them, he responds,
Whenever I had finished a book, I read it, revised it, made changes which I thought essential to make it perfect—or as nearly perfect as I could even make it—and when this was done I felt happy and satisfied beyond measure.  As soon as I had that satisfaction, I destroyed the book.
It’s not about having them read, it’s the writing of them.  Gales/Traven is skeptical, but I think that’s because Traven’s writing had a political/didactic purpose.  Perhaps, if I were like Doc Cranwell, I would write my entries, perfect them, and then do the modern equivalent of destroying them—hit delete.  But there’s too much Traven in me.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"The game ain't gotta be played like that, yo."

This fall I am cautiously dipping my toe into the debate about the place of values and moral education in the public school classrooms.  I am so struck by a society that is becoming increasingly cruel and smug and sniping.  Mean is okay, suddenly.  Kindness is uncool.  Manners, courtesy, caring are missing locally and globally.  Once upon a time, my methods classes were all about social justice and critical pedagogy.  However, I fell victim to my pragmatic side, and the pendulum swung too far towards the doing end of praxis and away from the theory.  This semester, I remedy that.

My gal, Louise Rosenblatt (“Weezie” in my classes, RIP George Jefferson!), reminds me, every fall, that literature can afford opportunities to discuss weighty matters.  And morals and values and ethics weigh a ton.  There is a notion in Holocaust education, “carefully in and carefully out.”  With subjects so complex and provocative, we must enter and exit discussion and study cautiously.  That is what I hope to do—and to model—this semester.  And, I hope to write about it, to re-animate a discussion which, although lively in the 1990s, has only simmered more recently.  Perhaps we got tired of the fighting.  Perhaps the battles were too nasty.  But they don’t have to be.  To quote one of my favorite characters from the brilliant series The Wire, D’Angelo Barksdale, “The game ain’t gotta be played like that, yo.”

To set up our semester, below is what I will have students read the week before our first class.  Then, I have a cool activity we’ll do, and I’ll report on that later on.

Morals, Values, Ethics, Virtue

The difference between ethics and morals and values and virtues  makes my head spin.  And trying to distinguish between them is hard work.  I looked at philosophy texts, religious texts, legal and even medical texts, and below is the result of these labors.  Even with all that, I tend mess them up and, especially, conflate values and morals.  None of these are fixed definitions/explanations.  We can choose to revise them, or simply agree to let the meanings we ascribe to these terms evolve.

One challenge to this discussion is the place of religion.  We will see, in our reading this week, that the specter of religion—in a world where we separate (or claim to) church and state—is what keeps discussions of morals or values out of the classroom.  To avoid this required that we establish or “rules for engagement.”  Although I am a believer that the class set policy, there are some rules that I, as your benign dictator, will mandate:

In this classroom we respect every single living creature great and small.  If you denigrate anyone because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, political point of view, cultural community, you name it, I will ask you to leave.  I am not saying we must be beholden to political correctness;  rather, we must begin to understand that what we say and do matters to someone.  There is a fine line between good humor and bad taste.  We must learn to negotiate that line together.      

Therefore, when we discuss what are our morals or values, including where they originate, we should avoid privileging our own over another’s because of their origins.  Let me give you an example:

Shortly, I will share with you my view of “social justice.”  I first became aware that there was such a codified notion at Georgetown with the Jesuits.  Their version is, as you would expect, Bible-based.  Thus, in asserting that we have an obligation to work for and protect the poor and the vulnerable, the Jesuits look to the words and teachings of Jesus.  Now, I agree 100% that we must care for the “least among us.”  I just don’t base that belief on the beatitudes.  In discussions then, my college pal John, a former  seminary student and devout Catholic, indicates that his beliefs originate with scripture.  I say mine are based on the secular.  But where they come from, although of intellectual interest, is not what matters.  What matters is that he and I work together to lift up the poor and comfort and aide the vulnerable.

Or, more immediate:  I volunteer as a cook at the Catholic Charities Mission in FoCo on Saturday evenings.  One team of volunteers includes: Me ( ½ Jewish and ½ Greek Orthodox), a Lutheran sheep farmer/veterinarian, a transsexual Lutheran,  a transgender Episcopalian, and a Mormon forklift operator.  Who gives a shit about the origins of our morals or values or beliefs, we share a belief that giving to those in need is what we must do. 
As teachers, you must make this distinction for students about beliefs:  the “what” is more important than the “from whence”.  Yes, discuss the origins of our values—in very broad ways.  But swiftly turn the focus to those beliefs, especially those on which we can all agree.

All that said … let’s talk about these messy terms.


Values are our fundamental beliefs—the stuff in our gut. They are the lens through which we view and judge the world around us, the beliefs we hold that influence our choices and our actions, They are the principles we use to define that which we believe is right and good and just.  Values inform the standards against which we judge the world around us.

Consider the word “evaluate.” When we evaluate something we compare it to a standard, an ideal. We determine whether it meets that standard or falls short, comes close or far exceeds. To evaluate is to determine the merit of a thing or an action as compared to a our standard.


When our values are systematized, then we have morals.  Most familiarly, the system or set of beliefs is a religious one, but it could be a political system as well.  Morals get their authority from something outside the individual--a higher being or higher authority.   The authority could be a society or cultural group or an individual. 

Both values and morals are often in flux. For the most part, they are shaped by our environment: first our parents, then perhaps our place of worship, maybe our extended ethnic family, then school or friends—the people and institutions around us.  At the same time, all cultural groups and all societies have value systems, and people living in these societies or among these groups are guided by these values.  For example, in the US, the values of liberty and freedom are fundamental and the behavior and actions of people in US society are guided by these values. The challenge to us comes when our values bump up against those of a group or an individual with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. 


Ethics are codes of conduct that decide what is wrong and what is right in a particular circumstance.  Think of them as related to action.  Our ethics emerge from our morals/values.  They are a system of behaviors designed to guide action.  They tend to stress a social system—that is, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior.  We think of them as “social,” in other words, they indicate the conduct expected by the group to which the individual belongs. This could be national ethics, social ethics, company ethics, professional ethics, or even family ethics. So, while a person’s moral code is usually individual, the ethics he or she practices can be other-dependent.  As a result, one person might be subject to multiple sets of ethical codes.  This multiplicity is only one of the problems posed by ethics, for often a group’s ethical code is unwritten, or they might not coincide with the ethical code of the individual.

When considering the difference between ethics and morals/values, it may be helpful to consider a criminal defense lawyer appointed by the court to defend a murderer.  The lawyer’s personal moral code finds the taking of a life unacceptable and his client reprehensible.  The values of the society in which he lives demand that even the slimiest murderer gets a fair trial.   And, as much as he loathes his client, his ethics as a lawyer require he defend his client, perhaps get him off—even if he might kill again.  In this case, legal ETHICS override personal MORALS for the greater good of upholding  social VALUES of our society in which we believe. Phew.

Aside:  Think about how many episodes of Law & Order have this topic at the heart of the story.  Or how much great literature.  Including the text we will study this fall, Huck Finn.

Now, lemme add something else into the mix:  Virtue

Virtue is moral excellence, a pattern of thought and behavior based on high moral standards.  Virtues are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop our human potential;  they enable us to pursue the values that we, well, value: honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.

Think about virtue in terms of a term we will look at later in the semester: Virtue Ethics.

Virtue ethics are certain ideals—for example, dedication to the common good--toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity.  The ideals are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become.

And “thoughtful reflection” (aka “critical thinking) is—or should be—on of the central goals of our teaching and learning.