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

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