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Edumacation

The fall school term starts next week. That means I’m getting ready to apologize to my students. That’s right. I begin every course by laying out the class procedures, and that includes an apology on behalf of my colleagues, most of whom would never apologize themselves, nor even accept that they have something to apologize for. But many of them should. They are in a very esteemed, important position, and they abuse it, to the students’ detriment.

I spent this past week in assorted faculty meetings and workshops. I’ve been to some real doozies. I actually ended up walking out of one discussion session that purported to debate the merits of open-book vs. closed-book exams. I’m totally open-book. For me the whole point is to apply what you have learned, and to effectively use the resources available. As one of my students once put it, the world is open book. But I certainly want to hear other perspectives, so I went.

I was dismayed to discover that pretty much everyone else in attendance was from the psych department, and they were earnestly engaged in drawing up clinical support for continuing to use closed-book exams that could be done on scantrons. I was also appalled to realize just how utterly closed they were to any other position. I kept trying to make the case for the way open-book fosters critical thinking, until one attendee, who had up until that point contributed nothing to the discussion, accused me of being obstinate. I pointed out that I wasn’t making things personal and asked if he could do the same. He responded by saying I was refusing to “get it,” while others nodded in agreement. The moderator just sat there. I realized I would get nothing more out of the discussion and left. Not, I confess, before directing a very personal comment in his direction.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this as laziness on teachers’ parts. As an English teacher, I chose my job, and that means taking home stacks of essays and devoting hours of time to reading them (one of the things that has made it extremely hard for me to read non-critically, for pleasure). But it’s galling to realize there are other teachers getting paid the same as I do for little more than delivering canned lectures to a big hall full of students, and then three times a semester offering the same multiple-guess test that takes ten minutes to run through the scoring machine. Then they congratulate themselves on a full day’s work. At the end of one semester, as I sat facing one of several piles of papers that would occupy the weekend, one teacher stood feeding scantrons through the machine while another came up behind him, waiting his turn. He remarked to the first guy, “It never stops, does it?” It took all of my self-control to not shout, “It hasn’t even started for you!”

But it’s not mere laziness. In the exam workshop, the frequent argument for closed book was that it increased retention. Again, they were relying on psychological studies. But they had no interest in explaining why retention of facts was actually so important. It made me sad. They see learning as being synonymous with memorization. They had deaf ears to my observation that most of their GE students had no interest in psychology and weren’t going to pursue it as a career, and making them memorize dry facts wasn’t going to change that; if anything it would have the opposite effect.

They didn’t understand that. They, like many teachers, couldn’t comprehend how everyone wasn’t as fascinated by their subject as they themselves were. And, of course, they also fell back on the old conceit that, even if you aren’t interested, these facts are the most important facts in the world and everybody should know them.

There’s an arrogance to my profession, and, in truth, when it gets to that point, I suppose I’m glad they just want the students to memorize facts; it’s better than what other teachers do. I attended a workshop on “sexism in the classroom,” where I noted that everything we offer in the classroom comes down to differing interpretations of the material. Several history teachers shook their heads smugly at each other and one of them said, in the most condescending tone imaginable, “Well, that might be true in English class, but in History we deal with facts.” I wanted to point out that the real study of history isn’t about facts, but the interpretation of facts. In the words of Woody Allen, “If the Nazis had won, people would understand the history of WWII very differently.” I listened to them then go on about how they saw the primary purpose of their classes as being to correct all the historical misinformation the students have learned over the years, due to the erroneous, fallacious ways it used to be taught. I wanted to say, “And I’m sure it was taught by teachers every bit as confident in their ‘facts,’ as you are in yours.” But I didn’t. What would be the point?

These are the teachers I have to apologize for. The ones who agree with me that it’s all about critical thinking, but have confused critical thinking with “right thinking.” The ones who are certain that, if you have all the facts, you will inevitably form the same opinions they have, and, if you don’t, it’s because someone hasn’t explained it to you sufficiently.

People accuse higher education of being a “hotbed of liberal indoctrination.” Guess what, they’re right. I consider myself a knee-jerk moderate, and I cringe at how proudly some of my colleagues would actually embrace that role. I once heard a fellow English teacher tell another, “I couldn’t possibly give a passing grade to an essay that advocated such-and-so position.” Really? Then find another job, because you’re grading their writing, not their opinions.

I know a number of science teachers who make it clear that, no matter what class they teach, they really make it about advocating for “ecological stewardship,” or whatever the current buzzword name is, and encourage their students to get rid of their SUVs and drive hybrids instead. What, do you have a stake in Tesla? I’m all for environmental responsibility, but not when the course subject doesn’t warrant it.

I once passed a classroom near the end of semester where I heard a teacher saying to her students, “I know many of you hate my guts. But I also know that, as a result of this class, two of you have joined the National Organization for Women. That makes it all worthwhile.” Seriously? Alienating a large number of students in order to get a couple to join your pet political cause? Horrific.

I’ve known sociology and political science teachers who require students to participate in a political protest rally. Required. I wonder if they would get credit for joining an anti-abortion protest in front of Planned Parenthood. Raise your hand if you think the answer is, “Hell no!”

I’m self-aware enough to realize that I am not above advocating. All teachers have their pet issues, and I consider myself very fortunate that one of mine happens to be individual expression. I make it central to my heavily discussion-based classes. I tell my students I know they have had classes where they quickly learned that the objective was to figure out the teacher’s pet issue and parrot it back, and, if they didn’t agree, to keep their heads down and try to survive. Many of them nod, having experienced this more than once. I tell them there’s nothing that can be done about that, but my class is different.

I tell them that, if they have an opinion they know others will not like to hear, it’s their duty to express it, so we can consider it. I make it clear that if their opinion is full of crap, we will explain that to them, in very clear terms. But that’s not to belittle them, but to make them strengthen their arguments, to think critically about what they believe. I tell them to never be afraid of their opinions, and in my class to have the confidence to disagree with each other. And with me. I tell them I love being disagreed with (good thing, too, because it happens a lot). It’s nice to hear another spin on something I believe, something I can use to strengthen my own argument, but just having my opinions bounced back is narcissistic. It’s much more interesting to hear other views.

I love to jump into the fray. Alas, that’s usually when it goes sour, because people tend to take being disagreed with personally. They can’t separate their opinions from their identity. That’s the mission I have. I want the students to see that holding a particular opinion doesn’t make you a bad person. Or a good one.

I like to think it works. I’ve had multiple students tell me they didn’t like English class until mine, that they actually looked forward to class, and finding out new ideas. For many of them, it’s the first time they really listened to what others think, and realized there may be validity to it. It’s the first time they ever really thought about why they believe what they believe. And for a tragic majority, my class is the first time they ever felt anyone was interested in their opinions, or that they were worth writing about.

They’ve been indoctrinated all right. Indoctrinated to sit silent, take notes and just regurgitate “facts” and proscribed opinions. That doesn’t teach them to think for themselves. It does the opposite. I can only assume many of my fellow teachers have themselves never thought critically about what they do, or else they’d be saddened by the results. I hope.

Not that I think I’m likely to change things. My arguments fall on deaf ears, even among my colleagues who claim to be about being open to other ideas. It’s tragic. They see their mission being to challenge, undermine and subvert their students’ biases. But if anyone challenges their own biases, look out! They will vent their full wrath on any student with the temerity to do so.

But I’m not afraid to try. As I tell my students, you rarely ever change people’s minds. But if you can get them to say, “Damn it, now I have to consider this!” that’s success. It’s often the best you can hope for. It’s how we learn and grow.

That’s why I’m sad that people rarely see fit to comment on any of my articles here. I want to start a conversation. Even if you disagree. Even if you call me a sexist jerk. Say something. My students participate. There are days where the conversation is so vibrant, and so many hands are raised, that I have to assign numbers and encourage them to write down what they want to say so they don’t forget before I get to them. “Write it down!” becomes a catch-phrase. I never discourage anyone from speaking up, but I tend to favor calling on the ones who don’t as much. I don’t want the loud ones to talk less, I want the quiet ones to talk more. And sometimes there are no quiet ones. Those are the days I love my job. And in my advanced class, I eventually even bow out and sit down, and let the students themselves take over the class and lead the discussion. It’s exhilarating.

I’m not out to make them think the way I do, to indoctrinate them. And yet, I am making them think the way I do: critically, with an open mind. I want you to do that too. Please, join the conversation.

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Form Over Fiction

This summer I will be teaching a literature class.  Well, not exactly; it’s really a composition class that focuses on literature. What distinguishes this course from a literature survey class is the emphasis.  Survey courses, whether focused on a particular genre, period or culture, require a great deal of reading and a moderate amount of writing, whereas this class I will be teaching requires somewhat less reading and a great deal more writing. 

It’s not a class that a lot of students look forward to.  Having at most a moderate interest in reading, they see the class, with some justification, as one in which they will be expected to “love” literature, to listen to a professor read some incomprehensible poem to them and then breathlessly say, “Doesn’t that just touch your soul!” in response to which they’re thinking, “No.”

But of course, you can’t teach students to like something, nor should you try.  Rather, you teach them to appreciate it, but it should not be expected that such appreciation will lead to liking, although, again, some professors do seem to have that mindset: if you don’t like it, it must be because you haven’t studied it closely enough.  That may well be a big part of why the students don’t like it.

That’s why my focus is on the critical process.  I tell the students outright I don’t expect them to like the stuff they read.  To that end, the first work they read is a short story I expect many of them to hate, thus giving them permission to do so, something they may well never have gotten before in an English class.  They are then freed to simply examine what the story is doing.  Those who like it learn how to articulate why they do, while those who do not can articulate that dislike, but also understand why others have a different perspective.  And that’s the objective of the course.

I focus less on the literature itself than on the tools for analysis.  In other words, I introduce my students to the principles of Literary Criticism.  Now there’s something that strikes fear into many a student’s heart. Even my colleagues express trepidation about my emphasis on Critical Theory.  But, properly understood, criticism is simply the application of one or more different ways of examining how a work of literature does what it does.

I don’t teach the course all that often, but this time it will be an especially new experience for me: this will be the first time I have taught the course since I began my own writing in earnest.  I’m wondering how that will change my perspective.  I know it has already clarified something that has long puzzled me, the continued emphasis in the classroom on one particular critical approach: Formalism.

Formal criticism came into prominence about the middle of the last century and was also referred to as the “New Criticism.”  The emphasis is on the form of the work.  In poetry this meant things like meter, rhyme and stanzas; in fiction it refers to such familiar concepts as plot, setting, point of view, and so forth  This was revolutionary at the time, when previously the study of literature focused on understanding the author and period, and finding the author’s intended meaning.  

But Formalism flourished decades ago, and today is anything but “New.”  Criticism has moved on to other approaches and few established critics use it any more.  Sure, they make mention of things like plot and character, but you don’t find formal analysis in literary journals.  It exists today only in the classroom.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it does give us a baseline of concepts to help us name the things we examine.  But that doesn’t explain why the teaching of literature to non-majors tends to stop there.   I’d always assumed it was just old habits.  Then I started writing.

I have found that virtually every resource for writers I encounter focuses on Formal characteristics.  A recent conference I attended included an editing workshop that discussed plot and setting and point of view and could easily have been one of my lectures.  We were even shown the classic graph of rising action-climax-falling action.  It dawned on me that, while I already knew a lot about all those things, many of my fellow attendees perhaps did not, as they aren’t English teachers.  I realized how vital it is to understand those concepts when one writes.  And I understood one more reason why we emphasize them in English classes.

For many English majors, it’s all about literature; for many English teachers it’s all about creativity.  This is especially true at the pre-collegiate level.  In high school English classes the line between studying literature and creating it is often blurred, even eradicated.  Students learn about poetry by writing poems, about fiction by writing stories.  I’m not saying this is a bad approach, but it does indicate where many English teachers are coming from, and why Formalism lives on in the classroom.

What I am saying is that it is incomplete, that the objective of English education should be more than self-expression through creative writing.   And indeed it is, and I know I’m not giving my profession enough credit.  But there is a place for criticism, and it’s not something that should be feared or hated, but rather embraced.  Because in fact we use it all the time, we just don’t realize it.  My goal is for my students to understand what it is that they already do, and thus understand the real importance of literature.  It’s not just a good (or bad) story, it’s a way of seeing and comprehending the world.   They know that.  They just don’t know that they know.

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