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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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All’s Fair

The California State Fair is going on right now.  Since it’s here in town, I go every year.  And every year I marvel at the strange juxtaposition of time that it offers.

State fairs (and county fairs) are, to a great extent, a remnant of a different, earlier time.  It was an opportunity for people to come together in a largely agrarian society where such opportunities were rare.  People would exhibit prize livestock and produce, and artisans would get a chance to show their skill.  There were competitions of quilting, cooking, canning and manufacturing.  Winemakers would share their bounty.

In addition, vendors would exhibit and demonstrate their products to people who otherwise had little chance to even be aware of them.  Carnival rides gave an opportunity for fun, and ultimately the extended community would come together for celebration and camaraderie, with musicians and performers.  It was the highpoint of the agricultural social calendar.

All that has changed.  The internet has put us in contact with each other, and allowed us to purchase whatever we want from the far corners of the world.  Music is readily available in multiple media forms, and few of us really live agrarian lives.  Somehow, a jam-making contest seems quaint.

Fairs are struggling, trying to keep up with the times in the face of dwindling attendance.  High tech exhibits are increasingly common, along with celebrations of pop culture.  Where the county fair circuit was once a valid musical path, now it’s the place for washed-up bands and tribute acts.  One must ask if fairs even serve any purpose any more.

To answer that, I can examine a recent remarkable coincidence.  In my composition class just one day before I visited the fair, we found ourselves discussing the use of media and technology in education.  I confess I am one who has not been quick to embrace the computer age.  Call it a function of my advancing age, but I’m not convinced that something that has worked for years without computers suddenly needs them to succeed.

It’s a common assumption: our students are computer-savvy, and very tied in to media, so in order to reach them, we teachers much come to their level, and embrace their media.  So we must use social networking, and the internet, and on-line communication, and laptop computers, and all the other things they take for granted.  Those of us who are reluctant to do so are stuck in old ways and must get current to survive.

But why?

Unexamined in the scramble to embrace technology is the question of whether doing so is needed or appropriate.  I, for one, tend to be a late adopter.  Despite being in a classroom equipped with a “smart board,” I rarely use it.  Nor do I often use the computer.  I don’t have a course website, and still read essays on paper.  Hopelessly out-of-date, right?  Time to retire?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing, but I believe that my emphasis on old-fashioned discussion has benefits that cannot be gained by the latest tech programs.  Discussion worked when I went to school, and I have yet to see a single cogent argument as to why something that used to work somehow stopped working simply because some other method with more bells and whistles came along.

This perspective is not new for me.  I began my teaching career at a time when the teaching of English was undergoing an enormous transformation.  The perspective was that we must abandon inadequate old methods, and my reluctance to do so did not sit well with my fellow teachers and supervisors.  What I could not bring myself to say to these people was, “The old methods produced all of you, so how bad can they really be?”  But it’s what I was thinking.

But, as I said, perhaps that’s rationalization.  Maybe I’m making excuses for being too old to learn new tricks, or maybe just too lazy.  I put that to my students.  The response was intriguing.

While there was agreement that I would benefit from some of the smart technology to demonstrate, for example, the process of editing an essay, for the most part they said I should not change my methods.  They have seen many cases of teachers who use technology and yet do not improve the classroom experience by doing so.  Some do, but, from my students’ perspective, that means it’s a good teacher, not that the technology is what makes it good.

This parallels my experience of animation in film, where traditional cel animation has been replaced by CGI.  This was largely because the groundbreaking films from Pixar changed everything.  The assumption was that, because Pixar uses CG and their movies are great, using CG must make movies great.  But other studios’ uneven output has shown that CG does not make a movie great.  Indeed, even recent offerings from Pixar have shown this.  The fact is, their earlier movies were great because they were well made, and not simply because of the technology used.  They would have been just as great if animated traditionally.

This is true in education.  A good teacher is good regardless of technology, and a bad teacher won’t get better by using a computer.  My students went on to say that my emphasis on discussing ideas is a rare thing in their college experience, where they mostly sit silent while a professor drones on in the lecture.  Being able to explore their own views and learn about each other’s is something they value, and they urged me not to stop doing it.  In other words, be open to new approaches, but don’t abandon what works.

And this takes me back to the fair.  I find something very comforting about those jam contests and quilting shows and the vendors with their booths.  It hearkens back to an earlier time, yes, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t things of value in that time.  The fair is, among many other things, a community-building opportunity.  Just because we now build communities other ways doesn’t change that.  It is a rich pageant of traditions, ones that can, and should, be handed down for generation to generation.  It reminds us where we come from, and who we are.

Sure, let us always keep an eye toward the future.  But let us not forget the past, nor abandon those things that still have value.  That’s too easy to do in a disposable age of planned obsolescence, where last year’s model is considered hopelessly out of date.

Continuity.  Traditions.  That’s what makes societies strong.  Learn from the past to build the best possible future.  But you can’t have one without the other.

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Originality

You’ve probably heard of Thomas Edison.  You know, inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, motion picture and numerous other things for which he gets the credit.  People tend to hold up Edison as a model of dedicated genius.  What a great man, the single-minded, hardworking visionary who persevered until he achieved his goal.  Nothing beats hard work, he would say.  Yes indeed, someone to emulate, a shining example to us all. 

But in fact he really was a model of blind stubbornness.  It’s well documented that he tried hundreds of different combinations of gasses and filaments before finding success with the light bulb.  How inspiring, right?  Not really.  See, a lot of the things he tried had already been tried – and rejected – by others before him.  He would have known that had he studied their works.  But he refused to do so, seeing that as a waste of time, time that should be spent in the lab working.  But it was working pointlessly, and how much time did he waste replicating the failures of others? 

That we see his approach as a cause for pride is a distinctly American perspective, the same one that allows Libertarians to brandish their copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, celebrating the individual who owes nothing to anybody. What nonsense.  Nobody works in a vacuum.  Every innovation the modern age knows owes itself to previous innovations by others.  Nikola Tesla built on Edison’s work and was instrumental in the development of alternating current; too bad Edison missed the point and persecuted Tesla mercilessly because AC was more efficient than Edison’s own direct current.  Had Edison been willing to work together with Tesla, how much more innovation might they have brought to the world?  The fact is, we are all in it together.  Sorry, Randians, but that’s not a bad thing.  People working together are a source of strength. 

That’s why I spend time with other writers, seeking their feedback.  I do know writers who are pretty solitary, who rarely show their work to anyone, and certainly not before it’s “ready.”  We believe in the solitary, cloistered writer, pulling ideas whole out of his fertile mind.  But that’s not realistic.  We write for audiences, which means we have to step outside our own heads.  True, getting too many opinions can be overwhelming to the writing process, especially early on, but I gain more from the thoughts of others than I lose.  And I’m confident enough now that I have the ability to decide which advice to apply, and which to reject. 

And the most common bit of advice I get is to read.  Read as much as I can.  Every writer should be a reader.  But there’s the challenge.  The time I take to read is time I don’t spend writing.  It’s frustrating, but it’s worth it, ultimately.  Reading different writers shows me different approaches, ideas to try, strategies to consider, pitfalls to avoid.  This is what I tell my students, though they aren’t writing fiction.  I have them read a great deal of material.  And I tell them something that’s revolutionary for a classroom setting: it’s not all necessarily good.  Just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it an example of successful writing.  There may well be things the writer does that the students can learn to avoid.

Then there’s the reality that one student may like a particular piece, and another may hate it.  One isn’t “right” over the other.  Rather, they are seeing that different writers are effective for different readers.  By reading many different writers, they see many approaches they can try as they go through the process of finding their own voices.

I must do the same, and read many things.  That’s a relief, because the prospect of immersing myself entirely in Young Adult Science Fiction is a bit discouraging.  There’s a lot there that I don’t much care for.  Maybe that’s bad.  Surely if I want to write it I should love it.  But maybe my goal is different, and really what I want to do is write something better than the stuff I don’t like.  Try to improve on it.

I still have to read it to do that.  Doing so will also give me a good sense of what’s already been done, so that I avoid doing something unintentionally derivative.  Or worse, being accused of plagiarism simply because I wasn’t well-enough read to have found something that’s a lot like what I’m doing.

Actually, I’ve already encountered books with very similar elements to what I’m writing.  Twice, at least.  Initially I found that pretty discouraging, and wondered if there was any point of continuing.  But I was reminded of what I tell my students: few of them will ever create something truly original.  That’s just reality.  If it’s possible to do, it’s probably been done.  So the objective is to do something that may have already been done, but to do it in a new, better way than it’s been done before.  As one person told me, if my book is similar to something already out there, the people who liked that one will be interested in reading mine precisely because it is similar.  As long as it’s creative and engaging, I’m fine.

So, again, the key is to read.  If I encounter another writer doing something that reflects on what I’m doing, no one says I should throw my hands up in despair.  And they certainly don’t suggest I stop reading.  In the end it’s all different ways of broadening my horizons.  We all can learn from each other, even from the people with whom we disagree.

And I guess that means I can still benefit from reading YA books that I don’t like.  Even with a book I hate, perhaps I’ll find something that turns on a light in my own writing.  Let’s just hope it’s not a bulb that was already tried and rejected before I even got started.

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