What’s in a Name? Getting to know your class

Steve Volk, August 26, 2018 (A reprise of an article published a year ago)

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

Graduates-1973

When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

Continue reading

Teaching through Paradox: The Individual Voice and the Group Voice

Steven Volk, May 6, 2018

This week’s article was inspired by a photograph taken by William DeShazer for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 30, 2018). He was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce it:

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The photograph carried the following caption: “At Illinois’s late-February game versus Purdue U., basketball fans strike a Chief Illiniwek pose.”

The Chronicle’s article, “The Mascot is Fiction. The War is Real,” reveals that even though the University of Illinois trustees “retired” “Chief Illiniwek” as their mascot in 2007, many students are still encouraged by a group supportive of the mascot to suit up in their old Illiniwek gear when they come to a game. Chancellor Robert Jones, for one, takes the challenge seriously. “Perhaps more so than any other time in the last 10 years,” he complained, “it has become a divisive issue that has in many ways pulled this otherwise outstanding, vital academic community apart.”

My interest in this photograph was not sparked specifically by the central issue of the story, the stubborn use of Native Americans as team mascots. (Only this year did the baseball team that manages to break my heart every season – the Cleveland Indians, for God’s sake! – begin to nudge their noxious “Chief Wahoo” off the field.) There’s much to be learned in exploring this topic (and James Fenelon’s Redskins? Sport Mascots, Indian Nations and White Racism, Routledge 2016 is a good place to start), but, instead, I’m interested what the photograph tells us about crowds and the individuals who make them up as a metaphor for thinking about how we as teachers can embolden the voice of individual while also listening to and engaging the voice of the group. What can we do to support individuals as they learn to speak their conscience in the face of adverse social pressure? How we can make the group aware of its own voice and capable of self-generated change?

Reading the Photograph

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “Picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with an ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.” While not the photographer, I intend to invade this image to raise issues that, likely, weren’t on his mind when he snapped it, fully aware that I am reading attitudes and behaviors into those caught by his lens which might be illusory or simply a reflection of my own thinking. But, on the other hand, the postures frozen in place by the camera look exceedingly familiar to me; I’ve seen them many times and have been there myself (metaphorically) so many times. So I’ll assert my peremptory rights of interpretation.

This photograph tells two different stories which, at their heart, speak to a certain paradox that we deal with in the classroom, one which Parker Palmer pointed out in The Courage to Teach. The first story is about conformity and the power of the “crowd” to assert its hegemony and intimidate opposition. The second is about non-conformity, resistance, ambiguity, and unease that challenges the wisdom of the crowd. As teachers, we must deal with both.

Here’s the photo once more: take a long look, and consider what you see.

William DeShazer

The image is of a group of young people, students, in an arena. They are decked out in Illinois orange and the great majority of them have their arms crossed. This, we will learn, is a “Chief Illiniwek pose,” the “Chief,” again, being the mascot (or “symbol,” depending on with whom one talks) of the University of Illinois from 1926-2007. Continue reading

Career Development: What Role for the Faculty?

A central tension has arrhythmically disrupted the heart of the university since its inception. On the one hand, some argue, the university’s sole purpose is to animate the life of the mind. As T.H. Huxley famously declared in 1894, “The primary business of universities has to do merely with pure knowledge and pure art – independent of all application to practice; with the advancement of culture and not with the increase of wealth or commodities.” On the other, it is hard to deny that higher education has always (and I mean, always) prepared students for their post-graduate futures, whether, in the beginning, as learned men of the church, or later as “gentlemen” who would embody and perpetuate specific cultural norms, as women who would become teachers, nurses or educated wives, as state bureaucrats or colonial administrators, as those who would fuel the nation’s economy or who possess the creative imagination to invent the jobs of the future. Indeed, one could argue that the only ones not prepared by their university years to do something else after graduation are the faculty, we who remain in place while everyone else moves on.

Lavery_Maiss_Auras

John Lavery, Miss Auras, c. 1900. Public domain.

If the pure vs. practical battle has been a long one, more recently the scale has tipped ever more heavily toward the “practical” side. We find ourselves criticized for teaching poetry rather than plumbing, economics rather than accounting. We’re spending too much time encouraging our students to look at art and not enough focusing on the vocational skills needed for the labor market of the future. Indeed, if one were to ask the state legislators who control the purse strings of higher education, our sole job is to serve up “career ready” graduates.

Those of us who teach in private liberal arts colleges could, until recently, feel a bit sheltered from the “more practical” drum beat that has become deafening for colleagues who work at public universities and in community colleges. But surging tuitions, stagnant wages, an increasingly segmented labor market, unaffordable urban rents, rising income inequalities, and concerned parents have all come knocking on our door as well, demanding, justifiably, that, as we attend to the “pure,” we do not neglect the “practical.” We are increasingly being asked to consider more thoughtfully the way in which our concerns for nurturing our students as critical and responsible thinkers can be more intentionally linked to preparing students for their careers, for their (multiple) employment futures. (The historian William Cronon tried to square this circle by arguing that education should “aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.”) Continue reading

Breathe

Steve Volk, April 23, 2018

Scrolling through radio stations while driving back from a conference in Michigan last week, I happened on a discussion (and performance) of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, which he titled “The Age of Anxiety.” It had been a long time since I last heard that piece – it’s not a part of regular classical playlists – and listening to it made driving the Ohio Turnpike in the snow a tad more bearable.

Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned the piece, which premiered on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony and Bernstein performing the piano solo. The symphony was inspired by W.H. Auden’s long poem of the same name, which the Times Literary Supplement famously dubbed his “one dull book, his one failure.” (OK, so it did win a Pulitzer.) Bernstein’s short but “electrifying” work, written close on the heels of the Holocaust, reflected – he wrote – the “extreme personal identification of myself with the poem, the essential line [of which] is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”

We are again living in an “age of anxiety,” one which tests our search for faith, or understanding, or ideology, or meaning. But, whatever it’s about, it most certainly has been grinding away on our students. Continue reading

Less is More: Low-Stakes Assessments and Student Success

Steve Volk, April 16, 2018

There is a point in every semester when, it being too late to make significant changes in our current courses, we instead begin to think ahead to next semester. So, overwhelmed as you are by finishing up this term, getting in book orders, and planning research and writing for the summer, maybe you can keep this article in mind as you plan for the fall 2018 semester!

In this posting, I provide a few resources and summarize some of the reasoning supporting the argument that student learning is more enhanced by frequent, low-stakes assessments (“retrieval practices” in the technical lingo), with the opportunities they provide for continual feedback, than from infrequent, high-stakes assessments (e.g., a midterm and a final). While the research has suggested that this holds across all disciplines, the impact is noted especially in STEM fields and quantitatively based courses. Continue reading

Remembering the Lessons of Dr. King: An Inclusive, Quality Education for All

Steve Volk, April 9, 2018.

Two weeks ago, I explored John Dewey’s understanding of how reflection impacts teaching in the “Article of the Week.” For Dewey, I noted, reflection was an intricate process in which we derived meaning from our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, “in community,” and in a context that led to growth not just of the individual but of others as well. Reflection was a central part of learning and, learning, in the context of an educational setting, always took into consideration the purpose of education itself. For Dewey, this purpose was not simply the abstract intellectual development of the individual, but the way that the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and moral understandings came to support and sustain democratic society.

I was drawn back to Dewey’s views on the purpose of an education this week as I, and millions of others, solemnly observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us used the moment to search for lessons from Dr. King that could inform a search for ways to counter the dismal moment the country is living through. In particular, I was looking to understand what are our responsibilities as a community of educators at this time. Like Dewey, Dr. King understood that an education that only taught one to “think intensively” or to think “efficiently” was insufficient. “The most dangerous criminal,” King wrote while still a student at Morehouse College in 1947, “may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”  “If we are not careful,” he warned, “our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Temple Church (1963), Library of Congress and World Telegram & Sun photo by O. Fernandez. Public domain

I was not surprised, then, to learn that the United Federation of Teachers awarded Dr. King its “John Dewey Award” in 1964. King’s acceptance speech, delivered on March 14, 1964, was not one of his more memorable talks, but I was staggered to see its continuing relevance more than a half-century later, a sign both of the power of King’s insight and of the fact that so many struggles that he took on remain uncompleted today.

For Dr. King, 1963 represented a high-water mark in terms of the accomplishments of the non-violent direct action movement in its fight for civil rights. Still, he warned that the “civil rights issue…will now be faced and solved or it will torment and agonize the political and social life of the nation.” To read, only in the last two weeks, of the shooting by police of Saheed Vassell or Stephon Clark is to recognize that the killing of black people by law enforcement continues to be a national crisis, and that the political and social life of the nation is still agonized by racism, King’s unsolved civil rights issue. Continue reading

What Would Dewey Do? Thoughts on Teaching and the Process of Reflection

Steve Volk, March 26, 2018

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Faculty-Student Partnership program that CTIE has been running at Oberlin for nearly five years is sitting down every other week with the students in the program. (I will quickly add that it’s also lovely to meet with their faculty partners, although that happens less frequently.) (Information on the FSP can be found here.) Each meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how the student are supporting their faculty partners, whether providing input through their observations, reflecting with them on how the class they just observed went, or simply listening as the faculty think out loud about their plans for the next class. But, as the semester proceeds and the end is in sight, I often ask students, based on their experience in the program and thinking about their own teachers, to list the characteristics of what they consider a “good” teacher to be, as well as how they would define a “good” student.

John_Dewey_Andre Koehne

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

Over the years, the students’ views of what good teachers bring to their classrooms have remained highly consistent. Invariably (and not surprisingly) they always begin in the same place: good teachers know their subject; I mean, they really know it. Further, they almost always indicate that not only do good teachers know their subject matter inside and out, but that they are able to communicate their passionate regard for it, and in that way, their love of physics, economics, psychology or whatever they’re teaching becomes infectious. It is this passion that often attracts students to major in a field that they had never considered, let alone taken a class in, before. Geology? Anthropology? Who knew it could be so thrilling! Continue reading