Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Even My Rabbit Can Google

It frustrates me IMMENSELY when students-- or anyone for that matter-- tell me, "Oh, I don't know what that word meant," "I didn't know how to cite that in MLA style" (especially after we've gone over it in class and shared multiple resources detailing how to), "I didn't know who so-and-so was," or "I didn't know that [insert major current event] was happening." There are some things that are tough to come by, but definitions, citation guides, biographies, and major world events are not any of them. 

If my rabbit can figure out how to open up Google, so can you!
Cluck hopped around on the keyboard
and managed to open up Google without my assistance.

Like I said, some things aren't easy to find (for instance, a free live stream of the Super Bowl), but many times people are simply lazy. Today, we have the biggest library in the world at our fingertips, the Internet, but people don't want to spend an extra 15 minutes looking up something they don't know. As a teacher/tutor/tech-savvy individual, they expect me to give them answers that they never bothered to tried to find on their own. Sure, I can teach you how to search, but I will not search for you. That's your job. Not mine.

This often translates into writing as well. People who won't spend an extra 5 minutes looking up a definition to a word they don't know or spend an extra 15 minutes to find a really good source rather than a mediocre one are often unwilling to take the time to problem-solve in their writing. In other words, their evidence is minimal, their analysis is surface level, and their claims are rarely unique.

In conclusion, I urge you, if you don't know something, look it up! You won't learn much if you expect to be spoon fed all of the answers in life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fishing for Answers: Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time

About a week ago, I picked up Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. A colleague mentioned it during a conversation at faculty orientation, and I was instantly intrigued. Fish argues that teachers who try to do anything but teach-- which he defines as providing new discipline-relevant material and demonstrating practical methods of analysis and evaluation-- are doing their students and academia in general a disservice. His argument also extends to administrators and universities in general. And he doesn't sugar coat it. He has a wry, sarcastic, and very direct style to his writing; some might even call it aggressive (he does).

As a teacher, I was interested in his distinction between "academicizing" and indoctrinating, especially after hearing a fellow classmate's heated objections to a teacher who was offering extra credit to students who chose to join Occupy Wall Street. To me, that was simply unacceptable. I also remembered the 2008 election and my teacher's obvious Obama support. It made me uncomfortable. I felt like I was the only person in all of academia who would even considering the arguments of the Republican candidate. Finally, I worry that my belief that writing is a social transaction and tool for social change gets in the way of teaching students how to write effectively (Fish  would probably say that it does... sometimes). For all these reasons and more, I had to read and would recommend this book to all faculty and administration.

Sometimes, Fish's argument is difficult to stomach. I truly believe that part of my job is to help make the world a better place. While I may not always succeed, I can help students see things from new perspectives, ones that enable them to make better decisions, and I can teach them to use writing for purposes that are not merely academic. As a professor-- yes, even as an adjunct-- I hold a position of power. My students are mostly traditional freshman. Since they are trying to get a grasp on what it means to be a college student, they look to me for an example and for guidance. I believe that my age contributes to this even more. I am not much older than many of my students, and so, in some respects, they can place themselves in my position, a young academic. I try to show them that I use my brain and my academic interests to function as a real person in society. Aside from being an academic role model, though, I believe I need to be a moral one. The classroom is solid space for me to advocate positive change in the world, as well, which I why I love teaching writing so much.

Fish would say this is a no-no. He argues that we can go change the world on our own time, and that is perfectly acceptable, but when we bring politics into the classroom, we leave a space for outsiders to label universities as places where students are being indoctrinated with liberal ideologies or viewed as production lines for corporations. He also says that academic work is "useless," and that's ok. We should not be producing laboring bodies for capitalist reasons or tell students that their study should have a purpose in the world outside academic (that's the value of academic freedom). We should simply teach students to explore for the sake of knowledge and skill attainment. I don't necessarily disagree with him, either.

Where I do think Fish misses the mark is when he says that we shouldn't aim to teach students to respect all cultures or practice pluralism. He says that the university is not a democracy, and we should not teach democratically. Yet, my understanding of respect and his may be different. I believe that students should be taught to respect all cultures, meaning that they don't attack people because of they hold different ideologies. When you respect something, it does not mean that you agree with it. I respect my religion, for instance, but it doesn't mean that I don't question it or debate what practices I want to uphold. Respect doesn't mean that students should be forced to accept all ideologies, but that they should respect the people that hold them. Fish doesn't think diplomacy is getting us anywhere, however, so he'd probably still disagree with me on this point, although, he does make a distinction between name calling and debating a point with evidence.

Throughout the entire text, I found myself resistant to Fish. I wanted to disagree with him at every turn. The margins of my book are covered in sarcastic quips to match those made by Fish. In the end, though, it seems that perhaps I'm somewhat in line with Fish's theories of pedagogy. And I really hate to admit that. For instance, as Fish does, I believe that my students deserve an open forum to consider theories, not that all theories are right, but that they need to learn for themselves how to evaluate and analyze them. I don't believe I have a right to say, "I think that war is wrong" or "We should promote marriage rights for gays." I bring in controversial texts such as Palin's argument that her aggressive campaign language had nothing to do with the Tuscon shooting, not for the purpose of making my classroom agree or disagree with Palin, but to consider freedom of speech rights, how political rhetoric works in the public sphere, and whether or not she constructs an effective argument. I also believe that it's true that I cannot directly affect the way that my students use the information that I give them. At the end of the day, though my class may be transformative, it is not intrinsic to the material. I may still have "bad eggs" who will use the information for harm rather than good, and there is not much that I can do about it outside of teaching and being engaged in the education of my students.

I even see Fish and I standing on common ground when it comes to my Writing as Activism assignment, which is perhaps a politically charged one. It directly advocates activism, which Fish recommends against. He writes, "Once you start.... engaging your students in discussions designed to produce action in the world, you are surely doing something, but it is not academic, even if you give it that name" (169). However, my students' projects reflect their own interests, and throughout, I encourage them to do rhetorical analysis, to evaluate the ethos/pathos/logos of their debates (this part is new for me), and to consider their rhetorical purposes. There is a learning value far greater than simple political activism. I believe it is two fold. It shows students that there is a purpose for writing beyond writing essays that will never leave the academic safety bubble (although I'm not sure Fish would like that idea very much). I wouldn't teach it if I thought that the only value was an activist one. I know, however, that they are learning a great deal about writing through their projects.

In the final paragraph of his book, Fish cautions, "Beware, that is, of doing something for a reward external to its own economy" (178). This is really what I take away from Fish's argument and what I think all teachers can adopt. Regardless of how much we hope to do do, we shouldn't be teaching our own political views at the expense of our students' education. We can blend the political with the academic, but we should not advocate only the former.

Even if you whole-heartedly disagree with Fish, I think that this is one of those texts that every teacher should pick up.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Glimpse into the Private Life of a Student

For several months now, I've been slowly working through an archive of First Year Writing students' portfolios. Though I'm reading them through a lens that looks for classifications of public versus private writing spaces, I saw something today that sparked my interest much more. I was reading a student's essay on dorm living that was written for a colleague's class when I came across a description of a student that I recognized, one of my own.

It was a strange moment for me. I only had the girl in class for a few weeks, but she was very unique. She had a creative approach to writing and a great sense of voice. I knew it would be a pleasure to read her papers and to push her to improve her writing throughout the semester, but I never got the chance. Eventually, she just stopped showing up.

What I learned from this other students' paper was a bit about the girl's lifestyle. It made it seems as if she were a recluse, someone who never stayed in the dorms unless it were completely necessary. She spent all of her time trying to do things away from campus. You could tell the roommate was intrigued by her, but also felt sorry for her, as I began to. It didn't seem like my student enjoyed being at the university.

This short description made me think back to our classroom interactions. I knew that the student was unfamiliar with many of the tasks I was asking her to do; she expressed her discomfort. She wasn't a shy girl, but I didn't see her really interact with her peers in the classroom. I assumed that she had just dropped the class, but it sounds like, from this paper, that eventually she left the university. I can't help, but wonder if I added to her anxiety by forcing her outside of her comfort zone even in her academic work or if there was something I could have done to prevent her from isolating herself. Should I have reached out to her? Should I have stopped her to talk after class? Should I have written her an email? I will never know.

It is scenarios like this one that make me wonder how involved we should be in students' lives. If I knew that she was experiencing this disconnect from her peers, I probably would have meddled. I would have tried to show her how much the college social experience has to offer her or to point her in the direction of peers with whom she could feel more at-home. On the other hand, perhaps this meddling is not a good thing. Maybe, the student really did need to leave the university. Maybe it wasn't the right place for her. Again, I'll never know.

I'd love to know how others deal with this. As teachers, how far do you delve into students' lives, outside of the classroom? And for students, how much involvement do you want teachers to take?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Modest Proposals: The Power of Satire

This is not the first semester that I taught Jonathan's Swift's "A Modest Proposal." It is a piece I thoroughly enjoy giving to students. They are horrified and shocked by the nonchalant way that Swift goes about calling for the killing and eating of babies. Sometimes, they are uncertain as to whether or not Swift is making a legitimate proposal. Not everyone realizes it is satire from the get-go.

Students don't usually get a chance to interact with satire in academia. Everything here is so serious. The one piece of satire my students recalled having read is Animal Farm, which is far less humorous than Swift's piece. My students had a great discussion about the piece, though. They laid out what made the piece effective or ineffective, found passages, and used history to think about the piece. Without being prompted, discussion about activism emerged, as well as commentary on the rhetorical triangle. I was impressed. 

And, as we figured out, satire is all around them, and it is often more effective than serious, direct approaches. The things that go viral these days are often satiric parodies of today's celebrities or hot button political issues. They create awareness rather than directly calling for action. They show people the ridiculousness of the little things that they take seriously. At the same time, satire asks writers to be aware of their audience and meticulous about their research.

So, today, as in semesters before, I asked students to write their own satires. This is something that they will probably never do in another class, though, as we discovered, satire is an effective means of activist writing. People gravitate towards humor and things that undermine authority. The results were creative and funny. I heard some laughs as they wrote. 

What I hadn't considered, however, is that some of them said that they felt bad about the things that they were writing. My response was  a simple, "don't worry about it. It's supposed to be awful." What I really should have explained was the way that the terrible words yield results, how they aren't genuine feelings, and how they make others realize how awful they have been. This was definitely a teachable moment where I failed.

Of course, I would never ask my students to do anything I wouldn't do, so as they wrote, I wrote my own "Modest Proposal" right along with them. Here it is: 

A Modest Proposal for the Crisis in Education

Fellow Americans, I write to you today to propose a solution to the current crisis in education. Education is the foundation of our capitalist nation. It is the spring board to better jobs. Though many have tried to promote education reform in this nation, all have failed because their schemes are too elaborate or else too simple. It is a costly failure, seeing as education expenses run our country close to $600 billion a year. But never fear! I have the solution, the one that will solve all of our problems.

 Though many students enjoy learning, many are simply there to be babysat while their parents go off to work; they hate being there. The parents don’t care anymore about the children’s education than the children do. They just need somewhere for the children to go while they work so they do not have to pay for day care. I propose, then, a simple fix. Those students who are disruptive, showing apathy towards their education, or doing poorly in their studies will be sent off to labor camps during the day. Not only will this ensure that the best and the brightest get the most of their schooling without being dragged down by their lower quality peers, but the productivity of these laboring children will pay the nation’s education costs, slashing taxes, minimizing class sizes, increasing the ability to purchase resources, and adding to the pool of available scholarships for college-bound students. Plus, the laborers will find their experience rewarding, knowing that they are contributing to the good of the peers and nation as a whole, and find pleasure in doing hands-on activities.

In order to pass this legislation, we simply would have to do away with the No Child Left Behind Act, which many states are already reconsidering anyway, and do away with child labor laws. This would be a fairly easy thing to do, seeing as anyone with a solid view of education would fully support this move.

Of course, all students will have the opportunity to attend kindergarten to assess their aptitude for learning. If students have not learned the alphabet or mastered shoe-tying, then they shall begin labor in the first grade. As the grades progress, students who fail to meet the standards or who become pests in the classroom will be cut, just as they are during team try outs. If they aren’t practicing and exercising their brains, then they aren’t fit to be in school. Labor ends at eighteen, at which point, children become adults and are encouraged to find occupations.

In the end, students will be even more motivated to do well in school if they are opposed to physical labor. This will guarantee those students who are intellectually-motivated are the ones to whom who teachers are giving their time and attention.

The plan is easy to initiate. Firstly, before students have produced enough revenue to create public workspaces, laborers can use school auditoriums and gyms, or even general play spaces, such as schoolyards, unused practice fields, or the like as places of production.

Secondly, production will be arranged by grade, so that no child gets more than he is able to physically handle. First graders will create small things such as shoe laces, while older high-school-aged students will do harder tasks such as welding, mechanics, and heavy lifting.

Thirdly, each marking period, the best workers in the district will be rewarded with a small bonus check to take home to mom and dad, much like the best students earn merit awards or certificates.

As a doctoral student, I have very little gain from this proposal. I have already gone through the ranks of education and would see no enhancement to my own education. If this plan seems to benefit me, it is only because of the great gains that this plan would offer to our nation as a whole. It would be an investment in the future for us all.