Category Archives: Teaching

Education reform and the college classroom

This article on Brooklyn-based education organization Blue Engine is worth a read. Blue Engine works with teachers to place recent college graduates as teaching assistants in high school classroom, lowering the teacher-student ration to 1-6. They also track a whole bunch of stuff about student learning, as is the trend right now.

I really like the idea of using high-achieving recent graduates as teaching assistants. It gets more folks in the classroom and avoids the sink-or-swim Teach for America approach, while giving grads the chance to find out if they like teaching in a lower-stakes environment:

One of the BETAs, Kym Scherbarth, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Scherbarth had considered going into teaching out of college, but she didn’t feel ready to lead a class. “I figured this was a good way to learn how to be an effective educator and decide if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she said.

I also like Blue Engine’s founder’s explicit acknowledgement that education reform doesn’t always work the way we think it will, and we can’t just dig in our heels in the face of disappointing evidence (cough, Michelle Rhee):

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do. Ehrmann got his own start in education as a Teach For America corps member, teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emery Elementary School, in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He wanted his students in class 312 to make it through college, so working with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” he raised over $1 million to provide them with tutoring, mentoring and scholarships over several years.

After he left teaching to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann’s Project 312 became the basis for his thesis. For years, he tracked the students’ progress against a comparison group from the same school. “I fully intended to arrogantly study what our nonprofit was getting right,” he recalled. “After six years, I found that our work had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

Ehrmann focuses on increased rigor in high school classes to better prepare students for college work (he notes that there’s a difference between college-eligible and college-ready), as well as increased individualized support. From my position working with college freshmen and sophomores, these seem like essential and obvious elements in college preparation. One thing I wish my students were better trained to do is to use me as a resource–to work with me to improve their skills. All too often, when they do take advantage of my office hours, it’s to improve their grade–something that’s best addressed by focusing on skills and not treating the work in the class as a means to a grade. The added bonus is that an improvement in skills leads to an improvement in grades, but as a teacher, I don’t care about their grades, I care about their learning. The grades are just the carrot and the stick to get them to grow as readers and writers.

I have a hunch that if high school students had more opportunities to work closely with instructors whose sole purpose was to help them develop skills, and who could devote far more time an energy than an overwhelmed teacher of 30 students, they might arrive in my classroom better prepared to see me as a resource for their own learning and improvement, rather than as a giver of grades. A pipe dream, maybe, but I’m glad to see education reform that begins to address it.

MOOCs and the humanities

Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.

The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.

I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.

Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.

I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.

MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.

Why I study reception: teaching edition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.

That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.

My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.

Continue reading

Course management

I’m in the process of getting things in order for my fall class. The syllabus is pretty much done, and I’m putting off writing the assignments for as long as possible, so that leaves scanning readings and setting up the website to help me procrastinate the hard work of assignment writing.

In past years, I’ve relied exclusively on Blackboard to manage my course. As tools go, it’s pretty dreadful. Visually, it’s stuck in 1999. Customization options are limited and difficult to figure out. It’s slow and glitchy and bloated. But it’s the official university course management system, my students generally know how to use it, and it’s a secure, FERPA-compliant option for managing and distributing grades. Furthermore, the classes I’ve taught have been required introductory courses with high reading or writing loads, and I haven’t wanted to impose a technological component with a potential learning curve on top of that work. Though we like to imagine that our students are digital natives who are well-versed in blogs and wikis and all forms of social media, it’s been my experience that students often have difficulty with new applications. Troubleshooting their problems takes time and effort that I’d prefer to spend on issues more closely related to course content.

But this semester I’ll be teaching an introductory course for English majors, and I feel a bit more comfortable asking my students to try potentially new or unfamiliar tools. I want to encourage students to engage with each others’ ideas as they read and work on assignments outside of class. I’m also planning an annotated bibliography assignment that will create a common pool of sources for students’ research papers, and I need a tool for sharing those bibliographies.

Blackboard has recently added both blogs and wikis to the available tools, and I was initially optimistic that I might continue to hobble along with a flawed but easily-accessible tool. After actually investigating the wiki and blog features, though, I realized they wouldn’t cut it. The wiki doesn’t let me create folders or customize much of anything. Same goes for the blog. In fact, I think they have less functionality than the discussion board feature, if that’s possible.

My preference would be to create my own course website on university-hosted web space, but because I don’t staff in UT’s digital writing lab (I work at the Undergraduate Writing Center instead), I don’t have access to a convenient place to host a course site. I considered setting up a free blog with and closing it to public readers, but something about that felt insufficiently official. I like the way the format of a blog encourages ephemeral, changing content and allows me to post connections to readings and class discussions that might not be significant enough to mention in class. But that dynamic quality, in which entries are constantly receding from the front of the page, might make it difficult to locate resources students wanted to return to again and again, like bibliographies and reading responses. I want students to be able to add and comment on content, but I also want them to be able to easily navigate the different resources they are creating.

Having decided I want to emphasize collaboration, navigability, and content building over the potential for more informal discussion that a blog can bring, the best option seems to be a wiki. Unlike Blackboard, which is awash in confusing features and houses course pages for every class a student is taking, a wiki is clearly devoted to specific needs of a specific course, in this case collaborating on reading responses and research. My hope is that having a specific tool devoted to these activities will communicate their importance.

I’ve set up a wiki with PBworks, which somehow seems a bit more legitimate than a wordpress blog, even though they’re both external, non-academic sites. I’ll still need to use Blackboard to store readings and assignments, as well as to distribute grades, but I’m hoping to shift much of the day-to-day focus to the wiki. We’ll see how it works.

What do we do when we teach American literature?

“Scholars considering how the field might be revised are not considering alternatives to America as the field’s subject; rather most revisionary hypotheses are offered as improvements in our understanding of America…. To the extent that American literature teaching is practiced for the ultimate aims of forming student character and producing better citizens it incorporates familiar nationalistic aims. The much touted revisionary Heath anthology of American literature, for example, is a passionately nationalistic, patriotic document. No matter how radical or revolutionary the teachers’ aims may be, and no matter how deeply teachers feel these aims, if they hope to produce better Americans, a better America, or even just a better understanding of the real America, then the supposedly suppressed or overturned Whig project continues in full force.”

-Nina Baym, Feminism and American Literary History, qtd. in Judith Fetterly and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture 216-217

Can the act of teaching American literature ever be anything other than fundamentally conservative? And what do we do when the most compelling dollars-to-donuts justification for the discipline of American literature, the kind that speaks to legislators and administrators, is, as Baym so aptly notes, a conception of American literary instruction as an essentially nationalist undertaking?