The Difference Between Motion and a Movement

August 21, 2014

It was called a movement when I first got involved: the community college movement. That appealed to me by its romance of revolution, by breaking to pieces the chains that kept the poor and powerless in their places.  My circle of friends would talk about living lives that forced change. We wanted to break the self-charging cycle of privilege and open up doors for the kids shut out of the candy shop. We were going to be elementary school teachers, social workers, writers, reporters.

And so we graduated and scattered to jobs (them) or graduate school (me) and I first heard of community colleges. They had been around since 1950, but no one anywhere I’d been had ever spoken of them as if they were real. They were places I drove by, nothing more. But suddenly there was a surge of students wanting or needing college and not enough room in the 4 years; they became more selective; the community college enrollments grew and so did new faculty positions.

I jumped into a graduate program designed around community college teaching and was in the movement.  That movement opened the doors to give everyone a chance at a college education. It dropped the tuition cost. It planted community colleges within driving distance of nearly everyone in the state.  It hired and promoted according to teaching ability, professional development, and contributions to community and profession.  It drew people who dropped out or flunked out, who were too poor, who never finished high school. And it needed a teaching faculty who could take real academics, drain the pomposity and egoism out of themselves and their disciplines, and make it all meaningful.

I still like that challenge. I found, like my circle of friends did, that the problems of poverty and privilege are far more complex than we imagined, that enthusiasm and good intentions don’t take one as far as we thought.  But there is still the feel of a revolutionary movement in much of our thinking about this kind of education. Neil Postman wrote that teaching was a subversive activity, and it is.

 


Frying that Last Faculty Fuse

December 4, 2013

In ParagraphCity the longevity of faculty is measured in blown fuses. When we hire, we look for professors with solid, well-tuned circuitry, but of course that’s the sort of thing that can be hard to determine in a resume and interview. We once discovered at the end of an interview that the candidate was on his very last fuse; close one there.

Ideally, you want to retire to something less maddening before your wiring gets into that shape. My colleague plans, when she leaves teaching, to employ art therapy in reforming feral cats – says she’ll enjoy the increased peace and order such work will bring to her life. But the greatest danger comes from being unaware of just how many fuses one has left, or even when a fuse blows. A hypothetical situation might be illustrative.

In the third week of the semester, at the end of class Alyce comes to me with a question about the next writing assignment. “I just don’t get it,” she says.

“OK. What don’t you get?”

“All of it.”

“Well, let’s start at the beginning. Have you picked a topic yet?”

“No, that’s part of the problem,” with a whine starting to zing in the words. This should be a warning that we are about to leave the rational world I keep assuming people usually inhabit. “What’s the paper supposed to be about?”

Pause.

“You are writing about your reaction to something you learned, something from your formal education. Alyce, have you read the handout that describes the assignment?”

“You mean like in school, then?”

“Yes, school. Alyce. Have you read the assignment?”

“No,” with more whine. “I came in late when you were talking about it.”

“Alyce, you are still responsible for knowing what happens when you miss class.  Check with someone in class to see what you missed.”

“Yeah, yeah. And I talked to Rufus and he told me what the paper was …… but I don’t understand it cause Rufus doesn’t get it either!”

“Alyce. You need to read the assignment handout.”

“Oh fine, fine, FINE. If you won’t answer my questions I’ll just have to figure it out by myself,” this last being loudly directed at the floor as she pulls her books and purse and cellphone about her and stomps to the door. “Teachers always say we should ask questions…” and she’s almost to the door “… but that’s just more teacher bullshit,” and she’s in the hall and gone.

Now as an aside, I suppose it’s clear that my big mistake was in following Alyce down the rabbit hole to Crazyland, where instead of reading a paragraph she has had for two weeks, it makes more sense to ask someone else who also doesn’t understand it for an explanation and then get the professor’s explanation in the 60 seconds he has between classes. In a less hypothetical world, maybe I would find a time when I could sit down with her and have her read the assignment to me, followed by her explanation of what sense it makes to her. I’m pretty sure she can read, but there’s not much difference between those who can’t read and those who won’t. I’ve been thinking lately that in ways we ought to treat that second group the way would help the first. But I was talking about fuses.

So she has just left the classroom. If you bark Alyce’s name, kick the lectern, swear, or laugh madly, you have blown a fuse. If you follow her to the hall and do that, it was probably your last fuse. (It’s said that you can hear them pop.) Blown last fuses find you defending yourself in a Dean’s office, on the phone to parents, or worse, your lawyer. It’s why you’d rather be working with feral cats when you fry that last little copper strip. No one expects them to be rational.


Student lexicon: “I don’t understand.”

September 16, 2013

In ParagraphCity this classroom statement is always said with raised, expectant brows and a heavy, anticipatory silence. If it is followed by any further words, its meaning is entirely different, but in the usage considered here, the phrase clearly places a burden on the instructor. “I don’t understand” is spoken, but implied is “and it’s your fault so go ahead, right now, and make me understand.”

I make it a rule, though, to avoid going down that rabbit hole, where awaits a world of excuses, blame, and confusion, but rarely a solid understanding of whatever it is the  student doesn’t understand. All this while the rest of the class is stunned into suspended animation so deep you will need to pull the plug in order to reboot the class. Largely this is all because (though the student who claims to not understand truly does not) the larger meaning is behind the words, in the possible other meanings “I don’t understand” has.

  • “I didn’t do the reading so I can’t be expected to understand, though I will politely listen and pretend if you will talk for a while about it.”
  • “I asked someone else about it and they were confusing, though they seemed to get it but now I feel inferior so if you will talk to only me for a while I will feel better.”
  • “I discovered that this will be kinda hard to do, but if I ask enough questions you will simplify it to the point where it gets easy, and though I have yet to recall anything you have said in class, I will be able to quote this oversimplified version back to you perfectly, three weeks hence.”
  • “By making the point that this concept is more than we can be expected to grasp, I will be justified later when I prove, by exam or homework or essay, that I really do not in fact understand.”
  • “It will take work for me to understand, and if any work is going to be done around here it will be the professor, not me, who’s doing it.”
  • “I understand this fine, but if you go on into new material it means more work, so the longer we can keep you talking about the things we already know, the better.”
  • “I like it when I’m the center of attention. That’s all.”

If the student means any of these things, there will often be one or two others who nod their heads and agree and may even utter ‘yeah’. I used to take that as a sign that I really had been obtuse and did need class discussion time; now I think it’s just that the students have complementary motives, one wanting the attention, another trying for an easier version, a third trying to dilute the class session.

What the statement posed this way almost never means is the obvious implication that student rarely see they are suggesting: “I’m really very stupid and easy concepts are so impossible for me to grasp that I shouldn’t be in the college classroom.” But don’t go there; it’s just not helpful, I’ve found, to point out what they are implying about their mental capacity.

Sometimes, though, not often, there’s a genuine confusion that’s pervading a student’s consciousness in the course. It may be associated with other kinds of self-doubt or lack of sleep or worries about family/job/security, and the failure to understand something plain is due to these rough waters. Like all the other situations, it’s a bad idea to address this in class.

For all these meanings, I talk with the “I don’t understand” student in an audience-free conference, the kind where I mainly ask questions.  But what about those times when the request for an explanation is genuine, how can we tell those? First I remember that these are not idiots, but sensible folks, and we cover truckloads of material that is likely to be new, surprising, unsettling and even difficult. People often don’t understand things, and we’re in the business of helping them understand, but it’s about helping them get things that take work to understand, their work. Those things do deserve class time.


Aliens in a College Culture

September 10, 2013

In Paragraph City, we have been discussing issuing a rule book to incoming students, largely because they seem to come from a society which operates on foreign traditions — that is, foreign to we who dwell in higher ed — and it seems only fair to spell out our culture’s rules. It’s much like any travel to a place of unexpected customs: they behave in a way we see is weird and illogical, and no doubt these academic tourists think we are arbitrary and bizarre.

So for instance, those fresh off the Royal Caribbean merchantman docked at ParagraphCity’s admissions office are likely to follow traditions such as these:

  • All regulations, policies, requirements, and mandates are actually suggestions, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions can be determined by violating any “requirement” and measuring the response. The first violation of such requirements will always be overlooked.  If you are met with repeated insistence that some activity is “mandatory,” you may properly suspect that eventually you will need to comply.
  • All information from a college instructor is inferior to information previously learned in elementary and high school. The longer you have held onto something taught, the more inviolate it is.
  • Teachers of every level never mean literally what they say. It’s all open to interpretation. The best recipe for truth is to mix the statement of a professor with equal parts of what you want to be true and what has always worked for you in high school and elementary school.

What I find fascinating about these traditions is how self-sustaining they are. In the face of them, for example, our notion of a rule book becomes perfectly impotent. There is no piece of guidance you could put there that wouldn’t be nullified by “Profs never really mean what they say” or “Every requirement is a suggestion.”

So for example, recently in a writing course on the first day of class I had each student exchange contact information with two other students. If they missed class, they could contact one or both and find out what had happened. My guideline was the familiar “you are required to know what occurs and what is taught in class, even classes which you do not attend,” and considering classes were over three hours long, that could be a lot. One student missed a class to attend a reunion; we knew it ahead of time and I told him what we expected to do, but during class students asked for a major modification of an assignment and it struck me as a great idea, so we changed it. The missing student, of course, never contacted other students (or me) following the missed class, submitted the original assignment, was penalized for missing elements, and blamed me for pulling a dirty trick on him, the dirty trick being that I had meant what I said.

I had a similar experience recently with a plagiarist who took his case to my dean, explaining what he took to be a perfectly reasonable complaint: that this was the first time he had plagiarized paragraphs in a paper. According to his tradition, he deserved a second chance. My dean, steeped in a culture which maintains that we should try to be truthful with students, accepted that my policy of immediately failing plagiarists was reasonable. His message: it’s the student who needed to comply with my course policies, and not the other way around.

Of course, there are a hundred smaller ways students hang onto these traditions, ways that don’t result in significant penalties, with the result that the college culture slowly wears away the old traditions and draws students into the new ones.

For example, take a look at my writing classes. Within the first few lessons I mention the importance of titles in essays: that they are more than labels but work with the first sentence or two to pique the reader’s curiosity about the topic and hopefully the thesis of a paper. “A paper is unfinished without a title,” I always say.  About half the first papers come in without titles. I reiterate; we look at examples from the first papers. The second essays run about 70% with titles and the third essays about 85%.  At that point, I’ll find a moment before or after class to have a word with that fifteen percent (whose papers were unacceptable without titles), and the most common remark is, “But I never had to use titles before.” It’s always said as if it is perfectly reasonable and logical, the way we would speak about any cultural tradition that we still have a firm grip on.

So we have trashed the idea of a universal rule book, but we have asked Bedeckers to visit ParagraphCity and see what they might recommend. For now, we will stick with syllabi, but I do find it enormously helpful to think of students being from a foreign land, struggling to shed the behaviors of the old country.

“Really, it’s that important that I was 400 words over that 800 word limit?”

“So no, I didn’t use the drop box, but I texted it to you and you still got it. Didn’t you?”

“What do you mean ‘Who’s Ed?’ That’s the guy that wrote the story, right? Ed. Edgar. Eddie. Whatever. Ed Poe.”

Not lunatics or rebels, I calmly tell my colleagues. Just visitors from an alien culture. It’s why I believe faculty should read more science fiction.

 

 

 

 


How to Take a Phone Interview for a College Teaching Job

July 1, 2013

In Paragraph City, when we go looking for new faculty, we always conduct phone interviews. Doesn’t everyone? They come at the point when we have screened resumes & cover letters and selected a batch who seem to meet all our basic criteria (the “Required” part of the ad, and maybe some of the “Preferred” too).

I’ve seen search committees make twenty phone interviews for one position, with just two or three of the committee participating in each, and I’ve seen them make five phone interviews, with all members of the search committee in the discussion. And everywhere in between.  I’ve also seen a lot of mistakes made by candidates, some of whom we never spoke to again.  Candidates entering into the phone interview need to think through just what’s going on, remembering things like this:

  • The job you applied for is in your grasp. Phone interviews are time consuming to arrange and conduct; if the committee didn’t think you were capable of doing the job, they would not bother. So treat this as a real interview.
  • You are not interviewing to get the job; that comes later. You are interviewing in order to get called on campus. Your goal is to make the committee want to meet you.
  • You are your voice, yet most of us don’t really know how our voice portrays us. How much do you “um” and “ah” and what other verbal habits do you have? I knew a colleague who sighed and squinted and made eye-contact before he answered a question; in person, it communicated a thoughtful engagement, but on the phone he just sounded dull, and possibly bored.
  • Static, background noise, lag between Q and A, throat-clearing, the hum of your computer fan or the tapping of the keyboard or the squeak of your chair: these are all part of your voice in a phone interview, too.

If you don’t know how you sound over the telephone, you are handicapping yourself; it’s like going to the in-person interview in your everyday clothes, without checking in a mirror first. So record a rehearsal with a friend. I know, nobody actually does that, do they? Well, you should.

At the interview:

  • Set it up for clarity. Unless you have awesome cell reception, use a landline and find a quiet place to take the call, never outdoors.  Even a gentle breeze across your phone can make it sound like you’re standing under a waterfall. Also avoid voices in the background (where is this coming from, a Geico call center?), traffic noises (so she conducts business on street corners?), and the kids (he knows he can’t do this job from home, right?).  We interviewers try to not think rude thoughts, but we do have to choose among candidates, and are you able to turn off first impressions?
  • Do not answer the phone with “hello” like you think this might be your neighbor calling because your dog pooped under his Jimmy’s swing set. This is business. You gave them the time and place to call; so don’t create the impression that you forgot about it. Whether your professional greeting is “hello” or “hi” or “howdy dudes”, give it and follow it up with your name; we want to hear that you are happy to talk to us and that we’re in for a great 20 or 30 minutes of conversation. That doesn’t start out with an awkward “is this….?” followed by “hi this is Paragraph City, remember we were going to call you?”  Nice blog post on this from Interview Angel: http://interviewangel.com/dont-say-hello-in-a-phone-interview-2/
  • Stand up for the interview. You will answer questions with less lag time and speak more clearly; at least most people do. It’s too easy to get casual and sloppy on the phone, so do what you can to keep it professional, and being professional will give you confidence.  I also recommend you dress as a professional for the interview.  And smile – not all the time, but as you would for an in-person interview. Remember, you are your voice, and we hear subtle inflections on the other end.  We heard a candidate yawn once.
  • Do the usual prep: have your resume and questions ready on note cards, make a list of your qualities that you want to mention (matched to the college’s ad, if you’re smart), and know a ton about the college that’s calling, including where they are and what they are near and what you particularly like about them and who else works in the department. I wrote about questions for community college teaching applicants here  and here .
  • Rehearse your ending.  It’s likely to echo in our ears for a minute after we hang up, and it may even be the first thing we say to each other about you, so plan it. “Nice talkin’ to ya” is pleasant, but not great in that professional, we-want-to-meet-this-person way that you want.

Finally, here are a few “nevers,” most of which I have heard and all of which seriously damaged the candidate’s chances.  None of these are particularly rude or stupid, but they do communicate that to you this is not a serious interview, just a thing you’ve got to do today, maybe an inconvenience that’s interrupting more important things.

  • Don’t take the interview while you’re driving. You will be giving us only half your attention (for the safety of other, hopefully less) and you can’t get a job when you have dialed your intellect and sense of humor and memory down to 50%.
  • Don’t take the interview in the mall or at the dentist’s waiting room with your ten year old. (“Mr. Johnson, we’re ready for Jimmy now” from the background does not enhance our impression of you.) or in the garage while you oil’s being changed. The whine of those air wrenches really carries.
  • Don’t yawn, burp, heave heavy sighs, eat, power walk, start every answer with “So,” or speak through gritted teeth about a former employer. Seriously, people have fewer inhibitions over the phone.  Some true stories.
  • Don’t drop the phone, use call waiting, or say “excuse me a moment” so you can chat with the Fed Ex guy at your door. You know we can hear you even if you put your hand over the mouthpiece, right?

If you find yourself irritated that all these things, which have almost nothing to do with how well you can operate the controls of a college classroom or win the respect of your students and the admiration of fellow academics, well, me too. But take my word, that is the way it is.


Commenting on essays: how frank is too frank?

June 17, 2013

This morning in Paragraph City, I’m commenting on rough drafts of the first paper in a writing class.  At the end of a student’s first paragraph I write, Terrible opening, full of unsupported platitudes and padding. Cut the crap and say something meaningful.  The faculty equivalent of my spidey sense sounds but I go on with my reading and commenting anyway. Then just before I return the rough draft, I delete that last sentence and write instead, You need to establish a focus and point the reader toward your thesis.

The thing is, I’m not sure which will communicate better to the student. Certainly the second sentence won’t get me into trouble with any administrators. (The scenario unfolds like this in my imagination: student’s father is well-connected in the community and phones my dean asking if ‘this writing is crap’ is an appropriate way for faculty to talk to students and my dean says ‘well, let’s hear the whole story’ and that means that next week I’m seated at a round table with my dean and an online student I’ve never seen and a man in an expensive suit, and I’m explaining the educationally efficacious advantages to calling the introductory paragraph of an essay “crap.”) I do not like this scenario.

And yet, the intro was crap, or specifically the more volatile bullshit: fluidly composed generalities about Chekhov’s writing and place in Russian literature and influence on later writers that had nothing to do with the short story the student was assigned to write about; no thesis; and but one reference to the story, calling it soporific – not, certainly, the word she meant. Now to some students, all that’s necessary is to say ‘cut the crap’ and they get it. They’ll throw it out and go back to the assignment’s directions.

That takes me back some twelve or fourteen years ago, when I’d have never even thought to call someone’s writing crap, but then I had this great student writer who wrote that sort of first paper, all padding and no content.  “Oh yeah,” she said when she read my comments. “It’s crap, I know it, but at least it was on-time crap. I had a chemistry exam to prep. Sorry. Next paper, no crap.”

It was so refreshingly clear and honest. No timid tip-toeing around the fragile student-writer ego, no making up one good thing to say for every bad thing, no convoluted expressions that allow you to say something stinks in the sweetest-smelling way.  I know with basic writers I need to be blunt because they listen to how you say things more than what you say, and an overly kindly criticism can sound like praise to them, but lately I’ve been wondering if that’s restricted to just basic writers.

Yet you really can break down the lines of communication by appearing to dismiss the writer with the writing, by appearing unapproachable, by giving the impression that you’re not only unwilling to be satisfied but that you have undecipherable standards.  So with this morning’s student, who is writing the course’s first paper and is a high school student with excellent English grades, I split the difference between the short, frank stomp and the tip-toe. The intro is terrible, so I say that, but I replace “crap” with a bit of an explanation of what the essay should be doing, and which I think the student knows it should be doing.

And I hope she doesn’t just perfume what is already on the page instead of dumping it all and starting with an actual idea.


Student Lexicon: every essay’s a ‘too hard’ essay

June 12, 2013

The foreign language department of Paragraph City is writing a new version of Rosetta Stone which will translate the language of our students for faculty. I was chatting with one of the translators today, who told me she was working on the student phrase, “too hard” (as in “this assignment is too hard” not “these chairs are too hard” or “I like to hoard cottage cheese containers”).

In this context, I told her about a survey I’d taken in my composition course. I had just handed back the last essay of the semester, the only timed, in-class essay I’d given. Remarkably, it was the best essay of the semester for 10 of the 15 people left in class. Other essay assignments were made weeks before they were due, they had a broad range of topics, we read sample essays of a similar nature, we workshopped drafts in class, students had free use of the campus tutorial center, and I answered any questions about the assignment in class or by email.

Yet this hand written, in-class assignment with a 150 minute time limit on an assigned topic based upon journal articles they read the week before produced markedly better writing from nearly everyone. That didn’t make sense to me, so I passed out slips of paper and asked for a two or three sentence explanation, unsigned.

One person said that since it was the end of the semester, they could use everything they had learned on this last essay. I liked the sound of that, but I didn’t believe it. (The previous essay had come in just one week earlier, and they were not so good.)  The most common answer – easily 2/3 of the class – was that they wrote better because there were no distractions in the classroom. Many of those people also said that they spent more time writing the in-class essay than they did the other essays.

In other words, though students had easy control over these two crucial factors (how long to write & with how many distractions), they did better when they gave up that control and let someone else decide where and when they would write. For at least some of these people, they weren’t weak writers because they couldn’t write well; their weakness came from having too many screens open, dickering with their phones, and working a the last minute.

“So, you see what this means,” I told the class. “The next time you write an essay, all you have to do is get alone in a room, turn off the computer (or at least all the other windows), turn off the phone, and give the essay a good two hours.” They were nodding heads politely, so I was encouraged. “You don’t need to study harder, learn anything new, go get help of any sort; just write like it was 1960 for two hours and you’re good.”

The nodding continued, but a voice from the back of the room said, “Yeaaaaaah, that’s not going to happen.”

“What isn’t?”

“I can’t see turning off my phone. I might miss a message.”

“Yeah, and I’m not going to write it without my computer, and if my computer’s on then chat’s open.”

“And two hours is an awful lot of time, you know.”

My translator friend looks a little piqued. “So you’re telling me,” she said, ” that we can’t define ‘too hard’ as ‘the point at which students determine that the effort they put into an activity is valued less than the rewards they see themselves receiving from that activity’?”

I said that I didn’t think it was that complicated a process. “What I think they were telling me is that any school work is too hard – or maybe too repugnant is more accurate — if it means turning off a phone and concentrating for an afternoon.”

She said something about an anecdotal irrelevancy and went off somewhere to speak French. At the time I thought she was speaking of my survey and that class, but maybe it was me she meant.


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