Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Classroom

 I can never resist articles that promise a finite number of answers: the three most important qualities of a good teacher, the five new technology tools everyone needs to know, the seven characteristics of a good manager, that sort of thing.  So when I saw Dr. Paula Cohen’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the 10 lessons she’s learned from her teaching career, I had to check it out. 

Cohen’s 10 lessons, learned over three decades of teaching English at Drexel University, were these:

  1. Don't take things personally.
  2. Be accountable to your students.
  3. Make students accountable for their performance.
  4. Simplify.
  5. Don't rush—i.e., slow down.
  6. Listen.
  7. Use. (I was relieved to see that this didn’t refer to illegal substances but rather to using everything said or done in the classroom as part of the teaching process).
  8. Connect learning to life.
  9. Make form follow function. (Don’t adopt a new tool until you weigh both what will be gained and what will be lost.)
  10. Trust your voice and amplify it. (Admit, for instance, when you don’t know something and then model “how not to know.”)

Her exploration of each of these 10 lessons is thought-provoking, and for me it raised the question of what else I would add. One “lesson” that came to mind was “Appreciate the joy.”  When I’m in the classroom, I’m doing something I love, and I think it’s important to my students and to myself that I remember to be grateful for that, even when faced with stacks of homework awaiting my attention or hours of meetings awaiting my presence.   

What would you add?  What lessons have you learned from your classroom during your teaching career?  Can we make it a baker’s dozen? Or two?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

So, Is This a Business?

The title of a recent article by David M. Perry in The Chronicle of Higher Education captured my attention: “Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers: Why the 'Customer Service' Lingo in Academe Is Bad for Students.”  The article itself (reprinted below) captured my imagination, talking as it does about the power of labels and language and the roles of student and teacher in education. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.  In what ways are we professors engaged in a business relationship with our students? In what ways are we not? In what ways can the university be considered a business, with students as its consumers?  In what ways can it not?
This month Texas A&M University at Kingsville posted a new job ad for a faculty member in early-modern/Renaissance literature. The first line of the "job summary" reads, in all capital letters: "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." A bit lower, the job description mentions that the selected candidate will have to teach four courses a semester while remaining "active in research, professional development, and service to the university and profession."
The ad represents a culmination of dangerous trends in higher education that threaten to erode the single most important relationship we form in our profession: the complex, multifaceted one between teacher and student.
For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe, correlating with many other trends—the decline of public funding from states, the rising price of tuition, the amenities arms-race in student housing, the administrative bloat, the demands of assessment culture, and, most of all, the general saturation of corporate-speak into academic life. Institutions, especially branch campuses of public university systems and small private colleges, feel perpetually strapped for cash and desperate for tuition revenue.
In that context, the attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers—i.e., students—faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members "downsized."
Meanwhile, students (and their families) are taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt, paying higher tuition, and fearing that they will never earn enough to make those costs worthwhile (although a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that "for millennials, a bachelor’s degree continues to pay off"). It’s no wonder that American students in particular bring the cult of "the customer is always right" to the college campus. They’ve paid their money—or they will over the next 30 years or so—now they want service.
But public discourse has consequences for how we think and act. Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.
Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.
Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that "customer service" implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The "well-structured" point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.
It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.
I sympathize with students who employ the language of commerce in order to get redress for real problems, even as I resist the ones who demand customer satisfaction in the form of easy As for little-to-no work. But I can’t blame those students for unrealistic expectations when it’s the institution itself that has introduced business-speak to the education process. As Melonie Fullick noted in a 2012 essay, "Can Education Be Sold?," once a student has been indoctrinated into the discourse of education as commerce, it’s difficult to then say, "’You’ve paid $6,000; now you have to do the work,’ because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic."
Education is created, not consumed, but we cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it.
In addition, any short-term power that students gain over their professors by introducing a controlling commercial metaphor into the classroom dynamic is more than mitigated by the losses. Faculty members respond to the student-as-consumer by teaching defensively, fearing the management that we formerly referred to as administration. But administrators administrate on behalf of the faculty. Employees delivering customer service get managed.
The syllabus is one place where the defensive crouch of the customer-service professor hurts student learning. Many faculty members and some teaching centers talk about the syllabus as a contract, an explicit use of the corporate-speech in the classroom. The contractual model has some positive aspects. It’s a way of increasing the stakes in order to push students to actually read the syllabus and try to create a sense of reciprocal obligation. In a contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms.
I’m not at all sure that works because, in my experience, students actually treat the syllabus more as an End User License Agreement—something for which one glances at briefly, clicks "agree to terms," and moves on to the product without reading any of the document.
In any case, I don’t think encouraging notions of reciprocity lie at the heart of the emergence of the lengthy, faux-legalistic syllabus-as-contract. Instead, such a document functions as a form of pre-emptive defense from lawsuits or disciplinary complaints lodged by students upset about their grades, wanting special exemptions, or otherwise responding to challenges in the classroom—much like a customer angry at a business for providing lousy or incorrect service.
So we wonder: Maybe the syllabus as end-user agreement is the right model? After all, we know many students don’t read the syllabus, and in a dispute we can wield it like lawyer underlining the fine print. And in hearings and lawsuits, the defensive syllabus works pretty well. It just doesn’t help with learning.
A learning-centered syllabus, like a learning-centered class, offers a well-organized (one hopes) plan and an opportunity to learn. It’s not a defensively legalistic document or a way to trick students into agreeing to your terms.
Some of my absolute best classes have resulted from enabling the students to shift the trajectory of the course over time, an approach that’s difficult with the language of contract hemming us in. As a teacher, my goal isn’t to sell a product or to "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." At my best, I push my students, encourage them, beg, plead, cajole, debate, critique, and praise. Perhaps I’m a romantic, but I believe in teaching as a vocation and a craft, not a sale. I believe that it’s possible to turn a class into a microcommunity of learners and teachers. Such an approach yields some of the power back to the students and makes us collaborators, all governed by expectations, feedback, evaluations, and conversations.
So let’s move past this language of customer and service. For all that we need revenue, students are not mere customers to be wrung out for tuition in the short term and donations in the future. Faculty members are not cashiers, ringing up the bill when students check out with knowledge—and not because that would be demeaning to the professor, but because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer.

This article appeared March 17, 2014, in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Turning Off Autopilot

by Guest Blogger: James Wadley

One of the challenges of teaching in the academy is that it is very easy to get into “autopilot” mode.  Lecture, lecture, lecture, and even more lecture reduces collegiate instruction to a mundane, bad repeat of a late night episode of “Knight Rider,” “Hill Street Blues,” or “MacGyver.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...   My passion for teaching propels me to call on sleeping students as if to actively engage them in the content of the course, and they sometimes offer a compelling response, but then I find them drifting off again as if my voice were a 19th century orchestral performance after dinner.   Perhaps I should take their sleeping in class as a compliment?

If students in our class fall asleep, their heavy eyes may be a function of our inability to connect with them with our instruction.  Most of us don’t have the opportunity to learn about differentiated instruction and curriculum development in graduate school because we are inundated with the content of our disciplines.   The ability to vary our teaching methodologies gives us an opportunity to meet the needs of visual, audio, and kinesthetic learners by using structured, semi-structured, and non-structured educational exercises.  Here are three of my favorite practices that increase the likelihood of meeting students learning needs (and keep them from falling asleep  LOL)! 
Quiz bowl and other games: Games of competition (e.g., quiz bowl, Pictionary, Hangman, $25,000.00 Pyramid, etc.) that require students to know course content and more can energize a classroom INSTANTLY!  Instructors would have to spend time preparing questions based upon readings, previous lectures and assignments, or additional student research.  While there exists the possibility of “winners” and “losers” in competition, those who do not find fortune during the game could earn lost points by completing a short homework assignment.  The short assignment gives everyone a chance to win and learn.
Collaborative learning opportunities: Sometimes our students feel isolated and withdrawn in class and yearn for an opportunity to share what they’ve learned but feel intimidated by our dry lectures or sharing in a large group format.  Collaborative learning opportunities like placing students in small groups (e.g., no more than 6 students), provide them with a more intimate educational experience and the possibility of  sharing more often than in large class discussion.  Instructors would have to remain cognizant of objectives for each small group and time management.
Smart/Cellphones: OK.  I know I may have touched upon a sensitive topic for some folks, but I implore you to hear me out….  There have been a few blogs/ commentaries about the utility of smartphones in the classroom, and I must say that I believe that smart phones can be skillfully used as a means of engaging students and advancing knowledge in the classroom. Instructors could issue students opportunities for inquiry where they must investigate course content, the relevance of what’s being taught, and the ease/difficulty of accessing the information, and the application/utility of what’s found in the search to their personal and professional endeavors.  Again, given the potential of students to become distracted and venture off to irrelevant and inappropriate sites, instructors would have to be clear about learning objectives, time management, and support needed for students who don’t have smart/cell phones (e.g., possibly placing students in dyads or triads; use of smartboard; etc.).
 So, before we automatically plan on lecturing to our students for another dry rerun, we should give ourselves and our students an opportunity to have an academic experience that reflects our passion and creativity as educators.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Critical Thinking in the Classroom

by Guest Blogger Nwenna Kai Gates

I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my 30 years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic -- it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.” --John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling 

One of my mentors told me once that you can’t teach a person how to think, but that you can only teach them how to ask the right questions so that the thinking process could be stimulated.
Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. (
As an English professor, I struggle to teach my students how critical it is to ask the right questions and to think critically and holistically on readings and discussions in the classroom.  Often it is a challenge to hold discussions informed by logic and not by emotion. 
I grew up and was schooled in a system where critical thinking was imperative to one’s survival.  However, today our students are more distracted by mobile devices, social media antics, and shortened attention spans that often diminishes the richness of tackling concrete and complicated topics of interest with tactical evidence based solutions.  On top of the distractions, as professors, we do not always set high enough standards to maintain the space of such an environment in order to encourage our students to think critically.  Over the past 30 years, our educational institutions have become institutions where students are taught to obey orders as opposed to institutions where students are encouraged to think independently.   
What this world needs now more than ever is a generation of critical thinkers especially in the African American community. 
Because who is going to solve the complex problems of the justice system, the high incarceration rates of Black men, the sub-standard education and poor reading and writing levels of Black children, female-headed single households, and high rates of poverty. 
We need critical thinkers for these issues, not citizens who obey orders.
So the question comes to how can we as professors nurture our students to think critically?
This is what professors can do:

  •  Encourage students to read The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, The Washington Post as well as stay informed by global news outlets such as the BBC and RT News;
  • Find ways to create relevant lessons plans in all projects and assignments (An example of this would be in my public speaking class we are conducting debates where students are required to conduct heavy research and formulate evidenced based arguments on topics such as should drugs be legalized);
  • Encourage games and short activities that stimulate the thinking process and that speak to human nature (For example: The Red/Black Game; see for more information on how to play);
  • Choose readings and books that will provoke heated discussions and provide a larger context for what the world we live in;
  •  Go back to the basics and teach students how to read critically, how to study, how to listen, and how to take notes.

Overall, critical thinking is imperative to the survival of individuals, educational institutions, and communities at large because complex problems require complex analyses solved by critically thinking people. 

Nwenna Kai Gates, a former restaurateur and TV producer is an adjunct professor in the Modern Languages and Literature department.  She teaches screenwriting, public speaking, and English composition courses.  She runs a wellness educational company called The LiveWell Movement and is the author of the book, The Goddess of Raw Foods.   She lives in Philadelphia with her family where she home schools her 3-month old daughter when she is not at Lincoln University.  Other than that, she loves Bikram yoga, green smoothies, preparing vegan meals, and teaching the students of Lincoln University. Visit her website at