Monthly Archives: December 2015

Ending 24/7 Finals Culture

Finals time is here again and with it, at many schools, comes 24/7 study culture. Student lounges and campus buildings give up the late regular semester hours and throw the doors open to a 24/7 study atmosphere. The apparatus of the university goes into overdrive as food courts and libraries are kept open. All the while students scramble for space at the various tables across campus.

The 24/7 mode of finals has to stop because it isn’t healthy. And we, of all people, should know better.

As educators, scholars, and researchers we should know that the 24/7 finals culture isn’t good for students. Read Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education with enough regularity and you’ll see plenty of content focused on work and life balance. As educators in higher education we know that letting our work overrule us is bad for our work, our health (both mental and physical), our relationships, and myriad of other individual factors.

Throughout the semester many of us extol the virtues of working and researching in chunks. Many of us teach writing as a process. Our bible of graduate school was Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. We subscribe to the slow and steady wins the race pace of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks with its methodical chipping away at an article over a period of time. (Side note: Wendy Laura Belcher deserves props for including a section on mental and physical wellbeing in her book.)

Still, we are complicit in the 24/7 finals culture just as much as the midnight-make-your-own-waffle-bars and 24/7 library hours that normalize such a culture. Our courses cram everything into the syllabus. Massive projects, papers, and exams on the last day of class that are then followed by final exams. For some students the message of accepting 24/7 final culture isn’t only codified in the syllabus, but it is made clear in messages that students should work every day of Thanksgiving break, except for the day of the actual day of Thanksgiving. The messaging is the same for fall breaks, Easter Breaks, spring breaks, and so on.

And why shouldn’t they receive that message about working all the time? For every column in an academic newspaper about work and life balance there are pieces extolling the virtues of working on a day off or a holiday. And let’s not even say anything about the comments to such pieces. As humans we should know better and as educators we should know even better. Cramming isn’t learning. The diminishing returns on learning that occur when students cram is steep. All-nighters to finish a paper or a project don’t represent true learning or intellectual pursuit.

While students are bombarded with the messaging of 24/7 finals culture there are voices on many campuses trying to push back. Student health centers, mental health centers, and wellbeing centers share messages of rest, extol the virtues of self-care, and showcase the diminishing returns of cramming. With the increased focus on the role mental and physical health on campuses, we should be mindful of these messages. This is especially the case given the large number of academics that have struggled with depression and mental health issues in graduate school or in their current positions. The connection between physical and health and depression is well known. Sleep deprivation, not eating right, not socializing, and not exercising are triggers to bouts of depression. The 24/7 finals culture is a perfect cocktail to exacerbate the triggers for depression.

As educators we have a great deal of power to shape the approach to work that students develop and within our small circle of control our own syllabi represent a great place to start. We can choose to not have projects due on the last day of class. We can make the decision not to have an exam on the last day of class and a final exam a few days later. We can schedule and stagger heavy reading loads during the semester. We can make substantial changes to our approach and still maintain the academic rigor we desire. We do not have to be beholden to the academic calendar of midterm exam weeks and where school breaks fall. And, at a smaller scale, we don’t have to assign due dates for submission of assignments that cap at 11:59 PM.

In many cases we have little control of shaping the culture of our campus, but when it comes to modeling healthy modes of academic work we do have an opportunity to do so. And we should certainly make use of that opportunity.

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Filed under academia, Education, higher edcuation, pedagogy, teaching

Reading and Rereading Charlotte Temple

Looking back there are only a few very vivid times that I can remember starting or ending a book. I remember during one Christmas break, after a very trying time as a sophomore, picking up On the Road and starting to read it in the den of the family manse. I tried to read On the Road during high school, but it really wasn’t my thing. This time, however, was very different.

I remember during my junior year of college the moment that I finished reading Charlotte Temple. It was assigned out of the Norton Anthology. That was no small feat reading such a tiny book out of a massive anthology.

But read Charlotte Temple I did.

Wow, did I hate reading Charlotte Temple. All that damn crying. And Charlotte certainly did nothing to help herself out of the situations that she found herself confronting.

I was a good student, not great, but I did my reading and generally I read ahead when I could. I knew that Charlotte Temple was a longish work compared to what we had read so far that semester. I started to read it and I finished it in the early evening.

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Title page from an 1814 printing of Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

When I finished reading Charlotte Temple, the phone rang. A family friend was calling to suggest that I come home because my mom wasn’t feeling great. So I did. My new school was not far from home. It wouldn’t be trouble to come home for the evening and the next day.

Over the next few days my mom’s condition worsened. She was taken to the hospital. She was in septic shock due to an infection in her hip. She was in grave condition and needed immediate emergency surgery. Everything eventually turned out fine. The surgery was successful. She convalesced in the hospital and was eventually moved to a short-term care facility and made a full recovery after many months.

At some point I must have emailed my professors early on during this experience. I was an okay student, like I said. I was probably home for a week or more. Given the circumstances, I didn’t keep up with email, not there was any, and I didn’t keep up with my reading.

Good thing I read Charlotte Temple, right? I would have less reading to catch up with when I returned to school.

When I returned to class I complained to a friend about the injustice of reading Charlotte Temple and missing the class periods devoted to such a wretched book.

It was then, in those moments before class, that I learned my reading Charlotte Temple was all for naught. Alas, poor, Charlotte, was cut from the readings. The announcement was made in class during the early part of my absence.

The first time I read Charlotte Temple, gentle reader, and it turns out that I wasn’t required to read Charlotte Temple.

Six years would pass until a moment arrived when I actually needed to read Charlotte Temple. It was for a book history seminar in early American literature. I knew a lot more about sentimentality and early American literature when I read Charlotte Temple for the second time. It was, of course, a different reading experience.

I thought a lot about Charlotte Temple in the years between my first and second reading of the novel. I do not have anything profound to say about the years between my readings of Charlotte Temple. No deep thoughts in the style of an Umberto Eco or an Alberto Manguel. I cannot say my reading of Charlotte Temple was the germ of what became my interest in American women writers. Charlotte Temple was the bad book I read, but ended up not having to read.

However, I was excited to see an early edition of Charlotte Temple at some point during the semester in which I reread the novel. It was such a tiny thing. It seemed even smaller than the Oxford Press edition we used in class. Of course, that first edition was smaller than the anthology version that I motored through as an undergraduate. It was odd to me that something so tiny took up so much of my thoughts for many years.

I remember vividly another moment of reading Charlotte Temple. I was on the couch in my partner’s apartment. I was, again, rereading Charlotte Temple, but this time it was for my first literature class. Yes, Charlotte Temple was the first novel I assigned in my very first literature class. While I was sitting on the couch, I was trying to figure out the number of times that I read Charlotte Temple. It would be my third reading of the novel. Granted, Charlotte Temple is short, and lends itself to multiple readings, but for someone that really never reread novels, this was a big deal.

Charlotte Temple remains the novel I’ve read the most. I think I’ve read it five or six times now. I will be reading Charlotte Temple again since I’ve assigned the novel for the spring semester.

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Susanna Rowson. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything profound to say about my experience with Charlotte Temple. Maybe my early and longstanding disdain of the novel makes me better prepared to teach it. I am tuned into the challenges students will face and can be prepared to guide them through it. That, on the surface, seems a positive takeaway, but it is actually negative. It assumes that students will not like it.

I would prefer to believe students have the opportunity, not to be shepherded through a book, but to be challenged and even surprised. Perhaps it will occur over the course of the semester, but maybe it will be delayed, like in my case, for a few years.

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A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

As an undergraduate when I was given a free choice to write about a work I often wrote about poetry. Writing about poetry was an easy thing because in a time-crunched-world poetry’s brevity allowed for rereading. When it came to novels I often felt I didn’t notice patterns until well into a book and I wasn’t about to reread an entire novel for a five page paper.

I’ve become a better reader over the years. I’ve also figured out my interests and those interests pop a lot more when I read. The rise of searchable online texts also makes the search for evidence a lot easier. What a time to be alive!

While in graduate school I developed a model of reading and note taking that relied heavily on a system of abbreviated tagging. This was a response to the time crunch, reading for specific class themes, reading for comps, and reading for teaching. I eventually codified many of my abbreviations into a handy chart. As my classes changed each semester and my research interests evolved, so too would the chart evolve.

Abbr Chart Sample

Behold! The Chart! Well, one version of the chart from many years ago.

As you can see, it is made up of a lot of scholarly buzzwords and an abbreviation for the words. As I read, I tagged things I see in the text with an abbreviation in the margins. If what I read in the text was an outstanding example, bizarre, or noteworthy in some other way, then I also tagged it with an exclamation point. Regarding characters or plot, I used the blank space on my chart to record page numbers of note corresponding to those folks and/or plot points. If I was inspired to add additional tag to the chart, then I’d also record that, too.

 

After I was done reading, or as a break from

Portion of the chart filled out

A filled out version of the chart.

reading, I’d go through my book’s tags and fill out the chart with the corresponding page numbers. I recommend filling in the chart as you go and not waiting to do an entire novel!

I can see the time crunch and exhaustion of the spring coming down the pike. My thoughts turn to my chart. I’m not one to meticulously plan out every detail of my classes, which are discussion based since I try to keep lecture to a minimum. The chart helps as a reference point in class when it comes to discussing specific topics. If I want an example, then I consult my chart, and refer to the tagged section of the book. No searching through minuscule notes or bookmarks. It saves time in the classroom.

One positive about the chart is that it allows for a safety net when students want to lead discussion to unlikely directions. Like I said, I don’t like planning out my classes in excruciating detail. I’ve had far too many experiences where students became animated about an aspect of the text and want to go in a different direction. The notetaking system I’ve developed, in most cases, allows me to follow my students and have a stable of examples or instances from the text that fit their thrust of discussion.

One notable abbreviation is the “T.” That stands for teaching. Those include passages that offer significant opportunities for the classroom. Those might be substantial moments in the text. They might be unusual. They might fit with the theme. You know these moments when you see them. The nice thing about the chart is that the “T” moments can be easily cross-referenced with other parts of the list since everything is recorded in numerical order.

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Sample pages with abbreviated notes.

Using abbreviations in my reading has many practical aspects beyond the ease of notetaking. First, my handwriting is not very good. It is large and sloppy. The abbreviations can be small and neat. The ease of writing helps with the arthritis in my hands. Additionally, when we read we often read through a particular lens geared towards our class or research interests. The abbreviated note taking allows for a marking of the text that isn’t obtrusive. Because the notes are scant there will be plenty of space remaining for future rereading from different perspectives that geared towards other themes.

Over my scant semester break I’m planning to reread the texts for my classes. I’ll be breaking in new versions of texts I’ve read before for other classes. I want to have good notes and references on these works. This model of note taking may not work for you, but I wanted to offer it since many of us will be pressed for time and will reread works over the break—works we might not get to teach until well into the spring semester. Over the break, I’ll be using my chart to take and organize my notes. I’ll also try working with my phone’s native dictation feature to save some time on notetaking. For a more traditional take on notetaking, but with a technological twist, I recommend reading about the dictation/research/notetaking approach used by Kevin Gannon.

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