Category Archives: Education

Sharing Bad Days in the Classroom

Over on PALS I wrote a short piece on teaching a pairing of Thomas Jefferson and Phillis Wheatley. Each time I write for PALS or I write for my own blog—I’m looking for a chance to write small. The aim: shorter posts, but more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. For the sake of time, especially for something that wasn’t planned, I tried to write small and I tried hard since I needed to write other bigger things.

I’m always trying to write small when it comes to the blog. I know that is the best blog practice. I know small is good from the blogs I read. I’ve seen the change from longer and in-depth posts to shorter and more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. It didn’t happen.

Then I thought: maybe it isn’t writing small—maybe it is editing small.

So I tried to edit small.

My post on Wheatley and Jefferson was personal because I shared failure. I didn’t think folks would want to read about my personal experience. Well, at least not in that way. Most things we post to PALS are personal and based on classroom experience. I aimed to cut my story of failure out. However, my bad memory of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley was central to what I had to say. I think. I still waiver on that.

Ultimately, the reason I included my failure was because it was about failure. It is rare that people share failures in the classroom. Social media is awash with awesome, especially when it comes to teaching. We often send out vibes about being awesome teachers and all but scream our students are from Lake Woebegone. People rarely share the bad. You’ve probably read articles about the link between social media and our self-perception changing by reading about every other person’s awesomeness.

I wanted to buck the trend.

I put off writing small or editing small—in order to share the bad. I think that is important. As teachers we need to share more of the bad. You can read about the good and the bad of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley here.

Check out more on #teachingfails with this roundtable post from Pedagogy and American Literary Studies.

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Filed under Education, pedagogy, Social Media, teaching

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

A few anecdotes on what my students knew about the Civil War

From the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2014, I taught a Civil War themed composition course at the University of Missouri. My thematic approach varied over the semesters as the course covered the legacy of the Civil War, the memory of the war, and representations of the war on social media and online. Regardless of minor thrusts in the course’s focus, students wrote conventional papers, blogs, posted to Twitter, and wrote a variety of pieces in class. The main course text was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

I found Horwitz’s book, though a little dated, to be an excellent choice for the class and students often gravitated to parts of the book in surprising ways. However, Confederates in the Attic can be a difficult teaching text because Horwitz frequently steps back from his content, especially in the case of writing about the people that he meets, and he lets the legacy of the Civil War play out in front of readers in a seemingly unmediated way. Navigating Confederates in the Attic is also difficult because of students’ tendencies to latch on to the personal opinions of the many compelling and interesting figures encountered by Horwitz. Horwitz’s style of presentation means students need to learn how to engage and read a text that seems to just happen. In other words, students must become accustomed to understanding that Horwitz’s quotations of other works and dialogue aren’t “facts,” but opinions that sit out there for the readers to see in often naked absurdity. Aiding students in navigating Confederates in the Attic requires helping students unpack not only what they know and don’t know about the Civil War, but also the how and why of what they know and don’t know.

In light of an article I read recently, along with some recent Twitter conversations, I wanted to share some of my impressions about what students, at least my students, knew about the Civil War. Granted these are anecdotal observations about contemporary education in the United Sates regarding the Civil War and come from my experience at the University of Missouri. However, I would point out that I was Mizzou for a long time and encountered students representing a wide geographic distribution from a variety of public and private schools, both large and small.

Talking to my students I learned that many of them had at some point learned about the Civil War. For the majority of students, their Civil War education was centered during their time in middle school, generally around the 8th grade. I did encounter a few exceptions to learning about the Civil War in middle school. A few students learned about the Civil War in elementary school, while others encountered the Civil War in high school. Regardless of when students learned about the Civil War during their schooling, once it happened, then that was generally it. There was never any follow up on it or a building upon that education. There were some exceptions to this educational exposure to the Civil War, most notably for students from Illinois that were exposed the Abraham Lincoln frequently through school or youth activities like the Boy or Girl Scouts.

I’m unsure about the exact curriculum details students encountered during their studies of the Civil War, but one nugget of knowledge that often remained was that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. I found this hard to believe for many reasons. I had figured that any curriculum on the Civil War would be based around the ultimate goal of testing; and what would be easier to test for than the one word answer of slavery? I think I was also surprised by my own assumptions created by the intellectual circles that I’ve operated in since the days of my teenage interest in the Civil War. I was most surprised by the frequently occurring and earnest belief among many of my black students that the Civil War was about states’ rights exclusively. In class, we spent a considerable amount of time working through the issue of states’ rights by parsing Horwitz’s text and examining historical documents. I’m unsure of how effective this unpacking was, but I take some satisfaction in the nearly every semester phenomenon of a student interjecting in class discussion that the Civil War was about states’ rights… to have slaves. I often felt such moments had the potential to be a watershed moment in class. I hope that was the case for many of my students, too.

Another aspect of what my students “knew” about the Civil War was a troubling belief in the myth of black confederates. As I spent more time with my course this was a subject that I spent more time on because Horwitz seemingly passes off the idea of black confederates as truth. The persistent belief in black confederates was difficult for me to fathom for many reasons. First, I’m unsure of where students encountered this myth for the first time. Second, even though we spent a great deal of time on evaluating sources, especially online sources, I know this myth was partly furthered by dubious online sources. Third, I was troubled by the persistence of this myth throughout the semester because I knew several of my students followed Kevin Levin on Twitter and kept up with his blog where black confederates were frequently covered in detail.

I was disturbed by the persistence of the black confederate myth amongst my students, but especially in the case of many of my black students. I’ve tried to figure out why this was the case, but I’m not sure I have an explanation. I sensed a strong resistance to pushing back against the myth of black confederates. I think my pushing back against the black confederates, especially in the context of my classroom authority, is perceived not as countering a myth, but as a marginalization of African-American history. I had the sense that for some students black confederates represented a history in need of recovery, but here I was trying to bury it again. I’m not sure if my thoughts can explain this issue totally, but it is the best that I can come up with at this time.

There are certainly a few other examples that I could add about what my students know/knew about the Civil War, but the above are the broad strokes that have stuck with me in the wake of teaching my Civil War course. Feel free to share any thoughts or responses.

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Filed under Civil War, Education