It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, which frankly seems like a scheme to make the appreciation come in the form of useless cards and treats rather than cost of living raises and the securing of pensions. Apparently, it began in 1980 sanctioned by Congress originally as one day in March, but then in 1985 the AFT rallied to move it to a full week–the first full week of May. Today, May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Day.
A couple things have got me feeling particularly sympathetic to K-12 teachers this year. For one, I spent a lot of time in the last several weeks expending some effort on behalf of a student that finally came to a good result and I’m very happy about it. But this work took a considerable amount of my time at a very busy part of the semester, and up until the very end when the happy result was achieved it felt like it was going nowhere. Good teachers at underfinanced schools do this kind of thing all the time. The extent to which it was emotionally exhausting to me gave me renewed appreciation and empathy for public school teachers.
Yesterday I was going through some old papers, looking for my autograph from Ollie North on the occasion of his ascendancy to the presidency of the National Rifle Association. And I found a note that my ninth grade English teacher wrote to me when I graduated from high school (see photo above). Mr. Bender had a sign over the chalkboard in his classroom that read “Homer Nods.” Homer nods, Mr. Bender would explain to every new class of girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, means that even great geniuses, literary and otherwise, make mistakes. My senior year I was selected as one of the graduates to speak at graduation on the basis of my submitted speech I called “Homer nods.” I can’t even remember what it was about now. Probably something about humility amidst our capacity for greatness.
Mr. Bender would argue with me in the hallway even after I was no longer his student about the finer points of grammar. He thought I was wrong to pronounce “harassment” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. He joked about HARassing me to pronounce it correctly. I was happy to show him that the dictionary included both pronunciations. Even Homer nods.
Neither he nor I had any way of knowing that I would become a specialist in ancient Greek thinking, that whether Homer really nodded would become a live question for me, that I would become a student of those for whom Homer had been the teacher. I didn’t know then the poetry of the teacher telling the student that even the great educator of the Greeks fell short. I didn’t know how provocative the notion that the Greeks might have been educated by a nodding teacher could be, or perhaps the notion that all teachers nod.
I found this note in which Mr. Bender inverts the meaning of nod from making a mistake to signaling approval and I thought, how very Greek this poetic recasting would be. The teacher nods and nods. And this I appreciate.
Yesterday, after yoga I thanked the teacher for the encouragement in class and he said, “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.” It got me thinking about how the encouragement and positive feedback motivates me to work through the difficult parts of class. When I was in graduate school, I worked for a test prep company where I taught classes and also trained teachers for them. One of the regular strategies that we were supposed to teach was that teachers should provide consistent positive feedback to students, even if students were struggling. Evidence shows that encouragement motivates students to do more work.
Perhaps that point is obvious. And yet, in the classroom, I find myself focusing more on making students aware of their deficits in order to get them to work. In the same way that I sometimes hold back insight in order to motivate insight, I sometimes hold back encouragement to get students to see that more work, more thinking needs to be done. Obviously, it takes judgment. Sometimes students need to be made aware that they are not fulfilling expectations. But often, students need affirmation for the work they are doing in order to be motivated to do more and better work. Read more
At least once a year, I teach a small upper division seminar course that is heavy on discussion. I have been working on strategies to get students to talk through issues that their classmates raise rather than to jump from one free associated comment to another or to think discussion is just asking their classmates to explain things. Last summer I saw some movie about an improv troupe in which they did this exercise where one person started with a name and then the next person had to say something related to that name and the next person something related to that and so forth.
It occurred to me that this exercise could help students think about how to listen to one another and to respond in related ways. During the third week of class, after we had tried to discuss and ran into the typical problems–students don’t pursue issues after the first response, students don’t directly take up issues their classmates raise, students jump quickly to other issues and remain on the surface for all of them, or students speak just to ask clarifying questions rather than to build on ideas–I started class introducing this game. Read more
I want students to write papers in which they genuinely engage a question that is motivated by the text and their own curiosity in which they come to an insight worth sharing. Getting students to this place in their writing is the biggest challenge of my teaching life. One of the difficulties is that students think of writing as a technical endeavor. They are given a prompt. They need to find a thesis that they think that can support based on evidence they can find in the text. They set to work writing the paper by looking for the evidence and then choose a thesis that is most supportable. This approach to writing papers short-circuits the stage of thinking. It is to this stage that I try to return students and get them to work. The problem is that it feels to students like flying without a net. They do not have experience with being asked to think. They do not have experience with being asked to take their own questions and insights and concerns seriously.
This last semester, instead of giving prompts in which I tried to motivate their thinking and then hoping it would push them into the gap for thinking they tend to short-circuit, I told them explicitly that this process of finding their own puzzles and problems was what I was expecting. It helped that in the class I did this most explicitly in, we were reading Aristotle and talking about how wonder is the source for philosophizing because when we come to an impasse, we are motivated to think. I asked them to think about what the impasses in the reading were for them and why and then to delve further into the reading to try to work through their impasses. The very first paper in this class was explicitly on what causes them to wonder in the world at large, and how they understand this process of wonder in the pursuit of knowledge better in light of reading the first several pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Read more
Today is the first day of the new semester. Last semester I returned to teaching from a year-long sabbatical. I returned refreshed and tenured (I had already taught with tenure for one semester before my sabbatical as Wabash graciously completes the tenure process in one semester). The year off was good for my research, as we generally understand sabbaticals to be. But it was also good for my teaching. It was good for my teaching as a rest. Recent research shows that the ability to do well over time depends on rest and recovery. It is good to give your mind time off from the tasks that consume you.* I took time off from thinking about teaching to focus on a book project. Ideas for teaching occurred to me in the midst of that work, but I wasn’t trying to come up with ideas for teaching. In planning for last semester, I decided to do some creative non-obvious approaches to organizing my courses because I felt a certain freedom from expectations and a willingness to do what I thought would work rather than what was the typical structure of a course.
As I reflect on how things went, I see four things that I did this semester that made for more successful teaching, four things that were made possible in part by having tenure and then having a sabbatical.
- Slowing down
- Being authentic
- Getting clearer about expectations
- Doing more introduction and transitional set-up
Each of these elements contributed to my goal in teaching to encourage students to engage in the philosophical classroom as thinkers rather than consumers of knowledge. Read more
There appears to be a cottage industry of thinkpieces in defense of the lecture. Alex Small defends his mixed lecture and discussion approach in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago in his piece, In Defense of the Lecture. He defends the lecture as an opportunity to put on display the way an expert in a field approach problems. He also describes how he uses discussion to set up and break up the parts of class where he lectures. Miya Tokumitsu defends the art of collective listening in her piece in Jacobin earlier this year, In Defense of the Lecture. In 2009, Adam Kotsko wrote A Defense of the Lecture for Inside Higher Ed in which he argues that lecturing can help bring students to the level of good readers so that an engaged discussion might ensue.
In planning for courses in my return from sabbatical, I spent some time thinking about why I have typically refrained from lecturing. I tend to conduct class in a way that tries to get students to come to insights on their own. But I found that this approach has a certain inauthenticity insofar as it involves asking questions I already know the answer to. My thinking has been that students learn better when they reach their conclusion themselves, but I think that supposes that there is a limited number of insights and that I have already had them. The result is that I hold them back to lead students to have insights. Read more
This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin. I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together. One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world. I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power. I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear. I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily. I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds. And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation. I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more
Faculty joke about how often we tell students “It’s in the syllabus!” But what if the answers that we faculty wanted for what we are doing in the course were in the syllabus? The syllabus is a funny document to me because officially it is for students, but I also use it for myself to remember what the class is supposed to be doing in any given class meeting. The problem is that I don’t want to put all the information that I need for planning on to the same document that students get. This is not because I want to keep it to myself, but I think an overwritten syllabus can be distracting and confusing. And sometimes as the course progresses, the planning changes. Read more
The President of Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland Simon Newman, tasked with the effort to improve retention rates, is following the strategy long employed in elementary and secondary schools trying to keep up their retention rates across the country: flush out the students who are going to fail out anyway. Employing war metaphors used to describe what happens when innocent bystanders get killed in the course of war, he told professors, “there will be some collateral damage” as reported by The Washington Post. He went on to say to professors that he realized “this is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”
First, he told professors they couldn’t think of students as cuddly bunnies and proceeded to talk about students who might struggle in the beginning of their college career as bunnies that needed to be drowned. Then he proceeded to make light of the growing problem of gun violence on college campuses by encouraging professors to think of struggling students as students they might shoot with a gun. The ironies of a Catholic institution encouraging metaphorically killing students abound. Read more
This month I have found myself thinking about the ways that concepts from commercial life have come to pervade our thinking about ethical and political life to our detriment. Debt economics was one way. Efficiency is another.
In Republic II, Plato has Socrates justify having each person in the city do one task with recourse to efficiency. What would be more efficient? Accepting this point and the notion that each person has a nature suited to only one particular task leads to the city where each person is assigned a place. Multiple machinations and myths are required to keep things in that order. I believe that Plato is showcasing to us a political order based on a series of assumptions that he does not defend in order to challenge those assumptions. One of those assumptions is that efficiency is good for human beings. Read more