Future tense

This post addresses how students are often preoccupied with the future because they’re insecure in the present (particularly financially, but in other ways too). No-one can really blame them from wanting to know where university will take them, since after all, they were told they had to go to university in order to get work later. If you don’t know much else about it, it’s hard to comprehend what else education might be for. Ironically, this means it can be harder to tap into the desire that’s needed in order to excel at university learning. Here is the link to the original post, from March 24, 2011: Future tense.

Perhaps because it’s grading season—mid-term exams and assignments have been rolling in and TAs and course directors are dealing with the results—over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of frustrated talk from academics on Twitter and Facebook. Some of it’s angry, some of it’s more anguished than anything else; but the common thread is that we’re all feeling as if we can’t “reach” students, and that students in turn aren’t doing their share of the work involved in the educational process.

Part of the problem is the way I just defined “education” in that last sentence. I invoked the notion of education as a “process” involving effort from both the person assigned as “teacher” and the people being “taught”; I don’t assume the students are the only ones doing the learning. But as I’ve argued in the past, a consumerist model of education—which encourages students to view education as either a service or a product or some mutation that blends both (“service product”)—undermines the notion of active participation because it assumes a strong element of “delivery” rather than “co-production”. We had a discussion about this in a recent tutorial where I pushed the knowledge-as-object metaphor to its ridiculous limit by drawing on the image of a “basket of knowledge” that we could pass around the room and from which students could simply take what they needed.

Apart from this definitional misunderstanding that causes so many conflicting assumptions about responsibilities and self-conduct, I suspect there are even bigger issues at work. I like asking of students, “how did you know you should go to university?” The reason I ask is because I’m interested in where that decision came from, not just the “why” of it. When we ask “why did you come to university?”, the answer is usually predictable—“because without a degree I cannot get a job.” If we ask how the decision was made, responses are usually quite interesting, and they reflect the influence that parents, teachers and guidance counselors have on students’ decision-making processes.

But what happens to the “work preparation” narrative when students realize that a university education is no longer any guarantee of employment, let alone the “dream jobs” that so many young people are encouraged to envision for themselves? I think this is where the whole arrangement starts to fall apart. You can tell students there are rewards (e.g. in the form of post-graduate employment options), and indeed the statistics continue to point to the financial benefits of PSE for graduates. But if you offer students no (clear) path to those rewards then the result is sometimes a disaffected nihilism towards learning. And one problem with university education is that is was never really designed to offer a clear path to employment.

We need to get at the contradiction in the fact that students come to university because it’s “necessary” to get ahead in life, yet in some cases they show little or no enthusiasm for university learning and confusion that there is no obvious connection between what happens in class and what they expect to happen at a job, later on. I think this is why we sometimes hear disparaging comments about how “undergrad is the new high school”–necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable or productive.

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about why students “tune out” during class and tutorial, particularly when technology shows up as a distraction from class. Larger social, economic and educational trends are one reason for effects such as these, for example the consumerist concept of education as “product” often correlates with students’ focus on grades (outcomes) rather than learning (which often irritates professors and TAs).

We can’t take on those big issues alone, in one course, in one university; they’re ongoing and need to be addressed and re-addressed by everyone. The question is how to navigate these currents when we’re faced with the everyday “realities” and frustrations of teaching in universities–grammatically unsound assignments written in haste because students are working 20 or 30 hours a week alongside full-time study (so who’s to blame?); flimsy excuses for skipped tutorials (who can we believe?); papers submitted weeks late without notifying the professor or TA that an extension was required (how could we know?); students “burning out” and disappearing without even dropping the course (what happened?); and on, and on.

Now more than ever we’re reminded that education is a collaborative effort, and behind that effort must be desire–the desire of the person “teaching” to assist, collaborate and convey; and that of the students, a hunger for knowledge based in questions about the world. Last night in class I talked about how I became interested in education and involved in politics, and how in my experience the key ingredient to success in university is to find some thing about which you have critical questions, a boundless curiosity, a constant hankering, an “itch” that can only be scratched with learning. I think then the learning starts to drive itself.

The difficulty lies in getting to those questions and issues, since their instrumentality for the future is obscure in the present. It’s why I told my own story–because students lack narratives they can use to order their present experience, and the tools to construct their own potential narrative; so they find it hard to project into the future even though they are so focussed on it. This is an anxiety-producing state of affairs.

New possibilities open up when we make the connections required to understand a story about how something happened, rather than a description of what is. Maybe it’s this causality that students crave, since they live in a world lacking the certainty with which their parents were so fortuitously blessed. The old stories about careers, adulthood and family no longer ring true in this era of instability, workforce “flexibility”, debt and recession.

Perhaps the universities should be places/spaces where we start telling new stories.

Communication, not edutainment

I wrote one of my University of Venus posts in response to the idea that undergraduate students seem to be easily bored by many different topics. rather than banning them from engaging with “distracting” technologies in class, perhaps we could try to connect with them more and figure out where the roots of that boredom are buried. Here is the link to the original post from March 3, 2011: Communication, not edutainment.

How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas “boring?” And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them “interested?” These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.

I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.

Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.

In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to “tune out” from what’s happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.

It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.

I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I’ve written about the issue with students using technology to “tune out” during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they’re “present, yet absent”. To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It’s all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.

The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming “boredom” there’s a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can’t go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I’m not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.

However, I think it’s part of my job when teaching to “open a door” to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can’t make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.

Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.

Go on, have a laugh

When it comes to giving a good lecture, or teaching in general, I take inspiration where I can get it, and this post is about how I often think of favourite stand-up comedians when I’m trying to summon the confidence to speak in public (or to a class). I think humour can play a helpful role in teaching and learning. Here is the original link, from December 10, 2010: Go on, have a laugh.

NB, the Bill Bailey link in the original post no longer works, and I haven’t found a stable replacement. But it’s from the show “Part Troll”, which is worth watching in full.

This week’s long and rambling post, after a hiatus of about a month, comes out of my thoughts about the tutorial group I’ve been working with this term.

After each class, on the bus ride home, I think through the things that seemed to work and the things that didn’t. Which students were really engaged in class, and who was tuned out, playing on a laptop or sending text messages? Did we use media in the class and did that work well for the group? Did we look in a deeper way at the key points from the week’s readings, or did we spend a lot of time on irrelevant tangents? Perhaps most important, what was the overall dynamic in the room and did it help or hinder the discussion of issues important to the course?

Last week, I was “chuffed” when a student said she had remembered the meaning of a term based on a joke (a humourous anecdote) I had told about it. Her comment made me think about how humour is something I use in class, in a number of ways according to context—and I realise now that I’ve been ‘using’ it right from the moment I stepped into a classroom to teach for the first time. It turns out that my teaching role models are my favourite stand-up comedians as well as the best professors.

This led me to ask: What’s the function of humour in the classroom?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that humour, being humour, simply isn’t taken seriously as a pedagogical tool.

And yet there’s a use for it. When I was first learning how to lead tutorials, humour had the function if dissipating my own sense of awkwardness at the situation. Since I wasn’t used to taking on authority, and didn’t feel comfortable with that role (i.e. the kinds of expectations there were from the students), the laughter made it easier for me to deflect and dissolve my own anxiety and that of the students as well as creating a “cushion” for those times when I felt incompetent and unhelpful (usually this was just my own perception as I later learned). Another effect was that students seemed to feel more comfortable in a classroom where a few laughs were encouraged.

To me, humour has also been a means of highlighting the ridiculousness of ‘normality’, which is an entry point to critique (for example I showed this sketch in tutorial, as a way of addressing essentialism). I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself inadvertently ‘opening up’ (making accessible) a perfectly ‘serious’ issue by making a joke.

Humour is an important strategy when lecturing with a large class, as well. In some ways, the skills demonstrated by stand-up comedians could be seen as a pretty fair fit with those required of lecturers in the university setting–keeping the attention of a large audience for a couple of hours without them being distracted, in such a way that afterwards they somehow remember what you talked about. Those skills are applicable across boundaries. And just as many professors make jokes about their academic material, many of the best comedians have a serious point driving their work.

Two of my favourite performers of stand-up comedy are Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Like all successful stand-ups, Bailey (who is English) and Moran (Irish) have ‘trademark’ on-stage styles. From Moran’s shows, what strikes me in terms of applicability to teaching are his uses of narrative, creative language, and vocal modulation. In this clip, he discusses the idea of having untapped personal “potential”: “leave [it] absolutely alone”, he advises, before launching into a lengthy, fantastically detailed description of what you imagine your potential to be (“flamingos serving drinks”)–as opposed to what it actually is. Like the best lectures, this performance is impossible to re-create through quotes alone because Moran’s style is the greater part of what makes the material funny and engaging.

Bill Bailey, on the other hand, has a way of soliciting responses from the audience and incorporating them into his act; he also takes slight in-the-moment thoughts and accidental slips and turns them into commentary and productive tangents. In one section of his show “Part Troll”, he involves the audience in making the sound of “a giant breaking a twig“, then invites them to shout out the names of famous vegetarians (which he re-imagines as a horse-race). Bailey has a knack for creatively incorporating the unexpected into his ‘act’, in ways that generate relevant connections without losing the overall ‘thread’. I think this translates as an important classroom skill because it can help to involve students in a discussion, if we can relate their contributions, their experiences and examples, to a theme that’s part of the course–without ‘losing’ the point at hand.

I don’t consider teaching to be all ‘performance’–and not all humour is helpful or appropriate in the classroom. But after watching so many tedious, montonous lectures in which students (in some ways justifiably) tuned out of the course and in to their iPhones and laptops, I’ve developed an appreciation for presentation–and I’ll take my role models where I can find them-!

Writing it out

Link to the original post from October 4th, 2010: Writing it out.

At the risk of drifting into the Dull Squalid Waters of Graduate Student Angst, today I’m going to talk about writer’s block–possibly as a means of getting around it. Now that’s creative! 😉

In my case, getting stuck on process is something that often comes from insecurity, a fear of “acting” and “just getting things done”; so I’ve tried to work at my own writing strategies over the years. But this kind of detailed thinking-through and development of self-knowledge isn’t necessarily something we see being explored in graduate school (for various reasons–see my previous posts about related issues), possibly because writing help and development are often assumed to happen during the student’s coursework (unless there are no courses) or at the university writing centre. It may even be assumed that students should have learned how to write during their undergraduate studies, or that they “had to know how to write” to get in to grad school. Yet I’ve had numerous professors tell me that writing skills are a major problem even at the graduate level (where a whole new level of writing is required).

I was recently helping a friend, who is an M.Ed student and a good writer, to prepare a grant application–and I noticed that his draft had been re-written by one of his profs (rather than merely edited). I could tell from the language she’d used, compared to previous drafts he’d written; and because the language had changed, so had the project–into something he hadn’t really “framed” himself.

As we went over this new, re-written draft, I helped him to replace language that seemed inappropriate by asking about the ideas behind, and impressions conveyed by, the words; we also “broke up” the seemingly polished structure of the writing by cutting, pasting, rearranging, and adding in points with no concern for cosmetic editing. We pulled out the issues that seemed to be central and made a list, starting over with a new structure and concentrating on telling a coherent “story” about the project.

It felt as if the real focus kept getting lost in all the ideas that were floating around–that was half the problem. But the real trouble for my friend was even more basic–he had been told to write something in a completely new genre, and offered almost no guidance. With many thousands of dollars’ worth of grant money at stake (the Ontario Graduate Scholarship is worth $15,000 for a year, and Tri-Council grants offer more), writing had suddenly taken on a new and immediate importance, and there was little appropriate help to be found from professors swamped by similarly panicked grad students (a good number of whom have never heard of a “research grant” before their first year of PhD).

In the end it wasn’t due to my teaching skills that we ended up making progress (if we did)–far from it, I’d never done this kind of work in my life and I had to think: how does one write? How do I write? After all, I was pretty much the only model I had to go on. I had never really thought about that uncomfortable process outside of trying to enact it somehow, as contradictory as it sounds. My friends don’t usually discuss how they write, though they frequently bemoan the difficulty of it. I’d helped students with writing before, but there had never been time or space for such in-depth consideration. So the struggle for me was one of translation and negotiation, and fortunately what I did have was some experience with producing grant proposals.

This only made me think more about my own, current editing tasks–my dissertation writing and the papers I’d like to see published, in particular. I recently was forced to consider how much my process must have changed over time, when I was revising a paper written during one of my MA courses. The paper lacked the structure I would have given it if I had written it more recently–indeed, I’m currently re-ordering the entire thing such that the reader isn’t expected to plough through the textual equivalent of an army obstacle course. My more recent writing is evidently more well-planned, as the other papers showed, but work from just 18 months ago still seems littered with tentative statements and unnecessary words, begging for a linguistic pruning.

And yet I can’t remember ever having been told anything about these things–ever really learning them–other than perhaps by osmosis. This gives me some faith in the concept of a kind of gradual improvement with time and practice; but I still think it’s the self-reflexive process of working with other people that brings real perspective and the motivation to actually consider one’s habits and tendencies in more depth, with an eye to doing better (writing) work, and to working better overall.