challenging rigor

As the first snow of the winter softly falls outside, and as a pile of program assessments nestles against me, I’m thinking of the successes and lingering questions from last semester.

Despite teaching the most students in a semester I ever have, the semester was good. I would even call it fantastic. My classes were lively enough, interesting, engaging, and fun. My students read and read and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I read and graded and graded. In between, we discussed. We listened. We learned.

Last week, as I finished my 5th year retention dossier, I thought about student evaluations. I always approach their comments and their filled-in bubbles with a queasy anticipation. My eyes quickly scan the bottom of the bubbles for “overall instructor” and “overall course,” and I flip the sheets to read their often funny, kind, and sometimes jarring comments. Last semester’s batch left me pleased with the results for the two key questions, and for their comments (my favorite? “give this professor a raise!” I’m just kidding, although that was a real comment).

But then my eyes drifted upward to see the question that haunts me, about the relatively difficulty of this course compared to other college courses. This is always my lowest score. And so I’ve been pondering the concepts of “challenging course,” and the more academic-ese topic of academic rigor.

Critics of Higher Ed love to assail courses as being light, filled with fluff and nonsense and inflated grades. Such courses, they argue, do nothing to prepare students for the rigors of the post-college world. Scholars are taking note.  Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa became a media flashpoint last winter with its study of 2,300 students at 24 universities. In a review of the book on the website Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik cites this particularly interesting finding: “Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.”

By this definition, my classes have high expectations. And yet, student perceptions that the classes are not rigorous persist.

I think of one particular day in one of my classes, when students were unprepared, not having read the scholarly essays for the day’s discussion. “Why didn’t you read?” I asked.

“Because we don’t have to. You don’t make us,” one student piped up.

I asked for clarification, tamping down my outrage.

“It’s not like we have reading quizzes, and we just have discussion, so we don’t need to read.”

The rest of the class looked concerned. I asked if they wanted quizzes. They did not. I explained my philosophy of treating them like responsible adults, who would come to class prepared for discussion, or group work, or whatever other pedagogical activity the day might hold. I tried to explain how they were accountable for the reading; not doing the reading meant their understanding was limited. Their written assignments would suffer.

And yet, that comment stuck. In what ways do I make the reading essential? In what ways do I hold students accountable for reading? Must I devise assignments targeted towards every reading to insure that students complete it? I’ve gone that route before, and to my mind, and my pedagogical approach, it is time not wisely or usefully spent.

And so, we’re back to questions of rigor. My classes have a decent amount of reading—depending on the class, we have between 20 and 100 pages a week. They demand at least 20 pages of writing. They rely on interactive participation.

What don’t they have? Memorization. Exams. High-stress performance indicators. I suspect that these kinds of assignments are seen as more rigorous than the essays–reflective, analytical, research–group projects, blogs, and discussion that my classes use.

I believe in the power of reading, writing, and discussion as a trio. I believe in creating assignments that allow students to be critical, and creative, and that feel more natural and applicable to their lives. The fact that numerous students in my multi-cultural literature class wrote about how reading different genre texts by multi-cultural authors challenged their perceptions of culture, made them more interested and open to others’ experiences, and even inspired them to read MORE, outside of class, for FUN, was perhaps the best outcome of all.

And maybe, rigor is all in the eyes of the beholder.


midterm musings

Somehow, we’re here, at the point when the trees are baring themselves, student papers flow into my messenger bag in a steady stream, and the blog posts proliferate overnight.

I’m at a moment of equilibrium–the grading is done, the new assignments are a few days away from coming in, and I have basic lesson plans pulled together. We’ve had our tough love talks in class about arriving prepared to discuss and read and write.

And now, students are sharing their midterm suggestions…more group work, less group work, more multimedia, add quizzes and blogs and more assignments to keep us posted on our grades and invested in the reading.

This last set of suggestions is the hardest to grapple with. As my student numbers increased across the board in the weeks and days before classes started, I tweaked syllabi, trimming assignments to levels that would be somewhat manageable, as well as give students various ways to connect with the material.

They want more.

I can’t do more without sacrificing even more–more of my professional development, more of my class prep time, more of my nights and weekends.

And I’m not willing to make that sacrifice now. Not in this moment where I have more students and fewer resources.

Are my students still learning? Are they being challenged to think critically and make connections? Do I include High Impact Practices? Do I employ technology and digital literacy? I do. And, for now, this has to be enough.

And yet, I feel sad. I know that more can be better. I know if there were 20 fewer students, like last fall, I could and would do more.

back to school

The days are still sunshiney and warm, with azure skies, but evening comes quickly, and the chill of fall descends. My reading stack has split in two—books for class (right now: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Truck, and Feminism and Pop Culture (all for different classes)) and books for fun (The Happiness Project, and  Committed). I’ve moved my class binder to a place of prominence and my wedding binder is stowed in my pink, bejeweled bag from the boutique where I bought my wedding gown.

The great autumnal shift.

This year, I am experiencing another shift—because of my Teaching Fellowship, I have a respite from campus service in the form of the much coveted Governance Sabbatical. No committee duties, at least on campus. This means I can focus on teaching…and I love it.

As I sat outside on my deck today, soaking up as much of the late summer/early fall sun as possible, I read my students’ first freewrites, and really thought about what it meant for them to offer up these words on a page for me to read. For some of them, it’s a rote act, and their words remain topical, or not even their own as they scribble down song lyrics. But for some, they dig deep, and start revealing themselves—nervous about college, on the edge of breakups, families in flux, dreams just taking shape.

What an awesome privilege to read these pages, to help shape their prose, to give them the tools they need to best express themselves.

And, what a responsibility we have as educators, to do our best by these students, who open up their lives in their words and comments and conversations.

This semester, I’m trying to really listen, to pay more attention to the person behind the prose, the loud or quiet person in the chair in the front row back row or middle of the room. To be honest and fair and deserving of their trust and encouraging them to be the best they can be at this moment. To be compassionate, and to help them transition to the self-directedness of college.

And, to allow them to bring out the best in me.


teacher, learner, humanist: united by water, part one

a repurposed paper factory is now the home of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Last week, I learned and experienced and played in Alpena, Michigan. I participated in my first ever National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) program, this one part of the Landmarks in American History and Culture series specifically for two-year college faculty. Our program: United by Water: Exploring American History through the Shipwrecks and Maritime Landscapes of the Great Lakes, was co-hosted by Alpena Community College, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Our leaders, Cathy Green, John Jensen, Patrick Labadie, Kurt Knoerl, Jamin Wells, Wayne Lusardi, Jeff Gray, Russ Green are experts in their fields of marine archealogy and maritime history; some work for governmental agencies, some for various non-profit marine organizations, and very few for academia. After my summer workshops with the UW-System, I was reeling with information on pedagogy and high impact practices (HIP). Our first morning in Alpena was a series of lectures–not HIPS, mind you–I was still eager to learn and absorb information. In the afternoon, when a mostly sleepless night was catching up to me, I worried I wouldn’t make it through another lecture. And then James Delgado, reknowned maritime scholar (and two-time diver on the Titanic shipwreck, mind you) began to speak. He spun tales of maritime culture, shipwreck, and human interest. He held me spellbound, attentive, and wanting more. He touched my heart and soul, which he would readily admit is his goal.

Jim Delagado and I are sailing out to sea, er, Thunder Bay, along with the rest of the workshop participants and leaders, to view shipwrecks.

I realized throughout the week that pedagogy takes many forms, and sometimes the best teachers are those who don’t actually “teach” for their day job–and yet, in their own way, they do. As the week continued, we left the classroom and explored archives and conservation lab; gazed at shipwrecks through glass bottom boats, a snorkle mask, a video sent from a remote operated vehicle, and sidescan sonar. Here’s where all the lectures coalesced–out there, in the watery depths and shallows, in the site itself.

While I spent most of the week thinking about maritime culture and my place in it, I also thought briefly about pedagogy and practice. I appreciated the different styles of the instructors, and kept an open mind about presentation styles I personally do not use (lecture! because I’m terrible at it!). Personality and attitude and passion make the biggest impact, more so that particular practices, I think.

I also thought about partnerships, and the amazing programs organized under the federal government. I thought about models of working together, private and public, educational and commercial, to capture students’ interests, provide compelling opportunities, and transform the world.

In short, I learned so much more than I thought I would, and I will be forever changed because of this amazing experience.

Midnight in Madison

Tonight I sit in a quiet hotel room, classical music drifting out of the alarm clock, with a view of the lighted Capitol just behind the gauzy curtains.

I should write about the intellectual stimulation, the debates between the quantitative and qualitative practitioners, or the development of my project.

But tonight, I want to write about the fun of socializing with new friends and fellow academics. I’ve met some amazing people here who are so dedicated to their disciplines, and who care deeply about teaching well and making a difference. They also like to eat, drink, share stories, and, above all, laugh.

Tonight a group of us went to a much posher theater than I have ever been to, and plunked done our hard earned state wages to see the newest Woody Allen flick Midnight in Paris. I was smitten with the cinematography of gorgeous Paris, and giddy with the utter literariness of the story.

But I especially loved the camaraderie of this group, which included a French professor, a former English major who specializes in communication disorders, a consumer economist, and an IT specialist (and me). The dorky giddiness was cause for celebration and discussion, and I think we all left the theater a little lighter after an intense few days.

I am so grateful for this opportunity to connect and to grow as a professional, and I hope the personal lessons of kindness, curiosity, and optimism these colleagues share stick with me even when the work of teaching and research becomes difficult. As it will.

But we’ll always have evening in Madison.

Summer Break

Teachers and professors are a little touchy when summertime rolls around. After the intensity of the academic year–in my case, nine months–the committee meetings, stacks of students essays, multiple lesson preps, and interpersonal negotiations cease. We field comments from non-educators who enviously or accusatorily note our summers off. In the public eye, in the public target, we’re sensitive in summer. Do we take that three month vacation others imagine we’re having, even if it’s more of a staycation in yoga pants and cheap Target tank tops? Do we defensively list our plans for professional development and course overhaul? Do we cite our dwindling bank accounts as we pay bills with a nine month salary? I’ve seen and tried all of the above, oscillating between guilt and glee for these restorative months.

This summer, I’m not teaching. I am serving as an English placement advisor for my campus, which means reading essays for all incoming students and suggesting which English composition class they should take. It means being present at six registration sessions throughout the summer to help autumn’s students settle their schedule now.

I’m beginning my tenure as the 2011-2012 Wisconsin Teaching Fellow for the UW-Colleges. I’ll attend a half-week of Faculty College next week, learning how to conceptualize my Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project. I’ll spend a week in Madison next month pulling the initial project together.

I’m attending a digital humanities un-conference, THATCamp LAC, next week, where I’ll learn how to integrate technology into humanities projects.

I’m participating in a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) summer workshop on the maritime culture of the Great Lakes.

And, I’ll be writing, working on a poetry project and several memoir pieces.

I’ll be reading–that stack of books next to my bed threatens to topple, and so I select one book after another to wander into poetic turns of phrase and sublime narrative worlds.

I’ll revamp two of my four courses for fall semester, rethinking assignments and reading new texts I selected.

And, I’ll sleep, laugh, love, daydream, walk. I’ll stretch through yoga classes and wander through farmers’ markets. I’ll sun and swim at the beach, drink and laugh at outdoor concerts.

It’s a pretty busy three months, don’t you think?

I couldn’t be happier or more excited, to learn and grow as the world blossoms and warms and thrives under the steady sun and intermittent rain.

And then, come September, I’ll return to the classroom, refreshed and revitalized to better teach and learn with my students, full of stories of how I spent my summer break.