Opening Day Speech to my Students

August 28, 2014
 
Welcome to the class
 
Our purpose for coming to gather here is twofold. Ostensibly, that is according to the catalog, we are here to
 
read and discuss both fictional and non-fictional prose and prepare related writing assignments, including a substantial research-based argument paper requiring library research and documentation and synthesis of materials gathered from diverse sources into a coherently organized paper. 
 
And this in itself is reason enough for the class. Many of you have probably already been doing this in your AP English courses. Those of you who have never taken an AP class, don’t worry. You’ll be okay. 
 
Most people view this course as “the class where you learn to write a research paper”. And, while this definition is true, it is not really sufficient.  
 
For one thing, there is no single description of a college paper. Your future professors will ask you to do a number of different things in the papers they assign you. You may be asked to classify, explain, argue for a course of action or an interpretation, well who knows what. 
 
But, behind all of these varied activities lie another, deeper set of goals.  
 
One of them is intellectual curiosity.  Human beings are naturally curious. Intellectual curiosity is so innate in the human species that it takes twelve years of public education to make us all sufficiently un curious to work the old coal mine, or the macdonalds fryer or whatever. 
 
But intellectual curiosity is necessary for civilization. Without curiosity there can be no great discoveries. Without curiosity and the drive satiate it, there is only anger and fear, blind and mindless ablution before the unpredictable gods of the volcano and the lightening strike.
 
Why does the lightening strike? and how can we avert its electric power? These are the kind of questions we need to ask if the human race is going to ultimately make it.
 
But we know how to avert that particular god’s wrath now, with the use of a simple lightening rod. The questions today are much more interesting and complex. How do we best prevent terrorism?  What, exactly is the role of police in our society?  Why do we seem so prone to violence?  It was easier when all you had to do was invent the wheel. 
 
The good news is that human beings are also incredibly diverse. Human knowledge is a mosaic and every human being who has ever lived and whoever will live gets to add to that mosaic. 
 
The goal, then, is to improve on the mosaic design. The work will go on after we have died,  but we have an opportunity now to contribute something beautiful to the mosaic…or something ugly. You’re going to contribute either way. You might as well try to make it beautiful. 
 
So what we do in this class may seem random, or pointless at times. But let me assure you they are not. What I’m trying to do is to engage you intellectually and help you discover interesting subjects and ideas. Ultimately, the choice will be yours. 
 
If your biggest concern is merely getting a good grade, then all you need to do is successfully 
 
read and discuss both fictional and non-fictional prose and prepare related writing assignments, including a substantial research-based argument paper requiring library research and documentation and synthesis of materials gathered from diverse sources into a coherently organized paper
 
 
However, you also have at your disposal an opportunity to engage your curiosity and contribute your own voice to the great chorus of ideas that stretches from the dawn of history to our own unforeseeable future.
 

Teaching reflection

August 27, 2014

I have had an interesting experience this first week of classes. At the beginning of the second session of each class, I played this video from the Collegehumor

The first class to see it laughed uproariously and seemed to get the jokes without any prompting from me. Excellent, I thought.

The second class had very little reaction to it at all; one nervous student asked if this meant the class would be studying politics. Well, one out of two. The third and fourth classes were the same

I can’t think that one group of twenty three students could be that dramatically different than three others. There probably were just one or two light hearted students in that first class who dragged the rest of the class along. Amazing what a difference that makes.


Teaching Reflection: First day of the semester

August 26, 2014

As I drive to my college for the first time every late august, I always feel like kind of a phony. I spend my summers working as a low level functionary at an auto repair shop. It’s a good job, but I don’t really know what I am doing, and often have to confer with somebody who actually knows how automobiles work in order to get things done. Come September, on the other hand, I allegedly an expert, or at least a professional, in my field. The transition is awkward and I usually end up feeling way in over my head for about a week.

When I think about doing some kind of cool activities on the first day of class, None of my ideas seem good and I begin to worry that, once again, I will screw up the first day and have shitty classes because of it. Then the problem just becomes too daunting and I just do what I always do, go over the syllabus and talk about the class generally. I shouldn’t worry. I have had some spectacular classes that started off with this inauspicious beginning.

One thing that I did this time around was to stress that we will be focusing on writing some of the time and on interesting topics some of the time. In the past, I have felt like students don’t really understand why I make them do things like watch the Stanford Prison Experiment and discuss it. But this time, I feel like I have laid down a good base as far as that goes. Baby steps.

 


Teaching English for an Online University part I

September 23, 2011

Right now, things are not good for an English professor who only possesses an MA. Like many other fields of endeavor, there are so many qualified applicants for every job that universities, who prefer PhD.’s anyway, have no interest in anything less. More surprising than that, however, is the fact that community colleges are beginning to follow suit, in spite of the fact that a doctorate is no indication of a professor’s ability to effectively teach five sections of Freshman Composition without losing his or her mind. The last time I checked the Chronicle of Higher Ed. jobs listing, there was literally nothing on the board for a lowly MA.

It was only a matter of time, then, before I started teaching for one of the well-known online, for-profit universities. I won’t say their name here, but you have probably seen some commercials for them on television and the web. To begin with, the idea makes a lot of sense. People have been taking distance learning classes since shortly after radio began (perhaps even earlier), and the internet offers the added benefits of one-on-one communication with your professor as well as the ability to use the same visual aids as a brick and mortar classroom. If a professor is using a webcam (i personally don’t), an online student can even experience the body language of a lecture as well. In short, unless a student can afford to live on campus, their experience is going to be largely the same whether the school exists on the material plane or cyberspace.

I found the experience of teaching “part time” for my online university to be roughly analogous to being an adjunct teacher at a community college. That is to say that the wages are insulting, your bosses don’t much care about you, and the students range from brilliant to semi-retarded. However, there are some differences. For example, I find there to be a great deal less political game playing online, perhaps because nobody has to share an office with anybody else. An online adjunct doesn’t have to worry about the price of gasoline, which raises your effective net pay and cuts down on road rage. The methods used to rate a teacher’s performance are woefully inadequate at my online university. They are, however, at least as effective as the eval. process at a community college (which usually amounts to whether or not the dean likes you), if not better.

The main complaint I have about teaching online so far is that my particular online university has clearly hired more English composition teachers than they need and are actively prompting them to compete with one another for classes (more on that later). But, overall, I find working for an online university to be every bit as rewarding as teaching for a brick and mortar community college.


My Philosophy of Teaching 2011

January 10, 2011

Whenever I begin teaching a new composition class, I tell my students the following “As far as I am aware, there is no physiological difference between any of you and, say, Aristotle, or Socrates.”  It is an important part of my philosophy to acknowledge that college students aren’t stupid.  If they have difficulty with thinking critically or expressing those thoughts in writing, it is because they lack the tools and experience to do so, not because they’re dumb. I believe it is every teacher’s responsibility to remember this fact. What that translates to in the real world is mostly “elbow grease,” and comes in the form of pre-class preparation,  after-class help sessions, and an emphasis on the “process” aspects of writing.

 

Probably the aspect that I have most had to work on for my own improvement is the preparation. It can be difficult to prepare an effective class when one is an adjunct at two or three different colleges (with different syllabi and textbooks). But, over the past four years, I have developed better strategies for preparing my classes, and I have seen the improvement that good preparation brings.

 

I feel that most students can become good writers once they internalize the idea that writing is a process.  This is a difficult lesson for many students because, while they are exposed to writing every day, it comes to them as a completed product. For example, many of my students think of Twilight or similar books as good writing. I see it as my job, then, to help them see that Twilight wasn’t written in a day. Like any piece of good writing, it went through several revisions and probably doesn’t look much like the first draft any more.

 

Good teaching, like good writing, is not magic. Rather it is a long, but rewarding, process of developing the tools and the experience needed to communicate ideas effectively.


Theories of Grading Writing

October 14, 2008

Grading my students’ writing is one of my favorite things to do. I love to sit at a table in Charles B. Phillips library (the closest thing I have to an office) and spend a few hours interacting with my students’ thoughts and ideas, fountain pen in hand. It is a sort of meditation and, provided I don’t do too many at once, it leaves me feeling refreshed and energized. However, grading also fills me with a certain amount of existential dread.

The reason for this is the fact that I have yet to solidify a theory of grading with which I am completly happy. The main problem I have in coming up with a theory is the fact that the literature on grading seems to raise more questions than answers.

One of the central issues seems to be the contradiction inherent in taking a piece of student writing and, in the words of Peter Elbow, “summing up one’s judgment of a performance or person into a single, holistic number or score.”

After reading Michael Bernard-Donals’ essay “Peter Elbow and the Cynical Subject,” it seems like the best thing would be to bite the bullet and simply rank my students’ essays and be done with it. They would probably benefit from it in the sense that they would sort of “know where they stand” at all times. Bernard-Donals seems to be saying (maybe between the lines) that we’re all so fu*ked up by the fact of a grade that we make things worse when we try to mitigate the grade while remaining in the university system.

So ok. I should probably just treat papers as much as a scan tron as I can, for the good of all.

But there is a little voice in my head that tells me I could do so much more. If there was a way to reach students on a level that took them beyond being a “cynical subject”, well then I would be doing something really worthwhile. This requires more thought, and possibly more martinis.


opening .wps files

October 7, 2008

No matter how many times I tell my students not to email their papers in .wps format, I always get a few. As you probably already know, .wps files don’t play well with regular word processers like Word or Pages. The solution is this: go to www.zamzar.com which is a free service that will convert your file from .wps to .doc. It usually only takes a few minutes. I wish I had known about this as a TA.