On Being a Marxist Professor

The semester has reached the point at which energy reserves are low and no amount of fracking will replenish them.

Thanksgiving is a full month away, and classrooms are filled with tired people staring at one another. When faced with such a dilemma, a teacher has only two choices. Cancel class or hurl a great ball of chaos at his students. Enter Groucho Marx.

English: Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx...

English: Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx, cropped from group photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes his daemonic, chaotic energy is just the thing I need to push through the prison walls of my ivory tower. Case in point.

Today, I decided to drive my students just a bit crazy. In the midst of yet another revision of their visual analysis papers, they showed up to a classroom in which the theme song to Mission: Impossible was blaring. As soon as class started I ran around the room, frantically passing this assignment sheet out:

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Now panicky themselves, my students leaped from their seats, and shouted to each other as if my classroom was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

They ran out of my room and returned 15 minutes later. Out of breath? Sure. But re-engaged with their own educations.

Chaos is beautiful.

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Twitter Plus Teaching=Tweaching?

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In one of my very first posts, I wondered how I might incorporate Twitter into my composition class. This week I actually tried it, and I think that it worked. I want to emphasize that it was by no means smooth going, but, as is normal for me, I take that as a sign of success. See Groucho Marx.

First, a little context. We are in the middle of our research projects and we’re currently emphasizing that our arguments are not simply us speaking our minds, but rather our engagement with bigger conversations. (I say us because I’m doing a project along with my class, in case you missed that post).

It’s important for me that my students understand that they already constantly compose writing within this model. Twitter, for example, makes use of things like hashtags and a “reply” function. For me, this is a handy metaphor for the conversational aspect of academic writing. The # is a symbolic representation of an ongoing, complex, and highly organic conversation. The reply feature is a way to speak directly back to an individual contribution to that conversation. This week, I made the argument that our choosing of topics is akin to applying a hashtag to something we want to say. When we bring an outside voice into our papers, through quotation or paraphrase, we are essentially hitting the reply button.

So to illustrate, I created a unique hashtag before class (#TwitterForComp) and Tweeted the question “How can we use Twitter in composition class?” In class, I had my students pull out their smartphones and laptops (their faces – you’d have thought it was Christmas morning) and tweet ideas aimed at that hashtag. This is where the messiness began.

Many students tweeted really thoughtful responses. Someone suggested that doing a hashtag search might be a way to discover articles or opinions about their topic. Someone else noted that Twitter’s required conciseness is good practice in formulating a thesis or topic sentence clearly and efficiently. I was rather blown away by responses like these, and there were more than a few.

There were, however, students who used the opportunity to goof around a little. This is completely understandable to me and, in some ways, I encouraged it, but it made me work a little harder to achieve my pedagogical goals. I am grateful for the chaos, however. It gave me an opening to describe for them what they were doing in composing these playful tweets and how that might be useful in their research.

I told them that they were, in essence, diagnosing what would get a particular audience’s attention and constructing humorous tweets to achieve that goal – to reach someone. I told them that I was not offended by this and that they should in fact do precisely that when constructing their arguments in their final projects. Their jokes were interesting because they were interested in their audience. “Interested people are interesting people,” is what I wrote on the white board. I noted that the interesting people I follow on Twitter (Drunk Hulk for example) gain my attention because of their creative engagement with the world around them. I applauded their improvisation asked that they think about appropriate ways to gain the attention and applause of their research papers’ readers.

We’ll have to see about the long-term effects of this class, but it seemed to have, at least temporarily, driven home the idea that their research papers are not simply a platform to scream their opinions at the world. They are, instead, an opportunity to thoughtfully participate in a conversation. I told them that a critic does not simply tell everyone what he thinks. That is what a douchbag does. A critic listens and responds.

I don’t want to be a douchbag. I value your opinion about this hashtag. Please reply either here or at the Facebook page.

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The Agent of Chaos: Teaching as a Student

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I am about to step into the Undiscovered Country.

For whatever reason, since I’ve become a “professional,” I’ve continually sought out the “amateur.” In a later post, I plan on exploring this ethic more deeply, but for now, all I mean is that my so-called success in landing a job as an English professor has emboldened me to ruthlessly experiment with my teaching methods. Maybe I’m too cocky for my own good, but finishing my terminal degree seems to have relieved a self-imposed pressure to please my betters and explore the possibilities of teaching English in ways that speak to my own passions and imagination.

Generally, my teaching style is to institute a bit of anarchy in the classroom. I have an agenda, but whatever I put on it depends on my students participating and pursuing their own education, not passively sitting back as I provide information.

Consumers do not enjoy my classes.

But I stress to my students that the activity I require, though sometimes chaotic, is meant to keep them from settling into a passivity that can stifle education. I do understand that different people have different learning styles, and that some people are engaged as they passively sit back, watch, and listen. Believe it or not, I myself am one of those people. I account for this as best I can by providing some instruction each class, but it is usually supplemented by exploratory writing, group workshops, and some sort of problem-solving activity. My role in the class is, in a sense, like that of Groucho Marx in the great movie Horse Feathers.

Groucho, playing Quincy Adams Wagstaff, institutes chaos among a stuffy college faculty, then organizes the anarchy into a highly crafted production. This is my goal each class, my garden of pedagogical Eden.

I am aware of my motives, but self-awareness comes with a price. I’ve slowly come to realize that each time I teach, I have one specific student in mind.

Me.

My first run at college ended in failure as I was unable to conjure a vision of myself that was sufficient enough to keep me interested in learning. The professorial me is now always and forever trying to reach the withdrawn, aimless, youthful me that follows me into every classroom. His ghost still haunts the man he has become.

I think that my students largely enjoy my classes, but they must be ever so confused at the figure at the front of their classroom. I think the picture above captures my fragmented ego better than my words can describe it. I am, in many ways, both men in that publicity shot. Culture and Anarchy, bitter enemies and passionate lovers, working together. This is the chaotic contradiction I draw on to try and empower my students. This chimera. This boy-man. This momentary professor who is an eternal student.

Well, given this back-story and my propensity for experimentation, I was knocked over by a comment I received this week on this blog. In my post “Dear Student: Teaching as Relationship,” I wrote about a certain assignment prompt I wrote as a personal letter to my students. I received the following comment:

Have you also done this assignment? I teach a boatload of composition courses and find that doing my own assignments gives me perspective. I just take it through the rough draft. That’s not critique or advice, by the way. I just want to know.

This, quite frankly, blew my mind, and I am ever so grateful for this person taking the time to comment. The idea of doing one of my own assignments has never crossed my mind, but I found the idea irresistible. Not to psychoanalyze myself, but the notion of attempting as a student an assignment I designed as a teacher beautifully captures the exhilarating terror of the split personality I bring into my classroom. Immediately I began plotting.

So here is the experiment. My research writing class is about to undertake their semester-long research assignments. I, as a good faculty member, conduct my own research all the time anyway, so why not do a research paper with my students? It began today. I had planned a set of activities to help my classes work from their questions about their topic to working thesis statements that will send them off hunting for their first volley of research. So I explained my plan and, like an engaged student would do, presented my own research project using the same four steps I had asked them to use. I then committed to preparing my own annotated bibliography, my own research proposal, my own rough draft…everything I am requiring them to do I am going to do myself.

With them. As one of them.

I admitted to my students that this was an enthusiastic experiment and it may end up as a foolish idealistic failure, but even so, I wanted them to feel a sense of ownership in this class. My attempt at leveling the distance between student and teacher was meant to treat them as intellectual peers as well as my students. How this balance will work, we will all learn together. I asked how they felt about this experiment and most of them expressed an enthusiasm for it.

Then something astonishing happened.

I set them off developing their own working thesis statements and, stepping back into my teacher-self, scurried among them, answering any questions they had about their projects. The number of thoughtful, probing questions I fielded was dizzying. Everyone had real questions about how to pursue topics that suddenly seemed to matter very much to them. My students were engaged, and I was elated.

This pedagogical bliss then reached a magnificent crescendo, a chaos worthy of Groucho Marx himself. One of my students took my playful experimentation and threw it right back at me. “Do we get to grade your paper at the end?” he asked.

This is going to be so much fun.

I will try and provide periodic updates about this adventure. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about your experiences or concerns with my teaching methods and would gladly receive any advice. Please feel free to comment either here or, even better, at The Arnoldian Project Facebook page (like the Project at the upper left corner).

Banned!

Philip Roth once wrote that “the ecstasy of sanctimony” is America’s “oldest communal passion.” This is difficult to argue with, but I will suggest a runner-up. Our culture values oppression to an alarming degree. We’re always on the lookout for opportunities to think of our rights as under assault. The annual War on Christmas pageant is a good example and far from the only one. America is a great reality show with assorted victims clamoring for the right to be, “The Biggest Loser.” Often this quest is presented as resistance to some form of conspiracy or another under the auspices of “The Man” (Mainstream Media, Religious Right etc…). This, I suppose, provides us with the ecstatic experience Roth noted and offers a righteousness to justify our indignation. Whenever we perceive that something stands against our rights to behave or think in a particular way, we must fight said Man.

Well, I am part of the conspiracy this time. I am The Man.

I have decided to ban a certain term from my classroom. The term is “flow.” I was astonished this semester at the degree to which my composition students depend on this term. Dependence, however, is not the worst part. The word has the capability of impairing thought to such a degree that I think its user should not be allowed to drive a motor vehicle. I will explain in a moment.

Predictably, when confronted about it, my students did what any good freedom-loving American would do. They assumed defensive postures and declared that their high school teachers said it was a good word to use in intelligent writing. They’ve apparently been made to believe that the term contains some kind of meaning and my challenging them was paramount to robbing them of their rhetorical principles. The battle-lines were drawn.

The War on Flow had begun.Flow

Students who use this term in class discussion will be mercilessly ridiculed. Those brave, indignant warriors who righteously stand against my tyranny and dare use it in their papers anyway will lose points. They will lose many many points. I will crush this particular class of victim.

The reader may wish for an explanation and that is fair. Here is a typical sentence using the banned term:

The ideas in this essay really flow well.

This may seem harmless enough, but the term is vacant and therefore the thinking of the student is limited and shoddy. I assume that what the flow-monger means is that the essay’s author provides a logical structure to his or her argument, with one claim laying the foundation for the next, and he or she uses transitions to effectively guide the reader through the essay’s argument. The use of the term-which-shall-not-be-named hurries through this more detailed kind of analysis in order to provide an unsatisfying evaluation.

It’s like calling a movie good. What makes it good? Well I liked it. So what makes it good is that you liked it? I guess I don’t really want to put much thought into it; it’s just a movie. The reviewer in this hypothetical case simply doesn’t want to think. He only wants to be entertained. This vile term, similarly, is a short-cut in thinking and this will not do in my class.

In all honesty, though. If this were the extent of the vulgarity of the term’s usage, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. It get’s worse.

The writer flows his evidence really well.

You see my concern. Once we allow this monstrous term into our classrooms, it infects our very minds. Thinking will cease and life as we know it will end.

I’m not an ogre. I have tried to kindly and humorously explain to them that their teachers were fools and their whole rhetorical way of life is a lie. I tell them that this word’s linguistic function is no different than the term “smurf” in The Smurfs. When Smurfette tells Jokey that his jokes are “just smurfy,” and Brainy tells Papa that he saw Gargamel and “got the smurf out of there,” we know what they mean. That doesn’t mean this is a appropriate language system, though.

We don’t live in mushrooms. Although I’m sure they provide quality air flow.

Revision

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As a teacher, I feel a gnawing obligation to push my students to revise their work. I try to convey to them the notion that writing is inseparable from thinking. We don’t ask them to write research papers because we think they already know so much about bio-ethics or what have you. We ask them to write so that they learn and grow. What they know now is not all they will know later. The papers that we grade are simply documents of each student’s engagement with the process of learning at the time the assignment is due. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the student stops thinking about what they’ve learned. It simply means that their “final” paper is a kind of photograph. It is a frozen image of their intellectual development at a given moment in their lives. Sometimes, unfortunately, that image resembles a Neanderthal preserved in an ancient glacier. This can be distressing, but often the captured moment instead suggests Monet – beautiful, impressionistic, still un-crystalized visions of intelligence inherent and always coming into focus, yet to be fully realized. Aesthetic beauty in progress.

Teachers too must think, I think, and therefore should constantly revise as well. A class, like a term paper, is a document of the teacher’s abilities and experience at the time it is scheduled. Ready or not, here Gen Ed comes. This post then is an occasion for me to reflect on how I would approach teaching a certain class again, armed with the experience of this semester. This past semester, I taught Freshman Composition using a new syllabus and a textbook that was new to me as well. This course was designed in light of the experience I’ve had teaching Freshman Comp in the past and those grand failures and modest successes dictated much of what I did this time.

I strongly believe in the value of liberal arts traditions (see the title of this blog after all). This disposition comes not only in theoretical form, through my dissertation, but also practically, from my teaching experience in composition classrooms. The following statements are bound to offend someone, but . . . Pedagogical approaches that prize the mechanical, objective “skills” of writing too often miss the point of struggling, failing, growing, and thus thinking. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sexy-time topical composition courses often push aside the formal writing practices that encourage thinking to support immediate political and social agendas. Both approaches are mechanical in the end, and both inhibit the educational potential that a seat at the window above Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain” provides.

With my insufferable idealism stated and out of the way then, how this applies to my composition class is as follows:

From day one, I instill the connection between writing and reading. Academic writing is a conversation much larger than any single individual and the person who merely wants to state their opinions is a bad conversationalist. Therefore, I sequenced my assignments in the following manner – Summary Paper, Response Paper, Formal Analytic Paper, and Academic Book Review. This sequence of assignments was meant to mimic the process of academic conversation while taking time to dwell on each element of the process. Denying students their “opinions” at the beginning was a painful, but necessary step in this process. Some of them never got it, of course, but most did, and this struggle paid dividends at the end of the semester, when I received much better book reviews than I might have otherwise.

For me, the best decision I made was with the final book review assignment. I was asked by my department to use They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein and I’ve always struggled teaching from that book in the past. My solution to the problem this time was to use the book not exclusively as a teaching tool, but also as an object of analysis. We studied rhetoric all semester from our main textbook, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, by Greene and Lidinsky, which gave us the foundations for the sequence of assignments leading up to They Say/I Say. Our final unit, then, became both a review of the concepts we’d already studied (with Graff and Birkenstein providing a lighter, fresher approach to essentially the same material) as well as an opportunity to apply the lessons of that sequence to a real object, thus allowing students to take part in a real academic conversation.

By and large, though I have yet to look at the course evaluations, I felt the course was extremely successful. I did, however, learn a great deal along the way. First, this generation is particularly good at communicating in certain rhetorical situations, namely texting/tweeting/facebooking-speak. It is, I think, a mistake to simply write that fact off as a generational character flaw. Instead, I hope to build on that strength by making that kind of communication an object of rhetorical analysis from the beginning of the course. My hope is that I can help them identify rhetorical structures and practices in this familiar form of communication and use that to strengthen their ability to see and replicate similar practices in more conventional forms of writing. For example, the hashtag in a tweet is a kind of recognition of audience and rhetorical situation is it not? By employing that textual device, the writer (tweeter?) directs his communication to a specific conversation. What ways do we do that in academic conversations? These questions might lead to pedagogical breakthroughs for some students.

Similarly, I think that I will replace my standard Reading Response assignment with a possibly more familiar blog requirement. In other words, instead of having students come to class with response forms and discussion questions, I will ask them to keep a weekly reading/reflection blog on our in-house online system. This will (in theory anyway) open up the “comment” feature of this interface as a means to further emphasize the conversational nature of academic thought.

Finally, in future semesters with this course, I hope to develop a program in which students will sign up for a certain class meeting and present a very short (5 minute) summary of some grammatical or textual concept in the English language of their choosing. This will be meant to encourage engagement and individual initiative in the course. Most of my students come to class engaged and eager to participate, however, there are a significant number who do not and I hope to stand against that in my teaching. Without engagement, writing and, by definition, thinking are in peril.

If anyone happens to read this, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below (or email I suppose). A conversation about this would be most helpful for me.

Best wishes

Danny