Saturday, September 25, 2010

Teaching Tip #8

Use less technology, more face-to-face.

Big thing on my campus now is "the clickers." They are a fun gadget. But they don't encourage critical thinking and they don't encourage social interaction, the two primary goals of college. (Filling one's head with random facts is not really one of them, although many of us succeed there).

Teaching tip #7

Take roll.

Seriously. Make being there matter. Yes, I know we can argue, if they need to be there, if they want to be there, they will be. I don't disagree. But we are not dealing with intrinsically motivated people, all the time. Some extrinsic reminders help.

Of course, if one's goal is to keep the riff-raff out, to gatekeep one's discipline, and to lose students so that there are fewer papers to grade, then taking attendance is not a good idea.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Teaching Tip Number 6

I make sure I learn my students' names by the second week. For my English 1101 students, I have them come in for a conference over their first paper (an easy diagnostic essay). We chat. I know everyone can't do that, but it helps with smaller classes. (I give them a day off for the conferences, too.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tip of the Day Five

In the classrooms, you meet all kinds. You can never really know the struggles, baggage, challenges, your students are having. So kindness always beats rigor; charity always triumphs over rightness. Believe it or not, this took me a long time to learn, because I felt like students were taking advantage of me (and some probably were) and because I thought it was my job to teach them life skills such as responsibility and respect. In other words, I had too high a view of my own importance.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tip of the Day Four

I asked my son, a college student at a private college three hours from here, how he thought I could relate to my students better. He told me to stress that the students could come by my office during my office hours, and make it seem more welcoming, thus me more welcoming.

I have taken his advice. They aren't beating my door down, but my sweetness factor is going up a bit, I think.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tip of the Day Three: Spoonfeeding

What is spoonfeeding? That term has always bothered me. What one person considers spoonfeeding another considers scaffolding, a fancy term for providing the background the students need to build future learning on.

I teach freshmen for the most part, and many are unprepared for the college classroom environment. So I feel it is my job to teach them to be college students, at least in my class. That does not mean whole lectures on learning skills. It does mean occasional tips on how best to takes notes in my class. It does mean having very organized lectures (maybe too organized, for some people's views, but I am left-brained and like the structure of typical outlines.) It does mean reminding them of the learning outcomes of the class occasionally. It foes mean providing an agenda of the class period at the beginning.

Coming from a rhetoric and communication background, I learned early on about the research that audiences are not very adept at creating a structure for a speaker's message--that is the speaker's job. So I take that to heart. It doesn't make my class less rigorous.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tip of the Day Two

I like to use a lot of collaborative assignments. They don't need to listen to me lecture anyway. But, here's a tip: NEVER, NEVER let them pick their own groups. Never say, "You guys just get in groups." This is not the playground. In the work force they won't be able to pick their own groups, so they shouldn't in the classroom.

I micromanage groups for diversity and balance. I see no other way. And no, I'm not usually this dogmatic about everything. But random doesn't work.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Shallows Review

I don’t think I am the only one to whom this has happened. (And you can tell from the opener I am an English professor very concerned with the correct use of pronouns.)

I have before me, on a bright and sunny day, a stack of essays to grade for my English 1101 class. They need to be graded; they need my full attention; the students need helpful, solid feedback. I pull out my pen and start. Ah, but first, let me see if I have any messages on Facebook. That is important because, well, that is the way I communicate with the students in the Registered Student Organization I sponsor. So off to Facebook. No, no messages. Well, let me check the “Who’s Online” function because my son might be on and I have a prompting (from the Holy Spirit, I can argue) to see how he is and give him a word of encouragement. He is three hours away at college and has said his senior year is kicking his rear. No, he’s not online; that’s good, he should be working, and normally his Facebook account is always up. Oh, wait a minute; I am expecting an email on my Yahoo account from someone. Let me go over there. No, it’s not there, but on the Yahoo main page is an article on a certain subject, and I was going to check on Amazon for a book about that I had read a review about on the Christianity Today/Books and Culture website. So off to Amazon; oh, yes, better check my book while I am over there, to see if it moved up in ranking—no, it’s still higher than two million. Oh, well. Now what about that book? OK, well, it’s still more than I want to pay right now, but that book’s ranking is about 600. I need to stop buying books anyway. Uh, did I actually check my Yahoo email? No. Back to Yahoo. I notice that William Shatner is at the top of the list on “Who’s Trending Now.” Did he die? (as if I care or he’s a personal acquaintance). No, he’s going to be on some new show or something. Well, before I get into these essays on my desk that are crying to be read, I’d better check my email and my online courses website again. Oh, here’s a couple of emails I‘d better answer.

Sometime later, I have to go to the bathroom, and the coffee pot calls as well as nature. I come back from that adventure down the hall, but not before congratulating myself that I am getting away from my screen and my office chair to take a break. In fact, when I emerge from my office, I stretch and say to the passer-by, “I’m coming out of my hole.” When I return, the essays are still there. I start to grade them, and do finish, but then the grades have to be posted—where else, online.

The cycle continues.

And I’m exhausted.

Did I say it was a bright and sunny day? Why wasn’t I more tempted to go outside and listen to birds sing and feel the sun on my face?

Recently I checked out Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows from the campus library (I had to wait for it; someone else had it before me. I hate waiting for books from the library. How slow is that?) I found out I am not alone in my cycle of exhaustion created by the endless number of online sites I feel compelled to visit. I found out why. I found out that my brain is being restructured because of my use, nay, my dependence on the Internet. I have long suspected I had ADD, but, since I was born in 1955, it was back when nobody cared about it, and I learned to cope. And I have long suspected that my use of the Internet has exacerbated any ADD I might have.

It turns out I am right, Nicholas Carr tells me. In this immensely readable book, he explains how our brains are not machine-like information processors, but organic and adaptable creators; how our bodies and brains become one with our tools; how McLuhan was prescient about “the medium is the message;” how our memories cannot be outsourced to Google (my suspicions about the sinister nature of Google were somewhat confirmed); how we anthropomorphize computers and computer interactions; how user-friendly software makes us less likely to solve problems ourselves. This is just a taste of the topics in the book.

As a college instructor, I was especially interested in what he says about reading. While some Internet enthusiasts extol the virtues of our new-found ability to skip about, multi-task, and skim, our abilities and opportunities to do “deep-reading” are diminishing. This bothers me the most. I have long known that I did not read off of a screen well; I always attributed it to eyesight issues and lighting. But there is more to it than that. We are starting, Carr says, to read down a page in an F pattern. The first couple of lines fully, then skip a few lines, then a shorter part of the succeeding lines, then skip to the bottom. This analysis resonated with me. Whether this pattern is due to the visual difficulty of reading from a screen or the information overload and frenetic (that word or sense of that word appears a great deal in The Shallows) bombardment of visual sensations from the Internet, we are starting to apply that kind of “skimming” to reading from paper.

Carr delves into subjects of memory and mindfulness, among many others, in this book. I cannot do The Shallows justice in this review. It was as good as a futuristic horror story, a glimpse into a sort of dystopian culture like that of Brave New World. At least it was for me. Others will not be bothered by it. I don’t consider myself a Luddite, but I would like to stop the clock as far as the effects of the Internet are concerned (he writes about clocks, too, and maps, and how they affected our individual and collective brains).

What he doesn’t delve into, and this is a subject for a different study, is how the Internet is affecting our social relationships. The ability of Facebook to bring people together is a fiction, as far as I am concerned. Yes, it is nice to hear from old friends, and it is nice to chat with a few friends through that little box at the bottom of the screen. Nice—a vague word, a substitute word. However, I think we are just fooling ourselves. We can assuage our consciences that we have “communicated” when we have taken a few minutes to do what would have taken real commitment in the past. I know for me, I have become lax about sending greeting cards because I easily type “Happy birthday” on someone’s “wall.” Isn’t it the same? And I have saved myself the $3.00 that would have gone to Hallmark or American Greetings, and the 44-cent stamp. Efficient and cost-effective, and the person receiving the greetings should be just as happy.

Beyond this example, Facebook and other social media—just like emails and cell phones, do not expand our sense of connection to other people. They give us a false feeling of having done so. My son has over 1,000 friends on Facebook. He knows this is a joke; even worse, he doesn’t really care about the people on his “friends” list. I have “friends” whom I allowed on because I thought they were someone else (I have a mere 304 at this count.) Social media force us, I believe, through directing our attention to a computer screen, to narrow our social relationships.

As I have said before, I think Facebook is aptly named because it enhances our narcissism. As the character Narcissus died from admiring himself in a pond, Facebook lets us admire our trivial and ethereal posts, forever. It is a mirror, not a window to others. I love it when a Facebook friend can report on the last morning spent with his dying wife. I enjoy the pictures of a child’s first birthday. I laugh at crazy videos people post (and cringe at some of the others). I wonder who those people are in the pictures where my son is “tagged.” But--I loathe the “don’t know what to eat for lunch” posts. I get visceral reactions to “Having a bad hair day” updates. The old cartoon showed two dogs with their paws on mouses, one saying, “On the Internet no one knows you are a dog.” On the Internet, it is almost impossible to distinguish between worthwhile information and fluff.

Finally, and I know this to be the case, the Internet allows us to be even more selective about the information we access. If I just want to read right-wing websites, I can. I don’t have to be exposed to an alternative viewpoint. I think an argument could be made that as the media have proliferated, sources of the media have become more and more extremist, left or right. If I get all my news from MSNBC or CNN or Fox, but don’t overlap (and why should I?), I am limiting my vision, despite the fact there are more and more sources available. The availability of choices does not mean we use more choices. Furthermore, limiting of sources of information will only limit critical thinking because we do not have to sift and judge as to why the two or three versions of a story might be different.

I know, I know. Women are not supposed to be curmudgeons, and I would like to think I am not old enough to be one yet. I am a hypocrite because I am posting this to a blog. But I am deeply concerned that we are losing mindfulness, attentiveness, reflection, openness to human experience, awareness of the person standing beside us in line, empathy, and perseverance. The Shallows has forced me to examine where I get my information, how much time I spend online, how I depend on electronic devices to communicate, and even my time management decisions. If a book does that, I have to recommend it enthusiastically.