Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Teaching and Change

This spring I was unusually busy. I turned my advanced comp courses into community service learning courses, which had its challenges. For four years now I've been developing my courses as "machines that would go of themselves" (HT: Kammen), but the problem with (or benefit of, to be honest) community service learning is that one has to deal with ... the community. Having the community partner provided an audience and a real-life context for my students, but it was so hard to organize. Everything kept changing, and we kept having to adjust to the new realities.

I don't teach a content area. I teach skills and application of skills. Even when I'm teaching literature, I'm not interested so much in having my students learn facts, names, dates, etc. but in having them learn *how* to read tone, meaning, symbolism, etc. effectively. These are transferable skills that will serve them well in their careers.

Last Thursday I got back from Florida, where I attended the Teaching Professor conference and extended the trip and brought the family so we could go to Disney. Disney--a whole 'nother post. What I'd like to talk about is what I learned at the conference.

When I got back from the conference it took me two days to go through hundreds and thousands of emails and blog posts of various kinds. Somewhere I came across a post about how PhD students are trying to get jobs at "desirable" colleges and move out of jobs at "undesirable" colleges.

Wow. Right there is everything that is wrong with the whole institution of academia, as source of employment, that is. I suppose I am at an "undesirable" college right now, even though my PhD is from one of the most prestigious grad programs in the country. But I am the happiest I've ever been in academia. Why? Well, one of the reasons is that I am not caught up in the idea of "status."

What I saw at the Teaching Professor conference was a lot of people who were not at "desirable" colleges. But damn, they cared about their jobs. I don't know, maybe some of them saw attending this conference as something to put on their CV to say they care about teaching and are professionally active. But the people I talked to were excited about teaching and looking for new ways to do it better.

I think one of the most important things we can do is make our teaching "real." How are the skills we are teaching important? How do they help us survive in the world? Is writing just an abstract exercise? Absolutely not. Once students enter into a real-life context with a real-life audience, as in the community service project I did, they start taking what I say seriously. When we talk about rhetorical appeals and they have to find some way of reaching recalcitrant 9th graders, what I say *sticks*. I become someone with a lot of experience and advice instead of a person who is just making them jump through hoops.

The subject of my community service learning project was "Civic Engagement and Youth Voting." I am doing it a little different next term because I'll be doing it with my Intro Comp class, but the basic idea is the same: to give students the information they need to vote. But I am also thinking of doing something similar on Financial Education. These poor kids are shelling out thousands of dollars and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for jobs that may not be there when they graduate. And if they work with a local high school, the materials they create could be terrific for those kids, too.

One of the areas missing from the conference had to do with the integration of Web 2.0 tools into college teaching. Yes, we hear about blogs and wikis and IM and Twitter. But I'm talking about things like Del.icio.us and Google Map Mashups and RSS readers and collaborative notetaking programs and web page annotations. I started trying to work with blogs a few years ago but got frustrated over how difficult it could be to keep up, and the students didn't know what to write about, and it required an investment of time I wasn't sure I had, both to run and to figure it out. But in the past few years, we're seeing pretty much every company starting to use blogs as marketing tools. My marketing students need to know how to write blog entries. Friends of mine who work at a computer company in NY were required to attend a training on Web 2.0. These tools are making it into the workplace. I'm not sure I'm the person to teach them how to use these tools, but they need to be learning how to use them and to practice using them.

These are the real-life applications we can bring to our teaching. When I read about Professor X's experiences, all I can think about is that s/he's going about teaching all wrong. We need new kinds of teaching, because we're not teaching the elite any more. Teaching the elite may be a "desirable" job, but it's also the career strategy of conservatism. Kind of ironic, isn't it?

And I'm just realizing anew how writing to learn works. I finally got to the thesis of this blog post in the very last graf. :) I just didn't know it till I got there.

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