Teaching as vocation

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching the last year and a half. The Lilly Fellows Program, here at Valparaiso, is a teaching fellowship, and it has provided me the space to explore, and push myself, and reflect critically on what I do and want to do in the classroom.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

I’ve worked on ways to creatively engage non-history majors in the practice of historical thinking. I thought about writing, and how to teach it. I’ve worked a lot on teaching survey classes that draw students in.

I’ve also been thinking about college teaching a Christian calling, or vocation. About teaching, as Max Weber might say, als beruf.

Every week, during the semester, the five Lilly Fellows and some senior scholars gather to talk about this question of vocation and what is it is we’re doing, when we’re doing this job of teacher-scholar. We’ve read a wide variety of texts on the topic.

These are the seven readings that have most pushed my thinking, and the questions I’ve taken away from them:

Max Weber -- "Science as Vocation." I think this is mainly read out of concerns about "secularization," but I really value it for questions about whether or not professors should be "petty prophets."

Mark Schwehn -- "Academic Vocation" and "Communities of Learning," in Exiles from Eden. Schwehn doesn't quite put it in these Marxist terms, but why are academics so alienated from their own labor?

Daniel Mendelsohn -- An Odyssey. A book about teaching which is also about identity, family, and the tension in the liberal arts between "discovering yourself" and connecting with other people. 

Stephanie Paulsell -- "The Unknowable More." How to teach in awareness of our human limitations, in view of what we can't know (but need to know we can't know).

Cassandra Nelson -- "Bracing for Impact." How to teach into trauma, or at least more seriously consider the stakes of our reading practices.

Kevin Gary -- "Boredom, Contemplation, and Liberation." What if the best thing you can do for students is bore them?

Flannery O'Connor -- "Enduring Chill." There are lots of good short stories about teaching, and discussing fiction has lead to the most fruitful conversations. I especially like this one, from O'Connor. What is the relationship, the story asks, between pedagogy and the salvation of a human soul?

I’ll go on thinking about these things, in and out of the classroom, and in and out of the Lilly Fellows colloquium. This is, though, a good start.

Cook the Archives

Went to a great conference this week, put on by the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan: Teaching Undergraduates with Archives.

I gave a presentation on the creative project from my Great Depression and World War II class, where students cooked a historic meal using a U.S. Department of Agriculture cookbook.

My conclusion:

So my point is this: History classes are not only for historians, but a wide range of students. Creatively teaching the archives helped me add doors into my subject, access points to the project of historical thinking. So consider this a testimonial and also an encouragement to think of inventive ways to do the thing we do. Teach the archives! Yes. Also cook them, eat them, wear them, build them, grow them, or anything else that will grab students and show them what history can do.

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Man bites dog, teaches freshman to write intro paragraphs

Some of my freshman writing students immediately get the idea of a "destabilizing condition." It's almost intuitive. They see how the introduction of an academic paper and really the paper itself is built around a central tension, a subversion of expectations, which the intro sets up, and then the rest of the paper explains.

Others find the concept more elusive.

Even if they have a really good thesis question, they sometimes struggle to explain why the question would be of interest to anyone if it's not just self evident. They can't quite figure out how to back up from their specific, focused, research question to create an intro that might draw the reader in. They end up either starting very abruptly, as if the question arrived to the paper ex nihilo, or (horrors), starting with the most broad banalities (since the beginning of time) which they then "destabilize," but in the most boring way. 

I decided, in my honors seminar on Watergate, to try a new approach to teaching introductions. 

I tried to think of other ways I could could talk about this subversion of expectations without using phrases like "subversion of expectations" or "internal contradiction" or "destabilization." I wanted to find alternatives, where they actually already knew what I was talking about, but just didn't know the terms or that that was what they were supposed to do in a good academic intro paragraph. 

I came up with three:

1. There's an old journalist saying, for when something is news. They say, "when a dog bites a man, that's not news. But when a man bites a dog, that's news."

I asked the students, "why?" One of them answered immediately, “When a man bites a man we're surprised;  it’s surprising.” Exactly. 

2. These freshman all read Antigone last semester, and in my class at least we talked about the form of the Greek tragedy, what made it tragic, and what the play was saying about human nature with its sense of tragedy. I asked them to remember back and tell me what Greek tragedy was about--what makes a Greek tragedy a Greek tragedy, specifically. 

One student said: Because bad stuff happens and everyone dies. 

I said, "Well not exactly. Here's a story about Dave. Dave is walking down the street, like a person. And then a meteor falls out of the sky. Splat. Dave is dead." I asked, "Is that a Greek tragedy?"

Two other students answer, no, and then gave me two variations of the answer that a Greek tragedy is where people are doomed because of their stubborn commitment to a particular virtue. It's the good thing they love to an extreme that gets them into trouble. 

I re-told the story of Dave: Dave is very cautious. Number one issue for Dave is safety. He's so safe, he never leaves his house. Meteor falls, hits his house, how ironic. 

The class agreed there was a real difference between the two stories, and the second one was better because it had more "tension."

3. At this point, the students could basically see where this was going, but one more example made sure we all really got it: jokes. A joke, in its most basic form, is a set up (stable condition) and a punch line (destabilizing the stable condition). 

I told a joke about Freudian slips. This works doubly, because Freudian slips are also about subverted expectations, and those expectations are pretty explicitly stated, unlike, say, chicken-crossing-the-road jokes. The joke I used goes: Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be. The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns,' but instead I said, 'you have hot buns.' It was so embarrassing." The other says, "I know. It's so awkward. I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'"

The students who have drifted off are brought back by a joke. I then quickly retell it, marking the parts verbally as I go:

Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be (expectation). The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns' (expectation) but instead I said, 'you have hot buns'" (subverted expectation). The other says, "I know. It's so awkward (repetition re-building expectation). I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' (expectation doubled) but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'" (subversion doubled). 

At this point, they all have a firm grasp of destabilization, but I want to do one more thing, before I send them back to their intros. I want to talk about "ledes."

Students, even when they have a good idea of how destabilization works, are often so focused on their thesis and getting to their thesis, that they forget they know how to communicate information. They can be freed from this fixation, I think, by considering non-academic (and perhaps less threatening) approaches to introducing a story. I use examples from journalism.

Journalists, I tell them, have two basic ways of starting stories. The first is called the straight lede (misspelled to distinguish it from the metal lead). There, you write a single sentence that contains all the basic information of a story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. 5 Ws and an H. 

Example: Local man Dave (who) was killed (what) walking down the street (where) Tuesday (when) when a meteor randomly fell out of the sky (why) and struck him on the head (how).

Example: President Donald Trump (who) vowed to build an even bigger wall (what) on the U.S.-Mexican border (where), Tweeting this morning (when) that Congress needs to act (how) to stop this "plague on America" (why).

I point out the 5 Ws and an H don't always have to come in the same order, and sometimes it's better to do this in two sentences, or even three, but in principle you should be able to write a straight lede in a single sentence. The straight lede is the whole story, in its simplest form. The BLUF: Botton Line Up Front.

I then tell them about the second kind of lede: the anecdotal lede. Here, I tell them, you "bury the lede." Before you tell the readers who, what, where, when, why and how, you tell them a short pop of a story. The story is tiny, maybe incidental. It's not THE story, but a stray bit of bit of a thing, which illustrates the larger point. It's a helps people understand the theme, often by focusing on a minor detail.

So, your man bit a dog, but before you say that, you say:

"Jim was surprised to find that dog fur is pretty salty. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't expected anything, actually. Jim wants to be very clear this is not something he thought about ahead of time, planned in any way, or imagined like some kind of fantasy.

“‘Not in a million years,’ Jim says.

“He didnâ’t wake up that morning thinking, ‘Today’s the day I bite that dog.’

“But it was that day. Jim Little bit his neighbor’s beagle on Oak Avenue, Monday.â€

The lede, with the who, what, where, and when (but not the why or how, here, because those can be deferred) is still in this version of the intro. It’s just at the end, buried, transitioning the reader from this anecdote to the larger story about a man biting a dog.

At this point, I think, the students are ready to start. I give them their intro assignments:

    1.    Write the straight lede to your research paper.

    2.    Write what is “man bites dog” about your story.

    3.    Write an anecdotal lede to your research paper.

    4.    Explain the “Greek tragedy” of your research paper.

    5.    Write a traditional academic introduction, with the four elements, a) the stable condition, b) the destabilization, c) the “so what?” explanation of the larger importance, and d) your main claim/thesis statement, BUT, incorporate any part of what you wrote for assignments 1, 2, 3, and 4, as it helps you articulate your point and connect with your readers.

I won't really know if this works until I try it a few more times. But the immediate feedback seems pretty good. The intros I'm getting aren't as clunky. The students are finding ways to draw the reader in. They're crafting intros that show why their research problem is a problem, getting at the central tension in a more intuitive way than they might of, if I had just explained "destabilizing condition" two or three more times.

Talking Nixon

First day of my new class on Watergate--an honors freshman writing-and-research seminar at Valpo--I had students read transcripts of Nixon's secret White House recording, looking at how he talked and related to people in those unguarded moments, and then come up with words to describe Nixon as a person.

Overlaid with a picture from my PowerPoint presentation. The blackboard at the end of the first day looked like this:

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The syllabus for the class can be found here.

You might lose a few books

A former student wrote me this week to tell me she still has a few of my books.

In Germany, I loaned my books to students a lot. I was teaching American religious history and the libraries didn't have the books I did about American pentecostalism, apocalypticism, evangelical publishing, megachurches, the Klan, New Religious Movements, atheism, etc., etc.

Most of the time, the students were very conscientious about returning my books in good condition. I once had a student wrap my book in linen to protect it. Not a super rare book, just a history monograph.

Sometimes, though, a book would go missing.

I decided, early on, to not worry about this. It's important to me that I'm on the same side as students, supporting them generously and without reservation. If that means I lose a few books, I'm OK with that.

So this student writes me after several years, to say she has not returned several books on pentecostal history. I helped her with her BA thesis on the Catholic Charismatic movement--though I couldn't "supervise" it because I was still working on my doctorate--and she used some of my books. Which she realized she still had.

She realized this because she was going through her books, getting ready to move. She is moving because she's going to join a convent.

My former student is now a nun.

You really never know where your students are going to end up.

It's easy to fall into the thinking that successful teaching leads to students doing what I do. Teachers beget teachers. Historians train future historians. 

But I like being surprised by my students. And I think the practice of history and historical thinking is useful in lots of different ways, for all sorts of careers, and just in life.

My student who became a nun could have been a good historian. But I'm pretty sure she's going to be an amazing nun.

So I'm really happy for her and wholeheartedly support her, like I support my former student who runs a theater, and the one who works in international human rights, the one who's at a bank, and the ones who've gone to grad school.

I think I'm lucky: I get to support them.

But it also reminds me of the challenge every semester: how do you plan a history class so that, someday, it will help a nun be a better nun, an account a better accountant, a homemaker a better homemaker, a lawyer a better lawyer, a physician's assistant, etc., etc.

That's the challenge, I think, of wholeheartedly supporting my students.

Also you lose a few books.

Teach the question

The worst lecture I ever sat through as an undergraduate was a fill-in-the-blanks lecture. The professor would a drop key phrase from every other sentence or so and say, "Anyone? Anyone?" Pause. Then say the phrase. 

"So in 1963," he would say, "Martin Luther King planned __________________. Anyone? Anyone? The March on Washington. This was a major step for the civil rights movement. It was a march for __________________. Anyone? Jobs and freedom. Civil rights and economic rights. So King stood in front of the _________________. Anyone? No? Lincoln Memorial."

It was terrible. 

You know the information, I wanted to scream after every class. We don't. You tell us

About half the lecture, it felt like, was dedicated to calling attention to the awkwardness of the students sitting there, not knowing a specific word. The main point or the real point, as I took it, was that we should know all this stuff. We shouldn't need to be told. But then, really, why were we even there?

I did fine in the course, as I recall. But I l left every class session exhausted from the stress of those blanks. 

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

A teacher now, I feel the temptation of the fill-in-the-blanks lecture. I can feel the pull to that kind of pedagogy. I worry about whether my students know basic facts, basic names and details. I think before I get into tricky questions or complicated historical and historiographical issues, I need to make sure they know the foundational stuff. Start with the simple stuff, the info every educated person should know about the subject, and build from there.

I think that way and then my notes for class start to take the shape of a Wikipedia article. "They gotta know this," I think, "and they should know that. And it would be embarrassing if I did the whole course without covering this other thing." And then I just have a pile of information to recite, and it's pretty boring. I find it boring, the students find it boring, and then I'm half way through a lecture trying to engage them somehow and I start leaving empty spaces in my sentences, hoping to God a student chimes in with a name to save me from my own fill-in-the-blank lecture.

"So in the first 100 days," I say, "Roosevelt launched a bunch of new programs. AAA. Did anyone catch what that stands for, in the reading? What about NRA? Anybody? We need to talk about the TVA too. What's the TVA?"

There's just a prairie of silence. It's terrible.

The best class I had as an undergraduate went a little different. The professor came in and set his stuff down and he said, "here's what I don't know." He said, "here's something I'm wrestling with, when I read the assigned reading for today, something I'm trying to think my way through ..."

And then he launched into ... it wasn't a lecture. It was more like thinking out loud.

I didn't know, the first time I saw it, if this professor was pulling a kind of stunt, pretending to have a question he actually already knew the answer to, as if this were just a more elaborate fill-in-the-blank kind of exercise. Or if he really didn't know. But it seemed like he really didn't know.

He phrased and then re-phrased his questions. He framed his speech as a speculative venture. "Maybe," he would say, "the way to say it is ..." He would try out answers, and then realize they didn't work or weren't quite right and abandon them and start over with the question again, trying again, in another direction. 

And after 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, he would stop. He would stand there with chalk in his hand. Or sit down, leaning forward at the seminar table. And he would say what I had never heard another professor say. He would say, "I don't know." 

And then he'd say, "what do you think?"

It was absolutely electric. It was still fill-in-the-blank, in a way, but the questions mattered. The blank was complicated, because it was important. The questions practically pulsed with urgency. He didn't know. He was asking us. The question was a real question. What was the best way to say it?

Each class, as Pete Blum constructed it, was about thinking. He would think out loud in front of us and invite us to participate and come along, or just watch if we weren't ready, but the class was this space of vulnerability and experiment, a place to be interested and figure out how to be interested and figure out how to respond to what you don't know and be better at not knowing and learn, most of all, how you could go about learning to know what you didn't know. Each class was an essay, in the sense of "attempt," and there was a very real chance the attempt would fail. But it could work, too. 

And either way, it was exciting. And either way, it was engaging.

I return to this idea, in my classes. It's something I try to remember to do, teaching history. The pedagogical lesson I take away is, don't teach "information." Teach the question.

There's always a concern about coverage in history classes, and that's a real concern, but if I focus on a question or a problem that's interesting to me, I engage the students. I pull them in. I show them why I'm interested and what's interesting and how I think historically, and in the process of doing that coverage just happens.

This week, teaching my Great Depression and World War II class, I thought out loud about Franklin Roosevelt's outreach to clergy in 1935. He wrote ministers across the country to ask their input on the Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Was it cynical? Was it earnest? I've seen different historians describe it different way. But I don't know. And I'm not sure how to decide, actually. I wanted to think about it. So I came into class and set my stuff down and said, "here's something I don't know." I said, "I just want to think out loud, here, and maybe you can help me think about how to think about this?" 

In the process, I ended up explaining the failures and the setbacks for Roosevelt's programs, politically and especially legally, and how he responded with a plan to pack the Supreme Court, and that was a political disaster, and the "Second New Deal" needed public support. Coverage, that is to say, happened. More importantly, I think, I modeled what's actually interesting about doing history.

I didn't preform "expert." I showed my class how I investigate, how I venture a question, how I tentatively articulate what it is I want to know, and then try to think it through, and figure it out. I had to be vulnerable, because I needed to show them a question's only interesting if you could be wrong. So I thought about different ways to phrase the question, and what kind of evidence I could look for, and how to read the evidence, and the difference that different assumptions would make in that whole process. Then I said to them, "I don't know. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about it.

It was a good class. 

It's scary to teach out of my ignorance. I think I'm supposed to know and it's my job to know. But the question is what's interesting. Teach the question. Embrace the risk of the question and teach what's interesting.

The problem of the second day

The second day is a special kind of problem.

I have thought a lot about the first day of class, re-thinking and re-working that opening sessions, over the years. When I started teaching, I did a standard, read-the-syllabus first day. I didn't like it. It was bureaucratic. And boring. Every time I heard myself say "attendance policy" and "late assignments policy" and "email policy," I got sad. I also didn't like the way it foregrounded this user-agreement, positioning students as potential, probable rule-violators, and me as someone with an elaborate code I could and would hold against them.

Rules are important. The syllabus is important. But I didn't want that to be the center of the first day or the defining aspect of the class.

Really, what I want to tell students on Day 1 is just a) I am excited about the class, b) they should be excited because it is going to be great, and c) I think we are on the same side.

So, with the advice of a former student, I wrote new class policy. It's a little kick-out-the-jams, a little "solidarity forever." Now, I pledge myself to their eduction and I call them to commit to it too. Details about laptops or absences or anything else that comes up can be worked out, I make it clear, on the basis of our shared commitment.

I spend the rest of the class getting students to engage the material. I set up something they can do, right away, to see for themselves it's interesting. We throw ourselves into doing history and just start.

In my Depression and War class on Wednesday, for example, we looked at a New York Times account of the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. We talked about what the story was about and who it was about. How is the story different, I asked, with different protagonists? A true account of the "Great Crash" can center stock brokers, or Herbert Hoover, or a North Carolina girl who saved up money picking tobacco after the other farm work was finished to buy her first share of Standard Oil right before the crash. The work of history involves choices about the kind of story we're interested in and the kinds of things we want to know.

That works pretty well. Then comes the second day.

There are three kind of technical, pedagogical problems with the second day, which I haven't figured out how to handle. There may be more than three, but these crop up in my classes every semester. 

The first is a problem of context. What context has to be established the second day of class? What do we have to talk about, as a class, before we can talk about the subject of the class? Sometimes terms have to be defined. Sometimes questions have to be explained. There's a pre-history to whatever history the class is focused on, not to mention a historiography. Should the implicit stuff be made explicit?

In Depression and War, I wanted to talk a little bit about the causes of the financial crisis before moving on to questions about how people understood it, at the time, and responded to it over the following 16 years. Of course, the causes of the crash are debated by historians, but also economists and politicians. Maybe the class should get into that? We only have 50 minutes. Also, the financial stuff is complicated. Mechanisms of monetary policy, combined with accounts of how the stock market works (then and now), plus how the stock exchange is related to banks across the country, and how the banking system worked, all in a story about change over time, presents quite the tangle. How much of that is important? If, later, we're going to read about populist resentment of the financial industry, it might be helpful to understand how that industry worked. If, later, we're going to consider claims that poverty is a moral failing, it might be important to start with a structural account of the causes of financial crisis. But it's a lot to do, and the students just have to kind of hang on, not knowing where all this is going. 

Related, the second problem is common knowledge. I often struggle with knowing what students know. Cultural references are hard: they come and go, and I always feel like I'm wasting time when I stop to ask students if they know this or that show or movie or song. It's also a problem with general education. My Depression and War students probably don't know what a call loan is, but do they understand shares? Do they know how interest rates relate to liquidity? If I reference the run on the bank in "It's a Wonderful Life," will they know the scene and if they know the scene, do they understand that explanation of the interconnections (and fragility) of the financial system? 

If I skip seemingly basic stuff and it turns out students don't know it, they'll be lost. If I belabor something they do know, on the other hand, students will get bored and check out. Inevitably, I feel like I'm doing both. 

Later in the semester, I find it's possible to speed up or slow down, go more basic or more in-depth, based on the response from the students. I find it's possible, too, to get reliable responses from students and read the signals about what they need. On the second day, though, I'm mostly guessing based on facial expressions. And, so early in the semester, my real fear is that a lost student or a bored student will decide that's just how this class is and this is what they should expect.

The third challenge is classroom culture. Everything is still awkward, on the second day. The culture of this specific classroom has yet to be established. Students don't know how to engage, which means they don't know how to prepare. Not really. They know they're going to have to talk, for example, but they don't know (and really can't know) what that means, yet. Will I call on them? By name? Will I ask them factual questions or interpretive questions? Will I ask them just about the assigned text, or might I also ask them other things, like what a stock market bubble is and why Christmas-y Jimmy Stewart doesn't have enough money in his bank? (Yes). Beyond that: if students don't know an answer, what are they supposed to do? In some classes, the expectation is you just say you don't know. In other classes you're called to think aloud and maybe try and reason/guess your way to answer. What's called for, in a particular class, might be explicitly stated in the syllabus, but never in that much detail. It's something you learn as you go, with observation and in negotiation with the rest of the class.

On the second day, though, all of this is tricky. I'm trying to send students the message they should hang on, we're going to work it out, we're going to work it out together, and I'm inviting them to be active participants in the process of learning. Some of that seems to get across. I'm fuddling through. What I'm doing now works well enough. But I'd like to figure out how to do it faster, cleaner, and more efficiently, to smooth out the second day.