Monthly Archives: July 2014

Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

Recently I’ve been thinking of a presentation that my colleague, Sarah Thomas, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, gave at the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute.  The problem that she brought up, as I understand it, is: how do we still have authentic writing and writing instruction in the classroom in an era where the assessment culture, driven by neoliberal notions about the purpose of education, dominate.  One of the audience members, Adam Hurig, who teaches at a community college, had the courage to say that he didn’t get the formative and summative assessment jargon that we were talking about.  I think it is the confluence of these two events that has clarified the direction of my continuing research and my decision to go back to school to get a doctorate.  To be clear: we have to fight the assessment culture that has become the dominant force in education.  And, concurrently, we have to train the teachers who will be practitioners at community colleges with the background and methods that will make them more than just content experts, but also able to talk back to their own institutions and to the education culture in ways that serve students.

I’m sure that these two items seem very different, so let me spend time with each of them and then try to synthesize them in a way that makes my “mad bomber” activism and perspective seem, I hope, a little more sane.  First, I think that most educators would agree that NCLB is a disaster, a failure of epic proportions.  I say that without hyperbole.  And I should be quick to add that by most educators I mean K-12 educators and professors in education departments.  Interestingly, while faculty in English and math departments at colleges and universities bemoan the preparation of their incoming students, they don’t know why the students are that way.  Really, I know it sounds like an over-generalization, but most of the faculty, good and smart people for the most part, know abstractly that NCLB and the testing culture that it has spawned are bad, but they don’t know why exactly and deeply.  Charles Simic, who is one of my favorite poets, is a good example of my colleagues’ attitudes.  In a post called “The Age of Ignorance” on the New York Review of Books website, he lambasts the public’s ignorance and their belief in conspiracies, creationism, love for foolish, yet attractive politicians etc., which he sees as a result of the dumbing down of the high school curriculum over decades.  When I posted this article on my Facebook feed, many of my professor friends were quick to like it and comment with something like an amen.  Of course, Simic fails to mention that we educate more of our populace than we ever have before and that many more students take an advanced curriculum that was only available to the rich 100 years ago.  His post smacks of elitism and it’s just wrong.  The curriculum isn’t to blame–it’s the assessment culture that has made the curriculum huge, but which also precludes the time to investigate deeply and creatively.  He’s right in a way, but for the wrong reasons, and his call from the ivory tower is condescending.  I would love to invite him to the high schools that my colleagues teach at or to the community college where I teach–it’s a different world.

But all of this doesn’t get rid of the fact that my students at my college are shockingly unprepared.  Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, college and university teachers are largely unprepared to undo any of the damage that has been committed to these students because of the test culture.  This fact brings us back to Adam, who I’m using as a cipher, with apologies, who teaches at a community college in Lincoln and to myself who teaches at a community college in Omaha.  We are both highly trained content experts.  We understand the deep teaching of writing, reading and thinking, and we work hard with our students.  However, he and I, like most teachers at community colleges, and I would bet like most teachers at universities haven’t had any methods training or training that gives us a background in the current issues in education.  Teachers like us only know and engage with the rhetoric of education and the current issues surrounding our national discourse on education if we are interested. And there are many many Charles Simic’s out there who would rather blame the curriculum than look deeply at real causes.  Of course, this isn’t new; Joseph Harris in Composition: A Teaching Subject since 1966 speaks directly to this as a cycle rather than something new.  When the sons of merchants entered Harvard in the 1800s, the professors were quick to point out that these students didn’t measure up. Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary tracks the increasing numbers of students being educated at higher and higher levels.  And never mind that, while my students cannot do the critical thinking that I want them to do, that they instead have digital literacies that astonish.

Simic writes that “A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business” and this is true.  The neoliberal ideology and corporate kleptocracy that run our country see students as human capital rather than as human beings to be developed.  Educators fall into this trap too, especially when we talk about the point of education, or the major outcome at the minimum, to be getting students “career ready.” We did not push back on the argument that our culture had about the purpose of an education.  And, unfortunately, we have substituted an education that prepares students to be citizens, activists and better humans, for an education that is interested in mere preparation to be a part of the economy.  We must never forget that those who run the economy aren’t interested in their subjects’ resistance to these systems.

All of which brings me to a recent conference that I attended in Austin Texas called NISOD–I was receiving a teaching excellence award that the organization doles out to its member colleges every year.  One of the keynote speakers was a woman from the Lumina foundation.  She explained that the goal of the foundation was to help 60% of Americans receive a degree or certificate by some date in the near future–the current rate is a little less than 30% nationally, so it’s an ambitious goal. And it sounds laudable right? But this rhetoric is insidious.  For colleges to judge the quality of their offerings, she suggested that we will have to engage in much more assessment, what Sarah called the “data culture” in her equip.  The speaker also made it clear that the reason why we needed 60% of our citizens to be educated with a degree or credential was so that they could engage in the 21st century economy–there was a little talk about being a good citizen, but it was clear that her version of a student was one who engaged with, rather that critiqued and resisted the global capitalism that has resulted in the larges income inequality in history and brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.  Lumina comes from the latin for light.  As I sat in the darkened auditorium with 500 other award winners though, I could see very little of the light going on with the education professionals there.  It sounds harsh, but community college instructors are largely unprepared to meet and resist the current rhetoric of education which is permeated by the assessment culture that has already overwhelmed and undermined my K-12 comrades.  I was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but it might be too late.

When I add this up, it this makes me even surer that my research work will revolve around critical pedagogy at the community college.  How do we make sure that our instructors have a broad view of the purpose of education?  We often talk about the poor persistence and completion rates at our community colleges.  And Vincent Tinto, the guru on student retention and success argues in Completing College that it all comes down to engagement.  We see engagement very narrowly in our culture–we see it as enticing students with the promise of future success in a competitive economy.  Perhaps though it is the students’ unconscious resistance to joining the rat race that makes them drop out.  What if instead we taught the whole student, what if we gave them the tools to be activists in their community against those unjust systems rather than worked to conform them in some way to fit within that system?

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Max and Dad Up to Bat: Connecting Writing and Baseball

Maxwell is up to bat.  He’s 10 and 4 ft 11 inches tall, a solid 100 lbs.  His swing is good, level, practiced through fall ball, winter clinics, weekly trips to the batting cage.  The kid on the mound is huge, his shoulders tell me he’s a farm kid, maybe he pulls the plow by himself.  He’s easily five eight and he’s throwing heat–the equivalent of a little league Nolan Ryan.  The first pitch is a ball and Max pulls himself out of the batting box holding up his right hand, the sign for time.  He steps back in, holding his hand up and wiggles his cleats down into the dirt.  He lowers his hand, adopts his stance and the pitcher lets go. “Strike!” growls the ump.  The ball hit the catcher’s mitt with a satisfying thwop–meaty and deep–the ball was flying.  The next pitch, Max gets a piece of it, pinging it foul to the first base side. The next pitch, a ball high and hard–Max’s whole body jerked he wanted it so bad, but he restrained himself.  Another pitch, another foul.  Another pitch, another ball a full count.  And a good AB, he’s making the pitcher work–making this demi-god who needs his birth certificate checked sweat a little bit in the humid after rain morning of Lincoln, Nebraska.  The next pitch Max swings… and misses. He’s out.  He has failed.  It was a good at bat though–seven pitches is a good attempt–it’s good work at the plate–it’s not the result he wants, but against a tough pitcher, a quality plate appearance is all one gets sometimes.

I’m in my office, and while the dimensions aren’t nearly that of a baseball park, something like an at bat is going on here, too.  I’m facing a page two-dimensionally projected onto my laptop screen,  my only spectator on old black lab who’s looking awfully sleepy at what must seem like a lack of action.  Hank Aaron wrote that the thing that he liked “about baseball is that it’s one-on-one. You stand up there alone, and if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake. If you hit a home run, it’s your home run.”  I’m working through the pitcher’s repertoire here, trying to get ink on the page that makes sense for the reader even if it’s only the equivalent of hitting a bloop single in A ball, hell maybe in sandlot ball.  I type a bit, and then a bit more, stop, put my hand on my head or drink my coffee.  I consider that I should be in the shower, should be making breakfast, should be waking my wife, but then reject all of that and come back to the plate or the page.  The great Yogi Berra once quipped that “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical” and this morning as my concentration ebbs and flows like the the concentration of my son in the batter’s box, I laugh at the genius of Berra.  It’s like there’s more happening than is possible, the control of the prose, the pushing of the ball out into a part of the field where no one is standing–feels immense–like more than two halves crammed into a whole.

Learning to hit a baseball well is the hardest thing in all of sport.  It’s simple physics really: hitting a sphere with a cylinder, which are both traveling at varying speeds, and are further affected by wind, temperature, humidity, and how the fallible human eye perceives it, all create lots of room for difficulties.  If I were a physicist, I could probably explain the fluid mechanics to you, but you’ll have to take my word for it–it’s hard.  Over the years of coaching baseball and now watching my son on a select team (he’s left my coaching abilities behind), I’ve seen countless kids cry after striking out, or after getting a weak grounder and being tagged out at first.  To say that there is no crying in baseball as Tom Hanks’s character claims in the film A League of their Own is patently ridiculous.  There’s also anger in baseball. I’ve watched kids wallop home plate with their bats and come back pissed to the dugout.  And, of course, on tv I’ve seen major league tantrums by major league players–bats destroying water coolers or rows of helmets.  Hell, in just the last week some guy went on the DL for breaking his hand in anger after a poor pitching performance.

Learning to write well is another of those hard skills.  In writing, I’m a player/coach, that is a writer and a teacher of writing.  One of my favorite grading standards that I’ve seen is: student is in control of the prose, which I suppose is like saying that the player has a good swing, but that doesn’t mean that the idea, the concept that we’re trying to tattoo down the line for a double, is holding still at all.  The ball isn’t controllable, but the swing is practicable. This morning I’m controlling the sentences as they come out, but the mind, the pitch, goes wildly everywhere, racing ahead of me like a fastball and suddenly cutting out from my ability to hit it like that nasty breaking stuff.

Baseball and writing are all about process, we spend time judging the product, but the work that makes that product possible is in a process. Last year for the city all star tournament, Max cried everytime he struck out (he was nine folks)–and there were a couple of epic strikeouts with runners on base, in scoring position, with the game on the line.  Max had to produce in that pressure filled situation.  It didn’t matter what he’d done the rest of the season, all those doubles to right and the stolen bases to get his team 60 feet closer to a run, he needed to produce here too.  After those games we rode home in my truck, such conversations should take place in a truck by the way, and I tried to tell him how to mentally work through those plate appearances–the pitcher’s weren’t better than Max, and I’m not saying that as a dad, it’s just that they were hittable–the task was doable, but the pressure got to him–he wasn’t in control of his process.  And I’ve had those moments writing too.  There are times when the sentence isn’t right and that I’m not saying what I mean.  Like right now, I want to bowl the reader over with beauty, with the connection of baseball and writing and how they both teach something about human endeavor.  I should go back to my advice in the truck, which was make contact with the ball, don’t worry about the homer, or the score, be present for the ball.  Being present for this sentence does teach me about human endeavor if I am there for it.

Often students tell me that they just aren’t good at writing and that they don’t like it.  I’ve come to believe that they just aren’t good at practice, which is something that baseball is teaching me over and over.  Every coach will haul out the old chestnut that you will practice like you play. It’s true; just as one has to write an essay many many times, has to free write for 15 minutes every morning, has to make sure their butt is in the chair at ‘o’ dark thirty, one also has to put the glove in the dirt while putting the second hand over it so that the ball doesn’t squirt out.  We build muscle memory in the field just like we do writing pushups.  Fielding and writing don’t happen overnight.  And just as with my writers, it’s enjoyable and satisfying to watch the growth of baseball players from year to year. What had seemed impossible two years ago, and improbable a year ago, is routine this year.  Max knows the two strike approach, he can protect the plate and extend the at bat most of time now–just as I, over the years, have learned to fill a page or two with something readable and coherent, if not brilliant and insightful.

The lesson of baseball is practice and that is the lesson of writing too.  The 15 minutes at the batting cages everyday is analogous to the 15 minute free write.  But it’s more than that, it’s also the lesson of process.  There is a right way to learn a batting stance and there is a right way to field the ball, but each of those right ways is subtly modified by the individual–there are several right batting stances and swings, but they must be arrived at through hundreds of hours of trial and error.  I think back to writing poems in notebooks as a senior in high school–terrible poems–like the worst hacks of the untrained batter.  I had a pen and paper, a bat and a field, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I  only had desire.

Taylor Mali, in his great poem “What Teachers Make”, quips that he teaches students to show their work in math and hide their work in English.  He tells his listener that he makes students write definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful over and over again until they will never ever misspell it.  Writing and baseball are like this: they hide the work that they do.  Maxwell is a catcher and he will go out and he’ll gear up and I’ll throw him nasty, mean balls that bounce and spin so that he can practice blocking the plate, being a wall as you’ll hear coaches scream.  Definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful as ball after ball hits his gear or his unprotected inner thigh, or bounces into his mask.  And it looks beautiful in the game, but it’s the ugly practice, the work, the catching of fly balls until the sun is so low that each one is a broken cheekbone waiting to happen that makes it work on the field.  Do the work, but hide it and look brilliant when you perform–this is the lesson of baseball and writing.  I know this because it’s 5:49 AM and I, too, am doing the ugly work of practice, trying to get the words right so that when others read them they are beautiful.

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