Something happened to me recently. A change crossed the seasons of my mind. It was cold and windy, conditions I happen to like, and I was hiking along a desolate ridge buffeting back and forth with the stunted pines and the browned summer grasses clumped along the trail.
A flurry of snowbirds, mostly Dark-eyed Juncos, picked across the hillside. Wave after wave of them cycled into the slot canyon, escaping the wind, probably in search of shelter but not really in any perceivable hurry. At times they paused and bounded from limb to limb in a short tree. They grabbed hold during particularly gusty moments. They always let go to float in the wind, before dropping out of sight with a flash of white tail feather into the dense cover of winter grass.
The birds were playing. They enjoyed the bluster. Every time I thought the flock ran its course, another surge of birds blew through the bramble of hillside. It went on like this until I left. It wasn’t dozens of birds. Hundreds and hundreds filtered into the slot canyon to hunker down or hang out or do whatever it is that winter birds do.
Earlier I graded a mix of essay assignments for college writing and personal narrative exercises for creative writing. The grading went on and on, page after page, and I found myself, instead of hurrying for some arbitrary finish line, slowing down and hunkering into the brambles of the morning. It was as if I enjoyed the small successes I discovered on every new page, as if I enjoyed being a teacher. A thought planted itself at that moment, but it wasn’t until later in the day, all bundled up and leaning into the wind, that I allowed that thought to really take hold.
Those birds reminded me of teaching. Year to year, semester to semester, class to class, assignment to assignment teaching incorporates the embrace of repetition. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed teaching a 4/4 load. It’s easy to complain about how difficult it is to balance scholarship, teaching, and homelife. Teaching blogs, and social media accounts, and hushed conversations with colleagues often turn negative about all the difficult aspects of modern teaching. To be clear, this job is difficult when done correctly. It really isn’t any easier when it’s rushed or procrastinated, but spending the time to grade, to really hear what a student is trying to say is not only important to the student’s progress, but it’s vital to the teacher’s enthusiasm.
Those birds in that canyon reminded me of all the students I’ve taught and all the students I’ll teach. They reminded me of all my classes, and all my assignments, and all my afternoons spent grading. And they reminded me that being buffeted around in a cold wind might not be for everybody, but it’s okay to like it. It’s okay to play around in it. It’s okay. There will still be days where I struggle to not procrastinate, where I struggle to find energy – because this job is difficult, but even those many waves of birds had to end sometime and even after playing in the wind they did drop down to take cover for a little while, so maybe I’m a winter bird. Maybe that’s the magic that I tap into. And maybe it’s okay to like the difficult things in life.
There are many clichés around the idea of what it means for a job to be well done. I’ll not linger in that space. I’ll just end by saying I’m a flock of winter birds floating and fighting and playing in the wind for as long as I can stand, before I give up for a little while and hide away. Here’s the thing. Those snowbirds can’t have stayed grounded forever. They entered back into the fray at some point. I just didn’t see them take flight, but I know they did it. They’re bound to take flight over and over again regardless of the conditions or how they feel about the wind or whatever issues they’re having that day.
The hardest thing I do in the classroom is time travel, or, actually, remembering to do the time travel thing. In almost every class, it seems I am put upon to enter this little time machine that I keep beside my desk at the front of the room, push the yellow, green, red blinking lights, flip a few switches, and settle back for a trip into my past. Actually, the trip only takes a split second, and the students in my class, thanks to time shifts, space expansions, wobbly continuums, galactic warps—or whatever ( I teach social work not physics), never realize I was gone. But I go—most of the time anyway.
Here is an example of how it might happen: time to hand in homework. A student says that she did not get the assignment done. There—that’s enough. The little thrust burners ignite on the time machine. I smell the smoke from the little combustion chambers. (If I do not smell the smoke or hear the machine rattling, then something is wrong—not with the machine but with me.) So, before I can make an unfavorable comment to the student, I jump into the machine.
A voice immediately says, “Remember when you were a student? Thank you. We hope you enjoyed your memory.”
(Wow—more than once I did not do what the teacher expected of me. And I think more than once I had some teachers who also did a little time travelling for my sake….)
And I jump back out of the machine and say to the student, “OK, I understand. Try to get it to me later today.”
That machine has helped me to be a better teacher. Sure, there are times when I forget it is there at my disposal. And some of those times I have not done too well in an effort to understand a student’s challenges. Most of the time, though, that little time machine has helped me think right and speak right.
By the way, as intricate as that machine is, it cost me nothing….
Does anyone else feel guilty about lecturing? I know guilt very well (I’m Catholic after all) and I’ve felt shamed in my teaching and learning literature by others using contemporary active-learning techniques in higher education. Specifically, there seems to be overwhelming hate for lecturing. I get a weekly digest from The Chronicle of Higher Education and at the top of the list for the week was a column by David Gooblar titled: Is It Ever OK to Lecture? The column’s argument logically starts with placing active-learning methods over the traditional lecture. Yes, the argument hedges with a lawyerly “it depends” on the students, setting, and subject, but it still bothered me since I like lectures: I like to give them and I like to hear them. My reach with some active-learning methods is tethered to my subject.
So, I teach commercial law at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It’s not a flashy subject that lends well to inspirational science labs, explosives, murders, or field experientials. It involves books and paperwork. I once had a managerial accounting course where we were tasked to build Lego auto-shops to demonstrate variable costs, overhead, and accounts receivable. I had a management course where we did the full Myers-Briggs Type Indicator battery and we used the scores for team construction and task assignments. Those courses stick with me. Honestly, to excel at commercial law, it requires the master skills of attentiveness to detail, logic, planning, voluminous reading, and lots of writing; no theatrics here. Commercial law has a lot historical baggage that needs to be unpacked since most of the English common law concepts and precedents – like The Statute of Frauds, The Statute of Wills, and The Statute of Uses – are over 500-years old; and certain property concepts like the Livery of Seisin go back to the Anglo-Saxons and that’s not even getting into civil law rooted in Rome and Greece. Yes, there’s the courtroom and case components but, arguably, in transactional law, going to court is often indicative of a failure in the procedure; the goal is to stay out of court. It’s hard to spice all this up. Thus, when I lecture I do employ some active-learning methods to accomplish the total course objectives of understanding the “why” of commercial law by doing case analysis role-playing from how a business owner sees law and regulation opposed to a historian, philosopher, or a lawyer. I want them to know how to react to laws, rules, and contracts as business owners.
Some may say that this pedagogy is indeed active-learning. Maybe. But I still feel guilty; especially after reading many works extolling active-learning. Do I need a confiteor specific for higher education? I confess that I enjoy lecturing: I like the Socratic exchange (mea culpa), I like student’s hypotheticals showing integration (mea culpa), I could live off that flash of understanding when you know you’re understood (mea maxima culpa).
In my search for absolution, I read an article from The Atlantic about the virtues of the lecture. The article is critical of the new methods of “mini-lessons” (teaching for 10-minutes and then doing applications), flipped classrooms (lower level outcomes performed before a class session to focus on application with little or no lecture), and new mastery technologies (like the Kahn Academy) eliminating tests. I’ll try to not go to full-metal-Marxist but all these new methods and technologies sure do smack of the alienation of labor (just saying). The article also praises lecturing as modeling expertise, erudition, and passion for one’s field. It quotes a researcher in that good lecturing is an art honed from hours of practice and dedication. There’s a safety in the anonymity of a lecture for a learner to wrestle with complexity and not be dispirited and embarrassed through a discussion.
For all the vitriol against the anachronism of the traditional lecture, one must recognize its ubiquity; my solace. Aside from the obvious use of lecture in education: lectures are used in church homilies and sermons; lectures are found on the news on radio, podcasts, and television; lectures are used in documentaries and TED Talks. But I’m biased. I experienced the Socratic method in law school, and loved it. I just think there’s virtue in the lecture, and I hope it doesn’t disappear: shamed into obsolescence in favor of weaker simulacra in the name of progress. Is a lecture so bad?
 Gooblar, D. (2019, Jan. 17) Is It Ever OK to Lecture? The Chronicle of Higher Education, retrieved from: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/2153-is-it-ever-ok-to-lecture?cid=VTEVPMSED1
 Bain, K. (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
 Doyle, T. (2011) Learner Centered Teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC: Sterling, VA.
 Walthausen, A. (2013, Nov 21) Don’t Give Up on the Lecture: Teachers that Stand in Front of Their Classes and Deliver Instructions are “out-of-touch-experts” –They’re Role Models. The Atlantic, retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/dont-give-up-on-the-lecture/281624/
 Marx, K. (1932) Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Alienate Labor Page 30. Progress Publishers: Moscow, Russia. Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf
Quoting: “What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, that is, that it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel well but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His work therefore is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self- sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him – that is, operates as an alien, divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.”
 See Walthausen, A. (2013, Nov 21).
With the colder weather coming, I think of ice fishing.
For years, I lived in Massachusetts and used to go ice fishing on Cape Cod. There were so many lakes and ponds with cool names. There was one in Barnstable called Lake Wequaquet, just off of Shootingfly Hill. In the little town of Marstons Mills, there was Hamblin Pond and, in Mashpee, you’d find John’s Pond. While the name was nothing out of the ordinary, Hooppole Road leading to it was.
There were holes to be drilled in ice all over the Cape: Hawknest Pond in Harwich, Pilgrim Lake in Orleans, and Gull Pond in Wellfleet. And the very first time I saw a flag spring up to let me know of my catch (a perch) was on the thick ice at Schoolhouse Pond in Chatham.
So how does this all relate to teaching, you ask? A poem may help…
Ice Fishing in Room 103
It’s the flag
that springs up
when learning strikes
that makes me
want to teach
or, at least, salute.
Far-sighted lesson plans
sense and inquiry.
the flag doesn’t trip-
the lecture drifts
or the exercise
in deep-water paradigm.
That’s when I reach
for the tackle box,
the one scratched
in reality bites.
You can make cases
for tables and tenets
and textbook theories
it’s the hook of practicality
that keeps me from saying
you should have seen
that got away.
Kenney, R. (2019, January). Ice fishing in room 103. Retrieved from
(scroll down to 1/13/19)
A new semester begins with new-ish classes to teach, and I find myself wondering (again) how to get non-English majors interested in reading literature. This task feels daunting in our current cultural and political moment, where state and federal government continue to defund higher education and public school educators are on strike just to make a living wage. The humanities especially continue to draw the short stick, perhaps because of sticky myths: English majors are out-of-touch dreamers; English majors cannot find jobs; English majors do not make money; English majors only teach, etc.
When in reality, large tech companies and successful business CEOs want more Humanities majors because of all the soft skills they acquire. One big challenge for advisors, students, and employers is that English does not compute into a one to one equivalent. For example, when you major in Business with a concentration in Accounting, you will most likely be an accountant. Yet, this equivalent is harder to determine when majoring in a humanistic discipline like English, History, or Philosophy. Instead, Humanities majors have uncountable possibilities. The problem arises in translating which skills from humanistic inquiry apply to job ads. While more time consuming to delineate, there are a host of jobs that require humans to relate to other humans.
Reading literature, and the college experience more generally, is not solely about gainful employment (or so I claim). Liberal Arts courses also make us better humans. I ask again, why read literature? Here is what I posted to my course introduction on Chadron State College’s online teaching platform CSC_Online:
You might be asking yourself, why do I have to take a literature class when I want to be a nurse, accountant, basketball star, or fill in the blank with your chosen career path? Many popular magazine articles and scholarly studies alike have shown that the study of literature teaches you what white-collar professionals call soft skills. Soft skills are those higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking, inquiry, and argumentation. While studying literature, you might find yourself surprised to know that you can apply many of the things we learn in this class to your profession. In fact, many tech companies and large corporations like to hire English majors and other Liberal Arts majors because we are good at communicating clearly and effectively, we understand how to find out what people want, we have more empathy, we can research well and articulate our findings to different audiences, we work well in groups and alone, and we are great at presenting complex ideas.
In addition to these skills, I’ve linked two articles below that discuss how reading literature makes us better humans, makes us smarter, and makes us kinder people in a confusing world.
Let me know what you think. I am grateful to suggestions and questions.
CSC Online-Sakai will be unavailable on March 5, 2019, 6 am – 12 pm MT in order to update to the currently supported version of the Sakai learning management system.
Impact on Students, Faculty, and Staff
- CSC Online-Sakai will be unavailable during the scheduled upgrade window on March 5, 2019.
- Upon completion of the upgrade, all course tools, content, and layouts in active courses will not be impacted. LMS users will notice minor adjustments concerning mobile navigation, the Favorite Sites bar, and styling adjustments (such as colors and button sizes).
Additional Changes for Faculty
In addition to the previously listed changes, the following will also directly impact course instructors:
- The Modules tool and all content contained in the Modules tool will not be available in all course sites.
- The TLC has preserved Modules content in many previous courses. Faculty are responsible for verifying that all content needed for future courses is preserved, and to contact the TLC (firstname.lastname@example.org, ext. 7068) for any assistance prior to Feb 22, 2019.
- This change does not affect any active course. Modules was removed from the list of available course tools in December 2017. Content in other tools (e.g. Resources, Lessons, etc.) will not be affected.
- Minor user interface changes to improve user experience on mobile devices and an improved Favorite Sites navigation menu.
- Improved process for testing accommodations. A new option will be available to extend delivery of Tests & Quizzes for select students or groups.
- Lessons tool enhancements. Allow optional navigation of subpages in the left-hand menu. New embeddable Lessons widgets for forums, announcements, calendar, and resources.
- The Lessons tool enhancements will not affect active courses. Instructors may choose to utilize any of the new features.
- Behind-the-scenes changes to greatly improve compliance with web accessibility standards.
- Bug fixes and platform updates to improve performance, stability and system security.
Training and Communications
- Students and faculty will be notified of the upgrade and related downtime via School meetings, VPAA Update, a Sakai banner ad, and an email announcement.
- Faculty and adjuncts will be invited to participate in “What’s New in CSC Online” sessions. The latest version of CSC Online will be demonstrated and questions will be answered.
- Four sessions are scheduled to be offered in-person and via Zoom in February. Faculty and adjuncts may request additional sessions or one-on-one consultations (in-person or via Zoom) by contacting the TLC (email@example.com, ext. 7068).
|2/12/19, 8:00 am||“What’s New in CSC Online” session #1 (in person – Old Admin #030)|
|2/12/19, 5:00 pm||“What’s New in CSC Online” session #2 (video conference – csc.zoom.us/j/3084327089)|
|2/15/19, 3:30 pm||“What’s New in CSC Online” session #3 (in person – Old Admin #030)|
|2/21/19, 5:00 pm||“What’s New in CSC Online” session #4 (video conference – csc.zoom.us/j/3084327089)|
|2/22/19||Deadline to contact TLC for assistance with preserving Modules content|
|3/5/19||CSC Online-Sakai upgrade is scheduled for 6 am – 12 pm.|