“We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!” Tim McClendon, Pastor and Potter

I found the above statement in a blog post as I researched mainstream perspectives on direct and open communication. It all began with my last post and my concern about the limitations many of us put on ourselves and others in our own avoidance of discomfort or healing. This particular blog was on Southern passive-aggressive behavior and the classic “bless your heart” avoidance of frankness.

Much like the NY “borough Italian” upbringing of my youth, there is this idea that direct talk is too aggressive–that indirect statements lead to desired results without drama. But, no, this just creates a nervous “what if I misunderstood the cues?” angst–and no one will admit this because that is being too direct and open! The only difference I see between the Southern and Italian-American* way of communicating is that the latter treats it as an art from while the former just thinks its good manners.

The timing is also an issue. The passive aggressive statements are often an ambush. They are not offered with constructive intent or in a time frame that could contribute to a solution.  They are often belated. Snipes scheduled to cut. The recipient cannot easily respond without seeming reactionary or emotional–thus, deserving of the cut.

I find that my blood pressure goes up exponentially and my manners go out the window in the face of passive aggressive behavior. It’s disrespectful in my eyes and I, unfortunately, lose respect for the person. I’ve been told that I am extremely aggressive and hard to approach when someone has a complaint. That comes from people who are not direct talkers. It is from people who hold onto real or imagined slights and wait until I have complaint to bring theirs forward. Why hold on to something? What if I keep doing that over and over because I don’t realize I’m doing it or that it is upsetting? Direct people never stop being direct with me and I tend to understand how to act with them and what their needs are.

McClendon mentions a time that his father just stewed as a woman took liberties photographing pottery in the museum he was running. Instead of putting a stop to it, he let her run rampant then said something to the effect of having her stay for dinner while she’s at it. She accepted–not realizing he was being passive aggressive/sarcastic. Or maybe, being rude to begin with, she had no compunction about saving money by eating with them. He then proceeded, behind her back, after she left, to fume about her.

But, as McClendon pointed out to his father, he invited her! He allowed her to run roughshod over him initially and then accept insincere hospitality. In fact, direct confrontation might have created a different outcome. Perhaps, having just been overly enthusiastic, she would have been embarrassed and polite once she had been confronted–politely. Instead, the only good thing I can find in this is that the passive aggressive behavior backfired and the father did not get any satisfaction from it. The possible middle outcome: She was still a rude person but he stood his ground and cut short her infraction.

Confrontation is not bad in and of itself. It’s making sure that everyone is on the same page. We don’t always know we are being inappropriate or upsetting. We do, however, dislike being told belatedly about trespasses or things that might not have been if direct communication came into play. Passive aggressive saves up ammunition. Respectful confrontation stops problems and prevents patterns.

*I use the term Italian-American because I can’t speak for Italians everywhere in terms of communication. I can say that the kind of “indirect speak” that people witness in The Godfather and The Sopranos (complete with knowing look and pause) is what I grew up with—although with much less dire consequences when misunderstood!

If you’d like to read more from McClendon’s blog: https://wtmcclendon.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/southern-passive-aggressive-behavior/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-5

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Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

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I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

Literature and the Writing Process

orwellAs I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?

Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.

There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?

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Always Learning, Always Improving

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The fall semester, for me, is one of the busiest of the year. I tend to have the most classes to teach, multiple writing and editing projects, and added travels on the weekends. It’s all a good dilemma of time allotment, but it does make me have to reprioritize and I must move some interests, obligations, and enjoyments to the background for a bit. As you have noticed, updating my posts has been one of the enjoyments/interests that has had to gather a bit of dust.

Still, does this mean I’ve stopped writing? No. Have I forgotten about this page and this amazing community? No. In fact, I often imagine having a moment to write to you and share thoughts and observations. It’s a bit like keeping a friend in mind even though you can’t see them often. You plan what you will say or write when you have the next chance. And this is what has been happening while I’ve been “away.”

Over the fall, I joined a Faculty Interest Group (FIG) at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) where I teach composition. Some of our questions: If students have weak reading comprehension skills and remain passive recipients rather than active participants in the content that they must engage with, how can we expect them to formulate their own writing with any coherence or authority? But, if we assume students have weak reading skills, we do risk denying stronger students the chance to step right in to active discussion and emulation, leading to independent writing style. So, for our winter-break we chose the text Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau.

As I begin this book, I think that it would be important to share my findings with you as well as the FIG. So, over the next weeks, I’ll be posting my observations here. Please feel free to correct or question me during this process. I’d love to know your thoughts.

Sticks and Stones . . . and Trigger Warnings

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Why do we educate? To meet a demand? What kind of demand are we addressing? I’ve been thinking about what it means to educate as opposed to teach. And then as I read, yes, The Atlantic, there was an article  related to my ruminations. In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address the limitations that are being heaped on professors as they work to provide students with reliable and unabridged content in their classrooms. This is really a tangled and complex subject to discuss and cannot fully be addressed in a single blog post, but the core of the issue, to me, is this: Anyone able to access higher education (i.e., they have graduated from high school) is presumed to be old enough and academically experienced enough to engage in open discussion and debate in relation to specific subject matter that is voluntarily received (i.e., attending college is optional, not compulsory).

Even the required core courses can be dropped and taken another time or online if a student does not like the professor, classmates, or topics. So, is it really necessary, even logical, to put the onus on the professors to offer Trigger Warnings to students in case an individual has experienced some form of trauma that may or may not be triggered by a reading, discussion, or even word that no one not related closely to said student could possibly predict? Can the individual even know ahead of time that something may trigger him/her? If the student does know that they cannot tolerate certain subject matter, shouldn’t they be obligated to ask the professor the overall trajectory of the course’s subject matter? Isn’t that what the first day and the syllabus are for?

Now, for those who think in terms of difficult schedules and the student’s inability to simply drop or change classes without their entire academic or work schedule being dismantled or seriously affected, I ask: Isn’t life littered with such inconveniences and dilemmas? What happens if someone breaks their leg and their job entails moving around quite a bit?  Does this mean the employers change the nature of the job or the employee figures out how to do the job, take a leave of absence, or go on disability? The latter of course.

So, if a student cannot tolerate, for any reason, the nature of the subject matter in a course, the course does not need to change, the student must regroup and figure out how to work with the need for change. Like an employee, the student can always approach the professor or the Chair or the Dean and discuss possible alternatives. BUT if the alternatives change the nature of the learning outcomes for that course, the student then is not actually engaging in that class. This then means the student must meet their objectives for core coursework or major concentration by changing classes, period. The student must acknowledge that there is more personal work to be done before they can fully engage in their academic ambitions.

There is no law or rule that says one cannot return to school when more mature, secure, or confident. After all, putting education on your terms is not about treating learning like a commodity or creating a rigid protocol on what you are willing to encounter, but acknowledging that you have limitations to overcome and strengths to draw from and taking the responsibility to make the changes and adjustments needed rather than forcing very carefully considered and scheduled materials to be altered.

What Causes Laziness?

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Maybe asking “What is laziness?” might be more appropriate for this post. I’m not discussing the lackadaisical feeling that comes with a nice spring day or even a general feeling of lethargy after illness or when faced with unwanted tasks to complete. I am concentrating on the kind of laziness that prevents someone from bothering to do their best and, in its manifestation, shows a lack respect for the people affected by this inaction or indifference.

For my courses, I have a strict attendance policy that includes limitations on how late a student can arrive. After the 10-minute cut off, the late arrival is recorded and, at three instances, these become the equivalent of one absence.  At four absences, the final grade drops one letter. At five, the course is failed. Why? Because structure is important for learning–especially in a community. It’s also about respect as well as goals and outcomes. So, if a student shows up late regularly, they disrupt my lecture or a fellow student’s commentary/presentation, and it is inevitable that the chronic absentees will ask repeatedly for updates. In both cases, the students’ work calculably suffers from their lack of engagement.

Yes, I do also have a policy on unnecessary phone or computer use: After three instances the student is marked absent and each time after that they are marked absent (see above for attendance policy). If I am putting effort out for their benefit, this laziness tells me that my efforts are wasted and also disregarded.

This is an issue in some yoga classes as well. Some students do not respect the time the teacher is taking for us and will look at cell phones, answer them, or generally start talking about things unrelated to the class. Really, it’s not like they have time to be bored. This lack of consideration for the overall goals of the class and the group as a whole is of concern.

This is where the issue of laziness comes in. Courtesy and compassion take effort. Effort at paying attention. Effort at considering life outside of your own. Effort at acknowledging that the person in charge is there because they are an expert and want to teach these skills to those who took the seat or mat space that someone else might have had access to.

I think that the absence of respect and consideration come from a lack of inspiration or a lack of vision as to what the moment’s teaching and can lead to. How ready are people to reach out of a comfort zone and face being unsure in the next steps of a process? This inability to think beyond the moment or to create a sense of connection between subject matter or colleagues and classmates should not be an insurmountable condition.

I think that laziness in the face of learning comes from a disconnect from a sense of goals. A lack of instant gratification and a dearth of foresight. In other words, this type of laziness is not a benign state of procrastination, nor is it necessarily a passing state of being. Without a connection to a long-term goal (with flexibility in outcomes), there is no spirit in one’s effort and the laziness that brings about indifference could become a chronic condition.

No amount of regulation and rules will help. the only thing left to those of us affected is to create structure and adhere to our standards. Compassion and patience do come in to play, but the recipient has to be ready to make proper use of these. I try to be that guide but, sometimes, I must remove the lazy person from my class or move away from the classmate. It’s the uncomfortable effort I must put out if I am going to learn and progress.