What Are College Students Used to Reading?

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As I read through another essay in Deep Reading, I was struck by the author’s commentary on her early years of learning. Meredith Ross (“The Unschooled Writer”), struggled with the “flat” or simplistic wording of tests: “I had grown up in a world of context and complexity, and the trivia questions and the flat answers in boxes just weren’t cutting it.” Granted this was referring to a test she took to be able to participate in a television show about “child geniuses,” still, these questions were not much different from many standardized tests. I should know, I used to write items for such tests! We had to avoid religion, emotion, controversial subjects, birthdays, anything too representative of wealth (an inner-city child might be offended if we used the word “yacht” instead of boat), etc. Basically, anything interesting or well-rounded in nature. Apparently students should not be distracted by variety or anything requiring imagination.

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What I am getting at here is her emphasis on “content and complexity.” It seems that fewer and fewer students enter college with an expectation of anything more than flat, generic questions based on hyper-edited-for-easy-content passages and photo-dense pages—this goes for course reading and textbooks–not just tests. They seem to be more shocked by challenge than bored by blandness.

She bucked at the idea of having to be right the first time: “Almost every mistake I made as a child, small or large, was . . . understandable [and] easily correctable . . . rather than an insurmountable failure or something that needed to be addressed seriously.” Trial and error were part of her process. Especially her writing process. So why do so many freshmen sit silently and afraid to risk mistakes these days? I used to have students who would at least try to guess. Even light sarcasm is better than silence in most instances. But silence is more and more common.

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Perhaps inserting a sense of humor into the mix might help: “I don’t know if there’s a better lesson for a writer to learn: do your best, and if it comes out wrong, just laugh and know better next time.” I do try but it seems that they aren’t sure they should laugh either!

Overall, I’d like to see more students these days react like Ross and abhor the tedium, expect the complex and the engaging, and take the risk.

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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Without Darkness, How Can We Appreciate the Light?

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A friend recently found out about a family member’s 10-year obsession with her. They had been compulsively collecting and cataloging her failures and perceived cruelties and mistakes. Their intractable and absolute conclusions as to her intentions and actions over this time, and perhaps even earlier, currently exist as highlighted, underlined, and (probably alphabetized) chronological “proof” of her awfulness. A solution or reconciliation did not seem to be the purpose here and my friend began to think this archive was apparently “evidence” for a retaliation of an undisclosed nature. Regardless of how many times my friend tried to address the root of the problem, the relative would not participate in a solution. It seems that to ask for clarification of, or response to, these logged behaviors would make the accuser have to acknowledge their own failures (the root cause of the dilemma is not necessary to the point here, so the personal details will be omitted).

In this mind-numbing set of circumstances, my friend found herself stilled and bereft of creativity and confidence. She had become very self conscious and nervous after this revelation. If this person were so obsessed with her weaknesses, real or perceived, how would she fare under the scrutiny of others who are not obligated by blood or kinship to be kind or compassionate? After all, even informed and logical life choices she had made had been twisted out of context. How could she guide reality? This worry affected her writing. Her opinions were tepid. Ambition, rather moderate. It took some time before she would even practice yoga in our group! Her sadness would not dissipate; but, she did brave asking me what she should think of all of this. Was she really what this person claimed?

The only thing I could say with certainty is that the need to believe in and, thus, prove the worst is simply just that–a need–rather than a reality or truth. Like other forms of interpretation, what may look to be absolute may have more meaning if one educates oneself beyond the surface “evidence.” If one refuses to question or confront something, any reality can become terrible and impossible to participate in or change. This participation in reality takes strength and courage, not the hoarding of pain and blame. The family member was without the ability to understand or care about this.

After this discussion, she disappeared into herself for a while. Then, after about two months, she reached out. She told me that, after a time, all the obsession about the betrayal began to feed a different energy. She became more analytical about the whole thing. Rather objective. She couldn’t really explain her internal process, but she could offer some solace or help to those in similar situations or difficult circumstances by sharing her experience as a kind of allegory for questioning the self. With calm meditation and reflection, it became evident that her antagonist was quite the narcissist, less focused on revenge than self validation in relation to my friend’s abilities, and accomplishments. The antagonist did not want to acknowledge their own faults. Their lacking was easier to ignore or deny if someone else was to blame for their own life choices or their inability to make wise ones. The accuser stopped being a nemesis holding a “loaded “pile of paperwork “aimed” at her and threatening her very permission to exist as a faulted individual. Her identity could no longer be reworked and scripted through a curated installment of electronic and print missives. For my friend, there was a kind of “dark night of the soul” before her inner light and common sense could regain their rightful place in her consciousness. But that light did illuminate reality and offer the comfort she needed.

My friend’s succumbing to fear and insecurity had been part of the person’s goal; but, she found that hiding and cringing took  more energy than finding relief.  The obsession should remain with the obsessed and not participated in or subscribed to. Through engagement with discomfort and fear came reassurance and affirmation.

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The key here is that her “soul” or inner spirit endured and expelled the darkness. She maintained a sense of self that even a long and highlighted list of ill-informed accusations or misinterpreted scenarios could not eradicate.

We cannot control the results of, or reactions to, our actions, intended or unintended. There really is no outside environment that is worthy of arresting our right to create, grow, learn, and teach. What we can do is move forward and learn to identify what is true and renounce what is false. Then we should, if possible, not walk away but use the experiences to inform our next, productive moves.

What “dark night” can you turn into fodder for creative growth?

Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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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.