Image: The Eagle Earned Demerits: An Educational Allegory
In 1898, the Journal of Education published “An Educational Allegory” by Amos E. Dolbear writing under the pseudonym Aesop, Jr.1 In his allegory, Dolber is righty critical of one-size-fits-all testing methods that are still being used today. Dolbear’s eagle received demerits even though he reached the top of the tree because he did not accomplish the task in the prescribed way. He flew instead of climbed. Dolbear’s duck was required to learn to run. The result was that “the time taken by the duck in learning to run the prescribed rate had so hindered him from swimming that he was scarcely able to swim at the prescribed rate.”
Too often, we become so caught up in the rules that we miss the essence of what we hope to accomplish. If the goal is getting to the top of the tree, does it make any difference if the student flies or climbs as long as they accomplish the goal? Good pedagogy is not finding the single best practice to enforce on all students. It is designing pedagogies that lead to student success.
I am not arguing that there are no skills that everyone in a class needs to learn. But if students must do something in a certain way, we must be very clear on why the required process is important. For example, there is a correct way to write an author’s name in a particular format. “Berg, Steven L.” is wrong in APA which requires “Berg, S.L.” If a student is in the sciences, they need to know that the correct way to get to the top of the tree for their discipline is a type of proper documentation that they likely will not learn in their English writing classes. When I teach formatting, I tell students about the time I had a manuscript rejected because I used the wrong formatting. I pose the rhetorical question, “Should an editor trust my research if I was too careless not to get the formatting requirements for the publication correct?” Proper documentation as defined by the disciple is a must for getting to the top of the tree.
In my classes, I require students to purchase a 1.5” binder with 31 pre-printed tabs. Students must follow these directions or I won’t grade their binder at the end of the semester. I do provide students with the rationale for this requirement and hope that they understand that I am not simply being arbitrary because they have no choice other than to do what I say. But, for most of what we do in the classroom, such rigidity is not required.
When we require that our students make certain purchases, we must remain conscious of the financial reality faced by our students. We know that 67% of community college students work while in college with 32% working 35+ hours per week. Many attend school part-time because they cannot afford full time tuition and books. Requiring a specific type of binder and specific tabs is a big potential burden for students. I feel comfortable with this requirement, however, because at my particular institution, our college bookstore can supply students with the binder/tabs for less than $10. Furthermore, I never use formal textbooks in my on campus classes. On those rare occasions when I do require a trade book, I set a maximum price of $25,2 but they are generally in the $9.00-$18.00 price range.
As professors, we need to be conscientious of any financial restraints placed on our students. Students frequently do not have the disposable income for “extras” which can be defined as anything more than tuition. For many students, this extra includes the costs of textbooks and lunch.
I have stopped requiring students to dress professionally for class presentations, in part, because students frequently do not have dress clothes to wear. And they do not have the means to purchase new clothes for one day of class. In the past, I have purchased clothes for students, but this is not a viable solution because to get my assistance, students would need to go through the often humiliating, class-based outing of themselves to tell me that they didn’t have appropriate clothes to wear.
What if a student's anxiety prevents them from telling us what they need? Or if their family and/or culture prohibits asking for help in that way? What would happen differently in a curriculum that doesn't require such outing in order to pass? As I have grappled with these questions, I have come to another one that is even more disturbing to me. How many of my former students skipped their presentation rather than admit that they could not meet the clothing requirement?
In this chapter, I am going to begin with the myth that, to have a flexible classroom, the professor needs to hide their political and spiritual beliefs. I will argue that there is a difference between using our backgrounds as individuals to influence the work we bring to the classroom and proselytizing. For students to know those backgrounds is not the same as proselytizing to students.
I will continue the chapter by building on Dolbear’s criticism of inflexible rules before concluding with an essay about extending the classroom into our offices.
Image: The American Caravan
Political Transparency in the Classroom
Too many years ago to remember the source, I read an article by a political science professor who was proud of the fact that, at the end of the semester, his students were unaware of his political views. I remember thinking, “How sad.”
As someone who has been involved in politics since he was in seventh grade, I have many stories to tell about campaigning for various candidates, working for a Member of Congress and a State Senator, managing millage elections, and being on the ballot myself. If I taught political science, it would be a shame if I could not share these experiences with students because doing so would allow them to know my political views.
Arguably, the safest approach might be to take the position of the political science professor and not mention our political views in class. However, even such a seemingly safe approach is doomed to failure. Simply assigning a reading or selecting a topic for discussion might be viewed as advocating our personal positions. For example, a student once complained that I was trying to force my religious views onto the class because I taught a lesson on Muhammad Iqbal who was the intellectual founder of Pakistan. Even after being informed that I am not a Muslim, the student persisted in their complaint that I was promoting my religion.
A less extreme case where an assignment can take on political meaning is when I screen Immersion (2009), a short film about a Mexican-born boy attending a school where teachers are forbidden to speak Spanish to their students. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, students in 2017 could too easily have jumped to the incorrect conclusion that the film concerns the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and that I am showing it to advocate against President Trump’s immigration policy. In 2018, students could have assumed that I was screening it in opposition to President Trump’s position on immigration in general and specifically about his sending troops to the United States/Mexican border in response to the Central American migrant caravan which was heading toward America. In 2019, students could assume that I was screening the film in opposition to keeping children in detention camps.
Immersion was not written about DACA, which did not begin accepting applicants until five years after the film was released. Nor does it have anything specifically to do with the migrant caravan or the issue of detention centers or the President’s immigration policy. But, as a professor, I need to be aware of the lens through which students might view the film.
So what, then, is the solution? While there is not, unfortunately, an easy answer to this question, transparency has generally worked for me.
From the beginning of the semester, I explain—and often repeat—that “While Mr. Berg might care passionately about your political views, Dr. Berg doesn’t give a damn.” Because I am not prone to swearing in the classroom, the mild profanity adds to the impact of the statement which I follow up with specific examples. Sometimes, I tell the story of a former student who advocated that homosexuality is sinful. I explain that I disagreed with the student’s analysis not because I am gay but because I prefer reading scripture—or any text—in its socio-historical context. The student took a more literal approach to scripture. His approach is valid and he earned a 4.0 in a class in which he argued that his professor was going to Hell.
This does not mean that all points of view have equal merit in my classroom. In my classroom, we distinguish between educated and uneducated opinions. For example, I once upset a student by asking him to provide evidence to support his argument during a class discussion. His response was that he had a right to his opinions. “While that is true,” I replied, “in this class you must provide evidence.” He decided to drop the course.
In this case, the issue was not the student’s political views. In my role as arbiter of grades, I did not care about his views. The student could have earned an “A” in the course—if he provided evidence—regardless of his personal politics.
During the 2010 election, I became the darling of the young Republicans on our campus because I actively promoted many of their events, especially a speaker’s series in which they brought the Michigan gubernatorial candidates to campus. Although I would not have voted for any of these candidates, I thought it was great that our students would be able to interact with the people running for governor, one of whom was eventually elected. That same year, I served as the faculty chaperone for a Republican fundraiser to help pay for the costs of this series. Students who knew Mr. Berg’s political views were not surprised to see Dr. Berg show up.
Sharing political views in the 2020 classroom is much more dicey than it was in 2010. Reaching across the aisle is viewed with disdain by core voters who demonize those who disagree with them. When I used my letter writing for Vote Forward as part of a lesson during the 2018 campaign, I ran the risk of someone claiming that I was being partisan with this example. Yet, as part of the lesson, I explained how students could become involved in such Get Out the Vote efforts regardless of their political ideology.
Because I am transparent about my political views, use examples that are relevant to the classroom, am respectful of the views of others, and truly “don’t give a damn” when I wear my Dr. Berg hat, I have been able to successfully walk the ever narrowing path we find ourselves in concerning politics in the classroom. This allows me more flexibility in the classroom than if I were to follow the lead of the political science professor who won’t let his views be known.
Image: Offering Dhamma
Teaching from an Ethical Foundation is Not Proselytizing
One of the potential criticisms of advocating that professors approach their classes from a strong ethical foundation is that someone could assume that teaching from an ethical foundation leads to proselytizing. However, there are significant differences between adopting a moral compass based on an ethical foundation, teaching about an ethical foundation, and proselytizing the tenets of an ethical foundation.
Having a moral compass assists us in making appropriate classroom decisions based on positive values that promote student success. For example, an administrator once recommended that I be less flexible in my classroom. My class would be improved, the administrator essentially argued, if I did not make accommodations to students who needed extra time to do successful projects. The administrator also recommended that I should provide fewer choices for students to complete their coursework. These suggestions went so far against my ethical foundation that my moral compass directed me to not follow misguided advice that would hurt students.
Because my ethical foundation is student-centered, I find that listening to students improves my teaching. One simple example involves reporting on the participation points which students earn by successfully completing worksheets, homework, and other assignments that go into the student’s class binder, which I grade at the end of each semester. Participation points are listed in the daily class notes I email to students and, at the end of each semester, I provide students with a sheet listing all of the documents for which points were earned and how those documents should be organized in the student’s binder.
At the end of one semester, a student commented that it would have been easier if I distributed the participation points list more often throughout the semester. Other students agreed. Based on the ethical foundation in which my pedagogy is rooted, it was easy for me to make the decision to begin distributing participation points sheets more frequently.
Although my ethical foundation is rooted in the Buddha Dhamma, my pedagogical decisions do not promote Buddhism. They are the types of decisions that have compassion toward other sentient beings as the basis for my decision making; a type of compassion that is found in a variety of religious, secular, and personal ethical codes. A Christian colleague can obtain the same results from an ethical foundation that includes “Whatever you do for even the least of my brothers or sisters, that you do until me” as a key concept without promoting that their students adopt Christianity.
But what is the difference between rooting our pedagogy in an ethical foundation and crossing the line into proselytizing? As a lay Buddhist, one of the five basic precepts I follow on a daily basis is that “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.” I have been a teetotaler for many more years than most of my students have been alive and think that alcohol and other non-medical drug use is harmful to individuals because it takes us away from mindfulness.
Even though I find my student’s alcohol and drug use to be problematic on a theological basis, my job is not to try to convince my students not to drink. As a professor, I can be concerned if a drunk student is disrupting class or I might refer a student who is exhibiting signs of addiction to counseling, but it is not my place to preach to students about their personal choices concerning alcohol use.
When instructing about Buddhism, it is perfectly acceptable for me to teach students about the five precepts and to explain the theological justification for refraining from intoxicating drinks. But teaching about Buddhism is not the same as trying to convince students to be Buddhists. In the same way, I can teach students about cannibalism without advocating that they eat each other.
There is a difference between being a teetotaler and a prohibitionist. The teetotaler chooses not to drink. The prohibitionist preaches that you should not drink either. By having an ethical foundation from which to guide our pedagogy, we are teetotalers; not prohibitionists.
Image: Because I Can
Enforcing a Foolish Consistency
The last time I tried to become a day sponsor for National Public Radio, I was unable to do so. This was more than 10 years ago and, at the time, I was using a hyphenated last name. The problem was that my hyphenated last name was too long to fit on the form. I was therefore unable to make a $360 contribution to public radio; a contribution that I would likely still be renewing even though my last name is no longer hyphenated.
Although Ralph Waldo Emerson is often cited for his observation that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he did not actually condemn consistency. In “Self Reliance,” Emerson actually argues that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
It might have been reasonable for my local public radio station to want a certain consistency, but it was their desire for a type of foolish consistency that Emerson would condemn that caused them to lose my donation; a donation I gave to another organization. I am sure that, had he wanted to, the individual at my public radio station could have written my name in the margin or back of the form so that I could have made my donation.
One of the things that most students like about my classes is that flexibility is built into my syllabi as are alternative methods that students can use to complete projects. We practice the concept of equivalent but not identical work.
For example, if students miss class or plan to miss class, I ask that they complete a Time and Attendance Report. The purpose of the form is to encourage students to work with me in a timely fashion so that their absence does not cause them to fall behind in the course. In order to best assist students, there needs to be a consistency in the information I am provided: date of absence, reason for absence, arrangements they have already made to make up work, and whether they need a referral. Consistency also requires that I receive this information in a timely fashion. However, consistency does not require that I receive this information on the form I provide. Many students submit the information via an e-mail message or they schedule an appointment with me.3
Sometimes, the foolish consistency is imposed by administrative fiat and we must be creative to work around it. For example, at my college, we cannot schedule due dates in distance learning courses for days the college is closed. For valid pedagogical reasons, I want to keep Monday as the due date for assignments even if we are observing Memorial Day or the college is closed on some other Monday. To avoid foolish consistency I follow a two step process. First, I make the due date for assignments as the day before Memorial Day. College administrators are satisfied because I have met the letter of the law. Then, I add a caveat in which I automatically give students a 24 hour extension. Essentially, I make the assignment due on Monday.
As faculty members, it is important for us to balance the need for consistency without falling into a habit of enforcing a foolish consistency. I would never tell a student who emailed me all the necessary information concerning their absence that I could not help them because they had not reproduced the Time and Attendance Form found in their syllabus. We need to find a middle way to work with our students to help ensure their success. We need to consider the essence of our policies and procedures and lessons.
I remember a conversation I had with some students during final conferences. A student mentioned that his girlfriend had been in the hospital after having had emergency surgery the previous week; a detail I already knew because he had missed one day of class to be with her.
My student reported that one of his girlfriend’s professors told her that she must take her final exam on the scheduled day even though she might still be in the hospital. If she did not take the exam, she would fail the course. The policy in his syllabus was no make-up exams and he was sticking with his policy because he needed to be consistent. There was no middle way for him to deal with the unexpected situation of emergency surgery. Fortunately, while her other two professors were going to hold her to the same standards as other students, they recognized that the circumstances demanded that modifications were needed in course policy.
After he completed his story, other students shared stories of foolish consistencies that they had experienced. None were as dramatic as that of their girlfriend in the hospital, but they all exemplified behavior that did not reflect well on our profession.
Although I might never donate to my public radio station, students will be better served if we do not set aside good pedagogy for foolish consistencies.
Image: First Birthday
When Life Gets in the Way
After working with students in the library, I returned to my office and read the following e-mail:
Dear Dr. Berg:
I left class early today. Life got in the way.
[student name redacted]
I realize that outside the context of the culture established in my classroom, the student’s email might appear to be rude. Yet, I frequently have students inform me that they missed class or plan to miss class because life has gotten in the way. Some provide me with an explanation but I have no requirement that they do so. In order to assist them in making up the work they missed, all I require is that they inform me that life has gotten in the way.
I realize that some critics of my approach might argue that I am not preparing students for the real world because “life gets in the way” is not an acceptable reason for missing work. I would counter that the contract under which I am employed at my institution allows me to take days off—with pay—when life gets in my way.
Sometimes, such as when I take a sick or bereavement day, I do need to provide the college with an explanation for my absence. But I am not required to provide any explanation when I take a personal business day. If I can still be paid on days when I miss work when life gets in my way, why shouldn’t I give assistance to students who miss class when life gets in the way for them?
I am aware that the “life gets in the way” explanation could be abused, but it is a risk I am willing to take. Not surprisingly, it is my experience that irresponsible students rarely contact me so that I can assist them to make up missed coursework.
While editing this essay, I took a break to inform students that “I might not be on campus tomorrow.” If my symptoms had not improved and I had taken a sick day, no one from the college was going to investigate to see if I was really ill. They would have believed me, processed the paperwork, and made sure that I was paid while being home sick.
However, neither students nor I get unlimited opportunities to be absent without explanation. Although I have enough sick days to cite illness as the reason for missing class every day for an entire week, were I to try to do so, the college would ask for more documentation concerning my illness than they would if I took an individual sick day. In a similar way, I tell students that I do not make inquiries if life only gets in their way once or twice. But, if there is a pattern of life getting in the way, I will ask them for details. My purpose, I explain, is to allow me to make referrals so they can get the assistance they need to take care of their life issues.
A final concern I can see critics making is that students could use life gets in the way to miss class for frivolous reasons such as going on a vacation. While I may not approve of students missing class for vacations or for many other reasons they choose to be absent, I realize that the college might not approve of how I use a personal business day. If, for example, I am not ill but still wanted to miss class so that I could spend time relaxing with my little dogs, I am sure that the college would not approve of my decision. Yet, they would have no choice but to approve my request to take a personal business day.
Because a student will take their vacation whether I approve or not, I would prefer that they tell me they will be missing class so that I can help insure that their decision has as few negative consequences for them as possible. Especially because of the classroom culture I have created, I can engage a student in a blunt conversation about their poor decisions for missing class. Such conversations are easier to have if I am simultaneously helping them make up the missed work.
Life gets in the way for all of us. Therefore, I want to make sure that my classroom culture supports students who—like me—must sometimes be absent.
Image: Food Distribution
Faculty Office as Food Pantry
At the beginning of each new semester, I finish my syllabi and print class handouts; the types of activities one would expect from a professor who wanted to be prepared for the new semester. However, I also restock the freezer in my office refrigerator with microwavable meals which I will not eat and make sure I had enough apples and bananas to last the week. Snack foods that I buy at the dollar store or that my husband finds in the discount bins in the local grocery market are replenished.
Since I have had my own office, making it a welcoming environment has been important to me. It has original art on the walls and sculptures on the shelves. There are plants inside the office and a large terrarium outside my door. Sharing food was a foundation of my Polish Catholic upbringing, but having an abundance of food in my office has become an increasingly important part of my pedagogy.
A couple of years ago, a student did a “grab and go” between classes to pick up a bag of chips. As the student left, I realized that they had not simply picked up a snack, they had picked up their lunch. It then occurred to me that this was not the only student who periodically counted on me for much needed food.
Even though my husband includes extra food for me to share with students when he packs my lunch each morning, the next time I went to the supermarket after the grab and go, I brought the frozen meals to insure that there would always be food on hand for students. A week later, when the first student ate one of the microwaved meals, I realized that it was likely their only hot meal of the day.
Most of the students with whom I share food do not experience food insecurity, but some of them do. And because there is no way to identify students with food insecurity, I let everyone know about my husband’s yummy lunches and say he packs enough for me share. At other times, I find ways to mention that I always have food in my office.
I know that I speak from a privileged position when I write about the office food pantry. I am a full-time tenured professor with his own office who has enough income to purchase extra food. I am aware that adjunct faculty frequently do not have offices and their salaries are such that they might be visiting food pantries themselves. Furthermore, I am not arguing that faculty members should provide food for students. I am suggesting that those of us who have that ability might consider what we can do on an individual level.
Making one’s office into a mini food pantry, at worst, promotes a welcoming environment that encourages students to visit. But for students who are food insecure, having food in my office allows me to provide physical sustenance as well as intellectual stimulation.
Since January 2019, I have expanded what I do in my office into the bay outside my office where I had previously established a Little Free Library. Students can now get food there: single serving meals, energy bars, fresh fruit, and other snacks. A colleague donated a microwave. Colleagues and students drop off food to share.
Although the office as food pantry is helpful, there are things that professors can't provide that prevent students from being able to commit all they want to to their work. For example, structural constraints and oppressions prevent students from getting what they need. We don't have sufficient health care in this country. Our students have explicit roadblocks to getting insurance. Even if students have insurance, it is unlikely as good as the insurance full time faculty enjoy. Adjunct faculty rarely have insurance as part of their college compensation packages. Public transportation is often not available or accessible (either physically or financially). This is especially true in more rural areas as well as areas where gentrification has forced many students of color with low income to live.
While doing all we can to assist our students, faculty members need to realize that much of what our students face is out of their control. But that does not mean that we are exempt from doing what we can to provide flexibility to assist them.
Image: Tricks and Tips #02
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Providing a Flexible Classroom
Moving to a flexible classroom is not something to jump into. Otherwise, we can become overwhelmed by the changes. Instead, providing flexibility is a gradual process that should be taken a step at a time. For example, moving away from formal textbooks was a gradual process that I could not have accomplished in a single semester. To revise all of the courses I teach in two departments would have resulted in chaos. Even though I began the process before there were so many Open Educational Resources available, it is not feasible to switch to all new OER textbook in a single semester unless you only have one prep.
Openly address political issues.
Share your expertise even if it shows your politics.
Be aware of how students will read politics into our class assignments.
Make clear and repeat often your version of the mantra “While Mr. Berg might care passionately about your political views, Dr. Berg doesn’t give a damn.”
Cite examples of students who passed your course even though they disagreed with your politics or position on an issue.
Be transparent about your views.
Remind students that not all opinions are equally valid. Make the distinction between opinions that are supported with evidence and those that are not.
Realize that the cost of textbooks can be a barrier for students
Adopt Open Educational Resources
Help develop a departmental textbook and make it available online
Whenever possible, adopt a trade book instead of a textbook.
Consider if you even need a textbook for the course. Is there a cheaper way to present the material?
Put a copy of your textbook on reserve in the library.
Realize that other requirements can be barriers
Do students really need to wear business attire? For in-class presentations, do students really need to wear business attire?
Do students really need to buy a specific type of binder or notebook or some other supply
Genuinely integrate student feedback into your teaching
Listen for casual statements such as, “It would have been handy to have this earlier in the semester.
Provide formal opportunities for feedback
Adopt the concept that students should do equivalent but not necessarily identical work.
Ask students how they want to be graded or what types of assignments do they want to do
Provide options: “You can share your knowledge via a paper, video, class presentation.”
Allow students to modify assignments.
You can reject proposed changes that would not meet course competencies or skills embedded into the assignment.
Teach from an ethical foundation that supports student achievement.
Remember that life gets in the way.
You do not need to approve of student choices in order to support them academically.
If you have an office, have snacks to encourage students to visit.
Use creativity to get around foolish consistencies.
Aesop, Jr. “An Educational Allegory.” Journal of Education. Vol. 1. Is. 14 (12 October 1898). 235. An essay concerning the development of animal allegories in education is “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.” Quote Investigator. Nd. Accessed 24 November 2018.↩
The one time I exceeded my $25 limit was when I taught a book that retailed for $28. I wrote to the author, a friend of mine, that the extra $3.00 better be worth it. They replied that it was currently selling on Amazon for $18.00.↩
A more detailed about how the Time and Attendance report works can be found at Berg, Steven L. “Time and Attendance and Student Responsibility.” Etena Sacca-Vajjena. 11 August 2013. http://www.stevenlberg.info/blog/a-104/↩