Image: St. Francis and the Animals
On 6 February 1989, I knew more about AA, Spiritual Issues, and the Treatment of Lesbian and Gay Alcoholics than anyone else in the world. his included the learned professors who sat on my graduate committee. However, the knowledge I gained while caught up in the excitement of transitioning from graduate student to “Dr. Berg” was not what lead to enlightenment. Enlightenment came with the realization that the expertise I gained while writing my dissertation was insignificant in terms of what was available to know.
Twenty years would pass before I would again have a similar feeling of exhilaration, followed by a similar enlightenment. It was 2009, and the local Kathina Ceremony, for which I was the sponsor, was about to begin. As I looked around the hall (I had rented) and saw the visiting monks (whose transportation I had paid) finding their place on stage, I realized that I was primarily responsible for paying for this important Buddhist ceremony to take place. I also realized that, if I had not sponsored the event, someone else would have stepped forward to be the sponsor. I was both necessary and unnecessary. As the sponsor of the 2009 Katina, I also realized that it would not have been successful were it not for the community of support I received from the Great Lakes Buddhist Vihara.
As someone who has earned a PhD and has been able to give back to my community in ways not available to most people, it would be too easy to focus on what I bring to the classroom. It would be too easy to forget that the enlightenment enjoyed by my students comes from a community in which I am only a part. It is also a community in which I am not always the most educated person in the room, concerning the subject under discussion.
Trimming the Yuzu Tree #3:
Reflection on Not Being Too Rigid
After watching Dominic trim the Yuzu tree in my cousin’s yard, I heard him express his concern that the tree will likely not bear much fruit because the area in which it was planted does not provide enough light. As Dominic explained, “It is not where you want it to be. It’s where it wants to be.”
Dominic’s words provide a cautionary warning to those of us who care about our student’s success yet cannot understand why our students will not respond to the opportunities we provide them.
If we are too rigid in our expectations and too narrow in our focus, we can actually close off the sunlight that would cause our students to flourish. In constructing our course plans, we can build a fence—as Cousin John has done around his cherished Yuzu tree—that becomes more restrictive than protective.
One of the most extreme cases of such rigidity that I have witnessed took place on 11 September 2001. As I was pulling out of the driveway, I heard that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City. A few minutes later, a second plane hit the other tower. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon shortly after I arrived on campus. Later, a fourth plane which was headed to the White House crashed in Pennsylvania. And during all of this turmoil, some of my colleagues continued to teach as if nothing was happening in the world outside their classrooms. As one later explained, “I have so much material to cover during the semester, I didn’t have any choice.”
America was under attack. Large buildings around the country were being evacuated, including buildings in Detroit; buildings in which the parents of some of my students worked. We were being overwhelmed with confusion, fear, and sorrow. Students on 9-11 might have dutifully shown up for class, but they were not really present and attentive to their academic subjects. Like John’s Yuzu tree, they were shaded by outside events over which none of us had any control.
Some colleagues can congratulate themselves on sticking to their syllabi. But the real question is: “What did their students actually learn that day?”
I know that on 9-11, my students and I watched television. Together, we saw the Twin Towers fall. Together, we watched the destruction of the Pentagon and learned the news of the fourth plane’s unsuccessful attack on the White House. As a professor, I knew that it is not about where I wanted my students to be; it was about where they wanted to be. And they did not want to be learning about composition.
However, my students did learn composition from the events that took place on 9-11. Instead of being fenced in by my syllabus, I rearranged it so that we could use writing to react to the events of the world. From a pedagogical point of view, the class period we spent watching television became the prompt for learning the skills of effective writing. From an emotional point of view, I knew that my students wanted to deal with the events of 9-11, and therefore I did not try to force them to deal with the topics I had chosen for the class. As a result, they wrote more perceptive essays than they would have had they stuck to the well designed plan I conceived for the course.
John knows that he cannot force the Yuzu tree to reach its potential if he tries to impose his will onto it. Gardening, like education, requires us to do our best to adapt to the needs of each plant.
Image: Friday Night
Not a Typical Friday Night
In my husband’s version of events, he recalls being impressed that I had waited to turn 60 before I stole my first car. It is undisputed that it was 11:30pm on a Friday night. It is undisputed that the car in question was located in someone else’s driveway. It is true that I didn’t have this person’s permission to take it. My adrenaline was pumping. It felt as if I was stealing the car, but you cannot steal something that you already own.
The car had been on long-term loan to the person in whose driveway it was parked. But, because of changing circumstances, earlier in the week it had become necessary for me to ask that it be returned or purchased. The person who had borrowed and been driving the car (with my permission) was upset and posted some unflattering remarks on Facebook. He later claimed that his rant was not about me and that he was speaking about my husband.
I believe that he thought it would make him look better in my eyes to assure me that it was my husband—not I—who was the subject of his wrath. He was wrong. I told him that the car was no longer for sale.
He-who-no-longer-had-permission-to-drive-my-car informed me that my position was unacceptable. He then dictated the terms under which I would sell him the car. My lawyer was not impressed.
My lawyer assured me that I could just pick up the car myself and that I didn’t need to first go to the police. This is why my husband and I were out past our bedtime trying to locate my car.
We first checked the parking lot where he-who-was-now-guilty-of-grand-theft-auto worked. The car was not there. He had taken the night off.
On our way home, we drove past his house, and my car was parked in the driveway. My husband stopped. I got out of the passenger seat and, wearing my jeans and black hoodie, I walked up the driveway. Lights were on in the house, but the big dogs did not come barking to the window. They were locked in the basement because he-who-should-have-returned-the-car was entertaining a guest, whose freshly smoked cigarette still left a lingering aroma in my car.
While the occupant of the house was enjoying carnal bliss, I unlocked the car, entered it, and drove away. The darkness and stealth made it feel so wrong to take the car. I must admit that the circumstances also made me feel exhilarated.
Saturday morning, I disposed of the drug paraphernalia and mailed the other personal belongings to he-who-was-no-longer-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law (at least, as far as my car was concerned). After receiving a text which, among other things, confirmed that there were drugs in the car, I blocked future contacts from he-who-has-gotten-what-he-asked-for-on-Facebook. My husband and I will no longer be a part of his life. The quality of our lives has not declined.
I quote Judge Marilyn Milian to my students: “Say it, forget it. Write it, regret it.” I try to make students understand that nothing posted online is private and that, once you post something online, you lose control of it.
I am not Facebook friends with he-whose-sense-of-entitlement-contributed-to-his-no-longer-having -access-to-my-car. But that doesn’t make any difference. Someone who saw his post took a screen capture and sent it to us. Even if the misguided post has been deleted, there are at least three copies of it that still exist.
Judge Judy often advises people that, if they didn’t want her 10 million viewers to see a text, they shouldn’t have pushed the send button. In part, she is referring to texts that confirm current drug use. I advise students that writing about their mistakes 30 years from now—as I do when I admit why I almost failed out of graduate school—might not be problematic, but that writing about current mistakes or illegal activities is unwise.
I stress the need for students to do quality research. Even though I knew that I could legally take my car, it was worth the cost of the consultation with my attorney to confirm what I knew to be correct. Sometimes, when I have checked the veracity of information I know to be true, I discover that I am wrong. Fact-checking keeps me out of trouble.
Students do not always see the practical applications of what we are teaching them. Sometimes, we don’t even know the value of those skills in our own lives until we are confronted with a new situation. Who could have predicted that what I learned in college could prepare me to steal a car I already owned?
Taking risks and learning new skills is part of the transformative college experience. I would advocate that faculty members continuously learn new skills outside our areas of expertise, so that we can better understand what our students go through as they learn the new skills we teach them. For example, a colleague tells the story of how learning to square dance made her a better accounting professor. Does repossessing a car make me a better professor of history and English? I think it does.
Image: Facing Fears
Learning in a New and Unconventional Way Is Scary
When pressed by students to come up with a research topic for them because they cannot think of one on their own, I have been known to suggest that they consider the benefits of meditating in charnel grounds. I explain that they can begin their research by reading the Satipatthana Sutta. As I begin to point out that the various states of human decomposition are important to consider while they do their research, students suddenly become motivated to come up with a topic more in line with their own interests. However, I am aware why students distrust a professor who says that they can select their own research topics.
Reasons for this distrust are exemplified while reading Kevin Browne’s “Distrust in Academics”1 in which he cites a student who asked their professor, “How should I answer these questions—according to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?”
Tory Rogers gives us insight into why students appear reluctant to pursue their own interests: “Learning in a new and unconventional way is a scary idea to most students. It means straying away from the norm of the traditional college lecture; knowing more than just book material.” In order to comfortably move to the new and unconventional, students must trust their professors.
Charlotte Clapham observes that “there is definitely a link between distrusting our professors and our ready access to global information” because we can now easily see corruption in all forms of authority. Jesse Peabody traces this distrust back to the American Revolution when “we didn’t agree with the authority figure so we got that anti-authority attitude.” Tanaja Campbell asks, “How can I trust a professor when he or she never even learns my name?” Campbell goes on to explain that, when a professor doesn’t know her name, “it makes me feel as if I’m just another seat filler contributing to their paycheck, rather than their student.”
Alene Archie articulates a common concern held by many students, “There’s no sense of enlightenment or giving me experience outside of using a pen and paper [in the traditional classroom]. Physics, Trigonometry, and Chemistry are not used outside of the school building in my everyday life.” Annastasia Guzik agrees “that students don’t truly care about the topic that a teacher is talking about unless it ‘deals’ with what they think they’re in school for.”
Joking that even a minor comprehension of physics can keep people from making an appearance on World’s Dumbest is not really a convincing argument for studying physics. So how do we help students appreciate the connections between academics and their lives?
The students of Team Slaughterhouse observe, “Let’s be realistic, how many people in a physics class will have this information fully retained?” They add, “This is why student interaction is necessary,” because “students can help others comprehend in a different light:” and student-to-student interaction can supplement the traditional lecture. They conclude their argument by observing that “collaborating with colleagues helps us individually become more creative.”
Students can meaningfully collaborate and make real contributions within an individual classroom or online, in discussions that take place at HASTAC, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other venues. Suzanne Hakim addresses the importance of public collaboration: “Never in my academic career have [I] been able to connect and share thoughts and opinions with my peers and multiple professors on an intellectual level. This is so refreshing … knowing that we do matter, we aren’t just a ‘class or group’ we are individuals with independent thoughts.”
Collaboration in the real world can have its dark side—something Leslie Nirro learned when she was called an “idiot” by an individual who commented on “Breaking Down Barriers Between the Humanities and Sciences.”2 When one is engaged in public discourse, learning to deal with trolls, controversy, and criticism are educationally important. My students had a favorite troll, whom they referred to as “our friend [name redacted]” and from whom they have learned how to be better commentators and collaborators—even though our friend the troll has yet to learn those same skills.
For students to feel confident in expressing their thoughts and opinions, they need to trust that their professors truly want to hear their opinions. Being called an “idiot” by a troll is hurtful, but it does not impact a student’s grade. Before encouraging students to express their opinions, we need to communicate to them that we are prepared to have our own thinking challenged.
In an assignment where I required students to analyze a short film, Zachary Marano submitted “Nanook of the North: Inventions Toward Racism.” This 1:23:00 film is clearly not a short film; something Marano acknowledged. In his essay, he wrote that “I question the limitation of analyzing just short films.” He then proceeds to develop a cogent argument as to why I gave a flawed assignment. I published Marano’s essay with other student work and have continued to assign it in my film classes since he wrote it.
It might be easier for me to simply assign students to undertake research on the Satipatthana Sutta, Jimmy F. Bloink Furniture,3 or other topics that interest me at any given moment. But more valuable learning comes from engaging students in discussion about subjects that are meaningful to them. A student limited only to my interests cannot do their work. “The College Experience: A Modern Day Paddy West?”4 is so successful because it is inspired by Andrew Shaw’s interests, not mine.
Some students will not take advantage of the opportunities we offer them to become more involved in their educations. Those students are no worse off than if we had never provided the opportunity. If we don’t provide opportunities, we do a disservice to the majority of our students who want to make meaningful connections between their academics and their personal lives.
Image: Climbing to the Heights
Living Up to Our Expectations
Because of Dr. Jesse Stommel and other individuals associated with Hybrid Pedagogy, a few years ago, I re-read the second chapter of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed5 which I had not opened since graduate school. Even though I still find the text extremely demanding, I assigned the chapter to my introductory composition students on the first day of the semester. Because I had no doubt that my students could successfully tackle Freire, they never had the chance to realize that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is “too difficult” to assign to undergraduates in introductory courses.
I appreciate the view of critics who might argue that the vocabulary, concepts, and structure of Pedagogy of the Oppressed makes the book too much of a challenge for undergraduate students. On the surface, these critics are not wrong in their assessment. But such criticism fails to take into consideration that I did not assign Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the same way that Dr. Glenn Wright assigned the book to me more than 30 years ago.
Dr. Wright told me to read the entire book and expected me to be successful. This was an appropriate expectation for a graduate student, but his pedagogical approach would not have worked for my undergraduate students. When my students begin reading the second chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I initially assigned only the first six paragraphs, not the entire chapter.
The third of the six paragraphs begins, “The outstanding character of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power.” Sixteen pages of such text would have been too daunting for my students. It is pretty daunting for their professor. But regardless of the difficulty, students could get through six paragraphs. They might not have fully understand Freire’s argument, but they could successfully complete the six-paragraph reading assignment.
the second day of class, I didn’t ask students to tell me what Freire meant when he talked about the student as container or the banking concept of education. Nor did I give them a reading quiz. Instead, they worked together utilizing the technology of crayons and large sheets of blank paper to show these concepts. Continuing to work as teams, they drew their own concepts of the teacher/student relationship.
Once the students finished their work, I told them the story of a group of educators who had completed a similar drawing. These educators concluded that students are like grass and it is the professor’s responsibility to fertilize them. Finally, I showed them a piece of artwork that gives my response to this misguided notion. My Response6 shows a cow defecating on the grass.
By the end of the class period, students had a deeper understanding of Freire, developed skills for reading difficult texts, interacted with a difficult text, and experienced success with an assignment that they did not have the skills to complete 48 hours earlier. They were also ready to read the next section of Freire. The text in the next section was as difficult as the first, but the students had an easier time with it.
Dr. Wright did not need to take the time to have me sketch Freire’s concepts because, in my first semester of college, Dr. Fred Graham had challenged me with Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfriend Kellner’s The Homeless Mind.7 This was a book I would not have been capable of tackling before entering his class. However, I lived up to Dr. Graham’s expectations and, under his tutelage, came to understand the arguments in The Homeless Mind. But, more importantly than understanding The Homeless Mind, I developed skills I could apply to other texts. Dr. Graham was not the only professor who expected me to work beyond my abilities and then provided the guidance needed for me to live up to such expectations. Because of such prior commitments of time and energy, by the time Dr. Wright assigned Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I had already developed the skills to tackle Freire on my own. 8
If we prepare our classes with the expectation that students are incapable of producing meaningful work or tackling difficult assignments, they will not disappoint us. In Freire’s words, “Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others [such as our students], a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as process of inquiry.”
Fortunately, Dr. Graham realized that my lack of training was not a sign of inability. He knew he could expect more from me than I was capable of producing on the first day of class. Forty years later, I have the same expectation for my students.
Image: Education and Social Mobility
From Gladiators to the Twenty First Century: Higher Education, Technology, and Social Mobility
I ask my students, “If you were a gladiator, which technology would you prefer: a trident, a net, or a wooden sword?” It is a question I would like you to consider, a question to which I will return.
Even before Verus and Priscus entered the Coliseum in C.E. 80, individuals realized that access to higher education, combined with appropriate technologies, was a pathway to social mobility. Although we often think of gladiators as slaves and criminals, many poor freemen chose to train and become gladiators. These men made the decision to enter a gladiatorial school because they considered obtaining a higher education as their best opportunity for upward advancement.
Even though having the best technologies for fighting were important in the arena, an understanding of the liberal arts was equally important for success. For example, gladiators and those who trained them needed to understand theatre. Gladiatorial costumes were carefully chosen to represent the armor of Rome’s enemies and not Romans themselves. Furthermore, the emperor and other spectators wanted good entertainment. In addition to courage, good theatrics and a sense of how to please your audience could prevent your death, even if you were defeated by your opponent.
When the Chinese Imperial Exams were introduced in the 6th century C.E., their purpose was to establish a meritocracy for public service. By the end of the 14th century, the Chinese Imperial Exams included testing knowledge of the Confucian classics as well as calligraphy and the ability to compose poetry. Having a good brush was a required technology for passing these exams.
For Samurai warriors in feudal Japan, knowledge of the katana—or Samurai sword—might bring success on the battlefield, but it would not lead to social advancement without an understanding of social etiquette. Miyamoto Musashi’s circa-1645 classic, The Book of Five Rings, details the need for a liberal arts education among the Samurai. For a Samurai warrior to achieve social mobility, more than prowess, he required training in higher education.
The value placed on social etiquette, over and above military knowledge, can be discerned through a warrior’s courtly habit of leaving his katana outside before partaking in a tea ceremony. In fact, buildings housing the tea ceremony were constructed in such a way that it was not possible to enter in full military costume.
Social mobility through higher education was also important for African slaves in Barbados. On the island, the definition of skilled versus unskilled slave labor was a matter of social hierarchy and not simply a matter of learning or performing a craft. Gaining the higher education to learn carpentry or some other skilled trade did not guarantee social mobility if the individual could not navigate the social nuances of plantation life as well as the socio-political and cultural forces that governed life on the island. Social mobility required skills from anthropology, psychology, rhetoric, and other liberal arts disciplines.
Beginning in the 17th century, education systems in Western Europe and the Americas were greatly impacted by Enlightenment thinking. Eventually, education was not limited to the social elite, and higher education became available as a path for social mobility. However, industrialists like Henry Ford and others—including too many business and political leaders in the 21st century—did not necessarily see a need for a liberal arts curriculum. Citizens educated in the liberal arts are more apt to demand better working conditions and champion other measures that threaten established social hierarchy. Why risk unions or reform movements if you can keep your workforce ignorant of the liberal arts and oblivious to the critical thinking skills that come with such an education?
When I was first approached about developing an online course at Kirtland Community College, I declared that students could not learn effectively in a virtual environment. In response, I was essentially told that I was being ignorant because I had not thoroughly investigated online technologies. After a little exploration in the cybersphere, I was one of the first three Kirtland professors to offer an online course.
In my initial response to online education, I made the same mistake that most of my students make when I ask them if they would prefer a trident, a net, or a wooden sword. I focused solely on the technology, without considering context.
Typically, when queried about their technology of choice, students immediately dismiss the value of the wooden sword and debate whether the trident or net would be preferable. Yet, the wooden sword is a far more valuable technology than either the trident or net.
The poet Marcus Valerius Martialis describes the dramatic confrontation between Verus and Priscus when both fought valiantly and both simultaneously raised their finger in defeat. Because he was so impressed with their skills, Martialis explains that the Emperor Titus, “Misit utrique rudes et palmas Caesar utrique. Hoc pretium uirtus ingeniosa tulit.” That is, the emperor “sent wooden swords to both and palms to both. Thus, skillful courage received its prize.” By sending them wooden swords, Titus gave Verus and Pricus their freedom.
Last week, when I posed the trident/net/sword question to one of my classes, the students surprised me by asking a series of questions: “What type of fight is taking place?” “What weapon does my opponent have?” “Am I fighting another gladiator or an animal?” Instead of instantly debating the technology, the students wanted to know the context in which the technology was being used.
Context is the key criteria when discussing MOOCs and other education technologies. For example, a brush does not appear to be an impressive technology. But given the choice between a brush and a computer, the best technology for taking your Chinese Imperial Exam is the brush because you cannot produce quality calligraphy with a computer.
Unless we learn to ask the right questions about context when we approach developing technologies, we could end up choosing a trident or a net over our freedom.
Image: Tips and Tricks #08
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Encouraging Different Modes of Learning
I am always amused at the look on my students’ faces when I recommend a particular learning strategy and then add “I would never do it, but it might work for you.” As the professor, shouldn’t I be doing what I recommend? Actually I do--if we realize that what I am recommending is that we need to individually adopt the strategies that work for each of us. If I forced students to adopt my way, I would set most of them up for failure or, at best, a miserable classroom experience. By encouraging different modes of learning, we can teach students how to play to their strengths while also encouraging them to stretch past their comfort zones.
Outside events can overwhelm what we want to do in the classroom.
Help students understand that simply learning skills is not enough.
Help students understand that we cannot see how skills we develop in class will become transferable.
A lack of training is not a lack of student ability.
Teach students proper technologies that they need to know.
Help students understand the social/political aspects of various technologies.
Student interaction is necessary for students to be vested in learning the material we want to teach.
Challenge students with a variety of pedagogies
Assign difficult material.
Teach/cite students who have disagreed with you.
Bring crayons to class.
Instead of a reading quiz, have them draw a response to the reading.
Use crayons to sketch concepts and ideas.
Students can meaningfully collaborate and make real contributions within an individual classroom
Students can become involved in real world discussions via online communities such as HASTAC, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other venues.
Browne, Kevin, “Distrust in Academics.” HASTAC. 1 February 2014.↩
Niiro, Leslie. “Breaking Down Barriers Between the Humanities and Sciences.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 3 March 2014. Retrieved 2 December 2018.↩
Berg, Steven L. “Tech Savvy Students vs. Jimmie F. Bloink Furniture.” Etene Sacca-vajjina. 2 March 2014. Retrieved 2 December 2018.↩
Shaw, Andrew. “The College Experience: A Modern Day Paddy West?” HASTAC. 17 February 2014. Retrieved 2 December 2018.↩
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Seabury Press, 1970; 1968.↩
While attending a conference, I was part of a team who was asked to draw a metaphor for the relationship between students and faculty. My team decided that students were like grass and that it was our role to fertilize them—an assessment with which I did not concur. As my teammates began to draw our metaphor, I became more and more concerned about their attitudes toward students; especially when they introduced a lawn mower into the drawing. Besides the disturbing image of cutting off the heads of our students, I pointed out that, if grass is regularly cut, it cannot bloom. My colleagues were not persuaded that our metaphor was problematic and I found myself distancing myself from them. When I returned home from the conference, I created My Response To Those Who Insisted That Students are Like Grass and It Is the Professor's Role to Fertilize Them in response to the idea that professors are fertilizing machines. The piece shows a cow defecating on the grass. Or, in other words, my response was “Bullshit!”↩
Berger, Peter, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfriend Kellner’s The Homeless Mind. Random House, 1973.↩
In my argument, I do not want to imply that people in graduate school cannot use drawing as part of their study process. As I was putting the final touches on this essay, I was discussing mind mapping with a colleague who wrote to me that “I’ve used the mind map/ concept map stuff for years--a big part of how I got through grad school. Although I do not personally find mind mapping to be a useful tool for me, I know that I will create a piece of art when I am struggling to understand a difficult concept.↩