I just read Rob Jenkins piece, “Retention in the Trenches,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

I remember the first time I left (was forced out of?) school; the first time school failed to retain me.

I was disinterested in school. Like many newly-graduated-from-high-school teenagers, I was burnt out from barely passing my classes at my private, Jesuit, prep school. I purposely did poorly in my entrance exams so that I would get put in “easy” classes. I know… I was young.

I was left bored in my composition classes, and I was told, in so many words, that my writing was poor by my disinterested instructors. (Of course, now I realize what they must have been going through). My instructor, however, gave me no direction in how to improve my writing. I ended up barely passing my enc 1101. In 1102, I hated all the assignments, hated the group work, and hated every thing we were assigned to read. Again, I was bored and doing enough to get by. I did, however, attempt to put more effort in to my writing to pass the class with a higher grade. For my efforts, I was accused of cheating (nothing came of the accusation, except my resentment), and I received a point penalty for missing too many classes.

I did much more poorly in my other classes.

After failing a couple of classes and taking a semester off, I was ready to come back to school, but school did not care for my return. I remember talking to counselors, who led me to deans, who told me my poor record indicated to them that I was not ready for school. I pleaded my case: I was bored in class, didn’t see the point, hated the “pointless” classes, I had learned from my mistakes, and I wanted to return.

I ended up at the local community college. Again, counselors were quick to dismiss my interest and were unhelpful. Finally, when I declared myself as an English major and was sent to the head of the English department, did I finally connect to someone who listened to me and helped me pick classes. And more than just pick classes, he would register me for the class right in his office. That extra step helped immensely. I can’t say how many times–and how much time wasted–I would attempt to register for a class that was full and then have to find an alternative. With Dr. Blanco, if I couldn’t get into a class, he would recommend another one. He would tell me what the classes would cover so that I could decide if it interested me. I owe that man so much.

The teachers at that school–once I finally started taking classes in my major–were amazing, and they and my experience, bring me to Jenkins piece. He states:

Obviously, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula, or else we wouldn’t still be talking about this problem, much less potentially losing money because of it. 

He does give excellent advice.

Be a teacher, not a gatekeeper.”

As professors, sometimes, and I have this problem, we think our job is to let students lacking in ability know that they might not make it in college. I was told repeatedly by a girlfriend’s mother, by managers, and by my own high school counselor, that maybe college was not for me. As I’ve mentioned, I was told I could not get past the gate by writing instructors, and here I am, ABD, about to get my Ph.D.. I think Jenkins is correct in saying that students, especially at risk or academically under-prepared students, are “much more likely to stick it out if they see their professors as partners in the learning process.” I see my job as helping students realize that with hard work and effort they can learn the material and pass their classes. 

Next, Jenkins states that we should “be flexible” and reminds us “But don’t be a pushover”

Life happens, so we should help students through those moments, but we can’t let students walk all over us.

The next step is the hardest one for me, (and I don’t know why): Be accessible — and approachable.”

Students need to know that they can come talk to us. If they have a problem, they need to tell us so that we can be flexible without being a pushover. As Jenkins reminds us “For many students, professors represent imposing and sometimes intimidating figures.” I have had vastly wonderful literature classes, where my students come talk to me during office hours, chat with me before and after class about the movie, t.v. show, or other book they read that reminds them about something we covered in class. One class started a book club and asked me to be the faculty advisor. 

In my composition classes, however, I am arrogant and mean. I try to be open. I send out constant announcements reminding my students of office hours, of e-mailing me, of my openness to read pre-drafts before they turn anything in for a grade. I try to be tough so that students don’t think I’m a push over, but I am flexible when things come up. Sometimes I wonder if my accessibility isn’t influenced by my appearance as a 6’2 tall man. I know my sarcasm gets me in trouble.

I am working on this accessibility part, and have seen improvements from when I first started–improvements that have come at realizing precisely that I am an ally not a gatekeeper.

“Make Material Relevant”

I have armed myself with the following articles that show that liberal arts majors (specifically in humanities and social sciences) earn more than professional and pre-professional majors by mid-career:







Of course, the importance of clear communication, proper writing (in e-mails, cover letters, job inquiries, resumes, etc.) cannot be stressed enough. In a competitive market, the resume without typos wins.

Finally, Take some personal responsibility”

I think I should, as Jenkins suggest, step outside the comfort zone. As he puts it:

You can’t force students to do something they absolutely don’t want to do. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve begun to step outside my comfort zone and reach out to students who have multiple absences, who haven’t turned in an assignment, or who clearly seem distracted in class (and not just by their cell phones)” 

This article makes me realize the student focused approach I would like to take at a community college or liberal arts college. A place where students come first.

“…The more there are who would say ‘ours,’/ so much the greater is the good possessed/ be each–so much more love burns in that cloister”(Dante, Purgatorio. XV. line: 55-57).

As I was reading Nussbaum’s article “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts” I could not help but think of Jeremy Rifkin’s RSA video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g) on “Cultivating Empathy” as both of these scholars look at the ability to empathize in society as a measure of a good society.

Rifkin relates a study in which scientist found that all human’s brains are soft-wired with “mirror neurons”– that is to say that if I see someone angry, sad, or going through whatever emotions, the neurons in the brain that control the emotion will fire in my brain as I watch the emotion in someone else. My neuron will mirror the neurons merely from observation.

Nussbaum’s claim then that “Children…are born with rudimentary capacity for sympathy and concern” (96), there is science to back her up, and more so than just Winnicott’s observations.

As an aside, Rifkin believes that empathy must be nourished; that we must build an “empathic civilization” which is not to say utopia, but a society in which we can build solidarity with not just one another but with all animals on this earth. Rifkin looks at how empathy has grown with technology. When humans were hunter gathers, empathy extended only to within tribes and the tribe on the other side of the mountain was an “alien other,” but with globalization, our tribe now encompasses the entire globe. And it seems that the way to create the empathic civilization that Rifkin is discussing would be through the arts, the way Nussbaum is suggesting.

I believe the correlation here between Rifkin and what Nussbaum points out when looking at Ellison’s ideas for his novel are informative for how to build a empathetic community: Rifkin says that humans are soft wired to feel what the other is feeling, and Ellison points out that his novel help us see the relationship with people we encounter everyday (Nussbaum 107). As Tagore is suggesting, as Rifkin is hoping for, as Nussbaum is analyzing– humans are wired to be sympathetic and a way to tap into that sympathy is through the arts and imagination. I am in complete agreement with Nussbaum when she mentions the arts as a way to teach children about “cultural blindspots” (108). As Nussbaum goes on to give examples of arts affecting young people (Chicago Chior, implementing art to psychotherapy, etc), it seems amazing that more schools are not doing this.

Uhhh… Let’s see; premise: “to set forth beforehand, as by way of introduction or explanation.” Also “in logic, “a previous proposition from which another follows,” Again, I wonder as I read Frank Farmer’s essay on imitation… Why do many of these writing pedagogy people write so… shall we say: uniquely?

A premise is a starting point. If these were my student, I would write in the margins, “Just make the assertion” or something like that. I hate this kind of redundant writing (probably because I see it in my poor writing, but I’m not a “lit” guy, right? I read the stuff; I don’t necessarily write it). Now that I am completely off topic, let me get to the article.

I do like Farmer’s idea of imitation. I am amazed that the hippie expressivist were against imitation. Wouldn’t “finding your voice” and your “true self” be helped with reading people who have found themselves, and with reading text that “speak” to you? Maybe I am too Bloom-anxiety-of-influence-y on this, but doesn’t every great writer find his/herself through imitation? Through grappling with a literary fathers?

Grappling with literary fathers is not to say that the fight is done once King Laius is defeated. Rather, like Farmer says, we should teach students to seek out new fathers to kill because, “…if they have no opportunity to develop new perspectives by entering into, trying on, the perspective of another, then, indeed, we have taught them little more than to be content with the immediate position they assume…” (421); my question to this is: how do we get them to NOT be content with their immediate position–their starting point, their premise, if you like?

I understand that with imitation, students need to realize that the point is for them to “come to terms” with the language of another so that the student can make the language his/her own, but in all of Farmer’s praise of Bahktin, where does Farmer talk about actual pedagogy that can be used in a classroom? And while I agree with Farmer that parody is “…useful because it offers an excellent way to braoch some of the complexities of three enduring staples of rhetorical education: context, audience, and purpose”(425), I have to disagree on purely theoretical terms.

Yes, I believe that imitation is useful, which is why I always have my students read an expert or ‘A’ paper; the idea is that this example is one to be imitated and used to begin to craft a voice of their own– where I disagree is on Bahktin’s essentializing. All this talk of double-voiced discourse as if we could ever be objective. The idea Farmer brings up at the beginning of the essay of appropriating “someone’s else’s words” (416), as if there was ‘somone’ out their who owns the words that students will appropriate. All that said, I repeat that I fully agree with Farmer and the usefulness of imitation. To illustrate how echoing someone else can transform the person echoing, here is Derrida discussing how echo, by repeating the last words she hears, turns the words repeated into her own, which I believe is what students can do in imitation:

“she speaks in her own name by just repeating his words” -Derrida

I read about the seven principles to follow as a good teacher (you can look them up here), which are all great principles, but with one problem that one of my classmates brought up a couple of weeks ago, which is that as a graduate student taking three classes and tyring to find call for papers and write for those cfp, sometimes it is very difficult to have that (1st principle) face time with students, and it is sometimes hard to give feedback in a “timely” manner. Also, getting paid what I get paid to do what I do– well, it is hard to fulfill all of those principles all of the time. Of course, I try, but it seem overwhelming to teach the way I would like to teach and still keep up with all my grad classes and responsibilities.

Also, I’m all for learning as a team effort (it is in a community, discussing ideas with friends and professors that I was able to write my thesis), but at the undergraduate level, at times, one person is doing all the work and the rest of the group just sits back.

This folds into the quiet students question, I believe, along with issues I am working on as a fairly new instructor. I am trying to find the time to truly engage students and to have students engage with each other. Sometimes, I find this hard when students don’t talk in the classroom (which, thanks to the article, now I see isn’t as bad a situation as I thought it was), but still makes me wonder sometimes if students aren’t talking because I am a bad teacher. I did find this, and I hope to use some if it when I can.

The last piece (​Teaching Composition: Elbow, Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment pg. 387-406) was my favorite, and I really like the way one of my classmates explains it: “One interesting idea I gained from Berthoff is the uselesslness of asking students “What does this mean?” Instead of asking questions that merely ask what something is, we should be asking them to think about the forms a certain writer uses and how he or she achieves meaning through his or her use of language​”

I told my students the first day that I was going to make them all little philosophers in the true sense of the word: lovers of wisdom. Now as I start the ad analysis essay, this is perfectly stated. The question is not what does something mean, but how does it mean. To illustrate how composition and philosophy and their own majors intertwine, I plan on maybe showing them this:

I hope this will get them thinking of “how” something means, not what it means. And after the readings for the bibliography, hopefully they are already thinking about how “facts” change.

I have been starting class by asking the students if they have any questions or concerns that need to be addressed. So far, there hasn’t been much. I wanted to show the students that they evaluate things everyday, so I started class off by having them free-write about their favorite movie, song, or book. I told them that they had to explain WHY it is this thing was their favorite. After about 5 minutes, I had the students write for 5 minutes about the thing they hate and why. Once that was over, I told them to exchange papers and to evaluate the claims made.

I told them that liking a song because the singer was good looking was not a valid reason, so that it was their job to look out for this kind of faulty reasoning. I tried to lead this into a discussion, but no one was talking. It was pretty awful actually. I think this will work if it is tweaked, so I am going to have to contemplate a way to inspire more class engagement.

My first class does a little better with discussion; the students in that class seem to be a little more on the ball and little more self motivated (which reminds me, I should outline for both the classes what should go in the summary).

Afterwards, I put on the projector two news articles dealing with Obama’s speech about the end of the war in Iraq. One was from Fox news the other was from The New York Times, so both had very subtle ideological language. My first class (which, I know, I just said seems to be more on the ball, got it wrong). I pointed out (to both classes) the little turn of phrases and wording, style, quotes used to show the class how these things can give you insight to a writer’s angle of vision. I think they got it. I hope they got it.

I then briefly discussed MLA formatting, reviewed, again, what this annotated bibliography consists of, and showed them some web-page, like easybib.com. I had an issue where some of the gourps couldn’t find the article they were assigned, so I had to reassign some of the articles. (I need to read these articles).

This left about 15 minutes in one class, 20 minutes in another, for group work. I walked around to the different groups and listened in to what was going on asking if anyone needed help. Over all not a bad class.

My own classes are suffering, and I realized that I was behind in my readings– especially when 20 minutes before class, as I was going to get coffee, I ran into a classmate reading an article. When I asked her what she was reading, she told me it was for class. Well, I had enough time to print up the article but couldn’t read it, which didn’t matter because we didn’t even really discuss it. Then in class, I managed to BS my way through class eventhough, I only read about half of the book.

I’m off to read read read…

Today seemed to be a little better day. The weather was nice, and it seemed to affect my students. Today, though, I realized just how different my two classes are. I did the same thing in both:

I started the class with some discussion of blackboard and the homework I had the class do. Some people typed out or wrote the assignment and brought it to class, so I made sure to go over (again) blackboard and how to reply to the discussion. I also (don’t know if I should have or not) admitted that this was the first time I was rely so heavily on blackboard and wasn’t entirely sure how the program worked either, but I made it a point to explain to the class how this is the future, that we are all going to have to get used to it and learn how to use these basic technologies.

Afterwards, I did “housekeeping.” We went over the plagiarism quiz. I explained each answer in detail and took questions. Here is where I began to notice the difference in my classes. the first class is talkative and engaged in the course while the second class was much more quiet, not asking any questions.

I collected all that work, asked if there were any questions, and then I passed out the short story “Jesus Shaves” by David Sedaris. We read the story as a class. It is a funny story about a class trying to explain Easter without have the proper vocabulary. When the story was over (which loosened the class up since it makes them laugh), I asked the class if they knew what the point was?

This led into a discussion about discourse communities. I explained to the class how the Sedaris story is an example of a person joining a new discourse community and having to learn the new vocabulary in order to successfully join that community. My first class had a great discussion where most of the class participated. I throw a lot of examples at the class in hopes to get them to understand that they are already part of a discourse community. My first class was engaged, but my second class was quiet. I joked with the second class and asked them if they had no opinion or thoughts on the subject at all. Telling them they needed to use their brains and think about these things.

I also, briefly, discussed rhetoric with the class and explained how rhetoric has a lot to do with how you say things, not what you say. My first class provided lots of examples, and then I gave them mine. I told them to think back to elementary school and passing notes to a girl or boy they like: “Do you like me?” and then I drew a huge square with yes under it and a tiny square with no under it. They seemed to get the point.

We talked a little bit about language and about how all these things are connected. The discourse community will dictate the language that is used and the rhetorical context that will work best. In the 6th grade with a girl I like as my audience, I am going to keep the language simple and use the space on the page that I am using to convey the answer I want to hear.

I ended class by explaining to the class how I was going to make all of them little philosophers. I explained that philosophy is the love of wisdom, and that as new students, joining this new academic discourse, I hope that they will love wisdom for its own sake. To show them this, I showed them this clip from the movie Examined Life . I used the clip and the talk about loving knowledge as the prompt for my diagnostic.

I’ll look those over tomorrow and see how that went.

I would really like to improve my teaching, and I would like to keep a record of stuff that seemed to work and a record of stuff that didn’t work. I want to use this space to be able to do that, and to be able to think out a rough draft before I post on my class’s blog post where I NEED to do it.

The first day was lots of administration stuff. I introduced the class, myself, and some expectations. I went to the web-site (blackboard) and showed the class where they can find the syllabus, the assignment sheet, and the schedule. I feel this is important to do with the class so that students don’t later have an excuse for not doing something. And I make sure to tell them this– I let them know that now they have no excuse for not doing homework, for not knowing what is expected of them, and for being responsible for any changes in the schedule. I also take this time to remind them that they HAVE to use the university web-mail.

Going over the syllabus, I reminded students to go hug their grandparents. get their cars checked, and to update their computers because these are all things that “die” when essays are due. I took the time to go over all the major points, and let students know that now, they know what the class will be about.

Afterwards, I briefly went over the assignment sheet and what the first essay will be. The students seemed to be very relieved that in doing an annotated bibliography, that they have all the sources they need.

At this point I asked the class if anyone was freaking out, and I let them know that this would be a good time to run out of the class and drop it.

Since no one left, I told the class how this is not going to be a lecture heavy course, that rather, one learns how to write by…well, writing– through practice. And that part of that writing process and practice would be taking place in groups, so that now was a good a time as any to get to know each other since we are all going to be working together. I told the class to break into groups of 2 or 3 people and to interview each other. I reminded them to ask for the basic information; name, major and whatever else they wanted to ask, and then I told the class to tell the interviewer two truths and a lie. I tried to let them know that what was true and what was a lie wasn’t important and that I would let them know why it wasn’t at the end of all this.

I had the students introduce the person they were interviewing and tell the class the three “facts” that were shared. This didn’t work out so well. Many of the lies were obvious, and other students informed us of what was the truths were and what the lies were. When it was over, I tried to explain to the class how, through a class discussion, “facts” were only what someone decides to be facts. I tried to show the students how the introductions connected to this idea, that a “fact” is something they each chose to tell, and that history and culture is no different than this.

I think next time I will try another ice breaker activity that will engage the class in more discussion than just giving their names and majors and some silly facts about themselves.

The classes were quiet, and I sometimes find it difficult to get a class engaged. What usually happens is what happens in all classes, at all levels, from undergrad to graduate: two or three people talk and the rest of the class lets them talk. I hope as I learn names that I am able to engage more of the class into the class discussion. Since it was the first day, and it was such a horrible, rainy, cold, and annoying day, I let the one’s who wanted to talk to talk, and the one’s who didn’t want to talk to not talk.