I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.
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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.
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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

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Extended Deadline for Teach. Write. and Ambivalence

My summer is winding down. On August 13, I head back to work. To say I’m ambivalent about doing so is an understatement. Reading emails about re-accreditation responsibilities and changes in policy are already making my insides churn, but I will NOT go down a road of resentment and bitterness that is sure to get me nowhere. I will focus on the only thing at work I have any control of–the classroom. In my next blog, I will continue to write about some of the changes I am making in my instruction, but for now, I have some unfinished summer business to attend to.

35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40First of all, I have extended the deadline to August 15, for submissions to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. Check out the submission guidelines here. I have also decided to OPEN UP SUBMISSIONS TO ALL. I realized that writing students (virtually everyone has been a writing student) as well as teachers need to have a voice in Teach. Write. However, I do request that in your required third person bio that you include your composition teacher experience, if you have any, or explain the impact writing instruction has had on you. I am open to both positive and negative experiences as long as you don’t blame English teachers for everything that has gone wrong in your life.

Secondly, I am still not finished with either the play Death or Love?, about the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, or my novel Flood. I have hope that I will finish the play, but the novel will not get finished this summer. It just won’t. I am excited about it, though, because I have made great progress in developing the plot, as well as doing meaningful research and revision. My personal deadline is now December 31.

To make completing the novel a real possibility, I am once again going to participate in NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). This time, however, I am going to attempt to involve my students by providing times, places, and maybe even snacks, so we can write together during the month of November.

 

View from Schloss Neuschwanstein


View from Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, photo by Katie Winkler, June 2018

Finally, I should report on my greatest successes of the summer: incredible trip to Germany to visit my brother and his family, two meaningful and inspiring writers’ conferences–one at Brevard College with Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire mysteries, and the other in Raleigh with Elaine Neil Orr, whose latest book Swimming Between Worlds has won praise from Lit South and author Charles Frazier, who wrote Cold Mountain.

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Eye surgery was virtually painless and has resulted in 20/20 far-sighted vision in both eyes. I will have to wear reading glasses, but the difference is simply amazing. My surgeon, anesthetist. nurses, and other hospital personnel were  friendly, thoughtful and comforting. I can’t say enough about my regular eye doctor and his staff who have taken good care of me for years. They were all so efficient and helpful.

My greatest success was spending quality time with my husband and daughter. I don’t have enough time in this blog post to recount how great it has been, so I will simply say that I have been refreshed–body, mind, and spirit.

Now, my new goal–to not wait until a vacation rolls around to give myself the care I need to be the most effective teacher I can, helping my students become better writers while developing the soft skills they need to navigate an increasingly complex world. I am a teacher, but I am also a writer, wife, mother, friend, member of more than one community. I can’t wear all of these hats only in the summer. I can’t ever wear them all at once. Self-care means moderation and balance, sloughing off the worry that wastes precious time and produces nothing.

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Still ambivalent? Yes, I’m afraid so, but that doesn’t mean I am not ready to enter the fray and fight the good fight. The GOOD fight.

 

 

Trapped in a Cell

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A little while ago, I had a worse than usual incident with in-class cell phone usage. It was towards the end of class near the end of a semester when I was so distracted by a student’s texting that I asked him to put the phone away. He put it face down on the table in front of him. Less than a minute later, he was on the phone again. I asked him to put it away again. He put it face down on the table. I asked him to put it out of sight. He put it in his lap. I asked him to totally put it away, and he completely lost it, saying things I knew he would soon regret. (To his credit, he emailed me that evening to apologize.) I asked the student to leave for the day. He left, but reluctantly, and only after saying a few more regrettable things.

I have my own regrets: that I didn’t have a more clear-cut policy in the beginning of the semester, that I have been too loosey-goosey with inappropriate use of technology in my class. So, I have been drafting my new cell phone policy. It’s pretty hard core, at least compared to my previous policy. I know. I know. Some of you will think what a total marshmallow I must be, but like I told one of my teacher friends long ago, “You know what happens when a marshmallow sits on the shelf too long? It gets hard as a rock!”

So here’s the new policy:

Cell Phone Usage: Cell phone usage has become a major problem in my classes, distracting to the students who are texting or surfing, to those around them, and to me, making it harder for me to teach effectively. If I must consistently stop the class to discipline students on cell phones, I waste instructional time and risk embarrassing or angering the cell phone user as well as the rest of the students.

Therefore, I am instituting a stricter policy this year. Once class begins, phones are to be silenced and kept totally out of sight. Any student having a visible cell phone, holding, or using one during class may likely be asked to leave for the day, even if it is the first offense. If I am consistently having to ask any student to leave the class for violation of the cell phone policy, then I may submit a Behavioral Assessment Form to Student Services as described in the student handbook, which could result in further discipline, perhaps even suspension from the class.

What do you think?

Anyone want to share a policy that he or she has found effective?

I would love to hear from you. I have tried so many different things and nothing seems to work.

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It’s not too late to submit to the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of my online literary journal for writing teachers–Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. Look here for submission guidelines.

 

 

To Everything a Season

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“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Part of summer for me is evaluating the school year and analyzing some of its positive and negative aspects. What worked? What didn’t? One thing that struck me this year was how much pressure some of my younger high-achieving students put on themselves.

I had several students, especially early college and dual-enrolled ones, who seemed to be in a constant state of agitation, worrying about minor grades, wanting to turn in work before instruction was complete and becoming defensive, sometimes even arguing, over relatively unimportant comments on essays.

Once I lost patience with one of these students who would just not let go of her concern over a minor assignment she missed due to an absence, even after I explained that in-class assignments can not be made up, according to class policy as stated in the syllabus. Rather than argue with her, I gave in and let her make up the assignment.

Now, upon reflection, I think I should have stuck to my guns, but at the same time, I want to find a better way to communicate with students who struggle with perfectionism, help them learn how to better manage the pressures they face at home, at school, and increasingly, at work.

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey’s article, “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard and How Parents Can Learn to Back Off” offers some sensible advice not only to parents of high school-aged students but to educators as well, such as, offer resilience training, celebrate all kinds of success, don’t supervise everything and under-schedule.

I am thinking of ways to start a conversation with my students early in the semester through journaling and conferencing that can help them understand my expectations and build their resiliency as well as help them find a healthy life balance on their own terms. Another idea is to change the way I present grades to better reflect each assignment’s relative weight so students can more easily see how each one affects their grades.

My hope is for my students to embrace the idea that everything has its season, like summer is for me this year—a time for reflection and refueling.

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If you are or ever have been a writing teacher in any capacity or at any level, please consider submitting to my literary journal, Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. See submission guidelines.

Mrs. Winkler Settles Down

View from Schloss Neuschwanstein

View from balcony of Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen in Bavaria, Germany — Photo by Katie Winkler–June 2018

Whew!! I have been busy, y’all! End of a stressful, albeit successful school year, a successful, albeit somewhat daunting, writers’ conference at Brevard College, a daunting, albeit wonderful ten-day trip to Germany to see my brother and his family, two days of recovery, and I am ready to settle into the rest of my summer.

One issue  nine-month faculty members consistently face is how to handle the glorious three-month sabbatical that they receive each year. Here in the South, we laugh and tell the old joke–What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August. According to my daughter, however, I don’t know how to enjoy those halcyon days of summer. I can’t stop thinking about teaching, even when I need to be thinking about my writing, and most importantly, refueling my body, mind and spirit with reading, studying (for fun), and above all, spending time with my family and friends. Somewhere in there I need to do housework, too. Oh, I forgot–cataract surgery on both eyes in June and July.

That old plate just keeps getting full–just like dinner on the grounds at a Southern Baptist church homecoming. So, I have a plan. Let’s see if I can stick to it this year and practice what I preach to my students about time management. Maybe writing it down on this blog will help me hold myself accountable.

Here are the primary objectives (in order of importance):

  1. Spend quality time with family and friends
  2. Prepare for cataract surgery and rest afterwards
  3. Finish rough draft of the new play–Death or Love?
  4. Finish the rough draft of the novel–Flood
  5. Write blog post at least twice a month and work on Teach. Write. 

 

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Speaking of Teach. Write. Submissions are now open (until August 1) for the fall 2018 edition. If you have ever taught English composition at any level, then please consider submitting fiction, non-fiction, poetry or drama. You can find complete submission guidelines here. I would love to see your work!

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The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

Submissions Now Open for Fall 2018 Edition of Teach. Write.

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The year is winding down. Graduation tomorrow, and I will be finished for this academic year, but there is an exciting summer of traveling and writing ahead, so bring on the professional development!

The spring edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal has been well-received. The journal is available online–print copies are also available–just follow this link–Spring 2018 Teach. Write. 

If you are or ever have been a composition instructor, then please consider submitting creative nonfiction, flash fiction, short story, poetry or drama.  See submission guidelines and deadlines here.