Man, That Is So Great! Thanks, Mom!

Mom in NC 004

Mom along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a visit to North Carolina in 2015

A while back, I wrote about my father’s influence on me as a person and an educator. I’ve also written about my grandmother, great aunt, uncle and sister.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

I quoted Mom in class today, again. I frequently do that because Mom has had so many things to say…wait…that didn’t come out right. I mean in a good way, so many good things to say. Today, I was talking to my students about the importance of learning research skills and remembered one of my favorite Mom sayings: “The secret to a getting a good education,” she said, “is learning how to find things.”

Man, that is so great!

And Mom knew what she was talking about–for the bulk of her career she was a high school librarian–teaching students how to find things. But Mom had been an English teacher, too. She was actually my English teacher one year. I know what you’re thinking. What a nightmare! And occasionally it was indeed, but totally NOT Mom’s fault. She was a wonderful English teacher because she is so well-read and is such a good story teller.

One story I frequently tell my students is how Mom was teaching us about writing introductions and the importance of grabbing people’s attention. Now, you must realize that I was in eight grade at the time and attending a Christian school, a conservative Christian school, in Augusta, Georgia, where my father was principal and my mother an English teacher.

So Mom gives an example of an attention-getting opening. She told us about the best first sentence she ever heard, often attributed to Agatha Christie (origin is not clear), that truly reaches out and grabs you–“Damn!” said the duchess.

When Mom said “Damn!” everybody stopped their daydreaming or passing notes or whatever and looked at Mom. Did the principal’s wife just say, “Damn!”? Once Mom made eye contact with all of us, she just smiled and said, “See? Got your attention, didn’t I?” Man, it was so great. I have never forgotten that lesson. Write something different, unexpected when you write an introduction, and you will have your reader eating out of your hand.

I quoted Mom a few weeks ago when I was explaining the concept of soft skills to my students and how hard it is to teach them in any formal way, but we need to learn them if we hope to be truly successful in our careers and in lives. I explained how my mom was constantly looking for ways to teach us these important soft “life” skills, like when she explained the importance of having good manners. “You know,” she said one day, “having manners is nothing but being kind to people. That’s really all it is” Man, that is so great.

Mom likes to quote, especially scripture and poetry, so I have my favorite Mom quote that I quote to my students. It is from the poem “A Farewell” by Charles Kingsley, which my mother learned from my grandmother, another teacher-mother, and so on it goes:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever
One grand, sweet song.
Man, that is so great. I love you, Mom.
Mom and me

Mom and Me in front of the Jule Collins Smith Art Museum in Auburn, Alabama Summer 2015

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What happens when liberal arts are devalued in the community college?

5653093-steve-jobs-liberal-arts-quoteThere seems to be an increasing hostility in the world today towards the study of the liberal arts. This is not a new subject to readers of my blog. As a community college instructor teaching English, I have grave concerns about how this hostility is affecting many of my students at the college where I teach.

If students don’t value the liberal arts, especially the humanities, they often become resentful of having to complete assignments that appear, to their uninformed minds, to have no practical value. This resentment can turn to inattentiveness and a lack of participation, which sometimes turns to more serious inappropriate behavior, and even to open hostility and violence, according to a 2008 study by educational counselors Dr. Robert Dobmeier and Joseph Moran (“Dealing with the Disruptive Behavior of Adult Learners”).

The feeling that students’ time studying in the humanities classroom is somehow wasted is often times reinforced by negative attitudes within the home, among peers and in the wider community. For example, former Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in a 2013 radio interview referring to certain humanities courses, including gender studies and an African foreign language

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

If the governor of a state with a rich tradition of superb institutions of higher education feels free to make such uninformed statements, it is logical to assume that some students are hearing similar ones at home and among their peers.

I can attest that this lack of respect has led to disrespect for not only the disciplines I teach, but also for myself. Furthermore, I am not alone. Students are becoming more and more critical of instructors’ assignments, teaching styles and assessments. I don’t mean legitimate questions respectfully asked, which leads to explanations that help students understand the material better, but criticism that is increasingly uncivil, including sleeping, texting or talking in class, posting inappropriate comments in online discussion forums, as well as e-mailing rude and even obscene comments to instructors.

Worse, community college instructors are increasingly confronted with angry and hostile students in the classroom and in our offices. These students are often upset that an instructor has carried out a policy that is stated clearly in his or her syllabus or there is some disagreement about a grade. Sometimes these encounters are upsetting and even frightening to the instructor, his or her colleagues, other students, staff and administrators.

I have been teaching a long time, and I know that incidents like these have been happening since the first classrooms were created, but I have never, in my whole almost 30-year career, had so many adult students with such unhealthy attitudes toward learning for learning’s sake, that inexplicable passion for learning, which leads to all of the things so many people say they desire out of higher education–citizens who can think critically, communicate well, solve problems and adapt to new situations quickly.

Something needs to be done. But what? There are no easy answers, but I am going to begin with educating myself with specific information that supports my belief that the study of the liberal arts should be the bedrock of all our institutions of higher learning.

**********

I found this incredible essay posted on the Academy of Arts and Sciences website, along with a great article entitled, The Vitality of the Humanities in U.S. Community Colleges,” that reiterates my thoughts on the importance of all students studying the arts and humanities in our community colleges:

January 19, 2015

Community College Students and the Humanities: New Opportunities for Learning and Growth

posted by Martha J. Kanter

Martha J. Kanter, Ed.D., is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education at New York University and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2013.

More than 40 percent of our nation’s adults are unable to read, write, or compute at the competency level expected of America’s high school graduates, so it’s hardly a surprise, even if it is gravely disappointing and frustrating, to inform policy makers, and the public about the worth of the humanities.1 But what better way to elevate the discussion than with facts and policy strategies?

That is why the light that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is shining on community colleges and the humanities is critical in this endeavor. Even today, too many Americans aren’t aware that the community colleges are the gateway to higher education for more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates. A generation ago the United States was first in the world in the number of college graduates with two-year and four-year degrees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are now eleventh in the world, tied with Israel.2 The good news is that we are moving in the right direction: we were ranked sixteenth 16th in the world in 2009. It’s a national imperative that we provide Americans the best quality education so we must look to the community colleges and state universities where the middle-class and low-income majority is seeking higher education. (my accent)

Educational improvements and financial support are sorely needed. Sadly, public colleges and universities were hit hard by the recession and lost, on average, about 20 percent of their state support. We need our private universities to join with their colleagues in the community colleges and state universities in a shared vision to reimagine and redesign general education in the years ahead. In doing so, we will ensure that all of our students have access to the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills, and capacity to learn that will advance greater numbers of students with undergraduate and graduate degrees for America’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Looking at the facts, more than a third of associate’s degrees are awarded in subjects that require a significant humanities course load.3 Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society.

In a recent survey, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of CEOs want to hire individuals who demonstrate the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems,” capabilities “more important than their undergraduate major. More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”4  (accent is mine) 

Unfortunately, the collaboration so urgently needed between the arts, humanities, sciences, and business has fragmented into ever more disparate pieces over the last decade when their interaction and integration should be encouraged to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to drive our nation forward. In the decades ahead, our nation will need more Americans with college degrees who are well versed in the histories and opportunities to address the major societal challenges of our democracy and the world, not the least of which include the education levels of children, income inequality, the social, economic and civic needs of diverse communities, globalization, innovation, and American competitiveness. Interdisciplinary thought leadership and collaboration will be more important than ever in crossing boundaries to address the local, regional, national, and global problems ahead of us.

When Tom Ehrlich spoke about the pathways to ethical and engaged citizenship at Miami Dade College in 2009, he said, “college learning must be about much more that [sic] knowledge—knowledge that may be obsolete in just a few years. Most important, it must be about learning how to learn and to keep on learning. At its core, that is what a liberal education does, it liberates our minds to learn.”5  (accent is mine) 

We should look to the evidence, embrace the liberal arts as a necessary foundation for postsecondary education in all fields of study, and figure out how to give our students the best possible opportunities to discover themselves, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to improving their own lives and the lives of their communities. In doing so, we will be part of the American dream we wish to realize for ourselves and future generations. (accent is mine)

ENDNOTES
1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=199909; and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of adults in each prose, document, and quantitative literacy level: 1992 and 2003,” in 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003), http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp#2.
2 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en.
3 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Associate’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2013,” in Humanities Indicators, 2014.
4 Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates, 2013), http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
5 Tom Ehrlich, “Ethical and Engaged Citizens: Whose Responsibility?” (talk delivered at Miami Dade College, Miami, FL, May 21, 2009).

The Art of Collaboration

Cast Meets with Susan Burk

Cast meets via Skype with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation during rehearsals for The Laramie Project – photo by Vince LaMonica

Not soon after I started working at the community college where I teach, I was thrilled that a new degree was added–an Associates of Fine Arts in Drama. The young woman who led the program brought back to life my love of all aspects of theater production. I had dabbled in community theater as a publicist, properties manager, stage director and actor in several places where I lived, but raising a small child and teaching a heavy adjunct load meant little time for this passion.

 

The drama department at the college brought it all back to me. Furthermore, it offered me opportunities to get back onto the stage through small roles that didn’t require a great deal of rehearsal time. Jennifer, the director, always made it doable, and the more I became involved the more I wanted to do. Because her department is small, and she is the only full-time instructor, Jennifer and I, an English teacher, started finding more and more opportunities to work together, forming a cross-curriculum relationship that has, I think, greatly enhanced both departments for the advancement of our students and has sustained us both by allowing us the creative outlets that we crave.

It all started one day, long ago, over lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant, when we were discussing the upcoming production. Jennifer had decided she wanted to do two one-act plays with her directing one and me the other as I had expressed the desire of getting my feet wet as a director. She had already decided on one of the plays–Blue Window by Craig Lucas, but she hadn’t been able to find a suitable play for me to direct.

Almost as a joke, I said, “Hey, guess what?”

“What?” she said.

“I wrote a play long years ago. It’s called Green Room. How about that, Blue Window, Green Room.” I was almost laughing. I really wasn’t serious at all or suggesting anything, I swear.

Then, she said, “Let’s do that one.”

“What?” I said.

“Let’s do your play.”

“But you haven’t even read it. You don’t know anything about it. It might suck. I mean, as far as I remember it does suck.”

“Here’s the beauty of it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever we don’t like, we change.”

Thus began a truly productive collaboration between two instructors. I can’t tell you what it means as a writer and an educator to have this kind of partnership, which protects Jennifer and her department from isolation and offers me opportunities to stretch the creative side in me–the writer, the actor.

We did produce Blue Window and Green Room. I ended up handing the directing baton over to Jennifer when, two weeks before opening night, one of the leads quit, and I had to step in to act. In addition, Curtis, a student who played a lead role in the play, also composed original music for Green Room and has gone on to collaborate with me, and Jennifer,  on many projects even after he left school.

The next semester I directed my first full length play, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Was I crazy? Of course, I was, but of course, Jennifer was there to help me through the process, and without her expertise the show would have been a disaster. On the other hand, because of my knowledge of German (I double majored in English and German in undergraduate school), I was able to contribute direct translations from the original text when the British translations we were using didn’t work. Also, I have a particular interest in musicals, which Jennifer doesn’t share, so working again with Curtis, we composed original music for the play.

Over and over again, Jennifer and I, along with students like Curtis, as well as colleagues, have collaborated on productions. So many times our ideas came from just seeing plays together in the community or at conferences. Other times they simply sprang from casual conversation or out of a desire to find a special project for a special actor. Here are just a few examples of our working together (in no particular order):

  • A production of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie Project with student-led talk back facilitated by the public speaking instructor at the college. In addition, Jennifer had frequent discussions with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation and cast members had a teleconference with Burk to prepare for their roles. I acted in the show and wrote two features about the production for the local newspaper. Follow these links to read the features: 1)  Pre-Production 2)  Production
  • BRCC’s participation in the 48 Hour Film Project, winning Asheville’s contest in 2008. See the film at this link: Serial Love
  • Tennessee Williams’ One-Act Play Festival–we had two separate stages, a southern-style picnic and a lecture on Williams by one of our English faculty
  • Pre-show lecture about Lord Byron and the Shelleys before the production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry
  • Pre-show lecture, scenes and short film (produced by drama department) before production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
  • Pre-show lecture by me and an adjunct English instructor before Shakespeare’s Macbeth (we both acted in the production as well)
  • World premiere of A Carolina Story, a musical based on the Book
    Carolina Story 029

    A Carolina Story, April 2012

    of Job, by me with music by Curtis (We produced it a second time as a fund-raiser for the student emergency grant and loan fund)

There have been so many other examples of how our collaboration has enhanced our teaching. Currently, we are collaborating on perhaps our most ambitious project yet, an original stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are attempting to preserve the plot and style of the original while adding exciting multi-media effects to enhance the production.

Most theaters cannot sustain this kind of freedom and collaboration between writer and producer/director. It is educational theater, especially in higher education, that allows for this kind of risk-taking to take place. It is also this kind of educational theater that should be supported with proper funding and promotion because in the end, collaboration between faculty, staff, students, administration and community is what it takes for the arts in education to flourish, teaching us to work together for the betterment of all.

And hey, if you’re near Asheville the weekend before Halloween, come see Frankenstein!!

 

 

 

League for Innovation in the Community College 2016

chicago

Courtesy of sheratongrand.com

I’m in  Chicago for the 2016 League of Innovations Conference. I have already experienced some of the best professional development I’ve ever had after only one day of meetings, which makes for an auspicious beginning.

Yesterday was all about getting here and getting settled in. John and I left Asheville super early on Saturday and got here before noon, so we had plenty of time to explore the city. It wasn’t warm (this isn’t called the Windy City for nothing), but the sun was out, and it was a beautiful day, so we left the hotel, ate at a sandwich shop down the street from the hotel and walked down to the Navy Pier, less than a mile from our home away from home.

navy pier

Navy Pier (courtesy of Trippy Media)

According to conciergepreferred.com the Navy Pier was not developed for use by the military but was used as a housing and training facility for the Navy during both world wars. Since 1946 the pier has been used for various purposes, including the undergraduate campus of the University of Chicago, but now is mainly a recreational facility, featuring a major embarking center for city cruises and bus tours, restaurants, biking and walking paths, restaurants, music venues, a children’s museum and, of course, the Ferris wheel. Walking around the pier and down the walkways along the Chicago River was a great way to be introduced to the city.

After making it back to the hotel and getting registered for the conference, an easy process thanks to the efficiency of my college’s educational foundation staff, we relaxed in the room for a while and later enjoyed a great meal at Bongiorno’s Italian Deli and Pizzeria. We were greeted by the proprietor, sat under signed Ernie Banks photos, had excellent service, ate authentic Italian Capricciosa pizza, drank good imported Italian beer and enjoyed a nice chat with the owner, who told us how he played minor league ball in Greensboro years ago and kindly admired my beautiful double-knitted scarf that my daughter Hannah made me for Christmas. Truly a Bella Notte!

Bongiornos-Italian-Deli-Pizzeria

The only thing that marred the evening was that Bongiorno’s is directly across from the Trump Tower–Just can’t get shed of that guy.

Today started early. We had breakfast at the little cafe in the hotel, then John headed out to explore while I started a long day of informative and interesting sessions as the conference began. Here’s a breakdown of the sessions I attended today:

8:30-9:30–Expand Your Horizon of Inclusion: Connect with Local Communities. This session was led by Dr. Leo Parvis, Coordinator of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minnesota. He is the author of  Understanding Cultural Diversity in Today’s Complex World, now in its fifth edition. Dr. Parvis uses this textbook in the course he teaches on cultural diversity, so I bought a copy to take back to the college and share with our Inclusive Education Committee of which I am a member. An excellent presentation by one of the nation’s leaders in inclusive education.

9:45-10:45–Toward a New Ecology of Student Success: Expanding and Transforming Learning Opportunities throughout the Community College, The Cross Papers, Number 19. I have to make a confession. I did research, wrote and submitted a proposal in the 2016 Cross Papers’ competition and did not win, so I attended this session out of curiosity about the man who won this year’s competition more than anything else. I also must confess that I was humbled. Jim Riggs, who wrote this year’s monograph, gave a wonderful presentation, discussing the importance of faculty and support staff working together toward the same goals of student success–that faculty are the center of this effort because of their close contact, but that this “new ecology” must include ALL of the college–that the disconnect between these two parts of the community college must be repaired. I look forward to acquiring a copy of the monograph and bringing it back to the college and sharing it with administration, staff and fellow faculty.

11:00-12:00–How to Successfully Teach Online–Michael Corona, Business Communications Instructor, Excelsior College, NY–I didn’t learn a whole lot of new things at this session, but it was great for my spirit because it validated so much of my own online teaching practices. To hear that such an experienced and obviously successful online instructor employs many of the same strategies as I do in his online classes was inspiring. I also had a chance to network with other instructors, which is one of the main benefits of attending educational conferences.

1:00-2:00–Storytelling with Data: Telling the Tale of ALP–Facilitated by a former English instructor and a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, who, I found out later, taught at Piedmont Community College, this excellent session gave me some great ideas about how to present program data that helps elicit real change. I am looking forward to sharing this information with my supervisor and colleagues. After the session I had a nice discussion about ALP (Accelerated Learning Program) with Dawn Coleman,  the grad student who used to teach in North Carolina.

2:15-3:15–Life During Community College: Your Guide to Success–Terry Arndt, College Transition Publishing. This was another validating session, but I also was introduced to a few very useful tidbits I can take back to the college that is sure to interest many at my college, especially ideas about orientation courses and student retention. Listening to the questions and comments from other educators, I also realized in this session how progressive our college is when it comes to the first-year experience as well as our instruction in library resources.

If you have to work on Sunday, then this was a good way to do it.

Now I’m back in my room, watching the Penguins play the Capitals, the Pens just went up by one, and wondering when John will get hungry enough for some more good Chicago food and drink. I love the Penguins but…..

Guest Blog–Zoe Carpenter of The Nation

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (postgazette.com)

Discouraging news today as the war on liberal arts, especially the study of literature, continues. Let’s make it possible for students not to be challenged or stretched by their education. Path of least resistance to a meaningless piece of paper. What are the hardest subjects? Let’s make it possible for students to just skip those bugbears.

It’s just getting worse folks.

I used to think that people in power just didn’t understand how writing literary analysis helps to lead  students into higher levels of thinking. Now, I’m not so sure. Could it be that the powers that be don’t want students to move into levels of higher thinking? Thinking people, after all, are much harder to control, aren’t they?

Oh, well, I must go back to grading my American Literature I and British Literature II course work and developing practical, yet exciting, exercises to help my students learn active reading and deeper research skills while I still have a chance.

Lord, I’m just too tired to deal with it today, so I’ll let Zoe Carpenter speak for me through an article from 2015.

http://www.thenation.com/article/how-right-wing-political-machine-dismantling-higher-education-north-carolina/

And another great article from Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor at a liberal arts institution:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/02/18/we-dont-need-more-stem-majors-we-need-more-stem-majors-with-liberal-arts-training/

 

Online Inspiration

I teach 200-level college transferable literature courses online at a small community college in North Carolina. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same things myself when I developed my first course–World Literature II–years ago. Things like

  • I will never be able to engage them like I can in a seated class.
  • This course will never be equal to a seated one.
  •  The grading load will be totally unmanageable.
  • I need the interaction with students that only a seated class can give.
  • I will never be able to have the kind of variety of assignments and activities that I have in my seated classes

All of these things were true in those first years and perhaps at least one or two of them is still true in my mind, but the time is rapidly approaching, with new advancements and technology as well as continued training when even the final issues will be resolved and students will be able to choose whatever form is best for them and know that they will get equal quality of instruction.

My opinion about teaching online classes has begun to change primarily because of training offered by our college’s distance learning personnel and help from colleagues as well as computer savvy young people, including my 21-year-old computer-raised daughter. I, who thought I had died and gone to heaven when I received my first Smith-Corona electric typewriter with its changeable cartridges,

never imagined back then the Star Trek technology that would become a reality in my lifetime, but as the programs and software have become increasingly user friendly, I have been able, if not to master them, at least to find ways to incorporate technology into my online classes. Some of this technology has helped to engage my students and aided me in what was at first an untenable amount of grading, while maintaining rigor and upholding the standards expected of college transfer students.

At my college’s professional development day last Thursday I shared some of the ways I am using technology to help the students in my online literature classes become more active readers as well as learn to research more deeply. I will be presenting this same presentation in March when I attend the League of Innovation in Community College’s conference in Chicago.

I used Prezi (one of the free presentation software applications I talked about in the PD session) to create a slide show that in itselfis a representation of how my knowledge of technology is improving. Furthermore, I have to tell you a secret…I had fun.

Here’s the link to the Prezi presentation (It may take a minute or two to load):

Dig Deep: Encouraging Active Reading and Deep Research in Online Classes

Let me know what you think!