Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Redux

I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle, written 20 years ago but still relevant today. I don’t know where to begin talking about it. There are so many things it touched on, including cultural and creation care, the dangers of corporate control of the arts and sciences, of people whose primary interest are wealth and power having control of higher education. I suppose that latter point is the one that resonates with me the most as an English instructor at a community college during this time.

This time. How strange it is. There are so many questions, and I can’t say that reading Berry’s book has offered me any specific answers, but perhaps it gives me something more important.

A new outlook.

At first Berry seems to be criticizing modern science, but it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that his objections are more towards the commercialization of science and how it is being isolated from other academic disciplines–how undergraduate programs in our colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional idea of one student embracing multiple disciplines, working across curriculums for the good of all, to more and more isolation and specialization. Ironically, this movement is causing us to be less and less concerned with specific problems, and more importantly, the people who are right around us.

Early on, when Berry introduces his thesis, he caught my attention, discussing what he means by professionalism, which is not what most people think when they hear the word:

“All of the disciplines are increasingly identifiable as professionalisms, which are increasingly conformable to the aims and standards of industrialism…The professionals don’t care [his italics] where they are….They subscribe to the preeminence of the mind and (logically from that) of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for small answers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of porfessionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big [his italics] answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal–the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit” (pp 14-15).

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do you know how relieved I am that someone who is so widely respected, a prophet of our time, has written these words that my soul has been shouting for years?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

A publically funded college is a place where learning is fostered for all of the people in the community, not to be centered on corporate or government interests. Not that these interests are unimportant. Of course, they are, but they are best served by a faculty dedicated to teaching students to think and communicate clearly and critically, a staff that supports students and their instructors toward that end, an administration that is devoted to the welfare of ALL students, faculty, and staff. No matter what career the student is interested in pursuing, even if she dreams of being a writer, an artist, a musician or, God forbid, an actor. No matter what subject the professor teaches, even if he teaches the history of jazz. No matter what the staff members do, whether they be registrars or receptionists.

It is not the job of any administrator, board member or government entity involved with a college or university to decide what learning is valuable and which is not.

The quote above raises another issue that has long been heavy on my heart– the insane idea of trying to standardize college-level instruction. Why do so many in higher education think it is a benefit to a young adult to encounter the same material, assignments, activities, grading rubrics, online platforms? Why this emphasis on sameness? How can students learn to navigate an ever-changing world if they don’t start learning to adapt to change while they are in college?

Wendell Berry gave me the answer–because sameness comes from the corporate mindset of “producing” as many “successful” graduates as cheaply and quickly as possible. And what is the sign of success?–a job.

But, I digress. Sorry, it’s the way I’m built. Just ask my students.

Berry discusses three institutions he feels are most affected by this professionalism–science, the arts, and religion. He begins with science and much of what he says has great relevance to two crises in our world today–do I need to even name them?

When discussing the limitations of science due to the deficiencies of our mental capacities (we don’t like to think we are limited but that we are is beyond doubt), Berry says the following:

“The fallibility of a human system of thought is always the result of incompleteness. In order to include some things, we invariably exclude others. We can’t include everything because we don’t know everything…. The incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it. To those who are excluded from it, the incompleteness of a system is, or eventually becomes, plain enough. One weakness of the present system,… is that it excludes all inscrutable and ineffable things, including the life history of the human soul” (pp. 34-35).

When a writer like Wendell Berry, not only a writer and a poet, but also a farmer and conservationist, some would even call an environmental activist, writes about science, he embues his words with the inscrutability and ineffabilty that he sees lacking in modern science. How he strings the words together, how he brings more than simple meaning but part of his soul to the page is evidence of what is at the crux of what I think is his intended meaning.

Science, the arts, religion, they need each other, depend on each other.

We need the complexity, the exactness of science, we need the mystery and symbolism of the arts, we need the sanctity and hope of religion to help bring us together and to help us include those who have for too long been excluded.

I don’t have time to talk about all of the many great ideas in Berry’s book, so I will conclude this scattered review with one piece of advice: Read it!

And with one last quote from the book:

“If we were as fearful of our knowledge and our power as in our ignorance we ought to be–and as our cultural and religious traditions instruct us to be–then we would be trying to reconnect the disiplines both within the universities and in the conduct of the professions” (p. 145).

Amen.

Work Cited

Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Continues

I will be adding more to this post in the near future to give more details about these two books, so stay tuned!!!

Also, updates on the novel and on Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

I have had this book for years and started reading it but put it aside. I’m not sure why; perhaps the time is right for it now, but it is a marvel. So much of it is resonating with me now, especially as I am working on a novel that satirizes higher education in the world today. It’s like I’m doing accidental research.

One of my alma maters, Western Carolina University offered an online book club for alumni, so I joined. Why not?

This is the first book we are reading. I am about half way through, but I got distracted once I started reading Berry’s book. However, I am going to be excited to get back to it because I am definitely learning a great deal.

Too Long

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This is what I get for teaching in the summer—less time to work on my blog. I almost let all of June go by without a post, but I made it!

I am saying right now, while I am in the midst of it, that I will never teach a course in the summer again. What was I thinking? Those of you who know me understand how I can get during the school year–I’m kind of intense, let’s say. Summer has always been my time to work on myself—my writing and reading, my diet and exercise, my family, my friends. Oh, and my Scrabble online time.

Not that I haven’t been doing all that.

However, I should have anticipated that teaching a composition course in eight weeks instead of sixteen is naturally going to take up a big chunk of time. And it has. Yet, I’m not sorry that I have done it because even if I do not succumb to the allure of teaching in the summer again (oh, Lord, I hope not ), I have learned a great deal that I can apply when teaching my sixteen-week classes.

Here we go:

  • Streamline assignments–I found that with fewer assignments, students are getting an ample amount of writing practice. I have also found that I can assign less time for assignments and still get the same quality of work from students. Giving weeks of time to complete the major assignments doesn’t seem to help either. Plus, I don’t have weeks of time when teaching a sixteen-week composition course in eight weeks.
  • Compact assignments–I re-wrote assignments to get more information in a single assignment so that I could afford to streamline. It takes some work and creative thought, but I dig that kind of stuff. Hey, course design is one of the reasons I love teaching so much.
  • Add video and text resources but keep them well-organized–I always have included a myriad of video and text resources, but with our new clean-looking LMS interface, it is easy to use labels to keep all of the student resources organized and easier to access. One tip–add resources that come from highly respected institutions (a plagiarism quiz from Cornell, which covers just about every possible plagiarism situation my students stumble across) and those that involve technology (a video about how to use Survey Monkey, which students like to use when doing field research for their capstone project).
  • Spreading out due dates–Students would find it difficult to be successful if they tried to complete two weeks worth of work in one cram session right on the day assignments are due. We can say good students get started early all we want, but the reality is most students, strong or weak, wait until the due date to complete assignments. Spreading out due dates helps students manage their time and helps me keep up with grading.
  • Introduce and summarize assignments–I have always added an introduction to my assignments, including key concepts from the text that I want to reinforce, but I have rewritten the introductions to be more intentional. I have also added summaries that include ONLY a bulleted list of what the students actually must submit for the assignments. This seems to help a great deal in avoiding confusion. Aristotle’s old advice, tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said, still holds true.
  • Create screencasts–It is relatively easy to create explanatory screencasts and upload them to YouTube with my ipad. I created a screencast just the day before yesterday that is about eight minutes long and takes students through the steps to find sources on my college’s website. YouTube has a feature that makes it easy to close caption in order for the video to be ADA compliant. All together, including upload, the screencast took me about one and a half hours to create. That would be more than I might want to dedicate during the school year, but since I have only one class this summer, and this screencast will be able to be used again, it was worth the effort.
  • Stay in touch–I have always tried to stay in touch with students, but I have made an even more concerted effort to communicate with students this summer since I have more time. I try to answer e-mails quickly and maintain a light and friendly tone with students. Last night I called a struggling student and spent about fifteen minutes offering some advice but mainly encouraging her. Fifteen minutes to save her from withdrawing a second time from English composition. Time well-spent. I know in the regular school year, with six classes, I will be unable to talk to all of my students this way, but I can certainly try to make a more personal connection to online students who are struggling.
  • Encourage strong students, too–This summer it has hit me harder than usual how much my strong students need me. They need to see not only a blanket “good work” on assignments, but also remarks on their essays about specific things they have done well. Sometimes the A students are lost in the shuffle. I don’t want to forget them this coming school year when I start getting busy putting out fires.
  • Empathize with difficulties–It doesn’t hurt to be human. I try to remember what it was like to work two jobs, be active in a campus club and be in student government while I was carrying a full load of classes. Some of my students have small children to care for as well. I can’t imagine. But I need to try.
  • However, don’t lower standards–While I try to show students compassion and make concessions where I can, I never want to lower my standards. I would not only be doing a disservice to the student but also to the college and society at large. Our students’ potential employers deserve workers who can read and write clearly, concisely, and persuasively. I have to be kind but firm.
  • Maintain a sense of humor–Much undervalued in education, I think. Having a sense of humor when communicating with students, when appropriate of course, eases tensions and humanizes me and the situation. It helps establish rapport with students like nothing else and helps them realize that, wildly successful or not, this intense eight-week English composition course will be just a blip in their lives, an important blip, but not the be all and end all of their existence.

Now, I had fun! I love writing this blog and hope someone reads it, but even if no one does, I have had a chance to pull together some interesting conclusions about my experience teaching this eight-week online composition class, and it is giving me some good, good, good vibrations. Sounds like summertime to me!

Anyone for a game of Scrabble?

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DON’T FORGET TO SUBMIT TO TEACH! WRITE! DEADLINE FOR THE FALL 2019 ISSUE IS AUGUST 1! CLICK HERE FOR SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I WOULD LOVE TO SEE YOUR POETRY, SHORT FICTION, OR CREATIVE NON-FICTION! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A TEACHER OR A PUBLISHED WRITER TO SUBMIT!