Gazing at the shiny internet

As I read through Nicholas Carr’s article about Google ruining our lives from an academic standpoint, I couldn’t stop nodding my head in agreement.  I’m in the dreaded process of “studying” for my preliminary exams.  I’ve just witnessed good friends far smarter than I struggle to fight through their vast reading lists trying to decipher what is important, and what is not.  I didn’t envy them.  More so because I knew I would be next.  I watched as anxiety took hold, and started to drive their actions.  In doing so, I also began to take note of how they began to prepare themselves.  I work in the library several days a week, and in doing so, I begin to recognize regulars who come in, and the types of subjects they research.  Over the summer, maybe because it was slow, or maybe because I had already embarked on scratching articles from one of my two reading lists, I noticed one of my fellow cohort colleagues walk past me with a nervous demeanor to pick up books she had placed on hold.  Always friendly, and always positive, I’d spout out words of encouragement like “you got this,” or “I have all the confidence in the world in you.”   I was sincere with my words, but part of me also hoped this was also passing on good karma because it was looking into the not so distant future.  After a few weeks of this, I sat down with her at her normal table littered with stacks of literature.  I asked her, “why the library everyday?  Wouldn’t you rather do this from the comfort of your couch or bedroom?”  She smiled and replied “if I did that, I’d never get anything done.”  This reified a lot of what I’d already been thinking to myself.

I equate much of my current experience of graduate school to a time warp.  With every intention of making every minute of the day count, I often find myself chasing something down the rabbit holes of the internet.  Just now, I wasted 20 minutes searching for clever memes to illustrate whatever message I forgot I was making.  Herein lies the problem.  God love the internet for all the advances and knowledge that is now extended to my fingertips, it is also slowly ruining my life and diminishing my already taxed ability to concentrate.  I’m not sure which it has impacted more: my ability to critically read, or critically write.  My academic discipline is both reading and writing intensive.  This was made abundantly clear in my first semester when in one of my orientation classes, I was encouraged to learn how to “skim.”  This was reinforced by more veteran students engaged in prelim preparation who routinely told me they merely browsed the contents of books to find topics of interest.  There just isn’t enough time.  Carr mentions this in his article as well.  He details a study in which the author states:

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

So which is it then?  Not enough time, or the inability to concentrate?  Pick one, and you’re probably right.  I know I’m not alone on this, as I’ve spoken with classmates about the same issue.  Our very own Sara Harrell told several of us how taking a social media hiatus did wonders for her productivity.  I’ve routinely witnessed these types of posts on Facebook, and anticipate doing the same as my own deadline approaches.  Who knows, I may be the next student you see tucked away in some corner of the library, unplugged from technology with a stack of books trying to learn without the shiny internet enticing me with distractions and the promise of adventure.

Boundary Issues

I can recall my dad exclaiming many times growing up “I’m here to be your dad, not your best friend.”  This of course was after I’d done something stupid, as teenagers tend to do, and was being reprimanded for it.  Of course in the moment, I always thought “why not both?”  But that was part of learning while growing up.  I already had friends that were my peers.  Looking back now, I realized what I really needed was to be held accountable.  That was what my dad was teaching me.  He was tough on me, but not unfair, and I feel like this helped to mold me into a reasonably responsible adult.  Reading Sarah Deel’s journey in her development as a teacher really resonated with me in many of the same ways that my relationship with my dad did.  She described this delicate balance between being a teacher and being a friend.  While I still think “why not both,” I can appreciate that certainly one is more important than the other.  Much like Sarah described, I’ve tried to mimic some of my more memorable professors while I was an undergrad, and even a grad student.  While this has provided some guidance, I think I found myself trying to be more likable than someone who was truly teaching.  Once I came to this realization, I reminded myself why I came back to school, and why I wanted to teach.

Much like the rest of the class, my journey to get here has been unique.  Watching the set of College Gameday on tv this morning echoed my time here as a freshman in that glorious national championship run in 1999.  Yes, I’m a little older than the traditional grad student but I hide it well.  In the fall of ’04, I finished grad school down the street at Radford, got married and at a youthful 20 something, I was hired as a police officer in the town I grew up in.

While I was always fond of academia, I didn’t think I’d ever return.  I told myself that I’d love to go back to school, get my Ph.D. and teach as a “retirement” job once my law enforcement career ran its course but doubted the possibility as something I’d really follow through with.  I dove into the job head first, and loved it.  Growing up, it was all I ever wanted to do.  Of course, my dad being my dad, he always asked “what’s next?”  While he respected my career decision, he was always nudging me to strive for more.  I think he just didn’t want me to settle for what I already had.

I learned very early on, that while I learned an enormous amount from my time in college, the thing it did not prepare me for was this job.  I was a first generation police officer so I just learned as I went.  In college, I had only one instructor who ever had any personal experience in law enforcement.  She was a medically retired officer from one of the Carolinas that taught my “Intro to Criminology” course while she was working on her Ph.D.  The irony of the situation is now clear, but I digress.  The lack of personal connection between instructors and the actual job became something I really focused on as I began to close in on ten years of working.  I began to see fresh recruits from the academy who were entering a world that academia had not prepared them for, much like myself a decade before.  That voice in the back of my head reminded me of that “retirement” job that I entertained when I had graduated, but I only let it linger for a few moments.  By this time, I had made detective and several specialty teams, and promotion was on the horizon.  Why give this up to go back to school?

I recall the events unfolding very vividly from here.  Around 2pm on a Friday, I recieved a call from my mom.  College football kickoff weekend was only a day away, and I had made plans to have my family come enjoy a BBQ at my house and watch the Hokies.  I expected this was a call about the ensuing details.  “Dad’s been in an accident, you need to come to Hylton” was all mom said.  Lights an siren, I raced to the main entrance of my old high school to discover dad was gone.  He was fatally struck by a car of a student at the school while he was waiting at a crosswalk.  I didn’t know it then, but this moment was the reason my dad wanted me to always strive for my best, and not settle.  Because life can change at the drop of a hat, and regret is far more powerful than you’d ever expect.

To make an already long story a little shorter, I made the decision, with the support of my family, to reinvest in that pipe dream of a “retirement” job.  I moved back to the New River valley and was admitted into school as a part time Ph.D. student while I worked 12 hour night shifts for Blacksburg’s finest.  My passion for academia was reinvigorated, motivated by the thought of influencing students who had the same passion for law enforcement as I once had.  This began the molding of my teaching voice.  While I may not take the same line in the sand approach of “I’m here to be your friend, I’m here to be your teacher” stance like a father-son relationship, I can certainly appreciate the perspective.  Much like Sarah Deel, approachability is huge, but so is accountability.

Grades vs. Knowledge Slugfest

In the constant struggle of evaluation process, students and teachers are find themselves trying to navigate that highwire tightrope scenario of a grading rubric.  I have often heard instructors mention how they would be perfectly happy if everyone if their class earned an ‘A.’  The careful use of language does not go unnoticed.  The subtle use of “earned” rather “received” provides insight that the successful benchmark isn’t the ‘A’ but the satisfaction that students are learning.  In most cases, from grade school throughout undergraduate studies, students may not see the difference between the two.  I know as an undergraduate, especially when fulfilling the minimum requirements for general education courses, getting an ‘A’ meant I learned enough to survive and move on to more meaningful and relevant courses.  Marilyn Lombardi describes a situation I recall happening in nearly every gen-ed course.  It can be summed up in six words: (say it with me) will this be on the test?  And there it is, the ultimate educational line in the sand.  The unfortunate fact remains that this isn’t necessarily an indictment on the student for asking.  When the reliance of educational empiricism falls on Standards of Learning tests throughout high school, SAT scores for undergraduate admission, and (gasp) the GRE for graduate admission, students are intrinsically trained to view education in a means-ends relationship.  Again, this isn’t an indictment on the student.  This is how they’ve been trained to view “learning.”

From a social science perspective, I have a full range of emotions when it comes to standardized tests: dread, discontent, fear, contempt to name a few.  Give me an essay any day.  Let me argue.  Don’t handcuff me into finding only one “correct” answer.  Let me think for myself and try to defend it.  That’s why engineering and math were never in the cards for me.  I can’t argue with algebra.  Laws of physics are called laws because they’re not being contested, they’re just proven facts.  That’s why you won’t find any sociological laws, only theories.  But I’m ok with that.

Now I’m certain that if you’re in a hard science discipline, you couldn’t disagree with me more.  That there’s something comforting about knowing an answer with certainty.  Fortunately neither of us are wrong.  So how does any of this relate to grades and evaluation?  Well if you’re a student that has been subject to evaluation through evidence or outcome based education as Donna Riley describes, then you may perceive learning as the end outcome, namely if you received an ‘A’ or not.  But is this really the best evaluation of education?  I recieved  enough ‘A’s’ that get me through my undergraduate degrees but I certainly can’t what I retained.  I also came from an outcome based high school and trained myself that the measure of success was good grades.  It wasn’t until I started my graduate studies that I really started to enjoy the journey of academia and embraced the idea of learning rather than the grade I received at the end of the semester.  I kept my books after the semester ended, something I would never dream of as an undergraduate.

Now this doesn’t mean I can’t see the use and need for grades to an extent.  As with our readings and discussions about mindful learning from last week, there is an idealized standard that each of has when approaching the classroom.  I would love to never give a single test, and rely on discussions or counter-arguments like the format of many graduate courses or akin to Alfie Kohn’s perspective of evaluating without grades.  The difficulty comes in trying to overcome the students’ culture of outcome and evaluation based results.

A lesson in perspective

Meet Stormy.  Ok, let me back up.  Meet Stormy, minus a year and some change.  We adopted him from an animal rescue out of state last August.  He came from a litter of Chow’s, mixed with a then undetermined breed.  He was only a few months old when we met.  I was then a newly funded graduate student who had just left a full-time career of over a decade to embark on a new journey in academia.  My wife thought it would do me, and my then 12 year old Beagle mix to have a new friend.  I was skeptical at first but then I was (repeatedly) reminded that I got to pick out, name, rescue our first dog.  As you can see, both dogs were also skeptical of the idea but again, it was not a plan I came up with.

If there are any Dr. Who aficionados in the audience, Stormy is short for Stormageddon (Clip provided by Youtube).  I am not a Dr. Who fan, but I wasn’t consulted on the name.  I digress.  So on that fateful August afternoon, Stormy became the fourth member of our family.  Since he was adopted so young, he was essentially a blank slate with only room to learn.  Like most puppies, it became evident early on that he was a curious, but overwhelmingly happy dog.  This was despite the fact that we determined (through multiple trips to the vet in the first month) that he acquired multiple parasites and other lingering ailments from the less than ideal conditions of the shelter where we first met.  Because everything was new, he was eager to learn.  He already had a big brother, and he picked up social cues from him along the way.  Every car ride was an adventure.  Every mailbox in the neighborhood to mark, a new milestone.

Yes, Stormy is a dog.  This is well established.  But there is a lesson of perspective that we can learn from him.  In her writings on “mindful learning,” Ellen Langer reminds us that when we sleep walk through the motions of learning, we place limits on ourselves.  There is no fostering of enthusiasm and imagination when you approach learning in such a structured method.  Students of higher education are subject to many of these restrictions.  There are lectures, and planned assignments, and various reading materials to navigate through and comprehend.  Then the semester ends, and they move on to a new set of classes.  A few semesters in, and the student becomes well versed on what is expected of them to successfully pass a course.  But in doing so, they are also setting limits on themselves in how much they actually learn.  I’m not naive. As an undergraduate, I did the same thing.  I attended lectures, I read the assigned texts, I regurgitated the material for an exam, and I learned enough to push me through to another semester.  I can’t say how much more I would have learned had I not fallen victim to some of the myths that Dr. Langer described.  While this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of current academia, it is something to think about.  Stormy isn’t placing limits on what he can learn, he just wants to experience it.  In doing so, he’s learning as he goes.  I think this is a perspective we can all appreciate as continue our own academic endeavors.

With a show of hands, who wants to be lectured at?

I know, this should be a rhetorical question.  It really should.  Unfortunately there are a few misnomers in the question itself.  You might ask “don’t you mean lectured to?”  While I’d like to, I think everyone can think of at least one experience of a professor or instructor droning forward with straight lectures.  No invitation for class discussion, no chance to reflect on the source material, just 50 minutes (or in the in the cruelest of circumstances, a three hour seminar) of pure lecture thrown at you.  Place yourself back in that classroom, and ask yourself “did I even learn anything?”  Even if you did, the absorption of information was probably minimal at best.  Depending on your own personal experience, you may also remind yourself “this was probably the worst class I’ve ever taken.”  So with the obvious common reaction, why is it that I’m betting 99.9% of you reading this can all relate to this example?

The term “lecture” is something that students and instructors alike are beginning to hate.  This point has become more obvious to me the more classes I take, and the more classes I TA for.  Instructors will make the statement on the first day of class that “I don’t like to lecture for the entire period, so I hope you (the students) will engage in discussion.”  While this provides a far more stimulating situation than having a PowerPoint displayed and then read word-for-word with little to no elaboration, this statement can also start to mimic a plea for help.  It’s like saying the lecture is still going to be boring, and the source material won’t stand on its own without the help of outside discussion and inquiry.

I don’t think I’m saying anything that you yourself may not have already thought to yourself.  So why say it?  Well for one, learning experiences like these are still happening to this day on this very campus.  Reading through Robert Talbert’s article, I found myself nodding my head in agreement without even knowing it.  When you think about some of the better lecturers, do you frame these individuals as good teachers or good speakers?  While I agree that you’re more likely to get more out of a lecture when you have a great speaker, I also think you’ll retain more of the material when you’re placed in a a situation to absorb the material yourself.  Be that in groups, or preparing a train-the-trainer situation, to name a few examples.  Newer and different learning environments are springing up each day.  The New Culture of Learning is littered with diverse examples.  So why do we keep finding the same situation of students sitting in classrooms being lectured at when we can do so much better?

Don’t we want more of   than 

This isn’t the blog you’re looking for

To be clear, I’m not a blogger.  It’s not that I don’t want to be.  I guess I just never felt compelled to become one.  I’ve certainly lurked on occasion, realizing immediately that without the proper audience, there could be a whole lot of work with little outside support.  I suppose I felt there was a certain vulnerability by opening myself up publicly.  I don’t even care much to share my peer review my writings with my cohort whom I feel a particular academic bond with.  And it’s not that I don’t realize the importance of the writing process to have feedback and constructive criticism.  I do.  I guess I anticipate there will be more criticism than constructiveness.

After reading some of the posts from my fellow GEDI masters, I realized I’ve missed the point.  It’s not to present a finely polished final product that everyone can marvel at.  It’s to grow the audience.  Peer review is just a microcosm of what an academic blog can be.  The more we can grow as an audience, the more it benefits us all.  As Tim Hitchcock tells us, “we can do what we have always done, but do it better; as a public performance, in dialogue amongst ourselves, and with a wider public.”  Doug Belshaw extends the metaphorical importance of a blog further by likening it to a microphone, giving us the ability to reach more and more people.

So if getting out of my comfort zone is a way that can help not only my writing process but the academic community that I want to belong to as well, then so be it.  I suppose it’s time to give blogging a chance.  Just be patient with me since this is a learning process for me and I’m just learnding.