Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

The Missing Course

David Gooblar’s The Missing Course offers a simple, but radical thesis: that improving college teaching requires shifting the mindset about what the product is the professor offers. It is easy to think that your product is your expertise in your content area, honed through years of study. Institutional structures in PhD programs and promotion standards reinforce this belief from one end, while, on the other, there is a temptation to think that the transaction the students are paying for is to have knowledge transmitted to them by a world renowned expert (you).

However, speaking as someone who took classes from some exceptional lecturers and loves the feeling of one of his own lectures landing with an audience: even the most inspiring lecturer will not connect with every student. Gooblar’s proposal follows in the vein of recent scholarship on teaching and learning that encourages teachers to eschew lectures in favor of shades of active learning, but with a critical addition: that the product is not the content, but the student.

This proposal seems obvious, but it also requires foundational changes in class design and assessment and simply bypassed the handwringing about why students aren’t capable of picking up the subtle themes and brilliant observations about life and everything. As Gooblar opens with in chapter one, is that you can’t make someone learn, so the challenge is finding ways to encourage learning beyond the punitive threat of a poor grade. The lecture works well, if still imperfectly, for students who are already interested in learning, but it works best as a gateway drug––a taste that prompts students to go out and get more. That is, the lecture works well for students who approach it as part of an active learning process. But too many others approach the lecture as something to passively receive, learn by rote, and regurgitate as best they are able on the test.

Each of The Missing Courses’ eight chapters approach a different aspect of this teaching, from the basic course design to assignments, to classroom activities, with practical, actionable suggestions to try. There are too many points to summarize here, but I found myself happy to find practices I use in my own classes like low-stakes weekly quizzes and extensive opportunities to revise assignments among his suggestions and still found myself jotting down new ideas.

As a history professor who believes in the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum, I was particularly excited to have suggestions from a professor of writing and rhetoric about how to encourage best practices in citations. For instance, he provides the most lucid explanation I have seen of why students struggle to cite secondary scholarship and will often only do so when citing direct quotes:

“To write a summary, the student must read the whole text (perhaps multiple times), think deeply about the most important aspects, and synthesize observations into a concise rendering of the text’s substance”

In other words: using secondary scholarship is hard and intimidating (what if you get it wrong!), where citing a quote is easy. I couldn’t tell you where I learned how to cite scholarship. I don’t remember being taught how at any point, it was just something I picked up by osmosis, so I very much appreciated seeing Gooblar’s suggestions on activities that can help teach these skills.

All of Gooblar’s suggestions come back to the student as the course material. Toward that end, he emphasizes the importance of respecting students as individuals even, or perhaps especially, when they are failing the course, and of facilitating the classroom as a community where not only are students and their ideas respected, but students may also help each other grow.

At this point you might be thinking, what about the content? If the students are taking a course on World History, shouldn’t they, you know, learn about World History? Of course the answer is yes, but, speaking from experience, thinking in terms of coverage is a trap. I tell my students in these classes that every class period (and usually every slide) could be a semester-long class course of its own, meaning that we only ever scratch the surface. Which is going to be more beneficial to the student in the long run: making sure that we spend ten minutes in a lecture talking about the Tibetan Empire of the second half of the first millennium CE, which is admittedly fascinating, or redirecting that time to primary source analysis, discussion, debate, practice summarizing and engaging with sources, or any of a myriad of other active learning techniques. Some of these are harder when teaching introductory courses where it seems like the students don’t have enough background to engage at the level you want and lectures are sometimes a necessary component of the class, but incorporating active learning into the course offers significant rewards.

Toward the end of the book, Gooblar turns his attention to how to teach in the modern, tumultuous world. I jotted a brief response thread on Twitter, but wanted to spotlight it again here. College professors are often accused of trying to indoctrinate their students into radical Marxism or the like. While American college professors do tend to be more liberal than conservative, the largest number actually self-classify as moderate. Further, the recent primary results have demonstrated that the Democratic party remains a big-tent coalition, while the Republican party, which has accelerated attacks on funding for higher education in recent years, has veered further right. The political doesn’t end at the classroom door and to pretend otherwise is naive.

As a history teacher I run into these problems with regularity and, to be honest believe that I can and should better handle them. Ancient Greek democracy was made possible by both exclusion (narrow participation that did not include women) and exploitation (Athens had many times the number of enslaved people as it did citizens). The spread of religions was at different points a blood-soaked process, Christianity included, and European colonization amounted to exploitation and indoctrination at best and either incidental or intentional genocide and ethnic cleansing at worst. And for all that I find history endlessly fascinating.

Gooblar suggests a similar approach to the one I’ve adopted, which is to “take seriously the equality of our students and the inequality of the world,” while placing an emphasis on process. There are some premises that I will not tolerate in my classroom, including endorsement of slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, but I also believe that there is room for students to argue for the virtue of, for instance, Athenian democracy and capitalism so long as their arguments are based on good use of available sources and I build time into the class period to have students practice these skills.

One of the virtues of a college classroom should giving students space to debate issues in a responsible and respectful manner: disagreements are okay, bullying is not.

The limiting factor in college teaching is not knowledge, but attention. Becoming a good teacher requires practice and cultivation, just like developing any other skill. Fortunately for anyone interested in improving their skill, we are currently living in a golden age of publications on teaching and learning. I haven’t finished everything on the list of resources I solicited a few years back, but The Missing Course is already my go-to recommendation for a place to start.

Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

First day fragments

My fall semester begins in earnest today, with the first session for both of my classes. I don’t have a single back-to-school post idea, but rather a bunch of loosely connected ones, so decided to go with a fragmentary format.

“I didn’t get everything done” is a standard lament for academics come late August, bemoaning some combination of the cult of productivity, human limitations, and the difficulties of researching during the school year. I am no exception. I set an ambitious schedule for reading scholarship beyond my immediate research, but only managed to read a handful of books and articles, and a couple of books on teaching.

There are a couple of explanations for this failure. One is that the summer quickly became very busy, with multiple family trips that had less down-time than anticipated, meaning that there was neither opportunity for reading nor for a deep recharge of my batteries. Another was that I taught an intensive summer World History course in June, so much of my spare reading went toward preparing for class. A third was that seemingly every spare moment around these time commitments was sucked up by working on revising my dissertation as a book. My goal for that was to have it under review by the start of class, but I missed that deadline, too. At least I am in a position to meet my revised goal of August 31 for that one…

ΔΔΔ

There has been a movement in recent years to normalize failure, particularly in academia, leading to people sharing their failures on Twitter over the last week. I mentioned there that I respect the movement, and appreciate the baseball analogy where if you’re a batter and only “fail” (make an out) at the plate six out of every ten times, you belong in the hall of fame. (There are obviously other statistics from baseball that could make that more or less extreme. If you’re a pitcher and batters swing and miss just 20% of the time, you’re incredible, but if that is the percentage of the time you throw strikes, then you probably quit playing in little league.) I respect the impulse to normalize failure because it is inevitably going to happen, regardless of how generous and kind the academy becomes. Everyone is going to experience article/grant/abstract/job/proposal rejections for a host of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are good (the project needs more work), sometimes they are petty, and a lot of the time is a simple numbers game that has almost nothing to do with what was proposed.

My shadow CV includes all of these things, including four article rejections, two more revise and resubmits that were later accepted, at least seven paper abstracts rejected that I can think of off hand, too many funding applications for fellowships and travel grants to count them all. And I am only a little more than a year removed from graduating with my PhD.

At the same time, I found the push to normalize, share, and celebrate failure on social media hard to handle. The main reason is that while failure is normal in the academy, and rejections can be handled deftly with an eye toward improving the project for the next time around, it is also a sign of privilege to be able to reflect on this Shadow CV. It is coming from someone still “in the game”, as it were, and I heard with every round of shares “this is what you *should* have been applying for.” As in, your failures themselves are inadequate because the “stars” fail bigger and better.

Then pair this with the part I left out of my Shadow CV that are the all jobs I’ve applied to without making the long list. The Shadow CV is meant to normalize failure so that people can better overcome the natural fear of it and thereby reduce anxiety, but when mixed with too few academic jobs to go around and the sheer amount of time that applying for them takes, it just exacerbated mine.

ΔΔΔ

I’m looking forward to teaching both of my classes this semester. One I am teaching my own syllabus for the second time, the other I am teaching as the sole instructor for the first time. I had the chance to teach on my own a little bit during graduate school, but this is my second year of continuously teaching my own courses and reading up on pedagogy, so I am now to synthesize some principles for my classroom.

First Principle: Learning, not grades. I do not care about grades beyond making sure that I have created a reasonable and achievable grade scale for the class. My goal as a teacher is to help students develop practical skills such as writing and the ability to understand the world through critical analysis and synthesizing information. Toward that end, I believe that many common assessment tools that are built for scale are next to useless in actually assessing learning. I design my classes around assignments that require students to develop arguments through writing and that build on each other so that students can show improvement in tasks that are not easy.

Second Principle: Empathy. Students are adults who have a larger number of demands on them than even I did when entering school fifteen years ago. I aspire to treat them like adults with responsibilities, just one of which is my class. College is “the real world” where students are on their own for the first time, and I want to be a mentor/coach/guide. This means having empathy, and encouraging them to take ownership of their education by talking with me when they have a conflict or need help.

Third Principle: Engagement. “Meaningful learning experiences” is a hot topic, though my mother assures me that this has been the key phrase for many decades now. Every class is going to be selective in the material it covers, so I see my job being to give students the tools to learn more and to pique their curiosity to want to do so. This means developing activities and assignments that require engagement, through games, debates, and projects where students take ownership of the material. This has not been the easiest task for me as someone who found history books thrilling in high school, but something that I am committed to improving in my own teaching.

There are others, but these are my first three.

ΔΔΔ

Without further ado, let the semester begin!

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

Minds on Fire – Mark C. Carnes

Earlier this year I crowd-sourced a list of teaching materials. Now that the fall semester is imminent, I am finally getting a chance to sit down with the list again in order to prepare for my courses.

The subtitle of Minds on Fire is its mission statement: “how role-immersion games transform college.” The book itself is a manifesto for Reacting to the Past, serving to defend and justify the games developed by the consortium.

Carnes’ core contention in Minds on Fire, and the underlying principal behind Reacting to the Past, is that students are engaged in “subversive world[s] of play” that range from video games to Zombies v. Humans to fraternity events. On the other end of the spectrum “all classes are kind of boring.” The solution, Carnes argues, is to harness the subversive worlds of play toward academic ends; that is, give students competitions and games that tap into their natural inclination for this subversive behavior and get them to do more work without thinking about it as work. Teachers facilitate the games, but then step back and empower the students to take the reins.

After setting out these principals, Carnes dedicates much of the book to laying out the advantages and countering the criticisms of using games in the classroom. There are chapters on how Reacting games teach morality and leadership and spontaneously produces community, things which are often touted as the purpose of a humanistic education or baked into college mission statements. Another section rejects the positivist contention that the past is a fixed stream and that opening the possibility of changing the past undermines history education. In each instance, the philosophical and pedagogical ideas are buttressed by excerpts from interviews with students who went through Reacting courses.

Minds on Fire is a convincing read, though I should say that I went in predisposed to think that as someone who has always balanced a fascination with history books with hours of subversive play. Carnes acknowledges, but also skims past, some courses are not going to be suitable for Reacting games and that not every Reacting exercise will be a raucous success. Nor is there much acknowledgement that Reacting is a radical proposal that seeks to achieve a fairly standard aim: significant learning experiences. Reacting classes, by not seeming like school work, give students ownership over their education and “trick” them into having experiences that cannot be faked or cheated.

There are other means to this same end, but there are also numerous classes where Reacting is a particularly effective way to grapple with issues, and I think it is no coincidence that some of the success stories came from Freshman Seminar or great ideas sorts of classes. I also think that long-running games could be particularly successful in discussion sections as a complement to lectures.

In sum: there were times that this book was too much of a manifesto, but while not every course needs to be a Reacting game, but every course can take lessons from Minds on Fire.

Discussion in the College Classroom – Jay Howard

A couple weeks ago I crowd-sourced a reading list on teaching with the aim of getting better at my job. As much as I trust the people who contributed to the list, it wouldn’t be worth much if I didn’t then start reading; I have decided to write up some of my notes and observations, posting them here and on Twitter.

First up is Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom.

The short recap is that I found this book useful:

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Howard starts by making the case for the value of discussion in the classroom, with the caveat that not all conversation is created equally and that the job of the instructor is to lead students past superficial observation toward deeper meaning. His advice is divided between two interconnected categories: best practices for communication in the classroom and structuring courses to encourage and reward active participation.

Both categories are designed to overcome the prevailing social norm in the college classroom, “Civil Attention”—defined as the appearance of attention regardless of how tuned in the student actually is—a norm that is reinforced by over-reliance on lecture and a reluctance to ask direct questions (which Howard notes may be mistaken for hostility by the professor).

In order to change these norms, Howard calls for instructors to start on the first day of class by communicating and expectation of communication and what participation entails. The latter part will vary based on class, but it is important to convey what counts and how to avoid misunderstanding between a professor who wants students to talk all the time and students who believe they “participated” by doing the reading and showing up.

Howard addresses a number of issues, from how to avoid the trap where one or two students take on the responsibility for participation, grading discussion, and how to run an online discussion board, but some general principles stand out:

  • Large class size inhibits conversation, and it is often useful to subdivide a class down to groups of six or eight, even in large lectures, and encouraging students to exchange information and ideas.
  • It is easy to forget that students are not subject matter experts who have been thinking about issues for year. Give students time to formulate answers to difficult questions.
  • Ask good questions. Avoid factual questions or questions with yes or no answers, but ask opinion questions that can be supported through the text
  • Positively reinforce behavior your want to see by acknowledging student contributions, questions, and risks.
  • Give students peer to peer obligations that prepare them to engage in discussion.
  • Engage with students before and/or beyond the classroom, such as requiring a two minute visit to office hours to say hi. This gets the students comfortable with engaging with the instructor.
  • Above all: be aware of what is going on with the class. This includes body language and what the syllabus says, the physical distance between instructor and student, and whether the course structure is facilitating or erecting barriers to student participation.

Howard’s advice is based on a combination of extensive personal experience and research studies on student participation, but he is careful to note that not only will these suggestions not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but also that what works with one set of students won’t necessarily work with a different set of students the next time the same course is offered, let alone with a different instructor. Nor does he dismiss the utility of a content-based lecture format, all the while offering ways to blend the two formats to maximize student engagement.

There are too many specific suggestions even to begin listing them, but they make this book worth reading. There may be a point of diminishing returns in reading books on pedagogy (unless that is your field of study specifically), but Discussion in the College Classroom is a useful place to start.

Pedagogy in the Humanities – a reading list (updated 1/2/21)

On the list of things I don’t really have time for, but want to do anyway, is spend more time reading about the mechanics and craft of teaching. I am particularly interested in issues of course development and planning, active learning, student engagement, and assessment.

  • Ken Bain, What The Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004)
  • Peter Brown at al., Make It Stick (Harvard 2014)
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers (West Virginia 2019)
  • Derek Bruff, Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching (West Virginia 2019)
  • Kevin Gannon, Radical Hope (West Virginia 2020)
  • David Gooblar, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Harvard 2019)
  • James M. Lang, Small Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2016)
  • Flower Darby and James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online (Jossey-Bass 2019)
  • Mark C. Carnes, Minds on Fire (Harvard 2014)
  • Jay Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass 2015)
  • Chris W. Gallagher, College Made Whole (Johns Hopkins 2019)
  • L. Dee Fink Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass 2013)
  • Susan Ambrose, How Learning Works (Jossey-Bass 2010)
  • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (Routledge 1994)
  • Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Fiona McHardy (edd.), From Abortion to Pederasty (OSU UP 2015)
  • John Gruber-Miller (ed.), When Dead Tongues Speak (Oxford 2006)
  • Norman Eng, Teaching College (2017)
  • Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek, Dynamic Lecturing (Stylus Publishing: 2017)
  • John Warner, Why They Can’t Write (John Hopkins 2018)
  • John Warner, The Writer’s Practice (Penguin 2018)

Jay Dolmage, Universal Design: Places to Start, Disability Studies Quarterly 35 (2015)

BU Proseminar in Classical Pedagogy, resources curated by Dr. Hannah Čulík-Baird.

This list will be updated. Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.