Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Adjunct Question

As some of you might now, I am involved in trying to convince the local AAUP chapter to include adjuncts (not even all adjuncts, merely those who meet a minumum average teaching load over a couple year span). The process has taken all year and soon there will be a vote. It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Because it is my nature I am skeptical that the Chapter will vote in favor of the measure, but I also hold out hope that there is (dare I say it?) a "silent majority" out there who are sympathetic to the position of adjuncts.

There is a lot I could comment on (and likely will in coming days), but for now I will limit it to the conservative critique. Conservative pundits and commentators commonly point to liberal elites who have "taken over" academia. Hogwash I say. It is amazing how conservative "liberals" get when it might affect their own wallet. Trotsky in the classroom, Pinkerton in practice. Ugh. I will leave it there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday Morning Musing

As I was looking around for some other blogs to add to our list (check out the World History Blog that now appears on the right side of this page), I encountered a couple of intriguing teaching ideas. Deploying either in the classroom poses significant problems but both also have a potential upside.

I found the first on a site called World History Blogger Network. It has a number of blogs written about contemporary events from the perspective of people from the past. There isn't much to this site and it focuses on a few great figures, mostly American and European men. I was intrigued by the idea, though. Especially in a survey course, I could envision students maintaining a blog from the perspective of, say, a 15th century weaver. At the beginning of the semester, the instructor might offer five characters for the students to choose from. Each character would come with a bit of reading (one possible might be a chapter or two of Ginzburg's, The Cheese and the Worms). The students would choose a character, do the readings, and then set up a blog describing contemporary events of their choosing from the perspective of their character. The goals of such an assignment (for a survey course) would be 1) to develop an interpretation of the worldview of a person from the past and 2) to think about the relationship (and difference) between our world and the past. The most apparent drawback to this strategy is that it would encourage too great an identification between past and present and some exceedingly sloppy thinking about historical analogies. At its best, though, such an assignment might help students see relevance in their required history course. Always a good thing.

The second is more technological and democratic and, for those reasons, a bit scarier to me. There's a short post over at World History Teachers Blog about using backchannels as part of a teaching strategy. Now, if you're like me (and you're likely not), you have no idea what backchannels are. In essence, they involve co-opting online chatting in order to develop a real-time discussion among students in class. The idea is that we should recognize that students are chatting in our classes and try to bend this chatter to our ends (did I just mix a metaphor there?). At its best, such a strategy recognizes what recent research has shown--that our students are most comfortable multitasking in a multimedia environment--and meets them on their terms. In other words, the classroom experience is more like the rest of their lives. Plus, this strategy encourages them to take an active role in the learning process rather than the passive one of simply listening to us drone on. The obvious downside, for me at least, is that I have absolutely no idea at this point how I would incorporate this into my classes.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Some thoughts on the d-word

I spent the last couple of days preparing for interviews for teaching positions in history at a number of community colleges. For those of you who have never interviewed at a two-year institution, the process is a bit different compared to the 4-year college interview. There is a standard set of questions that applicants can expect to be asked by almost any screening committee and on the top of the list is usually a question about your approach to “diversity.” I have encountered this question in different formulations. Once, for example, I was asked how I would “define” diversity in the classroom, another time, how I “adjusted” my teaching style to reach diverse types of students, and yet some other time the questions was put to me as “What is your understanding of diversity in the classroom?”

Considering the extremely diverse student population one finds at community colleges, I know of course that it is important to check whether a candidate has put some thought into this issue. But I have to admit that I find the way the question is framed perplexing. I assume that by asking me to articulate my understanding or definition of diversity, the committee wants to test the degree to which I -- a person not trained in a junior college setting – am aware of it? Or am I missing some deeper issue here (which is entirely possible and in that case please tell me)? In any case, I am not at all sure how well I am handling “diversity” in my classrooms, so bear with me, please, while I reflect on how I deal or have dealt with this issue in my actual life as a teacher.

I sincerely aim to be sensitive to, and accommodate, diversity. And here I realize that I am dealing with diversity of various kinds. On the one hand, students come from diverse backgrounds. On the other hand, they often differ widely in regards to what they expect to get out of their education and the extent to which they are prepared for college level work. As I believe that students learn best when they are able to feel a connection between the subject matter and their own lives, I try to communicate that I value the experiences they bring by virtue of their particular backgrounds to the study of history. This, I believe, is not some touchy-feely effort to bond with a class but a perfectly legitimate approach to teaching college level history. Many students from minority backgrounds, for instance, (especially those of non-traditional undergraduate student age) have had history classes that made no reference whatsoever to their communities. On the basis of this, they might approach the study of history with a certain amount of resistance. So, if I make a special effort to ask for stories they or their families can add to the historical narrative, I believe I am doing a good thing.

Well, okay, sometimes this turns out to be a good thing. Because to be perfectly honest, I have at times been overly deferential to students who argued on the basis of insights grounded in their own experiences. For instance, I once taught a class on modern U.S. women’s history that was composed mainly of traditional-age, white, female undergraduates but that also included a non-traditional-age, African American, female student, who moreover self-identified as a veteran of the women’s liberation movement. Great, I thought, this is the perfect set-up for a discussion of “feminism,” or “women’s issues” across different generations. Considering the historical marginalization of black women in the so-called second wave, I was also glad that my younger students would learn about women’s liberation from an African American woman and not just from their white/pinkish teacher. In actuality, however, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to discuss second-wave feminism in this particular classroom. The young women deferred to their older peer’s authority although from observing their behavior during breaks and after class, I knew that there was a lot that they wanted to say. They kept censoring themselves, however, and I was too slow to respond and too clueless to change the classroom climate.

What silenced students in this particular class, I believe, was the fact that culturally literate, young white, women, whose education had made them aware of their own race privileges, met upon someone who had clearly experienced racism and sexism in the past and in the present. My older student spoke not just with authority but also with an undertone of bitterness. My younger students shied away from discussions for fear of coming across as insensitive, or naïve, or even sexist or racist. And I, meanwhile, had the same intense self-consciousness about the fact of racism and my own privileged position as a white college instructor that I did not dare tell my older student that her visible emotional baggage was contributing to the shutting down of classroom discussions. So, I guess here would be a case of diversity management that failed. I wonder what I as the instructor could have done to create a classroom climate better suited for a discussion of various viewpoints?

As one result of this dynamic, I fear that we as a class never had a chance to appreciate our true diversity. I myself learned only at the end of the term how truly multifaceted the backgrounds of my students were. I was conscious of the few clearly identifiable minority students but failed to see that behind the whiteness of the majority was also an incredible diversity in terms of regional, class, family backgrounds, and personal histories. Had I been conscious of this earlier, I probably could have used it to talk about the fact that no one particular group has a monopoly on victimization, or injury, or whatnot.

Of course when a community college screening committee asks you about your approach to “diversity,” they also want to learn about your strategy to teach classes with students who not only vary greatly in the degree to which they are ready for college-level work, but also come to class for various reasons. Most of them want to get something very concrete – a grade, a degree, a piece of paper that they expect to translate directly into an economic gain. Many have no problem if the class also ends up teaching them how to think and write analytically, especially if they do not have to invest a lot of time (of which they don’t have a lot) into cultivating these skills. Especially in hard economic times like this, however, I think students are more and more interested in getting a concrete return from their investment in their education and are put off by lofty-sounding course-objective statements that sound a bit like “oh this class will so enrich your live.”

I realize that the notion of education-for-the sake-of-education is a pretty elitist concept. But I have to admit that my ideal -- imagined -- student indeed has no mundane economic motives for going to college. This Disneyland student in my head wants to learn for reasons of personal enlightenment and to become a better person. Disneyland student also leaves college not to enter the corporate world with degree in hand, but to subvert the status quo and to work for social reconstruction. (So far, I have managed to keep this Yoda part of my philosophy of teaching to myself when talking to screening committees.) So how do I reconcile realism and ideals? How do my peers do it?

I could go on and on at this point but I fear the post has already sprawled hopelessly out of focus. In any case, I am curious to hear about others’ attitudes about and experiences with diversity in the classroom.