Sunday, September 27, 2009

"I am the decisive element in the classroom"

Washburn Hall, my home at the University of Rhode Island

I have a yellowed scrap of newspaper on my desk at the university, an old Ann Landers column with a quote from psychologist Haim G. Ginott (1922-1973) that has guided my life in the classroom:

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As a teacher, I posses a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be an instrument of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or deescalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized."  

My students aren't children but they are no less affected by my moods. Every day, I pump myself up so that I am lighthearted and energetic when I cross the threshold of my classroom. I may be under the weather or suffering from some personal sorrow but I consciously shut it out when I walk into the room. 99% of the time, I succeed though the past year was a very difficult one personally for me. 

A few months ago, I walked into the classroom on a day when I was emotionally stressed to the breaking point. I was trying very hard to gear myself up for the day's teaching but I realized I hadn't succeeded when one of my undergraduates, a young man built like a bear, said to me, "Are you okay?" a moment after I'd set my notebook on the podium. I smiled and said something like, "I'm just having a hard day." To which he replied, "Wanna hug?" Sweet boy. I laughed and thanked him saying that I would be fine but his kind gesture had snapped me out of it. I said to him later that he must have a close relationship with his mother. He gave me a big smile.  

There is a kind of chemistry in the classroom that is as delicate as butterflies' wings. For three hours a week, for fifteen weeks, their eyes are on you. You are doing many things besides imparting knowledge about your specialty. You are honing their ability to think and express themselves clearly. You are exposing them to worlds that they never knew existed until they met you. You are setting an example of being an teacher, of being an intellectual.  

Sometimes you connect with them so deeply that they go out of their ways to keep in touch with you after they leave your classroom. Usually, you don't know the effect you have on your students and there is no metric to measure it. You know when they show up in a second and third class you teach or when their younger siblings or friends show up in your classes telling you how much their friend or sister had enjoyed the class. Most of the time, you have no idea of your effect on their lives.

Teaching is like planting a tree; it is an expression of faith in the future.                        (517)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Half of Our Students Drop Out Before Graduation

Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980)

Some time ago, I had a student who was very diligent and hard-working; who always sat directly in front of me in the first seat of the middle row. Then she disappeared for a week; I became worried and sent her an e-mail. Nothing. When she reappeared after having missed four classes, she was wan and pale. After class, she stayed to tell me a hair-raising tale of a drug-dependent mother getting out of rehab but having nowhere to go because she had been in and out so often, no one else but this one daughter would have anything to do with her. After knocking herself out to find a place for her, her mother had taken off and overdosed. It was a long, sordid tale, and it was heartbreaking to see this young woman struggling to deal with it. I spent many hours listening more than anything else. I am not a psychologist and when I hear such stories, I know I am not equipped to help in any concrete way, and I refer them to our student psychological services or another agency in the university that can help. But I always listen.

For the rest of the semester, I would often find her sitting on the chair outside my office door, studying. She felt safe there, she said. I was happy that she felt that way.

According to a report published in U.S.News and World Report published in August, one-third of our students drop out after their first year. Half of our students will not graduate from college. [Dropouts Loom Large for Schools,] These are shocking statistics but they are unchanged for three decades. There are many reasons: The loneliness and homesickness of being away from home; the overwhelming financial pressures--even a state university is an expensive proposition, and if you drop out, the debt must still be paid. There are the many temptations and distractions--the drinking that starts on Thursday nights and continues through the weekend so Friday classes are missed and Monday classes are attended through a hung-over haze. Marijuana and other drugs, some of which I have never heard of, flow freely on college campuses. Members of football and basketball teams have punishing practice and travel schedules that interfere with their schoolwork.

Many students come to college expecting a training in a specific skill but lack the maturity to make the best of the resources offered here. Some are overwhelmed and never get a handle on things. And what we in the humanities wish to impart--the skills for lifelong learning--may seem too attenuated to them to have any value. Some of them, like the student above, are dealing with life crises that we can't even imagine.

The financial burdens result not only in enormous debts that burden them long after they have graduated but also require them to work long hours just to keep body and soul together. I have students who come to class bleary-eyed because they worked the night shift and they're exhausted. Others are raising children and get up at 4 in the morning to study for a couple of hours before waking the kids to get them ready for school.

From my perspective, I cannot imagine how they can learn when they have so little time to study. Moreover, they are not trained to study as we were. People can make fun of the hours the nuns had us spend diagramming sentences, but we know our grammar. For me, one of the great joys of seventh and eighth grade was a program called SRA (for Science Research Associates) which was pioneered in the schools in the 1950s. Basically, it was a system of color-scaled cards with reading selections and questions on the readings. The better your reading got, the higher-level color you would advance to. It was very competitive but only with oneself. For me, it was the incentive to finish other work quickly so I could get to the SRA cards. It was fun and I learned about people and things I never would have encountered otherwise. I remember one card in particular about the late Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas, who was an environmentalist. He had overcome childhood asthma by becoming an avid outdoors-man. If I hadn't read about him there, I might never have encountered him. I went to law school and found him once again, only to find that he was a First Amendment absolutist as well. I guess that information was too political for an eighth grader!

Many of my students don't know how to read effectively. They tell me they hate to read; that the books they read in my classes are the first complete books they've ever read. When I heard that for the first time, I thought, "So what are you doing in college?" I have heard it now so often, that I find myself wondering what has happened in the primary and secondary schools for this to be the case.

A class lecture and discussion will not make them competitive with students who've had the time to put in reading or working in the library. How do you keep from dumbing down your coursework? I talk with friends who teach in the exclusive private schools and they don't have the same issues. The problem is, my students will be competing with those well-prepared students, and they will be laboring under that disadvantage.

Somehow. we have to find a way to bridge the gap.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Maybe History Isn't Everything

My graduate school mentor at UCLA, E. Bradford Burns, used to say, "History is everything." Coming from the rough and tumble world of social activism, I agreed with Dr. Burns and have often said it to my students. History is often ignored by those who know it, manipulated by others, and avoided by those who prefer to operate as if it didn't exist. But last week, I was forced to look at my perceptions of history in a different way; as Salman Rushdie says, "All ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to new realities."

I was at Cape Cod at the end of August for a last gasp of summer before the new school year, and I had picked up a book which I thought would be light reading. Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, has written Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). His opening paragraph affected me like no other in recent memory. In fact, I am reminded of the eye-opening first line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which I read at the beginning of ninth grade, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," and the insight it gave me, at 13, to my own family. 

"Human beings are not made to look too intently at the Medusa head of history--its rage, death, and endless suffering. This is not a shortcoming on our part; on the contrary, our reluctance to let history's realities petrify us underlies much of what makes human life bearable; our religious impulses, our poetic and utopian imagination, our moral ideals, our metaphysical projections, our storytelling, our aesthetic transfigurations of the real, our passion for games, our delight in nature. Albert Camus once remarked, "Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything." (Camus, 7)--to which we could add that if ever history were to become everything, we would all succumb to madness." (Harrison, ix)

I sat back: Wow. Wow. I had worked and worked on that "hard nut" for years, trying to understand what it was that kept people from reading history. Turning it over in my mind for years; trying to understand why it was that some people avoided news programs, newspapers, and other things that would keep them informed. It had always seemed ostrich-like to me, to stick one's head in the sand rather than face the reality in front of you. I knew, of course, that reality can be daunting to face but better, I thought, to face it and perhaps see the truck coming down the road than to be run over never knowing why. I had never thought about the petrifying effects of being hyper-aware of all the bad news in the world, even though I myself reach saturation points during which I turn off the radio and retreat to my garden.

Now I feel like I was examining one tree at a time for the answer that could only be gotten by looking at the whole forest, and Harrison enumerates them as though naming each tree: "our religious impulses, our poetic and utopian imagination, our moral ideals, our metaphysical projections, our storytelling, our aesthetic transfigurations of the real, our passion for games, our delight in nature." In a word, culture. Already I understand better my delight in my fruit trees and my garden. I can't wait to read the rest of the book.                                   (517)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

History Through New Eyes

Welcome to the new academic year. I've been away but my classes start tomorrow and I expect to be writing at least once a week. Enjoy!

"It is a great pity that every human being does not, at an early stage of his life, have to write a historical work. He would then realize that the human race is in quite a jam about truth." ~Rebecca West

After so many years in the classroom, I think I understand the students who like the study of history. It is, after all, largely narrative. Most students who love history though do not go on to higher degrees in the subject, are those who join the History Book Club, or become re-enactors of the battles of the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, or spend their free time watching the Hitler--I mean, the HISTORY channel. My bank manager, a URI graduate, always tells me about his latest reading for he had majored in history and never lost the love of it. My daughter, a law and public health graduate student loves Henry VIII and the denizens of his century. Bank managers, postal carriers, librarians, lawyers, all sorts of people in many lines of work connect and love the narratives, the stories that humans have told themselves since we were able to talk. Even George W. Bush majored in history, though that hardly recommends it.

What about the students who hate history? Who come to my class and spend half of the semester glowering at me before I finally break down their defenses to convince them that I will not inundate them with names and dates? And they DO glower.

I believe that part of the problem is the way that they have been taught history in the primary and secondary schools. Poor teachers and class size may be part of the problem but the battles over curricula, over what students must learn to graduate really twist the knot and strangle the joy of it all . While the children may be unaware of the ideological battles, they are from the result: a bland diet of de-politicized history. Like white bread, the nutrition has been stripped out and all that remains is the appearance of substance.

Listening to the debate over President Barack Obama's address to our children encouraging them to stay in school and study hard, I am reminded of the zeal with which school boards guard the things teachers are allowed to teach. One complainant was furious because the president's speech had not been sent in advanced to the country's curriculum committees for approval! Apparently her motto is, "The blander, the better." President Obama delivered the most innocuous of messages to school children and some ultraconservatives are actually keeping their children home from school so they will not be exposed to the President’s “socialist propaganda” and to teach the schools a lesson. Oy.

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I took a colloquium with Professor Gary Nash, a famous--though conservatives would say notorious--historian of United States History. Prof. Nash is the Director of the National Center for History in the Schools which published the extremely controversial National Standards for History, Basic Edition (1996). What could Prof. Nash have done that earned him the hatred of the conservatives and caused him to be labeled a Marxist, among other things? Leaving aside for the moment that conservatives drag out the "Marxist-socialist-communist" labels at the drop of a hat whenever they disagree with someone, they accuse Prof. Nash of emphasizing the "wrong" events and people in American history:

"Well, think of an American history where George Washington, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address are barely mentioned, while the first nineteenth-century meeting of feminists at Seneca Falls and the rise of the American Federation of Labor are mentioned over eighteen times. J. P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers are not mentioned at all while Harriet Tugman [sic] appears six times. The great speeches of Daniel Webster are never mentioned but students are asked to analyze Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention. And then of course there are the truly great villains of American history. Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism are mentioned 19 times..." (

The fact that Prof. Nash's work has been funded in large part by grants from the government really drives his critics over the wall.

Prof. Nash and his collaborators expanded the study of history in the schools to reflect a more balanced view of the government's actions, and to present a more inclusive and representative view of our history. The traditional way of teaching history presented certain famous leaders, almost all exclusively white men with the exception of Eli Whitney and George Washington Carver. For example, I remember my sixth grade history book because it was the first time I had ever seen a picture of an African American in any of my school books. The picture was of an older black man, hat in hand, head bowed, standing respectfully on the side of the road as Lincoln's funeral cortege went by. There is more to the presence of African Americans in U.S. history than old former slaves; more to Chinese American history than coolies building the railroads; and more to American women's history than Betsy Ross and Martha Washington sewing American flags.

You'd think that I'd have less sympathy for those students who don't like history but actually, I have a keen recollection of my undergraduate years, and I understand their antipathy. I did not major in history, per se. I majored in philosophy and minored in classics. Naturally, in the latter, we studied Greek and Roman history. I was drawn to philosophy by an interest in epistemology, that is, the development of human ideas. Until my last semester of college, my only other sojourn into history was a dismal experience with Chinese history (I was defeated by the emphasis on dates and the similarity of the names--Ming and Wing, etc.) It wasn't until my last semester of college when I took Jewish history, that I was enraptured by the subject.

Our professor, Dr. George Lerski, was unlike any of my other professors. A Pole, he had parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II, and he had been scarred by the memories of what he had seen. He was a real, live hero and he lived his commitment to history by taking on an unlikely challenge. Appalled by the hideous genocide of the Jews, he was determined that the world should know the history of anti-Semitism and of the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. He knew little about Jewish history but he decided to teach a class in the history of the Jews; the first time, he said, that a class in Jewish history was offered in a Catholic university. He picked the most well-known of the current histories, Abraham Leon Sachar's A History of the Jews, and told us, "We'll learn it together."

It was thrilling. Instead of a dry recitation of facts and dates, he gave us a sense of the importance of knowing history. We knew that what we were learning was important; that we could make a difference. He not only told us that it was important; he showed us, through his passionate presentation, through the filter of his memories, why it was so consequential.

One of the mantras among college students in the 1960s was that studies should be relevant. Professor Lerski’s commitment to connecting the history on the page to the Jewish people's suffering in the world captured our imaginations and provided the elusive link between book-learning and relevance that we craved. He was passionate and political though not partisan in a Democrat/Republican paradigm.

Forty years later, we are still redesigning curricula, trying to find the right balance between traditional learning, relevance, and a more enlightened 21st century approach to history. It is was Gary Nash does; what Howard Zinn did in People's History of the United States; and Gerda Lerner and a generation of women historians have done in illuminating the history of women.

Finding the relevance to our students' lives is the hard part but we must do it; we can count ourselves fortunate that academic freedom is still protected in this country. God bless the AAUP*.

*The American Association of University Professors is dedicated to the preservation of academic freedom.