Talking with other educators at the TLT Conference, October 2018

While we read with drumbeat regularity that the humanities are in crisis, the ins and outs, the Mondays and Tuesdays of our teaching lives remain places of integral impact, energy, and meaningful change. Two specific teaching practices I have developed over the years that encourage this sort of impact are discussed below.

Teaching is about educing connection-making skills in students. In each class I teach, I require students to build bridges between different works we study and each other, as well as individual works and the world around us. Every day of the semester, I ask literature survey students to bring a brief paper called an “SRP” with them to class. In this document, they write a concise synopsis of the day’s reading, two remarkable moments they encountered in today’s reading (along with their remarks!), and one parallel between something in today’s reading and either something going on in current events or something they remarked about for a previous day’s reading. An SRP is not an undue hardship: it can be written well in 5 minutes if it has to be, and if the reading was completed well, and at the end of the term in reward for their work, all our survey classmates have a 45-page booklet of the semester’s readings, which makes an excellent source along the way as needed for paper topics, group work notes, and study material for exams. Years later, some of them report to me that they still keep their dogeared “SRP folders” as a concise reference, perhaps also from some loyalty due to sunk labor over the term.  Since requiring SRPs I have noticed improved scores on in-class assessments, quicker connections being made in terms of their writing, and better retention of important ideas in these texts. Moving on from our survey courses into the more specialized literature and cultural studies further along in the English curriculum, these students have a self-sharpened tool ready for further work. Some of them have even reported continuing to write SRPs out of sheer habit in other reading and writing intensive courses. 

In my mind, what good teachers do, or at least one tangible difference in a course that’s being led by a professor, rather than simply reading and learning on one’s own, is being nudged as needed to question our own assumptions. This can be almost impossible to achieve alone, yet the valuable skill of doing so is one we hope our students will carry with them when they leave our classes. To this end, my writing classes keep a journal we call the Growth Mindset Log, sometimes referred to with questionable affection as the “Book of Things I Was Wrong About.” In this context we ask each other (I keep one too) to maintain lists of things that we were wrong about or things that surprised us during the week. Early on this is supplemented heavily with readings and discussion about growth mindset, and the practice of recognizing mistakes and failures as integral to the process of discovery. Students’ writing evolves over the term as the discomfort of vulnerability subsides into a rhythm of recognition: now and then one will actually report, as I have, that during the moment of disappointment or failure itself they thought “Well at least I have something ready to go for this week’s entry.” This interior revision of the experience, especially when repeated long enough to become habitual, can lead students to meaningful change in their self-evaluation and ways of knowing, leading to more risk-taking curiosity in their academic work and a more openminded, assumption-questioning approach to experiences in the world beyond the classroom as well. 

While both of these strategies have been met with some arms-length resistance by students at first over the years, and I have adapted these assignments in ways that work with differing objectives of different courses over time, each has proven a lasting benefit in terms of student outcomes and success in our courses and also skills that students can bring along as they find success in classes and workplaces beyond it.