Fun and Education

This week’s readings prompted me to think about the role of fun in learning. I have been wrestling with how best to sum up my approach to teaching, why I teach and what the social impact of teaching can be. I want my students to appreciate their education and not simply see it as a way to a job. I think an instrumentalist understanding of education is poisonous to democracy and doesn’t inspire creativity or innovation. Fun allows learners to access content and curiosity within a safe environment. By contrast, workforce training education and instrumentalist thinking gear student attitudes to a stressful compliance with drudgery. I never want my students to think of our class as drudgery but I do want to inspire them to work through the material and grapple with advancing their existing abilities. Fun allows students to relax a little and advance in ways they may not recognize in the moment. The greatest challenge for me has been incorporating fun within the typical humdrum classroom environment of Introduction to US Government and Politics. I’ve tried using stand up comedy or other multimedia, and these have been nice little teaching aids but they only work for so long. A larger, more creative change was needed to drive up student engagement this semester.

One of the major impediments in my class this semester has been the physical environment. We began the semester with 40 students squeezed into one of those windowless rooms in McBryde. The second floor of McBryde contains rooms better suited for brainwashing than learning. There are a few exceptions, but I was unable to secure a room of suitable size that has a more fluid seating plan. I favor the Socratic method which allows students to construct the class dialogue while I facilitate discussion through asking targeted questions about the readings designed to stimulate critical thinking and student engagement. The typical grid formation of desks in the room does not lend itself well to this method primarily because the students can’t look at each other and attention is directed to the podium at the front. The whole physical environment seems to communicate obedience to the sage on the stage with the PowerPoint and, I think, favors the regurgitative model of learning.  We tried it for the first week or two but the sleepy faces and disengaged students forced me to reconsider how our environment would facilitate learning. We first tried breaking up into groups to answer a few broad questions about the text. This isn’t a bad reorganization, by any means, and it got them talking to their neighbors but I found that a lot of the weren’t moving their desks to face each other. I typically float around and check in with the groups to see how they’re getting on and I would move a desk or two to sit with them, but they weren’t pick up on how strange it was to be working in a group with your back to someone.  But, at least they were talking to each other and getting excited about the ideas in the text.

I try to vary class organization to keep from being too predictable. I find a little bit of spontaneity in the day-to-day stuff help break up the monotony of what can easily turn into a grind. We have a 5 pm Tuesday and Thursday class so they’re always tired and burnt when the come in. I’ve tried to communicate to them that it’s not my class, but our class and they are to exercise some agency in it and its content.  The group thing was working for a while but the discussions were becoming unfocused as the temptation to talk about the weekend or whatever else is far more attractive than Sheldon Wolin and managed democracy. I came in a little early one day and asked the few students there to arrange the desks in a circle and then left the room. I don’t know if it was just getting up and moving around, making eye contact with each other or that I was now sitting with all of them on the same level, but student engagement seemed up. The discussion started ping-ponging around the room and students who don’t regularly speak got into the conversation.

Last Thursday we got a bit more daring. I had assigned a dreadfully boring – though forgivingly short – chapter in Wolin. The class environment was healthy but I wasn’t sure if they were really getting the text. Wolin is usually assigned in upper division and graduate courses but I thought him accessible and stimulating enough for an intro class. I didn’t want to bore them with this latest installment but I did want a no-pressure diagnostic of their understanding. I gave them all chalk, asked them to split into work groups and then asked them to draw his main argument to date. I put on some music and let them get to it. They’ve never smile so much. It looked like they were having a genuinely good time going through the intricacies of Wolin’s argument. I noticed that they supported one another and complimented each other’s skills. Some remembered the argument better, others had stronger organizational skills and others did the drawing. After 30 or 40 minutes we did a debrief. I told them why I had asked them to do this. What I had hoped they learned and that their pictures didn’t need to be perfect. Each group then had a turn discussing their picture with a short Q&A. I was blown away by what they had retained and the multiple ways they had represented the argument. They had not only learned from each other in their groups but also created an environment during the debrief in which they taught each other.

They have a collaborative essay due in a few weeks and I’m excited to see what they turn up and how they organize their information. I’m hoping that these next few weeks will support their writing it, but I may have to get a little more creative with the class environment and exercises. I want them to feel a deeper enfranchisement in constructing the class and working through the material but I’m not sure if they feel like they own the class yet. I’ll have to experiment a little more.


I’ve Never Been a Good Student

If you’d have told me ten years ago that I would be pursuing a PhD, I’d have laughed in your face.  I hated school. I graduated high school a semester early to get away from it and went to college immediately as part of a bargain with my parents. I was a “B” student and graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma – meaning that I passed all of the standardized New York state exams. I was a great test-taker but I never did my homework so I was branded lazy by the faculty and my parents. My graduating class size was around 700 students and it was pretty easy to fly under the radar while maintaining good standing with the hall monitors as I’d routinely fetch soft pretzels from the cafeteria for my physics teacher during our labs. I was graduating early and always contributed during the lecture sessions so he didn’t care if I roamed around aimlessly in the halls or visited other teachers on their breaks.

My interests in politics, culture, and philosophy were extra-curricular activities. Wikipedia was up and running by the time I was in junior high and the events following 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, spurred my interest in political theory as I tried to make sense of the world I’d inherited. I’d spend hours surfing through their pages instead of doing my homework. Why bother writing my labs for whatever science class I was taking if I aced the test every time? To me it was meaningless repetition that ultimately wasted my time. Being under the spotlight because I wasn’t turning in my homework was uncomfortable initially. However, with time I assumed my “lazy” identity at school , took the tongue lashings at home and continued my after school activities later supplementing my Wiki sessions with Travel, and Discovery Channel binges – Bourdain was my favorite.

Around the age of 15 I started taking martial arts classes. Ninjutsu and Jujutsu would become my life until I left for college at 18. I was at the dojo every day that I could be. It was a very small branch of very large school spread across Long Island. We had 2,500 students in total but the Port Jefferson branch of which I was a part had four to six adult students attending regularly. I was my sensei’s favorite practice dummy and I advanced quickly because I received so much individual attention. My love of teaching started there and volunteered to help teach the kids classes as sempai. At 16 I was selected along with six other students to train with our grandmaster in Japan for two weeks in August. Our training sessions in Saitama were twice a day for an hour and half each session with a thirty minute bike ride along the rice paddies each way in the Japanese summer heat.

SUNY Brockport was my girlfriend’s choice. She was a year older than me and left Long Island in my senior year of high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the US so I didn’t get the college talk or really any guidance concerning what university would be the right fit. Following Julia to upstate New York seemed like an attractive option so I graduated from high school early and enrolled at Brockport in January of 2006. We broke up that March and she exmatriculated two weeks later. I can’t claim that I was the whole reason she left. She’d had a hard time finding her way through the college bureaucracy after being rejected by the dance program. Her brother, Simon, was brilliant but as smart as she was, Julia felt she wasn’t cut out for school and our break up was the final nail in the coffin for SUNY Brockport. I stayed but I didn’t have any close friends because I’d come a semester late and mainly hung out with Julia for the first few months.

Living for the weekend can make the weeks feel very long. Luckily, at a snowy commuter college, the weekend starts on Wednesday. I started going to any party I could find just to socialize and quickly fell into my old high school habits of never doing homework. I was still crushing tests in my introductory courses and didn’t see much point in attending classes. My grades were decent enough my first semester but I was placed on academic probation by my second semester for never attending class. Philosophy and political theory were the only classes I’d show up for. The general education classes didn’t challenge me and I was tutoring (unofficially, of course) some peers in my 3000 level communications course on rhetoric without reading the assignments or attending class. Pounding whiskey, talking politics and playing video games became more attractive options than adhering to someone else’s standards. I could write a B+ essay in under two hours and go research something that I was more interested in or focus on something physical. I had joined the rugby team by that time and rugby soon became my social outlet. It was short lived though because I was kicked out of Brockport after my third semester. I appealed the decision as I had dealt with some nightmare roommates, one of which involved a Title IX violation that the college tried to sweep under the rug and the other involved a roommate who went off her rage and bipolar medication. Funding from home was revoked after three semesters of poor grades anyway and I returned to Long Island to enroll at Suffolk Community College. My parents were not going to fund my educational fuck-ups anymore so I had to take out loans and start working.

I didn’t attend my classes at Suffolk either. My funding was revoked after my first semester as the federal government deemed me too much of a risk to loan money. Suffolk was still affordable even without federal loans and I was able to hide my failure from my parents by getting a credit card with HSBC before the financial crisis. I financed my second semester at community college by working for a local winery at $7.15 an hour which paid the credit card bill and for some books. I continued to hide my grades from my parents even though they were improving. The whole ordeal had convinced me that grades couldn’t measure anything but whether a student is living up to some norm – whether they could regurgitate some “fact” they had been told or whether they regularly maintained a pulse at a specific location at a specific time. Two professors at Suffolk slapped the taste out of my mouth.

My English composition professor graded to the student. I earned a D+ on my first essay. My pride was hurt and I stormed to his desk at my first chance. He calmly explained that he knew I wasn’t putting in any effort and showed me how I could do better. Posner knew that I was coasting and he gave me something to aim for in myself and not in the classroom. Grades suddenly transformed into a reward for self-discipline and not a punishment for not meeting expectations. Competition with myself was more exciting than competing against others. I still remember his lessons…or is it “remember his lessons still?”

One of the most daunting questions anyone can ask a college student is “What are you going to do after school?” Some student have it easier than others and seem to have a map given to them by their majors. Philosophy majors do not. I took two classes with Bill Fink who was adjuncting at Suffolk. His classes were chaos. We never had assigned readings, I never saw him read from a lesson plan but I loved the debates and the topics. Ethics, politics, society, the good life, the Socratic quest for knowledge, these were topics I could get into and I wanted to attend class. There were no “right” answers just better arguments and Bill challenged us to be better every session. I was studying to be a personal trainer my second semester but one day, I woke up. The thought hit me in Bill’s class and I sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a philosophy professor.

My pride was still hurt. Brockport had thrown me out not because I wasn’t living up to their academic standards but because they thought I was a bad student. I was determined to prove them wrong and enrolled there again in January. Going to anywhere in the Rochester area during winter is a mistake. I quickly took advantage of Brockport’s study abroad program and left for Scotland in the Fall of 2009. No one cared if you attended class at Stirling University but if you showed up to Peter Sullivan’s seminar on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, you had better not be dead weight. I had to develop good study habits to pass the exams and I finished second in my class. Stirling had a grading scale that consisted of 21 different gradations as opposed to the 13 at most American colleges. What would have been considered “A” work at any American institution was broken into five subdivisions: 1A-1F. The guy who was top of the class earned a 1F. I earned the grade lower – 2B. Brockport translated this mark as “B.”

I was fighting against the tide. I had been reinstated at Brockport with credits from my first year and a half there. That got me closer to graduation but none of the good grades I had earned at Suffolk would travel to Brockport stating institutional differences even though Suffolk was considered a SUNY school. I couldn’t believe that my grades from Stirling translated back from a society that holds different notions of academic achievement (students can receive 40 points out of 100 and pass a class) but a college within the same state system was suspect in their grading scheme. When I matriculated again, Brockport started me at a 2.0 GPA by cobbling together classes that fulfilled the most general education requirements rather than the best grades. I would try to dig myself out of this hole for the next three years never falling below a 3.8 each semester. I calculated the numbers and realized that I would never make cum laude and this fact became anti-motivational as I realized that the institutional chips were stacked against me. Philosophy, as a discipline, is highly competitive and loves pedigree. I was coming from a small college that no one had heard of with letters from faculty the majority of whom weren’t publishing and my grades looked terrible.

Winter in western New York can be very depressing. A lot of snow, a lot of cold, a lot of dark, no mountains and a school of under 7,000 students can produce a malarial feeling. When you have worked hard for four years after having the wind taken out of your sails more than a few times and you’re not receiving any graduate school acceptances after pouring resources into a perfect coffee shop major, it can make you downright maudlin. And I was. My first acceptance didn’t come until late April after the deadline for acceptances and rejections. I didn’t hear from Virginia Tech until early May due to some administrative SNAFU. Virginia Tech offered one of the best terminal MA degrees in the country and I was blown away by the news. I didn’t care if they couldn’t offer me funding because I didn’t fit their model of a “good student” I was going to get to do what I thought I loved. I came South hoping to use my two years to jump into a top twenty PhD program in philosophy.

I graduated from Virginia Tech with two MA degrees with three years worth of coursework over four years of enrollment. I had to leave school twice because of serious medical issues. It was the second time I left when it dawned on me that the reasons I had loved philosophy and pursued it were nowhere to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of serious analytic philosophy. I had fallen flat on my face again. Years in school were spent pursuing a career dead end. My love for the debates had died and the spark lit at Suffolk had been extinguished by an institution far larger than me or any one school. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent learning philosophy nor any of the time or money spent pursuing it. It equipped me with something larger than knowledge, larger than a career path or any one skill set. Philosophy helped me understand learning as process and equipped me with a universal skills applicable to any field of study. The jump from a corner stone of the humanities to the social sciences was more of a wide step as I settled into the interdisciplinary waters of the School of Public and International Affairs again with no clear plan for what to do in “the real world.” It wasn’t until my second semester in my Master’s of Public and International Affairs that I got my taste of teaching at the university level. Edward Weisband, in Political Science, placed a tremendous amount of trust in me when he took me on as a TA and left me teach fifty of his students during weekly recitations. I was hooked.

A mentor of mine, Joe Pitt, told me that enlightenment starts from a place of confusion. I took this as teaching advice and regularly asked my students to help un-confuse me. This technique worked for Weisband’s recitations as we moved through text after text looking for clarity rather than just the right answers. I keep this trick in my back pocket as I now begin every one of my classes with “who’s confused by the reading?” Lucky for me I am teaching American politics this semester so I can ask simply “who’s confused,” and I know we’ll get the conversation going.