Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students

PALS is thrilled to have a guest post by Clay Zuba, a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Zuba writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the level and teaching needs of incoming students. Zuba makes the point that we need to understand how students develop as learners in order to best meet their needs. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

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via Ed Lim Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preponderance of professors, have at least once or twice recently said to themselves, “students today . . .”

Fill in these ellipses with your most common complaint about students entering your classrooms. You may find that they cannot read critically or write clearly. Perhaps they don’t know how to pose thoughtful questions or conduct research. Or know the first thing about symbolism, or the American Revolution.

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

Including myself. Since beginning as a high school English teacher about a year ago, I’ve learned a lot about these students. It surprised me. I wanted to share. Maybe we can work together.

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via Geoff Livingston

Who I was, and who I came to be

I was one of you once. In January 2016 I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, with a specialization in antebellum print culture. I published. I held a number of research fellowships. Between the time I started a Master’s Degree in 2010 and I moved on from the academic job market in 2017, I taught undergraduates at six universities on the east coast, in Texas, and the southwest. I had on-campus interviews, no offers. That is the way it is for many of us right now.

I began teaching at a college preparatory high school this past fall. I teach English to juniors and sophomores at what is considered an elite high school. One hundred percent the students with whom I work will attend a four-year college. This year they have been accepted to places such as Duke, and Stanford, and Airforce Academy. But many will attend in-state land-grant universities or smaller, out-of-state niche schools private and public. My students are very likely representative of those that will enter your classrooms as freshmen.

Even though I am very good at research, I admit that I love to teach young people in writing and literature. And I believe in the mission to prepare my students for university-level study. Much like you, as a university instructor, I often found my students insufficiently prepared to undertake their course of study in higher education. A few of them had a strong foundation in writing and literature. But many of them had trouble paraphrasing a thesis in an article in The Atlantic. Even the ones that could needed to learn to think  more critically. And some of the others (literally) didn’t understand how to analyze figurative language. I admit to thinking some version of “what on earth is going on in high schools”?

What I found out is going on surprised me. It may surprise you, too. We are actually teaching students all of these skills in high schools. We are teaching them to write essays with a clear thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph. We are teaching them the elements of the gothic as a literary genre. We are teaching them to identify and analyze figurative language. And most students take their education seriously.

However, a number of entangled conundrums await students when it comes time for them to transfer their skills and knowledge from high school to college. I come to my conclusions based on my experience teaching both groups of students, rather than empirical study. I  hope you will find them helpful.

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Four rules for teaching my high school students

  1. Reorient, repeat.

I taught them to write a strong thesis statement and identify symbolism. Even so, you need to repeat and reinforce these skills. You need to reorient the knowledge students already have for their college environment. There are at least three reasons I need to ask you do this.

First, most young students do not transfer skills and knowledge well from one environment or field to another. High school students have difficulty transferring what I teach them about writing to their history class. They have difficulty applying their knowledge of history to help them historicize what they read in my American literature class. The same will be true of your students, but they will be facing an even greater change in environments, undergoing one of the great rites of passage in our society: the transition from high school teenager to college adult.

Second, if you do not demand that students apply their old close reading skills to your new classroom, they will assume that you do not require close reading skills in your classroom. They will assume that these were only for high school. So, model close reading skills as you like to see them. This will give my students confidence as they grow to use these skills in your classroom.

And three, their brains are still growing in their capacity for abstract thought.  For example, my students’ understanding of the types of abstract ideas that symbolism can encompass and how writers attach these ideas to concrete objects, will be different than when they become your students. No doubt you have your own favorite theory of intellectual development, but for reference I’ll link to the ones William Perry first published in 1968.

Believe me, my students and I discussed symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. We spoke about how the concrete symbol of the A acts as a vessel for abstract problems of sin and self-actualization. We identified how the symbolism of the A changes throughout the novel. But I’m going to have to ask you to model this thinking again if you want your students to analyze symbolism again in the college classroom, with college-level thinking.

  1. You need to teach writing – again, constantly.

The critical thinking that your students will do about literature will be deeper and more demanding than in my high school classroom. But as I mentioned above, they do not have the experience reasoning and creating on the level of abstraction necessary for your college classroom. If they do not have expertise in thinking, these students will not have experience writing with about abstract ideas, either.

You must teach writing even if, especially if, you are a tenured professor. If you appreciate the close connection between writing and critical thinking in your own work, you will see how important it is for you to give students feedback on their writing. Because it is feedback on their thinking. And if they know you are an expert on, say, Faulkner, they will value your feedback on writing more than they did the adjunct (still an expert, but an institutionally devalued expert) who taught them to write in their first-year writing course.

  1. Foster intellectual curiosity

As a high school teacher, I hope I’m helping my students build foundations that will enable them to ask worthwhile questions about literature and writing. But because, again, they are still developing, I can’t yet help many of them ask complex, nuanced abstract questions – and most questions worth asking in college are abstract.

They do have intellectual curiosity. But they are not sure yet what is worth asking. They do not know what is debatable and unanswered. And because of this, you are going to have to teach them, at least once in your classroom, to do research. If you use your university’s databases for research, you are going to be the best resource available for using research to answer the types of questions you’d like students to ask in your classroom.

  1. Be more attentive to your students as young people.

When I was teaching college, I didn’t consider it my job to think too deeply about my students inner emotional lives. And neither did any of the professors who served as my research or teaching mentors. But they need us to be attentive to them as young people, sorely.

I see my students 4-5 days a week. It gives me an awareness of how much they look to us as examples to build their spectrum of the moral and intellectual possibilities for adulthood.

It’s true that your students have plenty of other role models in college. But most of them are not good role models. Maybe your students’ parents are not even good role models. So you need to show them you care. Check in if they miss an assignment uncharacteristically. Encourage them when they doubt themselves.

It isn’t too late for you. You can still make a difference.

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via Liz West

Conclusion

I could tell you more. But you’ve already given me your attention for long enough. If you’ve read this far, you’ve been kind enough to listen. Yet, if we are really going to work together to help our mutual students, this has to be a two-way partnership. And I want to hear from you.

What can we do, as high school teachers, to help our students prepare for college? What are the gaps between high school and college?

What am I missing in the miasma of grammar, genre, symbolism, figurative language, oral proficiency, vocabulary, historicization, themes, authors, writing structures, research skills, reading skills, et cetera, that I hope to instill as foundations for their college learning experience?

Please write back.  

Contributor Bio:

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest book review from Caitlin Kelly. In this post, Kelly shares a review of The Slow Professor and addresses what the book offers regarding teaching for both full-time and precarious faculty. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Update: PALS is pleased to have Caitlin on board as a full-time contributor!

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

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The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber is a book I have been trying to get my hands on for months—when I first requested a copy at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, it was checked out from every holding library in the OhioLink consortium. As I eagerly awaited my turn to read the book, I wondered whether or not it would live up to the hype. As the title suggests, the authors draw their inspiration from the Slow Movement, a resistance to globalization and corporatization, which “challenges the frantic pace and standardization of contemporary culture” (x). Through this approach, Berg and Seeber aim to “disrupt the corporate ethos of speed” (11) by prioritizing reflection, dialogue, and community.

Published by the University of Toronto Press in March 2016, The Slow Professor is a slim volume of roughly100 pages—a deliberate decision rooted in the strong ethical impulse that permeates their book. In the university, corporatization is evidenced by the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty positions and the erosion of tenure, something that Berg and Seeber acknowledge. As they write in the Preface,

Our guiding principles were for The Slow Professor to be useful, accessible to a variety of disciplines, and affirming. While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students. (ix)

While Berg and Seeber do write from a position of privilege, their advice is useful for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike. In contrast to the “how-to guides” that aim to help their readers find success in the traditional sense of attaining and maintaining a tenure track appointment, The Slow Professor offers readers guidance in “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (x). Where the typical faculty development book gives us the equivalent of a “couch to 5k” plan, Berg and Seeber offer us something more akin to yoga: reflective, empowering, and focused on where we are now rather than where we think we need to be in the future. The Slow Professor entreats us to be more reflective about our work, and this is where the book distinguishes itself from the many faculty advice books already available.

One of the books that The Slow Professor might remind some readers of is Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), which also urges faculty to slow down, take time, and be more mindful. Even so, the tacit message in Boice’s book is that the endgame is success on the tenure track. Advice for New Faculty Members is divided into three sections— teaching, writing, and service—matching the three requirements of tenure-track positions. Comparing the approach to teaching between the two books is also telling. Where Berg and Seeber offer advice aimed at bringing pleasure back to teaching, Boice’s advice privileges time management and efficiency. One of the most valuable contributions that Berg and Seeber make is the way that they breathe new life into advice like Boice’s. For example, in their chapter on teaching they recommend his approach to preparing for class but where Boice cites self-discipline and practice as challenges to enacting his advice, Berg and Seeber speculate that the explanation may have more to do with a culture that makes us feel guilty about taking steps that allow us to enjoy teaching (46). This is not to say that a “survival guide” is not useful but The Slow Professor offers a refreshing alternative; despite the fact it is written by tenure track faculty, their advice is not solely in service of the tenure track model.

Over the course of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion, Berg and Seeber apply the principles of the slow movement to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality. Each chapter situates an element of faculty life within the philosophy of the slow movement and offers small-scale strategies that individual faculty members can use in resisting the increasingly corporatized, administrative university environment. For example, the chapter “Pedagogy and Pleasure” breaks down a typical class meeting chronologically, offering advice at each stage of a class for making teaching more enjoyable. The authors first suggest that we make a conscious transition to class instead of rushing. During class, they urge us to not be afraid to laugh and have fun as well as to listen and create a dialogue even in the moments before class starts formally. In preparing for class, they urge us to think of the course as narrative, as a story we tell. In general, the advice offered in The Slow Professor is not groundbreaking; its value lies not in its originality but rather in the way that it is contextualized as resistance to the corporatization of the university. While contemplative in many regards, The Slow Professor is still well researched and well grounded in the literature on both faculty development and the future of higher education. The book is, the authors admit, “idealistic in nature” (ix) but that is, I think, exactly what makes it so refreshing and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

According to the University of Toronto Press website, a paperback edition will be released in May 2017.

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.