Don’t coddle the slut-shamers.

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Recommended reading:

The Coddling of the American Mind ~ The Atlantic

Slut-shaming undermines women ~ The Boston Globe

My Friday classes meet in a light filled computer lab on the second floor of our campus’ newest academic building. The room is state of the art. Six flat screen TV’s line the classroom and a Smartboard projection system lights up the white wall at the front of the lab. Despite the modern bells and whistles, my Comp students slump in their chairs like they’re attending a five a.m. paint drying lecture. They scatter their backpacks on the floor and prop their chins on giant cans of Monster Energy. English is not their top priority.

Right now we are working through an op/ed unit that has us reading and thinking about current events that in many cases divide our country. We’ve read articles about cultural appropriation, about empathy, about cellphones. My goal is always the same: to challenge the status quo, to question accepted ideas and typical patterns of thinking. My job is to teach critical thinking skills.

The trouble is, critical thinking is a slippery concept. Educators are fond of jargon – “critical thinking” might be our favorite phrase. We always have a new theory to roll out with a set of shiny, matching words to describe our latest iteration of the same old story: we’re supposed to teach students how to think. But teaching sometimes reluctant scholars how to think – instead of what to think – gets messy.   Recent criticisms of higher ed, point to reluctant engagement; many college instructors are afraid to venture into the fray. Some fear that students will take offense and find new ways to opt out of the difficult work of learning to think critically. We’ve been accused of “coddling” the “American mind” by allowing students to opt out of the tough conversations. But as the critics also point out, “critical thinking [by any definition] requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial thinking.” Too often, this seems like a tall order.

Sometimes it helps to practice critical thinking with an uncomfortable – even shocking – topic. In fact, it might just be necessary.

Fridays are rough – the college parking lot is noticeably empty, there is always more yawning, more groaning about lack of sleep and hangovers. It seemed like a good day to throw around some mildly shocking vocabulary, so I asked my students to consider the problem of slut-shaming.

We read an essay which claims that sexual assault on college campuses is exacerbated by the “wide spread belief that some women are sluts.” I began our discussion with an admission: we were all going to stumble over our words. The topic is taboo, but familiar. We would have to use language usually reserved for private, sotto voce exchanges. We’d all likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but we were going to do it anyway. I told my students that I expected them to speak up if they were offended. I said I expected them to try – that our classroom space was a place of failure, a place to make attempts.

In the end we laughed a lot. We asked good, solid questions – mostly questions we couldn’t answer. We sketched out ideas about why we make judgments, about what we might do differently, about who was to blame. And we ended up in a new place. This new knowledge wasn’t about clarity or facts, but about the benefits of the thinking process. I think we learned that if we were willing to wrestle with new ideas and reconsider old ideas, that our world gets the slightest bit larger.

Larger is what learning looks like. But it is also a shock to the system. Starting with an idea that is uncomfortable – like slut-shamming or racism or human rights – might make the process easier. If we begin in a place of uneasiness, we are forced to deal with our “emotion and desire” directly. Considering factual evidence and alternative viewpoints might feel better than sitting with our own anxieties about a taboo topic. At least it’s a good place to start.

~ Sarah

 

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Summer Reading List

lawnchairThis month on Write Some Whatnot, we ask the question “what are you reading?” This would seem to be an easy question, but I struggle to know what to write.

Many people picture teachers, instructors, and professors spending summers reading on the beach or on a lawn chair. My lawn chair remains empty, however, as I spend time teaching summer classes, writing grants for a non-profit organization, and writing technical documentation.

A few weeks ago, I attended a writing conference in Cheyenne, and there I gathered another stack of books and added to my reading list. So, I share with you this list and hope that we will all find some time to read peacefully.

  • By Tina Ann Forkner, Rose House, Ruby Among Us, and Waking Up Joy.
  • By Laura Pritchett, Red Lightning and Stars Go Blue. She has written several other novels, but these are the two that intrigue me the most.
  • By Craig Johnson, Dry Bones, the latest installment of the Longmire Mysteries
  • By Alexandra Fuller, Leaving Before the Rains Come
  • And finally, Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo. This book will be required in my Spring 2016 Composition II courses.

Someday, I’ll ask you to read my own books, too.

Until I have time to dive into those books, for now, I’m reading grant application requirements, technical manuals, student essays, and from time-to-time, my own and friends’ writing. In the midst of this busy time, however, I do find time to do some fishing and bike riding. I only wish the summer would slow down a bit. It’s moving much too fast.

Happy Reading!
~ Keri

Here We Go Again

Keri Sj janeWe’re all getting ready for new classes this week. We are planning course work and writing syllabi. We are meeting new students and giving directions around our always-under-construction campus. It some ways it is chaos, but it’s also fun to anticipate and to plan.

The spring semester sneaks up on me. Summer sort of inevitably winds down and I can feel school coming on, but the winter break is always fast and I forget to look up and see the first day approaching. I’ve written about loving the start of the term, about the strange combination of anxiety and excitement that accompanies the start of every semester. This week has brought all of those same crazy feelings, but the winter start is different: quieter and yet still abrupt.

I think the school start was made harder by the inside part of work. I skied a lot last week. Nearly every day. I looped around a mountain golf course with my dog and my mother several mornings in a row and I even played hooky with Cody one afternoon. I love Nordic skiing for lots of reasons, but I mostly chase that effortless glide. I’m not a practiced skier; I’m sure my technique is horrific and it’s rare that I complete an outing without a fall, but I love that feeling of sliding across the frozen ground. The sound of snow under skis is squeaky and rhythmic when accompanied by hard pole plants. When the snow is good – cold and fresh – it’s easy to disappear into the hard work and sunshine under the Bighorns. A good glide looks like grace even on a klutz like me.blacktooth

Coming inside maybe the hardest part of starting the winter term (fall too, now that I think about it), but it strikes me that I’m chasing the same feeling as I plan my classes. I love the optimism of planning a new semester. All of my ideas seem brilliant and shiny (like new snow). I plan for lively discussions about art and literature and change. It all looks so smooth – challenging, but rewarding and certain (on paper). Preparing for the semester is the glide – the easy, optimistic part of the year.

So we’ve all got our heads down while we plot and scheme. We are walking in to our new classes full of optimism and fire. I’ve got it all figured out – at least for now. However, I do know the uphill climb is out there waiting for me.

~ Sarah

Spring Fever

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Melting snow in the Big Horns

It’s spring, and despite the snow and cold wind, I can taste summer. I can hear the birds’ arrival, and I can see signs of spring in the baby bunnies outside my office window, fawns grazing at the side of the road, and green-tinged tree buds scratching at the glass as the wind blows. I feel a deep restlessness in me as well. I don’t want to wear my jacket or long sleeve shirts. I’m tired of wearing tights and thick pants. I want to go play. I want to be outside hiking, biking, breathing the mountain air. I don’t want to grade papers or discussion posts. I don’t want to answer student emails. I want to be done with the semester already. But despite these feelings, a sense of duty drags me out of bed, gets me to work, and helps me complete my to do list.

On top of having spring fever, next semester I will be on sabbatical working on a writing project, so I’m having an extra hard time getting anything done. I describe it to my colleagues as having senoritis: that feeling of new adventures beginning and old ones ending and the feeling that “now” doesn’t matter much. My fingers itch to write, and my brain is consumed by other projects unrelated to grading and teaching English.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. It’s this time in the semester when my students stop turning in work, or they turn in sloppy work. It’s also that time of year when we’re all weary…weary of winter and weary of routine. Often, some students will disappear. They may resurface at the end of April suddenly aware that they have to pass the class. Hopefully it won’t be too many, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I remember having these feelings as a college student. I would resist them when I could, but sometimes I skipped class to spend time outside or to simply sleep.

As an instructor, it’s more difficult to skip class. I could take a personal day here and there, but often, they’re accompanied with guilt, and there are still emails to answer and grading nagging in the back of my mind. That carefree irresponsibility I felt as a student no longer exists. Perhaps I’ll experience some of that on sabbatical, but I really don’t know.

I’m not sure what to expect on sabbatical. I’ll have a project to complete, so I’ll keep a schedule, but there won’t be anyone around to make sure I’m producing my self-assigned number of pages. It will be a different type of work…a different focus for me, and I’m excited. I’m also a little bit worried–especially with how I feel right now. What if I just don’t do it? What if I can’t do it? What if all this time I have been working hard to convince others to pay me to write, and then I just can’t produce?

Are these fears that my students experience? Is this perhaps why they don’t do the work or the reason they procrastinate? I suspect this is part of it. I also suspect there are other mitigating circumstances that I’ll never know or perhaps understand. This is why I get so upset with Complete College America. I want my students to succeed, but I also want them to work hard at it. A degree should be earned, not given. I want students to complete college, and I believe our society is better off if our citizens have an education. But what bothers me most is that legislators wants to tie our funding to how many students finish a degree. This puts the responsibility of learning squarely on teachers’ shoulders, not on the students’. This is the problem.

I can give my students every opportunity to learn: provide them resources, spend hours responding to their essays, spend time talking them through the assignments, and provide feedback on every missed quiz question or misleading discussion post. However, if the students do not do the reading, don’t show up for class, don’t access the resources, or don’t do the work, they will never learn. And this is what the completion agenda does not address.

I can only do so much to motivate my students. In the end, they have to drag themselves out of bed when they have spring fever. They have to talk themselves into doing the work even when they don’t feel like it. They have to decide to make education a priority in their lives, and they have to decide to stick to it and to do everything they can to learn. I can’t do it for them.

So, dear students, I know how you feel, but together, we need to hang on and get it done because come summer, we can either have a sense of accomplishment or disappointment. The choice is yours.

~ K