The Worst of Me

mmZCRsEWhich of your character traits is your worst enemy, in your life but especially in your job?

In one of my courses, we’re writing reference letters for fictional characters.  In addition, as a possible blog assignment, I suggested students write reference letters for themselves, imagining they’re applying for their dream job and giving an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  It made me think about how I would assess my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – and as a person, for that matter.

My biggest flaw (and I have thousands) is irritability.  I get annoyed even with people I love, people whom I know have the best of intentions.  When someone interrupts me when I’m talking, or hogs the spotlight, or expresses him/herself in a way that’s less than clear, I turn bitterly cold and sometimes shut down completely.  This seriously bruises my relationships with my students and others.

Example A:

Student: Miss, what were you saying about that thing?  That talk?

Me: “Talk?” [Long pause]  [Note: I know what the student is referring to.]

Student: You said something about … a talk, you said … we have to do something.

Me: When did I say this?  Today?  Last week?  What exactly did I say?  I need more information here.

Student: Never mind.  Forget it.

Example B:

Me: Would you like some coffee?

Mother-in-law: Well…you always make your coffee very strong.

Me: Yes, we do.  [Long, long pause.]

Mother-in-law: Maybe you could add some water to mine?

Me: So you’d like some?  Certainly.

I’m not suggesting that teachers, or people, should always be friendly and sweet.  However, irritation can be mean, and its primary goal is to make the receiver feel bad.  (The ultimate objective is to change the receiver’s behaviour, but it is not a good method for doing so.)  I struggle with this in the classroom, in my marriage, in my friendships, and in my interactions with grocery store cashiers and people who walk too slowly in the metro tunnels.  It tires me out and in makes me an a**hole.

What about you?  Do you have character traits that make your job, or your life, more difficult?  Have you done anything to change them?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

What’s That When It’s At Home?

DSC_0742Dear Readers:

I will be back in a few weeks with my yearly “Best Books” and “Top Posts” lists, but otherwise, Classroom as Microcosm will be on hiatus from now until the end of January.  I hope you’ll consider, in the interim, subscribing to my personal/homestyle/living blog, What’s That When It’s At Home?

This new blog is in its infancy.  I originally took a stab at it as a Tumblr blog, but Tumblr is not working out so well for me, so I’ve migrated it back here to WordPress.  My plan is to post a few times a week over the winter in order to get things up and running, and to launch it fully next spring.

The blog will treat subjects related to being at home – cooking, cleaning, home improvement, taking care of plants and pets, etc. – as well as reading, television, knitting, exercising and other things I love to do in and around my house.

The driving question of the blog is similar to that of Classroom as Microcosm: what does it mean to be committed?  At what point can one safely say one is ready to commit?  Classroom as Microcosm has explored my commitment to my job; WTWIAH will explore my journey, over the next few years, toward committing or not committing to my house, and to home ownership in general.

You will find a brief resume of the blog’s intention here.

So please come by and subscribe!  And in the meantime, have a great holiday, and stay tuned here for seasonal updates and a return to twice-a-week posting when the new semester begins.

Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

*

What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

Without People: Reprise

As the semester draws to a close, I have more and more days like this one, which happened back in 2010.  Few turn out this well, however.

*

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for my fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and I didn’t like people today, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy my fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I was fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  Our neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to my fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for my fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  The last person in the world I’d wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by chidseyc

Children’s Literature Reading List Update

In the last two days, I have read/reread:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler
  • Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 1: A Bad Beginning
  • The Phantom Tollbooth

I have also spent several lovely hours wandering through the stacks of three different children’s libraries.  The nostalgia is permeating everything.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to haul home a stack of 15 new delicious-looking books and devour 2 or more of them before the day is over.

I have spent most of my adult life searching for that blinkered bliss that accompanies childhood reading.  I almost never find it.  If this continues, I’m in for a really  good winter vacation.

This is my JOB.  Are you kidding me?

Thank you all so much for your book suggestions! I will post a full 45-book reading list for my Child Studies course for your enjoyment once it is finalized.

“Well, I would like to make another trip…but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time.  There’s just so much to do right here.”

-The Phantom Tollbooth

Image by Jules Feiffer

How Can I Get More Sleep?


A couple of years ago, Arianna Huffington gave a TED talk in which she exhorted women to get more sleep. I’ve been thinking about that talk a lot lately, because I’m tired.  All the time.

I recently bumped my alarm forward from 5 a.m. to 5:15, and that has made a tiny difference.  But I still find myself unable to be productive after I finish teaching at 10.  I can’t talk myself into grading anything, and end up wasting any time not spent in the classroom.  (My ability to teach doesn’t seem to be much affected; it’s my self-regulated activities like planning and marking that suffer.)  Therefore, grading is relegated to Wednesdays and weekends, when I can linger in bed until I’m truly ready to get up (usually around 8 or so).  My sleeping patterns throughout the week end up being wonky, and I know this is bad for me.

There are a few things I could do.  I resist them all.

  1. I could request a later schedule, so I could begin teaching at 10 instead of 8.  The problem is, I’d likely also end up teaching during the dreaded 4-6 p.m. slot.  Teaching at the beginning of the day is great: most students are alert, and those who aren’t alert are asleep or absent.  Teaching at the end of the day is not great: students are wound up and unable to concentrate, and weaker students with few self-management skills tend to take later classes.
  2. I could get to sleep earlier.  I do try to be in bed by nine, but even when I succeed, I often lie awake.  More often, I put off bedtime because I feel like I haven’t had any fun all day, and knitting a few more rows of this sock, or watching Top Chef Masters, is a happy indulgence.
  3. I could streamline my morning routine and get up a bit later.  I know there are people who can roll out of bed, splash water on their faces, grab a granola bar and go.  I wish I were one of these people, but if I don’t have at least an hour and a half to ease into myself before leaving the house, I feel resentful for the rest of the day.  I even hate getting straight into the shower out of bed, although there’s really no way around it.
  4. I could learn to nap.  I’ve been trying to nap my whole life, and I almost never succeed.  There must be tricks I don’t know.

Does anyone have any advice?  I’m not battling true insomnia or other sleep disorders; I simply seem unable to regularly get a good, solid night’s sleep when I have to be up early.  Do you have a routine that ensures that you get enough rest?  I’d love to hear about it.

Things I Learned From Buying a House #3: Demystification

My husband and I are taking a home repair class, because since we moved into our brand new very old house, we’ve been paying people a lot of money to do things we could probably do ourselves.  The class defies some current wisdom about what makes for “good teaching.”  And it’s great.  And I’m learning some things about myself as a teacher.

This home repair course involves almost no hands-on practice.  Our teacher tells us things.  We take notes.  We ask questions, and he answers them.  Last week we actually got to do some stuff for the first time – he had a friend come in to show us about wall construction, and we got to drill in some screws and apply a bit of plaster.  Otherwise, the best we can do is ply him with the details of our own roofs, toilets and hairline wall cracks and ask for advice.

You wouldn’t think this was an ideal format for a skills-based class.  Nevertheless, we are learning TONS.  We now know the basics of how a house is constructed.  We know what the insides of faucet fixtures look like.  We know why the walls of our bathroom look like they are running in rivulets even when they’re not.  We know the difference between caulking and grout, and which we should apply around our windows.

Perhaps most importantly, we know that we probably shouldn’t panic about the things that make us panic.  Things like: how can I put up a shelf without puncturing a pipe?  What do those little fissures on the foundation wall mean?  How can I stain my deck properly? If my house makes noise, does that mean it’s about to fall down?

A huge part of learning is about demystification.  Our home repair course is mainly about that: a house is just a thing, and it has a lot of parts that are pretty easy to understand.  It will get damaged, and then you need to fix it.  Pipes will break, ceilings will fall in, roofs will need to be replaced.  You just do it.

Of course, ideally, the demystification is not just intellectual.  Drilling a fourth screw into a mock-up wall, because the first three went in cock-eyed, makes drilling a screw into your own wall much less scary.  You get to know how it feels when the screw meets its mark, so you’ll know that feeling next time.

Nevertheless, hearing how something should work can be a good first step.  Then you can go home and try it, because at least you know the basics.

Is there an equivalent phenomenon for more “intellectual” skills? I’m learning a lot about home repair without getting much practice in the classroom.  Is it possible to learn a lot about English without practicing reading and writing?  Are there ways to demystify these activities for students so that they’ll be more likely to take the plunge into doing them on their own time?

Maybe it helps that my home repair teacher is hilariously entertaining, making jokes about how “water is the anti-Christ” and “What does Ikea mean in Swedish? Divorce.”  If I were funnier, would that make my subject matter less intimidating so my students would learn better?

Have you ever been scared to do something until someone taught you it wasn’t so hard?  Have you ever found that a little knowledge takes the terror out of trying something new?  How do you demystify your subject matter for your students?

Image by Melodi2

Ongoing Open Call: What Should Change About School?

I’ve just begun reading Nikhil Goyal’s One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.  Goyal is an American high-school senior who has made a name for himself talking to the media about educational change, and although I’m not far into his book yet, I am already intrigued.  I’ll write more on his ideas later, but for now, I’d like to reopen a discussion on his pet subject: the need to hear from young people about what could make school better.

Last year, I asked for student responses to the question “What needs to change about school?” The answers that flowed in were diverse and enlightening, and I feel like there’s still lots more to be said on this subject.  So I would love to hear from more of you.  What have you encountered in your time in school that you think really needs to change?

You can go to the permanent page devoted to this open call  in order to get more details and to see some previous responses on the subject.  Most of the essays I received last year concerned the administration and requirements of school, things like the usefulness (or not) of Pell Grants and the over-emphasis on grades.  I would be delighted to hear more of your opinions on these and similar matters, but there’s another side of the question that is preying on my mind.

The seemingly endless current stream of cyberbullying scandals, a couple of personal teaching experiences over the last few days, and a second listen to This American Life’s fabulous podcast “Middle School” have combined to make me think more about the strange social environment that schools create.  We pile a bunch of people of approximately the same age together in one building, one classroom, one playground, and we ask them to negotiate so many things.  Is this working?  What are your personal experiences of the way “school society” works?  Is there anything we could change about it to make it work better?

To address this or any other topic on how “school” could be improved, please visit the open call page, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Willing to Read and Write: Reprise

Last week, this post – first published in September of last year – spiked in my blog stats.  It seemed a whole pile of people were reading it, but I couldn’t figure out who or why, although the search term “effort” had a corresponding spike.  Maybe now, at midterm, teachers and students are being hard hit by the reality of the reading and writing demands of college.  Or maybe it’s bots.  Regardless, I like this post, and am still asking myself these questions: is college the best place for students who find reading and writing a chore?  Is it a place where they can learn to love these activities, or at least see their value?

*

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

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Image by Peter Galbraith