Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

6. “Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

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Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

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What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

The Five Best Podcasts in the World

Because I’m an English teacher, I rarely read anything I don’t have to.  During the semester, my novels collect dust on the coffee table, my Kindle lies abandoned in my schoolbag, and the weekend newspapers sit coiled uncomfortably in their rubber bands until I toss them in the recycling bin.  Once my final grading is done, it will be a week or so before I feel like reading anything for pleasure or even for edificiation.

I do, however, listen to things.  I listen to audiobooks – mostly popular social science stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or humour like Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, because in my experience, fiction doesn’t really work in audiobook form.  Mostly, though, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts, and the iPod, have entirely transformed my life.  In retrospect, I’m not sure how I functioned in the years before the iPod.  I listen to podcasts on the metro, while I’m running, while I cook, while I do errands.  I am incapable of falling asleep anymore unless I’m listening to a human voice telling me things interesting enough to keep my brain from wandering to the stresses of the day.  The Husband refuses to talk me to sleep, so I depend on the podcasters of the world to fill that role.

Podcasts are doing more for me than preserving my sanity.  I find myself, more and more, quoting or paraphrasing things in my classroom that I have heard on a podcast, whether it concerns Daniel Gilbert discussing the complexities of human happiness or Jonathan Schooler outlining the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing.”  I ask my students to listen to podcasted stories in order to expand their understanding of narrative.  Podcasts have become another medium through which I can teach my students the skills and the content I think are important for them.

So in that vein, I present to you my five favourite podcasts.  No matter what you teach, these podcasts will enrich your life or, at the very least, help you forget your troubles long enough to fall asleep.

1. Radiolab

Radiolab is without question the best podcast in the whole world.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take sometimes esoteric scientific and philosphical concepts and apply them to basic, concrete, everyday experiences so that anyone can understand and relate to them.  Stochasticity – randomness – is explained through such experiences as gambling addiction and eerie chance meetings.  We learn how hookworms can help cure allergies, how epilepsy can make you an ultra-runner, and whether it’s better for a cat to fall fifteen stories than two stories.  If you care about what makes us human and what our place is in the universe, this podcast is for you.

2. This American Life

Ira Glass’s iconic introductory line – “each week we choose a theme, and give you a series of stories on that theme” – doesn’t do this show justice.  This American Life is the current gold standard in radio storytelling.  David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and others all rose to fame on this show, and it ranges from the painfully intimate – stories about babysitting and breakups – to the personal side of global crises like the Iraq war and the economic crisis.  This American Life taught me to love radio as I hadn’t since childhood; before podcasts became a thing, I found countless excuses to get stuff done in my office so I could be near the computer and stream their show archive for hours on end.  Just go.  You’ll love it.

3. The Age of Persuasion

I may have a bit of a nationalist impulse to promote shows from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and certain great CBC shows, like the venerable As It Happens, may be of limited interest to non-Canadians.  The Age of Persuasion is not one of these shows; it is undeniably entertaining radio about the past and present of the advertising industry.  Terry O’Reilly tells us about advertisers’ invention of “The Happy Homemaker,” the rise of the “pitchman,” and the evolution of such phenomena as “luxury marketing.”  The archive at their webpage is limited, but if you subscribe through iTunes you can download most previous episodes.

4. Spark

Another CBC show that everyone should listen to.  Nora Young has the best voice in radio, and it doesn’t matter whether you really care about the world of technology – this show is about technology you DO care about, whether it’s using GPS tracking technology to deal with truancy or paying more because your online shopping history says you will.

5. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

This regular feature on NPR’s Culturetopia podcast is pure brainy brainlessness – a panel of brilliant cultural commentators who are clearly good friends and who sound a bit drunk (although apparently “the cocktails are fictional”), giddily recounting everything they love and hate about books, music, film, video games and so on.  Recurring segments include “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” (Albert Brooks on Twitter!  Clem Snide!)  and “The Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” (in which panelists try to guess the provenance of some truly horrendous TV audio clips).  Listen to this when you are tired and you’ll find yourself doubled over laughing, even if you’re on the bus at rush hour – the worried looks from strangers will be totally worth it.

Tell me your favourite podcasts – I can’t get enough.

Image by Magstefan