“But it’s too hard!”: the challenge of lazy student readers in an age of distraction

In one my favorite young adult books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character, Francie, a girl growing up in an Irish tenement in New York City, cuts her reading teeth on Shakespeare. I was forced to read Hamlet in the eight grade and have always been struck by that image of a little girl being first read to from Shakespeare, and then reading and loving it herself. This past year, I’ve often struggled to muster enough attention to read potboilers, let alone Macbeth. And I continue to watch with curiosity and concern as my students struggle, both with reading challenging material, and with the notion of intellectual struggle as such.

Last week, for example, several students reported flat out that a podcast I’d assigned — in which two graduate students discuss the myth of historical progress — had left them utterly at sea. “Too hard,” one stated. Another said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about it. I hope other students have more luck with this than I did.” All who shared thoughts like this presented them matter-of-factly, as though providing a brief product review. Instead of hearing their remarks as mere complaining and being irritated by it, I’m making an effort to look closer.

First, there’s the students’ self-assigned authority with respect to identifying what does and does not count as appropriately difficult material for a class of this level. Second, there’s the lack of any hint of self-reflection suggesting that the quality of their own efforts might be playing a role. Such blithe student confidence is surely not all bad. I recall being knocked into a tailspin of self-criticism when, as an undergraduate, I was required to read a notoriously cryptic work by Wittgenstein. I don’t want my students to be driven to tears of failure, but I also can’t deny that I was pushed to work harder despite the fact that I wanted to stomp on this little treatise for having insulted my intelligence.

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It’s certainly not that I was smarter or of deeper character than today’s college students — I am sure of this — but, rather, that I had a different relationship to texts than is common today. This shift impacts what we can now expect from student readers and, almost certainly, from one another as well. I notice, for example, that when I need information or insight, whether it’s about communitarianism or cast iron skillets, I search and skim online, not until I find the best source, but until I find one that is good enough, and that also requires little time or effort from me. Exertions of reading and comprehension that used to feel simply normal now feel unreasonable. Like my students, I tend to blame, not myself, for a failure of attention, but the writers of the material.

These challenges of reading in an age of ubiquitous distraction upend our most fundamental notions of reasonable intellectual effort and accountability. Little Francie Nolan read Shakespeare not because she was smarter or more curious than I was, but, in part, because she had few other options. The result was that she developed a particular relationship to these rich texts, and, more importantly, a relationship to the notion of intellectual difficulty itself. How, I wonder, can we work with our students, not just to force feed them complicated texts, but to appreciate this as an opportunity to connect to their own wherewithal? I address the issue with them head on, encouraging humble confidence as they approach work they find daunting, but I am keenly aware that I’m spitting into the wind.

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As usual, then, I am focusing on the one intellectually complacent person I can sort of control: myself. I’m making new efforts to notice when, instead of settling into my comfy chair to digest hearty fare, I reach for the equivalent of intellectual potato chips, snarfing them down compulsively and with little real satisfaction. It is certainly not only my students who have been captivated by the lure of the disposable, easy read and, with it, the lazy delight of pat conclusions and facile critique.

This week I will, as I have done so many times during the past decades, return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both to discover new insights from this dense, enigmatic treatise and also to reconnect with the panicked, but exhilarated, undergraduate I once was. Back in the late 80s, I stayed up all night wrestling with that little book. I didn’t win that battle, but I did develop a respect for my opponent and for my own intellectual resources that has shaped who I continue to be as a reader and a thinker.

Guns in schools: The worst best argument for online education?

Most of my current students, I realize, have never ever attended school without the background fear of being summarily mowed down. While they finger painted, practiced their clarinets, or stood at white boards working through math problems, they did so having internalized the entirely plausible threat of being maimed or murdered where they stood. It takes the discourse of trigger warnings to an absurd new level when classrooms themselves have become symbols of PTSD.

It isn’t as if U.S. schools have ever been uniformly safe, of course. For marginalized students in forgotten communities, there is a long history of violence, danger, and uncertainty. And even privileged students at well funded schools may deal with sexual violence and bullying. But this is different, both because of the scale of its impersonal ferocity, and because this murderous fad is so explicitly enabled by our own government. It has, effectively, been open season on schoolchildren for as long as my current students have been alive.

It’s a tragic context that lends a perverted twist to my musings about the power and appeal of online education: Will the heightened fear of campuses on lockdown make students grab even more eagerly for course credits they can earn from the relative safety of their homes? Will concerns about gun-toting classmates further dampen classroom conversations about social injustice, politics, or ethics, making it less and less important to address one another face-to-face?

How many of our students, already destabilized by financial and mental health issues, not to mention nagging worries like climate change, the rollback of LGBT rights, and a potential war with Korea, will lean more towards online classes as a way to hold some anxiety at bay? And how many parents, having wearily sent their kids into potential killing fields for years now, will encourage their adult children to attend college from their bedrooms? It is certainly easy enough to imagine online education increasingly becoming a refuge from intolerably unsafe campuses.

Such a possibility points to the true size of the horror because, of course, it is not just schools that have become government sponsored abattoirs, but also public gathering spaces as such. We are murdered at gay nightclubs, outdoor concerts, peaceful protests, and in churches while we pray. We die in parking lots, theaters, and on softball fields. The precipitous erosion of safety in public schools, then, is merely part of a broader trend in which public spaces are desecrated, made uninhabitable by white male violence so banal it is rarely even identified as such.

How shameful that the burden to create change has been left to children who are fed up with being murdered and mutilated at their desks. And how glorious if, under their fierce leadership, we might begin to reclaim not just our schools, but the vitality and intimacy of our shared public lives.

Beyond (merely) mindful teaching

I hesitated when I first chose “mindful college teaching” as the subhead for this blog. On the one hand, it’s a great virtue of Buddhism that many of its most powerful insights can serve people of myriad spiritual, cultural and temperamental leanings. On the other hand, though, is the sense that terms like “mindfulness” pale and weaken when applied to every imaginable situation, much as “addiction” has lost force over the years. It may be useful sometimes to describe people as addicted to love, failure, and shopping, as well as to nicotine and OxyContin, but the term loses some diagnostic specificity and therapeutic power when applied so broadly.

Similarly, it has proved irresistible to describe nearly any effort to focus or pay attention as an exercise in Buddhist mindfulness. There is mindful dieting, mindful parenting, mindful weightlifting, mindful communication, mindfulness for stress relief and even, of course, mindful college teaching. Probably each of these applications is more or less salubrious. Certainly, I have found lots of mindfulness self-help books to be insightful and helpful. I wonder, though, about the ultimate impact of so many different mindfulness books ostensibly applicable to subjects of every shape and size. My concern is partly about missing the point and has been well illustrated for me by tussles I’ve had with my backyard bushes.

When I moved into my century-old house seven years ago, I inherited a yard that was some combination of a Tudor garden and Jurassic Park. What was, I think, originally supposed to be a sort of hedgerow around the periphery had long since become a jungle thicket, choking out the yard’s open center and pushing upwards with such tenacity that many of the so-called bushes could pass for spindly trees. Taking control of the situation — which is, when I think about it, exactly the wrong way for me to describe my haphazard process — has taken years of unceremonious lopping, selective pruning, and a tenacity that ebbs and flows. Still, I have reclaimed some open yard space, and am now mostly in maintenance mode.

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What I had not understood when I began, though, was that bushes are not discrete, individual, well contained entities — though they appear to be so in carefully groomed yards and when they’re bundled neatly for sale at garden nurseries. As I learned from the green shoots venturing well outside the boundaries I had arbitrarily settled upon, some bushes are more like viruses or mushrooms or schools of fish in that their identity is communal, diffuse, and unbounded. It’s as if my bushes, having tasted the frenzy of unrestrained growth, are permanently feral. At any moment, I can still find dozens of new tendrils pushing up through the earth like a zombie’s fingers. While it’s an impressive demonstration of pure life force, it’s also unnerving, as it was when an ivy vine slithered and nosed its way under a window frame and into my living room in the snowy dead of winter.

But I digress. My point is that while the swamp of mindfulness-in-context material — including my own “mindful college teaching” blog — may be useful, one risks becoming forever caught up in addressing only the scattered symptoms of an unfocused life and consciousness, while ignoring the heart of the matter. For several years, I just mowed over my bushes’ insistent new growth, even after I’d recognized my bandaid approach to the problem. It was so temptingly easy to merely push my mower along and make these visual reminders disappear for a while — usually just a few days — but overwhelming to face the full extent of a challenge (this yard! this old house! these bills! this job!) that I would never, could never, really control.

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In short, my yard work, like many so many of my “life changes,” was mostly cosmetic, often superficially focused on the most unsightly, or easily addressed, issues rather than the most important ones. Like the guy searching for his lost car keys under the street lamp simply because the light is better there, I was busily, sometimes comically, missing the point. What I wonder, then, is if it may be too easy to get distracted by the idea of mindfulness in this or that particular, sometimes superficial, context such that the truly awesome power and life-altering efficacy of mindfulness is bypassed. I feel a bit guilty as I write this because mindfulness is such a hot topic I’ve been able to exploit the term to attract people to my work. But perhaps it’s not as crassly self-serving as it sounds. As I’ve also acknowledged from the beginning, this blog, the Virtual Pedagogue, is only sort of about college teaching.

In the end, I am quite happy to lure people into the dark thicket where, it seems, there is only one question to be asked, the question that most of us, simply by virtue of being frightened, distractable, voracious humans, try so hard to avoid. It’s the Buddha’s question, of course, and that of many other psychological/spiritual explorers, and it has both everything and nothing to do with teaching, trimming bushes, or elaborate meditation practices. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we come to this big question by way of teaching or praying or tending the garden, so long as we come to it somehow. What a tragedy, though, if we become so enamored of and distracted by the “little” practices of mindfulness that we overlook the deeply transformative question that stands just behind them, right under our very noses.

Why I don’t promise my students “information” or “material”

Despite many of our longstanding efforts to discourage it, lots of students relate to their education in tangibly consumerist terms. If they’ve been absent, we might be requested to “please send me what I missed” with the expectation that we will be able to hand over the “material” as if it were dry cleaning or a chunk of Costco cheese.

As a liberal arts professor grounded in women’s studies and philosophy, I have never really been a purveyor of information. Of course there are facts to be learned: the historical eras of particular thinkers, the relative order of politically and intellectually critical events, and so on, but my classes are less informational than intellectual and aesthetic. As with most liberal arts courses, my overarching objectives are to understand, appreciate, contextualize, analyze and empathize. “Getting the information” is important, sure, but in the way that removing one’s clothes before showering is important.

Perhaps partly because of test-centric K-12 histories, though, many students struggle to make the leap to work that focuses more on the relationships between events and ideas than (merely) on the discrete data points that define them. In tried and true liberal arts fashion, I make efforts to model holistic thinking, for example, by demonstrating how a concept’s meaning depends on its relationship to other concepts. And, more generally, I give the process and values of thinking itself center stage sometimes, especially in upper level classes.

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Of course, at least some of this attachment to “getting the information” reflects a consumer mindset. Students want to get their money’s worth and “information” or “material” sounds like a quasi-tangible consumer good as the mere experiences I’m hawking probably do not. I confess that I loved leaving my college economics class each day with an increasingly hefty binder of tidy notes. It was a stark contrast to my philosophy or poetry class where we might spend 65 minutes wrestling with the notion of free will or the fear of death. Then my notes tended to be sparse, cryptic, and laced with doodles.

In online liberal arts courses, the challenge to move beyond the information dump expectation is especially acute partly because intense, freewheeling discussions can be hard to create virtually. Even well-constructed, well-facilitated online undergraduate discussions can turn out to be faint approximations of the “real thing,” though, of course, it’s important not to overestimate the quality of the face-to-face versions. So if students aren’t leaving the classroom, pulses raised, deep questions haunting them as they walk away, then what are they leaving with? What “goods” are they meant to be taking away from their online classes? If it is mere “information,” then can’t they get that on their own?

The temptation to think of online classes in more “informational” terms may be greater than in face-to-face courses precisely because “information” feels (sort of) objective, quantifiable and concrete. When we buy things, online or in brick and mortar stores, we are used to, well, getting things. We might not be as happy with them as we’d hoped, but at least we know what we’ve paid for. Contrast this with the purchase of an experience or service, say, admission to a baseball game or a massage, where we might be left with nothing more than a bad memory.

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This bias in favor of tangible purchases, combined with the ephemeral nature and ready access to online information, underscores why many online liberal arts classes should probably be explicitly and conscientiously connected to deeper, more ineffable educational and intellectual values. We might, for example, be especially diligent about:

  • modeling the thinking that brings us to conclusions, rather than merely emphasizing conclusions. For example, instead of a lecture, we might record or film a conversation with a colleague about a key point;
  • putting basic information and facts in a pre-module, emphasizing them as the raw materials to be worked with and not the real stuff of the unit;
  • replacing passive, consumer-oriented verbs such as “absorbing,” “taking in” or “assimilating” with active verbs like “digest,” “wrestle with,” engage with,” and the like.

The internet is busting at the seams with easy facts so mere information had better not be the primary value that online classes purport to add. What we are offer, then, must be explicitly, proudly and loudly marked as being of a different order altogether.

It kind of makes sense that many students initially regard college as if it were a trip to Target for Q-tips and laundry soap. After all, our institutions sneak in requests for money at every turn, and the national conversation about higher ed has been largely ceded to corporatist consumerism. In this milieu, a student’s emphasis on bang for the buck may even be healthy. But maybe we can shift the analogy just a bit, from, say, a big box shopping excursion to a (slightly less crassly consumerist) tour, artistic performance, or field trip. An emphasis on experiential value rather than the acquisition of more “material” is, at least, a step in the right direction. Otherwise we online teachers are likely to be seen as hucksters, trying to sell expensive glasses of sea water to people who are already happily wading in the ocean.

I’m not a cheerleader, but I play one in the classroom

A fully credentialed, experienced university professor, I shouldn’t have to play the role of cheerleader in my online classrooms. After all, I respect that my students are adults who freely choose my classes knowing that they are responsible for whether or not they ultimately succeed. It shouldn’t be my job to stand on the sidelines urging them into the game and then on again to victory when their energy ebbs. But the simple fact is that if I don’t encourage and nudge, an unacceptable number will, in the proper lingo, “fail to persist.”

The ease and invisibility with which online students can casually peel off and blow away is one of the greatest challenges of online classes, at least with undergraduate general education courses. So while I never explicitly signed up for the pom pom and ponytail route, because I want more students to succeed, I gamely make the effort anyway, by:

  • beginning the semester with a warm up assignment that pushes them to connect to their deepest motives for taking my course
  • proactively reaching out very early in the term to fading students to voice my concern and confidence in their ability to succeed
  • including encouragement even in incidental email messages to individual students, e.g., “looking forward to seeing more of your good work!”
  • sending group messages and virtual “badges” congratulating those who’ve remained plugged in. I also share some of my own struggles and strategies with finding life/work balance and invite them to share their own in group discussion
  • signing off with simple, positive messages even in casual news items, e.g., “What a pleasure to work with such smart, capable students!”

It isn’t just cheap flattery. Only rarely do I genuinely doubt a student’s basic capacity to do this mid-level undergraduate work. Rather, like a coach, I’m urging them to access their own wellspring of passion and initiative, to push through the sheer tedium, boredom, isolation and distraction that can make online classes especially rough going for so many.

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Yes, I sometimes feel a little silly and resentful during my most rah-rah moments. This really isn’t what I had in mind all those years ago as I wrestled with my comps and navigated my dissertation defense. But as a university professor in the here and now of 2017, it feels increasingly urgent to me that my students recognize and access their own basic wherewithal. And they certainly can’t fulfill their intellectual promise if they don’t learn to show up in the service of their own goals and commitments. I will be a cheerleader, then, not because I think that’s my job — it is not — but because it’s the only way I know to get the job done.

Can You Hear Me? Martyrs at the Altar of Student Feedback

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I learned that I was supposed to want feedback from my teachers long before I actually wanted it. Like lots of academically successful kids, I had a fragile, “fixed mindset” and so was inclined to interpret anything scented with criticism as a demolition of my very being. I knew, though, that I should want feedback, so as a high school and college student I learned to stuff down my defensive reactivity and nod calmly while the torpedoes landed.

Of course, I learned early on to make changes to my work in response to feedback — enough to show I was paying attention — but the critiques, for better and worse, didn’t really land. I came to adulthood then, and developed into a teacher, on uneasy terms with feedback and having only occasionally been constructively impacted by it. This should be a little shocking given the teacher’s supposedly central role in shaping student learning through skillful critical feedback, but I doubt it will seem strange to most higher ed instructors. How many of us who complete the long road to the professoriate are motivated by praise, and in spite of the occasional critiques?

Why, then, does so much pedagogical discussion about critical feedback assume that students (more or less) want it and that professors (more or less) know how to give it? Discussions I’ve seen about feedback (apart from those of education scholars) are almost always practical in nature, bypassing altogether basic questions about why, when, and if it matters. With this in mind, the online classroom, where all or most feedback is indirect, has become an excellent laboratory for me to explore the issue. In fact, my most recent hypotheses about student feedback arose from my stunning discovery that few of the individualized comments I’d so painstakingly written had ever even been opened. I’ve long known, of course, about the gap between the given and received sides of the feedback loop, but the online set up — I can so easily see when they’ve ignored it — makes some of the lessons more indelible.

Some hypotheses I’ve been toying with:

-Most students don’t really want critical feedback and so the inclination will be to avoid it altogether or interpret it in unintended ways. It may, for example, be understood as merely cosmetic and so barely worthy of attention, or as utterly damning and so too overwhelming to face.

-Even the few who are genuinely open to substantive critical feedback, those who will actually read it, are likely to miss the point. Our weakest areas are magnets for constructive critique, but our lack of expertise in these areas is precisely what makes misunderstandings more likely. If we had an idea of what we were doing wrong, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way in the first place.

-Even as some kinds of individual feedback are probably less valuable than we think — for example, that which relates to specific intellectual competencies, content knowledge, or mechanical tasks — others may be more important. For example, personal notes to students acknowledging their overall intelligence, worth, and belonging in the class can be especially powerful, as can general expressions of concern about their well being when their assignments aren’t done well.

-Offering detailed individual feedback to students is deeply tied to many professors’ sense of themselves as competent and dedicated teachers. It’s common, then, for professors to announce with exhaustion and exasperation how much grading they have, or how much time they spend on each paper. It becomes a badge of both courage and martyrdom, but how helpful this blood, sweat and tears actually is to students sometimes seems to be beside the point.

These tentative conclusions have led me to make several shifts of emphasis in both my online and face-to-face classes:

  • First, I try to more deliberately establish rapport, and a sense of mutual responsibility about grades so that students are more inclined to reach out when real questions arise and to do so effectively. If legitimate concerns come up — and I work with them to distinguish “I don’t like my grade” from “I don’t know why I got this grade” — I need to be confident they’ll reach out to me instead of miring down in resentment and confusion.
  • Second, I rely on increasingly detailed instructions and rubrics (which I’ve despised for decades) to mutually reinforce clear standards and expectations. Since the strengths and weaknesses of student work tend to be more epidemic than idiopathic, providing detailed, but generalizable guidelines makes sense. When students have more specific concerns or complaints, the rubric also serves as shared language between us. For example, when they have questions about a grade, I ask them to take some responsibility for helping me better interpret their work by connecting it directly to the rubric. I’ve come to think that developing such skills of self-evaluation — feedback is no longer merely something I inflict upon them — may be one of the most helpful things I do. It can help transform feedback from a rationalization of a grade I’ve given them to an opportunity for self-reflection about a grade they have earned.
  • Third, I try to keep my own ego and guilt out of it. Inspired by the sign in the janitor’s closet, I aim to work smarter, not harder, and so avoid tapping out “individual” comments that merely repeat what’s in both the instructions and rubric. Above all, as best I can, I fight the temptation to become a feedback martyr, sweating and bleeding over lengthy, individualized comments for no good reason. I will probably never be fully satisfied with what I can give my students, especially these distant souls whom I will never even meet, but I will no longer paper over my anxiety about that under reams of supposedly altruistic feedback.

Is online teaching a path to enlightenment?

My greatest challenge with online teaching has had little do with the obvious difficulty of adapting to the technology. Sure, the first couple of times I bushwhacked my way through, wrestling with features like the maddening grade book set up, drop box restrictions, and feedback release conditions. There are, to be sure, a million and one logistical curve balls to be negotiated, complicated workflows that must be etched into one’s brain because they will never make intuitive sense. But, by far, online teaching’s greatest challenge and opportunity for me has been as a venue for self-scrutiny and reinvention. Perhaps this is just a long way of reiterating that I’m fascinated enough by the link between mindfulness and online teaching to write a blog about it.

So, while my posts are rooted in my practical experience as an online instructor, they are not primarily about online teaching as such. As I explained to a reader recently: “My interests come down mainly to three things: self-reflection, intentionality, and conscious transformation.” Far from being a grueling slog, then, I find online teaching to be tinged with pleasurably narcissistic introspection, like the indulgence of taking a personality quiz in Psych 101. And I’ve learned I must cultivate this kind of curiosity about teaching work if I am to continue to be good at it year after year. Studying my experience of teaching through the lens — microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope — of mindful self reflection keeps it alive, authentic and interesting to me. This apparently practical business of teaching online, then, is, is, for me, a wormhole into a realm that is satisfyingly and sometimes unnervingly psychological and spiritual.

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I’m Buddhist (and existentialist) enough to see that the bare facts of impermanence and death both sculpt and contort our lives. I accept that, in large measure, we carefully construct our ultimately rickety professional and personal identities to serve as bulwarks against angst and despair. No wonder, then, that the seismic changes in higher education have often felt like assaults against the professor’s very sense of self. Whatever the societal devastation being wreaked by the ongoing devaluation of higher education — and it is catastrophic — it has also deeply rattled those of us who have formed our identities within its walls. It took me ages to develop the expertise and poise of a compelling, effective classroom professor. What an insult to have this stripped from me in the name of progress! Teaching online, then, isn’t just a tech heavy, but otherwise benign, modality shift. For many of us — teachers and students — it can radically displace our basic sense of competence, worth, and purpose.

It’s an open secret, of course, that losing the plush or dreary comfort of one’s identity can become a doorway to richly transformative, previously unimaginable futures. I write these posts, then, not primarily as an online teacher offering practical pedagogical advice, but as a professor leveraging the changes in my profession to nurture personal growth. Online teaching is, after all, merely one potential vehicle to where most of us really want to go, a place of service, sure, but one that also satisfies a deeper hunger. If there are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, then here in this futuristic, sometimes dystopic, present, teaching online is surely one of them. If we overlook this invitation, though, then we are like the guests at a great banquet who, having eaten their fill of appetizers in the foyer, never make it to the feast at all.