In Response to Barbara J. King

On 1 February 2018, Barbara J. King’s “Would College Students Retain More if Professors Dialed back the Pace” appeared on NPR.org. In the piece, King asks whether or not “slow teaching”–described in the text as spending a full course on a single text, concept, or small set of concepts–would allow students to engage more deeply with materials and thereby learn them better. She arrives at the question–and something of an answer to it–through reflecting on her own experience of reading and not retaining what is read, of reading an Atlantic piece by Julie Beck and stumbling onto a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Paula Marantz Cohen shortly thereafter, and reading a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber that discusses a phenomenon similar to that King herself addressed in 2016. Her regard for the practice is clear throughout, although she cites Cohen and presents herself as having questions about how broadly applicable the technique is.

The idea of slow teaching is a good one, and one that has informed seminars in which I have participated. In some ways, it is at the root of dissertation writing, at least in my field, where spending months and years with a single text is not at all uncommon. Yet I know that my experience as a student has not been the norm, and that in the teaching I have done, I have not had the luxury of orienting my classrooms around such a framework. As part of the precariate faculty, usually lacking full-time status and always absent tenure protections, I have in almost all my classes been obliged to follow specific assignment sequences. That is, I have had to have my students write æ number of papers or cover ð years of literature, or þ works in ƿ genres, and not seldom with the demand that the assignments come in at specified points in the term. And I know I am not alone in facing those demands; I was one of many who labored under them at a Big 12 school, and I am one who faces such things again at the for-profit for which I currently teach.

The practice, then, comes off as do many that get discussed by those secure in tenure or in retirement. The idea is a good one, but it is one that demands certain luxuries of position to be able to enact. I and my peers at the margins of academe do not have those luxuries; we are not the masters of our classrooms, the determiners of our curricula. And I and my colleagues–presently, at the for-profit, and previously, at a land-grant school that explicitly claims workplace readiness as part of its mandate, cannot avoid the “corporate-style focus on rush-rush productivity” King is not wrong to decry. Nor can we reasonably expect that our students, most of whom claim job placement as their reason for going to college, will welcome something that does not seem to help them get jobs–and the productivity model seems more likely to help with that getting than the slow teaching model King prizes. (Insofar as any teaching is helpful to that end, about which there is no shortage of disagreement, albeit not all well informed.) Perhaps with the kind of students who can afford, or believe they can afford (rightly or wrongly), to slow down from the rush of trying to survive the present to get to a better future, taught by faculty who have the support of their institutions to do such things, slow teaching would be a good thing–but my students are not in that position, and neither am I.

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Since I Have It to Do Again–For at least One It…

Not too long ago, I made a post to this webspace in which I noted the perils of “If I had it to do again” and laid out what I might do if ever I did. Also not too long ago, I made a post noting that I received another teaching assignment from the small bit of academe in which I remain. As I thought about the latter, the former came to mind, and, since I have it to do again in at least one small area, I figured I ought to give some thought to how I would do it.

Now, for some context: the class that I was assigned is a second-semester composition class. Students enrolled in it are supposed to have completed the first-semester class, so they should have some introduction both to the college environment and to how college-level writing (a term which is nebulous at best) or academic writing works. The second-semester class is supposed to build upon that introduction, traditionally culminating in a conference-length paper (i.e., eight to ten pages of double-spaced, 12-point text, or some 2,600 to 3,250 words, plus references). At the school where I am assigned the class, the paper emerges from a series of assignments that center around a set of general topics from which the students are asked to select one–and therein lies the problem.

The issue is not necessarily in the assignment sequence itself. While it could be improved upon (as everything can), it is reasonable and seems to work decently. What the issue is is the selection of topics. For one, they are too broad, requiring students to do more work to narrow their focus than most who sit for the class are equipped to do–even with explicit, targeted coaching and prompting. For another, they are supposed “high interest” topics such as dieting and gun control, topics which have been exhaustively detailed and on which no real progress in discussion has been made in the United States that I have seen. Worse, they are topics with which most of my students–adults who already have formed and largely set opinions–do not engage with, having little stake in them. They end up parroting media talking points rather than actually generating new thoughts and trying to create new knowledge, largely because they do not feel they are in a position to do so.

Because the topics are promulgated by the school as standards, I shall continue to accept them, of course. I can hardly not. But what I will do, since I do have it to do again, is suggest to my students, strongly, that they take up an alternative topic, one in which they have some investment and engagement–and one with which I have had success with students in the past (such as here). In effect, I will ask my students to look at their curricula, identify one major change that needs to be made, and argue why that change is the change that needs to be made. As such, the students will have a topic with which they have direct involvement, which is a motivating factor; they will have a narrow topic, which allows for detailed work and more sustained argument; and they will have a directly discernible audience, which will allow both for analysis of that audience and more effective address thereof.

I’ll be working up materials in more detail, of course, but I know that the students will have easy recourse to primary source material (their own course catalogs and other schools’), secondary source materials (the contents of ERIC come to mind, as does the Occupational Outlook Handbook, particularly since most or all of my students seek their degrees specifically for job prospects and career advancement), and tertiary/critical sources (namely accreditation requirements and theories of education both academic and popular). And I know that at least one student will argue that the composition course requirements should be lightened or eliminated–there always is at least one–and I have a wealth of information about that particular line of inquiry for reasons that I think are obvious.

Not many people get the chance to do things again, I know. I have been lucky in that I have been given the opportunity, and more than once. (I am less lucky in that I have also blown it more than once, but that’s another matter, entirely.) I mean to seize upon this opportunity; I hope that it will lead to a good end.

More Early Comments for the March 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

Not long ago, I made a few comments about the March 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, noting with appreciation that I had been offered a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition. I have been at work developing materials for that class, and I am happy with how things are proceeding in that line.

I am also happy to note that I have been offered another class, one I have not yet taught at the institution, although it is similar to one that I have taught elsewhere–namely SPCH 217: Public Speaking. From what I have seen of the course so far, it is similar to the HUM 110 class I taught at the now-defunct Technical Career Institutes, so that while it has been some time since I taught such a class, I am not coming into it all unaware of what I need to do and what I need the students to do. Materials are on their way to me now, so that much is to the good, and I look forward to seeing how I can make things better.