Why We Need to Stop Using the Phrase “Bulimic Learning”

A short post today, and one with a simple thesis:  It is time to remove the phrase “bulimic learning” from the lexicon of higher education.  The term, which as far as I can tell dates back to the early ’90s, is often used to discuss the common strategy of students cramming for an exam and then spilling as much knowledge as possible during test time.  The popularity of the phrase is evidenced by the fact that it is the subject of a recent book on teaching and learning, a peer-reviewed article from 2010, in educational workshops, and even on websites affiliated with university Centers for Teaching and Learning.  You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that there are many more examples in rather prominent places, which is exceedingly unfortunate.

The frequency with which “bulimic learning” is used is alarming, particularly in a field that strives for inclusivity and empathy.  Referring to any learning strategy in such an offhanded way, of course, minimizes the struggles and the suffering of those who are living with eating disorders.  In this country alone, “20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.”  The fact that more women than men are diagnosed with eating disorders means that there is a gendered component to the phrase “bulimic learning, ” as well, which only adds to our list of reasons to find a different way to talk about the educational phenomenon of cramming for tests.  For example, we could simply say “cramming for tests.”  If we really need a metaphor here, what about the image of a toaster?  Bread goes in, and bread goes out.  The bread is of no actual value to the appliance.  For those who simply must have a biological analogy for studying (though I’m not sure why!), even “regurgitation” would not include as many traumatic connotations.  I still think it’s kind of gross, to be honest, but at least the word is not as stigmatizing as “bulimic.”

In short, let’s show respect and compassion to our students and our colleagues, some of whom may either have an eating disorder, had one in the past, or know someone who has/had one of these diseases.  Let’s find other ways to talk about student learning.


Guest Post: “A Plea for Research, Part 1” by Kisha Tracy

Today’s entry is the third in a series of guest-posts from the roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” that I organized for the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Kisha Tracy and I teamed up on a presentation called “A Plea for Research” as a way to encourage our fellow medievalists (and humanists more generally) to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  What follows is Kisha’s part of the presentation.

Kisha’s Bio:  Kisha Tracy is an Assistant Professor of English Studies, specializing in early British and world literatures, and Co-coordinator of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Fitchburg State University. She received her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2010. She is currently working on two book projects: Why Do I Have to Take This Course? Theory and Practice of Student Investment in Learning and Sins of the Past: Remembering, Forgetting, and Confessing in Middle English Literature. The former considers how we can encourage our students to be more invested in their courses, and the latter explores how the traditional medieval relationship between memory and confession provides a valuable framework for understanding the employment of recollection in various Middle English literary texts.

A Plea for Research, Part 1

Several years ago, a group of colleagues and I secured a grant to study the effect of embedded librarians in first-year composition courses. We were surprised at the definitiveness of the data we collected and decided it was worth publishing. At this time, I was relatively new to the concept of the scholarship of teaching and learning, but this was an excellent opportunity and introduction to this type of research. We wrote it up and were quite pleased with the outcome. Then came the most difficult question and the most enlightening for me: in what order did our names go? We simply stared at each other in confusion. Being mostly humanities scholars, we weren’t used to multi-authored scholarship. We wrote alone or, at the most, with only one other colleague. We had no idea in what order to write our names.  We did eventually figure it out!

For me, this was a moment that brought home the idea that we in the humanities do not work in collaboration nearly as often as we should.  It is time for some transparency with our humanities colleagues. One way is in collaborating on disciplinary research, but collaborating on the scholarship of teaching and learning provides additional opportunities. It makes clear to ourselves and our colleagues what we do in our classrooms, how we teach our subjects. That kind of communication can only improve teaching on a broad scale. Transparent collaboration of this nature also creates clear and consistent messages about the value of studying the humanities and the direct impact that we have upon what students are learning.

Guest Post: “‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’ Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major” by Leigh Ann Craig

Today’s entry is the second in a series of guest-posts from the roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” that I organized for the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Here we have the insightful remarks from Leigh Ann Craig.

Leigh Ann’s Bio:  Leigh Ann Craig is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.  She is the author of Wandering Women and Holy Matrons:  Women as Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages (Brill, 2009), the associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage (Brill, 2009), and is currently in progress on a manuscript entitled Deprived of Sense and Intellect: Demons, Humors, and Diagnoses of Loss of Mind in Medieval Europe, 12140-1500.  She has also been deeply involved in curriculum revision at VCU and is the recent winner of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award.

“‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’  Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major”

We have all heard the same derisive questions from “realists” about the value of the undergraduate degree programs our disciplines offer.[1] My favorite iteration came from a grad school colleague, whose roommate’s father asked him, upon learning he was a History major, whether he planned to one day open a history store.[2] Meanwhile, we have all seen, and many of us have written for, the stream of apologia and outcomes research that seeks to correct these misapprehensions by revealing the flexibility and broad applicability of undergraduate training in the humanities, and the employability and career success of our graduates.[3] We nonetheless meet the same questions in an endless loop. This is both wearying and worrying, especially amid the climate of budgetary scarcity and gently declining enrollments that seem presently to be typical of state institutions like my own.[4] Narrative, as we all know, has a way of becoming reality when it is repeated often enough.

I would like to propose today that our responses to that cultural meme need to be curricular, as well as rhetorical and academic: that we must show rather than tell, and we, the subject-area experts, must do that showing ourselves. Two curricular trends already exist which may be instructive, both of which are usually, in higher-ed circles, tagged as ‘professionalization’ efforts. The first of these is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum which is more and more coming to be appended to graduate programs in the humanities. These programs teach, in a systematic way that was unavailable to me two decades ago, the nuts-and-bolts skills of academic career and project management, and discuss our specialized professional writing formats such as grant applications and job market materials.[5] The second is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum enmeshed within degrees in fine arts, including BFA and MFA programs, whose graduates require a broad set of career and business management skills in order successfully to pursue studio art, professional theatre, and the like.[6] But at the same time, each of these professionalization curricula are apt to consider in a transparent fashion how the skills of a highly specialized area of study might translate to work outside of the pure disciplinary focus of the academy or the art studio.[7] This kind of coursework is now beginning to appear, as an elective offered through careers centers, for use by undergraduate humanities majors, in places like University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas.[8]

My own department is currently debating the possibility of piloting an undergraduate course on Professionalization for the History Major. The goals of the course would be threefold: first, to make explicit connections between the goals and objectives of the History major and the interests and professional goals of the student;[9] second, to facilitate active careers exploration (inclusive of a broad range of speakers from the community); and third, to offer students the skills they need to build the interface between their training and career paths of interest. This would include coursework designed to teach specialized writing skills (such as skills-based resumes, cover letters and personal statements explaining the applicability of their specific education and experience, public history writing, writing for online forums and social media), but also service-learning requirements which would foster interpersonal skills in public speaking, networking, and interviewing, via work in support roles for on-campus events.

(As an aside, I note that it would be hard to simply add this to other standing courses in our current curriculum. While some of these goals might be served in our semester-long internship capstones, but a majority – the critical self-marketing skills, especially – are not. Nor do our internships, grounded in one institution, directly support a broad process of career exploration. Indeed, students might be far better prepared to choose and to apply for internships if professionalization were introduced first. We also lack space for this in our writing-intensive gateway course; I have taught it for a decade and cannot see how this could be embedded within it, given time constraints and its more purely disciplinary goals.)

I have come to ponder whether it might be wise for us to consider not just offering, but requiring such a course for all History majors at VCU, for reasons that are philosophical and pedagogical rather than merely economically pragmatic. I am the parent of a high school junior, and based on her experience I can say with some confidence that by the time they reach us, our students have jumped through many a hoop, badly designed by those far from the classroom. They have rightfully come to understand the process of education, and especially of assessments of learning, to be devoid of applied purpose more often than not. By contrast, I have found that transparency about goals, and about the utility of specific classroom methods I use, is a reliable way to elicit cooperative, and even wry-but-cheerful, engagement from students, even in exercises with the worst reputation for mindless drudgery (see: How to Write A Footnote.) If we can use transparency to our advantage on the level of an individual assignment, it seems to me that a similarly nuts-and-bolts discussion of the professional value of the entire curriculum might help engage students in the process in all of their coursework to a helpful degree. While I cannot guess whether this might lead to improvement in retention and graduation rates, my instincts suggest that it would at very least improve engagement in ways less susceptible to statistical analysis, yet substantively important in the classroom.

And this, I think, is also the reason why humanities faculty should consider offering such courses in our home departments in cooperation with other kinds of specialists, rather than farming the issue out entirely to campus careers centers. We are our own smartest and best advocates, when it comes to explanations of the value of the curriculum we design and implement. The other edge of that sword, of course, is that we are trained medievalists rather than trained professionalization coaches. I myself have not spent a single year outside of academic spaces since I turned four, and I did not apply my two undergraduate humanities degrees outside of structures that were dedicated to pure disciplinary focus. But it seems to me that at that point we must reach for the vaunted autodidacticism and adaptability of the humanities-trained, reach out to our networks to gain the outside expertise we may need, and put it to work. As we consider this possibility at VCU, I would be very interested in the experience of any of my colleagues here with the development or implementation of this type of curriculum, and of discussion of its value.


[1] For a more prominent example, see the comments of Sir James Dyson in 2012. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article3596125.ece. A broader overview may be found in this article from Paul Jay and Gerald Graff’s 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/01/05/essay-new-approach-defend-value-humanities.

[2] With thanks to Dr. Marc Horger, Department of History, The Ohio State University.

[3] See for example Katherine Brooks, “Why Major in History?,” Psychology Today, August 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/career-transitions/201208/why-major-in-history; or Jeffrey Dorfman’s analysis on the excellent return on investment in humanities degrees in Forbes from Nov. 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2014/11/20/surprise-humanities-degrees-provide-great-return-on-investment/#14e395c094a9.

[4] On the nationwide numbers and decline in enrollments, see http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2014/drilling-down-into-the-latest-undergraduate-data.

[5] See curricular info from UCSD at http://humctr.ucsd.edu/graduate-professionalization-series/; see infro from Loyola Chicago here: http://luc.edu/history/stories/archive/professionalizationworkshops.shtml.

[6] See the recent discussion by Eliza Lamb, “Best Practices for Career Preparation in Four Undergraduate Art Programs” (Ed.D. thesis, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 2015).

[7] Lamb, ch. 4, passim; Brooks, “Why Major in History?.”

[8] Brooks’ course at UT Austin has been running in brick-and-mortar space for a decade and is now available online: http://news.utexas.edu/2010/10/07-0. The University of Arkansas course through their Department of English, taught by Dr. Lissette Lopez Szwydky, includes a collaborative blog available at https://theadaptivehumanist.wordpress.com/about/.

[9] For further discussion of this portion of things, see the AHA Tuning Project: https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning.


Guest Post: “Teaching to the Choir” by Cameron Hunt McNabb

I organized a roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” at last week’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, and there was a lot of interest from the audience in having access to the papers read by the panelists.  In that spirit, I will be posting many of those remarks on this blog in the form of guest posts.  Today’s post is by Cameron Hunt McNabb.

Cameron’s Bio:  Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. Her work focuses on medieval and early modern drama, and she has publications in or forthcoming in Pedagogy, Neophilologus, Studies in Philology, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and Early Theatre. She is currently the Director of Southeastern University’s Best Ideas teaching and learning series.


Teaching to the Choir

I’d like to begin by affirming our many current efforts on researching and writing on teaching in the Humanities. I think we have done and are continuing to do a great job marketing ourselves and what we teach to those outside the disciplines. We’ve been selling skills like analytical thinking, problem solving, written and verbal communication, empathy, etc. These sales pitches are incredibly important and need to continue.

But they are for administrators and parents and the general public. They are not for us in the Humanities, who are uncomfortable with the economic language I just used to describe our work (marketing, selling, pitching, etc.) not least because we likely don’t feel like we “bought” anything in the first place. We might be drawn to it, called to it, fascinated or intrigued by it, but whatever it is, it wasn’t a calculated purchase and it didn’t involve phrases like “analytical thinking” or “verbal communication.” I didn’t become an English major, and later an English professor, because of any of those things. I did it because I loved to read. I loved to write. I loved what texts could do. I found them beautiful. And they changed me profoundly.

Many of my English majors feel the same way, as I’m sure most if not all of us in the Humanities do too. We, then, are not the buyers but the choir. And the question then becomes not “How do we sell our teaching to others?” but rather “How do we teach ourselves and our like-minded students? How do we teach to the choir?”

What follows is a preliminary list of a few ways that we might begin or continue to do this kind of teaching.

  1. Teach the texts that converted you

For me, it was Paradise Lost. I was in 10th grade and had this notion that if I was going to be a writer, I should read all of the “classics.” I had heard of the poem but didn’t even know enough to actually call it a poem. I purchased it and the Cliff’s Notes (I felt like it still “counted” even if I had a little help!) and dove in. After months of lonely lunches with Milton in Mr. Boette’s classroom, my life was radically changed. “This,” I thought, “is what I want to do.”

Inspired–or perhaps deluded–by my own powerful experience with the poem, I regularly taught portions of Paradise Lost not only in my early modern courses but also in my gen ed, Intro to Lit class (or, as I like to think of it, Intro to Joining the Choir!). And each year before we’d begin, I’d tell my students, “This will be hard and you may not like it at first. But hang in there. It changed my life and it has the possibility of changing yours.” In turn, students strongly resonated with the poem. Many read it in full on their own. I even had one student sign up for my recently revamped Southern Intro to Lit course and say that she was disappointed at the syllabus because she had heard that we covered Paradise Lost.

2. Confess what didn’t convert you

The flip side to sharing conversion is sharing confession. At the time of my first foray into Milton, I was in a sophomore English class reading Chopin and half a dozen other texts that I don’t even remember. Clearly, these did not resonate with me. I think confessing such experiences is extremely important because Milton won’t convert everyone. Neither will Chopin. So our conversion narratives must always be balanced by a recognition of texts that did not speak to us.

I found such a balance in the co-teaching I did with a Victorianist colleague and friend of mine. He was fairly skeptical of anything that wasn’t a novel, while I didn’t have the stomach for penny-a-word prose. We co-ran a reading group and co-led a study abroad trip, and between these two experiences, we had ample opportunities to explain, defend, and simply dialogue about what drew us to our own fields and what repelled us from others. Our students engaging with us reaped the most benefit: we were able to assure them that they didn’t have to like everything that they read (even if it was a “classic”) and cultivate in them a sense of readerly and literary identity.

3. Don’t be scared to teach relevance

In the past, I have admittedly been wary of a teaching approach that centers on a text’s modern relevance, particularly the medieval and early modern ones I tend to teach. It felt a little like selling out the texts’ intrinsic value for their utilitarian worth and a little like showing Narcissus how to stare in the pool. “Here is how this text is relevant to you” instead of “Here is how this text is maybe kinda trying to say something.”

But slowly I’ve come to realize that one of the things that drew me to literature–one of the things that made Paradise Lost able to radically change my life–was its relevance. Plainly, Milton (and later, the medieval and early modern texts I’ve devoted my life to) asked the same questions I was asking, struggled with the same thoughts I was thinking, and experienced many of the things that I was experiencing. Relevance, I think, opens us up to those moments of conversion. Last year, I had a student from my Milton seminar tell me he read the lament from Lycidas at his twenty-one year old friend’s funeral. More recently and more humorously, my Shakespeare students performed the Shylock-Antonio-Bassanio bond scene in Merchant of Venice as an underhanded Super PAC deal between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders.
As we continue to research and write on teaching in the Humanities, we need to continue considering how to navigate the demands of both the business-model university as well as the devoted choir of students. We must render unto the administration what is the administration’s, but we must also feed the sheep.