What’s Happening with the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award?

The other day I went to the homepage for the well-known and highly-regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award to see if there had been any updates regarding this year’s winners yet.  Rice has some nominees in the mix, and I was a little curious.  I didn’t find any information regarding victors, but I did find an ominous statement greeting me when the website loaded:

The U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program will go on hiatus, beginning in January 2016, as part of a year-long strategic planning process that the Council for Advancement and Support of Education launched in July 2015. Therefore, there will not be a call for nominations in January.

The full statement explaining the hiatus outlines the decision-making process in more detail.

Say what you will about the politics of awards and the ways in which the processes for all kinds of awards can sometimes seem arbitrary, but the CASE/Carnegie program has been extremely important for higher education.  To often the narratives about our profession, and the accolades given within it, are dominated by research.  The U.S. Professor of the Year program has always served to shine a bright, and highly respected, light onto teaching.  By separating candidates into four categories (by type of institution), the program leveled the playing field a bit as well in a way that underscores the kinds of phenomenal teaching that happen across the board in our institutions of higher ed.

All this is to say that I hope this is really a hiatus, and not a discontinuing, of the program.  Higher ed. cannot afford to lose it.

Higher Education’s Empire Strikes Back Moment

Everybody loves The Empire Strikes Back.  Everybody.  I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary; its brilliance as a sequel is without question.  It’s a film that doesn’t try to chase away the dark plot with too much hope.  The ending, in fact, only promises an attempt to make things right, not a guarantee that the heroes will win.

Lately, though, all of the news about higher ed has made me feel like I’m trapped in this film that I so love.  We hear doom and gloom from all corners of higher ed:  colleges closing (and some miraculously reopening) and frightening shouts of The Disruptors that “Things Have Changed,” not to mention the budget cuts as well as the assault on tenure and academic freedom in Wisconsin.  I can almost even hear the foreboding notes of the Imperial March every time I read a new piece about the WI legislature’s bill and omnibus motion that will have devastating effects on the students who attend the fine institutions in the UW System.

Yes, these are dark moments, but I sense a Return of the Jedi (in spirit if not in cinematic quality) on the horizon.  One look at what folks like Kevin Gannon, Sara Goldrick Rab, Chuck Rybak, Lee Skallerup Bessette, Jesse Stommel, and many, many more are saying about higher ed on Twitter is enough to convince me that the right people are working on the problems and that there is, indeed, hope for our future.  Budgets might be cut and changes may be made, but one thing legislators cannot do is alter the fact that there are so many people out there who love everything that universities stand for–teaching, cutting-edge research, freedom of ideas–and it is only a matter of time before the pendulum swings back the other way.

I won’t do anything as silly as casting parts in this scenario, though it is tempting to think of Greg Semenza as Obi Wan Kenobi, but I will say this:  We’ll need fewer C3POs (“We’re doomed!”) and more Han Solos in the days ahead.

The Grief of Pain

1.  Every time I teach a course, I end up learning something from my students. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and—in fact—this intellectual give-and-take is part of what drew me to the profession in the first place. So it was no surprise to me when I began teaching a new course on the films of the Pixar Animation Studio last January to find that their insights were sparking new ways for me to think about these movies. I wasn’t prepared, though, for how much my students would teach me by the time we were finished.

2.  Kariann and I met in 2008. When she asked me out on our first date (yes, you read that correctly), I was wearing an ugly tie. I know it was an ugly tie because she later told me so, although I always point out that this did not stop her from going out on our date. That ugly tie now sits in a box of keepsakes in my closet as a reminder of the most important moment of my life. We were married in 2011 and became the proud parents of a beautiful daughter in 2012.

On December 25, 2014, Kariann woke up with sore arms. At first, she thought she had simply slept in an awkward position the night before, but the pain began to escalate quickly, and we ended up in the emergency room twice by the time the day had ended. Her pain was excruciating, and it was moving too. While her arms continued to feel as if they had been lit on fire, she was starting to feel what she described as electric shocks in her legs too.

Theories were bandied about: perhaps a strange virus, possibly a pinched nerve. One of the ER doctors used the phrase “neuropathic pain.” He told Kariann, “You’ve got it, but we don’t know why.” I had never heard that term “neuropathic” before, but over the next few months I would hear it more than I ever could have guessed.

A few days later, we made it home from my father-in-law’s house in Dallas, where we had been staying for Christmas break, but just barely. On January 1st, Kariann was admitted to the hospital for the first time. Doctors were sure that whatever was wrong involved her nerves in some way, but that’s all they were certain about. They were searching for the root of the problem. The hunt would prove futile; no cause would ever be found. “You’re a mystery,” they told her. We were advised to see our primary-care physician as soon as possible and to get a referral to a good neurologist. “It’s probably just a virus. It should pass soon, but we want to make sure it’s not something else, like MS.”

3.  One of the first films I taught in the Pixar course was Finding Nemo (2003). Moving beyond the movie’s tagline “Just keep swimming” (which had resonated with me long before Kariann’s health issues began but now took on greater significance for me), I wanted to focus in more depth on the journey motif. I had titled this unit “The Hero’s Journey,” and assigned some sections of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for students to read in conjunction with watching the movie. Finding Nemo is more complex than most people give it credit for. It’s The Odyssey set in the ocean, where a father and a son must each make their own journeys in order to better understand themselves and to see one another in a new light. Marlin, whose wife Coral is tragically killed trying to protect their soon-to-be born children at the beginning, must learn to let go of the past so that he can move on with his life and be a better father, free of the paranoia that prevents him from allowing Nemo to grow up. Nemo, too, begins to acquire a greater understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses while at the same time gaining insight into his father’s fallibility. Their journeys intertwine, and the gains in empathy made by the two protagonists are quite poignant.

And yet at the root of it all is the notion of home. My students were particularly astute at drawing out this element of the film. Dory, the friend with short-term memory loss whom Marlin finds along the way, has a beautiful line toward the end of the film when she tells Marlin, “I look at you, and I’m home” (1:23). Like The Odyssey, Finding Nemo is ultimately about the ways in which we reimagine the meaning of home from something that is place-bound to an ideal that becomes tied to the people about whom we care the most.

When I look at you, I am home. My home is wherever you are.

4.  It wasn’t MS. Instead, the verdict was something called peripheral neuropathy—a condition involving severe inflammation of, and often damage to, the nerves in the arms and legs. February and March were horrific. While we got bounced from doctor to doctor, with long periods of time between scheduled appointments, Kariann’s pain grew worse and worse.

In what I will, until my last day, believe to be a violation of the Hippocratic oath, not one but two doctors told Kariann that they wouldn’t prescribe pain medication, that she should, and I quote, “just go to the emergency room if it got too bad.” We didn’t know it at the time, but the federal government had passed a law in October mandating that physicians must apply for a special script pad to write prescriptions for hydrocodone, more commonly known as Vicodin or Norco. Prior to October, it was relatively easy for doctors to prescribe these medicines. Since then, however, it now requires both more effort and greater assumption of risk in order to get patients these medicines. The end result of this is that most doctors need to be certain about a person’s level of pain and committed to helping them get well, but many will not do so because they would be liable if a patient abused the medication.

We were fortunate enough to finally find a neurologist who was not only top notch, but she also believed that Kariann was in excruciating pain. The doctor believed her—I repeat it only because I can’t put in words how monumental that was.

Here is the truth: while those other doctors were busy covering themselves, worried more about their own reputations than about my wife, Kariann was suffering. I have never seen a human being in so much pain before. Her body contorted itself, trying desperately to find any position that would lessen the torture. Her eyes, glazed and darkened, often shifted relentlessly, as if she were silently looking for any way to escape. Her hands, once her most important tools as a professional artist, now struggled to hold utensils during meals. Her only peace came in those few hours when sleep would overtake her.

She was also losing weight quickly—forty-five pounds in four months—and her muscles were atrophied from so much time in bed. There were times when I had to help her move from place to place. I tried to do as much as I could for her, but I felt so completely helpless. I would guess that there must be few things worse than seeing the person you love most in the world suffering and not being able to do anything about it.

One night in March, at the end of a particularly bad week, Kariann called me to her side.

“I want to die,” she said.

“No, honey. No.”

5.  From our unit on heroes’ journeys, we moved to a segment on loss and grief in children’s media. Prior to watching the two primary Pixar films that wrestle with this subject (Toy Story 3 and Up), I asked my students to read A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner for its moving meditation on the loss of childhood.

As I’m sure you’ll remember,* the book ends with Christopher Robin holding Pooh’s hand on the edge of the Hundred Acre Wood as they look “out over the world” (175).** That phrase is repeated several times over the course of the final chapter as a way to emphasize that CR will need to move forward. The Hundred Acre Wood and his friends will take on the new role of fond memories of childhood as he begins to grow up.

Milne writes the scene perfectly. Instead of succumbing to the overt sentimentality into which it would be so easy to lapse, he has CR hesitate, pause, even stumble as he tries to say goodbye to Pooh. Such transitions are monumental, and often ineffable, for children, so this is as honest a portrayal of childhood’s end as I’ve ever read.

Traditionally, the image of CR and Pooh looking outward together has been read as a boy saying farewell to the formative, innocent, playful past, with Pooh standing in as a metaphor for all the wonder childhood holds. My students, however, pushed this reading in new directions. What if Pooh, they argued, also represents Milne himself, or parents more generally? In other words, CR is also telling his parents that he must grow up—time cannot be stopped—but he’ll always remember the happy days when he was a child. Read this way, they showed me that The House at Pooh Corner is as much about being a parent as it is about being a child. The moment shared together by parents and their children is so brief and yet so transformational.

This, of course, made me think about our daughter.

6.  My daughter is a very smart almost-three-year-old. (Yes, I know all parents think their children are smart.) She understands and can articulate that “Mommy is sick” and “I can’t sit on Mommy’s lap today” and “When Mommy is better she’ll be able to pick me up again.” She clearly misses the physical closeness of the relationship they had before Kariann became ill. Kariann misses it too, and though she tries to give as many hugs, kisses, and snuggles as she can, it has clearly taken a toll on both of them.

As primary caregiver now, I spend a lot of time with my daughter. She is my little co-pilot as we go to the grocery store, Target, restaurants, the park, and the humane society so that she can pet the cats and dogs—something she loves to do. I’ve always wanted to be a father, and I have relished the role, so we were close even before all of this happened, but our relationship has grown even tighter in the months since. I’m glad of this; I just wish the circumstances were much different.

One evening when I was giving her a bath, I began to feel overwhelmed by everything. Kariann was having a rough night, and I was mired in worrying about the many things that were on my to-do list. I sat back for a moment and said, “I’m just not sure I can do this tonight.”

My daughter, hair full of shampoo and rubber ducky in hand, looked over at me and said, “You can do it, Daddy.” She is such a strong little girl and—at that moment—I drew my own strength from her.

In fact, the only discernible emotional or psychological effect that Kariann’s illness seems to have had on my daughter has to do with her sleeping patterns. Prior to that fateful Christmas day, she had always been a good sleeper. In fact, we’ve been very fortunate in that regard. Since, though, she has woken up and called out for me somewhere between two and seven times nearly every single night. As you can imagine, this has cut into my sleep a little bit, and she often doesn’t want anything other than to have her blanket rearranged. At times, I confess that I have succumbed to frustration because of the wake-ups, but I recognize that this is about feeling comfort and reassurance for her. In the end, it’s the least I can do.

7.  The semester went on, as semesters are wont to do. I just tried to hang in there with my students, knowing that I was only partly there with them. The rest of me was back at home with Kariann. Despite everything, she still found a way to teach her first-year writing seminar every Tuesday and Thursday morning at Rice. I would drop her off at the classroom door and pick her up again right afterwards. Even in the midst of agony, she made it a priority to help those students. Now that, folks, is courage. My wife is my hero.

Finally, though, at the end of April, the pain became too much. Kariann’s neurologist admitted her to the hospital. She was there for five days, and her sister came to help us out. I took off work so that she wouldn’t be lonely. Having once spent ten days in a hospital, mostly by myself, I know how lonely it can be. I didn’t want her to be without someone, so her sister and I were there with her as much as we could be.

Teams of neurologists, pain specialists, occupational and physical therapists, and dieticians were in the room often. Eventually, through a combination of a head-spinning number of medications, they were able to bring the pain down a notch. Few of them had seen a case of neuropathy where the patient was in as much pain as Kariann was in. To contrast the distinct lack of empathy I had witnessed from doctors early in the ordeal, I witnessed some moments of extraordinary compassion for her during this stay. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Kariann came home in less pain, but it is still debilitating a lot of the time. A biopsy taken just a few days before she went into the hospital clarified a final diagnosis—small fiber peripheral neuropathy. Most of the nerves in her arms and hands were completely blown, and some didn’t even exist any more. This is a chronic illness with no cure and only a very small chance of remission.

Suddenly, things became clear for both of us. This was not just a crisis that we could make our way through and then exit on the other side. This would be with us for a long time, maybe always.

I was a wreck the next day and had a hard time concentrating on anything else. We talked for a bit about it that night, but it was all still too big to put into words.

She tried to do so: “You can marry someone else if you want to.”

“Never,” I said.

8.  There have been moments in the classroom where students’ insights have hit so close to home that it has taken me aback. During the course of studying Up (2009) this semester, I had one of those moments.

Up is a film predominantly concerned with grief and the struggle to come to terms with loss. From the opening fifteen minutes*** to Carl’s last view of his house falling from the sky, we are confronted with the devastation of his grief for his wife Ellie as well as the messy, illogical process of grieving.

We spent an entire day in class discussing Carl’s journey floating to Paradise Falls in a house covered with balloons as an allegory for the grieving process. Students deftly analyzed the various scenes with the house as they relate to Carl’s grief. First, he travels in the house itself, consumed by all of the memories of Ellie that surround him. Later, after he lands in Paradise Falls, he attaches himself to the house so that it does not fly away. Though he is beginning to process his grief, he is still tethered to it. It takes the length of the film, and his newfound friendship with Russell (who is himself dealing with grief over his severed relationship with his father), for Carl to gain a new perspective.

The problem is that, throughout the film, Carl continually thinks he failed Ellie while she was alive. Yes, they had been happy, but they never had children, and they never made it together to Paradise Falls. It is only after he looks again at Ellie’s adventure book and turns a key page that he realizes their life together had, in fact, been the journey that she had always craved. In what is perhaps the most moving moment of the film, he sees a note from her asking him to begin a new adventure.

Some of the students who wrote papers on Up moved from this scene to an interpretation that stopped me in my tracks. Carl, they noted, comes to understand that overcoming grief is not about forgetting the past ever happened, thereby erasing what had come before. Instead, the process of grieving is meant to teach us how to fashion a new life in altered circumstances —  one that is not less meaningful, just different. The life after grief is not a shadow of what might have been, nor is it second best. The life after grief runs parallel to the life abandoned, and it is as full of beauty and tragedy as any other of the many lives we might have lived. 

9.  And so, like Carl, we are working together to turn a new page, to imagine a new life for our family—one in which we do not ignore the reality of Kariann’s illness but at the same time do not let it define our future. This is much easier to say than it is to do. How do we begin then? We are trying to make each day as good as it can possibly be without thinking too much about the bigger picture just yet. From there, I think we just keep swimming.

*Note: If you’ve never read The House at Pooh Corner, please do yourself a favor and read it as soon as possible! It’s funny and wise and sad and beautiful.

**Quotations are from the Dutton Children’s Books edition (New York: Penguin, 2007).

***Can anyone among us make it through that opening montage without getting misty?

****A version of this post is now available on medium.com. Thanks to all who have shared and commented on this essay!

Just Keep Swimming: A Semester of Teaching Pixar

Sometime during July of 2013, I was distracting myself from a writing project by scrolling through Facebook, when I started to see a bunch of my friends sharing a new piece by writer Jon Negroni called “The Pixar Theory.”  Since publishing his essay, Negroni has fleshed out the timeline a bit further, created a video describing the theory, built a website devoted to the theory, and is reportedly working on a book centered on the theory.  Essentially, Negroni argues that all of the films in Pixar’s body of work exist in the same universe and are contributing a small piece of a much larger story.

To be frank, I disagree with much of the Pixar Theory, in large part because I think it takes leaps of logic that are simply not possible without the presence of direct evidence.  For many of these points, such evidence either does not exist or has yet to be found.  Most of all, Jay Ward–the Art Department Manager at Pixar for 9 years–has indicated that not only was this sort of conjoined timeline never intended by the studio, but also the films were made over so many years by so many different people that it’s just not feasible to think that they fit into this sort of elaborately conceived schema.

Lest it be said of me that I have rained upon everyone’s Pixar parade, I will admit that Negroni’s idea is a cool one and some of his evidence (like the easter egg in Brave) is very, very intriguing.  What the piece ultimately did for me that July was to convince me that there was enough commonality among the films to teach an integrated course on Pixar.  I knew it would take some time, so I started collecting films and planning the course.  Finally, this semester I launched my first-year writing intensive seminar called The World According to Pixar.

My students have been fantastic, and I have enjoyed teaching the course immensely.  They have adopted the mantra of Dory in Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming!”) as they have worked through essays, blog posts, reading responses, and Twitter assignments. Final projects, with presentations, are due on May 2nd.  Students will either be responding in depth to Negroni’s theory or creating their own unified theory with respect to the ways in which the larger body of Pixar films work together to forge a broader commentary about the world.** What I have loved most about the course, though, is the excitement felt by students as they have been constructing a new body of knowledge.  Beyond blog posts, movie reviews, and the occasional essay, there is not much at all written about the Pixar films, so students have been creating their own field of inquiry as the semester has unfolded.  I’m grateful to them for the terrific intellectual journey we have all shared.

Below I describe what are, for me, some of the highlights of the course–ideas, discussions, and new ways of viewing the films that I think are fascinating and significant:

Highlights from the Finding Nemo/Incredibles Unit (Supplemental text: selections from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

One day we spent an entire class period discussing one student’s hypothesis that the bulk of Finding Nemo is largely a narrative constructed by Marlin in his mind to cope with the loss of his wife and children. At first, I thought “No way,” but I wanted them to understand the process that scholars undertake when we evaluate arguments, so we looked at 1) evidence that might support this reading; 2) potential pitfalls; and 3) the kinds of evidence we would still need to find to make it work.

I wouldn’t say I was completely convinced by the end of class, but I began to find the argument much more plausible. Some of the evidence they came up with:

  • Nemo is Latin for No one/Nobody/No name (I helped on this one). Thus, the title is literally, “Finding No One.” We also considered the Captain Nemo connection, of course, and one student even pointed out that the letters “nemo” are found in the middle of “anemone,” which is where Marlin builds the home for his family.
  • There is a break in the film after the barricuda knocks Marlin unconscious and another one after he discovers the death of his family and the lone surviving egg.
  • Dory appears out of nowhere in true “deus ex machina” fashion. She can never remember Nemo’s name and often has no idea why they are going on a journey. She does, however, seem to exist to provide Marlin help when he most needs it, particularly in the emotional realm.
  • When trapped in the belly of the whale, Dory, ostensibly translating whale-speak to Marlin in reference to their physical predicament, has the poignant line, “He said it’s time to let go. Everything’s going to be alright.”
  • Once you start down this path, the entire ending changes a bit. There’s far too much to explore in this brief space, but Nemo and Dory are never in the same physical space once they all return to the anemone, and there is an inexplicably serious moment where Nemo and Marlin say good-bye to each other.

For The Incredibles, we began by exploring the historical, religious, and socio-cultural significance of superheroes. As a case study, we looked at the evolution of Superman and the range of interpretations of his character. We then unpacked one of the images from “The Death of Superman” and discussed why the demise of superheroes often creates such a buzz in popular culture. We used all of this as a backdrop for our discussion of the film and its use of superheroes.

We also discussed Brad Bird’s (the director’s) explanation of the ways in which the Parrs’ superpowers are both assets and also metaphorical reflections on their characters, e.g., Violet’s powers of invisibility and force fields reflecting teenagers’ desires and emotional responses to the world.

We even had a great conversation about the film’s exploration of nostalgia and the role the past plays in shaping our identities. Bob, for example, is trapped in the past to the detriment of his family life; Helen, on the other hand, refuses to think about the past, thereby cutting off an important part of her identity.

Highlights from the Toy Story 3/Up Unit (Supplemental texts: A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking)

For our unit on grief and loss in children’s literature and media, we used Up and Toy Story 3 as our primary texts, but we added the supplemental texts listed above for context.

In the course of our discussions, students argued that The House at Pooh Corner and Toy Story 3 fundamentally say the same things about the loss of childhood, but because Andy is older in TS3, we are able to come to more of a resolution at the end of the film. Christopher Robin can only hesitate, stop, pause, redirect at the end of the book. They suggested that this is because he is much younger than Andy, so the momentous transition from childhood is ineffable for him, while Andy can articulate exactly why saying goodbye to Woody and others is so hard. Also, the more serious adventures in TS3, including the possibility of the toys’ destruction in the fire, mirror Andy’s internal struggles as he matures and gets ready to leave home.  As a bonus, the last thing we see in TS3 is Andy’s car driving off to college and then we get a shot of the blue sky, which is exactly the image with which the first Toy Story began. Brilliant.

Side note:  When you get a chance, watch Toy Story 3 again and take note of the look on Woody’s face early in the film when he hears Andy answer the phone. Unexpectedly poignant.

Then we turned to Up and mapped out, shot for shot, the ways in which Carl’s journey with his house in Up serves as an allegory for his efforts to overcome the loss of Ellie. Students were particularly drawn to the house, and the changes it undergoes, as a symbolic key.

One element of the film that we kept coming back to was Russell’s comment that it’s “the boring things” about his time with his dad (before his dad moved out) that he’ll remember.  This resonated with many in the class, and it may very well be these “boring things” that serve as the foundation for our most cherished memories.

Highlights from the WALL-E Unit (Supplemental texts: Edward Humes’s Garbology:  Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” from Walden, and Genesis from the Hebrew Scriptures)

Easily the jewel in the Pixar crown, WALL-E was a gold mine for class discussion.  We looked at the film through the lenses of environmentalism and philosophy, but we also paid some attention to the religious allusions in the film.  By this point in the semester, students had fine-tuned their skills in criticism, and I was very impressed with their readings of the movie as both a dire warning about our habits of consumption, while at the same time being a kind of love letter to humanity, suggesting that even with our flaws and wasteful behaviors there will always be something redeeming about the human spirit.

I am teaching the course again next semester, and I look forward to the insights those students will bring to the material.  There is always something about the first run of a course, though, and I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come.

**Jon Negroni has been good enough to agree to Skype in for our presentations to talk about his Pixar Theory and to give feedback on my students’ interpretations.

A Crisis of Bread: A Thinly-Veiled Satire

Joe:  I’m worried about bread.

Sue:  That seems arbitrary.  And odd.  Why?

Joe:  Bread is tasty.

Sue:  No, why are you worried about it?

Joe:  Oh, right.  I think there maybe a crisis in the bread industry.  Fewer people seem to be buying bread now than they did a few decades ago.  This clearly suggests to me that the entire industry is going to crumble.  Crumble–get it?

Sue:  Yes, your wit is impeccable.  But your facts are not.  I just saw some data that suggest there are far more bread buyers, bread bakers, and bread corporations now than there were in 1948.(1)

Joe:  Hmm.  But now there are so many more options!  You have pitas and wraps, for example.  Surely these are drawing away some of those who might otherwise have bought bread in the past.

Sue:  Although pitas and wraps are delicious alternatives, just over 10% of carbohydrate consumers are still bread purchasers, which is ever so slightly higher than the percentage in 1987. Surely you would concede that there are more potential purchasers of bread now than there were then, so the 10% in 2013 actually represents a far larger number than the 1987 figure did.(2)

Joe:  I’m confused.

Sue:  I thought you might be.  In the intervening years, the numbers of bread purchasers actually exceeded 12% and held steady for decades–until the recent economic collapse.  A dip over the last few years, though, does not quite amount to the kind of crisis narrative that we are being sold, however.

Joe:  So bread is safe then?

Sue:  There is no doubt that the political waters remain dicey for bread.  Funding for national grant programs in bread-baking continues to be cut.  But can you imagine a world without sandwiches or croutons?  No!  People will always want these things, and they will want folks who know about bread to be baking them.

Joe:  But I’ve even heard about this crisis from the bread bakers themselves.

Sue:  The bread bakers are feeding into the rhetoric by buying into it themselves.  What if they stopped listening and just continued to make the best bread in the world as if there were no perceived crisis?  What if, in fact, they countered this discussion by demonstrating the value of bread through their output and through teaching the public just how good bread can be?

Joe:  That seems pretty radical.

Sue:  Really?  I’m not so sure about that.

Joe:  What about the bread companies that have been shut down because of poor revenue and lack of buyers?

Sue:  We certainly mourn their losses, but those decisions were more likely the result of  CEOs who were concerned about the limited number of purchasers in local bread-buying markets rather than a large-scale devaluing of the nutritional benefits of bread.

Joe:  Important folks are always joking about how silly it is to study the art of baking bread.  Doesn’t that have a lasting impact?

Sue:  Lots of people say lots of things, but it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread.

Joe:  Where do gluten-free products fit into all this?

Sue:  I’m not sure we can stretch this rather poor attempt at an analogy that far.  It’s already gone on long enough.

Joe:  You can say that again.(3)

(1) http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=34

(2) http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/binaries/pdf/HI_HigherEd2015.pdf. Page 8.

(3) In case it is not abundantly clear, I hate this kind of corporate-speak, and I don’t think higher ed should be treated like a business, which is why this kind of example is so revealing for the national discourse about the humanities.

What in the World Is Happening in North Carolina?

You may have heard about the current witch hunt fiscal deliberations happening right now in North Carolina.  As the New York Times reported a few days ago, the university system’s Board of Governors has been considering significant budget cuts for institutionally-affiliated centers for several months.  The list began with approximately 240 centers and by December a special task force had cut it down to the 34 that the board was considering for closure.  Ultimately, the full board will vote on a proposal to close 3 of the centers and to subject the rest to further review.

On the list from the beginning, and landing in the final proposal as well, is UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE).  In fact, there are three centers focusing on education that are on the list of 34, but–as someone whose professional life is intertwined with teaching and learning in higher education–I am particularly appalled at the inclusion of the highly regarded CFE on this list.  Although I am never surprised when conservative politicians slash public funding for higher education (as we’ve seen recently with Wisconsin and Illinois), it is amazing to me that the Board of Governors would even consider putting on the chopping block a center focused on effective teaching at their flagship campus.  When will they realize that teaching is at the heart of everything that happens at the university?  To see teaching as something that only happens in the classroom is to discount all of the co- and extra-curricular activities that help to shape the successful lives and careers of college students.  Even more, it ignores the very real pedagogical value of research.  After all, we do not simply create new knowledge through research; we seek to communicate its value and importance to others.

Centers for teaching and learning have come under threat quite a bit lately.  Yes, overall the field is growing, but we have recently lost centers at Endicott College and Western Kentucky University.  Both of these centers fell victim to budget cuts that were confined to their own campuses.  Still, their losses were deeply felt by all of us who work in CTLs nationwide.  The CFE is being threatened by a larger-scale effort to dismantle public education, though, and I believe we must be vigilant.  If we cannot even make the case to others that effective teaching is an essential part of the mission of our colleges and universities, what can we do?  I don’t have easy answers for this, but I do think that we need to publicize the great work our centers do more prominently and that we need to improve with respect to telling our story and communicating our value.  What do you think?  How can we do better?

A Multiplicity of Voices: My Reflection on Rice’s De Lange Conference

It has been just over two weeks since we wrapped up the De Lange Conference at Rice University, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the questions raised by the event.  The planning committee, of which I was a part, knew that we wanted to tackle some major issues relating to “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow,” and I think we succeeded in doing so.  If nothing else, we turned over a few stones in order to start important conversations, although this inevitably meant that we also left other substantial issues underexplored.

I’m very proud of the event and all of the work my colleagues did to put it together.  The program for the conference combined keynotes by well-known figures in the world of higher education such as William Bowen, Ruth Simmons, Nancy Cantor, Roddy Roediger, and Stephen Kosslyn (among others) together with break-out sessions on pedagogy featuring folks like Derek Bruff, James Lang, Jose Bowen, as well as some of our finest faculty at Rice.  Moderators for the event were Jeff Selingo, Caroline Levander, and George Rupp.

The conference was strengthened by the inclusion of five social media fellows–Kelly Baker, Jason Jones, Dorothy Kim, Ben Railton, and Liana Silva–who worked hard to create a robust conference backchannel on Twitter at #delange9.  They were joined by others who were either attending the conference or who were following the hashtag from afar, including Jennifer Ebbeler.  The discussions on Twitter were boisterous and incisive, skeptical but persuasive. (Full disclosure: I not only personally invited the social media fellows but was an active participant in the backchannel as well.)  Many of Team Twitter, as I like to affectionately think of them, have already written about the event.  Ben, for example, has a wonderful series of blog posts; Kelly wrote a thoughtful critique for Vitae; and Jason wrote two nice pieces for ProfHacker, one of which dealt specifically with the conference’s use of Twitter.  There have even been two articles written by people who weren’t in attendance at the event but were following online–one by Elliot King and the other by Jonathan Rees.

With all of this commentary already available, I won’t belabor the details.  What I’d like to focus on is a holistic assessment of the conference.  Much has been said about the ways in which the tone of the keynotes was very different from the breakouts and from the backchannel.  I think this is fair, and–in many ways–was intentional.  Although there were common threads recurring throughout the event, it would be difficult to see the conference as having a unified vision for the future of higher education, because such a thing is not yet possible to achieve given our different institutional contexts, politics, etc.  Attendees and speakers were sometimes diametrically opposed in their philosophies regarding the purpose of universities.  There was no better example of this than the final panel where audience members put pressure on speakers to address the issue of contingent faculty.

Here is my main takeaway:  this kind of disagreement is not only okay, but it is vital.  This is the nature of academic debate.  Some of the commentary on and offline expressed either a kind of surprise that such a gulf in perspectives would exist or an outrage directed at one side or the other of the debate about teaching and learning.  I’m glad the conference evoked this response, because we wanted the event to mean something. How boring and unproductive it would have been if everyone at De Lange had said and thought the same thing as if we were in some sort of echo chamber.  Ultimately, we can only really build a future for higher education if we acknowledge many different perspectives, put them on the table for honest dialogue, and work together.  The conference brought together people–speakers, workshop facilitators, writers, commentators, and (most importantly) teachers–who I think can take important steps in this direction.

It is perhaps most valuable, then, to view the De Lange Conference as the sum of its parts, and I said as much on Twitter, as Jason notes in his ProfHacker post.  I think the legacy of the conference will be that we asked the tough questions via a multiplicity of voices and through a variety of media.  We didn’t arrive at any answers yet, but there will be time for that…


Lessons from a Toy: New (to me) Research on Pedagogy and Cognition

Now that the summer has brought with it the slowing-down that is the hallmark of the academic calendar at this time of year, I have found some time to work on my book that explores the ways in which understanding the biological basis of learning* can benefit those of us who teach in the Humanities (the book proposal can be found here).  As I was doing some research the other day, I came across a fascinating article from 2011.

In it, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy.  In the first group,

the experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and demonstrated the same action again. (325)

In the second group, the experimenter began the same way but interrupted herself before the second, reinforcing demonstration of the squeaking function and left to attend to other matters.  For the third group, the experimenter appeared to suddenly discover the toy, wondered aloud about how the toy worked, and “accidentally” discovered the squeaking.  The reinforcement demonstration was completed in this condition.  Finally, in the fourth group, the experimenter simply showed the toy to the children and walked away.  As the researchers note, “In all conditions, the experimenter then said, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?  I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works.  Let me know when you’re done!'”

Can you guess where we’re headed here?

The first group–the one where the children were intentionally instructed as to the function of the toy–played with the toy for less time and did less with the toy than all of the other groups.  They explored less and tried out fewer possibilities.  The results, in fact were not only statistically significant but impressively so (326).**

The researchers suggest that direct instruction, while valuable for conveying specific information, had a negative effect on the desire to find out new information.  Part of this may have to do with the cues given by teachers that point out significant information.  As proponents of natural pedagogy point out, though, this response may also be evolutionary.  Human beings, that is, may be hard-wired to process information from teacher figures in ways that are the most advantageous for accomplishing essential tasks.

I was drawn to this article because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Certainly, these findings would add to the recent (and not so recent) mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of lecturing straight through from the beginning to the end of class.  But might it not also suggest that presenting only one possible side to or perspective on an issue, even in discussion-based courses, contributes to shutting down our students’ innate curiosity and desire to research a question further?

In the end, higher ed’s lesson from the toy might be this:  relying too heavily on direct instruction may be good for teaching to the test but not for our students’ learning overall.


*Many thanks to Christina Petersen who, in a recent email exchange, convinced me that “biological basis of learning” is much more appropriate and accurate than “brain-based learning,” which is the more common nomenclature.

**There was a second part to the experiment, too, that involved the ways in which the children processed instruction directly from adults, indirectly from adults, and from children that would make for another post entirely.


Saying Goodbye to Medieval Studies (for now, at least)

Every May I attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.  It is both a chance to engage with the field that captured my mind and my heart almost 15 years ago, and also (even more importantly) to reconnect with some very dear friends of mine.  This year’s conference will be a bit different for me, though, as it marks–at least for the foreseeable future–an ending point to my career as a medievalist.

Three forces have converged to lead me to this ultimately inevitable realization:

1. Quite simply, my research interests are changing.  I do have two books under contract, but neither of them has to do with the Middle Ages.  One focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning and the other on disability in the Oz narratives.  When I have time to write, I tend toward my interests in pedagogy and in children’s literature now.  This is certainly not a bad thing, but it definitely marks a new direction for me as a scholar.

2.  Logistically speaking, my opportunities to teach medieval courses are very limited.  I do facilitate graduate seminars on teaching, and I also teach in Rice’s wonderful Program in Writing and Communication, but a course on medieval literature will be rare to say the least.  I miss teaching Chaucer above all else, as I have seen many students utterly transformed by their study of the poet.

3.  As a full-time administrator, I have not been able to find the time to keep sharp the kinds of skills you need to be a successful medievalist: language study, paleography, etc. When it comes to staying current on the latest research in journals and books, I again have found myself doing so with the teaching and learning literature, but less so with medieval scholarship.  This, more than anything else, has been a signal to me.

When I moved from my faculty position into administration, I knew that there was potential for some of this to happen.  What I didn’t expect was how much my research interests would shift and–quite frankly–how hard it would be to find ways to teach medieval courses.

So, what now? I will still attend Kalamazoo every year.  In addition to seeing those aforementioned friends, I still wish to organize and moderate panels for the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages.  It is important to me to see this small field thrive and to give a platform for scholars who are asking important questions about the subject.  I won’t be producing new research in the area, though.  That is a somewhat bittersweet acknowledgment, but an important one nonetheless.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work done by my students in the medieval courses I have taught over the years (especially those at Columbus State University in Georgia), and I am grateful for the time that I spent deeply embedded in this field if for no other reason than it allowed me to meet some of the most important people in my life.  It’s time now, though, to see where these new paths are going to lead me.  I may someday return to my medieval work, but I’m just not sure.  I’ll always keep a weather eye on what’s happening in Medieval Studies in order to celebrate the great work of all those who devote themselves so completely to this wonderful field.

Before I end this post, I want to say one more thing:  medievalists often get a bad rap as being intellectually myopic or solitary scholars or even out of touch with other disciplines.  I have rarely ever found any of these to be true.  For me, the spirit of Medieval Studies will always be embodied by the time I spent as a graduate student in the Charles A. Owen, Jr. library at the University of Connecticut learning and laughing with Frank Napolitano, Andy Pfrenger, John Sexton, and Kisha Tracy. We shared our work, hashed out our ideas, and–through this field–grew as scholars, teachers, and individuals.  I can’t think of anything that better captures the generous spirit of Medieval Studies and those who work within it.