Sunday, August 17, 2014

What the Best Teachers and Professors Do: Talk to their Students and Tell Their Own Stories, Too

I love this excerpt from Wiliam Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep (published on

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.
What they want, in other words, is mentorship. I remember just how starved I was for that myself in college. I saw how starved my students were: for validation, for connection—for (let’s not be shy of saying it) parental figures other than their parents. Not only is there nothing wrong with that desire, it is a necessary part of growing up. Other cultures—Jewish, Indian, East Asian—with their veneration of the teacher, recognize as much. In South Korea, so I’m told, par­ents warn their children that if they don’t stop misbehaving, they’ll tell their teachers. But in America, we’re not so sure. We are posses­sive of our kids, jealous of other influences upon them. But in The Path to Purpose, William Damon talks about the critical importance of outside adults in helping young people find their way. And Mark Edmundson remarks, while acknowledging the inevitable sadness for the parents who are left behind, that “it almost seems the natural order of things that children will leave their families and strive to put themselves under the influence of other guides ... more attuned to their rising hopes.”
I heard a colleague give a presentation once on how to keep your office hour meetings under seven minutes. Sessions should be coming in. So far, so good: Instructors certainly need to manage their time. But then she said, “Anything beside their work, I don’t talk to them about. I don’t offer psychological advice for the same reason that I wouldn’t let a therapist grade their papers.”
It was a clever line, but it bespoke a common misconception about the kind of guidance that a mentor gives. You do not talk to your students; you listen to them. You do not tell them what to do; you help them hear what they themselves are saying. You ask the kinds of questions that Lara Galinsky talks about as being im­portant at times of decision—those “why” questions that help peo­ple connect with what they care about. Most advisors just tell you what courses to take, a student at Brown remarked to me, but the best ones “help you to think in a different way about the choice.” As Harry R. Lewis suggests, a mentor looks for the questions behind the questions their advisees ask. “The most important job of the advisor,” he writes, “is to help students understand themselves, to face and take responsibility for their decisions, and to support and to free them to make choices that are at odds with the expectations others have for them.” Students look to mentors—figures “more at­tuned to their rising hopes”—to give them what their parents won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid.
Lewis speaks of professors in their formal roles as academic advisors, but regardless of whose office they’re supposed to go to, students gravitate toward teachers with whom they have forged a connection. Learning is an emotional experience, and mentorship is rooted in the intimacy of intellectual exchange. Something important passes between you, something almost sacred. Socrates remarks that the bond between a teacher and a student lasts a lifetime, even once the two have parted company. And so indeed it is. Student follows student, and professors know that even those with whom they’re closest now will soon decline to names in an address book, then at last just distant memories. But the feelings that we have for the teachers or the students who have meant the most to us, like those for long-lost friends, can never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will meet again.
For all the skill that teaching involves, you ultimately only have a single tool: your entire life as you have lived it up until the moment you walk into class. “The teacher, that professional amateur,” said the critic Leslie Fiedler, “teaches not so much his subject as himself.” He provides a model, he went on, “of one in whom what seemed dead, mere print on the page, becomes living, a way of life.” I developed a rule of thumb in graduate school. If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him. It’s not that I needed my teachers to be confessional; I just needed them to be present. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics,” Saul Bellow wrote about the University of Chicago eminence, “but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”
Students want you to be honest, not least about yourself. They want you to beyourself. You need to step outside the role a bit, regard it with a little irony, if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit. It often feels that there are certain things you cannot say inside a classroom—the most serious things that you want to say, the most genuine things. You want to say that life is tragic, that we are dangling above a void, that what’s at stake, when you read a book, is nothing less than life itself. But you feel your institutional surroundings holding you as if between quotation marks. You fear that your words will fall to the ground with an audible clink. That is where a little distance from the situ­ation is of service. Just because I say this stuff in class, I used to tell my students, doesn’t mean I don’t believe it.
There are two things that kids invariably tell you about their favorite professors. The first one is “she teaches about everything.” That’s never literally true, of course, so what does it actually mean? Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A student put it to me this way, about a professor in an oceanic studies program: “He made marine ecology reflect universal truths.”
You know great teaching the moment you encounter it. Yes, you feel, this is it—this is what I came for. It reaches deep inside you. It satisfies desires that you didn’t know you had. It makes the world feel newly large and meaningful—exactly, again, like art. The other thing that students say about their favorite teachers is “he changed my life.”
From Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz. Copyright © 2014 by William Deresiewicz. Printed by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic. He taught at Yale from 1998-2008 and was a graduate instructor at Columbia from 1993-98

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading Critically / Reading for a Purpose / Using Reading for Writing

What is critical reading?  My definition of “critical reading” is reading with a discerning eye, noticing connections, remembering the big ideas, and asking questions. That may very well be a definition you’ll read elsewhere (albeit in other words), but I am trying to be concise and simple about it.

So, why do we read? I think it’s important to remember why we read—and to remind ourselves of this point every time we start whining about needing to read something.  Oftentimes, when we are in school we resent reading because we “have to” do it, and we don’t usually get a choice about what to read.

Always remember, however, that you are not assigned reading as a way to torture you. All reading has a purpose, and that purpose is to inform the reader, to share stories with a wider audience, and to get people realizing that they are not alone in this world. People—whether they are fictional characters living in Afghanistan 50 years ago, or real-life Norwegians or inner-city residents from Baltimore or the ultra-rich in New York city—share the same fundamental desires and face the same sorts of existential problems. Reading helps us to understand this. If we want to learn about life and the human experience, and learn how to do things, we need to read!

Reading also exercises our brains; it allows us to learn, to visualize, to imagine, to make connections, and to reach realizations. Whether we are reading a novel, a poem, a play, a short story, a memoir, or a founding document, we should be able to get similar lessons from the reading.

What should you notice while you are reading? For starters, try this list:

Main Idea / Argument: Any time you read something, you should be able to summarize it, once you’re done, in one to three sentences. If you force yourself to do this summary, you will be checking your comprehension, so please, always do this! If you can’t summarize your reading, then you didn’t absorb its central message.

To help find the main idea, or the argument (however you want to put it), consider the writing’s purpose: Ask yourself: for whom was this written? Who are the people the author is trying to convince? Understanding the intended audience can really help you!

Another very important detail to notice is tone: Take a look at the words used. Are they mostly positive or negative? Noticing the diction will give you, as a reader, an idea of the author’s tone, or attitude toward his or her subject.  This is important to understand because tone informs purpose and argument!

So, how can we make reading more useful? By taking notes.

I often get asked, “How do we know how to take good notes?” And I often hear, “Our teacher doesn’t put clear notes up on the board, so what should we be writing?” Finally, students may wonder, “How are we to take notes when someone is talking, but isn’t writing on the board? What then?”

The key to annotation (taking notes) is to review Argument/Purpose/Tone (from above). If you are not sure where to look to find this information, try thesis statements, topic sentences, bold section headers, and conclusions.

Cornell notes are big in some schools—personally, I don’t really care for them, as I think they can result in writing down too much (virtual rewriting of a textbook), which may leave students ultimately unsure of what was most important. But, do whatever your school or teacher requires; also do what works for you.

I write down key quotes and always cite page numbers, source (title of piece I read), and author in my notebook. This helps me remember the important points, and I am all set if I have to write a paper later; I have the quotes and central points to address.

Taking notes from a lecture is a learned skill. It’s also great life practice. I am a visual person, but I have learned so much from forcing myself out of my comfort zone by making myself remember what I hear, not just what I see. Try the same. You might challenge your aural skills and then check with a friend (or your teacher) to be sure you captured the most important ideas.

Other questions I hear are:

“How can we deal with boring reading, such as those founding documents?” (See my essay from early August, “How to Read Boring Things.”)

“What if we stumble upon foreign vocabulary when we’re reading? What now?”
My answer: Have a plan: circle the vocab. Look it up. Keep a running list of word you didn't know. Make flashcards in order to learn and remember the words.

Reading Response Journals are excellent tools for helping students to hone their critical reading and recall skills (response journals typically require summary, questions, and reflections/connections—make annotation of all these points a habit, even if you aren’t assigned an official response journal!).

Once we feel better about reading, we can do the same with writing. Think about why people write, and why writing is assigned in school. Why is writing important?

We write in order to communicate. Both learning and communication are inextricably intertwined; we can’t have one without the other. I’ll give you some ideas about writing in a future blog post.  Happy reading!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

How to Read Boring Things

I love to read, and I’ll read pretty much anything, but I will also admit there have been times when I’ve had to force myself to read something that I found too wordy, too dry, too old-fashioned, or simply not of interest to me. We've all been there--or will be there soon.

The worst things I can think of to read are usually the legal documents. Honestly, it amazes me that lawyers haven't, en masse, gouged out their own eyes with grapefruit spoons--just to save themselves from having to read that excruciating legalese. 

Sometimes, if we've had it bad when it comes to required reading, we need to train ourselves to like to read. That is why I always tell my students to read more things for pleasure so that the psychological association they make with reading can become positive if it used to be negative. Don’t worry if the material you prefer to read is considered low-brow; if you enjoy it, read it. All reading is good reading, and all reading will help your brain and spark your imagination. Once you realize that you can enjoy reading, you will become more open-minded and you’ll begin to read more widely.

So, read for pleasure, but understand there will also be more, um, painful reading to endure (such as the type of reading we may have to do for work—and, sometimes, reading for school…although I make a conscious effort not to assign terribly boring reads).

How can you get through the painful stuff?  Have a plan. Anything is doable when you have a system to attack it and get it done.

What should your plan look like?

How about this:

1.     Preview and predict to prepare yourself to read. Look at the jacket copy; read blurbs; flip around in the book. You can make yourself more interested in the subject and the material by doing this.

2.     Also try to get interested in the subject or topic by way of other things (TED talks, etc.) that may present the same ideas in a more digestible or more palatable format for you. Be careful, however, not to substitute a video for an article. Use the video to enhance the article, and never, ever watch the movie instead of reading the book!

3.     Know what your reason for reading is (the reason may simply be because you have to read the material; it’s part of your class). This can help you because if you consider the purpose for the reading, then, instead of feeling bitter and resentful about having drudge work to do, you can stay focused on your end goal. Maybe you need to know this material for a test; maybe your boss will be quizzing you in a meeting. Whatever it is, if you have a bigger reason to read something (e.g., graduation or job security), then it becomes easier to do the reading and you will able to zero in on the more important sections (the points that are most relevant to your overall goal).

4.     Bite the bullet and read quickly while keeping your hand very busy tracking the lines, and use a pencil or pen to annotate. This will keep your mind active,  prevent space-outs, and even can help to keep you awake.

5.     What should you take notes on? Good question. How about starting with topic sentences? Create margin note summaries of main topics; decorate pages with little stars by important supporting details. Remember: anything in bold or italics is there to remind you to pay special attention to it!

6.     Carpenters say, “Measure twice; cut once.” You should read twice—but before you start screaming at the thought of more reading, remember, your first read is cursory. The second read is where you’re checking your understanding. If you do this, you will never have to hunt for information again, and you won’t need to re-read again, either. Two reads will actually save you time.

7.     The most boring and difficult reads will require you to sum up paragraphs with margin notes. THIS WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, SO DO IT. You will never have to re-read painful material if you take the time to do this. There are three huge benefits to this plan:  first, you will stay focused because you are actively reading; second, you will test your own comprehension; third, you will remember what you read, and you now have the margin notes to prove it—so class will be easier, tests will be easier, and paper writing will be a breeze.

8.     Summarize, question, reflect and connect by way of notes in a notebook!  All good students can summarize what they just learned, have questions to ask in class, and prepare comments that are insightful connections or ideas they had after reading.  A reading response journal was not created to torture you; the point is to help you prepare for class.  All the best students have two questions and two comments ready to go before every class!!

9.     Know your limits and plan accordingly. How long can you read without falling asleep or becoming hopelessly distracted? Schedule your reading in chunks, and never leave it all to the last minute. Take breaks as necessary (perhaps you might reward yourself for every half hour of focused reading by taking a ten minute break). Also, don't read in bed--especially if the material is boring.


           Talk about the reading with another person who has read the same material. This can really help you develop your thoughts and give you ideas for connections you hadn't thought of on your own.

1    Challenge yourself to read in a certain amount of time; this will help you to start reading faster. Also try speed reading techniques such as “chunking”—seeing chunks of text at the same time, rather than looking at one word at a time and subvocalizing as you read, because that is very slow and laborious.