Don’t drive like my brother… a reflection on the challenges of mentoring versus downloading

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Tom Magliozzi, one of the Car Talk brothers, died this week. There was a period in the 90’s when I listened to them regularly, every Saturday morning, and loved them. All the time I used to spend listening to radio, now, has been taken over by audiobooks, but I still remember those guys as laughter heroes, right up there with the Simpson’s in their ability to transform my mere giggle into a cheek-aching asthma attack. Sometimes I disagreed with them, e.g., engine-braking, and I am willing to look at these instances as examples of stubbornly holding on to my own dumb beliefs in the face of indisputable logic.

Let’s be clear, the younger brother, Ray, is still very much alive… and though, in my memories at least, the brothers are inextricably wound together, Ray himself tells a story that inspires me. Tom’s passing, and the tributes that foamed up over the lip of the internet afterward, led me just a little deeper into their history, and I found a gem that makes me feel even more grateful to them that ever. In penning their story, Ray writes of carving their own path:

“This was the time when everyone was working on his own car, so we thought, and our idea was to open a garage where people could do their own work and we’d rent space and tools to them.”

Now, Ray also writes of the failure of this venture, but the instinct – that providing a space, with tools and some expertise, was what people wanted – is one I share, am convinced is the way to show students that they are, that they must be, creators. It recognizes that many people have this urge, this instinct to do, that they just need a little support.

My own act of creation is to carve out a little anarchic space inside my university, a chaotic space where students can breathe deeply and stretch out to pull down ideas, scratch their heads over problems, maybe never reach any concrete answers, but become more expert along the way. I’m struggling mightily at this task this semester, my first term back at the helm after months of R&R. I’m struggling with my own limitations, the limitations of my students, the expectations and limited vision of my own little corner of the teaching discipline. This post is an attempt at a manifesto of sorts, or maybe just a cry in the dark, or perhaps an attempt to remind myself of my touchstones and priorities.

As I go up for promotion to full professor next Fall, with my teaching at the focus of my peers’ attention, I am compelled to explain what I’m trying to do, to explore why some students hate it, to find a way to make it palatable to them, to cope with the fact that my school might just not have the students I need.

In short: I don’t give students homework. I give them lots of reading. I give them projects to work on in class that explore the readings. I don’t grade the projects; students manipulate ideas with the freedom to explore, and fail, with neither consequences nor material rewards. I make them write. A lot, I guess… a total of 8 500-word essays over 16 weeks. I’m easy about deadlines, with the explicit understanding that I detest grades and grading, and am slow about it.*

The bottom line is this assertion: there are no carrots for my students’ successful navigation of the material… just mastery. There are no consequences for their failures, only more work… it’s science, after all; ultimately, their mastery is only measured by the quality of the work they produce. That work is judged by its beauty, its elegance, its meaning, its utility, by its ability to excite more questions… measured in so many ways! Just never measured, so very rarely measured, by an examination and grade.

But then my field, STEM education, is being swept by a wave. High Impact Practices. Evidence Based Blah-Bitty-Blah. Best Practices for Yadda Yadda. And I’m struggling to understand why this trend is so hard for me to get involved with… I’m a scientist, after all, I’m sort of into evidence. And I think I do use HIPs and the rest; I’m just not bent on quantifying the success/failure of each and every activity, module, or project. So all these studies I read, demonstrating the effectiveness of this or that learning tool, they just do not satisfy. I am an anarchist as well as a scientist, and the parameters of effective teaching always smell like a leash to me.

The problem, you see, is that for me it’s evidence that’s desirable… not proof. Indeed it’s proof that I’m opposed to! Shall I prove that my student is excited about learning that cis-trans proline isomerization is relevant to biology? Evaluate how motivated she is to learn more? Quantify how motivated he is to push past my little lessons into a boundless world ripe for exploration?

Still, it’s a problematic position, I swan. Eventually someone with the money asks whether they’re paying the right guy, whether they’re getting their money’s worth… as though there’s a way to truly know that. The evidence for me is seeing eyes light up, flickering with the fires of an engaged mind, and there’s no rubric for that.

I think I sound pretty idealistic, or maybe just crazy. This wanting to open a classroom for students to just come build their knowledge! Shouldn’t they be worried about their grades? Shouldn’t they be thinking about a job, their family, a career?

So there are concrete problems to face, as well as philosophical. And, to be fair, no one is asking that I prove my so-called methods are actually working… though not publishing another instrument-bound demonstration of teaching efficacy is to consign oneself to the STEM teaching backwater, it seems.

No, a much more difficult problem is that I’m faced with seeing students struggle, knowing they’re unhappy doing what they should love, hearing them compare what I do unfavorably with the ‘lecture-plus-two-exam’ classes they already know how to ‘excel’ in. Sensing that they really just want to be spoon-fed facts, and then tested on their retention of those facts, and nuts to my stupid notion that being a master is more than that, is totally different from that.

So I wonder first whether I’m in the right place. Maybe some other school has students interested in learning the way I feel they should, students that will reward me and my ego for giving them this chance. And then I think that it’s probably just me, that I’m just not fit for the job of college professor… certainly there are plenty of students who wish … and let’s see if I can remember the exact phrasing here… “they would have a more experienced professor teach biochemistry.” As though I’m not experienced, and the student is the best judge of my experience. Often students are so well-trained in what to expect from their teachers, they are left feeling that they are teaching experts. And, of course, everybody is an expert on what they want, neh? The problem is that students may only be experts on what they’ve been told is excellent.

Now, life’s not all so bleak… this may just be the week 10 blues. I do get positive feedback, sometimes, even the feeling some days that what I’m doing is affecting one or more students. And every positive comment is a beautiful moment. It’s only that my approach is so alien to so many students, and that they have so much trouble just being ready to work with me instead of idly absorbing – I’m wading through the ebb-tide of my confidence, my conviction. Locally, I’ve racked up some recognition for my teaching, and even made it onto some CSU-wide list of something or other… but it’s the students that matter, and to them I’m selling shave-ice at a snowball fight.

Back to measuring what I do, I have been reading a great deal about evaluating creativity, and have been looking into the themes of the proven-pedagogical-tools literature, and at the problems with generalizing from these studies; I want to write about that research, will write about that in weeks to come. I want try to find a path linking what the discipline seems to want and what I have to offer. For now, this essay – more diatribe than manifesto, I suppose, apologies – is what is requisite.

I’m still committed to Tom and Ray’s ‘Hacker Haven’ model of the workshop-classroom, but my problem is that as a human being I need some folks – some students – to come along with me. I want to find the best way, the best place, to share what I have to offer, to contribute most positively to the world… today I’m wondering if this place, this career even, is where I can do that. Wherever and whatever that is, though, it will have to be chaotic, unconstrained, undisciplined, and yet synthetic, fabricated, created. I will try looking to those characteristics as my touchstone, instead to anyone’s approbation. Oh, and I’ll try to get my stupid grading done, too.


*grading is a sore subject for me at the moment – despising the very notion of grades and rankings, I find it easy to push that chore to the bottom of the pile. I’m much more inclined to let the work itself be the students’ reward.


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