The Very Seriously Humorless Education of Students

I am a junior in college during the early 1980s, sitting attentively in Dr. Richard Predmore’s upper-level English course; I am an English education major, and the sort of mama’s-boy-student-suck-up that professors appreciated and fellow students wanted to throat punch.

Per the syllabus (a code I cracked with some embarrassment as a first-year student), we are in class that day to discuss William Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses,” a novella that Faulkner later integrated into the novel The Hamlet.

spotted horses

Dr. Predmore begins class by reading an extended passage, during which he can hardly restrain the grin on his face. He punctuates the reading with, “Isn’t that hilarious.”

That was almost 40 years ago, but I can still feel the blood running out of my head as I realized I had absolutely no idea what Dr. Predmore was talking about.

Funny? William Faulkner? The William Faulkner of “The Bear” from high school? The William Faulkner of the Nobel Prize acceptance speech?

Uncharacteristically, I said nothing the entire class period; I was mortified at my ignorance, and in typical nerd fashion, committed myself to re-reading “Spotted Horses” in a whole new light.

This embarrassing moment in my formal education came rushing back to me when a colleague posted on social media an interesting incident from one of her classes:

Second day of discussing Rape of the Lock, three minutes before the end of class, a student says, out of nowhere, in the voice of a person who has had a major revelation, “Wait, is this supposed to be funny?”

Not long before this posting, I had conducted my essay openings activity with first-year writing students using several openings from essays by Barbara Kingsolver.

As we unpacked those first paragraphs through reading like a writer activities (here and here), students struggled, as always, with identifying that Kingsolver in many of the essays incorporated craft creating humor to engage the reader.

And thus, my response to my colleagues post offered these points:

(1) I was that student in college and it was about a Faulkner work, (2) I used to show Monty Python to my AP class early as a sort of starting point for which ones had developed linguistic sophistication, and (3) students have spent most of their formal education being incredibly serious about incredibly serious texts and topics, thus, we must help them over this hump.

Since my colleague’s post, I have walked through Adrienne Rich’s “The Baldwin Stamp.” As we discussed, Rich’s “We’ve come a long way from 1960; democracy, it seems, marches on,” followed by two extended passages from Baldwin, students again struggled with Rich’s tone, many thinking she made the statement in ernest, ignoring that her juxtaposing Baldwin’s sharp criticisms exposes her sarcasm.

As developing readers and writers, our students have been mostly underprepared in terms of reading and expressing tone, the delicate use of diction and a whole host of craft elements to guide readers through ideas.

Just as students are best served as emerging writers by writing, our students are best served as emerging sophisticated readers and thinkers by being allowed to experience and wrestle with a wide range of texts—not simply the seriously humorless texts that tend to be the bulk of what we read, and thus what we say in formal schooling.

More humor, then, is likely to benefit our students too often trapped in academic seriousness known as school.

About that, make no mistake, I am being entirely serious.


Rejecting Growth Mindset and Grit at Three Levels

As the academic year began at my university, I was confronted with how the very worst of K-12 public education reform continues to creep upward, engulfing higher education.

In this case, growth mindset was central to the faculty keynote address, prompting me to resist an outburst in front of my colleagues. I did, however, weigh in on social media, including Facebook—where a few faculty were intrigued and reached out by email.

Last week, then, we held a faculty discussion on growth mindset, and of the three panelist, I was the only one calling for at least a skeptical view if not an outright rejection of the concept (along with grit, which was mentioned in the keynote but not central to the presentation).

For simplicity and clarity, I want to outline here briefly (since I have written extensively about both growth mindset and grit; see the Categories here on the blog) why I call for skepticism and even rejecting the practices associated with the terms.

At the first level, I question the ideological motivation for doing research to find the source of success and failure within individuals—assuming that individual character and behaviors are primarily or solely the source of both success and failure.

As a colleague noted during comments after the keynote, this is a “very American” way of thinking; and I would add, a flawed view of the relationship between human behavior and social forces.

Here, I recommend Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and argue that social forces are primary to human behaviors. I also call into question the rush to characterize what is success and failure—since a tremendous amount of both outcomes are more strongly correlated to a person’s environment of birth than any accomplishments by the person.

At the second level, I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level—both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).

Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.

Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.

The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character—ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.

K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.

All three levels, then, are born in, protected by, and prone to perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Finally, stepping back from these levels, I also remain skeptical of growth mindset and grit because they are very difficult to disentangle from deficit perspectives of students and from monolithic, thus reductive, views of identifiable groups by race, class, gender, or educational outcomes.

Instead I endorsed what Paul Gorski argues about equity literacy principles:

Equity literate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class communities, reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.


Seeing the Essay Again for the First Time

Teaching writing, like writing itself, is an arduous journey without any hope of a destination fairly called “finished.” Both require equal parts confidence and humility as well.

Each fall, then, when I wear my writing teacher hat most visibly while teaching two sections of first-year writing, I am as anxious and apprehensive as my students about teaching them to write. This past Friday, I responded to their first essay submissions, and then, I posted on their course blog a brief set of common issues we will explore during the require conferences before they revise essay 1, and prepare to draft essay 2:

I recommend reading these two pieces:

Here are some common issues you should focus on for rewriting Essay 1:

  • Work more diligently and purposefully on your openings and closings. You need to take more care with specifics and details; avoid telling about and show the reader a story instead.
  • Establish your focus (thesis) within the first 4 or so paragraphs and then keep the discussion on that focus throughout the essay.
  • Can you explain briefly to someone what your focus is and what organizational planguides your essay?
  • Reconsider your title and subheads (add subheads if you haven’t used them). Be interesting and vivid with both.
  • While one or two purposeful fragments can be effective even in academic writing, run-on sentences always appear to be “errors.” Edit run-ons and take much greater care with sentence formation and sentence variety.
  • Huge and formless paragraphs are unappealing and ineffective. Form your paragraphs with purpose and prefer shorter, not longer.
  • Integrate quotes with care to both how to punctuate and in connected to the source.
  • Add sources where needed and begin citing properly using APA.
  • Avoid extreme claims of “all,” “none,” “most,” etc.
  • Your word choice (diction) determines the tone of your writing, and also creates your authority. Lazy verbs and informal words should be revised.
  • Verb tense should be appropriate but also should be purposeful and consistent. Verb tense shift (jumping between, among tenses without any clear reason) exposing the writing as careless.

Having taught writing for 34 years—from high school through graduate courses—I have adopted a process I find most effective (although still lacking): I provide students ample models of the whole authentic artifact I want them to attempt (in this case, the essay), and I ask them to make a genuine attempt with some but not full explicit instruction before that attempt; after I have their work in front of me, I then prepare a more explicit plan for direct instruction (the bullets above).

Somewhere long ago, I culled from the work of Howard Gardner that teaching should begin with clearly identifying what students know, what they don’t know, and what they misunderstand. I build on what they know, provide them what they don’t know, and then wrestle like a priest confronted with Regan in The Exorcist to release them from those misunderstandings (a task Gardner admits is nearly impossible).

Over my more than three-decade adventure as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I have rejected writing templates (five-paragraph and otherwise), the tyranny of the thesis sentence, rubrics, and writing to prompts as well as detailed writing assignments that relieve students of any choices as writers and thinkers. However, I remain mostly baffled at what works instead of these traditional approaches—and continue to seek ways to understand better what impedes my students from writing—and thinking—with greater sophistication.

This fall’s experience with essay 1 has revealed to me, I think, a bit of an epiphany.

While I am never really surprised at any of my students’ essay drafts, and I can predict many of the revision needs before I see a set of papers, I do continually read those essays not to uncover my students’ deficits, but to rethink how to teach writing better.

Over the past few days, I have come to recognize something, if not new, that is far more clear to me.

In one of our course texts, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, the concept of coherence is central—but I have never thought of the importance of that concept as clearly as I do now. The essays I read demonstrated to me that these very smart and genuinely engaged first-year students, admitted to a selective college, have almost no real conceptual understanding of sentence formation (and variety), paragraphing, and worst of all, just what the hell an essay is as a form.

That itself is not anything new, but what is new, for me, is that I can argue very directly that the root of what my students do not know and often badly misunderstand is the template used to teach students in most K-12 settings. Further, I now believe that teachers using those templates are also misled about their students’ concepts of sentence formation, paragraphs, and essays because the template and prescriptions mask the lack of understanding.

Of course, this may seem obvious, but the path to understanding the essay as a form, and then the academic essay as a discipline-specific form, includes not a linear or sequential but foundational grasp of both sentence formation and paragraphing.

My work as a teacher of writing will now include more aggressively investigating how to address coherence better, how to foster purpose and awareness in my students-as-writers.

Rules and prescriptions, I am convinced, impede the development of conceptual understanding of how and why to form sentences and paragraphs in order to achieve an essay—a non-fiction short form with an opening and closing, with claims supported by evidence and elaborations.

Again, my students have taught me that our traditional urges to start with parts and build to wholes is flawed; students often need to have the whole in mind so that the parts make sense.

As we work toward revising these first essays, I am more convinced than ever that we need to keep our eyes on model essays, asking always: What makes an essay, an essay?

Templates and prescriptions may make the journey seem easier, but ultimately, that trip is hollow because students have mastered mostly compliance.

Writing, however, is an act of composing—building something new out of the craft at the writer’s disposal. There is no way to make that easy, but there are ways to make it purposeful. That is grounded in conceptual awareness of authentic and whole artifacts; the essay always in pursuit of the essay.

Nationalism in Black and White

Chimamanda Adichie confronts the dangers of a single story by describing her journey from childhood to celebrated Nigerian writer. Like Adichie, Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay deconstructs overly simplistic explanations for privilege by confronting her lived experiences as a black woman raised in an affluent home.

Interrogating race, social class, and gender, both Adichie and Gay speak to the inherent flaws with how these statuses historically and currently shape inequity and injustice in the U.S. Recently that has manifested itself in a renewed concern for nationalism, as demonstrated in the violence witnessed in Charlottesville, VA.

However, there is no single story about nationalism in the U.S.—especially if we consider the reasons behind nationalism movements in their historical contexts.

While political and media narratives try now to frame white nationalism and those who resist it as equal forces, let’s recall that Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and black nationalism as espoused by the Nation of Islam (NOI)—through Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X—prompted much different responses from mainstream white America.

Garvey’s efforts drew support from white racists, in fact, but the NOI and especially Malcolm X were strongly rejected as violent and a national threat—unlike the more welcomed and carefully orchestrated embracing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical.

Regardless of valid or baseless criticisms of either Garvey or Malcolm X, the story of black nationalism throughout the early and mid-twentieth century is incomplete without understanding why blacks have supported separating from white America.

Those reasons are grounded in a recognition among blacks that democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream had failed them in profound ways that simply could not be reformed since these elements of the U.S. are inherently prone to inequity and injustice.

Malcolm X’s “History proves that the white man is a devil” represents a provocative but concise justification for black skepticism about white intentions. And James Baldwin confronted in 1979 the fact of white consciousness about race and racism in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

Black nationalism, then, has been grounded in the evidence of history and contemporary inequity and injustice. And these lessons remain to this day when blacks are disproportionately killed by police, officers who then go unpunished, and blacks with some college often have the same employment opportunities and pay as whites who dropped out of high school.

This is 2017, as Edward E. Baptist explains:

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Only the single story viewed through white consciousness in the U.S. is allowed.

The paradox of the single story through white eyes only is that is allows a nuance for white behavior while continuing to demonize black lives for any claimed flaw, no matter how singular (consider Colin Kaepernick).

The result is claiming “some good people” are among white nationalist protests and rallies—a claim that fails to investigate why white nationalists exist.

Unlike black nationalist movements, white nationalism is grounded solely in corrupt ideologies well refuted by evidence—beliefs in white superiority (often coded as “European”) and mythologies built on white heroes and white actions that are partial stories as best.

White nationalism as refuge for racists, fascists, and Nazis survives because of the single story codes of the exact sort of white tyranny black nationalists have been confronting for a century.

This is a failed story, a horror story in fact.

Black nationalism, however, has offered a powerful and true story that the U.S. refuses to confront: democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream have failed blacks, and thus, failed us all, but they likely cannot be reformed since they are inherently drawn to inequity and injustice.

The single white story of the U.S. suffers from a fatal lack of imagination to construct a new story because white America will not let go of its lies.

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

From 1984 until 2002, I worked as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina, a relatively impoverished small town where I was born and also attended schools. For many of those years, I also coached (girls volleyball, boys golf, girls and boys soccer) and taught journalism along with sponsoring the school’s newspaper and literary magazine.

Teaching often meant long days from about 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night when I had away soccer matches and had to wait outside the school for every player to be picked up by their parents.

Over my career as a high school English teacher, I kept a record of my work assigning and responding to writing by my students; I averaged reading and responding to about 4000 formal essays (multiple-draft, extended writing) and 6000 journals (one-draft, shorter pieces) per year. Regardless of their level or year in high school, my students completed about 16 essays per year with all of them rewritten at least once (most did many more than one revision), and I typically had a total of about 100-125 students per academic year.

Most K-12 teachers could share something similar to the above, but since this post (as the title suggests) offers a critical look at how high school fails students entering college, I want to start with a clear caveat that K-12 teaching is extremely demanding, and most teachers are asked to do way too much with way too little support or time—and possibly more damning, over the last three decades, most teachers are being held accountable for truly awful teaching and testing.

None the less, I want here to examine what I have witnessed, and continue to witness, in the college students I have been teaching for 16 years now, students in a selective university, and thus ones who can easily be described as extremely successful students.

My fall courses, as is typical, include first-year writing seminars and an introductory education course. From those classes, here are a few examples of why I regularly have to discuss with college students that high school has failed them:

  • In my writing seminar, I start by having students complete a writing exercise in which they mimic the form of a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. When I give the assignment, I clearly identify the passage as a chapter from a novel, but many students submitting their passage identify the text as a poem.
  • My foundations education course includes as a supplemental text The Poverty and Education Reader, edited by Paul C. Gorski and Julie Landsman. Students are required to choose 2-3 chapters from every section of the volume and to write brief reflections for each. A student sent me her reflections; throughout, she began each entry with “in this short story, the narrator”—although the volume is a collection of non-fiction (and scholarly) essays.
  • An early class session with the first-year students examines academic writing at the college level and how the disciplines (often arranged as departments in colleges and separate colleges in universities) have a wide variety of expectations and forms for writing. When I put up a list of disciplines, I ask which of them do the students assume use MLA for the stylesheet and citations—prompting most students to admit they think MLA is the only citation guide that exists.
  • I introduce my foundations education students to critical pedagogy and Marxist scholarly lenses, which leads often to students admitting that they have no real idea what the differences are among socialism and communism (and Marxism) as terms. As we examine these ideas, we also confront that students typically have only a shallow understanding of capitalism and democracy.
  • A few of us teaching first-year writing seminars this semester are sharing an assignment for essay one. To help students try to navigate the complex terms at the center of the assignment, we are using Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” as a model. I also had my students complete diversity awareness quizzes created by Paul Gorski. As I discussed the assignment, I cautioned my students about making sweeping claims such as “most people think” by noting that a significant percentage of the world population (about half) includes Chinese and Indian people who have beliefs and experiences quite unlike what my students know. In one of Gorski’s questions, he notes that only 5% of the world population is in the U.S. (who has 25% of the world’s prisoners). One student, barely able to hold back that she was incredulous about that data, asked how I knew that information.

I want to return now to a point I made quickly above: these examples are from college students who have been extremely successful students. Early and often, then, I ask my students to unpack what being a student means, and then to weigh that against the expectations of college academic behavior.

One way I do that is assigning The Transition to College Writing, by Keith Hjortshoj, and I also have student read Adele Scheele’s “The Good Student Trap.”

Among the examples above, I believe the most significant way that high school fails students is grounded in that teachers and students are far too overwhelmed with accountability and coverage.

One of the odd patterns of advanced education is that we often expose students early to huge and sweeping bodies of knowledge (world history, American literature) and then as they go farther in their education, the course material becomes narrower, and thus deeper. For the English part of my undergraduate degree, I took a British literature survey course in the first two years, but a senior college English course explored only one author, William Butler Yeats.

Both teachers and students in high school, then, are victims of covering far too much way too superficially.

And thus, when I ask my first-year students what novels they read in high school, several often reply with The Crucible or Hamlet, both, of course, are plays, not novels. The blur of assigned books have left them without nuance or clarity in what they have or have not learned.

Yet at the college level, and then in the disciplines, slow and careful are far more important; a successful college student like an effective scholar will confront all material with skepticism, stepping back from assumptions and seeking ways to define and clarify terms before gathering credible evidence in order to make claims.

Being a good student too often is mostly about being dutiful, compliant, and superficial.

Another way to think about the inadequacy of high school is that it fails to help students overcome provincialism (rejecting provincialism is central to progressivism espoused by John Dewey and Lou LaBrant, and then critical pedagogy—all of which argued the foundational importance of literacy in that journey).

Provincialism is sort of an uninformed arrogance—determining Truth and the World based on one’s experiences absent the evidence of history and thought or the variety of experiences beyond one’s immediate geography and tribe.

College and the disciplines value people starting with intellectual humility and skepticism, and then requires behaviors that are slow, purposeful, and careful.

Let me conclude with a couple thoughts.

First, this tension between high school and college, I believe, can be solved by embracing critical pedagogy at all levels of education, inviting and mentoring students to read and then re-read the world, to write and then re-write the world.

These moves require that students have some greater degree of autonomy than they currently do, but it also requires a reimagining of what we think our content entails (not prescribed standards that are codified by the state)—a move away from content as fixed knowledge and toward a greater emphasis on how and why students engage with knowledge.

Finally, as an educator with over thirty years teaching from 9th grade through graduate courses, I readily acknowledge that some of what I am addressing is up for debate in terms of a wide range of mental, psychological, and emotional developments from childhood into adulthood. With that in mind, I am certain that students need and deserve the sorts of experiences and expectations common in college much earlier, at least by 9th grade.

A few falls ago, one of my first-year writing students eventually couldn’t hold back her exasperation any longer and held forth in class about how she was misled by being trained to memorize and use only MLA. Her frustration was warranted, but can and should be avoided.

What continues to guide me as a teacher of any level is that to teach English or any content is to teach students, first and foremost.

In 1961, Lou LaBrant observed: “Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire.”

Too often in 2017, this rings true—failing our students moving from high into college and then beyond.