A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Using Serial (season 1) to teach journalism

I am not a great journalism teacher. I’ve been teaching the class for four years (it’s a semester long writing class for seniors) and have altered my approach drastically in many ways, experimenting with our working time, with what I ask of students and how I motivate them, with the direction of my lessons. This year I wanted to improve their grasp of investigative journalism, to help them see what it is, both how hard it is and what is really going on with it. In truth, I have struggled to spark students’ interest in journalism, in its relevance, and since I see investigative reporting as the most exciting part of journalism (real change brought about from diligent reporting, the whole watchdog for a Democratic Society ideal) I thought emphasizing this area might be the best way to spark interest and build the relevance of the whole enterprise.

So this year we listened to season one of Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast. We listened in class, which we can do because our school uses a block schedule (95 minute classes), and I asked students to answer particular questions about each episode. After listening we continued working on our regular news stories for the school paper.

I thought our listening to it might show us a good example of investigative journalism but also lend us a view inside the process, what goes into putting all this together, because Sarah Koenig is so conversational and open about what she is trying to do and how she does it.

We finished the last episode today, and I am on the fence about its worth.

That was a lot of class time. Early on it felt completely worth it, but somewhere around episode nine I began to wonder whether I’d do this again. The episodes vary in length but generally run 40 to 50 minutes. With 12 episodes, that’s a lot of class time to give to this project (at least nine hours).

But then again, I have taught this class for years and know that what I had been doing with that time was not working. I was continually disappointed with the results of my instruction. The content was good, but somehow it never hooked my seniors, whose minds were set more on completing their high school careers than the nuances of clutter in their prose. No matter how good the lessons’ content was, if the students didn’t learn them, they weren’t good. So did Serial lead to greater net learning?

I am happy with students’ responses to my questions about each episode. They were thoughtful and insightful. They were clearly listening (no napping, no playing on their phones). They were developing their own opinions. They were understanding what Koenig was doing as a storyteller when I asked them to consider her methods. And they were ready to riot when one person affirmed Adnan should have been convicted (they voted 17-1 to acquit him, not believing he was innocent so much as not sure he was guilty).

All the students said they thought it was worth the time we spent on it. One qualified her comments a tad, recognizing that we spent twelve class periods on it and I might not want to do that again, but she still voted for it. Another student told me, “It helped with how I view journalism,” which is encouraging, though it’s possible I primed her for that kind of feedback, as I had asked them what they learned about journalism and whether I should do it again.

Likely the key measure of the experience will be how students respond in their own work, their own journalism. Their big project for the quarter is to write their own investigative piece. The results from past classes have been mixed (many students have passed off basic news reports as investigative pieces), so if this group writes a series of truly investigative reports, I would be encouraged. But I also have to admit that such results can depend as much on the topics students discover as on their understanding of the skills. If I can suggest a number of great ideas, students will seize them and frequently write good stories, but if I can’t think of enough topics, a dearth of interesting stories may result.

I have done worse things than this Serial unit–though nothing as long–so I’m not scared to try it again. While students enjoyed it, I’m not particularly confident in its place and am definitely fishing for other ideas. If I come across one, I will be content to toss Serial back into the pond.

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Enjoying the person who tells you that what you do is wrong

Bryan Garner writes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “Footnotes are generally an excellent place for citations. But textual footnotes–those that contain substantive discussion–ought to be kept to a minimum.” I find this comment particularly wonderful, as I am leafing through Garner’s book on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation.  In “Authority and American Usage” (a 57 page review), Wallace’s objections to elements of ADMAU run one paragraph and can be summarized in one sentence: “Except for the VOGUE WORDS snafu and the absence of a pronunciation entry on trough, the above were pretty much the only quibbles this reviewer could find.”¹

So Wallace, the world’s greatest virtuoso of footnotes with “substantive discussion,” did not quibble with Garner’s estimate about their use. This is likely because Wallace was not claiming to agree with everything Garner says but that it was all done well. Near the end of Wallace’s essay (in a footnote), he admits he disagrees with Garner’s use of a particular comma before a conjunction (there was no independent clause in tow!) and asserts, “But respectful disagreement between people of goodwill is of course Democratically natural and healthy and, when you come right down to it, kind of fun.” I imagine Wallace found Garner’s comments about footnotes interesting and astute even if he was totally unwilling to apply them to himself.

This morning strikes me as a good time to approach such disagreements with the same kind of spirit.

 


  1. That pronunciation entry complaint isn’t even a complaint. It’s a joke with the punchline in the footnote.

DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.

Trump’s Tyranny of the Mind

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

It is easy to find anti-Trump messages these days, particularly if one is roaming through late night TV comedy. But such left-leaning comedians’ objections to Trump are not surprising—how many of them would admit to supporting anything President George W. Bush did, for example? More surprising—and, to my mind, more significant—is the continued vehement objection to President Donald Trump from more conservative sources, like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In a recent column for the Washington Post (“How Trump Broke Conservatism”), Gerson characterizes President Trump’s manner of arguing as an assault on truth. According to Gerson, Trump’s strategy is to “First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause.” In other words, Gerson is saying, Trump chooses not to persuade based on argumentation or truth but on assertion and power. Gerson fills a paragraph with classic examples, including President Trump’s claim during the presidential campaign that President Barak Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters and his claim that President Obama is Kenyan.

Gerson’s theory about Trump’s argumentation is extremely useful because it illustrates how the President is not engaging in debates and logic as they are traditionally thought of, but instead using the logic of power. It is a logic we’re familiar with but also one which most people know to be problematic and morally suspect. It reminds me of an old ESPN advertisement for NBA games, where the ESPN announcers are traveling the country in an RV with NBA players. In one clip, two announcers are taking on Shaquille O’Neil at Scrabble. Shaq finishes a move and earns 29 points for “Shaqtastic.” The camera shows us the board, which is full of words built out of Shaq’s name (“Shaqattack,” “Shaqesque”). “How did you get so many Q’s?” Stuart Scott asks, to which Shaq replies with the brusque authority of a 300 pound, seven foot man: “Don’t worry about it.” There is a pause, and then he smiles to say, “My turn again!”

The audience laughs because Shaq’s power, which they had watched him use to move other 7 foot men around a basketball court like they were kindergartners, was completely inappropriate at the Scrabble board. Yet if the situation were real, what could two puny TV announcers have done to prevent it? After all, Gerson reminds us, “The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power,” and Shaq’s on-camera (and on-court) persona embodies the will to power.

Gerson’s commentary is light on ideas for how to prevent this “tyranny of the mind,” but his words are themselves a beginning. In the make believe world of that ESPN RV, to call Shaq a bully and a cheat would have brought consequences in the RV—possibly painful ones–but it also would have ended the parody of a Scrabble game. Michael Gerson’s columns have surely lost him prestige in the current Republican party, but he’s decided the consequences are worth exposing the parody.

Is the ideal product of 21st Century learning a robot?

Our great universities, with their vast resources, their exhaustive libraries, look like a humanist’s dream. Certainly, with the collecting and archiving that has taken place in them over centuries, they could tell us much that we need to know. But there is pressure on them now to change fundamentally, to equip our young to be what the Fabians used to call “brain workers.” They are to be skilled laborers in the new economy, intellectually nimble enough to meet its needs, which we know will change constantly and unpredictably. I may simply have described the robots that will be better suited to this kind of existence, and with whom our optimized workers will no doubt be forced to compete, poor complex and distractible creatures that they will be still.

That is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “What Are We Doing Here?” and her observation that the optimum results of our current approach to education are to create computers less capable than the robots we’re building should chill teachers who have grown used to hearing advocacy for “21st Century Learning.” Do people really advocate for what Robinson suggests they do? Here’s a typical jargon-filled example, from Karen Cator, former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education:

Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

It’s that last line that most clearly grasp’s Robinson’s point: “learners for life” means “intellectually nimble.”

The Niche Future of Handwriting

My handwriting has never lived up to the Romantic achievements of my parents. My mother’s unique script, a print-and-cursive hybrid, is round and smooth, filling the space between lines as if it were all canvas for her use. My father’s is notable for the way the extension of the capital G on my first name made a small end table. My own handwriting has always served me well, as it is legible, but neither has it left me feeling distinguished, or mature: it is a pragmatic riff on standard elementary print. I round the e’s a bit more than Mrs. Spaulding said we should and I’m inconsistent with the size of my letters, but if I’m attempting to be neat, it’s basically what she taught me.

To confirm my suspicions, I learned from Anne Trubek’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting that Edgar Allan Poe would have loved my parents and thought me a bore. “Poe,” writes Trubek, “felt those who wrote as they had been instructed were less original than those whose handwriting departed from what they were taught in school.”

Trubeck would chastise me for my self-consciousness, defending me for the same reasons and in the same way she defends her son, whose penmanship drew the ire of his elementary teachers. Her central thrust is that attitudes like Poe’s are sentimental associations, that examining handwriting is not a window into a soul.

But my problem is I like my sentimental associations.

I’m not alone. We might think of Poe as an eccentric and slightly irrelevant ancestor, but some of our ideas about handwriting are closely related to his. Take Dyana Herron’s thoughts about the beauty of a handwritten letter as an example:

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

Herron captures how our love for this kind of letter is difficult to express: “there’s something great” and “wonderful,” but we can’t say precisely what. Yet we do interpret it as love, and we see the handwriting as more intimately part of the author than “just their words” are.

David Foster Wallace taps into the same notion in a drafted preface for The Pale King: “Author here. Meaning the actual author, the real human holding the pencil, not any sort of abstract narrative persona.” Since Wallace wrote his manuscripts by hand the comment may have been a simple description of the scene, but even then, “holding the pencil” builds a firmer image of a real person than “the real human tapping the keys.” A person with a pencil makes the words more intimate, more personal, more real.

Ideas like these are why I advise my students to handwrite thank you notes, yet this ultimately is perception, a sense of a cultural symbol, and despite its associations, Trubek asserts that “medieval scribes proved that handwriting does not, in and of itself, reveal personality or the self.”

She further demonstrates this by revealing our shifting sentiments. Take, for example, the theory of cursive evangelist Austin Palmer, who claimed “penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children” and that penmanship “is the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent.” Would anyone declare that today? Nor would anyone declare that typewritten correspondence, as opposed to handwritten, is insulting or unprofessional; but that is what people believed at the turn of the 20th Century. If our opinions about handwriting as a revelation of our intimate selves didn’t surface until the turn of the 19th Century, as Trubek asserts, can we really stand by them?

Trubek’s thesis is that we live in an era of transition from one technology to another, that handwriting’s dominance is finished and that, with time, the sentimental attachments people like me assign to it will dwindle and become like Socrates’s argument against writing: an intriguing artifact.

Yet even as I recognize the merits of Trubek’s case against handwriting as an expression of psychology, I find myself questioning her confidence in handwriting’s demise. Her focus is the longform world of handwriting–the letter, the business correspondence, the novel. These forms have migrated to digital media, but does that mean that handwriting is an obsolete technology?

I’m slow to admit it, which isn’t surprising, since in my left pocket I carry a 3.25”x4.5” notebook, and in my right, a pen. Neither are fancy, and I don’t protect them from damage, but they’re useful to me, because if I have an idea, if I hear something interesting, if I think of something I need to do, I can jot it down. My students, in contrast, typically write such things in the notes app on their phone, or they take a picture of it. I’ve written a single due date on the board in a classroom and had students snap a photo rather than write the date in a calendar app or a planner. Judging by the excuse parade every due date, it’s a no better than the old technology; but it’s the dominant way, so should I adopt their method? Should I abandon pen and paper in favor of digital devices?

I don’t think so, partly because when it comes to the tech my students prefer (and to be realistic I should include my peers and elders), I personally doubt my ability to overcome the beautiful temptations of Silicon Valley. What engineer Tristan Harris told The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker rings in my ear as warning bell:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, . . . “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I don’t need a smartphone, and I primarily see downsides in what my life would look like with one: I’d jot a note about what I need to accomplish later (“Sarah’s recommendation letter!”) but would check Twitter just because; I would see that red circle with a “2” on my Gmail icon, so I wouldn’t be able to black the screen until I knew what was in there. Whatever I had been thinking before I had pulled that phone out would be gone.

So when I began to consider ideas for this essay, I opened a composition book and wrote my ideas with a pen. I thought without notifications. I kept thinking even when I got stuck, since I couldn’t run to Twitter or Feedly while I waited for inspiration.

And I’m not alone in my choice. Alan Jacobs, who has thought about these technologies much more than I have, has moved even much of his longform writing to pen and paper for reasons of efficiency and clarity: “When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand.” Jacobs is describing not a sentimental image of himself but a focus, a freedom from the structure of screens and the web, a reason related to my own avoidance of a smartphone. Both of us are seeing what Nicholas Carr describes in The Glass Cage, that aspects of these technologies do not “extend our productive capabilities without circumscribing our scope of action and perception.” The trade-offs of the digital technology in these areas are too high.

One trait a handwritten technology has going for it, then, is its lack of distraction. Yet I also find my notebook lends me flexibility of form. As I attempt to shape an idea, before I can articulate it, I find myself able to think more widely, more flexibly, with a pen and paper. I do not have to list ideas in a word processor’s bland outlines but can use indents and margins in whatever ways seem appropriate. I can sketch arrows, stars, and circles without clicking on icons. I recognize there is likely some software to enable me to do such things, but is it standard? Would it be on my phone? When I begin to write the article on a computer, would I be able to spread my plan beside me like I’ve done with my notebook as I type this?

Then, of course, there is every professor’s favorite research, the studies suggesting students who take notes by hand instead of by typing actually retain material longer and understand concepts more thoroughly. This is what Rusty Hawkins, a history professor at the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan, explains to his students each semester when he bans laptops from his classes. “The funny thing is,” Hawkins says, “no one ever complains about the ban. Ever.”

Hawkins notes that irony of his students’ acceptance of pen and paper arises from the assumption of digital’s dominance: “We’ve been bombarded with all this info about the coming digital natives, but my students hate reading things digitally. They all prefer having hard copies of articles or books in front of them.”

I’ve noticed similar ironies in my own high school classes. Each year I tell my AP language and composition students they have to use one of my methods for their research paper’s notes. I then offer the traditional index-card method, Zotero, and a format I’ve created that uses a word processor. This year more than half my students opted for the index cards, despite my introducing the method with a story of why I quit using them myself.

Which all means that despite Trubek’s pronouncement of its demise, handwriting still functions as a uniquely pragmatic technology. We can take freeform notes with it, we can access it quickly (no need to load an app, just open the notebook and click the pen), and if we use a sensible system (like a bullet journal or commonplace book), we can retrieve and review materials easily and with minimal distraction.

I’ll admit I’m still cradling under my vest a romantic attachment to handwriting. I wrote a letter to my aunt recently and used a pen and small stationary, to make it more personal and loving.

But I’ll also admit Anne Trubek has exposed my sentimental notions for what they are and that my wider behavior confirms her central claim. I have not written a rough draft of an essay in 15 years. I started a few but each time grew impatient with my fingers, opting to finish the work on a word processor. Even in the classroom, I rarely use a pen to mark students’ papers for more than a brief moment, choosing instead to type my comments into a Word document, which I attach to their paper as a kind of rubric. For me, where speed and revision are priorities, digital technology wins.

Still . . . I remember my dad’s cool G’s primarily because every morning he’d write my initials in three capital letters on my brown paper lunch bag. No app can replace that. So while handwriting has lost its writing monopoly, it still serves a number of pragmatic purposes, ones I am convinced will remain relevant longer than many have assumed.