“Our views about insomnia are continuing to evolve.”

For many years, insomnia was considered to be primarily a symptom of another illness, writes Wallace Mendelson in The Science of Sleep. During his 40-plus years as a sleep researcher, Mendelson has seen many views evolve, and this is one of them. In addition to being the result of some other underlying condition, insomnia may also be a free-standing disorder in its own right, which means it needs its own treatment. In fact, researchers have found that treating sleep disturbances can decrease the symptoms of other illnesses. Interesting new studies make this an exciting time for researchers and insomniacs alike.

Mendelson, Wallace B. The Science of Sleep: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters. U of Chicago P, 2017, p. 149.

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“I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m going to fail!”

Angela Duckworth had a rough start with her first class in neurobiology – she failed the first two exams. She was advised to drop the course.  But she refused to quit.  Instead she believed that she could figure it out if she worked harder and got more help. It was a good decision: she ended up majoring in neurobiology, getting a PhD in psychology and writing a book titled Grit. My students love this book because its exploration of why some people succeed and others fail concludes that in the long run, IQ and talent matter less than effort and perseverance.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016, p.170.

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“Is the soul solid, like iron?”

The poet Mary Oliver continues: “Or, is it tender and breakable, like the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?” With these questions, Oliver opens the poem “Some Questions You Might Ask,” which has inspired artists, videographers, and hundreds of bloggers. During this Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for Oliver’s “bravery and boldness” and “largeness of spirit.” I am thankful for this rare poet who has found a large audience in addition to finding critical success. For those who wish to contemplate the nature of the soul, there may be no better guide than Mary Oliver.

Oliver, Mary. “Some Questions You Might Ask.” New and Selected Poems. Beacon Press, 1992, p. 65.

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Best Books for College Teachers in 2017

Of the books published in 2017, here is my list of the five that have added the most to my understanding of our students, our challenges as instructors, and our need to reform our educational system.

iGen by Jean Twenge: More than any other book that I’ve read this year, iGen has made me re-evaluate how I work with students. Twenge’s analysis of data drawn from four national studies that 11 million Americans have participated in since the 1990s has led me to agree with her that we are on the forefront of a mental health crisis in higher education. It’s all the more challenging because many of these students have “invisible disabilities” that they don’t want to acknowledge or manage. This has a profound effect on their engagement in learning.  (95)

Twenge, Jean M. iGen: why today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Atria Books, 2017.

On Edge by Andrea Petersen: This book shows what it is like to live with an anxiety disorder. Petersen, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, had to take many incompletes while a student at the University of Michigan.  Now, with years of therapy, yoga, and a bottle of prescription medication that is with her at all times, she is uniquely qualified to provide an insider’s perspective on anxiety. She also writes as a reporter who examines dozens of studies and interviews many experts. Readers see how her story reflects the experiences of the 40 million Americans with this disorder.

Petersen, Andrea. On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety. Crown, 2017.

Teaching College by Norman Eng: From what I’ve seen, this is the most useful pedagogical book published in 2017.  It’s so easy to get caught up in covering important course content – ideas we love and information we believe is critical – that it’s easy to forget that our primary challenge is to help students learn. Perhaps we all need occasional reminders to shift our focus from the content to the student. Eng has a doctorate in education, and he cites a lot of important research, but his lively book doesn’t get bogged down with jargon or heavy academic prose.

Eng, Norman. Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting and Engaging Students. Norman Eng, 2017.


Breakaway Learners by Karen Gross: If asked who I would most like to visit my campus to talk with faculty, administrators, staff, and local news reporters, I would pick Karen Gross.  I wish she could spend at least a week with us. She is a former college president who grew up in difficult circumstances and has a deep understanding of the challenges our students face and the urgency with which we should address them. She is committed to helping students “break away” from the circumstances that prevent them from developing their abilities.

Gross, Karen. Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. Teachers College Press, Columbia U., 2017,  p. 25.

The New Education by Cathy Davidson: Take a deep breath. You’ll need to steady yourself if you decide to read this book.  Davidson challenges us to rethink the assumptions that higher education is based upon. The subtitle is:  How to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. As a former professor and administrator at Duke, and the author of many books, she contends that our system of education is based on assumptions that were relevant a hundred years ago, but now must be updated, redesigned, restructured – “a revolution in every classroom, curriculum, and assessment system” (8).

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017.

What are your favorites from 2017?  Share them in the comment box or with me at CStover1@madisoncollege.edu/.

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“Sadly, the reality is that more and more students entering the educational pipeline have had curdled childhoods.”

It is not poverty per se that distinguishes these students, Karen Gross writes, but it’s a childhood burdened by “hunger, exposure to or experience with drugs, alcohol, abandonment, frequent moves, abuse, self-harm or harm of others.” Do we know which of our students have had these experiences? Probably not. I was surprised to learn that the author of this book, a former college president, lived through four of them as a child. Now her mission is to show us how to help students with “curdled” childhoods succeed academically. The first step, clearly, is to stop making assumptions about our students.

Gross, Karen. Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students. Teachers College Press, Columbia U., 2017,  p. 25.

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“My students call this a ‘quarter-life crisis.’”

Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education, describes the twenty-fifth birthday parties that many of her college students throw “to commemorate their collective indecision and existential sense of uselessness.”  They have degrees, credentials, and honors, but few job prospects. Davidson argues that these students have been given “a raw deal.” The prescriptive, disciplinary and specialized training that colleges provide, which is based on a 150-year-old model of education, does not prepare them for the post-industrial and post-Internet world. It’s time for a new approach, Davidson says, that emphasizes creative, critical and computational methods that  teach students collaboration and adaptability.

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017, p. 18c.


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“What does the continual repicturing of Austen say to us?”

If British novelist Jane Austen – now dead for 200 years – could see the picture of her that is in cash registers and wallets in England on the newly-issued ten pound note, she would probably laugh. The bankers selected a popular painting of Austen, which as Emily Auerbach points out, is a “beautified” version created after her death. In comparison, the picture painted by Jane’s sister Cassandra is less flattering, with sharper features, smaller eyes, plainer clothes . . . and is considered to be more accurate.  Is it the case that women writers must  appear to be attractive? Even in 2017?

Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen. U of Wisconsin P, 2004, p. 23.

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“When he analyzed students’ responses through their handheld electronic clickers, only 10 percent would remember the material after twenty minutes of lecture.”

Was this professor inept?  Were his students slackers? Both are unlikely: Carl Wieman, the professor, is a Nobel Laureate, and he teaches at Sanford. Perhaps, as Norman Eng points out, those of us who stand in the front of the classroom are more focused on teaching than on helping students learn. Eng advises that we move from identifying what students should know about our topic to asking why they should care, how they will benefit, how it will help them, and what experiences will enable them to internalize it. Eng is a pragmatic and passionate advocate of a learner-centered approach.

Eng, Norman. Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting and Engaging Students. Norman Eng, 2017, p. 44.

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“I want to show you the world, as it is all around us, all the time.”

How does Karl Ove Knausgaard’s collection of letters for his unborn daughter compare to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me? All three are beautiful explorations of ideas; all are meant to guide, not to provide solutions. What distinguishes this book, however, comes as a shock: Knausgaard has become an optimist who finds joy and beauty wherever he looks. Those of us who savored the five volumes of his dark, autobiographical novel are meeting a new man here. After marching through hell, he now sees the “astounding things” that make life worth living.

Knausgaard, Karl Ove. Autumn.Translated by Ingvild Burkley, Penguin, 2017, p. 4.

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“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel?”

Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow, continues: “Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli.” If you, like me, would like a break from the disasters and tragedies surrounding us, consider reading this wonderful novel about the evolution of relationships between Count Alexander Rostov and the staff of a hotel over the course of 32 years. As the New York Times observes, its “greatest narrative effect” is in the transformation of the people who became confidants, then equals, and then friends. This is that rare book that can “spark joy.”

Towles, Amor. A Gentleman in Moscow. Viking, 2016, p. 120.

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“When McGraw-Hill Education polled more than 600 college faculty in 2017, 70% said students were less willing to ask questions and participate in class than they were five years ago.”

I’m with the 70%. At some point in every class, I say, “What questions do you have about this?” Seldom do students respond. However, if that same question is included in a quiz, about a third ask for more information or for help with something.  According to Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, an abundance of research shows that people born between 1995 and 2012 “are scared of saying the wrong things” and consequently it takes “more reassurance and trust to get them to actively participate in class” (307). It’s clear we need some new strategies.

Twenge, Jean M. iGen: why today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Atria Books, 2017, p. 307.

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“Science needs its adventurers.”

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting scientific adventure than the one described in Altered Traits.  Forty years ago, when Ritchie Davidson and Daniel Goleman were grad students, their advisors told them that studying meditation would be a career-killer. But they had a revolutionary idea, and they wanted to test it scientifically.  They wanted to find out if meditation could do more than produce a pleasant state – if it could make deep changes that signal different brain function. Finally, their lifelong pursuit has paid off. Scientific data confirms their hunch. The next adventure? Understanding the implications of this revolution.

Goleman, Daniel and Richard J. Davidson. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Mediation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body. Avery, 2017, p. 289.

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“Rock and roll when first encountered seemed to represent two fears: a fear of the future and a fear of the past.”

Some feared, Christopher Hill notes, that this new kind of music had the power to lead Americans to radical decadence in the not-too-distant future. Others, who had experienced gospel music, recognized “the testifying quality, the clear sense that there were deep stakes involved, that there was a message that urgently need to be put across” and feared that old, unsettled issues of race and social justice would surface again. This wonderful book is sprinkled with unexpected observations, and it’s as much a history of ideas and social movements as an analysis of the roots of rock and roll.

Hill, Christopher. Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll.Park Street Press, 2017.

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“Our challenge as culturally responsive teachers is knowing how to create an environment that the brain perceives as safe so it can . . . turn its attention to learning.”

Most often, “culturally responsive teaching” focuses on students of color and students who are linguistically diverse.  After reading iGen by Jean Twenge, however, I would argue that students born between 1995 and 2012 have unique cultural characteristics that we need to be aware of.  Twenge notes the “teens’ depressive symptoms have skyrocketed in a very short period of time” (100). In the American Collegiate Health Association survey, “college students are now more likely to say they feel overwhelming anxiety and that they felt so depressed they could not function” (103).  How do we create a safe environment for these students?

Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain. Corwin, 2015, p. 50.

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“The surprising result of this research was that self-transcendent purpose produced the strongest driver for students to persist through challenging academic tasks.”

Jim Lang’s wonderful book Small Teaching was the first one I reached for after finishing the profoundly disturbing book iGen last week, which described in precise, scientific terms the characteristics of many of the students who are entering our classrooms this fall. Lang’s book provides many research-based strategies for reaching these students. One strategy is to provide small but regular reminders about the ways in which learning the material can lead to having a positive impact on the world. We can do this in our syllabus, on individual assignments, and in the opening and closing minutes of class.

Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016, p. 175.

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