“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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“In 2016, for the first time, the majority of entering college students described their mental health as below average.”

If you teach college students, stop what you are doing and get your hands on this book. The data collected here will change how you see the people who sit in front of you. Twenge argues that the generation born between 1995 and 2012 are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades.  Her assertions are based on her analysis of data drawn from four national studies that 11 million Americans have participated in since the 1990s. If we accept her findings, we’ll have to rethink how to support the learning and development of this fragile generation.

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. 104.

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“We cross from memory into imagination with only a vague awareness of change.”

What are the connections between memory and imagination? Is separateness only an illusion?  These are the two questions that Simon Van Booy explores in this beautiful book.  Readers aren’t handed the answers.  Rather, bits and pieces of the lives of six people are given to us in non-linear order. We have to practically work up a sweat to put them together. The results are astonishing and worth the effort. It’s rare that I begin re-reading a book the moment I finish it the first time, but I did with this one.  The prose is masterful and the images are memorable.

Van Booy, Simon. The Illusion of Separateness. Harper Perennial, 2013, p. 22.

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“Students rated sociability (e.g., friendliness, warmth) as significantly more important than did faculty.”

A 2014 study by Megan Gerhardt evaluated how instructors and students ranked contributors to teaching credibility. While everyone agreed that competence in subject matter and character are most important, students noted a desire for sociability that “has important implications for the classroom experience.” As Sarah Cavanagh observes, “one route to being perceived as trustworthy and competent is to be friendly and warm.”  This is the exact opposite of the advice I received at UW-Madison when I started teaching, which was “Don’t smile before Thanksgiving.” The world is changing, and so are the needs of our students. Should we change too?

Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia UP, 2016, p. 87.


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“He didn’t fit in.”

Even though he was wealthy and influential, Charles Dickens didn’t fit into middle-class life in Victorian England for many reasons. Here are three: He made fun of “society” people in his novels. Instead of writing anonymously, as the other novelists of his day did, Dickens became a celebrity who went on tours to perform his work. He made bold literary choices: His Oliver Twist was the first English novel with a child as the central character – and it was a child who lived in poverty. This biography by Jane Smiley describes Dickens’ “remarkable and disturbing” personal history and literary legacy.

Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens: A Life. Lipper-Penguin, 2002, p. 119.


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“There is a great deal of poetry written and published today that turns its back (sometimes with apparent disdain) upon the reader.”

Who is poetry for?  What is its purpose?  If you like fist fights and barroom brawls, go ahead and ask poets and professors these questions.  You’ll see two sides emerge: One will agree with “the noted American poet” who said “it is the responsibility of readers to educate themselves to a level that they can understand what the poet writes” (xvii).  The other side will agree with Ted Kooser, who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.  He’s editing a new series by poets who “make gifts to their readers” that are “open-handed and conversational,” including this book by Fleda Brown.

Kooser, Ted. Introduction. The Woods Are On Fire, by Fleda Brown. U of Nebraska P, 2017, p. xvii.

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“Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.”

The reader who asked Jonathan Franzen this question touched a nerve. Franzen’s answer — a 30-page essay titled “Mr. Difficult” — describes two models for relationships between writers and readers. In the “Status” model, writers aim to create great art, and if only scholars can appreciate it, so what? In the “Contract” model,” every writer is “first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness” (240). Franzen has a remarkably prickly relationship with many readers. Even his defenders acknowledge he’s “the Internet’s collective punching bag.”

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult.” How to Be Alone: Essays. Picador, 2003, p. 239.

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“There are many of us who need to reprocess our garbage, but who can’t bear the idea of writing memoir . . .”

Jessica Lourey continues: “. . . whether it’s because we are too close to the trauma, don’t want to hurt or be hurt by those we’re writing about, or simply prefer the vehicle of fiction.” Students in my classes on writing memoir have in fact expressed these same concerns. The solution proposed in Rewrite Your Life is to simply write fiction instead of memoir. Writing fiction gives us more freedom, discretion and control.  Novelists, she notes, have “both a shield and a microscope” (25).  In other words, they have the freedom to protect their privacy and to examine their feelings.

Lourey, Jessica. Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction. Conari Press, 2017, p. 16.

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“The pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand.”

What?  Only one book for all the students to pass around?  In England? In many of his novels, Charles Dickens describes how difficult it was for ordinary families to get any sort of education. In Great Expectations, Pip’s family had a hard time scraping together money for a teacher to provide lessons a few evenings a week. Unlike the United States, which by the 1830s was establishing a public school system based on a common education for all its citizens, England did not establish a national school system until 1870, and didn’t make education free for all children until 1890.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Washington Square Press, 1971, p. 69.

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