“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.

Posted in Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in non-fiction, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

“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.

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“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.


Posted in Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.


Posted in non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in non-fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in memoir | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”

Czeslaw Milosz, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, continues, “Thanks to distance the past preserved in our memory is purified and embellished.”  We can consider the past “without our former passions”  so we can find “details that had escaped our attention.”  Rather than creating art “in the moment,” Milosz believed in calmly examining everything from a distance.  This isn’t surprising when you consider that he lived through two world wars in Europe, which he described as “lethal events” that are “comparable only to violent earthquakes.” Under those circumstances, perhaps “distance” is a survival strategy and an approach to art.

Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry. Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. xix.

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Of the students who report having disabilities, the largest and fastest-growing group is students who have ‘invisible disabilities.’”

One of my greatest challenges as an English instructor is to address the learning needs of students with invisible disabilities, such as anxiety disorders. This population is growing at an astonishing rate. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of college students diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems jumped from 10 to 17 percent (Petersen, 2017).  What’s a teacher to do?  When I asked my school’s Disability Resource Services director for advice, he recommended using a flexible Universal Design approach. Universal Design principles suggest using multiple strategies for engaging learners and allowing students to have multiple ways to complete assignments.

Burgstahler, Sheryl and Rebecca Cory. Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Harvard Education Press, 2008.

Posted in Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Education, when rightly understood, will be found to lie in the art of asking apt and fit questions…”

Bronson Alcott continues, “…and in thus leading the mind by its own light to the perception of truth.”  Using discussion questions to develop ideas instead of using the rote learning method to reinforce “the” right ideas was considered outrageous in the 1820s. In fact, Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) was nearly 200 years ahead of his time.  When parents discovered that he believed in “treating pupils with uniform familiarity, and patience, and with the greatest kindness, tenderness and respect” instead of using corporal punishment, they would fire him. Frequently broke, he moved frequently, until Emerson began to provide financial support.

James, Laurie. Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America’s One-Room Schools. Golden Heritage Press, 1994. p. 41.

Posted in non-fiction, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“More often than we think, our limits are self-imposed.”

I once asked the director of our program for non-traditional college students what the biggest challenge was for these students.  Was it ability?  “No,” she said. “It’s their perception of their abilities.  They don’t think they’re smart enough. Then they give up because they think they won’t make it.”  These students aren’t the only ones in the world who underestimate their potential and the importance of effort.  Angela Duckworth cites research that shows that “grit” — perseverance and passion for long-term goals — is an important predictor of success.  To a surprising degree, hard work — not IQ or talent — determines the results.

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016, p. 275.

Posted in non-fiction, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When I was younger, anxiety sometimes flat-out crippled my ability to work.”

In every class I teach, there is at least one student who will talk with me at some point about how high levels of anxiety are preventing him or her from completing assignments. This memoir by Andrea Petersen provides a vivid account of what living with anxiety entails. She writes, “Anxiety is an isolation chamber where worry and fear elbow out human connection” (188).  In addition, Petersen, a contributing writer at the Wall Street Journal, adeptly summarizes dozens of studies and scores of interviews with experts. This book should be required reading for those who work with young adults.

Petersen, Andrea. On Edge: A Journey through Anxiety. Crown, 2017, p. 160.

Posted in memoir, non-fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“The Hopper painting hung on the wall with an indifference so vast it began to feel personal, as though it had been painted for this moment”

The passage continues: “Your troubles are huge and meaningless, it seemed to say, there is only the sun on the side of the house.”  The troubles of the people in this illuminating book are vast indeed: no novelist, including Charles Dickens, reveals more clearly the grim scars of poverty and the shame that comes with every attempt to conceal those scars. Elizabeth Strout doesn’t flinch when she articulates the darkest insights of the people in this masterful work, who attempt to live with pain, even while they are able to see the sun, which they cannot imagine ever deserving.

Strout, Elizabeth. Anything Is Possible. Random House, 2017, p. 85.

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment