What Does It Mean To Learn

It seems like a simple question: we all know what it means to learn. We’ve been learning our whole lives and, if you got into grad school, you’re probably pretty good at learning.

Sometimes, when we are good at something, we don’t think much about how that thing works.

Addressing the question of what it means to learn is the core of your teaching philosophy and practice, your pedagogy, and it’s worth taking some time to think about.

Everything about teaching flows from how you conceive of learning.

For instance, what will you use to grade your students? Well, that depends on what they need to learn. If they need to learn the specialized vocabulary of your field it would make sense to have a test or quiz on vocabulary.

If you want to see if they can put what they’ve learned into practice then it makes sense to have a practicum.

If you want them to acquire research skills then it makes sense to assign a research paper or annotated bibliography.

In my classes we use the following definition of learning:

Learning is the process by which you connect new information to your lived reality.

For me, as an instructor, this means that I want students to feel that the skills and knowledge they are acquiring have real baring on and connect to their every day lives.

This definition of learning shapes almost everything about how I teach from my attendance policy to the texts I assign to how I grade their work.

I primarily teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science so there are a variety of skills I want my students to acquire. I want them to learn media criticism, textual exposition, research methods, and rhetoric.

There are a variety of ways I could help them acquire these skills from quizzes and tests to essays to community services.

The reason it’s important to think critically about what it means to learn for your subject and your students is because understanding what learning is helps you decide where you can cut back on time intensive tasks like grading.

In our previous post we talked about how most new instructors tend to put too much time and effort into teaching for a variety of reasons. Even if you want to take our advice to stop working so much and start timing your teaching tasks it can be difficult to know what to cut from your teaching to-do list.

To figure out what to cut compare what you are doing to how you want your students to learn.

If you need your students to learn vocabulary then it might make sense to set up a Blackboard or Canvas quiz tat is automatically graded rather than you individually grading vocan quizzes.

If you want to promote engagement with reading it might make sense to have your students turn in a written response that they simply get credit for doing. You can pull a few to read to get a sense of how the class is relating to the readings but don’t fall into the trap of reading them all.

These are only a few possible solutions, but the point is to limit what you do to what benefits your students rather than doing all the things you think you should be doing.

Hopefully you can take some time this weekend to think of ways to limit what you teach not to how you’ve been taught to teach but what is best for your students and for you.

On Monday, we’ll begin talking about how to promote intrinsic motivation an how this can make your life easier.

Just One Day

Listen.

I have something important to tell you.

You may not believe me, but I promise that what I’m about to tell you is 1000% true and it’s important for you to sit with this knowledge:

Every working professor I know is A MESS when it comes to teaching.

No.

Really.

I’m not saying they aren’t good teachers, or even great teachers.

I’m saying that they are a mess.

They all feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading they have. They are all preparing their lectures hours, or minutes, before class. Many of them are reusing a syllabus from the past or changing their syllabus on the fly.

[Fun Fact: Literally as I was writing this piece one of my favorite profs, an award-winning teacher, on campus asked if I could help them organize their graded in-class activities to hand back. This is one of the best teachers I know.]

When I was an undergraduate I revered my professors. They seemed so put-together, so smart, so grown-up. They were clever and funny and gave no fucks–all qualities I aspired to.

I began teaching myself in my MA program. I taught two sections of public speaking and, to prepare for this, there was a four day training on how to use the assigned textbook, and avoid doing things that could get the university sued. For the first semester, all the public speaking TAs met weekly to go over how to grade speeches and so on.

This is more teaching training and oversight than many first-time graduate student teachers or TAs get.

I was incredibly nervous to start teaching. I felt I could never measure up to the amazing teachers I had as an undergraduate. I wasn’t a real adult (TM). I didn’t have my shit together. I didn’t know anything about anything. What if these students saw right through me on the first day?!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had an amazing teaching mentor and she said something to me that I want to pass on to you:

You only ever need to be one day ahead of your students. If you’re a week ahead of them they’ll think you’re god. 

Reader, over a decade of experience has taught me that these words are true.

Here’s the thing: The inside view always, always, always looks worse than the outside view.

When it comes to your teaching you have the inside view. You are constantly aware of how much there is to learn and, conversely, how little you really know.

In contrast, your students have the outside view. They are aware of how much more than them you know and how much they have to learn.

My favorite example of this is a grad student friend of mine getting their PhD in History. When they were assigned to teach the second half of the US History Survey (1877-Presentish) ordered several supplementary texts online including one about the speeches and policies of Henry Kissinger.

When I asked why on earth they were reading a book about Kissinger their response was, “Well, I don’t know that much about Kissinger and if a student asks a question about him I want to be able to answer it.”

Reader, that person, now a PhD in History, has taught the second half of the US Survey several times and no one has ever asked a nuanced question about Kissinger that would merit reading a whole book about him if he wasn’t already the subject of your dissertation.

Let go of the myth of the perfect professor who knows everything about their topic. If that person ever existed they don’t anymore. It’s just not how the US university system works these days.

All you need to be is one day ahead of your students. In practice, what that means is you go into the classroom that day knowing what’s about to happen and your student doesn’t.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

If you can begin or end the class by articulating how today’s material will connect to the next few classes they really will think you’re god.

Lastly, being prepared for the day doesn’t mean knowing everything for the day.

If you are lucky you will have clever students who ask nuanced questions that you may not know the answer to. That’s ok. It’s perfectly okay to tell a student, “I hadn’t thought of that but let me do some digging and get back to you next class.” Your students know that no one person can think of every angle on a topic and being honest about what you don’t know will often build your credibility.

When teaching, don’t think you have to be able to lay out the whole semester ahead of time. You can take it one day at a time and, for heaven’s sake, don’t read any books about Henry Kissinger.

 

How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

Free to Fail

My birthday was last week and I through a party. In lieu of a cake I made dozens and dozens of macarons.

They were delicious (it was the cake batter buttercream) and my guests were very impressed.

Several people told me that they didn’t know I had such advanced baking skills as macarons have a reputation as being particularly difficult to make.

But here’s the thing about macarons: they aren’t that hard to make if you have the right equipment. To make macarons you need the following ingredients:

  • blanched almond flour
  • powedered sugar
  • cream of tartar
  • egg whites
  • granulated sugar
  • flavored extracts or emulsions (if you want to add them)
  • food coloring (if you want)
  • filling (I like buttercream but you can use jam, ganache, or whatever you want)

Other than the blanched almond flour, most of the ingredients are common place and not very expensive.

The equipment, however, is a different matter.

Macarons are ridiculously hard to make if you don’t have a stand mixer to make that crucial meringue. You can make a meringue with a hand mixer or, god forbid, a whisk but it takes sooooo long and will tire out your arms.

You also need something to sift the almond flour and powdered sugar together.

Once you mix the batter together and it gets to the stage where you can make a full figure eight with the batter sliding off the spatula you’re ready to put it in the piping bag. Piping bags are a wonderful invention but they take some getting used to.

From there, pipe the macarons to the size you want, bang the tray on the counter three times, let them sit for twenty minutes, and put them in the oven.

After that, you’ll probably have pretty good macarons.

You see, the process is time consuming and resource intensive, but it’s not particularly difficult.

I was thinking about this while I was making endless macarons for my party and realized that most skills are that way: not particularly difficult if you have the resources, the time, and the freedom to fail (as I did with my first several batches of macarons).

Dissertations are the same way. The PhD process, from course work to prelims, is designed to give you the resources you need to complete the project.

If you’ve completed those things then I promise that you have what you need to write and defend a dissertation.

To make that crucial transition from ABD to PhD, you need to give yourself the other two things: time and the freedom to fail.

This month we’ve been covering the latter. Next month, we’ll be covering the former.

Part of why we started with letting go of perfection is because you will find that, when you let go of being perfect, you gain a lot of time.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice. A lot of authors more famous than me have said the same thing. There’s the Jane Smiley quote, “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” There’s also Shannon Hale’s quote, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

I could pull up a dozen more quotes but the point is always the same: let go of perfection in your work, especially your first drafts. This is necessary for writers to function generally but particularly necessary for academic writers. You have a committee whose job it is to assess the quality of your work. Your job is to do the work. Let them do theirs and you do yours.

Is it more complicated than that? Sure, there are nuances, but if you want to make any kind of progress you have to give yourself the freedom to fail.