Read Like You Mean It

Reblogged from Angelo State University’s Navigating Higher Ed blog:

Back when I was young and still played sports, a baseball coach told us our goal each day was to “practice like we mean it.” The idea, and it’s a cliché we’ve all heard before, is that championships might be won on the playing field but winning foundations are built in the weight room and at practice every day.

I’ve often thought we would be well-served to apply some athletic principles to academic activities.

Of course, it’s possible I just want to blow a whistle really loud during class and wear shorts to work.

The reality, though, is that hard work and intentionality transcend the activity in which you are engaged. There aren’t many jobs or hobbies where being lazy and haphazard helps you gain mastery. You might be the best athlete on the field or the smartest student in the class but if you aren’t putting forth your best efforts, you probably won’t achieve the success you want.

Hustle beats talent, every coach you’ve ever met will tell you, if talent doesn’t hustle.

We can apply the same principle to the classroom. Learning requires that we actively engage with the materials. Good grades might be earned on your exams or your essays, but the foundation for those scores is built in the daily classroom activities and at the library each night.

Learning, of course, is a complex mix of skills that often differ by discipline, but every academic subject requires that we read well. Certainly, first-year students (and anyone who has read this far into the blog) can read, but reading and reading well are two very different things. In fact, reading like a college student involves more than simply flipping the pages and getting to the end of the chapter.

Be Intentional

Reading can be fun, adventurous, wild, exciting, passionate and enlightening. We’ve all had that moment when a book, a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase captured our attention and our imagination. Reading can also be tedious, dull and (when you have eight chapters covering material you find about as exciting as clipping your toenails) disheartening.

Let’s face it. Sometimes reading can be about like shooting 100 free throws a day. The first 10 are exciting. Number 99? Not so much.

Practice, though, makes perfect and as readers we have to remember the reason we’re reading. Before you read, I tell my students, ask what you are trying to gain. Be intentional. Read your syllabus. Review your class notes. Why are you being asked to read this chapter? How is this information important and why do you need to know it? We might not be in control of what we have to read, but we can be in control of what we want to learn from the text.

Location, Location, Location

Where you read often matters just as much as how you read. Reading well requires that you focus your attention on the goals you set forth. If I had a dollar for every student who told me he concentrated better while listening to music, I would be sitting on a beach feeling sorry for everyone still sitting at their desks putting in a full day’s work.

If, I like to ask those students, I told you to learn the material by tomorrow or I will take your cell phone, smash it into tiny little bits, and send you back to junior high gym class, would you listen to music with the TV on while your roommates sit around playing poker and telling jokes?

One of the more important lessons incoming college students have to learn is that reading at this level is a high-stakes event. We have a compressed time frame and your professors expect you to read and retain information in a relatively short period of time. Since that’s the case, reading well necessitates that we find that location that allows us to focus all our energies on the words on the page.

No One Runs a Marathon on the First Day

I had a friend who, at 38, decided he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40. When he started training, he didn’t focus on distance. Instead, he ran for certain periods of time each day. The goal was to slowly but surely increase the length of time he could run. Doing so allowed him to also increase the distance.

Reading works the same way (and sometimes feels like a marathon). See how long you can read before you start thinking about food, your boyfriend, your roommate’s nasty habit of clipping his nose hairs each night, or what happened on “The Walking Dead” last night. When you get distracted, stop reading but try, each day, to extend the amount of time you can read while focused on the material. You’ll be amazed when the 10 minutes turn into an hour.

Look It Up

Since we haven’t smashed your cell phone yet, let that tiny little electronic brain serve you instead of enslaving you. Words have meaning and the people writing books choose words carefully. There’s no shame in not having a Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but there’s no reason to be lazy about it. Your library probably has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but Merriam Webster and Dictionary.com usually work pretty well, too.

Listen to Your Eyes

Reading should be an activity. Involve other senses in the process. If you read a particularly thorny paragraph, read it out loud. Find a friend to read it to you. Hear the words as often as possible.

Don’t stop there, though. When we read, we can often find meaning by visualizing the text. In my literature classes, I tell students to cast the roles and film the story in their heads. My colleague has students draw their thoughts. There is no doubt that words can confuse us, and we can get lost in the language within the chapters. When that happens, switch gears. Doodle your ideas, map out your confusion, and draw or listen your way to understanding.

Learning Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The other day in class, a student raised his hand and said, “I hate to be rude, but I don’t understand . . .” While I can’t speak for all professors everywhere, asking for clarification isn’t rude. Never be afraid to walk into class or stop by your professor’s office confused. If you are practicing hard and hustling, we want to help. Remember that your professors love this stuff. Being confused isn’t rude, but not working hard, then asking for help might be.

Read, Rest and Repeat

I’ve never met a good hitter who takes one swing during batting practice. Reading well, like hitting a fast-pitched softball, jumping hurdles, or setting a quick ball in the middle, takes practice, repetition and time. Make sure, I tell my students each semester, you have time to read, rest and repeat.

Most of all, though, I tell my students, you have to commit yourself to read like you mean it. After all, that textbook probably cost you (or your parents) a pretty penny. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of it.

Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

Nicholas Kristoff used his Feb. 15 Sunday Review op-ed piece to offer a clarion call to college professors to stop cloistering themselves like medieval monks, because we need you! Kristoff’s argument, simply put, is that too many academics have abandoned the public arena in favor of specialized fields and “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” 

Kristoff admits that American anti-intellectualism plays a role in marginalizing some of our sharpest minds. Everyone from Rick Santorum to White Goodman willingly, and at times aggressively, looks down on those who go around “philosophizing.” Heck, drive down almost any highway in the state of Texas and you will see at least one bumper sticker telling you “My son beat up your honor student.” One of my own blog posts about writing was once dismissed as “academic,” and, presumably, a waste of that reader’s precious time. I’m guessing he didn’t become a faithful follower. 

But, Kristoff tells us, the real problem is within the academy itself. Sociology is “dominated by the left” and “dismissed by the right.” Too many fields, he tells us, have abandoned “area studies” in favor of specialists “who know little that is practical about the world.” For example, he lets us know, scholars were the most oblivious to the rising waters of the Arab Spring. Presumably, Kristoff is claiming they are a bunch of eggheads who spent all their time relying on quantitative numbers and theoretical constructs and forgot the Arab world is full of actual human beings. Of course, their research was probably funded by grants from organizations or politicians looking for data and best practices.

I’ll willingly admit that I have some sympathy for Kristoff’s argument. Too many college professors, the best minds of many generations, do lock themselves in the ivory tower and avoid the public spotlight. Many of them, dare I say most of them, restrict their intellectual conversations to the classroom while studiously avoiding “casting pearls through Facebook and Twitter.”

Even though we all know Facebook is the ideal place to engage in philosophical discussions: just ask my friend who went crazy bonkers protecting the Duck Commanders’ right to hate on the gays and blacks. Twitter provides an even better venue for complex conversations about power structures and human behavior. If we focus on the political disc (oops. That’s 140 characters. Did I shape any behavior?)

In what might be considered irony by some of those cloistered monks, the Sunday Editorial article, “The New College Campus,” points out that administrative employees on American college campuses are growing at the same rate as adjunct professors.

Essentially, according to the Sunday New York Times, the only things not growing on college campuses are full-time professors and the public influence of the few who are left.

What Kristoff also fails to mention, of course, is that our last bastion of publicly funded intellectuals is dying a slow, painful death.

Or, at least, being attacked on a daily basis.

Education and teaching has increasingly become about efficiency, learning outcomes, assessment, and other quantifiable numbers and theoretical constructs. Even our egghead in chief, President Obama (a law professor, no less as Kristoff notes) is seeking an educational accountability funding bill that will do everything it can to reduce colleges to factories that output products. For schools that can’t produce them fast enough, whether the consumer wants to graduate or not, we’ll cut them from the small public teat still exists.

In the meantime, Governors across America are creating $10,000 degrees, moving classes into the online environment, and pushing programs to measure competence (because, really, we should all be striving for competence as our highest level of achievement, right?). Kristoff himself points to the avenues open to us to spread our message more efficiently.

All the while, we cut full-time faculty and hire administrators to count and measure the beans, build climbing walls, and increase class sizes. Boards of Regents (or Boards of Governors depending on where you live) are made of business people with no higher ed experience and Chancellors are increasingly ex-politicians who are as qualified to run a university as Max Baucus is to be ambassador to China.

Too many of these people, not surprisingly, miss the point of educational and intellectual discourse completely.

Last year, retiring Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance told the Texas Tribune that he thinks “all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.”

We research Shakespeare’s 13th play, Dr. Hance, because we are seeking to understand the autobiography of the human soul. 

Richard D. Altick writes in The Art of Literary Research that “Literature, then, is an eloquent artistic document . . . whatever the practical uses of history may be, one of the marks of civilized man is his absorbed interest in the emotional and intellectual adventures of earlier generations.” We can’t mark that absorbed interest with quantifiable data, pie charts, and practical assessments.

We publish in our own journals because even Dr. Hance, a man tasked with running one of the most underrated college systems in America, doesn’t value that research. Many of us avoid public discourse because our voices are obscured and lost in the cacophony of voices within the maelstrom of ideology dominating social media. It is, quite frankly, hard to get a word in edgewise and not get a sore throat trying.

More important, though, Mr. Kristoff, is that ideas take time, develop slowly, and with a complexity that can’t really exist in a MOOC, a 15 minute video, or a format that encourages clicking on the “Like” button.

They also can’t be pushed out like an advertisement for Lands End or a Nigerian scam artist selling shares of his dead uncle’s estate. 

Ideas and intellectual discourse require give and take, conversation, reflection, and revision. Our philosophizers, those folks purveying the wisdom Mr. Kristoff says he values, are hard at work on college campuses already. Instead of asking them to speak louder, maybe his next call should be for people to start listening more closely.

There Are No Emergencies in the English Department

stressedimageSusan Adams, over at Forbes Magazine, sent the professoriate into an uproar the other day claiming “College Professor” as the least stressful job of 2013. Daniel Luzar, blogging on the College Guide at Washington Monthly, has addressed some of the flaws in Adams’ article, noting that Adams should have restricted her claim to tenured, full-professors. She would still have generated some uproar, but her claim wouldn’t have cast all my colleagues teaching part-time at three different institutions, graduate students teaching first year classes while taking classes, and my tenure track colleagues who are, in essence, on a 6 year job interview into the same boat as someone like me.

As a full-professor, there is stress. My colleagues and I work long hours. I’ve seen various reports estimating that college professors work 55-70 hours a week. Most of my colleagues work their tails off doing research, teaching, and performing service. Concomitantly, I would hazard a guess that, like Ms. Adams, most people don’t have the slightest idea what a college professor does or how universities work. When people ask me, I explain that a university is akin to a small self-contained city. We have our own police force, our own physical plant, maintenance crew, and food services. All of these departments have to work with the academic side of the house to create a learning environment for students. In my years here, I’ve been on just about every committee you can imagine, most of them having very little to do with the contemporary novel. More to the point, in an era of continued budget cuts, we often have to make hard decisions that impact people’s jobs.

My tenure-track colleagues, those still working in that probationary period, are under a great deal of stress. I look back on my 70-80 hour weeks, working every Saturday morning, measuring my words carefully at department meetings, carving out time to do some scholarship after grading 50 essays by 18 year olds and thank god I never have to do that again. Wondering year to year if your contract will be renewed and knowing that being turned down for tenure is a career ending moment is not as much fun as it sounds. I’m not sure I have the energy to get tenure twice.

Granted, I still work 50-55 hours a week, slogging through essays, preparing for classes, and trying to maintain some modicum of scholarship, but working hard and being stressed are two different things.

So I say with all seriousness to Ms. Adams and my colleagues: “Hell, yeah!” I’ll not apologize for choosing a career and working hard to reach a level where I have the most stress free job in America and I don’t think my colleagues should do so either. Last time I checked, and I’ve never conducted a formal poll, but most professionals work really hard when they are starting out so they can eventually enjoy the fruits of that labor. No one tries to move up the corporate ladder because the jobs are worse at the top.

I’m not sure I have the most stress free job in America, but I’m more than willing to admit that my stress level is much lower than a brain surgeon, an 8th grade math teacher in the inner city, my brother-in-law who works as a VP at a bank, or the person working at the customer complaint desk at the hospital. When the economy tanked a few years ago, my classes got bigger, my students got less prepared, and my days got longer. But, and this is important, I didn’t come home every day wondering if the company was going under like my brother-in-law. When we cycled through 4 Provosts (our chief academic officer) and changed presidents, I didn’t worry that I would lose my job like my dad did when he worked for the city and they went through administrative changes.  And when I have a bad day in the classroom, no one dies.

Yet, Ms. Adams’ article has struck a nerve, a nerve I’m sure that is rubbed raw by what seems a constant barrage of criticism, budget cuts, and direct attacks on universities (and education in general). Having the least stressful job in America is, it seems to some, yet another attack because it implies “easiest” job in America. We’re like the surfers of the professional world the article implies. I understand the criticism. I’m pleased, at least, that the photo of the professor looks professional. She could have picked my environmental studies colleague whose official photo is set against the backdrop of the Chisos Mountains. (That guy really does have the most stress free job in America!)

But when my other brother-in-law emailed me the other day congratulating me for having the most stress free job in America, I told him I would get back to him after I got out of the hot tub. It was 2:00 in the afternoon. When my wife and I take three week camping trips during the summer, I’m more than happy to text photos of our adventures to my friends slaving away at their desk. I don’t even have a problem texting friends when I’m at conferences thanking them for their tax dollars so I can travel to Toronto, Indianapolis, and other places to present my research.

Most importantly, when people wonder if I ever work hard, I’m happy to invite them to the club. All they have to do is go to college for 8 -10 years, work 80 hours a week for 6 years, and struggle to do the best job you can while under economic attack by your state legislature. The pay off, though, is worth it.

When I was a graduate student living in married student housing with my wife and small son taking three classes and teaching three classes, many a day would find me virtually running through the basement of the Academic building. I had to get to class, get to the library, get home, and I needed to be in all those places 10 minutes ago. Or so I thought. One day, one of my friends shouted out as I rushed out of the office, “Slow down! There are no emergencies in the English department.” And he’s right.

More importantly, I didn’t go to school for 10 years and work 70 hours a week for 6 years so I could be stressed out. No cubicles for me: I’m a free-range worker and proud of it.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)