Students and the Joys and Travails of College Teaching

July 16, 2014

Argentina's Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Argentina’s Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Maybe not to that extreme, but there are circumstances where teaching a college course can be a joy or torture or even sometimes both at the same time. Some of this has to do with the actual nature of the course, some of it with my disposition, some of this with the types of students that walk through the door. But, in teaching somewhere around sixty courses since ’91, working with a civic education nonprofit and consulting with another one, I’ve found two large categories of students who have made teaching more enjoyable over the years, though not always an actual joy. One group has been graduate students, the other high school students aspiring for college.

There are a number of reasons why, of course. Some are pretty easy to understand. High school students aspiring to go to college or taking college-level courses are often ambitious and motivated, students who are amenable to learning. Graduate students often aspire to be better at their specific profession of study, which in my experience, has this group of students essentially aspiring to be some version of me. Even the brown-nosers in both groups tend to have the motivation necessary to be better students, or at least, to look like they’re better students.

It also has helped over the years that the several hundred high school and graduate students who’ve been in my classrooms have actually wanted to be there. Doing a week in Washington to learn how Capitol Hill really works, or a summer course at Princeton on AP US History or taking one of my undergraduate course over the years at the University of Pittsburgh, UDC and UMUC, those students (and their parents) made the choice to take those steps. Those students wanted to get into a college of their choice, to be well prepared, to make themselves better students, and perhaps even, better people.

History graduate students have choices, for the most part, in terms of which graduate seminars they take and in their specific cultural, geographic area and time period focus. In my experience teaching school of education courses, though, at Duquesne and George Washington University (courses like History of American Education, Multicultural Education or History of American Education Reform), the students I’ve taught in those courses chose to be there. They chose to read as many as eight books in eight weeks, to write term papers and research papers and do original research. Those students wanted to become better as teachers, as researchers, and in a few cases, to become college professors themselves.

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country's World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2014/).

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country’s World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/).

So what’s different teaching undergraduate courses with undergraduate students? Well, they’ve tended to complain the most about general education requirements, ones that require them to take a course in US or World History (my African American History students are generally happier about taking the course). But that’s not all. A fair number have treated me as their enemy, not as their professor or a teacher invested in their learning. Of course these students were in school to complete a degree. But college was no longer an aspiration. It was now a reality, with all of the responsibilities and complications that come with the five-year march toward a four-year degree. For traditional college-aged students, there have always been competing interests, the need to organize a life that involves working 15-20 hours per week and some semblance of a social life, and attempting to figure out a major (often not history).

With my adult learners, those pressures come from at least three directions. The personal pressure to perform academically, the workplace, familial and parental pressures, and the pressure of learning how to be a college student on the fly. Add to this mix the general lack of academic preparation for college for those over twenty-five. All of this has frequently led to a combination of insufficient motivation to learn — even when I’ve explained the “what’s-in-it-for-them” piece — and a quiet hostility toward the process of college matriculation. For this group as a whole — traditional college students and adult learners — aspirations can frequently turn into Being and Nothingness, or rather, a state of being and meaninglessness.

This mindset has been the most difficult aspect of my job as a teaching professor over the years. It’s somewhere between extremely hard and absolutely impossible to teach students whose minds have been closed to learning or self-improvement, whose idea of an education is a piece of paper and a rubber stamp. That most of those students who’ve made my work most difficult are undergraduates isn’t surprising, though. That’s part of the job.

Still, there are times where I miss those days when I taught or worked with high school students fully motivated to get into college, who already had a sense of where they wanted their lives to go. There are times when I miss a grad student angling for a higher grade or with a real interest in my writing and research. For better and sometimes for worse, at least they’re interested in the learning enterprise.


Know Food, Know The World

June 4, 2011

Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Icing, 2011. Source: http://www.tastebook.com

I don’t really dedicate much of my blogging to what I do these days, my college teaching work. I guess that I kick up enough dust talking about my Mount Vernon years, my Humanities years, my Carnegie Mellon years, and my former jobs and bosses as it is.

But this is a fairly positive post (mostly, anyway). It about something that I learned recently while teaching one of my World History courses. Something so simple that it’s amazing sometimes how stupid I can be.

I realized one day in discussing the age of exploitation, um, well, exploration that one of the best ways to think about this period — heck, any period in world history, really — begins and ends with one word: food. I’d taught this course a couple of times for University of Maryland University College already. Not to mention having served as a teaching assistant under the great Peter Stearns while a grad student at Carnegie Mellon a decade and a half before (see my “Ego Inflation” post from last month).

German Chocolate Cake, 2011. Source:http://blogs.courier-journal.com. Meet a cake that was never German, but named by an English guy. And, since when do coconuts grow in Europe or the US?

But on that fall evening in ’09, looking at exploration patterns, commerce patterns and the state of the world circa 1600 CE, it hit me how I could just about reorganize every aspect of the way I’d been teaching World History by just looking at how much food has influenced it. Every bite we take, everything we imbibe, has some history attached to it, and with it, stories of bloody conflict, imperial conquest or rare attempts at true humanity and cooperation.

This is about much more than Jared Diamond’s books on the rise and fall of civilizations because of resources and the lack thereof. Commodities like salt, sugar, black pepper and olive oil have all been written about over the past fifteen years. It’s fairly obvious that these spices and other foodstuffs were fundamental in the histories of the Middle East, ancient Greece and Rome, India, Timbuktu and Western Europe over the past 5,000 years.

Still, I’m not really talking about that kind of history, either. It’s more about something as simple as taking a modern dish and using its ingredients to tell a story. Take something like a chocolate cake with vanilla icing. If the ingredients are natural and not ones cooked up at a chemical plant in northern New Jersey, then they’ve come from all over the world. Cocoa, the main ingredient to mix with the flour, is from the cacao plant, which originally from South America, but is primarily produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Sugar’s needed to sweeten it, and though originally from India, has been grown in Florida, Louisiana and in the Caribbean for centuries. One of the main economic drivers for the enslavement of Africans was the European need to rot out their teeth with the stuff.

Vanilla extract or vanilla beans are originally from Mexico and other parts of Central America. But the largest producers of it are Indonesia and especially Madagascar. There’s history in every gram of devil’s food cake with vanilla icing that we eat.

You could do the same thing with a “traditional” Chinese stir-fry. Especially if ingredients like baby corn or

Sweet-and-sour-chicken, 2011. Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com

sweet and sour sauce are added to the mix. That’s because baby corn and tomatoes (the latter the main ingredient in sweet and sour sauce) are both from the Americas, not Asia or Europe. Both arrived in Ming China nearly 500 years ago.

Every dish, whether invented in 2011 CE or 2011 BCE, has a rich story attached to it. From that story, we can all find important patterns in world history, cultural development, domination and destruction within. It may not be the most profound thing I’ve ever stumbled upon. Still, I didn’t get this from Peter Stearns or Jared Diamond. If anything, I might’ve gotten this from Forrest Gump.


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