Tag Archives: New Semester

Creating the World Anew: Thoughts on a New Semester

Steve Volk, August 30, 2015

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs celebrated her 100th birthday on June 27. For those who don’t know her, Grace Lee Boggs is a philosopher, activist, teacher, and an inspiration. Her father, Chin Lee, ran a restaurant in Toishan, China, before emigrating to Providence, RI, where Grace Lee was born. Facing the enormous obstacles of race and poverty, she was nonetheless able to enroll in Barnard College on a scholarship. There she followed some inner voice that pointed her towards philosophy. She went on to complete her doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr.

In the 1940s there were no jobs for a Chinese American woman in the academy, and certainly not in philosophy. So when she moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, it was for a $10 a week job at the University of Chicago’s library; she lived rent-free in the basement of a nearby building. Grace Lee Boggs, an adherent of Hegel, has long argued that one has to suffer the negative in order to make progress, that the greatest lesson we can learn is to “make a way out of no way.” And so for her, the reality of living in a rat-infested building was not without its positive outcomes. Her determination to address her own basement circumstances led her to a group of African American activists who were fighting the same miserable housing conditions. She soon became a tenants’ rights activist, and eventually met and married James (Jimmy) Boggs, a black auto worker and labor activist.

Grace Lee and James Boggs

Grace Lee and James Boggs

They moved to Detroit in 1953, where she still lives, always a philosopher, always an activist, always an educator working with others to “make a way out of no way.” Grace Lee Boggs has been an active participant and valued voice in the movement for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black power. In 1994, she co-founded Detroit Summer, “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective” that functions as a training ground for activists, attracting young people across the country each year.

I’ve been thinking about Grace Lee Boggs this week as I wrestle myself into the proper frame of mind for starting a new semester, a process which invariably reminds me of the importance of what it is we do as teachers. In the process, I came across a fairly recent interview with Boggs with Krista Tippett’s on the latter’s “On Being” podcast. Boggs spoke about what I would call the “physics” of social change. Referencing the work of Margaret Wheatley , she “pointed out how Newtonian science and scientific rationalism has made us think of life and reality as made up of particles. [But] quantum physics,” she offered in contrast, “gives us the opportunity to look at change in a very different way. Not in terms of mass but in terms of organic connections and emerging changes, of changes that take place at a lower level so that at a mass level [they] have more permanence and more reality.”

Grace and Jimmy Boggs - 1990s

Grace and Jimmy Boggs – 1990s

Boggs’ analogy struck home, positioned as I am (and as we are) at the entry door to the semester. In her strong, deeply intelligent, century-old voice, speaking from the heart of Detroit, a city kicked to the curb by the wealthy and powerful, she argued that it was an unparalleled time to be alive, the best of times. While she lamented that we “no longer recognize that we have within us the capacity to create the world anew,” she affirmed that “there’s something about people beginning to seek solutions by doing things for themselves, by deciding that they are going to create new concepts of economy, new concepts of governance, new concepts of education, and that they have the capacity within themselves to do that.” Grace Lee Boggs, an activist for 75 years, looked back at her early years in the struggle. Recalling lessons learned from Hegel, she reflected on the difference between the possible and the necessary. In the 1960s, she observed, she and other radicals thought they should address only what was necessary. Now she believes that focusing on the possible is “so much richer” because it demands creativity and imagination, and it is imagination that opens up the world that you can bring into being.

Our work, Boggs reminded me, is the work of opening the possible to, for, and with our students. It is, to return to Hegel, helping them understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “The goal to be reached,” he wrote in The Phenomenology of the Mind, “is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary…”

David Gooblar’s most recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that “for our students, particularly the first-years who are right now in a near frenzy of anticipation for their college careers to begin – we [teachers] are the university.” Not the administrators, coaches, or buildings. I don’t actually agree; our students will come to define the college and their years here in a myriad of ways, from the intellectual engagement of the classroom to the thrill of performing on Hall Auditorium’s main stage, or in Finney, or on the athletic fields. For many, college will be the quantum mechanics of combining with others to make “organic changes.” But I do agree with him that “we are uniquely invested with the power to shape our students’ college experience” as well as their ideas about what their purpose in life might be. As Henry Giroux has written, pedagogy is an act of intervention, a commitment to the future. It’s always good to remember that through our interventions, we can help our students explore the idea of the possible, appreciate the difficulty, as well as the pleasures, of the journey to wisdom, and encourage in them the creativity and imagination that will carry them to own their education and shape their future.

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I always turn to two sources as particularly useful when thinking about our incoming students. Our own schools are eager to give us data on what states and countries our students hail from, how well they did on their SAT’s, and how many edited their high school newspapers.  The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an “Almanac” each August that gives a broader sense of incoming students (always reported with a one-year delay; this year’s Almanac, for example, reports on “Freshmen at 4-Year Colleges, Fall 2014.” (Counting all undergraduates, some 18.5 million students were enrolled in 2- and 4-year programs in the spring of 2015, about 13 million of whom were in 4-year institutions.)

So, looking just at the first years, what can we say about first-year students?

  • 66.7% are White/Caucasian; 12.8% Asian American/Asian; 11.1% African-American/Black; 16.6% Latino (including Mexican-American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other) [All classifications are from the Almanac.]
  • 13.5% of entering students come from families earning less than $25,000 a year and 41.8% from families earning $100,000 or more.
  • Most (47.2%) defined themselves as “middle of the road” politically, with 31.7% selecting “Liberal” or “Far left,” and 21% choosing “Conservative” or “Far right.”
  • In their last year of high school, in an average week, 57% spent 5 hours or less studying; 48% spent less than one hour working for pay; 55.7% spent less than one hour reading for pleasure.
  • 61.3% reported that they tutored another student “frequently” or “occasionally” during the last year, while 43.1% admitted falling asleep in class, and 52.5% failed to complete their homework on time.
  • This is always one of my favorite data points: 71% placed themselves in the “highest 10%” or “above average” in terms of their “academic ability.” Hmmm. On the other hand, only 47.5% put themselves in those two categories when evaluating their math ability and 46.1% in terms of their writing ability.
  • They deem themselves, by very large majorities, “very” or “somewhat” strong as regards empathy, “tolerance of others with different beliefs,” or their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people.
  • What did they see as “very important” reasons for going to college? 86% said it was “to be able to get a better job” and 73% “to be able to make more money,” while 47% said it was to “make me a more cultured person.” Just so we’re not too disheartened, 82% said that it was very important “to learn more about things that interest me” while at college!

My other go-to source is Beloit’s “Mindset” list, a yearly list that points out what traditional-age students entering college that year would not have experienced or known. For current first-year students, most of whom were born in 1997, here are a few tidbits that caught my eye.

Since our incoming students have been on the planet:

  • Google has always been there with them, as has South Park, hybrid cars, and Harry Potter. The Lion King (Julie Taymor ’74) has always been on Broadway; Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO; and Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  • Our incoming students have never had to lick a postage stamp, could always get Phish Food from Ben and Jerry’s (Jerry Greenfield ’73), watch CNN in Spanish, and tune in to “This American Life” (Alex Bloomberg ’89, producer). And the New York Times was always printed with color photographs!

Have a great semester!

Preparing for a new semester: Make plans now to manage your future stress

Originally published in the “Prof. Hacker” blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 28, 2009.

By George Williams (with Oberlin context additions from Steve Volk).

Whether you’re a student or an instructor or a researcher or some combination of those things, your semester is about to get very, very busy. No, seriously. Unfortunately, this means that your stress level is about to go up significantly–unless you’re a zen master who’s learned to bend like a willow in a heavy storm, in which case please contact team ProfHacker a.s.a.p. so we can ask you to be our official therapist or offer you a position as one of our writers. Natalie Angier of The New York Times, reports that your “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop,” according to a new study to be published in Science.  (You can read more about stress and anxiety on this NYT “Times Topics” page.)

Fortunately, the causes of your stress are easy to predict because the ProfHacker labs have developed a patented crystal ball that looks into the future the semester-long pattern tends to repeat itself over and over again, with some variations depending on circumstances.

Here’s what you need to do right now: anticipate what’s going to frustrate or overwhelm you and make plans for keeping the stress that results to a minimum.

We’re team ProfHacker, and we’re here to help. What follows are a few specific suggestions learned from experience.

1. Learn to say “No” gracefully but firmly. Students will ask for extensions on deadlines or object to your course policies or complain about a grade. Colleagues will ask you to be on committees. Community members will ask you to volunteer for projects. Family members will wonder why you’re not flying home for the 3-day weekend that’s coming up. Here’s what you must learn how to say when you decide it’s appropriate: “Thank you for taking the time to contact me. Unfortunately, I need to say no right now because my plate is full. I understand your needs, but I’ve already made my plans for the semester and it won’t be possible to make the changes you’re asking for. Here’s a suggestion for what you might do: (fill in the blank, but perhaps point them in the direction of someone else who could help them). I hope you’ll understand my reasons, and (optional: ) I hope you’ll understand why I have to say no.” Women, especially, are raised to be accommodating to the needs of others, and this can be a recipe for disaster. However, you cannot do everything for everyone or be all things for all people. If your correspondents fail to respect your “No,” then say “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I’ve learned that if I say ‘Yes’ to everything, I might as well say ‘Yes’ to nothing. I can either do a good job on a limited number of things, or I can do a bad job at a great many things. I don’t want to do a bad job at anything. Thank you for understanding.” Updated to add: You should say this as soon as the request is made; don’t make the mistake of procrastinating so that you can think about it or because the idea of saying “No” makes you uncomfortable. Just do it. You’ll be a lot more uncomfortable if you have to keep hearing, “Did you get my email? Have you made a decision? Did you get my email? Have you made a decision?”

[Steve: Knowing WHEN to say know is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes it’s obvious (e.g. when a colleague in asks you to join her panel at your professional conference to present a paper that is only marginally connected to what you are working on at the moment; when a student asks you to attend his lacrosse game on your daughter’s birthday, etc.), but sometimes it’s not. Perhaps your Chair asks you to take on an obligation that is relatively time consuming, or the Dean’s office asks you to be on a committee that you consider very important, but this is the year that you have know you have to finish your book manuscript. If you are unsure – particularly if you are a junior faculty – ask a colleague in the department or elsewhere for advice. On many of these matters, they will know better when you really can’t say “No” and when it’s OK.]

2. Get some sleep. Although–as they say–your mileage may vary on this one, you simply cannot sustain a work life that requires you to stay up until it’s almost time to get up. Either learn to make do with the time that you have available to you or cut back on the number of responsibilities that you have. If you’re not getting the necessary 6-to-9 hours of sleep a night that most people need, you’re going to crash and burn at some point. Even Superman–who doesn’t require sleep (back me up on this one, comic book fanboys/girls)–needs to dream.

3. Exercise. Go for a walk, keep up your running habit, take yoga classes, [go to the] gym–whatever it is that makes your body move and start to release some of those sweet, sweet endorphins, do it. You’ll feel much better and return to the work you have to do with more energy and some much-needed perspective.

[Steve: Some advice from a previous workshop on stress: try to get out of your office once during the day and take a quick spin around Tappan Square – 15 minutes tops, and you’ll feel better. Also: find a buddy who can share your exercise routine; it’s always easier to do with a friend and often harder to say no to.]

4. Eat. I mean, really, do you think it’s a good idea to skip having a decent meal so that you can spend thirty more minutes on that grant proposal? Does your brain run on air and espresso? Are you sure?

5. Consider meditation. You don’t have to be Pema Chodron to embrace the benefits of mindfulness and an ongoing attempt to let settle all of the chaos swirling around your brain at any given time. Meditation is free, it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t require the purchase of any supplies, and you can do it just about anywhere. Give it a try: start with 5 minutes and work your way up to as long as you like.

[Steve: Don’t forget the “Slow Pedagogy” workshop on September 26 with Allison Pingree, this should be just what you need. RSVP to svolk@oberlin.edu.]

6. Stay in touch with friends and family. It’s easy to think that the argument in the last committee meeting over what typeface to use in the official reports is the most. important. issue. ever. but talking with the people who love and support you can bring you some much needed perspective–as long as you’re open to hearing what they have to say. And if your biological family tends to make things worse–as they do for many people, especially members of the LGBTQ community–then think about who your “family of choice” is and stay in touch with them, instead.

[Steve: Can’t stress this enough. Talk with friends, mentors, colleagues – share. It will help get you through.]

7. Realize that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” If you keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking that article, that syllabus, that course plan, that blog entry–guilty as charged–you’re going to reach a level of diminishing returns pretty darned fast. It’s good, just print it out or send it in or upload it and move on to other things. Take my word for it: you’ll be fine.

[Steve: 8. Let go of it. I still remember negative student comments on my evaluations from my first semester here…27 years ago?!? I can still feel a little twist in my stomach when I think on an argument I had years ago. Often I can’t remember what the argument was about, but can still feel the upset. Don’t hold on to that stuff. If someone criticized you, your work, or how you live your life and you felt there was something that struck a chord,  write it down so you can think about it more constructively when you’re not as emotionally engaged. If you really think the criticism was unfounded, leave it behind. Soon it will be hard enough to remember where you left your coffee cup; you don’t need that 2-decade old argument taking up space in your mental hard drive.]

[SV: So, what do you think? What are your strategies for managing your stress? Add a comment and tell us what works for you as you manage stress.]