August 28, 2012

Teaching Tip #2

Never teach the first week of the semester.  Yes, seriously.  It's really only two or three 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hour sessions.

Only minutes after calling the roll and engaging in the obligatory "ice-breaker," many instructors rush to the board providing frenzied notes on "The Writing Process" or sweating through awkward silences surrounding the "What is Literature?" question.  This is a really bad idea.

In an any college course, in which students and instructors alike plan to spend an inordinate amount of time together, there are more important things to cover the first week.  The writing process, literature, and rhetoric won't mean anything at all if students never do the reading, never submit assignments on time, or seldom show up to class.  Besides, after the first week, you have 15 more to teach until you're blue in the face.

So what should you do the first week if you're not going to teach?

Day 1/2
First, don't be afraid to talk about yourself.  Here's the time to dust off that CV and expound upon the glory that is you.  Seriously, your students actually want to know that stuff.  They want to know that the person in charge of teaching them Twentieth-Century American Lit. or Composition and Rhetoric is overly qualified to do so.  This is all about establishing your own ethos.

Next, read the entire syllabus (as students read along with you).  This may sound terribly dull and ridiculous. However, this is a crucial component to a successful semester.  As we all know, we spend days (sometimes weeks) laboring over our course syllabi only to never have it read.  Or to constantly respond to every student inquiry with, "It's in the syllabus."  Let's face it.  The syllabus is a rhetorical, contractual document between instructor and student.  And as the instructor of record, you must ensure that everyone is clear about your expectations for the course.  So, yes, read it.  Skip to the important parts, the "pink elephants" in the room -- the Attendance Policy, the Late and/or Make-up work policy, the course schedule, and any other policies and procedures that are deal breakers for you.  Students will appreciate this in the end.  Often times, we hide behind our syllabi instead of standing in front them.

Day 2/3
Get to know your students in a real purposeful way.  Outside of the 15 minute ice-breaker, create an exercise that allows you to find out their motivations, their expectations for the course, and their career and professional aspirations.  This is not a "pop psychology" moment.  This is a time to take quick notes about each student so that you can begin constructing course readings, discussions, and assignments predicated on the interests and motivations of the students in your classroom.

If you have time left over, troubleshoot any of the technologies that the students will use in the course.  

And finally, be ready to teach week two.

August 26, 2012

Teaching Tip #1

With fall semester well underway, many of us are serving hundreds of students more than we did last fall or the fall before that. With State and Federal education budget cuts, the numbers may only increase.  As a result, we find ourselves with very little time to grade essays, create strategic yet quality assignments, and complete all of the administrative tasks that were once relegated to student interns and administrative staff.  There are ways, however, to work "smarter not harder."

Teaching Tip #1:

If you grade it, they will do it.  Gone are the days when students read articles for enrichment or turn in paperwork simply because you ask them to do so.  Our students are now a part of a "dollars and cents" society that always asks, "what's in it for me?" There are simple ways to show our students what's in it for them.  I have found that students will perform for points and percentages, no matter how infinitesimal.  As instructors, we can use this quality to our advantage.  Include administrative paperwork, reading quizzes, even assignment instructions into some all-encompassing category like "Class Participation" or "To-Do Lists." You may only give them 5 percentage points for returning their syllabus signature page or consulting some instructional website.  However, 99% of your students will submit assignments they otherwise would not have simply because they can see the value added for themselves.

I spent the past couple of years resisting this mindset that all of our students seem to have, but recently, I decided to conform to their will.  It's a quid pro quo relationship.  My students get their "points," and I get them to read outside texts and submit paperwork on time.  And maybe in the meantime, they'll learn something from their outside reading, or at the very least, they'll learn to honor deadlines.

Stay tuned for Teaching Tip #2...

August 09, 2012

Oops! Your Africa is Showing

Aside from the unprecedented athletic achievement of Black athletes during this particular Olympiad, there has been one other recurring theme -- a theme that is the source of much water cooler and blogosphere conversation.  Black folks have been sadly critical of black athletes during this 2012 Olympics.  The criticism is not predicated on any lack of athletic vigor or failure on the part of black athletes.  Rather, Black folks have been particularly critical of blackness itself.


Winning the Gold in the overall competition, the charming and talented Gabby Douglas has become a lightening bolt trailblazer for Black women in Gymnastics. Instead of Black women reveling in this accomplishment, they were tweeting and posting their disapproval of Gabby's hair.  As they are wont to do, the mainstream media exploited this peculiarity for all it was worth.  The white mainstream had no cultural context for this kind of absurd discourse.  As a result, many Black women and social critics were forced to analyze the issue (as I do so here).  

Apparently, Gabby has not done a sufficient job of "hiding" her "napps."  Her Afro-textured hair has not been effectively stifled, camouflaged, tied down, gelled up, and chemically beaten into submission.  Because the adorable little Gabby is unambiguously Black (dark skin/African features), complete with Afro-textured hair, she has become an undesirable mirror, a nagging reminder of BLACKNESS to the self-loathing Black women out there.  Gabby reminds them that she is a descendant of Africans, and more importantly, she reminds them that all Black women are descendants of Africans.  Despite their transgenerational identity crises, despite the absurd hair weaves, the colored contact lenses, and all other manner of subterfuge, our Africa is showing.

Sadly, these women have no idea that they are caught up in a complex web of gender and racial paradigms of beauty that they have all internalized.  All women have bought into the patriarchal notion that a woman's worth is found in her aesthetics.  In other words, the sum total of a woman's value is her physical beauty.  And since race often times trumps gender, Black women have been socialized to value white standards of beauty.  This is why there is so much capital in hair weaves and chemical hair straighteners.  And, this is why Black women have been projecting their own self-loathing onto Gabby Douglas' hair.  Sad, but true.

Lost in all of their identity crises chatter is Gabby Douglas' phenomenal accomplishment.  Lost are the historical footprints that Gabby has left for Black women and Black girls all over the world.


Serena Williams' awesomeness has been overshadowed by the absurd criticisms of her victory dance after the slaughter match in which she won the Gold medal for the US.  All Black folks know that the "funny little dance" Serena was doing is called the "crip walk."  Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s (primarily in the hoods of Los Angeles) or in any urban metropolis in America are well acquainted with crip walkin' at the skating ring, at basement house parties, or any where the mood struck.  However, Black folks (and now others) have been using the dance to hurl accusations of gangsterdom or gangsterism at Serena Williams.  This would be laughable if it weren't so sad.

This accusation is yet another example of Black self-loathing.  Serena's crip walk was too non-mainstream, too counter culture, too hood, too BLACK.  First, Gabby's hair is "too nappy." And now, Serena's crip walking is embarrassing us by making us remember that she is a Black woman from Compton, CA and not a apart of some privileged elite.  The message that Black people are sending to each other and the world is that we are ashamed of our own blackness.

If we don't embrace our blackness and our inclusion in the African diaspora, how can we expect others to do so?  Remember, we show others how to treat us.

We are African American, Black, Negro, and Colored.  Our Africa is always showing.  And we should be proud of it.