What is the Fruit?

As a professor, how do I teach literature? More specifically, who is the audience I am targeting when I teach literature? Is my target audience the same as the students sitting in the classroom? Ideally, I would answer “yes,” but the answer to this question varies more than I’d like it to. Why is this?

Let me return to the topic of my previous two posts: the distinction between the critic and the common reader. Remember that the classification of these two groups is rather artificial; readers fall more onto a spectrum than into categories. The critic is a reader who has cultivated a level of discernment through either her love of specific books or authors, or through her tireless exploration of literature of all types. The critic is also one whose exercise of that discernment has become a regular habit. The common reader also practices discernment, and he sees value in the reading of literature for its ability to delight and/or instruct. The common reader understands how texts can change or grow a reader, and he welcomes such an encounter.

How do these types of readers influence the teaching of literature? Where a student falls on that spectrum of readership (or whether she falls on the spectrum) changes the intended goals of the course and therefore the professor’s strategy in teaching it.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll divide courses into major courses (junior or senior-level courses taken mainly by English majors) and general-education courses (freshman or sophomore-level courses that may be taken by students of any major to fulfill elective requirements). Again, this division is artificial, and taken too seriously, it may lead to unfair assumptions about students that take either type of course. But we’ll use it for a moment.

Major courses should be designed to refine and exercise the student’s discernment so that she can become a critic or, if she already is one, a better critic. They should immerse the student in the delights of the literary works that the course focuses on, through in-depth discussion and close reading, as well as engagement with the critical conversation surrounding the works. Students should consider themselves participants in that conversation. Major courses in literature assume a target audience of common readers and critics and try to enrich these readers’ experience. The assumption is that students and professor more or less share the same view of reading.

The target audience of general-education courses is variable. There may be one or two critics, perhaps a handful of common readers. Quite possibly, though, there are several students in a general-education literature class who would not consider themselves common readers. Keep in mind that the designation “common reader” does not have to do with intellect or ability to read; the term has more to do with a person’s disposition toward reading. An intelligent, thoroughly literate person may not be a common reader because he doesn’t enjoy reading or doesn’t necessarily expect a literary encounter to change him in any way. The assumption underlying this type of course is that the students and professor do not necessarily share the same view of reading.

With this target audience in mind, what should be the literature professor’s goal? It seems to me that the class should be designed to encourage students to become common readers, to find reading a worthwhile pursuit, to adopt an attitude of expectation when picking up a book. The exposure non-English majors to literature (as if to radioactive material) for two or three courses in their college career has long-term effects; my desire would be for those effects to be good.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, though, I cannot make my students into common readers; rather, I must make my course conducive to students becoming such readers. Of central importance is creating a hospitable space for students to engage the texts, a space where students can draw upon their own experiences and feel free to grapple with the issues the texts present without fear of condemnation. A key ingredient to this hospitality is the sharing of delight: the instructive, good-for-you qualities of literature are accessed through the text’s enjoyment. If I want students to tap into the truth, beauty, and goodness to be had within a literary work, I must help the students find the joy in it first.

This approach requires a certain vulnerability from the professor because it prevents him from hiding behind knowledge about the text. It also changes the type of preparation for classes—the critical skill of the expert is used to persuade students of the text’s delightful qualities. The student should come out of a class with a different kind of understanding of the text, one that’s hard to quantify. Rather than being able first and foremost to identify the formal, technical qualities of the work, the student, I hope, would be able to identify with the human behind the text.

To be honest, I don’t know how this approach specifically would change the look of a class, but I know it would look differently from courses I have taught—and taken. I feel certain, though, that the fruit from such a class would be more elusive but much more satisfying.



Poverty of Mind


Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I once heard that “education is learning how much you don’t know.” That notion was proven for me as I finished up my dissertation: Look how many more articles and books I could read, I thought. I felt the expertise I had gained through the project was a frontier drawn between the knowledge I had traversed and settled and the vast expanse of knowledge left to explore.

I’d like to say that gazing out on that wide vista of unacquired knowledge humbled me, but it would be more accurate to say that it intimidated me. Humility rests on security—the humble person knows who he is and how he relates to others and to God. Humility leaves us open and teachable. In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen refers to this openness as “poverty of mind”:

Poverty of mind as a spiritual attitude is a growing willingness to recognize the incomprehensibility of the mystery of life. The more mature we become the more we will be able to give up our inclination to grasp, catch, and comprehend the fullness of life and the more we will be ready to let life enter into us. (75)

Nouwen is careful to stress that poverty of mind does not mean the rejection of learning new things or seeking answers to problems (77); rather, it changes a person’s motivation for pursuing wisdom. A person who practices poverty of mind listens to others and desires to serve them; he doesn’t aspire to be the Answer Man who has it all together.

Intimidation, on the other hand, stems from fear. The intimidated person does not know how to function in the world around him and so seeks protection. He feels that he must give structure and meaning to the world by himself, for himself. Therefore, even though intimidation might motivate the pursuit of knowledge, it causes the person to be closed to true learning and growth.

The intimidated person embraces Francis Bacon’s maxim that “knowledge is power” because he feels powerless. The humble person, however, embraces the truth that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18—see complete verse); as a result, he can “[t]rust in the Lord with all of [his] heart and lean not on [his] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).

So I was more intimidated than humble at the conclusion of my doctoral program, and that intimidation followed me into my career. Intimidation distorts reality, as does all sin. I found myself cloaking the intimidation I felt with the appearance of knowledgeability. Donned in this armor of knowledgeability, I entered the classroom. But intimidation reproduces itself, like all sin. As a result, my approach to teaching employed intimidation as a motivator for students to learn—muy unhealthy.

I have talked with a number of colleagues over the years who have struggled, at least for a season, with the feeling of imposture: somehow we unqualified fools managed to deceive excellent, qualified, credentialed professionals to get into our graduate programs, to pass our dissertations, to be hired as professors, etc. I believe this “charlatan syndrome” stems from a spirit of intimidation endemic to higher education. And, as I mentioned above, the syndrome is contagious: we can easily pass it on to our students.

Higher education, however, is a product of our society, which glorifies information as it turns Bacon’s maxim into a mantra. We are told to “arm ourselves” with information against society’s ills—disease, violence, prejudice. In other words, our culture embraces information out of fear. As with economic poverty, poverty of mind is something to avoid at all costs; having all the answers will protect us. We idolize the acquisition of knowledge, not realizing it will keep us as secure as an inanimate statue of a cow.

Please don’t misunderstand me: in response to “knowledge is power,” I am not arguing that “ignorance is bliss.” Information is a helpful tool, knowledge can help us to solve problems, and Scripture tells us that wisdom “is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 3:15). We should “dare to know,” as Horace writes. But we should be mindful of the spirit with which we pursue knowledge—are we humble seekers, inquiring with a poverty of mind, or are we intimidated seekers, blockading ourselves with knowledge, stockpiling power?

The vista of unacquired knowledge is one of possibility, and as we go beyond our frontier of expertise, the Lord goes before us and behind us. As Jesus reminds us, our heavenly Father knows what we need (cf. Mt. 6:32)—and he knows what we need to know!



Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out. 1975. London: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Beyond the Crumpets

27th April 2005 Image:Buttered crumpet.jpg image by LoopZilla This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

27th April 2005 Image:Buttered crumpet.jpg image by LoopZilla
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen declares that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality” (44). He urges Christians to look beyond tea and crumpets to a practice of hospitality that will transform the hostility of the world around us, which makes us strangers to one another and even ourselves, into a welcoming receptivity to others that enables a mutual sharing of inner gifts (43-53).

Furthermore, Nouwen argues that education desperately needs to gain and grow a sense of hospitality: “One of the greatest tragedies of our culture is that millions of young people spend many hours, days, weeks and years listening to lectures, reading books and writing papers with a constantly increasing resistance….Practically every student perceives his education as a long endless row of obligations to be fulfilled” (58-59). As a professor just two years out of my doctoral program, I realize that my approach to teaching and research largely has followed the same pattern of thinking: identifying education, which I have always loved, as obligatory drudgery. My anxiety of finding my place in the workforce, and specifically in the academy, infiltrated my approach to teaching because I learned to be a teacher within a social framework that promotes finding one’s place in the workforce.

I have given serious thought over the past year to how I view the classroom. I confess that, for much of my teaching career, I viewed it as a space more of hostility than hospitality. As the teacher, I was the dispenser of (on good days) knowledge and (on bad days) information, and the students were the receptacles. During this 50 to 70-minute duration of dispensing and receiving, all manner of forces could intrude and impede. The students who fought against these forces were friends; those who accepted or embraced the forces were enemies. Learning was a battlefield, and I was the commander to drag us through it. Casualties were inevitable. Students’ worth was measured by their ability to receive, and mine was measured by my ability to dispense.

Operating from this perspective, I became increasingly alienated, from the students as well as from myself. More and more students were looking like the enemy to me, and I could tell the feeling was mutual. Students were coming in strangers and leaving strangers. What was happening? I was confident that teaching is my vocation—I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old. But I was not at all the teacher I wanted to be, nor did I feel that I was on the way to becoming it.

Last November, as I was struggling through these matters, the Lord reminded me of my passion for hospitality. I began to think about spaces I’ve been in or read about, where people gathered and experienced great intellectual growth: Gertrude Stein’s salon at 21 Rue de Fleurus; Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s Thomistic circles in 1920s Paris; Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri institutes; the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida; Brooks College at Baylor University. I want to be the host of such a space, to offer hospitality that enables people to develop their creative and intellectual gifts. I aspire to facilitate others in the use of their gifts to do great things. Only recently have I realized—this is what teaching is!

Let’s think about teaching in terms of a tea party. I discovered that I have concentrated too much on the crumpets—whether people eat them with a fork or with their hands, how many crumpets they eat, whether they like crumpets and why. I have concentrated on shaping people to be eaters and makers of crumpets so that they can go out in the world to make and eat crumpets with great proficiency. But why have I even made crumpets in the first place? Why are there people here to eat them? There is more that happens at a tea party than eating crumpets. The host and guest mutually offer themselves—their time, attention, thoughts, emotions. We talk with each other; we make connections; we form community. All of these activities have consequences when we leave the tea party. Don’t get me wrong: crumpets are an important part of a tea party, but if I focus exclusively on the crumpets during the party, I will have missed learning more about my guests, deepening relationships, and stumbling upon new ideas. Even worse, my guests will leave, alienated by their crumpets-obsessed host.

We meet together in a classroom to learn because we are engaged in more than simply dispensing and receiving knowledge. As Henri Nouwen points out, the classroom is a space for hospitality, “a free and fearless space where mental and emotional development take place” (61); it is a space “where [students] can reveal their great human potentials to love, to give, and to create, and where they can find the affirmation that gives them the courage to continue their search without fear” (62). If I want students to abide in my class, I need to show them hospitality: I need to show my students that they are welcome as the people they are, who have something to offer, and that I am a willing recipient. We’ll eat the crumpets, but won’t it be nice to eat them with friends instead of strangers?


Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out. 1975. London: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Reflecting on Reflection

I’ve said this all along and believe it even more so now that I’m on the other side of my own attempt at blogging – to blog is a brave thing.

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

A blog asks that I invite you as the reader into my thought process. Not only am I being asked to reflect on the things that I do and why I do them, I am asked to share those things with the world. Reflection requires that I be vulnerable and honest with myself. Reflection via blog ads an extra layer of vulnerability on top of that.

Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield is well known for his work within the field of critical reflection and reflective teaching. My background in education taught me that as a classroom teacher one of the important things that I needed to do after teaching was to take some time to reflect – how did my lesson go? Did the students learn what I intended for them to learn? What should I change the next time I teach these objectives? What worked really well? What completely flopped? But, as you probably are aware, knowing you should do something and actually doing something are two very different things. Since the concept was taught to me in my educational methods classes, reflection has consistently been the thing that I knew I should do, but if I was going to let one thing slide in my lesson planning and teaching that would be it. Brookfield calls this “teaching innocently.” The word innocent makes it sound nice, but the truth is that it’s actually a pretty naive way to approach teaching and life in general.

In this case, to teach – or to work – innocently means that I assume that I’m always in the know about what is going on. It assumes that the things that we do – the way I explain a database search, the way that we organize information, even the objectives that I try to cover in a given class  – always do what we intend for them to do. It sounds like a laissez faire approach to teaching and to life. The truth is that a lack of reflection can lead to ongoing frustration. When we don’t reflect we don’t have a way of understand the whys of when we do well or when we fail. In a sense, teaching innocently or living without reflection keeps us from knowing how to recreate the good and to change the bad.

Now that I have fourteen blogs under my belt, these are a few of the things I’ve been reminded or reconsidered during my semester of reflection -

  1. This blogging thing is harder than it looks. I admit this fact to my bloggers as we begin each semester, but there is nothing like trying to do it yourself to drive home a point. The process of blogging in academia takes a careful balance of guts and discipline – two things that I often find myself in limited supply. Writing here is a delicate dance of: This is what I want to say. Can I say that? Does that make any sense? It’s what time?!
  2. The process is worth more than you think. Yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to reflect. I’m in an environment that stimulates me to question the world around me. I knew that reflection was good for me both personally and professionally. I’ve been surprised to find that reflecting on the blog (and weekly the impending deadline) has caused me to be reflective in other areas of my life. Along the lines of what David Splawn pointed out last week, writing a blog means that you are constantly on the look for things to write about. This semester I’ve found myself thinking about classroom experiences, the science of information, and how my faith influences my service as a librarian more than I can remember doing in the past.
  3. We all bring something unique to the table. Having followed this and other blogs like it for quite some time, I kind of already knew this one. Still, this semester has been an excellent reminder of what we can learn from each other. I’m no fan of vulnerability, but the truth is, the more that we are able to share with each other the more that we are able to understand. We have such a diverse body of knowledge on this campus, but it is so easy (and often tempting) to stay  in our own disciplines. This blog has given glimpses into the world of theatre, english, religion, communication, biology,  leadership, kinesiology, and sociology in ways that I would never be able to experience otherwise. I can’t know everything and while I learn from experience, I’d like to learn from your experiences too. Friends, I am grateful for the sharing.
  4. None of us gets it all right all the time. This is where the vulnerability thing really stands out. Engaging in reflection does point out the things that we do well – those are the things we like to talk about. I need to remember what worked and what didn’t. I need to think about why one thing worked with one class and totally fell flat with another group of students. Reflection reminds me that I’m not perfect – it also reminds me that I’m not terrible either.
  5. Not just a job, it’s a calling. Sometimes in the day in and day out we forget. We forget why and for whom we do the things that we do. I’m so immersed in my discipline of information science that I rarely take the opportunity to step back and look at what this library thing looks like from the outside world and how/if it makes the impact that I think it does. Reflection has helped me think about my every day tasks in light of the bigger picture of what I love (and don’t love)  about my profession.
Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

One last anecdote I’ll share before I sign off for the semester (I’ve also been reminded that I can be a rather long-winded writer):

Earlier in the semester I ranted about hearing someone on the radio talk about the anatomy of a chicken egg while mistakenly claiming that there is an umbilical cord in said chicken egg. If you read that blog, you need to know the rest of the story (cue Paul Harvey). Weeks later I received a letter from Grace, the child I’ve sponsored through Compassion International for six years. Gracie draws me pictures of things she sees around her or things that she is learning in school in each letter that I receive. I kid you not, this last letter that I received had a nicely drawn, correctly labeled diagram of… the parts of a chicken egg. I cannot make this up, people. Through Compassion, Grace is learning valuable life skills that help her understand the world around her. Meanwhile, reflection is helping me find connections in the strangest of places and reminding me of all that I still see through the mirror dimly.


Something Brave (or. . . The Performance)

Theatre performance, in its most basic form, requires an actor, a space, and an audience.  Historically speaking, I can’t think of a single deviation from those requirements.  But a good performance requires something more.  Something brave.

It requires vulnerability.

When you step out on that stage, as a performer, you expose yourself to ridicule, critical rants, disapproving looks, and a hundred different authorities on your craft.  It takes a thick skin to smile in the face of the critic and thank them for their input.  Do I believe that all performances should be praised?  Heavens no!  But I do think that there is a tactful way to praise the effort if you cannot praise the result.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani demands raw and honest performances

Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, demands raw and honest performances

One of the most telling paragraphs I’ve ever read about actors in performance is from a textbook on improvisation.  Greg Atkins, in Improv! A Handbook for the Actor, writes:

As an actor you must be aware of everything that is occurring onstage.  You must know your lines, your character, and your blocking.  You must instinctively wait for laughs to die down, find your light, smoke convincingly, make sure the safety is off on the prop gun, and hit your musical notes.  You must check your spacing in the dance number, quick change your costume and your character, maintain your accent, pick up the glass that happened to fall off the table, and be conscious of the other actors as well. (7)

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, though I’m sure anyone who has ever acted in a play could add a number of additional details to that record.  And it can be a ridiculous amount of stress to juggle.  Some people thrive on the stage.  Some buckle under the pressure.  Some know no fear; others must be coaxed onto the boards.

Bold.  Terrified.  Insecure.  Fearless.  All of the above.


The Act I Finale of Urinetown, the Musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman

Whatever you are, you must be quick.  Quick thinking.  Quick problem solving.  Quick recovery.  Quick analysis.  Quick inventory.  Quick adjustment.  Quick ad-lib.

And natural.  The audience must never know there was a problem—though the big ones are hard to mask entirely.  Ah, the thrill of live performance!

In our work, we must tap into emotions that we hide in public every day.  On stage, we act in ways that are questionable, admirable, laughable, and even damnable.  But these are the characters we explore.  We work hard to portray them, but they aren’t wholly us.  Just because we examine their choices doesn’t mean we condone them!

The climax of Iphigenia 2.0

The characters make tough choices in the climax of Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee

In our training as actors, there are several different “methods” of learning (not to be confused with The Method made famous by Lee Strasberg).  I’ve always looked askance at any teacher’s declaration that the methodology they teach is the only one that results in success.  And I encourage my students to explore and try different approaches to acting, finding the one that best suits their needs and individuality.  Should it be driven by inner truth or physical action?  Or both?

Are there those I prefer?  Certainly.  I will always encourage my students to read and study Konstantin Stanislavki, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau; I will also share with them my personal concerns with the aforementioned Strasberg.

There are classes on emotional realism, movement and dance, voice, Shakespeare, physical technique, improvisation, musical theatre, stage combat, auditioning, the Greeks, commedia dell’arte, and film.  Chances are, if it can be used as a tool or defined as a style, someone somewhere teaches a class on it.

Honestly, I am a huge advocate for taking as many classes as you can because the body and voice are our instruments and they must be in good working order.  You must learn to act with your toes as well as your eyes, with your spine as well as your speech.

But the best instructors for acting are experience and life itself.

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

Experience will teach you how to recover from a costume malfunction, a set change mishap, or an actor’s missed entrance.  It will teach you how to hold for laughter and project your voice.  You’ll find the best routines for memorizing lines and warming up for a show.  Distractions in the house will be dismissed as if they weren’t there at all.  And you’ll gain confidence with the routine of rehearsals and performances.

But life . . . life will school you in a way that deepens your performance to a visceral level.  There are reasons why King Lear and Willy Loman are not played by young men—why Phaedra and Amanda Wingfield are not young women.

Yes, there are those out there with amazing natural abilities who rise to dominance in their teens and twenties.  And those performances will ripen with age, if they stick with the discipline and LEARN.  But, natural ability will only take you so far.  At some point, you have to hone your craft and strengthen your technique.  The value lies in the work.
And I want my students to grow in their craft with each passing year—driven by determination, buoyed by experience, and shaped by life’s difficulties.

So we work hard at this trade called acting.  And if we do a good job, maybe you will walk away with something profound, something new, something provoking, or something stirring after the lights have dimmed.

That’s our hope.  Always.


You teach???

Ah, the two word question that I have found myself answering for the last four or five years… “You teach?”

I think I first encountered a version of this question as I talked to my sister about my new job here at ETBU in 2011. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’ll be the Manager of Instruction & Information Services for ETBU.”
Sister: “What do you actually do in that job?”
Me: “Well, a large part of it involves teaching students about information and the library.”
Sister: “Oh no, you’re going to be like that boring library lady that used to come to our college classes.”

That exchange has become a part of my narrative when I venture out to classrooms and introduce myself to students for the first time. I always let them know that one of my goals in any instruction session is to not live up to the “boring library lady” stereotype.

All that to say, that yes, librarians (especially instruction librarians) teach.

I’ve mentioned before the I tend to acquire random things in my travels. One such trinket is a small, brown paperweight that occupies a space on my desk.

This paperweight has high expectations.

This paperweight has high expectations.

Full disclosure, I purchased this as a reminder for myself when I was still teaching language arts in the middle school classroom. That’s right… you can’t scare me. I taught middle school and I liked it. At the time, I think I probably used this as an encouragement that what I was doing mattered and was somehow to contribution to the world. But today? Some would say that this belongs with my boxes of classroom teacher stuff now that I’m a librarian. While my role has shifted and the “teaching” often happens in a different context, I keep this out to remind myself to reflect on what it is that I’m doing and how it makes an impact on the world around me.

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

To answer the “you teach” question, let me first acknowledge that some of the impetus behind that question stems from a general misunderstanding of the librarian’s role in the 21st century. Back in the day we were the gatekeepers – we had the stuff and you had to come through us to get it. We amassed literal towers of information in areas that were referred to as closed stacks – just in case you didn’t get the picture. Now the gate has been flung wide open and there are even places where the fence is down. Perhaps it is because I’ve only been a librarian in the time that is sometimes called the Information Age, but I am excited about this shift (although, I’ll admit that having the title Official Keeper of Information would be pretty great).

While some seem to think that the Information Age has made librarians obsolete (HA!), the truth of the matter is that if anything, having a librarian there to help you navigate the tidal wave of information is that much more important. The extensive changes in the ways we access information should be giving librarians a more active and vital role within the context of learning and the research process. For today’s student the research process has gone rogue and is full of moving parts that can simultaneously make it the most accessible and daunting time in our information history.

We librarians used to be the keepers of the information… now we are more like the guides in the information jungle.

When do librarians teach? It seems obvious to say that instruction librarians teach when they are called upon to provide information literacy instruction to students. We generally are asked to teach what we call “one-shot” sessions in which we attempt to provide customized information literacy instruction that will enable the student to make key connections with their own research questions, their discipline’s epistemology, and the specific information landscape for their discipline. But what about the other times that a librarian teaches? Librarians teach one-on-one (sometimes saying the same thing many times a day) with students when they meet with us at the reference desk (or on our chat service, or by text, or by email…). One of the things that I love about this job is that on any given day I could have taught someone something about the information in nursing, business, and biology all in the same day. If I could count the number of one-on-one citation formatting sessions I’ve taught… well, let’s just say the APA and MLA manuals and I are good friends (Turabian and I are still on an acquaintance level in our relationship).

Is it the same as being a classroom teacher? As one who has done both, I’m comfortable with admitting that it is not the same… but it is still teaching. Do I refer to myself as a teacher? Not usually. Despite the misunderstanding of the evolving librarian profession, I still find that the title of librarian fits what I do best.

But do I teach like the world depends on it?

That’s the goal. Maybe not the entire world. But my little corner of it? I hope what I do and how I teach makes an impact on the world. I keep this little brown paperweight on my desk to remind me as I build my lesson plans or meet with a student individually that I believe this to be true – the world depends on the information concepts that we librarians teach. And, hopefully keeping this sentiment in mind as I teach helps me steer clear of becoming “that boring library lady.”

What about you? Do you teach like the world depends on it?


Some Things We Don’t Get to Know

One of the first sentences that I learned to string together was apparently, “I can’t know that,” when I didn’t know something. I can know that I said that because many family members and people who knew me then like to remind me of this fact. It may have been cute toddler babble then, but I can’t don’t know… I’m starting to think that I was on to something. While “can’t” might not be completely accurate, I’m convinced that there are some things that we just don’t get to know.

Early in my career as a teacher I realized that while I worked hard to assess what my students were learning, there were some things that I would not be able to witness them achieve beyond the context of my classroom. Anyone who has taught for more than a year knows that once the students leave your classroom, you often never know where they are going to end up or even what, if any, impact you have made on their lives.

Some things we just don’t get to know.

"George Washington Carver c1910" by not listed - Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington Carver c1910” by not listed – Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend I spent some time thumbing through my third and fourth grade yearbooks. I was on the hunt for the first name of my third grade teacher, Ms. Hoskins. Unfortunately, the yearbook editors only listed the adults in the yearbook by Mr., Mrs., or Miss so-and-so. The information hunt continues.

I was searching for Ms. Hoskins’ first name because I was preparing for the reading that I will present at the upcoming annual African American Read-In event later this month. I’ve selected a few poems from a collection by Marilyn Nelson titled Carver: a life in poems. The Ms. Hoskins connection comes in because she is the first person that I remember telling me about the contributions of African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. I can remember being fascinated by Carver’s story and amazed at how his innovations had shaped the world I lived in. Ms. Hoskins was the first person to teach me about her alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, and told stories of the incredible accomplishments of its graduates. She made an impact on my life in that third grade classroom. Here I am over two decades later recalling the things that she taught me about the world. And I wonder… does she have any idea that I remember what she taught me?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Fast forward to early in my career as a librarian. I was working the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rang. We were well into the Google era and so we didn’t really get a lot of genuine reference questions via the phone. One that day, though, someone needed the assistance of a reference librarian. The exchange went something like this:

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

“Reference desk. This is Elizabeth, how may I help you?”

“I need to know what the gestation period is for an elephant.”

“Okay. Just a moment and I’ll look up that information for you.” (meanwhile, I’m… Googling the gestation period of an elephant. Yes, sometimes we use Google too.)

“The gestation period of an elephant generally lasts 20-22 months depending on the species.” (I also would have told her the source that I used)

“That’s what I needed to know. Thank you.” (Click)

What just happened here? Did I just help in determining the due date for an elephant? The caller gave me no information about why she needed the information. Was she using this information for a purpose other than satisfying her curiosity? What made her think to contact the local librarian for this information in the age of the internet?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Today I often experience this phenomenon of not knowing when I help a student with a research project or speak to an entire class. Many of my interactions with students are boiled down to somewhere between a 3-minute online chats and a 50-minute one-shot instruction session. Knowing the nature of the job does make me more intentional about forming relationships with students when I am able. Still, there will always be the fact that I don’t see the end results in much of my work. I get them started on their research, but rarely see the final paper. I teach them about the ethical use of information, but I don’t get to see how that plays out for them in practice. As teachers (and teacher librarians) we usually don’t get to see the rest of the story. We plant seeds that we may never have the opportunity to see harvested.

Some things we just don’t get to know…

…And yet, the older I get the more I find that I’m okay with some of the not knowing. 

Admitting that I’m comfortable not knowing something in this world where we pride ourselves in knowing things seems a little risky. After all, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be excited about knowing things. And I am… most of the time. I used to think that the uncomfortable thing was not knowing the answer; that was until I got to things that I just flat can’t figure out – things I can’t know.

The Apostle Paul wraps up his well-known writings on love to the Corinthians with a discussion on things that we don’t get to know… yet.

“We don’t know everything, and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know  everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 CEV

There are still so many things that I don’t get to know. Does Ms. Hoskins know that what she taught to a poofy-haired, snaggletoothed third grader has influenced what I will share with the ETBU community later this month? Highly unlikely. What in the world was that elephant phone call about? Beyond satisfying idol curiosity, I have no idea. What stuck in the mind of the student who sat on the third row of the class that I taught two weeks ago? I haven’t reviewed my assessment data, and so at this point I can only hope.

Let’s take it up a notch. Why do bad things happen? For that matter, why do good things happen? Does what I do help his kingdom come? What is God like? Well, as Paul says, I do have a fuzzy picture. I guess the comforting thing is that while I don’t get to know some things now, God knows them, and hopefully there’s a big YET at the end of some of things I just don’t get to know.


Composition and Coffee beans: How owning a coffeeshop made me a better professor

PaperFew here in East Texas are aware that when I held an assistant professor position at a sister university I owned a small coffeeshop in downtown Plainview, TX. My wife and I had a grand idea to purchase and remodel a mid-century diner to take on new life as a gourmet coffee shop and local hang-out. Just as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech we purchased the building, completed renovations, and opened in time for a new school year. I would maintain my full-time teaching job while she ran the family business.

Two months later a small hiccup left me running a new business fulltime, teaching a full load, and my wife at home with severe morning sickness that left her bed-ridden. Her aversion to strong smells—coffee being her least favorite—forced me to actually strip down and jump in the shower before I was allowed to greet her from a long day at both jobs.  So, I became the sole proprietor while my wife took on the equally challenging task of a mother to one, and then a year later, two children. Even though those six years number among the most challenging years of my life, I learned a number of important things that have made me a better equipped college professor.

Now, there are a few obvious elements of owning a coffeeshop that may well serve an English professor. The endless supply of fresh and delicious coffee left me with all the energy I needed for late night grading and early morning classes. The proximity to the lives of students who frequented my shop and were employed as baristas allowed me a unique role in educating and training them in and out of the classroom. And, my position as a small-business owner allowed me a unique perspective by which to teach my freshmen students the ins-and-outs of professional writing.

Yet, the most valuable thing I learned from owning a coffeeshop is something that is more profound, but less obvious.  It is a lesson that plays a critical role in my approach to teaching at a small, faith-based university.

When my wife and I first opened our shop, we, like most independent coffeeshop owners at that time, found our inspiration from Starbucks, the world famous coffee purveyor that introduced the American public to Italian-styled coffee drinks like the espresso and the cappuccino. We set our menu options and our prices to reflect our similarity with the chain. We were proud when customers compared us in a positive way to the coffee giant. And, even while we strived to create products that were superior in quality, we knew that we owed a great debt of gratitude to the big guys for every dollar put in our cash register.

However, over the course of our six years in the business things changed drastically, not just in our coffeeshop, but in independent coffeeshops around the nation.  These coffeeshops adopted what has become known as the “third wave.”

latte artThe “third wave” approach to artisanal coffee is characterized by promoting sustainable growing practices, purchasing beans directly from farmers—a practice that pays fair prices and cuts out the middle-man—and pursuing careful roasting methods that enhance flavor without burning the coffee (Most third wave coffee is lightly roasted).  It is also associated with alternative brewing methods, like the pour-over, that celebrate the inherent uniqueness of each coffee variety. Baristas began pouring latte art and talking about the specific flavor qualities of single-origin beans—beans from a specific lot of an individual estate rather than beans from a given nation, like Columbia.

Small coffeeshops took on practices that not only produced the best product but were healthy for the local and global community. And, those small, independent shops are really the only places capable of providing that level of quality and that amount of positive community interaction.

Small, independent shops that embraced the “third wave” approach have become so numerous and popular that the large corporations are now trying to emulate them. Starbucks now has pour over coffee and serves a “blonde” roast. Chick-Fil-A now serves coffee that is advertised as purchased directly from small, family farms. And, latte art now makes regular appearances in Hollywood blockbusters and on the packaging of grocery store creamers.

So, as a professor at a small, faith-based university, this observation is the most important thing I have learned from the coffee business. It is the observation that a group of purposeful, highly-trained and creative individuals that dedicate themselves to their craft can operate a successful venture and provide a valuable and satisfactory service to its proprietors in ways that challenge the establishment. What if the small, faith-based university could approach education in the same way that independent coffeeshops approach coffee?

As a professor at ETBU I know that if we embrace the best practices of education we can provide the highest standard of education to our students. But we must also ask ourselves what we can do better. How can we best utilize our role as a small school that has a high teacher/student ratio to provide better small-group instruction? How can we push the educational envelope in fresh and meaningful ways to provide students with a quality of education that they can’t get at one of the big guys? In what ways can we use our model to train our students and give them hands-on experience for service to both the local and global community? How can we make the small university education cool again?


Faith outside of Church

It’s not a simple question.  Where does my faith intersect with my discipline?  I mean, I grew up as a preacher’s kid going to Sunday school and church and camp and Bible drill and more church… even Wednesday night business meetings. I checked all the right boxes on my envelope and turned it into the offering plate. I memorized Scriptures to win a bicycle, sang in the youth choir, and went to vacation Bible school and mission trips. Born and raised Southern Baptist, but is that my faith?

I loved math and science.  I studied the earth, the sky, the outdoors, animals and the wonders of nature.  I wanted to be an astronaut or scientist.  And through high school struggled with how my faith fit with science.

I tried to merge the two areas of my life by going to a small Christian college, East Texas Baptist College (ETBC…I was here before U.) and majoring in biology.  As with most liberal arts colleges, ETBU was not known for its science education. You know, the science professors here probably couldn’t get a job at a real university so they settled for teaching at a liberal arts college.  Still I enjoyed my classes, and although the coursework was more challenging than high school, I made A’s and had plenty of time for extracurricular activities such as Christian ministries as well as pranks other social activities.

It was during these years that I discovered my so called faith was really more religion than relationship.  I spent the first two years of college as a bed-side Baptist playing the religion game. Then at one of the chapels I didn’t sleep in, or a BSU revival week, or a Bible study in the dorm, or somewhere it clicked that the relationship was more important than the religion. Even Jesus said that eternal life was getting to know God and His Son (John 17:3). The Bible became a fountain of knowledge about Jesus and God (even the Old Testament). My faith was flourishing. Obviously I needed to become a minister right? I added a minor in religion. That would take care of that faith and discipline problem.

Still had a love of science… Can a scientist be a minister?

I received my degree in biology and scored high enough to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.  When I entered Texas A&M, I was directed to the large animal surgical ward in a neuroscience lab.  I found the professor in the middle of surgery in which he was inserting a probe into a cow’s brain.  As he operated, he described the various regions of the brain as the probe passed through them.  As he talked, I found myself totally ignorant of any of the anatomy he described.  I was embarrassed with my lack of knowledge and, in my mind, blamed the poor instruction I received in my undergraduate anatomy class.  I figured that the instructor had skipped those portions of the textbook because he did not know the material.  Of course, what should you expect from a small college where the science professors were probably second-rate or last-chance employees?

Sometime later, I was moving boxes of my old textbooks when a lab manual fell on the ground.  It was my human anatomy lab manual from ETBU. Remembering my embarrassment in the surgical ward, I took this opportunity to revisit my disgust of the former anatomy professor. I turned to the nervous system section and found a picture of the brain.  Instead of being skipped over, I found every blank filled in with proper terminology.  On top of that, it was in my own handwriting!

Not only had the professor gone over this material, he had covered it completely.  Apparently, my learning was not learning after all, but it was short-term memorizing.  I had crammed for the tests and made the grade, but did not learn the material.  My graduate work at Texas A&M took longer to finish than it should have.  I had to spend some of that time relearning the things I had not truly learned during my undergraduate years.

Intersection of faith and discipline? How about working for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23)? Doing my best in all endeavors, including studying. Is that faith?

Faith intersects my Life… Not just at church. Now I look for those intersections in everyday life.  I hope to let you in on the larger intersections I find…

Ironically, I became a biology professor at ETBU, (insert God’s laughter here), where I try to encourage my students to learn it right the first time. And this job was not my last choice…It was my calling and my ministry!

The Necessity of Reflection

There are many surprising truths I have learned in my semester of blogging—that vulnerability is powerful, that online community can be Bashawtangible and unifying, that bloggers are often on the front lines in the war against injustice and ignorance (and are sometimes the most blatant promoters of injustice and ignorance).

But the greatest thing blogging has taught me is the necessity of reflection.

Reflection is necessary for self-understanding and societal awareness—As human beings living in an age of hyper-technology, we tend to think we are more connected to people and ourselves than we have ever been. We believe that watching 24-hour news, following the latest YouTube trends, and posting our daily activities and random emotions on Facebook make us experts on people, connections, and ourselves. But, in reality, we are less aware of our own feelings and problems and blind to the needs of others because we do not take the time to think, reflect, and write. We fill our heads with the opinions of others and never stop to consider how we feel about those opinions, never process the changes in the world and the changes in our hearts. Reflection is the antidote to ignorance of self and society.

Reflection is necessary for teaching—Since I have only been a full-time professor for two-years , I am clearly not an expert educator. Every day, I make mistakes in my teaching. In academia, however, there is an unwritten rule of “fake it until you make it” (even if you never actually “make it”). We think that in order for students and other teachers to respect us and listen to us, we have be experts, to always be right, to never show weakness. And so we fake knowledge and good teaching until we forget that we are faking and begin to believe that we do know everything. And that makes it hard to know our faults, hard to listen to others, and hard to learn and grow as teachers.

Robert Frost had it right when he wrote, “I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn.” Reflecting and talking about myself and my teaching this semester (however narcissistic it may sound), opened my eyes to the areas in which I needed to grow. As I shared these areas for improvement in my blog, I was teaching others. And, beautifully and ironically, what I taught to others was always what I most needed to learn.

Reflection is necessary for faith—It is quite popular these days to talk about faith as a journey. This is far more than a trendy illustration; the idea originally comes from the Bible. In Scripture, we can follow the stories of people of faith, from Abraham to Esther and Levi to Paul, and see that faithful living requires forward movement and a purposed destination.

Faith is moving forward—moving away from the old self and its desires and moving toward the new self, the new kingdom, a new calling. And movement forward does not occur without a radical change in perspective and situation. Abraham’s faith required a geographical shift of epic proportions. Esther’s faith demanded death-defying courage and commitment. Levi’s faith forced a career transfer, from tax-collecting to disciple-making. Paul’s faith necessitated a name change and initiated one of the most significant life transformations in all of history. Faith compels us to change. But we cannot change, cannot move forward, if we do not know who we are and where we are now.

So, reflection is necessary for faith because reflection is necessary for change.

The greatest truth I have learned from blogging is that reflection is what moves us forward; it gives us the tools and time to understand ourselves and our society; it unveils our faults, our inadequacies, and our need for improvement; it forces us to not just have faith but to do faith; it motivates us to follow God’s call, to reform (re-form!) our hearts, and transform, not just our lives, but our world.