deMansplaining

For three mornings in late September, I fought my way across town to attend the Technical College System of Georgia’s fall conference on adult education. Before entering the nonprofit sector, I had been unaware of TCSG’s role as the fiscal agent of Title II funds for the state’s vast network of adult literacy programs under the Obama-era Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Frankly, I can’t say that I know much more about it now, though I might have had I been registered for the special workshops for program administrators elsewhere in the swank hotel off Galleria Parkway. But it was nice to hang around with seasoned educators, many of them from rural precincts of the state where ESOL has few practitioners, though plenty of potential clients (who would be taking classes if they weren’t afraid of getting deported), and served as a dependable conversation-starter. I was asked more than once how many languages I spoke, to be able to do what I did.

It’s not that second language learners are not part of the student community in and around, say, Ft. Stewart, only that those with enough knowledge of English to keep up in an adult basic education or GED class consisting of native speakers will often have to settle for that. I wonder what the experience is like. A keynote theme was “breaking the cycle” of structural illiteracy in populations which not that long ago had not needed a high school diploma to find paying jobs. Rick, an instructor with Savannah Technical College described a culture of “nostalgia” for extinct industries and a Sisyphean approach to educational attainment in which each generation strives for the lowest bar possible, adjusted for inflation, i.e., grandparents had no school, parents made it through the 8th grade, grandkids will shoot for 10th grade, and so on. An administrator who oversaw several programs in the Albany area told me that many people return to the classroom by way of police referrals and court orders, though it was not uncommon for some to be inspired by letters from program graduates, published in the local paper, encouraging others to follow their example. Jeff, an ABE teacher in the Augusta area with a background in public health, complained that because GED prep programs and the like typically do not charge tuition, participants have “no skin in the game,” and was a strong believer in giving financial incentives (with funds raised from the Georgia Lottery) to high school students to keep going—literally, a small stipend that paid out on a monthly basis; no freshman semester down payment or marshmallow test here.

There were group prayers before every lunch, a motivational guest speaker, and an awards ceremony for programs and organizations with the highest measurable skill gains, GED completions, and postsecondary transitions—most of the winners were technical colleges. Three GED graduates were singled out for special recognition, among them a formerly homeless single mom, a German-born army wife, and a 68-year-old grandfather from Africa (I think) whose only regret on receiving his diploma was that he was one of the few men crossing the stage.

***

Among the many pleasures of YouTube is the power to choose your teachers. I always wanted to know someone like Julian Bradley, whose tutorials on basic jazz harmonics make me wish I still owned a piano. For stats, explained in Midwestern plainspeak against sedate Mondrianesque panels, Brandon Foltz cannot be beat. And while the low-budget graphics of Khan Academy often leave me with eye fatigue, my admiration for the guy who hosts thousands of screencasts, patiently and singlehandedly going over and over every possible math topic from trigonometry to probability, is very high. Still, the indisputable hearth spirit of the YouTube classroom has to be Richard Feynman (1918-1988), expounding forever on one channel or another. Sadly, I may never be able to catch up on the college physics I never had to the extent that I can follow his train of thought, but who couldn’t listen to this guy forever on any subject? The earlier videos, shot in black and white at Cornell, stand alongside other virtuosic performances of the period (1964-65)—think Horowitz at Carnegie Hall or LBJ on the White House telephone—but to hear

So if the law of inverse squares is right, an object at the earth’s surface should fall in one second by one-twentieth of an inch times thirty-six hundred, being square of sixty, because the force has been weakened by sixty times sixty (for the inverse square law) in getting out there to the moon. And if you multiply one-twentieth of an inch by thirty-six hundred you get about sixteen feet and lo, it is known already from Galileo’s measurement that things fell on the earth’s surface by sixteen feet. So this meant you see that he was on the right track. There was no going back now.

delivered in that Ralph Kramden accent, not quite at the speed of thought nor so densely as to sound read from, is to almost think you could do it yourself, which is what the best teachers are supposed to make you think. And I like to think Feynman’s renown as a teacher was not merely a function of his scientific genius, and that when he was awarded the Nobel in 1965 it was as much for the Caltech lectures as for his work on quantum electrodynamics. What’s more, Feynman seems to have reflected a good deal on teaching and learning; whenever somebody says that the best way to learn something is to teach it, they’re referring to the Feynman Method. But he also claimed to have no idea how teaching actually works, concluding: “My theory is that the best way to teach is to have no thoughts, is to be chaotic and confusing in a sense, that you use every possible way of doing it, so as to catch this guy or that guy on different hooks as you go along.”

***

A friend recently passed along a lead about an administrative position in international student services at one of the local HEIs. I thanked her for the tip, mentioning that I had indefinitely suspended my quest for university work, speculating that my professional profile was too heavy on teaching and not enough on administrating. She agreed, saying that if I did want to apply for this or similar jobs, “you should revise your resumé so as not to highlight teaching as heavily as administrative work.” Fair enough, I thought, without pointing out that if I followed her advice my resumé would have even less substance for such positions than it does now.

I would like to hold it against my graduate program that it offered less than nothing in the way of internship opportunities, at least for Master’s candidates. I keep meeting people who got the same degree in the same field, with programs for which some kind of assistantship or practicum was not only available but required for completion, but those were mostly private, and costly, institutions. Friends and family never tire of insisting that I got screwed. I’m not so sure of that, though it seems to me that many of the people who pursue graduate studies in higher ed already work in higher ed or public administration, and those who don’t, possess data analytics skills highly prized by faculty whose grant-sponsored futures rely heavily on generating empirical research for immediate use—and that this is widely understood. Again, fair enough.

It struck me many times how seldom pedagogy arose as a topic of serious discussion. To be sure, seminar readings frequently referenced Ernest Boyer, the research vs. teaching debate, etc., but I don’t recall many people volunteering to present on those topics. “Undergraduates” simultaneously remain a topic of great fascination and great bewilderment or even shame, though I knew more than a few people doing very good work with the center for undergraduate research (read: solid research conducted by undergraduates). And to be fair, there does exist a Master’s in College Student Affairs, if you want to get down to it.

For myself, I didn’t want to get down to it. The study of universities, for me, is a gateway to the study of everything. To have a degree in it sometimes feels like a license to learn as much as possible, about as many subjects as possible, in order always to have something to share with others. (It is leading to a cluttered life, and Sasha isn’t complaining yet about having to make room for herself and her lunch among the books and papers that migrate to the porch and all its surfaces on weekends.) Though it would be a shame, I can imagine never having the chance to administrate; but while the day may come that I  have to give it up, I can’t imagine not also teaching.

Richard Feynman—no aspiring administrator—said as much. He pitied the “poor bastards” at the Institute for Advanced Study who were left to think great thoughts and nothing else. “Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world,” he wrote. “And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say, ‘I’m teaching my class.’”

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