One extraordinary thing I’ve come to appreciate in the past two years at Hostos is the fact that its history is fascinating and even inspiring. As I learn more and more about the institution—why it was founded, whom it serves—I feel quite privileged to be a member of its faculty and in a position to promote its mission. I have been affiliated in the past with institutions built upon shameful legacies, so to serve an academic community with the potential to dismantle oppression motivates a lot of the pedagogical work I do.
I’ve been collecting materials about the college to use in my developmental and first-year writing courses, largely because I’m interested in learning more, but also because the issues raised by those who established this campus remain pertinent today (educational apartheid, poverty endemic to the South Bronx). And, for that matter, students love learning this bit of history. So many arrive at Hostos largely because of proximity and affordability, so when they learn that they just so happen to be at a school whose mission relates directly to their own educational goals, and when they identify with the reasons for which people founded the school in the first place, this knowledge ignites a spark.
Below, I’m compiling a list of articles and resources for future reference, and because I think everyone can benefit from learning more about this particular history. It’s a tale that documents the power of grassroots organizing, the importance of the Young Lords and other 1960s radical movements, and the educational obstacles endemic to historically oppressed communities.
I finished my second year as an assistant professor of English at Hostos a few weeks ago, and while I was tidying the end-of-semester detritus in my office, I took a picture of the fastidious four-month wall calendar I maintained since the term:
For a full time, 4-5 position, this was a relatively “light” term thanks to both what CUNY calls “junior faculty release time” (which relieves profs in their first five years from 24 hours of teaching) and my service as a faculty advisor to our writing center. It took me nearly a year to fully grok how “hours” work for full-time staff, but here’s the short of it (in case any of my friends in wealthy R1 institutions want to know what they’re missing out on, and in case any of my friends on the ever-lasting job market are contemplating a career at a community college): full-time CUNY instructors at the 2-year colleges teach 27 hours per year, meaning 5 then 4 three-hour courses each semester, respectively. (Getting assigned to 6-hour developmental courses reduces the total number of courses you teach each semester, but it still amounts to a lot of hours in the classroom. ) You’re also required to hold a few office hours a week in addition to your service. I didn’t formally learn much about “service” in grad school, but a large part of “service” translates to “many, many meetings.” In short, this Spring I managed to secure myself a schedule in which I taught only one course (!) and thus was ostensibly responsible for coming in twice a week to teach it.
Or so I thought. That sounded great, right? Like, damn I have to come in twice a week? Imagine all the articles I’ll finish! Imagine the book proposal coming together! The conference talks! But look at that calendar. This is the thing: I still had to attend all those meetings and events and trainings. I had to lead PDs for Writing Center tutors on various Fridays. FRIDAYS!? (The former high school teacher in me is shaking her head at my precious new standard for daily life, of course.)
All this busyness, for which the idea of a light schedule had ill-prepared me, meant that I discovered a weird axiom that is probably applicable to many jobs in service- and teaching-heavy institutions:
No matter how many hours you think you’ve secured for writing and research, meetings will take up all the space anyway.
No one can “see” you working alone on your book, deleting, suffering, rewriting, suffering, ILL-ing books from CUNY libraries in other boroughs (FYI I have been told by our circulation librarian I’m the second-highest user of their services of all the faculty), suffering, and doing all that reading that goes along with it. So that invisible labor—which, to be clear, is also required of CUNY 2-year college professors for tenure (though many community colleges don’t have this requirement)—doesn’t seem to count quite as much in the short term because it’s invisible. Saying “no” to committee invitations and professional development events is extremely difficult.
Down the road, I’ve been assured and counseled, the end result of putting effort into writing and research actually counts more heavily toward tenure and promotion than the fact that you’ve attended 63 meetings in a semester. But the daily work of protecting that time, and the superficial cost of doing so, make it difficult. I’m realizing that as someone who is passionate about research and writing, the work of protecting that time while developing a meaningful relationship to the daily life of my extremely vibrant college is going to be the serious work I have to do for myself in this position.
So this has been the main lesson of my second year, made visual by this white-board calendar. I will conclude this post by zooming into my favorite event of every Spring:
I’ve been thinking about an adage that one of my education grad-school professors would repeat (I got a Master’s in Teaching Adolescent English from Fordham in 2006). It went something like this: a good pedagogical practice will work as well in a pre-school as it does in a college classroom. Good pedagogy is sound, no matter what the level of instruction. It doesn’t sound as deep as I remember it sounding at the time—I think the professor phrased it better somehow—but I think about it when a college instructor criticizes what I do (sometimes implicitly) as “baby-sitting.” For instance, I require that students use calendars to organize themselves, and I give them a few points every once in a while for maintaining it. I know that this doesn’t sound as deep as analyzing Socrates or whatever, but students appreciate the training. If a student doesn’t have their own calendar, I give them what I call “Milsom’s Bootleg Calendar.” It’s just a Word document I’ve made with a blank calendar on it. The calendar includes all the important semester dates (the last day to withdraw, for instance). I now have a couple students who find me at the beginning of the semester requesting copies of the Bootleg Calendar, so I always make extra copies. When I taught high school, I would identify the students who liked to draw, and I’d get them to illustrate the Bootleg Calendars before I made copies. I hope to do something like this again.
I say all this because making college accessible to my students—people who have been “historically excluded” from higher education—means training them how to organize their time. Most of them work full-time, many have families to care for, and yet they also are balancing a full course load in order to remain eligible for financial aid. Few use calendars to arrange their busy lives, so getting students to develop the habit of self-organization can make a huge difference.
When I was in fifth grade, each student in our class received an old-fashioned, spiral-bound student planner which we were forced to use. My teacher Miss Smith would draw a replica of it on the board—very fastidious—and would show us what and how to write in it. My school provided these calendars for all of us through eighth grade. They were a part of the curriculum, in a sense. When we got to high school, I remember that a few of my classmates still would purchase them on their own because they loved them so much. I can’t remember a year of my life, since fifth grade, that I haven’t used some sort of planner. My elementary middle school teachers were very deliberate in how they trained us to make use of planners. Their support meant that by the time we entered high school, planning was a habit.
The fact that many of my students—whose average age is 27—have not been trained to manage their time means that they start out with a disadvantage. The fact that they gotten this far in their education without that skill in the first place is a testament to their gumption and dedication.
I have spent a lot of time this semester, and while preparing to teach freshman writing composition this semester, thinking about assessment. I’m experimenting with not grading essays, “ungrading,” and questioning the feedback I provide to students about their writing. I also am trying to figure out ways to make the students’ essays feel more public to them, creating an audience of actual readers for them to write for, and wondering how other people do this in their classes. I’ll report back later on what I’ve found out in this experimental semester.
Meanwhile, outside my own classroom bubble, a lot of people have been prompted to discuss assessment in the wake of Professor Asao B. Inoue’s recent speech at the CCCC conference in Pittsburgh. I’ve been re-reading that speech, and don’t want to comment on that here. But after reading it, I came across a post on a grad-school friend’s Facebook wall, asking how we grade students’ vernacular. Like, do we take off points if a student doesn’t use proper Standard American English?
I think my response encapsulated my current feelings on this matter, and I just want to preserve it here for posterity:
Here’s the short of it: I hear a lot of people say: “You have to teach them how to write SAE in order to give them access to blahblahblah cultural capital blahblahblah.” First, this is racist because it presupposes that people don’t know how to register switch. Second, no, that’s not true. Third, good writing is about communication and meaning. Frankly, I’d take Cardi B on politics any day over Trump. She’s a former stripper from Highbridge and Trump has his Ivy League credibility, yet her ad hoc political statements have more substance than he’s capable of regurgitating from a teleprompter. People are surprised by her depth because we are racist: we’re conditioned to look down on people like her. So what are we looking for in communication? Substance? or things that tag a speaker as having “cultural capital” aka “white”? I like to take a direct approach in the classroom about this: we discuss register switching, the whiteness of academic English, and racism. My experience is that my students have already internalized a lot of racist rhetoric about their vernaculars and are relieved to discuss these things openly.
I would also like to state, for the record, that there technically is no “Standard American English.” Some countries do have an official language of record (France, for instance), which is why it is noteworthy that we do not have one. I try to muster the courage to say this once in a while in official settings, but I’m often met with disbelief and frustration. If we are to accept that there is no standard, then what, in fact, are we experts of after all? And how do we maintain our hierarchical position above students if we have no “standard” on which we lean to support our claims of superiority? (Bad mixed metaphor, I know.)
I did not spend ten years as a graduate student just learning about grammar, after all. I did study a lot of history, and most of it (history) is a record of a world without dictionaries. Even Shakespeare himself spelled his name differently on different occasions.
I have long loathed all the conventions of syllabus writing, largely because I have seen how semester after semester, we all put so much stock into what we put into them—read my post from the fall and witness how much I agonized last semester about typeface sizes as a way of procrastinating from actually writing the damn thing, and read about my deepish dive into accessibility statements—just to see them discarded within weeks. That is not to say that I don’t think those things are important to consider, but I also sometimes think that we fetishize the syllabus and its contents, agonizing about what it says about us and our beliefs, as a way of imagining we have more control than we do. Sure, it gives you a sense of comfort in times of duress. (How often are we told to put things in because, you know, “CYA”?” Cover your ass”? -a big refrain in public education.) And when students mess up or don’t comply, it’s a great, exculpatory relief for us to be able to say, “Well it’s on the syllabus! You should have read it!” (Do you say “in” or “on”? I say “on” for some reason. Probably regional.) I also know that I’m insecure about my inability to predict or pace my courses when I’m planning them out. I have been in a classroom teaching literature and writing for eleven years now, and I really struggle with this.
Also, I know that our institutions scrutinize our syllabi. I suspect partly that is because they are scrutable, material objects. (One piece of feedback I received on mine was that my list of books was not in MLA format. I didn’t know that was a requirement. I don’t think it is–it’s just an unwritten convention of my department.)
So much energy gets expended upon syllabi while our actual teaching and the ways in which we treat students go unscrutinized. And that’s fine with me. I’m thankful for the relative freedom I have day-to-day in the college classroom, so please, scrutinize my syllabi all you want! Public school teachers in New York City—where I taught high-school English for four years—can expect unannounced drop-ins and often paranoia-inducing surveillance (and don’t get me started on the cameras put into classrooms in Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools). And I never had to write a syllabus when I taught high school! (We had a curriculum we could follow. Totally different.)
This is all to say that this semester, I’ve written an essay, and I’m slapping it right on the front of the syllabus. Sounds boring. Probably. But at least it includes a picture of Marvin Gaye, whose What’s Going On? album and song are going to structure the theme of the course.
I’m putting this all there partly to have something to point to when I tell them to write an essay. It foregrounds the actual work of our course: writing about stuff we care about. It shows that I am a writer too, and I am insecure about how I write. It does things I expect of their writing: it includes parenthetical citations, probably has some errors or typos, includes a block quotation, and has an MLA Works Cited at the end. The essay also rationalizes the course’s focus (read the end), which is inspired by the story I read about why Obie Benson wrote the song. (Al Benson helped write the lyrics.) After witnessing police shoot thousands of protesters during the “Bloody Thursday” protest in Berkeley in May 1969 . . . No, just read what I wrote, because I find myself on the verge of re-writing the essay. The story is moving and felt just so pertinent in this era of MAGA hats and walls and family separations.
One other thing I’d like to reflect on here is that when I was writing the essay for the syllabus, I was noticing the way in which I was thinking about the students reading it. A lot (most?) of my students were not born in the U.S., so they might not know about things like the “National Guard” or the fact that Ronald Regan was governor of California and was also a U.S. president in the 1980s. I assume also that a bunch of my U.S.-born students wouldn’t know this. Heck, I didn’t actually know exactly what the National Guard was until I just looked it up. There are ways of presenting students with sophisticated ideas (which they can handle) that don’t presume prior knowledge in a patronizing or punitive way. I try to attend to that in my classes and by telling students to look up things on their phones the second they don’t know a word, or when they haven’t heard of an event. (I also really try to change the narrative they’ve heard from a lot of profs and teachers not to use Wikipedia. As someone who edits Wikipedia for fun and is familiar with its standards, I think this is garbage advice, and I bet literally everyone who gives this advice uses Wikipedia.) This is particularly important when you teach a lot of first-generation college students and students from other countries. You have to make things seem accessible, and you have to not be a jerk about it. As an aside: I was just in England for a research trip, and I didn’t even know how to order a god damn hot cup of delicious coffee with half and half in it! Because the whole culture of coffee in England is TOTALLY different, and I just got confused at every turn. I mean, that’s just coffee, not my college education. And I literally study British language and history and literature as a profession. I tweeted about this here:
British or British-informed people of Twitter: how does one ask for, like, half-and-half, or at least actually fat-filled non “skinny” or “semi-skinned” or however it’s called milk for one’s coffee? I get 🤨🤔 responses from ppl when I inform them I want thicker milk. 🥛 🐄 ☕️
I plan to force students to read my essay on the first day of class. I’ll use it as an opportunity to teach them how to annotate. We’ll talk about the citations and how they’re punctuated. (And I’ll see who the confident readers are based on who volunteers.) We’ll talk about the fact that I left in curse-words from the original quotations—I anticipate that this will shock some of them. And we will talk about the questions I raise at the end of the essay. After we read this, I’m going to show them Cardi B’s Twitter video about the wall as an example of how to approach inquiry like this. She’s well-informed about politics and political debates, she’s a Dominican from the Bronx—like tons of my students, and she’s asking provocative questions about things that don’t make sense in the world that should be fixed. Like the fact that people are working without getting paid on behalf of a president who wants to build a wall. She also raises issues of “respectability” (cf Higgenbotham) that I want to talk about.
To end the first class, I will let students write for a bit about questions they have about “what’s going on” in the world today. To raise the stakes a little bit, to make it more fun, and to adjust them to moving around and publicly sharing their ideas with their classmates, I’ll let them loose to put some of their questions on the board. I hope it will be entertaining, and I also hope that it will make them interested in the course. For a lot, if not most of these students, it will be LITERALLY THEIR FIRST DAY EVER OF COLLEGE, and I want them to feel like their voices are interesting and needed. I read somewhere that something like 60% of college students never talk in their classes, so I hope to put these students in the 40% by the end of the first day!
I always hated the first days of college courses because they were so boring: professors just read through their syllabi. Blah blah blah you will need to buy this stuff blah blah blah here is how your grade breaks down. I was like, “I can read this myself” (obviously I wouldn’t), and “this is boring” (still true).
As a professor, I have done the thing where I pass out the syllabus and say, in my affected “I’m like you; I’m cool” voice: “I know you guys can read and will do so on your own time.” But then I also spend The Whole Semester, like everyone else in my profession, answering questions that are answered by the syllabus. I will have that annoyed-professor tone that we all get when we do that. There are tons of memes online about this very topic. There are even t-shirts you can get, which I’m actually going to get.
So then I did the thing where I read through the syllabus like my own professors did. It was boring and it also did little to relieve me of having to answer questions about things that are already in the syllabus. It felt like I was participating in the cycle-of-abuse thing that academics do when they get a little shred of power. I had promised myself I’d never do that, yet here I am. Though I also inflict vocabulary and pop quizzes and assign reading logs and talk a lot about MLA format too, I try to limit the ways in which I relieve my own suffering by imposing it upon other people. So I’m not going to stage a performance of Milsom Reads Her Own Syllabus with Pauses and a Wagging Finger for Occasional Effect this year (which describes a lot of what I have experienced to be Pedagogical Approaches of Illustrious Academics).
I have been teaching for a decade now (💥🌈🥂), and on that basis I’m going to say that it’s a lost cause: I don’t think there is any way to avoid the fact that you are going to say things and then repeat them to students who will then ask you them again. “It’s in the syllabus” somehow doesn’t mean that anyone is going to know it by heart or even want to reference it. It’s relatable anyway. It’s like when I open the fridge and ask my mom where the mustard is even though I know if I spent more than .3 seconds looking for it, I’d find it on my own, and I also know she’s going to just yell at me to look for it yourself. Maybe there is something Freudian going on in this after all? Maybe we just want to . . . interact?
Syllabus Scavenger Hunt
When I’m not feeling super overwhelmed at the beginning of a semester (which is hard when you’re in new jobs all the time and don’t really know what is expected and precarity and stress and so forth), I really like to create a “Syllabus Scavenger Hunt.” I did one this year because it’s the first time in a long time where I’m teaching in the same place for a second year in a row! (In case you missed it, this is a real, actual, literal privilege considering the dire state of the profession/the world/English departments.)
My Syllabus Scavenger Hunt is just a list of however many questions I can come up with about information that can be found by looking through the syllabus. It’s a real trick: give a fun name that evokes childhood to something that is really boring and tedious. But still pretend it is fun and reward students for doing it, which basically describes my pedagogy. This year’s Scavenger Hunt has a whopping 34 questions on it. These questions include such highlights as:
If you get a “D” in a course, will that course be transferable to a 4-year college?
Can you request an extension the day before something is due?
Why does Milsom require you to have a “Calendar” for her course?
Instead of forcing students to answer all 34 questions (yes, what a slog!), I’ll divide them up into groups of 3 or 4 and assign each group to 4-5 questions. After about 20 minutes or so, I’ll have each group present. This sort of low-stakes activity is so great because it forces the students to talk to each other (I always remind them to introduce themselves because if I don’t, they mightn’t), and then it enables me to observe the class dynamics right away: who opts to do the presentation? Who gets left out when the groups self-select? (I always immediately say “Oh you join these people” to make sure that awkward moment ends quickly.) Are there students who already know each other? Are there groups that have suddenly switched into speaking in Spanish? (I encourage that, though I have colleagues who police it–which seems weird to me. It’s cool to hear students explain things to each other in a different language and it also lets me see who needs what sort of assistance. Also I’m learning Spanish so it’s fulfilling on some sort of narcissistic level to hear my own writing translated for free.)
The fact that I will collect this handout and give a grade for doing it ensures that during these presentations, students appear to be scrambling to fill in the answers. This also means that they will interject and ask their classmates to repeat things. I love this set up because the class will usually start to own the progress through the handout. Even though the stakes are so low (this will account for literally .000000000008% of their grades), students will take it seriously. Also the questions are pretty provocative: why do my students need a New York Public Library card this semester? Why is it sometimes better to get an “F” than a “D” on your transcript at our school? 🤔
Also, I find that this Scavenger Hunt has been the best way for me to ensure that the students have been held accountable for reading the syllabus, and I find that it does not require me to read it aloud for them.
Make them write down what page each answer can be found on.
Make the whole group stand and come to the front of the room to present. This tells the students that they will have to get used to moving around in your class. Even the students who don’t plan to speak during the presentation will still feel like part of the group.
If the whole thing can’t be finished in one class period, it can be a homework assignment.
Include funny questions in the Scavenger Hunt.
Give everyone an “A” or 100% on the assignment as long as it is complete. Starting things off with a big win makes even the most vulnerable students feel positive about the class.
While researching the topic of accessibility and syllabi, I learned that the SIZE of the font is more important to the dyslexic reader than the absence of serifs (though serifs are problematic).
I googled for 2 secs and found an article that says that serifs impede reading for folks w dyslexia, but the most important factor in helping readers with dyslexia is actually a font's SIZE. (NB: This article uses a serif typeface of some sort of course.) https://t.co/L6uRTqK5lp
Faced with the happy task of writing some syllabi, I’ve been trolling the webs for information about How To Make A Good Syllabus That Both Satisfies Departmental Requirements And Is Accessible. I was particularly motivated by a Twitter discussion I lurked in on—can’t remember the hashtag now—and want to incorporate some of what I’ve learned.
For instance, making use of “Headings” in Word when I’m creating information hierarchies. This was a practice I developed while formatting my dissertation. Now I’m obsessed with clearing formatting on every document I use and re-ordering everything so I can have a nice Navigation Sidebar for every window. (Google Docs actually does a nice job of this as well—it became more convenient to use while teaching high school for various reasons involving sharing and displaying on my SmartBoard.)
Now in search of some helpful advice online, I am collecting sites and listing them below. I hope to keep track of this in some sort of organized fashion:
I was recently looking through my teaching materials from semesters of yore and stumbled upon what might be my favorite handouts that I’ve ever made for undergraduates. (I spent a great deal more time making handouts for my high school students in the Bronx… maybe to be shared at a future date; finding them will involve some excavation.) These come from a lecture I gave to a class – English 10B “Literatures in English, 1700-1850” – for which I was a Teaching Assistant for Professor Sarah Kareem. I am particularly amused by these two images, which I passed out and included in the power-point presentation I prepared for this lecture. The first is an image illustrating the “frame narrative” of Shelley’s Frankenstein; the second is the Shelley-Wollstonecraft-Byron-etc family tree. Enjoy!