Diary of an Ed Prof

Academic BookshelfOne of the tasks of educating professionals involves inculcating the ability to concentrate intensely for long periods of time on whatever one’s job requires.  My job requires a good deal of writing, and reading, and learning — and I would not have it any other way.  But I may be happiest when I go into random mind mode (RAMM!) — which I do more often than perhaps I ought. One of the benefits of RAMM, however, involves happening on new ways of thinking about things.  Reading a few of 27 year old Mary’s posts — beginning with Fifteen Things White Girls Love to Do on Facebook — got me thinking again about how much the idea of “authenticity” in academic writing has changed in the past 2 or 3 decades, and how advanced information technologies (especially blogs and online journals and newsletters, but also spelling and grammar checkers) have changed our notions of what it means to write, and to read the work of others.

Academic writing in the professions is put through so many layers of critique and often endures so much editorial meddling that it loses whatever creative energy it might once have possessed.  There is an odd gauntlet through which a writing project must pass if it is, indeed, to “count” for much in the academy.  At least in my fields (education, anthropology and psychology), the goal is not simply to share ideas and research findings, but to do so with the benediction of peer-reviewers who presumably provide an “objective” and informed evaluation of quality of the work. [I have written about this in the “Political Economy of Academic Writing (PDF)” in the Journal of Thought.] Those who write  journal articles on their own must compete with those who work in teams and with others who receive varying amounts of help from amateur (student) or professional editors and ghost writers.  By the time it makes its way through the gauntlet of critique, academic writing  may no longer reflect either the intellect or the communication skills of the author(s).  As a result, it can be difficult to gauge the authenticity of the persona manifested in academic writing projects. Blogs might be another story, or so it seems to me.

Mary lived in New Orleans a few months ago and was working on a nursing degree in a community college.  Her “Fifteen Things” entry garnered a lot of attention when it was spotlighted on the Word Press “Freshly Pressed” page — a great site for anyone looking for RAMM opportunities!  In prior posts, she had bemoaned her inability to study for an important “A and P” (anatomy and physiology) exam. Instead of studying, she  blogged.  Blogging is seductive because it provides a readily available venue for self-expression and exploring alternative possible futures.

I thought Mary’s subsequent post on “The Pros and Cons of Being 27 and Living with your Parents”  provided an imaginative, humorous and insightful glimpse into what developmental scientists call emerging or early adulthood – the period in the lifespan from about 18 years of age to the late twenties  (Arnett, 2000).  Mary has better reason than many to still be relying on parental support, but the truth is that “growing up is harder to do” today than in the past (Furstenberg, et al, 2008; Marantz Henig, 2010).  The situation is a product of the social and economic context rather than individual deficiency (of either young adult children or their parents).  On January 4, Mary wrote a thoughtful commentary about sibling relationships (“Brothers and Sisters“). And early in February, she announced her decision to (re)turn her attention to writing, setting aside her aspiration to become a nurse, at least for now (“Community College Drop Out“).  Given how her readers have responded to her work as a blog author, she wonders whether she might have become a kind of “internet nurse” — helping to relieve human suffering or at least, making some of her readers feel less alone.

As a teacher, I am reminded of how hard we sometimes work to help students overcome barriers in order to stay in school and finish their degree programs.  It sounds as though Mary’s community college professors did what they could to help, but there is only so much one can do.  Things don’t always work out as planned. In any case, I am struck by the way that Mary seems to embody her prose.  Here is how she describes the role writing plays in her life:

I think more than any physical place, my notebooks have been my home. Writing often reveals to me what is true and real before my own mind can recognize it in the world. I know that writing is a way for me to find truth and tell the truth. It might be why I get anxiety just before I sit down to write, but after I finish, I feel better. Lighter. And if I’ve written correctly, I always walk away with more clarity, more light in the room than before. So I won’t concern myself too much with what house I call mine for now. Maybe home is more an internal thing than anything else. For the time being, home is on paper, and deep within. (2/28/12)

 Blogging affords opportunities for writing as an “authentic” form of self-expression to real and imaginary audiences.  Through writing, we create, recreate and comfort ourselves. This is a new and noteworthy phenomenon and I suspect it is worthy of more scholarly attention than it has received.    Ed Prof

References and Further Reading

Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55 (5):469-480.   doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469

Furstenberg, jr., F., et. Al. (2004). Growing up is harder to do. Contexts, 3, 33-41.

Marantz Henig, Robin (August 18, 2010). “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”. The New York Times.

Munsey, C. (2006). Emerging adults: The in-between age. APA Monitor, 37 (6):68.  http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun06/emerging.aspx

Web Pages

Emerging Adulthood (Wikipedia Entry).

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s Home Page:  http://www.jeffreyarnett.com/index.htm

NYT: Teacher Morale Sinks, Survey Results

Students in history class, Tuskegee Institute

Tuskegee Institute History Class, 1902

All professional groups maintain complex and dynamic interactions with the wider public sphere. Among other things, society entrusts to each professional group specific rights and responsibilities.  Teachers in the United States have long had to live without some of the benefits other professional groups have enjoyed, and budget cuts have made it necessary for them to accomplish more with fewer resources. Little wonder that a recent survey found teacher morale continues to decline.  See link to the New York Times article below. EdProf

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/03/08/education/teacher-morale-sinks-survey-results-show.xml

Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston – American Memory, Library of Congress

Gratitude, Mindfulness and Awe

 

Image of a spiral galaxy

Pinwheel Galaxy



From the Association for Psychological Science (APS) 2012 Annual Convention website: An article and video on “Facets of Mindfulness as Predictors of Gratitude.”   This co-authored paper presentation was given by Anthony Ahrens of American University.  Gratitude increases the desire to be helpful to others and appears to be amplified by mindfulness (as demonstrated in this particular study).

The same page references Wray Herbert’s discussion of the societal and psychological benefits of experiencing AWE (“Making Time Stand Still“).  This and many other fascinating commentaries appear in the “We’re Only Human” blog.  It would be interesting to know more about how professionals maintain capacity for emotion regulation, including maintaining a sense of purpose when things go wrong.  And since there are always risks associated with carrying out professional roles and responsibilities, there are always going to be times when outcomes fall short of expectations and hopes.

Those readers interested in the comparative study of professional communities might want to compare the APS web project to the American Psychological Association (APA) web site.  Take a look. Which organization seems most engaged with the task of conveying vivid images of “professional identities” to site visitors? I imagine the audience for these sites includes a wide range of “guests” — licensed practitioners, psychological scientists, students at all levels, and members of the general public.   Every institutional website has a history produced by the actions of individuals and groups.  It would be interesting to know more about the histories of professional association websites, since “internet presence” constitutes an important interface between professionals and the people they serve.  — With gratitude and awe,  EdProf

Sources

Association for Psychological Science Website: “http://www.psychologicalscience.org”

Ahrens, A. (2012). “Facets of mindfulness as predictors of gratitude” (video post). “http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/video/facets-of-mindfulness-as-predictors-of-gratitude.html” (February 15, 2012)

Herbert, W. (2012). “Making time stand still. Awesome.” Posted on the We’re Only Human blog. “http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/were-only-human/making-time-stand-still-awesome.html” (January 26, 2012)

Herbert, W. (2012) We’re Only Human Blog. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/were-only-human

Photo Credit: European Space Agency and NASA.  For more information on this “pinwheel galaxy” See: http://spacetelescope.org/images/heic0602a/

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An Exercise in Gratitude

Adult urgent care entranceGratitude is one of the pillars of happiness — “the parent of all virtues” (Wood, Joseph and Linley, 2007). Here is a way to begin the New Year on a positive note.  I created this task for professionals-in-training and their teachers, but others might want to try it as well.

Take some time to think about how professionals have contributed to your own well being during the course of your life. Imagining who belongs within the abstract category of workers we call “professionals” raises many issues, and you might want to think about this at a later time. For now, just go with your own sense of the matter.  In general, professionals are people who have high levels of technical expertise, practices grounded in a shared, empirically grounded knowledge-base, control over their own certification process, a comparatively high level of autonomy, a code of ethics. There are many points of view on the matter, so just see where your thoughts take you. With no pretense or hope of comprehensiveness, here are a few of my own reflections:

There were the nurses and physicians who helped my mother “deliver” me into the world, and who saw to my health in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Dr. Wright, the general practitioner, came to the house when someone was sick, examining us, and perhaps writing a prescription for the pharmacist (another professional) to fill.  There were the teachers who taught me to read, write, develop new skills, solve problems and adapt (more or less) to the demands of life in post-industrial society. Mrs. Gephart, the school nurse at Edina Elementary School, took me under her wing.  She let me help in the nurse’s office after lunch, when all the other kids went out for recess.  I much preferred the company of a caring adult to braving the frigid Minnesota cold on the playground after lunch every day! Mr. Jambeck, my 11th grade English teacher, taught me to appreciate how, in order to really understand the literature and the visual arts of each era, one needed to consider the contexts in which they were produced. In many respects, this insight made me who I am: inspired my interests and my life’s work. Architects and contractors designed and built the dwellings that gave my family and me shelter from the elements. When I was 9 or 10 years old, my Dad showed me the blueprint of our suburban home.  What a wonder!  Decades later, a wise and competent lawyer helped set me free of an unfortunate relationship that no amount of time, effort, love or forgiveness could repair…

If all this suggests an embrace of an old-style functionalist and “celebrationist” mindset — well, so be it! The experience and expression of gratitude can have personal and societal benefits (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005). We tend to take professionals and their contributions for granted. So every once in awhile, we ought to drop our critical lances (yes, lances, not lenses) on the ground and recalibrate, taking into consideration the benefits we derive from the professionals whose work contributes in so many ways to our health and well-being. The system as a whole is flawed, but essential to our diverse ways of life and amenable to improvement.  — Ed Prof

Further Reading

Encyclopedia of Gratitude (A free source of things for which to be grateful compiled by Erich Origen.  Print version available in February, 2012)

Gratitude (Wikipedia.Org entry provides a useful overview as well as citations of empirical studies on the nature and consequences of gratitude.)

Leo Babauta (2007). Why Living a Life of Gratitude Can Make You Happy .  Posted on Zenhabits.net .

References

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N.,& Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421

Wood, A., Joseph, S. and Linley, A. (2007).  Gratitude — Parent of all virtuesThe Psychologist, 20, 1:  18 – 20.

 All rights reserved, 2012

Degree Program Search Sites: A Cautionary Note

clouds on a southwestern horizon

Clouds on the Horizon

Not long ago, Gwen Jensen (pseudonym) contacted me about a website intended to help those interested in earning a masters degree in Elementary Education.  She wanted me to add a link for her site to a web page I manage that provides links to Professional Education Associations. The idea was to encourage education students to join one or more professional associations — to expand their professional lifenets.  Although Gwen offered sound advice on her (dot-org) page, something didn’t seem quite right.  First, she didn’t provide any trace of herself — her identity — on her website.  There was no date on the page, nor any sense of authorship or institutional affiliation — yet the page was supposed to serve prospective students.  (She was not forthcoming via email, either, when I pointed this out to her.)

In addition, the page was tightly linked to a commercial site that presumably provided a way to search for masters degree programs by location and area of specialization.  I used the commercial site’s search feature a number of times, entering my own area code and that of a public university located nearby.  Over half of the institutions that appeared were for-profit colleges, and all were private (rather than public) liberal arts schools. In order of appearance: University of Phoenix; Ashford; Kaplan; Keiser University Graduate School; Liberty Online; American Intercontinental; North Central; Walden; Full Sail; Grand Canyon; Lindenwood; Concordia, and Ashworth.   I guess that public colleges and universities don’t warrant inclusion in the databases of this marvelous Quin Street-hosted mechanism for garnering “views” and somehow making a profit by helping teachers locate degree programs that provide just the right “fit” with their needs!  Gwen’s motives (inferred from an email conversation with her) seemed genuine, and this makes me wonder what, exactly, is going on here?

I am even more wary about all this since receiving a second email request from another woman who said she had created a website to help people find programs that offer elementary education degrees.  And sure enough, her page contained some apparently authentic (and not carefully proofread or edited) prose combined with a link to the same commercial school-search site.  I am not sure if the same games are being played in other fields (healthcare, counseling, engineering).

There are probably many lessons to be learned from all this, but here is my cautionary note for bloggers:  be mindful about  the entities with whom you affiliate.  Think before you link.  As you work to attract attention to your blog or website or social media site, be thoughtful about where you direct your visitors’ attention.  Understand that the public sphere, and our public institutions, are being eroded in various ways by profiteers who advance their own interests with no concern for the common good.

—  Ed Prof

On the Meaning of Higher Education

A small tree in winter.

Winter Tree

One of the things professors tend to forget about their students is how new many of them are to higher education, and how many pressures bear down upon them as they fight to find, negotiate, and complete their degree programs.  Those who teach in schools that serve many first-generation college students need to learn that it is almost impossible to anticipate all of the things students don’t know or understand about going to college.  Figuring out what to do about all this is part of the joy of teaching for those who can quiet their egos enough to care and do what is needed to be helpful.  Although community colleges, liberal arts colleges and research universities serve many masters and embrace varied goals, we have one thing in common.  We influence lives. I wonder what would happen if we measured our “success” in higher education in terms of lives influenced instead of more traditional, hierarchical measures of prestige-among-peers and revenue generation?

EdProf

Postmodernity and Professional Life

The Pedagodfathers (previous post) is a postmodern text, or so it seems to me.  It employs an experimental, unconventional approach to academic writing and imaginatively pokes fun at convention.  There are many ways to describe postmodernity.  Above all, postmodern projects (in literature, social science, education, architecture and art) typically embody a profound rejection of deeply held modernist values and practices.  Paradoxically, postmodern projects require mastery and demonstration of the techniques developed by modernist predecessors.  And such projects always contain within them a double-gesture, simultaneously acknowledging (even celebrating) the past, while calling core assumptions and beliefs into question.

Modernists valorize work, logic, science, progress, freedom, universal laws — grand narratives.  Post-modernists approach all of these modern cultural treasures with incredulity.  Whereas modernists employ words that relate to the human capacity to see  (“clarity” — “insight” — “enlightenment” —  “lucidity” — “visualization” and so on), postmodernists draw on the human capacity to speak and hear (“voice” — “polyvocality” — “narrative” — “story” — “interrogate” ).  For a bit more on all this, here is a condensed (and far from complete) summary:  “An Introduction to Postmodernism for the Reluctant.”  It is important to note that, for social theorists, “postmodernity” is no longer where the action is.  More recent (and very interesting) conversations focus on other constructs (for example, “hypermodernity” and “supermodernity”).

What has social theory to do with educating professionals?   Here are some initial thoughts on the matter.  Theories of society provide alternative vantage points from which to examine our assumptions about professional practice and its consequences. Social theories also help shed light on the tensions and incongruities that arise in our own lifeworlds and those of our students and apprentices, who are typically more immersed (than their teachers and mentors) in the social, media and material environments that produce the postmodern psyche.  Those of us who teach and train professionals (and those who study and write about professional life) are typically well ensconced in modernity.   We need to prepare people to take on new responsibilities and commitments that will endure over time, but the old ways of achieving this outcome seem less effective than they were in the past.  Social theory(ies) point to some of the reasons why this is so, and they might afford creative new insights (!) into more effective pedagogical strategies — clearly a modernist aspiration.     — Edprof