Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Start Where the Student Is

Sometimes conversations on education seem out of Groundhog Day--but without the possibilities for improvement.  It's just the same old merry-go-round.  "Professor X" (an adjunct unwilling to put himself on the line with his real name), who wrote an article in The Atlantic a few years ago about higher education, has now turned that into a book: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.  He also answered a few questions for Inside Higher Education, which is where I get my information about the book and his views.

He is quoted in IHE: "The students... leave me with two choices: teach at a true college level and fail everybody, or dumb things down enough so that more students can pass."  This is a false dichotomy, and is the reason I've no interest in reading his book: No one who sees things so simplistically and in black-or-white will be able to help me become a better teacher or be able to help improve education as a whole.  With his false choice, Professor X wipes away any chance for progress... so why should I bother reading him?  What can he do for me?

Yet he still needs response.

The only solution he offers is to revert to trade schools, completely erasing John Dewey and the idea that education (even higher education) has an essential role in a democracy extending far beyond job preparation, completely erasing the idea that ours is a society without firm boundaries of class.  I reject his solution for a number of reasons but, today, find it more troubling than otherwise I might.  We are in the process of establishing a bifurcated society with a distant elite at the top and what is quickly becoming a defeated mass below.  His solution will only grease the skids as we slide towards a two-tier state.  He is providing justification for an elite that doesn't want to care about the fate of the rest in the first place.

College students, even in open admissions situations, know a great deal--just not necessarily what their instructors expect them to know.  Teaching "at a true college level" contains assumptions about what students already know and about what students can already do.  That they haven't these skills makes them vulnerable to claims that they aren't "ready" for college (shades of colonies not being "ready" for self-government).  That they haven't these skills makes it possible for Professor X to justify failing them--and then putting the blame on them and not on himself.

A teacher who puts in the effort to learn something about the students generally finds that there are levels of knowledge within the students sufficient as starting places for reaching course goals--though by routes different, possibly, than those taken before.  This takes willingness to be flexible, to experiment, and (yes) even to fail.  But it makes success possible... something Professor X, in his dichotomy, rejects.

Professor X's alternative, to "dumb things down," is equally unacceptable and equally unnecessary.  It's also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you have to dumb things down, you assume the students are dumb and start treating them as dumb--and then they will act dumb.  Starting where the students are isn't necessarily starting with the dumb, and it doesn't carry the assumption that it is the students who are dumb.  Put the knowledge and skills within a context familiar to the students, and they will grasp them quickly, proving that they are able--something the instructor has to understand and believe, if the class is going to be a success at all.

There is more in the IHE piece about Professor X that drives me crazy, but I will save that for another post.

Monday, March 21, 2011

This Is the Picture...

...I took just seconds before the elephant charged up the small hill I was standing on.

I still have the Yashica-D twin-lens reflex camera I took this with.  The Leica that took the slide I snapped just after, just before the elephant charged, has disappeared--as has the slide itself.  As has the negative for this print.  Ten moves over twenty years, and things just vanish.

The picture never was much better than this damaged print.  I took it soon after dawn and the light really wasn't sufficient.  Plus, I was in a hurry.  I knew I was too close to the elephant--but I had never been this close before and wanted to get a picture.  I was sick of elephants appearing as little black dots in the distance (I lacked a telephoto lens).

When the elephant charged, I turned and ran down the hill and then circled to what would be the left in this picture--and fell somewhere to the left side of the picture.  To the right, and somewhat behind, was my compound, but I could not have managed to get around to the entrance, which was down the path the elephant was walking on.

In the upper left, near that ridge in the background, is the village of Nassiett, where I was working on a hedgerow project, where I constructed a small culvert easing rainy season flooding of the road, and where I built a tree nursery.  Directly to the left was the main part of my village, Tambaong.  That way, down the path, several people were watching as I took my pictures and the elephant charged.

My involvement in the "Peace Corps @ 50" project began with my submission of a personal essay recounting this incident.  With it, I offered any assistance I could give.  Series Editor Jane Albritton, when the original editor of the Africa volume had to step aside, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in taking over.  I was and did--and, though it has been a great deal of work, have enjoyed every minute of it.

The book, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, is now available from Amazon.com and will be in many Barnes and Noble stores within days.  You will have to buy it, if you want to get the whole of my story.  [I get no money out of this, but I really, really want it to be a success.]

The essays, together (and with the three forthcoming volumes focusing on other areas of the world) present one of the great stories of the last half-century, the story of Americans moving into the world peacefully and with purpose, the story of the lives of Americans in cultures absolutely distinct from their native land, the story of Americans coming home changed completely.

Reading One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, one begins to recognize the commonalities of the diverse experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), the challenges, the growth, and the learning.  There are some sixty essays in this book, each one a gem.  Even if you have had no experience with Peace Corps or with Africa, the quality of the writing here will surely impress you.

In many ways, I am more excited by the publication of One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo than I've been by any book I've written on my own.  With this, I feel part of something much bigger, much more important than my academic books.

If you buy the book and read it, I would love to hear reactions.  Please contact me.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo--Published!

We're surrounded by people whose basic philosophy seems to be "I've got something, at least, and I'm going to protect it at any cost!  Keep away!"  They remind me of lines by Aldous Huxley from Ape and Essence:
The leech's kiss,
The squid's embrace,
The prurient ape's defiling touch:
And do I like the human race?
No, not much.

Dress it up in whatever religious piety you want, it still seems a rather squalid view of life.

Fortunately, if we look for them, we also find we are surrounded by people who are much, much better than that.

Over the past year, I've lived with some sixty stories by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Africa.  These essays cover volunteers from the beginnings of Peace Corps 50 years ago to recent PCVs (as the volunteers are known).  They are now published in a book I've edited, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: Fifty Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume One: Africa.

It's an amazing collection--and I say so not because I edited it (and contributed to it), but because I have learned so much more that I thought I could about Peace Corps and about the best of Americans.  Having been a PCV, I thought I knew the experience pretty well.  Perhaps I did, but I know it much better now, through the words in these stories, words that (by the way) give the full picture, not the sanitized version that the bureaucrats might want us to read. 

Even if you have never been in Peace Corps, have never met anyone who has, I suspect you would enjoy these stories as much as I have.  They help restore a bit of needed idealism in a time when the very idea of idealism is under fire.

I make nothing off this book, and was not paid for my editing, which took hundreds and hundreds of hours.  I did it because of what my own experience means to me... and continued because I fell in love with each and every writer in the volume.

Buy the book.  Feel a little better about America, and about humanity.

Do I like the human race?  Very much.  If that means you, too... don't keep out.

Friday, March 04, 2011

One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo Update

The series editor, Jane Albritton, has seen a copy of the book and declares it beautiful.  To me, the best thing about it isn't the look but the stories--and we've both been seeing those for quite some time, so already know just how much more than simply 'beautiful' those are.  It's nice, though, that the vehicle stands up to the contents.

This is from my Introduction:
For the better part of a year, I’ve lived with the essays, going through them, sorting them, cutting them down so they could all fit in this volume. They’ve provided me with recognition, with joy, sadness, hope, disillusionment, and memory. They’ve taught me. They’ve re-opened a world I long ago left behind, and have helped me understand the nature of the Peace Corps beyond my own small experience. Ultimately, they have convinced me that, whatever its legacy in development, the Peace Corps will always be known world-wide as one of the United States’ most significant contributions to human kind.

Each perspective presented here is distinct. Though we who served in Africa will often nod in recognition as we read these essays, our experiences were never lock step, but were diverse and often extraordinary. This volume reflects that, as much as I could make it do so. Some of the stories deal with the small, daily events that came to be commonplace. Others present astonishing once-in-a-lifetime events. Together, they present a picture as true to the Peace Corps experience in Africa as I could make it.

The Peace Corps may not change the world in grand ways, but it does change individuals—and not just the volunteers. Like that seventh-grader awed by an African, there are thousands and thousands of people world-wide whose views of the world were expanded by naïve and idealistic PCVs who came to rest in their villages and towns, even if just for a short time.

That is one great success.
In a jaded America, we need to recognize this sort of 'success' much more often than we do, and not for our own aggrandizement,  but honestly recognizing that its the small where life resides, the small where true accomplishment lies.

The last essay in the book, "Children of the Rains" by Michael Tosso (who served in Niger from 2004-2006) contains this passage about leaving home:
When you travel to a foreign place, when the bright city lights hit you for the first time, when you first taste Coca-Cola, when you learn to eat foods other than millet, baobab leaves and peanut sauce, and you don’t know a soul in the world because you can’t speak the language, you begin to whistle this song. You sing the song as you walk along, and more likely than not, your song will find its companion.

Another Djerma youth’s whistle will join yours and you are no longer a stranger in a strange land: you have found someone to look after you and to look after.

My friend Yaye taught me this song shortly before I was to begin my preparations for departure. He insisted that I learn it, that I know the words elders sing from their fields as clouds gather on the horizon: rain clouds gather and bring your children home for the harvest. Elders and children sing to one another from across the Savannahs and cloud-filled skies the separate them.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


This morning, my campus was plastered with signs reading "Be a City Tech Leader."  Last weekend, I finally saw the movie The Social Network.  For the past month, I've been watching, fascinated and constantly learning, events in the Middle East and beyond.

They all connect.

I'll start in the middle, with The Social Network.  The movie made me uncomfortable.  Harvard has become the crucible for creating American leaders.  Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few others, that is.  But, I realized while watching, I don't like those leaders much--and don't think highly of the structures creating them.  It's not that I have a problem with any of the characters, though none is anyone I would much want to know, but that they inhabit a world with little relevance to mine, or to much of the rest of the world.  They have been elevated to a rarefied level far removed from the rest of us--by virtue of measurable ability (such as that 1600 SAT score), family background, or evident talent.  The only question in any of their minds is how much success they will have in their lives--whether or not they will succeed at all has already been answered.  They remind me of the title character of Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny, the story of a man who was a Yale 'golden boy' in the early sixties--only to be a suicide in the early nineties, for he had managed nothing more than to become a professor at Johns Hopkins (something most of us would see as laudable success).

Such people have little understanding of the world as most of us experience it.

Yet they are running "our" world.

Which brings me to the Middle East.

Yesterday, in one of my classes, I commented that I'd been hearing on the news that Qaddafi had demolished any possible rivals within Libya, that his government contained no one who could have challenged him, leaving a leadership vacuum that the rebels would have a hard time filling.  Yet it has seemed to me that the rebels are rather well organized.  Not only are they recruiting and training their own forces, but are developing a legal system for the areas under their control.  How is that, if Qaddafi had made his government him alone?

One of my students, an Iraqi, raised his hand and said, simply, "tribal structures."

Of course.  And I should have known that.  One of the things I'd learned in my four years in West Africa is the power of traditional tribal structures.  Thing is, in America, we have no equivalent, no system of government that works separately from the official structures.  We had no national system imposed on us from without (our federal system is our own; for all the talk of "states' rights," the states remain part of an integrated structure), as much of the world, particularly the developing world, has had.  As a result, we tend to discount tribal structures when looking at the world.

Not my Iraqi student.  He knows how important they are.  He has lived them.

My students at City Tech are, primarily, immigrants and African-Americans.  They do not come from elite backgrounds and do not really expect to become part of the elite.  But they know the world in ways that the elites in any country never will.  Here, and in much of their prior schooling in New York City, they work with people from an incredible diversity of backgrounds (we have students from some hundred countries, speaking at least that many languages).  They learn to accommodate all sorts of differences and backgrounds, from disabilities to religions and more.  They know what it is like to struggle, and have seen the real consequences of failure.

Those signs that exhort them to "Be a City Tech Leader"?  Better them, I think, than students from the elite schools who are running things now.  They know more and, given the right support, can do even more than Mark Zuckerberg.  For the world, that is.

What Zuckerberg has done should not be discounted (and neither should the skills and possibilities of any of those who have joined the elites).  What is more important (for our communal future), though, is what is done with what he has created.  I'm betting that it is my City Tech students, and others like them all over the world, who will show what that can be.

I'm not betting against the odds, by the way: the Egyptians have already shown me that.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Peace Corps: 50 Years of America's Best

Today is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.  With all the wars in the world, especially the escalating violence in Libya, that doesn't sound like much.  And, with some 200,000 PCVs over 50 years, that's certainly close to nothing--especially when compared to the millions who have served the United States in other ways over that period.

But it is something.  Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have been a strong force in keeping us from growing too closed, as a nation, too grasping, too self-centered.  They have insisted to their fellow Americans that the world is a large and intricate place, with room for attitudes that, though foreign to American ways of thought, can be just as legitimate, just as positive.

Editing the Africa volume of the series commemorating the anniversary, I've learned much more about Peace Corps, about Americans, and about people than I thought I ever could through that type of work.  The book, which is available for pre-order at Amazon.com (it should ship within the next two weeks), developed into a single narrative though it is made up of more than sixty essays by RPCVs.  Called One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, it is a project I am extremely proud to be associated with.

The is the first of four volumes, all of which will be available in the next few months.  Even if you were not yourself a PCV, and never even met one, the books will entrance you.  They show America at its best, but without hiding the problems and failures that always accompany success.

Here's the cover:

Order the book!  You won't be disappointed.

And here, just as a small part of the 50th anniversary celebration, are a few of the pictures I have posted over the years, pictures taken with my camera when I was a PCV in Togo, 1988 to 1990 (that's me, plowing, in the third one):