Show Me Your Knowledge: An Interview with Rick Magee

Rick Magee is an associate professor of English at Sacred Heart. He won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015 and has a reputation for being one of the most effective and most popular instructors on campus. I wanted to see what he was up to, so I could steal some of his best ideas.

I’ve heard many students comment that your courses are remarkable for how much the students have a say in how they are run. How do you incorporate student feedback or choice into your course design?

Last Spring, I picked up an anthology—we stared off with one novel—and I had some secondary readings that we talked about to establish our theoretical framework for the class, to give them the vocabulary and all of that. Then I said: “Here’s the anthology. Every week you are going to pick out the reading and break up into groups. Every group was going to do two readings, based on how people there were in the class and how many weeks we had, and you’re going to teach the class that day”—so they did it.

I thought that worked surprisingly well. I also said: “How do you want to be assessed? How do you want me to find out what you’ve learned? Here are some things that I’d like to see. I want to see this and this and this. What would be the best way to be able to do that?”

One of my students who is an English major who had had me before said, “I really like the micro-essay,” which is a very focused, super short close reading of about 250-300 words, where, for example, they have to find one word in the essay and analyze it.

How are the micro-essays different from what might be called a standard essay? And what other kind of writing do you have them do?

I had students who still tried to write a 5-paragraph essay, but I told them to get rid of all the unnecessary introductory material because it’s all throat clearing. It’s all fine, but that’s the prewriting and you get rid of that in your final draft.

We had a couple of papers like that due, then I said: "I want to have you do something that shows me that you got something out of the class. Show me that I’m not wasting my time. I don’t know what we’ll call this. And one student said ‘Let’s call it “Show Me Your Knowledge,”’ and I said, “‘Ok, cool.’

“And it can be anything,” I said. “Play to your strengths. If you’re a short story writer, then write a short story. If you’re a painter, then paint me a picture. Just show me that you learned something—somehow.” And they were panicked about that. Complete panic. For the last class, they all had 5 minutes to show their projects, and everyone did really, really well.

I was really careful not to tell them “This is what I want you to do,” but I said, “Come to me with an idea because I’m not going to tell you what you should do.’”

This semester I collected all the readings from a lot of places, but they were in charge of whatever we talked about in class. Having them lead the discussion is less-pressure version where you ask a question and wait for someone to answer it. It put enough pressure on them or we’d sit around and stare at each other till someone said something.

Last semester, they lead everything. If they came to some big idea and I saw how I could insert something I would jump up and scribble on the board and we’d talk about it. And then some of the students would try it on their own in the essays and have fun with that.

Do you spend a great deal of time selecting materials? You certainly offer what I would call cool courses—the “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” on dystopian literature or the course on nature.

I have to go back to my own undergraduate courses. I loved reading trash, all through childhood and high school. I would read trashy spy novels by Robert Ludlum, and I was a huge Stephen King fan. Then I got to college and it was—Oh, you don’t talk about that stuff because it’s like some shameful secret that you read these guys. You don’t dare let anybody know. And that was a real turn off. Even in grad school, I remember there being other grad students who would play the sophisticated card, and I decided that was just a bunch of bullshit.

Reading is not supposed to be this onerous task. It’s fun, that’s what I have 10,000 books at home. So I try to exhibit that. Students have a very regimented, factory notion that if it isn’t in this fancy leather-bound volume, then we can’t talk about it.

I taught The Walking Dead, the graphic novel, and we watched most of the first, pilot episode in class. Both of my First-year Seminars were both on the quiet side, but toward the end I asked them to pick out one of the panels or images in the graphic novel, and we just talked about it. They were doing some really sophisticated reading of symbols—for example, what’s in the foreground versus the background and how things are shaded differently and how the art is conveying a message. They can do it; they just don’t think they can. Or they don’t think it’s something they need to know how to do.

What about technology? How do you incorporate that into your courses?

I’ve gone back and forth. I feel that I’m not using it as much as I should. I use Blackboard. I have them submit their papers electronically. I encourage them with the final projects to use it. I have students editing videos and things like that. Two of my current students put together an 18-minute video of their time in Vermont on the Appalachian Trail—it’s hilarious, it’s well done, it’s well edited.

I also put a great number of links to news stories and blogs and videos. Especially when I’m doing something like the apocalyptic class, there’s always a news story that uses the term “apocalypse” or something like that, and I’ll talk about it a little in class.

How do we develop an atmosphere where students feel free to express their opinions, even with or especially when they disagree with us?

I feel like you can over prepare. When I over prepare, when I think that I have everything figured out about a text, it doesn’t work. But if I go in and say, “Here’s what we’re going to talk about,” then it works. Once a few students start to say something, more often than not, it’s not something I was planning on saying, but it’s a cool idea. Then I’ll write it up on the board.

It’s not them disagreeing with me, but it opens up the space where they feel that they feel that their voice is being heard and that they can say something legitimate.

Closely related to that is the idea that a lot of students have that the line between literary analysis and BS is non-existent. I’ve had a lot of students say, “I just wrote a bunch of BS,” and I have to say, “No, this is actually really good analysis. You were looking at the text and asking ‘What does that mean?’ You were making it up, but you were basing it on the text, and that’s what literary analysis is.”

They’re taken aback by that because they think there is an actual answer. I think a lot of high school teachers teach literature as if it’s a puzzle to figure out—“What does this symbol mean?” and “What does this theme mean?” and that the text is some kind of lock that you have to pick.

In literature, readings are layered. If you peel it back, you get another reading. If you peel that back, you get something else. And they’re all added together, and that’s why literature is so rich. All of these readings work, and they can contradict each other.

All or mostly all of the students are capable of doing that, but many of them won’t realize that they can do it. They also don’t think that they’re allowed to express that they don’t like something. You don’t have to like everything you read, but you have to like it respectfully. Tell me why you don’t like it.

Could you give an example of something that you tried that didn’t work and what you learned from it?

I’ve tried to do debates. Maybe I don’t have enough training on how to set it up, but it’s tough to do with literature. What I’ve learned is that the debates are too binary, for one thing, and binaries just don’t work in literature. Sometimes they don’t want to disagree—it’s not polite.

One other thing that I’m contemplating, and not necessarily because it’s failed, and that’s the research essay. “Go to the library and find a bunch of sources and use them”—I don’t think that model works very well. What I end up doing in a lot of my classes is to do what I do as a professional, and I don’t think that necessarily helps them. The idea that they’re supposed to engage in the conversation, but that’s not what a research paper does.

I’m thinking I might explode that and have them do an annotation of once source. Then have them use the ideas that they learn from that source to write an essay about a work of literature.

How has your teaching changed since you first started?

I was a disaster. I started teaching as a grad student in 1993. Sometimes I feel like I should find all the students that were in my first classes and pay them back. I had the worst student evaluations I ever had. I had a letter of resignation ready to go, and I was ready to drop out of this writing program. I thought I would do it one more time, then everything changed.

I was very gung-ho, that we have to do this Big Thing. I realized that I wanted them to be way up here, and they’re coming in here. I’m not going to drag them up to that high level. And I learned to take myself a little less seriously, and I think that helped a lot. In the last ten years, I’ve started to feel like I kind of know what I’m doing.

I’ve also become less defensive about English. It’s easy to be really defensive about English because we get marginalized all over the place. I don’t worry about that as much any more. I know that it’s important. At the same time, it’s a safe place to stretch your intellect.

A Guide for Student Success

Before considering some of these techniques, it’s important to dispel a couple of myths. For one thing, there’s no such thing as "fixed intelligence." Some people might have an easier time with math or the piano, but everyone can learn, provided that they commit to it.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck examines the importance of having a growth mindset. “The view you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” she writes. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

Moreover, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham has shown, “learning styles” do not exist. It’s true that you might prefer one method to another or one subject to another, but when it comes to learning, the most important thing to know is that it requires regular and focused practice. As Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, attempting to multitask is counterproductive. The key is to focus without distraction.

You need to be precise and practice particular activities, the kind that you will be expected to demonstrate on an exam or assignment. One of the best things you can do is practice retrieving information. Flash cards, for example, work to build information networks in your brain, which you can later access with ease. There are a number of good electronic ways to do this, including the Flash Card Machine, which is free and allows for sharing.

You should also practice more difficult skills, like analyzing what you’ve learned and applying it to new situations and across courses. Here’s a great definition and overview of critical thinking that you might find helpful. Even if you’ve moved on to new material or a different module, you should review what you’ve learned. As Dustin Bakkie puts it, “The best time to learn something is right as you’re about to forget it.”

Here’s a video on five different ways to take good notes. The “mind map” method works very well as a pre-writing exercise for papers. When deciding between pen and paper or computer, you should know that research has found that people retain information better when they take notes by hand.

In addition to the how, there is also the question of how much studying. Indeed, “time on task” is one of the greatest predictors of student success. The “Carnegie Rule” is that you should spend 2-3 hours a week studying for every hour you are in class. Not every course will be this demanding, but many of your professors are operating under the assumption that you are a “full-time student.”

One big difference between high school and college is the amount of unscheduled time you have. Most of your work will be done out of class, which means you need to have strong time management skills and an ability to prioritize your activities. Managing your time properly will ensure that you can attend classes prepared. You will get more out of class, if you know what everyone is talking about and you can contribute with informed questions and comments.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, which has become a movement of sorts, offers five steps for productivity: (1) writing down everything you have to do, (2) identifying the actionable steps, (3) organizing those activities by category and priority, (4) frequently reflecting on your list, and (5) remaining engaged.

You should also keep a calendar that is accessible from your mobile phone that you refer to and update frequently. At the beginning of each semester, you should add all of the key dates for your courses and assignments—and refer to the syllabi regularly. It contains important information about assignments and expectations that you might not remember from the first day of class.

Remember the Milk is a free app to organize your projects and tasks. Many people use the Evernote webpage/app for notes and lists. It's free, flexible, and integrated into other programs, apps, and websites. You could use Google Docs in the same way. Its formatting makes it simple for writing papers, and since it’s cloud-based, you never have to worry about losing your work.

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests you keep a to-do list that's organized around how important things are and when they are due. It’s inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president and general. Most people are prone to spend their time working on things at the last minute, then are too exhausted to do anything other than waste time on unimportant activities. The trick is to maximize the time you spend on important but not urgent work.

If you struggle with time management, you might want to check out "How To Avoid Procrastination for Good" or "The Science of Procrastination" video for a number of effective techniques. You could also keep a log of all your activities for a couple weeks to determine if you are using your time wisely.

If you’re concerned about writing, you should make heavy use of the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University and Writing for Success, a free open-access grammar and style handbook.

With a Youtube channel, a blog, and a podcast, is another great resource for serious students.

Finally, you should visit your professors in their offices early in the semester and again later, as the need arises. The same is true of support services around campus—your advisor/s, the research librarians, the Learning Center, etc.

There are a great many people on campus wanting to help you succeed. Most times, however, it’s easier for you to find them than it is for them to find you.


Big Learning

James Lang, the author of four books and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has just published a remarkable new book on teaching and learning, called Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, takes his inspiration from baseball, specifically the term “small ball,” which emphasizes doing all of the little things well, rather than swinging for the fences. His approach is in large part a recognition that faculty, especially part-time faculty, are busy and often not in a place to make large-scale changes to their course design. It is far better to make incremental improvements and have your teaching evolve, than attempt something massive or, worse yet, avoid making changes at all because of the time cost.

Although the book is informed by the latest psychological and pedagogical research, it’s highly engaging and accessible. In the span of one page, Lang references the latest academic research, Aristotle, and ordering tea from his local barista.

Here’s a distillation of Lang’s suggestions, which correspond to its chapters:

1.     Give students frequent opportunities to retrieve what they have learned.

2.     Ask students to make predictions prior to learning will increase their ability to process that material.

3.     Space out learning and mix up the practice of skills (“interleaving”).

4.     Use prior knowledge to help students make connections and expand their networks of

5.     Break down what you want your students to do into small and specific tasks and give them feedback on those tasks.

6.     Have students explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, especially at the mid- and advanced stages of development.

7.     Appeal to your students’ willingness to help other people and make a contribution to their community and the world (“self-transcendence”).

8.     Communicate with your students in a way that praises effort over natural ability to foster a growth mindset.

9.     When you’re ready for some big teaching, consider more activity-based learning, such as service learning, games, and simulations.

As part of his emphasis on the fundamentals, Lang offers a powerful corrective for two common practices (and errors) in higher ed. For one thing, he worries that we are too taken with Bloom’s taxonomy, specifically the notion that we should be spending as much time as possible on higher order skills such as evaluation and synthesis at the expense of more basic and essential skills like remembering and understanding. Regrettably, I am guilty of this. This is the premise behind Lang’s first principle: maximizing the “retrieval effect” will mean students have more knowledge to apply, when they get to that point.

Lang is also concerned how flipping courses—that is, having students’ first exposure to material occur before class meetings and saving class time for more difficult work—has not been matched with making good use of class time, an issue that the tips from Lang’s book will certainly help with.

If there is one essential lesson of the book, it relates to how we start and end our classes, which Lang discussed in two recent articles for The Chronicle. The open of a class should have students reflect on prior learning and prepare them for what’s to come, just as the last few minutes of a meeting should be used for reflection and to seal what has just been covered.

Also noteworthy is the extent to which Lang seamlessly interweaves lessons for onground and online teaching. He firmly recognizes how commonplace online and blended courses have become for teachers and does not treat them as an afterthought, as we find in many other treatments of the subject.

The great virtue of the book is that it speaks equally to novice and seasoned teachers. Even if it’s just getting in the habit of showing up to class 5-10 minutes early to make connections with the more reserved students, it’s impossible to read Small Teaching and not come away with something that can help your teaching tomorrow.

Lang’s hope is that small teaching can lead to some big learning.