Developing Grit in Our Students

I have been thinking more about what will help students succeed in education and life. I often get introspective around finals time when students come to me desperate for grades, or, rather, desperate for an A. Inevitably around this time as well, students start hustling trying to do any and everything to improve grades if they are failing. I always think that if they showed half of this initiative earlier on then they would not feel as if they have to come and hustle on the back end.

The problem, as I see it, is that these” hustling” students haven’t developed “grit”: the ability to persevere for a long term goal. As much as I am invested and am passionate about the digital humanities, this crisis of instant gratification caused by our rapid technology hasn’t helped these students become better students. I think in many ways it is up to us as educators to develop character first before other sorts of pedagogy. We need to help students know what to do in times of adversity. I have realized for young black men that the best thing that they can do in college is to develop a yoga practice. Yoga, as quiet as it’s kept, is hard. Men often underestimate its challenge and are always surprised when they start shaking in a pose. However, sticking in a pose will help them know that even when they are taken by surprise by a challenge, they can overcome it. I always feel mean when I tell college kids that life is hard. But it is hard. They only need to understand that just because something is hard it doesn’t mean that it is not worth doing. Moreover, it is only by doing what is hard that people will have any sense of accomplishment.

So, for all of my students wondering what to do if their semester didn’t end the way that they wanted it to, remember to keep on pushing and stay strong in the pose.


The Humanities: The Renaissance, Again

Stories like this one decrying the death of the Humanities have been appearing more and more frequently in popular and academic press. This, along with the rallying cry to make college education more applicable to what people will do in their jobs (whatever that means–like we supposed to teach them novels about using the telephone) has meant that college educators, like myself, are suffering somewhat of an identity crisis. Do we teach the way we were taught or do we try to adapt our syllabi to be more market friendly? I think MacDonald in the article linked above is somewhat over stating the case for traditionalism as the central part of humanistic inquiry. The change in English Department curricula is not due to some sort of political correctness brought at the expense of the classics but because of something that I found to be true about literature: no department can insist that only a few set books represent the humanistic tradition. It is not true for example that the Iliad is more valuable than Invisible Man. I think that you can have the same level of inquiry and level of humanistic thought without requiring students to trip through the same old canon of western literature.

I think that with every age, we will constantly be redefining what is classic. Working in the digital humanities shows me that.  What would the study of humanities be if we stopped with Aristotle, Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare? The Liberal Arts then really wouldn’t be relevant and if you think there are no humanities majors now (which by the way is a frustrating false statistic that I see bandied about–English and all of the liberal arts remain top disciplines of study alongside and oftentimes outpacing business and psychology) there really won’t be any in the future. Can you imagine if any study of astronomy decided that it would stop with Copernicus or genetics stopped with the study of physiognomy? As long as there are researchers who are actively researching, professors will have to tackle new discoveries and texts in their classes and scholarship. Natalia Cecire’s insightful blog talks a little bit more about this here. So lets stop talking about the death of the Humanities and instead start talking about how it is being reborn.


Are We Still Creating Kings?: Morehouse College and the Challenge of Educating Black Males

In his 2013 Commencement Address at Morehouse College, President Barack Obama called on the graduates to remember what the legendary educator, Benjamin E. Mays, who had been president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, said was the role of every graduate who wanted to call themselves a man. Mays said:

It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates — but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life — men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.

Not only is Obama calling on Mays significant here because of what Mays meant to higher education for blacks in general, but, more specifically, because of what Mays meant to the life and work of Morehouse’s most famous graduate, Martin Luther King Jr. As Lawrence E. Carter notes in his Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., there was no one who in terms of his philosophy and practice, who had a greater impact on King than Benjamin E. Mays. It is Mays, who King called” his spiritual and intellectual father,” who would deliver the eulogy at King’s funeral. Further Obama, in his commencement address, would recall that King, who enrolled at Morehouse when he was 15 under a program that Mays instituted in order to get the students young before the could be drafted into the war, wasn’t born as the revolutionary he became. In effect, King became the person that he was because of his contact with Morehouse College. Obama states:

Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. And I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus — for the suits he wore, his classmates called him “Tweed.” But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody — was afraid.”

Thinking about the role that Morehouse College and its educators like Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and Lucius Tobin played in constructing Martin Luther King and in Obama’s ideal of a Morehouse Man, the question for us becomes: are we doing the job that Mays called on us to do and of which King becomes the emblem? Are we teaching these black male students to be unafraid, to be intellectually rigorous, and to make a difference in their communities? Are we, in effect, creating Kings?

It seems that with the challenges that face us as professors, the answer will be not always. In fact, we are regularly plagued with academic dishonesty, apathy, and, what we call in the students, the tendency to rely on “the academic hustle”– the belief that students can get over on their professors by skirting work all semester only to come at the end and negotiate grades. Indeed, it seems that sometimes, teaching character and responsibility, in addition to the rigors of your discipline is more than any one person can handle. However, what Clayborne Carson and archival research will tell you is that King, while at Morehouse, was not a model student. He was an average student who excelled at oratory– or in the use of words, but he rarely made getting the best grades his focus. But there was something that was sparked in him by Mays, who was Morehouse’s first president with a doctorate, to go on to seminary and later get a Ph.D. with an A average. There was something in King’s education at Morehouse that made him willing to fight and die for the rights of others. That something, that is not quantifiable by grades, is what we realized at Morehouse that we need to focus on in order to produce well educated citizens and good human beings. Moreover, studying the words of Martin Luther King, and through him Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman, allows students to gain an understanding of how their own educative process is important.

Therefore, through this research, which I intend to undertake with Yohance Murray in Psychology and Andrea McEachron in Reading and Critical Thinking, I will produce scholarship exploring the pedagogical strategies that I employ using Martin Luther King’s works in order to make sure that our students are not only good writers and critical thinkers but also willing, despite GPA, to think about the impact that they will make on the world around them.

Relevant Sources

Banks, Adam J. “Martin, Malcolm and a Black Digital Ethos.” Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Carson, Clayborne. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Crozer Seminary Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.16 (Summer, 1997), pp. 123-128.

—————–. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Morehouse Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 15 (Spring, 1997), pp. 121-125.

Carter, Lawrence Edward, ed. Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1998.

Jelks, Randal Maurice. Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2012.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. New York: Fortress Press, 2010. Print.

——————. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991. Print.

Mays, Benjamin E. Born to Rebel. Athens, U of Georgia P, 2003. Print.

Obama, Barack. “2013 Morehouse College Commencement Address.” Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. 19 May 2013.

Thurman, Howard. The Luminous Darkness. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.

Why Apple Products Are Still Best For Educators

People often ask me why I still recommend an iPad, iPod, or iPhone for educational use when the Android platform is growing everyday and Microsoft and Google both offer solutions for educators. Quite simply, Apple still offers the best and most comprehensive experience for both students and educators. And while there will be things that are cheaper and things that are sexy–for example, I love the HTC One phone–I realize that the things that I need to do are best done on my iPad. Two apps that are crucial to me Gradebook Pro and Explain Everything are only available on iOS. Really, do yourself a favor and check them out. It is not an exaggeration to say that they and the iPad have revolutionized my teaching.

So for now I am still an Apple advocate, but I am praying for a new form factor for the iPhone this year and I am eagerly awaiting iOS7.

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