Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Reaganland by Rick Perlstein.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sticking point

I am currently reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel. It's a book that, on one level, I ought to dislike: Heavy use of anecdotes (as illustration rather than an attempt at proof, I hasten to add), the mood that shows through is often more optimistic than critical, and it says nice things about Eric Mazur.  It's a light read, one that I often find myself skimming rather than deeply digesting.  Despite that, I like it.  Not as much as I like some of the other books that I've blogged here, and I won't have as much to say about it as some of the other books, but I nonetheless consider it a welcome addition to the genre.  Why?

First, whatever flaws it has in common with so many other books in its genre, it has them in far lesser degree.  It does not preach nearly as heavily.  It is optimistic but not breathless.  It uses anecdotes to illustrate but does not shy away from citing data and studies.  When it cites studies, it doesn't just cite the handful of famous studies that every good, decent academic has heard of if they've ever attended even one pedagogy seminar.  It is an easy read (at least for one accustomed to the conventions of this genre) but not a fluffy read.  I see a powerful case for recommending this book to brand new faculty* so that they can be socialized into what they will soon inevitably encounter in interactions with well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning) faculty and presenters, but get it in a far better-reasoned form, from authors who (as far as I can tell) aren't selling anything besides this one book that you already bought.

However, Make It Stick is more than just "one of the good ones." There are key ways in which this book differs from the genre of books about teaching (or, at least, the higher ed sub-genre). It's a book that is adamant about the importance of frequent testing, frequent practice, and frequent (well-constructed) assignments. (Indeed, I am reading it specifically because one of the authors was recently interviewed about the importance of tests in The Chronicle.) The authors' strong endorsement of constant practice and testing is, admittedly, consistent with the embrace of popular things like clickers (though that's not necessarily bad; I use clickers in some classes), and also with some of the surface features of "flipped classes" (the topic of an excellent post today by my friend Xykademiqz), but there's none of the "Now, now, you have to understand, you're doing it wrong and need to be more progressive..." tone that usually comes from flipped class discussions and drives me and Xykademiqz and others up the wall.  (Indeed, the term "flipped class" appears nowhere in the index.)  I can think of at least one person who has gone on the public record to argue that progressive educational methods eliminate the need for reading or other substantive work or study outside of class time, and it is only my thin (though fading) residue of semi-civility that keep me from linking to this person's published statements on the matter.  The authors of this book would not be nodding along with that person.

Interestingly, Make It Stick is also a book that cautiously declines to join in casting stones at standardized tests as a category, an inclination that I equivocally share, and an inclination so outside the norms of polite academic tropes that seeing it in a book automatically warms my contrarian heart.  

I am about 2/3 of the way through this book, and I intend to finish it.  It is a worthy addition to the conversation.  I would love to live in a world where the most populated portion of the spectrum of pedagogical discourse stretched from historically literate curmudgeons like Hofstadter on one side to psychologists like Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel on the other side.

*This mention of recommended reading for new faculty brings something to mind:  In 2006, before I was about to begin my second adjunct gig, I read Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do.  I don't know how I'd react to it now, after 9 years of encounters with edu-fads and their promoters, but at the time it struck me as non-preachy, non-ideological, and consistent with the instincts of a concerned teacher.  Perhaps Bain's book, Make it Stick, and Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life would make a nice trio of gifts for new faculty...