Another Theme for Spring: Presence

Surveying the smoldering ruins of academic Twitter this week, one thing I observed several times (not that this is anything new) is that pedagogical main-character-of-the-day controversies—e.g., a controversy this week over whether it’s ableist for a professor to refuse to distribute a full course syllabus before the first day of class—rarely seem to be examples of useful good-faith disagreement about actual teaching practices in a complex emergent environment. These controversies tend instead to feed on sloganeering and hyperbole. They exemplify mainly how people want to be seen publicly as teachers by other academics who will never know anything about their real-life teaching or its results.

Artist’s impression of a collection of academics examining each other’s tweets for signs of carceral pedagogy

Last week, I wrote briefly about my struggle to identify potential adjustments to my teaching approach that might best help several dozen specific students during the new spring semester. Well, as of yesterday, all my in-person classes now have had their first meeting, and based on those meetings, I’m optimistic that my changes will be effective—on balance. But I have no illusions about it being easy to implement these changes well.

Above all, what’s going to be necessary is that I put in the work of responding creatively, week after week, to the needs of the students who are actually in the room—including, by the way, needs that may well be contradictory. Such contradictions are typical in a real-life classroom, not exceptional.

So in addition to seeking simplicity this semester, as I wrote last week, I’m also seeking a greater sense of presence. I’m trying to be better at adapting to what’s actually happening for my students—specific people in a specific time and place—rather than adhering to what I had planned or to any abstract ideological prescription somebody tries to impose on others’ classrooms. And, to some extent, I hope my students will be able to see that this is what’s happening.

My Theme for Spring: Simplicity

This photograph is from a year ago.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit America in early 2020, teachers here have spent each academic term trying to catch up to an evolving disaster. That is, we have carefully planned every term based on what happened during the previous term, only to encounter new problems. Sometimes the new problems resulted from our (necessary) attempts to mitigate the old ones, which is especially annoying.

During these years, every topic that pundits and armchair pundits have treated as the issue confronting American education—remote learning! mask mandates! vaccine mandates! ableism! flexibility! testing! kindness! learning loss! self-censorship!—has turned out to be just one more dimension of a much larger problem, and that problem is that pandemics suck.

Peering into the future, I’m certain of only one thing: We’re going to be dealing with the pandemic’s fallout for years, and it’s a problem much bigger than any teacher’s or institution’s choices, however good or bad those choices may be.

Anyway, here’s my current attempt to fight last semester’s battles: I’m trying to help minimize student anxiety by simplifying my courses, especially at the outset.

For classes that meet in person this spring, I’m getting back to basics with the most predictable weekly schedule I can arrange. I’m drawing up each course calendar in the form of a checklist to maximize transparency and encourage students to track their progress. I’m assuming that class time will mostly be spent on really basic concepts. And I’m stripping down my syllabus, grounding every design choice in the need to make it less intimidating.

To some extent, this is taking me back to my earliest days as an instructor, when I was much more anxious in the classroom. But now simplicity is about helping students in crisis find their footing.

I can’t wait to find out how completely this, too, ends up missing the mark.

Spice Trader’s Pumpkin Pie

Now for something completely different: My recipe for a fragrant autumnal squash tart.

Pumpkin pie cooling on a counter

Chill a 9″ pie crust.

In a small bowl, mix:

  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • ½ tsp cloves (ground)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

Beat two large eggs in a large mixing bowl. Stir in one can (15 oz) of pumpkin purée and the spice mixture.

Thoroughly stir in one can (14 oz) of condensed milk and two tablespoons of sour cream. Then stir in one tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Pour the mixture into the chilled 9″ pie crust.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes at 425°F. Then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake for another 30-40 minutes or until the pie fully inflates (forming a dome with no depression in the center).


Turn the oven off, but leave it for 15 minutes with the door cracked open, so that the pie slowly deflates without cratering. Then remove the pie from the oven and let it cool for two more hours before refrigerating it. Chill the pie for at least 12 hours before serving.

This recipe produces a dense but silky pie with understated sweetness and a strong spice flavor.

Thin Margins

A bearded tightrope walker carries another man high above raging water

There’s good news, in the first place. This academic year is much better than last year was at the same point. For me, anyway. And for most of my students and friends.

We may be living every day under apocalyptic headlines about the world at large, but the apocalypse isn’t happening inside my classrooms. Not this time. Not as far as I know. Though everybody has their own struggle.

With mask mandates lifted almost everywhere, newly matriculated college students now get to see each others’ faces on campus. For most students and most professors, that’s been a great thing for morale and probably, on the whole, for learning, whatever it means for physical health. (I’m not going to deny the tradeoffs—in either direction.)

But everybody’s working on thin margins. Teachers and students alike. There’s less room for error than there was at this time three years ago. We have lower reserves of energy, creativity, health, wealth, and patience.

Patience is the problem that’s really on my mind lately.


For me, the problem of patience has been brought into clearer focus by what’s happening on Twitter.

Continue reading “Thin Margins”

French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib

The Rio Grande (downtown) campus of Austin Community College
Cropped from a 2014 photograph by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.

The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.

A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.

Continue reading “French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib”

Things I’m Reading to Prepare for Fall

We’ve somehow reached that the point in the summer when I suddenly have just four to six weeks left to finish planning all my fall courses. That means I need to find my focus and motivation … fast.

Typically, for me, that means reading things that could fire the imagination, generating excitement about what’s possible in the upcoming semester. This week, I’ve queued up a few freely available publications—open resources that don’t require access to a library (or venturing out into the heat).

First, there’s The APA Guide to College Teaching: Essential Tools and Techniques Based on Psychological Science (PDF), published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education. (It was inspired by an earlier publication for K-12 teachers.) This 46-page report identifies 21 evidence-based principles for teachers working in higher education, pairing each principle with brief but specific advice.

For the sake of balance, though not necessarily contradiction, I’m also reading a brief appeal the English instructor John Schlueter wrote for the AAUP’s newsletter in 2019, called “In Search of What We Do”—together with a classic article that helped inspire it, Elliott Eisner’s 1983 essay on “The Art and Craft of Teaching.” Both of these texts warn against overly prescriptive and rationalistic (“teacher-proof”) theories of undergraduate education, which run the risk of making us forget that getting a college education is about liberating one’s imagination as a member of specific and dynamic communities of students.

Next, to assist with my effort to do a better job helping burned-out COVID-era students identify the importance and relevance of history—and perhaps also to teach U.S. history more persuasively in the current political climate—I’m studying the American Historical Association’s 2021 report History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (PDF). This 112-page publication offers very detailed information for thinking with, as well as a series of ten summary statements on the “challenges and opportunities” the data reveal.

I’m also revisiting a great article by Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” which was published in CBE Life Sciences Education in 2013. Why am I reading an article for biologists? Because it’s applicable to any undergraduate course. Tanner’s article is an especially clear and well-organized discussion of basic challenges and almost two dozen practical techniques for encouraging participation from students who otherwise might be left out.

Finally, because I’m teaching at two Catholic colleges again this fall, I’m rereading a 1993 educational statement released by the Society of Jesus: “Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach” (PDF). Most history teachers, of course, don’t need to worry about the specific theological commitments than animate this text. But the Jesuit order has a 500-year tradition of conceptualizing education as an imaginative, reflective, and aesthetic enterprise that prepares learners to become leaders in the world. Though not a Catholic myself, I always find this text energizing.

Celebrating an Award

Today I had the honor of receiving a Presidential Teaching Award from the De La Salle Institute for Teaching and Learning (DLSI). This recognition is given annually to one part-time and one full-time faculty member at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Part-time faculty members are eligible to receive the award after teaching at the university for at least five semesters. Other criteria include a record of “enthusiastic engagement with students,” “incorporation of key elements of Lasallian pedagogy,” or innovation in “pedagogical methods that are intellectually rigorous, creative, engaging, and accessible.” The final decision of whom to honor is made by the university president, guided by the recommendation of a faculty advisory panel from across the university.


I was invited to offer brief remarks at the faculty awards event. So I delivered some thoughts that I hope went something like this:

Jonathan W. Wilson, speaking from a lectern at an event at La Salle University. Photograph courtesy of La Salle University Office of Marketing and Communication.
Photograph by Dan Nguyen, La Salle University

In 2022, a lot of us—educators at all levels—have the sense that we’re working in a time of general professional crisis. It’s a time of anxiety for us, and it’s certainly a time of anxiety for our students. The pandemic is only one part of it. Many of us now wonder whether our work is sustainable at all.

Three hundred forty years ago, it was in another time of general upheaval that Jean-Baptiste de La Salle established the Brothers of the Christian Schools. During that crisis, poor and working-class children in France needed better access to basic education, but teaching them was a badly regarded—and poorly compensated—line of work. La Salle’s solution, ironically, was to embrace poverty and humility.

That’s what the Lasallian watchwords “together and by association” meant in the seventeenth century. The teachers of La Salle’s order were supposed to live in solidary with each other and with their students. La Salle himself gave up both a personal fortune and excellent prospects of advancement through the ranks of the Catholic clergy. The trade was for a sense of meaning: deprivation now, but the confidence, shared with others, that your work had a higher, long-term value.

Today, one of the things that sustains me as a teacher, despite the insecurity of our time, is getting to participate in the long Lasallian tradition. I draw strength from its unusually vehement insistence that, in spite of everything, we don’t work alone, and our work has a long-term purpose. That’s why this particular form of recognition means so much to me.

Here Goes Nothing Again

Classes start next week. I visited my new classroom today to check the equipment.

This semester, I’ll teach just two classes. Though that means I’m being paid less, it still comes as a relief after teaching five classes (in four preps) at three universities this autumn. It also probably means my students will have a better experience this time.

As for safety, we still have indoor mask mandates and vaccine mandates. One of my employers is requiring booster shots when eligible, too, and now is explicitly recommending—but is not, as far as I know, providing—high-filtration respirators (N95s, KN95s, KF94s, or FFP2s) rather than cloth masks. I plan to distribute several respirators to each of my students in the first week of class, partly through the generosity of my friend Dan Buller, a fellow educator.

In early December, when the feelings were still raw, I wrote privately about the experiences of Fall 2021. Here’s some what I wrote last month:

This semester has been about classroom survival, not excellence. Every teacher I’ve spoken with, at every kind of school, has said the same thing. Everyone is burnt out, and everyone is trying to figure out how to be back to “normal” in a semester when a global pandemic is still claiming people we knew. Most weeks this semester, I’ve been disappointed in every lesson I taught.

Much of the time, I have just felt … guilty. Truth be told, I don’t think I’m burnt out. But I am ashamed. I want to end this semester and never have to acknowledge it again. I want to bury it and pretend it never happened. The only thing it taught me about teaching in a pandemic is that teaching in a pandemic is bad.

But I did learn lessons from the fall semester that I’m going to try to apply this spring. I won’t expatiate upon most of those lessons here because they would be different at different institutions, in different courses, or for different instructors.

The most important lesson I learned is that the pandemic is getting harder for college students, not easier.

Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005

A story in the New York Times this weekend sent me back through the archives of World Magazine, looking for a 2005 article that played an important role in my journey into academia.

The Times story—headlined “His Reasons for Opposing Trump Were Biblical. Now a Top Christian Editor Is Out”—describes how Marvin Olasky, a former University of Texas journalism professor who also played a role in shaping the early domestic agenda of George W. Bush, seems to have lost control of an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that he has edited for more than a quarter of a century.

The cover stories of the April 30, 2005, issue were profiles of Pope Benedict XVI and Senator Rick Santorum

For complicated reasons, what this story dredged up for me is a memory of a specific pair of interviews that World ran under a single headline, sixteen years ago.

The headline of that article, published on April 30, 2005, was “Uncongeniality Contest.” The subhead was “Two views of elite academia from Harvard Law School.” I remember it vividly from my days as a subscriber. Going back to re-read it now, I find the article substantially as I remember it.

At the time, I was in my junior year of college at an evangelical university, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs to study history. I took the article as an attempt to frighten me. (Not me individually, of course, but people like me.) It was one of countless messages I’d seen over the years warning that American secular institutions of higher education were comprehensively hostile to people like me.

But this time, I looked closely at the evidence provided, and what I saw was patently absurd.

Continue reading “Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005”

Five Weeks On

Caution: This swinging door on campus engages in positive self-talk.

I can’t say this has been my least stressful semester of teaching.

On one campus, my very first class period was interrupted by a tornado warning. Later, I learned that an EF-3 tornado had been leveling a neighborhood five miles away from our classroom. On another campus, major flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida shut down freeways during my morning commute, turning an hourlong trip into a three-hour tour of various neighborhoods. (And then I had to figure out how to get back home that night.)

A few days later, a driver who couldn’t tell where the lanes were—because the state apparently hasn’t been maintaining roads at all during the past two years—hit the side of my car as we tried to exit one of those same freeways. Nobody was hurt, and we were both able to drive home, but I can’t say the accident reduced my anxiety about knowing that American roads, per mile traveled, are 24% deadlier than they were before the pandemic.

Indeed, homicidally reckless behavior is routine on the roads here. On Friday, for only one example, a driver followed me for two miles on the freeway with her headlights switched off, half an hour before dawn. Nighttime stealth driving actually isn’t unusual in this region; a typical week furnishes me with more than one example. Such motorists, as foolish as they are, scare me far less than all the drivers who seem determined to vent their social aggression at high speed in heavy traffic, day after day. There is not a doubt in my mind that their behavior is worse than it was before the pandemic.

So far, meanwhile, I have taught COVID-positive students in at least two classes without getting a symptomatic infection. The first time, this caused considerable anxiety because I developed what I now assume was an unusually bad case of nasal allergies around the same time. (I eventually tested negative for COVID. To get my test, I had to drive past road crews that were cutting down broken trees along the path of the tornado.) The second time I learned about a student’s positive test, I barely thought about it, given everything else going on.

Maintaining any topical continuity in my classes this fall, of course, has been nearly impossible due to high absenteeism, as students are forced to quarantine or deal with all the other things that seem to be breaking in American society right now. And in most weeks, I have had almost no prep time between classes, given my commute. That, too, dramatically degrades the quality of the instruction students are getting.

All in all, this semester feels apocalyptic in a way few ever have before.