Disciplinary Content Needs for Teachers

March 22, 2023

[Note: This blog entry critiques SXU’s proposal to reduce content area requirements in several of its secondary education programs. The SXU proposal justifies its move in terms of a recent State rule change that reduced the minimum number of semester hours in a secondary-level content area from 32 to 18 hours. The blog entry below presents the example of the English program, but the critiques relevant to English apply to all secondary programs at SXU, which, as of 2019, must align to national disciplinary standards.] 

Secondary education programs may be housed, typically, in content areas (English, math, history, science, and the like), where there is a focus on disciplinary knowledge and methods along with pedagogy courses, or in education departments, where there is a focus on pedagogical principles and practices with a “concentration” on the disciplinary content.

I argue that, given current standards in Illinois—and the reality of program structures across the state—this dichotomy is a “distinction without a difference.” That is, the amount of discipline-based course work that is required by pretty much every program is more or less the same whether the program is “owned” by the disciplinary department or the education department. Programs housed in education departments do sometimes have fewer required disciplinary courses, but not that many fewer

An institution at the lower end, for instance, would be National Louis University, whose requirement in English courses (beyond first-year composition) totals 45 quarter hours, a number which converts to 30 semester hours. This allotment of hours is in the ballpark of a “major in English,” even though the program characterizes the English portion of the program as a “minor.” The bottom line is that to support the program, the university has to fund and supply instruction in English at essentially the same level that a major requires. While National Louis does not call their teacher preparation program a “double major,” it essentially is a double major. SXU’s current program is not called a “double major” either, but it essentially is one. So, let’s not get lost in semantics on this key question, and let us be wary of the damage that might be caused by framing the current proposal as a move away from a double major—the proposal’s key selling point.

Here is where SXU’s proposal is critically misleading. The proposal cites the State minimum of 18 hours as justification for eliminating the English major—but the reality is that no approved program in Illinois comes close to such a low number of required content area courses. In meetings, the provost has brushed aside discipline experts’ concerns for the dearth of content coverage by claiming that “the number, 18 hours, is not settled on; the education and disciplinary colleagues will work together to find the right number of content hours—it may be 21 or 24; that will be discussed and the number agreed to.” [I’m paraphrasing Dr. Othman; those weren’t his exact words, but they do reflect the spirit of his comments at our March 15, 2023 meeting.]

But 24 seems to be the upper limit in the provost’s comments to date. In former times 24 hours was a minimum for an endorsement in a secondary area of endorsement (secondary in the sense of “subsequent to an initial license,” not “secondary” in terms of educational level; please note that up until the recent change, the content area requirement for the initial license was 32 hours). To judge from the new state (i.e., national) standards, 24 is too low a number; 30 may be too low a number—but the current discussion would be more comfortable from a disciplinary perspective, if the provost’s angle of “we’ll work out the details collegially” were framed in a range of 30-45 semester hours.

Our current program is 45 semester hours in content. While we could provide arguments attesting to the leanness and efficiencies of those 45 hours, we should also be willing, I’d maintain, to entertain new configurations that cut down some of those hours—but not to 18 or 24 or 27. However we proceed, let’s adjust the parameters for content to the range of 30-45 as a starting point.

Why does our program consist of 45 hours? The short answer is “to be compliant with national standards.” Our national standards have been developed by our “Specialized Professional Organization” (SPA)—the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)—and they are quite rigorous. As of the recent (2019) change in State law, all secondary teacher preparation programs must now be aligned to national (i.e., SPA) standards. The State’s reduction of disciplinary content to a minimum of 18 was made possible by its prior tethering of all secondary programs to national SPA standards. The two changes happened close in time, but it’s noteworthy that the standards change—that is, the holding of programs to rigorous national standards—came first, by a year or so, thus protecting teacher education in the state, presumably, from a misguided approach of drastically reducing content coverage under the banner of the allowable reduction to 18 hours.

At Saint Xavier, it is important for us to be as efficient and as productive as possible. The “18 hours—no major needed” framing of the current proposal opens a door to the cancelation of the entire English program, in a way that misses the efficiency and synergies that currently characterize our three English tracks (secondary education, literature, and writing).  The number of English majors has ranged over the past decade or so from a low of about 40 to a high of about 80. Currently the numbers are growing, primarily in secondary education—but we have also experienced growth in our writing track. The characterizing of majors in terms of “tracks” is misleading because all three tracks are seamlessly interrelated, and each is mutually supportive of the others. The requirements for the tracks are essentially the same, and so it would be more accurate to characterize the major as one major, rather than in terms of its tracks.

Currently we have 54 majors, 35 of whom are English Secondary Education and 19 of whom are literature/writing majors. If SXU reassigns the 35 English Secondary Education students to be Education majors, the remaining 19 English majors may be too small a number to support a program. Hence there is talk of/justification for eliminating the English major. But the 35 newly-minted Education majors will still need, essentially, an English major. Without an English program, that major will not be available. So, 19 students will be cut off from pursuing a major that meets their needs, and 35 students will be left scrambling to complete program requirements and licensure needs in ways as yet undetermined, and not at all foreseeable.

Talk of cutting programs is both premature and reckless. It represents a movement away from the mission of SXU as a liberal arts institution—a movement that might be necessary or possibly desirable—but not at this extreme and destabilizing pace. The programs currently under consideration for cutting are all large enough, efficient enough, flexible enough, and diverse enough to have growth potential—especially if we could collectively engage in program design or re-design, something that has been talked about endlessly, but in a top-down and reactive way—often a threatening way—and without support, without collegiality—all in an environment where shared governance has been spotty at best. 

No compelling evidence has been produced that justifies such a radical departure from studies in English, Spanish, history, sociology, math—and even religious studies and philosophy (these latter two being programs, now cut, that were highly efficient in structure and synergy with general education and outside program interdependence). In so drastically eliminating majors in these areas, the university will be losing a critical mass in humanistic options in teaching and learning that, in the opinion of many, provide a foundation for all degree programs, and in highly cost-effective ways, and with demonstrated excellent outcomes for students—in both professional and academic arenas.

The End of the English Teacher?

March 4, 2023

The recent New Yorker article on “The End of the English Major” is grief-inducing for many reasons, one of which might be that perhaps President Joyner was right all along to pursue the ruinous path of program closure she put us on.

Side Point: I don’t really believe that, as Joyner’s canned administrator-speak about national trends, and the demographic cliff, and the SXU brand, and distinctive value, etc. did not take into account our local conditions, our demographics, our market, our traditions, and our record of success in a variety of areas that she chose to disregard.

Whatever. It’s time to move on from Joyner—more on this later. The English major and the humanities might be destined for death—but even if they are, it won’t be an immediate death—and, in the interval, we have an opportunity to reconnoiter with fellow humanists in order to package and promote new versions of our studies that achieve some of the objectives of interdisciplinarity and critical thinking and contextualization in traditions, and … well, all the stuff and values we preach (and truly believe in, and not without cause). The pendulum swing away from the traditional disciplinary categories might swing back leaving some new combinations of categories. We may well create the innovative programs that our administration (along with many other administrations across higher education) has been clamoring for, (despite neglecting to provide support for such developments). The larger forces of the pendulum swing may offer a needed catalyst. Suspicions may arise, perhaps, that, in our (over-)reactions and (over-)adjustments to the phone/social-media/Internet era of the early 21st century, the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

In his New Yorker article, Nathan Heller describes the contemporary moment as a time when, “by most appearances, the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak.” Perhaps the disruptive and seismic shifts in knowledge making and sharing brought on by the smart phone are temporary or transitional, and once we’ve survived the attendant growing pains, we will recover our collective recognition of the value of reading and theorizing about the past as a way of improving our understanding of the present.

The humanities may come back, since, clearly there is an interest in discourse on ethics and culture and art, and when there is an interest in such things, it stands to reason that there is a place for sophistication and beauty and rigor and context for such discussions and the methods of holding them. The pushing ever on in pursuit of a “perfection” is our compulsive nature as language-using humans, right? (I’m looking at you, Kenneth Burke, for flank support in this “perfection motive” argument—all such motivation deriving “naturally” from our condition of being language-using animals.)

But even if the humanities don’t come back, it’s going to take some years for English studies to evaporate at the high school level the way they have evaporated in higher education in the past ten years.

Here’s where I must pivot from the lofty and depressing concerns of the New Yorker article to the local and depressing concerns of restructuring at Saint Xavier University. The current move by our Administration—and by their collaborators in the university’s Department of Education—to relocate all secondary education programs into the Department of Education appears, on its surface to be a rational and defensible course of action, at least to judge by the sobering context of the New Yorker article. If the English major and humanities are dead, why not eliminate disciplinary content requirements for prospective teachers, and simply focus on skill development and pedagogical formation, with, as needed, some nods to subject area expertise?

But this is going too far. My complaint about President Joyner all along was that she exploited a rationale that had a basis in truth and good reasoning, but that she pushed things too far. She took a national trend in higher ed—she fomented attendant fears and insecurities—and, powered by a lot of gibberish and true-believing sycophants and opportunists, she ruthlessly ramrodded an agenda that was equally out of balance as it was self-serving. The bellwether was the elimination of the religious studies and philosophy programs. Prior to the closure of these programs, their faculty made compelling arguments for 1) the programs’ efficiencies in course hour generation; 2) the synergistic support between major and gen ed course offerings; and 3) the value added to brand and mission by supporting majors in areas that provided graduates roles in local, national, and international religious communities, as well as preparation for graduate studies in various humanistic areas. The arguments fell on deaf ears all around—except for Senate which voted down the program closures. Despite Senate’s objection, the Administration could claim, gaslight fashion, that the shared governance box was checked, and the programs were closed under proper authority of the Board of Trustees.

In general, Joyner encouraged an approach to program contraction or closure that resulted in cutting to and through the bone, while maintaining a veneer of compassion by not firing individuals or cutting specific positions (though she did do both). In the post-Joyner period, we can all agree that some contraction was called for—but not the wholesale starving of humanities programs that we have seen.

What I propose for the mid-term transition into whatever the future holds for higher ed, is for all secondary programs to lean into current disciplinary content standards as necessities for compliance with basic teacher preparation requirements. I have been shouting in a well, it seems, about the 2019 move by the State of Illinois to align secondary State standards to national standards. This recognition of professional disciplinary scholarly organizations may be, in the context of the New Yorker article, the last, best gasp of recognized valuation of humanistic knowledge and standards. But in any case, does anyone predict that, in the next generation or so, there will be an abandonment of the more or less traditional education required for teachers at the middle and high school levels? Will there not be a need for teachers—with some version of formation along the lines that we have always provided?

I’m not calling for teacher educators to dig in and insist on perpetuating a version of our studies as they have always existed. Rather, I’m saying there is a strong market and a growing market for secondary teachers in humanities-related disciplines who can adapt their skills-based, or content-based, or Internet-based approaches to the evolving and recurring needs of the teaching of language, culture, and rhetoric.

In preparing disciplinary experts, SXU could take the lead in helping to meet the urgent need for new teachers. The teacher shortage across the nation and in Illinois is reaching crisis status. Just yesterday (3/3/2023), Governor Pritzker announced the Teacher Pipeline Grant, a new package of financial incentives to recruit new teachers to address the chronic shortage that is predicted to worsen in upcoming years. Given the shortage, we may expect an eventual reduction of standards for teacher quality—all the more reason for an institution like SXU to brand itself as distinctive in offering programs that produce the highest quality teachers, who have mastered not only best practices in pedagogy, but also the rigorous standards for content knowledge required by the State and disciplinary professional experts.

At SXU we may not save the humanities across the board. But we have an obligation to preserve the humanities that are foundational to our secondary education programs. It’s not a total answer, and in doing so, we may be swimming against the current of gloomy trends outlined in the New Yorker article. 

But there are other trends: Our record of preparing effective teachers in secondary programs is strong. It will remain strong only if we lean in harder to our tradition of housing our programs in disciplinary areas—something the State of Illinois, finally, has codified in its move to accredit programs according to their alignment to national standards.

It Starts with a Poem

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A few colleagues have been exchanging poems via our English and Foreign Languages
listserv. The poems have dealt with some less-than-positive learning experiences
the poets had suffered in grade school: bad methods, bad teachers, all producing
bad effects on learning….

The original poem was an unexpected gift from out of the blue—but from
a poet who has led us to expect such generous spontaneity. As usual, a wonderful
read. It was the camaraderie of the poetic response, however, that stimulated
me to plunge—somehow—into this dialogue. What fun….

Continue reading It Starts with a Poem

Discussion Boards or Blogging

Here is an excerpt from a message by recent alum and cuurent Lockport teacher
on the topic of using the Web in teaching:

Hello Dr. Bonadonna,

. . . I am looking at doing another classroom
webpage. This time, rather than bothering you with discussion boards, I wanted
your opinion on web logs. The NCTE electronic newsletter contained a couple:
tblog.com, and movabletype.org. My only concern is that other people outside
of my class can log in to classroom discussion. What do you think about blogs
and their feasibility for classroom use?

Monika S.

Here’s my reply:

Wow–funny you should ask, Monika. All I’ve been thinking about lately is
the issue of blogs vs. discussion boards in English education.

I’ve taken the plunge and decided to ditch my Blackboard discussions boards
for blogs. I can identify several advantages to blogs (involving issues of
the writing process, authority and ownership of content, flexibility, etc.)–but
there are issues involved.

In short, I like blogs for MANY (English-teacher-type) reasons, but one
problem they create is the "dispersion" of the discussion. Instead
of being organized in one spot, the discussion is distributed across many
different Web sites (i.e., each individual’s blog). Another problem is the
password restriction issue. A bulletin board in Blackboard or PHPBB makes
it easy to restrict access. This is not always the case with blogging software.

But there are solutions to these issues, and I’d love to discuss them with

The blogging software I’m using with my classes right now is called bBlog.
It has several excellent features, but one that I really like is the ability
to "tag" each entry with a user-defined category. It doesn’t sound
like much to get excited about, but what it does is let the blogger do true,
chaotic, random, chronological, "processy," Grammar B blogging–the
"real thing" in blogging–and while doing that, to mix in some quality,
teacher-assigned, essayistic-type blogging–all without any fear of creating
a disorganized, impenetrable mess. With the "category tagging" feature,
a teacher could go to a student’s blog, click on a category (e.g., "Antigone
Journal") and foomp! get a sorting of all the entries that the blogger
had tagged with that category.

The mind ‘gins to spin…. Would you like to experiment with me? What if
we created a project of some kind with your students and mine…? It doesn’t
have to be all that involved. It could be as simple as your students blogging,
and my students reading or perhaps even responding to some of the postings
in a kind of reading buddies sort of way.
Of course, I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but hey, it doesn’t hurt
to ask. I’m always looking for creative ways of "bringing" real
kids and real experiences to my pre-service teachers. With everyone blogging,
it just becomes a little easier to do all the "bringing." So don’t
feel any pressure. But there is this other thing:

Monika? I have a category, "On Blogging," set up in my blog….
Do you see where I’m going? May I have your permission to use your email and
my response in my blog? :)

As far as tblog and moveabletype.org go, I’m not sure of their exact features.
I’ve used www.blogger.com in the past. But maybe we should talk… You might
find some advantages to using bBlog…. How many students do you have? :)
–Angelo, who yells: "Hey, Congrats on the Lockport gig!" Much good
luck to you.