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Summer Reading Recommendations from CFT Staff

Posted by on Tuesday, June 4, 2013 in Commentary.

by CFT Assistant Director Nancy Chick

For many of us in academia, June brings relatively empty calendars and full reading lists.  I love hearing what friends and colleagues are planning on reading during the summer and what they’d suggest for others’ lists, so I again asked my Center for Teaching colleagues for their recommendations.

Last summer, I wrote about a memoir by a literature professor who looks back at her own education to see how it informs who she is in the classroom.  This summer, I’m again drawn to memories, but of a different kind.  In some of my collaborations this year, I’ve listened with fascination as colleagues have talked about when and why they became interested in their field—sometimes, a concrete memory of a single moment or person.

I have a series of moments like that, and (perhaps appropriately for my field) most of them revolve around texts. While I don’t remember the first—Toni Morrison’s Sula or Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” or Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series or Milton’s Paradise Lost or E. E. Cummings’s “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond“—I do remember that each moment felt something like falling in love.

Carmela Ciuraru’s First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them (2000) offers such moments by 70 writers, including Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Eavan Boland, Billy Collins, Louise Glűck, Donald Hall, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Pinsky, and Richard Wilbur, among others.  Ciuraru simply wrote to them and asked, “What poem has haunted you, provoked you, obsessed you, made you want to speak back to it?” (21)  The result is 249 delicious pages of the responses, including the poems themselves and the writers’ brief reflections.  One recalls a parent reading a nursery rhyme, passing on the playfulness and rhythms of language. Another remembers first discovering herself in a poem, after reading so much about white men—people who look nothing like her. Another is comforted by a specific poem’s view of death. Yet another finally feels understood by a poem that captures the ambivalent experience of loving an alcoholic parent.

Boland claims that these texts are the writer’s “epicenter” (50). They capture a primal moment of meeting the raw material that connected them to their chosen medium—words, language, poetry.  I don’t think such moments are limited to professional writers, though.  I hear my biology, history, neuroscience, art history, and German colleagues talk about their fields in much the same way.  I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to read First Loves: Scientists Introduce the Essential Questions That Captivated and Inspired Them or Historians Introduce the Essential Moments That Captivated and Inspired Them. Find a copy of Ciuraru’s book, read a few selections, recall your first love, and tell us, “What idea, figure, theory, or text has haunted you, provoked you, obsessed you, made you want to speak back to it?” Then, consider how you’ll share your answer with your students.

CFT Assistant Director Cynthia Brame is one of those colleagues who loves her field—and I think you can tell from her recommendation:

I always use summer as time to catch up on my reading and to give me new ideas or new energy for the upcoming year. In that light, I recommend the National Academies’ Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. (Yes, I know, I’m a nerd.) This compendium summarizes research on improving students’ conceptual understanding in science and engineering as well as the data on various strategies to do so, clearly characterizing the strength of those findings. The report also identifies emerging research areas, such as understanding how to assess and promote the transfer of knowledge and skills. Probably not a book for the beach, but definitely food for thought.

CFT Graduate Teaching Fellow Adam Wilsman describes his discovery of what may become an “epicenter” for him as well, reminding us that books on what Lee Shulman calls “pedagogical content knowledge” (1987, p. 8) can be equally inspiring to us:

This summer, I am reading a number of books on pedagogy in preparation for my new history teaching job, which will begin in the late summer.  This past year, I didn’t teach any history courses, but by this time in August, I will be teaching four, and on subjects outside of my discipline. Thus, it’s important that I read some great works that might help me to get into the right mindset.  For that, Sam Wineburg’s 2001 work, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, has been wonderful.

Wineburg’s work, while over ten years old, remains a must-read for all history educators, from college teachers to elementary school teachers and everyone in-between.  In his work, Wineburg grapples with the big issues in history education that transcend frequent debates about what historians ought to teach.  To Wineburg, the important question to answer is why we teach history.  And what knowledge and skills do historians possess that ought to be shared and promoted in our classrooms?  Throughout Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Wineburg shares a rich array of fresh and actionable answers to these questions.  What results is an excellent and trusted source for any history teacher—and better yet, it’s a book that I wouldn’t be ashamed to bring to the beach.

Thanks, Cynthia and Adam.  What about you?  What are you reading?  Let us know by commenting below.


Wineburg, Sam. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past



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