Friday, April 12, 2019

Not fighting, but joining...


I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  But yesterday in First-Year Seminar I decided to give up on that project and--rather than remind them for the one-thousandth time it's about growth, not grades--I just allowed them to grade themselves.  I mean if you can't fight the mindset of GPA uber alles, join it, right?

So I typed up a learning report card based on ideas in the text for our seminar, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek's wonderful The New Science of Learning: How to Live in Harmony with Your BrainDoyle and Zakrajzek use the latest research to explain learning based upon what cognitive science knows.

Among the topics they cover are the relationship between sleep and memory retention, the effects of multitasking, and the role of diet and exercise on learning.   A key idea in the book is that learning means constructing neural pathways, an activity aided by active processing of information over time and in multiple ways. Translation: it means reading about, writing about, discussing and elaborating upon recently-learned material.

My students tend to look at learning as a matter of storage and retrieval, as if the brain were a warehouse.  The analogy that emerges from The New Science of Learning is that the brain is more like a muscle.  It needs proper nutrition and rest between regular workouts over time.  That's how you achieve optimal performance. Indeed, one of the things I like about this text is that it speaks of learning in terms that many of my students already treat as gospel in their approach to athletic training.

The learning report card covered three areas: Readiness for Learning, Approaches to Learning and Habits of Mind.  Students had to give themselves a grade (0.0 to 4.0) on a number of formative sub-criteria and then average it together for one summative assessment.  Then, based upon an their grades, they were to make suggestions about where they saw room for improvement.   Here's the report card:

Give yourself a score (4.0 = excellent, 1.0 = needs significant improvement) for each criterion and an average on each category.

Readiness for Learning                                          
1. Sleep (a regular pattern of 8-9 hours per night).
2. Nutrition (daily breakfast; daily consumption of green leafy vegetables, fruit, whole grains; limited refined sugar and saturated fats).
3. Exercise (semi-regular physical activity: i.e., running, workouts, walks, yoga, etc.).
4. Social Support (a support system of friends and family that care about and connect with you).
5. Openness to seeking help (connecting with professors, using support center, etc.).

Approaches to Learning
1. Internal motivation (learning for one’s own reasons rather than focusing on the grade).
2. Distributed Practice (building long-term potention by short practices but over time).
3. Focus (avoiding multi-tasking in-class, studying in non- distracting environments).
4. Active processing (using annotation, summarizing main ideas, reworking material into new forms)
5. Using study groups or paired studying (harnessing power of communal learning).

Habits of Mind 
1. Curiosity (find yourself thinking about material outside of class, asking questions in class).
2. Seeing connections and patterns (have made connections between ideas in various classes).
3. Growth Mindset (do not avoid difficult tasks or courses, but challenge yourself to achieve, trying do your best as opposed to trying to just get it done).
4. Can identify areas of growth in understanding (knowledge) or skill level achieved this semester (i.e., writing, research, math, public speaking, etc.).
5. Can identify one or more academic achievements that gives a sense of pride and satisfaction.

One of my favorite students (who I have more than once chided about fetishizing a 4.0 GPA) gave herself an overall grade of C+.  She's a great student, straight As, but she always plays it safe.  

We had a nice talk about taking a risk by registering for something that wasn't a requirement for her major or graduation. "Why not take a Me course?" I asked her.  "Why not take something that you know is outside your comfort zone?  What about an acting course, a Woman's Studies course, a course in something you've always been curious about?  How about you sign up for piano lessons, calculus, theology, or history of the Middle Ages?  And why not take it pass/fail so anxiety about the final grade won't matter that much?"

She looked at me kind of funny.  The idea of taking a class that appealed to her or seeing education as a chance to grow or expand herself was somewhat of an alien concept.  

I heard once about a college with an unusual January-term.  Every year students were required to take a four-week elective course that was far outside their major or comfort zone: juggling, dancing, etiquette, Haiku, story-telling, cooking omelets...

Given our budget strictures this unique approach is unlikely to happen at my institution, but good heavens what a much, much-needed idea. 

Okay, so here's a cost-free way we might address this need.  Most students have anywhere from 20-35 percent of their undergraduate education made up of elective credits (not major, not gen. ed. core-- just elective credits).  Let's re-brand these as "personal growth" credits.  And let's start talking about this part of the college experience as the place where you get to explore the you you want to be. 

\Wouldn't cost us a dime, but it might--might--begin to change the way students think about the aim of their education.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Open the door for Professor Muckle!

About three years ago I began regularly wearing hearing aids when teaching.  Turns out that I've been operating below the normal hearing range for quite a while. 
This accounts for all the times I've heard  
Kaylie, when a student said her name was BaileyHaley, or even My Li... 
Not to mention the times I've misheard words and phrases and had a puzzled moment thinking 'Wait?  I don't think he really just said what I think he said.'  

My new bionic ears have made quite a difference in the classroom.  Funny thing is, though, they don't seem to work so well in faculty meetings.  There are one or two of my colleagues that I haven't heard in years. Partially this is due to their voices (soft and without an edge) and partially the acoustics of certain meeting rooms on campus.  

Given the cyclical nature of academic debates and a long familiarity with many of my colleagues' stances and preoccupations, I'm not altogether sure I'm missing any of the important points.  Even so, I do spend a lot of time smiling and nodding during meetings, unsure precisely what's being discussed.  At times I feel as though I'm in a scene from Laurence Sterne's 18th Century masterpiece Tristram Shandy. 

In the the novel, Sterne suggests that each human consciousness is merely a comic jumble of free associations, one thought blending aimlessly into the next with no rational order or direction.  The result is that none of us can possibly communicate clearly to anyone because everything we experience is distorted by our own idiosyncratic obsessions and endless digressions.

Even though the characters in Tristram Shandy never fully understand one another, they somehow achieve a kind empathetic correspondence.  They come to find each other's indecipherable babble pleasantly soothing, not unlike the soft whir of a window fan on a summer evening.  In other words, a lot of the time I have no idea what my colleagues in large meetings are talking about, but I find I don't mind.  In fact, I kind of like it.  

It's strangely comforting in a white noise kind of way.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Thanking the Muses


Teaching has always been something of a thieves market.  Colleagues tell you about something they did in class, or you hear about some new idea at a conference, and you think, "Hey, I could use that."  Sometimes, however, you run across a great idea but can never quite figure out how to use it.  Even so, it keeps hovering there at the back of your mind looking for an opening.

About two years ago I attended an academic conference at which a former improvisational comedian turned math professor demonstrated how he used on-your-feet improv techniques to teach math concepts. Mathematicians, he explained, are very interested in random dynamic systems.  These are systems in motion that contain uncertain or unpredictable elements.  To demonstrate what he meant, he asked the 30 people in the audience to stand up and look around the room. 

"Pick someone at random but keep your pick to yourself," he said. "This is your secret friend. Now look around and pick someone else. This is your secret enemy.  In a moment I will say go and you must at all times maneuver so your friend is always between you and your enemy."

Within seconds we had created a random dynamic system, a swirling dance of individual persons constantly adjusting to the changing positions of the other people in the room.  It was a "system" because there clearly was a set of rules governing our motion, but there was also a bit of randomness because our choices had been made secretly and individually. Moreover, our motion paths would likely be different each time we played the game.  Even so, mathematicians can actually model these systems using something called stochastic equations  (don't ask me to explain that).

So Monday in my Aesthetic Appreciation course I was doing a mini-lecture on how various cracks began to appear in the master narrative of 20th Century modernist architecture.  Among these were the criticisms of Jane Jacobs, who argued in the early 1960s that the grand improvement schemes of modernist city planners didn't work.  Cities, she argued, were actually interactive, ever-changing places made up of all kinds of different people doing different things for different reasons at different times.  Consequently, any lockstep master plan designed to create behavioral uniformity would actually kill the very thing that makes cities vibrant, interesting and culturally fruitful places to live.

And then--in mid-sentence--it hit me. Cities, as Jacobs conceived them, were random dynamic systems.  "Okay," I said.   "Everybody stand up and look around the room..."

It was a fun and really effective way to demonstrate Jacobs' idea.  

I don't get bolts of inspiration like this often, so I am unsure which muse I ought to thank.  Indeed, there were nine muses in ancient Greek mythology with bailiwicks covering everything from dance to geometry.  Teaching of course is a creative art, but--sadly--it has no officially-designated muse.  Hmmm...  Thalia was the muse of symposiums and Calliope the muse of rhetoric.  

To be on the safe side, I shall thank them both.  Thank you, Ladies!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Spurns of Patient Merit

Once upon a time--some two or three lifetimes ago--I took an undergraduate course on British satire in which we read Iris Murdoch's novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Not sure why, but the novel's always stuck with me, so when I was pulling together an honors senior seminar on the theme of "The Good Life," I thought it might fit nicely into the portion of the course that wrestles with this question: Do you have to be a good person to lead a good life? 

In the novel, an attractive but amoral character named Julius King argues that moral goodness is an illusion. All that really exists are serial, transient desires. We want something, we pursue it, we satisfy the itch and move on. To prove this (and for his own amusement), he contrives a French farce of a scheme among a group of his London friends and acquaintances, the upshot of which is to convince the happily-married and high-minded Rupert Foster that his flighty sister-in-law (Morgan Browne) has fallen desperately in love with him and vice versa.

Morgan had been Julius' lover after she had run off from her sad sack of a husband, Tallis Browne. As Julius notes in the novel, he had wanted Morgan, later grew bored with her and then moved on.  That’s all human behavior is.  He’s simply honest about this, while others—like Rupert—drone on about grand abstract principles like selfless love or higher justice. Julius says all he has to do to expose this fatuous delusion is to appeal to Rupert's egotistical desires. Do this and he'll trip all over himself to rationalize away his so-called principles. 

He’s right, of course. Rupert's ego is flattered by the belief that troubled Morgan sees him as a bulwark of moral clarity and stability and he thinks he can use her love for him to set her on a more stable path.  She in turn thinks it's him who's fallen for her and the two of them quickly make a hash of everything, seemingly proving Julius correct.  Perhaps we are just creatures of protean desire and our principles merely post facto rationalizations. Maybe nothing--not our beliefs, our sense of who we are and especially the stability of Rupert's marriage--is founded on any long-lasting, principled commitment.

Standing just outside this commedia del arte of a plot is Morgan's abandoned schlimiel of a husband, Tallis, a part time lecturer on labor history at the city college, member of countless social justice committees and caretaker of his abusive and dying father.  No one would envy Tallis' life, yet he is the only one in the novel who isn’t morally confused about who he is or what's right.  When he at last becomes aware of Julius' scheme, he immediately acts to undo the damage. As the novel closes, Julius is pleasantly sipping wine in a Parisian cafe ruminating on how enjoyable life is (having left the devastation he's caused behind), while Tallis sits in his run-down mess of a house typing another lecture no one cares about and agonizing over how to tell his father that the old man's condition is terminal.

More than one student in the honors seminar concluded that if leading a good life means being Tallis, then--well--no thank you. Maybe they didn't want the good life.  At the same time, they weren't endorsing Julius' actions. He's clearly a sociopathic monster.  Is there not some median between these two characters, they asked, one where they could at least enjoy life without having to become a luckless but virtuous drudge?  

After all, most of us are neither Tallis nor Julius. We live in a moral muddle (a word that appears frequently in Murdoch’s novel).  It isn't that we are always unthinkingly running after the latest shiny object. Instead, we experience conflicting desires. Some incidental good competes with our desire to be an honest, just or morally-courageous person.  Yes, we want the incidental good, and this sometimes outweighs our desire to be good people.  Does that make us bad?  Well, not in the sense of Julius King. Mostly it just makes us muddled.  We can rationalize a little fudging on our principles, but we usually grow uneasy if we go too far.  Too much fudging makes it hard to square our actions with our sense of who we think we are.   

So maybe Julius is right about desire, but he overlooks that a morally-consistent 'sense of self' is also something we can desire.  Ever said to someone “It’s a tempting offer, but it’s not for me,” or “Sorry, I’m just not that kind of person?”  If you have, you’ve put your sense of self above a desirable incidental good.  In the Old Testament, Job suffered and was repeatedly urged to curse God and end his suffering, but he wouldn’t do it.  He desired to maintain his sense of himself as a man who would not forsake his covenant with God. In the Apology, too, Socrates was pressured to fudge on his ethical commitments to be true to his sense of personal integrity.  He also wouldn’t do it.  He valued this sense of himself even more than he wanted to stay alive.  In this sense moral goodness is not a sacrifice of a desire; it's the fulfillment of it.

If so, we might argue that Tallis’ life does have desirable and long-lasting value (at least to him), even if the “incidentals” of his life don’t appear very attractive.  His house may be disorganized, but his sense of self is clear.  We might add that there is a kind of power in people who possess this steadfast sense of their moral self.  Even Julius respects this power (he doesn’t even try to manipulate Tallis).  Let’s face it. Tallis is the guy you want beside you when the colonel's dead and the machine gun's jammed. It's worth noting, too, that the leaders of Athens were a little afraid of Socrates.  Why?  He was just a crank, an old man who asked a lot of questions.  Why fear him?  What power did he have?  

Come to think of it, why is a powerful and wealthy organization like the NRA afraid of a bunch of high school kids from Margery Stoneman Douglass High School?  They don’t have any political power, just some moral questions and a steadfast tendency not to stop asking them.  Most of the characters in A Fairly Honourable Defeat pity Tallis and see him as an ineffectual bumbler, but in the end he was the only one to see wickedness for what it really was.  He wasn’t muddled when it mattered.  

Is there value (and even a latent power) in such a life?  Is a good life one in which we try—as much as possible—to stay true to who we are?  Such a life doesn't have to be saintly or without its faults.  And it doesn't always mean being the suffering martyr.  It just means we work to be someone who values and takes seriously our moral commitments.  It means being someone with the self-confidence to stand up and act when it matters.   

I had the students vote on this definition of a well-lived life last week.  The results were mixed.  Only a handful thought a good life necessarily required setting one's desire to be morally consistent above short-lived, incidental benefits.  A few rejected this thesis outright.  The majority in the room couldn't make up their minds.  Like a lot of us, they stood in the muddled middle, torn between a desire to be good and a desire not to have to pay the price for being good.  

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Like juggling or spinning a basketball

I was grading an essay this past weekend as my son was opening his ACT results. The essay was a pretty good effort from a student who really struggles with writing. My son's test results were also pretty good, nicely above average, which provoked him to remark. "Well, at least I won't have to go where you teach, dad."

He could not have said anything more likely to earn an angry retort from me.  I told him he could get a damned fine education where I teach, thank you very much.

Look, I am happy my kid did well on a test that opens some doors and opportunities for him.  I also don't need to be reminded that I work at a non-elite university. That said, I'll put the education we deliver and the difference we make in students' lives up against any institution. My students are not broken. There is nothing wrong with them.  And they have every bit as much potential, creativity and heart as students with 30 plus ACTs.

I hate the way we rank and rate human beings in our educational system. It's stupid and self-defeating.  We convert students into numbers and then make a host of assumptions about them. I've learned over the years that I simply can't assume my students know how to write a university-level academic paper, but I've also learned it's a profound mistake to assume they aren't capable of  deep intellectually-engaged thinking.  Indeed, I have my 'so-called under-prepared students' read primary source texts from the Renaissance and use them to craft sophisticated arguments. The essay I was grading as my son crowed about his scores concerned how Machiavelli, Castiglione and Edmund in King Lear reflected a shift from the deontological approach to lying we saw in Dante to a more consequentialist depiction of ethics.  It wasn't exactly a middle school book report that I had assigned here.

I sincerely believe, too, that had I assigned this paper to a room full of over-achievers the thinking would not have been any better than what I saw in the essay before me.  Would it have been more articulate, better formatted and more copiously cited?  Almost certainly, but so what?   It's the thinking that matters.  Yes, I had to work harder to teach these texts because my students struggled with them, but in the end they understood them and used them to generate some good thinking.  

Here's the comment I was in the middle of writing as my son was opening his ACT results.
As I said above, the argument here is very, very good. That said, the paper could use some careful attention to mechanics and the conventions of academic writing.  You are not a careful writer at times. By that I mean it appears you compose and edit at the same time.  I can see this in places where you have omitted words and phrases.  This happens because you are busy trying to get your thoughts on paper as they come to you.  Inevitably when we do this we skip ahead or overlook something.  You would benefit from writing a draft all the way through and then setting it aside for at least 20-30 minutes. Take a walk, check your email, play a video game.  When you come back, read your draft from start to finish.  You will quickly see places that need to be fixed.  These just won't be obvious while you are busy composing your thoughts. We actually compose and edit with two very different parts of our brain.  It's best to do these jobs separately.  
Here's the main point I want you to hear: the issues with this paper are minor things that can be learned.  The thinking that went into this paper is good.  I don't want to say that mechanics and formatting are unimportant; they are simply things to be learned and practiced (like juggling or spinning a basketball on your index finger).  Anybody can do them with some effort and time.   
The thinking I see here is another matter altogether.  And it's the thinking I want to celebrate.  Well done.  Now let's put the effort into spinning that basketball.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Lawyers, Grades and Money



It's that time in the semester when students begin reading the syllabus like lawyers (or French semioticians).  My grading rubrics, attendance policy and definitions of "late work" are starting receive special scrutiny, and the phrases "ah, but you said..." or "any extra credit?" are now heard with increased frequency.

To be sure, it's not yet April, but this past week a few syllabus lawyers made their first appearance (can spring be far behind?).  I also received my first emails with screen shots of doctor's notes and assignments with highlighted time stamps. And suddenly "higher learning" has become less about learning and more about cost accounting.

I loathe this time of year, mostly because I find myself having conversations about points and the wording of policies rather than the ideas and subjects I'm teaching.  The mask of 'what I think I am doing' gets ripped off to reveal that we are simply engaged a numeric transaction.

I can't say I blame my students for this. Sure, they might have been more on top of things and avoided this situation, but not a little blame has to go to higher education's fetish with grades.  We make it all about the grades. Adding to these stakes is the high cost of tuition.  Failing a course doesn't just delay graduation; it adds to a sinkhole of debt.

So Friday was the last day to drop a course. I fully expect a few students in my classes will have looked over their balance sheets last week and decided to bail. They just won't be there today when I jot down the attendance. A smaller number will have missed the drop date and will discover in a panic that they've now unwittingly lashed themselves to this course to the grim end.  I got an over-the weekend-email from one such student asking if there was any way--any way at all--to still pass the class.

Most of the time--even when the answer is no--I tell failing students that if they will stay in my course, keep coming to class and do the remaining assignments to the best of their ability, I will not fail them.  To be sure, they aren't going to get a high grade, but they will not fail if they take the course and their learning seriously.  Some grab at this offer, and freed from the fear of an F they actually start learning.  Sadly, not a few tot up the numbers, decide to cut their losses and disappear.

I wonder sometimes if it's right to keep making the "I will not flunk you" offer to failing students?  I suppose I look at it this way: it's actually possible to learn something after you've hiked your rear end across the A line or the F line, but only when you stop obsessing about the balance sheet. I mean it's still supposed to be about the learning, right?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

A Valediction for Vocation

For the past several weeks, students in the Honors Core senior seminar and I have been discussing the value of friendships and relationships in a "good life."  The text we've been reading is Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital AgeWe just finished the chapter on conversation in education and how it has been disrupted by new technologies. In response, one of my students wrote movingly about her unhappiness taking an on-line course and the value she found in the honors core discussion seminars. While writing comments back to her, I found myself working out my feelings and reactions to our recent cost-cutting decision to eliminate our core's Vocation Seminar and its singular focus on engaging students in a discussion of their lives' purpose and meaning.

Emma,*

The prompts for this round of in-class writing dealt with friendship and education, areas of life we tend to see as separate subjects.  But they may be more alike than different.    
Indeed, many of the authors we’ve looked at in this unit have argued that the true value of friendship is its role in helping us to become healthier versions of ourselves.  Nathaniel Branden talked about the role of friends in providing us with a comforting sense of “psychological visibility,” of being known and acknowledged as having a presence in the world beyond our own minds.  This need to be in relationship was almost a physical hunger (as we saw in Galway Kinnell’s poem When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone).  
In the Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt recounted the earlier research of psychologists like Harlow and Ainsworth, who demonstrated that the formation of secure attachments was needed for healthy human development. We even discussed the long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development, which shows a correlation between "good relationships” and physical health and happiness.  All of these suggest friendship and quality relationships are not mere social transactions of utility or pleasure (as a behaviorist model might suggest).  Rather, they are crucial to human development and human flourishing.  
Okay, so what about education?  Is it simply a transaction?  There’s a case to be made here.  Most students come to college to enhance their job prospects and, let’s face it, a university education ain’t cheap.  It’s an investment of time and money. In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle speaks to the way technology, on-line modalities, MOOCs and distance learning promise to change higher education by making it more available, cheaper and more user-friendly (all economic and marketing terms, you’ll note). But she is not alone in asking does this make it better?  Does improving the transactional aspects of education improve it? 
Well, yes, but only if education really is a transaction.  
To be sure, there’s a lot wrong with higher education, which my colleagues and I endlessly lament after a glass of wine or two (and out of earshot of students, of course).  Even so, at its best, this expensive, problem-ridden old face-to-face model does still concern itself with helping students develop their ideas, moral commitments, sense of self, and path in life. Like friendship, the best of education continues to be about human development and human flourishing. 
So it turns out that education and friendship are both intimately connected with the cultivation of human beings, part of a very old project indeed.  Turkle’s call is for us to reclaim conversation in our lives, to resist the siren-call of mediated, transactional on-line interactions.  What think you?  Does conversation need to be reclaimed in education as well as our personal lives?     
Is your Honors Core experience (which you seem to value very highly) a part of the solution, or has it simply been a valediction for an era that must give way to the new?   
Something to chew on, I guess.

* Name changed, and I didn't actually send these comments; instead I wrote her the usual pro forma professor's response.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...