Monday, May 6, 2019


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a big green couch in the living room binge-reading  paperback novels by Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, God Bless You, Mister Rosewater, Player Piano and, of course, Slaughterhouse Five.

I would have been about 15 or 16 at the time--just old enough to be left at home during summer vacation from school.  This is an odd period in one's reading life.  You're too old for children's books but maybe not old enough to fully-appreciate adult literature.  Rousseau once said that at 16 you have lived enough to know what it is to suffer, but not enough to know that anyone else ever has.

I'm not sure that's entirely true.  I was old enough to appreciate Vonnegut's humor, his sadness and his take on human pomposity and human suffering.  I'm sure I must have read a lot books I was too young for at that age, but I don't think Slaughterhouse Five was one of them. Even so, there was at least one device used in the novel that makes a lot more sense to me now than it did back them.

In Slaughterhouse Five, the  protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is'unstuck in time.'  Throughout the novel he jumps from one moment of his life to another.  We see him getting a swimming lesson from his father (who dumps him into the deep end of the pool, where he sinks straight to the bottom).  Then he is a married optometrist in Ilium, New York, and then in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge. We see him have his nervous breakdown and getting kidnapped by aliens and mated to a Hollywood starlet. And, of course, we see him as a POW and being put on corpse detail after the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.

I'm pretty sure I found this 'unstuck in time' idea pretty ingenious when I was 16.  Vonnegut may not have been  the first writer to use a non-linear plot, but he was likely the first writer I ever read who told a story that way.  Now some 40-odd years later, the unstuck in time gimmick does not strike me as creative at all.  It seems like straightforward non-fiction reportage.

Turns out, everybody gets unstuck in time if they live long enough.  At 50--roughly Vonnegut's age when Slaughterhouse Five was published-- most people can recall a few distinct versions of themselves and even some of the delusions they labored under at various points in life.  So distinct are these versions and moments and (so wince-inducing the delusions) that life inevitably begins to feel non-linear. You find yourself randomly jumping between memories and wondering how that foolish person with those ridiculous assumptions could ever have been connected to you.

In Mother Night, Vonnegut's narrator meets a braggart in a bar who claims that he can satisfy seven women a night in seven different ways. And the narrator, Howard W. Campbell, Jr, remarks to himself.
“Oh, God — the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God — what a world they try to lead them in.”
By your 50s you can see yourself as the person in that encounter with a disenchanted perspective on the world and just as easily as that deluded boob.  As with the Tralfamadorian concept of time in Slaughterhouse Five, your perspective operates simultaneously in the past and in the present. It's even possible to see yourself in the future looking back on your present and wincing at the delusions you labor under now.

I've often found that going to the actual places you’ve read about can have the effect of demystifying an author's creative inspiration. You discover that writers are far more literal than you suspected.  Go to Prague and you'll find an actual castle looming over the Kafka's hometown, or take the train out of Dublin when the tide is out along the beaches of Sandymount and you will find a flat, wrack-strewn shoreline stretching out for a 1/4 mile to the ocean. There will be shimmering crane-like figures in the distance and you'll  realize that Joyce wasn't imagining anything at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  He was simply writing down what he saw.

Turns out, getting older also has a demystifying effect on what you've read.  

Monday, April 29, 2019

Classroom Conversations and the Virtuous Circle

In Walden Thoreau famously remarked  “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  Each, he suggested, was a necessary part for maintaining a harmonious self.  Solitude was required to experience his own thoughts and feelings and to have an individual, autonomous sense of his presence and being in the world. 

The second chair, friendship, was the intimate and private opportunity to share those ideas and feelings experienced in solitude with someone trusted and caring, but also to listen to, react to and be challenged by a friend's thoughts and feelings.

And society, the third chair, was Thoreau's life in the larger world, the place he could enter into with the thoughts, convictions and commitments pondered in solitude and vetted among friends.  In short, the three chairs formed a kind of virtuous circle.  Experiences in society were reflected on in solitude, weighed and measured among friends, and in turn became the basis for moral convictions and actions in the larger world. The circle then fed back upon itself

Lately, I've been brooding on Thoreau's metaphor and more particularly the following question: what kind of chair is a classroom?  At first glance it would seem to be a public space, and clearly many classrooms operate like this.  But in my 28 years of teaching the best and richest classroom experiences I've had have functioned much more like Thoreau's second chair.  They were spaces where open-ended conversation was encouraged and the professor's role as an expert or disseminater of knowledge downplayed.  

For over 20 years I taught in our college's honors-seminar learning community.  It's a program that our students consistently value and rate highly.  But here's the dirty little secret of most learning communities: it's not their curriculum or the faculty that make these program work.  It's the fact that students go through them in cohorts.  By the time they're through, they've spent hours and hours intimately talking with the same small group of people about what they believe, care for and worry about.  In short, they've become friends.

One student years ago put it best. She said the first semester of honors seminar no one spoke because they were all intimidated by the readings (which none of them understood).  The second semester they argued non-stop, and the third semester they said little because everyone knew what everyone would say before the said it.  Finally, in the fourth semester, they joyously talked and talked because--even though they knew what everyone thought--they liked each other anyway.  Learning communities are not really about the curriculum; they're about learning community.

But even in my own non-honors courses, those which more closely approximate Thoreau's second chair have been more successful at promoting deeper learning and creating more satisfying experiences for students.  When you think about it, the liberal arts classroom is a very unique and increasingly rare space in modern life.  

The first chair of solitude, of course, is under siege in our always-on world.  It's rare for my students to spend any time off-line or alone in a cabin like Thoreau.  And the opportunities for conversations among friends are increasingly disrupted and displaced by our devices. Studies show that even the presence of a cell phone on a tabletop changes the nature of conversation, keeping it light and superficial.  You might say that deep conversation among friends has become the 'opportunity cost' of our increased time with screens.  I mean where else in everyday life do my students get to regularly sit and engage in the intimate, unmediated and un-disrupted give and take of conversation with people they like and maybe even care about?  

Our world today seems hellbent on replacing the antiquated idea of the liberal arts classroom, a space that at its best can serve the virtuous circle of our students' selves.  A good classroom these days has become a kind of hold out or remnant.  And, like a good friend, it's something harder and harder to find.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Slender Reeds

I wrote recently about the potential moral value of academizing a subject, of interrogating ideas in a classroom with the best version of the liberal arts' open, anything goes scrutiny. This kind of classroom discussion, of course, is often dismissed as Ivory Tower contemplation. My rather commonplace argument on its behalf was simply that the very act of questioning, arguing and morally weighing ideas could-- I repeat could--promote a habit of greater moral self-awareness.

You wouldn't think this a controversial idea, but someone was quick to respond that I was being elitist and arguing that only those privileged enough to have a liberal arts education possess a moral compass.  Far from it.  Let me stipulate at the outset that those who planned the final solution had degrees from some of the finest universities in Europe. They quoted Goethe, they played Mozart. Moreover, if reading books made you a better person, why are there jerks in English Departments all over the world? (Trust me, there are a few.).  No, having a good education does not automatically make you more virtuous or morally courageous.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by the charge of elitism. One argument against Socratic self-examination has long been that it's elitist.  Not all people are capable or willing to engage in close philosophical reasoning, so it might seem to follow that these people are leading less fully-realized moral lives. And Socrates' amanuensis, Plato, certainly didn't help to rebut the charge of elitism. He was no friend of democracy and famously argued that only the educated elite (philosopher kings) should rule society.

Even so, I would argue that a good education may help till the soil for virtues to grow. And here I am echoing the ideas of the classicist Martha Nussbaum,who has argued that Socratic examination and fiction are tools for cultivating our humanity.  The former helps to clarify thought about moral questions and the latter contains the potential to awaken an empathetic narrative imagination.  Now at a certain point, Nussbaum has to deal with a common objection. There's just no guarantee that people will have their moral values edified by Socratic examination or their narrative imaginations awakened by reading literature.

After all, lots of people can discuss ideas or read novels and poetry without any discernible effect. So employing debate and literature in an attempt to cultivate humanity is a terribly hit or miss prospect. Frankly it's downright ineffective and more often than not probably fails.  No "real world" enterprise would tolerate the liberal arts' record of failure in achieving its mission of cultivating more humane and thoughtful people.

But here is where Nussbaum really sells the idea (at least to me): just because there's no guarantee that this change will occur is no reason not to put that opportunity before people. Seeds don’t grow unless you plant them. That's not much, but it's enough for me to believe that what we do in a liberal arts classroom has real cash value and remains worthwhile for students and our society. 

 Slender reeds aren't much, I grant you. But sometimes they're all you get.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Scant Evidence From the Ferry

Just recently I was talking to a colleague who teaches in the sciences. We were waiting for a meeting to begin and to pass the time we swapped a few obligatory "war stories" about students who were struggling to complete our courses this semester. She mentioned in passing that students who score less than 50 percent on her final exam automatically fail the course regardless of the grade earned up to that point.

"I mean, what's the point?" she asked. "If they can't take with them the most basic knowledge of course, what's the point?"  Her remark got me wondering. Is there some bottom-line, absolute, no foolin' "basic knowledge" that I want students to have when they leave my courses?

And the answer, I think, is not really.  To be sure, students do take knowledge from my courses, but damned if I could predict what it will be. So what is the point of my courses if it isn't the acquisition of a fixed set of knowledge or skills?

It's a fair question, but one that perhaps misses the point. What I want students to take from my courses are an array of sticky metaphors, analogies and a series of odd, self-constructed connections. What exactly those might be, I can't say. That's up to them. I simply want students to see how an idea that strikes them might relate to or apply to something else in their lives. I just can't predict which ideas will make an impression or how exactly they will relate it to their lives.

And already I can hear in my head the derisive voice of the Grand Pedagogical Inquisitor (a mythical nemesis of mine who forever haunts my teaching life). He smiles and asks in that high-pitched, smug voice of his, "So tell me, Herr Professor, what assessment instruments do you use to quantify and assure that students are making these so-called "sticky metaphors" and connections at an acceptable academic level?"

I usually mumble some response or whine that he simply doesn't understand.  I throw out the lamest of the humanities' defenses: "What I teach doesn't work like that.  I can't tell you what a particular student will do with her particular encounter with Dante or Emily Dickinson, let alone Frederick Douglass or Mary Wollstonecraft.  Who knows?  Admittedly, for most of my students, these metaphors and ideas probably go down the memory hole, but not all of them."

"And how do you know this?" the Grand Pedagogical Inquisitor insists.

"Well, I ask them."

Indeed, on the final reflections for all of my classes students are asked some version of the following question: How did the ideas, subjects and material in this class arise in your thoughts, conversations and life outside of this course?  And here's how a few have answered this question in the past week:
  • My favorite poem from our first unit was “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. I really enjoyed this poem because it reminded me of my father. Hayden states in his poem how his father woke up too early, with cracked hands, and how no one ever thanked him. My father went to culinary school for years, and when my family came to the United States, he had a hard time finding a job because he could not read or speak English. He worked extremely hard, in a hot kitchen, often burning or cutting himself on accident. He would be off just in time to pick me up from school at 2:30, take me home, and cook me lunch.  He did not act like he just came home from a nine-hour work day, and he never complained. Like I said, I was a very young child, and like Haydn I did not fully appreciate what my dad was doing for me and my family.
  • Here's something that really stuck with me.  On the first day of class we were asked to write an obituary of a man that had the perfect life. I thought it would be easy and I listed things such as his popularity, a high-paying job, good health, happy family, etc.   When we were finished with the exercise, I was pleased as I certainly thought that all of the things I included were essential to living a “good life.”  However, when I was asked if I would trade my current life for this perfect life that I had just planned out, my immediate reaction was “No! Absolutely not!” After reflecting on that for a while, I really started to wonder why that was.
  • When I walk down the street or drive around town, I now find myself looking at buildings and thinking about the concepts we discussed in this class. I feel confident enough to look at a building and say, “This building is post-modern and that building is modern.”  Before taking that class I would have considered any building made of glass and metal to be modern. I never would have looked at a building and thought about the lines, the rhythms of elements used or the movement of the building. I never would have thought about a building as an idea with something to say to me. Frankly, I never really thought about buildings much at all.
  • When we were in the painting unit, we had to analyze a painting and I chose A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Edouard Manet. When first looking at the piece, I thought it was just a bored bartender hating her job. Upon further investigation, I found out that she may have been a prostitute. When I learned this it made me look at the painting in a whole different way. The colors made more sense to me, and how the background was a blur, just like much of her life was probably a blur.  I loved learning about Parisian life in that unit and how art had such and influence on the culture of the time…  I found it so fascinating that the tensions between social classes were all there in the painting (and even still around today).
One student wrote this past week that she never understood poetry until we read Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman. Before, she always thought a poem was simply what the poet meant, but now she saw that it takes two to make a poem: a poet and a reader. Each brings something to the encounter. The poet brings words, techniques and images, and she brings her whole life story. And it's only when the two meet midstream (like the readers and Walt meet on the ferry) that a poem comes into being.

I'll be honest. I wanted to cry when I read this.

In the end, it's these kinds of statements that make up the fragmentary evidence by which I shore my pedagogical ruins. I don't know how to measure these statements and I sure can't predict what they will be when I'm designing a course. But they are what I am always trying to teach toward and they're exactly what I look for at the end of a semester. I suppose my teaching strategy—so much as I have one--is simply to throw it all out there, invite students to the encounter, and then--like Walt--wait to see what shall come home to me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Fearing the Engineers

One of the things I am forever pushing my students to do is to make connections, to see how what we're reading and studying informs other material and--just as importantly--what's happening all around them.  I'm always asking questions like these in class:
  • Are there contemporary analogues to the sinners we find in Dante's Inferno?
  • Who today, like Edmund in King Lear, is locked out of the economic and political power system?
  • What might be the implications if we adopted Aristotle's view of human nature (for our education system, penal system...)?
Always connect, I tell students. Show me how what we're studying relates to right now.  Indeed, making these connections and using literature, history and art to provide some human perspective on the onrushing tyranny of the present is the best reason (and perhaps only reason) for continuing to provide students with a liberal arts education

Two recent stories brought this home to me. Over the weekend I watched an HBO documentary on Elizabeth Holmes and the fall of her once-lauded bio-tech start-up Theranos.  Touted as an innovative, market-disrupting breakthrough in medical testing, Theranos promised it could cheaply provide over 200 diagnoses from a single pinprick's worth of blood.  Turns out it was all hype.  Their laser printer-sized testing device never worked and the company was faking the test results for seriously-ill people in a desperate attempt to retain the good will of its venture-capitalist investors.

I also read a story in the Times about parents in Kansas who were in revolt against a school curriculum developed by Facebook engineers. The program was initially embraced by a few of Kansas' underfunded school systems, but parents have since been having second thoughts after their children started complaining of hand cramps, headaches and unhappiness with their learning environment. "We're allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like Zombies," one parent quoted in the article commented.  A central concern for many parents was how the curriculum isolated students and made them more anxious.

I could not read these stories without recalling an epigram of W.H. Auden: no dictator ever fears his engineers. We might update that for our times to read no human problem exists for which Silicon Valley engineers lack a fix. 

I mean who could possibly have guessed that high-tech's bro-culture mantra of "move fast and break things" might prove unwise when dealing with actual human lives?  Was there anyone in these companies with the presence of mind to ask "What are we doing? What are the implications? Is this the morally right thing?"  You know, the kinds of questions asked whenever you academize a subject.  

Of course, asking such questions would require stepping back from the present and attempting to think about analogues in history or literature.  It would mean thinking through the possible implications and considering how we morally feel about them. In other words, it requires the kinds of thinking skills I'm forever pushing my students to do.  These days, of course, we are always regaled with stories about some techno-savant who dropped out of college to invent the latest industry-changing app (Holmes herself dropped out of Stanford).  But, hey, maybe they should have stuck around.

To be sure, academizing a subject will never immunize us from human folly or guarantee that we won't someday sleepwalk over a moral precipice, but this doesn't mean it's a useless activity.  After all, eating right and exercise can't stop you from being flattened by a beer truck, but they're still pretty wise things to do.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Finals Week

Wrote this a few years back and it remains as true as ever.
One of the odd things about being on an academic calendar is the way it suddenly stops and starts.  And I do mean suddenly.  Every semester manically speeds up near the end and then--just when it's moving at breakneck speed-- everything stops.  There's no crash or screech, no deceleration.  Just a complete and immediate stop.  Silence. You go back into the office to get something and no one is there.  
Study the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and you will find no end of good advice about how to handle the first day of class, but not a lot for the last day.  The students assemble, test or write reflection papers in silence, and then one-by-one the little community you have all created disintegrates.  It stops.  Gone.

I never deal well with these transitions.

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.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...