Friday, August 29, 2008

I Heart the Iliad

Next Wednesday we start the Iliad in my freshman Humanities section. I can't wait. Once, years ago, I was teaching an intro to literature class at night. It was a long class, too (6-9:30 pm). Teaching such a long class can be a real killer. It was so long in fact that I usually gave everyone a ten minute break about 7:30 or so. Anyway, one night it was just before break and we were beginning to read the Odyssey. I had gone over the characteristics of epic literature, rehashed some of the scholarship on whether there was a real Homer or not, and explained that the Odyssey had a back story that was told in Homer's Iliad.

One of the students asked what happened in that epic. In reply I began to summarize the story. The Iliad is actually a difficult story to summarize because you can't start where Homer began. You have to go back even farther so that your summary of Homer's story makes sense. Each event depends so much on others that it's difficult to leave anything out. Nevertheless, I was doing my best, but I quickly realized it would take a me a long time to summarize even a basic outline. And I was concerned about honoring break time. Then I suddenly became aware that every one in the class was leaning forward and paying very close attention. We were already five minutes past break time, but no one was getting antsy or restless. They were transfixed. Somehow I had unintentionally re-staged the way the story was originally told, and it was as if I had uncorked a vintage wine. Even in my hackneyed, butchered summary, the story still had the power to captivate an audience.

If only I could tap that power whenever I wanted. Today in class, for example, we were contrasting Greek mythology with the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. I was trying to show them how Greek mythology emphasizes psychological realism, while the story of Abraham forgoes such realism for an emphasis on correct behavior and obedience to God's will. In the Demeter myth, for instance, she mourns the loss of her daughter Persephone with realistic grief. But what of Abraham? What must he have thought as he walked beside his apparently doomed child? How did he feel at night when he watched Isaac sleeping? (By a fire? Under the stars?) Did he search his soul for resolution? Did he consider defying God's command? We cannot say. Scripture provides us with no answers to these questions, yet answering them -- filling in the gaps, so to speak -- is crucial if we are to grasp the profound nature of faith and sacrifice depicted for us.

The class appeared to be struggling with the distinction I was trying to draw out of the two stories. Maybe they were a little bored, and we were nearing the end of the hour. I could tell I just wasn't getting through to them. So I wrapped up our discussion with a few observations and reminded them we would start the Iliad next Wednesday (no class on Labor Day). I mentioned that there was a back story to the Iliad and slowly began to tell the tale: "There once was a king named Peleus who fell in love with a sea nymph and the two of them wanted to marry..." After a few minutes I looked out at the class. Sure enough, everyone was listening. It was time to go but no one was stirring, rustling papers or fumbling with backpacks. No one was moving at all. They were looking right at me, eyes wide in interested gazes.

The Iliad is amazing. The damned thing works every single time.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Reading Problem

Had my second night class. The students were to have read The Apology and Crito, texts that deserve about two or three weeks of full engagement. But I have eight weeks and seven texts. My evening sections are mostly populated with working adults, a demographic I really enjoy teaching. They tend to be somewhat more careful readers. My traditional undergrads often struggle with reading. I don't mean that they can't read. It's that what academics call reading and students call reading are two separate things. For them it's having run one's eyes over the page. For us it includes some level of critical engagement.

Indeed, about two years ago a bunch of my colleagues and I were in a big gathering and asked to list our number one problem with teaching. We each wrote something down on a piece of paper. The amazing thing was that we all cited the same problem: "students don't read the assigned material before class" (or some variant of that). So the guy leading the seminar asked us to think like scientists and come up with some hypotheses for why students don't read. There were a few schools of thought on this issue.

The first, and by far the most popular, was the “students are broken" hypothesis: they are lazy. They can't manage their time. They're vidiots and so Youtubed and Ipod-ed out they can't focus unless titillated. Then there was hand-wringing "maybe it's our fault" school of thought, which produced such hypotheses as these:

1) They are struggling to stay afloat in five or six classes, so something has got to give.

2) Maybe the reading is not meaningfully-related to what happens in class. In other words, we've designed a poor course.

3) Maybe our standards are too lax and they don't have to do the reading to pass the class.

Next we were asked how we would research our hypotheses and what would we change if we validated one them. I kept thinking about this problem for a long while after that conference, and gradually I began to suspect that the reason students don't read is because they can't read. I don't mean that they are illiterate. Rather, they don't have the analytical reading chops that academics take for granted. They can't as easily draw inferences from a paragraph, detect larger patterns, synthesize ideas, etc. By "reading" we mean constructing a working understanding, while they mean sliding their eyes over a page.

So I pilot tested some exams on seniors and discovered that about half the students really can't do much in the way of higher level reading. I imagine they try to read the stuff and just give up. Then they find a way to muddle through or they drop out. So who are the culprits? It is probably a variety of things. TV, video games, uninspired teaching, lax expectations, but the most likely cause is the home environment. The academic performance of grade school and high school kids is strongly correlated to whether or not they were read to daily between the ages of 2-5. Families that park kids in front of the tube and don't read to them or engage them in as much verbal interaction during the language formation stage arrive at school with a language gap and then it just snowballs.

So the question for me was what do I do about it. I'm at the end of the educational process, not the beginning. So I've taken to doing a lot more structured reading and writing in class. Students are to have something read beforehand, but I actually give them specific tasks of analysis to complete in class where I can control the environment. They have to re-read and analyze a passage and record their take in writing. In an 80 minute period, they may be sitting for 35 minutes in quiet with the text, looking at it closely and then wrestling their understanding into writing. After they write a paragraph or so, I have them share their findings with other students. This makes them accountable for their thinking not just to me, but to each other.

As a group they have to iron out any disagreements before they announce to the class their take on a passage or concept. While they are talking it over, I actually hear some saying, "Hey, I completely missed that. Where was that?" Then someone will actually open the book and start going through the text pointing stuff out. First time I did this exercise I was flabbergasted. They were learning and I wasn't doing anything. I'm doing this in most classes now. It means I spend a lot of time looking out the window during class, standing around in silence, waiting for them to get done, but it really works and their papers are better.

The real breakthrough, for me anyway, was when I learned that I could teach content, application, and critical reading skills at the same time. I did not have to do one, then the other and then the other. By shaping the reading task and the environment in which they read, I could get them to do better critical analysis and strengthen their writing while they were engaging the material. This little gimmick is not panacea, of course, but it is a lot better than my old approach (i.e., assigning the reading and then grumbling when they didn't do it).

In short, I can't just say read this. If I want them to read, I have to show them how.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Looking Up

During my first year in college, I took a course in British poetry. I can't say that I had much use for poetry before that, but there was something about the professor's reverence for the subject that really caught my attention. I recall going to class each day, laying out my notepad and pencils, and carefully writing the date at the top of the page. Then a few minutes before class, the professor (always in coat and tie) came into the room, sat before us without making any small talk, and stared down at his notes. At precisely the top of the hour, he would glance at his watch and say, "Let us begin..."

When the class was over I would glance down to see that I hadn't taken a single note. The way the guy spoke about poetry I didn't need to take notes. He spoke as if it were the most important subject in the world, and I actually began to think it was. This professor was aloof in the classroom, which made me wonder what he was like outside of class. He was careful, though, and seldom revealed much of himself. You had to infer his tastes from stray comments he made about the poems we read. I sensed, for example, that he was not a great fan of Milton, though he dutifully gave Milton his due.

One day, however, we were reading Keats and he absently sighed and said something like "I really wouldn't care to live in a world without Keats." As a blue-collar kid, first generation college student, that comment really floored me. I was struck that a person could feel so passionately about something, especially something so wholly without any clear utility. That comment in a weird way gave me permission to love something that much.

Yesterday in class I dutifully laid out my course objectives as written on the syllabus. Everyone says that making your teaching and learning objectives clear is essential, and I suppose it is. I sometimes wonder, though, what students would say if I told them my true objectives. Secretly, subversively, I want them all to fall in love with the same things I love. That they often don't is a source of great sadness.

I will never be that old British poetry professor. I can't play it close to the vest in the classroom -- couldn't even if I tried. I gush and profuse, I babble, get excited and overrun everything with heedless enthusiasm. If I have a theory of teaching, it's the "looking up" theory. When you stand in a crowd and start looking up, a lot of other people will also begin to look up just to see what it is you might be staring at. And that's pretty much my job description. I just stare at the things as intently as I can and hope others will start to stare too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Day two

Had two courses back to back this morning and things seemed to go well. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach a senior capstone course for the liberal arts core. I dispensed with the welcoming PowerPoint this morning and just sat and talked with the students as we waited to begin. I don't know why, but I feel more at ease in the capstone course than I do teaching my freshmen Humanities section.

Each semester I look out at the students and wonder if this will be a great class or one that frustrates all of my efforts. After all these years, I still fail from time to time. But when it's good, it's very good. I suppose I have my share of cynicism about the possibility for meaningful change in higher education, but I only feel this way when I step back from the whole thing and wonder about the larger implications. On a day-to-day basis, I am a lot more optimistic (some might even say sappy) about the prospects of education.

Do I rail about the brute indifference of 18 years-olds who won't make an effort to understand Shakespeare? You bet, but I have also worked my tail off to help them see that they can understand him and, more importantly, use his metaphors to construct new and personally-liberating understandings of their world. Maybe I am kidding myself, but quite often the students seem to get it. They actually use the text to reflect on their lives and articulate new understandings.

In class last spring, for example, we were discussing Edmund in King Lear. Early in the play he looks at the world and concludes that right and wrong are merely social conventions. The truth, he argues, is that the world is not structured so that things are just; rather, it is no different from the state of nature in which the most cunning and strong are rewarded. So power belongs to those bold and resourceful enough to take it. His half-brother Edgar, on the other hand, is reduced to the raw state of nature, hunted by the law and forced to live like an animal with little protection from the elements. Yet he reaches an entirely different conclusion. One brother acts like an animal; the other lives like one.

So the class discussion focused on how we are to respond to a world in which justice seems rare, arbitrary, and often irrelevant to how things turn out. I don't think many of the students had ever pondered that question in a discussion beyond some tossed off line like "life sucks and then you die.” But discuss it they did, and everyone in the room was paying attention. After a few years of doing this, I can--like a night club comedian--sense when I'm killing or bombing. This was a question that mattered, and the students were really invested in the answer.

One student said, "Well, I just don't worry about the larger world of politics or that stuff. I just want to focus on having a good life and loving the people I know." So then I plopped Shakespeare's other torpedo in the water and aimed it amidships: "Yeah, well, this play is pretty brutal in its depiction of family life as well as power politics. Indeed, nothing precludes people who love each other from wounding one another and causing a whole lot of misery. Lear loves Cordelia, but so what? Glouscestor loves Edgar, but so what? Maybe Shakespeare's trying to strip us of the illusion that the world is just and that love is a sufficient response to human misery. Then again, maybe he's suggesting that meager, inadequate love is all we've got."

Deep silence while they thought that one over.

Now was I merely feeding them into the meat grinder of 21rst century global capitalism? Was I an instrument of their intellectual oppression? Granted, there is much that we do in higher education that is truly oppressive. We demand that students do this, think that, and regurgitate something else. But even in its present attenuated form, higher education still gives some people the ability to think in new ways. Is that not a type of liberation?

Then again, maybe I am the one who needs to be subjected to brutal Shakespearean illusion stripping. Maybe I am "signifying nothing." But it doesn't seem that way. If I think about our institutions and their often industrial approaches to manufacturing people to sit in cubicles, I despair. But when I'm in that room, it sure seems like I'm doing something that still matters.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Once more onto the breach...

Don't know why I am so nervous about starting this semester. This is my seventeenth year of teaching, but I feel completely uneasy after being away from the classroom for a few months. Last summer at a conference a number of us began talking about how much fear permeates the job of teaching. You are afraid of bombing in front of students; you are afraid of your colleagues evaluating your teaching. You are even afraid that you don't have anything to teach.

But it is time to trot my bag of tricks into the classroom. The students this morning looked unsure, a bit tired already. I tried to lighten the atmosphere. Someone gave me a list of things to do the first day to set the right tone. The first two were

Project a welcoming PowerPoint

Arrive early and greet people.

So I get to class early but spend 10 minutes booting up a recalcitrant LCD projector. So much for greeting people. The room was so stuffy, the desks squished together, and I was feeling a bit anxious about setting the right tone. The thing is I had a great spring semester, one of the best. My teaching evals were superb. But this morning I looked out the students' faces and felt old and out of it. I almost could sense their deflation as I went over the syllabus. I gave them my spiel about coming to class prepared and having read the material. We'll see how it goes.

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.  ...