Friday, October 31, 2008

My Hollywood Moment

There are some things you are sure to see whenever Hollywood makes a movie about college life. If it's a comedy, it will be of the Animal House variety: lots of adolescent hi-jinx and crude humor. But if it's a drama, it will feature a gorgeous campus with tree-lined New England quads ablaze in autumnal splendor. The classrooms will be just as gorgeous: oak-paneled, with ancient wooden desks fanned out around a lectern. The lighting will be somber and come from large mullioned windows, through which you will see branches scoring a November sky.

Professors will not so much teach as hold court in the well of their lecture halls. They will engage the students with spell-binding insights that probe the essence of life's most enduring questions. And on the last day of this life-changing series of lectures, a lone student will stand and slowly begin to applaud. Then, student-by-student, the class will rise to join in unanimous ovation as the humble professor strides from the room with the barest trace of a tear on his sallow cheeks.

Think Dead Poets Society here.

What you seldom get from Hollywood are rows of plastic desks in concrete block rooms, half-asleep kids texting away in various slack-kneed poses, or professors reading word-for-word in soul-numbing monotones from PowerPoint presentations. What you get from Hollywood is the dream, not the reality. I was thinking about this last night. In my evening section of Humanities we were discussing Books 6 and 9 of the Iliad and I told the class that I really didn't think the poem was an anti-war poem. I think it's an anti-bullshit poem. Unlike Hollywood, Homer wants to tell us the truth about life.

We were contrasting Achilles and Hector last night. Achilles, of course, has a choice. He can stay and fight, earning great glory, honor and wealth at the cost of his young life, or he can give up on all the bling, sail home, find a wife and live out his days in quiet anonymity. I asked the students if they admired Achilles for going against the core values of his warrior society and questioning whether honor and glory are really worth it. Most said they did. "Living your life for external rewards like that just isn't worth it," they agreed.

Next we looked at Hector. He also has a choice. He can follow the demands of his wife and hang back from the fighting, letting his comrades face the greater danger, or he can fulfill his duty to fight in the front ranks of Troy's defenders. Again, I asked the students if they admired Hector for not hanging back, even though his family will pay such a heavy price when he is slain. Most said they admired Hector for his sacrifice. Then I pointed out that Achilles isn't just turning his back on glory and honor; he's turning his back on his friends, men he's fought and suffered with for ten long years. These are men pleading with him to come back, and Achilles knows they will be slaughtered in the morning if he sails away.

Last night this was an an interesting moment in class. Suddenly the students realized that both Achilles and Hector are in impossible situations. Both have conflicts between what they want and what their societies need from them. Moreover, both men will pay a heavy price for whatever choice they make. If Hector seems a bit more heroic to us at this point in the poem, it's only because he knows he is doomed. I think I said something like this: "Look, we are all doomed. We're all going to lose, but we get up each morning and go back out there. Human life is hard. It's filled with painful conflicts, and success and glory don't really count for much in the end; but we endure and there's real heroism there. Ultimately I think this poem is deeply in love with life. It's just not going to lie to us about it."

The room was suddenly very still. I looked up. No one was moving at all. I had 'em. For a few seconds I was in the movie. There weren't any mullioned windows or somber November skies, but it was still pretty cool. Then somebody fidgeted and the moment passed. Later, I handed back the papers and talked about revising for grammar errors. The Hollywood moment is great, but you can't really live there.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why English Profs are More Likely to Fool Around

Not long ago I was coaxed into seeing a film about physics entitled What the Bleep is Going On? At least that was the pitch. It turned out to be a mish-mash of new age religion, insights gleaned superficially from quantum physics, and dollops of self-help therapy. Among the so-called experts in the film was a defrocked priest, a physics grad student, and a woman who claimed to channel Ramtha, a 4,000-year old warrior from the lost continent of Atlantis.

What disturbed me was the credence some of my colleagues in the English Department seemed willing to extend this nonsense. It got me thinking, too, about the nature of disciplines, and how some are more willing to absorb ideas generated in other academic contexts. Literary studies seems to have particular weakness for this kind of interdisciplinary poaching. I can't for the life of me imagine a physicist importing the principles of queer theory or new criticism to understand the behaviors of atoms; but any English major with half a grasp of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle could shamelessly use it to explicate a poem. Why does literary studies lend itself to this?

One's tempted to see indictable evidence of the frivolousness of literary studies altogether, but perhaps something more compelling about the nature of disciplines may be indicated. Let's say for the sake of argument that the Greeks were right, and that there are three essential questions to be answered: What is good? What is true? And what is beautiful? Now let's imagine that these three questions are not wholly separate - that they overlap each other to varying degrees.

We might even sketch a Venn diagram with a circle for each of the questions (goodness, truth, beauty). We might also imagine an academic discipline as a hazy, diffuse spot on this diagram. It has a darker weighted center, but it also diffuses and extends outward into lighter shadings. Now let's place the various disciplines in this diagram where they seem to fit.

History, for example, would fall mainly in the truth circle, but to some extent shade over into the good (or ethical) circle. Historians do seek to discover what really happened, but they also sometimes look for moral lessons as well. (Should we have dropped the atomic bomb? Was Jefferson a hypocrite because he owned slaves?) Mathematics, on the other hand, is not terribly concerned with goodness, though it does crop up in reciprocative justice and utilitarian ethics. Even so, its dark, weighted center would sit firmly in the truth circle, yet it might also shade over a bit into the beauty circle (in as much as it concerns itself with pattern, order, and symmetry).

Okay, now where should we put literary studies? What an odd discipline it is. It seems to lie in the overlap of all three circles. It can concern itself with questions of ethics, aesthetics and truth. I know, I know, musicians will argue there is a truth to music and biologists that the scientific method expresses an ethical worldview. We can quibble over where each discipline goes, but let's stay with the supposition for a while longer. Let's try to think of a discipline not as a discrete entity, but rather as a nexus of questions. Central questions in the discipline may be clustered in a given spot, but a few stray disciplinary questions will spill into adjacent areas.

So it is certainly possible under this model for a scientist to interrogate truth from an ethical point of view, or for an ethicist to investigate the aesthetic dimension of moral arguments. But when they do this they haven't necessarily succeeded in proving that science is about morality or that ethics is about aesthetics. Rather, they have merely demonstrated the hoary truth that clever folks can interrogate objects away from their primary intelligibility.

I can go on about the morality of the 12 tone scale, or investigate the aesthetics of historical analysis. But, interesting as this may be, it misses the point that a discipline is a group of people having a purposefully delimited (rather than unlimited) conversation. While it's true that disciplines lack solidity, they do tend to have weighted centers more or less resistant to stray questions.

Now I am suggesting that literary studies occupies a unique place in education. Indeed, it lies in the overlap of the three classical categories of academic inquiry: truth, goodness and beauty. Some literary works are by design disposed toward mimetic truthfulness, others toward aesthetic beauty, and still others toward didactic or moral aims. Moreover, practitioners in literary studies, like the works themselves, evidence dispositions.

Marxists, feminists, and those interested in literature as a sociopolitical critique want to pull the discipline toward the goodness circle. In their most vulgar form, these critics tend to see literature as either an indictment of or collusion with evil, an approach that works fine when a literary work shares this inherent disposition. When it doesn't, the work's innate disposition tends to flatten such criticism into a crude binarism ("In as much as Keats doesn't mention the downtrodden masses in his ode To Autumn, he reifies the blah, blah, blah..."). Either a work cooperates with the critic's concern, or it is working against that concern.

New Critics and formalists, on the other hand, want to pull us toward the beauty circle and its concern for autotelic purity. Realistic novelists and their fans want to pull us toward mimesis, a view that literature should reflect social or psychological reality. And here is why the fights in English departments are so bitter: each kind of critic is trying to yank the discipline in a different direction by reaching deeper into his or her preferred circle and appropriating ideas and investigative approaches from disciplines more firmly established there. In the end, literary critics poach because their discipline occupies a kind of stateless borderland, one with a less coherent set of centralized academic concerns.

Such a description is not meant as a negative. We might even conceive of literary studies as a kind of academic equivalent to type-O blood. Because it has such wide concerns it can be transfused easily into any discipline. And it should be. Why shouldn't math courses require a novel? Why shouldn't art history, sociology, business comp, accounting, or any of a hundred other courses contain novels, poems or plays? There is imaginative literature dealing with almost every aspect of the human experience, so whatever is taught can be understood through literature.

To some extent, English professors already know this, which is why they so freely transgress disciplinary boundaries with alternately brilliant and idiotic results. Perhaps, though, they ought to be encouraging their colleagues to poach from them -- not their analytical models, but surely the stuff upon which they apply those models.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fragments Shored Against My Ruin

Last night was such a beautiful autumn evening. I walked across campus toward my night class and couldn't help thinking about poetry. Strangely, even though I'm an unrepentant aesthetic fuddy-duddy, I've always had a certain partiality for the Imagists, that group of early 20th Century poets who wanted to break away from the entire 19th century poetic tradition of Romantic lyricism.

You only have to look at some of the shopworn verse that came before them to sympathize with their view. The Imagists wanted "dry hardness," as their chief theoretician T. E. Hulme put it. But rather than any regularized formal scheme, the Imagists held their poems together simply with a juxtaposition of images. Indeed, the poet's perceiving consciousness (so often the ur-text of Romantic poetry) was missing or at least pushed into the background. Here, for instance, is one of Hulme's poems (he didn't write many and died in World War One):

Above the Dock
Above the quiet dock in mid night,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away
Is but a child's balloon, forgotten after play.

The verb "seemed" suggests that this image was perceived by someone, but it's a not a very specified someone. In this sense, the Imagists didn't actually abandon the poet as filter of experience; rather, they abandoned making a specific personal experience the central point of the poem. When you read a Romantic poem, you're generally hopping a ride with a particular consciousness as it meditates, morphs and then moves on. When you read an Imagist poet, he (or often she) operates more like a successful bank robber: hit 'em hard, fast, and get away clean. Here's a great example from the unfortunately named Adelaide Crapsey:

November Night
With faint dry sound
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisped, break from the trees
And fall.

No one is going to rank this with Shakespeare's sonnets, but it does possess an evocative strength that is a bit like Haiku. It's also not without its artistry. Note the cadence of lines two and three and how they capture the rhythm of actual steps. Those four sibilant S's in line three may soften that rhythm, but they also make them ghostlike.

Note too the way line four begins and ends with an off-rhyme (leaves/trees), but also how it divides that tenuous sound connection with the appropriately hard-hit "break." In essence, the line parallels its semantic meaning in sound. Those leaves, now frost-crisped, are actually severed in sound from their softly-rhymed connection (life) into disconnection (death). So those passing ghosts aren’t quite as gratuitous an image as you might think.

November Night may appear a slight poem, but no slight amount of artistry went into it. Indeed, it's doing the hardest thing of all in poetry: balancing its sense with its sound. All this is to say nothing of the final line that just hangs there to capture a feeling of incipient descent. One recalls here Homer’s knee-loosened Greek warriors in their fall toward earth or Glaucus’ line in Book VI of the Iliad that the generations of men are so many seasons of leaves. I also think of Keats' To Autumn and those mournful gnats "borne aloft/Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies."

Ah, life, death, beauty, poetry... It really was a wonderful autumn evening.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's Still Greek to Me

Theories about how learning takes place can be categorized in many ways, but a useful starting place is to ask oneself if the theory under consideration is subject centered or student centered. In other words, does the theory hold that learning takes place by getting students to adapt themselves to the inherent nature of the subject matter, or by adapting the subject matter to the inherent nature of the student?

For the better part of history, ideas about how we learn have been primarily subject-centered. This is reflected in phrases like mastering a discipline. In a subject-centered approach, the goal for math teachers is to get students to think mathematically-- that is, within the formal presuppositions or habits of thought that inform the discipline of mathematics. Students in this approach must conform their thinking patterns to those within a given academic field.

More recently, student-centered theories have gained popularity, especially in primary and secondary education but increasingly even in colleges and universities. Of course, the idea of student-centered learning is not new. Educational reformers have been suggesting since the 18th Century that attention to the individual student's needs is important for learning. Indeed, Rousseau's novel Emile (1762), Pestalozzi's educational experimentation, and Froebel's creation of Kindergarten were all premised on the assumption that effective teaching must take into account the developmental nature of childhood.

Today's educational theorists, however, have taken the concept of student-centered learning well beyond a recognition that children need developmentally appropriate approaches. Instead, they suggest that we all-- children, adults, everyone-- possess innate learning styles, and that good instructors should teach us by creatively adapting lesson plans, assignments and assessments to our preferred style. Fortunately for the modern educator, too, an entire industry of educational testing services has sprung up to identify our learning styles.

Unfortunately, these services and the educational theorists they cite have no commonly agreed upon taxonomy. Moreover, there is no agreement on just how many possible styles there might be. One educational theorist, Howard Gardener, has suggested there are between seven and nine forms of "intelligence." Other theorists offer other numbers, as well as their own unique classifications. One popular notion is that there are three kinds of learners: auditory learners (those who learn best through listening and discussion), visual learners (those who learn best through visual presentations or demonstrations), and kinesthetic learners (those who learn best through physical interaction). This latter style is more commonly called hands-on learning.

I first encountered the idea of learning styles a few years back. Coincidentally, I was also struggling through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a difficult and at times obscure collection of what many scholars believe are ancient lecture notes. In Book VI of the Ethics, however, there is an interesting description of what Aristotle calls the Intellectual Virtues. These are types of thinking excellence.

In context, Book VI comes after a long discussion in the earlier books of human moral virtue. So Aristotle has spent a good deal of time before Book VI explaining how and why good and bad people behave the way that they do. Now he wants to isolate and classify the nature of the thinking that informs moral behavior. As a tireless classifier, however, he must first categorize all of the possible ways of that we know something, thus placing "moral knowing" within the framework of other distinct ways of knowing. And here, according to Aristotle, are some of the ways we can know something:

Techné (skill) Knowing by doing. A carpenter learns to build by building, a potter by making pots.
Epistemé (science) Knowing by demonstration. Invariable scientific and mathematical truths can be learned by demonstration..
Nous (intuition) Knowing without the demonstration of invariable facts. This is how hypotheses are formed.
Phronesis (practical reasoning) Knowing by reasoning through possible answers that are variable (i.e., contingent upon context).

My first realization upon reading this was that these ways of knowing appear throughout a traditional liberal arts education. Some courses in college require a great deal of practical reasoning. Through writing assignments and class discussions students have a chance to work out an idea's inner logic or test it in various circumstances. A poem, for example, may have many interpretations, history many schools of thought, and students must use their practical reasoning to sort through the soundest interpretation.

Science and math, on the other hand, seek what is true in areas that require unvarying or demonstrable answers. Everyone knows, for instance, that water freezes at sea level at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be demonstrated over and over, just as the solution to a math problem or a chemistry experiment can be demonstrated repeatedly. Still other courses will demand hands-on activity. There is simply no way to learn to play the piano, hit a curve ball, or draw a human face without actually doing it.

Of course, in Aristotle's formulation one way of knowing is not inherently better than another, and real wisdom seems to lie in the ability to size up the knowledge-generating strategy that applies to the situation you are in, a clarity that occasionally eludes those of us in higher education. Here the arguments between the humanities and the sciences spring to mind, but also those that occur between between advocates of the liberal arts and career preparation.

But what I find really compelling about Aristotle's "ways of knowing" is that they seem to break both ways in the debate over learning styles. On the one hand, he recognizes that there is more than one way to know things. On the other, he is firmly on the subject-centered side of the debate. The way of knowing emerges from the nature of the inquiry, not the inquirer. Moreover, nothing precludes students from having preferences within his formulation. They most certainly could and do, as any prolonged time in a classroom will reveal. Through temperament or disposition, some students are drawn to science and math courses-- the kinds of courses where they can get definitive, demonstrable, clear-cut answers.

Others feel more comfortable in courses like philosophy, literature or political studies, subjects in which knowing results from reasoning through the strengths and weaknesses of various positions, interpretations or governing systems. Such thinking requires a lot of discussion, reflection, and sorting through of complex issues. Still other students love music lessons, drawing or athletics, which are all things that they can only know how to do well by physically doing them.

In this light, the modern variants of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learning styles seem little more than warmed over Aristotle. There is one important difference, however. Aristotle would very likely see teaching algebra kinesthetically as an interesting but ultimately ineffective way of knowing the subject deeply. Would some learning take place? Sure, probably. Would it be enjoyable for a kinesthetic learner? I have no doubt it would, but this is beside the point, for the Aristotelian aim -- the ball that he keeps his eye on-- is not learning or the experience one has while learning; it's knowing.

And here is a subtle but important distinction. Learning is different from knowing. We should bear in mind that learning is a value-neutral activity. One can learn how to ride a bike, write a persuasive speech, or perform calculus, but one can also learn to lie well or to become a more successful adulterer. Thus any argument over the nature of learning (which is essentially a debate over means) is only useful if it takes place within a larger conversation about ends.
Indeed, Aristotle's taxonomy of how we know something only appears in the Nicomachean Ethics because it serves his larger point that as a species we possess a unique potential for human excellence, one that can be nurtured or squandered.

I sometimes worry that all the current talk about learning styles is a way of avoiding a more difficult conversation about the ultimate end of education. We hear a lot about the importance of teaching learning (or teaching students to be life-long learners), but such statements beg the question of whether the mere teaching of learning is sufficient? Perhaps the more pertinent questions are what are we learning and why?

For the classical Greeks, these latter questions were primary. They also had ready answers: the goal of episteme´ was to know truth from falsehood. The goal of phronesis was to know good from bad; and the goal of techné was to know how to express and appreciate beauty. Each of these kinds of knowledge, the Greeks argued, is a uniquely human capacity, which means the the aim of teaching is to help human beings become more fully human.

Monday, October 27, 2008

No Fatted Calf

There are parts of the courses I teach that are, well, just weak. Sometimes it's because I can't find the words or the analogies to pull things into focus, and sometimes it's because I feel less sure-footed about the material. I am in one of those parts of my humanities course right now. We are studying the New Testament and I'm trying to contrast this new set of values and ideas with those in Greco-Roman culture. In short, this is where Hellenistic humanism runs smack into Judeo-Christianity.

I'm also dealing with the minefield of Christianity itself, a subject about which many of my students have strong feelings. So it is not without a little fear and trembling that I point out that Christianity was not born as a coherent and fully worked out theological doctrine. Rather, it was born as the result of historical events, whose order and facticity is often difficult to pin down. Consequently, any attempt to make these events come together in a logically faultless theological argument is going to be challenging. Indeed, the religion we call Christianity today is really an on-going and and many-sided effort to understand the significance of things that happened nearly 2,000 years ago.

Last Friday, for example, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the prodigal son. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Christ makes a series of distinctions between the outward adherence to traditional Jewish law and a new doctrine that demands moral perfection. He says, "You have heard that it was said to the ancients: You shall not murder. He who murders shall be liable to judgment. I say to you that any man who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment." In Jewish law murder was punishable by execution. This was known as "the judgment."

But Christ has significantly redefined what constitutes adherence to the law by asserting that anger itself is the an equivalent of the act. Similarly, he will claim that lusting in one's thoughts alone is tantamount to committing adultery. He also enjoins his followers that they are not allowed return harm to those who harm them. In case after case, Christ says that it isn't enough to follow the strict letter of the traditional religious laws. One must be morally perfect in mind and body.

These are nearly impossible standards of behavior for human beings to meet in day-to-day life. How then are we to understand Christ's assertions? Was he serious? Can we really be expected to achieve such perfection? Christianity as we know it today emerges from the many attempts to answer these and others equally challenging questions about Christ's teaching. And it has emerged with not a little conflict, controversy, and struggle.

Of course, one way to think of the moral demands in the Sermon on the Mount is to take them literally and assume that perfection is exactly what God demands of us, a view that may produce either despair (for we are doomed to fail) or a sense that there is no use even trying. Few religious traditions have tried to take these demands literally. Some see them as general principles and not specific instructions. Others suggest that Christ was using hyperbole (i.e., deliberate exaggeration to make a point). Still others believe the most rigid instructions in the sermon are meant to be unobtainable. We will inevitably fall short, and in doing so learn to repent and ask God for grace. Jesus actually shows himself throughout his ministry especially concerned with sinners and their repentance, as can be seen in the parable of the prodigal son (Matthew 13).

Indeed, the parable of the prodigal son is very useful when you want to contrast Hellenistic humanism with Christianity. Hellenism valued arête, the notion of an innate potential for human excellence. In the Iliad, a lack of self control (lust, rage) led to great human suffering. Moreover, Socrates called for reason and self-control. Seneca, too, had argued that we ought not to succumb to our animal passions. In other words, Hellenistic humanism saw human nature best expressed by reason, self-control, and moral excellence.

But the prodigal son exercises none of these virtues. He does everything wrong, yet he becomes a better man only by awakening to his own sinfulness, which can never happen through any displays of excellence. The older brother has not yet realized that his excellent behavior counts for little. What matters in this new religion is realizing one’s sinful nature and a sincere desire for God’s redeeming love. And here we find the most interesting questions to contrast. Is our nature best expressed by our innate perfectablity or by our innate imperfectability?

Well, that's where I wanted the conversation to go last Friday. I posed those questions and was met with silence. Perhaps I wasn't making much sense. Maybe I am just awakening to the imperfectability of teaching.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Call Me, Ishmael

Reflections on the Call to Teaching
Delivered as a chapel talk

I am not Lutheran. Nevertheless, I have learned to speak a little Lutheran over the years. I can riff upon the “priesthood of all believers,” “sola scriptura,” and even the “two kingdoms.” And then, of course, there is this business of a calling—a very Lutheran notion. Indeed, the idea that each person possesses a unique calling is rather peculiar when you think about it. The German word Luther used for this idea was Beruffe, which, to the best of my understanding, means a divinely assigned task.

This was rather something new in the history of ideas. Before Luther and the Reformation, the usual way of living a highly devout life—at least in a Christian sense—was to go into monastic separation from the world, to withdraw from this veil of tears into a more pure relationship with God. You can still see strains of this impulse in modern culture. People talk about ‘getting away from it all,’ which conveys the sense that every day life is so hectic and compromising that we need to withdraw from it in order to realize what truly matters. But Luther said no. The everyday-ness of life, the busy-ness, the getting and spending, the prosaic, routine activities are as holy and God-given as those mystic moments of contemplation that were formerly held up as the higher experience of the divine.

Like I said, this was something new in the history of ideas, although, to be fair, Luther claimed the idea came from scripture. Even so, it’s difficult to find the idea of a calling in its post-Reformation sense before Luther. The Greeks, of course, spoke about arête, the notion of a human potential for excellence that we ought to aim ourselves at realizing, but a calling is different. A calling is not something innate or internal that we develop; rather, it is a task that originates externally and from the highest authority. We don’t realize it as a potential; we answer it. It’s the call to be of service rather than self serving.

I confess to finding the idea of a calling a bit terrifying. It fills me with dread to think that the universe has assigned me a metaphysical to do list. I say this as someone whose elementary school report cards were often peppered with the comment “Your son is a very bright boy, but he often doesn’t work up to his potential.” The truth, I’m afraid, is that I’ve never had much ambition, so any talk of a “duty” or a “calling” makes me uneasy. And uneasiness, I’ve come to understand, is generally what being Lutheran means.

But in perhaps a less orthodox sense, I do understand the idea of a calling. This is not the Lutheran sense so much as the Rogers and Hammerstein sense. I’m thinking particularly of the musical South Pacific where Bali Hai may call you any time night or day. It does sometimes seem to me that I have been lured to this special island. Heaven knows, I’ve tried to do other things. I’ve been a janitor, a waiter, a draftsman, a tobacconist, a tour guide, a shoe salesman, a construction worker. I used to paint water towers and was even for a time a night watchman at a mental asylum.

But my first career goal was actually to be something of a bum. Like a lot of kids of my generation, I read Jack Kerouac, whose novel Dharma Bums greatly impressed me when I was sixteen. So I determined to become—like the narrator of that novel—a bodhittsatva, which in Buddhism means a holy wanderer. In Kerouac, however, it generally means someone who hitchhikes about, goes to parties, gets drunk, and reads poetry. Well, that sounded like the life for me.

So when I was seventeen, I left my mother's house to begin my holy wandering. It was the last morning I was to awake as a child in the house of my parents. And it was a beautiful morning. The sky was blue and bottomless, the Earth green. There were lemons ripening on the bushes outside my mother's door, and as I walked toward the interstate with a rucksack, a buck knife, and a few hundred dollars, the only thing in front of me was a blankness on which I intended to inscribe the rest of my life.

A welder in an old Ford pick-up gave me a lift, and there, just outside of Hayward, California, I caught a ride from a college professor who drove me all the way to Sacramento and who talked to me about the books I had read. As I got out of his VW van, he leaned over and said: "Two words of advice for you, young man -- Moby-Dick."

To this day I’m not sure what he meant, but I’ve come to think it odd that in the first hour of my adult life I was talking about books with a college professor. I suppose he must have seen in me a kind of intellectual curiosity. So on that guy’s advice, I actually tried to read Moby-Dick, but for years I could never get past that sermon in chapter nine – you know the one about Jonah running away from his God-given duty, getting swallowed by a whale, and finally being thrown up in the precise spot where God wanted him in the first place. Much later, of course, I did finish Moby-Dick, and it astonished me. I couldn’t help thinking that the college professor had been right. It’s a book I was meant to read. Then again, maybe books are never truly read until you’re ready to read them. You know, it’s odd, but it occurs to me that the first word of Moby-Dick is actually “call.”

Well, after hitch-hiking around for a spell, I started all of those odd jobs I mentioned, and I read, and read, and read. I went through a Russian phase: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekov. I got seriously into Conrad for a while, and then did a whole French existentialist thing: Sartre, Camus. I had-- to steal a line from the late British poet Phillip Larkin--“surprised a hunger in myself to be more serious.”

This hunger grew and grew until one day I became so dissatisfied with my life that I did the unthinkable: I enrolled in college, where, curiously, I met still more college professors, who also must have seen something in me because they kept saying, “You should be a teacher, you should go to graduate school, and you really need to read this, and this, and this, and while you’re at it read this too.”

So there it was: Beruffe, Bali Hai, the great white whale.

Calling, seduction, obsession: label it what you will, but something kept drawing me to a place where I got to talk about ideas. So here I stand. I can do no other. I mean that quite literally: I am not much good at doing other things. I just like being in a classroom. I love that moment when my students and I have plunged a harpoon into some great beast of an idea. We’ve lashed ourselves to it and are now just about to be dragged all over the ocean without a clue where we’ll end up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m endlessly throwing up allusions and metaphors. Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. But there’s this great line from the poet John Keats that perfectly captures what I like about teaching. In Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” he describes those European explorers who crossed the Atlantic and then chopped their way through the jungled isthmus of Panama only to unexpectedly find another vast ocean stretching out before them. Suddenly the world was much larger than they ever imagined, and Keats describes those men standing on a peak overlooking the Pacific as filled with “wild surmise.”

Those words, wild surmise, capture the excitement of new thinking. So in the end, I suppose it’s sharing the excitement of such moments with students that calls this under-achieving, ambition-less idler to do what he does. Of course this hardly seems like a task or some angst-ridden Germanic duty. I actually enjoy it. And as we bums like to say, there’s no better dodge than that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Uses of a Good Education

My one blog follower, Mike, mentioned in a comment on this site that he overheard a philosophy department colleague discussing Plato's cave with a student. His suspicion was that that guy must be as weary talking about that cave as Mike is going over the MLA rules for citation. And it can be wearying travelling the same old ground over and over again in one's teaching. Anyway, Mike's comment about Plato got me thinking about something that happened about a year ago.

I was teaching the senior capstone for the core and we were reading Stephen Carter's Integrity. In relationship to that book, I posed an old philosophical question. It was so old in fact that Socrates raised it in The Republic. He asked whether we do the right thing because it is the right thing, or only because we are afraid of getting caught doing wrong? To make his point, Socrates recounts the Ring of the Gyges myth, which concerns a boy who finds a magical ring. When the boy twists the stone a certain way, he becomes invisible.

This myth illustrates Socrate's larger point that the test of a person's integrity is whether or not he or she would behave exactly the same when invisible. So I told my class about the Ring of the Gyges and mentioned that most teenagers would never go into Best Buy and shoplift CDs. That would be wrong and they know it. On the other hand, many of those same young people were the very ones downloading free music from Napster and other file sharing sites just a few years back. Why? Because they were seemingly invisible on the internet. It was the Ring of the Gyges all over again.

Then, in passing, I told the class about the superpower test. Whenever you meet new people, I said, ask them which superpower they would want if they had to pick between flying and invisibility. If they answer flying, ask them why. You'll usually hear that they would love to be able to visit distant friends or get to work without driving, etc. Some even say they would use their power to rescue people in danger. Ask why to those choosing invisibility and you will be greeted with a naughty smile. There is just no innocent reason to desire invisibility. Indeed, the Ring of the Gyges/Superpower test is a pretty accurate way of sizing up the person you're dealing with.

So I was walking into office one morning about two weeks after this discussion, and I heard this voice yelling my name. I turn and it's one of my students.

"Hey!" she says excitedly. "Do you remember when we talked about Plato? You remember that whole story of the Ring and the Gyges and being invisible and everything?"

"Yes,"I say, thrilled that a student was anxious to discuss Plato with me outside of class.

"Well, I was at this club last night and met this really great guy, so I asked him the superpower questions and he said flying!"

So there--right there--is a good liberal arts education put to some useful work. And they say we folks in the ivory tower aren't teaching anything relevant.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Now Then, Any Questions?

I began a new accelerated course last night. For the next eight weeks I will be teaching my Humanities course in the evening as well as the day. So while we are just starting to wrestle with the New Testament and Augustine's Confessions in the morning, I'll be returning to those pagan Greeks on the plains of Troy in the evening. Last night I did my best to start the course right. I put up a welcome sign on the board. I introduced myself to all of the students as they came in (even shook their hands). I also allowed enough time for us to establish a rapport and get to know each other.

Next, of course, I went through the usual first night rituals. We walked through the syllabus and course policies. I explained the course calender. All standard stuff. But then we came to the one first-night moment that generally passes without anything wonderful happening. I put aside the syllabus, looked out at the class, and asked, "Before we move on, are there any questions?"

Wait, wait, wait...

Nine times out of ten this moment will be met with a profound silence. Last night, however, a single hand went up.


"Will we get a break time?"

This is not an entirely trivial question for night-time students, many of whom work all day and take two night courses back-to-back. The brain can only take so much, after all. So I answered that we would probably do so on occasion and asked again if anyone had a question. This time the accustomed silence came.

But oh how I wish students would take the post-syllabus moment seriously! Most just let it pass when they could be asking questions that might change the entire tone and quality of the course. Here, for example, are the kinds of questions that I long to hear my students ask at this crucial moment:

1. Why do you love this? This is such a great question and students should think seriously about dropping the course if a professor can't answer it. They ought to see a professor come to life when this question is asked. Indeed, the reaction to hearing this question is perhaps more important than the answer.

2. What is the "big question" this course addresses? Education at its best affords students opportunities to formulate answers to very big questions: Why are things the way they are? (History); Why do people see things differently? (Psychology); How do other people live and is it better? (Literature, Diversity); How should I behave toward others? (Ethics, Philosophy). Even courses in career-focused disciplines are organized around questions. Getting and keeping that big question front and center helps everyone to know what's at stake and why it matters.

2. Who has been influential in shaping your views (or, better still, who should I be reading if I want to really understand this)? If students asked this the first night, I would leap out of my socks. I would be half in love with them before we ever started because every professor's secret fantasy is to get students to love something as much as they do. (Like all living organisms, we seek to reproduce.) I once assigned my New Student Seminar students to ask this very question to their professors, and some of them came back loaded down with books. The professor's were literally pressing books on my startled freshman before they could escape their offices.

3. Describe for me your dream student, the one who performs excellently in this class. What is he or she doing? The truth is that grading is subjective. There's no denying that. Students can't expect every professor to have the same standard, but they should expect there to be a standard and for it to be applied consistently. Good professors are often very clear about their standards, but it doesn't hurt to hear them articulate them in a comprehensive and concrete manner.

There are so many more, but I almost never hear them. Instead, the moment passes and yet another course begins.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Showing Up

Many students have asked me why a part of the grade in my classes is based upon attendance. Some feel that grading attendance is demeaning. They are, after all, adults and this is college, not high school. Moreover, they often point out that if it's possible to pass a course with spotty attendance, why should it matter? It's a fair question and deserves an answer. What follows is my response.

I grade attendance for several reasons. First, learning involves more than just acquiring skills. Anybody can be taught to type, program a computer, or make snow tires. And grading a skill is easy. All I have to do is count your typos, plug in a program or road test your tires. But true higher learning requires more; it means you have to think.

And here a problem arises because rigorous thinking is invisible at the moment it takes place. Fortunately, though, it can be assessed through discussion. When your mind engages an idea in class, I can tell how well you are mastering concepts, making significant distinctions and connections, and (best of all) analyzing, assessing and synthesizing information. Now tell me how it's possible to demonstrate this on-the-spot mental agility without showing up for class. So missing class is like missing a quiz.

The second reason I grade attendance is that much of learning (though not all) is communal. It often involves an interchange of perspectives. The woman sitting next to you may ask a question you hadn't considered. Or, better yet, an example you use to back up a point may illuminate an issue for someone struggling with it. Consequently, a part of your success in class depends on those around you, and a part of their success depends on you. Of course you may never know that your question or example helped someone, but I know it never will if you aren't there to voice it. Besides, shouldn't you should get a little reward for helping to teach the course?

Sadly, many students and even some educators see learning as a data dump that takes place between the professor and the student. But think about the courses you've taken. Some were great, others were duds. Why? Was it the subject? The professor? Or perhaps a little of both? On the other hand, it might also have had something to do with the unique mixture of personalities and life experiences of the people who sat next to you.

Here's my dirty little secret: I teach the same courses year after year, often with the same material and the same corny jokes, but not every class is a success. Some are better than others. Why? It can't be me. I'm doing the same things over and over. So the difference must lie in the unique blend of people who make up each class. Of course, you and I can't control who is in the classroom with us, but we can help to create an atmosphere conducive to good learning by showing up and participating.

A further reason for grading attendance is that grades are the coin of the realm in higher education. If you want students to take something seriously, you have to attach a grade to it. I don't blame students for this. I know they lead busy lives and have many responsibilities. As a result, those assignments and activities with grades attached always go to the top of their "to do" lists. They want to get to the non-graded assignments and readings, but you know how it goes. So because I feel attendance is important to learning, I have to slap a grade on it.

I wish it weren't so. Robert Speed, a now retired professor, once told me that if he had his way he wouldn't award any grades at the end of a semester. Instead, he would take a student to dinner ten years later, and over the meal he would ask about the student's life, what books had been read, what values were held. And then, just before he picked up the check, he'd say, "Okay, you get an A" (or a B, C, etc.). I love this idea, but somehow I doubt the Registrar's Office would ever go for it.

Anyway, that's why I grade attendance.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Loneliness of the Late Grading Professor

Here's what I can't stand about teaching. When something really goes well, you often lack anyone to share it with. No one is all that interested even if you do. If I start talking about something that worked well in class, I quickly see a glassy stare come over my listener. It's the same look people get when a stranger excitedly relates his latest genealogy research.

Case in point: last Friday afternoon. I was sitting in my office grading some student analysis papers of the Satyricon. Then, all of a sudden, I'm reading this:

As we discussed it in class, I began to think about how it applied to my life. I had been thinking all morning about how I needed to buy this flashy, expensive winter coat before the bitter cold finally arrived. Along with that, I had convinced myself I needed a couple of other "necessary" things when--let's face it--I do not have money to be throwing around. Am I, in a way, acting like Trimalchio? Granted my desire for a coat has not yet reached his level of absurdity, but still...

I am beginning to pick at how these ancient texts relate to my life today. I have never done that... It's amazing what ancient literature will do to you!

Now here I have a student who is using a 2,000 year old text to think about her life and her society's values. So I jump up and wander downstairs to see if any of my colleagues are around. Someone has to see this, but it's late Friday afternoon and everyone has gone home. I'm wanting to high five someone. I'm wanting to yell my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world, but no one is around. No one knows what just happened. So I walk back to my office, read the paper once more, and start to write my comments:


I wanted to jump with happiness when I read this! It's exactly what I hope for when students read these ancient texts because the past isn't in the past. Indeed, it hasn't even passed. People sometimes say we study history so we won't repeat its mistakes. That's nonsense. People will always make the same tragic mistakes. No, we study the past because it helps us understand ourselves and our time. The past shapes us whether we realize it or not (so we may as well realize it). History (and especially ancient literature) is like some distant mirror that we gaze into to discover new things about ourselves. So why read this old stuff? Because it will lead you to ask wonderfully self-aware questions like this: "Am I Trimalchio?"

Then I slipped on my jacket, walked down the long, silent hallway and went home.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Little Dots

In my senior capstone we've been discussing how diversity fits into our definition of a well-educated citizen. Sure, we agreed, college graduates should have knowledge of traditions and cultures other than their own. They should understand that the world community is made up of quite diverse perspectives. I mean who doesn't know how to talk the big happy rainbow talk of diversity these days? The problem is that a diverse world is also a dangerous world. When people don't agree, they fairly quickly reset to the default mode of tribalism.

So we've been talking about the people we least want to understand: those who hate us. Do we as educated people have a responsibility to understand even these people? Is this possible? Understanding, of course, is not excusing or accepting hatred. And what happens if we do understand? Will it help? Can we retain our empathy and still fight those who hate us? Are we, as Bob Dylan once put it, strong enough not to hate? All good questions.

So I heard a story on the radio a while ago about an experiment to test the empathy of chimps. They stick a chimp in a cage and hang two ropes from the ceiling. He gets a slice of banana if he pulls the first rope. If he pulls the second, he still gets a slice but another piece falls into the cage of the chimp next door. Turns out chimps show no better than a random chance on the empathy meter. About half the time they pull the first rope, half the other, even though they can plainly see the second chimp in the next cage begging for food.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I would like to assume that a human being would always pull the second rope if it really didn't cost him anything (and maybe he'd pull it just a few times even if it did). I know that's a big assumption. My hunch is that it makes a difference whether or not you can see the person in the cage next door. All of which makes me wonder about the effect of neighborhoods, school systems and cultures that lack diversity.

When you never interact with people different from you, it's so easy to turn them into an abstraction. It all reminds me of Orson Welles' Ferris Wheel speech in The Third Man. Welles plays the charming crook Harry Lime, whose watered-down black market penicillin has killed sick kids. He rationalizes this as he looks down from a Viennese Ferris wheel at the little “dots” of people below:

Lime: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. (He opens the door to the car.) Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.
Cue the zither music, fade to black.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sticking the Landing

About two years ago I started beginning my classes with a poem. I don't do it every day, but often enough that the students have come to expect it. Anyway, I recently came across a book entitled “The Uses of Poetry,” which was written by a woman who was interested in the long extinct practice of making school children memorize and recite poetry. In the late 19th and early 20th century it was fairly common practice in grammar and high schools to include poetry recitation as part of the curriculum. I suppose it was a way of inculcating “American values” into just-off-the-boat immigrants.

It worked too. My grandfather could reel off lines of Longfellow he had carried around in his head for over 80 years. He seemed to enjoy it as well. I had only one professor as an undrgrad who made us memorize 20 lines of a poem as part of our grade. And darn me if I can't still quote them. Several years ago, too, I tried to memorize some poems I admired, which was an odd thing because I don’t usually recall poetry for purposes of recitation. My poetic memory doesn’t work that way. Poems are not really stored for retrieval.

Instead they nudge their way back into consciousness as dimly-recalled emotions or states of thought. I’ll be thinking about something, and it will occur to me that I read a poem like this once, which usually sends me off to look for it if I have the time (or forgetting it and moving on if I don’t). Still, this business of how poems get remembered has always intrigued me. For example, I was thinking the other day of the time I went to work for a temp agency and was sent into various offices to file invoices or type up travel requests. It’s odd being a temp. You’re an outsider, but you do get a little flavor of being on the inside. Most of the places I worked were dreary and monotonous. About the only thing that made them tolerable was the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever. Anyway, I was thinking about that time recently and right away I recalled this old poem by Theodore Roethke:

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paperweight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher.
Ritual of multigraph, paper clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen the dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through the long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate gray standard faces.

It’s not a poem I imagine anyone would commit to memory, and I certainly couldn’t have quoted a line. But it did stick somehow because it encapsulated the listless rhythm of office life (the slow, plodding alliteration of the first five lines is particularly effective in this respect). Chiefly, though, I think it stuck because of its imagery, especially that fine dust sifting down, hour by hour, until the workers were indistinguishable from their workplace. The last line seems a bit over-determined in my opinion, but the whole thing catches a feeling and idea well enough to carve out a memory niche. That image of the dust got lodged in my brain and came oddly into my mind as a fitting correlate of my remembered experience. So two things—my memory and Roethke’s image-- created a third thing: the fused association that now alters the way I think and feel about both.

And here’s the use of poetry that most interests me (the use of art, really). Poetry has the ability to capture modes of feeling and states of thought in ways that can be stored for long periods. Better still, the poems that are really “sticky” can become fused into your thinking and emotions in ways that make them very difficult to pry apart again. Thus the very structuring of thought, the inescapable processing of one’s own lived experience, is—as Walt Whitman suggested—really just an endless act of poetic decoupage in words and imagery.

You breathe in your moments, transmute their essences through the filter of your own chaotic and unorganized self, and out pops some strange new thing into the world: the poem you once read has now fused itself into your life. A few half-forgotten afternoons spent beneath the monotony of fluorescent lighting is now recalled with coworkers dusted in powdery coats of silt. In this sense, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a world without poetry; it’s that there is no world without poetry. As Wallace Stevens once wrote (and he really stuck the landing here), we are all the “single singing artificers of the world.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Old Naughtiness

So much for Roman virtue.

We finished up Seneca on Monday and now we turn to the more delicious topic of Roman vice. I have at my fingertips a splendid little paperback entitled The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence: Emperors of Debauchery. In it are some delightful selections from classical works. Among other naughtiness, it's got Tacitus's description of a typical Neronian orgy, Suetonious' dishy gossip about various murders and several of Martial's obscene epigrams.

We won't be looking at any of that. Instead we'll read a section of Petronius's Satyricon, which is a great example of the one artform in which the Romans excelled: satire. Only fragments of Satyricon remain, and that's a great loss because Petronius gives us a rare glimpse into the daily lives of the ancient Romans: the day-to-day concerns, their gossip and foolishness. The novel's narrator is Encolpius, who is observant, cultivated, and morally depraved; and the setting for the fragment we'll read is an extended dinner party at the home of a wealthy ex-slave named Trimalchio. Accompanying Encolpius are his rhetoric professor, Agamemnon, and a fellow student, Ascyltus.

Satire is a conservative genre. It often tries to reinforce a more traditional sense of morality by lampooning contemporary behavior. Generally speaking, even the most caustic satire has a moral undertone, but the Satyricon is different. It's curiously devoid of any moral center. No one--not even the narrator--escapes Petronius's disdain. All of which makes reading it a dark experience, for we only see this world through the eyes of that amoral narrator (who may have just murdered someone, althought it's unclear). Even Agamemnon, who is said to be a cultured and learned man, regularly freeloads at Trimalchio's dinners while hypocritically snickering at his host's crudity and misquotations of Homer.

And there is certainly something to laugh at. Trimalchio and his merchant friends see themselves as self-made men, but they have a tendency to confuse success with wisdom. "After all," Trimalchio advises his guests, "I was once like you were, but being the right sort, I got where I am. It's the old headpiece that makes a man, the rest is all rubbish... it was my shrewd way with money that got me my present position." We soon learn, however, that Trimalchio's greater skill was in providing sexual favors for his previous owner, who left him a fortune in his will.

Petronius paints a highly unflattering portrait of Roman society, one in which materialism, wealth, and physical pleasure are the only values worth pursuing. This is a criticism often made of our society as well. Turn on any TV and you will be assaulted by ads promising you that the way to the good life begins at the shopping mall. The early 20th Century sociologist Thorstien Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe a class of Americans for whom it wasn't enough to have money. Other people had to see their wealth in the material objects they consumed and possessed. Trimalchio's dinner party is nothing if not an exhibition in conspicuous consumption. It is lavish to the point of absurdity.

Like any good materialist, though, his lavish consumption is not an end unto itself. Trimalchio is a seeker who longs for personal transformation through things. Similarly, we Americans are after something more than wealth and pleasure. Martha Stewart was not selling cookware or wreaths made from cedar twigs. She was selling a spiritual vision of "home" with all of the concept's attendant values of security, love, centeredness, and connection.

Indeed, most TV commercials are structured like a Biblical parable. They tell a little story about a problem in need of a solution. The difference is that the payoff is not spiritual insight; it's the promise that the solution to our spiritual anxiety is only one purchase away. So materialism is not really the opposite of spirituality. It's just a variant form of it that speaks to the same longings as religion: change me, bless me, make me new again...

Reading the Satyricon really helps you to see why the Romans were so ripe for Christianity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Forward into the Past

It is odd the way the Middle Ages pop up from time to time. Late last summer I attended a conference held annually for those who work at colleges and universities affiliated with religious denominations. The theme of the gathering was "citizenship in a global society" (or something like that). Ostensibly, people were there to discuss and, if possible, clarify the role of institutions whose missions commit them to turning out well-educated citizens while at the same time affirming Christian faith and ethics as a vision for life.

That’s worth repeating: educating citizens and affirming faith. It is such a fine sounding phrase that you might not suspect how much historical tension lies on either side of that tiny word “and.” Most college mission statements, of course, include some boilerplate about turning out responsible citizens trained in the evidence-based thinking games of the academic disciplines. Colleges of the church, however, go one step farther. They include language affirming a proposition that by definition is not strictly a matter of evidence-based thinking.

I know few professors who relish bringing the tension between faith and reason into the classroom, but that does not mean it isn't there. I have received pages of earnestly argued creation science from students when we read Darwin's Descent of Man. I have seen lots of uneasy young faces looking back at me when I run through David Hume's brilliant analysis of the illogic of miraculous and supernatural claims. The problem is that faith doesn't play by the evidentiary standards of our academic thinking games. It's something we affirm, not prove.

So later this morning I have to walk into my senior capstone and discuss the relationship between faith and reason, which means I will run smack into the Middle Ages. Is reason a compliment to faith? Is it useful to some degree but of much lesser value than faith, or is reason of no use at all in answering the only question that really matters? These were some of the most important issues in medieval intellectual life. Indeed, the story of medieval theology and science can in large measure be seen as a long and occasionally acrimonious effort to answer these questions. It was a project that occupied the best minds of the day, yet it was never completed so much as abandoned.

Various thinkers eventually came to view the questions as unanswerable by the standards of logic and evidence. By the 1300s, for example, William of Ockham had reached the conclusion that faith and reason have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Each has its own truth, he argued, although Ockham clearly saw the truths of faith as more important because they dealt with salvation rather than mere worldly affairs. To secure faith’s superiority, Ockham walled it off from from reason. Afterwards, Christian thinkers could only deem themselves with any honesty as Christian believers. The split was final.

Of course, the discussion at that conference last summer never dredged up the long history of the tension between faith and reason, but it was there. Indeed, it's all around us. The Middle Ages gape back at us from the political podiums of this year's election. They are as near as yesterday's school board election, and they await me just beyond my classroom door this morning. We academics may have abandoned the quest to resolve the tension between faith and reason, but it never goes away.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Good Mad vs. Bad Mad

In his treatise "On Anger," Seneca asks whether losing one's temper is sometimes useful in motivating people to perform better. He concludes that only the appearance of anger is useful. Actually losing control is never wise. It's fitting then that we should be reading Seneca in my Humanities course because I was ticked off at the students all weekend. The papers they turned in last week were, on the whole, terrible. They lacked textual support and were filled with grammar errors and boneheaded mistakes. So today we had a little chat about what constitutes acceptable standards in a college-level course.

I did not lose my cool, but I certainly gave the appearance of being a little mad at them. I can't recall ever really losing it in a class, but I have been sorely tempted on occasion. I once had a British literature professor who threw everyone out of class one day when he suspected few of us had read the material. I didn't like that much, especially because I had read the material. In the end, Seneca is probably right. Getting angry at students just doesn't work. On the other hand, the appearance of being angry can prove effective. A few years ago I feigned anger in comments made in response to a student's paper (and it worked):



What am I going to do with you? You’ve got one the best brains in the class, but you will not play my little game and ground your ideas in a close reading of the text. Remember that your responses need to be anchored in good analysis of the material. I am not grading your answer so much as I am grading the quality of thought construction that went into it.

So it isn’t about some requisite number of quotes or citations. It’s the degree to which you can demonstrate that your understanding emerged from a careful analysis and reflection upon the text. Textual citation is not mere scholastic drudgery; it’s evidence of a thinking mind. In math class, they call it showing your work.

Beyond that, you are just plain sloppy in execution. There, I’ve said it. If you weren’t so darned bright, thoughtful and wonderful, I wouldn’t care. But you are, darn you. So I’m going to keep yelling. Look over my editing marks. Do the little things I know you can do: put question marks on the end of questions, indent your paragraphs, and for crying out loud give me some page numbers. But most of all, integrate the textual support for your views throughout your answers. I’m going to get you play my little game, or die trying! Remember what Jacob said when he wrestled with the angel: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen: 32:26). The text is your angel, and do not let go of it until it’s blessed you with understanding.

68/100 (But much higher when you bring me some of the angel’s garment and a few bruises as proof that you’ve fought the good fight! Care to rewrite this?)

And the next paper:


Huzzah! Bravo! Standing ovation! Encore!

You’ve played my little game wonderfully, and I am filled with happiness. You literally used the text to SHOW me how it supports your understanding. Better yet, I gained insight into the novel as the result of your efforts. This is a real breakthrough. Great work!

And now I want to talk about your ideas, which are exciting, well-stated, and wonderful. I think you’ve taken a really interesting position in regard to Frankenstein. Shelley seems to offer us a critique of Man-Thinking’s heroic idealism. Yes, Victor has the ability to impose meaning on matter and to filter nature through his consciousness in startlingly original ways. But the NOT ME, the otherness beyond his mind, isn’t just there for him to play with. The “otherness” of the world beyond Man-Thinking’s mind creates moral demands that may supersede any duty to trust in his own vision. As you argued when we read Emerson, freedom without the constraint of something beyond us (other people, God, nature) may not be so wonderful. It might be a nightmare.

In a sense, Victor (like Satan in Paradise Lost) becomes a prisoner of his own mind. The creature is indeed a kind of externalized product of his mind from which he can never be free. Which way he flies is hell. In this view, as you superbly argue in your response, the novel is not so much anti-science as pro-moral responsibility. It values knowing, but always in a moral context of acknowledging and framing our knowing in an awareness of “otherness.”

There are some small edits you need to make, but this is your best work yet. I am thrilled.

Praise, praise, praise, and as much positive reinforcement as I can muster. Now how can I bribe you to keep this up?

95/100 (but it should be a million!)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Common Sense? You betcha...

I found this sentiment in a student paper recently:

I believe if people are not active in there community, they won't have as much common sense. Any one can be book smart if they want to, but you have to experience life to have some common sense. (sic)
Setting aside the correctness problems, the ideas in this paragraph perplex me. Indeed, I often hear people contrasting something called book smarts with common sense. They view the former as a lesser type of intelligence available to anyone who wants it, a notion demonstrably false. The more highly esteemed common sense, on the other hand, is somehow gained by "experiencing life."

Okay, so how do you not experience life? There's only one way I know of to do that. Moreover, are people analyzing novels, studying chemistry or learning French not experiencing life? If common sense really is superior to book smarts, then any illiterate medieval peasant who never went farther than two miles from his stinkhole of a village was as brilliant as Dante, Aquinas, or Petrarch.

I also wonder what people really mean when they use the term common sense. Most never bother to define it. From time to time I have asked a few students what they mean and I get a range of responses. Some equate common sense with something called street smarts, though none of my students (so far as I know) have ever lived on the streets. When I press farther, I discover that they actually mean something like cleverness (i.e., a facility for getting what you want in any given situation). Very few will define common sense as prudence (the ability to recognize what's in one's own best interests). Prudence, of course, is distinct from cleverness. You can be clever without being prudent. And I've never heard any of them define common sense to mean anything like wisdom.

Some will use common sense when they actually mean something like life skills. You know, how to take out a mortgage, balance your checkbook or change a flat. All valuable skills, but are they more important than, say, a reasonable command of English grammar? I'm not sure where this idea of the superiority of common sense comes from, but it's probably a manifestation of American anti-intellectualism, the latent belief that folk wisdom is superior to the knowledge possessed by humanities eggheads and nerdy scientists. It's not surprising, I guess. We sure see a lot of it in current public discourse.

Oh, yer darn-tootin' we do.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Reading Problem (Part III)

In my capstone course we've been reading a novel (Mark Salzman's Lying Awake), and I've been trying to hawk the idea that reading fiction is an important part of what it means to be well educated. Indeed, stories engage our minds and hearts; they broaden our awareness of the human condition well beyond the narrow experience that makes up our everyday personal lives. But nearly all of my students have told me that they seldom read fiction, and I don't get the feeling that my desperate arguments are going to change that fact.

More and more I find myself thinking of the late author Neil Postman, who pointed out that the dominant communication technology inevitably shapes how human beings think. Oral cultures think in terms of memorized narrative. Solomon in the Old Testament was wise because he knew 2,000 parables. In literate cultures, however, truth is equated to textual documentation. There's a reason Lincoln spoke like he was writing a book and that people in the 19th Century could listen to a complex lecture for three hours. That was how educated people in the 19th century thought.

Even when I was in college there remained a paradigm that truth was a documented source. Professors would have laughed me out of the lecture hall if I tried to cite a blog entry, MySpace page, or a threaded discussion board as an authoritative source. Compare Civil War correspondence to Facebook entries and the difference is stark. The thing to remember, Postman argued, is that these communication transformations are really cognitive transformations, and they aren't zero-sum exchanges. It's possible to lose more than you gain.

You sometimes hear the argument that reading isn't really going away; we are merely changing the format and context in which people encounter information. Consequently, the kids will be just fine. The problem is they aren't. Flitting from site to site in search of something fresh and amusing just isn't the same as sustained focus on an expository argument or having the intellectual maturity to be moved by the emotional content of narrative works of art. The "Brave New Technological World" apologists can say what they want. I see it every day: young people who cannot think well living in an information environment that doesn't want them to act on anything but their immediate and unreflective impulses. So I keep hawking the power of fiction at the students, but increasingly I feel like a man selling buggy whips to people who want Model Ts.

Years ago I served an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (IBPAT). Got my journeyman's card and worked for several years in construction. We had this apprenticeship instructor who had been the national craftsman of the year a few times. Amazing guy. Looked like W.C. Fields. He could take a piece of Masonite and make it look like oak, mahogany, or carrera marble, whatever you wanted. The guy supervised all of the restoration on the statehouse and governor's mansion.

So here we were, second year apprentices, slapping latex on bare sheetrock week after week. Anyway, one day the guy was talking about all the workshops he gave to people restoring their old homes. He said people always asked him why there weren't great craftsmen like there used to be. He told them that the young apprentices he taught were every bit as good. It's just that the marketplace no longer demanded skills like gold leafing or marbling. I try to remember that whenever someone starts in on how screwed up young people are because they really aren't that different than they've ever been.

I know I gripe a lot. That's just what people who teach do. But on the whole I'm enormously impressed with young people. A lot of their superficiality and cynicism is only skin deep. Underneath they're just as scared, hopeful, and needy as they've ever been. And they're just as capable of sustained and deep intellectual thought as they've ever been. It's just that the world doesn't ask them to do much of it.

Once upon a time a good liberal arts education and a familiarity with art, culture and the history of ideas was a gateway, a class marker of sorts. It had social fungibility. That's just not the case today. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that students haven't read Shakespeare, or much of anything really. But I don't think it's their fault. And every now and then you can turn a kid onto something that changes his or her whole outlook. Here's what I mean. I taught a freshmen seminar a few years back and had the students keep journals about what they were reading. Here's one young woman's entry from the first week:

I am beginning a class that I’m totally scared of. I am very nervous about beginning this seminar because I am not a reader. I can safely say that I’ve never read for fun, which coincides with my response to the discussion question. I feel that I am a pretty sufficient learner without being an avid reader.
Here's week three:

I can’t believe it has only been about three weeks since I’ve started school here, and I’ve already read two extremely important books. I began with Descartes, as I discussed in the previous journal, and then read Whitman. I can’t believe that I’m actually reading and comprehending this stuff!! I am not a reader naturally. I normally must sit myself down and force myself to read, but not with this class. I am finding it quite intriguing to contemplate who I really am, and what it means to be a human. I would have to say that, thus far this is my favorite class. I was not expecting this at all considering I hate reading.
And here's an entry from the last week:

It’s amazing to come to realizations about why you are the way you are and what you did to be that way. I really am interested in furthering my education on the nature of the self after this class. I have even planned to read some psychology books over Christmas break! My parents and friends are even shocked at my new attitude towards reading.
Admittedly, this student was the exception rather than the rule, but a few of these kinds of students every now and then give you the strength to go on.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dear Seneca...

The following is a letter that very much describes my week:
Dear Seneca,

Help me! I am about to snap. I accepted the position as chair of a new committee and it was a real bear trying to set up meeting dates. We finally nailed down Friday afternoon and I set a semester's worth of dates only to go home and find that two of those dates were the ones that my wife specifically requested me to keep free. Now she's really upset. Moreover, I am besieged by students who are worried about their grades. Some have misunderstood course policies, some have missed a due date and now show up with excuses about being sick and having to go to the doctor.

Add to that the annoying kids on the bus who are so loud and disruptive that I don't get a moment's peace on the way in to work. And add to that my computer is acting up and crashes every time I try to open a PDF file! Did I mention that the economy is going down the tubes and my 401k is hemorrhaging cash? I mean it. If one more thing goes wrong, I am going to twig out completely. What should I do? You've got to help me!

--Peevish Prof

Seneca replies,

Dear PP,

Stop, breathe, and consider whether your expectations of the world are realistic. Is it your view that you never run into scheduling conflicts or have lapses in memory? Is it surprising to you that students misunderstand policies or try to finesse excuses about being ill when they blew off an assignment? (How many years did you say you have been teaching?) Moreover, since when did anything from Microsoft not have irksome software glitches?

And as for the economy, I urge you to keep in mind that Dame Fortune is fickle. Some things are within your control, but others are not. Fortune gives us nothing which we can call our own. Nothing, whether private or public, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than cities, are in a whirl. Are you just now realizing this? Adjust your expectations to reality, my friend. Do what you can, but do not let the those things outside of your control vex you. Say to yourself each morning that all of your efforts will encounter obstacles and difficulties and you will not lose your temper when these quite common misfortunes arise.

--Lucius Annaeus Seneca

And so we begin our look at Roman Stoicism in Humanities today by reading Seneca's On Anger. Seneca, of course, was deeply worried about the problem of anger and felt this most dangerous and destructive emotion disrupted all of human happiness. The problem, as he diagnosed it, is that we often have had unrealistic expectations, and when those expectations are not met we feel we have been injured. Then we lash back in diproportion to the perceived unfairness.

It’s like when we strike our knee on a table leg. Our first reaction may be to hit the table with our fist in frustration. We may even say (though we know it’s absurd) “damn you!” We are angry because we unrealistically expect to be able to walk through rooms without ever once driving our knee caps into table legs. We think this should not happen, although quite obviously it will from time to time. Indeed, go to any airline departure lounge and you'll find plenty of anger even though a delay in air travel is much less avoidable than inconveniently placed furniture. A storm on the West coast can delay take off, which in turn causes a flight to be late in the storm-free Midwest and then causes a back-up on the East Coast. Our anger does not arise from the airline’s ill-conceived system, but from our optimistic expectation of what is supposed to happen when we fly.

So Seneca suggests that we cultivate an expectation that things will often go wrong, that life will often presents us with unexpected reversals. That way when such things do happen, we can deal with them philosophically and say, "Ah, yes, this is an unfortunate turn, but I expected as much." More importantly, though, Seneca thought expecting problems alleviated anger and the potentially dangerous social disruption it caused; for anger, like airline delays, has a way of snowballing, of contagiously leaping from person to person, and generally making society (or a departure lounge) a less livable place.

Okay, Seneca, I get it. Really I do, but what do I now tell my wife about screwing up our vacation plans?

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.  ...