Showing posts from March, 2009

The Highest "F"

A religion prof who is a colleague of mine recently used a marvelous method to teach the concept of Grace to his class on the Reformation. Just after the first major assignment, he entered the room wearing a dour expression and announced that only one student had received an A. The rest earned grades in a range from F to B. Then he turned to the student who earned the A and asked, "Would you be willing to take an F if everyone else in the class could have an A?"

He knew the student well. She was a young woman named Amy. For a moment or so, Amy thought it over and then said, "Yes, I would." Immediately a debate broke out about whether this was fair. Those who had earned Bs were slightlyunnerved that their effort was now regarded on equal terms to those who earned lesser grades.

"But it's not really about your effort, is it?" my colleague pointed out. "You didn't earn an A. Amy gave it to you." The ensuing debate was a great lead-in to the …

What about God?

The following is a letter I wrote to a student who was upset about having to read Darwin in my course. This occurs every year and I always feel the need to respond with as much compassion and understanding as possible. It's tough, though, because passions on this subject are often quite strong and many fine students come from backgrounds where the idea of evolution and natural selection are tantamount to Satanism.

I really sympathize with these students and always try to imagine how it must look from their perspective. Something they deeply value seems imperiled and they quite naturally want to defend it. I have to be careful not to polarize the situation when pointing out the weakness of their case against Darwin. Some just shut down, though, and there's nothing you can say. Others may admit they are confused. The letter I have excerpted below was written in response to a student who had actually written me a long letter filled with recycled arguments from Creationist and Int…

Inward Larches

We start Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man in the freshman honors seminar next week. First published in 1871, it was Darwin's second big book, and this time he didn't dance around the implications of his theory. It made a lot of people in his day nervous and it will unsettle a few of my students in the weeks ahead as well.

Indeed, Darwin fundamentally changes the debate about human nature. Since at least the time of the Greeks, human beings had taken for granted that they were essentially different from animals, if not in fact partially divine. For Plato and Aristotle we were distinct because of reason, for early Christians because we were formed in the image of God. Darwin collapses the distinction between humans and animals and argues that the difference is one of degree, not kind. Furthermore, he contends that human nature, like the nature of all other forms of life on this planet, is the result of a long process of change in response to natural selection.

Of course …

Through a Glass Dimly

Just recently I rewatched a videotape that had been sent to me by a childhood friend. About five or six years ago he had transferred some old films we had made as kids onto VHS and he wanted me to have a copy. These were silly, amateur films from the 1970s when we were in junior high and high school. I sat and watched them again, nearly two hours worth of material. I’m not sure why, but there was something ineffably sad about watching these old super eight millimeter films.

It wasn't just looking back on who we were all those years ago, although that’s certainly a part of it. No, it’s something to do with the technology and its limitations. The films are silent, of course, which distances you from the images. Faces soundlessly mug for the camera as if behind heavy glass. And the images are of low quality, often out of focus and poorly lit. This causes you to struggle to see what’s there, so that you not only watch through a glass but, as they say, through a glass dimly. My friend…

The Pseudos of Due Dates

The word pseudos in ancient Greek meant an untrue belief and was used to characterize a wide array of falsehoods: lies, delusions, biases, ignorance but also, interestingly enough, works of art like epic poetry and drama. Indeed, a philosopher like Socrates made it his life’s mission to extract pseudos from thinking and hold it up to the light of reason. Plato went so far as to suggest the exile of the poets in The Republic. These Greeks argued that any belief failing to meet reason’s demand for consistency, logic and evidence ought to be scrapped. And just recently I have scrapped a bit of false belief about the pedagogical benefit of firm deadlines.

A colleague of mine, who is a bit of a Socrates-type, occasionally drops by my office. Inevitably we end up kvetching about the more onerous parts of the job. So a while back I was complaining about students who don’t meet deadlines, and he responded by asking, “Why do you need deadlines?”

“What do you mean? You must have a deadline or stu…

Little Anthropomorphic Birdhouse in Your Soul

Birds will be building nests over the next two weeks in this part of the world. Indeed, a pair of house wrens has moved into the birdhouse affixed beneath the eaves of our home. It’s fun to sit on the front porch and watch them get everything ready for the big event. I was out on the porch the other day reading as they flitted in and out of the birdhouse with bits of dried grass and straw. Ironically, I was reading Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World, a masterful overview of the changing attitude toward nature in England from 1500-1800.

Thomas is one of that vanishing breed of scholars who have personally and exhaustively read everything written on a particular subject. He also eschews computers in favor of index cards and a filing system! His book traces human understanding of the natural world from its ancient and theological foundations in the late Middle Ages through the growth of the natural sciences in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. What strikes me is how anthropomorphous…

Yakking at Power Points

Sometimes when I am teaching at night I'll give the class a five minute break to split up the evening. I’ll walk down the hall toward the water fountain and pass classroom after classroom with a professor up front yakking away before a Power Point slide. I made a promise to myself not to fall into this practice when I began teaching nights, but it has not always been easy.

It's taken me a while, but over the past year I have slowly developed a system that seems to work a bit better. Students are assigned reading before class, but we do not discuss the reading until they complete an in-class analysis task. I write four or five key questions about important passages in the reading before each class. I distribute the questions at the beginning of the period and assign each student the task of answering question one, two, or three, etc.. Answering the questions requires students to re-analyze the material with a highly specific aim. They must identify patterns, look for connections…

Better Mendacities

A few years ago, when I was in Russia, I got into a conversation about Pushkin. He is the guy who Russians effuse over and cite as their national poet, but ask people in the West what Russian authors they admire and you'll hear Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov (the latter especially for his contributions to the short story form). Few Westerners, however, read Pushkin. I suspect it's a translation thing. I've often wondered why some authors translate and others don't.

People who can't read classical Greek are still blown away by Homer. Goethe, on the other hand, not so much. I know great admirers of Flaubert who can't speak a lick of French, but try as I might I can't get into an English translation of Rimbaud. All this makes me think it's related to genre. Poetry loses its "sound sense" in translation, a loss that is not as central to drama and the novel. So even though Shakespeare and Homer wrote in verse, there are compelling enough plots, ch…

Whatever Happened to Short Stories?

Not too long ago a guy at work and I were talking about all the great short stories we read as kids: Melleville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, London’s How to Build a Fire, Conrad’s Typhoon. I used to get collections of short stories out of the school library: Sake, Twain, O’ Henry. When I was older I read all of Hemingway’s short stories, and I still think of Big Two-Hearted River every time I heat up a can of pork and beans.

In my late teens I fell in love with Fitzgerald’s stories (The Ice Palace, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz). And Young Goodman Brown by Hawthorne is still one of the scariest stories I ever read. Then there are the stories whose authors I can’t recall but whose images are still with me. There was one called My Father Sits in the Dark about a young kid who keeps finding his father alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night – just sitting there in the darkness. This is not to mention all of the science fiction short stories I read as a kid: Hei…

The book of moonlight is not written yet

I started teaching an eight-week accelerated version of the senior seminar a few weeks ago. The students are mostly adults, a few national guard soldiers, people who work all day. It’s a dog watch course, too, which means it begins at 8:00 pm and runs to 10:20, perhaps the worst time to teach on the college’s scheduling system. So here I am, at the end of my students’ day, trying to gin up a discussion or engage the class with new ideas. By 10:00 I know everyone is thinking only one thought: “How much longer is this guy going to go? I have to get up and go to work in the morning.”

Ostensibly the college offers classes at this god-awful hour because today’s consumer-oriented adult market wants to complete a degree fast, faster, fastest. And offering late course allows them to cram in an early and a late section, and do an entire year of credits in just 16 weeks. (Heck, why not just lock them into a rented hotel ballroom and shout at them round the clock like they used to do in EST semin…

Diogenes of Sinope, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

As a kid I read about the Greek cynic Diogenes, and he became a kind of childhood hero. Diogenes famously argued that you don't own your possessions; your possessions own you. And since he valued his freedom, he decided not to own anything. For a spell he did own a cup from which he drank, but he threw it away after seeing a beggar drinking with cupped hands. There's also the story that Alexander the Great came to see him one day and found him sunning himself outside the upturned wine vat that he used for shelter. Alexander asked if there was anything he needed, and Diogenes said he needed the young king to move out of the way because he was blocking the sun.

So at 16, in imitation of Diogenes, I decided to throw away everything I owned. I got it down to a grocery bag of clothes. For a spell when I was single, I kept to the rule of never owning more than three things worth over $100. For many years I had a 10-year old car, a computer, and a microwave oven. Nothing else I owne…

The Judgment of the Young

Yesterday I engaged in a bit of cheap cynicism. In twitting my students for their over-dependence on the latest technology and fear of being "off the grid," I failed to mention that at least half of the room did crave the experience I described. I often forget how much the students are like me. Indeed, most of the time I feel alienated from their concerns and lives, which inevitably produces some middle-aged snorting about the next generation. A lot of times, too, I feel like my efforts go into a void. There have been so many moments in empty classrooms, as I'm packing up papers, erasing the board, and straightening the desks, when I think, "Well, that didn't work."

In The Courage to Teach, the educator Parker Palmer names the secret fear that permeates teaching. He writes, In unguarded moments with close friends, we who teach will acknowledge a variety of fears: having our work go unappreciated, being inadequately rewarded, discovering one fine morning that…


Yesterday in the freshman honors seminar we were discussing Emerson’s The American Scholar Address, in which he calls for a new kind intellectual heroism. At the time he gave the address, 1837, there was some question about the scholarly mettle of Americans. Giants like Hegel, Goethe, and Hume had lately bestridden the European intellectual stage.

So Emerson’s task was to call for a new kind of scholar, one as at home on the brawny frontier as the lecture hall. This scholar-- dubbed with the progressive tense name of Man Thinking--was to be influenced primarily by contact with nature and the seminal influence of the great minds of the past. Emerson famously warned against slavish adoration of books, arguing that “one must be an inventor to read well.” He also demanded his scholar lead an active life. No bookworms or note-taking recluses for him. Man Thinking was to be as much a brawniac as a brainiac.

So I asked the students how we might design a curriculum for the creation of Man-Think…

The Art of Responding to Student Writing

I have something of a reputation among students for giving lots of written feedback on papers (sometimes writing more in response to student work than the student wrote to begin with). Indeed, by this semester's end I will have graded nearly 1,800 pieces of student writing. That's everything from a few paragraphs to full-blown major papers. I use no tests, no group projects, no presentations: it's write, write, write in my classes. So I feel that I have to write, write, write in response. It makes grading a slog, but there's just no way around it. It also pays off. At least that's what students tell me on my teaching evaluations.
My philosophy on writing comments has evolved over the years, but I've never formally laid it out. I'll admit, too, that I am not pedagogically virtuous all of the time, so what follows is only what I aim at, not always what I accomplish:

Affirm that you understood the content of what students wrote
. After all, the writers tried to c…

Cheap Gimmicks? Oh yes, dear yes...

E.M. Forster famously lamented the need for plot in Aspects of the Novel. He imagined the response of a bus driver to the question "What does a novel do?" The fellow sputters and replies, "Well--I don't know--it seems a funny question to ask-- a novel's a novel--well, I suppose it tells a kind of story."

Then Forster envisioned asking a second man, one playing golf and put off by the interruption: "What does a novel do? Why tell a story of course, and I've no use for it if it doesn't. I like a story. Very bad taste on my part, no doubt, but I like a story. You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife's the same."

Finally he imagined a third man, who answers by drooping his head regretfully and saying "Yes--oh, dear yes, a novel tells a story." Forster says he respects and admires the first man, fears and detests the se…

Under the Lofty and Beautiful

"Only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals)." --FyodorDostoyevsky

The idea of a purpose, aim, function or goal is summed up in the Greek word telos. And in one way or another, most thinkers on the subject of human nature assume we have one. Even Darwin saw a point to human survival and propagation (just not a unique one). During this past week I’ve been reading Emerson’s Nature for class, and it strikes me that what’s really radical about Emerson is his view that human beings are free to define their own telos. It’s we who decide what our purpose is. It’s neither immanent, nor ordained. We just need to trust ourselves, he argues. For Emerson, a human being is an autotelic object, although few of us ever realize it.

After Emerson, of course, my class moves on to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but I suddenly wish it were Dostoyevsky, whose portrait of the Underground Man in his novel Notes from the Underground offers another…

The Nature of Things

We begin reading the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friday, which will provide my freshmen honors seminar with a sunny change of pace after the morbidity of King Lear and the caustic satire of Jonathan Swift. Some of the students may even have encountered Emerson in high school, where his essays sometimes remain required reading. Indeed, many critics see Emerson as the quintessential American thinker: forward-looking, optimistic and an advocate for individualism. His influence on later writers and thinkers has proven profound and long-lasting. He was certainly an important influence on Walt Whitman, a poet the students read last fall.

Born to a family of New England clergymen, Emerson was slated early for a career in the church. As a boy he had been nurtured with a rational version of Christianity, but over time he became disenchanted with attempts to justify faith through rational means. As a young man, he also suffered grievous personal tragedies, losing his brothers and hi…

Doing the Job

Last Friday I had an 8:00 am meeting to discuss the revision of the core. Got there early and was reading the newspaper. In walks a colleague, so I rather automatically asked how she was. Tears came streaming down her face. "I so want to quit this place," she responded. It seems someone had said something cruel to her and she was feeling utterly bereft.

Later one of my senior students came to see me in my office. He had turned in some work filled with errors, and I had growled back in my paper comments that this was unacceptable for a 400-level course. He sat in the chair opposite me filled with remorse. He knew his writing was beset with problems, but he had managed to get to his senior year in spite of this. I reassured him that his problems weren't fatal. There was still time to take action in the Writing Lab. He left my office feeling a little better and resolved to tackle the issue. Then, just before noon, I strolled over to the book store, bought a card, and jotted …