Showing posts from May, 2009

Spelunking or Misery?

Students in my May term capstone seminar reflect on the meaning, use and significance of their liberal arts education. I like to end the course with a discussion of two readings: a selection from Frederick Douglass' autobiography and Plato's allegory of the cave. The Douglass reading chronicles his boyhood efforts to learn to read. As a boy Douglass was sent to work for a couple in Baltimore. His mistress, who had never owned a slave before, was shocked to find that he could not read and she set about teaching him.

That all came to an end as soon as her husband discovered what she was doing. He told her that "it would forever unfit him to be a slave" if the boy learned to read. Worse, the master said it would make him unhappy. After overhearing this remark, Douglass suspected that reading was somehow the source of the white man's power over him and he committed himself to learning.

It wasn't easy. He had to bribe and trick white school kids to teach him. His …

The Lie Department

I mentioned the other day a fanciful idea of setting up an academic unit around the question of “What is True?” (Spandrels). I rather like the idea of bringing together people from various disciplines to address one great big question. There might be a mathematician, a historian, a sociologist, and maybe a philosopher or two in this department. All of these disciplines wrestle with truth, although they use different modes of inquiry and standards of evidence. The one group you wouldn’t want in the department is English professors. They need to be housed somewhere else, the Lie Department perhaps.

Fiction is by definition a lie. There never was a Madame Bovary, Huck Finn or Lemuel Gulliver, the latter a character who voyaged to an island populated by rational horses that abhorred the very idea of ever “saying the thing that was not.” Indeed, Swift’s Houyhnhnms have no word for “lying” because the idea of doing such a thing would never occur to them. I like to pose a question to my stud…

The reviews are in...

The spring teaching evaluations came back today. They were sitting in our faculty mailboxes, which means that every professor who regularly scoffs at their reliability was at some point locked in his or her office poring over every single number and student comment. We may pretend to our colleagues that we don't pay them any heed, but we really do.

We all want to know what the students think of us. My own evaluations were good and a few were excellent. I always end up with a bit of cognitive dissonance when I get good evaluations. Here's an amalgam of comments from the most recent set:

I truly enjoyed this course. The discussion were great. I actually liked coming to this class. You really helped me to step away and look at things from a new perspective. This was by far the best course I have had in college. You are an excellent and passionate professor. Besides courses in my major, I think I learned the most from this class. Each day was a very enjoyable experience. You really …


One of my assignments this past year has been chairing a committee to redesign the general education core for my institution. But just stop and think about the ideas built into the words general and education and core. The operating assumption here is that there exists a core set of knowledge or thinking skills that every well-educated citizen ought to possess. Okay, let's just accept that whopper of an assumption at face value. Let's agree that every citizen should know some science, some math, and the difference between a colon and semicolon.

Now look at how most institutions achieve this goal. The standard approach is to draw up a distribution list of courses from various departments, name some high-minded categories, throw them all together and hope for the best. Moreover, these courses aren't usually aimed at "generally educating students." They are more likely a collection of intro 101 courses designed to service specific majors. In other words, students don…

Old School Tie

About two years ago I decided to begin wearing a tie to work. I had a few reasons for doing this. First, I was trying to buck myself up and feel more professional. Okay, admittedly, that's a superficial way of going about it, but it actually did make me me feel better. A second reason was my son. I wanted him to see his dad going out the door in the morning wearing a tie. I was a blue collar kid, the son of a union painter, and my class consciousness rides up now and then.

So the question is whether wearing a suit and tie in the classroom makes much of a difference. There's a lot of research on dress codes for students in high school, but so far as I can tell no one has researched the effect of a dress code for teachers and professors. Occasionally a student will ask why I dress up or say, "I like your tie," but there seems to be no discernible pedagogical advantage to wearing a tie and suit coat. It's odd, too, because I could write a treatise on the effect of th…

A belated birthday poem

I have been writing one poem all my life
I work on it at home, alone, at night, in the
corners of the afternoon. And the
language of this poem, this un-
readable poem, is often hard and
precise as machine bolts,
except when it's not.
And then
it sprawls slack-kneed, or sprints,
fresh from the bath like a naked child
running from her mother.
And this poem, with no meter or
discipline, held together
by just the voice that speaks it,
is leant meaning only in moments when
meaning sticks. Sometimes it rhymes,
and sometimes it does not. But
this poem, this embarrassment,
this scandal,
seems to have always been. It has no real beginning,
but I know how it ends.

Some days the bear eats you

This may sound odd, but there's a kind of high that lingers after a class that went really well. It may last three to four hours and sometimes, if you're lucky, it may even stretch into the next day. You keep going over everything in your head: the way you found the right questions, the right ordering of ideas, the way the students were engaged, energized and focused.

On the other hand, there's a low that comes after stinking it up. You keep playing back that experience as well, trying to locate the exact moment you blew it. Believe me, I know how ridiculous this sounds, but anyone who's ever cared about teaching will know what I mean. It sucks to suck.

And I did suck yesterday in the May term capstone seminar. I know I did because I was distracted by my suckosity all afternoon--so much so that my wife remonstrated me for not paying attention while she was describing her day. Instead of listening, I was obsessing about my students' set jaws and bored yawns in respo…

"A fine and private place..."

Last semester while reading Emerson, I asked my students a simple question: what is the longest period of time you have spent alone? The answer in most cases was only a few hours, at best a long afternoon. Emerson, of course, recommended the practice, and I have always been a big fan of it, but few of my students share my tastes. Many find the prospect of being alone abhorrent.

Then again, there’s being alone and there’s really being alone. Just recently the New Yorker ran an article detailing the psychological devastation of solitary confinement for prisoners, and I recall once seeing a film about a man who circumnavigated the earth alone in a sailboat. Watching successive snippets of his video-logged diary was like watching a time-elapsed record of progressive dementia. Loneliness is a lot like Scotch: one drink is lovely, a second means a hangover, and a third—well, a third is seldom a good idea.

I have my limits, of course, but on the whole I enjoy moderate amounts of solitude. A …

Standing in Classrooms

Standing in classrooms,
Often in mid-lesson,
I become unexpectedly aware of the difference:
The strength of their bodies' certainty,
A supple insistence in restive limbs
Or the indifferent sensuousness of half-sandaled feet,
Sometimes, too, it is their imperfections that remind me:
The defeated hesitations,
Or some great scarlet blemish
Writing its impatient growth across
An unfinished face.

I am not old,
But I hear their voices change when I enter
And often misperceive the reasons
For their bright, inviting spills of laughter.
There is a "we" in their conversation
That unnerves one's sense of permanence.
Still, from time to time they come,
Confessing some small anxious confidence
That I find hard to understand,
Except to sense in it my half-forgotten fears
Or unfounded seriousness.
This alone seems our exchange.

Dimming the Lights

We watched the first two acts of Ibsen's AnEnemy of the People in the May term capstone yesterday. I've shown this in class so many times that I have most of the dialog memorized (and even the precise line inflections of the actors). In Ibsen's play a medical officer at a newly opened health spa realizes that the very water they are curing people with contains infectious organic material from a tannery upstream.

So Dr. Stockman attempts to set things right by notifying the political power brokers of his town, which Ibsen wonderfully represents in three separate characters: the conservative mayor (who is also the doctor's brother), the editor of a left-wing newspaper, and the moderate head of the property owners association.

The latter two characters seize upon the news as a tool for driving the mayor from office, but they quickly change their view when the mayor informs them that any repairs to the water system will have to come from a heavy new municipal tax. The only o…

Pitiable Monsters

Several years ago I tried to package up one of my courses so it could be taught by a colleague who was stepping in at the last minute to cover a new section. I didn't want to add a lot of prep time to her already heavy workload, so I put the entire course into large three-ring binders: the exercises, discussion questions, handouts, photocopied journal articles, essay exams, the works. I also used those handy separators with the acetate tabs and carefully labeled each item.

Even so, I still had to write a long letter explaining the logic of the course, which took me forever and made me realize how much of the material existed in my own head. When I was done, the well-ordered course notebooks looked very neat and professional, but I couldn't help thinking that they were bound to be an incomprehensible mishmash to my colleague. Sure enough, they were. She politely thanked me for them and then did exactly what I would have done in her position: set the damned things aside and begin…

The Sensual Strut and the Riddled Jar

Next week is my birthday, a day commemorated less and less as time passes. For years I made it a practice to write a poem on my birthday. None of them were any good. Most were unoriginal variations of memento mori. A few were just snarky and self-lacerating: "There's nothing particuliarly new/About this particuliar new year/Unless you count what mattered once,/The thinning hair, the flatulence... "

I don't seem to have it in me this year to write a birthday poem, but who knows? Maybe something will crop up before the day arrives. I did recently happen across an old poem by Dylan Thomas that seemed appropriate to the occasion (and not because I am anywhere close to the age of twenty-four).

Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouch like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red v…

Basho and Brown Trout

I've only recently decided to take up fly fishing. I ordered a fly rod and some other equipment and I have been reading a lot about the sport. I've even talked a co-worker into giving me a few casting lessons. I've actually been thinking about fly fishing for some time. Last summer I went to a conference and another guy and I took a canoe down a little trout stream. I steered the canoe and he fished for trout. He caught a few nice-sized brook trout and I thought to myself, "I'd like to do that. It looks relaxing."

While we drifted downstream, I told the guy--he was a dean of students at a college in North Carolina--about Hemingway's great short story, "Big Two-Hearted River." It's about a man who comes home emotionally damaged by his experiences in World War One. The war is barely mentioned in the story, but you can tell how grateful the narrator is to be alone again in nature with only the problems of fishing to occupy his mind.

Lately, too, …

Influence Peddling

Whenever the economy tanks (like now for instance) a lot of people in the private sector suddenly rediscover their life-long dream of becoming a teacher. How satisfying it would be, they think, to give something back by passing on their hard-won wisdom to the next generation. You almost never hear anyone who's taught for a living speaking like this. Indeed, one of the most difficult misconceptions to disabuse people of is that teaching is an influential profession, especially when it comes to shaping the leaders of tomorrow.

Even the greatest teachers have a lousy track record on this score. Plato failed to convince the Syracusan ruler Dionysus II to adopt his ideas about a perfect society ruled by philosopher kings. In fact, the great philosopher had to run for his life from the Syracusan court. Moreover, the utterly down-to-earth Aristotle with his notions of moderation appears to have had little effect on Alexander the Great, who by the end of his young, boozy existence had wor…

Changing the May Term Script

The spring semester ends early at my institution. By May most of the students have fled and good deal of the faculty have as well. The early end to the spring term allows the college to hold three consecutive month-long terms. Class lasts two hours a day for four weeks. It's been years since I taught in May, but I am doing so this year. I met my class for the first time yesterday, and I had forgotten how low the energy can be in summer classes. The students have just finished a long semester and now they are back after a week or so of break. Despite the blooming lilacs, most of them looked grimly resigned to being in a classroom again (as if they were about to have some disagreeable but necessary medical procedure performed upon them).

Over the the past few years I have been paying more and more attention to the first day of a class. I usually post a "Welcome" PowerPoint slide on the board and walk around the room introducing myself to each student. I extend my hand and s…