Showing posts from June, 2009

The evil politics of a new and exquisitely laid out town

I think cities could be better planned, but I sometimes wonder whether planning in itself is the answer. A lot of really wonderful places have not been planned at all. They are organic entities. Sometimes, too, as in the case of Brasilia or high rise projects like Cabrini Green in Chicago, planning can have troublesome results. A lot of modernist architecture tried to "plan" cities and work environments in which nobody wanted to live.

Some of the most depressing architecture I have ever seen was row after row of Soviet era modernist apartment blocs in Russia. Every comrade was going to have an apartment, but at what price to his soul? Talk about numbing and bleak. Ironically, St. Petersburg (at least the 18th century parts of it) may be the most intentionally-planned city in the world. It's delightful, if a bit grimy after a 100 years of deferred maintenance. So what is the optimum balance between planning and letting a place organically emerge with all of its own idiosyn…


It’s not uncommon for those who teach to say that “teaching something is the best way to learn it.” On one level this sounds stupidly obvious: it’s enormously helpful to know what you’re talking about when you have to explain it to others. Indeed, the fear of exposure in the classroom as a know-nothing is a powerful inducement to hit the books with a bit more resolve. I’ve even been known to insert new material into my courses as a way of forcing myself to learn it. Sometimes I think that I’ve learned how to learn far more as a professor than I ever did as a student.

Surely I am not the first person to notice this; nor am I the first to wonder how this insight might be exploited in the classroom. 'If only,’ I have often thought, 'I could get the students to teach this stuff. Then they would really know it.’ But my attempts to turn students into teachers have generally failed. The following is a good example.

For years I have wanted to get students to pose better questions about …

The Lie Game

This summer my wife and I are hosting a college student from Nigeria. She’s bright, a wonderful house guest and a good conversationalist, but she doesn’t read fiction. I noticed this a few weeks ago. She’s been picking through my bookshelf downstairs (where I keep the overflow) and it’s always works of non-fiction, never fiction. My six year-old just discovered Harry Potter and we can hardly get him out of the big chair in the living room to take a walk around the block, but Kovie always has her nose buried in works of politics and social science. When I asked her why she doesn’t read fiction, she said that fiction isn't true so it doesn’t interest her.

I couldn’t disagree more. There are perhaps fewer lies in a single short story than in an entire shelf of books on politics or economics. Try as I might, however, I can't convinceKovie of this. Her comment and our subsequent conversations have caused me to do some ruminating on truth and the value of fiction in an education. Th…

This is Water

I picked up a copy of David Foster Wallace's address to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College (This is Water, Little Brown, $14.99). Its publication is a bit of a gimmick. Wallace just died a year ago and they've stretched out his brief remarks to 137 pages by printing only a sentence or two on each page.

The title of the book comes from a parable he told during his address. Two young fish are swimming upstream and an older fish is swimming downstream. The older fish asks the youngsters "How's the water?" They don't answer, but after a bit one young fish says to his companion, "What's water?"

Wallace was quick to say he was not speaking to the graduates as an older, wiser fish. He was not giving them the benefit of his hard-won experience. Rather, he suggested that a good liberal arts education ought to prepare you for the life to follow, a life that will be taken up with a lot of daily choices. He writes,

In the 20 years since my own graduation, …

You Use It

A little over a year ago I attended a teaching conference for university professors. It's held annually at the end of May and attended mostly by a group of academics from large institutions. Twenty years ago these people began a movement to recognize teaching at universities that often placed a far greater emphasis on research and publication. The group began meeting annually at a camp on the shores of Lake Michigan to support each other and to share their lives and success stories as educators. Even though I teach at a small private institution, my division head had recommended that I might want to go to this conference. I'm grateful he did.

I had reached a kind of mid-career rut. I was a decent if not great teacher. My evaluations were usually positive, and I was generally respected by the colleagues and administrators with whom I worked. Even so, I constantly felt inadequate and was growing frustrated with academic life. I was teaching the same thing over and over and it fe…


In psychology there’s the concept of learned helplessness. When a dog has tried and failed enough times to avoid an electric shock, it will just give up and sit whimpering on an electrified mat. Something similar (if not as graphic) happens whenever I introduce poetry into the classroom. A lot of students will say, “I can’t understand poetry. It never makes sense to me.” They won’t even try. This happens in my Humanities course with classical music too (and increasingly it happens with fiction). Curiously, though, I never get this reaction when I’m teaching a unit on architecture or cinema.

I suspect it’s because students have never before thought about buildings as aesthetic objects or expressions of ideas and values. Even so, they have experienced a lot of buildings and aren't intimidated about offering opinions on them. The same is true for film. They’ve seen hundreds of movies, although most have not spent much time thinking about editing, cinematography, soundtracks, etc. So …

We Need to Talk

I posted a copy of my blog entry from yesterday on my Facebook page and it touched off a few protests. A friend showed the post to someone actually teaching in Second Life, and she disagreed strongly with what I wrote. Another reader suggested that I set up a "straw person" argument by pitting face-to-face teaching against on-line courses and instruction in Second Life. I might call that a false dilemma instead of straw man, but the point is well taken. A lot of instruction today uses a mixture of on-line and face-to-face teaching. Students use chat rooms to discuss topics, they post blog entries, etc. Some professors use You-Tube or podcasting. There are a lot of creative uses of technology out there and a lot of really good teachers using it.

So let me state categorically that I'm not anti-technology (Hey, I met my partner via!). But I am anti-techno-utopianism and the idea that there exists an educational silver bullet. I'm reading a great book now call…

The Empirical Strikes Back

Second Life, the on-line simulated world in which people create virtual selves and interact with one another, is a fascinating concept, one much trafficked in by science fiction writers over the years. You can easily see why. The notion of a second self living in another reality is intrinsically interesting and raises questions that have fascinated writers and philosophers for centuries. But for the last six years this sci-fi conceit has been a reality, or at least as much a reality as a made-up computer world can be.

I’m told that Second Life is quite absorbing. You can have a virtual career and a virtual bank account with spendable Second Life money. You can own virtual property and even have virtual sex. The great fear for worrisome hand wringers and technophobes is that this virtual reality will be so much better than everyday reality that people will come to prefer it to their actual lives. I’m not sure about that. People have always valued escapism, but that doesn’t necessarily m…

One Wrong Move

Last week I spent two afternoons attending a seminar offered by a cognitive scientist. Now you would think teaching is a profession well-informed by those who actually know how the human mind works. After all, cognitive scientists have spent decades studying how the brain acquires, stores and retrieves information, not to mention all the ways things go haywire. Sadly, it just isn't so. A lot of us (including me) are ignorant of this storehouse of research, data, and insight. We think we understand how students learn, but sometimes we’re just dead wrong. Indeed, I discovered last week that an assumption I’ve long held about education (and championed) is, well, wrong.

For many years I’ve derided courses that stuff students with content rather than show them how to think with the content. The aim of a history class in the general education core, I have ranted to colleagues, should be to train students to think like a historian; the aim of a science class should be to train students to…