Showing posts from September, 2009

Flattening Mainz and Other Memories

The last time I was in Germany I found myself looking at a map and remembering my junior high school years, which was about the time another kid and I got seriously into war gaming. This was before the onslaught of video games. Well, there were video games, but they could not be played at home. You had to go to pinball arcades to play Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug, or Pac-Man.

If you wanted to get into serious war-gaming, you had to buy board games, and they were really expensive ($12 seemed steep to me then). At that time, too, there were a lot of small companies making war games, but my local hobby store only carried two companies: Avalon-Hill and another outfit called SDI (or something like that). The SDI games were overly technical: lots of charts, morale gauges, economic units, and complicated scenarios. The Avalon-Hill games were much more playable and better packaged.

One particular favorite was Luftwaffe. It came in a solid, pleasingly heavy box, with an inner sleeve and was roughly the …

The Semester Cycle

For whatever reason I have to put myself through a dark night of the soul before every accomplishment. I first noticed this in grad school whenever I had to write a paper. I would start off confidently with an idea about how to analyze a piece of literature, but at some point in the composition process I would begin to think that my ideas were breathtakingly commonplace. I even had a phrase for this. I’d call it “laboring mightily and bringing forth a pea.”

This feeling, in turn, caused me to question my own intellectual capacity. Maybe, I would speculate, I am just too lame, too dull-minded, too second rate to actually do the kind of bright, original thinking required in real scholarship. But at this point, with the deadline nearing, there was no alternative but forging ahead and cobbling together whatever dreary insights I had.

Resignation would take hold by the time I handed in the essay. Now the stakes were clear. The grade to come would not only be a measure of my performance; i…

As the Vox Humana Swells

Let me take this other glove off
As the voxhumana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England's statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady's cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
Don't let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots' and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.
Although dear Lord I am a sinner,

I have done no major crime;
Now I'll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.
I will l…

Kisses, Like Poetry

Kisses, like poetry,
Make nothing happen.
No one is fed,
Or saved;
Nor is the world made a whit more just,
Though we are often told love makes the world go round. This is a lie, of course.
The world will go one spinning
After our last kiss. What then is it?
A blind firing of neurons?
Genes groping for a life beyond us?
Or only this
Ironic tenderness.
How like a poem then.

Down here below the clouds

As is clear from the masthead of this blog, I teach at a small liberal arts college. We are a fine institution, but in all honesty we are well below those lofty summits of academia around which gust the latest ideas and theories. I spend no time teaching the most recent critical interpretations of Baroque era art and literature. It's all I can do to teach students that there was a Baroque era.

And it's not always bad to be down in the valley or off in the hinterlands. A lot of the academic trends and fads that swirl about prestigious institutions just blow over us entirely. It takes years for a hot button ideedujour to trickle down from on high. So it was a surprise to receive a paper from a student recently employing all the slick theory-mongering arguments that I had to endure when I was in graduate school. He was holding forth on the need for students to be empowered with "multiple critical heuristics" that would allow them to test the "solvency of identity i…

Will-he Nil-he?

I first tried to read Hamlet in junior high school. It wasn't assigned. I just thought I had better read it because everyone said it was such an important work of literature. So I got a copy from the library and tried to read it, but I gave up after three pages because I had a hard time remembering who was supposed to be talking. And, to be honest, much of what was being said didn't make sense. Amazingly, Hamlet didn't show up in high school, but when I got to my freshmen English course in college, there he was.

Now I had to read the play (if only to finish my term paper). Still, I must confess, that I wasn't terribly struck by the play's genius, nor was I bowled over during my four years as an undergraduate when I had to read it a few more times. I tended to prefer Shakespeare's history plays. Henry V had some interesting battles and great speeches, and I also liked Julius Caesar, which, by the way, is one of Shakespeare's shorter works.

Then it was off to g…

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Last night the back of summer broke. Yesterday was humid, hot and sunny, but at about four or five this morning a cold front rolled in, and now it’s autumn. The windows were open, and lying awake in the darkness I literally felt the new season come into the room. Within ten minutes the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees and lost all its humidity: it went from from uncomfortable to crisp. I had to put another blanket on, but I wouldn’t have shut the windows for anything. The change was wonderful, like a scene designer playing with lighting. The switch was flipped and everything was new.

My students so love summer that they bust out the flip-flops and T-shirts whenever a day in March hits 40 degrees. For them paradise is an eternal summer of shorts, Corona beers and patio bars: a wild pointillist confusion of loud swirling colors and laughter. In To Autumn, Keats writes that the honey bees have been deluded into thinking the warm days will never cease. Exactly, they’ve bought into …

What Course Thou Willt

For the past year I have been chairing a committee to redesign the general educational core at my institution, and yesterday I presented possible core models to the Curriculum Committee. All of the models represent substantial change. They are all very interdisciplinary. I don't read people's reactions particularly well, but even I could tell that everyone in the room was taking a collective deep breath. Next week these models go before faculty, staff and students. Deep breath indeed.

Academics are not by nature enthusiastic embracers of change. Trained skeptics seldom are. There will be no end of high-minded pedagogical objections to changing anything (and not a little "how does affect my turf" protectionism). But here we go. I'm am nervous as can be about how my colleagues will react. As I left the meeting yesterday, a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar popped into my head:
"Mischief thou art afoot... take thou what course thou willt."

Okay, like, so how does it end?

We finished the Iliad in my humanities section today and--as always--I find myself hating to move on from it. The Iliad is such superb material; it's so much fun to teach, especially to students who have never read it before. I've yet to see it fail to capture the students' interest.

I realize that I am deeply passionate about the poem and that this may account for my good experiences teaching it. Passion certainly goes a long way in this business, but I really do think Homer's genius is what makes it work for all kinds of audiences. I have told an oral version of the Iliad to my son for many years. We do this on long trips or sometimes just to pass the time. He will say, "Tell that Golden Apple story." Sometimes it takes weeks to tell during car rides home from school. And sometimes I find myself having these amazing conversations with him about the characters and events in the poem. One day his first grade teacher told me she overheard him asking a fellow si…

The First Assignment Reality Check

I start out optimistically each semester in my senior capstone. Then I get the first round of papers and some of the air goes out of my balloon. Inevitably there are a disconcerting number of students for whom the readings are as much a stretch as constructing a single grammatical sentence. Here’s a mock version of the quality of writing I receive (all of the errors are modeled on actual student work):
He thinks intellectual elite should rule, he thinks the intellectual should have complete say on what people the people should think and do, that’s defiantly not democratic. Setting aside the problems with grammar and correctness, the author the student is referring to is a woman, and she “defiantly” does not believe Socratic inquiry is elitist or anti-democratic. I read a paper like this and I just want to weep. The teacher part of me wants to help students. It wants to help this student. But where do I begin? Here is a senior in college who can neither write nor read critically. How di…

Backing Up

Today in my Humanities section I need to make a little speech about what constitutes acceptable performance on assignments because I sure have been reading a lot of response papers that could have been written without opening the book. Once a week the students are assigned a writing prompt and they are expected to come to class with a response that uses textual evidence for support. They then discuss their responses with others who have written on the same prompt, and they are encouraged to revise their work after small and large group discussions. The prompts are very specific and require the integration of support in every instance. But, lo and behold, far too many papers are omitting support altogether. Now there are three possibilities for this.

I haven't communicated my expectations clearly (i.e., it's my fault).

The students don't know how to do this. In other words, I've set a performance standard, but they lack the necessary skills and practice to meet it.

They kn…

Distance Learning/Learning Distance

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was partcipating in the peer observation program this year. Well I had my first observation yesterday. My partner came to class and sat off to the side while I taught. I had asked her to note areas of concern that I have: do I allow students enough time to formulate answers? (In some cases no). Do I engage the room equally? (Not so much. One corner gets decidedly less attention). Was the class engaged? (For the most part, yes). I suspected as much on all these fronts. Still it stung just a little to have the less positive ones confirmed.

But there was something I do in the classroom that I was unaware of entirely. I touch my students. Not in a bad, creepy or inappropriate way. I’m not hugging them, but apparently I did pat a guy on the back and nudge another with an elbow and say, “What do you make of that?” One student came in late after I had broken the class into groups to work on separate projects. I didn’t want him to sit where he normally doe…

Telling Tales Inside of School

For years I felt a little guilty about telling stories from my personal life in the classroom. Was I doing this just to be entertaining? Was I secretly craving the students’ approval? I wasn’t sure, but I kept doing it despite my doubts. It felt natural. We would be talking about some abstract idea and it would make me think of something I once did or something that happened to people I knew. So I would stop the class and tell the story.
I'm not sure why I questioned this habit. Maybe I thought it was a deviation from the material or a personal indulgence, but I couldn't help introducing stories from my life into my teaching. For example, in my senior seminar we read Plato's Crito. In one section of the dialog, Socrates makes an argument against an ‘eye-for an eye’ standard of justice. I always tell the following story whenever we get to this section.

About ten years ago I went to my credit union and needed to make a rather complicated transaction. I needed some money to go …

The Expectations Spiel

One of the things they tell you to do on the first day of class is to make your expectations very clear. Begin by telling the students exactly what you want from them and what they can expect from you. So this year I decided to have a little fun with my usual spiel. I laid out my expectations and what they could expect from me, but I also decided to let them in on my three biggest pet peeves about student behavior. To make these more graphic, I helpfully projected them on the whiteboard with an LCD in one foot-high printing. My greatest pet peeves are

1. Not bringing the text to class. 2. Not bringing the text to class.
3. Not bringing the text to class.

We all had a laugh, but I was able to stress a deeper point that the text is the "great thing" that we are gathered around. Whenever I make this point, I melodramatically quote Genesis 32:26 in my best Old Testament voice: And the angel of the Lord said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob replied, "I…

Pick Up and Read

One of the features of the reading life I will most lament if printed books disappear is their tendency to become detached from owners. People sell their books, give them away, lose them in city buses or airport waiting rooms. If you stay in B and Bs in England, the parlor is often filled with books that have been abandoned by previous guests (mysteries mostly, but sometimes odd volumes of philosophy or long-forgotten gems that bespeak a bestsellers list of 30 years ago).

I have in my possession a few “orphans” that seemingly sought me out at various times in my life: paperbacks picked up off train seats or decommissioned library books found in dust bins. I once found a 1943 edition of Louis MacNeice’s Springboard at—of all places—a car wash. I had never heard of MacNeice at the time, but I took the book home and read it. It got me interested in Northern Irish poetry, a subject I pursued in grad school. I also have a copy of Brideshead Revisited that was liberated from a bar whose ow…

The Embarassment of Utterance at All

I mentioned over the summer that a colleague had approached me to be her peer observation partner (You Use It). This fall and next spring we will go into each other’s classroom to provide one another with a fresh set of eyes on what’s taking place while we’re teaching. The aim is certainly not to ‘fix’ one another. It’s just to give objective feedback: how many seconds do you wait before answering your own questions, how many students are participating in discussions, how evenly are you directing your focus on the class…

Next Wednesday I meet with my partner to tell her what I want her to note as she watches me, and I find it hard to come up with something. It’s not that I’m a perfect teacher. I certainly have lots of faults: I talk too much and don’t listen as well as I should. I sometimes make intuitive leaps between subjects and don’t allow the students time to catch up. I also don’t make detailed lesson plans that home in on course outcomes like cruise missiles.

The problem is I rat…


At some point in my son’s young life, a childcare worker taught him an exercise entitled Pencil-Star. It works like this: you stand ramrod stiff with your arms together and straight over your head. Then you yell loudly, “I’m a pencil!” Next, you leap up, throwing out your arms and legs so they are at 45 degree angles from your torso. Then you shout, “I’m a star!” This is to be repeated several times in quick succession.

I am not sure how this became associated with my daily departure for work, but just about every morning for the last few years my son has stood on the front step spasmodically jumping up and down while yelling, “I’m a pencil! I’m a star!” It is perhaps the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me.

Last Thursday he began the second grade. I went off to work that morning and only realized later that I had received no Pencil-Star send off. I didn't get one Friday or Monday either, and I began to despair. Perhaps he had outgrown this ritual. Perhaps a seven-year old is…