Showing posts from October, 2009

"Get the knives..."

Many years ago a good friend and I shared an apartment. It was the typical bachelor's dump: ratty furniture, upturned barrels for end tables and perpetual piles of unlaundered clothes. One day (we both worked nights) a guy calls up and offers to sell us a new vacuum cleaner. I can hear my friend, Jason, explaining to him that neither one of us was likely to buy anything.

But the salesman persists and says that he will give us a new set of high quality steak knives just for listening to his presentation. Jason says, "Let me get this straight. I am telling you right now that there is no chance--no chance at all--that we are going to buy your vacuum cleaner, and you still want to come out here and show it to me?" The salesman says that's right. We get the steak knives even if we don't purchase a thing. "Okay," says Jason. "Come on out."

About an hour later a guy pulls up in our drive in a Cadillac Coup DeVille. He's a big man in a loose cut sui…

Winging It

If you ask seasoned college professors whether they have ever walked into classroom unprepared and had it work, you will see a smile and a look of guilty recognition. For whatever reason, we all find ourselves teaching without a net sometimes. And sometimes, amazingly, it works. Even so, it's a really bad technique to rely upon.

It happened to me this morning. Last Friday I had a brain lapse and began teaching Monday's lesson. The students just sat there blankly through forty minutes of discussion before one of them had the perspicacity to ask, "Why are we talking about Paul's Letter to the Romans? That's next Monday's reading."


Then I spent all day Saturday working on my tenure review portfolio and most of Sunday catching up on grading and rereading Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women for sophomore honors seminar. This morning I had a two-hour meeting. The upshot was that Intro to Humanities was placed on the back burner…

Cathartic Venting

Every once in a while I read a student paper and feel the need to do some cathartic venting. In the senior capstone, for example, students review the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. We talk about the value of scientific inquiry, the importance of a historical perspective, the meaning of aesthetic awareness...

Most students dutifully jump through the assignment hoops. By the time they become seniors, a certain amount of institutionalization inevitably sets in. Even so, many tell me they like the chance to draw their college experience into a broader focus. Sometimes, however, in lieu of actually doing an assignment, a student will go off on a rant about higher education. I have a high tolerance for this. I realize that much of education is a form of ritualized annoyance. But sometimes I lose patience and find myself venting right back. Here is a recent example (I've changed the student's name):


So your point is that a liberal arts education a…


You can walk across any college campus today and find student after student staring into the screen of a cell phone with blank fascination. I just went to make a photocopy and happened upon two such students, each draped across a sofa, each gazing into their message screens. Whenever I see these students I am reminded of a common image in Western art. For centuries painters have depicted young, beautiful women staring into mirrors.

Ostensibly such paintings were meant to be moral warnings against vanity. In actuality the warning was only an excusatory fig leaf that allowed respectable men to ogle beautiful women while "tut-tutting" about the caprices of the weaker sex. Even so, it's striking how similar the expressions of student cell phone users are to those old paintings. The tiny electronic screens are luminescent mirrors into which both male and female students endlessly peer in rapt self-absorption.

More Blogging about Buildings and Food

In addition to enjoying fresh trout this past weekend, I was able to indulge one of my other passions: architecture. Nearby to where we stayed, there was a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home. I realize that Wright has recently become something like the impressionist painters. Even people who know nothing about art recognize Monet, Degas and Renoir (they're on Kleenex boxes of all things). There's even a kind of neo-prairie style cropping up in a lot of suburban subdivisions. You can find low pitched roofs, extended eaves, and strips of casement windows on banks, high schools and fire stations all over town.

Even so, I find Wright's total concept of organic architecture appealingly Emersonian, and consequently recognizably American. The Walter House (pictured above) is a kind of summation of the Wright program. It was built relatively late in his career and is situated on a long narrow ridge that extends out over the Wapsipinnicon River. Like all mature Wright structures, it st…

Sunday Morning

I wrote last May about taking up fly fishing (Basho and Brown Trout). After some comical attempts, I did catch my first trout this past summer in a little mountain lake in Colorado. Caught him on a Copper John 14. I held him in my hand for a moment or two and then watched him swim away. It was the highlight of my year. That is until yesterday. I have this ancient bamboo fly rod that belonged to my late uncle. He was more a bait fisherman, but for some reason he had this rod. I don't think he ever used it. My aunt gave it to my brother who eventually gave it to me. I cleaned it up and bought a new reel and some fly-line for it.

I brought it along this past weekend because the family and I were in trout country. My Sunday morning was spent lumbering about, spooking fish, untying wind knots and having no luck whatsoever. I was about to give up but decided to try one last cast to a dark pool lying just beside a run of fast water. They say trout like to lurk beside fast water and dart i…

Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

One of the new strategies I adopted this semester was allowing the students to take charge of one class period a week. I divided the sophomore honors section into three groups and assigned each some days on which students would lead class discussion over the material. They could use any method they wanted, but they would be evaluated on the basis of engagement with the material, creativity and presentation.

For the most part, they’ve been dependent on me for coming up with teaching approaches, and I’ve been generous with suggestions and evaluations. I gave them the text messaging gimmick (If you can’t beat ‘em), and I have had them do variations on the pair/share exercise. Yesterday, however, one of the students proposed an interesting idea. We’re currently reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, but this particular cohort of honors students has been together since freshmen year reading a long list of authors: Plato, Milton, Freud, Woolf, Descartes, Marx, Swift, Whitm…

the fading outboard's drone...

No time for long, discursive explorations of an idea or some teaching tidbit. The weather has turned and there's no Indian summer likely now. This semester has me firmly in its maw. I can barely breathe I have so much to do. So how about some poems? A few years ago I committed myself to writing a poem a day for one month. Most were dreadful-- little more than limericks or snarky doggerel. Still I retain an affection for a few of them despite their flaws. Besides, four years is long enough to keep them in storage. It's time to let them out.

the motorboat wake
widening as its apex hurries
across the lake:
young voices at a distance, the fading outboard’s drone,
and two lines
sauntering on the surface for seconds
as the water resumes
its line-less own.
Let’s go raffle the poetry bin
For Frank O’Hara
Or Anais Nin.
Let’s find something
That’s almost forgotten:
By Roethke, or Lowell, or late Wystan Auden.
Then let’s take them home
And drink gin in bed.
Let’s have at their worst.


I’m beat.

At work projects, responsibilities, worries pile on top of each other, and no one thing receives the attention or care it deserves. I hate teaching when it gets this way. It's like murdering the thing you love. As of now I am chairing a committee to redesign the general education core, teaching in a Learning Community with an interdisciplinary curriculum, mentoring a new faculty member, providing the admissions office with support, working as an evening program advisor, overseeing the scheduling and curriculum of a senior capstone program, teaching a senior capstone, and overseeing the data collection for the assessment of a program. I still haven't completed my tenure review portfolio, and who knows when I'll get to it. Oh, and I start an accelerated night class a week from tonight (syllabus as yet incomplete). There's a stack of papers at my elbow too.

The one thing I'm not doing is teaching very well. I rushed through all of last week. Everything gets re…

The Least Amount of Misery

The courses are talking to one another now. This happens a couple of times each semester. Indeed, I've blogged on this odd phenomenon before (Pagan Ping-Pong). Some author I am teaching in one class weirdly starts talking to another author I'm teaching in a different class. In the sophomore honors section, for example, we just started in on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, and in Humanities we are beginning Seneca's essay On Anger. Freud is explaining that organized society is merely a massively elaborate containment mechanism for foiling our infantile desire to have everything we want: our hot wishes, our violent demands, and even our irrational yearning to be the darling of the universe as we once were when our mothers gazed adoringly down upon us. Seneca, of course, recognizes how nettlesome our desires can be. He too has a "reality principle" that foils our irrational longings. His solution is to always expect the worst. Then we won't lose o…

Three Student Quirks

Teach for long enough and you'll start to notice odd things that remain true year after year. Here's one that I've always found interesting. The student who finishes a final exam first will often receive either an A or an F but seldom a C or B. And the weird things is that's also true for the last student to complete the exam, the one who holds you there for the entire exam period. Out on the margins of the bell curve, people can be fast and accurate or fast and inaccurate, or they can be slow and accurate or slow and inaccurate. The rest of us live somewhere in the middle.

Here's another quirk: whenever an assignment is due, students will walk into class and immediately try to hand it in to you. I suppose this is just anxiety about making sure it's officially received, but they show such a peculiar obsession with not holding on to the assignment any longer than necessary. It's almost as if it had some loathsome disease.

I have always marveled, too, at the wa…

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

Every now and then I blindly lurch onto a good idea. Yesterday my sophomore honors students were complaining about the dryness of the reading, and to be honest the fare has been a tad arid (Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Mill. We're weeks away from a novel). Then after class one of the students sought me out to say he was having trouble understanding the readings. “I read,” he said, “but nothing sticks. I just can’t keep my mind on it.” So I asked him if he annotated his texts. Seeing a look of incomprehension on his face, I quickly brandished my well-festooned copy of On Liberty.

“Look, I’m a pretty good reader,” I told him, “but even I don’t try to digest this stuff without making little notes in the margin about the key ideas and arguments. That's annotation.”

“Oh," he said. "I highlight.”

“Highlighting! Bah! A total waste of time. I’d like to throttle whoever started that practice. A highlighter doesn’t squeeze the argument through your brain. You must wrestle what you have r…