Saturday, October 31, 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 suit. He's wearing knock-off Italian loafers and an over sized gold ring. There's a skinny kid with him, too, who looks to be all Adam's apple and larceny. The two of them come to the door and knock (the kid carrying the vacuum cleaner). I answer and half-expect them to turn around and leave as soon as they see the inside of the dump we were renting, but the big man seems undeterred. He thrusts out his meaty hand and introduces himself and his associate.

For the next forty minutes the guy displays his vacuum cleaner to us, and I have to confess it was an amazing machine. It sucked a large throw pillow into the size of a softball, it washed tile floors, and it came with a lifetime replacement guarantee: no questions asked. But it was also about $1,200 and neither my buddy nor I had anything close to that to our names, which I should have thought was obvious to anyone looking around the room. Even so, the big man was really giving it his best effort, while the kid, who was apparently in training, just watched.

Finally, the big man starts his close. "Well, gentleman, you'll have to agree that this is the last vacuum cleaner you'll ever own or ever need." He even starts to talk about a payment schedule. But Jason just snorts and says, "I told you before you ever drove out here we weren't going to buy anything." The big man isn't fazed by this at all. He asks Jason and I to stand up. He switches on the machine and vacuums the couch cushions where we were just sitting. Then he pulls a white silk handkerchief from his pocket, reverses the flow of the vacuum cleaner, and blows a fine powder of black crud onto the handkerchief. "You see," the big man says holding forward the dirt for our inspection. "That is what you were just sitting on." But Jason takes the handkerchief, dumps the dirt back on the couch, and sits down. The big man doesn't even blink. He just glances to the kid and says, "Get the steak knives."

In the next few weeks I have to sell to my colleagues a proposal to rework the university's general education core requirements. I've been working on the proposal all morning, and I find myself suddenly thinking that the big man probably had a better shot at making a sale that day.

(For the record, too, they were really lousy steak knives.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

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. Now it was 9:00 a.m. and I needed a creative idea for class and needed it fast.

So in the hour between the meeting and class, I typed up a blank test template. There was a section for true/false, another for matching and one for fill in the blank. I even left some empty spaces for essay prompts. I put the students in four teams when class started and had them write questions onto the empty test copies. They had to design the exam to include the material we've covered so far. They went back through their notes and the readings and were really engaged in what needed to be on the quiz and how to word each question. They even wrote some meaty comparison-contrast essay prompts. The teams spent around 25 minutes designing their quizzes. Then they switched quizzes and took each one another's exams.

The best part was the interactive discussion and review of the course's major concepts. As students worked, I flitted from table to table listening to them re-debate heroism in the Iliad, Socrates' examined life, and the nature of the tragic hero in Oedipus. They didn't have time to respond to the essay prompts they wrote, so I offered extra credit to anyone who wanted to tackle one. It worked really well and was a fun, engaged but substance-filled 50 minutes.

I wouldn't want to teach without a net every day, but sometimes it does focus the teaching mind with that odd, brace-for the crash, adrenaline rush clarity.

Friday, October 23, 2009

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 waste of time? As you say, you came to college to get a better job, not to read poetry or talk about the War of 1812. Well, you are not alone in the belief that a person should just focus on a career in college and muddle through the rest. The nurses in my class sometimes call what I teach the BS part of their BSN. I mean, what is college really for? It's to help you get a job and make money, right? There's a lot to be said for your view. But let me tell you a story--my story actually--and then you can let me know what you think.

Before I started college I had a good job. I made about $15 an hour as a union construction worker, pretty good jack back in in the day. I was 23 years old, drove a red Italian sports car, drank only single malt scotch, and smoked a box of premium cigars a month. I always had $100 in my pocket, too, just in case I wanted to buy something. But all I knew about the world was payday, quitting time, and having a good weekend. I thought that's what life was supposed to be about.

But I was ignorant. My entire life existed between a bar, a job site and TV set. In many ways, I was not unlike a cow or a dog that is only motivated by eating, sleeping and feeling good. To a certain degree, I was living the life of an animal. What drove me was just a desire for pleasure or the wish to avoid pain. Now Socrates says "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." Note: he doesn't say that an unexamined life is unpleasant. It might be pleasant as hell to be loaded for a month, but that's not really a human life. A human life has got to be about something more than pouring liquor down your pie-hole. Indeed, Socrates says that examining your life, questioning it, figuring out who you are and what you believe is the point of being alive. If you don't do it, you're squandering your potential as a human being.

Those courses in your liberal arts core were not a waste of time, in my opinion. They were opportunities to formulate what you think about very big issues: Why are things the way they are? (History); Why do people see things differently? (Psychology); How do other people live and is it better? (Literature, Diversity); How should I behave toward others? (Ethics, Philosophy). See?

Any jackass can be trained to sell tires or plug a memory board into a computer, but it takes a human being functioning at his best to formulate good answers to these questions. Now maybe your courses weren't well taught. Maybe the instructors didn't stimulate you to really wrestle with the meat of life. I went to college. I know these kinds of courses and professors exist, but that doesn't mean liberal arts education is a waste.

It's useful to remember that the word "liberal" has nothing to do with politics in this instance. It comes from liberalis, which means "to free". And liberal arts education—if it's any good at all—should free you from narrowness of mind, which is the worst prison you can be in because you don't even know you're in it.

Education made me more myself. It helped me to answer some big questions and know where I stand. My ideas now are based hard thinking, not the half-baked prejudices of my youth. Anyway, that's my story, and if I had my way students would take four solid years of courses that free the mind. Then they could finish up with a semester learning a career. How long does it take to learn to sell tires? Please. But that's just me.

On your response, don't worry about trying to agree with me. I don't grade down when you disagree with my views. Actually I admire it if it's a well-considered view. I do, however, grade down when it’s clear you didn’t do the reading and so decided to go into a rant about the liberal arts that had nothing to do with the assignment. Just do the reading and write a thoughtful, sincere response. It won't kill you, I promise. Who knows? It might even make you think.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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 stands in relationship to the land. Indeed, Wright opposed the idea of a house dominating the landscape. Rather, he wanted the house and the land to work together. So the Walter house doesn't sit on the crest of the ridge, but just below it so that its long roof line seems to be another naturally descending plane below the crown of the hill. It works with the slope rather than presiding over it.

Wright also felt the roof was the essence of shelter. Most roofs cap a house; they squat on their walls like lids on a pot. He wanted his roofs to flow. In the case of his Prairie style homes that fluidity echoes the flow of open grassland (he also hid his front doors. There's no front door to a prairie). But perhaps the most identifiable feature of any Wright home is an eave that extends well beyond the walls. Long strips of casement windows--often made possible by the use of cantilevers-- are another feature. They create an openness to the environment and make it possible to do away with support columns on the corners. At Falling Water the corners can actually be opened outward to allow nature to simply flow into the house.

Contrast that with the closed nature of the traditional 19th century Victorian home or the classic American Four Square. Wright detested the traditional American house. He called it a box with tiny rat-like holes cut into it. Its interiors were carved up little rats nests. The living room pictured above is a great example of his desire to open up the space and get away from boxes within boxes. He created "rifts" in his interior spaces, openings that provide a sense of relationship not only to the land, but to the sky above and the earth below.

His ceiling is penetrated with skylights and it floats atop a small line of narrow casement windows (note how the corner of that strip of casement windows actually cuts back into the space and undermines any sense of stopping at a right angle). And the planter (seen at bottom left) opens to the ground beneath the house. The plants actually grow out of the soil and into the home. Note, too, the low slung height of the furniture. Nothing must block the relationship to the landscape or sense of openness. The low height of this furniture is a direct descendant of the low interior walls of the Robie House in Chicago.

The Walter house is long and narrow (like the ridge) and only 1800 square feet, yet Wright was able to create a sense of openness and space even in a relatively small vacation home. It was a joy to see. He may be in the process of becoming a T-shirt or a Kleenex box , but all the PBS coffee mug popularity can't dull the excitement of experiencing a Wright building in person.

Monday, October 19, 2009

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 into the current when something tasty sweeps past. They also say it's harder for them to spot you through a quick-moving current. I hadn't had any luck creeping up on them, so I cast out to that pool. It was about a 20 foot cast and the line rolled out perfectly (that doesn't always happen for me). Two strips of the fly line and wham: I was fighting a spunky little foot-long rainbow. I got him to the bank, netted him and snapped his photo.

It was a perfect moment: cool, sunlit, the trees silently roaring in rust and gold. I held the fish back in the current long enough for him to revive with fresh oxygen rushing past his gills. Then I opened my hand and he swam away with an almost haughty indifference (as if these minor kerfuffles happened to him all the time). I knew there were other trout in the pool, but I was not about to throw another cast yesterday. That fish had preached a sermon: Grace is accepted, not earned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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, Whitman, Buber, Shakespeare, Darwin, Aristotle, Mary Shelley…

So they designed a game called “Six Degrees of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” On a checkerboard they labeled every other square with the name an author they’ve read in the past year and a half. The object of the game is to start with any author and make a connection or distinction to one of the four adjacent authors (this link or distinction is to be written in the intervening empty square). Then you continue the process six times until you arrive at an idea in Rousseau’s essay. Here’s an example:

Ralph Ellison’s invisible man sees himself at war with the “Power Company,” a social force that shapes his identity. (1) This connects to Freud who argued that the superego originates externally and powerfully shapes our identity. Freud also argued that the id contained irrational, destructive urges that needed to be contained. (2) This connects to Sophocles whose character Creon argues society needs to be on guard against chaos and destruction. (3) Creon’s leadership philosophy connects to Hobbes, who also argued that a powerful authority needs to contain human brutishness in the state of nature. (4) This in turn contrasts with Locke, who disagreed with Hobbes that the state of nature was entirely savage because in it one at least possessed natural rights to freedom, just retribution for injury and private property. (5) This connects to Margaret Atwood, whose eco-feminist novel Surfacing recognized the value of the pre-civilized state of nature, which, in turn, (6) echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea that modern civilization is the source of inequality and prejudice.


I love this idea. Not only is it a good intellectual workout, but it actually promotes the kind of fluid, schematic thinking the honors program seeks to promote. I’ve never swiped an idea from students before, but I will now. Educators are quite shameless when it comes to this kind of thievery.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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.
We’ll toast to the dead.

Your really first class verse
Will mention Vermeer,
Possibly Brueghel, Magritte
Or Cezanne.
It will conjure the clear
Daybreak at Delft,
Savor an orange or an exquisite prawn.
There will be luscious anxiety,
Bereft light and smoke,
Oblique allusions to remorse and the
Passage of time. It may evoke
An uncertain summer,
A hillside in Spain,
Bitterness at lovers,
Some inescapable shame.
And then it will end
with a line quite odd,
Like crabgrass with wingnuts
In the bitter folds of the lawn.

Monday, October 12, 2009


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 read, written, or graded the moment before I walk through the door. If I get the flu, I'm in deep, deep trouble.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

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 our temper when the worst occurs. I admire the Stoics but find it hard to follow their advice. They argue you should ask yourself only one question about anything that’s vexing you: is this something within my power to change? If it is, then change it. If it’s not, stop worrying.

For the past year I have been chairing a committee to revise the core, and I am continually vexed by my own inability to anticipate snafus, by the sheer work it takes to cause something this big to happen. I try to take a stoical approach, try to tell myself that what can go wrong usually will, but I am still filled with exasperation when it does. I don’t know if I am the kind of person who can ever be satisfied doing this kind of curricular work. I also know I lack what it takes to be a stoic.

I'm much more likely to view frustration in Freudian terms. Suffering is just part of life (or as Schopenhauer put it "happiness is simply the least amount of misery"). There simply is no arrangement of life that brings permanent contentment. I know much (if not all) of contemporary psychology has jettisoned Freud’s specific concepts (Oedipus complex, penis envy, even to a great degree the notion of repression). But his conceptual framework still resonates even if he got many of the details wrong. In a sense, Freud is a singer of the self like Whitman. If we think of a poet as someone who generates new language to represent reality, then Freud was a great poet. He reshaped the way we talk about the self. If many of his ideas have lost currency, the poetry remains.

In the broadest sense, Freud suggests the “self” houses conflicting desires that are not wholly conscious. Such a view is to some extent a blow to our ego-centrism. We like to think we are in conscious charge of ourselves. But people do yearn for love and closeness, not altogether rational desires given that the love we do find is never as satisfying as we imagine it will be. Human beings also take perverse pleasure in destruction. The keen willingness of generation after generation of young men to march off to war and murder complete strangers cannot be entirely chalked up to civic pride or patriotism. At some base level we long to destroy, and society both contains and valorizes this impulse.

Freud was so pessimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome the eternal war between the deep-seated instincts of Eros and Thanatos. But he did believe that it’s better to know this about ourselves. It was his working premise that making our unconscious drives more conscious was a way of dealing with them when they weren’t appropriate. Is this a bleak view or realistic? I think the latter.

Freud wrote off philosophies like Stoicism as just a variant form of ascetic quietism, the attempt to master our desires by denying them. He called art a distracting sublimation, but I find that it makes a much more effective tonic for my nerves than Senecan stoicism. Frank Zappa once said that "music is the only religion that delivers" and I believe him. Great music has the power to dispel gloom without denying gloom exists.

While driving in to work today, I was moderating that debate between Freud and Seneca in my head. And then Louis Armstrong's 1929 recording of Mahogany Hall Stomp shuffled to the top of my I-pod. I just sat spellbound and listened. About two minutes into the piece, he blows a single note so filled with purity and joy that it never fails to make me--if only for a few seconds-- immensely glad to be alive and living in a universe that includes something as sublime as Louis playing his cornet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

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 way students will try to jump start the end of class with a seemingly choreographed rustling of notebooks and adjustments of posture. One starts straightening or checking to see if her pack is still by her chair. Another sits up and inhales deeply, and soon--like the contagion of yawning--they're all doing it. Sometimes you call them on this and say, "Hang on, We've still got five minutes."

When you do, they slump back into their seats like old bike tires slowly going flat.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

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 read into your own words. All you have is a hazy set of impressions until you do that.”

“But what if you don’t get the main idea?”

“You have to start constructing an understanding somewhere. It's better to start with something—even if it’s wrong—than with nothing at all.”

So here’s my pip of an idea for class on Friday. I know my students don’t annotate, but it occurred to me that they do shorten ideas into bite-sized nuggets all the time. So on Friday they are to have read a chapter of Mill. I’m going to have them translate the chapter into six text messages of 160 characters each. They can use text-ese (2b or not 2b), but they have to capture the key points. We will compare our messages and decide who best captured Mill’s central argument. This could be fun (r nt). wl c.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...