Showing posts from 2010

The Enormous Condescension of Posterity

Only a handful of professors I know have left their careers without mixed feelings about teaching, their impact on the world and the institutions they served. When I was younger I never understood why this was the case. Teaching was fun, I was figuring things out, and I always had a sense that I was working up to something better. Still, I often noticed colleagues a half a dozen years from retirement starting to withdraw from academic life. They would creep back into their courses, stop attending meetings and avoid getting involved in any university-wide initiatives. Now, at mid-career, I am beginning to understand the seduction of slowly fading to gray. Make no mistake, I am still very much involved (indeed, a little too involved), but I can hear the mermaids singing each to each. I would not say there is any bitterness yet, but I understand how such bitterness can arise. There is a kind relentless rhythm to teaching. You go over the same ground, plant the same seeds. And the student…

Actually Listening and Giving a Damn

I have a colleague that students adore. They keep in contact with him years after graduation. They update him on their changes in careers, the birth of their children, their life crises and personal successes. I am continually amazed by the things he knows about their lives, and sometimes I'm even a bit envious of his ability to relate to students.

I like to think I can connect with my students, but any rapport I establish exists solely in the classroom. In general, I know nothing about my students' lives; nor do I really want to know. They must intuitively pick up on this, too, because they rarely come to my office to unburden themselves, seek advice or shoot the breeze. In 19 years of teaching I have probably heard from only a handful of former students. And most of those were asking me to write a recommendation, something I really enjoy doing.

It's not that I'm complaining. To be honest, I have a hard time relating to students outside of a classroom. We have little in…

One step at a time

Any number of times during the course of a semester I run across a teaching problem and think to myself that I really should make a note to fix it next time around. I inevitably fail to make that note and find myself confronting the same problem the following semester. A good example is getting students to better integrate textual support into their written answers. For years this has been a vexing issue.

Students at all levels continually fail to back up their assertions with a careful and creative manipulation of the texts that documents support, or they do it with some feeble high school notion that "quote bombing" a paper equals good support. And it really doesn't matter if it's a first-year course or a senior seminar. Most students can't textually support their work.

On one level, this is understandable. Analyzing a text for relevant information requires some serious engagement with the ideas in the material. It means distilling the central rhetorical purpose,…

Redemptive Endings

I have blogged before about the start of a class and how it's become one of my favorite times in the semester (Where they are right now ). During the first week nothing has gone wrong yet and you think you might just get it right this time. The students also have a sense of optimism that the course will be the one that that works, that won't disappoint. The first day and even the first week is all about expectations and starting fresh. On the other hand, there's much to be said for the end of a semester. In fact, it can be the best part if you structure it right.

I gave up heavily-weighted finals years ago in favor of reflective papers in which students tell me which ideas most engaged them and how those ideas were applied beyond the classroom. I also ask them to describe those accomplishments that gave them the most satisfaction and pride.

As a result I now get to spend finals week reading about what worked rather than lamenting poor performances on some tedious comprehensi…

When "A's" Don't Matter

At the close of every semester I am besieged by grade-grubbing students who have finally calculated their tally and are now in a mad scramble for extra points. Revisions flood in along with anxious requests for extra credit and extra time. Worse, the quality of these last minute assignments is uniformly substandard. Suddenly it's all about the points, not the material. And almost everything we know tells us that extrinsic rewards like grades or higher pay are lousy ways to motivate people. In fact, a more rigorous grading standard can actually cause performance to worsen. The really good students will work only until they receive the reward they want. Then they park it. The poor ones develop learned helplessness and scud along or give up. And this isn't some woolly-headed education reformist talking; it's mainstream economics and behavioral psychology. Every study says the same thing: extrinsic motivators are fine for purely mechanical tasks, but they become impediments …

At the close of day...

I began this blog in the fall of 2008 and had two aims in mind. The first was to get myself writing again. I liked the imposed discipline of having to write something every day. The second aim was to be more mindful and more public about my teaching.

I have said this before, but teaching is an incredibly private activity at the university level. It's also work filled with fear. You fear you are not that good, that your colleagues will pass judgement on you, that your students find you lame and uninspiring. Somehow I thought blogging would help me confront the fear that often holds back those of us who do this job from talking honestly about our lives as teachers.

In large part, this blog has been successful. I have written a lot more than I ever thought I would. It has also helped me become more public about my teaching. Colleagues have told me that they have read the blog and found its insights useful, interesting and occasionally amusing. I even picked up a few regular readers, to…

Mozart Meets Charlie Parker

Here are a few old poems that have been gathering dust. Time to shove them from the nest.
Noisy Desperation It’s become increasingly clear that I’ll die in this town:
No London for me, no left bank,
No novel or love life
That’s worth writing down.
Just these few desperate stabs
Between supper and sleep,
No drama to come
No heart-wrenching theme,
And if you mention Grandma Moses once more,
I swear I will scream.
The Genius Room
One wonders if somewhere
There’s a room where geniuses
Meet, where Mozart and Charlie Parker
Say “Top this.”
If somewhere Leonardo and
Le Corbusier are excited in a corner,
And even now,
Schopenhauer and Goya
Swap notes on suffering.
One wonders, but suspects
This is not so, that
Genius, like us, sits alone
In a calendar square
With an outlook on bald trees.

The Snow and the Plum

The Snow and the Plum — II
by Lu Mei-P'o

The plum without the snow isn't very special
but snow without a poem is simply commonplace
at sunset when the poem is done
then it snows again
together with the plum they complete the spring

The crisis of confidence came late this semester. Generally speaking, it is about midterm when I begin to doubt everything: the way I have designed the course, my own competence in a classroom, the students' willingness to learn--well, just about everything really. This semester has been oddly different, In fact, it's only been in the last week or so that I have experienced the familiar anxiety that I am simply pretending to teach, the students are simply pretending to learn, and we are both pretending not to notice. The good comes with the bad in this job. Sometimes there is more commonplace snow, too few plums and far fewer poems.

Empty Afternoons

The other day in the senior capstone we were discussing the value of aesthetic awareness. I had given the seminar a chapter by Aaron Copland entitled How We Listen. In it Copland divided listening to music into three planes: the sensuous plane, the communicative plane, and the sheerly musical plane.

The first of these is simply the degree to which we enjoy the music. The second concerns our awareness of what the music may be trying to communicate in terms of feeling, intensity, or maybe even imagery; and the last plane deals with our understanding of a piece's structure and order. He points out that while these planes may be experienced simultaneously, it is helpful to think about them separately.

I like Copland's approach to listening very much, especially because it makes clear in a direct and concrete manner that we can enjoy something without understanding it and understand something without enjoying it. In fact, Copland's three plane's apply to many forms of aesthet…

You've been a lovely audience...

Every now and then you run into a class that just won't respond to you. You try every gimmick you know, you use active learning, you get creative, you even bring in food, but none of it makes a difference. They will not come around. I have such a class this semester (I won't say which one), and I find myself dreading the very sight of the classroom door on the days I have to teach it.

How can I describe this feeling? It's like the depression that used to set in on Sunday evenings when I worked some awful minimum wage job years ago. I wasn't actually at my crummy, low-paying job, but just the idea that I would be there in less than 12 hours was enough to ruin the evening.

Or imagine you are a really, really bad nightclub comedian. You know you stink, yet you are contractually obligated to do multiple shows a night with your tired, lame material. It's the third show, it's after midnight, and you are waiting to go on to tell your first lousy joke. You can't even…

Transition Negative

A while back the local newspaper ran a large info graphic of the city that mapped desirable and less desirable neighborhoods. The information was gathered partially from realtors, but among other things it factored in the age of the housing, the quality of the local schools, crime rates and access to amenities. I was incensed to see that my neighborhood was labeled "transition negative." In other words I live on a street in transition, and it ain't necessarily transitioning in the best direction.

That phrase--transition negative--seems applicable to so many things. In college I worked in a shop selling pipes and tobacco. It was a great old time tobacconist shop with big jars of tobacco on the counter, silk-lined trays of briar pipes and a walk-in humidor. The place was right out of the 19th century. Old guys used to come in just to hang out at the counter and talk. I met a retired pipe-smoking newspaper reporter who had worked in Chicago in the 1930s, interviewed Al Capo…


Yesterday, the first day back after spring break, was so busy I didn't have time to write down any thoughts. It was also peer editing day in the sophomore honors seminar. That means students were to bring in their rough drafts for critiques from their peers. I'll be honest. I have never much liked peer editing day. I did not like it when I was a student and have never been fully satisfied with how peer editing goes as an instructor. The feedback I received when I was an undergrad was seldom helpful. I did not like evaluating other students' papers and felt awkward and not especially qualified while doing it.

As an instructor I have tried different approaches over the years to make it work better. Currently I use a standardized form so that students have specific questions to answer when they respond to their classmates' rough drafts. It asks readers to restate the thesis to test how clearly it was communicated, to check off objective elements required by the assignment…

168 Hours

There are a few times during the day when my small institution actually feels like a big university. At 9, 10, 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, the main street that runs through campus is filled with students and professors heading to class. People talk, greet each other and exchange nods. Not last Friday afternoon, however. It was the last day before Spring Break and the campus was deserted as I walked to my 1:00 pm class. I saw a colleague and we just laughed at how quiet it was. We were the only ones on the street.

For most people, spring marks a new start. For academics it means the end. Everything will be different when the students return in a week. Another end will have begun.

Möge er in Frieden ruhen.

I was saddened to hear that one of my former professors passed away this week. I took two years of undergraduate German from Professor Rudolf Thill (Herr Professor Thill). I can't remember much of my German these days, but I won't soon forget him. He had a wonderful, rich, softly-accented voice and a gentle laugh. Best of all, though, he always told us stories about his life. There were so many, but I always liked the one about the two train stations.

Professor Thill grew up in eastern Germany, not far from the Polish border. He had to ride a train to school each morning. Apparently the trains were run by the German military. The conductor, engineer, and station master all wore elaborate uniforms and saluted each other upon arrival and departure. Professor Thill told us how the train left every morning at the precise stroke of the station master's watch. The man would stare at his pocket watch counting the seconds before authorizing an alert engineer to steam out of the st…

The Bad Beginnings

I had all of the wrong role models when I wanted to be a fiction writer. I should have been carefully studying writers like Chekhov, Carver or Cheever, but in my ineptitude I read polished hacks like Somerset Maugham, who cranked out well-crafted but highly conventional stories. Maugham once wrote that there was nothing wrong with rising plots and action, except when they are poorly executed.

He also once wrote the beginning of a story and challenged his readers to submit possible endings. He imagined two colonial British officers stationed on an island in the South Seas. Call them Smith and Jones. It doesn't matter, and I can't remember what they were called anyway. So every six month a ship arrives with supplies and letters from home. Smith always receives a great deal of mail. Jones not so much. One day, after the mail has come, Jones offers to buy a letter--any letter--from Smith. He offers him 10 pounds sterling for a single unopened letter. Smith laughs and agrees, so Jon…

Awkward Little Einsteins

The other day in class we were discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature and someone asked a question about Emerson's argument that nature shapes the mind toward scientific skepticism. It's an odd point, but he posits that our realization that events take place at a physical distance or beyond our immediate awareness causes us to doubt that we possess a wholly reliable perspective on reality, which is a cornerstone of the scientific method.

By way of illustrating this, I asked the class if they had ever entertained the idea in childhood that they were perhaps the only Earthling in existence, and that every one they knew was really an alien in disguise carefully studying them. No doubt, these clever aliens transformed themselves back into their hideous shapes the moment you left the room. A half-dozen raised hands and grins of delight appeared in response to this question.

This is not an uncommon childhood speculation. It occurs when kids are just emerging from an ego-cen…

Mere anarchy loosed upon the world

I will let you in on a little secret if you promise not to tell anyone. Ready? Okay, here it is: I am not really teaching any of the material in my courses. I am not teaching the books, the ideas, or even the general subject matter. Indeed, my ultra-super-top-secret goal is altogether different.

The first step in my secret plan is getting students to build arguments from the text rather than simply responding with an “I like it or I don’t like it” reaction. Most have moved beyond this stage by midterm. They can show me with textual evidence that a book says what they say it does. Excellent! Now I can move to phase two, where I ask them to start connecting the evidence they have so ably summarized to something else. For example, one of them recently wrote about the subject of money in Gulliver’s Travels. Okay, that’s great, but now I want this student to look for connections. How have the other authors we've read felt about or depicted material wealth in their works? Is there a patt…

Shiny Beads

Spent the weekend at a conference in New Orleans. The keynote speaker was Richard Lanham, who argues that the study of arts and letters is now more critical than ever. His logic runs as follows: the information economy is as far-reaching and transformational a change as those that took us from an agrarian base to an industrial one. There is, however, an important difference. Farmers sold calories and factories sold manufactured goods, both of which derived their economic value from scarcity. Ears of corn or tractors only have value if someone doesn't already have them. Scarcity, however, is hardly an issue in an information economy. We're drowning in the stuff. Moreover, it's consumption doesn't deplete it.

And that's why so many businesses have yet to understand this new economy. The old rules of supply and demand--all built around a world of making or growing stuff--no longer apply, so the so-called information economy is misnamed. Lanham argues we ought to think…

Since Memory

Last night, after supper, my son asked if he could sit with me. He is seven-years old and at the age where he is just starting to be aware of what is cool and what is not cool. Even so, he still hasn't figured out that sitting on his dad's lap, and letting his dad kiss the top of his head while marveling over the very reality of his being, is not cool, not cool at all. There will come a time when my son will no longer ask to sit on my lap. That day is not so very far off. Oh good heavens, children. They just rip you in two. The day my son was born I wrote this poem:

"Since Memory" (for Sebastian)
The sixties are a gleam on a wet yellow slicker,
the smell of lunch meat sandwiches left too long in wax paper,
the seventies a plastic ship model, later album sleeves
and fervid middle school dreams of hosiery whispering
on Mrs. Burzlaff’s legs;
the eighties are paint thinner, pimples, drywall dust;
the nineties: vodka and anger mostly,
and they say there are no second acts in Ameri…

Letters, we get letters

A few years ago I was reading a student paper written for the senior capstone. In this particular assignment, students were asked to provide a narrative description of those activities they had been involved in on a voluntary basis. Most of my students write about their participation in school activities, sports, or church missions. Anyway, what struck me about this one paper was the passion evident whenever the student, a young woman, wrote about working with the youth group at her church. In my response, I mentioned what I had seen in her paper:
You seem to have gained so much from your various involvements, but I just have to ask you something. You spoke so passionately about working with young people and your faith. Why then are these not your career aims? I tried for years to follow my father and brothers in the building trades and was miserable. Almost in spite of myself I ended up a teacher, and I have never regretted it. Could I make more money elsewhere? Probably. But I cannot…

Liars with a heart

It happens every semester. The conversations in one class will weirdly start to meld into those in other courses. Sometimes it's as if the various authors I am teaching have begun debating each another. In the senior capstone, for example, we have been reading Martha Nussbaum'sCultivating Humanity. In particular we were reading a chapter on the "narrative imagination," a capacity to imagine oneself in the experiences of strangers through the agency of fictional narratives.

In the first-year honors seminar, on the other hand, we are reading Gulliver's Travels and have have arrived at Gulliver's fourth voyage, which takes him to a fictional island populated by the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses, and a tribe of repulsive, disagreeable creatures called Yahoos. The Yahoos are brutish, nasty, greedy, violent, and a little too close to human-shape for Gulliver's peace of mind. He loathes them at first sight, but by the end of the fourth voyage, he will ruef…


A while back I tried to write some poems that were more interested in sound than sense. I wanted the words to blend, bend, run together and break apart without worrying overly much about whether they meant anything. I have a tendency to belabor sense in a poem, so this was an attempt to steer in the opposite direction. The following smashed-up poems were the only ones I liked:

Myambassadorlawyer wears silk slippers
when he passes out treats,
Has ample smiles when he sues for peace,
Paces late nights in the embassy
to save my bacon,
Speeches midday at soirees
for ladies of the UN.
OhMyambassadorlawyer seldom sleeps


gags on his teeth,
Coughs up cover ups,
Unhusbands covenants ,
An’ hiccups
Oh yes, myadjunctgulagcarbuncleuncle
Gets played for keeps.

*** I am all daylistly until you enter
And then, in a minaswept,
We are shincircled:
You say in pulldescent of heatpulled hands:
Moanfocused, grippingwhi…

Five minutes later...

Yesterday may have been my best and worst day of the semester. In the senior capstone we were discussing a lovely little novel, Mark Salzman'sLying Awake, which tells the story of Sister John, a cloistered nun dedicated to prayer. For years she goes through the motions, doubts her vocation, and never feels the presence of God. Then, miraculously, she begins to experience ecstatic visions and feels enveloped in the certainty of God's love. She emerges from these raptures brimming with insights that she manically writes down.

When the visions are diagnosed as symptoms of an operable brain tumor, she must make a choice: forgo the mystical experiences that give her life meaning and purpose and go back to the spiritual desert, or cling to them despite the fact they may be an illusion. I use this novel to get at the issue of faith in the capstone seminar, a course in which students evaluate the significance of their liberal arts education.

There's a scene in the book where Sister…

"Text" was once a noun

Grrrrr... Every professor probably has a few pet peeves. One of mine is students who fail to bring the text to class. I actually make this clear on the first day of every semester. After welcoming the students and spending some time getting to know them, I go over the course's big goals and try to familiarize the class with the approach we will take and why. Then I write on the whiteboard my three biggest pet peeves:

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

The students laugh, but it usually makes the point. I even tell them I would prefer they skip rather than show up without the material. At least that way I can preserve the fiction that they are still serious people who just had something come up. Almost inevitably, however, one of them will arrive at the very next class without the text. Do I lose it? Do I throw a fit? No, I just glare at them in mock fury and pantomime throwing a book in their direction. Often that&…

Silver and Exact

I was talking to a colleague the other day about a student we both know. He was composing a letter of recommendation to graduate school for her and we both began to tell each other stories about having her in class. This particular young woman showed up at the college four-years ago lacking confidence and completely unaware of how much potential she possessed.

I had her in the honors seminar during the spring semester of her freshman year. She began the class unable to organize her thoughts, formulate an argument or write a paper. I knew there was something there, though. She asked intuitively bright questions and was always three steps ahead of the room in sensing when an idea was weak or lead to troubling implications.

Over the course of that semester I growled, I begged, I cajoled, I pleaded and even resorted to shameless emotional blackmail to get her to play my little academic game. When she finally did, I heaped praise upon her. Indeed, she wrote an absolutely wonderful paper comp…

Annus Horribilis

About nine years ago I began to feel a desire to lead a more responsible, dutiful life. This occurred, not coincidentally, at around the same time I began to entertain the idea of getting married. Why not make a commitment and live for something beyond my own intellectual amusement, I asked myself. How many books can I read? How many art films can I watch? How many lonely train rides through Europe? No, that life was over. Now, I decided, I would commit to marriage, raise my hand, put my name forward for nomination, give up the bicycle races, as W. H. Auden once put it, for the boring meeting and the flat ephemeral pamphlet.

So in addition to getting married and becoming a father, I eventually took on some new jobs at the college. I agreed to administer two academic programs. I also set out to create a core assessment project, implement an electronic portfolio, write an accreditation report and simultaneously serve on a curriculum committee during a catalog revision year and an ad hoc …

What's the Question?

There is a video I show in the senior capstone that always provokes a lot of snorts and eye rolling. It's a documentary about Andrew Wiles, the Princeton mathematician who devoted seven years of his life in near isolation to solving Fermat's Last Theorem, which may be at once the world's most difficult and most useless math problem. As one of Wiles' colleagues points out in the documentary, "Not all of mathematics is useless, but Fermat really is useless. If it's true it doesn't imply anything important."

The students find Wiles perplexing. At one point in the film he says that solving Fermat was the single greatest accomplishment of his working life. Nothing he ever does again can compare to it. He actually begins to weep and asks the cameras to stop filming. The students just stare up at the screen with incredulity. Why, they wonder, would anyone invest so much time, effort and emotional energy into discovering the answer to a simple true/false theor…

In Dr. Andrei's Waiting Room

My wife informed me that National Public Radio was holding short story contest for really, really short stories (under 600 words). Once upon a time I fancied myself a fiction writer. I wasn't very good at it, but I did try at one time to write some very, very short stories when I was younger.

I happened across one the other day and sent it into NPR. There is a kind of simplicity and charm in it that I could never manage now. Unfortunately, I don't think I read the contest rules very closely, so I expect this won't fit the bill. There needed to be a mention of a newspaper left on a table or some such thing. Anyway, for the sake of posterity, here was my entry, which was written a long, long time ago.
Just recently I met a dentist named Dr. Andrei in a neighborhood tavern. He was a very pale and imposing Estonian dentist with deep-set eyes and blue shadows where his temples should have been. A few days later I went to see him. His office was a quiet place with dirty gray walls…