Wednesday, December 29, 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 students keep coming semester after semester. After the first ten years or so, you begin to realize that the entire enterprise has a momentum of its own that isn't particularly dependent upon your unique contributions.

Beyond that is the sense of futility that can accompany committee work. Hang around long enough and you find yourself revising policies you once revised until they resemble what you once felt compelled to revise. Sometimes, too, younger colleagues will propose something that once touched off the academic equivalent of World War Nine. Oddly, you notice that no one but you and few other survivors even seems to remember. Many years ago at my institution we had something that came to be known as the "Entitlement Wars" (don't ask). Few are those today who remember the blood that was shed, the ill will generated, the double-dealing. That does not mean the scars have gone away. It's just that hardly anyone remembers anymore how you came to have them.

Another source of bitterness is the awareness of how quickly you disappear. A few years after retirement and you may as well never have existed. After four years, the students have all changed, and after a half dozen your name will have become a few vaguely familiar syllables: "Professor Who? Didn't he have a moustache, or was it a beard?" Once, years ago, when I was working construction, a foreman asked me how long I thought I would be missed if I quit. To illustrate his point, he placed his hand in a nearby bucket and said, "You'll be missed as long as it takes the water to fill the space of my hand after I pull it out."

Ah, but this is all just mid-year gloominess. I need to get back in a classroom. I hate Winter Break.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

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 common and I often struggle for something to say. For years I volunteered as a first-year academic advisor. I enjoyed the work but hated the summer luncheon where I had to spend an hour making small talk with incoming advisees. More than anything, I quit first-year advising to avoid sitting through those awkward luncheons.

But there are ways of connecting with students other than getting to know all about them. In the end, what matters is actually listening to what they say and giving a damn. It's always amazed me how much they will respond to even the smallest amount of caring. Here's what I mean. This past semester I had a student in my Intro to Humanities section. He was a bright guy but none too interested in the subject matter at the beginning of the course. He was simply going through the motions. I put the following comment on one of his assignments:
I would like to see a bit more integration of support into your answers. Also, can you tie this response to other material we've read, other courses you are taking, or even your personal experience? It's not enough to summarize what the text says. I need to see you doing something with it, comparing it, connecting it, showing me why it matters or doesn't matter. In short, I want you to do what you're doing now, but then step back and ask yourself, "So what?" Take this to the next level, and I will be an even bigger fan of that wonderful mind of yours than I already am. I want your best and I'll shower you with praise when I get it (Promise).
I meant that part about him having a wonderful mind. He does, but he had fallen into the academic rut of putting forth the least effort for the least objectionable result. Even so, it only took one tossed off sentence on his paper to produce a turn around. For the rest of the course he tried harder. He even hung around after class one day to confess sheepishly that he hadn't tried as much on his last assignment. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was cramming for MCAT exams. He just wanted me to know that it had nothing to do with me, his respect for my class or the subject matter.

I was characteristically uncomfortable discussing his girlfriend troubles, but I was again flabbergasted at how little actual listening and giving a damn it takes to turn a student around. You don't have to become their best friend for life to let them know they matter. I swear, seventy-five percent of them will try to walk through a brick wall if they even half-suspect it matters to you. And caring can be something as simple as saying, "You can do better. I know you can."

I had another student this semester who was just wonderful: great ideas, personable, interesting. She was a delight to have in class, but she was uninterested in playing the academic game and her writing skills were holding her back. I had to give her a low grade and it drove me nuts. I sent her an email after I turned in my grades and told her I thought the world of her and she must never doubt her ability. I said I would love to have her in my class again--anytime, anywhere. I meant it too.

Some of these kids make me want to walk through a brick wall (even if I never hear from them ever again).

Friday, December 17, 2010

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, grasping key parts of the argument, connecting those parts into a cumulative whole, and evaluating the evidence for consistency and relevance. Unfortunately there are just no shortcuts for this kind of critical engagement. You have to learn it by doing it over and over.

So the problem is this: I am asking students to do some fairly high-level critical thinking when they have spent years in an educational system that (for the most part but not always) prizes content regurgitation, mnemonic text-taking gimmicks, and teacher-centered classrooms that stress getting "The Answer" rather than constructing it. Heck, why shouldn't they think there is a formula for the work I am asking them to do?

Only recently have I found a way of attacking this bugaboo. I have been toying lately with "scaffolding." Instead of expecting a high-level of critical engagement the first week and being irritated when I don't see it, I have begun breaking down thinking skills into smaller bits and scaffolding them into the semester. Here's what I mean. Most entering first-year college students can paraphrase a passage in their own words. So that's all I require them to do for the first few assignments. I tell them I don't want to see a single quote. Everything must be in their own words and cited. For some reason, students think the only thing that needs to be cited is a quote. So I break them of this habit right away. Paraphrase, paraphrase, paraphrase--and cite. The early assignments in class are simple paraphrases of what Homer says and their personal reactions to it. That's it.

I even have an exercise to explain why I do this. I ask who in class has read Hamlet. At least one hand usually goes up. Then I announce that I will speak a few lines from the play and my Shakespeare-reading volunteer will paraphrase the main ideas in her own words. I ask the rest of the students to keep their eyes trained on her face. Then I speak nine or ten lines from the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. When I'm done the paraphraser will often pause, scrunch up her face, glance up or down and knit her brow. "Stop!" I yell melodramatically. "Did you see that? Did you see what she was just doing with her face? What was going on there?"

"Well, she was, um, thinking," someone says. "Exactly! You cannot paraphrase without thinking, which is why I want you to do this." Okay, it's a schmaltzy and over-the-top exercise, but it makes the point. I want them to think, not type.

Three weeks in and I up the stakes. Now it's not enough to paraphrase. I want a supported generalization. I usually give them this example:

Warrior heroes in the Iliad have to live with the knowledge of their mortality. The Greek warrior Glaucus speaks of men's lives as leaves blown to the ground (VI, 150-151). Moreover, both Hector and Achilles have foreknowledge that they will die young. Hector acknowledges this to Andromache in Book VI (470), and Achilles has been told by his mother that two fates sweep him to his death" (II, 429). One of those fates, of course, is an early death.
We spend one 50-minute class period making generalizations about the Iliad and supporting them with three citations that must be pulled from more than one place in the text. I tell them from now on I expect every response to have paraphrase and at least one generalization. By the time we get to midterm I am demanding an inter-textual comparison. Paraphrasing and generalizing about materialism in the Satyricon is no longer enough. They need to contrast it with, say, Seneca's stoicism or the martial-warrior heroes' lust for bling in the Iliad. By semester's end, even the weakest student is doing some fairly sophisticated stuff. And the best part is they see it. They get it. They know they're getting better.

And to think, it only took me 19 years of teaching to figure this out. Sheez, by the time I retire I should be half-way good at this job.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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 comprehensive final. Here's a sampling of the kind of things I got to enjoy this past week. They come from my first-year Humanities section.

After we finished discussing the Iliad in class, the movie Troy was on cable, which I have always thought was one of my favorite movies. However, after reading the poem, watching the movie was just not the same. That they left out scenes with the gods was very disappointing because the gods are such a huge and crucial part of the story.

For those keeping score, that's Homer 1, Brad Pitt 0.

Here's another gem. At the semester's outset I have students make personal learning goals. One young woman said she wanted to work on turning assignments in on time and revising for a higher grade. By the end of the semester, however, her goal had changed:
In the middle of the semester (around the time I was studying with flashcards for a Western Civ test, trying to memorize information that I would soon forget), my goals in your class changed. I wanted to focus more on gaining a deeper understanding of the material, and less on mundane things like revision and completing the assignments on time. I realized that the purpose of this class was not just to get a grade, but to build knowledge. This class really changed the way I think about education. I realize that it's not about a grade or getting 20 out of 20 on the Analysis Tasks. I want to learn to better myself as a human being. I did this by spending hours not only reading, but also analyzing and trying to understand the deeper meaning. Every one of my texts, even the reader, has my trademark pink ink in it from me scribbling down ideas, reactions and thoughts about the text.
I swear I did not bribe this student. That's what she wrote and it floored me. Here are a few more reasons to keep going at this job:

Every day when I stepped into this class I felt like I was stepping into an interactive movie. I left feeling like the past was closer than it had ever been before.

I know I've already said this plenty of times, but... I am so glad I took this class. The things I learned sitting in that chair by the window will last a long time and they opened my eyes up to different ideas and pieces of work. I'm actually going to reread the Iliad from beginning to end over break (the same with the Inferno).
Okay, okay, I'll stop now. I don't want to appear to brag, but what can I do? I have nobody with whom to share these success stories. The problem with teaching is there's never anyone around to high-five when stuff actually works. I know one thing, though. Reading these papers is a helluva lot more fun than grading final exams.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

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 as soon as the work involves even simple cognitive or creative abilities. So what does motivate students to learn? It's the same thing that has always motivated people: an interesting and engaging problem, a certain freedom to investigate the issue and the personal satisfaction of getting better at something. As the You Tube video above points out, people will spend hours playing the guitar for no gain other than the satisfaction of getting better at it. They will edit Wickipedia for free, act in community theaters and grow useless flowers in their garden all because it interests them to do so, they have a certain freedom to do the task the way they see fit and they like doing it well. Sadly, I am not free to abolish grading in higher education. I have tried, however, to change the emphasis in my classes. This semester I tried two new things. First, I required students to write a paper the first week of class that summarized their past experience in courses similar to Humanities 101. I also asked them to select a personal learning goal for the semester and gave them several examples: improve critical reading, improve writing, use better supporting arguments, come to class better prepared, etc.. The aim was to emphasize autonomy (i.e., they got to pick the learning goal, not me). I put each student's personal goal on my grading spreadsheet next to their names so I would be reminded of it every time I read his or her work. On the last paper, too, I asked students to describe how well they achieved their personal learning goals. The second innovation was to end the course on the right note. I wanted to diminish the inevitable point-grubbing that concludes every semester. So on the last day of class I had them take out three blank sheets of paper. On one I asked them to write the big ideas or works from the class that most engaged them (the Iliad and the Inferno were big hits). On a second sheet I asked them to describe a time during the semester when they either thought about, discussed or applied ideas from the course outside of the class. This is my favorite question. On the final sheet I asked them to describe what they were most proud of accomplishing this semester. For 15 minutes they wrote their responses. Then I had them stand and scramble all of the papers by handing them quickly to one another for 45 seconds. Afterwards they split into groups of four or five and chose the class's greatest hits (one from each category). Then we shared them as a class. It was a nice way to end the semester. Instead of communicating their success privately to me, we were celebrating each other's semesters and accomplishments. Later, too, after class, I could sit in my office and enjoy all sixty some answers. The result? Hmmm... Well, I need to come back to their goals more frequently than I did this semester; I did not follow through on that as well as I could have done. The last day exercise was wonderful, though. It put the emphasis where it should be. Better yet, that stuff they wrote on those scraps of paper matched rather well with the course outcomes, which I went over next... ahem, just before passing out my teaching evals.

Friday, April 2, 2010

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, too. In fact, Google Analytics says this odd little blog has had 2,953 visits and some 743 unique visitors since April of last year. The average length of these visits has been just over four minutes, and the blog has been visited from someone (or some web crawler) in every continent but Antarctica.

The time has come, however, to take a breal. My aims have been accomplished and I find that I am starting to repeat myself. So I would like to thank those people who have stopped by. I know there are more of you out there than ever left a comment. I want you to know how useful it has been to write for an audience, however small it might have been. I may occasionally sound off in this space in the future, but in all likelihood daily posts will be less frequent.

Thank you all for reading.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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.

Monday, March 29, 2010

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.

Friday, March 26, 2010

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 aesthetic appreciation. I try to get my students to apply them to architecture, painting and poetry. We will, for example, look at the first stanza of a poem like W.H. Auden's Look Stranger:
Look, stranger, at this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers
Stand stable here
And silent be
That through the ears may wander like a river
The swaying sounds of the sea.
A prose equivalent might be the following:

To whom it may concern, look at this island as it currently appears while remaining motionless and quiet. Also, listen patiently to the sound oscillation made by ocean waves.
The words in both versions are common and clear enough, yet there is a difference between Auden's stanza and my oafish prose translation. What is this difference, though? That's the question I put to students. What's going on in the stanza that isn't going on in the prose translation? Both carry meaning, but clearly there is a net difference when you weigh them against one another.

The students often respond that the poem "twists things around" or that "it's not as straightforward." Sometimes they just say, "Well, the poem sounds better," but they are unsure why or how it sounds better. So we go to work on the stanza. I show them that it is actually very carefully constructed to enact in sound the very meaning it conveys. The first line, for example, is regular iambic tetrameter; the second one is too until you discover the word "discover" squatting unexpectedly at its end.

Moreover, there are two instances of alliteration in line two that are separated by an instance of assonance (for your). In other words, the "light" on the front end of the line has to leap over the assonance to reappear as "de-light" in the second half. The iambic tetrameter returns in lines three and four, but it's snapped in half, which causes us to pause at the very moment we are asked to "stand stable here." Finally, Auden enjoins us to listen carefully for the sound of the sea, so the line is appropriately long and swaying. It withholds from us what we are listening for until its last word. We have to be patient.

And patience is the problem. Reaching the sheerly technical plane of aesthetic appreciation just runs counter to our current notions of temporality. Indeed, a close reading of anything--a facade, a poem, a musical score--necessitates a focused attention and a willingness to delay gratification. It takes time. In her short meditation on time, the writer Eva Hoffman notes,

[The computer] is accustoming us to speeds of reaction and response measured not in hours or minutes but in brief seconds. How long we expect to wait for information to be delivered, how much time we are willing to give to any mental task before moving on, what pace and density of stimulus we need in order to feel that something "interesting" is happening: all those expectations are crucially affected by the tempo and procedures of fast technologies.
Aesthetic appreciation on a deeper level requires the very things imperiled by our souped-up whirlwind of an information age economy. Hoffman quotes the Romanian poet Carmen Firan, now living in New York, about how time is experienced differently in a society slower than our own.

For nearly 30 years I lived in the opaque world of communism, where time had no value. All we had left was talking. Our conversations, sometimes delightful, were a never-ending chatter over full ashtrays, cheap bottles of alcohol, night-long discussions, and hung over mornings. Time was frozen for us. We weren't in a hurry to get anywhere. Neither did we have anywhere to go.
Ironic, isn't it? Environments of freedom and plenitude are not always conducive to poetry, a habit that tends to flourish more in dictatorships, prisons and wartime trenches. The key ingredient for its propagation is having too much time on one's hands, too many empty afternoons, and no particular place to go. I asked my students a while back if they could recall the last morning they woke up on a day with absolutely nothing to do, nothing at all and nowhere to be. They could not remember.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

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 stand your own voice. You look at your watch and think "twenty minutes. Just twenty minutes and it will all be over."

There are three more weeks left in this semester after tomorrow. Three more weeks and it will all be over.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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 Capone and been friends with Jesse Owens. I met guys who had been all over Europe in the Second World War. But talk about a business in transition negative. Who smokes a pipe these days? And I won't even get into majoring in English in college or doing my grad work in poetry. Ahem, as I said, who smokes a pipe any more?

The other day, too, we were in the mandatory diversity training session and our diversity coordinator asked how many of us had a special needs accommodation. No one raised a hand. Then he asked how many of us wore glasses or contact lenses. His point was that everybody eventually needs an accomodation or develops a special need. In other words, some day we all will be disabled, incontinent and feeble-minded. Turns out, life is transition negative.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


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, and to rate on a scale of one to four such things as material support, clarity of tone, mechanics, correctness, etc. This is far better than simply redistributing papers and asking students to make comments. At least the standardized form gives them some specific avenues for critique. Even so, it never seems to me that peer editing is very valuable.

Students work well for perhaps 20-25 minutes and then--like me when I am grading and don't want to--they grow restless and their attention flags. Some take it seriously, but some remind me of myself when I had to peer edit as a student. I imagine them sitting there thinking (as I did) why am I grading this? He's the professor. Isn't that what he's paid for? So I often ask the class at the end of peer editing day, "Was this helpful at all?" The students always say yes, but I am never convinced. I always tell myself to make a note of my dissatisfaction with peer editing and try something new next time. Then I forget to make a note, and before long I am once more standing in a room full of reading students and thinking, "I've never been happy with peer editing."

Okay, this is the damned note: please do something about peer editing.

So yesterday I wandered from table to table asking the students what would make peer editing day more useful for them. Many struggled to come up with any ideas on how it might be made more useful, but there were a few good suggestions. Some said they only wanted to critique those papers that were written on the same theme. That way they would get new ideas about a topic and feel more knowledgeable when responding. That was a good point. Part of what makes peer editing awkward is that students are not comfortable evaluating work.

Another good idea was to spread out peer editing and do it in smaller chunks. I liked this one. I could create peer editing in 15-minute increments spread over the weeks before a paper was due. There would one in which they shared their idea with classmates and received feedback. On another day have their material support and research reviewed by others. Then, a week or so later, they would share each other's RCFDs (really crappy first drafts); then we would do a regular rough draft critique day.

Lastly, just before the paper was due, I might might run them through a final pre-flight checklist: Title page? Check. Pagination? Check. Avoiding pronoun/antecedent error? Check. Remembering to make a note on how you have always planned to redesign peer editing day: Check.

Monday, March 15, 2010

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.

Friday, March 12, 2010

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 station at the correct time. It was all carefully-choreographed with barked orders, snapped salutes and Prussian heel clicks.

Later Professor Thill served in the Afrika Corps and was captured when Rommel's adventure in the desert fell apart. He and a friend found themselves surrounded on a beach and decided to swim for it. They took off their clothes and dove into the ocean. The American troops just sat in the sand watching these two naked German boys trying to swim out against an incoming tide. Eventually, they were exhausted and stumbled out of the ocean to collapse at the Americans' feet.

Professor Thill eventually came to America as a prisoner of war. He told us that he was on a prison train that had stopped at some sleepy rural station. The station master was seated on a wooden chair eating an apple and swatting flies. The engineer leaned out of the cab and said, "Okay?" The station master just waved his apple core at him and the train wheezed into motion. A 19-year old Professor Thill watched all this in amazement and thought "How the hell are we losing to these people?"

Later, of course, he became one of these people, coming to America after the war, working in hotels, earning his degrees and becoming a professor of German and history. He was a wonderful teacher and a lovely man. I shall always remember him.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

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 Jones flops down a 10 pound note, grabs a letter and runs off.

Weeks pass and eventually Smith can't help himself. He asks about the letter. Jones refuses to tell him anything about it. He bought it. It's his. If Smith really wanted to know, he shouldn't have sold the letter. Day by day, curiosity eats at Smith. He asks again and again, but Jones won't tell him anything. Their relationship deteriorates. Soon neither man is speaking, but both are eyeing each other warily. It's at this point that Maugham challenged his readers to complete the story.

I don't know why I love this idea. It doesn't create complex, nuanced characters or evoke a particular setting. It doesn't aspire to anything more than resolution of the plot. It's so cheesy, so hackneyed. Maybe that's why I liked it, and maybe that's why I am a failed fiction writer. Anyway, I have a fat file folder full of the first paragraphs of really bad short stories I'll never write. I was looking over them the other day. Here are a few of the bad beginnings:
I first learned my wife was a murderer on our anniversary. Well, not actually a murderer, but an attempted murderer.


Fowler knew only two things about himself with certainty. The first was that he hated Flaherty, hated the very sight of his fat pasty face and greasy forelock. The second thing was that in his entire life he had never been right about anyone.

The first word to go was catsup. Seated at Danny’s, an after work watering hole, he had asked for some, but the word, which retained its meaning in his mind, came out as a series of sharp clicks and a glottal stop, not unlike the noise produced by contented porpoises. The waiter, after staring a moment, asked him to repeat himself. Again came the clicks and stops. It took four tries and a bit of pantomime but he finally made himself clear. A few days later the word “pool” transformed; then “plant” changed over. The stares became more frequent, the awkwardness increased. Yet he knew what he was saying. When the verbs and prepositions started slipping away, he also knew he had a problem...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

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-centric development stage. They become aware that there is a world beyond their experience, but--like little scientists--they ask themselves, "How can I be sure?" So in rushes this wonderful conjecture, a kind of proto-scientific myth. I am not sure how well my analogy cleared up Emerson's point. I probably didn't stitch it together very well, but it was a fun moment.

Emerson may have been onto something, too. I have often thought that kids think more abstractly than we imagine. There is a kind of naive genius in the way they explore the concepts of time, physics, matter and space. I have an uncle who once threw a shoe through a window on a stairway landing because--so he said--he wanted to see if the shoe would turn the corner and go down the stairs. I also recall once hearing a scientist interviewed on the radio. The host asked him how in the world he ever came to study subatomic particles. He said that as a kid he pestered his mom with questions: Why is the grass green instead of blue? Why don't things fall upward? He would get an answer and ask another why, and then another and another... Turns out, he said, if you keep asking why long enough, you end up at subatomic particles.

In my own experience, I remember having a long debate with a childhood friend about how the picture gets into a TV set. My theory was nonsense. I just assumed there were people in there. His was brilliant. He went over to the electrical outlet, unplugged the TV, and said, "Look, no picture." Then he plugged the set back in and said, "Picture. Obviously the picture comes in through the electrical outlet."

We were both wrong, of course, but he was better wrong than I was. Thus is science born.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

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 pattern or interesting distinction that we might tease out?

Or let me put it this way. We did an exercise in class during the first week of the semester. I showed the class six images (sun, sunglasses, car tire, car, tree...). Then I had them sort the images into various relationships, patterns, and categories. There were no right or wrong answers, only conceptual frameworks whose logic they could communicate. My only goal was to get the students to apply multiple conceptual frameworks over data. After all, those images were a data field as are the various texts in the course—a bit bigger and more complex, to be sure, but just a data field. So I am not teaching the texts per se, but how to construct interesting frameworks of connection and distinction with all, some or a only few of the texts. In other words, I want students to stitch together some new creature for me, to invent, to attach head and limbs and digits. It isn't about producing right answers; it's about how well they communicate the logic and evidence for their answers.

Now students who arrive at this stage often pick up on the idea that I like to see inter-textual connections in their work, so they start making a lot of them. Unfortunately, these connections and distinctions can be dull and prosaic: Milton and Plato are similar and not so similar in many ways. When they do this, I start asking “So what?” So what does this mean? How does it fit into the seminar’s themes? What’s the big picture here? Why should I care? When they can answer these questions, we're really getting somewhere.

In a nutshell, this is my plan. I want the students to build ideas from the evidence in the text, to connect them to other ideas, authors and events in interesting and creative ways, and then to evaluate the significance of their ideas in the larger context. If I can get students to do all this, then my evil plan is succeeding. I have just turned out some highly-critical, independently-minded, intellectually-dangerous little pains in the neck. All that remains is to set them loose upon the world.

(Fiendishly rubbing my hands) Nee-yah-ha-ha-ha!

Monday, March 8, 2010

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 in terms of an attention economy because it's human attention that's scarce. It's what is actually being bought and sold now.

Enter the study of arts and letters, whose forte is sifting texts and images, interpreting them, and drawing attention to important ideas. So we ought to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and refuse to accept our marginalized status in higher education. Lanham says our day has come:
Training [is] badly needed in the new center of events in which we find ourselves. Business people know this. If you ask them what kind of training they would like us to give our students, uniformly they put first precisely the kind of training that the rhetorical paideia offered, a training in the word. They know this talent is the central one in an economy of attention. But how well do we cultivate it? Not very. Partly, it is because such training falls into the bailiwick of “composition,” and this bailiwick, in English departments, dwells in the basement of professional regard. But even more sadly, it is because we have lost our faith in verbal style.
And not only style and eloquence, but digital media, which can return us to the richness of the medieval illustrated manuscript. In other words, the prospects have never been brighter for those who wish to teach rhetoric, eloquence, writing, hermeneutics or art criticism. If only we would listen, Lanham argues, the world is crying out for us to make ourselves more relevant. Business needs us, the economy needs us, the world desperately needs us.

It was all quite heartening, unless, of course, you actually do love teaching actual poetry, which in any economy will remain as ornamental, useless and inconsequential as the beads hurled from the balconies of Bourbon Street.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

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 American Life,
but “they” never found forty like this:
agrin at shit and breast milk,
made fragile, fresh and foolish

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

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 even imagine loving another job more.

So why do something other than what you love? Why not go to seminary, or at the very least teach young people the subject you have spent so much time in college studying? You don’t have to answer these questions for me. You have your reasons, which I respect, but I know from my own experience how important the choice of vocation is. You may already know this, but the word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, which means “a spiritual calling from God.” If the passion in this paper is any indication, you may have a calling to go to seminary or to work with young people. I would at least listen closely if I were you.
I got a short note back from this student. In it she told me that she had sat in her car after class reading my comments and weeping. Apparently she had applied and been accepted to graduate school in pharmacy and felt an enormous responsibility to her family to follow this route instead of doing something for which she so obviously had a passion. She thanked me for caring and said she would really think about her life path. Ironically, that same day I received a long letter from a very devout student upset about reading Darwin in my course. She said she pitied me as a foolish secularist and possible atheist. So in less than 24-hours I had been thanked for encouraging a student to attend seminary and called a "filthy atheist" for teaching Darwin.

This odd coincidence came to mind yesterday. When I arrived at work there was an email in my inbox from a former student. He had taken the senior capstone three years ago and found himself thinking back to the conversations we had in class. He even reread his old papers and looked over the comments I had written him. Then he looked up my faculty web page and found his way to this blog. You have no idea how much a note like this means to a professor. We often feel we don't make much of an impression upon our students. For one to sit down and write an email letting you know this... Well, it's really something remarkable.

Then, late in the day, I received another email that criticized me for something I had said in class. Obviously, I am concerned whenever some stray comment I make upsets a student to the point of tears or provokes someone to fire off an email out of the blue, but it's not the first time this has happened. And sometimes it's not even a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

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's Cultivating 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 ruefully acknowledge that human beings resemble Yahoos far more than they do the gentle rationalism of the admirable Houyhnhnms.

On the surface, these two works have nothing to do with each other. Even so, Swift and Martha Nussbaum have started a debate. Where she is advocating the use of fiction as a way of opening students' empathy and imagination, Swift is writing about rational horses who have no concept of lying or falsehood. Indeed, Gulliver has to go to great lengths to explain to the Houyhnhnms why any rational creature would ever say "the thing that is not."

And fiction is by definition a lie. There never was a Huck Finn, a Hamlet or a race of completely rational talking horses. Despite their virtues, however, no Houyhnhnm could have written a novel like Gulliver's Travels. To do so would have been “to say the thing that was not.” And, as Nussbaum argues, the ability to lie and make up stories is somehow connected to our capacity to empathize. Con artists apparently have always scored very high on empathy tests.

So yesterday when we finished Gulliver's Travels, I had the students line up across the back of the room in a spectrum of response. At one end of the line were those who agreed with Gulliver that humanity is a wretched, vile lot with some marks of reason that it employs mostly to exacerbate its natural vices. And there is certainly no end of ammunition for this position. Were Swift alive today, he would no doubt relish pointing out to us that the average American watches 30 hours of TV per week, pornography is a $97 billion per year industry, and the country has a an $11 trillion dollar debt. Not much rational about any of that.

At the other end of the line were those students who thought the book could not possibly be that dark. They argued Swift would never have bothered to write Gulliver's Travels if he felt we were so irredeemable. Besides, no Yahoo possessed the self-awareness of Gulliver, which suggests that we should read the novel as a cautionary tale, not an outright condemnation of humanity. Maybe Swift was pulling a Nussbaum and trying awaken our empathy and conscience.

In the middle of the line stood students who were not sure what to make of this strange and savage book. Was it a backhanded plea for charity, humility and kindness, or a gob of spit in the face of humanity? They just didn't know. And as we were leaving classroom, one of the students asked where I stood. Did I think human beings were Yahoos? I gave him my standard answer: "It kind of depends on the day."

Monday, March 1, 2010


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, grippingwhite,
Until we are again succumbered
And love, not-gone-we-by,
One smileinsatiable.

The first expressed little more than a desire to contrast some slippery M's and S's with some staccato G's and K's. The second was an attempt to make words melt into each other like lovers. I suppose these aren't meaningless poems, but meaning wasn't what they were after. It's funny but if you start messing around with sounds, meaning more or less shows up on its own, which reminds me of another scrap of my collected literary detritus:

When it comes to verse,
Some say conceit
And some say sound,
And, worse, some say
Sound-alone's conceited
Or conceit alone
Form follows function
And function cries out for existence.
Each may bless his brother
(But only if you're gifted).

Friday, February 26, 2010

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's Lying 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 John's mother shows up at the cloister. The woman had abandoned her daughter as a child, a psychological wound from which Sister John has never emotionally recovered. Indeed, it's possible to read her entire religious life as a botched attempt to insert God for the absent mother she longed for as a child. Then, in the midst of her spiritual doubts, mom reappears to say she doesn't want any more contact. The scene serves as a kind of reenactment of her childhood trauma, and it comes when she is least sure of anything in her life.

Understandably Sister John is angry, filled with venom and fully justified in saying something that would plunge a barbed harpoon into this bete noir of a mother, but she doesn't do it. Instead, she falls back on her commitment to love as Christ loved and thinks to herself, "Maybe here--not in the cell or the choir--is where I find out what my vows really mean." So, despite her uncertainty, she acts on faith. The chapter ends with this sentence: "Even then God remained silent."

After examining this scene in detail, I asked the students which was the true instance of faith: the ecstasy of her visions, which are compared to super novas of love and certainty, or that encounter with her mother, when, shaking, angry and afraid, she relied on her vows and was answered with silence? Man, that was a great moment in class. When you teach long enough, you can--like a performer--sense when you're locked in or bombing. For some reason, I was locked in and the students and I ended up having a wonderful discussion about whether faith was about possessing certainty or the strength to move forward in the face of uncertainty.

Next class, I bombed. No, I mean really bombed, H-bombed. Everything I tried was not working, unconnected, disjointed, forced and lame. It was the worst class of this semester so far. I had planned to show a few minutes of a documentary to make a point, but the class was going so badly I decided to let the video run for an extra ten minutes to kill off the hour. Meanwhile, I stood in the darkness at the rear of the room filled with a sense of hapless ineptitude. How could I go from such heights to such depths? Sheez, this job! It can make you feel like a genius and five minutes later you're a bum.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"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's all it takes. They get the message.

In fact, showing up without the text is an acute disadvantage in my courses because I seldom lecture. Instead, students are expected to have read the material. By the end of the second week they should know that we use class time to analyze, write about and discuss what we are reading. I assign working groups to look at key ideas, themes or passages in primary source texts. Each member of the group writes a short in-class response, which is then shared with others who have written on the same prompt. Then I lead a large group discussion of the four or five prompts, drawing out the groups' consensus or major points of disagreement. The students then revise their responses in light of small and large discussion and turn in a typed version the following session.

I really like working this way. It requires students to come at the material multiple times in multiple ways (reading, analyzing, composing, discussing in small group and large group, and in revision). They tell me that like the chance to hear what others say before committing to a final response; they also like the course's infinite revision policy. If they don't get a score they like, they are free to revise multiple times. I tell my night students that their work is 80 percent done when they leave class. Most of these people work full-time and have family responsibilities, so they appreciate that.

Working this way also moves the students' engagement with the text into a quiet, controlled environment where I can be sure they aren't distracted or multitasking. I wish I did not have to do this. I tried requiring students to come with their responses pre-written, but too many showed up empty handed, which meant they had nothing to contribute to the group discussions. Moving the writing of responses into the class meeting was the only way I could assure that, at a minimum, they had actually read and thought about the material before it was discussed. I know because I am in the room and watch them do it. But everything about working this way hinges on students showing up with the material.

We have been working this way for over eight weeks in my Humanities II course. Now it's past midterm, and students should understand by now the disadvantage of not bringing the text to class. Yet I still have some students who show up day after day without the material. Yesterday I told them that I had had it. "Look," I said, "I'm a patient man, but there is a limit." Then I muttered something darkly about having to put the hammer down.

I told all this to my wife last night and she just laughed. One of my traits--and she knows this from long experience--is a complete inability to stay angry at people. I just can't nurse a grudge. I try but it never lasts. She also knows that my threats are always idle ones. Sometimes I get the sense that students see right through me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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 comparing and contrasting Victor Frankenstein to Emerson's idealized scholar, Man-Thinking. What I loved best about that paper was not that she finally cited a damned source or gave me a clear thesis statement. No, what I loved was that the argument was uniquely her own. She was using the game I taught her to argue seriously about something that mattered to her.

During that spring semester, too, I happened to be standing in the hallway talking to two other professors. I mentioned that I had this odd new student in my honors seminar who had turned into something of a project for me. "Really," they said. "Who is it?" I told them and they both laughed. It turns out all three of us were making a project of the same student. Somehow this lost, clueless 18 year-old had wandered into our midst and all of us saw how wonderful she was behind her unformed skills and lack of confidence.

I really doubt that the paper she wrote for me four years ago was much of an "aha!" moment. That kind of thing only happens in Hollywood films. In reality students change slowly and it's hard to manufacture a transformative assignment, course experience or comment. The process of change is more like an accretion over time. An accounting major, for example, might take a life drawing course, and the professor will look at his work and say, "Hey, that's not bad." Without realizing it, that kid has subtly changed. He's gone from being an accounting major to an accounting major who can draw. He always could, of course; he just couldn't see it until the professor said it was there. In the end, my job often amounts to little more than holding a mirror in front of students to get them to see what's been there all along. And sometimes--but certainly not always--it comes into focus and they see it.

Yesterday, for example, I was handing back an assignment to a student who had done some good work in a paper comparing Plato and Milton on humanity's fallen nature. I asked her, "When are you going to give up this nonsense about being a biology major and get serious about studying literature?" She just laughed and shook her head. But I wasn't really trying to get her to change majors and don't expect she will. I just wanted her to see that she could.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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 marketing committee seeking to refocus the college’s image. If all this were not enough, I also accepted the position of president of the parent board at my son’s daycare center. It was this last job, I believe, that sunk me.

Things went well for a few weeks. Then the center’s director quit just before Christmas, and the assistant director, a somewhat charmless woman, proved incapable of handling the interim. We also began to see that the previous director had not been much of a record keeper, which led to the state putting us on provisional licensing. Then there came an afternoon when I had to leave work to fire one of the employees, a young woman who was in an abusive relationship and sometimes failed to come to work on time. Oh, and then the center was flooded, after which I fielded angry calls from parents upset that they had to use a day of vacation time to watch their kid while the staff and I mopped up. Then there was also the whole "lost child incident," which resulted in another firing and registered letters arriving at my home from the terminated employee’s law firm.

Meanwhile at work I was given some new responsibilities: create individual freshmen class schedules out of an existing master schedule subject to change, and also see that 75 percent of these freshmen were put into 15 cohorts sharing three courses whose curriculum was linked in an as yet unforeseen way by faculty who had not consented to this. The scheduling complexities were nightmarish; the negotiation of personalities, each with his or her own historical grievances and quirks, began to give me an ulcer.

But, okay I told myself, I can deal with this. Or at least I thought so until one morning driving to work I found myself gnashing my teeth and cursing one of the sweetest, most decent and lovely people I know. Something she had done had vexed me, and here I was ripping out my gentle colleague's entrails in my imagination. That’s when I knew I was not made for this kind of work.

Every tragedy, so the theory goes, must have its recognition scene. Oedipus must become aware that he’s got issues with his mother; Othello must discover that Desdemona’s been a brick. And I, once again, had to realize how wildly wrong I can be: I do not have what it takes to be an administrator. Quite frankly, I was a mess, anxious all the time and I hated coming to work. So I made an appointment to see the provost and told him how miserable I was. I begged him to please, please, please let me go back into a class room. He took one look at me and agreed.

It's commonplace for faculty to see administrators as people who don't get it and are forever covering their backsides and refusing to take a clear stand. I know I have been guilty of this stereotype. Since my brief sojourn in administrative-land, however, I have a lot more respect for good administrators. I cannot do what they do, so my motto now is if you find a good one, pay 'em.  They're worth every damned cent.

Friday, February 19, 2010

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 theorem that doesn't have any practical application?

In an attempt to explain Wiles, I always ask the athletes in the room if they would still want to break a world record even if no one saw it or ever knew about it?

"Sure," they say.

"Well, it's kind of the same thing."

They usually wrinkle their nose at this analogy because it's not the same thing to them at all. In fact, something fundamental to the difference in the way students and professors think about knowledge is present in these exchanges. For professors, knowledge is an intrinsic good, an end unto itself, a summum bonum, but for students "knowledge for knowledge's sake" is an entirely foreign concept.

I sometimes ask my class if there is such a thing as completely useless knowledge and they always sputter back, "Well, something may seem useless, but you never know. It could lead to something useful one day." Sometimes, too, they will say, "What if you found yourself on Jeopardy and that piece of knowledge was the final jeopardy answer? It would be pretty useful then." These responses are themselves interesting because they indicate how deeply-oriented students are to the idea that knowledge and utility must ultimately be connected.

Unfortunately, those of us who teach in the traditional liberal arts core disciplines seldom explain the value of studying art, history, or literature; nor do science or math professors always make clear to non-majors the value to a human being in thinking scientifically or mathematically. In one sense, we don't have to justify ourselves because the students are served up to us (often against their wills) by core requirements. More importantly, though, we often operate under an assumption that the value of our disciplines is so obvious that it goes without saying. Sometimes students will ask us "Why do I need to take history?" or "Why in the world do I need to take biology if I'm a human services major?" Now it's our turn to gape back with incredulity.

I have tried to keep this student/professor difference in mind as we designed the architecture for the new core. One of the important principles we put into the proposal is that all core courses make it a primary goal to help students understand why a discipline matters. I've called this a general rather than a specific approach, but that may have been a mistake. When my colleagues hear the word "general," they tend to think we are asking them to dilute the content of their courses, but what we are really asking them to do is to keep the big questions front and center.

Why are things the way they are? Why do people see things differently? What is the nature of this world we inhabit? What can we know? Why are we here? What is to be done? Putting these questions first is not dilution. It's our raison d'être. Indeed, our disciplines exist because people have wanted and will continue to want answers to these vital questions.

More importantly, students can see the value of a discipline when they grasp that it's in service to answering fundamental human questions. Of course students should gain knowledge of content, but not at the expense of understanding why a disciplinary perspective matters. A 16-week course in any core subject is unlikely to lead to mastery, but it can help students broadly to understand how practitioners in a given discipline construct knowledge and the real human value of doing so. I'm no expert, but I do know this: human beings learn best when they see that answers matter, when they grasp their implications, or when, like Andrew Wiles, they find that they have just got to know.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

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, old leather furniture and magazines eight years out of date. I almost laughed when I walked in; it could have been Sam Spade’s office. An old man snored in a chair as I sat down and began to wait for my appointment.

The room was very still but for the continual soft clatter of clocks ticking out of unison. Strangely, Dr. Andrei’s waiting room contained four antique clocks, one on each wall. Each was made of a different wood -- one of cherry, one of mahogany, one of pine, and one, I think, was made of plum wood. As I waited I thought about trees being chopped down, milled into boards and built into clocks. The old man snored.

Then the plum wood clock chimed familiarly in four ascending and descending tones: bong, bong, bong, bong -- bong, bong, bing, bong. The old man woke up and sang to himself, “Lord through this hour, grant us thy power.”

“I never knew there were lyrics,” I said.

Oh, yes, all chimes are forms of prayer.”

We began to talk after that, introduced ourselves and waited together. We talked about work, family, health, and once or twice it seemed to me he was about to doze off. His face, gaunt and sunken, wanted to be solemn, but two watery blue eyes spoiled the effect. He could almost have been taken for dead but for those eyes. Then a pause came into our conversation and I struggled for something to say.

“Have you lived here all your life?” I asked.

“Not yet,” he said.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...