Showing posts from January, 2010

Best not to think on that

The other day in the first-year honors seminar we were discussing the character of Satan in Paradise Lost. In Book I he resolves that he will resist God even though it's irrational and futile. And since God has cornered the market on doing good, Satan will simply have to do evil. He says, To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil.I called this the Costanza strategy, as in George Costanza, the Seinfeld character whose instincts are unfailingly wrong. In one episode, George hits upon the strategy of doing the opposite of his natural inclinations, and for a brief time he actually avoids his schlemiel-like fate. Only two students understood the reference to Seinfeld. Two! I suddenly felt quite ancient. Then yesterday another student announced it was his b…

Head Games

In the senior capstone we discuss the meaning, value and use of a good liberal arts education. We always start the seminar by reading The Apology and Crito by Plato. Then we spend a week or so talking about the "Socrates Game," which has a few important rules: players must think things through for themselves, act only on their rationally-arrived at convictions, and share their moral reasoning with others as an example, but also as a safeguard in case they have gotten it wrong. It's a good game, the Socrates Game, but it does have an unsettling tendency to get you into a whole lot of trouble.

The students generally like and admire this game--that is until I introduce them to Machiavelli, who says leaders playing the Socrates Game are likely to be a disaster, and that good leaders had better be prepared to do whatever it takes to assure the safety and success of the people they lead. It usually doesn't take very long for the students to switch games. Yes, yes, they say,…

Do they only stand by ignorance?

We start Paradise Lost today in the first year honors seminar, and I always feel obliged to acknowledge to students that it is a difficult work. Its language is dense, its length daunting and its theme challenging. Moreover, critics have wrangled over its merit and meaning for over 300 years. The question arises, then, why should we read it if no one agrees on its meaning and much of it seems willfully obscure? The answer, of course, is that reading Paradise Lost is, for all its problems, enormously rewarding. It contains majestic beauty, fascinating characters, memorable scenes and great metaphoric power.

I confess, however, that there are several parts of the poem that are less than stirring. But if you wade through these to get to the poem's riches, your patience will be rewarded. I always let the students in on another little secret, too. In the years I have taught the first-year honors seminar, it has been Paradise Lost that has time and again produced the most interesting dis…

The most beautiful fraud in the world

I saw recently that Eric Rohmer died. He was a filmmaker I might never have encountered in my youth had it not been for a completely preposterous little art house cinema in my hometown. I can't think what possessed anyone to think there was a market for foreign language films in a provincial Midwestern American city. Nevertheless, for a few years while I was in my 20s, one actually existed. Each week I would drive across town to this crummy strip center multiplex to watch films by Rohmer, Godard, Wertmuller, and Bergman. The theater was called, reductively enough, "Movies." That's it. Just Movies.

There were three or four films running at a time on tiny screens, some no bigger than a garage door. The smallest of the theaters might only have seated 30 people, which was not a problem because I was often the only one in the place. The films changed each week and were a mixture of new and classic European cinema. You might be watching a completely incomprehensible late-Go…

"Aye, Caeser, but not gone..."

Today's the day we do the final edit on the long awaited core proposal. At 2:00 I brief the president and provost, at 3:00 the committee meets for two hours of wordsmithing, and Monday it goes to the Curriculum Committee for release to the college at large. I am as nervous as a caffeinated cat.

You see, I know how academics think. I know the issues they worry about. I also know that as soon as this proposal is posted on the college's intranet, a lot of people will be pouring over it like actors counting the lines of their parts. Why is there no mention of discipline X? How is it you can spend nearly two years on this and not see it the way I do? Great, but how will this affect my favorite course to teach? What have you people been doing all this time? I hate it. I love it. I'm all for it, now here are 172 high-minded objections...

One of the challenges in designing a general education core composed of many disciplines is creating some kind of coherence. At best this challen…

Pedagogic Stigmata

For the past several weeks I have been uneasy about the presence of some dark red spots on the palm of my right hand. They come and go and are rather small, about the size of a caper or a fat bee-bee. At first they were exclusively on the my right palm, but I glanced down yesterday while in class and saw that they were now showing up on my left palm as well.

I was making a distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism, but the startling sight of three new red spots stopped me cold. "Are there any nursing students in the room?" I asked. A couple of hands went up and I flashed my palms to the class.

"What the heck are these?"

A nursing senior in the core capstone took a look, pronounced them to be blood blisters and told me not to worry. Later another student pointed out that I repeatedly tap the butt ends of the Expo Dry Erase markers into the heel of my palm during class. I checked, and sure enough on the bottom of the marker there are sharp little interior fin…

The Null Hypothesis

The students ask the questions on Tuesdays in my freshmen honors seminar. I split the class into groups and each group has a day when it's responsible for posing questions for the rest of us to gnaw on. There are a few ground rules for this exercise, too. First, the person asking the question is not allowed to speak during the following discussion unless its in the form of another question. Second, all questions must be text-focused.

In other words, they must lead us back into the text to construct a good answer. It is perfectly permissible, for example, to ask a question like this: "On page 63 Aristotle says we enter the world with an equal potential for realizing our full potential for human excellence. What reasons does he offer to support this view and how does he differ from Plato in this respect?" I discourage questions like "What would Aristotle say to B.F. Skinner?" or "Do you agree with Aristotle that people form their character through habit?"…

Pipe Dreams

Every professor probably has a list of courses he or she would love to try a hand at before retiring. Mine is filled with subjects I want to force myself to learn more in depth by having to teach them. I would love, for example, to offer a course centered on the question What is Beauty? It's one of the three major questions in the liberal arts tradition, yet it receives the least attention and is often dismissed or turned into a subset of cultural studies more interested in semiotics than aesthetics. I think it would be interesting to approach beauty as a human universal, to overview the various historical attempts to make sense of its role in our lives, and to help students see an articulation of their tastes as a way of knowing themselves more intimately.

I would also love to have a go at an introductory course in appreciating architecture. I've included some of this in my Introduction to Humanities sections, but it's just squeezed in along side tidbits of poetry, philoso…

The Smell Test

Anyone who's read this blog for long knows I usually take a dim view of educational panaceas, those fresh, bold ideas that appear from time to time and promise to revolutionize teaching and learning. This isn't to say I dismiss every innovation. Some are useful and I have adopted them, but they first have to pass the smell test. Here's the story of one that didn't.

Several years ago our institution was looking for ways to distinguish itself and someone suggested we look at the work being done by the Gallup Organization, which is best known for its opinion polling. It seems that Gallup had developed an instrument to help businesses identify an employee's strengths at a given job.

Let's say you wanted to hire a salesperson. Well, Gallup would round up and interview hundreds of the nation's top sales people, the best of the best. From this they developed a personality template and then, in turn, an instrument that could detect and measure a subject's "s…

Again, Crito, may we do evil?

I once had dinner with a prominent local business man. He was the retired CEO of a large and very profitable insurance company. I found him to be a nice enough guy, and the dinner and surroundings were first rate. As we chatted there in his private club atop the city's highest building, our conversation turned to the subject of education, a topic upon which my dinner companion had many opinions.

During the course of our discussion, he informed me with a self-satisfied look that the business world was actually much better suited for teaching critical thinking than liberal arts colleges. I asked him what he meant and he replied, "Well, we teach managers all the time how to think strategically, how to problem solve, how to prioritize and make decisions. More importantly, we hold people accountable. It's not just an academic thought experiment."

I nodded but refrained from explaining the distinction between horizontal critical thinking (How shall we accomplish X?) and vert…

Not with a bang but a tweet

Here are some sobering statistics. According to ABC News there are 7 million illiterate Americans. Some 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application and 30 million can't read a simple sentence. Approximately 50 million Americans read at only a fourth or fifth grade level, and a third of the population is illiterate or barely literate. By the way, that number is growing at a rate of 2 million a year. But here's the kicker: a third of all high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates can make the same claim.
Yet higher education is infatuated with new communications technology. I just ran across a site listing 50 ways to use Twitter in the college classroom. Here are the breathless claims: The creative ways Twitter users have incorporated microblogging has become inspirational, so the recent trend of using Twitter at college is sure to keep evolving into an ever more impressive tool. Make sure …

When wallpaper dawns...

"Life," Emerson once wrote, "consists of what a man thinks about all day." Often, too, that thinking seems curiously thematic. Take yesterday, for example. I have been sitting in on a colleague's Roman history course this semester and really enjoying myself. It's been a long time since I read those primary source Roman historians. Anyway, a discussion arose in class yesterday about the difference between ancient and modern historians.

Indeed, many (but by no means all) ancient historians wrote to illustrate the exemplary traits of certain historical figures. Plutarch is the best example of this, but Livy's history of early Rome (the era we are currently discussing) features many heroic figures like Horatio and Cinncinnatus. These tales are more likely legends than factual history. They served as propaganda for the superiority of early Roman values and culture. But the Romans believed them and, more importantly, thought it necessary to set such examples b…

The Desire for Desires

We just got high speed internet installed at home, which means that we now possess more ways of wasting time than ever before: Hulu, streaming video from Netflix, not to mention using social networking sites to keep abreast of every trivial moment in the lives of 247 of our closest "friends." They say even the gods struggle against boredom, but one wonders if that's still true. American life abounds in ways to amuse yourself. I don't think there has ever been a society as teeming in divertissementas this one.

I worry sometimes about a world without boredom. My wife and I will say to my son (who is always begging to do something fun) that it's not a bad thing to be bored once in a while. She and I tell him that our childhoods were filled with tedious afternoons, boring I-pod-less family trips in the backseats of stuffy cars, entire summer vacations when we couldn't speak to our best friend. No doubt it makes as much of an impression on him as our parents' t…

No one can be that fascinating

There really isn't a debate any longer about whether active learning strategies work better than lecturing. The data is in and the argument is over. It's far better to put students into groups and assign them various tasks or problems related to the material than to gas on over the material. I know this, I get it, but sometimes I miss lecturing--well, maybe not standing in front of the class and droning on for 45 minutes, but that kind of free-flowing lecture/discussion that is peppered with periodic stops to wrestle with students' questions or the implications of some big idea.

My teaching fantasy is to walk into a class each day and put such a profound or unsettling question on the board that the students would immediately feel compelled to seek an answer. Then I would briefly lay out some possible historical approaches for answering the question. After which we would together explore the implications of answering a question a certain way. On Wednesday, for example, we w…

Getting to Know Them

A number of years ago I saw a social psychology experiment in which people were shown film clips of job applicants walking into a room and shaking the hand of their interviewer. That was it. No soundtrack, no clue what the job was or even the candidate's professional background. The viewers of these three or four second film clips were then asked to select the candidate they would hire. Amazingly, the results correlated with the selections of the actual interviewers to a high degree. In other words, the old saw about first impressions really is true.

Unfortunately, I am, for whatever reason, constitutionally incapable of forming accurate first impressions. If I meet people who seem pleasant and agreeable, they will inevitably turn out to be spiteful, mingy no-goodniks. Similarly, if I had met Mother Theresa, I'd no doubt have thought to myself, "What's this old bag's problem?" I just get it wrong every time. Even if I try to outsmart myself and assume the oppo…

Where They Are Right Now

I used to really dislike the first day of class. There was never any material to discuss because no one had yet read anything. There was also no way to avoid that dreadful trek through the syllabus, assignments and course policies. And woe unto you if you had an afternoon Tuesday-Thursday class because the students had already been frog-marched through the policies and syllabi of four or five other courses, which meant everything you were saying became so much white noise.

More recently, however, I've come to like the first day and the earlier parts of a course when nothing much has happened. There is this window when students haven't settled into any routine; they haven't figured out you or the class. I like to think, too, that somewhere in the back of their minds they still have hope that this class will be different from all the others. This window doesn't last long. Sometimes it doesn't even survive thefirst meeting.

I do a lot of things on the first day that nev…

Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus?

I just came back to my office after the first meeting of my Spring honors seminar on Nature and Human Nature. I have taught this course for over 10 years, but I never have a clue how it will go. I do not know where these students have come from, what they know, or what they believe. And so much depends on the collection of student personalities in the room. Some classes are timid and unsure of themselves. Some are snarky and unfocused. Some I would like to keep forever and others I am happy to be rid of.

The first text we will read is Plato's Phaedrus, a work I've taught dozens of times. In rereading it for tomorrow, however, I noted for the first time how the opening line actually states the dialog's dramatic question perfectly. Socrates asks, “Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus, and where are you going?” It's a question I often find myself asking about my students. In the dialog, of course, young Phaedrus has just come from hearing the sophist Lysias advocate …