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Showing posts from February, 2010

Five minutes later...

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

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

There's a scene in the book where Sister…

"Text" was once a noun

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

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

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

Silver and Exact

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

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

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

Annus Horribilis

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

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

What's the Question?

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

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

In Dr. Andrei's Waiting Room

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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…

The Carapace of Cool

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In Why Read?, the University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson describes a dynamic that he dubs "The Tyranny of Cool." This is a default attitude of emotional distance from confrontation or any sign of excessive passion in a college classroom. Today's 18 year-olds, he notes, have grown up in a society devoted to a habit of coolly remote spectatorship. Indeed, much of their life has been spent gazing into screens watching other people do things, which means a lot what they know of life has come to them secondhand while they remained safely untouched. Consequently, students tend to prefer a relaxed, laid back and emotionally detached classroom atmosphere. Edmundson writes,

The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embar…

Turning quite liesurely away

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Lately I've been toying in class with an important distinction. It arose from a question that a student asked a few weeks ago when we were reading Aristotle. In Book I of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a point about the difference between arguing from or to first principles. A student had asked about this passage and wondered why it mattered. I kind of took a deep breath and explained that it did matter. In fact, it matters a lot.

Last Wednesday in the first-year honors seminar, for example, we started KingLear after completing Paradise Lost. We've spent the last few weeks watching Milton "assert eternal providence/And justify the ways of God to man." You might even say that Milton began with a first principle. He argues God's in his heaven and everything is going according to plan. In other words, Milton already knows the truth and is now casting about for evidence and arguments to fit evil and human suffering into it. Despite his genius, he gets himsel…

Moscow, Moscow, Moscow

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I got a phone call last week from an old friend. His wife was in the hospital after undergoing a heart operation and he wanted to let me know that she was doing fine. I’ve known Ray for over two decades, a period that encompasses his three marriages, a few girlfriends, and three or four career changes. When I first met him, though, he was a wasp-waisted 23-year old theater arts graduate with thick black hair and a passing resemblance to a young Omar Sharif. A real character, too, always sporting a pipe, creased trousers, oxfords and a fedora.

At that time I imagined myself something of a writer and was going through my play writing phase (ye gods, is there any art form I've yet to embarrass myself in?). So Ray and I teamed up. We organized a small theater troupe and staged a dozen or so productions over the course of four or five years. We really threw ourselves into the work: acting, writing, directing, building sets. We also rather pretentiously fell in love with the ideas of the…

Senesence (and mountebank)

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Senescence. I awoke this morning with that word turning over in my head. And mountebank, that was the other word. Senescence and mountebank. Strange what the cauldron of sleep sends roiling to the top. Strange too how certain ideas thread in and out of one's thoughts. We started King Lear in class, a play that has profoundly shaped my understanding of human suffering and delusion.

Last week, too, a friend and I fell into a conversation about how our concerns-- self-absorbed, self-pitying--could so easily exist alongside our awareness of so much unspeakable suffering in the world. I remember telling him about the surreal simultaneity of reading about Haiti the other morning while savoring these amazing tangerines my wife had bought. At lunch yesterday with Josh, my new faculty mentee, we fell into a conversation about how utterly unaware many of our students are of the world beyond their own experience. Then I re-read this poem by the late poet George Buchanan:

There is neither war n…

Is it me or is it you? It's you, right?

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There is an assignment in the senior capstone for the core that I really like. The students are asked to compose a list of all the courses they have taken in college. They organize this list by core, major and electives. Then they create a grid with categories for various approaches to learning: lecture, discussion, projects, experimentation, journals, etc. Each course is charted on the grid. Next they select those courses that were most meaningful to them and write brief narrative descriptions of why it was a significant learning experience. I leave it up to them to define significance.

Lastly, they look over the grid and their descriptions and attempt to identify any patterns. Were they a nursing major who only marked literature courses as significant? If so, what might that mean? Maybe significance was related to the learning approach. Perhaps all their best courses used discussion or had a hands-on component. Maybe, too, it was a particular professor they liked, one who always made…

The Sound of One Hand Teaching

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On Monday my first-year honors seminar was practically catatonic. I would ask a question and they would stare at their desktops in silence. I tried every teacher gimmick in my big bag-o-gimmicks, but they were having none of it. I could have lit my hair on fire and the students would only have glanced up briefly before retreating into the "I am not talking" fortress of solitude.

I hate when this happens because I depend on them talking to know how well they are grasping what we are reading. If I can hear them making arguments, asking pointed questions, even expressing their frustration, then I know what to do. When there's silence or, worse, when the students and I get into a pissing match and I have to force them to talk, then I've already lost.

I can get pretty desperate, too, like a car salesman with a quiet customer. "What? You don't like the color? I can get it in red? Is red what you want? Maybe you'd like bucket seats. Bucket seats are nice... What?…

Fumbling in the dark

I have been sitting in on a colleague's Roman history course this semester. We are now five weeks in and have finally arrived at the last days of the Republic, a turbulent period in which polarized factions and wealthy interests vied for advantage. The rich and privileged were determined to hang on to their power, while the lower classes and their various demagogues were seething with discontent.

Comparisons are always inexact, but I can’t help seeing parallels between the Roman Republic in its depraved senescence and America in its own late-empire paroxysms. Like Rome we are unrivaled in military prowess, spending five times as much as China, which like some distant Parthia stands as the only possible challenge. The U.S. military is scattered around the world defending far-flung outposts and preserving the peace or stirring the animosity between various warring tribes.

There are other odd parallels, too. In my lifetime I can recall fruits and vegetables having seasons. No more. You…

100 Ways to Do It Wrong

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Last fall I was asked to mentor a new faculty member. I've been around this place so long that they've finally started asking me to do jobs like this. I was a little hesitant, but I agreed. To be honest it hasn't amounted to all that much work. I have stopped by my mentee's office a few times, we've gone to lunch, and he even asked me for some advice on one occasion. I think I've probably gotten more out of the relationship than he has. Even so, I've got a guilty little confession to make: I'm jealous of my mentee.

Well, maybe not jealous of him per se, but jealous of how easily he's found his footing as a teacher. Whenever I walk across campus I find him on the sidewalk deep in conversation with students. I stop by his office and he's also in there with a student or a colleague. He's always teaching away. What's worse is that he has a clearly developed sense of how he wants to teach, great instincts and no end of innovative ideas.

I mean

Seven Philosophers in Seven Seconds

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I.
Zeno of Elea
Knew that turtles were slow,
But when he bet on Achilles
He picked him to show.

II.
Epicurus sat down
To dinner at eight,
And then he explained
Everything but self-hate.

III.
St. Augustine
Really has made it quite clear
That reason from will
Has a great deal to fear.

IV.
John Stuart Mill
Saw it all as equation:
The good for the goose
Was the good of the nation.

V.
Poor Frederich Nietzsche,
He went insane,
Turning great handsprings
On the darkening plain.

VI.
Heidigger's brilliance
Can never excuse
The terrible things
He said about Jews.

VII.
Jacques Derrida
Notes that lines are just "signs"
And as for the differénce?
Well, that'll take "time."

Intuition and Guile

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I’ve been thinking about poetry lately, my own and others. A friend sent me someone’s poems to comment on, and not long ago I read an article about some poet who had lied about his academic qualifications and was fired. The guy's poems were energetic and interesting, but not especially because the poems themselves were any good.

They were interesting only because the poet had led an interesting life. Beyond the experiences he wrote about, the poems, line for line, didn’t have enough of the extra-linguistic aesthetic quality that I seem to think is a requirement for poetry. They were loaded with sense; they lacked sound. Poets are a lot of things, but in the end they must be someone who, with intuition and guile, stands in a place where ideas and the vast textures of sound flash out to one another.

This is the great trick. Lots of people can craft strings of words that enchant the ear; many can write about their fascinating lives or make astonishing observations, but only a rare few-…

Paradise will be a kind of library

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The other day I asked my first-year honors seminar how many of them were read to as kids by their parents. All 20 hands went up. I asked another 100-level class and only half as many hands went into the air. Now don't get me wrong. The honors seminar is not a room full of violin-playing, Shakespeare-spouting math whizzes. They are just above average students who were invited into the honors program mostly on the strength of their ACT reading scores. Even so, the difference between the two classes was striking.

Indeed a mountain of evidence exists about the long-term benefits of reading aloud to your kids when they are young. Unfortunately, study after study shows that young people read less and less. We seem to be slowly devolving back into an oral culture or perhaps transitioning into visual culture. My wife and I read to our son from the start (practically in utero) and he's developed a taste for it. Last Saturday afternoon, for instance, he asked if we could just lay around …

I'm Just Asking...

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In 1972 Peter Watson and Philip Johnson-Laird designed a test that used the cards above. They asked 128 college-educated people to imagine that these cards had a letter on one side and a number on the other. Then they asked their subjects which two cards do you have to flip over to show that the following sentence is false: if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other? The most frequent answers were "A" and "4 "(46 percent), with "only A" the second most popular at 33 percent.

Only five percent of the subjects gave the correct answer of "A" and "9." Indeed, the most logical move is to turn over the "A" card and look for the odd number. If it's there, you've proven the statement is false. Most people, however, first turn over the 4-card to see if there is a vowel on the other side, but the statement doesn't say that an even-numbered card can't have a consonant. And turning over the…