Showing posts from 2011

The unimaginable zero summer

One of the odd things about being on an academic calendar is the way it suddenly stops and starts.  And I do mean suddenly.  Every semester manically speeds up near the end and then--just when it's moving at breakneck speed-- everything stops.  There's no crash or screech, no deceleration.  Just a complete and immediate stop.  Silence. You go back into the office to get something and no one is there.

I never deal well with these transitions.  No matter how many projects I line up to prepare for next semester, they always get shoved aside.  I end up reading a half-dozen books, eating too much, watching old movies and being generally unproductive.  If it were summer I would jump in the car and find a trout stream to waste time.  At least that way I would have the illusion of productivity.  But everything lies just on the verge of freezing as the world slides between late fall and full-blown winter.  All of the fish are slumbering in the depths.  Me too.

Odd time of year.  Eliot…

He do the police in different voices

A while back I blogged on an effort to build more intrinsic motivators into my classes (see Getting Better All the Time ).  I had students select personal goals and coached them on those goals.  I even built in a little self-evaluation into the grade and a celebration at the end of the course to recognize progress and growth.

While I still think this is a good idea, I have to admit it's been singularly ineffective this semester.  For whatever reason (my lack of planning, skill deficiencies in my students, bad course design) far  too many students in my classes have been ill-prepared, absent, late and sloppy this semester.  I can't recall a term in which so many students have performed so poorly.

It's been so bad that the small group of students who are actually doing the work delegated one of their own to speak to me about those who consistently come unprepared to take part in group work.  Unfortunately, the policies I built into my syllabus are set for the semester.  I ha…

"pent 'mid cloisters dim"

Grumbling about students who don't prepare for class is nothing new.  Whenever one of my colleagues complains about it, I always think to myself  "Why are you surprised by this?"  Indeed, a few years back the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) surveyed 380,000 randomly selected freshmen and senior students about their class preparation habits.  The results?  A quarter of all freshmen and 20 percent of seniors say they frequently come to class without having completed the readings.

This particular study didn't probe the reasons for poor preparation, but I don't buy the facile notion that today's students are lazier than those in the past or that their attention spans have been warped by video games, text-messaging and Facebook.  I do think some of it results from the hectic nature of their lives.  Just this semester, for example, I've had five students give birth, three go through messy divorces, two who missed class due to court dates, one whose …

Callias' boys

Among the charges leveled at Socrates during his trial in 399 BC was that he taught for money.   He actually went to some lengths in the Apology to refute this idea and recounted a conversation he had with a father named Callias who had paid a considerable amount to have his sons educated by Sophists.

Socrates suggests that Callias would have no difficulty locating a teacher who could improve his sons if they were foals or calves.  Any farmer could do the job.  As they are human beings, he wonders if teachers exist who really understand human and political virtue well enough to instruct them.

By "human and political virtue,"  of course, Socrates means teachers who can turn out excellent citizens who have realized their uniquely human potential for moral goodness and, by doing so, strengthen the polis.  Teachers who can provide this service are worth paying, he argues.  The rest are simply taking your money.

The odd thing about this passage isn't that it raises the hoary que…

Rearranging the Stack

It's generally a good idea to put one or two of the brighter students' papers at the bottom of your stack when grading, but that's not always your first instinct.  Sometimes you pick up a paper, read the opening sentence  and begin groaning with despair.  There--right in the first sentence--is a howler of a mistake.  You quickly glance down the page and see many more awaiting you.  It's  just too much and you're strongly tempted to make the paper go away, to put it at the bottom of your stack and pretend you didn't see it. 

Here's what I mean: I just picked up an assignment in which the writer refers to Saint Augustine as "St. Alexander" throughout the paper, cites neither primary or secondary sources (something I've harped on for 13 weeks) and it's riddled with sentence fragments.  Aaargh.  So I reach for the next one, but it's no better: tortured grammar,  mangled ideas and sloppy spellcheck errors (defiantly for definitely, from fo…

The Prime Directive

I spent part of my weekend attending the sporting events of some of my current students.   I usually try to do this once a semester.  I'm not the biggest of sports fans, but I do try to be supportive.  Inevitably, too, I find myself thinking how little I actually know about my students' lives.

Sitting in the stands I always catch snatches of conversation and realize that 'so and so' is dating 'what's his name.'  I even get a sense of the ever-evolving groups and subgroups that make up a small campus community.  I like to think I have a good rapport with my students, but as a faculty member my connection exists almost entirely  in the classroom, a space I structure and over which have a nominal (if not actual) authority.

The classroom is in many ways an artificial world and has its own peculiar rules and routines. Put me in a classroom and I am comfortable and at home, but put me in a social situation with students beyond the classroom and I usually feel awk…

If Magic

Many years ago a friend and I ran a small theater company.  Together we staged a dozen or so productions in various halls and church basements.  We had little money, crap equipment and only the talents of high school kids, bored homemakers and the usual assorted misfits who make up amateur theater.   My friend Ray and I were young, arrogant and completely enamored by the ideas of Constantine Stanislavsky.

I think back and often wince at our youthful pretension, but there were also some fascinating moments.  One project I recall with particular fondness.  We had decided to offer an "imagination workshop" using Stanislavsky's ideas.    We advertised it in the newspaper and charged an absurdly low amount in the hopes of attracting new talent to our troupe.  It worked, too.  Nearly a dozen people signed up.

Each week my friend Ray and I would work with the participants to build entire scenes from the simplest of stage directions.  For example, we might start with something a…

Forever Unfit

I just wrapped up an eight-week accelerated night version of the core capstone, a course in which students are asked to evaluate the significance, value and meaning of their liberal arts education.  Teaching it in our evening/weekend program is always a challenge.  Many of the students in the program are working adults  finishing degrees in career-related fields.  They take two courses, two nights a week, in eight week stretches; then they turn around and do it again the following eight weeks.

Generally, too, they are doing this while working full-time, raising a family and dealing with life in general.   This semester, for example, one was going through a bitter divorce, another had absences because his kid had  run away, one woman gave birth, and another was supporting a boyfriend with legal problems.  Most work all day and then show up to class half exhausted only to listen to me gas on with liberal arts happy talk.

To be fair, some are sincerely energized and interested by our discu…

Getting better all the time

One of the challenges for me over the past few years has been trying to minimize the importance of grades in my classes.  All of the research shows that extrinsic rewards (or punishments) are actually disincentives.  Economists have known for years that offering higher rewards for anything beyond simple mechanical tasks leads to poorer performance.  Rewards just don't work the moment you ask people to do even rudimentary cognitive tasks.   I've blogged on this before (When A's Don't Matter). 

I don't have the power to eliminate grades.  They are still (and probably always will be) the coin of the realm in higher education.  Even so, there are some things I've been able to do to de-emphasize them and put the emphasis on what really does motivate people: autonomy, challenge and mastery.   People--bless their little hearts--don't really like to think all that much, but they will do it if they are confronted with an intriguing challenge and have the freedom an…

Five Minutes or Forty to Life

The students turned in their first portfolio papers last night in the senior capstone. This is the assignment in which they analyze their college education for significance and meaning. They were to have organized all of their courses into categories (core, major, electives) and cross-referenced them on a grid listing various learning methods: lecture, seminar, discussion, journaling, lab/experiment, group project, etc. They also had to select the most significant courses and write a brief narrative about them. Lastly, they had to analyze the grid and narratives for a pattern.

There's a little exercise I like to do before they hand in the paper.  I show them two brief videos (shown above).  In one, the comedian Don Novello does a routine called the Five Minute University.  It's a funny bit.  For $20 bucks he can teach you in five minutes about all you will remember ten years after college. 

The other video is a news segment about inmates in a maximum security prison studying tr…

Back on the Wheel

I hate grading and I think most of my colleagues do as well. Grading is the place where your idealism about teaching meets the reality of the job.   Moreover, to commit yourself to grading well (i.e., fair, regular, thorough, helpful and consistent grading) is to make a whole hell of a lot of work for yourself.  And much of it is, frankly, tedious. 

I have heard all about the shortcuts of grading rubrics and check sheets (I even use them), but nothing beats some personalized response.  The students wrote something for me to read and I should let them know I actually did read it. 

I am sitting here in my office.  It's the second week of classes and already I have 60 odd papers to grade.  The next three months will be a non-stop hamster wheel ride of due dates, papers, revisions, new due dates, papers, revisions...   It won't stop spinning until December.  

Just now, to put off grading for a few more minutes, I did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation.  By the second week in…

Just in from Siberia

Sometimes it's the small things you like about teaching.  I started a night course last Monday evening at the local Guard base.  Went through all the first night routine: course goals, grading standards, policies, pet peeves, due dates.  The room they assigned me is cavernous.  It must be twenty-five feet wide by sixty-feet deep.  You could hard whip a Frisbee to the back row.  

Okay, so the first night a guy walks in and makes a beeline for the seat farthest from me.  No surprise.  That's what some students do.  The dimensions of the room, of course, make his action seem a bit pointed, but I don't say anything. 

Then, Wednesday night, we start discussing The Apology.  I distribute four broad questions on the dialog and have the students do twenty-five minutes of in-class writing.  Afterwards, they break into four groups to discuss what they have written.  I make sure that the guy out on the Siberian rim of the classroom has to relocate to a group that's placed righ…

New Wineskins, Same-old Rotgut

For the past ten years I have taught the senior capstone either twice a week in 80-minute sessions or at nights with a leisurely two and a half hours in which to fit all of my familiar gimmicks.  This semester, however, and for reasons too complicated to go into, I am teaching a single section in the three times a week 50 minute version.

Talk about messing with a man's timing!  Senior capstone is a course I could teach backward, upside down or in Pig Latin, and without missing a beat.  But simply repackage it into smaller boxes and I'm a stumble-bum.  I have no feel for how long anything will take.  Worse, I feel like I am constantly rushing.

In fact, everything about this new semester seems disorienting.  I had to change offices over the summer.  Before I was so tucked away in an empty corner of the college that colleagues rarely dropped by and my students needed a topographical map to find me.  Now I'm on a well-traveled hallway and find that all manner of people stop to c…

Zero Hour

As they say in old war movies, "It's quiet...  too quiet." 

I'm sitting in my office on the first day of my twenty-first year of doing this job, and, frankly, I have butterflies.  This promises to be a long and difficult year.  We have to begin working out  the implementation bugs of a new core, I'm teaching a heavy load and serving for the first time on the Promotions and Tenure Committee.   Yet even without all the added duties, I just get nervous about teaching when I haven't done it for a spell.  It's absurd, I know, but there it is. 

I have also decided to make a few new semester  resolutions.  First, I am going to try really hard not to whine or complain, especially with colleagues (a big sorry to my wife, though).  Second, I want never to miss a chance to be a bit kinder to the people with whom I work, to wait before responding, and to recognize their contributions.  That goes a long way.

Well, that about sums it up.  Nothing else to report.  It'…

Birch Trees and Samovars

A few times a year, but especially in summer, I become fixated on reading a single author or watching films from a single director.  Late last month I went on a Jean-Pierre Melville binge and watched all of his stylized French gangster films back-to-back.  That burned itself out and now I've been over-dosing on Chekhov.  Watched The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard over the past few days.  And one thought keeps occurring to me: Chekhov should not work on stage, but somehow he does.

Ostensibly a naturalist playwright, Chekhov's characters have always struck me as anything but natural.  Who stands around hour after hour discoursing on wheat or philosophizing about what the world will be like in 200 years?  The clunkier English translations must be hell for actors to perform.  I've always heard, too, that non-Russians usually fail to see the humor in Chekhov, which means they lard up the play with too much angst and seriousness. Who knows?  Maybe all those manner…

Seemed like a good idea at the time

I think it was Clausewitz who said, "No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy."   Take out the part about their being an enemy and the sentiment could apply just as well to syllabus preparation.  I spent all of last week finalizing the syllabi, assignments, readings and class activities for my courses in the upcoming semester.  And let me tell you, jack, they're perfect.  Everything is well timed and ideally-coordinated for maximum pedagogical impact.  I am even starting to get excited about it.  My inner Boy Scout has shown up and he's ready to go out and change the world.

But hold on.  I've been doing this job for 20 years and should know by now that it never  goes the way I planned.  I will screw something up.  More than once, too.  A quarter of the students won't read the things I've assigned; another 25% will but won't understand it.  The remainder will slog through the readings and assignments with grim resignation.  And all the brilli…

Spared Dimes and Shadow Lines

Sitting in a meeting yesterday it occurred to me that I have become that person I once snickered at in younger days.  Whenever one of the older guys in my labor union would start to talk about building the interstate highway system or some other ancient "war story," my brother and I would roll our eyes and begin softly humming "Once I built a railroad, made it run..."

And then, yesterday, I found myself bringing up something that took place in 1994.  We were discussing how to prepare for accreditation and, having done it twice before, I had some thoughts on how to go about it.  Everyone listened deferentially and then explained to me why I was wrong and that we should do it the same inefficient way we did it twice before. 

No matter.  I don't get to decide these things.  I was more struck by the fact that I had referenced events from 1994.  Nineteen-ninety-four?  For crying out loud.   No one else in the room was even employed by the college then.  Is this wha…

Fishing for Criticism

Spring evaluations showed up in our faculty mailboxes yesterday, and like everyone else I read them closely.  In general my teaching evals are positive and sometimes really, really positive.  My 100-level Humanities section this past spring gave me an overall 5.0 on a five point scale.  Can't get much better than that.

Even so, I always have mixed feelings about positive course evaluations.    Maybe it's because they do a poor job of measuring whether the students actually learned anything.  In the end, it's just self-reported opinion, not a test of their abilities.  Of course hearing that I'm a great teacher is better than the alternative, but  I've always mistrusted compliments.  I know what an ambition-less bum I really am.  Besides, no mere formulation of words will ever erase a lifetime of self-doubting. (Oh, if only it could!)

Beyond that, positive evals don't help me improve my teaching.  Here's what I mean: one of the questions on the form asks stud…

The Myth of Expertise

The fox knows many things, But the hedgehog knows one big thing.                    -- Archilocus For the past few days I've been attending our college's annual summer teaching institute.  Every year for the past seven or so years we bring in a nationally-recognized figure in higher education to talk about teaching and learning.  And every year we are told some variant of the same message: lecturing at students doesn't work, cramming your courses full of content that you absolutely have to cover doesn't work, and teacher-centered courses in which the professor's expertise is the most precious thing in the room just does not work.  The research and evidence on all of this is definitive.

This year's presenter said much the same thing. He showed us how staging opportunities for students to naively wrestle with a problem before having sufficient information was a powerful method for helping them to see the relevance of the information. To demonstrate this, he put us …

Another garden-variety obsession

Well, it's come pathetically down to this: I have started to tie my own flies.  This can only mean one thing.  I am no longer dabbling.  I'm obsessed with fly fishing and can now add it to the long line of things that have formerly obsessed me (Russian dramatic theory, ancient literature, Northern Irish Protestant poetry and medieval architecture...). Why can't I ever become obsessed with developing highly-profitable and addictive cell phone apps? 

Perhaps the common denominator to all the things I get interested in is that they are completely useless and almost willfully inefficient.  It is, after all,  ridiculous to spend a full year rehearsing a play (as Stanislavski might have wished), and one can lead a very productive life without ever wading through Sallust's "The Jurganthine War" or knowing what a rood loft is.  And poetry? 


I hate to admit it, but fly fishing is just as needlessly inefficient and useless as my other obsessions.  After all,…

Getting to Choose

An odd coincidence happened a few weeks ago while I was on my end-of-the-semester fly fishing trip.  I had been bumbling around small streams for a few days and ended up losing a fly box packed with nymphs, which made my last two days of fishing a bit more creative.  I had to try different odds and ends: streamers, midges, San Juan worms, a few dry flies I seldom use.

On the day before I came home, I decided to tour a nearby trout hatchery.  I was standing in the parking lot beside a little stream when a small green fly box came floating by.  I couldn't reach it, but I walked beside the stream until it narrowed, then kicked off my shoes and waded in.  The box was packed with dozens and dozens of the most exquisitely tied flies.  There were easily several hundred dollars worth of flies in the box (and hours and hours of painstaking labor if they had been hand tied by the owner).

I slipped the flies in my pocket and thought, "How strange is this?  I lose a box of flies and am k…

Negative Incapability

Many years ago I happened upon a book of drawing exercises.  In one the author (whose name escapes me) instructed the readers not to draw their subject.  Rather, they were to draw the shape of the emptiness surrounding their subjects. This may be a common way of teaching drawing, but it had never previously occurred to me to look at the world this way.  For days afterward I could not stop noticing the negative spaces created by the things that shaped their emptiness.  Suddenly overhead telephone lines dissected the sky into trapezoids and triangles, and the horizon became the immense mold hovering weightlessly above the rooftops. 

I'm not sure why this memory crops up, but maybe it has something to do with the end of the semester, when I go from teaching, meetings and deadlines to not teaching, no deadlines and only the occasional meeting.  This is what I do when I'm not doing what I do.  Negative space.  And I don't do it very well, or at least I haven't yet made the …

Rose moles all a stipple

Spent most of last week fly fishing in the driftless region.   I would get up early and be on the streams in time to watch the sun come up.  Last Tuesday it was cool and overcast.  I spent a deliciously long time on one slow-moving pool filled with Brook Trout.  They were a mere ten to twelve feet in front of me.  I would lay a cast out, strip two of three times, and then feel that wonderful confidence-building tug on my fly line. 
The next day that same pool had rising trout, but not a one of them was interested in what I had to offer.  That's the fascinating thing about fishing a small spring fed stream.  There are times when everything is just right: the sky, the wind, the water, the appetite of the fish and the contents of your fly box.  But come back an hour later and everything will have changed.  So you live for these few redemptive moments.  
The entire semester was washed away last Tuesday morning.  Gone were the anxieties about work, about teaching, about getting anothe…

That's one for Will

I have students read King Lear in my Intro to Humanities spring section, and more than one wrote last week that they were proud to have read it and, better yet, understood it.  But my favorite end of the term reflection paper included this story:

During high school we had to read a play by Shakespeare, and it was awful.  For some reason I always felt the urge to go to the bathroom during class when it was time to read it.  After a while my teacher caught on and wouldn't let me go anymore.  I would do anything to get out of reading that "stupid" play.  The main reason it was stupid was because I didn't understand one word of the entire thing.  I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be getting out of it.  I told myself that I would never read another piece by Shakespeare in my entire life.  I thought that until the first day of this class when I was told that we were going to read King Lear.  Right away I though to myself that this was going to be a n…

Elohim yevarekh otakh*

A few years ago I reformatted my Introduction to Humanities course so that it was less of a chronological frog-march through Western culture and more a feast of big ideas.  I wanted students to come out of it with half a dozen or so conceptual frameworks for thinking about how the past shapes the present.  So I would teach them a big concept like the Great Chain of Being or Renaissance Humanism and then have them tease the idea out of various primary source readings.  How, for example, does this section of Vasari's Lives of the Artists speak to a humanistic concern for individual accomplishment?  Or in what way are Machiavelli and Luther reflecting increasing cultural autonomy from traditional authorities? 

No quizzes, no tests, just write, write, write and then revise, revise, revise.  I called this "Wrestling with the Angel" and explained that the name came from a passage in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and will not let him go until he receives …

Is this the promised end?

Ah, yes, the perfect end to an imperfect semester: a case of plagiarism.  It's my least favorite part of this job.  Fortunately, it's rare because my assignments tend to be a bit idiosyncratic (e.g., write a letter in the guise of Machiavelli to Hamlet), or I have students analyze tightly specified portions of a text.  As a result, it's hard to find something ready made on the Internet for a neat cut and paste job.  That doesn't mean students don't try.  It just means it's often the crudest and most desperate kind of plagiarism when they do.

And that's what happened.  In an effort to earn some much-needed and last-minute extra credit, a student cut and pasted some on-line articles about films we watched this semester.  It was garden-variety academic dishonesty, more laziness than venality.  I seldom get angry when this happens.  Rather, I just  get annoyed that now I have to play the cop and endure an unpleasant conversation.  

This one didn't even deny …

Moving the Rock

It's strange how things come together in your unconscious mind.  The great French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare claimed that his most brilliant ideas came to him in that drifting, unfocused quasi-dream state that immediately follows awakening.  He had spent weeks trying to prove the non-existence of a mathematical concept known as Fuschian functions.  After a restless night, he awoke and somehow knew they existed.  Weeks later, while on vacation, the idea of how to prove their existence flashed into his mind seemingly from nowhere.

I too have been stewing on something: my dissatisfaction with the core capstone.  Everything about it isn't working.  The students are going through the motions (as am I), the discussions are lifeless and seemingly irrelevant to the reality of higher education.  But I should probably back up.  The core capstone is the culminating experience of our core curriculum.  In it students review the meaning, value and use of their liberal arts ed…