Thursday, December 22, 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 really captured the "in-betweeness" and contrast of such moments in Little Gidding:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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 have to live with them.

Next semester, though, I'm reverting to playing bad cop: show up without the text and you'll be asked to leave.  Don't have your rough draft, and it's a zero for the assignment.  Miss more than three classes and your grade goes down a full letter for each additional absence.  Try to skip and email in the assignment, no'p.  It's a zero.   This is a cattle-prod approach to education that I hate, but I'm going to do it anyway.

I so want it to be about the work and not the enforcement policies, but when I have students come to me complaining that their class mates brag about never doing the reading, what choice do I have? 

So it's time to put a bit of stick around.  I mentioned this in class the other day and one of my students laughed.  "A leopard can't change his spots," he snorted. 

We'll see.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"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 child ran away, another whose boyfriend was arrested, and still another whose fiancee has been in a coma.   This is to say nothing of the half dozen who each semester lose a grandmother.  College has always been hard on grandmother mortality rates.

So, yeah, they're busy.  I get that.

Even so, I suspect the main reasons students don't do the reading is that it's not necessary to pass the class.  In fact, the NSSE study found that 36 percent of those who routinely didn't do the reading earned mostly As.  I've tried to combat under-preparation by moving a lot of work inside the classroom.  It's the only way I can assure that they will actually engage the ideas in the texts we read.  Sometimes I give them analysis tasks that they write on individually in class and sometimes as a team, but they have to read, write and discuss the material in class. 

For a while this approach seemed to be working.  Our discussions were deeper and the students said they appreciated the quiet time in class to wrestle with the texts.  This semester, however, my scheme has come undone.  I am really struggling to get my students to engage meaningfully with the ideas in the readings.  They show up to class without the text (despite knowing it's an expectation), show no guilt over not having done any reading beforehand, and express a kind of vague resentment that I expect them to read.  More than one had not bought a text by midterm despite my reminding them several times. 

I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but I am--not by the behavior, but by the lack of shame in the behavior.  The same thing seems to be true with texting in class.  They simply can't stop doing it no matter how many times I remind them to put that Satanic device away.  One study conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 80 percent of students said they send at least one text message in each of their classes.  On the bright side, a majority of those did say they felt guilty about it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

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 question of whether education should help us to achieve material success or cultivate our potential for virtue.  No, what's odd is that there was--at least for Socrates' accusers--a taint attached to teaching for money. That's a sentiment almost completely absent from contemporary debates about education.  Indeed, a 'for profit' educational system is admired in many wonky and well-funded think tanks.  It's touted as a panacea for our underachieving non-profit system.  No matter that the facts say otherwise.  A recent article in The Nation sums up the dismal results of the for-profits:
A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.
Okay, so why the rush to ship today's sons of Callias off to for-profit education ventures?  It's not hard to figure out.  As the ancient Sophists realized, there's money to be made in education:
The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.
A number of years ago, a colleague of mine remarked that one day somebody would do to higher education what Ray Kroc did to the french fry.  And you can't argue with the success of the french fry.  Just look at the average American's waistline.   

Sunday, November 20, 2011

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 for form).  I would like to put it back in the stack as well, but this particular section has a paucity of good writers.  Indeed, only three of the 20 students in the class are capable of writing at anything approaching a college-level standard  (and I already put them at the bottom before I started reading).

Admittedly this is an especially weak group of writers and it's always dangerous to generalize, but the problem does seem like it's getting worse.  I do what I can with tips, encouragement and a generous revision policy, but I feel increasingly overwhelmed by the lack of basic academic skills in a disturbing number of my students.  Far too many can't distinguish between independent and dependent clauses, and they are utterly baffled by any mention of things like pronouns, conjunctions, tenses or in some cases proper nouns.   It isn't just the writing.  Many can't state the main idea of a paragraph they just read (let alone draw an inference from it).

The problem is worse in first-year students than seniors, but there have been a few times this semester when I've had to tell senior students that the quality of their work was unacceptable for a 400-level course.  I can't begin to imagine what they are thinking to hand in work like this.  They look at me, however, as if I were the problem.  I mean what's going on?   Is it too much to ask that a college student can write a clear English sentence by the time he or she leaves college?  Am I being unreasonable?

Okay, rant over.  Back to the stack...

Monday, October 31, 2011

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 awkward and self-conscious.  What on Earth do we have in common?  As a result, I tend to observe Star Fleet general order # 1 when it comes to socializing with students: there must be no interference with the internal development of alien cultures.

For a few years my office was on the same floor as a student resident hall.  Sometimes coming into work, or stopping by the office on a weekend, I would happen onto students necking or having a beer party in their rooms.  One morning as I was coming down the hall, a student was scurrying back from his shower wrapped only in a bath towel.   I was the alien in these situations.  I was on their planet, so I carefully observed the Prime Directive and pretended not to notice.  It's just better that way.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

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 as basic as "what would you do if you were cold?"  The actor would take the stage and act it out: stamping his foot, rubbing his arms, saying "brr."   Then we would start to build the scene using the actor's imagination:

Why are you cold?

The heat went off.

Are you in a building of some kind?


Tell me about it.

And on we would go.  Essentially, we were using two aspects of Stanislavsky's theory: the Magic If and Given Circumstances.  Stanislavsky saw the imagination as a problem solving instrument.  We don't just close our eyes and go on flights of fancy.  Rather, our imaginations respond to the question what if and then feed off more facts and information.  Unfortunately, playwrights often supply very minimal information about characters and settings  (e.g., "Harry, young man, smokes a lot.").   Consequently, actors have to create a lot of information for themselves.  The trick is to make these given circumstances interesting enough to arouse the imagination's interest in answering the question "what would you do if you were this person and this were so?"

I recall one evening in particular.  Ray began with that simple question: what would you do if you were cold.  Then he kept asking more and more questions to get the actor--in this case a middle-aged woman--to supply ever more detail.  He had her touch every object in the room, feel the texture of the bedspread, describe what was outside each window.  The key was to get her to select details that were interesting to her.  In the course of an hour and a half, Ray and the woman had created an amazing scene.

She imagined she was a widow who had come back to a her family's lake cabin for the first time since her husband died.  Her children were grown now, but the family had spent many summers together at the cabin.  Now it was late fall and the place needed to be made ready for winter.  It was two-thirty in morning and the woman had awoken only to find that the fire had gone out. The scene involved her rising from bed to gather wood and restart the fire.  Then she sat watching the flames grow, wrapped in her husband's old coat, his scent still on it. 

All of this Ray teased out of the woman's imagination by asking what would make this interesting to you and how would you feel if...  The final scene lasted only five minutes (it seemed longer as I recall), but it was riveting.  The actor was completely focused and convincing.  You saw each memory and emotion pass through her expressions.  There was an entire life displayed on that empty stage, and the scene really resonated with metaphors of life and death, warmth and cold, memory and loss.   Indeed, something beautiful, almost poetic, had been created from the simplest of questions: what would you do if you were cold. 

The thing I most recall about these Thursday night classes was the almost electric sense of creativity in the room.  People often remarked that they left the class more energized and pumped up than when they had arrived.   I did a lot of pretentious things as a young man, but I don't think this was one of them. 

We had really hit upon something interesting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

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 discussions.  They even tell me they are surprised by how engaging they find the course.  Others, however, just go through the motions.  They have accepted the ritualized annoyance of higher education: blathering professors, core requirements and just bloody getting through with it.  They don't complain much; they just yawn, scroll through their text messages in class and wait for it to be over.  Some nights I'm right there with them.  More than once over the past eight weeks I've kvetched to my long-suffering partner how I dread going out again after a full day's work (especially since I did not want to teach this extra section. I had no choice--couldn't find anybody to take it).

There were some pretty hardcore "the  liberal arts core is a waste of my time" folks in the class (one nodded in recognition when I quipped that nurses often call core courses "the B.S. part of the BSN").  More than once, too, I got snorts and eye rolls when I laid out an idea.  But sitting here reading their final papers, I find myself oddly pleased.  Some of these folks were willing to think a bit more deeply about their education, even the hardcore eye rollers.  Here for instance, is a breathtakingly level-headed woman who had said more than once in class that the core was a waste of time: 
Socrates once said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Before taking this course I could not fathom philosophy. The whole idea of everything being open to interpretation and what I thought were meaningless questions seemed like a waste of time.  It was my flaw to neglect that without questioning the way things are being done now, things will never change.
Okay, it could be that she's just telling me what I want to hear, playing the game, but I don't think so.  And here's another student on the surprise of discovering how much growth and development came from courses outside her major:

I used to think that the purpose of an education was to help start a chosen career, but my reflections in the analysis of our meaningful college classes changed that. I anticipated and enjoyed plenty of accounting classes, but never appreciated the value in my liberal arts education. It was momentous for me to notice a pattern in where my growth was coming from. Not only was this my favorite assignment, it was the most meaningful.  
We ended the night as I always do by discussing a selection from Frederick Douglass' autobiography.  It's the two chapters in which he describes his clandestine efforts to teach himself how to read.  He had overheard his master say that teaching a slave to read would "forever unfit him to be a slave."  After that, Douglass was determined to unlock the source of the white man's power.  That secret, of course, was that slavery was not a fact of nature; it was a monstrous crime perpetrated against him by people who were no better than he was. 

At the end of the capstone, students often ask me for my definition of a well-educated person.  I usually agree with Douglass' master: someone who's been completely ruined for slavery.  I don't know if that's what we ever accomplish in higher education, but I would like to think so.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

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 and autonomy to go about the work the way they want.  They also love to see themselves getting better at something.

So for the past three years I've been using my Humanities 101/102 sections to see how much I can infuse these ideas into the existing grade-dominated paradigm of higher education. The first week  I have the students select personal learning goals.  I ask them what they want to get better at by the end of the semester.   I put their goals in my grade book and come back to them when I respond to papers.  I want to recognize any progress and stress that my role is to support them, to challenge them and to offer strategies for success.  Just as importantly, I want to celebrate achievement.  Indeed, I eliminated the final exam (such a nasty sounding phrase) and instead turned it into a recognition of achievement

I haven't perfected my new approach by any means, but the students have responded well.  They get it.  What's really surprising, however, is the way this has changed me.  I don't hate grading as much as I once did.  It's actually kind of fun.  Here's what I mean.  I just finished reading a student's response paper on Oedipus.  Instead of grading it and pointing out its flaws, I was able to write about its potential:
This is moving in the right direction. I liked the way you went for an inter-textual reference. Good insight. Now let’s cite that little bugger. Cite all referenced texts . Of course, now that you’ve started to move my way, you know I’m only going to ask for more. :)
For example, you mentioned that Oedipus ran away in an attempt to outwit his fate. Okay, good. So who else tried to outwit fate in the texts we’ve read? Did Kronos try to avoid being overthrown in Theogony? Did Achilles try to have it both ways? And what about using Socrates for a contrast? Did he run away or face his fate? Come to think of it, Hector also accepted his fate in the end. And how might any of this relate to Hellenism’s concern for what it means to lead the best kind of human life?
This response could go a hundred interesting—and fascinating—inter-textual directions.  Look for larger patterns.  Part of achieving your goal (improved critical reading) is placing what you're reading into the larger context of the course's themes and ideas.   What do you think?   Is this ripe for revision?

I also think you can beef up textual support. Look where I’ve placed this mark: (#). I’ll tell you when it’s too much. Right now, we’re not quite there yet.  There are some other minor issues we can work on. Here’s a challenge for you. I want you to Google “using commas with introductory elements” and try to figure out what this is.  Check out a few grammar web sites and see if you can eliminate this error. Set this as a minor learning goal. And take action on your own. Believe me, you’re going to feel really, really good about yourself when you slay this beast.  People just like getting better at stuff.  It's what those pesky old Greeks called areté, or achieving our potential for excellence.
I have a long way to go, but I feel like I'm onto something.  If nothing else, it keeps me from getting stale.   I've been doing this job for 20 years and still feel like I'm only now figuring things out.  One of these days I might even get good at it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

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 true liberal arts courses: philosophy, literature, foreign language.  One of the inmates--a young guy doing a long stretch--talks about wanting to learn German so he can read Hegel and Kant in the original language.

The first video I label the transaction model of education.  You pay some money, jump through some meaningless exercises and here's the diploma, which you can then use to enhance your value in the next transaction: getting a career.  The second video is the stumper.  Why are these prisoners busting their humps to earn a college degree composed of nothing but philosophy, social science, literature, and history?  Even if these were courses the job markets wanted, these guys are never going to be able to cash in their degree.  They're locked up for, in many cases, life. 

The students throw out some theories.  "Maybe they're bored," one said last night. 

"Is that what you do when you're bored?" I responded. "Take down a big volume of Hegel?" 

"I don't know," he said.  "I might if I were locked up."

I label the video on the prisoners a good example of the transformation model of education, one in which growth, changed understanding and development is an end unto itself.  Then I ask the class which model better resembles what they have experienced. 

It's always about half and half.  Some students recognize that a lot of what they have done has been straight transaction.  They spit out content in return for a spat back grade and another check mark on their transcript.  Others say they have had some truly life-altering experiences as a result of their college education.

Just before they hand the paper in, I ask them to pair up and read to their partner a description of a course they found significant.  The listeners have to decide whether they just heard a transaction or a transformation.  In almost every instance the students hear narratives studded with words like "change," "helped me realize," "opened me up to," "really got me thinking about..."   Even more compelling is the enthusiasm with which students begin to talk about a really good course and what it meant to them.

Later, after class, one of the students hung around to talk to me.  He had actually done some time.  He said you can't believe what boredom will make you love.  He thought it funny yet true that it takes radical incarceration to engender a true love of learning.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

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 December I will have graded over one thousand pieces of student writing (not counting the inevitable revisions).  They will range in length from two to 12 pages.  I actually cut a few assignments from some of my sections, and I'm still over a thousand papers this semester. 

When people dream about teaching they envision themselves influencing their students' lives, raising fascinating questions for class discussion, maybe even chatting with students about the meaning of existence.  They don't think of the crushing, soul-numbing repetition of noting in the margin for the 7,421st time that "then" indicates sequence and "than" is used to make comparisons.  But that too is part of the job.

Okay, enough procrastinating.  Back to work.

Friday, September 2, 2011

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 right down front. 

I let the groups talk it out for fifteen minutes before sticking my nose into their discussions.  I just stand around listening as they work through the material.  Then I go to group two (where my Siberian is).  I listen for a while and then ask them if people like Socrates are useful to society or just a royal pain in the neck   Right away, Mr. Siberia says, "I think they are useful.  They keep us from going off the moral deep end with their troublesome questions."

"Okay," I say, "but would you want to live in a society in which everyone acted like Socrates?" 

"Hmmm," he says.  "I don't know.  If people questioned everything, nothing would get done." 

"Maybe," I say.  "But let's frame the question another way.  Would you want to live in a society in which everybody thought deeply about the moral implications of their choices?"

Now he is leaning forward.  He's into this discussion all of a sudden.  He takes a long time to formulate his new idea:  "Well... maybe we just need a few people like Socrates, but not everybody."

"So it's okay for some people to be sheople?" I ask.

Mr. Siberia is now really thinking.  He doesn't say anything   He's not sure what to make of this discussion.  In three questions he's changed his mind three times.  I sense a thaw.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

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 chat on their way in and out of the building. 

The college has also set an all-time enrollment record (second largest first-year class in its history).  Tuesday, while walking across campus at 11:00 am, the place almost felt like a big university.  The streets were crowded with rushing professors and students; the bell on the bell tower was even chiming away.  This semester, too, I'm in classrooms I have never taught in before.  Something has changed.   Not sure what, though.  Maybe it's just all the new faces.  Last week, during the all school opening meeting, I counted the number of people in the room who were here when I arrived 21 years ago. 

For the first time, that number was in the single digits. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

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's time to lock and load, private. We hit the beach at oh-ten hundred.  Quest out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

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 mannered, tortured pauses are meant to be funny. 

But even in bad productions, Chekhov somehow works.  Something powerful cuts through awkward translations, self-indulgent acting or sententious directing.  The plays dispense with traditional 19th Century rising plots and dramatic climaxes, which is not to say they aren't climactic.  People's lives are thwarted and smashed about, often quite cruelly, and it all happens over tea in the garden. The conflict comes from characters interlocked by misunderstanding and mismatched desires.  Villains, in as much as they exist, are not so much villainous as obtuse, heroes are self-defeating. 

And then there are those speeches, those long disquisitions on this that or the other.  Watching Vanya on 42nd Street yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the way David Mamet had stripped his translation of the stiltedness one finds in many English versions.   It was like watching bare-bones Chekhov.  Wallace Shawn even captures Vanya's comic ludicrousness.  It's a great production, but I was no less affected by Laurence's Olivier's 1971 production of The Three Sisters, which is heavy on the angst and stilted dialog.

What makes Chekhov work in my opinion is that you begin by observing the characters, judging them, looking at the screwed-up-ness of their lives and self-sabotaging desires, but by the end you find yourself identifying with them.  Vanya is an ass, but you like and pity him for all that, which is often how you feel about yourself. 

And there it is.

Monday, August 15, 2011

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 brilliant plans for which I have so much hope for in August will have fallen flat before the middle of October.  As always, I will place the blame on my failure to properly plan ahead.

There is no reason to believe that this semester will differ from the previous ones.  It will be messy, filled with hesitation, improvisation and regret.  It's the same cycle year after year.  Nevertheless, as with falling in love, you have to believe that this time will be different.  Delusion is a necessary part of the plan.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

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 what awaits me?  Am I now the cause of the eye rolls and exasperated sighs?

* * * *

Joseph Conrad has a brilliant novella entitled The Shadow Line.  In it he tells the story of a second mate on a ship who is in line for a series of steady promotions.  If he sticks with it, he will make captain.  It's only a matter of time.  But something inside of him doesn't want the safe, plodding, surefire way, so on a whim he quits his position in a foreign port.  With no particular plan and no prospects, he wonders into a seaman's hotel and lands a job as a captain that very afternoon.

The problem is his ship is stranded up the coast in a primitive, pestilential port, where the former captain dropped dead and the crew is sick with malaria.  The new captain gets to his ship and tries to sail her out, but each time he reaches a certain point--the point where the previous captain died--the winds fail and he is driven back into the harbor.  Finally, after much herculean effort, he manages to get the ship beyond the imaginary shadow line and into the open sea, but in crossing that line something changes.  He realizes on some unstated level that he is no longer young.

There are perhaps many shadow lines in one's life.  And my dredging up ancient history in a meeting yesterday may even have been one of them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

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 students to evaluate how well I "found ways to help them answer their own questions."   I was rated 4.9 on the 5.0 scale and the accompanying report suggests that this is a "strength to retain."  Unfortunately, it doesn't tell me exactly when or how I helped students answer their own questions.  So how do I go about retaining this strength?

Far more useful to me are the students' written comments, but only half of the students write anything.  Often it's just a brief note to tell you they "liked the course."  That's great, but it's not really what I want to know.  So over the past few years I've begun to go fishing for feedback.  Before handing out the form, I list specific assignments, course policies, texts or teaching methods on the board and ask them to evaluate these things for me.  I tell them their written comments on  these items will really help me improve the course and my teaching.   It works, too. 

This year's comments were very specific. Here's what they liked and didn't like:
  • They really approved of a flexible policy on revision (I allow students to revise work as many times as they like), but they thought I should set a deadline so that they did not wait to turn in all of their revisions during the last two weeks of the semester.
  •  My first-year honors  seminar liked that I would start each class with a brief tip on writing.
  •  They appreciated the amount of feedback I gave on assignments.
  •  A few even said they liked being challenged when I called them on  not doing their best.
  • They especially liked that I get all work back to them in one week.  (A failure to get back work quickly has to be the number one student pet peeve).

Sometimes,  they say I should slow down and give them more time to think it through.  That's helpful, I guess.  I do get carried away.

Friday, June 3, 2011

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 in groups and asked us to respond to the following problem:

A karate expert hits downward with his bare hand on a stack of three two-inch thick solid concrete blocks supported at both ends. Describe the physical process of what happens to the blocks (i.e.: envision the breakage in extreme slow motion).  Precisely where does the breakage begin; how and why?
After we had wrestled our way to a theory, he laid out the possible kinds of forces that could be at work.
  • Tensile stress (like pulling on a wire from both ends).
  • Compressive stress (like putting weight or force on something).
  • Shear stress (putting pressure on an object in opposing directions: the pressure exerted by scissors in cutting paper).
  • Elasticity (an object’s capacity to return to its original shape after receiving stress).
Many of these concepts had informed our naive speculation, but we hadn't given them names.  Some we hadn't thought of, which caused us to consider that a multiplicity or things might be happening.  So we revised our hypothesis in light of new information.  The point was that we had a problem to solve, we were working together trying out ideas and anxious for more information.  In short, we were thinking critically. 

The presenter pointed out the powerful learning dynamic that had just taken place in our naive inquiry.  Then he went on to the next PowerPoint slide.  Several of my colleagues stopped him: "So what's the answer?  Where does it break?"  This only bolstered his point that naive inquiry is about fostering an attitude of "I really need to know this." 

Contrast that with the dynamic in a traditional college classroom.  The professor lectures on the four kinds of stress at work in various material failures.  The students really have no authentic reason to know this information (except to pass a test that gauges only how well  they can recall it).  In short, the emphasis here is not on critical thinking; it's on the professor's holy expertise and the students' ability to process and retain the sacred content.  We have to start putting students in "need to know" situations, which they often find frustrating.  The presenter explained that we will know it's working when we start to hear students say things like "Why don't you just give us the answer?" or "You're the professor, but you aren't teaching us the material."

* * *

So yesterday I had to close out the summer institute by leading faculty in an exercise that would get them to think creatively about designing courses for our new core, which has four domains of inquiry: the natural world, the arts, society and human behavior, and faith and meaning. I labeled the four corners of a room with these domains and asked people to group themselves in the corner where they thought their discipline most belonged. 

As you can imagine, the hard scientists went to the corner labeled natural world, the social scientists to society and human behavior, the artists to the arts, etc.  At this point I tagged them with color-coded stickers and sent them off to design courses where they don't think they belong.  They were forbidden to design courses in their preferred place.  I was trying to foster interdisciplinary thinking as well as to reinforce the idea that the domains are not discipline specific.  The arts have things to say about the natural world and science has something to say about society and human behavior. 

Then I went from room to room listening.  At one point, some of my colleagues started saying, "I can't teach in this area.  I don't have the expertise."  There it was: the myth of expertise.  Even though we had spent two full afternoons experiencing the power of a different model of teaching and learning, the old paradigm hadn't budged: no learning can possibly take place without the professor's holy expertise being the most important thing in the classroom. 

The truth is that few of us are experts in most of what we teach.  I teach writing and lack expertise in comp and rhetoric, I teach some history, philosophy, and science in my capstone course and lack expertise in all of them.  Most professors are experts on fairly narrow subjects (like their dissertation topic) and then for only about a year.  I look back now on some of the stuff I wrote in grad school and think, "Wow, I used to be really smart."  Moreover, almost no one ever gets to teach the obscure area of his or her transient expertise.  On the undergraduate level, we are usually required to be foxes, not hedgehogs. 

Nevertheless, we cling to the myth that our expertise is the necessary requirement for student learning.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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, the guy down the bank with a ten-dollar Zebco is catching just as many (if not more) trout.  Moreover you can buy flies off the Internet for 59 cents apiece.  So why would anyone start tying?  Why buy a vise, bobbins and a whip finisher?  I have no answer. 

When I first began fly fishing, I would leaf through catalogs of fly patterns.  There were pages and pages of bewilderingly complex patterns, each with variations in size and color.  There were maybe 50 variations of a mayfly and at each stage of its life (pupa, nymph, emerger, adult, imago...).  I felt as if I had somehow wandered into a Kabbalistic discussion.  It's only recently that I've realized all this needless complexity has nothing to do with catching fish. I mean, really.  Does anyone believe a creature with a pea-sized brain focused only on eating and not being eaten makes finely-honed discriminations about hackle feathers and peacock herl? 

Needless complexity is perhaps the essence of any obsession.  Occam's razor just doesn't apply.  As with poetry, you really don't have to concern yourself with meter, assonance and metaphor to put an idea into words.  It's just gets interesting when you do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

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 kicking myself for being so careless, and, lo and behold, here comes an even nicer box just ambling down the stream. The big wheel turns."  A few minutes later I peeked in the box for a second look and noticed that the owner had  printed his name and address on a small adhesive label.  The idea of keeping them went away.  I won't say it went away instantly.  There was a momentary time lag, about two seconds, when I thought, "Eh, he'll never know." 

But then another voice said, "C'mon, that's not who you are.  You know damn well you're going to mail the flies back to the guy."  Then for another two seconds or so I thought, "It really sucks to be honest."  Later I saw an older man in waders and vest walking down the bank.  I asked him his name, he told me, and it matched the name on the label, so I returned the lost fly box.  The guy couldn't believe it.  He was sure they were gone for good.  After thanking me two or three times, he went on his way.

This event has stuck in my head for some reason.  It's almost like a little parable.  There's the happenstance of losing and then finding something valuable.  There's a stream in an idyllic setting with something just floating along, and then there's the choice of how to react.  

The other day my eight-year old son and I were driving in the car talking about nothing in particular.  All of sudden, he asked me how being a grown-up differed from being a kid.  The story of the fly box popped into my head.   When you're a kid, I told him, you don't really get to choose much.  That's also true when you're a grown up, but you do get to choose what kind of grown up you want to be.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

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 transition three weeks after the end of the semester.

I should be revising my Humanities reader, making all those endless course improvements and working on core implementation.  I should at least be reading more or writing a poem, but somehow I can't seem to pass from something to nothing.  I was talking with a retiring colleague recently and he noted that his final spring semester felt like all the others.  It was merely coming to an end with summer looming ahead just as it always has.  The difference would only appear later.  Next fall he just wouldn't come back.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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 another year older.  Instead, all I had to do was watch for rising trout and concentrate on a light touch with my cast.  I took five Brookies out of that pool.  Put every one of them back, too.  Of spring-fed creeks the writer and fly fisher Ted Leeson writes,
That a great many cultures have endowed springs with numinous properties--curative power, rebirth and regeneration, prophesy and oracle--is scarcely surprising, and that they would have been regarded as sacred seems almost inevitable.  Water is the ancient emblem of spiritual purification, and its symbolic power to absolve is as old as the need to be forgiven.
There are probably more productive uses of my time than fishing, but right now  I can't think of any.

Monday, May 2, 2011

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 nightmare...

If one thing surprised me in this course, it would have to be the reading of King Lear.  Not only did I understand it, but I also kind of enjoyed it.
Later she went on to use King Lear to talk about an incident in her own life with some real insight.  It made my day.  And, best of all, not once during the entire semester did she ever need to use the facilities. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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 a blessing.  "The texts are your angel," I told the students.  "I want you to fight the good fight and connect these big ideas to the readings."  In this way, I was trying to teach my subject at the same time I taught and--hopefully--reinforced critical reading and writing skills.

More than once I've had my doubts about this approach.  I'm the worst kind of pedagogical Hamlet.  Are they really learning?  Maybe all these ideas are just floating around in some inchoate haze.  I blogged about this a while back (The Ghost of Content).  Well, I was just sitting here reading some final papers from Humanities 102. For the final assignment I ask students to respond to three questions: (1) What are the big ideas that made an impression on you and why?  (2) How have ideas in this class arisen or been used outside of class?  And (3) What that you accomplished this semester gives you satisfaction? 

Here's part of the response I just finished reading:
At the beginning of the semester, I was troubled to learn that this class dealt with history, as it is one of my weaker subjects. As the class progressed I realized it was not a class that would require me to memorize dates or names but big ideas. As I began to connect the big ideas together and to hone my critical thinking skills, I enjoyed the class even more. The knowledge and skills I took from this class go far beyond humanities; the reading and analysis tasks made me think and wrestle with what the authors were trying to convey, and that is a skill I will be able to use in the remainder of my college career and beyond. While it is true that employers look at your grades, they also want someone who can think critically and dynamically. So the one idea I will take from this class is wrestling with the angel; I will not be satisfied with anything until I fully understand it.
Despite all my sturm und drang, despite my incessant dithering, hand-wringing and self-sabotage, I sometimes just love this job.  God help me, I do.

* Hebrew for "I bless you."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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 it.  (Couldn't really.  I had the copies of the purloined articles stapled to the turned in assignments.)  What irks me the most is being forced out of my role as a teacher and into the role of judge and jury.  I know some would say this is a teachable moment, but I doubt you can teach moral character to people in their early 20s. That's already been determined. 

And I'm never entirely happy with my decision about how to handle it.  Each case seems so different. During my first semester at the college a kid plagiarized a paper and I busted him on it.  Later, after he graduated, he wrote a threatening letter to the governor of our state and signed my name to it.  I had a visit from a criminal investigator and a postal inspector shortly afterwards. 

I once had a kid plagiarize a paper on, of all things, copyright law.  And once I caught a young woman plagiarizing in the first-year honors seminar. I really liked her, too.  Nevertheless, for three years until she graduated she could not make eye contact with me whenever we passed in hallways, which was rather awkward if we were the only ones present.  

Another time, when I was a TA, I suspected a young woman of plagiarizing a paper.  This was before the widespread use of the Internet.  In those days you had to go to the library and find the original journal article.  I struck out on that front, so I hit upon the idea of making a little speech about academic dishonesty in front of the class.  You know, "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."  So, using my gravest voice, I read the pertinent sections of the student handbook and watched her face for signs of guilt.

Nothing.  Complete impassivity.

Discouraged, I walked back to my office.  By the end of the day, three students had come in to confess.  Some were in tears.  One was terrified I was going to have him thrown out of the university.  None was my original suspect.

Sometimes it's best not to know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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 education.  They assess their personal experience, debate the value of specific disciplinary perspectives, and articulate how their education relates to their roles and responsibilities as citizens in a diverse society.

Sounds terribly high-minded, doesn't it?

The problem is that the core capstone doesn't necessarily cap a coherent liberal arts education for many of my students, who are increasingly likely to have transferred in with credits from community colleges or multiple institutions.  Somehow I have to paint a thin coat of liberal arts happy talk over a grab bag of general education courses taught with widely divergent aims to students of widely divergent academic preparedness. My core capstone is often the only place in their mix-and-match coursework where they are asked to think about it amounting to a coherent whole. It's not surprising that they don't have much to say.  After all, that's not what they experienced. 

Anyway, all this has been simmering under the surface for weeks.  At the same time I've been on a bit of a book buying binge.  Among the dozen or so titles I bought are two relating to the state of higher education today:  Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by the classicist and law professor Martha C. Nussbaum, and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by the sociologists Richard Arum and Jodipa Roksa. 

Nussbaum's thesis is that there are two competing models of higher education in the United States today: an emergent and increasingly-powerful economic growth model that sees education strictly in terms of its relationship to economic development, productivity and market competitiveness.  The other is an older human development model in which the aim of education is to cultivate human beings who can responsibly partake in and strengthen a democratic society.  Nussbaum points out that it's possible to have robust economic growth without democracy (witness China).  It's also possible to be economically dynamic while tolerating massive inequality (witness the former South Africa).  It's not possible, however, to maintain democratic institutions without a critically-aware citizenry imbued with an ethos of civic virtue.

Academically Adrift, on the other hand, maps the multi-faceted forces that shape under performance in student learning in American colleges and universities.  It's not the usual ideologically-driven jeremiad attacking lackluster professors, lazy students or obtuse administrators.  Rather, it shows how many competing pressures and perverse incentives contribute to poor student performance throughout higher education.  Indeed, the economic imperatives that Nussbaum notes are just one of many factors at work here.  In fact, most colleges and universities today try to synthesize both models. There is a nominally liberal arts core and an array of career preparation majors. The problem, as Nussbaum argues, is that the two models often create contradictory incentives.  And, she says, the human development model is on the ropes these days.

* * * * * *

So last night I came home from my night class and complained to my wife about how unhappy I have been teaching the core capstone. The questions I am asking, the discussions I am trying to lead, and even the texts I am assigning all seem completely irrelevant to my students and their experience in higher education.  I talk about the value of a scientific perspective, of historical awareness, of Socratic skepticism, of civic virtue, and they look at me like I'm nuts. Drowsing in bed this morning it occurred to me that the core capstone is ground zero of the clash of educational models that Nussbaum describes. I'm talking about the old model while most of my students are living in the new one.

They came to college to enhance their value as potential employees.  And civic virtue and democratic participation?  They mostly don't vote and can't see the point.  About three weeks into the capstone--while we're reading the Crito--I ask them what they morally owe their society for the benefits they have enjoyed.  It's often the first time in nearly 16 years of education that anyone has asked them this question.  So of course any discussion of the value of the liberal arts (i.e., the skills needed for a free citizenry) sounds alien to them.  Who talks that way today outside of a few hand wringers like me or the boilerplate writers of college mission statements?   

It makes rational sense to get the maximum benefit for the least investment in the model of education they have experienced.  The C student gets the same diploma as the A student, so the A student is a bit of a sucker.  Buy low, sell high.  But when I ask them to identify what's meaningful in their education, they speak only in terms of their own transformation.  The courses they value are not the easy As received for under-performing.  No, they're the ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest, or found out something new about their own potential. 

So how in the world do we change the discussion in this country when I have a hard enough time doing it in my classroom?  My students think of education as a transaction, but they only locate value in its capacity for transformation.  It seems like that would be enough, but time and again it's the transaction side of the debate that wins in the larger societal discourse.  How do we move the rock?   I dunno.  I'm stumped, tired and out of ideas.

Maybe it's time for another nap. 


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