Showing posts from January, 2011

The Inside of Floyd B. Olson's Nose

Here's something I don't think I have ever told anyone. It's no dark revelation, just something odd I never thought about much until driving to work today. Ready? Okay, here it is...

As a boy I developed a habit of hiding things in places where they could be left undisturbed for a long time. I'm not sure why I started doing this. Perhaps I was inspired by the idea of time capsules, those vaults or lead boxes filled with a miscellany of contemporary artifacts. It could be, too, that it's just another manifestation of my obsession with time, the way it only goes in the one direction: from available to unavailable.

For whatever reason, I began doing this when I was fairly young. I remember there was a staircase in our grade school, and I must have been about eight or nine. I waited until no one was around and then crept under that leftover and useless space always formed by a staircase on the bottom floor. I wedged a penny between the steel casing of the stairs and the …

A little nonsense now and then

"Reading Aristotle is like eating dried hay." - Thomas Gray
It's three weeks into the semester and time to start having fun in the first-year honors seminar. We've been reading Plato and Aristotle on human nature, and the students have been trying to wrap their minds around some fairly abstract ideas. So today we'll change things up. They were to have read Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle discusses the nature of human action and what kinds of actions are required for virtue. This is all rather technical and even legalistic stuff (hay indeed).

So rather than frog march them through the material, I decided to have them demonstrate the concepts in unusual ways. When the students came into the room, they found four large tables. On each table was a small card asking them to review a concept in the book, discuss it with others at their table and arrive at a consensus on what Aristotle meant. Then, and only then, could they flip the card over and co…

Count not Tedious yet...

A few years ago I began starting class with a poem. I don't do it everyday. As with card tricks, too many in a row becomes tiresome. Still, I do it often enough that students come to expect it. If I forget for three or four days, they are sure to remind me. I try to pick the poems with care, too, knowing full well that this may be my one shot at changing their minds about poetry. I always begin the semester with something funny, yet also with a bite. I want a poem they can laugh at, but also perhaps one that makes them feel just a little unsettled. Stevie Smith always works well:

Tenuous and Precarious
Were my guardians,
Precarious and Tenuous,
Two Romans.

My father was
Dear old man,
Three Romans.

There was my brother Spurious,
Spurious Posthumous.
Spurious was spurious,
Was four Romans.

My husband was Perfidious,
He was Perfidious,
Five Romans.
Surreptitious, our son,
Was surreptitious.
He was six Romans.

Our cat Tedious
Still lives,
Count not Tedious

My name is Finis,
Finis, Finis.
Six, …

The Jump to Light Speed

A friend and I were talking yesterday about how you start each semester convinced you will get it right this time. You are going to stay on top of grading, try this innovative new gimmick, avoid teaching without a lesson plan and at last get to those projects you've had on your list for a year. Then, two weeks in, you find yourself once again at light speed. The emails and material in your inbox whip by in a whirring streak and you can barely focus on anything beyond the next five minutes. The fastest sports cars may go zero to 60 mph in five seconds, but that's nothing. A semester goes from zero to 6,000,000 before the first week is over.

I think I hit terminal velocity yesterday. Both my Humanities section and the senior capstone were dull and ill-organized. It's always a bad idea when I am doing more talking in class than the students, but that's what happens once the semester accelerates. My ideas and the transitions in the material become compressed. I start to ru…

"...and the songbirds just a going it!"

Henry James once wrote that the two most beautiful words in the English language were "summer afternoon." That may have been true for James, who spent most of his life in England, but for my money you can't beat a summer morning in the Midwest. That seems doubly true now that we are in the heart of winter. I keep thinking back to those summer mornings only a few months ago. For some reason, the next season for me has always been a memory.

Last summer I spent as many mornings as I could on the water, fishing and watching the sun come up. There is just a unique beauty to such mornings in the Midwest. It's often the stillest and most magical time of day. I also spent some time last summer reading HuckFinn aloud to my eight-year old son. It occurred to me that Twain must also have been partial to summer mornings here in the middle of the country. I noticed this when we got to Chapter XIX and Huck and Jim were spending a few blissful days gliding down the river, running a…

B- Cat

The first week of classes I spend a lot of time setting up the course, my expectations, explanations of how we will be working and why. I used to spend the entire first day doing this, but lately it's been begun to creep into the second day (and occasionally the third). It just takes that long. One exercise I really enjoy is called the "Cat."

It works like this. You ask the class to take out a sheet of scratch paper and draw a cat. That's it. They have 30-45 seconds to complete the task. Afterwards, you ask them to exchange their drawings with someone in the class they have not yet met (this helps get them moving about the room). Then you have them grade each other's cats from A to F. The students laugh, but more than one of them will take the task seriously. They'll stare at the cat, mull it over and then assign a grade.

Now some just award an A without much reflection, but a few will give Bs, Cs or even the occasional D+. What becomes clear is that every grad…

"This concludes our broadcasting day..."

I am just old enough to remember something my students will never experience: a television sign-off. This was the nightly sequence of sermonette, national anthem, and then, well...


Just gray static and crickets. No more images coming in from the coasts or around the world. Here in the Midwest, we were once again all alone.

One can only imagine the reaction of my students if the Internet or their cell phones just went silent for a few hours each night between two to five a.m. It's unthinkable. Instant access to images, information and diversion is ubiquitous and unceasing today. My students sleep with their laptops and cell phones. The first thing they do upon opening their eyes each morning is stare into a screen. They are seldom alone, not even in the middle of the night or even here in the Midwestern middle of nowhere. My wife works with international high school students who are spending a year in America with American families. Increasingly, she says, these students s…

Klaatu barada nikto...

It's difficult to believe, but there was a time--and not really so long ago--when science fiction was viewed as a lowbrow, downmarket niche for adolescent males between, say, 12 and 62. But around 1977 something changed. That was the year Star Wars came out. Prior to this, science fiction retained the indelible stamp of its lowly origin. Even something as popular as Star Trek existed only as a cult phenomenon, one whose scattered fans lamented the series' demise with no awareness that it was about to become a full-blown Hollywood franchise. Before 1977 you could still experience the secret, subversive pleasure of discovering some obscure and disreputable sci-fi author wedged in between the comic books and pornography of a seedy secondhand bookshop.

To be sure, there were always a few well-thumbed copies of Ray Bradbury's R is for Rocket and The Martian Chronicles on my school's library bookshelves, but this was tame stuff, vanilla sci-fi. You certainly weren't going…

Humbugs, Frauds and Scam Artists

For whatever reason the "impostor complex" is fairly prevalent in higher education. Apparently, it's especially acute in science and engineering departments, but to one degree or another many highly-competent academics are internally convinced that they are undeserving of their successes despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. I'm certainly a prime example. After nearly 20 years of teaching, awards for excellence in the classroom, recognition by my peers and wonderful student evaluations, I am loathe to ever call myself a good professor.

The root of any impostor complex, of course, is a tendency to attribute one's successes to dumb luck or a talent for deceiving others. What is teaching, after all, but standing in front of a room full of students and convincing them that you know a lot more about something than you actually do? And anyone who has taught for a while has made the disquieting discovery that some fact you have been happily passing on for years is …

Gewgaws and Tchotchkes

Teach for long enough and you usually pick up a few gimmicks from watching how others operate in a classroom. You always swipe the really good gimmicks and sometimes you even forget where you first saw them. Below are three I've started using in the past few years. Like I said, I didn't come up with these. I just stole them from someone and have since forgotten who it was.

Choosing the spokesperson
I use a lot of group work in class. Students will break into units of four or five to analyze a problem, share responses or complete a small group project. To facilitate the "reporting out" someone has to be appointed to make notes of the conversation, points of consensus, disagreement, evidence, etc. Seldom does anyone volunteer for this and there can ensue several minutes of "I'm not doing it!" "Well, I'm not either."

To eliminate this little drama, I tell the class that on the count of three everyone needs to point to someone else in their gro…