Thursday, January 27, 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 walls. I haven't been back for a long time, but it was there as recently a 15 years ago. I found myself in my old school once more. I was alone. I just had to look. Still there.

Over the years I've even made this habit something of a small tradition. I've hidden poems in many of the houses or apartments where I've lived. There are poems even now stuffed behind wainscoting or picture moldings of half a dozen apartments. I don't even recall what I wrote. It just seemed interesting to leave some evidence behind. I doubt anyone ever discovered these lost poems or thought much about them if they did. No doubt, most of them will be carted off with the debris when the buildings or houses are raised.

I worked for the Minnesota Historical Society for a little under a year after I got out of grad school. It was a part-time job giving history tours of the statehouse. It didn't pay well, but the other guides were smart and funny creative types stitching together lives with a few low-paying jobs. One guy rebuilt pipe organs, another woman was going to culinary school, and still another woman was an artist who did elaborate mosaics out of broken glass.

The last day I worked at the statehouse, the summer before I started teaching, I was standing in a long, marbled hallway staring at the bust of Floyd B. Olson, the twenty-second governor of Minnesota, a Depression-era populist and former I.W.W. man. It was just the two of us in the hallway, so I took a dime from my pocket, reached up and into the bust from below and rested the coin along the backside of the governor's nose.

Checked it a few years ago. Still there.

I've heard that Zen Buddhists sometimes plant a tree and return to it at various moments in their lives to meditate on change. These trees, like my lost poems and pocket change, are fixed points. They stay while we leave and forget them for awhile. Then we return and reconnect with who we were when we were someone else. But considered absolutely, both staying and leaving are indistinguishable. The tree changes as well. It only seems fixed in place and time, but it's growing, moving, aging. Like us, it too will be carted off someday. I'm not sure what the Buddhists get out of all this, but I confess that I like going back to the places where I've hidden things. It is always strangely wonderful to fish my hand into the darkness and withdraw some half-remembered thing that's long waited for my return.

I really need to hide something again. It's been a long time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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 complete a task written on the other side.

One group had to draw cartoons illustrating voluntary, involuntary and compulsory actions. Another had to write a brief children's story illustrating Aristotle's distinction between the true good and the apparent good. Another had to write a two-minute skit along similar lines, and the final group had to stage a Law and Order epilogue where Judge Aristotle parsed the blame in a complex case.

The groups spent about 30 minutes reviewing the text, coming to consensus and designing their presentations. They laughed, had fun and talked to each other about the material. I just stood around listening and watching. At one time I would have been nervous about that, but increasingly I find the best teaching I do happens when I say nothing and let them work it out themselves.

Their presentations were funny, smart and generally accurate (they even did the "thwack-thwack" Law and Order sound). They understood the gist of the concepts, and they did so a lot better than they would have if I led the discussion or--worse--lectured them on the ideas. They now have a concrete touchstone to draw upon when they apply Aristotle's concepts to Paradise Lost in a few weeks. It also changed the social dynamic of the class.

Besides, it's a cold, gray day in January. A little nonsense now and then just makes the hay taste better.

Monday, January 24, 2011

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, five, four, three, two,
One Roman,

A writing instructor once told me that good dialog communicates character, and great dialog communicates more character than characters realize they are communicating. Smith, like Robert Browning, has a gift for this kind of self-revealing dialog. We may snicker at the narrator's attitude toward her family, but her voice tells us as much about her as it does them. There is also the wonderful irony of her dismissive middle class voice and that tedious tabby smacking up against the sound of faux Roman names. Pretence is advanced and punctured in sound alone. But that last stanza, with its forlorn self-awareness and note of mortaliy, saves the poem from being mere snark. There's a real human life here, one lived just as tenuously and precariously as our own.

Poetry is just noise, of course, and it's sometimes celebrated as the preservation of a "still, small voice." In Smith, however, the characters often express lives of noisy and unattended desperation. They are, as she wrote elsewhere, "not waving, but drowning."

Friday, January 21, 2011

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 rush through things and only realize later that I skipped an important idea that the students needed to hear before I introduce concept. X.

Somehow, too, spring term has a quicker take-off than fall. Everything was fresh in September, there was an influx of anxious-to-do-well freshmen, and I had had a longer time away from the game. But it's only week two and my students already seem tired. The snow, which was so fresh only a few days ago, now looks profane and cheerless. The winter sun is low on the horizon, and I am jonesing for good class so I can feel good about teaching again. It's the way I get after a couple of bad classes, when it seems that I am doing something I want to do so well not so well. It always makes me think of a poem by Frank O'Hara, who was lamenting the absence of someone he loved:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter,
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year. What does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"...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 Huck Finn 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 at night and laying up at sunrise. Huck describes it this way:
Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line--that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off and warn't black anymore, but gray; and by and by you could see a streak in the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes the streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they've left dead fish around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the songbirds just a going it!"

Yep, and all this was taking place before Henry James ever roused himself from his linen sheets in Chelsea.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

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 grader has used a criteria. Some argue that the instructions asked only for a picture of a cat and that's what the drawer did. Consequently, it's an automatic A. Others value realism or drawing the entire cat instead of just a head. Some tend to reward creativity. The exercise illustrates in a concrete way the inherent subjectivity of evaluation . Students tend to assume that grades are metaphysical realities, so it's not a bad idea to disabuse them of this notion. My grades may differ from Professor X's down the hall, but that's not all that important. What matters is how clearly I state my standards and how consistently I apply them.

Another odd dynamic usually shows up in this exercise. Someone is sure to resent the grade that their cat earned. They'll laugh about it and protest in mock earnestness, but underneath it actually does sting a bit to get a low grade even on something this meaningless. I like to take a moment to talk about this. Ultimately there is an emotional component to being evaluated that professors often underestimate. I've actually seen the cat exercise done with faculty and they really howl if their cat gets a C (even more so than students).

Anyway, after we do this exercise and talk it over, I pass out my rubric for writing assignments, explain my standards as clearly as I can, and then distribute a few writing samples for them to evaluate with the rubric. They grade the assignments individually and then in a small group show others how their grade reflects the rubric. Lastly we compare the group consensus to the actual grades I awarded. The exercise allows us all to get in sync early on, and it saves some "but I didn't realize" grief later on. They get a chance to familiarize themselves with my standards, and we get to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of work other than their own. In most cases I have found that the students are much tougher graders than I am.

Oh, and one tip. Don't draw a cat yourself and let them grade it . They'll become the most exacting little pedants.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"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 spend so much time electronically plugged back into the friends and cultures they came from that it's almost like they never left. Or perhaps it's better to say that their home is on-line and they take it with them wherever they go. Nowhere is the new anywhere and right now is all there is.

I was thinking about this as I was putting together the syllabus for my Humanities 102 course, which tracks the values, tastes and big ideas from, as they say, Plato to NATO. Spring semester covers the Renaissance to the present (although I never seem to get much farther than 1950). I have always had a problem trying to conceptualize this half of the course. For one thing, there is simply too much going on over the last 800 years, and it goes on at a faster and faster pace as we move toward now. That's certainly part of the problem. Cultural trends since the Renaissance are a kind of auto-catalytic reaction. They feed on each other and spin-off in too many directions. Think of it this way: had a group of early medieval people been frozen in the year 900 A.D. and unfrozen a century later, they would have found a world whose culture was almost entirely familiar. Now imagine we were unfreezing someone from 1911. See what I mean?

By the time you reach the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, there are artistic movements and intellectual ideas that last only a few weeks or in some cases an afternoon: cubism, vorticism, imagism, constructivism, expressionism... All of this early 20th century messiness was a foretaste of the incessant "this just in" barrage we live in today. There is no longer any sign-off, no cultural breather or moment of being left temporarily alone with no further incoming images and ideas. They say my students love this 24/7 assault on their consciousness. They say they never want to be in a place where they aren't wired into the roaring, relentless beast talking to itself, representing itself, screaming for more and more attention. Maybe so.

Still, I often wish there was more silence in their lives. More two o'clock in the middle of night with nothing but moon and clouds and crickets.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

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 to find Phillip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick or Chester Anderson at school. I recall reading Farmer's Image of the Beast when I was about 14 or 15. It's a novel so lurid and bizarre that scenes from it have stuck with me for decades: corpses flayed, filled with helium and bobbing around the ceiling of a ballroom like party balloons, a prostitute/vampiress with a snake coiled in her womb that bore the head of Giles de Rais, and fog like green milk curdling across a dystopian Los Angeles cityscape. I would pass this novel along to my pals, looking both ways up and down junior high halls and muttering sotto voce, "You have got to read this."

Of course nobody makes hard and fast distinctions between literary genres any longer. We are all more "enlightened" today and willing to acknowledge that science fiction is no less legitimate a genre than any other. Like I said, Star Wars changed everything. Before it appeared science fiction was mind rot. Afterwards, it was mainstream pop culture. Before Luke, Darth and Obi Wan, technology in sci-fi movies was often depicted as something ominous. Both lowbrow films (Godzilla) and highbrow ones (2001: A Space Odyssey) shared a phobia about technology and modernity.

That vanished with R2D2 and C3PO, those cute little robots whose introduction to the world conveniently coincided with the release of the Apple II and the TSR-80, the first versions of the home computer. Within five years Matthew Broderick was playing the hacker/hero in War Games. Before 1977 computers like H.A.L. 9000 scared us; afterward, they became the tools we used to save the world. Think about it. Can you imagine a popular movie today that looked at technology as we did in the pre-1977 era? Would anyone produce a film today that portrayed computer video games as sinister mind control devices, or cell phones as Orwellian tele-screens that track our every movement? I understand the new ebook readers like Kindle and the Nook contain whispernet software that records what you read and how long you spend on a given page. All of that personal info is secretly transmitted back to the corporate mothership where your profile is as up-to-date as an East German's Stasi record. It's illegal for a librarian to pass on this information without a warrant from a judge, but it's somehow okay for corporations to do this. I don't get that.

In fact, I'm not sure I would read some of the stuff I secretly read as a kid if I knew someone were keeping tabs. My sister had a copy of Fanny Hill jammed under her mattress and my mom a copy of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge and The Harrad Experiment hidden in her dresser drawer. They kept these books hidden for a reason, and finding them (along with a copy of Farmer's Blown in a secondhand bookstore) was just part of the private, adolescent thrill of reading.

That's all gone now. More's the pity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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 wrong -- and not just wrong, but hilariously, mind-blowingly wrong. It's something any semi-intelligent sophomore should have known.

I was actually in the first year of my Master's program before I stopped gassing on about the French existentialist writer Albert CAY-mus (as in rhymes with "blame us"). Ye Gods but teaching is filled with opportunities for exposing what Whitman called "the dark, suspicious pools of accomplishment." Indeed, the list of howlers I've passed on in the classroom as heavenly gospel is certainly not one I'd care to enumerate.

On the other hand, there are times when you unaccountably lurch onto the truth. More than once I've come across some high-flown pedagogic strategy only to recognize it as a technique I have messed around with in complete ignorance of the research that supports it. During this winter break, too, I have been watching a series of lectures by the Classicist Donald Kagan at Yale. In one he off-handedly sketched out and endorsed the entire premise of my Introduction to Humanities course. Donald Kagan and Yale no less? Doesn't matter. It was no doubt a lucky guess on my part. I remain as big a fraud as ever. I'm convinced of it.

But that's okay. I would much rather suffer from an impostor complex than its opposite: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is when incompetent people find it impossible to accept their own incompetence. I've met a few of these types in higher education and they scare the hell out of me. Give me a dithering, incompetent Hamlet any day.

Vive l'incompetence!

Monday, January 3, 2011

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 group. The person with the most fingers pointed at him or her is the spokesperson. The students generally get a kick out of this the first time. The second time around you can offer the original spokesperson an "immunity idol," which prevents the same person getting stuck with the job over and over. You can even do variations on this gimmick using birthdays, middle names arranged alphabetically, height, whatever. The thing is to get them started on the task as quickly as possible.

Time's up
Ending group work or an in-class writing can also be handled better. Sometimes a group will be going so well you hate to stop them, but you have to because you need to move on. It can be clumsy to simply walk up to the table, interrupt them and say, "Three minutes." They lose their focus. In-class writing can also be tricky. Students compose at varying speeds. If you set aside 15 minutes for the task, some will be done in five and others will take the rest of the period if you let them. A few years ago at a conference a guy had broken us into groups to work on something. Instead of interrupting our group's conversation once it got going, he told us beforehand that he would flick the lights off and on when there were three minutes left. It worked great. Everyone knew what it meant and we kept right on working. I've used this with in-class writing and have noted that it doesn't cause students to break their concentration or even, in most cases, lift their heads from their responses.

May I have your attention please?
This last one's a little weird, but the darned thing works with eerie regularity (it's especially handy with lively, talkative classes). When you need to get the students' attention and they are chattering away, you can walk to the center of the room, stand perfectly still and begin speaking at a volume slightly below your regular voice. The important thing is not to move at all. You must remain absolutely motionless and keep talking in that low voice. The effect of this is not unlike someone tapping a spoon against a wine glass to offer a toast at a wedding. Within seconds the room will grow almost completely quiet. If you move, however, the effect will be spoiled. I don't know why this works, but it does.

Gimmicks like these do not the great teacher make, but they do make the job easier and often more fun. If I had to choose between learning ten new teacher gimmicks like these or the latest pedagogical panacea... Well, what can I say?  I've always had a soft spot for cheesy gimmicks.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...