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.


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