Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Ghost of Content

Several years ago I bought into the idea that less is more when it comes to the content of my courses. Indeed, the research is fairly convincing that you can remove a lot of content without damaging student performance. Why, after all, should we drill students with content when they promptly forget it after passing the exam? Besides, teaching that way tends to create bulimic learners: students who binge on content and then vomit it up all over the test. The result seldom has any nutritive or educational value.

Sometimes, when I used to teach this way, I would find erasures of cryptic acronyms on the margins of final exams. These were the mnemonic gimmicks students had used to recall key terms or names. In other words, their content retention was so weak that they were afraid of forgetting the material before they even finished the exam. So I knew for a long time that what I was doing wasn't working, but I couldn't envision any other way of teaching.

Gradually--and this took a few years--I began to move to a different model. This wasn't an easy transition. Indeed, giving up the idea that students must master content is perhaps the most difficult thing a professor ever has to do. I certainly would never have done it if I hadn't been so dissatisfied with the kind of non-nutritive learning I was witnessing in my classroom. So for three or four years I began slowly reorganizing all of my courses. Instead of frog marching the students through every cultural tic and tremor from the pyramids to postmodernism, I boiled my courses down to a half-dozen or so big ideas. As a result, the content was de-emphasized, or perhaps it's better to say it was subordinated to teaching the big ideas.

Here's how this worked in my first-year Humanities sections. Instead of making my students memorize a list of Renaissance thinkers, artists, and important works, I had them identifying the theme of "humanism" in several works of literature and art, or I might have them read bits of Montaigne, Bacon and Descartes to identify how all three were using systematic doubt as a methodology during the scientific revolution of the 17th century. My goal wasn't teaching the material. It was teaching them a way of thinking about the material.

By the end of the course, then, students had read and wrestled with dozens of writers, painters and thinkers, whose names they probably forgot. I didn't care, though, because all that wrestling was in the service of understanding five or six big ideas. They might not have been able to reel off the major poets and painters of the Renaissance, but my hope was that they could recognize Renaissance humanism when they saw it. Just as importantly, I wanted them to see how a big idea like humanism remains in the operating system of culture today.

And yet I have always been haunted by the specter of content at any given moment. Am I doing the right thing? Is my approach filling their heads with little more than a free-floating pastiche of unconnected ideas? I mean why shouldn't these ideas be more firmly anchored in a fact-laden historical timeline? Is it okay to let them escape my class without a grasping the importance of the Treaty of Westphalia or knowing the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns? There are days, even now, when I lose confidence and wonder if I am doing them a disservice.

But then one of my students amazes me, which just happened as I was grading a stack of papers. I had assigned the class to write on Act V of King Lear, and a woman in my Humanities section stitched together a brilliant response that touched on Luther, Machiavelli and the major characters in Lear. And every bit of it was wonderfully organized under the big idea of a growing sense of autonomy in Renaissance and post-Reformation society. Instead of spitting content back at me, she was doing something with that content. She was building, constructing, and finding points of connection. In short, she was thinking. So suddenly I am no longer the dithering and fretful prof unsure of his approach. Maybe--just maybe--this is working.

And once more the ghost of content retires into the wings whispering, "Adieu, adieu, Hamlet, remember me."

Don't worry. He'll be back.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Warts and all

A former girlfriend once told me I was at once the most cynical and sappy human being she had ever met. She was right. I do tend to swing between these two poles. Nowhere has this been more true than in the core revision work I and some colleagues been doing over the last two and a half years. At times I've been the "hey, kids, let's put on a show" cheerleader, the optimist and liberal arts sunshine peddler. At other times I've been such a pessimist that my colleagues have taken to calling me "Toad" (in reference to the gloomier of the two reptiles in Kenneth Graeme's Wind in the Willows).

I am feeling more and more toadish as the vote for the new core nears. At the heart of our proposal are three interdisciplinary seminars: an expanded first-year seminar, a sophomore/junior level global awareness seminar and a junior/senior level capstone. Our idea was to create three developmentally-appropriate experiences in the core that allowed some interdisciplinary, big-picture reflection for students. We wanted to move away from a checklist core and toward something more pedagogically coherent and--wait for it... here comes the sappy part--transformational in the tradition of liberal arts education at its best.

The seminars are to be taught by faculty from across the institution. And here's the rub that makes calamity of so-long life. Too many faculty members are reluctant to step outside of their current roles. It could be because they don't feel they have the expertise to take on an interdisciplinary seminar, but more often it's just that they have their hands full fulfilling their departmental responsibilities. Some just don't want the extra work, which I can certainly understand. Interdisciplinary collaboration is more work. And, lastly, a few of my colleagues are just fine with the plan so long as somebody else does it.

Today I have to create a survey that polls the faculty's willingness to participate in interdisciplinary programming in the proposed core. Keep in mind we will need dozens of sections per calender year of these new beasts. I already know in my heart that the number who indicate a willingness to be involved will fall woefully short of the participation needed to make the scheme work. The final vote on the proposal is irrelevant because the number that opt in is the only one that matters. Some days I am convinced that this place is a collection of individual and unrelated majors, and a collection of individual and unrelated majors it shall remain.

Croak, croak, croak...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mixed Feelings at Midterm

It's midterm. The grades had to be turned in by noon today. In my Humanities course about half of the students have figured me out and are now starting to look for that sweet spot where they can get the grade they want for the least amount of effort. Another 25 percent are still getting up to speed, and another is just now figuring it all out.

We had to have a little "Come to Shakespeare" moment in which I reminded them of the standards I was expecting in response papers, the need to actually read the play (yes, I know it's a difficult text) and not to turn in sloppy, unproofed work. We did practice exercises all morning, making generalizations and summarizing textual evidence for events in Act IV of King Lear. This was all stuff we covered the first two weeks of class, but sometimes you just have to double back.

In my first-year honors seminar, on the other hand, I tried a different kind of midterm reality check. I had the students divide a blank paper into three sections. In the first section they were to write down the personal learning goal they selected the first week of class. Some wanted to improve their critical reading ability, others their writing and still others time management. In the second section they were to evaluate their effort in achieving their goal and list the obstacles or successes they had experienced. In the final section they were to suggest ways that I could do things differently in class to help them be successful. I asked them to share what they felt comfortable sharing in small groups of three. I also asked them to tear off the third section and turn it into me (but with no name on the paper). Here were the results:

8 said don't change a thing.
5 said more student-to-student interaction (small group tasks and discussions).
3 said a bit more time on task for in-class writing assignments. (I usually give them 20-25 minutes.)
1 said more historical background on the texts.
1 said reminders about what's due at the end of class.
1 said a chance to note down ideas after large-group discussions.

It's really important to respond to student requests like these. Sometimes you can't because there's a sound pedgaogical reason that prevents it, but you can always honor a few requests. And you really should. Why waste their time if you aren't going to change anything?

So, after putting the requests on the whiteboard, I promised to add a few minutes to the weekly in-class writing assignments. I also promised to build in more student-to-student discussions. The ironic thing is this actually creates a lot more work for me. Setting up meaningful small group tasks is tough to do well and easy to do poorly. Believe me, students know "busy work" when they see it. Still, they're right. I need to talk less and get them talking more.

I also agreed to try out the last suggestion. I have students write in class, share in small group, and then report out during all-class discussion. This takes most of an 80 minute period. I said we would try saving five minutes at the end of class to note down all the points that were made. I like the idea. Let's see if it can be squeezed into an already-crowded period.

And what about me? What was my personal learning goal this semester? Didn't set one. How am I doing? Hard to say... need to talk less. What are the obstacles that are holding me back? Lack of pre-planning, lack of time, lack of innovation and creativity. And what would I like to change? Not sure, but if nothing else I've at least done some clear thinking about mixed feelings.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Okay, now what?

I don't know who said it, but it's the truth: the biggest surprise in life is old age. And the biggest surprise in academic life is becoming one of the senior faculty members. "When did this happen?" you find yourself wondering. When did all those people who used to do the heavy lifting around here just up and leave? These were the people who sat in long meetings with the administration haggling over issues of compensation, workload, tenure and promotion, curriculum change... These were the people who led initiatives, developed departments, created new programs.

But there comes a moment--it could be while sitting through a long, acrimonious meeting--when you realize to your utter astonishment that you're the grown-up. You're the person you always formerly looked at for a clue on how to move forward. It's a shocking realization, too, because you never set out to become a grown-up. No, you set out to explore ideas, to teach, to try new things in the classroom, to have intellectual fun. The dirty little secret of being an academic is that it's an incredible dodge. You get to have fun doing stuff you like and they pay you for it.

Besides, being the grown-up was never part of the plan. When I look in the mirror I still see that same clever, rebellious-minded graduate student. I certainly don't see Ward Cleaver, a guy who had grown-up written all over him.

Nevertheless, one day you think "Holy cats! I'm Ward Cleaver!"

Academics deal with this realization in various ways. Some retreat back into their disciplines and define themselves as a professor of X, and that's all I do, thank you very much. They prefer not to get involved and let others handle the larger issues of the university. That's easier at a bigger institution than a smaller one. At a small college like mine there is forever too much work and too few seasoned faculty to do it. A place like this necessitates the wearing of many hats. A few of my colleagues (and don't ask me why) actually like being a grown-up and transition into positions of authority. Most, however, just soldier on, a bit beleaguered, a bit stunned and maybe even a bit resentful. This wasn't what they signed up for.

I came out of a long meeting yesterday and realized I have become one of the people entrusted to make change happen. I'm the one who has to sit in those rooms and be a Ward Cleaver.

And it is a surprise. Like old age, I didn't really see it coming.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why not just go fishing?

Reading the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago, I ran across the review of a new book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Three or four paragraphs into the review and I was hooked. By the time I was half-way through I had already ordered the book from Amazon. It showed up on Tuesday and I finished it last night.

The authors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, conduct a fascinating close reading of great works from Homer to David Foster Wallace. Indeed, the writers, thinkers and theologians they cover almost amount to the reading list for my freshmen Humanities sections. I could give the book to my brighter students and they would have no problem following the argument as it skips from Homer to Saint Paul, from Dante to Luther, and then on to Shakespeare, Descartes, Emerson...

I wish I could say I was as excited now that I have finished All Things Shining as I was when I began, not least because I am sympathetic to the book's thesis. Even so, I confess a bit of disappointment. Dreyfus and Kelly, philosophers by trade, offer up a secular brand of Homeric polytheism as the tonic for our post-Nietzschean blues. They want to sacralize the experience of modern life, but not by re-grounding it in some rigid, dogmatic creed that shuts out all other ways of experiencing sacred meaning. Rather, they want us to open ourselves like the ancients to the gods' waxing and waning presence.

Their argument begins with some speculations on David Foster Wallace's suicide, a writer whose work they see as emblematic of the nihilistic trajectory of the Western mindset. In Wallace's fiction (some of it as yet unpublished) Dreyfus and Kelly see the desperation of a writer and highly-intelligent man trying to foist a sense of the sacred onto the randomness and meaninglessness of contemporary existence. This sacredness, however, had to be created ex nihilo with the individual will. For the postmodern intellectual, they argue, the idea of locating meaning (sacred or otherwise) beyond the self has been a non-starter at least since Kant.

Wallace apparently could not accomplish this nearly impossible task and (though the authors acknowledge they are speculating) he succumbed to despair and took his life. In the end, he was unable to follow Nietzsche's advice by becoming a god himself. On the other hand, there was also no going back to a traditional view of meaning as certain, immutable and external to the individual. So the long line of Western thought from Homer to Heidegger has just hit a dead end.

Or maybe not, say Dreyfus and Kelly. Perhaps in our end is our beginning, for they propose we take a cue from Homer and resurrect the pagan pantheon, not literally of course but also not exactly metaphorically either. What they admire in the Homeric Greeks was a capacity for giving themselves over to moods and states of being that are endlessly presenting themselves in human life. The gods in Homer can cause people, things and moments to "shine." Odysseus is made to shine in the Phaecian court, Helen is made radiant by Aphrodite, and more than once the gods give strength or cunning to the heroes they favor.

Key to the book's argument here is that such moments in life are compatible with a modern view that sees meaning as shifting, unfixed and seemingly random. At the same time---and this is crucial--participants in these shining moments feel swept along by some external force or mood. Dreyfus and Kelly note that people performing heroic actions almost never locate the source of their motivation in themselves. They act as if they were in the grip of a dream (or a god).

What the authors hope to establish is that these experiences--and our concomitant gratitude for them--can stand in for the sacred in secular life. We can be grateful to the universe for the beautiful moment, the heroic action, the well-made object. In other words, our lives can have a phenomenological sacredness if not a divine one. Moreover, shining at its best is experienced communally. Dreyfus and Kelly speak of those present at Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, and the incredible moment when a fatally-ill Lou Gehrig acknowledged he was the luckiest man alive.

Okay, first what I admire about this book. The authors take paganism seriously. I have often argued in class that Homeric polytheism wasn't all bad. For one thing, it avoided the "problem of evil," which has so often bedeviled monotheism. Let's face it: crazy things happen when you inhabit a universe occupied by very powerful but very capricious gods. Sure an angry Poseidon may scuttle your raft and send you swimming through a treacherous reef in search of shore, but you might find yourself favored and protected by the gods as well. When a half-dozen suitors hurl their spears at Odysseus from point blank range and miss, he doesn't shrug and call it a coincidence. No sir, he shows some proper gratitude to the universe and says, "Thank you, Athena!"

Or as the hit man Jules says in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when something identical happens, "That shit wasn't luck. That shit was something else." And I agree with Dreyfus and Kelly here. There's value in saying thanks to "something else" even if it was just luck. Secular humanists and filthy atheists ought to show a bit more gratitude to the universe for its random blessings. If nothing else, it's good for their fictitious souls.

Still, I can't help thinking that the authors of All Things Shining both oversell and underestimate their argument. The Nietzschean dead end they describe is not really a problem for the overwhelming majority of people who continue to locate sacredness in the traditional manner. It may be an issue for philosophy professors, postmodern novelists and a few pinheads like me, but last time I checked this was still a fairly religious world.

I also wish they had used some other term than "whoosh" to describe these shining moments. It reminded me of "flow," the word positive psychologists use to talk about peak mental functioning. I have issues with positive psychology (see The Smell Test). I also felt uneasy at how many times they lodged shining moments in the communal experience of sporting events. I guess they were looking for widely identifiable instances in contemporary life for the phenomenology they describe, but--and they acknowledge this--such things can also happen at Nazi Party rallies. There are gods for anger, strife and war as well as for finely-made cups of coffee and happy sports arenas.

Sometimes, too, while reading the book, I found myself thinking these guys just needed to forget about the Great White Whale and grab a fly rod. I enjoyed their trek through the Western Classics tremendously, but for my money nothing can teach you humility and gratitude like a wild Brown Trout.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow Day

Hello! Light the Fire!
I'll bring inside
A lovely bright ball of snow.

We all knew it was coming. For days the radio and TV stations have been squawking with reports of a big snowstorm headed our way. Timing and predicted snowfall amounts were studied with great interest by professors and students alike. Everyone was speculating--hoping really--that the storm would cancel classes and give us a day off. I went to bed last night reasonably sure I wasn't going to work in the morning.

Sure enough, we're closed.

Yesterday I had my first-year seminar students sit in silence for a few seconds watching the snow drifting down outside our second-story classroom window. We were transitioning from an in-class writing exercise to small group discussion, but I thought it might be nice for us to stop for a minute and note the grace of falling snow.

And this morning it's graced us again with the gift of an entire day to read, to catch-up, to grade a few papers, to make a big pot of potato soup with carrots and leeks, and maybe just to sit by a window whispering thank you to the snow.


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