Showing posts from February, 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 f…

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 interdiscipl…

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 sect…

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 classro…

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 thes…

Snow Day

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

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 po…