Showing posts from April, 2011

Elohim yevarekh otakh*

A few years ago I reformatted my Introduction to Humanities course so that it was less of a chronological frog-march through Western culture and more a feast of big ideas.  I wanted students to come out of it with half a dozen or so conceptual frameworks for thinking about how the past shapes the present.  So I would teach them a big concept like the Great Chain of Being or Renaissance Humanism and then have them tease the idea out of various primary source readings.  How, for example, does this section of Vasari's Lives of the Artists speak to a humanistic concern for individual accomplishment?  Or in what way are Machiavelli and Luther reflecting increasing cultural autonomy from traditional authorities? 

No quizzes, no tests, just write, write, write and then revise, revise, revise.  I called this "Wrestling with the Angel" and explained that the name came from a passage in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and will not let him go until he receives …

Is this the promised end?

Ah, yes, the perfect end to an imperfect semester: a case of plagiarism.  It's my least favorite part of this job.  Fortunately, it's rare because my assignments tend to be a bit idiosyncratic (e.g., write a letter in the guise of Machiavelli to Hamlet), or I have students analyze tightly specified portions of a text.  As a result, it's hard to find something ready made on the Internet for a neat cut and paste job.  That doesn't mean students don't try.  It just means it's often the crudest and most desperate kind of plagiarism when they do.

And that's what happened.  In an effort to earn some much-needed and last-minute extra credit, a student cut and pasted some on-line articles about films we watched this semester.  It was garden-variety academic dishonesty, more laziness than venality.  I seldom get angry when this happens.  Rather, I just  get annoyed that now I have to play the cop and endure an unpleasant conversation.  

This one didn't even deny …

Moving the Rock

It's strange how things come together in your unconscious mind.  The great French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare claimed that his most brilliant ideas came to him in that drifting, unfocused quasi-dream state that immediately follows awakening.  He had spent weeks trying to prove the non-existence of a mathematical concept known as Fuschian functions.  After a restless night, he awoke and somehow knew they existed.  Weeks later, while on vacation, the idea of how to prove their existence flashed into his mind seemingly from nowhere.

I too have been stewing on something: my dissatisfaction with the core capstone.  Everything about it isn't working.  The students are going through the motions (as am I), the discussions are lifeless and seemingly irrelevant to the reality of higher education.  But I should probably back up.  The core capstone is the culminating experience of our core curriculum.  In it students review the meaning, value and use of their liberal arts ed…

Bon Voyage

 I saw one of my all-time favorite students last Friday afternoon. She took my Introduction to Humanities course in an accelerated evening section nearly three years ago, and I've only seen her a few times since. I did, however, write about her once before on this blog (Leaning In). She is so bright and wonderful. I would love to have a room full of students just like her.  Anyway, the rest of the faculty and I were standing in academic attire--robes and funny hats--waiting to enter the field house for Honors Convocation. Suddenly there she was. I made some remark about how she couldn't be graduating already, and she said she was. Then she said, "After I graduate, I'm going to Europe for a few months. It was your class that really made me want to go."
My class? Really? The one where I made you, a bright and intellectually curious African American woman, read Homer, Plato, Seneca, Augustine and Dante? The one that you were ready to quit after the first night but i…

The weight of this sad time

The adoption of a new general education core at my institution (which I certainly had a hand in) means that many things we do now will have to go away or change.  One of these things is our alternative honors core, a 20-credit Great Books-style learning community that consists of four seminars organized around themes like "The Self and Others" and "Nature and Human Nature."
Only one of the original cadre of faculty members who began the program is still around, and I was one of the of the "new people" who came into the program when its founder moved to another institution.  I'll be the first to admit that the program has lost some of its original vigor and vision.  Indeed, many of my younger colleagues who taught in it for a few years found it stuffy, hidebound and narrow.  They argued the reading list was too patriarchal, too white and too Eurocentric.

What can I say?   Guilty, guilty and guilty.  You need look no farther than the reading list of the s…

Tediously limping away

Waiting, waiting, waiting...  There's a line from Shakespeare's Henry V that has kept burbling up in my brain since spring break.  It's from Act IV.  The English army is camped on the battlefield at Agincourt.  Everyone is waiting for morning but the night seems to run on and on and on.  The chorus describes it as a foul and tedious witch that doth limp away.  That's a fair description of my feelings toward the present semester.  I just want it to be over and it doth so tediously limp away.
Sometimes you end the semester sentimentally, sometimes with regrets over the things you might have done, and sometimes--like now--you just want to throw it down the memory hole (or drown it like a sack of stray cats).  There are  two and a half weeks left counting finals, and I just want it to be over.  I want to forget how unorganized, ill-prepared and fly-by-night I have been this semester. I want to forget a particularly unpleasant meeting in the run-up to the core vote.  I want …

If only kindness were tenured

I'm not sure that the stresses and pressures shaping behavior in higher education are any different than they are in other organizations, but it does seem that academia lends itself at times to particular kinds of unkindness.

We professors can be rather dismissive of our colleagues. Those in the career preparation majors often sniff at the liberal arts navel gazers, and those in the liberal arts often high hat career prep departments. Lord knows I've been guilty of this. And all this is to say nothing of the standard tensions between faculty and administration or the "two cultures" divide between the humanities and sciences.

Academic structures tend to silo people into disciplines, departments and divisions, which probably exacerbates the primus inter pares effect, a phenomemon in which people overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the contribution of others. I've seen studies that show that 80% of people rate themselves in the top 10% of productivi…

Good for the Soul

People who love teaching love to talk about it, or perhaps I should amend that. People who love teaching love to talk about their own teaching. Then again, maybe I should amend that once more. Okay, here's the right formulation: people who love teaching really love to talk about the parts of their own teaching that work well. They're almost like an obsessive co-worker who's into genealogy and has traced some lost great-great-great uncle (twice removed) to the 17th century. It's the most fascinating subject in the world, but only to him.
The other parts of teaching--the parts where you really stink, bore your students to distraction, screw up and don't know what you're doing--well, we don't like to talk about that as much. Like almost never. Too risky. Why give your colleagues ammunition? Ironically, talking about stinking it up with someone you trust is often more valuable than sharing your new gimmick for ginning up in-class discussions or your latest bri…

It's the poetry, stupid

Last week in my Humanities course we spent a little time with Romantic poetry. The students read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, but I also had them read a bit of Emerson and then, of course, the opening lines of Song of Myself.

Going over the poem in class was like finding my religion again:
I explained to them the etymology of the term Romanticism and how it came from romanz, an older word meaning a hero's quest or adventure. I told them that Whitman was indeed setting out on a quest:
I, now, thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping not to cease until death.And then I walked them through that famous first line, asking them why he wrote "I sing myself" rather than "I sing about myself." We also keyed on the verb sing and how often it appears in the opening of epic poems:

Sing, goddess, of Achilles anger--Iliad
I sing of arms and the man--AeniadSongs of course have both symbolic and physical components. They are the representation of ideas but also…