Wednesday, April 27, 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 a blessing.  "The texts are your angel," I told the students.  "I want you to fight the good fight and connect these big ideas to the readings."  In this way, I was trying to teach my subject at the same time I taught and--hopefully--reinforced critical reading and writing skills.

More than once I've had my doubts about this approach.  I'm the worst kind of pedagogical Hamlet.  Are they really learning?  Maybe all these ideas are just floating around in some inchoate haze.  I blogged about this a while back (The Ghost of Content).  Well, I was just sitting here reading some final papers from Humanities 102. For the final assignment I ask students to respond to three questions: (1) What are the big ideas that made an impression on you and why?  (2) How have ideas in this class arisen or been used outside of class?  And (3) What that you accomplished this semester gives you satisfaction? 

Here's part of the response I just finished reading:
At the beginning of the semester, I was troubled to learn that this class dealt with history, as it is one of my weaker subjects. As the class progressed I realized it was not a class that would require me to memorize dates or names but big ideas. As I began to connect the big ideas together and to hone my critical thinking skills, I enjoyed the class even more. The knowledge and skills I took from this class go far beyond humanities; the reading and analysis tasks made me think and wrestle with what the authors were trying to convey, and that is a skill I will be able to use in the remainder of my college career and beyond. While it is true that employers look at your grades, they also want someone who can think critically and dynamically. So the one idea I will take from this class is wrestling with the angel; I will not be satisfied with anything until I fully understand it.
Despite all my sturm und drang, despite my incessant dithering, hand-wringing and self-sabotage, I sometimes just love this job.  God help me, I do.

* Hebrew for "I bless you."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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 it.  (Couldn't really.  I had the copies of the purloined articles stapled to the turned in assignments.)  What irks me the most is being forced out of my role as a teacher and into the role of judge and jury.  I know some would say this is a teachable moment, but I doubt you can teach moral character to people in their early 20s. That's already been determined. 

And I'm never entirely happy with my decision about how to handle it.  Each case seems so different. During my first semester at the college a kid plagiarized a paper and I busted him on it.  Later, after he graduated, he wrote a threatening letter to the governor of our state and signed my name to it.  I had a visit from a criminal investigator and a postal inspector shortly afterwards. 

I once had a kid plagiarize a paper on, of all things, copyright law.  And once I caught a young woman plagiarizing in the first-year honors seminar. I really liked her, too.  Nevertheless, for three years until she graduated she could not make eye contact with me whenever we passed in hallways, which was rather awkward if we were the only ones present.  

Another time, when I was a TA, I suspected a young woman of plagiarizing a paper.  This was before the widespread use of the Internet.  In those days you had to go to the library and find the original journal article.  I struck out on that front, so I hit upon the idea of making a little speech about academic dishonesty in front of the class.  You know, "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."  So, using my gravest voice, I read the pertinent sections of the student handbook and watched her face for signs of guilt.

Nothing.  Complete impassivity.

Discouraged, I walked back to my office.  By the end of the day, three students had come in to confess.  Some were in tears.  One was terrified I was going to have him thrown out of the university.  None was my original suspect.

Sometimes it's best not to know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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 education.  They assess their personal experience, debate the value of specific disciplinary perspectives, and articulate how their education relates to their roles and responsibilities as citizens in a diverse society.

Sounds terribly high-minded, doesn't it?

The problem is that the core capstone doesn't necessarily cap a coherent liberal arts education for many of my students, who are increasingly likely to have transferred in with credits from community colleges or multiple institutions.  Somehow I have to paint a thin coat of liberal arts happy talk over a grab bag of general education courses taught with widely divergent aims to students of widely divergent academic preparedness. My core capstone is often the only place in their mix-and-match coursework where they are asked to think about it amounting to a coherent whole. It's not surprising that they don't have much to say.  After all, that's not what they experienced. 

Anyway, all this has been simmering under the surface for weeks.  At the same time I've been on a bit of a book buying binge.  Among the dozen or so titles I bought are two relating to the state of higher education today:  Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by the classicist and law professor Martha C. Nussbaum, and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by the sociologists Richard Arum and Jodipa Roksa. 

Nussbaum's thesis is that there are two competing models of higher education in the United States today: an emergent and increasingly-powerful economic growth model that sees education strictly in terms of its relationship to economic development, productivity and market competitiveness.  The other is an older human development model in which the aim of education is to cultivate human beings who can responsibly partake in and strengthen a democratic society.  Nussbaum points out that it's possible to have robust economic growth without democracy (witness China).  It's also possible to be economically dynamic while tolerating massive inequality (witness the former South Africa).  It's not possible, however, to maintain democratic institutions without a critically-aware citizenry imbued with an ethos of civic virtue.

Academically Adrift, on the other hand, maps the multi-faceted forces that shape under performance in student learning in American colleges and universities.  It's not the usual ideologically-driven jeremiad attacking lackluster professors, lazy students or obtuse administrators.  Rather, it shows how many competing pressures and perverse incentives contribute to poor student performance throughout higher education.  Indeed, the economic imperatives that Nussbaum notes are just one of many factors at work here.  In fact, most colleges and universities today try to synthesize both models. There is a nominally liberal arts core and an array of career preparation majors. The problem, as Nussbaum argues, is that the two models often create contradictory incentives.  And, she says, the human development model is on the ropes these days.

* * * * * *

So last night I came home from my night class and complained to my wife about how unhappy I have been teaching the core capstone. The questions I am asking, the discussions I am trying to lead, and even the texts I am assigning all seem completely irrelevant to my students and their experience in higher education.  I talk about the value of a scientific perspective, of historical awareness, of Socratic skepticism, of civic virtue, and they look at me like I'm nuts. Drowsing in bed this morning it occurred to me that the core capstone is ground zero of the clash of educational models that Nussbaum describes. I'm talking about the old model while most of my students are living in the new one.

They came to college to enhance their value as potential employees.  And civic virtue and democratic participation?  They mostly don't vote and can't see the point.  About three weeks into the capstone--while we're reading the Crito--I ask them what they morally owe their society for the benefits they have enjoyed.  It's often the first time in nearly 16 years of education that anyone has asked them this question.  So of course any discussion of the value of the liberal arts (i.e., the skills needed for a free citizenry) sounds alien to them.  Who talks that way today outside of a few hand wringers like me or the boilerplate writers of college mission statements?   

It makes rational sense to get the maximum benefit for the least investment in the model of education they have experienced.  The C student gets the same diploma as the A student, so the A student is a bit of a sucker.  Buy low, sell high.  But when I ask them to identify what's meaningful in their education, they speak only in terms of their own transformation.  The courses they value are not the easy As received for under-performing.  No, they're the ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest, or found out something new about their own potential. 

So how in the world do we change the discussion in this country when I have a hard enough time doing it in my classroom?  My students think of education as a transaction, but they only locate value in its capacity for transformation.  It seems like that would be enough, but time and again it's the transaction side of the debate that wins in the larger societal discourse.  How do we move the rock?   I dunno.  I'm stumped, tired and out of ideas.

Maybe it's time for another nap. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

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 instead gave it a try and ended up writing insightfully about Hector, Achilles and the fragility and beauty of human life? If I recall, that was the course in which one of your classmates--an adult Bosnian immigrant--said she usually sold back her books at the end of each semester but thought she just might hang on to the Iliad and read it again.

No, it can't be. Everyone knows these tired old eurocentric male "classics" are no longer relevant to the lives our students lead today, especially to minorities and women. They need something that affirms their individual identity and speaks in their voice.

Tell that to the folks who run the Clemente Courses, an academic program designed for people living at or just above the federal poverty-level. The curriculum is comprised of Humanities courses in literature, poetry, painting, moral philosophy, architecture, and U.S. history. The program emphasizes masterpieces in each field and the great works of the Western tradition, but voices from non-Western traditions are not ignored. Students who complete the courses say things like this:
It's been a life-changing experience. I just got back from the bookstore, where I bought the books I've decided to read this summer. Wuthering Heights, Walden, Siddhartha, Dubliners, Aristotle's Poetics. And Walt Whitman has become my favorite poet, and I was never interested in poetry before. I thought art history was going to be dull, but I loved it. I went to the Chuck Close exhibit three times on my own, and I'm really looking forward to the Impressionist show. Reading Marcus Aurelius has changed how I deal with other people. I have more compassion and patience; I remind myself to stop talking and listen, trying not to be vexed by the little things. You hear about the thirst for knowledge. Well I've had a sip of clear water, and now I'm thirsting for a lot more.
To be honest, it wasn't my course and it certainly wasn't me that opened up new possibilities for my former student. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. That credit goes to Mssrs. Homer, Plato and Dante, and to Amber and her wonderful mind. I was just lucky to be around when a door opened.

Bon Voyage, Amber!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

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 seminar I have taught for 10 years to locate exhibit A:  Plato, Aristotle, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Emerson, Shelley and Darwin.  See what I mean?  By the way, Mary Shelley was my one pathetic nod to being more inclusive.  I had to let go of Dostoevsky to make room for her in the course.  Dostoevsky!  Ye gods!

But it's 2011.  I can hardly defend my super-annuated, crypto-fascist ideas about literature any longer, but neither will I apologize for them.  Reading what used to be unsneeringly called the "canonical works of Western literature" has been the formative act of my intellectual life.  As a blue-collar kid from a family that didn't read much, the discovery of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were not a given in need of revisionist interpretation and reevaluation.  No, reading these authors was liberating.  It showed me worlds I never knew existed. 

So I remain a wholly-unrepentant fuddy-duddy, one who has the temerity (or foolishness, take your pick) to say that appreciating a work's genius is more important than unpacking its politics.  How I loathe arguing politics with poetry: the smug two step of enclosing every act of reading into some narrow-minded socio-political box.   Why is it so hard to comprehend that poetry is a lousy way of practicing politics? Oh, yes, dear yes, a poem can be political. No one is denying that. But it had better be something more if it aspires to be art.

It doesn't matter.  I'm wasting my breath, and I'm probably wrong.  It's time for me to let the Great Books model of education go.  In a few short years, Homer will no longer exist as part of our undergraduate experience.  Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante...  all gone.  A dozen or so English majors will continue to read Shakespeare, and no doubt with the latest critical-analytical tools. 

Please don't mistake me.  I admire my colleagues.  They are wonderful educators and wonderful people..  In the end, whatever they decide to do with the honors program will be fine and quite likely an improvement.  They just see the world differently than I do.  So I have to get out of their way.  I have to let it go.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

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 it to dilute itself into the other 19 and a half years of doing this job.  Oblivion can't come soon enough. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

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 also tend to silo people into disciplines, departments and divisions, which probably exacerbates the primus inter pares effect, a phenomenon 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 productivity.

You might also say that academic life promotes the availability fallacy. In other words, I have lots and lots of available evidence that I am working hard, teaching well and carrying the institution's heavy burden. But my colleagues over there in department X? Hmmm, not so much. They must be slacking. Then there's just the sniping pettiness you find in any group of human beings. Problem is that academics are clever. Their sniping tends to hit home.

Over the years I've met a few people who should have been tenured for their kindness alone. The first was a now retired department chair who never once in all the years I knew her spoke an unkind word about anyone. I'm not saying she didn't think it.  She just had the grace and forbearance not to give vent to her exasperation. The other is a woman retiring this spring.  I have worked with her closely for the past several years. Again, she has been a bulwark of caring, kindness and forbearance, qualities that show up nowhere on her vita.

Even so, such people are of incalculable value in academic life, especially at a small college.  Come to think of it, they're pretty darned valuable in general. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

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 brilliant idea. This semester, for example, I have been horribly unorganized. I left a week off the syllabus in a course. A week! One of my better-organized students pointed it out to me only last Thursday. This is to say nothing of the time I forgot to distribute a reading a class meeting before the students were to have read it, or the three or four times I taught something out of order and generally created more confusion.

I have felt so bad about my lack of organization the last few days that I sought to do penance. Instead of going home before my night class and coming back to campus, I decided to stay at work and carefully hammer out a detailed plan for how I would approach the evening. I typed up a big schedule and lesson plan with times next to activities, the central concepts I needed to teach, and a good mix of active learning strategies to teach them.

Then I walked into class and saw a student reading something other than the text I had so carefully prepared to teach. Sure enough, I had misread my own syllabus! Aaargh! I so totally suck. At times like these I try to solace myself with some bromide like "to err is human," but I secretly know that these gaffes are really windows to my soul, indices of my life-long inadequacy. No matter that I quickly switched gears and taught an older lesson plan I had previously used. No matter that it did not come off badly. I still suck.

So it was a great blessing yesterday to wander into a colleague's office and hear him beating himself up for falling far behind on his grading. He just confessed his guilt and said how rotten he felt about it. I told him about my own lack of organization this semester, but also how good it was for me to hear that he sucked as well. I think we both felt better.

It's like I often tell my students when we're reading Greek tragedy. The point is not that the hero gets it right. There is no getting it right. There's only facing our inevitable flaws with whatever honesty, sorrow and fortitude we possess. It's always the same: the lessons we teach are the hardest ones to learn.

Then again, maybe suckosity just loves company.

Friday, April 1, 2011

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--Aeniad
Songs of course have both symbolic and physical components. They are the representation of ideas but also the sound waves shot into the air. You can't say you have sung without making some noise, and Song of Myself certainly celebrates the physicality of sound. Speech becomes frosty breaths swirling in the breeze. It becomes "echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers" and "belch'd words... loos'd to the eddies of the wind." Indeed the entire poem seems to be there in those first few lines. Whitman wants to get the reader to recognize that the power to confer meaning on the world--to speak, to sing--is not his alone but the reader's as well.

It turns out we are the origin of all poems, the "single singing artificers" as Wallace Stevens put it. It's all there in those pronouns: I, the doer of the action, the singer of the song, and myself, its reflexive, receiving object. And laying all this out in class I got quite swept away again with admiration for Whitman's simple and unintimidating genius, for his love of the reader and his desire to give us his gift. I always point out when teaching Song of Myself that the first word of the poem is I, but the last is you.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I have been so consumed with core revisions, with course scheduling, with the endless grading of endless papers that I somehow forgot it was a love for poetry which brought me into this business. And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, there was Walt, waiting just like he said.


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