Showing posts from October, 2011

The Prime Directive

I spent part of my weekend attending the sporting events of some of my current students.   I usually try to do this once a semester.  I'm not the biggest of sports fans, but I do try to be supportive.  Inevitably, too, I find myself thinking how little I actually know about my students' lives.

Sitting in the stands I always catch snatches of conversation and realize that 'so and so' is dating 'what's his name.'  I even get a sense of the ever-evolving groups and subgroups that make up a small campus community.  I like to think I have a good rapport with my students, but as a faculty member my connection exists almost entirely  in the classroom, a space I structure and over which have a nominal (if not actual) authority.

The classroom is in many ways an artificial world and has its own peculiar rules and routines. Put me in a classroom and I am comfortable and at home, but put me in a social situation with students beyond the classroom and I usually feel awk…

If Magic

Many years ago a friend and I ran a small theater company.  Together we staged a dozen or so productions in various halls and church basements.  We had little money, crap equipment and only the talents of high school kids, bored homemakers and the usual assorted misfits who make up amateur theater.   My friend Ray and I were young, arrogant and completely enamored by the ideas of Constantine Stanislavsky.

I think back and often wince at our youthful pretension, but there were also some fascinating moments.  One project I recall with particular fondness.  We had decided to offer an "imagination workshop" using Stanislavsky's ideas.    We advertised it in the newspaper and charged an absurdly low amount in the hopes of attracting new talent to our troupe.  It worked, too.  Nearly a dozen people signed up.

Each week my friend Ray and I would work with the participants to build entire scenes from the simplest of stage directions.  For example, we might start with something a…

Forever Unfit

I just wrapped up an eight-week accelerated night version of the core capstone, a course in which students are asked to evaluate the significance, value and meaning of their liberal arts education.  Teaching it in our evening/weekend program is always a challenge.  Many of the students in the program are working adults  finishing degrees in career-related fields.  They take two courses, two nights a week, in eight week stretches; then they turn around and do it again the following eight weeks.

Generally, too, they are doing this while working full-time, raising a family and dealing with life in general.   This semester, for example, one was going through a bitter divorce, another had absences because his kid had  run away, one woman gave birth, and another was supporting a boyfriend with legal problems.  Most work all day and then show up to class half exhausted only to listen to me gas on with liberal arts happy talk.

To be fair, some are sincerely energized and interested by our discu…

Getting better all the time

One of the challenges for me over the past few years has been trying to minimize the importance of grades in my classes.  All of the research shows that extrinsic rewards (or punishments) are actually disincentives.  Economists have known for years that offering higher rewards for anything beyond simple mechanical tasks leads to poorer performance.  Rewards just don't work the moment you ask people to do even rudimentary cognitive tasks.   I've blogged on this before (When A's Don't Matter). 

I don't have the power to eliminate grades.  They are still (and probably always will be) the coin of the realm in higher education.  Even so, there are some things I've been able to do to de-emphasize them and put the emphasis on what really does motivate people: autonomy, challenge and mastery.   People--bless their little hearts--don't really like to think all that much, but they will do it if they are confronted with an intriguing challenge and have the freedom an…