Friday, December 14, 2012

Now where did I leave that plow?


Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus agrees to leave the farm for a spell.

For whatever reason, people keep mistaking me for someone with ambition. For almost five years I've been reluctantly chairing a committee to revise the general education core.  As of a week ago Thursday, that job was done. I'm sure I mussed a few people's hair along the way, and I acknowledge with regret that I could have done any number of things differently or better.

Even so, I won't apologize for the results.  We created a core that is assessable, we sutured its outcomes to the curriculum in the majors, we reduced and streamlined the outcomes, we expanded the first-year experience, and we created on-going over sight.  This is not a 'set-it and forget-it' core.  More importantly, we did all this without the usual turf wars that often accompany large-scale instututional change. 

So it rankles just a bit to receive an email offering me tepid congratulations, passing along some anonymous criticisms and sarcastically looking forward to my "future leadership."  The criticisms I accept, and the fact that not everyone likes the new core was probably ineveitable.  But my future leadership? 

That stings.

During this process, I ended the program I was responsible for.  I happily passed on the chance to become the new core director, gave back a budget to the university and created the position of my future supervisor.  And now that the work is done, I am elated to crawl back into the classroom and do the work of teaching.  Just teaching.  Period.  That's all I ever wanted.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old School

It came to me recently that the party is really over.  Teaching and learning in the way people have done it since they were shaping spear points around a campfire has just about run its course.  It's only  a matter of time before we professors are replaced by robots.  Hell, they've already done it in Japan (see above).

I say this half-seriously with an emphasis on the serious side. 

Yesterday in my first-year seminar, for example, I used an ice-breaker to mix up the class for a pair and share exercise.  I asked the students to line up by birth date from oldest to youngest without talking or writing anything down.  The surprise came for me when I checked their dates:  2/3/94,  3/18/94, 5/12/94... 

Nineteen-freakin'-ninety four! 

That's three years after I began this job.  I've said it before, but teaching is a little like King Lear's unwiped hand.  Before proffering it to Cordelia in Act V, he says, "It stinks of mortality."  I mean, let's face it: dealing with 18-years olds semester after semester is guaranteed to remind you that you're not getting any younger.

Listening to those birthdays yesterday, I was reminded that my students really have grown up in a different world.  They've never known a life without a 24/7 Internet connection within arm's reach.  Most of them sleep with their smartphones and would be extremely anxious if they had to go off-line for an hour or two.  

For a few years I could get students to turn off their devices with jokes or reminders.  I could still engage them in a conversation.  Increasingly, however, that's become more difficult.  They simply cannot switch off and--more troubling to me--they have begun to resent it when I ask them to do so.  This semester, I have had to ask at least one student to put away a phone in nearly every class.

The new normal is that it's perfectly okay to be half-present in any real-time activity.  People yack away on their phones through entire transactions in a checkout line.  They text and drive.  They stroll across campus with noses buried in their on-line worlds, failing to see, greet or smile at anyone passing by.  One of my favorite things to do is to arrive at class a few minutes early and chat with my students.  It's a chance to establish a human connection outside the official boundaries of the classroom. 

That opportunity is almost gone now.  If I get to class early, almost every student will have his or her face trained on a tiny screen.  Imagine it.  Here you have a room full of fun, lively young people, yet no one is saying anything or bothering to relate to one another.   I can almost feel the exasperation when class begins and I have to ask for their attention.  I clearly have interrupted something infinitely more interesting and less demanding than anything I have to offer.  As the anthropologist Sherry Turkle laments,
Technology is seductive when it offers to meet our human vulnerabilities.  As it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.  We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.  Digital connections... offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.  Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered together.  We'd rather text than talk.
No doubt there are professors out there who can turn Twitter into a teaching tool, who can use wikis, text messaging and all manner of pedagogi-gadgetry in their teaching.  I'm not one of them and I don't want to be.   The best classes I have taught were absorbing conversations between human beings who were fully present in the moment.  There was some troubling beast of a question before us and we were all intensely focused on finding an answer.  Creating these wonderful moments gets harder and harder.  My old bag of tricks just can't compete with the seductive, safe and less demanding illusion of being connected without being there.  The truth is that reality has become an inconvenience and meaningful conversation in real-time with real people is just a drag.  It's old school.  

Lucky for me, I only need this job for another 15 years or so.  Then bring on the robots.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Lufthansa Heist

There's a scene from the movie Good Fellas that always resonates with me about this time in the semester.  Ray Liotta plays a low-level mafioso who, along with his mates, has just pulled off a major heist in Queens, robbing the cargo of a Lufthansa flight and making off with five million dollars.  In addition he's a married suburban dad whose dealing cocaine on the side. 

The day he's arrested he's splitting his time between drug dealing, picking up pay offs, cooking for his Sunday backyard barbecue and dropping off  the dry cleaning for his wife. It's a marvelous bit of film making that knots together the banal day-to-day triviality he has to do with the larger than life criminal activities he's wrapped up in.  And then the FBI shows up.

I always think of this scene around mid semester when I'm running about trying to keep every ball in the air.  Yesterday, for example, was non-stop: last minute grading, pulling a lesson plan out of thin air, dealing with a problematic student, getting ready for registration week, picking up the kid, nagging him about practicing his viola, making dinner, dealing with the moles in the side yard, reading late-arriving core proposals, and fretting about a presentation I'm delivering in Rhode Island next Monday that isn't anywhere close to finished.  Meanwhile the papers to grade just keep coming...

A visit from the FBI might actually be welcome at this point.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Something Important


Best damned moment of my week was a one in the morning email from a student in my first-year seminar:

Sent: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 1:30 AM
Subject: FA2012-FA-LIBA110I: Nothing important

Hey,

Have you heard of the song The Cave by Mumford and Sons? I just heard it today and as I was listening, I was shocked-- they were definitely referencing to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Just thought I'd share!

-M*****

M*****,

I love it when stuff in class connects to stuff out of class! Mostly I love it when my students are doing the connecting. I've no doubt that song is referencing Plato's Allegory. Indeed, the Allegory is one of the hallmarks of Western philosophy and its themes pop up everywhere, including "The Matrix" movies:
"You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

The next four years should be full of realizations that the stuff you didn't notice before is somehow all connected. Welcome to the rabbit hole.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fast Eddie and the Self-Directed Learner

I tried something in class yesterday and may have ticked off my students.  We've been reflecting on the value of vertical critical thinkers to society.  These are people who ask Should do we do X?  and not just How do we do X?   They demand evidence and sound reasoning before they accept something as true and don't automatically defer to apparent authorities.  They also have the irritating habit of thinking for themselves. 

In addition, we've been exploring the idea that such people inevitably get into trouble.  We read the Apology and Crito in which Socrates runs afoul of his fellow Athenians.  We also studied a bit of Machiavelli, who argued leaders that follow this model of probity are likely to meet with what destroys them.  And we just finished watching Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which wonderfully illustrates what happens to those who speak truth to power. In the end, society may need its critics and truth-tellers, but it doesn't often like them.

Now we are reading Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, so I asked the students to bring three question about the reading yesterday.  Then I put them into groups and had them take turns leading discussion on Nussbaum's ideas.  Some hadn't come prepared; others had read the wrong chapter.  So I gave the class a chance to write a few more questions.  Then I got them into their groups.

The set up was this: you guys are on your own.  I'm not taking part in the discussions.  I'm off to Siberia for the next  35 minutes.  At first, the students  were shy and quiet.  Somebody would grudgingly  throw out a question and everyone would stare at the book until somebody felt too uncomfortable, broke and began mumbling a few hesitating words of response.  Slowly--it took nearly 15 minutes--the groups got going.  They got off topic, circled back on topic and eventually everyone had something to contribute.  I just watched as bunch of sleepy and a bit grouchy twenty-somethings went from "this is dumb" to a somewhat interesting conversation about Nussbaum's argument.

When we were done I asked them to evaluate their discussions.  Did their conversation provide any deeper insight into Nussbaum's ideas?  Most said it had, but they could have done better.  What would have made it better? I asked.  They threw out a few suggestions. 

Then I put the term "self-directed learning" on the whiteboard and explained that today they had asked the questions, they had lead the discussion and they had evaluated their own performance.  What if, I asked, I began allowing them to select the texts we read?  After all, what they had done was the most normal, natural, organic pedagogy in human history: just people talking to each other.  What's unnatural is a group of human beings sitting in neat rows listening to a so-called expert who selects the questions, has all the answers and is the only one empowered to evaluate performance and progress.  How would they like to blow up the system and learn in a much less contrived, top-down fashion?

A few shook their heads.  Too radical.   Never work.  That's a ton of work.  

"But if the goal is to turn out independently-minded critical thinkers, how useful is an authority-centered model of education?   Can we create vertical critical thinkers by training and rewarding people to be passive recipients of the sacred, authoritative truths?"  

No answer. 

So I told them the story of Fast Eddie, a high school classmate of mine, who always bore an illegal smile and (so the rumor went) occasionally huffed gas to get high.  Our government teacher assigned us one day to copy backwards word-for word the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and to have it on his desk by the next class period.  We all dutifully did as he commanded -- all but Eddie (who seldom completed any assignment).  Once we had turned in our backward preambles, the teacher announced that everyone but Eddie had failed because he was the only one smart enough to know that this was a ridiculous assignment and not worth doing.  "You people are going to be graduating soon.  You have to start thinking for yourselves."

My class glared resentfully at me as I finished the story.  I had just played a trick on them and they didn't like it.  As we started to leave, one of the students asked if they were supposed to turn in the notes of their discussions for me to grade.  I just kind of shrugged and said, "They were your discussions, not mine."

"But then we did all this writing for nothing?"

Sigh.  Learning means nothing if there isn't a treat doled out for the effort.

The entire class period made the larger point, or maybe it didn't.  In either case, I don't think it made me too popular.  Every system probably needs its critics, but that doesn't mean it really wants them.  Come to think of it, I rather resented that smug little jerk of a high school government teacher too.  Never forgot him, though.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Flowers, dry flies, failure and fate.

I read once that the American poet Wallace Stevens had a bouquet of a dozen flowers sent to his house every afternoon.  He would arrive home from his day job as an executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and immediately seclude himself for an hour or so of flower arrangement.  I do something similar some days.  The second I get home I go downstairs to my fly tying bench and tie a few fishing flies.  Seems as good a way as any to atone for a day's sins and failures.

And of all the sins and failures I am responsible for yesterday, none bothers me more than failing to teach the Iliad well in Introduction to the Humanities.  We were going over Book XXII, the death of Hector, and I was trying to get across what a heavy price humans inevitably pay for the choices they make. Hector knows he is doomed.  He knows the gods have screwed him, but he goes out at last to face his destiny aware that he can't win. 

"Look," I said, "we are all doomed. We're all going to lose, but we get up each morning and go back out there. Human life is hard. It's filled with painful conflicts, and our success and glory don't really count for much in the end; but humanity endures and there's real heroism there. Ultimately I think this poem is deeply in love with life. It's just not going to lie to us about it and tell us it's easy or painless."

My students weren't buying it.  They can't understand why I am making them read this dreadful 3,000 year old poem.  And I can't figure out how to bring home all it has to offer.

I had other failures yesterday.  I didn't get all of my grading done on time as I promised I would.  I was probably uncharitable to a colleague or two,   There were any number of things I could have done better,  but not teaching the Iliad well is the one that eats at me. So sitting in the basement late yesterday afternoon after tying a fly and letting the day wash away, I reached over to the book shelf and--of all things--happened across this from the fuddy-duddy critic Harold Bloom:
Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen.  The mind's dialog with itself is not primarily a social reality.  All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is a confrontation with one's own mortality.
I'm sure Stevens' insurance gig also had its crappy days, which no doubt accounts for the flowers.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Why the Classics?

So I'm listening to the radio show This American Life recently and there's some guy going on about a radical new idea in education that's emerging simultaneously from teachers, economists and neurosceintists.  Indeed, a host of theorists are coalescing around a new understanding about how students learn.

Okay, I think,  this sounds interesting.  Turns out an economist by the name of James Heckman got interested in students enrolled in graduate equivalency programs.  These are shortened courses of study that prepare high school dropouts to take the G.E.D. exam.  They pass and they get a diploma.   Apparently, the average time it takes to successfully prep students for a G.E.D. exam is 32 hours.

This, of course, raises a question: why have students spend four years in high school if we can equip them with the same level of knowledge in less than a day and a half?   Curious, Heckman investigated whether those with G.E.Ds were as successful as their four-year high school degree counterparts over a span of many years.  Short answer: no.  As a group they had a higher unemployment rate, a higher divorce rate, lower lifetime earnings and they were more likely to be in jail.

Wow, says the radio host, and then he asks, "So what's going on in those four-years that accounts for the difference?"  Our economists replies, "It's not clear.  It's kind of like the dark matter of education.  We don't know for sure, but it seems to have something to do with impulsivity or, for lack of a better word, character."

Now I am shaking my head.  Don't these well-educated people ever read anything like, say for instance, Aristotle, who pretty well laid all this out in the Nichomachean Ethics 2,400 years ago?   Intellectual virtue can be taught; moral virtue is acquired through habituation, something many cognitive scientists have documented over the years with the well-known marshmallow test. 

Here's the test: you leave a kid alone in a room with a marshmallow and you tell him he'll get a whole bag if he waits five minutes before eating the one in front of him.  Some kids wait, some don't.  Longitudinal studies reveal the same pattern as Heckman's G.E.D. recipients.  Those that can't delay gratification have more problems in life. 

So now Heckman's organizing big conferences, bringing together all these people to discuss this new idea, something I do every spring semester when my students and I read Aristotle.  Moreover, a writer by the name of Paul Tough has written a book on this "fascinating new understanding" (How Children Succeed, Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2012).  Sure enough, Aristotle appears nowehere in the book's index.

Sometimes I think I ought to get out of this teaching gig.  Instead, I should take some hoary old idea the Greeks knew about two and half millenia ago, dust it off and call it something else.  Then I'll hire myself out as a highly-paid expert consultant.  Forget teaching students about the examined life.   Let's call it meta-cognition and shoot an infomercial.

That's gold, baby.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pull Here

There were two or three good moments this week, moments when I felt like I knew how to do this job.  And there was one that made me wonder. 

First, the good stuff.  In the senior capstone we were exploring the question of whether we want our leaders to be fully straightforward and honest or whether we only think we want this.  The students in the seminar had read a chapter by the law professor (and sometime novelist) Stephen L. Carter, who argues that leadership with integrity requires politicians who are forthright, steadfast, committed and compassionate.  Politics without trust, he argues, is just warfare.

The students had also read sections of The Prince by Machiavelli, who maintains that warfare is precisely what politics are.  Always have been, always will be.  Consequently, we only think we want honest people in leadership.  In reality, we want leaders who will do or say what it takes to maintain our lives, fortunes and the rule of law.  We want winners.

I deliberately pit Machiavelli against Carter because I want the class to come to grips with two diametrically opposed views that--given their foundational assumptions--are faultlessly correct.  Carter assumes politics can improve if people act with integrity.  Machiavelli assumes that this will never happen, so leaders who act with integrity foolishly imperil the very state or enterprise they have been empowered to protect. 

When I'm sure the class understands both thinkers, I ask them to take sides.  Literally.  I ask them to get up and go to a designated Carter or Machiavelli side of the room.  The good moment this week was finding a large number of students who were frozen in the middle.  They couldn't decide.  They liked what  Carter had to say, but Machiavelli also made sense.  A few of them said, almost in painful hesitation, "I just don't know" or "I can't decide."

I always think of these moments as seams or popped threads. When students get caught between two equally valid ideas, they are just about to unravel some previously unexamined idea, which is a necessary precursor to knitting together a new, more complex one.  Those who make up their minds quickly are often just going on impulse or unreflective preference.  It's the ditherers that matter.  And I had a good number.

The other great moment came when a couple of students groaned at me, "Why don't you just tell us the answer?"  You know it's working when you come across this little popped seam because the question is actually a complaint.  In translation it means, "Do I really have to start knitting something here?" 

Uh-huh.  That's what I'm looking for.   Make me some socks.

And then, the lousy moment.  It came when I rather ham-handedly made a good colleague's job a bit more frustrating.  She's been working hard to get a simple thing done and I fear I just made it a more difficult for her.   Ye gods, that's the last thing I intended. 

So a couple of good things and one regret.  Eh, I've had better weeks.  Had worse too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Maw

About a week before this semester began I started a cheap, cheesy spy thriller.  I finished it slowly in dribs and drabs, maybe a chapter a night before falling asleep.  Weirdly, prolonging that dumb book was my way of hanging onto summer.  I finished it the night before last, and yesterday I had to come to terms with the truth: the semester has me fully in its maw now.

My day is blizzards of emails, racing to meetings, trying to remember the 14 different deals I cut 14 different ways with 14 different students.  And it won't stop until December.  I shouldn't complain.  Most people don't get a chunk of unstructured time in the middle of their year, but most people don't cram their entire job into 16 week cycles either. 

And that's life: run like crazy, crappy novel, run like mad, crappy novel... Stop, start, stop, start...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last Dances

I have taught the senior capstone of our liberal arts core for over a decade.  It's been called the inescapable course.  No one gets out of this place without taking it, but that finally comes to an end next July.  That's when the old general education core makes way for the new one.  And that means bye-bye capstone.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, everything in higher education should probably have a sunset clause.  Ten years, I'd say.   If nothing else, it would force you to rethink what you are doing and why.  That's useful even if you decide not change anything. 

On the other hand, the core capstone has been such fun to teach.  In it students evaluate the meaning, use and significance of their liberal arts education.  Consequently, I've been able to read about my students' journeys and to hear some fairly flattering things about the work of my colleagues.  I often feel privileged to teach capstone for this very reason. 

It's easy in higher education to be cynical about what we do. University life has its politics and bureaucratic pointlessness.  It's also got its fair share of disillusioned idealists.  Teaching capstone, however, has helped me remember that in the larger picture this place actually does work.  It could always work better, of course.  I won't deny that, but we really do work.  Our students' lives are transformed.  It's important not to lose sight of that.

I've also taught capstone so long that it's become something like a great old dance partner.  We know each other so well.  We know when to turn, when to dip...  We're pretty damned smooth on our best days, and I have back-up plans for my back-up plans on the days when we aren't at our best.

But it's time for her go.  Every act grows stale eventually.  I have two sections this fall and one in the spring, and I feel as though I'm teaching the course better than ever.

 The old girl deserves nothing less.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Uncle Toby Goes to College

One novel I always mean to get back to--if for nothing else its startling relevance to teaching and learning--is Laurence Sterne's 18th Century masterpiece Tristram Shandy.  In it we are introduced to Uncle Toby, a military man invalided by a groin injury who retires and spends the bulk of his days obsessed with the subject of siege warfare.  Everything in his life--personal relationships, politics, even courting the handsome widow next door--is viewed within the confines of Uncle Toby's idee fixe (or hobby horse as it is called in the novel).

Each human consciousness, Sterne suggests, is a comic jumble of free floating associations, one thought blending aimlessly into the next with no rational order or direction.  The result is that none of us can possibly communicate our personal experience clearly to anyone else because everything we experience is distorted by our own hobby horses and endless digression.

I have been thinking of this idea a lot lately, mostly because it's the first few weeks of the semester and I have been working so hard to tell the students what not to do on the first assignment.  It does not matter how clear I am, how many times I say it on-line, in class and on the syllabus.  It doesn't matter that I actually have them speak aloud the words "I will not do X."  Inevitably, a goodly portion of my students will do exactly what I told them not to do on the first assignment. I've come to accept that a certain amount of ambient white noise unavoidably accompanies teaching and learning.

Even though the characters in Tristram Shandy never do understand one another, they somehow achieve a kind empathetic correspondence.  They come to find each other's indecipherable babble pleasantly soothing, not unlike perhaps the soft whir of a window fan on a summer evening.  In other words, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I don't mind your rattling on.  In fact, I kind of like it.

You know, given the shear difficulty of penetrating into another consciousness, it's just a gob-smacking miracle that any of us is able to teach or learn anything.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hamlet Dream

For whatever reason I seldom remember my dreams.  One, however, is so vivid and so real that I think of it often.  I am standing on a balcony of a very tall building, maybe 60 or 70 stories high.  Next to me is a large dog with a collar attached to one of those long retractable leashes.  Suddenly the dog leaps over the railing.  Shocked, I glance down and see the leash end preparing to go over the side.

I grab at it just in time and brace myself against the railing.  The dog is now suspended 150 feet above the pavement, twisting and turning.  Slowly I begin to pull him up, but he is heavy and it's slow going.  Glancing over the side to check my progress, I see that the dog is clearly being strangled.  His eyes are bulging and his legs kicking wildly.  Somehow I know he will be dead by the time I get him back to the balcony.

I am thinking that I ought to just let him go.  Hitting the pavement will be a quicker end, but I just keep pulling, hoping against hope that I can save the poor thing.

Over the years I've come to call this "The Hamlet Dream."  After all, Hamlet didn't ask to be the one charged with avenging his father's death and he was under no illusions that doing so would make Denmark a better place.  Even before he meets the ghost, he speaks of the world as an "unweeded garden" full of things rank and gross that possess it merely.

Yet there he is, the one on the balcony holding an absurdly long leash.  And all of his efforts just keep making a bad situation worse.   He gets his girlfriend, her brother, his mother and himself killed for all his efforts.  Denmark gets taken over by a hot-headed thug and the world remains--just as he lamented in Act I--a rank, unweeded garden.

Making it worse while trying to make it better, the end the same no matter how we play it out.  I've been working to revise the general education core curriculum at my institution for almost four years now.  We're in the final phase and  I have to believe we did some useful weeding, but the rank and gross can be such hardy perennials.  I so want this job to be over.  And then, like Lear,  I'll crawl unburdened to the grave. 

Of course that didn't really work so well for  him, did it?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dolorous Haze

It's the silly season in American life, with politics, outlandish accusations and bogus statistics filling the airwaves.  Sometimes you just want to take a long, slow bath after reading the latest transparent lie in the paper.   It's maddening that we’re expected to treat with respect the brazen claptrap of climate change denial, fantasy budget proposals and the endless ad hominens and false analogies.

It reminds me of a scene from the third voyage of Gulliver's Travels.  Gulliver is touring the Academy of Lagado, an institution filled with obtuse theorists and barking mad inventors. Among the crackpots he meets is a political scientist who claims to be able to discern political inclinations by examining people's stool samples.  It's satire, but not by much when you can turn on any TV or radio today and find ostensibly serious journalists parsing the spin and the intentions behind the spin that everyone know is a bowl of shite.

Perhaps the only way to preserve a sense of human decency is to ignore the news and politics as much as you can.  Today, you’ll know what’s going on through osmosis.  You can’t escape it.  It screams at you and in ever more hysterical voices.  But if you limit your exposure and treat what gets through with the right amount of contempt, maybe you can find space enough to feel good about this life with its small pleasures and rewards.  After all, there were probably a few pleasant afternoons as the Roman Empire went down the long slide.  Anyway, I plan to spend less time reading political blogs and partisan tirades this fall and more time fishing.

In the essay "Walking,"  Henry David Thoreau wrote, "In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man."  

It may be harder to escape the dolorous haze of political cigar smoke these days, but time spent on a trout stream is a close substitute.  Those fish in the stream have no awareness of presidential politics.  For them nation states, viral videos and I-Phone apps do not exist.  There is only the flow of water, the cycle of insect hatches and the diurnal rhythms of the sun and passing seasons. 

I'm not naive.  I realize what's at stake in politics.   Even so, we could all do with a nice long walk.  Solvitur ambulando!  Thoreau recommended about four hours a day spent walking, but just think of the benefits if everyone in America walked for an hour a day: no TV, no I-pod, no twitter feed, no staying abreast of the latest 24-second news cycle.  Just an hour spent alone contemplating the actual physical world that is around them all of the time.  Just one hour a day consuming nothing, earning nothing, saying nothing, doing nothing.  And people ask, "Why do you work so hard to catch fish when you are just going to put them back in the stream?"

Sometimes a waste of time is the only sane antidote to a time of waste.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Two Jars


It's funny the way poetry pops up.  I was sitting in our garden this morning talking to my wife.  This summer I built a small flag-stoned patio under the redbud tree at the back of our lot.  It's not a big space, just room for two chairs and a tiny table for a cup of coffee.  It's pleasant to spend some time outside before the heat of day commences.  Anyway, we were just sitting there discussing someone we know who's had her fair share of troubles: born into poverty, no education, too many kids, health problems.  And we were lamenting the all-too American habit of equating success with virtue.

Had this wretched woman been born to some other set of parents--in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, say, or the tonier suburbs of Dallas--her fate would undoubtedly have been different.  So it's hard work, yes.  No one denies that.  But it's also just a lot of dumb luck.

So immediately I started thinking about the end of the Iliad.  I know, I know.  Weird segue, but toward the end of the poem there's a scene between Achilles and Priam, the Trojan  king who's come for his son's body.  Achilles sees the old man weeping and is reminded of his own father, who will also soon be mourning a dead son.   Priam has lost nearly all of his family and Achilles has only recently lost his best friend.  The young man comforts the old man, speaking these lines:

Though we're both feeling pain,
we'll let our grief lie quiet on our hearts.
For there's no benefit in frigid tears.
That's the way the gods have spun the threads
for mortal men, so they live in pain,
though gods themselves live on without a care.

On Zeus' floor stand two jars which hold his gifts
one has disastrous things, the other blessings.
When thunder-loving Zeus hands out a mixture,
that man will, at some point, meet with evil,
then, some other time, with good.
When Zeus' gift comes only from the jar containing evil,
he makes the man despised.

In some translations the blessings and evils are likened to dark and light stones.  I always pay a lot of attention to these lines whenever I teach the Iliad.  They stand in such stark contrast to the Hebraic tradition in which our ills spring from unrighteousness or the failure to keep God's covenant.  If there's any suffering in the Judeo-Christian worldview, it's because Adam and Eve screwed up, Sodom and Gomorrah got bent, Israel strayed and we are all black-hearted sinners.  In other words, life sucks and it's our fault.

Not so in Homer's view.  There's much that we can do; there are choices to be made and it's possible our actions can result in all manner of unforseen tragedy.  Even so, sometimes--much of the time actually-- the gods are just bastards.  Oddly, this view seems more humane and compassionate to me, even more merciful. 

Those old pagans.  Go figure.

Monday, July 9, 2012

To whom it may concern...

Occasionally I'm asked by students to write letters of recommendation.  I usually do despite the fact that I always have mixed feelings about it.  Obviously I am glad to assist students in achieving their goals.  I'm also flattered that they think enough of me or my class to ask.

Even so, I never feel that I know them well enough to say whether they would be a good graduate student or public relations intern; nor can I imagine that the things we have discussed in any of my courses are relevant to their future prospects.  I mean really.  Does Baroque architecture or Book IX of the Iliad come up in many professions?  Has any cutting-edge, high-tech CEO ever reached for the phone and yelled, "We've got a serious situation here.  Get our Milton expert on the line.  Stat!"

Nevertheless, the students keep asking and I try to do the best I can by writing a positive and personalized letter.  It's not easy and I confess to resorting at times to a generic all-purpose template.  I usually speak to a paper they wrote for me or their work ethic and ability to play nice with others.  You know, the typical vacuous platitudes.  Anyway, I suspect that letters of recommendation only matter when they're negative, which means my kind words are simply pro forma requirements that neither sink nor secure the acceptance of a candidate.  Mostly I keep saying yes to these requests because people once did it for me.

The only letter of recommendation I recall with fondness was written for a former student who took only one class from me.  I first met him via the Admissions Office, which had asked me to look over his application.  He had through-the-roof SAT scores but an abysmal  high school GPA.  Moreover, he had written a letter to explain his low grades.  The letter quoted the Upanishads and was superbly written.  It also employed British spelling throughout.  No doubt the kid had been bored out of his skull in high school.  So that's how we accepted our first provisionally-admitted honors student.

The first week of class we were reading Descartes' Meditations and I threw out some opening gambit of a question to start the discussion.  The kid immediately responds, "No."  So I ask him how he knew and he says that he knew the answer was no because he had stayed up until four that morning thinking about it.  Then he patiently went through his faultless reasoning for the answer.  Later in the semester he hit upon an odd strategy to secure a date: cross dressing until someone agreed to go out with him.  Strangely, it worked.

After his first year he transferred to a state university, but three years later he wrote me to ask for a letter of recommendation for a graduate program in psychology.  I happily wrote on his behalf, assuring the application reviewers that I had no clue whether he would do well in their program.  I knew one thing, though.  They would never forget him.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shocking Expectations

Teach for long enough and you will discover that you've reinvented somebody else's wheel.  Years ago, for example, I was teaching a course on free speech and looking for a way to avoid the lecture/quiz-lecture/quiz monotony.  So I began writing elaborate scenarios in which various first amendment issues were in conflict.  My students had some awareness of earlier precedents and case law, but the scenarios contained fresh legal twists.  So my question was simple: given the earlier precedents and the issues at stake here, how do you think the court ruled and why?

I called this technique "coming at the material from below."  Instead of teaching  a legal concept like "the fighting words doctrine" or "clear and present danger," I just put the students in the justices' position.  They had to decide whether existing precedents applied or if some new approach were needed.  To my surprise the students often mirrored the court's reasoning and surfaced the same tensions and dissents as the actual cases.  In other words, they came at the issues from below and found their way to them on their own. Now it wasn't Oliver Wendell Holmes in dissent about seditious libel doctrine.  It was Larry in the corner, who--roused from his torpor-- suddenly became an impassioned advocate for his position.  Better still, he really knew his way around the issue by semester's end.

It was only years later that I discovered concepts like "expectation failure," "naive inquiry" or the effectiveness of inductive pedagogy.  I was just fooling around and instinctively realized that it worked better as a teaching strategy than my old lecture and quiz method.  Since then I am always  looking for places to use this approach in my teaching.  I wish I could say it's been easy.  It isn't.  Frankly, it's a lot of work and much of it trial and miserable failure.  In the end, lecturing from above is a hell of a lot easier.

Last year, however, I did find a way to work some 'teaching from below' into the senior core capstone.  In fact, one of the more interesting books I've incorporated into the capstone is David Livingston-Smith's Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.   I should mention that the core capstone is a required senior-level seminar in which students examine the meaning, use and significance of their undergraduate education.  I deliberately use Smith's book to shake the class out of any comfortable notions that the Liberal Arts in any way inoculates them against dehumanizing others.

As Smith makes clear, genocide, slavery and denying the essential humanity of others are not periodic aberrations in the human experience.  Even a fleeting glance at history shows that's pretty much how we humans roll.  Indeed, Smith's book is a disturbing examination of how our biology, psychology and culture contribute to a universal human tendency to deny humanness to others.  Unfortunately, our instinctive allegiances are to the tribe rather than the species and under the right conditions most of us will become monsters to other tribes.

The key phrase here is under the right conditions.  It's an aspect of Smith's argument that most of my students overlook, which is exactly what I hope for.  This is where an expectation failure can happen. While discussing Smith,  I show the class clips of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment concerning obedience to authority.  This is a great example to use because the baseline study is so familiar.  My students have already encountered Milgram in high school or in some Intro to Sociology course.  They know that he asked ordinary people to administer electric shocks to "learners" who failed to correctly complete memorization tasks.  In reality, the learners were not shocked. They were just actors who screamed each time the teachers flipped a switch to administer what appeared to be increasingly high jolts of electricity.  In the baseline study, two-thirds of the teachers Milgram tested could be induced by an authority figure to deliver hypothetically lethal shocks.

So after we watch the clips, I ask students what we can make of Milgram's results and how they might relate to Smith's book. In almost every case the students respond that human beings must be essentially awful, horrible creatures.  Moreover, there's likely nothing--least of all a good Liberal Arts education--that can save us from our tribal hard wiring.  They agree with Freud: man is wolf to man. 

Fortunately, most students are unaware that Milgram ran 19 different versions of his experiment, testing such variables as the authority figure's language, whether he wore a white lab coat and even whether the teachers could see learners while they supposedly shocked them. The results differed widely, which meant obedience was contextual rather than some essential aspect of human nature.  Indeed, Milgram discovered that actually ordering teachers to continue or telling them they simply had no choice in the matter reduced their compliance to zero.  

One key finding of Milgram's research was that obedience is predicated on the teachers' belief that they were doing something important or worthwhile that will contribute to greater scientific understanding.  What they were doing may have been distasteful, but they were willing to go along if they believed it was necessary and ultimately beneficial.  When confronted with this new data, my students begin to surface a more nuanced understanding.  What I like about this exercise is that it allows them to draw a conclusion and apply it (Milgram shows that human beings can be beastly, which supports Smith's ideas); then it problematizes the evidences and asks them to think anew.  They realize it's too simplistic to say we're hard-wired for tribalism.  Instead they teach themselves what Smith and Milgram are actually saying: yes, we are hard-wired with tribal instincts, but we can also consciously unwire ourselves with effort by changing the context or becoming more aware of how it effects us

And that's what education is, becoming more aware of context and knowing oneself.   It's what Socrates meant by that hoary old phrase "the examined life."  He, like most disciplines in the Liberal Arts, was suspicious of natural instincts.  In the end,  there's a reason Zen masters pushed their apprentices into the mud every now and then.  It's the same reason Socrates likened himself to a "stinging horsefly."   When it comes to learning, a surprising shock now and then actually works.

Monday, July 2, 2012

More or Less

For over a month now I've been avoiding my first-year Humanities course.  It will demand the most work this summer.  This isn't particularly hard work but it does involve some hard choices.  Okay, I had better back up.  Intro to Humanities looks at the Western Humanities from the Greeks to the Medieval era.   Years ago,, I decided to abandon the frog march through history approach.  It simply no longer made sense to me to cover content that was forgotten as quickly as I taught it.

I moved instead to a course organized around broad thematic units.  The first unit, for example, deals with the idea of heroism in Hellenistic culture, examining such figures as the warrior hero, the moral/intellectual hero and the tragic hero.  Unit two covers Roman virtue, vice and piety, and the last unit looks at hierarchy, heaven and hell in the medieval world.  My aim was that students leave Humanities 101 with a half a dozen big ideas that stick rather than a laundry list of names, dates and artworks that wouldn't stick.

Well, that's the course in general. 

But, given the students I serve, I also have to teach a lot of basic academic skills.  Indeed, a big breakthrough in my teaching happened about ten years ago when I figured out how to fuse teaching my subject with teaching good writing skills. By that I mean that my assignments are structured so that students must use a process approach to writing and they receive a lot peer and instructor feedback.  I also scaffold in more complex writing demands as the semester moves along.  The first four weeks they do nothing but summarize and cite.  Then I introduce and require higher-level demands: incorporating inter-textual connections, secondary sources, self-generated student research, etc.

Because my students are so needy where writing is concerned, I've tried to move as much of the composition process inside the classroom.  Assigning them to read and write something in response before class was not as effective as having them write the first draft in class.  So last spring I began scheduling in-class writing days for students to compose their initial drafts.  I gave over some 80 minute so they could have 40-50 minutes of writing time in response to a directed reading prompts.  Then they used the remaining time to share and discuss their drafts with each other.

So here's the dilemma.  Do I go all in on this method?  Do I let go of even more content to make room for more in-class writing?  The answer of course is yes.   Students will not engage the material deeply by writing about it before class, so I have to structure their engagement into the class. 

I just have to do less material but do it better.  You would think I would know this by now, but I still struggle with letting things go.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Asking them in

My standard for any academic conference is the acquisition of at least one good idea, which seems a fairly low bar, but I've been doing this job for a spell.  Academic conferences these days are more likely to flesh out ideas rather than introduce them.  Even so, you do sometimes run across something really new and worthwhile.

That was the case last week when I spent three days at the Best Teacher's Summer Institute, an annual conference based upon the work of Ken Bain, a historian who studied the approaches used by college professors identified by evaluations, colleagues and students as the "best of the best."   He hoped to discover whether they were more alike than different. 

It turns out that good professors take quite similar approaches to teaching regardless of their subject, personality or training, all of which which Bain wrote about in his book What the Best College Teachers Do.   Here's one example: good professors tend to introduce their subjects as if they were inviting students on a journey or to a fabulous meal.   I liked the metaphors Bain used in this approach.  As he explained it, who would want to come to dinner if the invitation were a bullet-pointed memo ordering you to show up at 6:14 pm, consume 1.3 lbs of spaghetti, drink 2.3 glasses of red wine and clear out no later than 9:00 pm.?

Yet that's how most syllabi and first days go in college courses.  The instructor drearily lays out the requirements, expectations, paper lengths, exam dates, grading scales and the penalties for non-compliance.  I've even heard of some professors who demand their students sign statements declaring that they have read and agreed to abide by course policies or suffer the consequences. 

Contrast that to an approach that might go something like this: "I have this delicious pasta recipe that's been handed down to me from my grandmother.  The sauce is amazing and I really think you would love it.  So I'd be thrilled if you would come over tonight around six.  We'll talk,  we'll make some pasta, we'll drink some good wine and have a wonderful meal.  I know you've got to get up early, so I promise we'll be done by nine.  What do you think?  Sound good?"

Now which evening would you prefer?

Bain called this approach to introducing a course "the invitational syllabus," which is more than just the document.  It's the oral and written introduction that sets the tone and approach for what the course promises to be.   The invitation begins with an engaging question or problem and then asks the students to come along as we explore possible answers or solutions.  It also promises a payoff: if you take this course with me, here's where we're going and what we may discover or acquire by the end.  The key is to begin with a really intriguing question.

For a long time I've known that placing great questions at the core of my teaching is the true difference maker (finding those questions, however, is really, really tough.  Still, when you do...).  Even so, it hadn't occurred to me that my syllabus could become an opportunity to RSVP rather than a pamphlet full of rules, technicalities and deadlines. 

So I guess I just made more work for myself this summer.  Oh well, it's good work.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memories of Dear Old Commie Martyrs

For a long time I have meant to write something about the alternative high school I attended in the long lost days of the Ford and Carter administrations.  It existed for only a brief time and was something of a last gasp of 1960s radicalism. Somehow, in a way I'll never understand, four or five young, idealistic teachers had convinced a fairly conservative suburban school district to transform its dropout prevention program into a true alternative high school. I doubt that the board members who approved the plan really understood what these teachers were up to.  Indeed, the proposed school had a fairly subversive lineage.

The ostensible model was the St. Paul Open School, a successful alternative education program in the Twin Cities.  The real antecedent was A.S. Niell's Summerhill, a radical experiment in democratic education founded in Germany in 1921 and later transplanted to England.  Niell gave students an equal role in running the school and shaping its curruculum.   Everyone--teachers, students, secretaries and janitors--had a vote in how the school was organized. Niell's philosophy held that coercion is poor soil for learning. 


Consequently learning was optional.  Students were free to learn or not as they saw fit.  So long as they didn't harm anyone, they could do as they pleased.  My school, which over the years I have affectionately come to call Communist Martyrs High School, was surprisingly similar in this aspect.  Rules--so much as they existed--were the product of all-school meetings in which everyone had an equal voice.  At  these meetings, students, staff and teachers made hiring decisions, determined who was expelled, voted for courses and even set the price of soda in the machine.

It took a while to get used to this amount of freedom.  On the first day the coordinator informed an assembly of students that there were no rules.  We would have to make them ourselves.  Immediately we students began to recreate the exact model of education we had fled: coercive rules and heavy-handed consequences.  The teachers just let us go on at this for a while, but occasionally they chimed in that what we were creating didn't seem very "alternative."  Eventually we got the point:  We were free, really free, to do as we pleased. 

As you might imagine, there followed an intoxicated, anarchic stage where little that could be called education took place.  Slowly that began to change and the students began to institute a few rules.  These weren't the heavy-handed, coercive rules we were familiar with; rather, they were simple maxims like "doing nothing is not an option" or "if you can't participate, at least don't interfere."  Eventually we worked our way toward something resembling contract learning or competency-based learning.  Classes, assignments and graduation requirements were negotiated with student selected committees. There were no grades, just self and committee assessment on agreed upon learning goals. We could just as easily have been called Kropotkin High, for there was something vaguely reminiscent of anarcho-syndacalism going on.

The curriculum, of course, was never stable and changed wildly from term to term.  While at Commie Martyrs I took such courses as organic gardening, creative writing, pottery, human sexuality and a political science course whose only text was Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals.   As I recall, on the first day of that political science class our teacher handed out bus tokens and told us we had better get down to the statehouse.  We couldn't learn much sitting around in a school.  By the end of the term we had become registered lobbyists and were buttonholing pols on such issues as juvenile justice reform, passage of the E.R.A., environmental regulations and anti-nuclear causes. We had members of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement as guest speakers.  For my sex ed. course I recall reading Our Bodies Ourselves and moderating a panel discussion on gay rights at a Young Woman's Resource Center.  For a social issues class we signed up for welfare and food stamps so we would know what the experience was like. 

Commie Martyrs was always fairly small: about 50-60 students at any given time.  And the students were a strange collection.  Imagine a bell curve with two ends and no middle.  There were brilliant, high-achieving kids who had been bored out of their skulls by conventional high school and a fair number of stoned, criminally-inclined near drop outs.  Although there is no official alumni association for CMHS, I do know we are as likely to be found in Silicon Valley as the state pen.  Our numbers include at least one computer scientist, a college professor, a murderer, a few convicted felons and a guy who was deported after a marijuana bust.

The teachers were an equally odd bunch.  The "coordinator" was a left-wing social science teacher whose brother was an unreconstructed and unapologetic Troskyite.  One science teacher left his wife and ran off with the school secretary; another drove a Citroen and had a long beard just like the guys on the cough drop box.  There was another teacher who hung around a lot but was never officially employed. Rumor had it that he had been fired from another school district for either selling pot or teaching a pornographic novel.  It was never clear which.  I think he ran the radio station for a while and he was always up for a game of Scrabble.

For me, a lost kid who never fit in at the larger high school, the place was heaven.  I was there at 7:00 am in the morning and loathe to leave at 5:30 pm.   That said, I have often wondered whether Commie Martyrs was very effective in its approach to education.  Education by its very nature is coercive.  We demand students read this, think about that, write this way.  The goal may be to liberate the mind from bondage to ignorace, but the means for getting there isn't often democratic.  In the end, mastering a discipline means disciplining the mind to think one way and not any old way.

Besides, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written, "the mind is not designed for thinking."  In fact, a lot of its architecture is specifically designed to avoid thinking.  Certainly people will think when they need to, but no one puts forth the effort unless the conditions call for it.  Good teachers can create learning environments that stimulate thinking, but they can't do it all the time and they can't do it for every student.  Consequently, teachers sometimes have to force students to think using the old grade gun: do this or I pull the trigger and you fail.  A.S. Niell was right: this is poor soil for learning, but sometimes it's the only soil you've got.

Eventually, the federal seed grant ran out and the school board members started wondering why there were no students parking their rears in rows of desks.  Commie Martyrs, like the 70s themselves, passed into history.  The country veered right under Reagan.  I can't imagine anything like it could exist today. 

So the question arises: were there any lessons of lasting value?  Yes, though I struggle to say what they were. I read and discussed things I never would have encountered in a conventional high school: Albert Camus' The Rebel, Herman Hesse's Siddartha, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book and many, many back issues of The Whole Earth Catalog (not to mention Che Guevara's little manual on guerilla warfare).  I suppose, too, that I've retained a healthy skepticism for puffed-up authority.  Educationally speaking, however, I'm probably a lot more conservative these days. I certainly enjoyed my time at Commie Martyrs, but I often find myself regretting that those years weren't spent having some mean little prick beating Latin, Greek and calculus into me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Home is So Sad

In Henry James' short story The Jolly Corner, the main character, Spencer Bryden, comes home after having spent 30 years abroad.  His parents are dead and a builder has offered him good money for the family's New York townhouse.  Bryden finds himself compulsively going through the old house night after night in the days before it is to be demolished.  One evening he encounters a ghost, but not just any ghost.  It's the ghost of who he would have been had he never left New York all those years ago. I've always been struck by the idea that there are ghostly selves of who we might have been had we married that person, taken that job offer, moved to some other city. 

Perhaps, however, there are just as many ghosts if you remain.  Take me, for example. I never intended to spend the bulk of my life in the city where I was born.  It just turned out that way.  Most of the time I am glad I am where I am, but sometimes I do run into the ghosts of who I used to be. 

In fact, it's nearly impossible for me to drive across town without running into a dozen mnemonic tombstones: here is the house of a kid I knew in high school, there's the corner where I used to buy a soda on the way home from work, and there's the apartment building where I once dated a woman.  I remember drinking champagne with her on the sofa and listening to Louis Armstrong records.  

I'm not sure how to convey this sensation to those who don't feel it.  It's a little like coming back to the home you grew up in and finding that your parents haven't changed anything.  It's the same decor they had on the day you went off to college or got married: the 1970s lamp, the avocado-colored refrigerator; even that goofy pen and ink drawing you did in high school is still hanging in the hall by the steps.  It's so odd to think  that it's all still there and hasn't changed.  After  all, you have changed so much since then.  Now imagine this same feeling but multiplied by 500 and spread out across an entire city.  That's what I mean.   The longer I live here, the more these ghosts crowd around reminding me who I used to be. 

Sometimes I think it would be wonderful not to live in the city where I grew up.  Then all those ghosts and memories could just erode into the sea and disappear.  Of home, the late British poet Phillip Larking once wrote,

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

I have always liked certain lines like "Long fallen wide" and the way the the poem trails off with "That Vase."  I imagine it's empty.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Xenophon's Cliff

In Anabasis, Xenophon recounted his role leading 10,000 Greek mercenaries back from a failed mission to oust the Persian king.  Harassed, outnumbered and finally cornered in Asia Minor, he drew up his weary troops to fight, positioning them with a sheer cliff immediately at their rear.   When one of his lieutenants questioned the move, Xenophon pointed out that their position made it clear to both the men and the Persians that there would be no running away.  We either fight or... 

In other words, Xenophon was choosing not to give himself a choice, which is not always a bad idea.  I've done it a few times.  I'll want to reformat a course but know I'll likely procrastinate once summer comes.  So I list all new texts on the Spring requisition form.  Now I have to change the course.  There is no choice.

On a larger scale this is where my institution is right now.  Last year we voted to adopt a new core curriculum.  We gave ourselves a year to design new courses around new core outcomes.  The deadline for proposals is September and it's only now that a lot of my colleagues are waking up to the fact that we have a cliff immediately behind us.  We either change or...

And we academics don't like change.  Indeed, there's an old joke in higher education that goes something like this:

Question: "How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?"
Response: "Change?  Who said anything about change?"

In any event, the Persians are coming. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Struggling Through Stupid

For the past two weeks I've gone fly fishing three or four times for smallmouth bass on a nearby river.  Other than some fingerlings and chub, I've not had much luck.  More than once I've felt like a fool.  But I come home, read up on the subject, go back to the river the next day and am foolish again. As with any complicated thing, there is this stage of stupidity  you unavoidably must get through.  

When I was younger I took up a lot of projects and pastimes but dropped them when they did not come easily: musical instruments, martial arts, writing short stories, drawing...  The list is long and a bit wince-inducing.  Now that I'm older I find that I don't mind the obligatory stupid stage.  It's fun and oddly pleasing to figure it out. 

I wish there were some way to impart this to my students, many of whom have a learned helplessness about learning.  In my Humanities sections I'll have them reading texts that are often over their head.  Last spring, for example, I had them look at Frances Bacon's "Idols of the Mind."  In class more than one admitted that they didn't understand a word of it.  "I tried to read that," one young woman said, "But I guess I'm just dumb or something because I couldn't make heads or tails of it."

"Never mind that," I told her.  "Just read it and we'll talk it over in class.  I promise you'll get something out of it."  And she did.  Indeed, more than one student wrote in the final paper that Bacon's Idols and the scientific revolution were among the more interesting subjects we discussed. 

My son's going through a similar struggle with his viola lately.  His nightly practicing is accompanied by stomps and muttering under his breath whenever he muffs a note.  I keep telling him it's okay to stink, but not okay to give up.  I'm not sure he sees it that way.

One of these days I'm going to catch a smallmouth, and when I do I'm going to use the best advice I ever got about fly fishing.  A guy once told me, "Whenever it goes right, you'll be really anxious to cast the line in again, but don't.  Just stand there and think about catching that fish.  Figure out why it worked this time and not the 500 other times you tried.   Learn that one thing.and you'll go from zero to knowing at least one thing."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Striped Whistlers*

This last weekend, the Times ran a story about a student who graduated from Ohio Northern University with loans and debt totaling $120,000.  The young woman was working two waitressing jobs and her mother, who co-signed the loans, had taken out a life insurance policy on her daughter just in case something happened and she had to eat that debt.

The story also featured some eye-opening data about student loan debt and some disturbing trends.  For example, 45 percent of students borrowed to finance their education in 1980.  Today, 94 percent are taking out loans.

Far be it from me to dismiss the high cost of higher education, but the "sky is falling" tone of these articles (there have been several of late) belie the truth that it's still possible in this country to get a degree without encumbering yourself with insurmountable debt. 

As the Times article pointed out, fewer than 3 percent of students borrow more than $100,000 and the average debt is $23,500.  That's still a lot of money, but at my institution the average debt is around $15,000, which is less than the average for my state's three public universities.   In other words, there are places where you can still earn a four-year degree while owing about the cost of a Honda Civic.  Not so bad when you put it in perspective.

And although it's not popular to say it, a lot of the blame for the high cost of education can be attributed to the consumers of the product, who have come to expect private en suite rooms, state of the art workout facilities, fully-wired high tech campuses and full service dining halls complete with vegan options.  Moreover, the debt explosion has been compounded by the defunding of state aid programs and the entry into the market of politically-connected for-profit institutions that entice marginal and unsavvy students to run up obscene amounts of debt.  Lots of little non-profit colleges like mine are good stewards.  We still offer good degrees at a reasonable cost.

So is college expensive?  Yes, there's no denying that.  Is it still possible to get an affordable private college education?  Yes, but you would hardly know it from all the hand wringing going on out there.


* Midwestern slang for farmers in bibbed overalls who let out surprised whistles whenever glancing at a price tag.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Cock and Bull Story

Well the big boys have finally decided to plunge into the on-line education field.  Harvard and MIT announced this week that they will invest $60 million to put free courses on-line.  This will be something more than the camera at the back of the lecture hall yawners you can download on I-Tunes U, or the University of Phoenix's cost effective ram and jam approach.  No sir, this effort will harness all of the latest whiz-bang doo-hickeys.  There will be true interactive capability, testing and even the opportunity to receive a grade, although not a diploma or credit toward graduation.  Apparently, this is the distance learning game changer we've all been waiting for.

Of course claims that technology would revolutionize education were made when radio took hold in the 1920s.  It's what they said about TV in the 1950s.  And, sigh, it's what they said about wiring every classroom in America to the Internet back in the 1990s.  But this time it's different.  Really.  This time it's tantamount to the invention of the printing press. 

Okay, sure.  Whatever.

Don't get me wrong.  On-line educational technology actually does solve problems.  Two of them, in fact.  It decreases the cost and labor of storing information and it minimizes the time and distance constraints of imparting it.  Unfortunately we keep conflating our improved methods for addressing these problems with actual student learning.  So what if the academic literati at Harvard or MIT can teach and interact with a class of 10,000 for free?  At the end of the day, will the students perform any better as a result?  Or will the inherent difficulties of teaching and learning remain the same as they ever were?  David Brooks, a writer I seldom agree with, actually makes the operable point:

The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.
Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies.
See? Step 1 is a snap.  It's that damned Step 2 with its concern for  "real value" that proves a toughie.  That said, these gadgets probably will transform higher education.  They will do it in the same way that the Internet eliminated the need for a travel agent to book your flight.  In other words, we solved the problem of access to information but did nothing to improve the quality of air travel.  In the end, we will only make it harder for small institutions like mine, where we actually do care about our students' personal growth and development as human beings.

In my first-year Humanities course (taught the old-fashioned way), I have the students debate two views of progress in the 18th century.  On one side of the debate are the views of Condorcet, who foresaw an unlimited potential for human progress, thanks in no small part to the increase in universal education that was beginning during the Enlightenment.  On the other is the satire of Jonathan Swift, who reminded his readers that technological progress should never be confused with moral progress. Indeed, it generally makes us more effective in exercising our natural vices.  After all, the Internet hasn't done much to bring the global village into harmony and understanding, but it's been a godsend to the porn and gambling industries.

So I ask my students to imagine that Swift and Condorcet were brought back to life today and allowed to assess who was more accurate about the the progress of humanity.  Surprisingly, my little I-phone-sporting technophiliacs are of one mind:  Swift was the more prescient.  Another 18h century skeptic, Laurence Sterne, once asked, "Tell me, ye learned, shall we forever be adding so much to the bulk and so little to the stock?"

Sterne's Tristram Shandy.  Good book.   It's a far better cock and bull story than this latest news.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...