Showing posts from 2012

Now where did I leave that plow?


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 …

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…

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 wit…

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


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!



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 shoul…

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…

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'r…

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 deg…

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 Ma…

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...

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 …

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'…

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 po…

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 adhominens 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…

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 e…

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 te…

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 surfac…

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 a…

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 i…

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.   Ev…

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&…

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…

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 exa…

Striped Whistlers*

This last weekend, theTimes 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 stil…

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…