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Showing posts from February, 2012

"Only Connect..."

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One of my biggest challenges is getting students to overcome a "plug and chug" method for learning that was usually sufficient in high school.  By plug and chug I mean simply plugging in a right answer and chugging through the course without doing any real thinking.

I have an exercise that's been useful for getting them to consider a new way of thinking about the material. I don't recall how I came up with it (or even if I up with it).  It works like this: during the first week of class I project a Power Point of five or six randomly selected images. I ask the students to come up with as many organizational schemes for these images as they can.

A scheme might be organizing the images from big to small, or in categories of living versus non-living, or natural versus human-made.  There is no right or wrong answer and it's permissable to include all, some or none of the images in a framework. The only test is whether the organizing concept can be understood by som…

Pedagogic Rashomon

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I often do a "check-in" along about midterm each semester.  I ask the students to divide a single sheet of notepaper into a grid with four boxes and then to label each box with a question: What's working well in this class?  What could work better?  What one change could I make that would help you?  What one thing could you change?

I just did this little exercise yesterday in the first-year honors seminar, a course that I have been fretting about for weeks. Every year the honors seminar is different.  A lot of it has to do with the particular personalities in the room.  Some groups are chatty and unfocused; others are intense but quiet.  This year's group presents its own set of challenges.  I have been pushing them hard on their writing, and I've sensed they were growing frustrated with me and the class.

Boy was I wrong.   My view of the seminar is not how they see it.  The "check-in" was considerably more positive than I expected.  They like the revis…

Dubiety thy name is February

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It's the middle of spring semester, which can only mean one thing:  I am now pretending to be teaching, the students are pretending to be learning and we both are pretending not to notice.  This suddenly not-so-new semester has become what it will be.  It's true, of course, that I go through a funk every semester, but somehow it always seems worse in spring.  Looking back at previous Februarys chronicled on this old blog, I find the following sentiments:

Feb. 15, 2011  "Mixed Feelings at Midterms"
It's midterm. The grades had to be turned in by noon today. In my Humanities course about half of the students have figured me out and are now starting to look for that sweet spot where they can get the grade they want for the least amount of effort. Another 25 percent are still getting up to speed, and another is just now figuring it all out.


We had to have a little "Come to Shakespeare" moment in which I reminded them of the standards I was expecting in respo…

"The mind's construction in the face"

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One of the hallmarks of Greek drama is that a character's strength is also a great weakness.  Indeed, the very qualities that lead to Oedipus' downfall--rashness, over-confidence, stubborn persistence--allowed him to save Thebes from the Sphinx.  In other words, flaws are actually strengths in different contexts. 

One of my flaws is a complete inability to form accurate first impressions.  I am dead wrong about people every time.  If I met Mother Theresa, I'm sure I would think she was a greedy sneak thief.  I'd be hiding the silverware.  Chuck Manson, on the other hand, would seem like a prince of guy. I'd be loaning him money.  The upshot is that I've learned never to trust my first impression.   I don't even try to second guess myself because I still get it wrong. 

I've noticed, however, that a lot of people pride themselves on their ability to read others.  A casual remark is parsed for seventeen levels of nuance.  I used to envy these people, but m…

Signals from the Deep

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Every now and then you get some honest-to-goodness evidence that all of your efforts aren't like radio waves simply flung endlessly into the cosmos.  Two days ago a student from last semester emailed me that something we discussed in class had recently come in handy.  

He had spent the weekend competing in a mathematical modeling contest.  These are university-level competitions in which teams of students are given 48 hours to devise a method for determining an answer to a difficult question.  My former student's task was to devise a model for estimating the weight of the leaves on trees of various sizes.  I assume his team had some information but not all that they needed. 

He wrote that more than once he thought about giving up, but he kept remembering a conversation in our core capstone course.  It concerned the value of understanding works of art beyond the level of "I like it/I don't like it."  We had read an Aaron Copland essay on listening to music in wh…

How to Ask Smart Questions

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I can almost guarantee that at some point in your education a teacher has stood before you and in a self-satisfied tone said, "There are no dumb questions in this class." Well, he or she got it half-right. While there may be no dumb questions, some questions are clearly smarter than others.
So what makes a question smart? To answer this completely would probably take us deep into theories of knowledge, linguistics, rhetoric, logic and maybe even brain chemistry. But I'll give you the short answer: a question is a tool a for generating knowledge, and a good one does this well.

Here is what I mean: suppose you have just gotten off a late overbooked flight to Cleveland, on which you drank too much coffee while waiting for the flight attendants to turn off the sign that prevented you from "roaming about the cabin." They didn't, and now you are just inside the terminal and spot an airport worker. You could ask one of the following questions:

1. Hey, does Clevela…

Carpenters, Coffee Makers and Invisibility

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In the senior capstone students at my institution are required to assess the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. During the first few weeks we wrestle with one central question: to what degree does horizontal critical thinking (how do we do X?) need to be framed within vertical critical thinking (is X the right thing to do?).

We begin by reading the Apology and Crito. Then we skim a chapter of Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit, in which she argues for the value of Socratic pedagogy, a method of teaching that forces students to think vertically about the moral dimensions of their choices. We also read Stephen Carter's Integrity and I have students apply his model of integrity to several ethical hypotheticals.

One I call the coffee maker hypothetical (or sometimes the coffee maker/honest carpenter hypothetical). It goes something like this:

While shopping at Target you find a $99 espresso maker that has obviously been mispriced at $39.99. You know this…

Up on the rooftops of the world

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I've said it before, but one of my biggest gripes about teaching is that there is usually no one around to high five when you finally lurch unaccountably onto a good idea.  You are dying to tell someone about it, but--really--no one cares.  Indeed, sharing successes with colleagues (not to mention your spouse) makes you seem like those people who can't wait to tell you about their latest genealogy research. 

Anyway, with that warning right up front, I now relate the following:

I was so frustrated last semester with my students' lack of preparation in Humanities 101.  They were not even embarrassed about it.  So  this term I decided to make some structural changes.  In order to get into class, they must complete preparatory writing that they discuss in small groups.  Don't do the work and you'll be asked to leave.  No exceptions, no free riders.  Get the work done or get out.  Two students dropped the course after the first day.  I suspect the new policy may have …