Thursday, March 29, 2012

Just You Wait

A while back I came across a strange study.  Researchers were examining failed suicide attempts.  These were people who actually went through with it, yet for one reason or another the attempt didn't work.  Maybe the gun didn't go off, or the rope broke, something.   The point is that these folks fully intended to kill themselves.  Only a fluke prevented it.  What I found oddly disquieting were their actions immediately after their failed attempt.  Most did something mundane: they made spaghetti,  they vacuumed the rug or went in to work.  It was as if they said, "Huh?  That was weird."  Then they continued on with their life.  Maybe the dark place you have to be in to attempt suicide is just a mood.  It  passes.

I've been thinking of this study lately.   Last Tuesday was perhaps the worst day of the year at work.  A project I had been working on with colleagues collapsed.  Feelings were running high and--to top it off--I stunk it up in the classroom, which always makes me feel bad.  I felt lousy all Tuesday evening.  Couldn't sleep, couldn't keep from rehashing it.  But by late Wednesday afternoon things were looking up.  I just had to wait it out.

I've also been thinking about Vincent Van Gogh.  Many years ago I read his collected letters, some of which were addressed to his brother, Theo, who also aspired to be a painter. Unfortunately, Theo was beset by paralyzing doubts about his own talent. In response to these doubts, Vincent wrote the following letter in September of 1883:

Theo, I wish painting would become such a fixed idea in your mind that the problem of "Am I an artist or am I not?" would be placed in the category of abstractions, and the more practical questions of how to put together a figure or a landscape, being more amusing, would come more to the fore. Theo, I declare I prefer to think how arms, legs, heads are attached to the trunk, rather than whether I myself are more or less an artist or not. I know sometimes the mind is full of it, which is only natural. But look here, brother, even if our mind is now and then full of the problem, "Is there a God or isn't there a God?" it is no reason for us to commit an ungodly act intentionally.
In the same way, the matter of art, the problem, "Am I an artist, or am I not?" must not induce us not to draw or not to paint. Most things defy definition, and I consider it wrong to fritter away one's time on them. Certainly when one's work does not go smoothly and when one is checked by difficulties, one gets bogged in the morass of such thoughts and insoluble problems. And because one gets sorely troubled by it, the best thing to do is to conquer the cause of the distraction by acquiring a new insight into the practical part of the work.
I am reminded of this letter whenever I feel like a failure in the classroom or at work. I remind myself that the thing to do is to keep working, to keep looking at the practical aspects of the job, just get back to work.  It's pity that Van Gogh, an eventual suicide, didn't follow his own advice. 

In reality, no matter how dark it seems, we're all just a few minutes away from spaghetti or housework.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ah cha cha cha

There are days when you have your "A material."  There are days when you wing it and everything comes together.  Then there are days when you realize you're just giving them the old song and dance.  Today was the latter.  Discussed the value of aesthetic awareness in the senior capstone and I was using a lesson plan that has only really worked once (the first time I used it).  Every other time it's tanked.  Nevertheless, there I was at 9:30 this morning giving it another lousy trod on the boards.

Then--oh sweet suckosity--I had to talk about Romantic poetry in Humanities 102.  I knew I was doing the cha-cha as I read the opening lines of Song of Myself and found myself relating  it to--of all things--Kantian epistemology.  But there I was on stage. The students had no idea what I was talking about, but the show must go on, right?  So swing-step, dip, sliiiiiiide

I won't even get into my tired slog through Frankenstein at 1:00 pm, or any number of institutional crises in between. 

Ye gods, dance, teacher boy, dance.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Little Boxes

There's an exercise we do on the first-year honors seminar each year while reading Emerson.  In his 1839 "American Scholar" address at Harvard, Emerson called for a new kind of intellectual, one whose primary influences would be direct contact with nature, the mind of the past and an active and engaged life.  The aim for these new American brawniacs would be to undertake "daring sallies of the spirit" that would lift all of humanity with fresh, original thinking.

So each spring I ask my students how we might construct a university for such people.  I have them get into groups and brainstorm ideas for Man-Thinking University, an institution dedicated to turning out non-comformist original thinkers.  Most years the students come up with interesting ideas.  Man-Thinking U would be located in a pristine natural setting.  The first few months would be spent building one's living quarters.  Students would even devise the curriculum, select their own projects and there would be no grades.  The students themselves would determine when they were ready to leave. 

This year's batch of honors students didn't seem to grasp the nature of this exercise.  They kept saying there had to be grades and testing.  Otherwise no one would hire the graduates.  My simple exercise in re-imagining the educational system just bombed.  They didn 't get it and couldn't imagine any way to learn other than rank, rate and graduate.  Education was some expert evaluator checking off a series of little boxes.

So the next day I walked into class and handed out a slip of paper on which I had written the following: "I have lost my voice.  You will just have to conduct the discussion of this essay on your own today.  Take turns leading the group and be sure to involve everyone."

For forty minutes they discussed the text on their own.  Everyone participated.  Then with 10 minutes left in class I miraculously recovered my voice and asked them to evaluate their efforts.  How well did they do?  What would have made the discussion better?  What would happen if they chose what to read next and assessed their own efforts at understanding it?  Could they do it without an evaluator?  Could they do it without an expert?   In fact, what would happen if they started determining what was important and what they wanted to know?  

One or two of them finally began to grasp the Emersonian notion of the self-directed learner.  One said, "I wouldn't mind going to college at a place like that."  Another even came up with a university motto:  At Man-Thinking U, the slogan isn't "think outside the box.  It's "Dude, there is no box."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Day of the Dead

It's the Friday before Spring Break, which means my classes will be half populated at best.   And you can forget about anything after 2:00 pm.  This place will be still as death. 

After break, too, everything about the semester will have changed.  My institution wraps up early.  We're done before the first of May; thus, students coming back from break tend to lean into the finish line.  They can feel it.  I've mentioned it before, but it's always struck me as disorienting that the academic year ends just as the world is awakening again from winter.  Another year, another year, shot in the rear...

Was this what you expected
All those years ago?
Aprils gliding by
On Kindergarten
Lawn-kissing snow,
Skies effortlessly blue
And adolescent restless?
The twenty-first,
Count ‘em.
Granular rings,
Middle-aged misgivings.
Latest in a series
Of psychopathic springs,
Each violently alive
And pressing its
Proud green belly into the knife.

BTW, the wonderful photo is by Bethany Helzer:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Checking Out

One always has to be careful with generalizations about student behavior.  Often times we professors are just flat wrong about our students and why they are the way they are.  For example, I was wrong last week about a student who has never seemed very engaged in class. 

I had tagged a short note to a returned assignment, asking if the student and I might meet to map a strategy for ending the term on a positive note.  The student hung around after class to talk with me, but three seconds into our discussion there were tears.  The poor kid is working too much, worrying too much and freaked out by the idea of failing.  I had no idea.  What I took to be a lack of interest or commitment was actually panic and nervous exhaustion.

So you never know.

There's something else going on this semester that I can't figure out.  And I want to be careful in drawing any conclusions.  For some reason, students have begun getting up in the middle of class and walking out.  They don't say anything.  They just leave.  Sometimes they are gone for up to 15 or 20 minutes and then they walk back in and sit down.  It isn't that students have never done this before; it's the frequency that I have begun to notice.  I've never had it happen so often. At first I thought they were just going to the restroom.  Then I wondered if they had set their phones on vibrate and were taking a call.  Sometimes I wonder, though, if some new kind of attitude about acceptable classroom citizenship is being born.

Here's what I mean: I often see people in grocery store lines talking on their cell phones through an entire transaction. Occasionally I'll ask clerks if it bothers them when this happens.  They always tell me it drives them nuts.  I saw this occur only last weekend while buying a pair of pants.  The clerk told me, "It's like I'm not even a person that they are expected or obliged to interact with." 

Increasingly, I feel like that clerk.  I'm there in the classroom, standing right in front of students and doing my job, but they are scrolling through text messages, walking out to attend to other tasks, filling in planners or maybe even doing homework for other classes.   They seem oblivious to my presence or any expectation that they might want to affect even a minimal pretence of courteous attentiveness.  For them, being in a classroom has become like standing in checkout lines. 

Then again, you never know.  I could be wrong about this.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A poor, bare, forked animal

…men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved… As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history will have the courage to dispute this assertion?
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
No quality of human nature is more remarkable… than the propensity we have to sympathize with others and to receive by communications their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own.
  • David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature
I used the above quotes to lay out two views of human nature in the first-year honors seminar yesterday.  We've been reading Gulliver's Travels and have come to the last voyage. That means we have to decide how seriously we want to take Gulliver's dim view of humanity.

On the one hand,  Freud is right: man is wolf to man.   On the other, Hume is equally right.  It is an absolutely jaw-dropping fact that we can empathize even with those whose inclinations are contrary to our own.  And, as always, all roads lead to Lear.   Year after year, I keep circling around and returning to this astonishing play. 

Yesterday, for instance, I fell into a conversation with the philosophy professor whose office is next to mine.  We were talking about Hume's contention that morality isn't discovered through inductive reasoning; rather, it emerges from our emotions and our imaginative capacity to place ourselves in someone else's position.  This strikes me as intuitively true, but it does raise a serious problem because it means moral stances have no objective or rational basis.   They are simply moods we may or may not feel. 

There's no good reason for Cordelia to be honest with her father in Act 1, and there's no good reason why Edgar should take pity on the father who has ordered him hunted down like a beast.  Empathy, compassion, forgiveness are all deeply irrational.  They lack any objective ought.  We can only speak what we feel and hope for the best.  Humanity really is a poor animal forked between the Edgars and Edmunds of its nature. 

Each spring I teach King Lear in the first-year honors seminar and the damned play astounds me all over again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Nature, Mr. Allnut..."

Inevitably professors teach in ways that reflect their own cognitive biases.  I wrote the other day about getting my students to make more inter textual and cross-disciplinary connections ("Only Connect...").  I want them to leap between ideas, forge connections and work out the conceptual linkages because that's the way my own brain works much of the time.  One idea reminds me of another, and then that one reminds me of still another.  I get bored easily and am a bit of an intellectual flibbertigibbet.

Every semester, for example, the ideas in one class either start talking to the ideas in another class or there arises a strange kind of synchronicity.  The latter seems to be happening this week.  In the first-year honors seminar, for example, we're reading the fourth voyage of Gulliver's Travels, a savagely dark satire of human nature.  By this point in the novel, Gulliver has convinced himself that human beings are violent, greedy and destructive creatures possessing some small pittance of reason that they employ only to exacerbate their natural depravity. 

Coincidentally in the senior capstone we are discussing David Livingstone-Smith's Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.  Smith takes a disquieting look at the cultural, psychological and perhaps even biological factors that make us prone to denying "humanness" to other human beings.  He makes it clear that genocide and slavery are not aberrations in history.  Indeed, the evidence from history suggests quite the opposite.  Dehumanizing, enslaving and exterminating others is pretty much how we humans roll.  Under the right manipulated conditions, ordinary people will do some disturbing things.  It's a mistake to think genocidal killers are monster or madmen.  They aren't.  They're us.

So my thoughts have been jumping quite naturally between Smith's book and Swift's novel.  In the first-year honors seminar I've been working hard to get the students to resist Swift's pessimism, which we can all too easily buy into.  Swift is a strong author and it isn't very hard to see that--as Edward Gibbon once said--"History is little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." 

In the senior capstone, on the other hand, I've been challenging the students to think about ways we might counter program ourselves against eliminationist rhetoric, a default obedience to authority and our seemingly innate tendency toward "us vs. them" tribalism.  Is it really in our nature to dehumanize others?  Or is it environmentally-cued? 

I point out that not everyone in Stanley Milgram's famous social psychology experiment followed authority to the point of hypothetically killing someone.  About 35 percent refused.  Also, people don't collectively begin to murder their neighbors. A lot of deliberate manipulation by unjust authority figures, mass media reinforcement and social conditioning have to happen, all moves that can be fought. 

Many of my students take the position (in both courses) that there isn't much we can do.  They say people are just naturally this way.  It's an argument that always makes me think of a line from John Huston's 1951 film The African Queen.  Humphrey Bogart plays a crusty riverboat pilot lost in the wilds of Africa with a stiff-upper-lipped Katherine Hepburn.  At one point Bogart complains that it's only human nature to let one's baser side out now and then.

Hepburn, in her inimitable way, responds, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."


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