Showing posts from July, 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 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…