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.

Poo-tee-weet?

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