Showing posts from September, 2012

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…