Friday, September 28, 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're all going to lose, but we get up each morning and go back out there. Human life is hard. It's filled with painful conflicts, and our success and glory don't really count for much in the end; but humanity endures and there's real heroism there. Ultimately I think this poem is deeply in love with life. It's just not going to lie to us about it and tell us it's easy or painless."

My students weren't buying it.  They can't understand why I am making them read this dreadful 3,000 year old poem.  And I can't figure out how to bring home all it has to offer.

I had other failures yesterday.  I didn't get all of my grading done on time as I promised I would.  I was probably uncharitable to a colleague or two,   There were any number of things I could have done better,  but not teaching the Iliad well is the one that eats at me. So sitting in the basement late yesterday afternoon after tying a fly and letting the day wash away, I reached over to the book shelf and--of all things--happened across this from the fuddy-duddy critic Harold Bloom:
Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen.  The mind's dialog with itself is not primarily a social reality.  All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is a confrontation with one's own mortality.
I'm sure Stevens' insurance gig also had its crappy days, which no doubt accounts for the flowers.

Monday, September 24, 2012

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 degree counterparts over a span of many years.  Short answer: no.  As a group they had a higher unemployment rate, a higher divorce rate, lower lifetime earnings and they were more likely to be in jail.

Wow, says the radio host, and then he asks, "So what's going on in those four-years that accounts for the difference?"  Our economists replies, "It's not clear.  It's kind of like the dark matter of education.  We don't know for sure, but it seems to have something to do with impulsivity or, for lack of a better word, character."

Now I am shaking my head.  Don't these well-educated people ever read anything like, say for instance, Aristotle, who pretty well laid all this out in the Nichomachean Ethics 2,400 years ago?   Intellectual virtue can be taught; moral virtue is acquired through habituation, something many cognitive scientists have documented over the years with the well-known marshmallow test. 

Here's the test: you leave a kid alone in a room with a marshmallow and you tell him he'll get a whole bag if he waits five minutes before eating the one in front of him.  Some kids wait, some don't.  Longitudinal studies reveal the same pattern as Heckman's G.E.D. recipients.  Those that can't delay gratification have more problems in life. 

So now Heckman's organizing big conferences, bringing together all these people to discuss this new idea, something I do every spring semester when my students and I read Aristotle.  Moreover, a writer by the name of Paul Tough has written a book on this "fascinating new understanding" (How Children Succeed, Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2012).  Sure enough, Aristotle appears nowehere in the book's index.

Sometimes I think I ought to get out of this teaching gig.  Instead, I should take some hoary old idea the Greeks knew about two and half millenia ago, dust it off and call it something else.  Then I'll hire myself out as a highly-paid expert consultant.  Forget teaching students about the examined life.   Let's call it meta-cognition and shoot an infomercial.

That's gold, baby.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

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 Machiavelli against Carter because I want the class to come to grips with two diametrically opposed views that--given their foundational assumptions--are faultlessly correct.  Carter assumes politics can improve if people act with integrity.  Machiavelli assumes that this will never happen, so leaders who act with integrity foolishly imperil the very state or enterprise they have been empowered to protect. 

When I'm sure the class understands both thinkers, I ask them to take sides.  Literally.  I ask them to get up and go to a designated Carter or Machiavelli side of the room.  The good moment this week was finding a large number of students who were frozen in the middle.  They couldn't decide.  They liked what  Carter had to say, but Machiavelli also made sense.  A few of them said, almost in painful hesitation, "I just don't know" or "I can't decide."

I always think of these moments as seams or popped threads. When students get caught between two equally valid ideas, they are just about to unravel some previously unexamined idea, which is a necessary precursor to knitting together a new, more complex one.  Those who make up their minds quickly are often just going on impulse or unreflective preference.  It's the ditherers that matter.  And I had a good number.

The other great moment came when a couple of students groaned at me, "Why don't you just tell us the answer?"  You know it's working when you come across this little popped seam because the question is actually a complaint.  In translation it means, "Do I really have to start knitting something here?" 

Uh-huh.  That's what I'm looking for.   Make me some socks.

And then, the lousy moment.  It came when I rather ham-handedly made a good colleague's job a bit more frustrating.  She's been working hard to get a simple thing done and I fear I just made it a more difficult for her.   Ye gods, that's the last thing I intended. 

So a couple of good things and one regret.  Eh, I've had better weeks.  Had worse too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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 in higher education to be cynical about what we do. University life has its politics and bureaucratic pointlessness.  It's also got its fair share of disillusioned idealists.  Teaching capstone, however, has helped me remember that in the larger picture this place actually does work.  It could always work better, of course.  I won't deny that, but we really do work.  Our students' lives are transformed.  It's important not to lose sight of that.

I've also taught capstone so long that it's become something like a great old dance partner.  We know each other so well.  We know when to turn, when to dip...  We're pretty damned smooth on our best days, and I have back-up plans for my back-up plans on the days when we aren't at our best.

But it's time for her go.  Every act grows stale eventually.  I have two sections this fall and one in the spring, and I feel as though I'm teaching the course better than ever.

 The old girl deserves nothing less.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

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's the first few weeks of the semester and I have been working so hard to tell the students what not to do on the first assignment.  It does not matter how clear I am, how many times I say it on-line, in class and on the syllabus.  It doesn't matter that I actually have them speak aloud the words "I will not do X."  Inevitably, a goodly portion of my students will do exactly what I told them not to do on the first assignment. I've come to accept that a certain amount of ambient white noise unavoidably accompanies teaching and learning.

Even though the characters in Tristram Shandy never do understand one another, they somehow achieve a kind empathetic correspondence.  They come to find each other's indecipherable babble pleasantly soothing, not unlike perhaps the soft whir of a window fan on a summer evening.  In other words, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I don't mind your rattling on.  In fact, I kind of like it.

You know, given the shear difficulty of penetrating into another consciousness, it's just a gob-smacking miracle that any of us is able to teach or learn anything.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

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 poor thing.

Over the years I've come to call this "The Hamlet Dream."  After all, Hamlet didn't ask to be the one charged with avenging his father's death and he was under no illusions that doing so would make Denmark a better place.  Even before he meets the ghost, he speaks of the world as an "unweeded garden" full of things rank and gross that possess it merely.

Yet there he is, the one on the balcony holding an absurdly long leash.  And all of his efforts just keep making a bad situation worse.   He gets his girlfriend, her brother, his mother and himself killed for all his efforts.  Denmark gets taken over by a hot-headed thug and the world remains--just as he lamented in Act I--a rank, unweeded garden.

Making it worse while trying to make it better, the end the same no matter how we play it out.  I've been working to revise the general education core curriculum at my institution for almost four years now.  We're in the final phase and  I have to believe we did some useful weeding, but the rank and gross can be such hardy perennials.  I so want this job to be over.  And then, like Lear,  I'll crawl unburdened to the grave. 

Of course that didn't really work so well for  him, did it?


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