Showing posts from 2013

The Vale of Soul-Making

Mark Edmundson's latest collection of essays on teaching, learning and the state of the contemporary university repackages many of the laments, jeremiads and crotchety harrumphs of his previous work. Indeed, all of the essays in Why Teach(Bloomsbury, $24.00) first appeared in such publications as Harpers, The Chronicle of Higher Education or the New York Times.  

Read together, however, they form an extended cri de coeur to fellow students and teachers that real education is still possible today, but it's not easy and the obstacles--including the modern university itself--are formidable.

Somewhere in the 1990s, Edmundson notes, American higher education dropped any pretense of being driven by the intellectual and cultural pursuits of its professors and became an essentially commercial enterprise. Administrators proliferated (especially in Student Life) and admissions offices became marketing departments.  Even the physical plants of campuses began to transform. More and more…

Snow in the Suburbs

Several years ago I began starting my classes with a poem.  I don't do it every day or it would get old.  Still I do it enough that the students are used to it and even come to expect it.  I try not to select anything particularly relevant to the lesson I'm teaching that day.  Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can pull up anything that strikes my fancy.  

This past week, for instance, it snowed for the first time. Walking across campus  I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs. So I found it on-line, put it on the smart board and read it.  We talked afterward for a few minutes about the way snowfall mutes a landscape and how much fun it is to watch the flakes swirl around. 

Reading a poem to begin a class lacks much pedagogical justification.  I suppose it does burn a little clock as you wait for the persistent late arrivals to wander in (no sense beginning on the hour when a third of the class will need everything explained a second time).  I also like…

Post Mortems

I'm not sure how exactly I feel about the first semester the new core capstone, a three credit seminar in which students reflect upon their discernment of vocation.  It doesn't help that my colleagues still make the occasional snarky remark about the whole notion of vocation in undergraduate education (despite having voted for it in the new core and helping students do it every day).

Snark aside, I do understand their uneasiness.  Saying our 'students are called to lives of service' is a conveniently passive-voiced circumlocution.  Called?  Really?  By whom?  The theological answer is God. Indeed, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio andwas originally confined to calling in the spiritual sense.  It did not take on its broader connotations until around 1550 when Martin Luther began to extend its use to describe work in secular life.  Luther argued that shop-keeping and shoe-making were also God-called activities.

But saying we are called by God is not an esp…

The old knot of contrariety

No matter how many years I do this job, there comes a point every semester when I begin to doubt everything. No, doubt is not the right word. I need something stronger, something with more heft. Ordinarily you can count on the Germans when you need a word to capture the more perverse of human emotions.  But somehow Zweifel doesn't cut it.  I need something better, something more corrosive, something that captures the idea of thought turning in on itself with a kind of ruthless, cannibalistic clarity.
It seems every November I have to come to terms with the fact that I've compromised most of the goals I set for myself in September. I discover myself shamelessly making up lesson plans on the fly, speed grading what I should take more time with, and finishing my committee work an hour before the meeting.  November is when I discover important, unanswered August emails in the cthonic depths of my in-box.  November uncovers my native hue of feckless irresolution.
Other people seem to…

Circus boy dancing like a monkey on barbed wire...

Whoo-weee!  What a semester.

In addition to a couple of my regular darlings, I've been teaching two spanking new seminars conjured  from nothingness: no assignments, no in-class exercises, no grading rubrics, and certainly no previous experience teaching these particular ideas or texts.

So you'll excuse me if I haven't kept up this sucky old blog.  Let's face it. MacGyver's had his hands full.  Indeed,  I've said to several people that I feel like it's my first year of teaching all over again. More than once, my plan for the day has retained its fresh-from-the copier heat as I walked into the classroom.

But that's not quite right.  Sure, I am furiously inventing the universe every week, but I also have two decades worth of ideas, gimmicks and approaches to draw upon. So it's not really the same. On some subsonic level I'm confident I can figure it out and come up with something.  That wasn't the case 23 years ago.  In many ways, too, it…


Over the past few years I've been assigned some new faculty members to mentor during their first year.  It's something I don't mind doing, although I doubt I have much wisdom to impart about teaching or learning.  Mostly I agree to mentor because I can still remember what it was like during my first year of teaching.

The department chair just gave me a slip with the course titles on it and that was that: no syllabus, no standard text, not even a department manual or instructions for the photocopier. Just the course titles and an implied request not to suck too badly and certainly not to add any complications to their job.

I recall typing up course schedules for each of my four classes and staring at the abyss of those blank calendar squares. Keep in mind that I had never taught before other than  two semesters as a TA in grad school.  And as TAs, the department had given us a script, assignments and texts.  It was all laid out for us.  But now it was up to me and no one …

The 'Mutha' of Invention

There's no one for me to blame for agreeing to take on two new course preps this fall.  I wish I could.  It might be nice to lash out at whatever pinhead committee came up with the cockamamie idea of requiring all students to take two interdisciplinary seminars.  Unfortunately, I was on that committee-- chaired the damned thing no less.  So here I am, furiously inventing new assignments, new in-class activities, and new approaches for new texts so I can teach in those new seminars.
To make things worse, I foolishly committed myself to resist the temptation of recycling bits from old courses that I know will work.  It's all new, baby.  And it's a mutha.  The difficulty--and it's the central, ineradicable difficulty in all teaching--is to find ways to shape and present the material so that it engages student curiosity; for it is a truth universally acknowledged that  human beings don't really like to think.  
That said, we are curious little creatures, and we'll…

Jumping Off

When I first began teaching I loathed the first day of class, the dull presentation of course policies, pet peeves and penalties. What an unappetizing way of inviting students into a subject. So, slowly, I've begun to tinker with day one.  I tried to come up with ways to turn exploring the syllabus into active learning exercises, made sure I knew every one's name by the end of the period, and tried to frame the course question with some reflection on a piece of poetry or a painting.

Now my day one has bled into a day two of similar activities: demonstrating how we'll work and why, having students apply the grading rubric to sample assignments, getting them to take an initial side in a debate by moving to a labeled side of the room--anything to break the familiar pattern of a first-day syllabus frog march.

 This year I'm trying to begin each of my courses with some activity that gets to the heart of some central theme or question. In other words, the very first moment …

Forgotten Hunger

One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from the end of Larkin's Church Going, where he speaks of "discovering a hunger in oneself to be more serious."  I like the way it melds physical and spiritual desires, but also how this desire must be discovered or stumbled upon, revealed to the belly before the head.

That's often how poetry works best, in my opinion.  You stumble upon it when your head is thinking about something else.  A line comes spinning up out of memory like the little polyhedron that used to float to the plastic window on a Magic Eight-Ball.

I had the run of a quiet house early this morning and instinctively found my belly hungering for a poem. Then, serendipitously enough, I stumbled across  Gary Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End," which contains a section that playfully teases out our two kinds of hungers:
An ancient buddha said, "A painted rice cake does not satisfy
hunger."  Dogen comments:
"There are few who ha…

"I never loved to read. One does not love breathing..."

My wife is a clever woman.  Every now and then she'll suggest that my son and I read a book together.  This usually happens during summer vacation when I'm off and we're struggling with ways to keep the boy occupied. The job of reading aloud falls to me, and I can manage a chapter or two before my voice gives out.  Over the past few years, my son and I have tackled a few of the Harry Potter books, the Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snickety and Louis Sachar's Holes, all of which were great fun.  
Even more fun, however, has been reading books I read as a child with my own child.  Maybe you can't have the pleasure of discovering a classic for the first time again, but being alongside somebody who is sure makes for an acceptable substitute. I love the way my son starts with a 10-year old's indifference to our joint reading projects. 
"Okay, whatever.  I guess we can read that one." But before long it's "C'mon, dad, we can squeeze in …

The Sunday Jeremiad (right on schedule)

Leafing through my New York Times this morning, I ran across a full-page advertisement for a conference on "Virtual U: The Coming of Age of Online Education."  Among the questions to be addressed at this gathering are
Has the university as an institution had its day?Is online education the great equalizer?How will online education revolutionize what we know about learning?What's the new business model for higher education? Given the line-up of speakers, one can only imagine the conference's "open-ended" pursuit of answers to these questions.  The speakers generally come from the non-profit world and aren't self-serving merchants looking to make cases for their latest ventures.  Anant Argawal, for example, is developing free MOOCs, (massive open online courses) and Sal Khan founded Khan Academy, a free online aggregator of over 4,000 micro-lectures. 

All of the speakers, however, are proponents of technological fixes to what they perceive to be an inef…

Proposing Frankly...

Anyone who's read this sucky old blog for a while knows that I'm a bit decadent when it comes to aesthetics.  My essential orientation can be found in Walter Pater's statement that "art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."  

Even so, I'm more than happy to acknowledge the coherence of socio-political schools of thought (Marxist, New Historicist, et. al.).  Hell, they're fine as far as they go, even if a bit dreary and predictable.  Besides, it's not their practioners' politics I object to.  It's their taste.

I'm a bit less amenable to those apologists who attempt to justify the Humanities as something with practical or "real world" value.  And it seems we're at it again.  The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released its report on the urgent need for Humanities education in the 21rst Century.  Entitled The …

Five Random Moments

Here are five moments from the past week:

Moment 1: I'm reading Mark Edmundson's Poetry Slam, a 6,000 word Harper's essay, which--depending on your point of view--was either a lament or a slap down of contemporary poetry.  I tended to read it as a cri de coeur for poets to think big.  Edmundson's central complaint concerns timidity and work that hedges, undercuts, pulls back and tries to have things both ways.  It is a poetry forever reluctant to make a bold, universal claim.  In a comparison between Yeats and Heaney, for example, Edmundson notes that you may have agreed with Yeats, you may not. But Yeats never hedged.

At the essay's conclusion, Edmundson writes,
I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time.  They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom.  Many of our poets are capable of w…

Fumbling in a greasy till

Google image search the phrase "creative genius" and, other than some stock images and clip art, you'll find a picture of Steve Jobs.  In fact, you have to scroll deep--very deep--on the page before you see an image of an actual artist, musician or poet (in this case, Picasso).  
There's no way to know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that this would not have been the case 40-50 years ago.  Had you asked the average person-on-the street in 1963 to name a creative genius, you likely would have heard the name of a painter or a poet.  Today it's Jobs, Gates, maybe Zuckerberg.

Or let's pose this little thought experiment.  The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote verse of astonishing creativity.  As a Jesuit priest during the Victorian Era, he struggled against his artistic inclinations and battled depression.  He also died young and never intended his work to survive him. A few friends and fellow poets recognized his genius, however, and posthumously kept…

Cream and Bastards

Well I'm teaching core capstone for the last time again.  I thought I was done with it this past December, but I had a section to cover this summer, so there it is.  Core Capstone (for MFS readers who may be unfamiliar with it) asks students to assess the meaning, value and use of their liberal arts education.  They read and debate various ideas on what it means to be a well-educated citizen and what such people owe--if anything--to their society.

Last week we waded through Plato's Apology and Crito, and then dipped into Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit.  Echoing Socrates, Nussbaum argues that citizens skilled at thinking for themselves will operate without a default trust in authority.  They will question all assumptions, think for themselves and accept only those ideas that meet their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence.  Ultimately, she argues, such people strengthen civic institutions. They are good for society.  Indeed, democracy can't exist w…

Luxury without fear, fun without suspicion

Last night my 10-year old son and I fell into a philosophical conversation about happiness.  He has a tendency to ask me questions involving carefully formulated distinctions or elaborate ranking schemes: Would I rather win the World Series or write a best seller?  Would I prefer the super powers of incredible strength or flying?  And would I still choose flying if it didn't come with super speed?  As an aside to our discussion of happiness, I happened to quote (or misquote more likely) Shopenhauer's definition of it as just the smallest amount of misery.
My son snorted and asked, "Who's this Schopenhauer guy?  He sounds interesting."  So I told him what I knew, which isn't much.  I have tried to read Schopenhauer before, but I have always been defeated by German idealism, all that labyrinthine complexity.  What I take from him is this:  he somewhat disagrees with Kant that all we can know of the world are the unavoidably imposed categorizations of our own m…

The Sigmund S. Freud Middle School

Took my son to the middle school orientation last night.  We sat in a 1960s-era gymnasium and were welcomed into the Mustang family, or the Bulldog, Red Raider, or some other such jive mascot family.  Can't recall which.  Anyway, while I was sitting there listening to the well-meaning teachers and principals drone on about what an exciting time this would be for my middle schooler, I couldn't help thinking of my own spin in junior high (as it was called in those days).  It was about as miserable a period of my life as I can recall.

Middle school is where Freud's reality principle kicks in with a special malevolence and you realize that--despite what you may have previously heard--you really can't become whatever you want to be.  If you have always sucked at sports or math, it's very likely you will continue to suck at sports or math.  If you are shy or geeky, these traits will only be exacerbated by age.  Consequently, that future affair with a honey-haired Farah …

A Zen-Free Fly Fishing Post

Just returned from my annual end-of-the semester fly fishing trip: a week of sloshing about spring creeks, untangling wind knots and eating re-hydrated backpacker fare.  All in all, a good week: 17 Browns, nine Rainbows and two Brookies. 

Standing midstream last week, I even experienced the slight itch to write an essay connecting time on a trout stream to the Greek ideas of kairos and chronos.  You know, quantitative chronological time versus qualitative kairotic time, or that indeterminate moment in which something unique transpires that will not come about again.  The term kairos is actually related to the weather in ancient Greek, and--fittingly--my best day last week was assisted by the coming together of an overcast, drizzly morning, a box of pheasant-tail nymphs and a wide pool full of peckish Browns. 

But no.  No, no no.  I'm not going to do it.

A few years back I promised myself not to get too zen about fly fishing.  There's entirely too much of that kind of stuff …

Lesson Planning vs Less Planning

Below are excerpts from letters to the Sunday Times Magazine.  The previous week had featured an article inveighing against the idea that great teaching can result from some scripted formula: I want my teacher/doctor to know professional “best practice” and to use it fluently and flexibly. Teaching is not merely art; it is science — just like medicine. We now possess a body of expert knowledge about how the mind works, how motivation works, how to design effective work and how to adjust learning in the face of results that I expect every teacher to know and use.... It is simply a false romantic notion to say we must choose between scripts and creativity in teaching. And this
He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; t…

Narrative Collapse and the Stink of Mortality

For several weeks various threads have been blowing about in the breeze.  One relates to a conversation I had with one of my younger colleagues, a newly minted Ph.D., whose something of an expert on critical theory and computer gaming.  Another relates to the problematic last unit of my Humanities 102 course, which focuses upon big ideas and values in Western culture.  And another relates to a book I've been reading, Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now(Penguin, $26.95). 

Let's begin in medias res.  For years I've struggled to conceptualize the end of my Humanities 102 course.  Here's the problem: until you get to the 19th century it's dangerously easy to present Western culture as a dialectical zig-zag of corrections and reactions.  Artistically speaking, you might say that the West oscillated between Dionysian and Apollonian poles, with the Enlightenment eschewing Baroque excess and the Romantics rebelling against the sterile formal…

Should a Surgeon Read Shakespeare?

There's an exercise I use in the first-year seminar to introduce the aims of Liberal Arts education.  It's a subject we're required to address during the course.  Unfortunately, it's also a subject singularly devoid of interest to the average 18-year old.  So rather than preaching at them, I ask them to make a series of judgments in response to a hypothetical situation.  This exercise usually provokes one of the more interesting discussions of the semester.  We did it this morning and it proved no exception. 

The gist is this: I ask the students to imagine they are in need of a potentially life-threatening brain operation. The procedure requires an expert surgeon who has been extremely well-trained in a high-risk procedure. Because the stakes are so high, they are allowed to select the surgeon they want.  The final two candidates are exactly equal in experience and expertise.

The difference only arises when meeting the surgeons in preparation for making the choice. …

Kral Majales

In the spring of 1993 I spent a few weeks in Prague wandering about the streets and staying briefly with a Czech couple in their cramped apartment on the outskirts of the city.  Most of the time, however, I rented a cheap room at the Hotel Merkur, which featured hard narrow beds, thin sheets and shared bathrooms down the hall.  I remember my room had an ancient radio that received only one station. I would lie in bed at night listening to somber dirges and reading Ivan Klima's novel Love and Garbage.

I was surprised, then, to run across the photo at left.  It's a picture of Allen Ginsberg outside the Merkur.  In 1968 he had been invited by the Czech government to come to Prague.  They very quickly dis-invited him after he was crowned the King of May (Kral Majales) and led an unsanctioned and very joyous parade through the streets of the city.  Ginsberg subsequently wrote a poem about his ejection from the country while taking a jet from Prague to London:

And the Communists ha…

Escape Routes

Spring Break officially begins on Friday at 4:00 pm, which means it actually began yesterday around noon. Considered on its merits, there is something a little dubious about having a one-week hiatus in the middle of the term.  It's a custom observed nowhere else but education, and higher education specifically. Apparently it traces its origin to the 1930s when college swim teams annually migrated to Florida for pre-season practices.  No doubt, too, it received a boost from the 1961 movie Where The Boys Are.  And there's also no doubt that it's here to stay.  One can only imagine the undergraduate uproar --to say nothing of the chamber of commerce commotion--were someone to suggest doing away with it. 

I mean other than an economic boon to bar owners and warm weather resorts, it has little value.  It certainly lacks academic or pedagogical value.  It ruins the week beforehand and sometimes a few class days afterward.  It's just a bad idea.

But it's here, so I'…

On the Usage of "On" in Titles

The literary antecedents of blogging are easy to identify. Montaigne was a proto-blogger, one as willing to explore the ethics of cannibalism as his own bowel movements. Orwell certainly qualifies, especially his As I Please columns in which he wrote about English cooking, good-bad books and the cultural rhetoric of penny postcards. I would also add MFK Fisher to this list, and Boswell's London Journal would have made a fascinating blog.
A good argument could be made that the golden age of proto-blogging occurred in the 19th century. One thinks of Lamb, Hunt, De Quincey on opium and certainly William Hazlitt, whose companionable essays on a variety of topics are still worth reading. Here, for example, are a few of the subjects he turned his attention toward in volume I of Table Talk:

On People With One Idea
On the Ignorance of the Learned
On Will-Making
On Vulgarity and Affectation
On Going on a Journey
On Great and Little Things
On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority

Squalid Cash Interpretations

In the Sunday Times I ran across this curious bit of literary insight by Jackie Collins, the author of such gems as The Stud, The Power Trip, Thrill! and Hollywood Husbands.  Commenting on her favorite love stories, Collins remarked,
The Great Gatsby has always been a standout as far as love stories go. Jay Gatsby is such a mysterious and sexy character, and as a reader one can feel Daisy’s yearning to be closer to him, yet he always manages to pull away. Creating sexual chemistry on the page is organic, and I think F. Scott Fitzgerald had it down. Reading this, I couldn't help remembering the first time I taught Gatsby.  I was assigned a room full of bored undergrads who were  fulfilling a literature requirement during summer semester.  Half of them had failed Intro to literature in the spring, and the other half were international students, most of them engineering majors from the state university up the road.  One of my Saudi students said that he and his roommate had discuss…