Showing posts from January, 2013

"What I was at Thrasymenes and at Cannae..."

One of the most remarkable scenes in all of ancient literature occurs in Book 30 of Livy's monumental History of Rome.  After years of terrorizing Italy, Hannibal, the Carthaginian military genius, has a brief face to face encounter with Scipio, his younger and equally talented Roman counterpart. The troops for both sides are drawn up before each other at Zama in Northern Africa and the two commanders meet between the battle lines. Hannibal, who has had victory in his grasp more than once in his long wars with Rome, speaks first.  He lays out the Carthaginian position, but then--as Livy tells it--he speaks to Scipio almost as if he were speaking to his younger self:
As far as I am concerned, coming back to a country which I left as a boy, years and a chequered experience of good and evil fortune have so disillusioned me that I prefer to take reason rather than Fortune as my guide. As for you, your youth and unbroken success will make you, I fear, impatient of peaceful counsels. I…

The Circle is Complete

This morning over breakfast my 10-year old son lamented that his mother and I were incapable of "seeing reality the way he did."  Consequently we just weren't able to understand what he was going through. We both gave him the standard parental response: "Hey, we were 10-years old once."  Sure he replied, but the world has changed since then.

I didn't try to dissuade him.  Instead I told him a story about when I was a kid.  Some friends and I had gone to see a movie called The Hellstrom Chronicle.  It was part science fiction, part horror movie and part documentary.  The gist was that humanity was doomed to extinction.  We would inevitably be done in by insects. 

I can't recall much about the film except an amazing scene in which a colony of termites were attempting to save their queen from an invading army of of ants.  In any event, I was freaked out by the film in a way that only makes sense to an impressionable 10-year old  mind.  For weeks afterwar…

They have no IDEA

Student evaluations from last fall semester showed up in our boxes this week and, like everyone else, I immediately opened them and poured over the numbers.  And I do mean numbers.  Our institution uses an instrument called IDEA, which translates 16 weeks of your teaching life into hundreds of tiny, authoritative-looking numbers. 

Did students feel free to ask questions: 4.1.  Did you explain course material clearly and concisely: 3.9... 

All of these numbers, of course, are cross compared to people teaching in your discipline, other institutions and even your colleagues.  The forms lay you out on a bell curve so you know exactly how wonderful, mediocre or miserable an instructor you are.

Nowhere on the form does it ask if this is the first or fortieth time you've taught the course, if you are a spunky fresh-from-grad-school Boy Scout or an end-of-the-line dinosaur reeking of gin and sour disappointment.  They don't weight your students with degrees of difficulty or factor i…

Pretty Useless

I mentioned in an earlier post that last fall marked my final go-round with the core capstone, a required seminar in which students evaluate the meaning, significance and worth of their liberal arts education.  We begin the new core curriculum next fall and I am on a department chair load reduction for spring semester; so I've taught the capstone's unit on the value of the aesthetic dimension for the last time.
I will miss it.  Many of my students, of course, have a kind of learned helplessness when it comes to a critical appreciation of the arts.  Confronted with a painting, a piece of poetry or--worse--classical music and they just shut down.  Curiously, I seldom get this reaction when I try to engage them with architecture. I suspect it’s because they have seldom thought about buildings as aesthetic objects or expressions of ideas and values. Even so, they have experienced a lot of buildings and aren't intimidated by them.

I usually start by dragging in any of the doze…

Just Don't Lie to Them

I decided to use Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do as the text in my Spring semester first-year seminar.  This is a one credit freshmen course in which students get the continued support they need to stay on track.  For years we dropped freshmen after the first semester.  They got 16 weeks of support and orientation and then they were out the door and on their own.  The new core, however, assures that advisors have good contact with their students at least once a week through the entire first year.
I like using Bain's book, too, but mainly because he avoids the usual claptrap and lies about how to be a successful in college.  He doesn't tell you how many hours you should be studying for how many hours you sit in class (a widely-spouted statistic that isn't even believed by the professors who say it).  Nor does he offer note-taking gimmicks or tricks for figuring out the answer on multiple choice tests.  I mean, really.  The moment we talk about such things i…