Thursday, January 31, 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. It is not easy for the man whom Fortune never deceives to reflect on the uncertainties and accidents of life. What I was at Thrasymenus and at Cannae, that you are today. You were hardly old enough to bear arms when you were placed in high command, and in all your enterprises, even the most daring, Fortune has never played you false.
Who knows if this encounter actually happened?  Livy is one of the finer ancient historians, but the story is so good that I can't begrudge him for including it.  Besides, the scene just strikes my middle-aged mind as true.   When you're north of 50 and you've had a lot of your Boy Scout knocked out, you may still be in the fight but you're a hell of a lot more mindful of the uncertainties and accidents of life.  You know that any brilliant successes (your Thrasymenus and Cannae) are likely behind you.  And the students and your younger colleagues suddenly look a lot like you once did in their enthusiasms and bold plans.

Scipio, of course, won the battle of Zama.  He had his triumph in the streets of Rome and was awarded the honorific Scipio Africanus, but Hannibal was prophetic.  Scipio's envious rivals would eventually hound him from Rome with lawsuits and bogus charges of corruption.  He ended his days in embittered self-imposed exile.  Hannibal, of course, got run out of Carthage in a somewhat similar fashion and took his own life at age 64 just moments before being overtaken by Roman assassins.  

Sic transit gloria.

Friday, January 25, 2013

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 afterwards I was worried about a bug Armageddon that would wipe out all human life. 

I must have confessed my anxieties to my mother because somehow my father found out--and I know I never would have said anything to my dad about being afraid.  He was in no sense the sympathetic or understanding type.  Nevertheless, he took it upon himself  (for the first and only time in my life) to stop by my bedroom for a father/son talk.

It began like this: "Your mother says you're afraid of bugs"

"What?"

"Bugs. She says you think bugs are going to take over the world."

Me, blinking, looking down.

"What the hell's wrong with you?  Bugs.  Jesus Christ.  You gotta knock this crap off."

End of discussion. 

I related this little piece of my childhood to my son this morning and he laughed.  I told him that I hoped I was a bit more willing to consider his point of view than my own father had been.  He didn't say anything, but later, just before he left for school, he kind of snickered and said, "Jeez, dad,  bugs?  That's pretty dumb."

I have now been scoffed at by two generations.  The circle really is complete.

Friday, January 18, 2013

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 in the work load of your committee assignment. There's no designated scantron bubble to note that your kid got sick and you had a fight with your spouse somewhere along mid-October.  This is to say nothing of your bi-annual week of existential crisis when you wonder what the hell you have really done with your life.

And it just doesn't matter how many times you remind yourself that these gray, soulless numbers are a woefully inadequate portrait of your work, or that the IDEA forms themselves warn against making them the sole measure of teaching effectiveness.  You know all this, but so what?  You take one look at the numbers and that's that. The numbers are finite, complete, definitive, a revealing index of your worth as a human being.

It would be one thing if you received this information in private, but you know that the colleagues and administrators who will be judging you will also see these numbers.  And you suspect that--like you--they are just as helplessly entranced by their seeming objectivity.  That peer and department chair who observed your class and wrote nice things about you are fallible, biased human beings.  But the numbers... 

This isn't sour grapes.  My own numbers are usually good and once in a while very good.  Even so, it eats at me that I let them matter so much.  I was standing by the faculty mailboxes yesterday and a colleague was fishing his packet of evaluation results out of his cubby.  "I always feel nervous when I get these things," he muttered. 

"I know," I said, and then slunk back to my office to glance over my numbers once again.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

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 dozen sets of blocks I own and asking them to design structures that express an emotion like playful or an idea like dangerous, sacred, or secure. Later we breakdown the design choices they made. Often, too, we'll take a walk through campus talking about buildings as forms of communication.

For many of my students, this is the first time they have ever thought deeply about objects divorced from a use. And we certainly live in a society that equates value with usefulness. My campus tour usually begins in a very plain fire code stairwell. It's a simple transitional space that people never give a second thought to. It's just there to allow people to move between floors in case of emergencies. I always end the tour on a large, sweeping, semi-circular staircase with stained glass siderails. It's something a showpiece in the newest building on campus and a beautiful if inefficient use of space. A less appealing staircase would have taken people to the second floor just as well—perhaps better.

The contrast between the two staircases is a concrete way to talk about the value of the aesthetic and symbolic content of architecture. Of course, we all respond on an unconscious level to beautiful things, but with a little effort we can also better understand what these things communicate and even how they work. Perhaps the value of this kind of deeper aesthetic understanding is that it reminds us that “usefulness” isn’t the entirety of human life. Indeed, many things that we value deeply—music, art, and even friendship—are often quite inefficient and useless. I guess the question is this: are we educating human beings who are incidentally accountants, nurses or business executives? Or are we educating accountants, nurses and business execs who are incidentally human beings?

Speaking for myself, I sure hope it’s not the latter.

Friday, January 4, 2013

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 is the moment we lose them.  They know it's a lie.

Instead, Bain delves into the research about what we really do know about deep learning.  More importantly, he gives students some ways of determining whether a professor or a course is worthwhile to them in terms of what really matters.  Here, for example, are some of the questions that Bain thinks students ought to ask when determining which professors or courses to take.
  • Is the course clearly organized around identifiable questions to be answered or abilities to be mastered, and does it help students to see the importance, beauty and intrigue of these questions and abilities?
  • Does the course allow students to engage in those higher order thinking activities in pursuit of those questions or abilities, receive feedback and then try again before anyone "grades" their work?  Do students have a chance to collaborate with others struggling with the same questions, problems or abilities?
  • Does the classroom encourage speculation and an opportunity to exercise new skills even before students are well-versed in a discipline?
  • Does the course challenge existing ways of thinking and seeing the world?
  • Does the instructor truly believe in the students' ability to grow and develop their dynamic powers of mind?
There are others, but these are darned good ones to ask, especially on the first day after students have been frog-marched through the syllabus policies and the professor perfunctorily asks, "Now then, any questions?" 

After all, there's still time to switch sections.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...