Showing posts from August, 2013


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…