Thursday, August 29, 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 seemed worried.

But I was.  I was terrified. 

It's funny, but now--more than two decades into the job--I can still get the same heebie-jeebies I had that first year.  This semester it's especially bad.  I am teaching two new courses and I'm none too sure about anything I have planned. There are even a few yawning abysses on the course schedule that I'll need to fill by late November. Heck, it's only the first week and already I'm feeling that familiar baseline hum of rookie anxiety about my next class.

I keep telling myself to relax.  I've done this before.  I'm not a rookie.  I'll figure it out.  I know on some level I will, too.  But that doesn't stop the heebie-jeebies or this feeling of being the worst kind of two-left footed greenhorn.

All during my first year of teaching I kept saying to myself, "If I knew what I was doing, I would probably be more afraid."  This would be followed by a nervous little laugh.  The problem now is that I do know what I'm doing, which no doubt accounts for my being more afraid.

(Insert nervous laughter here.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

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 do the thinking if we get interested.  And that's where invention enters.  What's a really compelling way to come at this?  What analogy or hypothetical might be interesting?  How do I answer the pervasive but often unvoiced question that lingers just below the surface of every roomful of undergrads: "Who gives a rip?"  

Here's another universal truth: most of my inventions this fall are destined to tank. The suckosity meter will be abnormally high in the months to come. But what are you going to do?  You try stuff and inevitably a lot of it just won't work.  

Give me a year, or two or three times teaching the course, and I'll have something. But this fall--and there's no getting around it--there will be a lot of furious invention followed by puzzled, investigative toe kicks at the wreckage.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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 of the very first day is to focus on a big question. In the new core capstone, for example, students will reflect on the the theme of "the good life." What is a good life for a human being? What do we have to do to lead one, and what are we willing to pay for it? We'll be reading and discussing ancient and modern texts concerned with this matter.

So the first thing we'll do in class next Tuesday is write an obituary. Here's the opening paragraph of the obit they have to complete:
Alex “Lucky” Smith, a beloved and fabulously successful local personality, passed from this life on Tuesday, August 27. It was frequently said of Smith that “If life were a game, Lucky sure won it.” 
I'll ask small groups to discuss and fill out an accompanying sheet on the value of Lucky's estate at death, the career choices, notable successes, spouse, children, friends, greatest achievements, etc. What I hope they'll produce is the common social script for the good life: wealth, admiration, pleasure, excellence in work and living.  We'll  put common themes on a big sheet.  Then I'll ask the class how many of them --if it were magically possible--would be willing right now, today, to trade in your existence and live Lucky's life. Just leave your own life behind and step into this new ideal and socially-endorsed perfect life.

I don't know how they will respond, of course, but my hunch is that most people would not trade in their life for another's, even if that other life were golden. And that's an interesting thing in itself. There's some tension or disconnect at work between what we think is the good life and what we truly desire for ourselves. Teasing this out and thinking about this tension is the central question of the seminar: what's really calling us? Can we name it? Understand it? Articulate what it means? Is it possible to live a good life and not win? What happens when you don't like the scripted good life?

One of the ancient texts we'll read is Plato's Phaedrus, whose first line is Socrates' question to a young man he meets while walking just outside the walls of Athens: "Where have you come from, my dear Phaedrus, and where are you going?"

It's a good question.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

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 have seen this painting of a rice cake and
none of them has thoroughly understood it.
"The paints for the rice cake are the same as those used for
painting mountains and waters.
"If you say the painting is not real, then the material, phenomenal
world is not real.  The Dharma is not real.
"Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting.  The entire phenomenal
universe and the empty sky are but a painting.
"Since this is so, there is no other remedy for satisfying hunger other
than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never
become a true person."
In a few weeks the fall semester begins, and I will once more be offering my painted rice cakes to students who don't believe they're all that hungry.

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.  ...