Friday, December 26, 2014

Sam Spade in the S.S.

George Orwell used to speak of "good bad books" and occasionally he argued they were better indices of the cultural moment than anything written by more celebrated authors.  In other words, the Raffles crime novels by E.W. Hornung revealed more about the public's attitude toward right and wrong during the 1930s than any of the works of Thomas Mann.

This notion has occurred to me more than once as I've enjoyed my way through Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.  On one level Gunther is a standard-issue pulp gumshoe: former cop, current PI, divorced, remorseful, cynical.  He's straight out of the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett-Ross McDonald playbook.

The only change is the setting.  Bernie's a good man in the Third Reich.  Along the way he finds himself working with the likes of Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Mengele.  And--like all good detectives in the noir genre--he struggles to follow the semblance of a moral code in a thoroughly corrupt society.  His Poisonville just happens to be an evil place on steroids. 

It's a great conceit and one wonders why someone didn't think of it earlier.  Sure, Martin Cruz Smith worked similar ground in his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, Polar Star, Stalin's Ghost).  I don't know, though.  Nazis trump Commies as exemplars of evil in so many ways.  Kerr's Gunther has even begun to spawn imitators.  Luke McCallin is currently on book two of his Gregor Reinhardt series. Like Gunther, Reinhardt's another ex-cop from Berlin's Kripo (Kriminal Polizei) who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of Word War II.

And this is where Orwell's notion of cultural trends in popular literature comes in.  Chances are the public might not have gone for Sam Spade in the S.S. before now, even if he hit all of the appropriate anti-Nazi notes.  Twenty years ago, for example, Joseph Vilsmaier's film Stalingrad took a sympathetic look at German soldiers on the Russian front, but it was not enthusiastically distributed outside of Germany. I did manage to see the film and it felt odd to be asked to empathize with Wehrmacht grunts, especially if you had any historical awareness of what actually happened on the Russian front.  It was just difficult for me to separate the soldiers from the system for which they fought.

More recently German public television aired Generation War, a mini-series tracing the lives of five friends in war-time Germany.  The German title was "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" (Our Mothers, Our Fathers).  The series caught some flack for its portrayal of Nazis as the "others" and the young, attractive Germans in the series as simply victims of their times.  Some critics suggested that "putting five sympathetic young protagonists into a harrowing story just offers the war generation a fresh bunch of excuses."  

My question is why has it become suddenly more palatable to write sympathetically about Germans living under the Nazi regime?  Why are we interested in them?  Partly, I suppose, it's just the passage of time.  World War Two's shadow on the culture is passing.  Nuremberg, the camps, the Eichmann trial are just pictures on a page now and subject to reinterpretation and reintegration into fiction. 

One worries, however, that something else is going on in the culture.  Is there a need in the age of Guantanamo, Abu Graib and torture-justifying legal sophistry to find more subtle moral distinctions for those swept up in evil systems?  Do we now find ourselves in need of some heroes on the wrong side of the moral divide?  I don't know. Maybe I'm letting my inner-English major get a little off-the-leash here and making more out of something than it merits.

In any case, Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels certainly fulfill Orwell's definition of "good-bad" books.  They are well-wrought popular entertainments, but maybe, too, their popularity also says something uncomortable about us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Anxious Hand Off

Anyone who's taught for a while knows that students are anxious about handing in their assignments.  They often walk into the classroom and immediately want to give it to you.  You had planned to ask for the papers at the end of the period (or to let the students share their work with each other). 

But no. 

There they are standing directly in front of you and determined to be rid of the awful thing at the earliest conceivable moment.  I've never understood this behavior.  Whenever I ask them about it, they tell me it's just a relief for the work to be out of their hands.  It's done, off the to-do list.  No longer their problem.  That makes a certain sense, I guess.

Now that I've switched to on-line grading, of course, this anxious little ritual has become more complex and distressing for them.  They must now upload their assignment to the course management system, fretting all the while that something may go wonky.  Indeed, they sometimes get so stressed that they upload it again, and maybe once more just to be sure.  I have students who submit things four or five times (like an OCD sufferer who has to keep checking a door lock).  Then they send an email asking me if  I received the paper (and a second one if I don't respond within 30 minutes or less). These emails, of course, also include an attached PDF of the paper "just in case."

Compounding this is that our course management system does occasionally get wonky.  It balks at Word Perfect documents and don't even think about trying to upload from a Mac.  So now we have to add detailed caveats, codicils, tech specs and submission guidelines to our syllabi in places where we used to list only the due date. 

Sometimes I dream about teaching a course a la the 1950s.  No tech.  Skirts, jackets and ties would be required.  Everyone would be addressed in class as Mr. Baker, Miss Smith.  Students would type their theme papers on manual typewriters.  And at the final, I would simply pass out the Blue Books.

If nothing else it would help to alleviate their stress.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Ends

I am not sure why but the reading I do over holiday break is always the most delicious.  On any given break I generally devour six or seven titles.  Maybe it's because the weather is cold and fishing out of the question.  Maybe it's just the relief from grading, but every year I look forward to this four week mid-winter book binge.  Part of its attraction is the idea of resuming my own secret reading life. 

Several years ago I read an essay by the novelist Jonathan Franzen.  As someone who derives his living from readers, he had long worried about the demise of a reading public. By chance, however, he met a sociology professor who for years had been studying people's reading habits.  Whenever this professor spotted people in public reading serious literature, she interviewed them on how they became a reader. Turns out devoted readers fall into two groups. The first grew up in households where reading was the norm. The parents read, encouraged the kids to read, and the house was often stuffed with books and talk about books.

The second group, greatly smaller in number, was different.  Here kids became secret readers. They didn't grow up in reading families, but they discovered reading as a form of escape. They often hid how much they were reading from their parents and friends, but they read intensely and with devotion. These kids tended to be more socially-isolated and introverted. Books were a way to connect to the larger world without the awkwardness of social exchange.

The social environment for this second group of readers didn't seem to matter or have any effect on their becoming readers. These people were going to read no matter what. Franzen concluded from this that there will always be some small, hardcore group of people who will read despite what happens.

Upon reading this essay I recognized myself as part of this smaller, hardcore secret group.  I was not raised in a literary home.  My father never read anything but the want-ads and my mother's tastes ran to bodice-rippers (Love’s Sweet Savage Surrender, Forbidden Passion in Paradise).  Even so, I don’t think I ever hid my reading as a kid.  I was neither encouraged nor dissuaded.  Hell, no one paid enough attention to what I was doing to notice.  I just read what I wanted.  I read idiosyncratically.  I read good stuff, I read trash.  One thing would lead to the next.  There was no plan.
I recall reading Paul Brinkman’s The Great Escape in the fifth grade (probably because I liked the movie) and it led me to read more books about prison breaks: The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillon, The  Wooden Horse, a biography of Harriet Tubman.  Around the age of 13, I got interested in the movie actor Erroll Flynn for some reason and read his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which led me to read several trashy biographies of Flynn, one claiming he was Nazi spy. 

Early in his life Flynn had been a sailor in the South Pacific and somehow this led me to reading Sterling Hayden’s rather surprisingly good novel Voyage and then to Hayden’s autobiography (also good).  Hayden mentioned how important Conrad had been to him, so off I went on a Conrad binge.  One of Conrad’s short stories pointed me toward Tolstoy, whom I swallowed whole when I was 19 or 20.  Tolstoy led me to Chekov and Chekov into an interest in the Moscow Art Theater and the works of Stanislavsky...

I didn’t start college until I was 23, so from the age of five I had been simply wandering aimlessly from interest to interest, author to author.  I never discussed books.  I just read them indiscriminately.  It was something I did on my own, in private, in secret, with no direction or purpose. 

And every year, after the grades are turned in, the last paper read and the last email sent, I like to get back to this original project.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

B.C. and A.D.

A colleague stopped by this morning and told me that his son, a recent grad, had come home over the weekend filled with some post-graduation blues.  I know this young man only slightly (mostly from his father's intermittent updates), but I can certainly empathize with his feelings about his new grind.  Like a lot of recent grads, he may just now be noticing that there's a difference between the intensity and drama of college and 'real life' (a phrase I very much detest).

Indeed, the term real life is almost always used to contrast serious, everyday work with the slap-and tickle un-seriousness of academic life.  My own take is that a great deal of so-called real life is filled with boredom, empty routine and petty annoyance, a point David Foster-Wallace made several years ago in his graduation address at Kenyon CollegeFoster-Wallace evoked the future for the happy grads:

...let's say it's an average adult day and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white collar college-graduate job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want to do is go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all over again.  But then you remember that there's no food at home--you haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job--and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.   

It's the end of the day and the traffic is very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store is hideously, fluorescently lit and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be... [but] eventually you get your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end of the day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.  Which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take out your fury on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness...

Well, you get the idea.  This is what a lot of real life is. Day-in, day-out, and year after year.  It certainly lacks the youthful drama and intensity (not to mention the dating prospects) found in the undergraduate years my students can’t wait to put behind them.  What’s their bloody hurry, I wonder.  Sure, tuition is expensive and college has its own ritualized annoyances, but come on.  The real world isn't going anywhere and much of it won't really seem like living. 
Ask middle-aged people with degrees to compare their real life to their undergrad years, and it's real life that will suffer by comparison.  Most would relish the chance to go back to college.  Maybe this time they would appreciate what a gift it is to be in a place where people are asked to think and wrestle with ideas, to live once again with a 21-year-old's sense of future possible selves.  I don't know.  Maybe you can't really appreciate what it means to have a world all before you until you have "with wand'ring steps and slow" made your solitary way out of Eden.   Even I have caught myself thinking that I would love to go back to school if I ever get done with this teaching gig.

There’s an old academic joke that life can be divided into two parts: B.C. and A.D. (i.e., before commencement and all downhill). 
Funny but also a little true.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Don't shift the blame, blame the shift

I groused a bit about students yesterday, which is allowed from time to time.  But so too is asking myself the question I usually ask whenever I hear colleagues grousing about students: How long have you been teaching?  In what world is it that students don't behave this way? 

The truth is that faculty--myself included--don't really understand students today.  I was reminded of this fact while speed skimming something I was to have read before a meeting yesterday (you'll note the irony of my student-like last minute preparation here).   At my institution new faculty are paired with a more seasoned colleague and we meet periodically to share ideas.  Once a month, too, all of the mentors and mentees meet to discuss a book about teaching and learning.  This year's choice was Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know, a wonderfully insightful resource for all faculty, even those who somehow find themselves teaching what they do know. 

Chapter Six of Huston's book was just what I needed after a week of feeling frustrated with my students' lackluster efforts.  Huston argues that there are some good reasons that we don't understand our students.  First, they aren't like us. Research suggests that up to 50 percent of undergraduates operate with concrete/active cognitive styles whereas only 10 percent of faculty do.  We're far more likely to be abstract/reflective in cognition.  In short, we process information differently than half of our students, who are no doubt as frustrated with us as we can become with them.

Similarly, Huston notes that students today are not the same as they were even 15 to 20 years ago.  They spend far less time preparing for class.  In the 1980s, for example, 73 percent spent at least 15 hours per week outside of class on preparation.  Today that number has dropped to 65 percent. 

Why the drop? 

One reason is they are working more.  Financial aid has been cut and tuition has gone up.  So the overwhelming majority of today's students--especially at a blue collar institutions like mine--work anywhere from 25-30 hours a week, and it's not uncommon for them to be full-time employees and full-time students.  Nationwide over 70 percent of undergrads work and go to school.  Indeed, the so-called "non-traditional" student today is not very "non."  This is the new normal.

All this is to say nothing of the greater ethnic diversity of our student bodies in what is still a predominately monochromatic professoriate.  Moreover, our students are more economically-focused and pragmatic about their majors than many of us were. They have to be.  For them college is a pathway to work rather than a period of self-discovery and personal development.

I can lament this sad state of affairs and complain, but the question I should more often ask myself is this: given the world I live in, why am I surprised that my students act the way they do?  As Huston notes, understanding students today is actually the easy part.  All we have to do is set aside our assumptions and listen.  The hard part--and this isn't about to get easier anytime soon--is figuring out how to teach to them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Pact

A few years back PBS produced a documentary entitled Declining by Degrees.  One segment detailed something called The Pact.  This was the unspoken agreement in higher education between students and professors to place minimal demands upon one another.  Professors reduce their expectations and students agree not to complain about the dumbed down standards.  For both parties, the pact is a pretty good deal.  Professors have more time to do research or complete their other work, and students get the semblance of an education without having to do much.

I used to show the YouTube clip of The Pact in the capstone of our old core curriculum. This was a course in which students reflected on and evaluated the significance, meaning and purpose of their undergraduate education.  I always ended the course with a prosecution of the liberal arts, throwing every argument I could think of into a summation of higher education's shortcomings and sins. 

The little segment on The Pact was Exhibit A and it was pretty damning stuff.  All I had to do was hit pause, turn to room and say, "I defy any of you to say that a lot of your education has not resembled what you just watched.  That's not an education.  That's a swindle."  This was a nice little rhetorical flourish and I always enjoyed saying it.  Even so, I only achieved one conviction in the dozen or so times I prosecuted the liberal arts (and then I think the class was just being ornery).

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the pact and about my own culpability in it.  Have I dumbed down my standards and demanded less from students to make my life a little easier?  I would like to say no, but I think the answer is yes.  The truth is I think we all find ourselves pulled in this direction.  Good teaching that leads to deep learning often requires that we provoke our students into questioning their assumptions, something they are not predisposed to do. 

We can call it "student engagement" or "arousing student interest," but in reality challenging students to put their assumptions at risk means manufacturing cognitive dissonance.  It means not letting them get too comfortable.  Also, if you're like me, you find it unpleasant to annoy people.  Yet that's often what the job requires.  Doing this job well has always been a lot of work and, unfortunately, there are a thousand seductive and readily-available ways to cut corners.

My students have been doing a lot of moaning and backsliding now that we're in the dregs of the semester.  Yesterday, for example, I split a class into groups to work on some small projects and one of the groups did nothing.  I overheard one student in the group say to the others, "Why should we do it?  It's not graded work?"  In other words, I was violating the pact by asking them to do a small bit more than what was necessary to earn a grade.


I feel very tired these days. Colleagues are cross, budgets are tight and students are--well--students.  I can certainly feel the gravitational pull of the pact. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

And may there be "some" moaning of the bar

What to do with students who moan?  Should you empathize, treat their kvetching with indifference or slap it down quick?  Yesterday I got a chorus of how many more papers do we have to write in this class?  This is a lot of work and I've got so much going on.  I said I understood and I try to be reasonable in my expectations, but "you can't see progress if don't do the workouts."
Here's my expectation in the class where I heard the moaning: read the material before class and compose a typed, well-supported response to a directed reading prompt.  This is the ticket into class that shows they are ready to discuss the material.  Readings are selections from primary texts and never more than 8-10 pages in length, often shorter.  They are dense but brief.  The responses are low stakes assignments.  So long as the students are wrestling with the texts and anchoring their summaries and inter-textual connections in citations, they receive full credit.
At the end of each unit (there are four in the semester), students compose a short synthesis paper or what amounts to a five paragraph essay integrating multiple texts read during the unit to support a claim.  I give over one 80-minute class period before each unit paper so we can walk through the evidence, write and critique their theses and begin the drafting process.  I also make myself available to comment on drafts the entire week before the assignment is due and I do my damnedest to get comments back within 24 hours.  Once they receive a grade (which is returned in one week, often sooner), they can revise their effort as many times as they want until the end of the semester.
There are no exams, quizzes or other assignments.  They write, write, write, and I give them feedback, feedback, feedback.  I often allow them to begin writing in class so they are not doing it at the last minute. 
Is this too much?  I don't think so.  Does it require real mental effort?  You bet.  Good, evidence-based writing always does.  And here is the real fons origin of the moaning.  What my students want at this point in the semester is the path of least resistance, and, as John Dewey once remarked, "The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made." 
On one level, I do empathize with students.  Just as they want to plug in easy answers to straightforward right-or-wrong questions, I sometimes wish I could pass out the Scantron sheets and have the faculty secretary run the results through the grading doo-hickey.  Face it: there are a lot easier ways to do this job than asking students to construct ideas, make connections, do the readings and have personal reactions to them. 
So what to do about the moaning?  I guess you should see it as a positive sign.  So long as you know that the work you are assigning them is actually stretching them (and not just stressing them), the moaning means you're probably on the right track.  It's a good thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Junk Love

In my senior capstone seminar we've been reading Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.  Turkle's premise is that the 'always-on' connectivity that has so insinuated itself into our everyday lives is already altering the way we emotionally relate to one another.  Indeed, she suggests that we are coming to prefer the mediated, controlled, opt-in or out nature of on-line relationships to the messier, more complicated and more demanding real-time versions.

The natural next step, she posits, will be preferring relationships with emotionally-supportive robots.  Upon first reading this, my students are incredulous.  Nonsense, they say.  Robots--even really smart and human-like robots--could never replace our desire for flesh and blood friends and lovers.  Never.  It simply isn't going to happen.

"Really?" I respond.  "Don't we already use our smart phones for affirmation?  How many of you have ever felt a little deflated when your status update received no likes? How many sleep with your phone and reach for it first thing upon rising to see what you've missed?  How many of you have ever felt anxious or peevish because you forgot your phone or were out of coverage? Just imagine having to wait somewhere without any access to electronically provided affirmation or consolation.  Does that sound stressful to you?"

"But that's not fair," they push back.  "My phone is my alarm.  Besides, people have to be able to get in touch with me."

"How many of you already prefer texting to calling?  Calling means you actually have to deal with people, make conversation, ask them how they are.  Texting is so much easier." 

A few looks of recognition follow.

"Keep in mind, too, that out hypothetical robots don't have to be capable of actual human love and friendship.  They just have to give us a cheaper, more convenient substitute.  And we do love our junk food, don't weWe know it's horrible, but we love it.  Is it really so far-fetched to think that we may come to rely on smart robots for a kind of junk love that satisfies the human desire for connection and affirmation but requires no large commitment on our part?  And best of all, this cheap, always available love comes with no risk of rejection."  

And here I am reminded of the line from Citizen Kane, when one of Kane's editors says to him: "You want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules."  And isn't this what we all want in our adolescent heart of hearts?  All the love we don't deserve with none of the inconvenience or risk of having to go looking for it.   A Citizen Kane reference would be lost on my students, however; so instead I say, "Wouldn't we all like an operating system that could love us?  Anybody seen "Her"?

I once heard someone say that being a Marxist in the United States was a bit like being a spoilsport at an orgy.  You might update that statement today by replacing Marxist with technophobe.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Why do I hate the middle of a semester?  I love the energy and expectancy of the beginnings.   I even like the end with its small redemptive graces. 
But the middle.  Grrrrrrr. 

The middle is the slough of despond, the grind, the reality principle.  The middle makes me dread a stack of middling papers that I would take as a challenge were it September.  It's where I encounter the students who have spent weeks looking for the ideal point where they can do just enough to get the grade and not one joule of effort more.  By the middle they have found that longed-for sweet spot and parked it.
By this point in the semester, too, you've used up most of your best stuff and exhausted your charms.  Now you become peevish and uncharitable with late assignments and slapdash work. The middle is a muddle, it's mediocre.  It's half-way, half-hearted, half-assed.   And an old poem about the middle comes suddenly to mind:

There’s nothing particularly peculiar
About this particular school year,
Unless you count what mattered once:
The thinning hair, the flatulence,
The moles that disconcertingly persist
Like memories of an opportunity you’ve missed;
Or the clever hopes that rise and sink
Between the first and second nightly drink:
When you can almost convince yourself that nothing’s been lost
And nothing’s been sold.
It’s just middle age that’s somehow grown old.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

That Stir in the Back Row

I have never taught an on-line course, so I'm not the best qualified person to evaluate the merits of technology's ability to supercharge the awakening of young minds. Most on-line pedagogi-gadgetry strikes me as an impediment to learning, but I have every confidence that the ballyhoo boys advocating MOOCs, blended classes and teaching via avatars already have well rehearsed answers to my objections (Relax, there's an app for that).  And if they don't, give them some time.  Even now they are hard at work to eliminate the annoyance--not to mention expense--of getting students and teachers into the same real-time space for some no-longer relevant real-time interaction.

Here's what I know.  A few days a week I am teaching to just one student.  He sits in the back row and almost in spite of  himself (and certainly in spite of me) he's gotten interested in the subject.  And get this: the subject is 19th century Romantic poetry.  A less propitious medium for engaging young, football-obsessed males you cannot imagine.  We've been reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and have transitioned into Emerson and Whitman, and this kid is really into it.

Does he say much in class?  No, he plays it cool.  Are his papers burbling over with insight and enthusiasm?  No, he struggles to get thoughts onto paper and observe academic conventions like most of my students.  But in class, he's a leaner.

Here's what I mean.  Sometimes when you're teaching you will just have this weird sense that someone's paying really close attention to everything you say.  It's just a feeling.  You look around the room and, sure enough, one student's tempo-rhythm is slightly out of sync with the others.  Everyone is sprawled about, slack-kneed, half-engaged, but one student is tensed and leaning slightly forward as if an invisible lodestone is tugging at him.  You may even unconsciously find yourself gravitating toward this student, as if you too were being pulled, tugged, drawn by an invisible force.

And so there it is, the holy grail of teaching: a completely engaged mind.   This is pure crack for a teacher. You want it all the time, but you just can't make it happen.  And suddenly you find yourself spending a bit more time with this kid's papers.  You look forward to seeing what he's going to discover next.  
Make me an App for this, ballyhoo boys, and I will take back all my luddite objections. I will honor and revere you.  Until then, I'll just keep looking for my dopamine hits the same old, tired, real-time way.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mixed Feelings at Midterm

Reading through a stack of student responses this morning, I happened across a sentence that touched off my semiannual midterm crisis. It was just a tossed off line that my student had overheard others in the class saying what a dumb course this was.  Reading this caused me to think: "It is a dumb course.  They're absolutely right."  Then immediately I thought to myself, 'Ah, yes, it's that time of the semester again.'

Indeed, anyone whose read this sucky old blog for a while knows that I usually have an existential crisis about this time every semester.  I start each term with optimism and big plans, but long about midterm I inevitably begin to question everything.  What was I thinking?  How is any of this relevant to the lives of my students?  At this time in the semester I catch myself grading assignments just to get them done, recycling comments and half-assing my way through course preparations with a sticky note filled with gimmicky time-wasters.  Who am I kidding?  I'm no teacher.  I'm nothing but a sad song and dance man whose act has grown just a little shopworn.  

Strangely I can sense the students are at the same point.  They too begin each semester hoping that this time will be different, the courses will better and their own efforts will be an improvement on previous attempts.  It's astonishing how sincere and well meaning we all are the first week of class.  By midterm, however, we have both fallen back on our old slapdash and compromising ways.  We are both phoning it in.  I pretend to be teaching.  They pretend to be learning, and we both agree not to mention what's really going on.  Oddly, some slightly altered lines from Yeats come to mind:

The [weeks] to come seem waste of breath,
A waste of breath the [weeks] behind...

I know from past experience that I will feel differently by semester's end.  Indeed, I would be tempted to quit this job if I had not been through this cycle of hope, futility and feeble redemption time after time.  If I face the facts, I have no reasonable evidence I am doing much good.  At midterm, however, it's often best to set the facts aside and remember what another poet, John Donne, once wrote, "Reason is our soul's left hand, Faith her right."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Crossing Paths

I am teaching a new course this fall semester, a section of Introduction to Humanities housed in the Appreciation of the Arts area of our new core.  And I really struggled with how to design the darned thing all summer, throwing out various ideas and formats until--long about mid-July--I had to kick myself and get something on paper. 
Here was the plan: I would divide the course into three units dealing with three different artistic movements.  I plumped on Romanticism, Realism and Modernism. Each movement would be explored through the lens of a different art form, respectively poetry, painting and architecture.  Moreover, each unit would try to move the students from the most basic level of aesthetic response (It sucks, it doesn't suck) to deeper levels of critical appreciation.
Here's how this worked in the first unit (just completed last week).  Instead of lecturing on Romanticism and having them apply the themes in their notes to ideas in the poems, I tried to come up from below. We didn't start with the poems.  We started playing with sounds and rhythms.  Then I assigned students to write a poetic manifesto declaring what good poems should be.  To help them along, I created a 10-question survey that got them to stake out positions on form, tone, subject matter, ambiguity, etc.  The survey questions (available here) were designed to highlight distinctions between Neo-Classical and Romantic aesthetics, which I called the Apollonian/ Dionysian tension in poetry.  Students then could analyze their responses and decide if they stood more to one side or the other in this divide.
I even had the students create poems that reflected their manifestos' demands.  The important thing was to get them playing with language, to get them to be bold in their statements and possibly to forget that they are supposed to be intimidated by poetry and secretly fear they aren't smart enough to get it.  
Only after all this low-risk play did we read Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, a Romantic manifesto for poetry.  Unsurprisingly, they could see that they already agreed or disagreed with parts of Wordsworth's ideas.  They had a dog in the fight, so to speak. Next we distilled his claims and tried to determine if he had been any more successful than we were in carrying out a program for poetry.  This went pretty well.
Next we read Emerson's Nature and got into Romantic theories of epistemology, all the while sticking close to some works by Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth.  Suddenly the fun of the first few weeks had turned into frustration and I began to wonder why in the world 21rst Century undergrads would ever find the Romantics worth their time and effort.  What had I been thinking when I put this course together? 
There was no turning back now.  I had the course mapped out.  So on we slogged to Whitman.  They didn't really grasp Song of Myself, no doubt because I rushed through it (had to stay on my bloody time table).  So, almost in desperation, I decided to slow way down with Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a favorite of mine. We moved the desks around to get all of the bad feng-shui out of the room and sat down to read it together.
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry recounts Whitman's crossing of the East River to Manhattan one morning in 1856, but in the course of the journey Whitman crosses time and even the distance between his imagination and the reader's.  The reader begins the poem imagining Whitman on that ferry all those years ago, and Whitman begins by imagining us in his future, with each shoreline--Manhattan/Brooklyn, Past/Present, Poet/Reader--standing almost in opposition to one another.  Then Walt slowly, almost slyly, begins to close the distance. 
He details the sights, sounds, and voices that he sees: his fellow passengers, the ebb and flow of the tide, the turning gulls in the sky, all the while entwining his experience to those who will make the same journey generations hence.  In other words, us:
I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water..
He even shares his secret fears, embarrassments and shames, assuring us that he knows we will carry these same same secrets in our time:
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting...
Then, after forging all of these human connections, he simply asks, What is it then between us?  If we have indeed reached this level of mutual understanding, of mutual empathy and shared confidences, does time or distance truly matter that much?  Are we not now standing face to face?  I still remember the shiver I felt the first time I read the following lines of the poem years ago:
What is more subtle that this which ties me to the man or woman that looks into my face.
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish—is accomplish’d, is it not?
So last week the students and I went on this ferry ride together.  Before we began, I asked them to make three folds on a piece of paper.  On the first fold they were to write some favorites sensations or sights or sounds, things they love and experience in everyday life: a fan whirring on a hot night, the smell of clean sheets, the sound of scissors snipping hair.  On the middle fold, I asked them to put down some small fear or shame that they hold in secret (with the promise that this would a only be revealed anonymously).  Lastly I asked them to write some words of encouragement to a stranger 150 years in the future. I had them scramble the folded papers so sensations, fears and encouragements were safely detached from their owners.
As we read the poem we stopped from time to time to share what we had written.  When Walt described the joy of what he was seeing before him, we shared our simple pleasures.  When he confessed that the "dark patches fell on him" we went around the room and gave voice to our fears and shames.  And when he told us we were not alone and would one day share the glories of his mast-hemm'd Manhatta, we shared our words of courage and fortitude with those who will know what it means to be alive years from now. 
For the first time this semester  most of the students connected to the poem on a level beyond I just don't get it or it sucks. You could feel the difference in the room.  At the end of the class I suggested that if they liked the poem they should pen a little note to Walt expressing their thanks now that they had taken the ride.
Heck, it's always good to thank your ferryman.  So thanks, Walt, for the best single class so far.  I haven't told you this in a while, but you're a really wonderful guide. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

One thousand five hundred and ninety six...*

There is some math you ought not do.  Never subtract your age from your life expectancy.  Never tot up the number of hours you spend grading papers, and never do that depressing little back of the envelope calculation to discover how many individual papers you will have assigned, read and graded by semester's end.  The number you arrive at for any of these questions is far too depressing. 

My provost occasionally reminds faculty that we put the assignments in the course; we can just as easily take them out.  This is technically true, but I have to assign a lot of writing if I really want the students to engage the texts, ideas and subjects I teach.  Nothing else holds them as accountable as having to wrestle their understanding into words.

And the students secretly know this.  In my first-year courses, for example, I often have the students design a mock quiz during the first few weeks of class.  I divide them up into groups of four and assign each group to come up with quiz questions for the material we covered at our last meeting.  One group creates true/false statements, another multiple choice questions, and still another a series of terms to be matched to examples in a corresponding column.  And one lucky group is assigned the task of developing take-home essay questions.  I tell the class to make these quizzes as tough as possible.  And each group places its quiz  on a large piece of poster paper, which I affix to the four walls of the classroom. 

Then I ask the students to stand next to the quiz that would prove most challenging.  Hands down, the wall with the take-home essay questions has 80 to 90 percent of the class standing in front of it.  So I ask the class why they chose this one (and they always do).  The response never varies: "This one means you really have to think."

"Um, yes.  And that's why there's so much writing in this course."  

I just don't see the same results unless I make students write and write a lot.  I also think I need to respond to what they tell me.  Writing is an act of communication.  If there is not someone at the other end listening and responding, what's the point?  It's a lot of work.  It eats up hours and hours of my life.  I wish there were another way to get the same result.


Now back to the stack.

* Ye'p, that's the number I shouldn't have calculated this semester (and it doesn't count revisions).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lift Off!

It's the end of the fifth week of classes and I have been hammering students with writing assignments due at nearly every meeting.  All of the qualities of good critical engagement I painstakingly laid out the first week have been so far willfully ignored.  Some students have been working hell-for-leather to give me the right answer; others have yet to fully comprehend that reading the syllabus can be a helpful tool for remembering when things are due.

Everyone is at a different place, but one or two have been trembling on the launch pad all week.  They are just now beginning to get why I have been making them write and write and write.  It's their voice I want to hear engaging the text, not mine.  Yes, summarize ideas in your own words, gentle reader, but cite them too.  Citing keeps you honest.  It forces you to deal with and honor what is actually on the page.

Wednesday we worked on posing our own questions to the text and looking for connections and patterns. I have been asking them to do this from the beginning, but only now is it dawning on a few of them that this is what good critical reading means: how is Andromache's speech in Book VI of the Iliad like Phoenix's speech in Book IX?  Is Achilles' refusal of the treasure in Book IX the same mistake as Agamemnon's refusal of the priest's ransom in Book I?

Many of the students set personal goals the first week to become stronger readers and writers, and I have been working my rear off to honor these goals.  It took weeks of reminding them not to quote-bomb me or simply spit back the examples I offered in class.  It took weeks to get them to cite their summary and then to cite both ends of an inter-textual connection.  It took me writing, "Yes, but what do you make of it? numberless times at the end of each paper to get them to trust themselves enough to venture an opinion on what they have read.  So it was with great relief that I was able to write this earlier this morning:


Now you are doing some good critical reading and writing. Why do I say this?  Well you have connected the texts together and constructed an understanding that's all your own.  Moreover you drew some parallels between Achilles' choice and your own life decisions.  Do you see how much smarter and more engaged this is than circling an answer on a multiple choice quiz?  Now how do I keep you doing this?  More please, much, much more.  I finally feel like I am getting to hear what you to have say.  And I like it. 

You just have to burn a ton of fuel to get the rocket an inch off the pad, but it remains a thrill every time one lifts off.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Inexcusably Self-Indulgent

A number of years ago the BBC put together a documentary on the creative approach Charlie Chaplin used in his early film career.  And by early, I mean really early.  In 1916-17 Chaplin had gotten a contract with Mutual Film Corporation to churn out short comedies. Moreover, he was given a free hand by Mutual to do things his own way.

The documentary (Unknown Chaplin) was comprised of hundreds of outtakes that were never meant to be preserved.  Someone failed to destroy them and they were rediscovered in the 70s.  Arranged chronologically they provided a fascinating look at how Chaplin worked.  Indeed, his early shorts and even his later full-length films emerged from a slow, exploratory process of innovation and trial and error.  He might begin without even a plot.  All he would have was an idea for a gag, or a prop, or maybe he would have the set builders run up something to play with: an escalator, a high dive. 

From there he added elements, characters and new gags. Sometimes he would film 100 takes exploring the possibilities of an idea only to throw it away and veer off in an entirely new direction. Because this was the early days of Hollywood (and because Chaplin was such a star), there were no Mutual accountants or producers pacing nervously just off camera with clipboards and spreadsheets.  Chaplin had a creative freedom that subsequent filmmakers could only imagine.

What struck me about the documentary is how similar Chaplin's approach was to the way I figure out a new class.  I tinker with bits, go off in wrong directions, circle round, try this, try that, abandon everything and start over.  I should admit upfront that I am no pedagogical Chaplin. Not even close. Still there is a creative discovery process that accompanies figuring out how to teach something that is not unlike what Chaplin was doing.  And here's my guilty secret: it's what I really like about teaching.  I just love the process of figuring it out in the classroom.  This means of course that the first few times I teach anything it's going to be hit or miss.

A few years back we had a wonderful speaker at our summer institute, a fellow by the name of Dee Fink.  He had worked out a very logical and scientific approach to course design. Most of us, Fink said, have very unsound methods for putting together significant learning experiences.  You have no idea how I inwardly quailed upon hearing this.  He was talking about me and my inexcusably self-indulgent method for creating my courses.  I am, frankly, the poster child for this sloppy approach to teaching and learning. 

For nearly two hours I tried to follow Fink's method and then I slumped off at the break and never went back. The idea of having it all planned out before the course begins, of having a unified design with each day and activity targeted for maximum impact, is really, really smart.  It's what I should be doing.  But I won't lie. I don't want a script and I don't want a shooting schedule. Where's the fun in that?

Hollywood, of course, had to change.  Directors had to be reined in.  By 1952 they wouldn't even let Chaplin back in the country let alone a Hollywood studio.  A few years after that Universal took a chance on Orson Welles, allowing him to direct Touch of Evil, a 'B picture' with a tight budget.  On the first day of shooting, Welles set up an almost four-minute continuous crane shot.  It took the entire night to get right and the bean counters at Universal were apoplectic. The producers made it clear to him that he and his so-called creative process were on a short leash.  They were watching.

Eventually everything succumbs to rationalization.  That's true in higher education today.  Increasingly our teaching approaches and our results are under scrutiny by accreditors and the federal government.  There are new assessment demands, faculty evaluation instruments and a concerted push for that most grown-up of all words: accountability.  This is as it should be, no doubt.  We've had it too good for too long.  Nobody gets Chaplin's Mutual contract these days.

Sometimes I find myself imagining that somewhere there is a grim, small-minded man locked in a stuffy office.  He's neatly dressed and at his desk poring over enormous ledgers filled with long columns of tiny numbers.  He's on a mission and he won't be satisfied until he's finally located, targeted and eradicated the last few parts of this job that actually make it fun. 

He's a determined fellow.  I'll give him that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Making Adjustments

I love responding to students in my comments and spend way too much time doing it.  I have a kid in my course right now who always starts his writing responses with phrases like "This was dumb" or "I thought this reading was really boring."  He's not a strategic learner.  By that I mean he is not the kind of student who has developed a careful strategy for getting an A.  You know, the do-exactly-what-was-asked and no more kind of student.  These are the ones who figure out how to game the system, say what the professor wants to hear and become the most exacting little syllabus lawyers.
No, this kid just tells me he didn't much care for it, as if he alone were entitled to decide whether something was worth his time or not.  I actually like this in him and hope it doesn't get beaten out of him too quickly.  I always end up writing more back to students like these than I ever do to strategic learners, who usually receive some formulation of the following: "Hey, these are my ideas.  Go get some of your own."

So here was my side of the most recent exchange with my wonderfully non-strategic learner:
I actually like it when you tell me that you thought a reading was dumb or boring (as you did with the Stephen L.Carter reading).  It’s amusing and I think it’s probably good to assess the value of assignments.  In high school I had a teacher who assigned us to write the preamble to the Constitution backwards and to have it on his desk the next day.  Everybody (including me) did it but one guy: Sammy G.  But Sammy never did any of the work. He mostly just got high, occasionally by sniffing the gas out of lawnmowers.  So the next day, the teacher announced, “Everybody failed this assignment but Sammy, who gets an A.” 
The students were like “What the…?”  Sammy just smiled.  The teacher said, “Sammy was the only one smart enough to know that this was a dumb assignment.  You people are seniors and will be graduating soon.  You’ve got to start thinking for yourselves and not just doing everything you’re told.”   I kind of thought that was a dirty trick and hated that teacher, but he was right.  And I’ve never forgotten the lesson, so I guess he was actually a pretty good teacher.
So you should question what you are assigned to read.  Keep in mind, though, that not all professors will appreciate being told you thought a reading was boring or dumb.  They assigned it for a reason.  Me?  I’m just different that way.  I don’t mind.  Besides I actually did assign Carter for a reason, and it occurs to me that I am pulling the same stunt my high school teacher did years ago.  You may have noticed in class last time that every single person but one said they wanted Boss A, the principled, consistent, open and caring boss.  I even made them declare their choice by moving to one side of the room.   I wanted them on the record.
Today, of course, we met Mr. Machiavelli, who argued that you don’t want Boss A in charge of things.  In fact, such people are absolute disasters in leadership positions, especially in politics.  And did you see how many people changed where they were standing today?  That’s exactly what I was hoping for.  We should change our thinking when we encounter new evidence or arguments.  Carter’s not opposed to that, by the way.  Read carefully, he does believe a leader can and should change his or her mind when his principle is shown to be wrong.  Machiavelli is all about changing, too, although for tactical advantage rather than principles.  You could say his only principle is just win, baby.  How you get there doesn’t matter.
I keep saying this and it remains true: deep learning means change.  We all start with an idea about what good leadership is, but after we gather some new information, or look at it from a different perspective, or encounter a problem where our idea doesn’t apply, we may have to adjust our thinking.  That’s what real critical thinking is: adjusting to new understanding.   Not adjusting = not good.  It means your learning curve is flat-lining.  This isn’t to say that Carter is wrong and Machiavelli right.  I’m simply suggesting that we might want to closely question the assumptions of Carter and Machiavelli before we adjust our ideas on leadership.
You know who didn’t adjust?  Sammy G.  Saw him in a bar several years back and talked to him.  He was still all about getting loaded, and along the way he had been kicked out of the army and been in and out of various institutions (psych ward, prison).  When I asked him what he had been doing with his life, he just made his thumb and forefinger into a nice round “zero.”  So, yeah, keep questioning the readings, but keep doing them anyway.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Week Three Clean and Jerk

I have been meeting one-on-one with my new baby freshmen for the past two weeks.  Every year I am assigned 20 new ones and they are required to be in my three-credit First-Year Seminar for fall semester (and for the one-credit follow up course in spring).  The first question I ask each one goes something like this: "So after X many days in college, what do you think?"  

The answers vary, but the one I fear is "It's not really as hard as I thought it would be." 

Very few of my students have been aimed at higher education like cruise missiles.  Most amble in with a vague sense of what college is and, often, an even vaguer sense of who they are and where they want to end up.  They're here because they have heard that you need a degree to avoid a crappy job, or they wanted to keep playing a sport, or their high school somehow lacked a 13th grade.  This is just the next place you go when you are done with what came before.

Not a few of these kids swanned through high school blowing off reading, turning in the bare minimum, memorizing just enough to pass an exam.  High School was for many of them pro forma, a joke, a mug's game. I've got two weeks--three tops--to convince them college is different.  After that they know it all.

And they really do arrive here hoping it will be different.  They want to change their approach.  I have them set goals for themselves in a paper due at the second class meeting, and these goals are honest and earnest in the way only an 18-year-old can be earnest.
  • In high school I never really read.  I want to read and really understand things at a deeper level.
  • I know my writing is bad. I want to strengthen it.
  • I kind of blew off a lot my senior year.  I sure don't want to do that in college.
The first few weeks either confirm or negate the assumption that they need to make any changes, which is why I have been busting my hump reading, responding and grading essays in my first-year seminar.  My 100-level classes are all heavily front loaded with writing assignments.  There is one due every single meeting the first three weeks, and I work like hell to get it back with a page of comments at the next class meeting.  For me and for them, it's one heavy lift just to get to the set point.

Add to that meeting four times last week on a hiring committee for a new Admissions Director, and this week standing in for a colleague with a father in the last stages of life, and it's been a nearly impossible lift.  Up every morning at 4:00 am to read, grade and prepare, grading every night after dinner...

But these two or three weeks are the most crucial weeks in my baby freshmen's college experience.  They have to get the message that the same old approach will yield the same old results.  So I growl, I cajole, I sweet talk and I bluff.  Whatever it takes.  I found myself writing this on a kid's paper last night:

Ahem, a few words about turning in your best effort.  This looks like it was dashed off and given a once over with spell check.  That won’t cut it.  You are in a university now and the expectations are higher.  So let’s slow down, read your paper aloud before hitting print and catch the little things. You are paying for an education and I’m determined to give you one, but you have to step up.   So this is the last time you hand in work with un-capitalized proper nouns.  This isn’t a text message.  Let’s get in the ball park.  Show me what you can do.  I’ll shower you with praise when you do.  Promise.

And I do promise.
Yesterday in my 100-level Humanities section I found myself explaining the Greek idea of a kairotic moment.  This is a moment when an opportunity arises that must be seized or rejected.  You have a choice, but once the choice is made the outcome is determined and the opportunity will not come again.  Think Oedipus at the crossroad.  That way lies Corinth, that way lies Thebes, and who is this disagreeable man in my way? 
The first three weeks of a kid's freshmen year is a kairotic moment.  It will not come again.  And it is the great tragedy of life that we seldom recognize these things when they appear. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

You look, but you do not see, grasshopper

Yesterday I completed the first Kung-Fu mind game with the freshmen. In our first-year program instructors are allowed to chose the content.  My section focuses on deception, specifically lies, magic, magical thinking and con games.  The real focus, however, is helping 18-year-olds ramp up to university-level standards for critical inquiry and writing. 

In class yesterday we went over the opening chapter of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, which covers some fascinating research on why and how we lie.  Chapter one is all about poking holes in the S.M.O.R.C. (the simple model of rational crime).  This is our default view of why people lie.  It holds that the decision to lie or cheat is simply a cost/benefit analysis. 

In other words, when we are presented with a chance to gain an unfair advantage, we weigh the risk of getting caught against the reward of getting away with it.  If the odds are decidedly in our favor, most of us will cheat or lie.  This--or a version of it--is usually what students come up with when I ask the them to produce a theory for when and why people lie. 

After we put their theories on the board, we overviewed some experiments that really torpedo the SMORC.  Researchers gave a group of people puzzle matrices containing 10 solutions and they asked participants to find as many solutions as they could in a set amount of time. For each right answer, the participant would receive a dollar (or $10 in some versions). The average number most people could solve was four.  

Okay, so what would happen if you gave people the chance to lie about their results and reduced the risk of getting caught to zero?  My students predicted a large increase in cheating.  But that's not what happened.  In one version of this experiment, researchers had participants first shred their puzzle sheets and then self-report their scores.  Actually the shredder wasn't really shredding and, besides, the researchers already knew the average would be four correct solutions. 

To be sure, most people did cheat (almost 90 percent), but they only did so by a little, not a lot (an average increase of two answers).  Even when primed beforehand with the false idea that the average participant got seven solutions, people would still only cheat a little (6 rather 7, 8 or 9).  Cheating and lying were happening, of course, but something other than SMORC was clearly taking place.

So I asked my students to come up with new theories to account for these findings.  Eventually they arrived at something similar to what Ariely proposed.  People will cheat if the risk is low, but they still want to think of themselves as basically honest people, so they won't get too greedy.  In other words, our line between honesty and dishonesty is not distinct.  Most of us operate with a fudge factor, a gray borderline that separates honesty from dishonesty.   We even allow ourselves to cross into this gray zone from time to time, but we also want to retain the belief that we are basically honest people.  Indeed, when researchers reminded people before the experiment that they were on the 'honor system' to report their scores accurately (and when they had them sign a pledge to do so), lying about performance dropped considerably.

After going over all of these results, I asked my students if they thought the"fudge factor" theory was better than SMORC in describing why and when we lie.  They all agreed.  It was more accurate.  Students said things like, "He's right in a way.  I would feel bad if I said I got 10 solutions" or "Most people want to be good, but we all get tempted now and then.  Doesn't mean we're bad people."

Fine, wonderful, great work, everybody.

Next slide:  "Let's imagine that we went from offering As, Bs, Cs, etc., to offering cash payouts for top performance.  Instead of an A in a course, you receive $1,000, a B gets you $250, a C $75.  The money would be paid to you in cash at semester's end.  If we switched to this system, would cheating at this university go up or down?  Get into groups, talk it over and give me your prediction and hypothesis."

Result: they went right back to SMORC.

It did not matter that they had just seen evidence that SMORC was problematic, or that I had reminded them the risk of getting caught in the cash-for-grades scheme wasn't zero.


SMORC it was.

I say all the time that mental models change slowly.  Students can look right at evidence, spit it back at you, explain it to you perfectly, but when you ask them to think with it they haven't moved at all. So on Monday I'll walk into class with a puzzled expression and say something's been eating at me all weekend.  I just can't figure it out.

"Last Friday you guys told me the "fudge factor theory" was superior to SMORC in accounting for why and how we lie.  But when I gave you the hypothetical about money for grades, you reverted right back to the theory you had just discredited.  I don't get it.  What gives?"

Then, and only then, will we discuss the difference between surface and deep learning. 


Friday, August 29, 2014

Broken Record

It's the first week of classes, which means in all four sections I am showing the students in as concrete a way as possible what I am looking for in the work they will do in the next 15 weeks.  And when I say concrete, I mean really concrete, Portland freakin' cement.  Even so, I know I am not getting through to them.  That's just the reality of this job.

Yesterday, for example, I led two classes through a series of exercises designed to make clear why I wanted every response they write to include three things: a cited summary of ideas in the text that is relevant to the question, some attempt to connect or distinguish these ideas with other ideas or authors in the course (or with contemporary events or their personal experience), and an evaluation of the ideas' significance or implication.

I even showed my classes sample writing prompts and had them diagram where summary was requested, a connection and an evaluation (with color-coded markers no less).  I handed out a grading rubric tied to these requirements and had them assess four short responses of varying quality, and they also discussed in small groups any consensus or disagreement about the grades they came up with.  Then I showed them the grades I actually gave these responses and explained with Smart Board diagrams why I gave them.  In short, we tried to synchronize our understanding of the grading criteria.

Today, too, I will have them write a brief quiz about what's required in all responses, which they will administer to me and then grade using my own standards.  This is all useful and worthwhile to do the first week, but I'm kidding myself if I think a significant number of them will actually do what I'm asking on the first assignment.  It will take many of them two, three, maybe even four attempts before they really grasp it.

I used to get frustrated and grumble about "learning curves that needed to start bloody-well curving."  Now I just accept that this is the nature of the job. Mental models change slowly and you have to stay on message until it gets through.  Accepting this makes me less frustrated.  I've even come to like this broken record part of teaching.  There's something kind of zen about it. 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

The "I Wish" Song

Disney musicals follow a formula.  At some point, early in the story, the main characters must sing their "I wish" song.   Then they set out on some mission or journey.  I too have something of an "I wish" song,  one I sing every time I come across a good book on teaching and learning.  Right now I am most of the way through Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know and I find myself repeatedly singing "I wish I had known this before, I wish I had done that, I wish I had come up with the idea to write this book." 

I've spent the bulk of my career teaching outside my discipline.  My background is English literature, but I've taught journalism courses and countless interdisciplinary seminars containing no small amount of philosophy, religion, history, art history, psychology and social science (I once taught a course on sportswriting, for Pete's sake).  Even so, I still hesitate to advertise my lack of expertise on such subjects. So it's affirming to hear someone say at last that this kind of teaching can be effective, innovative and invigorating, even if it does come with its fair share of anxiety. To be sure, Huston respects and values expertise, but she also has the courage to write about one of the great unspoken truths in higher education: a lot of us--not just me--are teaching well outside of our areas of academic training.

Even within our disciplines we are often assigned to teach courses that contain some material we don't know as well as we might like.  There are actually some plusses to this.  Huston notes that teaching what you don't know affords you the chance to learn something new (which may creatively cross pollinate with what you do know).  To me, this is the main reason to do it.  You get to be a student again.

It can also connect you with colleagues outside your area and broaden your CV.  At my institution, too, teaching in interdisciplinary programs outside your area is viewed as a form of faculty service to the larger institution and it's valued by the Promotions and Tenure Committee.  This isn't always the case at larger universities where junior faculty may be knocked for straying from their disciplines.

In a very helpful chapter on Teaching and Surviving, Huston offers some sound, practical tips like find an entry point to the material that interests you, design from the end to the front of the course, work from the highly concrete to the abstract, and never fake it when you don't know.  Students will maintain their respect for professors who respond with "I'm not sure of the answer and I don't want to lead you astray."  They'll smell blood when a prof tries to bluff it.  Besides, it's just so liberating to say, "That's such a great question.  I wish I had a good answer.  Let's tackle it together." 

Teaching what you don't know isn't always wonderful.  There are any number of subjects I should never be let near.  That said, the experience is a reality for a lot of us, and it can be some of the best teaching we do.

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.  ...