Showing posts from 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. …

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 t…

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 hou…

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 challengin…

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&#…

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 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 …

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 eve…


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…

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 engagin…

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 …

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 fr…

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 que…

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 …

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 w…

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: …

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 thro…

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 Dishonestyby 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 o…

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…

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 Knowand 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…