Saturday, July 26, 2014

I will get to the point in ... three... two... one...

Get a group of academics together to plan a course and odds are they will quickly begin to argue the question of which books, experts or ideas ought to be taught.  You almost never hear them ask, "Um, how much time do we have?"

Yet more and more I find myself convinced that time is the essential variable in education.  The course design question isn't what needs to be taught but what can be taught in the amount of time we're given.  And by teach I mean leading the students through a series of experiences that create a changed way of thinking about a subject, the world or even themselves.  After all, cognitive scientists have long known that mental models change slowly.

Nevertheless, time continues to be meted out in the standard 16 or eight-week units at most colleges and universities. Daytime classes at my institution, for example, come in two varieties: three-days a week for 50 minutes, or twice a week for 80 minutes. Whatever a course has to accomplish must be introduced, learned and given its final assessment in this discrete, finite allotment.  But why shouldn't a student's achievement be assessed over a year or two or 10? What if there were developmental benchmarks along the way and it didn't matter in which time box they occurred, only that they occurred?

Maybe time is on my mind because I've spent the last few days re-configuring a two-day a week first-year seminar into three days a week.  And  it's not as easy as you might think. For one thing, the three-day a week model is actually a net loss of 10 minutes per week (or an entire week over the full semester). More importantly, there are some strategies (i.e., in-class writing) that work better in the 80 minute period. It just seems that I can get a bit deeper into an idea or a discussion with more than 50 minute blocks.  And yet I can't teach all of my classes on the two-day a week plan.  I'd go mad.

Compounding the time problem is the sped up whir of information today.  Just look at on-line ads. They now come with tiny countdown clocks specifying when you will get the content (or even when you are allowed to skip past the ad).  Each time we encounter these ads, we're doing a quiet mental calculation. Is the information payoff worth 20 seconds of my attention? My students are doing a version of this calculation in my classes at nearly every moment. 

Even so, we professors still teach as if our jobs operate on the economic principle of scarcity. We think the students need us because we alone possess and can grant access to the prized expertise and knowledge. But scarcity and access are hardly problems in an information economy.  Let's face it: nearly all of what we teach can be found elsewhere and often for free.  

Indeed, certain theorists like Richard Lanham have argued the so-called information economy is misnamed. He suggests we ought to think in terms of an attention economy because it's human attention that's scarce, not information or access.  What the students are paying for these days is my ability to distill, to edit and to package ideas and information into 50 or 80 minute units. Just as importantly, they're paying me to do this in a way that is worthy of an increasingly precious commodity: their attention. 

I have a few ideas on how I might begin to do this better, but maybe I should save it for another post. In the age of Twitter, long blog posts usually earn the dreaded TL;DR.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Our little systems have their day

My wife has been taking a MOOC on poetry  (that would be a massive open-enrolled on-line course).  The lectures are first rate and she has spent some time posting her own efforts and responding to the efforts of other enrollees.  Occasionally we will fall into a conversation about literature or poetic styles.  

So it was the other day that I found myself briefly discussing the concept of an "objective correlative,"  T. S. Eliot's notion that one must submerge strong feeling in art in "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events" that evoke those feelings implicitly rather than explicitly.  

In other words, don't write about the fact that your father, with whom you had many issues, died two weeks ago.  Instead write about going out to mow the lawn at his now empty house and being unable to start his crummy, garage sale-bought mower.   Write about the smell of a flooded engine, the broken choke, your own cursing.  

Don't mention watching his vital signs go down slowly or seeing his last breath in the CCU, or the silence in the room afterward and how you felt numb for hours and then, finally, while taking out the garbage after dinner that night, found yourself suddenly quivering with sobs that rose up from the depths like geological eruptions.  Indeed, don't mention the dying man at all.  Just go on and on about how small and innocuous the second shot of morphine looked or how efficiently the young critical care nurse inserted it into the stint.

In Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot reminds us that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion" and the "more perfect the artist, the more completely separate will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."  

A part of me wants to denounce this as nonsense.  One thinks of the great elegies: Auden on the death of Yeats, Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead, or the elegies of the ancients.  For heaven's sake, the ancients.  What about Catullus at the tomb of his brother? are these merely conventional things,
traditional sad funeral offerings:
take them — all wet with your brother's tears..

He doesn't specify those conventional funeral objects.  It's the tears that have wetted them. It's the tears.

I have a lot of problems with Eliot--always have--but I have to admit he's nailed it. You just shouldn't write about the things you feel. You should write about something else. Anything else.

Maybe poetry or the objective correlative or even god-damned T. S. Eliot.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...