Showing posts from September, 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 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…