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. 

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.  ...