Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Muses of Bad Timing

Without fail my best ideas appear when time is running out.  I have had this problematic course that I have been tinkering with for two years.  I know it needs attention, but it has been moping along with generally decent evaluations and student responses.  Still the course isn't coherent.  I've long known it and long known I need to entirely rethink it.

But there is always something else to focus on and--frankly--I've been singularly uninspired with any ideas on how to start fresh.

So this morning I was spending time finalizing a few minor details on the syllabus, and (wouldn't you know it?) the pedagogical muses show up. In all of an instant I see how the subject could be hung on nine inter-related questions about the subject.  That's it.  Nine questions, a number that will fit well into the course's length and framework.  So simple and elegant.

We could approach each question by taking an initial stand, do a little reading and debating and take our pulse again afterwards.  It's a reflective learning course, so we needn't worry about content cramming or skills.  Just thinking, wrestling and taking stock.  What do we make of the question now?

So alluring was this idea that I couldn't help sketching out the units, the texts and ideas and the assignments into a rough 16-week plan.   Woo-wie!  What fun.  Yet I knew in the back of my head that I was not going to rip up everything and start from scratch with only two weeks before the spring semester begins.  That's madness.

Why are my teaching muses always so fickle in their timing?

I heard the musician/songwriter Tom Waits once say that he talks to his muses. If he gets an idea for a song but is too busy to stop everything and write, he whispers aloud, "Oh thanks for dropping by.  I always love it when you come over.  I have to do this thing right now and I would really hate to rush through our conversation.  I hope you know how important you are to me, so if you could just kindly wait a little bit longer..."

Sometimes this works, he says.  Sometimes it doesn't.  Even so, it can't hurt (whisper whisper...).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Do we give grades? Or are they earned?

I penned a little article for another teaching blog and it touched off a minor dust up over what to say and what not to say when students contest grading standards.

The premise of the piece was this: we ought not to use that hoary academic catchphrase: "I didn't give you that grade.  You earned it."  To my mind the statement obscures the fact that our standards (and our interpretation of our standards) play a not insignificant role in a student's final grade.

Not all of my readers agreed.  One argued that I focused only on those students who got low grades and were upset.  What about those who received an A?  He would tell them they earned it, because they did. And praising real student effort is a part of good teaching.  Another thought that subjective grading wasn't an issue in science and math courses, especially when answers were straightforwardly right or wrong.

Good points, I guess.

Still I can't help thinking that the "you earned it move" is a bit of a dodge.  It's usually made to deflect the conversation from the fairness of our standards and onto student performance.  Sometimes, too, it's made to emphasize that student effort is the sole determinant of a final grade.  I think it's a bit more complicated than that.  Effort matters.  No one should deny that, but our standards and how we interpret unavoidably shape the grade.

Here's what I mean: imagine what would happen if we raised or lowered grading standards to an extreme (either impossibly rigorous or ridiculously easy).  At the same time, imagine that student effort remained unchanged.  Clearly the distribution of final grades would change even though student effort hadn't.  I mean why do students professor shop?  You have two professors teaching the same course with identical material and assignments (heck, let's make them science or math courses) and yet students still know which prof to take if they want a better grade.

I realize reasonable people can differ on this question.  As for me, I don't think I'll make the "I didn't give it, you earned it" move any longer.  I doubt it ever sits well with a disaffected student and it's probably never made one work harder.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints

One of the courses that I come back to in January will be the spring section of First-Year Experience that's scheduled for students who were "gearing-up" last semester for college-level work, a few late starting true freshmen and one or two students who failed FYE in the fall. 

Recently I had a chance conversation with the instructor who taught this section last spring and she said, "Scaffold the hell out of that course and then--when you think you've got it right--scaffold some more."

By scaffolding she meant breaking the cognitive and skill-level requirements into a graduated sequence that stretches from the first day to the last. In other words, I should assume nothing about the readiness of students to perform at what I think should be a "given" college standard.  Instead, I'll need to walk them slowly to that level.  This is a good design philosophy in any course, but it's especially necessary with under-prepared students.

Indeed, the readiness levels on reading for incoming freshmen have been tanking over the last four years.  In 2014, for example, just 52% of incoming first-year students in my state were rated as "ready" by ACT.  That number was 61% four years earlier.  Moreover, the median composite ACT score on reading in 2014 was 22.  The median score for my class is nearly five clicks lower.

So they're not ready for serious college-level reading.  But what does 'not ready' mean?  It certainly doesn't mean they can't read.  They can.  They may not, however, be fully fluent readers, ones capable of distilling key ideas or articulating patterns of evidence in the material.  And many, if not most, will never have experienced "deep reading," what Sven Birkerts calls in The Gutenberg Elegies "the slow and meditative possession of a book."

It may be hyperbole to say we are now teaching in a post-literate world, but we are certainly slouching in that direction.

Over the years I've accepted the need to fuse teaching academic skills into my material. It was a  real breakthrough for me when I figured how to teach writing in a way that enhanced rather than diminished my content (the composition and rhetoric folks call this teaching with writing rather than teaching writing).  I've even found ways to help students develop their critical abilities and analytical skills.  But I'm not sure I have the chops for the deep neurological rewiring it takes to move a kid from "not a reader" to "reader."

Next semester promises to be challenging, to say the least.  I've scaffolded the hell out of the course and I intend to work like mad for these students, and maybe--just maybe--we will have built something of wall when the scaffolding comes down.  That's the hope anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do I have to draw you a picture?


I love the podcast 99% Invisible, which looks at the design of everything from buildings to flags, to coins, even election ballots. Let's face it: the butterfly ballot design for the 2000 presidential election in Florida was fairly consequential. Design matters. 

If I had the money I would love to hire designers for all of my course materials.  There are just so many ways my stuff could be better, smarter and more effective at eliminating the confusion and white noise that forever surround teaching and learning. 

But even if you're not a designer (and I'm certainly not), thinking visually can increase the clarity and effectiveness of assignment instructions and performance expectations.  Case in point: I like title pages on student papers.  Everything about a paper is part of its rhetoric: the title, the white space, the subheads, the pagination.  So it frustrates me when students don't put thought into a title and instead write something like "Paper 3."  Good titles reinforce the thesis and can pull a shaggy piece of writing a bit more into focus.

But for years my students would forget to make title pages.  It didn't matter how many times I reminded them.  After I started getting visual on the assignment instructions, it finally made a difference:

Citation is another bugaboo that a good diagram can help to clear up on assignment instructions, especially if they're citing unfamiliar genres like poetry or Shakespeare:


As I said, my design skills are pretty crude.  It's mostly arrows and flow charts, but don't underestimate the value of arrows and charts to help to break down complex tasks into more concrete steps.  My students, for example, often fail to answer all of an essay prompt.  I used to think they were avoiding the harder parts, but I've come to believe it's far more likely that they are  exhibiting "field dependence," a tendency to fixate on individual pieces of data rather than the whole (i.e., not seeing the forest for the trees).  Good critical thinkers tend to be more field independent and getting visual can help students to improve this ability. 

Below is an in-class exercise that breaks out the components of an essay prompt into the thinking skills needed to answer it well.  I ask students to use colored pencils to code different kinds of skills (e.g., comparison, summary, analysis, etc.). 
Then I ask them to design their own questions and allow a partner to draw in the arrows and color coding to see if they've been clear.
Becoming more field independent means seeing patterns and connections in what appear to be discrete ideas.  It's a bit grade school, but asking students to map those connections really does work.  Below is a thinking exercise I've used in a humanities sections before students write their unit papers.  They draw lines between thought bubbles containing ideas in the unit (they also can draw disconnect lines between opposite ideas),  Then they write out a short paragraph explaining the connection so that we can see how their mind worked.  One student drew a line between Jung's notion of a "shadow" and Gulliver's encounter with the Yahoos, a connection she went onto elaborate in a great paper.



Here's a piece that I need to make more visual, but it's a great exercise for promoting field independence.  It's just a bingo board made up of quotes and ideas taken from the first two semester of our honors programs.  In groups students have to work out a path with string and pins that moves from top to bottom by explaining a coherent, articulable connection or disconnection between adjacent authors or ideas.  For example, Virginia Woolf argued women needed a room of their own and Descartes isolated himself in a room to analyze the self, while Emerson noted that he was never alone even when he was in his room reading.  To be truly alone he needed to go into nature...  Walt Whitman...


I suppose I could just use the authors' mugs for this game, but it really drives home the idea that I want them to construct and support their own connections rather than spit back the connections I mentioned in class. 

My ideal syllabus would be a menu with lots of pictures of the entrees.  My ideal set of instructions for an assignment would be a small graphic novel or a comic book.  You know, here's a student sitting at a desk and getting the assignment.  Next panel, the alarm going off and they remember something's due.  Next panel, they're screaming at a library computer screen and the helpful reference librarian walks up... 

For a long time, too, I wanted to make a short, funny animated film that I could show before handing out course evaluations forms.  It's my hunch that students don't fully understand how important evaluations are to us and the institution. They may not even understand where the evaluations end up.  I don't have any animation skills, so I settled for, alas, PowerPoint.  Still, even this tired old presentation technology did a better job of explaining the process than me delivering the same information as I passed out the sheets and number two pencils.


When my dad--rest his soul--was frustrated with my obtuseness, he often used to remark "For cryin' out loud. Do I have to draw you a picture?"  I never said anything back in these moments, but yes, for cryin' out loud.  A good picture might actually have helped. Quite a bit, really.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pimping the syllabus

Most colleges have some requirements for course syllabi.  We have to list office hours, contact information and assignment calendars, but increasingly we have to tack on federal attendance guidelines, institutional grievance procedures, academic honesty policies, even assessment measures.  Lots of dreary stuff.

Add to this our own lawyerly and idiosyncratic boilerplate (much of it hard-won from tedious hairsplitting with past students), and a syllabus becomes one damned unattractive document.  Worse, it may set the entirely  wrong tone for the first class meeting:

"Welcome to Whatever 101.  Now allow me to frog-march you through 17 pages of rules, caveats and the codicils.  Hope you enjoy the class."

For the past few years I've been trying to avoid the first-day syllabus frog-march.  I've tried to start day one with a big question, or an in-class exercise where students stake out a position by occupying a place in the room.  Sometimes I'll focus on a poem or a quote that resonates with ideas we will return to throughout the course.  Anything to avoid slogging through the syllabus (I mean really.  It'll keep until day two). 

I've also been rethinking the syllabus itself.  It has to include a lot of boring stuff, but it doesn't have to be boring.  Above is a redesigned front page for my Introduction to Humanities course that lays out the big question of the course, the payoff students should expect and a few promises I make about my approach.  I want page one to be as inviting as I'm trying to make day one.


I also like the way you can break out the fine print with information graphics, flow charts and outlines.  So much that we do with grades is numbers, but students don't comprehend how assignments are weighted.  They don't do the math.  A simple pie chart can quickly show them which assignments are high stakes and which low.


Even making sure they buy the right editions of the text is helped by going visual.



Jazzing up a course calender is pretty fun, too:



We often complain that students don't read our syllabus, but look at most syllabi.  Would you want to read them?  So why do we buzzkill the first day with a document that looks more like an indictment than an invitation to an intellectual adventure?  

Monday, November 2, 2015

You're welcome. I'll bill you later...


I really have to get out of this Liberal Arts racket and into the more highly-renumerated world of management consulting.  You know, the place where 'old-as-dirt' Liberal Arts ideas go to be reborn, repackaged and resold to the private sector.  Case in point: the "executive coach" and management consultant Ira Chaleff, author of Standing Up To and For Our Leaders (now in its third edition) and Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You're Told to Do is Wrong.  

Chaleff is paid to tell MBA programs teaching leadership that--wait for it--leadership needs followers.  More importantly, he stresses the value of followers doing the right thing in the face of pressures to do wrong.  And where did Chaleff gain this deep insight?  Here, I'll let him tell it:
The idea comes from the world of guide dogs.  One of the things guide dogs are taught to do is called a counterpull.  If the leader is about to step off a train platform, for example, they pull in the opposite direction.  Now think of human organizations, whether companies, schools or police forces.  The best followers--and they tend to be very senior--know when to pull the leader back from the edge.
Yep, guide dogs.  What a novel idea. 

I mean you would never find any ideas like this in texts like Plato's Apology and Crito, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience or Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Or, what the hay?  How about Huck Finn, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass or A Room of One's Own? 

Nearly every semester I find myself patiently pointing out to students the distinction between horizontal and vertical critical thinking.  Horizontal critical thinking is practical and concerned with How do we do X?  How do we get the infection rate down?  How do we increase our market share?  How do we raise our profit margins?  Vertical critical thinking, on the other hand, tends to question unquestioned assumptions: Is it morally right for us to fatten our profits by figuring out cute pretexts for denying the insurance claims of gravely-ill people?  

HeckEnron and the Third Reich had some of the best horizontal critical thinkers on the planet.  How do we "arbitrage" obscene profits by rigging the California energy market?  How do we dispose of millions of bodies?  The problem wasn't an inability to think horizontally.  They were geniuses at that kind of thinking.  The problem was an inability to exercise some self-awareness and moral courage. Or to put it in consultant speak: "meta-cognition and counterpull."

I'm done justifying the Liberal Arts to the private sector.  It's useless.  Let's just periodically rename what we do and start charging consultant fees instead of tuition. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

To ebook or not to ebook?


One of my tasks this fall has been re-editing my Introduction to Humanities Reader, a collection of public domain snippets and translations packaged in a cheap self-published paperback edition.  I add in introductions, essay prompts and some tips on citation, but it's just an old-fashioned reader, not so different from what students would have read in a pre-digital age course.  As the self-publisher, however, there's an interesting question before me. Should I offer my Reader as a 99-cent e-book as well as a $9.00 paperback?

I've been thinking about it and I don't think I will. 

I've noticed lately a disturbing trend.  More than one student has come to me saying (quietly and with some concern) that they just don't seem to be able to focus.  They read the material, but it just swims inchoately before them.  It doesn't make any sense.  There's almost a undertone of fear in their voices, as if they suspect that something has gone neurologically haywire in their brain.  I am beginning to fear they are right because I've noticed it's also been happening to me.

I've always been a reader, but lately I've found it harder and harder to stay focused on big, demanding reads.  I find myself saving them for airplane flights or week-long fishing trips, times when I know I will be off line for days.  Indeed, it's hubris to think that those of us who gained our reading chops before the on-line world emerged are somehow immune to its effects.

The reading we do on-line--or to be precise the grazing we do on-line--inevitably creates an environment of fractured attention, an expectation of ceaseless stimulation and an unwillingness to wait, be bored or to let ideas unfold and gestate.  We just don't have to live with demanding or disagreeable texts when the siren call of something better is a neural twitch and click away.  What my fearful students are describing (and I am experiencing) is an inability to focus deeply on an idea or a text.

Here's the problem: I know what deep focus feels like, so it's one thing for me to reawaken those muscles.  I can do it with a little effort.  I just have to unplug and be intentional.  My students, however, have never had this experience.  They have no muscle memory. 

A passage in MIT Researcher Sherry Turkle's new book,  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, recounts the story of Reyna, a 14-year old student who had been issued an iPad by her middle school.  Reyna found that it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on her assigned readings if she used the iPad, so she took to printing them out and reading them off-line.  It was just too difficult to process ideas when email, Facebook, Candy Crush and any number of beguiling apps were one click away.  Reyna needed to remove the tech to focus.

Some, of course, say that "hyper attention" is the new normal, the mindset of the 21rst century.  They argue that handwringers like me are being "unhelpfully nostalgic" about the value of deep focus reading.  Literary theorist Katherine Haynes, for example, points out that we can either "change the students to fit the environment or change the environment to fit the student."   And, given the reality of the contemporary classroom, changing how we deliver and package information is the only option.

This means eliminating lulls or opportunities for attentions to flag in the classroom by letting students "Google Jockey" throughout the period.  They can look up terms, Twitter feed questions and ideas to classmates and stay on top of multiple message platforms.  This is the future, change is inevitable. 

Turkle's a skeptic of this and so am I.  As an aside, I've always questioned the "get with the program because change is inevitable argument" so beloved by Marxists and technophiles. (If change is inevitable, why do I need to do anything?)

So, no.  I don't think I'll publish an ebook version of my Reader.  Students are going to have to read it the old-fashioned way by running their eyeballs over paper.  If I could I might even throw in a hammock with each copy and perhaps a gadget embedded in the spine that would cause the pages to appear blank if they were within 25 feet of any operating electronic device.

Go deep or go home, baby.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Palace of Rumor


In Book XII of Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the events of the Trojan War.  Early on, he explains how rumors of the Greek expedition preceded its arrival at Troy:

There is a place at the center of the World, between the zones of earth, sea, and sky, at the boundary of the three worlds.  From here, whatever exists is seen, however far away and every voice reaches listening ears. Rumor lives there, choosing a house for herself on a high mountain summit, adding innumerable entrances, a thousand apertures, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices and repeats what is heard. There is no peace within: no silence anywhere...

Crowds fill the hallways: a fickle populace comes and goes, and, mingling truth randomly with fiction, a thousand rumors wander and confused words circulate. Of these, some fill idle ears with chatter, others carry tales, and the author adds something new to what is heard. Here is Credulity, here is rash Error, empty Delight, and alarming Fear, sudden Sedition, and Murmurings of doubtful origin...

Was there ever a better description of our contemporary always-on media landscape? 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The 'petite mort' of time off


Were this fall semester like any other, I would be just about now standing in foyer of the Student Center with a cup of coffee in my hand as colleagues milled about chatting before the buzz-kill of the first-day meetings.  Most would also be silently fretting over the list of things they have yet to do before classes begin on Monday.  This year isn't like that, however.

After 24 years of teaching I'm on a sabbatical.  And it's at once wonderful and disquieting.

For the next three months I can read, study and write with nary a stack of ungraded assignments or a committee meeting in sight.  It should be intellectual paradise, yet it seems so odd not to be facing a semester's worth of the familiar rhythms, stresses and challenges. 

Ask retiring colleagues what it feels like knowing they won't return in the fall and they often say, "Ask me then.  That's when I'll know."  I mean what is a sabbatical but a little foretaste of that first fall semester of retirement (from whose bourn no traveller returns)?

My plan all summer has been to treat what would be the first day of classes as the first day of work.  That's the idea anyway.  We'll see. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Frederick Douglass and the Perfect Selfie

 
A recent  front-page story in the New York Times reported on a disturbing rash of suicides committed by seemingly put-together university students.  One slant of the article focused upon the role of social media in exacerbating the pressure to lead a perfect, high-achieving academic lifestyle. 

Penn University, for example, has had three suicides in the past 13 months, which lead it to conduct an internal review that found, among other things, the negative effects of something called the Penn Face: "An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed." 

The article also noted,
While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.
I confess to having a mixed reaction to this article.  On the one hand, depression and suicide should not be taken lightly.  And I have often wondered about the way carefully curated images in social media promote invidious comparison.  Even I get the feeling after browsing friends' Facebook pages that everyone is having a much more exciting and rewarding life than me. 

That said, too many of my students exhibit the opposite of Penn Face.  Rather than internalizing impossible-to-achieve success scripts, they have internalized a failure script.  In my First-Year Seminar, for example, I use an in-class exercise to introduce students to the ideas of fixed versus variable intelligence.  I announce a short intelligence test and give students three words to re-scramble into new English words in three minutes.  Half receive the following:

Bat
Melon
Cinerama

The other half receive these words:

Bat
Slapstick
Cinerama

There is no anagram for slapstick, of course, which means half of the class is set up to fail.  What's interesting, however, is that a majority of those with the impossible task simply give up on the third term (Cinerama = American).  Their failure with 'slapstick' leads them to the conclusion that they cannot get the third term.  After the test, I ask everyone to write on the back of their sheet why they think they succeeded or failed, but also whether this reason might relate to other times when they succeeded, failed or underperformed in school.

The results are striking.  On average 40-50 percent of the students in my First-Year Seminar will ascribe their performance to the possession of or a lack of an innate ability.  Indeed, many of those who failed at the impossible task will write "I'm just not smart" or "I cannot do well on tests like these."  These rationales are often echoed by my advisees when we go over their progress in math or English.  I will hear things like "I don't have a math brain" or "I have always sucked at writing.  I guess it's not my thing." 

In other words, approximately half of my students think of their intelligence as something that's unchangeable. They believe they've either got it or they don't.  The disastrous effect of such a view can be seen in countless studies showing how subtle racist or sexist priming can skew testing results.  I even show my first-year students a short video clip that shows how calling something a "sports intelligence test" rather than a "athletic ability test" can cause people to underperform on purely mechanical tasks. The results of research on this are clear: believing your intelligence is fixed almost guarantees failure or underperformance.  It's a self-fulfilling mindset.  Failure only leads to a reinforcement of the idea and the logic that follows is ineluctable: if I am constitutionally incapable of something, why should I even try?

If, on the other hand, I can get students to see failure as something that can be overcome with effort (a variable view of intelligence), they are far more likely to succeed.  These students will say "I just needed more time on this task" or "I could have approached the test differently, studied a bit more, asked for help," etc.  Students that think this way have a mindset that they can learn. 

Unfortunately an alarming number of students (if my informal results are any indication) are walking around with a belief that in some areas they just can't do it.  And this idea is stubbornly resistant to change. I spend most of First-Year Seminar trying to get them to recognize where they have grown and improved (the 'No-Anagram-for-Slapstick' experiment is an attempt to shock them into awareness of the effect of mindset on success).  Indeed, the two semesters of First-Year Seminar require a lot of student self-reflection and self-assessment, especially at the end of the second term. You might think of all this reflection as a series of meta-cognitive selfies.  I want students to see where their effort has connected with change.

Every autumn, too, we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Justifications for slavery throughout history have always been premised on a fixed view of intelligence. And slave-owning elites generally believe in Aristotle's idea of "natural slavery," a view that certain races or genders are simply incapable of rationally governing themselves, so the masters will have to do it for them. 

In a passage that seldom fails to move students, Douglass realizes that reading and learning are the key to his master's power over him, so young Frederick commits himself to learning to read so he can acquire power over himself.  In other words, he commits to changing his view of himself, and I want my students to make a similar commitment to their own potential.

An internalized success script and the social pressure to have it all can produce terrible consequences, but it's no less a tragedy when so many students internalize a belief in the inevitability of failure.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Head counts vs a few confidence-building tugs

Three years ago I had the most amazing two hours of fly fishing in my life when I landed 17 brown trout in a short section of stream in Northeast Iowa.  The fish ate everything I threw at them and I even had time to break out different rods so that each one in the collection got into the action.

It was a fluke, of course.  I just happened across a moment when everything aligned: the weather (drizzly and gray) the temperature (upper 50s) and the mood of the fish (peckish, to say the least).

As much fun as that was, I don't think I would trade it for the hour or so I spent fishing a small stream last Wednesday when very little was aligned.  The sun was mid-afternoon high and bright; and the water level low, which made the trout all too easy to spook.  About the only thing I had going for me was the tall summer grass along the stream side, and even this was a mixed blessing.  It did keep me out of sight of the fish, but it also made walking the bank like a machete hack through a jungle thicket.

At the first bend, I was able to creep up and sink a bead-head nymph deep enough to hook a 10-inch brown.  He may have been small, but he put an impressive bend on my three weight before cleverly twisting himself into some weeds and breaking off the line.  One of the side benefits of catch-and-release fishing is you can slough off these misfortunes.  You were just going to throw him back anyway, so he simply saved you the trouble of removing the hook, right?

So I re-rigged with a new fly and started to puzzle out the next bit of stream.  I knew the bend ahead--about 20 feet upstream--held fish even though it was really small and shallow.  It was so small in fact that I had overlooked it last May and then was surprised to see trout scrambling for cover as I lumbered past.  This time, however, I stayed low, crouched down in the streambed and lightly cast into a bath-towel sized pool.  It was a one-and-done situation.  Either the fish would take the nymph on the first cast or I would spoil the hole with a clumsy splat.  My fly landed gracefully (in every sense of that word) and BAM!  Fish number two slammed it.   Nice little brown.  Okay, confidence growing.

I took two more fish out of that stream before I was done, one on a dry fly of my own design that I floated over a pool of browns. He came charging up out of the depths like a sub crash-breeching the surface. He hammered my bug, again bending the rod into a beautiful inverted "U."  Sheer pleasure.

Okay, enough fish tales. 

What mattered was how I caught the fish, not how many.  There was the satisfaction of knowing what I needed to do in each situation and then the pay-off for having that knowledge.  Catching 17 browns in two hours was a lot of fun, but the pleasure I took in took catching those three fish last Wednesday was a lot more fun.

In learning theory, this kind of pleasure comes from "mastery motivation," a psychological tendency for people to be more stimulated by tasks that challenge them than ones that come easily.  Ask graduating seniors what experience in four years of college gave them the deepest satisfaction and you won't hear them say the high fish count of their GPA or the easy As they racked up.  It'll be something they had to work for, or a project that stretched them or got them to see the world in a new way.

After all, you earn a 4.0 and what is there left to do?   But you have a day like I had last Wednesday, and all you can think is "let's get back out there."

Friday, July 17, 2015

Once more to the lake


Sometimes I dream about going to camp, a place with no smartphones, laptops or TVs.  Just people, a lake and long empty summer afternoons.  Such places still exist.  Last August my family and I spent a week at a camp in Northern Minnesota.  We swam, kayaked, rode horses, went on hikes and laid around the cabin reading novels on our lumpy bunks.

Paradise.  

It was the last week the camp was open and the young kids who had been hired on as counselors were slowly closing down the place for the season. August Family Camp week marked the end of their summer of inside jokes, friendships and love affairs. 

The French have the right idea.  Nobody should work in August.  Instead, we all ought to be packed off to camp where we might sit up late having an actual conversation, a good laugh beside a bonfire or hang our feet off the dock.  There ought to be a few days each year when we could awake without any agenda other than getting some breakfast in the dining hall.

It wouldn't change a thing, of course.  The world with all its breathless Twitter-fed turmoil would still be here once September came.  Still, it would make for a lovely change of pace.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Teaching Counter Intuitive Ideas

Certain subjects and ideas are just harder to teach than others. My hunch is the difficulty of teaching something is inversely related to how counter intuitive it is. 

Science, for example, is almost completely counter intuitive.   Let's face it: the Earth does not feel like it is moving and, despite what Newton said, there's nothing intuitive in the idea that a thrown ball will naturally continue in a straight line forever.  Indeed, other than Ohm's Law about resistance in electrical currents, it's hard to think of a single scientific theory that's all that intuitive.

Lucky for me I don't have to teach physics (or even Ohm's Law).  Even so, there are some ideas in my courses that students always struggle with.  In my Introduction to Humanities class, for example, I have students read Boethius, Augustine and Dante.  The aim is to get them to see how Neo-Platonism informed Augustine's analysis of sin and how the Augustinian analysis of sin informed much of medieval thought, something on full display in Dante. 

Here's the counter-intuitive notion they really struggle with: Augustine doesn't believe evil exists.  Evil, he argues, is simply the absence of (or turning away from) God, not a thing in itself.  This perspective--which relies heavily on Neo-Platonic notions of hierarchy--allows Augustine to avoid the problem of evil that always bedevils monotheism.  For Augustine, the universe is a hierarchy of goods with God, the greatest good, sitting atop all else.  When we sin, he argues, we become fixated on lower goods (wealth, friendship, worldly success) and turn our back on God.  Thus the entire universe (matter, energy, human values, the heavens) is entirely good. Sometimes, however, our will gets confused (lost in a dark wood, you might say).  In other words, we believe we are aiming at something good and we actually are.  It's just not the highest good. 

Grasping this concept is key to understanding the structure of the medieval worldview and its comingling of theology, science, cosmology, ethics and even political thought.  It can help students to grasp the design principles that shaped Gothic Cathedrals.  More to the point, it allows them to grasp why Dante put liars lower in Hell than murderers.  After all, the violent and wrathful have only committed sins of physical incontinence by losing control of their temper and physically lashing out. Liars have knowingly perverted the higher good of the intellect (the good of the mind sits above the good of the body).   And the higher the sin, the deeper into the Inferno you fall.

"But," my students will protest, "murder is a worse crime than lying. It doesn't make any sense." 

So I try to explain it this way: most murderers aren't Hannibal Lecter or serial killers.  People who murder are generally in a deluded pursuit of justice. They believe they have been slighted or suffered a grave unfairness, so they attempt to redress this wrong by seeking retributive justice.  People who lie, on the other hand, know exactly what they are doing.  They aren't deluded about the truth, so their sin is actually worse.

This explanation usually fails to clear things up.  My students just wrinkle their noses at Dante, Augustine and me.  "Whatever," they say. "I still say it's worse to kill somebody than it is to lie to them."

But understanding this point is key to my course.  I need students to appreciate how Neo-Platonic ideas of a single, all-encompassing natural and moral hierarchy informed Western thought.  Getting this not only helps them to understand Dante; it's also pretty useful for making sense of the tensions and cracks that show up in this hierarchy during the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, not to mention any number of hot button issues you might in encounter in a local school board election arguing over school prayer, evolution or what needs to be in high school textbooks. 

So I was happy to run across a statistic that backs up Dante's logic.  I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedIn it Pinker mentions a stat well known to criminologists: only a small percent of homicides (maybe 10 percent) are committed as means to a practical end (i.e., eliminating an eye witness, to affect an escape, killing the guard in the back of an armored car, etc.).  Most murders are moralistic retaliation for an insult, a cheating spouse or an act of self-defense in an escalating violent confrontation.  In other words, murder is not usually the result of the murderer having less morality.  It's a result of a heightened sense of morality and injustice (at least to the perpetrators).  In their mind, there's nothing wrong with them; it's the victim who has done something wrong.

I don't think I'll quote this statistic or lecture on it in class.  There is no way to explain it that won't result in confusion.  Still I think I can juxtapose it with the poem in such a way that students can make the connection on their own.  If I track down the numbers Pinker cites, I'll just show them to the students and ask them to imagine what Augustine and Boethius would make of it.
Okay, so would Augustine and Boethius see this modern research on crime as a confirmation of their ideas about why we err about the highest good?  Why?  Those of you who think it does over here.  Those who think it doesn't over there?  Talk to each other and come up with an argument for why you think the way you do.  Let's hash this out before we move on.
Then, later, when we get to the murderers in the fifth circle of the Inferno, it might make a little bit more sense.

Maybe the key to teaching deeply counter intuitive ideas is not explaining them more clearly or providing more evidence.  Maybe it's not about what I do at all.  Maybe the key is creating opportunities for students to road test a few of their own intuitions. 

Sheez, one of these days I'm finally going to figure out how to do this job.   

Friday, June 12, 2015

Really Smart Classrooms

I like to think that my institution is blessed with a student-centered ethos.  In other words, most of us here believe that active student learning is the most important thing in a classroom. 

We've even spent a bit of money leading workshops and bringing in guest speakers to help faculty move away from a professor-centered model in which the most important thing is students' passive absorption of the prof's content knowledge.  Making this change in pedagogy isn't easy.  Old models of what's supposed to happen in a university classroom die hard.

But what about our model of the classroom itself?

The last time we built a new classroom building on campus the architect met with the university community.  The only comment I made was that it was frustrating as an instructor to spend five minutes at the beginning of each class laboriously redesigning the room so it better facilitates teaching and learning, and then another five minutes at the end of class changing the room back to the old 19th century industrial-design model of row after row oriented toward the board and the lectern.

The architect's response was to drone on about all of the Smartboard tech we could expect.  "Besides," he said, "the tables and chairs will have wheels."
 
Aaaargh.  A Smartboard and some casters does not a smart classroom make. 

What I wanted was a more thorough examination of good design for good learning.  After all, a lot of really innovative design has gone into making work spaces that facilitate collaboration in professional settings.  Yet when we  build a classroom, all we get is the old "sage on the stage" model.  Sure we add in some high-tech doo-dads and smarten up the wall-coverings, but that's not much of a changed paradigm. 

To be sure, architects have contemporized their designs for art studios, rehearsal spaces, science labs, etc.  But the default model for the generic classroom remains the lecture hall.  And the rhetoric of a lecture hall is clear: what matters most in this room is the person standing upfront at the controls.  You students out there are to sit passively and soak up the wisdom.  You aren't the locus or the focus of what really matters here.

Good grief, nothing is more ripe for a thoughtful redesign than the general-purpose classroom, whose "cells with bells" design philosophy comes straight out of Frederick Taylor's early 20th century efficiency studies, which in turn created the industrial assembly-line.  Such an approach may have made sense when we were training people to do isolated tasks within fixed corporate systems, but they don't make sense today (a fact made evident by abandoned rust-belt manufacturing plants across the nation).

So I was happy to run across some architects and designers who are taking on this problem.  Prakash Nair in San Antonio has been doing work along these lines.  Indeed, his book Blueprint for Tomorrow collects and codifies some good design principles that have been shown to promote student learning.

If I were a paying client, here's what I'd ask from my architect:
  • I want to be able to transition from being in all-class mode to group work quickly and with as little effort as possible (360 degree swiveling chairs perhaps)?
  • I want to use nearly all the wall space for presentation of student work (not just the whiteboard, projector screen, etc., at the front).  Brainstorming notes, concept maps, in-class created work should be easy to post and dispose of.  I shouldn't have to spend my limited budget on giant sticky Post-It notes (or damage the drywall with masking tape and thumb tacks). 
  • Some natural light, please.
  • A usable, out of the way place to store backpacks, heavy coats, etc., one that allows students to keep their stuff nearby but out of the way (built-in under the chair storage perhaps?).
  • While we're at it, let's have a few small storage lockers where instructors could securely leave a few items in the classroom: some fresh dry-erase markers, a box of paper clips or a stapler (sweet heavens, a stapler!) a few pens, an extra copy of the text, some Kleenex, a bottle of Tylenol...  There's nothing worse than needing these things and not having them at hand.
  • Also, can we think up a way to eliminate the need for stumble-inducing extension or laptop cords?
  • Along the same lines, how about trash receptacles that are inset into the wall?
  • Padded seating (the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure).
  • And what about a way to quickly subdivide the room into even tinier spaces?  Some classrooms have retractable walls that allow two rooms to become one large room.  But what if I could make my normal one room into four little seminar rooms?  I'm thinking of retractable Japanese screens that are rolled up and ready to be pulled out from the center of each of the four walls.
  • I like to get students out of their seats to stake out positions physically on questions or issues:  "Those of you who agree with Freud go to this side of the room, those with Hume the other side.  Those who are unsure can stay in the middle.  Now start talking to those who agree with you.  What's the group consensus on why you are where you are?"  But how about  making the carpet color-coded into distinct areas that could mark off group positions?  What if the flooring contained a continuum of gradations that allowed students to arrange themselves by degrees of acceptance or rejection of an idea? 
  • Or what about work stations or long tables that could drop from the sidewalls like a Murphy bed when extra desktop area was needed and be quickly stowed away when more space was needed?
  • Here's an idea: lots of individual square or rectangular tables with flip-up curved wings that can be combined into a single oval seminar table.
  • Okay, let's get really radical.  I'm in seminar mode with students seated in a circle or around a big table and I want to show a brief video clip for discussion.  What if the chairs could lie back like car seats and we could see the clip on the ceiling?  That way the students with backs to the screen don't have to relocate or crane their necks.  Plus, let's use every surface in the room.  I know, I know.  Crazy idea.  People would go to sleep.  Still, it's a new idea.
Put simply, I want a general-purpose classroom that doesn't assume a single teaching style is the only purpose there is.   I want a room that can be transformed for lots of learning approaches, one that gives me options.  I'm no architect, of course, but I'd love to see what a good one could do working with educators on a redesign.

 Anything that blows up the lecture hall would be okay by me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hunting the house through


I spent five years working construction as a union painter many years ago (IBPAT, Local 246, should anyone care to know).  Even so, it was my milkman grandfather who had the greatest insight about the chore of painting a house.  He remarked once that it was important to paint your house with a good brush every so often (and never to spray it).  The extra work involved allows you to get to know your house more intimately and it lets the house know how much you love it.

I've been painting our house this week, a couple of bedrooms.  They were the last rooms I had yet to get personal with after a decade and a half of living here.  Learned a few things, too.  The walls in this place (built in 1926) are still wonderfully straight and in good shape.  I also ran across some curious choices that were made when someone before my time remodeled and enlarged the closets.  Inspecting empty closets will tell you a lot about a house because people don't worry too much about the quality of their work in them.  As with judging old furniture, the story of how well something was made is often in the parts people don't see.

After I finished painting this morning, I went out on the porch to have a cup of coffee and read for a few minutes before cleaning up.  Grabbed some Robert Browning, a poet whom I've long meant to give some serious attention.  I serendipitously happened across this lovely piece:

Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for heart, though shalt find her--
Next time, herself!--not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass at the wave of her feather.

Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune--
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter. 
Spend my whole day in the quest,--who cares?
But is twilight, you see,--with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

It's worth paying attention to simple techniques in poetry.  Like an empty closet or the wood at the back of a drawer, it too betokens quality.  Browning's alliteration here is wonderful: the dreamy "Rs" and "Hs" that ease us into the poem, the nice balance of alliteration in individual lines (Range the wide house from the wing to the centre).  This is to say nothing of his well-thought out use of dashes and line endings.  Alliteration is easy to botch, but done right it can really evoke a scene or state of mind. 

A house, of course, is just an association of a place with memory or the memories of the people you know who have inhabited it.  Take everything from a room and all that's left is memory.  Strangely that emptiness makes the memory more sharply felt.  It's not in the room, but where it's always been, in you alone.  Yet still you search for it in the room. 

I also need to paint the outside of the house this summer.  Figured I should brush one more coat on the place before I eventually succumb to siding.  I had planned to do this next week, but I noticed this morning that there are still two little wrens nesting in the eave.  I think I'll wait for them move on before I disturb their home.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Media Memes about Higher Ed vs. Some Actual Numbers


A popular idea floating around in the public consciousness is that we send far too many kids to college these days and not all of them benefit from the experience.  You can add to this idea any number of variant themes.  Here are a few of the more popular ones:
  • College isn't needed because, hey, Bill Gates and those guys who founded Tumblr, Spotify and Pinterest were all college drop outs.
  • The high cost saddles students with so much debt that a college degree has become a bad deal.
  • College just isn't for everyone.
There is some truth to all of these ideas.  If you happen to be a tech genius, insanely lucky and driven, then you probably don't need a college degree.  After all, there are 41 tech companies currently listed in Forbes Fortune 500 and last year there were between 21 and 22 million students enrolled in higher education of some form.  That means our anecdotal dropout has a .000186 percent shot at becoming the next big-time high-tech jillionaire.  So go ahead.  Drop out.  Who knows?  You could be the next lucky winner.

Setting aside anecdotal nonsense, there's the cost/benefit argument.  According to the most recent data, the average American college student walks across the stage with around $25,000 in debt.  That's nothing to sneeze at, but the data also shows that this grad is still economically better off over the long haul.  At left is Pew Center data from 2012.   As you can see, the prospects for a college grad are still better--indeed, significantly better--than they are for those entering the workforce with only a high school diploma. 

According to the Pew study, too, a college graduate in 1965 earned $7,500 more than someone with a high school diploma. That gap has grown steadily larger, and today it's doubled to $17,500 among those aged 25 to 32.

The lower unemployment rate for college grads is particularly striking, but so is the correlation between escaping poverty and a college education.  Despite all our hand-wringing, college is still a way to improve one's economic lot.  Sadly, though, people on the bottom rungs are far less likely to enter college, even though they would realize the greatest benefits from earning a degree. 

To be sure, we should be alarmed about the debt load our graduates face, but that average of 25K factors in the enormous sums run up by students in the for-profit sector.  About 10-13 percent of all college students are enrolled at for-profit institutions, and 96 percent of them have taken out loans to cover costs (compared to 57 percent at private non-profits and 49 percent at public non-profits).  As you might imagine, the debt load at for-profits is 30 percent higher than it is at public and private institutions. 

But here's a telling stat: the small number of students enrolled at for-profits account for half of the loan defaults.   Indeed, there are very few numbers that look good for the for-profit sector (grad rates, retention, job placement...).   Yet these numbers are often blended into the over all averages when taking the measure of the health and viability of higher education.  But if you avoid the for-profit sector, choose wisely and think of college as an investment that yields its benefits over time, a degree remains an awfully good deal.  Caveats apply to any investment, of course, but the average 20-year return-on-investment on even a low-paying professional degree still outperforms most mutual funds.

But let's take seriously the last bullet point: college isn't for everybody and we're just turning out too damn many grads these days.  The point-man for this argument seems to be the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray, who argues that two-year voc. tech. programs would be better for a whole bunch of students who have been wrongfully pushed into college.   In other words, more certificates and fewer diplomas.  There's some truth to this, although I can't stomach Murray's racist rationales (he thinks disadvantaged groups can't compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior, so most minorities would be better served with vocational training). 

In other words, college is for the sons of privilege.  The rest of you lot can be shipped off to trade schools where you'll be taught some useful skills that will benefit the knowledge-worker plantation class. "A bit less slagging and a bit more cacao, my boy!"

Indeed, Murray argues minorities today are over-represented in higher education and get “a large edge in the admissions process and often in scholarship assistance."  Many, he argues. ‘don’t belong’ academically. 

Over-represented?  Hardly. 

Yes, the percentage of minority enrollment in college has steadily increased over the last 40 years.  Even so, these increases are at best modest and under-reflect the demographic changes in American society.  From 1976 to 2012, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 15 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from two percent to six percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of Native American /Alaskan Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent (National Center for Education Statistics). 

So are there too many college grads and is there too much emphasis on sending everyone to college? 

Maybe.  But consider this.  Two-thirds of all future jobs will require a college degree.  There's a reason so many (and perhaps too many) kids are headed to college these days.  They get it.  Good paying jobs in manufacturing or the skilled trades don't exist anymore.  If they are going to have any kind of shot, they have to get a college degree.  That's truer than ever for poor and working class kids. 

Here's the truth: unless we seriously rethink our economic and public spending priorities, market forces will continue to push more and more kids into higher ed.  Maybe it shouldn't be this way.  Maybe there ought to be other opportunities and choices for high school grads.  But right now (unless you're the next Gates or a Zuckerberg), getting a college degree remains the best statistical bet for bettering your lot in life. 

That's not a meme that plays into our suspicion and cynicism about higher education these days.  It doesn't even make for a sexy, click-baiting headline.  It's just what the numbers say. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

About the only thing I learned in grad school


I took a seminar on the English Romantic poets during my first semester in grad school, one taught by a snappily-dressed but rather intimidating professor who often snorted at student responses and seemed somewhat irked by the job of teaching itself.  He knew his stuff, but he had little time for students.  It took about two class periods for him to dragoon the class into a silence that only the most cocksure (or foolhardy) would ever dream to disturb with a comment or question.

It was only later that a more experienced grad student took me aside and put me wise that this professor was in a bitter, long-running feud with the rest of the department.  He had gone to Penn or Brown or one of the Ivies and now here he was tenured and trapped at some cow college in the Midwest. 

But, like I said, he really knew his stuff, which is all it ever it takes for me to stay interested.  It's never mattered to me whether my professors were good teachers or even if I agreed with their critical stances (I actually kind of like it when I don't.  Makes things more stimulating).  Indeed, I've had wonderful experiences in classrooms with profs who everyone warned me not to take. So, despite feeling a bit intimidated, I stayed in that seminar and put up with the guy's snorts and eye-rolls.  

There were two papers assigned during the seminar and a take-home essay final.  The first paper I wrote had something to do with Wordsworth's political transformation from ardent supporter of the French Revolution to his later incarnation as something of a Burkean Tory.  I played it safe and simply summarized various critical views.  I was probably too afraid to say what I thought.  I mean what did I know?  I hadn't written seven books on the Romantics.

The main objection to my initial effort was a comment on the paper's legibility.  I had printed it on a dot matrix printer and the prof's comments made it clear that this was unacceptable.  The point was underscored by three emphatic lines slashed beneath the phrase "NEVER DO THIS AGAIN!"

I don't recall what I wrote my second paper about, but I do remember the take-home final.  There were five open-ended questions and we were told to select three.  These questions were mash-ups of poets on certain themes, things like
Using two first-generation Romantic poets and one from the second generation, discuss the theme of escape, exile or alienation.
That was it. There were no instructions about how long the responses were supposed to be or whether we were to include a summary of critical views, our own thoughts (or even a preferred font and point size).  I was terrified. I had come to grad school from a small college English Department whose primary function was teaching composition. A handful of actual English majors was all that kept viable a slim selection of upper-division lit courses, so we were fussed over like prized garden tomatoes. Whatever nonsense we wrote was greeted with an indulgent, grateful forbearance. I had never encountered anyone like this professor before.

I remember, too, the critic Jane Tompkins visited campus that first semester of grad school.  She told a story about her first semester and a seminar she took with Cleanth Brooks, a grand critical poo-bah from long ago.  In one early class meeting, Brooks had asked his students whether the poem they were looking at--something by Marlowe--was a pastoral or an elegy.  One savvy grad student had responded, "Well, I would say that Marlowe believed himself to be writing a pastoral but he unwittingly wrote an elegy."  Tompkins was dumbfounded.  She wasn't sure if she knew the difference between a pastoral and an elegy.  "Hell," she thought, "even Marlowe didn't know and he wrote the damn poem."

Sitting there in my crummy grad apartment staring down at my English 570 final, I knew just how she felt.  Consider the situation. I had to demonstrate to a man with a vast knowledge of these works and their secondary literature that I had something worth saying.  Are you kidding me?  I just read a lot of these poems for the first time in the past two months.  What do I know?   So I fretted and I put things off, but eventually I had to write something. 

I didn't think I could begin to get a handle on the secondary literature in the few days I had available, so--almost in desperation--I threw myself at the poems with nothing but my own ability to read and think.  I didn't play any cute critical games or mention any of the prevailing schools of thought.  I just naively rolled the dice by reading the poems and responding to them. I riffed on how Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty reminded me ironically of the psalmist's bargaining with God.  I teased out some interesting parallels between Keats' Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge's This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison.  Then I held my breath, found an open laser printer on campus, and turned it in.

The prof had told us we could pick up our finals after a certain date.  They were to be in a box outside his door.   So I anxiously went up to his office on the appointed day and was rifling through sealed envelopes in a cardboard box when his door swung open and there he was staring imperiously down at me, a cup of coffee in one hand.  "Oh, it's you," he sniffed.

I must have mumbled something about coming by to get my final.  He nodded and told me to come into his office and take a seat.  Nervously I walked in and sat down. "Tell me how you went about writing your final," he said.  I shrugged and admitted I had been unsure how to go about it, so I just read and wrote about the poems.

"Yes," he mused absently, "you were the only one who did that."  Then he sat there looking at me for a moment as my heart sank.  I wasn't sure if he were about to take me to task or accuse me of plagiarism.  Finally he asked, "Who have you decided to do your dissertation with?"

I told him I hadn't made that decision yet.  It was only my first semester.   "Well let me know when you're ready," he said.  "I'd be happy to work with you."

I didn't end up writing a dissertation with that guy, but in retrospect he had taught me the most important lesson I ever received in graduate school: Trust yourself.  Trust yourself as a reader.  Trust yourself as a thinker.  What you have to say may be right or wrong, it may be good or bad, but it has to be yours. 

It's something I tell my students all the time.  They're always looking for the right answer.  I almost always would rather read theirs.  This is maybe the hardest lesson to learn in school.  And the funny thing is you have to keep learning it again and again.  Pretty much for the rest of your life.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pedagogical Gewgaws

Some profs have a teaching philosophy that they've developed and refined over the years.  And some--like me--just have a collection of shtick and teaching tchotchkes that seem to work.  Why?  Who knows?  They just do.

So, for posterity, here are two little gimmicks that I used this past semester:

Good Night, Tweet Prince:  When my students read Shakespeare they struggle with the most basic things like keeping straight who's who and what's actually happening in the story.  They also need help with how to cite the text by act, scene and line numbers (the little dears keep citing the page numbers!).  So this spring while we were reading Lear I assigned pairs of students a single character and had them Tweet eight status updates from the character over the course of the play.  Each update had to summarize what the character was thinking or feeling and cite the act, scene and line numbers on which the summary was based.  In-class I had the pairs share their updates with each other and compile the best ones to share with the class. 

This little exercise was fun for the students, and I liked that it got them talking about the characters and the story.  It also got them putting ideas in their own words and reinforced the formal requirements of citing the play. 

You Do the Lecture: In a unit on modernist architecture I gave a day over to letting the students create the lecture.  I divided the students up into groups and then emailed the class a very basic five-slide PowerPoint that contained titles and empty spaces.  Here's an example of a slide they received from me:


Each group had 30 minutes to complete the presentation (which had to include credible sources and URLs for the info).   They used their laptops and smart phones to do some fast and dirty research, sussed out basic info and selected some visual examples to go on the slides.  When they finished, I paired up groups and had them do their presentations for each other.  Finally the entire class picked one that they thought did a particularly good job. 

I'll leave to others the theory for why this worked (or was a waste of time).  Here's what I liked: first, both exercises got students actively doing something in class rather than just listening to me.   Second, it made them talk over the material with each other and make critical evaluations and decisions about what was accurate, important or relevant. That's always a good thing.  Lastly it forced them to put ideas into their own words and language and reinforced some basic skills like source citation.

Both exercises were fun and took up all of a 50-minute period.  Gimmicky?  Sure, but who cares if they get students actually thinking and talking about the material?  Whatever does that is a good thing, right?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Contra Montage


You know the scene. It's familiar enough to have become a cinematic cliché.  The screw-up has to dig deep down to pass the big test or master some difficult skill. So the voice-track drops out, the music swells and hours of study or practice turns into 60 seconds depicting the Karate Kid learning Kung Fu, or sorority girl Elle Wood mastering the arcana of complex legal theory.  In Groundhog's Day Bill Murray manages to pick-up French and jazz piano in under a minute of screen time.  

Whenever I see a "learning montage" in a film, I think: Wow, my job is just too boring for film.  The acquisition of knowledge may be needed for the plot, but actually showing someone learning would only impede the action.  And this is pretty much how most of my students think about education.  They know it's necessary, but it's only a prelude to getting to the good parts of their life story.

Just once I would like someone to make a film that showed the real process of learning.  Of course you might argue that the epiphanic nature of story-telling makes all films about learning.  True enough, I guess, although they aren't really about the process of learning.    

But what if someone made such a film?  Imagine illustrating all of the classical theories of learning: Plato, Locke, Piaget, Kohler...  Better still, the film would be entirely in the student's point of view and catch every misstep and misunderstanding along the way. 

One work that comes close to capturing what I mean is Constantine Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares.  Instead of laying out his theory of acting, Stanislavski illustrates it by means of a fictional student, Kostya, moving through various lessons and exercises during his first year at the Moscow Art Theater.  Kostya and the other acting students have to work through and abandon all of the false assumptions they have brought with them to class.  Told in first-person, the story perfectly captures how a student's model of a subject changes over time.  More importantly, it shows what a confusing, frustrating and lengthy process this is. 

The 60-second montage, however, leaves all of this out.  Indeed, the primary function of a montage in film is to condense time and space or to speed up the delivery of information:  And much of what happens when a student actually learns something is a pretty interesting (and even dramatic) story in itself. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

If nature be thus cautious to preserve...


I didn't catch a satisfying amount of fish on my end-of-the semester trip this year.  Couldn't get my head in the right place for some reason.  Took eight dumb hatchery trout out of a stocked stream on the first day and then struggled for the rest of the week.  It wasn't until my final few hours on the water that I began to feel in tune with what I was doing.

I spent  the better part of last Thursday morning at French Creek, a catch and release stream restricted to artificial lures.  Nothing was rising so I ended up drifting an assortment of nymphs past some snotty trout.  By 9:00 am, the weather began to cooperate and the sun went behind some thin clouds--just enough to make the day seem a bit more promising.  Even so, only one over-anxious nine-inch Brown came out to play.

When the fishing is bad you have to find your solace elsewhere.  I watched a bald eagle tending its young in a huge nest, saw some wild turkeys and even came face to face with a mink, who stared truculently back at me for a few seconds.  The day, the isolation and the sound of a stream running over rocks had to be enough.

So it's only now--a week later--that I can begin to really appreciate the moment.  That day on French Creek just means more now.  Wordsworth, I expect, might have something to say about that.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My Smartypants Students


My honors seminar students were featured in a promo for the program (along with my ugly mug).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Dear Committee Members...

 

In the form (if not the spirit) of Julie Schumacher's side-splitting epistolary novel (Dear Committee Members), I humbly submit a short thank you note to my Post-Tenure Review Committee, who met with me yesterday.

Dear Committee Members,

Thank you for participating in my post-tenure review yesterday.  This was the third time I have gone through this... this what?  Check-up?  Ritual?  Ceremony?  Has it really been 15 years since I was tenured?  In any case, I really do appreciate the time and care you put into reading and responding to my portfolio, which admittedly ranged in tone from manic ranting to morose introspection to prickly self-justification.  Somehow you saw through all that and found a way to affirm a professor a little past mid-career who is still struggling to be an effective teacher and a good colleague to his peers.

Thank you.  No, really, thank you.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer describes how easy it is to take the off-ramp after 20 years in Higher Ed.  He writes, "It is not unusual to see faculty in mid-career don the armor of cynicism against students, education and any sign of hope. It is the cynicism that comes when the high hopes one once had for teaching have been dashed by experience."

The downside to life post-tenure (LPT) is not that it prompts professors to become lazy or to stop being productive.  It's simply that LPT tends to coincide with middle age, a time of second guessing. It's also a time when you've been kicked around a bit by the thing you love.   It never seems to love you back in quite the way you hoped. 

So it's really quite gratifying every few years to have your colleagues take the time to affirm your work and contributions to the cause.  It means a lot, especially when it comes from those who actually do the job day in and day out.  So thank you, Josh, Kristin and Ross.  Your kind words were just the tonic I needed for the end of another term and the start of yet another five years.

And so we beat on...

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.  ...