Showing posts from 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 ag…

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…

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, t…

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."  …

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 quo…

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 o…

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 i…

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. Rumorlives 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…

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…

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 a…

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 jun…

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.


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 t…

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 mu…

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 r…

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 t…

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 …

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 sta…

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 ot…

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…

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 trucu…

My Smartypants Students

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

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.  …