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.

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.  ...