Showing posts from 2016

Strange and Charming Particles

One of the weird things about teaching is that you spend three months getting to know a group of people who are destined to disappear. Inevitably you start to like a few of them.  They're funny or interesting. You have watched them rise to the occasion, overcome a problem or in a few cases tank.  Sometimes, too, they have shared deeply personal things about their lives with you. You have rooted for them, grumbled about them, laughed with them.

And then they leave.

They don't call, they don't write.  They just leave.  It's almost like you get dumped at the end of every semester.  And 95 percent of these people you will never see or hear of again. A class--especially a good one--is like one of those rare subatomic particles that  flashes into existence in a super collider.  It's there for a nanosecond or two and then it's gone.

I had two really great classes this semester.  I liked the course and the energy the students brought to the room.  I liked them.  So th…

In the final direction of the elementary town

Sometime in the early 1970s my mother decided to reupholster a chair in red velvet.  I can still see her tucking and tacking away out in the driveway of our suburban ranch house.  She was never a particularly handy woman, but she managed well enough.  My dad, however, was not impressed by the finished product.  He laughed and said it looked like something that belonged in a bordello.  Perhaps in response to this slight, she placed the chair in a prominent spot in their bedroom.

When my mother left my father a few years later, she took the chair with her.  It eventually followed her into a new marriage, a move to California and later to Tennessee.  It was an incongruous part of the decor in four different houses.  And last March I hauled it back to Iowa when I moved my mother into an assisted living home.  Four months later I had to move her and the chair again when she had to go into a different unit in the facility for advanced memory care.

Last Wednesday we moved once m…

The 613 Commandments

So last week in my Humanities course we were looking at the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of prodigal son in Luke, and I was providing the class with some historical context about the nature of what it meant to keep the covenant in the First Century CE.

"There were over 600 laws that you had to observe to be in right relationship to God," I told the class.  "And in Matthew 5-7, Jesus essentially redefines what it means to keep the covenant.   I mean  there were laws for everything: how to worship, how to eat, what to wear and not wear."

A hand goes up.  "Yes?"

"Why were there so many laws?"

And suddenly all I could think of was the first syllabus I drew up when I began teaching.  No late policy, nothing on attendance, length of papers, font size...  Now my syllabus has 613 little rules (okay, that may be hyperbole).  And nearly every one arose in response to an earlier lack of clarity about something or a former student who ingeniously fe…

Cutting your losses

I have a class this semester that--despite every gimmick I throw at them--will not engage.  So a few weeks ago I gave up trying.  This is not what a professor who has committed himself to active learning pedagogy, growth mindset and student-centered approaches is supposed to do.  He is expected to find a way to get through to these students.  He is supposed to keep trying, to break through.

But I looked at the needs of the students in my other class and did a quick calculation.  I could keep spending all my time and energy trying to come up with innovative ways to get through to a roomful of students doing the  mannequin challenge, or I could put more effort into the other courses. So I just went back to lecturing in my problematic course.

They won.  They didn't want to engage and I gave in.

I feel bad about it, too.  It's an odd feeling going into class each day knowing you are doing it wrong.  You can actually feel it each time one of them looks at the clock in boredom, or s…

On the clock

I have no idea how many hours I work each week.  And according to a recent blog post in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, most academics don't.  Some cite a statistic as high as 80 hours a week, which I think is nonsense.  Others suggest somewhere between 40 and 50, which strikes me about right.

Here's what I know.  I'm up every morning around 4:00 am and do an hour and a half of grading, eat breakfast and get into the office on most days by 7:30 am.   More grading or prepping for class and then teaching four different courses 10 times throughout the week, plus the mandatory five office hours a week. I serve on two committees (Core Oversight and P & T) and two task forces. Several times a week, too, there is a late afternoon meeting.  So I end up heading home after 5:00 on those days.  So there's a good 9-10 hours a day when I am working either at home or on campus, plus another four to six each weekend.  Let's say 47-55 hours a week.  According to a re…

Skinning the cat

Here's my shameful little secret: I don't course plan, not like I should anyway.  Oh I have a plan and I carry it out, but I could not produce for you anything that looks like a detailed lesson plan.  At best I could show you some scribbled Post-It notes or a few cocktail napkins.  But nothing that bespeaks the best practices of backwards-design or a detailed map that exquisitely links learning objectives to every activity and moment of the class. And I feel bad about this.  Have for years.

Don't get me wrong.  I aim at learning outcomes but I tend to feel my way toward them rather than Mapquest the route.  I just need to be in a course--thinking tactically, taking the measure of the room--to know what will work and what won't.   This is wrong, wrong, wrong, I know.   Even so, knowing this (and relative success teaching over the past two decades) hasn't yet lead me to change my ways.  So this semester I hit upon a plan to outsmart myself.

I am teaching in the same …

Yeah, been meaning to fix that...

A few years ago I began asking students in my 100-level classes to write a reflection paper during the first week.  I called these "What Do You Know"?" papers.   In them they told me what they knew or imagined about the subjects we were about to explore.  If it was a course covering historical material, I asked them to tell me about their experience in past history courses.  If we would be reading poetry, I asked how they felt about that.

This assignment served a couple of aims.  First, it allowed me to get know them better and to get an idea of what they already knew.  Second, it gave me an early heads-up if any of them had serious writing problems.

My third purpose was to change the conversations we would be having at the end of the semester.  In the instructions for these papers, I asked students to set a personal learning goal.  And I had to prime the pump with a few examples or inevitably they would all have chosen "get an A."  Some of my suggested goals …

Teaching Accomodations

About two years ago I noticed that my students were becoming incredibly soft spoken, especially the timid half-engaged inhabitants out on the Siberian rim of the classroom.

More than once I've had to stride out to Siberia and lean in to hear their softly mumbled question or comment.  I mean what is it with this generation?  Why so many low talkers?

Turns out that I've been operating below the normal hearing range for quite a while. This accounts for all the times I've heard  Kaylie, when a student said her name was Bailey, Haley, or even My Li...   Not to mention the times I've misheard words and phrases and had a puzzled moment thinking 'Wait?  I don't think he really just said what I think he said.'   Case in point: a student told me recently his father was a master baker. 

Egads, that took me a few panicked seconds to decode.

So today's the first day I will be wearing the new hearing aids in class.  Who knows what I'll hear with my new bionic …

The level sands stretch far away

Nothing makes you feel your age like meeting the new people.  That's especially true this year when nearly 20 percent of the faculty at my institution will be new hires either replacing retirees or in a few cases "poached" former colleagues.  Each fall I look around at the opening faculty meeting and count the number of faces who were here when I began.  That number is now five.

For the past several years, too, I've volunteered to serve as a faculty mentor.  I like doing it and I usually like the new people.  Even so, meeting them each year is always a disquieting reminder of how quickly you will someday disappear.  A few years after retirement and you may as well never have existed. After four years, the students will have changed over completely and after a half dozen your name will become a few vaguely familiar syllables: "Professor Who?”  The critic E.P. Thompson once referred to this as “the enormous condescension of posterity."

Last spring I happene…

The Pirate and the Pile Cast

There used to be an outfit out of Minneapolis that ran ads looking for aspiring artists.  You would often see them in magazines like TV Guide, The Saturday Evening Post or sometimes on matchbook covers.  The ad copy asked if you liked to draw or doodle and if you wanted a high paying career in graphic design or fashion illustration.  All you had to do was redraw a sketch of a pirate (handily provided and easy to trace).  Then you mailed it in and awaited the art school's verdict on your talent.

Sometimes, too, the ads even provided step-by-step instructions on how to get started: make an oval, draw a cross to capture the eye-line and ridge of the nose and then...   Yes, and then step three.  There was always a big jump from step two to step three.  I could handle the oval and the cross, but the crisp, confident line quality (not to mention the deft shading and attention to detail) was beyond my 12-year old stick figure drawing ability.

I was thinking about the yawning gap between …

When the Weird Turned Pro

A colleague of mine and I occasionally have a conversation about the quality of the professors at our institution.  We generally agree that the overall quality has greatly improved over the past two decades.  At the same time, though, we seem to be a far less weird bunch.

Because there really used to be some legendary weirdness among our ranks: profs who had scandalous affairs with other faculty members' spouses, profs who were discovered living in their offices, or who droned  on and on about their eccentric obsessions (like returning to the gold standard).  Some just had strange tics.  One kept a hand always firmly gripped to a purse strap during lectures, and another had a secret crawlspace under his house that he used to hide from his ex-wife's attempts to have him served with a subpoena for back child support.

Sometimes I think back to the sheer weirdness of some of my former professors.  I had a linguistics prof, a British guy named Dobbs.  He skulked about the room lik…

The Opposite of Synedoche

So much of how a course is put together exists only in a professor's head.  Case in point: I've been reading the texts for a colleague's capstone seminar this summer because I will be teaching it in the spring. 

The texts are all great (Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Howard Zinn's autobiography, a graphic novel by Charles Burns).  But without understanding the neural connections of my colleague's pathway through the themes and subjects, I can't see how the course comes into a whole.

And that's the point, isn't it?  A syllabus, a list of texts, some well-wrought assignments, all the proprietorial and tangible parts of a course do not make it whole.  There remains the original connections made by a single mind that knitted some ideas together.   In the end, the dancer is the dance.

Several years ago I tried to package up one of my courses so it could be taught by a colleague who was stepping i…


One of the goals I had when I first began blogging on teaching and learning was to be more open about my struggles in the classroom.  Or let's not mince words: my failures in the classroom.

All too often in higher education, we don't want to talk about our failures.  Even for a tenured full professor, it's risky.  There is an emotional component to owning  one's failures before colleagues, some of whom can be unkind, quick to judge or anxious to tell you how you should have done it.  So, fearful of rebuke, you hold back and find ways to ascribe your failure to factors beyond your control.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer acknowledges the grip that fear has on educators.  He writes,
It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.  To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.  And this is wha…