Waterloo and the Blue Note


The Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked in the best British tradition of understatement that the Battle of Waterloo was "a near-run thing."  And that's not a bad description of my life over the last week: a near-run thing.  It really could have been a disaster.

Let me explain.  After a fall sabbatical, I've made the return jump to light speed and am now teaching 14 credits, serving on two standing committees, two task forces, and I stupidly agreed to become temporary coordinator of our honors program. But that's all background because last week was really special: four Promotions and Tenure meetings, a candidate interview and all the while I was manically trying to stay ahead of a grading avalanche as a slow and steady snowfall of papers and assignments floated silently down upon me each day.

Throughout last week, too, I could see in my pedagogical peripheral vision a few of  my new baby freshmen beginning to manifest the kind of week-three behavior that pretty much defines "at risk."  Oh, and then my mother has been living with us for a week as we frantically look for long-term care options and try to help her make the emotional transition from living on her own to assisted living.

Yet somehow amid this near-run-disaster of a week, there was one moment of purity and goodness.  On Friday we were going over Books III-V of Nichomachean Ethics in the First-Year Honors Seminar and there were some key concepts that I really wanted my students to have down before we start the next text. So I hurriedly typed up some hypothetical situations and asked them to decide whether the actions were examples of eudaimonia or if they fit Aristotle's categories of voluntary, involuntary or compulsory actions.  (I know, more than you want to know).

What made the class wonderful was the way they wrestled themselves into understanding. I had small groups of three students talk over the hypothetical examples until they came to agreement.  Then the groups of three merged into a group of six to see if they could come to an agreement.  At each stage I told them they could have only one answer, so they would have to hash it out if there was any disagreement.

Finally one half of the room was talking to the other half, with each half explaining its ideas and answers.  Only after the entire room was in agreement did I come into the story.  Then the entire class walked me back through the examples and explained their answers.  All I had to do was mutter phrases like "So how did you all get to this idea?" or "What was the argument that made you change you mind on this point?"  Anyway, this worked really well.

We had a bit of time left, so I had an inspiration and asked the students to get back into their original groups of three and draw a cartoon or write a 30-60 second skit that illustrated two of the Aristotelian concepts they just accurately identified.  Much hilarity (but also much accuracy in representation) ensued as we watched their skits and looked at their cartoons on the Smart Board.

One of the students even remarked, "Man, we ought to do something like this every Friday."  The other students were laughing and kidding each other as they walked out.  It was a really good class, one that hit all the targets I try to aim at in my teaching: big ideas, engagement, student autonomy, keeping my big yap shut and letting them do the learning.  This is what I hope for in my teaching but--if I'm honest--don't often achieve.

The room was quiet after everyone left and I stood there for about 20 seconds savoring the afterglow of a great class, which can linger like a moment of zen, or grace or maybe that soulful blue note at the end of a jazz solo.  Then I packed up my valise and walked back into my schlubby, near-run, one step ahead of disaster life. 

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