Wednesday, August 24, 2016

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 happened across two retired profs who had come back to attend some event.  They told me they had walked across campus and hadn't recognized (or been recognized by) anyone until they met me.  One of them had taught here for 35 years and helped to build a department from nothing into a high-quality, award-winning program.

So there you go.  Sic transit pedagogia.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

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 steps two and three this past summer.  After 10 years of fly fishing, I decided to hire a professional guide for a day while I was out West.  It was expensive, but I figured I should give it a try once in my life.  I modestly told the guide beforehand that I wasn't a novice, but I was by no means an expert.  My casting was adequate but not great.  My guide was helpful, knowledgeable and patient, but I came away from the experience a bit deflated.  I had to admit to myself that I'm still at step two when it comes to fly fishing.

I can't draw the pirate.

This experience was also a humbling reminder of something my students go through all the time.  I am forever trying to get them to employ higher-order thinking skills by being as concrete and clear as I can in my expectations.  But no matter how concrete I make my expectations (think freakin' Portland cement here), there yet remains an ineradicable abyss between steps two and three.  Believe me, they want the rote, mechanical step-by-step approach that allows them to sail effortlessly through an exam, an assignment or a degree program: "Just show me what you want and I'll do it just that way." 

This approach, however, only creates "routine experts," people who can plug in known solutions to already known problems.  It doesn't create "adaptive experts," people who can synthesize solutions from existing knowledge to open-ended problems that people have never before encountered. Routine expertise only takes you so far (about to step two if you don't trace the damned pirate and mail him in).  Alas, that's not what the world needs these days.

In the end there just are no shortcuts to learning do anything, a truth that's seldom stressed in ad copy or admissions brochures. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

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 like Groucho Marx and would shake his finger at us and say in utter sincerity "Be careful, my dears.  Linguistics is a cruel mistress."  There was another professor in grad school who didn't care what she was assigned to teach.  In every course she threw out the syllabus and taught Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene

Another prof--guy by the name of Dust--would openly pour bourbon into his coffee during class.  Odd little man.  He looked like a down-on-his-heels Mr. Pennybags (the guy on the Monopoly money).  And I had a prof in a Chaucer course who began each course by telling an elaborate dirty joke.  Different one each day.  He also had a habit of referring to to Alison in The Miller's Tale as "honey child."

I suppose it's possible that the diminished weirdness correlates to the improvement in quality of our faculty.  Still I can't help thinking something has been lost.  The weirdness was a kind of value added benefit in one's education.  You could dine out on some of those stories for years.

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.  ...