Friday, December 28, 2018

Curiouser and curioser

A faculty development colleague of mine often reminds us in meetings and workshops that we don't teach the students we want.  We teach the students we get.  By this he means it's no use bewailing the levels of preparedness we find in our classrooms.  Indeed, it should come as no surprise to us that we face these challenges. Anyone passingly familiar with the recent trends in higher education should be well aware that preparedness shortfalls are the norm.  Here are just a few tidbits from the 2018 data:
  • The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class.
  • Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.
  • Readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.
  • Readiness levels in reading and science have varied over the past five years, with no clear upward or downward trends.
These are depressing statistics, no doubt, but I made my peace with them a long time ago.  I simply remind myself that my students aren't broken. They're just under-prepared and that's a situation I can address by changing my approach to teaching. In the end, my students are every bit as capable of thinking and learning as the those who walk into my classroom fully prepared.  In some ways they are better off because they haven't acquired the strategic learning approach that is too often adopted by kids who've aimed themselves at college like guided missiles.  When it clicks for an under-prepared student, it really clicks (and it's also really gratifying).

But there is one readiness quality lacking in students that does not show up in the data: curiosity.  Or maybe I should rephrase that.  What's missing is not curiosity; it's the ability to arouse their own curiosity.  Because--let's face it--human beings are naturally curious under the right circumstances.  Anyone awaiting the arrival of a blind date or the reading of a rich uncle's will be plenty curious.  Even so, the ability to move oneself deliberately from incurious to curious is an extremely rare trait among students (and maybe even people in general).

Too, too many years ago I earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and perhaps the most important thing I took from the experience was the ability to manufacture my own curiosity.  Reporters have to acquire this skill because they are assigned to talk to all kinds of people about all kinds of things.  Moreover, they often have little control over what stories they are assigned to cover. In order to do their job--and do it well--they need to make themselves curious.  After awhile this becomes second nature.  Indeed, you'll often hear good reporters say that they like their job because they get paid to satisfy their curiosity.

So here's my question: is there a way I could structure my classes so that students learn to arouse their own curiosity about subjects in which they aren't already interested?  

Too often we do just the opposite. We (and I include myself here) tell students to select a topic or research question that interests them.  But what if that's a mistake?  After all, no prof or editor ever once told me as a J-school undergraduate to write about what I was interested in.  They could have cared less about what interested me.  What they wanted me to do was get interested (in the Water Board meeting, the flower show, the woman who made a macrame map of her county). "Find the story," they said. "Make me care, find out if it matters, tell me why it's interesting."

I'm not sure how I would even begin to structure an assignment or course that required students to arouse their own curiosity.  Nevertheless, that's what happened as a J-school undergrad.  How could I steal this approach and use it in my own teaching?  Is there a way to teach students (or at least structure an experience) that would cause them awaken their own curiosity?

I don't know, but it's a really interesting question.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Dead CATs

Anyone whose committed themselves to teaching with active learning strategies has at one time or another taken inspiration from Angelo and Cross' list of 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs).  It's all there: minute papers, concept maps, muddiest points, fishbowl activities--the entire go-to grab bag of how to engage students by not gassing on like a logorrheic buffoon.

Inevitably, too, you find a few techniques that you like and that regularly prove effective.  Take me, for example.  I'm a huge fan of classroom opinion polls that require students to move to various locations in a room that represent their opinions on ideas. These work especially well when you want to capture opinion before looking more deeply into a subject or a question.  Then you return to the poll at the end of the unit and have students re-position themselves.

Sometimes I'll even snap a cell phone picture of the room (thank you, fish-eye lens) and pull it up on a PPT slide when we take the final poll.  Then you get the students to explain the story of why they changed positions.  What argument, idea or reading made you walk across the room?  It's a nice way to physicalize the invisible change in thinking that we hope is taking place inside our students' heads.

That said, you can't go to this technique too often or it loses its magic. Indeed, this seems true of all my favorite CATs.  Even the best ones die over time. Compounding this is the fact that I'm not the only professor these days who's abandoned lecturing for an array of active learning strategies. My students no longer find a lot of what I do in class a refreshing change of pace.  It's just their new normal.

Don't get me wrong.  Active learning works, but it's also a lot of work.  The difficulty--and it's the central, ineradicable difficulty in all teaching--is to find ways to present the material so that it engages student curiosity.  And curiosity is a fickle beast.  Let's face it: the 11th concept map or the day-after-day muddiest point ritual begins to wear thin after a while.  You have to mix it up, switch tactics, come up with ever new techniques. What once worked doesn't work anymore.  Why?  Who knows?  It just doesn't.

So I keep trying to come up with new ideas, new projects and new strategies to get students engaged and actively doing something interesting in the classroom.  As I said, it’s a lot of work and a lot of invention, but there is really no alternative.  I am in an attention-getting arms race, but I often feel outgunned and outmaneuvered by a world in which student attention is beguiled 24/7 by dozens of endlessly diverting multimedia platforms.

And here's my guilty little secret: sometimes I fear I am using active learning CATs just to be using them and not because I have thought through how they will lead to the learning outcomes I want to achieve. I get seduced by tchotchkes and gimcrack, and I suspect I'm not alone. 

Bottom line: active learning strategies are something like antibiotics.  They are amazing and effective, but they aren't a pedagogical panacea and they can be over prescribed.  In the end, moving student cognition from one spot in the room to another is as much work as it has ever been. It still demands all of our focus, commitment and guile.

I often remind my students that "there are no shortcuts," but I just as often have to remind myself of this stubborn and exasperating truth.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Teaching Philosophies (and the lack thereof)

I once team taught with a grizzled and rather grumpy anthropologist who would say things to students in class that shocked me. It was his practice to bore into students with brutal Socratic cross examinations. The funny thing is the students either hated him for this or loved him. There were those who adored taking his classes and signed up for every one.  There was also a sizable amount who viewed his classes as a harrowing, never-to-be-repeated ordeal.

One afternoon during our team-taught semester, I watched as he methodically demolished a young man's dubious premise. After a few feeble attempts to defend his ideas, the student finally threw up his hands and said, "Hey, man, I'm just trying to tell you my philosophy."   My colleague grunted in response, "You're 19. You're not old enough to have a philosophy."

As mentioned, I was rather shocked by this, but I have to admit he had a point.  

We tend to call any set of operating assumptions a "philosophy," when--by definition--a  philosophy is a worked-out doctrine whose presuppositions are carefully considered and whose conclusions are subjected to close scrutiny.  Rare is the 19-year old who's done this kind of work.  

But just as rare is a new, fresh-from-grad school assistant prof when it comes to having a fully-formed "teaching philosophy." Nevertheless, we continue to ask for statements of teaching philosophy from every potential hire. 

Why?  What is it we're hoping to hear?  

Sure, some can quote Paolo Freire with abandon or limn the tenets of the various theories of teaching (existentialist, constructivist, progressivist, behaviorist...), but is this really a philosophy?  In teaching--as in ballroom dancing or throwing a curve ball--theories and philosophies only take you so far. They may point you in a direction, offer you some insight or confirm your instincts.  But you still have to get in a classroom, screw up, get dissatisfied, try something new, work through it and then make a few investigative toe-kicks at the wreckage.  

Ultimately teaching philosophies emerge from failure and the best ones are (or should be) eternally provisional.  What you should want in candidates is not a set philosophy so much as general sense of restlessness.  Personally I wish we would stop asking anyone who's taught fewer than 10 years about their teaching philosophy.  Instead, we ought to ask questions like these: 
  • What are the dissatisfactions in your own teaching that you are currently struggling to understand and address?
  • What assumption about teaching and learning has been the hardest for you to abandon?
  • Tell me about a time when you went down the wrong pedagogical path and how you found your way out of the woods?
  • What's the most wince-inducing error you made in designing a course?  
  • What idea about teaching have you discovered to be dead wrong?
What you want in a prospective teacher is a quality of permanent dissatisfaction.  In my opinion, you should hire candidates who are uneasy and unhappy with their teaching and those who have tentative, works-in-progress-philosophies.  To quote W. H. Auden, you want someone who exhibits clear thinking about mixed feelings.  

Hire these people and the philosophy part usually takes care of itself.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Secret Sauce

For nearly 20 years I've taught a senior core capstone in which students are assigned to write about the most valuable classes in their undergraduate experience.  I purposely avoid defining the terms like value or significance when explaining this assignment. It's up to them to decide what matters. In the paper they have to first describe their best learning experiences and then identify the common denominator (if any).

I've read thousands of these papers over the years and they are eerily uniform. Here are a few insights: seniors do not value their major courses over their core courses.  With rare exception, they don't value science or social science courses more than those in the arts and humanities.  Moreover, there is no discernible pattern in the teaching method used in these courses. They are just as likely to employ labs, journals, discussions, group projects and even that old whipping boy lecturing.

So what's the secret sauce? 

You won't find it by asking the students, nearly half of whom fail to see any coherent pattern in the courses they value.  Not a few actually misdiagnose what made a course valuable. They'll write, "I am a hands-on learner," but the courses they describe will include decidedly "hands-free" offerings in economics, literature and philosophy. Another common misdiagnosis is to attribute value to some unique chemistry with a professor. They'll write, "Professor Y just has a way of making me want to learn."

Far be it from me to dismiss the value of good teaching, but even the best professors can't bat 1,000.  Not every student will find their course valuable.  No, to find the common ingredient you have to look at the language students use when describing these courses. They will repeatedly use phrases like this class really opened my eyes, got me out of my comfort zone, made me work harder than ever before, pushed me, changed my entire way of thinking, got me to realize....

These phrases (or variants thereof) provide the only consistent evidence of value.  It's truly staggering how this pattern of language repeatedly shows up.  What becomes clear after reading enough of these papers is that students only value those courses that propelled them into some deep cognitive restructuring.  They entered the course with one set of assumptions, ideas or expectations, but something in the course allowed them to construct an entirely new way of conceiving the subject, the world or even their own sense of personal agency or potential.

So is there some pedagogical take-away from all this?  Well it turns out the secret sauce is not so secret.  Plato wrote about it over 2,000 years ago. Real learning means getting out of the cave.

In my own teaching, the take away from this has been to teach toward this change. I try to capture students' assumptions, ideas and sense of their agency at the beginning of the class and search for any changes at the end.  And that's what I have been looking for this past week while grading final projects and reading final reflections.  Here are few choice bits worth celebrating. 

In my First-Year Seminar course I have them analyze all their courses and first-year activities:
  • A course that I took this semester was New Plays, New Perspectives, and surprisingly enough I found this class very interesting. It opened me up to a world that I was not very familiar with.
  • I  had one class this semester that really made me think outside the box... That class was my first-year seminar. After a few readings of Bain and Ariely, I was beginning to see things differently or I was beginning to think about things and topics I had never thought about before.
  • I have learned so much about myself this semester and how I am a different person than anyone else. I have always compared myself to others and this year has helped me change and become more confident. I have met so many new people, and some of them have changed how I think. They have opened my eyes to more opinions.
In my Intro to Humanities course we study ancient Greek and Roman texts:
  • When I began this course, my understanding of Greece was limited to Percy Jackson. That’s a sad thought because Percy Jackson doesn’t do Greek mythology justice.
  • When it comes to this class, the biggest connection I make in everyday life is realizing the  Hellenistic roots of our culture.  Hellenistic traits and values are all around us everyday and we are mostly unaware how much they shape our thinking.
In my Aesthetic Appreciation course, I ask students how their confidence in approaching poetry, paintings and architecture has changed:
  • I think it is funny how, for not wanting to take this class, I learned more than I did in one of my required classes for my major. This class has given me so many take always, ones that I would have never learned anywhere else.  My confidence level in all three subjects has grown into something more than just “oh that looks nice” to a level where I can begin to understand why a painting is painted the way it is, why a building is shaped and built like it is, and why a poem sounds good when read aloud.
Grading these finals and final reflection papers is my favorite part of  every  semester.  I don't know about you, but I LOVE the secret sauce.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On Earning an F

"A" grades are all alike; every unhappy "F" grade is unhappy in its own way.  This is a truth borne out semester after semester.  

Today I will begin to turn in grades and--as always--there will be a few Fs earned by students who either gave up, disappeared, freaked out, or simply spent the last few weeks in desperate denial, hoping for miracle.   Each F is unique.  Each is special. 

It's always surprising to me how much I like my F students.  They're usually so much more interesting than those who earn 4.0 after 4.0.  I wish there were a rule that F grades could only be given in person.  I would tell failing students that their grade does not define them, that the grade I turn in to the registrar has nothing to do with how I feel about them. (Hell I've given As to perfectly dreadful people).  I would also point them toward the research that shows good grades do not correlate to creativity and innovation.  

Most of all, I would urge them to do some reflection.  In an ideal world, any F could turn into a D if students would simply do some sincere reflection on what they could change in their approach to class.  In most cases, they already know.  Still, what the military calls an "after action report" would be useful for F students.  It would allow them to realize that their F was neither definitive nor inevitable. An F should be an opportunity to learn,.  Sadly, it almost never is.

In the next few days, some of my most interesting students will be sitting alone.  They will log on to the course management system, look at their final grade and most likely draw all the wrong conclusions.  

It shouldn't be this way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Standing in Hallways

Passing out the course evals at the end of a desultory, nothing to crow about semester always engenders a little soul searching.  You scrawl the course number on the board, remind students to return the Number 2 pencils and then slink off to the hallway as they pen their comments:

You rock! 
Great course.
Too much reading.

Lose the text.

And after you have read all the cartoons on your colleagues' doors and grazed through your phone's in-box, you begin to fill out your own evaluation:

That entire second unit needs redesigning, but there's no way I'll get it done over break.
I've never liked peer editing.  Does it really help?
Man, my shtick is getting stale in this class.  How many times have I taught it?

Funny thing is I can never predict what my evals will be.  I've taught classes that I thought were wretched failures and students still gave me good evals.  I've also had wonderful courses with seemingly bright, engaged students and gotten rather tepid evaluations.  You never know.

I've heard that after the Gettysburg Address Lincoln received only a smattering of applause.  He is reported to have remarked to Ward Hill Lamon, his bodyguard, "That speech won't scour."  By scour he was referring to plowing.  A good plow slices the dirt and kicks it cleanly to the side; a bad one clumps and you have to stop every few feet and scrape it clean.  Bottom line: Lincoln thought he had bombed.

Not sure if I clumped or scoured this semester.  But standing in the hallway yesterday, doing the evaluation shuffle, it sure felt a little clumpy.

Monday, November 19, 2018

All Gear and Tackle Trim

The poet Randall Jarrell once remarked that if he had a lot of money he would pay somebody to let him teach poetry to young people.  I don't have any money, but--at least until the budget cuts kick in--I do get to teach a few poems to young people. And whenever I do, I always tell them that we will studiously avoid the question what does this mean?

Most students are paralyzed with fear by this question, so it's best to avoid it.  Besides, there are better places to start with a poem than worrying its meaning to death.  Frankly, the meaning of 90 percent of poems is the least interesting thing about them.  It's usually better--and far less intimidating--to start with sounds.  Even if students don't get what a poem means, they can hear the moods, rhythms and textures of sounds.

Not all poems, of course, lend themselves to this kind of analysis.   Even poets can get hung up on meaning. The best ones to teach--especially to those afraid of poetry--concern themselves with sound as much as meaning.  So I'm always on the look out for poems heavily invested in sound.  Recently I happened across one by John Masefield, which is wonderfully rich with the kind sound sense that's fun to teach.


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
What does this mean?  Who cares?  I suppose, if you wanted, you could go to town with some post-colonialist analysis: distant Ophir being an Edward Said-like exoticizing of the east.   Or maybe you could wax long about a Georgian aesthete dissing the dreary mercantile cargoes of the empire by contrasting them with a more sensuous and fictive past (cinnamon and cedar wood versus pig lead and cheap tin trays). We might even rope in Yeats with his metonymization of merchants as "fingers in a greasy till."  

But it's a lot more fun simply to listen to a poem like Cargoes.  Ask students if they can hear the trochaic Stately Spanish galleons coming from the isthmus (all the sibilant smoothness of large slow moving ships tacking against the wind).  Contrast that with the hard Cs and Ts of the Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack...  chuff, chuff, chuff.  Why are the hard sounds better for this line than the softer S's that predominate earlier lines?  Why does a line like sweet white wine linger and slow us down while cheap tin trays has a business-like staccato rattle?   How is butting through the channel a different experience on the tongue than rowing home to haven.

Get students to say lines aloud, have them pick the ones that are fun to say, the ones that feel right on their tongue-- do this and you're half-way home.  Plus, watching them discover poems as sounds is a blast (I get what Jarrell meant by paying someone to teach poetry).  Students seldom think about the sounds of words and even more rarely do they trust their ears.  You have to get them to believe that they don't need graduate work in semiotics to get poetry.  All they need is a tongue, some ears and a good poem.

Here was a comment from my aesthetic appreciation course last spring that made me happy.
I will admit when I first signed up for this class and read the description, I was not at all excited... After being in the class for a couple of weeks, my opinion started to shift from “this is a requirement” to “I am beginning to get interested.”  For me the theme of this course reminds me of a line from Transformers.  The main character tells this girl that there is more than what is seen with the eye...  My entire life I have disliked poetry and been scared to read and interpret it.  In this class, there was not the pressure to try to understand exactly what the author means.  As a result, I have begun to enjoy poetry a lot more.  There is a depth to it that goes beyond meaning that I had never been exposed to before.

 Did you hear that?   Transformers.   That's high praise from an 18-year old.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Thinking Man's Guide to Loafing

In the best selling Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes an interesting case that the agricultural revolution (9500-8500 BCE) may have been history's greatest bait-and-switch.  Human beings, he argued, traded a relatively easy life as hunter-gatherers for the dawn-to-dusk backbreaking work of clearing fields, hauling water, digging irrigation ditches and constantly worrying over worms, blight, droughts and locusts.

Even worse, the human body was not designed for such tasks.  Harari writes, "...the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.  Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle next to their wheat fields.  This completely changed their way of life.  We did not domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us."

And, he argues, this lifestyle change was on almost every level a rotten deal. Wheat did not offer food security or a better diet.  It did cause the human population to swell, which in turn produced plenty of cannon fodder for the creation of marauding armies.  Foraging hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, ate dozens of species of plants and animals and were better able to survive difficult periods even without stockpiling supplies. They were as likely just to move on rather than fight other bands over access to game and forage.

What's more, they had more down time. And this is the argument that caught my attention.  Harari writes that even today the world's few hunter-gatherer societies can get enough to eat with a few hours of foraging each morning.  So what do they do with all the extra time?  They loaf, they play with the kids, they take naps. 

Years ago I had the good fortune to live in a tiny one-bedroom house that had been built by my grandfather.  It had originally been a dairy (the bathroom had been the cooler).  For over 10 years I paid $50 a month rent, plus the phone and electric bills.  My grandfather and I put in a wood burning stove in the kitchen to heat the house in the winter and I opened the windows to catch breezes in the summer.

At some point while living there, I came across Possum Livinga book written Dolly Freed, a young woman who lived with her father in an old house in Pennsylvania.  The premise of this book was that you didn't need much money to live a good life.  If you had a cheap roof over your head (and I did), you really did not need to work at all -- or at least anymore than you wanted.

Freed's little how-to manual included instructions for raising chickens, for foraging in the woods, for brewing up homemade remedies and even for making moonshine.  For several years in the early 1980s, I harbored a dream of buying that little house from my grandfather and just dropping completely off the economic grid.  I made plans for turning the backyard into a vegetable garden and figured I could paint a house every now and then when I needed some cash.  The important thing was to have more time to loaf, to read novels, to write poems, to chat with friends, to go fishing.  I estimated all I needed was $300-400 or a month.  How hard could it be?

Well, as they say, one thing led to another and my dream of possum living never materialized. I went to college, then onto grad school and eventually became a professor.   But the dream of possum living never quite went away.  I still daydream about a life of loafing.

Who knows?  Hunter-gatherer skills might come in handy in retirement.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

To obstruct is unnatural

Today at noon I'll be teaching a roomful of undergrads (mostly first-year students) an ancient Roman text, Seneca's On Anger.  Then at 1 pm I'll go into a meeting with my fellow faculty members and administrators to discuss ways of eliminating the possibility that teaching such texts will continue to happen at my institution.

Because, let's face it, ancient Roman philosophy like Stoicism just isn't relevant to a 21rst Century education, which ought to add value to the students' future career trajectory.  I say this after a gunman walked into a bar yesterday in Thousand Oaks, California, and mowed down 12 strangers.  I say this after a massacre in a Synagogue only one week before and after countless such outbursts of angry violence over the past several years.  I say this within 48 hours of witnessing one of the most divisive political elections in recent memory, one in which people's fears, angers and resentments were deliberately stoked by our political leaders as a pathway to power.

The Stoics feared the social costs of such unchecked public anger. In his treatise, Seneca writes,
...if you consider results and the harm of anger, it is clear that no disease has cost the human race so dearly.  Anger has caused bloodshed and poisoning, the vile counter-charges of criminals, the entire downfall of cities and nations, with kings sold at public auction, houses put to the torch by fires that spread beyond the city-walls… Behold the most glorious cities whose foundations can now scarcely be traced; anger cast them down. Behold emptiness stretching across lonely miles without a single inhabitant: anger laid them waste. Behold all the leaders who have been handed down to posterity as instances of an evil fate: anger stabbed this one in his bed, struck down this one amid the sanctities of the feast, and tore this one to pieces in the very home of the law and in full view of the crowded forum…
As you can see, what I teach just isn't relevant today.  God help me, sometimes the ironies of this job become so glaring that you can't help thinking they've been scripted.

And so this afternoon we figure out how to narrow and make more cost effective and efficient the delivery of the undergraduate experience, one that has little use for dusty old ideas like Stoicism, a view on life I hope to practice today as I sit through this meeting.  The changes to our curriculum are a done deal, not something any arguments based on values or principles are likely to change.  And my getting angry won't do any good.  I'll simply try to keep in mind the words of another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who began every day reciting this meditation:
The people I deal with today may be unhelpful and short-sighted.  They are like this because they can’t see the good and the value. But I have seen the beauty of good...  and I have recognized that the those who do not agree with me have a nature not unlike my own — not of the same blood or birth, but of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me...  Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Design Day

It's November, which means that students in my Aesthetic Appreciation class are just starting the architecture unit.  I really like this part of the course.  Give my students a poem, a painting or--worse--a piece of classical music and they are a little terrified, convinced they lack the secret intellectual sauce to appreciate it.   But architecture?  Not so much.  For whatever reason, they are unafraid of buildings.  Maybe it's because they have never before considered architecture as a medium of aesthetic expression.
Their first assignment is to use a set list of household items (cardboard, milk jug, paper clips, tin foil...) to express a concept such  as playfulnesssacredness, edginess or harmony with nature.  The structure has to be three dimensional and portable enough to bring to class. 

We go over the elements of architecture and some basic design principles, but other than that they are on their own.  On Design Day, they bring in their structures and the class chooses finalists for those designs that best communicate their concept with well-chosen materials, elements and principles. 

Most designs key on one or two features like shape or color.  Few think about texture, light or rhythm.  The goal is not to get students thinking like architects; it's just to reinforce the concepts they have learned, but also to realize how just hard it is to get it all working together (a bit like assigning them try to write a sonnet before having them read Shakespeare or Petrarch).

Design Day is fun, but it's also a good way to show them that architecture can communicate ideas in much the same way as music.  A symphony may be tense, joyous, moody or playful.  A building can be as well.  Like music it doesn’t have a literal message that can be expressed in precise words.  Instead it uses the associations we have with scale, proportion, color, symmetry, texture, light, rhythm and ornament.  As with a poet or a painter, deliberate choices have been made to create an aesthetic effect.  Indeed, well-designed buildings are--as is often pointed out--symphonies in substance, a kind of frozen music.

In this assignment students only need to think about one plane of their design: the communicative plane.  But imagine doing this and creating a structure that functions efficiently for a picky client and meeting the engineering requirements and obeying municipal codes and staying within a budget…   

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote some of the most dense, difficult logical treatises in Western thought.  At one point, he turned his hand to architecture and in exasperation confessed, "Philosophy is easy.  Architecture is hard."  Indeedan architect has less control over the medium than the painter and considerably less freedom than a poet, which should give you an idea how amazing it is when everything works together.  

I love this day.  Sadly, this course and this day will very likely get the chop given the budget restructuring process we are currently undergoing. Aesthetic Appreciation isn't required by any of our many career preparation majors, which, we are told, the real reason students come to college.  The course is merely a gen. ed. elective, so that means, apparently, it lacks something called value proposition. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Not Bean Bag

It's easy to despair the political climate of our times.  There's no end of demonizing rhetoric, fear-mongering and ad-hominen attacks.  Reading ancient literature, however, helps to keep things in the right perspective: it could get worse.

Case in point: the death of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman orator and putative defender of the Republic.  His scorching denunciations of Catiline (who may or may not have been guilty of a conspiracy against the state) were once the models of persuasive rhetoric held up for emulation to every 19th century schoolboy.

Indeed, Cicero's polished oratory was his claim to fame and power.  He hadn't come from one of the old Senatorial families and was something of a self-made man.  By late 43 BC, however, he was on the run, holing up with friends or lying low in one of his many villas. The ruling junta, and especially Marc Antony, had had enough of him.  Antony, of course, had more than once been the target of Cicero's stinging rhetorical attacks, so he dispatched his goons with orders for them to slit Cicero's throat and send back his head.

When it arrived, Antony had it displayed in the forum (the scene of many of Cicero's famous orations).  But before this--so the story goes--Fulvia, Antony's wife, pulled out the dead man's famous tongue and stabbed it repeatedly with one her hair pins.  And that's the way they played politics in old Rome.

So, yeah, it's bad, but it can always get worse.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Joseph Conrad's novella The Shadow-Line tells the story of a second mate on a 19th century merchant ship who is in line for a series of steady promotions.  If he sticks with the company, he will eventually make captain.  It's only a matter of time. But something inside of him doesn't want the safe, plodding, surefire way, so on a whim he quits his position while at anchor in a foreign port.  With no particular plan and no prospects, he wonders into a seaman's hotel and lands a job as a captain that very afternoon.

The problem is his new command is stranded up the coast in a primitive, pestilential harbor, where the former captain dropped dead and the crew is sick with malaria.  He manages to get to his ship and tries to sail her out into the open sea, but each time he reaches a certain point--the point where the previous captain died--the winds fail and he is driven back into the harbor.  Finally, after a herculean effort, he gets the ship beyond the imaginary shadow line and into the open sea, but in crossing that line something changes.  He realizes on some unstated level that he is no longer young.

There are perhaps many shadow lines in one's life, moments betokening transition that you cross in the midst of focusing on other things.  I seem to have had such a moment last week.  I opened my email only to find a message from the provost that I was eligible for an early retirement buy out package.  At some point, without realizing it, my age and my years of service had combined to pass the quiet shadow-line of eligibility.  I can't retire, of course.  I have a kid to get through college and we need health insurance coverage.   

So I will stick with the plodding, surefire, way and put in my time with this company.  But something inside of me finds the idea of chucking it and sailing off into the open sea of possibility a bracing proposition.  

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Thoughts On Driving

Last June I drove from the Midwest to Western Montana: drove across the brown, wide-open plains of South Dakota and Wyoming until I was tucked up just shy of the 49th parallel.  Then in July I drove east across the Midwest into Western and Middle Pennsylvania.  In all I traversed nearly 1900 miles of North America by automobile.  

On these drives you can’t help thinking about the pioneers who crossed the country on horseback, wagon or foot, but such thoughts are triggered simply by the contemplation of distance.  You think: “I can drive 700-800 miles a day. They were lucky to make 20.”

As for the towns and cities you pass, they’re unrelentingly the same.  To be sure, the landscape changes: the mountains are arresting and every now and then you cross an impressively wide muddy river, but the car dealerships, the La Quinta Inns, the Home Depots…  Those in Kalispell, Mt, differ little from those in Yankton, Youngstown or Kalamazoo. 

Driving across the country you also end up thinking of the great literary traversers of America: the lascivious Humbert Humbert in his trusty blue Melmoth, Ken Kesey in a school bus heading “Further.”  When Kerouac's Sal Paradise hitched Highway 30 to the West Coast, America was all weedy railway yards, pump houses, apple pie diners and hotels with flyspecked shades.  Sure, it was kind of down and out—kind of beat—but it retained some residual romance of the road.  

That’s all gone now.  It was just about gone when I hitched across the country 40 years ago at the age of 18.   Back then there weren’t yet weight sensors on rail cars for busting freight hoppers, and every now and then you could still find fading hobo marks on highway signs. The road wasn't exactly romantic, but you could still find evidence that it once was.

No longer.  Indeed, the idea of "the road" in American literature has undergone a complete transformation.  In a century and change, we've gone from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road ("Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road...") right through Kerouac and the hallucinogenic Kesey until we end up at Cormac McCarthy's 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road:
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
Does that sound afoot and lighthearted to you?

Whitman once celebrated the indefatigable variety of his fellow countrymen, with “Each singing what belongs to him and her but to none else.”  Would he even hear America singing today?  More than likely he’d hear only the rhythmic sighs of passing traffic or the bland drone of HVAC systems.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Can this class be saved?

I have a class this semester that has been a little slow off the mark.  Usually by this time in the term I can get 80-85 percent of students moving in the right direction.  True, some learning curves will be bending more than others, but most are bending by this point.  This year and this class?  Not so much.  There's a fairly large contingent of recalcitrant flat-liners in the class.  So I've decided to redouble my efforts, which means more lengthy feedback, more cajolery, even a little emotional blackmail.  And if I get so much as tremor of movement in my direction, it will be greeted with over-the-top fireworks, hoopla and fanfare. They will feel like they just won the Nobel Prize.

So I’m looking over the latest round of responses and--wait a minute--one of my recalcitrant flat liners just started curving.  Time to—as Joe Biden used to say—make a big effin’ deal out of this.  Below are my response comments.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent, of course.
Yesterday you stood in the middle when I asked students in class to position themselves in the room based on where they saw themselves in relationship to their personal goals (yours was strengthening your critical reading and writing skills).  Now just stop and read over your latest response (the boldface is mine):

Most characters in the Iliad show characteristics of both horizontal and vertical thinking. In one moment they are willing to give up everything in order to accomplish success. At another, they are reminded of what they may leave behind or risk in order to achieve that goal. Is it worth the only thing they have? Thinking like this shows vertical questioning. They ask questions like should we do x? Or why is it the right thing to keep fighting?  These characters do not ever overlook the outcome. In book nine, for example, Achilles understands if he goes out into the battlefield, the risk would not outweigh the benefits of a full healthy life. Everyone meets the same fate no matter their courage, he says.  He adds that nothing Agamemnon could offer would satisfy him. At this point, he's vertically questioning all the values of being a warrior. 
Also in Book 9 Odysseus has been sent by Agamemnon with one goal in mind. For the sake of the Greek army, Achilles must return.  This is the horizontal side of things. The goal is the final defeat of the Trojans and getting spoils of war, not whether this is the best goal.  Odysseus' speech offers Achilles loot, glory, honor, whatever it takes no matter the cost. Oddly, Achilles the warrior hero is becoming more of a moral hero by questioning the value of the gifts.  Agamemnon, Odysseus, and the entire council are only thinking about the goal, not the consequences. It’s all or nothing at this point. That said, Achilles' vertical thinking may cost the Greeks the entire war.

Do you see what I see?  You took two recently-learned abstract concepts about critical thinking and then used evidence from a 3,000-year old Greek text to illustrate them.  And you showed me how these concepts applied in a clear and insightful explanation.  That's great thinking, my friend.  Add in some citations (which I know you can do) and this is as good as anything I've read in this class.  This is what I mean when I say I want to see 'wrestling with the angel.'  I keep telling you that I am not teaching you the material in this class.  I am teaching you how to think with this material.  And that's what you have done here. Well done. WELL DONE. 
I can only give you 10 points for this response (but it should be 10,000!).   And, hey, let's do more of this (also, move yourself a bit more toward the other side of the room, man). 
Too much?  Maybe, but I want this kid to own this and build on it.  I don't think he's ever before been fussed over by a teacher or a professor.  So why not?   I'm not proud.  I'll fuss.  Showing them it matters to you that they learn is perhaps the oldest teaching trick in the big bag o' teaching tricks.

Thing is, it works a lot more often than you'd think.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Planet Earth is Blue: Dispatches from the Tin Can

There are a lot of lonely professions.  I imagine farming, guarding art museums and those people cleaning offices after everyone's gone home are pretty lonesome jobs.  I once knew a guy who worked nights as a boiler watcher in an L.A. high rise. Every hour he had to walk through the mechanical room logging down the numbers that appeared on dozens of gauges and dials. He said in the four years he worked there the numbers never changed.

And teaching, especially at the university level, is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when compiling a list of the loneliest jobs.  After all, you are in a room filled with students and your colleagues are all extremely bright and occasionally well read people.  You might expect professors' days are filled with stimulating classroom discussions and the smart repartee of your clever and opinionated co-workers.

Like I said, you might expect.

Truth is teaching is a lonely job.  No one really sees what you do (and you're not entirely sure you would feel any better if they did). There are plenty of days when it doesn't go well and you're grateful that nobody knows about your failures.  Worse, there are days when it does go well and you're excited to tell someone, but you know from long experience that talking about your teaching is about as interesting as sharing your genealogical research with strangers.  What do they care?  It's not their family.  As a result, you take your satisfactions where you can find them (and then blog them into cyberspace).

So here was a good moment from last week.  In my Intro to Humanities class we were discussing Book 16 of the Iliad.  There's a scene in which Achilles has to decide whether to allow his friend Patroclus to go into battle wearing his armor. It's a desperate ploy to make the Trojans think Achilles is no longer sitting out the fight, and it ends--as you might expect--with Patroclus' death at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector.

Later in this book, Zeus is sitting high on Olympus watching the battle.  One of his mortal sons, Sarpedon, is about to go into combat against Patroclus, and Zeus knows Sarpedon will die if he lets that happen. He contemplates plucking Sarpedon out of battle and putting him someplace safe, but the other gods and goddesses begin to berate him and argue that they too have their favorites in the battle.  It's unfair, they whine.  If Zeus gets to save his son, they should be able to save their favorites as well.  So Zeus relents and Homer tells us he wept as Patroclus, gleaming in the divine armor of Achilles, closed in on Sarpedon.

I always like to play these two scenes off against each other when we get to this part of the poem.  You have a mortal and a god who make a decision that leads to the death of someone they love.  Who has more to lose in their decision?  It doesn't take long before a student points out that Zeus knows the outcome of his decision but Achilles does not.

"Yes," I say, "but who really has something at stake here?  Zeus is immortal.  He has hundreds of mortal offspring and will likely have an infinite number more. Some may even become favorites like Sarpedon.  Achilles, on the other hand, is doomed to die young.  He will never again have a friend like Patroclus.  So who really has skin in this game?"

I could see a thought coming into the head of one young woman in the class.  It was like luggage precariously balanced on a rack in a train car.  It hung there for moment, then wobbled, then fell.  She said, haltingly, as if unsure about this strange new idea, "I think maybe Achilles' loss is greater because his life will be short.  I mean the gods' decisions can't really matter as much because their choices don't have meaningful consequences."

"So," I asked, "Do you think this is a poem about death and war, or is it a poem that's really about human life, which we can't fully appreciate without being mortal?  Is death what makes life meaningful?"

She stared a long time.  It was clear that the idea of death's necessity for life to have preciousness and beauty had never before occurred to her.  I watched as she mulled over this new, discombobulating  thought.  "I don't know," she said.  "I really have to think about that."

So that was my lonely moment of success, the high point of the week.  But--and here's the maddening part--there was no one there who saw it but me.  The other students didn't notice it and my colleagues are each in their own orbiting tin cans intently watching all their dials and gauges. Still, lonely as it was, I like to think it mattered.

It's not much, but I can live on it for days.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Lacunae

Often there's an unnerving gap between what you taught and what the students perform on the assignment.  And this always begs the question: did I not teach that well, or did they simply decide not to do it?  In one of my sections this fall, for example, I spent weeks prepping the class for the first major paper.  This involved crafting thesis statements, marshaling arguments, noting down evidence to cite in support of claims, and two 80-minute class periods given over to drafting and peer editing.

I even created a pre-flight checklist for them to go through that covered such things as how to insert page numbers, use subheads and craft creative titles that reflect their paper's thesis (one of my pet peeves. I can't stand to see work come in dully titled "Paper #2").  The result?  About 40 percent of the class handed in "Paper #2" with vast stretches of un-cited assertions and references.  Even the checklist made no difference.

My first instinct when this happens is to suspect the students are testing me.  Sure, professor, you said you would hand back any work that came in without careful textual citation, but I bet you won't really do it.  In other words, they understood me perfectly; they just didn't want to do it.

My second suspicion is that maybe they didn't manage their time and got whistle bit.  With the deadline upon them, they simply had to hand in what they had and hope for the best. You'll note that both of these suspicions assume that students knew the performance expectations but their internal unwillingness or external conditions prevented them from meeting them.

In recent years I've tried to shed some light into this puzzling gap by having students fill out an information card on the day an assignment is due.  They have to answer three questions: What's working well?  What could work better?  What do you want specific feedback on?   Here's a typical student comment card.

Sometimes students will just out themselves on these cards: I know my second claim needs more support.  I just ran out of time.  I'm always enormously grateful when they do this.  First, it saves me time in my comments.  I don't have to go on and on about the weakness of the second claim and how it could be improved. They already know. Second, it confirms that what I taught got through to them.

More often than not, however, these assignment information cards show me that I did teach the performance expectation well, but meeting it was still difficult for them.  The student above makes that clear.  This was hard.  And it is.  Summarizing understanding, analyzing and evaluating evidence in relation to claims, synthesizing information from multiple texts... these are not easy things to do well on the first go, especially if you've been schooled to date on worksheets and multiple choice tests.

Let's face it: it was petty hard for me the first time I re-coded strange new ideas into my own own words, and harder still to sift through multiple texts to support abstract claims about texts that I had only recently read for the first time.

Sometimes we just forget that what comes easily to us is not so easy for them.  There may be some percentage of students for whom the initial suspicions are justified, but fewer than you might think.  I have come to believe that majority of the performance gap between what I teach and what they hand in can be attributed to the difficulty of the new cognitive demands I am placing on them, not them gaming the system or a lack of time management.  Realizing this helps me keep things in perspective and not become that cranky, suspicious professor who's just sure he's being scammed.

But that "Paper #2" thing?  C'mon.  I created a freakin' checklist!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Friends who lend books...

Came back to my office the other day and found the little plastic basket outside my door stuffed with books.  Among them were Mary Beard's Confronting the Classics (a collection of reviews and magazine pieces), The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianhoff and Jonathan Haidt, and a McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader (ca. 1903).  But it was the last book in particular that let me know who my anonymous lender had been.  It was a Cambridge translation of Outlines of Scepticism by the ancient author Sextus Empiricus.

Thanks, Jim.

People who lend or give you books come in a few varieties.  The first are those who don't know you very well, but are just sure they do. Inevitably they want you to love what they love (and it's very rare that you share their passions).  For years I purposefully avoided reading popular authors so I could honestly tell people who asked me about them that "No, I really don't have an opinion on John Grisham.  I've never read him."

The second are the lenders who do know you. A good example is my wife, who, in addition to knowing my tastes and interests from long association, works at a public library and is skilled at ferreting out people's interests and making appropriate suggestions.  But then there are those few--very rare--people who might be dubbed kindred readers.  You meet them by accident and discover that you share some interests, passions and obsessions, but (and here's the essential part) their reading is just slightly on the periphery of your own, or they come at it from a slightly different perspective.  The result is that whatever they lend you shakes up your thinking or opens a new pathway of speculation.

Jim is that type of book lender for me.  He trained as an anthropologist and retired a few years back after decades teaching in the Sociology department, and, frankly, he wasn't everyone's cup of tea.  He could be garrulous, contrarian, blunt. Many people found him off-putting.  More than once, even I found myself fuming "Why is that guy full of it?"  And I liked him.

Even so, Jim always sparked my thinking.  I don't see him as often these days, though we still try to have lunch now and again.  And whenever we do the conversation is books, books, books.  Anything he lends me or recommends goes right to the stop of the stack.  People whose book recommendations are infallible are very rare in your reading life.  They are to be cherished (even grumpy old malcontents like Jim).

Thanks, friend.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Stanislavsky for Teachers

There's a famous story--perhaps apocryphal--that the actor Dustin Hoffman stayed up for days to prepare himself for a scene with Laurence Olivier in the 1976 film Marathon Man.  In that film Oliver played a Nazi dentist who had strapped Hoffman's character to a chair and was torturing him for information by drilling into his teeth without Novocaine.  Appearing on set the day of the shoot, Olivier was immediately struck by Hoffman's disheveled, bleary-eyed appearance and asked him if he was feeling well.  When Hoffman told him what he had done to prepare for the scene, Olivier is reported to have quipped, "Dear boy, you should try acting."

This story is often told as a way of throwing shade on method actors for making something easy much more difficult than it needs to be.  It also fundamentally mistakes what Hoffman allegedly did with what method actors actually do.  Nowhere in Stanislavsky's writing does he advocate that actors should become the characters they are playing. He simply asked them to use their imaginations to work out the logic of a character's actions and behavior. 

At the heart of this idea was the Magic If. Instead of beginning rehearsals with actors sitting around a big table reading the script, Stanislavsky would lay out the broad outline of the story and characters and then have actors ask themselves What would I do if I were this kind of person in this kind of situation?  After this the actors would get on their feet and start exploring possible answers.  Over time, Stanislavsky would sprinkle in more details and facts from the play, which gave the actors' imaginations more problems to solve.  An actor in this system probably never asked what's my motivation?  They already knew it long before the script appeared.

For whatever reason, people continue to think of creativity and imagination as unbounded and free ranging, but Stanislavsky argued the imagination needs set problems to solve.  Asking what if  questions invites an imagination to a problem whose solution is slowly refined as new facts and details come to light.  In short, he was simply advocating problem-based learning, something that's been around in education since John Dewey.

I've used Stanislavsky's approach to create what if assignments for a long time, and I love 'em.  They are some of the most enjoyable assignments to create and they usually get students thinking and making creative connections between ideas, authors or texts.  Here are few of my favorite what if assignments:
  • What advice would you give Hamlet if you were Machiavelli?  Write a letter to the  prince outlining the course he ought to take to solve his Claudius problem.
  • What would it be like if John Brown, Martin Luther King, Thoreau and Emma Goldman had a TV panel debate on the best way to oppose an unjust state?  Create the show's transcript.
  • What if you were an adviser to a ruthless despot and someone very much like Socrates was encouraging people to question unquestioned assumption in your society?  What would you advise your boss on how to address this potential threat to the status quo?  Draft a memo to the dear leader.
  • Write a film review of any popular Rom-Com as if you were Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
You can even use a more faithful version of Stanislavsky's approach to get students to work out the logic of a character's actions in novels and plays.  Here's a what if I pose before every year before we begin reading Oedipus Rex in my Humanities 101 course:
Let’s say that your entire life may have been lived under delusion.  You think yourself to be who you are: a good, decent and even talented individual who has worked hard and become a great success.  One day you have a suspicion that the facts of your life don’t add up. Gradually your curiosity grows and you even begin to suspect that it’s possible you may have committed a horrific crime years ago without realizing it.  Indeed, your actions have may be the cause of untold suffering and misery, and there is nothing you can do now that would change that.  If there were a safety deposit box containing the truth, and you alone knew of it and had the key, would you open it?  Why?  Why not?  Give three reasons for your decision.
Stanislavsky was right.  Good what if questions create problems for the imagination to solve.  They also rocket thinking right to the top of Bloom's taxonomy by causing students to evaluate, apply and synthesize knowledge.  Better still, these kind of assignments are much harder to plagiarize by Googling up someone else's work. 

There's always that, of course.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The good, the bad and--more importantly--the beautiful

Take any given week of the academic semester and hold it up to the sun, squint at it, slap it about.  Hell, violently shake it back and forth. What will appear is always a mix of moments: some good, some awful and--if you're lucky--at least one will be beautiful.   Last week I had the spectrum: a couple of good moments, one truly awful moment and one thing was beautiful.  In First-Year Seminar, my new baby freshmen did their quarter-term assessment.

And it was beautiful. 

The assessment is just the standard Plus Delta mid-semester check in, but with a twist.  It's focused on where students are in relationship to learning and the learning goals they set for themselves four weeks earlier.  Indeed, a big part of what I try to do in FYS is dismantle the 18 year-old idee-fixe that learning correlates to grades.  This demolition project starts the first week with the first assignment.  

They have to write a paper for me that tells me who they are and where they want their college education to take them.  At the end of the paper, they have to set a personal goal for the semester, and they are not allowed to make it grade related.  Instead, they have to pick a skill they want to see improvement on or a subject they want to see differently, maybe even a risk they want to take now that they are college.

By week four, most of them have forgotten what they wrote in that initial reflection paper, but they have also read about and discussed the differences between surface, strategic and deep learning.  They've learned about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, and they've seen evidence that surface and strategic learning approaches lead only to routine expertise, the ability to plug in known solutions to known problems.  They don't prepare people to craft novel solutions to problems never before encountered.

In the quarter term assessment we did yesterday morning, FYS students had to answer four questions.
  1. What ideas, projects, courses or discussions have made a big impression on you, intrigued you or discombobulated you in the first quarter of this semester?
  2. What ideas, subjects or material in a class have been talked about, thought about or applied outside of class?
  3. Where do you see growth, change or development in the goal you set during week one?
  4. What's working to help you learn, and what change would help you learn better?
They answer these questions anonymously, turn in responses, and I promise to compile all of them into one document.  On Monday we will review the collective college experience of our seminar in the first four weeks.  I've been compiling their responses this morning.  Here are some of the highlights (I've boldfaced recurrent themes):

Ideas that made an impression:
  • In my English class we're reading The Curious Incident of the Dog Who Barked in the Night, and it's really interesting to see the world from the POV of an autistic narrator.
  • Kinesiology has had a huge impact on me.  Excited for class everyday.
  • FYS opened my eyes that I can better understand subjects.  Biology made me think of the importance of science to the world.
  • Intro to Education opened my eyes to how teaching matters.  I'm really excited to become a teacher.
  • Theater class; we get to write our own play!
  • Econ -- I thought this class was going to be dull, but it's really interesting.
Discussions of ideas talked about or applied outside of class.
  • Am actually applying some of the writing skills we've gone over in FYS to make papers better in other classes.
  • Talk with boyfriend all the time about stuff in my economics class.
  • My roommate and I had a debate about healthcare that started in class and kept going out of class.
  • Applied ideas in this course (surface vs. deep learning) to my approach at track practice.
  • I'm making all these connections between ideas in classes that have nothing to do with each other.
  • History of the Middle Ages = awesome.  Think about it all the time.
Progress on personal learning goals
  • I figured out what I want to major in!
  • I set a goal to keep an open mind and so far I am doing it with lots of new ideas.
  • I've seen myself getting better at reading more critically, capturing main ideas.
  • I have gotten more out of my shell.  Joined an intramural team and I'm meeting new people.
  • My goal was to see a subject completely differently, and I am.
What's working?  What could work better?
  • Like that seminar really motivates you to do your best.
  • It's helpful that you always remind us what's due at the end of class.
  • Like that we do something a little different each day.  Helps me focus.
  • Need to do homework before last minute.  
  • Need to stay on top pf reading.
  • I'm really putting more thought into classes than I did in high school.
Twenty new baby freshmen, four weeks into college and not one of them mentioned acing a test or their bloody GPA.  That's beautiful. 

They're beautiful.  

And as for the awful?  Well I don't really care about that right now.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...