Saturday, January 27, 2018

Miley Cyrus meets Dr. Faustus

So yesterday in senior honors seminar we were discussing Jonathan Haidt's  book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  Haidt, a psychologist, explores how many of  the prescriptions of ancient Western and Eastern philosophers are borne out by contemporary research in psychology.  He notes one idea, however, that hasn't passed muster: the Buddhist/Stoic advice that we ought to moderate our desires or at least adopt a studied indifference to them.

There is a certain logic to this.  As the Buddhists point out, any pleasure we derive from satisfying a desire is predicated on time spent suffering from unsatisfied desire.  So a life spent in pursuit of our desires becomes--at best--a zero-sum gain.  Haidt actually began his research amenable to the Buddhist/Stoic advice, but he changed his view after looking at data that shows how people are happier working toward a goal than achieving it.

Metaphors and commonly-held allusions are often a teacher's best friend, so to illustrate this concept I asked my students if they were familiar with the Faust legend--more particularly part II of Goethe's Faust, in which the good doctor, now grown old, has become a high ranking minister for a powerful king.  Faust of course had famously bargained his soul to the devil for happiness, but nothing had brought him joy.  Now, late in life, he finds himself engaged in a massive engineering project using dikes and dams to hold back the sea.  Beset by obstacles and complexities, he is discussing his plans to improve the lives of the people when--wham--it suddenly occurs to him that he's happy (at which point the devil shows up, I.O.U. in hand).

The students stared back at me uncomfortably after I laid this out.  Then, slowly, tentatively, one said, "It's a bit like that Miley Cyrus song "The Climb."   One or two others chimed in: "Yeah, exactly."  So they dialed up the song on Youtube and we all had a listen.

"Yes," I said after Ms. Cyrus was done.  "It's a little like that."

Eh, sometimes in teaching you take your allusions and metaphors wherever you can get 'em.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Nostos of Facebook

I had a great uncle by marriage who once self-published a book of observations, one of which has always stuck with me.  He noted that for most of his life he had an unvoiced and unexamined assumption that he and his brothers would all be together again, living under the same roof and in each others' lives on a daily basis.

It made sense, he wrote.  After all, they had at one time spent so much time together.  Clearly this was the natural, fundamental state of their lives.  And everything that came later--adulthood, leaving home, distance, years spent without seeing each other--was just a provisional arrangement.  Someday, in some unspecified future, he just assumed they would be together again.  It wasn't until he was in his 50s that my uncle inspected this notion. When he did, it suddenly and painfully struck him that it was a baseless assumption.  This was never going to happen.

Of course today we can overview the dendrochronology of our relationships via Facebook. They are all still there, the electronic rings of our friendships: the people we knew in high school, grad school, former jobs and former love affairs.  Thanks to Facebook we can stay "in touch," an odd phrase that has become a kind of pre-internet archaism.  These people aren't tangibly in our livesWe can't embrace them or slug them affectionately on the shoulder.  And any time we do spend with them is mediated, asynchronous, place-less.  It's a simulacrum of my great uncle's unvoiced assumption, one of Calypso's tricks that makes Ogygia seem a tad less oppressive.

But it's not what you want.  You ache to get back to what once seemed the natural, fundamental state of things with your friends: long conversations, pointless car trips, and time--lots and lots of time  with friends no farther away than the reach of an arm.  Then--as with my uncle--it dawns on you that this is never going to happen.  And somehow this realization never loses its sting.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Towards thee I roll...

Here are six facts.  Now imagine that you are a reporter for the college's student newspaper.   Your task is to write a news lead that places the most important information first. Okay, so evaluate the facts below to determine what piece of information needs to go first in the lead.
  • Who: the entire faculty of this college.
  • What: attend an "Excellence in Education" conference.
  • Where: Iowa City, IA.
  • When: Thursday.
  • Why: to improve undergraduate instruction.
  • How: the faculty will board buses at 6:00 am and return at 6:00 pm.
What is the most important information here?

The above exercise has been given during the first week to every class I teach for the last decade. It's one of several exercises I use to demonstrate the kind of thinking I look for in student work.  Unfortunately, a grand total of one student in 10 years has ever gotten the correct answer.  

To be fair, I didn't get the right answer the first time I faced this task.  Most people don't due to something cognitive psychologists call "field dependence."  When we are confronted with an array of new information, we tend to focus on each individual piece rather than stand back and assess the entire field (i.e., the most important fact for a college journalist would be that classes would have to be cancelled on Thursday).

Field dependency is rife in most classrooms.  Students are asked  to assimilate terms, theories, rules and facts, but they may never ask themselves "So what does this all mean?" or "What are the implications if this is true?"  It's usually left to professors to tease out these implications, but when we do this we aren't actually getting students to see the forest.  We're just directing their attention to yet another tree.  

For me, the holy grail (or perhaps white whale) would be to structure a moment in class where my students could raise and answer one of these "So What?" questions on their own.  I want them to become field independent, but I have yet to pull this off.  Sometimes, too, I wonder if my inability to make this happen is a pedagogical problem or something innate to student cognition.  Maybe undergrads just can't do it until much later in training.

Evaluation, after all, is near the top in Bloom's taxonomy of higher order critical thinking skills.  So why should I expect undergraduates to be adept at grasping the forest for the trees?  Maybe I shouldn't expect this, but I've found that students can get better at self-generating other kids of critical questions with some prompting and modeling (How does this connect to that?  How does this differ from that? How are these more or less alike?).  But try as I might, I have never gotten them to self-generate questions that ponder the implications of newly learned ideas.  

Here are two specific moments in my classes where I've tried and failed to get students to produce these kinds of questions.   
  • In my Humanities course I have the students read the creation stories in Genesis and Hesiod's Theogony.  These are very different perspectives on the nature of the universe.  In Genesis the process of creation is orderly, planned and intentional.  In Theogony it is unplanned, haphazard and chaotic.  No one reading Hesiod's version of creation--which includes rape, castration and inter-generational warfare--would say (as God does in Genesis 1:31) that it was good.  Now my students can very easily see the connections and contrasts between these two views of the universe, but even when I model "So What? questions for them, they have never been able to ask about the rather mind-blowing implications of living in unplanned or providential universes.
  • For years, too, I taught in the First-Year Honors program.  In it we read Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, which argues that a human being's moral disposition is created through habituation and, once formed, is not easily changed.  My students quickly grasp the idea that our character is the result of our choices.  There's a ballsy allure to this idea for young people, who tend toward black and white thinking on matters of personal responsibility.  They usually agree with Aristotle that if people have habituated themselves to intemperance, they only have themselves to blame.  They grasp this, but even with careful question modeling, not once has a student ever asked what such a view implies about how we ought to structure something like our penal or educational systems.  
So I end up engineering the "So What?" questions for them by using in-class exercises:
  • Imagine Aristotle was on a parole board considering the case of a twice-convicted thief who has been a model prisoner.  What would he likely  rule?  Why?
  • If Aristotle is right about our moral disposition on temperance, how much time ought I to spend teaching time management to 18 year-olds in freshmen seminar?  Look over the syllabus with an Aristotelian perspective?  What would he say about my time management curriculum? Why?  
Maybe these exercises are as good as it gets.  After all, if a student can see the implications when I frame the question, shouldn't that be enough?  Still, I want them to originate and answer their own evaluative questions.  I want them to experience what it feels like to be field independent with ideas, facts and information.  Because only then are they actually doing true evaluation (as opposed to spitting back a provided evaluation).  Indeed, when students do think through the implications of Aristotle's idea (and how easily it can be co-opted to justify slavery), they are usually appalled and reject it.  

I've yet to be able to generate field independence in class without me bread crumbing the path pretty heavily.  Just once before I hang it up, I would love to see them do this on their own.  Sometimes I wonder if the ultimate goal of teaching is to work yourself out of a job.  Maybe, like hunting white whales, it's a bit self-destructive.

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.  ...