Archive for the ‘higher education’ Category

Why we’re here

January 17, 2013

I love Opening Days. And lo, here’s another one!

We did it this way, last time.

This time I’m making a conscious effort to skip the usual boring preliminaries (“going over the syllabus” etc.) to get on with meeting and greeting my new CoPhilosophy cohorts, thanks to some solid teaching advice from a younger colleague in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Introductions have already begun. I don’t intend to explain a thing in class today, if I can possibly avoid it. I’m just gonna ask Who are you? and Why’re you here? 

But, if anyone happens to ask what college is and what it should be, I’ll refer them directly to Andrew Delbanco (College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be):

The most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter. [Or baloney if you prefer.] It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.

And the most important reward of a liberal education: quality time, for a lifetime, with your most intimate personal acquaintance.

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

Martha Nussbaum‘s said much the same thing, adding the crucial civic/democratic dimension:

“Apart from economic gain, a system of education (both K–12 and higher education) needs to prepare students for rich and meaningful lives, and–my primary focus–it needs to prepare them for democratic citizenship. If it does not cultivate skills essential to the health of democracy, democracy won’t survive. It’s that simple. For democracy to survive, young people have to learn to argue and deliberate. They need to be able to decide what they themselves want to stand for, giving reasons for their preferences to others rather than simply deferring to tradition and authority. Training in the ability to argue also produces greater respect for others, as people come to see that people who disagree with them also have reasons for what they choose. They develop healthy curiosity about those reasons, rather than seeing political argument as just an occasion to defeat the opposition.”

Like Delbanco, I wouldn’t dream of denying that plenty of interesting people skip college. But as he points out, people who say college is not for everyone tend to have in mind other people’s kids. 

Today, they’re all my kids.

An awful wonderful trade

January 16, 2013

Classes are finally about to resume. So maybe it’s perverse of me to revisit my favorite chilled observations on the teaching (as distinct from the learning) life, from William James and Richard Ford. But if so it’s at least a timely perversion, and a helpful reminder of why I ditched the old conventional monologic lecture-style of professing some time ago and have turned instead in my classes to a “philosophy of co“.

“What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.”

But philosophizing in public necessarily requires more words than the extant evidence will bear. It would be presumptuous to think mine were the only words worth hearing, or that engaging those of younger others might not also help us sift through the morass of collective experience and give voice to a few more truths. We must all live our lives, as Ford’s Frank Bascombe said. Every age has its experience and its insights to share. Some of us just have had more of it, and have forgotten or tinted more.

In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…

Well, I missed the exit back at thirty-two, and with two college careers still to fund and about to begin we really can’t afford for me to take off ’til sixty-five even if I wanted to. Fortunately I don’t.

But on Day 1 of Week 1, I’m going to do my best to explain nothing serious or profound in public. This is a time for Introductions, not explanations.

And just for the record, all perversity aside: most days, these days, I find professing a pretty wonderful way to make a living.

Postscript. WordPress acknowledges my 1,071st dawn post this morning with an appropriate correction from Anne Rice: “I loved words. I love to sing them and speak them and even now, I must admit, I have fallen into the joy of writing them.” Same here.

Got walls?

January 15, 2013

There’s nothing like the first faculty meeting of the semester to disturb one’s peaceful slumbers and steal that most precious time, the final hours just before classes resume. Unless it’s a morning faculty meeting. “Wake up!” hollers so-called Reality. “To be awake is to be alive.” But Thoreau was not in attendance.

And hours later, yesterday morning, we were all clear as a bell on just how little power and influence we faculty members really possess when it comes to the whim and whimsy of our administrative masters.

Even more troubling: an administrator wielding (but not disclosing) “data” alleged to support moves we oppose, and insinuating that a Higher Power (i.e., the Provost) may be “perturbed” with our intransigence.

Self-knowledge is ingredient to wisdom, of course. We tell our students that all the time. So if there was any doubt: we know there’s nothing further we can do to resist the will of the administrative tsar who wants to rob us of our favorite classroom in order to make space (literally) for our newest colleagues.

I think we already knew that, and could have spent the morning more productively than banging our heads on the figurative wall. But it was nice to sit in that room again with old friends, as another term begins, admitting our collective powerlessness and trying to remind ourselves of the real sphere of our actual influence.

“That room,” that grungy old classroom across the hall where the heart of our curriculum has been beating for decades. And where we hold our staff meetings.  So many memories, so many classes and students and conversations and lyceum talks. If the Decider has her way, it’ll be walled and subdivided and reassigned next year. A shiny new “office suite,” perhaps? We’re told we should be grateful, in our impotence. Resistance is futile. All in all its just another brick in the wall, right?

But, what is “power” for an academic, an educator? Surely not the misguided prerogative to defy reasonable requests and impose authority arbitrarily. Our power resides, if anywhere, in our privilege and opportunity to try another semester to influence the thought and lives and fortunes of bright inquisitive young people.  Administrators may tell us where to build physical partitions, but we’re the lucky ones who sometimes get to break down the more divisive walls between people and peoples and their ideas and prejudices. We get to open the space that matters most, the space between their ears.

Can’t resist dedicating this to our friends in Cope Hall:

Grading the harvest

November 1, 2012

Grading. I always dread it, because there will always be a percentage of essays written so sloppily or slap-dash as to be literally painful and embarrassing to read. But then, when I’m actually doing it, I rediscover the other and better– not necessarily greater– percentage of thoughtful,  careful, amusing, even inspiring essays that almost redeem the whole business. Just don’t rush me.

My problem with grading ultimately is not the time-consuming process of reading and commenting on essays. That, after all, is one of the best ways I get to learn, and learning is the great boon of teaching for us all.  My problem is with the false implication that assigning a grade is the most accurate form of student assessment and evaluation. I agree with Alfie Kohn:

The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing students’ behavior rather than from test scores or grades. It comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement.

Anyway, back to it. Wendell Berry’s work poem this morning is on point.

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

No, of course it’s not that hard. Grading isn’t farming. But it’s true, as in farming a good day’s grading has it’s moments of stress and strain. But overall, it elevates a teacher’s sense of mission. Spiritualizes it, even. It’s our version of bringing in the sheaves.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

So, back to the field. The crop’s got to come in.

School daze

October 20, 2012

Back from our whirlwind tour of schools in Rhode Island, Massachussetts, and (ahem) Knoxville.

The early decision? We liked Roger Williams, whose statue (our guide claimed) features the body of Ben Franklin and the head of (yikes!) Ted Williams. And Suffolk seemed nice, though it was impossible finding a place to park.

Didn’t make it this trip to URI, Brown, Clark, Hampshire… So many schools, so little time!

I like to complain, as a Vandy guy, a foe of anti-scholastic collegiate sports culture, and   a soap-box crusader against football factory mania, about UT. But I have to admit, they put on an impressive Scholars Invitational program yesterday. The French prof who cited Dolly Parton as a philosopher and defended the diversity of east Tennessee was funny, and the journalism rep who used to be a producer at ABC was sharp.

But Older Daughter thinks she’d really like being a Gull, not a Hawk or a Vol or anything else.

We’ll see.  Maybe one more trip to Memphis will bring final clarity.

True Blue

August 25, 2012

Two faculty meetings in one day: that’s sure to be the most fun I’ll have all year!

The first was our annual gathering of the entire university faculty, when new hires are introduced, old faculty are “reco’nized” (our leader is one of those who drops his “g”s) and awarded, and we all get a pep talk. They’re pushing us to be “True Blue,” we Blue Raiders of Murfreesboro. But that’s not a marketing slogan, “they” insist, it’s an affirmation of our commitment to being “student-centered”… and that means “graduate ‘em!” We got out of Tucker well before noon this year, and on to the only free lunch we can expect. That was good for my morale.

Then, the first departmental staff meeting of many… despite my motion to meet with slightly less frequency. Seems to me we’re no more decisive in our weekly sessions than we ever were, even back when meetings tended to be impromptu hall-collarings. But I’m not The Decider.

I shouldn’t complain, I’m no longer a Senator and my other committee responsibilities are perfectly intermittent. But the meetings I really signed on for are the ones beginning Monday, the ones where I’m the oldest guy in the room without a close second.

I usually begin, once we’re past preliminaries about office hours and exam dates et al, by noting the summer reading assignment that most haven’t completed. Like many schools now, we seek to “provide a unifying experience” and “encourage intellectual interaction among students” (ahem) by designating a book all (or at least all freshpersons) are encouraged to have read by Opening Day.

Faculty are also encouraged to read and incorporate the summer selection into early lesson plans. In the past I’ve enjoyed doing that, with philosophically-suggestive titles like Listening Is An Act of Love (the StoryCorps book) and Three Cups of Tea (before Greg Mortenson became infamous).

But this time I’m kinda stumped. A Peal in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean just doesn’t resonate with me. I suppose students are expected to identify with the metaphor of being tossed about by stormy weather, far from shore. I just can’t get past the puzzle: why would any sane person try to row the ocean, in the 21st century? “Just because it’s there” does not strike me as an intelligent answer.

But I’ll ask the kids. They know more than we tend to give them credit for.

Growing ideas

August 23, 2012

It’s good to recall, on semester’s eve, what we collegians are supposed to be up to: discovery, creativity, new ideas and the novel application of good old ones. So it was nice to stumble upon a symbol of that, while strolling Vanderbilt’s campus on their first day of class.

That’s an alleged descendant of Sir Isaac’s own tree of knowledge, planted in front of Vandy’s library in honor of Murfreesboro’s retired Congressman Gordon. He was a good friend of science and technology. There are few enough of those, in Washington, from Tennessee. He deserved at least a clipping.

So the kids are here now, with the class of ’16 all moved in and ready for a new idea.

And so I’m reminded of Fred Rogers’ good question: “Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind?” I’m trying. I’ll be trying again this semester, in collaboration with a hundred or so young apple-polishers at our school. We’ll see how close we can land to Sir Isaac’s tree. It really is good to be curious about many things.

Circles rippling outward

August 22, 2012

Another reason to read, write, & walk: to expand the circles of our imaginative attachment to the world. “The eye is the first circle,” observed Emerson. “The horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end.” 

Emerson understands education as a process of enlargement, in which we move from the center of our being, off into progressively more expansive ways of life… such rippling outward happens every day, too, as when a child leaves her family and goes out into the painful, promising world of school. Then the child’s circle of knowing has to expand to meet the new circumstances, or she’ll suffer for it. Mark Edmundson

Spent most of the morning yesterday discussing the “rippling outward” Older Daughter will soon commence, as she and we go deeper into the college selection process. The good news, our counselor advised, is that there are so many good schools out there. Her “transition” promises to be an exciting growth opportunity, no matter who she chooses or who chooses her.

Same goes for the commencement of a brand-new school year for me. Convocation is on Friday, followed by the first departmental staff meeting. (The growth opportunity there, if anyone asks me, lies in shrinkage: less is more.)

And then, classes begin anew. We’ve again come full circle.

Round and round we go. Maybe this is the circuit when we’ll really know our place better at the end, which of course is always also the next beginning. Walk on.

“I loaf and invite my soul”

July 13, 2012

Enjoying Andrew delBanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Every prospective student should read it. (Hint hint, Older Daughter.)

It’s chock-full of deep pedagogical wisdom from the likes of James, Dewey, Emerson, and Whitman, who said “I loaf and invite my soul”: now there’s a walker’s credo. And a biker’s, hiker’s, floater’s…

“Loafing.” That’s a more straightforwardly descriptive term for the   haughtily buttoned-down “contemplation” of the overly-cerebral and stationary style of thought. You can keep your Thinker, thoughtful walkers are Loafers – in the very best sense of the term. And they’re collaborators too, btw, not just solitary meditators. A collegium is a society or a community actively educating itself through mutuality of purpose and exchange. And that’s why my Intro courses are now called CoPhilosophy. “The pluralistic form takes a stronger hold on reality,” more creative and more fun. More true, too.

Delbanco also writes:

The most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter. [Or baloney if you prefer.] It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.

And the most important reward of a liberal education: quality time, for a lifetime, with your most intimate personal acquaintance.

“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

Like Delbanco, I wouldn’t dream of denying that plenty of interesting people skip college. But as he points out, people who say college is not for everyone tend to have in mind other people’s kids.

What they probably don’t have in mind is an older ideal of college, one that teaches you how to loaf and enjoy it, and learn from it. That’s in danger these days. I’m glad Delbanco’s reminding us of how much we stand to lose if we don’t recapture it from the “outcomes”-oriented academic bureaucrats and anti-intellectual dopes who tend to hold higher education’s purse-strings in this country.

Alexander von Schoenborn, Plutarchian

August 1, 2011

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted. Plutarch

Just received word this weekend that a beloved early mentor from my undergrad “glory days,” Alexander von Schoenborn, is retiring. Jeez, how old must that make me?

When I knew him back then, in the late ’70s, I’d have described him as intense, serious, enigmatic, intimidating, pipe-smoking, and above all inspiring. My fellow philosophy majors and I were on tenterhooks whenever he responded to one of our comments or questions by pausing, tamping the pipe, lighting, and puffing before offering his measured response.  We wanted desperately to impress him, at least with our sincerity if not with our brilliance.

One evening, I recall, we convened an impromptu meeting in the department seminar room to discuss our mutual consternation over the opacities and obscurities of Sein und Zeit, and were so pleased and proud of ourselves when Herr Doktor Professor unexpectedly popped his head in the door at one point long after sundown. We weren’t especially surprised to see him there that night. Now I know how exceptional and devoted it was of him to be there in the department, working late into a school-night. But we were more focused at the time on his noticing the unlikelihood of our studious diligence.  Not sure we did any better on the next quiz, but at least (we hoped) he’d know we were trying.

He introduced us to Plato’s cave (and escape therefrom) as an apt analogy for the educational enterprise in general, whether we favored the Platonic Idealism or not.

He brought a raft of post-Kantian/pre-Hegelian German metaphysicians and poets (is there a distinction?) to our attention. He told me, before I wrote a contest-winning essay I didn’t really understand about Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, that my style was reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

He got me to want to understand Heidegger. And, here on the far side of decades and biographies that have not been friendly to “Friend Heidegger,” I still do want to understand. That’s a testament to Professor vonS’s teaching.

Good luck in your retirement, Professor. Thanks for the light.


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