Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

“A professor has two functions”

May 13, 2013

Grades reported!

I hate issuing grades, except well-earned A’s. Had more than a few of those this term, so I’m in relatively good spirits this a.m.

But, I’m also in that typical post-semester, tired-of-professing state of mind displayed by William James when he complained about his vocation,

…paid to talk talk talk. It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words words words.

I feel a touch of what he must have felt on retiring from Harvard in 1907:

I thank you for your congratulations on my retirement. It makes me very happy. A professor has two functions: (1) to be learned and distribute bibliographical information; (2) to communicate truth. The 1st function is the essential one, officially considered. The 2nd is the only one I care for. Hitherto I have always felt like a humbug as a professor, for I am weak in the first requirement. Now I can live for the second with a free conscience.

For a few weeks, anyway, my posts to this and other venues will be entirely in service of “communicating truth,” specifically in the form of a work-in-progress I’m calling Philosophy Walks. I’m going to resist the habitual urge to reflect overtly on whatever crosses pre- and semi-caffeinated consciousness, and stick to the business of philosophers who’ve walked and philosophy that’s emerged from walks of my own (with occasional “Happiness” and “Humanist” posts thrown in, just because my self-control is only human).

I’m guessing that might mean fewer pre-dawn posts in the days and weeks ahead. We’ll see.

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.

Waiting and hiding

December 13, 2012

Spent much of yesterday in the outpatient surgery waiting room, watching video monitor updates of Younger Daughter’s status. She broke her pinky playing basketball a week ago, and was  in for the unappealing surgical procedure of having screws inserted, three of them, into the bone.

Sounds medieval, Older Daughter observed. Or cybernetic.

We were there from 9:30 to 4:00. That’s no way to get out of school, but to look on the bright side: it gave me a grading break.

I did get out  a bit yesterday, to fetch Mom’s peppermint mocha at mid-morning and then a couple of Reubens from the deli for lunch. It was still crisp but sunny at noon, so I decided to hoof the half dozen blocks up to West End and noticed all kinds of people and places (an oddly-named BBQ place I’d not seen before on Church St., for instance, and an architecturally-distinctive apartment building on 18th) I would have missed behind the wheel.

One of my resolutions this year: never burn hydrocarbons to accomplish any non-emergency errand that can be performed pedestrianly. (That should be a word, I’m ignoring the red squiggle-line.)

At Jason’s I ran into my two favorite Reasonable Atheists and 3QD contributors, Aikin & Talisse. Didn’t see them brandishing any provocative reading matter but I’ll bet they were carrying.

So, both girls are at home this morning, Younger Daughter resting fitfully on another round of painkillers, Older Daughter allegedly planning to study for finals. Speaking of which, I have one more exam to administer today and then it’s back into the hidey-hole.

A word to would-be wise students: please heed my previous instructions and postpone all grade queries ’til Monday. 

Sitting in that waiting room yesterday, I was pleased to come across a very wise bit of teaching advice from a younger colleague in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I’ve been inching towards for some time, and am finally going to embrace on January 17: ditch the syllabus on the first day of class. Do something interesting and fun, and begin really getting to know your student collaborators from the get-go. Talk about due dates and such later. Ask ’em all “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” and write down what they say. Other smart tips abound in the article too (though nothing about how to make yourself love grading).

I’ve come up with another innovation as well: floaters. We’ll have a different representative of each of our four discussion groups floating from group to group at ten minute intervals during each class, helping me knit the separate strands of our larger conversation into a tighter weave. “Connecting the dots,” I call it.

Isn’t it a good sign, that I’m already thinking about the new semester? Maybe. Or maybe just another indication that I really don’t like grading.  I shouldn’t complain, it’s way better than a broken digit.

philOK, I’m back into the hole now, like that other Phil in PA. There will be about five more weeks of winter (break), after Monday.

“Today is tomorrow! It happened!” Phil Connors

Explain nothing in public

May 7, 2012

Grades are in, grads are commenced, the Spring 2012 semester is in the books. Freedom! Now what?

Time to really exhale, and methodically begin plotting a productive summer: finish that article that should pull my next and last promotion, write that book, begin that novel. In May all still seems possible.

But on this day, and for the balance at least of this week, I’m giving myself permission to enjoy what Professor James called “the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing.”

“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.”

And as Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe said,

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…

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 (and I don’t, really).

But this week? Don’t ask me to explain anything in public. I’m laying low and avoiding trouble.

Another opening day

January 18, 2012

It’s deja vu, all over again: a quirk in the calendar has me meeting two classes for the first time today, after meeting the others twice already. CoPhi will be slightly out of sync, but you really can’t have too many fresh starts in life. Once again, let’s play ball!

A “non-traditional” student stopped by the office yesterday after class. He’s a freshman, like his daughter, and is excitedly waking at last to student life and the quest for wisdom. He’s questioning a lifetime of uncritical convention, in the workplace and in church. Hell hath no fury like a former fundamentalist who’s begun to think.

I usually dispute Plato’s claim that no one is really qualified to philosophize before life’s mid-point, but we all have to do what we can when we can. The enthusiasm for fresh starts is infectious, and especially appealing when caught from someone who’s been around the block. No one better appreciates the value of asking Why? No one gives better voice to the Jamesian insight that our habitual acts accumulate day by day and had best not be neglected.

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct…

I’m catching lots of enthusiasm in the A&P class too, where we also have more than a few non-trads. I think the presence of experienced students in the mix, alongside the next generation, may be what I like most about teaching at a large state school. When there are more opening days behind than ahead of you, it’s good to be reminded that experience is worth a lot. And curious, inquisitive experience is priceless.  Welcome back!

Forced to pay attention “on this day”

January 10, 2012

Ten days into 2012 and it dawns on me what’s missing from my routine: I’ve not replaced my desktop calendar, the one I always use for jotting random notes and “to do”s and for jogging thoughts and notions when the tabula feels too rasa.

They should all be bargain-discounted by now, I’ll see what I can find. Meanwhile there are online resources to fill the gap. The Times’ On this Day” site, for instance, has apparently been embedded in its “Learning Network” blog and is chock-full of amusing and useful daily tidbits “for students 13 and older.” I notice, when I click on “January 10,” that most of the historical squib s deemed worthy of mention occurred in my lifetime. When I was seven, for instance, the Beatles’ first U.S. album was released on this date. “Masterpiece Theater” premiered on January 10 when I was fourteen.  More recent items seem even less momentous. And maybe I don’t really need to know that it’s Donald Fagen’s birthday.

On the other hand, this site’s interactive features are compelling and, with another semester’s Opening  Day about to arrive, timely. A student named Elizabeth, responding to the question Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?, offers this:

“ I actually took a class where the professor didn’t use PowerPoint or any supplements to lecture except for occasional use of a traditional whiteboard, and that was one of the most effective lectures I have attended. Instead of coasting by merely reading the slides, I was forced to actually pay attention to the lecture, and I gained so much from that–more, I think, than could be possible from any technology, no matter how advanced.”

Well, good! How reassuring to hear a student say the old-fashioned technology of voice-to-ear and face-to-face communication can still be effective in the classroom. Now I’m ready, if only someone will force me to pay attention. Oh yeah: that’s what students are for. They, and not a desktop pad, are what I’ve really been missing in these early days of the new year.


The new academic year is here. Huzzah!

August 25, 2011

Awoke after an academic  anxiety dream, probably triggered by the scene in Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God in which protagonist Cass Seltzer (the “atheist with a soul”) suddenly remembers that he’s scheduled to debate a Francis Collins-type theist the very next day. He’s made no preparations and given no thought at all to what he might say.

It’s not unlike the classic undergraduate nightmare, which still occasionally disrupts my slumbers, of forgetting you’re enrolled in a class. Suddenly it’s final exam day.

Or like the naked dream most people have, at one time or another. (Don’t they?)

What it means in the present instance, Professor Freud, is that this is my last summer morn. Tomorrow I head to the ‘boro for our big Full Faculty convocation and the academic season’s inauguaral address by President McPhee. Then a free lunch. (No such thing, of course.) Then a department faculty meeting. And then, the curtain rises on 2011-2012. Ready or not.

My first cogent thought this morning, once the dream haze cleared, was: “last day of freedom.”

My second was: “that’s no attitude to carry to school.”

My third: Kant was right about this one. Freedom is a law, regimen, or discipline we voluntarily impose upon ourselves and accept. We do that because we value the actual experience of effort and achievement. We want to know our lives, inside and out, as meaningfully structured to ends that meet our purposes and plot our days.

So if you’re a teacher, a student, an academic administrator, a university employee, a ‘boro citizen, you should be excited about tomorrow and the season ahead. You may not exactly look forward to sitting in the big hall with all your colleagues and listening to a mostly platitudinous ritual service, but the prospect of a new year should still feel just like freedom.

I’m awake now. That was just a summer’s dream. Borrowing Older Daughter’s new favorite all-purpose interjection, in celebration of the new season: huzzah!

Color me Raider Blue, free at last.

Long reading in an age of short attention

August 23, 2011

For all practical purposes summer’s over. My daily trek to Murfreesboro begins in a couple of days, and in the meantime I’m the uncompensated taxi driver for my overscheduled girls. Three 20″ trips to their school yesterday, plus extra-curriculars later. They have no sympathy, having long since laid their own summers to rest.

Must find a few more minutes to wrestle with my syllabi today. As usual, as Opening Day approaches I feel I’ve been too ambitious and must decide what to leave out, what not to require. It’s harder these days to put together a syllabus students will take seriously. We routinely hear that kids don’t like to read long assignments.

Or just don’t like to read what they’ve been required to read. “Back in my day,” as we old-timers say, professors didn’t lose any sleep over lengthy reading assignments. They’d have laughed if we complained. Guess I’m too nice. I’ll have to work on that.

But what’s “long,” anyway, in the Twitter Age? Attention span’s never been shorter. Reading entire essays, never mind books, is exceptional. “Long Reads” are treated as something exotic and rare.

So what do we teachers do, hoist the white flag and wax nostalgic for the reading equivalent of the cliched five-mile slog through rain and sleet that we had to endure while lowering present expectations and doling out dinky single-digit assignments?

No, I won’t do that. A long read in college is not to be thought of mainly as a test of endurance, it’s more  an opportunity to exercise your curiosity, expand your commitment, and develop your capacity for focus and self-discipline.

And the payoff couldn’t be bigger: a wider sensibility, a deeper reservoir of knowledge, greater self-confidence. Whatever else is on your college transcript, that’s really what you matriculate for.  It’s what we should be teaching, all across the curriculum.

Then again, time is short. Some of it needs to be left free for exploring. The solution, easy to say and harder to strike: a moderately ambitious schedule of required reading, with supplemental recommendations on the side, and constant encouragement to students to stretch themselves. Your reach should always exceed your grasp, etc. Dare to be extraordinary. Become who you are. Don’t sell yourself short.

The best teachers are motivators, not just content-providers. That’s the lesson I need to remember, as I nail down those syllabi.

The Art of the Moral Essay

August 18, 2011

How’s this for an ambitious and appealing course, and an answer to critics who allege that academia in general and the humanities in particular have become the “playground” of self-indulgent specialists with nothing valuable to offer young people?

PHIL 352.02

Topic: The Art of the Moral Essay (T2)
T 6:00-9:00
Instructor: John Lachs

Philosophy has a great deal to offer to the community that supports it. One way to make philosophical thought accessible to a broad audience is by means of the moral essay, which consists of a set of reflections on a topic of significance in our shared human life. We will read two moral essays a week, starting with Bertrand Russell’s “Free Man’s Worship” and paying particular attention to the interplay in them of argument and rhetoric. Students will have an opportunity to suggest readings for the second half of the seminar.

Students will work on a moral essay of their own, aiming to complete a publishable piece of writing by semester’s end.

Readings include:

1) Bertrand Russell, “Free Man’s Worship”

(2) Richard Taylor, “The Meaning of Life”

(3) William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War”

(4) William Shaw, “Punishment and the Criminal Justice System”

(5) Jane English versus Christina Hoff Summers on duties to parents

(6) John Lachs, “Both Better Off and Better: Moral Progress Amid Continuing Carnage.”

(7) John Isbister, “Welfare and Social Justice”

(8) David Boaz, “A Drug-FreeAmerica–Or A FreeAmerica?”

Ambitious indeed. John Lachs is old school, when he says everyone will complete a publishable piece of writing he’s not talking about the Internet. Lachs is my old mentor at Vanderbilt, and this course is on tap for the Fall semester about to commence. I may have to swipe it someday myself.

A glance at other Vandy Fall courses suggests that Lachs has infected many of his colleagues, as he always has his students. In Phil 120, for instance, my old “Meaning of Life” course, Rebecca Tuvel wonders “what counts as a livable life”…  In Phil 217, Metaphysics, Jeff Tlumak asks “What and who am I? What sort of freedom do I enjoy? How should I live?” Rob Talisse in Phil 252, Political and Social Philosophy, is “focusing on questions concerning the value of political dissent.”

Can I go back to school?

Digital upgrade in the classroom

August 11, 2011

Spent hours at my desk yesterday turning the corner on Fall, alas.

First it was the shockingly costly and distasteful task of ordering and paying for Middle & High School textbooks. Sticker shock? How about $146 for a History text, $174 for French, $190 for Chemistry…

And then, adding injury to insult, the poor kids will have to lug those backbreakers up and down stairs and hallways all year. Sisyphus never had it so bad! I say it’s time to de/reconstruct the paper textbook mill. Coulda paid for ’em all on an iPad, Nook, or Kindle for less, and avoided the strain. The old way of doing textbook publishing is entrenched, though, it’ll take some blasting to move it.

But then, yesterday, the thoroughly enjoyable process of setting up new blogs for the students in my university courses. Fortunately my ways aren’t all  so entrenched.

I’m pleased with the provisional results, which I can’t fully unveil here in their experimental “beta” run. We’ll get the kinks out first. But I can say that the Intro site, dubbed “CoPhilosophy,” takes both name and inspiration from this passage in William James’s “Essence of Humanism“:

Ethically the pluralistic form of [humanism] takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of–it being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of “co,” in which conjunctions do the work. But my primary reason for advocating it is its matchless intellectual economy. It gets rid, not only of the standing “problems” that monism engenders (“problem of evil,” “problem of freedom,” and the like), but of other metaphysical mysteries and paradoxes as well.

(That’s James in 1903, on the left, collaborating with his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce at his summer place in Chocorua, New Hampshire. Sat on the very spot myself a year ago.)

CoPhilosophy (or to adapt experimental philosophy’s “X-Phi” shorthand, Co-Phi) will for our purposes mean a collaborative search for wisdom and mutual understanding rooted in small research-&-discussion groups that will interact both in and out of the classroom. “Conversational, interpersonal, talkative, discursive, mutual,” my new site proclaims, “Co-Phi aims to be philosophy that listens and learns.”

We’re going to run a similar experiment in Happiness 101, too.

Why do it this way? For one thing, to test James’s hypothesis about the superiority of “social” philosophizing. For another, to begin exploring the mostly-uncharted collaborative potential of the 21st century classroom. For a third, though this is really primus inter pares, to model and adopt the best new ways of teaching and learning we can devise together. Old ways for the old, new for the young (and young at heart). It may well be time for what Virginia Heffernan calls a “digital-age upgrade” in the way we do things in academia. Or not. There’s only one way to find out.

But I think we’ll still do some collaborating out on the James Union Building stoa. Some things should never change.