Breadth Work

I would love to share ideas and to be critiqued at work. But it is not that kind of environment. So instead, I torture myself by reading the works of authors from the past who I doubt I will ever live up to.
My experience at the educational institution where I work has been that though I inherited nothing, I am expected to give, and not say anything when my resources are poached - though that means needing to find something new to use. My view on this overall state of affairs is that I should only share some, not all, of what I have assembled. (Well, I think I actually would have spilt all my tools in the instance when I was asked to hand over sections of a course. I would have done so because in some respects I am about as advanced as a 4-year-old ripe only for board games "in which there is no strategy". Except I encountered a hostile heir, who was possibly even unable to take it all in. So in that case, I only passed some things on. Please note, what I am passing on here are merely carefully amassed resources, ranging from exercises, to expectations, to objectives, gathered out of necessity as I have found typical college handbooks to be seriously wanting. So I wish to stress that what I consider I possess is not actually my own, but rather what I have synthesised in order to pass on to students what I consider to be a full and working tool box.)
All of this to say that it is my assessment, since I am mostly self-taught in pedagogy, that I must therefore be wild and in need of serious scholastic grooming. But every now and again I come across resources that seem to spell out in neon that, even if I am untamed, I am on the right track.

One such orienting resource is the list published by Sophie Blumet guiding a study conducted with Howard Gardner (the Harvard educationalist) as to the parameters of a liberal arts education, which include:
  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines;     
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural/physical sciences;     
  • Engendering communication skills in various media;     
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities;     
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives;     
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them; and     
  • Reflecting on ways to contribute to society as a citizen.
It almost verbatim echoes the definition of a university education forwarded by Giambattista Vico in his speech addressed to students on the meaning of a university education entitled, "The Heroic Mind".
When I began teaching, at which time I desperately strove to imitate the kinds of classes I had taken at my Ivy League alma mater, before the age of the internet, and before I became clearer about pedagogy, I had perused Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct, and retained from that book what I will shorthand as 'breadth of approach'. The Blumet/Garnder list above captures the gist of what I understood breadth to mean, even back then. I would like to point out the ubiquity of this breadth, conspicuous even in the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, which falls short just where it fails to conceive of the telos of education as the formation of a good citizen.
This past week, I suddenly felt a need to revisit Barzun, and am astounded by just how much what he wrote is being reformulated by the contemporary educationalists that I try to keep up on. Barzun's breadth of approach is multidisciplinary, and includes an awareness of the political implications of thought. This should be straight forward to anyone - we all know it was to his possibly more famous colleague, Lionel Trilling.

Trilling writes that if politics is not understood as imagination and mind, imagination and mind will become a kind of politics we don't like. That kind of statement can only be made if one is attempting to gain a grasp of the bigger picture. Trying to see it requires asking bigger questions. As I mentioned, Gardner (in his recent work) is a proponent of the need to tackle big questions. One of his recent posts, asking, "Should we require all students to take philosophy?" ends by responding to attacks on philosophy as lacking practical knowledge by calling on its ability to ponder life's bigger questions in the best possible way.
I would add to that defense what I feel to be of burning importance at this time: the need to tell all students - regardless of their field of study - that philosophy, as conceived by Aristotle, has an ethical prerequisite involving exercises in discernment. Without this, no politics for anyone!
So, going back to Barzun, consider this: "And when the mind has grasped in several contexts the effect of circumstance, the nature of partisanship, the role of chance, and the influence of leaders and bunglers, the student of history who has discussed with others these potent imponderables may become not only a better judge of public policy and politicians, but also a more tolerant person." What a beautiful summary of how broad (so also historical), attentive reading can be an exercise in character building - or should I say character bildung (sorry, bad Humboldtian pun).
Another gem essay of Barzun's, which outlines another of the values on the Gardner list cited above, is entitled, "Math and Science are Liberal Arts".  It demonstrates through effective examples how basic compositional skills are needed by scientists if they are to get their point across. It also shows how the lack of common sense in the teaching of these subjects leads to their popular demise. It shows many interesting things that he says so effectively, summarising it does it a disservice.
And while comparing one's own capacities to those evinced in such works shows just how far one has yet to go, others would have educational goals narrowed at this time. For example, a green colleague who was asked to list the various ways in which a topic can be approached, claimed that any kind of list is off-putting, including those that serve as reminders of the topics of invention. Yet not one breath later this same person wanted a list where this would narrow down their job. So, the problem is not in lists but in the work of the responsibility of the freedom of having options.


"Life itself, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance," Wendell Berry writes in a lecture printed in The Way of Ignorance.
So much can take away from this abundance, such as that terrible movie screen that is also crammed with the victimising, materialistic, and ego-fuelled junk that poisons our minds, seas, and water tables. Speaking of that which is "victimising" is trauma, which "violates aspects of the person's self and world". Trauma is contagious. Among the syndromes listed as defining organizational trauma, Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann is "stress and anxiety contagion" (emphasis added). The traumatised can be better versed at multiplying destructive negativity than their vital talents.
But as a degree-bearing philologist (one who loves words), I task myself to improve articulacy (the necessary joints) to relate from the confusing temporal appearance to the abundance that is essential, and life-giving.

We are all naked to begin with - and under whatever clothes we do our social posturing in. What is essential can be reached through "baring"; through uncovering to reach the core of something.
Want has the potential to strip away, and so does trauma - if one can bear it, and hold out like an 'initiate of life': if one takes the leap of faith into that which is life-bearing. The alternative is to believe in destruction as a terminal inevitability. In that context, consider this phrase: "a smile, an inheritance, and laughter is a gift."

Who has not felt the sweet release from the gerbil-wheel of depressive thought?  A single smile, help along the trail. Life is like a thru-hike. Or, an endurance run. What I'm trying to say is that we pick our destinations. In other words, whether we accept responsibility for it or not, our actions demonstrate which destination we serve. (Yes, I am referencing Aristotelian τέλος.)

Many times, because of the glut in which we live, if we are not facing hardship, we need to impose on ourselves some form of austerity to reach the essential. This is why people choose thru-hikes. Stripping away the bells and whistles that distract us, we can better appreciate that which is already abundant in this life, like just how beautiful it is to be warmed by the sun (...after a cold night out at camp). Read about a much more compelling experience of the same, along the Altiplano Traverse, here (by Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva; it's his quote about the smile, above).
But other times, sickness and injury strip us down to the same result (hear one such account here). Personally, I am coming out of a summer filled with myriad traumas, with two ongoing, and feel a great need to reconfirm the kind of destination I want to be headed towards. I discovered (again - it's funny how much amnesia can occur, for weeks even, until the nervous system calms down) that one can even feel abandoned in hard times. This isn't to say that abandonment is real. But...we can make it real, if we don't watch out. Anyone who doesn't know what I am talking about should count their blessings.

While I don't have the luxury to go where I will, I run long distance (my typical run is over half a marathon, so I can get to the forest and lift up my eyes - I reference the motto of my first boarding school, from Psalm 121). As much as I would love to quit my job (which gives me more and more work, and less and less pay), I will instead endure it a little longer, to gain better eyes for the abundance that life already is.
There is nothing like being told you will get help at work and instead being given a helper who not only lacks basic training (an assistant with a degree in politics who doesn't know what rhetoric is!) but who is also resistant to learning, and then going for a 26K jaunt in nature and being bathed by tree upon tree, casting their fiery shadows upon you, and forgetting your worries in that light show... The random willow in the little park just means so much more when it weeps for you.

Saint Nikolaj Zicki is said to have valued his days of imprisonment in Dachau above all else, for it is there where a simple ray of sunlight meant the most to him.
It is interesting how someone whose life was spiritually rich also benefitted from a baring: a release from 'things'; situation. 
I hunt for the golden stag.
You may smile my friends, but I pursue the vision that eludes me.
I run across hills and dales, I wander through nameless lands, because I am hunting for the golden stag. 
You come and buy in the market and go back to your homes laden with goods, but the spell of the homeless winds has touched me I know not when and where.
I have no care in my heart; all my belongings, I have left far behind me. 
(from Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener, 69)

Image (of painting) source: Pier Fracesco Mola "Oriental Warrior" wikimediacommons.
To my adolescent imagination, when I first saw this painting in the Louvre, I thought, this is someone who's hunting for the golden stag. His eyes are lifted (Ps.121); at least, aimed for more distant goals.
He's always looked to me like a janissary, though it bewilders me (I now refer to the definition at that link) how someone who is kidnapped "willingly" does anything.

Reflection and Reflexion on the Classroom

It is thanks to a blogger friend that I have returned here to give an update. Please note, though, that what is below is but a first-draft; if I edit, this won't get published 'til mid-August (though if I somehow find time, I will edit and remove this disclaimer).
Without reading old blog posts, I felt as if I had left this chrysalis behind, because so much of the breadth in thinking I had been working on here came into place, and I know that when I look back on older writing after reaching such plateaus, I only have an eye for all that was missing of the foundation (elementary ideas) that went into reaching that plateau.
But I claim to be a lover of process, so this means leaving in sight (as opposed to discarding) the earlier steps.
And the premise of what I am about to write is also based on 'what came before', for when I review the changes I made to my classrooms this past semester, I was very aware just how much past experience was there to temper the changes.


In my largest intro class, I added two online components: reading based online, and students required to comment a few times during the semester online. Their comments could be summaries to their own links on the weekly topics they found useful or interesting; insightful questions on the material; analysis. I also gave students the opportunity to set their own colloquium questions: there were about thirty they contributed, from which two appeared in that test. Early in the semester, I tried to 'lecture' the material through asking students questions and bringing their answers or observations into how I covered the material, but students found that too intimidating. I then experimented a few classes with setting them group exercises using additional source material, structured so that the exercise would review key points from the reading. This worked for 1.5 of the three classes. But my experience obviously told me that this was not a good way to go on (so many students need more structure and modeling and help - at this level - identifying what hey points are), though the students were happy for the change of dynamics. I ended the semester by delivering 20-30 minute lectures, followed by group class exercises. These varied in their content: asking students to find topics from the reading/lecture in song lyrics; giving them images asking them to expand on what they learn from that image and connect it to the reading, then share this information in brief presentations; etc. Such exercises are very labour intensive because, especially when choosing groups to share, I need to remember which groups are doing better with the exercise and call on those groups. It is also necessary to end class with a brief recap, which means tracking all the students said and being sure to include anything they may not have commented on. Etc.

In sum, I used a combination of didactic and flipped classroom techniques. I continued to use aspects of the blended classroom, but as in previous years, did add a grade component to encourage more use of the internet (which essentially means, putting the graded homework component online). I used Google Classroom, but did not use it to the fullest extent. For example, it was important to me to see which students were being thoughtful in their online comments - so I did not have Google tally up the homework points.
The way in which I included the online component did not save me any time - if anything, classes became more labour intensive. Not only did I lecture, but I also had to come up with exercises, and in addition to grading, I had to scan the online comments and enter in that work assessment manually. I also took attendance, which took time to be entered.
However. I think that this was the way to go in terms of getting the results I wanted from students. They were engaged, actually did the work ! , and seemed to enjoy the class (I do ask students to assess the class, but one always wonders about evaluation re. truth).
The final thing I will add here is the importance, in my opinion, of having very clear epistemic goals if this approach is taken. For example, in a course on culture, I decide about which events/figures/themes/etc. are the bare minimum I want students to know - but in addition to that, I also decide on the set of abstract skills I also want students to practice, eg. comparative analysis. I ask myself: assuming students will forget most of what is taught in this course, what is the gist you want a vague trace of to remain in their minds?

Most of what I have written about in this post reflects classroom elements I have been using for years; this is why I began by referencing the importance of experience. Experience tempered my introduction of change - when I saw students not being as self-directed as I thought they might be (I admit I did wonder if new generations would indeed be as far-more-internet-savvy-than-their-professors, as some media implies), I re-introduced the more didactic, modelling element to class.
For undergraduate classes, I think it is appropriate to continue to begin class by establishing the gist of what one wants students to take from the class - but to leave time for students to articulate their own understandings, extrapolations, comparisons, etc.
The hardest aspect of these courses comes with the upper level (fourth-year, ie. senior-level, courses, where something as simple as having students summarise a variety of texts they will use as the foundation for their analysis, is a challenge for some. I teach this in those classes that last two semesters, hoping students will master this by the second semester. Those students who make the effort to engage with class always make immense improvements. But what happens is that some seniors seem to check out after the first few weeks of the second semester. It is this dialogic element plus analysis that some seem to wish to skirt past - though, in my opinion, this forms the basis of the liberal education, an skirting by it means a lower level of literacy. And civics.

I am the kind of instructor that aims for a 100 per cent success rate, which is why I am concerned about this: others might look at the 20 per cent or so students who make great progress as success, and call it a day. In fact, the large majority of my students make progress (I am thinking of the numbers this year). But it is the few students who don't, or that single student whose final work was worse than the mid-term work, that cause me to want to keep things fresh and reconsidered in terms of how I teach each new year.
It is probably because of this that sometimes I feel a little burned out (like now, when I am supposed to be marking papers). It also does not help that in academe there are other things that need to be dealt with, like backstabbing colleagues (though this does not mean the backstabbing is personal; merely, that one is in the way of someone else's ideas of how things should be done), or like all the research papers to be written. This comic says it all (via Piled Higher and Deeper).
I don't know if my way is sustainable: as it happens, this past week I have totally (accidentally) missed out on two important obligations, which aside from being mortifying for someone like me, makes me wonder if I can go on like this. I was given more than an average course load, but still...
To conclude, I will be thinking about one of the best essays I have read in an age (and one, those who know me, might say it could have been written by me: just swap out the art and book references to mine from hermeneutics, the message would remain the same). It is by Jenny Odell, entitled, "How To Do Nothing". Among other things, the essay raises the question of maintenance (or what we could call sustainability) vs. development. It is my secret wish that this author will want to co-author a paper with me. I will be keeping the idea of maintenance in the back of my mind as I mark those papers...

Status: Flipped

After belabouredly deliberating over how to teach this semester, I made the decision to remove the traditional lecturing component of my classes, and "flip" my classroom. I felt that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain as I wasn't satisfied with the percentage of students who were benefitting from the traditional model. I was reading how Howard Gardner used to tape his lectures for students to watch outside of class, using class time for questions and discussions of associated readings. I thought about how today, the taping part is almost superfluous given that for many intro-level courses, there is a selection of lectures to choose from that can be sped or watched through and mixed and matched (this is what I suspect students are doing anyway) already available online. Which is to say that I have started to go so far as to question the relevance of the lecture to every course.

For one of my classes, I merely ask that students, after overviewing criteria for evaluating sources, link to what they watch or read in the comments section of an online platform. This counts towards their grade. I do provide two sources that cover the material they are asked to learn (one that is simplified, one that is more elaborate - explaining that the simplified version only gives enough information for a lower grade), but they are given the choice to find their own alternative (providing it is 'scholarly'), or supplement it. It sounds complicated, but in my last post, I explained how I suspected that most students were consulting online sources for their study-material as it was (and despite the material presented in class being different).
I plan to use the class time for this class by having students do in-class exercises, and calling on groups week by week, explaining that it is up to them to volunteer at least twice, if they want a grade for that section of class (if not, this will negatively impact the final grade). I am still building the exercises (and have found very useful ideas by googling: lecturing to large classes), but plan to focus on a few images most weeks, using Harvard's Artful Thinking exercises as a way to promote fluency of the material covered. The second-year students balk at having to synthesise information in their exam essays, and rather than overwhelming them with composition techniques (which I have also taught at that level), I think that Artful Thinking, with its elementary questions asking one what one sees, what one thinks and wonders about what one sees (branching out into making comparisons, exploring, reasoning, and pondering) is an approach all of the students will be able to take, and one that I believe will lead them to being able to write thoughtful essays.

I wrote in my last post that I always decide ahead of time what the minimum is in terms of what I want students to be able to accomplish for a pass in my class - and have since found a great post on this approach penned by Louise Lamphere Beryl, who calls it: "backward design". It is important to maintain a clear vision on what the key understandings of one's class are, and have an idea of how to lead students to them. The post explains how to do that very clearly.
And reading someone else write about these very ideas helped me clarify the key understandings I want my fourth-year class to reach (practise a key aspect of a hallmark methodology). A great portion of this class will rely on in-class exercises. Also, students will be responsible for setting the reading: they must each contribute one text or one image/video etc. with summary to at least half of the classes. After establishing the guidelines of what is needed, I said I would supplement where necessary, though students are motivated to eschew my intervention because a large part of their grade will be determined by peer evaluation (following Michael O'Hare's guidelines) - which is to say that they will be grading each other on how much they were able to help each other prepare for the established goals. I decided to let the students have control of what they read because about half the class was not interacting with the material I assigned last semester (which I was a tad saddened by, because I put a lot of thought into it - but to be fair, it was perhaps too broad, and too complex for those students, though I have to add that some students mastered it and thrived). My reader was the one I dreamed would exist. I think I was inspired by the artistic parameters of some of Leon Litwack's lecture topics - but I'm a poor imitator.

I justified abandoning my own reader also because I think that despite my attempt to be broad-reaching, I still wasn't reaching my students and bringing out their voices. There were at least a handful of students who were clearly following the lectures, but not engaged enough to be able to use the material in their own essays. So, I thought that if they had agency over the reading material (which be the nature of the course can be broad-ranging - and is made richer if it is), they might be more motivated to connect with the material.
I never thought the day would come when I would use some of these techniques. I never thought that I would welcome the internet in such a massive way as part of my courses - all of the texts are now online; so is part of our classroom where students share their thoughts and assignments.

The Howard Gardner post linked to above in which he recounts flipping his own classroom in passing, is primarily about raising questions on how to promote transformations of students in class: "changes in how one conceptualises the world of ideas and associated practises;  ... changes in how one relates to peers and other individuals; and  ... changes in how one thinks about oneself" - with respect to being "good". He is raising a Socratic, and Aristotelian question - and that it is a vitally important question: for what is learning devoid of ethics, civic responsibility? But the point I want to focus on is that if such change for the better (i.e. maturity!) is effected, it is obviously effected within the individual - which is to say that such education must cater to an individual, not a number.
Catering to individuals is yet further support for the idea of flipping the classroom. But speaking of transformations, I'll repeat that I did not expect my views on this to transform so dramatically since my last post.
In closing, I want to share another post on pedagogy I read this week: "Classroom Confession: I am a Terrible Teacher" - a post that frames Achilles' heels in such a way as to show just how much can be taught, in so many ways, despite them. 

Gravitas and Caricatures in Education

Not since the daringly personal and narrative-based entry to serious study in The Anguish of Snails (blogged of here) have I been able to fathom an entryway into an other type of academic writing. But listening to a Practical Backpacking podcast, episode 51 with Kolby "Condor" Kirk, brought me to a slower world, where there is time and space to allow connections and meaning to emerge organically and courageously, returning me to the idea of how to approach academic writing organically and daringly. Kirk is a long-distance, not thru-, hiker, who is known for his journalling which came to light via a Muir project video. I was intrigued that a man journals and was particularly drawn in by the narrative of someone who consciously felt the trials of the race of life around him, but has literally stood still for long enough in the midst of that to find his own peace replete with butterflies landing on him. The culmination of listening to Kirk, and following up on a song he mentioned about not caring about winning anymore and further interviews with him, was catching a glimmer of a space where work gets realised, but in so much of a kinder way, so much more of a humane way. In other words, the question that comes to mind for academe from the context of the interview (and Snails) is: can knowledge be spoken of by someone who sees their own human fallibility? The mouth speaking, after all, is on one such fallible human body. The narrative, therefore, if it is "fitting" (kairos! - here, to the measure of man), begins with uncomfortable caricatures of us, like the cartoonish figures in Plato's dialogues, though we may be striving to learn something more than ourselves. In other words, too, how wont we are to run away with ourselves. How hard it is to remain centered within, say, our adolescent mistakes, our gaffes (even if not in the workplace), wherever we fall short in the race or competition, and yet still be able to deliver something seriously, with gravitas.

Is it maybe the overall historical awareness of human fallibility (in a general sense, I think few individuals can handle it on a more personal level) - the sense of "historic perspectivism" or "reflective historiography" Auerbach says we have "inherited" - that has led to the urge to change pedagogy to be less grave; to also be less certain - so, therefore, devoid of anything to be learned by rote: that 'deserving' of learning being dynamic and always shifting (capricious). And in the mean time, teachers are encouraged to put the focus of class on the student, who is to be given "autonomy" in learning.
I actually subscribe in many instances to such pedagogy - but still think that some subjects need rote, like when learning verb declensions. Or dates! Etc. I think that too much focus on the student can then disable the student, as when, for example, the student learns to pursue only what is within range or likeable to them - where the student does not learn discipline, and the ability to absorb something far beyond their interests: that 'suspension of disbelief' that allows a totally different foundation to be laid, alongside other existing foundations, to create true breadth.

Discipline in the modern world is now mostly learned through illness: when we have to, say for example, laoriously peel and grate beets daily for health reasons. Suddenly, the daily discipline is possible, whereas before, it was not, it was only possible to grab something from the bakery.
So, all this to say that there is a place for the graveness of gravitas, obviously, in life (which the academy should ultimately be a lover and servant of), but also a place for our goofy, affinity-driven caricatures - so that balance between the two is an art.
Going back to modern pedagogy, many celebrate it (again, I subscribe to some of its practices), but perhaps we might want to sober up for a moment and remember Auerbach's warning that just at this time when we are so historically aware, we are also threatened by an "ahistorical system of education". For example, I have a few very smart students who cannot see the past without evaluating it in terms of more present concerns. They write very analytical papers, but papers that cannot extend 'suspension of disbelief' to enter into a time of different values. I see this as intellectual impoverishment, and I see it increasing. Learner autonomy cannot really fix that; it needs correctional intervention, of the kind: what you have written is indeed analytical, but can you extend your analysis further to consider looking at the subject from the vantage point of...? 

I have to admit that I was very excited to read about a course in Berkeley that employed a system of peer evaluation, but thought to myself that I would not be able to employ such a system every year: some years, there are not enough students of the kind who "raise the level of conversation" (to borrow a phrase from the poet O'Donohue). I think peer evaluation could quickly diminish into a pool of mediocrity. That said... there are years when that happens anyway: no matter how much one makes adaptations and modifications to content and delivery to try to engage students, they mostly come away with the bare minimum. And such years, one wastes too much time and energy.
So, it is exciting to read about different pedagogies because many of them might be kinder solutions to the real problems that face us in the classroom today. Kinder to teachers and to students. If one is facing a class of average students, so average that not even one or two more motivated peers spark competition and engagement, then the teaching problem is not top-down (delivernig maximum content and engaging students to meet it) but bottom-up (trying to begin with the students to get them to take a single step from where they are). In the latter case, I find myself trying to figure out, OK, so if there is one thing I want students to take from this course, what is it? I think in my class that has a historical component, that single thing is simply: can the student imagine at least one feature of this time that is not like our own, and understand it as such a distinction? (Of course the 'minimum list' is longer; but the distillation is real.)
More advanced classes are less rigorous in the sense that there is more that can be explored; there is a choice of several combinations that would be adequate. And that is where there is joy: some degree of mastery, some degree of flexibility. Everything before that is the stepping stone to that.
Stepping stones...

I'll try to bring this post to a close by bringing it back to the Kirk interview. He speaks of the importance of being not going somewhere, yet endurance as the means to reach those points of being, as it begins from that point where the journey seems too hard, where people extrapolate how much more the remaining journey will hurt based on pain experienced thus far and want to give up, when instead they should realise that they are getting stronger and better. It is clear why so many pedagogies focus on growth. But tied in with growth are all kinds of other things needing consideration, including even belief. Or even love of the world, and the question of how to love it... Auerbach once quoted Hugo of St. Victor in giving his answer: "...he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land". One loves the world if one is endowed with the love of the traveller, but with the gravitas of being the student of the lands. There is a place for this human love in academic writing - Auerbach has demonstrated this. Some pedagogy also emphasizes this by showing the teacher as not being the sole gatekeeper to knowledge. And a final note to this: isn't it a good thing that this pedagogy has come to popularity at exactly the time when students can see, on the internet, that teachers are not gatekeepers to knowledge? But, and the internet does not teach this, how to instill in average students, bent on easiest routes and minimal engagement, discipline and textual apparatus?