Tagteaching

guidance for my students (& others)

As a new school year is about to begin, I’m going over the things I want to say to my first-year students — the ones I’m welcoming not just to Baylor’s Honors College but also to collegiate life. Here are my standard recommendations:

(1) Be religious … about washing your hands. (And not with hand sanitizers: use soap. Soap is much better at killing the critters that need to be killed.)

(2) Buy some earplugs, minimum NRR 32, and get used to wearing them. You might need to try several different brands before you find a variety that’s comfortable for you. But none of them will be comfortable at first, if you’re not a regular earplug-user, so try any given pair for at least a week before you move along to another. And then put the dang earplugs in your ears when it’s a good time to go to sleep.

If you don’t do anything else on this list, do these two things. In November, when all the other people in your dorm are exhausted, sick, and full of hatred for one another, you’ll be smooth-skinned, energetic, and cheerful.

(3) Find community outside the university. For those of us here at Baylor, a church community makes the most sense — and not just for “practical” reasons — but even if you’re not planning to be a regular church-goer, find ways to connect with people who are not your age. Old people, middle-aged people, children, it doesn’t matter — though if you can help those who are poor or in other ways needy that would be ideal. It is vital for you to be reminded regularly that there’s a whole world out there of people who are not in college and who, consequently, have very different troubles than yours.

(4) Spend time outdoors. In the Texas summer, that might need to be first thing in the morning, but stroll around under the live-oaks on campus, or walk up the Brazos and Bosque in Cameron Park, or drive a few miles west to see the really remarkable Lake Waco Wetlands. And when the cooler weather comes you’ll be able to be outdoors all the time, if you so desire.

(5) During the school day, keep your smartphone in your bag. Seriously: don’t take it out. Look around you, talk to friends, practice your breathing, pray. Just ignore the phone.

(6) Find a system of organization and stick with it. You need to be always aware of what your responsibilities and what the key due dates are. If you keep careful track of such matters, then when other people are “pulling all-nighters” you’ll be restoring your bodily strength in sleep (protected by your earplugs). There are many wonderful digital tools, but don’t overlook the amazing power and flexibility of pen and paper.

(7) If you’re not one of the extremely fortunate students taking my first-year seminar, read the syllabus and follow some of the links on it. You could learn a lot.

(8) School won’t kill you — least of all through putting challenges in your path you can’t surmount. Nobody’s perfect; nobody’s invariably excellent. Remember Pascal’s warning against the error of Stoicism, which is to believe that you can do always what you can really only do sometimes. Don’t be afraid.

More About My New Writing Assignment

When, a few days ago, I posted the details of my radically subversive new writing assignment, I got a number of replies from my friends on Twitter. They fell into three categories:

  • This sounds great!
  • Um … let me know how it goes.
  • I’d feel better about something like this if my students were skilled at writing conventional thesis essays.

Here I want to address that third response.

Some of my students are quite skilled at writing “conventional thesis essays” — the kind that have an introductory paragraph announcing the thesis to be supported, followed by evidence for that thesis taken from the primary source under consideration plus relevant secondary sources, and a conclusion that wraps things up nicely. Some of my students are not so skilled at working in that genre. By eschewing it I am definitely passing up the opportunity to give my students detailed instruction in how to write that kind of text.

Which leads me to a series of questions: How much does that matter? How important is it that my students get better at writing thesis essays? After all, the thesis essay is just one of many genres of writing: how did it become so utterly dominant in the academic study of the humanities? Does it deserve such dominance? Presumably we assign thesis essays not because we think that genre uniquely valuable in itself, but because we think it inculcates certain valuable skills (how to research and sift one’s research, how to defend an arguable position, etc.) — but what if those skills can be taught through assigning different kinds of writing? What if there are other equally valuable skills that can’t readily be taught through the assigning of thesis essays?

Yes, students who are going on to graduate school in the humanities will need to become quite skilled at writing thesis essays — but why should we craft our assignments in order to meet the needs of a small percentage of our students? Moreover, especially if those students get practice writing thesis essays in other classes, why shouldn’t I use my class to teach them some skills and intellectual virtues that could later set them apart from peers?

Questions like those.

One of the primary things I’m hoping to achieve through this assignment is to bring reading and writing into closer and more constructively interanimating relation. In the traditional model, students read and discuss a text and then, at some point later in the term, write about it. Reading is generally done on an almost daily basis, while writing (serious, in-depth writing anyway) is done infrequently and in intense bursts of activity, probably over little more than 48 hours.

I want to see what happens if students have to write, and write seriously, in more-or-less the same rhythm as they read: read a section of a text, write about it, read some more, see what others (scholars and classmates) have said about it, revisit your earlier thoughts to extend or correct them, etc. I feel quite confident that this will make students more incisive and reflective readers; what it will do for their writing skills I am not certain. But it’s worth an experiment.

(P.S. The assignment is neither radical nor subversive, but I thought that might be a cool thing to say.)

Assignment: Commentary and Anthology

Just in case anyone is interested, here’s a draft of something I’ll be handing out to my students in a couple of weeks.

In most of your courses in the humanities, you’re asked to write papers — probably thesis papers, in which you make an argument that you support with evidence from the text under consideration and from critical or contextual studies. It’s a reasonable task to ask students to perform; Lord knows I have asked it of enough students in my thirty-plus years of teaching. But it’s not the only appropriate assignment, and it has certain shortcomings.

Chief among those, I think, is its tendency to encourage people to get through the task of reading as quickly as possible in order to get on to the really important job of articulating and defending your own position. But reading is a task that deserves more care — especially when the texts involved are challenging, difficult, and major.

In a brilliant and important book, Religious Reading, Paul Griffiths demonstrates that in most of the great religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity — there are genres of reading, that is, kinds of texts in which one records one’s reading. The two major genres, according to Griffiths, are commentary and anthology. To people trained in the habits of mind associated with the thesis paper, these genres seem passive and deferential — especially when applied to non-religious texts. But those genres are not passive at all, and insofar as they are deferential that deference may be quite appropriate. After all, many non-religious texts, especially when they arise in cultures distant from us in time or space or both, pose great difficulties for the reader. Allusions will escape us, social and cultural contexts will be unknown to us, subtleties of argument or exposition or characterization or poetic language will leave us scratching our heads. To seek to identify and then resolve those difficulties — these are highly demanding intellectual tasks, and will not allow passivity, though, as they reveal the complexities that animate really significant works, they may promote deference.

In our class, we will be using a wonderful tool called CommentPress to create an online anthology of writings and to comment on those writings. You will not write papers in this class; instead, you will help to create the anthology, and you will comment on texts you bring to our attention and on the texts others bring. By the end of the term, we will have created a body of annotated readings that, taken as a whole, will significantly illuminate our subject.

So each week, you will do each of the following:

  • Post one passage from one of our assigned texts (either copying and pasting from an online public-domain text, or typing in a passage from one of your books);
  • Make a comment that offers some helpful contextual information about the passage (something about the text’s author, or the historical moment of its composition, or the culture within which it was produced, or a work that it echoes or responds to), preferably with a link to your source;
  • Make a longer comment (perhaps 150-250 words or so) that offers an interpretation of a particular passage in the text, probably drawing on existing scholarly work;
  • Respond to someone else’s comment by disagreeing with it, amplifying and extending it, or providing further relevant information.

You should be aware right from the beginning that this assignment will require you to form somewhat different work habits than you are used to. Many of you are habituated to an academic model in which you read regularly but write infrequently, and probably in intense bursts of activity. In this class reading and writing will be more closely joined to one another, and you will write almost as regularly as you read, and in smaller chunks than essay assignments normally require.

You will also need to familiarize yourself with the CommentPress software, including the proper ways to format text and insert links. Don’t worry: I’ll show you in class how it’s done, and will be happy to answer questions later.

So this will be different than you’re used to. But different is good. Or at least, it can be!

my course on the “two cultures”

FOTB (Friends Of This Blog), I have a request for you. This fall I’m teaching a first-year seminar for incoming Honors College students, and our topic is the Two Cultures of the sciences and the humanities. We’ll begin by exploring the lecture by C. P. Snow that kicked off the whole debate — or rather, highlighted and intensified a debate had already been going on for some time — and the key responses Snow generated (F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Loren Eiseley). We’ll also read the too-neglected book that raised many of the same issues in more forceful ways, and a few years before Snow, Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values.

Then we’ll go back to try to understand the history of the controversy before moving forward to consider the forms it is taking today. Most of the essays I’ll assign may be found by checking out the “twocultures” tag of my Pinboard bookmarks, but we’ll also be taking a detour into science/religion issues by considering Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria and some of the responses to it.

What other readings should I consider? I am a bit concerned that I am presenting this whole debate as one conducted by white Western men — Are there ways of approaching these questions by women or people from other parts of the world that might put the issues in a different light? Please make your recommendations in the comments below or on Twitter.

Thanks!

Reposted from Text Patterns

a few thoughts on academic time management

Having received some interesting feedback on my previous post about academic life, I’m going to say a few more things about academic time-management, in a things-I-have-learned-in-a-long-life sort of way:

1) I know this is obvious, but I have to say it: you’re never going to write much if you don’t insulate yourself from distractions. I have enough self-discipline now that I don’t have to get off the internet or shut down my Twitter and email clients, but I set those clients so that they don’t give me any notifications. That gives me a chance to get absorbed in my writing enough that I forget that they’re open. YMMV, but do what you have to do to write without interruption. Also, remember that it’s really hard for most people to write for more than about four hours a day: if during those four hours you’re really focused, you’ll have made significant progress, and then can do other ancillary work in a more leisurely way. Thomas Mann, one of the most prolific of great writers, wrote one page a day. But he did it every day.

2) In writing, it helps to have more than one project: one that’s your chief occupation, and one to turn to when Project 1 grinds to a halt, as it sometimes, inevitably, will do. The longer you work as a writer, the better you’ll get at knowing when you’re just not able to make progress on a particular task and need to turn to others in order to give your mind a change of pace. This works especially well if your secondary project uses different parts of your brain than your main one. In writing more than in anything else I know, a change is as good as a rest.

3) Take the time to experiment with different workflows and different software until you find a combination of tools that rhyme with the way your mind works. If using Word constantly frustrates you, don’t continue to use it just because you’ve always used it and think you don’t have the time to learn something else. That’s a false economy. About ten years ago I started writing in a text editor (BBEdit) instead of a word processor, and then more recently learned LaTeX. The elegance, precision, and feature-appropriateness of those apps have rewarded me more than amply for the time it took me to learn to use them well.

4) Many academics are control freaks, and one of the most common ways that freakery manifests itself is in over-preparation for classes. That’s bad in a couple of ways. First, you spend more time than you can really afford, and second, once you’ve spent all that time you want to make sure that you squeeze it all in to your class time. So you end up talking more than you should, talking too fast, and shutting down potentially interesting conversations because you’re afraid that you won’t be able to cover everything you’ve prepared for. Over-preparation is thus not only time-consuming but has many bad pedagogical side-effects. You’ll do real damage to the classroom environment if you think getting through your outline is more important that allowing the students to pursue an issue that really fascinates them and gets them involved. Invest less time in traditional course prep and more time in thinking about how to manage the time in the classroom that increases student involvement.

5) Many academics, in the humanities anyway, also over-comment on their students’ essays, and end up giving far more feedback than the students can absorb, even when they want to, which is not that often. If you write dozens of marginal comments and a page or more of summary comments, students will rarely be able to differentiate between the major issues and the minor ones. You need to make comments only about major things, and let the little ones go. In that way you’ll give your students feedback that they can actually use.

6) Also: I ask my students to give me, by email, a proposal two weeks before the essay is due. I tell them what I think is good about their idea and what they need to watch out for; more often than not I advise them to take only a part of their topic and focus on that. Then, a week later, I have them send me, again by email, a rough draft. Once more I comment briefly with encouragements, warnings, and indications of where they should invest their major energies. This process would be valuable to them even if I gave no comments at all, because it makes them think about their work well in advance of the due date, which gives them the chance to turn ideas over. By the time they turn in a final version, I don’t have to make many comments at all: those who put in the work will have improved significantly, and the others will already know what their problems are. I spend less time that I would have spent in writing extensive comments; I spread that labor out over a longer period, thus making it feel less onerous; and I get better results.

Just a few recommendations, I know, but you’d be surprised — or at least, I have been surprised — by how much of a difference they make in the use of my time.

academics and families

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about this post from my buddy Rod Dreher’s blog, quoting an essay claiming that academic life is a bad choice for someone who wants a family. There’s general agreement on that point in the comments. I think we need some distinctions here.

Being a contingent faculty member — an adjunct, working at multiple institutions for what amounts to less than minimum wage — is terrible for anyone who has to do it, but it takes an especially great toll on people with families. That is certain. I would also say that academic life, even in high-status and stable jobs, can interfere with family life if you’re a person who’s not good at disciplining your time: academic work is gaseous, in the sense that it inevitably expands to fill the available volume, and those who aren’t good at keeping it in reasonable-sized containers can find that it takes over their lives. I know academics who spend way too many nights and weekends away from their families, in their offices, prepping for class or working on conference papers.

But I would argue that this is not a problem intrinsic to academic life: it’s a problem for people who are lousy at time management. I decided long ago that the one absolutely key commitment one must make in order to survive as an academic is: During work time, work; during play time, play. It’s far too easy for academics — and most other knowledge workers as well — to allow work and play to blur together, so that, yeah, you’re writing that conference paper, but you’re also stopping every five minutes to check your email, tweet, IM with other friends who are similarly procrastinating, follow a rabbit-trail of links on the internet. It’s the habit of succumbing to these temptations that leads to evenings at the office when you ought to be having a glass of wine with your spouse or reading to your children.

But if you can be a good discipliner of your time, a tenure-track academic job (that increasingly rare thing) is great for family life, because you have so much freedom to structure your time. Even during term, there are only a few hours a week when you absolutely have to be in a given place, which means that you get to decide when and where to do your work. When our son Wesley was born, my wife Teri cut back from full-time work at World Relief, where she was the public information manager, to 25 hours a week. I asked my department chair if it would be possible for me to have all of my classes and office hours before 1pm, so I could get home in time for Teri to go to work, and he agreed. That was our schedule for several years, which means that from my son’s birth until he started school, I got to spend almost every afternoon with him. (Once a week or so I had to come in for meetings.) I put him down for his nap, I woke him up and watched Thomas the Tank engine videos with him as he sat on my lap, I took him and our dog Zoe to the park. On days when I had no classes we could take the train into Chicago and visit museums or hang out at the lakefront. I wouldn’t trade those days for anything in the universe. And it was made possible by the flexibility of an academic schedule — and, to some extent, by my own determination to discipline my time so that when I was with Wes I could be fully present and not have half my mind on work.

I have been blessed with an unusually good academic job that has had some unusual perks: we have an outstanding dining hall on Wheaton’s campus and the college subsidizes faculty meals, so we can eat cheaply and very, very well there when we want; the college has also made it possible for my family to come with me on several summer study tours of England. These opportunities have allowed Wes to hang out with cool college students all his life, and to see parts of the world that we would never have been able to visit on our own. As I say, that’s not the norm. But the greatest rewards have come from my having a job that has allowed me to put a priority on time with my family. That’s something that many academics have, and that more could have, if they were to be more intentional about how they use their time.

I was just struck by this in recent discussions about instituting a no laptop policy in the classroom. It was so self-evident that maybe it’s just obvious, but I hadn’t thought about it in quite this way before. If you want to teach and run your class as you did in the nineties (or as others did in the nineties), then it makes sense to institute a no laptop policy (and obviously a no phone policy) in your classroom. Basically, in order to adopt those practices one has to recreate the technological-material conditions of the period. Now, as it turns out, those conditions in the nineties were much like the conditions throughout the 20th century, at least for humanities classes. The key materials of desks, chairs, lights, books, paper, pens, chalk, etc. had been functionally the same for decades. It’s a little naive, but still understandable, that one would misrecognize these historical conditions for absolute ones.

digital digs: the no laptop policy and the 1990s classroom.  Wrong, wrong, wrong. If I tell my students to put away their laptops while we’re in class, I am not telling them to repudiate laptops, or other technologies, altogether. My policy in recent years has been to press my students to experiment with a wide range of digital technologies in their research and writing, and in many cases to encourage them to use those technologies collaboratively — but when we’re in class, that’s book time. During the handful of hours that we’re together each week, the best use of that time, I think, is to work diligently with the technology of the book. Usually that means codices, but if it’s KIndles or Nooks, that’s fine too. But class time is book time; other times are for other technologies. Why assume so narrow a pedagogy that you only allow yourself and your students to use instruments that are just a few years old?

College costs a lot. I teach at BC, where a year’s tuition, fees, room, and board currently add up to $52,624. What are the students paying for? What can’t they get online for free? In my end of the academy, the humanities, it comes down to one thing, in essence: the other people in the room, teachers, and fellow students. We can debate whether that’s worth the price tag, and we can debate the relative value of lectures and seminars (I think the best mix in the humanities is some of the former and a lot of the latter), but you’re paying for the exclusive company of fellow thinkers who made it through the screening processes of admissions and faculty hiring. That’s it. You can get everything else online, and you can of course do the reading on your own.

Your money buys you the opportunity to pay attention to the other people on campus and to have them pay attention to you — close, sustained, active, fully engaged attention, undistracted by beeps, chimes, tweets, klaxons, ring tones, ads, explosions, continuous news feeds, or other mind-jamming noise. You qualify for admission, you pay your money, and you get four years — maybe the last four years you’ll ever get — to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.

You can spend the rest of your life surfing the web, emailing, texting. You’ve got one shot at college. So, at least until the novelty wears off (probably not in my lifetime), that means no laptops in my classroom.

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