I’m about halfway through teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. So far, we have done a couple weeks of intro each for visual arts and music, then started a sequence based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired a large number of artworks in various genres and also includes interesting reflections on the fine arts. In the spirit of Ovid’s often contrived transitions, we have also pursued some side roads only obliquely suggested by his text, including an architectural tour of some buildings in the Chicago Loop that vaguely recall the palace of the Sun described in Book II. I had developed a certain level of comfort with the art and music sections, and introducing a new artform at this late date was kind of a curveball — so the tour was an occasion for some reflection on what the class is really trying to do and what I, a non-specialist, can bring to the table for the students.
The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly. Read the rest of this entry »
This semester, I am teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music, which was the last of the Humanities sequence at Shimer College that I had left. It has prompted a lot of thought on the capstone course, Humanities 4, which has gone through many different incarnations over the years and is currently in an avowedly “experimental phase” where the curriculum can change significantly from year to year or even between sections. The last time I taught it, we used Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, and they worked well — but one of my colleagues has expressed some concern that both books (particularly Buber) may be a little bit out of date, or at least rarely used.
Does anybody have a sense of whether this concern is justified and, if so, what broadly comparable works may have superceded them as staples of an undergrad curriculum?
Yesterday, one of the participants in the DAAD Summer Seminar I’m a part of, Jennifer Hosek of Queen’s University, shared a valuable foreign-language teaching resource that she’s helped to develop: LinguaeLive. The site is a way of giving students a chance to practice with native speakers by connecting classes around the world with complementary target languages. For example, a German class in Canada and an English class in Germany can register and pair off for practice sections. It works over a variety of voice-over-IP systems and is meant to give the instructors as much control over the process as possible: instructors choose which classes to pair up and agree on the goals for the practice sessions, rather than confronting students with a miscellaneous collection of individual peers. I encourage you to check it out — it seems like a really cool resource, and Prof. Hosek emphasized that it only becomes more useful as more people participate in it.
I have always wanted to challenge myself to teach logic or symbolic logic. Every opportunity I have had to teach logic never really came to be, lack of enrollment, registrar forgetting to put the course on the schedule, but I am now in a situation that I might be teaching it in the coming year where I will likely have enrollment and the course will actually happen. I know this will take some disciplined preparation on my part, and I am up for the task, but I am struggling at this point to arrive at a compelling text.
Do any of you have experience teaching logic, and what text or texts do you use?
I’ve received my teaching assignment for the fall. I’ll be doing the elective over Being and Time that I’ve discussed periodically over the last year (my first Shimer elective), and I’ll also be doing two sections of Humanities 1: Art and Music (basically intro to fine arts). This will “complete the set” for me in terms of Shimer’s Humanities curriculum (including working on a comprehensive exam), so that’s nice. I’m also excited because a couple of my colleagues have significantly reformulated the course to center it around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has provided fodder for many works of music and art and also includes significant reflection on the arts more generally. More broadly, I’m relieved that after three semesters in a row teaching “writing intensive” courses, I have been spared this fall.
What about you, my dear readers? What are your future teaching plans?
First, you need to read good books. To get the most out of those books, you need to talk about them with other people who are also trying to work their way through them. In addition, you need to write about them in a disciplined and focused way. Both of these tasks require supervision and guidance by more experienced learners — preferably those who have already gone through an educational program that takes both discussion and written analysis to the highest level.
Second, for some types of skills — such as language acquisition, mathematical manipulation, and technical lab skills — there’s no way around requiring carefully targetted and supervised exercises. Preferably, these exercises would be developed and overseen by someone with a high degree of technical proficiency and experience in the field in question, as such a person would have the best view of which skills were most valuable.
Finally, for command of facts, limited use of rote memorization can provide a baseline, but the main focus should be on learning how best to search for information and assess the trustworthiness of the sources found. All of this is best done in close dialogue with someone who has a lot of experience with research.
I believe that the pedagogical research would bear all this out, and my own experience at an institution that embraces this model shows me that it works.
Starting from these premises, certain natural consequences inevitably present themselves.
Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of personal jargon for grading papers. They are little metaphors or turns of phrase that I use in an attempt to get at common failings of student writing in an economical and somewhat humorous way — not to make fun of them, but hopefully to get their attention more effectively. Here are three of the main ones:
How about you, dear readers? Do you have any similar shorthand phrases for common pitfalls?
It’s rare for a native speaker of English to write a sentence that is truly ungrammatical. The errors that most writers face are at the level of syntax and, especially, usage. Where do we put commas? How do we integrate quotations into our sentences? How do we maintain parallelism in lists? Those kinds of issues are unimportant from the perspective of the ideas expressed, though they can reach a point where meaning is obscured. They are important, however, to the reception of a writer’s work, to how seriously it is taken. Fair or not, a pattern of haphazard deviations from standard written English undermines a writer’s credibility — and so teaching students how to overcome those problems is very important.
I must admit, though, that I’m not quite sure how. In fact, sometimes I despair that if a person has not picked up an eye for such details by a certain point in their life, it’s just not a fixable problem. I can spot-check and explain things if students seem to have one or two recurring problems (which is already a privilege, since my class sizes are very small), but if they have more comprehensive difficulties, what does one do? I’ve written before that one can’t have real conscious control over comma usage without understanding the grammatical structure of one’s own sentences, a rule that I would extend to most if not all syntax and usage issues — but sitting them down with a grammar book hardly seems to be the answer.
As I reflect on my own experience, it seems that the point where I really began to understand English grammar was when I began learning Spanish in high school. I’ve heard similar stories from others, and it makes sense: you’re forced to think about grammar because you can’t fall back on your native proficiency. Perhaps this is a good reason to include a foreign-language requirement in high school and college — not to learn to speak the language (which is almost impossible to achieve through classroom instruction alone), but to learn about language “as such,” to gain the distance necessary for reasoned reflection on grammar.
Yet that seems unsatisfactory for a lot of obvious reasons. I’m hardly going to tell the student who has more comprehensive usage problems to go learn French and get back to me. What do others think?
I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.