A hypothetical course on Islam

Let’s say, just in theory, that a friend of mine were to be assigned to teach an introductory course on Islamic thought at a college with a discussion-centric pedagogy based on primary texts. Let’s say further that this friend of mine wants to strike a balance between Islamic scripture, legal reasoning, philosophy, art, and literature — perhaps capping off the course with a modern novel in an Islamic setting. What would you recommend to this completely hypothetical person?

Speaking as one with authority

As I grow more accustomed to Shimer’s discussion-centered pedagogy, I am increasingly coming to understand that a big part of my job is not simply to encourage students to speak in class, correcting them or encouraging them as appropriate, keeping them on task and on topic. Instead, it seems to me that I’m there to provide and model certain ways of talking about the material. This is most acute in teaching music, where most students find themselves at a loss for what to say. Some of them will claim that they want something called “music theory,” and I have sometimes not taken that claim as seriously as I could because it was so obvious to me that knowing technical music theory would not be helpful to them in the way they hoped. In a recent conversation about how class was going, though, a student rephrased that request in a way that made much more sense to me: they want to be able to feel like they’re speaking with some kind of authority. They don’t need to be experts, but they want to feel confident that they’re not making up something totally random and off-base.

As my humanities class has wrapped up a unit on modernism, it struck me that, quite unintentionally, that was what I had done with the theoretical texts we used (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art). Both of the texts centered on a broad opposition between two terms (Dionysian and Apollonian, earth and world) and gave some indication of how that opposition might play out in terms of particular artworks — and that was enough. Even if students didn’t feel sure how to apply the terms to the artwork at hand, they were at least able to say something concrete about why they were having difficulty. And once that base-level confidence that one is saying something concrete and relevant was achieved, it seems like the biggest problem was overcome.

The basic oppositions were far from the only thing that we talked about, but they opened up the space for the things we talked about. In many ways, the very uncertainty about how (and even whether) the terms might apply to a given artwork was beneficial — unlike with purely technical terms, there was no clear-cut right or wrong answer, so students could feel comfortable playing with them.

The question I’m now pondering is what kinds of texts might be able to do the same work in a first-year class rather than in a capstone for upper-level students. It seems to me that the Nietzsche and Heidegger texts are too difficult to throw at first-year students if the goal is for them to get rough-and-ready tools that let them start talking with confidence. At the same time, we currently use extremely technical primary texts about harmonic intervals, etc., so perhaps Nietzsche and Heidegger would be an improvement over that.

Can we all just admit that the Prolegomena sucks?

I love Kant, but I think we all need to just need to admit that the Prolegomena failed to achieve its intention. It claims to be an introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, but it is borderline incomprehensible if you don’t already broadly know what the Critique is all about. It works as a supplement and at times as a clarification, but certainly not as an introduction or exposition.

What I’m teaching this semester

This semester, I’m teaching Humanities 4: Critical Evaluation in the Humanities (syllabus), an elective on The Devil in Christian Thought (syllabus), and a small tutorial/directed reading that I’m calling Heidegger’s Middle Period (provisional syllabus). It’s a pretty exciting teaching slate for me, for a lot of reasons. First, I obviously get a chance to teach over my ongoing research, which should prove helpful in a lot of ways. Second, teaching Humanities 4, which has been in an “experimental phase” for the last few years, allows me to have a more direct hand in helping to shape the curriculum than I would normally have, and the music and art sections should help me to consolidate some of the skills I gained teaching the fine arts course last semester. Finally, this will be my first time doing a tutorial, and it should be fun to dig more deeply into Heidegger’s work with some students who already have a thorough reading of Being and Time under their belt.

Aside from my Shimer work, I’m also going to be doing a directed reading with Stephen Keating over Agamben, which should be helpful as I have a major conference paper over his work coming up this spring and will also very likely be working on more translations soon. (I prefer not to discuss this in detail until it’s finalized.)

What about you, my dear readers? What are you teaching this semester?

Assessing assessment with an assessment rubric about assessment

For the past two days, the Shimer faculty was involved in an assessment workshop with a knowledgable consultant who was so enthusiastic about our program that he offered his services for free. One thing that struck me was that I had been thinking of assessment as a kind of “meta” layer on what we already do in terms of grading — coming up with parallel rubrics, etc. In reality, our consultant said, we’re assessing student learning all the time. This is all the more true of Shimer’s discussion-based curriculum, where we get vastly more insight into student learning than you would get in a lecture class. People tend to think of things like learning outcomes as artificial, and they really can be, but as I thought about it, I realized that no student would get an A in my class without demonstrating things like critical thinking, effective communication, etc.

One admittedly optimistic way of looking at the assessment movement is that it prompts college instructors to be more transparent and purposeful about what they are really asking of students. This serves multiple purposes: it can help us to do a better job of judging whether a student really is making progress, it can make for greater consistency in grading over time and across different instructors, and it can help us to provide more meaningful preparation and feedback for students so that they will get more out of our classes. Academics complain that students are obsessed with grades, but when that’s the only kind of feedback we give them and when they are often inscrutable to the students, can we really blame them?

I think that part of the reason I feel that assessment at least has the potential to be really helpful is that a lot of the things they’re asking us to do are things that I’ve more or less spontaneously been trying to do over the course of my teaching career — and in particular since I came to Shimer, where it is totally impossible to rely on the traditional model where as long as I do my best in presenting the information, the rest is really up to the students. For me it started with our writing intensive courses. I asked myself what skills I really hoped that a first year student would be able to take away from my class, and my written feedback was almost obsessively focused on that handful of qualities — and the students who worked seriously and did the rewrites actually improved. I’ve made similar efforts with discussion, trying to find one or two specific styles of thought in each class that I really want to be able to work with. I’ve probably been less successful in that regard, in part because discussion is inherently much more difficult to direct and comment on than written work, but hopefully I’ve made progress.

What makes me more willing to stick to these types of commitments is that I know that at Shimer, there will be someone to pick up the baton after the students leave my class — whereas in my previous teaching situation, it felt like I was working in a total void. I can imagine that after a few more years in a more monadic type of institution, I may have given up and just lectured. The idea of more systematically working through these types of expectations with my colleagues so that I can trust that someone who came from a particular course can be held accountable for some particular skill or habit of thought is even more encouraging in this regard.

The thing that makes the whole regime an artificial imposition is that faculty don’t actually want to sit down and discuss what is most important to them and how they want to hold students accountable for that — and so the goals become empty clichés that we grudgingly copy and paste into our syllabi. A place like Shimer has an advantage in that it’s small and the faculty has a profound investment in the community and institution, so that you don’t get the isolated monads who populate most colleges and universities. And that’s the paradox of the politics of assessment: it’s based on the model of the student as consumer, who should be given full information about the product they’re buying, but what it actually requires is more collaboration and open dialogue among faculty. In other words, it’s premised on the most objectionable liberal individualism, but actually implementing it requires turning our institutions of higher learning into more meaningful intellectual communities.

Anxiety, procrastination, and the academic life

Suey Park has written a post detailing the kinds of unhelpful responses people with anxiety disorders often receive from their professors. The question of how to help students deal with their anxiety is one that has bothered me since I started teaching — seemingly every semester, a student who was perfectly capable of completing the work somehow just… didn’t. I’ve also reflected on how unforgiving the traditional academic calendar is in general, and in fact both institutions I’ve taught at had exacerbating factors (Kalamazoo College was on quarters, increasing the pressure; Shimer College has a rule that all written work is due on the last day of classes, with almost no room for exceptions). Our institutions seem to presuppose that students can simply opt out of their outside lives and that they are already adept at making the best use of their free time — and this is even before we start thinking about students for whom anxiety is a serious mental health problem.

It seems to me that in many cases, the path to college sets students up to suffer from these disorders. We complain about “helicopter parents,” but the over-scheduled, over-achieving lifestyle of the college-bound student is only really sustainable for someone with a lot of parental support and pressure — and then we suddenly throw them into an environment where that day-to-day support is completely withdrawn and the adults in their lives all feel compelled to take up a “hands-off” stance (bracketing non-academic concerns so as not to “pry” into the student’s “personal life,” etc.). The pressure is exacerbated when you realize that the issue isn’t, “If you don’t go to college, you’ll wind up working in the factory like your dad.” For many, it seems that the alternative to going to college is simply unthinkable, as if they will literally die if they don’t succeed in college. Add in the burden of non-negotiable student loans, and suddenly an anxiety disorder doesn’t seem pathological at all.

I don’t claim to have profound insights into this topic, though — the main point of the post is to link to Park’s article. So go read it.

On being an ignorant schoolmaster

Inside Higher Ed has published an expanded version of my piece on teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. The most notable addition is an introductory bit on Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster.

Posted in Ranciere, Shimer College, teaching. Comments Off

Reflections on teaching fine arts

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 »

Request for comment

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?

Foreign-Language Teaching Resource: LinguaeLive

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.


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