Notes from Stonesthrow

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In Awe April 24, 2011

Filed under: Education,Ursinus,Writing — Greg @ 11:48 am

On this gorgeous Easter Sunday, and completely hopped up on caffeine, I read through my advisee’s aesthetic statement for his Honors project. I entered into this project as a reader with feelings of considerable uselessness since I, as I constantly state, dislike poetry, and this was a creative writing project focusing on poetry. I was there though to give him some feedback on the theoretical underpinnings of his project. He was composing a sheaf of poems in a gay male American poetic tradition and was using some queer theory to inform his work. I may have helped; I think he thinks I helped, which is all that I may have asked for.

Oh, by the way, his name is Robert Whitehead. I say his name out loud because he will be known.

I read his poems several times over the past few weeks, and, as I said, I read his final draft of his aesthetic statement this morning. I don’t often come across brilliance, but I wanted to take this moment to just say that I literally wept in the face of this poet’s brilliance. His poetry is robust and tender. His poem on Narcissus makes one completely rethink that myth. His “Ars Poetica” declares his unarguable grasp of his voice and his medium. And, his poem to Tyler Clementi should be published immediately and hailed by all as a perfect paeon/remembrance.

I am so lucky to have known Robert. And, I am so lucky to have a job where I get to know so many brilliant individuals. This year alone, I have worked closely with Aakash Shah, our Rhodes scholar, for whom that award is so deserved and also inadequate for the brilliance of mind and expansiveness of spirit he possesses, as well as Ashley Green, a Fulbright recipient, whose modesty is frustratingly enormous for the caring and intelligence she exhibits to all, worldwide. There are so many more; it’s unfair that I won’t list them all.

To all of them, I just want to say that I am in awe and humbled by who you are. You make me proud and honored to have known you.


Intelligent Smattering August 23, 2010

Filed under: Education — Greg @ 9:39 am

The new year at Ursinus coincides with the passing last week of literary critic, Frank Kermode. I remember Kermode mostly for his work on D.H. Lawrence, which helped me to better understand this ridiculous and brilliant author as an undergraduate reading one of his novels a week in Oxford — and which helped me to better understand what being a “literary critic” might be like.

In the Guardian obit linked above, there’s a quote from Kermode that suits this occasion of students starting a week from today — something that hits on the importance of reading, of the discipline of English, and of a liberal education:

One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you’re forced to read a lot of other things,” he said. “You may not have a very deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We’re all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering.

Happy smattering.


Get off my porch, podium, and iPhone May 20, 2010

Filed under: Education,Technology — Greg @ 11:56 pm

For explanations for radio silence, I have none; I concur with Second Americano.

Anywho, Two thoughts, with more to follow perhaps tomorrow.

I sat in a most ridiculous webinar today sponsored by the Chronicle and Blackboard. It was purportedly about how to reach students with mobile technologies. It functioned largely as a commercial for Blackboard services, which I guess I should have expected. As I was half-listening to the blather, I kept getting more and more annoyed, not just because I wasn’t getting what I wanted (substantive discussion), but also because I found myself hating the premise: that educational institutions should adapt to the addictions to technology of our students. Yes, I am crotchety.

College to me should represent four years of learning how to think and learning how to think best. Thinking through one’s iPhone is not the best way. So, this afternoon, I was getting mad and crotchety and started shooing kids off my front lawn.

Then, I listened to this pretty long talk by Mike Caulfield from what sounds like a really cool faculty conference at U. of Mary Washington. He talks about how we need to own up to the fact that we live in a just-in-time knowledge world: I don’t need to take a class in how to cut an onion; I can just look it up on WikiHow. We are all dolls now. Basically, he is arguing for how well the liberal arts address information literacy and evaluation, and how we should be much more focused on activity-based learning, rather than depending on the “banking” model of education, since basically we all have access to the bank now: nothing is locked in a safe.

So, how are they connected? It seems to me that with no reflection comes no real thinking, and by playing into an “everything: now” philosophy of education, we lose wisdom and nuance. At the same time, it behooves educators to consider how we balance banking and mere skill acquisition. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to sit idly by while a liberal arts education in the humanities becomes reduced to teaching critical thinking and writing, as a recent explosion at an English department meeting evinced. That being said, we’re pretty good at it.

What is missing in all of this as well is pleasure. I would argue that with speed and instant fact (note, not knowledge) acquisition, we lose the pleasures of education — of discovery, but also of mystery. Not much is mysterious anymore; we sit on our couch, wonder where I saw that guy from Parenthood before, and then confirm it was Bram from The West Wing. I guess I should say, not much that isn’t important. I think I can affirm that my Satire students derived real pleasure (as well as knowledge and skills) from trying to figure out what Vonnegut was trying to do with the Tralfalmadorians — or even what exactly satire is, even though we never came up with definitive answers for either.

We’re getting pretty rambly now, but I think I will remain crotchety on this score and maintain that kowtowing to addictions is not the best course of action, even as we try our best to provide students with the skills to wade cope with them, while providing them with some useful deposits in their safe deposit boxes — and perhaps a laugh or tear.


The Opposite is True February 7, 2010

Filed under: Education,Funny,Soapbox — Greg @ 2:03 pm

This is a great little video that I may even have to show to students, depending on context, to demonstrate — in a politically uncharged way — how cultural assumptions can be different yet true.

It also makes me want to go scour TED for more stuff.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)



Sheesh April 14, 2009

Filed under: Baseball,Education — Greg @ 3:49 pm

First, we have the incredible loss of Harry Kalas, fittingly enough in the broadcast booth. Anyone who is a Phillies fan is feeling the pain of losing someone who was a great fan and a great broadcaster. What hit me while I was watching coverage yesterday (as my tears welled up now and again) was what a commentator noted: that, in the space of almost forty years, he entered the homes of people for over three hours for almost half of the year. I won’t feign fan supremacy, but I’ve probably listened to Dave Niehaus at least 5000 hours during my lifetime. That’s a lot of time to spend with someone. Kalas is sad; Niehaus will be tragic.


And then comes news that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last night. Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet was a book (and I can’t believe I didn’t put that book in my Facebook 10 books) that changed my life. As I read (and re-read) it in college, its first great gift was to put words and theory to something I didn’t quite understand; its second great gift was to offer a theory that was open — Sedgwick offered a hypothesis and argued for it, but it never felt like arguing. I returned often to her ideas when I played around with how gay identity was being expressed on the nascent Web or when looking at the Orient and sexuality. The homosocial continuum, the narrative construction of the closet, minoritizing v. universalizing conceptions of homosexuality: these are ideas that are still important and still debated. I’m glad I got to see her speak once, and I’m glad I found her.


The Last Professor January 27, 2009

Filed under: Education — Greg @ 11:04 pm

Just to make everyone even more depressed, Stanley Fish recently blogged about a book about the death of the humanities professor as we know it to exist right now.


Maybe, maybe not. On one hand, as I am asked to deliver outcomes statements, I do wonder if the academy has become completely corporatized. On the other, I also know that I try to communicate to my students as we read through Johnson, that, while we are perhaps learning more about how to write, about how to argue, and about how we know what is good and evil and our place in this world, we are also just having a really great time. I don’t dwell on this, because I don’t want to psychoanalyze or to dissect Johnson too much such that the class becomes a laboratory. However, I do make it known in pretty much every class I think that this is great: reading, thinking, and talking. That practice is not, as Fish would say, “instrumental” in a practical sense, but I think we’d all agree that it is instrumental to enjoying life. 


It’s only tangentially related, but let’s give Sam the final word here; this is from an essay (Adventurer No. 85) on ‘the role of the scholar,’ that I had my students read before the first day of class. It’s great in full (Google Books is my new best friend), but here’s a particularly good part:

To fix the thoughts by writing, and subject them to frequent examinations and reviews, is the best method of enabling the mind to detect its own sophisms, and keep it on guard against the fallacies which it practises on others: in conversation we naturally diffuse our thoughts, and in writing we contract them; method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation. 

To read, write, and converse in due proportions, is, therefore, the business of a man of letters. For all these there is not often equal opportunity.

I think the humanities classroom is an important opportunity for for students to do all of those vital activities, and I would hope that every student would want to, for at least four years, consider themselves a (wo)man of letters.


Bonus! January 26, 2009

Filed under: Education — Greg @ 7:26 pm

Texas A&M is considering giving bonuses to faculty based on student evaluations


I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.


There is the understandable hue and cry from faculty, and while some of it may be chalked up to faculty not wanting to be evaluated in general, some of it is merited.


I don’t know how much I want to say on this issue. Let me say this though: student evaluations can be enormously helpful. This semester I have changed a couple of things in the communication of my expectations and requirements as a direct result of student evaluations (I thought I was being clear; some didn’t). The difficulty with students evaluations to me are two-fold: the degree to which students take the evaluations seriously and the uniformity and clarity of the evaluation questionnaires. The former is an obvious problem, and I would hope that I can recognize those students who view the exercise as an annoyance rather than a constructive opportunity to improve teaching for future students. The latter is a problem of deciding exactly what you want to gauge and then how to best elicit that response. 


As far as A&M goes, I obviously think student evaluations should be a part of evaluating faculty. I just wonder if some faculty out there might sacrifice rigor or radically alter their style of pedagogy in the hopes of teaching the way students want them to teach, which is necessarily different by student. 


I also wonder about something else: for me, I didn’t necessarily realize that my greatest teachers were so great until months or years later. Given that it would be an administrative nightmare, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a built-in reflection time, so that students might be able to answer factual questions (did the faculty return work in a timely fashion), but might be able to hold off on other questions (did your writing and writing skills improve) until later, perhaps even before graduation.


Interesting issues A&M raises though.