Home from Far-Flung Travels

The Clarkson semester began yesterday, though my classes start today.I’m back from six weeks in Hanoi & a week at Zen Mountain Monastery & now the rhythm of the year shifts into something that feels more like routine. The idea, of course, is to keep it from becoming merely routine. I know it is not true for all — or even most? – artists / writers who teach, but I find that teaching keeps me fresh, at least most of the time. (One can turn anything into a grind.) I have the good fortune to work in an institution that gives me nearly complete freedom in choosing what to teach & how to teach it, so, for instance, the theme for my first-year students this term is “Why Life Sucks.” We begin with Gilgamesh, Job & a couple of other old texts, them move on to the Modernists Kafka & T.S. Eliot & Melville before ending with Margaret Atwood’s post-modern, post-apocalyptic novel Oryx & Crake. A good time is insured for all, hijinks ensue & etc.

We’ve had a run of warm weather but it is beginning to look a little like fall. Some of the maple trees have begun changing color & just now when I looked up I saw out the window that the pines in the front yard are dropping their old needles. I can hear a bullfrog in the ditch across the road, a loon up on the pond . . .

Student Poetry Slam

I’ve been meaning to say how much I enjoyed being a judge at the poetry slam sponsored by Spectrum at Clarkson with MC Rives. The quality of the poems varied considerably, but the quality of the spirit held up very well. At least until the end when some of the poets who had been eliminated chose to leave before the winners performed. Not a lot of class in that move, kids. What I noticed, also, was an almost universal tendency to go on too long. Several of the poets / performers presented pieces that made their point effectively in, say 90 seconds, but then felt compelled to go on for another minute with what almost always amounted to explanation, commentary, or mere repetition. Still, an enjoyable evening that we need to repeat.

Unbundling the University

My colleague Stephen Casper sent this around via departmental email a couple of days ago & it seems prescient, which makes me feel old. I told Stephen when I saw him in the mail room that I’m glad I’m not, like him, just starting my academic career — because the old model of the university that’s being unbundled suited me fine. And maybe I would be more hopeful about these developments if they were not in so many cases driven by market forces unmoored from and value but that of the bottom line. Read Stephen’s blog, The Neuro Times.

On Failing to Wake the Dead

I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn’t helping.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with work — the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn’t believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn’t like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness.

This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I’m tempted to never teach the course again — the students don’t deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.

 

Good Colleagues Doing an Impossible Task

I volunteered to lead our annual departmental writing assessment session this year, in which a group of faculty sit together in a room and read sample student essays selected by some magic algorithm known only to the dean in charge of university-wide assessment — or perhaps only to his chief elf. It can be a pretty mind-numbing task as the hours roll by, but I have to say that today’s session was the most pleasant I’ve attended. Perhaps because there is a modest stipend for the job, mostly junior faculty volunteer and we have a particularly fine group of assistant professors in the department at the moment; and perhaps it was because I was nominally in charge of the operation; but the real difference from earlier sessions was the absence of several control-freak senior colleagues whose certainty about the nature of college writing they felt compelled to impose on others. Endless argument over meaningless details. Today, we were so efficient we even developed a set of notes for improving the process in the future.

Assessment, of course, is all the rage in education policy circles these days. The result is mostly a dreary proliferation of standardized tests at the K through 12 level and an equally dreary emphasis on “outcomes assessment” in higher education, in which the outcomes must be quantifiable. The problem is that lots of meaningless things can be quantified and stuck in spread sheets and made to look significant when the truth is that the numbers say little or nothing about the experiences students are actually having with texts and ideas. I think it is perfectly reasonable for students and their families, and even state and federal government agencies who fund education, to ask colleges to assess the relative success or lack of success they are having in educating students; but my notions about what constitute success are probably not what they are thinking of in the dean’s office or in the high councils of the education bureaucracy. Continue reading “Good Colleagues Doing an Impossible Task”