Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What the Best College Teachers Read?

I wanted to like Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do.

But I got tripped up by the circular logic evident in the first few chapters, and I never quite untripped myself.

To say that there were methodological flaws in the study would be unjust--I didn't really glean enough information about the details of the study from the book.  Bain spoke in generalities, broad brush-strokes throughout.  It seems possible, though, that the selection critera pre-determined the findings of the study.  From the first few chapters, I got the sneaking suspicion that they selected professors that used language about learning that they liked, and then discovered that those professors . . . used language about learning they liked.

That suspicion tainted, somewhat, the rest of my reading.

But somewhere in the middle of it, I stopped thinking of it as a study of college-level pedagogy, and started thinking of it as an apologia for liberal arts education.  In the end, it was a collection of (modestly) inspiring ideas about education as something more than degree-granting and -getting, more than job training and income boosting, more than gate-keeping and hoop-jumping.

It was, in short, a reminder that education is about forming adults, a project that is only partially complete if we content ourselves with transmitting knowledge (even important knowledge).  That's why I got into teaching--to change lives, not to administer entrance and exit exams.

One of the things I found myself doing as I read was jotting down and sorting through pedagogical ideas that I had already come up with but hadn't yet put to paper, or hadn't yet figured out how to build into course design.  There weren't too terribly many good, specific tactics or tools described in the book itself (again, too many generalities and big-picture thinking), but I did feel encouraged in some observations I've made over the last few years.  Often, that encouragement came in spite of what Bain was actually encouraging rather than as a result of it.

For example, in the midst of my annoyance at his encomiums to activities I've always found somewhat trendy or childish ("think-pair-square-share" and "the McEvoy minute") and often unsuccessful, I began to realize that he had put words to a genuine problem I'd been noticing in my classes: passive learning early in a course or a class period becomes habitual.  It has been my practice to try to give students something to discuss, and then ask them to discuss it.  I build this pattern into individual class periods and into course structures as a whole.  My starting point has always been that my students really don't know anything, and most of them don't care that they don't know anything.  And so I have to introduce thoughts for them to think so that they can start learning how to think. 

But they've been conditioned by a lifetime (to them) of passivity and edutainment, and they don't know how to contribute to their own education.  This is not how I approached my theological studies.  I would have four days of brilliant lecture classes, and by Friday, when all the TAs held discussion groups, I was bursting with things to talk about.  This is not how my undergrads experience their own education.  I've been starting to realize that I have to get them talking early, if I ever want them to talk at all.  Early in the course, early in the class period, early in our relationship, early in any office visit--they have to get used to talking so that they can do it.

I'm not sure Bain's book really gave me workable strategies to do that, but he has strengthened my resolve to look for ways that will work for me.

Or with regard to motivation, I found his language about "giving students a choice" and "refusing to exercise control over the students' learning" disingenuous.  He made the observation that grades represent both feedback to the student and "objective" evaluation to society-at-large (those who want to know whether or not the nursing student learned anatomy, for example), but then followed it with the idea that the latter should be all but dropped.  That seems problematic at best, at the college level.  (I wish I could absolutely require such an approach at the elementary school level, and I think secondary schools could certainly move more in that direction.)

Still, I found myself brainstorming ways to build some kind of choice or ownership over the material, particularly in upper-level courses.  Might ethics students choose a "focal" issue to return to over and over during the course of the semester?  Could some of the readings in a Bible class be selected by students?

Finally, his language of "authenticity" profoundly annoyed me.  By this he meant that coursework should look like "real life," that projects should be constructed along "real world" lines wherever possible, and that connections with how the student might use the course's skills and content in "the real world" should be prevalent.  I found myself kicking against all but the last point. 

I kept mentally returning to sports and music metaphors: there's nothing "authentic" about scales and practice drills.  Scales and etudes and fingering drills and breathing drills are not musical.  But musicianship absolutely requires them.  Fartleks and shark-fin drills and suicide drills look nothing like race-day running or swimming or like a basketball game.  But you won't be successful during the match/meet/game unless you've done the artificial drills.  The drills produce transferable skills.

But it's true that students sometimes need help with the transfer process.  So musicians have student recitals before they have performances at the Met.  And the varsity basketball team plays scrimmages against the JV team before their matches, and high school basketball (still, so far) comes before a career in the NBA.

It's been fairly easy for me to make connections between my area of study and "the real world," and I do drop these connections into my everyday contact with students. 
"Hey, some day, the town you're living in is going to pass some idiot regulation, and you're going to want to be able to make a persuasive speech to the town council why it's unjust or imprudent." 
"Hey, some day, some issue that's important to you will hit the newspapers (if we still have such things), and you're going to want your voice to be heard, and you're going to want to be able to write a letter to the editor (or a HuffPo blog post) that gets accepted and that makes people think."
"Hey, some day, one of your friends is going to ask you to drive him to a bank, and he's going to come running out, waving a gun and shouting 'DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE!!!!' and you're going to want to have some practice at saying no, so that's why you should never say yes when your friend asks to copy your homework."

But I haven't done much work at building those connections into my assignments.  I've been all scales and etudes and no recitals.  Instead of telling them that they should master this or that material or technique so that some day they could write a good letter to the editor, why don't I assign a letter to the editor?

So, I was inspired and encouraged by this book, even when I found myself disagreeing with it or annoyed by its trendy, jargony tone.  It fed my own brainstorming about pedagogy, even when its few specific suggestions were unpalatable or inapplicable to me.

I do recommend it, even if I didn't really love it.  Because I do really love teaching, and a conversation with someone who feels the same is always worthwhile.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Tar and Feather with the Same Black Kettle

Whatever mixaphors you want to come up with, it seems worth describing this article as, at the very least, problematic:

Male Humanities Professors Are Only In It For The Adulation

I should admit, I appreciate hearing some of the stories about professors', administrators', or colleagues' misdeeds.  Because, quite frankly, of all the Forewarned-Forearmed scenarios I've contemplated, having a colleague "accidentally" play porn at me just hadn't made the list.

And now I know.

Now I have an exit strategy for just that scenario.

But the rest of the article didn't seem terribly helpful to me.  Aside from the ludicrously attention-seeking over-reach in the article's title (which I'm willing to set aside only for the sake of all my journalist friends who insist that the writer never chooses the title), the conclusions don't seem warranted from the evidence, and the whole thing seems an exercise in scorn.

Overrepresenting the number of assholes in academia really doesn't do anyone any good.

Generalizing the behavior of idiots to all members of a group to which some idiots belong doesn't do anyone any good.

Suspecting the motives of people who have chosen a rather modest career path--one oriented towards helping others--doesn't do anyone any good.

I got into teaching in general, and teaching theology in particular, to do people some good.

I'm willing to believe that men, in general, are biologically programmed to put themselves a bit more on display when potential mates walk in the room.  I'm willing to believe that happily married (or securely celibate) men, in general, are not entirely free of this biological imperative and may quite unconsciously "display" a little more when a pretty girl shows an interest.

But "getting attention from pretty co-eds" really doesn't make the list of reasons to choose academia.  You could be a bartender to do that, and you'd probably make more money.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Watch Those Church Newsletters, Guys

Though I am tempted, I will comment no further on this case, as this writer for Christianity Today has done such a thorough job:

Mark Driscoll plagiarism case

Okay, a brief word, perhaps.

This is yet another instance of how the anti-intellectual strand that pervades evangelicalism can hurt the very evangelical witness they want to give.

Evangelism should, first and foremost, be truth-telling.  Once again, academic standards of citation are not, principally, about protecting ownership of original material (that's copyright).  They are about truth-telling: acknowledging when our thinking has been helped by someone else's, acknowledging when we find someone else's way of expressing our thoughts to be more helpful than whatever we could formulate, tipping our hat to our intellectual and spiritual parents.

It's really not that hard to drop a footnote and say, "Hey, isn't it cool how so-and-so said this?"

But an evangelicalism that mocks and derides academia cannot learn from it even those forms of truth-telling that can only help its witness to the truth.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Why You Should Care, or Project Plagiarism Matters

I keep forgetting to show my students stories of why and how academic citation matters "in the real world."

I'm going to start collecting them here, so that I have somewhere easy to point to.

I've spoken before about why I think plagiarism--or, rather, the habits of academic honesty that plagiarism violates--is a big moral deal.

It certainly is a big deal in academia, and the big deal that it is can properly be called a moral deal because the procedural standards are oriented toward properly moral goals--honesty, diligence, courtesy, etc.

Whether it is a big deal, moral or otherwise, outside the academy is worth pondering.  I don't believe that my students believe my insistence on proper attribution does them any good outside of the classroom or has any goal not restricted to the "academic" part of academic integrity.

I came across several examples this week that might be useful for Project Plagiarism Matters.  Just one will have to suffice for this post, however.

I wouldn't have noticed this one but for my colleague at Huntingdon, Dr. Jeremy Lewis, who reminded me that students are protected, as well as imperiled, by proper citation.

When College Students Plagiarize You, You Must Have Said Something Worth Saying

Yes, it's the college student who got in trouble here, but the person whom he plagiarized is a writer, who has a stake in having her work acknowledged.  She also has a stake in having her work benefit herself, rather than some privileged white dude.  ("Lord, prosper the work of our hands!")

It seems worth reminding students that they might some day write for a living--incidentally to whatever employment they find or as a substantial part of their careers.  They learn proper citation now as part of a system of proper attribution that protects writers from having their work stolen for others' benefit.

This system is especially important for those of us in the essentially charitable enterprise of education.  We accept a modest salary in exchange for bettering the lives of others by passing along ideas that we have learned from others.  There are only a few concrete ways we can augment that modest salary, and almost all of them have to do with generating ideas worth sharing and publishing them in income-producing ways.

But even for those of us outside academia, the protection of our intellectual and artistic work--enacted legally by copyright protection, but morally by accusations of plagiarism--still matters.  My students might not go on to be researchers or authors, but they might go on to be bloggers.  Many of them are already users of content-sharing social media--instagram and such.  They might go on to be technical writers of some kind.  They might be speech writers or website designers or nurse-educators or anybody else who would create something with words.

They might like to know that some fussy old fuddy-duddy of a professor like me is training those who come after them not to plagiarize them.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Hauerwas, A Primer

I took this photo several years ago, and I couldn't tell you the name or the location of the church for love or money.

But it really doesn't matter.  Because it could be any church in the US, and it faithfully reproduces the mindset of almost any church in the US.

The American church, in virtually all its iterations, assumes the fundamental compatibility of American imperial might and the church's evangelical mission.

If it is a conservative or evangelical church, it will happily pair these two activities on a Prayer Bulletin Board, and will unironically plaster the background with American flags--on both sides of the board.

If it is a progressive or liberal church, it will conscientiously refuse to recognize either of these two activities as worthy of the church's attention, thereby confirming the indissoluble bond between the two.

It is incomprehensible to either kind of church that the Church is called to witness to a gospel that differentiates between belief and unbelief and that places coercive violence on the side of unbelief.  "Pick one," the American church whispers, "and keep busy condemning those who've picked the other."

I stick with the United Methodist Church year after year, disappointment after disappointment, General Conference after General Conference, because I keep hoping that our theological DNA will start expressing itself; that our parents in the faith, John and Charles and Susanna and Phoebe, who refused to bifurcate evangelical witness and social justice, will somehow speak again in the lives of their children.  I keep hoping that Methodists will become disenchanted with respectability and politicking and will once again be methodical--ploddingly, embarrassingly, pragmatically methodical--in their pursuit of personal and social holiness.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Announcements, Updates, and Current Events

I have neglected to make a few important announcements in this space.

First, for the past two years I have been serving as a Licensed Local Pastor at a church in Pennsylvania.  This has changed my status with the UMC from "Certified Candidate" to "Licensed Local Pastor (Seminary Completed)."  Although I have just left parish ministry (on which more below), I have been glad to have been a part of a local church in this capacity.

I finished the PhD this past April, and graduated May 13th.  My dissertation, "Mapping Suffering: Pain, Illness, and Happiness in the Christian Tradition," is currently available on ProQuest.

I have also accepted a position as Instructor of Religion at Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, Alabama.  I will begin this fall.

My bishop has approved this as an Extension Ministry, so my status with the UMC will remain the same: Licensed Local Pastor (Seminary Completed) appointed to Extension Ministry.

This is an exciting new chapter in my life!  Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Common Sense Methodists?!?!

Convinced as I have been--and, it must be admitted, remain--that the Methodist church's adoption of sacramental grape juice in place of wine was a grievous error, thanks to Jennifer Woodruff Tait's fine new book, The Poisoned Chalice, I promise never again to consider it a nonsensical or untheological one.

This is a good history of the movement that resulted in the substitution of grape juice for wine in the churches that were to become The United Methodist Church, giving due credit to people whom it is easier to caricaturize, especially for those of us that disagree with them. Woodruff Tait debunks the myth (common among us sacramental oenophiles) that the movement was driven largely by relatively shallow social and cultural concerns rather than substantive moral, theological, or symbological ones.

That is not to say that the moral and mystagogical theology expressed by the grape juice devotees is persuasive or impressive in any way. But Woodruff Tait manages the historian's delicate job of portraying the occasionally ridiculous comprehensibly, at times sympathetically, and without overt mockery. (One sometimes catches a playful smile barely hidden behind the hand, but it is never a smirk.)

More importantly, Woodruff Tait isolates and draws out the many interwoven threads that manifested themselves in the movement towards sacramental grape juice--the interaction between theology and science, rationality and sobriety, hygiene and social utility. The confluence of concerns is rich and sometimes surprising, and Woodruff Tait's deft handling of the material makes it somewhat less incomprehensible than it might otherwise be.

She relates this cultural constructs accessibly and engagingly, and the book would be easily and profitably read by anyone interested in any one of the many concerns it engages.

If one had to name a complaint (and one has to, in order to have one's reviews taken seriously), it might be that there seem a relatively few primary texts being worked with here. Each chapter covers a different facet of the same few texts, intelligibly and persuasively, but one occasionally wonders whether a broader selection of writings from the period would tell the same story. (Surely if one broadened the sample a bit, one would find those nonsensical and untheological voices arguing from sheer stupidity--Fred Phelps is but the most modern incarnation of an old phenomenon.) Still, a scholar does have to work within limits in order to learn or to say anything meaningful, and this hardly seems a complaint worth making.

As I read, I could not help but think of companion readings (not to supply the book's deficits, but because good reading always invites company). Those who are primarily interested in the history of the period should read this alongside Christine Rosen's Preaching Eugenics (especially if the author's references to the eugenic concerns of theologians and pastors seem too fantastical). Intellectual historians might profitably follow this with Amy Laura Hall's Conceiving Parenthood, for the sequel to American Protestantism's love affair with scientific hygiene and purity.

Theologians and ethicists might read this with Thomas, with whom a comparison is never unprofitable (indeed--those familiar with the Summa might have recognized the concern for the effects of alcohol on reason as one of Thomas’s concerns and, perhaps, chuckled at the picture of rabidly Protestant ministers unknowingly propagating Thomistic moral theology) or, for contemporary issues with perhaps a similar constellation of concerns (scientific orthodoxy, social justice and the common good, purity, the effects of technological innovation), Rayna Rapp’s Testing Women, Testing the Fetus or Maura Ryan’s Ethics and Economics of Assisted Reproduction.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Integrity + Equality = ???

Lovely thoughts from a wise friend on how gender equality may have changed the way one intentionally cultivates marital fidelity:

In the Shadow of Modesto

It's true that the standard "adultery prevention" tips, as laudable as their intentions are, do cast women in a single role--that of tempter. As the frequency and type of co-ed interactions increases, it is certainly true that the temptation to infidelity would increase, just as the possibility of more predatory interactions would increase. (A sad truth for women--the more doors that open for them, the greater the chance that a wolf is lurking behind one of them.)

But women are more than tempters. They are colleagues, friends, bosses, shipmates, advisers, counselors, superiors, and dependents. Christian men who are sincere about cultivating the virtues of marital fidelity--both in their own lives and in broader society--need to figure out how to do this in the context of an exploding web of co-ed interactions that can no longer be simply avoided.

I might also add the conversation over how women might cultivate those same virtues--personal sexual morality and respect for marital integrity in the broader society--is a complicated one indeed. Adding in the dynamic of the all-too-prevalent incidence of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment only increases the complexity of the conversation. I'm not sure I'm up for it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Living Christ in Memphis

Surprising and lovely story this morning on NPR (yes, NPR):

Memphis Churches Leading The Way in Disaster Relief
(Red Cross cautiously pleased. "It's not necessarily a bad thing.")

Aside from my amusement at the Red Cross spokeswoman's clear unfamiliarity with the legitimacy and efficacy of interfaith cooperative efforts, this story prompted two thoughts.

First, thank you, Memphis churches for offering a clear witness to the gospel. Thank you for being the Body of Christ right there in your hometown.

Second, I've been receiving some criticism from my evangelical friends--or rather, from my evangelical friends who tend conservative on political matters--about my public statements to the effect that, if the church does not feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring relief to the poor, I'm happy for the U. S. government to pick up the slack.

I want to state clearly and unambiguously that the day news stories like the above are no longer news--the day NPR says, "Churches are solving the poverty problem? So what? That's not news," the day Red Cross has no choice but to say, "Well, of course churches are providing the bulk of the shelter/food/clothing here. They always do"--is the day I start campaigning vigorously for an end to all government aid to the needy.

Any and every tax cut you ask me to vote for, I will.

Any and every government program you want to cut, I will be your fiercest lobbyist.


Go ahead. Get busy.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Instantly Erroneous

I've been perusing the usual news sites last night and this morning, along with news sites I don't normally visit, thanks to the furious barrage of links and comments and speculation on my friends' facebook pages.

I've discovered that Fox News was reporting that Usama bin Landen [sic] was confrimed [sic] dead. Half an hour later, someone thought to become a professional and the two misspellings were corrected.

I've seen several websites (including wikipedia) announce confidently that Osama has been dead for a week; most of those sites now report that he was killed on May 1, 2011.

Some sites are currently reporting that Osama has been buried at sea, citing Islamic tradition and a general disinclination among the world's leaders to pollute their soil with his remains. Other sites are reporting that the US is maintaining its custody of his body in order to ensure acceptance of its claim to have killed him. I'm sure when an official statement is made as to the disposition of Osama's body, everyone will revise his website accordingly.

Some of my friends, especially those disinclined to trust anything with a liberal provenance, are already generating conspiracy theories to account for the discrepancies between Obama's official announcement and the maelstrom of unsubstantiated "facts" that overtook cybernews outlets while we were all waiting for that announcement.

Peace, be still, my friends.

There is no need for such speculation.

The explanation is far simpler and far more troubling.

The intentional impermanence of cyberspace combined with the demand for incessantly instantaneous news has created an ethos of irresponsibility in online reporting. Getting it out trumps getting it right.

In print media, the error abides; it gazes up at one, accusingly, preserved in library archives (what is the new microfiche?) for posterity. The penance only perpetuates the failure: the necessary published retraction ensures that there are two artifacts instead of one. The damage to the reporter's and the paper's reputation was tangible.

There is no failure in online reporting. There is no retraction, no mea culpa. There is only perpetual revision. Reputation need not matter.

And, of course, affiliation counts for more than accuracy these days anyway, doesn't it? One's political leanings (whether implied or avowed) are far more important for developing a loyal readership than one's accumulated record.

And if there is no more accumulated record? So much the better.