Can We Tell Them They Must Change Their Lives?

The text for today is from Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, Cambridge UK and Malden MA: Polity 2013 (Du mußt dein Leben ändern, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2009):

The basic contradiction of Greek ethics, as well as the art of education connected to it, comes from the fact that it never managed to work out the difference between passions and habits with the necessary clarity–which is why it also never clearly articulated the corresponding difference between dominance and practice. The consequences are evident in over two millennia of ambiguity in European pedagogy–initially it often suffocated its pupils with authoritarian discipline by treating them as subjects, while later on it increasingly addressed them as false adults and released them from all discipline and practising tension. The fact that pupils are initially and mostly burgeoning athletes–not to say acrobats–who must be brought into shape was, because of the moralistic and political mystification of pedagogy, never pointed out as explicitly as a matter of such import would require. (166)

That is, we seem to have two modes, as regards teaching children: the forced march and the mushroom method.  Either we train them like dogs or we leave them to blossom on their own, in the dark, on a pile of shit (which does not, of course, preclude the muddled mixtures of those two modes we see in the everyday classroom).  Sloterdijk’s middle way out is to recognize that we all depend, for our socioeconomic effectiveness as well as our self-respect, on the cultivation of the right kinds of habits–on the practices that make up our discipline and disciplines; on recognizing that we could do better and taking requisite action; in sum, on taking to heart Rilke’s admonition “du mußt dein Leben ändern.” As I wrote recently in another context, any intrusion of unnecessary authoritarianism kills it.  And the idea that students’ ownmost condition is as athletes–performers and competitors with skillfully trained bodies–figures here as an opportunity not grasped.  We set ourselves up as preceptors and judges, while our work would be much more effective were we to conceive of ourselves as coaches instead.

I want to believe.  Sloterdijk is, as they say, singing my song here.   But there are two huge, intertwined problems putting this approach into action, of which I have written before: one is what is called developmental readiness, and the other is a particularly problematic aspect of our commercial culture.  I have and will continue often to discuss the question of adolescent and young adult intellectual development as it impinges on our teaching.  In these middle years, the less mature one is, by and large, the more mature one imagines oneself to be–“I almost got it all figured out, man”–and at this point a passionately defensive instinct is ready to spring up against anything that seems to threaten one’s fragile autonomy. Thus, especially when it seems to come from outside, from “above,” Rilke’s admonition is all too often met with snarls of refusal.

And at least one of the methods commerce has evolved to market stuff to these folks exacerbates the problem greatly.  Pandering to this defensive pseudo-autonomy is sadly easy: No worries, kids, you’re awesomely, uncannily cool just as you are, even in your obvious occasional doofiness, just (and only) as long as you BUY OUR PRODUCT. . .”

I submit that we are badly equipped to compete against this concatenation of inner and outer environmental forces unless we have something awesome to offer.  I also submit that we do have that, but we market it very badly: disciplined practice, our real product, is fatally associated with the imposition of top-down authority when it can and should be offered as liberation through the kind of self-fashioning most kids associate only with style.  Importantly, the practices Sloterdijk has in mind are embodied, or maybe it’s even better to say bodily, like perhaps tattooing.  His book is subtitled “On Anthropotechnics,” a term he didn’t coin, though his use of it is quite removed from its Soviet origin; it refers generally to the ways we work on ourselves, but also to the not-yet-developed science and philosophy of practices–call it, riffing along with Sloterdijk on L. Ron Hubbard’s brilliantly and cynically conceived “dianetics,” a general disciplinics that disrespects the supposed boundary between the physical and mental and presents a decided advance over such powerful forerunners as Foucault’s late work.  Of course I can see the objections colleagues have to the shift Sloterdijk imagines here, at least with the spin I’m giving it, but I would argue that approaching the humanities in terms of self-transformational practices does not at all have to entail a descent into loopy self-help discourse and/or bogus religiosity (not that all self-help discourse is loopy nor all religion bogus!). Then again, I have to admit that I do like to think of my laser pointer as a light saber.

I’m only a third of the way through Sloterdijk’s massive essay, which itself seems to me the third in a trilogy of uniquely related books, their titles all riffing on great philosophical phrases from the past–Critique of Cynical Reason, Being and Rage, and now this one–and all concerned with the vicissitudes of reason under conditions of modernity entwined with something he might consent to call human nature.  I think this one might turn out to be quite important, and it seems to me right and fair for Sloterdijk to claim that “the emancipation of practice from the compulsive structures of Old European asceticism . . . might be the most important intellectual-historical and body-historical event of the twentieth century” (167).  Of course, that emancipation is not yet complete.

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one if by tablet, two if by phone . . .

Now is the time for all good college teachers to come to the aid of their calling, their workplaces, their future employment prospects, and their students’ intellectual well-being: the battle against the mighty MOOC is on. Politicians, bureaucrats, and their allies in the professoriate hope, or maybe the right word is wish, that massively online open-source courses will save academe from its spendthrift self. (We could all perhaps agree that some saving is indeed called for there.) But all that is wrong with massively boring large-auditorium sit-on-your-ass classes would be amplified a hundredfold in the MOOCs threatening to take their places, to be delivered along with some uniquely online drawbacks of their own.

So I claim, though I’m not going to try to enumerate these ills exhaustively. Right now I would rather dwell on the one that seems most important: if the idea is to replace live teachers on the scene with canned ones in the cloud, then students, especially beginners, too many of whom already feel lost and discouraged, will flounder all the more in the absence of attentive guidance–an argument also made here, with refreshing disrespect for this week’s flavor of eduspeak. Nor will our burgeoning flocks of well-meaning administrators be able to fill the gap by telling them to be active learners with the courage to create, sound as that advice might be.

Not that they’re getting all that much attentive individual guidance as matters stand now. We could do better in this regard, and I believe most of us would if our time were to be allocated differently.  Ironically, the availability of high quality lectures online could free us to flip our classroom meetings toward more informed discussion and just-in-time confusion management, and if fewer of those group meetings were to prove needed, more time could then be given over to individual and small group conferences.  Now all we need is to prove that to the politicians.

Meanwhile, repeat after me: the teaching staff is NOT what’s jacking up the cost of higher education.  The teaching staff is NOT what’s jacking up the cost of higher education.  The teaching staff is NOT what’s jacking up the cost of higher education.

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Are There Best Practices Regarding Discipline?

I’ve often joked with friends and colleagues that professors ought to wear academic regalia to class every day. The thing is, I really do believe it–or at least that we should wear some sort of sign or badge, not of “naked” authority, but of our discipline, of disciplinarity itself. If that would turn us into a kind of priesthood, so be it: our worst problem, at least in English and certainly in the teaching of academic writing, is that students don’t buy in–don’t believe we have much of anything to offer them. We need to act as if what we do is special.

Our students are, in my view, starved for discipline, and I think we regularly disappoint them concerning it. Of course, as people grow up, most adjust their ideas about authority greatly. It’s a pretty safe bet that their hopes, fears, and expectations about their teachers do not correspond point for point with our own ideas about our roles as helpers and authorities. The child thinks of it in terms of power that might or might not be justified; we, I hope, put reasonableness and justification far forward, and, because it is not the reason we signed up for this teaching gig in the first place, we have to remind ourselves periodically (or rather, students do regularly point out) that we are in fact arbiters and have to exercise the power of our offices responsibly, fairly, and gently.

Our culture seems to say we’re not very good at this, especially the “gentle” part. The typical movie or TV professor is a real asshole: arbitrary, arrogant, unreachable, and vain. We’re like Hobbes’s life-without-society: solitary (dwellers in the ivory tower), poor (for being trapped in such a relatively unremunerative profession), nasty (or at least archly sardonic), brutish (that is, abusive in every sense), and short (on anything real to offer). There must be a kernel of truth in it for this image to be so potent. True, American culture is notoriously anti-intellectual, but that says nothing definitive about the particular forms it takes–those still call out for explanation. If the professoriat’s negative image is undeserved, as I think it mostly is, then what accounts for it? If we’re such hot rhetoricians, how come so many people hate us?

When any person or group is heaped with unaccountably heavy scorn, it’s no great stretch to call it scapegoating. Someone who can be singled out to blame stands in for some one or thing that can’t be. Jews periodically played the goat for Europe’s economic failure to thrive. We catch hell because America feels stupid. I of course realize that stupid people often regard themselves as smart. Do I contradict myself by saying they feel stupid? No: they do. They feel smart, feel stupid, and contradict themselves. There’s nothing in human nature to prevent that. And nothing we can do will prevent people from casting us into whatever roles their personal dramas require, but at least we can try not to reinforce their tendency to cast us as egomaniacal bullies.

There’s a rhetorical bind that interferes here, I think: if we’re not to be false or shallow, most of what we say has to be qualified. Proverbial sayings like “money is the root of all evil” appeal to the listener in a way “money is a root of some evil” cannot, even though the latter is much truer. Michael Smithson, a very interesting researcher on ignorance and uncertainty, owns that we academics are often faced with a dilemma between falsehood and comprehensibility, where the truth takes too much patience and effort for most people to get it, so they settle for what someone (help me out here) has called “the closest cliché.” If we combat this by correcting students’ hopeful, poetic-sounding oversimplifications, we’re thereby made into hurters of feelings, thus targets of resentment. We all know this; Socrates got in really big trouble for it. He also, as he predicted, became one of the all-time great intellectual heroes with his simple (but not easy) method of getting to the bottom of things.

It wasn’t the students who sentenced Socrates to death, though. His mistake, if it was one, was to piss off the parents and the politicians. He taught in the most casual of ways, all ad-lib and in-the-moment, but without the accidental slights, the lapses in attention the rest of us mortals are prone to. He didn’t have to enforce deadlines on papers, it’s true, and his main concern was with finding what is reasonable and right rather than inculcating what is arbitrary and useless. However it happened, we, or many of us, have been maneuvered into the awkward position of inculcating various amounts of quasi-traditional, poorly examined crap; at least I know that I’m still weeding bits of fallacious received wisdom out of my teaching with no end in sight, and I will not believe English can be the only subject that’s full of it. It’s fair to demand that our disciplines preclude arbitrary uselessness; if and when they don’t, we had better fix it, because any exercise of arbitrary power in the name of discipline is a travesty. It plays into adolescents’ well documented over-readiness to detect and denounce hypocrisy in their elders, for one thing. It’s a throwback to a lower level of maturity, not a higher. Thus the only “best practice” I can support is to model forth a non-authoritarian, presumptuousness-free brand of disciplinarity and invite our students to emulate it.

Of course that’s easier said than done. The very phrase “best practice” feels arrogant to me, a claim to know more than can be known. And that in itself is a heavy claim, so I don’t expect everyone to obediently quit using such a professional-sounding phrase*. But there ought to be some agreeable sign or set of signs to symbolize what’s true and valuable in academic discipline and to set us apart from the cynical herd. Sackcloth robes and light sabres, perhaps. You tell me.

*(I almost wrote “epithet,” and so it is: a conventional yoking of adjective to noun, after the pattern of f—ing a–hole.)

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Another Fifteen Weeks Along the Oswego River

This is the run-up to my upcoming Lunar New Year’s resolution to do this blogging thing right, so, um, let me entertain you with some bravura navel-gazing. That works, right?.

The upcoming Chinese zodiacal year, following this year’s Dragon, is Snake, and to me this represents continuity, groundedness, and thoroughness–a viewpoint close to the ground and preeminently practical. These are Nietzschean associations, virtues in non-invidious contrast with those of the eagle, whose inherent virtues include the clear apprehension of very broad perspectives, together with the ability to move easily from one such territory to another. That was last year’s program, the year of the Nietzschean perspectivist Dragon. This coming, I’ll try to work more locally, to connect the proverbial dots. I’ll still think outside the box, but with steadier attention to the box, about the box.

One way to ground myself better would be to learn the nuts and bolts of quantitative social-science research. I’ll need help with that, though, so I’m looking for a project or two that might tempt a real researcher to partner with me and show me the ropes. Under the heading of student writing, one thing I think we badly need is some solid data on the ill effects of bad writing in the world of work and occupations. Teaching writing seems, as I’ve often noted, a sort of disaster response, so triage arises as a serious concern: which kinds of error hurt most, and which least? And how best can we persuade students that it’s really in their best self-interest to work hard honing their writing skills? What hurts and what helps constitute separate sets of data, of course, and much work has been done in each area, but I haven’t seen anything like the last word on either.

Pragmatically, or I should say pragmatistically (pragmaticistically? pragmatologically? What would Peirce or Dewey say?), I want to systematically tackle the problem that presents itself most forcefully in my day-to-day teaching life: the misteachings of k-12 English, the fallacious language ideologies believed by our culture at large and every subculture in it, the media’s ridiculously oversimple depiction of professional life as it concerns writing, and the wishful belief in digital technology’s promise to do the grammatical heavy lifting for us, throw up a formidable barrier between us and the students whose interest we hope to serve. Now, those of you who know me well know that my bent is philosophical and, in the epistemological sense, negative. That is, I look for the patterns in things, I like to move from data to hypothesis to my own version of theory, but my intellectual talent manifests itself most often in shooting ideas down, or at least in proposing alternatives to received explanations. (Shortly after Sputnik, an itinerant psychometric psychologist told 12-year-old me that this would be the case: that I had a wild spike of “divergent” intelligence and people wouldn’t necessarily love me for it. Sure enough, my career so far has been pockmarked with accusations of arrogance and hostility I can’t account for any other way.) My point is that there’s work to do here that doesn’t come quite naturally to me, and I’m hoping therefore to find help with it.

This might be the resolution I most need to keep: to see these things through even in the face of hurt feelings. No more Mr. Sheepish-guy. Unfortunately, I was raised to walk on eggs, but I manifestly do know how to flip a mean omelet. Cheddar and onion, anyone?

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The Quick-and-Dirty on William G. Perry and College-age Intellectual Maturation

I was (am?) what’s called a non-traditional student: having quit college angrily, early on, I went through most of my higher education much older than the typical student does right out of high school. This delay turned out to be a distinct advantage for my performance as student, not the handicap many imagine. To understand it as an advantage, two factors must be considered: first, how well or badly high school prepared me; second, how much difference my own intellectual and emotional maturity may have made. It seems to me that my experience, although it was long ago and i am unique in many ways, can still serve as an illustrative example of those factors, both of which matter greatly to our present educational snafu. Fracked up for sure, and in my judgment worsening, the problematic situation we find ourselves in is also normal, and I doubt it will ever completely go away.

I rode the crest of the baby boom, so I witnessed at first hand the crackup of the public education system. Population pressure alone would have damaged it badly, but racial integration contributed to its disintegration when racist assumptions combined with democratic ideals of fairness: too many urban teachers believed in black inferiority but also in equal treatment, so they needlessly dumbed things down for everyone, or so some of them admitted to me privately, later on. (Of course that’s an egregious oversimplification, but this is just a 1,400-word blog post, not a 1,400-page monograph!) I see no reason to believe that things have improved much since my younger brother went through the totally demoralized system, nor do I imagine things were much better beforehand. The fundamentally authoritarian system was expected to adopt anti-authoritarian goals and practices without a really thorough reformation, so we can expect it to remain a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of an institution, perpetually at odds with itself. Situation normal.

It’s often said that institutions mature the way people do, only a lot more slowly. If so, I’d say the primary-secondary education system itself is just now going off to college, cognitively and emotionally, and we can expect it to think and act sophomorically. I get my conception of sophomoricism partly from my own sadly prolonged experience as a dropout know-it-all, but also from William G. Perry’s Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years–A Scheme, which I read thirty years ago with a sharp shock of recognition, and to which I return often for insight into the pickle our traditional students usually find themselves in. For Perry, educational authoritarianism is appropriate to childhood, since children are ill-equipped mentally to conceive it any other way. Children are natural-born dualists, seeing in terms of right vs. wrong, true vs. false, us vs. them, and uncomfortable with Mr. In-Between. Adolescence, roughly reckoned, is the time when authority starts to show its weaknesses, and kids know viscerally that a change has got to come. In the highest form of intellectual maturity, as Perry sees it, we commit ourselves to a program of continued self-improvement for a non-egocentric set of purposes, yet we hold our beliefs to be revisable in the face of strong disconfirming evidence. This, children cannot do, hence authoritarianism’s appropriateness.

The early stages between childhood and genuine maturity can be even more awkward, though, and the negative denotation of the term sophomoric exemplifies this. Our students and the schools that send them to us can both be expected to hold certain beliefs self-evident: that all people are totally different from one another, thus absolutely equal; that all facts are equally factual and all opinions equally opinionated, with no important gradations of believability between them; and that one’s own opinions and interpretations are sacrosanct, personally owned, a form of private property. In this stage, in the opposition between difference and commonality, difference pretty much always wins. It all seems very democratic, but this constellation of assumptions makes it very hard to think. The universe of knowledge it presupposes is comprised of myriad individual factoids like atoms in a gas; thus, the prospect of mastering any three-credit-hour course’s worth of such hot air is quite daunting. We can show these students the general principles, the frameworks of understanding that make the facts manageable for us, but at first these will seem to be merely more facts added to the pile. This is the genesis of the typical “sophomore” in the broader sense, a disappointed, often resentful dualist, trying to let go of authoritarianism but still identifying with it, dependent upon it, since they need it to rebel against. Real intellectual maturity takes time, and for most, that adds up to more than a mere eighteen or twenty years.

This matters in a lot of ways, but for now I want to focus on writing. To be well received, writing needs to be purposefully organized. But to a mind that views the world as a pile of facts, organization cannot come organically as an outgrowth of communicative purpose; form cannot follow function when the only imaginable purpose is to repeat disconnected facts and/or spout unsupported opinions. Such writing cannot help but wander aimlessly. Organization will be cobbled onto it, often so awkwardly it gives one the willies.

I trust that these descriptions strike a chord of recognition in most or all of you. I, at least, recognize both my present students and my former self therein. Maturation is hard. For Perry, it almost always entails a conversion experience, a “flip” in one’s self regard, turning from an aimless and resentful fact-finder into a self-motivated and self-regulating investigator. Having made that leap, we too often forget what it felt like before, and how long it took us. Keith Hjortshoj, in his The Transition to College Writing, explains this conundrum as a sharp turn in a narrow hallway, such that students graduating high school cannot see what lies ahead for them, but neither can professors clearly remember what their own minds were like before higher education changed them. Both see the other as a projected image of their present selves, as if that crooked hallway were straight, and so the collision between them–between us, that is–inevitably entails a complex conflict of expectations. One of the best explainers of Perry for the end-user, e.g. us, is Robert J. Kloss, whose sweetly penetrating essay on this matter, “A Nudge is Best: Helping Students through the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development,” describes the problem succinctly:

In multiplicity, knowledge is simply a matter of opinion. Professors, then, are not authorities with the right answers; they’re just people with opinions. And, in this still-naive stage, because “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion,” the students’ are as good as the instructor’s or anyone else’s. All opinions, they adamantly declare from their vantage point, are equal. Consequently, they are baffled at instructors’ criticisms of their work, believing that prejudice, whim, and personal feelings are the criteria for judgment.

Viewed maturely, this situation is not only not dire, it is to be expected, and we can do things about it. Since the malady is incurable, in the sense that new “sophomores,” sometimes well into their graduate programs, pop up every semester, we cannot expect a cure. Their symptoms must be managed. We have to anticipate the fact that responsible relativism is hard to teach to resentful dualists or to Perry’s multiplists, who mistakenly think themselves radical relativists. We should try not to resent their oversimple either/or thinking, their disrespect for thoughtful opinion, their neglect of supporting evidence and countervailing arguments, and we should try not to blame it solely on outside forces such as “No Child Left Behind,” no matter how misguided that particular example may be. I was lucky to spend most of my multiplicity years out of school, coming back to college when I was really ready. It’s lovely to have such people in our classes when they do appear, but the rest we need to gently, insistently show that what they naturally suppose to be on-off switches are in fact thermostats–that they can profitably trade in their blacks and whites for the whole rainbow. Kloss has the right attitude and he names it for us well: a nudge is best, not a shove. We ought to be present for our students, not distant observers as they flounder in the deep end of the pool. We also need to stand together on this, to exemplify the virtues of professional discipline and be ready to explain them. And I strongly believe that the worst thing we can do for them is to collapse back into arbitrary, dualistic authoritarianism. It’s not enough to be right. We gotta have heart, too. Lots and lots of it.

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Hello World, part II

I’m rebooting this blog as part of my new role as Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow for SUNY Oswego’s School of Business: welcome, new colleagues, to my world. If you like, go ahead and check out the “About” and “Position Papers” tabs. I hope some of you will subscribe, and I promise to post at least weekly and to tackle in general terms many of the issues you raise with me individually.

I took some notes, but I wish I had recorded the conversation we had at the SoB staff meeting Monday! Most of the points raised were familiar, but I want to respond to everyone’s concerns, so please feel free to remind me of yours.

Meanwhile, let me assure my longstanding readers (I do have some left, don’t I?) that the blog remains the same, only with more updates. The job we have undertaken as educators remains surpassingly complex, and rigorous, thoroughgoing intellectual humility remains the most honest and effective approach we can take toward it, so let’s dig in.

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Chutes and Ladders

I’ve been talking a lot to people lately about what I call the “information assumption,” by which I mean the fact, as it seems to me, that students below a certain (an uncertain, more like) maturity level tend strongly to assume that the mental work of getting educated amounts to information transfer only. It’s as if there’s a ladder with rungs representing positions on the Perry scale of college-age intellectual development (q.v.), and although they can peer into the territory that’s visible only from near the top, their grasp and their balance rest upon rungs further down. From the top one can see the need for continual self-monitoring and self-improvement, plus the professionalism entailed in our use of principles to decide things responsibly despite uncertainties, but our students’ hands and feet aren’t there yet. They seem able to handle only information, and they therefore interpret our instructions badly, translating them in terms of a clumsy dichotomy of fact and opinion where received notions are taken for facts needing no support, and opinion is treated as arbitrary preference needing ditto.

This is frustrating for teachers, and pretty much everyone I know (including you, dear reader?) feels the need to reeducate young people away from the oversimplifications they seem to have been saddled with. It’s tempting, though, to blame it all on high school, on No Child Left Behind, but I think present trends in secondary education are not solely to blame, nor even mostly: they merely exacerbate a condition that has always existed. In a world of perfect justice and maximally enlightened pedagogy, first-year college students (most students, really) would still need to make their way up the Perry scale, and profs will always find their patience tested by the slowness of that progress.

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Not Dead Yet, part n+1

I just had an energizing talk with my next semester’s assistant. Feeding her selections from my handout material will kickstart my overdue revision of same, and it will also help me make the transition from this semester’s lit courses to next semester’s composition sections.

I can’t help feeling disappointed that my recent run of literature courses is coming to an end with the remaining full-time faculty, on average, increasing their loads. But composition teaching has its own beauties and rewards, as this weblog exists to elucidate. So here goes . . .

This year’s theoretical challenge is to relate the rhetoric of the college essay to that of the artwork, in terms of the biopragmatism I’m developing elsewhere. For starters, we admit that we are effectively unequal to the challenge posed by our object’s complexity: it’s well and truly over our heads–i.e. it’s the deep end of whatever pool we imagine ourselves in. Stroke . . .stroke . . . This is where we either learn to swim or don’t, or drown, which of course alludes to the infamous Drowning Mickey Mouse Diagram. I’ll make it my business to provide you (and my future students, down the line) with a suitably animated graphic thereof, but for now it suffices to say that it represents the rhetoric of argument as delineated by Stephen E. Toulmin, a follower of Wittgenstein who eerily resembles a Deweyan pragmatist. Representative of any given argument, any attempt to persuade others to share a belief, Mickey too is in the deep end of the pool, and in order to rescue him from drowning, we must bring as much of our argument to the surface, that is to conscious awareness and public discussability, as we can. That includes reaching down into the murky depths of unexamined assumptions, dark motives, and the flimsy backing of ideological rationalizations. There is no hope of bringing it all to the surface–in William Stafford’s very apt phrase, the darkness around us is deep–but we are ethically bound to make the attempt anyway.

My Buddhist faith instructs me to begin the day with four great vows, each of which is impossible for a finite being to fulfill: however innumerable sentient beings are,I vow to save them all; however inexhaustible delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all; however immeasurable Dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all; however endless the Buddha’s way is, I vow to follow it . . .

Of course, a lot depends on what “save” means, etc. I also vow to ignore such quibbles. If we are doomed to fail, if heat-death must eventually overtake the universe, it seems to me all the more important to act as if our actions matter. Do go off the deep end, please, and help me save Mickey.

Au revoir, . . .

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Hello Again, World

Yes, I’m diving into the deep end again. And thanks–I missed you, too.

Message of the day: we often read, lately, that incoming students are on average disappointed to find too little intellectual challenge. In a way I hope it’s true, because I intend to bump up the conceptual difficulty of my courses a healthy notch or two, shocked as I was to find that Rate My Professor disses me as a lightweight in that category. Robert J. Kloss has something to say on this matter that I feel is crucial: that a nudge toward intellectual maturity works much better than a shove. Even one student’s nudge is another’s tipping point, though, so I’ll still tread lightly and strive to personalize whatever interventions I try to make.

My intent regarding this weblog is, among other things, to keep you posted on how that bump-up works out, but I also want to advertise the fact that the bulk of my blogging energies will henceforth be devoted to the youngest member of the Pangborn family of web presences, the newly-bloggified The Biopragmatist, which concerns my attempt to connect the disparate threads of my working philosophy into a usable, discussable semiotic/poetic/rhetorical perspective, with insights drawn from Peirce and Dewey, cognitive science, philosophy of biology (see, it’s about the kind of critter we are), Buddha dharma, and much else. So please check it out! I hope to attract and maintain an ad-hoc working group on these matters, so I’ll appreciate any and all feedback, but especially active engagement.

More later, naturally . . .

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This must be the lull before the storm . . .

I’m enjoying some quiet time in the office at Normal State for a while, waiting for students to show up for individual conferences. I hope to soon be able to deeply redesign my freshman writing courses by partly automating them in a hybrid of online and face-to-face instruction. I take it that the preponderance of data indicates that hybrid is the most effective design for learning’s sake (I’ll have to double-check that, but I know it was true several years ago), although it’s not quite as thrifty as fully online courses are with the institution’s resources.

If I can swing it, I’d like to have one or more of the campus computer nerds help me to format sentence-level punctuation and clarity instruction into an engaging game-like online format. Of course, this would require me to make up an interminable sequence of problems for the students to solve. Bummer. But if I could embed one of the textbook sites’ problem sets into a CMS (course management system) that fed each individual a certain type of problem (comma splices, dangling modifiers, etc.) until they achieved, say, five right answers in a row, I would be able to shift from three weekly hours of full classes to more small group meetings and even more one-on-one. I imagine just a few mass meetings, more 90-minute team sessions, and even more individual conferences. The work load would stay the same, but it would be better allocated–that is, allocated proportionately to the modalities of learning that work best.

The worst problem might be with scholarly integrity: my design could be seen by some as practically an invitation to cheat, to pay someone else to go through the automated drudgery of online punctuation lessons. But I could fix that bug by explicitly holding them responsible for learning that shows up in their in-class writing. If anyone has advice for me about this, please let me know. Meanwhile, it’s once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. . . .

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