Here at MU we’ve got a pretty generous student worker policy. Each of us can have one or more student workers if we can produce an explanation of how they’d come in handy. Their compensation is part of the financial aid package.

I’ve had several over the years. Their official title is “Igor,” pronounced eye-gore like the Marty Feldman character in “Young Frankenstein.” They’ve done various things for me, from rearranging my bookshelves by color to peer reviewing all my World History papers to bringing me up to speed on digital resources.

This semester’s Igor is an Albanian guy, which is fun because Gramsci (he tells me we’re spelling it wrong) was Albanian-Italian, and also because when my family lived in Italy in the 70’s we mythologized Albania (then a closed society) as a mysterious land of crazy geniuses. Which has, in fact, pretty much fit the few Albanians I’ve known.

OK, so on to the ‘fun’. Igor has been sitting in on one of my World History sections, to get a feel and make suggestions about how to improve the learning experience for students. He’s prepped me with a lot of great traditional teaching materials about 1914 (our topic at the moment). But it’s become clear that we’re not really on the same page about the project, which is no surprise and a learning opportunity for both of us.

I don’t want to be throwing traditional teaching materials at the students; I want to be guiding them in a process of figuring out how to find stuff for themselves. Igor has been impatient with the chaos of this process; he sees the students spinning their wheels and thinks we’re not really getting anywhere. But he’s very smart, and he pays attention, so he gets that I’m not going to be lecturing. What we need to do, he says, is package up the historical resources so they’re “fun” for the students.

Igor’s so far ahead of the game. It took me until grad school to figure this out. So much better than jamming the porridge down the students’ throats. Then it took me until I’d been teaching on my own for five or six years to become dissatisfied with it. It’s a trap. Yes, you win hearts and minds; you gain a positive relationship and a comradely process. Some learning does happen. But, once you go down the rathole of what students find fun, it’s almost impossible to get out. That fun sticks to what they already know and think like glue. Unless they happen to find learning fun, what they find fun and interesting is itself the cognitive / emotional limitation a higher education is meant to open out into new abilities, possibilities, and perspectives.

What I have to offer is not the laborious translation of history into their existing ludic frames. What I have to offer is whole new ways to have fun. The fun of understanding complex processes; of puzzling through ignorance to knowledge; of knowing what the hell you’re talking about. The fun of belonging in adult conversations, of being taken seriously for the quality of your insight and not just tolerated for the humanity of your personal opinion. The fun of a whole world bursting with interesting things, in which nothing isn’t interesting. Most of them don’t know this stuff is fun yet, because it’s not how education has ever worked for them. For some of them, the fun has been actively sucked out of learning. Trying to make learning fun in the ways they’re used to is not a solution to that problem.

Nowadays I try to make the process quirky and offbeat and informal in ways that are at least intriguing and non-threatening. But the fun doesn’t really start until they’ve hesitantly selected a topic and done some research and actually found something out. It’s then that the magic of education can slide in among the other pleasures of our lives.

Taking refuge in the facts

My colleague and department chair Karen came to one of my world history sections today. She was there to do a formal evaluation for our new merit pay system, but when she got up to speed on what we were doing, she also jumped in and participated impromptu, as Virginia Woolf, in a roundtable with Elizabeth I and Nelson Mandela. (I was Emma Goldman but didn’t join a roundtable in this particular session.) It was a fine time.

Karen and I debriefed afterwards, and she made an observation that really helped me understand what I was trying to accomplish with the roundtables. Even though I’ve been doing them for years, to be honest I’d always thought of them as something of a soft gimmick, mainly useful to change the game and extract a drop or two of value from the end of a long semester. Karen helped me put my finger on why I had a feeling that they were at least potentially something better, and more consistent with my teaching objectives.

The roundtables are discussions among three or four students performing historical characters that they have researched. The model is, very loosely, Steve Allen’s old tv show, “Meeting of Minds.” That show was scripted, and consequently pretty dull. But the task for the students in the roundtables is to know their character so well that they can perform them on the fly in an open-ended conversation with unexpected partners for about 15-20 minutes. Today, as always, they did this with varying levels of expertise, gusto, and skill. Karen’s observation was that, as she put it, even the least inspired students were “driven to refuge in the facts.”

It’s true that through the years I’ve tried various things to keep the students from doing that awkward little icebreaker where, like a really bad tv drama or the world’s dullest party, each dramatis persona enters and stops the action by making an earnest declaration of her backstory and motivation. I can get pretty frustrated and disappointed about that. But from Karen’s perspective, what was happening was that the students were defaulting at a much higher and more productive level than usual. We struggle around here, as in so much public discourse, to get students to focus on anything that might count as a fact. When faced with demands for evidence, they default to silence, or declarations of their beliefs and raw feels. From this perspective, students who are taking refuge in the facts are a real level up.

How did it happen, and how did I miss it?

Well, first a little story. I was walking by a colleague’s classroom awhile back, and I heard it earnestly explaining to its students how to alphabetize a Works Cited page. Now, I have no doubt that the students are capable of generating strategic incompetence at this mind-destroying level. But I think catering to that is not just to stare into the abyss, but to jump in and take up residence. I think the students are perfectly capable of figuring out how to alphabetize, and how to write relatively cleanly, and how to cite sources, and all the other little chores of academic responsibility, without a lot of modeling and prompting and cajoling and reminding and general teachering. I tell students those things are like the ante in poker. You’re not even in the game until you’re doing that stuff, and you’ve got to play to win. Get in the game.

In short, that’s all trivia not to get lost in. I want students to figure things out – to discover, to interpret, to analyze, to organize and convey. You can’t even get to there from Schatzi, Brunhilde comes before Scheisse, Otto von. So what I want from the roundtables is a really rigorous commitment to understanding a historical person so fully that it becomes possible to react to unexpected lines of conversation as they would have. And what I often get is little biographical narratives and statements of principles. And I’m disappointed by that, especially after a long, grueling school year. But as Karen reminded me today, the arc from facts to understanding is much shorter and more doable than the arc from comma splices to a recognizable QE-1.

Karen reminded me, or more accurately minded me because I’d never thought it through, that the roundtables give each student both an expertise and a responsibility about that expertise. They are tasked with knowing their characters, and have to bring what they’ve got to a social situation that doesn’t work without their active input. Furthermore, by throwing their characters out of their comfort zones on mismatched panels with unfamiliar interlocutors, the cognitive bar is raised and the bottom level of remotely adequate engagement becomes that ‘refuge in the facts’ Karen identified. They have to at least know enough to babble out some true things. And they have to do that under the pressure not of regurgitating those facts, but actually conversing with other persons who are pursuing a line of discussion. Which means they have to do something with those facts: search for relevance, interpret, and present the perspective of a historical other in at least that rudimentary way. Well, I can live with that as process work.

Stuart Hall in Race and Ethnicity

I found out Stuart Hall died about five minutes before going in to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class. So I rooted around and found a handout I’ve used before in the class, a speech he gave called “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” published in Radical America. Copied it up real quick and handed it out to the class. Then I told them Stuart Hall was one of the most important influences on my intellectual development, a key figure in the period when my horizons were being expanded and my perspectives decentered by feminism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, and the other heavy hitters of official Otherness.

I looked around the room and no one was paying attention to me any more. They had all started reading. So I shut up, we read the piece together, and then we had a great conversation about it.

Going with the flow

I was about ten minutes late to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class today. I’m doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I’m not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation – the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we’re working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino’s Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of ‘internal Othering’, and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would ‘really start’ now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to ‘the front’. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the ‘leading’ group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.

Figuring out figuring it out

(crossposted from Dead Voles)

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here. That this student has to ‘stop thinking’ in its next class is an amazing observation, and heartbreaking.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.


[What follows is a guest post from Dyke the Elder, a.k.a. Chuck Dyke, Temple University, who’s been reading the blog and thinking about our conversations here. Links kindly provided by WordPress.]

Big historical doins in the UK. Work crews in a parking lot in Leicester found some old bones. Forensic investigation, including some DNA matching with currently living descendants, convinces them that they’ve found the grave of Richard III, whose bones will now be re-interred in a more regal setting. Well, now. Déjà vu all over again, for the re-interrment of Richard has been carried out in symbolic space any number of times over the centuries.

With time on my hands, and the memory of a terrific read, I couldn’t resist getting Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time for the Kindle. Memory hadn’t misled me. The book is near the top of the list of great classic Brit mystery novels, and remains a great read. It also resonates with thoughts I (actually several of us) have been having about “historical truth.”

We’re introduced to a Scotland Yard detective, lying in bed with a broken leg [close enough], bored and restless. A friend brings him a sheaf of prints with which to while away some time: landscapes, genre scenes, portraits. Among the portraits is one that especially attracts his attention: the subject is evidently late medieval, and well-to-do. Before turning it over to see who it is, the detective reflects a bit about what portraits can tell us: what inferences to character, status, and so on the picture supports. He experiments with nurses and visitors. What does the portrait say to them? What sort of a person was the subject? What was his opposition in life? A mini-consensus develops that he was a nice guy who had known much pain, and might well have been a judge. The portrait is turned over, and the subject turns out to be Richard III: the personification of ruthless tyrannical evil, as Shakespeare and Sir Lawrence have conspired to convince us.

How is the apparent anomaly to be dealt with? What is the truth of the portrait, and what is the truth of Richard. The detective begins with the latter, and cadges a stack of history books. They range from a short illustrated history retrieved from old schooldays through a long standard and well legitimated history of England. The image of the evil tyrant persists among them all, though of course it’s variously nuanced, or not nuanced at all. Central to the image is the wicked uncle who has slain his two innocent young nephews “in the tower.” However, the more serious and nuanced accounts provide material that seems inconsistent with the image of evil. Needless to say, the Scotland Yard detective begins to think of the situation in his accustomed terms. E.g. the death of the young princes is a mystery, and Richard a prime suspect. A police investigation is in order.

We’re obviously at a suitable point to make (at least this) long story short. The investigations of the detective effectively exonerate Richard, and go far to rehabilitate him in an extremely favorable light. Henry Tudor, on the other hand, is re-interred as a shit, as well as the likely culprit. Beyond that, Tey is a very smart lady, and provides a lot of interesting considerations about the responsible reading of historical evidence. Her sense of legitimate vs. illegitimate inference is remarkably reliable. Since this was my second reading, I read the book with an attempted jaundiced eye, looking for flaws in the rehabilitation process. There were only two steps that were a bit fishy, but neither badly damages the rehab project. This isn’t surprising, since, as Tey tells us in a denouement chapter, the case has been re-opened several times, and the verdict has stably remained in Richard’s favor –- on the evidence. Tey says, “A man Buck wrote a vindication in the seventeenth century. And Horace Walpole in the eighteenth. And someone called Markham in the nineteenth.” They pretend to know of no defender in the twentieth century, but, I believe, it was someone named Kendall, who Tey figures, slightly transfigured, as one of the detective’s primary aides. As a matter of fact, I vaguely remember reading the Kendall after having read The Daughter of Time for the first time. So, in a perfectly legitimate sense, “everybody knows,” but the public image of Richard III remains that of evil.

Well, with an attention surplus to deal with, the teacher in me stirred. Why not use The Daughter of Time as a centerpiece in, say, a philosophy of social science course. It really is a little gem on the evaluation of evidence. The approach from the point of view of Scotland Yard might be enough to jumpstart some actual text reading, and a sort of mock trial might do some pedagogical work. So I actually thought some of the details through – long enough to reject the whole idea. Here are some reasons for the rejection, all to be collected in the judgment that the hermeneutic geography is wrong.

My students, given the bizarre exception, have no idea who Richard III was, nor do they care. Except as a disembodied exercise, Richard III simply doesn’t matter. Except as just another instance of the general proposition that all truth matters, the stake in Richard III has to be established, not assumed. So Richard has to be more than a literary artifact, for, if he remains a literary artifact, the situation becomes Pirandellian, and questions of truth default into questions of consistency. To put this in pedagogical place: for the students, Richard III is, and will always remain, just who and what you tell them he is. They’ll have a real stake in his truth only if we supply one.

That caricature of historical indifference is the benchmark, or, better, default starting point for any thoughts on teaching the search for, say, evidence and truth. Defaulting to it is an eternally available alternative that can never be made to go away – just shared out differently. As eternally dysfunctional as it is, philosophical skepticism has eternal life. Religions live off the interest. There isn’t a whole lot of point rehearsing the same old songs once again.

It’s part of the fun of The Daughter of Time that it reminds us of the failure of pragmatism – as a theory of truth in the old rationalist mode. For the image of Richard III as the monster has almost certainly been more useful, for innumerable purposes, some of them wise and noble, than the rehabilitated Richard could ever have been, whatever the truth may be.

Now, there’s really not much point in pursuing the line through yet another slash at rationalism and its evil twin skepticism. That’s a parlor game by now. The serious context, the one not only worth spending time on, but also mandatory for us, is the context we walk into a dozen or more times a week. Hence the essential value of attention surplus. Our classrooms are excruciatingly particular, and the failure of the traditional a priori’s and, for good or ill, the failure of the once-for-all, top down framers and organizers condemns us, whether we like it or not, to building on that particularity. (Fat(uous)ly stated, we can’t pretend to transcend our own history. Romantically stated, our lot is an existential one.)

One of the first consequences is an old familiar one: commonality replaces universality as the ground of intellectual sharing. (1844 was a vintage year for that sort of thought.) On those grounds, the impossibility of using The Daughter of Time as an “historical example” is that it essentially cannot be a part of the very particular commonality of our classrooms. The intellectualization of history dehistoricizes history, and converts it into fiction and fable. Richard III? Why not just rehabilitate the big bad wolf, obviously an ideological construct foisted on us by pig huggers?

This line may seem to be pushing (mindlessly) toward a fundamental anti-intellectualism. It’s not meant to. It’s meant to push toward what I often call the difference between epistemology and learning as two alternative approaches to being intelligent. Epistemology is a major impediment to teaching and learning. It’s our traditionally honored dogmatism as Western intellectuals. In the context of colonialism, and the Arnold/Leavis curriculum that was devised in the service of colonialism, we got away with that dogmatism. We’re not getting away with it these days (as the entries in attention surplus seem, to me, to show). But it sure does make a helluva convenient way to avoid difficult curriculum decisions. So we’ve got to move on to real questions about how to create intelligent commonality: the kind that doesn’t just float off after the final exam.

It seems to me that the work on All Quiet on the Western Front – as frustrating and more or less unsuccessful as it was – nonetheless stands as an excellent first example. It genuinely seeks an existential dialectic (to be fancy): a genuine clash of minds. It recognizes the disruption that has to be caused to happen if (here) the Nazis are to be removed from the realm of Aesopian fable. It wanders close to a point I’d insist on. Something has to be done that threatens to make a difference. You can’t just move the Nazis to another (in this case liberal) mythic space – or, if you do, it has to be the mythic space the students are living in (metaphors we live by) in order to disrupt the comfort of that space. Even in the classroom, learning, but not epistemology, is as much a political process as voting or marching to city hall. To, recapitulate, Richard III could never be the vehicle for the necessary transformations (though, if you were cool) he could be a practice exercise that, in the right context, might prepare the ground for some real pedagogical work (Bourdieu and Passeron).

Interestingly, some very strange beasts can be harnessed up to do that sort of work. Because I’m having fun and have a lot of time to have fun in, at the moment, I’ll spin out a really arcane example. It’s road tested over about a decade by now:

Sometimes when I’m asked why I enjoy teaching at Temple so much, I say “Where else can you find the challenge of trying to teach modern scientific cosmology to Wiccans?” As esoteric as the big bang, dark energy, and the Higgs field may seem, they generate genuine imperatives for truth in an almost perfect way. For example, they stand outside the lock-step rituals that the “debate” about biological evolution has defaulted to. Furthermore, they stand at the ragged edge of the most sophisticated science there is, where scientists squabble at the boarders of doubt. Every new time I teach the course, something has become obsolete in the readings from the last time I taught it (every two years, in my rotation). In addition, they are all, in important ways, outside my scope of authority and expertise. I’m constrained, as students usually are, to “take the book’s word for it.” (Agreed. Lots of things we do are in the same boat; but, in this case it isn’t just a matter of not having done the homework, it’s a matter of not being able to do the homework.) I, as they, submit to authority, and show them how to do it humbly, appreciatively, and responsibly.

On the other side of the coin, I choose to have the science delimit the course. Sure there are cosmologies of all sorts, from all sorts of points of view and from all over the planet. They’re irrelevant. I do have the authority to impose that limit. [Almost always, I offer a way out. If a student is willing to accept C+ as a maximum grade, he or she can do their term paper on, for example, the four corners of the Navajo world, the yin and the yang, or – witches.]

Metaphor, mathematics, and measurement: that’s one way to gloss what the course (and the tradition from Timaeus to Einstein and beyond) is about. Each of the three is a teacher in the project defined here:

“I opened the door and looked into the room. It was empty.” EMPTY? Were you sucked in? That would be empty. ‘Tis but a short step from that to the ancients’ worries about – nothing; and from that to “space,” and then along to the quantum vacuum: the fullest nothing you could ever imagine. (The current main text is Frank Close’s Nothing, in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series. A wonderful book.) “Empty” is a metaphor, in the first instance. The optimist and the pessimist: is the glass half full or half empty? Yes, certainly; and so’s your heart, turkey. You get serious when you have think your way through kinds of emptiness. Metaphysics is getting your metaphorical shit together.

Math and measurement go together. How many Tweets will fit on the head of a pin? Well, the answer is “All of them at the same time.” You don’t believe me? How good is your WIFI connection? What does “tuning” mean? The craziness of electromagnetic fields is a day by day experience. Whatever the cosmos is like, it has to support the quotidian, however bizarre. So if space has to do with there being room or not being room for that, it has to make room for the twitters. (This is actually the present day form of the question Einstein asked himself about Maxwell’s equations: the question that led to special relativity.)

The math in the course begins with the ancients’ math of shape and ratio. Very quickly (depending on who’s taking the class, and what they want to talk about (within reason – what a phrase)), we’re into the bigger and smaller, the scaling up and the scaling down. Do things stay the same as they get bigger or smaller? (Aristotle worried about how big or small a good polis could be.) Does size matter? When do things add up; and when to they organize and elaborate? (The issue of “emergence” is so ubiquitous in the course (and the cosmos) that it unravels into a lot of questions about how and why things outrun mere additivity. Modern cosmology, like modern biology, is ruthlessly unkind to Descartes and Russell.)

The issue is: how much of this can you get how many to understand. My claim is that it’s a lot more than you might have thought. Part of my confidence in that answer goes back to where we started. The question I’m interested in is not how many students can be got to be able to pass this or that exam. Let the sciences worry about that one. My question is how much of it can be gotten connected well enough to be a conscious part of lived reality: that is, be moved out of the realm of just another story. What threads do my students’ lives give me to connect to; and how do I make the connections – in terms of active images and metaphors? How do I make it impossible for the craziness of a world with googles of tweets perched on the head of a pin to move out of the realm of “just another pretty story” into the realm of “evidently, or even obviously, the way things are”? Well, now’s the time for the always disappointing “You gotta be there.” For the same sorts of reasons why you can’t reproduce your classroom on paper, the instruction booklet for producing existential engagement is pathetically inadequate. When you think of it, to be adequate it would have to be such a classroom, cleverly reconstructed in another medium, since its teaching is just the sort of thing it aims to teach. People ask me how I can teach the same thing over and over (sometimes for decades). I don’t. The students are always different (if they’ve had a course with you before, they aren’t the same as before); and so am I.

So, to wrap up these reflections on the attention surplus for the moment, cosmology, of all things, even and especially because of its esoteric craziness even within the scientific landscape, turns out to be an amazingly fertile route to lived reality learning.

Of cabbages and kings

OK, I took a deep breath after the last post and I’m going to take a crack at how the discussion of Nzinga Mbemba’s letter to the King of Portugal went in my two gen ed World History classes today.

So, we had about twenty minutes in both sections. I asked them to read the first paragraph of the letter, which took most of them a few minutes. Then I asked them to do me a favor and read it again. Here’s the paragraph:

Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that it is convenient to provide for the necessary remedy, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well.

I asked what would happen if I said ‘Discuss’. Lots of them smiled. So I said ‘Discuss’. They looked at each other and shifted around in their seats. Then they started saying things. In each group, I prompted with the discussion rubric that answers may be right or wrong, but more often they are better or worse, more or less complete. So we’re building toward better, more complete answers.

Here are some things they figured out:

*Mbemba had less power in his own kingdom than the King of Portugal.

*Mbemba was pretty upset about that.

*Mbemba couldn’t say so directly because he was in no position to make his feelings the issue.

*Congo was overrun with attractive foreign goodies.

*Mbemba did not control the distribution of these goodies.

*This was a problem for Mbemba because his authority was based on monopoly and selective distribution of attractive goodies.

*Mbemba was unable to use military power to restore order.

*This was perhaps because the Portuguese had his military power in check; but more importantly, his military power derived from the loyalty of his vassals, and it was exactly that which was being disrupted by the new channels of goodie access.

*Having no power of command in the situation, Mbemba was strategizing secondary assets like kingly kinship, presumptions of reciprocity, and religious obligation.

I’m pretty happy with that as a start. I expect from long experience that what seven or eight of us in each section did in that discussion was followed actively by a similar number of silent partners; was completely mysterious and unreproducible for another five or six; and bored or infuriated a couple more who just want to get on with getting their perseverence certificate.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Promoting a comment on a previous post to start off this post: I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

In my experience there’s a kind of porno for eggheads quality to syllabus-sharing. Ooooh, check out the size of that reading list! As I just said in commenting on Tim Burke’s recent post asking for feedback on his intriguing draft syllabus for a course called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies,” a reading list and its associated assignments are not very helpful to me for envisioning a class. Those parts are aspirational and maybe even outright fantasies, as I remarked there. All sorts of reading lists and assignments can work or not work, but that depends on the teaching and learning relationship, that is, not just the recipe but what teacher(s) and students do with it, which in turn depends on a complex of dispositions, expectations, practices and relationships that have to be worked through in each case and that can’t be forced based on preconceptions of what college/teaching/students are supposed to be. Is it possible to say anything useful about those variables in a syllabus? Well, I’ve been trying to gradually get better at that over the years – if you’re curious, here’s this semester’s World History syllabus:


Not much of a reading list, I’m afraid, but lots of other things I wonder what folks think of.

The years of rice, salt and science

Among the books I’m reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a fictional alternate history of modernity premised on the Black Death wiping out Europe completely so that Islam and China rise to dominance instead. It’s a good book in many ways but I was struck for present purposes by how Robinson gets science to happen. Like in all good alternative histories he’s trying to figure out what differences make a difference; for reasons peculiar to this particular history he’s also trying to figure out what sames make the same.

So expediently but interestingly, he restaffs yet recapitulates the developing experimentalism of Galileo, Grimaldi and Boyle et. al. pretty exactly, but in an environment in which the global context and intertext are far more explicit. That is, his story reads much more directly as a dynamic assemblage of existing elements than the usual heroic individual string-of-pearls discovery tales of triumphal Western Progress. For narrative purposes it’s all compressed into a single place/time (the khanate of Bokhara, 1020 AH) and group of people, but here are some of the factors:

*A Silk-Road nexus teaming with travelers and books from across Greater Asia

*A catastrophically-failed and disenchanted Arab alchemist whose day job is armory and gunpowder engineering

*A Tibetan fellow-alchemist and glassblower who has no reason to be impressed with Aristotle

*A self-absorbed khan with predatory enemies on all sides and a pragmatic principal advisor more interested in useful military technology than orthodoxies

*A well-established scholarly madressa community, including mathematicians, philosophers and Sufi mystics

The regional-military practicalities create one kind of enabling constraint, the failure of alchemy another, the Muslim theological-philosophical system a third. It helps a lot once the alchemy fails that the Tibetan guy is there to decenter Aristotle and that as a craftsman he’s of an empirical bent. His glassblowing enables lenses and vacuum vessels without too much need for suspension of disbelief. But all of that had been around there from time to time ‘forever’, we might say. What Robinson shows elegantly is that it took a particular configuration of those elements under particular dynamic stresses to create a new system, which quickly became self-organizing and expansive. All of the parts did their parts by doing their parts, but what they did was repurposed, with the radically-empiricized former alchemist as the catalyst.

So having invented the barometer, against the Aristotelian speculations of the Arab philosophers the emergent scientist grumbles

As if stones or the wind could want to be someplace or other, as a man does…. Things fall because they fall, that’s all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall…. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.

Clearly this is the hero of the linear progress-of-science metanarrative, but Robinson doesn’t leave it at that. To get the right ferment, or alchemy so to speak took more than this, including the irrelevant or counterproductive stuff the new scientist was pushing against, like his son-in-law’s Sufioid handwaving about the universal force of love:

The Sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labor on new or improved devices.

This is where I stopped last night. I’ll update in the comments if necessary as I read on.