Perfectionism

Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

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Fun?

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.

Why do American teachers stink at learning how to teach?

Via the Facebook page of Making Thinking Visible (Project Zero, Visible Thinking) comes an interesting article from the NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”

It turns out a big chunk of the answer is, because American teachers stink at learning how to teach. This stinkage is illustrated by contrast to the Japanese, who ironically got jazzed about American innovations in teaching theory and practice during the ’80s, and implemented them at the same time they were going nowhere in the U.S. The article, which is adapted from Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher, argues that although the U.S. is a leader in conceptual innovation and extraordinary experimentation, we do a particularly bad job of general implementation because we fail to actually show teachers how to do the exciting new thing. This has happened over and over again. In contrast again, the Japanese made a commitment to the change and poured tremendous institutional and peer support into training up the educators. So in fact Green’s thesis is that it’s not that we stink at learning how to teach, but at teaching how to teach.

No doubt this is true, or at least it’s a perennial complaint. But there’s something a little odd about the argument. The consistent theme of each iteration of innovation is to take an experimental attitude to teaching, and to commit to an open-ended process of discovery. The Japanese teacher offered as model is Takeshi Matsuyama. “At the university-affiliated elementary school where Matsuyama taught, he turned his classroom into a kind of laboratory, concocting and trying out new teaching ideas.” The idea is to set up a discovery-oriented environment, then let students figure it out for themselves.

So, why does Green think teachers themselves need something other than this? I realize there are all sorts of strategies that ‘facilitate’ this process – I’ve developed many by doing, learned others by paying attention and reading and making connections. There’s much more for me to learn, and plenty I’ve forgotten that I shouldn’t have. I could tell all this to apprentices. But again, the point of the method is self-discovery through recursive experimentation and research and reflection. It’s really the opposite of ‘we need to show these people how to do this algorithm’, which is precisely the old model that we’re trying to get over. On this view, we don’t at all need to show teachers how to do this. We just need to set them to the task and let them sort it out.

Well in actual fact, that hasn’t worked. Instead, confusion reigns and the reform collapses back into old habits. Which, as Dave Mazella keeps saying, have the substantial merit of not working in familiar ways that define the norm, reinforced and perpetuated by what Green calls the “apprenticeship of observation.” And since it’s clearly the case that failure is endemically acceptable – normal, in fact – in the American education system, so things remain. Would teaching the teachers how to teach change that?

I’m not sure. It’s the disposition of discovery and risk that’s missing; that would seem to be built into our system, but it was in Japan too. And it would seem to be simple enough – it’s a one-page handout, a blog post – to convey the concept of moving from an “I, We, You” to a “You, Y’All, We” classroom framework. Try it, work with it. Here’s a problem: “Without the right training, most teachers do not understand math well enough to teach it the way [innovator Magdalene] Lampert does.” But Lampert’s method does not require the teacher to understand math, yet. It requires the teacher to understand the process of figuring math out, which, as the math-in-the-wild examples in the article show, is available to anyone who accepts the need to do so and puts their mind to it. Again, the idea that there’s some special training teachers need here seems off-base.

Green tells poignantly of teachers trying to do it right, but instead taking the new script and jamming the old one into it.

And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones.

How could she have known? Well, did her students figure something out or not? Did they start getting right answers or not? Why were their answers right or wrong? Really, she has to be told that eventually the point is to get to right answers? She’s looking for a recipe, rather than paying attention to what’s happening. It’s not hard to know if students are learning or not, if you pay attention and think a little.

What’s needed is curiosity and responsibility. When teachers have these, all is well, just as when students have them, all is well. The Japanese (and Finnish, and exotic flavor-of-the-month) example show that this can, to a degree, be generalized. I’m not sure what it would take to enable this in the American setting, but years of failed innovation suggest it’s not a one-variable problem.

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.

Engaging students (c/p w/ Dead Voles)

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (but perhaps the larger discussion will be at Dead Voles).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with the Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

“OH, THEY’RE MOVING DADDY’S GRAVE TO BUILD A SEWER …”

[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.