Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Flirting with cynicism

I intended to write about Blackboard--which I will, soon, because it's new, it's awesome, and I'm excited about it--but my thoughts this morning are elsewhere.  Perhaps that's due, in part, to starting the day with an email from a friend and former co-worker who wrote "in one of the great upsets of the 21st century, my life long bachelorism ended."  What makes this noteworthy is that my friend is near the high side of his 50's, has had health struggles for as long as I've known him, and married a woman who has battled cancer (quite courageously) for over a decade.  She'd been suggesting marriage for years.  No one thought it would happen.  And when I read the message this morning, several seemingly unrelated things became clear, at least for a moment.

I flirt with cynicism...a lot.  And, as with any flirtation, there's the headiness of getting close, but not too close.  Of believing in one's unique ability to charm and disarm.  Of wondering how it might be "if."  I have to admit that I find cynicism somewhat alluring--the world weariness and uber sophistication, the absence of naivete, the Lonesome Dove-ness of it all.  It's downright romantic, right up until I actually try to live with cynicism.  And that's when I realize that I will always enjoy the flirtation, but I just don't think I can make the commitment.

And, what, you may be asking, does this have to do with education?  One of the seemingly unrelated things that became clear this morning is how dangerous it is for cynicism to take up residence in the halls of the academy. I've been reading the thoughtful writing of a professor of organic chemistry who, until recently, has been on sabbatical.   Though he writes anonymously, his discourse seems to be an honest flirtation.  There are other anonymous authors whose relationship with cynicism is far harder to assess.

One of my favorite students gives me a fair amount of grief about "bunnies and rainbows," which is her summation of my not-infrequent life perspective.  It's not that I manufacture six foot rabbits; it's that there really are some bunnies and some rainbows in and around my life and I try not to overlook them in the midst of my ongoing flirtation.  My newly married friend may not be a bunny, but he's certainly a rainbow.  And a reminder to see the gifts in my well as the gifts in my colleagues and our students.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

Traveling spirals

Success is not always traveling in a straight line from where we are to somewhere else.  I often warn students that my thought process resembles a spiral, which they may find frustrating.  It's not intentional (the frustration or the thought process) and I've come to understand both the value for me and the confusion for others.  Revisiting the (almost) same concept, data, or assumption from different perspectives over time has allowed me to see new connections, abandon old beliefs, and learn. Though I am capable of delivering a well-planned and sequential presentation, I rarely least not in the classroom.   It's not all that pretty for the uninitiated...or the very organized thinkers...or the compulsive note takers, but it does create the somewhat messy environment in which learning seems to occur.

The current semester--the semester where I will not be in the classroom--was a choice made several months ago in the hope that it would allow me to revisit the (almost) same place next semester.  And, as sometimes happens, being willing to forgo what I wanted has allowed me to reclaim it in a different way.  This semester will be spent managing projects, building relationships (both internal and external), and using the skills I encourage students to develop.  That step away-toward is proving to be a good decision, allowing me to use (perhaps rusty) consulting and management skills and to collaborate with my strategy colleagues on curriculum changes.

Though I already miss the class preparation and planning, the step away-toward is generating new ideas and insights, as well as appreciation both for the respite and for the return.  Traveling in a straight line seems to work well, just not for all of us.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Learning through traveling...together

One of my greatest blessings is having a daughter whose company I enjoy--and who has turned out to be a wonderful travel partner.  We've taken road trips since she was too young to remember in order to ride refurbished rail cars, marvel at aquatic creatures, dig our toes into sand, or watch minor league baseball.  We've flown across oceans, driven through hail, and walked seemingly endless miles .  We've learned about history, geography, arithmetic, planning, other people...and ourselves.

I no longer have to do all the driving (the worrying, yes, but not the driving) or all the planning.  And asking a teenager to make a budget for a trip?  Best lesson I never had to teach.

It's time for another road trip to watch a minor league team we haven't seen, visit two museums of interest to us both, and introduce old friends of mine to my daughter.  And we'll take a Mother-Daughter walking tour of the campus where I did my undergraduate work.

It never occurred to me when I was an undergraduate student (and just a couple of years older than my daughter is now) that I would visit the campus some day with my teenage daughter.  Or that my own journey would bring me full circle to teaching college students.  And though my students see mostly the differences between us, I do remember how it feels to be in their shoes...and seats.  The memory is so clear, in fact, that it drives me to be the kind of teacher I wanted...and to emulate the teachers I admired, some of whom taught me on the campus we'll be visiting.

Monday, August 9, 2010

And we have a completely new world...sort of

Recently, a friend recommended a book about economics and the global economy.  While I was reading that book, my daughter was reading the AP history review text required for this fall (yes, I was making her start early...more on that later).  Though she was immersed in the events which led to the establishment of the 13 British colonies and I was reading more recent history, the motives, positions (both taken and defended), and outcomes were eerily similar.

There are important facts upon which historical scholars tend to agree, mostly names and dates associated with key events.  Beyond those facts, however, truth becomes largely a function of perspective and nationality.  Take, for example, the recent events around leaked documents, hackers, the intelligence community, and war.  There are variations of truth, shades of gray, and conflicting realities.  It's hard to know which version(s) of these events will be considered "history."  And, without the ability to place current events into a larger historical context, we (all of us) are incapable of being well-informed citizens and making sound judgments about our community and about our world.

One of the raging debates in education is why we bother to educate at all.:

  • What's the intended outcome of government-funded education?  
  • Why does the government fund education?  
  • How do we agree on a body of knowledge that a citizenry should possess?  
  • Is it enough to graduate students who can demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests?

The thread of recent posts mirrors my growing awareness that we just aren't getting it right, despite our best efforts.  And, rather than place blame (since I'm not even sure where to start), I'm making choices I can make to change what I can change.  Thus, I asked my daughter to start on her AP history text and sought reading material from friends whose perspectives are different from my own.   I've been talking with my teenager about how everything is changing globally (Hans Rosling's 2006 presentation is still hard to beat), nothing really changes at all, and how important it is for her to understand her world in order to be a responsible citizen.  We read this article together, then we wondered whether Patrick Henry was viewed in his time as a hero or a heretic; it's hard to know.  What I do know is the education of my daughter to be a world citizen is ultimately my responsibility.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ancient history, scholarship, and deja vu

I find myself in the oddest--and most unexpected--places, of late, at least as far as my reading material.  A student sent me an article from The Journal of Higher Education (and how cool is it that a student reads the Journal?) on the use of technology in teaching; I wound up reading the referenced essay by David Pace on the history and scholarship of teaching and learning history.  And that essay from The American Historical Review is absolutely worth the effort to read and evaluate critically.

The essay begins and ends with the contrast in colleges and universities, "between the amateurism that we accept in our knowledge about teaching and the professionalism we demand in other aspects of our work."  It's not a secret that the rigor demanded of researchers is not expected of teachers, for reasons we love to debate ad nauseum, including the ubiquitous recognition and reward structure biased toward publication (regardless of value, whether to the classroom or to the community).  But lost in academic posturing and debate is the informed discussion of what makes good teaching:  
  • How do we measure good teaching?  
  • How do we teach the art and science of good teaching?  
  • Shouldn't those questions--and their answers--inform not only how we teach but also what we teach?

The academic equivalent of throwing money at a problem is developing and teaching courses designed to address specific needs.  We create courses and assignments to teach collaboration, teamwork, ethics, diversity, and a host of other Real World Problems so that we can
teach students to evaluate claims critically, to see complex questions from more than one perspective, to understand how different groups can view the same situation in different ways, to recognize the long-term consequences of actions, and to master dozens of other subtle mental operations that are absolutely necessary for their success as individuals and for the very survival of our society.
And the method Pace proposes to teach those things?  It's history. But history taught well, informed by rigor, based upon proven methods, and shared in forums traditionally reserved for scholarly research.  Just imagine...