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The Real Lesson of Frederick Lutz

— This is a repost of today’s Teaching Reflection for Albion’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Every day on my way in to my office, I walk over a bronze plaque in the pavement dedicated to Albion College professor Frederick Lutz. The plaque tells us Lutz was “Professor in this College 1885-1920.” LutzThe preposition has always nagged at me. These days we speak of ourselves as working at Albion College, not in it. Lately, however, I’ve begun thinking that there may be a lesson in that tiny word about our role as teachers and students and about Albion’s role in the wider community.

There is a valuable historical lesson in the change from “in” to “at.” The word “in” was once the more common choice. If Google’s Ngram is correct, the use of the phrase “professor in the college” peaked just before the Great Depression and then declined precipitously. By 1945, “at the college” had become the most common form. The reasons seem fairly clear. The Depression upended many traditional views of work and social class. It completed the process of alienation from one’s labor that had begun on the factory floors of the industrial revolution and extended it to higher education. After the 1930s, being a college teacher slowly became just a job. Professors became employees who worked “at” a college or university just as a machinist might work “at” Ford. Students underwent a similar transition, from studying “in” to studying “at” a college.

Something was lost in the transition, though, and not just genteel Victorian elitism. When we teach and learn “at” a college, we cease to be members of a community and become employees and consumers. We start calling Albion “the institution” and use corporate phrases like “the value proposition.” This process pulls students and faculty apart. The classrooms of the past may have been paternalistic, but they were also places in which faculty and students thought of themselves as being “in” it together, and for life.

The preposition “in” has another potential meaning when applied to the College that might be worth recovering. We use “in” to describe units within a larger whole. I usually say that I am in the English department at Albion College, and we even say someone is “in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Michigan.” To think of ourselves as being in Albion College is to think of the College as part of a wider community. This community might be academia, but it is also part of the City of Albion (and its surrounding area). If we and our students can begin to think of ourselves as “in” the College, we may help ourselves to think of the College as an integral part of Albion as a whole.

What would it look like to resurrect the good parts of this in-dwelling attitude toward teaching and learning? We would make Albion not merely a place at which students and faculty work and study but a community in which we belong.

–Ian F. MacInnes

Revisions to notes from the Enola Gay reveal history at work

notesfromtheEnolaGay

As someone who teaches writing, I pay a lot of attention to the process of revision and editing.  And historical documents are a great place to see how meaningful even small revisions can be.  Sometimes the changes to a historical document are as interesting as the document itself. Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, wrote a short note during his return flight from dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945. He had been asked to make notes by William Laurence, a New York Times editor who was unable to be on the flight. According to Lewis, “a great deal of the notes were written in almost complete darkness. Halfway through I ran out of ink.” The edits to the document in pencil “were made by Mr. William Laurence” in Tinian.(1) The handwriting is strikingly similar to Lewis’, however, and the edits may actually be his own. The final edited words are well known to history, but as so often the evidence of editing in the orginal document reveals how we actively revise events, in this case the enormity of the atomic bomb.

Lewis initially wrote “Just how many did we kill?,” a basic human response to the tragedy. How many people have you killed today? But the revised version inserts the word “Japs,” a way of telling the reader that the people who died were not simply human but enemies, collectively assembled under a contemptuously exclamatory nickname. “Japs” are not a synonym for the Japanese as people, as a quick look at this Google frequency chart will show.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 08.48.21

The revisions surrounding the famous phrase “my God what have we done” are even more interesting. It looks as though the previous sentence is almost literally true. “I honestly have the feeling (illegible scratched out) of groping for words to explain this,” he writes, followed by a tentative period and a long white space, then, simply, “My God what have we done.” Later the two sentences were joined, and “I might say” was added above the line. The effect here is to attenuate and alleviate the horror and directness of that short sentence. It is what he *might* say, not necessarily what he *does* say.
The final paragraph anticipates the edits that would be made elsewhere. Lewis himself uses “Japs” and his final leap of sympathy is a heartrendingly gruesome understatement. They “certainly don’t care to have us drop anymore[sic] bombs.” This would be a comforting thought for Lewis and for others who had already made devastating bombing attacks on civilians like the firebombing of Tokyo. It’s not clear what would have initially followed bombs in the scratched out bit, but it becomes “of *atomic energy like this*.”

Now, Lewis was writing these words in response to a specific request, and Laurence was making his revisions (if they were indeed his) with publication in mind. They both needed both to stay true to the horror Lewis honestly felt but to find a silver lining that would make these actions acceptable: now the “Japs may give up.” It’s amazing how closely the writing and revising process in this document matches the collective wisdom so many of us grew up with and lived with for so long, the idea that yes, the atomic bomb was terrible, but it ended the war and thus prevented even worse events. This document helps show that this idea was not discovered; It was created.

(1) 1. “WORLD WAR II, HIROSHIMA BOMBING.” LEWIS, Robert A., Captain, U.S. Army Air Corps, Co-Pilot of the B-29 Bomber the Enola Gay. Autograph Logbook Signed, Entitled ‘Bombing of Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945,’ . | Christie’s,” accessed August 4, 2015, http://www.christies.com/Lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=3886895.
Note: I have included a low-resolution image of the document for the purposes of commentary.

The State of the State in Poetry

As we leave April behind, I find myself reflecting on the Charles Crupi Memorial poetry competition, which I have judged now for many years. It is perhaps the only state-wide poetry competition open to Michigan high school students, and it produces a LOT of poetry. This year we had more than 1200 contestants. My job is to read all the poems and narrow them down to 100 or so for our final judges. As you might imagine, the experience of reading all these poems is daunting, even exhausting, but I always find it strangely uplifting. It’s not just the occasional brilliant poem that makes it worthwhile. It’s the sum total of all that young poetic expression. Of course, not everything we get is actually a poem. Occasionally someone will even submit a photograph, and we get a few prose passages from essays and quite a bit of “if it rhymes it must be poetry.” And every year we get at least one poem called “I’m only writing this poem for extra credit,” a title that could lead to a deliciously ironic award winning poem, were it not always so true. But overall our high school students are deeply sincere, and for me sincerity has the power to elevate even the humblest poem. Lines such as “Please dear Lord have pity / Don’t take my kitty”(1) may not be part of a winning entry, but you can’t deny their touching authenticity.

It’s impossible to read 1200 poems without realizing that they fall into definite genres. Some are traditional to lyric poetry like the “I’m sorry you’re dead” poems or the “Do you love me?” poems (2). These can be either wonderful or awful, but either way they show that these young writers know something of the work that poetry can do in the world. Even teen angst is oddly touching. These are the endless poems about the corruption of the world or the “when-you-said-you-loved-me-you-were-lying” poems. Their cynicism is happily false. Those who are truly jaded by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” no longer see them as a subject for poetry. Our contestants, on the other hand, like Hamlet, still have the grace to be appalled by the world. The other aspect of the competition that gives me faith in the future is the love of language that runs through the entries like gold, emerging here and there in brilliant seams and nuggets. Most of all this reminds me of the gifted high school teachers who stand behind many of these young poets. Michigan owes these teachers a debt of gratitude. They are the ones who are teaching our children the power of poetry to imagine the world anew.

(1) Loosely remembered from an entry some years ago.
(2) I attribute these phrases to Harvard scholar Helen Vendler, from a public lecture long ago.

Audio books bring back the full experience of literature

As a fan of audio books, I am always bothered by those who act as if listening to a book being read aloud is somehow a secondary experience. For some, reading appears to be synonymous with silent reading; they believe those who have listened to a book read aloud either haven't really read it or are even somehow "cheating."

But literature began entirely as something to be listened to. The great epics of the ancients, Homer, the Scandinavian sagas, were all oral poetry in their first formulation. Even works which have come primarily to be experienced in print were first written to be read aloud, as is the case for Chaucer and much medieval literature. Even today, although there are poems which are written solely to be experienced on the page, most poetry is implicitly designed to be heard.

Listening to a literary text also offers opportunities for understanding that are less present in silent reading. When listening to a book, I find that I emerge with a much more intuitive sense of the author's prose style. Hearing syntax aloud can almost be infectious. Once after listening to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, I found myself writing ponderously balanced sentences for the simplest of tasks. Understanding prose style is helpful for works in which the style is an important part of the author's craft, but it also helps us understand character because good authors make their characters speak in distinctive ways, ways it is much easier to hear than to see. Some of these effects are achievable through silent reading, but the problem is that they rely on our own ability to voice the language and to hear our voices. Both of these tasks are far more difficult then we commonly imagine. Anyone who has ever been puzzled or embarrassed by hearing a recording of his or her own voice will know how little we actually listen to ourselves. We are also specifically taught not to sound out sentences when reading; we even regard the practice as a mark of an immature reader.

Of course listening does have its drawbacks, and it is certainly not possible to analyze a work fully without having access to the printed version, a fact that is as true of drama as it is ofother literature. Silent reading has its own advantages and facilitates different kinds of understanding. But to privilege reading over listening doesn't make sense. Why then is the attitude so prevalent? Partly, this is product of our educational system because reading is so important and also so difficult for many school age children. We encourage children to read for themselves as soon as they can, and the result is that listening sometimes becomes indelibly infantilized. Today, some adults are unable to listen to extended passages of prose without irritation and impatience. As audio books become more widely available, however, we have an opportunity to change some of these attitudes and reintegrate the oral experience of literature into the habits of mature readers. It may be too late for many adults, especially those who were read aloud to only as very young children. For the younger generation, however, we have an opportunity to make reading aloud a family activity extending into well into young adulthood.

Thinking about fallacies and bias

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this and McRaney’s sequel (You Are Now Less Dumb) because I’m teaching our advanced expository writing class this fall, and I am looking for entertaining and accessible ways of expanding my section on logical fallacies and on bias in argument. I found more than I was looking for because these two books are a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes and intriguing psychological studies all presented in a light way that can easily hook students into more serious discussion. There’s plenty of overlap between the various categories, and a fair amount of repetition, but that’s a natural part of any taxonomy of thought. Because of the repetition, I would not recommend reading these books cover-to-cover. They’re best appreciated in small snippets. In aggregate they can be fairly depressing, too. If you’re serious about psychology you may also be irritated by McRaney’s oversimplification and overgeneralization. Anyone who has paid even casual attention to psychology over the years will recognize that the studies McRaney mentions have been challenged and nuanced in many ways. Still, I think he’s done a great service by collecting all these delusions into one place and making them fun to read about. Fallacies and biases pervade public discourse, and our first and best defense against them is knowing they exist and having some idea about why.

View all my reviews

Table-top games and learning

card from phylo

Card from Phylo

Yesterday, Albion’s trendiest librarian, Megan O’Neill Kudzia, let me know that a series of table-top games I had suggested ordering had arrived as part of her Games For Learning project.  I am writing this post to lay out some ways I think such games might be useful for us as teachers.  The term “tabletop game” was coined to distinguish what used to be ordinary games from video or computer games. Table-top games can be board games, card games, or games played with just scratch paper and maybe some dice.  Using and even designing such games for a college class is a lot easier than using or designing computer and video games. And the games themselves can be useful in lots of ways.

  1. The game itself teaches our students.  This is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of games in the classroom, but it’s actually very rare to find a game that matches the learning outcomes of a particular class at the level of complexity appropriate for college. Among the games that arrived at the library yesterday, only Dominant Species might come close.
  2. Thinking about or modifying the game teaches our students.  There are many games that while they may themselves teach only fairly simple things are nonetheless based on complex and teachable concepts.  Asking students to think or write about how a game tries and/or fails to model reality can be a useful assignment. Asking them to modify a game to fit a slightly different setting can also force them to confront more complex concepts. For example, adapting a simple card game like Phylo to our local environment might help students think about biodiversity and the regional nature of ecosystems.
  3. The game mechanic can be re-used to teach specific concepts. Even if a game has absolutely nothing to do with one’s subject matter, it’s possible that what is often called the “game mechanic” (the set of rules and the elements of play) could serve as the basis for a game that you could design to teach your students. For example, I once robbed the game mechanic from 221B Baker St., a old Sherlock Holmes mystery game, to create a game set in sixteenth-century London and designed to teach some cultural history.
  4. The game can be a tool for service learning.  If a game teaches concepts but at a very rudimentary level, it could still be useful as a tool for our students if they are bringing their subject matter into local elementary schools.

Challenge-based learning: reflections on the chariot project

I’m going to use this post to reflect on the surprises I faced while trying a new kind of teaching for me: challenge-based learning. This fall I used generous FDC funds from the Ferguson family to create a challenge-based learning project in my first-year seminar, Equus: The Horse in Western Culture. Students in the class collaborated on the research, design, construction, and (experimental) driving of a Bronze Age chariot. The many interdisciplinary and collaborative tasks required were intended to present a variety of opportunities to meet the normal learning outcomes for the class while also promoting engagement and retention.

By lots of measures, the project was a success. The class actually did complete and test a real chariot; the challenges they faced at every stage were instructive; their academic assignments were completely integrated with the project. Two specific measures suggest that the challenge project achieved its additional goal of promoting student engagement and academic persistence: attendance was higher by far in this class than in any other first-year seminar I’ve taught (97% vs. an average of 89%), and retention was also higher than average (100% so far). I was also pleasantly surprised by the excitement the project generated outside the class, in parents and community members.

On the other hand, the project was also my trial-by-fire introduction to the pedagogy of challenge-based and project-based learning. I learned a lot more about what needs to happen with these kinds of projects and how I can improve them in the future.

I knew the project would take a lot of time, both from the students and from me and my helpers, but I had not realized the full consequences of this time for the pedagogy of the class. As I foresaw, I had to do a lot of background work, trying out things, buying materials, and making sure that the whole project was on track. First-year seminars do typically demand more time than other classes, and we can all compensate by simply devoting more time out of our day, but there comes a point at which time spent on one task inevitably takes away from others. My normal response to any time crunch is to delay feedback on assignments, but in this case that meant that some of the assignments I had wanted to give got delayed or altered, and I was not able to scaffold each task so as to build toward increasing mastery. Also, because the whole class was invested in the project, I worried constantly about whether things were going to finish on time and to work out. Everything we were doing was completely new to all of us, so there was little to be relied on. When it came to anything beyond the lab sessions here at Albion, coordinating the schedules of the distant experts (our saddler and our driver) with multiple students was also difficult. These details tended to distract me from coordinating the pedagogy properly, but they are also a necessary part of any challenge that is as new to the instructor as to the students. As a result I think it’s important to build an extremely flexible system of assignments around a project.

Another thing that should not have surprised me but did were the serious limits to students’ ability to participate in the building itself. I had scheduled a separate “lab” time on Monday evenings, which made it possible to command the regular attention of students, but planning the labs was a distinct challenge. My expert helpers had begun with the safety rule that students should not use power tools; in fact we were challenged at every level of the project to find meaningful work that would engage all of the students throughout all of the labs. Inevitably, a handful of students would find themselves with not so much to do by the second half of the lab. A few students managed to occupy themselves simply by observing what was happening and doing what needed to be done by their team, but most needed more explicit instructions and encouragement. The further we got into the project the more I realized that half of all planning was not about what steps we needed to take next but how to make sure that all students had jobs at every stage. I made some attempts to include such project planning into the pedagogy of the class, but I quickly realized that teaching what design actually means and how to implement a project is itself a large content area and one I hadn’t made space for in the class. I also have some doubts about how much can be achieved along these lines by first-year students who are still getting to know each other and figuring out how to work at the college level. I’ve realized that I need to give much more pedagogical attention to the design and planning process, and I need to be much more explicit with students about what they are not achieving and how those gaps are being filled in by me and by the experts helping them. Even given the drawbacks with this type of learning, however, there are also significant benefits to students’ development as learners. Ideally students can begin to learn how to approach challenging projects (even those with goals that seem unachievable) and gain confidence in their own ability, something they don’t get when their experiences are all pre-planned. It was gratifying to watch my students’ incredulity and doubt turn into excitement as we accomplished what seemed impossible to them.

Finally, the project drew my attention to something I continually struggle with in teaching: the need to remind students of what they are learning both during and after the learning process. A project, especially one that involves inherently non-academic things like cutting, sanding, and sewing makes this need more acute. Fortunately, I had students who were comfortable enough to ask “Wait, what are we learning here?” giving me the chance to explain what seemed to me blindingly obvious, like the fact that the technical difficulties we encountered demonstrated that large scale chariot production would have required an enormous investment of human resources and technical knowledge and that the appearance of a particular technology, in this case derived from the domestication of the horse, can thus be both symptom and cause of larger social and civil developments. I also found myself explaining the way that the project helped develop their abilities in written and oral communication and collaboration. By the end of term I was able to do things such as having them discover that their chariot wheels exactly matched the gauge of the railroad running behind Olin: an opportunity for a discussion on the way that technological decisions can have long lasting consequences. In this case elements like the domestication of the horse, the need for at least two passengers in a vehicle (driver and warrior), and the design limits of wood and rawhide helped determine a “natural” size that persists in a technology that no longer has such limits or needs. Like experiential learning, project-based learning calls attention to the connection between the learning goals and the work students are doing. I learned not to neglect this connection. Ultimately we should be able to use it to let students reflect on their own learning process.

As is usual in teaching, a lot of the things I discovered in the course of this experiment seem to be obvious now. Yet the wonderful aspect of this experience was that all of the difficulties and challenges were not things I should have avoided or eliminated but potentially exciting and productive learning opportunities in their own right. The “challenge” in challenge-based learning turns out to be as much to the teacher as it is to the students.

Acknowledgments: I am extremely grateful to my expert helpers who contributed their and energy to the project. It would not have succeeded without them: Jeff Carrier, Jim Whitehouse, Doug White, and Renna Van Dooren. In addition, this work was supported by a grant from the Ferguson family and the HewlettMellon Fund for Faculty Development at Albion College, Albion. MI.

Creating a culture of learning

I had a sad moment when the students in my upper-level Elizabeth literature class whom I had taught in Greek & Roman literature last spring all failed to spot an allusion to Catullus’ famous kissing poem (“Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque Amemus”). On a lark, I asked students  whether they would like to be asked questions in one class that drew on material they (should have) learned in other English classes (these are mostly majors). I thought the idea would be greeted with horror, but most seemed quite positive, saying that this would ensure they “actually learned something” (Gosh, doesn’t that make me feel good!).  Many commented that they forget quickly what they learn in one class unless they’re using it directly in another. Actually implementing cross-curricular responsibility like this is feasible, but it requires technology if it isn’t to prove unwieldy.  I’ll have to think more about it.

generation gap

I took my students to see Dan Okrent’s talk on the death of the book at the University of Michigan yesterday. Okrent’s claim, that we should celebrate the possibilities of the e-book rather than lament the end of the book, was fairly simply and straightforward. What was more interesting were the follow-up questions. The room was dominated by some fairly elderly folks, all of whom were eager to ask questions.  Most of them were plaintive. “Will we have no more first editions?” one woman asked. “How will we know an author is special?” My students, and the other younger audience members, were upset. One asked her neighbor, “Do you have to be over 45 to ask a question?” Afterwards there was a lot of grumbling about older people. Okrent had commented on a school in Ghana that used Kindles to the apparent delight of the children. One my students said that in her experience in an African school, tribal leaders resisted technology.  “More old people,” someone muttered. It’s rare these days to encounter the generation gap as anything more than a opportunity for charming jokes.  But there was real frustration in the younger members of this audience, all of whom were the writers of the future. They wanted to talk about information in the marketplace, about readership, about jobs. And they weren’t pleased.