Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Let it go

It's the last day of final exams, and students are trickling in to say their "farewells" and their "see ya next years." Some are saying yet more long-lasting goodbyes, graduation soon to take them far away.

An hour or so ago three of our more outgoing Honors students came by to bid adieu to Queshia and me. They sat in the Honors office and we talked for about twenty minutes. Much of our conversation centered on the idea of letting go...or not: end-of-semester goodbyes, helicopter parenting, and relationships that have run their course.

"Kids these days," I began, noting that I'd once sworn up and down that I'd never say those words, "don't have the freedom we had when I was young. As long as my parents knew roughly where I was, we were free to roam about the town, with little worry what we'd get into." Now, of course, parents hover overhead. They call the program on their kids' behalves, inquiring about requirements and expectations and perks. They ask after every detail of their kids' academic lives. They have to learn to let go.

We all have to learn to do this, and it's not an easy thing to do.

As I wrote in a recent post, my life lately has been filled with loved ones lost. One of my closest friends lost her mother, suddenly, and not two weeks later another friend, just as suddenly, lost her father. In the skinny interstice between these deaths two other, yet younger, friends of friends passed away, and in the time since my friend's father's death I've heard several talk of losing parents, friends, and pets. It's gotten overwhelming, and, as I hinted in that same post above, I can't say that I've handled it well.

Why not? One reason, I think, is that I've been lucky enough to not have lost many people truly close to me. I've made it through 38 years without losing a particularly close friend or family member. I seem to be blessed with a particularly healthy set of childhood friends, and my friends from college are no less hearty and robust. And my mom and dad both up and moved far, far away from their respective families when they were young, so I grew up hell and gone from my extended families. This meant that I hardly knew any of the grandparents and other more distant relatives I've lost, having only seen them for a few days at a time once every other year or so, and then only when I was very young. We simply weren't close.

I don't mean to sound unfeeling or callous or cold: this is just the way it is. I've never had to deal directly with death; I'm as yet unfamiliar with its effects on me. What's more, I still don't feel as though I'm dealing with it directly, even now, but really only through others, and thus I'm not so much dealing with death as I am dealing with the effects that death has on my relationships with those dealing with death directly. Therefore my experience is a mediated one and, because it centers on others' relationships with me, it's an experience I thought at first was necessarily selfish.

But does it have to be selfish? On reflection, I think not.

When tragedy strikes our friends, we can choose to remove ourselves and feel their pain only through the effects it has on the relationships we share with those friends. We see the tragedy strike, but we don't feel it immediately. We shelter ourselves. We may offer our support, but that support is academic, it's detached and distant.

I fear that this is the kind of support I've been offering to my friends in their recent mourning. I've baked a few dozen cookies and a couple loaves of bread, I've offered the expected words of solace and succor, and I've offered a hand with transportation and child care, if needed. But I've not really been present for the pain. I've spent more time focusing on the way in which the various tragedies affect me, as mediated through my friends' pain in turn.

I need to learn to let go.

I need to learn to let go of my own pain, to feel it, but also to let it pass so that in its place I can place a picture of the pain my friends may be going through as they deal with their loss.

Further, I need to learn to let go of  my self, if only for a little while, to see beyond my self and my immediate relationships with my friends, to see instead to my friends' relationships with the loved ones they've lost.

Finally, I need to learn to let go of those very relationships, or at least my static conceptions of those relationships, and to accept that tragedy brings great waves of change and that once those waves have passed the relationships they've left behind might look very different than they did just days before.

To anyone to whom I've not been able to offer the succor or support you've needed from me, I apologize. I've not before dealt with death so directly, and I'm only now learning my own authentic reactions to it. I'm a work in progress, and that progress may be slow at times, but I promise you that it's there.

Thank you for understanding.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

We are family

I'm now three semesters into my stint as Honors Program director, and I think I'm starting to get the hang of the gig. I've learned the ropes well enough to feel confident tweaking things here, cinching it up there, and making many many midcourse adjustments. Give me another term or two and I'm gonna feel ready to make some bigger changes.

Like what? I've had a number of conversations with one of my closest colleagues about ways in which the Honors Program could be made to cater more to students who demonstrate exceptional intellect and motivation via measures other than standardized test scores and high achievement in courses (like AP classes) ultimately driven by rote examination. I don't want to go too far too fast, but my colleague and I brainstormed ways we could modify both the admission process to the program and the requirements for graduation with Distinction as a University Scholar in order to encourage less the grinds, grade-grubbers, and résumé-builders (many of whom either drop from the program before completing Distinction requirements or simply take a path of least resistance, relying on courses they know won't really challenge them) and more the risk-takers, visionaries, and authentic learners (many of whom are ineligible for the program as it's currently constructed because their risk-taking and earnest focus on real learning has led them to lower performance by quantitative measures).

How might we do this? Disallow membership in the program for first-year (or at least first-semester) students, requiring all interested students to opt in to the program (and not simply be placed there) after having spent some time at the university. Admittance criteria would be more holistic and not so focused on classroom performance. The program's curricular offerings would be more intentionally integrative and dovetail with substantial extra- and co-curricular activities and programming. Students would be asked to complete a sort of Honors thesis at the end of their involvement in the program. Most important, Honors students would be asked to interact in a meaningful fashion with students who are not members of the program. Of what this interaction would consist...I don't know. All I know now is that both I and my partner in crime in this revisioning exercise believe that the Honors Program offers a troubling equity issue, providing real resources to the most academically gifted of students, the ones who are less likely to need those resources in order to succeed in their college careers, while their less-academically-gifted peers make do without such assistance.

Excellence without elitism: how do we realize this vision? One way might be to take the tack we've slowly been turning to over the last couple of terms, emphasizing not the Honors Program's academic offerings but instead its sense of community. I truly believe we've done far more to support Honors students' success during the past year through Honors yoga sessions, Reading-Day snacks, "Good Books" reading groups, and Honors trivia nights than we have through sending a small handful of Honors students to statewide, regional, and national conferences.

My university (like every other in the country) is struggling with recruitment and retention, and I truly believe the community-building we're trying to do in the Honors Program is an unbeatable means of achieving those two related goals. Nothing beats the inestimable and intangible benefit of bringing the students together in the Laurel Forum, introducing those with like interests and aims, giving them access to one another's support. They'll stick around, and they'll not regret a minute of it. And when their younger peers come to visit the school they'll talk the program up into the stratosphere (I've heard them do it).

So, expect to see more community-building as the program looks to the future. And if you've got any ideas for ways we can do this (jigsaw puzzles? Brew-offs? Iron-Chef-like cooking competitions?), please let me know.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Yesterday Nelson Mandela died, and the world lost one of its greatest ever agents of peace. Meanwhile, more locally, during the past few weeks several people very close to me have dealt with the deaths of too many loved ones to count: a father, a mother, and so, so many friends (one covered with once-soft black fur). It's been a very rough month, and I don't believe I've handled it as well as I might have. I don't think I've been as present as I could have been; I think I've been too self-absorbed. I've been sleepwalking, but I feel as though I'm coming awake.

Yesterday my HON 479 students put on their long-awaited workshop on diversity, inclusion, and equity, focusing on the ways in which these manifest in religion, race, and gender. They worked with a small audience comprising about ten faculty and staff and a couple of their fellow students. The group was small, but it was engaged. The conversations we had were rich, heartfelt, authentic. The event was enlightening, meaningful, and moving. Working with wonderful visuals (Like the Cooper Center's "Racial Dot Map" and It's Pronounced Metrosexual's "Genderbread Person v. 2.0") and excellent activities ("The Cold Wind Blows," religious insensitivity role-plays, and a few rounds of reflective writing on our own gender and racial identities), the students' workshop was substantially better than the awful diversity and inclusion workshop I took part in earlier this year.

At some point late in yesterday's workshop's proceedings, while one of my students was talking about her intellectual journey as a devout Christian completing an academic degree in religious studies, I had a sudden feeling of self-awareness. It was a feeling of being and becoming all at once. It was also a feeling of oneness, of unity with the people I'd just shared the past two hours with. Though our group was small, we represented several races and ethnicities, several religious traditions, several gender and sexual identities. We offered a substantial cross-section of our society, and we were having civil...nay, collegial, even cordial...conversation on some of the most difficult topics for anyone to talk about.

On the way home from campus, NPR told me that Mandela had died, and I teared up in the car. I thought of South Africa's Madiba, and his friends and colleagues in struggle. I thought in particular of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for whom I have more respect than nearly anyone else. In his incredible book No Future Without Forgiveness Tutu speaks of the concept of ubuntu, a Bantu term referring to our human interconnectedness, which Mandela once described as follows:

"A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"

In the short time I had before I had to leave again to meet with my writing group I sliced onions for the simple meal of lentils and rice I would make when I came home again, and I read the first lines of the end-of-semester reflection one of my HON 479 students had handed to me just before helping to host that afternoon's workshop. "Dear Patrick, I hope you don't find this format too informal," it begins. "I tailored my response with you in mind, so I thought I might address you directly." In tandem with her humble letter (which brought me to tears by the time I was done reading it) was a hand-made jigsaw puzzle the student had crafted.

I had no time to assemble more than the frame of the puzzle before leaving, but completing the puzzle was the second thing (after starting dinner) I did on my return home.

"You may start to notice (or maybe you have finished) that the puzzle is a tree. I chose a tree because I think it represents various aspects of the IHAD program."

"Now, I'm sorry to deprive you of the satisfaction of putting that last piece in the puzzle, but I did not lose it and neither did you. How frustrating is it to complete a process yet still feel as though you are missing something?...Thank you for going through this puzzling process with me today."

I've recently taken to origami, more seriously than my halfhearted efforts in the past. I am struck in particular by the beauty and meaning of the kusudama, or "medicine ball," a form that's meant to ward off evil and encourage health and strength. I made a kusudama a week ago for a grieving loved one, and I'm making more now, for friends, for family, for people I love. I fear I'll never stop, for right now I feel a sort of universal love which I hope I'll never lose.

It's a new day. As this day begins, please take a moment to love yourself, to love each other, to find peace and joy in all that you do. Enjoy being, but keep becoming.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It can happen here...and likely has...

My HON 479 class is wrapping up the semester by considering the phenomenon of urban renewal, an innocuous-sounding phrase the belies its horrific consequences, as detailed in Mindy Thompson Fullilove's book Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it.

After realizing that I know next to nothing about how urban renewal affected my own hometown, I resorted to a little online sleuthery and discovered that Helena, Montana was the site of a late '60s/early '70s urban renewal project that fell under LBJ's Model Cities Program. Under Helena's Model Cities renewal, 430 families were displaced from over 200 homes in the South Main area of the city. (These data are drawn from Kennon Baird's website Helena As She Was.)

Considering Helena's population in 1970 was 22,730, we're talking perhaps 7.6% of the city's people removed from their homes. (I've taking an average family size of 4 here; with an average family size of 3 we still have 5.7% displacement.) I've started trying to track down demographic information broken down by race but so far to no avail.

One of my students pulled up the Cooper Center's Racial Dot Map, an excellent data visualization tool that enabled us to see at a glance just how racially segregated most cities in American actually are.

I'm more and more eagerly looking forward to my HON 479 students' workshop on diversity, inclusion, and related topics, coming up in a couple of weeks...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Being with

I had a hard night last night, and with very little sleep it carried over into an equally-hard morning.

I stumbled onto campus with eyes blurred from lack of sleep and too many tears. After I'd silently taken care of business for a half hour, the Honors Program assistant, Queshia, asked in a very clipped but still-kind tone, "how are you?"

"Not good."

"I can tell."

I pulled it together, and managed to craft what I think is a solid reading response prompt for my 479ers, who are currently reading Robert Moses's Radical equations. I even ended up having a great meeting with the first of my undergraduate research students (progress! Anyone know about the distribution of differences k - l, where kl = a2?). Then I headed off to 479, feeling totally unprepared, a naked charlatan.

I asked the students for updates on their I Have A Dream experiences and visits to HON 179 classes. Oksana spoke to the latter request, talking about her Wednesday visit to my colleague Samuel's 'Sabbath World" class. Samuel is a practitioner (and a very able one) of contemplative practices in pedagogy, and he began the class Oksana attended with a moment of silent meditation, later asking students to reflect on the saying "Remember to stop, to stop remembering." Some students took this as a reminder to pause now and then and reflect on what's going on in our lives, and others as a reminder that we are continually surrounded with our own and others' pasts.

I then took a moment to confess to the students how underprepared I felt, how I had given serious thought to cancelling class, how I didn't feel up to the task of leading discussion. But, I told them, I then told myself that instead of obscuring where I am and what I bring with me, I should come to them unafraid of being who I was in that place and time. "I need to trust in the community that we've built together here," I said, reflecting on hooks. "I need to recognize that being an authentic member of a healthy community often involves, among other things, being honest about who we are and what we bring to each other. I need to let myself be with you all. I need to trust that this is okay."

I was quietly crying by the end, and I thanked my students for giving me a chance to be with them.

I asked if anyone wanted to follow up on this. One student thanked me for my honesty; a second gave me props: "if I were having the day it sounds like you're having, I would have stayed at home and played with my dog for several hours." At this joke the mood grew cheerier, and we talked a bit more about community in general, and the community of the classroom in particular.

At the end, Sallie, whom I've come to know as one of the class's boldest students (despite her calm and quiet voice), got in the last word. "I feel like you're always here for us," she said, "is there anything we can do for you?"

"Besides not make me start crying again?" I joked, fresh tears welling up. "I don't think so," I said, "other than to just be with me today."

We then took a turn toward normalcy, discussing mass-media portrayals of non-white-male figures and challenges to hooks's idea of "radical openness." I settled in. I felt safe. By the end of class, as we concluded our opening discussion of Radical equations, the first minutes of class had been left behind.

My thanks go to my HON 479 students, a community of some of the kindest, smartest, more courageous students I've ever had a chance to work with. I feel blessed to get to learn with you.

P.S. -- it's turned out to be a pretty good day in the end!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Build me up

Today the focus in 479 was on bell hook's Teaching Community, the current read. Three students delivered presentations relating the reading to some aspect of their lives; one spoke on the portrayal of American Indians in film and another gave a crash course on feminism while their friend talked about the ways in which community theater can help to build a democratic community. In her follow-up discussion, this last student led the class in a round of communal singing (The Foundations' "Build Me Up, Buttercup"), citing studies showing the sense of community such a simple act can help to build.

Liberal arts education, folks. Isn't it awesome?

One of the HON 179 students visiting the classroom (today was the last class meeting for which I've got such students signed up! sadness...) asked "so, why exactly does bell hooks not capitalize her name?" My students posited several potential answers, most of which came back to one core hypothesis: she's making an intentional move to diminish her authoritarian status. "There are a lot of professors who are really laid back and don't go by 'Dr.' or 'Professor,'" one student remarked.

Yet still there are those who are keenly interested in maintaining a remarkable distance between their students and themselves. I dealt with several such colleagues last week when I took part in a round-table discussion on career opportunities for students in the traditional "humanities" fields. Of the eight panelists, I was the only one from outside of such a field, and four were first- or second-year faculty, fresh out of grad school and a few of them still very clearly vested in making sure their students knew just how smart they (the faculty) are.

After twenty minutes of hearing my colleagues pontificate about how graduate school is the most arduous and intellectually challenging undertaking and how only the most intelligent, the most assiduous, the most dedicated, devoted, and perspicacious survive (the unsaid unsaid: those of us on the panel are not only survivors but thrivers), I had had enough and I finally spoke up. "You know, grad school is hard and it will challenge you," I said, "but honestly I had a ton of fun and enjoyed it immensely. It was a rich time of my life, socially as well as academically. It's not all hard work."

In the end, you have a choice. What'll it be?: build a better community and live in it, or build a taller tower and live above it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

479 matters

A question that's been on my mind lately is the following: To what extent do highly idiosyncratic and personal characteristics like charisma, energy, etc. play a role in a teacher's success as a teacher?

This past week I had the dubious distinction of being called to another institution to serve as an external reviewer for a case before that school's post-tenure review committee. Over the course of three days I observed one faculty member's teaching in his several classes and crafted a report detailing his strengths and weaknesses and offering ways he can improve his teaching.

It seems to me that one of the biggest difficulties he was having was in connecting with his students. While to me his concern for his students and their learning is genuine and strong, and while his teaching philosophy is a sound one that's proven effective when implemented well, he struggles to bridge the gap between his students and him. I think that gap is made more wide by the fact that he's simply a naturally quiet person, not prone to public displays of passion.

It's never a bad thing to show passion and excitement for what one does, particularly when one is trying to motivate those who might lack intrinsic motivation for whatever it is they're supposed to be doing...but does this make public and prominent passion a sine qua non of good teaching? I wonder...I'd love to hear folks' take on this.

What else is on my mind?

I've spent some time this semester working on ways to encourage conversation in classes built upon discussion. Given my relative lack of experience in managing such classes, I've asked my students for feedback: what works for them? The other day my HON 479 students hinted (in class and in their reading responses on the nature of a democratic classroom) that they might like to see greater variety in the means we use to structure conversation in class. I therefore put it to them today to offer alternatives to the structure I've used regularly during the semester so far, which generally includes
  1. a brief opportunity for individual reflection (often driven by low-stakes writing),
  2. a chance to share ideas in small groups (to offer all a chance to share, and to minimize the difficulty of speaking in front of a large group),
  3. a brief "reporting out" by sharing ideas on the board and/or by assigning spokespersons to brief the whole class on the small groups' thoughts, all followed by
  4. a reconvening of the whole class as a plenary body.
Though this has worked well, a little variety never hurt anybody. The students offered that they liked the chance to write on the board as ideas came to them, and they liked the idea of small groups but they wanted each group to be tasked with a particular theme to talk about. After a small-group conversation, the groups would be rearranged and reformed, some folks staying behind from the first round to kickstart the conversation in the second round. At the end we would reconvene as a large group, continue discussion, and finally conclude with an opportunity for everyone to go around the circle and share one idea with the class as a whole.

As far as I can tell, it worked very well (HON 479 folks, feel free to chime in in the comments if you disagree). We ended up generating a mess of questions we would like to pose to Cornel West when he visits our campus in a few weeks. (He was supposed to visit tomorrow, but his travel's been delayed by a family emergency.)

Namely, when asked what one question the students would ask of Cornel West, I received the following responses:
  • Do you believe that our international politics have changed for the better under Obama, aside from the obvious benefits of improving the image of America internationally, as we don't seem like a bunch of hick hillbillies as we looked under the Bush administration?
  • Would you prefer to live in another country?
  • Is there a way to reduce the hostility surrounding political issues that prevents people from entering into dialogue?
  • What role could spirituality play in democracy, if any?
  • How can we combat the apathy present in our "democracy"? Is the idea of democracy still relevant when so many people are apathetic or uneducated?
  • How do we get (back) to America as a "cultural democracy" then we're so entrenched in the political mechanics of democracy?
  • At the end of the first chapter [of Democracy matters], you advocate the need for another democratic awakening. What do you think that should look like for this generation? What do you think are the ideal circumstances to make us stand up?
  • Would we know/understand global issues/views if our media did not control the input we receive, assuming the media is controlling? Would we care if we heard/were exposed to the truth?
  • How do we move beyond political partisanship and polarization?
  • What, in your opinion, is the single biggest, specific, practical way to improve America's democracy?
  • How would you explain the political apathy of our (new/upcoming) generation, and how can we begin to combat this suppressing force?
  • How can we reasonably overcome the apathy obstructing democracy?
  • What can we do to make people feel as though they have the individual power to change things in our society?
  • Who do you see as responsible for our current government issues and why?
  • [What do you believe] the future of politics is? More parties? Different system? Is any system better?
Whew! The students have enjoyed reading Democracy matters; I only assigned the first chapter, since I was only informed of Cornel West's visit long after the syllabus had been set and the readings chosen. They recommended that it be substituted in for one of the other texts the next time this class is taught, and I believe I'll take them up on that. This makes four texts I'd like to add in, requiring me to take a few out. I'm thinking that next term the following might be the line-up, including three holdovers from this term and four new ones subbed in:
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism
  • Michelle Alexander's The new Jim Crow
  • Cornel West's Democracy matters
  • Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the oppressed
  • Allan G. Johnson's Privilege, power, and difference
  • Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi's Food justice
  • Mindy Thompson Fullilove's Root shock
Not necessarily in that order. If you have other suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them, in the comments section.

One more question, about which I hope to write in a post of its own soon: to what extent do academics measure professional success by their ability to replicate themselves in their students? Subquestion: is this measure (and the things faculty do to succeed by it) really unhealthy or really fucking unhealthy? Discuss.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Problematizing Honors, or, Thirteen questions

I’m finding it harder and harder to defend what I do. I want to be an agent of change, and not simply a caretaker of the status quo.

What is the Honors Program now? Is it now just a vehicle for perpetuating inequity, reinforcing hegemony, keeping the academic elite (those students who have best learned how to play the “school” game) ensconced in existential safety? Or is it now an opportunity to offer a way out of inequity and hegemony, a place where doctrinaire views can be dissected, interrogated, and challenged?

What can the Honors Program be? How can I do the work to further make it a place where the privileged students who find themselves there encounter a place where their safety and surety, their privileged positions, are challenged?

Is this the best that can come from it? Can it be more still?

While walking together the other day a close friend of mine suggested that I should use my position to dismantle the program from within, to work to replace it with a more equitable support structure, one which offers resources and opportunities to those students who are more marginalized, more vulnerable, less acquainted with the patriarchalist assumptions of a mainstream university education. Such an institution would be something more than a learning resources center, more than an agglomeration of math labs and writing centers. It would be an institution devoted to advocacy for change and not simply to helping students cope with the status quo.

What would I even call such a structure? Where would it be housed? How would the university react to it? What would its charge be? Its day-to-day functions? Is there a precedent for such an entity?

To be continued, no doubt...

Thursday, October 03, 2013

hooks, Ward, and Ladson-Billings

How do you feel about bell hooks's Teaching community?

With hooks's ideas in mind, my students would have made quick work of unspoken assumptions our campus guest Lee Ward (coauthor of First-generation college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement) made during his presentation to faculty and staff which I attended over lunch just now. "They don't come to us with less cultural capital," he insisted, and I agree, "they just come with different cultural capital." Again, I agree. "No one is deficient in cultural capital." Uh huh. "But they will need our help in developing the capital that will help them to succeed in college."



...maybe we could instead reexamine the hegemonic assumptions (the, as hooks would have it, imperialist white-supremacist nationalist capitalist patriarchal assumptions) we have made that make college such a daunting experience for these folks? Might we try to overcome our institutional inertia, the academic conservatism that keeps us from making a more inclusive, less restrictive and prescriptive, radically open higher educational experience that helps students to feel like they matter by not so explicitly undervaluing the cultural capital they come to us with? For all of its faults (and I think there are a few), I must appreciate Gloria Ladson-Billings's emphasis on culturally-relevant teaching. (See The dreamkeepers, the last book my students read for HON 479. For the record, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with culturally-relevant teaching; I just think that Ladson-Billings tends to mislabel pedagogical practices, calling "culturally-relevant" teaching practices that are simply salutary for other reasons...take inquiry-based learning, for example.)

To be continued, no doubt.

Monday, September 23, 2013

I just flew in from Laredo, and boy...

Highlights from the past week or so (craziness)...

Last Monday through Wednesday I attended the 10th annual fall meeting of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators at Wildacres. It was my 7th (!) such meeting. I'm getting old. We hosted Doug Hesse, fantastic scholar and teacher of writing and all-around good guy. He led us in a morning of low-stakes reflective writing activities challenging us to rediscover the personal in our professional writing. It was refreshing and calming and fun...fun enough for a few of us (including me) to give up our afternoon speaking slots to free up more time for writing and reflecting.

Who wants to hear me natter on about the effect of LaTeX use on math students' writing rhythms, anyway?

I was then back home (well, in Asheville, anyway) for about 48 hours before leaving town again, but not before helping to host the Honors Program's first world café, an event attended by 66 of our 80 first-year Honors students. Students had conversations about questions we'd designed to elicit thoughtful responses ("What events have shaped your life? Your parents' lives? What events will shape your children's lives?" "What defines community?"). After considering these questions the students were asked to generate questions of their own for other groups to answer...and then we asked them to do it again, leaving each others' company after the final round of student-generated questions were asked.

Late the next morning I left for Texas. I spent a day and a half in Laredo running a workshop on writing in the STEM disciplines at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU). I'd done a similar workshop at TAMIU almost exactly a year before though last year's group was a bunch of middle-school and high-school math educators and this year I worked mostly with TAMIU faculty, with a few Laredo Community College folks thrown in for good measure. I have to say that I'm thoroughly impressed: both workshops were among the most engaged and engaging I've ever led. This last group in particular was stellar, 24 people clearly dedicated to learning more about authentic disciplinary writing. I was particularly excited to speak with Quinaria, a writing instructor who serves the university as one of their first-year experience (FYE) coordinators. Their FYE courses are tied to introductory-level disciplinary courses (like Calc I and General Chemistry), each of which is housed in a designated first-year learning community. There are some course-to-course articulation issues, but it seems like they're dedicated to making their system work. It can't be any crazier than out 179 system.

Back at home for a couple of weeks now. Two weeks from this past Saturday I head up the mountain to Boone for the NC Honors Association conference where my colleague Samuel joins me in speaking about our 179/479 crossover. Samuel and I each have a student presenting, too. I'm excited to see how well my student's talk goes over; Fawn will be speaking about her final project from Oulipo back in the spring, for which she crafted randomly-generated dictionary entries in an effort to satirize the most lofty lexicon ever written. After that it's back to Laredo for a few days, and then to Wilmington for this year's NC English Teachers Association conference...

...always more in store!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thank you

It's been a good week, and as the week winds down I want to pause, to reflect gratefully.

Thank you, Irene and Iphigenia, the Honors students who volunteered to person the registration table for today's Teaching About India conference, held all day in the Laurel Forum, just next door to my office.

Thank you, Oswaldo, Frederica, Kent, and all my other Linear I students who grapple tirelessly with the crazy conceptual problems I pose them with week after week, patiently accepting my feedback on their imperfect algebra and rambling grammar as they labor to ensure that each draft is better than the last.

Thank you, Lula, my 479 student who spent several minutes this morning talking with me about the problematic nature of the Honors Program: how do we countenance such expenditure of financial and human resources on students who, honestly, don't need the extra assistance to excel while many more of their peers could use all the academic help they can get just to pass? The program is a walking, talking equity issue, a logical extension of the same K-12 "tracking" systems my 479 students just yesterday derided as iniquitous and unfair.

How do I sleep at night? I overcame white guilt years ago; I think I'm still working through my issues with other forms of power and privilege.

Last, but certainly not least, thank you to Queshia, my wise and warm and indefatigable program assistant. Her able handling of administrative nonsense, her unending supply of good ideas, and her tactful dealings with students expressing every need imaginable all make my job a helluva lot easier. I can't imagine a better right-hand person.

Now. Let's make next week a good one too, huh?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shattered mirror

Today's HON 479 discussion was the liveliest yet, with most students having strong, often visibly visceral reactions both to the inequities Kozol describes in The shame of the nation and to the assertion of Allison Benedikt that folks who send their kids to private schools are evil. (In her piece, a soi-disant manifesto, Benedikt offers a rather extremist take on the moral and ethical obligations we have to support our public school systems.)

Time was of the essence. I had a list ten students long of folks who wanted their turn to say a few words, generally in response to one another. "I wanted to echo something so-and-so said..." and "I have to disagree with so-and-so..." were common phrases. A healthy academic conversation is, in part, one in which the students engaged in the conversation respond authentically to each other and not to the perceived authority figure (i.e., the teacher). I could have left the room to no ill effect. Much of what I'd hoped would come up came up, anyway, including connections between not just Kozol and Appiah (cosmopolitan conversations, if only with kids from across town, breed healthy familiarity and better democracy) but also between Appiah and Benedikt (ought to have oughts, but we ought not let our oughts overwhelm our own self-interest).

I also continue to be impressed with the students' civility, respect, and supportiveness. In class today there was disagreement aplenty, but never any friction. The culture of the classroom was friendly enough to encourage a couple of the visiting HON 179 students to chime in with their views as well. These HON 179/479 exchanges are working wonders. The 479 students are enjoying their visits to the various 179 courses, and the 179ers are often contributing meaningfully to the discussions we have in 479.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to reading the 479ers' responses to Benedikt. I'll likely ask students for permission to excerpt their work on this blog.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Considering Kozol

On Thursday my HON 479 students began discussing Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation, a book I first read in conjunction with Kozol's visit to UNC Asheville back in 2006. A scathing indictment of America's apartheid-like public school system, Kozol advocates for dramatic changes in the form, function, and funding of our public schools.

Our discussion on the book was far-reaching and often diffuse, motivated by students' reflection on their own elementary school experiences. With the hope of identifying some more coherent topics for conversation this coming Tuesday, I asked students to submit a topic on which they'd like to see our discussion focus tomorrow. Below are the responses I received.

I would like to talk more about the importance of teaching things in schools that are not as academic and intellectual (art, music, dance, etc.) and why this is important in every school.

whether or not the government is obligated to implement policies that promote equity or just to avoid implementing policies that deter equity.

Who is responsible/accountable for changing and integrating the public school system?

Kozol puts the blame on gov't, teachers and administrators. Are kids/parents to blame?

Ideas on how to fix the problem.

I would like to hear about how racial diversity affects edu.

White privilege.

The issue concerning the national level. What we could do as a whole?

Private funding in rural vs. urban/city areas and how it would/does differentiate

Idea of the tracks that [one of the other students in class] brought up that he [Kozol] hinted at regarding management positions.

The influence of corporate culture on education and what it does to childen

Obviously, the situation for students in these schools is grim, but what about the teachers? Is there anything they can do?

"No Child Left Behind"


The industrialization of schools and schools as job training

What can we (as college students, not as government officials or parents) do to change this for the better?

standardize testing / use of Skinner's theory

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Not a private inquiry

My MATH 365 (Linear Algebra I) course this term has been designated "Inquiry ARC," the "ARC" standing for "Apply, Reflect, Communicate." "Inquiry ARC" is the theme of the university's Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a component of our reaffirmation of accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Alphabet soup.

Briefly, every ten years, as a condition of keeping our accreditation, we're asked, as a campus, to formulate a plan for enhancing student learning. This time around we came up with "developing critical thinking," roughly, manifested in the Inquiry ARC program. For the past few semesters we've begun running Inquiry ARC courses, courses which focus intentionally on developing skills relating to one or more steps in the Inquiry ARC process. Last spring, once I knew what I'd be teaching this year, I thought, "what the hell, I'll apply for Inquiry ARC status for Linear I, since the way I teach the course, it's already an Inquiry ARC course." (Not-so-dirty little secret: as any teacher worth her or his salt will tell, you every class should be an Inquiry ARC course...it's just good teaching, folks.)

So far, so good. Communication is always front and center in my courses, given my focus on writing, and I've always been big on reflection. As I've written at length in this blog, I teach this course primarily through applications...and the inquiry? I'm really just going to be able to leave that up to the students.

On Wednesday we spent about 15 minutes on an example I'd meant to take 5, simply because the students kept asking fantastic questions about the example. "What if we changed the number in the last column?" "What would have to happen for us to have a unique solution?" "How does Mathematica know that it's an augmented matrix with three variables and not a matrix with four variables?" and so forth. Not I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-so-I'm-asking-simple-questions-trying-to-get-a-grip-on-this-shit questions, but I've-got-the-basic-operations-down-so-now-I'm-trying-to-take-it-apart-to-see-why-this-shit-works questions. Good stuff!

If they keep it up for the rest of the semester, I'm gonna be a happy man.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Six-word summaries of Appiah's Cosmopolitanism

In class on Thursday I asked my HON 479 students to close with a low-stakes writing exercise in which they summarized Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism in six words. This exercise is designed to encourage students to get to the meat (or vegetarian meat substitute) of the matter clearly and concisely.

The outcome? The students appear to have learned much from Appiah. They might, however, need help in learning to count.

Respect and do good amidst difference.

Respecting similarities and differences for peaceful coexisting

Understanding different values and being curious.

Global Citizenship requires fundamental change and understanding

Humans can learn from each other.

We can agree if we talk

Learn about others, respect their choices

get a liberal arts education, y'all.

Listen to others, don't be isolated.

Be an accepting, open-minded, thoughtful person/

convivencia, living in harmony as humans

modernity in thought action, no ambivalence

The path to coexistence is conversation.

positivism; cultural identity; imperialism; alternative; curiosity

Try your best to understand each other.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


This semester I'm trying out a new activity in the Honors Program, one which is already bearing tasty fruit. I'm asking every student enrolled in one of our five current sections of HON 179 (Honors first-year colloquia) to attend at least one meeting of my HON 479 class, and I'm asking each of my HON 479 students to attend at least one meeting of a section of HON 179.

There's really very little to it beyond this: though I've suggested that HON 179 faculty might ask visiting HON 479 students to give a little presentation, lead a discussion, or engage in some other activity, there's no requirement that faculty make such requests. And so far all I've asked of the HON 179 students that have visited my class is that they join in the small-group discussions in which they've been placed and to contribute to the plenary full-class discussion...if so moved to do either of these things...but more importantly, to observe the "culture" of the classroom, acting like anthropologists in a new social setting. Take a few notes: what's going on here?

This bringing together of the "bookends" serves a number of purposes. It gives the HON 179 students a chance to meet a few folks who've been around the block, more experienced students whom they can ask questions about the Honors Program, about the university, about anything they'd like. It gives the HON 179 students a taste of what an upper-level Honors course, a challenging course based on conversations about difficult readings, is all about. It gives the HON 479 students a chance to share the knowledge they've gained about the program, and a chance to get out of their "senior bubble," interacting with a new group of bright and motivated students. Most important of all, it helps all of the students to build a sense of community.

The feedback I've gotten so far has been fantastic. The HON 479 students have been effusively welcoming (they're a friendly and outgoing bunch), and the HON 179 students have been engaged and open to active participation. The feedback I've gotten from both groups of students has been positive. I think this is going to be a good thing, and it's helping me to feel better about the existence of the Honors Program than I've felt lately...but that's a topic for another post...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fare thee well

Today my HON 479 students had our group meeting over at the I Have a Dream Foundation's headquarters in Asheville, one end of a long brick building at the east end of Pisgah View Apartments. Kieran, the IHAD program's local coordinator, was effusive and outgoing as ever, quizzing the students on their long-term "dreams," discovering passions for dog training, foreign service, and trapeze artistry.

After a brief run-down on daily operations Kieran led the kids on a tour of the center while I hung back and chatted with Eugenia, Kieran's assistant director. I asked after a few of the students I'd remembered working with back in Fall 2012, and was pleased to find some of them doing well. Stephen, one of the most precocious readers of the bunch, is one of a handful now excepted from reading requirements owing to his accomplished skill. Elaine is as stylish as ever, always opting out of kickball for fear of messing up her outfits. And Ulysses is still Ulysses, still heavyweight rock-paper-scissors champion of the world.

I was chagrined to learn, though, that one of my favorite students, an athletic young man who had a legitimate curiosity about math and who often thought about math problems from completely outside of the box, has since fallen out of the program. After choosing to withdraw himself, he fell in with a questionable clique of friends and ran afoul of the law. An investigation into his home life eventually led him into foster care in a nearby town, too far away for IHAD to be able to transport him to and from the program should he wish to rejoin (and wish he does, apparently). They're working out the details now, but it looks as though his days at IHAD may be over.

This makes me sad.

Monday, August 26, 2013


To make up for my breaking my new-semester resolutions on the sixth day of the semester, I offer the following first draft of a poem inspired by Chapter 8 of Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, about which book my HON 479 students had a wonderfully spirited discussion last Thursday. I'm looking forward to our next discussion, this coming Thursday (tomorrow we meet at I Have a Dream)!


We sit in the back
veiled in incense, wrapped
in kente come from Togoland.
The blackmarketer
sits crosslegged and smiles.

He deals in antiquities,
not Sony TVs like the one
tuned to a telenovela
preaching sermons on fidelity:

be a better boyfriend
or a more faithful wife.

Oaxacan actors mouth
morality lessons in Twi;
he is a strong man,
says our host,
who can say I love you to his girl.

Change jangles in the bottoms
of our swollen pockets.
Our way home is a star-strewn
traverse of rough red laterite.

At the hotel in Accra
we unpack and sit in silent reverence
before the brittle treasure
on our bed.

                   The admonishing hum
of the Coca-Cola machine
keeps us up all night.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Three days in

Linear's now met twice, and HON 479, my honors section of the university's capstone course Cultivating Global Citizenship, once. This is my first time teaching that course (though in Fall 2012 I "interned" with the instructor for the course all of last year), and my first time teaching a course that's so heavily discussion-based. My relative unfamiliarity with facilitating discussion is going to make this course a challenge, but of the first day of class is any indication, the students' outgoing nature is going to mitigate that challenge.

Students like Arturo and Nona, whom I've long known (from previous interactions with them) to be extroverts played that role perfectly, showing no hesitation in opening up about both simple subjects like academic major as well as a few of the fairly touchy topics (race and religion) with which this course will later deal. Other students, some of whom I've met in my dealings as director for the past year, some of whom I really met just yesterday, stepped up too. I'm planning on plying various discussion-driving strategies to help these folks out, but I'm not too worried.

We'll have a lot to talk about. Our first order of business is to pick apart Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, a text that gets right to one of the central topics of our course, namely the question "how, in a world full of difference and diversity of every imaginable sort, do we manage to get along with one another?" As the aim of the class is to help students develop the skills they need to become informed and engaged citizens in an increasingly interconnected world, answering this question is of paramount importance.

After that we'll move on to readings by Jonathon Kozol, Gloria Ladson-Billings, bell hooks, and others. Cornel West is coming to campus in a couple of months, and we'll ready ourselves for his visit by reading excerpts from his Democracy matters. It's all good.

Meanwhile, I'm getting the Honors Program back up to speed for the academic year. We've got a welcome reception for the first-year Honors students on deck for next Thursday, and we're readying a few of last year's first-year students to help out as a resource for this year's first-years. Tomorrow I'll start reaching out to my colleagues across the campus to try to recruit faculty to teach in the program next term.

Never a dull moment. Avanti!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Day One, revisited, or, Patrick very quickly gets off into pedagogical theory

Back to the grind. Today hardly felt like a school day at all, as my only MWF class is an 8:00-to-8:50 section of Linear Algebra I that was over nearly as soon as it started. (At least on Tuesdays and Thursdays I won't be done in the classroom until noon-thirty.) As first-days-of-class go, it was a good one, though. I've had better, but I've had far worse.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Both other times I've taught this course (including the first time, the iteration of the course that occasioned the founding of this blog) I've started with some variation of the same game, a simulation of a Markov process in which the students shuttle some sort of token back and forth at each iteration of the game. The first run (Fall 2006), the students themselves were the tokens as the class participated in a great big single instance of the game; I switched to pennies (and smaller groups) the next time I taught the course (Fall 2010), and I stuck with that latter version today, though leaving a bit more room than I did before for students to discover and speculate upon the patterns their own damned selves. This time around I also asked the students to take bolder and more unassisted steps toward the next conceptual mile marker, solution of the linear systems that arise from the Markov process we investigate together: not only must the students experiment and then speculate on the outcome of their experiment, they must then find the appropriate mathematical model (a simple linear system in two unknowns) and then back-solve the "run the model in reverse." All in 45 minutes' time!

All in all, it went remarkably well. No one seemed lost ("one in a row!" as my colleague Tip would say), and everyone participated actively. I'm aided this semester by the fact that I've only got 23 student in the class (yay), though they're packt like sardines in a crushd tin box (boo), sitting at single-person-sized tables (yay) bolted together and arrayed in orderly rows (boo) in such a fashion as to discourage all but the most anachronistic teaching techniques (boo hiss).

Interesting facts (yes, there is a train of thought that took me from the previous paragraph to this one): recently, while reviewing the literature on the effect of class size on learning, I discovered that (1) said literature says almost nothing about college-level instruction, most research having been done at the K-12 level, and (2) a number of studies do not, strangely enough, suggest small class size improves student learning in mathematics. It was only after a bit of reflection that I realized why this might be: such studies, while controlling for class size, do not (and, methodologically, cannot) control for instructional method. Thus what I suspect is happening in these studies is large-section lectures are being pitted against small-section lectures, lecture being, until recently, about the only viable instructional paradigm for large-section classes. Of course, it is pedagogically retarded (in the literal...well...until recently literal...sense) to assume that one's instructional method remain the same when smaller class size permits more effective application of student-centered learning strategies: pit large-section lectures against small-section IBL and you're sure to see a difference.

Maybe more about that in a post soon to come (why on Earth was Patrick researching this topic? Edge-of-your-seat action!). For now, I've got reading to do for my first meeting of HON 479 tomorrow!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Back-to-school to-do list

Goals for the coming semester, and beyond (a.k.a., gettin' my writing-related shit together):

1. Update this blog thrice a week, regularly, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

2. Spend at least an hour a day on my writing (poetry, prose, or current research-related writing projects).

3. Submit at least one piece of writing for publication per week, regularly on Sundays.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Shameless cross-promotion

Hey, kids!

I hope that last year some of you followed my writing adventures with my friends Kerri ("Libby") Flinchbaugh and Laura ("Mariposa") Benton. 3 friends, 30 things, 90 stories had us writing throughout April 2012, crafting short pieces of poetry and prose in response to daily prompts.

Well, we're at it again. This year we've brought another friend ("Dobject") on board. 4 friends, 30 things, 120 stories will take us through June as we write on various people, places, and things. I hope you'll follow along, and that you'll respond in the comments. Writing is nothing without readers, and we sincerely want to know what you all think. Please feel free to write along with us; collaborative, constrained writing is tremendous fun and a wonderful creative outlet.

For what it's worth, I do plan on posting more regularly here during the summer...I've got a good number of interesting articles I'm working on finishing up and I'm prepping for a couple of fun classes (a heavily problem-based iteration of linear algebra and my first-ever run-through with HON 479). Lots to talk about.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

We are the champions

The semester's over and commencement has passed, which means we're all hip-deep in a morass of faculty development workshops, hastily crammed into the two- or three-week-long period before half the faculty take the rest of the summer "off."

This past Monday-through-Wednesday (Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday, and Wednesday morning) found me in two full days' worth of workshops dedicated to diversity and inclusion. UNC Asheville's faculty, staff, and student bodies are not representative of the overall population in many respects, particularly racially and ethnically. And what diversity we do have (in terms of age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and sexuality, etc.) often goes unrecognized and underappreciated. The result is a lack of diversity in some regards and a lack of attention paid to issues faced by members of certain underrepresented groups in others. To address this important matter (and believe me, I do believe it is of prime importance), UNCA's Diversity Action Council brought in a pair of outsider consultants to coach about 30 faculty and staff in becoming "Diversity and Inclusion Champions" ("DICs," for short?). This unfortunate acronym is, sadly, about the best thing to come of the workshop.

Well, not so...I'll start with the positives.

1. Community. The workshop involved a couple of administrators, about a dozen faculty, and maybe 15 or 16 members of the staff, from departments ranging from Housekeeping through the Office of University Advancement (basically a fancy name for the people in charge of building up the school's endowment). These are folks who generally have very little opportunity to interact, and their stories often go unshared. It was wonderful to me to talk to colleagues from Accounts Payable, Admissions, and Athletics, folks I'd never have met in the course of my day-to-day duties, folks whose perspectives are as valid as my own and who face a broad array of diversity-related issues in their work. This aspect of the workshop was enlightening, enriching, and invigorating.

2. Conversations. Similarly, the stories we shared, many of which had nothing to do with diversity and inclusion, ultimately, gave us a chance to get to know one another authentically.

3. Communication. Many of the exercises we completed reminded us of important communication skills: active and compassionate listening, empathy and understanding, deliberation in discourse, etc. Though these skills have little to do with diversity, per se, they are good things to keep in mind in having future multilogues around important issues like diversity.

4. ...? I'm dyin' over here...

So what went wrong? First of all, as my last positive point suggests, the workshop was misnamed. If it had been called something like "Creating community and carrying on conversations," I wouldn't have found as much fault with it. (Note: "as much"; see discussion below.) As it was, though, I kept expecting there to be much more attention paid to diversity issues. I recognize that diversity and inclusion are incredibly complicated issues and that there's no magic pill the university can swallow to make it all better, but as it was there was practically no content directly related to diversity, whether in theory or in practice. Moreover, what content there was was overly-diluted, simplistic, superficial, and unreflective.

Part of the problem (perhaps the largest part) was the facilitators' utterly tone-deaf delivery. It was evident almost from the get-go that these two folks are used, almost exclusively (though they tried to deny it), to dealing with corporate audiences. Their manner of speaking was facile, reductive, and puerilizing. They dumbed things down, universalized, and made frequent superficial statements about complicated issues. The materials they used (handouts, videos, etc.) were similarly over-simplified and ill-suited for the audience they were speaking to. Sometimes the materials were simply misleading or untenable.

Example: the facilitators showed a 10-minute segment from Dateline NBC on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), an instrument used to help uncover persons' hidden biases. The IAT has been shown to be somewhat credible and most folks generally accept its reliability and validity. However, the Dateline segment, in an obvious attempt at dramatization, brought a dozen or so people into a studio to take a version of the test in front of one another and and in front of television cameras, thus placing the test-takers under enormous stereotype threat, a condition well-known to introduce substantial and problematic variation in test results. This condition rendered this piece essentially baseless, little more than a completely unreliable media stunt that undermined the credibility of a well-established psychometric instrument. When a couple of us pointed this out after the segment was shown, one of the facilitators acknowledged this shortcoming. "Then why in the hell did you show it anyway?" I thought.

Example: one of my "favorite" excerpts from the godawful handout on managing unconscious biases which they handed out for us to read on Tuesday night was a numbered list of the steps one might take to uncover and eliminate such hidden biases. Step 2 was "Identify your unconscious biases"; a number of people quipped "if they're unconscious, how are you supposed to identify them?" Step 6 was "Get rid of your biases." I was reminded of this famous cartoon:

Ah, circularity. This step makes the whole process into an Ouroboros, a serpent devouring its own tail.

Example: the same handout contained "case studies" on diversity initiatives undertaken by major corporations like Weyerhauser and Chubb ( who, I'm sure entirely coincidentally ) cosponsored the organization that produced the handout, but no information on other sorts of institutions. Every aspect of the handout's rhetoric suggested a corporate audience, with bulleted lists, unsubstantiated claims ("Some scientists suggest..."), unreflective appeals to authority ("...researchers at [list of several major universities] tell us..."), anecdotal appeals devoid of any actionable information...as I put it on Facebook just after reading this piece, "The reading for tomorrow's last half-day workshop is a jargony piece of quasi-corporate pap that's so full of syllogisms and so bereft of appropriate citations it's rendered practically baseless. If one of our first-year composition students wrote it, they'd get a C+ on a good day."

The workshop's facilitators were equally oily, hands glad and laughter forced. The whole workshop was clearly an act for them, one they were used to performing in front of people who make far, far, far more money than everyone in our little room put together. At one point, I shit you not, the oilier of the two, Brad, said, to a room in which sat, among others, housekeepers who likely make barely more than the minimum wage, "That's why you all get paid the big bucks!" Tone. Deaf.) I got into a handful of tense exchanges with Brad over the course of our time together. After one exchange in which I called attention to the syllogism inherent in "Step 6" mentioned above, he got out of the conversation by simply saying, "see, what we're having now is a heated agreement!" He could barely contain his annoyance when I and several of my colleagues tagged the term "Diversity and Inclusion Champion" with the label "condescending." "I'm not 10 years old anymore," I said. "I don't have to be called a 'champion.'" One of my colleagues suggested the term "Community Advocate," and for the remaining hour or two of the workshop that phrase stuck.

 Ultimately I was offended by the quality of the workshop, and I left wondering how many thousands of dollars the university had spent bringing these folks into campus. Worse yet, this was not their first visit to campus (it was, in fact, their fifth; four similar workshops have been run in the past couple of years) and it's not likely to be their last. As I mentioned above, the best things to come of it were community, conversations, and a reminder of some solid communication skills. I've learned more, far more, about managing diversity from any one of several learning circles I've taken part in over the past several years than I did from this workshop.

I might add one more positive outcome: during one of our breaks on the last morning of the workshop I was chatting with one of my colleagues from the Education Department, and I boasted that I was confident that by the end of the semester, the HON 479 students I'd worked with in Fall 2012 would have been able to put together a better workshop on diversity and inclusion. It got me thinking: why not ask them to do just this? Thus, I'm now planning to ask my Fall 2013 HON 479 students to design a workshop preparing participants to (1) understand the issues facing the citizen of a multicultural society, (2) interrogate and explain their own views on multiculturalism, and (3) more confidently engage members of multicultural communities. I have no doubt whatsoever that the students' product will exceed this past week's in quality, no matter the measure applied to it.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Ding dong

Well, it's dead...

"First of all, the EC thanks the CRTF for the enormous amount of time, concern and effort that has gone into every phase of this review process. Regardless of the outcome of this review, there is no question of our appreciation of your work."

...two years in, comprising thousands of hours of work spent reading, writing, discussing, debating, data collecting, assimilating, analyzing, synthesizing, scrutinizing every corner of the curriculum and every corner of other colleges' curricula...

"So here’s the thing: you have all seen the results of the survey, and some attempts to organized the responses in helpful ways. The [Senate Executive Committee's] take on the survey is this:

-       It does not provide a ringing endorsement

-       There are many significant and thoughtful concerns that it would be better to address before the proposal comes to [the Senate's Academic Policy Committee] and senate formally

-       The level of opposition is high enough that it signals that there is not enough support for the proposal for it to simply move forward"

...we lost steam somewhere around the time that the subgroups first came together, my Curricular Sustainability Subgroup colliding with the Big Picture Subgroup, a body which had lost sight its goal of providing large-scale parameters for change and instead decided to promulgate its own specific (and, I believe, peculiarly short-sighted) proposals for curricular change...
"The [Executive Committee] believes that it would be wise not to try to push forward a change when the campus seems this ambivalent about it. Further, given that documents cannot be brought that would enable changes before fall 2014, at this point it makes sense to consider what can be done to address the concerns that have been brought forth."

...the wheels came off completely by the time the full task force came together again, trying mightily to put together a consensus proposal, passing that job off onto my group over the second summer of the project. Everyone was asked to give something up; it was a true compromise, and no one left the table completely satisfied, but everyone left feeling good about the job they'd done...

"We recognize, of course, that this is frustrating and disappointing to many people, and we are sorry for that. However, it is the [Executive Committee’s] recommendation on the basis of our best judgment about what makes sense for the institution."

...of course, once word got out to the full faculty, everyone asked for their piece of the pie to be put back. The backers of the Humanities Program gave no ground, the natural science departments with laughably large majors insisted that their students needed every last credit...academic nimbyism won out.

Regular readers know well that I myself became disenchanted with our work the proposal it led to, so I can't say I'm entirely disappointed with the outcome, but I'm tremendously disappointed by the way in which some of my colleagues acquitted themselves throughout the process.

Well...onward and upward. Right now I've got the General Education Council to worry about, and about 7 or 8 papers to wrap up over the summer...avanti!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Me and my big mouth...

It's been a while since I updated here, and I'm afraid it'll be a bit longer, since I've written several pages related to administrivia today and am in no state of mind to write much more that's job-related.

I did want to mention my latest bout of "another fine mess I've gotten me into": I managed to get myself appointed to the General Education Council, the UNC system-wide body of faculty who are charged with designing the system's general education practices in response to the Strategic Plan. That's what I get for bragging about my experience in program development, assessment, etc. Me and my big mouth, indeed.

My reward so far: reading 200-300 pages of documents related to the plan and sitting through an hour-and-a-half-long advertisement ("this isn't a sales pitch," they felt the need to inform us every few minutes or so, it seemed) delivered by several representatives from the Educational Testing Service, proud makers of ACT, GRE, TOEFL, CLA, and other standardized assessment instruments (or "products," as they seem to be fond of calling them).


To be continued. We're tasked with identifying system-wide core competencies for the various UNC schools' gen ed programs, deliverable by January 2014. "Seamless transfer" is the mantra-like shibboleth. "Individual campuses will retain their core identities," they promise us, even as they move toward curricular homogenization. "This is a faculty-driven process," they insist, herding us into the abattoir.

Buckle in: this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Lie to me

It's been a while since I've written here; it's taking a particularly fun exercise I tried out in my Oulipo class to get me back.

Today we played a game I called "Lie to me." Inspired by the byzantine yet convincing fictions Georges Perec creates in Life: A user's manual, I asked my students to spend ten or twelve minutes in crafting the beginnings of a bit of fiction in which they lie their asses off, given the following generic set-up: "You are a _______________ , with a(n) _______________ who hopes to _______________ while in _______________ ." For each blank the students drew cards: the first card gave them a character ("heroin-addicted airline pilot," "one-armed race car driver," etc.), the second accoutred them with an object ("a shard of the cross Jesus hung on," "an ounce of unrefined uranium ore," etc.), the third gave them a purpose ("publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama," "escape persecution by political rivals," etc.), and the fourth gave them a location ("Jakarta," "Prague," etc.). I joined in, writing as a homeless classically-trained violinist with a blind Bengal tiger cub who was living in New York and trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis.

In the spirit of March Madness, the students advanced their stories through quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, ending with a competition between an expert on 17th-century Russian history and a deposed Latin American president. "It's like the darkest ever episode of Dora the Explorer," one of the students said about the latter story, written largely in Spanglish.

Fun times! I'm definitely going to have to try this constraint out again in a future class.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Update on Loftyness

Well, I've done it. I've taken the first paragraph from Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (the book we recently finished reading together in Oulipo) and applied to it the five loftyizing constraints from the previous post, first one at a time and then all at once. Each individually meets with some success, but the overall effect is quite convincing. Great fun! Please check them out:

Original, the first paragraph from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Germanic capitalizing, a "fair coin" flipped to decide whether or not to capitalize a given noun:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s Night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the World around you fade. Best to close the Door; the TV is always on in the next Room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your Voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Inverting, a "fair coin" flipped to decide whether or not to invert the subject and verb in a given sentence:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Every other thought dispel. Let fade the world around you. Best the door to close; the TV is always on in the next room. The others tell, right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! Disturbed I don’t want to be!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; louder speak, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope leave you alone they will.

Theethouizing, “you” has been changed systematically to “thee” or “thou,” and “your” to “thy” or “thine":
Thou art about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around thee fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise thy voice – they won’t hear thee otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard thee, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if thou preferst, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave thee alone.

Oloizing, “O” and “Lo!” placed at the start of randomly selected sentences and independent clauses:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Lo!, relax. O, concentrate. O, dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. O, best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Lo!, tell the others right away, “O, no, I don’t want to watch TV!” O, raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “O, I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Lo!, maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “Lo!, I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Adjectival inflating, every adjective replaced by its longest synonym appearing on thesaurus.com:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every supplementary thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the subsequential room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

The whole enchilada: all five constraints applied simultaneously:
Thou art about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel, If on a winter’s Night a traveler. Lo!, relax. O, concentrate. O, every supplementary thought dispel. Let fade the World around thee. O, best the Door to close; the TV is always on in the subsequential Room. Lo!, the others tell, right away, “O, no, I don’t want to watch TV!” O, raise thy Voice – they won’t hear thee otherwise – “O, I’m reading! Disturbed I don’t want to be!” Lo!, maybe they haven’t heard thee, with all that racket; louder speak, yell: “Lo!, I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel!” Or if thou preferst, don’t say anything; just hope leave thee alone they will.

And yes, they pay me to do this, folks. How awesome is my job?

Midsemester musings

We're about halfway through the semester now, and I have to say I'm enjoying teaching more than I have for a few years now. I love both of my classes and am having tremendous amounts of fun with both of them. The Calc III class is the most engaged math class I've had in several semesters: the students are eager, active, and awesome. And Oulipo...I don't know how we can fit so much fun into three fifty-minute periods each week. I wish we met for longer...

In Calc III I've been starting each Wednesday (the dreaded "hump day") with a contemplative exercise of some sort, much like the first, about which I wrote a few weeks back. The purpose of each exercise is to ask students to put themselves in a positive frame of mind, to reflect on something that's lifting them up and to cast aside something that's holding them down. Today I asked them each to write a simple haiku (no season indicators or "turns," just a simple 5-7-5 syllabic scheme) about their current state of mind. Though I saw a lot of counting on fingers, I also saw a lot of earnest scribbling. Though I don't collect a single word the students write in response to these simple prompts, I have no doubt most (if not all) of the students are taking the assignments seriously, and I hope that they're having salutary effects.

In Oulipo the most recent out-of-class assignment was to write a "lofty" poem elegizing a quotidian object. Each of us selected an everyday object that was then randomly selected by one of the others in the class. We were then each tasked with writing verse that we deemed "lofty" in some fashion, extolling the virtues of the object we'd been assigned. For many people "lofty" meant "classical," and several student wrote poems in a romantic style, with rime and meter appropriate to an 18th-century-or-earlier bard.

After we'd workshopped our poems and read a number of them out loud, we talked briefly about conventional devices we might make use of to "loftyize" a piece of non-lofty writing and as a group came up with the following:

  1. Germanic capitalizing: selectively or systematically capitalize nouns throughout the piece.
  2. Inverting: selectively or systematically invert the standard modern subject-verb order throughout the piece.
  3. Theethouizing: selectively or systematically turn "you"s into "thee"s and "thou"s throughout the piece.
  4. Oloizing: selectively or systematically insert "o!"s and "lo!"s throughout the piece.
  5. Adjectival inflating (a nod to n + 7): selectively or systematically replace each adjective with its longest synonym appearing in an agreed-upon thesaurus throughout the piece.
I'm going to try these out on a piece of non-lofty writing, maybe something from Jon Rogawski's Calculus...? Results posted soon...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Read one, write two

Today's Oulipo class featured a constraint I made up in the middle class sometime last week but have only just now had a chance to try out. I call it "read one, write two," and it goes something like this:

1. One person begins the process by writing two lines of a poem, each on its own scrap of paper.

2. This person then passes the second line only on to the next person. This person then writes two lines of her own, passing only the second one on to the next person, and so forth.

3. At the end, the finished "poem" is assembled, made up of the various pieces, only half of which were "visible" to more than one person.

We had five rounds going at once, and though the bookkeeping took a little getting used to, we got the hang of it and managed to compile five 20-line poems between us. I've transcribed them below.

Ye, old hag,
why do you look at me so?
Do you not know
the love that's harbored within?
It only helps us to make nonsense out of silence.
The white noise under spoken tremors
is the most terrifying noise you'll hear
and the lullaby from the song on the radio
put us to sleep, like the video
of the man with the golden eye, daddy-o.
She spoke with both reverence and bewilderment,
"he's the smoothest street walker in town."
They say, though, he has a secret:
that once upon a time, he nearly got caught,
our hands upon the deer, illegally slain
the blood stained there and drying fast,
red as a cabernet sauvignon
to be shared with friends at the end of the week,
even when so tired you can barely speak,
with this, with them, the solace you seek.

Spring came too early this year,
we were too young; unready for the harvest,
and yet so old because all that we'd seen,
and each day a reminder of the ages we had
were reflected in the barman, who was mad
from all the ale he drank, he thought he was from Baghdad.
The drink was starting to affect his mind, you see.
Well, his mind along with his liver
were rotting, rotting away,
drinking poison day by day,
I feel my body giving over,
friends and lovers wash away
like suds off a car
washed in the middle of a hot summer day.
Instead of languishing in dismay,
if you must run, then run away!
Run off to the great unknown,
never to be seen again!
No, never to be seen again,
not ever in this world.

Whose great works were served to the throne?
There once was a barber from Rome
who quite enjoyed the company of loose women,
although you'd never know by how much he went to church.
Church, yes, but by night he wanders the murky forest,
hand in hand with darkness.
So trudge I thro' the tortured bush [?],
willows hang in gloomy mourning,
a shadow extending across the field.
The running water would not yield:
wounds so deep cannot be healed
prancing through the poppy field
stopping to watch the butterflies
flying in the air.
But when night fell, so did I;
a broken angel with battered wings
keeps moving forward, although winds blow through;
passing through the cold light of a sunny pale mid-winter afternoon
I saw a man standing in a meadow
and he said to me, "all is well."

Birds skip playfully through trees;
I find I have a sudden urge to sneeze.
The urge builds in the back of my throat,
undeniable, unbearable, I cannot resist any longer.
"Oh, Rowan!" she shouted,
the smell of catfish in the air.
Alive, they predict earthquakes.
Caught, killed, and fried, they are tasty.
Tasty to the one who eats meat,
a vegetarian's nightmare, a vegan's torture.
No, nothing at all, not but rotting meat,
for the ship had sailed  for endless weeks,
endless weeks of throbbing, busy crusading outward on a thin vessel,
looking for a reason to keep from looking
by distracting myself with television shows.
But every so often I begin to start looking...
at the old cafe, where she was once cooking.
And if I look hard enough, I can smell her dumplings.
Their aroma takes me to the kitchen of my 11-year-old self,
where all my dreams began.

A bottle of water under a chair,
to hydrate those who care to drink,
or care not, and drink none at all.
But drink too much? I hardly think
a slip of vodka, a drop of wine --
hardly enough to make me blink.
I've lived it all before, it's no lie.
We will play these games until we die,
and I will die singing songs, telling myself my body was my greatest tool.
There is nothing left to wait for
because I am in the front of the line.
Now the cafe barista asks for my order.
I said "bring me a cafe from Mordor."
The barista said, "we ran out of those in the last quarter.
Running businesses is hard, you see."
Working tooth and nail, and still no profit.
But who needs profit anyway?
Maybe a poor man like he
could live by a liverwurst sea
and eat cantaloup grown from a mulberry tree.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Obligatory whatnots

I've been posting somewhat regularly lately, and though today's not given me considerable fodder for a brand-spankin' new post (cross products in Calc III and an introductory discussion of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler in Oulipo), I thought I might mention a few ongoing whatnots.

Whatnot #1, CRTF...WTF? I've begun drafting a "contextualizing" document that might help folks who haven't been intimately involved in the process of crafting the current proposal understand exactly what in the hell those of us who have been intimately involved in the process of crafting the current proposal are thinking. Of course, I've come out semi-publicly (here and elsewhere) as having serious reservations about the proposal as it stands, so it's ironic that it falls to me to explain our reasoning.

I think at this point, the powers that be are concerned that given some of the language of the Strategic Plan (about more below) we're better off streamlining and "standardizing" our curriculum before someone else (*cough* GA? *cough cough*) does it for us.

Whatnot #2, This post by Teacherken of education-related blogging fame. (He's been a fixture in various places, including The Daily Kos.) The writing's on the wall, and it ain't pretty. As if I needed more reason to loathe AP exams. Students, parents, everyone: the AP system is fundamentally fraught with error of every kind. It's a wrongheaded hydra. We need to slay the damned thing. Of course, we're going to have to fight through ETS and friends to even get to it.

Whatnot #1 and Whatnot #2 bring me to...

...Whatnot #3, The Strategic Plan. I'm about 1/6 of the way through reading this sucker. I regaled (read: "bored/annoyed the crap out of") my Facebook friends with a line-by-line response to this damned thing a few days ago when I started reading it, alcoholic beverage in hand. It's awful, folks. It adopts the rhetoric of the corporate community, eyes intently focused on the bottom line, offering one way to the university system, and one way only: make us money or die. It's all about measurable production benchmarks (graduates are "produced," donchano?) and accountability to stakeholders. It's all about uniformity and portability and seamless transfer. It's all about standards. It's NCLB on steroids, repackaged for the 'teens. It's a godawful mess.

But it's the UNC system's lodestone for the next several years. It's our way through the woods. It's the house we have to beat, the inside straight we've got to draw into. It's our future.

I plan on finishing reading it this week sometime, provided I can find enough liquor. I'll post my thoughts about it here as I read it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Constraint and contemplation

I thought I might mention a couple of the activities I asked my students to take part in today.

The first was a simple freewrite, with an even simpler summative exercise at the end. I asked my Oulipo students to freewrite for five minutes on the ways in which they've noticed their writing to be affected by constraint. Once they'd completed this freewrite I asked them each to identify three words which gave some indication of their freewrite's content and tone. They then shared these words on the board:

I joined the students in this exercise. I was intrigued that my three words ended up being "pattern," "unknown," and "death." The first was unsurprising but the last two were unexpected. I reasoned (if one can call analysis through freewriting "reason") roughly as follows: "we seek patterns in everything we see, including heavily constrained literature, because patterns have predictive power and allow us to extrapolate from the known present and past to the unknown future; perhaps the most compelling unknown is death...can the patterns we find in constrained poetry help us understand even this ultimate unknown?"

We'll have a chance on Friday to discuss the words above more thoroughly. So far we've only talked briefly in pairs about our ideas. I'm looking forward to these upcoming conversations.

The other activity I wanted to mention is a contemplative exercise I asked students in both classes to complete. Knowing full well that Wednesday is the longest and most stressful day for many folks in academia (students, faculty, and staff alike), I wanted to do something to help alleviate the stress. Yesterday, while sitting in the first session of my first faculty/staff learning circle since Fall 2011 (it's been too long!), I thought up the following activity, though I'm sure it's not original to me:
  1. Take out two scraps of paper.
  2. On one of them, write something that's stressing you out or bringing you down.
  3. On the other, write something that's bringing you joy or making you smile.
  4. Ball the first scrap up into a tiny origami boulder and chuck it into the recycling bin lovingly provided in the middle of the room.
  5. Fold the second scrap neatly and tuck it into your pocket, where you're likely to find it once, twice, thrice, throughout the rest of the day, a gentle reminder of something you should be happy about.
It's a simple exercise, but in both classes it elicited a great response. People in both classes gleefully threw their stressors into the recycling bin in a hail of discarded worry. ("This feels really therapeutic," said one of my Oulipo students.) I noticed smiles and nods from many folks as they put their happy thoughts away. The activity took three minutes out of class time, but I believe it went a long way to establishing a sense of community and a more relaxed state of mind in which we would all be a bit more receptive to new ideas. I might have to make this, or something like it, a regular Wednesday occurrence.