Sunday, April 30, 2006

Former Student Melissa S (now P)

I read your comment in the post below and wrote you an email, and then realized I don't have an address. Please email me at mdrout at wheaton college dot e d u .

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Evolution of my Syllabi

Sorry so little posting of late. I was in Italy giving a paper at the Leornungcraeft conference in Udine (and maybe someday I will write an epic about my journey and how incredibly much Swiss Air sucks -- sixteen hours late to the conference, none of it my fault). Then I came back to my daughter having two weeks of school vacation, my son's birthday party, Easter, and hundreds and hundreds of emails. Have now finished my Kalamazoo paper: "Albert S. Cook, The Invention of Cynewulf, and the Evolution of Anglo-Saxon Studies in America" and am moving on to proofreading A-D of the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. I spent nearly three hours today and didn't finish A. Do you realize that there are 26 letters that will have to be done? Argh. Why can't people follow simple formatting conventions? Why?

But that's not what I want to write about.

Instead, I want to talk about how my syllabi have evolved over time (could anything be more exciting?). A while back (could be weeks, could be months; I don't have time to check) Scott Nokes was part of a conversation about which writers and writings belong on a medieval lit syllabus.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I learned that I'll be mentoring a graduate student teaching medieval literature here at Wheaton. I helped said student (very minimally) with the syllabus, and it took me back to my own early, graduate school and immediate post-graduate syllabi: so complex, so ambitious, so throughouly planned out. I used to be that way.

But as time as gone on, my syllabi have evolved back into something that would be quite recognizeable to all the old farts I dissed when I was coming out of grad school: "Oh, a 'greatest hits' syllabus," I would sneer at the work of some geezerish faculty member if I noticed students using a traditional syllabus.

For myself, I tried it all: Reverse chronological order? Check. No chronology at all but rather thematic contrasts? Check. Mixture of medieval and modern? Check. Appropriations of the Medieval and their Sources? Check. Theme Course with much Medieval Material? Check.

And then there was the content of the syllabi. Non-literary texts? Check. Non-canonical literature? Check. Mix of works by women, heretics, outsiders? Check.

But that's all changed. I don't recall making a conscious decision, but very steadily my syllabi have evolved into "Greatest Hits" syllabi. And as I have done this, my courses have gotten better by just about every metric: my average grades are down, my enrollments are up, my evaluations are up, the number of students going to grad school is up, the number of students who take follow-up classes is up. I enjoy teaching my classes more.

Of course the most likely possibility is that I made an immediate switch from Young Turk to Old Fart the moment I got tenure. This may be the simplest explanation, since I don't feel like an Old Fart, which is the first sign.

But I think the evolution of my syllabi can be explained by a few simple principles:

1. It's a zero-sum game. Everything I put in the syllabus bumps something else.
2. This may be the only chance the students get to experience this material.

1 and 2 combine to make me really leery of bumping, say, Pearl, for mysticism (which I find tedious and can't abide, anyway). I think a student who studies mysticism will get a very interesting look into the culture of the Middle Ages. I think a student who studies Pearl will get a pretty good glimpse of medieval culture and will also have encountered (and possibly fallen in love with ) a textual artifact that he or she might remember some time in the future. And there are likely to be a lot more of the second type of student.

3. It's a lot easier to get students enthusiastic over battles, romances, dragons and intrigue than it is to get them excited about the Peasants' Revolt or the penitentials. I can channel that student excitement and use it to push them into additional hard work. If they don't have that excitement, I am the only out out in the rain pushing the bus, and we don't go nearly as far.

This is not to say that I don't do things that I think are innovative (I'll post my Chaucer syllabus and let you see for yourself how you can make assignments that build on one another in such a way as to give students mastery not only of the language, but of the research tools and the academic culture in which they encounter Chaucer). But my innovation comes, I think, mainly in the realm of class-to-class improvisations, moment-to-moment readings of the student engagement and the ability to talk when necessary and, at other times, shut up and let them roll with their ideas.

So far, so good. In my favorite class this year, Beowulf, my syllabus consisted of line numbers to be translated and discussed by a given day. That was it (though students did presentations on sub-topics of Beowulf studies. We are now on target to finish the poem on time, and my students completely kick ass at Old English right. In this case, less syllabus was more class.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

"Critical Thinking": What a Piece of Cant

Every once in a while I read or hear something that makes me realize that I've been unconsciously spewing cant about something for a long, long time. I get kind of a sick feeling when I realize this, because one thing I try to do, in keeping with my research in memetics, is to harden myself against the sorts of things that everyone is saying. My misanthropic gut instinct usually tells me that if everyone is saying it, it's probably wrong.

(I think this is why I tend to be very comfortable hanging out with scientists. One of my best friends at Wheaton is a scientist and the kind of person who immediately attempts to find alternate explanations for phenomena that are presented to her as facts. This can be difficult, I think, for the kind of people who like to say "studies show X" and have people believe them. Betsey won't let that nonsense go on for two minutes).

On Friday a friend from graduate school asked me to look over the introduction he's written for an essay collection. Among other very interesting things that he had to say, he took on the shibboleth (and called it that) of "critical thinking."

If you are currently in academia, or have been anywhere near it for the past twenty years, you've probably heard a lot about "critical thinking." Everyone agrees that it is the most important thing that we teach. Why, if students learn "critical thinking," then they don't actually have to learn any specific material: as long as they can think critically about it, well, our job is done. Administrators love "critical thinking," as do other professors, potential donors, parents and even students.

So of course we are probably long overdue for someone to throw some cold water on the whole idea.

"Critical thinking" appears to have all the qualities of a piece of cant. I'm not sure we do teach our students to think critically, and furthermore, I'm not so sure that we think criticallly, and I'm not even sure that if we did, it would make the slightest bit of difference.

Furthermore, saying that you are more concerned about teaching "critical thinking" than about teaching your subject matter is an example of pre-emptive rhetorical surrender and is the kind of thing that the humanities have been doing, to their great detriment, throughout my lifetime. If you are only concerned that your subject teaches "critical thinking," then there's really no reason for your subject to exist--if another subject came along that taught "critical thinking" just as well or better than yours, then why keep, say, a medievalist around when you can replace that person?

I think this is exactly why so many important, traditional disciplines have hemmorhaged students, tenure-lines and respect for the past thirty years. Because if you can get "critical thinking" from just about any subject (and believe me, every subject claims to teach "critical thinking"), then what's the payoff for studying a difficult subject like medieval literature? Trying to make the argument that difficult subjects teach more critical thinking is fighting on unfavorable ground: how can you be sure? You, in medieval lit, have to spend hours of class time on history, languages, paleography, theology, metrics, etc. In this other class, which doesn't have all that stuff, we can "think critically" just about the entire time.

Thinking about it more, and realizing that the phrase "critical thinking" is a piece of cant, I'm not sure that I ever learned how to think critically in a single class. And I'm not sure I've ever taught a student to think critically, either. I think at one stage in my teaching life I tried to teach them to be more skeptical (or, as one of my friends in the English department always says, "to be suspicious"), but even here I'm not particularly sure, and I'm not sure such teaching would really be worth their time or mine.

What I do think I got from my classes, and what I think I give to my students, is a more complete picture of the world, a more sophisticated model inside their heads, a more detailed map (though that map can never be as detailed as the territory). To speak of memes: the memetic ecosystem inside their minds is more complex and richer than it would be if they hadn't take the class, had the discussions, learned the material. And therefore that memetic ecosystem has a better chance of generating interesting, valuable, previously unknown combinations and permutations of memes.

So if you, like me, say or have said that you are more concerned about teaching "critical thinking" than the actual subject material, you, like me, are guilty of transmitting cant. And the transmission of cant shows that you're not practicing "critical thinking."