What I’ve learned

On Monday I submitted grades, and this afternoon I reviewed my teaching evaluations. That closes the books on my 14th year as a college professor. I am currently 42 years old, so by my math, I have been doing this for roughly one-third of my life. That is strange to think about! I’ve been a higher ed teacher for longer than I myself was in higher ed, and longer than I was in public schools. Over the next couple years, I will be going through a major evaluation, so I’m in a reflective mood. Obviously the way I’ve chosen to live my life indicates that learning is very important to me. What have I learned?

Other than a two-year period as visiting faculty at Kalamazoo College, my entire teaching career has been spent as part of the Shimer Great Books program, first at the independent school in Chicago and subsequently at North Central College. As I’ve written many times before, that program has a very distinctive ethos. All of our courses are discussion-based seminars based on important primary sources — no textbooks, no lectures, no high-stakes in-class exams. Since joining North Central I have been called upon to teach outside the Shimer program and have needed to fold lecture-based pedagogy back into some courses, but the discussion model remains my center of gravity. My goal is always, somehow, to get as close as I can to the day where my students can sit in a circle and talk open-endedly about what they’ve read.

This consistent pedagogical training has had a huge impact on me as a person. Continue reading “What I’ve learned”

When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

Continue reading “When research leavens teaching”

Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey

Next year, I’m going to be teaching Shimer’s senior capstone, which is purportedly an overview of the broad Western tradition (ancient and medieval in the fall, modern in the spring) with an emphasis on the concept of “history.” That narrative is becoming less and less compelling to most students, and the through-line of the focus on history tends to get a little lost amid a very crowded reading list (my list will seem crowded, but it’s nothing compared to the existing version!). So I’m going to have a chance to make some changes, to lighten the load somewhat and to incorporate more contemporary perspectives.

I don’t know how much flexibility I’ll actually have, but my mind has started to churn about what I would do with the concept if I had a totally free hand. Accepting the “ancient and medieval” frame for the fall, and taking into account that we have a 13-week semester and that the capstone class meets four times per week (and we generally do 20-30 pages of reading most days), this is what I’ve come up with so far. (Note that most of these books will be read in selections.)
Continue reading “Curriculum brainstorm: Ancient and Medieval survey”

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Continue reading “Teaching music”

Down with departments

One of the great tragedies of American higher education is that essentially every school bought into the organization of the modern research university. In that model, professors are distributed into departments that are defined by a given discipline or group of disciplines. They teach students that discipline, which means that they teach students how to do research within that discipline or, effectively, how to go to grad school in that discipline. There are transferable skills conveyed, of course, but the “job” that it prepares you for — or prepares you to train for — is academia. And as much as the idea of an “oversupply” of professors is abused, I think we can all agree that even absent adjunctification, there are not and never will be enough professor jobs for literally every English major, for instance.

This is where the liberal arts ideal comes in. Students should get a breadth of knowledge, unconstrained by any narrow field. And how they do this is, for the most part, by taking an incoherent smorgasbord of introductory courses to various disciplines. Students generally resent being forced to take these courses, and academics don’t like teaching them — meaning that adjuncts do. Lately departments are figuring out that this hurts them in the quest for majors, which brings me to my next complaints: majors.

Oh my God, majors! I wish the system of majors could be abolished altogether. It misleads students (and their parents), who generally hold some fetishistic belief in the power of a major to lead directly to a job, as though the job market is the next level of college applications. This is obviously not the case, and it is not even the case that you need to go to grad school in the field you majored in! The whole major thing is literally a lie. And it’s a lie that serves the worst trends in higher ed. It creates interdepartmental competition for “majors,” in order to maintain the department’s status, its hiring clout, and in the last resort, its very existence. It encourages a naive belief that you’re getting some set chunk of knowledge from college, which feeds directly into the naive belief that majors are direct paths to jobs. And it also creates a ton of administrative overhead, as a four-person department still needs a chair, and these departments must all be corralled into a school (or college), overseen by a dean who in turn answers to a provost, etc., etc.

What is the basis for this entire architecture of departments and majors? Expertise. That’s the basis for the university’s legitimacy and for its internal prestige economy. But here’s a dirty little secret: first- and second-year students cannot remotely handle “expertise” as traditionally conceived. Indeed, learning from a hardcore expert can be pedagogically problematic, because if someone knows something really really well, they have a harder time getting into the mindset of someone who knows something not at all. Departments tacitly admit this by having graduate students — aspiring but not-yet experts — teach many of the lower-level courses.

I think we can go further, though. This is based on personal experience. I have taught all manner of materials at Shimer. Teaching something within my expertise, narrowly conceived, is the exception rather than the rule. When I try to teach within my expertise, in fact, it generally doesn’t go as well as when I’m learning along with the students. I have taught visual arts, music, sociology, anthropology, economics, world religions, and now even some primatology and evolutionary theory. If they let me, I’ll teach chemistry and biology.

I am able to teach all these subjects because I can read and because I’m naturally curious. It’s not because I’m a polymathic genius with unparalleled reach. It’s just that people with more expertise than me have collaborated in putting together a good set of materials, and I’m able to keep ahead of the students to a sufficient degree to give them some value-add. At the very least, I model a certain enthusiasm and curiosity, I let them know that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and I provide them with the requisite superegoic pressure to keep working through stuff. I learn along with the students, and I can tell they’re learning too. Course evaluations seem to bear this out — because Shimer is one of those weird places where we actually have a consciously articulated pedagogical model and hence don’t throw students back onto the worst form of consumerism when we ask them to assess what happened in class.

My experience also tells me that developing a curriculum like Shimer’s is difficult and contentious. One fight that the division into discipline-centered departments spares an academic community is the fight over what it is that we do here. Each little fiefdom can say that they transmit a discipline, which we know is worthwhile because it just is. As for the school as a whole? I don’t know, maybe we inculcate leadership or excellence or … whatever. Social justice? Yeah, sure. We create citizens, maybe, just to make sure we don’t alienate conservatives too much.

I think there are probably possible models between Shimer’s extreme core curriculum (two-thirds of the typical student’s credits) and the prevalent model of “getting your gen-eds out of the way so that you can focus on your major.” It may even be the case that Shimer itself needs to loosen up a smidge! But some day people are going to realize that paying 100-grand for leadership and excellence is bullshit, and it would be nice if before that day came, we actually created a curriculum that was halfway cohesive and persuasive.

How I learned to stop worrying and be okay with assessment

This year I am going to be serving as Associate Dean at Shimer, and one of my primary duties will be to coordinate the academic assessment program. Though in principle I am an assessment skeptic, in practice I have been heavily involved with the ongoing development of Shimer’s program and have tried to make the case that liberal arts and humanities programs can make a virtue of necessity in the case of the assessment regime.

While we’re expanding our efforts through a fairly aggressive schedule of developing new pilot programs, our baseline measure has been an assessment of writing and discussion skills at set checkpoints in the curriculum. It’s taken a lot of work to get the rubrics straightened out and make sure that our assessments are calibrated across the faculty, and it can sometimes be a hassle — one more thing to do, usually scheduled for already busy times of the school year.

But as a result of carrying out this program, we now have pretty clear evidence that what Shimer does is working. In aggregate, students make notable progress in their discussion and writing skills. This is unsurprising, given that we’re following best practices according to a vast majority of pedagogy research — small, discussion-based classes (every day, every course) with significant writing in every course and some courses designated as intensive-writing courses over and above that. In our discussion of the data, we raised the possibility that some of this progress results from attrition, as weaker students may simply be weeded out over time. But we were able to control for that and found essentially the same results.

This is pretty remarkable, given that differential outcomes between schools generally result from the quality of students the institution can attract/buy. With Shimer — which does not have the financial resources necessary to “buy” students and has a commitment to giving a chance to applicants who have not been as successful in less engaging environments — there’s clear evidence that our program is actually producing a value-add.

Not all the data has been so confirmatory, of course, but a weird thing happened: we noticed the problem, changed our pedagogical approach, and things got better. So we not only have evidence that our basic approach works, we have evidence that we as a faculty are able to work together to improve on what we’re doing in a systematic way.

Basically, even though assessment is annoying and there are good reasons to be suspicious of the agenda behind it, there are worse ways we could be spending our time.

Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

Shimer College in the Guardian

A few months ago, Shimer College received some decidedly unwelcome publicity: Ben Miller, writing for the Washington Monthly, named it the worst college in America. This prompted Jon Ronson, a reporter for The Guardian, to visit Shimer and investigate whether it really deserved that designation. The result is an amazing portrayal of Shimer’s work and what it means to the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends who devote themselves to it.

My hope is that this story will overshadow the original study that prompted it (and in the article, Ronson cites Miller’s regret that his methodology — based solely on economic criteria and likely distorted by Shimer’s very small sample size — wound up singling Shimer out in this way). Already the story has been linked approvingly by Neil Gaiman:

This is especially exciting because being a fan of Neil Gaiman is one of the most reliable indicators of being a good fit for Shimer! Why not apply today or — if it’s too late for you to enjoy a Shimer education yourself — support our work?

Thoughts on teaching Islam in a “Great Books” style

At Shimer College, we pride ourselves on teaching “primary texts” as much as possible. The goal here is to make sure that all the reading we assign is “discussable,” which secondary sources providing background usually are not. In general, I prefer this approach, but so far in my Islam class, I have begun to see its limitations. Class discussions have a greater number of uncomfortable silences than usual, and it seems to be mostly because the students don’t feel equipped to approach the texts.

On one level, this is strange, because although Islamic intellectual traditions are of course different from their various “Western” counterparts, they’re not that different. Indeed, in many cases they are drawing from literally the same broad traditions as the “Western” sources we discuss in other classes — above all, the biblical prophetic tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. In the grand scheme of things, the surah “The Cow” from the Qur’an is more similar to Deuteronomy than different, and ibn Khaldun’s political philosophy is more similar to Machiavelli and Hobbes than different. Yet in both cases, the latter would most likely produce a much more fluid and comfortable conversation.

I’m not sure the problem is that the students lack background. It’s not as though the Islamic world has radically unintelligible social standards, and I’m confident that the texts I’ve provided have given them at least as good a rough and ready background on the general shape of cultural life as they tend to feel like they have of Greek society or medieval times. Most of their assumptions about the Greeks and medievals probably wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and I do sometimes cringe when students pull out a facile argument about how something would’ve made sense “in the culture of the time” — but that sense of initial familiarity, even if partly unfounded, gives them confidence.

Yet it’s not simply foreignness as such that’s at issue. I don’t have direct evidence here, but I suspect that students would be more prone to jump right in with texts from other “Eastern” traditions. They would come to those texts expecting to find fascinating new ideas unparalleled in the boring Western traditions with which they’re familiar — and even if their sense of knowing what to expect is unfounded, it gives them the confidence to get started.

With Islam, by contrast, American culture conveys a consistent impression of inscrutable Otherness, utter impenetrability. Orientalist scholarship of course exacerbates this, as even introductory works throw an unconscionable number of Arabic terms at their readers, creating the impression that Muslims make use of bizarre, foreign concepts that we Westerners can’t fully understand. Further, engaging with Islam feels much more fraught and dangerous than engaging with Buddhism. Political circumstances give us the sense that it’s urgently important to “understand Islam,” but fear of making insensitive remarks or perpetuating stereotypes produces a unique degree of reticence and caution.

In the short term, I plan to deal with this problem next semester by simply giving up and using more secondary sources in my course over the Qur’an, for instance by opening the course with Sells’ much-recommended Approaching the Qur’an and using a translation of the Qur’an with much more robust explanatory notes. If students feel like they need more background to get started discussing, I’m probably not going to achieve much by repeatedly insisting they don’t.

In the long term, though, I think the only solution for Shimer College, if it wants to remain faithful to its general approach while doing the needed work of exposing students to Islamic thought, is to include Islamic sources alongside Western sources as a self-evident part of the dialogue that we’re trying to create. This doesn’t mean that every course must include Islamic sources, but I do think we would be well served to include Islamic texts beyond the obvious realm of philosophy and theology — why can’t ibn Khaldun appear alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, or why couldn’t we read portions of ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic? Why can’t we read Hallaq alongside Foucault?

Yes, this would mean cutting something out in order to make room, but maybe every “Great Books”-style curriculum would do well to give up on the self-defeating goal of “covering everything” and think more intently about what we want students to get out of the texts and their juxtaposition (aside from checking them off the list of books that “everyone must read”). I’m sure that if we really had to justify every choice on a pedagogical level, we would find that no, we don’t actually need to read every single canonical early-modern political theorist, for instance, since our students are not at the level where they can detect the fine distinctions among them anyway. And in some cases, we may indeed find that the Islamic sources are actually more accessible and more suited to a background-free, “Great Books”-style approach than some of the Western texts we throw at them.