Adventures in Urban Stargazing

Over the last several years, I have achieved a major pedagogical goal of mine: teaching natural science classes. This is obviously a pretty unusual opportunity for someone with a theology PhD, which is only possible because of the distinctive methodology of the Shimer Great Books School. Our discussion-centered pedagogy makes the course materials, not the professor, the center of authority, and our generalist approach means that, at least in principle, everything we read or investigate should be accessible in some way to any curious person willing to put in a little work. Hence we not only ask all our students to take courses in every discipline — even the dreaded math and science — but we expect professors to be able to teach across disciplines. The requirement is to do two out of the Big Three (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences), but the ideal would be to teach in all, indeed to teach every core course in our curriculum.

This approach means that our science courses are very different from a typical science course, which aims to bring students up to speed with the current understanding. We focus on classic texts and experiments that exemplify profound and decisive moments of discovery. Instead of giving our students an info dump about what scientists currently think, we want to give them an experience of how scientists formulate questions and seek their answers. Older examples are better not only because they tend to be simpler to replicate (since there is less built-up background knowledge to take into account), but also because they let us see how and why scientists get things wrong.

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Learning to Love Plato

[This is a lecture I delivered to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College in November 2017, reporting my thoughts on a summer faculty seminar focused on Plato. While going through some old files, I realized that I had never published the text anywhere else, so I present it here.]

This summer [2017], I attended a summer faculty seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., on “The Verbal Art of Plato.” Hosted by Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College, this event brought together a truly interdisciplinary group of teacher-scholars—representing fields ranging from philosophy and classics to psychology and even physics—to discuss the works of Plato, along with other ancient Greek works and some of Dr. Nagy’s scholarship, in a week filled with intensive seminars. Every day for five days, we had four 90-minute sessions a day. While a few were designated as “overflow” sessions to catch up on topics and themes that had built up over time, almost all required new reading—normally a full dialogue of Plato or full book of the Republic, paired with other works by Plato’s intellectual rivals. And in what our hosts initially claimed was a pedagogical advice aimed at helping us to sympathize with the burdens we place on our own students, the readings were only distributed about two weeks before the beginning of the seminar.

In short, it was a lot to digest, and I am sure I will continue to mull over the readings and discussions for many years to come. In this talk, I would like to give an initial report of what I learned from the seminar, concluding with some notes about how it has challenged my approach to teaching classic texts and influenced my thinking more generally.

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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.

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Learning to talk to each other like human beings

In the last week of the senior capstone class, I suggested that one of the most important things we do at Shimer is develop the habit of actually talking to each other like human beings. Not spouting off opinions, not yelling at each other to beat everyone into submission, not positioning and posturing and signaling, above all not trying to “win” at something or avoid admitting we were ever wrong, but actually talking — about something of substance, which we have all done some work toward understanding. We’re not perfect. It doesn’t always come together. Personal conflict and fatigue and flagging interest all work against us. But every day, in every class, we try to learn how to talk to each other like human beings, and after four years of doing that every day, in every class, everyone gets at least a little better at it.

Every morning when I read the news and the inane commentary on it and the clever but ultimately unsatisfying riffs and jokes on it all, I become more convinced that we all need to learn to talk to each other like human beings. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most revolutionary thing or the most important thing — but it’s a necessary thing, if we don’t want to trust our fate to the loudest and most brutal person on “our side.” Maybe that will work, but it probably won’t, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any way to figure out what went wrong and what we can change.

Education that works

As I may have mentioned before, I am Assessment Czar at the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. (It’s an unofficial title, so I feel like I can choose the exact wording.) It is not a job anyone really relishes, and in fact I only got into it because I was scared the accreditors would shut us down while everyone else (understandably) dragged their feet on it. Over time, we committed to a very large range of assessment tools, many of which were probably not very meaningful, but our core rubrics on writing and discussion skills demonstrated something that we already knew: our program works.

Students of all ability levels who stick with it grow as writers and discussion participants. We were initially suspicious that the upward trend reflected the weaker students dropping out, but when we controlled for students who participated in every checkpoint exercise, the result was the same. One of my colleagues often reminds us that Shimer is not an honors program, though the things we do — small classes focused on discussion of important primary materials — are usually reserved for honors students or at least upper-level students.

It works because it is intensive — they are immersed in an environment where they have to figure out how to learn and grow in a student-driven classroom. It works because it is systematic — our curriculum has a structure with built-in checkpoints. And it works, above all I think, because we know our students — the same cohort of student is in continual contact with the same group of faculty members, who all share the same goals and standards (though admittedly students do sometimes think we are radically and inexplicably different).

Much of what we do is contrary to the trends of higher ed. At most schools, students at the lower levels are taught by contingent faculty who are treated as disposable — and though they typically do a great job, they simply can’t build relationships with individual students over time. At most schools, at least until a student has chosen a major, individual courses are treated as isolated monads with no particular relationship with one another, as departments are forced to compete for students. And building a structured core curriculum in a school that hasn’t already inherited one seems impossible due to the endless (justified!) arguments about ends and means that would surely result, even if everyone put aside anxieties about turf, etc.

At the same time, our apparently old-fashioned approach does cohere with the skill-based orientation of contemporary higher ed. We are teaching them flexibility and exploration more than we are expecting them to memorize lines from the Iliad, for instance — and anecdotally, I have often experiened better educational outcomes by using texts that would not normally fall under the heading of “Great Books.” It is important that we share a central canon that spreads through the curriculum, but its contents are to some extent arbitrary, and certainly we have learned that its boundaries can be flexible. This leads me to think that our approach could also be beneficial in a more conventional disciplinary context, if people could break the spell of “coverage” — something that we have had to do in recent years as we saw that we could never include materials of greater diversity if we were quick to insist that a student “had to” get certain texts.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to wrap this up other than to say: we are doing something that works, and we are doing it in a way that is not conservative or backward-looking. We are doing it off in a little corner and it is hard to get people to see and understand what we are doing, but we are doing it, and it works, and it should be a model for others.