The Joy of Teaching

The new year has dawned – the students have arrived, tears have been shed, hugs and kisses with parents, family and friends have been exchanged – and we begin another academic year at Luther College.  As the formal opening date of September 2 approached, I spent some time thinking about this place we call our academic home – for some reason more than usual, this year, although every new academic session sends me down a similar path of reflection.  Every year I find more reasons to appreciate the joy of what I do as a professor here.  Teacher, researcher, learner, conversation partner.  These are words which I embrace wholeheartedly as descriptive of my roles at Luther.  I am unapologetically one who is wholly wedded to the liberal arts college ideal – a perspective which earned me many a sideways glance while in graduate school at Northwestern in the 90’s and as a post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University in the early 2000’s.

Albino OrcaIn a sea teeming with physicists whose ultimate career goals lay in the so-called R-1 class of research universities, I stood out like an albino orca.  (Photo Credit: Far East Russia Orca Project)  I was essentially standing alone as one who had in mind a vocation as a teacher who also is an active researcher, rather than working as a university researcher who, on occasion, was unfortunately required to teach.  One of the most common questions I got at Northwestern and Cornell was, “If all you’re really going to do is teach, why are you wasting your time pursuing research?  Why not just go out and get a job?”  I suspect such a question says more about the questioner than the questionee, but it highlights an issue that is germane to my subject in this article.

An important question for higher education is the following: “How does one build intuition and skills, and how does one become accomplished in any field, able to attend to any problem or question that arises in its pursuit?”  I would propose that there is but one foundational method – one primary gateway to gaining the abilities that one associates with the “expert”.  There are many words to describe this method, but all focus on one central concept – among these words are Practice; Exercise; Rehearsal; Training.   Without dedicated rehearsal of the delivery of lines and the acting of a scene in a play, a cast has little hope of pulling off a solid performance.  Without exercising the muscles, and training diligently in order to develop what athletic trainers call ‘muscle memory’, one’s hopes of being an elite athlete are little more than a pipe dream. Without practicing techniques and the carrying out of a plan for both offense and defense, a team has little reason to expect victory on the playing field.  These words are united around the idea of discipline.   It’s interesting to me, as an aside, that this synonym of “study” and “train” has also become the word we associate with different areas within the academy.

Disciplined study fuels the life of the mind, and can equip a young man or woman for a thoughtful, reflective, and flexible path forward into their life beyond college.  The liberal arts college, at its best, can help students become people who are the best equipped to face the uncertain world that is before them. In order be equipped to grapple with the challenges of new problems or new texts, whether one hopes someday to be a physicist or a scholar of Renaissance English literature, education that amounts to mere “content delivery” by a lecturer is simply insufficient.  Rather, one needs to practice engaging with questions and working vigorously in the realm of ideas.

Students of physical science gain most along these lines by spending quality time working with complex problems and applying fundamental principles.  With lots of practice of this kind, they soon stop asking the question “what equation do I need?” and start asking deeper, more mature ones, like “what physical principles apply?” or “what approximations can I make to help make this problem tractable?”.  Through such exercise, they soon begin to know which equations are pertinent, and develop intuition that helps them flexibly approach and solve completely unfamiliar problems.   The abilities to think critically about physical phenomena, to analyze situations in terms of critical concepts, and to express the solution to problems in a sensible way are best strengthened by lots of practice studying problems drawn from a wide variety of physical situations.

Research activity functions in much the same way, both for me and for my students.  That is, by seeking answers to new questions in physics we have another means by which to strengthen the skills we have as practitioners of our science.  Research serves as a stimulus for the germination of new ideas, and as a fertile field for the planting of those ideas.  As farmers bring forth crops with care and diligence, so to do we who do research carefully seek to bring to fruition the promise of the exercises undertaken in the classroom.   It is for this reason, I told my colleagues long ago, that I see research as vital to what I do, even as one primarily dedicated to teaching.  It is literally part and parcel of my calling, and wholly consistent with the beautiful synergy that exists on the best liberal arts college campuses.

I believe these ideas translate well to disciplines from all corners of our campus – and given the fact that I teach in Paideia also, I have the opportunity to put them to the test using a different set of tools in an entirely different field of study.  Students we teach in Paideia, I think, benefit most from the course when we present them with challenging reading that invites them to grapple with eternal questions. They succeed best when they read both deeply and broadly, and they are asked to engage in the practice of writing – lots of writing.  The highest quality fruit comes, in my opinion, when we supply students with the most fertile ground in which to work – when we teach excellent texts of enduring value that open the door to a variety of important questions.   The abilities to think critically about what one reads, to analyze the texts themselves in light of big ideas, and to express oneself in the form of logical argumentation are best strengthened by lots of practice using a wide variety of texts.

Finally – let me return to the fact that Luther is a liberal arts college, and that we encourage and even require cross-pollination.   This is the heart of the matter for me, and what drew me here to teach ten years ago.  (Truth be told, I was drawn to teach at a liberal arts college the moment I set foot as a first year student on the campus of my own alma mater, a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest)  We have the opportunity at Luther, by urging all of our students to think deeply about ideas in science, art, literature, music, religion, philosophy – all of the kinds of things people do well – to strengthen them as people who embrace the joy of learning, even as we embrace the joy of teaching.  By setting before them challenging material from a variety of disciplines, we are able to send students from here  who have become more broadly capable as thinkers, more compassionate as carers and better prepared for whatever they seek to pursue next than those whose education is more narrowly defined.  

This is an ideal of course, and the practice doesn’t always fully measure up to that ideal.  I am greatly encouraged, though, each day by my discussions with students – lately, over Inferno  and Frankenstein in Paideia, over the classical and quantum theory of collisions in my physics courses, and informally with students and faculty colleagues alike over the meaning of the Higgs boson discovery, or of the value of literature study for all people.  I have hope, as a result of these discussions, that Luther is a place with great potential to bring forth wonderful results for all of us who dedicate ourselves to the common vocation we have as citizens of this place.  As this new academic year dawns, it is my hope and prayer that our students drink deeply from the well that the liberal arts education we offer here provides them. 

Returning from Hiatus

No, there is no town named Hiatus in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or any other state, as far as I know.  I’m simply going to rejuvenate this blog after nearly a year off.

Here we are in the middle of August, and for me, anyway, that means I’m thinking about my upcoming courses, about pedagogy in general, and – at least on this day – about Paideia, our common first year course at Luther.  That’s got me thinking again about the wisdom found in Flannery O’Connor’s writing about writing, about Dante’s Inferno, which I’ll be teaching mid-semester, etc.  So… look out for more soon.

On Necromancy as a Liberal Art


Morning has arrived on a cool, late October day. The Luther College campus is shrouded with a thick fog that simultaneously obscures the view of the hillside aflame with autumnal maples and muffles all sounds. The stillness in the air is both calming and invigorating. It is the middle of Fall Semester–and the middle of my favorite season of all. It is a time, for me at least, ripe for reflection and preparation. One of the constant subjects of such reflection is the task before us as faculty at Luther College-a college of the liberal arts and sciences.

Over the past couple of years, the news in higher education circles has been full of warnings about “disruptors”-social forces that, we are told, are going to change the landscape of higher education and, perhaps, require fundamental change in the nature of colleges like ours. While such “disruptors,” I believe, do require some attention on our part, I cannot join in the chorus of lamentation and hand-wringing. I have, on the other hand, every confidence that by standing firm on and even strengthening our commitment to the liberal arts and what such an education truly can provide students, we can weather these storms, and become a stronger and more effective institution. Flexibility is in the nature of a liberal arts education, and I am here to add my voice to those of my colleagues who wish to promote the vibrant learning community that Luther College is.

One of the things that particularly captures my enthusiasm about teaching at Luther is, as noted in one of my previous blog posts at Ideas and Creations, leading first-year Paideia students through discussions of works of literature, philosophy, art, music and history. In teaching this class, I often tell my students that one of my goals is to help them learn necromancy. Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian and French Literature at Stanford University, and host of a podcast I greatly enjoy and highly recommend (Entitled Opinions), often says that if we are to have any hope of the health and well-being of a society, its members must not neglect “communication with the dead.” By this he does not mean that we should be employing necromancers, as much as the Dark Lord Sauron might like us to. Rather, he simply means that we must never sever the ties that connect us to the thinkers, authors and artists of the past if we wish to flourish as a society, because they have exceptionally valuable things to say to us.

Harrison’s provocative statement resonates deeply with me and, indeed, with the very thinkers of the past he calls us to listen to. Among these is, for me, C. S. Lewis, who once wrote a wonderful piece as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books.” In this piece, Lewis plainly states the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present. Just as we cannot afford, if we are to grow as thinkers and as individuals, to solely pay attention to and participate in the echo chamber of those who already agree with us socially, politically or culturally, we cannot grow in these ways if we set aside the voices of the past in literature, philosophy or the arts.

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or, more broadly speaking, in our society. I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one.

If we live insulated from those voices, (the voices of the dead, to use Harrison’s imagery) we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God, about the world, and about the solutions to society’s ills. We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today.” We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important. We become arrogant about our present time and current ideas. This notion is also, as Lewis argues, frightfully short-sighted.

Often our educational system pushes students (and us faculty) into modes of thinking and existence that exacerbate this tendency. We have people arguing that STEM education is the only worthwhile education (as a faculty member in a STEM discipline, quite honestly this notion is both laughable and damaging) and that we must continually be moving forward, forward, forward, leaving the past to eat our dust, embracing everything that is new and innovative, and yearning for more. Our very educational system sometimes treats the past as an afterthought, rather than as the foundation for all that we have accomplished and the base from which we move forward.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything much older than they are. This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every so often I run into students with a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and who argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives. These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view.”

This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it–because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves. That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut. But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by misdirected “outcome-based” educational standards that tend to hamper every effort to truly educate the student. I believe I speak for most of my faculty colleagues at Luther when I say that our aim is to provide our students with a fuller experience of education with every fiber of our being.

The view I have through my office window–that view of trees in various states of undress, and a fog-covered campus–has a timelessness about it. So, too, do the works we aim to set before our students in Paideia. By engaging significantly with these works, and contemplating deeply the issues presented in them, it is my hope that we are able to help students to grasp more firmly the connections we all have to those who have gone before us and the issues they wrestled with, and to help them learn to ask good questions of themselves and the things they read as they communicate with the dead. By helping students become good necromancers, I am ever hopeful that we can help them develop a solid foundation in our first year common course from which to spring forth into the rest of their four years as learners at Luther, with flexibility, confidence and integrity.

To See and to Know

While thinking about the upcoming semester (the cycles of the year go on and on, and I sit here today repeating the cycle once more as a new crop of students is about to break forth on the Luther College campus) I happened upon this little anecdote recorded by Ezra Pound in his  ABC of Reading:

“No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and dip­lomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with the des­cription of the lchthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish. The student produced a four-page essay.

Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.”

This story — concerning what it is to see and to know — reminds me a great deal of something from Walker Percy that I’ve blogged on before.  As much as one might be able to give a Latin name of a biological specimen, and even give precise expression to scientific measurements of various quantities that characterize its physical form, this is but part of the picture.  My family and I were driving home this past weekend from some time away, and en route Heather and I at one point were talking about the beauty of the southeastern Minnesota landscape and the many shades of green we saw in the hills and forests around us.  One could obtain a spectrograph, and point it at the landscape, and create a plot of the intensities of the green light observed as a function of wavelength or frequency.  Would that capture the beauty of the range of color?   It would give us partial information, sufficient for some things, to be certain – perhaps even important information for some applications.  What such precise measurement lacks, however, is a human quality that, for example, the words of the poet or the musical theme that the composer can supply, each giving voice to their perception of that glimpse of nature.  As human beings we need this beauty — and we need to express our reaction to it every bit as much as to express the results of our scientific explorations.  We need the humane as well as the scientific — the poetic as well as the precise.

Flannery O’Connor on Teaching Literature

flannery_600I Just got through reading a fabulous essay by Flannery O’Connor on teaching literature entitled “Fiction is a Subject with a History – It Should Be Taught That Way.”  If only Ms. O’Connor could see today’s situation…her words ring powerfully true today just as, I suspect, they did 50 years ago when she wrote them.  Among the choice passages that struck me this evening in her essay are these:

“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting… No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.”

Wow.  1963?  2013?

I need to ruminate on this quite a bit longer, but this paragraph and the entire essay bears thinking long and hard about.  What is it that we are trying to do in educating children – and, for those of us in higher education, educating young adults?  To what degree are we to be guides, and to what degree facilitators of their interests, letting the educational process go wherever they seem to want to wander?  I’m going to revisit this essay on this blog, but after reading through it for the first time, this paragraph kept ringing in my ears… and I still have trouble placing her words in their proper historical context.  They simply seem to be speaking to us about ourselves today.

On Writing Well in the Twitterverse



What do you think, in terms of the ability to write more lengthy prose, is the impact of the fact that today’s incoming first-year students have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones? In addition to the shortcomings that No Child Left Behind assessment-heavy education has left them with, students whose writing is most commonly done in 140-character chunks and who think in terms of “like” buttons really struggle to put together a few pages that contain a solidly argued proposition. As may be apparent from this query, I am thinking a fair bit these past couple weeks about the challenges we who teach writing face. There is hope, of course – but the work is certainly cut out for those of us who teach writing in any formal manner.

On the Writer’s Responsibility and the Weight of Words

writerOne of the things that I have been mulling over during the past few months as I anticipate returning to the classroom after a year’s sabbatical, and, in particular, to the Paideia classroom, is how I might best help students acquire an appreciation for the weightiness of writing.     I will be quite satisfied, if, in the course of my teaching, I am able to pass on to students the concept that writing isn’t merely an activity that is sometimes necessary to perform in order to obtain a grade in a class, and is not simply a personal act – but is an act that unites writer and reader in a manner that has far greater significance.

One thing I hope my students can grasp is that when one writes, one writes not merely for oneself, but for the one who will ultimately read the words written. Because the reader’s thoughts are guided and impressions are formed on the basis of the written word, the author has a subtle degree of power over the reader.  Now that power is not in any sense absolute, to be sure, but its existence in the reader-writer exchange does imply an ethical responsibility on the part of the author to wield that power with respect for the reader (and for truth).   I strongly suspect that the idea of such a responsibility is quite foreign to many students, so one of the first things I explicitly tell them each Fall is that writing is no private act, but requires them to think carefully about what they’re saying and how they say it. I don’t know enough about contemporary secondary education Language Arts methods to be able to point to a cause in high school English pedagogy for the lack of a sense in students’ minds of this responsibility.  I would definitely appreciate feedback from any who know more about this than I.  Is it possible they’re never taught it explicitly?

I wonder, too, whether a contributing factor is an emphasis in today’s English classrooms on the ‘personal essay’ as the primary form of writing.  One thing that crops up continually in my students’ writing about texts we read in Paideia is examples of essays that seem to be a hybrid between book report and diary entry.  Again, I’m not sure this is due to explicit emphasis in the classrooms they’ve been part of, but whatever the case,  this kind of writing is frequently what I see in their first papers, and requires attention to undo.   When a student’s default writing mode is ‘personal reflection’, opinion is king, and evidence is irrelevant.  (as an aside… if one assigns such ‘personal essays’, which we don’t in our course, how does one even evaluate such an essay for grading purposes?  I suppose one can look only at style and grammatical correctness, but… ugh.)  The emphasis on ‘personal essays’ also might help explain students’ perplexed looks when their first paper receives a ‘C’ for lacking evidence or a hard-to-find thesis.   I’ve had students question whether the reason their paper received a lower-than-expected grade (which for many is an A-) was that I disagreed with their opinion – good teaching opportunity, I suppose.

One nice thing about Paideia, as contrasted with the typical freshman comp course, is that we don’t do anything with the ‘personal essay’ format, but spend the whole fall semester working on what might be called the ‘academic essay’ – thesis-driven argumentative essays based on texts that we read.  As such, then, we can from day one address the need of the writer to responsibly and respectfully craft an argument to defend a proposition- an argument whose persuasiveness is not found in the personality of the writer, but in the choice of the evidence, the explication of the text and the proposition being argued for, etc.  As an outsider to the art of rhetoric (in professional training, anyway) it’s a joy to be able to pass on to students that this responsibility, and the broad strokes description of the academic essay are directly applicable even to something as arcane as elementary particle physics, my own research field.  Whether one is describing the relationship between Beowulf and Wiglaf at the end of the epic poem, or the interpretation of a particular decay mode of a system of quarks bound together that we have observed in the laboratory, the task at hand is largely the same.  This methodological synergy between the sciences and humanities is really what floats my boat and makes teaching Paidea a real pleasure.   The responsibilities of writers across the board are of one piece.  Ultimately we write about, and aim to persuade our readers of, what we believe is true about a given subject… and crafting articles and essays in which we undertake this act is no idle task.