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. 

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.

A Thought from Walker Percy

I picked up a couple of volumes of Walker Percy essays a few months ago as I started thinking about returning to Luther after my sabbatical, and in particular as I was thinking about teaching in Paideia again.  I had also picked up some Richard Weaver on rhetoric (with a hat tip to the guys at the Christian Humanist podcast) and I’ve been moseying through these volumes as time permits.

One of the first essays I read from Percy was “The Delta Factor”, in which Percy looks at the question of (in his time – though it is to some degree a phenomenon that transcends time) the modern malaise that manifests itself in dissatisfaction with life or oneself, alienation from oneself and others, ennui, etc… the book itself, The Message in the Bottle, is a collection of his essays dedicated to the study of, as he puts it, “man’s strange behavior and man’s strange gift of language, and […] how understanding the latter might help in the understanding of the former.”  (9)

abbyflatfishPercy begins this essay by listing a number of probing questions that could very well lead to excellent discussion concerning the nature of man, our interactions with others, our language, our culture, etc.; many of these questions set out a contradiction – much in the same way Andy Rooney started off his segments on 60 Minutes with a “Have you ever wondered…”   There are some really great questions in that collection, but a couple that stick out are these:

“Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocket knife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?”

“Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to The Tempest?” (5)

Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that?  What is it about us that these things are such striking illustrations of something we’d probably all agree is true?  What has happened to us as a culture that the fascination with either the natural world, or appreciation for the literary genius of a Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Kafka, or Wordsworth, or Dante) is either absent or deeply suppressed?  Why is it that the exploration of the human condition in a dusty old work by an unknown Anglo Saxon poet isn’t worth our time?  Why the study of a Turner or Constable land and seascape is something that elicits yawns?

Is the cause of this in our society in general?  Among our educators?   Parents?  Genes?  One certainly can identify a number of potential targets in Percy’s questions – and the questions he asks should set us pondering for a spell.

The picture I’ve included as an inset in this post is from the recent trip my oldest and I took back to Washington state to visit with my family on the occasion of my grandmother’s 95th birthday.  There Abby stood – for the better part of a half hour – poking the dead flatfish (of whatever kind it was) with a stick, turning it this way and that, examining its teeth, underside, fins, etc.    Could never have replicated that experience with a prescribed exercise on a lab bench (or worse, sitting at a computer screen Googling about the subject).

One more interesting ponderables from Percy’s essay to leave you with… certainly they would serve most ably as conversation starters with a good friend over a glass of wine or beer.  (as long as it’s GOOD beer, not the pale yellow swill that most of America seems to think is worth consuming)  This one touches more directly on Percy’s major theme of language… so here it is:

“Why is the metphor Flesh is grass, which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence Flesh is mortal, which is quite accurate and logical?” (5)

Enjoy… 🙂