Professor Anderson’s Goals

Copied from my Introduction to Literature syllabus.
Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to make you miserable.

I’m sort of exaggerating about that, but not really. If the humanities, particularly literature, are to claim any purpose in college, part of that purpose must be to unsettle you, and this requires a bit of misery. Fortunately then, we have Kafka to start us off this semester.

Anyone attending college today has probably been victimized by a happy lie. The lie suggests that you students are powerful beings who only need the magical institutional credential of the college diploma to take the world by storm. In this environment, the courses you take are procedural rungs on the triumphant ladder of progress and achievement. You believe you can fly and we can provide the jetpack. Just Do It, and we’ll give you a fancy piece of paper that proves you did (frame not included).

Even in this course. The objectives outlined above are very good. They give us specific skills to focus on and those skills will unquestionably help you in your economic, post-college lives. And they will help me to assign a grade to your efforts. This, along with some elaborate fonts, boosts the credibility of the wall decoration you get for your four years of effort.

The problem is that none of this really has much to do with education.

Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you.

On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.

Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.

This course on twentieth-century and contemporary literature is an opportunity then. Think of it as a speed bump in the soul-killing progressive-triumphalist superhighway (you may not be able to exit – we’ll read Sartre at the end of the semester – but you might be able to slow down sometimes). Here is a too-rare chance for us (and I purposefully include myself here) to unsettle things that are settled and stale. This literature will not be easy to face because it very often undermines our heroic views of ourselves and our society. This brutality is exactly its value.

I do not wish to change your mind or your worldview. And I certainly don’t want to empower you. I hope to challenge you to confront your mind and your worldview in an effort to perfect them.

This is a burden I look forward to helping you with, but, like all real education, it is ultimately yours alone.

My office hours are listed above.

Tweaching Ethics

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The Thinker, blown-up and under construction (photo courtesy of Clevelandart.org)

This past week, I continued my classroom-Twitter-alchemy-experiments. It led to some interesting results, so I thought I’d share, since many of my readers have expressed interest in the process I began blogging about here.

Using the hashtag #EthicsInComp, my classes threw their conceptions of plagiarism and academic integrity into the Twittersphere and we used those responses to open our discussion.

As always, there were a range of responses, from descriptive (what plagiarism is) to general philosophies about personal character and integrity. As each response appeared on the screen in front of us (pictured above – thanks to one of my students for the photo!), we elaborated and had a fairly productive discussion. There was also the humorous moment when one student, unable to contribute anything original, simply re-tweeted his neighbor’s submission. We had a laugh about this, but I quickly noted that what the student had, in fact, done was to provide a direct quote (with citation!). A few light bulbs seemed to flash and I was satisfied.

In all, I’m still not sure that Twitter represents a revolution in learning as much as a novel way to capture students’ attention for a short time. If the Tweeting continues too long, I notice a slow, but persistent process of students being sucked into their handheld devices and out of my classroom – it’s a truly metaphysical moment.

If, however, I can transition quickly enough into an actual old-fashioned classroom activity, then Tweaching has been a great way to grasp their attention (and maybe make them think I’m cooler than I actually am). If any reader has advice about how they use Twitter or electronic media in the classroom, I’d love to hear about it.

Ethics and Learning

Twitter encourages brevity and that is its strength and weakness. My students conception of ethics fit well in the Twittersphere since it was largely slogan-driven. “Don’t cheat, because you’re only cheating yourself” etc…

One thing I have become convinced of is that we do not spend near enough time talking about the depths of academic integrity. Instead, we satisfy ourselves with razor thin notions of right and wrong. With almost no exceptions, my students told me that plagiarism is as simple as copying material from someone else without citing it. This is the beginning and the end of their thinking on the issue and I think it’s a problem.

From this perspective, plagiarism is simply an ethical decision that good people obviously know they will never make. This viewpoint is inadequate because plagiarism and academic integrity are much more complicated than that.

Building on the vocabulary of ethics and morality that our tweeting provided, I posed a few scenarios for my students that sparked a tremendous discussion – I was proud of them.

1). Say that you find out that you are writing about the same short story as your friend. Is it alright to discuss the story in order to learn more about it?

2). Suppose that you go to your instructor to talk about your ideas. Is what he or she says in that meeting OK for you to use in your paper?

3). What do you do if your friends know that you have a better grasp of the assignment than they do and they ask to see your paper, to get ideas about how they might tackle the assignment.

None of these scenarios adhere to the simplicity that the “don’t steal” school of academic integrity suggests. In reality, very good people make bad decisions in each of these situations, and that is in large part due to their complexity. There is of course nothing wrong with talking about a story with your friends outside of class. In fact, your teachers would love that. There is a line that can’t be crossed, however, and the problem is that the line is ill-defined.

The problem is exacerbated when the line is not only ill-defined, but ill-considered. When we reduce cheating and integrity to simple truisms, we set ourselves up for failure. Life is complex and simple rules do not prepare one for living it.

An ethical life is not lived by rules. It is lived in ambiguity. Avoiding that ambiguity invites disaster.

Please share this if you have the notion. A conversation about ethics wouldn’t hurt anyone right now.

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Learning Through Teaching

First, a sidebar. If you stopped by here last time because of the sudden attention the great singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gave this blog on his Facebook page, thank you! (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been given a greater compliment). I hope that you stick around and feel free to share your thoughts with me. This posting is about another topic, but I don’t think it’s entirely unrelated.

I want to make sure everyone appreciates how much I love my students. I truly have fun in class with them and I frequently find myself knocked-over by their insightfulness. Getting the Ph.D was quite often a drag, but it was totally worth it.

This past week, we discussed three short stories, each wildly distinct from the others. I was purposefully trying to disorient them and worked all week to keep them in that state. Please don’t call the authorities on me, but I’m convinced that this is the heart of education. Constructive confusion is the way to enlightenment. I believe this deeply and I cherish the struggle it brings.

In the middle of the week, we read and discussed Bernard Malamud’s great short story “Angel Levine.” I feel a special duty to make my students read at least one thing by Malamud each semester. His legacy is sadly eroding and if English professors don’t make people read him, no one will. A couple of malamudyears ago, I went to a major literature conference and attended the Malamud panel. I was the only member of the audience until some elderly gentleman joined us, I think out of pity. From that moment on, I decided to keep his work alive as much as my limited ability would allow.

At any rate, “Angel Levine” is a lovely tale about Manischewitz, an elderly Jewish man who, like Job, falls upon inexplicably hard times. He prays for deliverance and lo and behold an angel appears. The problem is that the angel is a former Jewish man named Alexander Levine and is now an African-American angel who lives in Harlem and is in a probationary period. Thus, the protagonist has doubts, as you might imagine. This angel contradicts his expectations in every imaginable way. Yet, he must overcome his doubt in order to believe before the angel can help him. This is the story’s central dilemma.

I always like to start with a question, so I had my students write for five minutes about why we suffer. Their answers were quite intelligent and often profound and they found the connection to the story themselves. We had great discussions about this fine piece of literature. I was happy that they had experienced the story in the way that I had hoped.

As the day went on and I taught the story in my subsequent classes something dawned on me. They were also seeing the story in ways that went beyond my hopes. The story came alive through their eyes and I was seeing it anew with each class that had engaged with it. Their unique perspectives had brought something to the tale that was new for me and, in turn, made it richer.

By the second class, I began to see the story as not only a modern Job-like morality tale, but also as a literacy narrative, much like Malamud’s great story “A Summer’s Reading.” Manischewitz’s dilemma is one of broadening his mind. His “sin,” if he has one, is that he sees the world only as it exists in front of his face. When he has to leave his neighborhood and make the arduous journey to Harlem to find the angel, he is, in essence, beginning the process of opening himself up to new experiences. In the end, his world is richer not only because of his faith, but because of his willingness to explore it.

Then I became aware, to my horror, that I was Manischewitz! I was the one who had come to class already knowing what I knew about this story. In leaving my own certitudes and following the bread-trail my students were leaving, I found new meaning in the story. Like our downtrodden hero, I too had grown. It was wonderful. But, like all wonderful things, it was also scary.

It was so wonderful, that I went all mushy with my class. I confessed to them the impact the story has had on my life. I had unwittingly scheduled this reading for this week 2 months ago and had no way of knowing that it would be waiting for me at a special moment in my life. As I shared with some detail in my previous post about Rodney Crowell (if those readers are still with me, thank you!), I’ve reached a point at which I’m starting to feel the gravity of my move from Cleveland. Like my re-discovery of Crowell’s music, re-reading this great story really meant something to me. This time, I felt the suffering in a new way and, more importantly, I felt the conviction that belief is risky. To believe in something, anything, is to risk something. Manischewitz risked his perception of the world and the afterlife to believe in his angel. I’m left to ponder what it is that I am willing to risk. I, like my students, am still disoriented and struggling to right myself. I suspect this is a life-long condition. I am still learning.

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