Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Have a Heroic Mind (a eulogy for Dr. Mike Mehlman)

In his essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says that “there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action.” To be a scholar is to be a type of hero. And heroes are people of action. However, those who use their minds to create action are exempted from that moniker. But like time and space, true thought cannot be separated from action. But what exactly is the action? I believe it to be the bestowing of your thoughts. For what good are thoughts if they cannot be shared?

So if thought equals action, then imparting those must also be a heroic deed. Dr. Mike Mehlman was that type of man, that type of hero. To teach is to train other young scholars, which is no mean feat. And Dr. Mehlman would agree with Emerson and say that mere thinking is not enough, for “the true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.” Your thoughts must produce action. And for Mike, he chose the classroom (or the hallway or the parking lot) to act, to teach, to tell stories.

And for a man who loved stories and loved history’s quirks, he would no doubt chuckle at my use of “American Scholar’ to eulogize him. I’d first received the idea of teaching Emerson’s essay only after skimming through an American Studies book that he’d lent me. He’d also find an odd measure of humor in the melancholy coincidence that when I heard about his death, I was preparing to teach the essay for the first time. It was as if Mike was combining his love of history and teaching and irony even after his death.

Those ingredients were what made him so great at what he did: he looked at history as one great big story made up of many little ones. And he taught the subject as such. The ironic facts, the odd coincidences—those are what he relayed to his classes; those are what he relayed to his colleagues. And he didn’t tell history’s stories simply for the sake of telling them. No. He told us so that our thoughts could become actions, so that we could find our own stories, or better yet—make are own.

It’s at this point where the conscientious reader points out that the “American Scholar” talks of history as being “laborious reading.” Emerson does say this. But we can’t hold it against him; he never knew Mike Mehlman.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

How to Educate a King

“I will come. But in the future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
--Merlyn to Arthur

The tutor-student dynamic interests me greatly b/c it varies slightly from the teacher-student relationship. Either way, Book 1 of T.H. White's The Once and Future King chronicles how Merlyn the magicians teaches the future King Arthur how to think differently in order to change the inequities of feudalism. Merlyn does this in part by turning Arthur into a various animals and having him experience different worlds or, rather, the same world from different points of view. Merlyn's methods are the essence of a humanities education: give the pupil new experiences so that the world becomes larger, too large to contain their prejudices and misconceptions.

To use an historical example, after dining with President Taft, Fredrick Douglass talked about how he didn’t believe he could possess skin prejudice because the man had “read too many good books, traveled too widely.” Whether Douglass’ reasoning was sound, the point is that the more expansive the world is to you, the more willing you are to view a situation from multiple viewpoints, the more likely you are to see life as a prism rather than a mirror. This is hugely important for Arthur who will one day become king. A ruler must consider the seen as well as the unseen, the obvious and the clandestine.

And ruling a kingdom is vastly different from ruling a business or a household. But the same principles apply. You must be able to evaluate people and situations and then think through several different outcomes. The humanities are about understanding and responding to a given course of events. One must invoke their intellect without dismissing their emotions. The humanities are about simply understanding how to be a better human.

And since Merlyn has lived his life backwards, having seen the future he is able to teach Arthur as someone whose knowledge supersedes the confines of feudal Europe. As a teacher, knowing more than your students is not enough; you must occupy a different world than them and be able to draw them into your world. To do so requires more than mere intelligence; you must able to anticipate one’s expectations and then circumvent them so that what you teach them outflanks the walls of resistance people naturally build to situations and concepts that will challenge and make them think.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Benjamin Franklin and the Basketball Playing Linguist

Neologism (nee-ol-uh-jiz-uhm): n. 1. a new word or phrase. 2. the introduction of new words or meanings of words

Benjamin Franklin once said of neologisms that “I cannot but wish the usage of our tongue permitted making new words.” The interesting thing about living languages, is the manner in which they get updated-sometimes purposely, other times accidentally, often times incidentally. One addition English has enjoyed is the slang phrase, “my bad,” a small, two word apology for a slight mistake.

That phrase was coined by former NBA defensive player of the year Manut Bol who died this past Saturday of acute kidney failure. The wording originated from his broken English and, like many trends in history, caught on unexpectedly-even inexplicably. The 7'7” Sudanese center was famous for a myriad of things: a distinguished if not peculiar basketball career, killing a lion with a spear while working as a cowherder, and perhaps most importantly, his selfless charity work towards the end of his life. But his diminutive contribution to our language, a two word phrase, assures him a special place in the hall of fame for sports-loving philologists like myself. I can't help but think that perhaps somewhere in heaven Dr. Franklin, the original American polymath, is meeting a new Scrabble partner.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Committee Meetings Can Make You Feel Like a Kid Again (In a Good Way…Seriously)

I had my first faculty meeting the other week. It was longer than I expected, but it didn’t feel drawn out. I remember attending meeting in college and thinking that, for the most part, they were empty exercises in procedure meant to give college students practice for when they were real adults. And I dreaded revisiting that feeling, especially since now there’s not much to practice for.

We did talk about student retention and student performance, many of the same subjects I discussed 10 years ago as a student senator. But as a professor, I feel as if I can better turn talk into action. Also, my ability to focus (or maybe I simply have fewer distractions) allowed me to zone into the topics and big picture behind those topics. Either way, time marched more than trudged, and I’m looking forward to more progress at our next get together.

Also, Robert’s Rules of Order—the absence of them—made communication less complicated. No doubt Robert’s plans have their place, but not in meetings where I’m present. I guess my presence brings a sense of order in itself, and anything else is mere superfluity.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Was Picking the Smartest Man in the NFL a Dumb Idea?

"Like a smart jock, right?...Now ain't that an oxymoron?"
--from the movie Renaissance Man

"Can't read defenses? He's a Rhodes Scholar. He can read 'em in Latin."
--from the HBO show Arliss

With the 207th pick in the 2010 draft, the Tennessee Titans picked Myron Rolle out of Florida State, a Rhodes Scholar & future MD. More significantly for the Titans, he’s a safety and should provide depth to their underachieving secondary.

A lot of speculation as to whether his scholarly interests will detract from his football responsibilities. I know this is where I’m supposed to defend him for being a renaissance man and a true student athlete. And no doubt he deserves praise from me and everyone else who’s heaped him w/ adoration. But any wariness an NFL team had of him concerning his non-football goals are actually legitimate.

When a teach drafts a player, they are making an investment. And if they have reason to believe that player won’t develop for some reason (injury prone, lack of talent, other interests, etc), then that team should be cautious. Granted, being afraid a player will retire early or be distracted because of an interest in the medical profession, is definitely different from most NFL red flags (and is much better than some recent former Titans players’ off the field activities), but it must be taken serious.

For example, if you’re hiring someone for a job, and that person is overqualified, then you would be right to hesitate because the person may be gone soon. Now, Rolle isn’t quite overqualified in the usual sense, but he definitely has qualities that make him less likely to drape his life in football, which is really what a player needs to do in order to succeed in the NFL, especially someone with the talent of a 6th round draft pick.

This is not to say I was upset the Titans drafted him. In fact, I remember sitting in front of my tv pumping my fist profusely when his name scrolled across the screen. But I do side with NFL execs whose jobs lie with not only whom they pick but whom they do not pick. And the more players you pick who don’t work out, the greater your chance of being out of a job.

All this said, does anyone have Myron Rolle’s contact info? I’d like for him to guest lecture one of my sports & lit classes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Quote of the Week: Alcohol & College Students

The following quote is the first sentence from a student essay about a Jose Cuervo ad. We talk about grabbing a reader's attention at the beginning. Well, it's hard to overlook the following sentence:

"When you drink alcohol, the panties are going to fall."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ten Year Sleep: Re-reading Rip van Winkle

"Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues." --Washington Irving, "Rip van Winkle"

I remember reading Rip van Winkle as an undergrad. I remember liking it well enough. My mind still possesses the ethereal remnants of our in-class discussion about it. I also remember being underwhelmed. That's why I never thought to teach it in my own American Lit classes. Thinking back 10 yrs, I thought the story long and unwieldy. As a hinterland, preternatural tale, I preferred its younger cousin "Young Goodman Brown."

But after rereading Rip Van Winkle for my American Lit class, I admit I overlooked or disregarded its humor and depth. It's only taken 10 years for me to wake up to its greatness. One of my mentors told me that teaching literature is a good way to supplement my literature education. Luckily, it's not just for stories I haven't read, but those I've read and slept on.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The New College Dating Culture

"Yes, everything on earth, the race of man and beast, / Fish of the sea, and flocks, and gaily painted birds, / Rush into passionate flame." --Virgil

Here's an interesting New York Times article on the current dating culture at many 4 year colleges.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Quote of the Weekend: School is the New Chocolate

"Nick, I'm not a party girl. I don't spend a lot of money. I just want to go to school. That's my one guilty pleasure!"

A friend of mine said the preceding statement while asking my advice about getting her PhD. Very true....And I support her.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Does Dating Make You Weaker?

"Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it."
--Michel de Montaigne

This particular post has nothing to do with teaching.

The things that give you energy are astounding. in an attempt to reduce stress, I recently decided to take a hiatus from dating and women. And not only has life become simpler, I have more energy. I feel like George Costanza in the episode where his girlfriend quit having sex with him and he became smarter.

Suddenly, the mental energy I spent trying to impress girls is being saved or redistributed elsewhere. I've never been hooked to a B12 IV in my sleep, but apparently someone somewhere is doing that to me. Five Hour Energy promises "no crash," but they can't promise "mo' cash." Since my break, I've saved not just on going out but also on energy producers such as Zen tea and sweetened coffee.

The trouble, of course, is that girls have become more aggressive. Once I crossed the mental Rubicon of not dating, I suddenly had several girls wanting to hang out. Others have this experience, too. I'm no different. But the daily energy bar, that's different. Not everyone can claim that. I'm considering riding out this datelessness until Easter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What to Do with 'Who Dat': the Economics of Language

"I'm glad the NFL finally realized that, even though it's the biggest animal in the jungle, it doesn't have to eat every other animal in the jungle."
--Michael Wilbon, ESPN's PTI

As you wash down the last bit of your cajun gumbo with your third beer of the night, you pump your fist and yell "who dat?" in a blend of syncopated rhythm as off beat yet musical as the language spoken in Louisiana's bayous. But as you celebrate your New Orleans Saints' trip to their first Super Bowl with the 2 word cheer that is part question, part phrase, another question is being formulated in the minds of men thousands of miles away: "can someone own a chant?"

The notion that one can copyright words, phrases, even whole sentences is not very foreign. And, to a certain degree, that makes sense. If a company produces a slogan that generates profits, it is unfair for another company to pirate that slogan for its profits. But how far does branding words for one's own use go?

Today the NFL agreed that they would allow vendors at the Super Bowl to sell products that have the New Orleans Saints' "Who dat?" slogan. How nice of the NFL to do that. My problem with them trying to prevent that at all is that the phrase did not come from NFL marketing execs brainstorming on how to increase profits. Nor did it originate with Saints management. The words came organically from the New Orleans fans.

In essence, groups of people started it, the phrase then gathered momentum, and it is now a marketable tool. And since it is used to market both the NFL and the Saints, I have no problem with either one making money from it. I take offense to the thought that only they should be able to do so. A vendor whose returns on his homemade t-shirts or mugs will be much less than anything the NFL produces should be able to use a phrase that, quite honestly, originated with a group of people who are much more like him both culturally and economically as opposed to the group of lawyers and execs who are much more likely to say "who dat?" in reference to the phrase itself than in reference to the team it was originally meant to support.

So as you celebrate this weekend with your crab legs and crawfish, french fries and fish, remember that winning is important. And making money is good. But the creativity of a community's collective comradery can be better.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Strange World of Student Evaluations

"We are now the children of Beckett more than the children of Proust." --Charles Baxter

Just received last semester's student evaluations. I received what I expected. After a whole semester with a class, it would be hard for an evaluation to catch me off guard. However in one of my writing classes, under "would you recommend this teacher to someone else," the student marked N/A. Odd, huh? How would it not be applicable? Even if you were moving out of the country, the question is really asking whether or not the professor would be good for other people, not just you. And that's something worth answering. It doesn't bother me, especially since I received no low marks from that class. But I just found it rather strange, like Lady Gaga's wardrobe...or a Samuel Beckett play.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two Key Rules of a Photographic Memory

"Imagination is the intermediary between perception and thought." --Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory

During antiquity, the art of memory was a vital part of the education process. In a world with limited writing resources, one had to rely more strictly upon their mind to record information. From the Greek philosopher, to the West African griot mnemonics was as indispensable as the tongue for the public speaker or entertainer.

The trained memory fascinates me. Whether it’s Harry Lorayne memorizing several hundred names on The Tonight Show or the poker player memorizing percentages & cards played, the uses of mnemonics makes me want to learn how to strengthen my mind.

And in a world where iPhones & Blackberrys can substitute for brain activity, I believe mnemonics still has a place and not just for party tricks. An organized mind is the key to a trained memory. But few of us have ever been shown how to organize it. Organizing one’s mind & cataloguing information that you want to store, is a challenging, interesting exercise which can make learning new things…well…challenging and interesting.

The aspect of memory I’m working to master is the craft of association. This is the foundation upon which all memory is built, trained or untrained. We associate naturally, so it’s easy to do. But some associations are more apparent than others. For example, if someone with a thick beard and flowing hair, introduces himself as Harry, you’ll probably remember without trying. But if his name is Vladimir, it could be tougher.

And this is where the game comes in. You may have a place in your mind to put Vladimir’s face & features. So the organization is there, but if you don’t have a way to make the hair and name “stick” to one another, you are more likely to forget. Yet the ways we make our associations work is curious.

Obviously, things linked to our hobbies and interests can most easily be made into associations. But what about after that? Can one get good enough to make every Vladimir into a Harry? I believe so. But it takes work. The key, as in most learning, is to ask why. When you forget something, ask yourself why the association failed when the one right before it succeeded. By answering that question, you can better learn how best to stimulate your recall capabilities.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Business of Book Picking

"For what is the use of a golden key if it cannot open what we want it to?" --St. Augustine, "On Christian Doctrine"

Getting students who are not intellectually curious (at least not when it comes to school) to read and write about books is difficult, especially when your goal is to not just give them reading and writing material but to also get them to appreciate the literature. You must give them a book that won’t provide them a reason to not do it.

When I taught A Christmas Carol, I was surprised at the number of students who used the language as an excuse to not work hard. I think it was that particular class more than the book itself, but that semester taught me a lesson about students: any excuse not to read allows them to justify their laziness. If a book has obtuse language, a quirky narrative, or an intimidating length (even if the print is big and the chapters short), students will find a way to talk themselves out of doing the work.

Of Mice and Men has worked well for me. It has around 100 pages, accessible language, straightforward narrative, and easy to follow themes. The story does not rely upon a great deal of historical context. Because of all this, students generally enjoy it. I would love to find several novels that adhere to those standards.

A great source is high school booklists, but even some of those don’t fit the criteria I’ve set up. If I’m going to teach literature in a writing class, I don’t want to spend a lot of class time providing context. I want to jump into the text and simply provide the necessary background as we encounter it within the story.

Of course, I must still teach it well. I just want the teaching to be as downhill as possible. I’ve recently read Remains of the Day and Slaughterhouse Five. The former may be too psychological to keep most students’ interest, and the latter has an obtuse narrative. I’m also considering Heart of Darkness, The King and I, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wit.