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.