It's a marathon, not a sprint

At the risk of being accused of stretching my metaphors a bit -- and what metaphor isn't stretched when applied? isn't that the very character of metaphors, which by definition transfer elements from one domain to another? -- it seems to me that the course of a semester is in many ways like that marvel of modern athleticism, the regular season of organized professional Major League baseball. One always hears that the regular season is not a sprint (at least, not until the last few weeks if division races are tight), but a marathon; the test of a good baseball team is not whether it can win a few games, even a few games in a row, but whether it can consistently perform at a high level over the course of a grueling six-month season and a schedule of 162 games.

Why is the semester like this? Because the true test of whether you're doing a good job is not if one particular day or one particular week goes well, but if the effect of the whole achieves the desired level of engagement. In the end it is the long term that matters far more than any individual session or encounter.

One can think of the regular season of Major League baseball as, in effect if not in deliberate design, a giant machine for discounting random fluctuations.1 Yes, a team may win any given game because of a bad call by an umpire or a ball taking a bad hop in front of the shortstop which leads to a two-run error, but over the course of the entire season such random happenstances will cancel one another out, and we will be left with some teams having a record better than others -- and we can say with a high level of confidence that they have a better record because they simply played the game better over the course of the season. The same cannot be said of sports with absurdly short regular seasons, or of competitions where the winner is basically chosen at random.

Now, classroom teaching is not competitive in the same way. One does not accumulate a record of success by defeating other classes; instead, one simply tries to go out and have a good season by performing well, and there's no reason why every class can't be succeeding at once. In a way, I think of it as playing against myself, or against other classes that I've taught -- can this semester of this course go in the record-books as roughly comparable to other instances? Is the experience rewarding for all concerned? Could it be better -- not necessarily more enjoyable in the short-term, which is a marketing question in which I am generally not interested, but richer, thicker, more challenging and generally more complex?

The semester is also like regular-season baseball in that the early days of both are largely about figuring out what you have to work with. In my classes this semester I tend to oscillate between the "pitching" and "batting" roles; I pitch when I lecture, and I bat when I am facilitating a discussion and basically taking critical swings at whatever someone chooses to toss out in an effort to get them to specify and defend their position a bit better. I find that I spend the first couple of class sessions just trying to get the feel of the class, to see who's a "free swinger" willing to take a crack at whatever I toss out there, who has "perfect-pitch-itis" and refrains from speaking up until they think that they can make the most exquisite point, who's aggressive, who's cautious, and so forth. Once we start to develop some sense of one another, it becomes easier for us to engage in a good discussion or other positive pedagogical interactions. But first we have to get through the initial couple of weeks.

Thank goodness it's a marathon.

1Don't get me started on how the scheduling in contemporary Major League Baseball is completely messed up and unbalanced. Largely because of interleague play, each team faces a different combination of opponents within a given year, and faces them under different conditions -- one can't be assured of having the same number of games against each opponent as the other members of one's division or league, and certainly can't be assured of having an equal number of games against each opponent at home and away. So in a certain sense things aren't fair by design . . . but it's still better in MLB than in other sports.


Masterworks blogs

As promised, here are the urls for the group blogs for this semester's "Masterworks" course:

Have at it!

[Posted with ecto]


Amidst the continuing stories of tragedy and survival emanating from the Gulf Coast, this article in this morning's Washington Post caught my eye: Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, has turned the higher education clock back by requiring all freshmen to take a required philosophy and literature course that covers what we might think of as the Usual Suspects in the Western Canon: the book of Genesis, Plato, Descartes, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and the like.

I think that this is a good move, and I wish that more colleges and universities would adopt requirements like this. I say this not because I am any great believer in the integrity of the Western Canon -- especially since the best historical research shows us that the precise contours of what counts as a "canonical" work varies widely over time, sometimes fluctuating wildly from decade to decade. Nor am I convinced of the "enduring value" or "timeless wisdom" contained in any of the works that one commonly finds on lists for courses like this; I'm particularly skeptical that Plato or Aristotle have much of substance to teach us, given the differences between their worlds/ways of life and ours.

Instead, I'm in support of this kind of a required course for a few different reasons. The first is basically autobiographical: I taught Contemporary Civilization as part of Columbia University's Core Program for two years, and it was if not the absolute best course I have ever taught, it certainly comes very close to the top of the list. CC met twice a week, two hours per session, for an entire year, and we read a series of complex and challenging works running up and down and sometimes outside of the traditional list of dead white guys. And that stuff is fun to teach, so much fun that my "Masterworks of International Relations" syllabus looks in no small way like my old CC syllabus. Spend a week on the mechanics of voting at the UN or spend a week reading and discussing Kant's proposal for a perpetual peace? Kant wins, hands-down.

[Full disclosure: I interviewed at Ursinus six years ago, and at that time some of the faculty were just beginning to put a new course together. One of the things I liked the most about the place was that, in fact, they were heading in that direction and that I'd be able to teach in their new program, and basically keep teaching CC…but I didn't get that job, and the rest is history.]

Second, there's the historical dimension. The "Western Civ" course played certain specialized functions in its heyday (roughly 1920-1965, give or take), and the disappearance of that course as a required element of college and university education has made it harder to fulfill those functions. I'll highlight two functions: providing a common vocabulary, and socializing students into a multi-generational conversation. The "Western Civ" course fulfilled these functions more or less by design: starting as the "War Issues" course at Columbia during the First World War, transmuting into the "Peace Issues" course afterwards and then spreading throughout American higher education with more of an emphasis on a set of classical primary-source readings, the basic point remained pretty much the same -- to bring students into dialogue with the stuff that, for better or for worse (probably both), formed the intellectual foundation of the world in which they lived. Like it or not, we live in a world that has been produced by people who read and discussed and thought in terms promulgated by a lot of white European guys, and if one wants to understand that world one has to read their writings. American politics is basically incomprehensible without Locke; debates about evolution are incomprehensible without Descartes and Darwin; discussions of religion in public life effectively require familiarity with Mill, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and so on.

Of course, people carry on conversations and debates in ignorance of this heritage all the time. The result, whether one agrees with it or not, is -- I'd submit -- thinner, poorer, and uglier. And the absence of a set of common philosophical and literary references makes it harder to articulate a robust conception of American identity; if everybody has their own heroes and their own gods, what becomes of the whole?

Now, I am in no way advocating that we only read "the classics" or that we uncritically accept the ideas that may be found in any such set of readings. But I am suggesting that it's important that we know where we came from, and that the critical conversations that we have be reliably able to depart from a common set of themes, tropes, commonplaces, images, and so forth. Struggling about the precise meaning of that common core is what a robust political and social life ought to be about -- and we can't have that unless we first have the basic set of stuff to argue about.

Third, although I don't think that we should be designing required readings because of any "timeless wisdom" that they supposedly contain, I do think that there's something to be said for thinking through issues in the company of people like Hobbes and Thucydides and Kierkegaard and Freud. It's not that they "got it right," but instead that they spent a lot of time working through to some sort of a stance on some of those perennial issues that keep coming up again and again throughout the course of recorded human history. [There may be a causal loop at play here, of course: perhaps part of the reason that those issues keep surfacing is that people have read certain works and engaged with them in trying to order their experiences, and then their records of those experiences become part of the canon, which people read subsequently, etc.…] I can think of no better way to wrestle with some thorny issue than by discussing it, either with live persons or with dead ones whom you only know through books -- but you can't use the book route unless you have been exposed to the books, and exposed to them in their proper historical and intellectual context. Which is what a required college course on the Columbia/Ursinus model provides.

For example: Augustine's central problem in his magisterial Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans is the question of how God could have permitted Rome to fall -- how such a magnificent city's ruin at the hands of barbarians could be squared with the notion of an infinitely good, just, and compassionate supreme ruler of the universe. Contemporary relevance, anyone? Augustine is the perfect source for trying to work through the theological or cosmic meaning of a disaster, to try to put it all into some kind of context -- even if one whole-heartedly rejects Augustine's conclusions. The point is that engaging what he is doing in the text, confronting his arguments and responding to his logic, helps to develop the habit of mind that can come to some kind of resolution about big incomprehensible things.

Enduring value? In that sense, you betcha. Worth the possible grumbling of freshmen seeking more choice and more control over their educations from the get-go? I think so. And, if these weren't enough, think also of the benefits for higher-level college courses, when one can presume a familiarity with certain works and authors and themes, the better to appreciate the critiques of them that are advanced by more contemporary authors…

Yes, I'm a CC junkie. And I think that you should be, too.

[cross-posted on Duck of Minerva]


Courses and classes

Ah, the start of a new semester -- immediately interrupted, as happens almost every Fall, by the annual American Political Science Association conference, which invariably happens over Labor Day Weekend. This year it's a bit odd, as the conference is in downtown DC; since I live here, I am both a local agent for arranging dinners and such, and splitting my time between conferencing (yes, it's a verb, and it indicates a whole different form of life than that ordinarily found outside of professional conferences. More on that in another entry, if I feel so inclined) and being at home to do family things like put the kids to bed.

Besides the general craziness of early September, I am always struck at this time of year how different a course can be from iteration to iteration. I distinguish between courses and classes: courses are defined by a number in the catalog, a syllabus, and a title, and perhaps by a basic core set of readings and activities. [Precisely how many of the core readings and activities can change before the course transmutes into another course is a matter of some dispute, kind of like Wittgenstein's question in Philosophical Investigations about how many houses it takes to make something a "city" rather than a "town" -- the answer, of course, is that neither term has an absolute and fixed meaning, so that any attempt to answer the question takes its bearings not from a determinate distinction but from the local rules of the language-game governing the use of the terms in practice. In other words: it's a new course when I say it's a new course, and when I can substantiate that claim within some given language-game and convince other participants to accept my characterization.]

Classes, by contrast, are the collections of people who participate in the course when it is offered; a particular class is a particular group of people, including myself, who undertake the semester-long journey that is shaped and structured by the course. But not determined: I can promote the same discussions, assign the same readings, in a course year after year, but the result is somewhat different for each class. I traditionally do the "what do you know?" drill at the beginning of my 206 course, but each class reacts differently and we generate a slightly different conversation every time. The conversations -- like the classes as a whole -- bear a family resemblance to one another, but each takes unique twists and turns and displays a different character.

It's important to keep in mind that classes are different not merely because the students (and my assistant(s), if any are involved in the course that semester) are different, but because I am also different from semester to semester. What I stress, what I downplay, what waves I send out into the shared pedagogical space of the classroom are never quite the same from instance to instance, even though I work from a similar script (and often a set of slides, when I am lecturing) each time. I regard the slides as sheet music, though, and I improvise around them, playing off the students in the class just as they play off of me. And class discussions are even wilder, since we may read the same words on the page in, say, Hobbes or Thucydides, but I have no idea where we are going to go from semester to semester in our collective consideration of that material. I'm always surprised, which is part of the fun of the whole exercise.

This semester I have two courses running, one of which (research methodology) I've taught many many times before, and the other of which ("Masterworks," which is basically a political philosophy of international relations course) I've only taught once before. But I have no clearer idea of where the former is going than I do the latter.

If I ever knew precisely what a class was going to do, I'd think that it was time to ditch the course or radically rework it -- largely because I'd have no idea how to participate in such a class. A good course permits and furthers a kind of joint action conversational process, a distinguishing characteristic of which is that none of us individually have complete control over it. In that sense, a certain amount of ignorance -- or, perhaps, humility -- on my part opens the space for a much more interesting class to take root and flower.

Since this is a "course diary," expect notes from the road as we find ourselves meandering along it.