Friday, August 9, 2013

Against Grading

One of the best things to happen in my education was when I attended a school - a graduate school - that refused to give grades. "How is that possible?" you may ask.  "What kind of fluffy, feel-good, no-good education did you get there?"  To which I reply: a damn good one; one of the best.  Curious?  Read on:


We are sick with love of enumeration.  We've discovered that counting things over time is a powerful way to predict what will happen next.  And now we are mantic-obsessives, (that's not a typo) that is, people obsessed with prediction, with foresight that will rule the uncertainty of our lives.

Look: that's not such a bad thing, in a way.  What I'm describing is the root and trunk of science: quantification and statistical analysis is the beating heart of our understanding of scientific laws, which are about predictive inference.  Understanding of the laws of nature can save lives, and make water clean, and heal some deep wounds. Science is wonderful, and no liberal education should stint in its science offerings.

But if we're not careful - if we divorce science and enumeration from other ways of regarding value - that can make some pretty big holes in the world, too.  (Whenever I hear someone say that religion is the cause of human suffering, I think "What about chemistry?"  Both religion and chemistry can be deployed to change lives, and to change them dramatically.  Or to end them suddenly.)

Likewise enumeration.  The counting of things can give us great power to rule our own futures.  It can also give us great power to rule the futures of others, and not always in kind ways.  One real danger of learning to count things is that we find it too easy to shift from saying "It's hard to count X" to saying "X doesn't count."

Our quantifimania, for instance, has half of us (no, I didn't count, I'm speaking figuratively) believing that good teaching can be measured by test scores.  Or that someone's intelligence can be reduced to a simple number.  Or that a kid's giftedness, or ability to learn, or likelihood of living a creative and thoughtful life can be simply reduced to a GPA or a standardized test score.

Years ago, when I was thinking about beginning my graduate studies in Philosophy, a professor I knew suggested I prepare for my Ph.D. by attending St John's College's "Great Books" program.  I looked over the reading list and realized that even if it didn't get me into a Ph.D. program, it would be worth it for its own sake.

As an undergraduate at an elite liberal arts college in the northeast, I was continually reminded that little mattered more than my grades.  I was the sort of student who earned good grades with little effort, so it was natural to begin to believe that what mattered most came without struggle.  As a result - I realize this now, in hindsight - I bypassed much of the opportunity my college offered me by studying only what my classes required of me.

This all changed in my first term at St John's, when I wrote a seminar paper on Aristotle.  My tutor Matt Davis returned it to me without a grade on it.  Instead, it was covered with marginal comments, underlining, and a paragraph of reflection and response at the end.  But again, no grade.  "How did I do?" I asked him.  "Have a look at what I wrote," he replied.  Sure enough, he told me how I did: here were the things that were strong; here were the gaps in my argument.  No quantification, just explanation.

I wanted a grade because I'd been habituated to thinking of the grade as the way of judging the merit of my work.  St John's decision to refuse to give grades is an intentional and hard-fought resistance to that way of thinking.

At the end of the term, each of my tutors gave me one, two, or even three pages of handwritten comments on my strengths and weaknesses as a student.  But once again, no grades.  Nothing to distract me from reading their comments, nothing that would allow me to measure the worth of their comments other than the comments themselves.  And nothing to make me think: "Well, that's done."

As a result, I stopped thinking about grades and started thinking about ideas, and texts, and writing.  I started caring more about correcting my ignorance than about concealing it from my peers and teachers.  And I stopped thinking about learning as something that happens in fifteen-week segments.  Learning was no longer something that begins here and ends there.  Learning was now a river I step into, and in which I may swim, and bathe, and drink for as long as I am able.  And if I step out, it remains there, ever flowing, for me to return to.

It was only then that I realized just how bored I had been in school.  I had been bored since my childhood, because I had to show up, had to perform tasks, in order to get these lofty numbers that weighed so heavily and meant so little to me personally.

I've known many students who are bright but who don't do well on standardized tests.  I've known many others who don't do well on any test at all, and I've no doubt that much of it has to do with anxiety over the way their work will be reduced to a number, one they feel is so disconnected from what they know.  As a teacher I feel I'm constantly fighting to get my students to stop worrying about their grades, even while I'm required to assign grades to their work.  Grades are, in my opinion, one of the worst things to happen to education.  This is not to say I'm against evaluation or helpful feedback.  I'm all for them, in fact.  Which is why I'm so opposed to the damnable, lazy practice of reducing that evaluation to what can be easily counted.

The ancients tell us that King David sinned against God by counting his fighting men.   (Here, too.)  I think the sin was not the counting, but the way his counting became a basis for policy, and so for value.  When we weigh our forces before going to war, the question shifts from "Is this a war worth fighting?" to "Can I win?"  Both of those are important questions, but God save us from ever making the latter so important that we think of the former as a question that doesn't countThat kind of thinking turns people into instruments of war rather than free individuals; people become pawns, tools of policy, and they become as expendable as they are enumerable.  When we dare to quantify our gains and losses in terms of numbers of human lives expended, we have already lost something important that may be very hard to regain.

And God save us, likewise, from thinking of our lives as things to be measured, and measured against others' lives.  God save us from thinking of meaningful work as something to be done against a time clock, from thinking of wealth as something to be measured in numbers rather than in a richness of life.  And God save us teachers and citizens from thinking that the worth of a woman or a man can easily be measured by the grades they have earned, or that the predictions we may make on the basis of those grades should have the power of prophecy. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Because "Liberal" in "Liberal Arts" Means "Free"

“The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained obedient workers to carry out the plans of elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technological development. Critical thinking will, then, be discouraged…”
Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) p. 21.

Rebel Without A Camera: Museums, Images, and Memory

No Flash!
My old Brownie.  No flash!
My job as a college professor brings me to a lot of museums and archives, and this summer has been especially full of visits to museums, historical sites, and archives in Greece, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. 

As a kid I found most museums boring, but now I really appreciate and enjoy them. I've spent many days of my life in the British Museum and in several museums in Athens, and each time I'm there I feel that time is rewarded with fresh discoveries and with reacquaintance with familiar objects.

Some museums have a reasonable policy of not permitting flash photography, since the bright light of camera flashes can degrade the colors of paint and dyes.  Others must insist on no photography when the objects on display are on loan from owners who will not permit reproductions of their images.

But in general, I object when museums and archives prohibit photography, especially when the aim is to force more visitors to come to the physical site.  Most people the world over will never be able to visit the world's great museums.  And many scholars could benefit from digital images of archival materials.  During a recent visit to an archive that hosts many of Henry David Thoreau's papers, I was disappointed to learn that I would not be permitted to take photos of some of the papers I wanted to read later.  This forces scholars to spend more time in the archive, which means spending more money - simply prohibitive for many of us.  So I type, or scribble, as quickly as I can to transcribe texts in some archives, and hope that I can somehow find what I need in the time I have.

The Ballpoint As A Tool For Seeing
But what if what you want to remember is not a text but an image?  Scott Parsons, a gifted artist and a friend of mine, has taught me that one need not be very talented with a pen to begin to capture images.  As Dr. Cornelius said in one of Lewis's stories, "A scholar is never without [pen and paper]," and I've tried to make that my rule, too, carrying pen and paper with me everywhere.  Scott tells me that a cheap ballpoint pen is, after all, one of the best tools for seeing.

It turns out, he's right: the pen is often mightier than the camera.  I think this is because the camera captures all available light, while the pen only captures what my eye and hand tell it to.  The chief obstacle to overcome is the disconnect between what my eye sees and what my hand draws.  Scott has pointed out to me that this is not the fault of my hand so much as a problem of mistaking what I think I see for what I actually see.  In other words, it is a problem of misdirected attention, when I pay attention to what I think is there rather than to what the light is actually doing.

Thoreau Farm
So far, no one in any museum has objected to my drawing what I see.  In most cases, when I draw pictures, people seem honored that I should take the time.  I drew this picture of the Thoreau homestead in Concord this summer, and a curator there happened to see it as I journaled.  She seemed pleased that I took the time to try to draw it.  I find that taking the time to draw helps me to notice details I'd have otherwise missed.  You can see I'm not a great artist, little improved from my youth.  But I'm not ashamed, because even if it's not a brilliant representation, it doesn't need to be; it is a record, in blue lines, of ten minutes of attention.  The image is not a photograph; it is a symbol of memory, like a call number for a book in a library that helps me to recall quickly the time I spent sitting on the grass in Concord considering the place where Henry David grew up.

Norwegian waffle: a bouquet of hearts
Norwegian fireplace
Memories Of Delight
I've also begun drawing inside people's homes when I'm a guest there - always with permission, of course.  This summer several kind Norwegian friends took me in for a week, giving me space to write while overlooking a fjord, and cooking me delicious Norwegian food.  In the evening we built fires in the hearth and talked quietly or played cards.  These are fond memories with friends, but they're also memories of delight in seeing new shapes of things.  Norwegians build fires and eat waffles as we Americans do, but the fireplaces and the waffle irons are different from the ones I know from my home.  The waffles I saw were all shaped like heart-flowers, giving visual delight in addition to the delightful taste (though I'm not yet sold on brown cheese as a topping.)  The fireplaces I saw were all open on not just one side, but two.  They looked different, but it was only when I began to draw them that I noticed what I was seeing.  This is a small thing, perhaps, but it is a reminder that what I take to be the natural shape of things often has as much to do with the traditions I grew up with as with nature.  As an aside, when I take the time to draw pictures, it often seems to be taken as a sign of respect, which is just how I intend it: this place you live in, this object in your home, is so wonderful to me that I wish to give it my attention and make it a permanent resident in my journal, the log-book of my heart.  May I?  Thank you, and thank you for the hospitality that allowed me to witness this.

Pics Or It Didn't Happen
Sometimes I choose not to take photos simply because the camera is itself a sign.  When we hold it in front of our face, it becomes not just a lens through which we see, but a symbol of distance: this moment, this image, matters because it will matter somewhere else, somewhen else.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the moment, but when the apparatus becomes the medium through which we perceive everything - when we feel we must record a photonic image of everything to make the moment real, reality itself somehow becomes less to us.

Ecce: the heart of Christ, a luminous doorway
Icons As Luminous Doorways
This summer I had the privilege of visiting the Monastery of Hosios (Saint) Loukas near Delphi in Greece.  I'm not Orthodox, but I have real appreciation for what I learn from the Orthodox traditions.  An Orthodox priest in my town has told me that icons are not objects of worship, but means of worship, images that help us to pray, just as windows help us to see.  The pray-er who regards the icon isn't supposed to see the icon, but, as with windows, to see through the icon.  In some sense the artistic image is intended to vanish when it is doing what it was intended to do.  This language has been a little bit mysterious to me at times, but at the monastery this summer I had an illustrative experience: I stood in a doorway with bright sunlight shining behind me.  Ahead, I could see through another doorway into the narthex of a chapel, and then through another doorway, to the altar at the far end.  Beside every Orthodox altar there is an icon of Christ.  This one was covered with glass, as icons often are.  The glass reflected back to me the image of the doorway behind me, as though in the center of the image of Christ there were a luminous doorway.  I tried to take a photo of this, but the contrasts were too great.  So I took out my paper and pen and sketched what I saw.  It's not a superb image, but it turned out far better than my photographic attempts did.  And, as in other cases, I found myself feeling considerably more present and more respectful of the place.
First Parish, Concord, Mass.

African Meeting House, Boston, Mass.
The View From The Pew

This was the case with several other holy sites I visited this summer as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Robert Richardson lecture on Emerson in the Unitarian church in Concord, MA this summer, and then to visit the "African Meeting House" in Boston, a site of worship and of community activism for African Americans in the 19th century.  It somehow didn't feel right to let the camera intrude into these places.  The pen, by contrast, felt like an instrument properly reverent.  Each stroke of the pen strengthening lines became like a prayer or an act of gratitude and reverence for the places I was in. In each case I sketched a "view from my pew," the view I had while sitting as worshipers have sat there in times past - and present.

No Photos!
But to return to the complaint with which I began this piece, too many places insist that no photography be allowed inside.  While participating in a Summer Institute on Transcendentalism sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities this summer, I was able to visit some wonderful places, like the Thoreau Homestead, several of the homes of Louisa May Alcott, and Emerson's home.  Visiting these places makes me a better teacher: they help me to tell a better story about the texts and ideas that emerged from them.  Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, may have been odd, but his oddity is fascinating and delightful.  He built this outbuilding to house his Concord School of Philosophy, for instance:

Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, Orchard House
Architecture As The Embodiment Of Ideas
And he had some beautiful ideas about education: like the belief that children should be allowed to learn what they love to learn, that they should become bodily and sensorily engaged in their learning, that they should run and play and have recess, that art and literature should be significant in their learning, and so on.  I knew these ideas before visiting his Concord home and Fruitlands, but seeing the buildings he built to house his ideas helps me to see how he envisioned those ideas at work.

Chair in the Orchard House
Unfortunately, I can only show you the outside of the buildings at the Alcott house, because there's no photography allowed inside, nor at the Emerson home either.  So if you live far away, tant pis.  I guess you'll have to just travel and visit it.  Or, if you like, I can share the sketches I was able to make in our hurried tour.  Yes, let's do that.  I loved this chair, which is so oddly shaped.  In a time when so many chairs seemed intended to make you sit ramrod straight, this one seems to invite you to slouch in different directions, to be at ease in your own body, to delight in sitting in the company of others:

Louisa May Alcott's writing desk
The Alcotts weren't wealthy, but Bronson and his wife managed to provide each of their children with a room of their own, and each of those rooms is suited to the disposition and arts of the child.  Louisa May's room has a beautiful little half-moon shelf-desk jutting out between two large windows, perfect for writing stories and books, with excellent light.  When I visited, the room was full of tourists, so a photo wouldn't have captured it anyway, and my drawing is very hasty and a little cramped itself, but here's a rough idea of what it looks like while standing beside her bed, plus an attempt to give the bird's-eye view:

The Alcotts' sleigh-bed
Bronson and his wife Abby had some lovely furniture, and I was especially captivated by their sleigh-bed.  Its curved ends and gentle woodwork make the bed seem a place worth being, a place of rest and delight:

What I wish is that the owners and curators of these places would recognize that allowing visitors to take photos can help us to preserve the very places we are visiting, and to teach others about them.  I understand the desire to make those places special, just as I understand the fear that if you allow images to be taken maybe fewer visitors will come.  But for us teachers, taking pictures can be a way to allow our students to visit a place they might otherwise never go.

Thankfully, no one has yet prohibited my pen and paper.  Or yours.  I'm not up to Urban Sketchers quality, and may never be, but I'm not ashamed to use my pen as a visual instrument, nor to share with you what I've seen through it.  And I hope you'll do the same.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bless You!

What should you say when someone sneezes?  I've been pondering this for years.  Here are my reflections on that, by way of thinking about foreign-language pedagogy, and about what it means to bless someone:

The Emperor Charles V reportedly said that as many languages as a man knows, that many times over is he a man.  I don't know if that's true, but in high school I took courage from it.  I was athletic, but lean, with a great build for biking and running, but too slender to be considered dangerously manly.  My only formal sports were swimming and ultimate frisbee.  I loved skiing and hiking and rock-climbing, but the more I exercised, the leaner I got.  There was no chance I'd ever become a star athlete, and I think that realization saved me from trying to become what I was not.  Although I didn't know Emerson's writing back then, I nevertheless arrived at an Emersonian conclusion: there are as many kinds of manliness, and courage, as there are men and women to embody them.  Emerson puts it like this:
“It is he only who has labor, and the spirit to labor, because courage sees: he is brave, because he sees the omnipotence of that which inspires him. The speculative man, the scholar, is the right hero. Is there only one courage, and one warfare? I cannot manage sword and rifle; can I not therefore be brave? I thought there were as many courages as men. Is an armed man the only hero? Is a man only the breech of a gun, or the hasp of a bowie-knife? Men of thought fail in fighting down malignity, because they wear other armour than their own.” -- R.W. Emerson, Commencement Address given at Middlebury College on July 22, 1845, in Emerson At Middlebury College, Robert Buckeye, ed. (Middlebury, Vermont: Friends of the Middlebury College Library, 1999), p. 39.
So I threw myself into doing what I was made to do with joy, and to living a brave life in my own way.  Some people find learning a foreign language terrifying; I do not.  I'm one of those people blessed with an unusual ability to learn foreign languages quickly and with little effort.  When I'm around a new language, I listen to its music and its rhythms and make them my own, and I begin to take apart the language as I hear it, so I can think with it, and watch its parts move.  And I ask a lot of questions: How do you say this in your language?  What does this mean?  When do you say that?

This turns out to be a good way to learn one's own language, too.  Not everything can be translated, and when you find something in your native tongue that's hard to say in another language, you've found something that is a unique possession of the speakers of your language.  Or when you learn that one word in your language takes many forms in another language, you begin to see how your cultural heritage has come equipped with some blind spots.  The same is true of grammar, of inflection, of syntax, and so on.

So learning another language is not simply a matter of replacing one vocabulary with another.  Learning a language means learning a culture, a history, a literature.

(This is why language-learning software can help, but it's not enough, and it's no substitute for excellent teachers and for studying abroad.)

In middle school, as I was trying to actualize all my potential and to become as many men as I could be, I spent a lot of time learning basic phrases and grammar in other languages.  How do you greet someone in this language?  How do you say goodbye?  How do you ask for what you want?  These tend to be fairly straightforward in the languages I studied.

But some phrases were harder.  How do you say "Please"?  That word is, after all, a contraction of a whole clause, "If it please you," with a subjunctive verb.  It's not like a name for an object or a place, which might be easily translated; it's a way of calling on a whole tradition of regarding the wishes of others as important - or at least, of pretending to honor those wishes.  Now, most of the languages I studied had simple ways of saying "please," but along the way I discovered that not all English speakers consider "please" to be correct.  Some religious communities, for instance, regard such words as unnecessary; we should be willing to give what we're asked for without demanding that the other regard our wishes as important, they reason.

Modern saints at Westminster Abbey; Their stories are a blessing.
Another phrase similarly exposed something about cultures: what do you say when someone sneezes?  In many languages, the answer is that you say "Your health!"  Many English speakers I know use the German Gesundheit without knowing that this is what they are saying, in another language.  That's fascinating: we feel the need to say something, even if we don't know what the word means.

When I first met my frosh college roommate, Nick, he sneezed.  I said the customary thing: "Bless you!"  He looked at me oddly, and didn't say anything.  Over the coming weeks, I repeated the phrase each time he sneezed.  Finally, he asked me "Why do you keep saying that?"  I realized I hadn't any better answer than to say that's what I heard others do.  His question got me wondering why we acknowledge sneezes.    

After all, we don't say something to accompany other bodily functions, do we?  Is there a stock phrase for hiccups, or burps?  For a rumbling belly?  A cough?  A yawn?

Over the years, it started to bother me that others felt the need to comment on my sneezes.  When I ask people why they do it, I usually get some lame reply about how it's because long ago people believed that sneezes were a sign of some dangerous spiritual or physical ailment; or that it had to do with fear of the Black Plague; or that it was a response to the fear that sneezes were signs of demonic possession; and in any case, sneezes needed to be countered with blessings.

Okay, fine. I'll let the Middle Ages off the hook next time they bless my sneezing.  But why do YOU do it?  The answer seems to be cultural habit.  It's not a necessity of nature, but something we've made ourselves do until we've forgotten why we do it.  It's a thoughtless reflex, and I think this is what annoys me.

Now, after years of being a curmudgeon and a grouch about this, I'm starting to reconsider my objection to these responses to my sternutations.  On the one hand, these blessings are thoughtless, and they demand a reply of "thank you" when frankly, I'm still recovering from a sneeze and would rather not say anything.  On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn't want fewer blessings in our lives, but more of them, or at least more sincere ones.

As I think back over my life, I've received these blessings often from strangers on a bus or a subway, or in a park in a foreign city.  People who do not know me stop their activity to speak a word of blessing into my life, to look me in the eye and put into simple words their wishes for my good health.

Speaking does not make things so, not instantly, anyway.  But putting things into words is nevertheless very powerful.  I'm not talking magic here; I'm talking about the way our words affect ourselves and others.  Naming is powerful.  When our inarticulate anger or frustration evolves into naming someone as the one who needs to be punished, the person becomes a criminal, something less than a person.  The greater the crime, the lesser the human.  Because naming is powerful, cursing is powerful.  Which is why I taught my kids that it's not words that are bad, but the uses of words.

And if history teaches us anything at all, it shows us how easy we find it to curse others, to come up with simple, curt, dehumanizing names for entire classes of others.  We find it easy not to look others in the eye but to look no further than the skin, or to look through others as though they were not there.  We find it easy to curse those who live across borders of towns and nations, those who drive in front of us or behind us, those whose faces we never see and whom we know only through a few words we've read online.

In light of that, I suppose that if you want to bless me--indeed, if you find it hard not to bless me--that should be a welcome thing.  Just give me a minute to recover from my sneeze before I thank you.  And may you be blessed, too.