Monday, October 19, 2015

What's the Big Idea?

The 1980′s SNL character Father Guido Sarducci had a routine about his idea for the “five minute university,” which would teach people what the average college graduate remembers five years after leaving school.  College, the chain smoking Vatican gossip columnist observed, amounts to rote memorization for short-term regurgitation and very little retention.  In recent strategic planning discussions here at Fontbonne we have talked about student outcomes and asked, "What should our graduates learn?" I can’t help wondering what our students will remember five years from now.

I did my own share of rote memorization and memory dumping in college, particularly in subjects for which I did not see the immediate relevance.  Worst were those classes that seemed crammed full of facts without context, where I just could not see “the point.”  I hate thinking of students reacting the same way to my classes.  Once a student asked me, as she was handing in her mid-term exam, whether the final exam would be comprehensive.  I replied that I had not decided yet and asked why she was wanting to know then.  She replied, “I’m organizing my files and want to know if I need to keep my notes from the first half of the semester.”  Talk about information having a short shelf life.

The truth is that the more I focus on teaching information the less impact I am likely to have.  What captures students’ imaginations, and what gives information relevance, are the big ideas.  Beyond the information, what is our teaching about?  What are the important questions, problems, and insights that give rise to our search for knowledge?  Pick up any textbook and you can find more than enough data to fill a few lectures and exams, but learning depends on engaging our students in the big ideas.

Big ideas are sustaining.  They feed our questioning and development for years.  Big ideas are what drew each of us into our disciplines and into lives of teaching and scholarship.  The big ideas I encountered as a student continue to drive my curiosity today, and I am indebted to those teachers who helped me to see and think beyond what was on the tests.

For me, one of the big ideas is that communication is constitutive of our realities, not merely a vehicle for transmission.  This is not a straightforward declaration of fact, though I can easily enough phrase it as a true/false quiz item.  It is a big idea that implies a hundred other big ideas and makes every act of communication interesting and consequential.  It reminds me that what I teach is important, even on days when I manage to make it uninteresting to my students or forget myself.

The typical public speaking course, for example, includes topics like delivery, organization, supporting materials, tests of reasoning, and I aim for students to improve their skills in these areas.  But the big idea is that each time they speak they are building the world around them.

The world is full of big ideas (how’s that for a big idea?), and by “big” I don’t mean necessarily True.  I mean big, encompassing, generative, inspiring, explanatory.  We are educators because we feel compelled to play with ideas, to hold them up to the light, turn them over, imagine what they can do.  I know sometimes I lose sight of that.

I wonder what would happen if I put in big letters at the top of each syllabus, THE BIG IDEA OF THIS CLASS, before the course objectives, list of assignments, and grading scale.  Maybe that would be ham-handed, but it might help me remember that there is a big idea behind all the work.  Or it might make me rethink what the big ideas are.

If our students are to engage in a truly liberal education, they must be willing and able to engage big ideas as well as technical knowledge and skills.  These days we talk a lot about learning outcomes and assessment and we worry about documenting what our students know, but we don’t talk nearly enough about whether they are captivated by big ideas.  What big ideas have inspired you?  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Red Dots and Resets

I have a new thing for old clocks.  Heirloom clocks have been part of my family's history for a long time, and a Seth Thomas 8 day mantle clock that belonged to my parents is one of my prized possessions.  But, while I love the old manual-wind pendulum clocks, my new thing is vintage electric clocks.  Recently I have bought two such clocks, one a 1950s Seth Thomas and the other an early 1930s Warren Telechron cathedral style, pictured here.  Both of these clocks, like thousands of others built with Telechron motors during the middle 20th century, featured a "red dot indicating device" the function of which actually is the inspiration for my thoughts in this post.

In between the periods when people wound all their clocks and when reliable batteries and quartz movements became available, electric clocks with Telechron motors were all the rage.  Developed by Henry Warren, these motors synchronized with the alternating current coming from power plants to keep accurate time.  Unfortunately, early power plants were less reliable than we are accustomed to today, and power interruptions were not unusual.  Today we know when the electricity has gone off because the dozen or so digital clock displays in our homes blink 00:00, but in those days you might not know that the clock had stopped for 20 minutes and then resumed.

Enter the red dot.  If power was interrupted, the red dot would appear, alerting the owner to check the correct time through some other reliable means and reset the clock to the correct time.  Upon resetting, the red dot would go off.  Cool, huh?

Sometimes I feel like that slightly slow-running clock.  I'm not keeping time like I used to, but I don't really notice.  Then something will happen to remind me, to make me conscious that what appears to be my normal life actually is lagging and in need of a reset. 

I find that ritual often has the effect of bringing me this kind of self-awareness.  Ritual, whether centered in religious practice, or social or family traditions, reminds us of how things are supposed to be and how we want to be.  In and of itself ritual may not put us right, but it alerts us to the truth that some putting right is needed.  And sometimes, probably most times, ritual reaffirms our belief that we are, in fact, keeping good time.

This weekend I experienced my first "Catch the Fire" ceremony at Fontbonne University.  This welcoming initiation celebrates the history of the university's founders and sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, invites new students to join our community, and challenges all of us to emulate their boldness and determination in serving the world.  For me, it was a red dot moment.  It was an opportunity to remember that no matter how many power interruptions there may be or how many minutes (or hours!) I might lose, there is no end to the number of times a clock may be reset.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Taking Stands and Telling Stories

Earlier this week I ran across a blog post in which the author argued that many people mistakenly perceive Facebook to be an effective vehicle of persuasion.  He questioned the value of using one's Facebook status for "taking a stand" on controversial issues, because, "you only attract those who agree with you and you repel those who disagree with you."

There are several reasons this is true.  For one, most of us are not particularly open to having our minds changed about hot-button issues.  More fundamentally, we rarely change strongly held opinions simply because the opposing position is stated clearly, or loudly, or with a thousand "likes."  In fact, we may never change these strongly held opinions.

When I shared this blog post on my own Facebook page, one of my relatives pointed out the irony of the author "taking a stand" about not taking a stand, and I suspect he will continue to express his own strong opinions as is his custom and certainly his right.  Another relative commented that he long ago decided to keep his political commentary within the circle of people who held similar views  or who were otherwise interested in hearing what he had to say.  Each of these responses, while reasonable, leave me feeling unsatisfied.

It isn't that I never feel the need to express my beliefs for the sake of expressing them, or that I don't appreciate exploring those beliefs with others who share my convictions.  And occasionally I succeed in persuading others.  (I do have a Ph.D. in Communication, after all.)  But most of the potential conversations around our most important issues -- and those conversations most likely to truly affect us -- fall outside of these categories.  We have to find more ways to engage one another in true dialogue on these issues that divide us; not so that we will all eventually agree, but so that we have some hope of preserving community in the midst of diversity.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker J. Palmer writes of the importance of having opportunities to tell our stories to others in environments of both diversity and trust.  Palmer writes:

According to conventional wisdom, we arrive at shared truth only by confronting and correcting each other in debate.  But my experience suggests that we rarely change our minds and move toward mutual understanding in the heat of argument.  Instead, we become separated from each other, and from the inner teacher, by our fear of losing the battle -- and the energy we expend trying to make sure that we win leaves us with no resources for reflection and transformation.

I can listen to your story -- the experiences that have shaped your deeply held beliefs and feelings -- and learn from you and about you, without giving into my urge to correct you.  I can ask you questions, not for cross-examination but to more fully understand.  If my goal is to "take a stand," this all would be a waste of time.  I can accomplish that on Facebook with the same degree of success in changing your mind.  But if I hope to achieve anything else, this is the best next step that I know to take.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Never Better

Hand on foggy mirrorYou never know when a strange thought is going to hit you.  Attempting to shave in front of a fogged mirror this morning, I had this flash of myself living in a backwoods cabin with only a worn out, clouded mirror for shaving, thinking,"I am never going to have a better image than what this lousy mirror is giving me right now."  I felt a momentary pang of imagined sadness thinking that this unsatisfactory reflection was the best I could ever hope for, which left me thinking of the very real, paralyzing sadness of believing that one's present circumstances would never, ever be better.

Life has not always delivered on my wish lists, but I have never for any prolonged period doubted that there would be better times.  Often I have been able to describe my circumstances as "never better!"  Yet I know there are people for whom that phrase represents a forecast rather than a review.

This is a (yet another) great time in my life.  My children are healthy and successful, we have just moved into a lovely home in a great city, and my new job is a great opportunity.  Outside of me losing a few pounds and the Cubs winning a few more games, my wish list is pretty short these days.  I am very aware that the main reason I am so optimistic about the future is that, generally speaking, the past has treated me pretty well.  Optimism is easier to maintain when it has a good track record.

Those of us for whom hope is a regular feature of life need to find ways of spreading hope.  I know I take my own hope and the reasons for it for granted.  This is one area where I have never been better, but I want to be.

"Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. 
Nothing can be done without hope and confidence."
-- Helen Keller

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What If?

Fr Jean-Pierre Medaille
This week I came across an article about leading effective meetings that encouraged beginning sentences with the phrase, "What if ...?", to promote creativity.  Rather than begin with what we know, or think we know, the writer said, we should speculate and imagine more freely.

I am all for creativity and new ideas, but this past week I also was reminded of some really good old ideas that require just as much imagination if we want to put them into practice.  At a conference of colleges and universities sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph I picked up a copy of the Maxims of Perfection penned by Jean-Pierre Medaille, SJ, founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph.  Father Medaille offered 100 maxims to guide the personal and communal lives of the sisters.  As I read them, I find myself wondering, "What if we I behaved toward others and thought in these ways?"

For example, I keep coming back to Maxim 52: Interpret all things from the best possible point of view.  What if my habit of mind was to assume the best of people, their motives, and situations, at least until those assumptions were contradicted?  Or, more radically, what if I continued to see others "from the best possible point of view" even when that seemed overly generous?

What if I ...

... never complained about anyone but myself? (Maxim 38)
... gave all the happiness I could to those who gave me a great deal of unhappiness, and gave it willingly? (Maxim 51)
... considered as suspect any desire that was overeager and capable of distracting me from more necessary and obligatory occupations? (Maxim 68)
... or, desired little in this world, and what I did desire, desired very little? (Maxim 17)

These ideas were not new when Father Medaille introduced them to the Sisters of St. Joseph, but he offered them as a way of learning to live in community and in service to the world.  It was his way of saying, "What if you tried things this way?  Let's see what might happen."