Category Archives: Pedagogy

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The Lesson-Plan Challenge

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“But what do you do when the material you’re teaching is just boring?” The question came about halfway through an informal workshop I was running on public speaking. We had been talking about the importance of passion in effective public speaking: If we aren’t passionate about what we’re talking about, how can we expect the audience to be engaged and perhaps even excited?

For TED talks, presenters are asked to focus on one idea worth spreading. Implicit in that catchphrase is the idea that we…

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It’s Not a Litmus Test

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Last week I praised the late Michael Dummett for making an attempt at defining “noun” syntactically instead of relying on murky semantic intuitions about naming. Below I discuss a very different book (as American as Dummett’s book is painfully British) that does the same thing in a very different way. I will summarize both, and briefly draw an analogy with chemistry.

Dummett defined noun as “principal word in a noun phrase,” and noun phrase as an “expression that can serve as a subject,” and s…

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Getting Oriented

Alan Klim, Creative Commons

The beginning of term: orientation. It’s the first exposure to life at college, an induction into campus culture, the downloading of rules and regulations, and for some a festival of celebratory distractions.

Whatever shape it takes on your campus, orientation is, to use the name we give to the very last event of a college education, a commencement.

It’s also a moment to confront our obligations.

Like a series of inoculations before a journey to a remote somewhere, or…

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When Will We Talk About the Syllabus?

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W
ith August almost halfway over, my mind has turned to the first day of class. When I first started teaching college-level classes, the first day seemed so straightforward it hardly required prep. As long as I had the syllabus finished, my lesson plan seemed to write itself: (a) introduce myself, (b) hand out and review the syllabus carefully, and (c) do some kind of icebreaker to learn students’ names. Almost 25 years and many, many first class days later, I have abandoned the low-prep, aut…

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Love Me, Don’t Grade Me

nicklutzapologyletter

When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”

I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “gra…

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Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First

thinkingwriting4cae69b8a905185b40745c6103a82381_400x400 In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. Let me explain. I was reminded of this problem a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing an assignment sequence for a first-year writing course. The instructor had built in a lot of valuable process, where students would have the opportunity to get feedback on their ideas for the essay and then read drafts of each other’s essays in small workshop groups before turning…

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When Is a Proper Name a Proper Noun?

From “Baby Listens” by Esther Wilkin, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1960)

“Tum, tum, tum dee dum, Baby’s beating on his drum.” That’s a line I repeat at least three times a day at the moment — from Page 6 of the Little Golden Books classic Baby Listens. And usually, charmed as I am by the earworm chant, the glorious Eloise Wilkin illustration, and my daughter’s intense engagement with the material, when I read it, I think about work.

Specifically, about my job at the Technische Universität Mün…

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Nina in Siberia

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Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

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A Story of Grammar

Old_guitarist_chicago

Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …

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Engaging Students Through Tests

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I took a lot of “blue book” exams when I was in college — and I was good at them. In case you’re not familiar with the “blue book,” it is a thin booklet filled with lined paper, typically available for purchase at the university bookstore, which students use to complete essay exams. Sometimes I wrote very targeted answers to the essay questions, but I also knew and occasionally used the strategy of writing everything I knew that was even tangentially related to the topic and hoping …