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Teaching and Education

Tuesday, 23. September 2014

Arbeitsbeginn als Lehrer...


Seit dem 12. September bin ich als Lehrer für Geschichte, Gemeinschaftskund und Englisch am Johannes-Kepler-Gymnasium in Weil der Stadt tätig. Ich bedanke mich bei allen Freunden und Bekannten, die mich mit Gratulationen überschüttet haben und bei meinen neuen Arbeitskollegen und bei meinen Schülern, die mich allesamt an der Schule sehr herzlich aufgenommen haben.

Es gibt Kepler-Gymnasien wie Sand am Meer. Die Schule in Weil der Stadt trägt aber mit Recht den Namen. Weil war der Geburtsort des berühmten Wissenschaftlers. Zu meiner großen Freude wird auch der Name an der Schule sehr ernst genommen - die Schule hat eine Sternwarte auf dem Dach. Zudem habe ich auch in vielen Gesprächen mit Menschen in Tübingen entdeckt, dass die Schule weit über Weil hinaus einen guten Ruf hat.

Um die Persönlichkeitsrechte meiner Schüler und Kollegen nicht zu verletzen, werde ich bestimmt nicht über meinen Schulalltag bloggen. Ich werde allerdings weiterhin schulpolitische Entwicklungen im Ländle verfolgen. Vielleicht ergibt sich daraus Material für einige Beiträge in naher Zukunft.

Tuesday, 14. December 2010

My browser wants me in a well-defined box...


Today, my Firefox browser opened a new window and asked me to "choose a persona." That is exactly the kind of thing that Jaron Lanier talks about in his book You Are Not A Gadget. My take on it is this. The machines are taking complex things like our personalities, which we value as ineffable and undefinable (even when we know, deep down, that they are neither), and are making us put them into neat, pre-defined categories. So my "persona" becomes something like "gender" - you're either A or B.* The difference is that I get to choose. My persona is not something fuzzy around the edges, complex and hard to define. No, it is something I choose from a short list of clear-cut choices designed by the team at Firefox. As it turns out, these "personae" would appear to be something like background images for my computer screen. But they chose a word that implies more. And they clearly expect me to identify with it and live it to some degree, much as I do my "real" persona out here in the real world. Are they just running out of cute words to name software after or is this really the machine taking over our lives?!

*I realize that even gender is more ambiguous than that. But for almost everybody, gender is not a decision and not subject to long contemplation. They simply are, by self attribution and with almost complete agreement by anyone, one of only two clear categories.

Tuesday, 15. June 2010

The intrinsic worth of education...


While most of the Rate Your Students blog is about bitching over students - only some of which I can relate to, since my non-traditional students only rarely exhibit the self-absorbed whininess I read about there - one recent story really hit home with me, especially this paragraph:

....confronting a roomful of people who do not take seriously what we do puts me in a position where I feel like I ought to justify (or be prepared to justify) the academic enterprise. I am not allowed to take for granted the worth of my work (or that of my colleagues); to treat the pursuit of knowledge as a good in and of itself. Instead, I am forced to appeal to non-academic standards of usefulness. Since those instrumental reasons aren’t *my* reasons for being an academic, the classroom becomes a place where I am effectively alienated from myself. I can avoid all of this psychic turmoil by simply thinking about academia from within the practice. That means judging students by academic standards, rather than judging academia by the standards of students.

I would go beyond that and say that we don't have to apply that only to how we judge students (grade them, evaluate them, etc.). It can permeate our whole persona in the classroom. If we as a society continue to insist that some academic background is part of what we call education, and keep sending our "kids" to academics for training, then we should train them academically. We should not let ourselves be dragged kicking and screaming into something else where we end up lending academic aura and buzz-words to what has been transformed into inflated high school or some form of auxilliary to vocational training.

For me this means imparting "academic" or scientific values...

- learning as intrinsically valuable, an end in itself (or one that results directly in particular end goals such as happiness without detouring through mediators like money)

- learning as a process of argumentation, science as a way of thinking

- academic standards as broadly applicable: evidence- and logic-based sound argument, good writing, source awareness, source criticism, doubt

- my field of history as making a real contribution to understanding the human condition

When students are in our classrooms, that is the ethos. We don't have have to do intellectual circus stunts to redefine what it is we do. Pick them up where they are, but for the weeks we have them, we bring them towards where we are. They can then appreciate it, accept it, reject it or modify it as they please.

Wednesday, 28. April 2010

Engaging texts and complex issues


There is a rather cynical blog called Rate Your Students that I sometimes read even though I don't often encounter the particular types of student they make fun of there at the schools I teach for. Non-traditional students are generally more mature and, if there are problems, they are of a different sort.

Something I saw there yesterday struck me, however. Some profs were discussing whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to give students multiple choice quizzes on the readings each day so that the students come to class actually having done the reading instead of trying to bluff their way through discussions:

This attitude, that the students just need to know what the text is about and not anything about it's details, is precisely what the students want: They read Marx and want to talk about poverty or some other social issue (that's "relevant" to them) without the rigors of understanding Marx's rhetoric or philosophical methods. They want to read Paradise Lost and talk about their own crises in faith. Because that's easier than engaging with the "irrelevant details," such as the actual specifics of the text. They want to understand quantum mechanics without having to do any math. But guess what? It doesn't work that way. The "deeper" engagement that the Just-in-Time tool wants students to have comes from the details.


That is a major issue in online education especially. I keep discussions open for two weeks, longer than usual. But unless I am online almost daily, and unless the students I am discussing with do the same, that still isn't enough time to get past this kind of approach to the text - talk about poverty instead of Marx, talk about personal faith instead of the history of religion, talking about puberty instead of talking about Salinger's book, etc.. This is exacerbated by a tendency to want to engage student interest by letting them talk about what they already know or are already concerned about - instead of the more difficult task of gettting them to be concerned about or forcing them to know new stuff. Another factor is the accelerating trend towards reading short excerpts of texts instead of reading whole texts. Online, this is even easier, because anyone coming to class, including the prof, knows he/she won't be "called on" to talk on the fly. As student or prof, I know I can look up anything I need before I have to respond, so it is less likely I will begin any conversation fully prepared.

I read something else recently as well, a book review over at truthdig.org about the need for humanities education in modern democracies. Lamenting the cutting of humanities programs and the increasing emphasis in education on immediate economic relevance, Troy Jollimore writes:

As a result, an ever smaller number of students have at any point during their university careers the special, indeed irreplaceable experience of sitting in a room with a small number of their colleagues and discussing difficult ideas—ideas, in many cases, that are foundational to our civilization—with an instructor who is willing to challenge them and who has the time and energy to take their thoughts seriously. The anonymity and alienation of the large lecture hall or the online course has largely replaced the person-to-person interaction that was once considered the apotheosis, if not indeed the core, of the college experience.


There is some idealism here that doesn't match every reality. I know friends who went to Berkeley 25 years ago and sat in huge lecture halls. I had those intimate conversations at my small college - but I am not sure how typical they ever really were in undergrad education. Either way, online I have seen it cut both ways. I have had engaging, detailed discussions in which the students and I drove each other to new hights. I have, however, also experienced weeks of banality, either letting things slide myself or spending lots of energy trying to pull anything but the most superficial, mundane responses out of students who are obviously just trying to get through the week, determined to survive, but not to learn.

Online we can get away with this because we don't have to look at each other. This is what all the chatter about "presence" in the classroom is trying to re-capture.

Saturday, 10. April 2010

New grammar and punctuation fun...


Okay, the day before yesterday I bragged about my students. But I have been doing a lot of homework reading the past few days and I sense there is a new grammar epidemic spreading through the population (or, as many of my students might write, "the populous"). A few months ago, I thought it was "apostrophitis." None of my students knew how to use apostrophes. I didn't in college either, but I found it odd that so few of my students did. Now, apostrophe problems are still there, but the newly stylish havoc would appear to be a callous disregard for singular/plural agreement. Almost every paper seems to have at least one example. Sometimes, the two cases are far apart in the sentence and the mistake is understandable, as when a single country becomes a plural "they":

"Germany, with its complicated mobilization plan, was still not the first to mobilize in the hectic summer of 1914, but they did declare war on France before France declared war on them."

Sometimes, the disagreement is staring the reader right in the nose:

"The Nazis combated all interests contrary to its own."

Those examples involve possessive pronouns. Fewer examples involve verbs:

"The 1936 Olympic games was a great victory for the Nazi propaganda machine."

On the positive side, all the mixing up of "there" and "their" appears to have gone out of fashion, while the more forgivable "than" and "then" mixups hold steady, and there is much less rampant capitalization of important-sounding words like "Capital," "Executive" and "Royal", at least for the moment.

Thursday, 8. April 2010

Mortar fire and higher education...


Here's just a quick note (like this one) to all you profs over at Rate Your Students who complain about your students' dumb excuses for not doing their work. One of my students just wrote:

We get mortared almost every week on Sunday night, sometimes up to three days in a row and internet goes down. Please be patient if I do not respond promptly to your comments.


So your "snowflakes" come to class drunk and in their pajamas? They don't turn in their work because their girlfriend's cat died?

Mine are under fire.

Monday, 18. May 2009

Teaching Muslim religion in German schools (Islamunterricht an deutschen Schulen....)


I was just going through my files and found this letter to the editor I wrote about a year ago. It was never published. I'll translate it into English below:

Es ist schon ein genialer Schachzug, in dem Moment, wo es um Moral und Ethik geht, die Kinder im Namen der Integration nach der Konfession ihrer Eltern zu trennen. Ich schlage vor, nach dem gleichen Muster in anderen wichtigen, integrationsrelevanten Fächern zu verfahren. Wie wäre es mit parteigebundener, also sozialdemokratischer und hristdemokraticher, Gemeinschaftskunde? Die Kinder liberaler, grüner, bibeltreuer, republikanischer, nationaler und linker Eltern hätten frei. Kinder von Eltern ohne Stimmrecht könnten zweimal die Woche in Mitbürgerkunde unterrichtet werden.
Translation:

It is a brilliant move to separate kids according to the religious beliefs of their parents at the very moment when the subject matter is ethics and morals and to do so in the name of integration. I propose approaching other subjects which are relevant to integration the same way. How about having civics taught according to the party affiliation of children's parents - social democratic and Christian democratic civics classes? The children of liberals, greens, Bible-party, republican, nationalist and leftist parents could have study hall for an hour. The children of non-citizens could have two hours per week of instruction in "Mitbürger-studies" ("Mitbürger" is a German word meant to sound inclusive, but has in recent decades come to imply those who are among us as citizens, but not really citizens, not really part of the community).

Sunday, 20. July 2008

"Google," "Wikipedia" and the end of "memory"...


One of my students recently wrote:

I do not think that the memories will matter.

I say this because if someone questions something they can just go on wikipedia, read about all the views of the subject, and make their own opinion. The individual memories no longer matter when everyone has access to all the information.


I feel compelled to respond. Two points:

1) On "Wikipedia" you won't find "all" the views on the matter. You will find the views of those who have bothered to go their and type in their views or summarize the views of some others. Those will not necessarily be the views of people who know much about the issue. Remember: Anyone can write anything on Wikipedia.

2) Memory will be the mark of an educated person. The trick is knowing what to look up. "If someone has questions" is the issue. Which questions? Someone who has not read and studied widely will not recognize patterns, analogies, allegories, etc. and won't know which questions to ask. Examples:

- How do you know that the president just used a biblical or literary reference in his speech? Did you "google" every phrase in the speech?

- How do you see the flaw in the structure of an argument? You can "google" some of the information provided in the assumptions, but you won't recognize the hidden assumptions or the "whole thing" without education and practice.

- How do you look up on google broad claims about the nature of mankind and society? Wide reading - in advance of hearing and evaluating such claims - will be necessary.

Wikipedia, google etc. can help clear our minds of "trivia" but they will not replace thought. If and when they do, we will truly be reduced to machines which take biological mass and convert it into a combination of bodily excretions and just enough energy to press the button on the remote control.

There is already a great deal of thinking going on about how "google" is changing the way we think. See http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

Sunday, 30. March 2008

"Islamo-Fascism" at the Hawblog...


I have made my first substantive contribution to the blog of the Historians Against the War. See

http://www.historiansagainstwar.org/blog/2008/03/islamo-fascism-in-history-classroom.html

a report on my classroom discussions of the term "Islamo-Fascism".

Monday, 25. February 2008

On the difference between "opinion" and "informed understanding"...


Frustrated with the need to thoroughly document a paper, a student of mine recently wrote to me to talk about citations. An example of something the student didn't want to cite was his/her opinion that Hinduism makes believers docile through the belief in reincarnation. The latest e-mail is in italics, my responses in normal print:

Hmmm, no offense meant towards you professor, but it sounds like when in doubt, cite a source, and I really hate that.

I mean, why aren't my opinions valid? Why do I have to find something someone else wrote and note that next to everything I say? Maybe my parents are Hindu, and I just know things that seem like common knowledge to me, or maybe I was very well-educated...


Education is not about opinions, but informed understanding. Opinions are "valid" if they are based on real information. Then they become informed understanding. What you think is in and of itself of little interest. What you show, demonstrate and argue are of great interest.

Why can't I state opinion born of 100 resources that I read over the course of growing up and thus, don't need to go look anything up...

If you have 100 resources that you read while growing up, then you know the material quite well. Tracing your information back or finding that information should be no problem.


I mean, if I were writing that 1+2 = 3, do I have to cite a math book? If I write a really long equation that most people wouldn't understand, do I have to cite where I went to high school and who my math teacher was?


Mathematical equations are manifestly true or false. They _are themselves_ the proof of their own validity. The underlying assumptions would need to be ironed out and cited if that is what the paper is about, of course.


I just think it's kind of offensive and counter-productive to learning. It seems to encourage a copy-and-paste attitude. Like my opinions aren't worth anything, but if someone wrote a book on something, they must be experts, so my paper has to be a collage of quotes by other people. Where's the original thought? The proof that you learned something and found your own opinion and no longer need the books to rant on and on about a subject?


Again, you are not learning to voice an opinion. We can do that on internet forums and talk shows. Nobody needs to go to college to learn that. You are learning to research and formulate informed understanding.

Your original thoughts are fine. You don't need to cite them. But there is of course a line somewhere. You need to find the level where the expected reader is. If the paper is so basic that the reader is not even assumed to know that Hinduism is predominantly in India, then you will be footnoting rather banal stuff. If you are writing on subtle doctrines hidden within the Vedic texts, you do not need to cite the claim that "Hinduism is the dominant religion of India". On the other hand, it might then be an issue of why such a claim is in such a paper.

So cite:

- ideas and conclusions you borrow
- facts that are not based on direct observation on your part

Claims such as "Hinduism makes people docile" will either be anecdotal and hence highly suspect or based on a broad study. Cite the study or take the hit for spouting anecdotal evidence to make broad assertions.

There is, of course, little difference between your opinion and just any other person's opinion. Just because someone wrote a book or a webpage on something does not mean that their opinion is somehow better. On that we agree. Just citing any old book or webpage is not much better than not citing. That is why we university profs insist on scholarly sources. That means sources which allow the reader to trace the information directly or by way of several steps back to the raw data at the basis of the "opinion."

Without specific examples it is hard to make a general case for what to cite and what not to cite. Do not get all hung up on footnoting. If it is banal and obvious, just connect it to a general history (the textbook, an encyclopedia, a general history of the topic) or don't cite it. But a conclusion about something - that Hinduism makes people docile, for example - is not of that nature.

There are, of course, times when it really does slow things down. I had the issue recently with an article I submitted. It was on a subject I know well (my dissertation). But the editor sent it back saying I need to better document some of my claims on the last several pages. I had to go back to my files and anchor what was for me "knowledge" to the sources (primary and secondary). It was tedious, but that's the way it works.

That is what differentiates the "opinions" of some (like the rants of Bill O'Reilly) from the "informed understanding" of scholars.
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