Friday, March 24, 2006

Why an Education at a Place Like Wheaton is Worth the Exhorbitant Price

I noticed this posting by Margaret Soletan at University Diaries about the Colleges that Change Lives book by Loren Pope. Wheaton is one of those forty colleges, and that's one of the reasons (that we change lives, not that we're in the book) I've been very happy to stay here even when other opportunities at other 'prestige levels' have presented themselves.

An example: Friday a colleague copied me on an email she wrote to a student who is graduating this year. Now of course I don't have favorites, but if I did, this student would be one of them. Intense about everything he/she does; really devoted to intellectual life without being arrogant about it; well read from a genuine sense of interest; just great fun to have in class because he/she knows how to argue and have a good time doing it.

But this student is not very worldly at all and is about to graduate into a world that puts a high premium on being worldly. I know that this student is going to be hugely successful one day, but I'm guessing that the first year or so is going to be a challenge, and the student knows this and is, as is every about-to-graduate senior, very worried.

Well, my colleague wrote a three-page email to the student discussing strategies for getting through the next year, and not one word was boiler-plate or cliche. Everthing was exactly tailored to the student, based on much discussion and much thought. My colleague discussed the specific worries the student has, the specific strengths and talents the student has, and my colleague came up with really solid, practical advice for the student. This email must have taken a good solid hour to write, not to mention the many conversations that must have led up to it. The thought behind it has obviously been developing for the years that we have both been advising this student.

I think if the student takes this advice, he/she will have much less of a struggle in the next couple of years and will much more easily move towards the great success he or she is destined for. For this student in particular, but for most students, really, a bunch of platitudes wasn't going to cut it.

But although my colleague's work is (like everything this colleague does) exceptionally good, it is the norm rather than the exception. Although I'm obviously not as thoughtful or talented as my colleague, I've had the great opportunity to see students' lives change on my watch, and occasionally I've been able to give them a little bit of help. It is one of the best things about teaching at Wheaton.

That's why you pay 40K a year to send your kid to college.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf:
The Power of Performance

[Sorry to have taken so long to post anything. I was in NY, recording a complete course of Science Fiction lectures for Recorded Books. The recording went really, really well, but it is physically exhausting to do fourteen 35-minute lectures in two days. In related news, I just learned that Barnes and Noble is going to be carrying the course I recorded in December, Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, which is exciting. If you're interested, look for their "Portable Professor" section in stores. Hopefully they'll pick up the Chaucer and Science Fiction courses (and more things are in the works: with any luck, two more courses next year for Recorded Books and a Beowulf podcast on my own)]

And now to my main topic (which is avoiding grading more papers and writing my paper that I'm giving in Italy):

I had seen Benjamin Bagby's performance of Beowulf several times previously, which was why I arranged to have him come to Wheaton and perform last week. Ben will be premiering a new, extended version at Lincoln Center this summer, so you have a chance to see him there and, I assume, other places afterwards. It is a remarkable performance and it gets better each time I hear it. (Even though this time I was running the supertitles and thus couldn't just relax into the performance, close my eyes, and listen to the language).

I was also immensely proud of the Wheaton community: we filled the 300+ seat Weber Theatre on the Thursday night before Spring Break (and the performance was only mandatory for my ten Beowulf students). Bagby got a standing ovation at the end of the performance, and afterwards people were lurking around the corridors of Watson Fine Arts talking about the performance. Ben really makes Beowulf (from the beginning through Grendel's death) into a riveting performance, and he shows, I think, that all of the various "digressions" in the first 852 lines of the poem contribute to the suspense and excitement of the piece. Honestly, after you hear Ben's performance you absolutely believe that Beowulf was performed for an audience, not just written in a silent scriptorium.

Finally, I had the great fun of being allowed to play Ben's harp (lyre, if you want to be technical, but the same instrument was called a harp in Anglo-Saxon England). Even with no harp training, I was able to play a few little runs and accompany myself singing the first eleven lines of the poem (for the purpose of sound check only, and Ben was too polite to tell me if I sounded awful when I was singing the OE). I think I may get myself a lyre this summer as a "teaching tool," (and thus eligible for my Prentise Professorship stipend), and I may include some lyre-playing on the Beowulf cd/podcasts I am developing.

Ben's longer performance will soon be released on DVD, and I encourage you to buy it (and will post a link when it's up). But even more I encourage you to see him perform live. You won't forget the experience.

Thær wæs hearpan sweg, swutol sang scopes.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Better Man Than I Am

My co-professor in the Connection we're teaching ("The Edge of Reason") held the midterm for his half of the class today. Because we take turns teaching the class, which only meets twice per week, we are each limited to about 13 meetings over the course of the semester. So my co-professor decided that he would not use classroom time for the review session but would, on his own, uncompenstated time (which also costs babysitter money, I might add) offer a supplementary review.

One student went berserk, and I mean that in just about the technical sense of the term. All that was missing was an axe and a beheaded cow and you'd have Egil Skallagrimmson. The student accused my partner of being "irresponsible," "arrogant" and, in a later email, "a pompous ass." We wrote that if my co-professor was laying bleeding on the sidewalk, he'd walk by. His most damning criticism: "you are just too smart to be teaching."

Now my first reaction was "We need to slap the nonsense out out of this little wretch, and right fast." But my co-professor kept corresponding, drawing out more abuse. At first I thought this might be a case for the Honor Board, which handles civility issues, but then my co-professor provoked a core-dump that showed that this student has really serious problems of some sort going on. He was then able to get the counselling center involved, and maybe this student can get the help he needs now (and some training in minor social skills such as not giving authority figures gratuitous insults).

In all of this my co-professor showed why he is a better teacher than I am. I would have terminated the interaction after the first really obnoxious email. That would have been the end. But by going back and forth, we discovered that there was a problem and it might be important to address it.

And to be fair, some of the whining was actually funny (undercutting the student's whole argument): It boiled down to:' you are the meanest, meanest, meanest big meany ever.' Fortunately, both of us have children. We're immune. We've heard whining that college sudents can only begin to imagine.

Students inclined to whine: I scoff at your tiny, pathetic attempts at whining. Until I see you lying face-down in the hallway, banging your heads against the floor due to Bob the Builder not being on television, you just won't impress me. I advise getting out of the whining business. You're not even in the league, you amateurs.