This afternoon I took a walk because it was lovely out, with high gray clouds shading the streets down here from the sun’s glare. The houses around me are mostly surrounded by lovely old cacti and trimmed Mesquite trees, but 5th ave. must have expanded at some point so that there’s no shoulder and the cars whiz by only a foot or two from pedestrians, so that I could feel the air stir as they passed. There’s a lovely, pink, arched Catholic convent down the road as well, which I sometimes like to visit for Vespers. I would visit it for morning prayers as well if I could manage to get up by six.
I thought to myself as I got back from that walk that I thought I did want to teach, and that I might be a very decent teacher. I haven’t dealt much with the various materials we were told to collect in college for perhaps a year and a half, so I thought that the first thing I might try to do would be to assemble some sort of “e-portfolio” like the college professors taught us to make. After perusing websites on the topic for half an hour I remembered why I don’t have one anymore. It’s not just that I like to create new lesson and unit collections each time I begin a course (though I do). My reaction is more visceral. E-portfolios tend, to an alarming extent, to look something like this. And they are tirelessly studied, like this. But that’s ultimately not what’s bothering me. Instead of going at what bothers me, I’d like to try a stab at what’s not bothering me.
It’s not like Education is a sea of annoyance. If it were I wouldn’t care about it so. I’m thinking about some of the delightful teachers and classes I’ve had. I’ve been in a decent number of such classes. But then there have boon other classes that were no good at all, however earnest and charming the teacher was. Take one of the greatest discrepancies I’ve encountered: a successful and an unsuccessful math class. At Pima Community College I took three wretched math classes — well, four, but I had to withdraw from one of them. Then I had one and a half successful math classes at St John’s; the half was a mathematical philosophy preceptorial. So what was so different? Several things: 1) The goals of the St John’s class were far less complicated and more modest; 2) the student body had agreed to the terms and were generally more interested in academics; 3) the tutors knew that, and were interested in a number of different subjects themselves; 4) there was a great deal of class participation at St John’s and nearly none at PCC; 5) St John’s doesn’t assume that there are art people who won’t like math and have to be coddled into it and math people who won’t like the arts and can just leave well enough alone — PCC does.
So, looking at that first point. We had, for the math class, a copy of Book 1 of Euclid’s Elements, which is a series of 48 geometric proofs, a photocopy of Lobachevsky’s Theory of Parallels, a chalkboard, colored chalk, and a piece of string (to share amongst ourselves, should we need to draw circles). We also had whatever else we found personally helpful — there were compasses, graph paper, unlined paper, crayons, pencils, and so on at the students’ discretion. A different student would do each proposition at the board without notes, and the rest of the class could help, comment, or ask questions about the meaning and sense of it all. We had to write two 3-4 page essays as well; one on each mathematician. That’s pretty much it. There were no colored charts and graphs, no word problems, no gimmicks, no quizzes, no tests, no Specified Learning Objectives or Measurable Learner Outcomes. I don’t think the tutors ever have a lesson plan: they don’t need to. There’s nothing complicated about “students will do props. 30-34 on the board and discuss how they work and why they’re necessary.” It was delightful, and I think I learned the geometry pretty well. Euclid works in that format, I suspect, because he is concerned with an orderly account of geometric proofs, so that each one and all of them together logically and obviously rely on each other to form a complete and (given his axioms and postulates) necessary system. In mathematics that is a very good and proper thing, while other arrangements are right and proper in other disciplines. But at PCC, beginning with the textbook, standards, objectives, and tests we did, mandated by the college, within the timeframe with which we were working, I don’t know whether there was any possible way to salvage the operation. Even with a good, interested and interesting tutor, good, interested students, and a delightful seminar arrangement, there wasn’t much we could make of Miguel de Unamuno last summer, simply because there isn’t much that anybody not suffering tremendous levels of angst from longing with all his soul for immortality while disbelieving in it as a possibility could do with Unamuno.
But students and teachers have, I guess, shown ourselves untrustworthy, and so we are put in a purgatory of measurable objectives aligned to standards as seen in terribly ugly textbooks.
All this is on my mind as I try to write and collect some “teaching materials” that I would be willing to show somebody who wanted to know how I’m likely to teach. A book, a box of chalk, a piece of graph paper, a pencil, and a cup of coffee to teach geometry. Some Plato quotes. A compass. To teach art? A plant, a sheet of paper, an eraser, a pencil, and some stamina. A stick of charcoal. Some seashells. A sheet of paper with a progression of how and where we’re going. Project 1. Part one. This exercise is considered helpful for learning to look more closely at things. There’s another exercise that’s good for considering composition. We can make some negative space drawings; that’s good for composition. And look at artwork. Look at how Georgia O’Keef used the space on her canvass. And then look at how the Renaissance artists composed their space. You can’t just have a little drawing in the middle of a great big sheet of paper. When you write an essay try to make an outline first. How many paragraphs will be in it? What will each of them focus on? Can you put something concrete in each paragraph: an example or a description? What does it mean for Odysseus to be wise in this story? Why does James Joyce use the style he does? Why did Augustine steal the pears?
That’s the stuff lessons are made of. But I’ve learned something from watching college professors and engaging in class discussions, and then teaching a bit myself — and even in life. The really essential, important, necessary thing is that we spend as little time and energy as we can on peripheral sorts of things — thinking about how much we don’t like math or what methods are being used or the cool graph in the corner of the page, or the smart board, or whatever else — and as much time and energy as we possibly can on: what kind of person is Achilles? What does it mean to say that a person is only fully human within the community of the polis? This is how Chaucer is using rhyme and meter. Do you see the shape of that space between those branches? And can you draw it? Why are you so confident in asserting that triangle ABC is equal to triangle BDF? Can you prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt to be so?
Then, whether the teacher knows exactly what the assessment is or not; whether she likes to sit on the table and talk about mind maps in her cool leather boots, or exclaim: ABC would still equal BDF even if we extended point D all the way to Espanola! Or even if he specializes in sculptures of life-sized ceramic pants with trays of food on top, and tends to mostly teach through “no, no, no; this way!” or stands next to the slide projector in a dark room and goes on at length on the history of why Bernini made a marble fountain of Moses with horns for some convent in Italy — the thing is for the subject to be worth knowing and the methods and personalities and all to become as clear as possible to that subject as much as possible.
Aristotle says that the first mover is thought-thinking-thought and that it is what it thinks, being thought without any physical matter to force it out of that perfect thought. And we humans, at our best, when we are thinking in the way that is most like how that primary being thinks, are in some respect the same. My mind and the idea of the Bernini statue and the image I see of the Bernini statue are all the same for a moment, and that’s when the mind is most doing what only minds can do. I like that. It’s probably bad metaphysics, but I still like it, and it does seem in some way true. But our minds are not perfect and neither are their objects, so we are often forced out of that sync –I thought I understood Kant for a few hours, and apparently I did, but then I came out of the Kant sympathy way of thinking, and now I can’t make anything of the paper I wrote. But if I wanted I could read him again, and eventually it would become clear for a few moments or a few hours, and I would understand what he was saying — while the fewer extraneous worries I had about tests and objectives and round robin methods and smart boards, the more likely that would in fact be.