Eleven years ago, I ran a full-time, ten-week program for first-year undergraduates that comprised, I thought then and think now, my largest failure as a professor.
It was not for lack of imagination or planning, though. The chemistry just wasn’t there between the students and me that quarter, and that is where the magic happens.
The failure was due, in part, to the fact that on day two of the program, my father suffered a major heart attack that resulted in him first being placed in a medically induced cold coma, then in hospital for close to two months, where my mother and I spent many hours every week with him (this was fully one year before he died, and there is story to be told there, too). I was, therefore, not as able to engage in theory of mind with my students as I usually did. I did not come to inhabit their minds, so did not understand them very well. In part, too, the failure was due to the fact that an ambitious program that came at the end of the students’ first year of college, in which most of their college work to date had required little from them at all, was surprising to them, and many of them did not ante up. There were also a couple of provocateurs among the students; this did not help.
When I go back to the course materials that I created for this program, however, I am pleased. The curriculum stands the test of time. In every program that I taught at Evergreen, I created a First Day Handout which provided an overview. This was in addition to other handouts on that first day, including the syllabus and the covenant, a document which detailed the expectations and responsibilities of faculty and students to one another in the program.
Here, with no changes except minor copy editing and to elide out-of-date or personal information (e.g., url for the class website, the location of my office, the names of my two past students who acted as my de facto TAs in this program), is the First Day Handout that I created for Nature’s Prose, in April of 2012. Later this week I will post, for paying subscribers, several sets of the Reflection Questions that I assigned as part of Nature’s Prose.
Nature’s Prose (Spring 2012, Evergreen): First Day Handout
The natural world exists with or without humanity’s interpretation of it. As observers, and users of symbols, it is easy to mistake ourselves for the creators and masters of what we are trying to explain. We will focus on observation as central to a careful, critical, and creative understanding of our world. We will learn the disappearing art of unitasking, of clear undivided focus. In this program, we will learn through direct experience of nature: we will learn to trust our own senses. Evolutionary explanations for nature’s complexity will be prominent.
Texts and Other Readings
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. 2006 (orig: 1976). Oxford University Press.
Remarkable Creatures, by Sean Carroll. 2009. Mariner Books.
Many additional readings available on the program website.
A Liberal Arts Education and the Creation of Learning Community
Evergreen is a liberal arts college. What does that mean, and why should we care?
To me, it invokes many things, but here are two of the most salient:
First, this is not a training ground, not a trade school: this is not where you come to acquire specific skills that you will need for some particular task in your future. You are bigger than that—you are real people, complete people, not cogs in a machine. You are here to learn creative, logical, and analytical tools which will enable you to assess the world carefully, not take things on faith, and be robust yet flexible in your convictions.
Second, this is not a business: you are not consumers, and I am not selling anything. As Mark Edmundson, in his excellent and prescient 1997 article in Harper’s magazine on what college education ought to be for, says, “university culture, like American culture writ large, is…ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview.” I ask that you reject the consumer worldview as much as you can. Aim not to fit in, but to have conviction, to stand for something, to be passionate. Be bold, take risks, and lose your complacency.
What is it to live a good life? An investigated life? A productive and creative life?
A liberal arts education helps people to find a path that is true to them, and enables them to be able to assess claims of truth—to reject false or misleading claims on the basis of logic and analytical skills that they own within them, without having to refer to outside authorities. That said, there have been smart and able people before us, and we stand on their shoulders. We should learn from them when we can, and credit them always. What we should not do is trust that they are right simply because they are famous, or because others trust them, or because it is easier than thinking for ourselves.
In this program, we will not embrace reality that is virtual or primarily socially constructed. At the same time, we will create a real learning community in which every member is valuable and respected. Through shared experience and learning, through taking intellectual risks together, we can become a real community in which everyone is recognized and valued for the unique talents that they bring.
One of the things we will focus on in this program is learning new habits. From repeated doing of things—going into the field at least twice a week, and observing; learning a new skill, making or doing something we have not done before—we learn what it is that each of us values, and how to bring those things to the forefront of our lives. Our habits of body become habits of mind. Consider this: is there something that you know you enjoy doing—you actually like the work while it is happening, and you also know you feel better about yourself and about life when you are done doing it—but somehow, you rarely motivate to do that thing? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you made doing that thing into a habit, such that it became a more regular part of your life?
Field Trips Program fee for field trips: $250
Week 3: Mon - Thurs on Orcas Island, San Juan Islands (in cabins)
Week 6: Mon - Tues at Grays Harbor, during the shorebird migration (tent camping)
Week 9: Tues - Thurs in the Columbia River Gorge (tent camping)
The program fee covers all costs associated with the field trips: vans, lodging, and food.
These three assignments will require students to wrestle with often complex material in a clear, concise written format. There will be strict word limits, and no late work will be accepted. Essays will be submitted on moodle, and I will return your work to you via email, with comments, before the next essay is assigned. You are expected to work independently on these essays.
Assigned on Thursdays, the five sets of “Reflection Questions” will be, like the essays, designed to help you synthesize and integrate your understanding. Your typed answers to the study questions are due in class the following Monday, when you will be discussing your answers in small groups, then all together as a class. You are encouraged to work collaboratively on these assignments, but should write individual answers.
Math & Logic (aka Quantitative & Symbolic Reasoning)
Topics will likely include but not be limited to: probability, descriptive statistics, set theory, density dependence, interpreting graphs, and game theory. Some of these workshops will result in work to be turned in.
Natural History Posters & Annotated Bibliography
Everyone will create a poster detailing the natural history of an organism native to the San Juan islands, to be displayed during our week 3 field trip to the San Juans. Everyone will also produce an annotated bibliography of the sources they used. Details on Thursday of week 1.
Natural History / Weekly Field Time: Developing a Sense of Place
Everyone will spend at least four hours alone in nature every week, observing, and from that experience, will generate meaning, displayed in both a presentation & a paper. Details following tomorrow’s field exercise.
Make or Do: Establishing New Habits & Engaging Physical Reality
Everyone will make or do something in or of the physical universe that they have not made or done before—such as prepare a bird skin for natural history collections, or bike a century. Details on Thursday of week 2 (but start thinking now about possible projects).
Every student will give two presentations in week 10: one following from their Natural History work (on observation and the scientific method), the other showcasing the products of their “Make or Do” projects.
Student Evaluations will be based on:
Engagement with the material (in class, this means active participation in lectures, discussions, and workshops; I will also look for evidence of time spent with the ideas presented outside of class).
Written work (essays, Reflection Questions, Natural History poster & annotated bibliography): performance in both content and writing.
All aspects of other program projects: Natural History field experiences, Make or Do projects, Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning workshops, presentations.
Contribution to the learning community: willingness to take on diverse roles (leader, team member, teacher, learner…). Interest in helping others learn, & in building strong connections.
Participation in and contribution to all aspects of field trips.
Attendance at and timeliness in all aspects of the program, including field trips.
The quality of your work, level of understanding, effort, and extent of improvement will all be important in your evaluation. All of your work will be compiled in a portfolio which you will turn in to me before I write your evaluations.
Other readings included but were not limited to: Genesis (Wallace Stegner novella, ~1962); Strong Inference (Platt 1964), on the philosophy of science; The Screwfly Solution (Sheldon 1977, science fiction); Liking is for Cowards, Go for What Hurts (Franzen 2011 in the NYT); The Case for Working with your Hands (Crawford 2009); To See and Not See (Oliver Sacks 1995); Long-distance Migration: Evolution and Determinants (Alerstam et al 2003).
As a person who went to a quite expensive liberal arts college myself "Saint John's in Santa Fe", I can say with experience that it was one of the most awful and wonderful experiences of my life. The worst of it was the "don rag" where adults far more studied, more ingrained in the culture, and far more educated than myself "assessed" my skills and weaknesses as a student. I got quite depressed hearing my faults of being a "contrarian". That one in particular disturbed me because I was unaware of just how argumentative I was capable of being. Took many months to figure out how to undo that quirk of mine (not that I don't argue endlessly still).
However, there was a singular moment that entirely changed my view of the educational program. I was in a science class at the end of the school year and it was supposed to just be a "talk about what we've been through". At that time, I learned how to have an honest dialogue as equals and I was incredibly excited to fill that hour and a half of class with productive conversation. In fact, I was so lost in the ideas I had learned, I had forgotten about how little everyone else had anything left to say. I certainly don't mind filling the hour and a half up if I need to do it alone. I am a rather quiet intellectual with little interest in socializing. Other people had many other things they were thinking about during the year I am sure. But what killed any interest in going back to that school was a single man in the room.
He was sitting on the opposite side of the classroom of me. He just wanted to leave class as quickly as possible. I didn't (my Mother had to pay for the entire school year herself!). I had no intentions of wasting the moment. But what silenced me without any extra effort was the look in his eyes. He HATED me for being an intellectual enjoying learning. And I don't just mean "fuck, can he shut up already!". I mean unadulterated malice that would make me not want to show up to class in the future. The look a criminal gives even if he was never going to act on it...
That is the educational world we live in today. It's not the fault of the tutors at that college (though I am sure some aren't great as with any place). It was the students. That's what killed it for me. It's a person telling me to get the hell out of there because I was looking to learn.
Ironically, in that same class, a black kid from Zimbabwe with a struggling understanding of the English language, and a heart of gold, came up to me after class and said, "hey, you should keep doing what you are doing. I have never seen a classroom be so animated about a class discussion before." The horrible irony being that a kid who probably needed a language aide to even understand the English just to get by was more interested in the art of education, than the 10 other kids who just wanted to feel good about being smarter than everyone else. I even said in the lunchroom I was going to give a scientist crap for being a reductionist fixated on how science is the power of control over nature. A philosophical principle that started in around the late 1700's because science was struggling to produce an effective theory on anything. So instead of being better, they became quicker and we live with that paradigm of dangerous science today because of it. His name was Claude Bernard.
The essay or thesis or whatever you'd like to call his control scheme of nature, was called "An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine", Part Two: Experimentation With Living Beings. It was written in 1865 and although his theory was highly productive, the further I read into the paper, the more and more I saw how in order to prove himself correct, he has to negate interrelational dynamics of living things. This meaning that if someone has high blood pressure, we give them blood thinners. And if further analysis says, "Oh hey, he needs more X, Y, and Z because his liver isn't being nourished properly, "Give him the blood thinners. That's your JOB as doctors." That is why today, instead of having "pro health" discussions, we have discussions of how to medicate people's lack of general health and well-being. Which isn't the fault of Doctors honestly. It's the fault of society saying the role of a Doctor is to be both a medically trained genius, a fully licensed nutritionist, a psychologist, a good friend and so on and so forth. Not even doctors get paid enough to do all of that... That and it goes against laws preventing doctors from deciding the lifestyles and behaviors of patients. Doctors are there to medicate, prevent and cure disease, not dictate our lives even if and when they know how best to do it.
Thank you for sharing this. I have been teaching (in a different subject area) for many years but your podcasts and writings have informed and transformed my own teaching. It inspired me to be more creative and freer. Looking forward to more pedagogical posts!