Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why I Teach Where I Teach

I teach at a small Christian liberal arts school for a number of reasons. One of them is given in this probably overlong but still entertaining and pretty much right article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League". For example, I'm working with a nation-wide group that is trying to bring real knowledge-generating research into the teaching laboratory for ordinary science classes. None of us is at an elite school, and I think all of us are teaching our students in ways that the elite schools don't attempt.

But even at my institution, especially in conversations with those "above" me in the administrative order/Great Chain of Being, I find myself slipping into technocratic, job-focused justifications for what I do. It's one of those things where the playing field is so tilted that unless you put forward active effort you slip into the default pattern of thinking, even if you've consciously built your career around thinking differently. Don't be conformed -- be transformed.

Here's the quote that stands out to me:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: The Crying of Lot 49

Here's another short classic of science-related literature, but I just didn't get into it. The main problem may be that it just doesn't make a great audiobook. The story is deliberately disjointed and even hallucinogenic at times, and while I felt the visceral descent into paranoia and doubt, and then doubt of doubt, I could recognize that it was expertly done and yet don't feel I got much more than that out of it. I like how the ending twists in on itself, and I like what's left open and what's closed ... when I step back and look at the elements of this book I liked a lot of leaves on the tree, but the tree itself was surprisingly sparse and disconnected. I prefer Vonnegut, I suppose. Pynchon didn't cohere.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien

For years I have wanted to sit in Tolkien's class on Beowulf and hear him talk about the poem and culture he knew so well. If only they had MOOCs back then! But now I feel that my wish has been granted. Christopher Tolkien put together a book of his father's translation of Beowulf and the accompanying lecture notes.

This is actual academia, so it may be an uphill battle for those without a deep interest in Tolkien. But I found an invaluable window into the mind of Tolkien between the lines of these notes. In addition, at the end is appended Tolkien's own fairy-tale version of Beowulf (without all the Geats/Swedes/Danes history stuff and actually beginning "Once upon a time ... ). I just read that to my older boys and they enjoyed the parallels with Rohan in the Lord of the Rings, although neither they nor I were expecting quite so many decapitations in a fairy-tale.

My favorite part of all this was reading Tolkien being a professor, discussing academic claims and translations and historical debates. Ultimately, academic discussions are very similar, and even if I didn't care about the debate, I did care about the debater.

Tolkien had a sharp mind and an amazing grasp of Anglo-Saxon literature. For example, he could tell you if a word was used or a name alluded to anywhere in the literature, such is his love for the field. But for all his ability to parse out the trees, what truly amazes me is Tolkien's ability to always remember the forest as well. Tolkien often solves tricky translation problems by appealing to the piece as a whole and how this part works within the entire poem.

He also spends a lot of time talking about the faith of the author and how that author applied his own Christian theology to the pre-Christian history/myth he was writing in this poem. There's some fascinating theology in there for someone interested in that to chase down with a dissertation, in how that aligns with Tolkien's Catholicism and Biblical passages on this topic like Romans 2. Most important, Tolkien never checked his faith at the door, but brought it in robustly, with academic skepticism where appropriate, but with the obvious conviction that this matters. And he's right -- those (to me) are the most interesting parts of the lecture notes.

So I'm not sure how someone else would react, but I loved the chance to sit under Professor Tolkien. I just wish I could have heard him in person declaim the opening "Hwaet!" of the poem. Some things books cannot do.