Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Talking and thinking with the dead and virtual

Communicating without the palpable touch; learning on line
06 April 2013.  301 Napoleon at Louisiana; the converging Grandpré runs diagonally behind it, and the house, which is quite a large one, has the triangular parts as its yard.  Everything ED said about it is true; it is all original (unless the door has had to be replaced).  As I finally got into BRtown, battling I-110 and the RR, and one-way streets, I came up St Joseph from Gov't and HAD to stop on beholding it.  That protected porch-balcony is the nicest use imaginable of a manly four-gable plan.  Surely a named house by a named architect: simple TYPE, unique architectural thinking

As the caption describes, I was forced to begin looking seriously at Beauregard Town starting from the East side (there was an annual street fair on the West).  I was arrested, I was stunned, by this house, which is much larger than it seems in a photograph.  Though I'll try to learn more about it, the essential fact is that it told me what it is most forcibly.  Nothing I may read about it can add more than data.  It is like coming into the presence of a great person.  It is like reading the first page of a great book; like the Sixth Fleet walking up the Acropolis in Athens and stopping open-mouthed before the Parthenon; like looking at one of J.-L. David's paintings that you thought you wouldn't like.  So, before going hunting for Craftsman here, I took this picture.
This is not the first time that my mixed experiences have come all together and acquired new life.  One of my early blog posts tried to evoke for others how Edmund de Waal's memoir brought to life my memory of walking around his family's neighborhood in Paris, my friendships with those whom I studied Asian art with, my first visit to Vienna, and much, much more.  It is what a great university has made of the life of one child who was the first in her family to pursue graduate degrees.  These riches have rescued me repeatedly from what I might have been otherwise.
Recently there have been books and many panel discussions on whether learning on line enriches or deprives the children, and older students, who use it.  Now, all my own education is pre-digital.  Not only that, most of it pre-dated both the paperback boom and the wealth of richly illustrated books (as I recently discussed).  As one waited one's turn to have library use of Helmut Bossert's Alt-Kreta for a couple of hours, no one minded having to figure out the German captions, with or without having studied the language, since no other books contained nearly so much material.  I remember an almost romantic gratitude to the State that had brought together publications from the whole wide world just for us.  I mention Bossert's compendia (there were also Alt-Syrien and Alt-Anatolien) in particular, because they weren't at all pretty, all grayscale and gritty, but if one looked hard enough one could imagine being there, and, if you had ever held a pot, you could feel what it might be like to hold a Minoan one (especially since we did have some color slides in lecture).  That was in 1953.  The question this raises is the degree to which effort and craving helped us to learn and to learn permanently.  The lecture might address a couple of hundred students (and many more in other subjects), but the professor was usually awesome in some way or another.  How else could so many of us be taught almost free of charge (there was a fee to cover administrative costs, but no tuition to pay)?  I was there.  How could I mind if sorority girls had cashmere sweater sets?  Long before I retired I began to feel that many of my students disdained riches that came too easily; they were being deprived of hurdles.  I mean only that plenty can be a mixed blessing, sometimes.  Besides, though I finished my degrees hand to mouth, I also finished with a tenure-track position awaiting me and no debt at all.  There were no student loans (the Kiwanis Club might give you money for your textbooks), and there were no credit cards at all.  Nor did you get charge accounts when you still had no job and no one to sign for you.  Of course, poverty, even relative poverty, is itself a mixed blessing.
So much for that.
The real question is what kind of subject, and what aspects of that subject, and for which students one kind of teaching or another is best.
Many students, at all levels, suffer excruciating fear at being called on in class and are often so aware of what everyone must think of them (and already feel that everyone is looking at them) that they can barely think of what is being taught.  Computer programs that afford privacy in working through a topic, with no penalty for getting no solution without several attempts, allow inward students to learn through discovery by themselves with good software.  They should also be allowed to follow tangents (tangents, of course, by definition stay in touch with the main topic!).  This is not a question of different abilities but of different personalities.  It's a Mary-and-Martha difference.  Other students learn well, especially in subjects where speed and accuracy are useful, in open competition, in a classroom full of happily waving raised hands.  Often this means, also, that the latter group are more likely to go home and use their own computers for games...  Some good teachers, similarly, are innately theatrical, but shy, quiet teachers are just as effective.  There is nothing wrong, per se, with testing, but it should take into account the assortment of personalities and mentalities.  (One of the virtues of the traditional lecture format is that each student sees and hears the lecture uniquely, no other one in the lecture hall receiving it in just the same way, and of course with the same requirement that the graded material, including tests, should address various ways of grasping and mastering the subject).
As I thought of this question these days, it seemed to me that the devices used in teaching may be less important than they seem, and students, all else being equal, can adjust to any kind, granted only good will and reasonable sufficiency.  That would mean that the way children and adolescents are raised is what matters and that teachers should be allowed to cultivate and made to learn how to share what is uniquely theirs and to examine and grade the students intelligently.  They cannot be forced to actually learn more (cramming for tests is not much retained)
For no one detests and dreads standardized tests, making them and grading them, let alone teaching "to" them, more than teachers (from Kindergarten to the Doctorate) do.  And, no, this is not a matter of being easy or hard.  Rather, the punitive element is one barrier to teaching what one has been given and wants to impart and to continue to explore and to learning what one came to university for.  One must learn to be for the next generation of students and young scholars what one's mentors have been for oneself.
Nothing is more vicious than regarding teachers (or doctors, or parsons, etc.) other than as professionals.  We might as well regard parents as if they were social workers.
And what has that to do with this series of blog posts?
In an earlier post, I mentioned getting the books required for my colleagues' courses which, generally, I couldn't even find the time to audit.  I did do Old English for most of the semester in Oregon and when I could sat in, if there was space, for Life Drawing in Louisiana.  But teaching up to 300 students at a time is not, by any means, just delivering well made lectures, and when one course was a research seminar I had to struggle to make sure that the graduate students got their full share.  Not only of attention.  In teaching a seminar one is taking it oneself and must keep learning and staying abreast with the graduate students.  There might be up to ten of us (though six is better, but some universities cancel courses with fewer than ten, even at the graduate level), and each must bring new questions and discoveries to each weekly meeting, besides getting the same share of office hours as the undergraduates.  The seminar course is the greatest privilege in teaching.  And it is where future scholars discover themselves.
So, when I had to retire at age 72, I had not been out of the educational profession, in one way or another, since I entered Grade One at age six.  To own a house outright I had taught far beyond the legal requirement (since my years in a religious order had been in education but not in the Social Security system or with a pension), and I no longer was able to sleep on trains or hike all over cities and sites as I had done before, and I had to stay in Louisiana.  But the library here had never permitted the research I had relied on in California or Greece.
So for myself I learned, too, to adapt my learning to what I had.  The nice, flat Garden District of Baton Rouge is full of bungalows that aren't even covered much in any of the books on American bungalows, and it is very close packed.  First I tried to identify all its trees and weeds, but that was really hard for me; it is not my attrait.  Houses proved to be fascinating.  Only to me?  Well, when I wrote up Archaic Greek pottery at an introductory level, people did read it.  Not thousands, but all over the world.  Whoever they are, I write up our houses for everyone else who likes them.  It is not as if this were New England or Missouri; before Standard Oil and before the university moved from downtown to its present site, Baton Rouge had not reached 20,000 population.  Unlike Natchez, for example, or Lake Providence (which existed for cotton), we have hardly anything before the 20th century and very little, really, before World War I was over.  
I cannot become a real scholar at my age in American domestic architecture, but neither can I say how much I have learned!  When I see that people even overseas are reading about our neighborhoods (and not, oh, heaven forbid, NOT from the realtors' point of view), it gives me great pleasure.  That is why, too, I have stuck with plain Picasa albums, all of them open to the Public on the Web.  Anyone, too, who wants to use my travel views for teaching, is welcome (though it would sadden me to see them commercialized).  There are many new colleges that have small libraries and hardly any collections of teaching images.  I wish, indeed, that I had more.  Google+ wants me to choose my Followers, to direct myself to whom I choose.
But such as it is, I want anyone who wishes to to follow how I tried to frame a seminar for myself, and to learn as I went—to see my vague beginnings and not mind if they, too, begin by knowing very little or nothing.  Someday almost anyone may be retired or arthritic or out of work or out of school and remember that the reason one gets an education is to be able to continue educating oneself.  Every day I find something I've talked of or thoughtlessly repeated that, in fact, I didn't really know at all.  You don't need to be pushing 80 to really enjoy learning all sorts of stuff.  And, of course, if Wikipedia makes some mistakes, we can't complain.  The famous encyclopedias contain mistakes, too.  Understanding others' mistakes, besides, is a way into understanding the minds of other persons and eras.  
By the way, when we meet other minds and learn others' knowledge from reading their books (poetry included, of course), that gives us, too, the privacy of learning on line.