Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Become an incremental theorist

You've decided to learn something new.  Say you've taken up the banjo*, for example, and you've never played a musical instrument before.  In those first lessons, you find yourself struggling with the first halting notes of "Old Joe Clark" -- this is not as easy as you thought!  Do you say to yourself:  
A.  I have a lot to learn, but I'm getting better with every session.  If I keep trying, I'll be sure to get this eventually. 
B.  I'm not good at this -- I guess I'll never be a really good banjo player.  I'm just not musically inclined.
If you lean towards A, you are approaching banjo-playing as what psychologist Carol Dweck calls an incremental theorist.  That means that you think your abilities can improve over time and that you can achieve this task with sufficient practice and study.  If you tend more towards B, you would approach banjo-playing more as an entity theorist.  You see your musical ability as fixed and unchangeable; banjo-playing is something some people are naturally better at than others, and you are just trying to figure out whether you are one of those gifted musicians or not.   For most tasks, there is probably some truth in both approaches.  Some people have the capacity to achieve a higher skill level than others, but all of us can improve with practice and dedicated study.  Nevertheless, the particular emphasis you bring to the task can dramatically affect how you handle challenges and failures, ultimately affecting your overall performance in the task.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The power of names

Lore and legend has long held that true names have power.  From the Egyptian gods of the netherworld to Rumpelstiltskin, deities and supernatural beings of all kind can be controlled, dismissed, or invoked through saying their true name.  To know something's true name is to know its shape and thus do we leash it and make it bow to our will.

But what is a true name?  Proper names seem particularly unlikely as true names.  Inherited or given at birth, these are merely arbitrary handles that seem to have no connection to our inner self.  But at times these names, random syllables as they are, become part of our selves.  The name has been attached to us and we grow attached to it.  As we become entwined with our name, we may come to see it as at least a fragment of our inner self.
Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.  ~W.H. Auden

Monday, January 16, 2012

Teaching toward a better world

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
          -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose tireless dedication to a world free of bigotry, poverty, and hatred helped bring us the civil rights movement.  I cannot do justice to the man or the movement, nor can I improve upon the many wise and profound words that have been said by and about him, so I will not try.  I want, instead, to take a moment to reflect on my own commitment to social change.
I sang for social change from 1989-1994.
(I'm in the middle in the back row.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exuberant enthusiasm and concomitant excess

So often we are advised to practice moderation.  "All things in moderation," they murmur, urging us to sample pleasures in small portions.  We are assured that excess is bad; after all it is, well . . . excessive.

I've never been good at moderation.  I'm full of bubbling enthusiasm that inspires me to fling myself wholeheartedly into one activity after another.  I go from a passionate pursuit of teaching perfection to months of extreme gardening only to then throw myself into a grandiose creative project.  There is no temperate jogging for me -- I'm always running full-tilt.

I've never forgotten some words of wisdom my undergraduate class received during our college orientation.  We were urged to pursue our passions intensely.  If we enjoyed a writer's work, we should read everything we could find by that author.  If mathematics intrigued us, we should immerse ourselves in the study of mathematics.  I found this advice deeply compelling.  The idea of plunging headfirst into something, letting it take me over completely, fit my approach to life.  Moderation be damned!  If we are going to do something, let's really go for it, fully and without reservation.  I wanted to meet life with exuberant enthusiasm, not cautious reserve.  Indeed, in my first year of college one of my friends gave me a sign that reads, I Am Subject To Bursts of Enthusiasm.  I have it on my shelf today as a badge of pride. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Writing is Life

Montgomery College student
In recent years, colleges have been asked to prove the utility of a college education for the job market.  Of what possible use are liberal arts courses?  After all, a course in philosophy or literature does not seem to facilitate the development of specific job skills.  The typical rejoinder is that such courses teach broadly useful skills, such as those involved in research, writing, or analytical thinking.  This is indeed true.  Beyond these skills, though, taking on the challenge of college courses teaches life lessons that extend beyond the academic environment.  Take my my students' experiences of completing a research paper, for example.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Losing the lecture?

When I was a college student, most of my classes were lectures.  I had some excellent professors, who gave inspiring, entertaining, and informative lectures.  I sat in the front and took notes furiously, trying to get every word down.  I still have some of those notebooks, somewhere in my archives. 

In graduate school, when I began teaching, I wrote lectures.  I interspersed some demonstrations and some discussions, as well, to engage the students further, but I stayed within the lecture format, by and large.  After all, that is what professors did -- they organized the information and delivered it through lecture.

In recent years, though, I've shifted away from lecturing in most of my classes.  In part, this came from a desire to engage students in discussions of complex issues rather than have them passively absorb information.  One semester I spent four hours of my Psychology of Human Sexuality class lecturing about female sexual anatomy and physiology and it seemed like a phenomenal waste of class time, particularly since the information was readily available in their textbook.  Given that I can't possibly cover all of the material in class, making myself a conduit for information from the textbook struck me as a poor use of class time, which is, after all, a limited resource.  I wanted the students to grapple with debates, learn to apply the concepts, to actively engage with the material, and lecturing was not reliably accomplishing those objectives.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interrogating Museum Exhibits

I just gave a talk at the AFACCT conference with some of my colleagues about our experience with the Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship program at Montgomery College.  It was a wonderfully interdisciplinary panel, reflecting the diversity of perspectives in our SFF cohort (Marcia Bronstein, English/ESL [moderator]; Genevieve Carminati, English and Women's Studies; Marissa Prosser, Anthropology; Michael Tims, Biology; and me, Psychology).  We each discussed the museum assignments we created for our students and how that facilitated their learning as well as how that reflected the various communities that interconnect through the SFF program.  I talked about what I learned from the museum curators about reading objects and images.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011

Rabbit on our driveway (6/2011)

New Year's Day is traditionally a day of new beginnings.  I love new beginnings -- the excitement of starting fresh with the allure of pristine new projects.  Accomplishments are just over the horizon, glittering in the near distance.

But taking stock of where we are means pondering the past as well as looking to the future. Yet I'm less likely to mull over tasks completed than to dream of what is to come.  So I'm challenging myself to spend some time thinking back over what I've done.  Rather than compile a list of individual achievements (as in Lisa Call's 100 Accomplishments for 2011), I wanted to think about how my activities fit into my goals.  Perhaps I'm considering my cosmic footprint for 2011 (to borrow a concept from fellow blogger and academic Jill Kronstadt, whose blog is really worth reading).  So in the larger sense, what did I do in 2011?