Friday, May 30, 2014

A Good Deal of Truth in the Fiction

The Ink Garden of Brother TheophaneThe Ink Garden of Brother Theophane by C.M. Millen and Andrea Wisnewski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a charming and delightful book about a daydreaming monk who discovers how to make different colors of ink to illuminate the books transcribed by he and the brothers in his monastery. As much about art and chemistry and poetry as it is about work and imagination, I could not stop smiling as I read the story and gazed at the illustrations. I may be 50, but I felt like a child as I experienced the wonderful tale.

After writing the above for Goodreads, I ran across another review which spens a great deal of space on the fact that the character of Brother Theophane was not a real person. And I think I can understand the writer's concerns, particularly about the story's impression on children. However, the version of Millen and Wisnewski's book I read contained notes at the end about how the character was a fictional recreation of what several monks had done in experimenting and "discovering" new shades and methods for illuminating manuscripts. (The poems in the book were also from a number of different anonymous monks.)  While I too am troubled by the idea that discovery is some solitary action done by one smart or brave soul, I also believe that one should not be troubled so much by this book.

The story and the character are truer in the sense that all great fiction is true: it tells about humanity in all its imperfections and potential. Brother Theophane may not be a single real person, but he is at the heart of many people's experiences and hopes -- then and now.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Where were you when you were here?

It is nearing the end of another semester, and once again, the expressions of frustration are pouring forth from instructors and students alike. Many students feel overwhelmed and lost as they prepare for exams over material they claim was never covered and finalize papers whose parameters often remain a mystery. Teachers try to hold in painful sighs as they repeat information for tenth time this week for this one class, and bite their collective tongues at the students who are just now realizing they have zeroes on some assignments or have suddenly become privy to the attendance policy.

Sometimes I want to shout, “Where were you when I covered all this information? What were you doing while the whole class was doing research on this? What were you listening to while I darn near begged students to see me during my office hour or go to the Writing Center for help?

I know when people miss a lot of classes, I can point to lack of participation as a reason for poor grades and an absence of learning. But so many students are physically present, but not really “there.”

So I propose to answer some of these questions in the hopes that if you are student who seems to be missing something, you can learn to “Be here now,” as one of my own professors cautioned me. And if you are a teacher, you probably won’t feel better, but at least you will know what to watch out for.

Where were you when the teacher covered that in class?

  • Texting your friends.
  • Checking your Facebook 
  • Chatting with your neighbor.

Where were you went the instructor offered to answer questions about the assignment or explained the assignment for the third time?
  • Asking the guy next to you for clarification. You know, that dude who barely speaks or understands English, but has a nice smile? 
  • Talking to that woman who seems smart because she always remembers her book, but is lost in her own problems?
  •  Grinning at some YouTube video on your laptop.

Where were you when the rest of the class was completing an in-class assignment?
  • Checking Wikipedia for some information on the subject.
  • Making an outline of the paper you should have completed a week ago. 
  •  Checking your grades for another class.

Where were you when the teacher set aside class time to do research in the library?
  • Studying for a test in your next class by staring at random pictures in the textbook.
  • Playing Candy Crush as you wait for an opportunity to sign the roll sheet.
  • Driving your car to Taco Bell convinced today was a “free period.”

Where were you when the professor was explaining how your final grade is figured or when he was giving the class information about the Final Exam?
  • Packing your bags to leave.
  • Wondering what this guy is talking about and why he thinks it is so important. (It is a particularly bad sign if you are wondering who this guy is.)
  • Checking your notebook or folder to see if it is too late to drop the course.
Where were you just before you asked the instructor about extra credit?
  • Noting for the first time this semester that you have seven zeroes in the grade book.
  •  Posting a Facebook status about your unfair teacher.
  • Listening to other classmates talk about excuses they used to get extensions on assignments.
  • Trying to remember whether your grandmother has already “died” this semester.
  • Searching for “better” instructors to take in the fall.

Certainly the above does not represent all undergraduates. Some weak students make an effort to figure out what is going on, and plenty of good students lose their way now and then. And I know there are teachers who operate under the “I said it; therefore I taught it” pedagogy, and so they have no idea what actually “works” in a classroom, and thus short change the whole system. But every semester, I find more students walk onto campus already tuned out, blaming the subject matter for being boring (instead of their vapid lives), and expecting teachers to entertain them (or at least tolerate their raging apathy).

The problem isn’t all about the students either. The actions and attitudes noted above indicate a growing trend of nearly militant ignorance. Many of our college students have failed themselves, but have also been failed by their parents, teachers, administrators, friends, and politicians who know nothing about education, but seem perfectly willing to make up rules about it while stripping funding from everything except football and stealing power from all who can make education in this country the envy of the world again. But the past, no matter how recent, is no excuse.

Students need to imagine the actual piece of paper we call a diploma. The name they see will not belong to all the people who had a role, for good or ill, in the education that paper is supposed to represent. And that education, if it is to be worth something, needs to start with students doing more than getting marked “present.”