Recently in Education Category

Remember when I wrote about the bad logic employed by another person's facebook friend? Someone who stated things like "FACT: Adam fell into mortality about 6000 years ago:" or "FACT: Only four people I know of on Earth can actually tell us what the planet was really like 2000 years ago. (John and 3 Nephites)"?

I admit it: I had signed on for the project of getting this guy to admit that these things weren't "facts" at all. Luckily circumstances removed this person from my experience, so that now he is only a vague, unpleasantly memory. Because chances are, I would never change his mind. Nor will anyone else.

Here's a study, discussed in the Boston Globe, that addresses why: people with wrong opinions don't want to change them. They actually reject facts when confronted with them. In fact, "facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters -- the people making decisions about how the country runs -- aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.


"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon -- known as "backfire" -- is "a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance."

The good news is that there seems to be at least one way to counteract this trend: boost people's self-esteem:

Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you'll listen -- and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won't. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

But how do you make people feel good about themselves when the entire world mocks them for the silly underwear they wear? I mean, how do you make them feel good about themselves in a legitimate way, and not in the "oh, wow, you're so oppressed, and that's proof that you're extra special and God really loves you" way?

I Went to College and I Liked It

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A colleague liked to say that "an education is a harrowing experience." If you don't find it harrowing, what you're getting is not an education.*

This isn't to say that an education can't also be exhilarating and thrilling and FUN. An education should be exhilarating and thrilling and FUN.

But at some point in your education--if it's a real education and not just an exercise in social reinforcement--you should encounter an idea that shakes your very notion of how the world works and who you are and who everyone else around you is. You should have a new relationship to truth and uncertainty and wisdom and ethics.

That certainly happened to me. I remember sitting in classes, especially as an undergrad, with my jaw agape, my mind reeling, the muscles in the back of my neck tensed so that my head wouldn't topple over backwards under the force of these ideas that I experienced as a physical assault on my being, an invasion of my personal sense of self.

Last week someone emailed me a story from the NY Times, and when I read it, I happened to look at the list of "most popular emailed stories." Near the top was something titled Unboxed: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? Which was a question I wanted to read about and have answered.

One of the reasons I continue to value my Mormon upbringing was the whole goal program I grew up with. There was this official church curriculum for teenagers, which presented them with six specific areas of well-rounded humanity--physical health, spiritual development, social interactions, personal ethics, I don't remember them all--and we were expected to set and complete two goals in each area every year while we were in junior high and high school. If young women completed the program satisfactorily, they got a really ugly necklace. I don't remember what young men got. Maybe a merit badge; their version of the program might have been tied up in scouting, which the church has sort of commandeered.

I used the goal program to great advantage, collecting a slew of virtuous habits such as thrift and punctuality. I made running three miles every school-day morning a habit--albeit one I hated--and the fact that I managed to do that for a full year helped me acquire that necklace I never wore once. I wasn't in it for the necklace, you see: I was in it for the habits and the accomplishments themselves.

Teaching Carnival

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OK, I don't read EVERY blog I enjoy and respect every single day (or even, sometimes, every single week), because like everyone else I know, I'm busy. But sometimes I find myself with a few unclaimed hours, and I go through my list of bookmarked favorites, and realize, "Hey, I haven't visited that blog in a shamefully long time!"

And I visit and I find something really cool, like Teaching Carnival 15 on New Kid on the Hallway.

Appropriately Instructive Movies about the Power of Art

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A friend recently emailed me and asked me for suggestions for movies he might show in his composition course, which includes some essays on art--from what I know of the reader our composition department uses, I'm guessing Aristotle's Poetics and the like. He didn't ask me specifically for movies that are about the power of art--rather, he specified that he wanted movies "the artistic powers of which are slightly better than what the students are used to. Yet I don't want to bore them either."

But that didn't matter because I read the message wrong at first--it was first thing in the morning and I was tired--and spent a couple of hours trying to think up movies about the power of art which would please an audience of 18-year-olds.

What I'm Busy with Right Now

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As I've mentioned, I'm really busy right now. But what is it I'm busy doing? Well, for one thing, I'm teaching a bunch of very full classes--I have more students this semester than I've ever had before.

One of the primary duties listed in my job description is teaching creative writing in general to undergraduates, and literary nonfiction writing in specific. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, literary nonfiction is an umbrella phrase typically encompassing autobiography, memoir and the personal essay. Some people call it creative nonfiction. My department calls it "literary" nonfiction instead of "creative" nonfiction because essentially all writing involves acts of creation but not all writing is literary, and we want to stress that we're striving for a certain quality of writing. I don't get my knickers in a twist when I hear the phrase creative nonfiction, but I HATE the acronym CNF.

A book I often teach in both literature and writing courses (though I'm not teaching it this semester) is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a memoir about the deaths of his parents less than a month apart from different types of cancer, and his subsequent experiences as the appointed guardian of his younger brother Toph, who is orphaned at age nine. It has its problems, but students generally like it, and I like it for its preface, where Eggers lays out some of the theoretical and critical issues involved in the writing and reading of literary nonfiction. For instance, he suggests that readers who are bugged by the fact that he claims to be telling the truth do what readers have been doing for centuries: pretend it's fiction. He also appraises the quality of his book, and gives suggestions for reading and enjoy it. He suggests that his readers skip pages 239-35, noting that those pages concern "the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time."

Given that my students are typically in their early twenties if not their late teens, this statement has dire implications for their efforts as writers of nonfiction.

However, one of the classic genres of fictions is the bildungsroman, (from German bildung, "building" and French roman, "novel"), or the coming-of-age novel. In fact, many venerated first "novels" are essentially coming-of-age memoirs disguised as novels by the changing of a few names and the fudging of a few facts.

What makes literature about people in their early twenties "interesting"? Is it really so hard to make these lives interesting? And what are the implications of these questions for young writers in creative writing classes--who are sometimes not merely in their early twenties, but their late teens? How do young writers acquire the wisdom, the vision, the craft, the perspective, the insight to make accounts of their early lives not merely interesting, but works of art?

Trying to find answers to that question that satisfy me and my students is part of what I'm so busy with right now. Oh, and explaining when and where to use commas.

One Down, a Whole Bunch More to Go

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Well, I survived the first day of the semester. It was a bit iffy there for a while--for one thing, I couldn't decide what to wear, and you must find the right outfit on the first day, because the wrong one can set a miserable tone you'll never recover from. In the end I wore what is almost my uniform: a long skirt (albeit a very cool one I made at the beginning of the summer and had never taught in before), a nice top, with my hair down but pulled off my face by a scarf.

The classes themselves were reasonably successful (except for the one where I tried to lecture the first day--won't do that again any time soon). I have high hopes that it will be a decent semester, although it's clear that it will be a busy one. So if I'm not as prolific in the next few months as I have been at times in the past, well, you'll know why.

Good to Go

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Classes start Tuesday. Yesterday I turned in my syllabi to be copied, so as far as clerical preparations for the first day are concerned, I'm good to go. I've also figured what I'm going to discuss the first day (I've been here too long and have too many repeat students to just read the syllabus for the first 75-minute period) and acquired any necessary materials. I have no clue what's going to happen on Thursday, the second day I teach, but at least the first day is accounted for.

Thought you'd want to know.

The Power Ness of the Adam Bomb

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People sometimes act like the fact that I don’t teach during the summer is due to some amazing con job on my part. Or they think that the fact that I only have to go into campus a few days a week means that I only work a few days a week. I probably work 50 to 60 hours a week during the semester, and while some of my work is highly enjoyable, a lot of it majorly, majorly sucks.

An example of that is grading. Reading good work by good students can be pleasant if not painless, but reading--and being obligated to comment on--bad work by bad students is an excruciating form of torture. As evidence, I offer you a couple of excerpts from what just might be the worst paper I ever received--I saved a copy because I knew, from the very first sentence, that this paper was special. It was written several years ago by a junior majoring in communications and minoring in English, which she insisted meant her work couldn’t possibly be unsatisfactory since OF COURSE anyone who majors in communications and minors in English MUST know how to write. I leave it to you to decide whether or not the prose below--which I transcribe just as I received it (I must note that my spell checker questions nothing but the last name of the author of the essay the student chose to critique)--is the work of someone competent at stringing together intelligible sentences.

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