I Want to Take This Class!

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I didn’t win Powerball this week, I’m still hoping that I will find a ticket for time travel lying on the sidewalk.  If it turns up, I may head back to 1955 and enroll in Kurt Vonnegut’s class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and get started on my term paper.  You can view the specifics of the assignment as described in today’s issue of Slate by clicking here.

In “Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Reading Fiction,” an excerpt from Dan Wakefield‘s Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, Suzanne McConnell shares the assignment that she saved.  It immediately offers some ideas ripe for poaching by any good teacher:

  • Write an assignment in the form of a letter to make it more personal
  • Be specific about the requirements of the task at hand; include both positive and negative directives
  • Encourage your students to embrace their own experiences, not the ones they may think they “should” have
  • Allow your students to make their own value judgments, but insist that they reflect on the origins of those values
  • Invite your students to see themselves as people whose opinions matter
  • Make it clear that you expect your students to experience pleasure in completing the task.
    Term Paper Galore

    Term Paper Galore (Photo credit: Bright Green Pants)


Kudos to Ms. McConnell for saving this letter.  Do you find inspiration as you read it?  Please share!


Boring is Beautiful

English: A bored person

English: A bored person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I perused Slate this morning (one of my growing list of guilty pleasures), I happened upon Mark O’Connell‘s post, “Surprisingly Interesting: A Dispatch from the 2012 Boring Conference.”  How did I miss out on this, and how soon can I book a ticket to next year’s event?  You see, I take it as an article of faith that virtually anything is interesting if you just learn enough about it, or have some level of personal investment, or are simply open to the wonders of the universe. (Wait…did I just create a new definition of “nerdiness”?)

As college instructors, we all encounter students who are enrolled in our class to complete a slot on their degree plan, openly declaring that “I have no interest in this subject whatsoever….it’s just boring.”  If they don’t say it to you, they have said it to the advisor who broke the news that they needed to take it. Trust me on this one.  These are typically folks who have not reached the life stage in which Nova episodes fill up one’s DVR.

English: Hand I'm bored Español: Mano I'm bored

English: Hand I’m bored Español: Mano I’m bored (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ah, but isn’t that what college is for?  Who among us has not stumbled upon, or been forcibly shoved into, a class that we never wished to take that nevertheless proved to be an epiphany?  At some point, most of us have been the intellectual equivalent of a 4-year-old insisting on chicken fingers when the menu featured filet mignon and creme brulee, a state of affairs that lasted until some long suffering teacher pried open our clenched minds and offered a bite of knowledge that tasted like Bananas Foster.

For me, it was entomology.  I dislike bugs….really loathe them.  But the best biology professor at U of L in the 1970’s, Dr. Charles Covell, was a noted lepidopterist and entomologist who taught entomolgy.  My friends were taking it.  My class at the same time was cancelled.  So I signed up.  Nearly 40 years on, I still have fond memories of that class, and I never see a butterfly without thinking warmly of spring afternoons spent racing across the fields near Louisville, net in hand, pursuing those beautiful creatures. Had I missed that “boring” course, I would be the poorer for it.

Eastern Swallowtail - Papilio glaucus - Taken ...

Eastern Swallowtail – Papilio glaucus – Taken in Louisville Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long ago I read an anecdote that I am unable to google today.  (Please tell me if you know the source…I think it was a noted woman writer.)  She related that she had met a man who blustered that War and Peace was a big, boring book when it was only he who was big and boring. Anatomy, calculus, history, sociology….all of these may seem big and boring to our students.  Maybe if we offer them the right “nets,” they, too. will find pleasure in catching those beautiful, boring butterflies.

The Saving Grace of Math


Mathematics (Photo credit: Terriko)

Why would a community college English instructor like me be a math advocate? Actually, I’ve always been a math advocate, and just in the past two weeks, I’ve put together more clearly the reason.  In sharing memories with old friends from school long ago, wonderful math memories came flooding back, as well as a new perspective on why math can be a great subject for anyone, not just prospective math buffs

One argument of many students is, “Math has nothing to do with my career plan. It shouldn’t be a requirement.” Their argument sounds convincing and utilitarian, especially in an age of student loans and the need to get efficiently from point A to point B, point A being an education, and point B being a good job.

US Navy 100727-N-4304M-001 A student at a scie...

US Navy 100727-N-4304M-001 A student at a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) summer camp at Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Md (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, some important benefits of math lie hidden in plain sight now that I think about it. Today’s students often feel weighted down with life situations, whether traditional students or non-traditional. Home life for the traditional student may be fraught with stresses, and certainly we know the plight of non-traditional students trying to balance relationships, finances, family, and jobs. What could possibly be the upside of taking math?

First, it’s good to point out that we can’t think about our personal problems all the time. Sometimes, we need to think about impersonal problems—like math problems. Let’s think of math as an example of a neutral zone in which the subject matter does not have emotions. The student might feel emotions while trying to do the math, but the math is not of itself a drama with conflict and complex personalities. This can be a beautiful thing for several reasons.

For one thing, math is logical. It relentlessly is what it is—the ordering of steps in a prescribed order to arrive at the correct outcome. This will be helpful in all zones of life, both professional and personal since life is built on logic just like buildings are built on architecture.

Dansk: Dedikeret til matematik

Dansk: Dedikeret til matematik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next, math is relational: numbers, lines, angles, and shapes all relate to each other because they take up space; and not only that, they are positioned relative to each other and may intersect or overlap. But fear not, you won’t hear them fighting or going to war. You will just see what they look like on paper.

Also assuring is the predictable nature of math. In college math for non-math majors, one gets a hang of how equations work, and they work the same way every day. Just think about how disconcerting it would be if the sun didn’t rise every day. It’s the same for most math courses that most students will take. There’s a good feeling in getting into the rhythms of predictability.

Last, there’s a verifiable solution to the problems. With many subjects, people argue about what is the correct answer, and this is because with literature, history, and social discourses, values enter in and therefore debate.

This all might make math seem irrelevant to the utilitarian side of life since most study of math leaves its applied side deferred except for those who continue and do enter professions dependent upon knowing how to do the math. However, because of math’s qualities hidden in plain sight, it is a perfect type of learning that carries over into how we study and apply other types of knowledge, and into how we solve other types of problems.


Stress (Photo credit: topgold)

But even apart from that, we all need a break from drama, and the emotionless content of math and its impersonal nature can make it a welcome break from stresses. Almost everybody plays games for a diversion, so why not play at math and turn it into a more sporting mindset? It might relieve some stress.
pleasureteam note: Have you or your students been surprised by unexpected benefits from mastering your discipline?  Do you love your subject for reasons beyond its obvious utility?  Please share.

The Two-Joke Minimum: Parting Thoughts

(pleasureteam note: Today’s post concludes Dr. Felton’s series on using humor in the classroom.  Thanks, Kevin, for giving us all some smiles and inspiring us to to pass them on to our students.)

Carson as Carnac the Magnificent, one of his m...

Carson as Carnac the Magnificent, one of his most well known routines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I have given these principles names, but they could be called anything.

  •  THE  JOHNNY CARSON RULE – Only “pull the legs” of people who can defend themselves.  Create a safe atmosphere.
  •  EVERYONE’S A COMEDIAN – Be the straight guy/gal often.  Leave yourself open because if allows students the chance to play off your “material.”
  •  COROLLARY (to everybody is a comedian): WHEN IN DOUBT, SELF-DEPRECATERodney Dangerfield and Johnny Carson knew how to do this. It’s a very high level of humor because it requires a great deal of self-confidence to laugh at yourself and your mistakes.  Psychologists are trained to talk about their vulnerabilities and weaknesses to clients so their clients become aware they are not the only ones with self-doubts and troubles. People want to know they are not the only ones with weaknesses.  Instead of feeling ashamed or inferior they learn they are not alone. It’s just part of the human condition.  Modeling humility and acknowledging one’s own frailties also has this effect in the classroom.  Self-deprecation is a great way of achieving this.   Also,  people are much less likely to take pot shots at people who freely admit their frailties. Conversely, arrogance puts most people off, leaving many looking for ways to take the arrogant person “down a notch”.  Arrogant, self-important people are a pain and, unfortunately, don’t even know it.

    Rodney Dangerfield's comedy album No Respect.

    Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy album No Respect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  •  BE IN THE MOMENT– Be ready to use what comes your way.
  •  PLAN SPONTANEITY – If something works, use it over and over again.
  •  DON’T FORGET THE PASTThe success I have achieved in teaching rests squarely upon super examples given to me by former students who applied what I was talking about to their lives.  When I hear a super example, I tell the student that their offering is becoming a permanent part of my class.
  •  STORY HOUR IS BETTER THAN HAPPY HOUR – Students have told me that the humorous stories I tell help them understand and remember the material. Thankfully, many of the stories are true. I just wished I could remember which ones they are!

(pleasureteam note:  It’s interesting to note how often self-deprecation has been offered in various forms as a strategy for making the learning experience more pleasurable.  See previous posts by Pat Riley, Karen Dougherty, and others.)

Super Site of the Week: A Gift from Down Under

While paddling along through the web this week, I wandered into Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching and immediately felt right at home.  Half a world away, Adrian Lee, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, has been thinking about some of the same topics that float our pleasureinlearning boat.

The sixteen “Guidelines” featured on the site are drawn from literature and experience, and feature brief justification for each Guideline as well as a toolkit document to assist instructors in reflecting on how that Guideline might enahance their own teaching.  Guideline #3, for example, is “Fun,” and includes the following:

Learning should be pleasurable. There is no rule against hard work being fun.” Ramsden, P. 1992, Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Routledge, London, p. 102.

The site also includes discipline-specific “exemplars.”  I took a look at a first computer science lecture ….the accent alone is worth the click.  (And the lecturer’s opening remarks reminded me of Kevin Felton’s Two-Joke Minimum.)

Another link led me to this short video highlighting an active learning classroom:

It’s great to know that college instructors all around the world are interested in enhancing students’ learning experience and are willing to share their ideas.  That’s what keeps us going here!


The Two-Joke Minimum: Part 3

(pleasureteam note: Dr. Kevin Felton’s series on using humor in the classroom continues today. You can see the first two segments by clicking the links below.)

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humor can diffuse situations like wrong answers, insensitive comments, politically incorrect statements, etc.  Here are some of the techniques that I use.  I use them only after I know the students and am confident it will not offend the student in question.

Wrong answers – I use humor to “cushion the blow” of a student giving the wrong answer in response to a question I ask in class. Some of the ways I do this include:

  • I say that an answer a student gave is wrong.  I follow that with “Will someone open up the window and let some of the wrong out”?  I took that from Ray Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.The five principal characters during an argume...
  • I might even follow a wrong answer from a student with, “That is absolutely the last time I am ever calling on you.”

Blatant political incorrectness or insensitive remarks – If a student uses “foul” language or makes what has come to be understood as an insensitive remark about a group, I sometimes do one of the following:

  •  I tell students, “Let’s put what you just said into the ol’ Politicalcorrectometer and see what happens”.
  • As a “teachable moment”, I explain that they probably were unaware their remark was inappropriate and explain why.
  • My colleague Greg Bridgeman makes his students put a quarter in a jar when this happens.

Why do I think that humor is such a valuable tool?

Humor can improve student learning – after all, we’re looking for ways to help improve student attention, retention, understanding of our disciplines, and hopefully make learning a pleasure.

Scrubs (TV series)

Scrubs (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humor can improve student attention.  Humor, together with a fast-paced, interesting, attention-grabbing approach can produce a mindset that says, “I’d better pay attention or I’ll miss something”.  Robin Williams’ stand-up comedy and the TV show, Scrubs, are examples of this. Freud said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,and I say that humor is the royal road to getting students attention.

Humor can more effectively help students retain information and produce a greater understanding of the subject than might occur when we use a serious tone.  This fall, I am experimenting with extemporaneous role playing with students.  I ask students to come up to the front of the class and act out a scenario involving a sociological concept with me.  I have a plan ahead to make it humorous, and I think it is an effective tool. Students can see the concept unfolding before their eyes, and the element of humor helps them remember it.


(pleasureteam note: Check back next week for Dr. Felton’s closing thoughts on how he uses humor in his classroom.)

Clever Clip(s) of the Week

Metaphor, simile, parable, allegory….these are words that we recognize as the lexicon of the Humanities folk rather than the Science geeks.  When we science nerds do employ video to help our students learn, we often rely on the “science-y” ones alone, often almost pathetically titled by some soul struggling to make them sound irresistible:  “Translating the Code: Protein Synthesis.”  Sign me up for that!

Here’s a trick that I like to use when introducing the daunting topic of cell physiology.  My students have just finished their first exam in the previous hour and are typically tired from lack of sleep, stressed about their performance on the test, and frightened by the length and complexity of the cell physiology chapter in their text.   So I show them this clip:

Next, a slide of a puzzled baby, asking “Now why would she show us that?”

(Long pause for response….someone usually hazards a pretty good guess.)

Now, I show them this clip from Harvard Biovisions by StudioDaily (cue ooohs and aaahs):

After watching both videos, students are able to tell me how the two are alike, and they begin to understand, without much prodding from me, that the workings of our cells are fascinating, complex, and, like the workings of that fabulous Coke machine, completely hidden from our senses.

Finally, I promise that by the end of the week, they will be able to identify almost everything in the Harvard video. We often sneek a second peek at the Coke video as well, and the class has fun making analogies to cellular processes with their newly acquired knoweldge.


Do you have favorite videos that you use to invite your students into the wonders of your discipline?  How do you use them?