Books: Soldier’s Heart

December 27, 2013

I bought Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet a few years ago, but just got around to reading it this past week. It was not what I expected, though that might simply be because it had been so long since I bought it that I had forgotten what I knew about it when I bought it.

I knew it was about soldiers and literature, but I thought it was written by a soldier. Instead, Elizabeth Samet is a civilian professor of English literature at West Point. I also expected it to be more about literature; instead, a large part of it is about Samet’s own experiences, both before and since coming to West Point.

This includes her experiences teaching literature to cadets, and it is interesting to learn of their responses and perspectives. It is also interesting to follow their future military careers, as they continue to correspond with Samet after they graduate.

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Back to school?

September 2, 2013

For a few weeks, I have been pondering the Plinky Prompt from August 1:

If you could take a break from your life and go back to school to master a subject, what would it be?

My first thought was that this would be easy to answer. I’ve always enjoyed being a student, and when I was young I wished I could be a student as my “career.” I was good at being a student and I enjoyed it. No doubt that was part of my interest in being a college professor.

As an adult I realize that part of the appeal of being a student was that I knew exactly what was expected of me. There were no difficult decisions to make, and the goals were (usually) clearly defined. Plus I got prompt feedback on how I was doing, and it was almost always that I was doing great.

But it’s also true that I enjoyed learning for its own sake. Some subjects were more fun than others, and some teachers certainly inspired me more than others. But I loved – and still love – reading books that make me think, learning about different cultures, finding out how and why things work the way they do, and the sense of accomplishment from solving a difficult problems.

Of course, some of the appeal of learning when I was younger was it had a practical purpose. Taking certain classes would help me get into a good college. Once I was in college, taking courses in my major (first Bible, later Spanish) would enable me to do what I thought God had called me to do with my life (as a missionary when I was a Bible major, then as a Spanish teacher).

When I was in Spain, everything I did, both in the classroom and elsewhere, helped me gain a greater understand of the language and culture, which would make me a better teacher. And dealing with whatever challenges I faced outside the classroom helped me grow as a person, which would also be important to me as a teacher.

After a while, though, I have to admit that I got tired of sitting in the classroom listening to lectures. I had a professor who was one of the world’s experts on Miguel Cervantes and his masterpiece Don Quixote. Learning about certain subtle shades of meaning in the novel was somewhat interesting, but I was eager to move on to actually doing something worthwhile, not just thinking about it.

I never did become a college professor, though, because I tried teaching at the high school level first (so that when I taught future high school Spanish teachers I would know what it would be like), and that was a disaster. I probably am temperamentally suited much more to teaching college than high school, but at the end of that year I was too demoralized to do any kind of teaching for a long time.

I went back to school later, for practical reasons, first to study computer programming, then business administration. After getting my MBA while working full-time and taking care of a young child (while my husband was in seminary and working part-time and serving as an intern at a church), I decided I would enjoy a break from the rigors of studying.

I hadn’t expected it to be this long a break, however. In the last fifteen years, the only classes I have taken have been work-related training classes (facilitator training, communication skills, network administration) and one online class on object-oriented programming. I’ve read a lot, and no doubt learned quite a bit, but I have not been challenged intellectually in the way I would be in a college classroom.

The Plinky prompt is purely hypothetical. I certainly can’t take a break from my life and go back to school to master a subject. But it’s interesting to speculate on what I would want to study if I could.

So many possibilities!

I’ve always enjoyed learning languages, so I’m sure I would enjoy learning another one, though I’m not sure which I would choose. Would “taking a break from my life” include the opportunity to travel to another country to learn the language by using it on a daily basis? And would I be able to keep using it later, to retain my knowledge of the language?

I’ve wished sometimes I had the knowledge required to evaluate the competing claims of evolution, creation, and intelligent design. It’s easy to find materials supporting one view and critiquing another, but hard to find anything that lists the strengths and weaknesses of each without taking a side. If I had enough in-depth understanding of the subject, perhaps I could create that resource. But do I really have the interest to study the different sciences involved to the depth required for such analysis?

I’ve been thinking recently that I need to read more of the classics of Western thought – not just literature but philosophy, history, etc. I consider myself pretty well-educated, but it embarrasses me how few of the Great Books we have in a bookshelf at home I have actually read. I have always thought there is value in such study, but as an adult I have focused mostly on more “practical” kinds of learning. A formal program of study would provide the structure and discipline to not just do the reading but participate in discussions and write papers, to more fully explore the ideas that have shaped our civilization. But how long of a break from life would it require to truly “master” that subject?

I’d love to develop a skill that would allow me to produce beautiful objects either to display or sell. I’ve always enjoyed arts and crafts and I’m pretty good at it, though I don’t seem to have much of the “artist’s eye” to create my own designs. I like painting ceramic or plaster figurines (I painted my own Nativity scene because I couldn’t find one I liked in the store – at least not at a price I could afford). It would be nice to be able to create my own figures rather than depending on what I can find to buy, as well as learning techniques for painting them to get the desired effect.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and for years I’ve played around with ideas for a novel, occasionally writing small pieces of chapters. I don’t know that I’ll ever get it written, not only due to the commitment of time required but also because I don’t know that I can create convincing characters and plot. Perhaps classes on writing would help in both those areas. Of course, it would also require showing my work to others. There have always been people who have told me I write well, but I suspect the constructive criticism I would get in a writing class would be far less ego-boosting.

If I think in terms of career, perhaps it would make sense to become a really good programmer. I can do programming in procedural languages, but I struggle with the object-oriented model, and I know little of database design or graphics. I’ve tried to teach myself a little using tutorials I have found online, but as with learning a foreign language, it requires a lot of time and practice. My son would like it if I could program a computer game and he could provide the ideas. But I have trouble getting interested in the kind of computer games he enjoys playing.

Then there’s theology. When my husband was in seminary, I loved using his seminary library card to get out books for myself, as well as reading books from some of the classes he was taking. If we lived near a seminary, I’m sure I would want to take some classes. On a few occasions, I have preached in my husband’s place (at his invitation), and after one service in Michigan, people asked me if I had considered going to seminary to become a pastor. To become a pastor, no – I do not have any sense of call, and my years as a fundamentalist Baptist make it difficult to shed lingering doubts about whether it is appropriate for women to lead churches. But going to seminary – yes, I have thought of that many times, and there are topics I would love to study more in-depth, especially as it relates to how different church traditions interpret certain areas of theology. But could one ever truly be said to “master” a subject as deep and broad as this one?

The fact is, I can’t come up with a particular subject I especially want to master. I like learning, but I like learning about all kinds of things rather than becoming an expert in one thing. I think one reason I enjoyed studying Spanish so much was that I wasn’t studying just one thing. I was learning the language, of course, but also literature and history and culture. When we got so in-depth with Don Quixote was when I started losing interest. I was a good student. But I couldn’t see the point in being that much an expert on one thing.

It’s not that I think learning is valuable only when it is useful, or when enough people care about it. That professor must have really cared about Miguel Cervantes and Don Quixote. I admire expertise and the people who take the time and effort to develop it. But I just can’t think of a subject that I really REALLY want to become an expert in.

And since I don’t expect to be able to take a break from life to go back to school, it’s not a question I have to answer. I’m just sort of surprised to find that I can’t.


Books: Surprised by Oxford

April 13, 2013

I came across Carolyn Weber’s blog when I was Googling “Maundy Thursday” and “liturgy.” I didn’t find any ideas for a Communion liturgy, but I found deeply thoughtful posts. I was so captivated by both the content and style of Carolyn’s writing that I promptly subscribed to her email newsletter.

I also read about her book Surprised by Oxford, and used our interlibrary loan program to request a copy. It came in right before I left on my business trip to Philadelphia, so I had wonderful reading material to occupy the hours I spent on the plane, in the airport, and evenings alone in my hotel room.

The book chronicles her year at Oxford University, a year of intellectual, personal, and spiritual growth. Carolyn is an excellent writer, and the book is fun to read simply to see the varied circumstances in which she finds herself, and how she deals with them. But the spiritual questions she grapples with make it far more than just good reading.

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Art to make you think

February 1, 2013

One thing I liked about getting a job at a college was the idea of working in an environment dedicated to learning. After a few months here, I have discovered that I don’t come into contact with students or faculty very much. We may pass in the corridor, but most of my time is spent in my office, interacting with the computer and with other members of the administrative staff.

I still like the idea that my work contributes, however indirectly, to the learning process. And I especially like it when I come in more direct contact with the learning process, even if it’s only hearing a music class as I walk by.

One thing I have mixed feelings about, however, is the artwork on the walls in various buildings. What is that picture supposed to mean, I ask myself as I walk by each day. (There are several of these, though I tend to notice the one closest to my office the most often.) I assume it is supposed to mean something. But there is no explanation provided.

Today I walked through the ArtSpace Gallery, and one display in particular caught my attention. It was an array of nine identical white boxes, each marked with a label that says “This brain meets the STANDARD.” I didn’t even realize until I returned and looked at all the works more closely that I had missed the main item in that particular work. But just the part I had seen was enough to get me thinking.

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Books: The Green Revolution

January 12, 2013

As our library didn’t have any of the next few books in Ralph McInerny’s series of Father Dowling mysteries, I decided to try reading one of his novels set at the University of Notre Dame. The Green Revolution sounded like it could be interesting, involving conflict over what role football should have in an institution of higher learning.

The very first chapter explores the depth of devotion Notre Dame students and alumni have for their school’s football program – something I can’t relate to at all, but I was interested in getting some insight into that mentality. After the first chapter, however, such devotion was simply taken for granted and used as background for the unfolding mystery.

A number of interesting characters are introduced, most of them members of the university faculty or administration. One reader review at amazon.com says that McInerny “is at his best indulging in light, elbow-ribbing satire of Notre Dame’s eccentric faculty. He is in a unique position to do so, having taught at the university for over fifty years, and he even manages to slip in some pointed commentary about the school’s increasing secularization.”

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Writing as an essential academic skill

September 30, 2012

Someone on Facebook drew my attention to this article in the The Atlantic about a low-performing school that was turned around by a focus on analytic writing. That’s not an approach that educational reformers usually take, but I hope many schools learn from the example of New Dorp.

The article explains how, decades ago, educators adopted an approach to teaching writing that really didn’t teach them how to write. The idea was that if they were given interesting writing assignments, they would pick up the skills they needed. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work very well.

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IQ and the Flynn Effect

September 23, 2012

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve always enjoyed taking IQ tests. Earlier this year, salaried employees in the department where I worked had to take a series of tests that were supposed to measure one’s leadership potential. Some of them dealt with experience and ambition in relation to leadership, and one test measured abstract reasoning. We were told not to worry about this last test, that it was only one piece of the larger picture. But for me, that test was the best part of the whole process.

I’ve never wanted to get into management, so I have naturally not sought out the kind of experiences the other tests were asking about. What leadership positions I’ve been in have usually come sort of by default – because I was the only one willing to do it, or because I seemed the “obvious” choice (president of math league in high school because I got the highest scores, and Bible study leader at church because I am the pastor’s wife).

The kind of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition used in a certain kind of IQ test, however, is something I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. Partly I enjoy it because I know I do it well, but it’s also the kind of puzzle I enjoy solving. I think the test I took (a long time ago) that was supposed to measure aptitude for computer programming was of this nature. I not only did very well on it, but I enjoyed taking it so much that I figured I would enjoy computer programming also.

I always assumed, growing up, that such tests measured some actual trait labeled intelligence. That’s what the people who made and administered the tests thought, of course, and I suppose most other people did also, until psychologists began to recognize that intelligence was really made up of a number of broad abilities.

I remember learning about the idea of multiple intelligences, a number of years ago, when I was looking for resources for teaching Sunday School. On the one hand, it makes sense to recognize that different people learn best in different ways, which seem to be at least somewhat related to this idea of multiple intelligences. On the other hand, it seems to be stretching the word intelligence to the point that it doesn’t mean very much, to use it for abilities that do not deal with reasoning.

No doubt society has often inappropriately treated people with high abilities at abstract reasoning as superior to those with other kinds of abilities, and it is good to recognize the value of those other kinds of abilities. But it should be possible to correct that tendency without divorcing the word intelligence from its traditional meaning related to reasoning ability.

All that was somewhat in my mind as I started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. James Flynn discusses the fact that IQ scores have steadily risen over the decades, and asks Are We Really Getting Smarter? I had not realized that scores were, in fact, increasing, because the tests periodically are updated and re-standardized, so the scores appear to remain constant. Someone who scored well on a test today would have scored even better on one of the older tests. But someone who scored well several decades ago would not score nearly as well now.

Flynn was the one who initially drew attention to this trend, though it was the authors of The Bell Curve who coined the term Flynn Effect, in recognition of the work done by Flynn to document it. A number of different explanations have been offered, but Flynn’s own explanation, in the WSJ article, is that modern education has trained people do perform better at abstract reasoning activities.

If IQ tests really measured something innate, then people who lived a hundred years ago should have performed just as well. (Better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases have been offered as explanations for the increases, and they may account for part of it, but improvement in those areas does not seem to follow the same pattern of gradual, linear progression seen in IQ scores over several decades.) People in a less technological society did not have all the knowledge we do, but they should have had similar aptitude.

Language and cultural references are sometimes given as explanations for certain subgroups of society not performing as well, but the non-verbal problems that use only geometric shapes should eliminate that issue. Yet as Flynn points out, people who have not gone through modern education would have difficulty understanding what in the world such questions were about.

We are trained at such a young age to recognize abstract patterns, finding similarities in unrelated objects (similar shape or color, for instance), that it is hard (for me, anyway) to imagine lacking that kind of recognition. But it makes sense what Flynn says: if success in life is based on ability to hunt animals, or make furniture or clothing, the idea that the moon and a cantaloupe have something in common (because they are both round) may sound like nonsense.

Of course, in a technologically advanced society, abstract reasoning is an important ability in many jobs. But it’s good to be reminded that IQ is a useful measure only to the extent that what it measures is useful.