Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Minute Thesis

Welcome to readers from The Chronicle of Higher Education, who are visiting this page to check out some samples of the teaching activity of the Minute Thesis. (If you have arrived here without reading that article, go check it out first and then come back!) The Minute Thesis, a learning activity which I use in class whenever we have material to review or when students are ready to brainstorm project or presentation ideas, helps give students a quick preview of lots of possible ways to create new combinations and connections within the course material we have been studying, as well as to develop their own creative new approaches to what can sometimes seem like well-worn paths through ancient territories. It essentially involves creating category lists of course material, asking students to draw lines connecting items from different categories, and then giving them a minute (or more) to brainstorm a thesis that connects those items together. In a typical version of the game, we might end up thinking our way through five or six different new connections.

This first image, to the right, comes from a course I have been teaching on a regular basis in recent years, and which I love, in spite of its less-than-thrilling title: "British Literature Survey II."  This course helps prepare our majors for the upper-level literature courses they will be taking, offers a general education literature course to non-majors, and gives all students an opportunity to see how British and Irish literature from 1800 to the present can help inform our understanding of the relationship between literature and history, as well as the richness of the British and Irish literary traditions.  The particular version of the Minute Thesis represented on this board is designed to create connections between the various authors we have read during the Romantic period and the subject matter and themes that dominated our readings and the time period. In this case, the student with the marker has the task of circling a single theme and connecting it to two authors. The students then come up with a thesis for how those two authors might have both addressed or reflected that theme in their works, and also how they might have dealt with that theme in different ways.  You can see one line, for example, which connects William Blake and William Wordsworth to the subject of the "Natural World."  It shouldn't require much creative thinking to see how the natural world played a critical role in the thinking of both of these authors; it does require some thinking to establish how the natural world might have played a slightly different role in their thought and poetry.  In this class I sometime will swap out the themes for historical events, and leave the themes open.  So in that case the second column would have included instead things like: 1789--French Revolution; 1798--United Irishmen Rebellion; 1811-1812: Luddite Rebellions, etc.

The second board depicted here, to the left, represents an attempt to use the Minute Thesis to encourage faculty to consider how they can use a handful of learning principles to create small and positive changes to their teaching.  The items in the column on the left are a partial list of learning principles from my new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016); the column on the right presents moments of a course or a class period which we often don't use as productively or effectively as we could: the first five minutes of class, the last five minutes of class, first day of the semester, last day of the semester, etc.  In this case I ask faculty workshop participants to consider a course they are teaching as a third item on the list, so the arc of one line essentially might ask them to consider: "How can I use retrieval in the first five minutes of British Literature Survey II next week?" Even just running through three or four possibilities with a group of faculty, and asking them to work in pairs or small groups to generate their course-specific theses, enables everyone to walk out of the session with one or two new ideas, all grounded solidly in the research on teaching and learning in higher education.

As I said in the Chronicle article, you can vary the categories, the time, the means of creating the connections, and almost everything about this exercise in a thousand different ways.  If you come up with a variation that works really well, and you would like to share it with others, please post it in the comments on the original article or on this blog post.  And if you are looking for lots more small ways to create continuous engagement from students in your courses, keep an eye out for Small Teaching, out on March 14, 2016.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Spiritual Rest Stop

When I think of my most exotic and memorable travel experiences, I think of moments: climbing awkwardly onto the back of a camel next to the Great Pyramids of Giza; whizzing down the longest zipline in Costa Rica, three hundred feet in the air; my first taste of Amarino gelato in Paris.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Different in so many ways, what connects each of these moments is that they are moments: they came and went just as quickly as the moments pass when I am dropping off a child at school, or walking the dog around the block, or sitting in my office with a despairing student.  This speaks to a fundamental flaw in the travel experience: however amazing it might be, it doesn’t last.  We always return home, carrying only our artifacts and pictures and imperfect memories.

The transitory nature of the experience, of course, sometimes works in our favor.  The seemingly endless line at the airport does, in fact, end.  When you are stuck in the back of a car, with a driver who only speaks Turkish, in the worst traffic you have ever encountered in Istanbul, you know you will eventually make your way back to the ornate lobby and Turkish wines of your hotel along the Bosphorus.  But this seems like small consolation for the brevity of the moments we wish could stretch forever.

A year ago, ahead of an intensive few months of travel in support of a book I had written, I made a decision to deepen my travel experiences by moving beyond the transitory pleasures of the senses and including at least one spiritual stop.  It didn’t have to be a famous cathedral or temple or monastery; it could be anything that spoke of the irrepressible human search for meaning.  It was easy enough, as I mapped out my plans in each new location, to locate these waystations for a modern pilgrim.

In the city of Amman, Jordan, I asked my driver to take me to a mosque; he accompanied me into the back of the spectacular King Abdullah Mosque, stood with me as I observed, and then turned to guide me back to the car. “No,” I said, “I’d like to kneel and pray for a few minutes.” He laughed first, thinking I was joking, but then guided me up front and left me alone. Those quiet moments I spent on my knees, reflecting on this religion so misunderstood by the West, have lasted longer in my memory than the many meals I savored along the way.

Flannery O'Connor's bedroom in Milledgeville, GA
The front desk clerk at my hotel in Milledgeville, Georgia, gave me a map to the house of Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, and I drove there in my rental car that morning before my afternoon lecture.  In her lovingly preserved home you can see how carefully her bedroom was arranged in order to minimize the amount of walking she had to do from bed to writing desk and back again.  Her crutches lean against the dresser nearby, her help against the lupus that plagued her final years.  Whenever I find myself now with a deadline and a disinclination to write, I think of her dedication to her craft, and her God, and I set myself down and get to work.

In the Orlando airport, with some time on my hands between connecting flights, I spotted a chapel tucked away behind some banks of elevators.  Books from various faiths littered the couch and makeshift altar.  I paged through the prayer intention book, tears welling to my eyes: so many people pausing for a moment in the midst of their journeys to send a short letter to God, requesting safe journeys, cures from illness, or reunions with family and friends. I never felt closer to my fellow travelers.

My spiritual stops never last long; they are moments, and they pass as quickly as the best meal you have ever tasted, the most gorgeous sight you have ever seen, or the most beautiful symphony you have ever heard.  But from each of those stops I have taken something more lasting, a sense of belonging and connection with the other residents of this planet—all of us, in our daily lives and our travels, trying to make the moments last.