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Back to School, as in Backwards

I promised that I would write occasionally about my going back to school. The first thing I can say is that there is definitely a problem with university teaching. It can be abominable. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. I have been searching for an ideal (i.e. decent) intro to statistics course and so have been shopping around. I have seen some pretty shocking stuff. The record so far was one instructor who would rewrite his lecture notes on the board in illegible handwriting and read them aloud as he wrote while facing the board. Not only was he talking…really…slowly, he was facing the wrong way!  The idea of knowledge “transfer” in this case seems distorted beyond all recognition.

The variety of teaching strategies aside, the bigger problem I’m encountering right now is that of “remedial knowledge.” Intro to statistics and intro to computer science — the two courses I’m taking right now as the basis of my foundation in digital literacy — are incredibly tedious. And this isn’t only because of the way they’re taught; it’s because of the rudimentary nature of the material. As someone who works in foreign languages, I’m pretty sympathetic with this. The problem with studying German literature is that students have to learn German first. And to do that you have to go all the way back to the beginning of speech. My opening Java program that prints the words “hello world” on my screen is as silly as those first days of German when I learned to say gootin more-gen. So far there is no way to inject linguistic, quantitative, or computational fluency in our veins. Until then, you’re stuck learning the building blocks of complex disciplines. But I will say that we in languages are light years ahead of the sciences in how to do this effectively (or less than terribly).

The reason I bother to rehearse this experience so far is because it should stand as a cautionary tale to those like me who are interested in expanding their disciplinary competencies. There is a rudimentariness — and boredom — to the process that seems so far insurmountable. Like the famed bear hunt, you just have to go through it. You have to get comfortable with going backwards (which I’m clearly not). As a character from one of Goethe’s novels reminds us, “It would be a lowly art that allowed itself to be learned all at once.”

Still, the thing I am most struck by during this first week of class is just how active teaching is and how passive learning is. Teaching is a lot of work. Learning apparently isn’t. We short-change our students on such a colossal scale in our classrooms. I know this might be like the heroine addict promising not to shoot-up next week, but I am vowing to be a different teacher when I return. Whether rudimentary or advanced, we simply need to do more to activate our students in and out of the classroom.

I picture this vast goo of youthful human potential oozing its way through the universe and we’re just looking at it from afar telling it where to be when and how long to sit still.

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