Thursday, May 31, 2012

Summer Latin Institute - Day 1 minus 11

At a certain point in the summer of 1982, my tummy began to hurt. That's when I realized that I somatize stress in my stomach. The source of my stress? The CUNY Summer Latin Institute. Phonology. Morphology. Syntax. Grammar. Vocabulary. Flash cards. Drills. Daily verb synopses. Daily quizzes! Weekly exams. A lot of pressure for the perfectionistic or pathologically people-pleasing (I tend to think I am more the latter than the former).

Now I am preparing to teach in the 2012 Latin Institute—the fulfillment of a thirty-year dream—and, lo and behold, my tummy is starting to hurt again. And the program hasn't even started yet!

I taught ancient Greek in the CUNY Language Reading Program in 1987, and Latin in 1988 and 2005, and second-year Latin at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 2011. I have always thought that I used pedagogical methods inspired by the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute: emphasis on syntax; daily synopses; daily quizzes; and of course, encouraging students to use flash cards religiously to memorize vocabulary and morphology (endings of noun declensions, verb conjugations, etc).

Now that I am preparing to teach at the Latin Institute, however, I realize there is much more to the Institute methodology than I was ever aware from my experience as a student. The program is team taught, with the students divided into groups for morning drills, based on the previous night's homework. Of course all the groups are reviewing the same homework assignment. More than that, however, they are responding to the same questions about the same nouns, adjectives, verbs, and clauses in each and every sentence. The level of coordination among the faculty members is part of what makes the Institute work the way it does, what makes it seem to the students like some inscrutable combination of Hogwarts and boot camp.

Indeed, there is more to it than a tightly scripted drill process. There is a very specific approach to how questions are asked and how we steer students toward answers that are correct and correctly formulated. It's mechanical, it's robotic, and as inhuman as it may sound, it allows students to attain a level of understanding of the language that I do not think they could obtain in any other classroom in the United States, no matter how skilled the teacher, because much of the benefit of the Institute lies in the group dynamics, not only among students, but among teachers, and between students and teachers.

Of course there are many more secrets to reveal, but just as I am learning not to get mired in a Latin sentence as an Institute teacher, I am striving not to get mired in my blog posts.

More soon...

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog entry are those of the blogger, and do not represent the opinions of the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute, its students, faculty, or administration.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer Latin Institute - Day 1 minus 12

In June 1982, I began studying Latin at the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute, a beyond-the-intensive course where students are in class from 8:30am to 3:30pm, Monday through Friday, for ten weeks.

In June 2012, thirty years later, I will begin teaching Latin at the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute.

Just need to give that sentence a moment to sink in.

Classes start on June 11. But the Latin Institute has been insinuating itself into my daily routine since March, when I first starting meeting with my fellow Latin teachers to prep for the summer (a process that we refer to by the charming neologism, "presessing"). I am going to be blogging about the Latin Institute this summer, starting today. These posts may not be long or particularly coherent, particularly once classes begin. But I'll do whatever I can.

The CUNY Latin/Greek Institute is an incredible experience. Literally. Incredible, from the Latin prefix in = "not," plus the Latin verb crēdō = believe. Unless you take the program as a student, or teach the program as a faculty member, you can scarcely believe what it is, how it works, what it does to you and any semblance of what you once thought of as your life (note the ascending tricolonic structure - a rhetorical device favored by the Roman statesman Cicero that you learn about during the Latin Institute). And I know that sounds hyperbolic (from the Greek prefix hyper = "above," plus the Greek verb ballō = "throw"). But it's not. My hope is that these blog entries will demonstrate not only how completely true that characterization is, but why it is so totally worth it to have your life chewed up and spit out by the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute.

I could go on, but in true Institute fashion, I'm pressed for time (well, I need to make breakfast for my husband, Jason Schneiderman, a simple pleasure which I will no longer be able to indulge once classes start on June 11).

More soon...

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog entry are those of the blogger, and do not represent the opinions of the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute, its students, faculty, or administration.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Public Schools: National Security Threat?

In a nutshell: A new report on US Education Reform and National Security offers familiar criticisms that reflect not only the biases but also the political and commercial interests of the task force members.

The new report, by Joel I. Klein, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations, is reviewed by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books. The review is well worth reading in full, but I offer a summary with some key excerpts below.

Apparently, this new study is not an example of scintillating prose or a source of sparkling new insights. Ravitch writes:
Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk, which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.
 Ultimately, it seems, the new study is a plea for privatization of public schools. Ravitch writes:
What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement. 
What's more, though the study recognizes the effects of poverty on achievement, its authors would rather privatize schools that attack poverty. Ravitch writes:
While the task force points out the problems of concentrated poverty in segregated schools, exacerbated by unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to reduce poverty, racial segregation, income gaps, or funding inequities.
How does all of this add up to a national security threat? Apparently, the public schools are failing to prepare students for careers as soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats, and engineers for the defense industry. "This failure," Ravitch writes, "is the primary rationale for viewing the schools as a national security risk."

The authors offer three recommendations for righting the ship of primary and secondary education:
  1. National standards (the "Common Core State Standards")
  2. Privatization through vouchers, charters, etc
  3. A "national security readiness audit" designed to push schools to serve the military industrial complex
As Ravitch explains, the Common Core State Standards, though adopted by 45 states to date, have never been implemented anywhere and there is no evidence as to their effectiveness. "Until they are implemented somewhere," Ravitch writes, "their value cannot simply be assumed. It must be demonstrated. Thus, the task force goes out on a limb by claiming that these untried standards are the very linchpin of defending our nation’s borders and securing our future prosperity."

The report also calls for expanded foreign language instruction in high schools. While this may be a laudable goal, as Ravitch writes, "it is wrong to blame the nation’s public schools for a shortage of specialists in Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish" to support the nation's future national security needs. For one thing, Ravitch notes, these languages are generally taught in college, not elementary or high school. In addition, how can anyone determine which foreign language will be most critical to the US national security agenda in five to ten years, when today's grade school students will be entering college or careers? And finally, as Ravitch writes, "the effort to expand foreign language instruction in K-12 schools requires not just standards, but a very large new supply of teachers of foreign languages to staff the nation’s 100,000 or so public schools. This won’t happen without substantial new funding for scholarships to train tens of thousands of new teachers."

Ravitch also argues persuasively that there is little or no evidence to support the recommendation for increased competition and choice through wider implementation of vouchers and charter schools. And she notes the disturbing fact that Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain, was a member of the task force that authored the report. As for the third recommendation, Ravitch writes, "The task force’s proposal for 'a national security readiness audit' is bizarre. It is not clear what it means, who would conduct it, or who would pay for it."

Ravitch goes on to explore three issues not addressed by the report: (1) the negative effects of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program and the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, both of which rely on standardized testing to evaluate teachers and schools; (2) the report's "misleading economic analysis"; and (3) the report's "failure to offer any recommendation to improve the teaching profession."

Ravitch then goes on to summarize two dissenting opinions that gut the report's findings on privatization and national security. Finally, she concludes:
Commissions that gather notable figures tend not to be venturesome or innovative, and this one is no different. When a carefully culled list of corporate leaders, former government officials, academics, and prominent figures who have a vested interest in the topic join to reach a consensus, they tend to reflect the status quo. If future historians want to see a definition of the status quo in American education in 2012, they may revisit this report by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. It offers no new directions, no new ideas, just a stale endorsement of the federal, state, and corporate policies of the past decade that have proven so counterproductive to the genuine improvement of American education.
I urge you to read the complete review by Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books. You may also want to check out this review by Valerie Strauss in her Answer Sheet blog in The Washington Post. I'm looking forward to reading other responses to the report (not sure I actually want to read the whole report myself). You will probably see other posts here on Pedagogishness on the issues raised by this latest high-profile attack on public education.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Revaluing the Imagination

In a nutshell: As we think about the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, the capacity for aesthetic self-transformation, and any pedagogy based on these convictions, we need to consider the role of the imagination as a concept once highly valued, of late devalued, and presently in serious need of revaluation.

One of my graduate students quoted this passage from Edward Said's Humanism and Democratic Criticism on her final exam:
The original explanatory power of the term [imagination] has been modified by such alien and transpersonal concepts as ideology, the unconscious, structures of feeling, anxiety, and many others. In addition, acts of imagination, which used to stand alone and do all the work of what we may still call creation, have become reformulated in terms that include performatives, constructions, and discursive statements; in some cases these seem to have entirely dissolved the possibility of agency, whereas in others, agency, or the will, no longer has the sovereign authority or plays the role it once did. (42)
I was very grateful to my student for underscoring this passage precisely when I have been thinking so much about humanistic pedagogy, the transformative power of literature, and the possibilities for teaching the capacity for self-transformation through reading and other types of aesthetic experience.

Said is right on in this passage. Which is not to say that I do not embrace the concepts he calls into question. Each of these concepts is associated with one or more influential and even inspirational modern thinkers: ideology with Marx, Althusser, and many others; the unconscious with Freud, his followers, and his many critics; structures of feeling with Raymond Williams and the cultural materialist tradition; anxiety with Harold Bloom and others who view literature in psychoanalytic terms; performativity with a range of thinkers from J.L. Austin to Judith Butler and beyond. Construction is a particularly multivalent notion, important not only in the idea of social construction that originates with Berger and Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality, 1966) and is later popularized by Foucault and his many adherents, but also in the contexts of structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction, all of which are fruitful critical frameworks for thinkers including Barthes, Jameson, Derrida, and many others. And finally, discourse has become such a ubiquitous concept that, while in a game of Password it might most readily elicit the response "Foucault," it is difficult to associate it exclusively or even primarily with any one individual or group of thinkers.

And yet, Said is absolutely right to lament that this assemblage of critical concepts has proliferated and enriched critical thinking often at the expense of the imagination. More than that, these "alien and transpersonal" concepts often appear to negate the idea of the imagination, as if the imagination were itself "merely" ideological or discursive; that is, as if the imagination were in need of being not just explained, but explained away. Indeed, as Said suggests, these concepts often seem to deprive humankind of not only of individual subjective agency, but of the capacity for creativity and creation.

In the process, these concepts tend to undermine the efficacy, if not the very possibility, of commitment in literature and other creative activity; commitment, that is, to any kinds of ideas or ideals, be they religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise. This, I think, is one of the most sad, serious, and unfortunate losses from the perspective of transformative pedagogy. Our students find it increasingly difficult to believe that writers write for any reason beyond either pleasure or didacticism of the most elementary sort: a story, poem, or play is either (1) merely entertaining, or (2) moralistic in the simplest, most straightforward, uncomplicated, unironic sense imaginable.

An example from my own recent teaching: In my classical mythology courses, I teach that mythology is a type of knowledge about past events, and that history is another type of knowledge about past events. I teach that mythological thinking precedes historical thinking among the ancient Greeks, and that when historical thinking emerges, it is not willy-nilly, but rather by invention (the invention, in particular, of historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides). Moreover, the invention of history complicates the Greeks' relationship to their own mythology. We can see this complication dramatized in Greek tragedy, where mythological figures exist and act, walk and talk, in a historical world, with all sorts of attendant consequences not only for the plots of individual plays, but for the fate of all humankind.

My students often have a hard time accepting the idea that Greek tragedy reflects in any way the Greeks' invention of history. Isn't a play like Oedipus the King merely a good story, or at best a way to preserve a traditional mythological narrative in a new medium, or at most an expression of religious or philosophical beliefs about fate and the gods? Now, for one thing, there is nothing "mere" about any of these interpretive options (my husband, the poet, scholar, and teacher Jason Schneiderman, forbids his students to begin any sentence about a text with the word "just," for just this reason). To entertain, to retell a familiar story, to preserve a religious or philosophical tradition, are all stupendous achievements of the human imagination. But when I claim, for example, that Theseus's insistence that "The gods don't care" about Herakles's threats of suicide is a way for the playwright, Euripides, to express skepticism about the validity of mythological thinking now that the Greeks live in a historical world, many of my students think I have gone too far—that I have given too much credit, or credence, not only to Euripides as an individual creative thinker and artist, but to literature as a medium for communicating high-stakes ideas about society, culture, and the human condition.

So...not sure where I'm going with this post exactly...except to say that as I develop my ideas about the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, the capacity for aesthetic self-transformation, and any pedagogy based on these convictions, I will continue to think about the role of the imagination as a concept once highly valued, of late devalued, and at present in need of revaluation.

In the meantime, enjoy this powerful valuation of the imagination (I'm sorry I cannot say where or when this was recorded, but I'd guess early to mid 1960s).