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What did I draw from my undergraduate classes?



This isn’t a psychology post.  It’s about being a professor.

One of my favorite courses as an undergrad was Science Fiction, taught by the late Professor Frank McConnell.  One of our required readings was Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I just finished rereading a couple nights ago.  As an undergrad I knew I was supposed to value this book, so I sort of did, and certainly said I did.  And I remember bits and pieces of the book from my first read.  It had some impact even then.  But I took so, so much more from my reading this time than I did back those decades ago when I first took the course.

My first class meeting of the year is just over 48 hours away, and I’m wondering what my experience with Professor McConnell has to say to my own efforts as a professor.  Perhaps one useful distinction is between teaching my students knowledge of psychology and planting the seeds of love of learning, of love of psychology, of love of the life of the mind.  Day after day I’ll try to get students to understand detail.  And I’ll evaluate their work in large part based on their ability to master that detail.  These details will fade from their memories.  I remember very few details from my time as an undergrad, and I don’t see why my students will be different.  As a student it’s easy to understand this and to wonder about the point of it all.  Why learn detail that will be forgotten?  And in that state of mind I think being a student is very hard, very easily filled with a sense of pointlessness.

But here I am decades later, remembering that course.  Professor McConnell loved this book.  He loved the way it was crafted.  He loved the language. He manifested that love in his presentation of detail.  I can still recall him reading aloud the last paragraph of Leibowitz.  I didn’t really get what he loved, but I got that he loved.  On one level the details were the substance of the class.  But in important ways those details might be better thought of as seeds, planting love of reading fiction.  He scattered many seeds.  He tested, as I recall, on grasp of those seeds.  Most of those seeds probably did not fall on fertile ground when they found me, but a few did, and in important ways that was enough.  His love of the material, manifest in these seeds, made me want to read more attentively.  I came to understand that there was more in the books I read than I had known, even as I was unaware of what that “more” was.

When I evaluated this course I certainly didn’t know that I would still be thinking of it decades later.  I am confident my recent delighted reread of Leibowitz did not factor into Northwestern’s evaluations of whether Professor McConnell was a good teacher! At the end of the semester I don’t know how he could have discerned that I would reread this book.  Perhaps he could not even have discerned my increased love of fiction.  But I wonder if that’s what he would have wished to assess. What did he want to accomplish as a professor?  That I remember particular details of particular books and have the ability to think meaningfully about those details?  Or that I carry forward a love of looking at and thinking about new details in new (and old!) books?

I can’t speak for him, but I know for myself that I want the latter, or the equivalent of it, for my students.  I have no way to assess that directly.  (Well I could come back decades from now to see what their lives are like, but that seems a bit daunting.)  And so I have to live with the fact that at the end of this term I won’t know if I’ve done a good job, and I probably never will.  The only option I can think of is to shrink my goals to something much smaller, something I can know about at the end of the term.  But in shrinking the goal what would be lost?

What’s the purpose of higher education? I’m going to quote from Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What it was, is, and should be. “About a hundred years ago, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, John Alexander Smith, got to the nub of the matter.  “Gentlemen,” he said to the incoming class (the students were all men it those days), “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life–save only this–that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”  Americans prefer a two-syllable synonym, bullshit, for the one-syllable Anglicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter.  It’s a technology that will never become obsolete.”

I think this is what I took from Professor McConnell’s course.  Perhaps it is better expressed in a slightly different way.  I draw this quote, too, from Delbanco’s book. “,,,I once heard my colleague Judith Shapiro, former provost of Bryn Mawr and then president of Barnard, make [the following comment] to a group of young people about what they should expect from college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.””

The trend in higher education is to reductionism, to measuring detail, to review progress toward narrowly defined learning outcomes.  And those surely matter, but I suspect they only matter insofar as they are tied to something larger, and the attention to detail, to learning objectives, can draw attention from that which is more important.  Mon ami, Professor McConnell helped me make the inside of my head an interesting place to be,  May I keep my eyes on this prize as I teach this term.

A sidenote–Science Fiction has 600 students when I took it.  There’s a trend in higher ed away from the lecture, and surely there are virtues to other forms of education.  But my life would be so much poorer absent this particular lecture course, and so I hope they always retain a space in higher ed.  If you’re interested in learning more about Professor McConnell, here’s a remembrance of him.  A good quote: “There he wrote as he spoke–in a voice that combined the stand-up comic and the smart friend who just wanted you to like what he liked.”





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