I received some sad news last week – my time as a teacher has (for now) come to a close. The Chair has decided to take the course out of the general education elective rotation and will offer a different slate of courses to ensure students have a variety of electives to choose from.
This is not entirely unexpected. I taught my first section in September 2016, and am currently in my 13th straight delivery. In this time, I’ve had a little over 300 students, meaning I’ve graded some 3,000 assignments and 600 essays.
Back in 2016, I snapped this photo of my last day in the classroom for my very first semester of teaching (all the rest of my deliveries have been online).
It has been a great experience and has taught me a lot about empathizing with students and overcoming my biases and assumptions of how one ought to teach. It was also humbling to see some student work come in that, frankly, was better than anything I could have written.
I appreciate the patience my students have shown me these last four years as I have moved cities, gotten married, graded while on my honeymoon, and when welcoming our child into the world.
I’m looking forward to a bit of a break from teacher life, but I hope to get another opportunity in the future.
Here’s a reminder to myself: learning is always uncomfortable.
As I was reading through Seth Godin’s latest book, The Practice, I came across this gem of insight.
It is often the discomfort and tension that causes me to avoid learning new things and settling into my work. When I feel the anxiety rise, I’ll switch gears to something more comfortable or distracting. Instead, I need to embrace the suck.
Learning is voluntary – I must want to engage with it.
Learning creates tension – personal discovery in unfamiliar territory creates questions of tension, and each answer I find resolves the tension. Tension and release.
Learning is uncomfortable – it’s hard to willingly feel incompetent when our careers are geared towards increasing competence and confidence.
I need to learn that when I feel uncomfortable in the learning process, this means I’m on the right track and should embrace the feeling.
I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.
While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.
On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.
But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.
Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.
Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.
Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.
Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?
I’ve been reading Scott Young’s recently released book, Ultralearning, and I think it’s a pretty good summary of how one can take on an intense learning project for personal and professional development. It functions like an autodidact’s road map with plenty of good tips, insights, and stories to round things out. Elements of the animated bibliography are present, but I don’t find it contrived in its execution. The stories help frame the chapter and serve as an introduction to the core material.
It’s funny how last week I was talking about mnemonic devices, because after drafting that post I ended up reading about the concept in Chapter 10 of the book as it dealt with ways of supporting retention of material you learn.
In chapter 9 of the book, Young talks about ways of providing feedback in the learning process, whether the feedback is provided from others or feedback you can use in your own learning process. He parses out three kinds of feedback that I found interesting, not only for my own personal use in learning, but also as something I should keep in mind as a teacher.
The three kinds of feedback he outlines are outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback. Each type of feedback serves a specific purpose, and you should be mindful of the context the feedback is given, as the wrong type of feedback can set you back in your learning.
Outcome feedback – provides information on whether you are getting answers right or if you are meeting a pre-identified set of learning objectives. It tells you that you are right but doesn’t give any indication of why (or why you are wrong).
Informational feedback – provides further information to explain the underlying reason why something is right or wrong. It can be informative to re-affirm what you have learned, and can identify key areas of strength or weakness, however it does not create a concrete process forward.
Corrective feedback – provides, as the name indicates, a path forward for the learner in terms of how to overcome deficiencies. It details not only how one is right/wrong, why they are right/wrong, but how to address or avoid being wrong. This type of feedback not only requires a level of comprehension of the material, but requires sufficient understanding to teach the underlying processes to the learner through explanation, demonstration, suggestion, etc.
As a teacher, it’s important to know what kind of feedback is warranted and under what circumstances. Most of us tend to focus just on outcomes, but students often don’t learn from pure outcome assessment. Rather, you need to take the further steps to go beyond an evaluation and ensure you are addressing the underlying deficiency present in the student’s performance. Outcome assessment is awesome because it’s quick and definitive, but it’s also lazy if your goal is to improve your students. On the other hand, corrective feedback is desirable but it’s labour-intensive and must be done carefully so as not to remove critical thinking from your student – you don’t want them to merely follow your instructions but instead you want to promote their thinking and reasoning through problems without your guidance.
In January of 2008, I was walking through my university campus’s student centre and passed by a table for the UW Campus Response Team, whom were recruiting volunteers for the new semester. I doubled back, chatted with the team members, and signed-up to participate in their interview process. I had taken first aid courses periodically during my cub scout and army cadet days, plus I had ran some basic first aid courses while abroad, so it felt like a good fit.
In retrospect, my “experience” was quite paltry, but I had shown the team managers that I had enough of the “right stuff” that they invited me to join the team and participate in the weekend training course they put on for new recruits. It’s an intense crash course in first aid skills that were well beyond my experiences and the training spanned several hours Friday night and all days Saturday and Sunday, before you perform your final scenario test to qualify as a secondary responder.
The material covered was largely derived from emergency first responder courses, along with some material covered for pre-hospital trauma professions (e.g. fire fighters and paramedics). The training was designed to create heuristics in the responder’s mind to quickly flow through critical details while gathering as much information as possible and start treatment momentum. The last thing you want is for a responder to have to intentionally think through what steps they should follow, because it shunts cognitive capacity away from situational awareness and into operational procedures.
In an effort to automate one’s thinking, you end up doing a lot of mock scenarios and skill drills. As a responder, you end up creating a script in your mind to follow. The script is based on a common set of things to attend to, which you follow according to handy mnemonics and other memory aids.
Despite the mnemonics functioning to provide mental triggers for actions, you still need to learn the process to go along with the mnemonics, and from the start of training weekend, you only have precious few hours after training concludes for the day to encode the information out of your working memory and into longer term storage.
I needed a way to quickly drill myself and aid in recall. The system I settled on was to get some window writable markers and write out my mnemonic devices on the bathroom mirror. Every time I used or walked passed the washroom, I would attempt to fill in as many of the mnemonics as I could remember, and note where I made mistakes. Through constant repetition, I was able to turn:
Mechanism of injury?
Count the casualties
Signs and Symptoms
Past medical history
Last meal/beverage intake
It was a quick and dirty way to give myself quick feedback on these concepts that I could readily apply to my first aid treatment during training and eventually on shift. Any time I lost momentum or felt nervous about the judges evaluating me, I would mentally go back to my bathroom mirror and fill in the blanks. I haven’t been on the first aid team in almost a decade but these concepts easily come back to me, even during my crazy nights at the bar. It’s a testament to the stickiness of the ideas and the effectiveness of the drills.
You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit. It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist. I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.
This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast. After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book. It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class. You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it. If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.
However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back. On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process. They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.
You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.
How do you set up the bounds of research? How do you delineate what you put in the book? What should I include in the book?
There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes. He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage. Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together. When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it. Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text. Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on. It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.
How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?
He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles). He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas. He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges. It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested. It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
To validate ideas: 1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.” He asks “Is this working for me? Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
Over time, something will emerge and persist. It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).
I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it. It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon. I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.
Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers. This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book! But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development. It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.
Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of books. I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below. Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world. The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie. These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation. It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.
Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area. The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others. In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book. However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing. They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived. In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.
There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen. We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show. He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously. I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling. At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.
Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words. Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.