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First Classes

After a day of advising, my first class in “Energy and the Environment,” teaching the first class in my own course, “Classical Political Thought,” and doing some laundry, I was wrecked, so I didn’t write last night. Instead, I went to bed where I tossed and turned for a couple of hours while composing this blog post in my head until I drifted off to sleep vigorously forgetting all I planned for this blog post.

January 20, 2010

After a day of advising, my first class in “Energy and the Environment,” teaching the first class in my own course, “Classical Political Thought,” and doing some laundry, I was wrecked, so I didn’t write last night. Instead, I went to bed where I tossed and turned for a couple of hours while composing this blog post in my head until I drifted off to sleep vigorously forgetting all I planned for this blog post.

Over all, yesterday went well, in his class, Trace Jordan was clear, well-organized, and gently humorous. Then, in the evening, I began teaching my own class and that, I think, went pretty well, too, although I’m pretty certain that if a student had been at both he would have noticed two main differences.

First, there was size and, in education at least, size matters: Energy has 120 students, Classical has 16, so my room was much smaller and even if I was inclined to use a PA system (and I’m not), I wouldn’t have needed one. Trace, on the other hand, was immersed in technological aids: in addition to a microphone, he used a DVD player (to show a clip from “60 Minutes” about the wonders of ethanol), some slides, and an overhead projector while I remained stuck in about the 18th century with no more than a blackboard to support my pedagogical efforts.

Second, while Trace used all of his allotted 75 minutes, I used less than an hour of the 2 ½ hours my class was scheduled for. I told them who I was, asked who they were, went through the syllabus, and informed them of the requirements: do the readings, participate in class, write cogent papers about the philosophers in question, and, of course, my standard spiel on grading, “There is no correct answer, just answers that are well-argued, and that deal seriously with the texts.”

I also offered, and meant it, my standard statement on interpretation: “I don’t care whether you agree with me or not, I care that you offer good arguments for your position!” (This statement is, of course, never believed by students who don’t get good grades; such students remain firmly convinced, probably because it’s a more comforting thought, that their grade was ideologically based). I concluded with a brief introduction to the pre-Socratics, but I didn’t use all the time for the simple reason that they haven’t yet read anything.

There were also certain similarities, despite the radical difference in subject matter. As one would expect, we both assigned readings for the next class, he the first 21 pages of CIC, me “the Symposium,” and neither of us told the students how to read the text. He probably didn’t because he figured that most of the students (except perhaps your correspondent) know how to read something like “Chemistry in Context,” I didn’t because I was equally certain that my students don’t know how to read something like “the Symposium.”

When I say they don’t know how to read a Platonic dialogue, I don’t mean that they are illiterate (although, alas, I have encountered that), I mean that they’re probably not capable of understanding the rhythm of something like the Symposium, of understanding its structure and the way the different interlocutors definitions of love interact with one another. I expect that next week (my class meets once a week, Trace’s twice), the students will tell me that they couldn’t make sense of it, and I will try, and succeed with most of them, to get them to see how a dialogue works so that when we move on to Plato’s other dialogues they will not be wholly lost.

The other thing the courses had in common, and this was supremely gratifying to me, was that, in this science course at least, there didn’t seem to be one right answer. Consider that clip from “60 Minutes,” in it Dan Rather wandered around Iowa, where he talked to farmers who now grow corn for their very own ethanol plant, Berkeley, where he spoke to a scientist, and to an unnamed, book-lined room where he spoke to a shill for the oil companies who, hold the front page, thought that ethanol was a really lousy idea for America’s energy needs. The clip was from 2006 when gasoline was expensive, but now, with gas much cheaper and the problem with ethanol more apparent (you need land to grow corn, or sugar cane which the Brazilians use, and if you’re growing that, you’re not growing something else, and if you’re not growing something else, particularly food, then there will be all sorts of consequences and none of them will be good) it seems decidedly less wise.

After the video, he broke the class into small groups (I was with two young women who must have had one question on their minds: “Who’s the old fart?”) and told to come up with two advantages, two disadvantages, and two questions about the U.S. investing heavily in ethanol. Our advantages were, as Trace rightly pointed out, as much about geo-politics (reduction of dependence on foreign oil for example) as about science. When he said this, I remember thinking, “Great, all I have to do is find a way to keep the course on the geopolitical level I’ll be fine,” but I’m sure that pp 1-22 of “Chemistry in Context” will quickly dash that dream.


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