Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Handout: Dead Poets Society

Film: Dead Poets Society (1989)

Though this film is set at a boys’ preparatory school, it raises issues pertinent to higher education.

Trivia: John Keating is modeled after Sam Pickering, professor of English at UConn. Pickering was one of my English professors as a freshman at Dartmouth those many years ago!

Questions to consider; please add your own!

1 The “four pillars” of Welton Academy are tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence. How are these characteristics exhibited by:

-main or secondary characters?

-symbolic or iconic images used by the filmmaker?

2 Does this film have a “message”?

3 How does the institution (Welton Academy) mediate the relationship between students and their parents?

4 Describe John Keating’s pedagogy, and comment on it.

5 Describe how Keating’s various exhortations are interpreted by different students, especially his repetition of “carpe diem.”

6 Mr. Nolan admonished John Keating by saying that boys at this age (17) are very impressionable, and that tradition and discipline are central to their education. Keating counters by saying that thinking for oneself and free thinking are vital. Comment.

7 Neil, in the final soliloquy as Puck in the production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, states:

If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.

Comment upon this text in relationship to Neil and the film, and how the filmmaker shows this scene.

8 Comment upon how the institution handles a tragedy, and compare it to your own experiences or knowledge of such at Purdue or elsewhere, or to what you have learned here at Purdue or elsewhere about such topics.

9 Richard Cameron (red headed student) cites the Welton Honor Code and asks his fellow students “why ruin our lives?” in relation to what develops late in the film. Comment.

10 Who developed or changed the most in this film, and what led to these changes?

Monday, March 28, 2005

A tale of two campuses...

A funny piece by a professor at Hope College (details in a previous column unveiled his anonymity) about the differences in a university's pecking order measured by the building one occupies. The asbestos laden "temporary" Quonset huts built after the war (no, not the Gulf war, WW2!) and occupied by the art department so many years at my university were recently demolished for a new engineering building (coincidentally, a new visual and performing arts building was just built too).

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Socratic Classroom Under Fire

I have been hearing these rumblings for a few days now...thanks to Nick Burbules for this link. A measure in Florida aimed at "leftist" professors also includes wording that may be interpreted to allow students to sue if they are embarrassed by a professor who uses Socratic questioning.

Aside from the fact that this is a chilling reminder of what brought Socrates to trial in 399 BC, it is highly ironic, given that one of the "techniques" used by conservative and perennialist educators such as Mortimer Adler and his followers is, of course, the so-called "Socratic seminar." Not to mention the use of pseudo Socratic pedagogy in law schools, caricaturized for all time by Professor Kingsfield in the film Paper Chase. I wrote on these years ago, in a paper echoing Nietzsche's famous work, titled "The Use and Abuse of Socrates in Present-Day Teaching." I argued there that much of what passes for Socratic teaching is simply not true to Socrates's practice. However, Socrates DID raise hackles, and of course, that led to his trial.

Now this from Florida, the land of governors taking possession of women in vegetative states.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Handout #2: Russo's Straight Man

Here are my discussion questions, to add to those of Cliff, Tim, and Velma.

1 What kind of institution is West Central Pennsylvania University? Characterize it (such institutions are sometimes called “directionals”) and the “pecking order” of institutional type. What do you think of such an order?

2 How does WCPU compare to these other institutions we have discussed:

University of Rummidge?
Euphoria State University?
Wellesley College?
Athena College?
Columbus University?

What can be said about how the type of institution is portrayed?

3 Characterize the town of Railton, PA. Does it remind you of anywhere you have visited or lived?

4 Characterize the subdivision where Hank lives, Allegheny Wells.

5 What is Russo trying to convey through the character of Professor Campbell Wheemer, aka “Orshee”? Comment upon Orshee’s academic specialty of popular culture (television sitcoms).

6 Chapters 9 and 34 present Hank teaching in a writing workshop. Comment upon the pedagogy, perhaps recalling the opening scenes of the film “Wonder Boys.”

7 Hank teaches Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, while Julie, Hank’s younger daughter, says that her mom “earned it.” Comment.

8 In 1903, the distinguished Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James wrote an essay critical of the academy’s emphasis on the doctorate, called “The PhD Octopus.” It begins thus:

Some years ago, we had at our Harvard Graduate School a very brilliant student of Philosophy, who, after leaving us and supporting himself by literary labor for three years, received an appointment to teach English Literature at a sister-institution of learning. The governors of this institution, however, had no sooner communicated the appointment than they made the awful discovery that they had enrolled upon their staff a person who was unprovided with the Ph.D. degree. The man in question had been satisfied to work at Philosophy for her own sweet (or bitter) sake, and had disdained to consider that an academic bauble should be his reward.

His appointment had thus been made under a misunderstanding. He was not the proper man; and there was nothing to do but inform him of the fact. It was notified to him by his new President that his appointment must be revoked, or that a Harvard doctor's degree must forthwith be procured.

Hank is interim chair of the English department, but does not hold a PhD. The terminal degree in his field, writing, is the MFA. Discuss in light of today’s university, the role of the professor, teaching, research, and service.

9. Around pages 279f, Russo discusses academic meetings, and the term “brain scalding” is used (p. 281). Comment.

10 Comment upon how the book ends, especially Hank’s list of what he is thankful for, and the final scene.

Handout #1: Russo's Straight Man

Cliff You, Tim Monnig, Velma Jones

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the implications of “straight man” in this novel. Consider the idea of “straight man” in comedy. To whom or what does this concept apply?

2. Comment upon Devereaux’s role as the interim department head? Is it a success or a failure? Why there are 15 grievances pending against him?

3. Comment upon Devereaux’s continued references to “William of Occam”.

4. Discuss Devereaux’s goose-killing threat and his role as problem evader. What role does the media play in this event and overall in university affairs?

5. Talk about the overall atmosphere in the English department? Is this typical at universities… at Purdue?

6. Comment upon Finny’s droopy classroom. Is teaching still considered vitally important in today’s universities?

7. What do you notice about the role of the tenured faculty member in the novel? Are these depictions true?

8. Discuss the functions of the search team in higher education. How is the search team for the department chair going in the English Department at the University?

9. What are Dickie Pope’s strategies towards the impending budget cuts? Comment further about his role as a university politician.

10. Comment upon the role of William Henry Devereaux Sr. How does he affect the Hank’s personal and career development?

11. Discuss your thoughts about the construction of the multi-million dollar Technical Careers Complex? Do you think it a wise idea when the English Department lacks several thousand dollars to hire adjunct faculty to teach the composition course?

12. “All you can do is to find high ground and take your friends with you…” (p. 162).
“Because if we don’t do it, somebody else will, somebody who may be less discerning than we are” (p.163). Talk about Dickie Pope’s persuasion here. Does it make sense?

13. “You’d simply suggest a set of criteria. On the basis of those criteria, I‘d be advised who is indispensable to your department”. (p.163) Discuss the “criteria” in the higher education setting.

14. Comment upon what you would do in the situation that Hank finds himself, in the choice of making a list. Would those considered “friends” make the list?

15. What is the role of the union representative in the novel? What is the strategy to copy with the impending “tide”? Talk about the union’s roles in American higher education?

16. How do you think of the old dean’s role as “savior” of the university? Do you find the denouement convincing? What do you think of his “list”?

17. Why does Devereaux refuse the offer of the dean’s post? What issues influence his decision? Is it part of his role as “straight man”?

Judas Peckerwood lives on...

We had a blast last night discussing Richard Russo's satiric academic novel, Straight Man. Here is one of the activities we did, courtesy of Tim Monnig. More coming later...

But I Can Play That Role…

Throughout Richard Russo’s Straight Man, William Devereaux often acknowledges his ability to play multiple roles to successfully weave through life. In the book, he plays a curmudgeon, a religious man, a chauvinist, Cecil B. DeMille, an innocent, a misogynist, a coward, in addition to being a husband, father, professor, friend, and colleague. It is your task to play William Henry Devereaux and company. Based on your knowledge of the characters in the novel, write a dialogue scene based on the situations provided, assign roles, and act it out.

1) Lily guilts William into calling June and Teddy, who he recently embarrassed at a department meeting at which June was present, to invite them to “a movie or something.” The couples meet at the Devereaux’s to decide where they are going; Julie is still staying in the guestroom and is eager to bring June and Teddy into her support group.

2.) William meets with Leo in his office to discuss earnestly the themes that pervade Leo’s writing. Rachel, whose afternoon babysitter cancelled, can be heard through the door chastising Jory, whose imagination is making the best of his mother’s workplace. Meg Quigley, wearing an all-too-flattering V-neck sweater, enters, determined to set the record straight about her involvement with Russell. Julie calls with urgent news.

3) William, late for his racquetball game, arrives to find Tony Coniglia sitting expectantly on the hood of his car. Tony informs William that he was thrown out for “flirting” with the girl at the front desk, a fact that he blames entirely on William. Annoyed, he agrees to get a bite to eat at The Tracks, where they overhear Missy Blaylock flirting with an equally charming Dickie Pope. William, despite Tony’s urgings, orders the two a plate of oysters.

4) While spying on the recall vote, William slips and falls, crashing onto the table below. (Acknowledge as many voices as you feel you can comfortably handle.)

5) Create your own situation.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Lagniappe...Watch for Bambi in the Headlights...

A NYT editorial about the proliferation of white tail deer, evidence of an ecosystem badly out of balance.

As someone who smashed a buck on I65 almost two years ago, 30 miles north of Indy, late after the state HS track meet, I can attest to their abundance and how endangered they are on our highways. I didn't see more than a red blur, but my wife saw him jump. We limped home, badly shaken, a shattered headlight dropping shards.

I know many people who have hit deer. It is extremely dangerous. A friend, on US 231 near Crawfordsville IN one night, had a deer run into his side window. He emerged with bloody fur all over him and the front seat.

OK, thanks for the therapy...just home from an up and back to Evanston IL and the stretch of I65 south to West Lafayette always makes me wary!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Lagniappe...Feeding Tubes and Eric Blair

From Whiskey Bar...

Spring Break: Adjust the Tracking...

I worked two afternoons here during my SB, surrounded by sodden cornfields, on our daughter's financial aid renewal application and her taxes (a W2, a 1099, work in IL and IN, aaaarrrrrgggghhhh, my accountant to the rescue) and it still has loose ends. We go up to Evanston tomorrow to take her and one of her roommates to O'Hare, for her "absolutely have to have it or I will die" spring break trip to San Diego, returning home to sodden cornfields with a fish, a rusty bike, and a recalcitrant bunch of software on her laptop. Next weekend I pick her up at O'Hare, bring her home for a few days, and then take her back after I teach my afternoon class, as her spring quarter doesn't start until Tuesday.

What is wrong with this picture? :-)

Friday, March 18, 2005

BWS: Blog Withdrawal Syndrome

Crooked Timber is down! Help, I need my fix!

High Stakes Corruption

David Berliner of Arizona State University does it again. He authored a report with Sharon Nichols of UT San Antonio titled "The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing." Nichols and Berliner show just how insidious such tests, the backbone of No Child Left Behind, are. I served as a consultant in reviewing the report prior to its release today.

Here is a tidbit from the press release:

• Teachers’ and administrators’ inability to be flexible about test administration meant a 14-year-old student whose brother was recently murdered was not allowed to be excused from a test.


Drs. Berliner and Nichols identified 10 trends that outline the consequences of high-stakes testing, which ultimately all negatively impact the quality of education for our nation’s children. The trends are:

• Administrator and Teacher Cheating;
• Student Cheating;
• Exclusion of Low-Performance Students from Testing;
• Misrepresentation of Student Dropouts;
• Teaching to the Test;
• Narrowing the Curriculum;
• Conflicting Accountability Ratings;
• Questions about the Meaning of Proficiency;
• Declining Teacher Morale; and
• Score Reporting Errors.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

David Horowitz, Amnesiac

Does DH remember what he said just a few years ago? Thanks to Nick for this link to Whiskey Bar...thank goodness for bloggers.

Report on the Education of School Leaders

The Education Schools Project, headed by Art Levine of TC Columbia, issued a report Tuesday highly critical of graduate preparation of school leaders (principals and superintendents). I have yet to read the full report, but read the articles in the NY Times and the CHE. The website has the full report and the PPT that Levine used in the press conference. I am sure I will have more to say later.


Here's a site discussing humor studies at Arizona State University. Some good nuggets within...

Digging out...

Back from a research trip to Los Angeles, for my book on Albert Schweitzer. More on that later...I did no email while away, did not take my laptop, nor did I blog. There was a computer in the hotel lobby, but I stayed away. I didn't miss doing my email...but I did miss blogging! There were times when I said to myself, gotta put that on the blog.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Article: Lawrence of Absurdia

Oh dear...a more complete discussion of Larry Summers and possibilities of Asperger's syndrome, from Boston magazine. I first learned of Asperger's when a good friend, in conflict with his provost, thought that person suffered from Asperger's.

Here is an interesting snippet from the article:

So great was the bewilderment over Summers's lack of social skills that some in the Harvard community wondered if there might be a clinical reason for his behavior: a neurobiological disorder called Asperger's syndrome. A form of autism, the disorder was first described by a Viennese physician named Hans Asperger in 1944. People with Asperger's, which affects mostly boys, aren't likely to have any physical disabilities. They sometimes show an extraordinary grasp of obscure topics. As a result, the condition is sometimes known as the "geek" or "little professor" syndrome. Some scientists believe Asperger's has a genetic basis, possibly present when a child has intellectually similar parents. The theory goes that in university towns and research-and-development corridors such as Silicon Valley, many highly intelligent but socially maladroit men marry women with similar characteristics, which can result in offspring with an excess of genes related to autism, Asperger's, and associated disorders.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Film Handout: Higher Learning

Film: Higher Learning (1995)

Directed by John Singleton, the youngest director nominated for an Oscar, for his earlier, breakout film, Boyz n the Hood (1991). Higher Learning depicts racial and cultural strife, as well as growth, change, and identity formation in the college years at a contemporary university.

Bonus Trivia, not found on imdb.com! Q: What book does Kristen have open on her face when she is sleeping in the lounge, when her boyfriend Wayne wakes her up? A: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams.

Questions for Discussion

1 What do you notice about Columbus University that resonates with your personal experience, and what does not so resonate?

2 Comment upon the transformations that occur for the main student characters:


3 Comment upon the pedagogy and professorial behavior of Professor Maurice Phipps.

4 Comment upon the conversation between Malik and Fudge about the reasons for going to college (money or knowledge).

5 Comment upon the depiction of the campus police.

6 What influence, if any, does Deja have upon Malik?

7 Comment upon the view of college athletics, particularly the black student athlete, in this film.

8 Professor Phipps challenges his students to formulate their own political ideologies. Do you think any of the students succeeded in this project?

9 Which student (Kristen, Malik, or Remy) most successfully formed an identity? Were the college and its curriculum and culture responsible for such?

10 Do you see any similarities between the fraternity brothers and the skinheads?

11 Comment upon the use of language by the students and by Professor Phipps.

12 Does Professor Phipps’s academic area (political science) influence his views?

13 Comment upon the word on the screen at the end of the film.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

New Routes for Film Studies Majors

Thanks to Rita Rud for this article from the NY Times. Here's a snippet:

For some next-generation students, however, the shot at a Hollywood job is no longer the goal. They'd rather make cinematic technique - newly democratized by digital equipment that reduces the cost of a picture to a few thousand dollars and renders the very word "film" an anachronism - the bedrock of careers as far afield as law and the military.

Betsy Hoffman resigns at Colorado

Big story in the NY Times and another over at the CHE. When she was UIC's provost, she brought in Stanley Fish. Deirdre McCloskey spoke to me about her with high praise. Now this.

Here's a snippet from the article quoting a campus leader and a well-known educational researcher:

Margaret LeCompte, a professor in the school of education who has spoken in support of Professor Churchill, said she believed that a "concerted attack on the university by the right wing" was a factor in Dr. Hoffman's resignation.
The president's comments about McCarthyism, Professor LeCompte added, "may have been the straw that broke the camel's back for the right wing's desire to have her head."

Monday, March 07, 2005

Guess I'm Gonna (Get) a Star (Professor)

A red star on your door means...watch out! Blog posting about a group of students affixing such to the offices of too liberal professors. They are stars, but not in the I wanna raid your faculty, I wanna woo you with a big salary and slight teaching load sense. Read the comments...

Thanks to Nick Burbules for the link.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Research Trip to LA and the OC...

Short week...I head out Thursday to LA, to do work on my book on Albert Schweitzer's legacy for education. I will interview his only child, Rhena Schweitzer Miller, 86, who, when I spoke to her last week, was bailing water out of her Pacific Palisades home. I may need to bring a bucket along with my notes. I am just finishing the recently published letters of Albert and Helene, before they were married, that shed marvelous light upon his evolving motivation to go to Africa, and her essential role in all that. Rhena may have more to say about this...I hope!

I am staying in Santa Monica, much loved, and reminds me of when I stayed there in the early fall while working as a Dartmouth admissions officer those many years ago. Like then, I will be truckin' south, to beat traffic, on Friday morning to visit the Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University, smack in the middle of the OC. I have lots of questions for the director, Marv Meyer.

I head back on Sunday night, on the red eye, perhaps after seeing one of my show biz (second) cousins. Then spring break here at Purdue...

Note to self: Get used to this trek, as daughter vows to hit Hollywood after her stint in Evanston ends in a few years. Hey, I can take it...like Randy Newman, "I love LA," but maybe only to visit. I really am not an eight lanes of slowly moving traffic kind of guy!

Rereading Russo's Straight Man...

I am now rereading for my course Richard Russo's academic novel, Straight Man, which I relished when it came out in 1997. I thought then, and think again now, that Russo really captures what midlevel academic administration is like, the juggling, the tradeoffs, the gray areas, the petty frustrations, the irony...but also the satisfactions and the joys of leadership.

When I first read the novel, I was serving as an associate dean, and now, rereading it, I have served (and lived to scribble about it) as a department head. I recall when I first became a head, albeit an interim one, I asked a fellow department head what struck him most about the position. He said to me, deadpan, that you will learn more about the personal lives of your faculty members than perhaps you want to know! True, true...but I too enjoyed careening about as their "straight man."

Friday, March 04, 2005

Gotta Go, Gotta Go, Gotta Go Right Now...

Here's a wry piece by Terry Caesar from today's edition of Inside Higher Education. Observers of the higher ed scene may remember Caesar's writings about being a faculty member at a "second rate" university. Since Caesar's place of former employment is in PA, it dovetails nicely with the novel we are now reading for my grad class, Richard Russo's Straight Man, also set at such a place, in PA too.

This piece is about students taking bathroom breaks in the middle, or even the beginning, of class. What other behaviors have you noticed that students, or professors, do these days that seem out of place in an academic setting?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Human Stain: Handout for the Film

Film: The Human Stain (2003)
Set in the Berkshires of Western MA (where I grew up). With Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris.

Trivia Tidbit #1: The college scenes are of Williams College, Williamstown, MA. My parents just moved there, and my brother has lived in Williamstown for several years.

Trivia Tidbit #2: Richard Russo, author of our next novel, Straight Man, has a cameo appearance in an early scene, at a table with other faculty members, when Coleman Silk is being told by Delphine Roux that he has made a racist remark. See if you can identify Russo…don’t blink!

Bonus Item: Anna Deavere Smith, who plays Coleman’s mother, came to Purdue a year ago. In her talk, she offered three questions that get to one’s character and history: 1) When have you come close to death?; 2) Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do?; 3) What were the circumstances of your birth?

Since we read the novel prior to seeing the film, and this is the only film and novel combination we are discussing, I would like you to reflect especially upon the similarities and differences between the two art forms, and upon the art and craft of the novelist and of the filmmaker.

Questions for Discussion

1. The film’s opening scene is not the same as the novel’s opening pages. What do you think of this structural difference?

2. What characters are more developed, or developed in a different way, for you in the film versus the novel?

3. Comment upon the film’s development, or lack thereof, of these characters:

· Delphine Roux
· Iris Silk
· The Silk children
· Les Farley

4. Describe your reaction to the flashback of the relationship of Coleman and Steena Paulsson.

5. Do you think the director made a good decision to “telescope” the character of Delphine Roux?

6. Aside from a few outdoor scenes of the idyllic Williams College campus, the higher education context discussed in the novel is underplayed in the film. Does this matter? Is it important that Coleman Silk is a college professor and former dean?

7. Comment upon the scene where Coleman’s father speaks to Coleman at the dinner table regarding his boxing.

8. Comment upon Nathan Zuckerman’s statement “The things that restore you can also destroy you.”

9. Comment upon Coleman’s mother’s statement “Coleman, you think like a prisoner; you are white as snow and you think like a slave.”

10. Comment upon Coleman’s sister Ernestine’s remarks at his funeral, when she says to Nathan Zuckerman “People are just getting dumber.” Relate your comments to the film, and also to education in general, and our present society.

11. Do you have any comments or insights into other ways that the filmmaker handled the novel’s adaptation? Was the film what you expected? How might you do it differently?

Baby Got Treatise...

A post on Crooked Timber about Jonathan Bennett's project to render early modern philosophers, such as Locke, Leibniz, etc. into plain English. The comments are fascinating...scroll down...the poster who exclaims what is next, rap?...well, that may not be too far down the road...witness the popularity of "gospel rap," especially Southpaw's music video about Bible reading, "Baby Got Book."