Always trust your students

“No one I know is placing any blame on the university for how they have done things,” Mr. Williams said. “I don’t think we should be blamed for not kicking him out for odd behavior, because if you went by that, there would be people kicked out every day. No one could have predicted what he did.” Student quoted in NYT article here. A thoughtful understanding…let’s see if the adults can match it.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

“There is nothing more arresting than a disciplined course of instruction,” he said abruptly.

I must have rolled my eyes or grimaced, because he shook his head, stood up and shoved the thing — an impressive two inches thick — into my hands.

“I’m serious. Is there anything more glorious than a professor? Forget about his molding the minds, the future of a nation — a dubious assertion; there’s little you can do when they tend to emerge from the womb predestined for Grand Theft Auto Vice City. No. What I mean is, a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life — not the whole thing, God no — simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order — simply divine. The symmetry of a semester course. Consider the word themselves: the seminar, the tutorial, the advanced whatever workshop accessible only to seniors, to graduate fellows, to doctoral candidates, the practicum — what a marvelous word: practicum! You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voila — looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one’s deepest understanding of giant concepts. No wonder so many adults long to return to university, to all those deadlines — aahh, that’s structure! Scaffolding to which we may cling! Even if it is arbitrary, without it, we’re lost, wholly incapable of separating the Romantic from the Victorian and our sad, bewildering lives…

I told Dad he’d lost his mind. He laughed.

“One day you’ll see,” he said with a wink. “And remember. Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids, because, trust me, there will always be some clown sitting in the back — somewhere by the radiator — who will raise his fat, flipper-like hand, and complain, ‘no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.’ ”
Pessl, Marisha. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. New York: Viking, 2006, pp.11-12.

Mark Twain’s Writing Rules

In addition to these large rules there are some little ones.  These require that the author shall

12.  Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13.  Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14.  Eschew surplusage.
15.  Not omit necessary details.
16.  Avoid slovenliness of form.
17.  Use good grammar.
18.  Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain, Mark. “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” In Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1891-1910, edited by Louis J. Budd. New York: Library of America, 1992, 181-182.


Realizing as I grade a series of midterms for a class where I did not assign a comprehensive textbook that a “bad” reading of a textbook produces much more than a “bad” reading of a monograph or a provocative article.

In other words, students still get something from the time they spend with a textbook — no matter how badly written or tediously designed — but it appears as though the rewards of genuine readings can only be realized if the “reading” is done well.
Scary, I think.  I hoped that giving provocative, well-written academic articles would create better discussions and lead to more interesting mid-term exams.

It appears that I erred.