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ideological background and ars poetica for teaching:

May 2005 -
I have spent significant time and effort the last several years designing and teaching new curricula for university students. Much of my work was as an integral part of the creation of a new degree plan for Art and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. I drafted both the vision statements for the program as well as the ideology and coursework for many of the core classes. The program itself embodies what I see to be one of the most important educational and cultural shifts in history: the reintegration of technical and humanity disciplines – the reintegration of art and science.

Going back five or six hundred years there was no fine distinction between the arts and the sciences because few fields of knowledge were deep enough to force exclusivity. There was an appreciation for how an understanding and integration of both art and science were necessary to be a fully fleshed out and well-lived individual – to be a "Renaissance Man" or "Renaissance Woman" – Leonardo da Vinci being the patriarch of such an ideal.

The exponentially increasing deluge of information from the last half millenia has resulted in such increasing specialization – not only in the arts and sciences as different fields, but even within every possible subfield – that one of the greatest modern problems is communicating between disciplines. This is where the mandate for reintegration comes into play.

I see a rapidly growing need in both the corporate and academic worlds for a new field of translators. Not translators of languages but translators of ideas. People who are solidly grounded in both the arts and the sciences – in both humanity and technology – who can facilitate clear communication between worlds.

My belief in this need for translation was one of the things that led me to MIT, and my time there only strengthened my belief. I met hundreds of incredibly bright people who were students, researchers and scientists – many of whom fearlessly split atoms and cultured cancer cells, but hit brainfreeze at the thought of writing or speaking about their discoveries for a general audience. They lacked the skills to translate their work into everyday language.

It could be argued that current intellectual media – books, science magazines, the History channel, etc... – are sufficient translators, and that's all we need. But the scope of the problem is more complex. My graduate thesis advisor, Alan Lightman, is an internationally known physicist and a writer of both technical papers and contemporary fiction. He is best known for his novella, Einstein's Dreams, but one of his lesser known short stories, "A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court," is perhaps more poignant, and certainly more relevant to this ideology.

In the story, a late 20th-century man is randomly thrown back in time to 1880 where he attempts to convince people he is actually from the future and not just a man gone mad. He describes all the wonders of modern technology, but to no avail, because no one is authoritative enough to understand his claims. A court case is called and Thomas Edison is brought in as an expert witness to confirm or reject the man's claims: Does this television use direct or alternating current? Don't this picture tube need a vacuum inside? Is there a transformer or rectifier? How does one of these refrigerators work? I don't think this fellow knows one goddamned thing about technology.

The man is eventually acquitted because of a ballpoint pen he has with him – evidence of an advanced technology – but the point of the story is that we as a society know almost nothing about how things work. And I'm not arguing that we necessarily should be able to describe the innards of our television or our refrigerator – there simply isn't time to know everything – but since ratio of available time to available knowledge has skewed past the point of no return, like an object caught in the gravitational well of a black hole  –   the undeniable scale of our ignorance makes clear communication and accurate translations a vital part of academia, business, politics and culture at large.

The courses I have conceived and taught as well as the courses I have in the works are all designed to help prepare people for the vagaries of living in and translating between the billions of separate but overlapping worlds that we walk in every day.

January 2006 Update - I have the privilege this semester of getting to help design and teach a core class for a new, soon-to-be-finalized degree program called Medical and Scientific Humanities (MaSH). The program is designed primarily as track for pre-med students who want a broader foundation than they usually receive in what life looks like outside the laboratory.

Medicine – and the technological evolution that is driving the medical field – has the effect of reconfiguring our interpersonal relationships and forcing an empathy-driven introspection into how we connect/disconnect with one another and within ourselves. Technological evolution changes the look and feel of culture – through complicating ethical issues, through distorting our notions of privacy, through “flattening” the world, through sensory bombardment – but it seldom offers answers for how these effects change who we are as human beings and what values (should?) inform how we relate with one another.

As an example, the class I'm teaching this spring, Literature of Science and Medicine: Ethics and Empathy, will explore a variety of contemporary medical ethics issues, but will also be focusing on a central theme of existence that is being brought to the forefront by medical technology: isolation. It will look at the idea that loneliness/aloneness is part of the human condition, no matter what state of life/health you are in – and that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of responding to that isolation. It will also encourage consideration of how this inner wrestling plays out in our lives and relationships, and will discuss ways to reconcile a continuum of awareness in which we sometimes feel isolated and alone, even if surrounded by people whom we love and who love us; and other times feel content and connected, even if by ourselves or in the company of nameless strangers. For more information, read the syllabus.

ars poetica:

An ars poetica is your own, poetic vision for life, encompassing your beliefs, values, principles, desires, etc. Ars poetica is going to be a little hard for me to try to pin down, since it is a rather abstract phrase/ideal, but in this instance, it is going to stand for my personal philosophies on teaching – what it is, and how it should best be accomplished. I know this sounds very zen, but bear with me.

Part of my personal ars poetica are my theories and beliefs on teaching. I believe that a teacher should strive to do three things:

  • learn continually

  • strive to inspire

  • ask good questions

By learn continually, I mean that a teacher should always be learning from their students. A teacher should also always be learning about the field in which they are teaching, and how that field relates to the world at large. John Donne's sonorous exhortation that "no man is an island," is seldom put into practice in academia, though I believe it should be. Teachers often become so preoccupied with the narrow scope of their specializations that they forget that their fields each exist as part of a larger world. Teaching requires the ability to perceive how what you are teaching interacts with everyday life.

When I say that a teacher should strive to inspire, I mean that I value inspiration over route memorization and contrived exercises. I believe that if a teacher can inspire students to be interested in a subject, then the students will do most of the learning on their own. Inspiration should at least be the goal of every teacher, regardless of whether or not that goal is achieved.

I was recently talking to a friend about teaching, and he told me about how he was a real life example of the profound effect of inspiration. Years ago, he dropped out of high school in ninth grade, and eventually got around to getting his GED and going to a community college somewhere. At that community college was a poetry teacher who got him interested in poetry – not because the poems were so immediately accessible, but because the teacher believed in what he was teaching and was able to relate it to the students' lives. Now my friend has two degrees and is working on his Ph.D. dissertation. He has come a long way from being a high school dropout. His story is inspiration (on the large scale), but I believe that minor inspirations are worth striving for, too. I can think of numerous examples from my own teaching experience, but it seems immodest to cite specific examples in print without time to go into thousands of words of context to really set the stage. Suffice to say, I've seen the value of inspiration played out over and over again in the lives of my own students.

No matter how hard you study for classes and how much you are able to memorize, you retain very little of what you learn unless you learn it because you want to. How many guys can you talk to who know the name, team, statistics and favorite toothpaste of every baseball/ football/ basketball player that has ever lived, but can't remember the atomic symbol for Silver or the date Pearl Harbor was bombed? Many of them. Or how many dieters or fitness addicts know calorie and carbohydrate counts for every fast food place or item at the local grocery and don't know the names of the types of trees they jog past in the morning. Or how many songs do you know that you can sing backwards, forwards, sideways and upside-down; you know everything about the bands, the vocalists, the drummers, etc..., but you have trouble holing ten new lines of Shakespeare in your head? That is the difference between inspiration and memorization; somewhere along the line, someone introduced you to the people and facts and words that you cared enough about to learn about on your own (and probably internalized accidentally, as a side-effect of your interest). What I strive to do as a teacher is introduce people to ways of thinking and to ideas they will take with them and continue learning from on their own time. At its core, teaching is the art of inspiring interest in other people.

When I say that teachers have to ask good questions, I am speaking on several levels. Part of this goes back to the idea that teachers must always be in the process of learning, and you only learn by asking questions and finding the answers (or at least finding better refined questions). Part of this is grounded in my beliefs that the greatest thing we have in life is the quest for truth, and akin to that, the primary responsibility of education is not teaching facts, but rather teaching thinking and social skills that encourage a lifetime of learning, analysis and application.

I rounded up a series of quotes on the subject of questions, and would like to share the following for you to ponder:

  • "Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt." (Paul Tillich)

  • "I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions.... Finally one lady friend asked the right question, 'Well, what do you love the most?' That's how I started painting money." (Andy Warhol, from a 1984 interview)

  • "We look to the history of the time of framing and to the intervening history of interpretation. But the ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time." (William J. Brennan, Jr., Associate Justice, US Supreme Court, 1985).

  • "When you've parked the second car in the garage, and installed the hot tub, and skied in Colorado, and wind-surfed in the Caribbean, when you've had your first love affair and your second and your third, the question will remain, where does the dream end for me?" (Mario Cuomo, Governor of NY, 1986)

  • "You always learn far more from a good question than from a good answer; a good answer always raises more questions than it answers." (me, 2000, because I couldn't find a quote that said exactly what I wanted it to)

A few of these quotes are serious, while a few of them are more whimsical examples of what I want you all to notice: the importance of the right questions. The right question nags at the back of your brain and launches you on a quest for knowledge. Any question is the start of learning; the right question is often the start of inspiration.


extant curricula:

upcoming curricula:

  • Classical Philosophy in the Digital Age
  • A Cartoon History of 20th Century America
  • Ethics and Socioliogy of The Simpsons

Note: The full syllabi for all classes will eventually be linked online for reference.