Reinventing Civilization:


Provisional Statements of Teaching Philosophy


     Reinventing civilization, Stanley Fish remarked a few years ago, is not something we do every day.  It is too obvious for words.  And yet the statement is untrue, for we do reinvent civilization every day, in the choices that we make, the language that we use, the way we interact with other people, the things we find that thrill us. 

    Maybe this contrary vision of civilization is only seen through term after term of Great Books I, where a teacher can (and must) literally reinvent the whole pattern of antiquity for thirty students.  Charting which texts to use in the syllabus for such a course, a teacher makes choices again and again about the shape of civilizations in the past, and about the shaping of his or her current civilization.   

     The language a teacher uses, in syllabi, in assignments, or in the daily discourse about virtue, coursework, and literature, has substantial impact in the classroom, and thus in the way students themselves will reinvent their civilization.  If they perceive Homeric epic as a tedious set of lectures over a repetitious, formulaic story, something to be poorly summarized, briefly memorized, and quickly forgotten, we have a quick vision of their civilized attitudes toward history, toward literature, and toward themselves:   

History is irrelevant, and the province of knowledgeable specialists; literature is irrelevant, unexciting, and the province of teachers who specialize in "hidden meanings";  we, as students, have no knowledge or authority, can find no hidden meanings, and would rather be watching television. 

This should sound like a familiar civilization, but one that many of us are uncomfortable calling "civilized"; it has no past; it has no critical intellect; it has no memory.

     I try, as much as possible, to involve the students themselves in the intellectual task of reinventing civilization, to provide some tools and strategies for finding meaning in texts, and to make their voices authoritative, at least within my classroom.  Students themselves determine about one-sixth of the content of my Great Books syllabus; they choose texts, teach them to the class, and the class is examined on them as on any other text for the course. 

     Independent student research projects are another way in which I try to make a course more interactive, try, that is, to make the students invent their own course.  If a student finds her relationship to literature and historical perspective independently, through the Eber papyrus on dentistry, or through "following the brush" with Yoshido Kenko, she has done herself as much good as I could through more general assignments. 

     (Last winter I tried to extend their authority still farther by having them grade one midterm, a passage-analysis and interpretation (anonymously, and with their consent, of course).  Results were mixed:  the grades, slightly higher than my own grading would have been, were held in check by averaging;  my own grading took longer as a result;  but the students learned something about grading, about analyzing passages, writing essays, and about what constitutes convincing evidence.  Seeing how their own peers approached the problem allowed them to see their own approaches more clearly.  While Iíve always done a fair amount with peer response groups, especially in poetry workshops, I was impressed by their responses to this exercise, and by their feeling of accomplishment.) 

      In addition to these assignment-driven ways of engaging them, I focus a good deal of energy on their participation in each dayís discussion; this slows things down, and not all the points that one would like to make are enunciated as clearly as one could wish.  But the points that are made thus, at least, are the studentsí points, not the teacherís.  In the pursuit of more organization in this potentially fragmented style of teaching, I aim for more coherent, bridging material at the beginning and end of each class session. 

     Much is said these days about the role of computers in the classroom, the interactive potential of the information age, and the importance of adapting our teaching to this world of changing technologies.  The most advanced technology in my classroom is usually the dustless chalk, and at times I wonder about this division between scholarly practice and pedagogy.  For I am not simply a grumpy dinosaur-like technophobe about this.  I routinely use databases by the dozen in my daily research, for teaching and for scholarship; I e-mail colleagues in Iceland, e-mail my publisher; receive updates on "books in my field" from; and listen in on one or two listservs, to hear what Roy Flannagan and everyone else will say about Miltonís sonnet on his blindness.  And yet I have never used a VCR in the classroom, or an overhead projector, much less borrowed a computer classroom.  

     I think that what bothers me about technology in teaching is twofold.  First is what it takes away from the classroom.  I care very little about the loss of authority, but a good bit about contact, and the way members of a small group or small class interact with each other.  There is a strong qualitative difference between my audience of students when they are focused on a text, and when they are focused on the current speaker in the classroom.  Throw some monitors in, and my students will speak even less as they focus on the instrument, and not the whole interactive social process.  I have the same reservations about watching videos; it sets up a false Ďauthorityí in the class, perhaps, but more important is how it takes away from real contact time.  Every moment the video is on is a moment when my students are not involved, themselves, in reinventing the course.  

     My second difficulty with newer technologies in the classroom is related to the fears expressed in my first paragraph.  The possibilities for interactive searches and research on the Internet, in materials like Perseus, Diotima, the Voice of the Shuttle, or others on the Web, are astonishing.  But they are useless if you are not engaged in the material, if it still seems irrelevant, if it still seems tedious. 

     It is the classroom, I think, in spite of and because of its flaws, with its human contact, its small group alliances and dislocations, its walks through the rain, its dust and heat, its opportunities for expression and self creation, that makes the lives worth examining, and makes civilization (a worthwhile civilization) worth reinventing.  


Reinventing Civilization II

Reinventing Civilization III

This page was last updated on March 15th, 1999.
Text copyright ©1998, 1999, 2002 Jeremy M. Downes.
Images courtesy of Ian M. Downes, copyright ©1998.