Exploring Human Experience: About my Approach to Core
About The Instructor
In 1991 I returned to Richmond, my home town, from Indiana University, where I completed my M.A. and Ph.D. in English. Before grad school and a year teaching in Spain, I had several odd jobs in Richmond, ranging from bookkeeper to parole officer! I like to think that my broad education at the University of Virginia, where I earned my B.A. in English, prepared me for these experiences. It was a good thing: when I graduated from college the job market was awful for everyone. Having lots of different types of learning under my belt helped me greatly.
I've directed UR's Writing Center since 1991 and more recently the Eng. 103 program. My wife is an elementary-school librarian and hobbyist bee-keeper. My research interests include the development of virtual worlds (especially Linden Lab's Second Life), the legacy of Southern literary humor, the use of technology in the classroom. I'm an editorial writer for the local weekly Style and I write occasionally for other non-academic magazines. With a Turkish visual artist, I am working on a traveler's guide about the art & culture of Turkey. I enjoy hiking, cycling, cooking, gardening, shooting, and learning to live without so many fossil fuels. I travel overseas every chance I get. I have little patience with popular culture and have watched no TV (except the stray DVD with an episode a friend insists I must watch) since 1979. I'm good with computers, and I'd prefer to make media than to passively consume it.
I've taught Core several times since 1995. By far, it's my favorite class to teach here. Core got me to think hard about areas where I was not widely read, such as philosophy, and encouraged me to expand my learning there. I even began to pick up popular works about modern science after the Core seminar. I came to share two ideas with Socrates, though I'd never claim to be 1/100 the thinker he was. First, I'm not afraid to say "I don't know," instead of pretending knowledge where I don't have it. Second, I believe, to quote the philosopher, that "the unexamined life is not worth living."
Core changed my philosophy of teaching, too. I don't lecture in class, but I use discussion or the Socratic Method of asking you questions, constantly, to encourage discussion and intellectual debate. Even if you come away disliking how "tough" Core is, I hope all of you will find that I am enthusiastic about Core as a vital way to introduce students to the rigors of college course-work. It's boot-camp for your brain.
About Our Section
College life, at its best, introduces students to experiences unlike any others. Imagine a semester or two living in another nation, studying a new language; imagine mastering a field of study to prepare for a career, graduate study, law or medicine; imagine making a difference through an internship in the Richmond area or at home; imagine meeting friends and mentors who will change the course of your life. Some of these things, and others besides, will happen to you during the next four years. The only bounds for this will be your incentive or lack of it.
Core provides a starting place for these experiences. The class teaches you, among other things, to think like a college student, to approach challenging readings and ideas in an intellectually sophisticated way. The books and films are means, not ends in themselves. In 10 years, I won't be concerned if you tell me you've not read any more books by a certain author, but I will be alarmed if you step up and say "I don't read anything" or "I've got all the answers; I don't need to think about things any more."
That is not only a tragedy, but it's a dangerous delusion in a world where almost nothing is certain except uncertainty. Times right now are difficult, and your success after graduation is not assured. A few of you may fail, even fail badly, at things you try, though I hope that is not the case! You will need to be quick with your wits, and broadly educated, to thrive, perhaps even survive in the world of work. At the same time, the culture around you is in trouble. As a teacher, I'm deeply concerned about a "dumbing down" in America; it often seems cool to act stupid or cruel.
To make your way in such a time, you can practice in Core critical-thinking skills and an ability to grapple with new, even strange and unpleasant, ideas in a world that is full of them. I'll take a cue from astronomer Carl Sagan here, who made this claim in his book The Demon-Haunted World, "in a world in transition, students and teachers both need to teach themselves one essential skill-learning how to learn." In my section, we will focus intensely on learning how to learn. Expect to be asked questions in class. If you don't have an answer, don't be afraid to say "I don't know," though you should be prepared by always doing the reading. Though the give-and-take process of class discussion, you will improve your critical-thinking skills as you learn to make arguments about challenging texts and ideas. This is a bit different from Eng. 103, a course I also teach and enjoy, where more emphasis is placed on writing. While you will do a lot of writing in Core, the emphasis will be on the reading we do. In fact, my sections are tough because they need to be; I want you to be head-and-shoulders above your peers when you graduate. I'm cheating those who pay your tuition if I don't hold you to the highest standards.