The Socratic Method, or, How to Avoid Drinking Hemlock

Reading my October book on pedagogy, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, has taught me a couple of important lessons:

1) Studies show the efficacy of some of the techniques I use while teaching, for example, breaking the students into smaller groups to teach each other the material.

2) Also, reading books about pedagogy doesn’t take as much time as I thought it would, since you can skip to the techniques you’re trying to work on and skip any you’ve got down.

I find it rather interesting that I can pick up a teaching book and, instead of reading it for an overarching argument, cherry-pick directly to the elements that speak to me.  (For example, I don’t really need the chapters on lecturing effectively—yet.)  So I did just that: I went through the book and cherry-picked to the material that’s important to the discussion-based classes I teach at the University of Chicago.

Since I’m trying to use this forum as a way to explore and improve my own teaching, this discussion will obviously be focused on my particular situation.  But I’m putting McKeachie’s 7 “biases or hypotheses” inset over here for general purposes, before I go on to discuss what I found most interesting.

The Socratic Method

I was looking for semi-concrete tips about leading discussion, but I ended up thinking mostly about discussion in general, and in particular, the Socratic method.  I quote McKeachie about the Socratic method:

In television, novels, and anecdotes about the first year of law school [Socratic teaching] is usually portrayed as a sadistic, anxiety-producing method of eliciting student stupidity, and even when I place myself in the role of the slave boy taught by Socrates in the Meno, I feel more like a pawn than an active learner. (2011:43)

Ouch.  McKeachie goes on to say that the questioning methods advocated by a student of the Socratic method, Allen Collins, “may be generally useful in leading discussions,” but it seems as though McKeachie is rather lukewarm on the method. Continue reading

Millennials: is it even possible to characterize an entire generation?

It’s interesting to me that my brother, Charlie Anderson, and I interact with the same generation, though in vastly different settings.  I get the millennials between 18 – 22 years old in the classroom, and he picks up where I left off, training them at his consulting company, Boom Lab.  I’ve wondered before just how accurate the pseudo-psychological characterizations of a whole generation could be, considering how many contexts there are for rearing the children of that generation.  (Are the sweeping generalizations supposed to be of the sort of middle-of-the-road, middle class, median group?  How “entitled” could the millennials raised in poorer environments really be?)  And in my experience, even with a segment of the population likely to be middle or upper class, there’s a wide range of attitudes, abilities, and aptitudes.

Charlie has clearly given a lot of thought to how this generation of new workers interact in the workplace, how to harness their particular skills, and maybe rein in certain tendencies.  Rather than a pseudopsychology of the millennials, he demonstrates how to evaluate people between 22-25 years old in the very real context of their jobs.  It’s an interesting read, thought-provoking and careful to avoid stereotypes:

Knowledge, learning, and cognition, oh my: techniques for achieving better comprehension

It’s been a very long time since I wrote, but my experiments in teaching last year were pretty successful—my students took apart their texts pretty well, they definitely learned how to write better papers over the course of a couple quarters with me, and they really seemed to enjoy class.  My ego also survived multiple questionnaires, which were extremely helpful for understanding what techniques (the students thought) worked and what techniques did not.  More about what worked will come below.

But not only do I enjoy teaching, I enjoy learning about teaching.  This year, I didn’t get a job offer for autumn until it was too late to fit it in my schedule, and so to fill the pedagogical gap, I think I’ll start a new endeavor: I’ll read a book on pedagogy each month, and think about how to apply it to future classes.   (I may teach in winter or spring, so the application could be almost immediate!)

Today, I went to a seminar on course design, offered by the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  One of the most interesting things that came out of the seminar for me was unexpected and only tangentially related to the seminar’s focus on course design.  Last year, I read a book called Peer Instruction, by Eric Mazur, a physicist who discovered that, although his students tested well in his large intro courses, their retention and deep understanding of the material wasn’t strong.  He came up with a method whereby the students worked together in small groups to learn the material more comprehensively than by rote.  He found that this system was especially successful at getting them to understand the abstract concepts behind the particular examples and experiments he’d been showing them, which was key to their retention and ability to more generally apply principles of physics. Continue reading

Scientific methods

I basically stopped writing this blog last quarter, because I wanted to write about teaching, but I fell into an ethical conundrum: is it fair to write about experiences involving other people in real-time, if they don’t know that they are being written about—even if you leave names out of it?  I’m not even sure that the timing matters; it seems a strange thing to write about other people regardless of whether it’s real time or not, although relating stories about “Funny things that happened to me in the past” already lends distance to the stories, right?  Somehow, writing about past events seems less like nosily intruding on everyone else.

And with teaching, of course, there’s always the possibility that my students (hi, guys!) will find the blog entries and learn more about what I think of the class, or what I’m planning to do with it, than I might normally tell them.  I have to admit, I’m still experimenting on my students, finding what works and what doesn’t, but I’m not necessarily sharing all of the details of the experiments with the subjects—doesn’t that change the results? Continue reading

Zombie professor sez: fresh young mindzzzzzzzzzz

I really enjoy teaching—it might be that I’m a little spoiled, that the students at the U of C are unusually talkative and involved, but I really enjoy fostering discussion amongst a group of young ‘uns ready to explore our work.  I have a good group of students this quarter, with perhaps more than the usual number of talkative kids, but yet no one who is trying to dominate the room.  Everyone is respectful, and they are starting to learn to address each other, which I think is important.

On the first day, I explained a little bit about my teaching philosophy, that I will be steering the ship, but that I won’t let the conversation always be moderated by me.  I have attended (and disliked) “discussion” classes with professors who ask leading questions for which there is a right answer, which the students must find and present to the professor.  The discussion ends up being a back-and-forth between usually one (maybe two) students and the professor, while other students watch from the sidelines, answer different questions later, thereby reorienting the back-and-forth with the professor to a new side of the room.  I’m in charge, I keep us on task—but I want the students to talk to each other, too.  And after only two discussions, they’re starting to do it! And to address each other by name! Continue reading

Independence Day, Armenia-style

On September 21st, Armenia celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.  There were concerts, dance performances, and a general party atmosphere all over the center of Yerevan.  In the evening, Republic Square was transformed into one large concert- and show venue, where a full orchestra played while dancers danced, singers sang, and a visual history of Armenia was projected onto the History Museum of Armenia as well as the two government buildings flanking it (the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance).  I’ve never seen anything like the light show played on the buildings; these photos don’t do it justice.  It was really remarkable.

The History Museum of Armenia

I had spent the evening with a couple of friends, talking, eating fruit and treats, drinking cognac and rose liqueur, and I decided I needed to witness the events in Republic Square.  A 20th anniversary only comes around once—and I figured that such a milestone would be perceived a little differently than, say, our 235th anniversary of independence.  I started my investigations into the holiday by talking with friends and colleagues, asking what they thought of the anniversary—both in general, and specifically, of the celebrations the government was planning.  The celebrations had clearly been in the works for a long time, including not just that day’s activities, but also an entire printed campaign with signs proclaiming “Hayastany Du Es!”, or, you are Armenia!, as well as a music video that played frequently all summer: . Continue reading

Another day, another period uncovered: Hellenistic remains at Armavir!

We had been focusing on removing the medieval (and modern) remains at Armavir, in order to expose the Urartian-period temple courtyard, when we started to uncover large flat stones with distinctive wedge-shaped holes.  The early first millennium BC architecture at the site (e.g. the Urartian temple) was constructed of well-worked stones laid next to each other, sometimes with joins that jogged slightly, but without mortar or clamps or other fasteners between the blocks.  In the Hellenistic period, throughout the Mediterranean world, a type of clamp frequently called “swallow-tail” was used. The name comes from the shape; a wedge-shaped hole was made in each block on either side of a join, and when you look at the two stones next to one another, the holes make a bow-tie or swallow-tail shape.  A fastener was then inserted across the two stones, linking them.  In many cases in the Mediterranean world, the fastener (clamp) was made of metal.  One of the reasons you see ruins now with ‘bites’ out of the ancient blocks is that the metal was valuable, and people would destroy the corners of the stones to dig the metal out.

But here in Armenia, it had been speculated that wood was used as the fastener.  And now—there is evidence!  We found wood in situ in the swallow-tail holes.  This discovery is interesting for three reasons: one, that we uncovered a Hellenistic-period layer at the top of the hill; two, that the lead excavator now has evidence for the use of wood in joining blocks; three, the fact that we found these blocks under what we thought was an Urartian-period courtyard forces us to reconsider the periodization of that courtyard (since it would be pretty difficult for a 8th- or 7th-century BC construction to lie on top of a later 3rd- or 2nd-century BC wall foundation).  I had to leave the site to work in Yerevan, but I assume that the archaeologists continued to unearth the Hellenistic wall foundation; when I left, they were debating in which direction to go, in order to find its extent.  Super exciting!

Swallow-tail clamps

Swallow-tail clamps joining multiple blocks

Armavir, day ummm…

I’ve lost track of on which day what happened, but here are some photos from the most recent day of ‘excavation,’ during which we began to take apart (by ‘take apart,’ I mean demolish w/ a sledgehammer) the Soviet-era military bunker.  In more interesting archaeology, however, work continues on opening the paved temple courtyard.

Evaluating which rocks need to be removed, as part of the courtyard-clearing process.

The bunker, in the process of being dismantled

The dismantling includes chucking very heavy reinforced-concrete posts over the side of the mountain, into the backdirt.

Excavation mascot

Armavir, day 1

Today, I got a personal tour of the Hellenistic-period capital city, Armavir.  In the Urartian period (early 1st millennium BC), there was a large temple, whose foundation still stands.  The city (which some have interpreted more as a sacred religious center than a true ‘city’) was still in use in the Achaemenid period (6th-4th centuries BC), and into the Hellenistic period (3rd-ca. 1st centuries BC).  Then there was a gap in occupation until the Middle Ages, at which point many of the well-worked stones from the Urartian temple were redeployed in a different construction.  It’s clear where the newer construction starts and where the older, Urartian construction lies next to it.  Those folks in the Middle Ages didn’t bother fitting the worked stones together well, leaving an overall impression of rather sloppy construction.

The well-worked black blocks are Urartian; the red stone wall in the center is medieval.

The summit of the hill is very interesting, partly because of the multiple periods of use, which also include the Soviet period, when some sort of military blind was erected on the medieval construction.  This year, the excavators are working to take down as much of that military construction as possible, in order to more completely expose the temple foundation.  So to do that, the work involves a lot of demolition with pickaxes and an absolutely enormous prybar.

There are also some inscriptions at Armavir that are quite interesting, although they are on a rock at the base of the hill, on the southern face.  More on those later.

The raised area to the right (to the left of the worker) is the paved floor.

Update: The medieval wall has been removed!  It was a chapel, whose floor likely consisted of some flat paving stones that had been in the courtyard for the Urartian temple. Some of the paving stones have been found, and the wall was removed to facilitate the search for the extent of the courtyard.

Journey out of Yerevan

I’m studying the inscriptions of the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Armenia, and while most of them have been collected in the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan, there is one in a regional museum in a town called Yeghegnadzor. So a colleague arranged permissions for me, and I was slated to travel there yesterday.

I decided to make an adventure of it and stop at a couple places on my way back to Yerevan, and thus flexibility was key, so I would need to either hire a driver or rent a car. In the end, the price for a driver and car or for my own car was the same (except for gas, which was additional), but I enjoy traveling independently, and I thought it would be an adventure. And I was definitely correct. It’s more usually been the case that my husband drives while I navigate, but yesterday, I had to both navigate and avoid crazy drivers, kamikaze pedestrians, etc.

The road signs in Armenia are improving, but they are not great, and to get to the southern part of the country, you have to figure out how to weave through the southern part of Yerevan in order to emerge on the correct highway. I almost did it correctly: I ended up on a smaller highway that led in the same direction through villages, rather than the 4-lane divided highway that goes toward Artashat from Yerevan. I always knew I was at least headed in the correct direction—when an enormous double-peaked mountain dominates the southern horizon, that’s actually not hard. I kept Mt. Ararat on my right, and I was in business—once I managed to leave Yerevan, that is. Leaving Yerevan was the tricky part; there is an amazing amount of traffic that leaves via a small 2-lane road that takes a sharp turn under a very narrow train bridge, where sometimes oncoming traffic has to wait for the other direction because of the tiny width of the underpass. It looks like you’re taking a short cut through a factory yard, but in fact, you are on one of the main routes south out of the city.

Eventually I made my way to Yeghegnadzor and found the museum after asking three people where to find it (turned out that third person thinks I’m crazy; I had just passed it and was sitting in front of the neighboring building; “Excuse me, can you tell me where the museum is?” Incredulous look. Point.). And at the museum, the docent was incredibly helpful and generous with her time. We took the altar outside, washed it thoroughly, and then I made a “squeeze,” an impression of the words on the stone using wet paper, pounded into the inscription with a boar-bristle brush. I used two different kinds of paper and multiple brushes and eventually succeeded in getting a relatively clear reverse impression of the inscription.

The stone is a portable altar that some have argued was connected to the 15th Roman legion, which was stationed in Armenia during the second century AD. The inscription is in Greek.

Scrubbing the monument in preparation

Waiting for the squeeze to dry

And this is the exciting result