Wednesday, January 14, 2009


What with the start of the new year, and the start of a new term at schools around the country, I've been missing my studentsand colleagues at my 'day job', and especially *my* ROTC Cadets.

I love teaching.

It energizes me when students "get it" and wonder or relief or gratitude shines through faces that had been clouded by frustration or confusion. I've lost count of the number of times over the past decades when students have told me they've gotten past a seemingly insurmountable hurdle of incomprehension, and finally actually understand what they were studying. I find that fun and rewarding.

Feeling some nostalgia for my "day job" also has me reflecting on the different pedagogical styles I've encountered over the years. After all, having gone to school through the thirty-seventh grade, I've encountered a lot of pedagogical styles!

I'm extremely blessed to have studied with some of the best professors in their fields, whether those fields were music, philosophy, theology, history, immunology, or molecular neurobiology. My philosophy and theology courses, in Jesuit schools, were second to none.

My PhD mentor is arguably the best teacher I've ever had the privilege to study with -- and given my age and experience, that's saying something!

I've also had some rather idiosyncratic teachers as well. (I was going to write "bad," but figured that might seem a bit hostile....)

I'm reminded of a science course I had long ago now that was team-taught by two world-renowned experts in their fields. On the first day of class, one of them asked a question of the class, and an eager graduate student responded eagerly with an eager answer. The professor eagerly shamed him for his answer.

He continued to shame that student, every couple of weeks, for the rest of the term.

That'd be "poisonous pedagogy" (to take a term from Alice Miller out of context), in my considered opinion.

That scientific duo was also famous in my book for seeming to have united the following rather odd pedagogical presuppostitions: "What the heck are you doing in this class if you don't already know all this material beforehand?" and "But if I tell you this [looks around furtively, and blinks eyelids rapidly], then I won't be the only one to know it anymore."

Helpful, eh?

All that notwithstanding, the move from academia to the Army has been a bit rough for me. Army pedagogy is in a world of its own. Perhaps that's why it's unlike anything I'd experienced until signing up at age 50 a couple of years ago. The charitable description of much of it is: "Death by PowerPoint."

There's something to that description!

A rather idiosyncratic [wink, wink] example comes to mind.

I was sitting in an Army classroom, in the front row (unfortunately for me), and given that it was after lunch, I'm quite certain my eyelids were at half-mast. The instructor was giving a class on safeguarding electronic information (I think), and the PowerPoint slides being shown us were crammed with whole paragraphs of text.

News flash: That's not how PowerPoint slides are used to their best advantage.

One might be reminded of the Emperor's critique of Mozart's music, as given in the movie Amadeus: "Too many notes."

As the eleventy-seventh slide with at least 250 words on it was projected, the instructor in a rather stentorian -- yet mumbly (I still don't understand how that's possible) -- voice declaimed: "I think Chaplain [Tim] should stand up and read this slide!"

Without quite finishing the sentence, and certainly without taking a breath, the instructor changed the mission: "No. I think Chaplain [Tim] should stand up and SING this slide!" The look of self-satisfaction on the instructor's face haunts me to this day.

Now, I was fifty-one years old at the time, and felt instantly catapaulted through some sort of space-time discontinuum back to being seven years old, and deeply ashamed.

This was not what I'd call a peak educational experience, nor particularly valuable pedagogy.

One of my fears before going off to this school had been that I'd wind up being the oldest non-prior-service Soldier there (fear realized) and that I'd have to deal with Cadre working out their 'daddy' issues at my expense (perhaps realized in this instance....).

I was, of course, instantly wide awake, and my eyelids were certainly no longer at half-mast. I suspect it might have looked as though my eyeballs were going to pop out of their sockets at any moment. Or that perhaps steam would begin issuing from my ears and/or nose as my visage reddened noticeably.

I couldn't believe this was happening. At my age. In that school.


As I rose to my feet, to the position of parade rest, I said to myself, "Self? This person will *never* do this to me again."

I took a deep breath, and then proceeded to turn the text on the slide into an operatic recitative, replete with melismas and arpeggios. I instinctively decided to use the Phrygian III mode because it's a minor mode and I like its rather evocative and mournful sound. (Think "Third Mode Melody" of Thomas Tallis).

If I was going to have to endure this treatment, I was at least going to enjoy what I could in the midst of it!

It rapidly became clear that I was doing my own thing with the order I'd been given, so the instructor began giving the throat-slash sign to stop. Being a curmudgeon who was old enough to be the instructor's father, I kept going.

And going.

And going.

I was the veritable "Energizer Bunny" of sung PowerPoint slides.

I have been blessed with pretty good lung capacity, and I put it to good use that afternoon. Even *I* felt as though I was going on too long, but I kept on vocalizing anyway.

After I finally tired of hearing myself sing, I brought the recital to a close and sat down. My classmates were either stupefied or simply horrified, because there was a deathly silence that followed. The instructor glared at me.

I smiled back, sweetly. Innocently, even.

I cannot really remember what the class was about, let alone what was on that slide. I wonder whether anyone else can, either. But everyone got to 'check the block' for that class, which seems to be the Army way.

By the way, as I'd suspected, the instructor never did do that to me again....

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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