From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (j)

[a] Mid RF
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We're there. Nine down and today to go. All that is left is to describe the midterm assignment that will set the tone for the rest of the term. We'll discuss the rest—the final assignment and the last three or four weeks of readings—at a later date. The course description you are reading has the goal of explaining not only the readings and assignments, but the teaching philosophy that is behind them. It has "cost" us close to 15,000 words—these posts would amount to about fifty pages if you printed them out back-to-back—and I know that the sixteen students in the seminar are a little bewildered by reading every single detail of the course "philosophy," along with the regular syllabus work.

I get it; I feel their pain.
[b] NY NY RF

Still, I just can't keep myself from teasing out what the course is really about, even if it drags the discussion onto another page...or three. And here is the reason. Even though I had so many good teachers that I cannot possibly thank them all the way they deserve, I still wish they would have really explained why they did what they did. I would have loved to know why the multiple choice midterm I was taking in Sociology 100 fit the goals of the course and the professor teaching it. I don't mean for that to be, well, mean. Really. Many of my students over the years will happily tell me that they could do without this level of detail. I understand that, but I would have been better off in the long-run to understand that there was a coherent approach to the material that I might have missed by just paying attention to the "rules" of the course. All most of us as students pay attention to the "rules." Whether students like it or not, I insist on explaining the why...even if it takes pages and pages and posts and posts. 

This is not always a happy thing, and I get that, too. I still think we're better off with it than without it (you can always skim, after all...but I hope you don't).

Now we're into the homestretch of the explanation. Students will finish their first semester break of eight they will take in their college careers. They will travel back home to Chicago, Andover, and St. Paul, as well as all sorts of places they will explore in a continuing quest to use these one-week interludes (in the middle of every semester) to explore the country (and occasionally beyond—I like to steal away to China for the week if I can possibly work it out).

But now it's late-October, and we'll be back on campus. We will come together like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano or ululating Chinese peasants in Marcel Granet's sociological imagination (c. 650 BCE—give or take a half-millennium). We'll reassemble for the midterm assignment, and it is deceptively straightforward. Students will read a lively little book from the late-1950s, authored by one of the greatest writers (and cartoonists) of the twentieth century. James Thurber was also one of the cornerstones of The New Yorker, almost from its inception. The book is called The Years With Ross, and it recounts (this will be the fourth pass through this territory, and that is the entire point) the editorship of Harold Ross, from 1925 to 1951.
[c] Opportunity RF

In other words, the midterm will provide students the "opportunity" to exercise their scholarly pivot moves by engaging the early history of one of the great American magazines. They will be thoroughly experienced in these matters by now. Not only will they have read The New Yorker from 1925 until the early-1960s before the autumn break, but they will have worked through a history of America in the twentieth century and four full books about The New Yorker. They will know their stuff, and a big part of the midterm assignment is the pivot back to the first four decades of the magazine.

That is not all, though. Not even close. The other part of the assignment requires a look forward. How is that possible, you might ask? How could students be ready to incorporate at least a peek into the "future" of our course?

This is not a problem. If you looked carefully at the syllabus, you saw that students began reading the current (August 27, 2012) issue of the magazine on almost the first day of class. They started reading The New Yorker from the very beginning—everything from the cover and cartoons to "Talk of the Town" and various reported pieces. That's a good start on the future, but it is not the only "futuristic" thread of the course. You see, two of our books (totaling four weeks in the first half of the term) extend the narrative to include the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s...and, well, you get the idea. 

In other words, the midterm assignment will pivot back and examine the editorship of Harold Ross. That will be the bulk of it, but it will not be all. It will also pivot forward, and engage The New Yorker that Ross could have only envisioned in its faintest outlines. How could he imagine many of the things to come—civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate...and 9/11? The midterm assignment will only touch upon these "final stretch" matters, but there will be glimmers of the future throughout the assignment. It is all about the foundations and the connections.
[d] Stretch RF

That is only part of it though. Students' profiles of Harold Ross and the first quarter-century of The New Yorker will lay a foundation for the substantial work that they will do in the six weeks that follow, and end the term with work that dovetails with their own interests and the contents of an iconic periodical. Down the road, students interested in athletics might focus upon some of the magazine's great sports writing (from A.J. Liebling and Herbert Warren Wind to Roger Angell), while others interested in, say, environmental issues will study the essays of E.B. White, John McPhee, and a whole bevy of writers in the most recent fifteen years.

In short, the midterm is the pivotal assignment—one that moves us from the dusty but resonant early issues of a beautiful magazine to the very center of relevance for each student's liberal arts education. We finish this long (ten-part) course description, then, with the assignment that makes it all possible. It's the one that looks back to the beginning of the past and the origins of the magazine. It concludes with a pivot toward the end of a course that should—if everything goes according to plan...and it should—frame the first semester of college for sixteen students with as many diverse interests as readers of The New Yorker can find in any sequence of issues to this very day.

We're ready.
***  ***
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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (i)

[a] And the world RF
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We are almost there—only two posts to go in this monster, ten-part course description that tells students, parents, and anyone else who is interested just what this odd little seminar is all about. We'll be done tomorrow, just before August turns to September, and we look to other things, both in our lives and on Round and Square. And be sure to enjoy the full moon.

We have reached the midterm assignment, and—even though we have moved the needle past the "middle" of the course—are poised to grasp the direction of this enforced intellectual gathering I speak of as "The New Yorker and the World." I am a big believer in midterm assignments, and they are almost never "exams." I am certain that they fit other courses very well, but I have come to see that there are advantages to using a midterm assignment that is somewhat hydra headed. Once students tackle the project, they begin to realize that many faces look out at the subject we are covering, leading them to view everything we have been seeing with growing complexity. This is the purpose of education, and I think that "midterm week" is more important than anything we do all term.

[b] Hydra-Herakles RF
O.k., I'll come clean. I love the idea of Hydra, but it is not, actually, the very best image for what I am trying to convey. You see, many images of Lernaean Hydra have all the heads looking in the same direction. This is problematic in both academia and Greek mythology. To be sure, some images provide fodder for those of us who want to extend the image to mean something like "looking in many directions at once." Just not enough of them (check the Wikipedia site).

Boy, do I want that Hydra-thing to work, and I could probably get beyond all of that "head direction" confusion. There is a deal-breaker, though, and I have to toss it into the dustbin of mythology. It hurts, but I'm stuck. Ash-heap stuff.

The problem with Hydra is the pestilential virulence of it all. It just doesn't work in a positive campaign (er, seminar) meant to provide deepened knowledge and overflowing intellectual growth. It has to be subdued, after all. That is a tough message to sell in a course that is meant to show how wonderful education can be. Hydra is just too negative, and, besides, it tends to look in just one direction. Scratch.

I need another image for the midterm. Here is the idea I am trying to convey. This assignment channels everything we have studied thus far—tying together seven weekly essays and sketches, five books, and seven different months of The New Yorker. That's a lot of stuff, and it might seem appropriate just to make the midterm a kind of retrospective piece that tests students' knowledge from all of that work. That's not what I want, though (at least it's not all that I want). I want to make absolutely sure that something very special is accomplished—something, frankly, that I didn't experience much in my own education.

[c] Etch RF
I want to ensure that the midterm assignment also propels us forward toward the end of the middle, the beginning of the end, and the capstone-like denouement of a sixteen-week seminar filled with ideas like an overstocked blueberry muffin case at the local bakery when the doors open at 5:00 a.m. I want to look to the future, too. That has to be part of it, but what image can I use to make this stick? 

Yes...I've got it. Future. Moving forward.

The midterm's like an Etch-a-Sketch. All of the little problems and frustrations from the first half (or so) of the term can be shaken up and redrawn with an eye toward the future, right? Right?

Nope. Doesn't work (at all). The point is not to "re-do" the message of the term's first half, you see. It is to channel it toward something different, something bigger (which will, in turn, "channel" everything that came before it and propel it toward greatness). There has to be increasing energy that takes the past and shoots it into the future. That's not Etch-a-Sketch. It's not a do-over that I want. It's centripetal force. No Etching (but there will be sketching...every week).

We've been through Hydra and Etch-a-Sketch. Neither works. We're running out of time, but I won't give up trying to articulate why the midterm is so overwhelmingly important that it is the very heart of the course (and this is true of all of the midterm assignments I try to write). I won't give up, so let's try another one.

[d] Janus-faced RF
There is another image from way back in Greek culture, but it moves beyond the mythology of Hydra into the realm of writing about the past. Indeed, it engages much of what I do in my own profession...2,500 years later. I speak of Herodotus and Thucydides—two iconic Greek historians who could not be more different, at least in the way we normally view them. Herodotus embraced something we normally think of as subjectivity; Thucydides assumed an objectivist stance that questioned Herodotus's approach. The way it is often told (I have my quibbles) Herodotus looked in one direction and Thucydides looked in the other. Can this work, then? The midterm represents a look back and a look forward? We call this the faces of Janus.

We're getting close. Very close.

The whole point of my midterm assignments is to look back and to prepare in solid fashion for the future—in particular, the final assignment. The Janus-face helps us a great deal more than Hydra or the Etch-a-Sketch, but, darnit, there is still something missing. I wish it were otherwise, because a Greek statue would be a terrific way to sell the concept of a midterm assignment. There is so much storied wonder there that it makes me covet the image. I really want this to be my midterm "brand."

It just doesn't quite work, though, and we need to scrap it, along with Hydra and the Etch-a-Sketch. There has to be an image that is close enough to exactly what I am trying to convey...that I will keep it as the poster-child for midterm assignments in my classes. The idea is something like this (one more time).

                    [1] We look back at what has come before.
                    [2] We move forward in a new direction.
                    [3] We specifically "channel" the energy from "back" toward "forward."
                    [4] "Back" propels us toward "forward."
                    [5] It is all part of a flowing, powerful, synchronicity.

[e] Bird-set RF
None of our previous images accomplish all five of these items. The Etch-a-Sketch is the worst, Hydra is only a little bit better, and Janus, even though it comes close, doesn't quite pocket the eight ball. There is just a tiny bit missing here, but it is coming to me. I am developing a fuzzy image of something that looks back, pivots forward, and builds flowing energy in the process. There is something in what I just said that feels close. Something...

That's it. I've got it. My midterm assignments are...Bob Cousy...or Larry Bird.

Let me explain. 

Basketball players with superb "fundamentals" have also walked a fairly fine line between "back" and "forward," and in many more ways than one (or two). Bob Cousy and Larry  Bird exude a kind of "old school" approach to basketball education that is instructive for those of us trying to make sense of the midterm exam. They worked so hard on the basic stuff (what came before) that some of their peers just shook their heads. There is a great story about Larry Bird that goes something like this. Back during his junior year of high school in French Lick, Indiana, the team advanced to one of the later rounds of the greatest high school basketball tournament of them all—the Indiana State Basketball Tournament. This was the stuff of Hollywood. For fifteen years, almost from the time he was bigger than a regulation basketball, Larry Bird had shot free throws—often late into the moonlit night. One of his teammates headed for the showers and his Chevy Camaro (this is how I imagine it) after formal practice was over, and didn't bother with things such as fifteen foot set shots.

Late in the game, there was a foul. It would be pivotal to the outcome. Two "makes" meant that French Lick advanced to a dizzying level of the tournament. One "make" meant a tie and overtime. Two misses meant that the French Lick, Indiana team went home.

Camaro Boy was fouled. Practice Boy (Larry Bird) was not. The teammate toed the line with the outcome in the balance. He hadn't "practiced." Larry Bird set up for rebounds that wouldn't matter (very little time remained). He had practiced. 

The first free throw clanked off the iron. Overtime at best. The second one wasn't even close. French Lick went home, defeated, overcome by a lack of commitment to a strong "look back" to the fundamentals of the game. 

Here's the key. Larry Bird and Bob Cousy became Hall of Fame (that's called moving forward) players because they did every single thing in our list above...every single day (and many times during each practice and game). The propelled their foundations like a slingshot to the future, just like a classic pivot during competition. They pivoted—propelling the past into a distinctive future that could not have been imagined before their "work."

That is the midterm. We'll walk through the forest of details tomorrow.
***  ***
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (h)

[a] City RF
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We have made it to the conceptual middle in our discussions, and have developed a good idea of how to manage the pressures that will inevitably work their way(s) into our lives during the course of the semester. Now it is time to get back to the details of our "The New Yorker and the World" syllabus. We left our discussion a few days ago in order to embark upon an extended digression about the importance of pacing ourselves through the beginnings and middle (the long middle) of the term. That little two-part essay is worth reviewing if you missed it,* but let's assume that you have the message ("pace yourself") down, and are ready to push forward to the midterm assignment on the course syllabus.*The embedded essay can be found at "f" and "g" in this series of course description posts.
[b] Foundations RF

We left things with the end of Week Five, having completed Brendan Gill's detailed account of his many years at The New Yorker, and having read the December 1941 and August 1945 issues of the magazine. As we enter the territory I have described as "the middle," we are nearing the week-long autumn break, and it is necessary to make sure our foundations are strong enough to sustain a full week away from classes. By the time students have finished Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker and read full months of issues from 1925, 1929, 1936, 1941, and 1945, they will  be ready to power into the midterm break with the kind of momentum than can be carried right to the other side. "Halfway" means nothing, as we have discussed.

Week Six begins with perhaps the only New Yorker issues in this course that are not linked specifically to a pivotal event of one kind or another. "Nothing happened" in July 1955, and it is a good time to enjoy four straight issues of the magazine that are not fraught with tension in the aftermath of a major national or world event. The biggest change in the magazine for us by this point is that, after 1951, The New Yorker was being managed and edited by Mr. William Shawn, who was to remain at the helm of the magazine for thirty-six years. Harold Ross had died in 1951, and the transition to Shawn, while not seamless, was powerful and lasting. By 1955, the magazine was his, and he had begun to shape a new generation of writers, even as he maintained the quality of veterans such as A.J. Liebling, E.B. White, and James Thurber.

Ironically enough, after two straight books—over the course of four weeks—that provide a fully history of the magazine, right up until the present, we now will turn to three more weeks that backtrack to the detailed story of Harold Ross, The New Yorker's founder and editor for a quarter century. Beginning in Week Six, we will read Thomas Kunkel's Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker. This 1995 biography takes the reader (that's us) through Ross's entire life, including the thirty-two years he spent before founding The New Yorker and pushing it into the forefront of American letters. During the week, we will read about not only Ross's youth, but his education and, especially, the entrepreneurial imagination that launched one of the nation's great magazines.

[c] Span RF
The following week, Week Seven, is significant for several reasons. We will finish Kunkel's biography of Harold Ross, and will clean up our New Yorker knowledge as we prepare for a nice, long, autumn break (nine full days—two weekends and an entire work week). The second half of the Ross biography deals with The New Yorker through the late-1930s and into the years of World War II. By the time students have finished the book, they will know Harold Ross as well as they know their Beloit College roommates. It might even be a little scary, because they may well start to imagine just how they might found and manage their own publications. Some could even decide to join the staff of the Beloit College Round Table. 

We will also read a distinctly sobering month of New Yorker publications. The month on the syllabus is December 1963, and national mourning will blanket the magazine, even as the editor, William Shawn, worked to keep his agenda of lively nonfiction and reporting at the forefront of the magazine. It takes some serious reading-between-the-lines to see this editorial contrast during a month as difficult as that containing the Kennedy assassination. It will show precisely the relationship between a horrific national tragedy and Mr. Shawn's (channeling Harold Ross's) goals for a magazine, which he hoped would be so influential that it could transcend "the news." Only a few months in the publication's history would challenge the line between world events and great nonfiction that has nothing to do with them. We will reading them all (1929, 1941, 1963, and 2001). This month was one of the hardest.

We'll learn a lot, and we will be in good shape if students have a solid sense of American history in the twentieth century, a very good knowledge of The New Yorker's literary past, and an extraordinary understanding of the management and editing skills of the magazine's founder, Harold Ross. They will write one more "Talk of the Town" essay and put together a little sketch (turning them in by the end of classes on Friday, October 12th). Their skill level by mid-October, after doing seven such assignments up until that time, will have built to a point well beyond "just o.k." Most students will be on their way to writing and reporting with confidence and precision.

[d] Exploration RF
They will leave for a full week of autumn break. Some will return to their homes, seeing the pets, siblings, and parents they left eight weeks before. Others will hit the road to explore territories in, around, and beyond the Midwest. After five complete books (including the summer reading) and seven full months of historical New Yorker magazines, not to mention seven "Talk of the Town" essays and sketches, students will be ready for a little bit of rest.

I am counting on them bringing a copy of The New Yorker with them, but I will also be recommending lots of sleep. They'll need to be rested when they get back, because they will head right into the middle of the middle—the all-important midterm assignment that will set the tone for the remainder of the class.

We'll cover the midterm assignment tomorrow, and then wrap up this series of posts.
***  ***
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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (g)

[a] Middles RF
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Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series).
Pacing 1          Pacing 2  

The first third of any long-term task (from studying The New Yorker to running a marathon) is all-important. That is probably pretty well established by now. If you read yesterday's post, it would not be surprising if you assumed that the "next third" of the race...or academic term...would be exactly the same distance as the first third, and would pretty much take care of itself. 


[b] Middling RF
This assumption is mistaken in just about every sense except the literal one. In a mid-1970s Minnesota high school cross-country race (three miles), the first third is just about exactly a mile long. The second "third" is, more-or-less, a mile-and-a-half. The last mile is about a half-mile.

Huh? What sense does that make?

Lots, unless you are beholden to narrow ideas about symmetry and proportion. Symmetry, shmymtery. Life is never, ever symmetrical. Please. Let's try again and re-set our discussion. The only thing that is symmetrical is the beginning, and we've already seen how difficult that can be.

This reminds me of my favorite story about the 1960s. I wish I remember who said it, because I then could give credit to one of the best insights into history and chronology ever made. It speaks directly to the non-proportional nature of life. The saying goes something like this (and I use quotation marks for effect rather than accuracy here): 

"Everyone knows that the 1960s lasted from 1967 until 1974."

Whoa! This is like imaginative historiography in China, when various historians would speak of the five-hundred years between sage kings (with any kind of dating ranging from 250 to 750 years...or so). Almost any literalist would say that the 1960s lasted from January 1, 1960 until December 31, 1969 (or, for a particular kind of calendrical purist, January 1, 1961 until December 31, 1970).

[c] Tired RF
Literal definitions don't amount to much for people who care about life's various and nuanced pacings. This is what is behind the "1960s" comment. The world of the Bay of Pigs is not anything like that of the Tet Offensive. What our commentator was saying, in essence, is that the way we now talk about the 1960s...starts at some point in 1967. Huge torrents of meaning rush from the broken dam of that idea. 

It says, more or less, that real life is not proportional, and I will be the first to say that this is what college courses are like. 

Not proportional. 

We have things called "midterm" exams or papers, and they may occur almost exactly at the halfway point. The reality (and we all know it) is that semesters are weighted one way or another. I would go so far as to say that it is not quite 1/3....2/3, and something more like 60-40 (or 40-60). In other words, courses are either forty percent "done" when the midterm "solstice occurs"...or sixty percent. They are either top heavy or bottom heavy. They rarely balance well on the ol' teeter-totter of life.

Could I put this differently? Maybe. Let's try this: we etch the future of our coursework in the "middle third" of every term. It is all-important, and by the time we hit the homestretch, much of the pattern will be etched onto the big grade sheet in the sky. The only real difference is how much of the term is left when "seventy percent" of it is over.

Huh? No, really this time. Huh?

Isn't seventy percent of the term over when, well...seventy percent of it is...over? This would be approximately Week Eleven, according to the mathematics of the academic calendar. The key to understanding this lies not in "doing the math," but rather in getting the most out of the "middle third" of the term. No matter where you thought this post was going, this is it.

We all need to pay attention to the middle...of everything. 

To use the cross-country team analogy I spoke of yesterday, the second mile is the key to everything. You need to run as hard as you can in the middle, because you will push your full potential (and, although this is not your main focus) most others will lag, squander, play video games, and lollygag. This is as true of academia as it is of the rolling green hills of autumnal cross-country races.

There is a "soft" point here (a flexible and interpretive one), as well as a hard and final point. Put simply, the "middle" can last anywhere from Mile One until Mile Two (this is actually quite rare) to Mile One until Mile...Almost Three. What we are getting at here, in other words, is that there is a big difference between the middle-game and the end-game. In chess, this is plays out differently in every game. The opening is almost always about one-third of the process. The middle and the "end" can vary enormously. 

[d] Thirds RF
Here is the point. Go hard in the middle, and don't cut the middle short. 

Extend it, and leave almost nothing until the end...because you will manage it, through force of pride and focus, right to the finish. This is what Mr. Metzke taught me during my high school cross-country workouts. Push hard in the middle, because almost everyone—this is sort of a human-nature thing—eases up a little bit between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

Don't be almost everyone.

As Mr. Metzke told it, we needed to fight human nature, and to feel that our effort was much harder in the second mile of a three mile race than during that nice, evenly-paced (if it goes well) first mile. He stressed that we would find a way to make the last mile "work," and we learned how awful that could be in our "5 x 1 mile @ 5:15*" interval workouts. As I mentioned yesterday, miles four and five of those workouts taught me a powerful lesson about finishing with as much integrity (I use this word in several meanings of the term here) as possible, even if it meant throwing up in the bushes just past the finish line. The only way to make the whole effort possible, though, was to push the middle. As I have indicated, this was often not very pretty.
*Five iterations of one mile at a 5:15 per mile pace, with some rest in-between.

Let's concentrate on that for a moment. The middle. Puking in the bushes is not exactly a palatable talking point, even though it does speak to pushing one's limits in ways that hug the borderline between constructive and destructive. I urge everyone to err on the side of constructive (please hear me), but not to go "too easy." 

So, if you think hard about it, the middle is the key to everything in the world...sort of. In the most obvious sense (from chess to academics and on to distance running and politics), the middle makes all of the difference. Just ask John Kerry about that. The way Mr. Metzke taught it, we needed to run the same pace as the first mile, but it would hurt much, much more. We didn't fully understand this at first, but those "5 x 1 mile" interval workouts taught us everything we could possibly wish to know about pain in the middle and torture at the end. Thankfully, academic work is not quite so horrible, but the effort levels are almost exact equivalents...and your room will be quite a mess by the end of the semester.

[e] Middle RF
Here is how I would put it (and this example parallels everything from baseball "middle relief" to the international figure-skating short program. You see, you can't win a competition in the middle. There is no way—with the exception of blowouts so monumental that they are well-nigh inconceivable—to win a competition in the middle. Indeed, the only places in which this is even remotely possible are sports such as football and "soccer," as well as some local elections. For the most part, though, the middle is the difference between being in a position to win (or lose). I would go so far as to say that (given an nice, evenly-paced opening and the assumption of a gruesome, exhausting finish), the middle bears the difference between victory and defeat. Compete hard in the middle, and you will be in good shape for the rush to the end. 

Where doesn't this work? Trick question. It works everywhere.

Let's review. A good middle cannot be effective without a very solid beginning. This often requires holding back (in chess or marathoning, for example) and positioning oneself for a hard push at the right moment. The "middle" will hurt (in various ways) far more than the first part. This is the result, if done well, of both increased effort and demonstrable effectiveness. When I ran the Faribault Invitational back in the storied past of Minnesota prep harrier competition, I sought to pass the mile marker in about 5:15 (5:12 would do), and then pretty much exhaust my resources during the next mile and a half.

In other words, the "second third" was just about forty-five percent of the distance, and left me with at least a perception of >10% of my reserves for the push to the finish

Huh? (we're getting a lot of that today, aren't we?). That doesn't sound very proportional does it?

[f] Swim-bike-run Middle RF
No, it's not, and that is the whole point. The "middle" pretty much uses up all of your resources, and it lasts well past the point that more literal-minded observers would call "two-thirds." No, the "middle" hurts all of the way to the point where you gear up for a final push to the end. It hurts "bad," and it often isn't very pretty. In the context of academics, it means keeping the pace from Week Five until (in the context of fall term) Thanksgiving Break. Then it requires (with a merciful stretch of relaxation that other exertions do not provide) a push to the end that makes the difference between good and great

None of it is possible without a tremendous middle...which is not possible without a well-paced and disciplined beginning. Is this beginning to make sense? I hope so. It is all of a piece, but it won't work unless you think about it in segments. Let's review, and we'll finish this little interlude tomorrow. 

          [1] Begin with serious effort, but hold back, so as not to exhaust your potential. 
          [2] Push hard (it will feel more difficult than the stopwatch "says") in the middle.
          [3] Extend the "middle" as long as you possibly can...
          [4] ...and then start your finishing kick not too far from the finish line.

Tomorrow, we'll discuss just what this strange "middle" really means in the context of academic work, and wrap up (for now) this series of "Course Description" posts. We'll save the exhausting finish for a later date, but I hope that I have made clear that the key to doing well lies in pacing the first third, exerting the "middle," and pretending that the "middle" is about half again as long as it should be. 

Make sense? Good. Let's take a (Thanksgiving) break, of sorts, and return to the end of the middle...tomorrow. 

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Click here for other sections of "The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions."
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j            
Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series).
Pacing 1          Pacing 2     

Monday, August 27, 2012

The New Yorker and the World—Course Description (f)

[a] World RF
Click here for other sections of "The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions."
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j            
Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series). 
Pacing 1          Pacing 2
We are moving right along with this series of "course description" posts. They are meant to take students, parents, and anyone else interested in The New Yorker, right up to—and a little beyond—the midterm project. We'll then take a break, go on to other things for a while, and return to discuss the second half of the term in mid-October. As you noticed yesterday, our description has entered into the gentle undulations of primary and secondary source readings. Every week we will read a month of New Yorker issues and half a book. We left things yesterday (at the end of week five), with a solid foundation for the rest of the course. During those first five weeks, we will peruse The New Yorker from February-March 1925 (the first four issues) and November 1929 (the stock market crash) to August 1936 (the Berlin Olympics), December 1941 (Pearl Harbor), and August 1945 (the atomic bombs and the end of World War II). 

[b] Heavy RF
Heavy stuff, with literary flair. Danger: Intellectually Combustible.

As we approach the middle third of the course, I want to review a bit. In the process, I wish to tell a couple of stories, reminding myself (and you) that they have a broader point. You see, I am struck by an analogy that my high school cross country coach used back in the olden days, in medieval Minnesota (mid-1970s). At that time, high school cross country races were three miles long—not the 5 kilometers that many states have adopted since then (3.1 miles), nor the 2.2 miles that my heroes at James Madison Memorial High School raced when I was just a little tyke, brought to the races by my mother, their teacher. 

Three miles. 

As my coach told it, there are three "thirds," in the race, and we would be foolish to ignore what I would now call the structural implications of each of those thirds. Every mile was different, and we ignored the consequences at our (and our team's) peril. Do it right, he said, and he followed up with workouts meant to reinforce his point. I came to see that he was right, and have been struck by how versatile this little three-part model can be. I have even come to adopt it in my teaching, as we shall see.

Mr. Metzke told us that the first mile would take care of itself, and warned that the only way we could mess it up would be by going out way too fast. He cautioned us repeatedly about letting adrenaline take over our good judgment, and our "interval" workouts were geared toward making our first mile crisp, well-planned, and even a little cautious.

How about a quick example?

O.k. I was neither the best nor worst runner on the team, but tended to do fairly well in practices and competitions. One of the better times I can remember was 15:45 in the Faribault Invitational. I placed tenth out of 150 runners, and even got a little trophy. I had been running in the low-sixteens up until that point, so my coach told me to try to run the first mile in 5:15—my goal pace. 

[c] Division RF
If you can do a little quick division, you will see that the plan worked pretty well. It pushed me to run just a little faster than my best time, but was cautious enough not to waste all of my energy in a futile attempt to smash my personal record by a minute or so. For a week, I worked on running miles in 5:15. This was easy at first, as I completed a series of horribly painful workouts such as 5 x 1mile @ 5:15.* After finishing the first "interval," I got to jog around for a few minutes and "recover." The second hurt a little more, and, by the time I was done with five, I was nowhere close to 5:15. I just managed to finish as best I could (this is also an important lesson). I was spent.
*Five iterations of one mile at a 5:15 per mile pace, with some rest between.

On race day, I was just a little overly eager, but managed to keep myself under control as I passed the mile marker in 5:12. Solid. Fine planning. I felt good. The first part of Mr. Metzke's strategy was a success, and I was well-positioned for the rest of the race (something that would not have happened if I had run, say, 4:45 or 5:45). Things were under control, in other words, and I was in a position for good stuff to happen from there on.

Academic courses are much like this. We make a mistake, I would argue, when we think of "first half" and "second half." It is much, much better to think of thirds, and I will show you what I mean as we proceed.

[d] Like life RF
What happens if we "go out too fast" in the first third? Well, we have all done it in all sorts of different spheres of our lives. Have you ever, when deeply smitten, said things that you wish you would have modulated, paced, and "evened-out" for the long haul? Yup, I thought so. This is a good reason to hold back just a little bit during that first weekend...or twelve...of college socializing. It's a long haul (four years, usually), and the "race" as a whole benefits not at all by building a big lead in the very early going (it is not like baseball, football, hockey, or "soccer" that way). Distance running is like life...and school. 

Just to show how badly it can go, I would like to tell you about my first attempt at a marathon. I was only a ninth-grader, but I convinced my grandparents in Finley, North Dakota that I could run the Grand Forks Marathon. I am embarrassed even to tell of the year, but Gerald Ford was president. I arose at 4:00 a.m., had a big breakfast of oatmeal (carbohydrate loading was just beginning to take root). I then settled into the backseat of the impossibly spacious Chevy Impala while grandpa and grandma drove sixty miles to the race location. I got my complimentary t-shirt, tightened the laces of my running shoes, and said hello to my marathoning peers. They all had a long race (or twenty) under their string-ties, and were full of questions for their young adversary. I told them that I had run mile and two-mile races for the Northfield, Minnesota track team, had lettered in cross-country and track already (a bit too much pride in my voice), and was eager to try something longer. They asked me my times, and I was confident that I had shown that I could toe the line with the old guys.

But then the race started.

[e] Medieval Cross Country RF
I don't know if it was the oatmeal, the amour-propre, or my ingrained mile-run habits from the track season, but I shot off like a...slowish rabbit. One fellow, as I moved past him, cautioned me against doing anything rash. It was a long race, he said. I nodded, but kept on going, moving to the front of the pack, where I led the Grand Forks Marathon for the first three miles. This was fun, and I imagined crossing the finish line in Olympian triumph, just like my hero, Frank Shorter.

A funny thing happened at right about three and a half miles, though. I started to feel the way I did in Mr. Metzke's workouts when we got to the fourth and fifth intervals. I knew this was not good, and started to realize that I had the better part of twenty-three miles to go. I slowed. People passed me. My cautionary companion patted me on the back as he glided by, shaking his head in silent admonition. I knew I was in trouble. My mile times went from the 5:30 range to 6:30, 7:30, and eventually almost ten minutes. I slowed to the point of almost walking, and found myself, by mile eleven, in last place. I struggled on for five more miles, but the broom wagon picked me up and brought me back to my grandparents and a carbohydrate-restorative spaghetti dinner. 

My confidence took longer to restore.

What does all of this mean for academics? Pace yourselves, people. Pace yourselves. You need to work hard, but it is a long slog. Many societies have stories about such matters. Reread them. Getting the "first third" right is the key to everything.

This is a long way (something to which Round and Square readers have grown accustomed) of making a basic, but absolutely key, point. Not too fast and not too slow. Lay the foundations for all that will come. In the context of our course, this means spending a solid eight hours outside of class reading, thinking, writing, and pondering—every week. It means coming to all classes. It does not mean reading five extra books or making three pages of notes for the first five pages of an article.
***  ***
[f] Marathon RF
Tomorrow and the next day we will discuss the "second mile"—the middle third of our "race." Yup, you guessed it. The middle is even more important than the beginning (and sometimes even the end, but with an asterisk). The problem is that the middle can't go well if the start is too slow or too fast. My North Dakota marathon debacle should show that, and college courses often work almost the same way. I have designed the syllabus to pace students through the first five weeks in a way that will position them for real momentum in the middle, and an exhausting, though satisfying, kick to the finish. In terms of The New Yorker and the World, it works like this: get to know the "historical" magazine issues well—really well. Read the "background" books thoroughly, but don't spend all of your effort seeking to grasp every last item (much of this will come on its own in time, as long as the pace is just right). Do the writing assignments, and learn to "pace" those in a way that gets them done in ninety minutes or two hours. 

If you do that, you'll pass the mile marker in 5:12 (or so), and be ready to do all right in the Faribault Invitational (or The New Yorker and the World).
***  ***
Click here for other sections of "The New Yorker and the World—Course Descriptions."
Description a          Description b          Description c        Description d          Description e           
Description f           Description g          Description h        Description i           Description j            
Click here for the two-part "embedded essay" on pacing our academic lives (posts "f" and "g" in this series).
Pacing 1          Pacing 2
[g] Pace RF