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|
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.
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|
Yes...I've got it. Future. Moving forward.
The midterm assignment...it'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|
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).
 We look back at what has come before.
 We move forward in a new direction.
 We specifically "channel" the energy from "back" toward "forward."
 "Back" propels us toward "forward."
 It is all part of a flowing, powerful, synchronicity.
|[e] Bird-set RF|
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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