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.

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

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