Category Archives: Teaching


Equal Rights vs. Religious Principles

Operating in a pluralistic society, America’s institutions of liberal learning have always faced a fundamental choice: to create cloistered sanctuaries from social difference, or to embrace difference as central to our teaching missions.

That choice may seem especially fraught for religiously based colleges, balanced between the demands of civil law and their desire to adhere to the principles of their religious faith. The choice played out most recently this week in the decision by the federal …

How to Reach the Underserved Third

The U.S. Department of Education recently forced Corinthian Colleges into a government-monitored wind-down of its operations and sale of viable campuses. The sale will include Heald College, the 150-year-old institution that we led for just under one year.

Unaddressed by the department action and overlooked in subsequent commentary are two fundamental and related points. First, as a society, we fail to prepare approximately one-third of our citizens—the “underserved third”—for either col…


Why We Need an Open Curriculum

A few weeks ago, a student came to say goodbye. She brought along a younger friend, recently offered admission to my university, who was trying to decide whether to come to Brown or go to Duke. Given all that Duke could offer, the friend wondered, “Why come to Brown?”

We didn’t talk much about majors, or alumni networks, or the social atmospherics of the campus. Instead, we talked about curricula.

Duke’s general-education requirement “encourages breadth and depth, and balances structure with…


All Knowledge Starts Somewhere in Faith

It is bracing to have my institution—Wheaton College—held up in the pages of The Chronicle as the embodiment of “The Great Accreditation Farce,” the headline on Peter Conn’s essay. Conn suggests that Wheaton and other religious colleges are “intellectually compromised institutions” that betray the intellectual standards that should mark accredited institutions of higher education. Colleges like ours, he argues, “systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education,”…


Cursive Is an Endangered Species

hotchkiss photo

(Photo courtesy of the author)

Over the past decade or so, something big has been happening in public schools throughout the United States: Instruction in cursive writing has all but disappeared, cut from curricula as schools bring more technology (and keyboarding) into the classroom. The new Common Core Standards for education omit training in cursive handwriting altogether. Even in the few schools where cursive is still taught, the subject is often covered in one year and writing in cursive is…


In Praise of Dispraise

Each year I attend 30 or more literary readings sponsored either by the colleges where I teach or by bookstores and community organizations. Their quality varies both in performance (writers are not necessarily good readers of their work) and in the writing itself. Sometimes I feel “like some watcher of the skies/when a new planet swims into his ken.” Other times, I am held hostage.

At one literary-nonfiction reading this year, when the writer (who is white) reached an insight she thought brilli…


Students Are Horrible in Every Way

Students these days. Take it from me, I teach college. They barely read. Can’t write a coherent sentence. They have no attention span. Or respect for authority. Or for knowledge. All they do is eat, cheat, sleep, sleep around, sleep through class—texting and sexting the whole while. They are worse than all previous generations of students. Basically horrible in every way.

At least that’s how some tell it. The sentiment appears ancient, but thanks to the Internet, these stories now circulate on a…


Yes, the Humanities Are Struggling, but They Will Endure

Listen to the dire talk around colleges and universities, read op-eds and magazines, and you might think the humanities were in greater danger than the earth’s climate. In fact, despite the overheated rhetoric, the humanities are not at death’s door. Contemporary pressures will more likely push them into a new shape, even ultimately a healthier one.

That claim might seem bizarre. The proportion of college students majoring in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Students have turned their…


What to Read? Don’t Ask, I Won’t Tell

The call comes almost every commencement season.

“Homework Assignment for English Department Faculty,” one missive began. “Graduating seniors have requested a reading list based on faculty suggestions. Many professors have offered reading suggestions privately or as asides … but students want a compiled list of the best reading.”

Almost every year I don’t do my homework, and submit instead a paragraph-long excuse, which is duly printed with everyone else’s recommendations. Last year I quoted…


In Defense of Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings are in the news. College students—mostly young women—are requesting pre-emptive warnings about material that might upset them, that might, in some cases, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s no surprise, then, that the backlash has begun. Writers and commenters—the majority appear to be male—are decrying this latest surrender to political correctness. Many assume that the call for trigger warnings must be a parody, so ridiculous is the premise that st…