Saturday, October 24, 2009


When people meet me for the first time, it is usually not the Aristotelian sophistication of my intellect, but, rather, the nearly Herculean perfection of my physique that positively arrests their attention. "How can I be more like you?" they ask, before adding, inevitably with a tone of remorsefulness, something along the lines of, "but I dream…"

I kid, I kid. I am, in fact, balding, gap-toothed, approximately porpoise shaped, and with each passing year new hairs begin to sprout from alarming places where hairs have no business being. This does not, unfortunately, include the top of my head. I am the apotheosis of every fitness magazine's "before" picture.

Having said all this, you are reading, comrades, not just the musings of a PhD, but a scholar whose arsenal of accreditations includes the necessary classroom work to be a certified personal fitness trainer. It's true. It is something I did back when I was young and fit, before the crushing gravitational pull of academe shortened and broadened my physique. And, as The Simpson's once said of becoming a police officer, you don't get to be a personal trainer overnight: it takes a solid weekend of training.

At any rate, my interest in matters concerning personal fitness remains, tucked away like a half-finished novel, awaiting better and fitter days. (On the issue of half-finished novels, incidentally: old friends can confirm that, age 17, I actually wrote a novel about a high school girl who falls in love with a classmate who turns about to be a vampire. I kid you not. But I thought the idea was stupid and clichéd and never pursued it after the 11th grade. Well, it was stupid and clichéd. But it turns out that stupid and clichéd can make you a billionaire.)

Okay: the point. Personal trainers will argue interminably about optimal exercise protocols for their clients: should they do cardio first, and then weights? Or weights first, and then cardio? Or is cardio even necessary, if weight training elevates the heart rate sufficiently and for long enough? And when they do weights, should it be with free weights or machines? What is correct number of sets and reps and at what speed should be they performed? The journals of exercise physiology and fitness magazines are full of articles on these issues. But these discussions often ignore the fact that for most people, the real problem isn't deciding on an optimal exercise program, it's that they aren't exercising at all, and that almost any safe exercise program would do them a world of good. Shiny new programs that purport to make exercise fun can attract people for a certain amount of time, but gyms make a killing off of members who pay their monthly dues and never go. What sedentary people need, is to be persuaded that to be physically active is a vital part of living well.

The relationship to pedagogical debates over optimal teaching methods couldn't be clearer. Open any teaching journal and you'll find articles contrasting this method of teaching to that, and in the past ten or fifteen years most of the discussion has been about how technology should be deployed in the classrooms. But these debates fast reach a point of diminishing or inconsequential returns, when the real issue is that a significant percentage of students are the equivalent of sedentary North Americans who have gym memberships but don't really use them. What they need is any good method of education to inspire them to get learning.

I don't deny that the question of how one teaches happens to be important as far as any given class goes, but the student engagement one achieves through technological wizardry and over-the-top pedagogical theatrics probably lasts no longer than the class itself, and may actually discourage learning in the absence of such wizardry and theatrics. (This is of special significance at a time when the evidence is conclusive that students simply aren't reading as many books as they used to.) The goal of any professor worthy of the name is to produce students who can go on learning after their formal education has ended. For those purposes the question of how to teach is far less import than the question of why we teach and why students should want to learn. The answer, of course, is because a good education, which is one that leaves us with a love for learning and method for doing it, can be a vital part of what it means to live flourishingly. But when our own pedagogical discussions center on such matters as how Twitter can make learning fun, or what the correct number of PowerPoint slides should be, it brings to mind the parable of the Zen master, pointing towards the moon, who looks down to discover that his students are staring at his finger.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I like to claim that I live without bigotry, but in fact I harbour a secret prejudice. I loathe opinion columnists, those hacks who get paid to spew at the mouth two or three times a month on issues about which they have no expertise. As a professor of history, I consider it my very great responsibility to get my facts straight before lecturing to my thirty or so students every week, but there are opinion columnists who make a living by pontificating to tens of thousands without, as near as I can tell, giving a moment’s consideration to what they’re saying. Indeed, there are certain well-known columnists who I read with great devotion - not because I like them, but because it has the same appeal as a horrific and bloody roadside car wreck: can’t look at it, can’t look away. They are everything good scholars should not be: certain, smug, self-righteous and, worst of all, consciously contrarian — making arguments that they know to be false because it amuses them to do so.

Looking back over this blog’s fifty columns, I have begun to see that coming off as certain, smug, and self-righteous probably is an inevitable consequence of regularly writing about one’s views. I admit that, in person, I can exhibit these traits, too, but I’ve been making a concerted effort to do better (it would help if others would at least try to act smarter than they are). Here, on this blog, however, matters are different: when sharing one’s opinions without rebuttal it’s hard to avoid coming off as very sure of oneself. And the very curious thing is this: I am not - hence the title of the blog itself. I can, however, claim with good conscience that I have never, at least not on Measure of Doubt, argued a position that I do not believe for the sake of doing so.

At any rate, the whole thing has been immensely therapeutic, and it has lasted much longer than I had anticipated. Much to my own amazement, I have fifty posts — some 41,000 words — under my belt. As I said in one of the earliest posts, I’m doing this for my own sake, not in anticipation of anyone reading it. However, while I don’t keep tracking statistics, gradually I have discovered that people actually are reading this thing: friends, colleagues, enemies, students, and even random passers-by.

So, up for another fifty? I am if you are.


I would like to announce the creation of a second blog: Suspended Judgment, which will be devoted solely to the discussion of teaching-related issues. Already reading Measure of Doubt? Never fear - for now, at least, nothing will appear there that won’t also be here. The point is to cleave off a small part of cyberspace strictly for my professional work.