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Old Fogeyism and Genius

This article was originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, The Teaching Forum.

By Allison Pingree, Former Director

What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from . . . … the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T.S. Eliot: “Little Gidding,” 1942)

A new semester poses certain problems and certain pleasures for me as a teacher.

If I am teaching courses I have taught before, I can capitalize on past experience, repeating what seemed successful, retooling what didn’t: emphasize that lecture point, throw out that homework exercise, recraft that project, keep that in-class writing assignment. But the repetition, over time, also presents the potential difficulties of boredom and lifelessness-the dulling of my interest and engagement because it feels like I’ve seen it all before. Alternatively, if I am teaching a new course, I feel the adrenaline rush and the anxiety of navigating the unknown: what concepts will be most difficult for students to grasp? How long will it take to adequately address the issues raised in this text? How will the acoustics in this room affect class discussion?

Philosopher and psychologist William James articulated this paradox of the simultaneous usefulness and limitations of the familiar, the risks and the necessity of the new. In Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892), James writes that habit “simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue”: in order to be functional and efficient, we must take certain things for granted, just as teaching the same material enables me to reap the benefits of past experience. Yet James also warns against too much reliance on the known (or the presumed): “habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.” His term for such overdependence is “old fogeyism”:

Hardly any one of us can make new heads easily when fresh experiences come. Most of us grow more and more enslaved to the stock conceptions with which we have once become familiar, and less and less capable of assimilating impressions in any but the old ways. Old-fogeyism, in short, is the inevitable terminus to which life sweeps us on.

The price of the familiarity’s comforts, then, can be a dulling of my attention and consciousness: my students become the same interchangeable students from semester to semester, and the ideas I teach flatten into mediocrity.

James’ antidote for “old-fogeyism” is “genius”-a quality that “means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way” (195). In other words, genius allows us to keep our attention on the same object by “constantly find[ing] out something new about [it]” (94). But how is it possible to “constantly find out something new” about courses we have taught before? As my epigraph from T.S. Eliot suggests, there is something transformative about returning to a beginning and “knowing [it] for the first time.” How might we do so in our classrooms? In what ways might we “perceive unhabitually” and “make new heads” for “fresh experiences” with students? And what are the costs of pursuing this newness? In Thinking Together: Collaborative Learning in the Sciences, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur describes his search for unhabitual perceptions and a return to beginnings:

I keep being surprised by how difficult certain very fundamental concepts can be. In fact, I [have] noticed that for us teachers, some . . . very fundamental concepts are second nature. They’re so second nature that we cannot explain them very well any more. They are ‘obvious’; they are ‘clear’ without any [need for] words. Put another way, we as teachers often forget what it is like to not know-we forget the initial strangeness of ideas that we have now absorbed.

One way in which Mazur works to recapture that state of newness is to punctuate his lectures, every 15 minutes or so, with a brief conceptual problem that he posts on an overhead. Students choose an answer to the problem and then discuss their choices with a neighbor, after which they answer the problem again. According to Mazur, this strategy not only builds conceptual comprehension in his students-it also keeps him aware of what to them is still difficult. Like Mazur’s approach, the articles in this issue of Teaching Forum, the updated newsletter of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, grapple with the paradox of reinventing ourselves as teachers and learners. Faculty, TAs and students alike reflect on their approaches to connecting what is known to what is “unhabitual.”

And the Center itself is navigating a balance of sameness and difference. We reap the benefit of the solid foundation laid over twelve years by the Center’s two previous directors. We will continue to pursue the two-fold mission of the Center-to stimulate dialogue about teaching excellence and to enable teachers to access information and insight about their own teaching-by retaining much that is familiar: the Chancellor’s Lecture Series on Great Teaching, the annual orientations for TA’s and incoming faculty, the student feedback activities like Small Group Analyses.

But the Center has expanded dramatically in its ambition and scope, moving from the College of Arts and Sciences into the broad University teaching community. We have the opportunity to bring together teacher-scholars from an astonishing variety of disciplines, backgrounds and experiences-to ask questions, spark conversations, and create relationships that have not existed in the past. As we create this alchemy of new and old, we will of course experience the limitations of unknown terrain-but also the energy that comes from the fresh and unexpected.

I invite you to join us in this venture.