Notes on UDL

I’m halfway through a video on universal design in learning & I wanted to share it here, along with a couple of key takeaways.

Here’s the link:

And here’s what I liked about it:

The video notes that the brain processes information in three big chunks: recognition, skills, and caring/priorities; the video suggests that learning can similarly be grouped into these three same chunks. Put another way, effective teaching about any subject answers three questions:

  • What?
  • How?
  • Why?

I really like this way of divvying up information. When I teach my own subject effectively, I do indeed answer these three questions. If I’m teaching online literacy, for instance, I might teach students what counts as a reliable website, how to tell a reliable website from an unreliable one, and why it matters that we get information from genuinely-reliable sources. There’s a big difference between teaching students the rules that make websites in general reliable, and actually expecting them to decide on their own whether a particular website is in fact reliable; they get it wrong a long at first. So it’s important that teaching answer all three of these questions, in order to help students fully master the topic.

The other thing I liked about the video is that it frames universal design in terms of diversity, instead of disability. While I think there’s value in using the language of disability, I do like the positive framing of student difference, even when that difference comes from genuine learning or physical challenges that students face, such as autism or dyslexia.



On Desiring the Kingdom

I’m reading James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of an online book club hosted by the university where I serve as adjunct instructor. I started the book today over lunch, and this quote struck me.

An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption.

kingdomSeveral observations:

One, I want to push back on Smith’s objection to education meant to produce “skilled workers”. I have a feeling Smith is objecting primarily to university degrees that emphasize career skills at the expense of the humanities, but when I think of “skilled workers,” I think of the trades and vocational school. It’s worth noting that if education is indeed material and embodied, there are few greater opportunities for being material and embodied than the trades, and as Matthew Crawford has written, the materiality of the trades may be good for the soul. Vocational training may be closer to Smith’s ideal education than he assumes.

Relatedly, I’m not sure what Smith’s concern with being a “producer” is. After all, we human beings are created in the image of God, to be creators ourselves. Surely in producing things, especially within the “skilled trades,” allows us to fulfill our created mandate? (The emphasis on finding fulfillment through consumption remains a problem, of course.)

Two, I notice that Smith sets up a contrast between education which seeks primarily to “provide information” and one that seeks to stoke a hunger for “a particular version of the good life.” I think this contrast explains both the reason that so many students are reluctant to take my courses, especially Introduction to Literature, and the importance of that course.

Students are reluctant because they see education primarily as a pathway to a career. They want to get to that career as quickly as possible, and they can’t see what possible relevance a course in literature or writing has to that career. After all, when they graduate and become an accountant or a local business owner or a second grade teacher, they’re hardly going to be called on to interpret the symbolism in T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So they CLEP out of my course, assuring me all the while that it’s not personal, they just want to focus on more “important” classes, where “important” means “informational”.

But if education is about more than information, then the importance of a literature class is clearer. Stories speak to the heart; they sharpen and shape what we hunger for. I’ve long urged my students to take my course as a kind of “applied theology,” a chance to wrestle with what they believe and think to be true in the context of fictive worlds. But perhaps a more accurate, and compelling, reason to take my course is that unlike their other courses, literature does not only tell them what is good and true; it whets their appetite for goodness and truth. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) the beauty of poetry and the tension of the stories we read are soul-shaping in a way more powerful than even students’ theology courses.

This brings me to my final observation about this quotation, that as an instructor it’s important for me to think about not only what I’m teaching but how I’m teaching it. C.S. Lewis once compared his love of writing to the love that a cook feels when pouring hot jam into clean jam jars; there is delight, he said, in seeing his ideas take shape.

I’ve been noticing lately that when my students have a hard copy of the text in front of them, they’re able to speak about it in greater detail; they make more insightful observations. This speaks, I think, to the importance of embodiment and physicality in class, and so the question remains: What am I doing, when I set up my classes, to help bring what my students’ are learning out of their heads and into the real world? This is a particularly difficult question in terms of the online course I teach, and I have no easy answers.

But it remains important that I, as a teacher, guide not only my students’ intellectual development but their development as whole persons, who both know and hunger for Wisdom.



Liturgy for the End of the Semester

After posting final grades, I leave the

Office for the local big-box bookstore.

There, I lose myself in the sanctuary of

Its wide aisles and white fluorescent lights.

I linger in the cooking aisle, its

Tall shelves stocked with books on beer, burgers, and

Bread. I thumb through a guide to Persian food,

Gorgeous glossy photos of food I will never make –

Herbed frittata with fenugreek,

Saffron rice with sour cherries,

Pomegranate chicken –

Then seek at last the comfort of comic

Books, with their squat spines and their bold colours.

I read old Calvin and Hobbes for hours.


After dark, I go home to my dim flat,

To my supper of toast and tea. I put

All my books away, turn out the lights, and

Go to bed.


Teaser Tuesday: Four Roads Cross

At my cousin’s recommendation, I’ve been reading Max Gladstone’s Four Roads Cross. It’s an excellent “urban fantasy” novel which imagines the gods as currency and faith as contract law and, despite this, manages to be a lot of fun.

Here’s a (randomly chosen) excerpt:

“Don’t treat us like children, Ms. Abernathy – not you, not Lord Kos, not the priests or the gargoyles or the Goddess Herself. If the world’s changed, the people deserve to know.”

Time’s one jewel with many facets. Tara leaned against the desk. A year ago she stood in a graveyard beneath a starry sky, and the people of her hometown approached her with pitchforks and knives and torches and murder in mind, all because she’d tried to show them the world was bigger than they thought.

Admittedly, there might have been a way to show them that didn’t involve zombies.

“People don’t like a changing world,” she said. “Change hurts.”

From the Goodreads blurb:

The great city of Alt Coulumb is in crisis. The moon goddess Seril, long thought dead, is back—and the people of Alt Coulumb aren’t happy. Protests rock the city, and Kos Everburning’s creditors attempt a hostile takeover of the fire god’s church. Tara Abernathy, the god’s in-house Craftswoman, must defend the church against the world’s fiercest necromantic firm—and against her old classmate, a rising star in the Craftwork world.

Highly recommended.

Note: Teaser Tuesday is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!


Why Intro to Lit?

The other day at the gym, I saw an ad for Reese’s new, very meta candy: Reese’s Pieces inside a Reese’s cup.

Here’s what the ad looked like:




Basically, this was my reaction:


But The Princess Bride aside, this is partly why I teach Introduction to Literature.

We teach in a world where, as Matthew Crawford notes, our attention is increasingly divided among a growing number of companies competing not only for our money but also for our brain space; they want to be remembered. They want to be noticed.

One way to do this is to be the loudest kid on the block. Such a strategy that naturally leads to such overstatements as calling a new kind of candy (and not even a new kind, but a variation on an old favourite) a “revolution.”

You know how at Yankee Candle, you can smell about seven candles before your nose is so overpowered by the scents that it stops registering anything? The same thing happens with language; the more students are exposed to overstatements like the one in the ad, the less they’re able to register nuance in language and to speak precisely. The language sense is all overpowered. Ordinary language, simple and elegant, no longer registers.

In Introduction to Literature, at the start of every semester, I tell my students I want them to appreciate literature. This is (partly ) what I mean by this: to value words well-used and simply spoken, to attune themselves to the subtle differences, both emotional and intellectual, in word choice.

My hope is that the exercises we do, all the analyzing of imagery and tone and symbolism, helps accomplish this. Whether they do depends on the students of course, and more on my teaching.

But this is the goal: to keep students from swallowing candy ads trying to pass themselves off as a “revolution,” and to use words well. 

My Syllabus

Hands down, my favourite course to teach is Introduction to Literature. While I enjoy teaching Composition, I love teaching literature. There’s more reading and less grading; it’s a win-win.

Every semester, I add a few new stories and poems that have caught my interest, and I keep on a few that I think are important.

Here’s some of the new ones I’m most excited about teaching, mostly scheduled during March and April:

  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC”
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (scheduled immediately before Spring Break. That’ll be fun.)
  • Arthur Clarke’s “The Star”
  • Czeslaw Milosz’s “Song at the End of the World”

And . . . drum roll please . . . I’m finally teaching a movie! I’ve wanted to do this for years. This year, it will be Arrival. It’s a good story, recently released, and probably new to the majority of my students.

A few favourites I’m keeping on:

  • Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”
  • Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. I’ve been listening to Hardcore History’s podcasts on the Persian empire, so my keeping of “Ozymandias” is partly inspired by that.
  • Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Interestingly, many of the texts I keep on not because they’re favourites of mine but because they’re favourites of the students, and/or they do an excellent job teaching what I want them to. Mary Oliver’s “The Swan,” for instance, is great at teaching imagery, and the students last year loved it, while Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” is a fantastic little play that can be read in class to give students more time to work on their first projects.

And, through a last-minute adjustment to my schedule, John Milton’s essay, “Areopagitica,” abridged by yours truly for non-majors. A previous student of mine recently reached out to me, looking for the title of the essay; it turns out that she was going through an experience which made the essay personally relevant. I love the essay but had wondered whether it was in fact relevant to students; the fact that she found it so made me add it back on.

And yes, they’ll be asked to memorize a passage for the test, the same passage I memorized when I took a course in Milton during senior year of college.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees its adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. 

Beautiful. Thanks, Dr. S.

Now, if I could only decide what novel to teach!


Teaser Tuesday

headWelp, I’m not reading a story anymore. If last week’s book were a chocolate cake, this week’s would be a bowl of lentil soup: yummy, but also nourishing, and slower to digest.

This week I’m reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and though it’s philosophy, not fiction, it’s very good. Crawford has a lot to say about how we understand ourselves, particularly in our relationship to the world and the larger society. His work challenges assumptions that we Western our destiny and  that we Westerners hold dear, but which may in fact be neither correct nor helpful. One such assumption is such as the fact that we are free to choose our destiny, and that this act of choosing constitutes our will and the most essential part our being.

His work is cohesive and as readable, at least as much as any book of philosophy is!

Here’s a sample:

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better and worse) on individual lives. This created a vacuum of cultural authority that has been filled, opportunistically, with attentional landscapes that get installed by whatever “choice architect” brings the most energy to the task – usually because it sees the profit potential.

The combined effect of these liberating and deregulating efforts of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation. Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we are now very fat, very much in debt, and very prone to divorce.

The effects of this have not been evenly distributed. To gain admission to the svelte, solvent middle class, and stay there, now requires extraordinary self-discipline. Such discipline is generally inculcated in families. Two self-disciplined people meet in graduate school, make, and pass their disciplined ways on to their children. But we also make use of external props that are available to those with means: jigs for hire.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self.

Crawford investigates the intense focus of ice hockey players and short-order chefs, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep, slow craft of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology, and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the coming to fruition of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

The World Beyond Your Head makes sense of an astonishing array of common experience, from the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster. With implications for the way we raise our children, the design of public spaces, and democracy itself, this is a book of urgent relevance to contemporary life.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!


A Poem for Sunday

I stumbled across this on the web the other day & wanted to share it, as a meditation for Sunday:

by Czeslaw Milosz

A valley and above it forests in autumn colors.
A voyager arrives, a map leads him there.
Or perhaps memory. Once long ago in the sun,
When snow first fell, riding this way
He felt joy, strong, without reason,
Joy of the eyes. Everything was the rhythm
Of shifting trees, of a bird in flight,
Of a train on the viaduct, a feast in motion.
He returns years later, has no demands.
He wants only one, most precious thing:
To see, purely and simply, without name,
Without expectations, fears, or hopes,
At the edge where there is no I or not-I.


Prayers for our Country

Today we elect a new president. Whoever wins, this is my prayer for us today. From the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the
world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among
them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they
may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And this:

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior,
the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the
great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body
and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all
of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth
and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and
one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I am honestly afraid for what the next few months may bring, regardless of who wins tonight. But I pray that God may be gracious to us, that He may make us kind and compassionate to each other, and that we may be spared the things we deserve.


Prayers for Our Country

I have been deeply troubled by the anger and violence in the lead up to the discussion. Today, I pray that we will minister peace, not foment ill will. I pray that we will be like Christ in our interactions with each other.

I share this prayer from St. Francis to guide our thoughts:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And I also share a complementary passage from 2 Corinthians 5, which I was reading this morning.

God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[c] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

May God send us all peace in this turbulent time.