Thursday, August 25, 2016

How Twitter Helps Me Learn And Teach

A colleague asked me recently how I use social media to reach out to current undergraduates. It seemed fitting to answer such a question online.

Social media thrive on brevity, so I’ll keep this brief, invite my colleagues (and others) to comment below, and let this social medium be a forum for this topic.

The short answer to my colleague’s question is that I use my social media accounts for two main purposes:
1) to learn about new work in fields that interest me; and
2) to post things that I think might help others learn something new.
Here’s an even shorter answer: as a teacher and researcher, I want to live in a way that’s worth imitating. I’m sure I don’t always get it right, but I aim to make my social media accounts an illustration of how I’m trying to do that; I’m trying to live imitably.

There are a lot of social media, and my kids and my students use the social media differently from how I use them. This is not surprising, since we have different aims, and most of mine are professional: to learn from others, and to teach.

It might be easier to show than to tell, so here are links to three of my social media pages, all of which are public. I’ll post the links with some brief comments; have a look at them if you’re interested, and then comment below if you have questions. (Or feel free to reach me on those accounts.)

1) Twitter 
I like Twitter because it forces me to be terse. Click the link and you can see what I post. If you create a Twitter account you can also see who I follow. There are several thousand people in academic philosophy on Twitter, and many others who study things I enjoy learning about, like sharks, and stars, and jaguars. Those I follow tend to post things that help me to learn more about what’s going on in my field. My hope is that students who follow me on Twitter will see something imitable in my curiosity and in my interactions with others.

2) Instagram 
I teach Environmental Humanities - topics like environmental philosophy, ethics, ecology, nature writing, environmental law and policy. I think experience is a big part of learning, and my Instagram account has become a sampling of my wonder and delight in nature (mostly invertebrates, lately.) I hope students who come across it will find my curiosity contagious. I love capturing light.

3) LinkedIn 
One of the great things about LinkedIn is seeing who is hiring. I don’t “connect” with people if we don’t already have another kind of connection, but I do connect with alumni of my school. When I see a job ad or professional advice that looks helpful for my students and alums, I re-post those things for their benefit.

I use social media in part because younger people do, and I like learning new things from a new generation. I also use these media in order to show students what I do.

So what do you think?  What questions do you have?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Pretty Good Year

Last year was a pretty good year.  Or at least, what I remember of it was pretty good.

As my regular readers know, I'm a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach a wide range of classes. (You can click on the "Teaching" link above to see a sampling of the courses I teach.)

Often people assume that means I wear tweed and a bowtie and that I spend my time in classrooms talking about old books.  All that is true, but it's only a part of what I do. 

In fact, most of my favorite classrooms are outdoors, where I'm likely to be found wearing jeans and hiking boots, a parka, or a wetsuit and snorkel.

Over the last dozen years or so my teaching and research have tended towards the environmental humanities.  Think of this as the merging of the humanities side of the liberal arts with a close observation of the natural world. I consider my work to be a continuation of the work that Thales and Aristotle did when they paid close attention to animals on the ground and to the skies above, and of the work of Peirce, Thoreau, and Bugbee, all of whom let a rising trout or a solar eclipse provoke philosophical reflection.

While I don't work in an indoor laboratory, I think that education is not about the imparting of information or the filling of an empty vessel with ideas.  Education is the kindling of a fire, as Plutarch wrote.  And that fire is kindled by the kinds of experiences that we get in labs, art studios, shared meals, liturgies, study travel, and seminars.  Lecture halls are a fine place to discuss environmental policy, to be sure.  But so is a prairie, especially when you're waiting for water to boil on your camp stove, and watching the sun's beams break over the horizon and melt a light frost on your tent.

When I'm at home, I like to take my classes outside to sit under trees on campus. In the fall, I try to bring my Ancient Philosophy students camping in the Badlands of South Dakota where we can view the stars far from urban glow.  Most Januaries, my students and I are in the subtropical forests of Guatemala and on a barrier island in Belize, studying ecology and culture.  I rarely take a spring break, since I usually take that week to teach a course in Greece.  Last summer I started teaching a class on trout and salmon in Alaska. 

Those are all beautiful, memorable places, but I don't visit them as a tourist.  I go to these places because I want my students to understand what is at stake when we talk about environmental regulations and practices.  I want them to meet displaced people whose permafrost islands are melting or whose forests are being burned down for meager cropland.  I want them to see the disappearing mangroves so that they can consider the full cost of seafood.  When they stay in homes in Guatemala, my students will meet people who can never again be a mere abstraction; after we return, my students will know that the people struggling to cross borders are not nameless, faceless strangers, but people who are looking for ways to feed those they love.

A little less than a year ago I was finishing up a year that had brought me to all these places.  I taught in the South Dakota Badlands, in Central America, in Greece, and in Alaska. Along the way, I had begun studying environmental law at Vermont Law School as a way of enhancing my teaching and my research.  It was a good year, and as August was winding down, my desk was covered with field notebooks full of observations from Alaska and Guatemala, ready to be written up.  My field notes are usually accompanied by thousands of photographs, and hundreds of sketches.  I began the fall semester last year ready to teach, and ready to write.

Field Notes, Copyright David L. O'Hara 2016
Field notes. A picture of some of the work I do when I'm inside, and not teaching; or, if you like, a picture of my desk as I recover from my injuries. I have a lot of catching up to do.

And then I wound up in the hospital with some serious injuries.  Those injuries put a sudden stop to all my teaching last fall, and for a long time I lost most of my ability to write.  (I'll try to write more about the injuries and my subsequent disabilities later; it's not an easy thing to write about yet.)

Now, as this summer hastens towards the beginning of another school year, I am able to look back on last year with a sense of good fortune - albeit mixed with one very bad day and its long-term consequences.  Physically, I'm regaining my flexibility and strength, a little at a time. I'm not where I was a year ago, and I may never be there again, but I'm alive and able to walk, so I'll count that in the "win" column of my life's scorecard.  Intellectually, most people seem to think I'm doing fine, so I'll also count that as a win.  Although it left me exhausted each day, I was able to teach again this spring, and I plan to be back in my classrooms (Deo volente!) this fall.

But here are these field notebooks, and hundreds of unedited pages on my hard drive.  It was my habit to write daily.  Over the last year, recovering from a brain injury has made it hard to write more than a few sentences at a time.

This morning I was looking at some of my pictures from my research in the Arctic last summer, and I was hit with a feeling of loss. Those photos and those notes should be a book by now, and perhaps several articles and book chapters, too.  Instead, over the last year, as I have waited for my body and brain to heal, and as I struggled to do my teaching, I had no strength to write.

It feels funny to say that, but perhaps I am not alone in finding that a brain injury can be slow to heal and extremely tiring. I don't say that to get your sympathy.  I am blessed with a very supportive community and an amazing wife who somehow has kept our life together and nursed me through my healing process.  I'm fortunate.  But if you've read this far, you might consider whether there are others around you who look like they're doing well physically but who might be nursing invisible wounds or who might be struggling to cope with invisible disabilities.  This past year has given me a new perspective on that by making me aware of my own disabilities, most of which you won't notice if you see me at the gym or in one of my classrooms.

I might not be able to write another book yet, so for now, here's my plan: I'll write a little at a time.  Thankfully, I've got my notes, sketches, and photos.  I'll start with them.

If you're curious about how a professor of philosophy and classics does research and writing about nature - and how he works to recover from a serious brain injury - you might check out some of my recent publications.  My book Downstream is the result of eight years of field research on the ecology of the Appalachians, with a focus on brook trout.  On this blog you'll also find my recently published poem, "Sage Creek," which might give you a glimpse of my ancient philosophy class camping and stargazing in the Badlands. Or feel free to look at my photos on Instagram. Even when I can't teach in the field, I can still wander my garden with a hand lens and camera.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Poem - "Sage Creek"

One of my poems was published in the latest issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics.  It's a beautiful journal.  I hope you'll consider buying a copy, or better still, subscribing.

Here are the first few lines:
Halfway through the fall we drive west, far from urban glow,
To see the stars that we have never seen at home.

We go to the Badlands, at night, to the primitive campground
And listen to the coyotes singing from rim to rim
Of the valley where we are trying to sleep.
The voices of three packs rise like questions:
Who are you? What are you doing here?
You can read it all here.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Good Education Should Lead To Good Questions

"If we treat the contemplation of the best life as a luxury we cannot afford, seemingly urgent matters will crowd out the truly important ones."


"If the aim of education is to gain money and power, where can we turn for help in knowing what to do with that money and power? Only a disordered mind thinks that these are ends in themselves. Socrates offers us the cautionary tale of the athlete-physician Herodicus, who wins fame and money through his athletic prowess and medicine, then proceeds to spend all his wealth trying to preserve his youth. This is what we mean by a disordered mind. He has been trained in the STEM fields of his time, and his training gains him great wealth, but it leaves him foolish enough to spend it all on something he can never buy."

From my latest article, co-authored with John Kaag, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read it all here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Martin Luther on Liberal Education

"Therefore, I pray you all, my dear sirs and friends, for God’s sake and the poor youths’, not to treat this subject as lightly as some do, who are not aware of what the prince of this world intends. For it is a serious and important matter that we help and assist our youth, and one in which Christ and all the world are mightily concerned. By helping them we shall be helping ourselves and all men. And reflect that these secret, subtle and crafty attacks of the devil must needs be met with deep Christian seriousness. If it is necessary, dear sirs, to expend annually such great sums for firearms, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items, in order that a city may enjoy temporal peace and prosperity, why should not at least as much be devoted to the poor, needy youth, so that we might engage one or two competent men to teach school?"
-- Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” in AE 45:357 (1524) (emphasis added) A full translation of the letter is available here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Thoreau on Liberal Education, Wealth, and Freedom

“We seem to have forgotten that the expression "a liberal education" originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man.”
 -- Henry David Thoreau, "The Last Days of John Brown"

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Giving Thanks In The "Damned Country": Stegner on "Antibiotic"

“’What a damned country,’ he said. Watching the river, he had not noticed the movement at the far corner of the garden below him, but now as he swung the glasses down he saw there one of the ragged, black-robed boys who raked and sprinkled the paths every day….He stood up, and Chapman stepped back, not to be caught watching, but the boy only pulled on his robe again. Then he knelt once more on the rug of his turban and bowed himself in prayer towards the east…..The praying boy was not pathetic or repulsive or ridiculous. His every move was assured, completely natural. His touching of the earth with his forehead made Chapman want somehow to lay a hand on his bent back. They have more death than we do, Chapman thought. Whatever he is praying to has more death in it than anything we know. Maybe it had more life too. Suppose he had sent up a prayer of thanksgiving a little while ago when he found his son out of danger? He had been doing something like praying all night, praying to modern medicine, propitiating science, purifying himself with germicides, placating the germ theory of disease. But suppose he had prayed in thanksgiving, where would he have directed his prayer? Not to God, not to Allah, not to the Nile or any of its creature-gods or the deities of light. To some laboratory technician in a white coat. To the Antibiotic God. For the first time it occurred to him what the word ‘antibiotic’ really meant.” 

--Wallace Stegner, “The City Of The Living,” in Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 524-5. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)

"We live in the Antibiotic Age, and Antibiotic means literally 'against life'. We had better not be against life. That is the way to become as extinct as the dinosaurs. And if, as the population experts were guessing in November 1954, the human race will (other things being equal) have increased so much in the next three hundred years that we will only have a square yard of ground apiece to stand on, then we may want to take turns running to some preserved place such as Dinosaur….That means we need as much wilderness as can still be saved. There isn’t much left, and there is no more where the old open spaces came from."

-- Wallace Stegner, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And Its Magic Rivers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) 14.