Earlier today John Gruber posted an interesting link on Daring Fireball to an article by Katie Roiphe on David Foster Wallace and his teaching style that really resonated with me. Before I expand on my thoughts here is what was posted.

David Foster Wallace’s Syllabus
“If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.”

Katie Roiphe, writing for Slate:

Of course, this is not the part of teaching that most people pour their hearts into. It’s just a syllabus! Wallace is bringing to the endeavor rigorous Salingerish standards of not lying, or not being phony, that would reproach other more ordinary people if these standards did not border on parody, and were not expressed in such a good natured and honorable way.

with John Gruber adding,

“Don’t just go through the motions. Don’t accept dogma. Look for ways that you might be wrong, don’t look for ways to prove you’re right. Think. Express your thoughts with as much precision and care as you can muster.

That’s why Wallace’s work serves as a beacon, a yardstick, for my own.”

My Thoughts
Having lectured extensively myself this is such a refreshing take on teaching. Learning has become extremely prescriptive and is generally delivered in the same mundane way. Individuals are as much to blame as the organisational establishments they work within, wether they be schools, universities or corporate environments. A focus on, exams or league tables as a measure of success has become the norm. However, many success stories are lost with this metric. This may seem like a strange interjection this early on but stay with me for just a second. During John Gruber’s keynote at Singleton he made reference to the following Stanley Kubrick quote to define the difference between Apple and Microsoft,

“Sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it, as in the feel of it.”

In essence he was describing how we should consider these companies and the underlying truth engrained in their products and corporate culture. With Microsoft products he suggests that the truth of them is in “the think” of them, to understand the true nature of a Microsoft product you can lay it out as a bullet point list highlighting features etc. With Apple products the truth lies in “the feel”, and you can no better explain why you feel affection for your iPhone/iPad or aspects of the user experience in the same way you cannot explain why you feel affection to the people you love, it is very emotional.

In todays learning establishments we are taking the Microsoft approach to measuring the success of our students when instead we should be taking the Apple approach. Often the choice of the metrics that we measure our students learning by is not based on what is best for the student or students, instead the focus remains on what is easiest for our teachers; which is a very sad indictment of the situation we find ourselves in. While I agree with David’s approach to engaging and encouraging the creative process I think he could go yet further. In his Syllabus he “draw[s] no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and [he] will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. I would suggest that this expression of idea should not be constrained to writing. The ability to express ideas differs dramatically between individuals, with each preferring different styles, verbal, written, graphical, kinaesthetic etc. While more difficult to assess this is something we should strive toward in every Syllabus for learning we ever put together.

One final thought that continously gets me down particularly when watching other lecturers is the arrogance that comes with the position. Many teachers have either forgotten or do not believe that our students have as much to teach us, as we have to teach them, the learning process is a two way streak. All we can claim to bring to the party is experience, that we hope to pass on.