Strengths and Weaknesses on Africa at Yale

It’s been a few weeks since my article on the Yale Africa Project went up. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible in discussing Yale’s African Studies program and what has gone into it, but I also had a word limit that I had thoroughly destroyed already. Since I have a blog and that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to dig a little deeper into what’s going to happen at Yale moving forwards.

One promising point in Yale’s future is the creation a senior faculty position in the English Department that will be focused on African literature. Yale has one professor who specializes in Francophone African literature and has never had anyone in English – this new position will rectify that. Yale has a pretty conservative English department overall, something I don’t know enough about to talk about at length, but it’s clear that this position – which has been in the works for many years and included encouragement from the Council on African Studies – will be the department’s foray into world literatures. Hopefully it’s a change that they will continue to expand into.

It’s important to note that this position – which will make a huge mark on African humanities at Yale – is not part of the Yale Africa Project. That initiative, which is in its nascent stages but which has not (and will not, according to those familiar with it) prioritize faculty hiring, has a clear focus on Yale’s strengths. When it comes to Africa, Yale has huge strengths in three sectors: development economics, corruption and good governance, and public health. The Project aims to reinforce those strengths rather than build up new ones. In the front page of a fancy booklet that is being given to potential donors, Ian Shapiro writes:

Focusing on the pivotal areas of governance, development, and public health, we are interested in understanding and contributing to the ways in which business, the public, and the nonprofit sectors respond to Africa’s challenges and opportunities.

In regards to Africa, Yale has a small faculty in general. The humanities in particular need more focus on Africa. Music, art, theater, and literature are all barely represented. The anthropology department’s focus on Africa is currently very low. The language program won’t be able to offer three levels of language instruction without more support. The library collection is great but has been facing budget constraints that make the future more bleak. The Forestry School has one person working in Africa.

Yale has three pillars of specialization in Africa, and that is where the bulk of this new project is headed. While they are important, I see no reason why Yale shouldn’t put resources in parts of Africa where support is needed the most. Africa is the home of vibrant arts, prize-winning literature, diverse languages, endangered ecosystems, and innovative technologies. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to encourage work on these topics.

The new English position will be a welcome addition to Yale because he or she will help support the humanities in African Studies, but also to work to fill a gap in English’s understanding of different literature. The Africa Project should take a note from this and seek to build up new foundations if it really wants to focus on Africa.

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Shameless Self-Promotion: On Yale African Studies

Another brief interlude to link you to an article I wrote for Yale Daily News‘ magazine edition, entitled “Looking for Africa.” It’s perhaps the biggest piece I’ll write on the subject, but I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s only a part of a larger conversation which the Yale community has been having, which I’ve linked to before. I hope you’ll take a look, and of course I’ll continue to write about the issue, as it’s important directly to me but also to the conversation about Africanist scholarship (and area studies) in U.S. universities.

 

Cover art, courtesy YDN Magazine

The Yale Africa Project (as it is now known) can and probably will do a lot for Africanist scholarship at the university, but that’s not difficult given the small and narrow focus of the university’s Africa focus now, but many of us are hoping it will do more. After recent faculty departures and downsizing across the area studies, it is good to see a focus specifically on Africa, but I’m not yet convinced it will fulfill its potential. Unfortunately, a lot of this is dependent on donors rather than university governance, largely because Yale hasn’t committed as much to the campaign as it could. My hope is that, in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I was wrong.

I interviewed about a dozen people – professors, former professors, alumni, and students – and sent an e-mail survey to about a dozen African Studies students. I also worked tirelessly with two editors who took a 6,000 word statistic- and quote-ridden article and made it legible. The design team also put together a wonderful graphic for the magazine’s cover that essentially sums up why the piece needed to be written. I want to thank everybody involved for helping make it what it is, because they seriously deserve it. I also want to encourage everybody interested to continue to think about how Yale (or any university) can engage with the scholarship it promotes, and what it means to focus on Africa as a university.

More on Yale-Africa

Pardon the absence, folks. Hopefully this blog will be back up to speed soon, but in the mean time I thought I’d share news on the Yale-Africa front, in the form of two other op-eds in the college daily.

First, the editorial board at the Yale Daily News published an editorial which urges Yale to hire more faculty, which meshes with what most students have been saying:

If the University is to attract students and faculty passionate about engaging with Africa, its core program cannot remain in shambles. Before reaching out to African institutions, Yale must ensure that students have adequate resources to study the continent.

The most significant step is to increase faculty hiring. As a program, African Studies cannot formally hire professors and must lobby departments, such as History, for Africanist scholars. While two Africanist professors will begin at Yale next year, the program will still be reeling from last year’s losses.

Currently, many departments only hire one or two Africanists. Each should have multiple experts on Africa — ensuring that an entire field of scholarship will not be neglected due to the natural ebb and flow of faculty.

To ensure that Africanist faculty will be retained, Salovey should endeavor to find donors for endowed professorships devoted to African scholarship. An endowed chair would allow Yale to transition in new distinguished faculty whenever a position is left vacant.

A week after that, an undergraduate penned this op-ed, highlighting the exclusiveness of some Yale events. She also highlights problems with language study, which has been touched on before, but this bears quoting:

During my freshman year, I was shocked but excited to find a course in Igbo, my parents’ mother tongue and one of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken languages. I took the class, enjoyed it and left for the summer looking forward to continuing my study of Igbo in the fall. Over the summer, I received an email asking me whether I planned to take a course in Igbo my sophomore year. I responded that I did. The next thing I heard was that the Igbo class had been cancelled. I didn’t receive any explanation. I applied to take Igbo through the Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS rejected my application each time, citing the Selection Committee’s challenge of “limited funding.”

As I mentioned a while ago, we’re in the very, very early stages of the Yale Africa Initiative. These are just some of the voices that are chiming in, and we’re all eagerly waiting what else the university will announce.

Yale Looks to Africa, With Blinders On

In his inaugural address last weekend, Yale’s new president, Peter Salovey, talked about Africa at length when he discussed Yale’s educational mission:

 Eleven of the world’s twenty fastest-growing economies are African.3 With the growing influence of the African continent on the world economy, as well as increased migration to, from, and within Africa, this is the moment to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus. Working collaboratively, we can foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning. Our current scholarship on Africa already draws on many disciplines throughout the university — from African language, history, and cultural traditions to global health research, to field experiments in development economics, to issues of sustainability, to research on emerging democracies, to theater projects with Tanzanian artists. For many years, my laboratory collaborated on HIV/AIDS prevention research in South Africa, and Marta is helping with an environmental and public health project involving the Masai.

A greater focus on Africa is just one example of how we aspire to unite research with teaching and learning, how in our research laboratories and our classrooms we can effect change beyond them, and how we can bring the world to Yale and Yale to the world.

This statement wasn’t completely unexpected, to those of us watching Yale’s Africa program closely. Over the summer several administrators have been putting things in motion, and this fall the gradual roll-out of the new Yale Africa Initiative has been ongoing. The Initiative, still in its very nascent stages, aims to be a university-wide shift to focus on Africa. It’s an idea I’m supportive of, but the vision being put forth is less than satisfactory. The vision for a new African focus doesn’t seem to include new faculty, improved language study, or increased course offerings, among other things. I won’t be nearly as in depth on it right now as I will be in the future, mostly because several students (myself included) are working together to draw attention to the pros and cons of the Initiative. This has already begun, in the form of my colleague Akinyi Ochieng’s column at the Yale Daily News, in which she highlights the importance of language study, student recruitment, and career service focus. The middle item seems to be the primary focus of the Initiative, including a recent $1 million gift from a Liberian Yale alum that will go towards financial aid for African applicants, the latter has been talked about to a lesser extent and the former not at all.

This blog will track the goings-on of Yale’s relationship with Africa, African students, and Africanist scholarship. As I anticipate this being a long process, I’m starting a new tag for it. Hopefully the Initiative expands and addresses all the major aspects of African(ist) studies at Yale as it develops. Fingers crossed.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

For those interested, I’ll be giving a talk about part of my summer research this upcoming Wednesday. The talk is a part of the Yale Council on African Studies’ weekly Brown Bag series (the name is deceptive, there is free food – reason enough to come!). It is a very, very preliminary talk – originally scheduled for February and moved up due to scheduling problems – on the HF radio network that operates in DRC and CAR. For those in the area, I’d love some feedback. More info below:

Rural Warning and Militarism: The Effects of the Radio Early Warning Network in LRA-Affected Congo

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | 12:00-1:00 | Luce Hall 202

In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a network of high frequency radios has been built in rural villages to help protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army. This early warning system seeks to protect these vulnerable populations by alerting villagers of rebel movements, facilitating a military response, and directing humanitarian aid. This presentation will explore how the network functions, how it fails, and the role of regional militarization in the process.

Summer Plans in Africa

Greetings, dear reader. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry for inundating you with only weekend reading lists and none of the usual amateur commentary that usually comes along during the week. Things have been busy here – I’m halfway done with my time at Yale now, and final papers this semester were a wreck for me. Now that school’s out, though, I have a small group of draft posts waiting in the wings. Until then, though, I thought I’d give you an update on recent occurrences in the House of Backslash.

This summer, I will be abroad for about two months, spending time in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (and maybe South Sudan) to conduct thesis research. I’ll then be spending a short bit of time in Benin with my BFF who is a PCV there. A short note on my thesis, for those interested:

In the early 2000s, a radio station in Gulu, northern Uganda, ran programming that urged defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is comprised predominantly of conscripted youths. The defection messaging promoted the Ugandan government’s amnesty program and encouraged rebels to surrender and be reintegrated back into their home communities. There has been a lot of fanfare about the defection messaging, but it hasn’t been without criticism. During the mid- to late-2000s, the LRA moved westward towards northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Central African Republic (CAR). Since then, radio stations in both of those countries and South Sudan have been using similar tactics in urging defections. Meanwhile, organizations such as Catholic Relief Service and Invisible Children have helped patch together a network of HF radios that function as an early warning system for villages that are in danger.

My research plan is to better understand how radio is used in the LRA conflict and how it affects people in the region. I hope to be conducting interviews in Gulu about radio’s use in the early 2000s, and then doing the same for contemporary usage in Yambio, South Sudan, and Dungu, DRC. The goal of these interviews will be to get a clearer picture of what the radio programs said, who was in charge of determining the programming, and how radio stations dealt with outsiders’ (NGOs or the government) involvement in their work.

I will then (hopefully) visit villages in DRC, most likely in Haut Uélé district, to learn about the HF radio stations. Similar to the first phase, I hope to learn more about how the messages function, who is in charge of operating them, and how villagers interact with those who help establish the stations. I would also like to look into how the messaging system affects the daily lives of civilians in these areas, and am interested in learning if the radios are used for anything beyond the NGOs’ intended purpose. Lastly, I’d like to evaluate the effects of the defection messaging in terms of actually encouraging defections. Both of these sections will depend on my resources and the situation on the ground, so I’ll provide updates once I’m there.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this over the course of the next year. I’ll try to post research notes from the field, and I’m sure that I’ll use the blog as I plod through the thesis-writing process, especially in preparation for any presentations I have to give. If you have any questions or comments, go for it. If you’ll be in any of these places, we should chat. As I prep for my trip, I should probably thank the Lindsay Fellowship, the Coca-Cola World Fund, and my parents for their financial help, my wife and my friends for the emotional support, and a host of grad students and professors for their intellectual help. I have never done a lot of the things I’ll be doing, and I’m glad I’ll have all three kinds of support throughout. As we get closer to June (I’ll be leaving at the beginning of the month) I’ll let you know more about my plans. Until then, keep on keeping on everybody.

Fixing What Should Be Broken: Grade Reform at Yale

This month, an ad hoc committee on grading at Yale issued its preliminary findings (pdf). The committee’s findings have stirred up some conversation about how exactly to fix what the committee finds is gross grade inflation for undergraduates across the university. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon – almost all schools inflate grades to some extent these days. When I did my student teaching at a high school in the suburbs of Phoenix, it was implicit that students did not fail. Some teachers joked that students must marvel at how their grades went up towards the end of the semester without any additional work on their part. What was happening was obvious. Failing students reflected either failure on the part of the teacher or failure on the part of the school as a whole – and nobody wanted either. Even more importantly, in an age of standardized testing and frequent measurement of “progress,” school funding and reputation, and teachers’ jobs, were always on the line. And so you did what you had to. We even set aside a whole day at the end of the school year for students who were behind to come in and do make-up work while everyone else stayed home. That’s probably the thing I love most about teaching: sitting in a room on the last day of school so the student who did the worst/least could give me a reason to give them a C.

But that’s a story for a separate post, because Yale is Yale. The money and reputation are here no matter what. And most of the students here are incredibly intelligent – even the legacy admissions might not be top tier, but probably still attended private schools with small class sizes and exceptional teachers. So what, exactly, is the fuss about? The report summarizes its findings pretty nicely here:

For many departments now there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-, and B+. For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-, which is close to having no grading.

This is the finding, and this has been labeled a problem by the committee. A problem which needs to be solved by grading students honestly, doling out Cs, Ds, and Fs, to prove that it’s fair. What I don’t fully get, though, is why grade at all? The only problem with being so “close to having no grading” is that there is still an attempt to grade. The university is so close to not having a grading system, and this report is calling for reforms to bring us back from the brink. But the committee is pushing in the wrong direction – we need to push the grading system over the cliff and never look back. Abolishing grades is really the only way forwards for students, but also for faculty – same as it ever was.

Instead, the committee makes a couple of recommendations.

Change from a letter system to a number/percentage system. The committee says “If, say, only three grades are used, A, A-, and B+, the choice between an A and an A- or an A- and a B+ is of considerable consequence, which is not true if one can use many numbers. The consequences of the unavoidable randomness that occurs in any grading system are less serious with more grading choices.” But that doesn’t solve the perceived problem. The problem isn’t that Yale only has A, A-, and B+ grades – it’s that Yale professors fail to use grades B through F. Changing from letter to number grading doesn’t do anything but lead to a preponderance of Yalies receiving 97s in all of their classes. Am I missing something in this solution?

Suggest distributed grading. This part is hilarious. The report says that distributions may violate some department’s policies and that the committee doesn’t want to impose on professors’ discretion, not to mention the inherent unfairness of grading on a distribution. And yet, it issues “guidelines” to departments that include 4-5% in the 60-69 range and 0-1% in the 59 (fail) range. As a former teacher to middle class youth headed to state school, I’m trying to imagine the outcry if every class of 30 Yale students had 1 or 2 close to failing, and it hurts my brain.

The clear solution, to me, is get rid of grading. Presumably, students at Yale are doing plenty of learning and doing plenty of work. The problem is just that they’re all receiving As for it. Rather than fight to maintain an ineffective grading system and hand out a few token Cs to verify the fairness, why not do away with it? The listed bad effects of grade inflation – cheapening of the grade, more difficult to interpret grades, etc. – all vanish with the grading system. If nobody is getting a worthless letter or number on their transcript, nobody will care what it’s supposed to mean. If you hire competent staff and foster a strong learning environment, you can be sure most of your students are “passing” – then just let the teachers teach and let the students work.

This is especially possible at Yale, where the classes are small, manageable, and demanding. Grades are, after all, a mechanism that makes measuring students’ abilities easier to do. But when classes are mostly seminar-sized, a professor that is involved in the class and aware of her surroundings could easily surmise who is struggling and who is succeeding. If she has students that are struggling, she can help them as much as is deemed necessary. Boom, no grades needed. Instead, there’s a system now where professors condense 13 weeks of conversations and one or two research essays into one of five letters. I really don’t see the point. If the grading system is so ineffective that there may as well be no grading, then let’s do it. Abolish the grading system, and we’ll be able to move on like nothing ever happened.

Being in the Classroom

There exists on the Internet a long discussion about MOOCs (mass open online courses) and their role in the university system. As schools turn towards MOOCs to reduce costs (even though that’s not what will happen) and destroy education (it seems pretty clear that will happen), many are discussing what a shift to the online will mean. Reading the latest addition to the debate, by Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry, I really loved his depiction of why a classroom is necessary:

In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).

In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.

Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.

I vigorously agree with what Bady is describing about what happens in a classroom because that is both how I want to teach (and how I tried to teach when I was doing my student teaching) and very much how I learn. Especially as a graduate student, I’m seeing how the seminar-style structure of a course really allows students to explore the topic and find out what everything means. Even in this structure, though, there are wide variations of how that plays out.

At Arizona State I really only had the occasion to take seminar classes a few times. It would have been twice, but my favorite professor continually forced his lecture classes to become seminars, requiring a lot of table shifting before class started and sometimes slow debates in a seminar with a lecture class’ worth of students. And yet, those seminar classes are probably the ones in which I learned the most. I am most confident talking about international justice and human rights, and I have a comfortable understanding of France in WWII and memory after atrocity. It was in those classes and others that I spent most of the time engaged in a long discussion about ideas and events, conversations that spanned weeks and informed my final paper from a number of perspectives. It was in those classrooms that I learned.

But I would hesitate to even tell you some of the courses I took online, lest you think I know about those topics, because I didn’t really learn much about the Vietnam War, piracy in the Caribbean, or special education policies in the classroom. In each of those classes, I was merely given a reading list and a discussion board (respond to the question by Wednesday, respond to two student responses by Friday!) and then some essays. And so, like virtually all of my classmates, Wednesday evening and Friday evening saw a flurry of posts – and Friday’s was almost always somebody opening five tabs, skimming, and responding to the two easiest or most interesting. Nobody would ever go back to engage in actual discussion on the discussion board. Why would you? It’s just an online class.

The only time I really saw people engaging with each other was when the professor of the piracy class asked us to reflect on the characteristics of pirate activity (looting, killing civilians, etc.) with President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you can imagine how that discussion went even if you’ve never taken an online class, so long as you’ve been on the Internet. I say that because it looked like any internet message board discussing a touchy topic – people typing over each other, some sass and sarcasm, some ALL CAPS. There was no facilitation of debate, just a kind of provocative question let loose upon Blackboard. Needless to say, I don’t think anybody learned.

When I was teaching, I was never really able to facilitate a seminar very well. My classes were all made up of almost 40 high school students in a very crowded classroom, and I was usually planning things relatively last minute, so I didn’t have the greatest opportunities to really plan out discussion topics. But I knew my students and they knew me, and most of us trusted each other to do this whole “school” thing. I was able – the same way Bady describes – to really discern what was going on in the room and nurture some of my students’ thoughts. It was great watching students gradually open up and say what they had been pondering all hour long, and it was great to really watch a debate unfold when we talked about the more contentious issues. It was also a lot of fun playing devil’s advocate, because sixteen-year-olds don’t often get asked what they think about politics and they don’t often have people rebutting their opinions on immigration or tax policy. There are a number of times that I really think the class was able to move forward together and grow together. That type of learning really doesn’t happen in online classrooms where many students generally aren’t as engaged. There are some independent learners who excel at online classes, students who just need a reading list and maybe some power points. But there are also a lot who, like me, will learn enough online to get a passing grade, but not really enough to learn.

And yet schools everywhere are pushing towards online. ASU has a huge number of online courses offered, and one school district in the Phoenix area is talking about requiring two online courses for all high school students so that they are “better prepared” for online courses in colleges and for online training in the workplace. Colleges are funneling students into online courses for a lot of introductory classes now, making the foundational knowledge on which the rest of your education a shaky one. Online classes can be done right, and there are students that could benefit. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is students being forced, either by requirements or by the simply math of more students than there are seats in the remaining classrooms, to take courses that have been created first and foremost to change education for the worse – to make it cheaper, to make it easier to grade, to make it quicker. We need to preserve what’s left of the classroom, and we need to fight to rebuild what’s been lost. Online classes are a dark, looming future, and they’re not the way forwards. Online classes are a move backwards. A step away from education, and a step we shouldn’t keep taking.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Milwaukee Edition

Next week, I’ll be presenting a paper at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The conference is hosted by UWM’s English department, but has the interdisciplinary theme of “Failure.” My contribution will be a paper I started putting together last year, tentatively titled “Amnesty Versus Prosecutions in Uganda” (catchier title forthcoming, maybe).

Broadly, I look at the International Criminal Court’s involvement in the Uganda situation (a.k.a. the Lord’s Resistance Army) and the amnesty program that existed in Uganda from 2000 to 2012. I explore the relationship between the two and argue that the ICC involvement in the conflict indirectly led to the end of the largely successful amnesty program by giving the Museveni government – never a fan of the program – an excuse to let its provisions expire. I also look briefly at the cases that have fallen through the cracks – Thomas Kwoyelo and Caesar Achellam, who should have qualified for amnesty but have unclear futures – and the rise of what I call the military-judicial approach: the notion that justice requires military action, which has largely replaced efforts at peace through forgiveness or negotiation.

The conference as a whole promises to be really interesting, and its interdisciplinary nature means I’ll be learning a lot about things with which I have absolutely no experience. Plus, I’ve never been to Milwaukee! If I happen to have any readers there, feel free to visit – most of the events are open to the public, and you can find a schedule here.

I Went to David Brooks’ Class So You Don’t Have To

When it was first announced that NYT columnist David Brooks would be teaching a class at Yale on humility, a lot of people were quick to point out how ironic it was. When the syllabus was first posted this week, Twitter just about exploded as people pulled quotes like “We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” from the syllabus (keep in mind, it’s a course on humility, at Yale, taught by David Brooks). The syllabus includes readings by or about famous-but-humble minds like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Moses, Augustine, and none other than David Brooks.

So I decided to go to the first class yesterday with no intention of actually staying. While it wasn’t that excitingly terrible or good, I did end up making a few observations, and of course there were a few points of “you can’t make this stuff up.” Like when we were trying to cram into the room and he needed to get past dozens of students to get to his seat, and he raised his hands and (I kid you not) said “I feel like Bono!” Or when he was explaining office hours (which are Monday nights at either a cafe or a bar) and said that meeting with students individually was exciting “certainly for them but also for me.” I storified some other observations which I’m restating here:

  • Brooks acknowledged that parts of the syllabus smack of rich or powerful white men, but the first day still begins with Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall.
  • Of the ~55 students that attended the first day, I counted 8 women and about 10 non-white males. Only 20 will be admitted, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out.
  • After reading 10 definitions of humility, Brooks literally said “God had Ten Commandments, so I figured I’d stop there.”
  • I learned that Brooks has met Obama, Bush, Clinton, Biden, and McCain. On day one of a class on humility.