Back to Basics

Whatever you think of the many and various surprises of 2016, you’d have to admit it was a very unusual year. Many of this year’s unusual turns (the campaign, the election, and more) demanded our attention. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to let the basics slip away in the midst of all the craziness. So as my year closed with travel – first for business and then for a family vacation – and I had to make decisions about what to read on those trips, I took along along some books that would help me focus on the basics. Among other books, I read a bit about teaching, a bit about writing, and a bit about higher education. This is something I do every summer, but this winter I used the reading to hit reset and get back to basics. Here’s what I read:


James Lang, Small Teaching: Lessons from the Science of Learning

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens

Small Teaching is just what I expected from Lang. It’s a terrifically written book that distills research in teaching, learning, and other related fields into immediately useful tips for instructors. I highly recommend it. In fact, if your spring term starts when mine does, on January 9, you’ll find you’re still able to implement many of Lang’s suggestions despite the short timeline before the semester begins.

How We Learn, on the other hand, didn’t live up to expectations. It’s a highly uneven book and each chapter is about twice as long as it should be. (Though those who want to know about the lives behind the research behind the findings  behind the applications may be more tolerant of the length). The book is also more immediately useful to people trying to learn, create, and practice something – more immediately useful to students than to teachers. That said, each section includes nuggets of information about learning that could be turned to useful teaching tips, some chapters could be given to students as suggested readings, and if we consider that instructors are always learning how to teach (among other things), then the book may have more immediate applications for us than we first think.


Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’ve read at least one book on writing, and often two or three, every year for…. at least the past decade. It took me way too long to get to this book. It was always among the most recommended in the category (by Amazon, by curators of such lists, by colleagues, by the social media hivemind), but I just never picked it up until last month. Dillard doesn’t have much to say about how to write, but she describes, better than any other I’ve read, the experience of writing. 

Higher Education

Jon McGee, Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education

One of the challenges in writing about demographic, economic, and cultural changes facing higher education is that those changes play out very differently at different kinds of institutions. It is difficult to describe the variety of those experiences and impossible to offer cookie-cutter responses. McGee studiously avoids the one-size-fits-all trap, but does provide a framework by which any given institution may sort out their own experience of key shifts in the higher ed marketplace. He offers “Campus Conversation Guides,” half a dozen questions on various topics, including “Difference,” “Markets,” “Spending,” and “Pricing” that can help campus leaders structure productive conversations and develop key strategies for fulfilling their missions in the midst of change.

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