For the last few weeks, I have been caught in an endless loop of reading and re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary trilogy, “Gilead,” “Home” and “Lila.” If you have not read them, you have a treat in store.

Robinson is one of the best authors writing in English today, and one of the few for whom a focus on a faith tradition is an integral part of the work. You don’t even have to share the particular faith, or any faith; it is just a pleasure to read such extended meditations about Biblical texts that are a large historic part of the American fabric of thought. Plus, Robinson’s evocation of Iowa and the mid-West in the 1950s and earlier, its landscapes, its ways of life, brings this vanished world into consciousness, a portion of our political, social and intellectual history embodied in some memorably ordinary forebears.

I have always re-read certain authors. It started when I was quite young with Margaret Mitchell and “Gone with the Wind,” Herman Wouk and the “The Caine Mutiny.” And then many more over the years: C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, Ursula LeGuin, Sheri Tepper. Some I read over and over, at varying time intervals. For other authors, I read until I get the formula and don’t have to read any more. (This has happened to me with whole genres, such as mysteries.)

Why do I do this? It has to do with world-making. The authors I come back to again and again are teaching me about other worlds and other people, and through them, other ways to see my own world. At different ages, different aspects of the same author amuse and intrigue and teach in different ways — because I am not the person who read the same books 10 or even five years ago.

Indeed, I am re-reading Dr. Seuss with Baby Austin now for the first time in about 65 years, and even Dr. Seuss is different. Although, thank goodness, Horton is the same. Still hatching that egg and still faithful 100 percent.

But re-reading is not the only kind of reading. For example, there is also reading to learn the current state of the art in a field of interest to me. Here’s an excellent new book about teaching: “Minds Online” by Michelle Miller. (Harvard, 2014).


This one is not going to transport you into another world, but it is going to show you what today’s higher education world might be like, if we only put together all the current theoretical findings about learning with practical applications to teaching. (Some places already have. They are among today’s winners.) The principles would work in K-12 teaching just fine, and I suspect that many of our colleagues there are applying them effectively.

Miller takes the most recent knowledge about how we learn, explains what the most effective learning experiences should look like as a result, and then adds in a survey of the new computer technologies that are available to help. She puts this all together to show how to craft a state-of-the-art online course — “Introduction to Psychology,” one of the most popular college courses in the United States today.

Her advice is user-tested by faculty and students; Miller and her colleagues have been innovating, testing and revising their online teaching for many years. The course is designed for online delivery, but it could be adapted for a conventional classroom format or for a mixed or hybrid format.

The principles she teaches us also are adaptable for other disciplines: techniques such as low-stakes testing for comprehension, designing immediate feedback methods, requiring frequent small work products so that students don’t easily fall behind and can keep up their motivation, lab work that teaches via active learning and experimentation, writing for targeted audiences, involving class members in directed dialogue and active participation with each other. And more.

“Minds Online” is written in a clear, straightforward style, with no jargon. Miller is not trying to dazzle us with her brilliance, she is teaching us. The author has a lot of knowledge gained from practice and theory, and the interplay between them. Students have learned well as a result of what Miller and her colleagues know and are able to do. A lot of the technology probably will be outmoded in a couple of years, but the learning insights and the course design principles will hold up a lot longer.

I’ve been known to give copies of books I like to friends and colleagues. Enjoy these writers.

Theodora J. Kalikow is interim vice chancellor and president emerita of the University of Maine System. She can be reached at

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