Lessons in Lockdown from Machiavelli

By Katherine Dillion


As a professor of literature, I sometimes find myself wanting to emulate the life or writings of a few authors, but one author never makes the list—Niccolo Machiavelli. On my medical chart he is definitely on the DNE—”Do Not Emulate” order. And yet, in my long semi-quarantine in the spring of 2020, something on a daily walk nudged me to take another look at the epistolary aspect of Machiavelli’s life, and I realized there was something to consider, even from one whose political views are 180 degrees different from my own. The following five lessons, I extrapolated from a translation of a short letter written by Machiavelli, in exile, to Francesco Vittori, may hold some wisdom for me after all.

Lesson 1  Write a physical letter and send it by the postal service.

Dated 10 December, 1513, Machiavelli’s letter exists today as physical evidence of what he did with his days in exile after what he called his “bad luck” of falling out of political favor and having to retreat to a small farm outside of Florence, Italy. Though just a private letter to a friend, his correspondence becomes historical evidence of how he spent his days. Upon rereading the letter after my walk, I woke up the next day and wrote to my son in California, sending the handwritten pages on lovely stationery—something I had not done in a long time. I felt a bit guilty knowing I had all those learning management system modules to create, online assignments to grade, and webinars to prepare for. But as my hand carefully formed the letters, it tapped into a well of emotion as I remembered the days in childhood in which writing letters was a kind of artform, and receiving them was even better. Maybe my letter won’t last 500 years and be studied by future historians, but the joy in writing it and putting a stamp on the envelope drew on something more deeply satisfying than digital texting. It served as a quiet rebellion against all that disappears so quickly with the stroke of a keyboard.

Lesson 2  Spend some time reading outside.

He writes, “Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming.” The romantic idea of reading poetry, novels, or history in the shade of a tree is so compelling when we spend most of the day hunched over the computer working on deadlines. Maybe the best antidote now is a poem in the pocket and a quilt under the tree to reconnect with nature and with great ideas.

Lesson 3 Not every minute needs to be productive.

From the information he recorded, we can see Machiavelli approached parts of his day as many of us do—wasting some, enjoying some, and being productive in some. Machiavelli describes some “trifles” he participates in such as local gossip, arguments and games, and says he does so to “keep his brain from growing moldy.” Much like the time we spend chatting and posting on social media in a time of physical distancing, we still engage for a bit of brain candy to soothe ourselves as it seems the world has left us behind. The sales of games has shot up during this time as people are choosing to mentally check out at for a while to keep sane, or as Machiavelli might say, to keep our brains from “getting moldy.” Instead of feeling guilty about the trifles we engage in, we might just see them for the form of survival strategy they likely are and realize that wasting time is not new to us and may not even be wasting time at all.

Lesson 4  Dress for success.

Ok, after all the trifles in which Machiavelli engaged, he gets down to business and leaves us with a fantastic picture of himself in the evenings. He writes, “
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men . . .” For Machiavelli, clothing signaled something important and meaningful. At a time today when many are celebrating working in bed in their pajamas, there is much to be said for getting up and putting on real clothes—preferably something involving collars and zippers rather than elastic and teddy bears. The message is timely as we reevaluate the way we dress for work. If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one to hear it, is there a sound? If we dress for work and there is no one to see it, does it matter? Machiavelli seems to be saying, “Yes, it matters,” even when you are with an imaginary audience. At a time when the police in Maryland’s Taneytown posted the following message, “Please remember to put pants on before leaving the house to check your mailbox. You know who you are. This is your final warning,” we can all stand to be dressed up to avoid being dressed down, no matter what our daily tasks.

Lesson 5 Spend time with the ancients.

So once Machiavelli was all dressed up with no place to go, what did he do? In his words, “ . . . I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.”
The lessons from this excerpt alone are worth reading the letter in that Machiavelli demonstrates the importance of spending time with the ancients—great thinkers and writers. He is all dressed up and spends four hours with them in a kind of dialogue, taking notes as he says that helps him to remember what he learns, and from these sessions he produces his best known work, The Prince. I remind myself that the best learning is deep learning, and that takes time and effort, and it’s hard to worry when your mind is communing with the greats.

The Takeaway:

Writing letters, walking outside, being playful, putting on clothes, and reading good literature are all good advice for living, whether quarantined or not, but 500 years after the fact, it is comforting to know there are a few constants in this world, no matter how novel the reason.

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Time to Take the Syllabus Challenge?

One recent trend I have seen on Facebook is posting a picture of yourself ten years ago and one current one to see how you have aged. The good news is that many who are doing this are discovering they look better today than they did ten years ago. Since we all age, this result seems counterintuitive, but the reasons have to do with people learning new ways to take care of themselves. The same can be true of our courses. Some of us have been teaching the same courses for many years, and a similar dynamic may be at work on our courses as on the Facebook pictures. Maybe our syllabi today look better as they reflect good changes that have evolved as we have grown professionally, have added new technological tools, and as we have learned more and added to our content knowledge and pedagogy.

I challenged myself to a syllabus make-over recently to see how I could improve, and it is a worthwhile experience that benefited me and my students. After some recent meetings with Amy Cox on design-thinking and having listened to a design-thinking podcast, I realized that all good teachers are designers. I had never thought of myself as a designer, but once I began to, it helped me to make some changes to my syllabus, and ultimately to the course and how I teach it.


In thinking of design, I applied what I knew of backward design, using outcomes to determine course content, but this time I tried something different—I did a kind of storyboard and thought of my outcomes as generating units or modules. I wrote these out on paper notecards and spread them out on the floor in a semi-circle so I could literally step into the creation, moving parts around as they fit together and with the university calendar. This made the task of syllabus renewal much more enjoyable as I told myself I was designing—something I thought was only reserved for the “artsy ones.” The result was a better designed syllabus, and I hope a better designed class.


As you continue to work on course design throughout your career, consider trying something new for a syllabus make-over. It may be something as simple as adding an inviting graphic to the first page, or it may be a complete gutting and re-building. Either way, changes keep us moving to avoid stagnation.


So, take the challenge—drag out a syllabus from several years back, and ask yourself—just getting older or getting better? While we have no control over the passing of time, we can control how we use it and can choose to get better with age. And if it helps you to think of yourself as a designer, then give yourself that permission and shift you

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A Wealth of Opportunities

A Wealth of Opportunities from the Harding CTL

I have often remembered an “old preacher story” about a man who saved all his money to take a cruise but who had no money left to eat onboard. Nibbling away at his peanut butter sandwiches, a fellow voyager asked why he didn’t eat in the dining rooms. When he said that he couldn’t afford it, the astonished friend told him that food was included in the ticket and was in abundance for him to enjoy as much as he wanted.


This story makes me wonder whether some of us at Harding are aware or the wealth of resources and opportunities we have available to all. The Center for Teaching and Learning is a focal point for bringing together events, workshops, and resources available to everyone for professional development and teaching enrichment. Semester mid-point is a good time to catch up on the opportunities coming up soon and new resources available:



A Course design and development workshop with Dr. Robert Noyd, biology professor and former Director of Faculty Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy will be offered to all by HUCOP.  Dr. Scott Weston has extended an invitation from the College of Pharmacy to come to all or part of the workshops Thursday and Friday, Oct. 18 and 19 from 1-5 p.m. in Swaid 111.


Dr. Melanie Meeker will present a “Lunch-and-Learn” workshop at noon on collaborative learning Oct. 17 in Swaid Freeman Center—second floor. All are welcome.


Dr. Amy Hawkins presented on “Self-Leadership” recently and has made her PowerPoint presentation available for any who would like to see it. It contains practical information as well as some good resources and is in a module in the CTL Canvas course. If you would like to be added to the course send me an email request at kdillion@harding.edu.


20 Minute Mentor demonstration in the library lab at 12:00 on October 29. The CTL is looking to subscribe to a series of videos that can help with all areas of teaching and would be accessible from the comfort of your office. The demo will show examples of a couple of videos to gauge interest for purchasing a subscription and will allow you to browse titles (as time allows). This will be in lieu of the presentation formerly scheduled for this time on effective PowerPoint presentations.


Strength Findersworkshop November 6. This can help professors identify the areas unique to them to accentuate strengths to be their best in the classroom. See the CTL page for more details. harding.edu/ctl


Interdisciplinary Collaborative Teaching approaches will be the focus of a December 4 workshop with Mendy McClelland, MSPAS, PA-C from the Physician’s Assistant program at Harding. See the webpage for more information at harding.edu/ctl.




The Teaching Professor newsletter is now available through the Brackett Library website and has a wealth of practical information for all aspects of teaching.

Find it at either of the following two links:






Please, take advantage of these opportunities as your schedule allows, and remember to keep up with events you attend if you would like to add them into TK-20 for Professional Development or a certificate at the end of the year.






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CTL–Game On!

                                 CTL–Game On!

As educators we have an intrinsic love of learning, but we also like recognition and rewards. Many of us like simply keeping a record of what we have done for the year and looking back over it at the end to remember what we have done. Some need physical evidence of continuing education or professional development hours.

The Center for Teaching and Learning is introducing a new system that can help with all of this. As the Director of the Center, I attended a workshop this summer in which a university that used gamification saw a three-fold increase in attendance at CTL events. So, it seems even PhDs are not immune to the lure of a good game. By attending Harding CTL events, participants can now keep up with points that can go toward a certificate at the end of the year. We are also working to have a category in TK-20 for any who want to submit this as evidence for professional development, helpful evidence for rank and promotion packets. The CTL wants this to be a fun and voluntary way to add a little competition—you against yourself, or challenge a colleague or department, but of course, the end result is that we can all benefit from the enriching events offered each semester. Below is a list of ways to earn points toward the certificate. These are a beginning and may be modified as the CTL grows.

Get Your Points

Attend an event 10 points
Submit an idea that is chosen for an event 10
Present at an event 30
Participate in series events* 30
Participate as a professional development 20
mentor for new faculty*

These points will accumulate across the academic year for voluntary participation in the following categories:

Level I 10-30 points
Level II 40-70 points
Level III 80-100 points.

Anyone reaching level III within an academic year will receive a printed certificate as well as entering the information into TK-20. Also—a new challenge to deans or department chairs: The Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities has led the way by offering to add a $10.00 Starbucks card to anyone in his college reaching Level III. The game is on now for other leaders to consider incentivizing. Who knows—maybe this will lead to a new game on the Harding app someday—is Fortnight for Educators just out there waiting for the developer?
*Series events—these involve coming to the majority of meetings in any topical series. For fall 2018 the two series events will be the Office Yoga Research Project and The Breakfast Club. More information will be forthcoming on both of these events that will begin mid-September.

*Professional development mentors would agree to bring new faculty to at least three events per year and help introduce them to other ways to develop professionally within their chosen field.

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Collaborative Learning in Action

Reading about innovative methods of teaching our classes and watching pedagogy videos and webinars are helpful practices professors have available on a daily basis. However, seeing an on-site learning collaborative learning experience with our colleagues and students in action is a richer experience by far.

In March Harding faculty in the health sciences demonstrated “pedagogy in action” as they used a flipped classroom that involved interdisciplinary, collaborative learning. Students from CSD, PA, PT, and Pharmacy worked in a team-based approach with a case study involving a cerebral vascular accident (CVA). Teams worked to understand stroke symptoms in the hypothetical patient as examined by their team that analyzed the problem from their own disciplinary perspective to create a unified picture for the diagnosis.

Faculty prepared for this team-based learning by planning in advance to use a more innovative method than they had done in previous years when the seminar was mostly lecture-based. Using Echo 360 to video capture lectures that students watched ahead of the event, they were able to use class time for interactive learning. In a large classroom, student teams came together for a half-day learning session that gave space for them to get to know one another as they worked their way through the project that simulated the kinds of work many will be doing in the careers—working on health care teams.

Visiting as the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, I was thrilled to see the energy in the room as the faculty and students worked through the case study. This project exemplifies the kind of interactive and interdisciplinary work we can do across the university. What I observed seemed to work brilliantly, but assessment is always the final piece of the picture.  The student response was very positive as exemplified by one student’s comments: Shannon Dole, CSD graduate student from Elmira, New York had this to say, “I honestly loved being able to work with the other disciplines. My group was such a fun table, and I have an entire 3-page Word document that I typed up of all of the answers to the questions I asked each of them! I was asking about different terms, maneuvers, tests, medicines, and so much more. I love that Harding puts such a focus on interdisciplinary teamwork. It really puts ‘the real world’ into perspective.”

While watching this interactive event, I was also invited to see a team-based simulation in the College of Nursing. A student team worked with a pretend patient as they were given all the sensory information they might receive from a real patient. Faculty sent the information to the students though innovative technology that allowed for voice as faculty improvised dialogue the patient might actually say and evaluated each step the team took.  Nursing and Pharmacy students had to respond quickly as the patient took a turn for the worse. Standing in the control room in which the voice and information were given remotely to the team across the hall, I marveled at all that went into such a simulation and was gratified to see the ways these students are being trained to work in a team-based, problem solving situation.

At Harding, as we work to prepare our students for life and career, we will continue to embrace dynamic methods of teaching and learning. The model used by the health sciences can be used by many other disciplines as well. At a time in which we are working toward Liberal Arts renewal across the university, it is good to reflect on ways we can demonstrate greater connectivity in learning across the university.

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Lesson Plans and Driveway Moments

Good teachers don’t make lesson plans in the car on the way to work—or do they? On my short drive to work I often get caught up in a good story on the radio that has more broadcast time than I have drive time, so my driveway, or in this case, parking lot moments are frequent. I have to hear the end, and in the fall semester of 2017 I heard an interview on NPR with Michelle Kuo about her book, Reading with Patrick, that beckoned me to be just a few minutes later getting to my office. Kuo was relating the details of her time as a teacher in the Delta in Helena, Arkansas, explaining how her dedication to teaching her students extended to an unlikely scenario in which a former student, accused of murder, awaited trial in the local jail. Kuo details how she chose texts and methods of teaching to reach Patrick and renew a spark for learning that was in danger of being forever extinguished.

Being a Helena native, I nearly ran to my office to order the book as quickly as I could and eagerly began reading in a couple of days when the book arrived. I was so moved by the story that I read a section aloud to my Teaching Young Adult Literature class. As they absorbed the poignant story, I realized I should include it as a text for the following semester in my Teaching English Methods class. In the spring, as the teacher interns read the book and we discussed how it could enrich our own teaching and learning experiences, I decided to put together a field trip to Helena.

With the help of the College of Education, my students and I set out in a university van to visit a school in Helena while planning other stops around Freedom Park, an antebellum home, and a cultural center. We got stories from a local historian and could easily have spent two or three days learning more about the area. Being able to read the town as a text and analyze the ways in which the economics of poverty affect education was valuable, especially to one student who had chosen to use the book in her senior capstone project, pairing it with Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire.

Seeing such a fruitful harvest from that small seed that started in my “driveway moment” I learned to appreciate the power that the pedagogy muse has to whisper in my ear, often when I least expect it.


To learn more about Reading with Patrick, see the author speaking about her experience:

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Getting Better: Introduction to the Harding CTL Blog

Getting Better: Introduction to the Harding CTL Blog

By Kathy Dillion

As educators, we want to get better at what we do, but the steps to getting there often elude us. In our ideal world, we would read each issue from our professional journals, pourover articles measuring successful methods in our field, attend conferences to keep up with the latest trends and research, and tune in to the latest education gurus offering advice for better teaching.  These are all excellent ways to get new ideas and stay current—upping our game and revitalizing our teaching. But amidst the class preparation, teaching, grading, and committee meetings, we too often keep our goals of getting better on the back burner. We know better, but often can’t figure out how to get the time and energy to do better. Professional development stays in the realm of a good idea that fails to take shape.

One of the functions of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Harding is to help us enjoy our work more by getting better at what we do. The newsletter, blog, and webpage will include information and sources, and the workshops and presentations can be useful, but the Center is also here to meet individually with anyone requesting to do so. Any visit you request will be confidential. One Harding alumna, Debie Rudder Lohe, who is a CTL director at St. Louis University affectionately calls their center “SwitzerVegas.” This plays on the idea of Switzerland as neutral and Vegas from the cliché, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” This conveys what we want the center to be—a place that is neutral and exists to provide help and a place in which faculty seeking assistance may do so voluntarily without reporting to anyone about it unless they so desire. You can contact the CTL with your requests at HCTL@harding.edu.

The blog will allow us to share resources and reflections that may be of use to the faculty—book reviews, journal articles, creative personal pieces—anything that can help us be better teachers. Some of the posts will be more informational while others will be inspirational. For now, I want to share with you five simple ways in which all professionals can benefit by getting better. These suggestions come from surgeon-writer, Atul Gawande, and can be found in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. Gawande calls these suggestions for being a “positive deviant,” and I shared these with my Medical Humanities class as they are preparing for professional careers but realized how helpful they can be for professors also.


  1. Ask an unscripted question. While Gawande finds this invaluable in connecting with his patients and often surprising to them, the same can work with professors and students. Few ideas for improving rapport with students can beat this simple-to-implement suggestion that is helpful in the minutes before class starts. It takes no extra time, and may be a “throw-away” comment that the student will remember a long time. Try surprising a student with a question that asks his or her opinion about something unrelated to the class.
  2. Don’t complain. Gawande notes that few people have more to complain about than doctors who work under stressful, life-and-death conditions. Even on my most stressful days, I don’t have to worry that a mistake I made in class will cost a life. However, Gawande points out that complaining just takes up good energy that can better be used for real work. Besides, complaining has an infectious quality. We may be on guard for flu viruses, but we can just as easily scrupulously avoid complaining that drains our health and vitality in other ways.
  3. Count something. I love this one because it rarely occurs to me to count things. Yet, Gawande’s argument is strong as he shares a story about counting the number of sponges that are left in surgery patients. In counting, he realized it often occurred in surgeries that had an unexpected element once the operation was underway. By counting and becoming aware, the medical team realized an innovative way of tracking the sponges and brought about needed change in the hospital. In the classroom, just being aware of and counting something could lead to some new insights or even a research study that no one else has thought of.
  4. Write something. As an English professor, I am certainly partial to this one. It is through documenting our thoughts and acts that we preserve our lives for posterity, but it is also about self-care as we write to understand our own situations better. Gawande notes that the writing may be brief, but the habit should be regular. A vising poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, once told a group of Harding students and faculty to try to write three lines per day. Some days this may be all you can write, but often it primes the pump and will get ideas flowing that may keep coming long past the three lines.
  5. Change. Gawande champions the idea that we must be open to change while allowing that not all change is good. We must look for what needs to change and find new pathways to be able to get out of the ruts we are all subject to falling into. Sometimes, just taking time to notice ourselves will be enough to help us see areas that we could improve. As our students change, we must be open to new ways and be willing to try some to see which to adopt and which to reject. Research abounds that also shows the health benefits of small changes that help us form new neuropathways in our brains.

Since reading these five suggestions I have thought more about being the “positive deviant” in the classroom.  Similarly, earlier this year, Dr. McLarty talked in chapel about our mission and challenged us to have a “holy discontent.” To want to get better is not admission of failure—it is just a healthy part of professional growth. May we look to 2018 to be a year in which we can have this “holy discontent” and become “positive deviants” in education as we can see the need for changes and try new ways to implement them. The Center for Teaching and Learning belongs to all faculty, and we invite suggestions and posts from across campus. I want to invite faculty from all disciplines, colleges, and departments to consider being a guest blogger soon to create a collage of creativity. We can all learn from other’s approaches and perspectives, so consider writing and submitting a post soon.  Meanwhile, let’s practice some positive deviation to get better at teaching and learning and share what we learn across campus.


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