Edward B. Burger is somewhat of an anomaly among university presidents. Unlike the leaders of many institutions of higher education, who are rarely seen and may even be unrecognizable to the students they serve, Burger is immersed in the Southwestern University campus, attending symposia, lectures, performances, and receptions alongside students, faculty, staff, and the greater community. Ask students, and they’ll report that at Pirate football games, he will be energetically cheering on the team as vociferously as the rest of the crowd. And when he arrived at SU as the 15th president in 2013, he inaugurated the tradition of the President’s Table Dinner, during which students and other members of the campus community connect through conversation in Turner–Fleming House. “That’s an important and uplifting way for me to discuss interesting, thought-provoking, and intellectual issues with students,” he says.
But perhaps the most significant way that Southwestern’s president engages with students is through teaching. Serving as a member of the faculty “is meaningful to me because I am an educator, not an administrator or bureaucrat,” says Burger. “To not have that intellectual, thoughtful connection with students would create a vacant void for me. We’re not about budgets or bottom lines and all the other distractions that constantly take our attention away from what we’re really here for: to invite human beings to be better versions of themselves by challenging them. And I’m reminded of that whenever I engage with our students in the classroom. Also, teaching just brings me joy.”
Like yoga for the mind
Each fall, Burger offers his popular interdisciplinary course Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving. Burger jokingly refers to it as “the Seinfeld of the curriculum because it’s about nothing but tries to teach everything.” That is, the course contains no short-term content; instead, Burger and his students focus on developing lifelong mindsets of creative thinking (e.g., see the short documentary film above, as well as a profile on Burger, both produced by online learning platform Course Hero).
Burger and his students explore how to strengthen the mind by discussing the research behind such efforts. They read about topics such as the physiological development of the brain; the negative impacts of multitasking, social media, and personal electronic devices; and the positive impacts of exercising mindfulness, articulating gratitude, and allowing the brain to recharge and focus more deeply. Burger encourages students to practice some form of mindfulness throughout the semester, whether that entails meditation, breathing exercises, or some other form of quiet reflection. He says it’s crucial to not allow self-criticism to creep in, and although it’s a herculean task for many, students can benefit from spending just a few minutes each day not worrying about something that happened in the past or might happen in the future. “That’s a practice that strengthens the brain,” he maintains. “The idea is to let the brain settle. It makes a difference.”
But as the course name suggests, a challenging aspect of the class entails puzzle-solving. Each week, Burger assigns logic exercises of increasing difficulty: easy, medium, and hard. However, he emphasizes that “the puzzles themselves are not what’s important. They’re just a playground to practice these ways of thinking. The truth is, life is just one puzzle after another, and the more we can practice puzzle-solving on these whimsical ones, the more we can effectively apply those exact same practices to the more serious and important ones to make better decisions, to have deeper thoughts, and to attain greater understanding.”
Jasper Stone ’19, a music major who took the course his first year and then served as Burger’s teaching assistant (TA) his sophomore and junior years, was drawn to the class because he saw it as a way to build his critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which he thought would prepare him well for the rest of his college career. “Solving the puzzles were pretty hard, obviously. They were things I hadn’t really thought about,” he recalls. But beyond working through the puzzles, having to apply what he was learning to other classes—a “very Paideia thing to do,” he adds—was even more challenging. “We had to turn in our homework from other courses, and we had to talk about how we used the elements of creative thinking from this class in those other assignments,” Stone comments. “I found that difficult sometimes, but it pushed me to engage with my homework in a more thoughtful way than just getting it done.”
Winston Cook ’19, a political science major who enrolled in the course the same semester as Stone and also later served as a TA, says he elected Effective Thinking “honestly because I wanted to take a class with Dr. Burger. He’s a smart guy, and I knew he’d be challenging, so I figured, why not?” He eloquently describes the puzzle-solving as “kind of like yoga for the mind. With yoga, you’re using your body in ways that you didn’t know you could use it. This is like that but with your mind. And your mind gets used to it even though it’s hard. You start to develop a different mindset or mentality.”
Embracing effective failure
Stone remarks that as a TA, “it was neat getting to see how everyone would tackle one problem. You’d think there’d be only one or two ways to go about it, but there were so many!” So boosting creativity by discovering and then analyzing the myriad ways one can solve a puzzle is one outcome of the course.
But to discover those multiple solutions, students are challenged to get it wrong—sometimes over and over again. It’s an uncomfortable proposition for many Southwestern students, but throughout the semester, the students learn and grow through effective failure.
“Effective failure is when something doesn’t go according to plan and you then learn something from that misstep through an insight, an epiphany, a deeper understanding. It’s what you do next that makes the failure effective,” Burger explains. “There is always something to be learned by when things go wrong—always. It’s a matter of taking the time and being mindful to allow ourselves to grow and learn.” That tenacity is a skill and an art that he sees as crucial in all areas of education, from coursework and research to internships and study abroad.
Cook can attest that effective failure is the principle takeaway from the course. “Dr. Burger talks a lot in class about how when you’re solving a puzzles, there’s no paved road to the solution. So you have to fail a lot, and the more you fail, the closer you get to the solution,” he remarks. “It helps you to embrace failure. You have to think about what worked and what didn’t work, and that can lead to better solutions. And that’s important: knowing that there’s not just one solution. Some students would go for the safer options because they were afraid of failure, but being OK with failure will make you better and help you learn along the way.”
The human connection
Stone says that his favorite part of the Effective Thinking course was the President’s Thinking Symposium, in which Burger invites guest speakers to discuss the puzzles they’ve had to solve in their professions and lives: “I really valued being able to meet all the guest speakers who came in to discuss how they got to the point where they were at and their biggest failures and how they overcame them.” He shares that a lecture on the intersection of marketing and philosophy by Assistant Professor of Business Debika Sihi and Professor of Philosophy Phil Hopkins inspired him to take what turned out to be his favorite course at the University, Hopkins’s Philosophy of Religion—a class he might not otherwise have considered taking.
Stone also appreciates that Burger’s class and his internship as a TA enabled him to engage with the Thinking Symposium speakers outside the course. For instance, Stone studied away in New York City, where he reached out to John Oden ’68, a 2015 Thinking Symposium speaker and a principal at the global money management firm AllianceBernstein, LP. “I thought it was pretty great because John Oden is a very influential person in the private wealth management industry, so to have that connection from a minicourse was great,” Stone comments. “There was just a lot of networking that came out of the class and internships. It was a gateway to other opportunities, and it completely changed my SU experience.”
Cook concurs that the speakers were the highlight of the class. “They give you a whole new outlook because they all have different viewpoints on their industries and on life in general,” he says. “They tell their stories about the problems they faced and the successes they’ve had, and everyone loves a good story.”
From course to book
For Burger, the Effective Thinking course was itself the solution to a puzzle that emerged after he taught a calculus course his second year as president of Southwestern. He loved teaching the class, but “the puzzle was how to engage with a broader swatch of the student population, not just a narrow group that was already invested in the things I was intellectually invested in: mathematics.”
Thus, the puzzle-solving course was born, and now, four years later, members of the general community can get a glimpse of the course through the book Making up Your Own Mind: Thinking Effectively through Creative Puzzle-Solving (Princeton University Press, 2019). In the book, Burger writes that the point of both the book and the class on which it was based is not to solve each puzzle and then move on but rather to continue thinking about each puzzle even after solving it until the student or reader can think about it in a different way.
Burger challenges readers to take time reading and thinking through the book. “It’s a book about mindfulness, so you can’t simply read it once and then be done. It’s a slow read. It should take a lifetime to get through the book,” he says. He explains that working through the puzzles may seem pro forma at first, but thinking through the various solutions will help his readers, like his students, develop the practice of effective, creative thinking. “It’s like playing the piano: when you start, it’s just mechanical, but then it becomes a genuine practice, and that’s when it becomes music. In this case, when the thinking becomes ‘music,’ that’s when you change. Developing that practice requires slowing down. It requires mindfulness.”
Burger argues that developing such high-impact intellectual practices is not only the goal of his class and his book but should be an outcome of formal learning more broadly—an objective that is not often met in our current educational system. That’s one of the reflections he includes in the essays on higher education that open his book—a philosophy of thinking, learning, and growth which has been shaped most recently by his roles as a professor and the president of SU. “Southwestern has so influenced my thinking about education, and I am inspired every day by my colleagues and the Southwestern University community,” he says warmly. “I never thought about thinking through rather than about education until my time here. You can learn a lot of content in your classes that you’re certainly going to forget, but learning to think through subjects rather than just about them—learning to make meaning of ideas and constructs that initially seem meaningless because they are foreign or unfamiliar—is a process and a practice you can apply the rest of your life.”
Of course, because Making up Your Own Mind contains all the puzzles Burger has assigned in his course, a new puzzle has emerged: will he continue to use the same puzzles in future offerings of the class, or will he find a whole new set of puzzles to challenge his future students? And after four years of working diligently to fine-tune those brainteasers by observing which ones the students gravitate toward, which ones they hate, and which ones they struggle with but are happy to finally solve, Burger is also puzzling over whether he should try new approaches to in-class activities and readings.
But for now, he can rest assured that he has effectively worked through at least the original puzzle he was trying to solve with the course: how to engage with a larger cross-section of the University. “Now I have students from the fine arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences every single time I teach, and it’s better than wonderful because I’m interacting with students who come with their own creativity and ways of thinking,” he says. “To have that melting pot of ideas and interests, where students bring so many new perspectives into the class, is so exciting and intellectually stimulating.”