Friday, April 20, 2012

Tap, tap, tap...

One of my earliest memories is standing in the driveway outside my childhood home pondering the oddity of time: how it just moved in the one direction and how arbitrarily we measure it.  Of course I didn't put it in  those terms back then.  I was simply tapping a stick on the concrete and thinking how each moment between taps had happened and now was gone.  Days were a special concern to my five-year old mind.  I wondered what it was like for a day to wait billions of years to come into being, and then be one that wasn't particularly memorable.  How disappointing. 

I'm still struck by the arbitrary ways we mark time.  I read recently about an ancient South American Indian society that had three separate calenders, including one based upon the position of the planet Venus.  That sounds odd until you recall that our own society has multiple markers of time.  We have one cycle that repeats every seven days, another tied to a solar orbit that repeats every 365 days and is quadrennially adjusted. Then, just to be interesting, we have a base ten system that counts off units of ten, one hundred and one thousand.  Oh, and this time framework arbitrarily starts running backward about 2000 years ago.  See what I mean?  All systems for marking time are weird.

And then there is the academic calender with its semester starts and stops.  I finish my twenty-first academic year next week.  That's forty-two semesters, six-hundred seventy-two weeks, and a lot of fifty minute periods.  Here's how my semester will end.  I will stow my cap and gown in the backseat and drive away from a convention center on either a stormy or idiotically beautiful Saturday in late April.  I will come home.

Done, another year.   I have measured out my life in syllabi. 

So it's time to take stock.  What is there to say for this semester?  The senior capstone seminar went well despite that I taught in a cavernous lecture hall.  The Liberal Arts once again cheated death and survived my annual prosecution of them by a vote of 18-3.  The students in the seminar were a lot of fun .   I struggled, however, in my Humanities course, which had a rather frightening attrition rate.  I lost about five students.  They just vanished.  And the first-year honors seminar was one of the more unusual combinations of personalities and abilities.  Still, there was growth and development.    All in all, a mixed bag of a semester.

Well, so long Spring 2012.  Hope I haven't left something important in you.   Tap, tap tap...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hieronymo's mad againe

The one thing you must never do in a classroom is lose your cool.  Whatever annoying student behavior is creating a loss of confidence in your career choice, you simply cannot freak on them.  Yesterday I came close, though.   In my Humanities section we were discussing the impact of Freud on the arts in the early 20th Century.  I thought I had a pretty good plan, too.  I laid out Freud's ideas on the unconscious, we were going to watch a short video on Freud's work, and then apply his ideas to James Joyce's Evilene and Eliot's Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

Ten seconds after I began the video, one student whips out a cell phone and scrolls through messages.  Another starts updating a planner, and still another starts doing homework for another class.    I counted to ten to get my anger in check and then strolled to the rear of the classroom.  I leaned down and, in a measured monotone, I whispered, "Put the phone away and please don't do homework for other classes in my class."  We finished the exercise and before dismissing them I made a short speech about classroom courtesy. 

I didn't lose it, but it sure has been eating at me since.  It makes me wonder how students would react if I were to just tune them out when they came for an advising appointment or a scheduling change.  Or how about this?  I am teaching a lesson and then just stop to check my text messages for 15 minutes while they sit there. 

The thing I've always hated about teaching is that I have to play by the rules.  Them, not so much.  

Okay, cathartic rant over.  Breathe deeply, place smile back on face. 

"Now then, how may I be of assistance in your educational journey today?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Grade Grubbers

There are two types of grade grubbers.  The first I like and even admire in a way.  These are the last minute--holy smokes--the semester's almost over and I'm tanking variety.  They have been lousy students all semester, but somehow, with two or three weeks to go, they pull themselves together and manage to land their hind ends just the other side of the C line. As a chronically-disorganized wool gatherer,  I identify and empathize with these students. 

The second type drives me to distraction.  These are students who have already earned an A, yet they obsessively contest every single point and become little syllabus lawyers.  Unfortunately, this is the point in the semester when both varieties of grubbers show up.

Ye gods, I loathe grades.  I would abolish them if it were in my power.  They corrupt the entire point of education.  In their place I would prefer a combination of instructor and student self-assessment.  In an ideal world, I would be given a set of students for a year.  I would meet with each one and we would craft a set of learning goals that we could both focus on over two semesters.  In place of a letter or a GPA would be a brief, narrative description of the student's progress on his or her learning goals and a statement of what still needs to be done.  Call it a performance review.  

I know, I know, there are a thousand reasons why this would never work in higher education.  It takes too much time. How would students transfer to other institutions?  What would grad schools look at for admissions?   People do love their numbers.  It doesn't matter that they are meaningless.  My dream system, on the other hand, would place the focus where it needs to be: on growth and development.  It would actually reflect the evaluative methods most people experience in their professional careers.  Better still, it would eliminate end-of-the-semester grade grubbing.

'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Field notes from a late, late, late adopter

To put my late adoption into context, let me just admit one fact up front.  The year is 2012 and I only in the past week got a cell phone.  Yep, that's right, a cell phone.  I am the latest of late adopters.  I have never texted or tweeted.  I've never Game-Boyed or Wii.-ed.  I don't even know if these things can be made into verbs.  For heaven's sake, I have never had cable TV.  Once at friend's apartment years ago, I was mindlessly flipping through the channels and I muttered something like, "Good heavens, there's an entire network devoted to cartoons?"

He just gaped at me and said, "You never change, man."

He was wrong.  I do change, but at a glacial pace.  And my pace has recently begun to speed up.  Unavoidably, ineluctably, all of the new media platforms that people have been living with for decades are insinuating themselves into my life.  Me, the tardiest of late adopters.  In the last year alone I've found myself imbibing in streaming video from Netflix, free podcasts on I-Tunes and audio books from the public library.  And now I have this object that I've feared for years in my pocket.  It gives me more ways of distracting myself than ever before.  Indeed, the world is suddenly teeming with diversion.

What I find disturbing is the death of the empty afternoon, of being alone, of moments when you are thrown back on yourself in what Wordsworth called a "wise passiveness."  Indeed, Wordsworth's fellow Romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Nature, "I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars." 

But do people stare at stars alone anymore?  Everywhere I go people are staring into tiny screens to stay in constant contact with their on-line society.   Heck, why sit passively watching the birds in the backyard when you can fill that empty space with Angry Birds?  An article in this week's Sunday New York Times Magazine (which I read the old fashioned way) makes this point about the pointlessness of cell phone games better than I can.  The author, Sam Anderson, argues that
Stupid games... are rarely occasions in themselves. They are designed to push their way through the cracks of other occasions. We play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally. They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day; less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.
Distraction?  Compulsion?  You might say people today are filling up the cracks of their day with--well--crack.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Missing Persons

Every semester I have students who vanish.  They don't call, they don't email.  They just go poof.   Often, too, their disappearance happens with no forewarning or signs of academic distress.  Good students are as prone to disappear as poor and indifferent ones.  One day they are there and then...  gone.    Sometimes the other people in the course will ask, "What happened to that guy?"  Most of the time, however, they say nothing and the course sails on. 

If a student disapparates in the first few weeks, I just assume he dropped the class. If this happens in the middle of the semester, I assume illness.  What's odd is when a student goes missing at the end of the course.  I've had them disappear with less than two weeks to go.  Once I had a young woman (who was ace-ing the course) fail to show for the final exam, which was heavily weighted enough to sink her.  She didn't skip the final or misread the exam date in the syllabus; she just vanished.  Even odder is when students reappear.  You walk into class, look up and there they are. 

"I need to talk to you about what I have to do to catch up." 

"Catch up?  You've missed four weeks of class."

A retired colleague told me that she always played along and let reappearing students turn in late work, take the final, or attempt whatever they promise to do to make it right.  They never follow through and end up failing anyway.  Besides, she  said, they might be crazy.  The safe play is just to smile and make nice.

Most of the time you never find out why a student disappeared, but every so often you do.  I had a guy this semester who showed up twice about two weeks into the term and then vanished.  Saw in the paper he's now in jail. 

Mystery solved.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...