Acute Losses of Self Control (and Blood Splatter)

This morning as I was teaching I sneezed and blood sprayed out of my nose and onto the whiteboard. Not just a little, a good amount. As I turned around there was collective horror and snickering so I quickly retorted “Sorry I was up all night snorting prescription drugs.” Then a nice student gave me some tissues to mop up the blood, but really, it just sort of created a large splatch of red on the board.

It’s nearing the end of the semester and it’s around now that I generally lose all powers of self control that I pretend to have reigned in otherwise. I sometimes vent my frustrations with students, I mostly ignore my colleagues (but mutter things to myself about how much I hate them when they walk by) and stop worrying about getting places on time (you know, like, um, meetings–for some reason I consistently get to class early). In fact, I have nicknames for most of my colleagues to help me remember them, but they are completely offensive and mean. For instance: I secretly call one of my colleagues “bare anus.” Don’t ask. Oh, and my use of off color examples and deployment of curse words increases tenfold, but is Immodium AD really off color? Really, that’s in heavy rotation from the start of the semester actually beginning with Euthyphro. Continue reading

File under Academic Freedom

Inside Higher Education reports on a conference last week at the New School on Academic Freedom and the University.

“It is by no means clear how much the academic community has learned from the McCarthy years,” said Ellen W. Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University who, like O’Neil, spoke Thursday during a conference focused on “Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times,” held at The New School, in New York City.

Citing some examples, Schrecker mentioned the University of Nebraska’s recent cancellation of a speaking appearance by William Ayers, the education professor whose history with the Weather Underground has played a prominent role in the presidential campaign; the high-profile dismissal of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado; and the tenure denial of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University. “Universities are still accommodating themselves to the demands of politicians and other outsiders to eliminate embarrassing faculty members,” Schrecker said.

“In the name of financial exigency and market competitiveness, administrators have been subverting the autonomy of the faculty. Worse yet, faculties are disappearing,” she continued. “Two-thirds, that’s two-thirds of today’s teaching, is being done by what’s known as contingent faculty members. These people, no matter how skilled or qualified they may be, cannot provide the same kind of education as a traditional faculty.” Continue reading

PHDs in Googling?

I picked up Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, a while back and have at long last (barely) cracked the cover. There’s a decent, if not problematic review and reaction to the book and the issues Bauerlein raises in The New Atlantis:

…Professor Bauerlein, who teaches English at Emory University and is a former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, is not always sure just how much a matter of mirth “the dumbest generation” is, or isn’t. After all, it is not really their fault if, as he says, they have been “betrayed” by the mentors who should have taught them better. Yet he seems to agree with Nicholas Carr that what we are witnessing is not just an educational breakdown but a deformation of the very idea of intelligence..As The Dumbest Generation rightly notes, “the model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students.” Generally speaking, even those who are most gung-ho about new ways of learning probably tend to cling to a belief that education has, or ought to have, at least something to do with making things lodge in the minds of students—this even though the disparagement of the role of memory in education by professional educators now goes back at least three generations, long before computers were ever thought of as educational tools. That, by the way, should lessen our astonishment, if not our dismay, at the extent to which the educational establishment, instead of viewing these developments with alarm, is adapting its understanding of what education is to the new realities of how the new generation of “netizens” actually learn (and don’t learn) rather than trying to adapt the kids to unchanging standards of scholarship and learning. Continue reading

The Time(s) of Philosophy

I care about the discipline of philosophy more than the academic fate of any individual student — and I think I should,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just a baby sitter who occasionally breaks into syllogism.

My view is that you really fall into a trap when you start allowing what you believe about your students to dictate how you teach your discipline, he answered. “Too often these days we end up setting up our courses in light of what we believe about our students and we end up not teaching them. At best, we end up housebreaking them.

These are excellent comments from Kelly Jolley, chair of the Philosophy Dept at Auburn University, who happens to be featured in today’s NY Times magazine. Read the full article here.

Adventures in Teaching: D’oh Moment #321

In one of my courses, we’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations.  The students have been busy writing some responses to the reading.  Just a moment ago, as I was grading one student’s paper, I was wondering why he continually referred to the thought of “Dick Hart.”  Jarring as it was, it took me a moment, but the student meant, of course, Descartes.  Come on, just open the fucking book (or at least look at the goddamn cover) before submitting written work!  I mean really.  All in all: simultaneously hysterical and horrifying.

Can’t make this stuff up, really….

Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again: Part 2

Once again, while perusing the NY Times op-ed pages this morning I came across Stanley Fish’s column. Surprise of all surprises, he’s defending himself and clarifying his stance on politics and the classroom…Again! Responding to objections of how he defined the political– some readers wanted to define politics in a more partisan way, others suggested teaching is political already, and still others suggested that the choice of texts and course offerings are political–Fish notes the pluralism or different forms of the definitions of the political here:

These points are part of the “everything is political” argument, which, as I have said before, is both true and trivial. It is true because in any form of social activity there are always alternative courses of action — different ways of doing things — and those differences will, more often than not, reflect opposing ideas of what is important and valuable. Even something so small as giving more time to Wallace Stevens than to Robert Frost in a semester could be described as political. One could say, then, that on the most general level the decisions that go into making up a syllabus and the decisions that lead you to vote for one candidate rather than another are equally political. But the Tip O’Neill mantra — all politics is local — should remind us that the content of the general category “political” will vary with the local context of performance. One performs politically in the academy by making curricular and other choices in relation to a (contestable) vision of what is best for the discipline and the students. One performs politically in the partisan landscape by making ballot-box and funding choices in relation to a vision of what it is best for the country as an economic and military player on the world stage. The questions “should we have a course in Third World Literature?” and “should we have a single-payer health plan?” are both political, but saying so doesn’t help us to understand or deal with the challenges in either context; the stakes are different, the strategies are different, the permissible forms of activity are different (attack ads are O.K. in one venue and unheard of in the other). Dissolving these differences in the solvent of a highly abstract notion of the political may be satisfying on the level of theory, but on the level of practice it is the differences, momentarily obscured by a fancy argument, that will always count. Continue reading

Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again

Why is it every time I peruse the NY Times op-ed pages Stanely Fish is defending himself? This time he’s been associated with the Sokal hoax, accused of not separating teaching and political advocacy, and is forced to clear up his objection to the Chair of Conservative Thought at CU-Boulder. One of the things I found amusing was the idea that teachers give students lousy grades when the students write papers that oppose our political views. Isn’t this the same as a student claiming that I don’t like him and that’s the only reason he earned a “D”? True story. In my logic and critical thinking course I do a little unit on evolution/ID and always receive a bunch of wildly reactionary papers about evolution, but I look for the structure of the argument when I’m grading it, of course. I would assume most who teach are able to compartmentalize just fine. Anyway, here’s Fish:

Teachers come to their task burdened by religious and political commitments, moral philosophies and world views, and they can’t simply unburden themselves when they walk into the classroom. “It is a fallacy to think that the ‘academic’ world is or can be isolated from the political world.” But isolation from the political world is not required. All that is required is the quite ordinary ability to distinguish between contexts and the decorums appropriate to them. When you enter an institutional setting — an office, a corporate boardroom, a cruise ship, a square dance, an athletic event — the concerns to which you are responsive belong to the setting, and you comport yourself accordingly. Rather then asking, “What do my political and religious views tell me to do?”, you ask, “What do the protocols of this particular endeavor or occasion tell me to do?” The setting of the classroom is no different, even though the materials you encounter are often fraught with moral and political questions to which you would give very definite answers were you confronted by them in your life outside the academy. As long as you are in the classroom, and as long as you recognize the classroom as a place with its own constituitive demands, those questions will be seen as items in an intellectual landscape and not as challenges to which you directly and personally respond. Of course, somewhere behind what you are doing will be the larger commitments and world views that make you what you are, but for the duration of your professional performance, those commitments will be on the back burner, exerting some influence to be sure (I am not insisting on purity), but not enough to blur the distinction, basic to the very rationale for higher education, between what you would do were you in the ballot box and what you are pledged to do by virtue of the contract you have signed and the salary you are paid. Continue reading

College for All? Failure for Many?

Someone sent me this recent article from The Atlantic Monthly. It’s quite interesting and a good deal of the issues that come up should be interesting to anyone that teaches college. The question that grabbed me was on the author of the article, Professor X, broaches towards the end: Is college really for everyone? Is it actually doing as much good as we think by making a college education a necessity? One could point out to Professor X that er…according to my unscientific knee jerk poll about half (or less than half) of the American population actually holds a college degree. Regardless, Professor X tells us about his or her students, a good many of them can’t string together a coherent sentence and are subsequently perplexed (shocked) by the craptastic grades they are doled out. After all, they have gone back to school to “do themselves and their kids right” (as some of my students have said to me) and equally important, satisfy the demands of the broader culture. Anyway, here’s an excerpt, but the whole article is worth a look:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Meme: Passion Quilt

Ack. Both Carl of Dead Voles and Sinthome over at Larval Subjects tagged us here at Perverse Egalitarianism with a meme. I’m particularly irritated today because even while all the grades for my five courses were turned in on Monday morning, I have been–predictably enough–inundated with student complaints, or rather, weak petitions/pleas to “reconsider” or “further discuss” the grade I gave them (I had two emails that started with, “I don’t mean to disrespect you, but…”–if only I could send emails to students in that respect). Is this a practice limited to my institution or is it a generational thing? Anyway, sometimes this stems from a simple misunderstanding, no complete ignorance, of the concept of averages. So, some of my students just don’t understand that even though they may have earned a B on the midterm, but an F on the Final–their average is a C, not a B. Yet, most of these complaints take two forms: (1) I can’t get this grade because I will lose my scholarship (not my problem, do the work) or (2) Here’s a bunch of family/life drama that I didn’t want to tell you about, but now since you gave me a lousy grade, I’m telling you so naturally you will be compelled to change it. (Why tell me all this now?) Yes, I understand that many of my students are dealing with difficult problems (single mothers, broken homes, working two jobs) and I’m often very sympathetic (when they aren’t giving me bullshit cliches), but they made the choice to enroll in the class which means doing the work and showing up regularly (I had one student that missed 14 classes and wondered why he failed the final). I’m sorry, but some people just shouldn’t go to college. In fact, I had a student living in a homeless shelter that earned outstanding grades this semester so I’m rather wary of the two excuses I noted above.

I don’t know, it’s not that many of my students can’t do it, they can, but more often than not they lack the will, or much more frequently, they lack the intellectual skills (which I end up teaching throughout the semester, almost constantly) to succeed in the class, but really, I can’t believe that some of my students actually passed high school. It’s a problem, indeed. I try different things in the classroom, I’m aware of different learning types, I make myself accessible, but very often my students simply want me to tell them the answers, they don’t want to be bothered with any of the philosophical work, if it smells complex, it’s immediately suspect or worse, not worthy of their attention. I know this is cynical, but I always feel conflicted at the end of each semester. On the one hand, I got a few very nice emails from students thanking me (one to the effect of “I always thought of my courses as hoops to jump through for the grade, but your class really made me think differently about things” Aces!!!), but on the other hand, I have to take it up the ass after the fact from a bunch of ingrates that didn’t bother to do the work who are all trying to appeal to my pity so I’ll give them a passing grade (for some reason my students think D is not passing, it’s not great, but it’s passing I always say). Sometimes I’m Pollyana enough to just think to myself “I reached someone, very cool,” but it’s far more depressing when I think of the bulk of my students that are willfully ignorant, uncritical, and who simply refuse to think.

Enough of my ranting and raging, here is the meme: Continue reading

The Awesomeness of Students: End of Term Cheating Edition

I spent this morning reading the final argumentative essays for one of my Logic and Critical Thinking sections. Happily, out of 21 papers, I only found one paper that was shamelessly and egregiously plagiarized, mostly verbatim from Wikipedia. I found myself mildly annoyed, but more at the fact that I (with my 70 pound dog) had to go back inside my house on such a lovely day, fire up the computer, and google the offending passages (er..whole paper) instead of being crippled with some sort of moral outrage or worse, feelings of betrayal. Luckily, this student was dumb enough to copy from Wikipedia, which made for a fast corroboration, but the student also peppered the paper with paragraphs lifted from other websites which took a bit more time to dig up. Sadly, every semester I fully expect to have at least one offender in each of my courses. In one of my Introduction to Philosophy courses this semester I had a chronic plagiarizer who I found consistently copying passages (from Wikipedia) for a journal entry which I do as a sort of non-threatening say-whatever you want as long as you are engaging the text type of thing.

Very silly, despite his protestations that he didn’t copy the passages (even thought I stapled them to the front of his papers) or was confused about “how to cite them” after the second time I flat out told him he’s going to fail the class next time and be referred to the disciplinary committee. What did he do? He played the old maybe if I don’t show up to class all that much Prof. Shahar will surely forget. Wrong, and he totally fucked himself. The question I always ask myself is why do they do it? Are my assignments impossible? Are they too dumb? Poor time management? Are they too lazy? Just desperate for the “A”? Continue reading