Sunday, February 22, 2015

Extra Credit

So apparently a University of Wisconsin (Whitewater) English professor offered her students extra credit for going to a protest against Scott Walker's budget cuts (Apparently the credit was offered either for participation or "observing" but I wonder what her reaction would be to a student supporting Walker).

Okay. This whole thing sums up several of my objections to extra credit right there. First off: it's not directly related to the class material. It's apparently the professor's own opinions coming out there. I don't want to be accused of "undue influence," so I'd never offer extra credit for something remotely political or social-activism focused. (For example: I might support the service of the local Ministerial Alliance, but I would not grant students extra credit for volunteering to help with a food bank they run, or something similar. I might PUBLICIZE it - but I would be more prone to OUTSIDE of class, less it look like I was trying to hint "do this and it will positively affect your grade.")

But even beyond that - going to a rally for extra credit? What the heck is that?

Back in the day when I was in college, the way extra credit worked was this: Sometimes professors put harder or more challenging problems on an exam (or offered them as homework). It was optional for you to do them and it was more work over and above what you were already doing. (For example: you could NOT get credit for extra credit exam questions if you left other questions blank). They were also HARDER, for example, a trickier enzyme-kinetics question than the standard ones we'd seen. Or a challenging essay that got us to synthesize a couple different topics we'd covered. (And of course, in those pre-widespread-world-wide-web days, a take-home extra credit homework could not simply be Googled).

The idea was, if you wanted to work harder and do more, great - you could earn a few more points. Generally it was the "best and brightest" who took the stuff on, and mostly what it did for those who chose to do it, was to put a solid lock on their having an "A" in the class. (Or at least that was my experience). Extra credit was NOT a substitute for other work, in fact, some professors had a policy that if you hadn't turned in even one piece of the regular work, you could NOT get extra credit.

I suppose some might argue that's elitist - that it was the students who were already good students that had the best shot at extra credit, or that the people who already worked hard got it. But you know what? That's kind of how it should work. The person who works hard should see a reward for that hard work.

I think one of the changes we've seen in the 20 or so years since I've been an undergrad is a rise of "the people who are hardworking and smart don't particularly deserve any perks, rather, we should make it so those at the bottom cannot fail."

It seems to me now that a lot of people who grant extra credit do it so people DON'T fail* - so they can salvage their grade and get away with not doing all the work in the class.

(*It's possible this is a cultural difference between colleges. I went to a highly-selective "Public Ivy," and I teach at a small regional state school that is not particularly selective).

But there's an expectation on the part of the students that bugs me - the few times I've put tougher questions on the exam as "extra credit," a few people have implied it's "unfair" because not everyone can answer them.

Wait, what? It's not fair that some people might earn a few more points because they worked harder or were smarter to begin with? Well, no, it's not fair, in the sense of "equal outcomes for everyone." But there are equal opportunities: you all get the same question. You all had the same chance to study for the exam. You all heard the same material in class. You all had the chance to take advantage of my MANY officer hours per week to get help. But some of you chose not to do that. So you don't get the same outcome as those who did. Frankly, that's how life SHOULD work - those who put in more effort get more out of it.

The other thing I see is a rise of wanting extra credit to make up for previous failures. Like, "Can I write a paper to earn back points?" No. Why should I make more work for myself reading and grading something because you couldn't be bothered to come to all the labs or do all the homework?
(I will work with people with legitimate excuses, and I do have one "free" lab built in to most of my classes, so people who are out sick one week won't be hurt).

But almost invariably, at the end of the semester, I get someone who is all sad coming to me because they missed four or five labs, and did poorly on a couple exams, and is in danger of failing, and wants me to make a special assignment just for them so they will pass. And I ask them why they didn't come in seeking help earlier? And no one has ever had a good answer for that.

I also know people who hand out extra credit like it was candy at Hallowe'en. Go to this talk, get extra credit. Go do this volunteer opportunity, get extra credit. And granted - it's good for the students to hear some of the talks on campus or do things for the community - but they should be doing that anyway, and if something like, I don't know, going to see plays, is so important to the grade of a class, it should be worked into the syllabus, for example, see and write a one-page commentary on one of the three or four plays that is performed on campus each semester and that's worth 10 points of participation or somesuch.

The problem with the "candy" extra credit is that people come to EXPECT it. And then people like me, who don't do extra credit (at least not in the Brave New World way of "show up, go from a D to a C") are the bad meanies who don't want students to succeed.

And that's even beyond the whole political thing of sending students to a political rally.

Monday, February 16, 2015

an ugly world

If you had told me, fifteen or twenty years ago, that I'd see a sharp increase in martyrdom* of Christians in my lifetime, I'd never have believed you.

(*And yes, that's what it is. They are dying because of the faith they profess, at the hands of people who do not share that faith)

I'm glad Egypt is apparently doing something about it.

I am also troubled - as I've said before - by what seems to be a new rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Hey, guys.....we had a really big war like 70 years ago partly because of people doing ugly anti-Semitic stuff. Stop it.

Granted, the root cause of both these problems (increased Christian martyrdom and increased anti-Semitic acts) is probably the same. (Though I suspect there are some "good Europeans" who are indulging in an uglier side of themselves as well, as far as the anti-Semitism is concerned).

Look, there are a lot of things people do that I don't agree with. But unless they are directly threatening my life with those things I am not going to take action against them. It's a big damn world, live and let live, all that. And I get that "live and let live" is a REALLY hard concept for certain groups, but maybe those groups need a serious reformation and consideration of their beliefs.

As I've said before: it's a good thing I'm not God, 'cos there'd be a whole lot of smiting going on right now. And probably a few nasty plagues (frogs, flies) in certain parts of the world.

Friday, February 13, 2015

No fake, Sherlock.

Two little things:

A. President Obama said: ""It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm,"

Wait....a tool can both be used to help and harm? Who would EVER have thought? 

B. My personal information was swept up in the Anthem breach and I spent part of the end of last week and the first of this week getting locks and holds and alerts placed. That said, I am absolutely, positively, 100% not-in-favor of more restrictions (like some of those some on the Left seem to favor) on the Internet, because those seem mostly designed to hurt dissent and to hurt those who are abiding by the existing laws. That said, I think identity theft needs to somehow be dealt with more severely. (Last week I was stomping around saying it should be a capital crime, but no, I don't really think that). But yeah, it feels creepy and weird and wrong that some jerk over in China may have my social security number and birthdate. (And not so he can send me a card on my birthday, either)

So: tools can help and harm. The answer is NOT restricting the tool or access to it, but dealing harshly with those who misuse the tool.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

a question

What kind of a f***er burns a guy alive?

Dammit, I'm so mad at humanity (or at least some segments of it) right now. 

I just....can't. I can't think of anything else to say. (I had a grandparent who died as a result of burns they suffered in a kitchen accident, so burns and fire are sort of an issue for me anyway)

Monday, February 02, 2015

One more thought on measles

There's a 21-day incubation period.

Okay then: all parents who refuse vaccination of their children for non-medical reasons, you and your children get quarantined, starting now, for 21 days. You need groceries? Call a service to deliver them. Have to go to work? Work from home. Your child's going to miss school? Cry me a river, kids on chemo have to miss school too....and they could catch measles if your kid gets them and takes them to school. No traveling, no going out to movies, no fun, for 21 days. Hope you all have Netflix!

That's what it might take to shut this down.

The other option? Get the kids vaccinated. Simple choice.

I'm just sick of the whole "Let's be a free rider on the responsibility that other parents are shouldering" bit....and the free riders are apparently reaching a critical mass where they can't be absorbed by the system any more. It's just the same in my mind as the (possibly apocryphal) case of the able-bodied guy who wanted to pursue the surfing lifestyle, so instead of working and surfing on weekends, he went on assistance. So everyone else who puts their hobbies on hold during the work week gets to pay for him.

No, life isn't fair, but people shouldn't get to abuse the community to make it "more fair" for what they want.

I have an appointment this week to get my immunity checked, and if needed, get revaccinated. Because I expect this to get worse before it gets better and I want to know I'm immune, not just assume it based on childhood vaccine records.

Edited to add: RAND PAUL YOU ARE AN IDIOT. If it's you vs. Hilary in 2016, I will either stay home or will vote for a third-party candidate. "Mental disorders" my ass.

Any parent worried about safety for their kids: their kids are in worse danger, statistically speaking, whenever they ride in their parents' car somewhere. If they eat rice, they consume more dangerous chemicals (much rice, esp. grown in Texas or Bangaladesh, contains high levels of arsenic).

People get "choice" in vaccines only if their kids don't come into contact with kids who can't safely be vaccinated - or people with compromised immune systems - or people whose immunity has worn off. There's no way to ensure this UNLESS you and your kids live on a commune and never interact with the public.

This is not solely a personal freedom issue because an unvaccinated child could inadvertently harm others. 

I'm really, really, disappointed in Rand Paul over this. (And Chris Christie, but I was already so not on board with him)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Changes and thoughts

The congregation I belong to has undergone an enormous amount of change in the past ten or so years.

First, the congregation split. Two factions had developed, roughly on age lines (the boomers, vs. the post-boomers. I actually sided with the post-boomers. The boomers were the ones who left....) There were also some doctrinal differences; the people who split and left were more doctrinaire and less willing to say "that's between them and God" concerning things like divorce and gay people.

We struggled. We had an interim for a while....the same interim we had before the pastor who left in the split was hired. We hired someone new. He worked for a while and then he and his wife divorced and he decided to move. Then we hired someone new who turned out probably not to be the best fit for us. Then we limped along with people coming in for single weeks. Then we had a seminary student. And he was fine at first, but....well, as someone noted, he had some authority issues, he wanted things done his way, he had a hard time compromising. This led to a lot of tension and unhappiness. And I remember one Pastoral Committee meeting (which, sigh, yes, that's another group I'm on) that got really ugly and upsetting with two people yelling at each other and I walked out of there in tears. And I admit, the last few months he was there, I fully expected we'd fold after he left....there was a lot of demoralization and I admit at times I felt like I was walking on eggshells. People wouldn't come to church. Sometimes the elders I had assigned duty didn't show up, which was upsetting - there were long strings of weeks I had to serve at the table because one or the other of the assigned people weren't there. It go so I just expected I'd have to do it....I was getting very tired.

I didn't realize how much it affected me and how upsetting it was to my psyche or subconscious. We now have another interim. This man is older, he's been through a lot, he's learned, I guess, how to work with people. He's super friendly and relentlessly positive. People have begun coming back. Every week so far, since he's been there, both of the people assigned to elder have been present, so I haven't had to fill in. People even show up for meetings when they're called.

And on the one hand, that makes me really sad: my attitude is that when a church is struggling, like when there's someone in leadership who's difficult, that's when you make an extra effort to get the work done and keep trudging forward and not leave the other people in positions of leadership hanging by not showing up for meetings or duty. But I can also understand if someone puts you on edge, you want to avoid dealing with them.

(For what it's worth, the person in question didn't really put me on edge, not other than that ugly meeting. I make it my goal in life to do my best to work with people, even with those who have difficult personalities)

But it is an enormous relief not to have that walking-on-eggshells feeling. The guy we have now will stay until we get someone permanent (and, please God, let the person we hire be someone we can all work harmoniously with).

As I said, I didn't realize how much that all affected me. Last fall was difficult; I taught an overload, I was tired all the time, and feeling like things were unsettled and uncomfortable at church (which is the closest thing I have to family here) made everything so much worse.

It's one of those times that you look back on after you came through it and you realize how beat up/depressed/tired/angry/whatever you were, but somehow you couldn't see it when you were in the middle of it. I feel more like myself again. I'm laughing at stuff again. My creativity and eagerness to work are coming back.

I just hope this is the end of the congregation's big problems for a while, at least. I want to see us grow, I especially want to see us have some kind of stability. I don't want to have to beg people to attend the women's group meetings or the elder's meetings....I don't want to feel like I'm carrying responsibility other people could carry but choose not to.

A few months ago, I was wondering, "Where will I go when we fold? Could I shift to being a Presbyterian? Could I try Methodism? Could I stand driving an hour's round trip each week to the next nearest Disciples church?"  Now I don't feel like it's so likely we will fold. Oh, we need to grow. We need new members. But we do serve an important purpose. (For example: we have several gay men as members. It's the only place in town, apparently, where they feel welcomed in a church. And you can say what you will about homosexuality, I am not going to judge people harshly for being gay. I get that a lot of doctrine opposes the action....but knowing the men I do, I can't...I don't know. I guess it's one of the things where I go "that was then, this is now." I'm not saying it very well but I feel like it's not my place to judge someone for that. Most of them are in committed relationships and are not hurting anyone.... I have bigger problems with hetero couples where one member cheats a lot on the other and hurts them, or where they get together for the wrong reasons, have kids, and then split up and leave the kids kind of adrift)

My church is important to me. It serves an absolutely necessary role in my life and it hurts me - more deeply than I realized - when my church is hurting.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Grocery store observations

I am not a big fan of grocery shopping. In my town, we have a walmart supercenter; a small, locally-run place which is v. nice but is more expensive and has limited selection; and an outpost of a mostly-dead chain.

I don't shop at the mostly-dead-chain place because they've long had the reputation of not pulling expired stock. Also, I have had a couple bad experiences there the few times I tried to shop there.

I tend to go to the locally owned place if I know they will have what I need - the checkout people are nicer and smarter, it's less crowded, the people shopping there are nicer. They also seem better set up for people who live alone (or are more cognizant of the fact that lots of people do, these days) in that they don't have stuff in ginormous "family packs" where you have to either freeze 7/8 of the stuff or else have a crew of friends willing to share it.

I don't like the walmart for myriad reasons, but I shop there because they carry certain things the local place does not, things that I need.

My other options are to drive an hour's round trip (or more) for stores like Kroger's. And a Whole Foods - well, that would be at least a 2 hour round trip, if traffic was favorable.

So yeah, we're kind of stuck.

I don't like walmart for different reasons than most of the loud walmart haters don't like it:

- they have a policy of carrying a brand or item for about six weeks and then abruptly dropping it. I get that some things don't have high demand but enough people I know have complained about this that I am guessing it's something more to do with them trying to cut lowball deals with the suppliers than with "people didn't buy that particular brand."

- The people who shop there. Oh, sweet Agnes, the people who shop there. I won't go on a Friday afternoon or the weekend the checks come out (or EBT cards get refilled). Yes, that's snobby and "bougie" of me, but there are people that shop our local store that DO NOT KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC and they seem a lot more common on the first of the month. As Heroditus Huxley has noted in other language, it's not a class thing, it's a behavior thing - there are people on assistance who don't stand and block the door, or have a yelling fit at the cashier when they are told they can't buy sodas with their WIC funds....but there are also people who do that kind of thing.

The other thing I hate about shopping at busy times is that it's just a crush of people and they NEVER have enough checkout lines manned, so you're standing ten deep in a line. And of course there's the person with an order that has to be broken into three separate orders with separate payments. Or the person who has a gigantic order and who waits until it's all rung up, then digs out their checkbook and wants to write a check. Or someone who argues with the cashier because they think their stuff should be cheaper.

And there are the poorly-supervised kids. And the rude teenagers. And the people on cell phones who don't see anyone else and will run into you if you aren't careful.

And it just makes me so misanthropic to be there when it's busy, and I know that makes Jesus unhappy with me, because I'm totally not loving my "neighbors" in that moment....but I just can't.

(So I shop early Saturday mornings, when no one is there)

- They don't have enough staff. Stuff doesn't get restocked very fast so it's not unusual to need something and there just be an empty space on the shelf where it is. If you can find someone, you can ask, but often you can't find someone, or they do the "that's not my department" thing and walk away.

- The stores are huge and are often illogically laid out so you have to go all over Creation to find what you need. (And like most groceries now, the stuff you need the most is at the back of the store. I know there's a "cooler set up" reason for that but I'm sure the people running the store figure making the person who needs milk trek past ALL THE OTHER FOOD is a bonus 'cos they might buy something else).

But there are a few grocery store frustrations and things I've noticed recently, and this is probably tied to the crap economy, and businesses not feeling like they can hire more workers because it's so expensive now to have a full-time person, and part time people can only work so many hours...

But I've found a lot of stores recently aren't as good as they once were at pulling expired stock. One of the reasons I don't shop at one store in town here is that they never did this....but increasingly, I'm seeing it in other stores. And yes, it's possible to check yourself. And I always check stuff like milk and cheese and eggs....but it's annoying because sometimes the "sell by" dates are printed very small and are blurry, and I hate having to check EVERY BLAMED THING so I'm not paying full price for a can of tomatoes that was at its best in 2012 or something....but more and more, stores are doing this. Recently, I've gotten a couple of items (cheese, and a yogurt sort of thing) that I got home with and realized they were past their dates. In the case of the yogurt, it wasn't until I started eating it. (It wasn't spoiled, luckily). The cheese I just threw out because it would have cost more to drive the hour's round trip to return it than it was worth.

But ugh. So now that's something else I have to police, in addition to checking on sodium content and reading ingredients to make sure a couple food additives I'm sensitive to are not in the item.

Also, the whole issue of "not enough checkout lanes." Some places have self-check lanes but I tend to dislike those, and also, most stores say they are for a relatively small number of items, and because I like to shop only once every 10 days to 2 weeks (if I can manage to do so), I have a big order of I wait in line.

(One reason why I like the locally-owned place and shop there, even though they are slightly more expensive: if more than three people are in line, they OPEN ANOTHER ONE until all their lines are open. Usually when I go there I don't have to wait more than a minute in line)

I don't know. I know it sounds a little entitlement-minded, but I often wind up shopping when I'm tired or in a hurry to get done and get on with what I need to do, and I don't like having to do so much of the work myself: self-checkouts with self-bagging. Checking to be sure every single darn item is still sufficiently within its freshness window. I suppose the next evolution will be a giant warehouse with stuff on high pallets, and ladders everywhere, and you have to go and find what you want and get it down off its high shelf, and cut open the cardboard boxes or take off the pallet wrap when a new case needs to be opened...and yet, you will still pay increasingly high prices for groceries.

(I would not mind using the self-checkout nearly so much if they offered, say, a 2% discount to people who did. But that's not gonna happen).

This morning, when I went to the walmart, I noticed something I hadn't seen in years.

When I was a kid (this would have been the previous big recession, the one of  the late 1970s), a lot of stores featured an aisle or two of "generic" items - these were things that had no brand, you couldn't usually figure out what factory made them. They were in plain white or yellow containers with the item's name (e.g., "ROLLED OATS") printed on it in black. There was minimal other information; usually the RDA label and a list of ingredients were it. This was different from store brands, which were usually clearly made in the same factories as national brands, but because of less advertising budget, were cheaper. The generic stuff was dirt cheap compared to national brands, and at least the few things we tried, were not really comparable. Maybe for stuff like rolled oats and really basic stuff it was fine, I don't know. But the generics where I grew up were not that good, and there was definitely a stigma attached to them....

Well, generics are coming back. Walmart now has some items that are in plain blue boxes (blue, I suppose, for walmart) with the name just printed on them. Not many items; I think I saw macaroni and cheese and brownie mix and corn flakes.

And I admit, I have some other weird associations with generics. I don't know if this is some dumb thing my kid mind put together, or if I heard some offhand comment my dad made....but they always made me think of Soviet Russia. When I was a kid, it was the tail end of the Cold War. There were a few "exposé" type tv programs (or segments on something like 60 Minutes) about life in Soviet Russia of the time. And the biggest thing I remember are seeing the lines to buy food, and hearing that in some cases, people waited in line for six hours for a sack of potatoes, or something like that. And that there was almost no choice in the stores - if they had canned fish, they had ONE kind of canned fish, and you took it or went hungry. No asking "But do you have salmon?" no saying "But I don't really care for mackerel...."

I also remember hearing a story from someone at church, they hosted a person who had defected, and when they took this man to the grocery store in the US for the first time, he broke down crying - because he could not believe how much food and how much choice there was, he had thought what he had heard back home about the US had to be a fairy story.

And somehow, in my kid mind, I conflated the awful, empty, choice-less Russian shops with the generic foods....and I would always shudder a little bit walking down that aisle, wondering if that was our future.

So far, it isn't. But once in a while, you know? You hear some intellectual sort of person, often who works for the government, commenting that we have "too much choice" in our groceries. Either "too much choice" because then people make the "wrong" ones, or it's not "green" to have fifteen different varieties of canned fish on the shelves, or....I don't know what. But I get really uncomfortable with people who decide they would like, by fiat, to reduce our choices in what we can buy....because I think of those Russian people queuing up for the better part of a day (And how would people who worked for a living do it? I'd STARVE because I can't make multiple hours in a day to wait in line somewhere) and I think of those aisles at the local grocery store with their eerie, blank boxes on them.

And yeah, food is expensive and getting more so. I bought a head of cauliflower this morning (almost $4!) and the woman checking me out blinked and said, "Is that right, did I ring it up wrong?" and I kind of groaned and said, "No, cauliflower has gotten high." (Then again: I can get four meals or so out of that cauliflower, so it's still cheap compared to some things.) So maybe someday soon I will be having to revert to the blank boxes for whatever I need. (Except most of them probably are too high in sodium; those of us who have to restrict are a small enough market that most manufacturers ignore us.)