Wednesday, March 25, 2015


All the conservative commentators who are practically slavering over "the end of universities" (apparently to be replaced by proficiency tests and people reading books as autodidacts) make me so tired.

If universities go away, how will I earn my bread? For that matter, how will lots of medical/engineering/physics/etc. research get done?

I really wonder and worry. I don't have a lot of skills beyond teaching and it would be very hard for me to ramp up for something new. (Especially if there were no teaching institutions....I have a friend who tells me because of my attention to detail, I'd make an awesome patent examiner, but I have no idea how one goes about getting qualified to do that).

I don't know. Not everyone needs to go to college, agreed. But let's also agree that SOME people do need to go to college, and professors can't live on hope and air.

(for that matter - most of the rise in tuition? Is not rise in your average teaching prof's's an increase in bureaucracy, some of it to meet governmental mandates or increasingly demanding parents.)

I'm putting away money for an eventual retirement, but I couldn't afford to retire at 50 or 55.....

Also, the whole "professors are liberal parasites who coddle the students and don't make them do any work, and just indoctrinate them" meme makes me tired. I try to figure out what the eventual employers of my students need for them to know, and teach them that, even if it's stuff that I don't find all that compelling. I could spend months on, say, seed dispersal, but I don't, because I know there are a lot of other things, like being able to estimate deer population sizes or write plans for controlling an invasive weed, that the students will actually need.

I try not to get my "feelings hurt" but I often think, when I read these commentators, that there's nothing I could say or do to make them not hate me for my career choice. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

three foods post

There's so much awful stuff going on in the world (like terrorist attacks) and so much stupid stuff (like a coffee purveyor wanting to engage hurried, caffeine-deprived people in a discussion on race) that I can't even.

So, I'm going back to something I remember reading in a cooking magazine (I think it was) a while back - they'd ask some chef what three foods they ALWAYS had on hand, and what three foods they NEVER bought.

Five things I always keep on hand:

1. Canned wild-caught salmon. It's good, it's easy to make dishes with it, it's a shelf-stable protein so in those weeks when I can't get to the store I can still make salmon patties or salmon salad or my favorite, creamed salmon. In an emergency you could even eat it straight from the can.

2. Lowfat plain Greek yogurt. First, because it's my go-to lunch food (quick, low in sodium, easy to digest) but also, there are a lot of things you can do with it - it substitutes for sour cream in quite a few things, and I've added it to things like soups and tomato sauce in the place of cream. It doesn't curdle like cream, it's lower in fat, if you don't cook it at too hot a temperature it still has its probiotics intact. I credit my avoidance of the little stomach bugs that go around to the copious amounts of plain yogurt I eat. (Also, you can dress it up however you want - cut up fruit, jam, honey, or even savory things like chutney)

3. Jarred red cabbage. Again, this is easy. The "real" homemade stuff is better (but not that MUCH better) but it is a lot of work to prepare and it also makes more than I can eat in the period of time for which it stays good. And it keeps forever until you open it, and once opened, it keeps for a while in the fridge. And it's one of the less offensive (to me) vegetables out there.

4. Oatmeal. Plain, old-fashioned oatmeal. This is my regular breakfast. Part of it is a health thing (plain oatmeal is high in good stuff and low in stuff I need to be avoiding) but also I've learned that it keeps me fuller than cold cereal does. And it's really not that bad done in the microwave. And, like plain yogurt, you can add whatever you want to it to flavor it - I've used honey. Or a spoon of apple butter and some cinnamon. Or maple syrup. Or a spoon of peanut butter. Or cut up fruit. Or cut up dried fruit.

5. Semisweet chocolate chips. Good to add to oatmeal (see above), good in baking, good to even take a small handful and let them melt in your mouth when you need a little chocolate. I get the Ghirardelli brand, which are available even at relatively benighted groceries like the local walmart (which recently eliminated several items - including the Lindt truffles - that I used to buy. I suppose they couldn't get the distributors to cut them a cheap enough deal or something.) The Ghirardelli chips are really pretty good quality chocolate. (I know, I know: you are free to argue that Scharffen Berger or whoever's is better, but we're talking about chocolate I don't have to drive an hour to buy)

Three foods I don't buy:

1. Soda, either regular or diet. I honestly don't like it that well and it's an easy way for me to avoid extra sugar in my diet by not drinking it. Once in a great while I will have one at a restaurant (though these days, if I'm getting a sweetened drink, it is more likely sweet tea). I'm not going to be one of those Puritans who says no one ever should drink soda, I'm just saying I don't like it well enough to spend part of my calorie budget on it - I'd rather be able to have cheese or chocolate. Instead, I drink plain tea (usually hot tea at home) or lowfat milk or water.

2. Cured meat. I avoid this mainly for sodium reasons. I do admit I slightly miss sausage on pizza and things like salami, but I don't miss them enough to try to rebudget my diet to have them. There's also some limited evidence that high (like, daily) consumption of cured meat can increase cancer risk, and as I had one grandparent who died of stomach cancer....well, I'm probably better off avoiding it.

3. Broccoli. I can't bring myself to like it. I've tried it, but I just can't do it. And too much of adulthood is eating things you don't really like and avoiding eating the things you would rather eat, all in the name of health, so I draw the line at broccoli. (And cooked spinach. And Brussels sprouts, though I do need to try those again some time.)

Three things I would eat more often if I lived somewhere other than I currently do:

1. Fresh fish. I'm, I don't know how many, miles from an ocean? And I'm pretty far from a large airport so fish brought in from elsewhere isn't usually an option. Around here, the common fish are tilapia (which I just don't like, it's like the tofu of fish) and catfish (also don't like, I don't care for the texture, and most of it is farm-raised, which to me means they spend a lot of time eating their own poo). Once in a while there are "pan fish" available, usually only if you know someone who fishes and gets enough extra to share. I like salmon and trout, but they're not widely available in fresh (or even previously frozen) form in the stores here - as I said, locally, I have wal-mart, and that's pretty much it, and even the groceries in Next Biggest Town don't really have a fish case.

I remember when I was younger, my family lived near a real fish market and we used to get all kinds of stuff, even monkfish, which is apparently really uncommon now (it was called "poor man's lobster" with good reason. I guess it's not cheap any more, even if you can find it)

The frustrating thing is so many of my cookbooks seem to assume that EVERYONE has access to a fish market, and that canned fish is for losers. (Check your big-city privilege, cookbook writers...)

2. Meat. Again, it's hard to find good meat! I live in the middle of cattle country but am regularly disappointed in the steaks I get at the store - either they're tough for what cut they are, or they have little flavor. (I could deal with the toughness by cooking longer, but if it's a piece that's low on flavor, long cooking will just drain away what flavor is there). I can get decent chicken (go figure) so I actually eat that more often, but I admit I miss good beef and pork. (And the pork I can get seems to come from pigs bred to be extra-lean, so it's ALWAYS dry.)

3. Salad. It's hard to find decent salad greens. I rely on spinach a lot but time was when I lived near a store that sold bulk spring mix, and mache, and something called corn salad (not actually corn, it was almost like a lettuce, except I think it was in a different botanical family). Actually, produce in general isn't as good here as it was when I lived in a larger city. I do tend to rely on frozen and canned stuff more here.

I mean, I'd never want to live in a big city again for lots of reasons, but grocery shopping is harder and less-satisfying now.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Maybe a little success?

Yeah, I know, it's been a while. I've been busy.

And it seems like it's now a truism that every semester, I will have a difficult class, a class with a critical mass (in our small classes, that can be as few as four or five people) that just drag the whole class down and make me want to tear out my hair. It's not always the same class but while it's going on in a class, it gets me doubting my teaching skill - I nearly scrapped and re-did one whole class last semester after having a couple of people who behaved like jerks in there. Now, this semester, that class is SO different, I'm glad I didn't rush to a new textbook or anything like that.

It's a different class that's giving me issues this semester. This is a class that's a cognate for another major (which I will euphemize as Other Major) on our campus. Other Major has the reputation of being "easier" than we are; in fact, several people recently have switched from our major to Other Major after repeatedly failing (usually because of the student's failure to put in sufficient effort) one of our classes.

Also, Other Major has a slight reputation as being a "party" major. One of my colleagues informs me that at conferences that students attend, the faculty and students go out drinking together. Now, that would be one thing, MAYBE, if it were a graduate program and if it were students and faculty going out for a beer or two and a talk. But no, this is DRINKING drinking, not "let's have a beer and talk" drinking. I can't verify that other than that my colleague generally doesn't make stuff up. But whatever.

So, I have a group of 4-5 people from Other Major (well, I have a few more, but they're a lot quieter). I can't tell if one of the guys from Other Major just tends to be a class-clown, or if he's embarrassed/not sure how to act around a female prof (Another fact: Other Major has only one female prof, and apparently she's "one of the boys." I am NOT, in fact, some of the men in my department would not be called "one of the boys.") But he's goofy and it's goofiness that borders on being annoying to me. So far I've done the pained-smile thing response to the worst of it....

There are also a couple other people who like to talk. And like to text. And I caught them passing notes, yes, PASSING NOTES one day in class. (I will remind you I teach college, not fifth grade). I spoke to them about that. I regularly speak to them about the talking being disruptive.(And the giggling. I'm JUST insecure enough that students giggling in class makes me wonder if my slip has come loose and is hanging below my dress, or if I have a bizarre stain on my shirt front, or if I just inadvertently said something that now has an Urban Dictionary meaning*)

But, the victory in all this: The first exam, they did dismally poorly. The students from My Major all earned decent grades. The students from Other Major who are taking the class seriously and participating appropriately earned decent grades.

In fact, one of the crew earned the lowest grade on the exam. I make it a practice to put the average, standard deviation (even though people who haven't had stats don't know what it means) and range on the board. And one woman in the crew started exclaiming, super-loud (so I'm SURE I was meant to hear): "Are you f***ing kidding me? Are you f***ing kidding me? I EARNED THE LOWEST GRADE?!?!!"

(Honey, someone has to. That's kind of how it works)

I ignored the outburst, assuming it was a play for attention.

But I did e-mail their advisors about the behavior and the poor performance. And this past week and a half? They've been a lot better. So I wonder if maybe their advisor took them aside and told them they don't have to LIKE the class, but they have to PASS it. I just hope they do well (or well enough) on this next exam; I'd like to see them get some kind of good outcome from trying to be a little more serious.

(*Oh, and about Urban Dictionary usages.....some years back a colleague came to me and asked me, "Do you know of any 'dirty' meaning to the phrase "shot his wad"?"

Now, I'm kind of old - I knew the phrase as a shooting phrase, where old muzzleloaders were a pain to reload (with powder, wadding, and bullet) and a shooter would not waste a loading on a shot unlikely to strike home - so "shooting ones wad" meant an ineffectual effort.

Alternatively, I knew it as a gambling term, where "wad" meant "wad of cash," and a gambler who had shot his wad meant he had spent all his money, with no winnings to show for it.

But no, now, it means.....ejaculation. Yeah. Great. That was why my colleague's class laughed at him. (Though it gets better: he was using it in the sense of discussion allocation of a plant's resources to reproduction, so in a peculiar way, it was appropriate.) But I worry that eventually so many words will take on secondary, "dirty" meanings that we will have to sharply curtail our vocabularies.....that we are on the road BACK to grunting and pointing as our "language.")

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)