Monday, April 30, 2007


This IS crispy critter week for me, but at least I have two of my finals written.

I gave students "until 5 pm" to hand in a large, important assignment. So I was stuck here. So I buckled down and worked. 2/3 of my finals are written now, and the 3rd one will not be too hard.

However, I don't have the last student's assignment. It's 5 pm where I am, so unless he's on Margarita Standard Time (as in: "It's always 5:00 somewhere" which technically is true...he could argue, at least until Fiji or wherever it is closest to the International Date Line hits 5 pm, he's still technically, "in time" somewhere in the world. Won't wash with me but I'd like to see him try it).


You know what frustrates me?

When someone who has done poorly all semester, someone I've warned needs to work harder, who skipped an entire exam, who plagiarized one paper and admits that the second one (handed in late) was "not a very good effort," then comes to me and says:

"I really need a C. Is there anything that I can do?"

I fight my natural temptation to say, "Yes. Build a time machine, go back in time, and study harder. Oh, and write that one paper yourself instead of copying it off of an Internet site that even someone with as few mad skillz as I have could find with a little searching.*"

Instead I say, "No. I'm sorry. I don't offer extra credit."

(Because I know that's what the question was really aimed at.)

(*It occurs to me that if I gave in to my natural inclinations to say certain things, I'd kind of be a female, non-atheist version of House.)

(Is House an atheist? The few episodes I've seen seem to suggest it but it's not entirely clear. I'm coming to be somewhat interested in the show but I can't always watch it either because of my schedule or because sometimes medical shows just depress me)

More on personality and success...

Kate asked about burnout in grad school.

It's entirely possible, and I saw it happen. In one case the person took a year off, and then was able to come back and finish. Perhaps some of the folks who left did so simply because they burned out. I don't think there's any shame in admitting you're burned out. I also know people who went and started getting counseling in grad school and that seemed to help them.

I never really felt it - I had moments, days, maybe even weeks of frustration. But my attitude was "I'm gonna do this or die trying - and I don't intend to die." And I think that helped me, the sheer stubbornness, the "I am not going to fail at this."

Like anything in life, there are things you can do to guard against burnout.

I think one of the things that saved me was my life-situation. I am not (and wasn't then) married and didn't have kids - so I had no real responsibilities in that arena. And that helps a lot, I think - only having yourself to take care of.

And I had an even easier time of it because I lived with my parents at that time. I wound up attending grad school in the town where they lived. My choice (given the stipend I received at the time) was to either have my parents as "housemates" or to have two or three people I'd never met before as "housemates" in a rental house.

I figured that as I got along well with my parents - and often did NOT get along well with other people of my own generation, as I'm the kind of person who likes to be in bed by 10 and who isn't interested in consuming Mass Quantities of things like alcohol, and really is appalled by the idea of being "sexiled" from the apartment for the night, just so one of my roommates can have a scrump-buddy over - that I'd live with my parents.

And that turned out to be a good choice. (Probably the only drawback is it did kind of affect dating type things: it seems a bit of the gleam went out of a guy's eyes when he found out I lived with my folks.)

When I was really really close to losing my stuff because I was stressed, my mom would offer to do my laundry "for a week" or so (I otherwise did it myself) and I was excused from the usual household chores I took part in. I was also usually freed from doing the grocery shopping because she did it. And once or twice one of them would "kidnap" me from my lab and take me out to lunch or take me to the quilt shop to calm me down. (I also did something like that to friends of mine - MADE them come off campus with me for an hour or two when they were close to bugging out.)

They also provided a considerable amount of emotional support. And both my parents are Ph.D.s, so all the crap you put up with in grad school - they'd been there, done that, and lived through it. So I figured I could.

I do think part of avoiding burnout is knowing, judiciously, when to say, "I can't take it right now" and to just GO - to go out for pizza and beer, or go to a bookstore and spend a couple hours browsing, or go hiking, or something.

If you're not naturally a procrastinator (and I am not), sometimes you need small mental health breaks. (For people who are naturally procrastinators, they're necessary too, but you need to be sure that you're not taking it just to avoid working).

One of my favorite Matt Groening "Life in Hell" cartoons about grad school, which I had up over my desk for a while, showed Binky (one of Groening's rabbit characters) sitting working at a desk. One of his buddies stuck his head in the room and said something like, "Come on outside! It's a beautiful day! We're having a picnic and drinking beer and playing frisbee!"

And Binky replies: "Sounds great. I'll be out in about five years."

It made me laugh but it is not - and should not be - strictly true about grad school. I had my share of picnics and played my share of frisbee with my friends. Sometimes you DO need to acknowledge that it's a beautiful day, and that the books and data and half-written thesis will still be there when you come back in.

But the flip side is that you do need to know that grad school is a lot about delayed gratification. I never really knew what either Seinfeld or the Friends were up to, because I found evenings were a good time to read journals for me. I didn't go to many movies when I was in grad school. I didn't go skiing (not that I ski anyway) or to the beach or took long vacations. I was in the lab a lot of Saturdays, or out in the field.

But I made it through. Oh, there were a few times when I didn't think I would. There were a few times I was within a hair's breadth of quitting and....I don't know, I don't know what kind of a job I would have got. There were times I threatened to quit school and waitress for the rest of my life, but those were hollow threats because I knew I had the wrong sort of personality to waitress. (I'd be too prone to "accidentally" drop a bowl of soup on a rude customer.)

Another thing that I found helped was to set small goals. I don't work well with just one big goal in sight, where that big goal is a couple years down the road. I need small, intermediate goals. And sometimes, I need those goals to be something other than just steps on the way to the big goal.

I remember one semester what saved me was taking a seminar class on the orgin and evolution of land plants. Every week we had papers to read and critique, and each of us had to prepare and present a specific topic. (I don't even remember my topic now). I liked having that because I could check off at least ONE thing as being done for that week.

Having grading to do helped also - again, it was something to check off. And teaching helped - the contact with the students, the time out of my lab doing something else. Being a teaching assistant can stink if you're working for someone who puts too much responsibility on you, or who is in general a bad supervisor, but by and large I had good supervisors. (In fact, there was one class I taught MANY times - I asked for it every semester - because the prof in charge was so good. Any problems the students had, if they got angry or anything - his policy was: you send them to me. I will deal with it.

Funny story, while I'm on a digression: I had one student one semester who was a real problem child. Handed things in late, handed one lab in plagiarized [for which he got a 0.]. Towards the end of the semester he came to me wanting to hand a lab in three weeks late. I told him it was my policy not to accept late work. First, he tried wheedling, tried cajoling. I said no, it's not fair to anyone else, I've turned down other people who brought late work. Then he got angry and threatened me.

"I'll go to the professor in charge," he threatened.

"Be my guest," I responded.

The prof's office was right next door to mine. The student stormed out, went next door.

About 30 seconds later, I heard a very loud "HELL NO!" echo from the prof's office. Obviously the student had tried to get the prof to force me to accept the late work.

I just sat at my desk and grinned to myself, and thought, "Dr. R. strikes again!"

Is it any wonder I kept asking to teach with him?)

Anyway: I think having intermediate goals helps a lot. And sometimes taking a few hours off when you're at the breaking point helps. And if you can manage to have some of the "life responsibility" loads shouldered by another while you're in grad school, that helps as well.


On another note: my students started their research presentations today. I'm pleased, in general. I was also very happy when one of the students collared me earlier this morning and spoke excitedly about his project and how the data fell all into place at the end and how he actually SAW something meaningful in his results.

And I thought to myself: yup, that's why I make them do it. For every person who gripes and complains, there's someone who goes, "I never did this kind of thing before and it's sort of cool!" I feel like they learn something useful - if at the very least how to research a subject without resorting to wikipedia or other crap sources - from this project. Even though it's a lot of work for them. And it's a lot of work (in grading) for me.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

success and personality

One of the department's students (he's taken, I think, all of the advanced-level classes everyone teaches so I can't really call him "my" student) stopped me in the hall the other day to let me know he got into grad school.

Not only "got into," but was offered a research project with a tuition waiver, a decent stipend and summer housing at the site where he does his research.

I'm tremendously happy for him but I'm not surprised at all.

A while back - probably over a year - he had asked me if I thought he had what it took to succeed in grad school. I kind of chuckled to myself before answering because of all the students I've seen, he's one of the MOST likely to succeed in grad school. (And I told him that).

Grad school success - and this often comes as a surprise to people - isn't all about intelligence. It may not even be mostly about intelligence.

Oh, being intelligent and especially having a good memory help. I credit the fact that I have a prodigious memory and that I'm good at forging "links" between different bits of knowledge as the main brain-related reason for my success.

But there are personality reasons that I think override intelligence. Oh, don't get me wrong - if you were a D student in college you'd probably not be likely to succeed in grad school - but that's because I think many D students are not D students because they're not SMART but because they don't have the personality traits necessary for academic success.

The biggest one is that you have to be willing to work hard. You have to put in the hours every day. You have to spend hours in the library reading journals, you have to be willing to try things out that might not work, you have to be able to sit and enter data (or measure turtles, or hand-pollinate flowers, or transcribe interviews, or whatever) for hours upon end and just tell yourself, "I AM going to get this done."

You also have to WANT the degree for reasons internal to yourself. You have to have set it up as a challenge for yourself. You have to want, on a very deep level, to be able to say you did it - and have that be enough of a reason to pursue the degree. (I am speaking about research-based Master's degrees here, and doctoral degrees. The Master's where you do coursework in a pre-set program's a little different; it's more cut and dried).

You can't go into it solely because you believe the M.S. after your name will allow you to make more money. You can't do it solely because your parents - or your spouse - or your significant other - want you to. YOU have to be the one who wants it. (Oh, it helps if parents/spouse/SO want you to have it as well - in fact, I think it would be much harder to do a degree if you had parents telling you you were wasting your time - but I've seen people in that position do it. They grit their teeth and say, "My parents don't understand but I WANT this" and they do it)

The student I'm referring two has both those qualities. He's an extremely hard worker - he's volunteered as "research help" for just about everyone doing field research in my department. And one thing several of us have noticed about this guy is that he can go out on the WORST research day ever - I mean, the most unpleasant conditions - and he can ENJOY himself. And at the end of the day, he thanks you for the opportunity. I've seen him on 100*, high humidity days collecing soil samples using a heavy bulkdensity sampler in grasslands - and he remained cheerful to the end of the day. I've seen him in incredibly sticky days squelching through a half-flooded forest, looking for trees to sample, and he's not complained one bit. I've heard of him going out when it's 40* and windy to collect limnological samples and he's not said anything bad about the work.

Dude. Just. Does. Not. Complain.

And it's a lot easier working with someone like that. And I'm sure the work's easier for him - it IS a lot easier if you just kind of grit your teeth against the unpleasant conditions and think, "I am not going to let this beat me."

The other thing he has that I think will serve him well in grad school is that he has what I call "the tinkerer mentality." By that, I mean the kind of person who when they're faced with some kind of low grade problem - the data won't run in the analysis, for example - they kind of step back and go, "Okay...that didn't work. What can I do to fix it?" And they try stuff. They don't just shut down, they don't go running for help immediately. Maybe "resourcefulness" is a better word for what I'm describing. They can build things. They see, for example, a need for some kind of piece of simple equipment, and they cobble it together out of pvc pipe and scrap wood and it works. Or they figure out ways to "hack" a system that doesn't work as-is. They're not afraid of a little experimentation and they feel a certain triumph when something they try, works.

This was brought home to me last week - how important this mentality is to success - because I was working with some other students. One of whom had the absolute OPPOSITE of the tinkerer mentality. Every little thing he did, he had to come and ask me first. Even though he had each step written down. When something didn't work, he totally shut down and just stood there in the lab, his hands hanging limply at his sides, like he couldn't believe that the thing would work by trying it again with a slight modification. He had NO independence. And I have to admit to being slightly annoyed by that - most of my students have enough independence and self-reliance to know, "Okay, that didn't work, but if I do it again and change x, y, and z, it should work" or "Oh, that really didn't work. I better got get the professor..."

With this student, everything defaulted to "I better go get the professor."

The grad-school-bound student, though, totally knew the difference between "Let me try something else" and "maybe I should go get the professor." And that knowledge - which I suppose comes with experience - is important knowledge to have. You can't go through graduate school running for your major professor every five minutes.

Persistence, and a tinkerer's mentality, and the ability to just dig in when things go badly - all of those are qualities necessary for success. (You know? It strikes me that perhaps some graduate programs might benefit by doing some basic psychological tests on applicants to see if they have those qualities). I've seen my share of VERY smart people wash out of grad school - in some cases it was because they'd never met with a "failure" in their lives before, and then, in their first or second year, they couldn't get the data to run, or the experiment to work, or all their crickets died unexpectedly, or something. And they figuratively ran screaming from the room.

I also saw my share of "smart people" who didn't have that visceral WANT of the degree - they didn't feel like their lives would be incomplete without being able to say "I succeeded at this." Again, they often folded when things got difficult.

I also have seen people start on a degree because they thought it would lead to them making more money in the long run. It's generally true (but not true across-the-board) that you earn more with a Master's than a Bachelor's. But there are also easier ways to increase your income. While I won't say that all the people in it for purely monetary or career-advancement reasons washed out, some of them did.

A lot of this opinion, I admit, is shaped by my own grad school experiences. I HAD failed at a few things before, so having the data set hang up in the computer wasn't such a tragedy. I'm also the kind of person who becomes VERY stubborn when things like that happen - "okay, dammit, we'll change the parameters of the program and see if it works now."

I remember many, many times, while working on my Master's, of writing the program in SPSS (on the mainframe; I had a hugacious data set), sending it off to run, going and picking up those green-and-white striped accordion-fold printouts, and finding that the program had stopped midrun because of some error in the programming or some fault in the data set. And I'd curse a little, and troop back to my lab, and sit down and write down what DIDN'T work (yet again) and try to fix it, and run it again....and it was kind of like a GOTO loop for a while: write program/attach data/send to run/go get printout/find that program DIDN'T run/curse/go back to lab and try again.

But - eventually I found all the bugs and got rid of them. And I got the data analyzed. And I got the thesis written up. And somewhere during the writing of my master's thesis, I nervously approached my major professor - I had decided I wanted to do a Ph.D. I asked him if he thought I was "capable" of it. And he kind of chuckled and said that he had figured that I wouldn't be satisfied with a Master's, that for what I wanted to do, I needed a Ph.D.

And so, I did a Ph.D. In some ways, it was easier than the Master's because I kind of knew what I was doing. I was familiar with the whole literature-search. I knew the ins and outs of dealing with computer programs that didn't analyze when you wanted them to.

But the big thing - what I think got me through both programs - was my fundamental stubbornness. My "not knowing when you're beaten" (which is another piece of advice I've given to would-be grad students: sometimes you have to hang up your common sense a little bit and keep going when any "reasonable" person would say, "You're beaten; give up." You have to pretend that you don't know when you're "beat."). The fact that I was willing to go, "Okay, dammit, that didn't work, but maybe THIS will." To just brute-force try things until something worked.

I think I DEVELOPED a tinkerer's mentality while in grad school. I'm often the one people come to in the department when one of the computers won't work or when one of the projectors in the smart classrooms won't project. I'm not any kind of a computer genius by any stretch but I'm good at systematically going through a problem and finding the little stuff that people overlook (and that's often what causes the problem; I can't tell you how many times I've "miraculously healed" the faulty projectors just by tightening a connection). One thing I learned in grad school is you start by eliminating the LITTLE problems first - because there's no sense in, for example, climbing up and changing a projector bulb when it's just a loose connection to the back of the computer that's affecting it. (It actually surprises me that so few people seem to have this attitude; I have one colleague who will practically disassemble a computer before he tries rebooting it to fix a problem.)

Another thing: taking setbacks as challenges to be overcome rather than obstacles blocking your way. It helps a little if you can visualize it as sort of a game, where the setbacks are, I don't know, the different castles where the princess ISN'T, or something like that, rather than "But I worked so hard and still I have nothing to show for it!"

Perhaps it's that I'm fundamentally an optimist - and perhaps that's another necessary trait. You know the old joke about the optimist and the room full of manure, don't you? They grab a shovel and go, "There must be a pony in here somewhere!" That's actually a pretty good allegory for a successful way of dealing with setbacks in grad school: keep thinking about the pony as you shovel.

Friday, April 27, 2007

un freaking believable

I had a student who "disappeared" earlier this semester (this is not the first time; in fact, this is the third time he enrolled in my class and stopped coming, and the second time for a colleague's class).

I had kind of written him off - deciding he was someone for whom college just didn't matter that much.

Well, I got an e-mail from him this morning.

He "really needs" to graduate with his B.S. this spring, because he has an opportunity that is too good to pass up. The reason he stopped coming to class was that he had an injury that required surgery.

His question to me was: can I make up the entire semester's class in the next two weeks? Or, in other words: could you write me three make-up exams, let me do some of the lab work on short notice, let me do the major paper (that is due in 6 days) and hand it in? And grade all that stuff for me? (And the implied request: and pass me).

I was pretty flummoxed by that request.

First off: if he had e-mailed me before he had to have the surgery - early in the semester - I could have worked something out. I could have probably had him take the class "over the internet" (not formally) by my e-mailing him some of the materials I use and the handouts. The exams could also have been spaced at a saner order.

Second of all: I am always a crispy critter by the end of exam week. I usually need to take a day and just go somewhere, somewhere AWAY, to get my mind to settle down after the last two weeks of school.

Here is what I have scheduled, starting today:

grade papers in my small class (which I really SHOULD be doing now, I just collected them)
grade exam I give in two hours
grade lab books for my small class which come in Monday "by 5 pm" I said, and the students tried to get me to push it back to Friday but I said No Way.
grade the major research papers in my big class (this takes three readings and copious commenting)
write and grade a test for my nonmajors class
write the three final exams (true; I do some question-recycling but as I covered some of the material differently this year the exams will need to reflect that)
work on my own research
do my usual volunteer work (Wednesday nights and also my women's-group duties)

and, in all of that, the usual laundry-keep the house hygienic-feed myself-pay the bills daily round.

So, sure - having to write and grade three make-up exams and a mess of make-up lab work will be NO PROBLEM! No problem at all! As long as you don't mind me being bald for my summer classes 'cos I've torn out my hair!

Well, I e-mailed him back right off. I didn't say some of the things I wanted to, "this is like post-monarchic China: No Foo King way" or "Are you crazy" or even "A failure to plan ahead on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part" (I was beginning to calm down at that point).

I did say: no, I am sorry. I cannot do that. There is not enough time for me to do that. (I didn't say, though maybe I should have: I think your probability of success is so low that it is not worth my effort). I did tell him that the class he needed was one I teach in the summers, and he was free to enroll for the summer, but I suspect that that was not what he wanted.

I'm sure there's probably also something in the campus' Little Blue Book (the professor's handbook) that says we're not permitted to do that kind of thing (it's a fairness issue), but I didn't feel like going to try to find chapter and verse.

If he has a problem with it, he's welcome to take it up with my department chair. I'm sure she'll have some things to say to him.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

hahahahaha! Cool!

I ran some errands this afternoon (It feels positively decadent to be out shopping on a "school day," but I was done with everything I needed to do, it wasn't my office hours, and in fact, I had scheduled fieldwork which fell through at the last minute).

One of the things I did was go to the nearest (well, that's a relative term - for much other than the Mart of Wal, it's a 1/2 hour drive each way) JoAnn's fabrics. I had a 40% off coupon and sometimes they have good craft books.

I wound up picking up a copy of "Craft" magazine. I traded for a copy of the first issue with a friend, decided not to buy the second. ("Craft" has a very strong whiff of the cooler-than-thou about it, and I don't like that. I don't like the assumption that I'm some kind of a sheeple because I use a pattern when I knit or make quilts. [and what IS the singular of "sheeple," anyway?])

But this one had a couple things I wanted to try in it (ooooh...a hyper-tufa cast concrete garden urn. I need to make my garden more sophisticated). So I bought it, and it was cheaper with the coupon.

They have a little section of stuff they've seen for sale. Most of it is the kind of stuff I either roll my eyes at, or go, "I would have been VERY excited by that when I was 18."

But this time they had something that just made me laugh with delight over the sheer coolness of it.

It's this.

A memory stick. A LITERAL memory stick. A USB drive embedded in a twig. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha. I love that, I just love it. If I weren't so cheap (and if it didn't require sending off to Holland), I'd buy myself one just because I think it's so darn wonderful.

(They used the icky caption, "Got Wood?" for theirs. I think, "It's a memory STICK, get it?" is funnier, personally.)

your body-image comment of the day

One of my friends was telling me about a woman she knew, someone who had had an ex who played all kinds of horrible mind-games with her. The woman was about 6' tall and had always been on the slender/athletic side, but he convinced her she was too fat, so she dieted and exercised down to 120 pounds.

Which, I don't care how you slice it, is not enough body mass on a 6' tall woman. Especially one who used to be athletic (muscle weighs more than fat).

She got rid of the ex and gained back some of the weight but was bemoaning to my friend (who has a body kind of like mine - fattish, but in decent physical shape - she's active and strong) that she had gotten "so fat" and that she wished she was 120 pounds again.

She told my friend, "I can't see my hipbones. I feel too big when I can't see my hipbones."

I kind of shook my head, and observed, "If I want to see my hipbones, I'll go and have an x-ray taken."

I mean, seriously - a few women may be genetically predisposed to be thin enough that you can see a bit of their hipbone, but in most women that's a pathology.

I dunno. As much as I sometimes bemoan being single, there's a lot to be said to not be dealing with all kinds of stupid-ex garbage. Like thinking that having a body with enough mass on it so that you are not in amenorrhea is "too fat."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

and more

First, off, Joel: not too creeped. I think - if I remember rightly - I once commented on your blog under my 'alternate identity.' And I have pix up there. And I have a flickr page with pix of me on it.

Otherwise, you used your Mad Internet Skillz to search my name and find my (not very good) picture on the website of the place where I teach. (There are other people out there with my actual name: one was a murder victim. It's strange and creepy to be reading a story on an unsolved murder and find the victim had the same name as you do.)

Or you peeped in on my "posting-from" code (the number-code all computers logged on to the internet) and backtraced it to figure out where I'm at. Well, that's a little creepy. But I don't consider you a stalker nor do I consider you someone who'd want to try to sabotage me, so I don't worry too much about it. (I just hope I'd have warning if I thought someone was thinking of sabotaging me so I could do some quick removal and such)

Whatevah. Just as long as no one's pulling a Kathy Sierra on me, I'm cool with it.

( I don't presume I'm totally anonymous but I tend to presume I'm pretty obscure, and might also have deniability as I tend to heavily alter a lot of the stories I report here)


I had one of the class evaluations today. As I walked out of the class (We're supposed to be gone when it happens; I suppose that's so the students feel freer to express what's in their inmost hearts), I heard the person in charge of the evaluation say something like, "The blank paper is for your comments, so you can say what you liked and didn't like about the class."

And I cringed a little. Oh, I know, she's been doing these all week and she's tired of them, but: Telling me what you liked about my class may stroke my ego, but it's not all that useful to me. Better to tell me what was useful to you about the class, what topics were valuable, if the way I taught it helped you. And the "didn't like" part is the same - what good does it do an instructor to be told his or her class "sucked"? (Never happened to me but a friend of mine showed me his evaluations once.)

And as per the Singaporean instructor in the You Tube video I posted: If I talk too fast, please tell me RIGHT THEN. Don't simmer about it all semester and then write a screed on my evaluation about how I always talked too fast. I am a reasonable and approachable person, and I think that comes across. I am not going to give you an F for stopping me after class one day and going, "Hey, could you slow down a little? I can't get everything."

If we're going to improve, we need specific data. (And even then, I'm not sure how useful end-of-the-term assessments are. True story: in one class I teach, one semester I got several comments saying, "Don't just evaluate us on tests, we want homework too!" So I instituted biweekly (short) homeworks. That semester, people wrote on evaluations: "The homeworks are KILLING us! It is too much work for this class!")

I dunno. Sometimes I think the university sets up this idea that the prof-student dynamic is much more of a power relationship than it really is: that the students don't DARE comment on the prof's teaching except in anonymous evaluations (or to their own buddies in the hall - or for that matter, to other profs. I've heard my share of gripes by students about my colleagues, which always makes me uncomfortable - do I pass the info on - as in "a student - I'm not going to say who - said this" or treat it as confidential?) Maybe for some profs that's true- maybe some would grade down a student for telling them they spoke too fast, or their exams are too long (though a good prof should be able to judge this - if no one's done by the end of the period). But I wouldn't. Maybe the students don't know that but I just don't like the whole anonymous-end-of-term setup - because the end of the term is when it's too late to fix things, and it's also when any lingering resentments come out.

that time again...

Time for class evaluations. I hate these. As I said before, I'm too good at having a low opinion of myself so I tend to take any negative comment as evidence of my suckitude.

Well, Miss-cellania had a link to this funny You Tube clip of a Singaporean prof reading some of his more memorable comments (warning: there's a bit of language and a startling number of references to his sexiness. Either Singaporean culture is quite different from the U.S., guy-profs get that kind of thing more than girl-profs, or I'm even homelier than I suspected...I did once have a student tell me he "loved me" in my evaluation (and I know it was a he because it was from a class that was 100% male that term) but I've never had anyone comment on my appearance.

I suppose I should be thankful for that.)

At any rate, here it is. It's a bit long but I enjoyed listening to the chap's accent. (I love the comment about his moustache being the source of his power).

I also like the joke Miss-cellania has up about "A dollar a point."

I never had anything like that happen but I did know a guy in grad school who had a student's paper show up on his desk, with a $100 bill paperclipped to it, and a note saying, "I REALLY need an A." The guy did the right thing - called the student up and told him to come and get "what belonged to him" or else he was taking it before the campus academic-conduct board. (I know, some people say, "He should have taken the $100 and just given the paper whatever grade it deserved" but that is still wrong.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Swiped this from both 'fly and Tracey:

A- Single, yes. Available, not so sure....I'm awfully picky about men and not so sure that being WITH someone is always preferable to being alone

...B- Best Friend. Haven't had one since my former BFF betrayed me in 7th grade. I have FRIENDS but not anyone I'd refer to as a "BFF."

...C- Cake or Pie. Cake, unless the pie is coconut cream

...D- Drink of Choice. Hot tea. Water if it's a hot day out. I'm not real exciting in my beverage choices but I don't like alcohol and I try to avoid sodas because they're not that good for you and are calories I don't need.

...E- Essential Item. Books. Craft supplies.

...F- Favorite Color. Green, possibly purple. But not together. (When I was a teenager, there was a particular "symbolism" to wearing green and purple together, or wearing green on Thursdays. I wonder if that was unique to the part of the world where I grew up or if that myth had larger circulation?)

...G- Gummi Bears or Worms. Only if the Gummi Bears are Buderim Ginger Bears. Otherwise, no thanks.

...H- Hometown. A small town in Northeast Ohio. It's small enough that I fear revealing the exact name because then someone might be able to pinpoint who I am. Haven't been back there in nearly 20 years though.

...I- Indulgence. Shopping. I love to shop. Not at the mall, though - I like to go to those little chi-chi towns that have a Main Street with boutiques and gift stores and antique shops and stuff.

...J- January or February. February, because that's when I was born, and because January is just the letdown from the holidays.

...K- Kids. A good thing for other people to have.

...L- Life is incomplete without …. Oh, I don't know. I could probably manage without most of the stuff I have. Indoor plumbing is pretty important. I guess I'll be serious though and say, "Faith"

...M- Marriage Date. Probably never at this point. Not that that matters to me. I like being alone.

...N- Number of Siblings? 1

...O- Oranges or Apples? Depends on which is in season. Apples, when they're in season in the fall. Oranges, in the winter.

...P- Phobias/Fears. Emerging diseases like Ebola. Tainted food. That some twisted freak will think that shooting up the campus where I teach will solve all his problems. That people are laughing at me behind my back.

...Q- Favorite Quote. "Every act of love adds to the balance of love in the universe." It's attributed to Therese of Lisieux.

...R- Reasons to smile. The funny stuff my students say. Nice comments on a blog. Being able to go home and relax at the end of the day. Getting some useful research done.

...S- Season. Fall, all the way.

...T- Tag Three. Nope, not gonna tag.

...U- Unknown Fact About Me. Oh, I could totally lie here and say something really impressive. But I'm not gonna.

...V – Vegetarian or Oppressor of Animals. Well, if you're gonna phrase it that way, I guess you'd say Oppressor. (I do eat semi-veg, mainly because it's easier: you can keep a can of beans or a bag of dry beans for months but you have to cook meat within a few days of buying it, and my schedule is variable enough that I may only be home to cook one night some weeks).

...W- Worst Habit. I do not think very highly of myself a lot of the time. I tend to compare myself to other people too much. Like, I have one colleague that wrote a book and that just KILLS me. Every time I see it on a shelf, I'm like, "Ricki, you are a total slacker. You have not done anything with your life. And look, Dr. X has written a whole BOOK!" (Don't even talk to me about people like Alan de Botton, who was born in the same year as I was, and who has written NUMEROUS books, some that have sold very well. And don't talk to me about Josh Groban, who shares a birthday with me but is a good number of years younger than I am and is a famous and well-loved singer.)

...X – X-rays or Ultrasounds. Depends on what they think is wrong with me.

...Y- Your Favorite Foods. Oh, I don't know. My stomach is a little upset right now and food doesn't sound so good. Fresh homemade bread, I guess.

...Z- Zodiac. Pisces. And as much as I talk about astrology being bunk, some of the personality traits ascribed to pisces seem to fit me.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Are there some people whose voices just go through your head? And set your teeth on edge, and all that?

There is one young woman - a student here - who is like that. She never learned the concept of "inside voice," apparently. And the tone of her voice - I mean, the timbre - is exactly at the Hertz cycles or whatever it is to make the fillings jar out of my teeth. It seems I am the only one affected in this way.

She is allllll the way down the hall right now (~50 feet) and I can hear every word she is saying. Clearly. And I got up and shut my office door as soon as she started talking.

This isn't helping the semi-dormant migraine any.

aaaagh. Now she's LAUGHING. That hurts even worse.

once again....

God Bless the person who came up with Excedrin Migraine.

We're supposed to get Big Storms here in the next day or so, and my sinuses are already warning me. I was able to make it through class this morning (& probably will be able to make it through grading exams and maybe even a little research-work) thanks to the E.M.

I have a pretty high pain threshold, I normally turn down most analgesics (I refused the Toradol they offered me after I broke my arm because I didn't want to be "out of it" and I got by with a prescription-strength Tylenol (and not Tylenol 3 - codeine makes me throw up, anyway) after my wisdom tooth extraction) but migraines are the one thing that make me curl up in a ball and go, "Give me the good drugs! Now!"

some thoughts on exams

It's getting to be time to start thinking about final exams again.

I'm also giving two "in class" exams this week (I give four "in class" exams plus a comprehensive final. In some classes I drop the lowest "in class" exam score - partly because this saves a great many headaches re: missed exams. I can simply tell someone who slept through the exam, "Okay, that will be your drop exam then" and I neither look too much like an ogre nor need I listen to a litany of woes designed to make me relent and go, "Oh, okay, I'll write a make-up." Because writing make-up exams really stinks. It's time you have to put in that you didn't bank on, and invariably it takes longer to write the make-up because you have to avoid questions you used on the original exam.

It especially stinks if you have someone with responsibility issues who then fails to show up to take the make-up, as I had happen twice the semester before I instituted the drop-test policy.

I have gone in some classes to the policy of "if you want a make-up, it will be all essay" but I can't do that everywhere).

Anyway. I'm getting better at making up exams, I think.

I do provide "review sheets," I kind of hate doing it but it is sort of expected. (I rarely got them when I was a student). Mine are NOT an "exam before the exam" - I merely list topics that the test will cover and make particular reference to topics that are either not in the textbook or that I did not discuss in class but that the students were expected to read in their textbooks.

One thing I've learned about these sheets is that they can help ME - I take an extra copy of them and scan down and assign "point values" to each topic so I know how much to weight questions. I also make notes of topics that lend themselves well to multiple choice questions.

Yes, I use multiple choice questions sometimes, and I feel kind of guilty about it, because it's hard to write good (that is, challenging but not misleading) multiple choice questions. But I don't have a grader. And it gets awfully long to grade through even 25 all-essay tests. So I use multiple-choice where I can.

I'm also fond of using computational questions (if the students have learned how to calculate an index, or things like survivorship). Those are nice because they're a challenging question but they are objective to grade: the answer is either right or wrong.

I vastly prefer grading objective questions to grading subjective ones. I do make every effort to be fair: removing the student's name from the exam, grading all the same question at the same time, grading the exams in randomly shuffled order. But I still feel sometimes like I either get harsher or more lenient on certain questions as I either get angrier, or more tired and worn down, as the grading wears on.

I do include a number of essay questions on every exam (short essays and more rarely, a "long essay" that is worth 10 points - on a 100-point exam). I do this partly because some topics lend themselves better to that type of question, and also partly because some students are simply better at doing well on essay questions. I'm inclined to think a "mixed test" where you have a variety of question types is more fair.

I have learned on the essay questions to be as specific as possible. I often list subquestions I want them to answer, or I say, "Include in your answer a description of...." and then list several topics I want to see them address. I find if I leave the question more open-ended, some folks will go on for pages (and waste valuable time on minutiae) and others will give a one-sentence response that isn't complete enough - and then complain when I take points off for lack of detail.

I do make up "grading rubrics" before I read the finished exams - I make a list of what topics I need to see covered in the essay questions, with a number of points per topic. If everyone blows something, or if everyone leaves something out, I may reconsider, but starting from a "list of points" helps again with fairness of grading.

(One thing that makes me resist putting too many essay questions on? Some of my students have HORRIBLE handwriting. Worse than mine, and that's saying quite a bit. And they write SMALL. And so, I'm left using my hand lens to try to decipher some of the words. And I hate the feeling that I may grade them more leniently - or more harshly - just because I can't make out what they've written. I don't know that I could do "please come and explain this to me; I cannot read it" on the exam grading, it's too likely that some people might abuse that and just write a scrawl, and then take time to look it up after the exam).

I do write my exams new each year. I sometimes recycle certain questions - but I know exam files exist, and I know that they exist for my exams, so I don't do too much recycling. Or I reconfigure the question. Or I change the choices, if it's multiple choice. (I have one colleague who seems to have given up on the putting-effort-in thing who won't give exams back. This person lets students know their grade but they cannot keep a copy of the exam - I'm not sure they're even allowed to see the exam. I tend to go to the other direction - I'd like students to see where they made errors, see my comments and corrections, and then have the exam to study from for the comprehensive final).

Testing is challenging. I used to like it when I was newer to the teaching game; it meant a day I didn't have to prep before class. But I think writing the things and grading them takes me longer now than prepping for class takes.

Another thing: just as I hate with the passion of a thousand flaming suns when a student jokes (on a low-attendance day) "Do we get extra credit for showing up?" I also hate the person who pipes up, when I ask if there are any questions they have before the exam, "Can we do this as an open note test?"

I mean, yeah, to them it's funny - because they haven't heard it 20 times before.

Another thing that gets me - and that I wish people wouldn't do - is the whole B.S. line restate-the-question, fill-the-page-but-don't-say-anything. If you don't know, leave it blank. Or write what you do know, I give partial credit. But don't force me to wade through a pageful of B.S. just to find that you don't really know anything about the topic. (I realize for some people that might be, "If I start writing, I'll remember" but I think also - because I've heard it happens at some schools - in some classes the prof just glances and says, "full page - full credit" without reading the answer).

I will be honest: I wish I never had to test. But we don't have any other good way of assessing how much knowledge has been gained (and no, I don't believe "portfolios" are a valid replacement, especially in the sciences at the college level). I try to make the tests fair and as close to a real-world application as possible: I do not require students to memorize complex formulae; I assume they'd have access to those on-the-job. So I give the formulae on the exam but expect them to be able to apply them correctly - which I do think you'd have to do on a job. And my essay questions tend to be over the big, important, "capstone of the chapter" material.

But I still get complaints. I suppose every teacher does. In some cases, I want to tell people (but don't), "This is the world's tiniest violin...."

Tests were generally harder when I was a student, or at least I think they were.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


First of all: I do have to thank everyone for the kind and interesting comments. I guess I'm not a big one for commenting-on-my-own comments, so there's rarely a "conversation" that gets going a la Sheila's blog, but I do read the comments and think about them and appreciate them.

And on to the blogpost:

I'm still thinking about things and stuff (As opposed to Stuff 'n' Thangs), and I'm still musing on what it is that triggers a person to do the kind of thing that that kid at VT did last Monday.

Evil is part of it. I think we're afraid to say "evil" in this culture; that it seems too medieval, too superstitious - that saying somethiing is evil is seen as being somewhat like saying someone is ill because they have a demon.

But I do think there's something else to it. And Mamacita has a post about it.


Or rather, the lack of. I think that's one of the sicknesses of our society. How many of the FFOT comments are directed at people who talk in movie theaters, or drive while chatting on the cell phone when they can't do that safely, or park so as to take up 3 spaces (so their precious new car won't get scratched)?

How many people seem to forget that they share the planet with others? And how many seem to think that if things don't go their way, they're somehow OWED? And that they can go in and take what they're owed, and no one can say boo to them?

And how many people go into debt because they "have to have" that new car, or bigger house, or new electronic gadget? And how many of us (and I'm pointing a finger at myself too, here) weigh more than is really ideal for us because we see food, delicious food, and decide we want to eat it?

Now, I realize: there's a difference, a giant difference the size of the distance from the Sun to the Earth, between someone who takes two donuts out of the box at work (that way ensuring that some latecomer will be forced to go donutless) and a guy who kills people. The difference is probably largely attributable to mental illness.

But. Most of us, luckily, do not come into contact with that kind of deranged lack of self control. However, all of us come into contact with the little daily incivilities, the person who gets into the 20-items-or-less checkout line with 32 items because they're "really in a hurry," the person who pushes ahead at the cafeteria, the person who runs a red light and makes you slam on your breaks.

It's a sort of blind spot, I think - a failure to SEE the other people there. Or a failure to see them as PEOPLE rather than obstacles to one's own happiness and fulfillment.

And I think that's a big and a common human weakness. I know I catch it in myself a lot - it is probably the sin (and yes, I'm going to call it that) that I commit on the most regular basis.

It's too easy, when you're rushing, when you're tired, when you just want to get home and eat dinner and take off those shoes that are pinching your feet and see if the check you're expecting came in the mail, to write off the person driving slowly ahead of you, to scream silently at them from your car.

I think most people do that kind of thing sometimes.

The next step - the point where it would become a sort of psychosis - would be if you tried ramming their car with yours. Almost no one would do that - but there is that odd person, that one out of a thousand, who would. And that's the type of person that can make modern life dangerous and scary (as opposed to merely less civil.)

I think, though, that the lack-of-self-control is a big contributor to the lowered levels of civility we see: the attitude of "I want it, I deserve it, I should have it, whatever anyone else says be damned."

For most people, that never rises above, perhaps, eating the last of the ice cream in the house. Or using up the t.p. and not bothering to replace the roll. Or throwing a drink cup out your car's window because you can't be arsed to take it home with you and put it in the trash.

But for a small minority of people - people who may be flawed since birth, people who perhaps have evil in them (if, as I said, it's permissible to say that in this day and age) - the lack of self-control carries further, with tragic circumstances.

I guess the other two things I have to say with this are these:

1. I am tired of the "childhood being bullied + teasing + lonerhood = deranged killer" meme. Okay? I was bullied when I was a kid. Granted, not to the extent some kids were or are. I was never beaten up. I did have the books knocked out of my hands on a regular basis, I did have my homework trampled in the halls, or ripped, or stolen. I was teased pretty much every day of my life in school. I had things happen from a peer that would pretty clearly equate to sexual harrassment (if not, in one case, outright abuse) today. And I didn't grow up to be a psychopath.

I would suggest that 99% of people who experienced my type of childhood grew up to be fairly normal adults. (In fact - go to almost any academic department and ask the younger faculty if they were teased and bullied in school as kids. Just ask them. I'd bet cash money that at least 3/4 will launch into monologues about their experiences as being an outcast. I tend to think that anyone who was a "smart kid" in the past 30 years or so would have been bullied - unless they were exceptionally physically attractive, a sports star, or, perhaps, good with their fists).

And lonerhood, too - Look, I am somewhat of a loner. I like being alone. I like thinking my own thoughts. I don't need to sit around and endlessly rehash what Diego did in high school or how Tamara has totally let herself go after having children. I like to read. I like to work in my garden. I like to let thoughts flit through my head and to try and make sense out of this thing called life. And, I hate to say it, but a big proportion of the conversation people make kind of flits along the surface of the questions I like to ponder without ever going deeper. And so - I'd rather sometimes listen to my own thoughts than other people's chatter.

I spend all day around people. It's a relief when I come home at night not to have to talk to people.

Again - that does not equal psychopath. What it equals, I think, in my case is "Basically an introvert who gets exhausted by listening to people and their problems and their pettiness."

I think it's kind of dangerous to equate people who do the kind of violence we saw last week with lonerhood, or introversion, or having been teased as a kid. Because that can lead to witch-hunts, that can lead to people who are basically good but shy being hauled out blinking into the world and being told "you MUST be with people. You MUST do this and have fun. We do not want you to close in on yourself because we believe that then you will become violent."

There is a big difference between being weird and shy and being a psychopath.

I've known an awful lot of weird people. I've known people who were weird in wonderful and amusing ways, who made me laugh and delight in their obscure interests. And I've known people who were sort of creepy-weird, that made me edge away from them a little bit. But I've never known anyone I'd point to and go "psychopath."

Look, we're all kind of damaged. But the vast majority of us are in no way dangerous.

2. Mamacita says, "Let us ever strive to be kind. Everyone we meet is struggling....Let's notice one another. Let's smile."

I think that's basically true for MOST people. Most people will be helped through lift by people showing them basic kindness. (And - by showing kindness you can get out of your own head. I can't remember who said it but there's a saying that the best cure for sadness is to help someone else).

Being kind to people - as I said in a prayer I made this morning, "recognizing the people we come into contact with are all children of God, even if they don't recognize that themselves" - is also a good counteract against self-centeredness and lack of self-control. Try to SEE the person. Recognize that they are another human being, just like you - someone who is struggling ("Be kind, for you know not what burdens others are carrying" - Plato), someone who loves and is loved, someone who's somebody's kid or somebody's parent, someone who's as bound for the grave as you are.

It's hard. It's something we all (and I include myself in this) have to work at all the time. It's something I will catch myself up in - realizing that I'm seeing a person not as a person but as an obstacle - and I will feel that pang of guilt, that "I've done it yet again."

(I will say, however - that advice, of being kind, works on MOST people. I am not so much of a Pollyanna that I believe someone on the road to commit violence can be stayed just by giving them a big-assed smile when you see them in the hall. There are some people who have just become twisted beyond the ability to twist back. I do not know if it is genetics, or neurotransmitters, or early experience, or some combination of the three. There are some people upon whom kindness will not necessarily work. And Mamacita points that out - you shouldn't blame Cho's dormmates and say they didn't reach out enough, you shouldn't blame his parents [and remember, they lost a kid too, and they have the added horror of knowing he was the one responsible] for not catching it earlier. Apparently people DID try reaching out to him and were rebuffed...but anyway).

On one of Nightfly's posts I made the comment that I saw the human soul as partly having the purpose of being sort of a "governor" on our desires, something that reminds us that some of the things we want we should not necessarily have. And I do think that. I think self-control, in whatever it is, is somewhat of a practice of the soul.

I also think that self-control, in many aspects, is kind of out of fashion these days. (Think of the "diet plans" where they claim you can lose weight while "still eat[ing] all the things you love!"). Perhaps it needs to come back into fashion more than it is.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On rather than off

I didn't participate in the FFOT over at Emily's yesterday.

I had wanted to - I got to work with a whole load of things I wanted to say, especially about the people who think it's clever or funny or will get them notoriety to claim they're going to do a copy-cat attack of what happened at VT Monday.

But I didn't. I was busy instead. And as the day wore on, I kind of lost my steam for ranting.

First of all, a couple guys came in to see me. They were working for the city and were studying a plot of land; one of the things they wanted to know was if there were any plants there that would suggest it should be set aside as unique habitat, or if it was okay for the city to use it for its original purpose. So they had a number of plants they had collected and wanted me to help identify. They sort-of knew many of them, but needed me to get the species for sure. So that took a while between my classes in the morning.

They thanked me for the advice (Even offered to pay me, which I don't think I'm allowed to do - I was doing it on university time and really it was public service. And I didn't want to be paid any way). They said they'd credit my help in the report they wrote, which is enough for me.

Then, after my second class of the day (Friday is my lightest day), one of my students showed up to work on research. (This is a different student from the guy the other day). This student is a young woman, an undergraduate, who wanted to get more research experience after taking my research oriented class. It just so happened I had a project where I needed someone's help. So she's working with me.

The goal today was to go to one of the field sites (the one that was flooded before) and meet with the site manager to both plan out where we were going to sample and also to get all the necessary permissions in place.

I hadn't known the student all that well before yesterday; she's one of those shy people who's not really talkative in class. But being stuck in a car on the way to somewhere with a person for a couple hours is a good way to get to talking with them.

I knew she was a good student before; now I've also confirmed that she's funny and kind and principled. She also is beginning to come up with a plan of what she wants to do. (I think she's a junior, but she may have a year and a half or two years left)

One thing that's a little sad: I don't think my campus is that good at career counseling, at least if you're not planning on being a schoolteacher or a businessperson or a doctor. She didn't know anything about how to go about finding a graduate program. She was unfamiliar with the whole world of scientific societies and journals, other than what little journal work she did in my class.

So we talked. And I provided about an hour of career counseling as we drove. And I told her the site manager might have some summer volunteer positions.

And it was nice, seeing her kind of unfold, seeing her take all this information and write a bunch of it down, and say, "Oh, I need to do that" or "I should look into that."

The site manager also helped. She's a former student of mine - one of the people who graduated and got a career and is thriving at that career. (She's kind of both the education director and the site manager for this particular park).

She told my student she had lots of volunteer opportunites, told her some other places to look into applying, and generally encouraged her.

And I think it was good. (Oh, we found the sites too, but I think that's actually kind of secondary at this point). The student commented that she "needed" to take out a couple journal subscriptions (when we told her about the student discounts).

She also remarked to me at one point: "After high school, most of my friends just got married and started having babies. That's fine if that's what you want, but I want something different." I get the feeling she may have been feeling a bit unmoored, like "My friends are all settled and I don't know what to do with my life." But I think she was somewhat reassured - and had a plan of how to start finding out what she wants to do - by the end of the day.

And you know, thinking about it yesterday evening after I got home: that was BETTER than being able to vent on FFOT. If it's not pretentious to say it, the best way I could have figuratively stuck my thumb in the eye of the talking head pundits who are blaming guns or American society or the campus police or whomever, the best way I could have spat in the direction of those who would send death threats to campus as a way of either getting out of class or getting themselves some notoriety, of flipping the bird to people who are trying to profit off the tragedy is to just do what I do, to keep on keepin' on, and to do something that's constructive and that helps someone.

And at the same time, it sticks a thumb in the eye and spits in the direction of the fears and the unsettledness I had over the past week - that "what if it happened here," the "what will be the changes brought upon our campus by this?"

I have to admit I don't UNDERSTAND the people who break the law (by issuing false threats) to get a little "fame." What do you have to show at the end of it - if you're caught - other than a fine or jail term and a bunch of people who are angry with you? Better to work for good, even in obscurity (as I think I do) and make yourself look at what you did at the end of the day and say: well, I had fun. And I think I helped someone. And that's good enough.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Something happy

...for a change.

Last week, one of my colleagues asked me if I'd be willing to serve on the thesis committee of one of his advisees. (We don't get release time for grad students here, but that's ok, we don't get many grad students, and the ones we get are usually a pleasure to work with).

I said yeah, because I had the time, and also I knew the guy and it will make me happy to see him finish up.

He was in my class the very first semester I taught. I remember him pretty well because he did well at the start of the semester, started to tank (and miss class) midsemester. He came in about 2/3 of the way through the semester to apologize. He explained he'd been diagnosed with OCD and was taking meds and therapy to control it, but he was having some difficulties. I told him not to worry - he was, at that point, still pulling a passing grade. With some help from me, and a lot of hard work on his part, he got caught up, and, IIRC, wound up with a high B.

He graduated the next year and got a job with a state agency.

Well, now he's working part-time on a Master's degree. And he needed someone who knew stats.

So we met yesterday.

I like doing stats "counseling" for people. It's something I'm good at, and I'm not ashamed to say that. It's one of those weird, savant-like things: I always walk in nervous, wondering if I will be able to suggest the appropriate tests, but when I sit down and talk to the person about their data, 90% of the time it's like it becomes perfectly clear - like I can "see" the structure of the data and how they need to be analyzed to answer the question the person's trying to answer.

And there's also a little bit of pleasure in the sense of making-order-out-of-chaos: having someone come to me with a big mess of data tables and having me say, well, you probably want to extract this column and that column and compare them using a t test, or whatever.

His data are pretty straightforward. I suggested the two or three tests that would be most appropriate depending on what part of the data set he was using. And I set him up on one of the campus computers and quickly showed him how to enter and analyze the data.

And that's another pleasure of teaching: showing someone once how to do something, and then stepping back, and having him go, "Oh, this isn't so hard after all! I get it!"

He came by today to tell me he had the analyses done. And to ask if a sub-analysis he wanted to do was valid to try (it was). He kind of laughed and said it was a great relief to finally have started on his data analysis (I remember that feeling - it's not been so long since I was a grad student myself). And he said to me: "You have no just totally made my day yesterday."

And THAT is why I do it. I made one person's life a little better, I got someone a little further down the road to where they needed to be. Even if the rest of this week is for crap, at least I did one good thing.

And sometimes, doing "one good thing" is about all we can hope for in a week.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

paging Sheila!

So, I went down to our vendeteria (in which they have FINALLY repaired the snack vending machine; it was broken for like two weeks). I needed some kind of lunch-supplement, having somehow wound up with a yogurt and raisins (????) as the sole occupants of my lunch kit.

And they had Cracker Jacks in the machine. And I love me some Cracker Jacks, even if most of the prizes now are crap. (Temporary tattoos: not so fun once you pass the age of 10.)

Anyway, the prize surprised me for a change.

It's a little booklet. You open it up and there's a drawing - sort of a nondescript, could-be-any-era teenaged boy. And there's a little story, telling you you are supposed to guess who he grew up to be.

It starts out: "The island of Nevis in the West Indies is where I was born."

And I thought...gee, that sounds familiar.

Here's the rest:

The island of Nevis in the West Indies is where I was born. Unfortunately, I didn't have a very happy childhood. My brother and I were abandoned by our fathe when I was eight and my mother died when I was eleven, leaving us homeless and penniless. Before she died, however, my mothe had taught me the value of determination and perserverence. These traits, along with my education in commerce, law, and politics, would serve me well after I came to America

Yup...thanks in part to Sheila's obsession (well, one of them), I guessed it.

On the other side of the drawing there are little things you fold in to see the face as an adult - powdered wig and all. (Yes, it's Alexander Hamilton! Sheila's dead boyfriend!)

They do refer to the duel but only at the very end. Mostly it's about the "power of determination." (yeah, yeah, snicker.)I suppose the idea is to teach the snot-nosed brats something while they eat their popcorn and peanuts, but I have to admit I get a little tired of every Illustrious Life being held up as "Look, this person embodies this trait."

I also like how they elided over the fact that he was a bastard. Although, given the way our society is today, that might even be a stronger argument for "the power of determination" - "My momma wasn't married to her baby daddy and look! I still wound up on the $10 bill"

At any rate - it made me chuckle a little. What are the chances of finding an Alexander Hamilton face-foldy toy in a random pack of Cracker Jacks?

Thinking vs. Saying

Watching the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I'm kind of struck by something:

Have we, as a culture - or, for that matter, have many people, in many cultures - lost some of their "filtering" ability? Have we changed the definition of what's seemly and right to say in certain situations?

It seems to me there's an awful lot of vitriol coming out...lots of comments made. Stuff said that, if you're gonna say it at all, I'd think you'd at least have the decency to let the parents bury their kids first.

I would like to think that the vast majority (>90%) of Americans, if they were asked, "Who's at fault in this case?" would say "The man who chose to shoot up the campus."

But if you read a lot of the online punditry - if you watch some of the 24/7 screaming news cycle, you hear all kinds of bizarre stuff. That it's the "gun culture" in America (Um, I live in a pretty big "gun culture" area. This is a part of the world where hunting is a major sport - and for some, a big source of food. It doesn't seem to me that guns are glorified. They are tools, just as a hammer is a tool. They can be used for right purposes and for wrong purposes. In fact, I'd argue that the kids in my classes - the kids who grew up shooting tin cans with bb guns and who went hunting with their grand-dads - are more cognizant of what guns can do, in the wrong hands, and they are respectful of never using their guns inappropriately).

Or it's American society in general. Which puzzles me because when I look at American society, it seems pretty fragmented. And the fragments I generally see don't promote violence. The fragments I see include the kind of people whose first response upon hearing that someone they know has died is to pray for the family and whose second response is to see if they can help by fixing a casserole or babysitting small children. They include guys who still open doors for women. They include people who, if they see you carrying something heavy, will ask you if you need help. They include people who willingly give a larger percentage of their paycheck to help others than many states - and many nations.

Maybe some parts of American society are pretty corrupted, but not the part I live in.

Or somehow it's related to "nihilism" brought on by the current administration. Um, yeah. 300 million people in the U.S. One person shooting up a campus. I think the odds suggest against that being the explanation.

But even despite my pseudo-Fisking of all those suggestions, I think the fact that they're being made NOW, two days after the tragedy, is unseemly. It's like, kick us when we're down. Take the time when reasonable people are in mourning to trumpet how you are so enlightened, that you know the PERFECT reason this happened.

(And also, by implication: that we somehow deserved to have this happen. No one's come out and said that, but I get a whiff of it rising off of some of the more self-congratulatory commentary).

I'm just sick of people thinking they've got this whole thing tied up in a neat package with a bow on it, where they are so much smarter than the Va. Tech cops, and administration, and everybody, and they know EXACTLY why it happened and how it could have been prevented.

I also think the attention hounds are coming out.

There was a big piece out today about how Nikki Giovanni had this guy in her class, and she says now she "knew" something was wrong with him, she threatened to resign if he wasn't reined in in his violent writings. She made some remark like "I'm not saying I was prescient, but..."

Well, good for you, Nikki. Effin' good for you. Tell that to the families who are trying to figure out what kind of dress to put on their daughters - or what kind of suits to put on their sons - when they lay them in caskets.

I don't know. I do know I don't want to watch televised memorial services for the students (with Geraldo Rivera doing commentary!) I don't want to see this become such a big giant thing that we get copycats - mooks whose lives mean nothing to them, who think, "Wow...I could really be someone if I just killed a whole bunch of people." I don't want to see people trying to explain away the tragedy, to blame it on some facet of American culture.

I also don't want to see "crackdowns" on campuses, where the 99.9% of lawabiding citizens wind up being fenced in by draconian rules. Already I've heard of people calling for metal detectors and bag checks at every building entrance of universities (and how, pray tell, when we barely have money to fund the ADA compliance requirements here, are we going to hire 20 more cops, whose sole job it is to watch people who enter and leave?). I don't want to have to submit my lunch kit, my purse, my bookbag to being searched every day that I come on to campus. And with metal detectors: I teach science. Sometimes I go out in the field with soil augers. Or with bulk-density samplers. Or with sampling frames. All of which are made out of metal. Hell, sometimes we even use sharp things to take samples with. I don't want to be stopped as I come back on to campus with all my grip and be told I have to submit to a more-intrusive search because my soil probe set off an alarm somewhere.

I don't even want to have to wear my I.D. on a lanyard. Oh, I know, some schools do that, but to me that just seems like yet another restriction.

I don't want to have to be buzzed in and out of my building.

I don't want cameras mounted in every classroom and every hallway.

I don't think any of those things will necessarily keep us any safer from someone bent on doing harm. What they will do will be to take away some of the freedom of the innocent folk. What they will do is require the 99.999% of the faculty, students, and staff who would never DREAM of harming another person to submit to time-consuming and intrusive "searches" just in the name of protecting us.

(I worry about the schoolkids who go to schools where they're required to carry clear backpacks, and submit to searches at will, and walk through metal detectors: it's like, we're raising up a generation of kids already inured to Big Brotherdom; will they even bat an eye if they're asked to volunteer DNA for a national database where DNA from crime scenes will be checked against the DNA of the populace to see if there's a match?)

What I do think might help? Loudspeakers. Loudspeakers, or some kind of alarm, like a Civil Defense siren but a different tone, where it could be announced from a central location that there was some danger and we needed to take steps. If a gunman came in my building, but I had fifteen seconds' warning, I could do something that would likely save my students and me - locking the hall door (it can be done, but from the outside - I'd need to open the door, lock it, jump back in the room, and slam the door, and that takes time), turning off lights, upending the tables to make shields...all of those things. We could do them but we'd need some kind of warning if possible.

Drills might help. We already do tornado and fire drills. We could also do a "lockdown" drill where when a particular siren sounds, the goal is to see how fast rooms can be secured.

Or, hell - they could make the rooms so it's easy and safe for faculty members (or students) to lock them from the inside. Even maybe issue faculty a special key that will disable the outside lock, so if the would-be wrongdoer has a key, he's prevented from getting in. I don't know. There's lots of stuff we can do that doesn't involve removing the free right to come and go (and to carry your tampons when you're having your monthly) without other people constantly checking up on you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Stupid Spam II - electric boogaloo

...because all you can do sometimes is find the little funny things and laugh at them, instead of crying at the big sad things.

I got a spam e-mail (one of those ones where in the "sender" column, there is a phone number - what's up with that?) that had as its subject line:

Re: get a diploma without the ahssle!

Well, I know that last word is SUPPOSED to be "hassle," but my sometimes-slightly-dyslexic brain interpreted the (intentional?) typo as


"Get a diploma without the asshole!" (I suppose that means your graduate advisor? I mean, mine wasn't, really, but sometimes I thought he was.)

Or maybe this is some kind of thing involving that dog Beau that Tracey sometimes writes about...

Monday, April 16, 2007

oh, lord...

Looking up information for something unrelated (trying to get a list of all the damn product recalls - they're now recalling Listerine, folks, for bacterial contamination - in the past year, to see if this had just been an unusually bad several months)

and I ran across this.

Oh, holy crap. 22 people (including the shooter*) shot dead in Virginia. At Va Tech.

These kinds of stories always make me shocked and sad. I'm sure that's the whole proximity thing - being a prof, having spent pretty much my entire life on college campuses.

(*I was originally going to say there "well, 21 PEOPLE and the shooter" but decided that this is the wrong place, wrong time for that kind of snark)

Part of it is, you learn how much a community - really, in some cases, a family, a college campus becomes. When someone associated with your department dies, it is like having a family member die (In some cases, maybe it's the weird uncle or that cranky great-grandmother who was good at alienating people, but it is still like having someone in your family die). It's a sad and terrible go back to work and have that gap there, that gaping emptiness, reminding you the person is gone.

Part of it also, I am sure, is sort of a little frisson - "there but for the grace of God go I" - that this kind of incident can (and has) happened many places, and it's hard to predict who will lose it, who will start doing the thing no sane person would do. The thought that someday I could be gunned down like that - or students in my class could, while I had to watch (which I think would be worse). It's horrifying.

I'm not totally untouched by campus craziness. When I was in graduate school, there was a student who failed (for the third time) a chem class. He went nuts - he was roaming the halls of the building where my dad had his office, saying, "I'll ****ing kill him!" referring to the chem prof. He ended it by putting his fist through the plate glass cover on the sign listing people's names and their offices. He was escorted off by Security, but not before issuing several scary threats about the fate of the building and the people (including my father) therein.

He was basically issued a restraining order - required to stay a certain distance from campus. (but, inexplicably, he was allowed to re-enroll a couple years later. I never heard if he actually finished but at least it was without incident).

I also had a student blow up at me in my office a few years ago. He became very angry, very red in the face, yelling, accused me of having a homework assignment over something I had not taught in class and that was somehow cheating him because I didn't "tell" him that (???? - it said right on the assignment, "Use your textbook to assist you because I didn't have time to cover all of this"). I finally managed to steer him out the door and he stomped off but it was a frightening ten minutes or so.

Fearfully, it occurred to me, "There probably should be some kind of a paper trail on this so at the very least people aren't shaking their heads on the 6:00 news, going, "But he was so quiet! I'd never have expected this of him!" I called and e-mailed his advisor (paper trail, remember...I almost even wrote a note saying, "If I am found murdered, it was probably "Dale" who did it"). The advisor kind of chuckled (not in a dismissive way) and said, "Oh, you have the 'pleasure' of having "Dale" in your class." He went on to reassure me that "he's never been violent" (um, somehow, not very comforting) and that the guy usually "pulled it out enough to make a D by the end of the term."

Well, I'm still here, so Dale didn't come back and knife me or anything. But he did fail the class...I think he actually failed out that term.

It's scary sometimes being a prof - because of confidentiality rules we do not learn about students who may have anger issues or problems with stability. We never know if someone's going to be set off by something. Sometimes you realize that in a certain class you have to kind of walk on eggshells, and that sometimes you need to be sure your office door is wide, wide open (and you are between it and the student you are talking to, just in case).

(And, before you remind me - yes, I know of the other incidents, the law firms and businesses where employees have been killed. It's not just colleges. But there's something frightening, no matter where it is, to think of going to work where you don't plan on being in the line of fire - where you're filing reports or placing orders or writing briefs or preparing for class - and suddenly have violence burst into the equation)

But if someone comes to school with a gun - unless other people on campus, people who are the 'good guys' have them - it's game over. (And even then, it's still sometimes game over.)

I do live in a concealed-carry state, and I am quite sure several of my students have guns - probably locked up in their cars (I don't know if there's a regulation against carrying into a campus building but I bet there is). I strongly suspect that if a nutbag came onto campus with the intention of taking out students and profs, the concealed-carry guys would (a) get their guns if at all possible and (b) do whatever they could to protect the rest of us. (A little reassuring, but still not that reassuring - I'd rather the crazies be kept off campus in the first place).

Another reaction I have is sadness - all of those lives snuffed out for nothing. Probably by someone with some kind of beef against the school - or against the world - that some time and counseling would work out. (That's what gets me - in these incidents and also in a lot of suicides - it's one of those hair-trigger things, where if the person STOPPED and THOUGHT and PUT THINGS ASIDE for a day, they might be less inclined to do it and more inclined to get help.)

(Apparently the shooter killed maybe it's a Columbine type thing of someone who is so screwed up they don't know what to do. But...she says cynically but not unsympathetically**...if he wanted to die why didn't he just blow HIMSELF away and leave everyone else alone)

(**and lest you accuse me of being heartless: I have lost friends and a relative to suicide. But at least they had the decency to only take their own lives.)

I don't know...I have a very hard time understanding this. I'm the kind of person who, when I get angry, I mean REALLY angry, I get up from whereever I'm sitting and say through clenched teeth, "I need to go for a walk." And I walk until I feel better. Or if I'm really really pissed, I buy cheap dishes at the Goodwill and go out into my backyard and break them or throw rocks at them until my anger dissipates. I can't understand the desire to maim or kill fellow human beings SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU ARE ANGRY. (Self-defense, yes, I understand. War situation, yes, I understand. But not some mook whose life sucks and who listens to a lot of "dark" music and thinks it's a cool way to make a "statement.")

Anyway. My heart goes out the the folks at Virginia Tech. They're in my prayers even though I don't know any of their names. What a horrible thing it would be to be the parent of a kid going to school there...the not knowing, the hope that you'd show up on campus and your kid would be standing there scared but unhurt and the fear that you'd show up and they wouldn't be...

I think for me there's also the feeling of innocence shattered. Oh, I know, colleges are not necessarily safe places - there was one school my father dissuaded me from even applying to because of where it was located in the city it was located in - but on my fairly rural campus, it's easy to have the belief that nothing very bad can happen here, that it's basically a refuge from the outside world, that it's a place where most of the people are caring and civil or at least not dangerous lunatics...and to see a pretty old brick campus, that looks like it has a setting not unlike my school, torn apart because of one person's's just horrifying.

Whenever I say the Lord's Prayer, I always pause a bit on the line, "...and deliver us from evil." It's funny...a lot of commentators I read remind me that the evil we suffer often comes from within, from us doing evil to ourselves. But when I say, "...and deliver us from evil" I visualize the Big External Things - for years, I had a mental image of the planes hitting the Towers. But now, I think, for at least a while I may have the image of a black-gloved man walking onto a sunny campus, guns in hand.

And all you can do, really, in a crazy world sometimes, is to pray to be delivered from evil.

more spam

I know it's not the right day of the week, but I couldn't resist this one:

"He it kismet"

Doesn't that just roll off the tongue? He - it - kismet!

It's almost like the old palindrome, "A man, a plan, a canal - Panama"

I can only imagine the fun that someone like Jerome Kern, or P.G. Wodehouse, or Noel Coward would have writing a song based on that phrase.

I also got one this morning asking me, "Small pen is?"

Small pen is what? Small? I think that's an incomplete sentence there, bucko. Or at the very least, an ill-formed question. If you're asking: do small pens exist? then yes, they do. But it seems like there's a word missing from that question as you have it there.

"Small pen is?" what? And that one reminds me, oddly, of the old Wayne-n-Garth shenanigan; you could say "Small pen says what?" and laugh or say "exactly" when someone said, "What?"

Saturday mornings

Nightfly's quotation from "Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla" reminded me.

Schoolhouse Rock - which was, I think, one of the BEST things on Saturday morning tv when I was a kid. As I remember, there were three "Rocks" - "America Rock," "Grammar Rock," and then the one with math. (There might have been science ones too? I don't remember.)

America Rock is the one I remember best - there was one about inventions, and about women's suffrage (and yes, if some Napoleon Dynamite look-alike came up to me with a "petition to end women's suffrage" I'd give him the stink-eye and tell him out...and his cameraman, too). There was one called "No More Kings" that I think had the Boston Tea Party?

And the two most memorable: "I'm only a Bill" and the one about the Preamble of the Constitution. Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock, I can recite the Preamble to this day (and yes, there's one tiny inaccuracy in the SHR version, but I'm aware of that too).

Grammar Rock had Blossom Dearie (a "legitimate" jazz singer - I wonder today how many "real" performers - other than maybe They Might Be Giants - would be up for doing educational spots for kids) singing about unpacking your adjectives. And there was Conjuntion Junction (which, I suspect, I will now be singing in my head the rest of the day, now that I've thought of it).

Oh, hahahahah. And "Verb! That's what's happenin'!" Shaft for the under-12 set.

That's one of the things I love about the shows when I happen to see them again - or even think of them. How much of their time they much of the music was that kind of poppy folk-rock (especially the America Rocks) stuff that was so earnest and so early-70s.

For the numbers ones, I remembered the "Three is a Magic Number" (which, IIRC, actually referenced the Trinity...wonder if that could happen today?). And the one about Lucky Number Seven with the rabbit. And the figure-skating one for eight

(The line:

"Figure eight as double four,
Figure four as half of eight.
If you skate, you would be great,
If you could make a figure eight.
That's a circle that turns 'round upon itself.

Place it on its side and it's a symbol meaning

seemed very deep to me when I was a child. (And there's Blossom Dearie singing again).

I also remembered the one for 12, because it introduced the idea that there could be bases other than 10 - kind of a mind-blowing concept when you're 8.

And I see that they all basically taught the times tables for the number featured.

(I had to look the rest up. I figured they probably had shows for each number but I don't really remember the ones for 2 or 4. I remember the one for 5 now that I see the title - yeah, it was about counting by fives, in the context of playing hide and seek.)

I enjoyed those mini-programs. I think most other kids did, too, considering the level of nostalgia that Gen-Xers seem to have for it.

Saturday mornings were a different time when I was a kid - I remember getting up at 6 am, plunking down in front of the tv with a bowl of cereal (the only time of the week I was allowed to eat away from the table) and watching the tail end of the Farm Report just so I wouldn't miss any of the cartoons. (Cartoons started at 6:30 am or so when I was a kid - no more). We also had only a few channels - first there were five, the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) plus PBS and an indie station (channel 43 from Cleveland - I think it's a Fox affiliate now but when I was a kid it was pure indie). Later, channel 19 (I think it was) joined the lineup as another indie.

Before the "network" cartoons (Scooby-Doo, Bugs Bunny, and the like), the channels showed whatever they had on hand, or whatever they brought in. I remember watching "Barbapoppa" and "Dr. Snuggles" and other strange European-import cartoons that the local tv channels had bought to fill the time before the network stuff started.

I also remember cartoons being on for LONGER in the morning when I was a kid - they started around 6:30, as I said, and it seems they lasted until noon, when Wide World of Sports and things like that came on. (IIRC, the Krofft shows - like Land of the Lost - were the ones on towards the end of the morning. It seemed that "littler kids'" shows were on earlier. I supposed the programmers knew that it was mostly the under-12 set who were getting up at 6 to sit in their jammies with their bowls of Cocoa Puffs and wait for the cartoons, and the teens were the ones who slept until 10 or so)

Now, most of the early morning is taken up with stuff like "Saturday Today" (ack, pfui) and other adults-oriented news shows. There just aren't as many cartoons on. And they seem crappier, or maybe I was less discerning as a child - with the exception of the "Qubo" shows that run on NBC (including "Veggie Tales," which I openly admit I watch as an adult), most of the programs are either extremely infantile or they're just stupid. It seems that the network (well, CBS - I don't think ABC shows cartoons any more) has the infantile programs, mostly stuff imported from Nick, Jr. (and that's another thing - the whole somewhat-incestuous relationship between the networks and the cable channels - it's like there's only so much programming out there, so it's going to be re-run endlessly). The Fox affiliate and the WB affiliates run the stupid programs - stuff like Xiaolin Showdown, which I've tried to watch (I'm a cartoon fan) and just cannot work up any kind of interest for (and it makes me sad: you'd think Warner Brothers would try to live up to its illustrious cartoon history of Looney Tunes, and later, Animaniacs). And Cartoon Network, pretty much any more, shows their own stuff - most of which is kind of blah.

I also have to admit that when the trend to live-action shows began (stuff like a teen version of Survivor), I figured no good could come of it. I expect in another year or two, the "children's" programming will be mostly reality-type shows: ugh.

I also remember that the new fall lineup of Saturday morning cartoons was a big thing when I was a kid - sometimes the networks even did a "special! preview! show!" usually on a Friday night a week or two before the new lineup premiered. (I remember sitting there, fingers crossed, hoping my favorites were back but also hoping the shows I didn't like were replaced by something good). I think they've since stopped doing that; the networks seem to acknowledge that people don't care about Saturday morning cartoons any more.

(I wonder if it could be partly budget-cutting, but also partly changes in family dynamics: many of my friends who have kids are up and out the door early Saturday morning for soccer or swimming or drama class or what have you).

I know, I know, that the farther you get from childhood, it looks better and better, even if there were a lot of things you weren't totally happy about as a child. I know I'm probably being overly nostalgic over cartoons (and frankly, other than the Looney Tunes - many of which were butchered by the censors) and Scooby Doo (which I stopped liking after I turned 6) and Pink Panther, I don't really REMEMBER any of the cartoons of my childhood (ok, there was the Smurfs, but I was a preteen by the time they came around and really, my little brother was the Smurfs fan; I just watched them to keep him company). But when I was a kid, there was something special about Saturday mornings - it was like, it was the one time of the week when tv programming time was carved out for the kids, and stuff that specifically appealed to kids was shown. It's different now, with whole networks of allegedly child-friendly (I say allegedly because have you seen some of the stuff that shows on "The N" in the evenings? Good grief. It's like soap opera, junior) programming.

I tend to think that scarcity makes things more precious and abundance makes you take them for granted. I wonder if kids will look back with the same nostalgia that we generation-xers (and the baby boomers, before us) have about Saturday morning cartoons?

I also wonder what will become of cartoons. Will they be pushed aside as part of the Stamp! Out! Obesity! campaign - a push to get kids off the couch? Will they be phased out as "too expensive" in a world of "reality" tv where gomers will happily expose their foolishness on tv, for free, for the world to see? Will they be phased out as "too juvenile" as kids endlessly "age up" - where 6 year olds aspire to be 14, where 14 year olds dress like they're 21 (and have no taste in clothing)?

I don't know. I have to think there are still some kids out there - kids over the age of 3 or so - who like cartoons and still happily watch them. And who like cartoons that are just funny and silly and that aren't full of car chases or are somehow aping the movies that "grown ups" watch.

Or at least I hope. Because sometimes a good cartoon is a simple escape from life, 20 minutes or so (and yes, 20 minutes, darn you, advertisers) where you can kind of step back from what's bothering you.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

doubt and faith

I really appreciate the man who is the minister of my church. He consistently gives us things to think about; he regularly states things in a way that make me see things in a new way.

He talked about doubt today - the Scripture passage was the one with Thomas, who had to feel the risen Christ's wounds to believe. Three things that he pointed out:

1. a story about a woman who proudly told a famous minister (Moody, maybe?) that she had been saved for 25 years and had "never doubted." And the minister responded tartly, "then, madam, I doubt you have been saved for 25 years."

And I like that. I like that admission that everyone doubts at times, that it is not sinful or a mark of someone being less than a "True Christian" to question: how can this be? How does this work?

I will admit that one of my frequent doubts (or perhaps, more correctly, questions) is one I've had since I was a child: won't there come a point where the "bad stuff" people do overwhelm Christ's forgiveness? Can something like what Hitler did even be forgiven?

Also, as a scientist, I wrestle with the whole, "how could this be real?" question of things. And also: what would it be like if it happened today? Would we find some way of explaining it away?

I will say a couple of things that assuage my doubts: first, reading things in mathematics and physics that are kind of at the outer limits of our understanding. Somehow - the fact that some of the weirder theories of quantum physics seem to be borne out by experimentation make me think that, well, if the world works in ways that are so non-obvious to our eyes...then can't there be other things that seem non-obvious, or contradictory, or inexplicable?

Another thing is reading or hearing about things that seem some of the miraculous healings that have taken place (and yes, I think there are some that are documentably "miraculous.") Again, that makes me think: things do not always happen in the same way. There are laws to the universe but apparently there are some "loopholes" to those laws. And it's in those "loopholes" where God is.

2. A Scots minister (George Matheson), who came to realize that he had some serious doubts about his faith, suggested that he might be better off resigning from his church. His congregants refused to release him and told them they wanted him to stay, doubts and all. Throughout the process of remaining their minister - working with them, being a part of their "family" - he found he came to grow through those doubts.

His conclusion was that during the process of working with people who had faith - and doing work that was "God's work," serving the poor and such, he came to a less doubting place - somewhere he wouldn't have gotten to, he thought, with the best teachers or preachers arguing or explaining to him. That faith is something you "do" rather than exclusively something you "think."

And I can see how that's true. Since I've been more involved in working with the church - now that I teach Sunday School a couple times a month, and am in charge of the Youth Group and do other volunteer work. It's kind of forced me to examine my own beliefs, and also become more literate about the Bible and the tenets of faith. And working with it, having those ideas in my head every day, works on ME. And also spending time with people in the church works on me.

It makes me think - all of the people who speak of having a faith but not attending services - that must be harder. I think it would be harder to keep up one's faith in the absence of similar believers (I think it would be even MORE difficult were you part of a religious community that was low-grade hostile, or cold, or that promoted certain beliefs counter to your own).

But I know for me - working at stuff, doing stuff that's part of Christian service - that helps me. It brings me to a point where I'm less in my head and more in my heart, and my heart is not as prone to question things.

3. That being "born again*" means literally that - you're like a newborn baby. It's not a blinding flash of light where you understand everything. It's starting life anew and learning a new way of being - and so it takes time and requires patience and involves steps backwards.

(* I do not like the term "born again." I just don't. Part of it is that in my past, I knew more than a few people who used it as sort of a "member of the club" test - asking people if they were "born again" or claiming loudly to be "born again." And to me - raised in a church where the concept was not emphasized to that degree - it seemed awfully exclusive. Like, "Unless you belong to MY EXACT DENOMINATION and say things with the same wording, you're not really a Christian." I also knew someone who claimed born-againness while still being a difficult and unpleasant person, and that always seemed a bit of a bad advertisement for Jesus to me...)

But anyway. I had not thought of it in that manner before. I had always related "born again" with the people who claimed to know it all, to understand it all, and who were SO MUCH BETTER Christians than you.

But this new idea makes more sense to me: you're learning a new way of being. You're kind of a child again about certain things. And from watching the Youth Group - seeing how they have insights and backslides, how they can talk with great understanding of showing respect and trying to model God's love to your neighbors during the lesson, and then insulting each other during the game time (I had to "sideline" someone the other week for calling a fellow player a f*ggot), I can see that - how we're all really like children in the faith, how sometimes we understand and are loving and kind and are as much in line with Jesus' teachings as we're ever going to be, and then the next moment we're throwing a tantrum or cussing out our neighbor for mowing the lawn too early in the morning. And how we have to keep at work at it, how we have to not be too prone to beat ourselves up or give up on ourselves when we slip.

faith is something you do, more than something you think.