Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Where does a person draw the line?

This is something I agonize over.

We get, from time to time, students with various disabilities. I've spoken of this before. Some of the students do remarkably well - I remember a Blind student I had one year, who, all he asked was to be able to bring his special laptop (on which he touch-typed notes, and it could "read" them back to him when he wanted to study) and that I e-mail all class handouts and exams over to the Student Affairs office, so they could convert them to Braille for him.

I've also had students - though not in my "field" classes - with various physical disabilities, and dealing with those are not too difficult. (It might be more of a challenge in a "field" class, where we're out over rough terrain, but I suspect the student and I could figure something out).

But there are also some students, with the sort-of-vague "learning disability" or "mental health issue" diagnosis, who can't cope quite so happily. And sometimes it frustrates me. I've had the occasional instance of a student where I wondered if they might not have been taking a bit of advantage - there was, in fact, a minor scandal a few years ago when I had a student who needed a "note taker," who then figured that since they had someone to take their notes, they need not show up for class. Both I and the note-taker complained to the dean - and apparently this was not the only case of that that semester - and the policy was changed to make getting the notes contingent upon attendance. Which seems only fair to me.

Right now, though, it's an issue with co-workers. I have two co-workers on a project. One is wonderful, she is always there, always on time, if something comes up and she's going to be even five minutes late, she calls. Co-worker 1 is easy to work with, and I've loaned her books with no fear of not getting them back.

Co-worker 2 on the other hand - co-worker 2 has missed two of our meetings. She e-mailed me recently and said she "loses track of time." (And I even e-mail her the night before the meetings as a reminder). Another person who's worked with her remarks, "You have to cut her a little slack; she needs accommodations." (I have never seen paperwork, but then again I only get paperwork for students).

The thing is: when does being "accommodating" morph into "I am unnecessarily hamstringing my own ability to work."? Co-worker 1 and I had to cancel one meeting because co-worker 2 was absent and could not be reached (she later said she "overslept.") I know she's on medication of some sort and I can appreciate side effects and stuff...but where do you draw the line? Where do you say, "I'm sorry, but your chronic absences and lateness are messing up our project, we are going to have to cut you loose"? And what do you say if they play the "but I'm disabled" card?

Also, this co-worker has e-mailed me complaining that Co-worker 1 has not shared some information and data with her. Well, I don't blame Co-worker 1; she is probably afraid Co-worker 2 will lose it, which, from having worked with Co-worker 2 before, wouldn't be entirely surprising.

(Why do I always wind up working with two people who do not get along? Why am I always the peacemaker?)

I don't know. In a way some of these requests - some of the attitudes I've had from a few students - makes me think of Mr. Skimpole. I've had people tell me, with a merry laugh, that they simply "cannot be on time anywhere!" or that they "just can't stick to a deadline!" And you know, as their professor, I don't find those things nearly as cute or amusing as the students do. Because I have deadlines (grading deadlines) I must stick to, and I have places I must be at certain times - and I make a damn hard effort some days to do everything.

I'm reading "Bleak House" right now, and, while I'm not very far into it (maybe 1/4 of the way, I don't know), and he may redeem himself, Mr. Skimpole is simply one of the most aggravating characters I have encountered in literature.

He claims to be a "child, a mere child." He also remarks that he has no sense of time, or of money - so everything he has ever tried to do as a living has wound up going bust. Apparently all he wants to do is sit around and sketch with charcoal, and apparently he's either not good enough, or not ambitious about selling his work enough, to be employed as an artist.

So he mooches off of others. And the most odious thing, the thing that makes me want to (figuratively) drop-kick the character out of the book? He tells his benefactors they should be GRATEFUL to him. Because he gives them the opportunity to be generous.

At one point, he is about to be arrested for non-payment of debt. Esther Summerson and Richard (I forget his last name), neither of whom have much money at all - and what they have is earned through poorly paid labor and saved carefully over months - volunteer to get him out of the jam. And he is quite smug about it. And I wanted to slap him.

And I find that occasionally I run across someone who, while not quite as odious (I think that's the best word) as Skimpole, they seem to smugly accept their limitations (like: not being able to arrive places on time) and expect that everyone else will adjust to accommodate them, when they are putting many people out by not doing what is generally expected.

It's like the people and corporations and whatnot that spend recklessly and behave badly, and then expect the hardworking sorts to bail them out. You know - like the stereotypical person who took out huge loans so they could go on a super-top-drawer vacation somewhere warm, and when they can't pay their bills, they cry poor and want a handout to help them. And the hardworking folks, who didn't take that same vacation, who maybe took a (ugh) STAY-cation, wind up footing the bill. And it's terrible and it feels unfair.

And while I don't have any problem at all - quite the reverse - with true charity, with helping out families who can't make ends meet with food and clothes or shoes for the kids, and maybe even donations to help pay the rent or mortgage, I have little patience with people who don't want to conform to the basic rules of common sense (like: don't spend on luxuries when you can't afford them) and then expect others to bail them out - and even worse, if they're like Mr. Skimpole, expect the people to be thrilled to death to have that opportunity.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From the office of N.S.S.

Watched a few minutes of news yesterday. They were talking about the G20. (An aside: I know people who live in Toronto and they were pretty disgusted with the whole thing. I wonder how long before residents begin begging city governments to refuse such conferences. CAN they refuse them?)

Anyway, the commentator was talking about the various protesters, and he remarked: "And the violent protests came from the Anarchist groups."

As Gomer Pyle would say: Surprahse, surprahse, surprahse.

I don't know. I've commented about my distaste for "professional" protesters before. Part of that is my general position that you're better off looking around where you live, finding a problem, and putting your efforts towards fixing it or helping it. Even if it's something that seems minuscule like picking up litter on your block.

The other part of it, though, is my working-person distaste for people who seems to think that they're owed food and shelter and whatever, without their putting forth any real effort: if they complain loud enough, they should get it. Let's go back in time 200 years and see how that works, folks.

And another part of it is my distaste for the ordinary working folks having their lives screwed up for the week or so that crap is going on. I know if I lived in a city large enough to have these kinds of meetings, with their attendant protests? I'd do my best to arrange to take my week of vacation time during that time. Even if it only meant staying home, with the door barred, and a big enough supply of groceries so I didn't have to venture out. The thought of possibly being teargassed on my way to by a friggin' carton of milk would probably be enough to make me seriously consider moving from such a city, anyway.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Another short thought on the "Hero Narrative"

Getting up this morning, I realized: "Durr, there's another whole reason - probably the most important reason - you hate the narrative of "People who Save Things are Heroes."

They never mention the people I would ACTUALLY regard as heroes:

Soldiers, sailors, Marines, pilots - who go into harm's way to defend our freedoms and way of life, and to liberate countries that need liberating.

Battlefield medics who will treat anyone, friend, civilian, even foe, if they're injured


Police officers.

Somehow, the people who want to write up some guy who goes and lobbies on behalf of the sandhill crane as a hero, but they don't think about these individuals. The people who actually face danger as part of their daily jobs. (Oh, granted, I suppose some teachers do, but somehow, that seems different. And I admit, sometimes in my more cantankerous moods, I think, "If a city school is that dangerous, they should just close it down. Tell the kids and the families, "Sorry, you don't get an education. If you're willing to welcome the cops coming in and arresting and dragging off all the gang members, if you're willing to actually point out and testify against gang members, fine." But people who go around acting as if the folks who would like to keep some semblance of law and order are the enemies, and that it's preferable to let your kids join gangs....forget it. I suppose there'd also have to be some kind of evacuation program for families who really don't want a part of that life, but are stuck living where they are, I don't know.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

The "Hero" narrative

There's something that bugs me just a wee little bit in society, and how sometimes people (especially people in the teaching field) are portrayed. I call it the "Hero Narrative" - it's sort of like the Jaimie Escalante story, where someone comes in, does minor miracles, and is lauded.

And that's great and all, and I suppose we need people who can come in and turn bad situations around, but the problem is that this idea of a Hero Narrative has seeped into the collective consciousness in such a way, that it seems like that there are some people who think if you're not being majorly heroic on a regular basis, there's something wrong with you.

This is especially true in college teaching, and it frustrates me. I get a lot of good students. Engaged students who know why they're in college. They come back and thank me for the preparation I gave them, whether they go on to grad school or get a career straight out of college. And that makes me happy, and as I've said before, I tend to figure that the good, hardworking students are sometimes the best critics of professors, because they expect a lot from us.

The problem is, the mentality in, shall we say, other areas of the academy is this: "Oh, ANYONE can be interesting to an ENGAGED student. The real challenge is for you to motivate the unmotivated." The implication being that if you're not taking the C and D students and turning them around to the point where they're becoming, I don't know, neurosurgeons or something, you might as well pack it up and go home. Because you're not a "Hero."

I was also a bit put off by the "Wonking Class Heroes" (dear God, how twee) in the Miller-McCune publication (This is some magazine, kind of like Utne Reader but with a more science focus, that I get sent to me - I didn't subscribe to it and it's apparently free. I don't really read it because sometimes some of the articles give me a bit of a Smug-We're-Your-Betters vibe. I could be misreading that, I don't know). But anyway: the people who go out and lobby for stuff, or start foundations, or whatever.

And what bugs me is for every visible face that gets to be a Wonking Class Hero, there are probably fifteen hundred behind-the-scenes folks who do most of the work.

The problem I have with the Hero Narrative is this: people who do solid work, who aren't superstars, but who work hard and who care about what they do, they're treated like chopped liver. I also suspect in some cases the "Heroes" chosen are the more photogenic or "interesting" (in the sense of: how many diversity checkboxes can you mark off with this one person) than some other folks.

Or maybe I'm just being cynical because I've seen a few cases where a very public face of a group was essentially a figurehead who either did little work and took lots of credit, or was actually sufficiently incompetent that the other people in the organization MADE the person the public figurehead, because they figured that was where they could do the least damage.

Actually, it seems strange to me that the Hero Narrative exists alongside the other narrative that you seem to hear from the media - slack off, relax, don't worry about your obligations, because someone else will step in and bail you out when you screw up. I suppose they're counting on the Heroes to bail the people who don't behave responsibly out.

I don't know, though. I work pretty hard. I try to do my best. But there are people who seem to act at times like I'm not doing enough - like my life doesn't matter - because I'm not, I don't know, out discovering a cure for cancer or something. Not all of us can be Heroes, but that doesn't mean those of us who aren't are Floppers.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

They're pengiuns. Penguin commandos.

I admit it. I've been watching a lot of television lately. But it's been too hot to do anything, and the teaching schedule is just so packed that I'm usually worn out on the weekends and don't want to do much.

But I do want to mention a show that I really love, that makes me laugh. It's a kid's show, it's on Nickelodeon, and it's a movie spin-off. So I think it doesn't quite get the credit it deserves.

It's called "The Penguins of Madagascar." I've never actually seen either of the Madagascar movies, but I happened to run across this one day and started watching. And it's really very funny and clever.

Part of the reason is the simple incongruity: there are four penguins, see. They live in the Central Park Zoo. They think they're commandos and they pull "raids" and do other things to fix problems...in the zoo.

Sometimes they screw up - a lot of times they misinterpret the situations. But like a lot of good comic heroes, sometimes their screw ups actually lead to success of their "mission."

That's part of the reason I like the show. But I also like the characters. It's a team of four: Skipper, who sounds a little bit like William-Shatner-as-Captain-Kirk is the leader. He's the one most likely to overreact or misinterpret a situation. Kowalski is the ideas guy, maybe a little bit like Spock to Skipper's Kirk. He also invents stuff. Some of it is kind of dumb stuff, some of it is dangerous (his living jelly cube that eats other animals). He's also the brainiac, and supposedly doesn't understand "feelings" and "emotions."

Then there's Rico. Rico is nuts, he's the demolitions guy. He's also their traveling materiel source: he can apparently regurgitate whatever is needed (a chain saw, a bomb) on Skipper's request. Rico speaks mainly in grunts and garbled monosyllables, which adds to The Crazy. (But Rico also has a soft spot: he has a fashion doll, kind of like a Malibu Barbie, of which he is very fond, and he is often seen combing its hair).

And then finally, there's Private. Private is there in part for Skipper and Kowalski to have someone to boss around. Private is very kind and sweet and probably understands animal nature better than the others. He also speaks with a British (vaguely Liverpudlian, maybe?) accent (none of the other penguins do; Skipper sounds like Kirk, Kowalski sounds like the stereotypical stern manly engineer, and Rico grunts).

So it's kind of like an action-adventure-buddy-movie thing. You can't quite map any of the existing ones on it - I tried to figure out "If this was the A-Team, who would be whom?" and couldn't get past the fact that Skipper would be Hannibal, and maybe Rico would be Maddog, but the others don't quite fit. (There is no Mr. T analogue, for example).

There are other characters. Marlene, the otter, is the token female (I'm guessing thrown in there as a sop to all the people who say "but cartoons have to have BALANCE.") But Marlene is often the voice of reason, she's often more understanding and aware of the situation.

On the other hand, there's a lemur - a self-styled King Julien of the Zoo. Like many tinpot despots, he's vain, shallow, self-absorbed, and really rather stupid. He often messes things up that the penguins have to fix. He has two minions: Maurice, who is bright enough but somewhat cynical and apathetic, and Mort, who is either stupid or crazy and has a strange love of Julien's feet. (I guess in the movie the guy who played Borat did the voice for Julien, and the voice-talent in the television show seems to capture the loopiness, strange accent, and pure self-serving blindsidedness well)

There are other, minor characters: a pugilistic kangaroo, an elephant who sounds like someone doing a bad Harry Carey impression. Most of them serve to move the plots along, to provide something for the penguins to do.

Part of my love of the show are the silly schemes - the stuff Kowalski has to build that's cobbled together out of bits and pieces and looks, really, rather LIKE something a penguin would build. (sort of like the infamous Cow Tools comic). And stuff doesn't always work. One of my favorite episodes is the one where the penguins overhear the zookeeper claiming that they have "three males and a female" and so, he builds a DNA analyzer (which uses loogies as the source of DNA). But it breaks midway through, leaving everyone to believe for most of the episode that Skipper is actually a girl. (And it's kind of a funny play on stereotypes, really.)

But I also love the "backstory" element of it. Not everything is explained. Skipper regularly refers to "Manfredi and Johnson" - two past members of the team. No one seems to quite know what happens to them. But he references them regularly: "They were cute and naive." or "They fell in love, too" (And apparently it's a Stalag 17 reference! I didn't get that until I did a Google check on the spelling of Manfredi. Awesome.)

There are also a lot of odd funny little throwaway lines. At one point, we "come in on" a conversation, and Skipper says something like "...and that's why I can never set foot in Denmark." It's those things - the ideas that these characters have fully developed backstories we're not entirely privy to - is one of the things I enjoy about the show.

The other thing I like - and the Manfredi and Johnson reference is an example of this - is that there are periodically little things tossed in to reward people who are paying attention (or adults who may be watching the show, who have more developed cultural knowledge). One that made me laugh recently involved Kowalski making a machine to make things smarter. Private gets zapped by it and he immediately spouts out: "The sum of the square root of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side." Which is very close to - if not exactly - what the Scarecrow says upon being given his "diploma" (signifying brains) in The Wizard of Oz.

And part of it is, it's just a cute and funny show - you can laugh at the penguins and their antics. And you can forget all the crazy crap going on in the world for a little while.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wow. Princesses.

I know, I make a big deal about supposedly disdaining "reality tv." And frankly, most of what passes for "reality" tv does not seem to be very "real," at least as regards the world I live in.

But last night I got sucked into a trainwreck of a show that just gobsmacked me. And I watched it, alternately feeling a little guilty that I was "spying on" the women involved, and being utterly fascinated at whatever sociological insights I could gain from it.

The show is one of those VH1 things. (remember when VH1 actually played videos?). It was called "You're Cut Off." It featured a group of eight (I think?) self-styled "princesses" who were apparently more or less "kept" women (whether by their parents or by a sugar daddy, something like that). I don't think any of them actually worked for a living, or if they did, they sure didn't have the same attitude towards money that someone like me who works for a living does.

I realize you have to tone things down by about a half on "reality" shows. And that much of the drama is invented for the camera. But even with that: crikey. I'm reminded why I never had a "pack" of female friends. Because all too often, "packs" of women wind up turning on each other (WHY do we do that? Why can women be so awful and backstabby and have a tendency to say EXACTLY the thing that will bring the most pain to someone else?)

And how fricken' spoiled they were. Apparently one of the women had a credit card with a $50K limit - which she regularly maxed out. (Folks: I don't make very much over $50K IN A YEAR. And that's before taxes.) And they were shrieking and horrified over the fact that they were being forced to go to the grocery store and buy food.

But what really got be was how nonfunctional these women apparently were. For one thing: the theme of the episode this week was something to do with responsibility and not taking the "help" for granted. A professional cleaner came to the house to help school them in housework. (One girl: "I don't know how to make a bed." Wait, what? How can you not know how to make a bed?)

In return, the next day, they were slated to go and help her clean some famous woman's house (I don't know who she was but presumably she was famous as she only went by her first name). Two of the girls (they're in their 20s but I'm going to call them "girls" because they act like 5 year olds) flatly refused. They sat in the guest bedroom and did nothing. The other girls, some of them did ok, some of them were unbelievably and monumentally clueless.

I was, as I said, gobsmacked: how do you grow to adulthood in America without knowing how to clean a toilet? Or knowing what a broom is properly called? (Granted, they may have been playing dumb, both for the cameras and to make themselves look even more entitled and special, but still). I remember watching and thinking, "Wow. If we really suffer a financial collapse in this country these women are going to literally be among the first to die." Because they can't take care of themselves. They are apparently utterly and totally parasitic and dependent upon their servants. (And if they talk to them the way they talked to the cleaner, I'm surprised some of their "help" hasn't stabbed them to death yet. I would never let someone talk to me the way those girls talked to the professional cleaner).

On the one hand, I'm horrified by their behavior: how can someone feel they are entitled to act like that? On the other hand, I feel sorry for them: they really are incredibly dependent. They do not seem able to function (even discounting for the craziness of reality show world) to function without someone to caretake them. Their entire sense of self seems to come, not from what they can do, but from what they can buy or how many men they can attract. Or how good they look in their clothes.

It makes me want to line up their parents and slap them. Because when you get young adults who act like that, by and large it's the parents' fault.

I knew people who, as it turned out, were monumentally wealthy (well, compared to my family). BUT their parents did stuff like, "Did you pick up your towels and hang them up after showering? Did you? You know it's not Carmen's (or whoever the cleaning lady was) job to pick up after you!" Or they made sure their kids knew how to take care of themselves - even if they had a cook, even if they had "help."

Also, the girls (well, some of them. The girls who actually successfully cleaned house were "picked" by the other girls (b*tches) to go and buy food because of some logic like, "It doesn't kill them to work like it would kill us") were sent out to shop for groceries. With a budget of $200. Which they couldn't make, and had to put stuff back, and I wondered if they actually got enough food to feed everyone, because it looked like they had some expensive stuff (Perrier, for example) there. And they moaned and whined about how "exhausted" they were after grocery shopping. (Oh hell girls. Take my day. Get up at 5. Do a work-out. Come over to work. Teach for several hours. Do some research work. Counsel a bunch of students. Sit through a meeting. Then go to the grocery store at the worst possible time of day (4 pm) because it's the only time you're free. THEN go back home and cook dinner, and clean up after that, and maybe do a little house cleaning. Then you can tell me if just going grocery shopping is so exhausting).

One thing that was sort of funny: apparently they were shifted off their pricey drinky-drinks and on to box wine. Box wine! Horrors! One of the girls couldn't figure out how the bag of wine worked, and finally, finding the spigot, remarked, "Oh, is this like a cow?" And another one asked something like, "Is this some people's job? To sit in a factory and put these bags into boxes?" (Ah, the light begins to dawn...there are other people out there, they have lives, and maybe, just maybe, they matter?)

As I said, I realize most of it is trumped up crap for reality tv. But watching the "girls" try to clean, it's pretty clear none of them ever really had. And the attitudes - even discounting half, as I said before, they're all miserable toothaches of women and not someone I'd want to know.

And you know, it makes me grateful, in a strange way, that I had parents who were professors. That my mom expected me to know how to change the sheets on a bed at age 8 or something. And run the washing machine not much later than that. And that I had chores where I had to help clean the house and do some of the yard work. And that my mom taught me how to cook.

Because you know? There's a certain joy and satisfaction in being able to take care of yourself. As I said in an earlier post, I feel gratitude and a little pride when I pay my bills off each month knowing that my education and my work is what provides the money that allows me to do that - I don't have to depend on someone else for a handout or an allowance. And I feel a certain pride in that I can keep up my own house, that I know how to do things like change my own furnace filters, that cleaning a toilet doesn't automatically make me shut down in a wailing heap of "I shouldn't have to be DOING this!"

But it does amaze me that - again, even discounting for the unreality of reality television - there are adult women who are apparently so flounderingly helpless that they cannot care for themselves without the support of "daddy" or a husband.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Invasion of the snowflake women from another state...

I went shopping after church. I normally don't do that, this being supposed to be a day of rest and all, but sometimes, there are times when you wake up in the morning and find you're nearly out of something that you're going to need in the coming days. So I ran out to the Walgreen's (and, once again, I'm grateful we finally have one in town; it sure beats going into the enormous Wal-Mart - which some folks here refer to, totally unironically, as "the mall," and they will go there and spend HOURS slowly walking up and down the aisles, which makes it tough for the buy-it-and-scram types like me).

Anyway, I found what I needed. And I was able to restock my gatorade supply (I need it, for after fieldwork, and occasionally if you're lucky you can find a variety made with JUST sugar - which tastes better to me than the HFCS variety)

I was walking back out to my car, and another car pulled up to me. It had out-of-state plates. The driver rolled down the window and called to me:

"Do you live here?"

Yes, I told her, I did.

"Can you tell us" (her and her friend in the passenger seat), "where you find the IHOP or the Denny's?"

Um, little problem there. We have neither. We have a Chili's (which is in sight from the Walgreen's) and about every fast-food place under the sun, but no Denny's. And no IHOP, though we keep getting told that one is coming "soon."

So I told them, somewhat apologetically, "We don't have one. There's a Waffle House just up the street if you're looking for a breakfast place."

The woman regarded me dubiously. "You're SURE there isn't a Denny's?"

Oh please lady. You don't know, of course, but I've lived here 10 years. My town is about 10 miles across from east to west and less than that from north to south. I know all the restaurants. I even know where the restaurants that went out of business (like our Papa John's franchise) USED to be.

Now, OK, maybe there's a Secret Speakeasy Denny's someone is running out of their garage without corporate approval, but if there is, I sure don't know the password to get in.

"No, I'm sorry." I called back (Why am I sorry? It's not my fault.)

"There's no IHOP?"

"No, I'm sorry." NO there's no IHOP.

And she looks at me disbelievingly.

"There's NO IHOP?" Now look. Two things here: first, if we could get businesses here by wishing, trust me, we'd have had both a Target and a Trader Joe's a long time ago. And second: I can't stand it when I tell someone a True Fact and they don't want to believe me. I deal with it a lot from students. They come in wanting to know their grade, and I tally it up, and then I tell them, "I'm sorry" (and again: why? I didn't cause them to earn a poor grade) "But the best you can get in the class is a C." And they go into disbelief mode. They tell me to recalculate - I do. They still are, at best, going to earn a C. There is literally nothing they can do to earn a better grade. And yet - some of them - they get the idea that if, I don't know, they WISH hard enough or DENY hard enough, they'll get that A somehow. And it drives me up the wall. So I don't need it from a couple of late-middle-aged women who apparently just need a Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity fix.

"No, there's no IHOP," I responded wearily. "We have a Waffle House. And a Chili's. And fast food places." (We also have a couple tea rooms and coffee shops, and they're nice, but they're not open on Sundays, being largely one-person operations). I'm standing there under the hot sun, holding my six-pack of Gatorade in one hand and my bag of  "hygiene" supplies in the other, and wishing they'd just believe me so I could go home and fix myself lunch.

"What if we were to drive east on this road?" the woman asked, gesturing to the highway that becomes Main Street in the downtown, and then again becomes a 2-lane highway leading out of town. "Would we find one then?"

At that point I was really tempted to say, "Yeah, sure, knock yourself out. Maybe a Denny's will magically appear. Or maybe you'll just get to the state line and still be hungry." But of course, that would be rude, so instead, I just said, "Sorry, no. We don't have a Denny's or an IHOP. We have a Waffle House, a Chili's, and a number of fast-food restaurants."

(I suppose I could have told them that if they were willing to drive some 40 miles south, they'd find an IHOP. But I don't think that would have helped.)

The women looked at each other and shrugged. I don't know if they finally accepted what I had told them, or if they thought I was holding out on them, or if they thought I really didn't know what I was talking about, but they finally drove off.

But seriously. We don't have a freakin' Denny's. Or an IHOP. Or an Applebee's. Or a Perkin's. And when someone tells you our little town doesn't, why won't you believe them? There are only 12,000 of us here; we can't have EVERYTHING.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another thought on standing and sitting

This occurred to me on Sunday.

It's been BRUTALLY hot and humid here - just unbelievable. This is typical weather for August, not June.

And my church's poor air conditioning system can't keep up. So it was warm and humid in the sanctuary. And I noticed something: while singing the hymns, I'd start to feel a bit weak and light-headed. (And no, I don't think I was fixin' to be "slain in the spirit," Disciples of Christ generally don't do that). But I do have low-grade asthma. And I know that humidity affects me- and so, the effort of standing, holding the heavy hymnbook (hymnbooks are always heavy) and singing was sapping all the oxygen I could suck into my body and process through my lungs.

And if "they" think "they're" going to make us walk on treadmills and work, they better account for the folks who will get all wheezy and will lose brain function.

Because the building where I work? Often loses air conditioning for a while in the summer. And I don't think my building is the only workplace on earth where that could happen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Odd random thought

I miss "Emily Litella."

There would be so very, very many things for her to misunderstand and get all excited about in the news these days.

And seriously, some days, the news seems actually to be parody, rather than news.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Something great to see

Today is, of course, Flag Day. And also the birthday of the U.S. Army.

Driving in to work today, I saw that someone (I think it's the local American Legion, or maybe the VFW chapter) had gone around town and put out American flags on all the corners - they must have been out as soon as the sun came up because they weren't there yesterday, and I drive in to work around 7 am.

It always makes me glad to see them. Glad that there's someone who cares about putting them out, glad that the property owners are proud to fly the flags on their property.

The flags also come out for Memorial Day and Independence Day and Veterans' Day (and possibly, in recent years on Sept. 11).

We seem to have a large and active group of military veterans in my town who consider doing things like this - and also going around to the schools and speaking on things like flag etiquette and their memories of their wartime experience - an important service. (And it is. I'm glad to hear that schoolkids are learning about the military service from guys who actually participated. We even have a few WWII vets who are still able to go around and talk about their service).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The war on sitting

Brace for it. Since there's now a raft of articles (or, more likely a raft of articles basically copying what the first one said) about how sitting induces all kinds of scary changes in the body EVEN in people who do their mandated recommended hour of daily exercise.

The local news (and yeah, I know, Ray Bradbury once said not to watch local news, because it makes you stupid, and I'm somewhat inclined to agree with him) had a story on it where their doctor-for-hire talked in almost loving detail about how sitting raised one's risk of diabetes and osteoporosis and hardening of the arteries and monsterism. And it was all very very scary, until the last bit of the story, where it was noted that if you stand up and walk around periodically - which of course you have to, if you work the way I work: you have to go check on an experiment. Or go get a drink of water. Or go talk to someone about something (I'd rather discuss stuff face to face than use the phone, most of the time). And of course with teaching, I'm on my feet anywhere from three to six hours a day.

They also didn't talk about fidgeting and other moving-while-you-sit. And I am a fidgeter. I can't stay comfortable in one position for very long. And when I'm sitting at home - like watching TV or something - I have to have something else to DO - either knitting or sewing or something. And from what they said on the news story, it seemed that they were looking at sitting where the sitter was 100% still.

But of course, they had to break and show the requisite "Look at  me! I'm so great!" person who has modified their life in some way to counteract the supposed negative effects of the situation - someone who had a treadmill desk. And while on one hand, being able to work while walking does seem kind of attractive at times, I would really really bristle if my university decreed that we were all to have treadmill desks and the only way we could work "in place" was if we were standing up and walking. Because, I don't know...I guess I get paranoid but I feel like the next stage is harnessing us all to a windlass or something and having us generate electricity through our movement.

I also object to the general tone of "OH I'm so much BETTER than all of you obese couch potatoes" that seems to come with the person who has adopted the treadmill desks. Do what you will, but don't force a one-size-fits-all solution on everyone. (And what about people who develop knee problems from having to stand too long? And what about workplaces with stricter dress codes, where people have to wear dress shoes that look nice, but are less amenable to being on your feet for hours).

I just worry that some idiot somewhere is going to take this too far and do something like call for a ban on chairs. Or suggest that we spend millions of dollars to throw out all the existing school desks and replace them with "standing" desks. Or something.

It just seems to me like, as we conquer more and more health problems - now that we don't, for example, have people dying on a regular basis on the job, or have children succumbing to diphtheria, and now that we enjoy a lifespan longer than it's probably ever been, it's as if the people who study health aren't content to stop for a moment and go, "Wow, we've really come a long way!" No, they have to come up with new things that are bad for us. And a lot of times it seems to me there's a strong Puritan (in the bad sense) streak in all of it, that everything that gives ease and comfort and enjoyment is bad for us and must be stamped out; that instead of eating hamburgers we should eat raw scratchy plant parts without salt or any seasoning. And instead of relaxing at the end of the day by "taking a load off," we should run home to our personal treadmills and crank out an hour or two of walking but not going anywhere.

And I'm not sure I want to live in a society where pleasure is suspect in that way. It's funny; in some societies "pleasure" is prevented or denied by religious authorities (thinking of some of the things that happen in the more fundamentalist Muslim countries) but here, where we have more freedom in that way, we're actually allowing "experts" to tell us to deny ourselves in the name of health. (And as the new health-care plan comes on line, I expect to see the "experts" become even more strident, in the sense of "it's your DUTY" to do these things...)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

I know, "it doesn't hurt to ask," but still...

I give short weekly tests in my summer classes. At the end of my non-majors class today, one of the women came up to me and asked,

"So? Is this going to be an open book test?"

Wait, what? Sweetheart, this is a 100 level freshman general education class. The material is so basic that when I get non-traditional students who "have" to take it for their distribution, they come to me and say, "Am I wrong or is this stuff really really simple and stuff I learned in high school?" and I tell them "No, you're not wrong. I hope you don't get too bored."

It blows my mind that she'd even ASK, in a class like this. (Actually, it scares me a little: if she's so overwhelmed by the information ALREADY that she thinks an open-book test is going to be necessary...)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

And so it's begun

Summer semester.

I have hopes - it seems these classes are more engaged than the "regular" semester classes are. Already they've been contributing things and asking questions.

However, I have two examples of snowflakery to report from the first day. (Or, one snowflake and one clueless person, I'm not sure.)

Clear snowflake: I'm midway through my first class, in the middle of a discussion on ecosystem structure, and a woman walks in my door. She doesn't sit down. She stops me, mid sentence:

"Can you help me out?"

Oh, for Pete's sake.

I look at her, wondering on what planet this kind of thing is appropriate.

She wants to know where her class is. She's in "zero level science" - this is the remediation class that you take if you are homeschooled, or are a foreign student, or - as I suspect is this person's case - you're sufficiently lacking in clue-age that you couldn't get above a 16 (Or whatever it is) in science on the ACT.

The classroom, and where it is, is pretty freaking obvious (or at least I think so) but I explained to her how to get there anyway.

But still: you don't interrupt a prof to ask where your damn classroom is. You walk down the hall until you find it. The fact that the numbers you already walked past are getting higher should be a clue that if you keep walking, eventually the numbers will get high enough that it will be your room.

Grr. Maybe I need to bring it up with the person who teaches the class (a friend of mine) just to clue her in that this student is kind of aggressive and aggressively clueless. Then again, considering the stories she's regaled me with over the years, the cluelessness of this person is actually pretty minor league.

The second person was someone who walked in about 10 minutes before the end of my first class and sat down. I had someone who had been absent at the start so I assumed it was her. I tried to give her a syllabus for the class - and it turned out she was just here for the NEXT class.

Um, ok. I appreciate that you're early but please don't just walk on into the room and sit down.

Kids today. I just don't know. I also have to remind students when we are doing student presentations that if they come late, they need to wait out in the hall until the current presenter has finished up - this is actually more crucial than their walking in on me, because I'm kind of used to it. But you get someone presenting for the first time, they're nervous, and someone barges in the classroom - it's not good.

I also hate to admit it, but in these days of campus shootings, I always jump a little when someone randomly walks in in the middle of class. I may take to closing the door (at least; maybe even locking it too) when class "officially" begins. Except then I know I'd get latecomers pounding on the door.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Hovering parent, snowflake child

I know the commenters sneer at the "obviousness" of the conclusions, but still:

'Helicopter' parents tend to have neurotic kids.

Pull quote:

""We have a person who is dependent, who is vulnerable, who is self-conscious, who is anxious, who is impulsive, not open to new actions or ideas; is that going to make a successful college student?" Montgomery said. "No not exactly, it's really a horrible story at the end of the day."

(Makes me wonder how much of the success of so-called "indoctrination" on college campuses is coming in part because the students just swallow what's told them because that's how it was with their parents)

One thing they note is that kids who are "over parented" are less open to wanting to try new things. In some regards, that might be a GOOD thing (for example, if all your friends are getting high on animal tranquilizers, being someone unwilling to try new things might serve you well there). But on the other hand, I've seen enough college students who just clam down - who go "I can't DO this" - when they're presented with a challenge.

My parents were good parents - I mean, I learned stuff like, "If all your friends are getting high on animal tranquilizers, you should say no to it because animal tranquilizers can really mess up your brain and could even kill you" but they didn't hover. I don't remember them EVER calling any of my campuses (not even high school) to resolve a problem on my behalf. I DO remember my dad sort of sighing over the phone, when I had some kind of crisis-that-wasn't-really-a-crisis and saying, "You're smart enough to deal with this" and then expecting me to.

Also, I was kind of one of those "free ranger" kids. I don't know if it was my own personality (my mother has commented on how, even as a fairly small child, I was pretty independent, in the sense that I could make my own peanut butter sandwiches and stuff, and I would take books or some of my toys and go off somewhere and she wouldn't hear from me for hours) or if that was my parents' influence (I was allowed to do things - like climbing trees out all by myself - that probably a lot of parents would be horrified by because, you know, it's kind of DANGEROUS. Well, I never fell out of the tree and I knew it was high up and I could fall and I was respectful of heights and fairly careful...)

So I don't know. But I do think some of the Millennial frustrations that those of us who teach have may come as a result of some students being still rather childlike and dependent. From what little I've read of the ideas behind parenting, it does seem that over-protecting your children, trying to cushion them from every disappointment and save them from every failure, is not doing them any favors. I learned fairly early on that other kids can be mean, that teachers are sometimes unfair, that you don't always win at stuff, that you don't always get invited to birthday parties....and I adapted. And I think I adapted better learning that at 6 or 8 or whatever than I would have learning it for the first time at 18.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A short thought on writing "research" papers.

I'm working on one again, hopefully it will be accepted to the Proceedings of the conference I'm presenting the data at this summer.

I've gone back to the old, old method, the one I've used since fifth grade at least: reading through my sources with a stack of 3 by 5 cards next to me. Every time I find a fact or bit of information I want to use, I write it down on the card, along with the last names of the author and year of publication. If I'm quoting directly, I put the phrase in quotation marks, otherwise, I paraphrase as I go. (I probably don't need to do that, really: I can remember my way of writing something vs. the way another author does).

I don't know who taught me to do it this way. It might have been my parents, who, I think, used similar methods when working on their graduate degrees. Or it might have been a particularly dedicated teacher. I just know that it's a method that works well for me: I can make an outline, then flip through the cards and make little notes in the corner of each card where it fits in the outline. Then I just put the cards in order and start writing. (I still have huge shoeboxes of cards from my doctoral dissertation stored in the guest room closet at my parents' house).

I also make a "bibliographic information" card for each source, for when I need to do the Literature Cited.

As I said, I've done it this way for, gosh, 30 years now. Whenever I needed to write a "report," or, later, a "research paper," and now, when I write journal manuscripts. (I still remember an early paper - sixth grade - on mountain lions. I got a good grade on it; probably because I knew how to do the background research and that kind of writing actually came fairly easily to me).

But I think the years of practice are what make it fairly easy. And I kind of intuitively know what's "research-with-citations" and what would be "plagiarism." And I think that's a hard thing for students to learn without actually doing it. I've had problems with students who think writing an "honest" paper can only be done if you directly quote (and cite) all background sources; they have somewhere along the line picked up the idea that paraphrasing or "putting it in your own words" (as my teachers always said) was plagiarizing, even if you cite the source. And nothing could be further from the truth: actually, paraphrasing-with-citation is the correct way to write these kinds of papers. (And it's EXCRUCIATING to read a paper that's nothing but cobbled-together quotations from a diversity of sources. Not to mention that it's hard to grade because there's really none of the student's work on display; you don't know if they actually understand or are merely parroting.)

But I learned when it was and was not appropriate to quote directly (and in rare cases, it is) by doing it. I think I wrote "research papers" every year of school from - as I said - fifth grade on.

Another thing I learned was how to find the best background material, and to winnow out things not necessary. One problem some of my students get into is that they'll write 10 page introductions full of intense natural-history detail of the species they happened to use in their experiment, but none of that information will actually be all that pertinent to the experiment. For example, they might have done a study examining time-of-day versus ant foraging activity, and while they have all kinds of information about the different types of worker ants, and what chemical is in their sting...they have nothing about daily rhythms of animals or about ant foraging. I make a point that sometimes if you can't find information on your exact species, similar information on a closely related taxonomic group (like the daily rhythms information) is fine to include - but that it's not necessary to talk about the process of development of the larvae, because that's really tangential to what's being studied here.

And again, I think that's something that comes with experience. I spent enough years of getting drafts of papers handed back marked up, with "UNNECESSARY" or similar written in the margin next to a section that didn't really play an immediate role with what I was researching. So now, I can kind of sense what is necessary and what is not.

(And I admit, I feel a tiny bit of joy when, while reading a paper that I've mostly written off as being tangential to my interest, I run across a bit of information that I can USE. Especially when it's something I was thinking about with my own data.).

But all of that - skill and comfort with writing - come with experience. And from having talked to students, and particularly talking to students who have children in the schools right now - it seems that a lot of schools aren't doing that. They're not requiring papers with research, or essays, or much writing at all. (One of our former students, who worked in the office for a while, was livid about how poorly her son was being taught in that area: she actually went to the school board to complain. I'm not sure if it did any good. Her main complaint was that the teacher was telling the kids to hand-copy articles out of the encyclopedia. So not only were they essentially being told plagiarism was OK (or at least, "not being told it was wrong") but they were being pointed to what was not really the best source. (And yeah, I know: as a kid, I used the old World Book many times. But eventually I learned that there were better sources out there))

I don't know. It's harder for students to have a "good" experience planning and doing an independent research project when they're not comfortable with writing or with doing background research. (And it's SO EASY now: we have BioOne, we have Ebsco Host, we have JSTOR - you can just go online and find all kinds of peer-reviewed, scientific-literature articles on a topic). It means I have to do more "catch up" work in terms of telling them how to write, and in terms of correcting things when I grade. I've had people get angry with me when I graded them down for not having a Literature Cited section (they say: "I don't know what that IS!" My response is: you knew you were required to have one; you could have come and asked me.)

I don't know. I'm generally not a strict, "back to basics, 3-Rs" type mindset, but I do think schoolkids need to do more writing - and have that writing graded fairly rigorously - than a lot of them do now. I know it's hard when you have multiple classes and when you might have 30 students per class, but still.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Off the hook!

I was supposed to "babysit" my grad student's project this week while she was at a workshop. I was all geared up to get the keys, to remind myself to come in every day (and some potential weekend plans I had would have to be shuffled around to accommodate it). It's in another building on campus - she's a lab instructor in Chemistry, and she got space over there. So it would be more of a challenge for me; I'd have to be sure to have a building key as well as the lab key.

She just called me this morning. Her husband volunteered to do it. (Well, maybe "volunteered under a bit of duress," but still). He did help her set it up so maybe he feels more invested in it - or maybe they just didn't want to load me up with it (I believe he's retired - my graduate student is a little bit older).

But I'm glad to be freed up, and also not to be the one running around like crazy to try to fix things if the air conditioner in the lab where she has it set up goes out or something.

I'm grateful to her husband for taking it on. Anything that frees me up a little is very welcome.