Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thoughts on bullying

A lot has been made of bullying, lately, in part because of the suicide of Tyler Clementi. (Though I think I'd call what happened to him something even stronger than bullying: no one should have a right to film a person without their knowledge and consent, particularly in such a private situation. I don't know what I'd call what his dorm-mates did to him, but I think we need a word stronger than bullying.)

I half-heard on the news this morning something about there possibly being a new "mandate" to reduce bullying in schools.

Oh, good luck with THAT. (I am rolling my eyes here).

The problem is: kids always have, and always will, bully other kids. The challenge is deciding what goes beyond the bounds of "little kids are mean and that sucks" and into the realm of "they're making life Hell for that other little kid."

I don't know. When I was in school there was perhaps more honor-among-bullies than there is now; it seemed like the disabled kids who were "mainstreamed" where not the target of bullying to the degree that fat kids, or slightly effeminate boys, or little eggheads (like me) were. I suppose on some level the bullies figured that they'd get into much bigger trouble for going after the developmentally-delayed kid. (Or maybe, they had some inklings of compassion, and knew they should not?)

I do think bullying will happen among kids on some level. Yes, it's kind of awful. Yes, it can affect kids' personalities in bad ways. (I think part of the reason I am pretty meek and not prone to speak up for myself is a result of the way I was treated in school).

But on the other hand: We will always have the bullies with us. It's probably easier to learn how to deal with them as a kid, than it is as an adult. And yes, there still exist bullies into adulthood. When I was a teaching assistant, for a couple semesters, my supervisor was a woman who was a bully. She figured out precisely what people's weak spots were and went after them. It was horrible and childish - she was in her 50s and she was bulling 25-year-old grad students! but I will admit that more than once, I was fighting tears walking out of her office (and gave into them, once I was safely inside my lab).

But I just told myself: she's a bully. Yes, she pushes your buttons. But think about it: she's in her fifties, in a non-tenure-track job where she mainly teaches disinterested non-majors students. She's terribly insecure. She's bullying you because it makes her feel better.

And while it didn't stop me from reacting to her, it did allow me to - after I shed the few hot tears - stand back up and go back to work and tell myself that I wouldn't have to work with her forever. But that she'd have to live with herself forever.

I've also dealt with a few bullies where if you stand up to them, if you look them in the eye and essentially say, "I know you're trying to intimidate me, and it won't work," they back down (And in some cases, if you can get a pack of like-minded people to all stand up to the bully together, it works spectacularly). Or in some cases, with the psycho-bully, the best thing to do is to avoid them and wait for them to hoist themselves on their own petard. Or a few bullying types I've killed with kindness: I've pretended to be oblivious to the fact that they were trying to push my buttons (for me, this works much better over the phone than in person) and continue to just be super polite, super Southern sweet, and eventually they get fed up and stop trying to bully me.

All of those things I learned (well, the Southern sweet techniques I didn't develop until I moved here and saw other women using them) from dealing with bullies in school.

I do think wrapping our kids in bubble wrap for their childhood kind of handicaps them for adulthood. The "real world" isn't safe or kind, you have to fend for yourself a lot. You have to either swallow a lot of hurt feelings or learn how not to let your feelings get hurt.

I realize there's a balance between totally throwing a child to the wolves - pernicious, persistent, or violent bullies probably need to be taught a lesson - but I think stopping all "mean talk" is not only impossible but perhaps counterproductive.

I don't know that there is a solution to bullying. If parents are going to let their kids bully, there's not much to be done. (In a few cases, when I was a kid, when the parent found out what their kid was doing, the kid was punished pretty heavily for it. But in some cases, the parents either can't believe their kid would do that, or they believed s/he was being "persecuted" by the school).

I do think teachers should be given more leeway to throw kids out of class when they're being disruptive - or throw kids out of school all together if they pose a demonstrable threat (and not just a purely physical threat) to other kids. Have some kind of a court system in the schools, I don't know.

All that said? If I had a child, and I could swing it at all financially (to stay home), I'd totally homeschool the child. From what I've heard and read, bullying seems to be worse in the schools now (or maybe less is done about it) than when I was in school some 30 years ago. And while I survived the teasing I received, it did affect me. (And there are a lot of other things to be said in favor of homeschooling, at least when it's properly done: for one thing, if your kid's really good at reading, they don't have to travel at the too-slow-for-them pace of the rest of the class, and conversely, if they had trouble with something, more time can be spent on it for them alone.)

I don't know. I wonder if what I perceive as an increase in self-absorption of many in the current generation of parents (as opposed to my generation's parents), people being more busy and overscheduled, seemingly less time spent as a family, are things that are adding to what I perceive as an increasingly Lord of the Flies like atmosphere in some of the schools.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My suspicions, confirmed.

(First off: thanks, Dave. She didn't mention a timeframe so she might have been referring to 2014, if nothing changes. And HH: I suppose I COULD buy my own health insurance but as I'm a fatty fat fat with a family history of cancer, I'm not sure I'd happily emotionally deal with all the questions and the "you know, if you lost 20 pounds you'd save $5 a month on your premiums" and all that. And I know someone who had a very hard time getting individual insurance because she was "too fat," and she was slimmer than I was.)

I have a cheater in my gen bio class. Gave an exam today. All of this person's multiple choice answers are the answers for the other form of the test, which her next-seat neighbor had.

I can't quite understand how she's copying. I watch her. I don't see her looking at the other person's paper.

It frustrates me.

I suppose the upside is she's failed the test.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thanks so effing much

Thanks, Nancy. Thanks, Harry. Thanks, Barry.

I just found out today that they're going to start counting my health insurance as taxable income. I'm sure this is the result of the new "Health Care Bill."

The nurse who told me this fact was as disgusted and frustrated as I am.

The thing is - because I'm single, no dependents, I go for the Cadillac health care - it's a perk, I don't have to pay out for it. Well, now I do.

And dammit, the re-enrollment period was two weeks ago. So I can't even drop back to cheaper lesser coverage (I rarely use my health insurance; I'm very healthy aside from allergies) to save myself some bucks.

Guys? You just de-stimulated the economy a little, because money I MIGHT be spending I will now be sitting on, because I'm fearing a bigger tax bill in the future.

Thanks so damn much. Grr.

(I really hope the Health Care mess gets repealed. Yes, we need to modify how insurance works and such, but this bill was just such an unholy zombie mess that it's going to be FULL of unintended consequences like this one.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fine, whatever

So, NPR fired Juan Williams over saying "less" about his concern with 'self-identifying Muslims on planes' than what I would argue some NPR commentators said (about Bush during the Bush years). I don't know, I can't get real outraged about it. (Or some are saying it's because he "broke contract" by appearing on Fox, but that doesn't seem to hold water, from what I've read)

For one thing: Williams is a smart guy. I don't agree with him all the time, but I do think he's a smart guy. He'll land on his feet. He'll probably wind up doing better at Fox or where ever he winds up full time in the future. Or he'll write more books. He'll be fine. I also think he's a strong enough guy not to be overly hurt by this. Oh, sure, I'm sure in private he was pretty pissed off. But I don't expect to see him whining about it in public, or even referring to the incident a few months from now. (Also, I believe he has far too much class to whine about it in public...unlike some public figures I could name)

As for NPR....whatever consequences they get, they get. If people decide to stop pledging money, fine. That's the people's choice. NPR made a boneheaded move and if people choose to punish them for it, so be it. And if the government begins questioning their funding, fine. I admit that NPR isn't my favorite use of taxpayer dollars, but then again, I think it's far from the very worst use of them out there. If they get defunded, fine: they can hit up more corporate donors (if they can get them), or shift their business model, or something. Perhaps in a new tighter economy we do have to do things like cut NPR and PBS loose; after all, I know lots of families that dropped their cable, or stopped having dinners out, things like that - cutting out non-essentials so that essentials could be paid for.

I think part of my "meh" reaction is that (a) I don't have an NPR affiliate near me and (b) I don't really listen to them even when I'm near one. True, most often the classical stations in a city (if they even have one) is a public station, and I like classical music - but also, in this day and age, there is Sirius and digital radio through the cable system and online services like Pandora. It's not like it's 1978 and my only choice for classical music is to find a radio station or buy a stereo and records.

I will say it was an extremely boneheaded move, I think, on NPR's part. I don't know, I've heard people making dark allegations about the "real" reason for it. I think probably the reason had to do more with Williams being a commentator on Fox and people at NPR being told that Fox is poison, and thinking they'd best cut the man loose. And they can just deal with the fallout for firing a well-liked and well-respected commentator. (And one of the few African-American voices on the network, if I'm not mistaken.)

But whatever. The phrase "They made their bed, now let them lie in it" is my main reaction to what NPR did.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Argh, phone

So, in addition to the robo-political calls, I've been fielding lots of calls from creditors seeking the son of the former owner of my house.

(I had been screening my calls but I was getting so many hang-up calls I decided I had better see what was up. So now I take the calls but immediately hang up if a recorded voice comes on or if someone whose voice I don't recognize asks for me by my full name).

This morning, I got one. The lady was looking for "Steven" (the name of the son of the former homeowner). Knowing how these people often operate (not letting you get a word in edgewise), I started my spiel - explaining I had bought the house from his mom 9 years ago, I don't have contact information for him, his mom is dead, I don't know where he is.

She stopped me midway through: "Why are you getting angry at ME?!?! Don't use your energy that way!"

Look, lady. I've taken maybe five of these calls in the past month. Don't get angry with ME.

I did apologize but observed that I had had to field a great many of these calls, that I often work at home and they are an interruption, and I can't help. And considering that it's been NINE FRACKING YEARS since the guy's MOTHER even lived here, it seems kind of pointless to call the house.

And the phone number here is different than what it was then - it is "my" phone number I got when I moved here. And if they did an address lookup, they would see MY NAME which in no way resembles the name of the person they are seeking, or his mother, in the directory.

I don't know - is there any way I can do some kind of a public THIS HOUSE NO LONGER BELONGS TO THIS FAMILY AND I DON"T KNOW WHERE THE DEADBEAT SON IS AND THE MOTHER IS DEAD SO BUGGER OFF AND STOP BOTHERING ME thing? I know people publish notes in the newspaper that they will no longer pay debts of family members and such, but this is different and that would just be local, anyway.

The thing is - when I worked with the son to buy the house he seemed like a stand-up guy. I don't know whether he just got into lots of problems later on or if it was a front, or what. But it's frustrating to deal with these calls that much later.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'm here

Just really, really busy. As I've said before, I'm teaching an overload. And that overload includes the two classes that are the most challenging for me to teach, in terms of requiring prep-time and requiring a lot of helping and "handholding" of students in the class.

I'm diligently avoiding the election coverage; after hearing that Spitzer's former madam is apparently running for governor of New York, I figured it couldn't get any odder.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thoughts on teaching

It's funny - and sad - how this semester my largest people problems are not students but colleagues.

First off, the whole mess with the not-living-up-to-expectations recent hire. It's going to be ugly, I suspect. We may see an epic flounce, leaving the rest of us to unexpectedly cover classes we should not have to.

Now, one of my other colleagues comes to me: "You know X? How he pushed for this forced schedule in that class we all teach, and how he pushed for certain assignments? He isn't doing any of them. He's not keeping up with the schedule, he's not doing the assignments with the class. His students are unprepared for lab because they haven't had that topic yet."

And you know, my main reaction? A great big "FFS."

I don't have the energy for this. All my energy right now is directed at teaching my overload, working with my research students, doing my own research: in other words, what I am supposed to be doing, what I am paid to do.

Yeah, yeah - it's a problem. If students are unprepared for labs, that's a serious issue. (And that tells me - since I teach a lab section for that class - maybe I need to intensify the pre-lab instructions a bit more, rather than giving a rough outline and assuming they've seen it in lecture, simply because I know MY lecture students have.)

My colleague also noted: "He cancels class a lot. And he lets people out early. And he softballs things." Okay, hold on there, kimosabe. I don't need to know this. We're getting peer review of our teaching in the coming year and if that happens, it'll come out in the wash. But I don't like gossip and I don't like hearing bad things about other people second-hand.

But he went on: "He gets really high teaching evaluations" (True: as part of the "peer review" we do see each other's portfolios, and his average scores are a bit higher than mine). "And he's doing it by slacking off and pandering! If we ever go to a merit-pay system here, he will be rewarded and people like you will be hurt!"

And again: "FFS." I told my colleague what my dad always told me as a kid: "Life's not fair." And I told him, "Merit pay will not mean they cut the pay of people; it just means that some of us will get smaller raises." (And frankly, I do more research than the person in question, and I INVOLVE STUDENTS IN RESEARCH, which I think will actually count for more).

But you know what? As much as I'd LIKE to have really high evaluations, I would definitely NOT want it to be because I felt I was pandering to the students, doing junk like cancelling class for the first day of deer or turkey season, or letting them out early on Fridays, stuff like that. I have high standards. The students who are really serious appreciate my high standards: I regularly have people coming back from, e-mailing me from, or seeing me at meetings after they've gone on to grad school, and they thank me for the preparation I gave them. For every complaint of "too much math!" I get in ecology, I get someone else coming to me and saying, "Thank you for emphasizing life tables so heavily; I'm taking a population biology class right now and I understand the material better than many of the other students because of what you taught."

To quote my father again: "It's better to be right than to be popular." I think what I am doing is the right thing: keeping high standards, not cancelling class frivolously. (I cancel if I am ill - either if I'm fairly sure I'm contagious or if I know I'd be useless teaching (like if I have a migraine). Or I cancel once a semester to go to scientific meetings. But that's ONE day.)

I may not be the most popular person with the general student populace, but I think among the serious students, I'm fairly well respected. (And I think it's preferable to be respected and not "loved," than to be "loved" and not respected, when you're a prof.)

But you know? The whole deal with this guy slacking off: I'm not going to worry about it. One thing I have learned in recent years is that there is exactly one person whose behavior I have influence over, and that's my own. So all I can do is keep doing what is right, and not worry about what other people are doing; to trust that things will work out.

My colleague did say he was going to slack off (well, he didn't use those words) a little bit, and tried to persuade me to, as well. But that's not right! Just because one person is being a slacker and we think that's wrong, and we think it's unfair that we may be working harder than he is - that's no reason to screw over the students. And I told him as much, that what was important to me were the students learning what they needed to know, and feeling like I was doing a good job. And for me, the high level (some might say, too high) level of diligence and responsibility I bring to teaching give me the feeling that I am doing a good job and doing what I am supposed to. And if merit pay comes, and I don't get raises that are as big because I'm criticized on evaluations for being a hard-ass, that's just how it will be.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And it's done

No, it wasn't the "confront" meeting, it was the "decide what the hell we are going to do" meeting.

Turns out the person in question has been a much bigger problem than I was aware of. Apparently they have driven away a couple of potential majors - good students, too - because of their horrible attitude. And the person who brought this forward is someone who doesn't teach the class in question, who has no skin in the game, so to speak.

We came to a decision, it's not going to be a happy one. Suffice it to say I may choose to be absent from campus (if I can) at the time the person is told of the decision. This is someone with a somewhat difficult temperament.

I'm sad and I'm sorry it worked out this way, but after seeing some of the documented incidents I'm kind of gobsmacked that a person would think they could operate in the way this person is. This person was also told that what they were doing was not up to standards and they apparently never listened.

I guess I worry TOO much about doing a "good job," this is apparently a person who doesn't worry at all.

We have a few months before we do anything final.

This is also the person I complained about complaining how the students didn't "respect" them. I don't know. I know I have a few students who don't respect me but I know I also have some that do. You earn the respect you get by treating people with kindness (and firmness, if necessary) and helping them. (And not talking smack about other students or faculty).

I don't know. This just makes me tired and sad and apprehensive, but I think we did make the right decision here.

Lord give me strength

The potentially-nasty meeting, where the person who isn't "living up to standards" (according to another person) will be confronted is in five minutes.

I am telling myself, over and over again: mouth shut, ears open. You may learn something valuable this hour. And I'm also reminding myself: this is not a class you teach nor have you ever taught. Your opinion is not significant and offering it will only prolong the horror.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm not normally given to violent thoughts

But I'd kinda like to punch David Axelrod in the mouth right now. Mr. "We're going to start a subtle smear campaign, and when someone in the news actually calls us on our facts, we're going to tell them the burden of (dis)proof is on them."

Idiots, all of 'em.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Freedom of speech

I've long thought that the real test of freedom of speech is not speech that most people like; not even speech that many people find challenging and difficult. The true test is the speech that most people despise.

I think that's what's at issue in this current case. The one with a group of Kansans who call themselves "Baptists." (But aren't like any Baptist I've ever met). The ones who protest at military funerals.

(I even hesitate to write about it. They deserve no publicity - which is, I am sure, partly what they want. And I suspect that also partly what they want is to upset people into committing violence or whatever against them, so they can then sue: it's my understanding a number of them are lawyers).

That said, I hope the Supreme Court doesn't vote to abridge their free speech. Even though what they are doing is utterly despicable. Even though I find myself frequently praying that they would all wake up some morning and realize, "Good Lord, what are we DOING?" and realize how wrong they have been, and stop. As much as I think they deserve any beating they receive at the hands of a citizen sick of their shenanigans. As much as it would take all of my composure and all of my patience and self-control NOT to shout obscenities and flip the double-bird at them if they showed up in my town.

Because when we start banning certain forms of speech, we enter into a world where it's hard to stop banning.

Instead, I think we should support the Patriot Guard. And any other groups that work to try to shield the grieving family from the protesting idiots. And I think if the protesting idiots do, in any way, overstep an actual law - like invasion of privacy or disturbing the peace - then they should be hit, and hit hard, and hit every time they violate the law.

It does make me sad that they're getting so much publicity right now; I am sure that's what they want.

Still, "Argh."

Bingley is right. (Then again: If I've been cc'd in on all kinds of stuff, and there IS a wrongful-termination lawsuit, that means I can't be called to testify, no?)

I don't know. I find it kind of - disrespectful? - to expect other people to take sides in a situation that doesn't really impact them.

I see this a lot, though: students trying to get me to talk smack about other profs, things like that.

I don't know. We meet next week. I'm not looking forward to it. I've already decided to mostly keep my mouth shut, and, if pressed to contribute, remark that I've not taught the class in question, I haven't seen any of the issues first-hand, so I don't feel it's my place to speak.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Argh. No.

One of our newer hires is apparently causing problems. Or, one or two of my colleagues is having problems with this person.

The thing is: the issue involves one of our large intro classes. A class I do not teach. I have not seen any of these people in action in the class, I don't know the new hire that well (and I don't know one of the complainers that well. The other one, yeah, I'd give his concerns some credence.)

The thing is: THIS IS A CLASS I DO NOT TEACH. I have nothing to do with it.

I just wish the main complainer (the person I don't know so well) would stop cc'ing me on all of the e-mails documenting this new hire's suckiness. I don't want to hear it. This person needs to go directly to the person they are having problems with and work it out with them. I do not get involved in these kinds of cat fights.

If it escalates to "we have to have a meeting to address this," I will go. But I will sit, with my mouth shut, and say nothing. I may even abstain from voting (giving lack of firsthand knowledge as my justification) if a vote to renew/not-renew the person's contract comes up.

But the thing is: criminy. I'm teaching 15 hours here. A couple days a week I approach having a 12-hour day on campus (one day a week I actually have it.) I am too busy and too tired (and getting too old) do deal with these kinds of things. I honestly can't tell if it's a real problem or if it's just a case of "I don't like this person, they rub me the wrong way(1) and I want to make their life miserable" or what.

(1) (The person in question CAN be abrasive. And has been a little whiny in the past, to the point where I was gritting my teeth to keep from saying something like, "Cowgirl up. We all have things in our life that are tough; we all get stuck with classes that are bad sometimes.")

I love teaching - some of my students this semester are a real joy. But I could do without some of the petty politicking.

ETA: There's been a short-notice meeting called for tomorrow. And the person in question is not on the e-mail list. Ugh. Lord grant me strength, and give me the wisdom to keep my fool mouth shut.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Strong leaders, weak leaders

Something that happened in my life this week cemented something in my mind that I'd been thinking about, but not really explicitly stated to myself.

The difference between strong and weak leaders is, in part, how they deal with criticism.

Strong leaders have their goals in mind. The goals are firm, they know the goals are good, they can articulate the justification for those goals. When someone criticizes them, they follow one of three roads:

1. They ignore the criticism, if it's really unfounded, and especially if the critic is one of those sorts of people who finds fault with everything.

2. They sit down with the critic and either try to clarify (if they think they've been misunderstood) or try to come to some kind of compromise. Or convince the critic that he or she is wrong, based on facts.

3. If there really is a problem, they own up to it.

It's one of the hardest things I know, when someone is criticizing you - especially if it's the snipey kind of criticism - to stand up and say, "Yes. There are problems with this program, and I need to work to fix them." or to say "I screwed up here, I'm sorry, it will be fixed and won't happen again." But it's the right thing to do.

Weak leaders, on the other hand, immediately fire back at their critics: they're wrong. Or they don't understand. Or they're stupid. Or they have ulterior motives. Or they're greedy. Whatever. The weak leader goes on the defensive against critics, instead of stopping and asking themselves, "Is this criticism based on something I really do need to look at and change? Am I not presenting my ideas well? Or is this critic being a crank?"

Seeing it close-up (happening with a person I know) seems to bring home much more how petty the weak leader looks when he or she does the knee-jerk reaction. But now I also see it in politics: the politics of reaction is bad politics.

We need more strong leaders. People who have a clear vision and believe that vision is good and right and will help people. And who are brave enough and wise enough, when something's not working, to say, "We need a new plan here."

And we need fewer weak leaders, who seem to be more concerned about their own self-esteem than they are about the welfare of the people they are leading.

The few times I've had power- been a leader of something - I actually kind of came to hate it, because I find that power brings a lot of responsibility and a lot of people to answer to, and not a whole lot of perks. And it is really hard and painful when you didn't do something as well as it could have been done, to get up and say, "Yeah, I screwed up. It won't happen again."

I suspect one of the reasons we wind up with weak leaders is that the people who actually take the responsibility of power seriously tend to get worn out by it.

(Which is maybe why, just maybe, term limits are a good idea...)