Monday, November 29, 2010

Yay, cartoons

I find more and more that watching cartoons is the best "television-related" escape for me.

Cartoons are silly and goofy, and the ones that I like and watch have very little of the things about the "outside world" that frustrate me.

I've already mentioned "Penguins of Madagascar" as a favorite (Great line in a recent episode: Private Penguin, who is apparently British, is talking about distances in kilometers, and Skipper Penguin, the head of the bunch, gives him the stink-eye and says, "Private! You know how I feel about the metric system! Feet and inches, boy, feet and inches."

I've also recently started watching a couple of Disney ones: "Phineas and Ferb" and "Kick Buttowski." I was not prepared to like either of these shows - they are on something called Disney XD, which used to be Toon Disney, which was apparently rebranded to be more "boy friendly." Which irritated me at first.

Phineas and Ferb is less of a favorite because the plots seem to me to be a bit more repetitious: Phineas and Ferb (half-brothers in a blended family; Ferb is British but rarely speaks, Phineas is American and is more chatty) invent some wild device. Their older sister Candace wants to "bust" them and reveal their activity to their mom. But the device disappears, or is destroyed, or is swallowed up by the earth just in time for the mother to miss seeing it.

The more entertaining parts involve "Agent P," who is the platypus pet of Phineas. To the boys, he's just a primitive mammal. But when he gets called on by his agency, he becomes bipedal, his eyes come into focus, and he wears a fedora. And most of his job is defeating Heinz Doofenschmirtz, who invents his own crazy devices (but for evil, rather than for entertainment, unlike Phineas and Ferb).

There are a lot of pop-culture references which are what make the show entertaining for me. I think without those I'd probably be less likely to watch.

I also like "Kick Buttowski." There are a few gross-out moments, but they're pretty funny. (At the end of one episode, Kick's buddy Gunther asks him how he managed to escape the giant queen rat after she swallowed him. Kick responded, "Oh, I just ran around in circles until I was all pooped out." Heh. Also in that episode Kick warns Gunther about booby traps and Gunther laughs and says, "You said boo-" but before he can finish the word (I suppose to get around the censors), he is cut off by a noise. (And in another episode, Gunther yells "Dam!" as they are coming up to one of those structures, and Kick lights into him for cussing. There's a little bit of the "let's see what we can get away with" attitude to it, and I sort of like that).

It's sort of a dumb show, but it entertains me. Kick is kind of a pint-sized Evel Knieval wannabee - he wears a jumpsuit and a helmet at all times. Gunther, his cohort and buddy is a large, sort of worry-wart kid who wears (among other things) a pair of orange Crocs. The plots mainly center around Kick's stunts, though there are other things - for example, the challenge he faces to catch up on 2 months of homework overnight (lest he be kept back in school).

And there are the other various kids in school - a girl who is obsessed with Kick, a bully, Kick's older brother...

Again, it's simple and silly but it takes me away from the stuff that bothers me or worries me, and I like that.

I admit I've also watched some even-younger-oriented cartoons. I get the "Sprout" channel (the much-maligned PBS spinoff, where some Alpha Parents clutched their pearls over the thought that some parents might, gasp, use the television as a babysitter sometimes). There are a few shows on that that even I like. There are a couple British imports - Kipper, which is about a brown and white dog is my favorite. It's a very slow moving, very gentle show, but sometimes late in the evening when I'm tired and frazzled, I like that. And there's the Berenstein Bears, which is entertaining in its own way.

I don't know. I know it's weird for a woman in her 40s to watch shows aimed at pre-schoolers, but somehow, they take some of the rougher edges off the world.

Also, recently, Discovery Kids (which I had rarely watched) changed to something called Hub. (Apparently Hasbro owns part of it). They have a My Little Ponies show. It's kind of vaguely influenced by the kiddie anime (I feel I have to say "kiddie" because there's a lot of anime that's distinctly Not For Children). It's super cute and super sweet and in some moods I can't stand it, but in other moods it's kind of entertaining. Again, it's a place where nothing very bad ever happens. Characters learn life-lessons (like: don't be rude to your friends). Everything is resolved at the end of the episode. And it's ponies. I guess I never totally outgrew my childhood love of cute.

So I find myself more and more watching cartoons as an escape. I'm glad there's so much access to them now.

Saying it here

So I don't say it somewhere else and piss a person off.

Here it is:

If you don't like and don't value books, then why the F'ing F did you go into academia????

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sometimes you gotta laugh... you don't cry.

They were talking about the latest Assange-dump on the Internet. Apparently one of the items revealed is that Moammar Kadafi travels with a "buxom Ukranian nurse."

My response, a la the Animaniacs: "Helloooooooooo nurse!"

Still, I think the founder of the website in question needs to spend some time in prison, preferably sharing bunkspace with a large hairy man who snores and likes to sing songs from The Barney Show.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fixing it: (part 3)

Call this one alternative pathways.

I always cringe a little when some politician talks about how we must see to it that ALL our young people go to college.

The problem is: not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone needs to go to college. And not everyone is cut out for college, quite frankly.

One of the problems we have right now as a society is that certain kinds of work are seen as less-desirable by the politicians and other elites. But these kinds of work are utterly necessary to a functioning society - when I need a plumber, I NEED a plumber. Or when something goes wrong with my car, I need a mechanic.

While I have absolutely no objection - and I think it would be sort of cool, frankly - to someone who works as a plumber or mechanic or fabricator or whatever going to college because he or she WANTS to - and maybe even getting a degree in something like Classics or Linguistics because it's interesting, and the person knows he or she will never hurt for a job, even with a Classics or Linguistics degree, I don't think we should force people to go to college.

(I don't just like Dirty Jobs because Mike Rowe is hot. I like it because of the whole underlying philosophy: that there is work out there, work many of us probably never thought of, work that is absolutely essential in some cases. And what's more: the people doing it seem HAPPY. They seem to enjoy their work, even work that's physically demanding or kind of gross. Maybe part of it is, if you're a sanitation worker, you know that your job is necessary. Some of my distress this fall has been somewhat of a realization that college professors aren't as essential as some people think, and if things got REALLY bad economically, I could be out on my butt without a job).

I think there is a perception problem, though - that the people who fix pipes or clean bathrooms or repair things are the "little people," and are (in some cases) worthy of the contempt of the "elites," because those "little people" didn't go to college and "aren't like us."

I don't know. Several family friends when I was growing up worked working-class type jobs. One man worked at the Ford plant near us - I think he was involved with building the engines for cars, but I don't remember exactly what it was. Another guy was in construction. Still another did contracting, which I suppose requires more responsibility and might even be seen as being a small businessman, I don't know.

But Mac and Bob and Wes all seemed to enjoy their work. They brought home enough money that their wives could stay home with the kids if they so chose. They knew stuff my dad didn't know, could do stuff my dad couldn't do. My dad would defer to Mac with questions about cars (even though my dad knew a fair lot about cars - he changed his own oil, did minor repairs, and even installed a manual clutch in a balky van).

It wasn't that any of them really knew less practical stuff than my dad (who had a Ph.D.), it was that they knew different stuff than he did.

Of course, somewhere along the line, things changed. It got harder and more expensive to have manufacturing done here. A lot of the good jobs, that paid fairly well, and didn't require a college degree, went to other countries.

And the "information economy" arose. With millions of people sitting in cubicles doing...stuff. I don't quite know what all the cubicle dwellers do; I've only seen it parodied in places like "Office Space" and heard my own brother's stories (he is a refugee from the corporate world).

I don't know but if I couldn't teach college, and were given the choice of sitting on my butt in a cubicle all day approving or disproving reports, or whatever it is, or working in a machine shop fixing car parts, I'd go to the machine shop every time.

I think we do need opportunity for people who want to do something other than be part of the "information economy" (or worse, the "service economy" where you are a barista or a hotel desk clerk, and you wind up dealing with humanity at its grabbiest and most annoying).

Not everyone wants to be a doctor. There's only a limited number of research scientists we can use. There aren't that many openings for college professors. And while it's possible to make good money being a writer, it's difficult and it probably takes almost as much luck as skill.

But we need mechanics. And we need plumbers/electricians/fabricators/truck drivers and on and on.

What we need to do, I think, to provide viable alternatives to college for those who just don't want to go, or who want a job that doesn't require college, is a several-pronged approach:

1. Make it more favorable for stuff to be made here. A couple weeks ago when Obama was in India talking about increasing U.S. exports - we were discussing it before church. And I made the comment that he had it backwards; what he needed to do was make the environment more friendly for stuff to be made here, THEN go overseas and promote U.S. products. Oh, I know, stuff is still made here. But not as much as once was, and in some categories, it's very hard to find things. (Try to find a pair of athletic shoes made in the U.S.) I think it would probably take decreasing taxes on businesses and likely reducing the burden of some environmental restrictions on businesses. If more stuff were made here, there'd be more jobs for people. (And if more people were willing to buy U.S. made stuff - maybe buy less stuff, because U.S. made stuff is generally more expensive than Chinese-made stuff - and accept that "I'll pay more but it will be better made and will be less likely to be recalled because of lead or cadmium or something, and I am supporting a worker in my own country," then maybe we could get back to having more manufacturing here.

2. Work to remove the stigma from trade and vocational schools. College is one option; it is not the best option for everyone. If you want to become a medical doctor or a scientific researcher or an electrical engineer or a chemist or a translator, it's probably by far the best and easiest route. If you want to sit in a cubicle and file tps reports, you probably need a degree (though in what, may not matter as much). If you want to open your own business, some business classes might help. If you want to teach - well, I think people who want to teach should take lots of classwork in the discipline they will be teaching and maybe fewer education courses, but that's my opinion.

But for people who want to do something else - repair work of any kind, or construction, or work in the beauty industry (hairdressers and the like), college, while it's an option, should not be seen as essential. And people shouldn't be made to feel bad because they want to go to a vocational or trade school. But I do know some cases where that's happened.

3. Also, the idea of careers like plumbing or mechanics need to be promoted in grade schools alongside the more academic careers. I don't know if it shows some of the inherent snobbery or what, but I don't remember non-college-requiring careers being promoted when I was in school. (I do remember taking one of those dumb aptitude test things and being told that a good choice for me would be "mortician." I don't know if that requires college work; I suppose it requires some chemistry and some business background. My friends and I decided, though, that that result came up because the people making the test were anticipating a shortage of morticians in the future - a lot of us got that result).

4. Make grade school and high school more rigorous, like how it used to be. I am quite sure that my oldest aunt (who finished high school some time in the 30s) knew as much as I did when I graduated college. At least of the basics. (Sure, she wouldn't have known the structure of DNA, as it wasn't discovered yet. But she knew some Latin, and I know almost none). Require people to be able to read to a reasonable adult level when they graduate. Make sure they are equipped to survive in life even if they do not go on to college.

5. And this is the crazy, outside option: End compulsory schooling. Just, end it. Don't require kids to attend school if they are going to be bored and disruptive. And by the same token, give teachers the power to "fire" students who are being repeatedly disruptive to the class and are preventing the kids who want to learn from learning.

Granted, this has "bad idea" stamped all over it. How many kids of 12 are mature enough to know "I may not be happy in school, but for what I want to do, I need to complete school." And how many parents are mature enough not to give into their kid's demands to quit school - or who are mature enough to say, "OK, I need to pull my kid out and homeschool them" and be able to do it right? (Done well, homeschooling gives kids a great background, but I admit I'm suspicious of the "unschooling" movement that has no structure and no planned lessons.)

With no compulsory schooling, we could wind up with a large group of unemployable individuals - and in the current safety-net climate, that would just mean more stress on those people who did go on for the rest of their education and who do have careers. But if things were a little different, and there was less of a going-on-the-dole-is-OK-by-me mentality among people, maybe it would work - the really disruptive rude students would be gone, the people who were there would want to be there. And the threat of being thrown out of school and either having to try to find another one to take them in, or not being able to be educated, might help some students find the will to behave and make an effort to achieve.

And maybe we need to revive a more humane version of the apprenticeship system, where someone decides at 14 or 16 that they're done with classroom education, but they find a machine shop or an electrician or a carpenter who is willing to take them on as a pupil, and they learn the trade directly from that person, rather than sitting in class for two to four more years and being bored, and then maybe being pushed to try a college education they really do not want.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fixing it (part 2)

Call this one Uses and Misuses of Technology in the Classroom.

I'm old enough to remember the chalk-and-talk days - when the prof came into the classroom, started lecturing (or started a discussion), and you were jolly well expected to know what was important and what to take notes on.

The main thing used were chalkboards, though overhead projectors were also used. (I remember my Biochem class- this would have been the team-taught, 8 am, MWF class, on the Medical Campus, which was a good 15 minute walk from my apartment. One of the profs was, I think, a Russian or other Eastern European transplant - he had only the faintest of "generalized Euro" accents, but his handwriting looked to me like the writing of someone who learned to write the Cyrillic alphabet first. He would walk in, fire up the over head, and start writing as he talked. And the overhead had SCROLLS of overhead film on it - so he'd write and scroll, write and scroll. And woe unto any student who couldn't keep up: it wasn't done in those days to ask the prof to back up.)

Then computers came on the scene, with PowerPoint. I remember the heady first days of PowerPoint. How it was going to solve EVERYTHING! How it was going to make teaching easy and fun, and students would be more engaged. Because it had COLOR. And it had ANIMATIONS. And you could even put SOUNDS with the WORDS.

Um, yeah.

Don't get me wrong. I admit it, I use PowerPoint for some things. It's very nice, in a classroom full of people who don't have the biology vocabulary, to have the key terms pop up on a screen, rather than having to spell them or write them all down. (My handwriting is atrocious, it always has been, and students complain about it). And it's nice in my more-advanced courses to be able to talk about some research study that was done, and then put a graph or chart of the results up on the screen, instead of doing a lot of handwaving and trying to draw it on the board. Or putting up a model of the human digestive system on the screen.

But a lot of people have horribly misused PowerPoint, and perhaps I did some, in the earlier days of it. It's not a substitute for talking with the students. It should never be a situation where students can just read the PowerPoint and learn everything.

It's actually been interesting to watch the opinion turn on PowerPoint. There are some people (I think mostly humanities people, perhaps they don't think of the uses of showing charts and graphs like in the sciences) who say it should NEVER be used in the classroom. That it's tantamount to the old joke, where a student asks to record the lectures, the prof says OK. So the student brings in a tape recorder. Eventually, all the students do. Then, some students just leave their tape recorders. Eventually, the prof is lecturing to an empty room of tape recorders, so then he goes and records his lectures, just leaves the recording of it running in the classroom, and goes for coffee.

One thing I do do, as much as I can: leave the lights in the room on. It's harder, I think, for students to 'check out' that way. And I try to get more discussion going than I would a few years ago.

There's a new trend, that sounds tempting to me. It's called "teaching naked." (Not literally, of course!) Instead of using the technological bells and whistles, you walk in, with a handful of chalk or whiteboard pens (ugh, I hate whiteboards, but we have them, so I have to use them) and just spools the material out from their own brain, maybe with the help of notes.

It requires a lot more pre-class preparation, but it's also a lot harder to hide behind prepared material. I think I actually teach better with fewer technological things because I don't have that crutch of "well, the main points are on slides" - I have to refresh the material more, and be more on top of things.

Then again, as I said: being able to show photos of structures in the body, or graphs of data, or pictures of the taxonomic group being studied, is extremely nice. I'm not sure I could ever teach totally 'naked' (though I do in my stats class: I use the board and chalk and my own knowledge of the subject, and while it's a tough class to teach, it's also one of the more rewarding ones).

But next semester I may start weaning down the PowerPoint usage. I know I will get complaints, as some students want to be able to print the stuff out from the class webpage (that's another technological issue I'm conflicted about) and have it.

And on one hand: I've seen some of my top students come to class with the printout of the slides, and take notes on the slides, and sometimes even have prepared questions about the material (they read it before hand!). But also, I have students who think they can just print the material off and not come to class.

And I don't know. I go back and forth: do I sort-of penalize the prepared students by not doing that any more, or do I enable the unprepared folks even further?

I will say one thing I like about the class website? The secure online gradebook. When students want to know how they are doing, they can just go there and keep up with their grades. Oh, I still get some folks wanting me to tell them EXACTLY what they must earn on the final to get the grade they want, but having the grades available means a lot fewer of the people coming in wanting to know "Do I have a B right now?" or whatever.

So, technology can be misused by faculty, and I think we do need to guard against getting too carried away by new technology. The unquestioning acceptance followed by the decline of satisfaction in PowerPoint is one example. (I do think in some fields, PowerPoint is still seen as wonderful and great. I refer to it as "dancing ducks and explosions" because these are the people whose pedagogical beliefs say you have to "grab" the students with flashy, Sesame-Street-like graphic things, that short attention spans just are a fact of life, so you have to play into them with short-attention-span-oriented teaching.)

But students misuse technology as well. Plagiarism is one example of this: it's so, so easy to cut and paste material from a website, and many websites essentially plagiarize each other (as I learned in my periodic websearches to check for plagiarism in student papers). And some people see it as "ok" because information online is "free" and much of it is anonymous.

But there are also in class abuses.

Cell phones. And text messagers. Dear God how I hate them. How I wish I could get away with putting a box - or better, a set of cubbies, like in preschool - up at the front of class and making everyone turn their phone in at the start of class, and retrieve it at the end. Cell phones are a distraction. Even when I tell them they need to be OFF, I still periodically hear what one of my students termed the "cow fart" noise of a phone set on "vibrate."

I once had a student's phone ring, she answered it, and said, "I can't talk. I'm in class." I was utterly gobsmacked.

And I understand emergencies. I have a sheriff's deputy in one of my classes. He has to be on-call, and once he did get called out of class to work a car wreck. That's ok; that's life. But the vast majority of students who do NOT have that in their lives, who use the cell phones for social reasons: they need to learn to back away from them.

It makes me sad to catch people texting in class. Attention is a form of respect, and like it or not, I see it as disrespectful to have someone doing frivolous texting to their friends while I am teaching - or worse, while other students are presenting their work, or discussing a topic.

Laptops are another issue. Maybe even a bigger one, as we have wireless internet access. It's too dang tempting to go on Facebook or eBay or whatever in class. I mean - I have all these office hours in my office, and I admit I waste a lot of them looking at yarn sellers online, or hanging out on social-networking sites. I'm a responsible adult who gets her work done, and I find it tempting. (It's so much so that when I have heavy grading to do, I take it home with me at the end of the day and do it there).

Also, laptops are a distraction for other people in the room. I was at meetings this summer where free wireless internet was provided for attendees. At one session, I was late getting there, and wound up sitting in the back. Even though it was a topic that interested me a lot, it was hard to follow the talks, because of the glow and blinking from the three or four laptops in the room. People were doing all kinds of stuff: checking their e-mail, visiting news sites, I think one person was typing a Blogger blog entry.

There are other technological issues: I have one student who wants to listen to his iPod in class. He keeps one earbud in through class. I figure, he's an adult, it's up to him. He's earning a D, if that. He can't pay attention. He asked me a question the other day that was something I had just finished explaining, and the startled looks from the other students ("Why is he asking that") told me it wasn't that I had been unclear.

Technology is great, but entertainment technology is a horrible temptation. Perhaps even an addiction in some cases, where the person CAN'T break away without intervention.

I don't know a solution to this but I think it would be interesting to have "low tech" classes (where the students also pledge not to use cell phones and laptops in the classroom) run alongside conventional classes and see how the level of engagement and student performance compares. My gut feeling is that the low-tech classes would lead to more student engagement and likely higher satisfaction for the profs.

I think also campuses have to be very careful about what they adopt, and not push professors who know they teach well in a more 'traditional' mode into the newer style. Embracing the new merely because it is new is never a good idea.

(I also believe this is true of pedagogical styles: and there's a lot of embracing-the-new-because-it-is-new there.)

I would love to see a ban on laptops and cell phones (and other devices) in classrooms UNLESS the student can make a strong case for it (e.g.: I had a Blind student one semester. He had a computer with Braille keys and he touchtyped the notes for the class as I spoke. He earned an A in the class because he worked hard and cared about the material. And he was smart, that surely helped, but I've had my share of smart-and-lazy who couldn't earn As.)

I don't see that happening, though: campuses become increasingly student-comfort focused, and have bought the idea of "the student is our consumer" and therefore should be permitted more or less to do as they please. Or, there are enough people with a huge sense of entitlement that they could look at a Blind student using an assistive laptop and say, "But why won't you let meeeeee bring my laptop to class?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's too long until Friday

Lazypants helpless people can FTFO.

I had someone come and tell me the printer was "broken." I walked down there to verify; it turned out it had been jammed and just needed rebooting. And I had another person tell me he "can't" do an oral presentation in class because he has no storage media that will hold a powerpoint presentation. I sighed and told him to e-mail it to me and I'd transfer it. He said he didn't know how to do an e-mail attachment.

I told him to make overheads.

Feckin' OVERHEADS. Welcome to 1972.

Helpless people make my blood boil because I'm already not getting the stuff I need to get done, done, and it makes it worse when some sad sack comes to my office and says they "can't" do something, and expects me to show them how.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

stored food

I don't know, maybe this is a weird thing to feel happy about.

Some months ago, my father asked me if I wanted a year's supply of long-term storage food. My parents have always had that kind of set up - it's sort of like camp food (most of it is dehydrated). The idea of having it, I think, went back to some of the dealings my dad had with members of the LDS church when he was working out West.

(I don't agree with some of their theological teachings, but I think the preparedness aspect - the idea of planning to be able to take care of your family in an emergency, rather than waiting for someone to come and help you, is a very good idea. And, by extension, that you help your neighbors out if you can).

My dad's original plans were "surviving a nuclear attack." (Remember the late 70s? The concern about the Russians? We had a bomb shelter in the house and everything. Nowadays, I think, if there were a nuclear war, either (a) I would want to be killed outright or (b) I would want to be far, far away from any places where bombs get dropped. Being a survivor in a messed-up radiologic world where I'd probably develop some weird cancer from exposure to the detritus from a bomb going off seems a worse fate than just dying quickly. And frankly, if civilization just ended and we were back to fighting over what roots and berries we could scavenge, I'm not sure I'd want to be a survivor. But there are other emergencies other than the "ultimate" one.)

I keep canned goods and stuff like raisins and peanut butter and granola on hand at all times. We occasionally get ice storms here in the winter, and while here in town, it's unlikely that we'd be stuck in our houses for long, still, it gives me some sense of security that if the roads are bad and the power's out I can still manage to have some food to survive on.

I've never gone so far as to get the camp-food thing, even though my parents always had it when I was growing up. (And yeah, we would work through it. Though I will say eating stuff with reconstituted dried eggs is not that great when you know there are "real" eggs in the fridge. But whatever).

My dad was doing a restocking and found a new supplier, and I guess they would cut a deal if he ordered multiple sets. So he asked my brother and sister-in-law and asked me if we wanted one.

I decided to take the offer. I don't think I quite have the same survivalist perspective my dad has - I think when he started planning this, this was when all the rioting in Greece was happening, and he had some concern that civil unrest could happen here. (Though I suspect in my small town? If violent protester types came to town, the good men (and some women) of my city would simply get out their hunting rifles, and gently suggest to the protester that they best move along somewhere else, that they don't want any 'trouble.' And the people in my town seem to have more of a "frontier mentality," where their reaction to something like the retirement age being raised would be, "No sir, I don't like it." but they wouldn't get violent, at least not against fellow citizens)

But then again. Ice storms can happen. Or a trucking strike could happen. I am well aware of how dependent my area is on having food trucked in - there is very little that is locally grown, and while I could get eggs in season and perhaps chicken and honey and maybe some beans and peanuts, my own experiments at growing food have been largely unsuccessful - our climate can be very hot and dry, but it can shift from hot to chilly in a short time.

Or bad inflation could happen, which I think is actually a real possibility. I'm already seeing the price of food higher than it was this time last year. (Sweet potatoes are now twice what I was paying last year, it seems.)

So a larder of food isn't such a bad idea.

The stuff came yesterday afternoon. This was a SERIOUS shipment - a pallet of boxes, shrinkwrapped, and delivered by a trucking company, not UPS or FedEx. It was pouring rain when the guy arrived, but he was nice enough to stick the pallet in my garage so the boxes would not get soaked.

My garage is detached from the house (it is also small), so unloading was more complicated. (And I wanted to get it done, so I could garage my car.)

There was something like 13 cases, each with six large cans, and then some smaller packages of stuff. I ripped the boxes open and broke them down; I figured it made more sense to store the cans and get rid of the boxes now, than in some uncertain future time when it might be harder to get rid of stuff like boxes. (Then again, maybe in some really uncertain future time, I'd wish I had the boxes to burn for fuel, if things got REALLY bad...)

It took two trips (on average) per box (the box of beans I could only carry one can at a time, they were that heavy).

Fortunately, I had a closet ready. The closet in my home office is under-utilized (I had mainly stored old magazines, books I plan to donate to the local library used-book sale, and old paper records in there). I had spent the afternoon before clearing it out - throwing away all the magazines, boxing up the books (I still have to see if the local library is taking donations at the moment), sorting some of the records and getting rid of what I could (I think there is no need to keep the bill-stubs from four-year-old electric bills that have long since been paid).

The closet has shelves, which turned out to work fantastically well. I have the top shelf all full of the dried fruit, cereal, and beverage mixes (They have something called "Germade," which I guess is like Postum. That's what makes me think this must be an LDS-owned company: having a non-caffeine coffee substitute in the mix.) These are the things that I consider my "bug-out shelf," where if things got really bad for some reason and I had to run away, they're what I'd grab and throw in my car, because most of the stuff could be eaten without cooking, or even be eaten without having to be reconstituted.

The next shelf is dried veggies, some of which I could grab in a bug-out situation (you could probably eat dried peas without rehydrating, or without cooking). Then there's the grains and beans, and some assorted stuff like soup bases and TVP.

It all fits nicely. It was kind of fun for a while opening the cases and seeing what was in there. (Popcorn! I guess if the world's coming to an end, the idea is you pop that up and eat it while you watch...)

And in a very bizarre and I admit, twisted, sort of way, it makes me happy to have that all stored up. To know that even if things go to complete hell and I can't leave the house, even, I can eat.

I wonder if anyone's tried (a la the Super Size Me and other movies of that ilk) to actually live for a year on nothing but the stored dried food. I bet if you lived in a remote area it would be a Godsend; you wouldn't have to plan trips to a store.

Another thing that happened when I was cleaning the closet was that I found stuff that had gotten buried. I probably have a 2 year's supply of T.P. and nearly as much of paper towels. Which is good to know; in emergency situations paper goods are almost as important as food and water. (And as for water: I keep a couple cases of the much-maligned plastic bottled water on hand for emergencies. In a longer term problem, I could collect and boil rainwater and such, but for short term, "Oh crap, our filtration system shut down so now you have a boil order," it's just easier to use the bottled)

And I have some soap ahead. And shampoo. And I have LOTS of incandescent bulbs. I have no idea of the current status of the supposed ban (last I heard, the fluorescents were to be 'strongly encouraged' but that you'd still be able to get incandescents). But what it means in a practical sense is that I won't need to worry about buying those essentials for a while. (And as for the supposed shorter lives of incandescent bulbs: I very rarely have one burn out on me. I think it's probably because I'm not home that much, and I have big windows that let in light so I don't need the lamps on during the day, and I'm also pretty picky about turning off unused lights to save money on my electric bill...)

The whole "having stuff ahead" thing is a little quirk of mine. It does comfort me, though, to know I could go to my pantry shelf and put together a week's or so worth of decent meals from what I just have on hand (in regular cans and such) and that now, I have the mega-cans that will allow for bigger situations.

(I also have a lot of books ahead. And a lot of craft supplies. If I had to "shelter in place" - as they were talking about during the early days of H1N1 last year - I could happily stay home for a good long time)

Maybe I won't "have" to use them and will be irritated to be choking down tvp and dried corn at some point in the future (because I think even though they're good for long-term storage, you HAVE to rotate them from time to time). But if an ice storm hits - or if there's bad inflation, or hell, if all the local grocery stores wind up shutting down for some reason, I'm covered.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fixing it (part 1)

So, there are a lot of things about the U.S. educational system that are broken. What are those things, and how can they be fixed?

I think I'm going to do this as a multi-parter and add on posts as I think of things.

Today, I'm going to talk about underpreparedness. I'm a college prof, so I see students after they've passed through K-12 (and in some cases, after they've earned an Associate's degree somewhere). The level of preparation varies widely.

The best students we get are as good as any students anywhere. They can write college-level papers, they know how to do library research, they know where to go for extra help when needed, they can keep up with math and data analysis. Some of these students are actually "non traditional" students - people who have been in the workforce (or moms who have been in a different "workforce" - stayed at home till their kids were grown). Some are former military. Some were homeschooled. Some just had a really good basic education in grade and high school.

I don't worry too much about them, because they will almost certainly succeed. Also, I know if they have problems or questions, they will come and find me and get help.

The problem is the students who are not prepared. We have some students that aren't reading at a college level - they don't read the textbooks (in some cases, maybe can't understand all that's in the textbook), they don't do outside reading, they balk when asked to do research that requires reading a diversity of sources.

In some cases, there may be learning disabilities involved. But I've known a few people with dyslexia who went on to earn advanced degrees. Yes, it's harder and yes, it takes more work, but having a reading disability doesn't mean you can just throw up your hands and say that it's too hard for you, and you need alternate assignments. (If reading really is that much of a challenge, perhaps an alternative education path to being in college should be considered. But that's a discussion for another time).

In other cases - I just don't think kids read as much. Or that reading instruction is what it used to be. I can't really talk about reading instruction as I learned to read at 4, and I don't remember how I did it, I just remember being able to read. My parents read to me a lot. There were books in the house. We went to the library and got picture books. And I had a big Richard Scarry "Encyclopedia" that had entries for every letter of the alphabet, and I think looking at that actually helped the whole "letters" thing click, and then the reading thing came after.

I do think it's a mistake for parents to rely on the schools to teach their child all of reading. Reading to a kid - well, I don't have kids, but it seems to me that would be one of the most fun parts of parenting. (I know my mom said she missed it when my brother and I got old enough that she couldn't really read to us any more). And I remember my parents pointing stuff out to me, signs and letters and things. And playing games, like "I Spy," where knowing letters and what word starts with what is an important part.

I also think parents should encourage reading. I know that's easy to SAY. But I think in some households stuff has gotten so hectic that people don't take time for it. Or the parents are so wrapped up in tv or video games that their kids never see them reading, and the idea gets fostered that reading is kind of like medicine: it's good for you, you should take it, but it's really not as nice as candy. (Not that there's anything wrong with tv or video games, in moderation, it's just, reading is a lot of fun, too.)

And I hope schools still do SSR (Silent Sustained Reading.) For me, that was one of the favorite parts of the school day - fifteen minutes or so at the end of the day to just pick up a book, be quiet, and read. And it was a bit "freer" - you could sit where you wanted or, I think, even walk around the classroom while reading, provided you didn't disturb anyone else.

I think reading skill comes with reading practice. And reading a lot of different stuff. Both non-fiction and fiction, and a diversity of things. Poetry. Plays. Maybe you don't like everything, but you should at least be exposed to it, and then get to pick later on.

(Thinking of poetry: one of the favorite, and best-remembered, assignments I did in fifth grade reading? The teacher had us make our own chapbooks - find poems we particularly liked, copy them out on paper, illustrate them if we wanted, and then bind the chapbooks. I think we were also encouraged to write some of our own poetry and put what we liked best in there.)

(Also, in high school, when we did Shakespeare and other plays, we did a lot of it read aloud, because my teacher said that's how plays were meant to be experienced - heard as much as read.)

Perhaps part of it is a diversity of assignments. You have to be careful, of course, of not making everything Arts N Crafts time, but the chapbooks really were a lot of fun to prepare, and it did require a lot of looking through anthologies and our textbooks and other sources to find poems that spoke to us. I think always writing essays, or always doing book reports, would get stale after a while.

Another place where I see college students being weak - perhaps weakest - is in writing ability. Not just grammar and word usage and vocabulary, but in being able to structure an argument and give support to it. Or there is weakness in being able to organize a paper. Or write coherent sentences. (One of my most commonly used editor's markings on student paper is "AWK" - meaning the sentence or paragraph is phrased awkwardly. I often tell students to read their writing aloud, because sometimes you can "hear" an awkward passage when you can't "see" it. Though I don't know any more, maybe I am the only person who can do this - read something aloud and tell if it flows well or not.)

Again, I think a good potential cure for this is MORE WRITING. Lots more writing. And I don't mean just the "how do you feel" papers or the essay-talking-about-your-dog (though those have a place, too, and I suppose you can learn style and even perhaps rhetoric from that kind of writing), but also research papers. I remember learning - gosh, it must have been fourth grade - how to find sources in the library, read them, take notes on them, write an outline of my paper, and then, following the outline, write the paper, inserting (in my own words, of course, and with citations) the information from the other sources. When you learn it early, and in a lower-stakes environment, it starts off easily enough. It's difficult and frustrating to be thrown into it for the first (or very nearly first) time at eighteen. (I also think a LOT more instruction on proper citation is necessary; some of the research I've read on student plagiarism suggests that students require a lot of practice and a lot of reminding to be able to eventually internalize the "rules" of proper citation. Again, I learned it so early that I probably didn't realize I was internalizing those rules).

I know that writing is a giant pain to grade. It takes a very long time to do correctly. And students need to pay attention to the feedback from their teachers, and they don't always do it. (And the teacher himself or herself has to be able to write well, and know grammar and the basic mechanics of writing and rhetoric, to be able to be a helpful grader. And if the current crop of teachers were instructed in writing the way some of my students have been...well, it's kind of the blind leading the blind.)

But if you're going to throw a kid into college who has done very little writing before, of course he or she is going to struggle. And he is still going to struggle, if he wrote, but all of his papers were of the mushy, touchy-feely personal essay sort.

(Another good thing about my high school: we had a lot of different assignments. We wrote plays (a friend and I wrote an involved parody of Oedipus when we were studying Greek tragedies in class; somehow we worked in several of the members of Duran Duran and also the Monty Python troupe.) We wrote the dreaded "five paragraph essay" (I know some people like to run it down as formulaic, but it is a useful form sometimes). We wrote in the styles of various authors. We compared different books. We wrote research papers on the lives of different authors. And we had a few "personal essays," but I never felt like my personal essays were as strong as my other writing was.)

And again: if a person just does not like writing, or just cannot write, they probably should be seeking an alternate career path. Many of the college majors prepare people for careers where writing is a big part.

Finally, we get students who are weak in math. Oy, do we get students who are weak in math. Again, I think strong early instruction can help here. When I was in school, we did the dreaded timed-tests. But I really did learn my times tables that way.

Actually, looking back on it, I liked math a lot, in part because I knew there was a right answer and a wrong answer and if you figured out the way to get the right answer for one problem of a type, you could apply the same algorithm to other problems of the same type, and get the right answer with those.

I think a lot of people in our society are math-phobic. Sometimes I get the idea that the "single right answer" concept is uncomfortable for some people.

Part of my comfort with math may have been that we "played with numbers" in my family. Both my parents are scientists, both do a lot of data analysis, so they tend to think about numbers. I remember things like my dad teaching me how to figure out the miles per gallon a car was getting. Or how many more miles there were to go from the map, divided by average speed, to get an estimate of "how much longer 'til we're there." And my mom teaching me fractions while teaching me how to double or halve recipes. And all of that kind of practical math stuff. I grew up at the very beginning of the calculator era, so we rarely relied on calculators for simple things (and in many of my grade school math classes, we were not permitted to use calculators). And I think that developed a comfort with and a facility with numbers that helps with higher-level math.

(I will admit I still struggled with Calculus, and to this day I do not understand it as well as I feel I ought. But most of our students never even take Calculus...)

So I don't know. I know it sounds like a cop-out for the college prof to say, "These kids need to be more rigorously taught in the lower grades" but in many cases, if you don't walk into college with the fundamentals down, you're never going to get them.

I also think we absolutely have to end the practice of "social promotion," at least in grades higher than second or so. Passing a kid along who can't read to grade level or can't do the expected math does them no favors, and winds up making it difficult for their teachers in the future - and can wind up dragging down the rest of the class, if the teacher has to stop and re-teach the student who doesn't know something her peers already know.

I will also say that I'm generally opposed to generalized testing, the whole NCLB thing. I think there should be some standards, but rather than pinning a student's passing (and an entire school's "passing") on a few days of testing, to pass or fail the student based on how he does during his classes. (This of course, presupposes that the teacher is teaching to grade level, and that the important material is being covered.) If a kid can't pass his reading class, he should be kept back. It doesn't matter what some standardized test says. (I think teachers should be given more freedom to tell parents, "Your child is not performing up to expectations." And should be given more freedom to throw out the disruptive kids.)

I also think that maybe we need to end compulsory schooling, but that's another discussion for another time. (And I realize there are a lot of potential problems with that. But I think not requiring older kids to go to school if they have a bad attitude would solve a lot of problems. It would create many, too, of course - including a class of uneducated unemployable people - but at least the kids who wanted to be in school could learn without being distracted by some wannabee thug or slut...)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Least favorite question...

...this time of year.

It's some variant of

"What do I need to do to pass the class?"

It is never, ever asked by someone who is actually passing, and rarely asked by someone who actually has a shot at passing.

And it always comes in the five minutes before a class starts, as I'm frantically gathering my thoughts and my stuff and the person has to know OMG NAOW what they need to do, so I have to plunk down, look up their grade, quickly decide whether just say flat out "No, you cannot pass at this point" or to give them some impossibility like "If you earned a 99% on the next exam AND the final, yes, you could pass."

The thing is, these are often people with a high proclivity to skip class. The ship of passing has already sailed; it sailed when they failed to hand in the third paper or when they earned a 35% on an exam because they were absent for the days that the important material was covered.

I admit I usually give them the impossibility rather than the flat-out "you can't, at this point," because I get tired of the quivery lower lips that start up.

Monday, November 08, 2010

I'm gonna crab

Because this is something that makes me crabby.

It's people falling down on their responsibilities, and leaving the people who do take responsibility seriously to pick up after them.

I'm also crabby because I was out of town the end of last week (meetings), a colleague gave an exam in my absence, and at 8 am - 8 farging AM - I had a student at my door demanding to know how he did.


I didn't mean to bite his head off, but this is the time of year when things go nuts. And also, I was still upset over how the meetings went.

For one thing: I had a guy very demandingly ask for a time-slot (I was organizing one of the programs). So I put him in. I made a point of e-mailing him his time to find out if it was OK (because this is someone who has not been OK with stuff in the past, and for petty reasons).

Guess who never showed up to the meetings? And never e-mailed me to let me know? So as meeting chair, I looked a bit of a fool going, "Um, er...Is Alan here? Has anyone seen Alan?"

The other thing: I had to drive up extra-early for a special meeting, as I was a group chair. All the group chairs were supposed to be there. Guess how many were?

(Me. And one other group chair, who had another responsibility).

We did have a quorum, because other officers were there. But it irked me. I drove nearly 4 hours to get there. I cancelled a class so I could be there on time. I got a hotel room - which, because of budget cuts, will probably ultimately mostly come out of my own pocket.

And other people, people who lived closer, couldn't be arsed to be there.

One of the other people at the meeting and I were talking about it: how it seems the Millennial irresponsibility is beginning to move into the workforce, how a lot of new younger profs say they'll take on responsibility but then don't do it when it actually comes around. And that makes me angry - because I know some of them claim credit for it. I was taught to never agree to do anything I knew I wouldn't be able to do, and what's more, I was taught to put my own wants and even sometimes, needs, on the back burner when there were other things that needed to be attended to.

The problem is, people like me wind up being killed with work - we're the geese that lay the golden eggs, and everyone who has something they want us to do slits us open a little wider to get at those eggs. And eventually we're either gonna die, because we've been disemboweled in the interest of getting stuff done that no one else will do, or we will grab the wound in our belly and say NO MORE.

I don't know what the solution is. Maybe an ultimatum, on the part of the leadership of the group: "If people do not step up and take responsibility, we will disband." Or the threat of sending letters to department chairs of people who slack off on their responsibilities. I don't know. As much as I hate being treated like an irresponsible child by TPTB (because I know very well how to take responsibility for myself, thank you), I can kind of see how they sometimes feel pushed to do it by people who are just...absent.

I am also growing frustrated with the irresponsibility of a certain student. I'm in my stats class, explaining where you get the standard error for for a certain test. I go through all of it, do sample calculations. And then he pipes up from the back, "What is SE again and how do you get it?"

Dear boy. Dear, dear boy. Take the damn earbuds out of your ears and pay some damn attention. The reason you earned a 35% on your last exam is for reasons just like this - you sit in the back, zone out, don't take notes, and then expect me to re-teach it just for you in office hours. And I can't do that. I can't sum up the five to ten hours you were "absent" in even a couple hours of office hours. Nor should I have to. It's your duty to come to class and to "be" there when you are there.

I don't know. I think my "work 'til you die" retirement plan will become necessary, not just because of my investments having tanked, but because it seems like there are vanishingly few people in the upcoming generation with the chops to pick up where we all leave off.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Let's just wait and see...

I'm expecting a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking, a lot of anger, from certain colleagues today.

I really don't want to deal with it. Look, your guys had their two years. The American people decided they didn't want to repeat what Europe did fifty years ago (and is now having to change, in the midst of violent protests from a generation of workers who were told they could retire at 60 with full benefits, and other coddled groups).

Also, I'm really busy. As I have been all damn semester.

I'm just going to look at whoever comes to my office wanting to use me as their cut-rate therapist (I think that's what it is; people think I will listen to them vent) and say, "Sorry, I'm up to my ass in alligators right now."

Because it's true. And hopefully it will get people off my back.

(That is just one of the useful phrases I have learned living here. I had never heard it before, until someone called me with a question about some committee work, and they said, "Are you free to talk now, or are you covered up in alligators?" Like all idioms you don't know, it sounds strange (and I was almost taking it literally, because at one time we actually DID have alligators in a river near here). I mentioned it to a colleague and she told me what it meant, and also what the "less polite" version was.)

In addition to the regular teaching this week, I have a meeting I have to go to (and present at, and moderate a session). And Saturday I somewhat foolishly agreed to go to a women's retreat. And I have to bake cookies for a function next week, plus all the typical second-week-of-the-month meetings I have.

So I admit it - except for a small moment of happiness at the realization that Nancy Pelosi (who rubbed me the wrong way on so many levels) will no longer be Speaker, I've not really thought about what has happened or what is going to happen.