Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I can't

I can't leave for break leaving that last post at the top.

There are too many good people in the world who deserve to be celebrated and remembered this time of year instead of talking about those who give into baser impulses.

I hope whatever you celebrate this season is great and joyful and filled with many good things for you and yours. And that events in the world remain quiet for these next several weeks.

School board shooting

So, some person walked into a school board meeting in Panama City, shot at people, and was himself taken out by a security person. (Good on that security person. That's why I don't like the concept of "completely unarmed campuses." Our own security wears prominent sidearms, and I admit I feel safer for it)

Apparently the guy is blaming "the rich" - and claiming that "95% of the population is enslaved to them."

Two thoughts:

1. The guy was a nutter. Why go after a freakin' school board? (It is known he had a criminal record for, among other things, stalking)

2. He gave into a dangerous but sadly common tendency in our society, hat is, to blame others for our own failures.

Look, sure - it may be harder to get ahead in this country than it once was (but I, personally, would not blame "the rich" for that...). But it's still a land of opportunity, where people can still rise above where they started.

Success may not be guaranteed, but success is not guaranteed anywhere, unless you define "success" as being "I am a cog in the Government Machine working in a socialist world."

And yeah, I know: the guy had serious stuff wrong with him. He saw himself as some kind of "freedom fighter," apparently, and seemed to be obsessed with the movie "V for Vendetta."

It scares me a little because it kind of makes you wonder: how many more people with weird obsessions and dangerous grudges are out there nursing them, who might look at an innocent person or group of people and see them as somehow symbolic of "the system" that wronged them, and decide to take revenge?

I've had students with some odd behaviors or obsessive fixations on things, and I admit to giving them a bit of a wide berth, of kind of smiling and nodding and telling myself not to say anything that could upset them. I don't like the feeling of walking on eggshells but sometimes you do it.

I don't know how we, as a society, deal with this kind of thing. Make it harder for crazies and felons to get guns? Permit greater arming of responsible citizens, so they can defend themselves against dangerous people? Be more aggressive about dealing with people who seem to be a threat?

I don't know. I don't know the most humane answer. I do know when I lived in a major city, we had a number of de-institutionalized mental patients among the homeless population. And I hate to say it, but some of the people were scary. They were not able to function productively in society and it didn't seem all that humane to me that they seemed to be ignored, left to sleep out in the street (and urinate on buildings, and yell obscenities at co-eds who happened to be walking by. It's a horrible thing for me to say, but yes, I found some of the people very threatening and frightening and if I saw one of them hanging around I'd either go a a different way or not leave the place I was until they'd left).

I do think there are a certain number of people out there who need more care than they get - whether from family or friends or a charitable organization or whatever. And I wonder if some of these problems - up to and including someone going off and shooting at people - could be solved by more intervention when there are people who seem not to be fully connected with reality.

Then again, I don't know. I know I'd bristle if my campus required me to get psych evaluations every year to "prove" I was still OK to teach (even though I'm quite sure I'd pass every one).

But I don't like feeling like there are people who can just be left to nurse some giant misplaced hurt, and find some group to attach blame to, and then go and attack them, and apparently no one having seen it coming. (The campus nurse has alluded to, "You would really be scared if you saw some of the 'I'm OK to go off my medications' incidents I've dealt with here."

The video of the incident is chilling, and frankly, I'm amazed no one else was killed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fixing it (part 4)

This is the hardest one for me to suggest solutions to, because it's not generally a problem I've had, personally.

The issue here is motivation. And work ethic.

One of the things a lot of my colleagues and I complain about is the lack of a work ethic in some of the students: that there are a lot of smart people who seem to want to slack their way through life. Who will happily accept a C on a paper, because trying for an A means too much work.

I don't know. I can sympathize with being busy. I can understand occasionally having to do some small thing half-assed because you don't have time to give it a full effort. But on a research paper that is the major point-earner in a class, that is the major push of the entire semester, and that was assigned on Day 1 of the class?

I can't quite see that.

In one class I taught, the students had a project to work on like that. Three or four of the class periods were time for them to work on this project, with my co-teacher and me on hand to answer questions or provide technical support. It was kind of surprising the number of people who showed up for those sessions, stayed five minutes, then left. At the time, we figured, "Well, maybe they're working on it at a different time, on their own time." But there was one person who didn't finish on time and several who turned in poor efforts - that certainly didn't suggest they spent extensive time working on it on their own.

And it kind of baffles me. This was a major project. We emphasized its importance, pointed out how it was analogous to the types of projects many of the students would do once they got out on the job, and yet, a lot of people seemed not to take it very seriously.

I suppose in some cases it was that maybe the students were unfamiliar with projects of this scope and got a little overwhelmed. But between us, my co-teacher and I had 20 hours of office hours per week, in addition to the in-class time, and you'd think people would come in and ask for help - especially when we pointed out that was what we were there for.

But then again - a couple of the guys that I had had in class before - I KNEW they could do this thing, and they just didn't step up to the plate.

I think in some cases it DOES come down to motivation or work ethic. As I said before, this is one of the more-frustrating things about teaching for me, because of how I was raised (and how I may just be, intrinsically): I always cared about what kind of a job I was doing. I know in some cases I got so involved in what I was working on that I went beyond the requirements of the assignment, and in some cases had to scramble a bit to catch up on other things. (And as I said - like everyone, I had to occasionally half-ass stuff, but I was good at discerning the "little things" versus the "big things." And even at that, my half-assed was usually B work, at least).

I don't know if you can teach motivation. If someone doesn't care about what they're doing, how can you get them to care? I know one of my colleagues talks about how he's tempted to call some of his students into his office and tell them, "I get the impression from you that you don't like or care about biology, based on the work you do and your attitude in class. If you don't like this subject, why are you majoring in it?" but I don't think he ever has.

But I do see some people like that - not just students - who don't seem excited by anything. Who don't seem to care enough to want to work hard on something. And I don't quite get it, and that frustrates me.

Work ethic is a huge thing. If everyone (or even, a majority) of people in an organization has a good work ethic, if they care about doing things right for the sake of doing them right, things work wonderfully. Everything is smooth. On the other hand, in cases where people don't care, and don't make an effort - and sometimes don't complete things - stuff can fall apart pretty quick.

I've had friends who are employers complain about the quality of some employees that they have had - that they don't show up on time (or in some cases, at all), that they don't finish stuff and don't tell anyone, that they seem not to care about the job.

And yeah, I know, there's sort of a tradition of 'sticking it to the man' among workers, but...the thing is, in a lot of cases, it's not just 'the man' who's getting stuck. It's your co-workers, who have to pick up the slack for you. Or the customers, who wind up with crappy customer service or poorly-made products. Or in the case of schools, students who don't learn what they need to know*

(*I once had a student, a major in another department, who took one of my classes, come to me and say "Don't listen to the other students from my department who bitch about your class being too hard. We don't do sh*t in the majors classes in my department because a couple of the profs don't care as long as they get paid. I like that I'm actually LEARNING something useful in your class.")

And everything falls apart. People doing what they're supposed to do, giving a damn about it, is kind of part of the social contract, in my mind.

So it distresses me when I see people who shrug and say "'D' is for diploma" when they earn a D (technically passing, but a miserable grade) in a class, or the people who hand in a piece-of-crap paper, when it's a paper they've had over a month to do - and they don't care that it's a piece of crap, because they're just checking off a box on their way to Being Done.

(And you know, that may be part of it - the idea that life is a journey and not a destination. If you're just biding your time in college until you can get out into the "real world" and have a job...well, that's kind of sad. Because for one thing, you really don't need to be here, there are careers you can found without a college degree, and for another reason, being an employed adult has enough things that suck about it that you look back somewhat nostalgically to college days).

I don't know how to instill motivation and work ethic if they don't already exist. Maybe that's more of a job for the parents? I think I learned the value of work from a pretty young age from mine, and maybe by the time a person is 18 or 20 it's kind of late to develop those attitudes, I don't know.

But the fact that there is a critical mass of students who seem content to just slide through doing the minimum possible is frustrating. When you try to start a discussion and find that three people in a class of 30 have actually read the material, or when you offer some over-and-above thing for extra credit, and no one shows up, it's annoying. It's hard for a professor to do their best when students aren't willing to meet them half way.

Perhaps part of the issue is that so many of these students have been taught to be passive - to sit there and be spoon-fed - rather than to be curious and pursue things on their own. (And I don't see it getting any better, in the culture of high-stakes testing, where a lot of things in the school have been scaled back to make room for test prep.) I am probably not a good enough teacher to 'turn around' a class of students who are determined to be passive. Perhaps some people are, but I suspect most of us are not.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I survived

Yup, I made it. Frankly, looking back over some of the times of the past semester, I'm surprised I didn't melt down - or get angry - or do some other potentially-career-damaging thing in front of a class. Because I had the Snowflakes this year. At least one per class - one person who either liked to add a running commentary track (Folks, that's only funny in things like Mystery Science Theater 3000), or who had OH MY GOODNESS so many problems that I wondered if Winnie-the-Pooh's little black rain cloud had come to rest over their heads, or who took such a monumental lack of responsibility (claimed to e-mail me multiple assignments but then never checking if I received them - which I did not - and then telling me at the end of the semester that **I** "NEEDED" to do something so they could salvage their grade, because it was obviously MY fault I didn't receive their e-mails).

On the other hand, there were some success stories:

- a student who started out with a 45% on the first exam, who came to me for extra help, who mentioned that he had been diagnosed as ADD in high school but "didn't wan that to follow me here" (leading me to suggest maybe he needed to go get rediagnosed - and he was, and when I gave him a quiet environment to take the exams, he wound up earning a C - so he passed)

- A returning, non-traditional student who was apprehensive, but to whom I gave lots of reassurance, earned an A in another class.

- Some people learning important lessons about life.

- A few students who seemed to genuinely enjoy the classes.

But I'm glad to be done. Shortly, I will leave for an extended break with my family, which I really feel that I need - I think I feel more "worn" after this semester than most before. That could be because of the 15-hour overload (12 is considered normal load; at 16 hours they have to start paying us more). And the fact that we had an unpleasant bit of administrative dealings this fall (there is someone whose contract will not be renewed; it took a certain amount of soul-searching to come to that decision). And all the rumors and reports of bad, bad financial times for our university ahead. (I'll be OK. I don't think they'd let me go because (a) I'm tenured (b) I teach in a fairly "essential" department and (c) I generate a lot of student credit-hours, based on my calculation my pay is about half what I earn for the university in tuition). I do expect there will be no raises, and there may be mandatory pay cuts, but whatever. I still have a job. I can scale back if I need to. (I can do better with more time and less money than I could with more money and less time, as I decided after this fall. So while I might not be willing to teach an extra-heavy load again, especially if there are pay cuts, I wouldn't be too upset over doing 12 hours if there were a pay cut).

Hopefully next semester will be better. I'm not the only one who found this a taxing and disappointing semester - a lot of my colleagues have commented on their disappointment in the current crop of students. Well, maybe some of them got whipped into shape a bit, and maybe we'll get some good new incoming folks. I don't know. I hope.

My biggest issue - and perhaps if I have time before I leave, I'll do another installment of "Fixing It" discussing this - is the whole work ethic issue. A lot of the students who disappointed me were not so much not-smart as they were lazy, and unwilling to put in effort to stuff, and that frustrates me far more than a student who lacks background or experience (which can be fixed) or one who just can't quite hack it (which I can deal with - it breaks my heart to assign the "D" to someone who worked hard but just didn't get it, but I can deal with it better than assigning a "C" to a person who is smart but doesn't give a flip.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010


In my non-majors biology class, we cover a section on the human reproductive system. Including a discussion of preventing STDs/contraception. A typical question I have on the final exam is for them to name one way of preventing pregnancy.

A greater number of students than ever before have said "Abstinence."

I did kind of make a big deal about it being the 100% certain method, but may be a good sign.

(Also - I was talking about preventing STDs and how another way to avoid getting one - other than abstinence or a condom, though condoms are not 100% guaranteed - was to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. And I commented, "So, couples who have been married for 50 years and have been totally faithful would not need to use a condom...and of course, by that point, they'd not need to worry about pregnancy." A couple girls in the class went, "Ewwww!" You know what? I'm sorry if the thought of couples in their 70s still getting it on bugs you, but I'm sure it happens. And if a long-time married couple is still in love and still able to do "it," more power to 'em.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


I got an e-mail from a student the other day. This person was a pretty good student, had good engagement in the class, was doing pretty well.

She wanted to know what to do if she couldn't get back to take the final, because there was a family emergency.

I e-mailed her back and told her that based on my calculations, she could still pass without taking the final - or, the preferable choice would be for her to take an incomplete and then take the final when she came back after break. (She has a shot at an A, and I would hate for some emergency to do away with that).

She thanked me, and told me things had changed a little, and she probably would get back. And would it be okay if she had some questions for me later?

I assumed it meant questions about the final, I said "Sure!"

Well, she e-mailed me her questions.

They weren't about the final.

The emergency was, her brother was taken to the ER with some serious problems. They found a pretty advanced cancer. The small hospital he went to first essentially told him, "there's nothing we can do, he's just going to die." Their parents pushed harder and got him to a bigger hospital where they did some stuff to take care of the immediate problems, and then he got admitted to their cancer-treatment program.

She asked me some questions about the specific cancer he was diagnosed, and what the prognosis was if it had spread, and about the radiation they are going to try to treat it.

She finished up with, "I just wish I knew if my bubba was going to be all right..."

(For those of you who don't live in the South: "bubba" is a common nickname for a person's brother. Used as it's used here it implies great affection...which is why it broke my heart so much)

More than I have in a very long time, I wished I could honestly tell her, "Yes, it's going to be rough for a while, but ultimately he will get better." But I don't know that and it wouldn't be kind for me to tell her. I reminded her that I'm in no way a cancer expert (they know I don't know as much about medical issues, but I guess their assumption is that I know more than they do, and maybe I can help). I told her I was sorry and that I hoped things worked out, and told her if things changed (her brother is somewhat stabilized at this point, I guess) and she didn't think she could take the final, she just had to e-mail me and I could arrange an incomplete.

But wow. Like I said, I really wish I could look into the future, see her brother recovered, and e-mail back, "Yeah, he's gonna be all right."

I don't know her super-well, and she was never one of the students who wore a cross pendant or a t-shirt with Biblical references on it (many of our students do), so I didn't know how she'd react to me saying, "I'll pray for your brother." (But I am. Actually, there's a whole ethical question in here: should you pray for someone who doesn't know and might not welcome that you are? And what about someone who explicitly rejects faith? I admit I've done that - prayed for a few people who might not welcome it, but I never told them.)

But anyway. This is one of those reminders that everyone has stuff going on, everyone has challenges in this life. Although this student was in no way a problem person - in fact, she was, as I said, one of the more-engaged students in the class - still, everyone has troubles and it's good to remember to be kind in this life, and to remember to see people as PEOPLE and not as obstacles or problems.

And that's something I too often forget.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Exam week oddities

It's finals week here, thank God for that, I'm nearly done with this semester, which had more low points than high points.

But here are some random observations before I go:

1. Why are students so obsessed with "how many questions will there be on the exam?" ? I already tell them that "finals follow the same format as in-class exams" which means some multiple choice (I have to get these suckers graded in some reasonable time-frame, and frankly, some of my students' writing is sufficiently illegible that an essay exam would make me frustrated), some short answer, some short essay. The number of questions should not matter.

2. There are an increasing number of students who don't seem to bother to find out when their exams are ahead of time. As I'm in here long days (come in before 8 am) to get research done, I've directed a few mildly frantic people, and explained to a few that no, your exam does not necessarily meet at the same time as your class did. This information is up online and every faculty member I know announced exams in's just another manifestation of the "I'm gonna slide through life, someone else will take care of me" mentality I see in some people.

3. Why, even though I expressly say DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT EVEN TRY ASKING ME, do students e-mail me after the class is over requesting extra credit. As per my syllabus: 1. I do not give extra credit and 2. Even if I did, I cannot give it to one person without calling the rest of the class and offering the opportunity. I explain the ethical issue of offering extra credit to one person and not the rest of the class and the students' response is almost always, "But I won't tell anyone!"

THAT'S NOT THE POINT. The point is my character and the fact that I am not going to violate my own ethical code just so you can slide through with a minimal C instead of the D you earned.

4. I've received more than one e-mail this fall making some unreasonable request, and then the student added "LOL" after the request, like that somehow would push it into the realm of plausibility. They probably don't realize that that "LOL" pisses me off even more and disposes me even less to even consider their request.

5. I really can't stand it when someone comes weeping to my office over their having earned a D. It's like, didn't you see this coming? Did it really blindside you? Did all those exams I handed back with scores of 65% and 68% and such not provide a road map?

If you really can't see from the grades you're earning that you need to do something differently AFTER THE FIRST TEST, then maybe you really are a D student. D for "denial."

(Again - I think this is part of the culture of not-taking-responsibility-for-themselves that I see in some people. When I had the bad fortune to earn a D on an exam, the day I got the exam back I had a tutor scheduled and had checked out a supplemental text book from the library. Because I knew the only person who could fix my D was me. And yes, I did fix it - though I will observe part of the issue was the arrogant jerk of a professor, who didn't follow the textbook with his topics, and then finally let slip, "I am teaching this following the discussion in Fermi's "Thermodynamics." Which I then went out and bought a copy of (it was $4 in a Dover reprint - best $4 I ever spent), read it, and wound up earning an A on the next exam.)

6. I guess students don't realize that it really, REALLY annoys the professor for them to come to his/her office and ask if the exams are graded yet. That's why God made online gradebooks! When I have the exams done, your grade will be up there. Stopping by my office to ask me will only slow me down and put me in a bad mood!

7. It makes me sad that the 10% of problem students take up 90% of my time and energy, and the remaining 90% - some of whom could probably really benefit from a little more attention - sometimes wind up getting neglected. But the squeaky wheel really does get the grease, whether it deserves it or not.

Monday, December 06, 2010


Micromanagey people and their micromanagingness can FTFO. I can do my work just fine without a string of bosses telling me what to do. I consider my chairperson to be my boss; if my chairperson thinks I am doing well then all the other upper echelon bosses should just lay the F off.

If they really don't have enough to do, they need to be put in the classroom to teach 15 hours (including several labs, for which you only get 1 hour for every 2 in class) for a semester like I just did.

Friday, December 03, 2010


Yeah, I have a feeling if He came to earth these days, He'd have an even harder time convincing people to follow Him and to do stuff like love their neighbors. I can see the questions now:

"But what if my neighbor is, like, really really annoying?"
"You say we should care for the poor. Why? Those lazy bums never did anything for me!"
"Uh, could You repeat that? I was sending a text."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Students crack me up sometimes

In a good way.

Overheard in lab class:

"Don't diss the plants, man! They're, like, her THING."


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A question

I never know how to respond to stuff like this.

So, say you're talking about your Christmas plans. You're a person who loves Christmas and you look forward to getting to celebrate all year long. You love the decorations, even the crazy over-done "Griswold houses" (*especially* the crazy, over-done "Griswold houses"). You love getting presents for the people you love. You love seeing some of the seasonal foods back in the stores. You love the parties. You love the general feeling of goodwill. You love the specials.

And you're talking about your plans.

And the other person tells you they "loathe" Christmas.

It always stops me short when someone does that. When a person talks about something I don't care for, unless it's something truly TMI (like their enthusiastic discussion of their sex life), I just kind of smile and nod and tell myself that it's good everyone is different.

But, it almost feels like a bucket of cold water to be talking about how I like having a little tree up in my house, and my little twinkle lights, to hear "Oh gods, I hate this whole season with a passion!"

Is it just me, or is it kind of rude for a person to do that? I mean, I get not enjoying the holidays - but it seems like they're trying to quash MY enjoyment of them, too.