Thursday, May 15, 2014

more thoughts on education

Some of you might have seen the story about the teacher (in Detroit, I think?) who was fired for using a broom to help her break up two students who were fighting (and who were, apparently, larger than she was). This kind of thing is a lose-lose-lose-lose situation for the teacher:

- the notification system (some kind of intercom) was apparently broken, so she couldn't follow "official procedure"

- if she got in there physically, she could have been injured badly, and/or fired for touching a student

- if she did nothing, she would have been excoriated for "not being caring enough to break up a fight"

- if she used something to try to break up the fight, she gets fired and thought of as insensitive.

You know what? These kinds of stories put me on the point of saying, "Let's just end compulsory education in the US. You don't want to be in school? Fine. Don't go." And also: "You make it so kids who want to learn can't learn? You threaten other kids, you destroy school property, you constantly disrupt class? You're gone. Sorry. Education's a privilege, not a right, and you just lost that privilege."

Of course, we'd also have to somehow overhaul the welfare system so those folks who DO want to go through 12 or more years of education don't wind up supporting a group of illiterates who can't hold down a job. There needs to be some kind of incentive for people to make sure they can more or less take care of themselves as adults rather than expecting someone else to.

But when I hear stuff - and I've even heard stories from the kids at church and their parents, even here, in our fairly little rural district - about kids who make it so it's hard for other kids to learn, or make other kids feel unsafe going to school, I just want to say "Throw 'em out. Throw all the jerks out. Make 'em dig ditches or something for a living."

As a college prof, I'm somewhat lucky: if someone were to get very disruptive in class (it's never happened yet), I can tell them to leave. And if they don't, I can call security (and it's an online system, and we test it monthly to be sure it works) and have security escort them out. I wouldn't do that lightly - a student disagreeing with me or questioning me on something, I'll engage them (especially if the question is something pertinent to class material) and talk with them. But if they were to get too in my face, or actually threaten me or one of the other students, nope. They lost the privilege of being there.

I don't know what the world would look like with compulsory K-12 education ended. There are probably a lot of bad unintended consequences I've not thought of (In some districts, apparently, part of it is to keep the troublemakers off the street, and the last thing I want are packs of "bad kids" roaming through town during the day looking for stuff to do, which might include looking for stuff they could take and pawn). But when kids who WANT to learn are having a tougher time of doing it because some kids in their class are being jerks, and there's little the teacher can do, something's broken.

Oh, I know an "easy" answer is "That kid who wants to learn should be homeschooled" but not all families can manage that - either they feel they lack the level of education themselves, or both parents work, or there's some other factor (like a special-needs sibling who requires a lot of time from the parents) that prevents it. Or sending the kid to private school is not always possible - the nearest Catholic school here is an hour's round-trip commute, and a parent would have to make that with the kid every day. And tiny little kids shouldn't be sent away to boarding school, I tend to think. Perhaps in some cases the family could move, but that's not always possible either.  And at any rate, it seems like once again, the burden is put on those trying to do the responsible thing rather than on the irresponsible parties.

Perhaps it was always thus but it seems of late there are an awful lot of kids who don't respect any adult, or, more often, their parents teach them not to respect any adult, and when the kid gets in trouble at school they claim their kid is being unfairly targeted. (as much trouble as kids can get into at school. When I was a kid, the idea of "expulsion" was whispered about among the kids, but I can't remember ANYONE being expelled, not even the kid who exposed himself to the Home Ec teacher and the entire class).

And yeah, I guess kids to get thrown out of grade schools now, but it more often seems to be something like the little boy who draws a World War II scene where the soldiers have guns (which I would argue is normal and healthy for a little boy to want to draw; that's just how little boys are. Little boys who draw war scenes generally grow up to be normal men, not criminals; my brother, who is now involved with the ministry, drew war scenes and giant-robot-battle scenes as a kid) than the teenager who screams and curses out his teacher in front of the shocked class. Or discipline is applied really unevenly, so the Boy Scout at a suburban middle-class school who forgets and brings his pocket knife to school is in huge trouble whereas the kid fighting with another kid in an inner-city school is largely ignored.

The thing about teaching college is there are penalties that can (usually*) be made to stick - you can throw someone out for breaking certain rules. Like plagiarism. Or cheating. Or even being really disruptive in class.

(*I say "usually" because one of my colleagues who teaches one of the graduate level classes is having to follow up on something - apparently he busted a student for plagiarizing, and at grad student level, that's grounds for expulsion. But then this guy 'walked' at graduation and allegedly got his degree. So I don't know if it was done as a face-saving measure or if this guy had friends in high places or what.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Slouching toward Bethlehem

Or maybe towards Gomorrah, I don't know.

On bad days, sometimes I watch the news or read news online and wonder what we may be unleashing on the world. What if evil is something that could actually take on a persona, what if it could actually infect people? Do we want to call more of that into the world?

I don't know. I find the idea that a group at Harvard wants to celebrate a Black Mass (And I guess they already did? It was yesterday?) unsettling in the extreme.

I'm not Catholic but I am Christian and I find this both offensive and also kind of scary- the idea of not meddling in things that might just call down evil somehow. But moreover, offensive - as one of the chaplains protesting observed, “Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good.”

I don't know. I think more and more as a society we seem to be rejecting "right" and "good," and that bothers me on a very deep level. Some people take the idea of "it's all relative, so what does it matter?" Others seem to take the idea of "it's my right to do this, no matter how it affects other people."

From what I've been able to read about this, it's not that there's a satanic group on campus doing this genuinely. It's an outspoken atheist group who is doing it mainly (I suspect) as a poke in the eye to Catholics.

I don't know. The older I get, the more I ascribe to the philosophy of "Don't be an asshole just because you can be one. And don't be an asshole just because someone was an asshole to you in the past." I know a lot of nonbelievers who feel oppressed because America is in some ways still a culturally Christian country. I know cases where Christians have been (to my great embarrassment as a Christian) rude and pushy to nonbelievers.  But two wrongs don't make a right. Being offensive about the thing a large group of Christians consider deeply solemn and meaningful is not going to win you any points. Throwing dung on a person because someone else threw dung on you first isn't going to make that person want to listen to your unhappiness about having dung on you. 

Part of the reason it bothers me is it's just another case of "we're gonna be ugly and irreverent to something that other people are deeply reverent about because we can be" - it's just a childish behavior, like a four-year-old scribbling in his sister's book because she'd rather read than play with him.

The other thing, like I said - and some might call this superstitious, I know some of my colleagues would - I think it's a bad idea to mess in things that might just, somehow, bring more evil into the world. I don't know the history of or the way a Black Mass operates, but it does seem like something aimed at "undoing the good" of a true Christian celebration.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just getting old and sad (I think I am getting closer to burnout than I've ever been) but when I see stuff like this, it just seems so unnecessary. One human tendency that bothers me is going out of your way to hurt someone else because you've been hurt in the past - it just perpetuates the bad feelings. And yes, I'm jumping to the huge conclusion here that some of the people are involved are doing this because they were hurt or mistreated by people calling themselves Catholics in the past, and I could be totally wrong about that.

But also, doing something offensive "for the lulz" (and this is a deeply, deeply offensive thing. I find it offensive and as I said, I'm a Protestant in a traditionally "low church" denomination; I can't imagine how much worse it is for lifelong Catholics) just seems to me to....well, it makes life ugly for no good for anyone. We don't need more ugliness in this world.

And yes, I saw the photos of the Catholics and others praying - trying to fight back the evil, I suppose you could say, with prayer. And yes, of course, Christ is bigger and stronger and tougher than any Black Mass, and the people participating in that thing are ultimately only hurting themselves in some ways.

But it still bothers me because it just reminds me of how diverse ugliness in our society has become.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Trying hard not to laugh, mostly failing.

Sometimes college dining halls are kind of stuck in a bizarre time warp. They do stuff that would be considered kind of dumb and jerky on the rest of the campus.

For example- a dining hall doing a "Black History Month Dinner" of fried chicken. (I have heard of that actually happening.)

While I tend to roll my eyes at the people who get offended at every little thing, I also think there's a point where you have to ask yourself: "Is this cool, what I'm doing? Or is it kind of not cool?"

I will say my old college dorm did a Black History Month dinner of traditional "soul food" - black eyed peas, greens, that kind of thing. A lot of the Black women I knew in the dorm, who were from the North somewhere (Michigan, Ohio, or some were from New England) were like, "Wait, what? I've never eaten this stuff. What's going on?" It was more puzzlement than offense. And I don't think the dinner went over very well. (I like black-eyed peas NOW, after having lived in the south a few years, but I didn't like them then. And I still don't like cooked greens.)

But anyway. A school did a Cinco de Mayo meal with "chocolate mustaches" as the dessert. They also gave away sombreros. And of course, some people are offended.

(I admit, there are probably some HORRIBLE jokes about the chocolate mustaches that were made. I'm not gonna make 'em myself. But I'm saying I can imagine them.)

And while I think the sort of hair-trigger OUTRAGE! makes life today kind of exhausting, I also think.....stereotyping Mexicans as mustache-wearing sombreroed people is kind of a little dumb and not-cool, and maybe wasn't well-thought-out on the part of the dining hall. I mean, especially for Cinco de Mayo, which is essentially a celebration of the Mexicans whupping the tails of the French who were sent there to take over the country. (Wait. Maybe those chocolate mustaches were a joke on the French? Well, carry on then. Though that probably seems a little too subtle.)

(The real joke? The group most offended by they chocolate mustaches....was the Campus Society for the Promotion of Hipsterism.)

I dunno. You have to be so careful, and one person with a candy mold that they can use (but maybe should not) can lead to so many problems.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

They need some science

Apparently, Wichita Falls, Texas, is in a bad enough drought that they're talking about (starting next year) treating wastewater and recycling it back into the drinking-water system.

And people are horrified at this. And the news reports talk about it as "drinking toilet water" and similar.

Um, folks?

Do you really think God makes a whole brand-spankin'-new batch of water every year, just so we have virgin water to drink?

(Note to self: possible business idea there for a bottled-water service.)

I hate to tell you this, but there's this thing called the water cycle. Water has been traveling through it since the Earth began. Granted, there weren't any humans there yet at the beginning, and the human population has ballooned in recent years, but - any water you drink is going to, at least in part, have passed through the bladder of an animal at some point in the game. Maybe even a person's bladder.

There's that famous probability thought-problem about how many molecules of oxygen from Caesar's last breath get breathed in by some resident of North America today. Same thing with water.

If the treatment plant does a good job, if they filter and treat it right, you won't be able to tell.

Trust me.

I'd rather use recycled wastewater than be told I can only wash clothes and dishes one day a week, or take showers twice a week.

And I agree: the idea of drinking water that's been in a toilet is unappealing if you think about it. But really, the water we drink now? Especially if it's from a surface source? Probably was IN a toilet at some point in the past 20 years.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Classes are over, exam week begins

The grading the end of this semester made me sad. I guess grade schools and high schools don't require papers any more, or don't grade them the way they graded them when I was in school. I gave out a higher proportion of scores in the 60-percents range on my big paper than I ever have. And one student consistently used "seen" when they meant "saw" in their paper - as in "I seen a flock of ducks migrating"

And yeah, I get the whole non-standard English thing, but it's NOT OKAY to use it in what is meant as a professional paper. I don't care if people use non-standard English in casual conversation, or even if they are something like an Ag Extension Agent and they use it with farmers who also use it. But when you are writing up formal research for formal presentation, you need to know that at that time you use formal English. And yes, I know that makes me a 'prescriptivist' and therefore evil in the eyes of some, but I don't flippin' care. Professional writing requires professional demeanor, and that still means using the "proper" verb forms.

I suspect a certain proportion of the poor paper grades were either laziness ("I'm a senior, woo!") or perhaps poor time planning (they knew from the first day of the semester this paper was due, I reminded them a month before, I reminded them every day for about two weeks before) but based on what a few people said, the things were written in their entirety the weekend before the Monday they were due.

One thing I tell students and they never believe: for formal writing, like a big research paper, you should spend as much, if not more, time in editing it than you do in first writing it. And not to be afraid to slash it up and change it around and dump big portions of it and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

I admit something I STILL do - because I came up before word processors were common - when I have editing to do, I often print out a copy of the manuscript and have at it with scissors and tape in addition to a pen - I will cut it up into chunks and rearrange it and tape it back together and then read it to see how it works. I'll delete sections and rewrite them. I'll have letters (A, B, C....) all over the place referring to the section that gets inserted or moved there. My papers wind up looking like Barbara McClintock's corn's genes when it's done - but it often makes the paper better than it would have been.

I think some students are afraid of rewriting that viciously - they're afraid of losing something "really good."
 The problem is they can't judge "really good" writing from just "meh" writing. You need practice for that. I think also some students get convinced that their first pass is good enough (or in a few cases, that it's really good - think of Ralphie Parker and how he felt about his 'theme' about the Red Ryder BB gun).

I've been doing this for 20+ years and have learned that almost everything in my first drafts of papers is "meh" at best - actually, one of the freeing things I learned a few years back, when I read Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird," was the idea of the "shitty first draft" (her phrase). In other words: just write. Just get the information down on paper. Don't try to edit or censor yourself. You can come back to it later and fix it. That works well for me in a lot of ways. I tend to stall out otherwise and have a half-written manuscript. But if I tell myself, "You can make this better later, just get the ideas down before you forget them" I actually get something finished I can work on.

I don't know. I don't know what our comp classes here are like. From what little I've been able to learn from the students, they seem to vary widely. Some are pretty good, some are basically exercises in having the students write navel-gazing inner-self-directed essays that get very lightly graded. I don't blame the instructors totally for this; a lot of them are adjuncts who are probably working other jobs. (We really need to rethink the whole hiring-adjuncts thing, especially in a part of the country like mine, where the pool of moms-who-want-to-work-a-few-hours-a-week-and-have-some-academic-skills are small, and where people can actually make better money running a landscaping business or waiting tables at a good restaurant). But when we get junior-level students with a tenuous grasp on grammar, and their only writing experience is how they feeeeeeeeeeeeel about something, it's really hard to shape them up to be able to write scientific papers in a semester or two.

We've tried to get a writing class started in my department; so far it has never made. And that's sad. The colleague who would be teaching it would do a good job teaching scientific writing. But the class is apparently perceived as one that would be "hard," so people don't want to do it.

It's fashionable right now to deride college education as "an expensive ticket to the fast-food industry" but often it seems to me that the students are writing that ticket themselves, that by the choices they make in classes (and things like internships, and things like doing research or working on campus). It's not the faculty's fault that students want the easiest path out - we are now offering a BGS with "concentrations," so people can do a "BGS with concentration in chemistry" or something - and they don't have to take the "hard" classes a Chem major would take.

I don't know about other careers but in the science oriented ones, we DO look at people's transcripts. And if someone has P-chem and Analytical Chemistry and advanced biochem and stuff, we're going to hire that person (provided their grades are decent) over someone who has a "BGS with concentration" who avoided the classes requiring lots of math. Because the person who took the harder classes should be better prepared. Oh, they might not know everything but hopefully they have at least been exposed to it.

One trend I see in our country - and it's probably been going on for a long time, but I'm noticing it more as I get crankier and older - is that lots and lots of people want the easiest possible way out. And then they are just BAFFLED that they can't get the job they want. Or the salary they think they deserve. It's like they don't see the cause-and-effect of working hard leading to getting what you want in life.