Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer's over. Except it really isn't.

I finished with my summer classes last week. By and large they were really good. I find that the summer students we get are typically more motivated and hardworking, and earn better grades, than the regular semester students. (I suppose this is because it takes a special motivation to attend college in the summer: you have one more class required for graduation and it's offered in the summer. Or if you go in the summer, you can graduate faster than an ordinary student.  Or you are an incoming freshperson and you want to hit the ground running in the fall. Or you're attending another school but can get some transferrable credits cheaper and with more individualized attention here.)

My grades are done and in. I haven't had any pleas for mercy or extra credit. (In fact, one of the small number of people who did not earn a good enough grade in my intro class came to my office after the exam to ask me to help her enroll in the same class for the fall, because "Now I think I can pass it." I hope so.)

I'm taking about a week's break to go visit family and generally decompress. Though I will say summer helped cure some of my teaching burnout - it's not me, it's the students, that make me crazy sometimes, and this spring, I just had one class who gave so monumentally small of a damn that it really wore me down. Teaching the same class this summer and having people tell me, "I was kind of dreading this class but it was really fun and I learned a lot!" or "Thank you for teaching this this summer; now I can graduate and go on to the job that is waiting for me" makes a big difference.

Then I come back. The local public schools start August 12. We start August 18, but that week before is filled with meetings - four solid days of meetings, at least two of them 8 am to 4 pm solid days. (We get fed lunch one day, I guess. The other day we're "invited" to go eat at the cafeteria - no notification as to whether we are expected to pay or not, so I'll probably pack my lunch that day).

I don't know. Mid-August feels way too darn early to start school. I understand the reasons: we get a couple days mid-fall break, we get the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we finish up well before Christmas (and give exams before Christmas break. In the era my parents went to college, exams were AFTER Christmas break, which I would have hated as a student). In the public schools there are a lot of one-off days off. They get most of the Federal holidays (we do not: we get MLK, Jr. day, and Independence Day, and Labor Day, but that's it). They also get random days off for "teacher inservice" or also, I think "parent-teacher conferences." And I guess that last one is only fair; if you're going to expect your teachers to be available between 5 and 9 pm or whatever it is to meet with parents, maybe it's a bit much to expect a full day of teaching that day....but when I was a kid, that was how they did it. (I think the conferences were also optional? My parents always went and I remember a teacher saying something like, "The parents that DO show up, they are usually the ones where all I have to say is, "Your kid is a good kid; they are doing well in their classes" and the parents I NEED to talk to don't show up.")

Anyway. It's hot. It was very hot last weekend. It's going to be very hot when campus grinds back open all the way on August 18. Those first two weeks (heck, the first month or so here) are just kind of miserable because it's so hot. Oh, the buildings are air conditioned but it's unreliable - sometimes a classroom will be "out." Or the a/c will go out in the faculty-office part of the building. Or it will be so cranked up in one room that that room is freezing. And it's hard to adapt and I often walk around with a headache from the variable temperatures.

And frankly, I think a lot of the students are not ready to be back. When I grew up, I was used to a school schedule where school started after Labor Day and let out for the year in early June. And that seemed to make more sense to me. August is kind of an awful month and it tends to be the hottest month in the summer, no matter where you are.

And yeah, I've heard all the arguments in favor of year-round school and I even agree with some of them (and heck, what I do essentially is teach year-round school for college students), but also, I think in some cases, at least for some kids still, there's value in having a big chunk of time off. Or, at least there was when I was a kid - maybe it's different now with the Internet and video games and 500 tv channels. But when I was a kid, we spend the summers playing HORSE, or having big neighborhood-wide games of Kick the Can. Or we'd go looking for frogs or minnows in a stream up the street. Or someone would set up a sprinkler for us to run through. Or I'd get a big stack of books from the library and spend the biggest part of some days reading. Or my brother and I would beg wood scraps from our dad and "build stuff." Or we'd climb trees. Or go looking for weird bugs or snakes. Or I'd beg my mom to let me bake cookies and sometimes she would let me.

A lot of it was learning to entertain yourself left to your own devices. And there was a certain degree of learning to compromise in there - I didn't like playing HORSE that much because I wasn't very good at it and until I had a growth spurt around 12 or so, I was one of the shorter kids. But I played it in the hopes that later on people would want to play hide-and-go-seek or Capture the Flag, both of which I did like. Or, I played because the only other choice was to go figure out something to do on my own, and playing a game that wasn't my biggest favorite was better than going and digging in the sandpile or something.

We were also largely left to our own devices. There were no cell phones, so if someone got hurt or something, you figured out a way to get them back home (carrying one of my smaller friends when she sprained her ankle) or you ran to a neighbor for help (like when one of the older kids got into a hornet's nest and got stung a lot of times and we were worried he was going to have a bad reaction). You figured stuff out, you were fairly independent.

I don't know if kids today are like that or if they have become less like that. I suppose if we had had cell phones back in the day, I could have called Christy's mom and asked her to come and pick her up when she sprained her ankle. Or we could have called Tim's dad and asked for help on the hornet thing. But both of those situations turned out okay, even with us left to our own devices.

And I see these occasional stories about a parent who gets in trouble because some busybody sees their kid left "alone" and worries on the parent's behalf that something bad will befall the kid. I have no idea how widespread that is, and if kids are more overprotected today. When I was a kid - in the late 70s and early 80s - by and large we were allowed to roam the neighborhood as long as we didn't do anything to dangerously stupid or anything criminal, and our parents trusted us to know the difference. (Well, smaller kids were expected to stay close to home unless a kid in their teens invited them to tag along, and the fact that one of the kids who babysat my brother and me was the oldest sibling in one of the families we palled around with probably had some influence on the degree of freedom we were given). But I remember walking the 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile to the "creek" as an 11 or 12 year old, going to catch frogs, and all my dad said was, "Don't fall in; it's really muddy right now." Maybe in an era now when there isn't a parent at home to kind of man home base, or maybe now when the world seems more dangerous than it was, it's preferable NOT to have long summer breaks anymore, I don't know.

(Though I wonder: is the world really more dangerous? I remember several high-profile kidnappings of young girls that happened in the early 80s, including one not too far from where I grew up. And they all ended pretty badly. But I don't remember my mom or my dad telling me not to go out, or preventing me from going places; they seemed to know that I was smart and canny and would come running back home (or to a trusted neighbor) if something seemed suspicious.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014


I know that a lot of people have to work and go to school. And I know some of the stupid rules of financial aid can make it harder to go to school part time.

But for the love of all that's good, I'm just so TIRED of people with lives where their education is their very last priority. I had someone this semester who skipped class several times because he could "pick up a good shift" at the place where he worked....and of course, I am reminded exactly WHICH days those were when I grade the exams he took, because that's where his score tanks. (He wound up failing the class. And this was one of those "But I always earned As in the past in classes!" people).

And I had a couple people go on vacation. Yeah. A vacation they had scheduled knowing full well they were taking summer classes. I tried to work with them (gotta keep the enrollment up) but it was frustrating. I don't get much in the way of "days off" during the summer semester, and having to do stuff like arrange for makeup labs and makeup exams takes even more time.

I realize how fortunate I was as a student: I had just barely enough money to pay my tuition and my room and board. Not a lot of extras, not a lot of frivolities, and I did stuff like getting my shoes re-soled to avoid having to buy new ones. But at least I didn't have to work. (I did, for a little while, a few hours a week in a dorm cafeteria, so I had money to go to the movies and stuff. But I never worked more than 10 hours a week, and the dorm was really excellent about scheduling shifts around my class schedule. And if it had interfered with studying, I would have quit).

I know a lot of our students aren't in that boat - they have families to support or things like that. But we also get a certain percentage who whine about how "hard" they have to work and when you talk to them, you find out they don't have any dependents, but they have a big fancy pickup truck, and a new iPhone, and they want to go to the tropics for Spring Break, and and and. And there comes a point where my sympathy for those people dies: you're making a choice. You could cut back on hours at work and not have all those fancy things and do better in school and not have junk happen like sleeping through an exam-time and then harassing your professor into relenting and letting you take the exam late.

I don't know. Part of it is a sour grapes issue on my part: there's a lot of things I would WANT to do but don't because my responsibilities get in the way and I won't shirk my responsibilities. And there are things I might WANT to buy but then I look at my TIAA-CREF statement or my Vanguard statement and start calculating out how much I still need to be able to retire (and hope and pray there's not hyperinflation) and then figure I'm better off without whatever it is. But I get frustrated with being responsible when I see people NOT being so, and especially when their lack of responsibility means more work on my part.

I suppose I need to be tougher, and tell people, "You made your bed, now lie in it" when someone shirks class stuff and then comes crying to me for an extension or something. I usually am, actually, but with things like missed tests, it's hard and it's kind of painful to tell someone, "No, yes, I know you slept through it, but sorry. No." And then get some kind of sob story about how HARD their life is. (It's the nagging, it's the constant stream of reasons and excuses, that wears me out. Just accept my "No," okay? You understand "No means No" in other areas of your life, right? Then why not accept it from your prof?)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Just gonna say:

I watched most of an interview with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu this weekend.

And I'm just gonna say: I wish our current leader was more like him. Forceful, sure of himself, no BS that I can detect. Committed to defending his people yet at the same time points how the great pains that are taken to avoid collateral damage on the other side. Not unwilling to shut the interviewer up when he gets shirty with him.

Oh, I'm sure there are things to dislike about Netanyahu, and I'm probably seeing this as grass on the other side of the fence, but I suspect we'd have fewer foreign-relations problems (and fewer at-home problems) than we do at the moment if we had someone who was more willing to say what he really thought, rather than what he thought people (potential voters) wanted to hear...

Friday, July 18, 2014

All those people

I admit, as someone who's been a fearful flyer since she figured out it was possible for planes to crash, this kind of thing just horrifies me.

It horrifies me even more that it seems to have been confirmed that Malaysia Air 17 was shot down. Shot down from 30,000 feet. I didn't even know there were surface to air missiles that could do that, that had that kind of accuracy. That's chilling.

All those people. I hope they died instantly and didn't know any terror. And I also feel sad for the people who are the farmers and such living in that area, who had plane parts (and other things) come down in their yards.

What makes me especially sick? The US response to this will probably be a finger wagged at whoever is responsible, and that's it. And the situation in the Ukraine will continue to spiral downward. I'm trying to tell myself this isn't how World War III gets started, but I'm having a hard time convincing myself.

And it doesn't help that there's ugliness elsewhere in the world. (Though I will say, if what I've read about how Israel does its rocket attacks is true, it makes me hate Hamas even more, and feel even more like Israel is in the right - essentially, it sounds like Israel is doing *everything possible* to avoid loss of civilian life on the other side, and Hamas is trying to time its rocket attacks for when Israeli schoolchildren are going to or from school.)

Everything's such a mess right now. And we don't even have strong leadership to try to sort it out or even provide any kind of useful response.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"First World Problems."

There's a trend I see, among some who write/talk about food, economics, and health. One example is Mark Bittman's piece here.

I call it "First World Problems" because I hear people bemoaning how "awful" it is that food is cheap, and I do the confused-dog head tilt: "You'd rather there be a famine going on, then?"

And yes, I understand that the argument they are making is that when food is cheap, people eat more, and they eat more sugary and fatty food. But it's more complex than that. In the US, obesity is often a problem of people who are less-well-off because the cheapest calories for the money tend to BE things like dollar-menu hamburgers. And chips. And soda. Vegetables are expensive. (I think I paid close to $4 for a head of cauliflower recently). And then you have to prepare the vegetables - and if you're living where there's a less-than-ideal kitchen, or you're working long hours, or having to care for children on your own, or or or, it becomes harder.

I'm not saying it's impossible to eat healthfully when you're stressed. But it's harder. Even for me - and I make a good salary, I don't have any dependents I have to care for, and still, there are some days I look at that cauliflower in the vegetable bin and go "Meh. It's 6:30 pm. I'm hungry. I don't want to take fifteen minutes to cut this up and fifteen more to steam it, or forty-five minutes to roast it in the oven" and I go for something faster, like cereal.

But this is one of the things about some segments of our culture I find distressing. We've solved a lot of the big problems, and we're forgetting to be grateful for that.

People mostly aren't starving in the streets any more. Instead of rejoicing about that, we wring our hands about "cheap food" and the consequences thereof.

People aren't mostly freezing to death in the winter any more. But we worry about "cheap energy" and its effect on the environment. And try to do things like ban wood stoves because of the (OMG!) smoke. (I know a few people whose homes are electrically heated. And electricity is EXPENSIVE here, y'all. But they have a wood stove, and they have a woodlot. That seems like "problem solved" but there are some who don't want to let them use the wood stove - or require environmental retrofits that would price them out of being able to use it)

People aren't dying from bacteria in the water. Yet there are some who talk about the hazards of chlorination. I dunno; I'd rather risk the small hazard of chlorine by-products than the big hazard of possible cholera or dysentery.

Lots of diseases have been largely eradicated thanks to vaccines. But OMG, my children are too special for that tiny risk that a vaccine might pose, instead, I'd rather have them face the big risk of getting (whatever disease) and maybe passing it to a kid who couldn't be vaccinated for medical reasons. (I would have no problem with anti-vaxers - well, other than that their children don't really get a say - if there was no such thing as herd immunity.)

(Also, an aside: another way certain forms of extremism are awful - there's concern that polio may show a resurgence in Afghanistan and other mullah-dominated areas. Because apparently vaccines are a tool of the evil West. Sigh.)

And on, and on. I've talked about the whole milk-pasteurization thing before. Okay, I admit it: I wouldn't have a problem with people being allowed to choose and buy CLEARLY LABELED raw milk. But I'm gonna keep drinking the pasteurized stuff. I had ancestors who had milch cows and I heard stories of stuff that can be transmitted in milk. (Again, the kids, who might be affected more strongly, don't really get a say in this, it's their parents' decision. But I maintain that if people know the risks they should be permitted to buy the stuff. But they have to know the risks! And they can't sue the farmer if they get sick from raw milk.)

I don't know. Like I said, some of the people agitating about "oh, we have it too EASY now" almost sound to me like they WANT to see people dying in the streets. I'm sure that's not the case but it does seem to me to represent a lack of gratitude. Me? I'm grateful for Pasteur and Jenner and Salk and all those guys (and they were mostly guys) in the past who figured out ways for people to not die of stuff.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I still love Mike Rowe

Dirty Jobs may have ended its run (but Animal Planet sometimes shows re-runs, especially of the animal-oriented episodes) and Mike Rowe seems to have moved on to other things.

Kind of awesome things. He's promoting the idea that instead of getting a four-year degree in some subject that it will be hard to find a job in come graduation, that a lot of America's young men and women should look towards a more technical education, or a skills education. Or at the very least, be willing to get their hands dirty, to do jobs some might say was "beneath" them, to do hard work and to do honest work.

He's written a whole thing, called the SWEAT pledge ("skills and work ethic aren't taboo") and the idea is, he's helping to fund a scholarship for people willing to take this pledge.

(Frankly, if I had a kid, unless s/he was absolutely driven to a particular field, like I was with biology, I'd strongly suggest they become a mechanic, plumber, or electrician. Good honest steady work, work that can't be outsourced, work where very often, if your boss is an idiot, you can pick up and move to another employer - or become your OWN boss.)

Anyway, here's the pledge, it's one of those things that has gone viral:


(Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo)

1. I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.
2. I believe that I am entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.
3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.
4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.
5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.
6. I believe that my safety is my responsibility. I understand that being in “compliance” does not necessarily mean I’m out of danger.
 7. I believe the best way to distinguish myself at work is to show up early, stay late, and cheerfully volunteer for every crappy task there is.
8. I believe the most annoying sounds in the world are whining and complaining. I will never make them. If I am unhappy in my work, I will either find a new job, or find a way to be happy.
9. I believe that my education is my responsibility, and absolutely critical to my success. I am resolved to learn as much as I can from whatever source is available to me. I will never stop learning, and understand that library cards are free.
10. I believe that I am a product of my choices – not my circumstances. I will never blame anyone for my shortcomings or the challenges I face. And I will never accept the credit for something I didn’t do.
11. I understand the world is not fair, and I’m OK with that. I do not resent the success of others.
12. I believe that all people are created equal. I also believe that all people make choices. Some choose to be lazy. Some choose to sleep in. I choose to work my butt off.

I love the whole thing but I especially love #1 - because I see far too many people who feel like they're "victims" of some kind when really, they just hit a rough patch but they have giant opportunity. And it's kind of uncool right now to say you are grateful to live in America, but I'm totally okay with being uncool: I am grateful, incredibly grateful, to live here. Yes, we have some problems but we still have great opportunity and still have great freedom.

I also love #4. I have days when I'm not "feelin' it" when I gear up to walk into the classroom so I do what I can to MAKE myself feel it. Also, by bringing your passion with you,  instead of "following" it, you can better deal with whatever changes or reverses you have in life. I got a gig in a state I had never visited before I interviewed here. In a lot of ways the culture is different from what I was used to. But I wanted the job, I recognized it was a good deal, so I made it work. Again, it's not perfect, there are always problems, but on balance I see things as being far, far better than they COULD be.

The whole theme of the pledge is "taking responsibility for myself" and I think we need more of that right now in this nation. I would love to see people start pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, stuff getting better economically, us electing some politicians who take the Constitution more seriously, and everything getting better and better. I think it will take individual citizens choosing to be this way, though, rather than anything that comes out of Washington DC or anywhere. 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

a quick thought.

I have real issues with the whole "check your privilege" idea - the idea, apparently, that you should somehow feel guilty for the accident of being born white (or male, or hetero, or American, or whatever) and should somehow, I don't know, ramp down how you do things in life because of it.

The problem is, in my mind, that kind of closes out some of the opportunity for gratitude as a result of undeserved good things. And as a Christian, I've been taught all my life that there are a certain amount of good things we enjoy that are totally and utterly undeserved.

In another way of saying it: I don't think I should feel guilty that I can afford to comfortably pay all my bills; I should feel *blessed.* And I do. (And yes, I give to a few carefully-chosen entities that help those who are less blessed than I am, so hopefully they can get a hand up and can have a life where they get to earn a decent living and come to enjoy some of the blessings I have...)