Boom boom boom

18 09 2014

I am a mine-layer.

Some days—most days?—the most I can accomplish is to fling out enough mines that at least some will burrow into rather than merely roll off of my students.

I’m a pretty good teacher—I’d put myself in the B, B+ range—but I think even the best teachers fail to impart whole systems of thought or history or formulae to their students. One might be able to lay out the sets and subsets, the permutations and exemplars and exceptions, in as straightforward a manner as possible, noting what syncs up with which and where it all falls apart, but beyond the assignment or the test or the essay, the knowledge dissipates.

This isn’t their fault—the student’s, I mean—nor is it the teacher’s. Most of the material covered in a college course can only be fully taken in through repetition, and for many students in many classes, it’s one-and-done: the ticking off of requirements on their way to a degree. What they remember may be courses in their major, and that’s because they run into the same concepts and theories and studies over and over again.

If students are able to see the connections amongst ideas laid out in a 3- or 4-hundred-level course in their field, it likely has less to do with that particular professor than with the accumulation of bits from the 100- and 200-level courses.

So what to do when teaching a 1 or 200-level class, or even an advanced class which is supported by no major?

Lay mines. Try to expose the students to concepts they are likely to encounter again, so that the next time they run across “Aristotle” or “Arendt” or  “deontological ethics”, that little bomb will go off and they’ll say to themselves, Hey, I recognize this! and maybe not feel so estranged from what had seemed strange.

So many metaphors could be used here: taking a student down a path and pointing out enough landmarks so that when they traipse down it again, they’ll say Hey! . . . , and feel more confident in their surroundings, more willing to push further on. Tossing out enough seeds in the hopes that a few take root, sprout. Or maybe repeated vaccinations, priming the immune system to respond when next encountering the invasive idea (tho’ there are clear limits to this last analogy insofar as the knowledge isn’t to be annihilated).

Maybe it’s different for professors at elite schools, with students who’ve already been exposed to and are comfortable with these ideas. Or maybe even at my CUNY school I’d find less mine-laying if I were to teach more advanced-level courses in my field.

But maybe not, or, at least, not the way I teach. Yes, I want them to perform well on tests and papers, but more than that, much more than that, I am greedy enough of their attention that I want them to remember this stuff for the rest of their lives.

I’d rather they get a B and be bothered for decades than get an A and let it all go.

So this might explain why I’m partial to the mine idea: because it allows for the possibility of little bits of insight to explode whenever the student strays over forgotten territory. And if those mines are powerful enough and buried deep enough, there’s a chance those explosions might rearrange her intellectual landscape, might change how he looks at the world.

And yeah, I like the idea of blowing their minds, too.





Turn and face the strange

26 08 2014

I knew that birthday call to my sister would last awhile—it always lasts awhile—but I didn’t think it would go on that long.

This, by the way, is my excuse for not posting last night

~~~

Classes begin on Thursday. I am, as ever, looking forward to it.

I recycle a lot of material from semester to semester—if it works well, why change it?—but I periodically amend or even overhaul courses: maybe it works well, but I’m bored, or maybe it doesn’t work so well.

The politics & culture course got revamped (due to boredom) last year, and while it worked okay, it just never came together the way I wanted it to. So for this semester I fiddled a bit with the first third, left the last third alone, and redid the middle third.

I’d been using Charles Taylor’s edited volume Multiculturalism to get at, well, issues of multiculturalism, but the argument of he and his interlocutors was pitched a bit, ehhh, not high, but not in the direction that was most fruitful. So I tossed Chuck and added some online readings, readings which come to the pointy-point much more quickly than Chas and his gang.

(If you’ve ever read Taylor you know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s smart and his stuff is worth reading, but good lord the man won’t use 10 words when a hundred will do.)

Anyway, I think it’s a good bet that the students will be more engaged by Ta-Nehisi Coates (among others) than academics speaking academically.

As for the bioethics, that’s pretty damned well set. I did add some short bits on gene therapy and epigenetics, but otherwise it’s the same. I did dig out for my lectures some more recent stuff on genetics and stem cells and, later in the semester, will on ART issues, mostly to make sure I’m not giving my students out-of-date or, even worse, wrong information.

The lectures on the science are, as I repeatedly warn the students, ur-basic and no substitute for the real thing; still, while I’m willing to simplify, I don’t want to mislead.

The good news is that it doesn’t look as if anything I have been teaching has been wrong.

~~~

I’m watching Criminal Minds on Netflix and it is, of course, terrible.

Yes, I have new shows in my queue and I do watch them (The Fall, Bletchley Circle), but I’ve gotten so televisionally-lazy that more often than not I prefer comfort and predictability over innovation , or even just the mostly-unwatched.

This is a failing, as I often do like something new, (Leverage! Yay, Leverage!), but if I’m in any kind of mood at all, I’ma gonna click on a link that takes me to a place I’ve been before.

As with Criminal Minds. I watched the first season or two on t.v., when I had a t.v., and this past year I’ve been watching the current season on CBS.

Well, okay, not wholly watching: I am over watching psychos torture their vics, so I zip through those portions. And the show has gotten more savage over the years, stretching out the screen-time given to crimes; in the early seasons, these are more glimpses than extended scenes.

And it’s not as if I particularly like any of the characters on the show. I don’t hate them, but, as with NCIS, they range from boring to annoying to eye-roll-inducing.

So why watch? Goddess help me, it’s a fucking procedural and fucking procedurals are my televised comfort food. This fall I’ll probably end up watching both that NCIS New Orleans show and CSI Cyber or whatever the hell it’ll be called.

Jesus.

Yes, I should change my diet, but I’ll probably only go as far as occasionally adding something more intellectually nutritious, and will keep mowing down the junk in the meantime.





Stand up for your rights

10 06 2014

All professors hate grading.

Okay, I know, I shouldn’t presume to speak for all professors everywhere, especially since I’m just a punk adjunct and lack the tenure Real Professors™ have, but on this issue, I’m pretty confident that I speak for every professor everywhere ever.*

(*Except for the sadists who see grading as an opportunity to inflict pain, and those who think grading provides an excellent opportunity for students to lea—no, wait, the latter are graduate students and ABDs who’ve yet to have their pedagogy snapped into reality.)

Anyway. I hate grading, and while I try very hard to grade in a thoughtful and conscientious manner, with every paper I pick up I have to fight the impulse to rush through and offer some bullshit “whatever” comment before dashing off the only thing most students care about: the grade.

Except, this summer, this session, I might actually enjoy reading my students’ papers.

Well, maybe “enjoy” is too strong of a word, but it’s possible that it won’t entirely suck.

I’m teaching a course I’ve taught once before—women and politics—but instead of having them write papers anchored in the required readings as I did the last time out, this time they’re writing one short and two longer papers on, yep, a woman in politics.

The first paper is a short bio, pretty much straight-up description. The second paper focuses on the movement or party in which the woman worked, and the third, an analysis of her role in that movement and her/its impact on society.

My students have picked Jeannette Rankin, Ruth First, Yuri Kochiyama, Aun San Suu Kyi, Denise Oliver, and the Mirabel sisters.

Awesome.

Yes, it helps that this is a very small class, but this is a Murderer’s Row lineup.

Well done, students. Well done.





Teacher teacher, can you reach me

30 01 2014

Classes have started again. Thank goddess.

I need the money (of course: I always need the money), but it’s more than that. While I’ve been working at home for the 2nd job, I just get. . . antsy before a new semester. Part of it is worry that my course will be cancelled, but even more so is the sense that my real work is in the classroom, so to be out of the classroom is, even if I have other work, to be out of work. My real work.

It’s taken me too long to get to this point, to know that, yeah, my real work is as a professor. Unfortunately, due to the many bad decisions I’ve made about my career, instead of being snugly ensconced in a nest somewhere in mid-level academia, I’m left to swing from semester to semester, hoping I can grab the next vine of courses just after I let go of this one.

(In 2011 those vines got yanked away a couple of times, and I crashed, hard. I won’t dig out from that financially until next year—if all goes well.)

Can I recover and manage to build some stability into my career? I dunno. You’ve only got so many years post-PhD to slide into the tenure track, and as I am some multiple of years beyond that time, I may have missed my chance(s).

But I don’t want to give it up, either. I enjoy teaching and am pretty good at it, and while I think academic publishing is a scam, I remain capable of solid research.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I am constitutionally unsuited for corporate work? Not that any corporation would have me.

I’ve gone round and round on this before, and have done nothing. Dmf has given me links to the, ah, Brooklyn Institute, I think, and there are plenty of non-CUNY institutions in the NYC area in which I could teach. (CUNY limits the number of courses adjuncts can teach any given semester & over the course of the year, so while I will send my c.v. to the campus closest to me, if I want more work I’ll have to go outside of CUNY.)

So there it is. I’ve finally figured out this is what I can do; now I need to just, y’know, do it.





She blinded me with science

14 12 2013

Quick note/plea: I’m putting together a proposal to teach another 300 general education course (as is the bioethics class), tentatively and excitingly called “Technology & Society”.

I’ve begun putting together a web page to serve as a resource for my would-be students at my course blog; as I am just getting started with this, the page is a bit thin on content. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll wrassle the various possibilities into a (semi-) coherent course, so I’ll be tossing up  links to as wide a variety of sites as possible.

Why do this? As the course will require a couple of honest-to-pete research papers, and as this is the first time many of the students will be writing h2p research papers, I’d like to give them as much of a boost as possible to get going.This isn’t meant to serve as a substitute for their own research, but rather, as leads.

(For comparison’s sake, you could look at the Bioethics articles and Bioethics sites & docs pages.)

Anyway, any help you could offer (in the comments, or via email—absurdist [at] gmx [dot] com) would be greatly appreciated!





Why can’t we be friends

13 10 2013

I’m not friends with my students.

Friendly—yes, but hanging out with them, exchanging casual e-mails and texts, inviting them to read this blog? No.

I’m not opposed to becoming friends with students, but it’s not something I look for, and, pretty clearly, not something my students are looking for. Perhaps had I remained at a more traditional university, one in which the students were not so clearly focused on the vocational aspects of their education, I might have had more students who wanted to hang out and talk theory, which in turn might have led to friendships.

Either way, it’s fine.

I had ignored the Slate article on why befriending one’s students is a bad idea both because I haven’t and, more importantly, I thought it would be a typically bumptious Slate piece in which everything the reader thought she knew about the world is declared wrong.

So tiring, that.

But a piece highlighted by Jonathan Bernstein, in which political science professor Steve Green notes that he regularly shares bits of his life with his students, prompted me to go back and read the Slate piece. It turns out the problem is less with befriending students than with, yes, being open and friendly with them.

When students reported that their instructors engaged in a lot of sharing about their lives—particularly stories about past academic mistakes, even stories designed to stress that everyone has difficulty learning some topics—there is an immediate and negative impact on classroom attitudes. First, the students are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviors. Second, the students are less likely to see their instructors as having credibility, and the declines in instructor credibility are also associated with increases in uncivil behavior.

Slate writer Scott Jaschik notes that the study authors caution that instructor style influences 20 percent of “uncivil behavior” (packing up books early, texting), which means most of this behavior is outside of the control of the prof. Still, 20 percent ain’t beanbag, so if one wants a civil classroom, anything which detracts from credibility might work against that.

I don’t disagree with this. If one wants to establish authority in the classroom (as I most certainly do) without reverting to mere authoritarianism along the lines of “because I said so!” (as I most certainly do not), then establishing that one has the chops to stand in front of student, i.e., demonstrating one’s credibility, is the way to go. The reason you should listen to me is not because I am in charge but because I have the ability to teach you, which means you can learn something from me.

So am I wrong in thinking that telling my students, most of whom are first-generation college students from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds that I was a first-generation college student from a working-/lower-middle class background is a kind of encouragement to them? Am I demonstrating an ability to speak across apparent boundaries or am I, in transgressing those boundaries, reducing my credibility?

As Steve Greene notes, “Sharing about your personal life and sharing things that make you seen less competent are entirely different kettles of fish.” There’s also the question of whether sharing how you messed up, academically or pedagogically and then sorted it out demonstrates incompetence or competence.

Oh, and there’s the rather significant issue of the connection between uncivil behavior and learning. I have no problem believing that a student who’s texting isn’t paying attention, but is the student who isn’t texting paying attention? As for packing up books, well, that’s may be less about incivility than about needing to get to a class across campus and wanting to hit the bathroom/snack shop before that next class.

I want to be an effective teacher in a way which makes sense to me, so as a generally casual person an über-formal approach probably won’t work. I also know that the students aren’t there to learn all about me but all about the subject I’m teaching, so any storytelling ought to be minimized and only used to illustrate a pedagogical point.

Yeah, openness about oneself can go too far in terms of self-indulgence or indiscretion, but insofar as I take an open approach toward knowledge about the world, that I think that open approach is the best approach, I am skeptical that an appropriate openness with the students will cause their minds to snap shut.

When I tell my students on the first day that I don’t take myself too seriously (which is almost true) but I do take the work seriously (which is really true), I recognize that I may be sanding away some of my own authority in a way which dulls my own credibility, and thus may increase their skepticism of me.

That’s not such a bad thing: let them question me, which gives me the chance, in responding to them, to demonstrate that I do know what I’m doing, and that they might just want to follow along, to see what comes next.





Doctor, doctor, give me the news

13 09 2013

I am a doctor.

It’s not a title I use very often: in civilian matters, I stick with Ms. Beats, but in some professional situations, wherein everyone else is using “doctor”, I go with it.

I’ve earned it.

(You want to set me off? Tell me that as a Ph.D. I’m not a “real” doctor, by which you presumably mean a medical doctor. Medical doctors—who fully deserve use of the title—nonetheless are not required to write a dissertation, the traditional marker of the doctorate. And yes, I’m irked by the granting of honorary doctorates, too.)

Anyway, the O’Bagy kerfuffle got me to reflectin’ on the use of the title in my classroom. In the course of introducing myself to my students, I note that they may call me “Doctor Beats, Professor Beats, or Absurd.” Most of them just go with the generic “professor”, and a few are comfortable addressing me by my first name, each of which suits me just fine.

I have noticed, however, that the younger the students are, the more likely they’re to use “doctor”. One of the classes I teach consists of bright Bronx high school students, brought on to campus to take college course, and they invariably refer to me as Doctor Beats—not Professor Beats, and not the generic “professor”.

(I should note that I don’t offer the youngsters the option of addressing me by my first name. I learned the hard way that my usually-casual approach to authority doesn’t fly with high schoolers. Gotta draw the line but thick.)

Why the preference for “doctor”? I thought back to my first days in a college classroom, and remembered how impressed I was that I was being taught by people with Ph.D.s. One of my high school English teachers had been enrolled in a Ph.D. program (which she’s long since completed), and I took courses at the local college center, so it wasn’t as if I’d had no exposure to really smart and credentialed teachers; still, I was awed, and on those occasions when I’d approach them, I’d make sure to use the term “doctor” to signal my great respect.

Second note: I got over this, not least because a few of those professors were not so awesome, but also because it became clear that the convention was to refer to them as “professor”, and some explicitly stated that did NOT want to be referred to as “doctor”.

It seemed a bit of a loss to me to not be able to call them doctors, as if they were downgrading their importance and, in so doing, downgrading the importance of the students in their classrooms.

And I think this is why those young students like to call me doctor: it’s not about me so much as it the sense of importance they get from being taught by someone with a Ph.D. Yes, as I did, they want to demonstrate respect, but more importantly, in using the title they get a kind of status-boost, or, perhaps more accurately, a kind of validation of their own worth as students.

That their professor has a Ph.D. signals that they’re in a real college classroom, and referring to me as “doctor” both indicates their respect for that fact and, perhaps, reinforces a sense that they truly do belong.








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