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.





Catch a falling star

11 07 2013

I’m pretty good at riffing, which serves me well in front of the class.

Yeah, I sometimes go off my rails, but if I have to choose in lecture between adherence to a tightly-written script and occasional glances at outlinish notes, I’ma going with the glancing, occasional off-railing be damned.

Sometimes, though—more often than off-railing—my lecture or the conversation with students will take us into questions we’d have never planned to ask and allow us glimpses into a cranny within a subject we hadn’t known was there.

I love it when that happens.

The only downside, however, is that because those questions and glimpses are unscripted, I don’t remember them. Last semester, for example, one of the students in my bioethics class responded so unexpectedly to one of my questions that all I could say at the end of that session was “Wow, I didn’t think that was how the discussion was going to go, but that was really amazing.”

So damned amazing that when I tried to reconstruct it afterwards I forgot the comment that sent us all scrambling after him.

I do try to write down those bits which arise that I think should be handed off to the next semester’s class, but often students will come up to me after class with questions or I’ve got to clear out for the next class or run to catch the train so that by the time I have the time to recall the moment I. . . don’t recall the moment.

I’ve learned to let these fallen recalls go, because a) whatcha gonna do? and b) I know there will be other moments in other classes—some of which I may just catch.

That’s my version of faith, I guess: these moments will come, as long as I let them, these moments will come.





Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto

11 03 2013

It’s a bit of a pickle.

How does one—how do I—create the conditions for a good debate on an issue which I think is not debatable?

This is a 100-level class on contemporary issues—and the students are high school seniors, to boot—so the constraints on debate are different, stricter, than what I’d allow in a 300-or-above-level class. I can trust my experienced students to stretch themselves around and take apart emotionally and ethically tricky issues without worrying that they’ll become undone; I can trust that they’ll use, rather than lose, their minds.

(Of course, not every student bothers to stretch herself, but lack of engagement is, in this context, less problematic than over- or mis-engagement.)

I want the intro-level students to learn about these issues and learn how to think for themselves, but it’s a damnable paradox that I have to structure the hell out of the classes (trans: do a lot of underground thinking on their behalf) in order to enable them to think. I don’t want to steer them; I have to steer them.

So, anyway, specifics: how do I have debate about sexual equality when I don’t think this is debatable?

I’d never have a debate about racial equality in this course, so why a consideration of sexual equality?One response is that sexual equality is a conventionally controversial issue in ways that racial equality is not. Very Serious People (to borrow an epithet from Krugman) are allowed to harrumph on the “natures” of men and women in ways that would be decidedly non-kosher if applied to ethnicity.

It’s a real, live issue, in other words.

Another response is that I did a shitty job in defining the issue as “sexual equality” as opposed to, I dunno, something else. Difference and equality, maybe? Changing sex roles? With either of those approaches, at least, I could find good, solid arguments from a number of different sides, that is, I could encourage debate in ways that don’t insult logic, evidence, or my own (and my students’) humanity.

I did manage to find a few pieces which approach the issue from the difference/equality perspective, so the students leading tomorrow’s class should be okay. Still, it could have been better.

This is what I get for thinking We should talk about this without figuring out ahead of time This is how we should talk about this.





You can’t get no cornmeal made

28 01 2013

Oh lordy, am I lazy.

The less I have to do, the less I get done.

Now, on the one hand: Duh! If I have two things to do I get fewer things done than if I have 8 things to do, but that’s not what I mean.

No, what I mean is: If you give me large amounts of time in which to accomplish a few tasks, I will. . . not accomplish them. This is less of a problem if I owe work to someone else, but if it’s just for me? Mmmm, no.

Classes begin this week, and while, yes, I have completed my syllabus for my bioethics class (updated, shifted a bit), I haven’t yet bothered to print it out, or to get my shit together for tomorrow.

Hey, that’s what the morning’s for.

And my other class, well, that one doesn’t begin until next week, so hey, I got a whole week to overhaul (as opposed merely to updating) the thing.

Deadlines, man, I need deadlines. Gimme a deadline and I’ll git ‘er done. No deadline, no dice.

Oh, to be self-starting and self-disciplined. . . !





Don’t forget your books

16 01 2013

Yes, I am going to comment on David Brooks’s syllabus and no, I am not going to make fun of it.

Easy stuff first: attendance and participation–20%; two 2500-word essays, 40% each. That’s not far from my 300-level bioethics course: 20% A&P, 20% science quiz, two research papers, ~2500 words, 30% each.

No, what caught my eye was the reading list: Look at all of those books!

General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

I’d rather have the students read Pericles (via, say, Thucydides—and hey, let’s toss in the Melian dialogue while we’re at it) than read about Pericles—ditto Augustine and Montaigne—but if the Kagan, Brown, and Bakewell books include large chunks of these thinkers’ words, it’s defensible.

I like the Dorothy Day (of course), think de Tocqueville would have been better than Burke (and, perhaps, Niehbuhr), and while I have the Kahnemann book on my to-read list, I wonder what he’ll do with it. Berlin, eh, but perhaps fitting.

I also think  “The Character Course” would be a better title than “The Humility Course”—I think a fair amount of the snark is due to the title itself (the other part, of course, due to Brooks himself)—but it’s the content that matters, and, again, the content is defensible.

That’s not a major endorsement, of course, but its minimalism isn’t meant as a slam. It’s hard to put together a syllabus, especially the first time, and what’s on the page and what’s in the classroom are not always in sync. And that were I to teach a course on, say, political character, I’d probably keep Pericles (and the Melians) and Augustine and Day, add Plato and Machiavelli (of course), perhaps Voltaire, probably something from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, focusing on ethos and self-care. Something from Mandela. Portions of the Nixon tapes, perhaps. Some James Baldwin.

At least, that’s what I’d like to offer; I wouldn’t actually be able to do so: There is no way I could assign that many texts. My previous chair actively discouraged me from assigning too much reading (too much for a 200-level course: more than 25-50 pages a week), although the current chair might not have a problem with my overloading 300-level students.

More to the point, the students wouldn’t do the reading. I got my 100-level American government students to read the text by assigning near-weekly quizzes, and by requiring them to pull from the supplemental book (journalistic essays) for their take-home mid-terms. I’m wondering how to get my 100-level contemporary issues students to read their short-short pieces before class, and am tentatively planning to require them to hand in a brief summary of the readings before each and every class.

In other words, if they’re not being graded directly on the readings themselves, they will not do them.

I recognize this with my bioethics class, and while there is a fair amount of reading on the syllabus, I’d bet that more than half the class doesn’t bother to do all of the reading. Why would they? No final exam.

Given that, I’ve concentrated less on the answers the various authors provide and more on the questions. They won’t remember the readings, may not need most of them for their papers, so if I want them to get anything out of the class, I have to find something that will stick to the roofs of their minds.

(Another image I’ve used? Questions-as-earwigs.)

I ask them questions, I poke their answers, turn them around and push ‘em right back at ‘em. Oh, you think this is settled? Well then, what about that? What, you say that that has nothing to do with this? What about p, q, r? If you approve of red, why not orange? On what basis do you disapprove of triangles?

I can do this because these kinds of troubles are inherent in the material itself; when I half-joke that I aim to trouble you, it’s less about what I come up with sui generis than what I can point to in the rumpled textures of, say, enhancement technologies. Having ranged over this ground for some years, I’ve become, to switch metaphors, pretty good at kicking up the artifacts half-buried in the dirt—and showing them how to do so, as well.

It’s be great if my students would read everything that I assign because they truly want to learn everything they can about the subject, but that ain’t gonna happen.

So I work around that, and try to get them to care enough to learn, anyway.





I can see you in the morning when you go to school

18 12 2012

Have I mentioned recently my. . . delight? satisfaction? relief—yes, let’s go with relief—that I live in New York City?

That’s because I don’t have to worry about my governor or mayor suggesting that teachers lock-and-load prior to entering the classroom.

Is it really any surprise that Texas Governor Rick Perry or Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell muses that the appropriate response to gun violence on school ground would be to increase the number of guns on those same school grounds?

Didn’t think so.

Cienna Madrid at The Stranger posted this response from a schoolteacher friend to similar musings:

Kids steal anything that isn’t nailed down in my classroom. In this school year alone, I’ve “lost”: 2 staplers, 12 whiteboard markers, 1 globe, 1 map, 1 copy of The Color Purple, 3 boxes of staples, countless pens and pencils, an apple, my deskplate, and a years’ supply of tacks. If I yawned long enough, these kids would pluck the fillings right out of my mouth and this guy thinks I should have a GUN in the CLASSROOM? Where the fuck would I securely keep a gun? Because I’m sure as shit not packing one on my person. and even if teachers are allowed to carry guns, then what? We’re all supposed to take marksmanship classes to learn how to shoot the damn things? How is this anything but a cheap way of turning teachers into unsworn police officers?

No. No. No. Teachers teach. Police officers police. And legislators are supposed to legislate. Maybe instead of trying to add to the burden of my jobs, legislators should take a crack at doing theirs.

I’m not worried about my students—who are not kids—stealing from me, but I”m right there on the whole “teachers teach” bit: that’s what we do, that’s the whole point of us.

Imma gonna go out on a limb here and speculate that those who want teachers to pack heat probably don’t, really, respect us.  As commenter Sly at Lawyers, Guns & Money pointed out,

According to conservative orthodoxy, I’m a parasite on the public’s dime who is only interested in indoctrinating the precious children of America into communism or atheism or whatever. I can’t be trusted to have any control over the curriculum I teach. I can’t be trusted to fairly and impartially evaluate my students, let alone my colleagues. I can’t be trusted to have collective bargaining rights. I can’t be trusted to have an objective view of governmental policy when it comes to my own profession.

But they’ll trust me to keep a gun in a room filled with children.

Allow me to add to the rant by noting that not only do they not respect teachers, they don’t respect what we do. Maybe they don’t respect us because they don’t respect teaching, maybe they don’t respect teaching because it’s performed by, y’know, teachers—but whatever the arrows of causality, they don’t bother to understand the first goddamned thing about teaching.

And what is that first goddamned thing? Teaching is work. It’s fucking hard work to try to do well and, on some days, just to not do it poorly.

I just finished the last session of a course which had kicked my ass all semester. It was the first time I taught this course, and as often happens with a new course, all of those things which seemed like good ideas while preparing the syllabus turn out to be bad or unworkable ideas as the semester progressed. About halfway through it became clear that things were falling apart, and about two-thirds of the way through I’d figured out how I could improve things for next semester, but in the meantime I had to try to salvage what I could so that the class wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Do you know what it’s like to know that you’re failing—that you’ve failed–but the best you can do is to try to prevent the failure from bursting into flames and immolating what few nuggets you did manage to pass along? Yeah, it sucks.

I’m actually pretty fortunate in that most of the time, I’m jazzed rather than drained by what happens in the classroom, but either way, it’s work. I think about and prepare and rethink and revise and prepare some more, all so that my students can get something out of the course, which in turn means that I can get something out of teaching them.

But hey, if what I do doesn’t matter, then all of that time spent pretending as if it does could better be spent at the firing range doing the real work of shredding paper targets or at SWAT camp learning how to somersault through a hail of bullets and turn up rightside firing at my attacker(s).

I’m a teacher, not a ninja, and that should be enough.








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