I can no longer shop happily

12 08 2020

Cancer requires stuff.

If you’re getting chemo, then there’s a good chance that you’ll need something for your head: wigs, scarves, hats—something to cover you and keep you warm.

Happily, I will not be getting chemo, but my particular surgery and the radiation has required me to buy:

  • sports bras (aka cheap compression bras): to keep the girls in place
  • saltines & ginger ale: to deal with post-surgical nausea
  • Aquafor: to deal with the “skin irritation” (aka burns) from the radiation
  • hydrocortisone cream: to deal with the “skin irritation” (aka itching) from the radiation
  • cheap undershirts: to protect my clothes from the Aquafor and hydrocortisone cream
  • aluminum-free deodorant: presumably to somehow not mess with the radiation
  • fragrance-free soap: presumably to avoid further skin irritation
  • cloth masks with filter inserts: Strictly speaking, this is more about the corona virus than the cancer, but since I’ll be commuting into Manhattan every day for four weeks to get zapped, I wanted something that would be both more environmentally-friendly and more effective than surgical masks. (The clinic will still give me a surgical mask to wear instead of my cloth one, but that’s on them.)

My radiation oncologist also suggested I use ratty old bras, since “you’re not getting them clean” after all of the creams; since I already have those, however, that’s not a required buy.

Again, had I needed chemo, I’d probably have had to buy even more stuff, to deal with the nausea (for the tummy) and the effects of nausea (for the throat and mouth), and things I haven’t even considered, and won’t consider, because, honestly, I don’t have to, and this is already enough.

So, yes, I am learning *so much* from this cancer; I would have preferred to have remained ignorant.





Nevermind

8 03 2014

I wrote a terrible post yesterday: it veered off at the outset and I never quite wrangled it back in line.

Usually when that I happens I think Ah, what the hell and post it anyway. This time, I didn’t.

I’m learning. Slowly, but I’m learning.

Do allow me to lift the one thing that was good from that spiked post—and it was only good because it wasn’t mine:

I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.

-Elizabeth I





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.





I have no opinion about that

4 09 2011

Riddle me this how do we decide how much info/understanding should we have about a topic before we feel justified in having an opinion that is more than a gut hunch? —dmf

I once introduced myself to colleague as someone who “has lunch and opinions”, so I can’t say that it ever occurred to me that I needed to justify the having of an opinion. As far back as I can remember, I have had opinions about something or another, from the superiority of homemade jello pops over store-bought popsicles to the belief that swimming was the summer activity, to the obviousness that racism was stupid and girls were equal to boys, and on and on about cars and music and food and friendship and clothes and alcohol and sex and money and liberty and justice for all.

No, for me, the corker was justifying not having an opinion.

I do, in fact, now qualify my opinions in ways I didn’t when younger, and I do justify not having opinions about a whole range of topics, based on 1) lack of information and 2) lack of interest. “Don’t know/don’t care” is a pretty damned effective gate to conversations which would otherwise drive me off a cliff.

Still, I don’t regret my previous opinion libertinism, and I don’t begrudge anyone else their expressive needs. I learned a lot in spouting off, both in how to put together an argument and in prompting others to take issue with me. I hate hate hate to be wrong, but I hate even more the persistence of error. I could—and can—also be sloppy in my pronunciamentos, so getting smacked (or wanting to avoid getting smacked) for spilling too many words has forced me to steady my tongue.

(There’s the additional question of credentialism and the desire not to want to make a fool of oneself in front of one’s colleagues which may lead to a crippling reticence, i.e., in not challenging a majority view for fear that the mere expression of a minority opinion marks one as untrustworthy—but that’s a separate issue.)

Given my own history, then, I’m more likely to indulge than shut down opinionists, especially if they’re willing to go back and forth on an issue. Shooting the shit can be an highly enjoyable way of passing the time.

What I do narrow my eyes at are those who state their opinions as fact and who substitute their subjective experiences for objective certainty. That you have a right to an opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to trump all other opinions. Oh, and shouting doesn’t make you right. (*Full disclosure: I have shouted. More than once.)

So anyone can have any opinion about anything. If, however, you want that opinion to have any weight with anyone else, you gotta do the work—the (self-)education, the reflection, the reasoning—to convince them. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones got it right when she admonished: Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict.

Educate yourself. Quite so.





We don’t need no education

24 05 2011

Pretty much says it all:

Tests for Pupils, But the Grades Go to Teachers

By SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: May 23, 2011

New York City education officials are developing more than a dozen new standardized tests, but in a sign of the times, their main purpose will be to grade teachers, not the students who take them.

New York Times





Everything! Everything! Everything!

25 05 2010

Blows my mind how little I know. That is most excellent.

I’m not kidding: However much I wish I knew, mm, everything, that there is so much more out there to discover keeps me keepin’ on.

Consider my medieval Euro-history project: I recently finished Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind (which is about the transition from the pagan to the Christian era), and man! what a jumble early Christian history is!

I did know that it took awhile for Christianity to gel as an institutional movement, but thought that after the Council of Nicaea in 325 everything was all sewn up until the Great Schism of 1054, and even then, it wasn’t until Luther and Calvin that the [western] Christian fabric was truly rent.

Only I didn’t know what the Council of Nicaea actually accomplished (something to do with the Trinity, maybe? And that Nicene Creed, right?), didn’t know that very little was settled at Nicaea, that the splits between the Eastern and Western churches were evident within a century of Christ’s death, and never knew, frankly, how the Copts fit into all this.

Well.

I still don’t know, frankly, but slowly, slowly, this is all seeping in.

This is how I learn something new.

My approach  is to read promiscuously, trusting that with enough exposure I’ll be able to piece together a particular phenomenon. And I don’t need to dive into deep scholarship at the outset either; solid popular books (like Freeman’s) give me the chance to train my sights, as well as offer a decent bib I can crib. I do prefer that what I read be, you know, good, but even the junk can sometimes be useful, if only as a kind of astringent for my thoughts.

Anyway, that’s how this political theorist began her work with genetics: Snatching every book with the word ‘gene’ in the title and gulping them down, then more slowly working my way toward what, for my purposes, were the most important (or delectable, to continue the metaphor) platters on the table.

I’m still in the gorge phase of my research, slurping up commentary on how orthodoxy was invented and how intertwined it all was with empire; how faith, political power, and obedience to god and man never quite fit together; how misogyny was built into early belief; how anti-Judaism became anti-semitism; and how time itself was changed.

And that’s just the beginning.

A colleague asked where I was going with all of this. I don’t know, I told him. I know there’s something there, but I don’t yet know what it is.

Now that, my friends, is one of the best feelings in the world.





Be like Johnnie too good, well don’t you know he never shirks

16 12 2009

Hate grading. Hate hate hate grading.

It’s not just the labor of it—tho’ it is also the labor of it—so much as the pointlessness of the process.

Identify this, define that, explain how this fits with that. . . oh my god, I’m falling asleep already. But don’t worry, I’ll rouse myself with coffee or beer (what the hell) and read every fucking word written before scribbling a number which just might bear some relationship to the worth of that collection of words.

Dot i’s, cross t’s, jump hoops, student and teacher alike. You get a grade, I get a paycheck.

So why bother with grading at all? Well, there’s that matter of the student needing a grade and my desire for that paycheck.

Practicalities, in other words.

Please don’t think that, if I had my druthers, I’d abandon all work requirements for the students. If you are not a prodigy or genius and you want to learn, you have to work. (And if you are a prodigy or genius and you want to be good, you have to work.)

The problem is that the work required for learning is only approximated by the work required for grading, and often, not even that.

I shape and cut and alter the course requirements, but, in the end, what I grade only partially captures what they learn, and, for that matter, what they haven’t learned.

A big part of the problem, perhaps even the main problem, is that most students don’t much care about learning. They care about grades, yes, performance, at times, but learning? Mm, no.

How do I know this? Besides the dearth of students who visit me during office hours to discuss the material, or who approach me wanting help puzzling through a problem I posed, or who show any energy at all in class or in the written work? Besides the slack look on their faces when I ask them the most basic questions about the material? Besides the utter lack of interest in finding their own way into the material?

Simple: because every once in a while, one of them does learn something, and he or she is overwhelmed—because they don’t expect to learn.

Understand? They don’t expect to learn, so when it does happen—when an insight or a question percolates up and into their consciousness—they are visibly giddy or discombobulated or even scared. I never knew. . . .Is this real. . .  ? How could this be. . . ?

I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had students stand in front of me with their mouths opening and closing  and their eyes wide and darting as they attempt to corral this feeling into words. They are agape in the presence of knowledge.

I let them work their ways through it, tell them they have something real, and that they should do whatever they can to make sense, that I will help them to make sense.

It doesn’t always work. You can see them back down, or let it go, or watch as they’re distracted by other matters.

But even then, with those who seem to have tossed their insights aside, you can see an angle to their thoughts, and you know it’s still in there, somewhere.

There’s no way to capture that, that abashed curiosity, in a grade. On the margins, maybe, but in the main? No.

This is why I hate grading. This is why I love teaching.