Category Archives: Teachers

Alien

My mood is like the stock market these days. It goes from bad to worse and then back up to bad followed by worse. I don’t think I will ever reach 1400 again—not that I mood wise was ever up to 1400. I will die before we reach 1400 again. And that thought does do anything for my mood.
I have a hard time answering when people make the mistake of asking me how I am. I avoid the awkwardness of this question by hardly seeing anybody except my students and for some reason students never ask a teacher how he or she is.
Today, I tried to tell my students how I was. That was a mistake.
I was tired at 12:30 and the temperature was over 80 in that classroom. (At this moment, as I sit here typing, I am told by my computer that it is 90 degrees. How does that happen in October?) So I am tired what with it being 80 degrees and I have just come from my office, where, for some reason, unknown to me, the heater is on. I swear it is sweltering in that office. So I open the window and turn on my little fan. I have told people several times about my office over-heating, but as far as I can tell nobody has done a thing about it. I am afraid to ask again because deep down I am sure, in my paranoid self, that I am somehow responsible for the fact that my office over-heating.
So I try to tell the class that I am tired. I tell them that I feel as if one of those aliens from Alien has attached itself to my brainstem. It’s rather fuzzy-wuzzy not particular mean alien but it is putting me to sleep. I ask if they have ever wondered why in Alien the alien jumps out of the chest, while in Alien 3 (the worst of the Aliens) the thing seems wrapped around Signorey Weaver’s brain stem. Or does it start at the brain stem and move down to the chest.
And I look out at the class and they appear stony faced and dumbfounded. Perhaps a teacher is not supposed to say he is tired. I have felt that teaching is a good deal like lion taming. One should never show fear. And while saying one is tired is not showing fear, it does show weakness.
Then I ask, you have seen Alien? And from what I can tell almost nobody in the class has seen Alien. Maybe they are just messing with me. Surely somebody has seen Alien in that room, but if so, nobody is admitting it. Jennipher, I ask directly, have you seen Alien. No she says.
So now I am stony faced and dumbfounded. How the hell has anybody living in the 21st century failed America to see Alien. One of the all time great American movies and absolutely seminal in its development of the female action hero (or heroine). Maybe they aren’t messing with my mind. A few years back I asked how many people had seen Godfather and two thirds of the class said they hadn’t.
My day is done. I am increasingly passé, if that is possible.

Old Books

I have spent the better part of the last two days going over research proposals for my research paper writing class. 

Last week I had them bring in samples of their research, parts of articles they had found on the web, or through the library data base.  Somebody wrote me an email:  Is a book alright?  For God’s sake, yes, I wrote back.

I drifted around between the groups as they exchanged information on their possible research topics.  I stopped when I heard one young woman talking.  She was holding a book in her hand.  An old library book, I could tell, by its thick cover, the kind they used to put on books back in the day to protect them forever. 

The young lady was saying, she had been in the library looking for something and found this book.  She took it down from the shelf because she had seen it mentioned in something else she had been reading related to her research topic.  And she opened it up, she said, and the pages were all yellow with age, and the print was faded, and if you held it up to your nose the book smelled moldy.

She opened the book, as she was sitting there, to show the yellow pages, and the faded lettering, and she started reading she said, and it was like the book had been written yesterday, though really it had been written in 18 something or other.  Way back when.

What was the book, I asked.  By some guy, she said, and said his name wrong.  Thorstein Veblen.  “The Theory of the Leisure Class.”  All about conspicuous consumption.  And he wrote about “predatory capitalism too,” she said.

Just yesterday, she said, looking a little bemused and amused at once.

A great book, I said, and would have said more but stopped because I have been feeling really vulnerable lately and didn’t want to make like an idiot of myself.  Because I was touched.  Somebody, in one of my classes, had actually opened an old book (maybe for the first time)—one all yellow and moldy—and read something that seemed as if it could have been written yesterday.  So perhaps all haphazardly, by way, one might say, of collateral benefit, my writing class contributed to somebody’s real education—by affording that person a moment of historical awareness, of seeing that all that is so pressed up against our faces, and so much now, is not really all that new and that where one is now and where one might be later are part of, extensions and extrapolations of things, long in motion.

I can remember that feeling from back in high school when I started haunting the public library, and opening an old book, and thinking, Damn but this is news!  How come it isn’t on the front page?

Student Evaluations

Every quarter in the last week of classes, I get this email saying come pick up your student evaluations. This term “student evaluations”—come to think of it—is sort of misleading since it would seem to imply that students are the ones being evaluated.  But, no, student evaluations are actually evaluations by the students of their teacher.  So they should be called “teacher evaluation” since that’s what they really are. 

 Where I work, these come in two forms: statistical and narrative.  In the narratives, students are supposed to write something about the class, the teacher, and the content of the course. I don’t know why these are called “narratives” since students never write anything approximating a narrative.  They just state an opinion or make an observation or two.

As regards the statistical part, students fill out a scant Ron sheet with two questions on it:

Rank the Instructor

Rank the Course

As accordingly:

Excellent

Very Good

Good

Fair

Poor

Next quarter I will get an email saying the results of your statistical scores are in your mailbox.  So I will go over there and find these sheets with numbers on them; the little black marks that students have put down have been digitized, I guess one would say, and turned into numbers that tell me whether I have scored at the average for all of the sections of the courses I taught or above the average and by how much or below the average and by how much.

I have been getting these “scores” for over 30 years and they still freak me out every time I have to go over to the mailroom and look at them.  The whole business seems vaguely dehumanizing.  Like that bathing beauty contest in the Miss America Pageant, or as if somebody has put me into the American Idol Contest.  And I sure wouldn’t want to be in that contest.  It’s not about who wins but all the people who are humiliated in the process of proclaiming as the winner the person who has been least humiliated.

I am embarrassed and ashamed that I even care about these damn numbers.  Even when they are good numbers I am not really happy; I just heave a sign of relief—well, that’s over for now.  Anyway, I handed out those forms this week and the students filled them out and stuck them in a big yellow envelope, and now the office then and next quarter I will get his email saying the scores are in my box.  And I will feel humiliated all over again, because, you know, it is humiliating.

 

Last Day of Class

All of a sudden it’s 74 degrees.  The rise in temperature, along with the change in the clock, which has completely screwed up my body clock, has reduced me to a tepid pool of inertia.  My brain is a puddle, a dark back water for whatever the hell is going on in my unconscious these days.
 

Part of whatever that is has to do with the end of classes.  I am no good at closure.  Closure?  What the hell is that?  I mean at the end of my classes I feel sort of sad and depleted.  After all I have been meeting with these people in my classes for ten weeks; I have had email exchanges with many no matter how mundane or trivial, and some not so mundane and trivial, but about deaths in the family and suing doctors for malpractice or having to go to court themselves for various reasons, or becoming deathly ill and throwing up all night, or getting the pink eye, or having their computer suddenly die and go blue screen—with all their work disappearing into some digital void.  So I have come to know these people a little bit—and then the last day of class comes around, they go out the door to wherever it is they might be going, and I am not likely to hear from them again.

 Ever.  Except if they want something, like a letter of recommendation.

It’s like a post-partum depression or something without knowing what I have delivered or if I have managed to deliver anything at all.  So I keep trying to think of ways that might round the whole class out and bring it to a sense of completion.  Some people bring cookies to that last day of class or something.  But I am not that kind of person, a here’s a cookie person.  Anyway I couldn’t in good conscience hand out sugar.  If I drank myself, I would be more like, a “here’s a stiff drink person,” a “here’s looking at you, kid” sort of person as you go off into the crap that is going to befall you, because in your twenties, and let me tell you, the crap will just rain down.

I won’t see any of them again.  I am a writing teacher—; it’s not like I am a professor in their major or anything.  They have to work like hell to arrange another class with me and even then I am not going to get ten years down the line any emails or snail mail thanking me for like having totally changed their lives.  I mean what the hell—I make them write papers.  It’s not like I am teaching Zen Buddhism or something that might lift the veil of illusion from their eyes and show them the light.

I am left with loose ends and dead ends.

God bless’em each and every one.

But it’s hard!

I had to do some paper work on campus, and was feeling so bad about my teaching that I stopped colleagues and said, I was feeling bad about my teaching lately and wondered how they were doing—and almost universally people seemed to feel they were pushing rocks up a hill.  Sure one class—perhaps was going OK—but the other one or two just sucked.  People are really having trouble with our Writing 50, a research paper writing course; many of the students in these classes are already juniors and seniors and have written many research papers and so don’t quite get the point of taking a class on how to write them.

So we have this bureaucratic pipeline mess with a backlog of students taking a course they should have taken as sophomores.   But they couldn’t get in it went they first tried.  And additionally people reported that they were just having trouble getting students to do anything.  Exercises that usually work hang-fire.  Jokes that universally kill prove duds….and of course students don’t seem to know how to read.

I talked a mile a minute in one class the other day throwing out examples, talking them through the ideas under consideration, and they were supposed to have brought a page or two of writing, but 50% hadn’t.  But I broke them into groups to have them discuss possible topics, and went from group to group.  And two people in one group said they had no idea what to write about.  So I talked and talked and said to one, look you just mentioned an example that might fit with the idea of social self and the true self.  And she said, but that’s just one example, and you said we are to try to write about only one example.  Why not two examples, she said, can’t I use two examples,  and I said, well, you did that in your last paper, and the point of the second example was the same as the point of the first, so what was the point of the second.  The point, the point really is to write an organized paper that lasts from four to five pages and you can do that with one example.

And then as I talked the student said, But it’s hard.  It’s hard!

What could I say?  I didn’t know what to say.  It’s the ninth week of the quarter; I have said everything I had to say.  I am at a loss for words.  Why, of course, it’s hard.  I said that the first day of class: what I will ask you to do in this class is hard.  You will develop your own topics; you will organize your own thoughts.  I will supply the context for doing so.  I understand this is not something you are used to doing; that’s one reason, as you will find, that I am not a hard grader.  If you are trying this for the first time—as is more than likely the case—you may mess up a little.

But the student said, It’s hard.  It’s hard.

Well, it ain’t supposed to be easy.  It ain’t a matter of filling in the damn blanks or repeating what the teacher says.  If that is education today: then the whole thing is a stinking sham.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Here’s "Fool for You" again.  This time with drums by Austin Beebe, whose day job is working with his father on an abalone farm 

 

Digital Students

Back in the good old days—hard even to remember—when you got students in the classroom they were pretty much prisoners.  For the hour and an half or so that you had them—as a teacher—they had no contact with the outside world.  Back then the rooms in which I taught had those old fashioned clocks on the wall.  I don’t know what happened.  They just disappeared at some point.

Now all the students have cell phones, so they can check the time on those accurate by satellite to the atomic minute, I guess.  They also have palm pilots and Ipods or other listening devices.  They also bring laptop computers.  They are hardly prisoners now; they can access the “outside world” at least in digital form pretty easily.  I, the teacher, am still analog. 

They hold those things in their hands.  I don’t know what they are doing with them.  The guy over there with his laptop open could be watching porn or the Simpsons over the internet for all I know.  Or who knows, they could be listening on their Ipods to a lecture they missed that morning because many professors are now posting their lectures to sites that can be downloaded with an Ipod. Most of the time, the students are pretty polite with these things.  The phones hardly ever go off anymore.

But my 3 o’clock class isn’t always so polite.  Over in the left hand corner of the room—way away from me—a group of students have collected in the back.  These pull out their devices—whatever the heck they are–quite a bit in class, sometimes while I am talking.  What am I supposed to do?  Well, I use common tactics.  If they are in groups and using their devices, I walk over to the group and usually they see me coming and stop using their devices.  Or I will call on a person using a device and ask them a question.  That usually leads also to the end of device usage for a while.

I have to say device usage while I am talking tends to irritate me.  But I have gotten sort of used to being ignored over the years.  I got over my issues with the sleeping student years ago, clear back in the 80’s.  One woman starting falling asleep; she was a pretty good student and also on the rowing team.  So she would be up at like 5 in the morning to go up to this big lake back behind the hills and row her ass off for like three hours. 

So one day when she was going off to sleep and even snorting a little bit in a sort of pre-snore way, I went over to her and said, without anger (somehow I managed that), that she needed rest that trying to sleep in a classroom would not really be restorative, and that she should go to her dorm room and take a nap.  She said she was fine, and that she didn’t live in the dorm. After that she never went to sleep in class.  Of course, she missed a few classes, maybe to take a nap in her overpriced apartment in IV.

In any case, one of the young women in the device using corner is quite egregiously using her device while I am talking, and I say, with amazing tranquility, “Rochelle.  What you are doing there; well that’s just fine.  But please don’t let me see you doing it, ok?  Because when I happen to notice it—and I notice about everything—it disturbs the flow of my consciousness and sometimes I forget what I am trying to say.”  And then she, with no sign of embarrassment, puts away her device, and what do you know pulls the Ipod plugs out of her ears—which I didn’t even know were there, because they were hidden by her hair.

And the rest of the time, I don’t remember seeing a single student using his or her device. 

Outside the Gates of Eden

I saw my shrink.  She’s like 84 or something like that, and I told her about my students who said they didn’t want to get old and all wrinkly.  And we are both sitting there looking pretty wrinkly, but she is more wrinkly than me.  She said perhaps I should ask my students what they think or feel about getting old.  I said, yea, maybe I could do that, but I sort of doubted that they knew or would be able to offer any explanations for their thoughts and feelings.

As usual I was projecting.  I realize that had some teacher bothered to ask me that question when I was back in college that I wouldn’t have had much to say (and so assume that my students wouldn’t have much to say).  Back in college I didn’t think about getting old at all.  True, I thought about dying nearly every day.  But that could happen at any time, the way I saw it.  Getting old was not a pre-requisite for dying.  So had I been asked, I might have said something like, “Getting old?  Hell, it happens.”

So I said to my shrink, I didn’t think about getting old because I was mostly interested in just surviving.  Getting from one day to the next and not somehow screwing up completely, or dropping dead in the middle of the whole thing. And she said that had been true of her also.  She spent her high school years studying to be a concert level pianist in the middle of the Nazi Occupation of Paris.  She had plenty to think about besides getting old.  The future was uncertain.  Getting old might happen or maybe not.

So I started thinking again about what my students had said.  With a special emphasis upon getting all baggy and wrinkly.  The young woman who didn’t want to get old was an attractive young woman.  So maybe that’s what she meant.  Getting old means becoming unattractive.  So perhaps for this young woman and the others that seemed to know what she was saying being attractive was a central part of their identities.  Probably she works at being attractive.  It takes time and effort.  So perhaps—still speculating—her self-concept centers on the very idea of being young.

We live—or so I have read—in a youth oriented culture.  The culture celebrates youth and accordingly the young feel celebrated.  The other night I was watching TV and the anchor woman for the local news I swear didn’t look more than 23.  And of course she was attractive.  So getting old means losing in effect a source of power—a way of being the center of attention—simply because one is young and attractive.

The stuff I had students read from Erikson was written back in 1968.  He wrote partly in response to the big youth boom of that time, the baby-boomers hitting the market.  Certainly, though, the youth culture and the ideal of youthful appearance have intensified since that time.  Still, what he had to say back then fits with now.  Any step “forward” in development means losing something (as well as gaining something).  He writes of the step from childhood to adolescence almost as if it equaled being kicked out of Eden.

So the step into college for some young people might mean psychologically being kicked out of the Eden of Youth.  In fact, one student spoke of college almost as if it were the end of the road.

The Identity Crisis Continued

I don’t know.  Maybe Sunday night I checked my blogs to see what my students had written about the identity crisis thing we have been reading and talking about.  And I just freaked out because what I saw there was pretty awful, like no comprehension of the topic and poorly written too.  I felt really upset: frustrated and rejected.  I mean teaching this stuff is new and I wanted it to work.

But I got up the next day and wrote even more on the assignment pages for the classes about the ID crisis, and hit the ground running in the classes trying to turn the situation around if possible.  Don’t know if I did or not.

I said stuff like, “In your previous blogs on you as students nearly everybody reported stress.  Stress, stress, stress.  Now where is this stress coming from?”  And I went on to talk about how going to college could be part of an ID crisis.  As Erikson says it’s a developmental step that brings with it a sense of increased vulnerability AND a sense of increased potential.  The ID crisis is not a bad thing.  Call it a growing pain.

I brought up the issue of a major and picking one.  Quite a few students in my classes are still undeclared.  So going away to college—and I stressed the away part—as a movement from parents towards autonomy (standing on your own two legs) brings with it, on one leg, increased vulnerability (now you have to decide), and that, on the other leg, goes along with increased potential (multiple roles lying ahead that were not there before); so part of the stress I tried to say might come (not so much from tests and all that) as tripping over your own feet.

I had them get into groups to read to each other what they had written and then I went around and checked in on the groups to see what they were up to.  I stopped especially with one group that had a young woman in it who had been talking before about troubles picking a major.  She says she has no idea what to do and had been taking “random” classes to try to find out like the Biology of Cancer, and Astronomy, and Art History, and I forget the other but something pretty “random.” 

And I suggested to her that maybe taking all these “random” classes was her way of exploring the possibilities and potentials.  But she didn’t seem to be listening and said, out of nowhere, that the real problem was “I don’t want to get old.”  And another student in an adjacent group, piped up, “Yea, that’s so funny.  I was thinking about that on the way to this class.”  And a guy in the group said something of the same thing.  So I figured this young woman was onto something I hadn’t thought about and said, “Old?  What do you mean by that?”  She said, “Old, you know.  All wrinkly and baggy and old.”

And there I stood, exhausted, with hair falling out on the spot, and all wrinkly and baggy and old.

 

 Speaking of old, Brother Dan sent me a link to a video he put up on U-Tube featuring “Good-Bye Blue Monday,” with Dan playing bass and Kim rhythm and Chris on drums in a converted garage clear back in 1985.  Damn, seeing Dan looking so young makes me feel so old.  I almost started crying.  But, really, check out the video at.

Here’s another link to more recent songs Brother Dan put up on My Space.

Truck on! Musical Tingles.

Death and the Writing Instructor

A while back I wrote an article or essay called “Death and the Writing Instructor,” and since I had written it I sent it off to a journal, but I doubt it will see the light of day because I have seen almost no articles in academic journals on writing with titles like “Death and the Writing Instructor.”

I wrote it to try to explain to myself why teaching has more recently become quite hard for me, and I am thinking about it right now because tomorrow I start up yet another quarter as a Writing Instructor.  This time Winter Quarter, 2008.

My argument—to the extent I had one—was that teaching is a temporal activity, having some how to do with the passage of information and thoughts and ideas of one generation to the next.  It has psychologically something to do with what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called “generativity,” and that has something to do with the psychological need to care for generations that follow your own. 

This is sort of an obvious thing; many parents do seek to set up situations, one way or another, that might help their children out after they are gone.  Think inheritances.  But Erikson takes this out a step further and sees signs of generativity in social institutions, policies and laws established in the present with the primary intent of preparing the ground for future generations.  Right now of course the prime example might be the attempt of organizations and governments to establish policies and to make plans to head off the massive upheavals that might result, for the next generation, from global warming.

So built right into the heart of education—of a certain kind—is the awareness of time or temporality.  The teacher, so to speak, is in the middle of the stream standing on shifting sands.  This is a precarious position I argue and full of potential for anxiety.  For an awareness of the movement of generations necessarily implies awareness, no matter how low down and unconscious, of one’s own location in time and that this time is passing (along with you).

 This may seem a grandiose notion of teaching and education, but it seems to be the one I am stuck with.  And in this position, one might try to fight off the anxiety by just throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Après moi le deluge!”  I mean, who the hell cares, since, if I am lucky, the crap that is coming down will come down after I am gone.  One could develop a whole philosophic position from this, and it would be damn hard to argue against.

That might be the position I am tempted to take.  But paradoxically, if I did so, while it might afford some relief, it would probably also take away the energy or the ideals that have fueled my work as a teacher so far.

Maybe tomorrow when I go back into the classroom I will look inside and figure out where I am, though mostly I will probably be pissed at the inadequate technical resources, taking roll, and having to turn away crashers.

Thank goodness!

2 Frets Down

So I brought some songs along with me to my guitar lesson, and my teacher, Dan, politely informed me that in one song I had used the capo on the guitar (down two frets) and failed to move down two frets when I tried to back the whole thing up with the bass.  Dan agreed that it didn’t sound all that bad; but that’s not the way it’s conventionally done.  I didn’t even think to do it.

Dan also tried to show me how to do a fill (or little bass run) when I move between two chords, say G to C, but I don’t think I really got it at all.  And we listened to a bit of Paul McCarthy on Dear Prudence where he doesn’t hit single notes on the bass behind a G chord say, but plays the G chord scales.  I don’t know how to play the scales.  I don’t think I will ever learn the scales because I refuse to practice.

 This music stuff is really complicated.  I finally figured out how to find a C note on the piano and I can count from there to the other notes if I need to.

I was tired and worn out anyway and came away from this particular lesson feeling particularly stupid and wondering if I have the time left in my life to master any of this stuff.  I still can’t make a decent F chord on the guitar and I have been playing the thing for four years now regularly.  Of course my goal is not to learn the guitar exactly, but to write songs. 

 The last six or so songs have been a bit different.  More solidly constructed.  Dan says everybody now puts up his or her songs on MySpace.  Dylan has a MySpace.  So maybe this summer I will make a project out of getting some of my songs up on a MySpace Space.

I am pushing this music stuff too hard maybe because my shrink seems to feel that if I don’t have something to do should I live to retire that, after retirement, I will so go crazy and shot myself.  Preparing to retire emotionally for retirement is like preparing for a nervous breakdown.

My shrink was in her early 20’s a concert level pianist in France.  She’s 80 something now and still practices 3 hours a day.  For some reason, a while ago, see took to playing Bach; but Bach as I understand it did not write for piano, since they didn’t have pianos in his day.  She was playing Bach transcribed for piano.  But she wants to play him on the organ which is the proper way to play him.  So she made contact with the down town Presbyterian Church where they have a real, huge old organ, with 4 claviers she said.  So she is going to get to play Bach on the organ.  So that’s how she deals with retirement. Though come to think of it, she hasn’t really retired or she would not still be seeing me.

I don’t know what a clavier is really; but I think it’s the name for a keyboard.

One of the guys in the Writing Program reviewed the talk Len and Joanne Podis and I gave at the last College Conference on Composition and Communication for Kiaros (an online thing on writing and the digital age).  He wrote a really sweet review that does get some of the flavor of our talk. It can be found at.