Category Archives: Teaching

If it’s not one thing…

Classes started last week.

Both of my sections had 25 or more crashers. All the seats in one class were full and I had a student sitting on the floor by the door.

That had never happened before.

Also, I had a sheaf of emails already received from students asking to be put on the waiting list, with stories of a kind I had not previously heard. One student wrote that unless he could get my class, which he needs to be able to take classes in his major, that his parents were arguing he should not attend at all.

I found it pretty upsetting to have to kick out those 25 crashers in each section. But all the people enrolled in the classes, except one, showed up on that first day.

This is the sort of thing that is bound to happen when classes are cut; and they are being cut all over campus because of the UC Budget Crisis.

Thankfully the authorities had sent an email to all students saying that the problems with classes were not the fault of instructors like me. So nobody got angry with me, at least not directly to my face.

That was the first day of class. The second day of class, they all showed up apparently completely exhausted; this was most true of the 3:30-4:45 section.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The day before classes started the laptop I bought to use as part of my teaching died. I borrowed one of the laptops from the Writing Program, but I don’t know how long I will be allowed to keep it.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Last night before going to bed, I checked the weather on the net. I do that every night. We live right on the fog line and the temp can fluctuate significantly. They said the temp was going down to 51 at night and then I mistakenly clicked another link and found:

…TSUNAMI ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR THE IMMEDIATE COASTAL AREAS OF SOUTHERN AND CENTRAL CALIFORNIA… THIS IS NOT A TSUNAMI WARNING OR TSUNAMI WATCH. REPEAT…THIS IS NOT A TSUNAMI WARNING OR TSUNAMI WATCH. …TSUNAMI ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR THE IMMEDIATE COASTAL AREAS OF SOUTHERN AND CENTRAL CALIFORNIA… THIS IS NOT A TSUNAMI WARNING OR TSUNAMI WATCH. REPEAT…THIS IS NOT A TSUNAMI WARNING OR TSUNAMI WATCH.

I was happy that it was not a tsunami warning or watch, merely an advisory. Still, I went to sleep thinking I might wake to a flooded house. We live less than a mile from the Pacific.

But I am happy to report the downstairs was not flooded when I woke and remains unflooded.

I am exhausted.

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.

Deeply Out of It

I have long tried, as an integral part of my teaching, to learn more about students in their social, cultural particularity.  I have done this partly by noting the differences between us, most especially the inter-generational gap.  Today I felt as if I had fallen more into an inter-generational abyss.

Students are giving their oral reports; and one student is trying to discuss the cell phone and its use among college students.  She wants to investigate the paradox: that while the cell encourages ongoing communication with people one already knows (from clear back in high school for example) it may—by just that fact—inhibit one’s ability to establish new connections with those in the immediate surroundings.

So to get the class engage a bit, she asked some survey questions.  The first one was:  how many people use their cell phone as their alarm clock.  All but three people raised hands in the affirmative.  I didn’t even know the cell phone could be used as an alarm clock?  I was nonplussed.  And to think, there sits that cell right next to the bed, the first thing your average student sees upon waking.

The next question was: how many at this very moment have the phone out where you can see it, right there on the desk.  I hadn’t thought to look till she asked.  Since she was upfront giving the report, I was sitting “with” the students, though more up towards the front.  I couldn’t see the whole room from where I was sitting, but looking off to the right I saw them everywhere..  Right there, usually in the upper right hand corner of desk.  Two thirds of the students raised their hands.  And probably more would have done so had I not been looking.

The student asked me to close my eyes for the next question:  how many students consult their cells during class.  I did as she asked so I don’t know the answer to that one—though I expect it was somewhere in the two thirds area again, maybe higher.

The student asked some other questions too but I have forgotten them.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention.  And again in the discussion that followed many students said they felt very emotionally connected to their cell phones and that when they forgot them at home or misplaced them they felt lost, even anxious.

While the next student set up her oral report—she was having technical problems—the student next to me show me her Iphone.  I have to say that was one impressive phone; you could spend all day poking at that thing—texting friends, or checking the weather, or finding out what happened to Brittany on her big day, or seeing what time it is in Hong Kong.

She could check her email too with that phone, and in a couple of clicks pulled up the email I had sent to the whole class reminding them on what was on tap for that day.

I have to ponder this some more, but for that moment I felt deeply out of it.

Text

According to one study, young people, also called teens, are writing more than ever what with email and text messaging.  Well, they are using letters—I mean to say the characters of the alphabet—to communicate, though some might argue this doesn’t constitute writing, since this form of communication doesn’t lend itself to the complete sentence…Necessarily….

So I talked with my students about this text messaging thing, and learned about something called Blackberry Thumb.  This is where you go to a doctor complaining about an ache in your thumb and he says do you have a Blackberry.  Because at one time the Blackberry had its wheel on the side and people were thumbing that wheel so much they were getting carpel tunnel of the thumb.  So it became known as Blackberry thumb even though most cases of it now arise from thumbing text messages.

Apparently this thumbing is going on all the time all over the place.  I asked one student how many text messages she had received while sitting there in my class.  She acted a little defensive saying she had put her phone away upon entering the class; so I said I was just interested and could she tell me anyway.  So she looked at her phone and said she had received 5 text messages while sitting in my class and one email. From her mother.

So when I was sitting with one group of students discussing topics for their research papers (one person was going to write about text messaging), I asked, how come so much text messaging and not phoning.  Well, first text messaging was silent, so you could pretty much do it anywhere without anybody noticing, as for instance in a large lecture class, or surreptitiously under the desk in my class.  But with phoning, well, you have to talk out loud and people could pretty easily detect a person doing that in lecture or class.

Also they just didn’t like they phone, and why was that I wondered?  Because, one person said, with the phone you have to talk to people.  Naturally, I had some trouble following that line of reasoning, but they explained like with the phone it’s immediate.  If somebody talks on the phone, you have to talk back.  But with text messaging you just send the message, and wait to see if the person texts something back.  And then you can text back if you want to or not, or take the time to think a bit about what to text back or not—and you can do it when you feel like it, unlike the phone which is pretty insistent.

Yea, somebody said, you could have a text message conversation going on all day long with somebody, and you could break up with boy friend that way too, one said—a day long text message break up.  Yeah, that’s right, others nodded knowingly.

So for all I know a goodly number of the students in front of me are engaged in multiple text messaging conversations while I am up there trying to command their attention.  Somebody could be breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend right there in my class right in front of me. 

Now that “text” is a verb, I wonder what its past tense is.  “Texted”?

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. 

Cartman’s Tooth

Funny to think South Park first hit the airways maybe 10 years ago, and at the time, it was oh so gross and completely alternative stuff for the kids.  Turns out, it has a bit of a humanistic heart to it, ca ore set of values, unlike such mainstream fare as Family Guy that aims simply to offend, within the limits of commercial TV, and in its assertion of post-modern “values” is mostly nihilistic.  The Simpsons started this post modern move, in fact advertising the show at one point as post-modernism for the masses.  But however much the show moves in that direction, the family unit—Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and that other kid—remains firmly in place and valued.  Bart for example would never try to kill his mother, as that insane little Stewie did in an episode of Family Guy.

I don’t know that I have ever watched an episode of South Park from beginning to end.  Maybe I did watch all of the one that was their take on how kids get eaten alive by video games like World of Warcraft.  This particular game is so damn popular that Toyota used it as the backdrop and context for a Tundra commercial.  Odd to think of the World of Warcraft appealing to a key demographic for the Toyota Tundra.  But I guess it must be so; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it.  Fat kids who want a truck, a fantasy truck.

I bought all of season four of South Park at Borders.  By accident I saw part of the episode about the Tooth Fairy from season 4 (2000), and just couldn’t resist.  I could have ordered over my Block Buster account but it wouldn’t have arrived by Monday.  That’s when I want to show it, on Monday, to my classes.  They need a break.  So do I.

Turns out Cartman loses a tooth and his mother gives him a whole two dollars for the tooth.  He sees this as a way to get the money necessary to buy a Sega system. So he starts stealing teeth from other kids and his mother keeps shelling out two bucks a tooth.  He steals like 117 teeth or something like that, driving his mother into financial ruin at two bucks a pop.  She says they will have to go without buying food for a month, and at the same time tells Cartman, look, there is no tooth fairy.  Whereupon, Cartman accuses his mother of being a damn liar, and goes out the door saying, well since I can’t trust anybody, I have to trust myself.

cartman 

I am not of course saying the guys at South Park read Erik Erikson, but this has all the key elements of what Erikson would call a developmental crisis.  First, the crisis is stimulated by changes in the body.  So the baby learns to walk, to control its bowels, to speak, and so on, and each of these changes in the body produces for the child an altered relation to the environment (part of the environment being its own body).  We don’t think about it much, I guess.  But losing all your baby teeth is a sort of strange experience—certainly it is a change in the body.  And perhaps to assist the child in tolerating having pieces of its body fall out, society—at least this society—has dreamed up the tooth fairy business.

The eventual outcome: very Eriksonian.  Cartman bumps up against the reality principle—he is disillusioned with his mother (who appears to be insane in any case), experiences a crisis in trust that is eventually resolved, Erickson suggests, by the child learning to trust itself and its own sense.  Though poor Cartman should never trust himself.

Too Much ER

I am toast. Since Monday, when I haven’t been teaching or preparing to teach, or going to the bathroom or eating, I have been “responding” to student papers.  Maybe Erikson wasn’t such a failure.  Many students seem to be getting a little something out of it.  Every damn one of them is in the middle of an identity crisis.  Of course what else are they going to say, when for a blog entry, as prep for the paper, I had them write on the topic “My Identity Crisis.”  Now, to be fair to myself, I did say, if you don’t have an identity crisis, then say that; with the caveat that if they didn’t have one they should try to define what it is that they didn’t have.  

I mean just saying, “I am happy as a clam and have no Identity Crisis” wouldn’t quite cut the mustard.  They would have to give some details about being happy as a clam and show some understanding of Erikson by saying what he meant by the Identity crisis that they were not having.  Since this would require actually reading Erikson or having listened to me in class, I pretty much boxed them in, I suppose, since even the people who said they do have identity crisis didn’t seem really to understand what he meant by it.

But the basic dynamic of the ID crisis seems to have supplied some students at least with an analytic tool for filtering through their experience and also with a means for organizing the paper.  Something like:  development stage—leading to need for adjustments in present relative to new environment perhaps entailing reassessment of past (prior education and/or personal ideals): or the crisis as a moment increased of potential and with that increased vulnerability (possibility of wrong choice, misuse of potentials, failure, inability to know the future, etc).

Also quite a number—though far from all—followed my advice and tried to stick as much as possible to one example—the primary one being the step into college.  Writing at the sentence level improved for some students, and while those who didn’t improve at this level didn’t go backwards.

One student wrote about wanting in high school to be a cracker-jack top gun surgeon who would never snap under pressure.  Erikson says adolescence is a time when young people establish ideals or turn to idols as models for future behavior.  This kid though watched too much TV and seems to have based his ego-ideals (as Freud might call them) on ER.  So this kid comes to college and like washes out in pursuit of his ideal in the first quarter.  Not only is he not going to be a cracker-jack top gun surgeon he realizes, but also he “snaps” and starts to slide.

Half of them seem scared to death because they have not selected a major and the other half seems scared to death because they have.  No wonder—many seem to believe that the selection of a major will determine their fates for THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

I gave a short lecture trying to disabuse them of this notion.  Though this may have only added to their fear since the gist of my little lecture was “nobody knows what is going to happen.”