Repeat What the Professor Says

The pre-major (that it even came into existence) seemed an indication of the institutiton’s lack of commitment to General Education, even a stake in its very heart.  General Education, as I had understood it, was there in part to give the student a look around at the landscape of learning and repeataftermeto locate, perhaps, in it something he or she had not seen or heard of before and might find attractive, even inspirational.

I understood the need for the pre-major as the means by which to create an artifical bottleneck that might slow the flow of students into “impacted” majors.  I understood too that were I a student and wanted to get into a particular major the very first thing I would do would be to take the courses required for the pre-major.  Waiting around to take your pre-major classes was bound only to prolong the anxiety about whether one was going to get in the major or not.

But so much for General Education (GE); those courses had to be pushed aside, while the pre-major was taken care of, with the result that GE’s no longer served for many as an opening vista onto the possibilities of higher education but as an impediment to getting into the major and finally an impediment to graduation.  The last thing one wished to know about on the way out the door was all the things one had missed, all the things one might have learned but had shoved aside in the intererts of timely progress towards graduation.

As a result GE classes begin to fill, not with freshmen and sophomores just embarking on their educational adventures, but with jaded juniors and seniors who did not want to have any sort of educational adventure at all.

I taught a number of years ago a writing course linked to a general education course, Philosophy 5, Introduction to Ethics.  Because of an ongoing beef with the registrar and inadquatee upfront advertising, my section was low.  I thought maybe they would drop it, but instead I was allowed to keep it running with only 15 students.

 I was terrified for these students.  Each and every one was in his or her very first quarter at the university.  Of the 15, three males were causcasian, and all the rest were either asian or latino, latina.  They had never read ethics before; they didn’t read well in any case.  They knew nothing about ethics and they were competing for a grade in a course that was 25% seniors.  I didn’t think my guys stood a chance.  When I saw early samples of their writing I was sure they were all going to fail.

I had to do what I hate doing.  I had to cut to the chase.  I told them: at the university there is no room for your thinking.  You are all in any case idiots.  You don’t know a thing and you shouldn’t ever get the idea that you do.  Accordingly your task, in exams and papers, is:


The “Pre-Major” ; Or: The Death of Liberal Arts Continued

These numbers aren’t exact.  But there are in the ballpark.  Something like 14% of all institutions of higher education in this country are large land grant public research universities and this 14% endofworldhands out about 50% of all four year college degrees in the country.  The large land grant for which I work is fairly typical I do believe of all the others, and if this is the case then the right wing of this country that would prefer people live in ignorance has won big time.

For in all these land grants I expect general education is in disarray, ill-coordinated, poorly taught and generally resented.  These courses scattered here and there represent the broken shards of what was once called a liberal arts education.  Now we have the reactionary arts—I suppose they are best called—or no education at all. 

For diverse reasons—economic and political—the university or more properly the multiversity when it came to general education just caved.  Part of it had to do, I guess, with the death of the canon and the fact that most of that dead canon was written by dead white men and not progressive and hip living people of both sexes.  By attempting to appear the flagship of political correctness the humanities reamed themselves, having then to throw out, not without bitching, moaning, and bitter in-fighting the very materials, subjects and author that had been their bread and butter.

And to my dismay all throughout the 70s and well into the 80s deconstructionism spread its obscurationist haze over the whole mess.  The result was, well, appalling.  And to put the matter clearly, I am not opposed to obscure writing.  I think Hegel terribly obscure but still worth the attempt, but not Derrida or his midget minions who began to turn the teaching of literature into a way of  talking, a discourse—I suppose the terminally hip would say—available to and understood only by the initiated.

People were coming in droves out of the universities, especially the East Coast ones, not educated but schooled.  I didn’t know what schooled meant until I attended a summer seminar—six weeks, I think it was—on the topic of the Sublime, taught by a young woman of impeccable credentials, Yale by way of parents who had been on the Freedom Buses down south.  And after each of our two hour sessions, we ordinary teachers from small liberal arts colleges across the country would come out furrowing our brows and wondering just how stupid we might be since we couldn’t understand a word of what she said, though she was apparently speaking English.

But I digress.  Though not exactly.  This was part of it, but as I said many factors contributed to the demise of the general education and the liberal arts education.  The university, in financial crisis due to things like Proposition 13 in California, found itself hustling for students and the bucks they brought.  And the students were not going where they used to go.  They were going especially to places that had business degrees and to places with degrees in communications (whatever the hell that was).

One result of this was “impacted” majors—way too many students to handle, and this led in turn to the creation of the pre-major, actual courses students had to take, usually with a C average or better, in order to qualify for the major, during those first two years especially when students had traditionally taken their General Education courses.

I don’t need no general education!

My little classroom is a place of contestation, conflict and confusion though no effort of my own.  First—and I do have to keep reminding myself—my writing course—the one I most teach—is required.  Period.  The students exercise little or no choice.  Instructors’ names are not listed for this particular course, so students can’t pick among instructors even if they knew who any of them were (which they don’).  Mostly a particular class is selected on the basis of the days of the week and the time of day it is offered.  Since no reasoning seems to go into it, I have had lately classes with 26 people not a one of whom knows another.

While my class is probably the most resented, because required, class on campus; students resent other required classes also.  I haven’t heard much complaint about it lately—perhaps because these students don’t complain openly much—but a while back a good third of the students in any class resented the General Education requirements.  They just didn’t see the point.

The general education classes are there for the purposes of general education.  Students are required to take a history course here and a philosophy course there and some science class and a class in literature or the social sciences.  Most of these classes have little or nothing to do with students’ majors and are intended, I suppose, to produce more of a well rounded individual, a person who knows in a generally educated way a little something about the world around him or her.

 I have sat through a number of these General Education courses.  As part of my work as a Writing Instructor I have taught and continue to teach an occasional writing class linked to a General Education class.  This means all the students in my writing class are also enrolled in the same general education; and to make the classes work together in some way I usually attend the lectures for these courses and try, as well, to do the readings assigned the students. 

I understand why students have some troubles with these courses.  First, since many students have to take said courses, they are usually overloaded lecture classes, with a minimum of about 240 students with a Teaching Assistant teacher and a few other TAs to service their educational needs.  The classes taught more as general education courses and less as an extention of the professor’s research are the most “popular.”reubens

I attended for example an art history lecture in an 800 seat lecture hall.  About every seat was full the first day though by the fourth week perhaps a third were occupied on a regular basis.  This course had a professor, not a TA; he had some vision I think of art history as arising from and registering particular historical situations.  But the deeper ideas just seemed to go by the boards as the professor showed one slide after another and made a few remarks on each.

The tests were of the identify the slide variety.  Students liked this class because they didn’t have to understand anything; all they had to do was memorize slides.  They used mnemonic devices that had little or nothing to do with what the professor said about the painting, as in “isn’t he the guy with the pink clouds” or “isn’t he the guy with the really fat women.”

12 hours of study per week

One student insisted, “We are lazy and I can prove it.”  OK, I said, I don’t know what the proof could be but what do you mean.  “My boyfriend is always losing his remote somewhere, so he went up to Home Depot and bought a long stick, ten feet long maybe, so that when he loses his remote, he doesn’t have to get up to look for it but changes the channels by poking the TV with his stick.”  Everybody laughed.  Who hasn’t felt too lazy to look for the remote.  I don’t know I said, he may be lazy but that’s pretty ingenious too.  “He should sell it,” a student said.

Perhaps they are lazy.  In 2004 the UC did a big survay and report on the UC undergraduate experience (except for Berkeley; it did it’s own study since it doesn’t consider itself part of the UC System).  But the other eight campuses contributed, and they found that the mean number of hours spent by students in class was 14 and the mean number of hours per week spent studying was 12.  So the students spend a total of 26 hours a week on “academics.”  The report noted some variation in academic involvement between the areas of study.  Students in science/math studied the most; students in the social sciences the least.

Twelve hours of study a week doesn’t seem like much to me.  That’s less than two hours a day on average.  One reason for this relatively low number could well be that it is all that is needed to received a satisfactory grade.  Everybody has heard of grade inflation including students.  So that if one attends class and studies those 12 hours, one could pretty easily come out with a B average especially if one is a student in the social sciences or the humanities.

Once I graded a lot harder than I do now.  About 15 years ago some sort of shift took place; my particular institutution began to attract more and more students with very good high school grades.  I gave Cs then, not a lot but some.  But I gave it up because I saw  that for these students getting a “C” was a failure.  I remember one student going off about how his parents had spent 12000 dollars a year to send him to private school and here he was in college getting Cs.  He didn’t know how he was going to explain that to his parents since he couldn’t explain it to himself.

For a while I tried to hold the “C” line but the Cs seemed to panic the students so much—especially one in the only course required of all students—that they were rendered pretty much unteachable.  They wanted to know EXACTLY what to do to get an A.  Unfortunately, I don’t know a way to tell people EXACTLY how to write well; the more I tried the more I ended up writing the paper for the students.  That was counter-productive and exhausting.

I speculate that grade inflation went along with either the lack of will or means by which to distinguish levels and degrees of quality.  Increasingly students who did the work, no matter what the quality of the work, did well, while those who didn’t do the work, whatever the quality of what they did do, didn’t.  I don’t know when this started but since,  as Hegel says, the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, I would suggest  some time before the publication of Pirsig’s abstruse musings on quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1973).

The horrible twenties

A fair number of the students I teach may then not know why they are in college (having given really no thought to it).  They are just there, as that student put it, in a kind of robotoid state on automatic pilot not wanting or seeking any larger or greater purpose to their situation than to get boschthrough it with as little strain and as quickly as possible so they can get onto whatever the next step is supposed to be.  

Once upon a time I used to give the students a you-really-don’t-know-what-you-have-got-speech.  College, I would say, that’s nothing.  College is a snap.  For all the talk of being stressed out, you are walking on the sunny side of the street.  College—you will look back upon its horrors and terrors—once you get out there into your 20s—quite fondly.  You have not been to hell—I pour it on—until you are in your 20s.

Have you even thought about it?  About getting a job?  And finding out it sucks?  Or getting a job and then losing it and having to move back in with your parents?  26 years old and living with your parents?  Can you imagine that?  It’s enough to make you get married to the wrong person, no less?

So as you round the curve towards 30, you will have probably gone through a couple of jobs, a couple of relationships, and maybe a marriage.  Possibly along the way you will have become addicted to something and had to go through detox.  You will have contracted herpes or venereal warts.  If you are a woman your butt will have started to sag and if you are a man your gut will. If you are lucky, you will have a job you can at least stand, no children, and not buried up to your necks in debt.  Because this is America.  It’s dog eat dog and devil take the hindmost.

You haven’t seen shit yet.  I pray for your sake that your parents have the money to help you buy a house because you won’t get one otherwise, and oh, you should call your parents tonight and make sure they have taken care of their old age because the last thing you want is to feel that you have to take care of them at about the point you are trying to send your two irresponsible ungrateful brats off to college.

I stopped giving that speech though because all it seemed to do was bleak them out.  They would sort of sit there with their mouths agape.  Sometimes I wonder if anybody has ever bothered to talk to them straight.  Tell me I am wrong, I said, tell me I am wrong.  But they couldn’t.  And from stuff I started to read I realized I wasn’t making it up.  I was too close to the truth. 

Articles were appearing, informed by the ruminations of concerned sociologists, about how many young people had to go home after college.  Getting that first and last months rent together, plus a cleaning deposit, plus trying to keep the car going and having suitable clothes for work or the job search—well, students had to reply on my ma and pa for continued support.  And the idiot sociologists were concerned that this move back to ma and pa would interrupt or somehow distort the life process of young people.

I call the sociologists idiots because it was clear to me in 1985 that adolescence had been prolonged into the late 20s and early 30s.  We have come a long way from Rousseau who pegged adolescence as lasting six weeks.


I don’t want to…

After I have practically pinched, poked and prodded myself into a stupor, finally one still small voice off in the corner of the room (in response to my question what does being lazy feel like) says, “It’s like you just don’t want to.” That’s all it takes.  An honest voice can cut through a ton of bullshit.  I cosbynot only know what that means, I can feel it.  I just don’t want to because it bores me and makes me feel stupid and I can see no purpose for doing it in the first place and it’s not that I have better things to do or places to go or people to meet.  I just don’t want to do it.  And when I do it I feel like I am walking knee deep in molasses straight into a swamp which potentially has no end.

I just don’t want to do it.

That’s what concerns me.  That many students just don’t want to do it.  Don’t want, I mean, to be in college or to go to stupid lectures or write dumb papers on stuff they know little or nothing about and would prefer to go on nothing little or nothing about.

I tumbled to this some time in the late 80s.  I volunteered to spend an hour with groups of incoming freshmen as they cycle through campus during orientation.  I would meet with 20 of them in some overheated dorm area, and they would be completely worn out from having spent the day trying to figure out how to enroll in classes.

I tried to be entertaining and made up one of my surveys asking them such things as why they had decided to come to college a) to get a job b) to get a career c) to meet your mate and so on and so forth with a list of about everything I could think of.  Then we would walk through the list and make jokes about things like trying to find a mate or maybe get a little discussion going about the difference between a career and a job and what that might be.

But one time no sooner had I handed out the survey, than one guy in the back raised his hand and said he didn’t understand these questions at all.  I wondered if he could be more specific.  Well, he said, these questions seemed to imply—all of them–that they had made decisions about going to college for this or that specific reason.  And he continued, that wasn’t the case.  They were there because they were supposed to be there; not because they had decided to be there.  They had been raised to be there and were there because everybody they knew was there.

So I said, you think most of the people in this room have been set up to go to college from such an early age that they have never even thought about why they are going or about not going.  Something like that, he said.  Well, if that’s true, I blame the Cosby Show.  Do you remember that show?  Every time the head idiot would wear a new sweat shirt with the name of another college on it.  He was like a public service announcements for colleges everywhere.  So I blamed Cosby.  Everything and everybody on that show was so damned cute that Cosby ought to be ashamed of himself; putting that freaking ass delusion forward as something to aspire to.  Talk about your crappy role model.

I bumped into the kid outside and asked him what he planned to do.  He didn’t know.  His father was a lawyer and his mother was a teacher, and they both hated their work.  That’s a bitch, I said.  You bet, he said.


I have not taken any particular pride in having missed maybe 15 classes in 26 years of teaching.  And that may be high.  I missed half of those from illness; the other half from professional pneumoniaobligations or job seeking.  Working class people show up for work is all; if you don’t you don’t get paid because you get paid by the hour.  I don’t get paid by the hour but I continue to function as if I did.  Bricklayers don’t get personal days off.

One of my working class friends wrote about showing up for a graduate seminar sick with a runny nose and how one of her colleagues snapped at her for showing up and taking the chance that she might infect the rest of the lot.  My working class friend explained to her colleague what was what and to go screw herself.  I am not sure my working class friend was right, but if you are wc you do go to work.

I have woken up all moaning, and down at the mouth, and looking bleary eyed and feeling down emotionally or physically, and my wife will say, why don’t you stay home, and I will say, “Are you crazy.  What the fuck are you thinking?  How long have we been together?  Don’t you understand me yet?  Christ! Is our marriage a sham? You know I show up for work unless I have a fever.”  There’s a phrase for this reaction, “Denial by Exaggeration.”

Unconsciously of course, I want to stay home.  I am whipped and exhausted.  But denial by exaggeration allows me to completely shift the nature of the discussion from whether or not I am feeling lousy and should stay home to whether or not our marriage is a phony sham.  That’s logic for you.  I use denial by exaggeration all the time.

So being a sort of educational iron man is not something I take any particular pride in.  The psyche is just too complicated for some straight one to one equation.  Go to work.  Go to heaven.  That’s not how it works.  Because in addition to the wc background, I am a workaholic.  You can have workaholic at all levels of society.  I am one however because I identified with my father and as far as I could see he served no longer purpose than to go to work.  If he had not worked, he might as well have been dead.  Because other than working and making some money to feed his family, he had no other redeeming social value.  So not only am I a workoholic with low self-esteem.

So coming down with pneumonia, as I have just done, and having already missed two classes in a row and knowing I will miss one more, for three in a row is a real blow to my iron man image.  I don’t know how I got this sick.  

Anyhow when I woke up with a temperature of a 104 I knew I wasn’t going to class that day.  And when my wife suggest I stay home and see a doctor, I didn’t make any argument.

Procrastination is your Friend

I continue to pinch, poke, and prod, trying to get them to say what they mean more precisely by laziness.  Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son in law, I tell them wrote an essay called the right to be lazy.  He was pro-laziness and saw much potential good arising from it.  I think now of those days back when I was hanging out standing in line at the Seven Eleven and reading a sticker on the back of the Slurpee machine that read: “Don’t just do something.  Stand there.”  Or I say, “regard the lilies of the field neither do they reap nor do they sew…”  Even the Bible praises laziness.

But I can’t seem to get a rise out of them.  I ask well what does it feel like to be lazy.  Procrastination, somebody says.  When I wrote, list three reasons students give for plagiarism, one student wrote:  Procrastination, Procrastination, Procrastination.  I have been hearing students say that for over 25 years.  I procrastinate.  What do you mean by that, I ask.  Well, I am supposed to do something, and I put off doing it, and I do something else instead.

Give students a fancy sounding word and that’s the end of it.  It’s as if the description of the activity (or inactivity) is the cause of it.  I procrastinate because I procrastinate.  At one time, I don’t remember when, this came up so much on one little survey I did that I devised a tiny bit of lecture along the lines of the-how-to-make-procrastination-your friend-model.

Look, I say, procrastination as I see it is not a bad thing unless of course following Aristotle’s golden mean one does it too excess.  But while you are procrastinating you may well be thinking about the thing you are supposed to do and are putting off.  Indeed, you must be thinking about it or you wouldn’t feel you are procrastinating.  In fact, while you are procrastinating you are thinking down in the unconscious; unless of course you are unconscious from having drunk too much.   In this case, you are just unconscious and probably aren’t thinking about anything.

Procrastination may be essential to the unconscious processes involved in the writing of a paper, especially one that might require some self involvement.  You may for example be struck suddenly just as you are going to your computer with the irresistible urge to clean out your refrigerator.  So instead of writing the paper, you straighten out the refrigerator and find all kinds of strange molds and other exciting stuff.  Well, I do exactly that when I am sitting down to write something longer, when I know I am going to be in front of the computer for three or four hours.

I will straighten the refrigerator, or flea comb the cat, or straighten my desk, or delete stuff from my email.  Little household things that I have been putting off for weeks, suddenly occupy my attention.  But you know I do the same thing when I go on any trip.  Even if I am just going off for a week, I try to clean up the place so that when I come back I will have a clean place to walk into.

So you call it procrastination, and I call it getting ready for a trip.  Because writing something can be like going on a little trip.  Your immediate surroundings aren’t there; they go away.  The clock can even go away and when you come back to the clock and your immediate surroundings it’s nice to have things nice.


At some point in every quarter, I touch on the plagiarism issue.  I try to make this less a warning and more a discussion.  I don’t receive much plagiarized material.  But I do want them to know thatdentures the plagiarism police are more active than ever.  If my memory serves, faculty were ordered to report any instance of academic dishonesty.  But, hey, try ordering a faculty to do anything.  Still I wanted them to know more pressure was being applied from the top and that out there on the web are guys making money tracking down plagerized work.  I expect most of them know this stuff but maybe a few lost souls don’t.

On one survay—intended to open the plagiarism discussion, I asked, what reasons do people give for plagiarizing.  Students reported all sorts of reasons: want to get a better grade; don’t understand a damn thing so have to get something from somebody who does; procrastination; but the reason that popped up by far the most was “laziness.”  I have heard this laziness explanation for diverse student behaviors increasingly over the last 15 years.  In fact, there seems to be a laziness epidemic.

Honestly, I don’t understand what they are talking about.  How could laziness lead to an activity that might bring down academic—not to mention parental–wrath upon their heads?  Laziness does not want to be not lazy.  In the long run, given all the possible troubles that might arise from cheating, I argue that it would be lazier just to toss off a piece of crap and turn that in and get a C or something.

But no matter how I dig—this way and that—I can’t put my finger on what they mean by laziness.  Somebody will mention; it’s all those labor saving devices.  They have made us lazy.  And I will go, what the hell is wrong with a labor saving device.  And beside I argue laziness is a great american virtue.  Look at Rip Van Winkle; didn’t he sleep for 20 years or something.  Or Huck and Jim going down the river, idling away their time.  And while I may be wrong, but I believe we still have the longest summer vacations for school in the industrialized world.  Or take our so-called national past time:  baseball.  Practically a training ground for laziness.  Except for the pitcher who always seems excessively busy, the rest just stand around and spit.  Mostly nothing happens in a baseball game for a long time followed by sporatic outbursts of activity.  That don’t last very long.

But my students aren’t buying.  They are lazy.  And no doubt poor people engage in criminal activity because they are lazy.  But I don’t push that point.  I have pushed it before, and it so infuriates me to hear that people are poor because they are lazy that I am put off my feed for days and don’t want to talk to the students.

Instead I take another angle: you guys all must have really negative self-esteem or something if you are going around thinking you are lazy all the time.  Clearly you don’t feel good about being lazy (and what’s the point of being lazy if you don’t enjoy it) and in fact you seem to think it’s a kind of moral defect.  And I don’t get it partly because you students are among the apparently busiest students I have ever taaught.  If you were lazy, I would think you would look rested up, but instead, hell, many of you seem stressed out.

 All I want to do is get a conversation going.  But they don’t want to talk.

Politeness 101

And along with the fatigue factor I have the problem with those back to back classes of repeating myself.  I can’t remember what I said to one class so that I don’t repeat myself in the second. But for some unknown reason I am saying quite different things to these backs to backs.  Perhaps the first is sort of warm up for the second, where I get low down and dirty.  I don’t know.

But I do know I have asked students, no, I have told them, if I am repeating something I said before please let me know that’s what I am doing.  And not once, over 26 years, has one damn student said, hey, Tingle, you are repeating yourself; when I know for a fact that I have repeated myself because half way through whatever it is I am saying I will remember that I am repeating myself.  Lord knows, since they won’t say anything, how many times I have repeated myself without knowing it.

Not recently, but I would at one time give students a lecture in the first week about how it was their duty to tell a teacher when his fly was down.    Remedial politeness required it.  One day I was walking away from my class and looked down and my fly was open, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t stopped at the bathroom, so clearly my fly had to have been down during the class.

I got back to the office and zapped off a email to the entire class. Boy, did I let them have it about their failure to do their duty and about their apparent willingness to see me humiliated for an entire class without my knowing it.  What kind of people were they?  By the time of the next class, I had pretty much forgotten the fly thing though I ask if they had received my fly email, and one of them seemed sort of upset and said that she had not seen my fly down and as far as she was concerned it had not been down at all.  And a couple of others chimed in and said my fly hadn’t been down.

I said, you’re lying.  You guys are fucking with my mind.  Don’t fuck with my mind I said.  And then I laughed and said, you know, one quarter I had these two guys in my class.  They didn’t look alike really except maybe they both looked like skateboarders; and the first day of week of class, I screwed up somehow and I called, one guy Bob, when in fact the other guy was called Bob, and I called the other guy Dan when in fact the other guy was called Dan.

And the next class when I called out Bob’s name Dan said present and when I called out Dan’s name Bob said present.  And the next class they switched back to their real names and since neither of them said anything but their names the whole quarter that might make me remember one or the other, I just couldn’t figure out which was which.  I would call roll and say, you are really Dan, right, and not Bob.  But they wouldnot  say and down to the end of the quarter I didn’t know which was which.

And of course about half way through this story I realized that I was repeating myself.  I stopped and said, for God’s sake you were going to let me repeat that whole thing.  Didn’t I tell you to tell me when I repeat myself?  They said, no.