Those Students Again

I got a book in the mail yesterday. I couldn’t remember why I ordered it. From Amazon. I guess it was delayed or something. The title was, “The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence,” by some guy named Gerald Huther.

Then I remembered. The word “empathy” cued me.

A while back an article appeared in the L.A. Times reporting the results of a study at the University of Wisconsin indicating that today’s students are more lacking in empathy than ever. Or more precisely: the results of this thirty year study indicate and I quote:

From 1979 to 2009, college students’ scores on empathic concern and perspective taking declined overall. There were no substantial changes in fantasy or personal distress.

Converting the changes in scores to percentiles, researchers found a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% decrease in perspective taking through the years.

Ok, this does not sound so good, but I don’t really trust this kind of study. So I decided to take the test, if that’s what it’s called, given to students, something called the“Interpersonal Reactivity Index.” It has 28 questions. You can take it if you want to find out how empathic you are (as if you didn’t already know).

I found questions like:

Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal. (on a scale from 0: does not describe me very well to 4: describes me very well).

Give me a break. Sure I was a pretty upset kid, but as a college student I might have marked this zero just to be perverse. I mean I would have known that I was supposed to feel from the misfortune of others and just because I was supposed to I would have said I didn’t feel anything for the misfortune of others. I mean, screw the unfortunate. I am tired of hearing about those kids in China.

I am not a scientist so maybe the test has checks on this sort of perversity that I don’t know about.

Or maybe, kids growing up today have not been told they are supposed to feel something for the misery of others. In which case, no perversity at all was involved in their marking this question zero. If so, then the kids were not being perverse. And that’s a bit scary.


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?


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”?


One of the questions of the survey that determined students entering college in the fall of 2006 were more narcissistic that entering classes previously surveyed was: “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.”  I presume the more narcissistically inclined said “yes.”

My answer to such a question way back when I entered college–and still today–would have been “no,” and I was wondering why.

First, even to begin to answer that question or to take it seriously as a question would seem to require a much richer fantasy life than I have.  I remember when the lottery first came in talking with people who would go on and on about what they would do with those vast amounts should they win it, how they would divide it up and give money to relatives and charitable organizations and buy a Jacuzzi.  These people really seemed to enjoy themselves talking about these fantasy prospects.  I would sit there with my mind completely blank.  I just couldn’t entertain the fantasy much less enjoy having it. I guess I do not have a rich fantasy life.

Second, answering yes to the question would seem to imply that one would want to be ruler of the world.  Personally, being ruler of the world strikes me as requiring way too much work and responsibility.  I think being ruler of the world would be quite time consuming and even onerous.  Also rulers of the world tend to have many enemies and frequently get killed off by assassins.

Finally, being ruler of the world would not, to my mind, necessarily put one in the position to make the world a better place.  The way I see it no one person –even the ruler of the world—can make any difference to the state of the world.  Individuals can do little or nothing to improve the state of affairs on a world wide scale.  Even to think so implies pure megalomania.  If the question read, “If I ruled the world, along with a very large army, and a fanatically charged mass following, I might be able to make the world a better place (if I had exact and clear directions on how to make the world better)….well, I still would answer “no” because I couldn’t entertain the fantasy in the first place.

I am suspicious of such surveys and how much they can tell us about the psyche of the student of today.  Still, the idea that by being the ruler of the world one could make the world a better place seems to suggest a remarkable naiveté about what goes into being the ruler of the world.  Or let us say, it would appear one could answer yes to this question only if one assumes that, because one is the ruler, the world will somehow plastically and magically respond to one’s attempts, no matter how ill-informed, to make it better.

This is narcissism.  Or rather, let us say, it is primal, archaic and relatively untempered narcissism. Twenge and others suggest that today’s college students are narcissistic because they were told by their parents and in schools that they are special, and are encouraged in their specialness by such attention seeking technologies as my space and Utube.  I don’t buy it.  If today’s students retain a high degree of untempered narcissism, that has little to do with being told one is special, but rather to having the “world” in fact plastically respond to one’s needs.  Those relatively few families that reaped the wealth of the 80’s and 90’s may have produced such children.  I wonder how young people not entering college might respond that question.

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.”

My Identity Crisis

While I understand the importance of college for career, I think also that part of education should involve something called “personal development.”  Indeed, were a gun put to my head, I am prepared to argue that personal development might in the long run be as important to a student after college as the possibility of career.  Accordingly, I assign materials upon which students write that have something to do with promoting an understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit.

This time around though I may have gone too far.  I assigned a fat chunk of a book by Erik Erikson called “Identity: Youth and Crisis.”  I thought this book might be of some interest to young people since the word “youth” appeared in the title.  Also I thought the notion of identity and crisis might be of some interest to them since they are all the time complaining about stress.  But perhaps my narcissism got the best of me.

I was projecting my identity crisis upon them.  I experience myself as undergoing an identity crisis but most of my students don’t seem to be undergoing an identity crisis at all.  They are just stressed, is what.  I guess I sensed this early on—that they were not going through an identity crisis—because I said, well, OK, I am going through an identity crisis (and I told them why—having to do with the aging process and hair falling out, etc), and that I didn’t want to feel lonely so I was going to force them to go through an identity crisis with me.  Some laughed, but I am not sure all were pleased with the prospect.

In any case, after three class sessions, mulling over Erikson, having them pull quotations and write on those quotations, and having them think about and write upon issues of student identity, I feel I have made little to no headway.  I have humbled and humiliated myself, I have stripped my self bare, looking for examples that might clarify.  I have thrown everything at them including the kitchen sink.  I have nothing left.

 So I started making up stuff.  I told them for example that when Carol and I married (I wrote the largely incomprehensible vows) and I had to say a word (maybe it was “yes”) that I became extremely dizzy, that my knees wobbled and that I almost passed out.  Actually I was not close to passing out, my knees didn’t wobble, and while I was a little dizzy that was probably from standing out in the heat (one of the draw backs of an outdoor wedding).  And, when I had paused for effect, why I asked them, why did they think I grew dizzy.

Had I been drinking a great deal?  One student logically asked.  No, I said, no.  Had I perhaps failed to eat breakfast?  Asked another.  No.  No.  I said.  No.  Because—they finally forced me to say it—getting married for me was part of an identity crisis.  And if that was the case, I continued in the Socratic question-answer mode, what might have been at the root of my crisis with respect to marriage.

I asked, but got no answer.

All the Lonely Students

Second Cousin Jack wrote a comment on the blog entry about belongings that makes a connection between buying all this stuff and competition.  What’s the connection?  Well Thorstein Veblen way back at the turn of the 20th century wrote a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class.  That’s where he developed his conspicuous consumption thesis; people pile up needlessly expensive stuff to show their place on the social ladder.  That’s about the time too that Andrew Carnegie wrote his books extolling the virtues of capitalism and the joys of wealth.  Andrew, having all the wealth he had, was one happy dude.

At a break in my class the other day, a student asked if he could bum a smoke.  I said sure, ok, but that I in no way advocate smoking since it will kill you.  So at the break I go out to this area outside the building to sneak a quick two puffs.  And there’s my student smoking away.  It’s a good place to smoke because it’s on the second floor on a walkway between two buildings that hardly anybody ever uses.  It’s out in the open and when there’s a little breeze, as there usually is, the smoke gets blown away quickly.


He suddenly starts talking about the stuff we were talking about in class, and says that all this buying of stuff is like a sickness.  The students, himself included, are very competitive he says; they all envy each other and are all the time checking each other out to see what kinds of stuff they are wearing.  Really, he said, we don’t like each other because we don’t trust each other, because everybody is judging everybody else by their stuff, and we have been taught it’ a dog eat dog world and every man for himself.  There’s an awful lot of lonely students out there he says.

So it would appear for him that there is some sort of link too between competition for the money it takes to conspicuously consume.  But I am out of it on this one.  When I think of conspicuous consumption I think of a Cadillac or maybe a mink coat, or something like that.  If students conspicously consume, I don’t see it because I have no idea what kind of jeans a student might be wearing or how much those jeans might have cost.  We are way past the time, when Jordache jeans had a big Jordache written across the butt.  That was early 80’s stuff.

Now the number and type of jeans is just plain astonishing.  At I found listed the following brands: Joe’s jeans, Goldsign, Citizens of Humanity, Denim of Virtue, Stitch’s Jeans, Red Engine, Rock Revival, Iron Army, Vintage Rebel, and Marlow Jeans, and really that ain’t the half of it.

These jeans don’t have big logos written across the butt; sometimes they are marked by only a tiny metal insignia.  This doesn’t seem like conspicuous consumption to me, but who knows maybe all my students can recognize all these different types of jeans, see what statement the student is making by wearing them (I am a rebel, for example) and also know that jeans like this can cost upwards of 200 bucks a pair.


The view from where I go to snag two puffs between classes. 

Take a loner to lunch

The massacre at Virginia Tech has upset me.  After all, I teach at a university and work with students.  So maybe that’s natural.  And a few years back, at UCSB, a student used his automobile as a lethal weapon and drove it directly into a group of students.  Four died as I recollect.


For some reason I started thinking about loner students I have known over the years.  Maybe 15 years ago, I got to teach some classes that were designed for low income and minority students.  This was back when affirmative action was still legal.  The special think about the classes really was that they were smaller (18 per section, rather than our regular 25) and all students were members of EOP (Equal Opportunity Program).

Calvin was in one of these classes.  He was a black guy from East L.A.  He had one of those faces that seemed prematurely gnarly and aged.  Also he clearly was not a stereotypical black athlete.  This dude did not pump iron.  His father was a minister and his mother was a police officer.  He had braces, huge ones, and I don’t know where he got his clothes, maybe from a golf shop because he word that golfer pants, with plaids I think they are called.

Calvin did not fit in anywhere.  The number of black students where I teach is pathetically small, but I expect Calvin didn’t fit in exactly even in East L.A.  Not with a minister father and a policewoman mother and those damn plaid pants.  And a name like “Calvin.”  I would see him now and again around campus and just like me he was always walking alone.  He would call out, “How’s it hanging.”  I would say, “A little to the left.”

One day in class, he said a lot—for Calvin I mean—something like:  “Like high school is supposed to prepare you for college.  Middle school is supposed to prepare you for high school.  But middle school don’t prepare you for nothing but middle school.  And high school don’t prepare you for nothing but high school.  And college…”  And then he shrugged.

He said he was sleeping way too much and without his parents constantly looking over his shoulder, he was “drowning in freedom.”  I liked Calvin, but I figured he wouldn’t make it, and sure enough when I asked around the next year, I found he had not returned.

I have thought about Calvin over the years and wondered how he made out finally.

The murderer at VT has been described repeatedly as a “loner.”  The way the word is used and the context in which it is employed might make it seem as if being a loner is a bad thing.  It’s not.  Calvin was an OK guy and actually pretty interesting.  I mean just because a guy doesn’t have friends and eats alone in the student cafeteria doesn’t make him any more a threat to society than all those non-loner people.  Hell, if you don’t believe me, take a loner out to lunch.


As I was saying, thinking about materials for a reader I went online.  Who needs a reader, a hard copy one, I mean.  I didn’t have even to go that far into the mess to be overwhelmed by mass of materials out there on every subject known to humanity.

And Wikipedia is turning into a really useful instrument, especially if you are looking for info on current stuff.  They have decent references on the diverse subjects they treat and unlike your regular encyclopedia, mostly because their space is unlimited, there’s no filtering device, i.e. a certain limited number of pages. 

knowledge pyramid 

I wonder if one might construct sort of a knowledge ratio to the effect: limited amounts of documentation, limited space, high or low, produces a greater or less constricted knowledge hierarchy.  In the old encyclopedia Britannica for example one might possibly have found an entry on Andy Capp and his creation, Little Abner, but I don’t think one would have found much more than that Capp drew a comic strip called, Little Abner, that appear in such and such number of newspapers.  Certainly not, as one may find in Wikipedia, a list of every damn character that ever appeared in the strip along with a short “biography” of each.

I wonder if some sort of knowledge flow chart or graph could be constructed: data base plus space plus labor.  The greater the factor under each of these items the more the knowledge curve or knowledge hierarchy would tend to flatten towards infinity, while the less under each category the more the chart would approach a perfect pyramid.  The very peak of the pyramid would consist of the longest of all documents, as the determinative of their importance, with as one went down more and more documents with less and less space devoted to each.

In any case, on the web, there’s plenty enough to go around.  Within minutes, I had located articles, magazine and journal, as well as video on the “topics” I was trying to look into.  This is the “death” of the reader.  Already, one can think of the reader as a portal to web based research, reading and viewing.  Eventually the portal will disappear into the very thing it is opening up.

The web not the book is, without a doubt, the future of reading and writing, barring of course some natural or unnatural disaster that sends this whole electrical thing into the void.  But barring that, the teaching of writing has to become more and more rooted in that digital universe.  The web of course can not teach people how to read and write, but the fact of it will alter individual’s relation to both and the purposes of each.

One of my lit. teachers back in the 60’s let us write extra credit papers on the Death of the Novel.  I forget what I concluded.  But clearly THE NOVEL is dead; or rather the novel has found itself a niche market.  The Book too will die, if it is not already dead, that thing I grew up holding in my hands, the pages of which I turned, slowly or quickly, whatever you did the pages had to be turned—The BOOK will find its niche, but it won’t be where the big bucks are. 

 Information, not contemplation, is the name of the game these days.