Monday, August 28, 2006

From A Lonely Math Teacher On the Front Line

I, up until the point I found this site, seriously believed that my sorrow over the fact that the vast majority of my students are spoiled-rotten, grade-grubbing, wastes-of-oxygen was mine alone to bear. Imagine my surprise at finding out that others encounter the same problems. In reading all of this, I find comfort in knowing I am not alone.

So why do I keep doing it? Even when the sorrow sometimes makes me want to crawl into a corner and work on logic puzzles for a month? Because it has to be done. If I can affect just one student in every class, every year, then those students will become people who are more literate, who understand logic, who can engage in critical thinking, and who appreciate learning for the sake of bettering one's mind rather than learning solely for the practical applications, or worse for the sake of a GPA. If I walk away, there is no one left to fight the good fight.

The entryway to Plato's garden, where any young man wishing to become a leader of society came to study, said "Let no man destitute of mathematics enter here." Abraham Lincoln, on his own, studied the first ten books of Euclid in order to become "a better thinker." Some time since then education has become about job training rather than about enlightenment. I don't care if my students become engineers using multivariable calculus or housewives who balance checkbooks. I want them to study mathematics so that they learn the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning, so they learn how to communicate their reasoning, so they learn how to ask the right questions to solve a problem, so they recognize faulty logic enough not to be swayed by drivel they read in the news.

Despite the enormous pressure from kids, their parents, administrators, and even my colleagues, who all want me to give good grades to kids who show up and learn nothing, I refuse and I stay. In my class, grades are earned by demonstrating what you know and a C means adequate. Period. And while the other teachers are waving away kids with questions because they need to run off their scantrons and go home, I'll help students who want to learn and spend my free time giving individual, written feedback to each and every one of my students on their open-ended problems.

I believe in what I am doing and no amount of pressure is going to change what I hold so dear. Those handful of students I send out into the world each year, who understand the difference between learning and sitting, will hopefully become the people who will run the world someday, who will invent things to make my old age easier, who will take up the fight when I am gone, and who raise children with the same values. Somebody has to do it else we are doomed.

photo from

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Professor Smackdown - Or Someone With A Similar Pair of Shoes - Shows Up to Kick Some Ass As the Fall Semester Looms

Must everything be explained to you?

First, profs get no support from anyone sitting five inches beyond the dept. chair. Why? Symposium-hopping, administrative paperweights are willfully ignorant. Too many can spout more pointless powerpoint-assited theory than a grad student attempting to link Teletubbies, patriarchy, and Virginia Woolf’s inflamed bunion, but they refuse to set gouty toe #1 in my classroom. Why? There’s no free buffet.

Number two. The parents cutting checks have no idea what goes on. Here at In-State Tuition U, I’m seen as something between a nose-wiping nanny, performing seal, and a deluded blissed-out Yeats-spouting reject from Dead Poets Society. Where the hell did that concept come from? Hey Mom and Pops, Johnny can’t read because you’ve been busy suckling on the TV remote, confusing Tucker Carlson with Thomas Locke and Oprah with Simone DeBeauvoir for the last 18 years. You get what you deserve. Now tell your kid to get my pizza because “I’m paying for this.”

Number three. Congrats for not drooling in my class. Have a gold star. Please understand that the majority of mouthbreathers surrounding you have no business in a college classroom. Most have no business serving you curly fries in the cafeteria. They confuse Wikipedia with wisdom, textbooks with short-term investments, and pop quizzes with war crimes. RYS exists because no one listens. Our spouses have been harassed enough, our pets are bearing fangs, and our kids wonder if everyone’s dad buries the TV in backyard and dances around the mound naked.

You want advice? Wave bye-bye to your friends and hole up in the library for the next four years. If I mention a book in class, don’t think “Quiz?” Instead, think, “I’m READING that book. Quiz or not.” Pipe up in class! There’s a direct correlation between yappers trying to compensate for an inevitable “D,” and the smart silent ones who dazzle on essays but see no obligation to their classmates. I have an office. Feel free to find me and challenge me in the best possible way. Don’t drift in and out of my classroom and wonder why I don’t know your name.

Finally, turn off the damn computer, there’s nothing here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Finding the Good

I have been teaching at the college level since 1999. I became inspired to teach when attending graduate school and my professors were positive, accessible professionals and admirable academics to mentor. I was in my mid-forties when I attended, my only intention at the time was to become more knowledgeable about several areas of the humanities. Teaching was something I always wanted to do, but never thought would happen in this lifetime.

You see, as it happens my teachers in undergraduate school insisted there was an "overabundance" of teachers and this glut would make finding a teaching job impossible. With the exception of one professor, my teachers were uninspiring and negative, and this was in 1976! I dropped out of college and it took me many years to finish my undergraduate degree, only needing a total of 20 credit hours. There were few teachers who really loved what they were doing, even then. Most were like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus." These teachers wanted to either be researching, writing or composing, and not wasting time interacting with young people. Teaching was not their passion, something else was, and it showed.

I was inspired to compose this as a response to the student post on RYS of 8-15. As a part time member of several college faculties, more commonly known as a member of the "freeway faculty," I hear professors complain rather loudly about the apathy of their students and the entitlement of the generation. Look in the mirror, colleagues. If you hate teaching, don't teach. If you are a complainer, it spreads into the classroom and becomes like a cancer spreading throughout the system. Like attracts like.

Teaching is a privilege. I do not teach students who "want" to take my classes. The classes I usually teach are the "required" courses that students groan over having to take. But I always give them a reason for the necessity of the broad-based knowledge they are offered and try to relate the learning in the class to ideas they can wrap their own limited-educational minds around. If they do not know why they are learning something . . . there is no value in it, or meaning to it. It just remains aquestion. This leads to anger and the regurgitated opinions of what teachers want to hear on tests. Then there are teachers who will not allow other's opinions to even be voiced in the classroom! How does one learn the benefit of debate or inquiry? How does one feel empowered to critically analyze something? How can one move toward enlightened thinking?

I like this blog-site because it is mostly a satire on the issues we face and can relate to. BUT we also need to focus our attention on the positive aspects we observe and enjoy in our profession. What would you do even if you were not paid to do it? I am not paid enough to teach but I do it anyway. I get no health benefits, no pension, no private office. I do not even get assurances my job will be available each semester. This choice of employment is, however, what I love to do and colleges should recognize that a fancy PhD from an elite college, or published books and articles printed, does not make a good teacher. Caring about students makes a good teacher. It is a noble profession, if the cup is viewed half full, not half empty.

Perhaps we part timers should also have a blog where we can rate our full time colleagues! If you hate teaching so much, move other and give us part-timers a shot at the action. Many colleges would not be operating at all without the adjunct faculty working hard each semester, picking up the slack. At issue is the human frailty of judgment. And over the wrong issues. We really need to assess whether we belong in the classroom if all we do is find fault with the students we serve. If you want something to change, then change yourself. The only control we have over making things different where we work is to change the way we do things. Doing something, anything, the same way over and over, expecting a different result, then being surprised we get the same results, is insanity. Let's admit we are educated, but not necessarily intelligent about our reactions to life.

I highly enjoy my students. They come to class, they do their work, they ask questions, they offer their voices and they provide me with the opportunity to remain surprised. Not always pleasantly surprised, but all things in balance . . . I'm sure I do not always pleasantly surprise them either! But it is a match made no where else in any career undertaken . . . so I will stay, until I cease to love it. I believe I am enlightened enough to know it is time to leave, before I get too grumpy or cynical!

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Why Professor Pete Still Does It - And Some Information About His Clothes We Weren't Expecting

Call me Professor Pete, a partially rejuvenated professor of Psychology at a terrible tier 4 college in the West.

I read your recent call for posts about why we still teach, against all odds, despite the knowledge that the world of higher education has gone to pot, has become seedy and disingenous, has become as trite and boring as our own students seem to be.

Well I do it for three reasons:

1) It makes me feel like I'm doing some good. My students are mostly lousy, but in a class of 40-45, 2 or 3 end up surprising me. I get a visit around midterm from someone who wants to know what book I was talking about in class, or what study I referenced. I send that person on to another level of reading or understanding, and occasionally I take some dimwit and turn him/her into a Psych major. These kids sometimes go to grad school. Sometimes they become professors. And some of them end up being friends of mine. I know I've played a positive role in these people's lives. Even my worst students learn something about what it means to think, to study, to be responsible. A student who passes my class has had to achieve something. I think that achievement (even if you think it's relatively small in the grander scheme) helps that student in all future challenges.

2) It builds a continuing thread of information between the generation before me and the generation after. I believe in knowledge. I believe that there is information that needs to remain vital and interesting. When I teach the theories or ideas of a famous mind from an earlier decade or century, I'm casting it in all new light, in all new context. It's one thing. My teaching of it makes it a new thing. The understanding my students create is yet another new thing. It's alive. It changes, modifies. Sometimes I cock it up; sometimes I make it better. But it lives through me, and then goes on past me into the heads (or at least ears!) of my students. I believe that the information deserves to live on, and in teaching it, I keep it alive. I do it in my field, and I have many colleagues who do the same thing in theirs.

3) It makes me feel good. Selfishly, I love my discipline. If there was no shitty college with its low pay and heavy workload, I'd still read much of what I read each semester. I'd still debate the ideas from my classes with like-minded people (even if I had to find them on It's a vocation for me, but it'd be an avocation, too. It blows my hair back, and I'm lucky enough to have found something that makes me happy that I also can get a few ducats for.

Maybe those reasons aren't high-falutin enough, but they got me through the summer.

Now, out of the jams, and back into my Dockers!

Tuesday, August 1, 2006


I write this from the breezy porch of a rented house in South Carolina where I've spent four glorious days and nights at the end of my summer vacation.

My college and my students await me in 3 weeks time, and I am filled with overreaching dread about it. I've been teaching for 5 years, and it sends me into paroxyms of panic when I think that this is what I will face for the rest of my working life.

I can't stand my senior colleagues who dismiss me as young and untried. My students are lazy and uninterested in my field. I hate the ass-kissing I must do to publish articles in journals that nobody reads. I hate that I hate all of this, too, because I spent 4 years in college and then 6 more in grad school to get right where I am, right where I thought I wanted to be.

Nobody told me that having a "life of the mind" meant that you would lose your mind. Why does the academic world attract such vain, venal, vacuous, and sometimes vicious people? Everyone is so small, petty, and they hoard their little chunks of real estate (literally or figuratively).

I always thought that at least the teaching would be fun. But my students write in my evaluations that I "want too much of [their] attention in class," and that I "makes [them] read material every week, even when a holiday is coming up." One person wrote: "I only flunked one test but that shouldn't mean I can't still get an A." Well, yes it does. There are 3 tests and you got 40% on one.


I feel too old to start again, to find a career where I could get away from the parts of my profession I hate. But I feel like a coward for not trying to fix the system. And the semester looms. And I'm already sick to my stomach.