Monday, June 30, 2008

Lawrence from Linlithgow Lays In To Toledo Tommy.

Wow, just wow. As an American who has been an academic in Scotland for a number of years, I guess it falls to me to write the obligatory stinging rebuttal to your recent post. My only difficulty is that your post is so offensive, small-minded and jingoistic, I don't know where to start.

Never mind, let's parse this piece of shite.

  • You reference Michigan, Illinois and Ohio as somehow being less backward than Scotland? Come again? Have you never heard of the Scottish Enlightenment? Conversely, have you ever heard of the “Ohio Enlightenment”? 'Nuff said.

  • Why would a Scottish university put an ad in the Chronicle? Maybe it’s because they are less provincial than their American cousins. Maybe it’s because they understand that one of the key points of academia (at least ideally) has always been to maintain an international outlook. Homo sum and all that. It’s certainly not because there is a lack of qualified academics in Britain.

  • Of course, the fact that the faculty are not physically attractive completely confirms the fact that they are rubbish as teachers and researchers.

  • And while it is true that broad Scots is a dialect - one that is rich with colloquialisms incomprehensible to Sassenachs - only someone who was truly ignorant would not know that the Scots speak English. And for your information, "Scotch", in modern usage, is only applied to food products; "Scotch whisky," "Scotch lamb," "Scotch broth." "Scots" refers to the language and people, and "Scottish" describes everything else; “Scottish mountains,” “Scottish music,” “Scottish dislike o’ bigoted eejits.”

  • So the researchers at this university don't publish in America. Well, that's certainly a strike against them; after all we all know that the US is the epicentre of the world, and anything not American is therefore inferior ... No, I'm going to restrain myself and not follow this line of thought to its (il)logical conclusion.

  • You are comparing Scotland to the third world? You mean in contrast to Detroit or Cleveland? Are you seriously suggesting that your typical compass-direction State University is a more "real" school than the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or St Andrews? Even the newer Scottish universities have departments and programs as good as anything in the world- Economics at UWS for example.

  • Now, for a good old-fashioned ad hominem attack; I wonder, is this university aware that they are interviewing somebody who has difficulty with the concept of time zones? (Please refer to my earlier bullet point regarding the US as epicentre of the world.) No, I think if anyone is on the moon, it's you. At least you didn’t give us the old “they’re stupid because they drive on the wrong side of the road” chestnut. Then again, maybe that’s because you didn’t know that little factoid…

The rest of your post is so bad I'm not going to bother going on, except to say this; having had much experience with University students on both sides of the Atlantic, I think you might be surprised at whose ass gets "whupped" metaphorically speaking. Traditionally, it has been much tougher to get into university in Britain than in the US (although this is changing). Higher education here has tended to be the province of the very rich (and to a lesser degree, the very smart) in a way that most Americans cannot conceive of. One of the results of this is that there are a lot less snowflakes over here (although to be fair, they are everywhere now and their numbers are ever growing). I’m not asserting that Scottish students are the most brilliant in the world, but I humbly submit that your principal qualifications - bigotry and an extensive knowledge of Seinfeld - are not going to impress anyone in Scotland - faculty or students.

So on behalf of all my Scottish brothers and sisters, "shut yer gegie, ya glaikit gadgie, or ah'l skelp ye, ken?"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Toledo Tommy. America's Stateman. Please Forgive Us, our Scottish Brothers & Sisters.

I have a job interview for a teaching gig in Scotland. Can you believe it? I grew up in Michigan, have taught in Illinois and Ohio, and now am on my knees for a job at some backwards university in a foreign country.

I don't even know why I applied. I just saw the damn ad in the Chronicle and had half the letter written in my head before I realized where it was.

Why would they put an ad in the Chronicle? Do you have to speak Scotch to work over there? Their website looks like it was made by monkeys, and the faculty look like any 50 people you'd see waiting for soup on a cold morning outside the Salvation Army. I like to look and see where people publish when I look at schools, and I never heard of any of these presses or magazines. Why don't they publish in America?

But they want to interview me, so I say let them. I had to figure out the time of my interview based on GREENWICH MEAN TIME. Where are they, on the moon? I said, "Uh, what is it that, like Eastern time for Euros?" I cracked myself up.

They even sent me a list of questions ahead of time. They're all stupid. One asks what my international background will bring to their students. "I can catch them up on old episodes of Seinfeld," I said to myself in my mock mocking interview.

They pay a lot of money, or at least that what it appears from the currency exchanger I used. That's good. I figure I can make all that money, save it up, live in their third world rainy country for a while, and then use my international background to get a job at a real school here in America.

"I want to be broadened." Does that sound like a good thing to say?

I can't wait to open up a can of whup'ass on those Scotch students. I bet they're all Muggles and Hog's Breath and dumb as big cans of ham.

See ya!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Where We Begin to Sort the "Paul Flowers" Mail.

  • There's no way that shit is real. You compound crazzies have pulled another fast one. I even love the name "Paul Flowers," the perfect sensitive snowflake student who might really think that shit.

  • I think I'm a little in love with Paul Flowers. I've been depressed these last few weeks. Liquor helps, but not as much as it used to. I'm trying to get some work done, but I'm just not sure I care anymore. Will the 17 people who read my article like it? Who gives a fuck?And prepping for next year's classes is even worse. Every draft of a syallabus I write I can hear the ghosts of complaints yet to come: "There was too much reading." "Why is there so much writing?" "I don't see why I have to memorize a bunch of dates." But then along comes Paul. Who I love a little. Paul who doesn't understand the syllabus, but wants to teach his biomedical engineering professor about biomedical engineering. Paul who resents that his classes try to teach students "information that they have never seen" (it's so much easier and "student-centered" to teach them information they already know) but think he can offer the instructor insight on that same material. I can't quite put into words why I love Paul so much. But that post lifted my spirits more than all the spirits I've downed. I think because it reminds me that most students aren't Paul (many are bad, but most aren't Paul) and that it's an important and worthy job to stand against infantalization and anti-intellectualism. By god, I actually feel fired up to finish that article. And damn it, I'm assigning as much reading as is necessary for an interesting and coherent course. Thank you, Paul. Call me.

  • Thanks for the instruction on how to teach. I am sure that as an undergraduate with two whole decades of life experience under your belt, you bring much to the table that will enlighten those of us with that much time in our professions. Incidentally, you would be more persuasive if you would master your native tongue to the degree that you understand we refer to people as "who/whom," rather than "that." Has it occurred to you that perhaps students should be somewhat intimidated by their professors? Where did students get this idea that we are all colleagues in this great pursuit of knowledge (note: the vast majority of you seem to be in pursuit not of knowledge, but a degree)? You, my dear, are not my colleague, peer, buddy, pal, or guide. You are paying to study under me because I know a whole lot more than you. This notion that I am going to refer to myself as "instructor/learner" to quiet your unease are a vanity in which I will not participate. I agree that there is no need to be obscure when we are addressing you. As Churchill said, "Short words are best, and old short words are best of all." From my experience, however, I would posit that much of the problem is students lacking a decent vocabulary, as well as any gumption to actually look up a word they do not know and commit it to memory. Combined with a consumer mentality and the absurd notion that we're supposed to have some sort of relationship in which you feel comfy chatting me up, it's no wonder you are miserable. Pull up your pants, man, and recognize that you will learn a whole lot more if you stop thinking you know everything.

  • "Instructor/learner"? Gag me. Why not "celebrant of the learning environment" or "discussion facilitator"? "Intellectual liaison"? "Academic moderator"? "Guide to edu-venture"? Despite the mind-numbing embrace of 60s-style, feel-good, "everyone's a winner" nonsense, that chimp is your professor. She knows more than you do about the subject at hand, and she is--get this--paid to impart her expertise to you. The good people of your state don't pay their taxes so that Ms. "I'm one of you" can be a lifelong learner. She earns her salary by teaching, instructing, educating. Those are the key verbs that define her position in the classroom. She's not the cookie warden or the boo-boo kisser. She's your professor, and no amount of sleight-of-hand renaming will change the fact that she (1) holds a degree that you don't; (2) possesses knowledge and an understanding of the field that you do not yet have; (3) has the expertise needed to evaluate your mastery of the subject and the authority to pass or fail you according to that assessment. If she truly believes she's an instructor/learner and will genuinely learn something new about her field of research and study from a group of undergraduate novices, she's either naive or unqualified to be the professor of record for that class. On the other hand, this "instructor/learner" business may just be a gimmick, a hokey ploy to win her students' love and support. We'll see how loving you all are after the first Cs and Ds get handed out. Let that be a lesson: never trust anyone who lies about who they are. So much to learn, young critic.

  • You nearly had me. This has to be made up, right? In the small chance that there really is a Paul Flowers (AND a paper called the Daily Egyptian!?!?!?!), I'd like to find that professor who calls herself an "instructor/learner" and beat the shit out of her.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

You Can't Make This Shit Up.

Professors: be about the students
by Paul Flowers
Southern Illinois Daily Egyptian

Socrates once said that the wisest man admits he knows nothing at all.

Well, it is obvious that Socrates has never had a conversation with a person wielding a doctorate - especially a college professor.

I have had my fair share of instructors at SIUC, but none as interesting to learn from than those that call themselves "Dr. Xyz." Some of them are almost a different breed. I'm not alone in my thoughts. There are even professors that think the same way and have began to do something about it.

Have you ever had a professor that is too smart for his or her own good?

They write their syllabi using more jargon and three-dollar words than the medical profession. Yes, those professors. You know them. The ones that have tenure from Toronto to Texas and may bite your head off if you address them as "Mr." or "Ms." instead of "Dr. "

They teach their courses as if they are having informal discussions with their colleagues.

It may have not occurred to them that they are teaching undergraduate courses, or maybe it is that they enjoy torturing incoming and rising level students.

What they seem to have forgotten is that they were once in those positions.

They forgot what it was like to sit in those classrooms with tens or hundreds of other students they don't know, listening to a professor that they cannot understand and trying to grasp information that they have never seen.

So what now?

The problem is, when a person gets to a certain level of education they begin to think they know everything.

Big mistake.

One solution to is one presented to me from a teacher from my social justice and leadership class. In her syllabus she listed herself as the "instructor/learner" as opposed to just "professor/Dr. Xyz."

I understand that this particular scenario is not feasible in every subject setting. However, there is a way that even a top biochemical professor can learn something from students, if they take themselves out of the way and open up to the idea.

This may stir up some coffee cups in the lounge but that is to be expected. It is nothing to take offense to, just something to learn from.

My parting thought on this is simply for the professors to remember, there was a time when they were in those very same seats.

There was a time that they too knew nothing and had to spend extraordinary amounts of time trying to grasp the simplest concepts. If the professors of our prestigious university would take the time to get back to these memories and think about those times, we, as students, may not be so afraid to come to their office hours. It wouldn't seem like a door with "Warning: may try and lose you in conversational jargon," but it would have more the appearance of a traffic light that's always on green with a yellow-brick road leading up to it.

This is student-based teaching.

This is how the student/professor relationship prospers.

Think about it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Public High School Paula Is Not Your Kid's Parent.

While I agreed with most of the sentiments in the YMGTC Problem post, I couldn't help but bristle at Problem #4, the deterioration of K-12 education.

I am an educator in the public high school system, and I will be the first to admit that there are problems, serious problems, within the system as it stands. It is not, however, my job to teach children to balance a checkbook or be "good" citizens. That is the job of their parents. Since when in our society do teachers in the public school system have the additional obligation of being surrogate parents? My mother took me to the bank when I was a pre-teen and opened a savings account for me. I got a check register and did chores around the house to earn money. My father taught me how to change a spare tire on my first car. None of my teachers ever did those things for my generation.

I think the larger problem is within the deterioration of the family structure. Parents no longer spend time with their children. They push them into advanced classes, do their science fair projects for them, and expect high grades and college admission. If the kids can't do it on their own, mom and dad are happy to do whatever it takes to make it happen. All the while, both parents work, the kids are in extra curricular activities that take up most weeknights and weekends, and no one has any idea what's going on with anyone else in the family.

I often know more about my students' weekends than their parents (or at least I hope so, because if you think kids are waiting for college to binge drink and explore sexually deviant behavior you are wrong). You wonder why, as college professors, you have helicopter parents and whining students with elitist attitudes and a sense of entitlement? Don't look at the public school system to solve these problems, it's much deeper than that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The YMGTC Problem.

I think the "you must go to college" attitude is contributory to other social ills as well:

  1. The continued extension of adolescence and delay of adulthood. If you're still in school, you're still a kid. Ergo, no need to grow up and take responsibility for yourself. It doesn't take a very keen eye to see this played out on many, probably most, college campuses.

  2. A dismissive and disrespectful attitude toward blue collar work and workers. I'm 38 years old. My father's generation was probably the last to, as a cohort, be raised with the expectation that a good day's work preceded a good day's pay. Most of my generation, and certainly the ones since, does not understand manual labor. It's something to be done by the uneducated and unskilled (they don't even have a proper idea of what skilled manual labor is anymore). Kids now think that hard work is beneath them, and so is anyone who earns their bread by it.

  3. A lack of common sense. Too many kids now have everything handed to them, and the expectation of a college degree is one of them. This most recent crop of freshmen are part of a generation raised with the expectation that everything can be solved by electronics. They have no damned common sense. Do I sound like my grandfather? Read The Last American Man, a biography of Eustace Conway. Kids literally without enough sense to come in out of the rain or run from a dangerous situation.

  4. The ongoing deterioration of high school. High schools no longer teach many basic skills. The expectation is that they shouldn't. Why? I have no idea. You can pick from two dozen AP courses designed to get you into college, but in most schools you can't get basic hands-on time with power tools or engines, can't learn how to balance a checkbook, build a budget, get a mortgage or manage a home.You can take a class requiring detailed discussion of the history of modern Europe, but not one in the basic requirements of informed citizenship. It's disgraceful. High school aren't "high" -- they're low-rent college prep, or a way to mark time on your journey to service-sector job hell.

  5. The YMGTC attitude is also damaging the middle class. I saw a lecture recently by an economist who pointed out that not too many years ago you could be successful and move your family into solid middle class territory with a high-school diploma and a blue-collar manufacturing job that paid decent wages. It was assumed -- and not erroneously -- that almost anyone with that diploma and a willingness to work could support a small family. Now? Leaving aside that most of those jobs are gone, the bar for entry to the middle class is four years and tens of thousands of dollars higher. Until the 1970s, society provided the tools to enter the middle class. Now, Mom and Dad must provide those tools. Over time, this is doing nothing but widening the have/have not gap.

As the saying goes, nothing good can come of this.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Not EVERYONE Should Go To College. One of the Great Unfixables.

One of the most overwhelming problems in American academia is the fact that at least 50% of the "students" enrolled in American colleges have absolutely no business being there. This is the result of the counterproductive myth that everyone needs and is entitled to a college education.

I'm sure there will be the standard responses about the democratization of higher education, that it's no longer the exclusive province of privileged rich kids, etc., etc. But if everyone gets a higher education, then what is "higher" about it any more? It becomes basic general education, like high school is supposed to be. Hmmm, maybe that's why college has indeed been dumbed down into nothing but glorified high school, if even that. Some of our foreign exchange students are flabbergasted at the Mickey-Mouse level of the classes they are taking here, as well as by the attitudes and behavior of American students.

Here's why many of our students shouldn't be in college:

  • Some of them are stupid. I know it's horribly politically incorrect to point this out, but some people just ain't got it intellectually. For example, if after a full semester of foreign language you simply cannot grasp the concept of a direct object, you probably have no business in college. As a perplexed foreign exchange student put it after a few months here, "We have stupid people in my country too...but they don't go to college."

  • Some of them are woefully ignorant and academically unprepared. We're talking borderline illiterate. Their reading comprehension is inadequate, and their writing skills are abysmal. And they think we fought against the Rooskies in WWII.

  • Most importantly, many of them DON'T WANT TO BE HERE. Mommy and Daddy and society at large have coerced them into college even though they hate reading, hate writing, hate studying, and have precious little intellectual curiosity about anything (whence their loathing of gen ed requirements). And then we're surprised that they have hostile pissy attitudes and always want to take the path of least resistance? But if they don't go to college, they will never ever ever get a good job--so they've had drummed into them since they popped out of the womb. And, of course, job training is really what it's all about (well, let's leave that bugaboo for another missive). Yeah, right, like my brother-in-law the electrician who makes 50% more money than I do. A good plumber or carpenter or auto mechanic is worth his/her weight in gold, but all these kids are told they must go to college or they will spend their lives flipping burgers.
Oh, and just to head off the impending vilification at the pass, I would like to emphasize that I am not criticizing young people per se for being stupid, ignorant, illiterate, or lacking in intellectual curiosity. I am simply suggesting that these particular young people shouldn't be enrolled in college.

Why is this unfixable? Because it is a firmly entrenched systemic problem that has been many decades in the making. And, indeed, half of us would be out of jobs if American academia suddenly decided to impose and enforce actual standards. Half of the colleges in this country would have to close up shop, and that just ain't gonna happen. Instead, we commodify education and market ourselves and behave like competing corporations. In most countries students compete to get into college. In America colleges compete for students, the destructiveness of which (in terms of quality education) can hardly be overstated. The grand "everyone should go to college" myth keeps us all in business, pure and simple.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nursing a Grudge Against A "Student Satisfaction" Dean.

What bugs me the most? Administrators who have forgotten what it's like to teach and the students that they coddle.

A pre-nursing student, Negative Nancy, failed the prerequisite class for nursing school. After whining and wheedling endlessly to no avail, she pursued a grade appeal. After the appeal board reviewed her case, which included copies of her 40/150 scores on exams, she was denied the appeal. In fact, she was recommended to go back and redo the prerequisite to the prerequisite. After she lost her case, her Daddy (who is an adjunct at the school) called to try and convince me that "She tries so hard and will make such a caring nurse!"

When Daddy's pleas fell on deaf ears Nancy and Daddy went to the Dean of Student Affairs.

The Dean then tried to pressure me into changing the F to a C (gasp!) because "they made a compelling case for her passing" and "in the interests of student satisfaction we should make sure she can pursue her dreams." I am the dream quasher. Call me the Simon Cowell of pre-nursing. If you don't have the brains and talent, you don't get to go on. Isn't that what a prerequisite is for? Did the Dean know that she appealed her grade? No. When he found out did he change his tune? No.

So, her grade remains and she'll have to retake the course with a different instructor (for student satisfaction, of course). The Dean, however, believes in Negative Nancy SO MUCH that he wrote a special letter of rec for her so her F would be mitigated. He's also making a call to Admissions of the nursing program. How nice. The Dean thinks that based on his half-hour interaction with Nancy she should be a nurse. Regardless of the fact that she doesn't know her ass from her elbow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Felix the Fixer from Fresno Lets Fly With a Flood of Unfixables.

A potentially fixable problem would be to abolish anonymous student evaluations of teaching, especially when numerical rankings are used. They were a mistake when they were imposed in the 1960s, and they've caused untold harm ever since. They fuel the inappropriate attitudes of consumerism and entitlement so rampant among today's students. Administration who use them almost always abuse them. They are unhelpful for improving teaching, and destructive for faculty morale, especially among young faculty. They really have -got- to go!

Other problems in academia are less easy to fix, because they reflect problems in society in general. I hate to sound like dreadful old conservative (because I'm not, or at least I didn't used to be), but even I am surprised by how decadent American society has become in the past 40 years. We are far less rational, civil, restrained, honest, intellectual, or interested in learning, and far more materialistic, selfish, and concerned with "doing your own thing," with no apparent concern for how it affects anyone else, than we used to be. It's difficult to deny any of this, so why bother?

Universities grew tremendously during the population boom of the '60s. Universities are funded by enrollment, so declining enrollments because of demographics since have unsurprisingly eroded standards. There are many students whose reading, writing, and quantitative skills are grossly inadequate for what used to be college work. This is partly because there has been severe erosion of K-12 education and discipline in recent decades. It's also because many jobs that didn't used to require college degrees now do require them, so there are all kinds of students in college who really shouldn't be there.

Demographics have also eroded faculty quality of life. Universities expanded in the '50s and '60s, along with the general population. The population of college faculty also expanded at this time. Many Baby Boomers have yet to retire; it's now much harder for today's young Ph.D.s to get faculty jobs. Predictably, there has also been shrinkage of tenure-track and other potentially permanent faculty jobs, and growth in the number of adjunct and other temporary faculty jobs. Coupling this with faculty evaluation by student opinion is a particularly effective way to loosen the demands faculty may expect of students.

Electronic media such as TV and video games have made us stupid. It used to be unthinkable for anyone to say "I don't like to read," or "I've never read a book," but it's been common for a long time now. Other technologies also enable thoughtlessness and rudeness, such as when students take cell phone calls in class or expect to be able to use e-mail as 24/7 office hours, or use both to bring in their helicopter parents, although I wonder whether these technologies would have been so misused if they'd appeared in the 1940s and '50s.

Attitudes of consumerism and entitlement, and helicopter parenting, are also fueled by how college costs have gotten out of control, partly because of the growth of student services, and partly because of other factors: how can anyone not be taken aback by $200 softcover textbooks that -aren't- filled with color graphics? And don't even get me started on the subject of sports...