Wednesday, June 30, 2010


One of the most common tasks I do every week of the semester is to evaluate student work. I evaluate student speeches and presentations, I evaluate quizzes, I evaluate student exercises and outlines and papers. I evaluate student excuses. :-) During a regular semester, it's a regular task. During a five-week condensed summer session, it is continuous.

Evaluation is something that is often hard to hear and accept. In some ways, I think, this has been one of the moving forces behind 'grade inflation.' Over the years I have been teaching, the perception of grades has changed. When I began, an 'A' was certainly something to strive for but was by no means the only acceptable grade. A 'B' or even a 'C' was acceptable and, in some courses, even desirable. "Thank God I got a C!" Over time this perspective has shifted so that the majority of my students today see a 'C' (average) as a failing grade. Everyone must have an 'A', even though an 'A' is supposed to represent exceptional work and certainly if all of us are exceptional then none of us are. And for some students, if the 'A' is not forthcoming, there is no hesitancy in demanding a re-evaluation of their work!

I understand that our natural human tendency is to see ourselves in the best possible light. We want to be considered competent, capable, intelligent. It's one of the things we discuss in our Interpersonal classes, when we talk about the process of perception and why we all see the world and the events in it differently. We have many tendencies that distort how we view ourselves and others - we cling to our first impressions, we often favor negative impressions of people over positive ones. We are quick to see faults in others, while we excuse the same behaviors in ourselves. And even if we acknowledge an error or a weakness, we always have an excuse at the ready.

Evaluation forces us to look at ourselves or our work through an objective lens. And, as none of us has yet to achieve perfection, sometimes the result of evaluation is not so easy to look at and accept. We often must admit that we are not exceptional and that, perhaps in this particular arena, we are average or even below. While many allow that to take a poke at their self-esteem, it needn't. Finding out that we are average or that we need improvement in an area can give us the motivation to change and improve, with a rise in self-esteem as the result.

Honest evaluation provides us with useful information. It gives us a perspective on ourselves that we often cannot get without input from someone else, someone who isn't as invested in our self-esteem as we are. If we are wise, we take that evaluation and put it to use in helping us improve our work or ourselves, no matter how hard it is to hear.

So, to my students who are tiring of the constant evaluation, I understand your pain. Truly, I do. And, take heart. The semester is almost over and soon it will be time for you to evaluate me in the end-of-the-semester course evaluations. Make sure your pencil is sharp!

Today's image is snatched from -

Thursday, June 17, 2010


While I am still officially on sabbatical, I am also back to the classroom. I decided that it would be a good idea to ease myself back into teaching after a year away, so I signed up to teach 2 summer session courses. Luckily, I chose to teach the Interpersonal course. I say 'luckily' because it is the course I ended up changing and modifying the most while on my sabbatical. I'm certain that a test run or two is a good idea before going back full bore in the Fall semester.

Going back to teaching in the summer is a mixed blessing. It's short. That's good. It's jam-packed. That's not so good. The students tend to be very good - dedicated and up for the challenge of 15 weeks in 5. That's good. The pace is exhausting - whether they are up for it or not. That's not so good.

Going back to teaching after a year away is a little like riding a bicycle after a long time away. After the initial wobbliness, you get your rhythm back and things start running smoothly. You remember why you started doing one thing, and why you stopped doing another. You remember what works and what doesn't. You remember what standing and being 'on' for four hours without a break really does to you and your back.

Some of the things you were hoping would change or simply go away have not and, of course, will not. There are still excuses and rationalizations, laziness and carelessness. There is also the thing that brought you to teaching in the first place. The excitement, the energy, the 'light bulb' moments when you see someone getting a concept - really getting it - and realize that they are getting it a good 10 years before you did. And part of why they are getting it is because you are there, introducing this idea that they haven't been exposed to before, sharing ideas with them about how this might affect their life, and taking the time to answer their questions and encourage their doubt and skepticism. It's the joy that is teaching.

I realize that technology has given us educational options that were not conceived of when I was in college. I see the benefit of the internet in making higher education available to people in remote locations. I see the lure of "not needing to commute" to get your degree and understand why it's so tempting to so many, especially after my year of a 10-step commute from my kitchen to my office - cup of coffee in hand. I see the advantage of being able to pull together disparate people from disparate places into an online 'community' in which we can learn from one another. I reject the notion that I am a Luddite.

And, I see so clearly the superior benefits of face-to-face interaction. Something happens when people are in the same room with others, discussing ideas, that doesn't happen in the same way via computers. There is the spark of an idea - someone gives an opinion -someone else disagrees - another looks like they have a counterpoint but they don't volunteer - UNLESS you call on them, call them out, ask them what they think. Some people need the push, the pull, of an outward expression of someone's interest in their thoughts. That's what happens when you can see peoples' faces - you can invite, cajole, push, challenge - in the moment that the idea is taking place. There's no time to dress it up or monitor or edit -- it's the idea, right now, in all its roughness and confusion and searching. It's learning. And it is exciting and energetic and full of life in a way that no computer can emulate.

I know the arguments - believe me, I've heard them all - and I'm not going to try to refute them. I also know what happens in the classroom. There's a magic that happens that makes the inconvenience of it all oh so worthwhile. I recognize that the day may come when administrators and legislators decide for the rest of us that education is a dish best served over fiber-optic cable. But for now, I'm relishing in the messiness, the inconvenience, the life that is the classroom.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Since I started blogging a year ago, I've been reading a lot of blogs on a variety of different topics. I'm pretty amazed at the number of bloggers out there and their writing runs the gamut from absolutely excellent all the way down to complete dreck. The variety is eye-opening. At times, equally as interesting as the blog entries are the comments that they generate.

Recently I read a blog about "British Dining Etiquette" written by a Brit who is currently living here in the States. It was primarily a list of appropriate dining behaviors from the British perspective and reflected the rules the writer was taught while growing up. She didn't offer a lot of commentary on the list, other than to note that she's aware of the British reputation as being a bit serious and formal and, in some people's minds, even a little stuffy. But these were simply the rules they were taught as being “good manners” and she hoped that we would enjoy learning a little bit about another culture. It was a fun little list - and something I'm always interested in given the nature of what I teach.

The comments that this little blog generated were fascinating. Many people remarked that these were many of the rules they grew up with also and just considered them basic good manners as well. Others asked questions. The knife in the right hand and fork in the left hand habit seemed to create difficulties for many brought up in the US with the cut-with- the-knife-then-put-it-down-and-switch-the-fork upbringing. Most people were open-minded and expressed an appreciation for the new knowledge.

Then there were others. A couple of people used the comment section to get into a flaming match regarding whether the one appreciated her Grandfather as much as she should because she couldn't stand that he chewed food with his mouth open. They were a pair! Hard to imagine why either one felt it necessary to make the comments they did and to get into it with each other in a public forum.

Some people clearly took offense at the list. One person immediately defended his way of eating and took a shot at the author and Brits in general by saying "I take issue with eating chicken and pizza with a fork. It is perfectly good etiquette in the Southern United States to eat fried chicken with your hands. And pizza with a fork? please...Some of these are common sense some are really a little stuffy and silly. I DO believe that good manners are an indication of class but not a separation of classes which the British are famous for..."

Another used the opportunity to defend against an implication that the author did NOT make - that people should be judged only on their manners by commenting " long as people don't judge others by their different forms of etiquette, or lack there of...etiquette and class do NOT make the person."

Yet another person piped in to take a pot shot at British cuisine and assert her 'right' to act however she wants wherever she is with a complete disregard for those around her and their cultural practices. "... I'm thankful though that I live in SoCal where things are a bit (or alot) more casual. Too much fussiness for me! Besides, last time in England the food was barely edible! But I would go again. I will just eat the way I do at home (not a slob-some manners always apply!) but I am an American and I will eat that way like it or not!"

Defensiveness is an interesting thing. The author of this blog was simply writing a piece in tune with the other entries in her blog - comments about the connection between British food and its customs/culture. Had the author stated or implied that other cultures were backward or inferior, I could understand a little defensiveness, though I would still be inclined to simply read that as one person's opinion which wouldn't make it automatically true. Yet she did none of that. She simply provided a recitation of what she had been raised with and an explanation of how it impacts her perceptions and her raising of her own children.

Rather than simply read the entry in that spirit, these people chose to read into her comments a criticism of other cultures and manners, specifically their own. I wonder at that reaction. Perhaps it stems from a basic insecurity in one's own behaviors or beliefs. Perhaps these people respond defensively to all things, as a matter of habit, always imagining a slight or insult where none exists. I wonder at what life must be like for someone with those tendencies and it's not a pleasant thought. It seems to be a way of, as my mother would have put it, borrowing trouble - making life far more difficult and unpleasant than it has to be.

Watching this free-for-all causes me to check my own responses. Am I guilty of being too sensitive – attributing an ill motive to someone when none exists? Occasionally, I might be, which is something, then, to be aware of. And this blog exchange was a reminder of the importance of checking my own sense of righteousness or superiority at the door – listening to another perspective with an open mind and a heart that assumes good intention in the other.

If you're interested in reading the etiquette blog, here's the address:

Today's cartoon from:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I wrote early in May about my newfound joy of cooking. While I do enjoy cooking, and am enjoying it more the more I do it, I love baking. My mother baked, usually once every two weeks, while I was a child. I remember coming home from school to find the house redolent with the smells of yeast and butter and vanilla and cinnamon. There were breads and dinner rolls and breakfast rolls and cookies. Is it any wonder I've never been thin? I didn't stand a chance growing up in that house.

I've heard many people say that while cooking is an art, baking is a science. Exact measurements are essential and the tiniest variation from the recipe and you run the risk of ruin. Hooey, I say. Yes, there are more things to consider when baking - dealing with chemical reactions that create rise and gluten, for example, and ratios of liquids to solids. But baking is not nearly as unforgiving as many would have you believe.

The real problem with baking, if there is one, is the eating. Bread may be considered the staff of life and a necessity (and for the most part, relatively healthy), but cakes and pies and cookies and pastries clearly are not. And, over-indulgence? Well - that way lies ruin as we all know. So the secret is in the sharing.

Many people try get around this by trying to make baking more "healthy" by switching ingredients. Some of those substitutions are fine - for example, my favorite trick is substituting natural (no sugar added) applesauce for half of the oil in a recipe. This retains the moisture that the oil is intended for and lowers the fat content without compromising flavor or texture. Other substitutions are not so good. Many people will substitute Splenda for sugar or margarine for butter in an attempt to lower fat and calorie counts. Doing this creates more harm than good. For one thing, the chemicals in those products are all bad for you. Additionally, they affect taste and texture. Products baked with those items do not taste as good and are less satisfying. The result? You eat more - partly because you know they're lower in calories and partly because they simply don't satisfy the way they would had they been baked with real ingredients. The truth is that butter is NOT your enemy. Neither is sugar. And a little bit of each is not going to hurt you. Thus, the sharing.

My most recent baking forays have been focused around rhubarb. It is the season here in Minnesota and there is a bounty of it around this year. Rhubarb is a wonderful baking ingredient. It's a fruit so you can feel somewhat self-righteous in using it and it's tartness is a welcome contrast to the sweetness that is most baking. A recipe for rhubarb coffee cake yielded two 9-inch cakes. One was given whole to a friend who shared it with her family, and the other was split between three households and served eight people. The other was a recipe for rhubarb bars. The pan yielded 3 plates of bars that went to friends with plenty left over to share at a work meeting. Everyone had a small piece, or two at the most, and everyone left having enjoyed something seasonal and delicious with their sweet tooth satisfied and with no real harm to their diet. With baking you get to experience the truth of the axiom "everything in moderation."

One of the other lessons that baking teaches is the importance of the wait. The mixing of ingredients is generally a relatively quick enterprise depending on the complexity of your recipe choice. But once things are in the oven, the waiting begins. And there's no hurrying baking. If you are impatient and take something out too soon, you can't go back later and stick it back in to cook a little more. Neither can you just jack up the oven temp and get things done sooner. You must wait - time and temperature working in tandem to create the end result. And, if you're baking bread, you learn even more about the wait. Knead, rise, punch down, knead, rise. Time has no substitute.

Moderation and waiting. I think I'm beginning to get it.

Today's photo snagged from: