Friday, December 16, 2011


So I got in a little Facebook argument the other day. If you know me you know how odd that statement is. I generally limit my comments on people's FB posts to clicking 'like' (actually I click 'j'aime', as I have my FB page set to French) or saying things like "cool" "nice pic" "congratulations." Original, I know. But this time, I made a comment - a real comment.

The post was by a friend who is actually a former student. His political views and mine are far apart and it's something that we good-naturedly joke about pretty regularly. Every now and then I try to remind him that he is to use his power for good and not for evil. He doesn't listen.

But this time I commented and criticized - and I was serious. He posted a link to an article and in his post he said "this person CLAIMS..." So, I followed the link and read the article. That person did not claim.

He was referencing an article that is on the extreme side - I'd call it one of those pieces that is designed to be inflammatory. My friend said "He claims if X happens, then Y WILL happen." That's not what the author said. The author said if X happens, then Y CAN happen." Those are different statements.

So, I called my friend on this. Specifically I said, "this is the type of comment that I would nail you for if you did it in a paper or in a speech. Go back and read again. He does not claim that this WILL happen. Twisting the actual words of others to make your point is cheap and inflammatory. It's something we discussed in the basic Public Speaking class under Rules of Evidence and the Ethics of using evidence to prove your point." If you're going to quote, do it accurately.

That comment seems to have started quite an argument - with my friend and also with another poster who commented. She defended my friend saying that he was not misquoting, that those words had been used in the article. He was misquoting. Yes, those words were used in the article - but they were not used in the order in which he claimed they were - hence 'misquoting.' He was giving his interpretation of the author's intent based upon those words - perhaps accurate, perhaps not.

While I may not disagree with the conclusion my friend came to, I do disagree with the way he presented his point. It's easy to take another person's words and twist them to mean what we want them to. We repeat part of what someone says, leaving out or adding in a significant word or two and we put it out there as being what the person actually said. I'm sure we all do it on occasion.

But just because we all do it now and then or at least understand why people would want to, doesn't make it the right thing to do. If people are saying something stupid - the stupidity will shine through. We don't have to twist their words and claim that they said things they didn't say. When you misquote and misrepresent what people say, you weaken your own point and leave yourself open to charges of being dishonest and unethical.

One of the comments the other poster made was to my friend was to say "thank you for having the courage to call out such high brow crap as this. Hitler’s adage “Make the lie big, keep telling it, and people will believe it” is as true today as it was back then. This rabbi gets the award for most incendiary, divisive, and intellectually dishonest article of the year. We have a moral obligation to call out these lies, not just sit back and just 'dismiss.'"

I laughed out loud when I read her post. I find her reaction - and my friend's as well -- as being absolutely over the top. They are crediting this writer with far more influence than he deserves and they are making far more out of this article than it merits. Really - the majority of thinking people who read this will dismiss it as the rantings of a nut. I could post links to at least a hundred articles that are more divisive and incendiary than this one that have been printed in the last month - not year. His reposting of the article as well as the reposting by his friends who are 'sharing' it gives it far more scope than it ever would have had if they had done what most people would: read the article, get to the offensive part, say to themselves 'Oh, for Pete's sake,' and move on.

But then, I wonder if that really isn't the point. We look for offense - we look for something to be angry and upset about - we look for something about which we should have 'a moral obligation' to speak out. I suppose it's human nature. And, I guess I can accept that.

What I can't accept is the misquoting. If you are going to quote someone - do it accurately. Don't claim that someone else said something that they didn't say. If you INTERPRET what he said to mean something specific, then say that - and OWN it.

I own the fact that I lifted this image from:

Saturday, December 3, 2011


A few weeks ago I seem to have put my foot in it, as I am sometimes wont to do. I am currently serving on a committee to which my colleagues elected me a year and a half ago. This committee is charged with hashing out the various issues on which administrators and faculty often disagree, but upon which we must come to resolution.

Over the years, I have been pressed by a variety of my colleagues to serve on this committee and I have resisted. I felt that I didn't necessarily have the skill set that was appropriate for this environment -- specifically, I felt that I was too
inclined toward compromise to be effective in representing the faculty interests. While on my last sabbatical, a couple of individuals approached me again and seriously spoke with me about serving on this committee. Their arguments were compelling and I gave in and agreed.

As they say, all things are learning experiences and this has been no exception. It turns out that I was right about my hesitation but for all the wrong reasons. I am inclined to compromise. I am also inclined to give second and third chances. In this venue, though, I have made it a point to put to the side my personal views and to seek out the views of my colleagues, those who chose me to represent them. And in representing others, there is an obligation to speak out where there might not be if you are only considering your own interests.

Recently I did just that. I spoke out. The fallout has been interesting, to say the least. Going into this circumstance I knew that I might need to speak up, though prayed I wouldn't have to. I am my parents' child, after all, and learning from two masters I prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible. However, I was prepared. I had done my research, reviewed my notes, and spoken with several faculty seeking out their opinions and perspectives before the meeting to make sure I wasn't speaking inaccurately. I even had my favorite Maggie Kuhn (founder of the Gray Panthers) quote written on my notes: "Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes." I needed Maggie's support.

After a current issue we are facing was presented and a certain perspective on that issue was expressed, I stood (shaking internally) and introduced myself. I specifically started my comments by saying that I had a different opinion and wanted to offer a different perspective. I then presented my perspective concisely, with specific pieces of evidence to support it. Upon finishing and sitting I was shocked to hear the previous speaker's response: "Well, now that Judy has called me a liar..."

Is that where we are now? Are we in a place where any opinion that differs from our own means the person expressing it is calling us a liar? Seriously? I was absolutely stunned. I also was quick to point out that no, I had not called him a liar, that what I had done was express a different opinion and had identified it as such. The response to this was a "well, whatever" and a reiteration of the previous point.

Since the meeting I have been approached by several individuals. I've received emails. I've received phone calls, even a few at home as those calling were nervous about expressing their opinion at the office where they might be overheard. Several people sought me out in my office, or caught me in the hallway or on the mall on their way to classes. All of of them (with one notable email exception chastising me soundly) were very supportive. The majority thanked me for speaking up on their behalf and for sharing the information I had. Others thanked me for speaking for them as they were uncomfortable or afraid to speak up for themselves. Many of them also questioned the reaction that I received.

One of the individuals to seek me out was apparently as confused as I was. He asked "What was that about?" and I used the opportunity to check my perceptions. I asked "Did I? Did I call him a liar? Because if I did, then I need to apologize." My colleague said "No, you didn't call him a liar. You said that you had a different opinion." After a moment's pause he went on to say "Although, now that I think of it, by saying that to you he was kind of calling you a liar!" I decided to let that slide - while that is certainly one way to interpret it I guess, I'm not looking to pick up offense around every corner.

It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. It has caused me to reflect on a number of things. I've thought about how easy it is to speak carelessly or thoughtlessly. I've thought about how easy it is to become overly certain of our own positions. I've thought about how thin-skinned we sometimes are and how easily we take offense, often when none is intended. And I've thought about truth and lies and ethics.

When I was elected to this position I knew it was a 2 year commitment. Six months into it, I knew I had been right to resist for all those years and also knew that this one term of 2 years would be my last. With 6 months left to go, it would be awfully tempting to simply give in -- be silenced, keep quiet, smile and nod, be agreeable and not make any waves. And while it would be the easy choice, I have to admit to myself that it wouldn't be the ethical one.

Opinions are just that - opinions. Some are popular and some are not. Some are welcome and some are not. Either way, expressing your opinion does not mean you are calling all others with a different opinion liars - and it doesn't mean you shouldn't speak - even if your voice is shaking.

today's image:

Saturday, October 15, 2011


"We are always getting ready to live but never living." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is midterm and I have just finished teaching an Accelerated course. I'll start teaching a second one on Monday. What is such an animal? It is the regular semester-long course done in half the time. Sixteen weeks of work done in 8 weeks. Class meets 2 times per week for 3 hour blocks. Each class period equals one week of the regular semester. 2 class periods per week = 2 weeks of class material for every calendar week. Crazy you say? You would be correct.

Apparently we began offering this option for those 'returning adult' students whose lives are supposedly so complex that they cannot take a class during a regular semester. They can somehow manage 2 afternoons a week for 8 weeks, but they cannot manage one evening a week for 16 weeks? When you stop to think it through, it becomes clear that the logic just doesn't hold up. (Add to that the fact that I have NOT ONE returning adult in this course. It is full of 18 - 20 year old traditional college students.)

On the first day of the class, I told my students the facts: This class is the same as the class that runs the entire semester - it's just done in half the time. Half the time does not mean half the work, half the assignments, half the quizzes. It means all the work, all the assignments and all the quizzes done in half the time. You're not getting an easier course here -- it's the same course, just twice as fast. This means a minimum of 2 chapters a week, 2 quizzes a week, and 5 or 6 assignments per week. If you are taking this class because you think it is going to be easier - you are kidding yourself. It will be harder.

For a regular class, the understood ratio of outside preparation and work to in the class time is 2 to 1. (Some instructors advise their students it is 3 to 1.) This means for every one hour you spend in the classroom, you should plan to spend 2 to 3 hours studying, working and preparing for class - reading, writing, thinking, processing. In a normal semester class - this would mean 3 hours per week in class and an additional 6-9 hours per week outside of class. For an accelerated class this means 12-18 additional hours per week.

I took the time to tell my students exactly what to expect and then I advised them, with all seriousness, that if they were not prepared to do this work, it would be in their best interests to drop the course. None dropped. I expect to say the same things on Monday when my new accelerated course starts. I expect the same response.

For some reason there seems to be, among some students, the desire to get through classes as quickly as possible. It seems that they have begun to see the individual classes they are required to take as obstacles, rather than as opportunities. They see that class as standing between them and their goal. The end goal is what's important and the class is just some hoop they must jump through to be given the 'prize' at the end.

Unfortunately for many (a full 1/3 of this set of students) they will not get the prize because they did not pass. You read that right - one-third. This is not my normal success rate, believe me. I generally have one or 2 D's in a class and maybe an F, but all of those are because students chose not to come to class and do the work. However in this class - one-third. Clearly, trying to do a semester's worth of work in half the time is, for many, not the road to success.

I am concerned that this is reflective of a larger tendency - the desire to simply get through something in order to get to the next phase or step as opposed to experiencing something while you are
actually in it. I wonder how often we approach our lives like this - so focused on tomorrow that we don't take time to enjoy the moment we are actually living in. So focused on getting somewhere that we're willing to take any short cut to get there quicker.

We see the present as a burden, something to be endured in order to receive the promise of that golden 'tomorrow' that is out there somewhere in the future. Unfortunately, I think, the more we focus on that thing 'out there' the more we miss of what is here and now. In focusing so much on tomorrow and its preparation, we miss the absolute joy of the moment we are in. In attempting to short-cut the process, we short ourselves of the experience of our lives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I had one of those disconcerting experiences the other day that I have been processing ever since. I was speaking with someone who was commenting on a mutual acquaintance of ours. It wasn't gossip or criticism as much as it was an observation of how this particular individual operates. One of the things this person mentioned to me is that the other individual had a 'list' - a list of people that they absolutely could not stand. I jokingly replied "I sure hope you let me know if I ever get on that list!" There was silence.

I was brought up short. "Really? I'm on the list?" The response was No, I wasn't but the truth was that the other person didn't like me at all. When I asked why, the response was that, according to this individual, I was "confrontational and argumentative."

I admit to being initially surprised, perplexed, curious and, of course, a little hurt. I don't know that many of us want to be on someone else's don't-like list. Of course, as a teacher you have to get used to it -- all sorts of people don't like you on a pretty regular basis and are not afraid of letting you know. But it always gives you a bit of a pause when it's someone who is a peer.

Whenever someone criticizes me, I try to objectively look at what they're saying. So, since this conversation I have spent time reflecting on the comment and evaluating its veracity. Am I those things? Have I shown that behavior in my interactions with this person? The answer is - it depends upon how you view Confrontation.

It's my opinion that the word gets a bad rap. People see or hear it and they immediately perceive it as a negative thing - a conflict full of raised voices, angry comments, and unsurmountable obstacles. But if you really examine the meaning of the word, it doesn't have to mean any of those things.

If you look at a reference source, there are many definitions of the word. The definition that I believe is most helpful and useful is this one: "conflict between ideas, beliefs, or opinions, or between the people who hold them." Personally, I view a confrontation as an opportunity to explore those differing ideas or opinions in order to try to understand the other party and to try to come to a resolution to those differences with which everyone can be satisfied.

I realize my understanding and use of the word comes from my training. In Interpersonal theory, we encourage the idea that burying or ignoring differences is usually less than productive and helpful and that successful and healthy conflict resolution usually requires facing (confronting) the issues that are before you and addressing them openly.

So as I look back over my interactions with this person I have to conclude that this person's definition of "confrontational" and "argumentative" are different than mine. I also, to be very honest, conclude that perhaps this individual needs to grow a thicker skin.

I have had a very limited number of interactions with this individual - I'd be stretching to call it a dozen over the period of a year. The situation in which we most often interact is one where we are representing opposing interests. As such, we often have differing opinions. While I haven't been overly vocal in this setting (as there are many others present who are much more vocal and assertive and, quite frankly, argumentative), I am generally direct in expressing my views while taking care to communicate in ways that are respectful. I don't raise my voice. I don't use sarcasm. I don't snip. I don't roll my eyes. I don't use the 'heavy sigh.' I use phrases such as "I see your point and I'd like to share a different perspective," or "tell me more about this," or "can you give me a specific example of what you mean" or "I understand your position and I don't agree" or even "I don't think we're as far apart in our positions as you might think."

If that behavior is 'confrontational and argumentative' then I guess I am guilty.

People differ. We have different interests, opinions, thoughts, skills. I find those differences to be interesting. While they can sometimes be frustrating, more often I believe those differences are what create new ideas, new approaches and new possibilities. If we are willing to talk openly about them, and thoughtfully and open-mindedly consider the opposing viewpoint, I believe those differences can move us forward and result in positive change

I suspect that maybe this individual might be one of those who defines and categorizes anyone who holds an opposing opinion, and is willing to express it, as confrontational and argumentative. Personally, I don't find this approach particularly helpful or - quite honestly - particularly professional or adult. But for now, I guess I'll have to be content to be on someone's list.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


The first time I was called "fat" was when I was 8 years old. It was in school and our gym class was going through a height and weight check. The gym teacher said our measurements aloud as she marked them in her book. I remember her words clearly - 46 inches, 62 pounds. The girl who was directly ahead of me spoke clearly and convincingly - "62? You're fat!"

If you look at height/weight charts, 58 pounds is average for an 8 year old child.
So, yes, I was 4 pounds above the average but I probably wasn't fat. But that's all it took. That's when the scale entered my life.

I've mentioned before that I grew up in a poor family. I don't say that for effect - it's simply truth. My mother did wonders with her food budget and we went without in many areas for her to put meat and potatoes and bread on the table. Those were my father's favorites and she did what she could to supply them. I don't remember many suppers where those three things were not on the table. Not eating was not an option. You didn't turn your nose up at food.

As time went on, my self-consciousness grew. As I look back at pictures from my childhood, it appears that the weight started coming on in junior high. I judged myself as fat. I compared myself to thin friends and classmates and always saw myself as too big. Of course, I didn't compare myself to those who were heavier than I - I just didn't see them even though they were there. The slow creep of weight continued into high school and then college.

I played racquetball in college - during my Freshman and Sophomore years - up to three times a day but let that slide when I got involved in theatre and competitive speech. But when I moved to Minneapolis and took a full-time job here, I decided that it was time to grow up and really make a conscious effort to be healthy. I started exercising every day and making healthy eating choices.

My weight, however, continued its upward creep. My size 12 went to a size 14 and then to a 16. Doctors said 'eat less - exercise more.' So I did. I ate less and less and less. I exercised more and more and more. No change. I ate carrots and fruit and fish. I cut out bread and potatoes and sweets. No change. I swam 40 laps a day in an Olympic size pool. No change. I started every morning with a 4 mile walk, then later in the day did 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical machine and did a circuit on the nautilus equipment. No change.

Last year, my new chiropractor asked me to keep a food diary. I did. I was diligent. I wrote down everything I ate - and I do mean everything. If I ate a grape from the bowl on the counter, it went on my list. If I took a yogurt raisin from the bowl in the break room at the office, I wrote it down. When he examined my three week diary, he questioned me - "Did you write everything down?" "Everything" I said honestly. His response - "You don't eat very much." That's what I've been trying to tell people.

I will be honest with you all -- I got tired of the fight. I got tired of people in restaurants looking at me with disdain if I ate food. I got tired of people, sometimes total strangers, commenting on my weight. I got tired of doctors and nurses reacting with surprise when they see that my blood pressure is a relatively consistent 110/60. I got tired of my friend saying to me "If I exercised as much as you do, I'd be a pencil."

I'm not a pencil. I will never be a size 6. And, finally I decided that I am who I am and I am happy with who I am. I am healthy. My blood pressure levels are excellent. My cholesterol levels are within normal standards. I exercise daily. I eat fresh fruits and vegetable and lean proteins. I am no longer listening to doctors tell me that I need to eat less and exercise more.

When I relayed this decision to my accupuncturist, she applauded me. Then, because she's been treating me for several years now and has agreed with me that my lifestyle and my weight just aren't in sync, she referred me to a doctor. Because I trust her, I went to see this doctor. Who did some tests. Who discovered that I have a thyroid condition. And I have had. For years.

What are the symptoms of this thyroid condition? "Difficulty losing weight. Fatigue. Abnormal menstrual cycles. Cold intolerance. Muscle aches. Dry skin." I think my friends and family will recognize me in the description. Years worth of these symptoms. What's the answer? Eat less and exercise more? No. The answer, apparently, is medication.

So I haven't really changed my exercise habits or my eating habits. I still swim and walk. I still eat fruits and veggies. I still go out for happy hour with a friend now and then and I still have the occasional pizza or ice cream. And I now take one little pill every morning. And, as of today, I'm down 30 pounds.

If that weight stays off - great. Dropping a few pants sizes is never a bad thing. If the weight comes back - well, I guess that's fine too. I am who I am, and I've decided that every pound of it is good.

Today's image:

Saturday, July 9, 2011


"The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself."
- Jane Addams

As a teacher, I suspect that I might see this tendency a bit more than others in many professions, even though in conversation I hear that others have begun to notice this tendency becoming more and more common as well. "I am an exception."

The expectation that I give an exception comes to me certainly weekly but within the past year, it seems to be, almost daily. Sometimes it comes in the form of a demand, sometimes a request, and sometimes a plea. Most times it is accompanied by a complex, often deeply dramatic, story as to why this situation warrants an exception for this particular person.

The exception is requested for any number of things -- a due date, an alternative assignment, extra time, extra credit, or even a complete rewrite and resubmission. The most recent request for an exception came this morning. It was for the actual grade for the course. A student sent an email asking that I 'give him' a higher grade in the class. That's right. He thinks I should give him a higher grade than the one that he earned. He did not come to talk to me in person. He sent his request via email and from the tone of the note, seems to think he is quite justified in asking this. It certainly seems he sees nothing wrong in his request.

This, of course, is not the first time I have received this particular request. It happens most semesters, sometimes I even receive multiple requests. And even though this is nothing new, I'm always surprised when it comes. Think about it. These students are asking me to lie and cheat on their behalf. I'm not their classmate or their BFF. I'm not their sibling or their parent. I'm their teacher and they are asking me to lie and cheat. It astounds me.

During the first session of every one of my classes, I take care to
clearly explain the grading system for the course. Unlike some instructors I had when I was in college, I do not make my students guess about grades. I spell it out. In my course, you do not start the semester with an A and then lose points from there. You start with zero. Zero points. Everyone starts at the same place. Everyone has the opportunity to earn the same number of points. I don't give extra credit.

The majority of the grade, as much as I can possibly make it, is based on objective points. Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through quizzes. Questions are multiple choice and true-false. There is a right answer. And, I give a study guide indicating to students the topics that will be on each quiz.

Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through in-class exercises and activities. The majority of those points are also objective - matching exercises, identification exercises, application and analysis - where there are X number of questions with an equivalent number of answers. Again, there is a right answer.

The remaining 1/3 of the points are earned through a group presentation and an individual paper. For these points, students are given detailed assignment sheets that clearly articulate every requirement and also clearly articulate the criteria that will be used in evaluation. While there is, admittedly, some subjectivity in evaluating this kind of work, I have earnestly attempted to make the evaluation procedure as objective as possible. And, given that 2/3 of the course grade is based upon objective work, it seems that even if I were biased in some way it couldn't be enough to really damage a student's grade.

So, the criteria are spelled out. The points are there to earn. I provide the appropriate supplemental material to the textbook. I advise students on ways to study. I give hints on test taking. I willingly read rough drafts of papers before the due date. But once the time comes, students earn points. They earn what they earn. I can't give them more points if I like them particularly well. I can't take away points if I dislike them. They earn points.

I'm not sure when this "I am exceptional" attitude gained so much ground. I suspect it might have started when we stopped keeping score in T-ball and started giving a medal to everyone for 'participation.' No matter where it started, it seems that it is here to stay.

Maybe you are exceptional. Maybe you do deserve special treatment. Maybe I don't really understand how truly unique and deserving of deference you are. And, if in all your 'exceptionalness' you need to cheat and lie to make it through life - that's your decision and needs to be on your conscience. Don't ask me to do it for you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Abraham Maslow

Summer session is an interesting experience. Some students
choose to take a class or two in the summer to make their regular academic year load a little easier or lighter. Some do it to try to get ahead, so maybe they can finish a semester or two early. Some take a summer class because they think it's going to be easy -- how hard can it be when it's only 5 weeks? The first two types of students generally do very well in summer courses. They are motivated, prepared and ready to work.

The last type, unfortunately, is significantly disappointed (and sometimes significantly stressed) by what they find when they enter the classroom. Summer session is not an 'easier' or 'lightweight' version of the regular course. It is the regular course -- every assignment, every quiz, every reading, every activity, every project and paper -- condensed down into a third of the time. A regular semester runs 15 weeks. Summer session runs 5. Easy, it is not.

I'm not here to debate the effectiveness of cramming a semester's worth of material into 5 weeks. There's, in my mind, really not much of an argument. I don't think it is the most effective approach. (On the other hand, I do think it is more effective than cramming the entire semester into 8 days which is an option offered at a competing institution.) I believe that most of the time, learning of any kind benefits from time for reflection and application. There is less reflection time in 5 weeks than in 15. It would be one thing if this class were ALL the students were doing. Most, however, are either taking other classes with this or working full-time, or both. The fact is, though, that the class is being offered, there are students enrolled to take it, and I have been assigned to teach it.

This is where I'm going to criticize our framework - the current 'consumer approach' to education. There has been a shift in our attitude toward education from the time when I was a student to now. A college education used to be about gaining a broad based understanding of the world, and about how to think and reason critically in order to apply that knowledge to the experiences of living in the world. Now we are constantly being told by administrators and by the public in general that "the student is the customer" and our job is to "give the customer what they want."

I disagree. I don't believe that framing education as a commodity helps us in any way. In fact, I think it harms the student and it harms the larger society. Let me use an example. I need the oil changed in my car. I go to the place where they change the oil. I give them my car. They take it away. They do the work and change the oil. I go sit in the waiting room and look at a magazine. They bring the car back - work done. I pay money. This is the consumer model. They do the work, I pay money.

When we apply this model to education, I think we all get into trouble. Many students have taken on this attitude. I paid money (tuition). You give me my commodity (a degree, preferably with an A average.) But who does the work here? We expect the student to do the work necessary to earn the A, to earn the degree. But that's not the consumer model. When I get my oil changed, I'm not down in the grease pit with a wrench and a drip pan - the mechanic is. I don't do the work - they do. So, given that model, why shouldn't a student expect that they are paying money and that they should get in return, both the work and the end product?

I think that we've gotten ourselves into this situation by going along with the momentum without critically examining where the momentum is taking us. The High School diploma used to be the credential necessary to move along in life. The idea behind compulsory education from primary school through high school was to produce a citizenry that could read and write, compute and calculate, and critically think and reason in order to be functioning productive members of a democratic society.

Somewhere along the line things changed. We've moved so far from that, that now the Bachelor's degree is the basic credential that is necessary to move along in life. The primary and high school experience seems to have become less about producing an educated citizenry and more about Heather having 2 mommies and why all choices are equally good and none should be evaluated negatively because we really all should just want to get along with each other. Our attitude towards college seems to have become less about earning an education and more about receiving a credential which is only significant because it most likely will raise your annual income by about $25,000 per year.

I'm certainly not trying to say that $25k per year isn't significant. It is. But if the sole benefit/purpose of the college experience is getting the degree in order to get the money, we shouldn't be surprised when the students buy into the consumer model.

So, maybe we need to slow down a minute and take some time for a little of that reflection that I mentioned earlier. Is this model resulting in what we want and in what is necessary for the culture to continue advancing? If it isn't, then may we all need to take a step back and examine our frame. Maybe we need to expand the contents of our toolbox.


Monday, May 2, 2011


Tonight I had one of those experiences that happen to us all at one time or another. I got in the wrong line at the grocery store. You know the one – the one that looks like it’s going to be the quickest but turns out to be the most interminable.

It seemed like a good choice. There were two women in front of me who appeared to be friends, or maybe sisters. They didn’t have much on the conveyor belt, one buying milk and juice and the other buying milk and fruit and a few other items. So, why then did I stand behind them, waiting in line (with people stacked 5 deep behind me) with my items on the conveyor belt for 20 minutes? Yes, you read that right – 20 minutes. To be honest with you, that was 10 minutes longer than it took me to collect my groceries from the aisles of the store. Bananas and grapes, coffee and cream, yogurt, juice and a bag of Cheetos just don’t take that long to pick up.

Why did it take so long you ask? WIC. For those of you who are unaware, WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. It is a federally funded program which is designed to help pregnant and nursing women and children under the age of 5 who are nutritionally at risk and who fall below Federal Poverty Guidelines. There are a very limited number of food products covered by WIC, juice, milk and fruit being included. The juice, if it is prepared and not refrigerated, must be 100% juice (no blends) and 120% Vitamin C. WIC provides pamphlets to the participants detailing which foods and brands are covered. They also, of course, supply this same information to the stores. You can access it on the Internet.

Certainly, you would think, that people who are enrolled in the program for any length of time would be very clear about what is and is not allowed by the program. Yet, these two women seemed not to be. The juice that they had chosen was not covered. First, there was the argument which included “this is the juice that’s in my refrigerator right now.” Then, when the young man behind the register stood his ground, one of the women went to exchange the juice for a brand that was allowed.

The juice aisle was 20 feet from the register. We waited. And waited. And waited. For over 8 minutes. When the woman returned she carried 2 bottles of juice. She also strolled. She did not rush, she did not hurry, she did not even walk rapidly. She strolled – fully aware that there were 6 people in line waiting behind her. It was truly something to behold.

I must admit that part of my reaction was judgment. I was judging these two women. They were both dressed far more expensively than I. The woman directly in front of me was wearing a lovely, and costly, leather jacket. They were both in what appeared to be brand new
designer jeans, they were coiffed and made up, and both were sporting a set of acrylic nails that generally run about $40 for the set and another $15 to $20 every two weeks to refill. Compared to me in my 5 year old jeans (with the broken zipper which I keep together with a strategically placed safety pin) and an old college long-sleeved tee you would never have guessed me as having more money.

After they finished their rather complex transactions, they sauntered on out of the store. When I left a few minutes later I passed them standing at the Red Box discussing which movie they were planning to rent.

I certainly believe that helping low-income children to eat nutritionally healthy food is a good thing and I don’t mind my tax dollar going to that – truly. Yet, it seems apparent to me that these women have disposable income. And, given that they have enough money for the nail salon every 2 weeks, I am irritated that my tax dollars are going to support them. I know that the WIC money goes to only a very few items. However, this seems to be enough of a subsidy to allow them to have a great deal of money to spend on other things – things that I would judge to be extras – not necessities. So, in essence, I am paying for those nails. Grrr.

I know that I have invoked the memory of my mother rather often in these posts, so please bear with me as I do it again. My mother and father lived by the precept that you didn’t buy extras if you couldn’t afford necessities. I think it’s a good precept. I try to live by it as well – succeeding more or less. If I’m going to live by that standard, I want others to do so as well – particularly when those others are using my tax dollars to fund their extras.

Now, you may be thinking that I shouldn’t judge them as I don’t know their circumstances. That’s true. But I’m not just judging them. I’m also judging my niece, the grand-daughter of my good friend, the girl in my classroom.

Women - we are responsible for our bodies. We are the ones who need to be accountable for our choices. Choosing to produce children that you do not have the emotional, social, or financial wherewithal to support is indefensible. And, assuming that your baby daddy is going to hang around and take care of you and that little one is - let’s face it – in many cases, just plain stupid.

It’s 2011 and the times of demanding virginity of women are long past. However, with that freedom to express your sexuality comes responsibility. Expecting others to take care of you and fund your ‘sexual freedom’ needs to stop. Get a pill, get a condom, get a diaphragm. And use them.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011


I recently had dinner with a colleague. We’re actually friends as well, but we hadn’t been able to connect much in the recent past so there was quite a bit of catching up to do. We went to a restaurant I’d never been to before and had decent enough food in a pleasant enough atmosphere for which he paid. I should have come home thinking ‘what a wonderful evening that was’ and I did not. I came home irritated, frustrated, aggravated and, if truth be told, probably a little hurt. I’ve been stewing about it since.

As I mentioned, in addition to being colleagues we have been friends for years – about 20 or so. We came to the college around the same time and were housed in the same office suite for the first couple of years. From that beginning grew a nice friendship – lunches, dinners, invitations to each other’s parties, traveling together. There was even a summer when he was between buying and selling houses and he spent 3 months in my guest room in exchange for help with a few household projects. It’s been a good friendship.

I say all that to set the stage – and because it is part of the reason for all the emotions I have been feeling these past few days. After catching up on our personal lives our conversation, as might be expected, turned to grousing and gossiping about work related matters and people. We discussed a couple of current projects that my friend is involved in, the joys and irritations of our students and their choices, the state of relations between our current administration and faculty on campus as well as the overall atmosphere/morale of the place. As they say, I should have known better.

My friend and I often differ in the way in which we interpret and respond to campus events. That, I think, is a positive thing. It is easy to get caught up in your own point of view on something and forget to consider (or flat-out ignore) other perspectives. I will often deliberately seek out his perspective on an issue because of that. In many cases, he has information that I don’t or an opinion that I hadn’t considered. Sometimes that information will temper my opinion and sometimes it will change my mind completely. While I try to approach events somewhat positively and hopefully, often his perspective is pretty cynical which keeps my Pollyanna tendency in check.

This particular time, though, was different. We were discussing an issue which we have discussed before and on which we have markedly differing positions. We have argued about this issue on more than one occasion and we both think we are right in our perspectives. While I still will consider his view (I actually wish his view was the correct one) I’m afraid that on this issue my view is probably a little more realistic. In this particular case, I’m the cynic and he’s the one trying to spin this to the positive.

So what does this have to do with aggravation and hurt? On this particular issue, he is dogmatic. He insists that he is right and I am wrong. When I attempted to argue my point, he kept insisting on his view. Finally, he demanded – ‘give me an example.’ When I was silent, he crowed at me ‘See you can’t. Because there isn’t one. It never happens.’ My response was, ‘You’re right, I can’t.’

And, I couldn’t. NOT, however, because there wasn’t an example. I couldn’t give the example because I am prohibited from giving it.
It’s not my personal example, and the people who have shared it with me have done so under the caveat that I keep it quiet. Privacy. So, after a few more moments of him pushing my ‘wrongness’ at me, I finally said that we needed to change the subject and we moved on. But clearly, I haven’t moved on. I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated by the arrogance of his position. ‘You can’t give me an example of this so it doesn’t exist. You are wrong.’

Obviously, he’s an intelligent man and should know better than to rely on this fallacious ‘burden of proof’ argument. It’s one of the first things we discuss when teaching persuasion and debate. Just because you have no hard evidence against an argument, does not mean that the argument does not exist. Yet, it is the position we want to take when the argument threatens us in some way – our beliefs, our self-image, our perspective. I’m not saying that my friend is not intelligent. He is. In this particular case, though, he is also wrong.

Some people would say to me that it is enough to know you are right about something – others don’t have to acknowledge it. I believe, many times, that is true. I think in this case my aggravation and hurt come not from his position, but from his refusal to even consider the possibility that he might not have all the facts – that there might be information out there to which he is not privy. That refusal, by extension, seems to be saying that I could not possibly have any information that he does not. Therefore, it seems to argue that I am stupid, ignorant, emotional, irrational, and wrong. It feels disrespectful. It feels arrogant.

We all think we’re right about things. If we thought we were wrong, we would change how we think. That’s only logical. And it is understandable that we want to believe in our own sense of reason. However, the lesson to me this time is the need to temper my own tendency to believe in my own ‘rightness’, and to remember that it is entirely possible that I may not have all the facts before I jump to judgment. Because that judgment, no matter how justified it may seem to me, might be wrong.


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Several years ago I did a short stint in corporate America. Specifically, I spent almost a year in the Human Resources area of a large corporation. I did a variety of tasks during that time – from writing curriculum for the manager of Training and Development to updating job descriptions to answering phones. The “job description” element of that work was an eye opener for me.

At the time, I was quite young – basically at the beginning of my professional career. I had taught for a few years at the college level by that time. The job descriptions that I was familiar with were general – “ability to teach Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, Oral Interpretation of Literature and a minimum 2 years experience coaching college level Forensics.” Once hired, those were the basic duties. We were all expected to simply know the details of what was required to do these tasks effectively, and do them. And, the majority of the people I worked with seemed to know and do them.

However, there were a number of other duties that weren’t outlined in the job description. We were expected to serve on college committees, to advise students, to do department work involving curriculum offerings, to participate in the new educational initiatives that came along every 5 to 7 years. We did those things as well, just without it ever being written down as part of our job and, quite frankly, without ever being compensated for the work. It was just part of working in the academy.

Corporate job descriptions, though, were quite different. They contained a laundry list of specific tasks that an individual applying for a specific position was expected to do. They also contained an articulation of what constituted meeting those expectations – as well as what was considered falling short. Some of these descriptions were literally pages long. After working for a while in this environment I chose to go back to higher education and took my current job. The “job description” was what I had experienced in previous academic environments. And, for quite a long while, the majority of us adequately did our jobs with this minimal amount of written instruction.

As with all things, this process morphed over time. We still don’t have a corporate-type job description. However, we now have a “Professional Development Plan” – a document that we create in conjunction with our supervisor that has a 3 year shelf life. We outline in general terms what we intend to do to “develop” our professional skills over a 3 year period, and at the end of that time we submit a report that details how we accomplished this. In the past, this also formed the basis for our performance review. The process was designed to enable success. The 3 year plan was discussed at the outset with the supervising dean. It allows for growth and recognized that developing a skill set is a process. But it still is based upon the idea that everyone ‘knows’ the job description. In my opinion, it is effective and appropriate in an academic environment.

I suspect that part of the reason I am comfortable with this style is that it is what I ‘grew up’ with. When I was a college student, assignments in classes often read something like this: Prepare and deliver an 8-10 minute persuasive speech, 7 sources required, on a pertinent social issue. That was it. The entire instruction. And, we prepared and delivered the speech.

Today things have changed. The assessment movement in American education has pushed (not wrongly) the importance of articulating clear expectations and clear standards of evaluation. In essence, education has become ‘corporatized’ in this area, as well as in so many others. (Many a time we hear administrators refer to students as our ‘customers’.) So our writing of assignments has changed. They now resemble a job description. I now give my students a 14 point checklist of items required for their speeches. I clearly articulate the types of supporting material they are required to use, the pattern of arrangement for their main points, the required elements of delivery. I also articulate for them exactly how the points for the assignment will be assigned. With all these detailed instructions are students giving significantly better speeches that they did when I was a student? Quite frankly, no.

So I don’t think that this change has affected the quality of student work in any significant way for the better. What it has affected is the ability of students to work without a great deal of instruction. Unless you outline every expectation, students are often paralyzed about how to proceed. I suspect that this has worked its way into the workforce as well. It seems that many people have no idea what constitutes professionalism and courtesy, for example, or what constitutes quality work. Without clear and excessively detailed instructions, many people have no idea how to really function in a professional environment. They seem to lack the confidence and initiative to step out and take charge of a task and when they do, they often fall short.

It appears that this new and continued emphasis on the ‘corporate’ way of doing things may appease school boards, assessment officers and maybe even legislators. And maybe it’s simply the way things are so there’s no use in fighting it. But, in that corporate spirit, it might be a good idea for someone to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. For all the cost of changing to this corporate model, have the benefits to students and their skills really been worth it?

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Thursday, March 10, 2011


The recent controversy over teacher salaries and bargaining rights in Wisconsin seems to be giving way to a renewed “discussion” (and yes, I use that term loosely) over teacher effectiveness and qualifications. It’s certainly not a new topic and most people seem to have quite a few opinions on it.

In a recent article in the New York Times, for example, Donna Foote puts in her 2 cents worth. Foote is a former Newsweek correspondent and author of a book called Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. The book chronicles the experiences of four first-year teachers trained in the TFA program (that’s 5 weeks of training) who go on to work in struggling urban schools and the difficulties they encounter. In her NYT article, Foote asserts that “The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.” Foote is wrong in her assertion on a dozen different levels.

Even the most basic examination of the research into student achievement would have shown Ms. Foote that the single most important factor in student achievement is family income and parental educational level. And while socio-economic status and parental education level are the most significant issues, they are also not the only factor in student achievement. “The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.” Would it be that I, the teacher, had that amount of power. I don’t. But someone else does have that power – the parent.

So, let’s talk about parental involvement, or rather, the lack of it. No matter how well trained, how well supported, how experienced, how caring and involved a teacher is in their profession, none of that can possibly make up for what happens outside of the classroom. The teacher has no power over whether or not the student eats breakfast or the quality of that breakfast. They have no power over whether the student sleeps or how much. They have no power over the time the student spends on homework. They have no power over the amount of time the child was read to during their formative years. The parent, though, has the power over all those things.

I am not a parent, so I am not here to tout my own expertise in that arena. Instead, I’ll showcase the expertise of some of my friends who are parents – who do everything in their power to make it possible for their children to achieve academically. For example, in one friend’s house during the academic year there are rules that everyone follows. There is no television during the school week. You read that right – NO television. Of any kind. Not the news. Not Glee. No television. Not for the kids – not for the adults. It just doesn’t get turned on between 6 pm on Sunday through 6 pm on Friday. Computers are in the living room, including laptops. There is no watching TV online. There is no Facebooking or YouTubing until 2 am. At bedtime, all cell phones remain in the living room. There is no texting of friends throughout the night. If grades fall below acceptable levels, extra-curricular activities are at risk. Are my friends’ children gifted? No. Are they all performing well in academically rigorous schools? Yes. Why? Parental involvement.

Reports say the average American student spends over 9 hours per day in front of some form of media. Imagine what student achievement might look like it they spent that 9 hours reading – or even half of it. It isn’t up to the teacher – it’s up to the parent. A very unscientific survey of my own students last semester revealed that a full 85% of my students had a television in their bedroom before the age of 12. It isn’t up to the teacher – it’s up to the parent.

Foote goes on in her article to state that “we should attack the real problem: the quality of our teachers.” No one would probably argue that a good teacher is better than a bad one. I realize that not all teachers are exceptional or even good. But the message from Foote and others seems to be that anyone can teach well with only 5 weeks of training – anyone, that is, except a veteran teacher.

Lest you think I’m trying to defend myself and declare what a great teacher I am, let me assure you that I am fully aware of my own shortcomings as an educator. I shudder to think of the students I “taught” during my first year as a teacher. I was horrible. Really. I was slightly less horrible during my second year of teaching and in each subsequent year after that. (If any of my students from those first 5 years are reading this, please accept my sincere apologies.) After quite a few years, I actually began to think that someday I might even be good. Even now, though, I realize that I am a better teacher today than I was 10 years ago, than I was five years ago, than I was one year ago.

Would I have been a better teacher at the beginning had I gone through TFA’s 5 week intensive training program before I started? Maybe. I’m not here to bash TFA and I certainly don’t know enough about their training program to either praise or condemn it. But I would hazard a guess that after 25 years of honing my craft I am a better teacher than any of the TFA teachers in their first year. And, even by their own reports, the difference in impact on student success their teachers make compared to traditionally trained teachers is minimal at best. From a report posted on their website:
The average control class students scored in the 15th percentile in the fall and remained in the 15th percentile at the end of the year. In contrast, the average TFA class students increased their ranking from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile over the same period.

For reading achievement, we found that the average student in TFA and control classrooms experienced the same growth rate. The average sample member increased by the equivalent of about one percentile point during the study year.

I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe that we should have exceptional teachers. We should. Our students deserve the very best of effort in helping them to achieve learning. But blaming teachers for things that are absolutely out of their control gets us nowhere. And it takes the conversation and attention away from dealing with the real issues that plague educational achievement in our society. For students to achieve educationally, they need a home environment that puts education in the forefront. They need parents who are willing to do everything in their power to support and create an environment that makes learning important. We all need to lose our sense of entitlement that makes us demand something for nothing. And we need well-trained, experienced teachers, giving their best.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I’ve been dreaming of summer – the green grass, the warmth of the sun, the smell of summer wafting in through the window on the slightest hint of a breeze as you’re drifting off to sleep with only a sheet to cover you. Last night in my dream it was summer and I was on a boat. I was sitting at the back of the boat, watching the wake billow out behind us. It rippled – big waves at first, which got smaller and smaller the further they got from the boat. Later in the dream I was on the shore, standing at the edge of the water as the wake of a passing boat made its way to shore and splashed up over my feet, again and again, each splash getting smaller and smaller.

Of course, I know this was a dream. There was the fact that I was sitting at the back of the boat watching the wake. In reality I would be more likely to be at the back of the boat hurling into the wake as the waves of motion sickness washed over me. There is the other reality of the sight out my window as I write -- the mountains of snow still covering the ground with more promised to come today.

But since I woke up I have been thinking about the wake.

There are people who go through life leaving a path of absolute destruction in their wake -- a series of bad choices repeated over and over, failed attempts at jobs or education, damage done, failed relationships. I wonder what they see when they look back – if they ever do – and contemplate their path. I wonder what impact their wake has on their future choices.

We are ephemeral. We pass through. We are here for a while, but ultimately we all go. We all have an impact on someone or a series of someones. I am looking at my wake. I am contemplating what I see there. What is it that splashes onto people’s feet as I pass by? What washes up on the shore and remains? And, I continue to dream of summer.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Credit, that is. It’s what people want. And, apparently, I’m supposed to give it.

I don’t remember having a lot of options for extra credit while I was in school. I’m sure that could be a case of selective remembering. I know that there were certainly times I wanted it. But my memory says it was a bit of a rarity and I even recall one of my college instructors writing it into the syllabus – “There is no
such thing as EXTRA credit!” I remember thinking him a little bit of a hard you-know-what but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

These days, extra credit seems to be the expectation – and not just from students. We get emails from various people pushing their particular special interest on campus and wanting us to encourage our students to participate. They are helpful enough to give us a list of ways to do this including, inevitably, “offer your students extra credit to…” We want them to participate in a campus conference – offer extra credit. We want them to attend a campus speaker – offer extra credit. We want them to attend Success day – offer them extra credit. We want them to participate in the campus food drive/book drive/coat drive – offer them extra credit.

In the beginning of my teaching career, I admit I didn’t give this much thought. I occasionally offered students the option of earning extra credit by attending a campus speaking event and writing something (evaluation, response) that related the speaking event to the course theory. I quickly learned, though, that the extra work was not worth the extra credit – for me or for my students.

More significantly, I once gave students the opportunity to earn extra points by donating to a campus food drive. Many did, but many didn’t. One of the ones who didn’t, was gracious enough to come talk to me privately. Our conversation changed my approach. She told me that she would have loved to have earned the extra points and would have loved to give to the food drive, but that her family had to actually make use of the food shelf so she couldn’t give. I realized that my ‘extra credit option’ actually amounted to selling grades to the wealthier of my students. Ouch.

This experience caused me to step back and really evaluate the notion of ‘extra credit.’ Having done so, I’ve eliminated it from my teaching. I arrange my courses so that grades are earned based on a number of assignments worth smaller amounts of points. Doing poorly on or missing any one assignment won’t kill anyone, nor will it make the difference between any two grades.

I’ve determined that to be in line with my own philosophy of education, grades should not be based upon sheer volume of work. If I give enough ‘extra credit’ options, anyone should be able to get enough points to earn an ‘A’. But grades and evaluation should be about more than simply amassing points. They should be about quality as well, and they should distinguish between students operating at different levels of expertise, effort and ability. Not everyone should get an ‘A’. Not everyone is exceptional. And, for me, if that ‘A’ isn’t earned outright but given away through a process of ‘extra credit’ makes the concept of grades essentially meaningless.

I’m sure that many of my students will disagree with me. I’m sure that many of my colleagues will as well. However, I’m content with grading the work that has been assigned, and evaluating my students’ performance on that basis, and leaving the ‘extra’ to others.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011


It’s the first day of Speeches. Let the excuses begin!!

My students deliver 4 researched and prepared speeches in my Public Speaking classes in addition to 5 limited preparation speeches. We’ve been preparing for this day since the first week of class. Every day we have covered another concept to help make students ready for this speech – organization, supporting material, outlining, introductions, conclusions, research. The course is designed very carefully to build up to this first speech. We cover all the material in order and I require students to hand in work along the way – first a thesis statement, then main point ideas, then a rough outline, then a finished outline.

Students are allowed to choose their speech day. We have 3 days of speeches this round, and students volunteered to go on specific days. They have chosen when they wanted to give their speech. There’s absolutely no reason to not be prepared.

And yet, the excuses come. “I won’t be in class today. I know I’m supposed to speak, but…” A full one-fifth of the students scheduled to speak made an excuse as to why they couldn’t.

I often joke (as do many Public Speaking instructors) that taking a Public Speaking class is hazardous. It results in the death of untold grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well as numerous family pets. It fosters all manner of illness from the general malaise of ‘I’m just not feeling well at all,’ to the flu, to laryngitis, to fevers and chills of unknown origin. It results in various family members having to go out of town for various emergencies, and they must take flights that require them to be taken to the airport during the scheduled speech time. It even has been known to send friends, sisters, and boyfriends’ sisters into labor requiring the immediate attendance of a speaker at the hospital for the event.

While all these are certainly valid life events, it is fascinating to me how much more likely they are to occur if the student is enrolled in a Public Speaking course.

It’s not like there aren’t consequences for not speaking as assigned. It’s an automatic letter grade deduction and then another letter grade for every missed speaking opportunity. The highest grade most people who give a late speech end up earning is a C. Many end up with a D or an F. And, the reality is, that many people who aren’t ready to speak on their assigned date are never ready, and end up not giving the speech at all – a 0. Failing to give one of the 4 major speeches, generally results in a course grade no higher than a C, often lower. That’s not a pre-determined policy – it’s simply the results I’ve seen over and over through years of teaching this course.

Of course, excuses abound, even outside of the Public Speaking classroom. We see them in our workplace, with colleagues, in our friendships and family relationships. There’s something almost instinctive in the self-protective nature of the excuse. It’s not really my fault – it’s beyond my control. That allows me to convince myself that I wasn’t lazy or unorganized. It’s not that I’m irresponsible or unprofessional. It’s not that I was thoughtless or purposely disrespectful. I have an excuse.

Listening to my students’ excuses makes me painfully conscious of my own. And that awareness, while it doesn’t change or erase the consequences of my students’ choices, does give me a greater understanding of what they’re experiencing, and a greater compassion as well.

(I tried to create my own image, but couldn't figure out the software... so I snagged this image from this site:

Friday, January 21, 2011


We are at the end of the second week of the semester. Enrollment in classes has more or less evened out. The students who are coming to class have, more than likely, the intention of finishing out the semester. Whether they are able to do so successfully, though, will depend on any number of factors. Unfortunately, the majority of those factors are absolutely out of my control.

Yesterday we had our first quiz in one of my courses. First quizzes can be difficult. You don’t know how the instructor writes questions, what type of information they’re looking for, how to read the questions. In this particular course, I provide a study guide for my students in advance. I create the study guide from the actual quiz, making sure that I indicate the topics that will be covered.

I also allow students to use a note card - a ‘cheat sheet’ if you will - during the quiz. I don’t do this in my other courses. I question the wisdom of doing it in this course as well. I wonder if I’m being too easy on them, too indulgent. I justify my choice because of the fact that the material in this course is very foreign to many students and the textbooks are really written at the 3000/4000 level as opposed to the 2000 level where this course, of necessity, resides on our campus. Even with the study guide and the note card – many students average a solid ‘C’ on quizzes throughout the semester. In the past I have attributed this to the difficulty of the course material and the ‘newness’ of the topic to most of my students. Today I am questioning those assumptions.

After the class a student approached me to talk about the quizzes. He admitted he didn’t think he had done well on the first quiz – earning 6 out of 15. He is correct in his self-assessment. He asked whether the remaining quizzes would be as hard. I assured him that they would. I then went on to give him advice about how to study. My comments went something like this:

When you sit down to read the chapter, be sure to have the study guide with you. As you are reading, take notes on the concepts that are listed on the study guide, summarizing the ideas in your own words. Check off each item as you come to it, to make sure you don’t miss anything in the reading. Then, study the notes you’ve made on the study guide. After that, condense the ideas down into more concise wording to put the concepts on your notecard. If you do this, you should be pretty well prepared to do well on the next quiz.

This student looked at me as though I had grown a second head. His response was, “I don’t have time for that.”

My student asserted that he had other classes and life obligations and that he just wasn’t going to spend that much time on this. When I suggested that he should consider whether he should be taking the class this semester, that maybe 4 classes was too many for him, he was quick to assert that he wasn’t going to drop the course. He just doesn’t have the time to do the basic studying required. When I
reminded him that there were assignments other than the quizzes - group projects, papers – he simply repeated that he doesn’t have time for this.

It was a fascinating experience. I could literally see the magical thinking going on in this student’s head. I “shouldn’t” demand so much of him. I “shouldn’t” expect him to read or study. I “shouldn’t” advise him to reconsider his decision to take this course. I “should” change my standards and make my course easier. I “should” ask less. I “should” reduce the course expectations. He ‘should’ be able to get a good grade in the course without actually doing any reading, writing or studying.

So where does this thinking come from? Have we watered down our educational system so much that even the most basic expectations of reading and taking notes are now considered ‘too demanding?’ Is any expectation of prioritizing school, homework, and studying above socializing or personal life simply an archaic notion that doesn’t recognize modern life and its demands? Do we really expect that we can learn a new concept without any effort on our part? Do we really expect to have a college degree handed to us in exchange for a swipe of our credit card?

Maybe it’s the consumer mentality that has taken over much of academia. Maybe it’s the sense of entitlement that we hear talked of so much in reference to this particular generation. Maybe it’s simple, old-fashioned laziness. Whatever it is – the result for my student is grave disappointment. The quizzes won’t get any easier, the demands of the class won’t get any lighter. I’m sticking to that old-fashioned standard that you do have to read, you do have to write, you do have to study.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011


In December I was in conversation with a couple of my colleagues and the topic of technology came into the discussion. Both of these colleagues teach on-line, one entirely and one partially. They were making the point that I just didn’t understand the demands of such work – that they were forced to work more and harder in order to teach in that particular environment than I do in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. Hmmm.

I know that one of the difficulties of the working world is the comparisons. We have been raised in a competitive culture – where it is rewarded to do better than the person next to you. One of the things that engenders, then, is the tendency to compare ourselves to others. We look at others to make sure that they are working as hard as we are – putting in the same effort, the same time. I think that it is also human nature to assume at some level (perhaps unconscious) that we work harder, better, longer than others around us. It certainly is consistent with that tendency in perception that we teach in the Interpersonal classes – “we see ourselves in the best possible light.” I know that I succumb to this tendency as well. I think (hope) I’m just not quite so quick to say that thought out loud to one of my colleagues!

I admit that I didn’t react all that well. I suggested that we all work hard and I didn’t really believe that they worked any harder than the rest of us – they just worked ‘differently.’ One of them then asserted that I just didn’t understand the demands and expectations that have been put on them – answering emails at 3 am, for example. That’s where I really lost it. I asserted that they were feeding me a line of crap and that I didn’t believe a word of it! How’s that for direct? I told them very clearly that in my opinion they both needed to get a life and set some boundaries! (And yes, I know I could have said it a little more gently.) I answer student emails from home. I answer student emails on weekends. I do NOT answer student emails at 3 am. And, if any administrator ever tells me that I need to be answering student emails at 3 am, then it’s time for a chat with my union grievance representative!

This morning when I logged on to my Facebook page there was a posting from the college’s Humanities and Fine Arts page. It contained a link to an article in today’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on some of the latest technologies that can enhance our teaching. In this article, the author makes reference to a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who keeps his syllabi loaded on a hand-held device so that “when a student emails to ask about an assignment deadline while Mr. Parry is at the grocery store, he knows.”

Really? Now I’m expected to answer a student email while I’m at the grocery store?

Please don’t misunderstand. I believe in being available to my students to answer questions. If a student wants me to look at a rough draft or an outline, or has a question about a concept that they are trying to understand as they study for the next exam, I am more than happy to respond to those questions, even at home, even on the weekend. But carrying my syllabi around so that I can tell a student when a paper is due while I’m buying my groceries seems beyond a reasonable expectation to me. That student was given a copy of the syllabus when they enrolled for the course. They can just as easily look up that information as I can. Why on earth should I be responsible for taking charge of that student’s calendar or schedule? This hardly seems like helpful help to me. One of the skills we all need to learn is the ability to track and manage our own deadlines and responsibilities.

It seems to me that with this increasing encroachment of technology into all our lives we all need to be more diligent about setting some boundaries. You don’t have to answer your cell phone every time it rings. You don’t have to respond to a text message the moment it comes in. You don’t have to reply to an email at 3am. We all need down time – private time. We need time to breathe, time to think, time to relax, time to imagine. Not putting boundaries on the technology demands in our lives eats away at the margin- the white spaces in our lives that allow us to do that necessary regrouping.

So, we’re gearing up to start a new semester. I intend to be available to my students. I intend to be responsive and flexible. I intend to do my job well. I intend to do so with clear boundaries about where my work life ends and my personal life begins.

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