Sunday, September 28, 2014

Magic Crime Fighter

Not really magic, but...  have you noticed how many crime TV shows have as their central character a mysterious, super rich male who has some sort of organization to fight "bad guys" (as defined by that character) outside of the usual societal channels?  The central figure seems to be either an ex-spy/government agent or a somewhat rehabilitated criminal.  If they're an ex-spy type, they've usually  rejected the government agency/methods as corrupt or ineffective.

I was looking for something to watch on Nflix the other day, and saw James Spader's newish TV show in the choices list.  I never got quite into Boston Legal, but I liked it when I saw it, and Spader's good, so I thought I'd watch the new show.  It's really violent, disturbingly violent.  Spader is good in it, but holy cow, did I mention violent?

It got me thinking about the magical, not really magical, male crime fighter figure.

Robert Wagner in It Takes a Thief, way back in the 60's.  He wasn't super rich, but he had a secret government group behind him, and knew pretty much everything there was to know.

Charlie's Angels, the mysterious Charlie was less of an active presence, but still sort of fits the mold.

Macgiver, super smart, and again working for a secret government agency.

The Equalizer, with Edward Woodward as a retired super spy type fighting crime with a pal.

There's another show on now, or recently, where a guy has basically hacked the world and sends out his streetwise pal to fight crime that he sees on the hacked world thing, and directs through his hacked world thing.  (Okay, so I watched a little bit of this once, but obviously it didn't much catch my attention.)

The A Team is a sort of comic version, and Mission Impossible was a more government organized, but not quite legit version.  Both of these had a leader, but were more group shows rather than centered on the leader.

I'm sure there are others.

I'm guessing these shows are popular because they meet some sort of fantasy, that there really is someone powerful, somewhat fatherly (or literally fatherly), who's going to protect regular folks from super bad people who are dangerously powerful, willing to kill in massive and super violent ways (or willing to kill subtly, and therefore all the more dangerous).  The fantasy seems to answer a perception that the regular social systems are totally inadequate to take on these super dangerous baddies and that we're better off not knowing, not proceeding in ways that respect rights, and so forth, because these baddies are just so bad.

I really wish I could find a good comedy on Nflix, or they'd get the rights to shows such as Northern Exposure, which would be fun to see again, since I enjoyed it during the first run.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Citations

The required text for our first year comp course, the one we all have to use, talks about citation.

Before I reveal what it says about citation, let me ask you all, hive-mind of the internet:  what is the primary purpose of citing texts.

Are there different purposes depending on who's writing?

Are there different purposes depending on what sort of text is being cited?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Weird is...

I was at a small casual get together to meet some new faculty folks, and get to know some other new folks today.  Most folks were newly minted phuds, though there were a couple other folks who've been around as I have.

One of the spouses argued that things on campus should work like they do in the military, and when a faculty member asks a non-faculty staff person to do something, that person should basically drop whatever they're doing and take care of the faculty member.  Then the new folks all started in agreeing wholeheartedly that non-phuds should treat phuds with way more respect.

And weirdly, I, the old fart, was trying to say that no, sometimes staff folks had more important things to do than whatever it was the faculty person wanted, and no, staff folks are sometimes treated with less respect than is right, and so on.  I was probably more polite than I might have been, but also cognizant that I have more power than these folks, and shouldn't throw it around. 

It's not that I've never been frustrated by administrative staffers.  I have.  Still, their reactions struck me as showing that they thought having a phud made them special, better than people who don't have phuds.  They seem way more enamored of hierarchy than I am, even though I have more power in the hierarchy than they do.  I guess that weirds me out.

Want to guess what our common denominator was?

In Fiction

I'm listening to a novel on CD (I listen while driving, especially), which is set in a location where I've spent a lot of time.  I remember the first time that happened to me.  I was reading a 20s novel in high school and I realized that the characters were in an area I knew pretty well from riding my bike endlessly around.  The area had changed, but it was still familiar to me in a fairly deep way.  I remember how sort of shocked I was that my home landscape could be in a book.

That was different for me from seeing familiar stuff in movies, places I'd been, but hadn't been in the same way I was when riding my bike around.  What I mean is I saw movies, and recognized landmarks and stuff that I'd been taken to, but never saw or read about places I biked around and knew in that sort of deeper way.

The places I'm thinking of, the places I bike(d) around or shopped or whatever and encountered in that 20s novel and now in this current novel aren't big landmarks, more like the local high school, or a water tower.  They don't make postcards, but they're familiar.

It makes some things about this novel pretty fun in an insider sort of way.

But it's also very much a male novel, pretty focused on men and men's relationships, and the ways the characters use and think about the spaces and places feels pretty gendered to me.  (The novel's not that great, but word is that the folks local to where it's set are pretty hyped about it.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading About Pay for Play

In our composition courses, we're supposed to provide a theme (at least to start the course).  We're encouraged to do something hip and cool, but since my hip and coolness is stuck somewhere around 1590, I hate having to come up with a theme.  I don't much care about the latest TV shows or pop stars or internet cat thing.  And the things I care about: Shakespeare, biking, birds, and such, are stuff I don't want to have to sell to 18 year olds.

So this semester, I just looked around and chose, and I chose the question of paying college athletes for playing, that is, paying real money beyond the athletic scholarships.  The question always seems to come up about football and (men's) basketball, two sports with big money on the line for those athletes who can turn professional.

Now before I started, I would have thought the main issues would be about basic finances, since most division I schools don't actually make money on athletics at all, so they don't have lots extra to pass along to players (they do seem to have plenty for coaches and athletic directors, though).  Or I would have thought the question would be about fairness: if they're paying football players, do they have to pay all scholarship athletes, including women?

Anyway, I looked and found several articles, a couple on legalistic stuff, one aimed at explaining to high school students, and so forth.

And it turns out, I really had no clue what the issues are.

Yes, the fairness is an issue, a legal one, because Title IX requires equal opportunities.

But even more, the issues seem to be related to whether the school and athlete have an employer/employee relationship, or whether the relationship is school/student.  Evidently, if there's an employer/employee relationship, then there are lots of responsibilities that employers have that schools don't.  That should have been obvious to me, but it sure wasn't.

So, employers have to deal with workers' compensation; if a worker is injured working, workers' comp comes in and the employee gets money to help medical and living costs (assuming it all works out).  But if a college athlete gets hurt, say ruins a knee and can never play that sport again, there's no workers' compensation, and it sounds like that school can drop the scholarship, leaving the student high and dry (at least potentially).

And employers have to deal with liability.  If an employee causes another person injury in the performance of employment stuff, the employer can be held liable.  So, for example, if I hand a student a piece of paper that gives them a horrible paper cut, my employer might be held liable for their stitches' cost and such.  Imagine that one on a football field.

And finally, if student athletes got paid as employees, then schools that do make money on athletics would lost tax exempt status and have to pay taxes, and you know they wouldn't want to do that.

According to the articles we've read for class, the courts have pretty much considered student athletes not employees, and so haven't held colleges responsible for workers' comp, liability, and so forth. 

It seems like when they talk about what makes someone an employee, though, student athletes on scholarship should be employees.  But then the courts say no, that would be too onerous for schools.

And I can't help but wonder, what about the athlete?  The cases we've read about usually involve an athlete getting a serious injury, losing all professional potential, and needing extraordinary medical and rehabilitation care.  What about the athlete?

It seems like the courts are all on the side of the folks who can really afford major legal teams, and that's the colleges and NCAA.

Do schools carry or provide or require student athletes to carry heavy duty disability insurance?  Do they typically carry or provide or require students to have insurance that will cover their tuition if they get injured and can't ever play, so that they can continue their education?  (These are real questions.  Does anyone know?)

The more I've read, the more I think student athletes on athletic scholarships, scholarships which require the student to play their sport to get the money, should count as employees.  And if that means that schools decide they can't do athletic scholarships, then they can put the funds into other sorts of scholarships.  And if that means that schools decide they can't afford NCAA sports, then football and basketball will figure out minor league systems or whatever, and schools will focus on education, and that will be fine.

Even just this little bit of reading has convinced me that the issue is way more complicated than gets across in newspapers and such.  What's cool is that my students, after reading the more complicated issues in the academic journals, recognized that the simplified article for high school students really is inadequate and doesn't get to the really important stuff.  That's very cool!

Monday, September 15, 2014


Not fatally, not yet.

I left town Friday for a road trip to do some birding.  I usually don't do that, but I did it, and went somewhere I've been meaning to go for ages but hadn't gone because fall migration around here mostly happens during the semester.

I had a great time, mostly looking for hawks, at a noted hawk-looking place in the upper midwest.  They also had a nature talk, a sort of Hawk 101, which was really helpful.  I think knowing just a little helped me learn more, and more easily, if that makes sense?  It was great, at any rate.

I also visited with a friend, and learned a whole lot about how miserably some schools treat people.  I feel like I sort of knew that, or should have, but couldn't quite believe that any school would be so bad, but now I do believe.  Horror story.  Let's just say that it's a very bad thing when a single crazy person can mess badly with someone else.

I rode my bike around for a bit there, and that was really nice.  They have some good trails.  I didn't go as much as I might have wished, but I went, and that was good.

But now I'm on the edge of behind.  I survived teaching today because I'd done some prep before I left, and so forth.  But I really need to get caught up!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Evaluating On-line Instructors?

In the reality of things, we have some folks who only teach on-line.  And we're supposed to evaluate their teaching.

Usually, to evaluate teaching, we look at:

a teaching observation (written report by a tenured person re a class observation)
course evaluations
teaching materials provided by the candidate

To this point, we don't know how to do an observation of on-line teaching.  Does anyone have ideas about how that might be done?

To this point, on-line students don't much click and do the course evaluations. 

I'd really appreciate ideas, especially from folks who've taught or evaluated on-line teaching, for how to evaluate folks who are teaching on-line.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Getting Into Difficulty

I'm teaching my senior seminar on ecocriticism and really dead guys, in large part because I want to understand ecocriticism way better.

It's working for me, anyway.

We've started the semester by reading some introductions to texts, and some essays.  I'm having the students write about a couple of key words for each class meeting.  I sort of thought of the assignment and worked it out as I was putting together the course, and I'm really liking it.  I think they find it useful to think hard and purposefully about a difficult or problematic term, and then to try to explain it in writing.

One of the three essays for today was really dense and hard, and they just hadn't engaged it deeply, so we spent some time sort of outlining, trying to get at the flow, and then the argument.

It would have been a much better discussion if they'd done that work at home, but now they know how to do it, right?

Tired.  Long day with classes and meetings today, but tomorrow should give me some catch up opportunities.  I hope.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

First Assignment Jitters

I handed out the assignment sheet for the first of four "big" assignments in my first year writing class.

The students are pretty anxious.  They kept asking about weirdly anxious stuff, like if they're in the hospital, can they email the assignment?

What if they're just really sick?

And so on.

I was reminded of an old George Carlin bit about a priest coming in and talking to a class about heavy mysteries, and the class having all these questions.  Carlin's specific example had to do with the need to do the Easter duty (take confession and mass for Easter), and what if you tried, but then this happened, or this happened, and so forth, ending with something about "but then you cross the international date line"!

I finally tried to make clear:  if someone's health or well-being is really at stake, then turn whatever it is in late.

If someone's just drunk or forgot to buy paper, then I'm not going to accept it.

It's hard, isn't it, figuring out what's what when you're entering a whole new situation!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Evaluation Language?

One of the projects I'm responsible for this year is revising our teaching evaluations and the evaluation process, so that they give us better information for making personnel decisions and such. 

If you've been around teaching for a while, you know these evaluations are historically fraught with problems.  We know that.  We've been working to figure out how we can make better evaluations and use them better, and I think we've made progress.

These are departmental things, sort of, though they also have to pass review up the line, so we have to be thoughtful in putting in what we really want, and also convince those up the line that what we want should be there.  I think we're reasonable, and up the line is reasonable, so we need to do a good job and it will be fine.

What I'd like to ask you folks:  have you found a good way to get at issues of inclusion or inclusivity in teaching evals?

Part of the problem is the language of "inclusion" or "inclusivity" is very contextual; it may be what faculty and administrators use, but I'm not sure that students will understand what we mean.

What we're after is a way of caring about and demonstrating that we care about instructors treating students decently, especially around issues of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation.

We don't want instructors making exclusionary racist comments, for example.

But more important, we want to recognize the efforts some instructors make to get students to grapple with difficult issues of racism, say, and to think critically about their beliefs and actions.

How do we encourage and recognize those efforts, and also recognize that those challenges aren't going to make every student feel comfortable, and that, in fact, sometimes discomfort is useful?  But we want to cause discomfort intellectually to those who need to be challenged, and not personally, especially for those who are challenged all too often.

We want to make what's been historically difficult, especially for people without tenure who challenge students to think hard about race, say, and thus make some students usefully uncomfortable, into something we can encourage and positively recognize.

Do your teaching evals do this?  And if they do, can you share some, please?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Clarifying Colleague

I have a colleague who asks for clarification about almost every communication between us.  I think I'm being clear, for example, when I send an email to a group saying that I've scheduled two meetings and think most of us can make it to one or the other meeting.

Then the colleague emails asking for clarification about whether these meetings are both required.

Is my communication really unclear, or does the colleague not read my communications with some care?  I doubt myself, but then no one else asks for clarification, so either they understand or can't be bothered.

(This person is really smart, so it's not a lack of smarts.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


A student just dropped in my office hours to ask me why Shakespeare is relevant, why he should take the class other than that it's a requirement for his major.

I'm so very happy right now.  I love that he's asking these sorts of questions and thinking for real.

First Year Students Make me Crazy

Not because they mean to, of course, but just because they do stuff that doesn't work in college contexts.

I started a class by asking for questions about the reading.  A student raised hir hand and said, "I thought the reading was repetitive." 

What do I say to that?  It's not a question, and it reveals a depth of unawareness; does zie think I assigned it to bore hir and not because I thought it might be useful?  (I dealt with it badly, I must admit, because I wasn't prepared for a "it's boring" sort of statement right off.)

Another student came up in the moment I was starting class, stood in front of the whole class (but only talking to me), and told me that zie'd done the assignment wrong.  I always wonder what the question is, because it's not like I'm going to redo the assignment for hir, or suddenly say, it's okay, you don't need to do any assignments for the class!  You get an A for just appearing!  But yes, I know it's because it's the first assignment due, and zie is anxious.

And finally, the number of students who tried to turn in handwritten work (the syllabus states that work must be typed).  (No, I'm not impressed that you quickly wrote this during class discussion.)

All innocent first year student stuff, but in whole, it sort of makes me crazy.

I've come to think that one of the hardest parts about teaching is that just when students get really good at it, they graduate, and we get a whole new bunch who are anxious, confused, and yes, first years.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Advising Worries

I just met with an advisee who wants to do education, which in our program is slightly competitive and requires at least a 2.75 GPA to get started.

This advisee really needs to work on grades.

Zie is a transfer student, and spent part of our meeting complaining about some courses not transferring enough, and part telling me that zie couldn't remember what the courses zie's complaining about not transferring actually were.

So, zie complained, for example, that a specific English course didn't seem to transfer, but couldn't remember what the course was, what zie read in the course, or what the course was about.  I'm unconvinced.

My advice for the semester:  grades and demonstrating to the teachers who will fill out evals that zie is enthusiastic and going to be a great teacher.  I hope it works!

Monday, September 01, 2014


Last week, while sitting in a meeting about how important advising is, I posted on my facebook about the meeting.  And this weekend, a colleague from a different area of campus (and thus not at the meeting), responded with a question about how we know we need to do better advising.

The follow up of her question was about how reasonable adults might make decisions that go against our advice, but that doesn't mean we did a bad job advising.

It's an interesting point.  And it gets at the ways we faculty folks (and administrative folks, too), are constantly told that we're responsible for it all.  We're responsible for students' learning as opposed to our teaching. 

We're responsible for retention as opposed to advising.

And so on.  I feel like I've been hearing this "responsible for" stuff so long that it's taken hold, even though I resisted.  But it's still there, always there.

In practice, of course, I do hold students responsible, and I respect their decisions, even when they seem unwise to me.  I know there are always factors I can't know in their decisions.

But I also know that there's a point at which I'm being held responsible by administrative people for students' decisions and actions, and it comes back to bite me and my department in nasty ways.  (Last year, they started measuring stuff and then providing funding based on those measurements, as though they're meaningful and worth measuring.)

I think a lot of the reason I feel dread about this semester is feeling the insidious nastiness that's been building in education for a long time.  But for me, I think it's reached a point of inducing my dread.