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Can I Still Relate to Students?

A song about remembering our youth. There is something to be said for being young and "impractical."

I have almost reached a point in my life where I have been a teacher longer than I was ever a student. So soon, I will have given more tests than I ever took, delivered more lectures than I attended, and handed out more grades than I ever received. (That last one became true some time ago.) As time passes, it becomes more difficult for me to relate to students, particularly eighteen-year-old freshmen. Sure, I have some vivid memories of my early days as a college student. I remember being very nervous about the first college tests that I ever took, assuming that it would be infinitely harder than those easy high school exams. I remember how difficult it was to adjust to the idea of registering for individual classes each semester, always afraid that I would either sign up for the wrong classes or be unable to get the ones that I needed. And don’t get me started about the standard fears of an eighteen-year-old: What did I really want to do for a living? When will I stop getting zits? Has that girl in the second row noticed that I exist?

These memories, however, become more distant over time. Today, when I look back to my past, it feels like I am reflecting about a different person. I can no longer see the world through the eyes of my former self. And if I am unable to fully empathize with my former self, than how can I view the world through the eyes of modern day freshmen that have had various experiences so different from my own? I had things pretty easy in college. Mom and dad paid most of the bills, and I could focus my attention on classes (along with some other “extracurricular” activities). A lot of these kids are working full-time, dealing with family issues, having medical problems, and wondering how long they can even keep going to college.

I used to laugh at the old people complaining about the youth. Now, I sometimes find myself feeling the same way as those “old” folks. I often wonder what the heck these young people could possibly be thinking. Don’t they understand that skipping classes, ignoring reading assignments, wandering in late (and/or leaving early), and showing up to class without so much as a pencil in their hands will lead to failure? Don’t they realize that drinking oneself into oblivion the night before a test is a bad study strategy? Have they not learned that taking a class that you put no effort into passing is a waste of time? Once you have taught for a while, you can understand why some people in this profession became a bit burned out and disgruntled. You also tend to think that students are completely responsible for their failure, and they should have the common sense to understand what it takes to succeed in college.  It’s easy to forget that there may be many factors contributing to their struggles, and that being a student can at times be exhausting, boring, and extremely stressful.  It’s also easy to forget that we all did some pretty dumb things when we were younger.
Is the ability to empathize with students a necessary quality in an effective teacher? I hope not. As time passes, I will only get older, and young people growing up in a world very different from the one that I knew will seem even more foreign. Still, there are some difficulties faced by young people that are both timeless and universal. If nothing else, trying to remember some of our youthful struggles, and attempting to view our classes through the eyes of students, can reduce the chances that we teachers will get burned out. Remembering that a lot of us old people turned out OK in spite of ourselves can make us more optimistic about the current crop of kids.

Thank You Harry Potter

This post creates another excuse to post a CCR song.

My older daughter has become a bit of a reading machine. Since she is able to whip through children’s literature at her supposed grade level with ease, we decided that she was ready for the Harry Potter series. She quickly became hooked, and she is already halfway through the second book. So I decided that it was about time for me to go through this already legendary book series. I had thought about doing this for years, but I found it hard to justify the time investment. If I am going to use some precious free time to read, then shouldn’t I be reading something productive like History or classic literature?

But once my daughter got going, I now could justify proceeding with this reading adventure. First, it would give my daughter and me something to talk about and, hopefully, encourage her to keep going. Just yesterday, she was horrified to find that I had caught up with her, so she started reading in order to stay ahead of the old man. In addition, reading this series could possibly help me relate a little better to students. Most of my current students, after all, were raised on the Harry Potter series, and based on what I have seen in the movies, I am sure that I can find some stuff in these books that can be used to explain certain concepts that we cover. Plus, any evidence that I may actually be a human being who has not been living under a rock can create rapport with students, increasing the chances that they might listen to me a little more of the time. Of course, it is also possible that they will see me as a dorky old teacher reading kid’s books in a pathetic attempt to relate to their world. Still, even if Harry Potter does little to enhance my teaching, I will, at the least, get a chance to do some reading that is mostly for fun.

J.K. Rowling, along with all of the authors of popular children’s series, deserves a big thank you from librarians, educators, and parents. For decades, many of these promoters of reading have complained that children just don’t read enough. (Of course, I wonder how many books these “older” individuals have read lately?) The Harry Potter books, however, played some role in reversing this supposed trend for millions of young people during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then, when the inevitable movies started coming out, these kids were able to see firsthand that books, by their very nature, are superior to movies. Movies are forced to leave out key details, and many readers may get annoyed when things just don’t look right and characters do not behave exactly as they should. One of the great things about reading, after all, is that readers are forced to visualize events, settings, and characters through their imaginations. Movies, particularly in our age of fancy, computerized special effects, leave almost nothing to the imagination. And no matter how visually impressive they are, movies can never quite replicate the internal world created by the reader. Hopefully, young people will not forget this lesson, and they can carry this love for reading into adulthood. Who knows, maybe some of them will even find History books interesting (instead of just watching occasional History movies).

J.K. Rowling is also a role model for aspiring writers everywhere. A realist, of course, would argue that for every J.K. Rowling, there are thousands of aspiring writers who never even get published. But still, she is the ultimate rags-to-riches story. Her rise to global fame must seem as unlikely and magical to her as the books that she writes. Few will ever experience that level of success, but there must be many other stories of artists who managed to make a living at their craft after years of perseverance. Harsh criticism and rejection can be painful, but it is important to keep in mind that publishers do not always know what the hell they are doing. How would you like to be one of the publishers who rejected the first Harry Potter book? Thankfully, someone eventually had the foresight to see the book’s potential, and young people everywhere, along with parents and teachers like me, will hopefully be reaping the benefits for years to come.

Internet Dependence

If you added some lyrics about computers and the internet, then this song, written about 40 years ago, would still be relevant. Of course, you would have to change the title and chorus to bring it up to date.

My DSL modem died yesterday. May he (or she) rest in peace. It was a good, loyal modem that lived a long and productive life. It saw me through my transition from limited internet user to blogging, facebooking, and downloading machine. By freeing me from the pains of the dial-up experience, it made it possible for me to revel in the joys of the World Wide Web.

Since my internet service only works with certain types of modems, I had some difficulty locating a proper replacement at any local stores. So I went to my parents’ house, where they were still blessed with a functioning cable modem, and found the proper device at Amazon. Unfortunately, it will take a couple of days to arrive.

At times like these, I realize just how internet dependent I have become. For one thing, I cannot do my job properly without web access. All of my correspondence with students, along with any administrative tasks that I have to perform, happens online. And that is just the start. The internet has also become my most common medium for performing economic tasks. I can’t remember what the inside of a bank looks like, and weeks often seem to pass between my use of any physical checks. Having never been much of a shopper, the experience today of entering a physical store is an incredible ordeal. The internet has become my shopping mall. I cannot escape the irony of buying my new modem online, and I can’t remember the last time that I bought a music CD. (I seem to remember something called a record store.)

So as I languish in my modemless existence, I feel like I have been cut off from civilization. It also makes my wish that I had joined the “Iphone” generation. Of course, you don’t have to feel too sorry for me. I still have that early 2000’s technological relic called a laptop, so I can always find my way to “Starbucks” or some other WiFi hub to get my fix.

I guess it’s official. I have now reached a point where given a choice of one of three services – television, phone, or internet – I would go with the web. It’s both fascinating and a little sad to think of how quickly this technology has gone from luxury to necessity. I love the technology, but I am disturbed by my state of dependence. It takes so little, after all, to completely disrupt my life. It was bad enough when a flat tire, power outage, or clogged toilet could completely ruin my day. God help me if I ever have some real problems.

Bible 101 (The Sheep and the Goats)

I am not a Christian in any conventional sense, but I love the simple melodies of many traditional gospel songs. This is a recent version of an old song that asks an even older question.

This blog post was inspired by a Facebook discussion of the Biblical passage in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)Here is the key excerpt:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

So does God separate the saved and unsaved on the basis of behavior, as this passage seems to indicate? Or, as many other Biblical passages indicate, is faith in the basic tenets of Christianity the key to salvation?

As people who have read religion-related posts on this blog already know, I do not view the Bible in a conventionally Christian manner. Instead of viewing it as a single book with consistent, coherent themes, I see it as a collection of individual writings. The New Testament, for instance, was not formalized as a single volume until about 300 years after Jesus' death. So I am not surprised when passages from certain Biblical books conflict with verses found in others. The original writers, after all, would not strive to be consistent with other author’s works that they either knew nothing about, disagreed with, or saw as irrelevant to their concerns.

I have always found it interesting that the apostle Paul hardly ever talks about anything that Jesus directly said or did. The only major exception that I remember was when he discussed the Last Supper directly. So was he generally unaware of Jesus’ words and actions? It seems probable that during Paul’s time, the various oral traditions about Jesus’ life had not been formalized, written down, and/or widely circulated. Of course, it’s also possible that he was just not interested in the specific details of Jesus’ life. Instead, he focuses on the general meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, explaining how Jesus’ sacrificial death makes eternal salvation possible. He emphasizes theological concepts, with faith being the central one, not Jesus’ moral teachings or his behavior.

The same can be said with the book of John, a book in which Jesus spends almost all of his time talking very directly about his identity and the importance of believing in him: "I am the bread of life," "I am the way, the truth, and the life," “I am the resurrection,” etc. Meanwhile, Mark's gospel, generally regarded as the oldest one, says repeatedly that Jesus kept his identity secret from the general public, speaking in parables that he only explained to the disciples. Mark also puts more emphasis on Jesus' actions, not his words. In Mark, Jesus spends almost all of his time in Galilee (the boonies) healing people and casting out demons; in John, he is always hanging out in Jerusalem, giving long, clear descriptions of himself to the religious authorities and the general public. In my view, these books that present two different "Jesuses" can only be reconciled if someone really wants them to be. But if you view these as completely separate works, with each having consistent themes regarding the Jesus that they were trying to present, the contradictions are understandable.

It's funny how often people are forced to argue that the Bible is not saying what it is saying. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he could not have really meant it. When he said that you should give a robber your second cloak after that person stole the first one, he obviously did not mean that either. Every American knows – except for those pacifist liberals – that we are supposed to defend ourselves and our property using our God-given right to own a gun. Those seemingly pacifist teachings of Jesus are just so impractical, so they are explained away as being nothing but metaphors. Of course, the scriptures of all major religions have teachings that either seem impractical or just plain nonsensical. This is why many people either water them down or argue that they are not saying what they are saying.

So will God take people into heaven who believe in the right stuff but do little to help others, and will he turn away charitable people who have incorrect theology? The parable of the sheep and goats seems to say no to both questions. Of course, I don't claim to know what God (if He exists) will do, but personally, I judge people’s beliefs and values by their behavior, not by what they claim to believe. As James once said, “faith without works is dead.”

Necessary Drudgery

Here's a song about the difficulties faced by a rock star, one of the most common "dream jobs." 


In the past week or so, I have given out six tests, with four of them requiring students to write two essays each. It is only during these grading binges that a slight part of me wishes that I had either chosen a different career or was a firm believer in multiple-choice exams. After reading more than three hundred essays in a short period of time, and then punching in the scores on the Excel spreadsheet, the job can feel a bit like drudgery.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like just about every aspect of teaching. But like everyone else, I imagine, I grew up with more romantic notions regarding my future career. Truth be told, my dream job is still to be a player in the NBA. I started shooting baskets from practically the day that I could walk, and after countless hours of shooting on my driveway over the course of many years, I was pretty damn good.  I was also very good at inventing scenarios while shooting in which I was the dominant player in an imaginary basketball league. The only problem was that there was not a big market for five foot seven inch white guys in the NBA. So my dream of being a famous basketball player or athlete of any kind was dead by high school.

Of course, when I stop and think about it, there are probably moments when Kobe Bryant or Lebron James has doubts about his career choice. Sure, they get to play a game that they love for a living, are paid obscene amounts of money, and experience amazing moments of glory in front of a live, worldwide audience. Their job, however, is not all fun and games. To maintain their skills, they have to spend countless hours practicing repetitive drills and working out. But the hard work of improving their skills is only one difficulty that they face. They also have to spend countless hours traveling on buses and airplanes, answering questions from annoying reporters, and being away from friends and family. And if you become famous enough, it is difficult to go out in public like a normal person without being mobbed by admirers. In some ways, modern day celebrities are trapped by their fame.

There may be a dream job out there that is nothing but big money, international fame, interesting activities, and/or adventure. But I can’t think of any offhand. Virtually every famous writer, actor, athlete, doctor, CEO, spy, fireman, or any person living someone’s “dream job” had to put up with many hours of drudgery to get to where they wanted to be. Then, even after reaching their goal, they must continue doing some things that they would prefer to avoid. Failure generally results from more than a lack of talent. It comes from an unwillingness to put up with some necessary drudgery. 

So during those moments when I cannot imagine reading even one more essay about Andrew Jackson, I try to remember a few things. First, doing any job well requires the performance of a certain amount of mundane activities. Second, I try to remember why I give essay questions. If I want to teach something that is more than a memorization class, I need to ask the types of questions that do not work in a multiple-choice format. And finally, I think of all the things that I like about my job: the chance to perform, share what I have learned, be creative, have flexible hours, and get the sense of satisfaction that can only come from reading a really good essay response.

Facebook Dialogues (#2): Just How Divided Are We?

Here's a classic song from the 1960's about the social changes of the time. The video is a slide show of images from the Vietnam War.

Writing only comes to life when it finds readers. The most fascinating aspect of this whole blogging experiment is seeing the different ways that people respond to what I write. Every posting is an adventure, and when I read new comments, it’s like opening a package on Christmas day. Positive comments, of course, are always encouraging, but the more critical responses are often the most useful. Sure, I sometimes get a little frustrated and defensive when people either misunderstand what I was trying to say or simply disagree with me. But if I allow myself to “listen” to their comments, I sometimes see ways that my writing could improve, and I am forced to further develop and clarify my thinking.

New blog posts, in fact, have often been generated through dialogues I have had on Facebook, Hubpages, or on this blog. Occasionally, I “borrow” ideas from others and see where they lead. More often, however, in the course of either arguing or trying to clarify my position, new concepts, topics, or techniques for expressing my thoughts emerge. I used to feel that online discussions about controversial subjects were generally a waste of time. But as time passes, I realize just how productive these sometimes frustrating conversations can be.

One of these recent dialogues started a few days ago when I put a link to my last blog post – titled “Individual Responsibility” – on Facebook. Five or six Facebook friends would eventually get involved, and it was not long before the discussion drifted away from the main topic of the original blog post. We eventually had two separate discussions going, with one focused on religion and the other the seemingly intense divisions between political factions in the United States. I decided to include snippets from the political discussion that I had with one of my Facebook friends here. Too often, after all, some thoughtful discussion just disappears into the Facebook void.

Michael Ferguson is someone that I (virtually) met earlier this year. He is a blogger and an ambitious visionary who is starting a new media outlet called “Polymathica” (in which I hope to play some role). Here are links to The Polymathica Institute blog, the Polymathica Facebook page, and the Polymathica website. They are all worth checking out.

Michael:  Paul, you ask in your commentary, "So given this fact, why are there so many people who drift toward extreme views regarding individual responsibility?" Because, Paul, as I have told you before, America, and the West in general, is headed for a divorce. We are at the stage where the husband and wife have abandoned all pretext of reasonable discussion. They are simply flinging outrageously over stated invective at each other out of anger. They polarize beyond any point of reason. The other is no longer just wrong; they are stupid, moral reprobates and evil. Are the two sides overstating their case? You betcha. In both cases, they have a vision for their 'nation' and believe that the other side is trying to thwart them and take it down the path to ruination. In an effort to demonize the other side, they make themselves sound ridiculous. That is the current state of the marriage in America. As most of the world wise know, when it gets to this stage, there is no going back. The irretrievable breakdown in the marriage has already happened and the marriage is simply waiting for the two to get tired of the futile arguments.

Me: …..Fortunately, most people don't spend a lot of time thinking and talking about politics anyway. They have other, seemingly more important things to do. So maybe we should not make too much of the screaming and shouting between the small percentage of people who actually get riled up by political issues. Few Americans are likely to come to blows over this stuff.

Michael: Yeah, I'm sure that is how King George and Louis XVI the got themselves to sleep at night. I'm sure that people are far more complacent now than they were in the sixties. Riots, shootings, assassinations of major politicians and religious leaders….such things won't happen, couldn't happen. Nope, today we are too evolved to find ourselves in those situations again. Ahem....... Actually, Paul, as you may have guessed, I was there in the 60's. I saw it as it happened, more often than I would like, in person. Today is spookier.

Me: I'm not saying that people are more evolved. I'm saying that they are generally disengaged. We have two wars going on which few Americans can give any details about. We just had an economic disaster happen that few Americans have spent much time trying to understand. Most of the students that I see spend their time texting and tweeting, and it is not generally about politics. Times are tough, but the United States is still one of the wealthiest nations in history. (And as you have argued several times, we may soon be getting much wealthier.) Few Americans would even consider the possibility of taking up arms for some type of political cause. If anything, a situation like "Brave New World" seems more probable than violent conflict between different factions. Instead of "Soma," people have Iphones and Blackberries. And as long as enough people stay entertained and can get their hands on the latest materialistic necessities, they won't complain too much. If Americans have any real passion, it's shopping. Right now, a lot of people are just pissed off because they can't buy as much stuff. The only question is which political party they blame for their problems. I am starting to wonder if social networking and the information age in general make the conflicts seem worse. Only hardcore people spend any time debating political matters online. Since these tend to be passionate people, it can make the divisions seem even worse. Personally, I'm still not sure if the partisan divisions of today are all that unusual. We just have more mediums available to vent and to find people who feed the frustrations (Beck, Limbaugh, Olbermann, Maher, etc.)

Michael: I remember the race riots, the civil rights marches, the anti-war riots. My parents never saw them coming. It flabbergasted them. They were stunned and shocked by the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It wasn't that they were saddened. It was surreal to them. They lived in a cocoon of middle class America that simply missed the whole dynamic of cultural upheaval until it blasted into their lives through vivid news images. 30% or so of Americans support the Tea Party. That number is growing and will continue to grow. 6 percent of voters say they have attended a Tea Party meeting, rally or march. That is a huge number. You miss a lot, Paul. You are like my parents. You will wake up one day and be shocked by what has transpired….

Me: Michael, you may be right. I may be missing something. Then again, the Tea Party may become another footnote of history, just like many other political movements of various times. I suspect that if Republicans gain complete control of Congress and the Presidency again in 2012, the Tea Party will fade a bit. It's a movement that thrives on being out of power. As I have said before, governing is much harder than complaining about government. If America's problems magically fade away once Republicans gain control, there won't be so much reason to be angry. If, as I suspect, problems do not magically go away, Tea Party people, like Obama supporters at the moment, will become disillusioned. There may also be some parallels between today and the sixties. Of course, in the sixties, there was a war going on in which any young person could be drafted to go fight it. No one is considering a draft today, which is part of the reason why most young people don't care about Iraq and Afghanistan. Decades of segregation and white superiority were also being challenged, which brought about a predictable effort to resist change. I don't see any challenges to the social system today that quite match that one; although the Obama election has clearly struck some nerves. Also, you had a tremendous generation gap between parents who grew up with the Depression and World War II and their children who were raised in the greatest period of economic prosperity in American History (up to that time). We still have plenty of adolescent rebellion, but not on that scale. Also, there were so many people hitting college age by the mid-1960's due to the Baby Boom. I wonder how many young people today believe that they can change the world? As I said before, they are too busy texting to try.

A Preemptive Election Response

The Who's classic song about political "change," found on my favorite Who album.

I am going to take a risk and start writing this before the election results are in. Based on all of the polling data, along with the simple fact that the President’s party usually does poorly in mid-term elections, I am assuming that the Democrats had their asses handed to them today. The Democratic wave of 2008, an event that some saw as a sign of a long-term political shift in our country, has been short-lived. It seems to be 1994 all over again.

Personally, I believed from the moment of Obama’s election that reports regarding the death of the Republican Party were widely exaggerated. When Obama defeated McCain, and Democrats achieved huge victories in Congress, it was not a sign that the nation had gone liberal. Instead, it was a response to circumstances. Due to events such as Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing Iraq War, George Bush’s approval ratings had been plummeting for some time. Then, when the financial system imploded, public anger was focused even more intensely on him. Republicans, the perceived party of big business, took more heat for the crisis than Democrats, and Obama was swept to the presidency. After all, before the full scale of the financial meltdown was clear, McCain and Obama were running pretty closely. But after the cataclysmic events of September 2008, it was pretty much all over.

The irony, however, is that the same circumstances that brought Obama and the Democrats to power have seemingly done them in. The economy has stabilized, but growth is very slow, and the unemployment rate seems stuck at just below 10%. My sense is that a more significant reduction in unemployment would have made big policies such as the financial stimulus, bank bailouts, and health care reform easier for the public to swallow. Also, more significant economic growth would have made the costs of these programs and the current deficit somewhat less daunting.

So has Obama been done in by circumstances largely beyond his control, the same circumstances that got him the job in the first place? Or would different policies have had a more positive result, and is he deservedly being blamed for failing to stimulate growth and for overstepping his mandate? We will never know for sure. Either way, politicians tend to bear the brunt of the public’s anger. Anyone not in a coma knows that our current mess was largely the result of foolish decisions made by the financial sector and the general public. Of course, you can’t vote out the real estate brokers, financiers, and foolish borrowers who largely caused the mess. So we vent our anger at the ballot box, hoping that throwing the bums out (again) will have some positive effect.

In my mind, however, our problems are largely systemic. We still have an overgrown financial sector consisting of banks that are sometimes even bigger than when they were “too big to fail” a couple of years ago. (At least their enormous recent profits can give us some comfort.) We have campaigns that are even more heavily funded by big corporations and other special interests, due partly to the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision. And we have politicians on both sides of the aisle who seem unwilling to ask the public to make significant sacrifices in terms of tax policies or government spending. Replacing the current “bums” with the previous “bums” is not, in itself, going to do much about these issues. For today, however, voting is all that we can do. So I better stop writing now, eat a quick lunch, and get to the polling place before work. If I am going to write commentaries on our political system, I better participate in whatever little way that I can. If nothing else, it can be a way to vent.