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Teaching is one of those professions that will take as much time as you can give it.    Unless you are perfect about managing your time, it is near impossible for teaching not to intrude into other parts of your life…   and the rest of your life will demand attention too.    Grading, making new lessons, answering emails, then scheduling time with family and friends.  *

Sleep isn’t always the top priority, which makes coffee is an important part of my day.   Certain types of problems require coffee to solve.   The real thing that will wake you up though?  Rage.

I made the mistake of typing “feminism” into the search bar of YouTube.  Half of the links were criticizing, lambasting, or parodying feminism.  They ranged from stupid rants laced with contempt and sexism, to slick productions with misleading statistics.   A few of the others (from the feminist perspective) also included some good arguments, but there were catharsis seekers there as well.    If you want rage, try it yourself.   Type in your favorite topic:  vaccines and autism, teaching evolution in schools,  women’s rights… there will be someone there saying horrible things.

Outrage will wake you up.  **

There are other things that will wake you up as well.   Teachers, you know those students who should be classified as an allergen because everything they do is an irritant?   What happens when one of these students makes a statement like “I could teach this class.”

Thinking isn't your strong suit.Set aside the fact that the student may barely pass.   Set aside the classroom disruptions they cause.   What goes through my head: You think you could teach this class?   Let me tell you about what teachers do:   we are subject matter experts.  That means that we know multiple ways to do most types of questions that you know one way to do.   Can you, on the fly, come up with example questions that work, that are progressively more challenging, and lead 30+ people with different backgrounds and understanding to learn?   Can you set aside personal crises, family and personal illnesses, and other worries, in order to teach effectively?   Do you think that you can work a 10 hour day before trying to energize a group of people? Are you capable of disciplining someone your own age or older?  How about remembering 75 student names, what their specific challenges are, and have a sense of what they collectively and individually need to succeed in class (and in the next class)?  Who has child care and work issues that impact their attendance?  Who needs individual attention?  Can you maintain a balance of a fun and functional class while not being overly disciplinary?  How are you cat herding skills?  Do you want to be on call on your days off to answer student questions?  Do you want to work a second part time job to survive while you do this?  Do you have the fucking credentials to teach a discipline like math?

If you can, do, because there aren’t enough of us.   If you can’t, then shut the fuck up about what you think you know.

Grumble grumble entitled ignorant grumble  grumble…  ***

 

* The people I love get the majority of my free time.   I don’t mind this, but it does mean that I rarely get time alone.

** You may also despair for humanity.  The thing that gets me is that people don’t WANT to hear the other side.   If more folks worked on having a dialogue instead of creating a chasm between the two points of view I think we would have a much nicer world.   Not a perfect world, but certainly a nicer one.

*** By the time I have posted this, Spring Break will be here, and I will be much more relaxed.

There is something sad about finals.   I’m proud of my students, they have worked hard, and (mostly) pulled through.   It hurts when I see a student struggle or fail… but I know that I can’t learn for them.   At best I can put the tools in their hands, and hope.

Always respect a woman with a knife

Some lessons hurt more than others, but, hey… it beats the alternative.   I think I’m going to share some of the life lessons that I have learned over the years.   Soooo, in no particular order:

  • Don’t die.   Every other “rule” is just a suggestion.
  • Failure will teach you more than success will.
  • Being intelligent, smart, and wise are different things.
  • Always respect a woman with a knife.   (Corollary:  assume all women are armed)
  • Pay rent first.
  • Never ask a question if you can’t take no for an answer.
  • Do you feel like the universe owes you something?  Congratulations, you exist.  The rest is up to you.
  • Avoiding all risks isn’t wisdom,  it rather connotes cowardice.  (Corollary:  takings risks isn’t bravery, it is better to learn WHEN to take risks.)
  • Information will fix ignorance.   Only death cures stupidity.
  • Being smart is not enough.   You need to work too.   Understanding people is also helpful.
  • Isn’t it funny how “God’s Will” or “God’s Judgement” coincides with that of the speaker?
  • Listen to your partner.   They are probably looking out for either your interest, or theirs (and both should be important to you).
  • There is no such thing as a right without a corresponding responsibility.
  • “No” is a good answer.   If a person is capable of telling you “no”, it validates their ability to say “yes”.
  • Ignorance is uncomfortable.
  • Two things that everyone thinks they are good at, and everyone needs to practice:  communication and sex.
  • Being nice is not the same as being good.  (Corollary:  it’s important to know when being good means not being nice).
  • Laugh at yourself.
  • Survive long enough to live again.

 

Some lessons are still in progress… but these are generally what I try to live by.

I’ve had some fantastic teachers in my life, I also need to thank them:  Sharon (my Mom, my best teacher, and my hero) , Maurice and Helen (my grandfolks), Sarah (best described as “partner in crime”),  Tim (one of the funniest Vulcans you could ever meet),  Kirsten (who is still actual size, but seems much bigger),  Heather (I’m sorry, still),  Selina (who keeps me around for some reason),   also Hillary,  Bonnie, Dr. Mary Ellen Ryder, Dr. Andrea Dobson, Bob Firmann,  Evan Ewalt, and more amazing people than I can possibly name.

I would be a poor student if I didn’t try to pass it on.

So tag.  You’re it.

Winter quarter is almost done, bringing with it a nice big pile of … grading … to deal with.

After some years of grading you might think that it would be easier.   While the methods I choose to grade by have improved, there remains an emotional toll.  It is hard to see people make mistakes, especially after having instructed, showed example after example,  showed the internal logic, and finally demonstrated tricks to make the work easier.

Rather that unleashing a tidal wave of red ink,  I find that grading to horror or disaster movies seems to put context to the disasters I regularly see on paper.    Or, there is always some lovely music to relieve the aggressions.

So here is my finals week playlist for Winter 2015!   A mix of some classics of aggressive industrial music, nerdy music, and some just plain fun music.   For some reason that Kooks song always makes me think of a teacher testing a student… and I do hate true or false questions.

  • Combichrist – What the fuck is wrong with you
  • The Kooks – Naive
  • Hard n Phirm – Trace Elements
  • Saliva – Ladies and Gentlemen
  • Dr Horrible on the Rise
  • Sia – Acedemia
  • Apocolyptica – Fade to Black
  • Imagine Dragons – Radioactive (for one of the best videos ever!)
  • Melissa Ferrick – Drive  (because Spring break isn’t all about class prep)
  • Dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill

 

Finals, here we come.

 

Spring break is so close, and yet so far.

We’re in the last few weeks of Winter quarter.   We have a few brief weeks of respite before Spring quarter begins.

Spring break means party time!  And by party time, I mean unpaid overtime, preparing a schedule and lessons for an entire quarter, fielding frantic emails from students trying to negotiate on their grade from the previous quarter (and equally frantic students who want to take your class but didn’t register in time), as well as meetings, seminars, and other springtime fun activities.   If you’re very lucky, this time can also involve having lunch with some friends on a weekday, where you’ll hear how lucky you are to have an academic schedule with so much time off.

Who am I kidding?  I know I’ll find at least two days to binge watch Netflix and play Rocksmith.  I may even get through one of my creative projects.

Although it isn’t as much of a vacation for the teachers as it is for the students, I am looking forward to it.   There is a point in the quarter where students and teachers are under strain, final exams are looming, and a change of pace is very inviting.

Teaching is a high energy job, and breaks are necessary.

 

Coming next week:   Finals week playlist!

I’ve heard it said that every moment is a teachable moment.

Yeah, right.   Although one time I convinced a pair of proselytizers to read the Tao Te Ching.

Something that I find harder to deal with than another person’s ignorance is a persons unwillingness to examine their own evidence.   I realize that everyone has their own journey, and we have to make our own tools as we go along.   Teachers, parents, and others try to help smooth the path and offer up some alternate tools, ideas, and strategies for dealing with the world.   What isn’t always clear is whether those tools work for every situation.   Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are harmful.

Everyone can use some more tools.  I like the communities that question ideas, because it means that sooner or later bad ideas can be thrown out and replaced with better ones.   Surrounding yourself with like minded people may be comforting, but it doesn’t help with this process.

People are good at recognizing patterns, but they suck at statistics.

When someone hands you an idea (right or wrong) it is really easy for confirmation bias to creep in.   It feels good to have an answer.   This is why people think that horoscopes are true, or think that vaccines cause autism.   Having a bad day?   Mercury may be in retrograde.   Or you may be cursed.   Or fluoride in the water is making you feel sick.

When people spot a pattern, they look at things that confirm their hypotheses and often ignore things that go against their new found pattern.   Critical thinking isn’t easy.   Which is why people feel threatened when you tell them otherwise.

How often to people change their minds?

So… back to teachable moments.  No matter what, you cannot change another person’s mind.   You can only lay the groundwork for them to change their own mind.  Also remember: fear talks louder than reason for most folks.   Acknowledging the fear is good, and it can open the door to reason.

One of the things that is necessary is to get them thinking.  As much as we may want to say “You’re wrong, here is why,” that isn’t productive.   “I’d be happy to talk about that,” is a statement that actually opens people up.   Talking with people can have unintended consequences.   I’ve had to reevaluate some of my own beliefs… and I wouldn’t have if I had talked at people than with people.

 Learning from mistakes

I have an odd juxtaposition.   In private, or in writing I find myself aggressively going after another persons ideas and beliefs.   I’m relentless and sarcastic.    When I’m arguing with the phantom idea, I am loaded with weapons-grade-snark.   In person, manners and civility reign.

It is okay to change what you believe.   No one is immune to bad ideas.   I look on it as weeding my own garden of thoughts… bad ones will choke good ones if you let them.

Every moment is a teachable moment, but sometimes we are the ones who need to learn a lesson.

 

How could I resist following up a post on critical thinking and bias with a rant about students.

The ones who are currently burning my bacon are the ones who are crying “it’s not fair!”   Why?   Why do some students cry “unfair?”   For some reason not giving special consideration  is “unfair”.  This level of entitlement just perplexes me… although I see it happening more and more frequently.

Do you even syllabus?Some of my students think that I am quite cruel (incidentally, ALL of these have happened within the last 6 months):

  • I’m unfair for requiring attendance;
  • I’m unfair for not taking late work (from unexcused absences);
  • I’m unfair for making students answer their homework questions (rather than just trying), and show their work, and include units;
  • I’m unfair for requiring students to check their work, after I announced it in class;
  • I’m unfair for making students take tests after they were absent;
  • I’m unfair for requiring doctor’s notes after a week long absence;
  • I’m unfair for not reteaching a day’s lecture and supplying notes for a student who was absent;
  • I’m unfair for not allowing calculators on tests (in a basic math class);
  • I’m unfair for not allowing notes on tests;
  • I’m unfair for not allowing cellphones to be used as calculators;
  • I’m unfair for failing students who REALLY NEED to pass, but couldn’t be bothered to attend class regularly, turn in homework, or show up for tests.

 

There are times I have to wonder:   am I really teaching college students?   I will admit, most of my students look at their fellows strangely when they ask for these things.   But there is a certain type of student who never matured past their early teenage years it seems…

So with that in mind, here are my midterm misanthropic teaching fantasies:

  • For my teenage students who feel put upon by homework, I want them to understand the grim reality of “day-in, day-out” with employment.   And how failure to do the work can mean unemployment.
  • I have been seriously tempted to tell students who ask “do I need to show up for the test?” with “You’re a grownup.  You can decide whether you want to pass or not.”
  • When someone asks if they missed anything in class, I want to say “Yes, fill this out,” and hand them an application for McTuckyFried Bell.
  • I have an extended kidnapping-and-interrogation fantasy for students ask “do I need to know this?”   Basically I want to my quizzes administered with waterboarding as motivation.
  • I want to have an anti-whining drone in my classroom.   Armed with digitalis-darts to paralyze whiners.
  • I want an oubliette,  for educational purposes, of course.

 

I will not kill my students and wear their skin.   I will not kill my students and wear their skin.   I will not kill my students and wear their skin…

 

The hardest thing with encountering bias is forgiving the person who holds it, especially if it is yourself.

It isn’t easy for people to look at their own prejudices.   It also is hard to think of ourselves as believing in something that isn’t true.  This is why folks surround themselves with like-minded people, and before long find that they are living in an echo-chamber of their own ideas.   It feels good to belong, and so people (myself included) will avoid looking at things that clash with our ideas and ideals.

Eventually there comes a point where you may find yourself in a loop of rationalization, twisting facts and memories to better suit you.   At this point, you have an opportunity.   You can do nothing, continue on as you have before, and retreat to your echo-chamber.   Or you can question your own ideas, challenge them and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

There is a thin line between being committed to an idea, and dogma.

The notion of looking at things dispassionately, without outside influences can seem cold and heartless at first.   It can  open your mind to new ideas however, and give you perspectives different from what you are used to.   Intellectual honesty comes with the price of eating a healthy portion of crow from time to time.   It is embarrassing to admit that you have been wrong, or deceived.

Recognizing bias in others

Spotting bias is like spotting a toupee.   There are some really horrible and obvious ones that stick out!   The subtle ones are harder to spot.

So here are some to the ways to spot bias, and how to evaluate their statements.

  • Look for hidden premises.   Facts are easily checked, but often times people will replace or suppositions or hypotheses for other evidence.     These can be as subtle:  “if rich people have more money, they will spend more and make the economy better.”   The premise may sound plausible, but is untested or untestable.   Which brings us to…
  • Unfalsifiable beliefs.   I find that an important question to ask is “what will change this person’s mind?”  If there is nothing that will change a persons mind about a topic, then you are likely dealing with a dogma rather than a rational belief.
  • Controversial ideas.  Is the idea widely accepted?  Does it go against conventional wisdom?    If it does, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but people love to play the underdog.   With these, there will likely be an underlying hypothesis that needs to be examined or tested.  In these cases you may find that they have cherry-picked evidence from disreputable sources, and outright ignore what scientific consensus says.  (For example:  anti-vaccination movement trusts Jenny McCarthy rather than the American Medical Association)
  • Underlying investment.   This is a pretty broad category.   Would you trust a study denying cancer cases from a tobacco company?   How about a parent defending the innocence of their child?   Emotional involvement is a tough nut to crack, and you may find that people will reject anything that goes against it.

Overcoming personal bias

Very few people choose what they believe.   Rather, they take what they were handed by their cultures/parents/peers and then they rationalize it to themselves.   It is easy to distort other positions in support of your own ideology. Personally, I don’t think that it is possible to completely strip away bias and look at the world without any expectations.

But.

It is possible to start to strip away some of the bias that is handed to us.  Start with something small, because the more you have invested in something, the harder it will be to change your mind.   Start asking questions, and make sure you look from answers from both sides of the debate.    As you do this longer and longer, you will find that you are starting to spot logical fallacies more easily.    A word of caution:  everyone slips up  from time to time, and you will find bad arguments and evidence on any side of a debate.

We are all moved to protect ourselves.   Try to notice when you are protecting an idea, rather than improving on your understanding.   Changing your mind isn’t easy.   You will end up feeling embarrassed as hell, but making mistakes is part of being human.   You will be a better person for the effort.

I had a student come up to me last week, just as a test was about to start   I was nice enough not to laugh.

“Do I need to take the test?   I don’t know the material.”

“Okay.”

“Why can’t I be tested on the stuff I already learned?”

“Because this is a subject test.   This is the material we’ve been going over for the last few weeks.”

“I don’t know this stuff.”

“Okay.   How much time have you been putting in?”

“About 5 hours a week.”   (I recommend 8 to 16 hours for most students)

“So I think you should spend some more time working on the material.”

“Fine, I’ll take the test.”

 

One thing that constantly perplexes instructors at every level:   students who want to be passive receptacles for knowledge.   Some students don’t realize that they need to work/study/read/listen in order to know things.  I admit, it makes me sad.   Part of me wants to blame our culture which encourages passive entertainment, and a media which spoon feeds people sound bites to support opinions that they already have.     Or by people who reward minimal effort and actual achievement equally.   We protect people from the consequences of their actions.

How does that work again?But I’m a college professor, and soldier on.   I make my lectures entertaining.   I allow people who are willing to put in effort to keep trying.

Ultimately I come around to this:   students are responsible for their own learning.    I can give them the information and showcase the skills, they are the ones who actually need to apply it.

This brings me to one of the things I’m happy I can do as a college professor.   I fail people.    I think of this as the “other kind of educational experience.”

I have a personal philosophy:   There is no such thing as a right without a corresponding responsibility.      (I should also say, there are MANY responsibilities that don’t grant you special rights.)

Students have a right to be taught, but they have a responsibility to learn.

*sigh*   I can fix ignorance.   I can’t fix stupid.

 

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.

without evil

 

I’m an evil genius, and proud of it.

Is that vain of me?  Probably.  Do I care what you think?   You may want to ask if  I respect you enough to care about your opinion.   If so, I will listen to you.   I may not change, but I will listen.   In all honesty, I strive for the “evil” part of this equation.  Being a genius is a documented fact  (the byproduct of lucky genetics and having effective education), and is nothing to be especially proud of.

The difference between being Evil and being Bad

To me there is a huge difference between being evil, and just being bad.

I equate being “bad” with being ineffectual, lazy, dull, inane, stupid, or willfully ignorant.  Bad people are the kind of people who never admit to being wrong, or even worse, they never doubt that they are right (regardless of the facts).   Bad people will harm others without a second thought.  Selfishness, apathy, uncaring and disinterest are traits of bad people, but evil is … different.

Evil isn’t passive, it is engaged.   An active, intelligent force that will adapt itself to overcome obstacles.   Evil truly CARES!

Evil may be sadistic, but it is sadistic with an intention beyond the simple infliction of pain.  Every hurt is aimed at crafting some greater goal. The glee that you feel from being evilly sadistic isn’t just for the sake of the pain, but for the direction it is taking you.

Ultimately, it challenges the very foundations of what you believe and accept.   When it hits an obstacle, it will adapt.   When it hits a boundary, evil will test it to it’s limits.   Yes, being evil is impolite, but evil never rests.   Evil is self reflective, loathing its own weaknesses and striving to overcome them.   Yes, evil people often times have a rapier wit that can leave others bleeding, but they will direct it at themselves as much as others.

I think that why people don’t like evil is because growing hurts.

On being Good, and why being good can be bad

Being a good person is supportive, empathic, caring, and often nurturing.   There is nothing wrong with this on the surface, we all need care and support!

The problem arises when people are thoughtlessly good, and end up supporting bad behavior.   Actions borne out of the desire to help often do harm.   With the best of intentions, you can make people weaker by removing obstacles that will make them grow.    Empathy that cannot bear to see a person hurt, robs another person of the growth that comes from overcoming pain.     Nurturing that is aimed at building another person up, can have the effect of creating dependence and weakness.

Have you seen what happens to kids with “helicopter” parents?    The kids will never know that they can fail if they don’t do enough.   Mediocre efforts are awarded high praise.   In the worst cases, spoiled children turn into spoiled adults.   The entitlement these people feel is horrible and revolting.

Personally, I think every child should have skinned knees and burned fingers … sometimes.   And for the spoiled adults:  I personally want to watch them forced with the choice of feeding themselves or going to the doctor because they are dangerously sick.   Irony sucks, doesn’t it?

Love is Evil

“Love” is an emotion that people try to paint as a happy emotion, the pinnacle of all emotions.   Some folks equate love with companionship, but selfishly clinging to another out of fear of loneliness isn’t love.   Jealousy isn’t a symptom of love either, it is simply a symptom of insecure neuroses.   Many people make that mistake.    Love does not demand to be returned,  loneliness and desire do.

Love isn’t desire, it isn’t sex, and you won’t always recognize it when you see it.

The painful truth is that love has a dark side.

The truth about love?     Love is not always kind to those who feel it.   To truly love means to care deeply, but not impose your own needs or desires on the loved.   It means to desire the happiness and well-being of another, without regard to our own happiness.  Love is not blind, it makes you see the flaws of another and forces you to accept them.   It forces you to grow… and if you are lucky, you can be a part of that other persons life and you can both become better, but only at the other persons behest.    Love only feels good when you love someone and are loved back.

To experience love is to accept uncomfortable truths about ourselves.   Love hurts so good.   It is often painful, occasionally harmful, and it will push your limits.

Love will either make you grow, or it will break you in the process.   And that is why I say that love is evil.

Think about it.

[…]

Which brings me back to my original statement:   I am an evil genius,  and proud of it.

Love is evil, and sometimes, evil is love.   So when I say I’m an evil math professor, I’m really saying that I care and I want my students to be happy and succeed.   And even though I am exasperated at times, I am happy you are in my life.   Thank you.   I only hurt you because I care.

 

 

P.S.    Yes, I know I’m not using the dictionary definitions of good, bad, and evil.    These are reflections on my own idiosyncratic thinking.      I also make these conceptional distinctions between the ideas of  cute, pretty, attractive, and beautiful.    Or the distinctions between smart, clever, and wise.

I probably think too much.   *shrug*   I like my brain.