Fish and Porn

I was standing in line chatting with some people when the topic of fish came up.   “You know that they have made the category so broad that either everything can be called a fish, or nothing can.   They’ve stopped using it.”    The thinking was that they were trying to come up with things that unified the idea of ‘fishness’ in order to classify them, but the factors named were either so broad that nearly nothing was excluded or were so narrow that almost everything was.

Something very similar was said about the fuzzy definition of pornography:   I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

While it sounded plausible at the time, I admit that it seemed a little … ahem… fishy after the fact.   When I went in search of citations, I found some lively debate by many amateurs.   Interestingly enough, there is some ongoing taxonomy debate regarding what can and can’t be regarded as a fish.

This is one of the reasons why I am careful when I use the words “always” and “never” with a student.   It makes their life harder when they have to change their perceptions again.   One of the things I do say frequently is that there are almost always exceptions, but they depend on the context of the situation.    “Hard rules” will change when the situation changes.   And there is almost always more than one way to look at a math problem.    Or aquatic life… or erotic photography for that matter.

Hmmm…. “I know it when I see it” can look like a pretty good definition.    But critical thinking isn’t just about thinking about categories and definitions, it is thinking about broader context.   At its core, critical thinking is thinking about your quality of thoughts.   Which means that you can NEVER settle on a hard definition.   It all depends on context.   Whether it be how to solve an algebra problem, or figure out how to deal with complex numbers, or even what counts as a fish.   Or what qualifies as porn.

Experts know when conventional definitions don’t work, they need to reexamine the questions.   Those are the questions that are interesting, and worth asking.

From Simpsons, Season 7 Episode 19 - "A fish called Selma"

Stay curious.   And don’t be afraid of asking questions about what qualifies as a fish.  Or porn.   Fish-porn is too weird for my taste, but I won’t judge you.

Midterm Misanthropy Madness!

It is the middle of the quarter, and I have already burned through 3 red pens.   3.  Red.  Pens.

Imagine the number of comments, mistakes, and the sheer volume of … creative … math that I have had to wade through to go through that much red ink.    This is just the grading portion of teaching this quarter.  I’ve also had a bumper crop of over-participators, students who feel that a calculator is a right rather than a privilege, and a few folks who defy description.

Midterm misanthropy has set in.

Now don’t get me wrong.   I love teaching and I love my students, but there are a few things that would improve my mood.

  • A big red stamp that just says “NOPE” that I can use on repeated mistakes.
  • I need a mute button for some of my over-participators.
  • … and my younger students who don’t understand this isn’t high school.
  • … and my chatty students who don’t realize that when I’m lecturing, they need to stop relating drinking stories.
  • … and the people on the ferry who asked me if I speak “white”  (True story.  It didn’t end well for him.)
  • Maybe a cattle prod instead of a mute button.
  • More red pens.
  • A set of stocks* as a teaching tool to get people to stop trying to add denominators together.
  • “Force choke” the next person who asks me to teach them the ENTIRE lesson of the day they were absent.  (My sympathy is with Darth Vader at this point in my life).
  • Banana spiders.   For educational purposes.
  • Access to all of the student’s Junior High School yearbooks.

Petting zoo

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…


*  Not the financial type of “stocks”.   Think old-time village square “stocks”.


Being a good teacher means a lot of things.   Good teachers have a couple of traits in common, passion for the subject matter as well as caring for students’ lives.   It goes beyond just a job, it is personal.   There are a myriad of things that will trigger concern for your students.   Failing grades, absences or unexpected lateness, or changing personalities.

Remember the expression about the road to hell?


You can’t help everyone.

That care for students can cut both ways.  Caring for students gives a sincerity and a fire that they will recognize and appreciate.  Students will try more for someone who will try for them.   Caring also can be a ticket to neuroses and burnout, if you start to feel ineffective.    The downside of things can be worry, and while it is useful to identify what/who needs your attention it is also good to have boundaries.

It would seem that “not caring” would be a solution, but then you lose a valuable tool.   But this is one of the paths to burnout…   you don’t always get a choice in what you feel, and trying to divorce yourself from care isn’t really an option.   Giving up on the students just reinforces the underlying feelings of ineffectiveness.

So how do you solve the conundrum of caring for students?  The only way out, is through!   Caring is only the first step on the road.     Communication and action are the next steps… which empowers both the teacher and the student.   Working on solving the problems (above and beyond how to “solve for x”) is good.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  Who does?   Well, being a good teacher also means being a good researcher.   And someone who can interpret and guide people to the appropriate resources.   If the student has some ideas already in mind, even better.   A lot of the time students have ideas but no idea how to follow through.   Whether it is support or accountability, teachers can provide.

And I like getting thank you letters from students who got into the schools they wanted, or passed their class even when they lost their house, or ….  whatever.

You can’t help everyone, but you can help a few.   And being able to reach out to those few will relieve the worry.   You aren’t powerless.

Teachers are always in the fight.

The Credo of the Evil League of Teachers

Several years ago I asked an artist friend of mine, “What is art?”

She was thoughtful for a minute, then answered “Art is something that remains beautiful even after it’s stopped hurting.”

Pithy as it is, I like this description of art.   Creativity is an itch that people scratch not necessarily because they want to, but because they need to.   The acts of writing, painting, sculpting, welding, acting, or whatever medium is used because it is preferable to not expressing the idea.   Better the imperfect act of creation  – than to let their ideas die.

Artists create because they have to.

“It isn’t whether they pass or fail, but how much they suffer along the way.”   – Evil Teacher’s Credo

In some ways I wonder if students are artists by this definition.   Students have a desire to grow, to become more, and they work towards that goal… if so, then their life is their art.   And teachers?   We want to make minds better.   We demonstrate, we lecture, we teach because it is necessary to us.   The students are our canvas, and after they pass on from our classes what they learn remains beautiful.

I think that not every painter, singer, sculptor, dancer or writer is an artist.   For some people, it is a job.   There is no desire, no passion, or no vision behind making something.   I think it is easy to say that not every teacher is an artist…

… but enough of us are.

Teaching isn’t easy, long hours, hard work and low pay.  There are sacrifices we make in our lives because we need to teach.    We don’t need to “suffer for our art,” but we teach because it is an itch that must be scratched and there is no other way.

For me it isn’t whether they pass or fail.   Did they learn?   Did they take the easy path, or the right one?


I want to know who he shot, to honor their memory.  I don’t want to know his name.   I just know how these stories end.

Let me back up.

I was driving to teach a class when I heard the news out of Oregon.   A shooting at Umpqua College, in Oregon… reports were unconfirmed, and the numbers kept changing.   Ten dead, twenty injured… then seven dead.   They said they had the shooter, then we hear that he was “neutralized” (whatever that means).

My commute is long.  I heard a lot of this.   I was out of sorts teaching my class that afternoon.

By the evening, people stopped reacting to the tragedy and tried to do something with it.   Parents were being interviewed, telling secondhand stories.  Commentators were already trying to make sense of the shooting and speculating on the shooters motives.   By the morning, politics had entered the scene.   People for and against gun control, people who want to paint some agenda on the shooter.

I want schools to be safe.   They should be.   They need to be, if anyone is going to learn.   They need to be so we can outgrow this crap.

Here is what I know is going to happen:

  • There will be gun control protests.
  • There will be gun rallies (not likely in the town, but in the capitol).
  • Christians will claim they are being persecuted, regardless of the religious identity of the shooter.
  • Both presidential campaigns will talk about the shooting extensively, using the outrage and sympathy for their own goals.
  • Students from the school will be endlessly interviewed, and asked to relive that day.
  • There will be a TV special about the “heroes” of the day.   Eventually, they will be revealed as humans with flaws.

And a year from now not much will have changed.   We will have new tragedies to mourn, and a presidential circus to distract us.   And the Olympics.   And… and… and…

…and I don’t want to know about the shooter.  I want to know who he shot.   Simply put, there is no sense to be made of this:  celebrate the lives of the fallen, and mourn them if you need to.   Mourn the twisted mind of the shooter who decided this was how he was going to make his mark on the world.

I’m a teacher.   I mourn the loss of those students, of their hopes, of their dreams, and of the loss of peace on campuses across the US.

Now, I’m just exhausted and heartsore.

Fall Frenzy

It begins.

Fall term is starting… the air is crisp in the morning, hinting at cold days to come.   Already, all of my Summer attire is put away.   What has taken its place is an incredible crush of last minute revisions to classes, syllabi, homework, and trying to finish up Summer projects!   Amid the training sessions,  onboarding meetings, and early fall celebrations, it pays being organized and taking out some time for self care.

Which is unfortunate, really.  Where did the time go?

The beginning of every quarter always seems to have a tidal wave of work attached to it, but Fall quarter especially so.   Why?  Perhaps the shorter days?  The crop of new students?  The implementation of new programs or policies (often well-intentioned, but not always useful)?  Whatever the cause, Fall term is crazy.   There is a lot of hustle and bustle during the first few weeks, with a lot of work to take care of before things start to settle down.


That’s all right, I didn’t need more than 5 hours of sleep regularly anyway.

So far, classes have been good to me.   My classes seem to have good personalities, and my grading pile is small.   I only have 13 things to plan and write before Monday.  Plus proofreading.  Plus photocopying.   Plus 100 new names to remember.

Pleasure reading?  Oh yeah, I can add things to my fun reading pile.  Maybe I’ll get to them after finals.

Oh by the way, unemployment decided to mess up your claims for the past two weeks before classes.    As an adjunct, I won’t get paid until mid-October.   I have at least 2 weeks of 14 hour days planned, before things will start to smooth out and calm down.  But in the meantime, my bank account is getting thin.

I love my job, but parts of your psyche twist under these pressures.

I love to teach.   The rewards are incredible, watching people learn.

I just know that I’ll feel better once I collect my first paycheck.  I also remember why I’m evil…

I’ll also be plotting the downfall of mankind.    In all of my ample free time.

Horoscopes, Fall 2015

Another school term is about to start, so it is time for school horoscopes!    Here are your predictions for the upcoming term…   I’m including both students and teachers in one single, consolidated, and improved horoscope!

And for those who tell me that there are 13 signs now:    Thbpbphphhphphpth!


Aries (March 21 – April 20) 

As cool as you are, they are onto you.   Everyone knows that you’ve been faking it.    Doubling down isn’t likely to get you far, so you’ll need to get your act together before you decide to present your case.   Yes, you are going to need to work like crazy.

You will meet a smiling Scorpio this term.   You could run, but it will be more interesting if they catch you.

Taurus  (April 21 – May 21)

There are a few things for you to consider in your life this quarter, Taurus.   Little changes can make big differences.  So do wrecking balls.    You should probably decide which tool you want to use this term, but you should be deliberate in your choices.     Stasis is not an option.

Money is important, but it is also important to not be mauled by bears.

Gemini (May 22 – June 21)

You know, there isn’t really anything for you to do except to sit back an enjoy the ride.   Take pleasure in your classes, you are going to have a few characters who will try to brighten up your term.   They will do this whether you like it or not.   Heavy drinking may seem like a good plan, but the hangovers will seriously be a problem if you try.

Avoid an angry Virgo wielding an axe.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)

You will be plagued by the feeling that you have forgotten something important this term.   Like a class, paying your internet bill, or wearing pants to class.   I won’t say you’re wrong… but it may be a good idea to keep checking.      If you have a roommate, it is okay for you to investigate the mysterious smell coming from the fridge but it is not okay to investigate mysterious thumping sounds in their car trunk.

Consider getting a new roommate.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

I know it may feel like your life is exploding this term.     Your life is actually going quite well all things considered.   There are far more compromising positions that you could be in… so don’t get caught moving the bodies.   I’m not saying don’t move them, I’m saying:  DON’T.  GET.   CAUGHT.

Consider making a new friend.   Gemini’s are good.   Or if you would prefer an enemy,  an Aquarius will be a solid choice.

Virgo (August 23 – September 23)

This will be a good term for you Virgo.   Your classes will go fairly well, but the real magic takes place outside of classes.    If you thought that things have been going well before this, buckle up.   Things are going to get fantastic.   Don’t go crazy, because this high will eventually plateau.   How much work you put in will determine whether the “plateau” can become your new baseline.

If you see a madman in a blue box, run.

Libra (September 24-October 23)

It’s party time!    Work is good, but painting the town red is VERY good.   Some adventures come along once in a lifetime, so go out and take some chances.   Also, the morning after you should be prepared to deal with the consequences.    Use protection.

Avoid drinking with other Librae, as they will only harsh your mellow.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 22)

How do I say this?   Watch the Muppets.   Carefully.   It won’t be obvious, but it will become very important to you quickly.    Hide your new obsession from others, they won’t understand.   While I know you want the wisdom that Kermit offers, I think that Animal or Gonzo may be your true spirit animal.

If you want to beat things,  hang out with chickens, or eat bacon will be very telling in your internal debate.

Sagittarius (November 23 – December 21)

You are going to be a person of good deeds, intentionally or not this term.   You can’t hide from it, so help someone out.   You won’t get the appreciation that you are looking for, but you shouldn’t really be doing it for those sorts of rewards.   Also, consider seducing someone.   Keep considering.    Now consider something edgy for you.     Put those things together, and you may get either very thoroughly laid, or very thoroughly slapped.

The danger of running with scissors is real, but very overstated.   Use your own judgement.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 20)

You are a person of science.   While other people are stuck with their head up their Chakra you should be out looking at evidence and making plans based off of logic and reason.   So do your research, break out your slide rule and get cracking.

Arson may seem like a good idea, but it is really hard to disguise that smoke smell from investigators.

Aquarius (January 21 – February 19)

Do you think you are prepared?   It may seem like it now, but this term is going to be a lesson in humility for you.   The world isn’t going to fall into neat and easy events for you to categorize and deal with… you are going to have things happening that will take innovation, street smarts, and sweat.   Now is a good time to stock up on duct tape and KY.

Clear your browser history if you live with a Taurus.  Or share your links with an Aries.

Pisces (February 20 – March 20)

This term is going to feel upside down and backwards for you, Pisces.    You are going to start out feeling like you know things, but have very little energy to deal with things.   As the term wears on, you are going to find that you become less and less certain about your answers, but you are going to get more and more energized.   This is EXACTLY what you needed.

Something random is going to happen to you involving a duck.   Don’t be ashamed, hold your head up high.

What I did last Summer…

During most of the school term a lot of my friends ask me, “when does your Summer break start?”   As a teacher (with a long commute) a great deal of my life gets put on hold while I teach.   Projects, books to read, hanging out with friends, helping friends in need, playing games, housework, exercise….   I know what I need to do for self-care during the term, but I do end up with a backlog of things to do.

Ain't no cure for the Sparta time blues

So here is what I did last Summer, in no particular order:

  • Writing lists of things to do
  • Helped a friend move into her new house *
  • Batman:  Arkham Knight
  • A much anticipated cancer remission celebration **
  • Rescued a friend from a breakdown in the middle of an intersection
  • Binge watching NCIS
  • Help negotiate purchasing a more reliable car ***
  • Putting together my classes for fall.
  • Finally finishing three books on my yard tall “books to read” pile.
  • Walking (for an hour or two) with a crazy friend who decided that walking two and a half marathons was a good idea.
  • Driving my girlfriend to work, while her car was on the fritz.   ****
  • Getting a new teaching gig (!!!!!)
  • Putting together MORE classes for fall.
  • Fighting with unemployment, trying to convince them that “teaching in the fall” still is a conditional offer of employment, and they need to pay me more money.
  • See’s Candies.   Chocolati.  Theo’s Chocolate.
  • Photo shoot of Rory the Racoon at the Center of the Universe
  • Helping pull up scary orange carpet from a nice hardwood floor.
  • Spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets!
  • Writing lists of things I’ve done, so I can feel like I was productive.

So, it has been a fun and interesting Summer.   I would have liked a few more “do nothing” days, but I have managed to stay busy enough to not go completely stir crazy.    The jury is still out on “crazy.”

As for now, I get ready to go back to teaching.   I’ll miss you, free time!


* Honestly, this is the third person I’ve helped move this year.   Enough is enough, already!

**  Wow, I was seriously holding my breath on this one!

*** It is more reliable, but the old car was much-loved.   It’s loss will be missed.

****  The car wasn’t universally loved.   But it did give me an excuse to hang out with my girlfriend (moderately incessantly) this Summer.

Engaging tough topics, teacher style

This is an article I wrote over a year ago and decided not to post because it wouldn’t have helped the conversation at the time.   I came across it and decided it was still relevant, sadly.   A lot of things have been said about sexism, but there is also a lot be said about communication.

Outrage is energizing, but it can also alienate potential allies.  At the time, the outrage touched a nerve and I felt compelled to speak.

Here is what I said…

I have been bombarded lately by things with news about the Isla Vista killings.   Article after article after article talking about misogyny, women’s rights, men’s rights, and everything.   I had decided earlier that I wasn’t going to write anything about it.   Not because I don’t have anything relevant to say, but because I’m a guy, and I don’t want to be the guy “speaking from a position of privilege” about “stuff I don’t know.”    The outrage has been palpable, as is evident in a lot of the articles I’ve read.    Something in me finally couldn’t take it anymore.

Let me be perfectly clear:    what happened was horrible, for the victims, for the families, and for the family of the shooter.   I am also a feminist with a resume of action and support.   I sincerely believe that women are still fighting for equality in this society (let alone in other cultures), and that the cultural values that we hand to both men and women are often unhealthy and untenable.   I am WITH women on this fight.

… and many of them are engaging in the discussion wrong.   Not everyone, but enough to put my teeth on edge.

What was being said was true.   And not helpful.   And often engaging in the same things that lead to lousy gender roles and misogyny, only in reverse.   I’ve been writing lately about critical thinking lately, so here is some of mine:

It isn’t men vs. women.   It is human.

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual.    Everyone on the planet is trying to figure things out on their own.

Now being human has its own needs:   food, water, shelter,  sex and security.   Notice that I put sex in there?    We are mammals, and whether we like it or not there is a biological imperative to reproduce.   But we immediately follow that up with “security.”   Now, we have communities that have survived the test of time.  But they aren’t perfect…  parents try to give to their offspring a blueprint for roles in life.

Those roles kind of suck.   They are a work in progress.   Please, please, please,  let us keep working on them.

Any culture or institution that gets control of how we think of these things is immensely powerful.   Control how people eat?   Power.   Control peoples sense of security or fear?   Power.   Control or deny sexuality?   Power.

Many people couple thought with action.   To some people, thinking is as bad as doing.   That is the trap.

Men are not the enemy

Let me tell you a personal story.   I grew up with a single mom (and I also hit the mom jackpot…),  and I attribute my love of strong women to her and my family.    When I was growing up, my mom had a nice big circle of friends.   Some of her women friends would get together and talk, and on more than one occasion I heard the phrase “All men are scum.   Except for you, Colin.”   Not from my mother herself, but her friends.   People who were important to her and to me.   I understand the feeling that was behind the statement, I even understand the (attempted) amendment on my behalf.    It was still alienating and offputting to be lumped in with “scum”, and the backpedal felt just like a backpedal.   It took a long time for me to reconcile the hurt that they were obviously feeling with the undeniable fact that I was male.   It took a long time, but I came to like who I am and define for myself what being a man really means.     I recognize that they were pushing back against the horrible expectations that had been put upon them.

I believe that all people, female and male, have inherent worth.   I believe that “no means no”, that stop is an order, and that anyone who tries to make sexual demands on a woman simply because she is female is a sick and dangerous individual.   All women are to be respected.

But nobody every told me that it works both ways.  Ever.

Men are victims of the culture as well.    I never valued being a man.   We hear phrases all the time that supposedly have some meaning, but the context for these things have changed so radically, we need to re-define for ourselves what it means to be a man.    “Man-up”, “Man-handle” or even simply “be a man”.   How degrading is it to have these things pushed at us, without any regard for what are the expectations are for men.

What I have learned about being a man is this:  it is a good thing.   I love my body, its quirks, and the pleasure it gives me.   I value being physically strong, and I know that being physically strong doesn’t detract from my intelligence or sensitivity.   I learned that men can be beautiful and sexy, not just women.  I learned that being a man doesn’t mean having to automatically defer to women, just because she hasn’t spoken up yet.   I’ve learned that it is okay to be a sexual being, and that desiring someone isn’t sick or wrong.   I’ve learned that on dates I’m not simply a wallet with a funny personality attached.    Being hairy doesn’t make me stupid, or unattractive.   That I can receive just as well as give.   For me, being a man means that I enjoy being a warrior, a protector to my friends and family; and that being a protector doesn’t mean that I can’t nurture.
Having a penis does not relegate me to role of a wallet on legs,  to being sexually unappreciative of my partners,  that I don’t have be the provider, or that I’m supposed to stoically hide my feelings.    I get to define what my role is.    My partners get to define what their roles are.   THAT is the way it should be.
Let me be clear:   both genders have horrible roles and expectations, and women clearly have the short end of the stick.   Expectations around appearance, capabilities, and roles for women are still nowhere near equal to men.   The fact that these are improvements from previous roles are terrible, and a world of work needs to be done.
The thing that we need to remember is that whatever your gender, everyone has a story to tell.   And more people need to be on board if we want to make cultural changes stick.

Changing culture and making allies… mostly

Not everyone can be an ally.   When making cultural changes, it doesn’t pay to preach to the fringes.   The feminist side already knows the problems that need fixing, and the chauvinist side would rather return to the 1950’s without Rosie the Riveter.  The people who need to be moved are the center.   The people who are otherwise indifferent or put off by either side.

I’m a teacher at heart.   I believe that change starts with education.   And that the lessons that people learn are those that they teach themselves.

There are men who are so completely off the rails that they believe that they are entitled to sex with women, anytime and anywhere (that was Elliot Rodger’s and his cronies complaint).  Misogyny is a cultural problem, and many men have a false sense of being a victim.     You know what helps the fight?   Let chauvinists talk.   So many of them are self-important, entitled assholes… the best thing that you can do is to poke the bear and stand back.   Let them say what they have to say.  By they time they are done, they will have succeeded in proving that changes need to happen.

That is when reasonable voices can take the stage.   Outrage at this point just would serve to polarize, but the acknowledgement that those men have been speaking the same line of crap for years.  Women can stand up as leaders, as people who don’t deserve to be marginalized.   Men can stand up and ask to be supporters, and can change their own roles as well.   And finally those institutions, religions, and groups that try to use gender and sexuality as a means of social power will either change, or lose their popular approval and into the lunatic fringe where they belong.

Positive change can happen for everyone… but only if we stop vilifying each other and can listen and work together.   Both sides can win only when we can agree to meet in the middle, and keep the discussion alive.


Postscript:    In retrospect, I can see why the very polarized discussion can be helpful.   Anger is a useful  emotion, it is an impetus for change and can be very unifying.    But ultimately, setting aside baggage needs to happen before anyone can change.

I’ll step down off my soap box now, and return us to our regularly scheduled Summertime fun.

Now go out there and change the world.   Or change your mind about something.  Same difference.

Finals Week Playlist 13

Summer term is winding to a close.   During my last push of grading, I usually like to listen to music to keep me focused on the task at hand.

In a break from my traditional music, I’m going with a different sort of theme for this term.   Lets see if you like it…

  • Europe – The Final Countdown
  • Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
  • Gloria Gaynor – I will survive
  • Leonard Cohen – Everybody Knows
  • Final Fantasy Theme
  • Baz Luhrmann – Sunscreen
  • Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (pt 2)
  • Van Halen – Hot for Teacher
  • Rolling Stones – Wild Horses
  • Alice Cooper – School’s Out

I will also say that while the (mostly) classic rock theme is different than my usual theme for grading, I also recently got the full Nightmare on Elm Street collection… so I’m set for any virtual violence that I may feel.

And with that… enjoy the summer break.


p.s.   A quick note… I know that this post went up over a week late for finals.   I’m okay, just very busy.