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Two questions have plagued me for my entire life.  How and why?

Before curiosity kills it, the cat learned more of the world than a hundred uninquisitive dogs.  ~Tom Robbins

There are two things that I always associate with intelligence:   perception and curiosity.   Awareness of the world is a trait that is undervalued, I think.   Beyond that, the desire to know more is what drives people to learn – not just because it means that they will be more skilled, have better job prospects, or whatnot.   Just the desire to know for the sake of knowing.

“I don’t know” isn’t an admission of weakness, it is a first step towards strength… if you choose to.   Curiosity drives exploration.   The thirst for knowledge will drive a person to find new answers.  And along the way, new questions.  Eventually, if you search long enough and hard enough you either find the answers you are looking for, or you can find out that there aren’t answers.  Yet.

 

Curiosity filled the cat

I like questions in my classes.   A class is supposed to be a safe place to learn… and I know that I’ve had a few challenging students who just wanted to know.   I remember those students far more than those who just wanted to get through to get their degree.

Curiosity isn’t just a first step, it is a bonfire, burning in the leather armchair of the soul.   It doesn’t let you get comfortable.    I know how to ask questions better now than I ever did… but eventually I come back to the basics:  How?   Why?   And I want my students to keep asking questions – I know that it is difficult to keep letting them at times.   Admittedly I also know that students in my developmental math classes may not go on to find the secrets of the universe, but I like to think I can help the overcome their fears about asking the questions they’ve wanted to ask.

I want them to keep asking: How?   Why?

And as for myself… I’ll keep searching for answers.

 

I like people, but they are so strange sometimes.   Something that confounds me is how some folks make so much drama in their lives.    Some days it feels like I’m dealing with wave after wave of unreasonable demands and people’s overinflated narratives!    Somehow people manage to escalate the most minor problems into harrowing personal crises, or will claim incredible victories over molehills, or will just generally make an ass out of themselves…Things are so peaceful... it must be time for me to make a scene

Students are great at this.   I’ve noticed how some students manage to, week after week have some story of woe that keeps them from turning in their homework, studying for tests, or otherwise doing their schoolwork.*

I would like to start a tradition:   No Drama Tuesdays.   Don’t create drama, don’t feed drama, and fix problems rationally with as little fanfare as possible.

So here is what I would like to see, on Tuesdays**:

  • If it isn’t your problem, mind your own business
  • No whining about your own troubles
  • No gossiping about other people’s troubles
  • Take responsibility for your own problems, quietly and gracefully.
  • As much as possible keep your ego out of problems
  • If trouble seems likely, think how to avoid it, fix it, or ameliorate it
  • Realize that there is no actual pressure on you to be happy, or sad… and no one can actually tell you what to feel.

 

Is that a deal?

 

* Yes, I know life interferes in the best made plans.   At a certain point, it becomes clear that the only common element in the person’s life drama is the person.

** If this tradition happens on other days of the week, that would be nice too.

One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there.   The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student.  In order to learn, a person has to want to learn.   Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow.   People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class.   Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.

Accepting mental illness

The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open.   It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness.  One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.

Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality.   You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine.   Get over it.

It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin.   The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well.  Our brain creates our sense of self,  so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain.   Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease.   It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.

To these students:   stop shoulding all over yourself.   It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch.   You can get help.  And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope.   Be supportive, or get out of the way.

Getting help

I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications.  Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch.   Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment.   Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.

Medication may be part of ongoing treatment.   Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones.   No shame is attached.

real courage

Teaching Needs

Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity.  Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.

Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn.   Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either.   Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others.   Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.

ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders:  often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable.   One or the other is often the choice for these students.   Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg.   Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes.   If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.

Anxiety & Depression:  Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral.  So as much as possible, take the pressure off!   If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure.   Praise is essential for these students.    I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started.   A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students.  Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.

Dyslexia/Dyscalculia:   Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed.   The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced).   Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students.   If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures.     An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student:  too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper.    Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.

Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again.   If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving.   Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom.   It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.

Attitude check…

There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work.   If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week.   If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need.  Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno.  I spend an hour or two.”   Then they may complain that they have a learning disability.   ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to  deal with.    My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.

*grumblemumblelazyentitledgrumble*

So to all of my students:  the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you.   I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.

Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.

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.