Category Archives: Griping

On knowing, a new pillory

John_Waller_in_pillorySomeone has reinterpreted the pillory–it was only a matter of time, really. Right? It might make me an awful person, insensitive to a whole range of questions (I hear your future rants, ranters), but I am experiencing a certain schadenfreude in the very concept of this blog, Public Shaming, where certain types of social media detritus are exposed.

In all seriousness, I have become very interested in social media (like the rest of academia) and its role in the creation of knowledge. Because, clearly, this type of trending seems self-perpetuated where the volume of believers outweighs the ‘facts.’ (Not that this is new, cf belief)

I know because they know instead of I know because I checked.   This isn’t a new by any stretch of the imagination. But with the instantaneous proliferation of ‘knowing,’ is common knowledge even knowledge anymore?

Knowing is hard.

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Literature hacked to death at *-Mart

I’m going to spare the rant about the quality of the book – most people have already expressed it.  I came across a great blog post this morning (as I am avoiding doing any type of grading or producing). The writer raises a fear that I’ve had for a while now. In the post  Assault on Literature through 50 Shades of Yuck, the writer laments the current phenomenon of inserting into already existing stories.

The prime example here is the phenomenon that swept the world by storm, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Yeah yeah, I can hear the post-modern protests already. But But But. It’s funny. But but but, it’s not hurting anyone. But but but lighten up.

book knifeI’d be less worried if I knew that everyone’s spawn actually knew works of literature. I’m disheartened on a regular basis that they do not, in fact, know much about literature at all (or care, or want to care). I fear the parody of these works (and the thriller/comedy/sex ification of them) is replacing the works themselves (insert rant on education/values/art/entertainment).

Hey, I think spoofs are funny. I think they’re only a good idea, however, when we know what they’re making fun of and why.

The decade of the reboot and the remake (not that these haven’t existed before) in such proliferation and zeal has annoyed me. I’ve enjoyed some, loathed others. But I knew the originals. Sure, some are going to argue that the reboot or remake may inspire seeing the originals. Ok, but that’s giving people a lot of credit. Yet, I’ll readily believe that people will see the original movie before they read the original book.

Flaubert spent 5 years writing Madame Bovary. Not due to laziness, but rather to an obsessive attention to words, sentences, and sounds.

I wonder how long the mommy porn author took to copy Sade’s homework before class.


Abracadabra

Make it so.

Or so we all heard for a good 7 years in the late 80s and early 90s. More of an imperative than an performative utterance, it gets us a little closer to the bull’s eye. Recently, a judge in France ruled the auction of Hopi masks legal, as the previous owner had obtained them legally.  That seems logical.

Image

Art Et Communication / Ho / EPA
An undated handout picture provided by Art et Communication press office in Paris, France on April 11, 2013 shows a mask entitled ‘Angwusnasomtaqa’ or ‘Tumas Crow Mother’ as part of the ‘Katsinam Masks’ auction sale at Drouot-Richelieu. care of worldnews.nbcnews.com

Yet, the complication is in the role the masks play for the Hopi, who view them as living things, sacred beings. Naturally, money and collecting are involved (un passe-temps du 19e siècle), so the dispute over the masks’–scratch that. The dispute over the legality of the sale was hauled before a judge, who subsequently ruled that since the current owner had obtained them legally, years before, the masks could be legally auctioned.

The most frightening part, I think is the power that the law wielded here and invested in others:

Before starting, the auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, told the crowd that the sale had been found by a judge to be perfectly legal, and that the objects were no longer sacred but had become  “important works of art.”

The ability of language to perform is powerful indeed. Big magic. In one deft tongue maneuver, Néret-Minet changed the status of the masks from sacred beings to important objects all because of another performative utterance, the legal ruling.

The irony, perhaps, is in this line:

[Néret-Minet] added, “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

Whew, well I sure feel better now.

Suddenly, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick surge out of the dry pages of theory and into the consequence-filled world of practice.


Darth Chancellor and the academic HMO?

The Board Strikes Back — Darth Chancellor weighs in on CUNY brouhaha.

Far be it for me to be so naive that I think money grows on trees and oversight is avoidable.  The Board of Trustees is a function of universities (or maybe a symptom?) that is not going anywhere.  What troubles me, however, is that the majority of boards I am familiar with are not actually staffed with academics (though, surely there is representation).  Now, before you blow the ‘play fair’ horn, I do acknowledge that there is a reason for governance that is not completely by the faculty — there is more going on at a university than education.  Yet, when the board of trustees gets to decide curricular directions I hear alarms sounding (let’s agree this is not the first time a board has asserted itself against the wishes of the faculty— everyone remembers Mitch Daniels and Purdue University, right?)

As one Purdue protester put it:

“What we see again with this appointment is a top-down, corporate driven shaping of education.”

And every American university I have stepped foot in has demonstrated this exact trend. Lamentable and destructive to the integrity of the college degree, standards are loosened, bars are lowered, whining is appeased.  I have witnessed curricula that have been adjusted for certain schools within universities who also happen to secure a plethora of funding externally. The student-as-consumer and education-as-commodity model is, quite frankly, a destructive load of hooey. The best argument I’ve heard against this is actually marvelously simple: college students do not have the knowledge to act as a consumer; rather, they are in college to gain that knowledge.  It is generally up to the educators to determine what they need to know by virtue of their extensive education. Here’s another argument against it, however.

The Rebel Professors are on Dantooine!

All of this to report that Chancellor Matthew Goldstein of the City University of New York, a consortium of many colleges throughout the five boroughs of the city, has responded to the concerns expressed by the CUNY community in regards to the flippant remarks of a Queensborough Community College administrator. (You can find her remarks here.)  The Professional Staff Congress (a cross-campus advocacy body) has voiced its condemnation of the situation. (You can find PSC president Barbara Bowen’s comments here.)  After the PSC body broadcast its condemnation loudly to the CUNY community which was simultaneously joined with an outcry at the QCC administration and the University administration with further condemnation of the Pathways Initiative,  Chancellor Goldstein has sent out an e-mail to the entire CUNY community today:

I am writing to address several issues that have arisen recently in connection with the implementation of the Pathways resolution of the Board of Trustees.

First, earlier this month, the interim vice-president for academic affairs at Queensborough Community College wrote an unfortunate letter to the College’s English Department. The author subsequently apologized for the character and tone of her communication. We should remember that while Pathways established the structure for curricular reform and its implementation, faculty are fully engaged in developing course content. Such collaboration is very much in the tradition and spirit of a great University.

Second, Dr. Terrence Martell, chair of the University Faculty Senate, and Dr. Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress, have sent an email to the faculty in which they erroneously state that the faculty have the power to block the implementation of Pathways. This claim misstates the core principle, embodied in state law and the bylaws and policies of the University, that the authority for the governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has delegated a significant role to the faculty on academic matters, and the faculty have the right to exercise their professional judgment in fulfilling that role. However, the faculty are not empowered to ignore or violate a policy established by the Board of Trustees or the implementation of that policy by the Chancellor.

I hope this clarifies matters and allows us to continue to work collaboratively to implement Pathways in a manner that is in the best educational interests of our students.

The issue of curricular change joined with phrasing like “the faculty are not empowered,” are particularly piquant.  I cannot help but metaphorically reach towards the adage of the corporate bean-counter deciding what treatment physicians can give their patients, the requirement to have procedures and tests approved (you know those physicians, they just love to fire up the MRI and do spinal taps for giggles).

Now, we are told that faculty have “the right to exercise their judgement,” only not when it involves what composes the degree they’re participating in…actively.  Curricular changes forced on a community like a steam-roller (as, with an inside perspective, I can vouch that this Pathways Initiative is like some form of academic Eminent Domain), non-academics making those decisions – wow, it sounds a lot like local public education in America. Let’s have the non-educators decide who learns what and when.  After all, who needs history, literature, foreign language? (See this great post by Carceral Nation).  You can’t quantify them, therefore they must be useless.

Enjoy your degrees. Soon they’ll mean little more than “I was present for 4 years.”


Pot hole in CUNY’s Pathway to Nowhere

As the GC Advocate states:

On Friday, QCC  Vice President Karen Steele announced reprisals against the English faculty.

What has been a nightmare for CUNY faculty and staff over the past year or so is finally leaving the dream world and manifesting itself as reality.   Because faculty at one of the CUNY campuses have refused to change their curriculum to match the Pathways Program they are now threatened with the forced dismantling of their department, the non re-appointment of contingent, contractual workers and the possible firing of tenured or tenure track faculty members.

The email in question reads:

We will no longer be able to offer EN-101, 102, or 103 in their current configuration (i.e., four contact hours) as of Fall 2013. Since we don’t have in place courses that will meet the Pathways requirements for the Common Core, we can’t put forward a Fall 2013 schedule of classes that includes English Composition courses. Given that fact, and the resultant dramatic drop in enrollment, we will have to take the following actions:

  • All searches for full time faculty in the English Department will be cancelled immediately;
  • The existing EN 101, 102, and 103 will not be included in the common core, and therefore will not be offered in Fall 13;
  • Beginning March 2013 (our Fall 13 advisement cycle), continuing and new students will be advised to take the common core requirement for I A at another CUNY institution, since the courses will not be available at Queensborough;
  • Neither EN 101 or 103, nor EN 102 will be submitted to the University in the QCC list of ‘gateway’ courses for the English Major (we must submit the list of gateway major courses by October 1, 2012);
  • Of necessity, all adjunct faculty in the English department will be sent letters of non-reappointment for Fall 2013;
  • The reappointment of full time faculty in the English Department will be subject to ability to pay and Fall ’13 enrollment in department courses.

Check out, as well, Student Activism’s article (and this update) on the same embarrassment to higher education.   In brief, the Pathways program seeks to create a common set of credit hours across the curricula of multiple colleges that are part of the CUNY consortium.  In theory, this is to facilitate transfer of credit between campuses and equalize the degrees at all schools. However as many faculty have discovered, in practice this severely weakens the level of education available to students.  This is a prime example of the faculty, who know their student demographic better than the administrators, maintaining that the students are best served by a 4 (credit) hour course and not the new standard 3 hour course.

Apparently, the mission is no longer to educate students to the best of our ability.


Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


ef-fron-ter-y

[ihfruhn-tuh-ree]
noun, plural ef-fron-ter-ies.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for two free samples.

2. an act or instance of this.

Origin:

1705-15; < French effronterie, equivalent to Old French esfront shameless (es-exfront brow; see front) + -erie -ery

Synonyms
1. impertinence, impudence, cheek.

* * *

Many of us will be familiar, and indeed may be mulling over this word or its comrade-in-arms synonyms during this hectic time of calculation and notation. This morning, I awoke to a cheeky communiqué from a student exemplifying the meaning of this word. I have decided to reproduce the thrust of the message without its form, much like a translation. It should not take me aback, as they say. But as the dictionary confirms, the absolute  barefaced audacity threw me through a loop.

Hello title, 

This morning I looked at my grades and I see that I have a grade in subject. As of today, my cumulative GPA is number-point-numbers. I want to be on the Generic Honor Group and I would need a higher-number-than-I-have. Can you raise my grade to include decimal point-difference-number? 

Sincerely, me. 
sent from my ipad.

* * *

Well shoot, I was really, really hoping that you were insincere on this one. In fact, I was banking that you were facetious. I confess. I blinked a few times. I pet the cat. I went back to the kitchen to pour some coffee. Clearly, I was not expecting this. But, what was it precisely that I was not expecting? I’d like to think that I am not a rube. Students will always try to negotiate their grades – I don’t see this changing in the future, ever. Still…something about this message struck me. This message was different than the other messages I have received over the years.  What was it that marked this message as not belonging to the group? Ah, well, that would be the effrontery.  I would say most students have some sense of propriety, even if they often seem audacious by our standards. Usually, there is a negotiation involved in grade lamentation, non?  Something to the effect of:

Dear Herr God Doctor Professor, I saw my grade and I [woe-inspired appeal to your pity]. Is there any way I can [random request to produce more work after the semester ends] so that you can [give me an unfair advantage over my cohorts]?  [Shameless, desperate closing].  

I’m used to this type of request – I think it is safe to say we’re all used to this type of request. And, of course, circumstances mitigate our responses. Was there a traumatic event we’re aware of? Does this student deserve the benefit of the doubt? Sometimes, the answer is yes and we arrange for something, change the grading scale, remove assignments, add assignments. This is usually to keep the student from failing when life got in the way but they really did do their best to overcome it.

This instance is akin to elective surgery; to vanity purchases. This isn’t a matter of life or death, that is, of failing. This is an appeal to make one’s self look better. I was honestly embarrassed when reading. Not because a student shamelessly begged (though, there was no actual begging here, hence the label of effrontery). But because it was a baldfaced request to give me what I want.

No justification. No reasoning. No offering. Simply, give me what I want.

What disturbs me most? The seeming unawareness of the impropriety of the request – no indication that the student understands that such a request is 1) absolutely out of the question, and 2) brazenly inappropriate. How did I respond? I wanted to write an impassioned, three page letter about responsibility, obligation, results, behavior, rigor and the future. Instead, I wrote two emotionless lines:
Your grade is a product of the work produced and not something assigned. I cannot give you any grade but what you earned.

Students wanting better grades than what they earn is not new, not interesting, and in no way unique. What simultaneously disturbs me and makes me very tired is the lack of effort in the appeal itself.

I begin each semester with a talk about how a grade is calculated, preciesly what the weights are with a caveat that only the student can determine her or his final outcome. Apparently, this is not clear enough. What can we possibly do to curb this type of behavior? Do any of you have a fool-proof technique?

For now, I will be writing dictionary.com to ask for an example change in the definition.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for a grade she did not earn.