Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #5: Policing Cheating

When it comes to dealing with cheating, teachers fall into three categories. The first consists of those who refuse to do anything about the problem. Sometimes these teachers say that they are taking the high road, that to police cheating is to detract from teaching. Other times such teachers frankly admit the task is beneath them because it is unrelated to teaching. We should ask, then, whether it is necessary to police cheating.

I propose it is necessary for a number of reasons. First, you might not like giving grades, but you are responsible for making them accurately represent student competence. That's a tall order and you need to fill it a variety of ways, one of which is policing cheating. Second, students prospering by cheating is an injustice against good students. Additionally, if you make good students look like fools for trying hard, you'll tempt them either to cheat or to give up. Third, you don't want to deal with dishonest people in life in general. Can you really have a good conversation in class, or even look at a student, whom you permit to cheat with impunity?

Fourth, students prospering by cheating will check out of class and damage class discipline. Fifth, you may be contractually obligated to police cheating. Sixth, you'll develop a reputation for not caring that will spread and be hard to erase. Seventh, you skew the student's statistics such that parents, guidance counselors, administration, and other teachers wonder why a student is doing well in your class and failing others. The answer is, "Because you let him cheat!" Eighth, you poison the student's expectations because he becomes resentful of the other teachers on whose tests he cannot cheat.

Ninth, you consign yourself to permitting cheating into the future, not only because you'll lack the credibility to start policing, but also because if you start, then parents, administration, etc. will wonder why students suddenly started failing your class. Tenth, you damage the credibility of the whole school and its graduates when the school is known to send students out into the world with a diploma which you have made, in part, a lie.

Advice to Myself: Eager Martyrs

When choosing a course of action, do not choose a path simply because it forces you to relinquish something significant: this purpose flatters your vanity. You will probably become resentful because in your eagerness to sacrifice you overestimate what your sacrifice means to others.

Sometimes we act to prove we are martyrs regardless of what good is actually accomplished. Choose your path in accordance with reason, aiming at virtue, and for virtue risk what you judge to be beneath its value.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote: A Roman Military Blunder

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Ayrault Dodge (1842-1909), military historian and United States Army officer of the Union during the American Civil War, describes in his 1889 study of Hannibal Barca the first major engagement between the Romans and the Carthaginians under Hannibal in the Second Punic War at the Battle of the Trebia River, December 218 BC:

The day was raw; snow was falling; the [Roman] troops had not yet eaten their morning meal; yet, though they had been under arms for several hours, [Roman General Tiberius Sempronius Longus] pushed them across the fords of the Trebia, with the water breast-high and icy-cold. Arrived on the farther side, the Roman soldiers were so chilled that they could scarcely hold their weapons. 
Hannibal was ready to receive them. His men had eaten, rubbed themselves with oil before their camp-fires, and prepared their weapons. He might have attacked the Roman army when half of it was across, with even greater chances of success. But when he saw his ruse succeeding, he bethought him that he could produce a vastly greater moral effect on the new Gallic allies, as well as win a more decisive victory, by engaging the whole army on his own terms.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #4: One Chance

One of the great delights of teaching is growing old with the craft. Every year you get wiser, you know the material in greater depth and with greater subtlety, and you perfect your style. Most of all, you learn to teach a greater variety of students. While not a given, some improvement is probable for even the weakest teachers. The flip-side to this rich opportunity is the temptation, in your ability to improve next year, to put off improving until next year. Or the year after, or the year after. Especially if you are making a career of teaching, you may feel that you have all the time in the world. So why work now? Yet as the horizon continues to recede, you will find yourself stale and listless. Old but not matured.

Worse is the crime against your students who, unlike you, do not have years and years to improve. In fact, they may only study the subject of your course once in their lives. You may be their only hope and opportunity of gaining this knowledge!

As a Latin teacher, I always that knew few if any of my students knew much about Latin coming into my class and few if any would ever read Latin again. Whatever I did with them was all they would know, and I wanted it to be good. My responsibility was twofold.

First, I resolved never to waste their time. Mainly this means two things: always show up and never show up unprepared. Regarding the first point, it's sad how many teachers are eager for any interruption to class time. Snow, sports, assemblies, late buses, some teachers welcome any intrusion. The pinnacle of this malaise is the jaded teacher--and who hasn't known a few--who is already counting down the days until June when it's only October.

Regarding the second point, once everyone is in class, make it count. Don't waste time–and teachers are notorious for this–by being inefficient when you do things like give back tests, hand out materials, put problems on the board, and so on.

This requires a great deal of organization and planning, but it doesn't mean you should be a task master. Neither you nor the students should be frantic trying to get too much done, but all should know what they need to do and be working on it at a pace appropriate to the class, material, calendar, and common sense adjustments to life. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, know when to ease up and when to push on. A good test of your success is whether you and they are proud of the day's work.

Second, don't disrespect the material. I appreciated the potential and history of the Latin language, the genius of its finest authors, and the importance of their writings, far to much ever to risk letting my students see them in a negative light. So no fumbles. Never let your work look shoddy or cheap. Don't cut corners or let things be out of date.

Don't ever give the impression that you don't care, because that impression will spread like poison through your class and even, possibly, through your career. Of course you must understand that students have many hardships and obligations, as do you, but during the class the material has to feel as if it were the most important thing in the world. Never give the impression–and disgruntled employees in all jobs are notorious for this–that you would rather be doing something else. If you would rather be somewhere else, they will too.

Some days will go bad, but you can make up for mistakes. Don't be obsessive and oppressed by the weight of your goals, rather let them urge you.

They only have one chance. Don't screw it up.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quote: A Poet In Your Pocket

From John Adams, by David McCullough

[Adams] read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," he would tell his son Johnny.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Imperfect Knowledge

After wisdom and love, knowledge is perhaps the most sought after of human values. For such a precious thing, though, it is amazing what you can do without it. After all, most of what we do we do with imperfect knowledge. I'm not talking about ignorance of natural laws and phenomena which all proceed without any consideration from me whatsoever, but the deeds of daily life.

When I walk or drive down the street I don't have the positions of every other person constantly mapped with perfect accuracy. Rather, I have learned through trial and error how far apart everyone should be; what things look like when they are going as they should, and what things situations look like when they are dangerous.

When I shop, who can say what book will strike my fancy? When I eat, I don't really know what or how much I should consume before I sit down. I don't know just when I'll need to sleep or just how tired any given activity will make me. I do know all of these things, though, just well enough to get through the day.

Dealing with other people, of course, is a greater challenge. I know what kind of behavior most people will tolerate, so I smile, give thanks, hold doors, leave people their privacy, and so forth. Now some people need more or less of these things, and customs for observing such norms vary from time and place, but generally most of us can navigate society.

This sounds dreary, but perhaps ignorance is bliss, for who would want to know exactly how much he should eat, and just what book to read, and just how much a person does not really appreciate your gratitude or that you held the door for him? This is not so for intimates, though.

Habit fortunately fine tunes this heuristical, trial-and-error learning, and we know our loved ones well, so well do we read their signs. I can tell from the slightest look or intonation whether my wife or daughter are not themselves and, in the privacy of my home, I can scarcely camouflage my true feelings.

All of this is all well and good, then: we know how to interact with our friends and family very well and with strangers well enough, but what about when we have a lot of new variables we need to process quickly? Let us consider, for example, the seemingly daily onslaught of allegations of sexual misconduct in the news.

On the one hand, so many of these charges are so heinous that they trigger an immediate disgust response, bypassing our desire to evaluate the situation any further. One avoids anything associated with such matters as one does a contagious disease or poison. Is it legitimate to let our visceral reaction be the judge or are we obliged to use reason? If we are obliged to reason, then we have to consider the method. What should, for example, Alabama voters do in choosing between Doug Jones (D) and Roy Moore (R), the latter facing "an accusation that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a minor years ago."  (Also via The Washington Post)

Generally we rely on a large system of established protocols, aka the criminal justice system, to navigate these complex issues. It is a great luxury to be able to declare someone innocent until proven guilty and to defer judgment to a legal system that will adjudicate the matter based on objective, or at least defined, premises and processes. This system takes time, however, and what if we ourselves need to choose?

In assessing an accusation it seems our judgment will be based on three things. The first and most ideal would be evidence, but evidence needs to scrupulously to be gathered, verified, and analyzed, a time-consuming process. That process would be an investigation and a fine thing, but absent it, we stitch together the evidence in our own way, a way which will usually be cursory and unsystematic since we rarely have the time, inclination, or ability to do better.

Usually, we simply try to piece together what type of person or incident, a process invariably based on our experiences. If the accused is a lawyer, our judgment will be based on our experience with lawyers. If the other is tall it will reflect our experiences with tall people, and so on. We all make such judgments, though they are far from scrupulous and unbiased. Such processes may help us cross the street, but are unreliable in dealing with situations with so many new variables. Yet such methods are not unreasonable if better options of inquiry and investigation are unavailable.

Consider a few variables based on recent news:
  1. Do multiple allegations make guilt more or less likely, or neither?
  2. Does the fact the press seeks out potential victims and not the other way around make either party more or less trustworthy?
  3. Does when the accusers come forward make them more or less trustworthy?
  4. Do a person's gender, look, occupations, etc. contribute to anything?
  5. Does denial make the accused look innocent, or admittance better?
  6. Are the witnesses, and witnesses in general, reliable?
  7. Do ridiculous defenses harm the defense?
  8. Is the reporting source more or less credible from particular sources?
That's a lot to evaluate systematically or heuristically, but Alabama voters, for example, are deciding. Considering that case: is it preferable to presume Moore is innocent and risk bringing the upset to governance that a trial against him as a sitting official would bring, and worse, a disgrace to the office, state, and people and offense to the victims, if he is guilty? Or do you rule Moore out, and risk setting a precedent that such an accusation is sufficiently grave that it can can be used as a weapon. The middle path is the toughest: wading through all the facts you can gather and judging as best you can. It is a necessary if imperfect task we usually leave to jurors, who fortunately have more time and guidance, and a difficulty whose price we rarely bear ourselves, both in terms of the responsibility of getting the verdict right and in terms of defending our judgment.

We evaluate complex matters casually all the time and such informs our sense of life, that is, our basic appraisal of things. Such is why trials that become public tend to provoke strong responses, because disagreement is not merely about the facts of the case, but about the facts of life. Indeed, my eight questions above probably seem biased. Disagreement here is as meaningful and acrimonious as debate about taste in art, which also reflects one's sense of life.

When a verdict comes, will we revisit the case and change our judgment? What if all these accusations of recent months fade away and we never examine them? We may find that we tune out accusations like noise, which has its benefits. Is it better to live in a society where all accusations and epithets were hurled with abandon, and thus are routine and discounted, or one where such accusations are rare, but then in need of great scrutiny?

We seem to be somewhere in between, which is usually the hardest place to navigate.

P.S. This article in the National Review is some of the worst writing I've seen in a long time, but I think it illustrates a number of my points.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Advice to Myself: Don't Lash Out

Wise men urge us to know ourselves, and this is certainly true. They too give many fine reasons why, but here is one in particular you should heed: know the cause of your negative emotions--anger, enmity, fear, shame, indignation--and take great care to direct your attempts at resolution toward the just and proper ends. It is of course wise to know the cause of all of our emotions, but the negative ones--excepting enmity--flare up without warning and easily hurt the innocent.

Before you know the cause you will be tempted to lash out at the wrong people or remedy the wrong situation. In fact, you will often be tempted to lash out at something very good in blind reaction to that which has disappointed you but which you have yet to identify.

After you identify the cause, you will be tempted again. On the one hand, you may be tempted to act rashly. On the other hand, you may wish to avoid confronting an unpleasant truth. (In reacting deficiently, sometimes we concoct mealy excuses that we an others scarcely even believe, but sometimes we are too clever for ourselves and create elaborate rationalizations.) Both of these extreme reactions show that you do not have one or more of your priories arranged clearly enough.

If what is troubling you is important, you may need to pursue its solution with vigor, perhaps even risking other goods, whose value you also need to know in order to risk them. If what troubles you is not important, then you recognize it as inferior to other goods, which outweigh your trouble such that you may endure it.

The small man has little and is angry at many because, insecure, he is easily reminded of his smallness and thus is easily threatened. The magnanimous man, however, not only expresses anger sparingly, but rather is beneficent, so wisely and harmoniously has he arranged his soul, and his soul with his actions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Quote: Joseph Campbell on 'The Magic of the Rite'

From Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By:

For it is the rite, the ritual and its imagery, that counts in religion, and where that is missing the words are mere carriers of concepts that may or may not make contemporary sense. A ritual is an organization of mythological symbols; and by participating in the drama of the rite one is brought directly in touch with these, not as verbal reports or historic events, either past, present or to be, but as revelations, here and now, of what is always and forever.
Where the synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols "mean." The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse. Dogma and definitions rationally insisted upon are inevitably hindrances, not aids, to religious meditation, since no one's sense of the presence of God can be anything more than a function of his own spiritual capacity. 
Having your image of God–the most intimate, hidden mystery of your life–defined for you in terms contrived by some council of bishops back, say, in the fifth century or so: what good is that? But a contemplation of the crucifix works; the odor of incense works; so do, also, hieratic attires, the tones of well-sung Gregorian chants, intoned and mumbled Introits, Kyries, heard and unheard consecrations.
What has the "affect value" of wonders of this kind to do with the definitions of councils, or whether we quite catch the precise meaning of such words as 'Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum?' If we are curious for meanings, they are there, translated in the other column of the prayerbook. But if the magic of the rite is gone. . . .

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mini-Review: Stranger Things 2, Ep. 4


Netflix's runaway hit Stranger Things gained its popularity in part by patiently building a foreboding tone and slowly dipping into the horror well. Season 1 nurtured a buildup not unlike the great season-long slow-burns of Homeland. Season 2 has the same content, but it doesn't seem stitched together so well. The fourth episode of Season 2, however, broke the mold of the show by adding drama that was too good for the surrounding stories.

By now Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) has taken in secret the orphaned Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), hunted by the scientists who know of her telekinetic powers, as ward. In fact, he has taken his job at safeguarding her so far as to have essentially imprisoned her in a far off cabin in the woods. On the edge of adolescence, however, Eleven has grown impatient and not only ventured out, but been seen. Their ensuing confrontation is far more frightening than any supernatural boogeyman the show has yet thrown at us.

As in all arguments, the two start off justifying their positions and blaming the other for violating their agreement. Then they construe the worst of the other: one is lying, the other is willful. Each step of they way they cut off the path to peace. Punishments become threats, complaints turn to epithets.

We grow more and more afraid because both characters have power over each other. Hopper, as the adult and sheriff, has great power of authority, physical strength, and the ability to be cruel. Yet Elven too is a threat since she is not powerless but, untutored, in the possession of potent telekinetic abilities. As we see both in the grip of anger and frustration fail to calm the situation and allow themselves to get provoked into anger, we fear what each might do.

We also pity them, for both characters hurtle toward voluntarily destroying someone who has filled a painful emptiness in their lives. In their new relationship as father and daughter they have begun to make a life together.

Yet the past skews their new roles. Hopper in his outburst becomes tyrannical, like Eleven's real father, overcompensating for the protection he could not provide his own daughter. Eleven, in turn, flies out of Hopper's control–as did his real daughter, in effect, by her death–overcompensating for her suffering under her tyrannical biological father. Both turn into monstrous forms of themselves, abusing the unspoken love which has been given them and which they have begun to cherish.

This scene is great drama and by its end I could not have cared less about the supernatural monsters. The real ones are far more frightening.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Advice to Myself: On Challenges

Some men seek out challenges because they expect to grow stronger, wealthier, or wiser by the doing. This is necessary and good if done with prudence, but do not, even if you have the wisdom to gain from failure, meet so many challenges that you exhaust your mind and body. He who undertakes too much grows weary and worn in body by excessive exercise and his mind grows febrile because of care and constant change. He is bloodied by his relentless pursuit of progress.

Other men refuse all challenges in the vain hope of protecting their life as it is. This man may wisely avoid ill-considered progress, but his inertia withers him until at last the most basic functions of life are tortuous routines. He is reddened not with blood, but rust.

Just as a tree protected indoors without breezes will never grow to full health or will grow and topple, and just as it needs wind to press its trunk and compel it to grow the new wood that with strengthen it, so man needs adversity to spur his maturation. Yet as a great wind will topple a tree, too much strain will topple a man.

Unlike a tree, though, man is not stuck in place, fated to suffer and endure whatever chance weather blows at him, rather by his prudence and intelligence he may seek some challenges and avoid others. His fate is to choose his challenge: good from good, good from bad, bad from bad.