Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part II

From the introduction to Paideia, by Werner Jaeger:

Education in any human community (be it a family, a social class, a profession, or some wider complex such as a race or a state) is the direct expression of its active awareness of an ideal. . . .
And, since the basis  of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern human life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. This occurs whenever tradition is violently overthrown or suffers internal collapse. Nevertheless, stability is not a sure symptom of health in education. Educational ideals are often extremely stable in the epoch of senile conservatism which marks the end of a civilization—
I cannot say whether the chaos in education is the cause or effect of our society's lack of ideals, although I do finger both the left-wing rebellion from and assault on Western values and conservative pusillanimity and senility as red-handed culprits, but the issue is more complex than that. One could come up with as many explanations of our society's ills as we could reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire.

More important to our discussion is the fact that in a stable society (not static, but stable, and thus including healthfully growing societies) one would not have to think, or think so deeply, about culture and the fundamental guiding principles of life. One would inherit them, live by them, and since the society is healthy and since change is slow or modest, those ideals would guide you throughout your life as they guided your parents.

In contrast consider the conundrum of modern society, in which people's hopes of a good and stable life are foiled in one of two ways. Liberal and open people are fed, or more likely over-fed, a diet of fads, balderdash that changes every decade, or nowadays every year. They bounce from trend-to-trend until the wreckage of their hopes is visible in the rear-view mirror. Conservative types are handed down ideals that are or will become alien to society and which will alienate their adherents from society.

On the conservative side, consider the change within the life of J. R. R. Tolkien, in whose birth year of 1892 Queen Victoria rules the British Empire at its height, Brahms and Dvorak are composing symphonies, John Singer Sargent paints Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, and Kipling publishes Gunga Din.  In the year of Tolkien's death, 1973, the UK enters the proto-European Union, Pink Floyd releases The Dark Side of the Moon, Warhol paints Chairman Mao, and Americans are sending up stations into orbit. It is small wonder that Tolkien crafted the world of the Shire, where change comes slowly, if at all.

What does it mean to speak of ideals amid such swift change? In such rapidly evolving societies, and also in unhealthy ones and ones highly pluralistic that offer a multitude of visions of life, one must consider ideals most carefully, whether conservative or liberal. For the former, the values of yesteryear will set you apart, for better and worse. For liberals, the values of the day won't necessarily be around long enough to get you through life, nor have they been tested and found to be capable of such even if they did stick around. So consideration, to say the least, is a prerequisite of modernity.

In considering whether today's prevailing vision of life is good, some families find that it is not and so choose a new vision, often one rooted in things valued by earlier generations. That's why homeschooling families look odd to modern families, who often describe homeschoolers as Amish, or some such, by which they mean we look disconnected from the culture. Quite right, and quite good, if wisely disconnected—I would perhaps say the ideal is prudently independent. The family should have a somewhat unique and certainly a good vision of life that animates its members, although it should not, of course, become so odd and insular that it becomes a cult. On the other hand, the more debased the culture, the more radical anyone pursuing the good will seem.

If you have no particular vision of life, though, then the appalling popular culture of the present is your vision, whether or not you realize it. Popular culture (by which I mean vulgar culture and the ignorance of high culture and tradition) and what I will gloss over as "modern" trends in education are entangled in schools to such a degree as to form an impenetrable thicket so dense that someone reared within its thorny grasp will find it a long struggle to find his way out to the light, and when he finds his way out, he will not be the same.

I have a chip on my shoulder from the journey, which in some ways is that of a convert and marked by the same self-righteous devotion—often insecure possessiveness—for the old orthodoxy. In a time of greater stability (specifically, cultural stability, or perhaps we should say philosophical stability, or perhaps social consensus of purpose) I would have even with my conservative disposition enjoyed the liberty of dabbling in new trends, but in uncertain times new things, as they were for the old Roman, are the stuff of revolution.

My challenge, though, will be to give my children a traditional upbringing without poisoning their learning with my animus toward the present culture (and my insecurity about my position in it.) They will need to travel confidently and joyfully in larger and more varied circles than I, even though they carry more of the past with them than their peers. I will also need to take extra measure to educate them in the unique goods and opportunities of the present and in the grave ills of the past so that my preferences and partialities do not become their dogmas. Such restraint of my ego and purifying of my purpose—essential aspects of conservatism and education—is impossible save by the example of my wife's temperance and the counsel of her good judgment.

The challenge for those stuck in the briar patch, though, is not simply to get out. (I certainly don't recommend being so at-odds with the world as I am.) If spending a  decade finding the way back to the good things is your path, so be it, but don't jump on the traditionalist or homeschooling bandwagon as a fashion statement, on a whim, or for some purpose other than that it seems a necessary thing. And certainly don't drag anyone unwilling along with you. What to do, then?

If people took honest stock of their own education, particularly its limits, they would stumble, however crookedly, toward some ideal that they would want to reach for and with their children. You probably won't find all of society (or nearly all of it) appalling the way I do, but even from the briefest glances inward and outward I imagine any parents would take charge of some portion of their child's education that they feel they can better provide or that they ought to provide.

Starting from the premise not just that you and your life can be better, but better in ways you cannot yet imagine, expose yourself to some traditional ideas. Some will receive such ideas more readily by their aesthetic sense, others in philosophy of varying degrees of depth and complexity, still more by an innate religiosity, a sense of being bound to something. Some need a personal touch, that is, the guidance of a mentor.

Then from those ideas, develop a vision of life and measure it against what you see in yourself and around you. This doesn't mean to jump from one ideological bandwagon to the next, but in understanding of the many options open to you to develop an authentic self and way of living. One might simply say: since our society has not educated you, you need to educate yourself.

That is a burden of life in evolving, pluralistic and unhealthy societies. (Another is to learn to live in harmony with the many other very different people around you.) Even a cursory evaluation of oneself will reveal some incongruity between an ideal and what you witness in yourself, your life, and your family. The process of that self-reflection begins, it seems to me, in humility and courage.

For my part, I am aware that my knowledge and experience are most terribly limited and that many unforeseen obstacles wait in the path of educating my children, but such a realization does not make any school or program of which I know the slightest bit more attractive. I trust my ability to change more than I trust the situation of education and society to improve. Moreover, my fear of erring does not dissuade me from trying. I'm not so afraid of teaching my kids that I'm going to sentence them to twenty years of misinformation, oppressive workloads, and asking to go to the bathroom. Also, I'm not going to give up my time with them any more than I must, i.e. either to support them or to give them the space they need to grow and flourish.

I often feel that I don't have anything better to do than educate my children. If I had no children then I might, just might, take up some crusade to make the world a better place. (Although I think a lot of people who are on such crusades are really just hedonists, but that's a topic for another article.) Maybe if I didn't value education, or if I thought I would do more harm than good by educating them, I would send them off to school and go about my own affairs. But I think I can do good for them by teaching them and that we will grow best together, so why not try?

It is not intelligence, but humility that gives confidence. Not intelligence but the humble admission of weakness and the courage to improve are the stuff of learning. In one of his letters (7.26), the Younger Pliny, reminded by the illness of a friend, reflects that we are best when we are weak (infirmus.) When sick, he says, we ignore passions, temptations, and gossip, and mindful of our mortality we remember God. He concludes that we ought to live when we are well as we promise we will live when sick. Similarly St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, (2nd Letter, Ch. 12, v. 10) "I please (placeo) myself in my infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ; for when I am weak then I am powerful." The Catholic Church's Catechism, too, affirms the need of recognizing one's own weakness when guiding our children:

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the "material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones." Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them. (CCC 2223) (original italics, boldface added)
The responsibility and rewards of familial moral, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment are, to me, inspiring. Family education sounds like a grand, vigorous adventure that will never end. Do you know what sounds awful, though? Twenty years of Sparto-Prussian "education" by threats of failure, Pavlovian bells, lines for lunch, lines for the bathroom, endless evaluations, aka putting your kids through perdition, all while two parents furiously and flustered flap around trying to tape up their house of cards. You don't need to have a spiritual awakening to say foohey! to that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part I

Parents usually surprise me by approving of my wife's and my intent to educate our children ourselves. Older folks and people without kids are especially full of praise, as are fogies of all ages. All three groups have a sense that something is amiss these days, and that' it's best to handle some things yourself.

Parents, however, who are following or who recently have followed modern social and educational dogmas, however, extend a particular, rather predictable compliment, namely that my wife and I are intelligent. The thinking goes, I suppose, that since we are smart, the kids will become smart. I really do appreciate the confidence, but to reduce the choice of rejecting schools to a matter of smarts, needed by parents and desired for children, misses the point. Such a reduction is a wide misstep, sometimes deliberate, in understanding not only what motivates people to homeschool, but also in understanding oneself and one's own family.

More particularly, most everyone has by the time of parenthood come to his conclusion about his intelligence. Particularly, most everyone thinks that he is smart. I have known only two people ever in my life who claimed to be stupid. (One was right.) What people imply by praising homeschooling parents as intelligent, I suppose, is this: since intelligence is the only or at least the chief prerequisite for homeschooling and since they too are smart, they too could home-school, if they so chose. If they are among the few who don't believe themselves so smart, this simplification of the requirements exonerates them from trying and, conveniently, permits them to think that their dim wits are the only things stopping them.

In either case, by predicating homeschooling on one single virtue about which they have a foregone conclusion, people don't consider the actual requirements. My thesis is that if they considered homeschooling seriously, i.e. considered the actual requirements, they would benefit from the introspection even if they decided not to homeschool. I offer two examples of matters which homeschooling families must address which are often not considered by other families and which, left unconsidered, can hurt the family.

First, regardless of their opinions of themselves, most people are not quite so smart, at least insofar as smart implies being both broadly informed and keen-minded. We simply become trained at one or a few tasks that we repeat thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of times. Eventually we confuse this habit and local expertise for universal intelligence, that is, until a few variables in our work are changed and we are thrown for a loop. Too I observe with regret that many people sharply lean, in both interest and expertise, toward either the sciences or the humanities. What is so wrong with this is not the direction of their focus but the conceit that accompanies it.

People in the sciences do not want to admit that they can scarcely string together a few competent sentences and would be hard pressed to explain basic grammar. (I pass over the implications of this on the clarity of their thought.) They think they are brilliant logicians, but they are often just prosaic literal-minded dullards, unmoved by subtlety, beauty, and anything which may not be computed but must be considered with taste or wisdom.

The humanities experts—I was going to write humanists but that's hardly appropriate these days—don't want to admit that they cannot perform long division or calculate percentages and that they have not the faintest understanding of or interest in the laws of nature, unless perhaps you post a short YouTube video explaining how to "hack your tofu with science," or "science the shit out of" your vinyl records.

The sad truth is that parents, perhaps just some but probably many, are hypocrites for forcing their children to slave over work that they themselves don't value and that they don't consider valuable in general. Kids eventually discern this, of course, whether by seeing their parents' ignorance of the knowledge itself or even their parents' abject denigration of the subject, ("You'll never really use this." "Just memorize it for the test.") Who wouldn't, then, resent the work and lose faith in academic institutions? Worse, though, is that when the kids catch on to the ruse the only recourse parents have (apart from learning, of course) is to tell the children to do as they are told. At that point learning devolves from an exploration of the principles to which we all, teacher and pupil and parent and child alike, are subject, into an authoritarian, utilitarian, regimen. "Get your work done. Get good grades." It is unsurprising then how often the few hours families spend together are spent in quarrels over homework no one really cares about.

Second, then, many parents really can't imagine being home with their kids all day anyway. Instead of learning together, parents grow frustrated and impatient with the tortuous course of learning they have long forgotten. The result is that they can't wait to be away from their kids and go back to their own business. You can see in their eyes that they just don't know what to do with their kids when they are together without some task to perform. They need jobs like homework and after-school activities because there is no purpose to modern life besides the work and consumptive entertainment that crowd out the leisure that, by building bonds, allows natural affection to flourish. Families need uninterrupted, purposeless, inefficient, time together. In contrast, imagine this common scenario:

A mother spends, let's be generous in our estimations, six months with her children from when they are born. They are then cared for by daycare workers or extended family for perhaps 10 hours a day, at least 250 days (i.e. weekdays) out of the year, for another 4.5 years. Then during the next 13 years, the kids spend at least 7 hours-per-day in school for 180 days of the year, out of which year their parents spend 50 weeks working 9am-5pm.

Now throw into into such a mix the fact that both parents are tired from working, the family's finances are overextended, the schedule is overbooked, and they have no one to turn to for wise advice, it's no wonder that the few hours families spend together are fraught with stress. This, I think, is the reason that digital devices have become such popular babysitters: parents welcome them.

I formerly thought that the saddest sight likely in a restaurant was that of a restaurant diner fiddling on her cell phone while her mortified date looked desperately around the room for a comforting nod of sympathy. How lonely such pained souls look, not only invited and ignored, but put on public display in their ongoing rejection. How much worse is the plight of the child, though, brought along and then given the device by which he is meant to occupy himself as he sits nibbling on his French fries and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Such neglect—public and unabashed—of kids, with their little faces aglow in the blue light of a cell phone while their parents chat away, saddens me.

Parents of such unfortunate kids are suffering too, though not how they think. Part of me sympathizes with them, since their modern bourgeois lifestyle is so complex and contradictory in its requirements as to seem designed to immiserate. Still, flypaper attracts flies, fools gold attracts fools, and such people chasing middle class pipe dreams are typically so deluded that they think their terrible situation is not only acceptable, but good. (Or that it could be improved by means of money.) What is worse to me, though, is how this quagmire seems easily capable of swallowing generations of the family, depriving who knows how many of a true liberal education characterized by a peaceful love of learning, rich, broad, and deep, and full of curiosities and of interest unique to the family.

That seems to me a beautiful thing, though I'm not saying at all that homeschooling is best for everyone. I am saying feigning or assuming that sending their children to school is a conscious, informed choice, that they understand and value the work to which they sentence their children, and that they have close bonds in their family, masks their lack of a guiding vision of life.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lessons for Teachers #9: Oops

Once upon a time when I was a was a wee lad of a teacher, a student needed to make up a test. Lo! The naughty boy did not do so when he should have, so the grade was not posted for his mother, Mrs. Periwinkle, to see when she was looking for it. So when dear Mrs. Periwinkle wrote me to inquire, I said it had then been entered.

Alas, the plot then thickened. Little did neophyte I know that when I entered a grade it wasn't automatically updated on the school database. So the boy's dear mama writes again, inquiring. I update it manually and reply. It's still not showing up so she can see it, so she writes me a third time. Little did I know again that the administrators don't check updates to the database, rather they reference a printout which is, obviously, not current. So I update it on paper in the office. She writes one last time requesting a signed confirmation from an administrator.

Now what I wanted to do was deliver a full-throated Ciceronian lambasting to the staff who made me look like a jackass by not explaining how the lousy software they were using worked and moreover how illogically it was employed.

Instead I replied graciously and took my lumps, opting not to throw anyone under the bus and not even complaining up the chain because I was new at  the job. A few lessons:

First, when you get an email that flusters or frustrates you, don't respond right away. Take time to cool off.

Second, don't be quick to get defensive and blame parents, especially when they're just trying to get information and especially when mistakes have, in fact, been made. Lack of communication is extremely frustrating, and many parents are already defensive because they know they are not as informed as they should be. Add to that low grades for their kid and fears about college, and you have a recipe for stress over what seems slight to you. They'll really appreciate it if, above all things, you are prompt, clear, and take responsibility.

Third, don't lightly throw people under the bus, but it is alright in most cases to let them know they put you in a tight spot.

Finally, take your lumps. I had no reason to expect the software and manner in which the school used it would be so convoluted, but ultimately knowing was my responsibility.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lessons for Teachers #8: The Performance

Some teachers adore the cliche that a teacher's presentation in the classroom is artistic or theatrical. These people are often very needy and teaching is probably one of the worst professions they could enter. Such people make dangerous teachers because they are flattered not only by the idea that all eyes are upon them but also by the pretense of artistic creativity, for both elevate what may be an inglorious and mundane profession. Such teachers should beware: do not seek favor or attention from your students and dot not make yourself the center of attention. This is a path to personal and professional catastrophe. Teaching is not a performance because you are the star or the genius, but it is a performance for two reasons.

First, like an actor you have to control yourself. Completely. If you cuss a lot, you need to cut it out. If you are short-tempered, grow patient. If you easily lose your train of thought or need frequent breaks, learn to follow through. If you are disorganized, get organized. If you are easily distracted, learn to focus. And so on and so on. Obviously you can take this too far and make yourself a bundle of nerves, but realize some behaviors just won't cut it for a classroom teacher. I can't list them all, but watch how your students respond to you and search your heart. Does your temperament suit the kind of class you are trying to create? Can you change it?

You can't change everything at once, but you most certainly cannot do the opposite either, and the opposite is another cliche, be yourself. In fact, that's probably the worst thing you can do.

Second, teaching is performative because ideally the teacher should disappear and the impression left upon the minds of the students should be that of the material. This doesn't mean that your zeal, style, and unique take on the material are irrelevant, but that they should serve the understanding of the content and not take center stage.

Here too are the extremes instructive. Some teachers are too much of a presence in the class. Too much talking, interference, jokes, asides, theatricality, and so on. Although they are usually enthusiastic about the material, they overwhelm it. Other teachers are nonentities in the room. Usually by lack of discipline or just by being boring, they don't bring the material out of the realm of concepts into the real world. The lesson is dead on arrival. Now you don't need to be a cheerleader, but kids need to see some heart.

In a nutshell, students need to see someone animated by the knowledge that they are articulating. They need to see only those parts of you, and those parts controlled, that let the ideas shine out. Like an actor on the ancient Greek stage, some of you will disappear behind the mask and some of you will be the medium for the ideas. Unlike the actor, though, you have no physical mask and you need to possess the understanding of yourself to decide which parts of you may and should come forth for the sake of learning.

It is a tall order and its prerequisites are not vanity and narcissism but discipline and self-knowledge, but through such teaching "performance" students will see ideas neither dull and etherized for dissection on the table, nor just barely peeking out from under your personality, but alive, present, and deserving attention and concern. In this way the teacher transforms the knowledge, the student, and himself.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #7: Five Cheating Anecdotes

To close out the topic of cheating in this series, here are a few cheating-related anecdotes from my years teaching Latin.

1. in flagrante delicto

One of the most memorable incidents occurred early in my teaching career when a student tried to cheat using his cell phone. When I walked toward him he proceeded, hilariously frantic, to pull the phone out from its hidden position, rip off its cover, and pluck out the battery. Even he chuckled when he realized what he had done. I wish I had taken the opportunity to teach the phrase in flagrante delicto.

2. A Pair of Nickers

I once taught two juniors who were thick as thieves and, as I look back, alarmingly devious. When I contemplate their antics, today I would cross the street to avoid them. The catch is that one had a grade of A and the other was failing, with the former abetting the other. As a neophyte teacher I fell prey to some clever gimmicks. The funniest was when the failing student completed a test so sloppily that it was illegible and who, when questioned, replied that he completed the test with a monstrously broken pencil, which he produced in all its mangled glory. The worst scam was when that same student didn't hand in a test and alleged I had lost it. Both I and an administrator were taken aback at his temerity.

Eventually I had them figured out, but in the end they got the better of me when they conspired to cheat during the final exam, correctly surmising that they could pull the wool over the eyes of the proctor. The failing student hadn't passed many tests that year, but he did manage to score 100% on the final!

3. New Leaves

The same year I taught the above juniors I caught two freshman cheating a few weeks before the end of the year. My clever ruse, of which I was very proud, was that, having spied their cheating off of paper on their seats, I would ask them to get up and open a window. They were, in fact, good kids who had made a bad choice to cheat but they were not deceitful by nature, so when I deployed my scheme they complied and let the chips fall. They were mortified and apologized repeatedly and profusely, but they grew up to be gentleman and scholars I'm proud to have taught.

4. Lost Keys

I handed out the key with the test not once, but twice. The first time it was promptly returned to me by a first rate student who was holding it at a distance, averting his eyes. His integrity impressed the whole class. He also was, I think, one of the best students and young men who walked through the doors of that school in my years there.

Now for the cheating. The second time I handed out the key I had to retrieve it, but also from an A+ student. He was otherwise a good kid, but he had that key tucked under his test and blushed when I came to get it. Still disappoints me.

5. Quintus Cicero's Guide to Engineering

At the very beginning of one student's freshman year, I accidentally left review material projected on the board as I handed out the quiz. It was the frantic attempt of this student greedily copying down answers that alerted me to my error.

Later, in his junior year, I returned a guided reading assignment on Cicero. All the student had to do was fill in the blanks of a summary of an article on Cicero. The article included a comment on Quintus Cicero, the brother of the famous orator, and the pamphlet Quintus had written about how to get elected, aka the process of electioneering.

I had known something odd was going on with the take-home assignments, but I could not pin down exactly what it was until I graded the project of this particular student, who had filled in one particular blank, "Cicero's brother Quintus wrote a guide to engineering for his brother..."

Upon reading that I realized that the odd answers I had been noticing on the projects were the results of students copying the work of others, but misreading their sloppy handwriting and thus writing down answers that read as nonsense in the context.

If there is an upside to cheating it is that the results are usually futile and quite funny.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #6: Why Cheat?

Now that we have discussed why it is necessary to prevent cheating in the classroom we ought to address the next important matter on the subject: why does a student cheat?  One factor chiefly figures in determining whether a student will cheat, namely, whether it is easier than the alternatives.

Yes, before you ask, many kids find cheating abhorrent. They have been well raised and I have been honored to teach many such students. Of those who will cheat, some are devious and immoral and others simply succumb to despair and temptation. The former will always consider cheating a possible option and the latter will weigh with greater care to see if it is a viable alternative.

The first and most infamous of those alternatives is failing and needing to attend summer school. Don't underestimate how many summer school programs know this and make short and easy, and thus popular, summer courses. Those courses make failing a class a serious option for kids whose parents can afford it. For many though, the embarrassment and inconvenience of summer school is a deterrent.

The next alternative is the penalty for cheating. If either the amount of effort it would take to get away with cheating or the penalty for getting caught, which includes becoming known as a cheater, are too high, many students will reconsider trying to cheat. I say many and not most because cheaters are notorious for spending such amounts of time on ludicrous methods of cheating that it would have been easier simply to learn the material. Yet they may be tempted if left the opportunity.

If you are known not to care or if the administration is known to not support teachers' policies, cheaters have the opportunity. If you are known to police cheating but they think they can get away with it when, say, someone else proctors your midterm, cheaters have the opportunity. If you give a lot of work to be completed at home, that's their opportunity. If you don't evaluate assignments in detail, that's their opportunity. If you park yourself at your desk and browse the internet when you give tests, which is sadly very common, that's their opportunity.

The final alternative is learning the material. Because some classes and teachers are so bad it is necessary to say one thing bluntly: don't make your class such a mess that the students are bewildered and, having no idea what's going on, grow desperate to pass and turn to cheating. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't say it.

Worse is that many of those bad teachers know their classes are disasters and instead of making improvements, simply make the classes so easy that no one can fail. Administrators often know this too but don't care because they don't get complaints from parents, and they don't get complaints because parents rarely complain about anything besides failures. It is easy to see a kid caught in a dilemma between parents and teachers who should know better.

Most students who cheat, however, simply find themselves in hot water and then see cheating as a way out. Such is why students tend to cheat a few weeks before the end of a marking period or before some kind of evaluation is sent home to parents, that is, they cheat when they realize they are doing poorly but there is not enough time to learn the material. At that time, kids get desperate; so tell them often how they are doing. Teachers are notorious for not posting grades, not giving work back, and not being clear and objective about how students are doing. What's a kid supposed to do? So tell them, either verbally, with evaluations, or with progress reports, but tell them. It's part of the job: help them learn and help them know that they are learning.

In conclusion, make that learning the most attractive option. There are enough natural barriers to learning such as the difficulty of the material, student ability, and the vicissitudes of life, so as obvious as it sounds: do everything you can to facilitate learning. Have such quantity, quality, and variety in your teaching and evaluating that cheating becomes unnecessary. Be so persuasive and enthusiastic that cheating becomes unattractive.

The more attention you give to teaching, the less you will have to give to the problem of cheating. The situation is as with lawns: the best defense against weeds is healthy turf. You'll never be able to drive cheating out completely, but you can create an atmosphere in which it cannot thrive.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #3: Test Wisely

Idiom, sir?
Many teachers resent giving tests, not because they are onerous to make and grade, but because they have to give so many evaluations in general. Any teacher worth his salt knows exactly the capabilities of all of his students all the time with relatively few and simple evaluations. It's not even that hard to know even a roomful of students, if you pay attention. There has been much-deserved pushing back against excessive testing, but so much that pedagogical trends have gone in the opposite direction and to an equally foolish degree. Reasonable tests and testing accomplish three things.

First, they give otherwise unmotivated students the impetus to commit skills and facts to memory. Second, they make the teacher accountable for progress and objectivity. Third, they show you what a student can do with only his own abilities under reasonable time constraints. Many students and teachers strenuously try to circumvent these features, often ingeniously, because they wish to conceal what is often the truth: that there is no learning going on in the class. In a world of ideal students and teachers, then, tests would not be necessary, but utopia is a fantasy.

The following little list of advice regarding tests clusters around balancing two ideas: what is right generally and what is suitable for your particular class.

First, be consistent about everything test-related, especially: how many per marking period, how many points certain types of questions are worth, how many points tests are worth, and how questions are to be answered. Consider also length, difficulty, how long students have to complete it, whether you review beforehand and afterward, whether they get review materials beforehand, at what intervals in the text and course you give tests, and of course how you grade. Quite fairly, students are bewildered when these factors vary far and wide.

Second, you have to finish teaching the material before giving a test. This means you need to give back homework and quizzes, for example, before the test! This also means you shouldn't give a test on one chapter when you've already started the next one. The class is cumulative, but moving forward.

Third, don't be the teacher whose attention to tests consists of slapping the publisher's book of test masters onto the copy machine and hitting, "Start."

Aside from the consistently poor quality of pre-made tests, no one teaches exactly the way any book does. Students get thrown off–and fairly so–when some test in a completely different style is thrown at them. You need to make your own tests, adapt tests, or diligently search for ones that suit your teaching idiom.

Fourth, make evaluations useful. Don't give tests in which students can work around the task by memorization, repeating the exact questions you've given before, or by giving you vaguely the type of information they know you typically want. (The lazy, students and teachers alike, secretly prefer vague questions because it means many answers can be construed as correct.)

Fifth, you have to accentuate the negative, but kindly. Students love to put the A+ grades on the refrigerator, but it's the failures that they need to work on, and those tests go in the garbage or get buried at the bottom of the schoolbag. You need to reinforce the good while attending to weaknesses.

Sixth, update your tests right after you grade them. Was one question unclear? Did even good students bomb out on one section? Was it too long? Did it have to much new or old content?

If you don't review your tests, next year's students will suffer the same fates as those of last year. If you wait until too long to update the test, you won't remember what you needed to change.

Seventh, take your test, and even if you don't take every test, take one regularly. You may only realize you made a few typographical errors, but more importantly you'll realize that physically writing out the responses wearies your hands and eyes. It is easy to get wrapped up in the intellectual business and forget what it feels like to be as physically confined as schoolroom students.

You may also realize one of the hardest things for a teacher to notice, namely that you are answering the questions with knowledge and experience you have but which they have yet to learn.

Finally, write precise directions and don't answer too many questions while administering the test. Some students possess a genius for swindling information from teachers. If you made a mistake in making the test, tell them not to waste their time in confusion but to do what seems best to them. Then deal with the issue fairly and generously when you grade.

Remember that whatever new directions you issue will confuse some and be ignored by others. Even simple impromptu directions may prove confusing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lessons for Teachers #2: The Tortoise and the Hare

Two types will be familiar to experienced teachers: the teacher who is still at Chapter 3 because "the students aren't ready to move on" and the teacher nine chapters ahead with a class that doesn't know anything. Each has erred and the extremes demonstrate a need for moderation.

The tortoise stops for every question, pauses for every uncertainty, and completes every exercise in full. This is an exhaustive, exhausting style of teaching. Students quickly learn that they can delay tests by feigning ignorance, but at the same time they, without realizing it, get bored. The class falls into a slump. In catering too closely to the demands of students, the tortoise loses sight of and confidence in the legitimacy of his curriculum--that it is wisely ordered--and the students dictate the pace of the class. Student competence, judged wisely by the teacher against reasonable goals supported by the administration, not student whim or pressure from parents, determines the pace of the course.

The hare, on the other hand, plows ahead with too little regard for the progress of his students. The hare teaches the same class with the same material from the same notes year after year without regard for variety in the students. He holds too tight to his curriculum, forgetting that it is designed to help the students and has little value as a mere prescription.

There is no such thing as a curriculum independent from students. If I design a Latin I course, I would not design the same one for high school students, college students, graduate students, and adults. There are, of course, finite topics, but no course teaches a topic in toto. 

Likewise and contra current wisdom, there is no such thing as a student driven class. The teacher prudently drives the class, through a planned curriculum, informed by the students, and supported by the administration.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Lessons for Teachers: #1: Love the Calendar

So I've retired from teaching, at least insofar as a man of 30 years can be said to have retired from anything. Maybe I ought to say that I've quit teaching and I don't know if or when I'll  return. In commemoration of this turnabout I would humbly like to share some of the lessons I learned through my brief teaching tenure from 2011-2016.

Each was a tough lesson no one is likely to teach you, let alone, with bitter irony, in your own schooling about the craft. I cannot say I learned all of these lessons in time to implement them to perfection, but I had enough time to realize they were, at least, reasonable guidelines that when prudently followed, did little harm and at least some good.

#1. Love the Calendar

In some way, shape, or form, you need to plan for the whole year before it starts. As soon as you know what course you are teaching and have the school calendar for the year, sit down and plan. This may sound excessively ordered to some, but there is no alternative. Planning-as-you-go is an impossible task, stressful for teachers and disorienting for students. Students know when you're rushing, so don't be the teacher that tries to cover five chapters in one week at the end of the semester. 

Students also know when you've tried to plan and failed, so don't be the teacher who tells students to teach themselves certain chapters.

Students even know when you're wasting their time, so also don't be the teacher who rushes through material and with three extra weeks at the end of the semester doesn't know how to fill the time.

Plan and pace.

There are degrees of planning, but at least make a few considerations.

First, list your topics and space them out among the months. If you have experience teaching the course you will already know which will take longer than others so you can accordingly adjust, but if you don't, don't panic. Just realize that you need to learn the pace and that without that knowledge you'll be at a disadvantage, alternatively–and stressfully–seeming ahead or behind. Start by equally spacing things out and then adjust each time around until you learn the rhythm.

Second, work around vacations. Try to finish topics before long breaks and plan to use the day on which you return to re-center the class.

Third, plan around one-off holidays and long weekends. These days throw everybody--students and teachers alike--for a loop. You lose momentum, everything you planned gets bumped around, and your rhythm for the week is out of kilter. Minimally, you should account for the day so you don't plan anything for it, but preferably you should shape around the day, teaching a one-off lesson on a solitary day or adapting so that you can more easily resume the lesson when you return. The same applies to your absences.

Fourth, don't treat all days as if they are the same. Mondays and Fridays are not like other weekdays: Mondays need extra spice and Fridays need to be mellowed out. Days before and after vacations and days with modified schedules are notoriously hard to plan, but be creative. Consecutive days are not equivalent to days spaced out, e.g. teaching a lesson through Monday and Tuesday is not the same as teaching it through Friday and Monday. The week before Christmas is not the same as a plain week in October and a rainy November day is not the same as a sunny May one. Adapt. On that note...

Finally, it is all well and good to plan, but the more finely you plan, the more fragile your structure. You need to be able to gain and lose days without freaking out. Plan you class, but not too well. The whole week can't collapse because you lost a day to inclement weather or because a guest speaker cancelled and you need to teach when you didn't expect to.

Yes, sometimes it will seem like the administration and weather delight in pelting you with unexpected calendar changes. It's not unique to your school. It's not unique to teaching. It's life. Adapt.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Extra, Extra

Without fail, at the close of every quarter and semester comes to the teacher the question, "Is there extra credit?" To this inquiry I answer an affirmative, "no." The credit for the class is the coursework for the class. The time for that work was the last few months. The coursework is not fluffy extra credit assignments designed to make up for the fact that students have not done the work. The obvious problem with extra credit is that it removes incentive to do the work of learning the material for class. The more insidious issue is that too many students, and adults, learn to expect a way out of their errors.

In the ancient world, a man did not simply atone for his crime and move on with life. The shame and implications were borne out generation after generation until the stain of the crime had faded. Far from this today, it seems more and more people don't want to deal with the implications of their actions.

If you are promiscuous and contract a disease, there is a cure. If you bring a life into the world, but realize you don't want it, you end it. If you borrow but cannot pay back the loan, you are exonerated. If you fail your tests, you get additional opportunity for credit. If you fall into dishonor, just wait until people forget. Should you commit a crime, you can get off early for good behavior or cooperating with police. A few short years ago the height of Clintonian diplomacy was the "Russian Reset," as if the memories of foreign powers would be wiped clean.

Technology only amplifies our expectation of being able to erase our mistakes. If you misspeak, delete the post. If you take a poor picture, delete the picture. If you mistype... Since all of our mistakes can be erased, what cannot be must be the fault of some one else. The gap in logic only puzzles those who insist that man is always, or predominately, rational. Such systematic expectation that all undesirable results of our actions are the result of injustice bears with it the aforementioned result of incentivizing vice, but three worse.

First, it turns the stoic, who elects to endure his burdens, into a chump. The stoic student who put in his time holds the same diploma as the student who dozed through class. The free man who lives as a virtuous citizen holds his head high and just as free as shameless criminals.

Second and as we see, the virtues are themselves debased, for more are thought to possess them than actually do. The virtue of clemency is meaningless, for if there is no fault, there is nothing to forgive. So to with failure, for if one cannot fail, for what excellence is there to aspire?

Finally, when we don't reflect on our mistakes, when we don't bear their burden, we don't learn from them. No longer will men undertake the pains of pruning their wayward branches if there is an easy alternative. We buy into our appearance, which is that of a faultless, blameless paragon of excellence.

It is perhaps the case, then, that we should be skeptical of anyone whose ideology excuses or justifies everything he does. Alas, that includes most of us much of the time, and some of us all of the time. More trustworthy and honorable is the man who labors to live his ideas and in failure and success is worthy of clemency and excellence.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Top Ten: Latin Proficiency Impediments

Latin has a bad rap nowadays. Actually it's had a bad rap for a while. It is stuffy. Archaic. Blah blah blah. I won't take aim at those paltry objections here, since I pity–and endure–modern man's alienation from his past. To one accusation, however, I strenuously object, and that accusation is of Latin's peculiar difficulty. Yes, the process of learning Latin has challenges, but far fewer than of learning languages like Greek or English, and no more than many other endeavors. Unlike the problem of learning the subtleties and seemingly endless variations of English, the difficulties in learning Latin, at least for the native speaker of English, are few and predictable. In my years teaching, they are the ten which follow. Additions welcome.

10. Ignoring the Part of Speech

One of the struggles I least expected was how unfamiliar some students are with the parts of speech: noun, verb, adverb, et cetera. Even having overcome this difficulty, I still have ripped hairs from my head trying to help students limit the function of words to what they are categorically able to do. Chiefly, this problem applies to comprehending verbs. For example, many times students define vultis, as "wish," which is all well and good excepting that in English, wish can be a noun or a verb. Similarly, many students try to determine case and use of adverbs, such as paulisper, "for a short time," since they seem often to conform to the case uses, ignoring that their part of speech makes such unnecessary and impossible. The problem is harder to overcome when explaining compound forms such as infinitives, participles, and gerunds.

9. Vocabulary and Broad Meanings

While every Latin teacher has to cope with students who don't diligently study vocabulary, more challenging is getting them to memorize the fully entry, and harder still to use that information. It is one thing to know that manus means "hand," another thing to realize it uses fourth declension endings, and still another to know its gender is feminine and therefore must agree with a feminine adjective. Likewise it is easier to know that pono means "put" than it is to know all of its principal parts by which to conjugate and recognize its forms in all tenses, persons, numbers, and voices. Even students who memorize their vocabulary, though, often struggle at calling them to mind as they read and using the information of the entry to identify the form in from of them.

At the upper levels, though, with the essentials mastered, the definition again becomes a challenge. No longer is it acceptable to know the most famous definition of condo "build," or even that it can also mean to bury, store, or hide, but the student must understand that its most essential, literal definition is "to put into," and that by extension it can mean "to found" (i.e. to put a foundation in the ground), "to save" (i.e. to put in a container for future use) and "to hide" (e.g. put in something out of sight.) I encounter the problem most prominently when I first teach Tibullus 1.1, where among many examples, lustro means not "shine" but "purify," lacus not "lake" but "trough," and levo not "lift" but "comfort," among others. The issue, though, is best exemplified by line 40 from Horace Ode 3.1:

Post equitem sedet atra cura.
Horace's line has been infamously mistranslated by Latin neophytes as, "The black lady sits cautiously behind the horseman," instead of "Black care sits behind the rider."

8. Brute Force Memorization

I have a passable memory, and I find it as often works to my disadvantage as to my benefit. For students with the gift of recall, the temptation is to memorize rather than comprehend. I have have seen students convince themselves, and others, that they can read Latin when they are in fact merely regurgitating. Sometimes the problem is obvious, as when a student vomits out a translation–how confused the look of a student whom I asked why he translated a phrase with "hath" and "doth"–but sometimes the error is concealed. Even students who don't memorize translations often simply remember the gist from the first read-through and use that as a tool by which to piece together what they missed. Other students, while they don't recall full translations, are apt at recognizing patterns, which is in some respects a virtue. (See #7) Other times, though, it can stunt their growth.

For example, it is one thing to remember that nomine may mean "named," because it is commonly seen as such, at least in some text books, but another to realize it is used in the ablative case to mean "with respect to name." This recall may simply look like experience, and it is in fact useful and as far as some students get in their understanding, but it is not proficiency. Such recall is commendable if it proceeds along with and feeds grammatical understanding, but alone is illusory understanding.

7. Heuristics

Similarly, one does want students to cultivate experience into rules which narrow down probabilities. It is reasonable, for example, to gravitate toward taking Marco as dative when the verb is one of giving, showing, or telling. I have seen many students struggle because they are unable to rule out what is improbable and they attempt every conceivable solution to a problem. On the other hand I have had difficulty restraining students from jumping the gun and getting them to explore the less obvious solution.

6. The Inflection Hump

A common situation: a student can perfectly write out all the forms of qui, quae, quod, but not translate it in a sentence. Likewise, a student translates all forms of the verb as if they were in the same tense. It's simply very hard for some students to break the habit, acquired by their familiarity with English, of taking words next to each other as related.

You can put a subject and object next to one another as in Marcus manum and you'll get "Marcus' hand." Likewise some students default to making proper nouns the subject, so if you put lupus Marcum terret, you will most certainly get as a translation, "Marcus scares the wolf."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Things I Don't Get #8: Kanye West at Oxford

This might seem a softball post, because it's pretty easy to find confusion, and despair, in the thought of Kanye West lecturing at Oxford. I was going to put lecturing in quotation marks but I'm fairly sure every verb of which Mr. West is the subject ought to be rendered within quotations, and boldface as well. That observed, and Mr. West's distinct character aside, a few things about his prestigious appearance–as I understand it he does just that, appear, having superseded human locomotion after a long talk with Galileo–at the foremost academy of the English-speaking world. Now I'm not surprised that he's speaking at Oxford. He's already spoken at Harvard. I would be more surprised if they passed up the opportunity to entertain a speaker whose most recent work has been read by more than twenty five people, and enjoyed by anyone. No, what I'm chiefly surprised about is twofold.

First, his pattern of speech is fascinating. I've never heard anyone speak like this before.

I don't mean to chide his misuse of literally or modern lingo like illest. I'm saying that the man speaks the way people write. Badly, yes, but interestingly so. Who uses the word vibe as a verb, or creative as a substantive adjective? What an extraordinary discontinuity of ideas, each crashing into the next:
“I think that progression of mind with the advent of a human being named Drake (laughs, smirks, crowd laughs) you know, this idea of holding onto a number 1 spot. And then you get this guy that comes and blows out the water every number 1 of any band ever. Be it me, or Paul McCartney [laughs].
How can you explain that? I realize these are haphazardly gathered quotations, likely somewhat out of context, but that's not remarkable. It reads like a Quentin Tarantino script translated into Latin, run through Google Translate, and edited by a Post-Structuralist PhD candidate.

Second, I'm baffled not only that there are idea therein which you can discern, not comprehend of course, but discern, but also that I agree with these ideas.

For example:
One of my biggest Achilles heels has been my ego. And if I, Kanye West, the very person, can remove my ego, I think there’s hope for everyone.
Yes, the presence of Kanye West and Achilles in the same sentence is risible in the extreme, as is the vexatious question of how many Achilles heels one may have and whether the heel admits the aspect of scale, but that's not an awful analogy. He's talking about overcoming tragic flaws and he's obviously in possession of some self knowledge. Who can fault that?

West on authenticity:
I’d see toys that some people would buy for my daughter and I’d say this toy isn’t quality. I don’t want my daughter playing with this. There’s not enough love put into this, this is just manufactured with the will to sell, and not the will of inspiration.
Yes, again the short, staccato, statements are rife for Shatnerization, but isn't he right? Mass-produced products are soulless. I'm not saying the world would be wholly better off without them, or that everyone  should pay a lot of money for hand-made computer keyboards, but there is an important distinction to be made between the work of craftsmanship and mechanically-produced knockoffs. There is indeed a difference between Michelangelo's David itself and a concrete reproduction, between sculpted bas-relief and mold-formed plastic duplicates.

Now a sound bite on aesthetics:
Let’s have an NBC telethon moment, and say that beauty has been stolen from the people and is being sold back to them under the concept of luxury!
Again, the string of appositions NBC telethon moment is both amusing and indicative of an inability to organize and subordinate ideas, but the rest is not half-bad. The fact that luxury is not equivalent to beauty is a pertinent observation I think.

Waxing philosophical,
Time is the only luxury. It’s the only thing you can’t get back. If you lose your luggage – I’m not gonna say the obvious brand of luggage that I’d normally say because I’ve got a meeting with them soon – if you lose your expensive luggage at the airport, you can get that back. You can’t get the time back.
No, there's no context or larger argument and admittedly Mr. West's opulent lifestyle contradicts his sentiment, but for all the wacky celebrity babbling, he could say worse.

On intellectual property,
I love Steve Jobs, he’s my favorite person, but there’s one thing that disappoints me. When Steve passed he didn’t give the ideas up. That’s kinda selfish. You know that Elon’s like ‘yeah, take these ideas’. Maybe there are companies outside of Apple that could work on them and push humanity forward. Maybe the stock brokers won’t like that, the stock holders wouldn’t like that idea, but ideas are free and you can’t be selfish with them.
I agree. I agree? Again? There you have it: I agree with Kanye West, who also said:
She bought my daughter these three wolves, knowing the whole collection, that it’d play with the song Wolves, and based on this concept.
It's worth note, I think, that a man who seems not versed in the terms and traditions of, well let's say a lot, has somehow, perhaps independently, hit upon some serious ideas. So he's what happens when someone who doesn't know the days of the week tackles the problems of aesthetics and time, and it's tempting to ridicule the incoherence and eccentricity, say, by posting a picture of him tenderly cradling a fish or photoshopping him into the School of Athens, which I considered.

Yet here's a man with talent, thrust into celebrity and success, publicly trying to sort it out. Some formal education would help his cause, and I wish he'd go down that path so I could endure more of his music, the last of which I sampled lost me sixty seconds in at assquake.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Top Ten: What Teachers Should Learn in Grad School

The most open of secrets among good and honest teachers is the fact, painfully clear, that a Master's Degree in Education is worthless, at least toward the end of education. It does, however, have several purposes.

The first is to exclude from the profession, to the greatest extent possible, anyone who does not participate in the offering of oblations to the academic immortals, that is, the tenured teacher-teaching scholars of universities. Obeisance to the lords of the ivory towers is the prerequisite for the knighthood of certified pedagogy. Second, the degree in education is purposed to delude any who have not yet learned to distrust professional academic credentialers that such a degree is a stamp of certification which signifies the teacher as qualified. Similarly, the degree confirms bragging rights upon people and institutions who employ only credentialed faculty.

Lastly, and worst, it breaks the spirits of teachers. Whether or not it is designed to, partaking in such preposterous chicanery erodes the will and soul of whoever speak the lie as truth. As with one who parrots propaganda, the spirit of he who does not contest this meretricious process is rendered incapable of resisting further debasement. Hence from modern pedagogical, progressive orthodoxy have subsequently come deference to standardized tests and the companies which profit by their manipulation, sycophancy to politicians who promise facile funding, and at last the meddlesome shaping of curricula. 

Eroded by corruption, graduate programs in education are degree mills to which teachers turn to eek out a few more dollars from their employers, not to improve their teaching prowess. If professors desired, however, to prepare teachers for the classroom, they could offer the following courses. To be sure these are all skills which teachers learn, usually at great pains, in their first few years. There is also much of need and use for teachers which I omit here–certain basics of logic and philosophy–since it is included in a Liberal Arts education, one hopes.

10. History and Philosophy of Teaching the Discipline

This course would include a comparison of philosophies for the discipline which not only explain why it should be taught, but how that purpose can be explained to students so they are not following along like sheep. It should involve frank discussions about teacher bias and how the philosophy of the teacher/program/curriculum dictates what is and is not taught, and how. Too the history of teaching the material, as well as when, where, and why methodologies changed, would not only better situate teachers in the history of their profession, but allow them to see what trends succeeded and what forces have tended to and are now shaping pedagogical trends.

9. Adapting to Different Schedules

Every new teacher struggles with his schedule and the problem how of to break lessons and evaluations into coherent sections. There is a world of difference, for example, between teaching a 40-minute period every day, eighty-minutes every other day, and one or two periods per week. This class would cover adapting to various schedule types and explain how to utilize each schedule's merits and avoid its detriments.

8. Curricula Planning and Pacing

This is the problem of #9 writ large. Teachers should know before jumping into the classroom how the material is going to be spread throughout the curriculum from start to finish. This class can compare sequences of presentation, adjustments for difficulty, adjustments for numbers of class hours/school days, and variations for teaching semester or year-long classes.

7. Comparison of Evaluations

The art of the test is a subtle craft. Teachers would benefit from learning to choose the appropriate type of evaluation, e.g. short answer, essay, quizzes, term paper, multiple choice, and so on. Different disciplines require different types of evaluations at different intervals, and teachers need guidance as to how much of what, when, and what type and quantity is appropriate for different ages, curricula, difficulty, and schedules.

6. Making Tests

The art of the test is a subtle craft in execution too. What teacher hasn't slowly, and after many mistakes, complaints, confusion, and stress, figured out how to:
  1. Write unambiguous directions.
  2. Lay out tests so they are not confusing to administer, take, or grade.
  3. Determine the time frame in which the test can and ought to be completed.
  4. Determine how the pacing, volume, and variety of questions affect the difficulty of the test.
  5. Make various types of questions from scratch and utilize tools and resources to make them.
  6. Vary questions by difficulty, in various ways.
  7. Create a scale of difficulty appropriate to the class' range of student competence.
  8. Weigh sections of tests and types of evaluations within a class.
  9. Develop a consistent method of testing.
  10. Make variations of tests.
And don't forget learning to stagger giving tests so that they can be graded and reviewed in timely, useful manner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Spiral of Indolence and the Summer of George

The advent of summer is the twilight of education. Never is the profession of teachers or the tradition of learning in a poorer state. Teachers either hasten to finish the curriculum or strain to stretch the remaining material until the end. Struggling to grade final exams is always a huge tell of laziness: those who complain about it aren't giving any work during the semester. Then moments after the students flee and as administrators and secretaries settle into summer mode, the teachers are gone. What do we do? Where do we go?

It varies, but too infrequently does it wander into intellectual territory. Students would surely revolt if they knew their teachers had no intellectual inspirations beyond the bounds of their master's degree. (Here's a mean trick, kids: ask your teacher about the latest developments and literature in his field.) Yet the annual sabbatical otherwise known as summer vacation seems seldom to further serious academic advancement. Such intellectual infertility owes not to any illness within the profession, though, but to the simple fact that indolence is a heinous vice.

Indolence can and will suck down any individual who does not guard against it. Yet we need not quote fire-and-brimstone sayings about idle hands, but rather may look that model of modern man, George Costanza. The story of The Summer of George (Season 8, Episode 22) tells with blistering hilarity the sad and true story of indolence. With a season of severance pay from his employer, George settles in a for a summer's hibernation. He starts with high aspirations to reading and frolf, but when indolence sets in, decompression from the tension of work yields to decomposition. After he's wiped by 10:30AM, his muscles are so atrophied by months of extreme inactivity that a tumble down the stairs renders him paralyzed.
The physical and intellectual paralysis seems hardly an exaggeration. What to do? Inspiration goes a long way. I have busts of Aristotle and Schubert on my desk, and the fecundity of their minds is no small part of my inspiration, or intimidation, to stay parked in my chair and write. A little history helps too, for example knowing of Mozart's packed schedules and Jefferson's infamous 15-hour study days. It may seem preposterous to compare oneself to the greats, but we doesn't need to measure up to their genius, only the humility and diligence with which even their talents worked.

Sometimes, though, you just need to throw yourself into activity. Moodiness and ennui will set upon anyone and a blind leap can break the pattern when the will falters. Today, for example, I couldn't summon the will or interest to do anything, so I decided to vacuum the steps. Instead of coming away tired from heaving that hoover around in the heat, I was provoked to take up other tasks which I had forgotten in my idleness. Activity exhausts, but it is indolence which enervates.

We don't need to have something momentous to show for each day, but the disgust we feel at our indolence is a sign that we should make the most of our day even if we don't have the highest aspirations. Something, even the tiniest bit, is surprisingly more satisfying than nothing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings

It's not an idea immediately attractive to anyone with antennae for liberty, putting warning labels on academic content, so it's no surprise that a proposal to mandate professors at the University of Santa Barbara place such advisories–popularly called "trigger warnings" in the online feminist community–has earned ire. The plan is unpalatable to me for a few reasons.

The now infamous proposition by UCSB junior Bailey Loverin suggests that the liberty to present, discuss, and debate in an academic manner and context should be subject to fears of inducing fear, of all concerns, is inimical to a serious pursuit of knowledge. It's hard to reconcile a tradition which in so many ways sees itself descended from Socrates, Western Civilization's great gadfly swatted down by popular opinion, with tiptoeing around sensitivities and preferring safety to hard truths. At least, though, Socrates was charged with crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth, not simply terrifying onlookers. While in public it is decorous to avoid even giving offense, and while offense is not inherently desirable in environments of debate and inquiry, there giving offense is considered worth the risk.

Moreover, the suggestions not only that students–learners and investigators of the world–would prefer not to confront challenging ideas but also that so many of them would so decline the challenge that a school requires a mandatory alert system, is one chilling to the spirit of inquiry and academia.

Nonetheless, a degree of common sense would easily ameliorate the situation. Sensitive students should investigate classes ahead of time and professors should, in private consultation with the student, advise them whether a given course or class would be appropriate for them. The situation in the classroom is not so different from that of dining, in which before the meal someone with allergies might ask whether a dish contains a particular ingredient. In both environments the individual's concern is not simply fickle but serious: panic and anaphylaxis. In both instances, though, we ought to expect that the individual with abnormal condition make the necessary inquiries. Unfortunately the presence of mandated food labeling laws suggests in which direction the debate turned. The result of oversight is always the same: conservative uniformity.

It's prudent and liberal to accommodate personal, private requests when possible and it's not unreasonable that a university should expect from professors a standard of concern for students, but the enforcement of such a law as Ms. Loverin's not only privileges sensitivity over inquiry but requires a criteria which seems destined to expand to compendious size. Each instance stifles the curriculum.

It should not be thought, though, that such a preference for inquiry means that discussions of sensitive topics should be frank or designed to desensitize, for to the contrary discussions should impress upon students the seriousness of the topic. Likewise I don't suggest that institutions of higher learning have no interest or responsibility toward accommodating student needs, but only that such a law as proposed is an illiberal and counterproductive means, injurious to the university's other goals, toward reasonable ends.

Ad summam, students should be responsible for their behavior and thus should inquire about curricula before hand, and professors should accommodate those inquiries. If laws need to exist to ensure such common sense and courtesy, then the higher education die is already cast.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alma Mater?

So I'm teaching Petronius again and of course in teaching satire one always must broach the question of whether a character is self-aware. Is Trimalchio aware of just how silly he looks when he wants his favorite gladiator painted on his mausoleum? Naturally not, since the fool lacks the self-awareness for necessary dissimulation. It's no small coincidence to this observation that I received the quarterly alumni newsletter from my alma mater, the reading of which spurred thoughts many and terrible.

 +1 Photoshop
First off, this is one polished turn of the press. It has the gloss of a European fashion magazine and such heft that I retain the Spring issue for summer mosquito-bashing, making it perhaps the most costly bug swatter in history. But is it effective! Yet the publication isn't just a defense against desanguination but a feast for the eyes too, and let me tell you I couldn't have cropped out the cover's background and rendered any finer clouds than the Photoshop master who crafted this masterpiece. The back cover is an ingenious display of diversity and it's doubtful any finer piece of fodder could be confectioned a more tasteless sample of politically correctness. The cover is only marred by the presence of the school seal, whose curling crest seems to me an invidious, serpentine presence. Yet I shouldn't complain about the seal which manages to cram several Latin words into a magazine which is otherwise content to cultivate the haute banal style of the moderately educated middle class.

Yet it's the language of Cicero and Vergil which titles the university's age-defining achievement: a massive fundraiser. One wonders why they settled on  Latin but I suspect it's because they thought it might lend an aura of dignity and authority to what is otherwise shameless whooping for money. The more significant gesture than the title Excelsior, though, is that the official slogan includes a translation of the Latin. It's not without humor and irony that they chose the more poetical and aspirational translation of ever higher, but which is the more depressing possibility: that they thought the poetical reading of the comparative adjective a meaningful twist, or that they didn't even realize what they were writing? At any rate, Latinizing their slogan lent more credulity to their cash grab than their English apologies, which ran from describing the fundraiser as "not gratuitous"  and "not unpremeditated," which explains about as much as the old woman dropping the necklace at the end of Titanic.

Speaking of an expensive exercise in a cosmetic facade which hides grotesque and negligent structural flaws that ultimately culminate in tragic immiseration, let's talk about the school's curriculum. Actually, let's not because 56 pages isn't enough space, it seems, in which to mention what one might learn. It certainly can't be the case that you would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have a curriculum–aka the course of learning–whose only possible analogy is to running naked through an endless thicket of flaming thorns while chased by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Then we shall mulch in the shade!
Let then the On Campus section clue you to university happenings. The environment is the theme of the hour, and not only did a nun speak about the need for the church to focus on ecological problems, apparently excluding the fauna of their school's flagellating curriculum, alas, but also a team of students planted trees by means of shovels which were made from recycled guns in violence-plagued neighborhoods. Because that's what terrorized people need: plants. Melt your swords into plowshares by all means, but don't plan on fighting off the drug cartel with a fern and your green thumb.

If that hasn't sent you to the enrollment office, do you want to be a part of Nelson Mandela's legacy of change? Do you want to find out whether empathy can help foster racial justice? Come on! Higher education "can lift people out of poverty," "education is the great leveler," and "the Jesuits really are the best." With all of this stifling political correctness–the president's letter even alternates the order in the phrase "men and women" each time it's used–I'm surprised they declined alumni in the masculine. It certainly can't be they don't know Latin, right? Right? Bueller?

Hold on to that gun before someone
makes a shovel out of it.
Alright, you're a hard sell. Time to trot out the superstars. Denzel Washington went there. Washington, known for such movies as Man on Fire, Inside Man, and Training Day, has been hailed as "the greatest role model"by the first recipient of the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship, who went on to proclaim her love for Barney the Dinosaur and Frosted Flakes. Next on the celebrity parade is Mary Higgins Clark, author of 42 best-selling suspense novels, the first of which dates from her famous pre-natal years and tells the story of a zygote which realizes it's carrying the child of a murderer. Alright fine, don't attend, but you'll regret it if you ever stumble upon a murder in a runaway freight train. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now I'm not saying that I can't take seriously a school who boasts "190% growth" in world-class faculty, cloaks itself in the cheap slogans of the day, softly peddles cheap liberalism, and demonstrates no serious, concrete academic program. Likewise I ignore its foolhardy abstract "devotion to humanity" and the hubris of wanting to leave students "able to shape the world." Instead I merely suggest that such doesn't recommend one as a nourishing mother.

She does have, though, the fool's penchant for self-revelation, if not awareness. Describing the results of a recent renovation, the magazine writes that, "the walls are the only thing remaining of the original structure." Most assuredly.