Saturday, May 24, 2008

A slap in the face, the tyranny of content, and a hell-bound train

I. "A massive slap in the face about education"

In a comment he left today on this post, Articulate Dad wrote,

What I can say is, though I love to teach, and though I believe students deserve committed teachers (and more of them), I honestly believe that our society needs a massive slap in the face about education.

In my dreams, every teacher in the country would go on strike tomorrow, and not come to the negotiating table until the first concession was made to double the number of teachers (from kindergarten through grad school) without any reduction in current salaries and benefits.


II. "The tyranny of content"

Yesterday I went to hear a distinguished professor in the sciences speak on how he uses new technologies in an attempt to provide students in his very large classes with an experience that feels more intimate.

He talked, in short, of interactivity, of getting students excited about learning. About small-group discussion. Clickers. Podcasts. Enriched content. Thoughtful and exciting videos that really made students think and wonder.

In the room sat about 20 science faculty from across the disciplines. Many of them I know to be some of the most caring, thoughtful faculty on campus. Yet most of the people in the room were referring to small-group discussion as a "new" and "innovative" way of teaching. They were excited about these methods, which is great. But they were focused on them as being more about keeping--as we put it when I worked for a symphony orchestra--butts in seats. There wasn't much talk (yet) of these as sound pedagogies.

They also were talking about these methods as "alternative" rather than as mainstream.

At this point I had to raise my hand and comment.

See, I sat through a lot of lectures as an undergrad, but they were always--always--interspersed by activities provided by the professor or truly thoughtful questions posed by the professor, which we were asked to answer verbally or in writing. Even in science courses.

And when I came to this institution, I had the good fortune to teach my own small courses and to TA for "large" (100 student) lecture courses in the humanities. In these courses, the professors also asked questions of the students and provided enriching multimedia experiences beyond PowerPoint outlines.

But when I began to work in our teaching resources center, I found myself with an office in the basement of a classroom building--a basement that included three large (120-250 person) lecture halls, as well as classrooms that seat 20 to 40 students.

Tens of thousands of people come through this building every day. And yet I rarely hear student voices, except during passing periods between classes. The talking emanates mostly from foreign-language classes, where students are hunched over textbooks or workbooks, mumbling through exercises or conversing haltingly with their classmates.

I was naive. I was shocked to learn that people from across the disciplines still lecture all. the. time. And I pointed this out to the science faculty at the talk--that they had it backward. That lecturing should be considered the "alternative" method, and interactivity and active learning should constitute our modus operandi.

Of course, the scientists were worried that they need to cover a certain amount of material during each quarter. I pointed out that they're being fearful, that they've fallen prey to what more progressive practitioners have called "the tyranny of content." That they need to be teaching students to learn, not stuffing their brains full of facts that they'll promptly forget immediately after the third "midterm."

I tried to be gentle and conversational, but I'm afraid I came across to those who wanted to read between the lines as saying "WTF have you been DOING to your students?"

Yes, some of the blame lies with students who lack curiosity, who aren't thirsting for knowledge even though they're at one of the best scientific institutions in the nation (and in some disciplines, the world).

I think that's why my teaching discipline, American studies, has so many science students getting double majors and minors. Sure, there are always the "hard core" science students who believe we're making up all this humanities crap, but even more of these students seem to enjoy the opportunity to learn to think critically about culture--including about the culture of science.

Unless we make a U-turn now on class size, faculty development, and the sizable contingent of students who are next to apathetic about their courses, my institution is in profound trouble, as is the state and the nation. The "small" humanities majors may not offer as clear a career path as do some of the sciences and they may draw in less grant money and fewer students--but they do offer something that many science classes apparently do not: the opportunity to consider their fellow human beings, and the opportunity to be treated by their professors like human beings with unique and interesting passions.

I don't mean to indict the sciences everywhere--clearly there are places where the sciences are being taught very well, just as there are science classrooms on my campus where faculty (in my observations, usually lecturers or senior, tenured faculty) are innovating the teaching of science. But we're on a bad track.

III. "A hell-bound train"

I mentioned the professor who spoke yesterday has "very large classes."

He has 780 students registered for his fall course.

The largest lecture hall on campus seats 500.

The course will be tag-team-taught, with another professor. Because there are 500 seats in each "section," it's likely the university will open the course up to 1,000 students.

Fucking unbelievable.

Even worse, as he pointed out, only 25 to 30 percent of the students enrolled in this course actually show up to class on non-exam days.

The professor, the colleague who invited him to speak, and I had an intense little chat following his talk. During our conversation, the distinguished professor said that science teaching at our university is "a hell-bound train."

I want to get t-shirts made with that image and slogan. It would make a nice logo for our teaching resources center, no?

Friday, May 23, 2008

A dog-shaped hole


I miss Woody terribly.

Mr. Trillwing misses him even more.


When we asked once what breeds Woody might be, the vet called him a Canardly--"because you can 'ardly tell," she quipped.


There is a roving, Canardly-shaped hole in our household's space-time continuum.

Thursday, 7:05 a.m.: Mr. Trillwing stoops to put the leftover milk from his cereal bowl inside the dog's dish. But there is no dog dish. There is no dog.

7:45 a.m.: I strap on my bike helmet and turn to say goodbye to Woody, to scratch him behind the ears and maybe get him to give me his characteristic Elvis-like snarl, the one a tickle just behind the hinge of his jaw would bring out every time. But there is no dog. Elvis has left the building.

7:55 a.m.: Mr. Trillwing returns from dropping Lucas off at daycare. He dreads coming home to a dogless house. Is greeted by the plush dog I left propped on Lucas's tricycle in the front hall.

11 a.m.: Mr. Trillwing begins to pull a lunch entrée from the freezer, but then freezes himself because he knows at the end of the meal, there will be leftovers, and nothing to do with them.

All day: We scan rooms without realizing we're doing so, checking on the dog. Woody used to do the same thing for us. "He's very good at triangulation," my sister observed, as Woody placed himself in the one spot where he could monitor the movements of everyone in the household.

3:30 p.m.: Mr. Trillwing has to leave the house. His body clock is reminding him of Woody's 4 p.m. feeding time, and Woody's own usual 3:45 p.m. entry into Mr. T's office to begin bugging him for food.

It goes on like this for some time.


Friday, 7:30 p.m.: I call my parents to chat, to get my mind off the dog-shaped hole.

In the middle of our call, Lucas finds and starts playing with one of Woody's toys, a little dachshund with a crunchy water bottle inside.

Suddenly he looks up at me, asks for the first time, "Where Woody go?"

He wanders around the living and dining rooms, peering under the dining room table and checking the kitchen for Woody.

"Woody's gone," I say.

My mom, on the phone: It's OK to tell Lucas you miss him.

Me: I have to go, Mom. Love you. (beep)

Me: I miss Woody, Lucas. (tears)

Lucas: Woody sleeping. Woody sleeping.


Yes, he's sleeping. Sort of.

Every once in a while, Woody awakes just enough to remind us he's gone.


Mr. Trillwing wants me to jot down the good times, to blog about the youthful Woody.

That time will come. For now, I need to become accustomed to his absence, to find someplace to put this old love that keeps spilling over into grief.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Woody (aka The Liability), 1994?-2008

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

Woody at rest, Christmas 2003

Late this afternoon, Mr. Trillwing said goodbye to his companion of 12 years. It was time, yet there were wet kisses from Woody until the very end. Woody was 14 years old, and is already missed terribly.

Anecdotes to come.

Finally updated the blogroll

Please let me know of errors and omissions. Leave your new or updated link in the comments--don't be shy! :)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Memery: Survivance

The old "page 123" meme is going around again. Here are the instructions:

Pick up the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.

But I'm going to do this meme with a twist (and I invite you to join me): Pick out a photo using Flickr's Advanced Search--check the Creative Commons box to find photos you can use and modify--and place your quote on it. Use one of your quote's words as the search term. (I used "dominant.")

Once you have your sentences, place them onto your selected image. (My sentences were long, so I only included two.)

Click on the image to enlarge it.

The source of the text is Antonio López's essay "Circling the Cross: Bridging Native America, Education, and Digital Media" in Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, edited by Anna Everett and published by the MacArthur Foundation and MIT Press in 2008.

The background image is a photo by Charles Roffey and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Some photoblogging

Yesterday was the last day of nice temperatures for a while, so the family hung out in the backyard, savoring the nice evening. (Today it was in the 90s, and the rest of the week will be in the 100s.)

(Click on photos to embiggen.)

Flowers from the yard:

Lucas is getting tall. He has also, in the past two weeks, begun talking in sentences. It was a very sudden transition--from one-word demands to subjects, verbs, adjectives--and his vocabulary has exploded.

I envy him his perfect skin:

He's tall. Sometimes he seems to be all long legs and giant head.

He retains his crazy fine motor skills. He spends a lot of time at his multimedia table, where we keep watercolors, markers, crayons, glue sticks, little foam pieces to glue onto paper, stickers, and scissors. He also loves to garden: to dig, to water the grass, to pull apart leaves and grasses.

At age 14, Woody remains a financial liability, but his quality of life is still quite high.

Mr. Trillwing and Woody understand each other incredibly well. Woody has always been Mr. T's emotional barometer, and continues to be so, even though he's now deaf (or pretends not to hear us). It used to be I could walk in the door and determine Mr. Trillwing's mood by glancing at Woody.

Mr. T doesn't like his own chin and neck. His vanity makes me giggle. I like watching him age, which he's doing quite gracefully. I mean, the dude is 46 years old, and do you see any gray hair or wrinkles?

As of today, Lucas has a new haircut (and a dirty face). No indication yet if he'll get the reddish hair and freckles Mr. T had as a kid.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Emotional clutter: The only child, the lost career

We have a lot of stuff; this blog didn't get the name "The Clutter Museum" for nothing. However, aside from piles of paper and Lucas's toys and art supplies, this clutter doesn't tend to clog up the house.

It's all in the garage.

See, I'm very much of a save-and-purge mentality. I want to save up enough stuff to warrant making the trip to the thrift store to donate, or enough to have a yard sale. That, however, is a lot of stuff. So I tend to accrue piles of things I no longer want or need, but that are still in good condition: books, clothes that are in classic styles but no longer fit, toys that Lucas has outgrown.

It's this last category--all the material culture that accompanies baby- and toddlerhood--that I find particularly difficult to deal with. My approach has been to put my maternity clothes and Lucas's outgrown clothing, as well as his infant toys, into big plastic bins in the garage. I was saving them for our next child.

A few months ago, Mr. T and I decided to try to conceive a second child, but it quickly became clear to us that we lack the emotional energy, the physical energy, or the financial wherewithal to care for a sibling for Lucas. I'll soon be going back on the pill.

I'm 32 (soon 33), so I know my years of easy conception are waning. Sure, I understand I haven't closed completely the door to a larger family; after all, I could go off the pill within the next few years and still have a statistically low-risk pregnancy, or we could grow the family through adoption.

However, Mr. Trillwing is 13 years older than I am, and he does not want to be a raising teenagers when he should be enjoying his senior citizen years. I don't blame him. The thought of putting TWO kids through college--financially and emotionally--makes me uneasy. Really, despite my dreams of providing Lucas with a sibling--I can't imagine not having my own sister in my life--on paper the decision to have only one child is a no-brainer. Financially and environmentally and in terms of marital stress, it makes perfect sense.

But back to the stuff in the garage.

One of the hinges that raises and lowers our garage door broke a few days ago, and the landlord is sending out someone to fix it this week. To make the repairs, the door installer needs everything in the garage to be cleared away from the door to a depth of ten feet.

That's a lot of stuff--mostly Lucas's baby stuff. The automatic swing, the vibrating bouncy chair, the toddler play center, the playpen and safety gates, the bathtub that fits neatly into the kitchen sink. Numberless onesies in newborn and infant sizes, bearing their embroidered puppies and bunnies, their tiny cars and trains.

I need to figure out what to do with all of it. Giving it away means acknowledging, at least for the time being, that there will not be another baby in our lives, that we will never again share the joy of a first smile, of early giggles, of first steps and babbled words. (It also means no more sleepless nights or mastitis or runny poop, but of course I'm overlooking all those experiences.)

It means acknowledging, in short, that Lucas's babyhood is behind him. I might have come to grips with this development sooner, since he is almost three and a half feet tall. But I've noticed that every week Lucas grows less interested in the last of his baby toys. Even though he's young enough still to sleep in a crib, he's old enough to be afraid of the dark and whatever lurks in it. This week he requested a night light for the first time.

To be honest, many of the trapping of Lucas's babyhood will be easy to give away--I never was fond of them anyway, except that they have a connection to my son. But I do tear up when I think of the vibrating aquarium bouncy chair:

The chair sat by my desk for many months as I was writing my dissertation. Lucas snoozed or looked at soft books or gazed, fascinated, at the bubbles and lights and sounds of the "aquarium." I can still summon the buzz, its exact pitch and cycle rumbling against the ball of my foot as I gently rocked Lucas, and I can still hear the sounds of waves that emanated from the speaker--still see, in my mind, its little light show. During those naps of Luke's, I sat in the dim dining nook that served as my office, the only sounds the vibrating chair, the recording of waves, and my typing. My dreams--of a completed dissertation, of motherhood, of a tenure-track teaching job--were illuminated then by the white light of a laptop, and by the gently pulsing, colorful lights meant to soothe an infant.

Getting rid of that chair means not only acknowledging that my little boy is growing up and that I'll likely not have another baby, but that another window is closing: All that academic training I had, all those aspirations and hopes of being rewarded in a traditional way for my intellectual efforts--my hopes, in short, for a tenure-track teaching job, are also passing away. We all know that working outside the classroom, that not publishing regularly, within the couple of years after graduating, can indicate to search committees a lack of intellectual resolve, a lack of loyalty to the ways and culture of the academy.

I remind myself of how much I love my current job. But in many ways accepting an academic staff job is like going back on the pill--it's one way of assuring one's intellectual progeny, if one has any at all after committing to an 8-to-5 gig, will not be taken as seriously as those on the tenure track.

Once I get on this train of thought, it's hard to get off, as any depressive knows: I should have worked for a disciplinary, instead of an interdisciplinary, Ph.D. I should have researched a topic that has more contemporary relevance. (Hello? I started my Ph.D. program days after September 11, but did it ever occur me to look at Middle Eastern studies, even though I was in a program and at a university that could have supported such research?) I should have spent less time pursuing my many intellectually and aesthetic interests and more time focusing on publishable topics. I shouldn't have spent so much time teaching.

But: I'm a damn good teacher. I like my areas of research. I like that I have many interests.

I also love being a mom, and I've observed that pursuing a full-fledged academic career makes being an engaged parent very difficult. I know I've done a good job of triangulating our financial resources, Mr. Trillwing's and my desire to have careers, and our geographic location into a high quality of life for Lucas.

That said, I'm always considering alternative paths: different careers, ones that will let me spend more time with Lucas while he's still young. Different, less expensive towns. Ways to live closer to our family support network. Alternative, more productive or creative or fulfilling ways to spend my precious evening leisure time.

Making these decisions is tough. And there's a lot of physical and emotional clutter--a warehouse of vibrating aquarium bouncy chairs--between me and where I need to be.

Ten years sober

No, not me: Mr. Trillwing is celebrating ten years of sobriety today. If you have a moment, please go congratulate him.

Congratulations, Honey. I'm so proud of you.