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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘what kind of professor’ I am.  I think a lot of this had to do with my scenario from last semester, where students were upset over my teaching style, and that caused an intervention with the chair of my department.  This wasn’t overall a bad thing (although, I admit, I felt like a child throughout it) as it caused me to think about what kind of instructor I was, and what I want to be.  I’ve found certain evolutions have occurred in my life:

 

The Cool Prof/The Pal

I think this was my first foray into teaching, thinking I was going to be the professor who wasn’t “that much older” than my students, who every so often would roll into class in jeans and a shirt showing off the body I go to the gym to keep slightly above average, proving that I am “hip” and understand fashion and music.  I fancied myself, in my strange imagination, as a sort of “John Stewart as a professor”, provocative, contemporary, and totally funny.  I wanted to be a friend and ally, someone the students would talk about to their fellow students (especially since I was teaching either really early or really late classes).

Why this didn’t work: I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t White enough (or really, male enough) to be this professor.  Marginalized individuals can’t be this person without being seen as sloppy, lazy, or just inappropriate in the teaching arena.  A White, straight guy can get away with being ‘Dave’ instead of ‘professor’ and be some type of near-Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society.  A Black guy named Steven (or a gay guy named Steven, or any woman…ever) can’t do this without being seen as eccentric.  This is wonderful from the point of view of getting great reviews on RateMyProfessor.com , but you always walk out of the semester wondering….did I teach them anything?

 

The Font of Knowledge

This is where you just comb over statistics and current events to essentially know..well…everything.  Suddenly you can answer _so_ many of your students’ questions, and you can call off statistics without any problems whatsoever.  Your lectures are filled with so much information, and you keep many students engaged.  You exemplify what a professor is: brilliant.

Why this didn’t work:  You can’t maintain this without a lot of energy drinks, and eventually, you conk out.  It’s just too taxing to try to fill your head with so much knowledge, and sometimes your lectures turn into nothing but data (and so much of it, not even in the textbook).  It becomes difficult to remember what you talked about hours after you’ve done it (because you really cannot teach this way with any sense of accurate notes), so any assessments become either crapshoots, or directly out of the book (making your lectures informative, but pointless to the class).  Lastly, while you come off as brilliant, you also come off as very, very arrogant, and that turns students off.  Further it seems like you live, eat, and breathe sociology, and the students who don’t love your field take their anger out on you (in evals).

 

The Disciplinarian

The persona that got me into the most trouble was this one, because in this place, you see the classroom as your fiefdom.  Teaching is very exact and stressed, so notes and PowerPoints become key.  It’s a cross between an 18th century professor and a 20th century dictator.  You get annoyed when people aren’t reading, and make exams “hard but fair” (like the AP exam).  You teach to task, and enrichment takes a second chair to recognizing that people understand…at any cost.

Why this didn’t work: You’re essentially a jerk, so focused on people participating and orthodoxy that you forget why you’re even teaching.  You start to be seen as a hardass, not only by students, but by fellow staff.   You are perceived as inflexible and threatening, and in the helicopter parent world, that makes you the enemy.  And when you’re a marginalized professor, suddenly your are “unnecessarily uppity”.  And your evaluations are complete crap.  20% of your students get it, the other 80% think you’re Satan.

 

The Public Academic

This is my current persona…the evolved ‘me’.  How long this will stick around? I don’t know.  But in this teaching style I am human and approachable like “the cool guy”, but I’m not trying to be a pal.  I use real world terminology to explain, and I attempt to engage with current events, but sensibly.  I appreciate the rules, and expect adherence to them, but I’m not inflexible.  I recognize, in the Helicopter Parent world, that we aren’t dealing with Puritan Style ‘little adults’ here; these are kids.  In many ways, I treat them like adults (if you have an opinion…fine; just be prepared to explain it and defend it), while in some ways I recognize they are kids (talking during a lecture or texting during a lecture is rude…and you’ll be called out for that). I have information, it’s relevant, it’s current, but it’s accessible, not overwhelming, not dominating.  Oh, and I’m doing more ‘short small group’ things, where they pair up with each other for a few minutes and process together, rather than letting me do it.

Will it work? Who knows…..

I’ve been having, over the past moment (okay, year really) some weird comments about identity and teaching with fellow instructors:

  • It all started in November of last year, when an individuals who does lectures to college classes (she’s not a professor, she does lectures to random classes at times) who told me how she introduced the idea of her belief system in her lectures (feminism), even when the lecture didn’t SPEAK about that term.  I showed skepticism, ensuring her that I understand her belief system (I consider myself something of a feminist), but didn’t understand why it seemed necessary to make issue of this.  She indicated that it was important that her speakers (who would only encounter her for 30 minutes, at most) knew who she was.
  • Fast forward to January, a random meeting with an anthropology professor at one of the community colleges I’ve taught.  He talks about his sexual orientation, and then explains how he “outs” himself in every class.  Again, skepticism.  Why? I ask.  He states it is to “get it off the table, and make it public.  If anyone has any issue with it, they should make it known”.  I tell him I don’t necessarily see his logic – the information has nothing to do with his course, and what point does it serve? Get rid of homophobes from your class?
  • Another conversation in February – a new graduate student (who is now a TA) explains to me how he brings up his educational past (Ivy League) in the classes he teaches.  I’m flummoxed – he’s teaching a topic that has NOTHING to do with social class or educational level – how is it that the fact that you went to an extremely good tech school in Massachusetts play into ANY conversation?  Similar to the last comments, he felt it is important to explain ‘who he is’.
  • Next to last scenario – I need to be out of town in July, and ask someone to cover my class.  Goes okay, I suppose.  When I follow up, he talks about a person in class who has very little real world experience and pretty rigid ideas.  Talks about how in class he explains about his sexual orientation (gay).  I stop him – wait, given the topic you were to teach AND the fact that you were covering ONE lecture….how does YOUR sexuality come into a class lecture?  He seems bothered by the question – it makes perfect sense to him to disclose his orientation to a class.
  • Last – talking to someone in my department who comments on one of the philosophies of one of the professors in my department who feels he must ‘act gay’ and be ‘clearly seen as gay’ in order to serve as a good role model.  She’s confused – I offer her ZERO help on that one.

 

My point- What. The Hell.  

Since when did instruction become about your identity issues?  

It’s extremely difficult in a college class setting, when you’re doing something other than lecturing, to not self disclose.  Especially when you have  a topic like mine (Sociology), it’s only natural to, at very limited times, use your own experience as a metric.  However, there are caveats:: (1) you can’t do it repeatedly (2) there have to be some other opinions and (3) there has to be appropriate context.  Otherwise, if you don’t follow these rules, the class becomes about YOU.

There are some things I have (and do) share with my students, that I feel are relevant (such as coming from a large family, being born in a rural area, being a youngest child, being a runner) as, at times, these make me seem more relevant to my topics.  However, there are clear swaths of my personal life I would even THINK of sharing with my students – it’s really not their business, just like I don’t want to know about their lives.  

I am seriously not sure if the practices of identity endear you to students, or just make you feel like you do.  Like I said to the last example (from my department), whenever this self disclosure is going on, I must wonder “is the person doing it for others, or are they really doing it for themselves”?

I could be off base here (thus the blog post), but it just strikes me as…odd.

Sometimes I wonder about other people in the world.

I really do, given how erratically and haphazardly people organize their lives.  I don’t mean that as an insult, really.  I’m actually amazed.  Loose scheduling for life must be great, on a regular basis.  Generally, however, I’ve found a loose schedule to be, in its own way, restricting, annoying, and aggravating.

I do way too many things in my life.  My full time job running a nonprofit homeless program, my part time job as a college prof at two campuses, my part time job as a research interviewer in DC, my volunteer commitments, and my PhD classes (okay, right now, CLASS) I have something going on most days of my life (with the exception of , say, Sundays).  

Because of my overly busy life, I have to live and die by my calendar.  It’s nowhere as rigid as it sounds, but it is very much “a place for everything, and everything in its place”.  It sounds insanely busy for most people, but it is life for me.  I get plenty of sleep.  I can still make time for my exercise.  I can be social.  So it does work.

What doesn’t work? The rest of the world.

My schedule is sort of like my Torah – open for interpretation, but pretty much it’s the thing I live my life by.  I can revisit things, and decide not to do things, but generally I don’t  (in fact, a sign of me sinking into depression is me canceling on something, so it happens rarely these days).  I take my schedule very seriously, and I give the same weight in my life to business (which brings me money), education (which brings me knowledge), and social activities (which enrich my life overall).  Nothing is ‘more important’ or ‘less important’….everything is important.

So that’s why it pretty much pisses me off when something is cancelled. 

Generally I’m a lot better than I was, say, in my 20s.  Back then, any changes or cancellations would send me into an immediate (and vindictive) rage.  Regardless of why someone cancelled, I would see it as a personal insult, or a sign of the chaos that is the life of, oh, large swaths of the world.  Kids can cancel, kids can forget.  Adults? No.

These days, I tend to be more free-wheeling.  Okay, sort of.  You cancel a few days ahead of time? I’ll be ticked, but I will (eventually) get over it.  You cancel 15-24 hours in advance?  I’ll be crazy annoyed, and probably just summarily ignore you for, say, 2 months.  Your activity with me just hit the bottom of my priority list, so you’ll fall somewhere between cleaning my desk and buying a new bath mat.

Less than fifteen hours?  Annoyed isn’t the correct word. Nor is pissed. Let’s go with mega pissed. 

Why?  Because, again, I live and die by my schedule, and now, I’ve got a hole in it.  As liberal as I am, I’m not very adaptive (at all), so I can’t fill that empty space with something else (that throws off the REST of the schedule), and I do terribly with idle time.  So, cancelling an hour before something that we were supposed to do? Yeah, you’ve created, for me, a two hour window where I’ll mull over every time you’ve ever annoyed me in life.  Then I’ll get back to my scheduled events.

I personally don’t think it’s irrational or asking a lot.  I look at it in a very litigious manner.  When you make plans with someone, you enter into a loose (but binding) verbal contract.  Or at least, I do.  Very little, on my end, will push you out of the way.  Even if things come up, unless they are time sensitive, I’ll bend if need be. I assume most other people operate this way.  Life experience has taught me, however, almost no one operates this way.

Writing this out is actually therapeutic, because as I read what I write (as I thought when down on paper it would sound a bit meglamaniacal ) , it doesn’t sound warped at all.  In an adult world, it sounds like what one should expect.  Well, if that’s the case, why’s it so hard?  My philosophy? If you don’t want to do something…uhm…SAY IT. I do.

Wow, okay, that feels alot better.  Now, thanks to the two big holes in my sched, I think I’ll go running.

It starts so subtle.

You wake up one morning, a morning you are supposed to do cardio and start around 6:15 am (so, you’d be up by 5:45 am).  But, you wake up at 6am on the dot.  Ugh. You lie there and wonder about how much time it would take you to get ready, which will make you later, and how you have to cut your recovery so you can make it to work, blah, blah.  Then, it suddenly hits you – can’t you just do it later today (probably not), or…skip?  It’s just one day, and you can make up the miles.  No big.  So you relax, knowing you’ll continue on with fitness.

And in the week, you do.  You make your next cardio, the next class, and do your workouts.  Everything seems fine….until it is Monday again.

And Monday, all of those reasons creep back up, and…you’re tired.  And, frankly, you’re behind, because you never caught up last week.  You were a few miles behind, and it’s not like you’re doing seven miles today.  So you stay in.

Fast forward a month.  You haven’t done any cardio at all on Mondays for a month.  You missed your monthly cardio/workout goal last month, and you’re halfway through the next, and there’s no way you are going to make it.  No. Way. Whatsoever. So, that gives you reason to be depressed, and hang out with friends, and drink, and not work out (because you’re hungover), and suddenly 80 miles becomes 50, becomes 30, becomes….none.

Words to the wise:

1) The quicker you start, the quicker it’s over

2) At the end of the day, you can say you did it

3) You may be your own worst enemy, but you can be your biggest cheerleader, too

4) There’s a thousand reasons NOT to do something; just go with the one reason to get it done.

I was almost weak this morning. I almost gave in.  However, I got up, said, screw it, and put in 4 miles.  I couldn’t feel more accomplished if I tried….

So, there’s this website called One Million Moms, and it is pushing for ‘family values’ on television.  Allow me to translate: purely fundamentalist Christian values on television, to protect fundamentalist Christian children.  So, they are against any sign of moral decay, and that list is long.

My take: look, everyone has an opinion, and I have the right to completely ignore your idiotic opinion.  However, the airwaves are out there, and information deigns to be free.  There’s like 190 channels on my Comcast lineup, and the shows I don’t like (for example, Suits, a show many people seem to like) I just don’t watch.  There are shows with an extremely wide appeal that I don’t find entertaining (I have never found How I Met Your Mother funny), and I smile as people discuss them, but don’t watch them.  There are shows I find reprehensible (like Jersey Shore or any permutation), and boom, I don’t watch them.

Get the picture?

If I don’t like something, I don’t watch it.  I find something else to watch.  I love Major Crimes, and Hot in Cleveland, and Adventure Time, and Dr. Who.  If they aren’t on, boom, I look for stuff On Demand.  I can also channel surf to find something (180 channels; gotta like something).  Or, hey, there is Netflix and Hulu.

The point is that I don’t take to calling advertisers to get shows off the air, I don’t refer to things as ‘filth’, and I don’t use some flimsy excuse about kids to defend the fact that I am old, jaded, and there are some things that are modern that I just don’t understand (and thus I fear them, and my fear is demonstrated as dislike).

If you need to get shows off the air in order to ‘rescue your kids’, then congratulations, because you are producing a generation of socially awkward imbeciles that will be ineffective in the world.  As an educator, I’d use anything I find as offensive or inappropriate as a teachable moment – God knows you get so few of those any longer. I’d imagine most parents would (and should).  Why?  Because the moment your kid turns 7, you (as a parent) stop being the largest socializing agent to them.  Yep. Sorry, you lose.  At age seven it officially becomes school and peers.  So, my philosophy – when you can teach….teach.

(For example, I don’t like The Jersey Shore, but I sure as hell used it as an assignment topic in my Intro to Sociology class – to teach about deviance and material culture. )

To One Million Moms – stop cloaking your fear and your hate in religion.  And if you don’t like what’s on, turn the damn television off.

On to the topic of Orson Scott Card, a writer of some note.  He wrote the science fiction book Ender’s Game, which every alpha-level nerd seems to have read (I must only be a gamma or delta level nerd, because I only heard of Ender’s Game when the controversy started).  So, for those who don’t know, what’s the controversy?

Well, Ender’s Game is highly popular, and after a few decades in print, it is being made into a movie starring Harrison Ford (this fall/winter it premieres).  It would be a good Lord of the Rings type test, to see if a popular science fiction book from decades hence could be made into a successful feature film.  However….there’s one problem.

Orson Scott Card is a homophobe.  No….that’s an understatement.  If there was a Klan specifically against gay people, he’d be the Grand Dragon.  He hates the idea of homosexuality.  And as much as I’d like to tie this to his Mormon faith, that church is honestly starting to reconsider its beliefs.

(Historical note: not surprising at all.  The Mormon faith believed, well up into the 70s that brown people in the world were not quite human and as such, couldn’t pass on the Word of God.  After being seen as one of the most hateful organizations in the history of the world, they recanted.  Sheesh – you’d think a bunch of polygamists would be a _bit_ more loving…)

Card is on the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Marriage (ant-gay group), he’s said all gay men are pedophiles, recommended making the act of being gay illegal, and he wrote a version of Hamlet where King Claudius were a molesting monster, had raped all of the main male characters in the play (for years), and after the final scene (where essentially everyone died), Hamlet ends up in Hell, being repeatedly raped by Claudius.

How….happy.

So, a number of gay groups have recommended boycotting Ender’s Game.  There’s a huge movement (gaining ground) encouraging people to just not go.  The idea is that it supports Card, who will use his money to attack gay people.

Card isn’t an idiot (nor is the production studio), so they’ve made some major moves.  One, Card came out in an interview and pretty much said ‘you win, gay people.  I can’t beat you, so please don’t boycott the movie’.  Didn’t work.  At Comic-Con in San Diego, where the film had sneak peeks and panel discussions, Card wasn’t allowed to come.   Essentially, it is realized he’s toxic, and everyone is attempting to ignore him.

This, counter to One Million Moms, is a public based move.  People simply aren’t going.  And frankly, I think a lot of people simply won’t go.  And yes, the book/movie Ender’s Game has nothing to do with homosexuality, but frankly, it doesn’t matter.  People choose not to go, the film may tank, and then, a lesson is learned.

Although seen as the ‘same approach’ by someone I spoke to a few weeks ago, I disagree – two completely different approaches.

On Monday, in the midst of a run, I gave up.

I can’t say why I did it.  I’m not even sure.  It wasn’t a particularly long run, only 4.5 miles.  I can’t say I was tired. I can’t say my legs hurt.  Heck, there’s nothing I can say, except I gave up.  About 22 minutes into a 36 minute run, I just said “yeah, I’m done”.

It’s weird for me.  One of my hallmarks is ‘don’t stop’.  When I’m in the midst of a run, I can normally find 1000 reasons why I shouldn’t just quit.  I can slow down, I can speed up.  But quit?  No.  I don’t do that.

I struggled, as I walked home from the gym, sweaty and confused, to figure out a reason why I gave up.  It wasn’t like me.  It isn’t like my life is reflecting on my running.  I don’t feel overwhelmed. Heck, my apartment is even clean (that’s saying a lot for me).  I’m ahead on things.  There’s been shocks and surprises in life, but I’ve dealt, because that’s what we do.

I walked around my apartment, in a sweaty and half naked fugue, trying my damnedest to figure out ‘why’.  It was no doubt a sight.  If I had a pet, they’d probably do that cock-your-head-to-the side thing that animals do as it watched me.

But then, I’m reminded of a quote from that famed poet (and incidentally, pyro egomaniac) Robert Frost, who once famously said (or at least the legend goes), when asked about symbolism in one of his pieces, “sometimes a tree is just a tree”.  Well, according to Mike Wager, my Honors English teacher, that’s what he said (and I have too much respect for Mr. Wager to fact check it now…let’s just let it be true).  I’ve used that quote a lot recently, to express to people that sometimes what you see, is simply what you see.

Or, to put it in a Taoist context, what is….is.

So, yeah, I stopped running.  Yes, I’ve done it before (the last time was in May, I believe).  And so, after about 200 miles of running, for 2.5 months, in the midst of a four and a half miler, I stopped running.  Why?  For no reason, whatsoever.

And you know what?  I can be okay with that now.  Yes, an hour later I went to the gym and hit a class hard, but there’s no correlation in my mind anymore.  I stop, because I stop.

Is it ironic that someone who runs has to learn to take things in stride? :)

Here’s a quote I am seeing a lot: Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.

Here’s an example I am seeing a lot: Ben Carson

Here’s my very scientific response to that:  No.

Lesson the first: everyone does not have the same opportunities in this country.  We have to remember two basic facts.  One, the fact that about 17% of this country is currently living in poverty.  Yeah, this is irrespective of race, gender, age…all of the things that make some cringe and rattle on about ‘political correctness’.  Yeah, fuck all that.  It’s the simple fact that nearly 1 out of every five people in this country may not be able to afford to eat today.  That’s sobering.  What’s more sobering is the only empirical fact that we have about social mobility, two:  the standard person in this country is going to do just about as well as their parents do.  Period.  So, frankly, regardless of what field you are going into, or how much ‘better’ you feel you’ll do than your parents because your career and theirs are apples and oranges, it simply isn’t a reality.  If you came from working class life, no matter your degree, boom – more than likely you’ll be working class all of your life.  Are their chances that this won’t occur?  Sure. Absolutely.  But there are also chances that you’ll win the Powerball, and those odds?  Roughly 190 million (yes, million) to one.  So, mobility comes down to many things, and statistical chance (which the uninformed call ‘luck’ ) is certainly one of them.

Lesson the second:  I don’t care what Ben Carson, in his self-congratulatory haughtiness, a la Clarence Thomas, tells you about his life.  I couldn’t care less about his illiterate mother, his doting grandmother, the ‘you can do it’ speeches, or whatever else he thinks that helped him to succeed.  He credits his drive.  Let me make this very clear.

Drive. Is. Crap.

I am not generally faulting individuals for striving or trying their hardest.  Hell, I think everyone on the planet should.  However, there is not an irrefutable correlation between trying your hardest, doing everything you possibly could, and succeeding.  There are plenty of people, every day, who do their damndest to succeed.  They try, they scrape, and work.  And guess what?  They fail.  No matter how much Ben Carson wants to think that it is all him…I’m sorry, it’s way more statistical chance (or the grace of God) than it is Carson.  When it comes down to it, in the midst of his constant striving, he just happened to be at the right place and the right time.  We can’t forget that.

God knows I was lucky a lot, and to quote a really old line, sometimes I have been luckier than anyone is supposed to get.  So, I know that what separates me from some people is just right place, right time.

So, can we seriously get rid of this dumbass belief that everyone can succeed?  Some people will try hard and fail.  Some people will try to do the impossible and suffer for it.  And yes, as unfair as this is, some people will do virtually nothing, and find gold every single time.  Every. Single. Time.  You just have to recognize this.

I empathize with the parent who told me, on Thursday, “even though what you say is true, I can’t tell my child that!”  I agree – I wouldn’t tell a kid that.  Ever.  Encourage your kid.  Help them to excel, and show them the world.

Just don’t be ticked at them if the world happens to kick them when they are down. It happens, sadly.

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