education

The awfulness of awful (update)

(First posted in winter 2017) For more than 20 years I have been teaching writing and research at community colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington State, and the DC metro area. Students always have had the opportunity to write end-of-the-semester evaluations of my courses, which I dread with open arms. But in recent years they also have been able to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with me on an extremely popular, high-profile site called Rate My Professors. And these ratings seem to carry as much, if not more, weight than college evaluations do — at least in the court of very public opinion.

While many professors who have received negative reviews on this site might dismiss them as the biased rants of disgruntled students, they would have to be made of granite if they did not feel somewhat besieged or besmirched — not least because these reviews typically appear at the top of the first page of a Google search.

Because I have worked so hard to be a worthy teacher, and because I have done my best to develop respectful relationships with my students, I feel fortunate that I have received largely positive college and online reviews through the years. In fact, if truth be told this has been a source of not a little pride that privately I have held fast to, especially during periods when I have felt less successful in other areas of my life.

Occasionally I will check the site, and from time to time I will find that I have been rewarded with a new, and typically lovely, evaluation. Then, a few days ago I went to it and, to my great horror, for the first time saw the dreaded red scowly face with its corresponding “awful” emblazoned at the tippy top of my list of reviews.

These reviews are anonymous, so I could see only that it was from someone who had taken a course I have not taught since fall 2016. “My God,” I thought. “This student has been waiting to pounce for nearly a year!” My heart was pounding as I read “takes her time” (though this did not strike me as an especially negative quality) and “unhelpful” and “move on if you want an easy A.”

It was painful to know that future students would see this neon red face as soon as they entered my page, and I felt I had to try and do something to protect myself from a faceless, nameless someone who was bent on shredding my reputation. But, I also felt at the mercy of this masked student and of Rate My Professors itself, so my imagination failed me until a small voice from beyond whispered, “Write a rebuttal.” Which I proceeded to do.

Although I did not identify myself as the offended professor (and also was in “Incognito” mode on Chrome), I said that I thought the student review seemed defamatory in light of the other positive reviews, and I also said that there was little of substance to give prospective students a good sense of why the teacher deserved such a low rating from this one student.

I did not really expect anything to come of it, but I felt I had to try something to salve my wound. In fact, having tried years ago, and without any success, to get Google to remove my doctoral dissertation abstract from its search engine, I thought snowballs in Hell would remain intact before this nightmare review disappeared.

Then, the next day I checked the site and saw it had been taken down.


UPDATE: Yesterday, I received my second “awful” on Rate My Professors from a student who dropped a class I am now teaching:

I took the hybrid class, and she gives an average of 3-4 assignments per week. Both of the English classes I took are hybrid, and she makes English class 10x harder than it should be. She is detailed but picky. So if you want a professor that creates a one full page instruction for only a week’s homework, very detailed, willing to help, go for it.

Montana 1948: a novel

readingSome years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.

One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.

Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.

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It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

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Fastest

little boy on bike with training wheels

Lately, I have been spending a good amount of time rounding the dirt track located up the street from where I live. It can be a lively place—especially on the weekends—as runners with cell phones, dogs, power walkers with cell phones, football players, football fans, malingerers, soccer players, soccer fans, cigar smokers, pee wee teams, mothers, tennis players, body builders, opera singers, and others converge.

This morning, I found myself walking behind a small, helmeted boy, four years old at most, who was riding a red bicycle with lopsided training wheels. His distracted father, at first walking slowly alongside his son, soon began to jog out in front, at which point the boy turned around to look at me. As he did so, the bike began to veer off the track and onto the uncut grass that bordered it.

“Oops! Oops!” I couldn’t help but call out.

Upon hearing this, the young father stopped, turned around, and trotted back to his child. As I caught up, I could hear the man say, “And, you were so fast.”

“Why?” the boy wanted to know.

How cute, I thought, as only a smug adult would think. Then, I began to ponder the question more deeply and was struck not by its seeming innocence but by its seeming genius. I came to understand that it wasn’t one of those “but why daddy/why mommy” questions every exasperated parent of a toddler receives. Rather, I think this child genuinely, and without any self-consciousness, wished to understand something about what it actually means—and why it even matters—to be fast.

Why?” the father replied, apparently as disarmed by the question as I was. “Well, because you want to be fast.” And, in this one, nearly innocuous, moment, which could have been no more portentous than the one that came before or after it, the father told his son what kind of man he was expected to become.

Later, I saw the boy careening around a corner. “Look, Daddy!” he screamed. “Look how fast I am!”

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Children in the crossfire

Anti-Slavery Day March To ParliamentIn his chilling piece in Vox about the April 14th abduction of more than 275 Nigerian school girls, Zach Beauchamp argues that Boko Haram’s recent threat to sell the kidnapped children into slavery “is not a one-off event.” Rather, he says, “[i]t’s part of a vast web of human trafficking and slavery in West Africa — one that neither local governments nor the international community have been able to shut down.”

According to Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery group in Australia, “30 million people are living as forced laborers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and, in all ways that matter, as pieces of property, chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership.” With some 700,000 of its people enslaved, Nigeria now boasts the largest such population in West Africa — and the fourth largest in the world, says Beauchamp.

While the rest of the world has been focused on the missing Malaysian plane, anguished relatives have been looking frantically for their missing little girls and have had relatively little support in the process.  “It’s hard to imagine a more compelling, dramatic, heartbreaking story,” writes Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. “If it had happened anywhere else,” she suggests, it “would be the world’s biggest story.”

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Little Rock then and now and

Little Rock thenThis past week I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, for work and was not especially looking forward to my trip—weaned, as I had been, on images of the state’s 36th governor, Orval Eugene Faubus, defying the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown Vs. Board of Education decision and calling in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African American students from entering the racially segregated Little Rock Central High.

As my plane descended, however, I was more than a little taken with the lush green landscape, boggy though it was, and, despite myself, I immediately fell in love with the entire state. Our lodging, the Capital Hotel, was the bomb, as it is said, where smiles abounded and where gracious good will seemed a way of life; where I found hand-packed, ribbon-tied toffee on my bed each night; and where each day my toiletries were spread out and lovingly arranged on a hand towel. Everywhere we went, the food was delicious, though nowhere more so than at Brave New Restaurant (the name would not have been my choice), which overlooked the Arkansas River and which served exquisitely fresh salads and crusty sourdough bread.

A few hours before we were to catch our planes, we visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which was very great fun and of enormous interest. For three dollars, we could hold a phone and listen to Bill describe the various exhibits, so we did! And, it was as if he had been speaking to each one of us, alone (I even half expected to hear him say my name). A nosey parker at heart, I particularly enjoyed the handwritten/typed letters from Whoopi, Elton, Queen Noor, and many others and especially liked that the comedienne called Bill “the cat’s pajamas.” I had fantasies, too, about how I might get myself invited to the Clinton “apartment” that sits atop the museum.

Our meeting had been a great success, also, and we were all patting ourselves on the back for it and were gushing about how wonderful the attendees were. But, I just couldn’t leave well enough alone and, after, was compelled to tell my colleagues the story of the college president who sat at the table behind me during an interactive session and who, in a booming voice, referred to the African American students on his campus as “the blacks.” I almost got whiplash.

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Farewell

I went back to part-time teaching because, after a year, I still hadn’t found a full-time job, or any job. In less than two weeks, I will begin a new, non-teaching job. I probably won’t return to the classroom, so here are some things I want to impart: 

1. Teaching is the hardest thing you will ever do. 2. Adjunct faculty earn spit-on-you pay. 3. It’s impossible not to get chalk on your behind. 4. Sometimes when you read graffiti on bathroom walls you will mentally correct the grammar. 5. Be frightened if a student hands in a three-page argument paper with Is There a God? as the title. 6. It is never wise to accept jewelry from someone who is failing. 7. Don’t necessarily believe a student who tells you she can’t take an exam because her father has had a heart attack. 8. If you’re foolish enough to wear silk in the summer, make sure you write on the bottom third of the board. 9. Promise yourself you’ll never use a suitcase as a briefcase. 10. Always have a Plan C.       

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