education

The awfulness of awful (update)

(First posted in early fall 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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Mum’s the word

It can be a torture living inside of myself, but no more so than when I’m monitoring every word that comes out of my mouth. And it’s not just the words themselves that get the once over. I can become easily annoyed with every um and uh that exits.

This all started decades ago, when Marvin Mudrick, an English professor with an asp for a tongue, told me mine was a nice speaking voice but for all the you knows that polluted it. After that, I became a peep-mouse of a thing in his creative writing class, as you can imagine. 

It’s like and it’s a sort of have become my bull’s eyes, too, but, actually, these equivocators are pretty interesting to ponder. The former has been lampooned by comedians far and wide, so I have nothing new to add to that conversation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the latter, though, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve noticed that it’s a sort of is to the intelligentsia what it’s like was, in its heyday, to the so-called Valley Girl. As in “it’s a sort of exquisite double helix of DNA in biology” or “Derrida was a sort of deconstructionist.” For all of the hot air circulating about the Academy, though, there seems, maybe, a sort of uneasiness with the efficacy of one’s ideas, like “I have this brilliant thought, but, if you don’t agree, perhaps I’m not as married to it as you might think.” Or “I have this brilliant thought, but I don’t want you to know that I think it’s brilliant because God won’t let a braggart inherit the earth.”

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Fool me twice

I went into teaching, a second career, in part because I wanted to give students the respect they deserve. Anyone who has felt invisible in the classroom or who has felt shamed by a teacher, as I have, knows this is a noble goal.

For a decade, I taught college writing on the east and west coasts. At times, I would teach at as many as three institutions in a single semester just to make ends meet. Adjunct instructors, or “freeway fliers,” as we were called, are at the bottom of the food chain and earn very little when compared with their full-time colleagues, who also earn very little. This is particularly true in the humanities.

Low pay (and no benefits) is just one of the ways adjunct professors are devalued, but, as some might say, it was my choice to go into education and to accept an inadequate salary; I really couldn’t let myself be too glum about it, and I didn’t. For some 15 years, I had been in the business world, where people of my temperament can easily die, and teaching was my lifeline.  I loved my students, and I tried to give them the very best of myself.

Nevertheless, I left teaching about six years ago because I was exhausted and because I just couldn’t live on the hem of poverty any longer. I hadn’t imagined myself returning to the classroom, but when I lost my job of five years and was not able to find full-time employment after many months, I accepted a part-time position at a nearby community college.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Most notably, student honesty seems very much on the wane. Whereas before I might have had one clear-cut case of plagiarism in a given year, now it is surprising if a student does not try to make off with another’s words. 

The reasons for the rise of academic dishonesty are, no doubt, many, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex forces at play here. Who, for example, can begin to know what young people go on to think after they witness corrupt businessmen committing wholesale crimes against society with impunity.

One thing is certain, though. It is easier to cheat now than ever before. Just google “cause and effect essay,” and, in 0.18 seconds, you will receive about 2,960,000 results. Even the best teacher-sleuth, and I consider myself to be a pretty good one, doesn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of bringing every cheater to justice.

Last semester, I had 23 students in my class. Of those, six, or about one-quarter of the class, plagiarised all or parts of an assigned essay. Confronting these students was, for me, a torture, and I spent a number of sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would say to them and what actions I would take. This was the hard part because there are degrees of plagiarism, and there are also degrees to which students know they are plagiarising. In the end, I thought I handled it well. Above all, I tried to be fair. Too fair, it seems.

I gave two students the chance to write another paper because they conned me into believing they didn’t know they had plagiarised. Damned if they didn’t turn around and do it all over again.

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“…signifying nothing.”

More than 30 years ago I wrote an article for the first issue of The Threepenny Review, a literary magazine launched by writer and critic Wendy Lesser, who, at the time, was a friend. In the article, I reviewed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and writing it, as I recall, was a torment. Although I didn’t save a copy of this article, I think now that it was probably longer than it had a right to be and likely more bombast than substance.

Wendy and I met when we were doctoral students at UC Berkeley. She liked me, she said, because I was easy to talk to and because I was diplomatic, and I admired her for what I considered then to be far more important qualities: her wide-ranging intellect, determination, and self-confidence. Although I was intelligent enough and could be determined in fits and starts, my lack of self-confidence made me a dupe for a student and a dangerous literary critic.

Like a child who mimics the language and posturings of the adults around her, I learned in graduate school how to behave in ways that were imitative, empty of conviction, and cruel.  The truth is that I cared very little, if at all,  about the ideas that seemed to preoccupy others, and, even if I did take a fancy to any of my own ideas, they changed faster than you could say ticker tape.

My academic career ended before it started, when I took a seminar on the Renaissance from Stephen Greenblatt, whose star was very much on the rise. For the final paper, I wrote a critique of a Shakespearean sonnet and agonized over it as I agonized over everything I wrote. In the end, I had so parsed myself into a corner that the only conclusion I felt I could reach was that it was impossible to ever know the meaning of a poem or the meaning of any piece of writing, for that matter. As you can imagine, this didn’t bode well for me—or for my star. So, I slunk  away from the Department without even signing out, and, since I was a rabble-rouser, albeit a preemptive one, I don’t think I was much missed; yet, I wanted very badly for someone to come after me—to miss the particular brand of me—and, from time to time, I wonder how my life would have turned out had I been coaxed back to Wheeler Hall.

I didn’t leave Berkeley just because I couldn’t find much meaning in what I was doing.  I simply didn’t have the temperament of a scholar, and this was nowhere more evident than in a course I took on eighteenth-century literature from Margaret Doody, a visiting professor who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. She was a very sincere and passionate teacher with a good sense of humor and with what I seem to recall was a compelling take on first-person narratives written by women of the Enlightenment.

All of the students appeared to like her very much, and I liked her very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to do what was required. For one assignment, as an example, we were supposed to make a presentation on a topic of our choice, and, while others offered what I think I thought were well-mannered, if dreary, responses to the task at hand, I broke onto the stage with some wild thing written in the voice of a heroine from a novel we had been reading.  I’m pretty sure I was proud of what I had done, and I had no idea that I had made a fool of myself or that others were tittering behind my back until I met with Dr. Doody for an end-of-the-quarter conference, during which she squared my shoulders and got down to it: When was I going to get serious about my life, she wanted to know. I was so shocked by this that I laughed involuntarily, which no doubt affirmed for her the necessity of having asked such a question. I didn’t know then that meeting with her was the most important experience I was to have during my short-lived life as an academic. Since that day, I have not stopped asking myself the same question.

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