Thoughts

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.

That “demoralizing daily obsession”

Depending upon which moment of which day you catch me, I am either elated at the prospect that Mr. Trump and his goons will soon go down in flames or I am hangdog about the fact that we are stuck with him (and them) for at least another 1332 days, 11 hours, 10 minutes, and 38 seconds (but who’s counting?).

This morning, I experienced that emotional roller coaster ride within a 15-minute span when first I read Chris Riotta’s encouraging Newsweek piece titled

“Experts Upgrade Donald Trump’s Impeachment Odds As Russian Investigation Looms”

and next I read Andrew O’Hehir’s mega bummer of an article from Salon, which was preceded by this cold-water-in-the-face title:

“Wake Up, Liberals: There Will be No 2018 ‘Blue Wave,’ No Democratic Majority and No Impeachment”

Both articles appeared in one of Alternet’s digest of top stories, which I daily receive in an email. Today, though, while trying to understand how these antithetical pronouncements could simultaneously be true, I thought about what The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote in his brilliant article “A Hundred Days of Trump“:

His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.

My obsession with the state of affairs in our diminished and diminishing democracy is indeed “demoralizing,” not only because I cannot make sense of a nation shot through with a spreading stain of violent, me-first thuggery but also because those who are paid to try and make sense of it are banging around in the pitch dark, too.

I like to be in America! ♫

Travel industry: airplane and luggage going to North America

Yesterday, I visited the woman who colors and cuts my hair. I can’t remember how it came to pass that I told her I was Jewish, but as soon as I did our wheels screeched on the asphalt and the conversation came to a halt. “What’s Jewish?” she wanted to know. I thought she was kidding.

“What do you mean?” I asked, incredulous.

“I don’t know what Jewish is,” she said. “Growing up, I remember hearing that, if you were Jewish, they would let you come to America.” She’s from Africa, and she has been in this country for many years.

There was such innocence to her questioning that I couldn’t be offended, though her ignorance reflects “the world’s longest hatred” and holds within it a certain dominant and persistent strand of antisemitism: Jews, the racist stereotype suggests, are unfathomable “others” who, because of their great, hoarded wealth, will have the doors flung wide for them wherever in the world they wish to go. Even that mythic place called America will roll out the red carpet for them.

I didn’t tell her about the time in America when I ran from boys who were screaming, “Go back where you came from, you dirty Jew” as they pelted me with rocks. Or the time a high school German teacher asked me to recite Rudolph’s reindeer, and, when I came up short, said in front of 25 snickering children, “Just because you’re Jewish doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know their names.” Or the time I was alone in a diner and two young men spotted the tiniest Star of David around my neck, chased me into the parking lot, shouted taunts at me, and tailgated me on the freeway until I managed to lose them. Or the times our heat and electricity were shut off because my mother couldn’t pay the bill. Or the times we awoke to find an empty driveway because someone had come to repossess her car in the middle of the night.

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Voice as Rorschach

Robert Siegel, longtime host of NPR's All Things Considered, will be leaving his role in 2018.

Driving home from work each evening, I generally listen to NPR’s All Things Considered — and with more attention than I might otherwise muster after a long day. I have enjoyed all the co-hosts, but I especially enjoyed listening to Melissa Block, who left the program in 2015 after having been a part of it for 12 years.

Though it is difficult to describe the qualities that make for a beautiful speaking voice, I can say that Block somehow made me feel like I was the only member of her listening audience. There was a tender, silver-throated warmth to her and a sense, too, that I could pull up a chair to her table and sip a cup of tea with her while she delivered the day’s news; still, she always seemed to have absolute mastery over the delivery of any story.

My feelings about Robert Siegel’s voice, on the other hand, have been shot through with judgment. A radio veteran who has been with the program for 30 years, Siegel has “[o]ne of the most distinctive voices on NPR’s airwaves“; yet, while it may be that off-air he is a very kind soul, his voice sounds just this side of about-to-make-a-mockery. And, from the sound of it I have always seen him thus: pink-faced; thin and small; balded; dressed during summer in short-sleeved shirts; thin, bowed lips the color of raspberry Popsicle.

It wasn’t until I learned that he was retiring that I had an occasion to see his photo, and I have to say I was taken aback. There is a darker density to him that I do not hear when I listen to him speak. I hadn’t imagined the facial hair either, which certainly changes things.

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Doggy dream

Image result for golden retriever running

Rusty, my father’s golden retriever, was revered. My father, who each weekend cooked her fresh organ meats, loved her more than he loved my stepmother, my brother, and me. My stepmother loved Rusty more than she loved my brother and me. And I loved my father more than I loved anyone, including Rusty, though I very much loved Rusty. My brother, it turned out, was fairly indifferent to everyone — Rusty included.

This morning, I awoke from a dream about Rusty, who has been dead some 40 years, but, as I wandered across that vaporous, atemporal continent that separates dream from wakefulness, I believed she was still alive and was confused for some seconds about where on the timeline of my little life I stood.

Once I touched bed, pillow, table and saw mirror, bookshelf, clock, I remembered who I was and remembered, also, the man who has been installed in the White House. Just about every morning when I first open my eyes, his image — or the image of someone in his inner circle — appears, and I find myself needing more air than seems available. This morning I recalled what my stepmother once told me about sleeping dogs with twitchy legs and paws: They’re dreaming about running, she said.

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“…there is, instead, madness.”

“King George III isn’t exactly a hero of history,” writes NPR’s Colin Dwyer. “In most U.S. textbooks, he is portrayed as the British tyrant who lost the Colonies in the American Revolution. He’s scarcely more popular in his native U.K., where his bouts with mental illness late in life earned him the impolite epithet ‘Mad King.'”

This week in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes brilliantly about our own mad king Donald, whose mental well-being he describes thus:

…there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

Sullivan goes on to say that “this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months…. There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”

Until I read this piece, I hadn’t put it together for myself why I have felt so undone since the day the man was elected. It is not so much his odious agenda. As a left of left Democrat, the antipathy I feel towards a Republican worldview is at the level of marrow and sinew; yet, I still have been able to go about my life when one of that persuasion has landed in the White House.

But with a pathological liar

…barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

It is this sense of being controlled by a force over which I feel little control that has turned me into someone I don’t quite recognize. On the one hand, I am aware that at times I have been made quite unwell. On the other, I am unslumbered and find myself in search of an opportunity to best help those whose lives have been — and will continue to be — violently upended by this madman and his handlers. Yesterday, in fact, I was reading about a call for Virginia residents who might like to serve in the state legislature. Hmm, I thought.

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Love trumps Trump.

woman-pulling-on-sock

Last Saturday, I went to pull on a sock and instead pulled every major muscle in my mid-back. I fell flat out on the bed and sobbed — not so much because of the physical pain, though the pain was considerable, but because Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.

In the days preceding the back event but following the election, I was left to contend with an unremitting migraine behind the left eye, a bout of despair diarrhea, and a stress-induced shingles episode that, among other things, left my shoulder numb. The body is a genius.

It would be wrong, though, to think that I am yet one more aggrieved American adding to the volumes of articles written about Donald Trump and his last-gasp entourage of greedy, self-interested, racist, anti-Semitic, white-skinned misogynists since, as Jon Stewart in his understated and affecting interview with Charlie Rose reminds us, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Some, he says, are afraid about their health insurance premiums.

For 11 days now, I have borne witness to my unfettered feelings of anger and fear, and I have seen the underbelly of contempt I possess towards my particular version of “the other”; yet, while I am not proud about admitting I am a container for the very darknesses I ascribe to those I already have condemned to the wrong side of history, I am happy to report I still have a heart that beats stronger for love than it does for hate.

There is my daughter, whom I have loved freely and unconditionally every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year for more than three decades. No one taught me how to feel this love. It appears to have come in the same box with the rest of my parts.

And no one told me how, or why, to love A., whom I have loved without end for some 17 years in spite of the fact that these feelings have never been reciprocated. Something from within (or from without) winged me to him, or him to me, and I came to know, without knowing, that I was to love him without condition or expectation.

The love I feel both for my daughter and for A. is a very great mystery, and I can say only that love’s capacity to awaken us and to help us evolve from the pipsqueaks we really are puts into perspective the shallow affairs of nasty men, who, like the rest of us, will one day fall to dust.

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