Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer encore, III

Tuesday, January 15, 2008
OMG! Like, the semester has SO fucking started!

(Note: I have to admit . . . I like this one, too. In the words of Homer Simpson, it's funny because it's true).

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .

so went the clock until it reached 9.55 a.m., January 14th, 2008. And that could mean only one thing . . .

Like, the winter -- or, like, is it spring? -- semester has SO fucking started! Really . . . totally . . . it has! And, like, do you know how I can SO totally tell? Because, like, yesterday, I was so walking across our quad to, like, I don't know, someplace or whatever, and I walked into the Mary Graydon Center and, like, I saw these two girls TOTALLY JUMPING UP AND DOWN, SCREAMING INTO THEIR PHONES . . .

"Oh, my God, you are like so standing in front of me, like five feet away, so turnaround and you'll see me!" shrieked the smitten young Uggess into her phone. "You will so see me. Look, look, oh, look you bitch. I'm right here!"

Uggess #2 spun around . . . and, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! How are you? Oh, my God, there you are!!!!" jumping and jumping so high and so hard her A/F sweatpants fell out of her Uggs. Bad fashion moment, poor thing.

"This is so awesome!" said Uggess #1. "I was so going to call you, but now you're here! What are you going to do? I'm going to do nothing, maybe, like, hang out a little or I don't know. You should hang out, oh, my God, I'm so psyched to see you. Did you think about me over break because I was, like, so missing you! Can you believe the semester has so fucking started" . . . and on and on. I'm not sure if the conversation improved. How could it not?

From five feet away, Uggess #1 was talking to Uggess #2 on her cellphone, and Uggess #2 was squealing in delight that Uggess #1 had called her. From five feet away, Uggess #2 was "so psyched" that she jumped and jumped and jumped and jumped . . . . From five feet away, all this activity took place on cell phones. From five feet away, they could have talked to each other without their phones. Why didn't they?

* * * * * * * * * *

After the first five minutes of each class I met on Monday, I knew who would be the talkers that didn't have much to say, the ones who wouldn't say a word all semester but have the highest grades in the class, the ones who will inject words like "ontological," "heterosexist," "democratization," "Islamo-fascist" into their commentary, just to show their classmates they can, yet have no idea what any of those words mean, the ones who insist on raising their hands after every sentence, the ones with the persecution complex, the young politico convinced that I am promoting the political agenda of a certain candidate for whom he does not work, the ones who will gossip and say things about me like, "Did he wear that shirt last class period?" or "Dude, do you think he partied college?" or "I heard he's married to a Australian dwarf with lyme disease," or "I heard he shipped his kid off to military school" or ask me 13 times during the semester why I didn't I go to law school, do I want to run for office, did I date Sheryl Crow, do I have a Volkswagen Eurovan, was I at Cactus Cantina last Thursday do I have a gold Prius, did I hear about the changes to the SC internal memo policy or am I familiar with his position on subsidized trade with Bulgaria and, if not, would I like to read his paper on it?

I don't have a formal scientific explanation for my ability, shared, I think, by most professors, to figure out which students will behave which way. You can just tell.

One thing I still have a hard time figuring out is who the student "land mines" are among the newbies, the student who will not be totally passive during the semester, but not offer much in the way of commentary or opinion either, but nonetheless decide to get their ya-yas out on the course evaluations. Not only was yours the worst class ever, you were the worst person . . . EVER . . . for "fucking up my life, so thanks a lot, asshole!" and more, sometimes even sensual insights into your teaching method, like "you're a dick!" What angers these students so much that they feel compelled to write comments like that? Is it any wonder that so few faculty, once they've gotten tenure, take the course evaluations seriously? Why should they? The students don't.

The idea that a student can evaluate a class in 10 minutes on the last day of the semester is utterly and completely ridiculous. Evaluation means a thorough assessment of the planning, intellectual content, goals, and approach of a particular course and the professor who taught it. In those 10 minutes, a student is not capable of offering that kind of assessment. One question in particular always amuses me: "The professor was knowledgeable."

How does someone 19 or 21 years old with 12 weeks of a course behind him or her know if the professor was knowledgeable? Honestly, put me in Intro Biology or Finite Math for a semester, and there is no way in hell that I could tell you if the professor was knowledgeable. For all I know, she could be a Nobel Prize laureate or some yokel off the turnip truck who never made it much past the one-room schoolhouse he attended with his 7 year-old son -- when he could get a ride, that is.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here's a new one. I stopped in the third floor men's room in the Ward building, where most of our classes are taught, after lunch on Monday. Naturally, the urinals had not been flushed because that would require too much effort. After all, you can't expect an undergraduate just returning for the start of the semester to flush the toilet and go to class and buy books in the same day, or even the same week. And I'm certain that if a student had thought about flushing the urinal he probably decided against it after concluding that a syllabus a professor had just handed him earlier in the day did not require him to do so. Yep, yep, yep! These are some of my favorite students, the ones who are preparing for careers as union negotiators or corporate attorneys ("It doesn't say in the syllabus, Professor Ivers, that we can't snort Vicodin in class. You just said that we can't eat or bring alcoholic beverages to class"), the ones always looking to beat the system rather than just shut up and do the work.

So I did what any trained parent of small children would do: I flushed the urinal before I used it.

Then I heard a voice say, "Hey, man, do you mind? I'm trying to talk."

I turned around and saw two feet under the stall. No Larry Craig action, mind you. Just some guy who was slipping in an important phone conversation while taking his afternoon constitutional.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry. Some asshole was flushing the toilet," said Two Shoe Voice Man from behind his stall door. "Anyway, I don't know, man, like, I guess you could stop by later . . ."

Did this just happen? Did some guy just tell me not to flush the urinal because it interfered with his phone conversation? While sitting on the damn toilet? In a public restroom?

So I did what I had to do. I flushed the second urinal. Then the first one. Then the second one. Then the first one. Again and again and again.

"What the hell are you doing, asshole? I can't hear a damn thing."

Since he wasn't in a position to take me on, I flushed the urinal again. Then I flushed them both at the same time.

"Why are you being such as asshole, dude?"

I gave him the only answer I could.

"Because I have tenure!" I told him.

"Oh, shit," he said.

"Oh, shit is right. Don't forget to wash your hands."

* * * * * * * * * *

Faculty received an email the weekend before the semester started informing us that we could "bluecard" students into our classes if we had extra seats in the classroom, even though our class sizes are set by the registrar. For example, if my class is set at 35 but I'm teaching in a room that holds 50, I can add up to 15 students without pissing off the Fire Marshall.

Not me. I enroll to the class size and that's it. I don't allow blue cards because if I allow one I have to allow them all. I got this idea, by the way, from Justice Scalia, who opposes exemptions for religious believers to laws that apply to the general population. Give one exemption, says Nino, and you have to give one to anyone that wants one, and that leads to bad policy and favoritism. I never thought I'd say this but he's got a good point.

Like many decisions on class size and room choice, this decision has a mysterious origin. No one I've talked to seems to know whose idea it was. Students apparently got wind of this, as I have been inundated with emails informing me that "I know you have 13 seats available in your classroom" or "I'll really try" or "My friend says I should take your class" or "If I don't take your class I can't graduate in May" or "You can pick on me. I can take it!!!!" Doesn't matter. No blue cards. The university tells our incoming students that we pride ourselves on small class size. I feel morally compelled to honor that commitment.

No blue cards. Not now. Not ever.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here and there, someone will ask me if I watch a particular television show or if I've seen a new movie or listened to a new record by a band, usually with a name like, "Belly Button Skank Sisters," or what I thought about some politician's most recent speech on greenhouse emissions by GM trucks. My answer is pretty standard: if there is something I don't like I don't watch or listen to it. I don't understand people who sit through horrible programs or movies, read bad books, spit their coffee on newspaper columnists they find outrageous or idiotic or listen to terrible recordings just so they can say how bad they are. We have more than a few students, and perhaps faculty and staff, that don't share that view.

Why, for example, do students not enrolled in your classes make the time and effort to post nasty comments about you on these "I Hate My Professors" websites? Why do people you've never taught do the same? Why do professional colleagues leave comments, thinking they're anonymous, on websites or blogs that point out how stupid or inferior you are when they could just pop their head in your office and say, "You know, I think you're really stupid and I'm really smart." Why do people do this when you never done anything to them? It really makes you wonder about what is going on in someone's life that they're willing to spend so much time pointing out your deficiencies.

* * * * * * * * * *

After my last class on Monday, I overheard a student taking it -- and me, for the first time -- say that he was "going to get me" just to prove I wasn't "all that."

Why do students view the learning process as adversarial? Why can't an undergraduate, supposedly in college to expand his or her horizons, grasp that a professor who asks them questions they can't answer should think or read a little bit more so that, next time, he or she can better engage a discussion. I've never tried to make a student "look stupid." Is it really my fault if I ask students to explain why they believe the Constitution permits someone to do X or Y and they can't?

By the way, I don't think I'm "all that." Never interpret my enthusiasm for teaching and trying to get students to realize and maximize their intelligence as thinking I'm "all that." Never interpret my interest in trying to offer students something more than taking down notes as thinking I'm "all that." How can a student who never comes to my office hours, has never had a conversation with me about anything, who doesn't know me outside the 2 1/2 hours a week I spend in class him or her, believe he or she knows me well enough to think that I think I'm "all that."

Or that I don't.

By the way, good lucking "getting" me. Just tell me where you'd like to be buried.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two of my three classrooms on Monday did not have chalk. But they were all wireless.


* * * * * * * * * *

Memo to students who tell me they can't afford books for class: You shouldn't tell me this while you're wearing $600 worth of designer clothes. If you can afford Juicy Couture, a North Face ski jacket, multiple pairs of Uggs, Cole Haan stilettos, tailored leather jackets or Armani loafers, you can pop for a $75 textbook.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have a good semester. And remember, all the stories you've heard about me are true.

Unless they're not.

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