Wednesday, January 14, 2009

FAQ -- myths and realities

In about five months, I will complete my 20th year of teaching at American University. And, yes, yes, it seems like just a few months ago that my wife and I watched the movers unload what were then our worldly possessions -- my books, CDs, records, running shoes and about a weeks worth of clothing; her shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, scarves, scarves, jackets, jackets, jackets, long coats, short coats, medium coats and 286 boxes of coupons for more of the above for anywhere from 10-40% off -- into our small apartment to begin our adult lives in Washington, D.C. We were both pretty excited to come to a place that we had heard was the "most exciting and important city in the world . . . where the smartest people from all over the globe came to make a difference," ad naseum, ad infintium. I was somewhat suspicious of that claim when I ran into a "Washingtonian" -- a phrase I had never heard before; come to think of it, the only city I ever heard describe an individual was New York, as in, "New Yorker" -- who asked me how I was "enjoying [my] first Washington August."

"I grew up in Atlanta, went to college in the central Midwest, then graduate school in Atlanta, so, no, this doesn't phase me," I responded.

"Oh," this Washingtonian responded. "Does it get hot and humid down there?"

I should have figured out, right then and there, that Washington was not the center of the universe; but, rather a place for people who think they're the center of the universe. Unfortunately, it would take about five more years before I came to the conclusion that Washington is place for people who really, really, really . . . really liked student government in high school, or found their time as the president of the Pan-Hellenic/Inter-Fraternity Council in college about as good as it gets, or enjoy talking about the "process," with no idea about whether what's going in or out of the "process" makes any sense, or find their personal six-degrees-of-separation from someone who has told them how important he is to the preservation of the Free World the starfucking equivalent of having an all-access pass to the set of their favorite porn star's latest film.

So, yes, you observe a great deal being on the periphery of a city that thrives on high school-level pettiness, revenge, cliques, and score-settling, a city that repeatedly refers to its most outstanding "Washingtonians" as "A students," a city that relishes and rewards conformity and punishes dissent and creativity. But you also experience and hear a lot of strange things working in the same place for twenty years, particularly in a university setting where your bosses aren't really your administrative superiors, but a cohort of (mostly) 18-22 year-olds who, despite not knowing all that much, if anything at all, about the subjects you are teaching them, wield the ultimate power over your livelihood and perceived success. And, gee wiz, if some of those students don't say the gosh-darndest things about you.

In twenty years, I've encountered some pretty strange questions from students, overheard countless comments about me that are alternately flattering, derogatory, plain false and just plain bizarre, watched my university, along with the world, change for good and bad. So why not just set the record straight?

How old are you?


My friend said you were the best professor on campus. But my other friend said she hated you and you were the worst professor ever. So which are you?

Neither one. "Best" and "worst" are only opinions, and those opinions have much to do with a student's expectations, their interest in the subject, what they're here for and what they expect from a college-level teacher. A "good" professor prepares for class, understands what he or she is talking about, makes an effort to communicate in a creative way that knowledge to his or her students, makes him or herself available for office hours and establishes rules and expectations. A "bad" professor doesn't do any of those things, allows students to determine the course of any given class, treats young adults like adolescents and would rather be liked than respected. There is huge difference between high school and the college experience. My fear is that we are collapsing the two rather than expanding the distance between these two points.

Do you think American is worth the current price tag?

I think it depends. I think my department and generally the School of Public Affairs are good with genuine opportunities to become very good and perhaps one day excellent. I think the Schools of International Service and Communication are also good with similar prospects for the future. I don't know enough about the business school to offer an opinion. Beyond that, I think the university has much to do to build a reputation as a respected liberal arts institution.

I do not think we help our cause by diminishing the academic component of our undergraduate program, which, based on my observation over twenty years, is something that we've been doing. In college, I never had an internship or a professional-type job. Those came during the summers between my junior and senior years and then the summer after I graduated and before I started my graduate program. College was nothing like I experienced in high school. I was blown away by the resources available to me, the books, magazines and journals out there that I didn't know existed, and professors genuinely animated to teach me something rather than just get through a "lesson plan." Any course syllabus longer than a page and a half was a rarity. Now, I have three pages of rules and regulations outlining a student's responsibilities. I found myself on a steep learning curve to keep up with the sophomores on my first floor I thought were genuine intellectuals. No one I knew talked about Democrats and Republicans; rather, you were an anarchist, a libertarian, a paleo-conservative, a democratic socialist or a Marxist. Students prided themselves on taking the hard professors and escaping with a B. And I attended large state schools, not small, elite private universities. I had a few friends that did, and the stuff they were doing was even more intimidating than what I reading and arguing about. I'm not sure our university offers that experience. Part of the reason for this development is that most of our students, I think, are more interested in the "experiential" component of their "education" than the academic one. And part of it is that a good number of professors are afraid to encourage serious classroom thinking because the students will resist it and then punish them come evaluation time.

So which one were you in college?

I was a democratic socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. My sympathies haven't changed very much but, with old age, my politics have. I can certainly be an airy, abstract professor; but I also have a very pragmatic streak that pulls me towards supporting candidates I believe offer the best chance to advance the causes I think are important.

You're a Democrat, then?

No. I am a registered Democrat in my state. But I do not really find party politics engaging or interesting. During this past election, I gave a small amount of money to Barack Obama's campaign, making this the first time I have ever donated money to a person rather than a cause. I would describe myself as a semi-lapsed democratic socialist who usually votes for Democrats.

You've voted for Republicans?

I have never voted for a Republican. I've sat out races when I found both candidates objectionable. I'm still not sure whether I would have voted for Hillary Clinton had she run against John McCain.

I guess this means you were brainwashed by liberal professors who took their Ph.Ds in the 60s and 70s?

Not at all. Two of my favorite professors were quite conservative. They were phenomenal teachers who demanded that you come to class ready, and I mean ready. I had one professor who gave you two passes a semester. If you weren't prepared the third time he called on you, you just didn't get one of those mysterious marks he would put on the roster in front of him. You had to leave. Another one was just really, really interesting and encouraged students to voice their opinions, especially if they were different than hers. I had some great teachers whose politics were liberal, I suppose, including an economist who was a Marxist. But a professor's opinions, to the extent they came up in class, were never relevant to the learning experience. I have always thought the "bias" argument is among the most ridiculous in higher education. No one is "neutral" about anything. "Fairness" and "neutrality" are not synonymous. No professor should ever punish a student for his or her opinions. Some students, on the other hand, resent someone challenging their views, i.e., their own "bias," and fall back on the persecution argument as a defense mechanism.

Is college different now compared to when you went through?

Yes and no. Certain aspects of college life will always be with us -- the dorm, first apartment and/or group house experience; complaints about the food, financial aid, crazy professors, insufficient nutrition; binge drinking and drugging, etc. College now, though, is much more sophisticated, corporate operation. The level of student services is worlds away from what it was when I was in school. Students, on average, are much more integrated into technology as both a means and an end to managing their daily lives; spend, it seems, much more money on clothes, entertainment and other consumer staples that were luxuries to me. My college wardrobe consisted of what I bought in the summers before I went to school. Not once in four years did I ever go "shopping" for clothes, shoes, etc., during the academic year, nor did anyone I knew. The kids who walked around looking like their mothers and fathers were ridiculed, not emulated. In college, we wanted to distinguish ourselves from high schoolers, yet not try to look too stuffy and grown-up. Things now on that front are very different. I drop my 4th grade daughter off at school in the morning and see girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I attend my son's high school hockey games and I see girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I stand in the lobby after a game and I see their moms wearing Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets; I come to campus and I am SURROUNDED by girls in Ugg Boots and North Face fleece jackets. Way back when, you could distinguish ages by how people dressed. No more. As for the guys, they generally don't give a damn, unless they're in their Pac Sun skater-wannabe phase, like my 9th grade son. At least I don't walk around in Hurley t-shirts and Adio sneakers.

Far more significant, though, is the growing trend in universities, and this one in particular, to dissolve the relationship between professor and student from one that is hierarchical albeit mutually respectful into one that is fundamentally a relationship between equals. The reason that my course syllabi contain so many rules that seem so self-evident is that, many, many years ago, I had students who successfully complained that I wouldn't let them sleep, or do work for other classes, enjoy a steaming hot, three-course lunch, leave to take a cigarette break or get credit for not participating in group projects because the syllabus didn't have rules against of these choices. When I was in school, the assumption was that you just didn't do things unless the professor said you could. Now, the assumption is the reverse -- that can do what you want unless the professor states clearly, in writing, that you can't. This is an unfortunate consequence of treating our students like "consumers" rather than young adults who have chosen to attend college and my (or someone else's) class in particular. Cultivating a sense of entitlement -- you can have what you want because you want it -- is not a lesson we should be teaching our students.

Do you like students?

I love teaching. I like many, if not most, of the students I teach. That said, I would rather teach my students something I think is important than view my courses as a tool to boost my self-esteem. I view my responsibilities as similar to those of a physical therapist or coach. If you want to get better, then listen to me. If you want just to continue on at the same level, then don't. At some point it evens out, if not now, then later. My best students, believe it or not, teach me a great deal. I relish debate with bright minds, and I go out of my way to encourage anyone interested in anything to talk to me.

A lot of students consider you intimidating and think you pick on them.

This is something I have never understood. I am the least intimidating person I know, for the main reason that I have no particularly intimidating qualities. I will talk to any student about anything, and I have given more students than I can count second chances to redeem themselves after screw-ups, some of which were pretty major. Find someone I've given more than one break to and see what he or she says.

If picking on a student is defined as asking a student in class to describe, explain and/or analyze some aspect of an assignment you've given them, or asking them questions intended to make them think about what they've said, or not letting them go forever when it's clear they're just bullshitting, then that says much more about the college environment than me.

How come some students really like you and some really don't?

For the same reason that some people really like Abba and some people really like Thelonious Monk. Everything is a matter of individual taste. Sometimes it takes someone 20 years old a while to learn that a professor you don't "like" is actually pretty good, and a professor you really "liked" really didn't teach you much or push you very hard. Teachers aren't like toasters or other kitchen appliances that can be evaluated somewhat objectively by Consumer Reports.

I've heard you think the student evaluation process is stupid. Do you not think students should have a voice in evaluating their teachers?

Of course I think students should have a voice in the evaluation process of professors. The problem is that American University does not professionally evaluate faculty. The sole measurement is the bubble evaluation that students fill out at the end of each semester. Anything you hear to the contrary is simply not true. No other professionals on campus are subjected to a "process" like this, not staff, not deans, not executive academic officers. I was part of a process to evaluate our current dean over a year ago, and I never saw or heard the outcome of the final evaluation. Moreover, our evaluations are available on-line, reducing us to the same level as a camera or air filter on Amazon ("EvaluationKing, Washington, D.C.: Gee, I wonder if the students that fared poorly in his class or didn't like the workload or didn't like being called on thought he was a good teacher. See more of my evaluations by clicking here."). Strange, isn't it, that we are held hostage by the very same people we are supposed to, at least in theory, receive poor grades for their failure to meet our course standards. Rather than be rewarded for distinguishing competence among our students, we are punished in student evaluations for not giving bad or indifferent students the grades they deserve.

So this is why everyone, it seems, makes an A or a B at American University?

Yes. And it happens in plenty of other places as well. We have moved to a de facto system of pass/fail (A or B/C). Professors want to hold on to their positions or get promoted or, even if full professors like me, not get bogged down in student complaints so they can research and write and engage in other creative projects.

How would you change it?

I think we should go to a pass/fail system and let the standardized tests sort out the graduate applications. And since most of our students are working in internship-type jobs during college, their grades are less and less important in getting a job. Besides, when everyone has a 3.5, the grades don't mean anything. Why do you think the standardized testing industry has grown so much in the last ten years?

Do you think it will change?

No. Universities are bureaucracies, just as all large organizations are. In twenty years here, I have found American University not terribly receptive to change or ideas that do not comport with conventional wisdom. Differences of opinion are often viewed as the equivalent of sedition and not welcomed. To get along, go along.

If we go to a pass/fail system, how will the students know that they've learned anything?

That is up to them. If they want to learn something, they will. If they don't, they won't. No one can make anyone learn anything they don't want to. That's part of becoming an adult -- learning how to form independent judgments and not to look to the person next to you for approval.

Were you a good student in high school?

No. Indifferent at best.

What about college?

Yes. I viewed college as my get-out-of-jail-free card. It was the most profound experience of my life and led me to pursue the path that I did. I learned an incredible amount, found myself, met the best friends of my life, all of whom I still see and talk to on a regular basis and grew up.

Did you consider other careers?

Of course. I thought about law school, journalism, music or going to work for a professional baseball team. Either I didn't like the mechanics of those professions or the odds were just simply too impossible to consider. And I never, ever thought about going into politics in any capacity. I would not trade the career I chose for anything. I am very lucky to do what I do and I know it. My parents worked much harder than I do for much less financially in return.

Do you think professors are underpaid?

Not at all. Like I said, we are very lucky to get paid to pursue interests that for many are hobbies or leisure pursuits. We practice our craft in a comfortable environment largely insulated from the push and pull of the economics of the other world. Anyone who complains about the life of an academic has never had a real job or known anyone who has.

Is it true that you are a professional musician?

Yes and no. I am a professional-level drummer who gets paid to play with other professional musicians in the area and I also lead my own group, Zeebop. I work mostly in the jazz, funk and fusion realms. I have always played music and been around it; I cannot imagine my life without a connection to music. But music is my sideline. I am just very fortunate that I have opportunities to play with excellent musicians and that I get paid on occasion play in public.

Who are your biggest influences as a drummer?

Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Bruford and Phil Collins.

Do people ever say you sound like anyone famous?

Jazz people who hear me play always comment that I "must like Roy Haynes." On the rock and fusion side, Bruford and Phil are in almost every note I play. I never set out to copy anyone and I don't think I do. I guess you are drawn to certain people because they play the way you'd like to if you could. In the end, what people say depends on what they know.

Favorite bands?

The generation gap emerges. After the Beatles, the music I come back to time and time again is Yes, Genesis (from 1970-82), Steely Dan, the Allman Brothers, the Who and the Police. From the post-Stone Age, I think the Dave Matthews Band is great -- the musicianship in that band is simply stunning.

Remember that I'm a jazz person first and foremost. Of the 9,000 or so recordings I own, about 6,500 are closer to jazz than what most people consider rock or popular music. I listen to far too many musicians to have perennial favorites, although I will say that Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Horace Silver dominate my older collection of music; John Scofield, Brade Mehldau, Keith Jarrett (and the Standards Trio), Pat Metheny, the Marsalises (Branford is my favorite), Dave Holland, Weather Report, Michael Brecker and Steve Khan take up more space than many others on the newer side.

If you could play with anyone, who would it be?

Hmm. Bass players: Paul McCartney, Chris Squire and Sting on the rock side; jazz -- Scott LaFaro, Jaco Pastorious, Anthony Jackson, Christian McBride and Ron Carter. Guitarists: Wes Montgomery, Steve Khan, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Steve Hackett. Pianists: Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn, Brad Mehldau and Herbie Hancock (jazz); pop and rock keyboardists -- Tony Banks, Gregg Allman (a very underrated player) and Donald Fagen. I'll leave it at rhythm sections.

I would love to sit in the Steely Dan drum chair for a summer tour. I know the tunes, even the drum solo in "Aja." Donald and Walter, call me. I'm ready. And cheap. Very cheap.

Is it true you were engaged to Sheryl Crow?

I "dated" Sheryl Crow, then Sheryl Crowboff, for 45 minutes during my senior year in college. That's it. I took her to a party and she blew me off.

When and why did you start a blog?

I started my blog in September 2006, the semester I was last on sabbatical. I wanted to practice my writing, something I have always enjoyed doing, on a more regular basis, and blogging seemed the logical way to do it. I have always thought that you cannot get better at anything unless you work at it. And this is one way to do it. I never thought that it would interest, or seem to, as many people as it does, or that a publisher would express interest in publishing a collection of the "better" pieces as a book.

Will that really happen?

Maybe or maybe not.

Do any of your colleagues read your blog?

I suppose some do. But I make no effort to draw attention to it.

What do they think?

I'm not doing it for them or anyone else, so it doesn't matter.

What is your current academic project? When will it be published?

I am currently working on a book that will attempt to show how jazz and blues interacted to promote racial integration during the civil rights-era American South. This will not see the light of day for 3-5 years.

What is the thing that people would find most surprising about you?

You mean things, not thing, right? Let's see . . . I don't like crowds or big parties because (don't laugh) I am somewhat shy and never really think I fit in with everyone else. I like to cook, which, in addition for reasons of self-preservation, I find very interesting. And I am somewhat of a hypochondriac . . . and a pessimist as well. I am not competitive at all, as far as comparing myself to other people. I wish people success in whatever they choose to do, and do not believe that another person's success diminishes whatever I may accomplish. I have certain goals and I want to achieve them. I rarely, however, believe that I do.

What is the most bizzarre excuse you've ever received from a student for missing an exam, class, project, etc.?

Ah, the best for (almost) last. I once received an email from a student telling me she couldn't come to class that day because she slipped and cracked her head open while taking a shower with her boyfriend, who was in town visiting for the weekend.

Is there a piece of advice you ever received worth passing on?

Many. But two that always stick out in my mind are these:

"Quit or get better." I heard Phil Collins tell this to someone waiting in front of me to get his autograph at a local record store in 1978. The stoner was asking for advice how to learn a song that he apparently wasn't learning very well.

"Loyalty begins at the bottom." From an adult friend after I graduated from college, warning me about the perils of life in a large organization.

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