Thursday, January 29, 2009

Voices inside my head

Years ago I remember seeing the Gary Larson cartoon to the right, and thought it was about the funniest thing I had ever seen in such a small space. Funny because I remembered, as a child, having "conversations" with my dog that never seemed to go anywhere. Funny because I have watched more people than I can possibly count "talk" to their dogs, sometimes appearing to believe that the dog is actually bi-lingual. No, no . . . the dog isn't responding to commands, sounds, context and a reward system or any of the other techniques that dogs are taught in obedience school. It's as if the dog, not the owner, went to Pet Smart and asked one of the clerks -- I'm sorry; I mean "Team Member Associate Customer Service Representative Litter Box Specialist Trainee -- where she could buy the "Hooked On Phonics CD" so that she and her owner could work on their communication skills. Yes, indeed . . . no more wondering what the other one is saying or hearing to such commands as "Ruff, ruff, grrrrrr, ruff, ruff, ruff" or "stop humping Aunt Zelda's leg unless you feel like popping for a trip to Florida -- in season." From that point forward it's, "I hear what you're saying about Aunt Zelda and I will give her the space she needs." A closed caption scroll will emerge from a special digital chip placed in the dog's body that will translate the "ruff, ruff, ruffs" into meaningful words, like, "I really, really need to pee, so please take me outside before I embarrass myself," or "Can I have the rest of your roast beef sandwich. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

I could be wrong about all this. It's been 26 years since I last owned a dog -- that during my first year in graduate school, when I thought the adorable but semi-literate half-Irish setter half-Lab I adopted three weeks before the term began would make a great conversation starter with women. I'd take it to campus because I'd already learned that my dog didn't take to "alone time" very well, electing to destroy my modest apartment rather than guard it from intruders or bill collectors. And a conversation starter it was:

"Ooh, you're dog is so cute," I'd hear. "Do you know if you're roommate is dating anyone?"

"What a cute dog! I'll walk it for you if you introduce me to your roommate."

So you can see where this is going. I got rid of the dog and kept the roommate -- needed the money. And my roommate kept his all-time favorite Wingman.

* * * * * * * * *

College students don't look, smell or dress like dogs, except when they're hungover or trying to make it through exam week or survive some other usually self-induced crisis. But sometimes, eve after almost twenty years of doing this, I don't think that professors and students are speaking the same language. I go to great pains in my course syllabus to make the terms and conditions of my class as clear as possible. I always take a minute at the beginning of class to ask my students if they have any questions about anything, from whether the books are available in the bookstore to whether anyone has attempted to reproduce the accounts of my class without the express written consent of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. And, inevitably, no matter what I write, say, announce, bellow, scream or sign -- even nicely -- I still get these looks from relatively bright people suggesting anything from bewilderment, anger, "oh, really," to "WTF?" You can even break them down into categories.

The Hair Twirlers and Eaters: I can say anything to these students, from "Do you think Justice Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence is persuasive enough to overturn Bowers?" to "I'm contemplating leaving class right now and road-tripping up to Hershey Park. Who's in?" And this is what they hear:

"Like, OMG, like, OMG, whatever, my hair tastes, like, soooooooo good, and it twirls, like, I don't know, licorice or something? If I smack my gum long and loud enough, maybe I can get it in my hair and that would be, like, so gross and I'd have to, like, leave class and go fix it or whatever." Smack, smack, smack. Twirl, twirl, twirl. Yum yum, yum -- that hair sure is good.

The Sports Guy: Hat on backwards, displaying his favorite team, dressed like he just cashed in his Sports Authority gift card from Christmas, this one doesn't really hear much of anything. Slouched in the back, given to knowing glances across the room to other sports guys that say, "Yeah, man this guy's a boring asshole, but what are you going to do (knowing laugh or smirk). Dude, he's a total dick, I mean what kind of loser thinks Federalist 10 is exciting. I wonder if he's ever been outside in his life." Nothing, and I mean nothing you say to Sports Guys clicks. These guys are killing time between re-runs of Sports Center.

The Breather: No gender distinction here. The Breather is a student who is very, very sure of his or herself, and generally believes the professor is out to get him or her. For example, I say this:

"Is there an argument that Roe v. Wade is no more activist than Marbury v. Madison? Didn't both cases require the justices to give meaning to clauses or implied powers about the Constitution that were not explicitly set out in the text?"

After making a significant shift in body weight, usually accompanied by a slammed pen or pencil on the desk, the Breather is making it clear that, first, the statement I have just made is conspiratorial, the product of a red diaper upbringing or the first stages of a plot launched in what Breathers refer to as the "faculty lounge" (although no such place exists at American University). How do I know? Because the first thing I hear from the Breather is, well, a very, very, VERY LOUD sigh that, translated, means:

"You've got to be fucking kidding me, you wimpy liberal piece of shit who has probably never had a real job and paid taxes (guilty to the first charge; not guilty to the second) so of course you believe in all this namby-pamby bullshit you're saying."

Breathers like to tap their fingers on their desk, one-by-one, like a parent waiting for a "good answer" from a teenager who has just done something really stupid. Breath all you want, Breathers. Just make sure to brush your teeth before coming to class.

The Know-It-All: These students listen less than anyone because they're just waiting for their turn to talk. I'm convinced that the Know-It-Alls are frustrated contestants from "Name That Tune" or some other game show where the guest who believes he or she knows the answer to a question gets to interrupt the host. In college, in goes something like this:

Me: "Let's take a moment to look at what Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in his Dickerson opinion so . . ."

Know-It-All: Miranda v. Arizona was decided in 1966. Rehnquist wasn't on the court. That was Sandy Koufax's last season. The Beatles released "Revolver" and played their last concert at Candlestick Park. My Dad was a Beatle and my mother became pregnant through Jimi Hendrix but decided not to continue her pregnancy. The square root of 81 is 9. And . . ."

Me: ". . . and I don't give a shit. But thanks for sharing."

Know-It-All: "You're against me. You're biased. You favor other students."

This is what I'm thinking: "I am against you because you're being obnoxious. I am biased in favor of students who don't feel compelled to show off about things they don't know. And I favor students who listen and ask good questions."

This what I say: "I am against you because you're being obnoxious. I am biased in favor of students who don't feel compelled to show off about things they don't know. And I favor students who listen and ask good questions."

I don't know why students do this. I actually write on my syllabus that you should contribute only if you have something meaningful to say and only if you have read the assignment. And yet . . . . and yet, the Know-It-All feels compelled to interrupt and share, interrupt and share, interrupt and share. Not even students like Know-It-Alls . . . not even the Hair Eaters and Twirlers, some of whom are tempted, I think, to take off one of their 4" stiletto heels and hurl it towards the Know-It-All. But they've wisely concluded that a Jimmy Choo is wasted on people like this.

The Non-Violent Resister: This is an interesting one. Of all the students I've described so far, these students are usually well-intentioned and generally keep to themselves in a non-offensive way. But something just doesn't sink in, say, on the texting, eating or sleeping bans in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I teach classes about civil rights, political theory and other subjects where we read about people who stood up to power and forced change, usually for the better. We read about non-violent resistance, about taking claims through the courts rather than battlefield. "Wow!" some of these students seem to think. "If Rosa Parks can stand up to white segregationists in 1955; if Ishmael Jaffree can fight the forces of the Mobile, Alabama authorities on prayer in the public schools, then I can just do what I want, even quietly, because I'm battling injustice."

Here is some direct language from my syllabus:

Please turn off your cell phones and all other electronic devices before you come to class.

You may not use a tape recorder, personal digital assistant or personal computer in class. Any student who fails to comply with this rule will be dismissed from class. Students with documented disabilities requiring the use of such assistance must see the instructor for an exemption to this rule.

Do not bring food to class. You may bring and consume a non-alcoholic beverage. Any student who fails to comply with this rule will receive a warning for a first offense and be dismissed from class for a second offense.

Okay, this may sound kind of harsh, but that's not the point. The point is to communicate to students that we will treat our time as if we were in a real office somewhere for the 75 minutes they're in my classroom. No matter how nice the weather, Chief Justice John Roberts isn't likely to grant an advocate's wish to have oral argument outside. Or shrug off an advocate who responded, "Sorry, I have to take this call" or starting texting during an exchange between an advocate and a justice -- even a liberal one.

Instead, I might say to a student, "Do you plan to eat that croissant in class?" Here are some of the answers I've received"

"Does a croissant count as food?"
"I thought as long as I was quiet it would be cool."
"I'm really hungry."
"I need to eat raisins because I need the fiber." (TMI)
"This won't take long." (What, like a flu shot or unusual sexual request?)
"My other professors let me eat in class."

On the phone/text/computer issue:

"I didn't know what time it was."
"Oh, that was just my mom."
"My roommate wanted to make sure I got up."
"My other professors let me text in class."
"I can't read my writing."
"I promise I won't email in class." (Does this mean you'll only play solitaire?)

It isn't that the student doesn't understand me. It's just passive defiance, just a "oh, you can't be serious about this." Imagine things if we shifted the relationship.

"Oh, I forget to tell you I decided to include material on the midterm I didn't announce in class."
"Do you mind if I call my wife while you're trying to talk to me?"
"Does a Scotch and water count as a non-alcoholic beverage?"

* * * * * * * * * *

What we say to students: "Please come to class prepared having eaten breakfast, cleared you calendar with your mom, broken up with your girlfriend and filed your nails."

What students hear: "Ruff, ruff, ruff, (enter student's name here), ruff, ruff, ruff."


Daniel said...


Rob Kimball said...

that cartoon is great, but I prefer this one (another Far Side, but this time from the other point of view). Anyone who's had a dog (especially a dopey retriever) will understand this immediately

Mariano Heller said...

Hi professor Ivers.

Great Blog!

A couple of things about voices in your head.

In the course I´m teaching at the University of Buenos Aires´Law School I hear some of the same voices. May be it´s because as you know I basically stole on of your AU courses "landmark law cases".

But I can add another voice that keeps me bothering, specially with the know it all´s. They have an annoying tendency to overpronounce when they speak in english!!! why do they do that????!!!! I think it´s probably a way to try to impress me. I hate it....!

Anyway, I remembered how much fun I had in your class (great experience to take a course with undergrads) and just wanted to say hi. Once again I must tell you. Come to argentina!....You´ll have a lot of fun....will drink one of the best wines in the world and will probably start to understand why soccer (actually football)is the most popular sport in the whole universe.