Archive for the ‘Musing about Teaching’ Category

One of the concepts I always had difficulties getting across to undergraduates was the idea of opportunity costs — not how expensive something was in cash terms, but “If you are doing X, you are not doing Y.  What are the consequences or losses associated with not doing Y?”  Not everyone is immediately skilled at shifting between foreground and background, or positive/negative space.

Not doing “Y” could be any number of things.  Not clearing a desk. Not mowing the lawn.  Not paying attention to the news.  Not acting on what you know. All of these things have consequences, and some of those are less trivial than others.

Sometimes there are reasons you can connect the not-done actions to larger things, but not always. Not thinking about retirement because the world is on fire.  Not relaxing in a quiet moment because you’re already contrasting it with the chaos that seems just beyond the next news cycle. Not replacing worn linoleum because you don’t want to know what’s under there. Not discarding an old T-shirt because you’re still amused that it lasted longer than the job where you got it.

“Why are we focusing on what we aren’t doing?” demands a student. “What good is it to spend time listing out all the things we might be doing instead?”

“Because it reminds us that what we are doing is a choice.  It reminds us that there might be other options.  There might be a different way…”

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Dar Williams used to make regular visits to the Concerts Under the Stars; maybe she still does?  Maybe that venue is too small now.  But as the days lumber through the summer haze towards the end of August, when the spines of new books get cracked open, and new backpacks creak with the weight, I think of this particular song, and the flash of stagelight on her guitar.


Of course, this scene is nothing like a dark humid evening in Pennsylvania!  That’s the edge of a completely different section of the country, with the unfamiliar as far as my eyes could see.  The light might be spun to gold; I don’t know.  It might as well be the Moon…

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“Some clues that will indicate if a child is dyslexic are when they can’t help but to notice that their peers are doing better than they are.”


“The poem began with him setting the stage by describing the weather that night, a very rainy, windy, stormy night.”

Let’s look at a kitty instead.  Here is a fine kitty, complete with presentation box:


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Almost exactly one year ago, I was in a meeting in which I listened to decent people try to work around a requirement that was supposed to have been helpful.  I grumble periodically about how students seem not to understand the system in which they are supposed to be striving and thriving, but it’s no more pleasant to watch at the next levels up — where grad students, post docs, and professors are each in their own ways swimming around increasingly large aquaria wondering why the food isn’t showing up where it used to, or wondering why the Universe has decreed that these are the only decorations allowed in the tank.Taken from a Dover images Friday Sampler

How can we swim, so that the currents are in our favor?  How can we align ourselves so our scales flash most brilliantly, or we hide most effectively from the budget-cutting sharks?  Eliot groused in Prufrock that perhaps it was better to be a “pair of ragged claws” scuttling across the ocean floor.

A year ago I thought: “I think I’m better off developing lungs and climbing the hell out.”

So I’ve been climbing….. (To confirm this for your own quest for lungs, air, and freedom, here are some additional examples)

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But I am fried, and tired of looking at what is slowly blurring into a Jello(R) salad of bright moments and horrific vagueness.

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I’ve heard the word “authentic” thrown around as a goal since creative writing classes in college.  And one of the disturbing things about that class was discovering that dialogue well-nigh transcribed from actual events was not viewed as “authentic”.  So I have some sympathy for people who think that literary authenticity calls for some artifice, and can be amused by the comic strip Cat and Girl, where people who appeal to “the authentic” have to put coins in a jar, as if they were cursing in a household getting ready to have children.

It used to matter that luxury goods had all their hallmarks, so you could tell that x amount had really been spent to acquire an article of taste.  But for all the lawsuits of the genuine owners of copyright and producers of those snakeskin shoes or leather purses, or phallus-compensating wristwatches…….there are plenty of people eager to display the fakes and boast about the money they’re saving.  On the one hand, how exclusive is something that’s mass produced anyway? On the other hand, of course, we now have people trying to fake bespoke items, since that’s seen as the next new dragon to chase.

Authentic. The Real Deal. Exclusive. One of a kind. [I will point out that a great portion of the items proudly listed as OOAK should probably not have ever been even that widely available.  See Regretsy.com for details]. Original. Insightful. “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” as Pope wrote.

Then we have this creature, who spliced together a “novel” of some sort, claiming it to be her own reflections on life:

The notion that there might be a new model young person, who freely borrows from the vortex of information to mash up a new creative work, fueled a brief brouhaha earlier this year with Helene Hegemann, a German teenager whose best-selling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others.

Instead of offering an abject apology, Ms. Hegemann insisted, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”   — Trip Gabriel, New York Times: “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age”

Okay, then you’re an authentic thief and a twit.  Happy now?  It seems to me that art culture — where people in the community are trained to read the influences in the works of art presented to them — is ahead of the game.  So is the culture of jazz: again, people are supposed to know the source texts and be able to appreciate the interplay of themes and variations.  When I learned the sounds of American song from the 20th century and learned a bit about patterns of variation, I could finally listen to jazz and not think of it as theme abuse. [I still, however, cannot stand listening to much Billie Holiday].

But what seems to be working for some visual and aural genres isn’t apparently working in textual domains.  Sometimes we attribute it to laziness, or sloppy thinking… I also think its a kind of dress-up — borrowing the pelts of powerful creatures out in the wild, hoping to camouflage themselves as adepts.  My response is often “Put that word down; you don’t know where it comes from!”  The more labor intensive version is to insist all references used are submitted with highlighting, as if part of a regulatory dossier.  It takes forever to get through the stuff, but it’s not a solution that can be scaled up easily.

Having said all that — I really ought to be illustrating this post with a picture of “real” peaches, the kind that make me believe there’s a reason for growing the things and then eating them.  We were up north at the end of last week, and managed to stop at a family orchard where a big basket of “seconds” was only $4.00, and contained at least 14 giant, incredibly ripe and juicy peaches.  We were dubious about the “seconds” billing — not the fruit wasn’t good, but that it looked too good to be in the bargain section.  “Seconds?  Really?”

The woman behind the counter loading baskets laughed. “Yes.  They’re really good though — those are the ones we eat!”  We could easily see why.  Let the outsiders desire perfection in appearance if they’re so willing to pay for that.

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I love it when students realize that what I’m teaching them about arguments, belief, and consequences actually applies to Real Life. The crash of the US economy made many a skeptical student see that persuasion and belief has a larger role on ‘real’ things — business, money, power — than they initially were willing to accept.  Students also sometimes put together what my piano teacher told me about her experience of reading financial magazines instead of keyboard-focused journals: Business people may think they are acting on the basis of numbers or logic, but there’s just as much feeling and hunch-playing as in the arts.

One student, in a classroom full of liberal arts majors, said, “People bought these derivatives because they believed this was a sure thing.  And other people believed that house prices would always go up, and people believed them… And that’s why we’re in all this trouble?  People just stopped believing?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And that was rhetoric, right?”

“Yes. People were persuaded to believe something, and they acted on it. It wasn’t a matter of concrete ‘proof.’”

“But the business people think that theatre and humanities aren’t as ‘real-world’ as what they do!”

The class was now buzzing with side comments, some more indignant than others. I just smiled. “And what do you think now?”

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More studies need to be conducted involving [this fish] in order to
determine whether or not PCBs had an effect on it putting
cause for more research in the future.

The fish were unavailable for comment.  I just slapped a grade on the document and moved on to the next logical disaster…

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One student to another: “Damn, I think she wrote more here than we did!”

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This site takes me back to morning classes in grad school, watching Brynleo simultaneously lecture and rescue a moth off his pantsleg and set it free out the window:

Ed Laboureaux’s Rhetorical Resources

How does it all play in Peoria, Ed?

Also:  Hate Blackboard.  Hates it hates it hates it…

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