Archive for December, 2010

I assume that I am not the only academic who has wished for time travel (and not just because I want to drive a cooler car or take advantage of the stock market).  Grading a stack of papers today reminded me that it is incredibly easy to manipulate the speed at which time passes.  For example:

  • In order to slow time to a crawl, grade an error-prone student’s essay with the knowledge that there are 25 more waiting for you when you’re done.  Keep an eye on the clock to note that time has, indeed, nearly stopped.
  • In order to accelerate time, take a break to check your e-mail or log onto Facebook.  While you can try to keep an eye on the clock while doing this, you will quickly realize that time has accelerated to the point at which each glance at the clock (seconds apart when grading) reveals the passage of 30 to 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, at this point I have only been able to manipulate the passage of time in the forward direction.  This may be for the best, since I hear there are risks of incest and bleeding ears when traveling backward in time.

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Speaking of grading, you may wonder where you are in the grading process.  If so, here is an outline of the five stages of grading:

And remember that at this time of the semester it is important to watch for signs of Major Procrastination Disorder in yourself and others.

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Of course, by “Celebrating” I mean “mentally preparing for the exhausting task of.”  Though a celebratory drink or two might not hurt the process.  Here are two recent episodes from PHD Comics that allow us to reflect on the most frustrating time of the year:

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Female Science Professor posted today about her reaction to receiving communications via the US Postal Service rather than e-mail.  Through discussions with my students I am increasingly convinced that they see e-mail the same way that I see snail mail.  For example:

You also couldn’t have known that I seldom look in my mailbox anymore. When I do get physical mail, most of it is junk mail. It is quite miraculous that I glanced at my mailbox this week, when I wasn’t expecting anything interesting. In fact, even once I saw that there was something in my mailbox, I almost ignored it, so sure was I that it was not important.


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In some ways, teaching evaluations are the most important reflection of my performance over the course of the past semester.  While the reports of peer evaluators will appear in my tenure file, a one-class observation may not hold as much weight as these 15-minute student responses to a semester’s worth of work.  Setting aside the hotly contested issue of whether student evaluations tell us anything at all about one’s teaching abilities, the fact that we are required to give them and that others are required to look at them leads to the question, as Female Science Professor points out, of when.

To some extent, this is dictated by institutional guidelines.  In grad school I typically made evaluations the last task of the last class period.  Influenced by a professor I had been a graduate assistant for, I also tried to give a brief talk highlighting the progress students had made over the course of the semester that was intended both to wrap up the semester and leave students with positive thoughts about the course before they evaluated it.  Maybe because of this practice, I have always been in favor of end-of-the-semester evaluation administration.

Last year, however, the deadline for evaluations at my new school was a week before the end of the semester, forcing me to rethink my timing.  Without the last day as an option, I had to consider the issues involved.  For example, in order to ensure that all students would be present for the evaluations, it made the most sense to give them on a day that an assignment was due.  Of course, this is related to the questions of whether students will think more negatively about a class after staying up late to complete an assignment and whether it is actually better to give the evaluations on a day that some students miss class, since the students who skip a class close to the end of the semester may not be the best students and, hence, may not give the most positive evaluations.  How would it look, though, if one fifth of a class (5 out of 25) did not take the evaluations?

Because I want to make sure that the students who have been most engaged over the course of the semester complete evaluations, I find myself giving evaluations on days that an assignment is due.  Despite the work they have just put in, my hope is that this is better than giving evaluations when before an assignment is due when they are still feeling the stress of a looming deadline.  In the end, though, I’m not convinced that anything I do will actually make a difference in a given student’s evaluation of my course.  There is a considerable amount of research on student evaluations but unless my scores decrease dramatically I guess I believe that it is better to spend my time preparing good courses than trying to game the system.

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Faculty were discussing connections between language and gender at a recent campus event when one professor professed disdain for the disappearance of the word “one” in formal writing.  “One,” this professor argued, was previously used much more frequently and is, obviously, a gender-neutral way to describe a person.  Another professor mentioned student writing specifically and noted with a laugh that students tend to use “they.”  The laugh seemed to indicate a joke about her students’ lack of grammatical abilities, but in making this joke she seemed to overlook the more profound meaning of her statement.

Whether or not the word “one” was once more common in formal writing (I’ve read enough work by dead social theorists to suspect that “he” was the preferred pronoun in sociology circa 1950), the rise of the singular “they” should not be condemned, it should be embraced.  When professors look down their noses at students they see as poorly trained they are ignoring the fact that these students (and the fluid qualities of language) have effectively solved the problem of awkward “s/he” constructions that have plagued us in the decades since we realized that over half of our society is not, in fact, male.  All we need to do is put down the red pens and let the transition run its course.

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The passing of Thanksgiving means that it is officially Christmas music season.  As noted a year ago, my anticipation for Christmas and the corresponding winter break is directly proportional to how busy I am.  Given my experiences with committee work and advising this semester, I may be looking forward to Christmas as much as I ever have.  One thing that I am not looking forward to, however, is the return of the world’s most offensive Christmas song: The Christmas Shoes.  (If you absolutely must, you can listen to the song here.)

Since you’re wondering how a song about shoes and Christmas can be offensive, allow me to provide some examples from the song’s lyrics.  Let’s start at the beginning:

It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line
Tryin’ to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing ’round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes

His clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe

I can understand the motivation to write a song about a poor kid at Christmas time.  Hell, the little drummer boy was poor.  Poverty, however, does not equal poor hygiene.  Imagine if the little drummer boy said, “I am a poor boy, too, ba rum pum pum pum/and so I smell like poo, ba rum pum pum pum.”

And when it came his time to pay
I couldn’t believe what I heard him say

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there’s not much time
You see she’s been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight

Okay, the poor kid’s mom is on her deathbed (though I thought Jesus was more of a sandals kind of guy).  Actually, her medical bills may explain why the kid is poor.  And, of course, with no mother to bathe him, no wonder the kid is dirty from head to toe (though he does have a dad out there somewhere)…

He counted pennies for what seemed like years
Then the cashier said, “Son, there’s not enough here”
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me
He said Mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me Sir, what am I going to do,
Somehow I’ve got to buy her these Christmas shoes

At this point, you would have to be a huge asshole not to help this kid.  I’m guessing that anybody within earshot would have pitched in.  Of course, those people didn’t, but the songwriter did.

So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out

Wow, this guy is such a hero.  At this point I can’t get the image out of my head of this guy smiling in a self-satisfied way as he helps this dirty poor kid buy some (likely cheap) shoes at Christmas time.

I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said
Mama’s gonna look so great

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there’s not much time
You see she’s been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight

Another Chorus, nothing new here.  Have you ever noticed that most non-rap songs don’t actually have that many words once you get past the endless repeats of the chorus?  Anyway, the worst part of the song is coming up:

I knew I’d caught a glimpse of heaven’s love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about

This is the part that infuriates me.  A dirty poor kid’s mom is dying and has been sick for months if not years.  All of that is okay, though, because as a result of all of the pain and suffering this kid has experienced in his life, and will continue to experience after his mom dies and the medical bills continue to pile up, some self-satisfied songwriter gets to remember what Christmas is all about.  There you have it, folks.  All of the poverty and suffering in the world is a gift from God himself so that those of us who are more fortunate can remember from time to time how good we have it.  That idea is what makes this the world’s most offensive Christmas song.

*Thanks to this website for a transcription of the lyrics so that I didn’t actually have to listen to the song in order to write this.

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