Archive for December, 2011

I’ve had a few conversations with a student friend lately about her experiences at a Christian High School. She criticized aspects of the curriculum that included paper assignments like “Discuss why Islam is wrong. Use bible verses.” As she pointed out, using one religion’s sacred text to disparage another religion is problematic, but what I found most interesting about an assignment like that is that it requires students to: 1) know something about Islam, and 2) support an argument with evidence. Some public school students probably make their way through high school without either of these things. Subsequently, this student won the made-up award (what award isn’t made up?) for “best use of bible verses” in a paper exploring religiosity and attitudes toward medicine.

As an aside, biblegateway.com is apparently a good place to find bible verses, though it is apparently easier if you already know something about the bible – my searches for things like “procrastination” turn up nothing but a more experienced person can find things like this:

But about going further [than the words given by one Shepherd], my son, be warned. Of making many books there is no end [so do not believe everything you read], and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

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Despite the fact that I often complain about students, I would like to recognize one of my favorite aspects of having the same students multiple semesters in a row: the ability to witness student improvement. Once in a while, somebody that I know as a C-student will come into a second or third semester with me and will suddenly say things indicating that he or she has done the reading and then use this information on quizzes, papers, and exams. When I noted an increase in a particular student’s class participation from the previous semester, the student replied, “I know, I stepped up my game.” As a professor, I love seeing students step up their game. These situations also remind me, however, that this is something that a student has to want to do and that these increased efforts have little or nothing to do with me.

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In order to watch some SNL clips on Hulu this morning I had to sit through the following commercial several times (spoiler alert! you are about to get dumber):

This is apparently a recent update of a “classic” Folgers commercial from the 1980s (available below). In an effort to make it at least somewhat academically relevant I will say that this may be what happens when children are able to go through our entire educational system without learning anything other than how to take a multiple-choice tests and then those same children are given jobs in ad agencies. Let’s take a look at some of the problems, “Christmas Shoes“-style:

A cab pulls up to a house and a guy gets out. A girl runs from the window to greet him at the door, where he says, “I must have the wrong house.”

So far, so good.  The guy has been away from home for a long time and the girl has gotten older. This is believable. The next line is not:

The girl gives a strange thumbs up (possibly pointing at herself, possibly not) and says, “sister!” before giggling.

What? This line is completely unnecessary and, beyond that, confusing, since it makes no sense for the girl to say “sister!” upon greeting her brother. Let’s take a look at what happens next:

Siblings hug and the girl says “I missed you so much.” As they walk into the kitchen she tells the guy that she waited up all night for him.

Did she not have his flight schedule? Now she is going to have to cut her reunion with the brother she has not seen in weeks, months, or years short in order to take a mid-morning nap. Also, she doesn’t look like somebody who has been up all night. On to the next non sequitor:

The guy says “It’s a long way from West Africa,” as he walks into the kitchen. Then he leans over a coffee pot and says, “Ohhh, coffee.”

So he has been in West Africa for some reason, most likely to establish the fact that he had a long trip (yet he travels with only a backpack that says “Volunteer”). They apparently do not have coffee in West Africa, because he just showed the coffee his o-face.

The guy pours the coffee, which wakes up his parents who are upstairs in bed.

Clearly, coffee does not give off an aroma until it is poured.

The parents get out of bed and start to head downstairs.

This leaves the siblings with very little time to flirt before their parents interrupt them. They make the most of it.

He says, “I brought you something from far away.” The girl, now sitting on the kitchen counter, laughs and says, “really?”

No, not really. He probably picked it up at the airport this morning.

The brother reaches into his backpack and hands her a small box with a red bow on top.

Is that wrapping paper West African?

She looks at him adoringly, takes off the bow and sticks it on his shoulder. He laughs awkwardly and asks, “What are you doing?”

If this was a movie (romantic comedy or porn, take your pick), they would start making out at this point. It is a commercial, though, so the awkwardness continues:

The girl looks at him and says, “You’re my present this year.” He looks back at her, reminding himself that she is both very young and his sister. He is no doubt relieved when the parents come in and give him a hug.

Seriously, there is way too much sexual tension between these siblings, which I suppose could also make for an awkward hug between mom and son.

“The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.”

Not, you know, your son coming home from West Africa. I imagine, though, that Folgers would be better than finding your thirty-year-old son and fifteen-year-old daughter making out in the kitchen.

On the whole, it seems as though Folgers gave an ad agency their 1980s commercial and asked them to update it for modern times where people volunteer in West Africa and are more open to incestual statutory rape. (Or maybe the ad was produced by manatees.) I really don’t see why Folgers didn’t just do a shot-for-shot remake of the original commercial, which had none of these problems:

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As I’ve noted before, I periodically give my students quizzes in an attempt to convince them to do the reading. Whether or not they know the answers, these quizzes occasionally provide me with a bit of humor or artwork, which is always appreciated when moving through a pile of otherwise unexciting quizzes. The other day a student provided me with what I have dubbed the “SLACer Quiz of the Year.” (Look for a writeup in your local paper, since this award is at least as important as anything given by JD Power or Ward’s.)

To give you some background, this quiz consisted of three questions and the student responding is a good student with which I’ve developed rapport over several semesters. In other words, the student is not a jerk and the quiz was intended to be humorous, not pompous. With that said, the responses (the questions don’t matter):

  1. I believe in a world where professors will no longer give students pop quizzes when they do not want them, but instead only give students grades based on their Awesomeness.
  2. If this system of awesomeness was in effect today, I would receive an A+ just by walking in the door.
  3. If you agree with my proposal, please give me a 0/3 on this quiz.

Request granted (and a much better way to get zero points than something like this).

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Brad Koch recently posted about the difficult balance between professor and friend, even at a liberal arts school.  While I didn’t attend a liberal arts school, by the end of my undergraduate years I considered myself to be relatively close to my mentor, who frequently took me to lunch as we discussed research projects or graduate school options.  Also, as I’ve noted before, I invited students in the classes I taught as a graduate student to call me by my first name.  (While I don’t do this now, the more frequent contact that I have with repeat students in my classes and those who frequently work in a computer lab near my office have led to students calling me all kinds of things.)  Despite the increased opportunities for talking with students I have found a number of barriers to true friendship.

The primary factor is that professors and students adopt particular roles in their interactions with each other.  While we might know a lot about students’ intellectual lives, we often know very little about their personal lives (including basic things like whether or not they smoke).  These barriers can erode over time as we hear students talking to each other about drinking, parties, and relationships before class but this doesn’t change the fact that the person we are making a judgment about possibly befriending is not an actual person but an idealized version focused on academics.

The other side of this is that faculty members withhold information about themselves in order to foster a sense of objectivity in the classroom.  As a rule I do not discuss my personal religious or political views with students and before I was marked by a wedding ring I was also hesitant to discuss being heterosexual (though I hope that someday this indicator will be blurred by equality).  The parts of ourselves that we keep from each other prevent us from discussing the things that are at the basis of many friendships.  Overhearing students talking about drunken hookups or all-night study sessions reminds me that although I was once a student, I (thankfully) no longer inhabit their world.  Similarly, most of my students are about ten years away from inhabiting my world.

None of these things make it impossible to connect with students over lunch, or even a beer, but they make it very difficult to truly be their friends.  Although I have not had any off-campus contact with any of my current students, I was invited to (and attended) several game nights with former students when I was a graduate student.  At the time, the social distance was slightly reduced (they were seniors, I was 27 or 28) and there was no chance of them having another class with me.  Still, I approached these encounters with a sort of detached amusement.  By this I mean that I ate dinner with them, laughed with them about their college-student troubles, and shared small tidbits about my own life when appropriate but largely felt like an outside observer.

When interacting with my current students outside of class I still largely feel this way.  This doesn’t mean that we could never become friends if some of them graduate and stay in the area, just that the transition is much more likely to occur when a number of the current boundaries have resolved themselves.

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Sociological Images’ link to the graphic below from Endless Origami reminded me of a thought I had the other day when I overheard students discussing group projects: students don’t like group projects because group projects force them to deal with other students.  They often seem content to do things in a half-assed way when dealing with their professors, but they do not care for others doing things in a half-assed way when dealing with them.  If only they would learn something from the experience…

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Another year, another holiday season, and another chance for me to reiterate that “The Christmas Shoes” is the world’s most offensive Christmas song.

To cleanse your eardrums, please enjoy the perfect mix of holiday emotions (equal parts happiness and sadness, hope and despair) that are captured in “Christmas Time is Here.”

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