Friday, May 29, 2009

Welcome To My World II

Two pieces for your consideration today. Please read each one entirely, they will make up 50% of your next exam.

1) Pedagogy of the Oppressor by Sol Stern, City Journal Spring 2009, discussing the Marxist (Maoist) roots of some aspects of student-centered learning. I'm not dissing the need to engage students, but I have seen the extremes and the extremes are rapidly becoming the norm, especially in public schools and education departments. Even Mrs. Mojo had to read this sort of stuff before she could teach at a private school. Stern makes a huge point near the end, where he talks about the irony of places like China and Cuba (I'd add Soviet-era Russia as well) not using this approach:

There’s no evidence that Freirian pedagogy has had much success anywhere in the Third World. Nor have Freire’s favorite revolutionary regimes, like China and Cuba, reformed their own “banking” approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined, and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals—and the production of more industrial managers, engineers, and scientists. How perverse is it, then, that only in America’s inner cities have Freirian educators been empowered to “liberate” poor children from an entirely imagined “oppression” and recruit them for a revolution that will never come?

2) "Texans Are Stupid" and Other Lessons from the Public Schools. NAS, May 28, 2009 by Elena Callas. No, that's not the main point of the article (and I'd refute it THUS!). Students can be very bright and self-motivated ("actuated" is the current jargon, IIRC), but the majority are almost entirely rewards-motivated and hyper-rational to a fault when it comes down to behavior. Any behavior that might upset that person holding The Red Grading Pen of Doom is naturally avoided, and adopting more pleasing postures becomes the norm.

I will leave it to the actuated among you to appreciate today's juxtapositioning of selections.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day Thoughts

Memorial Day is May 31 in the original, but I feel that date has too much hoopla already, so I am reasonably OK with the "let's make a long weekend of it" crowd. However, we must never forget the intent of the commemoration. And to that end I find myself borrowing from Lincoln, and ironically from Vonnegut, and even from myself:

We can neither dedicate, nor consecrate, nor hallow this day. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled in places like the Ardennes, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sahn, Fallujah --they have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. We may vehemently disagree as to the justice of their causes, but we cannot question the devotion of those souls who gave their all because they believed. Pro patria may be among the saddest words, and we are right to pause whenever we consider sending our loved ones into harm's way and even into the long night. But we know the dark depths of despair and loss only through contrast with the joys those who have gone on would bid us have, because they DID give all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Professor Mojo's REAL Spring Break

--or Late Spring Break, as the case may be. It's the down-time between spring and summer terms, and I have about three weeks of Time To Get Things Done. Naturally, Mrs. decreed that Mondays and Tuesdays would be Daddy/Daughter Time so that we could save two days of child care, which leaves me three days a week to Get Things Done.

I'm not averse to hard work; it is long been known that I can work like a man possessed when the inclination befalls. It helps that I made a long list of Chores, Rat Killings and Honey-Do's for myself, so that I give the appearance of being productive while actually goofing off. Of course, my definition of "goofing off" frequently involves doing chores that I feel need doing but may in reality be quite far down the priorities list. Example: picking vegetables in the garden is an activity that I disguise as a "chore" because in reality I spend a lot of time hiding from work in the garden.

Sometimes chores have to get done in spite of other chores. I had to build a log crib this week and get the firewood off the patio, but I was on Daddy Duty early in the week. Thus, Wee One got her morning walk in by running (supervised) from one end of The Orange Temple of Doom to the other and back while Daddy figured out what lumber and braces he needed. The amazing part was that I got the truck unloaded, the rack drilled and bolted together and moved to its spot, and the whole cord of wood transported from the patio to the crib --all in the space of Nap Time.

Some of my "chores", however, cannot be disguised as anything other than Me Time. Prime case in point: getting the boat started. I forgot (never again!) to put fuel stabilizer in the tank back in November, and so it took me forty-five minutes of cranking, resting and recranking to get the engine to turn over and stay running. I keep reminding myself that the best solution is to take the boat out once a month, no matter the weather, but that isn't always possible. Even so, all that goes by the wayside the second I get the engine to stay turned over and give it the gas and let out that first almighty bwrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRAAARRRRRRRPPPPPPP-B-B-B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-putt-putt-putt-putt of the year. The smell of two-cycle oil in the engine smoke: God's way of letting me know he wants me to go fishing, and that Right Soon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

FIRE - The Danger of Speech Codes

FIRE - The Danger of Speech Codes:

Yesterday, we received an e-mail from a Vanderbilt University student criticizing our rating of Vanderbilt because she does not feel that her right to free speech at Vanderbilt is limited, in spite of a sexual harassment policy that prohibits "Remarks or jokes that denigrate because of gender" and "[i]nappropriate or offensive behavior that is not necessarily threatening, but usually produces feelings of discomfort in the person toward whom it is directed." More generally—and I will touch on this only briefly here, as this important issue will be the subject of its own blog—this e-mail reveals how a lifetime of censorship and misinformation about free speech has affected the student population. This student further writes:

Many of my male friends make gender-related comments and jokes all the time. I don't see that as sexual harassment. Neither would Vanderbilt because I am not complaining about it. However, if I did feel uncomfortable, I am glad to know that I can take advantage of my rights by telling someone, and I know that the offender will face consequences. This person should face consequences, according to the Bill of Rights, because my right to the pursuit of happiness would be hindered. Thus, the Student Handbook is merely trying to protect our rights by making sure others do not abuse their right of free speech. [Emphasis added.]

Oh. Dear. Sweet. Lord. If this is what passes for undergraduate education at Vandy, I'm crossing it off the list of Acceptable Colleges East Of The Mississippi For The Wee One. I'll give that student $100 if she can specifically cite where in the Bill of Rights it spells out "pursuit of happiness." And, channeling Katt Williams, "Go on, I'll wait...!"

If education is about making sure no one gets offended, then God save those dunderheads when real enemies show up. You know, like the thugs who show up at Iranian student protests who beat unarmed students in the name of defending ...whatever version of their religion they claim to represent. They're offended, too, ya know...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Threat Received Over...Opera????

Threat Received Over Opera:

The organizers of the second annual Opera Vista Festival suspected one of their featured operas would draw controversy. But when an anonymous letter threatening the founders of the Nova Arts Project arrived at founding director Amy Hopper's doorstep, she realized the show had potential to ignite a firestorm.

"We received this letter that was all about ignorance and hate, and that's the whole point of this opera -- to confront ignorance and hate. It makes it even more important to tell the story," Hopper said.

The opera is "Edalat Square," one of two works that won Opera Vista's inaugural festival competition in 2007 (think "American Idol" for opera composers). Written by Atlanta-based composer R. Timothy Brady, the opera recounts the true story of Mahmoud Asgari, 17, and Ayaz Marhoni, 16, who were hanged in Iran in 2005 for the crime of lavaat, or sex between two men. Brady was inspired by the story to craft a poetic work that offers an unblinking look at bigotry, but is also prayerful and mystical, said Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director and co-founder of Opera Vista.

I'm on good terms with one of the directors of Opera Vista, so this sort of hits home. I may not be a huge fan of modern opera, but I'm from the "organize a boycott" school of protest, not the "let's stone them for blasphemy" school. Once you allow a heckler's veto, the slippery slope gets steeper.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How I Catch Cheaters In Class (When I'm At Home In My Smoking Jacket)

In this post, I lament the lack of student writing ability and the temptation to cheat: "[t]hat’s why I have to tailor my essay questions so that you can’t simply Google or Wiki the answer —in fact, the last two plagiarism cases I’ve handled involved straight pasting from Wikipedia. "

That doesn't mean they don't try. It happened again just this past week. My final exam involves reading Killer Angels by Michael Sharaa and answering (among other things) the question, "Why was Robert E. Lee the wrong commander for the South at Gettysburg?" And lo, while I was reading some student's essay, I came across this sentence: "The battle proved the mettle of the Army of the Potomac while ruining the vaunted offensive potential of Lee's army."

The key word in the sentence is "mettle." It is not a word most college students use (correctly, at any rate). That's why most students screw up when they Google something: they fail to take into account their own use of language. I did a text search and saw that the sentence came from this article, which is actually a pretty good piece in and of itself.

However, the article did not directly address my question of why Lee was the wrong man in early July 1863 --a good answer would address the psychological and other factors at play in Sharaa's version. (Remember, I'm also seeing if the students actually did the assigned reading.) And there's the other big thing that usually tips me off when a student is Plooglarizing (plagiarizing using Google): when I see a well-written essay that only marginally answers the question that I ask, it's usually a hint that it came from someplace else.

Finally, I compared the article with the student's essay and concluded that the bulk of the student's essay was a verbatim cut/paste of the materials in the article --the very essence of plagiarism. Had the student done some careful tailoring --not just changing vocabulary but shortening sentences, doing summarization and editing for length --I might have been taken in. There's an expression for getting information, identifying the essential elements and putting the results into your own words: doing honest work.

And therein lies the irony. I wouldn't have said a mumbling word had the student jumped through that many hoops, because a) that's just as much work as starting from scratch, and b) the act of a student preparing an essay is an exercise of higher-order thinking, and if the student can pull all that off then such thinking has clearly been demonstrated and the material mastered so I've done my job on some level. Few students can do that without a hitch, and those who are smart enough to do it usually take the path of least resistance and actually write the pieces themselves.

I confronted the student personally. "The real tragedy here is that you are this close to passing the course honestly --or were, at any rate." And then I threw out a lifeline: "But I'm going to give you a sporting chance. Rewrite this entire piece in your own words, shortening it to five paragraphs, and answer the main parts of my question. Oh, and include two hundred handwritten lines of this sentence: 'I will not copy my essays word-for-word from Google.' Otherwise I bust you. And I will check to make sure that's your handwriting and not someone else's. See what cheating did to your reputation? I have to check every little thing you do --and so will every other prof you ever take if you don't do it and I have to record that you failed my course for cheating."

Yes, that very last part was a bluff. I know already that cheating isn't as serious as it used to be. But I got my new essay, plus some handwritten lines and a nice apology.

--and yes, I just now invented a new verb: to plooglarize. I claim credit, call dibs, and let fly my loudest YAWP! that I made this up this morning drinking coffee. [It's not showing up on Google, at any rate...]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Texas Governor Rick Perry Is Being A Hypocrite

Governor Perry opposes the expansion of gambling in Texas, ostensibly because many Texans are against it.

Perhaps, then, he should explain why he took over three-quarters of a million dollars from Native American gambling interests based in Oklahoma. (Source: here) If you're against gambling, Governor, why do you accept money from gambling interests, especially out-of-state ones?

Aggies do not lie, cheat or steal; nor do they tolerate those who do. But lucky for him, hypocrisy is in that gray area, so he can wear his Ring with pride. (I'm c/o '90, Governor, and if you want to sit there and tell me that you and your Yell Leader buddies never once played cards in the dorms, you go right ahead.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Donald Trump

1) Given The Trump's predilection for obnoxious blondes (Ivana, Marla), is it any surprise why Joan Rivers beat Annie Duke? Annie, I have total respect for your graduate work and playing abilities, and you of all people should know it's OK to bluff. A blonde rinse would've been a semi-bluff in this case.

2) And on that note, I predict that Carrie Prejean will get to keep her title tomorrow.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Gratifying Moment

"I was going to drop your class after the first exam, because I always thought history was boring and I didn't do real well on the test. But you made everything so interesting and it quit being dull, so I stayed. And I'm glad I did."

--spoken today by the student who ended up with the highest grade in my Texas History class this semester. You're welcome.

(Yes I have a witness, you haters!)

UPDATE: I got another unsolicited recommendation, in the email today, from a student whose grade is not in question (i.e., no suck-up factor at work):

Also I know we don't show it often enough but at least I, really appreciate you as a teacher because unlike many of my other professors you show love for your subject and are always willing to teach it. As a student it motivates me and it is really refreshing that a teacher works as hard for his students. Your classes are very interesting so don't worry if we are quiet, at least you know that one student is paying attention and enjoys your class. I have recommended you to many of my friends I hope they take you. I tell them that your class isn't for slackers but that the work really pays off, that they will really learn a lot from your lectures and that the class will provide an education and learning experience that they certainly will not have if they take another professor.

You're welcome, too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Yet Another Reason To Bring Global Climate Change Debate Back To Reality

What happens if one country decides to start geoengineering on its own?

Getting nations to agree to cut their greenhouse pollution has proved to be the ultimate free-rider problem, as the biggest nations must all cooperate or the planet will keep getting warmer. The Pinatubo option creates the opposite dilemma: As the discussions in Lisbon made clear, any of a dozen nations could change the global temperature all by itself.

I'm huge on the idea of Unintended Consequences. It's a key feature of many of my lectures. This one's a whopper. Instead of nuclear blackmail, we could face climatological blackmail over global warming which may prove ultimately to have been Not Entirely Our Fault.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Test Your Marriage: Have A Garage Sale!

Review: last year Mrs. Mojo and I attempted to sell the homestead. In preparation we put most of our effects into storage and cleaned out the house. Then the housing market collapsed and we refused to take a bath just to sell a house. After six months or so we took the For Sale sign down and brought everything back from storage. (PODS can be mighty useful sometimes.) After another six months I pitched Yet Another Tantrum about wanting my garage back, so we finally began unpacking things. And we made a realization: we have Too Much Stuff.

We've been here before. Before the Wee One was born we had a garage sale to thin out our stuff. But since then, more stuff has arrived. And lots of the old stuff that ought to have been gone the first time was now In The Way. So I got to be the [Expletive Deleted] and suggested demanded that many things be thrown out or else sold.

Note to self: when Mrs. uses multiple expletives to describe you, you are pushing too hard. (But it has to be done.)

We did get a lot done. I can actually start the long process of converting all the CDs to files, since they are now out of storage. But it's probably good we don't do this more than once every other year or so.