some books belong in the trash

I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to school to finish my PhD for years.  Every now and again, I get the bug to take a class (instead of teach one), just to see if I’ve still got it – you know, that “it” that makes you work hard and get good grades.

Right now, I don’t have it – but you never know what the future holds.

In 2007, I waded back in, taking a summer course at NOVA.  I was pretty excited about it – a philosophy class, and a logic class to boot.

Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned to dread for two reasons.  First, I didn’t realize that the base-level logic class was really more like a math class, with formulas, proofs, equations and other math-like aspects.  Second, the professor was hands down the single worst teacher I have ever had in my entire life.  The guy was just horrible.

The fluorescent lights hurt his eyes, so he kept the room half dark. Great for him, perhaps, but not for anybody trying to take notes.  He assigned us a textbook, then ordered us not to read it. He felt the book was OK for the homework problems contained inside, but that his superior knowledge of the subject was more important than anybody else’s.  His lectures were pedantic in the extreme, laced with personal asides that had nothing to do with the subject matter and served to distract us all from the lessons at hand.  Homework assignments were voluminous and overly repetitious.

Those are the more objective reasons why I thought he was such a poor teacher.  On a purely personal note, he not only informed the entire class that I was a professor myself (after I explicitly asked him not to do so), but after the first two of our three exams, he took it upon himself to inform the class that I had the highest score on said exams.  While normally a person would be proud of that accomplishment, I found it to be terribly embarrassing. If you’re interested in looking at what a logic class exam looks like, you can see one of mine by clicking this link.

(One interesting side effect of him exposing this data point to the class was that all the slackers in the class suddenly wanted to be pals with me and join my study group.  I spent most of the last 4 weeks (of the 6-week class) coming up with new and increasingly less believable excuses to exclude people. I was very lucky in that before the 1st exam, I was able to connect with two intelligent, motivated classmates – our study group of 3 rocked those exams!!  It is precisely for this reason that I never, ever expose the identity of the student that gets the highest grade on any exam in any of my classes.)

As I often tell my students, all that up there is background – I told you that story, basically, so I could tell you this one.

ImageToday, of course, I had my Saturday morning History 101 class.  It was their mid-term examination, so there wasn’t much for me to do other than give the instructions; encourage them that they could, indeed, succeed on the exam; and be available to answer questions during the two or so hours it would take them to complete the exam.  I brought a book to read (Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson – an excellent look at the Middle Eastern theater of operations in World War I), but I have to admit I didn’t read too terribly much of it.

The reason I didn’t read much of it was because, upon my arrival, I noticed that whomever used the room before me (I’m assuming on Friday, because who would have a class that was over before 0800 on a Saturday? You’d have to be insane!) hadn’t bothered to clear off the table at the front of the room where I normally station myself.  It was covered with papers – and one book.

An introduction-to-philosophy textbook.

Written by … you guessed it, the Worst. Professor. Ever.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to read it.

It was, as you can probably expect, torturous to read. I heard his droning voice and incessant lip-sucking in my head as I read it and that surely didn’t help my judgment of the content.  Each chapter was just like one of his boring-ass lectures, only without the personal anecdotes.  He’s the only author I’ve ever come across that basically tried to convince the reader that he was smarter than Socrates.

I looked at the back of the title page to see when the book was published – 2010 – so a while after the class I took from him.  I was further stunned that anybody would actually publish such a book, so I looked to see who the publisher was.

I’d never heard of Publish America, so I looked them up on the internet when I got home.  Based out of Frederick, MD, Publish America is a typical “vanity” press.  Anybody can get anything published through Publish America, you just send it in and promise to buy a bunch of copies.

Publish America and “publishers” like them are universally reviled in academic circles for a wide variety of reasons.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that this particular professor had used a vanity/print-on-demand publisher for his book.  I looked up his Philosophy 101 classes and surprise – he’s listed the book as his course’s required text.

(Interestingly enough, the 2nd worst teacher I ever had – this one at GMU back in the mid-1990s – did exactly the same thing, requiring us to buy an expensive book he wrote that was, of course, not available used as we had to buy it directly from him.)

After about an hour of thumbing through this purple turd of a book, I tossed it on the floor with the other stuff I’d moved off the desk and started reading the most excellent book I’d brought with me.  I thought about tossing it in the trash, but then I realized that somebody shelled out their hard-earned cash for it, and maybe they’d come back for it.

It was a tough decision, though.  A really tough one.

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The summer of cheating

Anybody that knows me knows that I am not a positive person. In fact, in the dictionary next to the word “pessimist,” there is a full-page photo of me, very similar to this one:

Image

John Locke believed that we’re all born as the perfect vessels – he called it tabula rasa, clean slate. He also believed that the right form of government could create the right kind of citizens, which in turn creates the right kind of society. I’m sure he fervently believed what he wrote and spoke about, but I think maybe – just maybe – he was an idiot.

I don’t believe it. I think people are born inherently evil, and that evil is based on pervasive selfishness. I look around me at the consumerist, materialistic culture Americans have created for themselves and it makes me want to cry. Don’t get me wrong – I confess I’m fully invested in it and part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. As Jules once said though, “I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

I think that feeling, that effort to suppress my own evil nature to be a good example to my students – in effect, a shepherd at the college level – is what has driven my summer class into the ground like a pile driver setting the foundation of a skyscraper.

It’s come to a head in the last couple of weeks as I’ve dealt with what more or less equates to a cheating scandal in my classroom. It’s not that I’ve never caught cheaters before, but this summer … man. In one 8-week class, I caught FOUR students cheating on exams in my class! Unbelievable. The funny thing (if cheating can be funny) is that the way I caught them was so incredibly simple:  WORDS.

“Words mean things” is one of my mantras. I’m big into words, what they mean, what we think they mean and how we use them. One of these days I’ll blog a riff on the word “accident” to show you what I mean. In the meantime, though, and for the purposes of this entry, let’s look at one word in particular:  Eponymous.

Quick! Define it!

Admit it – you had to look it up. Maybe you remember buying the R.E.M. album Eponymous in 1988. It was a greatest hits sort of album, that is, if you think a band that had only put out 5 albums to a largely smelly, hairy college crowd can have any greatest hits at that point. At any rate, even the college students that made up the vast bulk of R.E.M.’s fan base at that time had to go looking for a dictionary to discover that eponymous means “being the thing for which something is named.” What this means in the music world is simple: An eponymous album is an album with the same name as the band, such as Queen’s 1973 album titled simply Queen. You could refer to that as “Queen’s eponymous debut” or something like that.  (By the way – Queen? Best. Band. Ever.)

My point here is that the average (and even many above average) college freshman doesn’t know what the word eponymous means. When it appears on not one but TWO exams, I’m going to take notice – and not in a good way. There’s two reasons for my noticing such a thing – #1, as I said, most people don’t know what that word means; #2 and perhaps more importantly, I never once used that word when discussing the topic covered by the exam question being addressed.

One thing I’ve learned about college freshmen in my 12 years of teaching (d’oh – just realized I’ve been teaching college now as long as I taught guitar back in the day!) is that, when it comes to test time, they’re pretty much going to use the words that I used in class. That’s what they heard, that’s what they wrote down and that’s what they studied. I would never say ‘eponymous’ in a lecture – I would say “named after himself” because it’s faster. If I used the word ‘eponymous,’ I would instantly see questioning gazes, a hand go up and I’d have to define the word anyway. It’s just faster and more expedient to just say “named after himself.”

Seeing the word ‘eponymous’ on a freshman’s exam, then, attracts my full attention. Believe it or not, grading exams kind of happens on autopilot. I know what the question is, I know what the answer should be – I’m grading 50 of these things, so I’m scanning for highlights and anomalies.  Highlights (question: explain feudalism; answer: contains the words/phrases fealty, vassal, subinfeudation, manorial dues, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Oath of Salisbury Field, knight, serf, etc.) mean points. If those words/phrases are there and strung together in a more or less coherent fashion, bingo, somebody gets full credit. If some are there but others are not, that warrants more attention to determine partial credit. Anomalies will snap me out of that autopilot; if you’ve used laissez-faire economics to answer the feudalism question, suddenly I have to figure out what the hell you were trying to accomplish.

Same thing with the word ‘eponymous’ – you use that, I’m paying attention. That’s when I notice your other answers contain similar $5 words, and the language you’ve used to answer the questions is far more formal and studied than I would normally expect to see from a stressed-out college freshman taking a history exam.

It takes me about 10 seconds to type your answer into a Google search and discover that you got the answer from Wikipedia. Getting the answer from Wikipedia means you were relying on your spot way in the back of a crowded classroom to hide the fact that you were using your iPhone to read Wikipedia pages and copy info from them directly onto your exam.

In other words, not just cheating but cheating in a way that’s so laughably easy to discover that you deserve to get caught. This brings me back around to the concept of the tabula rasa – Locke’s clean slate.

Cheating is, in my opinion, not learned behavior. You are either a cheater or you are not, and guess what? Everybody is a cheater. I believe that anybody that has the opportunity and thinks they can get away with it will cheat. I never cheated (in college) because I firmly believed my professors were smarter than I was and would absolutely catch me, then kick me out of college. That fear of consequences is what keeps the majority of people, including me, from cheating. I don’t even cheat on my taxes! (I did make a grievous error once, but sucking at math isn’t the same as cheating.)

Catching these students cheating on their exams also brought to light something very uncomfortable for me to think about, something about myself that I had to look at very closely.

Three of my four cheaters were men, which means one was a woman. The woman, maybe 18 or 19 years old, was the last one I caught. I’d already turned in the other three and even received notification that one of them had confessed by the time I caught the young woman.

Maybe I was shell-shocked at having caught a fourth cheater in one term – and the third on that exam. Maybe it was a moment of general weakness. What happened was, for a period of a couple of hours, I considered going easier on the girl than I had on the boys. Instead of turning her in for punishment and academic sanctions, I considered contacting her, telling her I caught her cheating, giving her an F just for that exam, and letting her stay in class.

I had to think very, very hard about why that idea came to me. I’m no psychologist, but I think it is some kind of deep-seated desire or need for women to like me or at least not hate me. I’ve always been better friends with women than men, so maybe there’s something to that, I don’t know. The point is, for a short period of time, I considered going easy on this young woman simply because she was a woman.

In the end, I decided to turn her over to the same sanctioning process the men would have to go through. One friend I discussed this with said that proved I wasn’t sexist, but I’m not sure he wasn’t just placating me to get me off the phone. I did a quick statistical analysis of two years’ worth of my grades and discovered that women average about 8-10% better grades in my classes than men. Is this a function of some issue I’m dragging around with me? Or is it a function of women being more conscientious (in general) in their educational pursuits than men? I don’t know, and I plan on doing a full analysis of all 12 years of my classes to see if I can dredge up some data.

The point is, this cheating scandal has brought my attention more to myself in a way that I find unpleasant to think about or deal with. Am I inherently a sexist? If I’m a sexist, that means I can be a racist, too, right? What other deficiencies of personality do I suffer from? Will my inherently evil nature (I’m tryin’ real hard) now affect the way I deal with any questionable situation in my classes? Have I lost the last vestiges of faith in human nature? Will I forevermore be the total hard-ass professor that nobody likes?

I hate cheaters. Not because of what they do to themselves, but because of what they do to me.