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.