Where Do I Commence

So my phone rings, and it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“How’s it shaking, Lars?” say I.

“Not so good,” says Lars.

“I had a premonition you would say that.”

“Tim, morale at Seattle State is at a new low in the 53 years I have taught here.”

“And knowing you, that’s pretty low, Lars.”

“Tim, we have a new Chancellor. And his first order of business has been to order every faculty member to attend both Commencement ceremonies every year, fall and spring.”

“Wow, that’s a big imposition, Lars. You might have to get out of bed and show up for work like millions of regular people.”

“Spare me your sarcasm, Tim. Faculty have genuine grievances here. Many of them will have to spend this year’s miserable raise on buying caps and gowns.”

“Shouldn’t bother you, Lars, you own a gown, right?”

“I own a Harvard Crimson gown,” says Lars.

“I’ve seen that gown. Harvard Rust would be more like it.”

“But that is not the only imposition, Tim. There are also many faculty who have small children and need extra weekend childcare at additional expense.”

“Surely your great-granddaughters are already cared for, though.”

“Watch your mouth. There is also the problem, Tim, that this edict came down from the Chancellor without consultation with the faculty. And it is expressed as an order. We must arrive at the basketball stadium at a certain time, in full regalia, specified down to the tassel. A tassel, Tim. I lost my tassel in 1979. Our names will be on a clip board. We must show state-issued photo identification before our names will be checked off this list. And if we do not get a check mark, then awful things have been threatened. Our Chancellor said that he will punish the instructors who do not attend. He will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

“That’s a bit florid for an interoffice memo, Lars.”

“That is Shakespeare, you nitwit.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that policy?” I ask. “You have to show photo ID everywhere nowadays. Vote, fly, go to a Taylor Swift concert. It’s for security reasons, Lars.”

“It is not for security reasons. It is so I do not pay some undergraduate fifty dollars to wear my robe and go to Commencement instead of me. Seriously, Tim, in the middle of the basketball stadium who is to know that it is Lars Abraham in the crimson robe or Clem Kadiddlehopper? But the Chancellor is taking names, so Lars Abraham it will be.”

“Lars, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re whining more than usual this morning. What’s wrong with showing up in regalia and letting the students know you care? What’s wrong with showing that you’ve got that Seattle State Selkie Spirit?”

“There is nothing wrong with that, Tim. I have gone to more Commencements here than I can remember. I have shaken hands and read names and handed out diplomas. But the new Chancellor does not know that. He assumes that if I am asked to volunteer, I will weasel out. He assumes I must be ticked off a roll like a buck private before I will consent to do anything.”

“Like most faculty.”

“Tim, the central principle of life is that people will gladly volunteer to do things that they will resist doing if forced.”

“I guess you’re right, Lars. Commencement doesn’t work that way at UTA. I mean, we all go every semester, but that’s because we’ve all arrived freely at the independent decision that we should. We’re Mavericks, Lars. We push our limits where there are none. We’re at the corner of Fast and Rising.”

“What?”

“But Lars, doesn’t it amount to the same thing? It’s nice to go to Commencement, you usually go, and now you’ll be going. What exactly is your problem?”

“Well, with all of us going, the ceremonies are getting larger and longer. They are between two and three hours now, Tim. There is my bladder to consider. And it is one more day I do not get to work on my book …”

“… that you’ve been writing since the turn of the century. It’s always the same with you, Lars, you procrastinate till somebody wants you to actually do some work, and then it’s ‘Oh no, my precious writing time’.”

“Nevertheless, Tim, that time is real. Two extra days of work for five hundred extra faculty every year. A thousand days of research that could go toward achieving Tier One status. Instead it will be spent suffocating in a hot robe in an earsplitting stadium listening to somebody read to us from Oh The Places You’ll Go.”

“So you’re saying that Seattle State values the compulsion of empty attendance at meaningless meetings over actual work on its professional mission?”

“At last you show a glimmer of comprehension, Tim.”

“Well, Lars, at least they’re running your school like a corporation.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 7th, 2014 |No Comments »

Bon Voyage English Department!

Once again, the semester has flown by and is coming to an end. It has been a wonderful experience to contribute to this blog. I have been able to narrow down the endless list of jobs available to English majors, but have yet to find my calling. While next semester will be my last, I am indifferent of my feelings of leaving. Once I graduate, I will be left to fend for myself in the dog-eat-dog aspect of the real world by leaving the somewhat sheltered life of a college student. There is always the possibility of graduate school, an idea that will remain as a viable option. Despite my apprehension of leaving the safety net of college, I do believe my time here at UTA has given me the knowledge of navigating life outside of school. I can only hope for the best once I graduate.

Merry Christmas!

Meowy Christmas!!

Published in:Lauren McManus, Uncategorized |on December 12th, 2013 |No Comments »

Libraries, Reading and Day-Dreaming

Author Neil Gaiman gave a lecture on October 15th as part of The Reading Agency annual lectures about the importance of libraries, reading and day-dreaming.

In order to raise literacy in children, they need to know that reading is good. If a parent takes away a book because s/he considers it a ‘bad book’ then the child will believe that reading is frowned upon. In addition to having access to books, children need to read what they want to, not what you give them.  As Gaiman puts it, “A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them…Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.”

“But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication.”

A library is the home of all information. From history to maps and fiction, libraries serve as a place where information is at your fingertips. With the rise of internet and computer use, libraries give the opportunity to use their computers and internet access for free. Some places around the world do not see the importance of libraries which results in closing them.  As a reader, I can only hope that libraries will not lose their place in the literate world.

Fiction has let the reader use their imagination when reading. Readers create the images, smells, etc. that the author has described. Without fiction, and books in general, our imaginations will not be fully developed or even existent. It seems as if the world’s imagination has lessened. While TV and movies provide some escape, it does not compare to the experience one gets while reading. Gaiman states that “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” Imagination is a great attribute a person can possess.

I highly recommend reading his brilliant lecture.

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 22nd, 2013 |No Comments »

Oh, that is where the phrase came from!

The origins of expressions and phrases used every day are not given much thought. Haven’t you ever wondered how the English-speaking world came to use these phrases?

Here are the histories of just a few common phrases.

“Blood is thicker than water”

Although this phrase implies the importance of familial bonds, the original phrase was actually “The blood of the covenant is far stronger than the water of the womb.” It has been suggested that the nobility changed the phrase to emphasize the importance of bloodlines.

“Cat got your tongue”

When a witty comeback fails to enter your mind, your loss of words are compared to a cat getting your tongue. According to author, Albert Jack, “having your tongue cut out and fed to cats was the punishment for liars during medieval times. Because ancient Egyptian cats were considered gods, this act was seen as a human offering to the gods.”

“To bite the dust”

We’ve all heard Queen’s hit “Another One Bites the Dust,” but did Queen know where the phrase came from? Interestingly enough, this phrase dates back 850 years before the Bible. In Homer’s The Iliad, soldiers, fighting in the Trojan War, are described dying with their faces in the dirt as if they were ‘biting the dust’.

“Wear your heart on your sleeve”

It is commonly known that “to wear your heart on your sleeve” refers to someone who openly shows their emotions and affections. This phrase originated in the Middle Ages when knights, who battled for honor, were given tokens of a lady’s affection. The lady would present the knight with the token, such as a handkerchief, as a sign she “gave her heart” to him. The knight would then put the token on his sleeve for everyone to see.

If you would like to learn more about the origins of common phrases, Albert Jack has published many books that are an interesting read. You can visit his website to explore more.

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 14th, 2013 |No Comments »

E-reader vs. Paperback

I recently read an article on Scientific American pertaining to how technology has changed the way we read. With the invention of e-readers such as Kindle, Nook and the iPad, people are forgoing the classic paperback novel and using e-readers. E-readers have many advantages, such as holding multiple books without the bulkiness that comes with paper.

Avid readers may enjoy using e-readers while others prefer paper. There are many who vow to never use an e-reader because it takes away the physical and emotional aspect of reading a paper book. The act of turning pages, annotating in the margins, folding a corner of your favorite part, the smell of fresh pages, etc. are the pleasures of paperbacks.

The evolution of technology has allowed e-books to make up “more than 20% of all books sold to the public.” This increase raises questions as to what will happen to the publication industry. More revenue will be gained by publishing e-books, but what will happen to physical books? When asked this question, some have said that there will still be paperbacks, but we really don’t know what will happen.

Technology has vastly changed the world in many ways. The internet can give you the entire synopsis of a book and you don’t have to pick up the book let alone read it. You can even take classes online. While some of the advantages of technology are great, some take away the physicality of actions. Using an e-reader to find and download a book does not give you the same experience as going into a bookstore or library and using the Dewey Decimal System or just perusing until you find the book you need. Coming across new books when looking for something else is an exciting experience.

It has also been shown that e-readers do not give the mind the same experience as paperbacks. “Despite all the increasingly user-friendly and popular technology, most studies published since the early 1990s confirm earlier conclusions: paper still has advantages over screens as a reading medium. Together laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicate that digital devices prevent people from efficiently navigating long texts, which may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. Whether they realize it or not, people often approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. And e-readers fail to re-create certain tactile experiences of reading on paper, the absence of which some find unsettling.” With this being said, many students use e-readers to carry their textbooks. If students were to be ‘old school’ and use the physical textbook, there could be a rise in academic performance. The lack of focus when using e-readers leads to just looking at the words on the page as opposed to reading and understanding the text.

As someone who has read on an e-reader, I still prefer paperbacks. There is nothing that an e-reader can have that will persuade me otherwise.

Are you team e-reader or team paperback?

Published in:Lauren McManus |on November 7th, 2013 |No Comments »

10 Things I Like about U(TA)

Pretty much on a daily basis, UTA faculty get a memo from the administration that makes life a little bit worse. I don’t mean to single out UTA, mind you. Pretty much every employee of every organization gets a daily “things will get harder” memo from the higher-ups. More compliance, more assessment, more hoops to jump through, more meetings, more meaningless attendance commanded, less support. Welcome to the world of Continuous Quality Improvement, where things continuously disimprove.

I don’t want to turn into a bitter old man. Readers of this blog may be of the opinion that that boat has left the landing. But there’s always time to head back. So I thought I would write a post without snark or backbiting, and talk about ten things that I truly and unreservedly like about my job, my workplace, and my fellow Mavericks. I know, I know, we’ll see how long I can keep that up. But cross my heart, I like working here, and I ought to take at least every dozenth blog post to list some reasons why.

  1. Lectures! I am a lecture junkie to begin with. But we truly have a rich culture at UTA of live speakers who address timely topics and give excellent readings. Over the past few years, I’ve heard terrific talks by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Toobin … Even Ken Burns! I don’t understand why Ken Burns dyes his hair or keeps it cut like a 1970s pop star, but it was fun to hear what he had to say. Nearer to my own “field,” I’ve gotten to hear Ramón Saldívar, Tim Johnston, Allison Hunter, Dagoberto Gilb, Davy & Peter Rothbart, Darra Goldstein, and many others. But lectures aren’t really about one’s own field; they’re about getting out and finding new fields. And I’m grateful to many, many UTAers who have organized these talks and helped me expand mine.
  2. The Honors College. I can’t imagine people more committed to the ideals of both individual and community undergraduate learning. Our Honors College fosters the liberal arts for students of all majors, and supports the kind of intensive learning experience where faculty know students’ names – and vice versa. One of UTA’s “competitors” is running a World Series TV ad with the catchphrase “101 should be a course number, not a class size.” At our Honors College, they walk the walk. Cheers (as he always puts it) to Dean Karl Petruso and his team.
  3. The Office for Students with Disabilities. Consistently one of the best-run services anywhere. The OSD accommodates students fairly, holds them to high academic standards, and issues crystal-clear guidelines to faculty. I trade a lot of paper and e-mail with the OSD, and they are always happy, helpful, and encouraging. It is marvelous to work with people who demand something from you, and have the legal authority to do so, but who treat you positively at every turn without scolding or chiding, or the assumption that you will naturally resist their efforts. We really do live up to ideals in the matter of accommodations for disabled learners.
  4. The Star-Telegram. It’s free. It’s paper. It’s seven days a week (in term-time). You can get it at the UC, the Planetarium, the Fine Arts Building. It has coupons. It has sports. It has Dear Abby.
  5. The UTA Gallery. Director Benito Huerta and his team present an ever challenging and absorbing series of exhibitions, by top-line professionals and UTA students alike. To stay in touch with contemporary art, you could travel the major cities, or you could simply walk across Cooper Street. And they have vernissages with cheese and crackers. And wine.
  6. Getting Physical Books from InterLibrary Loan. I’m no Luddite. I’m writing a blog post, after all. But I felt like someone from the Stone Age when, earlier this year, my requests for InterLibrary Loans began to be filled with helpful notes from the UTA Library that they’d bought a given book for me … in e-book form! I could sort of read these “books” on my laptop, though not very well, and anyway my laptop weighs about seven pounds and you can’t use it in the bathtub. Not that I would ever read an InterLibrary Loan book in the bathtub. Not me. Where was I? Oh, you should have seen my despair: here were books I couldn’t afford to buy, and couldn’t get from our library, and couldn’t really read on line, and now I would never get them, because since we technically “own” them, they would never borrow them for me. I wept for a while and then sent a note of complaint to the UTA Library, complete with plaintive violin score, oh woe is me. And then they bought all the books I’d ordered in physical print form, and said no problem, we’ll buy or borrow anything you want in future in paper, just let us know. At last, that elusive memo where something got better.
  7. The campus architecture. Well, some of it. But I have resolved not to tell you about what I don’t like at UTA. And anyway, there’s a lot to like. It’s unadorned orange brick instead of ivy and marble, and it’s better that way. We have a style, and we have form meeting function, and it’s a gorgeous color against that blue Texas sky. They’re not old-style college buildings, but they’re livable and classy. My favorites: the UC, the Planetarium, the new(ish) “ERB,” the Spaniolo/Pecan developments (plus their eco-smart landscaping), Nedderman Hall, the tennis center and surrounding apartments, and Architecture itself, with its inviting recessed garden.
  8. And speaking of Architecture, its Branch Library. Now, nothing against our Central Library, which is functional and sturdy, or Science/Engineering, another of my hangouts. But the Art/Architecture Library features an incisive and growing collection, lots of audio and video, a vibrant New Books shelf that’s constantly updated, and an inviting setting for research. I’ve learned more from regular stops there in the past few years than from any other campus resource.
  9. The UTA Theater Program. Well, I’ll admit, over the years, sometimes I have sneaked out at halftime, or whatever they call it when they bring the house lights up and you are allowed to move around for a bit. But I have also seen shows at UTA that I would never have known about, from a wide range of genres, and in a wide range of styles. They’re a teaching department in the best sense of the term: no UTA Theater major graduates without knowing something about the eclectic history of the stage, and knowing it in practice. I’ll single out the marvelous productions in recent years from director Andrew Gaupp, who has shown how farce is the public face of the postmodern: Noises Off, The Mousetrap, and The Government Inspector.
  10. Student Organizations. I’ve advised several over the years, including Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor Society) and Lyric Expression (a spoken-word and slam poetry club). This fall, I’ve started to advise two more: or rather, to sit back and watch students pour critical energy and joy into them: the Comic Book Club and Food Fight –the organization for healthy cooking and sustainable sourcing. (Or rather, Dr. Joanna Johnson advises Food Fight; I just teach knife skills).

That’s ten: and I didn’t have to think very hard. Some things do go right around here.

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 30th, 2013 |3 Comments »

Importance of Letters

What has happened to the presence of handwritten letters? Remember when you received a letter from a loved one? Or perhaps a festive invitation to an event with confetti popping out of the envelope? Besides the fact that I was born in the 90s, I do have an old soul. Receiving letters in the mail that do not pertain to a bill or credit card companies claiming you are “pre-approved” to invest in their card, give me excitement. Someone out there took time out of their day to actually sit down and write a letter. That act alone points out how important to that person you are.Whether it be just a short “hi” or a long descriptive letter about an event that happened, handwritten letters provide emotions through words in addition to the reader’s role in that person’s life.

Because of technology, the use of letters has diminished. The joy of receiving mail has dwindled as well. Letters were one of the main ways of communication before the advancement of technology. The individual personality of a letter gave the reader a sense of importance and authenticity. Receiving handwritten letters is a great joy; to receive a letter is a personal act of acknowledgement out of love-whether it be familial, friendship or romantic. Without this form of communication, personal relationships through technology are not as effective. Talking on the telephone is the equivalent to a handwritten letter with the added plus of actually hearing the others’ voice.

Texting is rather vague; the use of emoticons can add personality to the message, but without the use of actual handwriting, the reader cannot know the true meaning behind the message. The punctuation, such as an exclamation point, can be entered without actual reciprocation in the writer’s feelings.

Video chat has improved greatly. This alone can be used to have a real face to face interactionwith another person. However, technology may fail and cause a lapse in video feedback.You could be chatting with a friend when all of a sudden your friend’s video feedback has been frozen. All you’re left with is a hilariously weird face and an unfinished conversation.

While technology is a great advancement, there will come a day when technology will fail due to some outrageous superhuman technological virus that we will be left without a telephone, internet, and video chat. Which will lead to chaos within the internet -dependent community as well as those who communicate via technology. How about we revive the simplicity of writing a letter and sending it to a loved one?

Published in:Lauren McManus |on October 29th, 2013 |No Comments »

The Giver Movie

Filming has begun of the highly-anticipated movie version of the beloved Newberry Award winning novel, The Giver.

Here is the run-down of the cast:

Jonas will be played by Australian actor Brenton Thwaites. He is known for his work in Australian TV such as SLiDE and Home and Away. He has also starred in the TV movie Blue Lagoon: The Awakening.

Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, and True Grit) will portray the Giver.

The Chief Elder will be played by the accomplished Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, The Devil Wears Prada and The Iron Lady).

Jonas’s parents will be portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) and the demure Katie Holmes (The Kennedys).

Newcomer, Emma Tremblay will bring Jonas’s sister, Lily, to life.

Asher and Fiona, Jonas’s friends will be played by Cameron Monaghan (Showtime’s Shameless) and Odeya Rush (The Odd Life of Timothy Green).

Rosemary will be played by Taylor Swift (Valentine’s Day).

For those who have not read the novel, Lois Lowry’s The Giver is truly a memorable work. Set in a seemingly Utopian society, the main character Jonas embarks on a journey of uncovering the flaws of living in what he now sees as a dystopian society. Bound by conformity, the community has adopted Sameness, in which every citizen dresses and appears according to society’s rules. Color is obsolete, feelings are nonexistent, and climate is controlled. Being slightly different, such as Asher’s (Jonas’s friend) lateness, is frowned upon. Once a child reaches the age of twelve, they are assigned a job based on what the Elders feel is appropriate. Jobs range from being a birth mother, which is considered a demeaning job, to being Caretaker of the Old. After being taken care of in the House of the Old, the old are then “released” from society. Jonas is assigned the job of the Receiver. This job entails keeping all of the unpleasant memories in life such as famine, pain, and war. In addition to the hurtful memories, Jonas also receives memories of joy, happiness and love. With these memories, Jonas begins to question the society he lives in and the existence of Sameness. Jonas uncovers the brutality in this society and enlists the Giver’s help in making changes.

Bringing the dystopian society to life in The Giver will be a challenge. One of the main elements of the story is the absence of color until Jonas receives memories from the Giver pertaining to color. I have noticed that the characters who have dark eyes in the novel are going to be portrayed by those with light-colored eyes. In this society, variation is non-existent. There are only four characters throughout the book that have light-colored eyes. Of course, with the advances of technology, the eyes can be digitally enhanced or the actors could wear colored contacts. I have read the book numerous times and really hope that the movie is just as good. The nit-picky details are what makes the novel spectacular. In addition, Fiona and Rosemary have red hair, which is a very important detail. Jonas first experience of color is Fiona’s fiery red hair. The introduction of color will dramatically change the way Jonas thinks about the society in which he lives in.

In all, I believe the cast to be strong. Mixing mostly unknown actors with very well-known actors will generate media and create a wider audience. Of course, the book alone already has a wide fan base. Bridges and Streep will bring depth and strength to the movie. I have not seen Holmes portray someone who is not humble, but I do believe she will do justice to the character of the mother. I have only seen Skarsgård play a vampire and it will be interesting to see a more nurturing side of him. The only concern that I have concerns the casting of Taylor Swift. The role of Rosemary, a twelve year old, is mentioned a few times throughout the novel, yet her character is essential. Swift has not had much acting experience and the level of emotion needed to portray Rosemary is crucial. I do look forward to seeing the outcome of the movie and hope that justice is served.

Published in:Lauren McManus |on October 29th, 2013 |No Comments »

Numbed by Numbers

I thought of making this post a satiric dialogue. But the topic is not very funny, and there’s the danger that satire will miss its mark. So, for once, an academic-life post in all seriousness.

UTA, perhaps like many other universities, has started to evaluate teachers largely on the basis of numbers: scores derived from surveys that students fill out at the end of each semester. Here’s how it works. Students go online and respond to statements about the course they’ve just taken, statements like “The instructor used teaching methods that helped me learn” and “The instructor was well prepared for each class meeting.” The allowed responses range from 1 for “strongly disagree” through 5 for “strongly agree.” We’ve all done surveys like that, though they’re usually about dish detergent or the newest Iron Man movie.

The scores that these surveys generate appear in reports to UTA administrators and state-level officials. One standard method of reporting survey data is a table where each course has a separate row, and the score for each question is listed in a separate column.

Here’s how I did, for instance, in one of my World Literature courses in Spring 2013:

4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9

Pretty good, huh? Or pretty bad. Or who knows? “Who knows” will be the theme of much of this blog post.

I’m about to complain about being evaluated by numbers. The great danger of an English professor complaining about numerical evaluations is that I’ll be perceived as some touchy-feely poet who can’t bear the cold light of hard data. I’ll just have to run that risk. I have no ethos here. Pathos will get me nowhere. The following critique will be logos all the way.

Why is the line of numbers I gave above a weak way of evaluating History of World Literature I? Where do I begin?

  • That’s not very many responses, and it’s not many people to begin with. Thirty students took World Literature. Ten of them filled out the survey. If only 10 answer the survey, each response drags the mean (the “average”) number for each response pretty far in one direction or another. A statistician might tell you that a response rate of one-third is an awfully good sample, but even if all 30 answered, just a few really low or really high “outlier” responses can drag the mean down or up in ways that make that mean – 3.5 or 4.5 or whatever it may be – less indicative of the whole (and even the whole 30 isn’t very meaningful). But it gets worse:
  • There’s no context. We don’t know if 3.5 or 4.5 was bad or good in these circumstances. Was ENGL 3361 World Literature hard, easy, required, elective, a “gateway” course, a course self-selected by specialists, a course for majors, minors, merchant chiefs? The line of numbers tells you nothing about this complicated factor, in part because
  • There’s no baseline. Look again at my scores: 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9. You know that 1 is bad and 5 is good. But that’s all you know. You are given other things like the mode, and standard deviation of the ten responses to every given question, which are next to meaningless if you know the mean (and, in fact, you see all ten individual responses listed in a bar graph, so even the mean is pretty superfluous). But you don’t know what a typical score for UTA looks like. You don’t know what an average score for an average English course looks like. You don’t know what the usual score for a 3000-level course looks like. You don’t know what a typical score for ENGL 3361 History of World Literature I looks like, and in fact in the last of these cases, you can’t know, because I’m the only person who teaches ENGL 3361. There is no way of telling whether the survey is measuring me, or the subject I’m teaching, because those two variables always run together.
  • But you think you do. Come on, be honest. You’re already looking at my line of 4.3 4.3 4.4 4.7 4.6 4.2 4.8 3.6 4.1 4.2 3.9 4.2 3.9 and thinking “well, Dr. Morris is clearly great at whatever 4.7 and 4.8 represent, but he’s pretty lousy at those 3.9 areas, and he really needs an intervention on that 3.6 category.” Now, you may be right about that. But you don’t know, and how could you? Still, you are ready to make all kinds of judgments on how I well I teach a course you’ve never attended, in part because
  • Numbers like these convey a false precision. Look again. You’re pretty happy about my performance on that 4.2 near the end of the list, right? But less so on the 3.9s that surround it. Admit it, that’s what you’re thinking, and thinking it harder the more I argue against it. But remember: those scores are the means of ten responses. One student responded “1″ to each question: the eternal sorehead. One answered “4″ to each; four answered “5.” The rest were split between 3s, 4s, and 5s. Overall, the difference between the 4.2 answer and the 3.9s is a couple of students answering “4″ instead of “3,” on a question they spent about half a second thinking about. Now let’s say you’re comparing me as a teacher to someone else, and I get a 3.9 where they got a 4.2, or vice versa. You see the problem? It’s akin to the illusion that makes you think $29.95 is cheap and $30.15 is expensive. And it sometimes gets worse. I have seen means on these questions, derived from less than 20 student responses, expressed to the second decimal place: i.e. not just 4.2 or 3.9, but 4.27 or 3.96. I stress that that second decimal place cannot have a meaning in any possible mathematical world. Heck, the first decimal place doesn’t have much. And it’s not just a problem in the mathematics,
  • It’s a problem of telemetry. Instead of watching me teach, instead of listening to my thoughts about teaching, instead of asking my colleagues or immediate supervisors about me, instead of really asking my students anything meaningful, you’ve been content to judge me as a teacher (inevitably! you’re still doing it, over my protests!) on the basis of numbers generated by a few staticky sensors attached more or less far from my classroom. And you’re content to do so, because a row of numbers is a lot handier than trying to figure out what goes on in that classroom. And because the evaluation is based on telemetry, is falsely precise, and has no context
  • The reading of such evaluations becomes a WAG. I’ve heard eminent scholars look at a row of numbers like my World Lit scores and opine that someone’s teaching is good, bad, somewhere in between, higher than others they’ve seen, lower, or whatever, based entirely on impressions they’ve accumulated by looking at other rows of such telemetric numbers, similarly without context or baseline. And when I’ve raised objections like those above, they pause, nod, say “of course,” and come back with
  • But administrators (and Regents and Coordinating Boards) like numbers. Which is fine, but if they like arbitrary, meaningless numbers, it doesn’t give me much confidence in administrators or Regents or Coordinating Boards.

Now let’s assume these numbers were sterling numbers, and gave a perfect depiction of what students took away from World Literature I. Let’s even assume that quantifying the quality of a complex humanities subject is a good idea. Those assumptions are false in so very many ways, but let’s make them. Are our problems over?

Perhaps not, because

  • Every instructor does pretty well on the numbers. Or at least, every instructor does about the same on the numbers, whatever that may mean. Granted, that’s my own hazy impression, but I’ve looked at a few rows of these numbers in my time, and they all look very much like the ones I got for World Lit. Even given all the problems with the numbers themselves, do they distinguish usefully among faculty? They actually might, just on the “eyeball” test, if you suddenly saw a row of 1.0s sticking out of other faculty who were at 3.9 and 4.2. But on the whole, the monotonous rows of near-identical numbers hovering around 4.0 don’t tell you anything – yet rankings of faculty for all sorts of purposes are made on the basis of numbers that pretty much represent a collective “that was OK” from the student body. Or I guess, because
  • We don’t really know what the students are saying. They are answering a number of anodyne questions by clicking radio boxes on a web form, an activity we all associate with those on-line quizzes that tell you What Kind of Dinosaur You Really Are or what year you are fixing to die. And what kinds of statements are the students asked to assess?
  • We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. No, seriously. Two of the statements on the survey are “I acquired knowledge that will be useful in my future” and “I acquired skills that will be useful in my future.” Now, think about that for a moment. Those are perhaps admirable course goals – future knowledge and future skills – but the problem is, how the heck does one know, from the perspective of the present, how to respond to those statements about the future? This is not only a silly demand, it’s logically unpossible. Which leads to a larger problem with these surveys:
  • Everybody pretty much does seem to think they’re nonsense. Because if you ask a 21-year-old whether they’ve just learned something that they’re going to find useful at 42, they’re smarter than that. They know they don’t know; or at best, they know they’re being asked for banana oil. So you lose their respect, and they take the whole exercise less seriously. Instructors take it less seriously, administrators take it less seriously, and all the way up and down the line, increasing amounts of time are being wasted by people going through the motions of attending to something that nobody takes seriously. So as a result,
  • There’s not much an instructor can do to do better. I know what I need to do to improve my research: publish more. I know what I need to do to improve my service: attend more meetings. But if my teaching is evaluated by a list of survey numbers, how do I change them? What steps can I possibly take to turn a 3.9 into a 4.2? We’ve seen how whimsical and haphazard these measures are: do I even want to improve on some of this stuff? Should I try to sell my students better on the idea that they will use these “skills” someday? (Is reading Boccaccio a skill?) And the “telemetry problem” means that to “improve,” I have to guess how my actions in the classroom will show up on some fuzzy and indirect indicators: not on how well my students did on an essay exam about Boccaccio, but on how they felt before the exam about whether they’d use their knowledge 20 years from now. It’s like being evaluated on your engineering research on the basis of whether a thermometer in a building across campus rose or fell by a degree or two. And beyond even that,
  • Is the last week of a course ends the best time to ask students what they’ve learned? It is probably a good time to ask them whether their instructor was chronically late, or drunk, or kept hitting on them; or more positively if the instructor dressed well, smiled, or deserved “chili peppers” for hotness that would not stop. But I am not sure it is the best time to ask what World Literature taught them about Homer and Dante and Montaigne. This problem obviously predates web surveys of student satisfaction; it was inherent in older “narrative” student evaluations, too. But it hasn’t been addressed. Oddly enough, the ubiquity of the Web and its attendant social media mean that one could now design longitudinal studies that tracked the influence of college courses across decades of a student’s life. But nah, that would require effort and patience. I snark; but I still hold that college teaching deserves consideration by means of more than an immediate reaction, more than a snap opinion about whether certain skills have been delivered.

    But over and over, faculty and administrators, and English faculty as much as anybody else, still look at those rows of numbers and believe, in their hearts, that they tell a terrible and objective truth. Numbers don’t lie, after all. And I doubt these numbers are lying. They’re just not saying anything at all.

    One should never just complain; one should suggest better alternatives. This post is now too long to do so, but I’ll try to compose a more positive and proactive one soon.

  • Published in:Tim Morris |on October 19th, 2013 |3 Comments »

    Definition of Violence

    Violence is an act ubiquitous in the world today. As part of an assignment for Dr. Mackenzie’s American Literature class subtitled A Search for Identity Amidst Violence, Sanda Lingle, a first-year Kinesiology major, has created a beautifully written poem entitled Define Violence. Her poem is hauntingly realistic and brings the reader into the world of an innocent 10 year old who has since lost his innocence through violence.

    Despite her talent, Sanda does not see herself as a poet. Her talent was nurtured in a creative writing class she attended at TCC. For the class, she created a portfolio of writings that impressed her teacher. Now, the idea of her poem being on the UTA English Department blog was unexpected.
    Definition of Violence
    Sanda’s thought process included a look at what violence means to everyone.

    She intended for the poem to be “open to interpretation” because the definition of violence varies according from person to person. The first line, “Violence is the sprout of silence,” sets the tone of the overall poem. While some sit idly by, others experience violence and bottle up their emotions until they eventually become a “ticking time bomb.” By incorporating liquor within the family in addition to a boy who associated in gangs, “My hands, are spooked/stained the color red..,” Sanda was able to engrave readers’ minds with realistic images.

    Please enjoy Sanda’s captivating definition of violence.

    Define Violence - Sanda Lingle

    Violence

    is the sprout of silence.

    The opposite of violence is peace,

    Oh! Yes! That was a grand feast!

    Shaking the hand of my cheating father

    and there she was, my silent, coked out, mother

    with the mistress across from the table

    I swear I could just slit her like Kane did to Abel.

    The heart burns with so much aggression

    I cannot wait, to express my suppression

    The innocence deceased

    in the silence of the streets

    “I declare my hate!”

    I can’t bare,

    It’s

    just

    too

    late.

    So the silence boils

    and overflows

    while I spoil

    what’s left with the blow on my nose

    through all this hiding, I cannot take. . .

    “Don’t bother! You can’t relate!”

    My body is inked from toe to head

    My hands, are spooked

    stained the color red..

    You can’t miss my violent cries-

    Do you not see the fear in my eyes?

    All this, because of my dad’s deceit

    I watched, as he hit her on repeat

    I was the one that found her!

    with an empty bottle of liquor

    eyes bloodshot

    the violence, red handed and caught.

    I was only ten on that silent night

    A loss with no cause, distilled such a fright.

    Published in:Lauren McManus |on October 11th, 2013 |No Comments »