Virtual Bourgeois

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Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Post Commencement Rant

Posted by Gerald on May 13, 2008

It is 11:30 and I just got back from a post-commencement dinner with a couple of my friends and co-workers.

I’m not going to re-cap the ceremony – commencements are pretty standard and this was no exception -except for one thing that is really bothering me.  I made a last minute suggestion about the program which the organizers agreed to.  After hearing a couple of my colleagues talking about what really mattered to them at their commencement ceremonies, I suggested that after the recessional I should lead the faculty over to where the new grads were picking up their diplomas (like many colleges we do this separately since you can’t be sure who might actually be there – it minimizes confusion).  There was an outdoor reception and my thought was that we would line up on either side of the sidewalk running between the tables where they were picking up their diplomas and where the food was laid out.  This would allow us to congratulate the new grads – applause and hand-shakes directly from their instructors.  Well, I led them.

About ten actually joined me.

Everyone else ran over to get free food and drinks, then dropped their robes in their offices and left.

It will be no surprise to my regular readers to hear that my social science colleagues all came over.  So did my good friend Steve and a couple people from his department, two of the ladies who teach cosmetology, and the dean of our division.  Conspicuous with their absence were several people who like to give long speeches about their dedication to their teaching and their students.

I’m increasingly angry, though not particularly surprised.

I’m not surprised because many of these people started complaining the minute we lined up.  When I announced what we were doing, a Senate colleague of mine who likes to talk about how dedicated she is looked at me incredulously and said “Well whose bright idea was that!?!”  It took all I had not to snap back – “Mine, bitch!”

I know I’ve been heard to complain loudly (and on this blog) about unmotivated and uncaring students, but the majority of those people never finish.  For the rest, this is the only commencement most of these people are ever going to have.  Most of them aren’t the gifted or the well-prepared.  Those who make it through are a minority, and most of them had to put forward a lot more effort for their two-year degree than I did for mine.  I was always good at school.  Most of them aren’t.  If we think what we are doing is worthwhile, then this damn ceremony is the symbolic moment when the rubber meets the road.  We should take it seriously and remember it, like the whole damn thing, is supposed to be about them, not us.  Sure, many of them – maybe most – don’t care, but we are doing this for the ones who do. 

I get that it was a long ceremony, etc…, but if my seven-months pregnant department chair could run (figuratively) over for a much needed bathroom break and then come and join us, the rest could have as well.  It is easy to talk a good game about commitment to students and dedication, and all this crap but it is by showing up for a little thing like this – little to us but obviously touching to many of those students – that gives those words meaning.  If the faculty are going to demonstrate this kind of apathy, why should we expect anything different from our students.  If we are to lead we must do first by example.

Tonight I’m more proud than I can express of the friends and colleagues who joined me on that short line and who tried to make up in enthusiasm for what we lacked in numbers.  I’m ashamed of the rest.  Maybe that isn’t being fair or reasonable, but I really don’t care.

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Posted in community colleges, Personal, Teaching | 5 Comments »

Teacher Guy

Posted by Gerald on July 17, 2007

The running joke around the office of late has been that I am “teacher guy.”

We are having some reorganization and some new administrative positions opening at the college.  Some of this is just natural attrition through retirement and some is due to growth and change.  As various folks have been looking at this or that position, there has been a lot of discussion about goals and priorities and internal politicking.

Me, I’m “teacher guy.”

I have no ambition beyond being a really good history teacher.  I am considering picking up enough hours to be dual credentialed so I can teach in another field (maybe political science, maybe anthropology, maybe none of the above…), but that is it.  I have no desire to move into administration.  The classroom is my whole thing, and it is all I’m interested in.  As various changes and reorganization ideas are being discussed, all I really care about is if it is going to impact my classroom.  If not, God Bless!  See, I’m “teacher guy.”

Now, for the next year, I’m going to be Faculty Senate “President Guy” which requires my attention and energy to help with these wider changes.  I don’t see that as violating my identity as “teacher guy” though.  Part of my responsibility to the college is to take on both supportive and leadership roles outside of my classroom on occasion.  I’m going to pitch-in and help out.  Still, that isn’t because I see this as some stepping-stone to a higher position – I just see it as a duty, like voting or serving on a jury.  I’m really hoping that after this next year, I can hand various things I’ve been doing on to interested and motivated colleagues so that they can have some of the interesting experiences this sort of service has brought, and is still bringing, to me.  I’m looking forward to putting a greater share of my focus back into my own classrooms for awhile.

Because I’m “teacher guy.”

Posted in community colleges, Teaching, thoughts | 3 Comments »

Moving in Place

Posted by Gerald on July 16, 2007

I had one of those days today where I feel like I’ve been busy, but I haven’t really gotten a lot of work done.  I cannot really blame anyone but myself, but I’m also not feeling incredibly guilty.  This was a day where I spent a lot of time talking to various people about things that may bear fruit later.

I had a meeting this morning with the president of our college.  Now going into the meeting, I had no idea what was on the agenda, so when I saw my department chair I asked her if I was going to be fired.  Now, I didn’t really think I was going to be fired and even if I was this would seem to be a bit below the president’s job threshold – but you never know.  Actually, it turns out that this was meeting Monday –  lots of people had meetings with administration people.  Still, I was the only one going to see the capo di tutti capi (my Italian is entirely derived from gangster films, so I may be wrong about the phrase and I don’t care.)

Even after two years, I still wonder every time I see the “All Faculty & Staff” e-mails announcing new positions if I am going to open it up and see my own job being advertised.  I also had a sneaking suspicion the entire time I was at the University of Iowa that the director of grad studies would call me into the office one day to tell me they had changed their minds and I had to re-take my doctoral comps.  I realized earlier this afternoon that after two years, I still haven’t put my diplomas up on the wall of my office – but that probably is due to laziness as opposed to insecurity.

Of course, the meeting had no dire overtones at all.  The president wanted to make sure I was filled in on a new on-campus program and on some changes that are coming in our organization.  I was getting this information because the fall semester will see the beginning of my one-year term as president of the Faculty Senate – a job into which I was tricked by a scheming friend upon whom I shall one day wreak my vengeance despite her feeble protestations of innocence.  Oh, yes!  I shall!  Vengeance will be…

Ummm… where was I?

Oh, yeah, the meeting.

Well, it was no big deal.  I just need to add some things to the early agenda for the Senate this fall.  This also reminded me of other things I had promised myself I’d have ready for the new semester – like a draft of a new constitution.  I haven’t even gotten started, but hey, I’ve still got most of a month.

The rest of the morning was consumed by some comparisons of what went on in every one’s respective meetings.  Then there was lunch, which is always a big part of the academic working day, but never more so than during the summer.  Then I got back from lunch and spent some more time doing morning meeting post-mortems combined with speculation about other things to come next year.  Finally, I actually returned to my own office and got everything ready so I can jump straight into my grading tomorrow morning without spending any time moving files to appropriate places, or downloading anything.

Another day.

It is a heckuva lot better than any other job I’ve ever had.

BTW: There is going to be a special on the Science Channel tonight at 9pm eastern about the discovery of Hatshepsut’s mummy.  It looks potentially cool.

Posted in Egyptology, Hatshepsut, Teaching, thoughts | Leave a Comment »

I Probably Should Stop

Posted by Gerald on July 14, 2007

… watching History International.

They had a show on earlier today entitled something like “Where Does it Come From?”  The host mentioned that he was a physicist, which makes sense.  There do not seem to be any historians associated with most of what the History Channel and History International do.  The subject was apartment buildings and the theme was that they originated in Ancient Rome.

To be fair most of the show was fine.  In fact, it featured a very good demonstration of how fullers cleaned clothing in Rome – urine and all.  Two things irked me however, so here we go.

Early in the show the host mentioned the usual height of the Roman insulae and the regulations enacted by both Gaius Julius and Augustus Caesar limiting the height of these buildings to 70 feet and mandating that they have 2 feet thick walls.  Again, there were some good things here.  The host used toast to demonstrate why Roman concrete blocks did not stand up well to torsional strain.  They also went to an engineering firm to do computer models about how high you could safely build a building made of concrete blocks without a steel frame.

First there was the surprise everyone seemed to have when the computer model demonstrated that – guess what – using those building materials at those thicknesses, the maximum safe height for a building was 70 feet – as reflected in the regulations.  Surprise, surprise – people in the past weren’t idiots and had reasons for the things they did!  Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but there seems to be a contempt for our own ancestors in our popular culture.

The most extreme examples of this are the ridiculous theories that people have put forward about the megaliths in Europe, monumental construction in Egypt, temples and cities in pre-Colombian America, the monuments on Easter Island, etc…  It was aliens, time-travelers, reptiles who dwell in the center of the earth, anyone but the people who lived there.  Because we can’t figure out how they did things with the technology they had available, they must not have done it, there must be some supernatural explanation.  Maybe there is a simpler one: we are the children of some pretty smart and capable people who figured out how to do some pretty amazing things.  I don’t get the attraction so many people have for these unhistorical pieces of nonsense – don’t they WANT to be descended from these smart and capable folks?

Second, the host made a point of saying that the limitations on the height of these building could have been exceeded “if the Romans had used steel rods to reinforce the walls of the buildings” – while showing a shot of a modern skyscraper under construction.  What they never asked, or answered, was why the Romans didn’t do that?  Evidently, it is just because they weren’t clever enough to think of it.

The fact is that using steel rods to build a frame for a building was economically unfeasible.  Until the invention of the Bessemer Converter in the 19th century (itself a product of new insights into chemistry and thermodynamics) steel was produced in small batches by skilled craftsmen.  The Romans had steel – hell, the Germans and Celts had steel (in the case of the Celts, some was better than the Romans) – but it was kind of expensive.  Also, there was another demand for steel – the Roman Army.  Given the limits on supply due to existing technology, and the pressure on price due to demand from the Army, the idea of using steel as a building material was unlikely to occur to anyone.  It could be done, but you would have a very expensive building in the end.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to pontificate so (well, I am a bit of a blow-hard…).  Maybe I’m just in “lecturing withdrawal” since I’m only teaching on-line this summer.  Still, I would like it if the history shows on TV would dig a little deeper and check a little more.

Posted in American culture, History, rant, Roman History, Teaching, Television, thoughts | 2 Comments »

Wow

Posted by Gerald on July 13, 2007

I just got an e-mail from one of my students in the online History of Africa class.  Due to personal issues he is withdrawing from the class, even though we are very near the end.  Here is my wow! from the message:

“After completing the opposing viewpoints readings* I decided to join the American Friends Service Committee, that way I can do some real advocating for African issues.”

*The opposing viewpoints readings are articles from a reader called “Taking Sides” about both historical and contemporary issues in Africa.

Wow.

Posted in Africa, Teaching | 1 Comment »

Yay! I’m Getting A Colleague!

Posted by Gerald on July 7, 2007

Ah, Saturday morning.  The dog is sleeping off her morning run, I’m well into my second large mug of coffee, Steeleye Span is playing on iTunes, and the temperature outside hasn’t gotten into the 90’s… yet. 

Now, to be honest, I already have a number of wonderful colleagues, but none of them teach history.  I have been the only full-time history faculty at our little Yale-Near-To-The-Yadkin ever since I was hired.  For a long time (since the late 1960s) we had two full-time history instructors.  One of them (a man who taught me when I was an undergraduate and then hired me as an adjunct faculty member many years later) retired.  This left us with one full-time instructor and many adjuncts.  At that point I  became a “full-time adjunct” (all the classroom hours, none of the benefits, less than half the pay) for a few years.  When that guy decided to retire a couple of years later, they had to hire at least one new history faculty, and they did.  It wasn’t me, which is another story.  Eighteen months later the person they hired decided to move on, the college had to fill that position and I did get hired that time.  Since then it has just been me.

Mind you, we have a lot more students now than when we had two full-time instructors, so there is plenty of work to do.  Our Associate Dean and my Department Chair had been pushing for another history position for awhile, and this year they finally got it.

My biggest work issue this week was interviewing applicants.  I was on two hiring committees this summer – one for a new history person and one for a new sociology person (we had hired a sociology instructor last summer -I was on that committee too- but for various reasons she isn’t coming back this year.)  I’m not going to get into any of that because of the privacy of those involved.  Suffice it to say that we found two excellent people and they both look likely to accept the positions we are offering.  Also, I have learned how different the whole process looks from this side of the table than it looked from the other.

I love history.  I love reading it, I love teaching it, and I love talking about it.  I even enjoy writing about it.  Until this week, I don’t think I’ve realized how much I’ve missed not being able to talk to someone with similar professional training and interests.  I really haven’t had that since leaving Iowa City ten years ago.  I’ve had people from OTHER fields to talk to, but no history people.  It isn’t the same.

I’m so happy I’m not going to be a one-man department anymore.

Yay!

Posted in autobiographical, History, Personal, Teaching | 3 Comments »

I’m a History Teacher

Posted by Gerald on July 5, 2007

Once upon a time, I had pretensions of being a real historian.

I was going to spend my life doing major research, writing journal articles and books, engaging in big debates, and teaching my students.  I saw myself with a career where I would be making an impact on the profession.  Hell, you should have seen my dissertation thesis.  Peter Novick once congratulated me on having picked something that was “so likely to piss off so many people.”  I was going to be paradigm-shifting with the best of them.  I was going to be a historian.

That is not how things turned out.

Some of it was life intervening, but that isn’t really why I didn’t go where I had planned.  Two realities re-shaped my goals.  First, I’m not that smart.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bad, but I’ve met class-A historical minds and I am not one of them.  Second, I’m not a researcher.  I can do research.  I can write.  I gave some papers and I even got one published.  I never enjoyed a minute of it.  As I got deeper into research for my dissertation, it felt like I was pulling my own teeth.  The idea of a lifetime of that was simply unsustainable.

So I didn’t become a historian.  I became a history teacher.

I teach at a community college.  Let’s face it, community colleges are a national punchline.  There were two episodes of “My Name is Earl” devoted to the pretensions of community college students, the thrust of which was that they hadn’t gone to a real school.  We are the subject of Rob Schneider jokes.  Certainly, from the viewpoint of most real historians, what I do is the academic equivalent of being a fry cook.  I teach nothing but basic survey courses and the occasional sophomore-level history course.  Everything I do is a case-study in creative editing because I have 16 weeks to cover dawn-of-time to 1700 and then 16 more weeks to cover 1700 to the present.  No depth, no nuances, no local case-studies, we gotta move.

I love it.

Most students who pass through the state universities here are going to take two history courses – either Western Civ or World Civ.  Those going into teaching will also take American survey.  Most real historians hate teaching survey courses.  I love them.  This, to borrow a phrase, is where the rubber hits the road.  This is where the real dialog between the historical profession and the world takes place.  The average American college grad will never even see a copy of the AHR, but they are going to hear what their survey course instructor says.  Some of those people are then going to go on to teach social studies to elementary school kids.  Freshman survey is where America learns its history.  We had better get it right.  If we don’t, the rest of the entire profession is culturally meaningless.

Years of experience at this level has taught me one important lesson.  The one thing my graduate education did nothing to prepare me for was actual teaching.  The conceit is that the best researchers are the best teachers.  I’m sorry, but that is like saying being a really good farmer is going to make you into a master chef.  There is some connection there, but they are two separate skill sets.  You can have them both, some of my former colleagues from grad school surely do, but it isn’t automatic.  I learned more about being an effective teacher from being a TA to a guy that the U of Iowa didn’t grant tenure to than I ever did in my seminars.  I learned a lot from being involved in the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, but that was a sideline in my program.  I learned to teach like most college instructors do – on the job.  Since coming to the community college I have found a group of professionals who see themselves as educators first and who take pedagogy seriously.

We lower-class community college types get 41% of the nation’s undergraduates and about 13% of Federal funding.  Our students are more likely to have developmental needs, more likely to have jobs and kids, have less money, and are less likely to come from families that are already boasting a lot of college graduates.  These were not the college-bound kids (for the most part – we always have a few of the students who were right at the top.)  Our kids are on a really tough road and most of them do not make it.

But some do – and nobody else was around to help them.  Just me and my colleagues at our silly little, not REALLY intellectual, community college.

I’m damned proud to be here, teaching my silly survey courses.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But then, as I said earlier, I’m not that smart.

Posted in autobiographical, community colleges, History, opinion, Personal, Teaching | 7 Comments »

Virtual Office Hours

Posted by Gerald on June 7, 2007

Since I am teaching web-only courses this summer, I have got online office hours.  On Wednesday night from 7 to 9 I have “chat” windows open for each course.  This evening was a fine example of Web 2.0 in action.  For the first 90 minutes, no one was there, so I wrote my last blog post and cruised through the blogs I read and my daily news updates from The Economist.  Then, during the last half hour, I had a student show up in each class chat space, so I was having two conversations.  In one window, I’m trying to advise a student who felt she might be getting in over her head, and in the other I’m discussing William Pitt the Elder’s strategy in the Seven Years War and the meaning, and paradoxes, of Enlightened Absolutism.

 Oh, Brave New World…

Posted in Personal, Teaching | Leave a Comment »