The Importance of Teachers
I learned this afternoon that my 6th grade Hebrew teacher, Riva Thatch, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.
While I don’t use the vast majority of the things I learned in Mrs. Thatch’s class these days — my Hebrew is awfully rusty — I know she laid the foundation for all the rest of my education by doing something so simple: Mrs. Thatch loved me. She wanted the best for me and she somehow managed to make that clear to me — and remember, I was a rambunctious, goofy, irritating, nerdy, girl-chasing 6th grade boy. I’m not so naive as to imagine that Mrs. Thatch was alone in caring about me and about my education as much as she did; it’s just that, at that impossibly awkward and important time in my life, I really noticed her caring.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had many truly excellent teachers, from my kindergarten teacher to my undergraduate and dissertation advisors. My own decision to become an educator was so obviously shaped by these generous men and women who assigned me homework, graded my papers, corrected my many mistakes, encouraged me to learn, and cared so deeply about me as a person.
I had a meeting this morning with a man I’d never met. I was wearing jeans and a zip-up fleece, which is pretty much my uniform this winter since I’m not teaching and thus don’t need to wear my teaching uniform of khaki pants and a button-down shirt or sweater.
He said, “So, you’re a professor, right?”
I smiled and said, “I am. But I’m not really dressed like one today.”
He said, “That’s ok. I knew you were a professor because of your beard.”
Sabbatical beard achievement unlocked!
bmichael asked: There are at least two was to approach (online) life. You can (1) be extremely self-critical and have a generally (even if you don't [I don't mean YOU "you" but the subjunctive "you" here] realize it) post-modern epistemologically skeptical self or (2) be generally feckless and un-self-conscious and just do stuff. Obviously, it's both easier to do (2) but also somewhat paradoxically harder to do (2) if you're in the wrong position. Anyway, either way, which is better?
I often discuss this issue with my students, especially given the amount of online writing I’ve started to require of them in my courses over the past few years.
The short answer is that it’s always better to think critically about the online persona you’re crafting, even though it’s more challenging to do so and requires a fair amount of time and thought.
Well, once you’ve figured out your goals for writing (and just generally being) online, the hard part is done. Now you just have to live up to the goals you’ve set for yourself. My sense is that having a carefully thought-out online persona makes it more likely that people will share your work and thus makes it easier for more people to find what you’re doing. After all, it’s more likely that someone who has thought critically about the sorts of topics (s)he wants to write about will also be thinking and writing carefully about those things, and thus will find an audience who is interested in careful thinking and writing on those topics.
If you never set any goals, never figure out what you want to accomplish online, I think you make life harder for yourself in the long term. You’re either always be trying to figure out what you’re doing (and why) or else you’ll just never figure it out and, as you say, “just do stuff.” Just doing stuff seems to me to be what gets people in trouble. If you’ve worked out who you are, I’d venture that you’re less likely to do something embarrassing to yourself. And, of course, we now know that embarrassing yourself online can be global, permanent, and have serious off-line implications.
jakke asked: What are your thoughts on research faculty participating in extension and community outreach programs? Do you feel it's a suitable use of their time?
I suppose it’s difficult to say what’s a suitable use of someone’s time. When we’re “graded” as faculty, it’s almost entirely for our research productivity and the quality of our work in the classroom. The “service” requirement of my job counts for just 10% and it encompasses a dozen or more types of activities, like serving on committees at the university, advising student organization, doing editorial work for journals, reviewing book manuscripts for presses, and so on.
With regard to community outreach, here at Nebraska, we have the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and several of my colleagues have been invovled teaching courses for that program. I’ve generally heard very positive things from those who have been involved, both teaching and learning.
I tend to do other sorts of “outreach” activities that aren’t affiliated with the university … mostly because my university-related service cup runneth over already. In the past few years, I’ve given occasional lectures at retirement homes, and to religous or community groups, and I’ve served as a board member for local and national non-profit organizations.
For me, these things are a lot of fun and they allow me to interact with really interesting people so, even though it doesn’t really “count” for much with regard to my job, I’d say it’s a good way to spend some of my time.
Last semester’s course evaluations are in for my contemporary political philosophy course and I thought I’d post some of the highlights. As is the case every semester, students reported that they were overworked but that they enjoyed themselves. In fact, there wasn’t a single negative evaluation. In response to the question, “What, if anything, did you like about the instructor?,” several students wrote, “The cult of personality.”
So, this semester the results were crazily positive; this might have something to do with the fact that all the students who despised me, my class, or political theory more generally dropped or withdrew before the end of the semester:
- “He is amazing. He was upbeat and could banter with the best of them. He also could break down the challenging info.”
- "He’s cooler than he looks."
- "Could sometimes be a little arrogant. But the attitude worked well for the class. He was every bit a philosopher."
- "It’s a course you can apply to all other courses."
- "I always knew that if I didn’t understand the reading, I could come to class & get my questions answered."
- "The instructor was younger [than I expected]."
- "Maybe slow down a little so students can type the important parts of the lecture, many holes in my notes (and others) because we were all too busy listening to ask him to slow down — which is hilarious."
- "I thought, from what I’d heard, that he was an angry old man.”
- "Pushed students to work harder and think about their life and passions in addition to the material."
- "I didn’t know if I was going to like this class. I ended up loving it. It challenged me to think in ways that I haven’t before."
- “It was insightful, challenging, and captivating. I will never view the world the same.”
- “Dr. Kohen is the best prof. I’ve had in my 4½ years at UNL. The last three semesters w/him have changed me for the better.”
Unlike previous semesters, where one student would recommend one change to the course and another would recommend the exact opposite, students agreed about changes they’d like to see. They universally hated the 50 minute/3 day a week format, as I do, because our discussions were constantly interrupted just as they got underway, and they want the political science department to offer more political theory classes rather than fewer:
- Give him longer class periods. Maybe a seminar or TV show.
- Switch back to Tuesday/Thursday schedule.
- It will be very sad if this class is no longer offered.
- Make it longer than 50 minutes.
- The classes seemed a little more rushed than previous courses he teaches due to the 50 minute class length.
- The instructor would be more effective if he were allowed to teach more political philosophy classes.
Finally, there’s one question on the evaluation sheet that always makes me laugh; it asks, “Did the instuctor’s lectures, comments, and interactions with students display respect for (sensitivity to) differences in gender, race, ethnicity or other characteristics?” This semester, a bunch of students answered with a reference to the veil of ignorance in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (which we read at the very beginning of the semester).
That might be the best measure of the success of the class.
Technically, no one is required to take any of the courses I teach (at either the undergraduate or graduate level).
There is a political theory requirement for undergraduate political science majors, but it’s only one course and it can thus be fulfilled by taking the introductory course (which is taught by one of my graduate students) rather than one of my upper-level courses.
For the past six years, undergrads in political science at the University of Nebraska who wanted to make political theory one of their three subfields of study would have to take at least one course with me because the subfield requirement called for at least two courses. This won’t be the case any longer, as my department voted to eliminate political theory as one of the subfields of undergraduate study last semester. My suspicion is that, over time, the number of students in my courses will dwindle as more and more students simply elect take the intro course and steer clear of the upper-level courses (less because of my grading practices and more because they don’t fulfill any sort of degree requirement).
There might still be one or two students who choose to take all of the classes I offer. In his or her final semester, I might buy a weekly doughnut for such a student.
The Top 5 Posts of 2013
As I did yesterday, I’m once again linking to the top blog posts of the year. These are the posts that drew the most unique eyeballs; the list doesn’t include the About page, where several thousand people each year go to find out whose writing they’re reading, the Ask page, where people write in with questions or to say kind and unkind things to me, or the front page, which is always the top draw since it’s the way that people access the site directly (rather than via some referring site).
Perhaps you missed some of these posts. Or maybe you just want to have another look since it’s been a little while. Feel free, of course, to share them with friends and loved ones because each click tells me that you’d like for me to keep writing these sorts of things.
Here, then, are the Top 5 most viewed posts of 2013:
#5. That time Ari Fleischer explained that he only donates to charity for the tax break and any changes to the tax code would mean he’ll donate less (1/1/13)
#4. “Whither Aristotle?,” a reflection on the decision of my colleagues to eliminate political theory as a subfield of undergraduate study in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska (10/3/13)
#3. That time when Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the MLB All-Star Game and racists went crazy on Twitter because they assumed, wrongly, that Anthony wasn’t American (7/17/13)
#2. “Twitter Assassins,” in which a whole bunch of people went online to reflect on President Obama’s inauguration by calling for someone to assassinate him (1/21/13)
#1. That time when people vented their anger on Twitter and demanded a White History Month since February is Black History Month (2/1/13)
It’s been a fun and fascinating year of writing for me, full of arguments and thoughtful exchanges of ideas. I plan to have a brief reflection tomorrow that looks back at some of the things I learned from blogging this year and looks forward to 2014.
Thanks for reading, for engaging with my ideas, for sharing my blog posts with your friends, and for asking for my thoughts on issues or events as they’ve come up.
Happy New Year!
As of 8:34am on Monday, December 23 … I am on sabbatical!
My grades for this semester have been submitted; I’ve checked out an entire shelf of books from the university library; and my laptop is all charged up.
I feel so free, I almost don’t know what to do first.
But it’s time to learn some new things and write about them, which is one of the two things I love most about my job. So I’m going to just grab the first book I borrowed from the library — Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies —and jump in.
The Real War on Christmas
I’m currently giving a final exam … in a snowstorm … on December 20.
Happy holidays, students!
In a little more than a decade of teaching at the undegraduate level, I don’t recall reading a paper that didn’t meet the minimum page requirements and was nonetheless “A” work. The minimum for most of my essays is 6 pages; the maximum is 8 pages. The questions I ask are designed to be answered in 6-8 pages; they often involve multiple sub-questions and require students to discuss more than one political theorist’s ideas. Occasionally, a student will hand in a paper that’s longer than 8 pages; it’s pretty rare but there are examples of students handing in 10 page papers that earn an “A” grade.
The dangers in writing too much are that you might be throwing the kitchen sink at the question or you might need to edit yourself a bit more seriously. The dangers in writing too little are that you might be missing a key part of the question, ignoring the complexity of the topic, or failing to make use of the relevant material from the course. The latter dangers seem to occur far more often and are far more problematic.
I tell students every semester that I’ll happily revise my essay requirements if I get an “A” paper that’s shorter than the 6 page minimum, but I strongly discourage them from trying to be the one that gets me to revise my requirements since the odds are pretty terrible.
A number of my students — both current and former — read this blog with some regularity so they can correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.
I should note that I’m more lenient when it comes to graduate student work; I expect a 20-25 page seminar paper, but I’ve given an “A” grade to shorter essays since the students are responsible for coming up with the topic themselves, in consultation with me, and might do an excellent job of addressing some topic or other in 18 pages rather than 20. I’m also more open to giving leeway to grad students because I wrote a successful short essay once myself as a grad student. Alasdair MacIntyre called me into his monastic office and said to me, very sternly, “It was by far the shortest essay I received. This was a gamble, but you have gotten away with it." When I finally opened my mouth to say "thanks," I realized I’d been holding my breath since I first sat down.
Why Am I So Strict?
Grading season is upon us once again and, as the work starts to pile up, I have to wonder why I maintain the various policies I’ve put in place over the years … since they mostly seem to cause me headaches and are almost always violated by the students.
For example, why do I bother telling students that I want their papers to be between X and Y number of pages?
I mean, I know it’s because a decade of teaching suggests thst 99% of them can’t successfully answer the question they’ve set out to answer in fewer than X number of pages. But they seem so committed to trying.
So why do I bother telling them to write an X page essay and chastising them for failing to follow directions when I know full well they’re just going to turn in whatever they want and, more often than not, they won’t even come ask me about their grade next semester?
Maybe next time I should just say, “Honestly, it doesn’t matter. If I say eight pages, you’ll turn in a six page paper; if I say twenty page, your paper will be sixteen. And you’ll add section headings and you’ll adjust the margins to make it look longer than it is. Write until the spirit no longer moves you.”
They’ll still get a C for the assignment just like those students who haven’t fully answered the question this time around, but we won’t have to go through the whole headache where they ask me for guidelines and then ignore them.