Grade This, Motherf%#@&*!

TeacherMoiI went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.

But I digress.

I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.

This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.

And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.

There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?

Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.


random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

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theory kills

WorldWearyMoi I've been having an interesting but frustrating discussion over on Facebook with a 26-year-old that's really making me feel my age in some ways. He's a proponent of free-market capitalism at its most extreme, a Libertarian wedded to the theory of complete government non-interference. Economists, I've concluded, are a strange bunch. The field is a combination of complexity studies, human psychology, and faith, as far as I can tell, though it leans very heavily on the latter, more than the former. Market behavior seems to be like gravity: everybody experiences it, but nobody knows what it is or how it works.

One thing that really sets us apart in this discussion is my lack of faith in theories. I'm not talking about things like scientific theories that explain natural laws, but theories of human behavior, whether they're theories of altruism, politics, criminal behavior, or economics. Humans are such complicated, complex systems individually that ascribing behavior to any single factor, no matter how complex it is itself, will always lead to exceptions. Our societies are such complex organisms that I'm not sure we'll every understand how even a large crowd works, let alone cities, states, or nations. The more I travel, the more true that seems to me. I've always been interested in what, exactly, goes into making of national character, and China really challenged me to define that as much as I could, which wasn't much. Simplified, US character vs. Chinese character is rugged individualism vs group harmony, but that's so simplified that it's actually worthless. What kind of groups do you have when everyone's an only child? When more and more Chinese are alone in cities rather than together on family farms? Theories like this are like statistics: you can make assumptions and predictions on a group level, but those predictions break down on an individual level.

Anyway, we've been arguing about universal healthcare. He thinks it's not a right, and I say it is and there's really no possibility of reconciliation of those two views. It seems to me that it is an excellent investment for any nation to ensure the health and education of its citizens, to increase their productivity. In his mind, the interference of government in our personal lives (i.e., demanding we help fund healthcare for those less fortunate than us) is more abhorrent than others going sick and possibly dying prematurely. He believes this should be funded voluntarily, which is a lovely thought. But I've learned over the years that people are not that generous, and not that kind. Sure, when asked to give in individual cases we very often come to the rescue and are happy to do so. But to ask us to fund a system for the faceless and unknown, for people we may not think deserve it, is ludicrous. I wish it weren't so, but it is. And this is where the role of government comes in: to push us, as Ted Kennedy so often did, beyond our base and selfish impulses to have compassion for people we do not even know. Unregulated systems are dangerous because they treat human beings and their lives as abstractions and numbers. Any theory about human behavior does this, even the theories that lead to helping people. Regulation provides, to some extent, a correction of that impulse. But what each system really needs is compassionate administrators to correct the rigidity of any system. This is not to say that we should all get what we want. Sometimes, what we want isn't necessary, but when you're gambling with people's lives, I think it's better to err on the side of generosity than strict adherence to law.

That's because a life of compassion is far more fulfilling, far better for everyone, than a life dedicated to theory. I don't think I've learned this just as a humanities teacher or student, but in the life experiences I've had too. I've been so down it looked like up to me, emotionally, physically, and financially. Yes, my friends pitched in, but I really could have used some help paying for that $35,000 worth of therapy that made me a productive citizen again. I still would have had to do the work involved, but the difficulty would have been halved. I don't regret the investment, but neither would my government. It's never a bad idea to invest in people, not to make them dependent, but to help them get where they want to go. The people who don't want to go anywhere? That's a different matter. But the people who can't and want to? Why would we not want to help? And in the case of healthcare, not helping them is tantamount to passive euthanasia: standing by while nature takes its course. Sometimes that's appropriate, but often it's not. Good healthcare decreases the burden on the state and the burden on its citizens.

And a little compassion never hurt anybody.

On top of that,

. . . apparently I'm a Socialist. Wouldn't Dad be surprised! I'm down there in the Gandhi quadrant, which I think is not a bad place to be. Maybe I should move to Holland. I could probably get a grant to make books there.

            You are a    
     Social Liberal    
     (80% permissive)
     and an...    

      Economic Liberal      
     (11% permissive)
     You are best described as a:

Link: The Politics Test    on  Ok Cupid
Also : The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

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