Stepping through the retirement door

The Thinker by Rodin

Should retirement be scary?

Presumably the answer is no, providing you have your ducks lined up. This generally includes having a decent pension (if you are lucky enough to have one), a well stocked 401-K, maybe an IRA or two and a house that is either paid off or close to being paid off. Ideally, you would retire on something like eighty percent (or more) of your pre-retirement income. Then it’s off to do what retired people are supposed to do, which is play golf and go on plenty of Elder Hostels.

The sad reality is that many Americans simply cannot afford to retire. Many others found that they have been thrust into an early and de-facto retirement. They are laid off and no one wants to hire them because they are fifty-plus and thus old. Maybe they got an involuntary retirement with a token “thank you for working for us” one time payment of $50,000. In any event, they are too young for Medicare (age 65), too young for social security (age 62), and too old to get any affordable health insurance. They are hoping they don’t have to move into a mobile home or, failing that, a cardboard box under the freeway.

Yet people still retire all the time, often before they would like to do so, but sometimes because their stars were properly aligned. I am eligible to retire next year a few months after I turn fifty-five. I always assumed that before I retired from my somewhat senior federal job that I would have some other job lined up. Playing golf does not appeal to me, but staying busy and productive does. One way to stay busy is not to retire from my federal career. The other way is to retire from a federal career I have known for thirty challenging years and start another one.

It’s a dilemma that should be a good one, but is one that for some reason fills me with trepidation. The reason I am considering it at all is because a full time faculty position is being created at the local community college, the same college I have taught at as an adjunct off and on for eleven years. They will be interviewing candidates in the spring and the new instructor will start in the fall. Presumably, I would have an excellent chance of getting the job. They already know me and know that I am a reliable commodity who knows the material. My credentials and experience would be difficult for other candidates to match, and since the job would pay about half what I make now, they will be unlikely to fill it with someone other than an eligible retiree like me. However, with my pension as a retiree, I could teach and maintain something like my current standard of living.

So accepting the job if it is offered should not be a hard decision. I would retire from one career and formally start the next. I wouldn’t feel the pressure to play golf or spend days sitting on park benches. I would stay gainfully employed, which is probably a good idea until the house is paid off. And I like teaching, at least a good part of the time, otherwise I would have not been doing it for so long.

But instead I feel this nervousness and trepidation. In fact, a whole host of feelings I did not expect are welling up inside me. I ask myself interminable questions. Like why should I leave a job I really like? It’s rewarding, pays great and my work has achieved some note. I do sometimes feel that I’ve contributed all that I can, so there is no compelling reason to hang around if other opportunities open up, like they are doing now.

Moreover, I have also learned that teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a noble profession because you have to be a bit crazy to do it. Students are often lazy and apathetic, and some of them cheat. I caught two cheating in my last class and had to flunk them, which was not a pleasant experience. Many of the classes are quite elementary, hence not too interesting to teach. And yet, there are rewards. There are always a couple of interesting and talented students in a class. Occasionally, you can make a real difference with a student. Last semester I taught a thirty something man with ADHD. I was his first attempt at college after a failure long ago. He succeeded in my class, mostly due to his hard work, but also with my help and encouragement. I may prove a pivotal transformative figure in his life. That’s neat.

Yet I expect that teaching full time would be a different experience than teaching a class or two a year in the evenings.  There are a lot of aspects of teaching that are not much fun. Lesson plans. Grading homework. Discipline. Students who blow off classes and then expect you to bend over backwards for them. In short, the job would likely be more of a challenge than the one I already have, a lot more tedious and with murky rewards. Watching a student or two in a class rise to true excellence is rewarding, but more rewarding than the work of the team I am leading? How do I top my career with the great things we have already done together? It’s a career that really excites me: watching the promise of information technology being delivered in ways that make the world a better place. Users of our system send tracking information to Google Analytics, which I can monitor in a control panel. Today I marveled watching the real-time usage of our site in Google Analytics, which reported 350-450 active visitors at one time, with five or more web pages being sent every second. That’s an accomplishment, certainly not something I can claim credit for, but which I certainly orchestrated.

And yet any meaning from my job is something I alone ascribe to it. Retiring from my federal job would be closing a thirty-year door on my life, but another door would open, different but potentially more rewarding. One thing I am reasonably certain about: when the door closes on my federal career, it closes for good. I would step into a much different and more challenging world, one that may piss me off more than please me. One that may ultimately say to me: what the hell were you thinking?

And while I might close a door behind me, there would be tendrils from that past that would follow and affect the rest of my life. A pension is as good as gold, at least until Congress in a fit of austerity decides it doesn’t want to pay it, or decides to reduce it. If history is a guide, it won’t happen, but you never know. There are no certainties in life, not even from Uncle Sam. In any event, drawing a good salary today guarantees more security than the promise of a pension at half pay once out of it.

I’ll figure my way through this bittersweet dilemma. Life is about living and life is defined by change. Life may be offering me a new opportunity, meaningful in new ways but still meaningful. If offered the job, the real dilemma will be finding the courage to step through that door.

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.

Transitions, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

There are many good aspects about having only one child. There are also certain aspects that are not ideal. For one, as an only child, your child has no older siblings to emulate. I was the fifth child so when my turn came for college I knew what to expect. I was both happy and scared at the thought of semi-independent living. As is often the case, I found college transformational, both academically and personally. College forced me to step outside my comfort zone. By the time I got my degree, although I had no job prospects, I knew I could hack this independent living thing.

Most of us baby boomers could not wait to leave Mom and Dad. If my daughter is a typical example, the situation is wholly reversed now. I went straight to a four-year college. She went to community college. Her choice kept her educational expenses low. There was no off campus housing that could compete with the comforts of home. Here the Internet and phones are free, and she can eat what she wants even at 4 a.m. If she leaves a mess in the sink, while her parents will complain she will blithely tune us out. She is largely tone deaf to our pleas, a habit acquired from twenty years of living with us, seventeen of which have been spent in her bedroom overlooking our front lawn.

Eventually though the community college experience has to end and if you want a bachelor’s degree, you have to go to a real college. This means a big life transition. She sporadically worked with counselors and got lots of conflicting advice on what courses she needed for her goal of being a high school English teacher. Over time, she narrowed her choices of college to one: Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. It helped that they were not too picky. If you had an associate’s degree from a Virginia community college, you were pretty much guaranteed admission.

Deciding to go to VCU and actually engaging our daughter in checking out the campus were two different things entirely. Like many of her generation, she seemed content to drag her feet. She also likes to sleep days and stay up nights. I am frankly amazed that she has almost earned an associate’s degree at all, as most of her time seems to be spent playing World of Warcraft in the wee hours rather than studying. With minimal nagging, she did manage to apply to VCU online. Some weeks later, this caused her to receive an invitation to Transfer Student Day at VCU. She seemed to realize she had no more reason to drag her feet. So on Monday, we drove two hours south to Richmond.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by VCU, but the campus pleasantly surprised me. It sits on the edge of Richmond’s modest downtown. VCU is actually split into two campuses. Unless you are a medical student, you spend most of your time on the Monroe Park campus on the western side. The campus immediately made me wistful. It was the sort of university I wanted to go to but didn’t quite make it to. I went to the University of Central Florida, which at the time was primarily for older adults struggling to get a degree while working a full time job. It was a commuter’s university. VCU was in my mind a proper college campus where most students were full time, lived nearby, and either walked or biked to class.

It took a while to find a parking garage and we had to ask a few strangers to point us to the Student Commons. Traffic cops assisted the voluminous students (many of whom were bicyclists) across streets. Bikes were everywhere and seemed to be the preferred mode of transportation. The VCU students looked normal. This is in marked contrast to the many community college students I have taught over the last ten years, who often looked like zombies. The Student Commons was clearly the center of academic life on the campus. We acquired a map at an information booth and started scouting the neighborhood, which pulsed with an invigorating academic beat.

When your daughter is twenty, you cannot really tell her what to do, but you can nudge her a bit. Since she wanted to be an English teacher, I knew she would spend most of her time in the English Department. The idea of actually visiting to the English Department had never entered her brain. However, I took the time to study the VCU web site to find the one person on campus that would probably be the most use to her: the undergraduate advisor for the English Department. We actually found her at her desk across the street in the Hibbs buildings. She looked busy, but not too busy to spend fifteen minutes or so advising a new student. I wisely decided to leave the two of them alone, but I did hear snippets of their conversations out in the hall. I listened as my daughter somewhat unwittingly found herself increasingly engaged. She learned things no one else had told her, like she needed to transfer her advanced placement courses, and that she could get her master’s degree at VCU in just three years. I smiled to myself. Score! This is why God invented fathers.

Back at the Student Commons, we also found an off campus housing office. On campus housing is quite limited, so most students live off campus. But where to live? Neither of us had a clue. While I had passed Richmond many times on I-95, I had never really been in Richmond before. Where are the good neighborhoods? Which neighborhoods should be avoided? A young man with a large map of downtown Richmond patiently lead us through the various neighborhoods and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each neighborhood. How to find a roommate? My experience of using bulletin boards had morphed into online bulletin boards. He showed us the site, and gave us tips on registration.

The actual Transfer Day event was somewhat anticlimactic, as we had already gotten most of the information we needed. Nevertheless, we did speak to two other students working on getting their teaching credentials and learned from them a lot about academic life. Student life includes a lot of theater, which I knew would engage my daughter. Before leaving back for home though, we toured the various neighborhoods where students found housing to see if any spoke to her.

Richmond is a prettier city than I expected, full of old townhouses and Victorian houses, most of them very well maintained in spite of being mostly shared by transient VCU students. If it wasn’t for all the obnoxious statues to dead Civil War generals, most of whom were slaveholders, I might consider living in Richmond myself.

Since returning home my daughter has resumed staying up nights and playing World of Warcraft, but I also know she is thinking harder about her future. Before Monday, VCU and higher education was something of an abstraction. Now it is something she has experienced first hand. She now has to sift through a number of choices and deal with some difficult logistical issues, just like the rest of us adults. Slowly, and very reluctantly, she seems to be growing up at last.

Community college is not quite college

The Thinker by Rodin

As long time readers know, I teach off and on at a community college. More specifically, I teach off and on at Northern Virginia Community College, one of the nations largest community colleges. I taught a Computer Fundamentals course in the spring semester, took the summer off, and am back teaching the same course for the fall semester.

Community colleges serve some valuable purposes. Primarily, they help bridge high schoolers that never quite excelled in high school with the college education most need these days to succeed in life. This is a sizeable crowd, more so these days than most due to the severe economic recessions. NVCC like many community colleges is bursting at its seams. Enrollment is up over ten percent from last year. We have classes that start at 6:30 a.m. We are occupying space in excess office buildings because the campuses are not big enough. This is good as otherwise many of these students would not be able to take a class at all, or would need to extend their education.

In addition to those who never soared in high school, NVCC serves other groups that are arguably marginalized and disenfranchised, but should not be. We get many ESOL (English as a Second Language) students, people just auditing courses, senior citizens with too much time on their hands and a fair number of students who attend community college because apparently they cannot think of anything better to do.

After nine years of off-and-on teaching, one thing I can say for sure: community college is not “real” college. At least, it is not the college experience I knew attending a four-year institution some thirty plus years back and this has me worried. Many of the courses that are taught, while necessarily from a business purpose, are of dubious academic worth. I can use the Computer Fundamentals class that I teach as an example. About a third of the class imparts what I consider to be real knowledge: the basics of computer science. Most of the class is really about learning the Microsoft Office Suite: Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Access.

Granted the Microsoft Office suite is ubiquitous, whether you work in business, government or academia. Microsoft Word is the typewriter grown up. Microsoft Excel is a fancy tool for analyzing data. Microsoft Access is a desktop database. Still, in my opinion anyone going to college should be able to master any of these applications on their own. If Microsoft Office should be taught at all in college, it should be as an elective. These applications are not that hard to learn. Each comes with tutorials you can take at your leisure to learn basic and more advanced features. The expectation should be that if you are in college, you have already acquired enough intelligence and curiosity to independently learn and use these desktop applications as need dictates.

The fact that most of my students are baffled with these applications (even while they use them regularly) tells me that community college is essentially high school extended. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush. Not all community college courses are like this one, but many if not most seem to be. Moreover, perhaps because instructors recognize they are often working with academically challenged students, they may tailor their courses to the lowest common denominator. This seems to be manifested in the low volume of homework and exams that are dumbed down.

As a college freshman, I suffered through many courses I did not particularly like. Some were more challenging than others, but none of them were dumbed down. As a full-time student, generally taking four to five classes a semester, between classes, studying and group projects I remember typically putting in ten to fourteen hour days six to seven days a week. I remember craving lots more free time than I actually had. For the most part, I had no time for extracurricular activities like dating and drinking.

I doubt that is true of most of the full-time students that I teach. My daughter, age 20, also happens to be attending NVCC. I suspect she has a lot of natural intelligence, but she rarely needs to study for any of her classes. Mostly when she gets home from classes she has volumes of free time, much of which is spent playing World of Warcraft. Her friends who are attending four-year colleges have a much different experience. From the feedback I get from her, they are working their fannies off, just like I did. In short, they are being academically challenged. I doubt this is true for most of my students.

In our modern age, we need community college to bridge the gap between high school and real academia. I just wish that community colleges would be upfront and acknowledge that for the most part community colleges are college-lite. If NVCC is typical of most community colleges, it is perhaps thirty percent of the academic experience that they would receive at a four-year university.

Community colleges do serve a number of vital purposes. As a place to acquire new job skills rather cheaply and without traveling far, they are vital. As a place to learn business skills, they excel. As an example of egalitarianism at its finest, they do a great job. The barrier to entry is low. While it depends on the course and the instructor, most courses do not qualify as a proper academic experience. They tend to convey much more of the how to rather than the why. Few require much critical thinking.

I try hard to set a higher standard, but it is difficult. First, the material is not particularly challenging to master, although my students, who often skimp on studying, might disagree. I assign term papers and set what I hope are high standards for research. Despite howls from my students, most of my exams are not multiple choice, but require them to express in their own words some key concept. I used to provide the notes I lectured with and Powerpoint slides, but when it became apparent they could not even be bothered to study from these, I stopped. Moreover, I was contributing to the problem. To really master the material, they need to take their own notes and learn from them. I even provided advice on how to study at the start of the semester, which apparently many never picked up in high school. Some students in every class will excel, and I will do my best to make the material more interesting, although it is pretty dry. Most seem to prefer mediocrity to exceptionalism.

While I can try to raise the bar in my own class, clearly the bar needs to be raised overall in community colleges. Instructors need to set higher standards. We do students no favors if the majority of them graduate with Gentleman C’s, or B’s that are really C’s. These students, like it or not, will be leading our great nation someday. Unless we academics set higher standards, America of the 21st century is likely to be a place where the mediocre, rather than the exceptional, are running the country. In other words, we will be a nation in decline.

Here is my advice to today’s high schoolers. If you can afford it, attend a four-year university. I suspect that overall you will have a much better academic experience. You should not be able to skate your way to a four-year degree, and if you can, I would lower the credentials of the college giving you the degree. You need to master every course that you take to succeed. Never settle for mediocrity, or you may think that is the way America works, because it is not, at least not yet. Always set a high standard for yourself. If instructors like me are not giving you the academic experience you imagine, raise holy hell. You deserve the best that I can give you.

Real Life 101, Lesson 10: How to study

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the tenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

As regular readers may know, I am back in the classroom. It has been about four years since I taught in a community college. I had hoped that certain things would have changed. A few things have changed. Four years ago, my classes were roughly half fellow white Anglo Saxons. Today the ratio is more like 40:60. This is indicative of the area where I live, which is multicultural and is getting more so. In particular, I am seeing a lot more people of who appear predominantly from the Middle East or South Asia. One thing that has not changed is that many of my students are still woefully unprepared for the reality of college.

This is reflected in their grades. About a third of the class will mysteriously melt away through the course of the semester. Sometimes it appears that they just cannot summon the will to attend class. (My class starts at 9 AM.) Others when they get back the first couple quizzes see the handwriting on the wall. You would think that they would withdraw academically and get a tuition refund. Most of them do not, they just sort of fade away and eventually earn an F.

Sometimes I think I am a poor teacher, but those who survive the class have the opportunity to assess me near the end of the course. My teaching style normally gets a B, but it varies from class to class. So I figure I must be an okay teacher although those who dropped my course probably would tell me otherwise. Other times I think that maybe the courses I teach are too hard. This semester I am teaching Computer Fundamentals. About half of it is learning the Microsoft Office suite and the other half conveys basic knowledge about computers and information technology. Many students have picked up significant parts of the Microsoft Office suite already. Granted, many of them have not experimented much with formulas and graphs in Microsoft Excel, but presumably, these things should not be completely new. Nor was the Web Page Design course I taught for many years that difficult. You learn some tags and syntax, you mark it up with an editor and you display it on a web server. In short, neither of my courses were the equivalents of organic chemistry or calculus.

The Computer Fundamentals class is required for most students, so it brings in everyone from math wizards to art majors. I can understand why an art student might be a bit intimidated by numbers, but surely somewhere in their education they got enough courses to have learned things like the order of precedence with mathematical operators and what a function does. Maybe they got it once upon a time. It appears they quickly purged it from their brains.

For most of those failing or flailing, I am left to infer that they just did not learn how to study. If this describes you, young adult, let this part time teacher provide you with the basics.

Rule Number 1: Study takes time. You must set aside the time required to read the material, do the homework and participate in group projects. Most students who actually want to graduate quickly learn they must budget their time. They plan their week in accordance with their homework, upcoming quizzes and examinations. Study does not mean just flipping through your notes at a Starbucks before the class.

Rule Number 2: Read the textbook. If your instructor provides Powerpoint and lecture notes, that is helpful. These things though do not substitute for a textbook; they supplement the textbook. So when your professor says read pages 100-150 before class next week, if you want to get a good grade in the course this is not optional. The professor’s job is to help you join the material you read in the textbook with the information he is providing. In any course, there is far more to learn than the time allocated to teach it to you in class.

Rule Number 3: Take copious notes in class. Most of my students do not even have their notebooks open. Why? When the professor is talking, you should be taking notes as fast as you can scribble them. If you do not understand something, you are supposed to raise your hand and ask questions. That is how you learn.

Rule Number 4: Restate what you have learned after class. Whether it comes from the textbook, lecture notes, slides or your class notes, if you really want to learn, you will take the time to restate what you have learned outside of the class, ideally shortly after the class. Typing it up or jotting it down in a notebook helps to cement knowledge in your brain. When you read a textbook, take the time to mark it up. Get out that yellow highlighter. Read that paragraph with care. If you don’t understand it, read it again. There is often one key sentence or a phrase in a paragraph that conveys the key idea. Highlight that and restate it in your notes.

Rule Number 5: Study in solitude. Many of my students have MP3 players jammed into their ears while they appear to be studying or sometimes instead of listening to me. For studying, listening to music is a bad idea unless the music is classical, or wholly instrumental. The key is it must be subliminal and facilitate studying, not distract you from it. When you study, you need to concentrate on the material, not on the lyrics to a song. Unless you have group study sessions with other students, you need a quiet place and a closed door to study. If you live on campus or even if you do not, a library is a great place to study, in part because when you are there you feel like you must study. Not only do you have most of the resources you need handy if you have to do some research, but it is relatively quiet and there are usually plenty of tables and alcoves available where you can study.

Rule Number 6: Prepare adequately for tests. Review all the relevant material the day before the test. Give focus on your notes where you restated what you learned. Ideally, try to make time an hour or so before the test to review again what you reviewed the night before. If time is of the essence, review the key points that are hard to remember or understand. These things typically make the difference between one grade letter and the next.

Rule Number 7: Practice, practice, practice. Many courses, like the one I am teaching, include labs. Don’t just do the labs in class. Do them again as practice. Most textbooks will have other examples at the end of the textbook you can try. I saw many of my students flounder with a Microsoft Excel quiz I gave recently. While they went through the labs in class, they did not cement the key pieces of learning by redoing their work outside of the course. Naturally, they were quite challenged trying to complete the hands on portion of the quiz because they had not cemented in their brains the fundamental skills.

Rule Number 8: Commit to your education. This probably should be Rule Number 1. An education is obviously not free but even if your tuition is paid for by your parents or a scholarship, you must make the personal commitment to give your study the time and attention it deserves. This means you will probably sleep less, party less, socialize less and goof off less. This is what you have to do if you intend to graduate. When I was a full time student and did not have a job, I typically put in ten to fourteen hour days six or seven days a week. The payoff will be the degree, which will hopefully offer you the chance for a more enriching, interesting and hopefully well paid life. No one said life would be easy. If you want a degree, you must earn it. Put down the beer bottle and pick up the textbook, your notebook and a yellow highlighter instead. Your future you will be very glad you did.

College Pretenders

The Thinker by Rodin

The community college system was invented to make college affordable and available locally to ordinary people. You don’t need a 3.8 average to get into most community colleges. You generally need either a high school diploma or a G.E.D. For those who come from families of modest means paying for two years of education at a community college at a rate of $72 a credit hour (where I teach) is a bargain.

Perhaps it is because the tuition is so inexpensive that it is so easy to throw in the towel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Yesterday I finished yet another semester teaching a course at Northern Virginia Community College. As usual as I recorded the final grades I felt dispirited. But I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s been the same way since I started teaching back in 2000.

I started the semester with 24 students. It had been a long time since I had a nearly full class. So I had some hopes that maybe this semester would be different. As I do at the start of every semester I went through the syllabus with the class to make sure my students knew my expectations. I told them that to succeed in the class it would take an average of four to eight hours of study per week, plus time for the projects. I emphasized how important it was not to rely on my slides alone but to read the assigned chapters in advance. I advised students to underline areas that were unclear and be prepared to participate in class. I said they needed to turn in their homework promptly so that I could give them feedback promptly. I told them I had office hours after every class. If they didn’t understand anything or had any issues they needed to see me during office hours or email me so we could work through their problems. I told them this was a medium level course. It was not English 101, but neither was it Calculus. It would move at a fairly brisk pace. Still, it was a college course. This was not high school.

Since I lecture from Powerpoint slides, I provided them with handouts of my slides. For most lectures I had several examples that I created that we could go through together as a class. Particularly in the first half of the semester we had regular labs. And if this was not enough to cement learning I started out every class with a review of the previous class. Since the class meets once a week, sometimes just reviewing the last class consumed an hour of class time.

So you would think that a student would have all the tools necessary to excel. But the most important tool is motivation. And that is the one tool I cannot supply. The sad fact of the matter is that many community college students simply lack motivation. When push comes to shove I strongly suspect that their coursework comes last. I’m not sure what they are doing with their time. Perhaps they are working three jobs in addition to going to class and are simply exhausted. Perhaps they are downloading smut or doing roll-playing games on line instead of reading and homework. Perhaps they are high on drugs or intoxicated by beer.

So what happened to my twenty-four students this semester? Here is the final tally. Five students simply withdrew from the course. Three decided to audit the class. That left 16 students who were going to try for a grade. In other words a third of the class dropped out or decided getting credit for the course was too much hassle.

Of the sixteen one guy showed up for the first class then stopped coming. He got an F, of course. But we appreciated the money he gave the college. Perhaps he can write his tuition off as a charitable donation. Of the remaining 15 three got F’s. There was 1 D, 3 C’s, 3 B’s and 4 A’s. One grade is incomplete but the woman will likely pass with a B. So out of 24 students, only 50% will have a passing grade.

Looking at the grading sheet of those who got C’s, D’s and F’s it’s pretty easy to understand what happened. For one thing, these students kept skipping class. They were there one week and the next week they couldn’t be bothered. The class starts at 9 AM on Saturday mornings. Perhaps they were out late partying Friday night. But I suspect the real reason is that they just didn’t care. They had nothing vested in the class. Perhaps their parents were prodding them to go to school but they really didn’t want to go. Perhaps lectures and labs was just not their thing. Perhaps they managed to catch colds every other week shortly before class.

But also these students were very scattershot about turning in homework. Like attendance, homework was 10% of the grade so it did count for something. In previous semesters homework was often turned in weeks late, when it was turned in at all. Some of the more brazen students had simply copy and pasted my posted solutions and turned those in. This semester I changed the policy: students had two weeks and no more to turn in homework and receive credit for it. But many students apparently didn’t care enough to do the work. And in the process they didn’t get the practice they needed so they could do well on the projects. So they set themselves up for failure.

And some couldn’t be bothered to turn in projects. I went the extra mile and sent out email notifications to those who did not turn in their projects on time. Mostly I heard nothing. One student said he was having problems. I said turn it in. Even partial credit is better than no credit when the final project is 20% of our grade! But he didn’t. I figure he never even started the project.

I’ve taught enough courses now to have a pretty good idea who is going to succeed and who isn’t. If their eyes are glazed over or closed they are not paying attention. Almost without exception students who come from India or China will do well. Two of the four students who received A’s were from India. The only other Indian in the class received a B. Usually if the students are fresh out of high school or twenty something they lack motivation. I wonder why that is. Do they suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder? Did they skate through high school pulling C’s and expect that they could skate through college with the same strategy?

Do students today even learn how to study? A lot of my students can’t be bothered to take notes. It seems they expect it all to be handed to them. It appears they think a course is something that can be worked on when it suits them. They don’t seem to understand there are consequences for falling behind.

And every semester I see some new twists from students trying to make the course easier for them. This semester I found one couple who were apparently living with each other and taking the course together. The woman tended to miss every other class but no matter. Her boyfriend was there taking the notes. Naturally they wanted to do their final project as a team, something I allowed in the past. But I strongly suspect the boyfriend did the entire project. In another case two guys were partners in a small business. In yet another case a guy who did his homework let the other guy sitting next to him copy and paste it and turn it in. Apparently some students have no ethical grounding. I guess they figure if the can download illegal music with impunity why not do the same with their homework. Why would this be a problem?

As I noted back in 2002, I am a karmic facilitator. It’s a shame though that even though I provide karmic lessons for so many of my students that the lessons seem to bounce right off them.

I am scheduled to teach another course in a couple weeks during the summer semester. I have seven enrolled students so I doubt it will go forward. It is just as well. I try not to take these failures by my students personally. My boss assures me this happens in all the classes. But after this dispiriting semester I need to recharge to go through this whole cycle again in the fall.

Back to School

The Thinker by Rodin

After more than a year off from teaching it’s back to the classroom tomorrow morning. It appears that (ever so slowly) information technology (IT) is becoming hip again. The collapse of the dot com world followed by the outsourcing of IT jobs made students leery about investing time and money in IT. So lots of proposed classes ended up canceled and I took up other interests, like blogging. But the economy must be slowly improving. And apparently not every IT job can be outsourced. So community college students are trickling back into web technology courses again.

The course I am teaching is a basic HTML course, with a dash of cascading style sheets and Javascript thrown in. I’ve taught it at least three times before. At this point it has become a low maintenance course. The slides are tweaked from semester to semester to keep them current. But the lesson plans, projects and even the exams are pretty static. This is good because I already have a lot on my plate already. I agreed to teach the class with some misgivings.

Those misgivings include my parents, now 30 miles away instead of 600 miles away, and my 84-year-old mother who spent two late nights at the emergency room over the last week alone. I opted for the Saturday class since it fits my schedule and allowed me to travel as business needs dictate. I just didn’t hear from my boss at the college that I had actually been assigned the course I requested. By that time we had tickets to see shows in Canada. So I missed my first class. Fortunately the college found a substitute. I offered to let someone else teach the course, but my boss declined. I guess she knows I teach a quality course.

One of the saddest things about teaching at a community college is to see how many students are student wannabees. As an introductory course my course is often their first real college experience. And while you can get a fine education at a community college at a bargain rate it is still incumbent on the student to actually perform at the college level. So many of them arrive with the high school mentality and figure they can skate by in a community college too.

The community college offers guidance, counseling and numerous other programs to help students. Yet it appears that many of my students don’t know about them or won’t take the time to attend. In a typical semester about half the class drops out or mysteriously fade away.

Of course I warn my students orally and I put it in the syllabus: the average student needs 4-8 hours a week plus time for projects. They need to read the material in advance, not hear me restate it. If they find themselves lost or confused by the material then they need to call me or see me after class. Yet so many of my students find that when the rubber meets the road they have other priorities. Often it is a job: the boss wants them to work late. Often they are working two or more jobs. Sometimes a child gets sick and they have no backup, or figure it doesn’t matter if they skip a class or two or four.

Still I feel something of a failure when this happens. It will probably happen again this semester. But this time I am determined to try harder to stem the attrition rate. I truly want every student to succeed. I have to get better at coaching my students. They need more encouragement from me. I certainly have tried to be encouraging in the past but I need to try harder.

So today I was at the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Sterling acting as much like a student as a professor. I waited in line at the campus police office for my parking sticker just like everyone else. It was good to be there on a Friday because teaching a Saturday class gives you a false perspective. I get lots of working adults when I teach on Saturdays. On a Friday the campus is full of young adults. There were times when I felt youthful being among them. In my own 47-year-old way I still feel youthful. Seeing so many fair faced young ladies in shorts or short skirts, many with ample bosoms on display almost made me feel like I could start flirting with them. I had to forcefully remind myself I was not 18 anymore. As an instructor and a married man I was allowed to look, but not to flirt and certainly not to touch. And anyhow, ick! If I were 18 I’d want nothing to do with some 47 year old!

I find that despite the heartaches of teaching at a community college it is still rewarding. When I see a student succeed I feel like I have accomplished something important. I particularly like the students who pick up my enthusiasm about information technology. The best students will see me as not someone they need to accommodate in order to get a good grade, but as a man with a lot of valuable knowledge and perspective that can lead them into an exciting career.

I learned recently that I am less than eight years from retirement. That still boggles my mind but as a civil servant I am allowed to retire at age 55. But I don’t think I will stop working. Teaching is often hard work but I seem to have the bug. It would make an excellent next career. Perhaps after I retire I will be looking for full time openings at NVCC. I know I’ll never get rich on their salaries but my pension will pay the bills. It may be that my current job is yet another springboard for my last and most important career: teaching.

I’m a Karmic Facilitator!

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may know I teach courses in web page design at Northern Virginia Community College. It’s a part time job I’ve been doing for a few years as a way to keep myself busier and current on my industry. Sad to say as a federal employee I am not supposed to touch much computer code. We are paid to be project managers, or “Contracting Officers Technical Representatives” to use the government term. By this slim thread I seem to be able to hang on to my federal job. This means, for the moment at least, I can’t be contracted out because my work is inherently governmental. Given the Bush Administration’s push to contract out everything, I am not hopeful that this will always be the case.

Anyhow although I am supposed to direct work all day I am still expected to be “up” on all things in the IT (information technology) world. That one can’t be up on IT without actually doing the work doesn’t seem to faze our management. The way things work in government you can easily hold two or more totally conflicting ideas at the same time. It doesn’t work in Dilbert’s world but it’s SOP for the government. So I decided to teach. Partly I do it because it’s enjoyable, partly because I want to keep up on my industry in a meaningful way, and partly because even with 20 years of federal service I don’t believe for a moment that my talents and my job are not expendable. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. I’m hopeful that if I’m downsized this strategy will keep me on my feet, or at least provide sufficient income so I’m not living in a mobile home.

I usually teach on Saturday mornings and teach two classes a year for sums that would amount to less than the minimum wage if I measured how much time I actually spent on the class. I am currently on the cusp of completing the current class on Advanced Web Page Design, and give a final exam tomorrow. The final project was due last Saturday. Naturally a couple students missed the deadline entirely and naturally they want to submit the project late. I could be hard nosed and yes I do penalize late project submissions but it’s the same pattern every semesters. Students have to push the envelope. If I haven’t put the grade in the campus computer they figure there is still wiggle room.

How does all this tie into karma? Karma, as regular readers here know is a force I have come to believe in. It occurred to me yesterday that as a teacher I cause a lot of karmic incidents. Whether it turns out to be good karma or bad karma depends on the student and me. I think I generated some bad karma for my students in the past, and perhaps I am generating more with my last minute students. But a class is literally and metaphorically a test. Can you make a certain benchmark? Do you have the skills and perseverance it takes to pass a class and to get a certain grade? There is not much ambiguity to it. You either master the skills you need to master, like reading, studying and doing the projects, or you don’t. A teacher is certainly a facilitator for mastering these skills but inevitably it comes back to the student. They have to summon up the right stuff inside themselves to get through the course.

Oh and it’s a roller coaster ride for a lot of them. And when it’s a roller coaster ride for them it’s also a roller coaster ride for the teacher. I’ve been accused by my own students of various faults, some likely deserved, some not. I don’t claim to be a perfect teacher. I try to improve my teaching with every class I teach. But inevitably I must make the judgment about what constitutes passing and what doesn’t. It’s never an easy call. My standards are fairly high and I don’t compromise them lightly to spare some students some bad feelings.

Last semester I had a lady who ended up failing the class. She came to every class dutifully. She hung out to the end. She turned in homework that was always wrong and never even came close to being right. I asked to talk with her. I tried to get her on the right course. But she was totally lost. She had barely mastered the keyboard, let alone the complexities of HTML. I had to flunk her. I didn’t like to do it but I had to do it. Maybe she’ll learn a lesson as a result. Maybe she’s not cut out for college or maybe she will summon the will from within to perhaps start at a more elementary course and work her way up.

So I cause a lot of karmic stress in my students’ lives. It’s part of the system but that’s part of what teachers are there for, I guess. The knowledge I impart is certainly an important thing for any student to get when they take a class. But the enduring lesson is whether they have the right stuff to keep focused and move forward despite tendencies toward laziness in many students, despite perhaps having to work a lot of overtime, despite having to juggle a spouse and/or a family. If nothing else my class provides a vehicle for them to figure out where their priorities really lie. Since I end up at the end of the semester with about half the students I started out with (many drop the class, or elect to audit the course and don’t bother to return) it appears that education is pretty far down their list of priorities.

Live and learn. Lesson taught regardless of grade.

Ruminations on community colleges

The Thinker by Rodin

Schools out! I teach a class in Web Page Design at Northern Virginia Community College and I gave the final exam today. Just as well because we are off to Hawaii on the 20th.

This is the fifth time I’ve taught a course and the fourth time I’ve teached this particular course. My students are a mixture of folk from all walks of life and all ages. I’ve taught people pushing 60, and one 16 year old kid. There are a fair number of immigrant types, housewives, working people and a number of people who have all the degrees they need and just audit the course.

But the pattern is about the same every semester. Things always start off well but invariably over the course of a semester about a third of the class will withdraw or drop out. There are students who show up for maybe one class and then stop coming and don’t care if they get an F in the class. There are a lot of students who it would seem don’t understand that this is a college course. Some seem to think it is still high school, or even grade school, because they consider reading and homework optional. If they can’t gleem the information from the slides I present and labs in class then too bad … even if they pay a grade penalty.

When I first started teaching I thought community colleges had a reputation of being a place where you get an easy grade. My mentor assured me that was not the case and I had to stick to my standards. I do. But it is discouraging to see how many students just done seem to care, or don’t understand that a course requires time and commitment. Has it always been this way and I never noticed? I am discouraged about the future of our work force.

Not that teaching doesn’t have its good times, but there are a lot of discouraging times. Nonetheless I keep at it because, frankly, it’s fun and it’s much more interesting than the sort of stuff I do for my primary paycheck. And it forces me to keep up with technology I would probably not apply in practice at work where I do project management.

I don’t think my course is all that hard. It’s by no means easy but compared to the courses I took in college it’s about average. Nonetheless I have a reputation of being a “hard” instructor. A’s are not a given. I feel grades should mean something and usually an A in my class does mean something … students have a real good grasp of the content I was teaching.

I mean my class is not half as hard as the least difficult course I took in grad school. And I realize I know the material and it’s largely new to my class.

Many are called to try college, but fewer seemed to be willing to invest the time it takes to earn a grade that demonstrates you understand the topic. That’s discouraging.