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.

The Graduate

The Thinker by Rodin

Time sneaks up on you when you are a parent. One day you are changing your daughter’s diaper and the next she is on a stage being handed a diploma. You stand there applauding, tears streaming down your face and hoarsely shouting her name to ten thousand attendees. The principle shakes her hand with his right hand while giving her her diploma with his left hand.

It is strange and surreal. You would feel like singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof except you are too choked up to sing. Also, there is the constant drone of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” from the school orchestra. Still, you would sing it if you could, for you are filled with a powerful and bittersweet feeling. Your heart just aches for the love you feel for your child, now a woman.

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he get to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small?

Your heart also aches in sorrow, for the bridges of dependency you know you must slowly burn as your daughter to transitions into an adult. You want her to stay at home forever, playing video games, attending sleepovers and going to Girl Scout meetings. Instead, you realize that part of the parenting experience is behind you. You now express your love by letting her go. Now comes a time when love will look a little sterner and at times a little heartless. Every bird reaches an age when the parent unceremoniously kicks the hatchling out of the nest. So too do you realize that it is your solemn parental duty to do the same, perhaps not by suddenly changing the locks, but by sending your daughter out to get a real job, and to learn to do things like paying rent. Since she has elected to take a year off before going to college, she has to get a job to stay at home. After she turns eighteen, our daughter will start paying us rent, $200 a month to start.

When not overcome by emotion you sit there in the George Mason University Patriot Center, one of ten thousand attendees and are a bit mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the enormous Class of 2007. For our daughter Rosie is a graduate of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia. To say she is one of many is to put it mildly. There are over seven hundred students in her graduating class. It will take a full hour for all the graduates to get their diplomas. Principle Tim Thomas’ arms will be sore for a week.

The number of graduates may be huge, but I am feeling wistful anyhow. This is the sort of high school graduation that I wanted but I never received. Instead of a huge auditorium, my class graduated at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Unlike my graduation, where a thunderstorm took out the lights for ninety minutes, this graduation proceeded like clockwork. And unlike my graduation where a fair number of graduating seniors smoked reefers in the darkness while they waited for the lights to come back on, at this graduation the mere failure of the men to wear black pants or the girls to wear a black dress and heels was sufficient grounds to be thrown out of the ceremony.

Yes, it may be corny, but an orchestra has to play “Pomp and Circumstance”. Of course, there has to be brief speeches by the principle, the class historian, the class president and the class valedictorian, none of which really inspires anyone, particularly the graduates. They are more focused on the all night party at the school that will follow graduation. Still, these things are necessary. It is how the reality of graduation sinks in. Anything less and the ceremony is stripped of its meaning and dignity. Still, these graduates are not without a sense of humor. Despite stern admonitions and a pat down of students before graduation, two inflatable beach balls were tossed among the graduates while diplomas were handed out. In addition, despite stern warnings not to do so, a few yahoos in the audience used their air horns anyhow. No graduation is complete without it turning into something of a popularity contest; you can judge a graduate’s popularity by the volume of cheers he or she gets when their name is announced.

Nonetheless, my daughter’s graduation was still deeply satisfying for this parent. I found myself crying at strange times, like when the orchestra struck up a tune from West Side Story but the graduates had not yet filed in. Perhaps it was the jet lag (I had arrived home from Denver, at 1 AM, and was up at 6:30 AM). Perhaps it was the wedding I attended the day before. (I was crying through that too.) On the other hand, perhaps through my daughter’s graduation I was vicariously experiencing the graduation I wanted, but was denied.

It was likely all these things, but mostly I was feeling obnoxious pride at my daughter’s accomplishment. She may not have been class valedictorian, but that was an unattainable goal among 700 plus students anyhow. For now, her proud father was simply awed that she had survived high school and eked out a better than B average. That is no small accomplishment in the 21st century and in a high school ranked 128th in the country. Despite her inexperience, my daughter adroitly dodged all the teenage minefields in front of her. She could have become drug addicted, hooked on tobacco, pregnant, in a car wrapped around a telephone poll or acquired some social disease. She rebelled by truly being different, even among her peers. Not many freshmen would join the Gay-Straight Alliance, or go on to be its vice president. While mostly she navigated below the radar of the preppy and popular, when she stood up, she did so for things she believed in: like civil rights for those whose lifestyle offended the majority of Virginians. How could I not feel pride in a young woman whose values are that well grounded?

As one of the speakers said, graduation is really the end of the beginning, as in the end of childhood. Now our daughter begins a strange and much different chapter of her life, where she navigates regularly to a job, does things she does not want to do for eight hours at a time, smiles when she does not want to, pays rent and learns to live within her means. Perhaps she will learn some other lessons, like what it feels like to be fired, laid off or to make a catastrophically bad choice that eluded her in high school. She will have that right in September when she turns 18. She tells me that one of the first things she plans do when she turns 18 will be to register to vote.

That is how we all learn, of course: by making choices and observing their results in the often nebulous minefield called reality. She is bound to stumble and she will have to learn how to recover by herself. Perhaps this year off from education will be the best education she will ever get. For the one course they cannot teach you in high school is how to navigate real life. Some things cannot be taught; they can only be experienced.

I expressed my confidence that she will make these choices wisely. I too must learn some new skills. I must learn to keep my lips buttoned and to give advice only when asked, and maybe not even then. Our daughter remains leery and cautious about engaging life, but she is not dysfunctional. She remains a nerdy, eclectic but sweet young woman, much like her parents. Her sense of caution will serve her well. She will sort it out in her own way. Her choices may surprise us and occasionally disagree with us. However, those choices will be authentically her own.

We have released the tether and she is unmoored. She is trying out the oars of her life tentatively. Ever so slowly, she will recede from our view.

George Mason University Grows Up

The Thinker by Rodin

Grrr. Why is it that a university cannot be seen as a top tier school until its basketball team is invited into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament?

Almost on a lark, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (outside of Washington, DC) was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament this year. Against all odds, GMU has hung around. Last night by defeating Wichita State 63-55, GMU moved into the final eight teams. The sports world is agog. This was not supposed to happen. Commuter universities that start out their existence as community colleges in the 1960s are not supposed to become top tier schools so quickly. I mean, the ivy has not yet had a chance to become established on George W. Johnson Center.

I am not much of a sports fan, but I am a GMU graduate. I received a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from GMU in 1999. It was a logical choice for me, but not only because I lived about ten miles away from the main campus. Even in the mid 1990s, GMU offered a top tier software engineering school. In addition, I could take all my courses at night and pay in state tuition rates. Still, I did not have to choose GMU. I could have chosen tonier institutions of learning like George Washington University, that offered similar programs. Alternatively, I could have done what my wife did. She was earning a bachelor’s degree herself at the time. She picked a genuine commuter school, Strayer University. However, I chose GMU because what was most important to me was not just a diploma, but also an excellent graduate education. I got it at GMU.

I do not know how many reading this have had the opportunity to get through graduate school and if so what you thought of your education. I know what my wife thought about Strayer University. It was not that it was a bad school. It just was not a great school. If you did your assignments, showed up in class, studied modestly before the test then it was hard not to pull a B in a course. Her instructors were so so, from great to mediocre. It took her about six years working on her education part time, but she eventually received her degree.

That was not my experience at GMU. Granted, a graduate program is assumed to be more challenging than a baccalaureate program. Each course was quite a challenge, but it was not a challenge in the sense that to succeed I had to memorize textbooks. Rather, to succeed I had to push myself academically to the limit. For my wife studying was a halfhearted sort of thing. She is naturally brilliant where I am not, so she could work in some spare time between school and a full time job. I was busy all the time. Free time was non-existent during semesters.

Every professor I had at GMU felt top tier to me. Moreover, they knew how to put us through the academic wringer. Most were not so much sadistic as intent that we were going to be overflowing with their expertise in the subject area. Each course though was not based on research that was ten years old. We learned state of the art theory and practices. I learned an enormous amount of very useful information during my three years at GMU which I have subsequently applied to my job. During grad school I was constantly busy. I certainly did not have a moment to spare to see the Patriots play basketball. Even my semester breaks were crammed with homework.

Half my classes had group projects. As if my full time job, getting to class twice a week and the studying were not enough to fully occupy my time, I also had to work through complex group projects with my classmates. Eventually I earned my diploma. I can honestly say I have never worked harder in my life to reach any goal, nor felt more satisfaction from having achieved it. I have my diploma framed and on the wall of my office. I want people to see it. I want them to know the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting it. In addition, I want them to know that GMU is one damned fine university. Commuter school? Bah!

I am glad the rest of the country now understands that GMU is a “real” university. Despite the many top tier professors, including some who have won renown, now my alma mater also has a top tier basketball team. I would not be surprised if GMU is now the best university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I know the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Virginia Technological Institute and others have hard won reputations too. Perhaps they are resting on their laurels. I do know that GMU is the scrappy university that could. Our reputation was built by a lot of very hard work, and nurtured by foresighted leaders over many decades.

At GMU, I did not get just a diploma. I got what I really craved: a top tier education in the field I had made my career. Those employers who think that an Ivy League diploma by itself means something unique should think twice. I strongly suspect the rest of GMU’s departments are as excellent as its School of Information Technology and Engineering. Just by earning a diploma at GMU, a student is telling potential employers something they should want to hear: their education was top notch.

If it took a while for GMU’s excellence to make it to their basketball team, well, academics has always been its top priority.

Education: Walk the Walk

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I opined that there are few places where we are more hypocritical than in our public schools. Therefore, I was not surprised when I heard this story today on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday. Texas, like many red states, is getting high from continually sniffing that Republican glue. Common sense is taking leave of its governor Rick Perry and its legislature. Apparently, it is more important to stand on a dubious principle than to do what is right for the children of Texas.

For those of you who do not want to listen to the seven-minute story here is a brief summary: Texas has no income tax. Its main forms of revenue are the state sales tax, already one of the highest in the country (which disproportionately affects the poor) and the property tax. The Republican legislature in its infinite wisdom requires that the portion of property taxes devoted to education must be capped at 1.5% of a house’s assessed value. Most school districts have hit the cap, but the student population in Texas is growing at around 80,000 students a year. Of course, this means that many more schools that need to be built and more buses have to be purchased. In general, the costs just to maintain the status quo have gone up. However, with property values leveling off, even wealthier districts are getting the squeeze. Large numbers of teachers are being laid off. Some school system superintendents are convinced that if the crisis continues the Texas public schools will be reduced to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

So why would this be a problem? From our current president and former Texas governor, these things matter. (Actually, in Texas, high school football trumps everything else.) If necessary, science, music, the arts, even gym are expendable. It is important to know how to read, write and do math. It is apparently not important to teach our children about the humanities and certainly not important at all to learn how to think critically. How do we know it is not important? When push comes to shove, we will not pay for them.

The school funding issue is a hot button one in Texas. The Texas legislature is back in session yet again to try to cough up more money to fund the schools. There is some discussion that the sales tax rate might need to be raised. However, it sounds like with the “no tax increases ever” mantra from the Republican controlled legislature that even this proposal is unlikely to go anywhere. School districts are getting so desperate that they are petitioning the Texas courts, hoping the courts will step in where the legislature fears to tread. So far the courts have been hands off, expecting (probably naively) that the legislature and the governor will do their duty and find the money somewhere.

You do not need an HP calculator to figure out the Republican’s strategy for dealing with the problem. Yes, you guessed it: they are going to expect school districts to make unspecified efficiencies and cut out the waste to solve the problem! Argh! I do not even live in Texas, but it is enough to make me want to repeatedly hit my head against a brick wall. How can our leaders grow up to be so stupid? The reality of the funding caps is already playing out in Texas schools. Teachers are being let go. Class sizes are increasing. Trailers are taking over school parking lots. The list of elective subjects is growing leaner. Still this does not seem to be enough. The obvious result if Texans are foolhardy enough to keep charging forward can be found near where I live. In Prince George’s County, Maryland back in the 1980s voters put in place a property tax cap called TRIM. The result? Twenty years of substandard education in Prince George’s County. By limiting funds for the schools, students predictably dealt with larger classes, mediocre teachers and inferior facilities. The county has consistently placed in the bottom two Maryland counties for educational test scores. It is currently on a state watch list because it is having difficulty meeting the requirements of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.

Perhaps the Texas legislature is apathetic because poor test scores are really not the big deal that they claim. While Texas certainly has its prosperous parts, it has many school districts that have always provided poor educations because they have never been adequately funded. Texas ranks 38th in teacher salaries ($32,426 per year) and 34th in expenditures per pupil ($5,267 per year). Despite the dubious “Texas Miracle”, Texas places in the middle of national educational rankings.

Nevertheless, Texas is hardly in unique in underfunding its schools. Nor is it unique in not doing much to actually prepare students for real life. I am willing to bet that you can graduate from high school in the vast majority of our states without ever learning how to balance a checkbook. I bet there is no requirement for students to spend time surveying the costs of independent living. As a result, I bet no student is required to put together a realistic financial and logistical plan mapping out their first five to ten years of adulthood.

Oy, this is but one of many egregious areas where students need some genuine education that they are unlikely to get from the public schools. Most school districts skimp on sex education. Students might absorb the practically compulsory lessons on abstinence but they will not know how use a condom should the need arise. (Why should it? When the times comes, the abstinence fairy will restrain their natural urges!) Moreover, there will likely be no classes on the psychological differences between men and women or relationship theory. There will probably be no course on personal finance, the dangers of credit cards and the wisdom of saving parts of your salary. Likewise, there will probably be no learning on early childhood education, parenting, insurance and financing an automobile. In short, a high school degree will continue to mean what it has always meant: a subset of skills that might make someone marginally marketable but will do little to prepare him or her for real life.

But by golly our students will be darn good at taking dumbed-down standardized tests. In my last entry I noted my wife’s experience teaching community college students. They want everything handed to them. And why shouldn’t they? Like Pavlov’s dogs, they know the drill. Have they not been heavily and repeatedly coached ad nauseum by their teachers so they could pass these standardized tests? When have they had the opportunity to apply any critical thinking or independent thought in the classroom? How many teachers have time for open discussions about the pros and cons of various lifestyle choices? How many of these students have learned from their parents and their churches that life is not squishy, only to find out in adulthood that real life is invariably complex and multifaceted?

We are doing serious injustices to our children who will someday run our country. Yes, it is good that they are at least getting some education. In many countries, there is no such thing as public education. However, we are not properly preparing our children for the real world. Reading, writing and arithmetic are foundations for learning, but they are not the result of education. They are tools used to allow us to engage and make sense of the rest of our complex world.

Like it or not we are sending some bad messages to our public school students. Do not think our students are not savvy enough to figure out the subtext. Here are some. Only the basics really matter because that is all we will give you. Low taxes for me are more important than giving you a quality education. We will expect you to be solid citizens and to manage your way in a complex world but we will not necessarily give you the straight facts or help you think through the complexities of the real world. Maybe your parents will help you and maybe they will not. Lastly, we will not give you many tools to deal effectively with the chaos into which you are about to be thrown. You are on your own. So do not be surprised if in adulthood that you bounce from one bad relationship to the next. Do not be surprised if you run up huge debts. Maybe if you are lucky in twenty years you will learn these for yourself. But we sure don’t care enough about you to warn you about these mega hurdles.

Sadly, our public schools have become a noxious experiment into which we inject our dubious values, philosophies and biases. Meanwhile graduate, here are ten dollars and a suit. Good luck, kid.

Pass the soma

The Thinker by Rodin

Childhood obesity is now a major American problem. When they reach their twenties, many of today’s overweight youth will discover adult diabetes, something virtually unheard of before.

If only the new problems facing today’s youth were limited to obesity. In addition to the normal traumas of adolescence, there are a whole potpourri of new problems and issues for them to confront. Attention deficit disorder is rampant. Many of our youth do not have the organizational skills to manage their homework. Many cannot even study. (They know how to do it, but cannot seem to successfully follow the steps, or even summon the motivation.) It is no wonder that we parents are spending so much money getting them counseling, therapy and life coaches. Only it does not seem to be doing much to solve their problems.

The Future Shock predicted by Alvin Toffler is here and now and it is not pretty. The complexity of our world has increased exponentially in my lifetime, and it only continues to accelerate. We adults have a hard enough time getting through the minefield of living. It is far more confusing to our children. Not surprisingly, they are having a hard time adapting. Why? We need people that who behave like machines. Instead, we humans stubbornly insist on being human beings. In addition, the more complex life gets the bigger the disconnect. Like it or not we cannot retrofit bodies that for millennium were optimized for chores like farming and hunting mastodons into a species of cubicle dwellers.

Imagine what would happen to a thoroughbred that spent most of his life in the stall. Imagine if the supply of oats and water were plentiful and always readily available. Imagine if he only rarely got outside the barn, and once outside did not have the opportunity or inclination to run around. Most likely the thoroughbred would be obese and unhealthy.

Therefore, we really should not be surprised that our youth seem to be having a hard time coping with modern life. Our children are not living a natural life. They are living an unnatural life. For a human child a natural life would involve a lot of time spent outdoors, running around and exploring. I knew that sort of youth. The woods were less than a mile away and we were frequently in them. After school, we were outside playing ball, running around or having harmless “wars” with the other kids on the block. There was no Nintendo to distract us. We had no personal computers and could not even imagine the Internet. With so much time to fill, we created our own realities. We engaged the world because there was no other choice.

Today we are thrown together in increasingly dense communities. The streams are now underground in drainage pipes. Most of us modern parents cannot allow our children to play unsupervised. There are too many wackos and perverts out there. We imagine them lurking around every corner targeting our children. Our youth live highly managed and busy lives. As parents, our mission seems to be to never given them a moment’s rest. How could we? This modern world is so complex. There is so much they must learn and not enough time to learn it. We know the anxiety first hand because we live in it. Therefore, we push our children hard.

Just the idea of our children growing up technologically impaired gives us the heebie jeebies. Therefore, in addition to the compulsory game machines they have their own computers, PDAs, cell phones and fat pipes to the Internet. So naturally, when they have something resembling downtime, they are sending text messages and IMing friends instead of playing ball in the street. When my daughter is on the Internet she often has a half dozen chat windows open at the same time. She has the message: in this modern world, you must be able to multitask.

If we were a more enlightened society then perhaps we would demand no more complexity to our lives. We might even insist on regression. Perhaps we would be petitioning Congress to unplug us from the Internet and take away our computers. Perhaps we would go back to slide rules, logarithm tables, black and white televisions, typewriters and carbon paper. Perhaps we would be limiting our children to one per family so future generations could enjoy something resembling nature again.

In truth, Future Shock has been around since the early 19th century. It began with the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem is that it is only getting worse. With each generation, it gets harder to push us square peg humans into the round holes of modern living. We must all live by our wits now. If we do not then we will not survive.

Our children will be emulating us: spending their work life in cubicles in leased office buildings. They will be constantly on call. They will have little time for hobbies. Leisure time will need to be productive. If they made it through college, they will be going to graduate school. Lifelong education will be a necessity so they will be constantly earning new degrees. However, it is questionable whether so many of our ADD-addled youth of today will be able to master modern life at all.

It is a good bet they will not be hitting the health club after work. The forty-hour workweek will look increasing nostalgic. They will be lucky if they are working only fifty-hour workweeks. Most likely, they and their spouse will be juggling multiple jobs each to maintain some semblance of a decent standard of living. In addition, on top of their frantic lives they will be expected to raise another generation who will likely turn out even more dysfunctional. The road kill rates are likely to climb.

My wife is now teaching in a community college. I have been teaching in a community college for about five years. She runs across the same type of students that I do. She is surprised but what she sees but I am not. It is amazing and incredible, but most of her students arrive in college with no study skills at all. They whine for extra tutoring and study sessions. They do not know how to take effective notes. (Most do not even bother to take notes.) They pretty much refuse to read the textbook. They think homework is optional. If the lectures are not made available as printed Powerpoint slides they probably cannot absorb it. They need short bullets. These college pretenders cannot cope with college, just like they cannot cope with many other aspects of modern life. That is why so many of them are still living at home. That is why Mom and Dad are still paying for their room and board.

They seem comfortable in their cocoons. Modern life is too scary. They would rather stay in the nest. They would rather live with Mom and Dad forever. Despite all the preparation they allegedly received for real life, they arrive baffled and largely clueless. Life seems surreal. Money is abstract. It is hard to associate effort with value. It is hard to think. It is hard to understand cause and effect. They live in what they perceive to be a virtual and abstract world, not a real world.

I expect that our drug companies will try to come to the rescue. There will be a plethora of new drugs to help us cope. They will not solve their problems, but hopefully as a result they will feel better. Rest assured that they will enrich drug company profits. For if they survive then they will be needed in their stalls/cubicles. Lots of email will be constantly streaming in and out of their inbox that will need their attention. Perhaps their ability to multitask so successfully will make them a better cubicle dweller. For eight or ten hours a day, they will sit at their workstations hardly moving. However, the vending machine will be around the corner if they feel the need to graze. Because not only has Future Shock arrived, but Brave New World is also here. Pass the soma.

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.

So What’s the Problem with Bringing a Gun to School?

The Thinker by Rodin

Welcome to the schizophrenic state of Virginia. Last week a teacher at the high school my daughter attends, Westfield High School, brought a loaded gun to school. No he didn’t actually bring it in the school. He brought it on school property and kept it in his locked car. The teacher, Timothy D. Fudd, now faces up to five years in prison for his offense.

Please understand I am not actually in favor of bringing any kind of gun on school property. But this is Virginia, after all. We’re a gun crazy state. Here in Virginia it is perfectly legal to carry a concealed weapon (except, apparently, on school property) or even wear side arms openly in public in places like restaurants. Want to play Wild West and strap some loaded pistols to your waist and bring them into your friendly neighborhood Hooters? Not a problem in the Old Dominion. It’s completely legal. You may get more than a few odd stares and people may gravitate toward tables on the other side of the restaurant. Because, fortunately, this is not an every day occurrence. But it’s quite legal.

As I noted in a previous entry, it’s also perfectly legal to bring your gun to teenage recreation centers in Virginia too. And that’s why I have a problem with Mr. Fudd’s prosecution. Timothy D. Fudd could have packed a couple pistols and brought them into his local teen center and it would have been completely legal. Indeed, the NRA would have cheered him on for exercising the important second amendment rights that they spent so much time battling Fairfax County to win. At this point I figured guns were allowed everywhere in this state. I figured you could put them in your nightstand next to your hospital bed and the nurse was not allowed to complain. But apparently you cannot bring them on school property. Go figure.

I’m trying to figure out what passes for logic here. Is the worry that a loaded gun in a school parking lot might encourage a student to break into the car? Might the student then use the weapon to cause some mayhem? Certainly it is a risk but why worry about it? I mean guns don’t kill people, people kill people. If we were to worry that this might encourage kids might do this on school property then we might as well also start worrying that adults might do the same thing. In fact adults do do the same thing in neighborhoods across the country, resulting in about thirty thousand gun related homicides a year.

Virginia bends over backwards to accommodate the gun lobby. This spring alone we passed fifteen new gun laws, more than any other state in the country and all of them pleased the NRA. Some examples: people who already have a concealed weapons permit are no longer subject to the one gun a month purchase limitation. Woo hoo! Ditto for gun collectors: take them home by the truckload from your “private sale”. Our legislature says go for it! Also, people who live in other states that allow concealed weapons are welcome to bring them in and conceal them in Virginia too. The more the merrier.

So now poor Timothy D. Fudd may spend five years in a Virginia prison for bringing a loaded weapon on school property. He went the extra mile by locking the darn thing in his car. Surely he can be forgiven if he pleads ignorance. In this state gun ownership, possession and display is encouraged. Maybe he just got confused. Perhaps he was at his local teen recreation wearing his perfectly legal and loaded pistols strapped to his waist. Perhaps while he was there he was encouraging teens to join him at a nearby rifle range to learn about exercising their second amendment rights. Since guns can be worn openly or concealed in teen recreation centers, why should there be a problem leaving a loaded gun in a locked car in a school parking lot?

I honestly don’t understand why the NRA is not helping with this man’s legal defense. Mr. Fudd is African American after all, and this is an important community that needs to be encouraged to exercise their second amendment rights.

But most shocking off all: this occurred only ten miles from the NRA National Headquarters. Where is the outrage?

Is too much freedom unhealthy?

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps it is the recent death of Pope John Paul and his firm, never varying approach to morality that has me thinking. Or perhaps it is that our daughter, failing in a number of classes in school, is now getting the service of a life coach to try to get her life organized in a way so she can actually succeed. But I’m beginning to wonder if too much freedom for an adolescent is a bad thing.

That’s not to suggest that our 15-year-old daughter can do whatever she wants. We have rules and she largely abides by them. It is true that we often get a load of snarkiness in return. But she is definitely not doing drugs, tobacco, alcohol or sex. She is not in trouble with the law. Like me she is wary of pretty much anything that might cause her to lose control of herself. At the moment her only crucial problem is her schoolwork. Bringing home consistent D’s and F’s in subjects she doesn’t care about (currently Algebra, Chemistry and World History) — and largely because she can’t/won’t remember to either do/turn-in her homework — is her problem. It is one that we’ve been trying to solve since at least fourth grade. I won’t get into all the details of how we’ve tried and failed over and over again. (And yes, she’s been tested for ADD.) Let’s just say that busy public school teachers often don’t help in solving the problem. Our daughter is one of many they manage. They don’t usually have time to work with us week to week while we try to track assignments. It’s like trying to pin the tail on a donkey when you are in the other room. Now in high school her teachers are more inclined to laugh at us as we try to hold her accountable for their assignments than anything else. She was supposed to master that phase in Junior High. And yes we acknowledge our share of fault. We’ve tried lots of different strategies with little success but after all we are her parents.

So our daughter often says she has done her homework when in fact she hasn’t and it is often impossible to know for sure. What I do know is that she can find plenty of far more interesting things to do than homework and studying. Principally, like many teens, her social life is now online. Most of her online friends are also people she knows from school. IMing and downloading music seem to be favorite activities.

Things were simpler when I was growing up. I know instinctively that if a tool like the Internet had been available to me I probably would have been lured by it in deference to doing boring things like studying for an upcoming exam. Particularly if I found things on the Internet I really liked my grades would have suffered.

Even back in the 1960s though my parents had some pretty old-fashioned ideas. These are ideas that now in hindsight seem pretty smart. For example, they limited our TV watching to one hour a night if we had school the next day. Oh, how we hollered! But on the other hand with our list of choices tightly constrained it was a lot easier to spend our free time reading books than watching Star Trek.

But there was a downside to all that discipline. We felt very much under their thumbs and chafed at it. Probably most teenagers would do the same regardless of the degree of discipline imposed. But it seemed pretty heavy handed to us at the time because naturally all our friends got to watch all the TV they wanted. We were considered freaks and our parents just didn’t care!

On the other hand, our family really succeeded. I didn’t do a scientific study of where all our friends are today. But I will note in a family with eight children we have three with PhDs and three with Masters degrees.

But we are told that freedom is a virtue. George W. Bush unilaterally invaded a foreign country to liberate people. If freedom is good then by implication choice is good too. And how can people know what they want in life if they don’t have the freedom to try various things and see what fits?

So that is sort of the philosophy that we brought to our own parenting experience. Admittedly I am more inclined toward limiting freedom with my daughter than is my wife. Her experience growing up was a lot different. Her mother was a hands off mother. My wife was naturally intelligent. She never worked very hard at her studies but she consistently brought home A’s. So over time we groped toward a spot in the middle of our philosophies. It became something like this: if our daughter’s homework was done then she was free to spend as much time as she wanted pursuing her interests, providing they were neither dangerous nor illegal.

I would like to think that our mixed experience was one of a kind. But talking with fellow parents who are using similar tactics I find that their experiences are quite similar. Of course there are some children who naturally embrace learning. But there are also lots of children like my daughter who are intensely interested in those subjects they like, but cannot find the wherewithal to pay attention and excel in those subjects they don’t care about.

In my spare time I teach a course in Web Page Design at a local community college. Maybe it is just community college students, or maybe it is a pervasive trend, but my younger students in general just don’t seem willing to invest the time and energy it takes to succeed in the class either. The odds improve for those who are foreign born. Orientals and Indians in particular seem to have the educational ethic. But about a third of the class will withdraw or switch to audit when they discover the class requires real study. Others will skip lots of classes. Like my daughter they will be scattershot about turning in homework, even though they get credit for turning it in. When it comes time for exams, it is clear that about half the class never bothered to study. Since I always review for exams you would think they would at least take notes during the review. But mostly they sit there without taking notes. Some of them zone me out.

It takes discipline to focus on that which doesn’t particularly interest you. I am afraid we’ve filled up the lives of our children with too many potential distractions. The aggregate seems to be a sort of addiction. From their perspective instant gratification online is a powerful allure. Things can always be put off until tomorrow.

And yet we also live in a frighteningly more complex world. Some of the skills that children learn today, such as multitasking, may be very valuable in the 21st century workforce. But these skills are only as good as their ability to maintain focus on a task. I don’t see a lot of that happening in today’s youth. I think my daughter is a case in point.

Perhaps that’s why I shudder when I imagine my daughter in the real world. To her life is a la carte.

I wonder if I should have sent her to parochial school. Maybe she would have gotten a heaping portion of Catholic guilt like I got. But likely she would be better prepared to survive in the real world than she is now. There is still time to learn these lessons before the real world delivers them unwelcome on her doorstep. Will she, like so many of my students, just get by? Or will she find the right stuff within her at last to compete effectively in the world?

Right now I don’t want to know the answer.

Leaning Left in Academia

The Thinker by Rodin

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

College faculties, long assumed to be a liberal bastion, lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined, a new study says.

By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.

The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.

Is this a surprise? Not to me it isn’t. Aside from the fact that most college professors and I share a lot in common politically, this is really one of those no duh sort of news stories. Because of course there is a rather natural correlation between education level and liberalism. And as long as our education levels mean something, it’s going to stay that way.

Why? Because you don’t become a learned professor by being a simpleton. You have to look at things from many points of view. You quickly learn that things are not simple at all. Rather the world is a very complex place. That is the perspective you are almost certain to have if you survive the ordeal of completing a PhD. If you want to take your PhD and become a college professor then you are expected to continuously expand your knowledge and research your subject area. If you make it to the ranks of tenured professor without being able to win any debate on its merits something is seriously wrong.

I hate to break it to most conservatives but they are not exactly embracing of the world’s complexity. Rather they see simple solutions as a general panacea to complex problems. Conservatism is not about embracing change, it’s about keeping things simple and ideally identical to the way things were before. (Note: neoconservatives are not conservatives. They sure aren’t liberal but they definitely are okay with the idea of change.) Liberalism is about understanding existing models and either improving them or finding better models that solve a broader set of problems.

If you have a PhD you are not going to arrive there embracing the notion that your area of study requires no further research. Instead you are going to be predisposed to try new things and experiment in new areas of both basic and applied science. If you have a PhD not only are you learned, you are curious by nature. You are not cut from the common mold; you embrace your uniqueness and revel in your intellect. And as a scholar you naturally want to be an agent for change. Liberalism is simply a philosophy of embracing change in ways that advance the quality of life of mankind. It’s really a wonder that only 72 percent of college professors describe themselves as liberal.

This is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Embracing quotas for college professors based on their political ideology would be a stupid idea, unless of course you think promoting incompetence and stifling curiosity are good ideas. One thing is for sure: people married to the past didn’t accomplish mankind’s greatest advances. They believed in the future and they believed in the power of positive change. They learned from experience that tolerance was a virtue and that to seek out different points of view was invigorating. Good ideas, like steel, improved with refinement.

So let’s be thankful that we have so many liberal professors. Without them we would be in an academic dark age.

The Cost of Indoctrination

The Thinker by Rodin

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.