Sweet Dreams

I recently connected to an old friend who I haven’t seen or talked to in at least 30 years. He spent his entire life, outside of vacation travel, in Nebraska and most of that in small town Nebraska. I could have easily led that life at one time, but economics, chance, opportunity, and restlessness ended up sending me to a lot of places I would have never expected to see and experience. In one of many conversations with my friend and his wife, we touched on the dreams we’ve had that carried emotion, meaning, and resonance to our lives. My friend and his wife are religious and the dreams they described had to do with that subject. My dream was very different and their perspective and ideals reminded me of that near-spiritual dream that I still occasionally have.

After my decade in medical devices, I was a mental train wreck. Being asked to help the richest people I’ve ever known cover-up device failures that had killed patients, tortured even more patients, and bankrupted many others caused me to lose the ability to read for almost half of a year. In retrospect, I realize that some part of my brain decided that if my consciousness wasn’t going to do the right thing the next best thing was to incapacitate my ability to do the wrong thing. Many people imagine that becoming a whistle-blower is either some form of treason or is as easy as going with the flow and doing what the higher-ups demand. It isn’t and if you have never had the skills or talent to be in a position to be pressed to consider having moral backbone to blow the whistle on corruption and evil in high places you have no basis with which to compare your situation to that miserable place. This essay isn’t about that dilemma, but if it were it would be longer, sadder, and more revealing that I am likely to ever be in this blog. This essay is about the dream that signaled my release from that situation.

About three months after I quit Guidant, a St. Paul medical devices company and my last corporate employer, I had the dream that turned out to be an important part of my release from the hell that had become my employment “contract.” I was mostly unemployed, living on savings and some meager self-employment and contract tech work, the economy was in free fall because of the 9/11 attacks, and my future as a 52-year-old mid-tech technical writer and engineer was totally in doubt. I still could not, yet, read and comprehend the captions below pictures in newspapers. My sole dependable income was teaching motorcycle safety classes on weekends and, occasionally, weekdays. That particular early morning, I would be teaching my first classroom in this new career. To that day, studying the materials I had to absorb to become an MSF instructor had required that I read a list of 132 questions and memorize the course-accepted answers. Because of my reading disability I had spent hundreds of hours staring at the study guides and instructors’ manuals to get to the point that I had the gist of those documents memorized. The chance that I might have a clear moment and would be able to read the test questions to my students was too much to risk, so I memorized the test. That evening I had spent six hours just going over the test questions and I could spout “What is important to know about a convex mirror?” and when #19’s time came or when I heard “#39” my kneejerk response was “List the three-step process to shift to a higher gear.”

The last thing that I remember from the fleeting moments of sleep the morning of the day I regained my ability to read again was an incredible feeling of well-being as I rode my motorcycle from my garage into the street and in every direction I saw “suits” hanging from every telephone pole down my Little Canada street, along Little Canada Road to the I35E freeway entrance and all along the freeway to the Century Avenue exit on I694. Then I woke up. I don’t remember what led to that image, if there was a story that precluded the sight of so many corporate executives getting their just deserts. The dream was more a release from the self-torture I’d subjected myself to as a consequence of working for one of the many entirely self-serving, psychopathic, and outright evil corporations this greed-loving country has spawned. There wasn’t much of a story behind that grand sight, as I remember it. It was just a beatific scene from a world gone wrong that had self-corrected.

I had that wonderful dream repeatedly for about a month and intermittently for the next year or so. Then it stopped. The part of the dream I remember always woke me up about the time I needed to be getting out of bed. The feeling it left me with was always a great sense of peace because “truth, justice, and the American way” had been restored in my world. Sometimes, I suspect that there is a lot of French in my English and German heritage because the revolution I most empathize with is the French Revolution. Being a savage US citizen, I see the 1% being hanged from telephone poles rather than guillotined, but the end result is the same.

Of course, none of that will ever happen here. We’re a nation of serfs who love to serve and obey our masters while they misdirect our anger and violence toward other members of the 99%. The chances that Americans will rise up and throw off the shackles of failed and corrupt capitalism and its bedfellow, fascism, are about as good as are the odds that we’ll figure out space travel before the next ecological catastrophe wipes us from the earth: zero-to-none. But . . . damn! That was one sweet dream and I go to bed every night hoping I’ll get to experience it again.


Students Strike Back!

I was pretty much a “career student” for the first 40+ years of my life. After a dismal Midwestern K-12 and community college experience, I pretty much gave up on education by the time I was 19. I loved to Dallas, Texas for a computer programming school in 1967 and after that experience and investment turned to crap, I ended up attending El Centro Community College in downtown Dallas, mostly to clean up some disastrous grades I’d received when I dropped out of my awful hometown college to go on the road with a rock and roll band. For the first time, I experienced overwhelmingly competent and well-versed college instructors and I was hooked. From 1968 until 1991, I attended evening classes in community and 4-year colleges everywhere I lived; from Texas (2 schools) to Nebraska (3 schools) to California (4 schools) plus two correspondence schools. 

As a “non-traditional student,” (someone who does not attend school full time and during the day) I was subjected to a wide range of educator talents. The absolute worst was a Calculus I & II instructor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha who was a native German who learned to speak English as an adjunct instructor in Pakistan. His whole classroom plan was to copy the formulas from our textbook to the blackboard. His tests were so old that the mimeograph (remember those) contrast was pretty much slightly darker blue on light blue paper. That didn’t matter to the Offutt cadets or to the frat brats because the instructor hadn’t changed his tests in at least 10 years so they knew all the answers before they entered the classroom. Most of the Air Farce guys just wrote the answers on their papers and didn’t even pretend to know how to display their “work.” But the best instructors were people who made a mark on my life forever, both from the information I received in their classes and from the role models they provided as leaders and classroom managers.

By the time I got to California and discovered that transfer credits are something that is arbitrary as the weather, I needed to become more efficient in my course and instruction selection. Because I lived and worked fairly close to Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, I decided to reboot my attempt at obtaining bachelors there. I quickly discovered that the range of instructor quality was all over the place; from amazing to depressingly, amazingly awful. Since I lucked into a friendship with one of the great instructors and a business relationship with one of the decent instructors, I started milking those sources for information about who is who at OCCC. That was helpful, but even more helpful were the opinions of the better students I met in my classes. By the time I transferred to Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) in 1988, I had a process for selecting instructors and courses:

  1. Late in the semester, I began asking classmates and other students about instructors and courses that were “possibles” on my next semester’s class schedule. I documented those opinions so I wouldn’t have to refer to memory when it came time to register for classes.
  2. As part of that student opinion gathering process, I created my own course/instructor evaluation questions, since the questions the schools ask are designed by instructors to obtain minimal criticism and to keep the answers meaningless and neutral.
  3. I shopped for academic advisors, looking for someone who might actually be honest about classes and instructors. This was marginally useful, but sometimes not totally worthless.
  4. Whenever possible, volunteer to be the student proctor for course evaluations. That allowed me the time and access to see what other students said about a class and instructor I’d just experienced. That allowed me to weight the opinions I would receive from Step 1.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, I let my gut drive my participation in a class at a level I have never before or since allowed. Initially, because of the cost (money and time) of school, I made my whole decision to stay or leave from the first day of class. Since CSULB the add/drop date and the associated financial penalties were pretty lenient up to the end of the 2nd week of class, I sometimes held off making that decision to that last moment. However, if I disliked the instructor or the material on the first day, I dumped the class like a wet handful of poison ivy. In my last year, CSULB instigated an Undergraduate Withdrawal Limit that was punitive (now it is a total of 18 units over the course of a CSULB student’s undergrad career) and I got stuck with a couple of instructors and courses that were among the worst I’d ever suffered.

Today, there are options other than all of the work I put into my course and instructor selection. The best—and most reviled by academics—is RateMyProfessors.com/, a website born in 1999 and still barely known to or used by college students. College instructors are all over the map on whether they think those reviews are “fair” or not. Of course, their biggest bitch is the loss of control. Faculty unions do everything possible to protect incompetence and corruption among their ranks; proving, again, that self-regulation is a libertarian wet dream. It never works. In an Inside Higher Ed essay, “How To Fight RateMyProfessors.com,”James Miller wrote, "The cure for bad information is better information." He followed that with "There’s a lot of unhappiness among college faculty members about RateMyProfessors.com, a Web site containing student ratings of professors. Many college students use it to help pick their classes. Unfortunately, the site’s evaluations are usually drawn from a small and biased sample of students. But since students usually don’t have access to higher-quality data, the students are rational to use RateMyProfessors.com. Colleges, however, should eliminate students’ reliance on RateMyProfessors.com by publishing college-administered student evaluations."

Instructors who read this typically replied with snarky nonsense like this brave and anonymous prof's whine, "The only person who rated my outstanding colleague was a whining, lazy, slow-witted student who thought the professor was too demanding in requiring her to show up to class and to be prepared for class. The professor's many bright, good students have too much respect to post comments, good or bad, on a shoddy, inadequately managed, and poorly designed whine post for weak students. The professor now has a very low score, thanks to maintaining some modicum of academic standards. Any reputable study or survey would require a minimum number of subjects or sources before publishing data. Letting one sour apple tarnish a fine professor's reputation online is irresponsible, unethical and dishonest!" There is obviously so many “irresponsible, unethical and dishonest” delusions in this response that is probably ought to be republished with the instructor’s name.

In my last decade at McNally Smith College, our Faculty Committee had so watered-down the student evaluation forms that they had become useless to any instructor who wanted actual student input to future class work. For one semester, I re-introduced my own course evaluation from almost 30 years ago. It didn’t seem appropriate for me to directly review the results. I am fairly good at identifying handwriting and style and that defeats the whole concept of anonymous student course reviews. Ideally, instructors would receive a summary of the evaluations and wouldn’t be allowed near the actual forms. The fact that most students already do not trust the course evaluation process (and shouldn’t) means that most students just check the boxes and leave the comments sections blank. A not-insignificant percentage of students don’t even check the boxes for fear of being identified. Characters like “another southern prof” would be fine with that, “TMP is whining about how I was unfair or boring and nasty personal comments (which are taken off, while the numerical ratings of those who did this are left up). &#*@ RMP.”

A New York Times article, titled “The Prof Stuff,” postulates, “But like many online experiments, Rate My Professors has turned out to be a companion to nothing. It is its own world. Sure, hot, easy teachers get the laurels traditionally denied them by tenure committees who have that fetish for credentials and scholarship.” Actually, an adult (non-academic) reading of the reviews would demonstrate that many students are more concerned with getting value for their education dollar, rather than easy grades.

However it is absolutely true that, "The top professors on Rate My Professors, after all, are not the top professors in the nation. Rather, they’re the top professors on RateMyProfessors.com." Unfortunately, there is no other way for students to rate prospective course and classes and, by design, no useful way for school administrations to evaluate instructors. The usual rubric is “student retention,” a measure of how much money the instructor puts in the school’s bank account by being fast and loose with grades, attendance, and participation. Otherwise, most school administrators would just as soon not be bothered with the “classroom crap.” They are busy inflating their salaries and padding the departments with layoff fodder.

One article on this subject, “Should We Stop Asking College Students to Evaluate Their Instructors?”, was so irrationally biased and uncritical of academic corruption that it was hard to decide if the article or the whining profs were the least sympathetic. “If this sort of customer satisfaction survey works for your car insurance salesman, why wouldn’t it work for a teacher? For a long time, many academic researchers thought that these evaluations were a good thing; by the 1970s, evaluations were widespread in academia. Surely, the argument went, students could distinguish between a punctual and prepared professor, and the chaotic and disorganized instructor. . . research showed that teachers could increase student evaluation scores by simply smiling more or being more enthusiastic.” In other words, if an instructor is interested in the subject manner and creates an environment friendly to active learning, that instructor receives "unfair" preference from students. Amazing. Students can be so shallow. Worse, "More recent research showed no consistent pattern and many studies showed that student evaluations were riddled with biases." Those damn students are like every other human being on the planet? Unacceptable.

Someone called the NUWildcat wrote, “The easiest way to get high marks from the students is to give them good grades, regardless of their actual performance. The effect of that is that the students, getting good grades, think they are really proficient in that course. By inflating their grades, the students don't have the face the reality that there are some areas where they are weak and perhaps should change their majors.” It’s easy to make a claim like that, but difficult to prove. Lucky for profs, they can get away with claiming silly shit and call it “proof.” Another equally prof-biased Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Why We Must Stop Relying on Student Ratings of Teaching,” claimed, a "study also showed that ‘a male instructor administering an identical online course as a female instructor receives higher ordinal scores in teaching evaluations, even when questions are not instructor-specific.’ Kristina Mitchell, one of the study’s authors, summarized its findings in Slate last month and concluded: 'Our research shows they’re biased against women. That means using them is illegal.'" Typically, no real evidence was provided, other than a minimal study description, to justify that claim. Of course, the study does not prove that student evaluations are “biased against women.” It might prove that students (male and, possibly, female) are biased against women, though. Careful analysis might even find that women are less likely to approve of a woman instructor than are men. What do you do with that information? The next thing a reasonable person might ask would be, “Is there a reason students are inclined to be biased against taking classes from women?” Mitchell’s response falls solidly in the “shoot the messenger” category. Most of this propaganda is academia trying to protect itself from quality standards. I can not generate much sympathy for that.

There was one area from the Chronicle of Higher Education article that I totally agree with, “Student evaluations have also become less reliable over the years because most institutions have switched to online systems. In 2016 the American Association of University Professors released a comprehensive survey of faculty members about teaching evaluations. which found that . . .  the rate at which students were filling out evaluations has gone down precipitously in the electronic age.” Not just students, but everyone.

Tools like SurveyMonkey have allowed data collectors of all sorts to delude themselves into believing the are collecting useful information. As I said earlier, from the first day I started teaching at MSCM I begged my students not just to review my classes on RateMyProfessors.com but to add as much good and bad information about my class materials and presentations as they felt might be useful. Over 13 years, I had a total of 3,000 students in my classes. That total and regular promotion and nagging got me 33 RateMyProfessor reviews. As a member of the faculty senate, when I attempted to survey the faculty about issues as important as salary, required hours of instruction or office hours, or curriculum changes, I was lucky to get a 10% response from the faculty. When the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center went from paper reviews handed out while the license paperwork was being handled to emailing a SurveyMonkey link, responses dropped from 100% to less than 20%. The problem isn’t that student reviews are marginally complete and useful. The problem is that electronic surveys need to be tied to something the reviewers want and/or need.

During that short period in the early 80’s when American companies still had the vitality to manufacturer products and the management capability to do that, a basic rule of quality management was that “any paperwork generated has to benefit the people who do the paperwork.” If colleges and instructors are ever going to be responsive to students’ needs and interests, it will be because there is a feedback system from students to instructors and academic mismanagement. Obviously, the worst instructors want that system to be totally under their control. Administration bureaucrats are also mostly driven by their laziness, so their motivation to improve the educational quality of the facilities they mismanage is tempered by the fact that doing so would require work from . . . them. That leaves students with one remaining outlets with which to provide unwanted, unread feedback to the schools stealing their time and money and a warning or recommendation to future students: RateMyProfessor.com. Until that changes, teachers will continue to whine (and even sue!) and students will probably continue to be too lazy to use the only resource they have for avoiding lousy instructors.


Maybe Over-"Qualified?"


Your Russian Representatives

How do you know if your politician is a Russian plant? Easy, he or she is a Republican. How do you know if your personal issue lobbying organization is a Russian front? Easy, is it the NRA? If it is, you are giving money to an organization that already has plenty of cash, mostly rubles.


Parent Propaganda

Recently, a young woman on LinkedIn.com wrote about the pleasure she is deriving from her childless life and how other friends and family don't believe her. Her problem isn't that she is delusional. Her problem is that misery loves company and is intolerant of happiness. Many people have been coerced into parenthood through guilt and social pressure and have discovered it isn't a fraction as positive an experience as advertised. Once the little darlings become teenagers, the last of what pleasure existed vanishes; leaving only the desperate hope that some sort of adult compromise will end the wars.

kidhappySome people are naturally smart enough to see through the breeder marketing, but that won't save them from guilt trips and myths and propaganda. A few of us realize that having a family is a choice that eliminates a host of other possibilities. People who are successful in business or who become expert in a field of study or who master an art form are not multitaskers. Parents are primarily multitasking amateurs for at least 18 years; mastering nothing except, ideally, their own tempers and lowered expectations. If having kids makes us so “happy,” it must be really hard to explain the repeated results of marital satisfaction surveys that demonstrate just how unhappy kids make their parents (see the survey chart attached to this paragraph).

In one of his many excellent routines on the human condition and delusions, Jim Jefferies asked his audience to “put up your hand if you truly believe you have a stupid child.” Seeing no response, he yelled, “None of you? Well guess what? It is statistically higher than that!” He chased that down with, “You child isn’t stupid. Your child has a ‘learning disability.’ That’s the definition of stupid. If you have difficulty learning, that’s what stupid is.” Humans desperately want to imagine that their offspring don’t fall into the 50-something-percent of below-average nitwits (and “average” isn’t an improving characteristic in our dumbed-down society). The only way to cling to that delusion is to keep the little nitwits in constant motion through sports and other activities so that the school system will value them mostly because of your participation in functions that would otherwise require teachers of school administrators to manage alone. As someone who spent a dozen years teaching at a for-profit college that, eventually, dumbed-itself-down to catering to momma’s little rejects, I can tell you that many of your children couldn’t outsmart a pet rock. And if that is not an unfulfilling way to spend your life, I don’t know what is.

But your mileage very definitely may vary.

Recently, I have decided there are a couple of categories that people fall into: 1) people who have something to do with their lives that obliterates all other options and 2) people who have unfocused and scattered interests and who just need stuff to burn up their time and years. If you are the first, having a family will slow you down or defeat you in your life’s purpose and you will burn up your years searching for that mythical “balance” bullshit that is no more real than fiction’s “true love.” If you are the second, you will fill your life with kids, pets, trivial activities, and lots of friends who share these likeable non-passions.

In saying this, I am not making a value judgment. If everyone were the focused and driven type, the species either wouldn’t reproduce or reproduction would always result in either the single-parent or the distracted parent model (No, they aren’t substantially different.) People who are not driven to accomplish some specific thing in their lives make good parents, committed pet owners, family member caretakers, and community contributors. Those are among their best qualities and activities. At the other end, the undriven are often called “slackers,” but the driven are just as likely (or more) to end up burned out young and useless thereafter.

The thing most humans don’t comprehend is that we can’t have it all. Type 1 driven folks are unlikely to have anything resembling a happy or healthy home=life. The choices are either follow that passion all the way to the logical conclusion or flail away unsuccessfully at having a “balanced life” and fail at both hitting your goals and succeding at your chosen field while you raise unhappy and dysfunctional children and do that ridiculous serial monogamy thing every few months or years at a time. Type 2 undriven folks often want to have the money, power, and recognition that only Type 1’s ever achieve and their jealousy turns into a dysfunctional society that attempts to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Very much like what is happening right now with the Trumpanzees and their Tangerine Misleader.


Historic Detective Work

I just assumed everything I learned in church as a kid was based on delusion and lies.