Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Those Counterfeit Diplomas

An editorial in today's NYT suggests that some recent high school graduates are not competent in basic skills that should be required to earn their standing. The headline refers to these students' diplomas as counterfeit, implying that students had a hand in conspiring to be granted documents under false pretenses. A better word for them might be undeserved, as the diploma requirements are unwittingly incomplete or inaccurate.

The article concerns itself primarily with claims of weak curriculum in many states, citing a rise in high-school graduate rates matched with a decrease in successful college entrance exams:
"Nationally, graduation rates are rising - yet less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for math and reading at the college level....more than one in five recent high school graduates could not meet minimum entry test standards to enlist in the Army."
The editorial board writing the article leans heavily on teachers unions, who opposed standardized testing used as a means to evaluated teachers based on how much students learned. The article concludes that,
"Many states reacted by settling for cosmetic changes in school curriculums and using weak tests that virtually anyone could pass. This allows them to hide how dismal their schools actually are and misleads families and students into believing that high school diplomas have value."
Canada's school systems differs from the states considerably, but we often follow where they have led. There are certainly commonalities here, but some important issues have been conflated.

On Teaching Evaluation Tied to Student Ability

It's a bad idea. As I've written previously, if we decide which teachers can keep their jobs based on the results of a standardized test then,
Demographics will play a big part in the results, and teachers in schools near the universities or RIM will appear to be phenomenal, while those of us in the downtown core will look like imbeciles. If we want to accurately assess teachers based on their ability to get students to a certain level, then we'd have to randomly assign students to schools. Unwise and unlikely.
But more importantly, teaching just doesn't work like that. We don't become better teachers because suddenly our lives depend on it. People generally want to be effective in their chosen field. Dan Ariely, a professor of "behavioural economics," writes about the effectiveness of social norms and how quickly market norms can override them, i.e. bringing money into the picture makes people work less:
"Standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. . . . Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instil in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. . . . Market norms also erode the pride and meaning people get from the workplace (for example, when we pay schoolteachers according to their students' performance on standardized tests)" (93-99).
I believe few teachers practice ineffective techniques because they'll be paid the same regardless; it's not the case that they avoid working hard if there's not a giant career-killing carrot or stick prompting them. We have many smaller punishments keeping us in line. Rather, it's far more likely that we have some poor practices because we erroneously believe they're effective. And we think they work because sometimes they do.

There have been studies on best practices that are useful. I think by far this little handbook - The Science of Learning - is the best I've seen. BUT, people are all different. Students are not easily catalogued. Some need a firm hand and others need leeway. Some need rubrics and others won't read them preferring a more open-ended approach. Some need myriad examples, and others want to figure it out themselves. Sometimes films and powerpoints help, but sometimes they hinder. Some students learn best by reading the textbook and filling in handouts even though we're not really supposed to do that anymore. I get my students to evaluate what worked and what didn't for them in each class each year, and then I just have to fly with the majority on any significant changes I make to my practice. There's a science to learning when we look at students in general, yet it's clearly an art when we focus on each individual. And we're supposed to be individuating each lesson and assignment, but, to the degree that we can hit every student every time, that's impossible.

On Rising Grades Coupled with Diminishing Excellence

I completely agree that grades are inflated. I said so here a couple years ago:
A sneaky thing's happened over my last 20 years of teaching. The median grade in most courses used to be in the high 60s, and now it's in the low 80s. Yet I don't think the grads are significantly more knowledgable nor skilled. In fact, when I look at what I've taught since I started, when I look at saved exams and assignments, my courses have gotten more and more watered down each year. The fact that many of the grade 12s entering my course don't know how to cite sources or really what plagiarism is (something I learned cold in grade four) or that many grade 10 Academic students need reminders to capitalize the first word in a sentence and the word "I", really, leads me to believe I'm not the only one cutting out content to ensure everyone passes with flying colours. Out of fear of not measuring up with other countries we've lowered the bar so more kids can jump it successfully. Now our students have the marks to compete with international students for university entrance, but I worry about the monster we're creating.
However, it's not clear to me that this is about the quality of teaching or of the curriculum. I think it's about student expectation. Due to a few interacting forces, students have been able to get away with learning less content and fewer skills. I've written about this previously as well:
From what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin, [a Trent University prof], goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful.

About that Downward Spiral 

I think it looks something like this:

There's global pressure to rank in the top for education which is, in some cases, measured by graduation rate, but, in other cases, measured by standardized tests. Neither of these, I argue, actually show student ability. The former is marred by the move to make courses easier so grades are higher than real ability would indicate: for an additional example, the same English tests that used to be given in one class is now allotted two classes. The latter is marred by a program of teaching to the test that drills students in only the areas being measured, and results in other, arguably more important skills, warranting less attention. Our literacy tests are also skewed by the amount of help given during the test to the point of some students having the questions read to them and their oral answers written down, enacting the very antithesis of literacy testing.

This pressure to rank well internationally is countered by parental pressure for their child to do well individually. Parents are terrified their children won't be able to compete for scholarships or even university entrance. With fewer good, stable jobs to go around, the competition becomes more fierce, and parents pleading for higher grades often get what they demand. That concern is well-founded, but unfortunately results in elevated grades. But beyond the economics of the situation, we have a culture focused on our children's grades instead of focused on what they're actually learning in school. I'm okay with my daughter, in grade-school, doing poorly on a project but spending hours of time showing me what she learned. It tells me she's able to learn, but not yet able to show her learning in the way that's expected for the assignment. But who cares? She'll figure out how to play that game soon enough. But it can be difficult to disallow lower grades from provoking significant anxiety in parents instead of mere disappointment. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the masses.

But the biggest factor in the spiral, is that teachers have become entirely accountable for student ability. It used to be the case that if a class did poorly on a test, then the teacher was taken to task and would have to prove the efficacy of the test and prior lessons. But now if a student does poorly, even if all the other students in the class do exemplary, the teacher is still taken to task for that one student's inability to do the work. It's no longer possible for a student to do poorly in a subject because they're just unable or unwilling to do the work. When I was a student, we used to look long and hard at the ranking that appeared beside our report card grades, dreading an LQ, which indicated we were in the lower quarter of the class. We cared about how well we ranked in the classroom, not in the world. It was a clear indicator of how hard we were working, or, if we were slogging books home each night, it showed us our general ability in the subject. Students can still compare their results to the course median, but with medians in the 80s, and all the marks squished into a smaller percentage range (75 to 95 instead of 35 to 95), distance from the median is a less useful indicator. This is particularly true when students, parents, counsellors, and administrators badger teachers to adjust their marks just a bit.

If a student refuses to do work, it comes back at the teacher for making an assignment that wasn't strongly enough tied to student interest. We're to call home any time a student misses an assignment, but half the class might miss a most fascinating project. We can't just impart information and rest on the reality that much of it is fascinating to us, and therefore will be fascinating to others. We can't be boring. And in a world of diminishing attention spans, that's getting harder and harder to do without a secondary degree in song and dance. This has created a climate in which many students are quite convinced that neglecting work is entirely due to teachers failing to make the work fascinating enough for students to be fully motivated to try their hand at it.

If students don't feel a smidgen of guilt or shame for neglecting their studies, in a world rife with alternative activities at their fingertips, then, really, it's amazing that any of them do any work at all.

The focus on who's to blame for the weak skills of the recent crops of grads is a final concern. We need a cultural shift that cajoles us into challenging ourselves to learn something new and difficult each day, something that makes us struggle just a bit. We're a society of passive viewers, and we've accepted that label without complaint. To save ourselves, we need to rally against that sloth-like view of ourselves. It's not enough to continually reinforce what we're interested in or what we're good at. It's really comfortable to focus on what we already know when we embark on learning, but it's only fruitful if that one area has enormous potential. For the masses, we need a breadth of understanding and knowledge and skills that we'll only attempt if we are ashamed when we don't live up to our own potential regardless the entertainment value of our teachers or the quality of our leaders.

Barring a complete shift in culture, one more concrete tactic we could take to change things is to require university entrance exams. The SAT exams (lots of fun practice questions here) are a useful means to determine if a student is skilled enough for a particular program. And the fact that the exams exist, mean students will be motivated to develop the right skills to an excellent degree regardless their interest in each facet of learning. If they want to enter a general English lit program, they will have to learn the nuances of grammar regardless how much more interesting it is to enjoy some poetry than to learn the particulars of principal clauses.

And then their diplomas might mean something.

ETA - Here are some letters to the editor about the original editorial with a few points of agreement:

"In many states the strategy has been to raise standards and then lower passing scores on exit exams in order to maintain or even raise the graduation rate."

"The graduation rates increased because parents and politicians demanded that they increase. Instead of improving education, states lowered standards."

"Does the fact that a high school diploma is now essentially meaningless cause problems for colleges, private employers and the military? Not really. Colleges have the ACT and SAT for potential entrants. . . . The only people really harmed are the marginal students who were passed on instead of helped."

"Taxpayers are entitled to know that students are receiving at least a basic education. Instead, they are told a comforting fairy tale that shortchanges all stakeholders."

ETA  - Here's an SAT test question generator that allow students to customize it to help them better learn.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On Desires and Commodities

I've just been reading books and watching films lately. I'll write again soon. But check out this passage from The Obsolescence of Man by Gunther Anders, first published in 1956:


The mere fact that I had no car and therefore could be caught in flagrante not buying anything and, ultimately, of having no needs, was the cause in 1941 of the following embarrassing incident in California:


Yesterday, in the Los Angeles area, while I was walking along a highway, a police car pulled over in front of me with its siren wailing and blocked my path.

The policeman shouted at me: “Say, what’s the matter with your car?”

“My car?”, I asked him, not understanding what he was talking about.

“Sold her?”

I shook my head.

“At the shop for repairs?”

Once again I shook my head.

The policeman paused in thought, since it seemed to him to be impossible that there should be a third reason for not having a car. “Then why aren’t you driving it?”

“My car? But I don’t have a car.”

This simple piece of information also went right over his head.

To help him understand, I explained that I had never owned a car.

Now I really stuck my foot in it. A clear case of self-incrimination. The policeman stared at me with his mouth hanging open. “You never had a car?”

“Look, no”, I said, pondering his powers of comprehension. “That’s the boy.” And then I waved to him in a friendly and innocent way and attempted to resume my walk.

But he would have none of that. To the contrary. “Don’t force me, sonny,” he thought and pulled out his citation booklet, “don’t tell me any stories, please”. The pleasure of interrupting the dull boredom of his job with the capture of a vagrant almost gave him a friendly, innocent air. “And why haven’t you ever owned a car?”

I thought for a second about what I should not say in response. So instead of saying: “Because it never occurred to me to get a car”, I responded—and for added emphasis, I shrugged my shoulders and assumed a distracted look—“Because I never needed a car.”

This answer seemed to put him in a good mood. “Is that so?”, he then exclaimed, almost with enthusiasm. I sensed that I had committed a second, even worse mistake. “And why don’t you need a car, sonnyboy?”

Sonnyboy shrugged his shoulders, afraid. “Because I had more need of other things.”

“Such as?”


“Aha!”, the policeman said thoughtfully, and he repeated the word, “books”. Evidently he was now certain of his diagnosis. And then: “Don’t act the moron!”, which is how he made it clear to me that he had discovered that sonnyboy was a “highbrow who was faking imbecility” and that, in attempt to simulate an inability to understand that offers were orders, pretended to be an idiot. “We know your kind”, he thought, giving me a friendly poke in the chest. And then, with a sweeping gesture that indicated the distant horizons: “And where do you want to go?”

This was the question that I most feared, since I still had sixty-four kilometers of highway until San L; and once there, I had nowhere to go. If I had tried to define for him the absence of a goal for someone who is on the road, I would definitely have seemed like a vagrant. God knows where I would be sitting now if, at that very moment, L. had not arrived, truly like a deus in machina, if he had not pulled up alongside us with his imposing six-seat sedan, if he had not stopped suddenly and gestured to me, inviting me to get into his car, something that not only left the policeman flabbergasted, but also seriously challenged his philosophy.

“Don’t do it again!”, he snapped, as I got into our car.

What is it that I am not supposed to do again?

Evidently, I must not refrain from buying what is offered in the form of a command to everyone.

When in these offers you recognize the commandments of our time, one is no longer surprised that even those who cannot afford to do so also end up buying the commodities that are offered. And they do so because they are even less capable of affording not following orders; that is, not buying the commodities. And since when has the appeal to duty [Pflicht] respected those without resources? And since when has duty [Sollen] ever exempted the have-nots from its commands? Just as, according to Kant, one must comply with one’s duty even when, or especially when, it is contrary to one’s inclination, so today one has to comply even when it is contrary to one’s own “responsibility”. Especially today. In the same way, the mandates of the offers are categorical. And when they announce their must-have, to appeal to one’s own precarious situation of duty-and-responsibility would be pure sentimentalism.

Of course, this analogy is a philosophical exaggeration, but it nonetheless contains a kernel of truth, since it is no metaphor to truly claim that today there is hardly anything in the spiritual life of contemporary man that plays as fundamental a role as the difference between what one cannot afford and what cannot be afforded; and this difference furthermore becomes real in the form of a “battle”. If for the man of our time there is a characteristic conflict of duties, it is none other than the no-holds-barred, ferocious and exhausting battle that takes place in the hearts of customers and within the bosom of the family. True, “no-holds-barred, ferocious” and “exhausting”, because the fact that the object of the struggle can make us stupid and the battle itself could take place as a comical version of real conflicts, does not at all detract from its bitterness and must suffice as the fundamental conflict of a contemporary bourgeois tragedy.

As everyone knows, this tragedy usually ends with the victory of the “mandate of the offer”; that is, with the acquisition of the commodity. But this victory is dearly bought, since from that very moment the customer begins to experience the servile compulsion of paying in installments for the acquired object.


Anders goes on to explain how we become slaves to our things as we harbour a belief that if we don't use them regularly, then all that money and time spent working to get the object has gone to waste. So we use it even when we no longer get pleasure from it just to avoid wasting our hard-earned things. Which is nuts. And if we could just think a bit, we could rise above this mess of things.

It makes me think of one of my favourite lines of poetry, published the same year:
"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?"
Anders comes to the same conclusion as Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Lao Tzu, Jesus, and many others: We can have greater pleasure in life if we reduce our desires for things instead of getting sucked into an endless battle to fulfill every desire. But it's not just about desire for commodities. We have strong desires for progress and perfection. We can't fall for that either. Life is messy, and we will always be flawed and ever unfinished. Epictetus in particular advised recognizing what's within our control and not bothering much about anything else. Reputation, honour, status are not within our control. It's just an illusion that if we work hard enough, we can get them. Once we can accept that fact, then we can let go of expectations and striving for something we might never achieve.

I don't see it as cut and dry as Epictetus does, however. To me, those things are just a greater gamble with a lower probability of success than what we can control with certainty. Instead of resigning myself to what's out of my control, I just get better at playing the odds. But imagine a life with fewer goals, with fewer expectations, like Anders' contentious walk to nowhere. That's not allowed in our age that glorifies progress at any cost.

I thought of this as I watched The End of the Tour followed by several interviews and speeches by Wallace.

And way down here, way below the fold, I've been thinking a lot about the "sudden deaths" of three male teachers from my board, ranging in age from 36 to 55. One at FHCI, one at my school, and one at SSS. All within a year. The absences of any evidence to the contrary leads me to believe they took their own lives. At our school, we were instructed to shut down that discussion out of respect for the family. And I don't understand that. So I'm whispering this here because it's begging to be cracked wide open.

ETA: And now a fourth, a female breaks the pattern a bit.  And now there's a fifth.

Our schools are all about working to reduce the stigma around mental health. Caz, my departed colleague, and I worked on a mural in honour of Clara Hughes' struggle with mental health.  But we're not to discuss his condition or speculate about possible contributing factors with an eye towards improving the odds for others. We're supposed to wade in the ambiguities of yet another 'sudden death.'

If all three were hit by a car, students and teachers would rally and petition to make the streets safer. If all three were victims of assault or cancer or lyme disease or any other single cause, we would join together to raise money and awareness to prevent similar deaths in future. But as it is, we sit silently, in anguish, trying hard to ignore the pattern of cases.

As teachers, we're afraid to get in trouble like never before, acting to avoid punitive measures rather than for the love of teaching. We have new mandates that are unclear and the dictates continue to waver with each administrator, yet teaching reviews can be labelled unsatisfactory and jobs lost if these fuzzy rules aren't followed accurately. It's a time of profound chaos leading to a general state of anomie. We have a professional organization that focuses on teacher error, from the mundane to the profane, and publishes them regularly with names and details in a magazine that we are obligated to fund, rather than discretely and respectfully working with teachers to resolve concerns and to restore professional relationships. One disgruntled student with a parent willing to go the distance can end a career.

And criticizing any of it can lead to termination. Shhhhh..... This is but a minor act of embarrassingly cowardly rebellion.

The reality right now is that keeping a job by working hard is no longer within our control. I've had more student complaints about me this year than in all the previous 24 years combined. Every time I've been supported by my administration, but the complainants are undeterred insisting they should be able to re-submit projects endlessly to get a mark that shows their best ability. There's a belief that we should mark work repeatedly until the end of term, and I will quit if I'm made to mark each piece of work several times over until they each have 100% in the course. The absurdity of the situation requires us to accept that we shouldn't expect to be able to retire in good standing regardless our dedication to the craft.

This is not to say that careers were a driving force in these deaths, but I imagine they were at least a contributing factor. We spend a third of our lives at work, and, for people like me, under the new conditions, it consumes a majority of waking hours. But these tragedies are also a piece of a new statistic that the suicide rate of middle age white males has risen by 40% in the last seven years.

Some think this increase is due to the expectation of the stoic male and the "gym culture" that has foisted unattainable goals on men. Others focus on a similar split between dual expectations of being strong and being vulnerable. Others look to the singleness of most of the men in the study, others on how coping skills fall apart with age, on alcohol use, and on our glorification of youth.  Some think it's simply a factor of the economic downturn as suicides peaked during the depression as well. And others note that it's highest in those without a high-school education.  Economic insecurity is certainly a stress too much to bare for some, but Durkheim's research found that suicide rates rise during positive changes as much as negative changes. "Even fortunate crises, the effect of which is abruptly to enhance a country's prosperity, affect suicide like economic disasters" (203).  Too much change that creates upheaval in a society affects the desire to take a quick exit. We are in a point of increasingly frequent and hurried disruptions, and we can't settle in. We can't feel secure in what we're doing to improve it before we have to change it.

The school board seems to recognize that it's causing some problems as evidenced by one perk of our new contract being a promise of no new initiatives for a year. We used to get a rush of changes at every provincial election, then those ideas would be overruled by the next government before they were ever fully implemented. Now it seems like new changes bombard us for the sake of change, as if they believe that constantly moving is the same as progressing.

Granted Epictetus would advise that the expectation that our colleagues will live full lives to their natural end is unreasonable to hold as it's not at all within our control. And yet...  An urge to act, to do something to prevent others' misery and loneliness and fear and desperation bubbles up uncontained and rudderless. Impotent.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Aging and Playfulness

My city is full of construction in preparation for Light Rail Transit. I hit the bookstore today and was walking towards the hardware store for some blinds when the sidewalk abruptly ended. An orange mesh fence framing a "Pedestrians, use the other sidewalk" sign stopped me in my tracks. I considered turning back, but I had come this far. So I made my way across four lanes of traffic to the other side where, lo and behold, there was a twin sign and fence bookending the highway. There WAS no other sidewalk!

After determining that there was absolutely no other way to get from point A to point B, I slithered my way around the fence and into a 2' deep trench that once featured a walkway. Sloshing through lovely suctiony mud, I was further pleased that I wasn't able to find my sneakers at home earlier and had resigned myself to heavy boots on a reasonably mild day. And as I was happily stomping through the muck on the busy street, just 20' or so from where the sidewalk would begin again, I thought about a book I had just paged through but hadn't bought.

Ian Brown is a favourite writer of mine. I even e-mailed him about a bit of writing I had done once, and he courteously responded (which I printed and saved). His newest book is about turning 60. He wrote a diary-like entry once a day for a year, and I immediately regretted not doing the same at the start of this year, my 50th, except I know I'd never keep it up for a year. Once I started a blog taking a picture a day of myself - no words or ideas, just a snapshot. I lasted three days. Routine is not my forté.

But I didn't buy the book because it would make me too introspective. I buy books to face me outside of myself. John Ralston Saul's The Comeback was my choice today. A book about someone turning 60 would have me dwelling on turning 50. Even just paging through it a bit has done that well enough, obviously!  Brown wonders about what 60 looks like, what pleasures are found and lost, what it means to be 60 these days. I understand those questions as I find myself searching out which famous people are close to my age. Woody Harrelson is close, and Robert Downey Jr. But famous women my age don't often look like anything I could recognize in the mirror. What does 50 look like? It's so hidden it's become foreign to us. And how do 50-year-olds act?

I thought of Brown's book as I enjoyed my muddy journey trespassing around barricades on a busy street in broad daylight, and I became briefly self-conscious, suddenly aware that I'm not 10-years-old, but a middle-aged lady intentionally splashing mud like a crazy* person! This makes it all the more hilarious. Somehow I'm typically saved from acknowledging the gaze of the other through some magical built-in obliviousness to norms, which allows for a strange sort of freedom. I might look ridiculous, but I'm causing no harm.

Why is unself-conscious playfulness the thing we give up as we get older when we could just as easily give up judgment and spite and crabbiness. Because shouldn't we all enjoy a bit of a splash now and again?


* I waffled over how to word that line for ages. I considered "like something's wrong with me" or "like I'm on drugs" but both have the same problem of stereotyping behaviours. Yet I do want to get across that childhood behaviours in an adult are ridiculed - people think less of us as they would someone with a mental challenge or illness. And the whole point is, wouldn't it be cool if they didn't?

On Making Change

For decades, I've been bringing cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags and bringing home superfluous garbage. But for decades, it's been an annoyance for the poor cashier who had to figure out what to do with my pile of assorted sacks, and who, more often than not, would just leave all the groceries for me to sort and stuff.

In the last 3-5 years, all that has changed. Ever since they started charging for plastic bags and offering store-logo'd bags for sale at the check-out, cashiers now ASK if I have my own bags. They welcome my thread-bare sacks without hesitation. That change is nearing completion: a state in which bringing containers for groceries is the norm, and accepting plastic bags for a price is deviant. Of course we're understanding when people forget their bags; we all do it from time to time. But I can't imagine people having that same pitying reaction to "I'll need some bags too" just five years ago.

Similarly, I've avoided most paper in my classroom for years. I have a website with all my handouts and assignments, and I collect and mark all work online. I don't just do that for the environment: my course notes are clearly organized and easier for students to find than a bunch of handouts at the bottom of their knapsack. It's also much faster to mark online, and all student work is automatically organized for me. I avoid marking programs in favour of simple, straightforward Gmail, which I've been using since 2002 when I worked on a teacher's guide and was introduced to online editing. I've been using that "Review" option on word documents ever since. Now I can just search a name in my mailbox to find a list of all the work a student's submitted with my comments and rubrics attached.

With google docs available for free, some students don't see the point in buying a word program, so I accommodate that too, reluctantly. Students aren't yet adept at sharing with the right settings that enable an easy communication, and it adds an extra step of checking dates when a document is "live." But it's still easier than collecting paper copies.

And, like the shift away from plastic bags, the hard copy advocates are becoming the deviants, which makes my life so much easier. It used to be the case that I had to also provide paper copies of assignments in case students didn't like using computers, and I had to accept hard-copies of work. Now that our school board is trying to cut back paper use by 75% in the next four years (75/5 started a year ago), it's acceptable to have all work online, and students have resigned themselves to the change. Some students even complain when teachers give handouts. They used to lament having to type up their work, but now they're up in arms if they're asked to print an assignment. The shift is almost complete. Some teachers are going further to make all their tests online, but then they have to watch all the screens like a hawk for googlers (with no LanSchool for chromebooks on wifi). Paper does still have its benefits, and so far I don't feel too guilty about one paper test each unit.

This shift is handy for me. It's good for the board's bottom line (money). And it saves trees. I'm surprised there aren't pulp and paper lobby groups all over this; maybe they've had to recognize times are changing and they won't be able to stop this kind of shift. Maybe.

How I feel when I talk about reducing paper,
and how I think other people feel: Oh bother.
So it is possible to change behaviours to the extent that people are appalled or embarrassed to be asked to do something that was commonplace just a few years back. It seems to have to involve business concerns over the financial costs of wastefulness. The change in paper use wouldn't have happened without the board being concerned with the cost and amount of paper being used. One person (me) jumping up and down about it, showing off my marked essays, and putting boxes for good-on-one-side paper in every room does absolute squat to change behaviours. Now can we apply the model to other issues?

Tim Horton's sort of charges for a cup, but they do it backwards with a discount if you bring your own mug. If they reversed that and decreased their prices by ten cents, but then charged a dime for the cost of a cup, AND encouraged people to buy a mug at the checkout, I think single-use cups could be dramatically reduced.

But those are really small potatoes. Can we reduce cars (single-use vehicles) and meat consumption the same way? That's the real challenge.

Stickers on gas pumps might help. I've long suggested stickers of child slaves on free trade chocolate bars to remind us to buy fair trade*, so maybe we can get some squished animals for meat packs from factory farms (even though we can't get GMO labelling here). But all the stickers might have the effect they did on cigarette packets, which is nil.

To follow this demonstrably effective model, we need the government to put in place a firm and dramatic limit on consumption of gas and factory farmed meat; I think that 75/5 target for typical residential use might help make a change, and it could be do-able. And they'd need to offer easy alternatives to use, like increase taxes enough to obliterate bus fares, or have promotions on other ways to get protein with recipes to help people make the transition to meat only on Mondays. Except that Big Oil and Monsanto might have something to say about it all. That's a bugger.

With political will, it could be done. It would mean a couple years of grumbling, but then we might get to a place where people complain if they're actually asked to do something that requires serving meat, like the boss is coming over and expects a steak, or that requires a vehicle, like moving across town.

It could happen.


* John Oliver on Last Week Tonight also had a bit in which people could get labels to stick on food products to tell the truth about the products. I posted the video on facebook, but it has since been deleted. And all other videos with the same name have edited out the ending with the citizen re-labelling suggestion. It makes me wonder if their legal department canned it not necessarily on "copyright grounds" as he just provided downloadable stickers his staff had created, but because it inspired an effective citizen backlash.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Those Statues Again

the first statue
There are dueling petitions out to continue and to stop statues of all 22 prime ministers being planted on the grounds of Wilfrid Laurier University, my old school that I loved all to bits. I wrote about this statue project on its inception two years ago. The statues were originally to be set up at Victoria Park, but a survey of our citizens showed 79% rejected the idea. This debate has made news at The Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail, where one professor noted,
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted,” said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university. . . . "Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about." 
I talked to my grade 10 students about this issue. They were in full support of the project, but their arguments are telling. They more vocal respondents fell along two lines:

1. "If it's free, then it's good. If someone wants to give you something for free, you'd be crazy not to take it."

The fact that it's privately funded takes away some of the concern of taxpayers, but it raises a different issue. Should wealthy benefactors be allowed to dictate the art that permanently represents our city? As Joannette suggests, if we want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, our voices should all be heard with respect to what type of display is warranted. Our voices were heard once in this city, and now the majority that protested the statues is being ignored.

2. "I don't see a problem with the First Nation issue. It was so long ago, who really cares about that anymore?"

Yikes! And, exactly. People don't get the connections and the long strings of history that sit behind the current occupation of land, and they don't understand problems with some of the policies of the past that have left a lasting negative impact on our nation. Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and the disproportional number of Indigenous people in jails are just skimming the surface of the number of problems created by colonization.

I recognize that we have to understand people's lives within a historical context, much as I praise some of Plato's work even though he was cool with slavery. We can't attack their entire body of work because of one piece. But some PMs don't have much of a piece to praise, certainly not compared to other Canadians focused more on social reform than personal status.

Some American cities have been taking down confederate memorials. It's curious we'd want to put up something that could be seen as glorifying a dark history, just as our neighbours are becoming more enlightened.

And our own Luisa D'Amato tried to explain the problems with the opposition to the statue project:
It will be one of the ways that visitors, students and employees get information, both critical and supportive, about the behaviour and legacy of that prime minister. Perhaps a conversation or two will happen. "We're not trying so much to celebrate as we've tried to document," said one of the proponents of this privately funded project, Jim Rodger.
They want to display the PMs with warts and all to elicit further discussion about our history. The problem with Rodger's argument is that he wants to change the meaning of erecting a statue, but we can't arbitrarily change the symbolic vernacular of a culture. We don't look at statues and think, "This group of people obviously wanted to discuss this person further." Culturally, we understand statues to be a commemoration. We can't just change that definition as it suits us.

We should celebrate people who have sacrificed and fought in order to help our nation flourish. Terry Fox, the Famous Five, and Shannen Koostachin are good examples. Being a politician that gets to the top through trickery, dumb luck, or honourable means shouldn't be enough to warrant a bronze legacy. Some politicians fight for the top position for power and prestige, not necessarily to make Canada a better nation. Title alone doesn't make one laudable.

If the statues are about learning about history, then a smaller version of the statues could sit in a display travelling through museums and galleries across Canada. As a temporary display, people will come to see the statues when they're near where they can remark on the trajectory through one PM to another and look for the hidden iconography of the pieces. Maybe they can end up housed in the foyer of Kitchener's The Museum. In a museum, they are clearly an educational tool. As public art, they are celebrations of former Canadians. There's no getting around that.

D'Amato closes with these words: "When people at a university start instantly dismissing something because it makes them uncomfortable, that makes me uncomfortable."

Professors openly discussing and debating an issue in the news is not the same as "instantly dismissing" them. They're presenting their views for larger consideration, and the debate will continue.

But what's really interesting to me about this issue, is how passionately I feel about it. Beyond all the rational discourse, it should be noted that I am shaking with rage at the very idea that a statue commemorating Stephen Harper could go up in MY city. After all he has done to destroy what made Canada great, if he is to be celebrated here, then I WILL MOVE!

Just sayin'.

ETA this on Cornwallis statue in Halifax.

On Population Control and Freedom at Any Cost

China has officially ended its one-child policy, and the New York Times argues against any similar policy ever existing again.
The Chinese government’s decision to end its draconian one-child policy is a pragmatic economic move, but it’s hardly sufficient. The government continues to control personal freedom by limiting the number of children a couple can have to two, an abhorrent policy that no nation should have.
The editorial talks about limiting freedoms like it's the worst possible action, but there are far worse consequences if we don't. If no nation should limit their population, then we'll have some bigger problems in our hands. We have to begin to control our population, and asking people nicely isn't going to do squat! I explained the logic behind this a whole other blog ago. Most of us just aren't made to care about the entire world, so the masses have to be forced to do what's right for the greater good.

In my school board, they've implemented a 75/5 paper reduction policy starting a year ago: we're to decrease paper use by 75% within the next five (now four) years. Stats were run, and I tried to convince the keeper of the numbers to accidentally leak them - or, better, openly post them and warn that updated numbers will be posted quarterly.  He already suggested that we limit printing to 600 pages/year, and there was an uproar. With stats in hand, he's clarified that most people are doing that already, but a few - about 10 in 80 teachers - are way, way above those numbers. Unfortunately he's not quite comfortable posting those names yet, but I think it's the only thing that will work.

As I walked out of that paper meeting, another teacher said we'll never get teachers to do this - even with on-line resources in our back pockets - literally. But back in the day when I started teaching, we rarely photocopied anything because we had one mimeograph machine (Remember smelling the paper to get a buzz?), and it took forever to make copies. We got by without copies and without computers. So it's entirely possible to reduce paper use, but the masses won't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It won't happen until it's forced to happen. People will complain for a couple years because change is hard, but then they'll get used to the new rules, and life will go on with a few more trees in the ground (and more money at the board office).

If we don't create some rules around population, it will be truly disastrous. Suzuki illustrates that here:

After reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, I summarized his research on the reality of not having any pro-active population control:
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It seems pretty clear that either we can choose to allow genocides to reduce populations, or we consciously prevent more children from being born. I think we'd all like to choose that second option... except when it directly affects us, which is much of the time.

The reality is that if we want to have a healthy planet for our grandchildren to live on, we have to stop having so many grandchildren. We have to spread the word to anyone from 15 to 40 to have fewer children, and from 40 up to tell their children to stop having children at all, or maybe to have one among the lot of them. I have three kids, and, so far,  I've convinced two of them not to have any kids. But intelligent friends my age laugh at this suggestion. They just don't believe this is a real problem that they need to actually act on in any real way. So we need something else to get us going.

We could try incentives, and I suggested to my grade 12s that we offer free education in exchange for voluntary permanent sterilization. We'd have to do it when they're 18-20, before they get a strong biological urge to reproduce. It's young for them to make such an important decision, but that's the point. I think it's the only time we could conceivable (ha!) convince people to willingly give up their right to have children. They pointed out that if we tie incentives to university, then we might reduce population in the smartest group of people and potentially end up with an Idiocracy:

So that plan might not work.

We need to change our entire mythology around freedom in order to survive another couple generations. We need to stop thinking that freedom should come at any cost. I said as much after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the bad guy rationed water, and our hero opened the valves for all to drink freely. Fast-forward twenty years, and we'd see the fatal short-sightedness of that style of leadership.

We're back to Plato's Republic where control = freedom, except it doesn't have to turn out like 1984 or a Nazi regime. Quite the opposite. We can have a very transparent government explain the consequences of our actions and suggest a series of reforms that limit our reproductive freedoms. We can be asked to vote on the best method of limitation, but we have to limit it in some way. In Canada, we're happy to limit the freedom to buy automatic weapons and the freedom to elicit others towards hatred of an identifiable group of people. We force teenagers to go to school against their will if necessary. We've banned the sale of sugary foods in schools, and some cities have successfully banned water bottles. Now can we learn to recognize the wisdom of limiting our freedom to reproduce even though it fights against a significant biological instinct? That's the question this generation must answer. Immediately.

But what about our pensions and jobs and the economy? We can't have an economy without a tolerable planet to put it on. It's too late to look on this as a 50/50 choice. Environmental legislation has to win or else we all lose.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Childhood Angst

Can children be existentialists? What I'm asking isn't so much whether or not it's possible, but should we allow it? 

If I dare to claim to define some central ideas here, the part about living authentically and embracing the freedom that comes with taking responsibility for all our choices with no excuses, that side of it is, I believe, pretty useful for everyone. But what about the darker edges of the philosophy? Life is objectively meaningless, and, since being unceremoniously dropped here, we're each of us alone in our quest to find meaning for ourselves. Things don't all work out in the end somehow; wonderful people can suffer many tragedies, one right after another. Nobody's controlling the game to make sure the good are justly rewarded. It's all a crapshoot.... And then you die. And, according to some, getting your head around the finality of our existence is key to the authentic life.

Is that too harsh for the little ones?

At what age is it acceptable to have conversations with children about this topic? What if your children bring up a sense of dread and angst at the possibility of their own demise. Is it better to acknowledge death, foster illusions of permanence, or deflect the issue entirely? Which will have the least detrimental effect?

A friend's daughter is suffering some anxiety; she's a worrier. Maybe it's because she has a gene for rumination. Or maybe she's a typical bright, creative kid.  One study, albeit with a very small sample size, found a link between intelligence and anxiety.
"Those with anxiety disorder tended to have higher IQ scores than healthy people, as well as higher levels of activity in regions of the brain that aid in communication between parts of the brain. These regions are thought to have contributed to the evolutionary success of humans. . . . High levels of anxiety can be disabling, and patients' worries are often irrational. But every so often there's a wild-card danger. Then, that excessive worry becomes highly adaptive. People who act on the signals of that wild-card danger are likely to preserve their lives and the lives of their offspring." 
But another study with an enormous sample size found a strong link between creativity and mental illness:
They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. . . . Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.*
It can be weirdly comforting to know that anxiety has links to positive traits, but more important than understanding why it starts, is to figure out what to do now. How do we help our children when they worry they'll run out of food or get hit by a meteorite or get hit by lightening or get conscripted into a war or get abducted on the way home from school? We feel helpless. We are helpless. The reality is we can't guarantee our children's security. We do our best to try, but there are no guarantees we'll be successful. Should we pretend there are? How much control can we really have over this - over their security and over their sense of security? It can help to believe we can fix everything for our kids, but I wonder if it's healthier to recognize how often we can't.

We really like to find patterns in the world, connections that make it all seem predictable. If everything works through a rational cause and effect system, then we can have a measure of control over the outcome. If we can observe the effects of different actions enough to see where the connections are, then we can behave in a way to provoke a specific outcome. But however we might look back at a sequence of events and connect the dots to try to understand how we got here, sorry to say, that only works in hindsight. Our lives are largely unpredictable. We live with a comforting illusion that we can control events, but then random acts steer us in a different direction.

Things are generally predictable, but not specifically, and that trips people up. Like Mlodinow explains in one of my favourite books, people are like molecules. Heat them up, and we can safely predict they'll all spread out, but we can't accurately predict the trajectory of any individual molecule. So we know that, generally, a university degree leads to a better job, but we can't know if your university degree will get you anywhere. This can be a little daunting, so we seek out other factors that caused the unexpected effect. We fight hard to grasp at an illusion of control over our lives, but, for better or worse, we encounter the absurdity of the the world. But if we can accept that some things just are and can't be controlled or fixed or prevented, it can actually make it easier to live through the random events that mark human existence. 

I suggested to this friend that acknowledging death is the best course over pretending we can guarantee a long life or ignoring the heart of the concerns. He responded, "I'm not going to tell my 8-year-old that we're all going to die." And coming from that angle, my suggestion sounds crazy. And yet, after some time to consider the situation, I maintain my position because doesn't she already know that to be the case?

I asked my 11-year-old what she thinks about the idea of talking to kids about death and what she thinks about kids having lots of anxiety these days.  She said,
"I think kids should know the truth instead of thinking that the whole world is a perfect place. Because it's not. We've got a lot of places that have a lot of problems right now. I worry about stuff that's going to happen, but I worry about it too soon."
I think she's hit on something important about worry - that it's often a concern when it's a matter of inappropriate timing. It makes more sense when it's right in front of us and very likely than when it's further away or less likely. Anxiety can give us an adrenaline rush that helps us stay up late to hit a deadline when we need it, but it's fruitless when it's too far in advance.

My concern here with an avoidance of existentialist thinking is that our culture's drive to protect children from anything remotely painful might be creating a society of people with lowered resilience who struggle to cope with the most minor setbacks, like students weeping over an essay because they can't think of a topic. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, or, at least, it's only recently that it is being openly displayed to teachers. 

Maybe previously we were all ashamed of feeling anxious, so we hid it. If that's the case, then it's a positive that we're seeing more of it.

But I wonder if it's the case that, previously, our anxiety over having enough food or money or supports in the face of plenty and a general fear of losing everything we've worked for was met with "Yup you might. Get over it!" comments that convinced us to cut-off those thought instead of dwelling on them and talking about them and bringing our concerns to person after person who would share their deepest fears, thereby giving credence to our worry and further embedding the pathways in our brain that allow worry to flourish! Flippant reactions might have a similar effect as current CBT methods in which people might be told to stop negative thoughts by imagining a big red "X" over the negative idea, then replace them with alternative thoughts, and then those troubling ideas will eventually decrease in frequency and intensity. Flippant reactions to worry can have the same effect of "You're fine!" in response to a tumble on the playground instead of rushing in with peroxide and bandaids. We rush in an awful lot these days.

We've gone down a different road of listening to everyone's feelings to the point that now we have a generation of second-order anxiety: personal anxiety plus anxiety over our children's anxiety. Have we fostered discussions of our concerns to a point that they've become normalized and entrenched in our brains? We feel like we worry for good reason about our anxious children because sometimes anxiety can turn into something worse like self-mutilation or suicide ideation. And then then we worry that worrying about our children's anxiety might actually make it worse! I think it was easier for my parents to acknowledge the worst case scenarios because they were born in the '20s and lived through the depression and then WWII. They experienced the worst and survived. We've been too sheltered from real trauma in our generation's past to be able to acknowledge that it could be a very real part of our future and to just get on with things. We're here today, and we have food and shelter, and we haven't been hit by a meteorite, so do your homework already!

Worrying about what might happen (like a child's anxiety turning into something worse) helps us feel like we're doing something productive about something we might have little effect over. But it could just an illusion of productivity. The tricky business is figuring out when we can have an effect and when we can't. We might stand back as parents and watch our kids fight through various stages of depression and anxiety, trying one therapist or medication after another wondering if doing nothing would have been as effective. It's complicated. But when they're beginning to express some fears over things clearly outside our control, a brush-off might be the trick. 

I can be a pretty intense worrier, and I actively work to decrease those thoughts. When I was growing up, I was terrified of the cold war. I was absolutely convinced we were all going to waste away from radiation poisoning if we weren't lucky enough to be hit directly.  This cartoon didn't help. It's of a middle age couple slowly dying, yet in denial the entire time, desperately trying to look on the bright side: "I should put some skin lotion on these spots. They should soon clear up." No wonder I had nightmares. But we lived, and all that worry was for naught. It did nothing to affect nuclear disarmament. Nothing.

I recognize this might not work for everyone, but what helped me cope as a child and now, what I believe prevented a journey into deeper anxiety or spells of crying in front of teachers, was my mum's very Epicurean acknowledgement that, "We all have to die of something," as she'd light another cigarette. Epicurus explained that, of course we're going to die, but we're not dead now, and, when we're dead, we won't know about it anyway; therefore, it doesn't make sense to worry about death. My mum was the kind who required a bloody appendage stapled to any request to miss a day of school. She'd soften the blow by tacking on, "But it likely won't happen for a long time....But, then again, we never know!" It had the effect of making me very productive. If death could be around any corner, then maybe I should drag myself from the TV to seize the day. And it helped me see that we're all in this together, Kings and paupers alike.

Recognizing the randomness of our lives, and how little control we have over it all, and the reality that death is inevitable, can actually help us live a more satisfying existence. I didn't wait for a magical age to share this with my children, but aimed to answer questions and concerns as authentically as possible throughout their lives. It's not all bad news. The worst might happen tomorrow, but if you're alive and well today, then let's celebrate that fact.

from this cite of awesomeness

*I'm not sure the difference between being an author and being a writer, but for the sake of my mental health, I hope I'm in the former group.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On Reading and Writing

I teach grade 12 university-level philosophy, and I teach it as a university prep-course. So we read primary sources, and we write essays longer and more complex than the standard five paragraphs. And then I brace myself for the complaints.

Why do we have to read about other philosophers? Why can’t we just explore our own philosophy?

I heard this one in art courses too, back when I actually taught art: “Why can’t we just discover our own style?” And I don’t just get it from the students but from parents too. “School should be about self-discovery,” they argue. “These other people are mainly dead, anyway. They don’t matter any more.” And then the real problem surfaces: “This is too hard for them. I can barely read it!”

I answer this the same way every year. First of all, I acknowledge that reading primary sources is the hardest thing many of them have ever been asked to do in their lives of Wikipedia-driven research methods, skimming, and cutting corners. Most textbooks are even summaries of summaries with lots of sub-headings and pictures and cartoons to allow weaker readers to decipher meaning from a variety of cues. Sometimes they're so simplified, they're devoid of real meaning. And here I am with the nerve to cruelly hit them with black text on a white background full of big words, sometimes olden-day words, and long, complicated sentences. These aren’t books they’re given, but just pieces of essays: a bit of Mill, some Thoreau, a dash of Aristotle.... And they’re assigned after reading several bits of essays and discussing what they mean together as a class. We take baby steps but all within one semester - the one semester that's most vital for university admittance.

I give them a strategy: Slow down! Stop at the end of every sentence and write down the main idea in your own words AND what you think about it. Is he on to something, or is there a problem with this line of reasoning? Then after a couple days, I give them my cheat sheet on the reading with the main idea of each section in my own words, in point form, with page numbers. If they couldn’t wade through this first reading successfully, they had a back-up. Baby steps.

But I do insist then learn to read for real. Why? Because the more they tackle difficult texts, the better they'll get at it. It opens avenues for understanding ideas that would have previously been inaccessible. Once they get it, once they see that they CAN struggle through a text and understand it on their own (and learn that it IS a struggle), then they can attack any reading material.

And I insist they learn about other philosophies before discovering their own theories. This raises a good Plato vs Aristotle debate. Plato suggests knowledge is inside us to be brought forth through contemplation and a good teacher who can ask the right questions and turn our eye in the right direction, while Aristotle would have us go out into the world to explore and experiment and put ideas together in a new way that’s our own. The schools are leaning more and more towards Plato’s ideal, but I’m firmly in the Aristotle camp.

My argument is a bit of a Pascal’s wager focusing on the possibility of error because we really don't know what's best. If it’s actually correct that we learn more from exploring past ideas, and we don’t do that with students, then students have lost the chance to learn that content since they’re unlikely to pick it up on their own. But if it’s actually correct that we learn more through questioning our own thoughts, and we keep trying to explore dead people's theories anyway, then we haven’t harmed anything in the process. Students can still sit and think after we’ve shown them other people’s ideas.

What's curious to me is how often they think that getting my help with a reading is cheating. I ask, "How do you think you best learn without help from someone who's learned this before?" Somewhere they've gotten the idea that they should be able to just know the answers, or find them themselves online, but they shouldn't have to ask any questions. I tell them I'm looking for a course on Heidegger right now because I'm stuck in the readings, and no online summary can help. I need a real live person to answer specific questions about specific lines. That's how we develop an understanding of a new topic. I believe that if you can do everything you attempt with ease, then you're not challenging yourself enough.

Furthermore, without the basics, many students run into issues that have been discussed for centuries. Learning about previous arguments gives them a head start towards developing better ideas. Most of us entering a new field don't know what we don't know; we don't recognize our weaknesses until we start to explore the strong ideas passed down and debated and discussed and tweaked for millennia. And the reality is, some people don’t have many ideas to share. They're a blank slate. They need a starting point, typically something they can argue against to get them really thinking.

And there's always the ability to impress others with a well-timed quote from a famous philosopher thrown into a conversation that makes people look at you a little bit differently.

And then we get to their own ideas.

Can you sign my drop form?

A chunk of the class drops out before the summary of that first reading is due. They didn't expect to have to read and think. It's too hard. And I worry about their ability to manage in university. But that raises the question of whether it’s better to give them easy work so they have high marks to get in to university, or to give them challenging work so they can be more successful once they're already in university where failing a course means throwing money down the drain. If they can't get into university in the first place, then having the skills that would have been useful there are wasted, right? And this is an elective course; shouldn’t it be just for fun?

Can't it be fun and intellectually demanding? Aren't they the same thing?!

Ideally, we’d be challenging students significantly in grade 10 - the last year that isn't scrutinized by university entrance committees. That should be the year of rigour when we really push reading and writing skills, ensure a strong knowledge of grammar and syntax, and demand clearly cited primary sources. But it’s pretty inconsistent because, as a profession, we don’t share the same learning goals. Many teachers believe grammar comes to us as we read and doesn’t need to be formally taught, and then I have to explain principal clauses to my grade 12s.

And it's hard to watch students struggle. It's hard to be the one who keeps pushing them to keep trying something that's difficult. Despite my course getting a little easier year after year, and despite using similar assignments, students are stressed out as never before. They need to skim and toss off a bit of writing quickly because they have so many other obligations in their lives. They have to work in order to afford university, and they need to be involved with many activities because it looks good on their applications. On top of that, they take 8 courses in a year that we encourage only 6. They feel like they'll be behind if they take a 5th year, so they cram too many courses into their last year rather than spread them out. I tell my 10s to take 8 courses in grades 9 and 10, then 6 each in 11, 12, and 5th year. Take the most courses possible; it's the last chance to take advantage of free education! But they're in too much of a hurry for that nonsense. It's all a huge competition, and there's a scarcity of rewards at the end.

I’ve known students who had 80s and 90s in high school, then actually failed classes in university. These are bright, hard-working students who were ill prepared. And that discovery costs them real cash dollars. This is the wall they hit due to grade inflation: 80s are the new 60s. My exams are a little easier every year because I do bow slightly to parental pressure. I’m teaching less depth, marking easier, and the grades show it. If my average were in the high 60s, like everyone's were fifteen years ago, then I wouldn't have a course to teach. Nobody would take it because they need high marks for university. But kids who might have had 60s and taken a different road a decade ago, are going to university with 80s and ending up on academic probation. That can be an expensive lesson for them, and it's not really their lesson to learn.

Some universities are reporting rising failure rates and professors offer solutions not dissimilar to my own:
"25% of high school students with A-averages in high school face being kicked out of universities in first year . . . We need to engage students by making everything more difficult . . . force students to think about things, to learn instead of memorizing."
One Trent University prof, Alan Slavin, noted a dramatic failure rate increase in his own classes, and, after some research, found it's mainly "an Ontario thing":
"Professor James Côté and co-author, Anton Allahar, in their recent book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, blame a general student disengagement with learning as source of the problem. However, most of the students I see are not so much disengaged as poorly trained for university expectations. Students’ ability to do analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization and regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. . . . There is always a certain amount of material that must be memorized, but knowledge of facts makes up only a small component of one’s learning. More important is the ability to relate these facts in new ways, to see them in a new light, and to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve new problems or create new forms of art. This ability to analyze and synthesize is what makes good scientists, writers, philosophers and artists. It is the ability needed to drive a knowledge-based economy."
Can't it be both student disengagement and poor training? But, from what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful. He blames this on changes to Ontario curriculum over the past twenty years that have made it much more content-heavy such that, from grade 1, time isn't spend in learning to understand concepts; there's only time to memorize.

Why essays? We should just learn the ideas and make posters about them. Why do we have to follow a format? What are in-text citations anyway? Other teachers are okay if we just put a list of urls at the end. Teachers shouldn't have set expectations, but should change their rubrics based on what each student can do.

Learning how to write within a consistent format is like learning the rules of a game in phys ed. We could let people determine their own rules and make up their own games, but we’ve established some useful techniques already that have been working for us. We offer some variations from time to time, but the basics are useful to follow. If we all understand the rules, then we can all play together, and people from all over the world can join in.

Over centuries, we've figured out a way to convey information in a clear manner such that, if everyone follows the general structure, we'll all be able to understand one another. If writing is clear, coherent, and precise, then we can discuss each other's ideas unhampered by questionable metaphors and illustrations. A poster or story or stream of consciousness piece or interpretive dance just can't clarify ideas in a focused way like an essay can. There is still room for creativity in an essay, but it's in the ideas themselves, not in a collage on the title page sewn to the essay with yarn. I fear that leaning on other media is a fool's game of hiding weak ideas.

When papers are written clearly, with flawless grammar and spelling, and a subtly demarcated format, then the style of communication can fall into the background, paving a road for the ideas to travel. Like learning formal theory in art, some people have all the elements of design IN them. They can just sit down and create things that are appealing aesthetically and interesting. The rest of us need to learn some guidelines, sit with them, and get them under our skin by using them over and over before we can take off from there.  Unfortunately it's been my experience that the extent to which people believe they can just write free-form in a way that’s coherent to others has no correlation to how good they are at it.

Back in the old school days, we learned how to cite sources using index cards and an assignment that sent us all to the public library when we were in grade four. I still have that project on Cats in Ancient Egypt. It was exciting to be dropped off on a Saturday and meet up with others there to look up books without a teacher or parent watching over us. And citing sources was an expectation of every grade after until, by high school, it was second nature. Now, because there's not the space for this in earlier grades, it's a hardship in high school. But having one consistent way of clarifying where information was found is necessary for readers. And MLA (or Chicago or APA) is the way we've decided on as a group. We all just have to get with the program on this one.

Citing sources properly, with all the necessary information, has never been more important as it is with internet research. If it's not clear who wrote an article, or if their name is "squeekee478," then it could be a questionable source. Scouting around a website, following the "About" link and the "Contact Us" link, is an imperative part of good research skills in this century.

Without set standards and expectations to work towards, we're not really teaching. I can encourage a student to throw a ball over and over that never hits the side of the barn. Without the goal of establishing the best technique, and getting students to work to master closer and closer approximations to the target behaviour, I'd just be watching random unfocused attempts. The attempts might get them closer to the target eventually by sheer chance, but the established techniques could get them there faster and with greater precision. Unpacked, what I hear some students saying is, "I should never be evaluated on something I’m not naturally good at without effort." But then we're not evaluating what was learned. (Keep in mind an evaluation of an essay is JUST an evaluation of how well you write not on who you are or your value in this world.)

These are standards that can get worn down with every complaint. What keeps me firmly rooted is the occasional student who has come back from university to visit and to tell me that this course really helped them have a step up. They watched others struggle with a 4-page essay, and thought, "Four pages? That's nothing!" I tell parents and students that, but they're dubious.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Sex Work

Bill C-36, which passed into law almost a year ago, begins like this:
"Whereas the Parliament of Canada has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it...recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution..."
The new law criminalizes buying sex, advertising, or otherwise benefiting from the sex trade (minimum cash fines and up to a maximum of five years in jail - ten for pimping), but it doesn't criminalize selling sex if only the sex worker benefits. It's theoretically a move to protect sex workers, except it limits their ability to advertise without walking the streets, and it limits their ability to discuss services in a public place. It took out restrictions for running bawdy houses, but it can charge men as they enter or leave.

But is prostitution necessarily exploitative?

Marlena Evans has an interesting piece at The Toast about working as a prostitute in order to pay her way through university. I'll look at the issues from the position of the prostitutes and the clients separately. I'm assuming it's a given that trafficking and pimping are obviously heinous acts that should be shut down by all means possible, but it's the grey areas that need a second look. And I'm not touching the potential for infidelity involved. Lots of things make it easier to cheat but aren't illegal. My question is: Is it necessarily exploitative or harmful to society if some people offer sex in exchange for money?

The Prostitutes: Is sex work necessary for women to survive, and is it necessarily harmful?

Evans presents her own case as proof that prostitution isn't necessarily exploitative, or at least, no more exploitative than a standard minimum wage job. And higher wages means she can work fewer hours.

She undermines the stereotype of prostitutes as struggling to feed their children or a drug-addiction. She's doing it to advance herself at school, a reason that's seen by her clients somehow as selfish.
"...people laugh about student poverty — they joke about cavities and scurvy as though one’s early twenties are merely a dry run for real life and one cannot actually starve to death."
She explains how working in the sex trade is significantly better than working in fast food.  I've had many students over the years share tales of working for exploitative managers that break ESA laws openly relating how unlikely it is that any kid will risk even a crappy job to complain - because the jobs are all crappy.
"If I got sick too often working at the fast food place, I had to provide a doctor’s note. I suffered abuse from customers who lumped me in with the automated machines. My gifts and talents were utterly squandered as I stood, sometimes for hours at a time, staring at the door, waiting for someone to come in and put me to use, knowing that if I got caught reading or writing or even listening to music I would be reprimanded. All of this and I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent and utilities in the same month."
Objectification and degradation anyone? We have a workforce of wasted talents following corporate-driven orders to behave in specific ways during their shifts (and sometimes beyond) for less than a living wage. We have many university students - the best and the brightest - who have to work 20-hours/week to pay rent and tuition even though it affects their grades and any ability to reach their potential. These are real problems in our country. I'm all for getting rid of exploitation, but it's a red herring to suggest it's just a problem in one type of business.

Some argue that a guaranteed minimum income will reduce society to a bunch of layabouts squandering their talents, but Evan's example shows quite the opposite. Some people are currently being held back from honing their talents because of their economic situation, so a guaranteed income would increase their ability to add to the greatness of our people. One Canadian study found this financial plan increased health and emotional well-being, and that the only people who quit their jobs were new moms and students, arguably the people with the greatest potential to benefit society if allowed to focus their talents without fear of economic reprisal.

Evans also gets at a different means of exploitation:
"I’ve been assaulted by countless men. By a man who was a client? Only once."
We have a vision of sex workers as throwaway women allowed to or willing to or coerced into bearing the brunt of assault, which somehow acts to keep the rest of us safe. But considering sex work as the one place that exploits is an illusion. Sexual harassment and assault is still a problem in and out of many fields of work. There are worse jobs women can do that nobody questions. Sexual oppression is in the fabric of our society. I'm not convinced the existence of the voluntary sex trade, as Evans describes it, increases that reality.

ETA: By way of contrast, see Hedges interview with Rachel Moran who calls prostitution "being raped for a living." Her experience isn't of voluntary sex work however, and I believe, as Evans suggests, that "voluntary sex work" is not an oxymoron. I believe it's condescending to suggest that all sex work is necessarily coerced even if prostitutes believe they've made a free choice. To honour people's different experiences, to believe women, means believing that they have the ability to distinguish a free choice from coercion. It's insulting to portray women as unwitting victims when they themselves feel empowered to choose sex work over fast food. Moran argues, “The nature of sex is mutuality, And where you don’t have mutuality, you have sexual abuse.” I'm not sure what "mutuality" means, but perhaps I'll dissect that quote another day.

The Clients: Will prostitution always be a reality, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

With prostitution available, people (predominantly men) can get a physical and emotional connection otherwise lacking in their lives. Many people are unable to find a mate or any physical contact at all with random strangers. They shouldn't have to live without any human connection because they're deemed less desirable by those in close proximity. This is an argument that many people can accept, especially after seeing The Sessions.

But some people seek out a prostitute for the lack of constraints this type of relationship has on their lives. They want to do something beyond the boundaries of a monogamous relationships: to have a variety of partners or acts available, to avoid any emotional responsibility, or even just to avoid having to clean themselves up a bit. When Hugh Grant was with Elizabeth Hurley and got caught with a significantly less beautiful prostitute, people speculated that Hurley wouldn't "go downtown." The infidelity aside, what makes it wrong to seek out sexual release in a specific way without courtship and commitment?

It seems we can accept the need some men have for the sex trade only if all other avenues have been exhausted. It should be a last resort for people in need, not a first choice for guys who like some convenience, variety, or just don't want to put down the video controller long enough to develop behaviours conducive to dating. But is this just a puritanical belief or a valid ethical position? Is this simple, easy sex option harmful to society in general?

A couple years ago, Wente wrote an article suggesting that men won't grow up and fulfill their potential if they don't have to work for sex. I'd completely write that off except that famed psychologist  Zimbardo furthers a similar thesis. The easy availability of sex today might prevent some men from rising to the challenge of getting a date, and, some argue, that challenge is what brings men to live up to their potential thus furthering society. But I'm not convinced that's a problem. I'm going on an assumption that most men who would only improve themselves for the reward of a stable sex life a relationship might offer are not necessarily the kind of men who are on the verge of curing cancer. I don't think it's the case that we will lose half the potential of the world if men can get laid easily. I agree that this focus might be a concern for some boys, but I don't agree with Wente and Zimbardo that it should be a concern for society.

Zimbardo laments the demise of boys, that their test scores and admittance to high-ranking schools is lower than girls now. That doesn't necessarily affect society if the strongest students are still working hard, which I imagine they are. From what I've seen, when students are exceptional, they're driven by the rewards of personal efficacy in their field - of being able to finally solve that problem. Accolades and external rewards are secondary. They don't need stickers to keep working as children or a woman's civilizing touch to keep them productive citizens as adults. From that it might follow that in schools today with fewer males entering, all things being equal (which they're not), we'd see a pretty even number of men and women getting the top marks. If it's only lower down the honour roll that will see an influx of more feminine names, then we're unlikely to suffer a loss of ingenuity as predicted. I suggest that the biggest impact easy access to sex might have in society is a lack of available partners for hetero women, but perhaps it's an effective means to separate the wheat from the chaff for them in the dating pool.

If one goal in our competitive society is for workers to be as productive as possible, on-call to answer e-mails 24/7, then having uncomplicated sex lives can foster this productive work habit. I don't think that type of life is necessarily most conducive to happiness or well-being, but if it works for some, then who benefits by making it illegal?