Category Archives: Education & Teaching

Private Schools Suck

imageThe bathrooms at a certain college (which shall remain unnamed) were, for years, terrible: dirty, smelly, often out of toilet paper, often out of hand soap, and frequently out of order. Students complained. Faculty complained. But very little changed until a certain Solomon-like prof (who shall also remain unnamed) came along with a rather ingenious solution: Close down the private bathroom used by the executive (the deans, upper management, etc.), and make them use the ones used by everyone else. It was jointly proposed by a few different departments in a very public fashion, and the executive had to approve it because of the college-wide space crunch. Their private bathroom was soon transformed into much-needed office space, and they now had to use the public facilities used by faculty and students. Guess what: the bathrooms have been in good working order ever since.

Finland has the best school system in the world. But this wasn’t always the case. They had one of the worst systems in Europe for a long time; however, thanks to a number of ambitious reforms, they were able to turn things around. Finland’s first—and, some would say, most important—reform was to close every single private school in the country. When the powerful have to use the same bathrooms and schools and health services as everyone else—when they’re subjected to the same stop-and-frisk policing and drug laws as everyone else—they have a way of making sure that those things work well. And if they don’t work well, they have a way of making sure that they’re fixed forthwith. When the rich and powerful have “skin in the game” (e.g., when it’s their kids who’ll have to go off to war), they tend to behave in a more intelligent and public-spirited fashion.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

Don’t Trust Any Idea Over 30?

Humanities Heuristic: If every book on the syllabus is younger than your mom, drop the class.

Don Draper

When student activist Jack Weinberg declared “Don’t trust anyone over 30”—at the height of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s—he was, to some extent, speaking for an entire generation, a generation that had lost faith in the wisdom of their elders, a generation that had concluded that the present had little or nothing to learn from the past. But he was also giving voice to an intuition that flows quite naturally out of cultural currents that predate the babyboomers, such as the theory of the avant-garde, the Whiggish faith in progress, the modernist obsession with all things new—which the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb has aptly dubbed neomania—and the sense, so well articulated by Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams (1907), that the modern world constitutes a radical break with history: “in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science, except perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900. The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed. Speaking as an American of 1900, he had as yet no education at all. He knew not even where or how to begin.”

Is this modernist mistrust of the past justified? I used to think so. But lately, not so much. Inventions like the microscope and the telescope have made it possible for scientists in fields like molecular cell biology and particle physics to see things—faraway stars, subatomic particles, and microscopic viruses—which simply couldn’t be seen in the ancient world. As such, the rapidly changing received wisdom in fields which benefit from these amazing technological innovations is easy enough to explain and justify. The rapidly changing received wisdom in the humanities and the social sciences is far less easy to explain and justify. Is there any technological advance which has made it possible for us to “see” things about human nature which would have been “invisible” to thoughtful people in the ancient world? I can’t, for the life of me, seem to think of one. Has modern life, and everything it entails, so fundamentally rewired our brains that human nature is, in the twenty-first century, dramatically different from the human nature which prevailed in, say, the Egypt of the Pharaohs? I doubt it. And this doubt leads me to two troubling questions: If our capacity to “see” human nature hasn’t changed much, and human nature hasn’t changed much, how can we justify and explain the rapidly changing received wisdom in the humanities and the social sciences? What’s more, if little has changed, how can we justify the claim that the present has little or nothing to learn from the past?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Trump University vs. Typical University

TrumpU

Typical University (TU) is, like Trump University (TU), (1) overpriced; (2) its teachers fail to live up to promised standards (you get TAs and poorly-paid part-timers when you paid for profs); (3) its degree usually doesn’t lead to promised future success; and, (4) students are actively encouraged to go deeply into debt they’ll never be able to pay back. As someone who’s still over $100,000 in student loan debt in his forties, I must say that all of this Trump University outrage is getting a little tiresome. The hypocrisy is outrageous. Was Trump University a scam? Sure. But he was merely getting in on one of the biggest financial scams of our era. If you want to prosecute Trump University, you better be ready to support class action lawsuits against Typical University.

There’s this stupid poster that sold really well when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s. It depicts an opulent mansion and a four-car garage filled with assorted sports cars underneath this obnoxious message: JUSTIFICATION FOR HIGHER EDUCATION. It was the kind of thing teenage guys had on their bedroom wall, sandwiched between posters of Cindy Crawford and Mötley Crüe. The poster’s message to my generation was pretty clear: Wanna get rich? Do whatever you have to do to get a higher education.

Though it pains me to admit it, I’m pretty sure I wanted one of these posters during my Alex P. Keaton phase. But I didn’t get one for fear that my hippie mom would disown me. Or simply drop dead of a heart attack. Imagine, for a moment, how horrified a hard-core fundamentalist Christian mom would be if she found a Hustler centerfold on her teenage son’s bedroom wall: well, no joke, that’s precisely how thoroughly disgusted my hippie mom would have been if she saw this crass consumerist poster on my bedroom wall. It represents a value system which is the very antithesis of my mother’s value system.

Be that as it may, knowing what I know now, it’s hard not to cringe when I look at this poster. Because it’s not only gross, it’s also profoundly untrue. My wife and I went deep into debt to fund our higher education (close to $200,000). And, like many of our friends in their forties, we’re still paying for it! Indeed, my guess is we won’t be debt-free until our early fifties. We didn’t get the five sports cars and a mansion. We got mortgage-sized student loans and job insecurity. So looking at this propaganda poster now, in 2017, is sort of like watching one of those insane DDT commercials from the 1950s: you know, the ones wherein smiling kids are being sprayed with a fine mist of DDT as they play in the park. The DDT spray is supposed to be perfectly safe. Indeed, it’s supposed to be good for the kids. But we know it’s really REALLY not! We know they’re actually being exposed to something dangerous and damaging, something that’s gonna have all sorts of horrible long-term consequences.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

The Police Have it Right

Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane

Gordon Sumner

I’ve increasingly seen a bizarre trend over the past two decades: information access gets easier and easier; the populace’s ignorance grows greater and greater.  Allow me to give you some examples.

English Students

When I started in China there was, for all practical purposes, no Internet for most people.  Smartphones existed (barely) but were far too expensive for most people and, in the part of China I was in, rarer than hen’s teeth.  Even where they existed they didn’t do much good; wireless Internet was too expensive and too slow to be useful, even in the rare cases it was available at all.

My students almost all came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds anyway.  They had barely enough money to live; they certainly didn’t have enough money to buy frivolities.  Some of them could afford fifth-generation copies of audio tapes of badly-received BBC World Service or Voice of America broadcasts for practice.  Maybe.

On top of all this, class sizes were huge.  My smallest class in that school was 43 students.  (My largest was over 150.  That’s 150 students being taught oral English skills…)  There was, in effect, virtually no time available with the one person who could really help them through their difficulties.

Those students had a very narrow data pipe from which to extract information.  Most of them learned to speak English well enough, by the end of their two or three year program, to get a job involving it.  Sure many of them had comical accents or awkward holes in their vocabulary and grammar, but they were functional enough that they could stand on their own feet and continue learning.  I’m still in touch with several students from those days here fifteen years later.  They have mostly flourished quite admirably.  Some of them have, indeed, impressed me with their drive and their success.

My students today have it really well by comparison.  Even the poorest of my students has a smartphone with a data plan.  Literally at their fingertips, only a pocket away, is an entire world of information: online dictionaries, encyclopedias, search engines, Q&A forums, and a further wealth of options I can’t even picture (out of touch as I am).  Further, class sizes have shrunk dramatically in the past fifteen years.  My largest classes now are smaller than my smallest class was back then.  I routinely have “advanced” classes with student counts in single digits!

And yet, they’re dullards.

In the past two years I can literally count on one hand (and have change left over for a bizarre gardening accident to shear off a couple of fingers!) the students who legitimately passed their program able to speak English.

THESE ARE ENGLISH MAJORS!  These are English majors who have more opportunities and more resources for learning English than anybody in history before them in China.  (The last Emperor of China with his private tutor had fewer opportunities and resources to learn English than the poorest of my students today!)  Yet these very same English majors are not learning.  They’re incapable of it.  Their ability to learn has been somehow crippled.

Lest you think this is just me, incidentally, I should point out that China is facing somewhat of a crisis in education: teachers are just quitting mid-career.  Giving up.  All over the country, in all universities, colleges, middle schools, etc. teachers are just walking away from their jobs.  The most common reason given?  They don’t enjoy teaching any longer.  The students are awful.  I hear this from Chinese teachers and from fellow foreign teachers, even those fortunate enough to teach at top-tier universities like Beijing University or that calibre.

Social Media

Seemingly every day now I get a parade of utter bullshit crossing my screen on Facebook or Twitter or other such cesspools of human “interaction”.  For example in the past month alone I’ve had to correct the same bullshit story about how ancient peoples couldn’t perceive the colour blue a few times.  An article of dubious scholarship is the source of this.  It spread from there to the mass media (an institution that has lost what little focus it ever had on “checking facts” and “verifying stories” long ago).  From the mass media it spread, like a wave of untreated mental sewage, across the pipelines of the Internet to splash across my Facebook feed.

When I first encountered this story, it seemed *very* distantly plausible.  Too, I saw it thrown around so often that I was wondering if maybe I’d missed something key.  It was interesting.  So I fired up Duckduckgo and went to town on it.  It took me less than five minutes to pretty much definitively prove that the story was pure, unadulterated, bullshit.  Here are a few little countering facts:

  • It’s claimed that the ancient Greeks couldn’t see blue which is why the sea is described as “wine dark” in Homer’s works.  Unfortunately for this theory those “white” statues that are stereotypically “ancient Greek”?  They were nothing of the sort.  They were garishly painted.  One of the pigments used to paint them was azurite.  Would you care to guess what colour azurite is?  (Hint: the sky might contain a clue…)
  • It’s claimed the ancient Chinese couldn’t see blue.  As evidence there is the (actually correct) fact that classical Chinese didn’t have a word for “blue”.  Instead they had 青 (qīng), which covered green and blue.  To understand just how fatuous this is, consider how different sky blue is from azure is from royal blue is from … you get the idea.  Does this mean we can’t tell the difference between the sky and a navy blue suit?  Same thing applies.  青 is a category of colour with many shades.  The fact that in English there are two categories for this is no more “proof” that the Chinese couldn’t tell the difference than is the fact that Chinese has two words for sister (姐姐 and 妹妹) where English has only one.  (Does that imply that English speakers can’t tell their older sisters from their younger?)
    If that’s not sufficient evidence of stupidity, looking at some ancient temples with their painted beams should be another clue.  The beams were painted garishly like the Greek statues.  Including intertwined scrollwork of both blue and green; intertwined, but very distinct.  It’s hard to keep things you can’t tell apart separate, especially when intertwined in complex patterns…
  • Similar claims are advanced for Egyptians despite the fact that the Egyptians practically worshipped lapis lazuli and are documented as having a word for “blue” by 3000BCE at the latest.

When I say it took me five minutes to definitively disprove this ridiculous theory, I meant it.  I found out about the Greek statues in about three minutes, and I already knew about the Chinese temples so I just had to find some accounts of newly-uncovered temples to show that they hadn’t been painted over in modern times.  That was about two minutes’ work.

The problem is that it’s five minutes per thing that crosses my screen, and my screen is a veritable fountain of bullshit these days, a fountain that daily seems intent on spewing its stupidity to new heights.  I fully expect to see misinformation hit escape velocity and go zooming past the ISS someday soon.  I can’t keep up with it any longer.

So why are people who were brought up awash in a sea of available information so prone to not using it?

A Crackpot Theory

Remember when I said that I couldn’t keep up with the effluent spewing across my screen on a daily basis any longer?  That was the clue for me as to what could be behind the ignorance effect.  The very omnipresence of the data, combined with the sheer volume of it, blends into something very toxic.  This is for two reasons:

The laziness factor

When I was growing up without all these tools to find information I was driven (by parents, by teachers, ultimately by myself) to learn how to find information.  Because finding information was hard I had to develop the skills to keep track of sources of it.  I developed good habits in researching and remembering at the very least where to find things I’d encountered.  Good study and research habits are like strong muscles: they require constant exercise  to grow and to be maintained.  If you never use them at all, they atrophy and, ultimately, practically vanish.  People brought up in the “Age of Information” have, ironically, never developed the skills necessary to cope with the information at their fingertips.  They’ve never been taught how to find it or check up on it because they’ve never had to.  They trust that the information will always be there, so they never actually bother to look for it.  Further they trust that someone else has already vetted the information for truthfulness (since so many people have access to it) so there’s no need for them to bother.

I think this is what has happened to my students, for example.  They don’t bother studying, practising, or even looking things up because they “know” that their phone can do it for them.  I’ve had students hand in mechanically-translated (quite comically from plagiarized Chinese sources!) gibberish as their work.  They were utterly gobsmacked when I looked at it for less than five seconds and threw it back at them: “I said write in your own words, not in Baidu Translate’s words.”  They honestly didn’t understand how I could tell that it was machine translated!  They had such faith in their resources they didn’t even bother to check if what was coming from them was coherent, not to mention correct.

This combines in very bad ways with…

The flood factor

The amount of data an average person has pouring into their brain on an average day is actually quite incredible to consider.  If you’re not careful to filter it out it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by it.  If you’ve never been taught the discipline of acquiring and sifting through information sources you will drown in it.

I think this explains the ever-spreading piles of bullshit on the Internet.  There’s simply too much stuff crossing our screens every waking moment of the day for us to check it all.  This is particularly true for people whose “research muscles” are atrophied from disuse and whose information base is the unsteady, almost wobbly, pile of untruths and half-truths that is the foundation of the Internet.  Most people lack both the tools and the will to sniff out bullshit and would rather spend their time spreading around something that seems entertaining (and, totally by coincidence, that shows how we’re so much better than those guys over there/back then/whatever!).  There’s no malice in the people spreading it (no matter how aggravating that spread may get).  There’s just ignorance.

Where do we go from here?

Fish

Sorry, Fish, but I have no fucking idea.  For all I know I may be contributing to the situation with this very screed.  This problem is bigger than I can even fully conceive, I suspect, not to mention take a crack at solving (the flood factor).  I’ll leave this for smarter people than I to fix (the laziness factor).

The more I see, the more I hear
The more I find fewer answers
I close my mind, I shout it out
But you know it’s getting harder

Homework is Evil

10ftmlThe studies just keep pouring in: homework is bad for the mental and physical health of your children. It’s pedagogically unsound. What’s more, homework constitutes a kind of regressive tax on the people public education ought to be helping the most: the children of recent immigrants and the poor. After all, how are you supposed to help your kids with their French homework if you’re not especially strong in French? And how are you supposed to help your kids with their homework when you’re working long hours at two or three jobs just to make ends meet? But most of my kids’ teachers know all of this by now. And yet they keep assigning more and more homework. In my darker, more cynical moments, this leads me to suspect that the crazy rise in homework is really all about teachers offloading and outsourcing a whole bunch of the actual work of teaching to parents. Stuff that ought to be done in school during school time gets done at home during what ought to be leisure time.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Education and Entertainment

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1888)

IMG_6282
Dina Goldstein, “Gods of Suburbia” (2014)

Marshall McLuhan once quipped: “Anyone who tries to draw a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” I’ve had this quotation displayed prominently on my office wall ever since I started teaching at John Abbott College. I know this idea pisses off a lot of my colleagues, but I must confess that it seems perfectly obvious to me. After all, when you’re entertaining a person, you’ve got their attention; when you’re boring them, you don’t. And how can you possibly teach someone anything if you don’t have their attention? If J. K. Rowling proved anything with the Harry Potter series, it’s that the average kid’s attention span is much longer than most teachers would have you believe. Perhaps our students’ supposedly short attention spans aren’t a function of some underlying problem—requiring drugs and therapy or sanctimonious finger-wagging—but rather a function of terrible teachers and ridiculously boring classes.

Art’s power to change hearts and minds stems precisely from the fact that it’s entertaining. We often forget that the shocking proposals concerning censorship in Plato’s Republic (376d-392c) are predicated upon on a deep respect for art’s power to shape souls. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) got through to many people who had more or less ignored the preachy pleas of angry activists. The same is probably true of television shows like Modern Family. When the Christian Right protests against the sympathetic portrayal of a gay character on a television show, they’re silently acknowledging the ability of entertainment to educate. Truth be told, I suspect that they respect art’s power far more than those who mock McLuhan.

If we were playing Trivial Pursuit and the question on the card was Which American university has the most extensive foreign languages program? you’d probably guess (as did I) that it’s Harvard (or another Ivy League school)—perhaps UCLA, NYU, Penn State, or the University of Chicago. But if you guessed one of these schools (or any of the other usual suspects), you’d be wrong. The correct answer is quite surprising: Brigham Young University—the über-conservative Mormon university in Utah, known for being fiercely Republican and openly hostile to feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals. BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s the largest religious university in the U.S.; it’s also the third-largest private university in the country.

“BYU states in no uncertain terms the religious goal of its education,” writes the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Cultivating Humanity (1997): “students are to be taught ‘the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’” Personal piety is expected of students as well as professors, and the academic freedom of both is severely circumscribed: “Phi Beta Kappa, the national student scholarly honour society, has repeatedly refused BYU’s request for a campus chapter, on grounds of its restrictions on academic freedom.” What’s more, BYU is one of the whitest universities in America (“total minority enrollment stands at 4 percent”). Alas, BYU is not devoted to diversity and liberal, cosmopolitan values. Even so, BYU’s commitment to foreign language instruction is second to none: “No university in this country,” notes Nussbaum, “offers more foreign languages—including rarely taught languages of Australasia and the South Pacific, Persian Farsi, Haitian Creole, some Native American and some African languages.”

The reason for BYU’s commitment to the teaching of foreign languages should be obvious: the LDS Church takes the Great Commission at the end of Mark’s Gospel very seriously: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Though the narrowly goal-oriented nature of this enterprise is somewhat sketchy, I must confess that I can’t help but admire the straightforwardly pragmatic wisdom of the Mormon approach. Mormon missionaries want to spread their ideas, their worldview, their values—not their language; as such, they speak in the common tongue of the people they wish to convert. Mormon missionaries don’t arrogantly expect their would-be converts to work hard to learn how to speak their language and understand them; they don’t expect their would-be converts to employ their idiosyncratic specialist’s jargon, their rarefied dialect. Alas, the same cannot be said of most academics, especially progressive academics writing in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. They seem to revel in being thoroughly incomprehensible.

To some extent, as Max Weber rightly observed nearly a century ago, this is inevitable. In Science as a Vocation (1918), he maintains that the academic life is fundamentally incompatible with the political life. Both are deeply noble callings, but you’ve got to choose between them. Those who refuse to choose, those who try to be both, invariably do neither well. Their wishy-washy commitment to the truth undermines the integrity of their scholarship, whilst their inability to communicate in plain speech undermines the effectiveness of their activism. The political success of Eugene Debs is a case in point.

No leftist has ever connected with American voters more than Debs. He got a million votes for the Socialist Party whilst he was in prison and the country was at war: a stunning political achievement. Yet I find it telling that the doctrinaire urban Marxists of his day—the cool kids, the intellectuals, the hipsters, the academic leftists—treated Debs with contempt. He got no respect. The intellectuals in the big northern cities thought Debs’s usage of farming metaphors and religious imagery was repulsive, and they thought his knowledge of the intricacies of Marxist theory woefully inadequate. Yet Debs could communicate their core concepts like no other. Why could he do this? Because he wasn’t another one of those philosophers who wants to sit on the sidelines and interpret the world in some new and novel way. He was, like the author of Theses on Feuerbach (1888), an activist who believed that “the point is to change it.”

The words we choose betray us: our primary loyalties and preferences are revealed by them. For instance, when you’re speaking, when you’re writing: do you go with le mot juste, the word or phrase that exactly captures your intended meaning, in all of its complexity, in all of its subtlety? Or do you go with the word or phrase that’s second best, or even third or fourth best, because you know that your intended audience will actually understand what you’re saying? If you’re an academic at heart, or an ideologue who loves preaching to the choir, you’ll go with le mot juste every time. But if you’re a teacher like me, or an activist or an organizer, you’ll do whatever you have to do to get through to your people—because, as Saul Alinsky puts it in Rules for Radicals (1971): “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

What Lasts in Teaching?

A reflection from a young contract teacher

by Phil Lagogiannis, Dawson College

This essay originally appeared in issue 524 of the Owl Hoots, the Dawson Teachers’ Union newsletter, in October 2014. It has since been edited.

As teachers, we constantly engage the question of what it means to teach: it inflects our work even if we have never asked it out loud. Our practice is itself a kind of articulation of the question, even if it only flirts with giving an answer through its method.

What lasts in teaching? I don’t mean to ask, “What do our students take away from us?” but rather, “What about teaching remains present over the semesters, over the years?” As a young teacher I can only outline a possible answer, but maybe you will be willing to share your insight upon hearing mine.

A related question we could first ponder is, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” I can speak to this question as a teacher of the precarious sort, but I can only speculate about what it might be like to be a permanent teacher working at the same college.

For example, I have recently come off a regular winter semester composed of two night courses. I felt that I was capable of teaching those courses at a level consistent with my own evolving standards. I have only just now begun to teach a summer night course. This course runs for the usual 75 hours, but it does so over seven weeks instead of over a regular semester’s fifteen. The enrolment currently sits at thirty-four students. To an administrator, it would be reasonable to conclude that my summer looks a lot like teaching two regular semester classes at once: a nearly full workload. Officially, this determination would depend on various factors outlined in a calculation protocol which unfortunately does not apply to contract teachers.

Nevertheless, I feel capable of teaching this course at a level consistent with my current standards. Its 10.75 hours per week translate to 38.7 work hours under the Employment Insurance (EI) Act. This is a special provision for contract teachers which recognizes the value of a single teaching hour as 3.6 hours once preparation, grading, and support are factored in. This seems to be altogether fair to me based on my own experience, but there is no parallel college policy. Since money talks, our high hourly rate reflects this de facto if not de jure.

From what I gather, for contract teachers classes are indiscriminately identical regardless of student enrolment. Maximum workloads are also not ideas we should be entertaining lest we compromise our job security. These are the only conclusions I can reach based on the fact that I was offered a second course, running in parallel but during the day. If I were to accept it, I would be taking on an EI-equivalent workload of 99 hours per week. To an administrator, this should look like a breach of at least one common sense principle: there are only 168 hours in a week, and about 70 of them are spent sleeping and eating. Despite this fact, I was encouraged to take on the extra course in order to secure my position in the hiring pool. If I were to oblige, the ensuing time constraints would require me to lower my standards. Permanent teachers are fortunately exempt from having to make this call.

Would it be worthwhile to accept the work? Some might argue that contract teaching is a stepping stone to permanent teaching. This is no longer the case in many departments given the size of the Continuing Education program and the relative dearth of permanent posts compared to the growing number of contract teachers. Others might suggest that the work is challenging but that the financial reward is due compensation. This is false: a permanent teacher would in some cases make over twice as much for teaching the exact same summer course. Their salary will also grow next year while ours will remain unjustly frozen. We have no sick days, no disability insurance, no guarantees of future work, and no available leaves other than parental leaves.

But none of this directly answers the question, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” Any honest answer must be couched in a certain signification of the word teacher. It might help us to run through two possible meanings of the word: a common one and an older one. This detour will take us back to the question we opened with.

Is a teacher that person who, through persistent remembrance of a set of skills, projects the essential features of her discipline for students to assimilate?

If this is the case, then our employer might even be partly justified in its approach to doling out work. A teacher is a pool of knowledge, a resource not unlike a textbook. Consultation of this resource is a process to which we could prescribe an almost definite structure. That is the meaning of course of study, the duration and scope of which is mapped out in advance. Under this description, we could speak of a teacher’s efficiency and how it is conditioned in part by his experience. We might even conclude that a summer contract teacher with a remarkable capacity for time management who has taught all courses in question before – in my case, I submit to the latter but not to the former – would be able to bring down those 3.6 hours-per-lecture-hour to a more manageable 2.5. Then he is really only working about 69 hours per week, is sleeping and eating about the same amount, and even has some time for his loved ones and for himself during the remaining 30 hours. This is by no means easy, but it is at least conceivable.

There is nothing superficially defective about this signification of teacher and course insofar as it says something true about what we do. But we should also consider that a teacher might not essentially be the foregoing description. Teach comes from the Old English verb taecan, which is etymologically connected to the word token – a sign, a mark. To teach signifies to point out, to show. Learn comes from leornian, which aside from its usual signification of “to study” has the sense of “to find the path.”

Perhaps a teacher is a guide rather than a purveyor of knowledge. She brings her students into the disclosure of a phenomenon by pointing out the way to finding it. She is not a source of persistent remembrance of a skill, but someone for whom the path to disclosure has been trodden many times and with deliberate pre-meditation. Deliberate pre-meditation is therefore her skill. Her sharpened sense of the path and her commitment to treading it is her discipline. Her students follow this path not behind her but alongside her and ahead of her.

To teach is then not to set down the elements of the way as remembered facts, but to remember the way and to bring others into that remembrance. It involves a willful, thoughtfully meditative recollection. This recollection must be pre-meditated anew each time it is taken up. A teacher’s failure results from taking the way for granted, from assuming mastery – exhaustion – of something as inexhaustible as existence. All teachers, whether they teach French, physics, or physical education at bottom engage with existence.

Let me suggest that what lasts in teaching is the way. The students will be different; the metaphors may change; but the way is what we seek to show. Yet it is demanding and often surprising. By forcing us to make of it something so crudely calculable, our employers do not fully encourage us to teach.

If this is true, then the definite structure upon which we rely for the organization of material into a course of study has to be understood as something provisional. A teacher can no longer be seen as an hourly laborer, but must instead be understood as having a task which is far less definite in its requirements from iteration to iteration. A teacher must be supported as a guide, as someone who guards her discipline and shepherds students on the way. A teacher should not need to spend every minute of her downtime eating and sleeping because of the absurd calculations of her friends in administration, and her security should not depend on this impossible proposition.

JUNE 2014

The Four Semester Solution

“The most effective way to learn is by devoting oneself to a single subject for months at a time. Its opposite is school.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

IMG_3390For years now, my students have been complaining about the number of subjects they’re required to take at the same time. While most university students take four courses a semester, most CÉGEP students take eight classes a semester! One young women—a very strong student who made the Dean’s List last semester—likened our present system to a big buffet, wherein everything looks and smells delicious, but you’re forced to eat so much, at such great speed, that you don’t really enjoy any of it whilst it’s happening, and you feel sick to your stomach when it’s done.

I propose that we split our existing semesters in two—creating four semesters; finish a week later in December; and add two weeks to the academic year: one at the beginning, in August, and one at the end, in May. We’ll need these three extra weeks to make space for the two new exam periods (one in mid-October and another in mid-March), and the new week-long break we’re going to add to the academic year (mid-October).

The first semester of the academic year would begin in mid-August and end in mid-October. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a week-long break (Fall Break). The second semester would begin in mid-October and end in mid-December. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a break from late December to mid-January (Winter Break). The third semester would begin in mid-January and end in mid-March. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a week-long break (Spring Break). The fourth and final semester of the academic year would begin in early April and end in late May. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and the Summer Break.

Our students could, under this new system, take half as many classes per semester and go into far greater depth with them.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

Irony and Sarcasm

zn29jMy generation is noted for its fondness for irony and sarcasm. This makes us delightful dinner guests and witty travel companions. But it also makes kids and students hate us. The problem is this: kids don’t pick up on irony, for the most part—same is true of those who are new to the English language. Both frequently conclude that the literal meaning of your witty little remark—the obvious meaning, the meaning on the surface—is the intended meaning (i.e., what you really meant to say). Thus, liberal parents who mouth racist remarks—within earshot of their kids—in a mocking tone of voice (a Southern accent, perhaps) frequently communicate to their children (inadvertently) that they hold these racist views in earnest.

Same thing happened to a Jewish professor at Concordia University. He made a few anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on Depression-Era America. He did so to make fun of the stupidity (and asinine reasoning) so often found in antisemitic thought. I was thus shocked to discover, after class, that a francophone student (a friend of mine, studying in English for the first time) thought the professor (the Jewish professor!) was a flaming Nazi. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that we file a complaint against the professor with B’nai Brith Canada. Naturally, I dissuaded him and clarified the professor’s meaning.

This experience (and countless others) have convinced me that irony and teaching don’t mix, unless you’re teaching privileged kids with a strong grasp of the English language. What’s true of irony is, I suspect, doubly true of sarcasm. Children and new English speakers invariably miss the subtleties of the sardonic style. Hate to be the one to break it to you: but all they hear is senseless meanness. They don’t think you’re cute. They just think you’re an asshole. Alas, though the charms of irony and sarcasm are undeniable, confining them to the company of peers is prudent, and forgoing them altogether in the presence of children is wise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Why We Strike

We strike because we want a government that invests in people not planes, bodies not Bombardier, sharing not shareholders. We strike because we want a government that invests in healthy people not healthy profits, well-educated minds not well-lined pockets, the common good not the corporate good. In short, we strike because we believe that in these troubled times our government should be helping out the needy not the greedy.