Time to Trade up for a New Model

Our bodies, I tell my wife all the time, are really just machines. If we put the right fuel in the tank and follow a regular maintenance schedule, we should get a couple hundred thousand miles down the road before we have to start replacing the engine parts.

It goes without saying that, unfortunately, some folks get sold a lemon, and sometimes the mechanical breakdown defies logic. Broken gaskets, frozen pistons, electrical short circuits, cancer, genetic diseases, and various other mechanical and biological anomalies can happen, but if we’re lucky and science is on our side (and the Chiltons is up-to-date), we get back on the road again.

The journey won’t always be smooth, of course. We’ve got to replace the tires periodically, keep the hoses clear, and, over the course of time, the body’s going to get a few dents and dings we can’t help. Some folks take the time to get body work done and every once in a while we all wonder if it might be worth the money to try and restore the chassis to mint condition, but, for the most part, we just start driving a little slower and learn to baby the curves instead.

Even so, realizing that you can’t run that 6 minute mile anymore or wondering who lowered the chairs is bad enough, but we can usually adjust to the small physical changes. We learn to work smarter, not harder. All of a sudden that fulcrum lesson from high school physics makes sense when you’re unloading things from the truck. Sure, we might take more breaks along the way, but age also helps us realize youthful urgency is generally unnecessary.

But, let’s face it, some of these little knocks and pings are harder to handle than others. Some folks lose control of their plumbing, others go gray. We thank you for calling those creases around our eyes laugh lines because craggly and weathered sounds so much worse. I can assure you I’m aware that the bottoms of my arms are waving back at me and that my stomach now moves independently of the rest of my body.

Each of us is bothered by different things,though. Some of us can live with a broken cd player and others don’t care if the dashboard is cracked as long as the car gets us from point A to point B. A little arthritis here and some heart burn there isn’t all that traumatic most days.

I’ve got to believe, though, that when the eye doctor asks “Are you ready for bifocals?” we all start wondering if we can trade up for a newer model.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

The eyes, many cultures and popular cliches tell us, are the windows to the soul. Opening and closing them, both literally and figuratively, to the world around us offers us opportunities to filter experience through the complexity that is the human electrical system. We use those two little orbs to follow the paths of our lives. Sure, our eyes can lead us astray, but at least they can lead us. We see our children take their first step, the space shuttle launch into space, the home run to win the game, and our first, second, and last loves. Our eyes show our happiness and our tears to the world.

Like the headlights on our 11 year old truck, they also begin to fade with time so we shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t working up to par.

Still. Bifocals are for old people.

The reality is that I’ve worn glasses for 25 years and there is no conceivable reason wearing bifocals should bother me. I can assure you, as can anyone who sees me dress each morning, that vanity isn’t a driving force when I look in the closet. When I get my haircut, the barber asks if it looks okay. I usually answer by asking “does it really matter at this point?”

My problem with bifocals isn’t cosmetic (or logical) but I don’t think it’s necessarily unusual. When our arms get too short to read things clearly or we realize we can’t eat dessert after both lunch and dinner and still stay thin (hell, we can’t even eat both lunch and dinner anymore) or we can’t eat all those jalepeno poppers like we used to, there’s something natural about the breakdown of those body parts. After all, we might do the scheduled maintenance, but I’m not sure we do all the recommended work so some problems are our own fault.

Sure, I change the oil every 5,000 miles, but I’m not always so faithful about the air filter or draining the coolant. Likewise, I’m pretty good about eating my greens, but I’ll drop some greasy Burger King fuel in the tank also.

But the eyes. It’s not like we have much control over how quickly those break down. If I gain a pound or my arteries clog, I know that’s the price of french fries dipped in my Frosty, but when I need two different lenses just to see the world around me, I also know that the inevitable breakdown, the dents and dings, are happening without regard to anything I do.

I think what bothers me isn’t so much that my eyesight, like just about everyone else my age, is getting worse. Instead, I’m baffled by how a single body part can deteriorate inconsistently. That’s a little like your mechanic suggesting four different size tires to help balance out the car or needing Propecia for half your head and Rogaine for the other.

At least when my other muscles get weaker, they do so in equal measure. Not so the eyes. I need one lens for distance, one for objects in the middle, and two different prescriptions for things up close. I mean I knew things were a little out of focus lately, but geez, that’s a lot of glass between me and the world.

That also seems more like a Quadra-focal than a Bi-focal but what do I know.

Once I get the new glasses, though, maybe I’ll be able to get down the road a piece before any more body parts give out. Of course, if anything else goes wrong, at least I’ll be able to see it.


Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

None of the Above

I had every intention of sitting down this week and writing about our upcoming mid-term elections. If the predictions hold true, we will see record levels of apathy as folks stay home and avoid the polling booths this year. Republicans will, it seems, regain control of the House and Senate as they run campaign after campaign in districts gerrymandered to insure victory. Rest assured, plenty of Democrats are resting easy this week as they glide to re-election in their own voter controlled districts.

I kept avoiding the topic, though, because I tend to get all worked up about the idiocy that has become American politics and soapbox rants are rarely as satisfying as we might hope.

The main thrust of my blog would have focused on the dangers of our increasingly partisan elections. While I realize Americans have long had a distrust of politicians, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t increasingly faced with worse (and less qualified) candidates across the board. In Texas, for instance, Ken Paxton is under investigation for violating the Texas Securities Act, and he’s already admitted guilt to a variety of felonies. He faces the distinct possibility of being disbarred at some point after the election and even if he wins, he will likely be ineligible to hold the position.

Ironically, he’s the Republican candidate for Attorney General and he’s favored to win because he’s a Republican not because he’s more qualified than his Democratic opponent. He will be the person responsible for upholding the very laws he is accused of (and has admitted to) breaking.

It’s a little like asking Walter White from Breaking Bad to be in charge of your anti-drug campaign.

My guess is folks from across the country can do one of those <insert candidate here> things for politicians from both parties guilty of a crime yet still on the ballot. I would also anticipate that the very worst candidates are those running in states or districts that are a lock for one of our major parties.

Understand that I had no intention of discussing candidates with whom we might disagree or even those candidates who espouse political philosophies we dislike. I’m not even talking about the phantom illegalities favored by conspiracy theorists. Nut jobs have always been part of the political process.

My goal, instead, was going to be to discuss how candidates like Ken Paxton show just how cynical and abusive political parties have become in America. In Texas, Republicans win not necessarily because Texas is a “red” state or because we don’t trust Democrats. In 2012,. 4.5 million Texans punched Mr. Romney’s ticket and 3.4 cast a vote for President Obama but Texas has ~13.5 million registered voters.

We have no idea what the other 5.7 million people think. In essence, “None of the Above” won the 2012 presidential election in Texas. All those folks who stayed home probably felt like my friend who refused to vote for either candidate.

Like other states where political parties have rigged the election in favor of rich donors and drafted voting districts that often look like Rorschach tests, we simply must recognize that America’s apathy at the polls is a direct result of how disconnected most of us feel from the political process.

Candidates and donors in this current mid-term election will spend around $4 billion.

The goal of politics over the last 25 years is to appeal to the narrowest, most frightened voting block possible. Americans say the economy is the most important issue facing us today, but the group most likely to head to the polls cast votes based on social issues.

No offense to anyone but a candidate’s stance on abortion or gay marriage isn’t really relevant to his or her understanding of the federal budget and the economy.

What we are seeing, though, are elections decided based on issues that are relevant to increasingly small slices of the population but issues that take on disproportionate importance every two years. Worse yet, because districts (and even states) are so dominated by single political parties, voters get caught in a veritable vacuum of discourse where increasingly small groups of people dominate the conversation and the decision making.


The centrist voter, that person who recognizes that government is sometimes the problem but not always, is forced to vote for the better of two bad candidates, the least horrific of two unqualified people, or not vote.

Our elections, I had planned to write, have become a complete perversion of the democratic ideals of America where personal attacks have replaced policy debates because too many candidates have become slaves to the party line. The net effect, then, are parties (and their donors) who pick candidates who will serve as placeholders and secured votes, not competent, sentient beings with an ability to think and make decisions based on the available information instead of based on the beliefs of the biggest checkbook.

Fortunately, I decided to avoid writing about politics this week so I wouldn’t get so upset.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)