Yelp with Care, Candy from the mouth of babes, Chris Cornell, & other random thoughts today

Academic standing posted at Angelo State yesterday. Like anyone else tasked with talking to students who earn their way onto academic suspension, I was yelled at, hung up on, and, I’m sure, called all kinds of mean, nasty, and ugly things behind my back. At least no parents have called me yet this semester. I try my best to be calm and understanding with students. They are, I silently tell myself, still 18 and 19 years old and being suspended is an ominous and an outward (and kind of aggressive but well-earned) condemnation of their academic behavior. To paraphrase a Keb Mo’ song: everyone likes to party, but no one likes to clean. Behavior has consequences for the students, and if they party too much, someone has to clean up the mess. At ASU, we’ve simply decided there’s a point at which we can’t keep taking a student’s money if he can’t pass any classes. There’s something flat-out dirty about letting a student rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt when she can’t pass classes. For some of our students, though, being suspended seems like the end of the road. When they call, if they don’t hang up on me first, we discuss options. There are, after all, plenty of other jobs in the sea, other universities to attend, and plenty of people live worthwhile and happy lives without a college degree. Sometimes, I tell them, relationships don’t work. This is one of them, but the world is a big place full of opportunity if we can learn from our mistakes and fall forward. We’ll still be here, I say as nicely as possible, if you ever get ready to read those books and do that math.

Day two after academic standing is usually less about anger and more about deal making. Everyone in this world, including college students, wants justice until they decide they really want mercy.

Fortunately, the internet is always around to provide relief in between sob stories. A few random thoughts about some stuff I read today:

  1. Be careful what you Yelp. I’m sure you’ve seen the article about the Yale Dean whose insensitive Yelp reviews have left her boss “grieving” and “unable to envision a way forward.” First off–grieving? Geez. How about mad? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Dr. Chu’s First Amendment right to be as insulting and insensitive as she wants. If I were a betting man, I would guess Dr. Chu will send us a press release apologizing and telling the world she was trying to be humorous. Heck, if that excuse is good enough for the president, should be good enough for a Dean from Yale. First Amendment or not, though, words have consequences and if you work in a profession entrusted with educating young minds, you don’t get to tweet racist, classist, and other stereotypical comments that insult the very students you are supposed to educate. Simply put, as college leaders we have to be better than that and I get so frustrated with colleagues who can’t, or won’t, recognize that everything we write (including things like this blog) reflects on the university where we work. That doesn’t mean we can’t write about complex and difficult subjects. I have every right in the world to blog about Donald Trump, Fox News, Barack Obama, race, abortion, Elvis-sightings and any number of other controversial issues, but I have a responsibility to do so with a keen eye on the public nature of the writing and with a clear sense that our role as educators is to conduct ourselves in a manner that represents the values of truth, intelligence, and ideas. I might think Donald Trump is a horrible president and I might think he’s dumb as a box of rocks, but I can’t tweet that Trump should hang or call him a moron without offering some intelligent reasons why. Our job, in the classroom and in public forums, is to model behavior. You might think Seth Abramson is a crazy person, but he’s not threatening the president, and, by all accounts, he keeps his political thoughts out of the classroom. Most importantly, he believes in something and he’s developing an argument, not posting threatening tweets or insulting Yelp reviews. I would never accept an essay from a student that posited simplistic and immature ideas. I demand they make an assertion, develop, and defend with evidence. Most importantly, I tell them we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold everyone else. That goes especially for those of us in academia. So. I’m not grieving for Dr. Chu. I’m upset that she’s not savvy enough to recognize that calling people white trash and morons in Yelp reviews is inappropriate and makes the rest of us hard working college professors look like elitist, uncaring dorks.
  2. If you missed out on Girl Scout cookies this year, I think you can blame the person in this mug shot. A friend of ours sent us the link. Forget the story, though. Read the comments on twitter. Sometimes my faith in humanity is restored when people get clever without being mean and degrading. She stole 6,000 boxes of girl scout cookies. The jokes almost write themselves.
  3. I was never a huge Audioslave or Soundgarden fan, but I hate that we’ve lost another huge voice from the music world of my youth. Chris Cornell helped define the grunge movement and tapped into an angst those of us in the mid-80s felt about the world. Musically, those bands fought against the increasingly global record chains and fused punk, rock, and any other kind of music they wanted into songs filled with emotion and rage against the man. Indie music lovers of the world need to thank them everyday. They fought the good fight. Eddie Veder and Kurt Cobain sang with a raw emotion, but for my money Cornell was the guy with a voice. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to his rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and you decide.





Slavery, boxing, & other things I’m reading (and watching) this week

"So, what'll it be...binge watching, binge eating or both?"Some random thoughts about a couple novels, Foyle’s War, and the AHCA.

  1. I finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad over the weekend. Whitehead’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year, is both compelling and uneven. In Whitehead’s narrative, the underground railroad is, literally, a railroad running underground, a kind of abolitionists subway that carries slaves up and down the east coast. Station agents are citizens and abolitionists who see slavery as the abomination that it was. The folks risk live and livelihood helping slaves escape into the dark tunnels where old engines pull broken down rail cars through the darkness. Colson, at his best, shows us the emotional toil slavery exacts. While many novels about slavery show us a sliver of hope, I like that Colson paints us a picture of the human soul in collapse. Even the moments on a plantation that might offer a respite from the degradation of slavery contain the dark anger and despair of life as a slave in America. Cora, Colson’s primary character, can’t relax or experience those momentary stays we all need from the confusion of daily life. Colson keeps that cloud of hopelessness hovering over her head throughout the novel. But Colson also falls into what we might call the Richard Wright trap. I’m in no way disparaging Wright’s masterpiece Native Son. His novel was a product of its place and time and stands as an important 20th Century novel that captures the abject despair of being black in America. Wright, though (as virtually every critic notes), gets a tad bit preachy in the last third of the novel. In defense of Wright, he was writing to an audience largely ignorant of the plight of Bigger Thomas, and Wright was going to by God make sure his readers didn’t miss the larger point about inequality and race. Colson’s novel isn’t quite as preachy, but I think he also loses some faith in his audience once Cora lands in Indiana at the Valentine farm. He’s done so well letting despair linger right under the surface of Cora’s life and then characters that might have had some depth get a little to caricatured for my tastes. More importantly, Colson’s strengths are bringing the pain of slavery to life. Turning the Underground Railroad into a real thing and not a metaphor fits with that focus on the real. At the risk of spoiling anything, the “Ghost Station” Cora finds in Indiana moves us away from the solid actuality of the first 2/3rds of the novel and into some metaphorical, allegorical mysterious space that we haven’t occupied anywhere else in the novel. Don’t get me wrong. Whitehead is a fine writer and Cora’s story is compelling and interesting. Slavery, Colson clearly shows, rots the soul of everyone involved, fueling a hatred that dehumanizes owner and slave. In a larger sense, Colson’s novel is an important reminder about an ugly and shameful part of our past that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore.
  2. I’m about halfway through FX Toole‘s Pound for Pound. If you don’t know Toole, he’s really Jerry Boyd, a guy who didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until he was about 70. The film Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Hilary Swank, was based on a story in his collection Rope Burns. Toole didn’t survive to see the movie or Pound for Pound published and, as others have noted, Toole’s story is probably as compelling as his fiction. In point of fact, Pound for Pound was about a 900 page manuscript edited into a novel, and I’m always a little skeptical about authorship and quality in such cases. Toole spent his life as a cut-man and trainer. I’m not being entirely critical when I say his fiction reads like it. When you add in the edited nature of the manuscript, the writing can get clunky. However, if you like boxing and all the metaphors associated with the sport, you’ll probably like Toole’s work. Boxing, in Toole’s world, provides discipline and order to the chaotic world of the men in his works. There’s a reason that so many inner-city churches and youth organizations start boxing clubs to try and provide an outlet to the chaos of the poverty and tragedy of the streets. For Toole, this discipline is transcendent not in victory but in the beauty of a punch thrown correctly. At his best, Toole shows us a character’s joy when his breathing and footwork coincides with a left hook that strikes with devastating power. Men in the novel who lack discipline cheat, fix fights, and succumb to addiction. Toole’s no Hemingway, but his novel offers an insight into the allure of boxing not as an outlet for violence but as a place of beauty and the artistic possibilities when parts of an action come together as a whole.
  3. My wife and I are slowly but surely getting hooked on Foyle’s War. Set in World War 2, the series follows Christopher Foyle as he solves various crimes. There aren’t many guns, we don’t see any blood and guts, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen faster chases watching two 3 year olds on tricycles. In fact, the show is about as sexy watching a sunset on a cloudy day. And yet every night about 8:00, we settle in and watch Michael Kitchen (he plays Foyle) walk around in his 1940’s wool suit and slowly unravel whatever mystery he’s faced with this week. Simply put, and I know it makes me sound old, the acting in the show is stunningly good. The story lines unfold like a well-written short story with characters that develop slowly in each 90 minute episode. Show recommendations are always dicey things because we all think our tastes in entertainment are better than anyone else’s, and we’re shocked (flabbergasted even) that people can’t appreciate the humor or joy we find in movies or tv. (Everyone loves Strange Brew, right?) If you’re sitting around some night surfing through Netflix, give Foyle’s War a shot. If you’ve got good taste, you’ll like it. If not, keep your recommendations to yourself. We don’t need any reminders that our taste in television can be odd.
  4. The American Health Care Act passed the House this week. I haven’t read it, but neither did some of the House members who voted for or against the dang thing. My excuse is that I’m not paid to read the bill. I’ll say what I’ve said before on this blog–the issue isn’t insurance: it’s the cost of medical care. At some point, we need to stop this charade and either move to a totally free market health care system (where lots of people go without insurance and overwhelm emergency rooms driving up our local costs) or move a single payer system that creates a safety net for all of us. We can’t keep patching this mess up with bailing wire and duct tape. Most disappointing to me is that Republicans have had seven years to craft legislation and this bill seems to be the best they could do. Remember students–this is what happens when you procrastinate and wait until the last minute to finish your assignment.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means


From the Princess Bride–one of the great movies of all time

In the world of higher education, twitter has been abuzz the last few days. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released its 51st annual “American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016” survey. The survey of over 130,000 college freshman provides “data on incoming college students’ background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college.” For those of us tasked with understanding how to help students persist toward a degree, the report provides both a valuable snapshot in time and an important way to measure consistency over time.

The report is chock full of great data, but the big story engaging news agencies is the apparent political “polarization” of incoming first year students. Only about 42 percent of students self-identify as middle of the road. According to the report, a higher percentage of female students self-identify as far left and more male students self-identify as far right. Visualize much hand ringing and angst as people envision a giant schism between the genders.

Except maybe not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we probably need to take a deep breath and not hit the panic button just yet. As much as I value the information in the HERI survey, we are reading self-reported survey data gathered from 17-18 year old incoming college students who have grown up in a world where the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are largely undefined, confused, and have become divisive and synonymous with certain hot button social issues.

Heck, I’m not even sure our two major political parties could adequately define those two terms anymore. Are all Republicans conservative? Are all Democrats liberals? And where in the world does President Trump fall on the political spectrum?

More importantly for the survey data, what exactly does conservative or liberal political views mean to an 19 year old recent high school graduate? If not raising taxes on the wealthy is a conservative issue, the HERI report notes that 73.1 % of female students and 67.7 % of male students think we should raise taxes on that cohort. If dealing with climate change is a liberal issue, 82.4 % of female students and 77.6 % of male students want federal policy to address climate change.

Of course, while both cohorts want the rich to pay more in taxes (damn liberal kids), only 36.7% (female) and 39.5 % (male) want us to raise taxes to reduce the deficit (stingy conservative brats).

Unless you’re wealthy. of course. Then we’ll raise your taxes. But only if it reduces the deficit. (Dang wishy washy teenagers.)

Therein, I think, lies the problem with self-reported data from incoming college students. Understand that I’m not doubting the sincerity or intellectual ability of 17 and 18 year olds. I am, though, casting some doubt about their understanding of complex political terms.

Words like liberal and conservative are far more difficult to define than we might pretend. In my first year composition classes, I used to begin our semester by asking students to identify their place on the political spectrum. As a public regional university in west Texas, a not surprising number of my students self-identified as Republican or conservative. In their short essay, they had to tell me why that was their political affiliation. Part two of the assignment required that students take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

What we found was that defining political ideology is a little more complicated than picking left versus right. Most of my students, in fact, are for smaller government until they want the government to pay for a bigger chunk of their tuition bill. Many of my conservative students were shocked that their liberal, deer hunting classmates want to protect the 2nd Amendment. My liberal students were surprised the conservative students wanted the government to leave homosexuals alone. And just about everyone is ready for legal marijuana. (That might not be very surprising. Stoners!)

The point, I tell my students, isn’t to turn you into a bunch of liberal, pinko communists or far right fascists. Language and words matter. Calling yourself something stakes a claim and creates identity–something that is a little more important than bubbling in a circle on a survey or blindly following your Uncle Frank’s Facebook rants. It takes more than a 140 characters to understand and adopt a political view.

As I read the reactions to the HERI report, I can’t help but think that knowing the political “polarization” of incoming freshman is about as useful as knowing how elementary school students feel about growing political unrest in southeast Asia. It’s conceivable that we need to be sure they actually know what the terms mean before we ask them to place themselves in one camp or the other.

The problem, of course, isn’t that HERI asked the question. Snapshots in time are important and useful but emphasizing how polarized we seem to be only reinforces people’s polarized ideas.

And let’s face it: the last thing we need is to focus on more ways we can’t communicate or agree on things in this world.




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

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