Monthly Archives: November 2013

Am I Meeting Expectations?

This, from an open letter a very dear friend wrote in response to meeting “evaluation standards.” I think she’s spot-on.

The VCCS wants me to do scads and scores of paperwork to know if I “meet expectations” as a teacher. They want measurements that are quantifiable. This is all well and good if it didn’t resoundingly smack of No Child left Behind and Common Core practices, the one size fits all models of teaching and learning with their inherent mistrust of educators.

Do I meet expectations?

Tell me how I should measure the moments when students come to my office and say, “Ms. Haines, I know I’m not going to pass your class, but I want you to know that I learned so much from you.”

“Ms. Haines, after this unit on media literacy, I realized I needed to step up and be a more involved parent. I now realize that I have to provide my two kids with some balance.”

“Ms. Haines, thank you for believing in me until I could believe in myself.”

“Ms. Haines, I just wanted you to know I’ve started to read to my kids at night.”

How would you like to measure the times when my students show up hungry to my office for an appointment and, at 2:00, tell me they haven’t eaten yet that day. At the ready are always some snacks and hot soups so I know they’ve eaten at least once that day.

Tell me how I should measure the change in attitude a student has toward his or her own educational opportunities and the subsequent determination in a student’s work after having read Frederick Douglass’s “How I Learned to Read and Write” or Jonathan Kozol’s “The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society.”

Tell me how to measure igniting in a student a love for learning rather than the desire to merely regurgitate information for a test.

Tell me how to measure the “light bulb” moments they have (we’ve all seen them) when they see how the semester’s readings thread together in a uniform whole?
How would you like me to quantify creativity and passion? How would you like me to quantify their growth as citizens or human beings?

How do I measure transitioning them from the literal to the inferential and evaluative? From the mirror books of their own lives to the window books of the world?

Tell me how to measure the countless conversations in my offices with students who feel lost, whose family lives are in disarray, or who are suffering domestic violence…finding them safety, food, shelter, counseling, etc.

How do I measure fostering the collegial relationships in the hall with colleagues from different disciplines who help us look at content and at our students from perspectives that we might not have considered?

These are the moments in teaching that matter. It’s the daily interaction with students, the genuine love for students as students and as human beings that elevate teaching to an art. To be sure it is content and sound pedagogy, but no great teacher chose to be a teacher. No, teaching chose us. It’s archetypal and noble and honorable.

And it has been reduced to hoops and forms and proving that a syllabus can fit into a template.

Will I jump through the requisite hoops? You bet. Because I love what I do, and I want to keep doing it. But to suggest that my 24 years of teaching and passion can be measured and that my default status is “does not meet expectations” is anything less than punitive and administrative posturing is an absurdity of the most grand proportions.

Congratulations to the VCCS.

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An Old Wound

This popped up in my Facebook feed this afternoon:

I keep thinking, after everything that happened to me at CHS and after all the time that’s passed, that I’ve come to some sort of peace with the way that things went down.

I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

As I watched this video, I felt myself simultaneously tearing up and seething with rage. This teacher, whom the student clearly saw as someone safe, was able to take the student’s hand and, ostensibly, walk her to the office of someone whose job it is to make sure that she gets the care and attention that she needs. She was able to take that kid to someone whose job it is to find that student a safe place to spend the night, or to find that student a legal representative, or to get that student connected with services that would see to it that she was properly cared for.

I didn’t have that. There was literally no one to whom I could bring my students; in fact, my students were sometimes coming to me because the person whose job it was to take care of such things was unapproachable and incompetent. The administration did nothing to ameliorate that situation and did nothing to support me when I took on the (desperately needed) role of support for the students.

As a consequence, I lost my job.

I still resent the shit out of the people who allowed those conditions to develop, and who did nothing to change them when it became obvious that such an environment was completely unsustainable. The only thing for which I am grateful is that no one died as a result of their negligence, incompetence, and utter compassionate and empathetic failure. That almost wasn’t true.

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Quick Hit: Stick a Fork in Me…

…I’m done.


So, this happened to me today; on Tuesday, I made a HUGE deal about telling the students to go to Blackboard because I was posting IMPORTANT things for them to do for today. I even said, “EVERYONE! LOOK AT MY FACE!” and made eye contact with all of them as I made the announcement.

Of the 34 students I had this morning, ONE of them did the reading. ONE.

I give up.

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Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things my students chose to write about for their position papers:

1.  Puppy mills.  This student went ahead with this despite my recommendations that she choose another topic.  The standard for a topic was that reasonable people could disagree about the issue, and she admitted that reasonable people could not defend the heinous practices of puppy mills and yet, there it was, a paper arguing against the heinous practices of puppy mills.  Sigh.

2.  Electric Vehicles.  This one wasn’t so bad, though it was boring to read.

3.  Abortion.  Natch.  This paper was horrendous; it was all I could do to figure out what the student was trying to say.

4.  Electroshock therapy.  While this student started off strong, the paper fell apart about a quarter of the way in; he focused more on the history of the practice than on arguing that the way it’s currently being applied should be reconsidered.

5.  Animal testing.  This paper was completely incomprehensible.  Observe, a cut-and-pasted paragraph from the essay:

Martasian (student’s beliefs about animal research) found that students have more negative attitudes towards animals testing than undergraduates involved in animal research. The study also shows pervious work by examining feeling towards two nations. Some previous studies of this kind were characterized by a single nation. The same study that involves the two nations, those nations were among the British and Americans. Newkirk (wrote the book Free the animals: the story of the Animal Liberation Front) found animal welfare is more highly developed in North American than in Britain. Two groups were recruited from Britain and the United States.

Really; I have no idea what to do with that.

6.  Gay rights.  This one appeared in a couple of my classes.  One student did okay with it; the other tried to argue that gay marriage should be banned because it does not provide a good environment for children.  Needless to say, I eviscerated that paper, pointed the kid in another direction (reasonable people can argue for the separation of civil and religious marriage, so I encouraged him to take that angle) and sent the paper back for revision.

7.  Obamacare.  I told the students that they were welcomed to write about what they thought was an important issue and that, even if I staunchly disagreed with their position, they’d get the grade if they did good work with it.  This kid got all of his information from well known right-wing propaganda machines and forwarded claims that I could debunk on Google.  I sent the paper back and told him to try again.

8.  Whaling.  This was another paper that started out with a good premise but fell apart before we got to page two.

9.  NASA funding.  I haven’t read this paper yet, but the kid who wrote it wrote a surprisingly effective (and entertaining) analysis about calcium, so I have high hopes.

10.  Funding for the arts in schools.  This paper is another I haven’t read yet and, to be honest, I’m kind of dreading it; the student who’s writing it hasn’t produced anything of any kind of quality all semester (AND he admitted that he started the paper the night before it was due, despite my trying to get them to run through a drafting and revision process for weeks).  Oy.




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I Find Your Lack of Logic Disturbing; Part II

The slippery slope fallacy!

So, here’s the scene; it’s summer, 2003 or so, and I’m at the gas station filling up on my way home from the health club.  As usual, I’m listening to NPR, and I’ve got two kids in the back seat of the car.  Since I almost never use air conditioning, all the windows are open.

At about that time, Massachusetts is debating whether to allow gay marriage in that state, and Diane Rhem is hosting an interesting show where she’s invited a number of pretty smart people to discuss the issue.  I decided to leave my radio on after I turned the car off, so as I’m pumping gas (and making googly faces at the girls through their open window), I’m listening to the continued discussion.

Then she starts taking phone calls.

Here’s the thing; I think that most NPR shows are very well done, Diane Rhem’s show in particular.  My opinion of them often goes down as soon as they open the phones.  No matter how skilled the screener is, some inarticulate moron always manages to get through, and today was a stunning example of just that.

So, Diane does her lovely and gracious greeting, and that’s pretty much where it all went off the rails.  The guy – I don’t remember where he was from – starts off well enough, though with the typical ignorant stance of most anti-equality folks; he was concerned about a “radical” shift in the way society functions that gay marriage would bring about. I was only mildly rolling my eyes about his claim that gay marriage would “destroy traditional marriage,” but I lost it when he proceeded to ask, “What’s next?!”

That, Folks, right there – “What’s next?!” – is a surefire indication that things are going to get stupid in a big, fat hurry.

Our caller was sure – SURE, I tell you! – that gay marriage wasn’t just going to lead to a devaluation of ‘traditional marriage’ (whatever the hell that meant in his fevered, frightened little brain).  No, no, Friends and Neighbors!  Gay marriage was going to lead to full-on social anarchy!  “If we let the gays marry, what’s to keep the Mormons from going back to polygamy?  What’s to keep someone from marrying his sister?  Or his dog?  Or his TOASTER?!”

Yes; he actually insinuated that gay marriage would lead to toaster marriage.  I startled both of my children (and most of the customers at the gas station) by screaming at my radio through the open windows.

And that, right there, is the slippery slope fallacy; the argument that, if we allow this thing, A, to happen, a whole cascade of other, usually catastrophic and often ridiculous effects, B-Z, will necessarily follow.  Now, it may well be true that if A, then B and C and D, but the slippery slope argument doesn’t bother to articulate a relationship between A and any of the resultant effects.

The other day, I was engaged in a “discussion” on a friend’s facebook wall about the FDA’s efforts to ban trans fats from processed foods (my friend invited me to the discussion as a counter balance to her crazy in-laws).  Before long (I think it took all of two back-and-forths), we went from the FDA banning trans fats to the banning of coffee and donuts, to the complete and total revocation of any and all gun rights.

Wear rhetorical cleats, People; don’t slide down the slippery slope.


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A New Series


There’s a bit of synchronicity in my life at the present moment. Professionally, I’m in the midst of the “argument and persuasion” portion of my composition classes. Personally, I’ve been involved in more conversations than I can count lately where I’ve tried to convince people that the positions they hold are completely untenable.

In other words, I’m doing a lot of arguing.

What I’m finding most frustrating about this exercise (which I usually LOVE) is that too few people know how to actually argue; they don’t understand that the point isn’t necessarily to WIN, but rather to COMMUNICATE. People engage in all KINDS of intellectually dishonest practices during these conversations both because they don’t want to concede their point of view, but also, I think, because they’ve never been taught how to argue ethically.

After being summarily blocked by one person on facebook after (politely) asking him to provide sourced evidence to back up his claims, I’ve decided that I’m going to run a series here about logical fallacies. I’ll throw a couple out every week until I’ve hit all the major ones. Consider it a public service (and an effort to keep myself from killing people when they throw another fucking maroon fish at me.  Ahem….).

Let’s start with the one that the person who blocked me employed; the appeal to authority.

Basically, this fallacy can be thought of as three subsets of the same faulty logic. Either:

•  the person claiming authority doesn’t actually HAVE it (“I’m a doctor, so you can trust me when I tell you that that’s impetigo” doesn’t cut it when the degree of the person giving the diagnosis is a Ph.D. in literature, for example);

• the authority’s view is either taken out of context or the authority is biased toward a particular point (“I’m a doctor, so you can trust me when I tell you that Obamacare is going to be a disaster” is not a valid position coming from a doctor who’s being kicked off the network of a major insurer, for example); or

• the view of the expert does not jibe with that of other experts in the field (for example, the one climate scientist who doesn’t endorse the doctrine of global warming).

The person who blocked me was claiming to be an expert in health insurance and insurance compliance, but a) offered me no proof of his credentials and b) refused to back up his assertions with credible evidence (and never addressed an error in his assertions that I was able to debunk with cited evidence of my own). I was perfectly willing to accept his authority, but only if he were willing to verify it; a credible and ethical authority almost NEVER objects to backing up his or her assertions with evidence.

I have a student in one of my classes who’s trying to argue that performance-enhancing substances should be allowed in competition.  When he showed me a list of some of his sources last week, I noted that one of the articles he’s using to support his position was written by a doctor, all right; a doctor of economics.  Appeal to authority, my friend; that bit of evidence is inadmissible.

Get it?


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