Saturday, October 10, 2009

Four-day weakened

Well, we made it one third of the way for the calendar year, one sixth for the work year. One down and five to go. The first third of the semester is over.

Next break is Thanksgiving.

You may think it ridiculous of me to complain of the two of us working so hard when we professors get all these breaks and our summers off, but I've worked all kinds of jobs and all kinds of shifts and this is definitely the hardest job I've ever had.

I've worked in factories, in a mine, in logging operations and a lumber mill. I've been a farm laborer and a builder, an equipment mechanic, a military medic and rescue specialist, a flight line crew chief, a troubled youth counselor, a caterer, and a coffee shop owner. Most recently I've been an applied science researcher and a writer and number-cruncher/computer modeler for a major university "think tank," and also a senior administrator at this same college. Even that job was easier, although at the time I didn't think so.

In all of these jobs, I had more time to think, more ability to control the workplace, and more protection from hazards, especially emotional ones, than I do as a professor.

Sometimes, when I have time, I try to figure out what is so difficult. I think it boils down to being paid to think, but not having enough time to do so. That's the worst of it. The second worst part is that some, often many students do not actually wish to learn what they are assigned to learn. You jump around from one class to the next, encountering learning problems constantly, and never having time to fix them.

My job, and Aimee's, is to help students learn to solve society's problems using science skills and science knowledge. These problems are fairly complex, and there are no easy answers. It can take weeks of lecture to just lay out the basics, so for instance, in my upcoming discussions of climate change with my general education class on human sustainability, I have to lay the groundwork for an understanding of climate policy by teaching the students what we know about how the planet's climate works. This layout will take about four-five weeks, and build like a pyramid of knowledge.

I can lecture fairly well on climate change by this point. I long ago memorized the basic knowledge and have at my fingertips all of the facts. I have collected a large collection of slides and graphs and I know exactly what they all mean and can explain them very well in layman's language, using analogies that most students grasp easily.

If all I had to do was lecture and then give a standardized test, it wouldn't be so very difficult.

But then I don't teach at that kind of college or university. I don't teach, for instance, in Britain, where at many universities one good, solid, written 5-6 hour long exam on climate change might be given at the end of a whole year of lecture, and any students who flunked, well, that would be their problem.

And I don't teach at a state-run university in America where I might have 400 students in a general education class on climate change, a small army of teaching assistants to hand out my tests, and a computer machine to grade the answers, which would be written by the students on computer-readable cards.

No, I teach at Unity College, which prides itself on serving under-served students.

Which means for instance, that the young man, an obvious and probably self-proclaimed "redneck," with a face right out of a casting crowd for a Civil War movie, who sat sullenly in class for the entire hour Thursday, glowering, and then ostentatiously slammed his book shut close to (but not quite) the end of class, looking around for approval from his buddies (a high-school trick, that one -- and I was glad to see that not much approval was forthcoming), well that guy is my problem.

I will have to try harder to teach him, but he doesn't want to be taught.

And the young woman, the one who ostentatiously buries her head in her hands and takes no notes most of the class, pretend-weeping like Job, possibly even gnashing her teeth.

She's my problem too.

Both of these students probably hail from backgrounds where the parents have few resources. The young man almost certainly does. Americans pride themselves on having a relatively class-free society, but a Brit who has been over here a while begins to decode it. This guy comes from a rural background. Many of my young men do. Their high schools were sub-standard to begin, their families don't necessarily value education, and they don't read well, so study is very hard for them. In Britain they would never even get a chance to go to the university-level. They would have flunked most of their GCSEs. The young woman, I can't tell there, but there is something wrong somewhere. Possibly she is spoiled, possibly just resistant.

Both probably feel that the college's standard, which requires them to demonstrate competence in knowledge of climate change before they graduate, is wrong, that they shouldn't have to learn this stuff. They are probably politically, if not also socially conservative, albeit in an unquestioned kind of a way.

Neither can likely articulate a reasoned argument why they shouldn't have to learn this stuff. For the most part, despite our best efforts the previous two years (this is a junior class), they probably haven't learned to reason well at all.

While I can, and so can the rest of our faculty. We definitely have them out-gunned in that department. We reasoned carefully, many years ago, that an environmental professional in today's society must understand the basic parameters of human sustainability. We set the standard, in writing, in our catalog and in the statement of goals for our degree programs. The outcome was assigned, or "mapped" in curriculum planning language to this third-year general education class. Each student was required to take the class and pass it before graduation. All of this was written down in contractual documents, such as the college catalog, that bind both students and faculty.

One of us, me, was assigned to teach this knowledge to this particular group in this particular section of his class. The most important issue at this point in sustainability is climate change. Therefore these two reluctant students must learn climate change at a decent level, or fail their degree courses. But they do not wish to do so, and are close to rebellion about it.

If my only problem were two students who didn't want to learn climate change (out of twenty-five or so in the class), that would be fine too. But I have another class, with about twenty students, where we are supposed to discuss and debate their duties as environmental citizens and trainee, soon-to-be degree-bearing, leaders for society. Less than half of that class wishes to do so.

Then I have two sections of very young youngsters who wish to be conservation wardens and who must therefore first learn to read a map and not get lost in the woods and mountains. It isn't so hard to learn to read a map, and the hiking around while students try to learn is relatively fun. But these guys are survivors of American high schools and therefore spoiled to death. Even after five weeks of my very best drill sergeant impersonation, they are still showing up without maps and compasses. For sure, if we were running either a military basic training, or an RAF Mountain Rescue trial, they'd have all been kicked off by now.

What they really need is a few long, foggy days on the hill with a good teacher like I had, say Sergeants Hammy Anderson or Dick Allen. Someone who would give them a hard time on hill days, but treat them as human beings in the breaks in between, drink a beer with them, tell stories, hang out. That much would be obvious to any MR troop. I probably had hundreds of hours of map reading practice in the worst possible conditions before I passed my badge test and won my Party Leader status.

But I have these students fifteen at a time, for two hours a week.

My last class is a boon. Out of about twenty-five students in Introduction to Economics, I am going to say about fifteen or possibly more actually want to learn the subject. They answer questions, make a good effort on assignments, and ask questions themselves. Even though the class is six till nine at night, I still come home feeling intellectually refreshed.

The others make me feel like I am beating my head against an intellectual wall.

Then the fact that each class is taught several times a week adds to the difficulties. I feel like I'm just getting somewhere, then it's time to quit. You jump around from one stressful class to another, never quite making headway anywhere. A little bit of practice at a time might be the best way to teach algebra or composition, but you can't teach climate change, or study the social contract that way. You certainly can't teach map reading that way.

The best way to teach climate change to the two very resistant young people in the sustainability class would be take them on a field trip to some place close by where climate change has already impacted the environment. A farm, for instance, where we might talk to a farm family about growing season, or the Atlantic shore where we could look at the various species migrating north along the coast. Particularly if we were able to get to know each other a bit on the drive, so they could see for themselves that I'm a human being, not a thing, which is what they seem to regard me as right now.

It would take at least a day of conversation, probably a week, to begin to figure out what their difficulty is with the education they're getting, and fix it. Most likely if we were rational, they would drop out of school, but at least we might get to the bottom of things.

As for the recalcitrant Environmental Citizens, the best way for them to decide if they have responsibilities to society or not would be for them to be out working in society for a while, and then have them come back later and think about it. At this point, having been in high school twelve years and in college two, society is still an abstract concept. How can they decide if they have leadership responsibilities, or what those responsibilities are, when they haven't even really had to be a follower yet, in any productive societal activity?

There I am trying something a little different, though. I am having them spend a couple hours a week each helping me build a barn for the college, a service project. There at least I get them in twos and threes, not twenty at a time, and we get to know one another better. I have them take responsibility for bits of the building. It's difficult work and requires some gumption and stick-to-it-ivness. And it gives us something real to talk about in class.

For the map readers I add a surreptitious extra hour. They are supposed to come from 12.30 to 2.30 pm, but they don't have another class until 3.30, so I keep them for an extra hour's practice. They don't complain.

Of course the many hours spent building subtract from the time I have available for my other classes and add to the stress load that results from jumping about from one difficult job to another.

I'm looking forward to today's job, the first job of this break. I will go over to our friends' house, Friends Anders and Alysa, and they and I will take our time sketching out an electrical system for a cabin he has on the property. If we encounter a problem, we'll have time to think. We will fix the problem rationally and deliberately and move on. We won't have to jump around from one hard thing to another every hour. And I doubt very much that we will feel stressed about it at all.

But we will get somewhere, and by the time we are done we will have something to show for it.

I suppose if I was a regular college teacher I wouldn't care about not being able to get anywhere with students. But I do care. And it upsets me greatly.

Which is why this job is the hardest I've ever done.

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