I am the worst teacher known to humankind, yesterday proves

Ok, so well yesterday was the first day of teaching and to say I am off my game is a bit of an understatement.

Something is going on with me, and I don’t know what it is. Part of it is a depression that seems to be coming and going, related to my chronic illness. It is hard to work through depression, but it’s not like I haven’t done so before.

Part of it is becoming a full professor, and not really knowing what that job is or what I am working for at this point, even though I should by now know what the job is and what I am working for, granted that I am a full professor and the dealio on that is that you get it once you establish that lots of people think you know how to do the job well, I guess, even if you yourself don’t think that.

Part of it is being jerked around on classes, and not being jerked around on classes. If I teach the same class in the same way for too long, it can get boring for me, but constant updating takes time. Then there are new course preps, forced on me by bad decisions that other people have made. New course preps are often awful, and I’m feeling super duper out of my league teaching Urban Informatics this semester on the one hand, and a class I’ve taught for nearly 10 years on the other. The new course prep sucks up the time I should use to giving the established a spruce-up make it interesting. If I give time to that class, it takes time from getting myself together for the new prep.

Then, of course, there is the fact that USC feels like a powder keg, where some leaders are trying to get us to get our act together but meet a solid brick of wall of old men who want their status and prestige maintained, no matter what, and who run off to their pet billionaire if they don’t get their way. The thing about abusive places and people…you begin to understand them and what you can and can’t do. It’s solid ground to stand on, even if it’s mean, and even if it is wrecking you, fast or slow. But right now it feels like we are trying to stealthily move out of the apartment on an abusive boyfriend/father who could reappear at any minute and destroy the tiny dreams of selfhood we’ve been bold enough to nurture.

Yesterday, the first day of teaching, then, was a terrible mess, in both classes, but in my Urban Informatics class in particular. I have struggled and struggled with the syllabus, and finally, I decided that I was overthinking it. I decided I needed to run the class like a workshop. Just give them data, show them how to do things with the data, reflect on what we are learning with the activities, and on the way they learn how to do stuff in R and Python and–what matters most to me–they begin to understand how to learn from and communicate with data.

I tried to explain that yesterday. I showed them visualizations I’ve had my other classes do, told them you can work with visualizing data using everything from R to magic markers, showed them some of my R work and some of my hand-drawn, learning graphics. I asked them if they’d like to do that in the class, and I got blank looks.

And a group of international students came up to me at the end of class and one very politely asked–and I quote: “What are you going to teach us in this class?”

Ouch. I went back through the spiel: I want you to learn to how to think about data and measurement, its validity, and how to use data to learn about cities and communicate about cities, yada yada.

Student blinks, and asks, still very polite. “But what are you going to teach us in this class?”

I sighed. “I will teach you R and Python.”

General jubilance.

Jesus wept. Or if he didn’t, I did because I really, really am not communicating while I tell other people I would like to help teach them to communicate. In my defense, I was talking about *data*, which I am generally pretty good at, and not human being speech which I am not so great at.

What am I doing?

Mass Transit Student Visualizations Fall 2018

My students took on various projects this fall, and I am very proud of what they worked on, so I asked their permission to share. Because they had a LOT of projects to do and to choose from, we spent less time perfecting graphics than we did telling stories with data. As a result, be gentle.

Full portfolios from contributors

Did I miss anybody? Let me know if I did.

Tim Gunn on needing to be a student to be a teacher

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am a great fan of second acts and taking on new challenges at every stage of your life. One of my favorite popular mentors, Tim Gunn, just took up fencing. The video is utterly charming, but it also shares some great insights about the relationship between learning and teaching:

But it’s not just the sport that has added so much to Gunn’s life. He found a relationship with Morehouse built not just on fencing but their shared love for teaching.

“Tim and I have so much to talk about. I spent 29 years in a classroom, about to do my 15th season of Project Runway, plus ancillary, related things. We talk about the challenges of communicating, directing, guiding, correcting,” Gunn says.

My favorite part is the section where Gunn describes his moments of frustration and loving how he is hating fencing, when it gets hard, and when it feels like he is not making any progress. Research projects should be like this: they should stretch you so far and hard that you are ready to quit a dozen times. That’s one way research helps with teaching: it reminds a teacher of what it feels like to learn, of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing–and the utmost necessity of trying again.

Pat Conroy on teachers

We lost writers Pat Conroy and Umberto Eco the last two weeks. I am not prepared to discuss Eco because In The Name of the Rose was a life-changer for me, and I always hoped that Eco would simply live on forever as a reward for giving me, and so many others, such joy. I have liked Conroy’s fiction more than his nonfiction.Other writers seem to hate the nonfiction, but I particularly loved the My Losing Season and The Books of My Life. I think Conroy was so unabashedly sentimental about books in the latter that it bothered literary writers. He was supposed to connect with books intellectually; we all are, or we are doing it wrong. But that misses the emotional and aesthetic education books provide long before we get around to thinking about them more dispassionately. (It also assumes that the emotional and aesthetic do not overlap or inform the intellectual; or at least, the way I just framed it does.)

Anyway Conroy’s essay about his lifelong friendship with transformative teacher Gene Norris is one of my favorite essays. Norris taught black boys how to drive and celebrated their accomplishments loudly and ridiculously. He let the fatherless, like Conroy (who had father, but a brutal one), imprint on him and became the father they never had. This is so messy–and so generous–that I can’t even begin to write about it myself. Anybody, man or woman, who does this for a kid that isn’t ‘theirs’, is love in the world manifest.

I got caught up reading Conroy’s blog after his death. It is a sweet and sentimental blog, and it’s worth reading. This quote about teachers strikes me as particularly apt:

Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.

Going to college is not mandatory: Dr. S’s guide on life choices in one simple blog post

There, I said it. If you don’t want to be in my class, I’d prefer you not be there. I am not a jailer. Nothing is mandatory. There are many paths, and many places to learn.

This news story is making the rounds, and ZOMG it totes proves that higher education is a totes ripoff, I totes tole ya…except why, exactly, we need a ranking system to explain to us that people who major in art, education, and the humanities at tiny second-tier schools are worse off is a bit beyond me. We know this. We’ve known this for years. We pay teachers shit salaries. Artists struggle. The humanities have been a luxury item for decades.

But, hey, uncovering the major shocking factoid that a degree in art from Clodhopper University doesn’t pay is super-big news. Save all that money (that you don’t have) and put the money in stocks. Because, you know, the people who wind up going to Clodhopper U had that money sitting around.”Shall I invest in stocks today, or go to community college? I need Slate to tell me.”)

There are any number of conditions under which a person shouldn’t go to college:

1) If you have to get into serious debt to do it and you are looking to college to pay your way out. I don’t know why everybody thinks it is news, or why the people who point it out think of themselves as special geniuses, but getting into massive debt for anything other than an extremely durable asset or a major increase in human capital is not likely to pay out. There are people in the world who can buy $350,000 cellos for fun even though they don’t play; there are people who can buy $350,000 cellos for whom it actually makes good professional sense to do so (professional cellists). For the rest of us, it would be financial idiocy. You wouldn’t buy a washer and dryer at 25 percent interest. You might at 2 percent. To figure that out, you do the math against the laundry mat. I wish higher education were free for everybody who had the talent, motivation, and interest. But it’s not, so do the math.

If you want to be in college because it’s fun to learn, you know what you want, and you can do it without getting into unrecoverable debt, or you don’t mind the debt, then that’s another thing entirely.

2) If you don’t want to go. I am not listening to any wah-wah about “My mom and dad are making me go.” Please. Get a spine. If you really, seriously have no idea what you want to do and you don’t want to continue your education, then ask them to help you by fronting your first month’s, last month’s and a deposit on an apartment of your own and then get out there and hustle if you think you’d rather do that. College will still be there if you think you want it later, and you might find you like doing something else enough to stick with it without going.

And parents, OMG, please don’t force your kids to go to college by refusing to help them get set up on their own. I am 100 percent behind saying “no” if the answer to not going to college alternative involves kids who think they are going to sponge off you indefinitely. But a person in college who doesn’t want to be there will find a dozen ways to not get anything out of being there, and in the mean time, you are writing tuition checks. So yeah, if little Bobby doesn’t want to do anything besides smoke pot and play video games, you have to realize there is really nobody at college who will force him to do anything besides smoke pot and pay video games. Do you want to pay tuition while he does that, or would you rather not?

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “college isn’t worth it” when people send wee Bobby to college because he isn’t “ready” to live on his own and, thus, should go to college. That is insanity. The drug trade is alive and well on college campuses, binge drinking is everywhere, and nobody will force wee Bobby to grow up in college. Most colleges and universities are terrible, and exceedingly expensive, babysitters.

3) If a tech libertarian bazillionaire gives you $100,000 to start up your own company. By all means. Again, if it doesn’t work out, college will still be there if you blow through your $100K and fail. You can learn in many places.

4) If you can get the training you want on the job and you can get hired. Why not? College is really fun, but if you can apprentice with somebody and it’s something you want to do–again, college will be there later if you don’t like what you are doing. I repeat: you can learn in many places, and if you do not want to be college, then figure out it on your own. Again, you may find you like being apprenticed to a carpenter, electrician, or hairdresser. Every plumber who has come to my house seems to be genuinely happy in his or her work. That’s the idea. Making a decent living doing something you don’t mind getting up to do strikes me as close to heaven as anybody but the extremely fortunate get. You don’t know what you want until you try many things. And once you learn how to do something, you can, if you are entrepreneurial, start your own business.

I’m not the sort of person who thinks every university needs to survive to the end of the 21st century. I think there are enough people to support what I do. I believe in markets. If I find myself out of a job, I’ll have to do something else. No clue what. But I am going to barf if I hear any more about the “higher education bubble” or any more whining about “having to go to college.” You want to go to college, great. You don’t want to? Don’t. Lots of people do fine if they don’t; lots of people fail if they do–and vice versa. The general numbers about being better or worse off for going to college are general numbers and don’t tell you your future, it’s as simple as that. You could be the person who majors in music and who winds up starting a multi-million dollar label. Or the person who winds up teaching piano at an elementary school. One is more likely than the other, but still.

“You kids made us good” …Philip Roth remembers a favorite teacher

Philip Roth’s loving tribute to a teacher is available via Audible. He discusses the process with the Paris Review:

Philip Roth Reads “In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor”:

In those days we had a lot of good teachers. There were a couple of bad ones—boring. But by and large they were inspiring. Bob and I were talking about the time I was in high school. He said, You kids made us good.

(Via The Paris Review)