wrote Mark Twain, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
True here as well, but only slightly.
The lines from Nick Cave’s song, “Hallelujah,” sum it up:
My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb
And my piano crouched in the corner of my room
With all its teeth bared
Change “piano” to “Gilgamesh” and there’s not much more to add.
Since moving here to Singapore from Seoul in July I haven’t written a word on this space. This is due to many factors: enervating humidity (we’re about 1 degree from the equator here), an hour-long (and offline) subway commute to and from my new teaching job each day, the time demands of familiarizing myself with a new curriculum and school (the “two days ahead of the students” syndrome), on and on.
And then there’s the burn-out from the writing job last year, when two posts a day on US education policy taught me that mandatory writing on a prescribed topic grows toxic — a lesson that has informed my classroom blogging policy this year, which is so minimal as to be almost non-existent.
Also — and students, skip this part — I’ve been suffering a health issue that reminds me, to compare a worm to a dragon, of Keats being told by his physician not to write any more poetry because his health was too fragile to withstand the excitement. For Keats, tuberculosis was the issue. For me, it’s merely smoking. Since college, coffee and tobacco have been my study-and-writing enablers, and successfully kicking the habit months ago coincided with an inability to sit still, focus, and write. I can’t help but suspect Keats was tempted to decide, “Screw it, life without writing is no life at all,” and I’ve fallen to that temptation myself. To push the Keats trope further, my own
…fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain
have prompted me to choose an early death with a higher word-count, if that’s the choice. I’m hoping I’ll be as lucky as my Scots-Irish grandmother, who puffed her corncob pipe well into her eighties, thus having her vices and beating them too. Sure, those last few emphysemic years were no fun, but a life should be judged by more than its feeble final years. So yes, I’m enjoying this writing because I’m enjoying a smoldering clove-stick and cup of coffee as I write. Let the bodies fall where they may. (And though I know the logic is flawed, I’m still compelled to add that yes, I smoke, but I’m constitutionally and philosophically disinclined to those just-as-deadly but socially-sanctioned killers known as alcohol and junk food, so before you condemn my lungs, dear moralists, check your livers and your waist sizes.)
Then there’s this blog itself.
First, my RSS feed was, and may still be, broken because of a WordPress plugin I was using. I couldn’t fix it, and the plugin developer’s offer to fix it for me may or may not have been carried through on, I’m not sure. (If any kind soul out there can reply and tell me if they got this post in their feed-reader, I’d appreciate it.)
Second, I’ve been conflicted over the evolution of this blog from teacher-geek stuff to personal narrative writings to “unsucky” literary lectures. It’s become such a hodgepodge I’m probably going to make a couple of new sites: one for the unsucky lectures, one for the personal narrative, and keep this one as the ramblings of a teacher-geek. I don’t know.
So that’s the dreary side.
“The Bright Side of Life”
(Yes, that’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian on the right. My WordPress captions aren’t working, blast it.)
1. Rediscovering the Book
On the upside, my hiatus from the web has turned me on to the beauties of something I’d almost forgotten: books. My reading habits before my web-hiatus were almost totally dominated by my Google Reader. And while the subscriptions to blogs and newspapers and magazines and journals and whatnot were certainly enjoyable, I can’t say I’ve missed them as I’ve enjoyed the flow through hundreds of physically-bound pages of this writer or that: Gwendolyn Leick’s fascinating study of the first Sumerian and Babylonian cities in Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (yes, dear Unsucky readers, I’m burrowing into the scholarship of the worlds of Gilgamesh), Richard E. Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, a magnificent story of the rebirth of Aristotelian philosophy and natural science in the theology and liberal arts departments of late Medieval universities, and, currently, John Gribbin’s gripping Science: A History: 1534-2001, which picks up admirably where Aristotle’s Children leaves off.
2. The Mental Party of Teaching Chinese and European History
I’ve also had the intellectual joy-ride of my life this semester in my teaching duties, where I teach a survey of Western Civilization on one day, and a survey of Chinese Civilization on the alternating day. Since I began both courses where all histories of civilization should start — with Adam and Eve dropping from the sky (–oops, wrong century) Ardi and Lucy evolving from earlier forms, and their descendants migrating out of Africa and into Eurasia — each course stayed pretty much in sync, chronologically, with the other. This means that Monday would pull my head into the Roman Empire, and Tuesday into the roughly contemporaneous Han Dynasty. I can’t tell you how hilariously this mental tour pricked European pretensions to “high civilization” compared to China — particularly in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, when Europe was a disgrace fully deserving the “barbarian” label the Chinese affixed to it. (In fairness, though, while China wins the “long view” award, Europe wins the Palm for the brief miracle from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. That China couldn’t discover over its 3,000 years of fairly stable and unbroken civilization what Europe did discover in a mere couple of centuries says something precious, its Mephistophelian implications aside, about Western culture.)
3. Notes on the New School (and a Teacher-Geek Heresy)
Teaching itself has been somewhat interesting. The students at my new school are generally the most literate of any school in which I’ve taught. The ninth-graders (14 and 15 years old) write uncommonly well, and the boys are especially delightful for being, in general, more mature and mentally turned-on than the girls (it’s usually the other way around at this age, in my experience). The school is going mandatory laptop for each student next year, but this year it’s only optional, requiring laptop cart check-out and other aversions. So I’ve avoided any ambitious digital projects, for the most part. (I’ll be sharing a couple of exceptions soon enough, and launching a new website I’m very excited about that bubbled up with the help of my best students.) Some of you will cringe to hear that I’m leaning toward traditional teaching anyway, simply because I don’t have the energy to try to de-program students who want school to remain traditional, and can’t be bothered to notice their future won’t be the paper-based world of their school — in other words, I’m tired of casting digital pearls before the lovable young piglets who just want worksheets, and to heck with all this Diigo nonsense. Maybe that will change next year, when they all bring laptops to school. Right now, the web is too beautiful to waste on the young. (Go ahead, teacher-geeks, set up your stakes, gather your faggots, and send your Inquisitors for this heretic. Ecce homo! But I’m using Ning for both classes, if that will soften your ire at all.)
Shocking Crisis of Classroom Faith: “Google is Dead!”
(or, “No, Virginia, There is no Santa Claus”)
Speaking of Ning and my “minimal classroom blogging,” I may as well add this tidbit. To ameliorate the misery of having to grade millions of heartlessly perfunctory blogposts by students only doing it for the grade, another teacher and I worked out a rotating “four bloggers per week” routine. All the other students not blogging that week only have to reply a couple of times to the posts of the week that caught their fancy. Long story short, one very bright student decided he would investigate the glowing characterization of Mao Zedong during the Long March in a PBS documentary we’re watching in class. He wrote a post with all sorts of questionable claims and characterizations that made Mao out to be far less impressive than even Western historians and academics admit him to have been in this period. And he didn’t cite or link to his source.
I found the source easily enough, and was aghast at its quality: riddled with weasel-words, blazing with bias belying its “FactsandDetails.com” title, a train-wrecked “Works Cited”, red-stained with cherry-picking the bads and omitting the goods. It would take a page to count the ways this site failed as a credible source. Turns out it was written by a guy with no authority, either academic or algorithmic (have you seen Shirky’s latest on this?). So I assigned all the students to read and reply to two student posts: one, a good exemplar that would play Trojan Horse for the second one, the uncited Mao smear piece. I wanted to see how many students would read the smear and reply skeptically.
Almost none did. Even the best students, with very few exceptions, swallowed it whole: “Wow! Your post shows how biased the PBS documentary we’re watching in class, and the textbook, are! Now I realize what a monster Mao was.” Et cetera and ad infinitum. A perfect “teachable moment” about media literacy.
Or so I thought.
Long story short, when I showed this class everything dubious about this site, they pushed back something fierce: the “A” students fiercest of all. I opened it up for debate on a Ning forum, saying “persuade me this source is valid for academic research,” and the push-back continued.
Discussing that second debate in class, I was gob-smacked to hear, again, the “A” students draw conclusions that if this site was not credible, it logically followed that no site was. “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” One student pushed back against my example of peer reviewed academic journals with an alleged case of the tobacco industry publishing “smoking is healthy” research in peer-reviewed journals, and seemed to glower at my request that she substantiate that claim — I had no doubt that the tobacco industry funded and published “scientific” studies of this sort, but did doubt whether she was correct about them being published in peer-reviewed journals — and also at my response that she was only confirming, if correct, my position that several evaluative criteria must be satisfied in order to judge a website credible.
I can only hope the quick demo of the “link:url” Google search, which showed that no site linked to this page but other pages on the same site, by the same author, brought home to some students that there’s something to be learned. But they’re at that dangerous age, and due to the imperative to cover the content, I can’t spend time taking this lesson any further. I can only hope the seed was planted and they’ll remember it differently in the future — hopefully not after a professor reams them for using a website written by a dog in its underwear.
Anyway, the take-away: students shouldn’t reach age 16 or 17 and still be shocked that Google can be wrong. It seems to have hit them worse than the news that there is no Santa Claus.