“The Rumors of My Death…”

wrote Mark Twain, “have been greatly exaggerated.”

True here as well, but only slightly.

piano toothAutopsy

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.

life of brian“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.

Piano image by poportis
Life of Brian image by tnarik

46 thoughts on ““The Rumors of My Death…””

    1. @cburell what a great read! I must say I was plsd w the ref to smoking; I am the same – study, coffee, cigs! Now 2 undrstnd the eval request

  1. I was so excited when this popped up in my reader and I’m glad to see you again. In fact I was just talking about you with a friend who reconnected with me through facebook. Her husband was transferred from SC to Singapore and her son attends the International school (I’m not sure if there is more than one). I told her about watching your wedding online and how exciting that was. So, if a boy named Brent or his mom Barbara come up to you, it’s my fault! :)
    .-= Pat´s last blog ..Useful Information In and Out of the Classroom 11/27/09 =-.

    1. Wow, Pat. Small world. Haven’t bumped in to them yet, but will be a hoot if we do.

      Nice to hear from you and hope you’re well!

  2. I had been wondering about a ‘demise’ of this blog when ‘Beyond School’ popped up in my Reader. Teaching surveys of Western and Chinese civilization sounds wonderful. Enough to get all those meaningful perspectives into focus with exciting applications.
    .-= Paul C´s last blog ..Rediscovery of Children’s Books =-.

    1. Good to hear from you, Paul, and thanks for the moral support. The “meaningful perspectives” part is the challenge. I’m drowning in coverage, but what do you expect your first year in a new school?

  3. What a treat seeing “Beyond School” pop up in my reader. Your survey courses sound fantastic. Have you thought about collaborating with a science teacher on this? This could make for an interesting study on how the evolution of human beings influences the development of civilization and vice versa.

    1. Mike, I’m going to steal a line from Ghostbusters and “buy you a nice fruit basket” for the kind words.

      Are you a science teacher? If so, you come up with the pitch and I’ll consider it — though really, next year seems the time to catch this train, at the beginning of the school year when we can visit the Paleolithic and Neolthic again.

      I’ve got some tables from Guns, Germs, and Steel that beg for use in the classroom, but by the time I’d scanned them, it was too late.

    1. Hi Doyle,

      Thanks, first, for the old nudge. I was too busy sweating to acknowledge it, and I duly apologize.

      Good to hear from you and hope you’re well.

      Re: Science teacher, see reply to Mike above!

  4. Your new post showed up just fine in iGoogle. Good luck with your smoking habit and your teaching job. (I used to be highly addicted to smoking, but now I consider myself a “social smoker.” I understand your vice.) I hope to be reading more from you soon!
    .-= Lynne´s last blog ..$4000 =-.

    1. Thanks Lynn. Can we do a brain transplant? How does anybody go from “addict” to “social smoker.” Envy.

      Take care ~

      1. Not easily… it involves a lot of teeth gritting and telling yourself no most of the time. Then, occasionally, you let yourself relax with friends by allowing yourself a few cigarettes. Over time, it gets easier. Unless I see someone smoking, I usually don’t get that bad of cravings anymore…. usually.
        .-= Lynne´s last blog ..$4000 =-.

  5. Hi Clay

    Glad to see you back stumping around in the weeds again :). Like you I left education for a while and am now happily back in the classroom. I am glad I left, but am even happier I came back.

    I hope you are able to beat your addiction in the age category, but if you don’t you will your life on your terms :).

    I look forward to seeing your new sites as I always have enjoyed your writing

    .-= Harold Shaw´s last blog ..YELLOW BRICK ROADS – =-.

    1. Glad to see you’re still the same old cheerful Harold, Harold. With the economy in the tank, teaching takes on a new light, that’s for sure.

    1. I have the feeling you’ll make up for the fun I’m not having (but I bought a Wii yesterday, does that count?).

      Good to hear from you, Diane, and I’m honored to be your first Twitter follower :)

  6. “If any kind soul out there can reply and tell me if they got this post in their feed-reader, I’d appreciate it.”

    Yup — loud and clear. Missed your feed! Though, of course, since I’ve been travelling, not teaching, for the past few months, it’s been hard to keep up on feeds anyway, and I didn’t have time to do much more than skim this post for the time being and mark it “to read” instead of “to delete.” I’ll get round to it soon, I hope! Looking forward to it.

    1. Where are you traveling, Jodi, and how and why? Hope it’s enjoyable. If you’re passing through Singapore, give a buzz and the guest room is yours.

  7. I am so glad to read you again. You are my fav blogger and I was inspired by so many of your posts and your irreverent attitude. However, often as I read your posts I felt a “burning the candle at both ends” sensation that I likened to my own pressured teaching situation. I could not understand how so many educators that I was reading in my reader could teach all day and then find time to share great ideas and opinions on their blogs. It left me breathless and feeling inadequate.
    I had felt inspired by the promise of 21st Century learning, web 2.0 and the energy of educators such as yourself. But then the reality of the Neanderthals that run my educational world, took a toll on my zeal.
    Then you disappeared and I realized that we are all working under pressured situations and feeling that we have to do it all. Your post confirmed to me that we all must come to terms with the new demands of educations, and make intelligent decisions about what constraints and outmoded ideas need to be discarded to make room for the new. That is the point where I am at and it feels encouraging that I still have the power to make such decisions, even though I sometimes think I am hamstrung by admin policies.
    By the way, I just read the book Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the first of a trilogy), but was saddened to hear the story of its writer, Stieg Larsson. After his trilogy great success, he passed away at age 50. I read that he was a great consumer of cigarettes and coffee.
    I understand your point about living the way you want and to hell with living a long and boring life. All I can say is that I hope you can find some balance, so the rest of us can continue to enjoy your ideas. If you have to live at high octane speeds, so be it and maybe that is what makes your posts so enjoyable for those of us who travel a bit slower.
    Welcome back.
    .-= Hellen´s last blog ..NEW BOOKS =-.

    1. Hear hear, Hellen. I just gave a keynote speech at a tech conference in Australia last week (video soon), and I touched on that very subject: demands that we add new pedagogy without subtracting the old. Overload, in short.

      Let’s both hope I got Grandma’s genes.

  8. Great to read your post after the long absence.

    1. Yes I also get your RSS feed now

    2. Smoking. I feel your pain.

    3. Very interested in your approach to teaching East/West cultural evolution. I teach an external assessment free (woo hoo) high school course on Anthropology and World Religions which I have found to be eye opening joy. Opportunities for a collaborative project I wonder?

    4. Totally understand your need for a break from blogging. Interesting that you were cornered into the style of industrial blog output that you are so critical of. Your reflection on how your experience has led to an awareness of blogging in your own classroom had me nodding my head and remembering how your critique of ‘schooliness’ helped me move from a quantitative to a qualitative approach to student led evaluation on our class Wiki.

    5. You have just stolen about 45mins from my marking time. 15 IB Geography IA’s, 3 class sets of grade 9 social studies semester exams and a class set of fieldwork research papers. Not sure whether to thank you or curse you :)

    6. Good to hear from you

    1. Good to hear from you too, Tom. I hope I can compel you to waste more time sharing that “student-led evaluation” approach?

      World religions class sounds wonderful. We should talk. You know the fifth largest war in history (in terms of deaths) was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), a Chinese civil war in which around 25 million people died because a Chinese guy who’d heard a Southern Baptist missionary preaching the gospel from my neck of the Tennessee woods had a nervous breakdown in which he was told in a vision he was Jesus’ Chinese little brother? And that the peasants swallowed it and followed him into war?

      I feel your pain too. But it’s such a pleasant pain.

  9. Glad to have you back! I’m excited to hear about your new adventures, challenges, and thoughtful reflections. I always look forward to your posts. I like that your students feel comfortable to question and debate with you only because teachers are seen as “authoritarian figures” on everything which isn’t what learning is about. I admire that you provoke your students to question and challenge!
    .-= Shelly Terrell´s last blog ..Cool “Collaborative” Sites by Özge Karaoğlu =-.

  10. Wow. I just now popped in due to some odd feeling you’d been here recently. Sortaweird. I’ve largely abandoned my reader a way back. I can’t keep up. I barely have time to keep up with Doyle when I get the time. For me, the blogroll is my RSS in addition to folks linking to a new post on Twitter.

    So yeah, there’s far too much in this victory tour post to comment on right now. But I did want to welcome you back here. I think it’s probably evident that a few feel the same way.

    Let us soon share Ning discussion forum tips & tricks. Where else can you reply with the full range of media embeds to back up your words?

    And hey- what are these… books… you speak of? I’d say “welcome back” but man, after this comment thread, I don’t want it to go to your head.

    .-= Sean Nash´s last blog ..When The Empire Makes The Rules =-.

  11. Clay, so good to see you writing again. And love hearing your new stories in the new school, though I will admit I cringed when I read “due to the imperative to cover the content, I can’t spend time taking this lesson any further” — some teachers may lament the apparent lack of tech in your classroom, but not me. I will lament that you (we?) still teach in systems where content is valued more highly than such important lessons about media literacy. I hope that lesson stays with them for a lifetime. Or at least Google’s lifetime.

    And your post showed up just fine in my reader too. I’m wondering — is it really necessary to separate into different blogs? I guess it depends on your audience. I have considered doing the same thing, but I feel almost as if in an attempt to organize my thoughts, it is in some way fragmenting my whole self. I suppose it’s different for everyone.

    At any rate, I do look forward to more bits from you in the future, wherever they turn up. :)
    .-= Adrienne ´s last blog ..Classroom Practicality =-.

  12. This is one helluva way to come back, Clay. Thanks for that read. I’m often befuddled when people see Google as the Oracle of everything. Granted, the ease of use and algorithms often lead us to a quick and dirty version of the truth. Yet, as The Art of Seduction said once (or so I think it was that book,) it’s the more intelligent ones that are easiest to seduce because they think too much about it, reasoning it out, and finally want to see why someone would believe what they do.

    Santa Claus is real, by the way.
    .-= Jose´s last blog ..Short Notes: I Wish You Insight So You Can See For Yourself =-.

    1. Nice to see you, Jose (through all the semester final exam papers on the desk).

      If Google can lead a kid here, that’s proof it shouldn’t be trusted.

      And there is no Santa Claus. His job was shipped to China.

  13. Just curious, Clay – besides your obvious qualms about the veracity of your student’s source, you also seem to disagree with your student’s criticism of a glowing portrayal of Mao. Is this accurate?

    1. Hi Bob,

      Not accurate at all. We could get into a discussion of Mao’s strengths and weaknesses during the LM, and probably agree on most of them, and ditto his performance during the PRC years. It was the site itself that was problematic, because it was _all_ weaknesses (silly ones, at that) and no strengths. Have you looked at it?

      (I deleted the repeat on the other thread. Once is enough, no?)

  14. Nice to see you’re blogging again. I can relate to the need for smoking, although for me it’s coffee that fuels my blogging, not cigs (thank G-d, emphysema is only something you can dismiss casually if you haven’t had someone die from it who’s close to you) (but I digress), I discovered real coffee doesn’t agree with me and have switched to decaf … ergo, no blogging. For at least a year. We all need to find healthier ways to keep awake I guess. :) Good luck & best wishes for continued health.

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