Saturday, June 20, 2009

Things About Teaching I Hate

Years ago, politicians in my state decided to start a bad football team. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, they accidentally attached a small university to this team. That’s where I work. I teach history.

Teaching is a lot like singing on the edge of a cliff. You waste a lot of air throwing it out there, you are never really sure that anyone is listening. Still, I love my job. I truly love my job. I am paid by the government to read books and tell stories. This is all done indoors in air conditioned rooms, and there is no heavy lifting. I’d have to be crazy not to love this job.

Still, there are things about this job that are occasionally annoying. Let me list a few.

Students. I like my students, 99% are really good, but I want to talk about the other 1%. I have a few complaints.

At least once a month, someone comes up to me and asks, “I wasn’t here last Thursday. Did I miss anything important?”

Here are a few of the responses I have thought up over the years:

“Thursday was the day I exposed myself and sang the Star Spangled Banner in Swahili. That will be on the test, better get notes from someone else.”

“Oh, heavens no! We all noticed you were missing and decided to wait until you were here.”

“Nope. You didn’t miss a damn thing. Most days I just come in here and make shit up anyway.”

Second most annoying question. “Will that be on the test?” This means two things. First, the student didn’t understand a word I said. After all those weeks where I thought I was God’s special gift to education, it turns out that I was just some old fool mumbling at the front of the room. So, secondly, of course I’m going to put it on the damn test.

Equally frustrating are the students who wait until the semester is over and then demand to know why they got a failing grade in a course designed to be passable by a herd of drunken weasels. Someday, I will break and tell the truth, “Because you are stupid. Really, really stupid. Right now, this very second, you should go home and slap the shit out of your mother for collecting half of your DNA from the dead animal pit at the county dump.”

It would really feel good to say that, but instead I explain that a ten page research paper should not be three pages long or written on a Big Chief Tablet with a red crayon.

Cafeteria Food. There is an unwritten law that university food must be bad. Horribly bad. Most campuses lease out their kitchens to the same companies that provide food for airports and prisons. It is possible that university food is worse, since the prisoners would riot and the people at airports would just fly someplace that didn’t specialize in pork tartar.

The administration evidently doesn’t care about the quality of the food, mostly I suspect, because they never eat there. Evidently, students and faculty are just one more resource this state intends to strip mine.

The university actually offers a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. These people do not run the school cafeterias, but I imagine they talk about them a lot. And laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

High Schools. I didn’t particularly like high school when I was sentenced to one, it doesn’t appear that much has changed in the last 4 decades. My biggest complaint now is the quality of education at those schools. Specifically, the quality of the history teaching by certain high school teachers. I am sure there are good teachers out there, and I am equally sure that none of them are football coaches.

There seems to be a law that all coaches have to teach at least one class that does not focus on a ball of some kind. Coaches obviously don’t know math or science…what’s left? At one time, the coaches taught the health classes, but after the entire female student body got pregnant simultaneously they have been the history teachers. This explains why the average college freshman believes that World War II happened before World War I. Evidently, we are counting backwards and are just one more good war away from whirled peas.

Faculty Meetings. To be completely honest, I don’t go to many of these. For a variety of reasons, starting with the simple idea that the “c” should not really be in the word “faculty.” Never have so many talked so long about so little. And that’s about all it is; talk. No one listens; they just wait until it is their turn to talk.

I have this reoccurring dream where the entire department is crossing the desert to attend a distant meeting. We are all in a little yellow school bus, you remember; the kind some students rode while wearing a helmet even though they weren’t on the football team. Suddenly, the bus is forced way off the road because of a flat tire.

Years and years later, when they find our bleached bones still in the bus, our discoverers are mystified by how we died. While not a single lug nut has been removed from the flat tire, they can tell from the paperwork in the bus that before we perished, we came up with a mission statement and were working on devising a quality outcomes assessment test for tire rotation.

Let me repeat one last time, I love teaching. Any job, even the wonderful job I have could be improved. I’ll bring this up at a faculty meeting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Olympics Come and Go

I just got an ad for next year’s Olympics. This shocks me in part because I thought the last one only ended a few days ago. I take it that the next one is in Canada.

The Olympics came and went and I don't care. I admit to not knowing the name of a single athlete and I don't care. I don't care if the United States wins more medals than whichever country that we currently need to best in order to bolster national pride. I don't care if Monsanto is the official supplier of drinking straws to the Olympics. And from one year to the next, I'm not even sure if it is the winter or summer Olympics that are coming. Is there a fall Olympics? If they hold the Olympics in the Southern Hemisphere, does that mean they are going to be the Spring Olympics? I don't care.

Why should I care? Someone runs around a track and hands a baton to another guy. Big deal. Someone else runs and jumps into a sand pit. Where is the correlation to something in my life? My hurdles are a little different.

If you want me to watch, to sponsor, and most importantly, to buy, buy, buy all the Olympic related products, make the games more relevant to my life. In short, change the events.

Summer Olympics. How about freestyle lawn mowing? Or a 5 mile dash where someone takes one child to a band concert, another to dance/karate/music lesson, picks up the prescription at the pharmacy, takes the clothes to the dry cleaner, and still makes it to the bank before they close the lobby? Or Olympic parallel parking? You could have three weight classes; compact cars, sedans, and Suburbans without power steering.

Get the swimmers out of the pool and let’s see them clean it. Get the pool as green as mine seems to get every time I sneeze, and have them vacuum the pool with a filter system old enough to vote. Get the water cold enough to induce hypothermia and have them search for the car keys some teenager accidentally lost. After an hour, have the referee find them under a towel. A gold medal for the person who strangles the kid.

Garage cleaning, weed pulling, tree trimming, house painting, bicycle fixing, and checkbook balancing are more likely events for me than any field event. And cross country in my life means trying to fit an entire family and enough gear to supply an African Safari into a car designed by people in another country whose only manufacturing goal seems to be obtaining revenge for a war they lost. Then actually drive this car more miles a day than is covered by the average long haul trucker, all the while searching for decent food, cheap gas, and the mythical clean bathroom. Naturally, for that last event only women judges will be allowed. Weight lifting? Hah! Try carrying my wife's luggage.

Any number of sports could be made far more interesting just by making one of two small changes. First, blindfold the athlete. Pole vaulting and archery would immediately become crowd favorites. I would watch either event, although I admit it might be safer to watch the archery competition on television. For the second change, let the people in the stands secretly vote on the rules just before the events start. This would let a little logic enter the game. How long would it take a soccer team to realize that the goals switch ends after every point?

Winter Olympics. My favorite event would be furnace re-lighting. Wake the athletes up in the middle of the night by having my wife attempt to freeze brand them with her feet. Give them 5 minutes to relight a furnace as cold as a mother-in-law’s heart using a 5 year old book of moldy paper matches.

Lots of winter events could involve cars. What is the fastest time on record for putting chains on a station wagon? Or a free style ice scraping event. Let the athlete have a trunk full of assorted hardware except the standard ice scraper. That’s what separates the amateurs from the pros. I once cleaned the windshield of my pickup using a bent butter knife.

There is one current Olympic spectacle that I enjoy. I’m not even sure what the name of it is, but it looks like people sliding teapots on ice while other people sweep. This is probably not really a sport, but something bored fans are doing to pass the time. This kind of impromptu thinking should be expanded. Put two teams of athletes onto a frozen lake with a couple of basketballs, a few croquet mallets, and a hula hoop. Then just wait and see what happens. The spectators can vote on which team won.

Of course, lots of sports could be improved by mergers. Combine two sports to save time. Mix boxing with gymnastics. Synchronized hockey. Equestrian volleyball. My favorite would be to combine skeet shooting and ski jumping.

And lastly, let’s stop the contest of seeing which country has collected the most gold medals. That’s obviously no longer the point of these games. Let’s rank the countries by whose citizens spent the most money on what were once games.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All I Know About Sailing

A friend of mine, David Jeter, has sent me several interesting notes and photos about sailing, prompting me to add my own two cents worth of wisdom. I love sailing. I have the special kind of love that comes from total ignorance.

My love of sailing comes from reading countless books on the subject, watching movies, and idle daydreams where I imagine myself sunbathing on a beautiful sailboat drifting through a tranquil and warm ocean. (Does anyone ever daydream about sailing among floating ice? Frigid cold water?)

Several years ago, my wife attended a surgical conference in San Diego. I usually don't go to such events as I inevitably end up in a room full of doctor's wives, by definition the most boring people in the world. This convention, however, was at some fantastic resort that rented sailboats and offered instruction. Fantastic.

To be fair, the resort was better than advertised. Beautiful, right on the protected bay, and the weather was perfect. I immediately signed up for what I thought were lessons.

Actually, it turned out to be lesson. Singular. A very young girl took gramps out in an 18 foot sailboat with a permanent keel. I was told this was good because it was impossible to flip the boat over. This was not the only piece of incorrect information she told me. It turned out to be the funniest.

Well, we sailed into the bay where she spoke fluent Greek punctuated liberally with "like" and "you know" and all this delivered at about twice the speed I could hear. I remember her pointing a lot and in various directions while I nodded enthusiastic assent and tried very hard not to appear to be a retarded child. I remember her saying things like, “You understand that this line controls the bluebird in your pencil case?” To which I would nod enthusiastically. “When the wind is snargle dated, you should use the disgrontificator.” More enthusiastic nodding. This lesson lasted about half an hour, and then suddenly, I was on my own.

I was a little nervous, but I’ve soloed airplanes, helicopters, and hot air balloons. How hard could a dinky dinghy be? After all, I was very enthusiastic. Looking back, I realize that the only time enthusiasm works as well as experience is during sex. It certainly does not work in sailing.

What is truly amazing is how long it did seem to work. For several hours on several successive days I took the little boat out on the flat smooth bay and mostly got it to do something. Over 50% of the time when I wanted it to move... it did. And most of the time it went close to where I wanted. These moments were frequently interrupted by periods of time when it didn't move or go anywhere close to where I wanted. And I never understood at any time what I was doing right or wrong. But, it was fun, and I was still enthusiastic.

In the space of a single hour I would go from thinking I was a genius in total control to suddenly gaining great insight into why sailors used to pray to unknown gods. If you had told me that the boat would have been easier to control if I sacrificed a chicken… well, no matter. I didn’t have a chicken.

After several days of this, one beautiful afternoon, I was slowly sailing back into the protected little harbor inside the protected bay. The people who worked at the little yacht basin were standing on the dock, obviously bored, watching me come back to dock. And I can remember thinking that if the 18 footer was so easy; maybe it was time to rent the 24 footer...

And then I was underwater. Briefly. Somehow, I had flipped the little sailboat that could not be flipped. The life preserver popped me to the surface where I could see the permanent keel pointing straight up. It didn't move much, as I seem to have imbedded the mast firmly into the mud.

I was only 50 feet from the dock, so I got lots of help righting the boat. Good thing, too, as it took lots of help to get that mast out of the mud. No one, not even my instructor who had witnessed the event, could explain what happened. Even as we worked to right the boat, they kept telling me it couldn't be flipped. The words “fixed keel” were mentioned a lot.

I still don’t know how to sail. I’m still willing to learn. If you have a boat that needs the topside washed, let me know. I’m very enthusiastic and I can bring a chicken.