Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

12/13/2005

Quick, somebody hand me a violin that only dogs can hear:

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:45 pm.

Paul Martin, who shall remain nameless, has hurt David Wilkins’s feelings:

“Just think about this. What if one of our best friends criticized you directly and incorrectly almost relentlessly? What if that friend’s agenda was to highlight your perceived flaws while avoiding mentioning your successes? What if that friend demanded respect but offered little in return?” Wilkins asked.

I’ll be honest: I’d feel pretty bad.

Then again, my mommy always said that if your best friend doesn’t visit you for thirty years and imposes tariffs on your lumber even when NAFTA tells them not to and doesn’t seem to mind deporting your citizens to be tortured in foreign countries, then maybe they’re not really your friend after all.

11/26/2005

Things that shouldn’t remind me of my adolescence

File under: When We Were Young, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:49 pm.

I didn’t date when I was fourteen. The main reason was the lack of prospects, to be fair, but on top of that I simply wasn’t interested in dating when I was fourteen. At fourteen, I gazed briefly into that abyss, it gazed back into me, and I turned away and didn’t look back until I was old enough to vote.

I didn’t date when I was fourteen, because the sorts of fourteen-year-olds who dated were kids like Jessica and Matt, and it takes a special kind of self-loathing to want to be like Jessica and Matt. Jessica was this cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girl who was ambitious in the way that cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girls often are. Her ambitions at fourteen, as prescribed by Seventeen and YM and other such tomes, included acquiring a boyfriend, and she did, in Matt. As for Matt…well, Matt was a nice guy, not particularly attractive or athletic or smart, but inoffensive enough that he was pretty well-liked, if not terribly popular. Matt didn’t talk much, but that wasn’t because he was boring. And it wasn’t because he was insecure, either. And it certainly wasn’t because he was a loser. He was just…thoughtful, you know? And sensitive. Thoughtful and sensitive.

I sat behind cute, perky, naïve, fourteen-year-old Jessica and her cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old friends in class, so I got to hear all about Matt’s shortcomings from the day that he and Jessica started dating until the day that she broke up with him two months later. An abridged list of infractions, as best I remember them lo these many years later: Matt didn’t seem to really be as into the relationship as she was. He didn’t make time to see her. He hadn’t remembered their one-month anniversary! And worst of all, he didn’t seem to want to talk about their problems and stuff. Which she totally didn’t get, because he was such a sensitive guy. But he was really starting to piss her off.

Then why don’t you break up with him? I wanted to ask each and every time this topic came up, but I was never part of the conversation, so I stayed silent. That was the thing about cute, perky, naïve fourteen-year-old girls when I was that age: they never included me in their discussions, but they didn’t seem to mind talking about all sorts of things when I was around. They probably assumed that I wasn’t listening. But of course I was listening, because what else was I going to do in the few minutes before science class started? Once when I was seventeen I made the mistake of indicating that I actually did listen to what my classmates were talking about, and I will go to my deathbed regretting that one, because that was the last time I ever heard about what Alyssa’s twenty-year-old boyfriend was like in the sack.

Anyway. That was Jessica’s side of the story. I never heard Matt’s, but I have a feeling that he didn’t really talk about their relationship to his friends. I suspect that sometimes his friends brought it up, in a teasing way, but mostly he’d try to change the subject, because the whole thing embarrassed him. The impression I got from Matt was that he thought - hoped - that if he ignored this relationship, it would go away. After all, he had never wanted a girlfriend. He didn’t know what to do with a girlfriend! For crying out loud, he was fourteen! But then Jessica had kinda latched onto him for awhile, and she was nice and all, and they sorta became friends, and then she said something about going out, and before he knew it she was saying that he was like her boyfriend, and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, you know? I mean, it wasn’t that he didn’t like her - he liked her a lot, and she was cute, cuter than he thought he deserved - but…they didn’t have much in common, you know? And now she kept acting all disappointed that he wasn’t doing stuff she liked, but he didn’t know where she had ever gotten the impression that he did that kind of stuff, because he’d never said he did. It was like she expected him to be cooler than he was, and seriously, that was getting really annoying. Oh, God, did that mean he wasn’t even cool enough to break up with her? How do you even break up with someone, anyway? He still wanted to be her friend and everything.

Why I am writing about this now? Because I think about Jessica’s fantastical expectations of her hapless boyfriend whenever I read the most recent report about how very disappointed Bono is in Paul Martin.

[Update: Oh, Lord, I wrote about this before? How embarrassing.]

11/5/2005

I’ve known politicians, and you, Mr. Martin, are no politician

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:25 pm.

Our poor Prime Minister - even when he wins, he loses:

Canadian voters have forcefully rejected Mr. Justice John Gomery’s exoneration of Prime Minister Paul Martin for the sponsorship scandal in a new poll that vaults the Conservatives in front of the Liberals for the first time since last spring.

You know, this never would have happened under a Chretien government. Because Chretien’s bumbling-fool act was just that: an act. He wasn’t such a…such a bad politician that he’d ever openly and repeatedly declare his innocence when implicated in a scandal, offer himself to be judged by the courts, be exonerated, and then somehow get slaughtered in the polls anyway. Seriously, how uncharismatic do you have to be to have people hate you even more after they receive evidence that you didn’t do the thing they hated you for in the first place? (Mind you, there’s a simpler explanation for these poll results: Canadians aren’t favouring the Conservatives because of Gomery; they’re favouring the Conservatives because the Conservative leader haven’t been talking very much lately. That party’s failure to stick to that winning strategy during actual campaigns is what causes their numbers to plummet in the weeks leading up to elections. See also: federal elections, 2004, 2000.)

Under a Chretien government, this wouldn’t have gone to the courts in the first place. It would have spent a few days, maybe a few weeks, in the news. There’d've been some murmurs about a sponsorship scandal at some point, and then Chretien would have dismissed them. He’d have been hounded by reporters for a few minutes, and he’d have made some statement of the form, “Geeez, are you still thinking about this? Get over it! So someone didn’t keep track of some money a few years ago. Who cares? Geeeez!” This statement would have gotten a lot of airplay, and then Canadians would have spent a few days, maybe a few weeks, reacting indignantly: The arrogance! Can you believe it? Our prime minister is such a disgrace! And then something else would have bumped this complete non-issue off the front pages. No one would have even thought of calling, or demanding, a snap election. A few months or years later, there’d have been another election anyway, and Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia would have gone on and on about how they couldn’t stand that fool, Chretien, but then they’d have given him another majority government anyway.

The reason that Chretien had no trouble winning majority governments and (grudging) support, while Martin is struggling mightily in both areas, isn’t because scandals came to light during the Martin years, while the Chretien government was scandal-free. Oh, no - apparently there’ve been enough scandals during the Chretien years to fill a book. But the first line of the single review of that book, from one Brent Colbert, says it all: Just finished this book and couldn’t believe how many of the scandals I had forgot over the last decade. Oh, Brent, we’ve all forgotten them. We’ve forgotten them because Chretien, unlike Martin, had taken to heart the first fundamental rule of high school debating, which is this: you must concede nothing to the opposition. Even when they’re right. Especially when they’re right. When your opponents accuse you of, say, corruption or fiscal mismanagement, you obviously don’t confess. Everyone knows that. Less obvious is the fact that you also shouldn’t deny it. Because when you deny it, you’re agreeing with your opponents in that corruption or fiscal mismanagement is wrong. You’re handing them that point, and they will run with it. The best strategy, as we learned from the Right Honourable Mr. Chretien, is to roll your eyes and call your opponents stinky poo-poo heads. You’re above their stinky poo-poo head accusations, and you don’t want to talk about them anymore. And poof! Those accusations don’t spend six months on the front pages of newspapers, and you win.

Maybe I’m giving the guy too much credit. Maybe he was simply, as many people said, inarticulate. Maybe it wasn’t a strategic evasion of big questions so much as an accidental avoidance of them that kept his scandals off the front pages and his ass in the prime minister’s office.

But in that case, more power to him. Man was a born politician. You can’t teach that sort of talent.

(Looking for intelligent commentary about the sponsorship scandal and Gomery inquiry? Declan’s got it. In general, if you’re ever looking for commentary about Canadian politics or journalism from someone who knows what’s going on, and who can get through a sentence without snark, you’re a lot better off reading him than me.)

10/4/2005

My city is cooler than your city

File under: Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:47 pm.

My fellow Vancouverites and I have been saying it all along, but the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit just caught on. We’re tops because we’ve got a good climate, decent public transit, accessible health care, and, and…

According to the report’s editor, cities in Canada, Australia and Western Europe topped the list, largely because they are not perceived as targets for terror attacks.

Right-o! We’ve got another few years before we have to worry about that kind of thing.

But, oh, check out this delicious little nugget of British passive-aggression from The Guardian:

The Pacific coastal settlement tops a survey of cities…

It’s clear from the article that Owen Bowcott recognizes that we’re not a small community or an underprivileged area, so that leaves definition 2b, I suppose. You folks might have outranked us by 46 spots, but who colonized who again? Mmm-hmm, cheerio.

9/28/2005

This is why my little college-math-ed blog has so many readers:

File under: Those Who Can't, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:05 pm.

Because I am Everycollegeinstructor.

In U.S. report released this month, 40 per cent of professors who were surveyed said that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for university-level work. Further, the survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 56 per cent cited working with unprepared students as a source of stress.

Count me among both groups.

The rest of the article is essentially a quantitative, snark-free summary of everything I’ve written about teaching over the past year. Incoming university students, reports the Globe, are woefully unprepared for the demands of university; it’s hard to know how to deal with them; their high school grades mean nothing. Nothing new here, but I’m glad this issue is getting national attention.

Unfortunately, I think the remedies described in the article - more remedial classes! extra help for students who lack basic skills! diagnostic tests for students whose math marks are below 70% or whose English marks are below 80%! - are remarkably short-sighted, and contribute to the unfortunate trend of students paying universities to learn what they used to be able to learn in high school, for free. The main problem, as I see it, is an increasingly incoherent high school curriculum that is quickly diverging from the goals of a university education. And this problem won’t be solved until high school and university educators start talking to one another.

I’ve got a lot to say about this piece, and I’m finding that my thoughts are all over the place, so bear with me. Or don’t, I guess.

First, a quote from Ann Barrett, managing director of the University of Waterloo’s English language proficiency program, that dovetails with the experience of every single college calculus instructor who’s ever taught students who took calculus in high school:

“I have seen students present high school English grades in the 90s, who have not passed our simple English test.”

And the proposed reasons for this?

Some officials blame grade inflation at the high school level. Others say that in this primarily visual world, there’s little focus on the written word. And one professor points to the high school curriculum being so jam-packed with content that teachers have no time to instruct on the basic skills.

My thoughts on these, respectively, are: kind of, but that’s beside the point; give me a break; and ok, now we’re getting somewhere.

Let’s start with grade inflation, becuase it’s the most frequently-cited cause for students obtaining A’s in high school and flunking out of college. I stand by what I wrote on the subject back in January, but I think that the A-students-flunking issue is a lot more complicated than that. If grade inflation were the main culprit, then we could say that a student who gets an A has what may once have been considered C-level understanding of the material; that is, an A in 2005 is equivalent to a C in (say) 1995.

I disagree. My A-minus student does not have a C-level understanding of the grade twelve course that I took a decade ago, the one that prepared me reasonably well for my university math classes. He doesn’t even have a D-level understanding of such material. To say that an A-minus means anything in terms of a student’s understanding of the math they need to succeed in university is to say that there’s any correlation whatsoever between college level math and grade twelve math as it’s taught in BC. And there isn’t.

My student’s A-minus is a in fact pretty accurate reflection of his knowledge. My student does indeed have an A-minus grasp of the material taught in grade twelve math in BC. My student has acquired A-minus-level proficiency at storing formulas in his fucking graphing calculator and memorizing the solutions to homework problems so that he can recall them when he faces the test. He’s quite good at all that, really. It’s just that this proficiency would help him not one whit if he were to take a university-level math class, taught by professors who naïvely expect their A-minus students to be minimally numerate, not to mention vaguely proficient in reasoning mathematically.

Reducing this issue to grade inflation suggests that the problem lies in the evaluation of students, not in the choice or presentation of material. Absolute mastery of BC’s garbage grade 12 math curriculum doesn’t prepare students for university, because BC’s garbage grade 12 math curriculum is virtually disconnected from university. My colleagues and I have griped amongst ourselves about this, but as far as I can tell, there is no communication between high school curriculum developers and university educators. Tweaking grades won’t fix that.

On to the next idea - we live in a visual world, with little emphasis on the written word, so no wonder Johnny can’t read - am I missing something here? Did our world become significantly more visual in the last decade - a time during which universities have reported tremendous increase in unprepared students? The high school texts I’ve seen are jam-packed with the written word.

What I do see is this: I see students calling me over to their desks to ask about a word problem, and half the time me reading the word problem aloud to them is enough to answer their question. I see students skimming over paragraphs of text (not that I blame them) and then asking me what they really needed to read in order to solve the problem. I seldom see any indication that students are reading their textbooks beyond skimming over the examples so that they can match them to the homework questions. I’ve lost track of the number of students I’ve tutored, or fielded during office hours, who did not avail themselves of the indices of their textbooks. The reason they couldn’t show that two events were mutually exclusive was because they didn’t know what “mutually exclusive” meant, nor did they think to look it up.

When I was in high school, my English teachers routinely gave marks for producing drafts of essays. Producing the draft was worth half marks; the rest of our marks came from the quality of the actual essay. An incoherent essay could easily earn a B if the writer produced a draft. When I was in grade twelve, we had to submit one or more essays every week. There was plenty of emphasis on the written word; our ability to use it well, however, was virtually irrelevant.

Things have gotten worse in my home province, according to a former camper of mine. This camper was a brilliant math and science student; by his own account, he was “average” in English - and he wanted to improve. But he was having trouble doing so, because he was never assigned essays as homework. A few years earlier, he told me, teachers were reporting a rise of internet plagiarism. The school board’s solution: stop assigning essays for homework. In 2002, the only essay-writing experience that high school English students had, consisted of sitting in class for eighty minutes or so and producing an unedited, unresearched paper. It’s not hard to imagine a student who excels at writing those sorts of papers, flunking out of a class that requires long, researched papers.

There’s plenty of emphasis on the written word. There’s virtually none on developing the skills required to use it effectively.

Moving along - I am a lot more sympathetic to the third proposed explanation for the increase in unprepared university students: the emphasis on content over skills. Erin O’Connor, from whom I pilfered the original link, puts it well:

What [the article strongly implies] is that the problem stems in no small part from an ideology of progressive education that is famously hostile to skills acquisition (which requires such child-stifling practices as memorization, drill, repetition, and so on).

This certainly rings true in math, where I labour endlessly to disabuse my students of the notion that if only they memorized more formulas, more examples, they’d be doing a lot better in my class. The idea that there is a smallish set of basic skills that, solidly understood and correctly applied, will carry them through more difficult work, is alien to them. Pointing out that they can use material in Chapter n-k to solve a question in Chapter n risks an uprising. (True story: the precalculus 2 prof last year had a student in his office ask how to find a hyperbola’s asymptote. The prof reminded the student how to find equations of straight lines, and was met with a blank stare. “We did that last term,” she explained earnestly. “You didn’t show us how to do it this term.”) Last April, I talked to my then-department head to suggest completely reworking the curriculum for the terrible precalculus class. He was more than receptive, and took notes as I ranted. One idea that came up: teaching half the content, but taking time to make sure that students had a solid grasp on everything that was taught. It interests me, thought it doesn’t surprise me, that Erin and the English professor quoted in the article have come to similar conclusions about the courses with which they have experience: those courses too display an emphasis on content to the exclusion of skills that can be more broadly applied.

High school curricula are disjointed. We get a topic here, an application there - and we get nothing to tie them together. There’s no overarching theme for any course, no concept to unify the incredible mass of content. Students are understandably hard-pressed to recall any skills they learned in high school. And I can’t blame them for wondering, on occasion, “what’s the point of all this stuff?” I’m not even sure the people who designed their courses know.

At the end of the day, we’re left with two facts that are increasingly troubling, and increasingly at odds with one another:

1. High school students are discouraged from pursuing post-secondary options other than university; but

2. A high school education does not prepare one for university.

The first of these is seldom challenged among high school teachers and guidance counselors; the second is addressed at the university level alone. Unless high school and university educators start working together to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish, and how best to accomplish it, we’re still going to have unprepared students scrambling when they enter university, and we’re still going to have short-staffed universities rushing to endow them with the skills they should have acquired in high school. That’s not education; that’s damage control.

9/23/2005

Off the beaten path

File under: Home And Native Land, Talking To Strangers, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:04 pm.

I never got around to writing about my tour of the Gulf Islands last June.

* * *

The public transit system that serves the Gulf Islands is unreliable when you’re in a hurry, but it’s friendly and it’s free. During my forays onto Salt Spring and Pender, I quickly marked myself as an outsider by looking askance as would-be commuters faced me, their thumbs extended. I recognized that this was how Islanders got by, but I was raised in a city, where strangers were not to be trusted.

The three picnickers on Cortes Island were different, however, and I slowed down when I saw them. The oldest of the them thanked me for stopping, and told me that she wasn’t coming along for the ride, but that Megan and Katie appreciated not having to walk to the community hall on such a hot day. No problem, I replied; I was happy to help. But I wasn’t from around here; where, I asked, was the community hall? The woman pointed to a junction on my map - not far at all - and thanked me again. She paused before turning around, and then said to the other two, strapped into seatbelts in the backseat - careful the traffic when you cross the street.

I introduced myself to my passengers. They were sisters, as I’d suspected. Megan was nine, and Katie was seven, and they were going to the community hall to rehearse for a play.

* * *

I never met the host of the inn on Mayne Island where I spent a rainy night. I’d called the innkeeper a few nights before to reserve a room, and she’d told me that she probably wouldn’t be around when I arrived. But she’d leave me a note and a key in the mailbox, and I should make myself at home as soon as I got in.

When I got off the ferry, I headed right for the inn, but I didn’t see a sign. I stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the baker asked me my name. “Oh, she told me she was expecting you,” he said when I answered. “Inn’s right next door, behind the tree. It’s hard to see the sign from the road.”

I thanked him, and found the key. The $60 room I’d booked was larger than my apartment. It had huge windows on two sides, and I selected a bed adjacent to one of them. I awoke early the next morning; my host was nowhere to be found. I put some money and a thank-you note in an envelope, stuck the envelope under the door, and left.

There was a note posted on the front door. It was dated two days earlier; I’d obviously missed it when I arrived. In the same formal script that had appeared on my note was a message: I will be out of town all week. If you would like a room at the inn, please see the baker next door.

* * *

Denman Island is the flattest of the Gulf Islands, and as such, it is also one of the most cyclist-friendly. There are bikes everywhere on the island - in the many parks, in front of the community school, in the middle of driveways. Unlocked, all of them.

“You can’t leave your bike unattended for a minute where I live,” I remarked to the owner of the bed and breakfast. “I lock mine even when I’m just running in and out of a store; otherwise, someone would take it for sure. It’s amazing that you can trust that no one would do that here.”

She shrugged. “People take bikes here, too,” she said.

“And you still leave them like that?” I said, gesturing toward the trendy mountain bike that was propped up against a tree.

“They take them, but we always end up finding them sooner or later,” she said. “I know what my neighbour’s bike looks like, and so does everyone else. Someone finds a purple hybrid near the Hornby ferry, they know it’s his.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s an island. How far could they go?”

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