Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tricky, Tricky Teacher

So, I just graded the last final essay exam from Spring 2012 NLM 160, Voluntary Action and Community Leadership.  Over half the class got an A on the exam, and I am very happy with that.   I know folks will say that's proof the exam was too easy, but I think it's proof that I coerced them both to read the material and to think.

As at least a modicum of proof that it's not because the exam is too easy:  when I queried my students as to whether the midterm - on which they also did quite well - was too simple, the class emitted an immediate, long, low groan.   My exams aren't that easy.  But if you are good at following directions - all of them - it would be difficult to do poorly.

The key is in the directions.

Get this:

Each question contains a reference to a very specific set of readings - usually a chapter from our text or one or two complimentary readings or audio visual presentations - containing the exact information they need to answer the question.

Then I ask a question - from real life - either their group work, their personal experience or from a case study.  They must apply the information in the readings to the situation at hand to answer the question.  And, they have to provide a citation to the exact page in the reading they leaned on to answer the question.  This forces students to get into the book, figure out what's in there, and further more, figure out what those ideas can contribute to the situation in the question.  This is what I call a "learning exam."

I can easily tell from the depth of their grasp, who's been keeping up with the readings all semester.  Those who are with it display amazing, creative application.  But for some of my students, this will be the first time all semester they crack the book.  One of my students even admitted to me on the eve of the midterm that she didn't yet own the book!  

One of my older students once lamented to me that a couple of the younger students in her group rarely did their reading.  I pointed to my exams and asked if the way I structure my exams make more sense in light of that fact.  She suddenly got it.

NLM 160 is a large class, and asking for essays is perhaps a stroke of stupidity on my part, since I have to grade somewhere between 60 and 80 exams, twice a semester, depending on class size.  But I've discovered I'm not really happy unless my students learn, and the exam is the only way I can guarantee that students must crack those books at least once if they want to get out of my classroom.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Be the Party You Want to Attend!

When I read the diatribes launched by my Republican friends against the Occupy movement - the smug, delegitimizing comments about the trash, the way they snarl traffic, that the crowd is crawling with  transients - it seems to me they are trying to de-cool the whole street movement thing.  Under all that I sense a subsurface vibe, a fear that the cool factor might transform Occupy into something that matters, something that will cause our congressional folk to shiver a little. The terms "occupy" and "cool" need to be decoupled at all costs.

My R friends may argue that what I'm sensing is more akin to nausea than fear of cool, but me thinks they protest overly much.  One wonders whether some of this fear stems from the fact that these same detractors did, in fact, think the sit-ins and what Bill McKibben calls "body movements," or using our selves as political tools, were way cool once upon a time.  Way back then, in the 1960s and 1970s.  I know for a fact that some of these same complainers were at Woodstock.  And proud of it.  Sh...

Personally, I welcomed with open arms both the Occupy movement and it's predecessor, the Tea Party.  I've worried for many moons - more technically since we sat by without comment as hanging chads in Florida decided our presidential election for the man with fewer votes - that Americans have simply stopped caring.  When I think about our historically low voter turn-out, the general paucity of public debate over our latest round of wars, the gradual but significant progression away from hard journalistic news, toward "infotainment" in the only sources the public has for becoming educated on matters of public policy, I can't help but worry.

It seems to me that we are too complacent, too content with powering our individual hamster wheels, going round and round just trying to move our financial lives forward far enough to own the latest toy, or take the kids to Disneyland. So complacent that we've foregone our duty to participate in shaping the public debate - a duty that our Founding Fathers insisted be the cornerstone of a democracy that serves the people.  A whole lot of us have begged off.

While perhaps the Tea Party has taken a turn toward the religious right, and the Occupy folks cannot seem to figure out how to leverage their presence politically, still, it warms the cockles of my heart to see people off their couches and out in the streets.  I don't know how mad they are, ala Howard Beale, but they at least have decided they don't want to take it anymore - at least not the way it's being dished out now.

This morning's whole little conversation has its beginnings in an article by Bill McKibben, founder of, a climate change advocacy group, entitled The Art of Civil Disobedience.  Here's a little quote from it:

"As surely as the scientific method has worked, that’s how badly the political method has failed, and at root money is the cause.
So we need a different currency in which to work if we’re going to have a chance. And right at the moment we’re experimenting a good deal with one: our bodies. I’ve just finished helping coordinate the biggest spate of civil disobedience in several decades in this country, two weeks of daily sit-ins at the White House that ended up with 1253 people in jail for urging Barack Obama to block a proposed pipeline from the tarsands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. (Short course: those tarsands are the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet. If we burn them in a big way, according to Jim Hansen at NASA, it’s ‘essentially game over for the climate.’)
Now, civil disobedience is a technology like any other, and people have been experimenting with it for a long time, at least since Thoreau. There have been real experts—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, some of the folks who pushed the Arab spring this past year. But we don’t really know that much about it—we haven’t studied it with the same systematic diligence that, say, West Point or Sandhurst applies to the arts of war.
So it was fascinating to try and figure out what would work best. One thing we tried to avoid was the usual suspects: we asked old people to come, not college kids. We didn’t ask participants their age (that’s rude) but we did ask them who was president when they were born. And the biggest cohorts came from the Truman and FDR administrations.
We also told everyone that they had to wear a dress, or a coat and tie, if they wanted to take part. Why? Because we wanted to make crystal clear who the radicals in this scenario were. Not us. Radicals work for Chevron and Shell—radicals are people who are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That’s the most radical scheme anyone ever thought up. We’re…conservatives, trying hard to preserve the planet in something like the shape it was when we were born."

I will skip over his comment about money being the root cause of political failure.  That's a post for another day.  Instead, I will focus you on McKibben's attempt to strategically unnerve the very arguments (trash, traffic, transients) made by my Republican friends by manipulating his crowd.

My students who are reading this will right away notice that I've used the word "manipulate," a loaded word that signals I perhaps don't approve.  Yes, I'm really struggling with this.  I'm trying to decide how I feel about McKibben putting a conservative, older face on his crowd.  On the one hand, those well-dressed older voters he brings out are real.  Empowering their visibility is both exciting and a lesson for conservatives about who, really, is the "other side."

On the other hand, George Lakoff would tell you McKibben is playing right into the Republican frame.  By insisting on an older, more conservative face to deliver his message, he is helping his opponent marginalize the rest of his base and keeping their voices, the voices of actual citizens of our country, if younger, scruffier, tattoo'd & pierced - even, sometimes, hungrier, homeless - away from the discussion table as surely as the Republicans are.

Using the "right tools" is something I understand deeply as a lobbyist.  In fact, I just proposed something of the sort the other day that a group of us who have run up against a wall in our fight to get the human trafficking of minors law in our state to cover girls between 13 and 17, and not just girls under 13.  The chair of our judiciary committee has refused to hear this bill.  I suggested we pull his campaign contribution records and find a sympathetic someone from among his own donors to put some pressure on him.

So, I understand pragmatics.

And yet, I'd like to propose an alternative vision.  What if, instead of trying to neuter the crowds, we work to enhance the cool factor in body movements?  What if, instead of playing to the Republican frame, we play on their fear and turn street movements into the biggest, coolest new cool of all?  What if street movements became popular, and we orchestrate them more like fairs and festivals so that they attracted people and people came out to learn, talk, hear, play political music together, make political art and just become the new gig where the cool people want to be?  Festivals with planning and stages and port-a-potties and food vendors.  Festivals even Republicans can love.

Ok, so I'm suggesting we use entertainment and the streets and the good weather to bring people back into politics.  All kinds of people.  Young, old, conservative, liberal alike.  Let's get artsy about it.  Let's get some passion going. Let's revive the public discussion.  Republicans and Democrats and Independents together.

Be the Party you want to attend.  Take it to the streets!