I Hated School by Devon Miller-Duggan

Good lord, I hated school. This thought came to me courtesy of a younger friend posting about how irritated she is about her kid’s summer “homework.” I know there are solid arguments out there for a year-round school year (maybe especially in areas where kids need school to, you know, eat), but we don’t have that, and there are even more arguments about the importance of kids having down time. Big chunks of it. Of course, so much of education in this country is based, relentlessly, on bad info, increasing corporatization, criminal underfunding, and uncountable practices that have no basis in the actual needs of actual human children. Some of that long list is why I hated school. I also hated it because no one knew I had ADD, so every teacher and both my parents just thought my inability to remember that I had homework, let alone focus on it or remember to hand it in—it was just some sort of un-nameable character flaw on my part. Also, homework was BORING.

Practically every teacher I ever had shook his/her head sadly and said some version of “You’re so bright…if you’d only apply yourself…” Aside from this phrase (still in heavy use, I suspect) turning my “gifts” into a club to beat me senseless with, it also taught me a very valuable lesson: Adults LIE. I used to feel very sad and angry about the extent to which I loathed school—kind of pathetically so–until recently.

My earliest memory of school is of the taste of Ritz crackers and tomato soup. My second earliest is of sitting in the back of the classroom (where I could sit because I was such a “good” girl—something I’m hoping to fully get over before I shuffle off this mortal coil…) so BORED I cried. Specifically bored into anguish by “Dick & Jane” readers. I do not understand the weird nostalgia for those torture devices. My third memory is of getting fewer Valentines than other kids—not sure what that was about—I hadn’t gotten weird or fat yet in first grade. I don’t remember feeling especially bad about it, just befuddled.

Even in the years when I had good/great teachers, I loathed school. It was, for me, a criminal distraction from reading and drawing and making things, and looking at fashion magazines. It was where I failed, every day, in some significant respect. I was too something—too slow with Math, too fast with words, too big, too loud, too arty, too bad at gym, too quiet, and way too mouthy for a girl, even as I was awfully busy being a good girl. Sometimes I’m amazed that I didn’t simply explode from my own paradoxes.

So now I have a Ph. D. and am a teacher. I tell my students that college is the first place I ever felt normal, so I arranged to stay. I’m not joking about that. I also try very hard not to lie to them.

All of which is to say that I think it’s probably criminal to give kids homework for the summer (except for reading lists, which I know can be troublesome, but which have some actual purpose). And it’s another example of how adults mess with kids—you have the summer off, oh, wait, except you don’t. Pick one, people. Don’t write “Excellence is our expectation.” over the door of your high school and then change principals yearly and run an inhumane swamp. Don’t tell kids that what’s in their text books is the last word, or even the most accurate word. Don’t bloody tell kids that they’ll regret never taking trigonometry (not for a nanosecond, though I am sad about not getting to take more algebra).

Don’t tell them they have to graduate from high school to go to college—there are options. Don’t tell them college will fix EVERYTHING. Don’t tell them they have to graduate from college to go to grad school. I know that last one is fact because I ignored requirements at two colleges (Why I loved college: I took stuff I cared about, from professors who cared about teaching and ignored course I knew would torture me.), never graduated and went off to graduate school without even really figuring it out. And don’t tell them that folks who haven’t earned authority deserve respect. That one can cause real problems—it’s tough enough being 14 without having to live with the fact that a third of the teachers and more than half the administrators in your school are, at best, incompetent. But I remain convinced that it’s better to grow up questioning authority than blindly respecting (isn’t that an oxymoron?) it.

Hated/feared/despised school. But I learned early what mattered to me and what didn’t. I learned not to trust adults. I learned to tell which adults were actually paying attention to me and which weren’t. I learned that the world is too often made of lies. Along the way, Ms. Galloway taught me to read T. S. Eliot and Mrs. Harker taught me to read Faulkner and Shakespeare, and Mr. Prillman taught me to stop claiming to be “lazy” in order to excuse my lack of focus, and even though I nearly flunked the science exam, he read it to the class because the answers were so off-beat—and that kind of made getting things wrong feel right.

College (especially, bless its beating heart, Mount Holyoke) taught me a zillion things, among them that it was just damn fine for a woman to use big words, and that there were people who could actually develop romantic feelings for non-traditionally brainy humans—that me being me was sufficiently functional, perfectly do-able.

Not sure exactly how summer homework connects to all that, but I have faith that it does. Because along the way, I have learned to trust that connections will emerge.

A Great Day for Plagiarism

In 2000, when the presidential election was contested and suddenly “what is the electoral college?” was the question of the day, my dad quipped: “It’s a great time for history teachers.” Disaster tended to make my dad perky—it lined up with his assessment of the human condition and society—and it had a bracing effect on him. He was often pessimistic or downright fatalistic—but he could also be funny.
My dad did not live to see this year’s presidential race, but I’m sure he would have been rude and amusing on the subject. I can hear him say, “Hey, it’s a great day for ENGLISH teachers.” And it is.
What is plagiarism? Well class, I’m so glad you asked that question. Plagiarism is basically shoplifting—it is theft. It is when you steal someone’s words. And here is the great thing—if you admit you did it and ATTRIBUTE it in correct MLA-style you will get full credit. If not, you will fail, or be expelled. Is this clear? The choice is yours.
I’ve seen some pretty extreme case of plagiarism (I’m changing details to protect the guilty.) We don’t think of creative writing as prone to it—after all, don’t writers want to express THEMSELVES? Then why pass off a sonnet by Keats as your own (and how dumb do I look?). Or, when I note that the story was written by Ray Bradbury and not you, burst out “My girlfriend SWORE she wrote it when she gave it to me…” without quite realizing that this isn’t a good defense either.
Cheating is cheating is cheating, as Gertrude Stein would say. Note that I attributed that! And how, you want to know, is homage or influence or a bit of “borrowing” (like Mr. Shakespeare from Herodotus) different than plagiarism? Good questions, class. Please look up common domain. Now write a poem that uses a line (attributed) from Pablo Neruda. After that, re-tell a classic fairy tale for modern times. Keep thinking about this. Stop trying to distract me by getting me off topic—which is easy because you know I like to talk.
If you get it right, maybe you can make a living as a speech writer.

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press).
This is a very thoughtful—and confrontational—book by Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at John Hopkins. His ideas have relevance for not just world famous research universities but for community colleges, state systems, and liberal arts colleges.

Here is a synthesis. Rather than reviewing this book, I will just let it speak for itself.

“The character of the university has changed and not entirely for the better.” It is no longer driven by faculty ideas and concerns. Administration has grown exponentially in the past few decades. “In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every 84 students…By 2005, (there was one for every 58.)”

“Many senior administrators are glib in the manner of politicians. These qualities are sure to impress…corporate headhunters…”

“Administrators and staffers are, in the view of many, if not most, university officials, more important than the school’s students, faculty, classrooms, and laboratories.”

“With fewer deanlets to command, senior administrators would be compelled to turn again to faculty for administrative support. Such a change would result in better programs…”

“Boards should be wary of university administrators who sprout managerial jargon.”

“Through their management speak, administrators are asserting that the university is an institution to be ruled by them.Shared governance, faculty power, tenure, and so forth have no place in management theory.”

Of major interest to me was Ginsberg’s assertion that class mobility is based in large part on the humanities. Technical training, while important, essentially results in a different track for working class students. Without the education received by middle and upper class students, working class students will still be disenfranchised.

Faculty does not get off free either, as the author points to the truth in the sherry sipping idle professor cliche. But in essence, he points out that without faculty there is no teaching, no students, and no education. Unfortunately, his view is no longer the mainstream one.

Teaching—I’m SO In It For The Money–Miriam Sagan

Teaching—I’m SO In It For The Money
Recently I’ve noticed a discourse—across the state, across the nation—on public educators saying “we’re not in it for the money.” Or, conversely, other folks saying it to us.

I understand that this is meant to communicate:

Teachers are underpaid.
Teachers are idealists.
Teachers are not motivated by salary.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad. (Still a failing grade, though). But it isn’t good either. I’ve taught community college as an adjunct, half-timer, full time faculty, and 3/4 time faculty. I’ve been grateful for every cent I’ve earned. More than that, let’s be blunt, these earnings have been the difference between stability and economic disaster for me and my family.

No longer are teachers single school marms waiting for a cowboy to sweep us into domesticity. We support ourselves, our children, and our parents. Our salaries are economic development—we buy houses, and cups of coffee.

And here is something else—I never want my students to think I am indifferent to money. I’m not marginal, or Henry David Thoreau, or living on air. I share their concerns. I’d never tell THEM that they aren’t in it for the money.

I started wondering, who IS in it for the money? Obviously workers in terrible poor paying jobs—that’s survival. And investment bankers—maybe ”survival” of a less sympathetic kind. But folks the world over take pride in what they do—whether decorating a wedding cake or brain surgery—and yet no one tells bakers or surgeons “Well, you’re not in it for the, gasp, money!”

I would not do my job for free. Does that mean I am any less caring or committed a teacher? No, it does not.

So let’s stop saying we’re not in it for the money. A glance at our cars and clothes will tell you instantly how un-avaricious we are. But we need to care about our own basic needs. And I think this should come first before we can “afford” to care for others.

Class At The Planetarium–Poem by Miriam Sagan

The spring semester is about to start, and with it all the delight, confusion, and amusement that teaching brings. I came across this poem from a few years ago and wanted to share it.


Class at the Planetarium

Enjoys seeing “O’Ryans belt,”
Didn’t know there was a bear in the sky,
Thinks the moon landing
Was a conspiracy,
And thanks me because
They love astrology.

The physicist says
My face in the mirror
Is nanoseconds younger
Than my real face
Because of how
Light travels
(memory asks
how did I get so old?)

And then one student says:
Where there is a lot of space
There is a lot of time…