27 October 2013

What Professors Do: Anguish

We're in the business, most of us, to educate.  We want to engage students with the things we're passionate about.  For me, that includes literature and ways of reading as well as the desire and the tools to write well.

When students fail or do poorly, we beat ourselves up, assuming we've failed to inspire, to engage, even to explain adequately.  At the moment, I'm anguished at a remove, watching a young woman who was once one of my best students suffer from her students' disengagement.

At The Offspring's school, one of the best public schools in New York City, there are parents who complain, year after year, about their kids' teachers.  My response: I'm an educator, but I don't know how to teach fifth grade math -- or, for that matter, fifth grade anything else.  I can still get a scale out of my old clarinet, but I can't explain to The Offspring how to make the right sounds; it takes a music teacher to do that.

But we live in a culture that second-guesses teachers all the time, a society in which it's assumed that politicians and business leaders with no educational experience should make pedagogical decisions that affect the nation's kids.  That ideology starts with preschool and goes all the way up through college and beyond.  And if some of the students who grow up in that system think a degree is a credential to be received after doing time, and see their teachers and professors as an annoyance along the way, no one should be very surprised.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched students struggle because of a completely different kind of bureaucratic failure.  I was teaching four courses a semester in English composition and conversation at a university in Shanghai. Three classes were full of Shanghainese students who had been chosen to attend because they had recieved the best scores in English.

The fourth class consisted of students from a remote Chinese province who had been brought to the city to be educated.  Rather than taking classes with the other students, though, these students were kept in one group, separate from the others, and the entire class assigned the same major.  There were students in that class who were excellent at English; others probably would have done very well in engineering or business or the sciences.  Yet it had been decided that in their year, they would study English, regardless of their aptitudes or interests.

I loved the job, and it convinced me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life teaching.  But I felt terrible about those students sent to the city to learn English, working so hard, yet struggling to succeed in a field where they couldn't do their best work.

Today, I face students who are perfectly capable of doing good work, but don't want to bother.  Or they're working their way through school, trying to take as many credits as possible each semester to keep tuition costs down while working 30 or 40 hours a week -- and there just aren't enough hours in the day and night.

One kind of student exemplifies our national bad attitude toward the teaching profession; the other our political failure to support higher education.  The mechanisms are a little different, but we're failing our students, much as the Chinese were, quarter of a century ago.

25 October 2013

Folding Scarves

It's been a long few weeks, and I spent some time this evening folding scarves and shawls.  I remembered where and who they came from over the past thirty years, and felt the different weights and textures.  It was meditative and soothing.

Sitting at my desk or in a meeting gets chilly, and covering my neck is a quick fix.  In the classroom I move a lot more: shedding a scarf as I warm up is much less of a production than taking off a sweater or a blazer.

Amidst the smoothing and folding, I had to admit that I have a whole collection of scarves.  This was a bit of a shock, as I generally prefer one or two functional, versatile, well-made items to a drawer or closet full of options.

A corollary: I have a hard time getting rid of things.  I try not to buy things if they're not going to get used often and last a long time, and so when I've gotten something into my home, I feel kind of committed to it.

(Possibly an aside: The alarm clock I bought when I started college just went to the recycling pile.  It finally got dropped one time too many.)

A couple of years ago I bought a sweater that felt fine in the fitting room, but when I wore it for the first time it turned out to be itchy.  I've felt compelled to wear it anyway, in a penitential kind of way, and then told myself I should keep it, since after all I sometimes use it.

But I'm trying to give myself permission to get rid of stuff like that.  And so I've finally put it in the donation bag in company with the shrunk and the ripped and the stained.

But not scarves.  Lovely lightweight wool that a friend brought back from Italy, fringed purple from an aunt in France, blue velvet I splurged on at the British Museum shop.  A circle of black, knit by my mother-in-law; greens and purples on cotton, left over from wardrobe after a film shoot.  Wispy teal from India by way of a shop on Second Avenue.

Deep blues and purples on silk, bought during a year teaching in Shanghai, so long ago it sometimes seems like a dream.  Yet deeper in the past: burgundy wool woven with gold threads from the family I lived with as an exchange student in Switzerland.

I enjoy the textures, the colors, the warmth.  I'm going to depart  from principle without apology and let these things give me pleasure.

23 October 2013

Gear List

In the summertime, and in late spring and early fall, I don't have to pay too much attention to the weather.  It's either hot or hotter; unless it's really pouring rain it's too warm for rain gear, so I just wear clothing that can get wet and will dry fast.  Bonus: many hours of daylight.

Today, though, it's both chilly and rainy, and I'll get home long after dark.  This is when gear becomes  vitally important.  The challenges: vision, visibility, and keeping the hands and feet and ears warm without letting the core overheat.  Over the years, I've developed a pretty good, though not perfect, system: herewith, an annotated list.

If there's rain in the forecast, I carry waterproof / breathable jacket and pants.  The rain pants have gotten a little leaky; though I usually try to keep and use things as long as possible, this is an area where I need the gear to function really well.  A new pair is in my near future.

A helmet cover rides in my bag almost year round: it keeps the rain out and the warm air in.  I also carry a headband designed to use with a helmet: cold ears get miserable fast.  Below freezing, a thin fleece hat.

A couple of years ago I bought waterproof boots, but the first time I wore them in the rain I discovered ankle-height doesn't cut it: as soon as my legs are spinning, the pants ride up and the rain runs right down them ... and into the top of the boots.  So, I got high boots.  For the coldest days, neoprene shoe covers.  Wool socks: self-explanatory, right?

If it's mild, I wear lightweight long-fingered gloves.  On days like today, windblock fleece, and in the coldest temperatures, a down-lined pair.  I bought them by accident, sort of: I didn't realize they were lined with down until after right after I paid for them.  But then I kept walking and didn't go back to the register for an exchange.  And boy am I happy to have them when the weather goes below freezing, though I regret the ducks that died to keep my fingers warm.  I often wear one pair and carry another, because a daytime ride, especially if it's sunny out, can be a lot warmer than a trip before dawn or after dark.

I have a seriously bright rechargeable headlight, bright enough to see the road on the suburban end of the commute and to get people's attention on the New York end.  Blinking rear lights on both seat post and helmet, though the helmet cover blocks the latter, and this winter I want to try to find something brighter and, frankly, more obnoxious for the back.  

That's a bit tough with the Brompton, as the seatpost needs to slip into the down tube every time I fold the bike (three times a day), and the back of the rear rack is too low to the ground for good visibility.  Let me know if you have any good ideas, okay?

Finally, I have both jacket and vest in lovely shades of neon with reflective strips.  Reflective ankle straps that I don't really use, because they keep slipping off the bottom of the pants legs and then getting hidden under them.  Studies show reflective moving parts are more visible to cars than static ones (e.g. reflectors on the torso which for a car approaching from front or back don't appear to move), so I need to work on that too.

It remains a work in progress.

16 October 2013

Some Appreciations

I decided some months ago, maybe already a year, to quit complaining all the time about all the ways the bike lanes get blocked.  Lately -- it's high tourist season in NYC -- it's been ... a challenge.  Instead, a few observations about things that go right.


I stopped at a Halal sidewalk truck this morning for some falafel for second breakfast (to make up for missing dinner yesterday).  The guy working the cart hadn't yet started deep-frying the first batch of falafel, but I had time, so I waited and watched while he got things up and running for the day.

It dawned on me that storing and organizing everything that's needed to serve all the various meals they serve is both an art and a science.


A few weeks ago, I had a wait in traffic at an intersection with construction on the cross street, bringing it down to one lane, plus turn lanes both directions for the street I was on.

From the front of the line of cars, I had a clear view of the police officer controlling traffic at the intersection. He ignored the traffic lights and worked his own rhythm to keep everyone moving as efficiently as possible.  I was tempted to roll down the car windows and applaud.


Every day, there are many car and truck drivers who give me plenty of space on the road, wait while I make a turn, and just generally *see* me, and act accordingly.


Conductors on the NJ Transit trains have to deal with a lot of hassles from passengers -- drunks, obstreperous loud youths, people hiding in the bathrooms or otherwise trying to avoid paying for the trip, and probably a whole lot of other stuff I don't have to see.  But they're polite and professional and many always have a smile and a friendly comment.


I fumbled while trying to replace the water in the office water cooler the other week, and dropped the five-gallon bottle on the floor.  It broke.

A colleague picked it up and drained it in the bathroom sink, and the student worker on duty called the facilities people, who came and cleaned up the mess with a wet vac -- all while I ran off to teach my class.


The Mate is busy making a movie, but he's been carrying the second shift at home as I go into crazy-busy work mode.  When I got home yesterday, the laundry was done, the bathrooms clean, and the vacuum cleaner out.  He makes me coffee almost every morning, too.


Can't forget the dog.  No matter how long I've been away, he races to the door on his little legs to greet me with entire body wagging.


This is a start: only a few of the ways I'm blessed every day.  It's done me good to recount them.

12 October 2013

Car Culture -- Some Definitions

Car culture is thinking a car is the best way to get people and things from place to place.
Car culture is designing communities so that a car becomes the only (safe, convenient, efficient) way to move people and things.
Car culture is assuming that all bikers are scofflaws because some bikers run red lights or ride against traffic on a one-way street.
Car culture is ignoring or discounting the frequency with which drivers break the law -- running red lights, making illegal turns, ignoring yield signs, exceeding the speed limit, double-parking (for instance, in bike lanes).
Car culture is assuming that a bike and a car should be treated equivalently in traffic, ignoring the car's 3000-pound and 180-horsepower advantages.
Car culture is demanding ubiquitous and convenient free parking, in sufficient excess as to make it available even in times of highest use.
Car culture is referring to collisions between vehicles, or between cars and pedestrians or cyclists, as "accidents."
Car culture is lining streets with parked cars, reducing visibility and aesthetics and space for other activities.
Car culture is believing that no other alternative is possible.

What else is car culture?  Tell me what I've missed.