Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dear Absent Students, Please Make up your Zarking Minds.

Dear Absent Students

I’ve been meaning to write for a while now.  I followed the news last spring and summer, and I’m concerned.  Seems there were big rallies through the streets of Capitol City, over a possible rise in tuition.  They went on for months on end.  It sounded bad.  Student leaders made speeches about the importance of education.  They spoke passionately about access.  They issued dire warnings that higher tuition imperils the future of a generation!  Placards everywhere declared Education to be a Right!  Such enthusiasm.  Such motivation.  Such thirst for knowledge!  And so it was with these stirring words ringing in my ears that I jumped out of bead and sallied forth to greet the new semester and… and um…

Where in the Zarking Fardwarks were you?

 I’m confused.  Why exactly did you strive so passionately for education when some of you won’t even plunk your ass in a lecture hall?  And so it is that I write to ask you, for the love of all freakin’ Belgium, to Please make up your Zarking minds!  What do you mean when you chant that education is a right?  Is it a vitally important passport to Winning the Brave New Future – one from which you are being barred by exorbitant tuition?  Or do you mean it is some godawful waste of time that once paid for you are at liberty to completely ignore?  Or more concisely, do you want to learn from me or not?

See, I know you don’t really believe this, but I put a lot of thought into what I’m hoping to teach you.  I formulate detailed learning objectives that will be relevant to your future careers in the burgeoning field of hamster husbandry.  I carefully select the examples I will use to illustrate the concepts.  I work up detailed graphics, linking each one to readings in the text.  I post them on Blackholeboard before the lectures so you don’t have to scribble down my slides.  I make an effort to convey my passion for hamsters (no not that kind of passion – get your mind out of the gutter).  And when I see you approach me after class I eagerly anticipate your questions, your probing desire to know more...

"What chapters are on the test?"

Seriously?That’s all you want to know?  One minute you want feedback on your progress.  So I set weekly homework.  Then that’s too much work.  So I scrap the homework and post the assignments as practice exercises.  Naturally, you stop doing them.  If I have one midterm, it’s too high stakes and you freak out.  If I have many quizzes, it’s too many – and you freak out. 

OK, OK, I get it.  Many of you know exactly what you want.  You want a piece of paper saying that you are just sooper-dooper-awesome.  You want to trade that paper for a job where you get more pieces of paper – the ones that say “this note has legal tender and must be accepted in payment of all debts, public and private.”  I get it.  I’m quite keen on those pieces of paper myself – let me tell you, they come in pretty handy round here, bub.  But when you sign up for my Hamsters for Criminologists course I’m starting to think that all some of you really want is for me to tell you where to put the hamster scrapings, swabs or exudates into the machine so it will do the analysis for you.  After all, that’s what you see the actors doing on “CSI: Iqaluit”, or wherever it is that you develop your worldview.

Trouble is – if all you can do is feed something into a machine, it’s only going to be so long before they invent another machine that automatically feeds the first machine.  Face it, if a computer can win Jeopardy, how hard is it going to be for one to ask (sorry “axe”) me whether I want fries with that?  If you want to make the big bucks, you need to offer some sort of intellectual value-added.  “You didn’t tell me” isn’t going to cut it.  You’re going to have to offer something the machine can’t do.  Critical thinking perhaps.
And I’m laying out the tools to do that.  You need to decide whether you’re going to pick them up.  They’re awkward.  They’re probably unfamiliar to you.  You’re going to hit your thumb with them a few times before you get the hang of them.  You have to look at them from different angles to figure out how they work.  You need the theory, not just the practice, and certainly not just the test-prep.  You can’t memorize them.  You can’t fake them.

And you definitely, absolutely, positively, can NOT download them from the interwebz. 

So what’s it going to be?  Take your time.  Give it some thought over the weekend.  And those of you that want to learn more…  I’ll see you in class on Monday.

I remain etc.

Rosencrantz A. Guildenstern

Department of Hamster Husbandry
University of Tuktoyaktuk


  1. It is never wise to treat the mob as a single sensible being.

  2. They want a piece of paper that can be traded in for wage-slavery. The piece of paper should cost as little as possible in money and time. Where's the contradiction?

    1. Good point. If all they want is a life of wage slavery, MOOCs are here. Perfect if the goal is getting a piece of paper with little effort (and all that online fun with "star professors".)

      Maybe we need to do more to let them know there's another option. That if you're really, really good at something companies will throw money at you, or you can have a lifelong cushy job as a professor somewhere nice. But it requires long-term commitment, single-mindedness and an attention span, and I haven't met many flakes with those.

    2. I hate the acronym MOOC. It makes you say the word "mook" inside your head (a negative term meaning moron in its nicest use, a borderline racist term against the Chinese in its worst iteration). The phrase itself is unnecessary. Massive Open Online Course? Why not just say "Open Content" or something more descriptive? Why bother with "massive" even if 100 students take it at once?

      If we don't watch it, this pointless acronym will catch on and we'll all sound like racist idiots.

    3. I assume it's supposed to remind one of MMOs, Massively Multiplayer Online games (like World of Warcraft)-- it might be supposed to sound fun, or something.

    4. I think Dr. L is right about the derivation, but I don't like it much either. However, I'm afraid that the horse has left the barn so far as the name goes. The real question at this point is whether MOOCs are an educational fad/bubble that will disappear/pop soon enough (but probably not until after administrators have thrown a lot of money our institutions can ill afford at this particular will-o-the-wisp), or whether they will catch on. My guess is that they'll disappear fairly soon (but eat up considerable money and faculty energy chasing the dream of "efficient" online learning in the meantime).

    5. AC, they said "Mook" in the Lion King, so if anyone ever hassles me for saying it then that's going to be my defense. When I watched it with my kids I had to go look it up in a dictionary to find out what it meant as I'd never heard of the word before. I think that in itself is an indication that no one uses it as racial slur anymore, same way no one ever says "kyke" anymore (at least in this part of the world...) - much to the surprised delight of the anti-racism counselor who came to talk to our grade 8 class once, 25+ years ago, when someone put up their hand and asked "why do you keep saying 'kyke'? What does that even mean?" Of course, he told us what it meant, so we went from being 25 thirteen year olds completely naive about 'kyke', to spreading out in the schoolyard at recess and asking people "Hey, have you ever heard the word 'kyke' before? No? Well, here's what it means...." Go figure - btw, the counselor was Jewish, which made it all the more ironic that he schooled a brand new generation of students on a slur that otherwise would have fallen into the dustbin of history. And I didn't hear that worded uttered again until I watched the movie Porky's (when I was much, much older...).

    6. Perhaps Prof Poopiehead is confused about whether Disney makes racist movies?

    7. Seriously, Disney makes the MOST RACIST movies. I didn't know mook was a part of the Lion King, but are you surprised that a very racist company had racist words in it?

      This is fun:

    8. Re: MOOC, nearly off topic. I can't take MOOC seriously because it reminds me of the all-purpose response of the Librarian at the Unseen University in Discworld.

      Re: Disney, completely off topic. It's also quite sexist. I don't get why women like "Pretty Woman" or why Radio Disney (aimed at preteens and tweens) includes that song in its rotation.

    9. Other than seeing it in Lion King, I have NEVER in my life heard "mook" uttered, anywhere - which was really my main point, and why I brought up my "kyke" story - I've never heard it said as a slur except in Porky's. There are some slurs that a lot people just don't know are actually slurs, because they've fallen off the vocabulary list of most people, who've never, ever heard it uttered as a slur.

      PS. thanks for teaching me that "mook" is a racial slur. I sincerely didn't know that before. I'll keep that bit of information handy, and share it with my friends and family as a Fun Factoid.

    10. Yikes. Thanks, AM, for letting us know "mook" is a slur. I've been in the position of using words I didn't know had offensive meanings before, and as uncomfortable as that is for me as a well meaning liberal white person, I imagine it's worse for members of marginalized groups to encounter.

      I will continue to call the phenomenon "Coursera and all that." Meanwhile, I imagine Coursera is supposed to rhyme with Sarah, but it always makes me think of the cheesy old song "Le vent l'emportera."

  3. It was a lot warmer last spring and summer. It's cold now, and their beds are warm. Some of those beds even have people of whatever sex your students desire in them. QED.

  4. So in terms of the little green papers they want...

    15 class periods/unit

    $66 they throw away each time they skip.

    1. And they just want it all handed to them after being told they are all wonderful.

  5. I know we find it absurd, but when I assign a low grade that someone has earned, I get fewer complaints if I write a compliment in the margins next to the grade (or on the LMS we use). The compliment doesn't even have to relate to the assignment on which they earned a low grade. They want a piece of paper telling them they're wonderful; I give it to 'em, along with the 3/10 they earned. That seems to pacify 'em. I don't get it.

    1. I would've thought they'd be insulted at this transparent attempt to manipulate their emotions, but I think I'm going to try this next time I hand a test back. I wonder what works-- "I'm confident you'll do better next time" next to a 4/10=F? Maybe they're closer to small children than I ever thought.

    2. I never cease to be amazed by how close to such young children they increasingly become.