Fire and Freakiness

Have you noticed how freaky people are all obsessed with the word “fire”? See, for example, the “fired with enthusiasm” bit on this motivational poster. Or the expression fundamentalists love, “being on fire for Jesus.” When a student used it in an email to me, I was creeped out for a week. And then there is Sarah Palin with her “fire in the belly.”

I’m trying not to read this fire that slowly creeps down towards one’s private parts psychoanalytically but it’s kind of hard.

Here is a related video on fires in bellies for your viewing pleasure.

Deodorant, Autism, and Green Businesses

Blogger Jenn at the Green Phonebooth wrote a very kind and complimentary piece about a small company called The Duggan Sisters. She mentioned a deodorant they make that is greener and better for your health. Jenn praised the product but mentioned that the price of $27 seemed too high for a deodorant that only had 3 ingredients. In response, the company’s owner published a mile-long piece that is the strangest communication from any business owner I have ever seen. I put some parts of it in a PowerPoint slide for you. On the left, you see an excerpt from Jenn’s post that you can find here. On the right, you can see small excerpts from Mary Duggan’s report that can be read in its entirety here.

There is a lot more in the response which is very long, detailed, and aggressive.

The reason why I’m publishing this post is not just that I like Jenn and feel surprised that she got attacked in return for writing a very kind post about a small business. What bothers me is that alternative medicine and green lifestyles often get undermined by being presented in a way they were in Duggan’s response. There are many assertions for which no sources are ever cited. There is even what I interpret as a suggestion that some link exists between autism and deodorant (as a Soviet autistic child of another Soviet autistic, I’m kind of stunned by something like this). Here is the quote in question:

My sister Annie and I applaud folks who want to make their own deodorant or soap or candles or lotions. However, we have been working with thousands of busy mommies and daddies for the past decade and we find that few of them have any desire to return to Little House on the Prairie skill sets. More often, they hound us for solutions and guidance in dealing with their children’s autism, learning disabilities, psoriasis, depression, behavioral disorders, explosive diarrhea in the 5thgrade, that sort of thing.

On the company’s website, there is also a suggestion that depression is somehow caused by eating fast food, which is another statement that I find very irresponsible and kind of offensive to the folks who suffer from depression.

I think everybody here has already realized that I’m a very strong believer in seeking non-chemical solutions to health issues. I know people who used natural medicine to cure themselves of very serious diseases. However, placing autism, diarrhea, psoriasis and depression on one list and casually linking these very different issues to “deodorant or soap or candles or lotions” or fast food consumption does not, in my opinion, promote the cause of healthier, greener lifestyles. In any case, Jenn has voiced her objections to Mary Duggan’s response better than I ever could here.

Stupid Apple or Stupid Professor?

And of course some enemy of humanity installed an Apple computer in the smart classroom where I teach this semester. Now I can’t turn it on because – and this might be because of my flu – I have no idea where the actual body of the computer is. I found the monitor with an apple on it, the projector panel, the sound system, the VCR, the DVD, but not the computer itself.

So you can just imagine my call to technical support.

“The computer in my classroom doesn’t work!”

“OK, have you tried turning it on?”

“I can’t find this big box with the button I need to press to turn it on. I looked everywhere!”

IT person in an aside to a colleague, “I wonder who gives out PhDs to such doofuses.”

After Taxes: Canada vs US

My sister calculated that, if I lived in Quebec, to take home the amount I do now after taxes I would have to make $15,000 more per year*.

With progressive taxation, it gets worse. A person who makes $100,000 in the US would have to make about $170,000 in Canada.

* In case anybody is wondering, the salaries of tenure-track Assistant Professors are lower in Quebec than pretty much anywhere in the US.

Two Reasons Not to Have Children

1. You’ll have to start watching films like Harry Potter and learn the names of Disney characters. More than anything, kids don’t want to be in any way different from their peers, so it’s an obligation of every parent to provide this kind of entertainment. I get this but the thought of sitting through a Disney movie gives me a panic attack.

2. You’ll have to hang out with other parents to organize play dates, birthday parties, etc. And there is nothing scarier than people whose primary sense of identity comes from parenthood. I’ll give you a little example.

I’m walking on campus when a colleague stops me.

“Hey, Clarissa, how are you?”

“I’m good, Samantha, just a little sick with the flu. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, thank you. So what have you been doing this summer?”

“Just research.”

“Oh, really? Well, I have no time to do research. Because I’m a MOM! I have TWO CHILDREN!! I have to take care of them, so I can’t just dedicate my time to doing research!!!”

By the end of the conversation, I felt like I was the one who’d gotten her pregnant and then run away to do my research while she was stuck with the kids.

Of course, there are people who don’t bug everybody into oblivion with their parenthood, but one’s chances of avoiding those who do diminish dramatically if one has children.

A Doom and Gloom Scenario for Professors

I’m too sick with flu to determine whether this weird article in Inside Higher Ed is some sort of a parody. So maybe my readers can help me figure it out. It is titled “Get Out While You Can” and presents a really apocalyptic scenario of tenured professors being fired in droves all over the country and being left jobless and broke. The author believes in the imminence of this scenario because of the tired old story about the crazy Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids to drop out of college. Apparently, without these very stupid students the entire system of higher education is doomed to collapse extremely soon.

Another bugbear discussed in the article is the scary online education that is going to administer itself without any input from actual professors. I wish the technology-hater who wrote the article provided some links to the places where online courses get generated and administered all on their own. This would save me a lot of time I’m about to spend trying to prepare my own online course. Remember those sci-fi novels from the fifties that kept scaring us about how soon robots and computers would replace real people? It must be the same computers that will run our online courses for us.

The other sign that the author is still hopelessly stuck in the fifties can be found in the following sentence:

If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this. [Some video game excerpt is inserted here]

The good news is that, nowadays, not only are women allowed to attend college, they also get more degrees than men. Also, in spite of the author’s contempt towards 18-year-old males, many of them can recognize the value of a good education well enough.

According to the article, the only reason anybody goes to college is to avoid some imaginary stigma that attaches to you in case you don’t have a college degree. Remember, this is an educator writing. An educator who has obviously not talked to an actual student in decades. The conclusion by this author who is currently writing a book about the danger of smart people and smart technology is fit material for a standup routine:

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.

I was wriggling with laughter after the very first sentence. After the second one, I started to hiccup from laughter. When I finished reading the article, though, I paused and thought, “What if this very disturbed person is speaking in earnest? And if so, then how can anybody argue that this sort of professor is fit to be retained in his job?”

How Not to Deliver a PowerPoint Presentation

Today I have finally figured out why so many people cringe when they hear about the use of PowerPoint presentations for teaching. I use PowerPoints a lot and find them very helpful. More importantly, my students love them. So I was always puzzled by reports on how much students hate PPs. I kept persecuting my own students, begging them to tell me the truth about their presumed hatred of PowerPoint. Still, they loudly insisted that my presentations were great.

It turns out, however, that there are people who are capable of using PowerPoint to turn even the most fascinating discussion into an intolerable drag. For this reason, I decided to compile a short list of what you should not do when you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation.

1. Don’t read it. If a certain text already appears on the PP, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat it out loud. This bores people just as much as it would if you brought a textbook that everybody has in their hands and started reading from it. What you say has to be different from what people can see on the slides.

2. Bullet points should be short. They also don’t need to be repeated. Once again, if people can read it, they don’t need to hear it said aloud. Here is a random slide from one of my PPs:

When the slide appears, I don’t repeat what it says. Rather, I explain what the points mean.

3. Don’t read quotes. Nothing is more annoying than having a presenter read a long quote from a PP. If you put up a quote, it should be done to achieve some goal. For example, you can use it to start a discussion.

I usually put up a quote, ask students to break up in groups, go over the text, and answer the questions in a group discussion. This allows to avoid endless page rustling and complaints about how they brought the wrong text to class or how their little brother ate their textbook. The only time when I read a passage out loud is when I want to draw attention to its artistic qualities. Otherwise, reading aloud is a simple waste of time.

4. Drop the cutesy pictures. Sometimes, people add pictures to their PPs that carry no informational value. This infantilizes and annoys the audience. Unless a picture illustrates a point and can be discussed within the framework of the presentation, it makes no sense to include it.

I use this picture in a discussion of Sarmiento’s Facundo. Since students have no idea who gauchos are, it helps to have a visual aide. We can discuss different kinds of visual representation of the gauchos and contrast them with Sarmiento’s description. However, sticking a photo of a man on a horse into a PP that has nothing to do with people on horses is senseless.

PowerPoint is a great tool if used by people who explore its potential instead of using it as a device to bore their audiences stiff.