It’s only the second week of classes, and already I’m quite seriously behind. The reason is that there is so much remedial teaching I have to do that I keep running out of time before getting to the subject of the course.

It would be great if the students knew what the Roman Empire was, realized what the term “the Middle Ages” refers to, could find Mexico on a map, didn’t mix up Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and were aware of the fact that the US did not exist in year 711. There are also problems with vocabulary, and I have to stop every two minutes to explain words like “indigenous,” “feudal,” “aqueduct,” “nomadic,” “synagogue,” “lyrical,” etc. Several students didn’t know how to spell the word “Muslim.” The weirdest version that it took me a while to decipher was “moslium.” Maybe this student thought I was referring to a chemical element like potassium or cadmium. Several students didn’t know what a mosque was.

Explaining all this devours class time like I can’t begin to tell you.


Language of Love

I’m not surprised that to the question “Which group of languages does Spanish belong to?” many students responded “Romantic languages.”

But when a student wrote that it belonged to the group called “Languages of Love”, that was kind of too much.

A Reason to Abolish USPS

You know how USPS is often adduced as an example of a service provided by the government that is efficient, reliable, and used by everybody?

Well, I just discovered that Libertarians have a very bizarre argument in support of abolishing the USPS. Their argument – of all the thing in the world – is the environment. USPS, they say, delivers all those annoying ad circulars and commercial promotion packages. FedEx – an example of government-free truly commercial enterprise – doesn’t. This means that abolishing the USPS will not only reduce the government’s control over our lives but will also save the environment.

I have to say that of all the strange, convoluted Libertarian arguments I have had the misfortune of hearing this one is the most outlandish so far. “Let’s abolish the USPS to save the environment” is a very inventive argument. Of course, when you start coming up with something this weird, it’s a sign your position is quite untenable and you realize it.

Your Area’s Racial Makeup

Thanks to feMOMhist I discovered this interactive map that shows you the racial makeup of your zip code area. Mine is: 98,1% of population is white. What’s yours?

The data in the map is based on the census. Press here to access the map and enter your zip code.

Learned Patterns of Behavior

So I’m reading the Stupid Motivational Tricks Blog where Jonathan describes his system of grading students’ papers. Students send their papers to him by email and he enters corrections as comments in the Word document:

I never print anything. Students never print anything. I never have to struggle with my own handwriting. Students never struggle with my handwriting. I never lose a paper. Students never come late to class because they are still printing the paper due that day. I never struggle with a paper printed with an exhausted toner cartridge. Students get their papers back even if they are absent on the day papers are returned. I have an electronic record of the grades on each paper. The turn-over on papers is faster and more efficient. I never spill coffee on a student paper. Students can revise their papers by accepting my changes and going from there.

I never use this system. To the contrary, I’m a martinet when it comes to the way students hand in their papers. I insist that they never ever ever submit an essay in a file attachment. Essays have to be printed out and handed in to me in paper form. Then, I have to lug a heavy stack of essays around and try to fit my comments in between lines and on the margins.

And do you know why I use this inconvenient system instead of doing what Jonathan does and making my own life easier?

Because when I was a student my professors always insisted that papers be handed in to them in the paper format. I have no idea what the motivation behind this policy was (maybe people were simply uncomfortable with the Internet). I simply heard the exhortations not to send essays to the professor as a file attachment so many times that I started copying this practice in my own teaching.

Just think about how often we do things just because we’ve seen others do them and we simply imitate their actions unquestioningly.

And the Prize for Guessing the Correct Answer in the Penultimate Post Goes to. . .

. . . reader Thoreau whose enlightening blog you can find right here.

The great invention of the XXth century that impressed the people lost in the taiga was:

The plastic bag! “It’s a glass that crumples but doesn’t break!” they kept exclaiming. Who cares about television and refrigeration when the miracle of the plastic bag exists!

I’m preparing a lecture on the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and this story will help me to make the point about the complexities of an intra-civilizational dialogue.

Have I Missed Anything?

I love my students and everything, but there is one question that they tend to ask that invariably annoys me.

“I haven’t been in class since the semester started,” a student tells me. “Have I missed anything?”

Oh no, not at all. These five lectures we have had since classes started? We just twiddled our thumbs in complete silence. That’s what I get paid for, you know. For not communicating anything of importance to the students over the course of 5 class meetings. It’s actually so rare that I manage to contribute anything of value to the classes I teach that you should feel free not to show up for as long as you wish.

Couldn’t the question just be worded in a less annoying way? Like, for example, “Could you tell me what I missed?”

Or, better yet, “What can I do to catch up?”

Or, best of all, “What can I do to catch up with all the extremely important, fascinating and crucial material that you have been delivering with a great passion and profound knowledge of the subject matter during every class meeting and that I had the horrible bad luck of missing?”