Ok, That’s A First

Twice today, students asked questions that I had previously examined on this blog, such that my immediate thought was “oh, I’ll just recite this verse”. Which, of course, I did not. I gave a nice, thorough, completely prose response.

I need to get more people reciting my verses as answers to classroom questions, so that I can do so without raising suspicion.

In the future, anapestic tetrameter will replace powerpoint as the go-to presentation format.

Opening College Doors To Cults?

I don’t like teaching;
I don’t like students;
I don’t know their faces;
I don’t know their names.
I don’t like service;
I don’t like advising;
I don’t like playing
Departmental games
My at-risk students
Go unsupported
A fully expected,
If tragic, result—
We must do something
That costs me nothing:
Let’s outsource the problem
And call in a cult.

Marshall Poe, writing in The Atlantic, suggests that Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students. You see, teachers and administrators are in loco parentis, and some of us are far more loco than parentis.

I used to teach at a big land-grant university in Midwest. In that capacity, I did what most professors do. A third of my job was research, a third was teaching, and a third was service (committee work and such). I was a very conscientious researcher, a somewhat conscientious teacher, and avoided service whenever I could. I do not think I was unusual in this regard. Most professors at big universities love research, are lukewarm about teaching, and loathe service. This is why they are always after sabbaticals. They want to write books, not teach undergraduates or serve on curriculum committees.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I did not know my undergraduates very well. I taught a “two-two” load, meaning two courses a semester. One of those was a tiny graduate seminar, meaning no undergraduates. Each of my undergraduate courses met for about two hours a week, three at the outside. On average, then, I saw my undergraduates for four to six hours a week one semester and for two to four hours a week in the other. When I say “saw,” I mean exactly that. Typically, I stood at a lectern and lectured to them. I never really interacted with them. They were just faces. Of course, being a somewhat conscientious teacher, I invited them to my office hours. They almost never came, and I knew they wouldn’t. Again, I would say that my experience with undergraduates was fairly typical.

The “False Consensus Effect” is a real thing. Poe knows he paints a horrible picture of a university professor, so to make himself look better in comparison, he claims that everyone else is just as bad. Poe makes me feel much better about Cuttlefish University, where even the most research-oriented profs actually do (or convincingly pretend to) give a rat’s ass about undergraduates. But (good news, everybody!) Poe was forced to do some undergraduate advising, where he found that for some unknown reason, these students were not being well served by their academic environment:

What I discovered was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost. They were bright kids. Many of them had looked forward to going to the university all their lives. College was, in their imaginations, a sort of promised land, a place where you find your calling and get the skills necessary to pursue it. What they found, however, was not a promised land at all. To them, the college curriculum was a bewildering jumble of classes that led to nothing in particular. Take this, take that, it doesn’t really matter so long as it “counts” toward your major and graduation. They learned to pick classes not on the basis of interest or relevance, but simply because they fit nicely into their schedules. To them, campus life revolved around bread and circus. The university funded huge events—football games being the most important—in which drunkenness was the order of the day. One of my standard in-take questions came to be “Have you been arrested for public drunkenness?” To them, the prospect of graduating was terrifying. They knew that the university had not prepared them for any particular line of work. The answer to “What are you going to do next” was usually “Go to graduate school” or “Get a job.” What graduate school and what job didn’t matter; any would do.

I also learned that because they were adrift in so many ways, they suffered. It was not difficult to get them talking about their distress, probably because no one at the university had ever thought to inquire. There were those who drank too much and got into trouble. There were those who were full-blown alcoholics or drug addicts. There were those who were too depressed to go to classes. There were those who cut and starved themselves. There were those who thought of killing themselves and some who even tried. There were those who fought with their roommates. There were those who, having fought with their roommates, were in the hospital or homeless. And, more than anything else, there were those who said “Fuck it” and just dropped out.

So he championed major reforms, demanding that the undergraduates who pay the bills are treated with at least minimal standards of dignity. So he gave up. Sure, he reports his efforts at trying to get the university to change, but realized that doing the right thing would be difficult and expensive (read: unacceptable to a university filled with people who shared his priorities on the worth of undergraduates). So… ah! Genius!

One of the results of Poe’s sadly accurate description of undergraduate life is, college students are frequent targets of cult recruiters. Cults see a population adrift, and give them a rudder. Or an anchor, or maybe an outboard motor, whatever metaphor actually works. It’s a match made in heaven, or maybe hell, but religious groups are champing at the bit to be invited to get their hooks into these kids help these poor students, and Poe wants to open the doors wide and invite religious teachers–not religious studies teachers, but actual priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, elders, lamas, gurus, mullahs, chaplains, abbots, witches, medicine men, deacons, apostles, ayatollahs, and the like. Well, he actually mentions only three Abrahamic traditions and atheism, but once a state university opens the door to one, any sect can demand equal treatment, and if he wants some available for academic credit, then he is really proposing that every university employ a cadre of religious teachers of all conceivable denominations. To pass constitutional muster, it would have to be an open forum, independent of the percentage of adherents, subsidized by the university (and undergraduate tuition) as needed.

Because the alternative is fixing a system that treats undergraduates like an inconvenient side effect of the need to fund a research university.

(Ophelia’s take.)

Bad News From North Carolina: Christian Love Strikes Again

I thought I saw an atheist
Among the kids at school
Who didn’t understand that, here,
The Christian bullies rule
You may call it “brave” or “foolish”
But she dared to show her face
I may have seen an atheist…
They put her in her place.

I thought I saw an atheist,
According to report,
Who thought she’d start a godless group
For mutual support
But no such group was needed—
This is how the story ends—
The local bullies threatened her,
Her family, her friends

I thought I saw an atheist
As hopeful as she’s brave
If such a girl surrenders,
Then the situation’s grave
She made the choice she had to make—
The threats were aimed at her
I thought I saw an atheist
Show Christians what they were

I thought I saw a Christian town
Displaying Christian love
Who know they get morality
From heaven up above
With threats of harm directed at
Those different in their sight
Yes, by their acts we know them…
That’s Christian love, all right.

Via Hemant, the not-terribly-unexpected news (though saddening and maddening) that Canton, North Carolina will not be getting an atheist club in their school after all. Oh, it’s not that the town suddenly found a legal argument. No, they shut this one down the old-fashioned way, through bullying, intimidation, and threats to the 15-year-old girl who was looking to form the club, and to her family and friends.

I expect the good, tolerant christian folk of North Carolina to spring to her aid, identifying and denouncing the bullies… any century now.

Atheism In Virginia

The Telegraph (UK) has a really nice report on the state of atheism in the state of Virginia–including contrasting reports of Virginia Tech and Liberty University. The very real concerns of atheists in Virginia make me sad for them, but very happy I am in a considerably less religious state.

Attached to the story is this video–the atheists at Liberty University, of course, have to appear in shadow if they want to remain there.

The recent shift in the gay marriage debate is evidence, say secularists, of how fast entrenched public attitudes can change: a decade ago just 30 per cent of Americans supported gay marriage, today the figure is consistently over 55 per cent. A decade from now, will attitudes to religion have followed suit?
And yet despite the softening approach of the younger generation towards religion, in this fiercely Bible-minded corner of Virginia, many atheists and agnostics still feel they must live in the shadows.
In two days of interviews at least half of the avowed non-believers declined to be named in the Telegraph, citing fears they would be ostracised by friends, family, churches and even their employers.

One grad student expresses worry that her atheism could hurt her in a job search:

“I’m more concerned about getting a job than losing one,” she said. “I know they Google you and while I can’t hide my atheism, I don’t really want to advertise it.
“If the person hiring is a person of faith – which is more likely than not around here – that could easily be the difference between a job and no job. And I have student loans. I need a job.”

As an undergrad, Cuttledaughter had to keep her atheism to herself at her research position, though she found it odd that such high-powered, well-respected disease researchers were, as she put it, “scary religious”. She needed the experience and the recommendations, so she sat there with her mouth shut while her colleagues and superiors talked about, say, how foolish the atheists were who wanted the decalogue monuments or nativity scenes removed from courthouses, or who took schools to court for school-led prayer.

Lubbock Is Flat. Earth Is Not.

In Texas, a creationist once took a look around
And he noticed that the world he saw was flat
When you live your life in Lubbock, there are no hills to be found,
And it’s Lubbock the creationist was at.

And he looked around the grasslands, just as far as he could see,
To the distant shapes of longhorn cattle ranging
And since none of them bore puppies, it’s as plain as it could be
Evolution was a farce, and life unchanging

So he tried to share his wisdom, cos the state could ill afford
Teaching kids the world is different than it looks
Now he acts as an advisor to the education board
Giving input when they choose their science books.

If it’s good enough for Lubbock, then it’s good enough for all
And the world is flat, unchanging, young, and hot—
It’s ironic that a Texan would be prone to thinking small
But the truth is, Lubbock’s flat; the earth is not.

So I got sent a link today to the Texas Freedom Network’s campaign to get the Texas School Board to listen to the facts. They also have a petition…

Lubbock is flat. Earth is not. Will Texas textbooks teach the difference?

Me, I just like the prairie dog.

What? You Disagree With Me?

Professor Cuttlefish? I’m scared;
I feel I might be unprepared—
I understand your point, but see,
I think I disagree!

My other classes share a view
That isn’t really shared by you
It sometimes feels like splitting hairs,
But really, I like theirs!

I’ve got this fear I cannot mask
So, much as I’m afraid to ask,
Still, all in all, I think it best…
Will this be on the test?

I don’t mean will it just be there—
Of course it will, I’m well aware—
But will it cost me points? A few?
To disagree with you?

Your other classes disagree—
With what you’ve learned, so far, from me;
It’s possible, of course, they might
Just have the view that’s right

It could just be that I am wrong—
I’ve been deluded all along—
Succumbing to some oversight
And you could set me right

The only thing that I demand
Is that you truly understand;
To know that what I mean is this
Before you just dismiss.

And if your answers represent
The point of view I really meant
While disagreeing anyway…
You’ll still have earned your “A”

And when, sometime, you recognize
Your other profs are telling lies
About my different point of view…
Then (really!), good for you!

Based on a comment from a student this week, but changed and distorted beyond any recognition, cos I don’t like to write about my real life.

Oh, Texas! Don’t Ever… Evolve.

The bible is my textbook;
It’s the only one I need
It’s got all the information
That a person ought to read
Any open-minded scientist
Would certainly concede
It’s a better book than Darwin’s is, by far!

It’s the universe’s history—
All several thousand years—
And it shows how evolution’s
Not as strong as it appears
(Cos it’s atheistic scientists
Just covering their fears);
God created things exactly as they are

So it’s time to put the bible
Into all our Texas schools!
It’s against the constitution,
But they always say, of rules,
That they’re there for us to break them,
So watch out, you godless fools
We will have our way, through providence divine!

Yes, we’ll earn our reputation
As a stubborn, backward state
Though it’s really not the people,
It’s the board that guards the gate
So the people watch in horror
As creationists debate…
See, it’s what you call intelligent design.

Context here or here.

Related Post: The Bible As Textbook

Unintended Consequences; or, Get Off Of My Lawn!

My parents worked through poverty,
Through hardship and through strife,
In part so we, their children, had
A better chance at life

And we, their sons and daughters,
With our parents’ words well heeded
Have worked so that our children, too
Have better lives than we did.

To make the world a better place
Each generation’s toiled…
And when it worked, our folks complained
That kids these days are spoiled.

So I’ve been helping, these past few days, my niece move into her new apartment, preparing for grad school. My parents were also visiting at the time, and helping as well.

And so it is that we know how much bigger this apartment is than the one they started out in, and how they got by with just two cooking pans, cracked plates, mismatched cutlery, and let’s not even get started on things like a TV. “The one thing we couldn’t give you is the one thing that did the most for us, and that’s poverty.”

I’m calling bullshit. This is the same romanticizing of the past that leads people to vaccine denialism–people were stronger back when they had to struggle with measles, polio, and whooping cough. Kids these days have it too easy, with their vaccines, their child labor laws, their health care, and an infrastructure that puts the accumulated knowledge of the world at their fingertips. We didn’t have computers back then, and we are better for it.

Back when my parents actually were poor (and even then, I suspect their own parents had a different view of it–my dad’s father built their house by hand, even digging the basement himself, so quit your complaining about a small apartment someone had already built)… where was I? Oh, yeah, back when my parents actually were poor, poverty was not a character builder, it was something to be escaped, or better yet, avoided. Any decent human being would work so that their children would not have to experience the poverty they did.

And it worked. Well, it worked for some, my privileged self included. My parents gave me a start that their parents could not give them. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to do the same thing for my children. As did my siblings. As did countless other parents, generations of people doing their best to change the world for the better. Our power grid is better (well, at present it is aging); our water and waste systems are better; our telecommunication structure, our food distribution, our information superstructure, all better (again, for the privileged, including my parents and my family).

It worked. Now, my kids and nieces and nephews, and their generation, can answer questions in seconds, that we had to find a library and look for appropriate sources and hope they were available and yadda yadda yadda… and which my parents’ generation might not have even attempted to answer, or asked in the first place. The world is different; it always is. It was not better to have to work for those particular answers, it was just more difficult. Now that the answers can be found easily, the newer generation can spend that effort pushing the envelope. Look at the astounding progress of science in recent decades; in part, that is possible because technology has made the difficult tasks easier, so that the hard work can be devoted to the hard tasks.

We should not romanticize poverty. If we do, it is too tempting to choose not to fight it. And just as childhood illnesses could have long-reaching consequences that last decades, poverty has long-reaching consequences, that can span decades and cultures. Vaccines can spare us much of the cost of these diseases. Education and health care are a good start at sparing us the costs of poverty.

And when it works, we should appreciate that success, not belittle it. It makes no sense at all to promote doing easy things the hard way, when we have enough hard problems to go around.

So, yes, my niece has a nice apartment. Congratulations, Grandma and Grandpa–you have succeeded in making the world a better place for your kids and theirs. Thank you, sincerely and from the bottom of my hearts. We couldn’t have done it without you. And think–if she were starting out as you started out, all your hard work would have been for nothing.

So hush now, and be proud–of her, and of yourselves. And watch, cos it’s her turn now to work on the hard problems. And because we have some real hard problems, aren’t you glad you gave her a running start?

Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

“Religious Values” classes have been fading from the schools
Although, strangely, their inclusion wasn’t breaking any rules
It didn’t take a lawsuit, or a dozen, or a score
Just… the Christian volunteers weren’t volunteering any more

A story out of New Zealand, with a title I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see in the US: Adherence to religion falling fast.

For generations of pupils at Midhirst’s closeknit primary school, the weekly routine included half an hour of religious instruction.

“No-one ever opted out and the children loved it,” principal Stuart Beissel says.

“Things have changed over the years. We don’t have all the people going to church any more, but I think people still hold the basic values of the Bible.”

But after decades without interruption, religious instruction has ended at Midhirst.

“All the great people that took religious instruction moved out of the district or retired,” Mr Beissel says.

It’s a trend being seen across the country. A survey of 1800 primary and intermediate schools carried out by rationalist David Hines showed 62 state schools had dropped religious instruction since 2011, mainly because of a lack of volunteers able to teach it.

It’s quite a lengthy article, actually, which gives it the space for a really nicely thorough analysis of the situation, with the input from reasonable people all around–some who find the change alarming, and others who are actively encouraging it. This is a big social change, and that is explored as well.

“I asked a principal who just cancelled Bible In Schools – I said ‘would you say it’s biased?’ – he said it was biased by omission. They mention there are good Christians around. They don’t mention there are good Muslims and Hindus around, so they create a bias by just what they don’t say.”

The bias is not just against other religions but against those without religion – a group to which 36 per cent of the population claimed to belong in the 2006 census. Should trends continue, the 2013 census is likely to show this group has grown to 40 per cent.

This is a stunning turnaround from 1956, when just 0.5 per cent of New Zealanders indicated they had no religion. But it was in that religion-soaked climate that the Education Act 1964 was passed and it is this act that allows religious instruction in otherwise secular state schools.

I also like that the story closes with specific definitions of “secular state” and “secular education”. Such inclusions might spare a lot of rancor on sites like Fox or CNN, where it’s not so much a duel of definitions, but a mob of them.

Oh, and for those who like such things, there is a poll at the article: Do you think state schools should conduct religious instruction for primary-aged children?

But wouldn’t it be nice to have establishment clause battles cease here in the US, simply because (e.g.) nobody was motivated enough to get on the school public address system and recite a prayer?

Wait–Voting Again, Already?

It’s Time–that is, it’s time for Time,
If I could make that clear
For me to plead for votes, in rhyme,
For Person Of The Year.

Yep, Time Magazine is getting ready to name their Person of the Year. There are the usual politicians (failed and successful), the usual power brokers (failed and successful), the usual celebrities, the obligatory quirky mentions (Higgs-Boson Particle and Mars Rover) and (this being an Olympic year) the occasional Olympic athlete.

And there is Malala Yousafzai.

You can vote people up or vote them down. I was surprised and pleased to see her name at the top of the list after I voted, but there are many days to go.

I can’t pharyngulate a poll, but I can certainly try to Sepiate one.

(And yes, you can vote for more than one, so the Rover can be runner-up…)