Year2019

The Meaning of Life: Consumption

 

A manufactured object obviously has a purpose that was built into it by its designers, but a lot of people do not believe this is true for human beings.

comment on TED in response to the question, “Does humanity have a purpose?” says, “Humanity has no unified purpose and I suggest that history shows us that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous (religion, eugenics…).”

It is true that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when the single purpose is one for which we were not designed.  If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder, the results can be disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose.

Giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when it's one for which we weren't designed. If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder--disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose. Click To Tweet

There is a danger in living for the wrong purpose, but perhaps it is just as dangerous to avoid purpose if we were actually created for one.

Our Default Purpose–Consumption

In our culture, one of the purposes we have collectively chosen for ourselves (or perhaps it has been subtly imposed upon us) is that of consumer–we buy things, lots of things.  The things we buy are designed to wear out after a time, or they are improved upon, so we throw out the old thing and buy another thing.  We are manipulated to be ever discontent and then offered things that will make us content.  It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s OK because contentment would be bad for the economy.

Were we made to consume?  Is this the purpose for which we were designed?

Zombies and Consumption

This question is a weak spot in the fence of our cultural identity and the hands of the undead are pawing at it.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume.  It ever eats, but is never satisfied.  It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.

Perhaps humans were not made for religion, but the zombie tells us that we weren’t made for consumption either.

If we were made for another purpose, the cure for the zombie is to orient its whole life toward that purpose.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume. It ever eats, but is never satisfied. It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.Click To Tweet

Designed for Relationship

I suggest that humanity is designed for relationship.

Not just any relationship, but the kind that is more interested in the flourishing of the other than the flourishing of the self.  Most people have caught at least a glimpse of what this relationship can be like.  Some lovers are like this–they are so interested in the happiness of the other one that they forget themselves.  Parents constantly set the needs of their children higher than their own.

The paradox in these sorts of relationships is the more you give, the more you get back–and not usually from the kids or even your lover.  It comes from someplace else and it’s so fulfilling.  It’s like you are a swivel chair being used as a swivel chair.

Sadly, not everyone has experienced this sort of relationship.

Zombies haven’t.  They are too busy eating other people.

In a consumer culture, other people can easily be reduced to something we can to use–in essence, something to consume–it makes us zombies.  Some people treat their employees this way.  Some men treat women this way, and women men.  Some kings, their subjects and some mothers, their children.

The good news is that there is a cure for zombies.

Here’s more analysis of the meaning of zombies.

Can I Please Have an Extension?

kang_hojun / Pixabay

This is a post for my students and their parents.  I’ve received emails from frustrated parents because I was hesitant to grant a request for an extension on a writing assignment.  Here I explain my refusal, not just to justify myself, but also to provide information so that parents and students can proactively avoid the circumstances that cause the frustration in the first place.

I have explained my two-draft system for teaching students how to write academic papers.  It’s a great system because student writing improves significantly, but it comes at a cost.  There is so much marking to do, and it’s the hardest kind of marking.

When I started this two-draft system, my marking was inefficient.  Today a class set of papers takes me 16 hours, a few years ago is was closer to 24.  I was marking for two weeks solid, as the papers trickled in.

Here's the thing about marking--if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours. If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3.Click To Tweet

I didn’t want to abandon the whole system, student writing was improving, but I needed to streamline the process and get the marking under control.  Now, I’ve done it.  Not only is my marking down to 16 hours for a set of papers, but I am seeing even better writing from students as a result of these changes.

The changes place some more responsibility on students.

Managing the Marking

Right now I have nearly 60 English 12 students, and I’m marking most papers twice.

In order to make the marking more manageable, I have established a due date/time for the first draft.  This date is firm.  If the paper comes in by this time, I mark it.  If it does not, I won’t even see it. I stop when I finish the last one.

The papers are always due on Saturday at 8 am.  Remember, there is no requirement to turn in the first draft, but if you want the feedback there is one condition–you have to turn it in for me to mark it.  And I mark them on Saturday.

It takes 10-12 minutes to mark each paper. I usually get around 45-50 first draft papers.

This adds up to about 10 hours of marking.  In order to get the papers back to students as fast as possible, I mark them all that day.  I mark until I have no more papers.  Then I stop.  If a paper comes in after this, I will not see it.

I have a due date/time for the second and final copy of the paper.  This time is also firm.  If a first draft paper has been submitted, this second draft is optional.  If a student wants me to mark their re-write, they need to turn it in, on time of course.  If I don’t get a paper, I assume the student has chosen to take the mark they earned on the first draft.

Sharing the Cost

Student writing has improved so much, that I regularly have students return to thank me for preparing them so well for university writing.  Their success is due in part to this two draft system.  But this success comes at a cost. The cost is shared by the students and myself.  The price I pay is giving up some Saturdays to provide thorough, valuable and immediate feedback on first drafts and then marking them all again.  The student’s cost is they must turn in their best work by the time I get to the last paper.

All this isn’t as harsh as it sounds.  High school papers are a long time in development.  We work on them for 3 to 4 weeks.  We’ve had discussions and done activities that help the student to understand the task.  I do all I can to get students started with a clear sense of direction.  Paper writing can start more than 2 weeks before the due date.  There is time enough to write the paper.

Not all students start early enough.  They are busy with other things, many of them worthwhile.  In the week before the paper is due, those who haven’t started predictably begin to experience stress.  This gets them going.  Some students are involved in a lot of things but haven’t yet developed a system by which they can be busy and get their school work finished.

Some of these will ask for an extension.

Extensions

I will, of course, give an extension for significant illness or an unanticipated family crisis–these are unplanned an unavoidable.  I will also give students more time if they started their paper early and have been diligently working for weeks and still need more time.  I usually have a pretty good idea as to who these students are.

I am very reluctant to give extensions because of a lack of time management.  I totally understand why they want one.  I understand why the parents are frustrated with me for not giving one.  I get it.  In last week before the due date, the student has 3 shifts at Tim Horton’s, the hay needs to be taken off before the rain, grandpa’s 75th birthday party, volleyball practices, piano lessons, and a Taylor Swift concert.  And they have hardly started their paper.  There are tears and frustration–even yelling.  All could be well if only Mr. De Jong would give an extension.

This is when I get the email.

By making the paper a little bit of a priority, and starting early, the busiest student can get a decent draft of a paper completed in two weeks.  Students take between 4 and 12 hours to write a large paper.  They know how long it takes them.  If they are busy and slow, they must start earlier, and take every 30 minutes where they can get it.  They have to say “No” to Starbuck’s and Hockey Night in Canada for two weeks.  This is the price they must pay if they want feedback.

Remember, there is an extension built into my system–there is no obligation to turn in the first draft–it’s completely optional.  They don’t even have to inform me.  They can decide to take an automatic 5-day extension.

All Decisions Come at a Price

Who should pay the price for a student’s involvement in the school play or the missions trip?  Or the hockey game or rock concert?  Almost all students accept the fact that they ought to pay the bulk of the costs for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.  Deciding to go on a leadership trip to our nation’s capital is good, but it will cost you.  Many students pay this cost by organizing their schedule in such a way so as to submit the first draft before they leave–that’s five days early.

Students ought to pay for their decisions--for the good ones as well as the bad. All decisions demand a price. It's a fact of life.Click To Tweet

I usually deny a student’s request for an extension because they are, in effect, asking me to negate the natural consequences of the decisions they made. They would like to have their cake and eat it too.  Someone must pay the price, but they’d rather it would not be them.

What lessons will they learn by a refusal of an extension?  What lessons will they learn by a granting of same?

“It’s only one paper.”

One exception will quickly turn into 10 and I’d be back where I stared–the additional 8 hours and marking spread out over two weeks.  I’d go back to students turning in one paper and cut down on the comments.  I’d be doing things just like my high school teachers.  And most students wouldn’t become better writers.

“What about grace.”

I worry about the lessons that are learned if I give an extension.  I think the most gracious thing to do, long term, is to deny the extension.  The kids that are busy need to learn how to manage busy-ness–their life won’t get less busy when they get to post-secondary or move into their career.  I’d also hate to think what a child learns when they don’t pay the price for their decisions.

“It’s not fair.”

59 other students are paying the price of their own choices.  Is it fair that one does not?

 

An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

stevepb / Pixabay

When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers–a B.  I was happy with that.  I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many section of this course. Apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students;  I would have to take a different approach to teaching student how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing to eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence if they are used for punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Also because I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class. (I’ve written on these issues here.)

The major feature of my system for teaching students how to improve their academic writing is to have them submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.  I use this system for summative assessment–each written piece of student writing  in a series from an analysis paragraph, to an essay, to a larger term paper.

Students can turn a first draft of their paper.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback on this paper.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the paragraphs I marked.  This helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are so much better than the first drafts.  So students’ marks are higher.  Although they like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month ago and apply them to a new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help you with understanding the material that you will be writing your paper on.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are being discussed, explored and references at these times.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  A minimum of two weeks before the due date.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have a lot more work to do from Saturday to Thursday as you write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

I was defeated by Ulysses

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

I was defeated by Ulysses.

Well, that’s not so bad, so was the entire city of Troy, 200 suitors, and the Cyclops Polyphemos.

I mean the book. The one by James Joyce.  I quit half-way. I’m supposed to be smart. I teach literature.  I did War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Don Quixote in the same year.  I read Infinite Jest in three months, for crying out loud!  (Read this; it is really funny.)

There was that time when I threw Wuthering Heights across the room. But that was when I was young, and I later read that one no problem.  Not so with Ulysses.  I know when I have been beaten.

Maybe this is just round one.  I can go back to it later, to keep up my record.

I don’t want to. Not even a little bit.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I took a British Literature class.  We read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I enjoyed parts of this book, particularly the description of hell in Father Arnall’s sermon.  But there was something inside me that said this book was too much of something.

Here is an actual dialogue I had with a fellow student in this class after reading this book:

Professor: Is A Portrait a novel?

Me: No, a masterpiece but not a novel.

Brown-noser: Of course it’s a novel.

Me: No, it’s just Joyce showing all the neato things you can do to a novel.  Novels are meant to be read, this book is not.  It’s meant to be studied.

Brown-noser: Just because it’s not like a typical novel . . . if a painter uses a lot of new techniques we still call it a painting.

Me: If a painter brushes his initials onto a rock with water-soluble paint and then throws it off a cliff into the ocean before anyone sees it, do we still call it a painting?

The “too much of something’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was many times too much in Ulysses.

Ulysses: Life is too Short

I agree with Ron Rosenbaum in “Is Ulysses Overrated?

Actually, Rosenbaum doesn’t even agree with Rosenbaum, as much as I do.

I was fascinated by the fact that the plot of this book covers just a single day.  It’s witty.  Each chapter is written in a different style. For some people, all the allusions get in the way, but I thought they added to the meager appeal of the book.

I think that my main problem is that the book overturns almost every traditional way of telling a story.  Is this book, change for the sake of change?  One might argue that this is no worse a sin than writing in traditional modes for the sake of writing in traditional modes.  And one would be right.  Except one wouldn’t be holding Ulysses as one said it.

Traditional modes or writing need to be rejuvenated with new approaches, absolutely.  But in Ulysses, Joyce has evolved the novel brilliantly, but this has not ended up with a book I want to read.

It’s a masterpiece.  By all means, study it, but don’t bother reading it, for there is no joy there.

Or perhaps all this is simply justification and defensiveness arising from my humiliation–perhaps.  If it ends up to be this, I will be posting a refutation and celebration of having finished Ulysses and proclaiming it’s brilliance.

Ulysses is a masterpiece. By all means, study it, but don't bother reading it, for there is no joy there. Click To Tweet

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