Teaser Tuesday: Education Is Not An App

One of my goals for 2017 29389855was to read Education Is Not an App. It’s been sitting on my shelf since late December, so I picked it up and started reading.

It’s more of a call to arms than I anticipated. Poritz & Rees do lay out the effects of technology on education, such as the tendency to “unbundle” professors’ service digitally or to substitute MOOCs for lectures as a way to increase profit profit without having staff, but as you can probably tell from even these bite sized summaries, they lay out the effects in such a way as to motivate action.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, the call is not to do away with technology but to be aware of its potential to disrupt the learning process, as well as the work and livelihood of faculty members, and to allow the faculty to retain control over how and when they will use technology. I’m really enjoying the read. It’s a bit dire in places, a bit inclined to predicting the future, but it’s still thought provoking.

Following the rules of Teaser Tuesday, here’s a randomly selected excerpt.

When you host an online course on someone else’s platform, your course isn’t really yours. Professor Jennifer Ebbeler learned this the hard way when she wrote an online version of the Roman History course for her home department, Classics, at the University of Texas-Austin. After two years of work, her department replaced [her as] the lecturer. Professor Ebbeler felt the replacement was unqualified. “They think it doesn’t matter who they put in charge because the course will teach itself,” she told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And yet I’ve been clear all along that’s not the case” (Kolowich 2015). Imagine for a moment, a department pulling the same trick with a face to face course. Getting her lecture notes from her would be hard enough, let along the rest of the materials and knowledge that make the class a class. However, Ebbeler poured much of her knowledge into the course’s design, which gave her department enough control to determine exactly who teaches it, whether she likes it or not.

I should note, as I bring this post to a close, that I do teach online and I’ve been privileged to teach at an institution that encourages faculty, even adjunct online instructors, to design and control the technology they use in order to promote learning. I’m very thankful for my employer! Yet that doesn’t mean the problem outlined in the excerpt, and other problems, aren’t real elsewhere, and worth considering.

Here’s a link to its Goodreads page.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!



Taking Action on Teaching Evaluations

evalsI received a batch of student evaluations this afternoon (still waiting on a few others).

Some students were positively glowing, giving me high marks on nearly all standards. Yet a handful of students were displeased with my teaching, primarily because my grading was (from their perspective) far too difficult, as though I were assessing graduate students and not students in an online literature course.

This is perhaps the most common complaint I receive, that I grade too hard.

When I first started teaching, it was an accurate one.

Since then, however, I’ve made adjustments to the way I grade. I use detailed rubrics with that spell out the qualities of every level of work, from the lowest right up to the very best. The standards I hold my students to are the usual in my field; in discussions, for instance, my students are expected to quote or refer to what happens in the story we’re discussing, and explain their thoughts on the story. None of this is particularly hard stuff. I am not a hard grader.

And yet.

I’ve been reading The World Beyond Your Head lately, and in one of the chapters I worked through today, Crawford makes an interesting point.

He notes that in considering whether our actions accurately express who we are, “Some will say that sincerity is the key element here; whether or not an act is a true expression of the self is determined entirely by the inner psychological state of the agent” (152).

This passage reminds me of Ender’s ethical formulation in Speaker for the Dead, that an act is moral or immoral based entirely on the actor’s motive; what matters is not necessarily what we accomplish (since acting in the real world can be messy) but what we mean to accomplish.

Under this formulation, I am not a hard grader, because I do not mean to be; it is my students’ fault, not mine, that they misperceive my rubrics and videotaped feedback as excessively hard.

But Crawford (drawing on Hegel) pushes back on this way of evaluating whether our actions are successful.

He writes, in reference to Hegel, “You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself.” (quoting Robert Pippin). Crawford adds that although there are exceptions to this view, “it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself.” (153).

In reference to my teaching, this means that if imagine myself to be not a hard grader, I am not actually not a hard grader unless my students also perceive me as such. Put more simply, it doesn’t matter if I imagine that I’m a fair grader, unless my students agree with me.

So what should I do about this?

There are two things to be said here, I think.

One, I can adjust the way that I grade. I do not necessarily need to become easier; but I clearly need to become better at articulating why certain grades are assigned and why certain work is expected. This primarily involves providing more feedback: adding notes in the LMS rather than in a Word document I upload for the students, for example, or creating more screencasts.

It also involves providing a different kind of feedback. I could explain more about why the standards I’ve set are necessary, for instance. I could make sure to start feedback with the students’ strengths, not their weaknesses (I thought I did this, but obviously not enough.)

Two, even though I can (and should) make some adjustments, it’s important that I not accept student evaluations are the only valid source of feedback on my teaching. I am prone to self-doubt as an instructor, quicker to see my students’ shortcomings as an error in my instruction than in their work.

Crawford speaks, if not to this doubt as an experienced emotion, at least to the question of whether student evaluations are a sufficient measure of my work’s effectiveness. Developing his example of who judges a carpenter’s work, he writes that “the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond to subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander. Only a fellow journeyman is entitled to say, ‘Nicely done.'”

In reference to my teaching, I make decisions as an instructor on how I assess students and present the material that may not be entirely clear to my students, who are certainly not English scholars and likely not teachers; they lack, therefore, the requisite knowledge needed to make an accurate judgment of whether my teaching is effective.

This is, of course, all the more reason for me to explicitly walk my students through why I make the instructional decisions that I do.

It’s also an important reason for people to work together in community, with colleagues who can serve as a touchstone for whether a particular pedagogical decision is or is not working. I have certainly been grateful for the input of my fellow instructors in my own teaching; they have shaped my work, helped me figure out what worked and what doesn’t, and made me a better teacher.


Books & Movies

In addition to looking back on what I’ve done over the past year, I also like to look back at what I’ve read and seen. Books (and for that matter, movies, which are just another way to present a good story) are important to me, so I like to reflect on what stood out.

Let’s do the books first: 

Most spellbinding: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.22544764 I picked this up over Christmas break, wanting to indulge in a good story over the holidays. Uprooted reminded me what a pleasure Story is. I had a hard time putting this one down. It’s the story of a girl taken from her family and village by the Dragon, a nearby Wizard who protects the village from a mysterious danger; Agnieszka discovers, once she’s taken, a great world of magic and mysterious.  One of the chief pleasures of this book was the Magic in the story was strange and organic and beautiful; it reminded me very much of eastern Europe, appropriate since the book draws on eastern European folklore.

Best children’s book: C.S. Lewis said once that there’s nothing wrong with adults loving good children’s books, as such books are often the best written stories. I love continuing to read children’s books; if nothing else, it gives me something to recommend to my friends who are parents. I enjoyed many books this year, but one of the most inventive and heartwarming was Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley. A story of discovery and friendship, Circus Mirandus tells of a boy who reaches out to a legendary magical circus in a last-ditch attempt to save his dying grandfather. The characters from the circus, especially the Man Who Bends Light, are interesting and well-developed. Like Uprooted, the magic in this one is different; it doesn’t belong to Narnia’s family tree, or Hogwart’s; it’s unique, and that makes this book worth reading.

Most beautiful book: laurusEugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. From its gorgeous red and gold cover to its meditative and transformative ending, I found this a beautiful, enthralling tale of grace in a human life. This is the story of Arseny, a healer in 15th century Russia; responsible for the (unshriven) death of his betrothed, Arseny leaves his village and goes on a pilgrimage seeking redemption. Along the way he meets characters who likewise seek spiritual life; in this, the book feels similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, being richly peopled and interesting, like a tapestry. Woven into the story are questions about the nature of time (is it cyclical or linear?), what makes us holy, where magic comes from, and  how we handle both death and life.

Memorable nonfiction: Nonfiction is a taste I’ve developed as an adult, and I’ve really come to appreciate the way that it can weave its own stories, about who we are and how we live. I read so many good books in this category this year, so there’s a tie: Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, for one. His argument that we become better people through doing handwork, due to its insistence that we attend to what is around us and follow some law besides my own, has stuck with me, particularly as I’ve pursued my own forms of handcraft this year – knitting, and increasingly, bread baking.

For another, Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love. His argument that we are more a product of our desires than our brains, and that our desires are shaped by daily rituals in our church, homes, and vocations, also speaks to where I am currently. I have been seeking to establish healthy, enriching, and spiritually fruitful life patterns, and Smith’s book provides a strong justification for this. I am going to try teaching it in English Composition next semester.

And now the movies: 

arrivalBest movie: Among all the good movies that came out at the end of the year, I was planning to see Dr. Strange. Then over Thanksgiving, three separate people recommended Arrival, so I went to see that instead. It was excellent: a moving story with a measured pace, a thoughtful aesthetic, compelling characters. It’s a science fiction movie in the vein of Asimov and Clarke, more interested in thinking about big questions than blowing stuff up.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie was that it used its own medium, film on story, to convey the themes; the characters didn’t simply talk about what was most important in the story; the film showed it too, essentially immersing the viewers in one of the key ideas: what makes our lives matter, and whether time is in fact linear.

Most heartwarming: I watched Wild back in May and loved it. I was a little worried that watching a woman walk on a trail for two hours would be dull, but the story weaves in some interesting characters, some bringing tension and fear; others, humour. The scenery is gorgeous. I came off this film with a new interest in through hiking.

Most surprising movie: mad-maxMad Max: Fury Road. When this first came out, I heard it was good, and I added it to my to-watch list. Then, I put off seeing it for a long time, as I also heard it was one long action scene and I was worried it wouldn’t have enough story and character development to interest me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it is one long car chase scene, but that improves the story, not weakens it. The constraint of keeping the whole story on the Fury Road brings focus to the story, and pushes the filmmakers to establish an actual rhythm, with periods of action and periods of rest, instead of creating interest by changing settings or blowing new stuff up. Plus, there are some really gorgeous shots of the desert scenery.

Weirdest movie: The Lobster, hands-down. Basically, this is the tale of a man living in a society where single people who cannot find a mate are turned into an animal of their choice (such as a lobster); the story chronicles the man’s successes & failures in romance, if it can be called that. It came to recommended by Eve Tushnet, a writer I’ve really enjoyed, but she also enjoys horror films, and there is something horrific about the nihilistic humor and abrupt cruelty of this film. The Lobster is not a particularly graphic film, and it does perceptively skewer some of our society’s odder hangups with romance and singleness. But it’s also brutal and odd, a parable told in muted neutral colors and leaves the viewer cold.


What did you read and watch this year?

Teaser Tuesday

22544764Over Christmas I chose a lighter book to read, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. How lovely to put aside philosophy and social commentary and read Story again, and find myself caught in its spell!

While I have a few bones to pick with it, I’ve enjoyed the book, a fairy tale that draws deep on Eastern European folklore. It has the feel of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie) and, surprisingly, picks up on some themes I’ve encountered elsewhere, about the meaning and importance of being at home, of being rooted.

Here’s my excerpt, chosen (mostly) randomly from page 105:

But there was something watching. I I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from the shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here. The thing I had glimpsed looking out of Jerzy’s eyes was here, something alive, and I was trapped inside an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

And here’s the book’s Goodreads blurb:

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post, which was way, way more than a week ago: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

Teaser Tuesday: Driftless

3154783Last Saturday I was terribly irresponsible and instead of writing lessons like all good teachers do on weekends, I drove two hours north, into the Driftless. There, I visited a you-pick apple orchard, stopped by an art fair, and ate a cider apple doughnut. Yum!

The countryside was gorgeous, little farms peeking out from the hollows between the rolling hills, narrow roads winding through the last of the wheat and along the rivers. The trip inspired me to start David Rhodes’s novel Driftless. 

Rhodes writes of life in the Midwest better than any writer (I know) save Marilynne Robinson. I started with Jewelweed, his most recent novel, buying it at Eighth Day Books last summer even though I’d never heard of it; it had a gorgeous cover, the bookshop owner recommended it; and it was set in my area of the country. Since then, I found Rock Island Line at a used bookstore and bought that too, so Driftless, set twenty years after Rock Island Line was the natural continuation.

Here’s an excerpt:

Jacob lay on his back. The stars looked back at him from ten million years ago, their light just now arriving. He wondered if there were other places in the universe where the rules of living did not require feeding on each other – where wonder could be discovered without horror and learning the truth did not entail losing one’s faith.

Unwilling to go back home and face the ordeal of trying to sleep, Jacob continued in the direction the youth coyote had taken, west.

He often walked at night and was familiar with the woods, streams, and valleys for miles around, including the heavily forested area inside the reserve. He knew which families owned dogs, where coon hunters hunted, the narrow ravine with a corn mash still boiling in late summer, and where the local militia – forty or fifty armed men – held meetings at night.

Here’s a link to its Goodreads page.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

Teaser Tuesday: The Last Dragonslayer

13316328I’m still working on The Shock Doctrine, but since books about global economic policy aren’t the best bedtime reading, I picked up something lighthearted this weekend: Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. 

I fell in love with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and while this novel doesn’t quite approach the glorious literary geekiness of the first, its tale of dwindling magic and looming dragons is a good one: strong, likable characters, a creative plot, and brimming over with British humor.

Here’s an excerpt, from page 87:

Tiger was thirty feet up in the shabby atrium, perched high upon a chandelier. “How long have you been up here?”

“Half an hour” he answered crossly, “with only a lot of dust and Transient Moose for company.”

“You’ll have to take a few jokes in good humor,” I told him, “and consider yourself lucky that you have witnessed both passive and active levitation in the same day.”

“Which was which?”

“Carpeteering is active; heavy lifting is passive. Could you feel the difference?”

From the Goodreads blurb:

In the good old days, magic was indispensable—it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading: drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians—but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. And then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, everything will change for Kazam—and for Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as . . . Big Magic.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

Patterns of Reading: A Defense of Reading Widely

Shock_doctrine_coverAs you know, I’m currently reading The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein: an expose of how free market capitalists exploited (or created) geopolitical crises in order to transform developmentalist economies into capitalist ones, giving big corporations a huge payout in the process.

It’s a convincing and angering read. Klein has thoroughly documented, through primary sources and detailed research, the role that free market supporters played in the economic downfall of Latin American countries. Having visited Argentina a few years ago, I’m personally familiar with its poverty and financial difficulties; I understand the cause of these difficulties better since reading Klein’s book. In today’s uneasy global economy, The Shock Doctrine adds evidence to the pile that when the corporations are set free from government control in the name of the free market, it is primarily the corporations that benefit. Citibank and Ford Motors are not inclined to be generous.

This isn’t to say that I’ve suddenly turned socialist, nor even that Klein’s book is altogether convincing. Because one of her assumptions has caught my attention.

Early on, Klein notes that although Argentinian people consistently elected leaders who supported a progressive, developmentalist economy, the Argentinian corporations were frustrated with governmental limits on how high prices could be raised: “They were outraged,” Klein notes,”to see their profits being diverted to build up other sectors [of the economy], their workers demanding land redistribution, and the government keeping the price of their crops artificially low so that food could be affordable.”

This is a theme that Klein returns to throughout her book, that developmentalist economies more than capitalist ones impose price checks on basic necessities, so that even the poor can be well fed and housed.

The thing is, price limits are not the unadulterated good that Klein assumes they are. Even on basic necessities like food, price caps or government subsidies often cause more harm than good.

In the United States, government farm subsidies keep the cost of corn and meat (especially beef) artificially low. This is why corn syrup is in almost everything, because farmers have been producing and producing and producing in order to take advantage of federal funding, and so we are literally awash in corn. Hence, it gets turned into syrup, added to our foods, and there contributes to the ongoing health crisis in the West.

Similarly, cows are raised en masse on huge factory farms with little protection for the workers, health of the animals, or the consumers, beef corporations taking advantage of super-cheap corn for feed; this leads to poor quality and diseased beef. Beef that is sold for its actual value is much more expensive, yes, but the animal is healthier and happier, and those who raise it are not mistreated.

To give one more example: the government has also subsidized milk and dairy in the United States. At the same time, people have demanded lower-fat dairy products. As companies skim the fat off the huge quantities of milk produced, they wind up with a large amount of milk fat solids they have no purpose for. So in order to turn a profit, they turn the fatty solids into cheese, then add cheese to other products: cheesy-crust pizzas, cheese crackers, even cheesy cat food! Do price caps and government subsidies keep food affordable? Sure, but it’s bad food: bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, bad for the animals.

My goal here isn’t a takedown of Klein for her apparent support of price caps. I’m not an economist. I can say that obviously, it’s good when people can afford to purchase food. Beyond that, I’m not qualified to talk about the methods for keeping food affordable versus keeping food good.

My goal is simply to point out that I noticed this conflict between affordable and good food, this flaw in Klein’s assumptions, because I read wisely. Books like Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma convinced me that well-intentioned as government farm subsidies may be, they don’t work, or at least they don’t work anything like as well as we want them to.

When we read, we tend to read books we already agree with; it’s nice to have our beliefs affirmed. And we tend to read very few books, imagining somehow that one book is sufficient education on a topic.

But the conflict between Klein’s book and others is interesting, because it suggests that to be truly educated, to really get how the world is working, we have to read a lot of books, books that we disagree with and books that disagree with each other.

The world is not homogenous. Its problems are not simple. Think of a tapestry, woven from threads of contrasting colors. Just the orange thread, or just the green, by itself is lovely; but only when the two are brought together are we able to see the picture clearly.

Likewise, when we read books, we have to resist the temptation to admire a single thread of thought; it’s when two thoughts come into contrast with each other that we see the picture clearly. 

I was talking with our school librarian the other day, and he mentioned something similar, in reference to religious history: that history is like a kaleidoscope, that everyone who looks at it sees a different pattern.

Endlessly varied and open to multiple interpretations, a kaleidoscope is also the perfect guide for understanding how we read for information, and read well. If we read only a book or two, then we are essentially raising the kaleidoscope to our eyes without turning it at all, seeing a single pattern: the perspective of one author, likely one that we agree with. The pattern may be pretty, but we don’t come close to seeing all the truth.

Only when we turn the kaleidoscope do we see all its variously-shaped, multicolored pieces falling into a new pattern. Likewise, only when we “turn” our reading practices, picking up books that we disagree with, and that disagree with each other, do we see the world fully. Each author’s thesis is a new pattern, and each new pattern shows us more of the world. 

And this brings me to a pet peeve of mine, books intended to help Christians engage with the culture, books that (purport to) lay bare the gaps of the secular worldviews and suggest how a Christian worldview may fill those gaps. I’m thinking of things like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Russell Moore’s recent Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. 

On the one hand, these books have a place in teaching believers that their faith is strong and can be intellectually defended. On the other hand, all these books do is show a single pattern: that of American evangelicalism, which most readers already believe and which is (for all its virtues) a very narrow slice of Christian history. 

By the law of opportunity cost, every time somebody chooses to read one of these books, they are choosing against reading a book which offers up a new pattern, a new way of seeing the world. If you choose to read The Reason for God, you are perhaps choosing not to read George MacDonald’s Lilith, a Christian universalist text; or you are perhaps choosing not to read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, gloriously medieval in its vision of the world.

Of course, we may not agree with MacDonald’s theology, or Vodolazkin’s. But when we refuse even to read their novels, to see in this world the patterns that they see, we miss out on many great beauties and truth. Our experience as American evangelicals is only a small thread in the great tapestry of the Christian faith, and when we follow other threads, we understand our own faith better. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Christian apologetic texts. But they take up headspace that could perhaps be better used by taking time to see the world through a different set of us, to see in it another pattern.

I’ve rambled long enough about reading (an error to which we English teachers are especially prone), and I should probably go do something productive. But I want to close with a short passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Here, Eliot reminds us of the end of all our knowledge: that “the faces and places” we know are passing away; given that we orient ourselves by recognizable human faces and geographical location, the poem implies that not only the physical world but the way we make sense of it is vanishing.

Redemption, Eliot gently suggest, lies in accepting the retreat of our human knowledge, and letting ourselves be made again, woven into the pattern which God is creating. Ultimately, this is the best defense for reading books which do not follow a single pattern. As we read varied books, and find in them pattern upon pattern, we remember the transience and limits of all human knowledge, and we wait all the more eagerly for God to reveal his all-encompassing pattern:

See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.



Teaser Tuesday: The Mysterious Benedict Society

510cd0w1aULIt’s time for Teaser Tuesday!

This week I’m in the middle of The Mysterious Benedict Society, a YA (or at least middle-school) book that I’m thoroughly enjoying because it avoids the stereotype of the angsty teenager who saves the world through mad battle skills, ala Katniss Everdeen.

The Mysterious Benedict Society doesn’t do that, thankfully. It has four characters, all around eleven years old, and while I expect that they will indeed save the world, none are particularly angsty, nor do they have mad battle skills. They’re fairly ordinary, they’re friends, and I’d enjoy befriending them in real life. Its plot is interesting and fairly creative, and it reads easily.

Here’s a short selection, right when the plot really starts picking up:

The unseen child – it sounded like a girl about Kate’s age – spoke in a plodding, whispering monotone, her voice half-drowned in static. At first only a few random words were clear enough to be understood: “Market . . . to free to be . . . obfuscate . . . ” Number Two typed more commands into the computer; the interference lessened considerably, and the child’s words came clearly now, slipping through the faint static in a slow drone:

“The missing aren’t missing, they’re only departed. 

All minds keep all thoughts – so like gold – closely guarded . . . . “

Again the words were overcome by static.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb.

Nota bene: When I first wrote out this post, I accidentally typed the title as The Mysterious Benedict *Option*. Whoops!

Wondering what Teaser Tuesday is? It’s a fun, weekly post in which I open whatever book I’m reading to a (somewhat) random page and share a few sentences from it. I originally heard of Teaser Tuesday through the blog Running in My Head, though it seems to have originated from the Books & a Beat Blog. Feel free to chime in via your own blog with whatever you’re currently reading.

On Spending Money

CalvinI’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s post over at The American Conservative tonight, about how too many Americans are in debt. And I’ve been scrolling through the comments, reading how people have warded off poverty by driving cheap cars and using cheap phones.

This way of living makes sense to me. My parents raised me to avoid debt, and I do. I work really hard every month to keep my expenses low. I pay for all my food in cash, for instance, so I’m not tempted to do that thing where I go, Let’s pick up three more cartons of yogurt because I’m about to run out, and oh! the raspberries are in season and so I should get those too, and let me stock up on my mints and gum, too. When I’m literally running out of cash, it’s hard to justify those expenses.

But at the same time, the comments make me wonder about whether saving every dime, every nickel, every penny (the way that some people imply they do) is really the best course of action, even for someone who’s not rich.

I’m not rich. I’m not going into the details of my financial situation online, but suffice it to say, I don’t feel financially stable at all.

And yet, I’m not saving every penny I could. I don’t subscribe to Netflix, or Amazon Prime, but I do have some expenses I could, if I really had to, do without:

I pay for internet at home. This costs me nearly $60/month.

I knit, and so every month I spend money on yarn – good yarn, because I’ve used the cheap stuff, and it’s not worth the plastic bag I carry it out to the car in. I recently made a child’s blanket: a project which took four weeks and cost around $40, maybe a little more.

I run. Running itself is free, but the shoes cost money: $120 every six months. And last weekend I spent $50 for arch supports to protect my knees. I’ll enter some races this summer, which can cost between $30 for a 5K and $100 for a half marathon.

I want to go on a trip this summer, maybe some solo camping in the Southwest (I’m dreaming, okay?). Getting out of my current city is good for my mental health, but that too will cost money: several hundred dollars in fuel costs, plus some in equipment and food.

I could cut all of this out and save more, hundreds of dollars a year. I don’t have to knit. I don’t have to run. I could not take a trip.

Is it wrong for me to spend money on these expenses, when I could be saving the money for a rainy day?

But my life is much more interesting and richer because of these expenses.

When I have Internet at home, I feel relaxed enough to do things like post on my blog. I write emails to my friends and take the time to comment thoughtfully on student writing.

When I knit and run, I am a better developed person. If I did not do these things, my life would be flat. Actually, I remember a time when I didn’t do these things, and I think I spent a good chunk of my time playing Minesweeper. Especially since I’m single, having hobbies means I use my time better.

Look, the Internet tells us to “buy experiences, not things” – and I think that the world tries to sell us not only consumerism packaged as having more things, like fancy clothes or brand-new dishes and furniture, but also consumerism doing lots of things, being on the move, having adventures. And it’s important to resist the world’s message.

But I also want to take care that I do not fall prey to the world’s other message, that we need to put a great deal of effort into building up a substantial bank account, lots of retirement savings.

Retirement savings are good (I need to get some.) But the truth is, we’re not guaranteed twenty years to slowly use those savings, and there’s danger in making life miserable now in hopes of an uncertain payoff in forty years.

Virtue, Aristotle taught, was a balance between two extremes. In this case, there’s the extreme of spending too much, but also the extreme of spending too little, being so miserly that life is neither interesting nor sweet, but flat.

I don’t really have a conclusion, just this thought: that while cutting expenses and living carefully is important, perhaps some expenses, even apparently frivolous ones, should be kept.


In Praise of Inefficiency

Yesterday I ran out of papers to grade.IMGP7017

No fear, I’ll have at least twenty again by Monday at the latest.

But for today at least, caught up on grading and even on lesson planning, I found myself at loose ends, professionally speaking. What to do?

Ostensibly, I had a to-do list. On it were things like “return student papers” and “plan online composition course”. And ostensibly, I followed that to-do list. I headed down to the library with an armful of student papers to return, and I checked out a few books and send off some emails relating to planning an online composition course.

But I kept getting distracted. 

Without the pressure of getting my grading done, so I could buckle down to lesson planning, there was no pressure to get stuff ticked off my to-do list, and my tasks spiraled into much larger projects than they otherwise would be.

En route to return student papers, I ran into my colleague Steve in the library and picked his brain about how parents regulate (or don’t regulate) their children’s technology usage. (I’d been thinking about it since reading this post by Rod Dreher yesterday). We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

And in my office, working on an online version of college writing, all I really wanted to do was find a good resource for teaching students to structure persuasive writing. But there too the task spiraled outward, covering much larger territory. I talked books and pedagogy with a colleague across the hall. I read a variety of writing-related essays on the Internet, including a description of a course on personal essays, a Q&A approach to using sources, and the helpful and hilarious “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I made no discernible progress on the online course. I got nothing ticked off my to-do list. In fact, I added a few things.

So no, I was not efficient today. Nor was I productive.

But being productive and efficient is not, or at least not always, the same thing as spending time well.

We modern Americans, immersed in a world of big data, like to think that only when we produce something that can be quantitatively measured are we doing worthwhile work. And of course, the more of this measurable work we do, the more efficient we are, and the better workers we are.

But good work doesn’t always work that way. A student who writes a ten page paper overnight is very productive and efficient, true. But his paper may not be as good as the six page one that was written over a period of two weeks. (I speak from experience here.)

Not all work can be quantitatively measured. Nor does getting a lot of work done in a short period of time always guarantee that we are doing work well.

Some work needs to be done slowly. Sometimes the things which make us inefficient, which cause us to dawdle and dally, actually make us better workers.

I have friends in graduate school who tell me that when they are trying to grade student papers or plan lessons, they are frequently distracted by interesting conversations with their friends. But surely the richness and depth of those conversations nourish in my friend a rich thought life, the kind that contributes to a much more enriching class for her students.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There, he writes that the best soil for growing fruits and vegetables is that which has been nourished by long, attentive care. Dumping some nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soil will not produce nearly the rich food that spending years spreading animal waste, rotating plants, and careful tilling  does. The natural method is longer, but the natural method results in much sweeter corn and juicer tomatoes.

The same with work. We Americans tend to honor work accomplished the nitrogen fertilizer way: Swig some coffee or Red Bull, power through a couple hours of work, and turn in as much final product, whether that be veggies or research papers, as you possibly can.

But the quality will always, always be better if we spend time over our work.

This is not to say that we should never work quickly. Sometimes working quickly is necessary, and indeed, at some point in the near future, I’m going to need to stop all the distracted reading and research that I’m doing for my online course and actually plan the dang thing.

But nor is good work always done quickly, and sometimes even the things which do not seem directly relevant to our project wind up being nourishing in the end. I did not intend to quote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in this blog post; I just read the book, and now my knowledge of it permits me an illustration which makes the blog post (hopefully) richer.

All I’m trying to say here is that sometimes we (or at least I) can feel guilty for not ticking enough items off my to-do list, or for making slow progress. Without items ticked off my to-do list, how do I know that I’m actually worth something? And so to me, or to people like me, I remember that while our culture teaches us that fast and efficient are better, slow work is better nourished, and much richer.