Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Perfection and Grace

I dropped my 11-year-old off at school today. We waited in the car for about 10 minutes until it was time for him to head into school. We tend to listen to music when we're in the car together. He's an open minded music person, so he's up for indie rock, classic rock, and other genres. This is a kid who has Return of the Mack for his walk up song during baseball games (another story for another time), point being he's been introduced to many kinds of music. Today one of my favorite all time Steely Dan songs came on during our wait, Time Out of Mind, from the fabulous album Gaucho. The song that everybody knows from that record is Hey Nineteen. Time Out of Mind knocks me out every time. For both its lyrics and the groove. And the guest appearance by Michael McDonald. Damn. My little guy seemed to enjoy his first listen to the song. 

Anyway. There's not much to this except to say it's still hard for me to believe my kids are suddenly 14 and 11. At some point I might have something to say about observing high school dynamics through the experience of my 14-year-old. He seems to be thriving. High school was okay with me, and I made some good friends. But this kid seems to be relishing it so far. When our kids were babies countless parents who were more experienced often told my wife and me IT GOES SO FAST and we heard it so many times that it annoyed me but all of those parentals were totally right. It goes even faster than they promised.

The other day, a DJ on Sirius XMU was playing Guided by Voices and made a remark about one of their songs being on the station 15 years ago. It hit me hard. I remember getting acquainted with Sirius XMU and the indie songs they played at exactly that time, just before our now high schooler was born. I remember I am a Scientist being one of the first songs I heard on the station. Where the hell did 15 years go? All I know is I'm on the brink of 50 and I'm wearing middle age, certainly not with perfection, hopefully with some grace.

Teaching in a Time of Presenting

I'm kind of obsessed with PowerPoint. That is, hyper aware of it's presence without a preference to use it. I think I used it twice in the semester that just ended. I work hard in life to not be a hater, so I want to recognize the obvious point that many instructors are skilled at using PowerPoint and can use it as a tool to teach effectively. It's not my cup of tea.

As I experience it, PowerPoint guides me to present material. I don't have much success presenting sociological ideas via the PowerPoint format. For me, the classic whiteboard technique of writing bullet points as we go through the material remains my calling card. Writing on the board helps my pacing. Using the board I feel like I'm teaching. Using the software I feel like I'm presenting. 

Somehow I'm thinking about this one day after listening to someone going through a very rough time. This person is frustrated with an annoying neighbor, and is also extremely upset due to having a sick pet. The person tried to fight back tears in relaying details about their beloved pet to me. At the end of our time together, the person remarked I was like their therapist. It reminded me of my college days as a Psychology major. I developed a style of interaction focused on listening and then offering my thoughts, when solicited. As I gained more life experience I began to better understand the art of listening, and sitting here today I see more clearly that people want to be listened to. I tend not to talk much during interactions. I suppose I've been heading in this direction for a long time. I've even heard myself say in April and May "I don't like the sound of my own voice this time of year" meaning it's the culmination of an academic year when I've had to do a lot of talking in the classroom. I've never relied on lecturing as a professor. My classes have always been discussion based. So there it is. I don't like presenting and I try to limit my own talking. Outside the classroom, I don't care to do a lot of talking and I concentrate on listening and asking questions.

I'm 20+ years into my teaching career. In the last 1/3 of my career, I suspect I'll want to talk even less than I already do when I'm teaching. I doubt I'll get more into presenting. It's a good opportunity to develop a pedagogy of critical listening.


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Is Hybrid the Way to Go?

I'm enjoying an unexpected snow day. The snow usually misses Niagara Falls when it hits the Western New York region. Yesterday it blasted Niagara Falls and surely presented a challenge for workers to clear the campus at Niagara University. Today was supposed to be the first day of classes, but instead we got a snow day. Credit to the decision makers who made it an old school snow day. Just because we have the technology doesn't mean we always have to use the technology. Sure, we could've made it a remote first day, but we can all blend in the first day with the next day. 

Speaking of technology....where are we with it, folks? Can we find the "just right" amount of technology to leverage? Up until recently I detested the cliché "leveraging technology," but I've come around. There is technology, and it can be leveraged. Early in the pandemic, more students than ever before got a taste of the college online format. My hunch is, they didn't hate it. (Please share a good data source on this topic if you can.) It looks to me like students came to like elements of taking all or more of their courses online. My in person enrollment is down this year. How appealing is a 9:00 a.m. class in person now when a year ago you could attend class with your camera off? 

I'll teach any and all ways. I came up in the chalkboard era. Give me a board and a piece of chalk and I can make it happen. Give me a technology station and I'll use it. I'll do a different thing on Google Meet. I like a toolkit with lots of tools. I still like to see students in person and connect with them in a room. It still works. But, many times in the Fall semester, while teaching in person on a Mon/Wed/Fri format, it occurred to me do we really need to meet three times a week in person, in the present era? We can preserve the best parts of teaching in person without doing it as much as we used to. And we can utilize technology to complete our teaching and learning needs. There will be Professor X or Professor Y who will say they need to teach totally in person. Luckily Professor X or Professor Y doesn't answer to me. I trust they know what's best for their teaching and learning process. My belief, sitting here on January 18 in the year 2022 on a snow day, is that I can teach sociology classes effectively using a blend of in person and online formats. 

It was cool when we were asked last year by our union to complete a survey related to this very topic. In my survey responses I hyped up the hybrid model, as I'm doing right now. I reserve the right to change my mind. Hell, we all do. But as it stands today, I see the hybrid model as the way forward.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Best Life

"Living my best life" is one of my favorite contemporary expressions. I had one of those best life moments recently, sitting at a brewery that I already count as one of my happy places. The name or location doesn't matter, but the association is a positive one going back to my first visit there on a hot summer day after a baseball game. A bunch of us converged on the brewery after our kids finished playing a baseball game, so together we drank beer and listened to a cover band play some classics from the 70s and 80s. The recent "best life" visit was a few weeks ago when my wife and I happened upon trivia night at the brewery. We had 24 hours to ourselves while our kids were at her parents house, and made good use of the time together. We visited a few wineries, checked into a hotel, then made our way to the brewery. Sharing pretzels and a burger with your person, that's already a win. And then getting destroyed in trivia night as a bonus. I mean, seriously, being unable to answer almost every question and hearing your team name announced last, what a thrill. How can the two of us, joining forces, be so bad at trivia?? Who cares. We finished our drinks and went back to our hotel. We got some very forgettable dessert at the hotel bar, but we did have a nice chat with a friendly bartender who is a fellow Buffalo Bills fan. When we got back to the room we felt glamorous wearing the cozy hotel robes. In the morning we watched the sun come up, almost like a movie. It all felt great and I'm thankful to have had the feeling of escape and a short period of fun with my person. Getting our ass kicked in trivia while having a drink and a pretzel really was a living my best life moment. Even in a pandemic. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Are You Sure of Your Perception?

Are you sure of your perception? I love this question. Sometimes I ask it of myself, and occasionally I ask it to someone close to me. I borrow it from Thich Nhat Hanh. The question is in the "Wrong Perceptions" portion of The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh. In this story, he tells of a man who had to leave home for a long time, unaware his wife was pregnant. Upon his return was a boy, whom he suspected was not his: "He hated him. He saw the neighbor's face in the little boys face." Years later, the man's brother visited and clearly saw his brother's face in his nephew's face. The man felt better about his wrong perception. But only after years of suffering. "We have to be very careful with our perceptions, otherwise we will suffer." 

It's a great reminder to check ourselves, and to check each other. If I text someone and don't hear back, why assume the person is mad at me? There could be another explanation. Maybe I run into someone at a store and I perceive they are cold to me. But how do I know what is going on in their day? 

Thinking about the power of perceptions reminds me, of course, of The Thomas Theorem. If we define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Rather than run with a wrong perception, it's best to slow down until we are sure about what we think and what we believe.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

How's Your Semester Going?

As the pandemic goes on and on, I find myself increasingly tired. It's been hard to maintain good spirits in the classroom. There's something about masks that is messing me up. A mask is hard to talk through, it's uncomfortable when I quickly get sweaty teaching face, and I can't see students' facial expressions. I feel like my humor is missing this semester. Every step of the way, it all feels different to me.

The students are doing their best. They are tired too. Some have reminded me that they spent last year learning remotely, and the transition back to the classroom has been a challenging one. In my intro classes, I don't see much interaction between the students. I think the masks are a barrier. They make things impersonal and uncomfortable. Masks are required for all of us when indoors on campus this semester. I fully support masks as a safety measure. But they are tough to deal with when it comes to teaching and connecting with students.

My thinking as the pandemic drags on is that I don't want to add stress to their lives. They are already over stressed with 5-6 classes, one or more jobs, and all the other stuff of life. I think sometimes we look at them only as students. We forget they are full human beings and being students is just one part of who they are. This semester a student told me she can relax in my class. It was a great compliment to me. I try to create a low stress learning environment. Maybe that's a luxury I have as the easy going sociology professor. But truly I don't want to pile on stress.

There are other approaches to take and ways to cope. I suppose others would seek to tighten the structure. It might come from a firm belief that structure is vital and that we all need to push through. This approach might come from a sincere belief that this is the way we prepare people for the rest of their lives. The thinking might be we aren't doing students any favors if we are too accommodating and flexible. There might also be the concern about rigor. That is to say, if we ease up too much, where is the academic rigor?

But I come back to the thought that different times call for different measures. I'm not hurrying up to make things feel like they used to, or trying to have "a normal semester," whatever that means. I'm looking at things and feeling through things and adapting to things as they are right now. 

And how's your semester going? 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Good for Me, I Stopped Watching Cable News

Where does one turn if intensely interested in politics? For me, it was convenient to fall into a habit of watching cable news. So much cable news. Years of listening to pundits and bullshit. Knowing all of the contributors and seeing what directions channels took to secure viewers. Noticing endless hours spent on some topics with next to no time spent on other topics. But still, I tuned in, because I follow politics, and cable news is where you can catch some coverage of some aspects of politics and society. 

We all know that each station caters to different views, and taps into particular politics, and each channel drives home a narrative for days and weeks at a time. You follow politics like sports and choose a team and come to dislike or even hate your opponent. 

In late 2020 following the presidential election I tapped out. I couldn't take it anymore. I had watched too much cable news and was sick of it. I decided to stop caring about talking heads and to not care about who said what and stopped paying attention to daily controversies. I still care about politics and I'll never stop wanting to know about politics and society. I don't need cable news as part of my information gathering. It was never the case that I was entirely dependent on cable news, but it did take up too much of my diet. 

I'm not a better person since I stopped watching. I don't sleep any better. I just stopped watching something that wasn't worth watching anymore. I wish I had stopped sooner. The sun still looks the same, I still like trees, but I didn't gain extra appreciation for nature or life or my loved ones. I did cut out a lot of bullshit and I'm not told by a TV station what to think about or how long to think about it and that's good for me.