Sunday, October 19, 2008

200 young people. part two.

I am an instructor’s assistant for a pre-1600 world literature class.

The week before school began, we had to go to an English department faculty meeting. The dean of the English Department announced that freshman English classes are capped at 21 students. To enable this cap, the trade-off is that sophomore literature happens in large lecture courses consisting of 200 to 400 students.

My class has 200 students. So you understand, I am an IA for a “small” class.

A couple of weeks ago I graded 120 in-class essay exams. The instructor I work for was nice enough to take 80 of them herself. Before the grading began, I did five, my instructor did five, and we met to compare, to ensure that we would grade consistent with one another. We also came up with a grading rubric. Sounds fair. And it was as fair as it could be.

But as I poured through badly written essays to essays that seemed to be written by nearly illiterate students, I came to the conclusion that, at a fundamental level, there is nothing fair about 200-student literature courses.

As an undergraduate, I was a lazy student. I was lazy for a lot of reasons. I lacked confidence in my own intelligence and in my ability to compete with “good” students. I was busy stretching the bounds of “independence.” Could I go out every night of the week? How would it impact me? I wasn’t necessarily making the connection that poor grades were a consequence to me personally.

In large classes, I was one of the students who sat in the back and hoped not to be noticed. I remember my own angst as a freshman and sophomore. I didn’t really get my act together until my 3rd year of college, and by then I’d screwed up so much that I needed 5 years to graduate instead of 4.

As I graded essays two weeks ago, I felt my heart at once sinking and wanting to leap out to each student. Would it be possible to meet with them one on one? To explain to them how to keep up with the readings, how to listen in class – how to decipher the “important” information, how to take good notes, how to study, how to write an essay, how to analyze subject matter? For that matter, how to balance fun and work and several classes with professors who all have different expectations? Of course not.

Part of the problem is in the hands of administrators. It is simply not okay to shove students into classes like a herd of sheep or cattle. This is not fair to instructors (who can’t give kids the individual attention they deserve), and it isn’t fair to students. At that faculty meeting, the dean also announced the university's push to increase enrollment. He praised the English department for meeting this demand. Now that I'm an IA, I wonder what right the department has to bring in more students when it can't adequately serve those it already has.

At 18, 19, 20, most people are too inexperienced, to new to self-autonomy, to understand that a college education is, in this country, a commercial transaction. It is a product that students, or their parents, purchase. For some it is a cash transaction, and for many others it is paid for on credit – borrowed money that will take years of life to return. If they’re in classes with 200 or 300 or 400 kids, they’re not getting the highest quality product.

If these kids are anything like I was – too intimidated to ask questions, too baffled by the transition from high school (where I wasn’t confident as a learner to begin with) to college, too new to navigating freedoms to effectively balance fun and responsibility, then they’re going to find themselves in financial and knowledge-based debt.

What do they do – these middle to working class kids whose parents are just glad to get them off for a higher degree – for whom tiny, liberal arts colleges are no option? What is fair?

In spite of my inadequacies as a student, I always loved to read. I always loved my English classes. If my university had decided that it was in my best interest to learn about literature among an ocean of other faces – I would have drowned altogether. I know this. My love of the subject was not enough, given the trials of growing up, to anchor me in learning.

How many of my 200 students are sinking in my instructor’s and my classroom? How many of them used to love to read, but are now burying themselves at the back of the amphitheater style classroom because ancient texts aren’t what they are accustomed to reading. How many are afraid to speak, afraid to be noticed, most importantly, afraid to say, “I don’t understand what I read. I don’t understand how to listen for what is important in a lecture. I don’t understand how to get excited and engaged in a classroom of this size.”

How many young college students are astute enough to ask, “Am I getting a raw deal? Am I going to spend forty-years paying for mass produced, factory-made lit courses? Do I deserve something more for the product I’m purchasing? Should an education be better?”

In my high school civics and free enterprise class, we had to make a budget. We had to pretend we were out in the real world working and living and paying bills. I never factored my student loans into my budget. I certainly didn’t give myself a hypothetical husband and his student loans. Now I can look back. I can see that in many ways, I made a poor purchase (on loan). In many ways, I went off to Target, a step up from Wal-Mart and better than the Dollar Tree. I got what a lot of people got.

There were better options, but not necessarily an equitable means to access those option.

Standing in front of 200 students twice a week, trying to assist my instructor to the best of my ability, I feel ashamed of this country. It sounds like a dramatic statement. I know that it is dramatic, but it’s no less true. How did we come to the conclusion that people of economic privilege are entitled to a better education?

It seems to me that state universities have the unique challenge of providing the absolute highest quality instruction possible. I know. Failings happen at the elementary, middle and high school level. I saw this clearly in the essays I graded. A university can’t necessarily turn miseducation around. But it can make an effort to provide better. 200 to 400 kids in an amphitheater is not the starting point. I know this too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

200 young people. part one.

Mr. Hamilton had a circa-1970 shit-brown colored shirt with a mustard-yellow reindeer pattern on it. They were tiny abstract reindeer, so we spent whole class periods trying to decipher if, in fact, they were reindeer at all. They could have been dogs, gazelles. I remember them as reindeer. The garment was one among the handful of outdated collared shirts in his weekly wardrobe rotation.

He began every sentence with the word “now.” Now, what we gonna do is… On the first day of tenth grade civics/free enterprise, he handed out a syllabus. A stack of ditto copies (I think we still called them that) – Now, take one, pass it back, traveled up and down our desk rows.

Picture fluorescent lights. Picture unruly kids. Sixteen. Middle class. Mostly white. Mostly suburban. Jansport backpacks collapsed at our feet. I remember never having had enough sleep, always feeling exhausted and bored. Listen - the sound of papers shuffling through our tired hands, passed indifferently like playing hot potato with a cold potato.

Picture Mr. Hamilton, hair just short of an Afro. Head-to-toe brown polyester, a too-wide mismatched tie. Big white grin. Smiling eyes. Halo of cologne. Throw in one gold tooth for good measure – maybe that’s a fabrication, but only maybe.

It was important to the man to look sharp. Presentable. You could just imagine him leaving the house each morning, kissing his wife’s cheek on the way out the door, and then: Baby, I look good, don’t I? A wink in her direction.

His accent was distinctly black-Baton Rouge. If you asked him, Where are you from? He would have answered, Baton Ru-jga. I don’t know the best way to spell that out. It rhymes with something in-between Peugeot and ‘Could-ja,’ as in, ‘Could-ja do me a favor?’ Radio announcers on AM blues stations take it to the next level: “Listen up, Ba-Rou! We playin’ all the good tunes ta-day.”

Once, he told a story about, When you see them ole people goin ta play that bango on Satta-day-

Play what? I asked.
Bango? Stifled giggles emerged around me.
Bango? Mr. Hamilton looked at me like he didn’t know what foreign country I’d just stepped off the boat from.
BINGO. A classmate piped up.
OH. Bingo!
Yeah. Bango! Whatchu think I was sayin’? And the lesson continued.

Mr. Hamilton called us “young people.” Now, Young people. And he wrote exactly as he spoke. After the syllabus went around that first day, he had us read it aloud.

Alright, you, what’s yo’ name?
Okay, Capri. Take the first paragraph, and the person behind you take the next one.
I announced: Now, young people, this is your civics and free enterprise class. This is not a joke.
The person behind me took paragraph two. It began, Now, young people.

Hearing him commence every single lesson, thick with anecdotes, Now, young people; the absurdity of having a teacher write exactly as he spoke; the irony of our young-selves accurately addressing one another as “young people” – the humor did not escape us. But Mr Hamilton took himself seriously, this sit-com character teacher of ours.

I met my friend cm in that class, and we tried our best not to lock eyes when he spoke. We tried, along with everyone, to hold back our laughter as each of us recited from one of his hundreds of handouts: Now young people, listen here. This week we gonna learn to make a budget.

He interrupted the reader: You all think you wearin’ your clothes fa’ free? You think yo’ parents just pick those off a money tree? You think I got these fine clothes here without plannin’?

Looking back, I wish we’d done call and response. Here is a revision:

You all think you wearin’ your clothes fa’ free? NO SIR.

You think yo’ parents just pick those off a money tree? NO SIR.

You think I got these fine clothes here without plannin’? UH-UHNn.

The gospel according to Mr. Hamilton.

Later, still making his point about the importance of a budget, he asked: Tell me somethin’. What is the mark of a su-sessful man?


C’mon. You see a fine-lookin’ man ridin’ round in his Cadallac on Sunday afta-noon. What you think? You think, ‘There go a suc-sessful man.’

Mr. Hamilton, don’t you drive a Cadallac?

His eyes lit up. He straightened his back. Matter-a-fact, I do.

And we all busted out, no longer able to contain our laughter.

It wasn’t his intent to entertain, but we were entertained none-the-less. Maybe on some level he knew what he was doing. Maybe he knew he was semi-ridiculous. That if he walked in like he’d stepped off the set of Welcome Back, Cotter, we’d perk up. Maybe I’m grasping. I’ve thought forever that I never learned a thing in Mr. Hamilton's class. Seventeen years later, I like to think I must have picked up some lesson, if not about civics and free enterprise, about life. But civics and free enterprise is life for us Americans, isn’t it?

I’ll let you know when I figure out what I learned. I have faith there is something.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

rocking out in austin.

How long it has been? I’ll take time to catch up so that I can get back to blogging as usual. (And hopefully, soon, I’ll also catch up on my long-neglected emails.)

Last weekend was the Austin City Limits festival. c. and I had purchased tickets the second we knew we were moving to Austin. Thank goodness for the boy’s insight, b/c we would’ve been WAY too broke to get tickets once we moved.

Of the bands I was lucky enough to REALLY see and listen to, here are the best shows I caught: David Byrne (David Byrne, you ARE the Talking Heads, and much more – internal dialog when I saw him), Drive By Truckers, Erykah Badu (BAD ASS and completely gorgeous – that’s the internal dialog when I watch her), Neko Case (Go on, tell me you don’t think she’s that great. I will talk you in circles until you are a believer.), Foo Fighters (How did I not know that I liked you before this? c.’s observation: “You’ve got to be some seriously good musicians to cover a Who song without ripping it to shreds.” Have I ever mentioned how the boy loves The Who?), Louix XIV, Delta Spirit (unlike it’s name would imply, from San Diego; I’d never heard them before.), Beck (Okay, dream fulfilled, so I’m throwing him on this list, but, as competent as he was, and as happy as I was to hear some of his old stuff, he seemed so bored up on stage. And as if he was doing us a favor by performing.)

By far, the VERY BEST SHOW that I saw the whole weekend, the best live show I think I’ve seen in years, was The Raconteurs. Sometime while it was happening, I had this internal moment of recognition: HO-LY SHIT. Then, there was no other conscious thought. I was dancing like a crazy banshee. Their performance keeps snapping back to my memory, and every time, I’m conscious of the fact that, watching them up on stage, I felt like it was ME who was up there rocking out. Vicarious never felt so good. c. commented, “That’s what a rock show used to BE.” Pause. “So I’ve been told.” And so we have. Today’s photo is me and a friend who was in from Savannah for the festival. We are moving like crazy people while the rest of the crowd stands completely still. c. found this to be rather funny. What was wrong with them??

We rode bikes to and from the festival, it was way less crowded than Jazz Fest, there were no one-hour, or even 30-minute, lines for food or bathrooms, and there’s hand sanitizer outside of the port-a-pottys.

One night on my way out, I guess it was around 10:15 p.m., I ran into a group of people who were walking down to Barton Springs to dive in for a swim. They told me I should come swim. I didn’t, but was we were riding the trail alongside the water, I could hear the inevitable, joyful splash of bodies colliding with water followed by playful hollering. It all ended on Sunday night. Our friend from BR (who stayed with us), went home on Monday; our Savannah friends flew back to Georgia.

On September 30 (the following Tuesday), our bank account was down to $3. There was nothing left to spare on our three maxed out credit cards. But things tend to fall into place just when they’re supposed to. Tuesday is the day we CLOSED ON OUR HOUSE in the red stick! So-long 263 Westmoreland Drive. You were a good house, and we loved you. But we also loved waking up on Wednesday morning and seeing tens of thousands of dollars in our checking account. We paid off all three of those credit cards that had been run up as we juggled fixing up our house, moving expenses and living (jobless) over the last three months. After, we looked at the bank account, and STILL there were tens of thousands of dollars. I have exhaled slowly and audibly and with complete relief many, many times since October 1st. Now we’ve also got money for the down payment on a house, and we’re going to be searching around like crazy people to find a home that feels like ours in Austin, TX.

Feeling good and rich for the first time in a long time, c. went off to his first job interview in Austin on the 1st. He also heard from the firm that is his number one choice that day. They want to interview him after Oct. 10 (b/c they’re pushing through getting a big project complete until then).

On Thursday, Oct. 2, we flew to Chicago to attend a wedding. My longtime friend cm got hitched. It deserves its own telling, so I’ll save it for another entry. But in short, it was a perfect wedding, and I am so happy for her.

Yesterday, when we left Chicago to fly home to Austin, we felt like we were flying off to another vacation. But no, we live here. We live here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How Tight the Spaces Feel by Herpreet Singh

From Sweet Tooth, October 2008

Sometime in the middle of July, I was sitting at Perks reading
The Advocate and came across an article stating that the Red Stick
Farmers Market had instituted a ‘no pet’ policy. No major incident
instigated the dog ban, so I am left wondering: Is Baton Rouge just
too type-A to allow itself to actually thrive?

According to the article, the policy has been instituted because
of the growing ‘volume of people, extreme heat and increased
number of dogs. . . .’ BREADA (Big River Economic and Agri-
cultural Development Alliance), the organization that oversees
the market, deemed this combination of factors unsafe for both
patrons and their dogs.

Often, when I have visited both the interior Main Street
Market and the Red Stick Farmers Market, I have lamented how
tight the spaces feel. The morning I brought my visiting sisters,
brother-in-law and niece and nephew to the markets, we became
so claustrophobic that we needed to leave before we ever ordered
breakfast. But trust me, it wasn’t dogs infringing on our space.
The tight feeling exists because the markets themselves occupy
physically constricted spaces.

The Main Street Market, in which small eateries and gift
kiosks operate, perhaps has little flexibility to remake its public
space. Given the building’s layout, patrons are limited to move
about through what is essentially a narrow corridor. With the
patronage the two markets now attract, this original design poses
a problem that should have been caught before it was ever under
construction: it isn’t crowd-friendly.

Outside, the Red Stick Farmers Market kiosks line both sides
of N. 5th Street, creating a pedestrian corridor that mimics the
indoor market. While this set up may have worked in earlier
years, the farmers market’s popularity has grown. This popularity
is a good thing. But, why is the market still confined to one small
city block? Has the church that abuts the market been asked to
release its parking lot for a few hours each Saturday to nurture
and support a fantastic community event (one that helps our local
economy, our environment and our nutritional health)? Consider-
ing that the Main Street Market occupies an entire city block, is
it impossible to grow the farmers market two occupy two streets
onto which the Main Street Market opens?

The point is that a more fundamental space issue needs to be
addressed than that presented by the presence of dogs, and the
safety issue ties directly to the space issue. In fact, I would argue
that a ‘no pet’ policy actually detracts from the welcoming com-
munity atmosphere the market and its customers have success-
fully built over the years.

Banning dogs from an open-air market may seem incidental,
but the act signifies Baton Rouge’s quintessential and perpetual
predicament. Each time local decision-makers, businesses, or
residents take a couple of steps toward developing a more vibrant
community, a place more appealing to the constantly-talked-about
‘creative class,’ and simply a more fun environment for the young
families that seem to be moving away, we take two steps backward.

The ban reminds me of when Tsunami first opened its doors.
The rooftop patio it leased from LSU was wildly popular, and
every night it was packed with people of all demographics.
Admittedly, the crowds became a safety hazard, but the patio’s
popularity was not a bad thing. The university took the most
extreme approach to managing the crowd; it required Tsunami
to stop serving liquor on the patio. It is as if there were no middle
ground solutions to speak of – requiring a couple of bodyguards
or bouncers, limiting the number of people allowed on the patio
at once, etc.

That there are now two dog parks in Baton Rouge is great.
It’s fantastic that the Red Stick Farmers Market is thriving. It’s
wonderful that Baton Rouge continues to make strides forward.
I just worry that our advances will not synchronize and provide
momentum for a critical mass of quality-of-life infrastructure.
For example, a dog park opens, the farmers market bans dogs.
Just as there are state birds, flowers and songs, if the city of Baton
Rouge had an equation, it would be 1 + 1 – 1 = 1. Subtracting, or
reigning in progress before it gets out of control, tends to be our
type-A standby. If we ever changed it to 1 + 1 + 1 on into infinity,
we might not know what to do with ourselves.

LINK TO STORY: How Tight the Spaces Feel