Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dreams of a Safe Home

As a rule, I have vibrant dreams, most of which I remember well into the morning of the next day. I always ask myself what my dreams are trying to say to me. Sometimes the realizations that come from that exercise are startling.

Last night I dreamed that I was living in a nice house somewhere away from home. One day I found out that the people among whom I was living were neither my friends nor did they have my best interests in mind. I was told this by someone who said they thought I should know. And so I packed my things and moved home. Ironically my refuge looked much like the home in which I had grown up as a child. While it was not a place I would have chosen to live, it was a place where I felt safe.

This morning, I didn’t know quite what to make of this dream at first. Then suddenly I remembered that house and home are symbols of the self in Jungian archetypes. In my dream, the people I thought to be my neighbors and friends had betrayed me. The place I thought to be home, to be safe, was not. And so I needed to remove my self (quite literally) to a place that was safe.

So what was that all about?

This week we received the first of the new and improved student evaluations for last semester. I had already received the separate evaluations the Honors College administers which ask open ended questions for students to complete. On those evaluations, I noted that every single student had participated. Armed with the course description from the syllabus I provided, they knew what the course objectives had been and thus were able to judge if they had been met, 100 percent of the students reporting that they had. Comments included the following:

• The class flowed from topic to topic each class period in a logical and appropriate manner

• He definitely met the aims and brought background experience to the course.

• The professor met these aims because he was focused and allowed us many opportunities to understand humanity by presenting all views equally

• He met them to the maximum. I’m a changed man.

• He did meet these because I learned valuable resources for the future and learned how to reflect on myself

• The professor did meet these aims. He is a good lecturer who provokes though but the course load is heavy.

• He met the aims of the class as his lectures raised important questions about humanity

• Met these goals because he thoroughly discussed each point and kept quizzing us on it

• The professor met these aims yet didn’t promote the “creative artwork” portion

• He covered every course objective thoroughly.

This was the usual pattern I have seen on evaluations: complaints of too much work, comments on how challenging the course materials were and how they had been presented. Students worked harder than they wanted or were accustomed to working but had learned something. In short, the instructor had done his job.

When the new Student Perceptions of Instruction (SPI – which sounds an awful lot like SDI, the Space Defense Initiative called the Star Wars anti-missile program) was unveiled last fall, I shuddered at the possibilities it posed. Unlike the old evaluations on bubble sheets which were administered in class with the real live instructor stepping outside the door to give the students some privacy, the new Student Perceptions of Instruction are completed in the silence of cyberspace. The complete removal of the human being in question sent up the initial warning flags. The removal of the process to the internet, where people say things they would never say to other human beings in person, was a second red flag.

But the phrasing of the questions was what was most troubling. Where the former student evaluations had been largely consumerist in their inquiries into how students had experienced a given course rather than whether they had actually learned something of value in the course, the new SPI was overtly consumerist. To wit, student were queried about their perceptions of:

1. Instructor interest in student learning

2. Instructor’s assessment of student progress

3. Expression of expectations of performance

4. Respect and concern for students

5. Stimulation of interest in the course

6. Facilitation of learning

While the questions are phrased in vague, technocratic language, they do have correlates in student speak. To wit:

1. Instructor interest in student learning - Did the instructor do anything in particular that demonstrated they were interested in your personal learning? Could they have done more for you personally? Did the instructor like you? (NOTE: This question at some level requires the students to read the instructor’s mind)

2. Instructor’s assessment of student progress - Did you get the grades you expected in this class? (NOTE: In a survey I took through the Webcourses survey tool of these same students, 69% of this class said they came into the class expecting at least an A-. None of the students expected less than a B-. At the time of the SPI, 48% believed they would make a B though only 25% of them ultimately scored lower than an A- in the course)

3. Expression of expectations of performance - Did the instructor ask you to do more than you wanted to do? (NOTE: In the same survey, only 38% of the students reported spending more than 1.5 hours prep time for the class while none reported spending more than the 2 hours per 1 hour class time generally seen as average expectable prep time by American colleges and universities. At the same time 42% of the students reported the 2 hour prep expectation either unrealistic or outrageous).

4. Respect and concern for students - Did the instructor ever hurt your feelings? Did the instructor call any of your preconceptions into question causing you cognitive dissonance? Did the instructor fail to praise you regularly? Did the instructor make you critically reflect upon your own attitudes and behaviors?

5. Stimulation of interest in the course - Did the instructor entertain you? Did the instructor do anything special to cause you to become interested in the course without which you would not have been interested yourself? Did the instructor capture and keep your attention rather than expecting you to actually pay attention?

6. Facilitation of learning - Was the class easy? Did it demand more than you wanted to produce? Did this class accommodate your personal schedule? Did this class require you to be responsible for time management?

While the Honors College evaluation required students to actually come up with answers of their own to questions about the course itself and the instructor’s role in that course, the SPI focuses on acontextual issues surrounding the instructor’s person. In all of the questions noted above, the presumption is that the instructor is somehow personally responsible for making his students happy, a role that is consistent with the ideology of educators as consumerist suppliers of goods and services but ultimately has little to do with the actual quality of pedagogy in higher education.

That consumerist ideology becomes more obvious with the final questions inviting comments:

• The thing(s) I like the MOST about this course:

• The thing(s) I like the LEAST about this course:

• What is your reaction to the method of evaluating your mastery of the course (i.e., testing, grading, out of class assignments [term papers], instructor feedback, etc.)

• Additional comments and suggests for improvement:

Such questions are hardly unfamiliar to consumers. Indeed, they mirror the kinds of questions one finds in the “How did we do?” cards that often accompany our checks at places like Olive Garden and Chili’s restaurant except that students don’t get a website to go to with their comments and a code to enter the survey to get $5 off their next class.

The results from the SPI were discouraging though hardly disastrous. In the category of “overall assessment of instructor,” in the very same class whose Honors evaluations are reported above 16% rated their instructor fair, another 10% poor. While the 58% combined excellent and very good ratings were just below the departmental average of 61%, this is more low ratings than I generally get from student evaluations. But it was the comments which were particularly troubling.

In the class in question here, I had been told by a student early into the term that there were five girls in a self-described “Christian sorority” who were having trouble with the class because of its critical approach to religions. It was not hard to tell who those students were given their absences on the days the history of Christianity was discussed in class. While I generally chalk such avoidance up to intellectual cowardice, I also realize that inherited and largely unexamined religious and political views that students bring with them to the university often are fragile precisely because they are unexamined.

Reflecting this discomfort with critical study of religion, one comment on the SPI said, “The attitude expressed toward Christianity near the beginning affected my attitude from wanting to learn at the beginning, seemed to me that you thought Christians were stupid/ignorent (sic) and that made me not want to listen to what you had to say.” I would suspect it also made the student incapable of critically and fairly considering the subject matter of the class, instead focusing on the perceived blasphemous character of the instructor. (There is a reason that the archetype of the challenger in Judaism, the Satan, ultimately morphs into the Devil of the Christian imagination) While it is impossible to know exactly who rated the instructor by category, it is perhaps more than coincidence that the number of students rating the instructor fair or poor was exactly the same number as the self-described “Christian sorority” girls.

Which brings me back to the dream. I have been living in a state of misplaced trust under a naïve belief that if I simply worked hard and did a good job, my students might actually appreciate my hard work even as I challenged their work habits and thought patterns. I had labored under the misapprehension that it was my work ethic and work product which would be judged in evaluations, not my person which would be the subject of secret consumerist evaluations in cyberspace with the malignant potential to devolve into online bitch sessions.

My dream reflects the wake up call I received last week. What has become clear from the new SPI is that whatever else it is about, it is not particularly concerned with evaluating the educational process. The new SPI format primarily focuses on the person of the instructor, not the course. It differs from the various online professor “rating” sites (e.g., only in the absence of the “hotness” category (complete with its chili pepper icon).

With the removal of the evaluation process from the classroom where the instructor and all students are present to the internet, only those with motivations to actually participate - those with axes to grind, self-imposed duties to warn others of demanding professors and the few loyalists who feel the need to defend their favorite professors – will actually do so. Instructors are not guaranteed of getting an actual reflection of any given class.

The lessons from my dream now appear clear: The person, or self, of the instructor – again, represented by the house in Jungian archetypes – is not safe in the brave new world of consumerist universities. Your students - who instructors like myself perhaps naively believed would appreciate your hard work and expertise brought to bear on their educational behalf – will betray you. And, what is more, the university - which has propagated this consumerist, personality driven survey – encourages this.

This is not a safe environment. Indeed, every day I perceive that the university has become increasingly like the adversarial system of the practice of law I left years ago because I simply didn’t want to use my talents and education to fight with others every day. In addition to compensation which comes nowhere close to adequate given the level of educational preparation required, the ongoing fear of layoffs from business model driven management and the demonization the academy regularly endures from the corporate media, now our very students are being encouraged to turn against those who devote their lives to helping them become educated human beings. Apparently, no good deed goes unpunished.

As for the safe home of my dreams, perhaps it is more aspirational than anything actualizable. The lessons of the new SPI tell me I must be more conscious of the potential for betrayal by those I would seek to help become educated human beings. That will mean an even greater distancing from and tentativeness with those I once would have seen from the role of potential mentor. On a good day, they are clients, on a bad day, potential liabilities. The lessons of the new SPI also reinforce the adversarial nature of the instructor to management at the mega-university which has taken free market fundamentalism as its guiding ideology. Whatever other concerns this collegiate factory has, the welfare of its faculty is not among them.

This past week I considered retirement seriously for the first time in my life. I had always believed I would teach until I dropped over dead in the classroom. In the post-SPI world, I know exactly how many days I must complete until I can retire with full benefits. As of Friday, that number was 802.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The News from the Bay State

Boston, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Republican Scott Brown has won Tuesday's special election for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy, CNN projects based on actual results.  Brown, a Massachusetts state senator, had 52 percent of the vote to 47 percent for state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic contender, with over 69 percent of precincts reporting in results from the National Election Pool, a consortium of media organizations including CNN. Independent candidate Joseph Kennedy, a libertarian who is not related to the Kennedy political family of Massachusetts, had 1 percent.

At stake was President Obama's domestic agenda, including health care reform. If Brown upsets Coakley, Republicans will strip Democrats of the 60-seat Senate supermajority needed to overcome GOP filibusters against future Senate action on a broad range of White House priorities.

And now back to our regularly scheduled stupidity.

Brought to you by [your coporate logo here]......
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


the polar bear and her cub died today.
the ice floe on which they stood
had grown smaller and smaller,
finally giving way under their weight.
with no place left to swim,
they floundered in the icy water for hours
before finally surrendering to the inevitable
sinking to the bottom of the inky blue waters.

but the honors student never heard their plaintiff howls,
or the frantic splashing in the arctic waters
the buds from her ipod firmly planted in each ear
the sound of her chosen music
drowning out even an awareness
of those passing by.
“I need this music,” she said.
“It reminds me of home. It’s comfortable,” she added.
and so the world around her disappeared
into a mélange of self-blinding comfort
as she walked back to her honors dorm
oblivious to passersby
and the wading birds in the nearby pond
to write her paper on global warming
and its causes.

a little chunk of the Amazon rainforest died today.
they say 150 acres disappear each minute
taking with them the animals
who depend on their moist, leafy matrix for life
exotic butterflies, brilliantly plumed macaws, regal jaguars
all enroute to extinction
along with the many plants
holding medical answers
for the desperate illnesses of our planet.
the lungs of our planet gasp for air
while half-built decks in new gated communities
await the shipment of cheap wood
and the obese children
who will live in those "communities "
await their turn in SUVs
clogging drive through windows of fast food restaurants
to consume beef grown on depleted plains
where mighty rainforests once reigned/rained supreme.

but the young man in his sports car
never heard the howl of the wind
across the spoils of the rainforest
as he drove by in his black sports car
oblivious to the world
much less the others on the highway
texting at 70 mph down the expressway.
what ru up 2? he punched in
two fingers grasping the steering wheel
as his car lurched across three lanes of traffic
cutting off the soccer mom in the SUV
who jammed the brakes to avoid an accident
returning home to the new gated community
where a cypress swamp once stood
her BigFat® sated children
oblivious to their danger
slurping the last of their supersized milkshakes
pacified by the DVDs of The Jungle Book
playing on the monitor behind the front seat

the emaciated young child of Darfur finally died today
the vigilant vulture yards away
finally able to feast
on the prize she had awaited so long
young hatchlings on a dusty ledge nearby
awaiting their breakfast -
the vulture had endured a photo session
that would make her famous worldwide
and prove to be the death of her young photographer
who would dare to awaken the world
from its deadly slumber.

the child’s mother long since dead
in the refugee camps
on the border of the religion/oil wars
displaced from their homes by ethnic cleansing,
climate change driven famine
and power hungry would-be warriors
Africa drowning in an incoming tide of arms
bought with oil/blood money.
had she died from AIDS?
by gang rape?
or simply by the violence of starvation?
who knew? who cared?

but the young jock walking across campus
never heard the child’s last rasping for breath
sporting the official corporate logo jersey
of the local college/professional team
oblivious to those
he cut off on the sidewalks
cell phone in hand
taking seriously
the commercials which advised him
“Talk all the time!”
and so he did.

"Not much. Just walking back from class.
Hamburger. I had a hamburger for lunch.
Liquid Cellar at 7.
No, I don’t have any tests, no need to cram, man.
Later, dude.”
the gurgling sound of death
from a seven year old child weighing 15 pounds
lost in a vapid conversation
to which all around the young man enroute to the gym
were now privy
whether they wanted to be or not.

the poet/prophet rolled up his scroll
his lament from the creator now finished
an angry crowd stared back at him
and they shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
the fragility of their shallow,
comfort-driven, constructed reality
shattered by the harsh light
of the truth of their existence.

he had committed the unforgivable sin
of making them conscious.
his call to repentance
lost in a sea of acontextual accusations
which took the form of hackneyed epithets:
socialist! unpatriotic! burnedouthippie!
his revelation of the true gods we worship -
technology (if we invent it, we must use it - regardless)
and the corporate interests
which always lie behind it
(there is a reason “In God We Trust” is found on our money)
an act of blasphemy.

it is always tempting
to shoot the messenger
to stone the prophets
to avoid their call
to repent, rethink, reconsider our lives -
to pathologize the revelatory voice
as the product of self-delusion
or simply dismiss it
as the product of a generational cleft.
and perhaps all those things are true.
but is it not our very children,
the progeny of the generation which proclaimed
“Tune in, turn on, drop out!”
who are now doing exactly
what we told them to do?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.
Supreme Absurdity ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court kept in place Wednesday its order blocking video coverage of the trial of California's Proposition 8, with a conservative majority ruling that defenders of the ban on same-sex marriage would likely face "irreparable harm" if the proceedings were broadcast to the public.

"It would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to reverse the harm of those broadcasts," the court wrote in an unsigned opinion. The witnesses, including paid experts, could suffer "harassment," and they "might be less likely to cooperate in any future proceedings." The high court also faulted U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker for changing the rules "at the eleventh hour" to "allow the broadcasting of this high-profile trial" that will decide whether gays and lesbians have a right to marry in California.

The unsigned opinion clearly speaks for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

What a load of horse shit. The absurdity of the mealy mouth reasoning in this unsigned opinion (the avoidance of accountability clearly begins at the top) is astounding. It would be humorous if it were not simply one more example of institutionalized homophobia at work.

It’s hardly surprising that the Bush Boys don’t want to sign this opinion. Most people don’t like to own up to their social prejudices, particularly in a high profile public manner. This from the folks who constantly talk about “accountability.” Not that one would expect much more of the ideologue bloc on the court. After Bush v. Gore, the standard by which court decisions could be compared is so low, nothing could be terribly surprising. The Bushes were hardly known for their ability to think critically or to demonstrate “the vision thing” so it’s hardly surprising their knee jerk appointees wouldn’t either.

What’s lost here is the irony of homophobes in the role of victims. It’s a bit like the Slave Holders’ Anti-Defamation League winning the day in the Dred Scott case. G-d forbid that misanthropists ever be held publicly accountable for their prejudices.

What makes it ironic is the fear of the homophobes that they might be harassed even as they testify in proceedings to support ongoing harassment of a whole segment of the population. Obviously these justices believe we must insure that misanthropists can engage in their dignity-denying, death dealing behaviors without any repercussions, beginning with criticism of their misanthropy.

Over the years these people holding these same prejudices have

• killed thousands of LBGT people in the name of religion and under the authority of law
• denied LGBT people basic human necessities ranging from housing to protection from crime
• discriminated with impunity against LGBT people in employment , marital and familial rights
• demonized them from the halls of Congress to the pulpits of the local church
• depicted them in popular culture in caricatures allowing dehumanizing behaviors toward those seen as less than fully human

Now the people who wish to continue this death-dealing pattern without question want to style themselves as victims, targets of harassment who, without the protection of the knee jerk justices on the Supreme Court would somehow find themselves irreparably harmed and excluded from future public proceedings. Not terribly unlike the white know-nothings and tea baggers who are increasingly restive about the pending shift to a minority/majority America in 2050, they fear that others will mistreat them in the same way they have been more than happy to do to others historically.

This decision by the Supremes bodes ill for the substantive issues that the California federal district court is considering that will no doubt ultimately make their way to the US Supreme Court. It was precisely the stacking of the courts with conservatives that strongly informed my own decision to leave the practice of law. I did not want to be complicit in a system of injustice. Looks like I was reading the tea leaves correctly.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Monday, January 04, 2010

A Tired Argument: Universities as Worker Drone Factories
Today’s New York Times carries an article entitled Career U., Making College ‘Relevant’
A salient portion of the article states the following:

Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?

The pressure on institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions office to the career center. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and universities worry that students are specializing too early, that they are so focused on picking the perfect major that they don’t allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.

I wrote this reply to add to the comments section only to find that it had closed by 3 p.m. this afternoon. Here is that reply:

The argument that universities should function as little more than factories producing obedient, unquestioning worker drones with a modicum of higher education to insure one’s middle class identity is hardly original. That same argument has been made for the past 50 years. And it remains as profoundly misguided as when it was first made. Moreover, if taken seriously, it can prove deleterious to the individuals who buy this approach and disastrous for the society which allows it to dominate its educational enterprise.

As a humanities instructor at a public mega-university, I constantly encounter students – and their parents – with enormous and inexplicable senses of entitlement regarding everything from grades to pedagogy. In the face of this barrage, I continue to offer my students the opportunities to develop skills in critical and creative thought, verbal, written and technological expression and working with other human beings collaboratively. For those who would doubt the value of liberal arts education, ask yourselves this: what career does not demand that its workers be able to think critically? to creatively problem solve? Which career does not demand proficiency in expressive skills? And in what job will one never have to work with others?

Perhaps more importantly, liberal arts educations offer students an opportunity to know the streams of history and culture that have produced their lives and the world in which they live. Without such knowledge, one has little idea of their own identity, much less the problems humanity has already faced and what we have learned from those mistakes.

The worker drone model is detrimental to both individuals and societies. At the individual level, it leads to truncated human beings who have squandered their potentials. The primary benefits of work focus on the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, shelter, clothing, et al. In work contexts where workers are valued and collegiality is fostered, it is possible that both belonging and self-esteem needs can be partially met. But in all such contexts, work is a means to human ends, not an end in itself. And higher level needs for transcendence and self-actualization go unmet in an approach which focuses predominately at the lower levels of the hierarchy. Indeed, unless one has thought about the possibility – if not the imperative - of transcending the everyday, it’s probably impossible to do so.

At a societal level, a reductionist approach which relegates higher education to mere career training (and let’s be honest, here – in today’s free market fundamentalist job world, who can really be trained for a career with any expectation of pursuing it to retirement?) means the loss of the ability for self-reflection and self-critique.

There are examples of societies which have pursued this path of focusing on the creation of unreflective technocrats pursuing uncritical political and economic goals while banishing those who would question such policies - its artists, philosophers and social theorists - to outer darkness. Perhaps the best example is Hitler’s Third Reich. The results of that experiment speak for themselves. Of course, one has to have actually studied history to know that and critically reflected upon it to recognize its import for us today.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.