Saturday, February 26, 2011

A change in view

I saw the sunrise this morning. Well, not really. There was cloud cover over the Atlantic and that blocked the sun. But I did see the sky lighten as I drove eastward on I-595, from Davie where my cousin lives to the Fort Lauderdale Airport. I'm headed home after a brief trip to see my mom in Boca and do her taxes, then dinner and an overnight stay with my cousin before arising early to get to the airport.

The last time I did this trip I missed the flight. Ninety minutes should be enough. But it wasn't if you check a bag. There was a line for that and another one, seemingly longer, through security. This time around I had my boarding pass already and I traveled light - an old WebCT Conference backpack for the few clothes I packed and my computer bag. It was a half hour through security, but I got here early, waking well before my alarm went off. The Fort Lauderdale airport has free wireless, so I'm taking advantage.

When I got to Florida Thursday evening my mind was on my behavioral econ class. Driving north on I-95 there was the HOV lane. The day before we had done Sam Peltzman's famous paper on auto safety, which showed that safety regulation didn't reduce fatalities due to car accidents. I retold a story Peltzman had told at a workshop on Campus I attended sometime back in the 1980s. When those HOV lanes first opened up on I-95 it created a market for inflatable dummies, so people could bypass the requirement of having multiple passengers in the car. Thursday evening I didn't get into the HOV lane, it was only me, though it was a little after 6 PM and the regulated time ended at 6. There was still a fair amount of traffic, and the HOV lane wasn't moving faster than the other lanes.

I no longer have a dial up connection and my mom's condo doesn't have Internet, so my plan was to go over to her place, see her for just a bit, pick up her various tax documents, and then head back to the hotel so I could do her taxes at the hotel the following morning before visiting with her. I did that. I didn't plan this trip too far in advance. Flying out of Champaign would have been quite pricey. So I traveled out of Indy and with that had to connect in Atlanta. The total trip was a bit over 10 hours. So I was very tired when I arrived and went to bed before 10 PM.

But the trip itself, especially after getting through security at the Indy airport, proved a way for me to unwind and refocus my thinking. I brought along a couple of older New Yorker issues for my reading in flight and on the way down went through most of the January 10th issue. It was delightful and a complete diversion from the thoughts that occupy my current routine. There was a piece about the banana blight in Australia and Asia and what is being done via cross breeding to prevent it from eventually ruining the banana crops in Latin America. There was another piece about the toppling of the Sadam statue in Iraq in 2003 and how the media created an event that wasn't. The Iraqis had not embraced the U.S invasion but TV made it seem otherwise. And there was a piece about psychoanalysis in China, much of it conducted by American psychiatrists online via Skype. None of these were things I had been thinking about before. Each was fascinating. And I found myself relaxing mentally, getting more enjoyment although I'm invariably physically cramped on a plane trip and don't like flying for that reason. As an escape to encourage reading, however, flying is ideal. What else is there to do?

I began to reflect on how much anger there seems to be in society today and start to wonder if that is because people don't get out of their own mental routines. Before taking this trip I had much anger about my teaching, some of which I articulated here. Adding to the list of issues there, much of the communications I'm having with students these days is their wanting extensions on deadlines, which they missed for xyz reasons. I had hoped my novel approach in each class would produce an environment where these traditional issues would melt away and the kids would engage and open up as learners. For example, I had hoped that students would comment on the blog posts of students on other teams. So far, that is not happening at all. It's the system that has been winning, not my method.

But if I cared to face facts, much of my anger is toward myself, a self-loathing that belies a lack of heartiness about the teaching. Last fall when I had no work obligations whatsoever, except for preparing for this spring, I could have done a lot more than I actually did. I pursued this preparation at a leisurely pace, lacking intensity in my efforts, waiting for the spirit to move me. So a lot of the construction of content is still undone and I'm making a substantial amount of content while I teach, something the pros warn shouldn't be done because the instructor will get overwhelmed. That's where I am now, somewhat overwhelmed by the task ahead, motivated more by guilt that I must complete things than a sense that what I'm doing will produce a bang in the learning. So I'm angry at my idealism based on an ignorant conception of what is happening with the students and with the fallacy of thinking that constructing the content can happen quickly and with little effort. I'm also angry that much of what I'm creating is too flat, lacking the depth and subtlety that I value. The rationalization is, who has time for that? But if you end up spending the bulk of your time on things you don't highly value, what do you have left but anger?

Then en route and later in the evening I get a couple of emails. One is from a student in the intermediate micro class, making an observation that tied into something we talked about regarding intellectual property. It was the type of extension on our discussion that I had hoped to see in their blogging. Here he was doing it not for credit but for the hell of it and because he saw something and he wanted me to share in his observation. It gave me a warm feeling reading it. The other was from a student in one of the former Soviet Republics who had seen one of my Excel videos on YouTube and wanted to get access to the Excel file. He too was just doing it for the learning and I appreciated his making the connection though he obviously wasn't one of my students.

And I came to think that out of angry and ignorant motivations one looks for the big bang in outcomes, setting ourselves up for an emotional fall, but out of a more gentle and patient touch we might begin to see some consequences from our own efforts as teachers, though what we will see will come in drips and drabs.

I'm writing the last bit of this post the next day, back at home. I don't know whether I can maintain intensity in my own effort coupled with a patient and gentle view of how the students learn. But it does seem the right sort of ideal to encourage from ourselves, even as we will fall short of it most of the time. And it is obvious to me, though again whether I follow through remains an issue, that leisurely diversions need to be rich enough to sustain us and not let us fall into ruts of our own making. Balance can be restored that way. We need balance, not big bangs.

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