The Weekly Blab
Volume 6, Issue 16—January 9, 2012
Fun on the Holidays…
I hope everyone had a great holiday vacation.
As always, I procrastinated like crazy on what to do over the holidays. Ultimately, we did a bunch of hanging around, and then went up to Charlotte, NC for a few days to see some old friends--the Howleys. Paul Howley is the owner of the comic book store in Worcester, MA that I’ve gotten my comics at since I was in graduate school. If you’re ever up in Worcester, check out That’s Entertainment—they sell an interesting mix of comics, sports stuff, and other collectible that are always fun to rummage through. Paul has been a friend of mine now for some thirty years, Jill is a friend of his wife Mal, and Mark is friends with their daughter Cassie. Over the years, they have moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, then Florida, and now North Carolina, so we haven’t been this geographically close in some time.
Paul still owns the two comic book stores in Massachusetts, but he spends most of his time these days doing mail order from his home in NC. It’s great to get together with him, because we just spend the time talking about the really important stuff—comic books, old TV shows, arguing about politics, old acquaintances, etc. Paul is one of the nicest people I know, always willing to help out a friend, and always treating people fairly (and even beyond fairly) in business. If all businessmen were like him, it would be a pretty nice world.
His daughter Cassie is an actress who has appeared in a number of productions in Charlotte, and won some awards too! Paul had DVD’s of some of her performances (we’ll have to arrange to go up there and see her perform live), and she’s really very talented and he’s every inch the proud father. The big news was that Cassie and her husband are expecting a baby in mid-January, so we’re all counting the minutes.
After the visit, we drove across to Asheville and looked around there for a bit, and then through the mountains back down to home. It was a beautiful sunny day until we drove into Georgia, whereupon dark clouds rolled in and it was pretty bleak the rest of the way. C’est la vie.
As usual, we all accumulated lots of stuff over the holidays. Among the new items we're cramming into the house are another volume of Little Orphan Annie comic strip reprints, the latest Dick Tracy comic strip reprints, DVD’s of the first two seasons of the Gene Autry TV Show, the first two seasons of the Lone Ranger (a great box set, with tons of extra features in the box), DVD's of the “lost episodes” of the Honeymooners (i.e., the ones that were on the Jackie Gleason Show and Cavalcade of Stars, not the ‘classic 39’), the complete run of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and a blu-ray of the concert film Gimme Shelter. Mark got a Playstation 3 and some games among a pile of other stuff, so he’s happy as a clam.
Now its back to work for the spring semester. I’m teaching a class in Inorganic Chemistry, so I know at least I’ll be enjoying myself.
Failure Is An Option
Our newest Dean, Tom Nelson, forwarded me an article that appeared on the website Faculty Focus entitled “Failure is an Option”, written by John Orlando. Orlando writes that failure is a great teacher, but some in academia tend to misuse it. He writes: “A student is measured at various points along a course on how well they have mastered the material. Since each assignment is graded based on its proximity to success, and the final grade is determined by the aggregate of each individual grade, failure is preserved and carried with the student throughout the course. The result is that students become failure-adverse, demoralized by failure, and focused more on the grade than the education.” His suggestion is that we need to treat education more like a video game, where when people fail to reach the next level, the game is set up to entice them to try, try, again. In fact, another article by the same guy is entitled “What Games Teach Us About Learning”. I’d be interested in hearing what some of our colleagues in the Computer Game Design degree program think about this.
Anyway, Orlando says that part of the problem is that some faculty have lost sight of the purpose of grading, and use it as a means to sort through a bunch of apples, separating the good from the bad. He tells the story of going to meet a faculty member who was viewed by the campus as being the best and the toughest professor. He writes: “Stopping at his office one day I asked him about his reputation as both the best and toughest teacher in the school. I made the comment that he must not give many A’s, but he responded by saying that everyone in his class gets an A. I asked him how this could square with this reputation for toughness. He replied that when a student hands in a paper he is given comments and told to rewrite it, and must rewrite it over and over until it is an A-quality paper. Only then it is accepted.”
Orlando concluded by saying that too often, we conflate low grades with rigor, when what rigor really consists of is having students learn from their mistakes, improve their work, and keep doing it until high quality is achieved. He challenges us to think about how we can incorporate failure into our teaching, in order to generate success.
I think that John Orlando has hit the proverbial nail on the head in this essay. I remember faculty members I took courses from in college who would brag about the many low grades they gave to their students and how challenging they were. I suppose they meant to scare or motivate us into greater efforts, but it usually didn’t work that way. The faculty who really did motivate us were those who kept after us, always offering extra help, always insisting that we could do it, and who rejoiced when we were successful.
As always, the linked comments on the article were interesting too. One was to a short article and video entitled “If You’ve Never Failed, You’ve Never Lived”. If you’ve never seen this video, take my word for it—spend the 1 minute 17 seconds it takes and give it a look. My guess is that you’ll want to share it with your students. We’re so quick to write off people who fail as not being worthy of success. The story of the big success who reminisces about the teacher who told him or her they’d never amount to anything is so common, it’s a cliché. Let’s all make a New Year’s resolution to continuously strive to push, pull, and cajole our students to succeed. And let’s have a party when they do.
This Week’s Trivia Contest
Today’s contest focuses on that icon of America, Mickey Mouse. Usual rules apply—no looking things up on the web. First response with the most correct answers gets the prize—a three-pack DVD of The Boy Meets Girl Collection, consisting of “What Women Want”, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”, and “Ghost”.