Sunday, December 23, 2012

Whoa, buddy...

So I've kind of taken a while to digest the events of the last week.  Frankly, they needed time to be digested.  Last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, was not the first mass shooting, not even the first of 2012.  But it did involve some of the youngest victims of a mass shooting to date, and it has brought up a plethora of concerns from violent video games to guns to mental health.  There has been a lot of talk about guns and gun violence in the past week, and as much as I would love to see better gun regulations in the US, that's not the only thing to think about, and just regulating guns is not going to prevent the next incident like this. 

Mental illness is horribly stigmatized in the US, and diagnosis and treatment are often difficult to access.  We do not provide adequate support for people afflicted with mental illnesses or developmental disorders, and we then make it difficult for family and friends to help those about whom they are concerned.  We use words like "crazy," "insane," "retarded," and "screw loose" as colloquial and derogatory terms.  We most definitely need changes to our mental health care system, but those changes will take time to implement, as well as funding, infrastructure, and a change is societal attitude.

Entertainment today is filled with and glorifies violence and destruction, and we've talked about desensitization of kids for years now.  They have training uses to practice uncommon situations, and they allow gamers to let off some steam in a harmless fashion.  Music and TV shows depicting violence have won awards and prestigious nominations in spite of or because of their violence.  Again, this issue will take time to address and huge outside pressure, as the entertainment industry profiting from these media have solid lobby groups. 

Guns have a legitimate place in our society, and the right to bear arms is a protected right under the second amendment.  Does that mean assault rifles are a right?  Does that mean owning a small armory is a right?  Can guns and ammunition be taxed similarly to cigarettes and alcohol?  Does that mean high capacity magazines should be anywhere and everywhere?  I don't know, but these are discussions that we need to have.  And frankly, this area is the area that has the greatest potential to have fairly quick pay-back on making our society safer.

School security is another area where improvements can be seen fairly quickly, although this would cost and isn't sure-fire.  Columbine had a guard on the campus, as did Virginia Tech.  "Not sure-fire" is a far cry from "won't work" but it is something to remember when considering various options.

Of course, the option isn't simply to ban or not to ban, it isn't even what things to ban.  There's always the options of taxing, registration, fees, and testing/courses.  None of these solutions should- or could- happen in a vacuum, but instead in concert with one another.  This is not a simple problem that we're facing, this epidemic of mass shootings, and a simple solution will not address the matters at hand.  But this is the US.  We can put a person on the moon, we sure can fix this problem, too.  We just have to find the political will to do so.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Like most of the country, I'm still processing the violence in Connecticut from yesterday.

I realize gun violence is a huge trigger for me.  I lost my sister to suicide committed with a handgun, and I was raised a pacifist, so yeah, guns evoke strong feelings in me, more than is rational.  Music is usually my catharsis, and that's no secret.  But when you loose someone close to you to suicide, reminders of what you've lost are everywhere, especially at the holidays.  With gun violence all over the news, trying to relax with a concert titled the "Sibling Rivalry Tour" in this situation is setting yourself up for a wild ride.  At least you are if you're me.  And that was my day yesterday.  Add in a very young child's succumbing to cancer, and whoa, buddy, analytical circuits go into over-drive from all that emotion.  I might be on edge for a bit.

On the up side, Jessica Lea Mayfield, David Mayfield, and Shivering Timbers were a-may-zing last night.  And in a ball of emotion that big, there's bound to be some good ones that pop up, and they're starting to do so. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning Curve

This past Sunday wrapped up our Songs of Hope: Music from Kent to NYC, and boy, howdy, did I learn a lot!  The event was an online fundraiser for victims of superstorm Sandy, posting songs, facts, and links to charities that were doing good work in the clean up, relief, and recovery effort in New York and New Jersey.  We were calling it a "noncert," or concert in digital space, and it appears to have been a success, but not without it's glitches.

First off- there was a decent amount of work on the front end.  Finding charities, songs, data, and figuring out the logistics of the whole thing was not simple, but no where near the work that putting on a benefit concert would have been.  That was definitely a positive aspect of this form of fundraising.  Also on the plus side of the equation was the accessibility of the event.  Being an online (in this case, Facebook) event meant that potentially anyone anywhere in the world could participate.  Of course, the Facebook event aspect also added a ton of unwanted spam for people who have email notifications set to let them know about everything that happens on Facebook.  Nothing I can do to change that, except reconsider possible venues that are better suited to this type of event.  Ning?  Twitter?  A dedicated blog?  I don't know, but it's something to think about.

Another issue in my mind was the reporting issue.  I couldn't figure out a better way than self-reporting to do what we wanted (not have to handle/process money, allow freedom of choice in charities, and try to keep track).  I recognize the limitations of self-report measures, and that makes me a little wary of our numbers.  I like to think that humans are mostly honest, and the fact that most of the reported contributions came from people who were not active in the discussion part consoles me that they were likely not reporting just for recognition. 

All in all, I would call this a tentative success, with 73 people giving $2258 to 12 different charities.  If nothing else, it maybe did a little good, my co-organizers and I learned a lot, and we found some great music.

So how was your Sunday evening?

Edited to add- In other good news, I won the Ear to the Ground music review competition, so it looks like I'll be taking on another semi-regular writing thing.  More exciting- the group I reviewed retweeted and favorited the original tweet with my review.  When all is said and done, I'm still just the teen with a scribbled note from her favorite artist, and totally giddy over this little brush with stars.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Play the Changes...

Unless you stepped out of your TARDIS just yesterday from somewhere else in time and space, or you've been living in a cave, you know that right now in the US we are facing a time of huge changes in the educational system.  Those changes include public school reforms, charter schools, home schooling, huge proliferation of college attendance, declining rates of return on college degrees for many students, and vast tuition rate and fee growth and the commensurate funding changes that go along with that.  In some ways, it would be easier to start building a whole new educational system from the ground up, pre-K through graduate degrees, than face all the changes we are right now.

These have not been fast or easy changes, and will continue to be not fast or easy for the foreseeable future, I would venture to guess.  Even if we consider No Child Left Behind as the beginning of big educational changes- and that's questionable, as NCLB was the legislative result of changes that were already being discussed and attempted- the US has had over a decade facing these educational changes. As old as it makes me feel to admit, I've dealt with students that were raised predominantly in an age of NCLB, and it's definitely changed the way students see classes at the college level.

Financially, the system of the university is also facing drastic changes, as state and federal funds (outside of loans) have been cut drastically, and universities are being forced to run a more business-minded model, which doesn't always fit the goals of university (as I've blogged about previously).  The source of funds that has increased to keep up with tuition is student loans, which currently sit at a national level nearing 1 trillion dollars, a debt level near that of the real estate bubble who's rupture shook the entire US.  As part of these financial changes, many universities are looking to cut and have cut wherever they can, and as in most industries, the place with the most room to cut costs is in compensation.  And like other businesses, many universities are more and more often opting for part-time employees when possible.  Why hire a tenure track assistant professor (~40K annually) when you can hire adjuncts to do the same work of three classes a semester, two semesters a year (~15K annually, for those same class loads). 

Unfortunately, what doesn't get factored into that equation is the loss of teaching quality if teachers are harried, over-worked, under-paid, and stressed about making rent.  Or the loss in high quality researchers, as professors at many universities not only teach but forward their area of expertise by continuing to conduct research.  And there's the loss in the service community, as I have yet to meet an adjunct serving on committees or organizing outreach efforts nearly as much as tenure track professors do.  So students end up paying a premium price for a cut-rate education, and that's a travesty. 

All of this is to say that education in the US at all levels is sorely needing reform, but not in the direction that we're moving, which is taking us back, making education less comprehensive, more cost-prohibitive, and less available, just as we increasingly need an informed and critically thinking electorate.  It's almost enough to make one wonder why one went to grad school in the first place.

Almost, but not quite.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Setting Priorities

Life with an almost-seven-year-old has gotten very interesting this week for some reason.  Kenny likes arts and crafts.  A lot.  Which is great and part of what most people enjoy about the little bugger, except when those arts and crafts have to take place at seven in the morning. 

I understand passion, I appreciate passion, but please- put your pants on and get ready for school, kiddo. 

So we've been having lots of talks about priorities, self control, needs and wants, and responsibility.  Fun times, right?  Oddly, it has been kind of fun (once the tantrum dies down), and it has been a challenge.  I think the challenge might be part of what makes it fun for me.  It has made me reconsider how to express rules as positive things- "do this" instead of "don't that"- and I hear tell that method is supposed to work better in getting people to do as asked. 

Of course, my brain typically thinks in "don't"s.  There are lots of ways to do something right, and I'm OK with most of those ways.  It's not easy to reframe "Don't jump on the couch!" as a positive, my brain ends up spitting out something that sounds like "Feel free to sit, lie, recline, stand (if necessary), or lounge on the couch" and about half way through the sentence, Ken's lost all interest.  I could reframe the request as "Show respect to our belongings" but that requires another hour of discussion on respect.  OK, doesn't really require, but that's what ends up happening with Kenny.  No wonder I'm exhausted by the end of the day.

Abstract concepts are such tough things to teach, with all those shades and nuances and interpretations and connotations.  The job is even more tricky when the person doing the teaching is still figuring out nuance, interpretation, and connotation as well.  But the process- learning with my kid instead of just getting him to follow orders- is so much more rewarding, even if less consistent initially.  Yeah, we have our slip-ups, but we're working on them together. 

At the same time, this is great timing for me to be doing all this reflecting on teaching, learning, and communication, because it lets me rethink and reword my teaching philosophy statement to more accurately reflect my practices.  It also reaffirms that my teaching philosophy isn't just crazy talk or ramblings, it's genuinely what I feel are best-practices and functional models for education.  No, college students aren't very similar to first-graders, at least not most of them, but those big abstract concepts like respect, self-control, priorities, responsibility, and learning styles are useful at any age.

And yes, I think I admitted to using my kid as a guinea pig for my own educational research.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Month of Thanks, Week Five

Sunday, 25 November, 2012- I am thankful for relaxing moments with no plans.  This doesn't happen often around our house, as I'm sure you can guess, so we try to savor them when they do come around.  Today was one of those days.  Ken was pajama-bound all day, and I just worried about staying sane after he had a visit to family (which always makes him crazier than usual).  It was very restive.

Monday, 26 November, 2012- I'm thankful for lists.  They keep me focused and on task, and remind me of all that I've gotten done.  Even when I feel like I'm listing a bit.  (And I'm sure you're thankful that I'm so punny on a Monday)

Tuesday, 27 November, 2012- I'm thankful for getting through lists, and the brief reprieve before more deadlines hit.

Wednesday, 28 November, 2012- I'm thankful for productive times working with a colleague, and the ability to call such a great scientist (and person) my mentor.  

Thursday, 29 November, 2012- I'm thankful for getting a chance to really see who people are and to re-evaluate my interactions with them.

Friday, 30 November, 2012- I'm thankful for being done with holiday shopping.  Now I can sit back, do some baking, keep calm, and carry on.

Saturday, 1 December, 2012- I'm thankful to have made it through the one month of thanks "challenge" and I'm looking forward to making December a "write every day" challenge.