Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

For Memorial Day, some numbers:

Number killed on 9/11: 2986

Number of U.S. killed as a result of U.S. military activities since 9/11: 3091
(295 U.S. military killed in Afghanistan, 2464 U.S. military killed in War on Iraq, 332 U.S. civilians (e.g., contractors) killed in Iraq)

Number of Iraqi civilians killed since War on Iraq began: 38,000-42,000.
(These figures are critiqued by many as being low estimates.)

Sources for the above:

If you find figures that you believe are more accurate that differ from the ones here, please let me know in "comments," and please cite your sources.

Some additional context:

Wars apparently are becoming more and more deadly for civilians. Of the deaths caused by each of the following wars, here are the percentages of those deaths being civilian deaths:

World War I: 14%
World War II: 67%
Wars of the 1980's: 75%
Wars of the 1990's: 90%

Here is the book those statistics are from: WAR AND PUBLIC HEALTH, edited by Barry S. Levy and Victor Sidel, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Friday, May 26, 2006

It's Happening Even Here -- "Assessment" !

I live in a remote corner of the U.S., tucked away far away from even an Interstate highway. Time slows (except at Universities); life is peaceful (except within our troubled minds); tracts of undeveloped wilderness are woven plentifully between small farms and scattered villages.

But now the long shadow of the Assessment Monster at last touches our small private college. No longer sheltered, insulated, hidden and forgotten, we too are required to produce, yes, an Assessment Plan to prove to the world that we are in fact doing what we claim to be doing: educating our students.

Even though I'm still on sabbatical, I did sign up for a three-day workshop on this that I just completed yesterday. Since I am chair of my department, and since I have considerable anxiety about this process, I thought it might be helpful to get a preview of what I would be in for when I returned in the fall.

My doing this also reveals my great confidence in my university. I only signed up because I like the way my university approaches things, and I trusted that our dean would offer a good way of conceptualizing this, and I trusted that the other faculty who signed up for such an event would have thoughtful and helpful things to say about it all.

I was right.

While I remain suspicious of the assessment craze in general, because it can too easily become inappropriately controlling, the way our university is handling it has the potential to develop into something very helpful.

Education is situated in a place of creative tension within its given culture. On the one hand, it is expected to perpetuate that culture. On the other hand, it is uniquely positioned to take a critical role in relation to its culture -- even to become the conscience of the culture in which it is embedded.

The demand for assessment and accountability can all too easily become a way that those in power try to dampen education's critical role. What our leaders in politics and business most want from higher education today is for our educational institutions to "produce" good, obedient, and highly productive workers who don't question the status quo very much, if at all.

And what is most easily measurable in the educational process is skill development and factual knowledge. The goals of liberal arts education are much harder to assess. And so the temptation is strong to limit one's gaze to what is easiest to assess. But if that becomes the focus of attention, our teaching then changes to favor the cultivation of those kinds of knowledge, to the exclusion of the more subtle and complex kinds.

What we've been doing over the past three days, then, is to find a way to conceptualize this process that would help us to keep our real goals -- the more complex and subtle ones -- clearly in focus. And I think we have done a good job in this. I emerge from the workshops feeling much more confident that we won't have to sacrifice our soul in this process.

And a new thought began to crystallize for me just yesterday. This might actually be helpful! (Not just "not destructive" but actually helpful!)

When I first went on sabbatical, I was exhausted, and I began uneasily to wonder if a lot of the effort I was expending in my teaching was actually wasted or duplicated effort. I began to realize that I routinely over-prepare for my classes. I give brilliant lectures that my students cannot really understand. I write lots of thoughtful comments on student papers that students don't really read, or find overwhelming, or misinterpret, or simply don't really understand. We as teachers take a leap of faith. We sow lots of seed in hopes that some of it sprouts and takes root. Because we don't know what does and what does not have an impact (often we are surprised at what our students later say was most meaningful to them in our classes), we feel that we just have to keep doing things this way, in a kind of blind hope. We console ourselves by noting that at least we keep learning the material better and better by trying to teach it. And we justify ourselves by pointing out that this is the way to be true to the subject-matter of our teaching, itself. Whether the students can understand or not, we feel compelled to speak the full truth and complexity of all that we have come to know -- it is our obligation as educators.

Too many professors then vent their woes by criticizing their students: they don't work hard enough. They drink too much. They're the Generation of Entitlement. Etc.

But that's not fair. The real issues is simply that they are not developmentally ready to approach the material the way we do. Some of us have been working with this material for as long, or longer, than our current students have been alive!

So, what if we could gain a better sense of what are appropriate expectations for the kinds of learning our students are ready for? What if we put into our teaching exactly what our students are ready to learn, and no more? Our students might feel less overwhelmed and more satisfied and enriched (rather than beat up) by the educational process. And we might be able to find significantly more time and energy to devote to our own research and writing!

This is why I'm now excited about developing an assessment plan. The more clear we become about what effect we really are having, and the more we learn what each other is doing, the less we will be wasting and duplicating our efforts, and the more we will be able to channel more of our energy into our own research and writing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Other Rugs Shifting Under My Feet: The Challenge of Discernment

I’ve actually been having a rough time since my return from the U.K. This is why my writing here has been tapering off lately – when I try to write, it turns unacceptably negative.

This past weekend, I finally realized that I am feeling a Great Shifting in my soul. I realized that I have been feeling unsettled because I am in fact being called in a new way. The features of this call are starting to crystallize, which is exciting but also terrifying.

Discerning leadings and callings is very difficult. At least in my own experience, I find that I can go through long spells of sensing that something is coming, but without quite being able to make out its shape. Then, when it does start to take shape, I can be so eager for clarity and direction that I can be too quick to take my first impression of its shape for It Itself. But this earliest stage of clarification is where I have to be most careful, because what I first see will be what is familiar. I have been striving so hard to make sense of the great, vague movements of the spirit that, as soon as I can put a label on at all, I am tempted to codify the leading rigidly in that form – a form at last I can get hold of; a form at last I can control.

But this is seldom (if ever) the final form the leading really will take. Most genuine leadings do bring something very new into the world, and so casting them in the old forms of what is already familiar and comfortable to us is almost always mistaken.

We must have the patience and discipline to keep waiting and watching. While we can “try on” different interpretations, we must initially hold those interpretations lightly, keeping our eyes focused, so to speak, on the shifting vague shapes behind the interpretations we tentatively hold up.

That is where I am: at the fragile preliminary stage of the first crystallizations of a new leading.

This is really why I’ve felt unsettled: this may change my life in significant ways (just when I thought it was time to start really settling in to a calm, quiet, and predictable life at last). And this is why I’ve found it hard to write about my life, except in negative ways. My soul is being shaken down. Sometimes maybe we do go through negative phases in preparation for new positive directions.

So, I cannot write specifically about my new ideas yet – I’m not sure I can fully trust my first impressions of the nature of this leading. But I’ll probably be writing more as it does clarify in a more reliable way.

In the meantime, I will note that we are having an absolutely beautiful springtime where I live. Maybe I will post some pictures.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Rug Pulled Out From Under Me

I’ve just received word today that the early music group I’ve been part of is over. This group, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is (was) an ensemble at our college, and therefore was also a partial-credit course option for students. The reason it is being cancelled now is that, in recent years, other instrumental ensemble opportunities have been created for students, and so student interest in the early music group has declined. Students are trained on modern instruments and really don’t know what early music is, and usually have little interest in learning new, (er, I mean, old) instruments. Playing early music well is a real challenge.

So, I sort of understand this decision, and I must say I’ve seen the writing on the wall. Because of being on sabbatical, I told the director that I wouldn’t be participating this semester (I’d miss too many rehearsals). To my surprise, a few others decided to take a break too, and so the director cancelled the ensemble for the semester. When I saw that happen so quickly and easily, I knew then that this was very likely the end of the group altogether.

I’m sad about this, but not devastated. We never had real closure or a proper farewell. When endings are not properly acknowledged, that is very sad. But what is also sad is the loss of something distinctive. Our having this group here at all was unusual, and so this change now looks to me like so much else that is happening in the U.S. – everything is looking more and more alike. Regional differences evaporate. The characteristics that make a community or institution unique and distinctive get erased in favor of changes that make it look like all the others.

And what is hard on me personally is that this is yet another example of where I’ve poured my own heart and soul into trying to sustain and improve something that is distinctive and special, and then I wake up one day and it’s simply been erased.

Our group had been having some success, I thought. Our audiences did seem to get bigger with each passing semester. But that, unfortunately, was not the kind of success that mattered. The success that mattered was the number of students involved, and that number remained small.

But, anyway, I did say above that I am not devastated. The reason I am not devastated is that (a) I can appreciate how much I have learned, and so I am grateful to have come along when it was still alive and vibrant; and (b) I have been thinking that it may be time for me to move on to something else in my musical life. This group had had an ever-shifting population of new members every semester, and in any given semester, there was quite a range of abilities and, more importantly, a range in levels of commitment. While it had initially been a great context for me to re-affirm the musical part of my identity, it could not serve happily as a long-term dwelling-place for me, musically, because the varying levels of commitment of its members meant that there were limits to how far the group could cohere and develop.

The opportunity that opens before me now is the chance to start or become part of a more stable and more reliably committed group.

The problem is that I am not exactly sure how to take this next step.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Vision of a Better World

When I wrote yesterday's post, I kept finding myself tempted to go on and on about what I don't like about our culture today. This morning, I indulged in just going ahead and writing my list of what I'm most unhappy about in current U.S. culture. To my amazement, the list kept growing and growing.

You will be happy to learn that I'm not posting it! It's pretty depressing.

So, instead, I will derive out of that list, in an inverse sort of way, some elements of my vision for a better world.

  • People would generally be more respectful of each other.
  • Environmental sustainability and social & economic justice would be the highest priorities of our government.
  • Our nation would try to work cooperatively with other nations to resolve differences.
  • We would restore an ethic of placing the greater social good over and above the false god of "economic growth." We would realize that economics is a means, not an end.
  • Every full-time job would offer a living wage.
  • Those from other countries who are hired to do work in this country would be regarded as legal immigrants, because clearly they are offering something of value to our country.
  • Everyone would have access to basic health care at affordable prices. And going to the doctor would be a healing, reassuring experience.
  • Education would be relevant and meaningful, and higher education would be affordable.
  • The mass media would cater to the greater social good instead of to consumerism. There would be more educational programming and there would be more positive, inspiring movies and stories. Sensationalizing violence and disrespect would be regarded as offensive and in poor taste.
  • Technological development would stabilize so that people could buy items that are easy to learn how to use and will last a long time. There would no longer be the need to "upgrade" (= spend lots of money, spend time learning lots of new skills and reworking how you do things and how you keep your work organized) every two years.
  • When a resource is found to be limited, those in economic and political power would refuse to yield to the temptation of capitalizing off the scarcity of the resource, and instead would join forces in planning for a sustainable future. They would do this by discouraging dependency on the limited resource -- encouraging moderation and developing alternatives.
  • We would have a viable system of public transportation for medium distances, so that people wouldn't be limited to only the two current viable options of long car journeys or short, inefficient plane flights. (Kunstler said in his talk [see yesterday's posting] that the easiest thing we could do that would have the most dramatic helpful effect in alleviating the oil crisis would be to restore passenger train travel in the U.S. I agree. I love trains, and would take them all the time for medium-length journeys if they were available.)
  • We would also have good systems of local public transportation even in rural areas.
  • Urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods would return to pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly environments. Everybody would have the option to be able to walk to get their daily needs met.
  • Beautiful historic buildings would be restored and well-taken-care-of. New construction would be energy-efficient, sturdy, and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Neighborhoods and downtowns would be aesthetically pleasing, interesting, and distinctive. Different places really would look different from each other again.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Oil Crisis

I heard a talk by James Howard Kunstler recently, entitled "The End of Oil." He said that his talks are often misunderstood: people tend to hear the negative message ("things will have to change") more than the positive message ("things will have to change").

The parenthetical inserts above are my own asides: he didn't put it that way. His talk did hammer in the gravity of the situation, but generous portions of his talk were devoted to what I regarded as mostly a positive vision of a post-oil-driven economy.

So my spontaneous parenthetical comments above are meant seriously.

We are afraid of change.

But, well, are things really all that great now, if we take a fully honest look at what our lives are like? Wouldn't some change be good?