Humor/whimsy

U of All People tries to get its students in shape (essay)

At U of All People, the administration has grown concerned over the slackness of our student body. Make that bodies. The athletic facilities are so underutilized that you can see tumbleweeds drifting past the exercycles. The freshman 10, the weight gain from our students’ first encounter with our dining halls, became the freshman 15 about five years ago and has recently climbed to the freshman 25. The feat of physical prowess the students got most excited about last month was the annual hoagie-eating contest, won by the combined efforts of the Eta Beta Pi fraternity at 232 sandwiches in half an hour. When asked their favorite activity on a Sunday afternoon, 75 percent of the students answered, “A nap.”

But when an article on the subject appeared in The Weekly People last week, the Student Recreation Board fired back a reply. “Our student body is extremely active,” proclaimed Rec Board head Ann E. Robics. To highlight “the intense physical activity that our students participate in on a daily basis,” the board is now organizing a campus competition: the first academic triathlon -- but it can’t use that name, because it’s already been co-opted by a nationwide bunch of grade-school math and science nerds. Instead, the board has adopted the title TPC: Three-Part Competition, though “TPC” alone has a knowing feel to it that the explanatory part drags down, so the board is going to stick with just the initials. As physics professor Moe Mentam, academic adviser to the TPC committee, says, “All movement is good movement!”

Seven competitions have already been proposed and field-tested, just not in any actual fields. See below for what’s on the docket, complete with an almost meaningless point system. Any resemblance to the Olympic Games is more than coincidental.

            Morning class preparation:

                        * vault out of bed (10 bonus points for those sleeping in bunks)

                        * swim into cast-off clothes (tight jeans, 15 bonus points)

                        * run to bathroom (carpeted corridor counts 10 points more than bare floor)

            Making it to class:

                        * sprint to car, parked on far side of campus (illegal spots, 10 points off)

                        * drive seven laps around building where class is held (hitting pedestrians, 50 points off)

                        * return to original parking spot and run to class (stupidity, 25 points off)

            In-class phone calisthenics:

                        * thumb exercises: text 50 characters per minute (obscene messages, 10 bonus points or 10 points off, judges’ discretion)

                        * REM (Rapid Eye Movement): view smartphone screen and classroom smart board simultaneously (15 bonus points for twitches over 3 per second)

                        * curls: haul phone from under desk and surreptitiously slip it back (20 points off for getting busted)

            Changing classrooms:

                        * hoist textbooks (handicap weights at 5, 10 and 20 lbs.)

                        * jog across campus to art class held in physics lab (25 points off for getting lost)

                        * dash to vending machine during break to grab 2:30 lunch (10 points off for indigestion)

            Studying:

                        * walk circuits around library tables until a spot opens up (flirting in place, 10 bonus points)

                        * manual dexterity: set up laptop, notebook, cell phone, earbuds, water bottle, and snack (15 bonus points for cool hardware)

                        * task management: move among computer, phone, and notebook until time to leave (subtract 10 points for each task completed)

            Office hours:

                        * aerobic conditioning: pace outside professor’s office until beckoned in (75 points off for knocking on door)

                        * arm exercises: gesture vigorously when discussing project (10 points off for knocking over professor’s prize doohickey on desk)

                        * neck extensions: nod at everything professor says (10 bonus points for making professor think her idea was yours)

            Writing a paper:

                        * try to boot up laptop; try again; hit student writing lab (subtract 10 points if after hours)

                        * surf; cut; paste (subtract 50 points for plagiarism, if caught)

                        * pull all-nighter (disqualification for use of Adderall)

The TPC committee is currently thinking up competitions for the faculty, including the race for tenure and marathon grading sessions. And it could use more. All suggestions are welcome, though it’ll probably claim credit for any good ones.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

 

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Why replacing humanities with '7 Habits' isn't wise (essay)

As Inside Higher Ed reported last week, the newest round of curricular mayhem instigated by Bruce H. Leslie, the chancellor of the Alamo Colleges, is to replace his district’s second three-credit humanities course requirement with a class based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Leslie might have suggested Machiavelli’s The Prince, which seems closer to his style of governance.

The FranklinCovey Company plans to release a textbook specifically for EDUC 1300, Learning Framework, which will be required for every student taking the course. Perhaps Leslie read the 2013 version from Save Time Summaries, whose motto is “Save Time and Understand More”! The lengthy list of short takes in the Save Times Summaries series includes Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Tim Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, and, most puzzling of all, Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander III (surely, reading this proof doesn’t require saving time -- presumably we have all of eternity). All that remains, for some enterprising individual, is a proposal for “7 Effective Habits for Dummies.”   

And the new core course can’t be too intense; work place seminars on the book generally run around two days, and after all, as Colleen Flaherty reported for Inside Higher Ed, Leslie’s inspiration was a kindergarten class that he visited, where one young scholar shook his hand. Chancellor Leslie, in fact, seems fixated on the handshake, something even my mother’s succession of poodles has mastered.  

It came up again in his rationale for revising the core: According to Flaherty, “Leslie said the proposed course is a measured response to calls ... to ensure that students graduate with ‘soft skills’ -- leadership, knowing how to shake a hand, how to manage time effectively -- and from his own personal experience. Several years ago, Leslie realized that some graduates hardly looked him in the eye or knew how to shake his hand... .” Perhaps they just weren’t all that into him.                                   

As for eye contact, that can happen just as easily in a humanities course as in a class centered on a self-help book. I’ve encountered it hundreds of times: maybe it’s sparked by a line from a Seamus Heaney poem, or the final chapter of a novel by Zadie Smith, or a passage from  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave: it’s the look of learning, the look that says, “I get it.” 

Perhaps in the chancellor’s dream course there will still be time for a short poem or a snippet from history or a mini lesson in how to say “Hello!” in different languages -- in weekly “Show and Tell” sessions, scheduled in between nap and snack times.  

And there may be additional reading. While the logical companion text would seem to be All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, other equally frightening supplemental possibilities include Who Moved My Cheese? and Fish! My recommendation is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, if only because it includes the word Think in the title. 

Instructors at the Alamo Colleges are limited in terms of selecting their own texts, but they might also want to sneak in Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, if only for Gatsby’s Franklin-like self-improvement list, or what the little boy who so inspired Leslie on his fateful visit to that kindergarten class called his “data book.”  

Time permitting, students might also benefit from reading Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” a concise and precise lesson in perception; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a reminder of the dangers of procrastination, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, a reminder of what highly effective people know: “Be kind.” Or, as Mr. Rosewater actually said, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” 

The Save Time Summaries version of 7 Habits cut the original accompanying anecdotes, in the interests of time and space; this isn’t surprising, coming from a venture that also includes Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller on its list, with the promise of “From Start to Finish -- 20 minutes!”  

Now Chancellor Leslie’s lose/lose plan (see the discussion of Habit #4 of highly successful people) will do something similar for the students in his district. They’ll just have to wait for grad school curriculums in medicine, law, and business to find another course on the value of storytelling.  

Planners of those programs have recognized that storytelling -- both the telling and the listening -- are important. Narratives convey information and facilitate learning. Besides, it’s helpful to have a good tale to go along with that firm handshake.

But you don’t have to take the word of curriculum planners at Columbia University or Saint Louis University or Penn State University on the significance of storytelling -- just ask any five-year-old.

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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College president signs Valentine's card for each person on campus

Smart Title: 

At New College of Florida, the president has a wish for each student, faculty member and employee today.

The Assessors Are Coming! The Assessors Are Coming! (essay)

It’s that time of decade again, when randomly selected departments at U of All People are faced with assessment. The administration brings in a posse of NAAAAAA experts with credentials bought from the people who sell fake IDs, and has the faculty entertain them for three days while they poke their noses into everything, including Professor Winkle’s Dryden seminar, which no one has disturbed in years. Here’s how the process works, at least in the English department:

Three months before the assessors arrive, the department is galvanized into action by the chair, acting on directives from the dean, obeying the orders of the provost, who bows to the president. “The assessors are coming, the assessors are coming!” shouts the chair from the comparative safety of the rostrum at the semester’s first departmental faculty meeting while everyone else dives for cover. After this warning shot comes the collective indignation of the faculty -- How dare they judge us? We’re in the humanities! -- as the professors go through the Kübler-Ross stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

When everyone has settled down (except for Professor Winkle, who’s settled in for a nap), the chair starts planning the arduous task of self-judgment. The task consists of recruiting three faculty members who blinked at the wrong time, including Professor Winkle, who opened his eyes after his nap. The disgruntled three are assigned to gauge how much the students aren’t learning from the department’s courses.

What are the standards, criteria, methods? The Renaissance contingent proposes noble goals, such as achieving wisdom and learning to appreciate a Shakespearean sonnet, but no one wants to set the bar too high, or the assessment will be that this department needs to pull up its socks.

The faculty debate setting the bar absurdly low: for instance, that students should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee of students passing that bar, either. After several more meetings and the formation of a committee to oversee the assessment committee, the proposal is that each student should be familiar with the terms literature and irony; must know how to put together an argumentative essay proving that Shakespeare was a great writer; and should have enough literary history to realize that 1800 came after 1564, and that both are before 1922. These arbitrary criteria, once insisted upon, achieve a solidity as satisfying as trompe l’oeil papier-mâché walls.

The methods for data collection are decided by the assessment committee, eager to pass on responsibility to other, unwilling faculty. The methods involve snatching away student essays for disappointed analysis: counting how many times the words in my personal opinion and irregardless appear in the essays, seeing whether the arguments hold water (Professor Winkle performs that job over the sink in the fourth floor men’s restroom), and checking for spelling and grammar, assuming that the faculty are up to it.

As an extra concession, the department tracks alumni/ae to see whether anyone actually used the English major to wangle a job; and contemplates giving an exit exam to department seniors, though the offer of free pizza to anyone who’ll sit for the exam gets only three takers. The sample questions include references to periods, movements, literary terms, authors and works, and seven questions on Dryden. The sample size of all the data varies from a dozen to one faked reply by Professor Winkle.

Other creative assessment methods involve tossing the student essays downstairs to see which go farthest, and throwing the I Ching. To tabulate the results: charts with percentages look good, as do bulleted lists, though the superimposition of one over the other is probably (too late) a poor decision.

Tension mounts till the assessors arrive, at least one in a rumpled brown business suit, all looking as if they haven’t slept since the start of the fall semester. The assessors ask a lot of questions, visit classes, and interview people whom no one ever thought to talk to previously, including Clarice, the custodial supervisor for the liberal arts building. Eventually, they write up a report that recommends a 15 percent reduction in adjunct labor, greater funding for core courses, less departmental internecine warfare, and more attention paid to Dryden.

The report is circulated down the ranks until, months later, it reaches the English department faculty. Since the administration has ignored the implications of the report, the department restricts discussion to only 17 hours, spread out among four faculty meetings.

What rides on all this? Not much till next decade’s visit, when the department scrambles to recall what it did the last time.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

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Conference Connoisseurs visit the City of Brotherly Love (and cheesesteaks)

Our conference-going gourmands check out the culinary treats of the City of Brotherly Love.

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A campus official assesses how zombie students are faring (essay)

TO: Senior Administrative Staff

FROM: Institutional Research

RE: Student Engagement among Zombie Students

In an effort to better-understand differences among student subgroups, the institutional leadership requested an analysis of engagement levels among Zombie students.

Analysis of institutional data indicates that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significant lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. Many of these lower levels of engagement on specific student experience items are also negative predictors of Zombie student satisfaction.

Zombie students report lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback. Further investigation found that these students often find it difficult to raise their hand above their heads in response to the instructor’s questions.

Zombie students also report that their co-curricular experiences had less impact on their understanding of how they relate to others. Additional analysis of focus group transcripts suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.

Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values. Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate and rarely extend themselves out of their comfort zone.

Interestingly, our first- to second-year retention rate of Zombie students is 100 percent, despite high reports of tardiness and absences. Yet our six year graduation rate is 0 percent. While some have expressed concern over these conflicting data points, the Commencement Committee has suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage.

Finally, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class. However, we found no correlation between the substantial drop in the number of evening faculty from last year (108) to this year (52) and the number of Zombie students enrolled in night courses. Strangely, the Zombie students in these courses did indicate an unusually high level of satisfaction with the institution’s meal plan.

Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity, where a version of this essay first appeared.

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Dog's degree disappoints a cat family (essay)

The news that the BBC-sponsored dog named Pete, using the alias Peter Smith, has procured an online M.B.A. from the American University of London has sent our household into a literal tailspin.

It is not the first time that our cat, Finn Segal, has disappointed us by failing to live up to our expectations, but this may be the last straw. Perhaps most disconcerting is that even now he shows no concern and has stubbornly assumed his usual meatloaf position in a sunny spot.

It’s not that Finn, with a little training, could not master the computer keys. He is already adept at stepping on the capslock and delete buttons. And he darn well has a working knowledge of the internet; it’s just that this slacker would rather spend 8 hours a day watching cat and chipmunk videos on YouTube than applying himself to “International Finance.” 

Especially galling is the fact that not only could our cat have been a contender, but he also let slip through his paws the definitive answer to the time-honored question of “Just who’s smarter: dogs or cats?”

In fact, I will wager a six-month supply of Revolution Parasiticide (for fleas, ear mites, and heartworm) that Finn was the first to complete an online class. Just last winter, we enrolled in an online course in "Introduction to Poetry." While it is true that we registered under my name alone, Finn was with me every step of the way.

Moreover, I am now willing, given the present circumstance and dismaying news about Pete, to come forward with an admission: Finn logged more hours than I did. By the fourth lesson, he had moved into the alpha chair in the study, freeing me up to take care of other tasks around the house and the town. I have many warm memories from that time, when I would peek into the study and see Finn curled up on my desk chair, quietly napping as a soothing voice read from the works of John Keats, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens.

As of today we are instituting a new instructional regime for Finn. He will still be allowed to go outside and he will still be permitted to watch YouTube -- but only after he has completed his M.B.A.-related coursework for the day.

After all, if he could complete a session devoted to the poems of John Ashbery, Finn should have no trouble at all with “Taxation and Accounting.”

Carolyn Foster Segal is professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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istockphoto.com/vitalytitov

Harvard's $6.5B Campaign. Bill Gates. A match made in heaven? (essay)

{Ring…ring…ring…}

Bill Gates: Oh, come on. Pick up!

{Ring…ring…}

BG: Last chance!

Fund-Raiser: Hello! Office of development, Harvard University. How can I help you?

BG: I want to speak with a fund-raiser.

FR: Speaking!

BG: Great. This is Bill Gates. You know, THE Bill Gates. The Microsoft guy.

FR: Yeah, O.K. Like I haven’t heard that one before.

BG: No, really. Don’t I sound like Bill Gates? Should we Skype instead?

FR: Uh, sorry, Mr. Gates. What can I do for you?

BG: I just attended Harvard’s campaign kickoff event. Very impressive stuff. $6.5 billion is a pretty big goal, wouldn’t you say?

FR: The biggest ever!

BG: Well, I’ve been giving some thought to how I can help. I’d like to begin discussing a gift.

FR: That’s fantastic! How much… er, what are you interested in supporting?

BG: I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a techie, you know, so computer science and engineering pique my interest. But if I were to go that route, I might as well donate to MIT.

FR: {nervous laugh}

BG: Kidding. I’m also into social causes and international concerns, so perhaps something at the Ed School or Kennedy School could be interesting. But of course I’m a businessman at heart, so I kind of gravitate to the B-School.

FR: Perhaps you should speak with the president or the business dean.

BG: In time. For now, I’m just exploring options. I could fund scholarships for undergrads. I did attend the College, you know.

FR: For about a week, right?

BG: Something like that. And I’m a proud alumnus.

FR: We’re proud too.

BG: In fact, I’m thankful enough to make a really significant gift to your campaign. I hear these mega-campaigns get 95 percent of their money from only 5 percent of the donors. Is that true?

FR: Absolutely. We’re not raising $6.5 billion a hundred grand at a pop.

BG: And what’s the highest gift you’re expecting?

FR: Lead gifts can total 15-20 percent of the goal.

BG: So that’s, let me see… carry the four… about a billion dollars?

FR: Suppose so.

BG: Wouldn’t that be a record too?

FR: Sure would!

BG: Hmmm…. So back to the B-School. What if I gave half a billion to rename it?

FR: Say what?

BG: The Gates School of Business. Think it would fly?

FR: I… uh… don’t think so.

BG: Why not? I could rename Cleveland for that amount.

FR: Harvard Business School has more brand cachet than Cleveland.

BG: A cool billion? Would they go for it then?

FR: I’m not sure the name is for sale. Even for that sum. We have too much brand equity at stake.

BG: But I’d be adding value to the brand! Gates… Harvard… business. Come on now! I bet my pal Warren would think it’s a great idea.

FR: Get him to match your gift and maybe we’ll talk. Meanwhile, how about naming a building?

BG: For a billion? Must be one hell of a building. How about the Gates Campus at Harvard Business School?

FR: Sounds like we’ve built a fortress to keep people out.

BG: Nah… I still think naming the school is the way to go. Everything has a price.

FR: That’s for others to decide.

BG: Two billion… Gates University… hmmm…. Sorry, was that out loud?

FR: I’ll patch you through to the president’s office. Thanks for calling, Mr. Gates!

BG: How much to rename the Ivy League? Hmmm….

FR: Transferring!

Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.

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Short-term courses for maximizing learning -- and revenue (essay)

The administration at U of All People is nothing if not financially expeditious (some faculty have put it another way, not printable in this periodical). Jacking up students’ expenses is unpopular, for instance, but extracting extra tuition money can be accomplished in subtle ways. Starting a few decades ago, U of All People set the minimum credit hours for graduation two courses over a full course load every semester. That way, students had to take extra classes, often during the summer. This concept was shamelessly copied by other schools.

In fact, the short-term courses were a hit, since the workload was lighter, and the school could get the same amount of money in less time. Then one day, the Dean of Others’ Affairs had a bright idea: if students were willing to sign up for an eight-week or even a four-week course, why not offer a three-week course? Thus was born Wintersession and Maymester, a concept that other schools shamelessly copied.

Now that earnings are flat in this economic climate, the innovative folks in Long Hall have come up with a new plan, Pack-It-In Pedagogy, a term invented yesterday by our newly appointed Time Management Expert. To expedite the plan, each department has been tasked to come up with at least one course offering. Eventually, we expect other schools to shamelessly copy the concept. Meanwhile, below are just a few classes to maximize student learning while also boosting revenues.

WinterInterSplinterSession: Three Days That Can Change Your Life

English 1.25: Shakespeare: The Play. Students read Hamlet one day, see the film the next day, and take the final exam on the third day. “The key is to be representative,” says Professor Bowdler. “To expose these students to a great work — isn’t that enough?”

*

What Are You Doing This Weekend?: Special Two-Day Courses

Chem Lab 9.5, in which students carry out one experiment. “It’ll be a reaction that gets to the heart of what chemistry is all about,” says Professor Boom. “Bunsen burners, Erlenmeyer flasks, yellow and red powder — the works!”

History 10.5: Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Students eat bread one day and attend a circus the next. Instructor: TBA.

*

Give Us a Day, and We’ll Give You a Grade: One-Day Workshops

Geology 1.1, where students split open and examine one basalt rock. “The universe in a grain of sand,” is how Professor Geode puts it. “It’s fascinating, what one can glean from a single work of nature.”

Psychology 2.3 (online): the students each read a different chapter of the textbook on Blackboard and give their opinions of it in a discussion group. Together, by the end, they’ve gone through the entire book. No instructor; peer review.

*

 

60 Minutes: Hour-Long Intensives

Math 24.1. Students tackle one difficult equation. As Professor Quad, this year’s winner of the Pretty Good Teacher Award, notes: “Why clog the syllabus with problem sets that just repeat? Less is more.”

Spanish 0.2: Students learn three verbs and two nouns, then use them in conversation. Access to language lab included. Independent study. Monitor: TBA.

Astronomy 0.6, in which students creep outside to look at the stars. In case of clouds, students will draw zodiac pictures for a portfolio. “The sky’s the limit!” — Professor Centauri

Phys. Ed. 1.23: Really tough Zumba class; warm-up not included. Staff.

Art History 8.3 (hybrid): Students receive a PowerPoint lecture on various paintings and then compare them to other paintings online. “Put some art in your life!” says Professor Sfumato.

*

MOOCs in a Minute

Videotaped lectures are run at eight times the normal speed. In advanced classes, the speed jumps to 16x.

---------

The U of All People administration is delighted with our proposals and is moving ahead with all possible dispatch. All we need now is a slogan for advertising these new courses.

“Got time for a quickie?” is the current favorite, but without the suggestive accompanying graphic.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

 

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A special syllabus for graduate students for the course 'Social Theory Through Complaining'

Sociology 710: Social Theory Through Complaining

Fall 2013, Tu 9:50am--1pm.

Course Description

This course is an intensive introduction to some main themes in social theory. It is required of first-year Ph.D. students in the sociology department. Each week we will focus on something grad students complain about when they are forced to take theory. You are required to attend under protest, write a paper that’s a total waste of your time, and complain constantly. Passive-aggressive silence will not be sufficient for credit.

Course Schedule

1. Introduction: This Has Nothing to Do With My Research Interests

2. This is All Just Obfuscatory Bullshit and Empty Jargon

3. It’s Not Like We Can Even Predict Anything

4. Isn’t It More Complicated Than That?

5. Aren’t These Things Mutually Constitutive?

6. But What About Power?

7. We Could Easily Fix This Mess With Some Basic Math

8. This Field Is Sexist and Racist to Its Rotten Core

9. What is Theory Without Praxis?

10. THANKSGIVING BREAK. If You Can Call It a Break

11. Look, If Everything Is Socially Constructed, Then Nothing Is

12. Can You Believe We Didn’t Read Any __________?

13. Conclusion: This Whole Project Was an Exercise in Symbolic Violence

Kieran Healy is associate professor of sociology at Duke University.

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