My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out, teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Making Sense of the Mars Hill Saga

Ruth Graham tells the story of “How a Megachurch Melts Down” in The Atlantic. Graham begins by outlining the rise and fall of the evangelical church:

“Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.”

“In hindsight, that year was the pinnacle for Mars Hill. Now it’s all over. Driscoll resigned a few weeks ago after a leave of absence that begin in August. And last Friday afternoon, Mars Hill Church announced online that it will dissolve by January 1.”

Then Graham explains that Driscoll’s and the church’s troubles began in late 2013 when a Christian radio host accused Driscoll of plagiarizing a theologian in a recent book. Graham adds:

“A few months later, the conservative Christian magazine World broke the story that Real Marriage had only landed on the best-seller list because Mars Hill paid a consulting firm $210,000 to boost it there. In July, bloggers dug up a series of crude and relentlessly misogynist comments Driscoll made under a pseudonym on a church discussion board. Writing as William Wallace II, he lambasted America as a “pussified nation,” and posted a bizarre glossary that mocked “male lesbians” (men who think like women), “femans” (women who think like men), “momma’s boys,” “Larry Limps,” and “rock-free” men who attend churches headed by female pastors. His defenders pointed out the comments were 14 years old, but they occurred years into his tenure as a professional pastor.”

Graham poses the obvious question. What went wrong?

“. . . Driscoll was a vocal proponent of the idea that the contemporary American church lacks manliness; as he put it in 2006, “real men” spurn the church because it celebrates a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ.” His message appealed to many people for many years. But recently, Driscoll’s own peers and followers began to turn against him, too. Their disfavor ultimately made it impossible for Driscoll to survive. What went wrong—or, from the perspective of Marsh Hill’s numerous noisy critics, what went right?”

The less obvious, more interesting question is why did a “relentlessly misogynist” leader’s message appeal to many people for many years?

Because people, whether inside or outside the church, resist change and prefer simple answers to pressing questions of the day, especially when they are offered up by charismatic demagogues. For example, instead of trying to understand, let alone welcome into the church people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are different than their own, they find comfort in Driscoll-like name calling and his proposed return to unquestioned patriarchy.

If I were a pastor, and I often engage in that flight of fancy, I’d repeatedly tell my congregation that we have to cultivate and then demonstrate empathy for everyone who has felt marginalized by Driscoll-like church leaders. And the only way to do that is to embrace all the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguities inherent in people’s different gender identities and sexual orientations.

But I don’t think I’m very charismatic, so I don’t know how many people would attend my church.

Young Adults Aren’t Having as Much Sex as Everyone Thinks

Sentence to ponder:

“More and more technophilic and commitment-phobic millennials are shying away from physical encounters and supplanting them with the emotional gratification of virtual quasi relationships, flirting via their phones and computers with no intention of ever meeting their romantic quarry: less casual sex than casual text.”   –Teddy Wayne in the New York Times

I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It’s required reading if you don’t know what “IRL” stands for. Wayne’s descriptions and analyses challenge my thinking. Normally, I find the negative reactions of older people to changes in youth culture predictable and mindless. Older people thoughtlessly flatter themselves to think things were always better “back in the day”. By reminding myself that the changes aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, I consciously practice a form of cultural relativism.

But when many millennials give up, as Wayne reports, on “the more challenging terrain of three-dimensional partners”, it’s hard for me to think screen-based relationships are just different than IRL ones. By punting on in-person vulnerability and physical touch, millennials are foregoing intimacy. And by living less intimately with others, they’re compromising the quality of their lives.

Committed friendships—especially romantic ones—are risky because they’re a by-product of vulnerability. You can’t know how caring and accepting a friend will be until you reveal some of your unflattering attributes, insecurities, fears, and related neuroses. Many millennials appear to be like grade-obsessed, risk-adverse students who consciously avoid challenging courses and instructors.

Wayne focuses too narrowly on sex at the expense of physical touch more generally. Sometimes in fact, the more subtle the touch, the more profound. My clarion call in the Writing Seminar last week was “Depth of description and analysis trumps breadth.” To illustrate this, I had them read a Joe Morgenstern essay titled “How One Scene Can Say Everything: Deconstructing The Five Best Minutes of Little Miss Sunshine“. After reading Morgenstern we watched the scene in which a major family crisis is avoided when a ten year old girl puts her arm around her devastated older brother sitting on the ground below her. Then she gently rests her head on his shoulder. She doesn’t say a word. Within seconds his anger subsides and the family reconciles.

It would be easy to offer up apocalyptic conclusions about the millennials choosing watered down, on-line acquaintances, over wonderfully and painfully flawed “real life” ones. And to the cumulative effect of less physical touch. But I’m going to resist that because their intense aversion to risk didn’t arise in a vacuum.

I suspect something was amiss in the way my peers and I raised our millennial children. Maybe we gave into our fears about their safety and were too overprotective. Maybe we didn’t model as well as we could have what we know. That life is sweeter as a result of intimate friendships even when they provide tremendous joy one day and heartbreak the next.

Are Women Smarter Then Men?

The seven minute video story at the bottom, about a group of friends in Chile, is a true joy. Do yourself a favor and start your week with it. How wonderful that these women have been friends for six decades. And I love their quirky personalities and exquisite taste in baked goods. Best of all, the beautiful “punchline” at the very end.

The Good Wife has had a similar group of close friends for close to two decades. To the Chileans, the Olympia Coffee Klatchers are mere pups.

For decades, in Ybor City, FL, Mother Dear has spent almost every Saturday morning enjoying Cuban coffee and cheese bread with the same girlfriends.

Big Sissy has been walking her Northwest Indiana ‘hood with the same few girlfriends for decades.

Increasingly, positive psychologists are telling us what we already instinctively know. Life is most meaningful when lived in community.

In fairness, some men make time for one another. My closest friend at work has helped lead a raucous book club in Tacoma, WA for the last 20-30 years. Of course, when Oprah learned about “Gower”, they were invited onto her show. And Older SoCal Bro gathers for coffee with a few male friends most Saturdays. And I run with the same group of male misfits a few times a week. We’ve had women members, but we’re so uncouth, they don’t last long.

Despite some evidence of male bonding, I can’t help but conclude women are more intentional, and therefore smarter, about investing in friendships. Why is that?

Hey Beginning Teachers, Don’t Do This

In a 40 yard dash the Labradude would beat me by at least 20 yards, but stretch it out a few miles and the tide turns. In fact, when I pick him up near the end of a run for a lap around the ‘hood, he often slows me down. Until I yell at him. Not that kind of yelling. When I say, “Good boy! That a boy! Keep it up Marley! You’re the Usain Bolt of Labradoodles!” he picks up the pace.

When Kemberly Patteson was getting her teaching credential, someone should have told her that even dogs respond best to positive reinforcement. What’s true for the Labradude is doubly true for adolescents. Which leads to the funny/sad story of the week.

From the Associated Press. STEVENSONSkamania County — A Stevenson High School teacher who used a “Wheel of Misfortune” to discipline students will keep her job.

The Stevenson-Carson School District concluded Thursday that science teacher Kemberly Pattesonused poor judgment but never intended to hurt or embarrass students with the spinning wheel, which violated the district’s anti-bullying policy.

The Columbian reports a parent complained last week about how students would spin the wheel to find out what their punishment would be for low-level misconduct.

One of the choices was a firing squad with rubber balls that classmates would throw. The wheel has been removed.

Think how much time the Wheel of Misfortune took from meaningful teaching and learning. I can just picture the class hooting and hollering as the smiling offender approaches the Wheel. Patteson, playing Vanna White, probably narrated the whole thing. “What has today’s perp won? Death by rubber balls!”

At that point, I imagine, all hell broke lose. If I was a high schooler, trying to bean my classmate would’ve been a highlight of the day. It probably took most of the class period to recover from the pandemonium.

Paragraph to Ponder

Imagine two well-off households, each with $100,000 in the stock market in 2007. A family that sold in 2009 after losing half its portfolio’s value may now have $50,000 in a savings account. A family that held on would now have about $130,000 in stocks. The inequality has yawned merely because of the investing decisions. In the long run, those savings accounts have a vanishingly small chance of outperforming stocks.

From Bad Stock Market Timing Fueled Wealth Disparity