Sunday, February 23, 2014

Teaching strategies: Low stakes

My office promises to be a livelier place this week than it has been hitherto this semester.  The students in my Intro to Pseudology classes got their grades on their first paper, and they are very far from happy little campers.  Why?  Well, in a manner of speaking, I sandbagged them for their own good.

I knew their first papers were going to suck, although I was a little surprised by how bad they were in both form and content.  (I mean, damn.)  But since I knew what was going to happen in a general way, I planned for it in the syllabus construction.  The first paper, although just as long and complex as every other paper will be, is worth a trifling percentage of the final grade, making it a pretty low-stakes assignment.  This means that, mathematically, students' GPAs won't really be harmed even if they bomb the paper and get, say, a D-.  (Which, by the way, was the statistically average grade for this paper.)  I believe I have found a strong wake-up call to first-year students who have been floating through school for the last twelve years, and who completely forgot – if they ever knew – that eventually schoolwork will challenge you and you need to work harder than you did before.

Naturally, it wouldn't be useful just to scare the dickens out of them with a low grade without any hint of how to improve.  I wrote extensive grading notes to all of them, pointing out weaknesses that they can and should improve on for the next paper.  I don't doubt that some of my students will ignore this altogether, and settle into a self-pitying pout about how mean and inscrutable Dr. Koshary is.  But if they make the effort to see me at office hours, then they ought to walk away with a better idea of how to write a good paper.

I've used this approach before in other classes, but the last time I did so, the cries of woe were far more muted.  That was in an upper-division seminar class in which at least some of the students were on the ball from the start.  As for the other students, well...perhaps I indulged in a little bit of grade inflation there to keep them from freaking out about the course.  But what I saw after that was the students who should have been scared straight about their poor writing didn't take the hint: I keep forgetting that many students are happy to get a C, and have no motivation to earn anything higher than that.

Let us say I have solved that problem, at least.  My email has been blowing up since I released the grades.  Let's hope my low-stakes paper yields good results, instead of a bunch of angry, vindictive students.  Low stakes is a gambling metaphor with good reason: I'm essentially betting that the students will use this as a learning experience, rather than react unreasonably and shut off their brains out of spite and/or frustration.  And no bet is a sure thing.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Brief note of thanks: Coffee break!

Thanks again to everyone who offered suggestions on how to beat or whip cream from scratch.  For me, pre-chilling the utensils in the freezer for ten or fifteen minutes made a world of difference.  For sheer entertainment's sake, I whipped the cream this time, instead of thickening it, just because I wanted to. 

Hope your coffee break is as pleasant as mine!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pop culture moment: Ellen Page comes out

At least one genuinely beautiful thing happened on Valentine's Day:

Being the analytical killjoy that I am, I started critiquing this speech almost as soon as I had seen it.  Big deal, a wealthy and privileged actress comes out in front of a sympathetic audience.  She is accustomed to performing, and clearly waited for applause after making the big statement.  But, even if there is some truth in these critiques, the more I thought about it, the more I felt like there was something more significant and valuable here, and I felt bad that I was so cynical at first blush.

Ellen Page is a professional actress who earns her living – and yeah, sure, it's a good living – partly through her desirability: the pleasure that people take in watching her craft as well as in admiring her physical charms.  She's also young and young-looking: she's only twenty-six, and has some good years of ingenue parts left in her.  Those are exactly the kind of parts that, historically, have paid her bills, and they are exactly the kind of parts that she is most likely to lose in the wake of coming out.  Think about it: with all the actors who have come out, how many of them have continued to find work as romantic leads in heterosexual roles?  Coming out isn't career-ending the way it once was, but it certainly seems like it still threatens or diminishes an actor's marketability in Hollywood.  Page is taking a real risk with real potential consequences, and she clearly knows that.  Not a risk quite on the level of, say, Michael Sam aspiring to be the first openly gay NFL player, but significant nonetheless.

I'm a little mystified that a bunch of people immediately reacted with "No big shocker" or "No surprises here."  Are you people out of your minds?  Page has always styled herself as something of a tomboy, but that's a pretty far cry from telegraphing I am a lesbian to all and sundry.  Don't act like you knew, because you didn't.  That's bullshit.

And don't act like it's inevitable that a gay actor would come out, either: for a lot of gay actors, everyone around them either knows or suspects it, and they never breathe a public word about it in their lives.  Being something and talking about it are drastically different things.  If you want to know what made me a little sniffly when I thought about it, Page was scared and anxious and, poised professional actress or not, had to fight for self-control when she gave that speech. 

Page also indicates frank awareness of how shitty day-to-day life is for a lot of ordinary non-famous LGBT kids, and makes no attempt to aggrandize her own experience as ultimate victimhood.  For heaven's sake, she's there at Time To Thrive to support the work of people trying to change those kids' circumstances!  She's no clueless self-absorbed celebrity airily offering solidarity.  She recognizes her luck and privilege freely while offering empathy, which I think is perfectly fair.

Page's empathy sounded genuine to me because she obviously knows about feeling forced to hide her identity, and, by the sound of it, to sneak around to keep her relationships out of public sight.  (Just imagine what that's like when you don't have to worry only about friends and family, but also a troupe of tabloid photographers who want to catalog your every living moment.)  It's a privileged version of the horrors that lots of kids fear, but it's no less real anguish for that.  It certainly sounds like Page knows whereof she speaks when she mentions the toll it took on her mental health as well as her relationships.  When she said, "I am tired of lying by omission," she fucking meant it.

I'm glad for her, and I hope that she goes on to break the cliché of an actor coming out and promptly seeing her roles dry up.  And I hope that the young LGBT people that no one will ever see onscreen take heart from her talk.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Distraction III: Staying privileged in airports

I have always been deeply skeptical of the big scary machines in which we must all humiliate ourselves when traveling by air nowadays.  It didn't take long for people to start leaking the info that these things were bogus, and that most, if not quite all of the TSA security measures put into effect after September 11th, 2001 were nothing more than security pageantry rather than actual helpful measures.  Recently, an ex-TSA agent wrote an entertaining and disturbing piece on all of this.

Going through careful security screening is something I understand, but I also want it to be intelligent and effective, rather than some faux-CSI bullshit to impress morons unfamiliar with air travel more recent than the Wright brothers.  Since Research Country is one of those places that can set off enhanced security screening all by itself, I understand total ignoramuses thinking that I have to be strip-searched.  Real security professionals, though, ought to recognize that I am not a threat.  (Thanks for rummaging through my books so thoroughly, though, gang!)

My irritation with the pointlessness of most of these measures reached the point at which I was willing to pull bourgeois cultural capital rank as well as financial sacrifice, and basically pay for premium service.  You see, when you try to slip a $20 bill to a TSA agent to keep your shoes and belt on and undergo a more modest search, it's bribery; when you write an $85 check to the TSA, it's advance screening!

Naturally, such screening has its limitations, but really, the whole point of this is to make my life easier when it makes sense to do so.  I'm not going to blow up an airplane anywhere under any circumstances, but it seems to me especially ridiculous to fear I might do so on the Thursday red-eye from Cornstate City to Hometown.  People, no one is gunning for that flight.  If I could gather all TSA managerial personnel in a room and explain to them reasonable suspicion, to say nothing of why you can't hire part-time help and then never give them proper training, I would.  Times being what they are, and I being an obscure academic instead of a rockstar governmental advisor, the best I can do is pay for premium and let the TSA confirm once and for all that I'm not a terrorist.

Now, perhaps they have some criteria to determine who qualifies or not that they don't acknowledge to the general public.  However, looking over all the criteria they list on the website, the basics are:
  1. Don't be anyone already under suspicion of having committed treason or terrorism.
  2. $85.
It's both amusing and worrisome to me that this is all.  This suggests that anyone planning in advance to do something terrible just has to keep his nose clean, pay the non-refundable application fee, and wait a week or two.  Really, I kind of hope that TSA is being all sneaky and skullduggerish and not admitting to the more complex criteria, just to see if someone dangerous will blithely give himself away at the interview.  Or, you know, maybe they just want to see if the applicant is white and of an appropriately high socioeconomic class.  (I wore my best business casual, just in case.)

Of course, it's possible that it's at the interview stage when they pull out their bag of tricks for sizing up a person and determining if he looks/acts like a threat, and assuming the answer is no, continue to process the application and deposit the check.  That would actually be a pretty good way to run the ordinary security screenings, if only they would invest in the (wo)manpower and the necessary training.  (FWIW, my interviewer seemed considerably more professional and thoughtful than the average TSA agent, most of whom remind me of students who earned Ds in my courses at Ghosttown U.)  But it says nothing positive about either our priorities or our common sense that we have reserved such examination for people willing and able to pay extra for the privilege. 

In short, I'm glad to have the Known Traveler Number, since it will simplify the boarding process when I visit family or go on vacation (ha!).  But I don't exactly feel good about the haunting suspicion that all I have really done is to reinscribe class and racial privilege with the blessing of the U.S. government.

Frivolous P.S.:
Many thanks for all the helpful suggestions for whipping/thickening heavy cream!  I'm getting much better at it, now that I prep the utensils in the freezer for a little while.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Distraction II: When good coffee goes boozy

Since it is going to be damn cold for the next two months, by the odds, I've been fiddling with drinks that suit the weather.  In addition to some experimentation with a variety of liqueurs that have thus far not really paid off, I've been making an occasional vice of coffee cocktails: that is, something like an Irish coffee.  I never learned to like Irish whiskey, though, so my poison of choice of late is a nice aged rum.  Rum goes so much better with coffee than does whiskey, anyway!

For the most part, the drink is hard to screw up.  The steps are blessedly simple, if you don't want to get too fancy.

Step 1: Brew some coffee.
Step 2: Get a mug – because who the hell actually keeps Irish coffee glasses on hand? or why? – and combine a spoonful of sugar/simple syrup/agave syrup and a healthy tot of rum.
Step 3: Pour the coffee into the mug and stir all ingredients briefly.
Step 4: Top with thickened cream and serve.

But hark! Step 4 is what has bedeviled me from the beginning.  If you're the kind of obsessive that wants to get the drink right, then it just isn't good enough to pour in a little heavy cream and call it a day.  The cream must be "thickened," according to traditional recipes; that means heavy whipping cream that has been thickened by beating, but not so much that it turns into whipped cream, per se. 

I still can't do it.  Not by hand whisk, not by hand-held mixer.  I cannot make the bloody cream thicken.  I can't even overdo it and make whipped cream.  I just don't have the patience to whip the cream long enough for any of this to occur, I think.  My best attempt was some very slightly thickened cream that kinda-sorta did what the recipe calls for: it slid on top of the surface of the coffee for a second or two, before melting into the drink.  In theory, the thickened cream should sit comfortably in a layer on top of the coffee, and should only melt into it as the drink is consumed.

So, if anyone has any good tips on exactly a) how long to beat the cream, b) how much cream I need to put in the bowl to start, if I'm making only one mug's worth, or c) how to fix whatever other complications I have created for myself, please shoot me an email or comment below.

My other fiddling with the drink comes in the brewing of the coffee.  I love to flavor coffee with a pinch of cinnamon mixed into the ground beans just before I add the water, so I sometimes try a spice mixture to bring out different notes in the rum.  I haven't hit on any magic combinations yet, but it'll happen sooner or later.  If I don't get totally sick of allspice and nutmeg, that is.