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Showing posts from 2014

How Should Teachers Be Evaluated?

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In nearly 40 years of teaching in various institutions I have never encountered a teacher who enjoyed being evaluated. I have been both a teacher under evaluation and an evaluator of other teachers.  As a teacher I have never received an evaluation less than above average and in the last half of my career my evaluations were consistently excellent, yet I still cannot say that I approve of teacher evaluations. In theory the purpose of evaluating teachers is to improve education.  In practice I have never seen evidence of this cause and effect, but I have witnessed plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Education is a very complicated business and there is no simple, efficient and effective way of determining how one teacher’s performance can affect outcomes.  Assessing student outcomes in order to evaluate teachers is simply unfair and counter-productive--it leads to “teaching for the test,” the marginalization of weaker student cohorts and rests on two false assumption:  1) that the

The Greatness Trap: Why Good Is Good

You might have noticed that I am fixated on the expression “good teachers.”  All good teachers aspire to be great.   If you are consistently good, you can be sure that eventually one of your students will announce to you that you are a “great teacher.”  Accept the compliment graciously because your hard work deserves at least some of it, because these monumental moments are the real payday in a teacher's life, and because, according to the French aphorism,  “To refuse a compliment is to demand a second.”  At the same time, good teachers need to remain wary of how "greatness" can be a trap. Do I sound like I'm talking to myself?  Yes, sort of, but I hope I was able to spot the signs of my own hubris and overcome it expeditiously.  Once upon a time, the Maclean's Guide to Canadian Universities  used to publish a section called "Popular Profs" in which my name was listed along with three others from my university.  (I would eventually realize that popula

How Much Do Good Teachers Matter?

Sometimes the question is more important than the answer. Periodically, in the midst of a teaching session, I would ask myself this question: How much does the quality of my teaching really matter in the overall education of my students?   Considering all the potential factors which could determine how well or much a student might learn, how big a difference could the time a student spent with me really make?  Relative to everything else that might be going on in a student’s life imprinting itself on mind and body,  if I imagined myself to be responsible for 2% of a student’s total learning in any given year, I would be claiming a lot. If you believe in compound interest, 2% is a lot.  A 2% increase in knowledge compounded annually, will produce a life-changing increase in knowledge of 65% over a 25-year period (according to my compound interest calculator ).  Put another way, at the risk of sounding biblical, good teachers plant seeds which they have sound reason to hope will

How We Train University Students to Write Poorly (with Addendum)

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When I was in the hunt for a tenure-track university position, I attended a mentoring session on how to publish led by Linda Hutcheon, who was, at that moment, the newly hottest thing in Canadian postmodernist theory and criticism.  “Writing a thesis,” she told us, “was an exercise in covering your ass.”  There was nothing shocking or striking in her declaration; it was a well-worn bromide, a truism.  No-one in the audience blinked. I began my teaching career giving one-on-one instruction in administrative writing (among other things) to civil servants working for the Government of Canada.  Those were the days when “writing style” meant being able to express yourself in clear, crisp and concise prose (without overdoing the alliteration).  Around the same time, a journalist, with the Ottawa daily, The Citizen , wrote a regular column on effective writing.  In one of his articles, he constructed the following fable to explain why and how government administrators deliberately wrote p

The Postmodern Hoax

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Beyond the Hoax Reading Alan Sokal’s  Beyond the Hoax  brought back the question that haunted my university teaching career:  How much of postmodernism was intellectual fraud? "Transgressing Boundaries" and Social Tex t Sokal is the physicist who submitted a deliberately bogus article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries:   Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the cultural studies journal Social Text . Post-structuralism as Mummery After it was accepted and published (Spring/Summer 1996), Sokal announced that the article was nonsense, a parody of postmodernist half-baked arguments and verbiage. Sokal and the Belgian physicist/philosopher, Jean Bricmont, subsequently published Impostures Intellectuelles (1997) in which they systematically unmasked the mummery of leading lights of post-structuralist theory such as Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva. Jacques Lacan as Charlatan The most compelling essay I have read on Lacan

Reflecting on “The Annunciation/Visitation,” How to Read the Bible

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After my last post, I got this message from a friend and former colleague: “ Now read a short passage from the gospels, which have a far greater claim on the consciences of Christians, the account of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56), in any translation you choose. Clearly and unequivocally both the fetus of Mary (who was newly pregnant at the time of the incident described) and that of Elizabeth (who was six months along) are considered unreservedly to be human beings.” (At the same time I got a warm, witty and encouraging message from one of my former students who, I think, was concerned that few people were responding to my blog.  Like all idle idealists I must confess to occasional naive daydreams about this blog somehow making me rich and famous--actually, I’d settle for rich or famous--but the reality is a blog is a public diary and I am content even if it remains no more than that.  After years in academia, I can’t tell you what a relief and pleasure it is to write what I

What Bible Translation Says about People Who Oppose Abortion

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What surprises me about people who describe the Bible as “the word of God” is how blasé they seem to be about questions of translation.  Even a renowned scholar like Northrop Frye begins his book about the Bible, The Great Code , by glossing over the issue of translation quite glibly.  The translation process is always challenging and complicated.  It is very easy to translate inaccurately, to misconstrue meaning in the translation process, and very difficult to get a translation just right.  In fact, it is generally conceded that a perfect translation is an impossibility, some meaning is bound to be lost or changed as we move from one language and culture to another.  Even when the same word or expression exists in two different languages (which is not as common as you might think, and can create another problem called “false cognates”), the connotation of those words can be quite different in different cultures.  Apparently, describing someone as “a politician” in Mandarin is a comp