learning, remembering

We are told that one of the best ways to stave off senility is to exercise our minds. Often, the suggested examples involve learning something new … take a class on the history of European civilization, say, learn some possible answers to the question "What Did Women Want?" by studying "Bourgeois Culture in the 19th Century." There is such a class, taught by Margaret Anderson at Cal, a survey course for undergrads. This being 2007, you can audit this course online … every lecture is archived, and you listen or even watch the lectures at your leisure. I was driving in the car this morning and decided to hear a bit of what Prof. Anderson had to say … she sounds like a fine lecturer, and the topic was an interesting one. The experience of listening to her brought back some memories, and made me think about the whole process of learning-as-senility-stopper.

European civilization was not exactly my specialty. My undergraduate degree was in American Studies, and while I took history classes as part of my major, they were American history courses … social history of the U.S., intellectual history of the U.S., women and politics in America (actually a poli-sci course, but taught by an historian). It was in the latter course that I first learned about the cult of domesticity, which Anderson mentioned in the part of the lecture I heard before I arrived at my destination and turned off the lecture.

The thing is, I hadn't really thought about the cult of domesticity for a long time. If someone asked me about it, I could give them a brief description, maybe toss off an example or two, and it all pretty much came back to me when I heard the lecture. But there was a time when I REALLY knew this stuff. I wrote papers on it, good papers … I even chose Uncle Tom's Cabin as the core text in my first graduate seminar in English. And now? I can do a fakebook version.

My point … yeah, I guess I have one … is that it is indeed good to always keep learning. There's no reason to be stuck only with what we once knew. But one of the parts of learning is what you might call re-learning, that is, remembering. It's worth reconsidering the things you used to know, the stuff that sits in the back of your mind, perhaps influencing the decisions you make and the opinions you have without your actually realizing it. Perhaps some of that stuff you used to know is no longer useful, or "true." Just as likely, it's still v.important, but you've buried in it your desire to keep up with the new.

i gotta get a new clock to keep track of this stuff

My fifteen minutes of fame have been extended yet again, and, as with the last time, it's the Chronicle that moved the hands on the clock. Last week, Jon Carroll wrote a column about plagiarism that inspired me to drop him a quick email in response. Today, Jon ran a "letters column," and guess who showed up? "I also got notes from teachers who deal with plagiarism every day in the classroom. Steven Rubio outlines an interesting dilemma …"

Yes, it's that little old fame whore, me. I'll leave it to you to follow the link so you can read the entire column … here's an excerpt from the first part of my email, which didn't get quoted:

I'm an English teacher at the community college level who refuses to blame an entire class of students, in advance, for the possible future actions of a particular student. I am not naive ... I know students plagiarize ... but that is no reason to contribute to the "culture of distrust" which most surely does exist. And so I do not have students submit their papers via Turnitin.

Your column today points out the reality of higher education today, although I'm not sure this is more true now than before: students in general are not in college to get an education as much as they are there to improve their chances on the job market. And students are not to blame for this state of affairs.

Thanks to Jay Hipps … yes, Jay, you were the first to let me know! I hadn't gotten to my morning paper yet.

shut yer hole, you prick

Since this is a post about labor issues, I need to state in advance that I speak only for myself. I have been a proud member of a union since 1974 … different unions at different times … I believe absolutely in the importance of unions. I have, nonetheless, been a bit of a naughty union member over the years … there was a time when I was a steelworker when my local president told me 1) that I better watch my back, you never knew what might happen, and 2) don't count on my union to go out of their way to help me. I have this problem, or rather, a combination of problems … or maybe it's the same problem stated in different ways. I don't like being told what to do, and I don't like authority figures. So I believe in the concept of unions, and am proud to be on the front lines with my union, but I'm usually in trouble with my union because I have a big mouth. (The ultimate Steven in the Union story: as a grad student, I once voted against a strike … I don't recall the exact final vote, at the time it felt like 824-1, but I'm sure it was more like 794-31. Anyway, we went on strike, and even though I didn't vote for the strike, once it's on, it's on, and so onto the picket lines I went. The strike was a failure, although it took awhile for us to realize that fact. And so it was that one rainy day, I was the only person patrolling one of the campus entrances. I walked back and forth, drenched, my shitty-ass umbrella doing less than nothing, waving my picket sign in the air and wondering where all of those 794 people were.)

You might have noticed in the Chronicle that there is a labor dispute going on between the California State University system and the faculty members. I have taught in the CSU system on two occasions, although I do not do so at present. I think we're all in the same teachers' union, but to be honest I'm never quite sure how it works. Suffice to say I'm in a teachers' union, so are the teachers in CSU, so I have sympathy for them. But you can't ascribe anything I say here to any of the union members … I'm here only to represent myself, and yes, I know I already said that, but it bears repeating.

For some reason, I am still on the faculty email list for San Francisco State, so I get the usual batch of general info. Awhile back I got an email from the president at SFSU … this email is referenced in the Chronicle article. I didn't write about it at the time, figuring it's not really my business, but since it's out in the public now, and since the article spends substantial time discussing that email, I think I can talk now. But first, another tangent.

The first time I went on strike as a graduate student, Fred Crews was in charge of the English Department. Fred has had a fine, distinguished career … I confess I've been especially impressed with the work he's done since going emeritus, as he has become one of the leading voices in the skeptical movement. But at the time in question, he was just a big shot professor running the department in which I wandered. Crews was a liberal sort of fellow, very collegial, and he was worried about his grad students, who were about to go on strike. He called a meeting of faculty and grad students to see if he could create some kind of coalition or something that might prevent a strike. His intentions were clearly heartfelt. But I don't suppose I'd been more pissed off in my entire graduate career as I was that day, listening to Fred Crews tell us what was best for us. He was trying to be the good father advising his children, and it was condescending beyond belief. At that point, I was a pretty non-descript grad student … I hadn't done anything particularly noteworthy. But in that meeting, I stood up and called Crews on his paternal bullshit. That he turned out to be right, that our strike was ill-advised, was not the point. The point was that when you are in charge of something, and push comes to shove, you don't get to play for both teams. In that dispute, Fred Crews was management, and he was trying to tell labor what to do. Well, fuck that.

And so, the letter from Robert Corrigan, president at San Francisco State University. It pissed me off … pretty amazing, considering I don't even work there anymore. The Chronicle article gets the gist of the letter fairly well. The email was titled "In Your Name," because Corrigan was accusing the union of nefarious deeds in pursuit of their goals. The title itself was an insult: it assumed the rank and file was too stupid to know what was being done "in our name," so the great white father would explain it to us. Corrigan attempted to establish his union credentials … "union card at 14, father a long-term shop steward, grandfather a longshoreman for 50 years" … then, to prove he understood that sometimes labor negotiations got hardcore, admitted that he was once burned in effigy. He also said that he had long ago been advised not to butt into the business of labor … "For better or for worse, Corrigan," he was told, "it is our union and our Senate, so mind your own business!" But he couldn't shut his bloody hole. So he sent the email, which included an "unprecedented request" … "urge your union leadership" … and I can stop there.

Because it doesn't matter what he wanted us to urge, he should have listened to that long-ago advice. It was none of his business. He is the President of a major university. I'm sure he's a fine fellow and a fine administrator, and I'm glad his father was a shop steward. But university presidents don't get to tell union members what to do with their union. You want to be in charge, have at it, but don't try to convince the rest of us that you are our best fucking friend. Because you are not.

And, in case I didn't say this enough, I speak only for myself, and outsider and observer to the current brouhaha.

sittin’, drinkin’, superficially thinkin’

The latest writing assignment I've given my students:

In "The Belief Engine," James Alcock writes, "Critical thinking, logic, reason, science -- these are all terms that apply in one way or another to the deliberate attempt to ferret out truth from the tangle of intuition, distorted perception, and fallible memory. The true critical thinker accepts what few people ever accept -- that one cannot routinely trust perceptions and memories." Alcock also lists several commonly-held beliefs that are disputed by others, including:

Vitamin C can ward off or cure the common cold.
Immigrants are stealing our jobs.
Crime and violence are linked to the breakdown of the traditional family.

Choose one of the above beliefs, or any others listed in the Alcock essay, and write a 1250-word essay using critical thinking to "ferret out the truth" about the issue in question.

While there are no specific required outside sources for this assignment, you must provide support for your argument, including citations for source material. The main thing to avoid is "intuition, distorted perception, and fallible memory."

has there ever been a less appropriate last name than “jobs”?

More on Steve Jobs' misinformed rant against teachers unions. The technology blog at SF Gate has a post, "Steve Jobs angers teachers," that includes the following excerpt from a response by the California Federation of Teachers:

In the years before the iPod saved Apple from extinction, its computer advertising exhumed dead geniuses for its "think different" campaign. Black and white photos, each featuring an instantly recognizable off-center hero, carried the message that if you bought a Mac, you'd be a brilliant hipster, too.

Luckily for Apple, no one could ask the deceased what they thought about that. One of this ad campaign's most enduring images was of Chicano civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, arm draped over a hoe. Farm worker union organizers had so often failed to crack the power of the state's agribusiness elite it was common wisdom that it couldn't be done. Chavez's historic achievement was to build the first farm worker union that lasted.

The ad, of course, doesn't endorse unions. It simply appropriates the image of a Chicano hero in a state with a growing Chicano population and, presumably, potential market for Apple products. Indeed, in the 1990s Steve Jobs and Apple notoriously resisted granting union recognition to its largely Latino, low paid, contracted out Silicon Valley janitorial workforce until the Justice for Janitors union campaign embarrassed the corporation sufficiently to bring Jobs and his company around.

I looked forward to reading the comments attached to the post, naively assuming Jobs would take it on the chin from enlightened readers. Boy, was I wrong. "Klingon" wrote:

Talk about revenge of the nerds. Education majors were/are universally regarded as the dumbest of undergrads/graduate students and for good reason. They have yet to realize that unionization is antithecal [sic] to professionalism. Merit, not longevity, should be the yardstick. That plus the eduNazis constantly holding children hostage for their monetary demands is despicable….

And "mmms":

Jobs merely said what everyone knows. The educational system went to the dogs a long time ago.

I posted my own comments:

I've been teaching since 1987, and have been a member of teachers unions for all of those twenty years. I am not dumb, despite what Klingon might think ... in fact, I have a PhD from Cal that I like to think I earned. I also have won teaching awards. I am proud to be in my union, which among other things provides protection against the attempts of some to apply misguided notions of "merit" as an excuse to get rid of teachers they don't like. No one likes bad teachers, but defining "bad" is far more complicated than the above commenters seem to realize. Is a teacher "bad" because he or she assigns an R-rated movie? Are they "bad" because they assign any movies at all? How about teachers who try to teach critical thinking skills to students whose parents believe critical thinking begins and ends with whatever their particular religious text tells them is right? Who do you think has the back of teachers at times like this? It sure isn't Steve Jobs.

As for holding our students hostage over "monetary demands," teachers are well aware of the negative impact labor conflicts can have on the students, and do not take actions frivolously. Klingon makes it sound, though, as if well-to-do teachers are trying to expand on their upper-middle-class existence at the expense of poor students. In twenty years, the most I have made in a single year is $40,000, and that was once ... in almost every other year, I made less than half of that. I spent ten years as a steelworker, and I made more in each of those ten years than I made in 19 of my 20 years as a teacher (which isn't to say I got rich in the factory, but just points out that teachers are woefully underpaid).

Hard-working teachers ... and there are a lot of them ... know better than anybody how pitiful the educational system is today. Teachers are working in the trenches, and are part of the solution, not the problem. If Steve Jobs or anyone else wants to point fingers at the culprits who are bringing our educational system down, they need to look somewhere besides teachers.

ok, one more and I’m done for now

Here's how you can turn a standard Word doc into a blog post without much effort. The following is the contract I have my students sign before the semester begins. It's a Word doc that I print out, but here, I loaded it into Word, and then chose to Publish it as a blog post, which took me directly to the blog template, with all of the ribbon choices I described in the earlier post. What follows is that Word doc, translated into a blog post with no added effort from me:


To be successful in an online course, students must participate regularly throughout the semester. While an online course can be very convenient, students need to be sure they do not forget about their courses. This may seem silly, but when students do not have to show up for a class regularly on a particular day at a particular time, they can sometimes forget they have work to do.

Therefore, all students must agree to:

  • Check email at least three times a week
  • Read assignments thoroughly and on time
  • Visit the Bulletin Board regularly (several times a week)
  • Check due dates and submit work on time
  • Post thought-provoking questions which initiate critical thinking
  • Post regular, on time responses to the Bulletin Board with thoughtful commentary
  • Participate faithfully in the peer editing process, providing a solid essay to partners to review and providing thoughtful feedback to them, all in a timely fashion
  • Email instructor or classmates with questions about the course

A copy of this document, signed or approved via an email, must be submitted to your professor, with your acknowledgement of the following:

I understand that my failure to faithfully complete the above tasks can result in a lower grade or being dropped from this course. I am prepared to give this course my best effort.



Name ______________________________________


Date ______________________________________

speaking of darwin

And Jesus, for that matter. Here is the first essay assignment I’ve given my class this semester:

In Chapter One of A Rulebook for Arguments, Weston quotes Bertrand Russell as follows:
The evils of the world are due to moral defects quite as much as to lack of intelligence. But the human race has not hitherto discovered any method of eradicating moral defects.... Intelligence, on the contrary, is easily improved by methods known to every competent educator. Therefore, until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than of morals.
Write a 1000-word essay analyzing Russell's argument. You can agree with Russell, disagree with him, or take a position somewhere in the middle, but you must take a position. In your essay, consider these questions or others that you believe are relevant: Is Russell correct about the causes of evil? Is it true that we have no methods of "eradicating moral defects"? Does his conclusion follow from his claims, and is his conclusion on target? (These questions are intended as guides, not as mandatory items.)


I don’t even remember doing some of the stuff that I did. I only find out about it when Robin’s away forever and I get to rummaging in our junk, and find stuff like …

Apparently, in May of 1973, I took a College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) test in Analysis and Interpretation of Literature. There’s a little booklet that came with the announcement of my scores, that explains what they mean … it’s weird, they break down the figures by male and female … and … well, here, let me post the picture of the scores (or better, score, since I only took the one test):


OK, I got a 68 in “Anal” literature. What does that mean? According to the booklet, a score of 65 places you in the 94th percentile, a score of 70 places you in the 98th percentile. They also compare average scores on CLEP subject tests with the subsequent grades the students got in college … if you got a 55 in Anal Literature, for instance, you averaged a “B” grade, and the “A” students averaged a 61.

So, I guess what this test says is that when I was 19 years old, after having spent most of three years after high school doing drugs and wasting my life away, after then beginning my first semester of junior college and getting engaged (in fact, I probably took this test right before we got married) … at that time in my life, I tested out around the 96th percentile or an “A+” grade in college literature analysis.

A month later, I went to work in the factory … that was the summer I was working as a temp (they would hire students for the busy summer months). I went back to junior college for a year, and in June of 1974, thirteen months after taking that test, I went back to the factory and didn’t leave for ten years.

During at least part of that second year of junior college, I still had plans to stay in school. I had contacted San Francisco State and was given six units for meeting basic requirements in English (maybe that’s what the CLEP test was for). I also have a letter from “W. Kleb, Chairman, Film-CA Interdisciplinary Dept.” (it begins “Dear Student,”), noting that I had applied for admission to SFSU as a film major (this is dated August 1, 1973).

How much of this do I remember? I don’t recall taking any tests, or getting so far as to actually apply to SF State. I do remember being a film major, of course … that was my life for a year-and-a-half, making and watching movies all day long.

I definitely didn’t know I was anything special. I’d spent so much of my life denying my intelligence that a little test wasn’t going to change anything. Heck, in 1985, when I began my “real” college career in earnest and I took English 1A (clearly I’d forgotten all about that CLEP test many years before) and I got a C– on my very first paper, I just assumed I wasn’t any good at school. It wasn’t until my second paper, which was so good the teacher read it to the class, that I got an inkling that maybe I was better suited to college than I was to factory work.

Not that my confidence has ever exactly peaked, Ph.D. or no Ph.D.