Tuesday, March 31, 2009

As Usual

So the quarter started and sure enough the fears and frustrations of working with people kicked in right away. Nothing major... certainly no worse than expected... nothing to complain of really... just a backhanded way of remarking that the break was great and I felt essentially none of those pressures while holed up at M1's for a week (with the odd side trip to feed the cat back "home" and pick up groceries)... and I suppose that accounts for my long-ish absence from this venue: if folie a deux is Madness, I propose to make the most of it, and one even feels the pinch of Poverty less by staying away from places where money is spent (which is itself accomplished, as I've hinted already, by the glorious expedient of never leaving the house).

Somehow I'd switched around my Monday-Wednesday class this quarter with the Tuesday-Thursday in my tiny pea-brain all morning and prepared syllabi with the wrong exam dates accordingly and then tried to go to the wrong class in the wrong building and so was late and unprepared even for me. And no goddamn markers in the whiteboard gutters you can be sure... and somewhat weirdly, none in my pack (I've got plenty of chalk...), so after spreading syllabi around and talking about bookkeeping stuff... which, lest we forget, was wrong... it's off to hunt up a room with some markers, or, as it turns out, some office whose front desk staff set me up.

And the actual math goes in the mathblog if I blog it at all and it was actual math from then on of course and it was okay but it was pretty damn embarrassing just the same. Naturally I just brazened it out in a sort of "sorry this is taking up even a little of our time... but of course we'll muddle through somehow and anyway it's even slightly amusing" way to the best of my alas very limited ability; you'd probably do the same. And, luckily, I really do feel that the last time I did this class it went pretty well and that this one could very well be even better. So maybe I pulled it off.

Meanwhile, the meeting with Ira... the guy doing the 148 lectures whose students are Targeted (in the new Targeted Tutoring) to work with me as a Tutor... went swimmingly to the extent that we mostly talked about actual 148 instead of all the paperwork (where we are to recite various verbal formulas whose meanings have been twisted beyond all human usefulness to serve The Machine). It looks like there'll be quite a bit of it and that not all of it can be farmed out to the students (and Ira); that promises to make this the worst form of tutoring I've ever done. Which is still potentially pretty good since tutoring is in many ways even more fun than lecturing.

And I got into quite a few conversations in the Barracks (which, by the way, I did some maintenance on while stopping off between busses on one of the catfeeding trips over the break... mostly shelving and general straightening up...), and even with at least one colleague I'd never done much more than exchange hellos with. And yes, idle office banter can count as work.

Because sometimes I'm studying these fine people and a lot of the time I'm doing politics with them and you'd better believe that's work. Not the kind of work I feel myself cut out for much either, or so I've always liked to say... but then nobody asked me to do it, so presumably the chance to feel that I make a (considerable) contribution to the department is worth more to me than I like to let on (even to myself). All of it has to be under management's paperwork radar to have any value for me, of course: by this time I'm in the loyal opposition out of a lifetime's habit if nothing else; while there's a counter-culture, I'm in it.

But, and you must've known I was headed in this direction, that way madness lies. Because this sounds almost like I'm embracing politics. Which, okay, maybe I was just going on last week about reintegrating myself into the social realm and stuff and not being such a scaredy-cat recluse drunko misanthrope all the time. But politics?

Because, face it, almost everyone is reduced to gibberish when talking about politics. Lots of ugly truths always need covering up; entire weird denial systems emerge. This is even well-known since everyone sees such systems in other people's commitments ("religion" and "politics" aren't proverbially paired for nothing). And I'm presumably just as prone to this as anyone else. If I do politics.

But not if I just keep saying true things as clearly as I know how. Heck, that's what one becomes a math major for. I'd almost rather be clear than interesting sometimes...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Crack-Up

I haven't had a drink all quarter and I feel pretty good about it. Program people make a big deal about 90 days ("same as cash", I inevitably add... silently). I began my longest-ever bout of sobriety (since childhood... seven years and change) by doing "90 meetings in 90 days" three times running, so I've got a pretty good idea why. This time around I've been "white-knuckling"—staying clean without taking any meetings. And I'm not saying if it's going well or going badly because how the heck am I gonna know... but I am (slowly) re-integrating myself into ordinary life. I think.

Once I'd wrecked the car and got my license pulled (and done my two weekends and so on) it was well over two years before I got even my State ID. A car and license are still out of the question. I can really nurse a grudge. When my landline phone went out? Hey, everything's broken; phones are just an excuse to go into your pocket; god help you if you try and fix anything... you'll be put on hold for the rest of your life waiting to talk to some robot that can't help you anyway...

So no phone for a while. Stuff like that. Hell, if you're gonna roll around wallowing in misery all your god-damn life, there comes a point where the least you can do for your own family (that loves you and that of course you love dearly yourself)... is to leave them alone and not go dumping all your useless drama on them. So you can get pretty cut-off.

I also seem to have made some deal with myself where I could seal myself from social reality with booze and resentment and build myself a wall of habits (good and bad... I never quit reading all the time for example...) that would protect me as far as possible from having to ask for things... particularly in unscripted encounters (I'm not so bad ordering food, for example, and indeed hugely prefer sit-down style to this horrible self-service crap that's somehow been visited even on the yuppies... where's a decent diner downtown I ask you).

So, no license. And no Prozac... a drug habit which has actually done me a certain amount of good in the past. No medical care of any kind for that matter other than the tooth extraction that would've soon been a flat-out emergency. No cel phone (like I've hinted)... T-Mobile had fucked me over to my massive disappointment with the Sidekick (I was an "early adopter" of the-web-in-your-hand, just as I had been earlier of the web itself [and of, I think, no other computer applications])... don't get fooled again.

Obviously no Union Organizing, having proven to my own satisfaction that I was among the (two) Worst Organizers Ever, and that when I was optimistic enough to try to fight the tendencies I'm here struggling to describe. In fact, I pulled most of my books (slowly since I was doing it all on the bus in my backpack) out of the Unofficial Department Library I'd been maintaining in the barracks for years. And, let's admit it, "phoning it in" to some extent with every aspect of the job other than classroom work and tutoring (where "give it everything you've got" is the only way I know how to get through the process at all). Let the world know: Vlorbik doesn't feel at home even in his own skin.

What's troubling me right now, though, is: when am I finally going to break down and call the landlord and get some repairs made. I'm not doing them or myself any favor by living with bad drainage in kitchen sink and shower alike, for example. Which is actually part of the trouble. I'll, not only feel guilty... I already feel guilty... but maybe have to admit I feel guilty and it'll be awkward and sure I have to do it but I don't have to do it right now.

But, then, the least I could do would be, I don't know, clean up a little around here. Nobody's actually even watching me live in squalor inside the actual apartment but the cat. Am I acting all this stuff out so I'll know how I feel? Or what?

On the other hand, who am I kidding? They never are gonna let me be back into the Middle Class and anyway I left more or less under my own power and I had reasons. This way I get to be this Mad Prophet type—or maybe I should say Court Jester.

And on a good day, hey, it's my process. I'm doing things my way to an astonishing extent and've got the self-control to've quit smoking and to've lost a bunch of weight and posted gohd knows how many words of darned good stuff all quarter and helped some students with a lot of math problems and the new computer is mostly a blast and the guitar is totally a blast and I'm just productive as all hell. Maybe I'm allocating my psychic resources the best I can just like anybody else and hell, maybe I'm even pretty good at it. Maybe it's even beautiful.

So there's probably a bit of mania in it. Indeed, the way I figure, my diagnosis if it were rightly known would probably involve some mania-and-depression, some obsession-compulsion, addictive personality obviously... and even, god help me, some outright unibomber-style sociopathy. Some autism, I imagine. "Neurosis". We'll leave the sexy stuff out obviously... for all I know, my mother will read this someday and you've gotta draw the line somewhere. I think I've known at least a few classic Borderline Personalities, and sure enough they remind me of me... and I've experienced Delusions and I've "heard voices" and been at least pretty close to flat-out Paranoia...

You get the idea. Crazy people are looking for a Way Out, right? Well, then, I just wanna know where all the exits are. Anyhow, maybe it's all really just Munchausen's. And couldn't everybody make the same claims? It's like the fortuneteller: "you feel both very loving and completely heartless... all at the same time" (or what have you: everyone feels themselves to be alone among their contradictions when of course contradictions—or, rather, dichotomies—are the very blood and marrow of psychic life). They call me mad? Ha-hah! I'm the sanest man who ever lived!

And all I really want to get out of is having to live up to anybody else's idea of what I should be doing...

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Triage Lecture

There's all these war metaphors—we speak, even in public, of classroom work as "in the trenches"... well, I feel like this battlefield surgeon confronted with (classrooms full of) casualties of the Math Wars in various states of woundedness and there's far more than I can handle. And so some are gonna get only the most perfunctory treatment: typically those with the lightest and the heaviest "wounds".

Students competent with stated prerequisite material, and ready for some frustration and hard work in taking on the new material... the ones the courses are ostensibly designed for... are typically presented with a course that's actually too easy for them. In order to have anybody left at the finish line, we teachers will sometimes settle for a few "rote" calculations (knowing fullwell that the "knowledge" thereby demonstrated is in many cases fragile as hell and probably won't connect up even with the next math class for many of these poor devils [and never mind connecting up with anything in real life so-called]).

Actually this is putting it much too mildly—we're actually expected to do this—certainly by many of the students, and typically (to venture an ill-informed but not altogether ignorant guess) by many administrators as well. But then, we're also expected to deliver the course as it appears in the catalogue and the syllabus and the textbook and so on: the one for the students who "get it" so far. But on top of that, of course, there's the Horribly Wounded... the ones who make us earn our money... and you'd better believe we're also expected to help them along (somehow).

We are the human face of the institution. Now, I happen to think it's a pretty ghastly institution for the most part... and that what we're doing—I'm implicated here along with everybody else in the trenches—is running a con on, anyway, most of the "remedial" cases around here. "Borrow a bunch of money and hand it over to us (to pay a pittance to Vlorbik and rest of the talent with, and give the bulk of the rest to the already-rich); we'll get you to the next level of earning power." But they're never going to get this math and the AA degree isn't worth a thing in the "market" anyhow.

Let me hasten to add here that this was already a con long before everybody found out how sick the economy was (and had been for quite some time)... and that, indeed, now that the entire socio-economic system is in collapse, there are sure to be lots of totally unforeseen new opportunities. And in whatever emerges from the ashes, folks understanding Algebra will tend to be useful members of society; math teachers will still tend to be very useful members.

But then, when I get into the wrong mood (several times a day sometimes alas) that whole battlefield surgeon vibe comes upon me and I realize I'm just fixing this lot up so they can go back into the meatgringer. And maybe the best place in this war metaphor is over the hill: if I can't save anybody else around here, maybe I can still save myself (it's not just the rats that leave a sinking ship).

Anyhow, I take this "human face" duty seriously. Probably too seriously. Sometimes the right answer really is, "sorry buddy, I can't help you with that" even if, let's say, the person in question is a current student (in a class of one's own). But a lot of people overdo it: "that was a prerequisite; we shouldn't even be talking about this" (whereupon, I'm all, "...and you call yourself a math teacher?"... but of course keep it to myself).

When you feel yourself being manipulated and go along with it so as not to have to act, as it were, out of character, that's weakness. Knowing when to go all cold around the heart and play emotional hardball is at some level part of the game. But for god sake. Don't forget I'm a math geek. What do I know about running con games on each other? That's what I've spent my whole life running away from.

Anyway, you can see where a lot of people would just learn to blame their role as the teacher and say: these are the rules, that's it, toughen up kid, this is college—and here I mean they learn to act this way by default... their way of "teaching college math". These would be the ones not taking the "human face" role seriously, I suppose. Everybody needs to play this card from time to time, I suppose. But dammit, it's a community college and a certain amount of "social work" should probably be considered as built into our job description. Remedial classes pay the bills around here and a good team member wants to pull his own weight.

So I'll break my heart for these kids again and again and be resented for it from above and below and torture myself even more for being so spectacularly lousy at doing it and I'll thank God for the privilege because it's part of being a math teacher and I'm lucky beyond belief to have found something socially worthwhile to do for a living.

And the kids in the middle get a pretty good show. And I'll get some more practice with our campus math elite in my upcoming Calc III class (stand by for announcement of new blog). What was I complaining about again?

Something to do with these mood swings...

Saturday, March 7, 2009

An Encounter

Some kid comes into the barracks. Starts by asking after another teacher, but doesn't know the name... teaches in such & such room at so & so time... looks like blah-blah-blah. Sorry, buddy, probably your best bet is the schedule on the countertop up front. Well, it was about taking a class with this other guy; for that matter he'd like to have it with me on account of —he really said so—liking how I looked. And with Lena right there across the office marking papers. And of course the whole time I'm all "Well, jeez buddy I'm up on the internet gathering ranting fodder and so what's your actual question already?" but this last bit of straight-up appeal to my personal vanity was—I'm not made of stone—anyway, engaging.

So he's in 103 shopping for a 104 teacher. Well, have you got some exercise you're stuck on. And he comes up with something too, which is of course much to his credit and moreover when handwaving is clearly failing he falls right into place in the chair next to me and even (briefly) accepts the pencil to show me what he means. But all the time it's bigpicture stuff about how to be a better math student that he wants to hear about.

And I've got a few gems and particularly with Lena hearing everything we're doing—an audience predisposed to care about the Art—naturally I'm gonna dispense a few... the one where I say "Don't just show us calculations, show us presentations. Those bits where you scratch out certain parts of an expression—"cancelling" so-called—are for finding out the answer... but when you write out the answer the idea is to imagine that somebody doesn't already know how the calculation goes. You want to be as clear as possible."

And then there's "You know all those technical terms teachers keep using? Well, we want you to use them back to us. We make it look as if it's all about the calculations, but that's because there's always too much to do and we have to settle for getting the calculations right. To really see what's going on you have to be able to talk about what's going on... and you need the language that's designed for that purpose. To understand these words, you have to use them."

And all along we're looking at how to factor x^3 - 125... or rather "how am I gonna know 125 is a cube". Which, funny you should ask. But first, I ask you, what's factoring? And my student-of-the-moment actually stepped up at this point, proving again that he was worth talking to in the first place, and with a pretty good answer too for a 103 student, mentioning multiplication ("... and so the factors are multiplied to form the product" [just as terms are added to form sums ... I'm telling you, don't get me started with this stuff...]). So I pull out the old factor tree on 125 and learn that he avoided math in public school and had never seen the appeal then or seen 'em at all since then. "Well, this is what they were for."

And then there's the graph. And, in effect, the Factor Theorem... known to all students of Vlorbology as the subject of an epic rant... "they hint at this stuff in your book, but they only ever really tell you about it in courses like 148". Anyhow, having found the root at 5 (which, by the way, we didn't need the graph to have found... the factor tree would've done already: 5^3 = 125 tells us in so many words that 5 is a solution to x^3 - 125 = 0) one might long divide—and here I believe "I don't like that" were his very words—to get the factored form of our polynomial. And this without having had to appeal to the "difference of cubes" formula (which, between us, had already come up)—so this is where you get paid for the hard work of the long division.

Along with remarks about how to stay motivated and g-d knows what... but now for some remarks on the Art of Fiction.

In the first place, I have practically no knack for it. I've tried it a few times, so I know. It's the whole "show don't tell" thing (for one thing): readers have to be allowed to find meanings for themselves, but I just want to blurt out whatever I think I'm getting at in, you know, plain English. But then (for another), if I put myself to describing an incident from life in the form of fiction... and certainly I want everyone to see such a narrative, in this blog, as fiction... hell, the names are changed... Anyhow, the tendency here is to try to transcribe everything to the best of one's own recall, restoring lost dialogue to the best of one's ability.

Which is probably a really good exercise... whose real point might be finding the right pieces of dialogue, from the right parts of the encounter... But part of the achievement of real storytelling is to hide the artist... one has the feeling of "being there", seeing everything there is to see, hearing every word spoken, and so on. And pays no attention to the man behind the curtain.

But covering up the traces of my work has never been my style so (to say the least) it goes against the grain. And I expect there's a certain amount of golden-rule action here: like I reported just a few paragraphs ago, there's plenty of "okay, can we get to the point, please" in my life, and it takes, let's say, a certain amount of confidence to feel that, okay, this time, because it's this story, it'll be interesting.

All of which will serve by way of apology for not having re-created the scene even in my own mind's eye; it's about to fall apart altogether. Somewhere in all this, there was a bit where he wanted to favor me with his ideas about schooling, and despite my hints that such stuff just can't possibly be interesting because even if we figure out something true, there'll be nothing we can do about it, we got far enough to me to know he's against it and for me to say I think I probably agree with him (but all there is to do about it is write up opinions and shove 'em out into the internet).

Then finally, wrapping up, he's gonna get my e-dress and opens up his... hey, Macintosh. So that's kind of interesting. Not the exact same thing as mine but still the first one I'd seen in the wild since getting mine. So like a fool I indicate my interest and naturally now he's gotta show me something.

And I think at first maybe he'll be able. But find out pretty quick he's a naive user and takes me for a naiver. Wants to show me how to reset this mousepad... to his settings. And won't be convinced, without at least a little more "stop... please... I'm begging you..." than I like, that just because the factory settings drive me crazy, there's no reason to believe his settings will drive me less crazy... that "what he likes" isn't even data since if a lot of other people didn't like the way it comes out of the box better, it'd go his way to begin with.

And he thinks it's an old dog new tricks issue and I'm content to let it go at that if it'll get him to stop. But it's a pretty common misperception and I don't want you to think it, so let me just say that I'd love to be instructed in working with this fucking thing by somebody who knows much more than I do about, let's say, not only OS X, but operating systems in general. Or doing research on the web. Or publishing on the web. But listening respectfully while somebody explains stuff I already know, badly? I'm not so good at that and don't guess I ever was. And it's a problem sometimes.

Probably I'll reset the mouse settings myself when I have the peace of mind...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Who Knew

I popped another string last night at M's (M is for Madonn'(!)... at least around here it is) so today I somehow got off the bus in Once Great Neighborhood (next past the school leaving downtown) and went to the pawnshop I'd passed g-d knows how many times and bought a new (used) Yamaha guitar. Not so much in the spirit of "I got a new car because the ashtrays were full", though... I need one for each apartment anyhow since I spend weekends with M'n.

This is not to deny that I've been down to five strings on the Applause for longer than I can admit if I ever want to be taken seriously. The fourth string was the first of a new set to break and I immediately broke the replacement (I'd gotten two sets at once as usual) before even having it properly tuned once. Since I've been playing on just the five, I've gotten to be a better player than ever in some ways (and broken and replaced a few other strings; it was of course the replacement for the fourth that broke last night).

So it was a blast just now cranking up a few old songs with the real six-string sound. And the guy running the pawnshop was fun talking to and so was the guy at the bus-stop. You can get out and move around amongst strangers and even chat 'em up a little bit and not have it be an ordeal. It's the damnedest thing.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Random Venting Lest I Go Nuts

The whole idea is to get away from random illiterates in offices telling you what to do. That's what you put up with the humiliations you will have to put up with (like students having no idea what you're trying to do, or having no money), for. That's what you teach quarter-to-quarter at sordid old Midstate Community College, for.

Or so I felt willing to claim one short paragraph ago. But I erred in at least two (more-or-less opposite) directions: It's even worse when they want you to do it online; and Lecturing on math at the board is one of the greatest things in life. And the really interesting thing right now, for me, is that the random venting actually works here at home alone with cat and computer; I'm tapping out copy for one of my (absurd number of) blogs and enjoying it as usual. Just like that. But when there's an audience around, it's murder. The more I rant, the madder I get (so "lest I go nuts" doesn't apply). And we're not looking into that just now because it's making me sort of sick at stomach and this is supposed to be fun.

So back on the droids. The deal here is that (of course) the interface sucks and people that've thought themselves in compliance up until the finish line have found their work dumped and them to blame as far as anybody cares (as usual) and it's kind of frustrating so people complain about it. And then redo it anyway which is what breaks my heart.

We're the talent, here, people! We're the ones they paid to see. None of the support staff, alleged or otherwise, even wants to think about doing our job.

(Well, not "none", literally. Dammit! I can't figure out if I'm ranting or trying to be clear! But you get the drift.)

But something strikes me weird here. Because I go around thinking I want people to complain about the brutalities we're all routinely made to submit to at the undead hand of Bad Software. Some of this bad software runs on an operating system called The College (or its Departments or what have you) and is generally known as "the way we do things here"... but I digress. Because it's Software in its usual, runs-on-hardware, sense that I'm claiming to have thought I wanted to hear more complaining about. Though now I'm not so sure, as you will have surmised. Because having now considered this, I wonder if I'm only wishing for a sympathetic ear for my complaining. So it's the (dammit) usual "just how much of a Prima Donna am I acting here", thing. And I'm not a horrible person.

I get to say this because I'm the guy everybody knows around here (and most talk to... if they talk to anyone at all around here); those are my books you see scattered about you, I studied more math than pretty much anybody, I've been at it for a long time, and, hell, I wouldn't go off like that if I didn't trust you.

And this last bit bothers me quite a bit. Because the effect is that of punishing someone for daring to love me back. But it's one thing to realize that you're being an asshole, again. And quite another to be able to reach into your soul and mess with what appears to be a pretty deep character flaw; indeed, is almost certain at least to partake of some flavor of what Program people call a dry drunk. On account of the way, just when you need to put on the brakes, you get this more speed thing going and brush your judgement aside right when you need it most. When this mood works, I call it hot blood (but then, that's not really the same thing...).

Anyway, though, I still think—to the extent that I can think and type at the same time—I want my colleagues to complain about their computer woes. And indeed, that my urge to get into every gripefest I dove into today was never unmixed with Pure Joy. Hell, I once co-founded a union drive; I can love the sound of somebody else not getting a computer to work for almost unselfish reasons.

But then, dammit, they won't even abstain and just wait and see what further pressure might be brought to bear. No, line up again and hope it's just another sheering because sooner or later they're coming for something you don't want to give up. Look. When the program predictably fails right after you ought to be done with it and you can't even get IT in the middle of the day and the emails bounce that's called being treated with contempt and whatever you put up with, there'll always be more. And it doesn't even pretend to make sense.

We don't even work for these silly assholes, anyway; they're supposed to be working for us. The fans pay the band; the barowner just passes along the money. And if just one person should say, "hey, wait a minute, Vlorbik's right!"... well, heck, with a committee of two, I could put all this computer hyperactivity to some constructive use...

Robots Teach Ethics To Humans

Some crazy sexual harassment committee has decided to start ordering everybody around and I can't think straight. Here's Google on the Zeman affair. Won't help here; he won but he wasn't trying not to comply... only trying to comply more efficiently than the zomboid enemies of humanity were comfortable with. Of course this'll probably blow over... they're not gonna make, for example, the Evening people at the Branch Campuses show up in their anti-life ritual-submission meetings and they know this and don't care. And so too will everybody else having the wit to treat the whole thing with the contempt it deserves most likely get a pass and so will I... if I avoid confrontations about it. But since I'm feeling even more like a cornered rat than usual this may not be as easy at it sounds.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Space Filler Number One

So the computerworld keeps throwing new stuff at us and we're just supposed to like it and there's this Red Queen bit where you have to run like heck just to stand still. Like in blogging. Over in my other new blog I've allowed whatever scary new gizmatron it is that causes a whole tiny little page-view—scrollable and everything—to appear next to a link when you hover the mouse.

I've allowed what I've hitherto considered an intrusive misfeature into my page essentially as an exercise. In Friday's post I spoke of having resolved to force myself into learning new things and this is part of that program: let the Web do things the Web's way. (Generalizing a slogan about the Mac that I've been using for internal brainwashing.) But when events occur on the screen that I don't expect, that freaks me out at least a little. Usually just a little. But sometimes to the point of screaming rage. And anyhow I mostly don't even like stuff like "pullquotes" in magazines.

And I figure I'm not the only one. So maybe pointing at us and laughing isn't the best marketing strategy—or wouldn't be if a few of you would join me in complaining bitterly about stuff like this. Not to me of course. I'm just trying to go with the flow.

But here's the thing. There's this one link in yesterday's post that doesn't change color when you click it and then come back. Right in the middle (the "GEB" link). Now probably to find out why this is going on, one would have to be at least a little bit obsessed. But it just kind of eats at you seeing it there and having no idea what kind of weirdness would make such a thing even possible...

And then there's this god-damn mouse...