Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking Out the Trash

All I wanted to do was put the trash and recycling out. This hasn’t been the easiest thing for me to do since the accident five years ago. For those of you who don’t know about my accident, five years ago, a drunk driver rear-ended me at 50 miles an hour leaving me with a permanent spinal injury causing daily pain that radiates from my neck through my shoulders and arms ending in alternating tingling and numbness in my hands.

Therefore, the lifting, pulling, carrying, turning things upside down, dumping things out, generally holding anything relatively heavy in general required for putting out trash and recycling are not the easiest things to do. So much so, in fact, that for several years I tried to avoid putting the trash out at all.

I would wait until someone came over and then casually say: “Oh, hey, it’s trash day. Do you mind helping me put the trash out? That way, you know, we can get on with whatever we had planned to do quicker.” But sometimes it would be weeks before somebody else was around on the right day. With the trash it wasn’t so bad since that gets picked up twice a week. But with the recycling, which is only picked up every other Saturday morning, it could be a little tricky. There were times when my recycling would pile up for months. I tried several times to get whatever civic service organization it is that’s in charge of those things to bring me extra crates so I would have somewhere to put it all. But apparently those requests go into some dead email office and nobody ever responds to them. (Much like all of those letters I wrote to Santa asking for Vespa and an Emma Peal jumpsuit and matching boots for Christmas from ages 5 to 13.)

When I couldn’t get any extra recycling bins through the proper channels, I even thought about stealing other people’s crates after they’d been emptied, but were still sitting on the street on a Saturday morning. But a voice inside me told me not to give anyone else any reason not to recycle. And since I know first hand how difficult it is to get more recycling crates delivered, I didn’t want to put any of my neighbors through that annoying process. Gee, I am such a nice person.

Anyway, I have since learned not to leave the trash and – especially not – the recycling too long and no matter how much pain I’m in, I force myself to go through the process of collecting it from around the house and getting it out to the street. This is what I was doing yesterday when I suddenly found myself in the midst of a cinematic series of physical comedy gags.

First, I went to the cupboard where I keep the garbage bags and bent over to pull one out the box. Except that they came out one after another after another after another, like a magician’s scarf trick, but when I tried to pull just one out of the knot of bags, I compensated for my numb hands with too much force and ended up banging my head on the shelf above the garbage bags. Ouch.

Rubbing my head with my right hand, and with the garbage bag in my left hand, I went to the bathroom to empty the trash. On the way there, because of the numbness in my left fingers, I dropped the bag on the floor. When I tried to pick it up with my equally numb right fingers, a kitten jumped on the end of the bag and started chewing on it. I tugged the garbage bag out of the playful kitten jaw and continued on to the bathroom.

Reaching for the first trash can, my numb right hand dropped it. So, the previously thrown away items were all over the floor and needed to be picked up one-by-one and put in the garbage bag. This was annoying and only made worse by the two kittens – count them two – who had arrived and thought I had dropped a pile of germ-filled toys for them; used q-tips, Kleenex, cotton balls, etc. were being knocked across the tile floor with purring enthusiasm as I tried to grab them and put them in the big garbage bag.

Once the contents of the first trash can were successfully picked up, I moved on to the second bathroom. Reaching for the second trash can, the pain in my back came on like a stabbing knife, I squealed, lost my balance, slipped on the floor, fell to my knees, ripped my pants and knocked over the trash. Since I was already on the floor, it made it slightly easier to pick up each newly fallen piece of trash. But, of course, the kittens had followed me and were thrilled to find that we were once again playing the “bat trash across the floor” game – and so soon after the first successful game! They are hoping this will become a regular thing. I, of course, am not.

Once I finally had the bathroom trash collected, I slowly got to my feet and forced myself to move on to getting the trash from the kitchen and the office. Gladly, this was done without any additional incident. I got everything collected and carried it out to the garage, dropped it in the big trash can and rolled it down the driveway to the sidewalk.

Of course, it wasn’t until I turned around to walk back inside that I remembered about my ripped pants and realized that my next-door neighbors who were outside working on their car, had a perfect view of my black floral underwear.

Maybe I will go back to asking friends to help me put out the garbage.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Breaking the Internet: The Movie

In the September 7 issue of Newsweek, the back page story is a helpful guide titled: How do you Break the Internet? While this is obviously meant to be both informational and tongue-and-cheek, it is perhaps unintentionally also a go-to list for wanna-be super villains and movie executives.

The list includes eight different ways someone could "break the internet." That is, take their best shots at the worldwide network's weakest links. But if movie producers are paying attention, there are eight summer blockbusters up for grabs right there on the back page of Newsweek.

1) Take Up Fishing.
NEWSWEEK: Nets pulling up undersea cables are the single biggest cause of Internet breakages.
BLOCKBUSTER: The newest Bond film opens on a poor South Asian waterfront fishing community. As we close in on one particular boat, one "fisherman" played by Christoph Waltz looks suspiciously evil and European.

2) Grab a Hacksaw
NEWSWEEK: Follow the lead of vandals near Santa Clara, California who cut through underground fiber-optic wires, halting all service to the area.
BLOCKBUSTER: Zach Efron leads a group of young and ethnically diverse whiz kids on their road to revenge after their billion dollar idea was stolen by a computer mega-corp (read: Microsoft).

3) Pray for an Underwater Earthquake
NEWSWEEK: Preferably, a repeat of the quake that took down cables carrying 75 percent of Internet traffic between Europe and the Middle East last December.
BLOCKBUSTER: After 10.1 earthquake hits sending shockwaves throughout the globe, a team of sexy scientists, including Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel must get the internet up and running again before something terrible (but very vague) happens.

4) Become the Head of ICANN
NEWSWEEK: Once in charge of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers - the organization that coordinates the global system of IP addresses - you can redirect traffic at will.
BLOCKBUSTER: A computer illiterate guy (Kevin James) accidentally impresses a powerful senator (Ken Howard off his recent Emmy win) and is appointed Head of ICANN. Hilarity ensues.

5) Break into an Internet Data Center
NEWSWEEK: There are thousands of centers housing computer servers in the United States alone. Take your pick and get mischievious.
BLOCKBUSTER: "Oceans 14"

6) Sabotage a Few Boats
NEWSWEEK: Internet providers like Verizon lease fleets equipped to locate and repair broken cables. Stop the ships and you stop the fix.
BLOCKBUSTER: A ship of international pirates (including Jean Reno and Lucy Liu) take a cable repair ship hostage only to be overthrown by their captain Vin Diesel.

7) Wait 29 Years
NEWSWEEK: On January 19, 2038, the internal clock for Unix, the operating sytem for many servers, will overflow, Y2K style. Big meltdown or big letdown? Only time will tell.
BLOCKBUSTER: "Untitled Samuel L. Jackson Project"

8) Train Sharks
NEWSWEEK: The stealthy sea creatures have been known to gnaw through a few cables.
BLOCKBUSTER: 3-D animation enhances this Dreamworks story of sea creatures who find a way through humor, diligence and anthropomorphism to repair undersea internet cables. Voices include Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Bob Newhart.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The PTI & the DE Student

I have been teaching college courses since 1995. First, as a graduate student and then, and forever since, as a PTI, or for those of you who don’t work in the ever acronym creating world of academics, a part-time instructor. For the most part, I’m pretty good at it. My student evaluations are predominantly positive. Moreover, students compliment my personality, inventiveness, organization and equity in person and by private email. Obviously, this is nice, but I encourage them to also do so through official channels so their glowing opinions of my work performance can also have a positive impact on my personnel file. But even with the frequent and encouraging feedback, the start of a new semester always makes me think of past decisions and student encounters that were particularly difficult or merely uncertain.

About a week ago, while sitting in a pre-semester faculty meeting, I was reminded of a specific student that I hadn’t considered in years. It was the fall of 2001, and as I remember it was near the beginning of my foray into DE, or distance education, or teaching online to put it more simply. It was an English composition course, English 101 to be exact, for CCSN, the Community College of Southern Nevada. To be frank, teaching essay writing to community college students is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I have a lot of successful experience doing it. Transferring that experience to the online classroom is challenging, but not impossible and with the right guidance and dedication and acknowledgment of personal responsibility, students do succeed.

But back in fall of 2001, I had one student who was determined not to take responsibility for any of his actions and blame me for every problem, from miniscule to devastating, that he encountered.

If he overlooked a policy in the syllabus, it was my fault because the link on the homepage labeled “SYLLABUS” wasn’t clear enough.

If he didn’t turn in something on time, it was because he shouldn’t have been expected to use the calendar link with all of the deadlines included and I should have sent emails reminding him whenever assignments were due.

If he lost points on an assignment for poor grammar and punctuation it was because my expectations for the proper use of English were too high… in a college English composition class, no less.

For an entire semester, not a day went by that I did not receive a volatile, accusatory email from this student. And not a week went by that he did not publicly post a complaint about my pedagogy seeking support for his anger from other students.

I responded to every indictment with a calm grace that is one of the benefits of teaching online. When an antagonistic student approaches you in person, it takes a lot of inner strength to take a breath and remain composed. But online, you have the option to close the email, think about it for a few hours and then expertly compose a response. This is especially important since in an electronic classroom, your response is in writing and time/date stamped. It is irrefutable evidence, so it must be unambiguous and professional.

Eventually the angry student took his complaints to the chair of the department. When he didn’t get the response he wanted from her – namely my severed head on a plate – he took his complaint to the dean. I received a letter documenting that meeting, but thanks to the slow bureaucratic stylings of higher education, it didn’t come months after the semester was over and I was rid of this student forever. And, thankfully, the letter merely acknowledged the meeting had happened and that the students’ complaints were ultimately determined to be unfounded.

Well, I could have told them that.

Despite anything this one student may have said, my online teaching skills were deemed successful by the powers that be and I have continued to work as a distance education professor every semester for over nine years. And, in order to improve my talents, I seek out professional development opportunities. Conferences, workshops, online tips and videos – I take advantage of anything I can find and afford.

A few years ago, I attended a one-day distance education conference sponsored by the Community College of Southern Nevada one week before the start of a new semester. The idea of the conference was to promote online education and inspire professors before we all started back to work. I went to lectures and workshops all day, enjoyed free breakfast and lunch with some colleagues and generally had a great day. At about 4pm, I was exhausted and debating whether I should sneak out before the last panel discussion. I took off my suit jacket and sat down on a bench outside to decide what to do next when the decision was made for me. The director of the distance education office came by and struck up a conversation with me. Next thing I knew, we were doing the “walk and talk” and I was following her into the theatre where the last panel discussion was about to start. That was it. I was trapped. I took a seat, took out my notepad and decided to make the best of it.

As opposed to all of the previous events of the day, which focused on pedagogy and technology, this panel was made up of students. Four very different looking people were seated at a table on the stage representing the broad variety of students that take online classes.

A professor stepped up and introduced the panel. Student A was an older man who had come back to school later in life and enjoyed distance education because he felt conspicuous in the classroom. Student B was a single mother who appreciated distance education because she couldn’t afford daycare. Student C was a nursing student who used distance education to take her general education courses because nursing classes are so time consuming. Student D was a guy who was using distance education to earn his degree while working full-time. And his named sounded really familiar.

It turned out that Student D dominated the conversation. He was arrogant, loud and opinionated and didn’t let Students A, B or C speak at all. So, it wasn’t surprising when he jumped in to answer this question: Do you find instructional pedagogy to be as effective online as in a traditional classroom setting?

Student D blurted out: “I do now. But I didn’t always.” And without anyone asking him to, he started telling a story. A story that sounded way too familiar. He started talking about the first time he ever took an online course… it was English 101… of course it was, I thought to myself… and then he talked about how he hated his professor and he thought that she… and the word “she” didn’t escape me… had overly high standards and poor communication skills, that the class wasn’t organized with the students’ needs in mind. He share how he had complained endlessly and had even taken his complaints to the chair of the department and the dean.

At this point I slunk down into my chair and anxiously glanced toward my left lapel. I was relieved to remember that I had taken off my jacket with my name tag on it so that he wouldn’t know that the professor he was talking about was actually in the room. And thank God I wasn’t the type of online professor that posted a photo of myself. At least he would never recognize me. He was tearing me apart in front of my colleagues and a couple of people who could actually fire me. I started silently, desperately praying that he wouldn’t say my name. Please, please, please don’t say my name was my unspoken mantra.

He talked about how that experience had turned him off of online education and he was panic-stricken because he had counted on being able to complete his degree online while he still worked full-time. So, hoping that his disastrous first experience was a one-time thing, he registered for two more online classes the next semester. One, he said, was truly awful, and the second was just okay. And from taking these additional online classes, he realized that it was he who had not put the effort into the first class… English 101 with yours truly as the professor… and had blamed his problems on the professor when in retrospect her class was actually well planned and organized and she had been more much patient and helpful with him than perhaps he actually deserved.

Wait, I thought – is he actually admitting he was wrong?!? Was this public apologia? I was shocked, but so happy that I was there for this event. If I hadn’t stayed for the panel discussion, I never would have known that this student who hated me and had tried to get me fired had eventually come to the conclusion that I was a good teacher. He even went on to say that he was glad he had taken English 101 during his first semester because what he had learned about writing had been so helpful in his subsequent classes.

I don’t remember what anyone else said in that panel discussion. I just sat there reveling in the unexpected flattery and satisfaction of a job well done. I also debated whether I should approach the student and introduce myself in light of what he had said. But instead, I just picked up my jacket, purse and conference materials and slipped out the back door with a smile on my face. If he had actually wanted me to know any of those things, he would have contacted me on his own. I had the unique opportunity to learn that my position as a professor, while initially met with disdain, had ultimately been a much broader learning experience than that student could have ever imagined. That was rewarding and inspiring in ways that the conference coordinators could have never imagined.