". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Value of a College Degree

I've been thinking about this article, linked by one of my Faceboook friends. It was published in The Atlantic a couple of years ago under the byline of "Professor X." While reading it, I came across sentence after sentence that I could have easily written myself:

"I work part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English."

Yep. Although when I was teaching college English I also worked days.

"I teach two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college."

Yep again. I've taught both those courses at both types of institutions.

"For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. . . . They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé."


"Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence."

Yes. Sigh.

"In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.

"Our textbook boils effective writing down to a series of steps. It devotes pages and pages to the composition of a compare-and-contrast essay, with lots of examples and tips and checklists. 'Develop a plan of organization and stick to it,' the text chirrups not so helpfully. Of course any student who can, does, and does so automatically, without the textbook’s directive. For others, this seems an impossible task. Over the course of 15 weeks, some of my best writers improve a little. Sometimes my worst writers improve too, though they rarely, if ever, approach base-level competence."

All of this is painfully familiar. I have not taught classroom English for several years, but I spent about 10 years doing exactly what Professor X so vividly describes. And while all of the institutions at which I taught required placement tests in reading, writing, and math as prerequisites to students' registering for college-level coursework, I nevertheless had countless students who were in way over their heads in my classes. The typical writing placement tool is a multiple choice test covering the basics of capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. But being able to squeak out a passing grade on that kind of test does not automatically equate to having the ability to conceive of and write a reasoned and meaningful essay. Professor X relates the story of "Ms. L," a female in her forties that he gamely tried to shepherd through writing a research paper. It was a fruitless effort. He would advise and direct; she would nod vaguely and then proceed to disregard his suggestions and default to her comfort zone of recycled high school topics. Her response when her paper was returned with an "F": "I can't believe it. I was so proud of myself for having written a college paper."

But as Professor X points out, "She most certainly hadn’t written a college paper, and she was a long way from doing so." He continues:

"Yet there she was in college, paying lots of tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree, which she very likely needed to advance at work. Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.
"I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. In my ears rang her plaintive words, so emblematic of the tough spot in which we both now found ourselves. Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college."

The emphasis in that last sentence is mine. Here is the crux of the matter. Some people just do not need to be in college, at least not pursuing the kind of studies that we associate with college-level work. The fact that college catalogs these days brim with remedial courses attests to that fact. And yet the common wisdom is that everyone should go to college and that everyone can succeed there if only given enough time and support.

But the fact is that not everyone can and not everyone should try. And why is that not okay? Why do we shrink from acknowledging that some people are more suited to the "ivory tower" than others, or that some disciplines have more need of it than others? I know all sorts of people who do all manner of cool things in the areas of gardening, cooking, sewing, knitting, building, drawing, mechanics, electronics, finance, music, chess, writing and more. I am awed by their talent and skill and level of accomplishment. And you know what? Most of what they do did not require a college education. It was taught to them by parents and grandparents and other mentors and learned through reading and self-study and practice. So why in our culture do we worship a college education the way we do?

I think part of it has to do with the concreteness of it. We live in a society that values learning. And a high school or college diploma is a tangible sign of that. Putting all sorts of money and effort and time into a systematized educational process "proves" that we care about education. At least it looks good, whether or not education is truly happening.

We have also managed in this country to turn education into an industry upon which many people depend for their livelihoods. And as with any industry, self-preservation and growth are paramount. And what is required for survival and growth? Food, of course. In the case of the educational system, the food is students. There is no educational bureaucracy if there are no students for it to feed upon--the more, the better. So we encourage anyone and everyone to go to college.

Now I am not saying that college is of no use. But the more I think about it, the more I think that its greatest usefulness is in the teaching of a skill that requires a high degree of specialized knowledge and expertise as well as the providing of some external measure of proficiency in that skill. If you want to be a doctor, you should have a medical degree. If you want to be a lawyer, you should have a law degree. The lay person cannot easily tell, himself, whether someone is qualified to perform those services. So it is good to have the appropriate degree or certification. I think it can also be argued that if you want to market yourself as a teacher or expert in an academic area that is content rather than skill-based, a degree in that area would be a plus. But I think we put far too much emphasis on a college degree as an end in itself, as something desirable for its own sake. Today, as more and more people go to college to acquire the most basic of competencies, the college degree is becoming increasingly overrated. It is quite possible to become highly learned and skilled in any number of fields by simply availing oneself of books and practice and private instruction.

I wish the powers that be realized that. Unfortunately, it seems these days that employers put more value on the piece of paper--the thing they can see and touch and that has someone else's stamp of approval on it--than they do on personal characteristics and achievement and work ethic and skill. Easier for an employer to give the colleges and universities the responsibility of sorting out the wheat from the chaff than to have it yourself, and easier, too, to be able to blame a third party for a disappointing hire than to take responsibility for it yourself. Still, as the true worth of a college degree continues to decline (and everyone knows that it is doing so, whether or not people want to admit it), I can't help but wonder if we're about to come full circle. When governments print dollars, the value of the dollar goes down, and people turn to other means of measuring worth. When colleges indiscriminately churn out graduates, lowering the value of the college degree, it is only a matter of time until the marketplace realizes that the current educational "dollar" is falling and likewise starts looking for other ways to measure the commodity that we call learning. In the meantime, sadly, it is "Ms. L." (and others like her) who suffers, as she wastes time and money trying to jump through educational hoops that, even if she clears them, will probably not make her any better of a worker and will certainly not make her a better person.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"O God, My Faithful God"

Lutheran Service Book, #696, stanzas 5 & 6. Stanza 6 is sung a cappella by the congregation, and stanza 7 is sung by our high school youth ensemble. Click on the link below the video to go to my Vimeo page and get more information.

Here's the text:

"Let me depart this life
Confiding in my Savior;
By grace receive my soul
That it may live forever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting place
Within a Christian grave;
And let it sleep in peace.

And on that final day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch out Your mighty hand,
My deathly slumber breaking.
Then let me hear Your voice,
Redeem this earthly frame,
And bid me to rejoice
With those who love Your name."

"O God, My Faithful God" (Lutheran Service Book #696, st. 5 & 6) from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Creeping Mediocrity

Does anyone else feel this way?

I am increasingly frustrated by the mediocrity that I see in the quality of products on the market and the level of customer service of their respective vendors. To wit:

1) In December we purchased a new mattress for my daughter's twin bed from the retailer Back to Bed. Yes, it was a lower end store brand. I was not expecting it to last 20 or even 10 years. But after six months, it looks like this:

2) Also in December, we purchased an LG side-by-side refrigerator with through-the-door ice and water. We have already had to request warranty service once because the lever that activates the water and ice was not working. Now the ice dispenser keeps getting caked up and blocked with icy buildup. I called LG and they said our water pressure is too high and to try turning down the flow to the refrigerator. If that doesn't work, they will send a repairman. I am glad they are responsive to my warranty calls. Still, though, two in six months' time does not make me feel great about the product. It also annoys me to have our great water pressure blamed for the poor performance of their product.

3) In August of last year, I purchased a new Compaq laptop. If I don't keep it plugged in all the time, it shuts down. I think it is overheating. Now I am getting messages that the battery has insufficient storage capacity. The computer is under warranty and I plan to request service. But you would think a battery would last at least a year. I have discovered online that the problem I'm experiencing is common with this model.

4) Last month we purchased a used (2008) Town & Country van. Within a week we had to take it to the repair shop because the air conditioning wasn't working. Turns out there had been a repair last year and the previous repair shop overcharged the system, resulting in its shutting down as a safety when it started having to actually work. That was repaired. Now I have discovered several cigarette lighters that are not functioning. (We use them for power sources, not lighting cigaretters.) Additionally, the rubber (plastic?) covering on the back bumper is bowing up in the middle. Looks like another trip to the repair shop is in the cards.

5) A few weeks ago my son's chess bag was stolen at a tournament (it contained a traveling chess set and a $100+ chess clock). We immediately ordered a new one (bag and chess set, not clock--he's going to have to make do with his lower end back up clock for a while) because there is no way around it: he needed a replacement for all the tournaments he has coming up this summer. He found a good deal online and we ordered it. Several weeks passed and we realized it hadn't come. But in the meantime there had been no communication from the company. I went to the website and discovered the bag is on back order. If I had not sought out the information, I would not have known. There was no email to the effect of "Sorry, your item is on back order. We expect it to be available in four weeks." I have called the vendor once and sent two emails, but there has been no response other than the automatic one their email system kicks back. At this point I need to cancel the order (my credit card has not been charged yet) so that we can do business elsewhere. But I can't even get enough response to do that.

6) We recently switched our ISP from Comcast to ATT. We were experiencing repeated service interruptions with Comcast that were not being addressed. As requested, we mailed the Comcast equipment in our possession back to Comcast in the postage-paid and addressed Priority Mail envelopes they provided. Now they are billing us over $500 for the equipment that they say has not been returned. I guess they think that after 10 years of being Comcast customers we owe them a parting gift.

Just so you don't think I'm a total curmudgeon, I will say that I do like T-Mobile. And so far ATT has been great. And we have the awesomest handyman in the world. If I could clone him I would be a millionaire. No complaints there.

But on balance, it seems that we have had more than a normal share of problems with retailers. What do you think? Does this list seem excessive to you? Has it always been this way, and it just seems more pronounced to me right now because we have done a lot of purchasing this year? Or is this a sign of the "dumbing down" of the market when it comes to product quality and customer service?

Or maybe it's just that we aren't rich enough to afford quality.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Beagle's Life

"I know they're there! Why can't I get at them?"

Make sure you check out the 50 to 60 second mark for several four-legged pounces.

Bunny Hunting from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Garden Progress

Little by little, we're getting there.

The concrete slab (cue ominous music). This is what it usually looks like in the summer:

And here it is in all its fall loveliness:

Our garden from a year or two ago. You can see the corner of the concrete slab at lower right.

No more concrete slab! More room for garden! Yay!

Men at work.

Can you tell they're related?

Now that's a respectable garden! (Of the back yard suburban Chicago variety, anyway.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Hear the Synod Singing*

If you are a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and are not regularly visiting the website of Cross-Focused Leadership for Missouri, now is the time to start. At CFLM you will discover a "chorus of support" for Rev. Matt Harrison--an ever-expanding choir of LCMS members who have named Rev. Harrison as their choice for next synodical president. The list of endorsements is impressive and represents a diversity of voices that are coming together to sing "with open mouths, their strong melodious song"--one that appears to be accompanied by banjo.
While you're at CFLM, don't miss the YouTube video of Pastor Jonathan Fisk. It includes his endorsement of Pastor Harrison, but there is so much more; you won't be sorry you took the time to watch, and you will likely find yourself becoming a regular visitor to Pastor Fisk's YouTube channel where there are many more videos to be found and a new one added weekly.

And now, won't you join the choir?

*with apologies to Walt Whitman

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A New Beginning

Have you ever had the experience of being really ill, so ill that you didn't realize how bad off you were until you finally started feeling normal? Then because "normal" felt so darned good, you started thinking you were Superman (or woman), able to immediately return to full strength, scaling this mountain, traversing that plain, and plumbing the depths of the sea?

You may have then realized that no, you weren't back to "normal" yet--you were just emerging from the ruins, and it might have been wise to take a little time to finish climbing out before you started trying to rebuild.

This is kind of how I have been feeling of late. For some reason Revelation 7:14 comes to mind.

As I think back over the last couple of years I have to shake my head in disbelief. I would prefer not to rehash all that has transpired, much of it being rather personal in nature, but it has been an epic installment in our family chronicle, a conflation of many diffuse squalls into a perfect hurricane of a storm, and I think we are all a bit scarred from the experience. But I also have the sense that maybe, just maybe, the storm is finally abating. Shall we aphorize? Yes, let's. It's time to turn over a new leaf, find an open window, look for the rainbow after the storm, get a new lease (NOT leash!) on life, take stock, and plant some seeds.

So that is what I have been trying to do the last few weeks. I recently concluded a one-year contract working as a part-time staff accompanist at a local high school. On an almost daily basis for this last academic year, I have started my days by driving a half hour to school, working several hours, and driving a half hour back. What this meant, of course, was that the things I used to do in those 3-4 morning hours now had to get done by someone else, or at some other time, or perhaps not at all. Certain things, like laundry and dishes, give no quarter and will always get done, if not in the morning (which was my wont), well then, at some other time. Other things are easier to push aside (a fact which reflects not at all on the importance of those things but rather on the sinner's capacity for abrogating that which should be most valued). And one of the easiest things to push aside is personal care, both of the body and of the mind. So sleep suffers, diet suffers, exercise suffers, the pursuit of thing intellectual and artistic suffers, and personal devotion and prayer suffers. Relationships also suffer, because the exhausted (drained, used up, depleted, emptied) person is not effective at either listening or communicating and, himself in survival mode, has less to give to others.

I'm tired of merely surviving, of getting through the day in one piece. I want to thrive again.

Maybe it's too much to hope for. Shall we deliver another aphorism? Why not? Life this side of heaven is no bed of roses. But a rose here and there can go a long way toward making a lumpy bed more tolerable.

So the girl who couldn't bear to think of New Year's resolutions in January is ready to make some summer resolutions now. I have my mornings back, and here's what I plan to do with them:

1) Pray. First thing.
2) Read the Bible.
3) Read something else for my own edification--in a book, NOT online. (That is not to say that I'm swearing off online reading. But my written word consumption has been out of balance for too long, and I need to address that, for my own sake.)
3) Exercise.
4) Do some intentional rather than path-of-least-resistance meal planning (I'm talking with cookbooks and everything!).
5) Do at least one thing (besides the usual cleaning and maintenance) that contributes to the beauty and comfort of the home.
6) Work on my piano technique (i.e., play some scales).

That's it. I'm keeping it simple. But these are some areas of my life that I feel I have sorely neglected this past year (and beyond), and if I can succeed in putting them back into perspective I think a lot of other things will follow.

Here's to good health!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Some Sunday Morning Loveliness

My daughter Caitlin performed Claude Debussy's "First Arabesque" in a piano competition a few weeks ago. I suggest pouring yourself a cup of coffee or tea, putting your feet up, closing your eyes and taking some deep cleansing breaths while soaking in this beautiful and peaceful piece of music.

First Arabesque by Claude Debussy from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Yoo-hoo, Todd and Jeff

I think you (and a few others) may recognize this song . . . .

"Viva La Vida" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

(By the way, that's my daughter doing her Laurie Partridge impersonation.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good Riddance

This has been so long in coming. When we moved into our house over ten years go (!) the back yard was an overplanted, overgrown, overlandscaped mess. We have spent the last ten years removing superfluous fencing, hedges, and bushes and reclaiming the lawn that used to be there. The last piece of the puzzle was this concrete slab and four fence posts. I have no idea what its original purpose was. When we moved in it was enclosed with a chain link fence. We removed the fencing long ago but the slab has been an eyesore ever since.

Today we finally said goodbye to the whole ugly mess:

The plan is to expand our tiny little garden plot into this newly excavated space. I'll post pictures as the plan unfolds.
Anyone want to come to a shoveling party?