Friday, May 2, 2008

We Can All Relax Now.

The pressure is off. I got my first B -- in Texas Political History. The grade for the course comes solely from scores on 3 exams. The first two exams had 35 questions each and the third one had 30. The total of the three scores is curved so that the top 25 scores in the class get an A, the next 20 get a B, the next 20, a C, etc. I got a 75, and the cutoff for an A was 77. You wouldn't believe these exams. I've never seen anybody pack a multiple-choice exam so full of obscure trivia.

I kind of enjoyed the course because the subject is interesting to me, but the exams -- and I studied hard for them -- required more memorization than I can manage, I guess. My consolation for the low grade is that I learned a lot.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


The real dramatic difference between college back when I was college age and college now is that everyone is connected by email and web. U.T. has a web service called Blackboard where professors post course materials and grades, etc., there are discussion forums, they can email us with announcements, and we can email them, or our T.A.'s. And students can email everyone in the class.

So, especially around test time, there's a flurry of mass emails from students, most of them asking for the notes from a particular day when they missed class. I had 8 of them in my inbox this morning, with excuses ranging from, "I missed that day because I had my chemotherapy treatment in Houston," to "I have no excuse. I just really hated going to the boring class. Thanks!"

The ones that really get on my nerves are the emails asking for information that's in the syllabus or that could easily be gotten by contacting the professor or T.A., like "What dates does the exam tomorrow cover?" Would you send an email to 200 people for something you could get by sending an email to one? Kids today!

There's so much talk about academic dishonesty now. Every course syllabus has a required section explaining exactly what cheating is, because I guess teenagers don't know by the time they get to college that it's wrong to copy answers from someone's test or to turn in someone else's work as your own. But all this pleading for other people's class notes doesn't strike me as exactly ethical. In fact, it doesn't seem any more unethical to lift your research paper from Wikipedia than to send an email to your whole class asking to copy someone's notes in exchange for baking them cupcakes. Does it?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This is the closest I've ever come to a flame war on my blog. How exciting. People have strong feelings about work. Typically, I go back and forth on it. I've been having this conversation in my head in one form or another since I was a teenager and it's only gotten more divergent as I've gotten older and, maybe, clearer about the issues at stake.

The notion of a civil society where everyone follows the rules and contributes has a strong pull for me. We're better when we work together, and sometimes we have to do unpleasant things for the good of society. I have my utopian fantasies. The trouble always seems to be that these things don't ever really work unless there's a strong authoritarian element. Some people just want to do what they want to do.

It's always been major drama to get me to do anything I don't want to do -- ask my mom and dad about mowing the lawn or cleaning the garage when I was in high school -- and the times when I've had a regular job (like most of my twenties and thirties when I worked two jobs -- all day for a paycheck and all night for art) are times when, looking back, I see that I was unhappy more than not. But that's not your problem, is it? What's more important, my happiness or making the world go 'round?

An old friend visited recently. When I met him years ago he reminded me of my father. He grew up in the same area as my dad, their temperaments and accents are the same. As I got to know him better, the resemblance grew stronger. Like my dad, my friend is a lovable curmudgeon. He is a dear man, naturally generous and good, the kind of person you feel fortunate to have as a friend. But on the other hand, he always seems unhappy, he's judgmental, pessimistic, irritable, put upon, complains about everything. It's that dark, sad side of him that reminds me most of my father.

During this recent visit, I realized the other thing he and my dad have in common. They both worked all their lives at jobs they hated. For decades they spent most of their days at soul-crushing, humiliating jobs working for big companies that didn't appreciate them and which left them little time or energy for anything that brought them joy, like hobbies or friends or sitting on the porch with a beer watching the grass grow.

When my father retired a few years ago, his temperament changed overnight. He's still a curmudgeon, but he's lighter, funnier, he has more energy. He seems happy now in a way that I never remember him being. It's a change in outlook that feels familiar to me. When I quit my day job in 2001 I suddenly felt very different too, and it started a whole cascade of changes in my life and attitude that I wouldn't trade for all the financial security in the world. I wish my friend were closer to retirement age.

(I feel a need to defend myself a bit from the commenter who suggested I suck it up and get a job. First, my issue with that craigslist ad was with the falseness of it. The gall of asking people to pretend to be ecstatic about a demeaning minimum-wage job. Generally, the people applying for that kind of job are people who don't have a lot of choices. It's like saying, "I'm going to slap you really hard across the face, and I want you to smile when I do it." I think it's a symptom of a sickness in our society that is caused by corporate culture worming its way into every aspect of our lives.

And regarding me: I do work hard. I'll admit that I guard my leisure time fiercely, but I work hard. I just don't usually get paid for it.)