Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Take the pledge

I mean, swear it off

It's the end of the year and I'm busy making last-minute contributions (here's to you, Alison), including paying up memberships for my local public radio and television stations. Perhaps you have the same reaction I do to the frequent pledge drives. It astonishes me how clumsy and intrusive they are, especially in the case of television. We get to see the same people say the same thing over and over and over again while rerunning the same chopped-up special programs on Victor Borge, Blenko Glass, or—worse—tawdry pitches for unreliable medical or psychological nostrums from the likes of Null, Perricone, or Dyer.

Why do supposedly smart people promote their stations by screwing them up? Why can't the crème de la crème do a minimally competent job of making pledge drives tolerable? It's agonizing how they incessantly repeat the same tired old pitches, gibber at the cameras, pan across telephone banks, and promise intermittently to return to some “special programming” that has been sliced up into bloody chunks. Herewith my modest year end's proposal for less grueling pledge drives on public television.

First of all, no chopped-up special programs. If regular programming is interrupted at all, let the specials be intact and uninterrupted. Since we've all been conditioned to deal with TV screens cluttered with those damned identification “bugs,” why not make more creative use of the video real estate. Most screens are bigger these days and readily subject to manipulation. Embed regular programming in an L-shaped frame. Use the horizontal bar of the frame to keep visible the public TV station's 800 number for pledges. Use the vertical bar for some kind of fundraising thermometer.

That's not quite enough, of course, because the usual format of a public TV pledge drive involves intermediate goals that they hector the viewers to achieve before allowing a return to actual programming. The threat of extended pledge breaks is presumably indispensable for forcing viewers to call in their pledges, but I think creative use of the fundraising thermometer could be an alternative. Set it up so that a target goal is displayed, rising incrementally throughout the pledge period. Also, however, display actual pledge receipts, letting viewers know that real programming will continue—without pledge breaks!—as long as the actual pledge level stays ahead of the rising target. In the mocked-up illustration, I've marked the supposed goal in red and the actual pledges in green. Keep the green marker above the red marker to keep the programming running and the pledge pitches shut down.

Think about it. Wouldn't the Downton Abbey aficionados call in their pledges to preserve the dowager countess from an uncouth interruption?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Brain damage!

Explaining students

Two of the greatest minds in pedagogy recently came together to ponder some of the profoundest educational conundrums of the era. Or, to put it more prosaically, I called up a former student of mine for a chat. I, of course, hold a prestigious tenured professorship at a California community college. He is a lecturer in English at an out-of-state university. No, we are not universally recognized as the leading experts in our respective fields, but we figure that's mostly the fault of other people. Whenever we talk, we quickly reach agreement in our perspectives and opinions. It immediately follows that the many deficiencies in modern education must stem mostly from a failure to sufficiently adopt our preferred policies and emulate our instructional practices. Just listen to us! It's really quite a pity that so straightforward a solution to so many problems continues to languish unrecognized.

However, we should accept the need for a modicum of caution. There is an unfortunate gap in our grasp of the educational enterprise. Upon comparing notes, PiD and I have come to the unhappy realization that our immense intellects have yet to figure out what makes our students go. (Or not go.) It's perplexing!

For example, I told my entire algebra class that our mastery of the quadratic formula meant that we would never again face a quadratic equation for which “no solution” was a satisfactory answer. Solutions would always exist, whether rational, irrational, or complex. Always! Yet on the next exam several of my students labeled some of the quadratic equations as “prime” and solemnly wrote “no solution” in the answer blank.

PiD advised his English composition class that rewrites were a fundamental component of composition and that course grades would rely much more on their diligence in rewriting and improving their essays than on generating sparkling first drafts. As the academic term progressed, several students asked him how to get better grades. “Have you submitted rewrites of all of your essays?” he asked. “We didn't know we had to do that!” they told him. “But the due dates for rewrites are on the syllabus and I send out e-mail reminders as the dates approach!” “Yeah, but we can't know those unless we look at the syllabus or check our e-mail. You should have told us in class.” “But I did tell you in class!” “Well, maybe. But did you check that we were in class that day? I'm too busy to come to class every day, you know.”

A student wrote me a note in response to a problem on the calculus final exam. The problem asked, “What is the area inside the circle r = 3 and outside the cardioid r = 2(1 – cos θ)?” My student wrote, “Failed because I forgot the eq. for a circle in polar coordinates.” Um. Did you notice? The problem said, “the circle r = 3”?

The great minds of the age crumple in defeat.

Perhaps I did not sufficiently recognize a learning opportunity of my own from decades ago, back when my intellect was forming and a famous educator was trying to teach me some vital lessons.  William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.D. (1976, UMass, Amherst), discovered these clues during highly personalized field research on his own family. Perhaps our students, like Cosby's children, are led into irrational, disturbing behavior by brain damage. It would explain so much!

If only I had paid more attention back then.