Sunday, February 26, 2012

Date This, Not That!

When I was in first grade, I was suddenly faced with the choice of what kind of man I was to become. So, without thinking about it too much, here it is: Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

Soon after it was Bo or Luke. Not long before it was Starsky or Hutch, and not long before that it was Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid--okay, maybe I'm not quite old enough to have pondered some of those, but you get the idea. The fact that most of these pairings have a blond guy and a brown-haired (Come on, brunette is too...well. And blond isn't? It is, but "yellow-haired" guy is worse. It's complicated.) guy means that much of the choice has already been made before you get started. The rest happens at a level so deep in the subconscious that it takes a lot of soul-searching to work out where it comes from. I'll try not to think too much about the fact that I identified with the whiny, inexperienced, eventually-kinda-priestly kid who turned out to be the brother. Meanwhile, one of my best friends was taller, darker, more dangerous, and actually went to college to become a pilot. Well, there it is.

I'm starting to wonder, though, if all this time we've been asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question should have been not "Luke or Han?", but "Luke/Han or Bo/Luke?" Each of these pairings came from a single mind, which means that they may have more in common with each other than they do distinctions from one another. For example, Bo and Luke were much more into each other than they were in women. I don't mean gay, but the fact that the only woman on that show that most people remember had a particular fashion sense named for her is telling. Plus she was their first cousin. If I recall, Bo and Luke seemed as though they'd rather hang out with Cooter, even Enos, even Boss Hog than with any women at all. Contrast that to the fact that by the time we've known Leia for ten minutes, she's saving everyone's ass and bossing them around. The fact that Han and Luke both find this kind of a turn-on means that either would be a better choice than Bo or Luke.

Similarly, Leia would be a much better choice than her mother. Even in a gold bikini, Leia was a much better action hero than Padame, whose fighting credits include closing her eyes to shoot her gun, and getting precisely half of her shirt bitten off. And yet, to return to my thesis--assuming you're back from checking out those links--the fact that these women were born of the same author means that they have more in common than differences. Take for for example their peculiar speech-patterns. As Harrison Ford said, "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it." 

Which brings me to the reason that I've been thinking about all of this recently. I have been out of the dating business since 1991 and I haven't been tempted to tuck my pants into my socks and wave around carnival canes as lightsabers since the late-'70s. I'm thinking about this because The Hunger Games movie is coming out soon, and a whole new generation of young men (and women) are going to be faced with this dilemma

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Hunger Games trilogy, you should probably do so now. The fact that they've been around since 2008 and you haven't gotten around to it means that you probably only needed my say-so to finally do it. I won't be giving away any major plot points, but I will knowledge that characters exist and that they do things. You've been warned. Also, I may mention Twilight. I  but I haven't read any of those, so I probably won't ruin anything for you. Also Harry Potter, and Bloodsucking Fiends, and...wait, this blog's called The Slacker's Guide to School, and now there's a reading list?

I had planned to finish at least the first Twilight before writing this, but haven't yet been able to make it through the adverbs. Luckily, my wife pointed out that there is already lots of excellent Twilight analysis out there, for example here and here. Despite the criticisms it so richly deserves, the fact that Twilight is so successful is testament to the fact that Stephenie Meyers writes unquenchable desire really well. The primary focus of discussion surrounding Twilight shouldn't be Edward vs Jacob. It should be the terrible, unhealthy things a person can be capable of when desire becomes the all-encompassing drive in his/her life. 

To call what Bella experiences a "crush" may be understating things a little, but it's as close as most of us have come. If you've ever had a crush, you know it's possible for the crush to take on a life of its own, divorced from the object of the crush. If you've ever had a crush turn into a relationship, you know that it is possible to still pine for the person you have a crush on while actually in the presence of the person you have a crush on. It's not that they fail to live up to your expectations, it's that your expectations have taken on a life of their own and a living, breathing person is a different experience altogether. Even if it's a good experience, it's different. The act of desiring something that you're already technically experiencing can leave you feeling like you're living in some kind of parallel universe. 

Read Twilight if you must, but in my opinion a better vampire series is Christopher Moore's trilogy, which starts with Bloodsucking Fiends and also includes You Suck, and Bite Me. Come on, the titles alone have you tempted. 

The male protagonist in these books is a beta male. Everyone knows about alpha males--evolved from the guys who were big and strong, and were therefore the best choice to go fight the galloping hoards and/or kill the caribou. Meanwhile, according to Christopher Moore, there was another kind of male (from which I very well may be descended). These guys stayed behind, tending the fires, caring for the children, singing songs, and generally providing company to the women in their loneliness and boredom. The fact that we are still around means that our genetic material did somehow manage to get passed down. Jodi, the exceedingly (I know that's an adverb, just...shhhh) hot protagonist in these books was never in a position to be tempted by Edward--clearly the alpha-vampire choice. However, the very existence of beta males in the gene pool means that we can't be 100% certain who she would choose if she could. Otherwise, guys would all be a lot more chiseled, and we probably wouldn't have so many comic books and video games in the world. 

Which brings us, finally, to The Hunger Games. The remarkable thing about the male love-interests in The Hunger Games is that Katniss really can't make an entirely bad choice. Gale and Peeta aren't perfect, but every woman should have such men to choose from: 
 - Relationship began as a friendship and a partnership based on mutual respect
 - Physically attractive to her
 - Recognizes things that she does better than him (think hunting and survival skills, not housekeeping)
 - Makes grave personal sacrifices for her family
 - Is generally gracious and civilized, allowing her space to make her choice
 - Interested in her, but not so overwhelmed by it to make things weird between them
 - All of this, and still not gay
 - Harbored a long-term unspoken and unrequited crush
 - Managed to keep the crush from making things too weird between them
 - Relationship began with a covert act of kindness
 - Physically attractive (she at least recognizes that he is objectively attractive)
 - Recognizes things she does better than he does (think moving stealthy and killing people, not...)
 - Participates in acts of physical intimacy on her terms without taking advantage
 - All of this, and still not gay

It reminds me of the romantic choices offered to the students at Hogwarts. To tell the truth, when J.K. got going on the it's-all-about-love sh...stuff I tended to make little gagging noises. However, Harry, Ron, or Cedric; Ginny (book version only, mind you), Hermione, or Cho--any combination of those people were could have been generally healthy choices (well, not the brother and sister, but you get the gist), based in friendship, mutual respect, and genuine attraction that went deeper than sparkly skin-tone. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games place romantic interests into a larger context of young people's lives, alongside their wide variety of interests and talents, in a world that is sorta just about to end.

Authors are not obligated to provide good dating choices in their works, but it's not a bad idea to analyze these choices anyway. For one thing, choosing one of these people (either to have or to be) is a much lower-stakes game than doing it in real life. Be careful, however, that there is a good choice to be had in the first place. In other words, if you're looking for a healthy relationship, make sure that you're in the right story before you go trying to find the right character.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This I Believe

A creed, not to be confused with a Creed,  is a list of beliefs that unites you with others of similar ideology, and provides distance between your people and everyone else. For this reason, they are popular with churches and cults , and can be very helpful in determining whether a church or cult is right for you (for more on cults, see also: here). Actually, I think churches should do a better job of putting their you're-with-us-or-against-us issues in their creeds. It's much easier to ignore doctrine that's buried in some Bishops' Council report, or encyclical, than stuff that's recited weekly in the service itself.

I also think creeds can also be helpful on an individual basis. NPR had a series called This I Believe, which was based on a '50s radio program of the same name. The premise was that people would submit 500 words on a strongly-held belief or conviction, and the best ones were selected to be read on the air by their authors. I sat down to write one one day, and started with a list. Being a Slacker, I never really got past the list stage. Still, I posted it on Facebook, hoping it might start something--in those days there were lots of little quizzes and surveys going around, and I participated in most of them. Apparently everyone else tired of answering random questions, or answering random questions only with song titles more quickly than I did, since you don't see this sort of thing so much anymore.

As I did originally with this, I do hope that readers (there are readers of this, if Blogger is to be believed, though the comments have been a little thin so far) will participate in this by posting creeds. Please do so in the comments, or put them somewhere else and post just a link in comments. Note: if you put it on Facebook, be sure to set the privacy setting for that note to Public so that we can see it. Note: be careful as you do this not to set everything on Facebook to public, which is probably done with a single mouse click on something called "default."

One more thing: real creeds are carefully edited to only include the deepest core beliefs. The result is that every statement is a perfect jewel that can stand up to critics and heretics. I have obviously done no such pruning, and grant you permission to do the same. You're welcome.

  1. Credo in unum Deum.
  2. I believe that you do not need to believe this.
  3. I believe in heating with wood.
  4. I believe that it is best to drive cars for their second 100,000 miles.
  5. I believe the children are our future--and I'm not sure how that's going to work out for us.
  6. I believe in beer named after not very nice people--"I'll have a pint of Rouge Angry Arrogant Sonofabitch."
  7. I believe that diet soda makes people fat by changing expectations about sweetness.
  8. I believe in coffee as a stimulant and an accompaniment to sugary snacks.
  9. I believe that school lunch programs are not any healthier under the George Bush Thinks I'm Fat Act.
  10. I believe in singing in harmony.
  11. I believe that dogs that don't know they're adopted shelter dogs have a different attitude than the other kind.
  12. I believe in healthy food covered in unhealthy food.
  13. I believe that high schools should start later in the morning.
  14. I believe that the reason they don't is sports.
  15. I believe that schools should have orchestras before they have bands.
  16. I believe that the reason they don't is sports--football in particular.
  17. I believe in Dirty Jobs--both the TV show and as a way to spend the summer.
  18. I believe that I married up.
  19. I believe that high school voices are a pretty good medium for making music.
  20. I believe that high school students are as well--when they wish it.
  21. I believe that sharp chainsaws and chef's knives are safer.
  22. I believe in NPR.
  23. I believe that StoryCorps is often so earnest it makes my teeth ache.
  24. I believe that the guitar is a good outlet for teenage angst.
  25. I believe that musicals are not always.
  26. I believe that American choirs can achieve anything that European choirs can.
  27. I believe that more people should hire professional editors.
  28. I believe that singing 2nd tenor is fine, but playing 2nd trumpet is not.
  29. I believe that it's a good thing I switched to choir in light of this.
  30. I believe that 'corn vs grass' = 'petrol vs solar'.
  31. I believe that this is part of the problem with Big Ag.
  32. I believe that more people should read books by Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore.
  33. I believe that fewer people should read books by Stephenie Meyer.
  34. I believe in getting software for free.
  35. I'm not sure why I believe this.
  36. I believe that I should read more.
  37. I believe that you can't make me.
  38. I believe that I over-salt my food.
  39. I believe that there are too many awards.
  40. I believe that singers are expected to work for free in situations where instrumentalists would be paid.
  41. I believe in the not-so-big house.
  42. I believe that you are fortunate if your partner's deviance-threshold matches your own.
  43. I believe in mowing over leaves.
  44. I believe in thrift stores.
  45. I believe that abuse leads to policy.
  46. I believe in mass transit.
  47. I believe that watching your child best you in things is the way things go.
  48. I believe that this is hard for people.
  49. I believe in Palm Inc..
  50. I believe that I'm pretty much the only one now.
  51. I believe that the fencing scene in The Princess Bride is one of the best moments in film.
  52. I believe that I've dropped a few bushels of manure on my lap more times than most people.
  53. I believe that the financial crisis is pretty much over.
  54. I believe that if you believe this too, then it really is.
  55. I believe that this is kind of a problem.
  56. I believe in mayonnaise, cheese sauce, and chocolate frosting--depending on the food. 
  57. I believe in time travel as a literary device, if not a practical scientific possibility. 
  58. I believe in capitalizing Important Words.
  59. I believe that Alton Brown>Emeril.
  60. I believe in exercise.
  61. I don't believe in this enough to do it very much.
  62. I believe in life-long learning.
  63. I believe in medium-rare.
  64. I believe that I'm fortunate that I can make a living the way I do.
  65. I believe that cold rain is the worst.
  66. I believe in automatic transmissions, even though I may prefer to drive manual.
  67. I believe in the Prime Directive
  68. I believe that there are a lot more people with allergies than there used to be.
  69. I believe in Fresh Doughnuts--that's a store, not just Important Words.
  70. I believe in starting music education way earlier than we do in schools.
  71. I believe that Suzuki Strings is a pretty good way to do this.
  72. I believe that we need to pay more attention to CEO-pay:worker-pay.
  73. I believe that for every couple there is a right number of children for them.
  74. I believe that working this out is harder than it seems.
  75. I believe that I steal more good ideas than I work out on my own.
  76. believe that I'm not always aware that I've done this.
  77. I believe that tenants' lists of complaints grow when the rent is due.
  78. I believe in Ford or Chevy or Dodge trucks, doesn't matter.
  79. I believe that I'm in the minority on this.
  80. I believe that Confirmation is sometimes a good way to drive young people out of the church.
  81. I believe that backyard chickens are a good idea.
  82. I believe that if you choose to believe this, you'd better have a pretty big yard that you don't care too much about.
  83. I believe that creeks are a good way to get water to horses.
  84. I believe that horses tend to turn creeks into swamps, so maybe it's a bit complicated.
  85. I believe that it takes time to learn to learn to drink like a man.
  86. I believe that users should generate content.
  87. I believe that once you start watching Battlestar Galactica that you've crossed some sort of line.
  88. I believe I've crossed that line.
  89. I believe that public school choir programs must do sacred music, though:
  90. I believe that students needn't believe that Jesus should quickly come any more than they need believe that their love is like a red, red rose.
  91. I believe that international travel is too important to be reserved for the rich.
  92. I believe that my wife has better taste in music than I do.
  93. I believe that the more work a tool can do, the more damage it can do.
  94. I believe one should brine poultry.
  95. I believe that it doesn't really snow here anymore.
  96. I know that you think that's a jinx, and I'm okay with that.
  97. I believe that this list will never be done.
  98. I believe that 100 is a nice round number.
  99. Damn. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Perhaps the only aspect of education on which pretty much everyone agrees is that teacher quality is exceedingly important. Similarly, just about everyone agrees that we need to come up with better ways of evaluating teachers. From there, almost no one agrees on anything.

Yet, evaluating teachers isn't all that hard. Somehow we can all do it. While I've been wrong a few times, most years I can tell by the third minute of my daughter’s school's open house which teachers will give her (and us) fits, which ones are difficult but worth it, which ones sweat all the wrong details, and which ones will probably misplace the final exams and just give them all As.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink of this concept, which is called “thin slicing.” To over-simplify (hey, even the Wikipedia explanation is nearly a thousand words), our brains can evaluate a huge array of factors in an instant and lead us to judgments that we don’t even know we've made. Thin-slicing is extremely fascinating, and quite useful for deciding pretty important things such as which employee to hire and which candidate to vote for, but a fair and reasonable evaluation method needs to not be so steeped in the inner mysteries of the human gut (eeeww). We need a way to quantify this.

The easiest method of teacher evaluation is to use standardized test scores--preferably from tests we’re already giving. Coincidentally, this is the method that we hear about most often. If you want to see a thoughtful analysis of what’s wrong with testing in general, you can find one here. Still, we’ll certainly fix that soon--if the amount we complain about it is any indication--so let’s not abandon the idea quite so fast. Unfortunately, testing as a means of teacher evaluation is terrible even if we have better tests, because:
  • Not everything is tested. Until there is a PSSA for musical theater and another for Chinese, some teachers are going to be left out. This means that teachers of non-tested content either sit out the evaluation process, and any incentives therein, or they get lumped in with others. If you’ve ever participated in a group project, you know how well this will work.
  • We can make the scores whatever you want. By diverting resources from actual teaching to test preparation (see also: here—same link as above, if I've already fooled you once) we can improve test scores while making the learning worse.
  • It's perverse. Changing how we teach, and what we teach, to improve our teacher ratings, especially if this is tied to us making more money, goes against the most fundamental ethical standards of our profession. 
The next easiest method is to use administrators’ evaluations. People who come from a business background like this idea, because much of the time in business people can be promoted up through the system just by being good at their jobs. While there are always cases of idiots getting promoted in spite of incompetence (see also: here), many workplaces are at least in theory meritocracies.

It's not quite the same in education, where switching to administration requires specific degrees and certification. Since teaching already requires proficiency in two fields--education and content area (or many content areas for elementary folks)--those who pursue administration have already been separated from people who would rather become more advanced within their subject area. Since administrators sometimes make less than teachers, at least when you look at it on a pay-per-day basis (which you'd hope they'll be clever enough to do, especially since they're supposed to be smart enough to be running the place), evaluating teachers based on the opinions of administrators starts to seem less obvious. While many administrators are fantastic in spite of all of this, we do see:
  1. Administrators who reduced the level of effort in their own classrooms to free up enough time to complete principal certification.
  2. Administrators who didn't love teaching quite enough to stay with it.
  3. Administrators who are in their current job in the possibly mistaken belief that it is for them just a way-station up the ladder toward superintendent. Some, of course, are on this path but simple math tells you that not every assistant principal is going to make it all the way there.
Besides, no administrator is an expert in every subject area. When they do have some expertise, sometimes it's a little knowledge that is most dangerous. If an administrator got a C- in your subject in high school, would he/she be more or less qualified to judge you?

After floating the administrator idea, the next idea is to apply easily-measured qualities. A colleague and I were discussing the relative quality of another teacher. She proposed to enter into evidence against this guy the fact that he never wore a tie. I looked down at my own chest, and saw no tie there either. This wasn't a surprise since I haven’t worn one, except for chamber choir gigs (not even the first day of school or meet-the-teacher night, these days), in about five years. She apologized awkwardly. Then I pointed out that, like me, this teacher often arrives at school by 6:45. She entirely discounted this qualification, based on the fact that she (who is, admittedly, awesome) hasn't darkened the door of the school much before 7:30 since, more or less, the days when I wore ties. 

In other words, we tend to be much more apt to apply scoring schemes that we ourselves would do well on.

The Internet tried to get in on this as well. Ratemyteacher uses Easiness, Helpfulness, Clarity, and Popularity. Ratemyprofessor adds Overall Quality and Hotness, because those are the things that differentiate school teachers from professors. 

Even with just a quick glance at these websites, a few problems become obvious. First, ratings are almost always from either the most disgruntled or most gruntled students. Therefore, most people's ratings show a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy of saints who are also part-time serial killers. Second, this is apparently too much work for kids, at least in an age when they can bash their teachers on Facebook--lots of teachers' most recent post is +-2006. The third problem is we can all picture a teacher who is Easy, Helpful, Clear, and Popular (even Hot) who still sucks. 

Maybe the problem is not having enough criteria. Perhaps something like:

One thing this well-designed (and copyrighted--before you get any flaky ideas) evaluation map does highlight is the relative complexity of the issues involved. You can see why the Ratemy folks limited themselves to only four qualities. In addition to being a little complex and untidy, the problem is that this flowchart is screening, not diagnosis.

 I’ve recently been educated on the difference between diagnostics and screening. Diagnosis looks at something and figures out whether it is okay or not. Screening looks at something, compares you to others who have that same thing, and then works out what your chances are of some other thing being true, based on what has happened to others with the same thing. At first it sounds like a more complicated version of the first thing, especially if you're inclined to only half pay attention to things--I guess that's everyone I'm talking to, since the others are still trying to work out the flowchart (or the previous sentence). However, it's an important distinction.

Case in point: most pregnant women have two feet, but lots of people who have two feet aren't pregnant. Therefore, feet are strongly correlated to pregnancy, but not a very good factor for screening. For that, you would need to find something that pregnant women share among themselves, but not so often with the rest of us. On the other hand, looking at the fetus itself, or perhaps at a baby emerging from a person, is diagnostic.

It’s important to know which thing you’re looking at because screening and diagnostics have significantly different aims. With screening, you accept errors within a comparatively large margin, because it’s simply a way to decide if a more extensive look is advisable. Getting it wrong is okay if there’s another check down the road to keep people from getting things cut out, or added in, or replaced.

Screening comes not with an answer, but with a guess with a margin-of-error that has been deemed acceptable based on he worst-case scenario for false positive or false negative. In the above example, checking that the mother has feet results in way too high a false positive. Waiting until you can see the baby's feet may be a bit too conservative.

With teacher quality screenings, we need to decide what we are most afraid of:
- Missing good?
- Missing bad?
- Misidentifying good as bad?
- Misidentifying bad as good?

Again, this initially sounds like four things that mean pretty much the same thing, but not so fast. A screening that is perfect at catching every bad teacher will almost be certainly snag some good ones in the net. Similarly, if you want to catch everyone who’s good, you will certainly get some who fake it well. Worse than not catching someone is putting them in the wrong category, as it is a failure of both failing to catch what you’re looking for and catching something you should not have. The evaluation mechanism will almost certainly have a weakness in one of these categories, so be on the lookout.

In order to get to diagnosis, we want hard facts. Data. None of this fluffy complexity and sloppy margin of error. This is why the most commonly floated teacher evaluation method tends to be standardized test scores. Which is why we never really get anywhere in this discussion.

The fundamental question of teacher evaluation, particularly when you're talking to business folks, is what are we trying to produce. Most employees can be evaluated by the work they've done--widgets built, pages written, percent earnings on portfolio compared to index, quarterly profits, etc. Evaluating on the basis of standardized testing is to declare the tests the product. Evaluating on the basis of administrators' opinion is to declare administrators' opinion the product. The problem is, we are trying to manufacture intelligent, informed, thinking people, and do so with a very inconsistent raw material supply, manufacturing conditions, and tools for figuring out how we've done. Otherwise, no problem.