The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"No matter where you go, there you are."...  ....Buckaroo Banzai

Commentary of the Day - April 17, 2003: The Top Five Education Related Things That Bugged Me Since I Woke Up.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

I have the reputation of turning the most insignificant little string into an unraveled sweater.  I know I should lighten up a bit, but I can't. It's not my way.  If I lighten up, who will call attention to those things that drive people like me off the Interstate?  Besides, I don't think the things that bug me are so small.  It's my job to share them.

This Morning's List:

1. My sons are my CHILDREN.  Their teachers and administrators insist on referring to them as my STUDENTS.  "Your STUDENT will need a separate binder and at least 600 sheets of college-ruled (no wide-ruled permitted) paper."  "Your STUDENT will be taking the Stanford Achievement Tests next week.  Please make sure your STUDENT gets a good night sleep and eats a good breakfast."  "Your STUDENT will be participating in an experimental peer mediation program."  "Your STUDENT will need to bring in a check or money order (no cash) to cover the cost of a trip to San Diego."


2. I have two shelves in my linen closet filled with lovely designer bed linens.  I have twin sheets for my sons' beds, full sheets for my guest room, and queen sheets for that bed I share with the guy I married over twenty years ago who still says he doesn't snore even though we've taped him doing it.

With this in mind and realizing that I planned to give some of my sheets to my son when he went off to college, I want to know why my son needed EXTRA-LONG twin sheets for his bed in the dorm and not normal twin sheets.  The housing people at the university sent my son a long list of what he would need in the dorm.  The list also included a microwave, modular shelving, a telephone and answering machine, a computer with printer and an Ethernet cable, a television, and assorted bathroom paraphernalia.  When I researched the topic on the Internet, EXTRA-LONG twin sheets seemed to be the norm for most students living in dorms around the country.  This means, like us, most other parents of freshman moving into dorms needed EXTRA-LONG twin sheets, mattress pads, and comforters.

Is this a commercial conspiracy?  Did some sheet company donate hundreds of thousands of EXTRA-LONG twin beds and mattresses to universities so parents would be forced each year to make a one-time purchase of EXTRA-LONG twin sheets?  Is this included in the miscellaneous category of college expenses?

AFTER I purchased the right size and color and took them out of their package to wash them once as the package suggested, I received a solicitation from a company that seemed to know my son's basic college needs better than his mother.  They said they were not affiliated with the university.  They had a lot colors and patterns of EXTRA-LONG  twin sheets.  In fact, they had everything else that was on that list the dorm people sent my son, and they offered free delivery right to my son's dorm room.  Imagine that!

3. Your son, we'll call him Geraldo, a diligent high school freshman, enters the house after school, and asks, "Do I have your permission to cheat?"  You know there is a story, so you don't immediately tell him no.  You wait to hear all the details.  Apparently, Geraldo's world history teacher, who also happens to be the new head basketball coach at his high school, has given the following assignment:

"Select one novel - Write a two-page report on the novel - (typed, double-spaced) - Choices: Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss."

According to Geraldo's rendition, the class will be going to the library on Thursday to get copies of the books and the reports will be due the following Monday.  While Geraldo is telling you this, you are doing advanced new 21st century math, counting less than four days on your fingers.  Geraldo wants to "cheat" by reading the CliffsNotes instead of reading the book, which he says will be impossible to finish.  He tells you that the class complained about the assignment and the teacher's reaction was, "Life is hard. You can't get to the NBA Championship without breaking a bone or two along the way."

Your immediate reaction is that Geraldo didn't understand the assignment.  However, in your Geraldo's defense, he generally does not shirk his responsibilities, especially when it comes to school.  It may be a chore to get him to clean his room, change his underwear, or comb his hair, but he does his schoolwork without a word of argument.

Memories of Woody Allen float through your brain: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, teach gym."  However, you bury these nightmarish thoughts.  You know there are excellent teachers from here to Timbuktu.

It just seems a bit odd that a teacher would make such an unrelated, unfair assignment.  You know the class is studying the Enlightenment and wonder how the classic novels he has assigned can possibly relate.  You also know that Pride and Prejudice is the senior "summer reading" novel for the senior AP English classes at Geraldo's high school. Moreover, having read two of the five books yourself while in college, you know the amount of time given to complete the assignment is unreasonable, if not impossible.

Geraldo asks again, "So can I cheat?"  You suggest he missed information; he tells you he didn't.  You tell him there must be a mistake, and he replies, "The mistake isn't mine.  I didn't hire him!"  You tell him you'll call the teacher; he asks you not to.  "The teacher may hold it against me all year."  You know this is a possibility.  You ask if a call to the department chairperson or a guidance counselor is acceptable; he says you can if his name isn't used.

So you call.

The first person you speak with is the department chairperson of the Social Studies Department.  She is very polite even though you can hear that she has picked up the telephone in the middle of a class.  You hear her say, "Pipe down, kids."  You ask if you can call her back at a more convenient time and she says that she can talk now.  You quickly tell her the details without mentioning your name.  She says she doesn't see a problem with the assignment.  You read it to her verbatim from the handout.  She asks: "Are these long books?" and "Does your child have a learning disability that might keep him from completing the assignment?"  When you patiently explain that Geraldo is an honors student who receives great grades for working hard, she says she doesn't know if she will see the teacher to find out more about this assignment.  She tells you the details of her busy life.  You mention that they have been studying the Enlightenment and that there are many relevant writings a student might read; you even suggest a few.  The department chairperson says, "What an awesome idea!"

You return the telephone to the receiver, bang your head on the desk a few times hoping it is just a bad dream, and dial the guidance counselor's extension.  You run the facts by her.  Fortunately, her reaction is that she does see a problem, but she suggests you call the teacher directly asking simply for clarification on the assignment.  Maybe, she suggests, you don't have all the facts.  It seems like a reasonable suggestion, but a promise is a promise, and you tell her that you promised Geraldo you wouldn't.  She says she will ask a few questions of her own and get back to you, which she never does.

As planned, on Thursday afternoon, Geraldo's class goes to the library.  Apparently, it is a big surprise to his teacher that there aren't enough copies of the five books to go around.  Then the teacher looks at the books and is surprised how long they are.  The teacher scratches his head and changes the assignment to getting the CliffsNotes and writing a summary from that.  Then he adds, "but don't do it on Sunday.  On Sunday, everyone is assigned to watch the Suns/Lakers game.  There will be a quiz."

4. Their lockers are small. A student can, at best, fit three or four books in it.  The school is huge and multi-leveled, and the lockers are not always easily accessible if a student wants to get to class on time.  The school initially didn't have lockers.  The plan was to have a classroom set of books and another text at the student's home.  That didn't work.  The school ran out of money.  Lockers were an afterthought.

The textbooks are large and heavy.  They're the kind of books that belong at the bottom of a pile when you pile them up by size. I n this case, all of the books belong at the bottom of the pile.  Some teachers allow the students to keep the book at home; they announce when they'll be needed in class.  Most teachers require textbooks.  One does not have to be an orthopedic surgeon to see what this does to a kid's back when all of these books are carried around all day in a backpack.

5. Your daughter, we'll call her Cleopatra, is accepted into the pre-architecture program of a well-known university along with 350 other freshmen.  During the first week of classes, the professors (all with degrees in art, not architecture) inform the students that there will only be 50 places available for sophomores in the professional phase of the architecture program.  In order to get into the professional program, a student must get an "A" in the first two classes, have an overall GPA of 3.5, and present a portfolio of his or her work in the spring.  The professors also tell the class that one can only get an "A" if the work brings tears to the professor's eyes.

The first assignment: "Draw an artichoke without lifting your pencil."  Cleopatra goes to the market and purchases an artichoke.  She works for hours on her artichoke drawing, redoing it several times and wondering in the back of her mind what artichokes have to do with architecture.  When she brings it to class, the professors have the students pin their drawings up on a board.  The professors go through them and say, "These are all "D's."  Then they take one that is so perfectly drawn that it looks like a photograph of an artichoke, and say, "This one is a "B."   Cleopatra's drawing does not look like a photograph.  Then the teachers give the next assignment: "Draw a banana without lifting your pencil."

* * *

I could add more to this EXTRA-LONG list, a lot more, but it's time for breakfast.

©2003 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a freelance writer (and former teacher) from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.