My Office Minutes Are From 2 to 2:05

I’ve noticed a trend over the past three or four semesters:  fewer current students visit during office hours.  In prior years on the day before exams my office would be filled with students for the entire scheduled time.  I often stayed late to accommodate the demand.  Before this semester’s first exam only a handful of students visited my office.  I’ve tried to explain it without success.  (“My teaching is so good that no students are confused” was not on the list of possible explanations.

I mentioned this to a student today.  He’s representative of most of my student visitors.  He is not currently in one of my classes.  He visits regularly to talk about whatever is on his mind.  He’s smart, disagrees as much as he agrees with me, and I’m always happy to talk to him.  He recognized the trend and had an instant explanation:  “we all use Blackberries.  (or iPhones).”  I didn’t understand.  He spelled it out:  “we’re all used to getting information instantly, whenever we want it.  There’s no reason to get it face-to-face.  We don’t even talk to our friends face-to-face.”   His classmates don’t comprehend why he visits me and other professors in their office.   He noted that the students who entered university in the past few years grew up with texting and instant always-on web access.  He has noted the same trend that prompted my question.

A few hours later I was talking to another student who is currently in one of my courses.  I mentioned this trend to her, along with the proffered explanation.  She was nodding her head in agreement before I finished the sentence.  She said that everyone is busy with team meetings, clubs, extracurricular events, and other activities, and that given the choice between meeting a professor face to face and asking a question via email, they choose email.   As a group her peers do not see compelling reasons to visit office hours.

If you are of similar mind, consider these points:

  • It’s easy to feel lost in a school as big as BU.  Office hours provide a personal connection to faculty that make the school smaller.
  • Some questions are readily answered via email.  (Some of those questions are readily answered by reading the damned syllabus before asking, but that’s another post.)  Many are not.  They require give-and-take, nuanced explanation, face-to-face communication–you know, a conversation.
  • If you ask most of my prior students how to do well on Intro to Law exams they’ll tell you to hang out in my office asking and answering questions the day before the exam.  Such small-group teacher-student discussions have been regular events during my office hours–until the past year.
  • Read Explanation Wanted.  Some day all of you will want a professor’s recommendation for graduate school, employment, the parole board . . . If you have never talked to a professor outside of class, if the professor’s only recollection of you comes through your transcript, your recommendation will be two-dimensional.

I could continue but in three minutes I must be available downstairs to answer students’ questions about the law concentration at SMG.  The event will not be podcast, YouTubed, or texted.  Live face-to-face interactions only.

Ski Jumping

How can skiing down a steep hill, launching into the air, and flying hundreds of feet be boring to watch?  Yet it is.  Thanks to ski jumping I’ve caught up on my email, looked at Josh’s pictures on Facebook from his deployment to Honduras, ordered office supplies and a new computer for Judy from Staples, brought the trash to the curb, and done laundry.

Broadband’s Narrow Base

The U.S. Commerce Department reports that 40% of the U.S. population lacks home broadband Internet access, based on a fall 2009 Census Bureau survey of 54,000 households.  Broadband penetration is smallest in rural areas, where 54% of households subscribe to broadband compared to 66% in urban areas.  38% of those without broadband access say they don’t need or want it, and 26% reject it as too expensive.  (It is expensive–I pay much more in rural Maine for a DSL connection that is slower than my FIOS connection at home.)

What’s the deal with that 38%?  Why don’t they need or want broadband?  Are they happy with dial-up?  Is the Internet too scary?  What?

Explanation Wanted

Here’s the situation.  Imagine a student who took only one course with me, a year ago or more.  I didn’t know this student well then–the student’s attendance was spotty, or the student participated infrequently when in class, or the student never talked to me outside of class, or at length, or about anything substantive or personal.  The student’s course grade, B- or C+, was substantially below the class average of B+.  We have no contact during many months or years after the student graduates.  Then one day I receive an email from this student who says my course was their favorite course at BU, they remember it well, and can I write them a recommendation letter for law school or graduate school or a job?

What is this student thinking?  Do they-

  • not remember their mediocre performance in the course?
  • think I do not remember or have no way of recalling their mediocre performance in the course?
  • think, like one of those delusional cat-screech singers on American Idol, that they actually performed at the top of their class?
  • think I have no standards?
  • think I’m a sap?
  • truly have no other class in which they performed better and ask me because they actually enjoyed the class?

Seriously, I am perplexed.  In almost every case I can say something positive in a recommendation letter–and actually mean it when I say it, which is important–but I need raw material to work with.  I need a memorable performance in some component of a course, or insights that come from knowing more about a student than their name, or belief in a student’s work ethic or values . . . or something.

Tergiversate

Here’s today’s word from Visual Thesaurus, a wonderful website and resource if you like words (or want to build your vocabulary for the the GRE’s).  Tergiversate (stress on the second syllable) means to “be deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead or withhold information” (synonyms: prevaricate, equivocate, misinform)  or to “abandon one’s beliefs or allegiances” (synonym:  apostatize/apostatise).   A word all lawyers, politicians, real estate brokers, securities salesman, and used-car dealers should know.

Off to the Great Acorn Cache in the Sky

Earlier this morning I was writing an email when I heard a loud explosion and the power went out.  I went outside and searched in the direction of the boom, expecting to find a smoking transformer.  The neighbors also came outside, to speculate about the cause.  We are no strangers to losing power, but usually it happens during a snowstorm when a falling branch or tree cuts a line and our cul-de-sac is lightless for hours or days.  I called NSTAR to report the outage and discovered a more user-friendly process than I’d used before.  The automated system took my number, promised to call with updates, and followed through.  I received a call to report that NSTAR dispatched a repair crew and power should be restored by 10:30 am, another call to report that the repair crew was on the scene–immediately after which the power came on, well before 10:30–and a final call to report the outage’s cause:  an animal, most likely a squirrel, short-circuited the connection between transformer and wire,  just 200 feet from where I write.  This happens often in Maine–when we report local outages the first thing the Central Maine Power repair crew does is drive slowly down the camp road, looking for a blackened transformer and smoking squirrel carcass.  It’s comforting to know the cause was so prosaic, so physical, not a failure from a million Google searches for <lady gaga>.  Comforting for everyone but the squirrel.

Meanwhile I consider whether to drive to school for office hours.  The snow is forecast to begin falling in earnest at 1 pm and continue through the evening.  The drive in won’t be the problem.

I’ll decide at noon.

Playing the China Card

In a speech a few weeks ago Hillary Clinton criticized China and other nations for their Internet censorship, warning that what she called an “information curtain” might prevent the citizens of such countries from the free flow of information.  Her speech came shortly after Google reported it was the victim of computer hacking that it believed originated in China, announced that it would no longer censor references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and other taboo topics from its Chinese search engine, and said it might withdraw from China altogether.  Clinton said “[i]n an interconnected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.  Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”  China responded the next day, saying “the Chinese Internet is open” and the U.S. should “respect the truth and to stop using the so-called Internet freedom question to level baseless accusations.”  Most interesting to me was China’s characterization of “[t]he American demand for an unfettered Internet” as “information imperialism:”  “[t]he U.S. campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy.”

One might dismiss China’s rhetoric but this diplomatic fray involves a fundamental problem of Internet governance, which is whose law should apply to resolve Internet disputes? In the U.S. we often regard First Amendment rights to speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition as the manifestation of natural human rights that are fundamental to human dignity and liberty.  (That is, we often talk about First Amendment rights in such terms.  In practice we are woefully ignorant of the scope of legal protection these rights.  Legislatures, with little apparent awareness, pass laws that violate the First Amendment, citizens urge legal sanctions against unpopular ideas, and religious fundamentalists denounce non-believers.)  We believe benighted citizens of nations without free-speech traditions await liberation.  That may certainly be true, but it is not inevitably, universally true.  Imagining how we would react as a nation if another nation prosyletized about its superior beliefs can help one understand China’s reference to information imperialism.  Indeed France has been saying much the same thing for years about the effect of American language and culture on French culture.  I am not defending moral relativism.  I believe that transparency and the free flow of information are better politically, socially, economically, and ethically than secrecy and censorship, but we cannot impose those values and expect cultures in which they have no foothold to embrace them at once.

‘Aints No More

We love underdogs, and N.E. Patriots fans love just about any team that beats the Colts, so the Saints Super Bowl victory is sweet.  After many years of boring blowouts most recent Super Bowls have been just fun to watch.  The Colts looked unstoppable early but three plays and a spirited final defensive stand sent Payton Manning home ringless.

  • The Saints onside kick to start the second half was one of the gutsiest Super Bowl coaching calls ever.  If the Saints don’t recover the ball they give Manning a short field and are down by 11 points.  The kick and Saints’ recovery stunned the Colts–I think Jim Caldwell’s nostrils even flared for a nanosecond.  That play knocked Indy back on its heels.
  • Lance Moore’s airborne, parallel-to-the-ground all-in-one-motion catch, twist to break the end-zone plane, contact with the field, and firm two-handed motionless display of the ball to the referee–who blew the call when a Colts player knocked the ball from Moore’s grip with his knee–was a wondrous display of athleticism, presence of mind, and flawless execution, topped off by the end-zone camera capturing every nuance to prove, irrefutably, that Moore scored the two-point conversion.  The replay showed Moore showing the ball to the ref like it was the prize catch in a bass-fishing derby.
  • Tracy Porter sat on the route, perfectly jumped Manning’s pass to Reggie Wayne to intercept the ball, let his blockers clear the path, then blazed to the end zone for the touchdown the killed Indianapolis.

Great game, great result, and a great reason for a week-long pre-Mardi Gras party.

Deployed

After 15 months of training–Basic Combat Training, Officer Candidate School, Basic Officer Leadership Course, and Signal Corps–our son Josh, a/k/a Second Lieutenant Randall, left Fort Gordon, GA this morning for a 13-month deployment in Honduras.  He’s stationed at Soto Cano Air Base.  The U.S. military mission includes drug interdiction, humanitarian efforts, and god-knows what else.  After all of that training he is upbeat about actually doing something.