LA CUCARACHA by Lalo Alvarez
This is a blog about teaching Latin American history and women's studies to college students, and life in the university, as well as observations about our society.
Christmas is almost here. The seasonal decorations are up, brightening the winter gloom, and Christmas music can be heard in all the stores and radio stations. I am no longer Christian, having left the Church forever when I was nineteen but there are Christmas traditions for which I have a soft spot, one of which is watching Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens was at his pedantic best with this tale, laying out his ethical system in no uncertain terms. The funny thing is that I have never thought of it as being exclusively Christian tale.
My favorite version is the black and white 1938 version with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Crachit and Kathleen Lockhart, his real-life wife as Mrs. Crachit, and their daughter June making her screen debut. But my favorite character is the young Scrooge’s boss, Old Fezziwig. He is a businessman who teaches Scrooge his art but he also has boundaries: He declares that Christmas Eve is a time for celebration so he tells them to put away the ledgers and set the place up for a party. Much dancing and merriment ensues. Returning with the Ghost of Christmas Past, even the cold-hearted Scrooge is delighted to see him.
They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Scrooge cried in great excitement:
'Why, it's old Fezziwig. Bless his heart; it's Fezziwig alive again.'"
I love Fezziwig because he teaches a gentle lesson of proportion and balance. In Fezziwig’s world, work has its place but so does gaiety, dancing, and love. He created a joyous atmosphere in a place that without his influence would be dour and dull. He provided the one bright spot in the joyless life of young Ebenezer Scrooge.
Classrooms can be like that. In my classes we deal with some terrible stories of poverty, violence, dictatorships, and massacres. There is nothing remotely cheerful anywhere on the syllabus. Nor would I make light of the many sorrows we witness in the course. But there is a boundary between us and those stories, and what I want to do is to make the learning a joy; I want to undermine the disdain for history that many students start class with; and I want them to remember my classes with joy and enthusiasm.
I realize that I will not attain 100% success. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” No matter how hard you try, some students will simply dislike you. What can you do but shrug it off? What is harder is being fair to those who are openly disdainful, aggressive or rude. I always find myself bending over backwards to be fair to such students. It helps to remember that they don’t know you personally; all they know about you are the parts of yourself that you’ve chosen to share with them.
One of my happiest memories of college is of an elderly English professor named Father John Coleman. He taught poetry and composition. Whenever you said something that he found engaging, smart, or remotely interesting, he'd point at you and say, 'Take an "A"!' He didn't care much for grades, and I have a vague recollection that he gave us each an A in the class but that didn't matter; he must have had the best attendance in the university. I looked forward to it every day. His cheerful demeanor made the class a joy.
History is not like literature. Many students come in with a bad attitude about studying history: they don’t like it; they don’t like you; and, they hate every history teacher they’ve ever had. You can only unravel a limited part of that antagonism.
The problem of students’ dislike of history is usually laid at the feet of their high school teachers when the problem is actually systemic: High school teachers can only teach the school board-approved curriculum using the approved texts. Teachers have no choice. School boards are inherently conservative and rigid. No matter what progressive ideas may be taught in secondary-education teacher programs, the legions of teachers are constrained by the school-board’s narrowness of mind. Conservatism on school boards is the lowest common denominator: More school board members lean towards conservatism because they do not want to take chances with their precious children. I don’t say that flippantly or disrespectfully. Their children are their most treasured possessions (for lack of a better word) and they don’t want to take any chances on some new-fangled, unproven ideas.
I learned this is a very vivid way when I was the president of the California NOW Foundation, which was associated with California NOW (National Organization for Women). The Foundation had chosen to fund the first handbook of resources for gay and lesbian teenagers. It was authored by a teacher at Fairfax High School. Its publication in the late 1980s caused a huge hullabaloo and the Los Angeles School Board responded by holding hearings. I went to speak on behalf of my board in support of the publication. It made no difference that we were in what outsiders regard as one of the most liberal cities in the world; the “threat” brought the most conservative from surrounding counties to the school board meeting to shoot down the handbook. The fundamentalists organized in the churches and brought busloads of their congregants to oppose its publication. It was the kind of blow-up that greets same-sex marriage today. The teacher who wrote it, Virginia Uribe, was filling a very dire need: Gay and lesbian teenagers were isolated and often abused by their peers. Many committed suicide.
What struck me about the opposition was the extreme fear that they showed. They were terrified that we had published a “how-to” manual that show their children how to engage in homosexual sex and thus undermine traditional heterosexual relationships. No matter that it did nothing of the sort but ultimately, the idea that these at-risk teenagers could come to believe theirs was a normal human sexuality, so contrary to their traditional beliefs, was unsupportable to them. When their children are concerned, most people err on the side of conservatism.
The oft-mentioned liberalism of higher education results from an unspoken commitment to teaching the young to think for themselves. Primary and secondary educations do not have the same calling. There is no academic freedom in grade school or high school. Only college professors have protected speech, much to the aggravation of parents and other citizens who would prefer that their children are never exposed to Karl Marx or other controversial thinkers.
Thus, many students approach their university history professors with suspicion and wariness. It’s not only that they have had to learn by rote, boring names and dates, it is also that their earlier teachers have been charged with teaching them the canon, that is, the accepted, agreed-upon version of American history as approved by the school boards and carefully taught by their teachers. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! This is why our approach must be at once light and serious. We aim to teach critical thinking; most high school history classes offer traditional history presented in traditional ways. Instead of repeating the accepted version yet once again, (snore), we are teaching them to ask why, to question authority, and to try to understand the context of the events in the world and in our country.
Fezziwig ran what appeared to be a rather staid business but he was loved for the atmosphere he created. To persuade university students that what we are doing goes beyond their earlier studies, and to draw them into the joy of intellectual exercise, we must make the atmosphere in the classroom light, so they will come to enjoy the intellectual challenge of this work itself.
There are many athletes in my classes but there are few who could be considered scholar-athletes. The women athletes, including the basketball players, are typically the best students: they make few excuses, they get their work done on time; and when they know they have an upcoming trip, they arrange to get their work in early. I have never had a flaky woman athlete.
Students who are members of the crew teams are also fairly good students. Golfers, swimmers; tennis, Lacrosse, baseball, and soccer players, and the other sports are good to middling, not remarkable students usually, but they are decent and do not cause one undo aggravation. I can only remember one swimmer who gave me trouble: He was absent much of the semester, missing tests and papers. He failed. The next semester, he showed up to take the class again; he was present for a few weeks then he started missing classes. I sent him a note telling him that he really didn’t want to fail the class again. He came for two sessions then reverted to his previous behavior. He failed again. The third semester that he showed up at my door, I stopped him coming in. You don’t want to put us both through this aggravation again, I told him; take something else. He did.
Then there are the football players, and worse, the basketball players. Is it any surprise that the university spends more money on them than any other sports? It is a toss-up as to who are the worse students. They have early morning practice and frequently come to classes to sleep. They have afternoon practice so the rest of the day is scheduled around them. They have tutors and others who keep track of them but we, the professors, and the athletic staffs, have different ideas of what a good student is. They not only miss class because they are traveling for the school team but they frequently schedule doctor and other appointments for the hours they should be in class and they lack the maturity to realize that gaming the system will not help them in the long run.
It is a very schizophrenic system. On one hand, promising athletes are courted for their academic prowess, and the academic rules are bent to accommodate them; on the other hand, they are worked so hard in their sport that they have very little chance of doing well in school. By “doing well” I don’t mean just maintaining a gentlemen’s “C.” Many of them have cavalier attitudes towards their schoolwork. I have gotten in their faces on more than one occasion trying to get them to focus on their schoolwork because the plain fact is that 99.9% of them will never play sports professionally.
Their reliance on tutors explains a great deal about them. Some years ago, I had an exchange with a basketball player whose essay exams were far, far worse than his term papers. I leaned into him about working on his writing. What difference did it make, he demanded to know, whether he did it alone or had a lot of help. “You won’t have tutors holding your hand for the rest of your life,” I told him. “What happens when you have a little boy who says, ‘Daddy, how do I write a paragraph?’ Will you tell him, wait while I get my tutor? Tutors are supposed to help you learn to do things on your own; they aren’t supposed to be crutches!” Tragically, he was killed when a drunk driver crashed into his car; he didn’t live long enough to have a family.
Tyson Wheeler, center.
I can only remember two student athletes who really excelled in their studies in spite of the extreme demands of their sports: Football player Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, and basketball player, Tyson Wheeler (Class of 1998). Ibrahim was a stellar character who had more energy than the sun. He was an “A” student, a poet, president of the student body, captain of the football team, and the winner of the 1998 Diversity Award for Student Excellence: a star in any universe. I asked him once how he managed to study so much in spite of all his extracurricular activities, especially the demands of the football team. He said that he set aside time to study, and he plugged his ears on the team bus and studied; Tyson gave a similar response. It is a simple answer but one that reflects their self-discipline. If only I had more students like them!
Sometimes, frustrated at the cavalier attitude many of them have towards their classes, I have thought wistfully about scheduling all my classes for times that they couldn’t possibly attend. It wouldn’t be right and I would not do it, but it has crossed my mind.
I think there are only two solutions to these problems, neither of which the university will adopt. First, I would get rid of the both the football and men’s basketball teams. They use up a disproportionate amount of funds with very little return. The football games are sparsely attended; they have not had a winning season in the 17 years I’ve been at URI. Supposedly, the alumni are keen on them but it isn’t reflected in their attendance at the games. Moreover, I do not think that there has ever been a URI football player who made it into the NFL.
Basketball is a grayer area because it occasionally has a winning season and some of them make it into the NBA. But in addition to a heavy practice schedule, they travel a lot, missing many classes. Furthermore, it is offensive that the basketball coach makes more than the president of the university, and may make more than the governor. I do not know what possible justification there can be for that, particularly in a time of economic collapse.
The other solution is one that cannot be taken unilaterally; it is one that the collegiate athletic associations would have to enact. First of all, one must recognize that basketball and football are primarily parts of the fund-raising function of the university. Football and basketball players should be eligible to play to play college sports for four years; if they do not make it onto the professional teams, they should then be given a full college scholarship for four years. Essentially, playing their hearts out for four years should earn them the chance to pursue the studies towards careers that are their second choice. An exception could be made so that those students demonstrating clear academic promise and the desire to play and study concurrently could choose to do so. Adopting this program would show a real commitment to assuring that they emerge not only with a degree but with an education.
Postscript: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has done a wide variety of jobs since his graduation, including becoming a National Urban Fellow in 2008. Lately he is the "sports guy" for The Takeway on National Public Radio. The last I heard, Tyson Wheeler was playing basketball professionally in Europe.
The Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons
When I was an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, I worked part-time at the public library. The San Francisco Public Library was always at-risk when the city budget was in play. Years later, when Proposition 13 crippled the California state budget, libraries around the state closed and finding a way to fund an entity that the politicians in Sacramento considered expendable became a major challenge.
In law school, we were taught that the “A” students become professors; the “B” students get rich in business, and the “C” students run for public office, so there is little surprise that the politicians care little for the preservation of knowledge.
Now I find myself as a tenured professor at a Rhode Island state university and the politicians still short-change the university, and the administrators who are supposed to preserve the best of the university and carry it forward, are cutting the library up, page by page. Today we have the excuse of a global economic crisis, but even during the prosperous days of President Bill Clinton’s administration, the library suffered. For my entire career here, the library has been systematically starved. You know the drill: First they cut fat; then they cut more fat; then they keep talking about fat even as they cut muscle. It takes a while to cut through all the muscle. Then finally, bones are being split and marrow is being scooped out. If this appears to be mere hyperbole to you, then I ask how you would describe almost 20 years of negative or flat funding even as expenses go up; firing much-needed staff; running the library of the jewel in the crown—our Graduate School of Oceanography—without a doctorate-level specialist? It sounds like a Tibetan Buddhist Sky Burial: the body of the dead is systematically dismembered, the flesh stripped from the bones, the marrow is scraped out, and finally, the bones are broken into very small bits; then the vultures sweep in to consume every bit; nothing at all is left.
Every state university budget in this country is strained by the cuts in the state budget, but in our case, former president Dr. Robert Carothers treated the library as a second-class citizen from the very beginning of his administration. I arrived in 1993, the third year of his administration, and at the end of a $13.5 million expansion of the library which included a new façade graced with an unattributed epigram by Malcolm X, “MY ALMA MATER WAS BOOKS, A GOOD LIBRARY...I COULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE READING JUST SATISFYING MY CURIOSITY.” President Carothers did not initiated the renovation of the library; he inherited it from President Edward D. "Ted" Eddy. Nevertheless, the restored library set the standard for the rest of the Carothers’ administration: When he retired, the physical appearance of the campus had been radically transformed by all his new buildings, $700 million of new buildings and improvements on four campuses. But even though the moving quotation from Malcolm X set the mood of the campus, the contents of the library, both human and books, deteriorated. Librarians were reduced to little more than a skeleton crew.
I do not wish to condemn Dr. Robert Carothers nor demean his many accomplishments. He achieved a great deal despite going head-to-head with a Board of Governors that regarded him as being recalcitrant at best. I am simply baffled by his blind spot—the library—and wonder how one that cared so much for the university could ignore the organic heart of the university, the library. The faculty depends on it; the students depend on it and live within its walls. Why did he give it short shrift?
Then in a baffling tribute, the library was renamed for him when he retired last summer: It became the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons. Considering his sympathies and the fact the he often joked about his job saying, “And you get your own football team!” I think they should have renamed an athletic complex for him, not the library. If I had been the president, I would have said, "And you get your own library!"
In part, the library was the victim of the winds of change, of a change in societal values as well as a revolution in technology. The advent of computers and their wide distribution during the late 1990s made the acquisition of knowledge much easier but also much more expensive. Once the computer revolution really took hold in the university, computers and printers not only had to be furnished for the library but also for banks of computers for use by the students in several centers around the campus, and computers and printers had to be provided for the entire faculty. Then they had to be updated as the computer revolution rolled forward with what seemed increasing frequency. Can you imagine if the amount of money paid for computers and all the attendant technology had been plowed into books, librarians, and the traditional necessities of the library?
Today it is relatively inexpensive to replace a computer but for the first ten years, new computers cost $1000 or more each. It was a very expensive venture. Somewhere along the line, the library and computers services merged and a new problem emerged: How does one find an administrator who knows both information technology AND university libraries? At the same time, an unexpected assault hit the library: The price of serials went through the roof as the result of a predatory move by the publishers. They charge a fortune because it is a non-competitive market and they can get away with it; they hold the exclusive rights to publication and a university library is their prime market. In the face of diminishing budgets, the library did the only thing it could; it started cutting back on the number of serials it subscribed to. Every year now, academic departments receive a list of its serials and it is asked which ones can be cut.
Following that, another more productive move took place, and that was to put all the Rhode Island colleges except for Brown into a library consortium. It works but it’s slow. One cannot simply decide that one needs a book and drop into the library to see if it’s in. The books I need which are the newest in the Latin American field are never owned by URI so I am almost always needing books from other colleges. It’s frustrating. Tomorrow, I will go by the Brown University library to borrow the books I am considering for my spring class on Latin American women.
When they cut the budget, the least important items—least important to the administrators—are cut first. The library is very close to the bottom of the pile. It doesn't make money-making items; it doesn't produce revenue, and it doesn’t produce fund raising dollars. Its value is abstract, and its effect is indirect. We are told that alumni have no interest in libraries; they are only interested in athletic facilities but I wonder if this isn't a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The library should be a place the students love, that they spent many of their undergraduate years in happily working. They should think back on many quietly spellbound hours in its stacks. Wouldn't it stand to reason that they would be in favor of spending their dollars on it once they'd graduated, thinking of it as the true mater (mother) of their alma (souls)? As long as the library doesn't have the books and journals they need; isn’t opened when they need it to be opened; and as long as it charges an arm and a leg to make print copies in, their feeling towards it will not be warmth but frustration. Keeping it operating on a bare bones budget does nothing to make them love it or to give it a second thought after they graduate.
The libraries of my youth, my public branch library, the main library and my university libraries, all have deep roots in my soul. Does our library hook into the souls of our students? How do we do that? How do we awaken in them a desire to nurture the place that nurtured them?
The Christmas season is upon us. Amidst the holly, the evergreen wreaths, and the houses decorated to brighten the bleak landscape, it is the toughest part of the semester. Everyone is exhausted, students and professors alike, but for the next two weeks, we are racing to the finish line, panting and sweaty. Somehow, we will get through it, even though at the moment, we cannot imagine how.
This semester has been particularly brutal because of the H1N1 virus on top of the ordinary challenges. Students have been coming down with the usual maladies and dealing with personal disasters: mononucleosis; concussions, and damaged knees and shoulders from playing football; colds; migraines; parents dying unexpectedly. This semester, I had a young woman in my class whose father, aged 52, is fighting a losing battle with a brain tumor. She is thin as a reed and always reeks of cigarette smoke. I am sympathetic but troubled by the cigarettes, knowing what lies ahead for someone with that habit. I know she is stressed out, but when the stress ends, will she be able to stop?
The H1N1 epidemic has really thrown me. Fortunately, I have not been affected by it directly, but the stress of its presence in our midst has really affected my classroom. So many students have been absent that I feel like I am continually administering make-up quizzes and going over lectures that they missed. I have always had a strict attendance policy which counts attendance as part of the grade. The semester, we were instructed by the administration to tell the students that if they felt sick, they should stay home. I understand the need for this policy in order to minimize the epidemic, but I knew what would happen. All those first-year students who are enjoying the new freedom of college, and the seniors who have decided that they know everything there is to know, have used the epidemic as an excuse to blow off their classes.
I gritted my teeth and did as I was told, with the consequences I expected: Some students have missed 7 or 8 classes; most of these are one-day absences which indicate that they are not falling ill from the virus. A suspiciously large number of students miss class on Friday morning, a sure sign that they started the weekend early by going out drinking on Thursday night and are too hung over to come to class on Friday. One student has missed 14 sessions, about half of the semester so far. When Mr. 14-missed-classes showed up last Monday, I called his name a second time in disbelief when I was calling the roll: “You’re here? I thought you’d dropped the class,” I told him. He had his term paper in hand—it was two weeks late. His explanation? He took six classes this semester and every time he was planning to come to mine, he’d have to do work for one of the other classes. He’s a senior and he plans to graduate in May. But how does he expect to make up all the work he missed in the 14 sessions he missed? That’s more than a month worth of classes. Would I give him extra credit work? No; absolutely not. If this was a job, he wouldn't be allowed to miss a month, and then make it up with some contrived assignment. Extra work is more work for me than for him and I am not sympathetic to this kind of an excuse.
Most professors do not take attendance at all. I started doing it the second semester that I taught here because during my first semester, I did not have an attendance policy, many students missed many classes, and one student was out over 20 times. He came to see me after the grades were posted to demand to know why he’d gotten such a poor grade.
My classroom: Washburn 112
Some students chafe at my attendance policy but I have seen the difference in the quality of their work when they attend classes regularly. My response is simple. I am very clear about the policy; if you don’t like it, drop the class and take something else.
One can read a book to learn a subject, but the reason one attends classes is that the professor makes a subject come alive, using a variety of materials. The insight one gains from attending a class is much greater than what learns from reading a single book on a subject. Learning to learn on one’s own takes time. Undergraduates must learn how to do it. I don’t think that I could do it well until I went to law school where great emphasis was put on learning on one’s own. Moreover, one did not miss law school classes on pain of death.
When students miss class, they miss the lecture, but they also miss the class discussions; the documentary films; the group work; the opportunity to develop the ability to have intellectual discourse. While the overwhelming majority of students will not become academics, the ability to listen to various arguments, pick them apart, and understand when the charlatans in public office are trying to pull the wool over their eyes, is at the very heart of why going to classes, at least in the humanities, is important.
For a professor, lots of student absences make it very difficult to deliver the curriculum and to manage the small groups. It’s fine for the students who come but I am left with the frustration of knowing that the absent students will only gain a vague outline of what they missed when they copy their classmate’s notes. They miss essential material but I am not going to put my notes on the web. I believe strongly in the importance of class attendance and I am not going to make it easier to skip class.
The relaxed attendance policy has also meant that many students are handing papers in late and there are lots of phony excuses. The thing I hate the most about teaching is the way the students lie right to your face and there is nothing you can do about it. You know they are lying but how can you prove it? Usually, it’s impossible.
I am dreading finals week. If I don’t have half a dozen purported illnesses and make-up exams, I will be very surprised.
The second thing I hate about teaching is the grading, and now I must get back to it.