Tuesday, January 27, 2015

There are gifts ... and there are gifts!

That CD with the note on the content will not mean anything to you.  But, to me, it is nothing but a wonderful story.  A story on why it is so awesome to be a university teacher; did I ever tell you that I love what I do? ;)

The day began on an awful note though.

There was a book in my campus mailbox.  Which puzzled me because the publishers' representatives know that I don't use formal texts in my courses and a long, long time ago they stopped sending me their sales pitches.

Let me put it this way--that book was a "gift" from a colleague but it was really not a gift.  Well, ok, it was a gift if you think that this scene is also about nothing but a friendly gift ;)

But, by now I am used to bizarre things said and done.  After all, that is academia.  And that is how most faculty apparently want to behave.

I went about my business.  I had an awesome lunch that I had brought with me--a panini that I made in the morning (grilled ciabatta with garlic-infused olive oil, swiss cheese, fresh black pepper, leftover chicken, and spinach leaves) and a honeycrisp apple to finish that off!  I brushed my teeth (am afraid of my teacher!) and kept the door open for office hours with students.

A student walked in.

Correction--a young man who was a student in one of my classes four or so years ago walked in.

He was pleasantly surprised that I recognized him.  "I wanted to stop by my superstar professors and say hi" he said.

He made my day.

We chatted for more than half an hour.  I would have spent more time with him, but for an appointment that I had.  During that conversation, I told him that I still have at home the CD that he had burnt for me to listen to a couple of "Radio Lab" segments--which itself was a result of a chat that we had had in class.  "That is a tangible piece of evidence that I have not forgotten you" I told him.

Those are the kinds of gifts that I cherish.  I retain them.  I love those memories.

The "gift" that was in my office mailbox?  Return to sender, of course ;)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Two ways to use a pencil. I know which one I prefer.

I read the news today, oh boy ...  RK Laxman died.


The death was not unexpected--he had been unwell for a while and, hello, he was 94.

I, like hundreds of millions of Indians, instinctively know that the odds of another one like him are practically zero.  He was it.

If only cartoonists and satirists adopted Laxman's way ... and what a contrast to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which I even became aware of only because of the awful terrorism!

Laxman showed how to do satirical cartoons so well that he was loved even by the very people he lampooned.  Simple images that told us a lot.  Unlike the terribly sophomoric Charlie Hebdo cartoons that did not do anything at all to educate us, and nor did they entertain more than a handful of French.
He would walk up the stairs to his office and had no use for the lift. A brisk, no-nonsense man, Laxman in his white, short-sleeved crisp shirt and black trousers was as much a trademark of the newspaper as was his cartoon of the Common Man with a moustache and spectacles. His devastating humour trashed politicians while looking at the pathetic plight of common persons who still do not have the basic necessities. His humour did not always make you laugh: it was often grim, ironic, and impaled politicians for their generally corrupt and exploitative ways.
“Laxman established a routine at work that remained consistent throughout his brilliant career. He would wake up at around 7 a.m. and be at the drawing board in his office at 8.30 a.m. every morning. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., he would read newspapers, concentrating on news items, political analyses, editorial commentaries and opinions. From 2 pm to 5 pm, he would torment himself, waiting for the muse of satire to oblige him with an idea for the next day before the deadline. “It was like shooting a movie,” according to him, “choosing a suitable setting, selecting the characters and compressing the script into a brief caption.” He swiftly sketched the idea in pencil, used ink and brush, wrote the caption and added final details. By then Laxman would have put in eight to ten hours of continuous work.” 
That was some dedication to his work, to his craft, and to the people he was serving.  They don't make people like him anymore.

A few years ago, when walking along the waters as the sun was setting in Mumbai , my uncle--a Mumbaiar like how I am an Oregonian--grabbed my hand and asked me pointing away the waters "you see there?"

I thought I saw something in the dimly lit condition.  "Is that RK Laxman's man?" I asked him.  My uncle helped me refresh my memory--"yes, the Common Man."

I was sure that Twitter would have photos of crowds by that very statue.  Of course, yes:

We are seven billion-plus on this planet, but can't even come close to equaling one RK Laxman.  Such is life!

Even Democrats are taking on teachers and their unions? Good for them!

Reading this in the Economist reminded me of the election-time strike in Chicago by members of the teachers union there and had lost track of whatever happened after the strike; now, I know at least this much:
Some of the toughest decisions Mr Emanuel had to make in his first term concerned schools. He demanded merit pay for teachers and a longer school day (Chicago’s was only 5 hours 45 minutes) and earmarked for closure 50 half-empty schools in poor districts. Teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, but Mr Emanuel got the longer day and the closures went ahead in 2013. The teachers kept their seniority-based pay system.
Mr Emanuel ploughed some of the money saved by closures into charter schools, which made him even more unpopular with the teachers’ unions. But charter schools have worked well in Chicago.
 Emanuel was, if you recall, the aggressive White House Chief of Staff in the first couple of years of Obama's presidency.  Chicago pols are some tough people, I suppose.

But taking on that safe Democratic votes of teachers and unions?

It turns out that Emanuel is not the lone Democrat on this issue.  Consider the following that was directed at "a teacher union member who said he represents the students":
“You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”
Ouch!  And that was not from Wisconsin's Scott Walker, but from, get this, Andrew Cuomo!  Yep, from that blue state of New York.   The son of Mario Cuomo.

And, he said more:
Cuomo referred to the teacher unions and the entrenched education establishment as an “industry” that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving.
“Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this,” Cuomo said. “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers.
“This was a program to educate kids.” ...

You think that maybe, perhaps, even the Democrats are beginning to wonder if the teachers' unions have drifted far from their mission?  Even if you had doubts, all you had to do was read the opening lines in a powerful essay in the New Yorker a few years ago, in 2009:
In a windowless room in a shabby office building at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, a poster is taped to a wall, whose message could easily be the mission statement for a day-care center: “Children are fragile. Handle with care.” It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here. The inhabitants are all New York City schoolteachers who have been sent to what is officially called a Temporary Reassignment Center but which everyone calls the Rubber Room.
These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others, in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent. The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.
“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.
Yep, that was the Rubber Room!

That same essay noted:
Leading Democrats often talk about the need to reform public education, but they almost never openly criticize the teachers’ unions, which are perhaps the Party’s most powerful support group.
And now it is happening. In Chicago. In the state of New York. And more.

As Reason observes:
The fact that this fiery anti-union tirade passed the lips of a blue state Democrat tells you everything you need to know about just how thoroughly teaches union have alienated many of their natural political allies. And this isn't merely some quirk of New York politics, as the same thing has happened on a local scale in numerous cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Democratic politicians everywhere are more willing to take on teachers unions than ever before.
I bet this will be some interesting political theatre. Get ready.