Monday, September 21, 2015

September 21, 2015

    One cyclamen blooming pink; one toad lily blooming purple and gold. The humanities students who did badly on their exam blame me. “Was there anything on the test that we hadn’t discussed in class?” says I. “No,” they answer grudgingly, but somehow that didn’t end the matter. I write to them:


    I want to thank you for your candor about the exam and my testing policies. It was both helpful and revealing. In the future I will do my best to ease test anxiety, but you must help in this by telling me what you don’t understand, so that it may be more fully illuminated. I don’t know what you’re not getting unless you tell me.
    Some other points: Several of you ask what you can do to do better in class, and my primary impulse is to suggest concentration– two of the 8-fold path we’ve just studied, right concentration and right mindfulness. Right? I know that you come from a culture (high school) which teaches to the test, but in college we don’t do that. I will tell you about some things I will not test you on. I will never test and have never tested you on something I have not prepared you for. It’s up to you to concentrate just a little bit. Going over and over your notes in a mood of frustration and resentment the night before the exam is not concentrating. My theory is that you shouldn’t study at all beyond a glance-over of your notes, if you have listened with concentration in class. It’s up to you to pick out the mainline from the diversions, which you can do if you actually pay attention. You have room in your head for near infinities of data and impressions, and if you let distraction or anxiety (monkey mind) derail this wonderful talent, I don’t know what I can, or should, do about it. Know ten things, assuming I am going to ask about five. Concentrate. Really. Put down the I-phone. Turn off the TV. Really.
    Some of you who were most indignant in class today play games on your computer or check messages in class. Did you think I don’t know it? Now, an adult is master of his own time, so I don’t scold you for doing this, but I’m amazed that it doesn’t occur to you that this interferes with comprehension of the class materials. I am here to give you as much information and wisdom as I can, and not really so much to help you take a test. The class is my job; the exams are yours. I am not here to make charts or lists or guides to make up for your not having paid attention.
    Some of you have so little historical background and are genuinely grasping for context. You have my utmost sympathy, and, again, if you’re not getting something. ASK. I don’t know what you don’t know unless you ask. I don’t know what to enlarge upon unless somebody asks.
    Many of you have found outside sources (Google) profitable. I urge this on everybody. If a name floats incomprehensibly on your note page, Google it and remind yourself of what it meant.
    Some of you find lectures (“aural learning”) taxing. One of the things we do in college is learn new skills, and one new skill it would be profitable to learn is how to listen to a lecture. Another is how to study. It is not incumbent on a professor to try to compensate for the lack of these skills, but on the student to obtain them. On the other hand, I will be happy to suggest written sources for what I’ve said in class, to address the needs of people who consider themselves to be “visual learners”
    I myself am a visual rather than an aural learner. When I went to college I taught myself how to listen to a lecture. You can too.
    “Professor, why did I do so badly on this exam?” The final answer is, “Because you didn’t know the answers.”  It has little to do with the kind of questions I asked or the arrangement of the ink on the pages or whatever, but with the fact that you didn’t know the answers. I admit that I’m baffled by this, because I told you the answers; the reading and supplemental materials told you the answers, and few people in class ever question a concept or a detail so that I suspect it was not clearly enough explained. Some people did know the answers and did beautifully. Maybe you who are disappointed should buddy up with those who are not and learn from their approach.
    Tomorrow and Wednesday in class we will study the Dao. One of the Dao ko’ans I particularly like is, “The archer who misses the mark does not blame his bow.”  When I screw up (and at that I’ve had plenty of practice) I look to myself to find out why. I have almost never had to inquire further. Lao Tze would smile sadly at the notion that I am somehow at fault for your have performed disappointingly on an exam. No, we’re not Lao Tze, but we can shorten the path to success if , failing, we look to our own behavior, habits, and beliefs first, before launching our tirades of blame.


    The humanities students who did well arrayed on my side. They’re the ones who confirmed my suspicion of in-class web surfing.
    Came home and planted two roses that had arrived in the mail.  Studied my lines. Back to school now to meet my playwrights.

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