Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Road to Hell

In the 1940’s a couple of literary theorists coined the term “intentional fallacy” that has to do with misunderstanding the writer’s intent in a poem or story. Many approaches to literary criticism would propose that attempting to know what a writer intended to communicate in a poem or story is undesirable, since that sort of analysis tends to limit the total understanding of a work to one specific interpretation. To understand the writer’s intent is also unknowable, even if the writer is still alive, because not even the writer her/himself fully understands his or her own intent. What’s true for the writer’s intent is also true of our own. At the conscious level we believe that we know what we’re trying to accomplish or communicate, but that conscious intent is being strongly influenced, colored and steered by darker, more selfish motivations in the unconscious. The term “unconscious mind” was coined 18th century German philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later proposed in English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sigmund Freud later expanded the understanding of the unconscious mind in what he wrote about psychoanalytic theory. The unconscious mind is the home of buried sentiments, subliminal thoughts, habits and reactions as well as deeply guarded fears, phobias and desires.  By definition, we can never take stock of that inventory of unconscious thoughts and impulses because they are unconscious.

 Deep down beneath what we perceive as our positive motivations are unconscious deep-seated desires for power, dominance and self-satisfaction. But since we would be ashamed and maybe even horrified by confronting those negative desires we downplay, ignore or strongly deny them. And we plaster over the ugly impulses of what really drives us in an effort to make ourselves look and feel better, to absolve ourselves of guilt and to have our own way.   

So when we say, “All I wanted to do was . . . “ or “ I just told her that because I wanted to . . . “ or “I was just trying to . . . “ we present our intent as singular and unadulterated. But we’re mistaken. To be sure, parts of our intent may be positive. We’re not bad people, after all. We want to be helpful and nice and engage well with others. But if you closely and critically examine how we do it, you’ll realize that we often act and speak with malevolent or selfish hidden motives, every deed and phrase a Trojan horse of personal agenda.  
Just a couple of examples from my own extensive catalog of complex motives and self-delusion:
As a graduate student in my late 40’s I raced bicycles with the Texas A&M Cycling Team, which was a club sport in which any student could participate. At the time I thought it was really cool (and it was) that I had a chance to put on maroon and white gear and compete for the school I had also attended as an undergrad in the early ‘80’s, a school I had loved since I was a child. But, without being aware of it, I probably was also pushed by a less honorable agenda: a chance to race my bike with a built-in excuse for sucking (well, after all, he’s twice as old as the rest of us). It was probably also on some level, a pitiful attempt to re-live college that looked foolish to most observers.

When I coached 9 year old boys’ soccer I used to justify chiding the referee as “I need to defend our kids from the other team that has been coached to foul hard for tactical advantage.” Now, there was probably an element of truth to that statement. But also lumped into that motivation was anger and embarrassment at a team with my name on it getting their little narrow butts beat by a better team. So I’d get angry and yell at the referee and convince myself that I was doing the right thing.

Anger is the driving factor in many similar episodes: the adrenaline pumping factor that makes me (maybe all of us?) lose all sense of proportionality. As it boils up, though, I can usually only see noble, self-righteous reasons for doing what I’m doing and only in the aftermath can I see the damage done by my foolish rage-driven reactions.

I need the ability, especially in the moment of speech and action, to recognize that intent is never singular, uniform, pure and positive. I need that recognition to make me slow to speak and act impulsively. I need the ability to sense when anger is welling up inside me and to use that as a signal to disengage until I calm down.         
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe that saying is true because I don’t think there are any purely good intentions. But, just as intent is not all good, it’s not all bad, either. Was racing on the A&M Cycling Team a fabulous experience where I learned a great deal about myself and made some lifelong friends? Absolutely. Did I do a good thing volunteering to coach little kids’ soccer teams? Yes, I did many, many positive things as a coach and I have great memories and friendships through that experience. But did I do some foolish and hurtful things in the process? Yes.

Perhaps instead of examining the intent of ourselves or others (since it’s impossible to fully know), I need to focus on and weighthe positive and negative impacts and results of word and action. I need to view myself and my perceived intentions from the perspectives of others. We’re never as noble and kind as we think we are. But we’re not that bad either. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Real Cost of College Grade Inflation

There are some students who are so brilliant that they’ll make an A no matter what. It doesn’t matter what class or what section or which professor they take, they’ll wind up with an A. They are truly rare; really a small percentage of all college students. This post is not about those students.

There are other students (and I was one of these as an undergraduate back in the day) who are so disengaged from classroom learning that they do the minimum to get a good enough grade to stay in good standing with the university and get through. This post is not about them, either.

This post is about the very capable and diligent students who manage to get very high grades (if not straight A’s) through the early stages of college and then become totally risk averse in order to keep them.

To shoot for high grades is undoubtedly admirable, especially if it’s driven by a real desire to learn. But the mania to make A’s can drive some students to do some things that are paradoxically antithetical to learning like working the prof for leniency (“Well, I always used to get A’s on my compositions in Dr. X’s class” is one of my personal favorites) instead of using the opportunity with the prof to ask her/him a specific question about something you don't understand. Or even worse, zealously avoiding taking a difficult class. I see it every semester. A student shows up for the first class or two, sees that it’s going to be challenging, and, poof, they’re gone (although I admit they may just decide the crusty ol’ prof is boring). One even admitted to me that she’d like to stay in a class of mine she was about to drop but didn’t think she could take the GPA hit (this was before she had received a single grade). And there’s the root of the problem: the drive for higher grades produces less capable students, good grades become less meaningful, and university academics risks becoming little more than a commercial enterprise. 

When I did grad school in Hispanic Studies I solved this problem for myself by making a B my first semester. I didn’t do it on purpose, believe me. When it happened I was madder than a wet hen. A few years before, when I was in the Marine Corps I had done an M.A. in another field in my spare time and had made straight A’s and was real proud of that. I felt like the B ruined some kind of perfect record (looking back at it now, I was probably doing C-quality work and didn't even deserve a B). That was before I found out that, at least in my field of grad studies, grades didn’t amount to a hill of beans when you go out to try to get a job (maybe because everyone views grad student grades as ridiculously inflated). Your dissertation topic matters. Who your committee chair is matters. What you published matters. How many and what kind of conference presentations you’ve done matters. And ultimately, what you learned and what you can show that you know matters most of all.

My colleague Johnny Wink, one of the best professors and human beings I know, told me about a decision he had to make as a grad student to take a class with a notoriously difficult prof. Johnny was newly married at the time and totally dependent on the stipend he received for staying in good standing with the department. That good standing required the maintenance of a 3.5 GPA. The first class he took with the prof he made a grade that pulled him dangerously close to the no-go line. But he decided to take another class with him and risk another less-than-stellar grade because he learned so much. He ended up taking several classes with the notorious professor and today, forty years later, gives much of the credit for being a good professor to having studied with that difficult prof who challenged him, mentored him and provided him with incentive to work hard.  
I suspect that perfect (or even really high) undergraduate grades matter less than we think to prospective employers and graduate studies programs, but some students are still making decisions under flawed assumptions and damaging the quality of their own education in the process. 

So what can we professors do? I think we need to avoid the temptation to be grade sugar-daddies in exchange for easy popularity. We need to be good stewards of fairness by honoring what the A student has demonstrated that she or he has learned and not “giving” the B student an A (or the C student a B, etc.) just because they want it. And when it comes to end of the semester awards and recommendations, we should consider much more than GPA (I’m pleased to report that our department was good about this last year) and reward well-roundedness and demonstrated interest in learning.

Moms and dads and aunts and uncles may have an even bigger role to play in this issue. Sometimes all that has to happen for a student to have grade pressure heaped up on them is to hear, “Pat has straight A’s at college” at the Thanksgiving dinner table and bask in the ensuing adulation from all gathered there. From that point on the student feels like she/he is under the gun to maintain that perfect record no matter what.  

And I would entreat you students to not let grades get in the way of your education. Take a tough class and learn something. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

To Understand Suffering

I’m trying to better understand suffering. All of it; the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dark valleys we all pass through at one point or another. People suffer in different degrees and in different ways and even the same person can suffer in different ways in different stages of life. About the time I think, “Well, as soon as I get through _________, I’ll be home free. No more struggle.” But it never works out that way. 

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that I never really tried to publish because I could never come up with a truly satisfactory ending. It was about a guy who experienced one tragic, undeserved episode and instead of working through it and recovering as much as he could, he fixated on revenge and eventually lost even more. I even took the story to a writer’s workshop in Iowa this summer and a group of other writers and an instructor “workshopped” it: they read it and made suggestions about what was working and not working. The leader of the workshop said that the story didn’t work as well as it should because the narrative trajectory was all downhill. He said, “I want all of this suffering to mean something.” I think that sentence fully captured what was wrong with the ending and it extends beyond the story. I came back with pages and pages of notes, but I still haven’t fixed the story. I’m almost afraid to work on it because I’m still trying to figure out the point of suffering.

I think bike racing is teaching me some lessons, though, about suffering. I know that statement will seem obscenely frivolous to someone who has lost a loved one or is managing a terminal illness. Not all suffering is the same, neither in degree nor type. Just hear me out. Bike racing is really about being willing to hurt. It’s not about mastering a fine motor skill like drilling a three-pointer with a hand in your face or hitting a long, straight tee shot. To race cyclocross is to subject oneself to a thirty, forty or fifty minute dose of intense suffering. The shortness of the events over variable terrain, along with the fact that you’re jumping on and off the bike and lugging it over obstacles, jacks your heart rate through the ceiling and keeps you right on the edge of going anaerobic. I’m convinced, too, that it’s the same pain for everyone. Tour de France champion Greg Lemond once said that racing never hurts any less, you just go faster. There’s no break and no coasting or drafting. To train for those events you can’t just go out and casually pedal, either. The training has to contain segments of race-level intensity, which means hours and hours of more suffering on the bike. 

At the Cedarglades Cyclocross race in Hot Springs, AR
For the big guns who are in the running for the win or a top three finish, the pain has some extrinsic reward. Guys like me who routinely finish near the back, though, have to do some soul-searching to come up with some intrinsic payoff as motivation to keep doing this. But just as there’s no crying in baseball, there can be no excuse making in cycling. Age? Some dudes older than I am are dusting almost everybody. Equipment? My wheel setup could be a little better, but my bike is perfectly adequate, even good. I have come to accept that most of the shortfalls that keep me from doing better are self-inflicted. I’m in excellent health and I look fine for a middle aged guy just walking around but for a bike racer I’m carrying around twenty pounds that don’t contribute to making the bike go faster. That’s nobody’s fault but mine. Is my training all that it should be for improving in this sport? I don’t think so. Not enough targeted intensity and not enough race-like efforts.
So what options are available to me? Fetishize back of the pack performance and try to act like I totally don’t care? Not my style. Completely turn my life inside out and resolve to live like a monk and maniacally train until I get on the podium? No, that’s not happening, either. I race bikes to enhance my life, not take over my life.

I think that I need to push through the end of this season, do my absolute best at the last race I’ll do this year on Dec. 13th, be smart and focused about my training, try to fix up some of my technique here, lose a pound or two there, and learn what I can from the guys with whom I race. I’ll also trust that the suffering of cyclocross in November and December will help me transition more strongly to mountain biking over the winter and spring.

Above all, I should be thankful for all of this: the fact that I’m healthy enough to go race as hard as I can, for the camaraderie and spectacle of the competition and the satisfaction from doing something hard. Maybe I should be thankful even for the small doses of suffering that I can manage, the suffering that makes me more able to find purpose and dignity in the suffering of being human, the struggle that is most common to all.