Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

You’re Fooling Yourselves

Dear Students,
You may think we don’t see you texting during class. You may think you’re being slick with your hand(s) below the edge of your desk, or with one arm dropped down by your side, your occasional furtive glances up to see if we’re staring your down yet. You may even have the touch-texting thing down so well that you can stare at us, glassy-eyed, jaw slightly slack, while your brain processes whatever urgent message you’re sending to your friends in the world outside (or even to those in the same class). But we do. Or more of us do than you think.

I couldn’t help but giggle to myself as I read this story, especially when I saw “that nine in 10 admit to sending text messages during class — and nearly half say it’s easy to do so undetected,” because you only think you’re getting away with it. I see you when you do it, and I mark it down every time, and when it comes to the end of the term when you need that half-point to go from a C+ to a B-, you’re probably not going to get the benefit of the doubt. And when you complain to me about it, I’ll let you know that you lost points on your participation grade because you were constantly on your phone in class–especially since my syllabus specifically says that you will, and since I reminded you about it all during the semester.

But you can text and pay attention at the same time, or you think you can anyway, so that rule can’t possibly apply to you, and I assume you believe that even when you send me an email over the weekend asking me to clarify the assignment that’s due the coming Tuesday, asking me questions that I answered multiple times in class the Thursday before.

The truth is that you can’t do both–and that’s not a reflection on you. It’s just the way we humans are. I used to be like you. I thought I could read closely with the radio or tv on. I thought I could hold a conversation while reading an article online, or hold two conversations at once, or play a video game and talk to someone, or write with the radio on, and I suppose it’s technically true that I’m able to go through the motions of both activities at the same time, but the reality is that I’m not doing either one of them well. I’m not paying attention to the person I’m talking to, or I’m not paying attention to the game I’m playing, or I’m not getting anything out of what I’m reading or writing. And neither are you, no matter how much you think you are.

The problem is that we really have no sense of how competent we are while we’re multi-tasking. We need someone to call us out on our distractedness–like you do to your friends when you tell them to pay attention to you for a second, or like I do when I tell you to put your phone away in class.

Some of my colleagues have banned electronic devices from their classes, and I don’t blame them for doing it. I haven’t, because I think it’s just as valuable for you to learn how to control your impulses as it is to listen to what I have to say, and when you don’t control them, your grades suffer as a result. That’s the case whether we’re talking about texting in class or partying the night before a paper is due.

i should clarify something here. You probably are getting away with it in some of your classes–those massive lecture classes where you don’t have any real contact with the professor, for example. And I’ll be frank here–I didn’t like those classes when I was an undergrad, and I don’t think they’re very sound pedagogically speaking on the whole. But those are the kinds of classes where you really need to be paying attention (unless you’re teaching yourself out of the book, in which case, good job) because you’re not going to get one-on-one instruction from a professor who actually knows your name and what your weaknesses are.

But if you’re in a class of 25 in a small room, your teacher knows you’re texting. We’re not blind. We’re just not going to hold your hand and make sure you succeed. You’re in college now. Time to handle your own business.

November 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 8 Comments

I still like to party and party hard

I think I’ll avoid scrubbing the back of my hand for the next couple of days to maintain this entrance stamp, and thus my party-cred. Not that I actually partied or anything. It’s proof that I paid to get into the 10 X 10 art show in Lake Worth. After it was over, we went with our friends (who had the best installation, of course) to the Mellow Mushroom, where I consumed two whole beers before coming home and collapsing at the late hour of 1:30 in the morning.


November 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10 X 10

I’m in Lake Worth at the 10 X 10 art show. I’m going to post some pics on the fly and talk about it later.

November 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why I Stopped Blogging About Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jon Stewart’s closing speech yesterday at the Rally to Restore Sanity, and I’ve been disappointed by the reactions by some of the pundits who accused Stewart of false equivalency or of not having anything really to say. And I’m not accusing those pundits of bad faith here. Rather, I think that they were so ready for Stewart to make a false equivalency (because to be honest, he has done that in the past) that they assumed he was going for one here.

And I think that’s indicative of where our public political discourse has gone for the most part. We assume bad faith. We assume that people we disagree with are either liars or just stupid, bigoted or ignorant. Or at least that’s the way it seems at times. They aren’t people who are disagreeing with us–they’re caricatures of people. Any sentence which begins with the phrase “liberals think” or “conservatives think” or “fundies think” or “atheists think” or any other group you want to insert in there should be punctuated immediately after the word “think,” possibly with extreme force. Because no matter what is going to come after that word, it’s likely to be false. It’s going to be too general, it’s going to be too simplistic, it’s going to make the speaker look dumb.

It’s dehumanizing.

This is an insight I came to painfully in the last year or so. It was a painful insight not only because I realized that, for all my talk of open-mindedness and tolerance, I was painting with a pretty broad brush, but because I didn’t notice it until someone I had a relationship with did it to me and I was offended by it. And I want to focus on the relationship part of it because that’s going to play a big part in this later on.

You see, I didn’t care when Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove or Sarah Palin said ridiculous things about liberals because they do it to make a buck. Sincerity is irrelevant for people in that position–it’s even a liability at times.

But I did care when friends from high school and college repeated those things about liberals, because they were talking about me, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. And what’s more, all those times I was demonizing conservatives as mindless bigots who are too dumb to understand that they’re being used, I was demonizing friends, people I’d shared significant parts of my life with. And I knew better. These people aren’t caricatures–they’re all individuals, each with their own foibles and assets.

A former student and now Facebook friend of mine is a very conservative young man. He’s well-meaning and sincere, honest and, from my perspective, completely mistaken on a ton of issues. He feels deeply about politics and is a very active organizer on our campus. I respect him for that. But we had a confrontation on Facebook when the health care reform bill passed. He called everyone who supported that bill a traitor, and he was sincere about it.

The easy thing would have been to simply un-friend him, dismiss him as a simple-minded kid, and move on. But I like him, and I respect him for his unwavering honesty, so instead I engaged him and I asked him a very simple question. “Do you think I’m a traitor?” I asked. And when he tried to respond in general terms, I brought him back to the personal level again. “Do you think I am a traitor?” And I insisted he answer that question because, as I told him, if you really believe I am an enemy of this nation, then you cannot be friends with me, because that would make you a traitor too.

And I’ll admit, I was worried that he was going to un-friend me because I didn’t know how he was going to respond. He didn’t. We see each other on campus from time to time and I always say hi and shake his hand, and if he asked me for a letter of recommendation, I’d probably write him a good one, even though we don’t agree on a single thing politically speaking. Why? Because he’s not a caricature, and when he was forced to choose between looking at me as a person and looking me as a demon, he chose the person.

A year or so earlier, in the weeks before the 2008 election, I found myself in a similar confrontation with a couple of college friends, and I didn’t do what I’d done with my former student. In fact, I was doing to my friends exactly what they were doing to me–treating them as caricatures of southern redneck-dom, unreconstructed bigots who got their economics from Rush Limbaugh and their hatred of gays from Michael Savage. Only they weren’t, or rather, they weren’t just that. They were also guys who I’d played ball with, who when I’d been short had bought me a drink and vice versa. They weren’t monsters any more than I was, but we couldn’t get past the images we’d built up of the other long enough to remember that.

That’s what Jon Stewart was getting at in his speech with his metaphor of the cars merging to go into the tunnel, a metaphor I experience my own version of every Tuesday evening when I’m on I-595 on my way to teach my poetry workshop at the end of a very long day. I’m going to quote it at length here because I think it’s important.

These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by conscession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.

The mistake that pundits made is that they thought he was going to make a call to action for some cause, but that was never the point of this rally. The name of it says it all–it was the Rally to Restore Sanity, not the Rally to Point Out How Dumb Conservatives Are and How Righteous Liberals Are. Stewart was trying to remind us that no matter how much the media or blogs or talk radio tries to convince us that there’s a monolithic entity of people out there who all believe the same thing and that thing is bad and will destroy us all, that’s not the case. Those are people, not monsters, and what’s more, they’re probably friends of yours on some level, even if they believe things that make you cringe.

And it’s important to keep those lines of friendship and communication open, because otherwise that tunnel is going to be longer and darker than it needs to be. So this is my goal and my commitment: the next time I see or hear a friend, a workmate, an acquaintance make some generalization about liberals, I’m going to ask them, very simply, “do you really think I’m like that?” And I would like my conservative friends to do the same thing to me if I make that kind of a blanket statement.

Bad things happen when we deny the basic humanity of those we disagree with. We justify wars–we justify genocide–over the idea that others are not as human as we are. We’re not there yet, even though there are those among us who might wish it so, but those who wish it are, as Stewart said, rare and scorned and shouldn’t be hired as analysts.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some apologies to make.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 10 Comments