Ed School TnT 6: I’m done (series end)

Before I begin complaining again, I want to open with a few administrative points about the barriers to entering teaching as a profession, especially considering the persistent media narrative about an American teacher shortage and that narrative’s relationship with alternative certification programs like my own.

So:

1. The Teacher Shortage, if one exists

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Ed School TnT 5: Child Development, Shmild Development

So you’re saying children don’t become adults in one frame and a puff of smoke?

[Something short, but I want a place to record this research that I spent so many hours obsessing over. I finished the program (great relief) so I’ll conclude this series soon]

When I think of a profession, I think of a job that deals with a critical skill or body of knowledge. Lawyers need to know how to find and read case law; structural engineers need to know how to design and construct a truss; surgeons need to know how to use a scalpel and where to cut. However, reflecting on my progress at the end of my teacher training program, I feel no more prepared or qualified for the job than when I began as an assistant teacher. What skills have I learned? What knowledge have I mastered?

Let me put this a different way: when under attack on the political scene, or commiserating over their low pay relative to other vocations, I have noticed that some teachers feel the need to reassure themselves and others that they are indeed professionals. The usual defense of their credentials is to find safety in the body of knowledge contained in child development studies. But hmmm… what did I learn about child development?

I can only speak for my own program, but though professors taught about child development, I learned almost nothing good or useful. The dedicated psychology / development course focused most on two figures: Piaget and Vygotsky, both century-old theorists (same birth year, 1896!) associated with distinct constructivist concepts of learning. However, in the years since, developments in cognitive science have squeezed both to the point that I don’t understand why they remain foundational.

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Ed School TnT 4: Bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is bad is…

What is worse than one of these?

[Irritated, angry, I’m just furious. So angry! Part 4 of a series starting here]

Last post, I wrote about weak research standards in education from two angles: empty scientism and excessive skepticism. I already covered the scientism issue, so, while I have free time again on spring break, let’s hit the skepticism side. I’ll lay out the problem with a simple expression:

Critical Theory + poor scholarship.

Gasp! Critical Theory with capital letters, that bug-a-bear of our modern American culture wars! For now, define the term however you want because in my view it has become conventionally meaningless through extreme politicization and overuse. I’ll get to a formal textbook definition down below.

Until then, let it suffice for me to say that I am quite sympathetic to various pessimistic and skeptical approaches to philosophy. I don’t have a problem with critical theory per se and I’m not going to pull a Sokal / Boghossian et al. and reject an entire field of thought because, even if much of the work invoking it is junk, as I wrote last time, much data-driven, so-called “positivist” research is too. A substantial portion of academic output just kind of sucks in general. Happy times! 

However, combine lazy usage of critical theory with the dog-awful educational research standards described in the previous post, and you get a uniquely noxious mess. To set the mood, I’ll just slap myself a poignant Lyotard quote, pulled from Francois Cusset’s funny intellectual history French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of The United States:

My opinion is that theories are themselves narratives, but hidden; that one must not let oneself be deceived by their pretention to omnitemporality. — Jean-Francois Lyotard, Instructions Pai’ennes.

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Ed School TnT 3: Why yes Herr Professor, we must think for ourselves

Featuring research about as useful as a Minecraft Librarian that won’t sell Mending

[Part 3 of the Ed School Trials and Trivialities series, beginning here.]

I’m just going to jump right into this one because I haven’t written in months. Some parts of the field of education have a problem with science, coming from two distinct directions:

  1. empty scientism
  2. excessive skepticism

Let’s start with the scientism side for this post because it’s easier. I’m talking about stuff like this:

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Ed School TnT 2: Teaching Aether

the-aether-2
Keeping with the apparent Minecraft theme from last post, Aether is a fun Minecraft mod.

[Part 2 of the Ed School Trials and Trivialities series, beginning here.]

As an undergraduate, I transferred late (by the pure chance of convenient scheduling) into what became one of my favorite courses, a general education seminar on the history of cosmology from the ancient Greeks to modern astrophysicists. The professor, an astronomer who specialized in galaxy formation, was a bit of a sour oddball, the opposite of the sort of cheerful, self-consciously nerdy types who like to appear on public-broadcast science programs. No, he told us sophomores eager to learn (to paraphrase a distant memory): every theory we cover in this course is wrong, Aristotle as much as Einstein.

I think he wanted to act as a provocateur – for example, he spoke highly of the accuracy of epicycles, the much-maligned medieval method for calculating the movement of planetary bodies, before demolishing them for lack of parsimony when we reached Kepler – so I don’t know how much he believed his classroom persona. But pedantically, he had a point: as a committed empiricist who rated theories less on their strict truth than their predictive power, he embraced a scientific ethic similar to that expressed in the statistical aphorism “all models are wrong, some are useful.”

Well, and some are just useless.

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Ed School TnT 1: Social Study Method

I am very angry.

I’ve been away from this blog for months, first because I started graduate studies in education, second because I became very sick after a minor surgery (not COVID!), and third because I had to resume my teacher training.

However, notice in the previous sentence that I switched from the aspirational ideal of “graduate studies” to the duller term “teacher training.” I have lost all respect for my professors and program.

Though I am supposedly in a well-ranked graduate program (complete with 500-level credits!) designed to help people with bachelor degrees acquire a teaching certification, I sometimes feel like I’m back in grade school: we have weekly journaling activities, pause class for 10-20 minute “mental health checks” during one-hour sessions, and – this is no joke – listen to professors read aloud from the textbook “because kids like [it].” Assignments have included watching movies, playing online quiz games, and making Instagram posts (!!!) instead of writing essays.

I am not a child; at my most restrained, I would describe much of the program as an insulting waste of time completely disconnected from the practical, adult realities of teaching. Sometimes I wonder why I should even listen: having worked three years as an assistant teacher, I have more primary and secondary classroom experience than some of my professors, experts in the sociology of education rather than education itself. At this point, I am only sticking through it to fulfill the bureaucratic requirements of a teaching certification and out of a sunk-cost mindset that it’s too late to get a refund. Maybe then I reveal my biases too soon: at its worst, the program sometimes even makes me physically, viscerally angry. I am not a fair source. But really, why should I be? I’m spending thousands of dollars to make an Instagram post? UGHHH!!!

It’s infuriating.

So, I am starting an irregular series on this blog to record my most frustrating experiences: Ed School TnT (trials and trivialities), so titled because

1) it is a real trial. For the first time in my life, I hate class and dread going to school, even though it has moved online due to the pandemic. I do things I would have scolded myself for as an undergraduate: texting in class, skipping readings, and dashing off assignments without any concern for quality (for one PowerPoint, I left two slides with default “insert text here” labels. I got 100% anyway).

and

2) it is absurd. The topics covered in my courses are either trivial and obvious (see examples in this post) or repeated so many times as unchallenged mantras that they become so (a future post). I am not learning. But that doesn’t seem to matter – every class is pass-fail or close to it, meaning that no matter how shallow my learning or how poor my output, I pass if I appear to try …though in honesty, I quit trying long ago. With such low standards, and such obvious course content, why should I bother?

For this first post, I want to give some flavor of the trivialities of the program to demonstrate how little practical value my classes offer aspiring teachers. The best place to start, I think, is the most rigorous and difficult course in the program: “Social Studies Methods.” Though, as you maybe already caught in the title, given the low standards, I don’t have much respect for even this “practical” course.

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Blogging a second year in review and… the news

Let’s flip the order of the title first — I’ve given up on the news (or, if you care about blogging and not the news, skip the next 500 words).

On June 8, the political news website Vox published a timeline “of all the ways Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus” and yes, the Trump administration has clearly failed to manage this current pandemic. But what about Vox and the rest of the American news media? Digging through Vox’s archives in January:

January 26: “There are now five confirmed US coronavirus cases. Experts say it’s no cause for alarm

And this well-aged Tweet (since deleted) on January 31, the same day the Department of Health and Human Services declared the virus a public health emergency:

January 31: “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.

I mean, I shouldn’t laugh, but I am. How often do you see irony that strong in the real world?

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Shimeji Simulation is lots of fun

Volume 1 via Amazon.jp

I’ve been reading and translating Shimeji Simulation, the new-ish 4-koma comedy manga from Tsukumizu, the author of (my absolute favorite!) Girl’s Last Tour. It tells the story of Shijima, a mopey former hikikomori with shimeji mushrooms growing from her head as she befriends Majime, another high school girl with a strange head ornament. The manga follows the same existential, pess-optimistic mood and surreal-but-direct art style of Tsukumizu’s previous work, on display right away on page two of chapter one with visual reference to Girl’s Last Tour (the fish!, and later surprises):

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Terrace House, hate to say

Hana Kimura, a star on Terrace House, a Japanese docu-soap on Netflix, appears to have killed herself after facing online bullying for her participation on the show. Because of Terrace House’s popularity, her death has gone so far to lead the Japanese government into considering new legislation against cyberbullying. Maybe it’s a nice gesture, but given the ease of anonymity on the internet, I doubt that whatever legislation they produce will have much real effect.

Instead, I might also look to the structure of reality television itself and the rude style of criticism of participants in such series, extending even to professional critics at major newspapers, not just a minority of hateful trolls online. And despite plenty of commentators noting the ways Japanese shaming culture might have contributed to the bullying, this is not a problem unique to Japan either: cross-culturally, reality television stars kill themselves with surprising frequency. I want to say that this death might bring some change — for example, Netflix quickly cancelled the show — but audiences seem to want more and decades of indifference across the world suggests that reality television will make another comeback.

If I can’t change the genre though, I can change myself — I’m done. I gave Terrace House a reluctant go once for being ‘gentler’ reality TV. But it’s just an illusion. I am not going back.

When English-original visual novels read like translated Japanese

I spy ganbatte

I don’t read many visual novels because they’re almost all uh… pretty bad. I’ll occasionally pick up a free or cheap one on Steam because Steam’s awful recommendation algorithm won’t stop suggesting them. But then, they almost always disappoint. They often run the same anime girl archetypes (and it’s almost always girls. Not much otome seems to make it onto Steam), most have weak art (4 original character designs and 5 backgrounds is not a selling point!), and, most of all, so many of them have terrible, terrible writing.

I’m not here to complain or put down the visual novel medium because, again, I only ever really read the free ones put out by hobbyists that take advantage of Steam’s lax store policy. I know that I don’t have a fair sample for careful commentary.

Instead, I just want to observe a personal point of interest: so many English-language visual novels, even those originally written in English, read like translated Japanese. Or in other words, instead of simply borrowing the visual novel medium to produce fresh English-language works, some visual novel writers seem intent on imitating both the tropes and the language of their Japanese inspirations, resulting in a hodgepodge of stodgy prose that doesn’t quite sound translated Japanese… and doesn’t quite sound fluent English either.

Today I’ll be picking on Kill or Love, a free visual novel on Steam by Andy Church about “obsession, loneliness, and, based on your choices, varying amounts of murder,” not because it’s good or bad but because it has so many examples of such odd pseudo-translated writing (and because it has Yandere, yum yum). I’m not going to pretend to be rigorous or even generous – I’ll just note some of the lines that interested me and give a probable Japanese inspiration. So, let’s start off with a fan-favorite onomatopoeia:

Tch. チェ

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