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.
[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.
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.
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.
[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.”
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!!!
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).
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.
I’ve been reading and translating Shimeji Simulation, the new-ish 4-koma comedy manga from Tsukumizu, the author of (myabsolutefavorite!) 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):
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:
[Ugh, it’s been a while. Through late February and early March, I was just too busy with work and applications to write. But then the virus hit and I gave up on having any sort of routine, even a leisurely one for this blog. It’s hard to find anything interesting to observe when you’re stuck in a box.]
Sooo, bored inside during quarantine, let’s introduce Hentai Nazi, a typical Unity Engine shovelware game that for some reason floated to the top of my Steam recommendations feed. It’s terrible!
But with nothing else to do during this dull coronavirus lockdown, and leeching off my computer for any inch of entertainment, I impulse bought it. And god damn am I going to get my 89 cents of value out of it, even at 55% off. I finished the game itself in less than an hour though so I’ll need to drag out the entertainment for a little while longer…