Saturday, August 9, 2008

Summer Daze

Were there some rain in the forecast, I could probably break out of the dog days a bit more easily. Rain has a way of freshening things, even if it provides only a brief respite from heat and usually means a rise in humidity. Earlier in the week, when I saw tropical depression/storm Edouard forming in the gulf and heading into the Houston area and tracking north, I was somewhat optimistic. A small storm can bring relief without much damage, but we only got a couple days' worth of cloud cover from it. The temperature did get low enough (mid-90s) to keep me from turning on the A/C for the duration; today, however, things are back to normal, and the animals are draped all over the house like limp fur rugs.

Even last night's spectacular opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics offered only an evening's worth of distraction. But they were cool in the metaphorical sense--though clearly not in the literal sense. Leave it to Zhang Yimou to put on the most spectacular of events and to combine tradition and state-of-the-art technology to dazzle us and bring a tear of gratitude to the eye of someone who still hasn't shed the spell of things Chinese.

I had, in fact, only a day earlier, ploitered (there's that lovely word again) away a morning by looking at northern Taiwan on Google Earth, trying to figure out where I had lived as a youngster. I'm getting closer, I think, although it's probably a fruitless search, given the forty-five years that have passed since I left. But it's fun, and every time I try it, the images are better. As much as I want us to start doing a better job of evaluating our technologies before we adopt them, I can't help but be amazed by what we've learned to do in the past half century--including the incredible electronic scroll that rolled out in the middle of the Bird's Nest stadium last night.

Here at home about the only beings who seem to be enjoying my back yard these days are the birds. I'm trying to be really conscientious about filling up the watering holes for them, and there are, at this moment, several flocks hopping around on the lawn looking for bugs in the grass (which is still a bit damp from having been watered last night), and a few individuals bathing themselves energetically outside my window. If I were slightly more energetic, I'd head to Target to see if I could find an inflatable kiddie pool on sale for a few bucks, fill it up, and go join them.

But I'm too lazy even to do that. The most physical thing I can manage this afternoon is moving my fingers across the keyboard. I'm still working on assessment strategies for my classes, and trying to strike a balance between satisfying the administration and sticking to my philosophical guns about what education's all about. It astounds me that with all my experience and training, and my love of my subject matter and my students, and my assurance from those who contact me years down the line to tell me that yes, I have in fact enriched their lives--that somehow it's not enough. I have to produce numbers, because quantification is now everything.

It's fortunate that my particular institution recognizes this tension and tries to help us negotiate the obstacle course laid out by the all-powerful accreditation machine, but all of our effort is really directed toward making it easier for outsiders to understand what we're doing. They can't come in and spend a couple of weeks actually attending classes, talking to instructors and students within the learning context, and discussing how we construct our classes, how we evaluate our students, what we are trying to accomplish, and how to do a better job when they find things lacking. They want grids and charts and rubrics. They trust not, because they believe only in the myth of objectivity, and not in the reality of meaning. And education is all about meaning.

And so I plod. Instead of spending the time augmenting my knowledge about my field and learning new things to pass on to my students, or discovering new ideas about what the past meant to those who lived it, I labor to translate what I do into something measurable.

Oh, to hell with it. I'm going to ice up a pitcher of tea, take a book, and go out and join the birds in the shade, under a tree. That's the way to spend a summer day.

Image Credit: Another C├ęzanne translation, this time into an Art Nouveau version, from the summer of 2006, by Kevin O'Flaherty.

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