December 19, 2005
Mais um em Bolivia!
Evo Morales somehow got his 51%, and another threat to the Bushies joyfully appears on the southern horizon. Bechtel shouldn't have tried to steal their rainwater.
December 14, 2005
In defense of hard exams
It's been quite few number of years since I taught a class large enough to think about grading on a curve. Futhermore, I decided long ago that I was philosophically opposed to the practice, thinking that I owed the students an objective measure of my expectations and their achievements toward them. This semester, however, my wife and I are co-teaching three sections of Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology totally over eighty students. Our first two midterm exams mixed multiple choice/true-false questions with short essay/long answer sections. Grades were generally lower than the distribution we would like to see in the final grades, but participation and two critique papers were graded more generously, and the overall averages were tending up to the low B mean we were looking for.
Still, the students were frustrated that the midterms were so hard (the second one had a high score in the upper 80% range and a mean of 72, down from a mean of 76 on the first exam. I consciously tried to write an easier final, half on new material and half a recapitulation of the first two thirds and worth double the midterms.
I don't know if I succeeded, but preliminary inspection and some discouraged looks on faces leaving the exam room last night suggest not. The problem, I think, is that to write an objective exam with a mean in the low 80s means writing lots of questions -- 50% or more -- that any warm body in class most days could answer, and I resist this. Such questions seem to insult their intelligence, so I end up introducing some little challenging nuance to almost every question. Even the best students start second guesing and "over-analyzing" and end up missing more points than the 0-5% that they are probably used to.
Without entering here into the complicated debates about the meaning of grades, grade inflation, and so forth, I think that hard exams have two major advantages. One, if curved, they do test more efficiently than an easier exam that produces a generally more restricted range of grades. Second, they are themselves a more effective teaching tool. There were a couple of questions on this final that went to issues that I knew that most or all of the students didn't get, owing in part to my hurrying through them or other pedagogical or logistical factors. The exam was the last chance to drive those points home!
The downsides, of course, are the increased anxiety and lower morale. No one bounced out of the room spiking the air with their fists, heading home to a sure "A," the payoff for their hard work -- and I know that in many cases the studying was assiduous and sincere. In fact, since they don't yet know (I don't yet know) exactly how the curve will work, there is no one who knows that they are assured of an A, though clearly I will give some.
I'll update when I finish grading...
December 13, 2005
Welcome to California, here's your execution.
I don't want this to sound like it's all about me, but I realized with a bit of a shock tonight that this is the first time a death penalty has been carried out in a state I was living in. (I've lived in six death penalty states, one non-death-penalty state.) Stanley Tookie Williams, as good a case for rehabilitation and clemency as any I can think of, was executed at 12:35 a.m. As a black man convicted on snitch testimony, he falls within the profiles of many of the exonerations from death row in recent years (not that he is likely to be innocent of other murders, but that's not the point). I'm listening to victims' relatives prattle on on Larry King, performing the personal catharis that seems to be the media's best friend and chief argument in favor of the death penalty. It's one more wearying reason to be embarrassed to be an American. Anyway...not in my name, and I'm looking forward to a chance to vote against the death penalty on one of my new state's gazillion ballot measures sometime soon.
December 12, 2005
Simpsons in Italy
I sincerely hope that, in case the Rio de Janeiro tourism agency, Riotur, is still flaunting its ignorance and unhipness in pursuing its defamation case against Fox for the meticulously researched (and then, of course, shamelessly stereotyped) Simpsons in Brazil episode (#284, March 31, 2002, "Blame it on Lisa"), they also see at least tonight's great Simpsons in Italy episode (#364, "Italian Bob") so they can see what good company they're in to be featured by this program. I personally like the Brazil episode more with each screening, and I show it to every Brazil-focused class I teach. Ha ha. (Don't tell Fulbright...)
December 9, 2005
Late night on HBO one never knows whether a new show will be astoundingly good or unbelievable trash. On the topic of sex, this is especially true. When I sat down to watch "Middle Sexes" this week (in truth, just for something to watch while calming a fussy baby), I was half expecting an especially bizarre take on the "G-string Divas" theme. This show was excellent, however, and I can't wait for a copy to use in teaching. It was made by Anthony Thomas and is narrated by Gore Vidal. It explores the social identities and roles around the world for intersexuals, transsexuals, and homosexuals with great sensitivity, a light editorial touch, and ethnographic sensibility. It aired just after the unit on Sex and Gender in my "Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology" course; had I known what to expect, I'd have brought my sections to my house to watch! It airs throughout December and January. Kudus to HBO.
December 6, 2005
Chavez and the Venezuela election
US and British coverage of the Venezuela election has stressed the pall of illegitimacy its boycott by opposition candidates and voters has supposedly cast over it. This is to fall straight into the last-ditch effort by the middle- and upper-class opposition. I would certainly not endorse every move by the Chavez administration, but I am amazed and delighted to see a Latin American nation with a viable democratic political party that owes nothing to the traditional ruling classes. The desperate opposition is angling for precisely the kind of US intervention that has nipped off every other such success on the hemisphere. One of the more depressing outcomes of the coming meltdown of the Workers Party in Brazil (oh yes, that's coming; there's no way Lula will survive the current corruption scandal!) will be the loss of a powerful Chavez ally.
The BBC's inflammatory map and caption:
"How Latin America's political landscape could be redrawn."
I.e., here come the pinkos!