Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Educate yourself!

Good afternoon!  I couldn’t help but notice that your opinion on a political or social issue is somewhat different from my own.  This makes you wrong, morally inferior, and an obstacle to the perfection of society.  Might I make a helpful suggestion?  Actually, it’s not so much a helpful suggestion as it is a buzzword that I’ve heard repeated by people in academia, and it always seemed really cool when they said it, so I’d like to say it too, at this point.  What I would suggest is this:  that you EDUCATE YOURSELF.

Now, you may be confused at this point.  You may find yourself wondering why I’d make a superficially polite request as this in such a confrontational and patronizing tone.  You may also wonder at the fact that I am actually, literally wagging my finger in your face at this time, as if you were a toddler.  If this situation confuses you, perhaps you’ve been insufficiently attentive to the subtext of the catchphrase I’ve borrowed.  This is unsurprising, given that you are stupid and indeed not fully human.  For these reasons, I want to be explicit about what I actually mean when I parrot this particular catchphrase.  I think that you will find that it is a truly versatile rhetorical choice, capable of conveying all sorts of information about me, and my comfort in my own perspective.  To wit:

--ANY PERSPECTIVE THAT DIFFERS FROM MY OWN IS THE PRODUCT OF IGNORANCE.  In an abstract sense, I believe in the concept of plural perspectives, that people’s different experiences can produce different, equally legitimate views of the world.  Indeed, that belief is a cornerstone of my political philosophy.  In theory.  But…well…not now, and not you.  You haven’t arrived at your opinions through a different weighing of the evidence or a different set of life experiences; you’re just flat damn wrong and ignorant as hell.  If only you read the same stuff and listened to the same talking points as my ideological allies and I, even a poltroon like you would arrive at the same conclusions we have.  For we are objectively correct and our opinions on this matter will never, ever evolve in any way.

--MY PERSUASIVE SKILLS SUCK.  I am told that there exist, somewhere in the world, people who possess the actual ability to change minds.  These magical creatures have developed a method whereby they share new information with others; they leverage this information to generate sympathy and understanding in their targets, and to produce, if not a complete reversal of their target’s opinion, then at least a new appreciation for their own perspective.  That sounds like hard work.  It’s much more fun for me to wag my finger in your face.  Behold my wagging finger!  Ain’t it cool?

--YOU’RE NOT WORTH MY TIME.  I am a truly special creature, and to be in my presence is a very great privilege.  The world is full of disadvantaged souls who will never spend even a single second with me.  I must carefully ration my time on this earth amongst those who have earned the right through purity of ideology or physical attractiveness.  To spend even another moment attempting to save your benighted soul is beneath me, and would constitute punishment of those who are, even now, being denied my presence.  Therefore, go hence; go out into the world and seek to obtain that knowledge which would elevate you, if not to my level, than at least to a level that might be worthy of my notice.

--EDUCATORS ARE UNWORTHY OF RESPECT.  I spend an awful lot of time in the social media praising teachers to the heavens, and an even larger amount of time alleging that those who deny funding to public education are troglodytes.  Yes, I am a great champion of education, which is why I am calling for you to seek it for yourself.  But…you know, I’m not actually such a fan of education that I would myself stoop to the providing of it.  Again, my time is too valuable; I have better things to do.  Other, lesser beings must attend to that practice.

--I’M NOT ACTUALLY TALKING TO YOU; I’M TALKING TO THAT GUY OVER THERE.  This must be obvious; no respectful conversation in human history has ever included the phrase “educate yourself”.  Why would I engage you privately or directly?  No, this isn’t about you; it’s about that girl over there who’s certain to be impressed by my dizzying intellect and moral prowess; it’s about that judge in the back of the room for whom I am attempting to establish a claim of superiority; it’s about my observing buddies, with whom I will share a beer later as we celebrate my pwnage of your thick-skulled self.

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you to “educate yourself”; deploying this phrase has been a highly enjoyable experience for me.  On the downside, society is a tiny bit more balkanized than it was before this conversation started; you will almost certainly do the opposite of what I’ve told you to do, as my disrespect for your beliefs and for people like you will engender the same opinions in you with regard to people like me.  But on the upside, I feel really smug and superior, and I’ve avoided the necessity of subjecting my own opinions to any form of analytical rigor or challenge.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what education is all about? 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sympathy for the Slytherins

You are eleven years old.

You've known all your life that mummy and daddy were wizards.  You knew that one day you'd be shipped off to Hogwarts, as is the family tradition.  That did nothing to ease the pain when, not long after your tenth birthday, they escorted you to platform 9 3/4, shoveled you aboard a train full of complete strangers, and waved good-bye.  A tiny child, you were shipped off into the unknown, into a land of monsters and mystery, without a single friend or guide.

At the end of the journey, you were brought into a massive chamber of cold stone in which hundreds of people you'd never met stared at you.  Propped up on a chair, you were told that your fragile adolescent psyche was crippled; that you were no good, because you possessed too great a desire to achieve.  This assessment was made not by an adult who carefully got to know you, but by a talking hat that sat on your head for a few seconds.  You were sorted, through no choice of your own, into Slytherin house.  At the moment this occurred, three quarters of the students observing, none of whom had ever exchanged a word with you, hated your guts.  You were shuffled off to the basement, made to live beneath the lake where the light is green, told to identify with snakes, and placed in the care of a pale, stringy-haired sadist.

What turned it around for you was the company of your peers.  Though the majority of the school despised you, you were not alone.  Those who'd been sorted as you had--the other adolescents whom the hat had cast away as too ambitious for their own good--took you in.  They taught you that to aspire to greatness was not evil, that to believe in yourself was no sin.

And with that in mind, you and your new friends--loathed and despised by all--set to work.

You worked your tails off.  You put your nose to the grindstone, day after day.  In the classroom, on the quidditch pitch, in every available environment, you dedicated yourself to mastering the school's objective system of achievement.  An objective point system, set in stone since time immemorial, tallied your progress.  Every student in your house--from those on the brink of graduation into adulthood to the tiniest first-form, yourself--gave what he or she could.

It was the hardest thing you had ever done.  It was brutal.  But your ambition--that which others despised in you--saw you through.  And in time, the system taught you that ambition need not be selfish, because every element of glory you sought also glorified your house--those who'd taken you in when no one else would.  You and your friends--the despised, the outcasts, those who'd failed as children to live up to the standards of a hat--won the day.  At the end of the year, after any achievement was tallied, after every professor's assessment was taken into account, you had won more points than any rival house.

The prize was justly yours, the great hall decked out in your house's colors, your house's emblem posted proudly behind the masters' table.  Every student and teacher gathered to recognize your achievement.

And it was at that point that the school's headmaster--a former member of your archrival house--arrived on the scene.  And he declared, "recent events must be taken into account."

He then proceeded to award a completely arbitrary number of points to three first year students from your archrival--again, HIS OWN FORMER HOUSE--for behavior which constituted a violation of the school's rules and his own explicit instructions.  To the leader of the brat pack--a priggish young four-eyed dolt who'd never spoken so much a word to you all year, and who was widely adored by the faculty by virtue of having had the right parents, and who wouldn't have even lived to the end of the year had your own head of house not repeatedly intervened on his behalf--the headmaster awarded a point total equal to a ninth of the points your house had earned all year.

Even this was not enough to elevate his old house--which by the objective standards of the game, had finished DEAD LAST--into first place.

Which was why, at that point, after awarding the rule-breakers an arbitrary point total to bring them nearly equal to you and your friends, that the headmaster ALSO awarded one of their housemates an equally arbitrary number of points for attempting to stop them from completing the tasks that earned them the points in the first place.  And it was these arbitrary points which, finally, were enough to put them past your house and into first place.

All of this chicanery could have been completed before the school assembled in the Great Hall, before your ten-year-old spirits were elevated by the promise of imminent victory, before your heart was given a chance to leap at the promise of some scrap of adult approval.  But that would not have been sufficiently theatrical. That would not have satisfied the desire of all those you'd beaten to see you and your friends humiliated.  So, instead, the pompous old gasbag declared, "We need a change of decoration."  And your banners were magically ripped from the walls and replaced with those of your archrivals, as the entire school applauded the justice of it.  Because all agreed:  you, ten-year-old you, were The Bad Guy.  Because The Hat Said So.

What did it feel like, to look across the hall, at the golden boy, beaming with joy, as all of his housemates clapped him on the back for having been born special?  How did it feel to know that your entire house's year of continual toil was deemed less important, by those in authority, than the illegal exploits of your rivals?  What was it like to know that your obedience to authority was held in such contempt by the authorities themselves--to see them punish you for obedience, and reward those who disobeyed?

That summer, why did your parents choose to send you back?  Why did they send these educators, who had demonstrated such spectacular disregard for your efforts, hundreds more galleons to put you through another year of the same?  Why didn't they transfer you to Durmstrang the moment they heard what had happened?

And now, a year later, you are eleven, in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and the next class of first-years are being sorted, their destiny decided in an instant by an item of apparel without the slightest scrap of training in adolescent psychology.  And you glimpse Harry Potter across the hall, smiling smugly in the company of his friends...

...don't you, just for a moment, want to kill him?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

When Good Isn't Good Enough

I’ve been asked by a number of colleagues and students why I’m choosing to invest myself so thoroughly in my writing projects.  I’ve asked myself the same thing.  To paraphrase the Wu-Tang Clan, a full length novel ain’t nothing to mess with, at least not lightly.  Three full drafts and continual minor revisions have taken up hundreds of hours that might have been more productively spent improving my teaching, or less productively spent wandering the wilds of Skyrim pulverizing butterflies with an axe.  So why do it?

I've come to the conclusion that the answer has to do with the difference with being good at something on the one hand and doing something great on the other.

I have a good mind, not a great one.  When I was younger, I developed the misimpression that I was a legitimately great thinker (it’s not an uncommon misperception among young men).  I was the product of a highly successful high school speech and debate program.  I was surrounded by good-to-great minds (including a couple of legitimate geniuses), all of us driven to maximize our talents; the dynamic was one of mutually reinforcing success, and I achieved at a level high enough to think myself a good deal smarter than I actually was.  When I went back into education as a coach, I expected more of the same.

If you’re not a great thinker, or if you’re not working as hard as you could, debate will let you know.  It's true of those who compete in the activity and equally true of those who coach it.  Whatever else may be said for debate, it produces a wealth of objective, empirical data on the question of whether a coach is an effective educator.  Eighteen years in, the data confirm what my own subjective assessment would suggest:  I’m a good coach and teacher, but not a great one.

There are going to be people who are going to read that sentence and accuse me of selling myself short, or even of beating myself up.  That's not an accurate assessment.  To say that I am not a great educator is not to deny myself any value. It is, rather, to recognize how thoroughly the concept of greatness has been debased.  Within the educational profession in particular there is very little incentive for teachers, schools, districts, and even nations to resist hyperbole when describing the quality of their work.  Words like “excellent” and “great” are reflexively used to describe mediocrity.  As Garrison Keillor aptly put it, "all the children are above average."  I don’t think that can be true.  I think that there is value in preserving the meaning of words.  Great is great.  Good is good.  Average is neither.

The school at which I teach, and its direct predecessors, have employed 94 years’ worth of debate coaches.  Many of them have been very fine educators, but never have the debaters achieved more than when under my instruction--in fact, they've never been particularly close.  Over the course of my career, I’ve built two competitively successful programs essentially from scratch.  The data support the claim that I am a good educator, and to be a good educator is no small thing.  A good educator will have great days, sometimes even great weeks.  A good educator can have attributes of greatness, such as my ability to adjust lessons on the fly to accommodate new or unexpected input, or to create teachable moments out of whole cloth.  A good coach can be instrumental in helping great pupils achieve great things, and a good coach can help any pupil be better than they otherwise would be.  And a good educator can make a meaningful positive difference in students’ lives; there are young people out there who will die happier for having crossed paths with me.  By any reasonable reckoning, my school is lucky to have me.

But I’m not the best teacher in my building, or in my department.  I have seen great teaching, and it doesn’t look like what I do.  I have too many bad habits.  I’m not lazy, but I have a hard time sustaining energy over long periods of time; I tend to coast.  I don’t have a great teacher’s focus; I don't engage in the painstaking attention to detail that characterizes great educators.  I have an unfortunate combination of a black sense of humor and bad judgment about when to deploy it; hence, I cause pain to students and co-workers without intending to.

And then there is my expertise in my chosen field--once a considerable strength of my teaching, and now, increasingly, less so.  The game which nurtured me is leaving me behind.  Competitive debate evolves and changes in unpredictable ways, and one can never fully understand an argument without actually having defended it in competition.  I remember, as a young coach, looking with scorn on older educators who weren’t fully versed in my contemporary, cutting edge tactics.  Now I have, unmistakably, become one of those older educators.  I learn as much as I can; I hire assistants who know contemporary theory and delegate to them; and every year, the game moves on around me, and I grow a bit less competent.  The slippage is inevitable. 

I’m a good teacher.  I probably always will be.  But not quite a great one.  Within my debate community, the torch is increasingly being passed on to a new generation of exceptional coaches with the energy of youth and the expertise of recent experience.  Greatness still resides in the old warhorses whose special genius and exceptional pedagogy makes them masters of the craft.  But my window to join them, it seems increasingly evident, has closed.

Even so, I’m not yet ready to concede that there's nothing great inside of me.

Every writer, I think, wants to believe that they can create something immortal.  We all want to create something that will survive us, to write a new top line to our own obituary.  And it’s that dream that makes the constant straining worthwhile.  It’s the same sentiment that made Michelangelo (the artist, not the ninja turtle) say that every block of stone had a statue inside it, and that the sculptor’s job is to discover it.

I’m not Michelangelo.  What I’ve written to this point isn’t great.  It’s not even close to great yet.  But I’ll just be damned if I can’t see the outline of the statue in there.  And that’s what keeps me chipping awaythe desire to be the man that’s worthy to wield the chisel.  The belief that I can be that man.  It’s not despair over the person I’ve become, but the exultant expectation that I might also be something more, too.  That there might be something in there that only I can bring out.  Something that will bring happiness to complete strangers.  Something that will be worth all the extra hours.

I read everything put in front of me as a boy, but I might have enjoyed Choose Your Own Adventure books most.  I loved the sense of volition they gave me.  It may be because of those books that I’ve never believed in destiny, but in choice.  Some part of me still sees the future in terms of a series of branching narrative paths, all equally possible in a given moment, all dependent on the choices I make. 

I have a lot of choices to make where my writing is concerned.  I know better than to think that effort is a guarantee of success, or even that writing a great book means that the book will achieve greatness.  Down 99 percent of the paths ahead of me lies an unpublished novel or novels.  Down most of the rest lies a novel that’s published but mostly unread.  A debater would know how to weigh the potential costs and benefits.  A rational actor would give up the quest, focus on what he’s good at, and pour the extra time into improving myself at the job for which he’s paid.

But still there’s that voice whispering at me, from way down one sliver of all those possible pathways.  The voice that whispers, But it could be greatIt might be great.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


It's not the writing that's difficult, it's the subject.

I should probably provide a bit of background first.  For as long as I can consciously remember, I've been a reader. And not just a "willing" reader or an "avid" reader.  I read to the point at which reading infringes meaningfully on the more urgent priorities in my life.  I read instead of grading papers, instead of keeping up on correspondence, instead of shopping for groceries or doing laundry.  I can't walk past a bookstore without walking in and buying something.   Nor are my tastes in reading highbrow or erudite, as would befit an educational professional.  I am a perfect omnivore; my brain wants EVERYTHING, from quality fare to the literary equivalent of roadkill.

Blame my mother.  An endlessly loving woman* who gave up her career to raise my younger brother and me, she suffused our childhoods with books.  Among my earliest memories is sitting on her lap in my pajamas, preparing for bed with a rendition of Dr. Seuss's "The Sneetches".  She paid the price over the years as the two of us would inevitably steal whatever book she was in progress through, start on it ourselves, and stash it away where she couldn't find it.  We wore out the shelves of the Topeka Public Library; my tastes evolved over the years through the adolescent sports novels of Matt Christopher, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, Madeline L'Engle, Douglas Adams, and ultimately and the end of my teenage years to the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.

A product of high school policy debate and extemporaneous speaking, I was a political animal in my youth, and I graduated college in 1994 with the ambition of being paid to write about my opinions.  Ten years later I would almost certainly have become a political blogger.  At the time, however, the only path forwards was through journalism, and I took a $250 a week job with a small Topeka newspaper as a business reporter.  As a journalist, I produced a huge quantity of quality fiction; my boss was forced to suffer an endless series of well-justified complaints that my exposes on local events were factually incorrect in multiple particulars.  I washed out in short order with a Kansas Press Association award for the editorial content that I crafted in my spare time, and wound up as a successful high school debate coach.

By the mid 2000s, blog content was exploding, both in quantity and in relative political importance.  A former student brought me in as a writer on his new project, The Crossed Pond, a political opinion blog of roughly libertarian symapthies.  As my job at a Catholic school precluded me from openly advocating a political agenda (it is in no teacher's interest to be seen as partisan), I produced content under the melodramatic pseudonym "Rojas".  We assembled an eclectic and impressive group of writers from all walks of life and were at the forefront of Ron Paul's rise to prominence in the 2008 Republican primaries; as a result we became a relatively successful operation fairly quickly, with upwards of 10,000 monthly visitors at our peak and nominations for multiple reputable blogging awards.  As Paul's star faded, however, so did our collective interest in producing new content.   The site malingers on, host now mainly to eclectic music videos and, every now and then, some insightful political writing by one or the other of the old guard.  It's worth the occasional visit, if you're into that sort of thing.

My own horizons began to change when, for the first time, I turned my hand to fiction.  Having always thought of myself as an editorialist, the option of serious work in the genre had never occurred to me, though occasionally I would find myself with an idea for a short story rattling around in my head.  In 2010, however, on a lark, I produced a short story for the Norman Mailer Writing Competition for high school educators.  The story operated around the conceit that the "light at the end of the tunnel" seen in so many near-death experiences was real; it was, in fact, the bait produced by the afterlife equivalent of an anglerfish, which sought to devour the souls of the gullible and unprepared.  The story was not quite what the awards committee had in mind, and it was squashed beneath a deluge of Oprah-esque abuse memoirs.

That might have been the end of it had I not thought to myself, you know, literary merit aside, the 16-year-old version of me would opt for the soul-eating fish over the incest survivor's story ten out of ten times.  And brewing in me, throughout the process, was another idea.  A much longer version of the anglerfish's story; a vision of an afterlife unlike anything else in fiction, where the interactions of soul and flesh produced an entirely new set of rules and adventures.  A world run not by a benevolent deity, but by powerful entities whose agendas are not necessarily congruent with the interests of the souls in their care.

That afterlife is taking shape in the Axis of Eternity novels, the first of which is, as I write this, in the late drafting stages.  It is exactly the sort of book that 16-year-old me would have devoured whole and begged for second helpings of.  And as the novel winds its way towards completion, I find myself faced with the fact that I need to make a spectacle of myself to get it into print.

No more, for me, the pleasant anonymity of opinions offered under a pseudonym.  I am told, by all reliable sources, that the modern author must assume the responsibility for the promotion of his own work.  This will not come easy to me; I have always been taught that to blow my own horn is vainglorious.  But here's the rub:  if I DON'T do it, a lot of young people out there are going to miss out on some very entertaining books.

So:  I'm Steve DuBois, a teacher, coach, and writer in Kansas City.  Welcome to the Redoubt, where souls like mine learn to forge new paths for themselves.  Feel free to join me as well on Facebook and Twitter (@Twitlysium) if you're so inclined.

I can't say for sure what's behind that light I'm chasing, or if I'll ever catch it.  But I hope you'll take the journey with me.

* who, within moments of reading the initial version of this post, emailed me a series of line edits regarding grammar.  The love of a mother may be unconditional, but the rules of our mother tongue are non-negotiable.