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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 01:10 PM
Number of posts: 1,930

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Thinking of Dad (and others whose sacrifice was kept quiet)

My Dad served in the Navy in the early 1960's. He'd started college on a hockey scholarship, but evidently wasn't ready for college yet, so he enlisted.

It wasn't until I was in my teens that he acknowledged he'd served in Vietnam. It was around the time the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated in DC, and there were marches in most US cities; he desperately wanted to join the march in nearby New York City, but couldn't, and it tore him up.

Here's the thing, though - I know almost nothing about his experience. He took nearly all of it to his grave. I only know that he was with a team sent in to do surveillance work, and he was the only one to come out alive. And the names of those who didn't are not on the Wall in DC.

He'd grown up fluent in French - his family is all from Quebec. Pretty much all communications between Hanoi and Moscow were in French, which is probably why he was sent there in the first place, even though he was originally trained in underwater demolitions.

I don't know how many people he was with. He was evidently captured, but was never listed as a POW, probably because this happened before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. That he was tortured was betrayed by his inability to hold his middle three fingers up as most people do to indicate the number 3; he had to hold up his last three fingers, as though he as signalling "OK."

He came out of it with a drinking problem, but he also came away with an internal strength I'll never understand. He gave up drinking completely when his diabetes was diagnosed. He faced amputations following from diabetes, and later a terminal cancer diagnosis, with a far more even resolve than any human should be able to muster. I have to think he took the good and the bad out of that experience.

Later, I came to learn about the Vietnam War. I struggled with the disparity between war whose cause was not entirely just and my father's participation in it. I learned that one can honor the service of one who wore the uniform without necessarily agreeing with the cause - a lesson I took to heart when protesting the Iraq War.

There are the heroes we know about, and the heroes we don't.

open letter to people starting college this fall.

As some of you know, I teach at a university. This includes a large-enrollment class for non-science majors in the fall and more advanced classes in the spring.

I just received yet another email that prompts me to compose this missive, as I'll explain below.

Being a first-year student is exhilarating. It can also be terrifying. You might be far from home for the first time. You might be the first member of your family to attend college. You might have been a stand-out in high school, but now you're surrounded by other stand-outs from other high schools. It's intimidating. You don't have Mom and/or Dad to keep your nose to the grindstone, and some aspects of being a college student - enrolling in classes, for example - are downright labyrinthine. And if you're a student of color on a majority-white campus, you'll be facing racist attitudes that remain in spite of everything we're doing to combat them.

So some general advice:

1. (This was prompted by an email exchange with an incoming student this morning - and it's one of too many such exchanges I've had.) Be careful with assumptions, and always ask before acting. Exceptions can't always be made.

This morning, I got an email from an incoming first-year student. He wanted to confirm that the lectures for my class are being recorded. I responded that although they're on-line (which I very deeply dislike), they aren't pre-recorded. They're what we call "synchronous" - that is, you have to watch them live, no different from if you were taking an in-person lecture course.

This was followed by a request for accommodation because the student has another commitment when lecture is in session.

In other words, the student enrolled in a course he can't actually attend. This was based on the faulty assumption that "online" meant "recorded."

I've encountered all kinds of bad assumptions. They can take a quiz late, even though I said there wouldn't be make-ups? Bad assumption. That a grade is not a goal to be achieved, but a commodity to be negotiated? Bad assumption. That the exam will look exactly as you imagine it will? Very bad assumption. And so it goes.

I know it's a hassle to take the final exam toward the end of finals week. That doesn't mean we're cool with you taking it early because it's convenient.

My ex used to teach a lab that met on Fridays at 4:30. There were quizzes every week. During the first week of class, she had to tell her students that "My parents already paid for the plane ticket leaving that day" would not be accepted as a reason to miss lab on the Friday before Thanksgiving break.

Seriously - ask BEFORE you act. It saves everyone a lot of heartache.

2. Keep your life as simple as possible.

Extracurricular activities expand your horizons and can help you find a community far from home, but it's easy to get roped in too deeply. Overloading yourself with such things reduces the amount of time you have for your homework and studying.

This is why I encourage on-campus living when it's available for first-year students. It keeps life simple.

I'm not saying one should live a monastic existence and ignore the rest of the world. But you'll still be getting your footing during your first year, so don't overdo it.

3. Save everything.

I once had a student approach me after classes were over, wondering why she got a C in my class. She was sure she'd be in solid B range. I pointed out that her final exam and one of her midterms were indeed in the 80's, but her other midterm was a 38. That, I explained, dragged her grade down. "But I didn't get a 38," she replied, "I got an 83!" She showed me her exam, and sure enough, she did. The moron (most likely me) who entered the grades into the spreadsheet typed them in backward. It happens, and mistakes like this are easily corrected - and this is made easier if you can show your professor what you actually got.

Seriously - treat your homework assignments, quizzes, exams, and whatnot like receipts.

4. Keep your family posted about your classroom commitments.

If someone's planning a family event, it wouldn't hurt if they knew when your exams are scheduled.

5. Always contact an instructor before missing something, and always get some sort of proof for the reason.

I've run in to all kinds of legitimate reasons to miss a class or an exam. Illness is the most common, but students have also come to me with job interviews, court dates, funerals, other major family events (weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmations, baptisms, milestone anniversaries), problems with transportation (car broke down, missed bus), or a University-related commitment (sporting event, field trip for another course, etc.).

Getting a doctor's note for an illness is easy enough, but it should be possible to document pretty much any good reason to miss class - including a funeral. I, for one, would never ask for documentation that a student had to attend a funeral. But I know professors who do - and generally, it's not all that hard to get. If you can't bring in an obituary, most funeral homes and houses of worship are willing to provide a letter acknowledging your presence at a funeral service at their facility. (These used to be necessary when airlines offered lower "bereavement" rates for last-minute travel.)

If you don't know whether your reason for missing an exam is legitimate, just ask. Often, it is. Sometimes, it isn't - but we can't help you if you assume it was and act accordingly. (Want to miss the exam because a relative is having a birthday party? Unless someone is turning 100, or is terminally ill and won't see the birthday after this one, I'm reluctant to grant an excuse.)

(And before I'm attacked for being hard-ass, please bear in mind - arranging a make-up exam really is an imposition. On our campus, instructors are responsible for scheduling exams for students who need extra time or some other accommodation for a learning disability - and the number of student will such accommodations sometimes hits 5 or 10 percent. For a class of 200 students, that's 10 or 20 students who need accommodation. And that's on top of those who were in a wedding, got sick, or had a family emergency. We're happy to help out when it's necessary, but still, we're being asked to find a time and a place where the instructor and student can meet for a 1 to 2 hour block. That means juggling schedules. If we say "no," it's not because we're mean-spirited - it's because we're trying to manage a complex situation.]

6. Get to know your instructors.

This is arguably more important later in your college career, but it doesn't hurt stop by during office hours. That's what they're for.

This is good not only because you'll understand the material better by asking questions early and often, but because it helps us get to know you. Believe me - it's a lot easier to write a letter of recommendation if I know something about the student beyond his or her exam scores.

I've also seen that students who come to know their professors tend to be asked to participate in research or creative projects. That looks really good on your resume, and it makes you better at what you do anyway. They also sometimes feel less isolated. We professors are no longer the terrifying experts who look down on their students - we're people.

7. Know when to pull back.

Life happens. A lot of students encounter mental or emotional problems they may not have anticipated, or the problems they already have might be exacerbated. You might feel isolated on campus. You might be overwhelmed with difficult classes. You may be trying to balance your classes with a job or the needs of a small child. Your financial situation may change. You, or a loved one, may be facing a very serious physical illness that requires much of your attention.

Sometimes, the best solution is to drop some or all of your classes. Staying in for the sake of completing the semester might be counterproductive if you bomb your classes. Do you want to graduate on time, or with a respectable GPA? Sometimes, these are mutually incompatible.

I'm not saying you should just drop out of school when things get tough. It's always going to be difficult. Besides, dropping below a certain number of credit hours can jeopardize your financial aid. But in consultation with academic advisors and perhaps a mental health professional, dropping one or two courses might not always be a bad idea.

8. Know when to ask for help, and find out where it can be found.

The problems I mentioned above were extra-widespread last year. The world seemed to be collapsing around us - we were facing a pandemic; cities around the country hosted protests that, at times, encountered violence; and voters were being asked to decide whether to vote for a human being or a pallid host to some sort of hairy orange organism to lead the country.

And I know this impacted my students because they told me. Usually, out of a group of 200, I get one or two reaching out to tell me they've missed some assignments because they're having a rough time. Last year, it was more like 15 or 20 of them. Some were students of color who felt the pressure of racism like never before. Others were failing to thrive academically in the on-line system imposed on us by the pandemic. It was bad.

We get it. All of us were students, and many of us needed help at times. That includes me.

There is no dishonor in asking for help, and there are places to find it. Most campuses have some sort of student counseling center - that, or they'll have resources to help you find a professional counselor. They're not there as window dressing - they're there because people need them.

Creating a sense of belonging can go a long way toward alleviating some of the pressure and stress of being a first-year college student. This is why I advise against overdoing it with extracurricular activities - not against avoiding them altogether.

Anyway - some free advice none of you asked for. College will be one of the most formative experiences of your life. Get as much

Something too many Israelis (and Americans) fail to realize...

Getting population statistics for Israel and the Occupied Territories is tricky, because it's not always clear who's being counted. Does the Jewish population listed for Israel include the West Bank settlements? That's one example.

But based on the best statistics I can find, there are currently about 6.6 million Jewish citizens in Israel. That includes the West Bank. They're not going anywhere.

There are about 1.8 million Arabs in the borders of Israel recognized by the UN (i.e. excluding the West Bank and Gaza), the majority of whom are Muslim Palestinians. They're not going anywhere.

That means that the Israeli government has jurisdiction over a population that is about 75% Jewish. This allows Israel to maintain its identity as a Jewish state.

There are a lot of people, in Israel and elsewhere (most especially the US), who want to see Israel annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel already claims to have annexed the Golan Heights; the Trump Administration made the mistake of recognizing this, something I hope Biden can correct.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are about 4.5 million Palestinian Arabs. They, too, aren't going anywhere.

If Israel annexes these territories, its Jewish population would drop to around 50 percent of the total.

It would then have a decision to make - to be a democracy, or to be a Jewish state. If only half of the population is Jewish, it can't be both.

At this point, I think both sides carry much of the blame for the current violence. It hurts me to say this, too - I've been to Israel a couple of times and have valued friends and colleagues there. Moreover, my wife and her family are Jewish, and some of her elder relatives survived the Holocaust - so they have strong opinions I cannot and will not challenge, no matter how I feel about the politics of the moment.

The Palestinian Authority has to take control of it militant factions. Otherwise, Israel will have to defend itself. I also think the Israelis should get rid of the right-wing nationalists who won't compromise on anything - otherwise, grievances on the part of Palestinians will remain to fester, giving extremism fertile ground to flourish.

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