I was glad to teach at the college level because I thought I could never teach kids. Now I realize I basically did teach kids. So young, so naïve, so many dumb mistakes that made me think "What part of this is complicated? Oh wait, I've done worse." I must try to keep my patience and compassion with me as I grow older and more jaded and they stay the same age.
On my second day of teaching I felt like I needed to fake my own death so I could quit. Two semesters later, has it gotten better? Yeah. It's been all right. I don't know what else to say. Not amazing, not terrible, probably the best job I've ever had. I didn't discover a secret passion for this line of work that I never would have considered if God hadn't told me to, but I turned out to be better at it than one would expect. I had virtually no experience (though at least, unlike some of my colleagues, I had a bachelor's degree in the subject I would teach). Then they gave me a week of training and a frightening amount of autonomy, assured me that they knew it would be really hard, and set me loose. Of course I had a practicum the first semester and plenty of more experienced people to help out. One of them said at one point, "If a week of training doesn't feel like enough, that's because it's not. Ideally you would've had a full semester."
To most of the students, though, I was just another professor even though I wasn't a professor. My position framed me as an "adult" and an authority figure even though I'm less than a decade older than most of them. I think it made my nervousness and incompetence less obvious. Such blind faith they placed in me! At the same time, some of them were chummier with me because of the age gap. One in particular liked to talk to me about Star Wars as if I were just one of his buddies. I had no problem with that. I tried to relate to them, too, by bringing up my own school experience past and present. I warned them against my mistakes. I said I couldn't tell them not to procrastinate because I'd be a hypocrite, but be careful about it. While making them write research papers, I told them about my own research paper on Legos and gender for Folk Art and Material Culture. I know some of them with Republican parents rolled their eyes at me behind their deactivated cameras, but this is academia and they'd better get used to it. I felt really bad for them getting screwed out of their freshman year, so I tried to give them opportunities to talk to each other, and I told them someday they can tell their kids they lived through this.
Filling fifty minutes could be a challenge sometimes. I had sometimes just a sentence or two telling me what to teach, and I could teach it in five minutes and then what? I had to think of discussion questions and videos and activities and whatever to fill the time. Typically I went in with a paragraph or so of notes and tried to generate a lot of discussion and go along organically with whatever my students said or asked. It was interesting this semester to compare and contrast my first and second classes. Typically the second one went smoother because I'd already had a practice run. I learned this principle in large part from taking Scott Irwin's Institute of Religion course on marriage three times. I saw how he kind of followed a script but could still improvise and always feel spontaneous. All three times, he went off on a tangent telling stories about his grandfather until the class was roaring with laughter, and then he waited for them to calm down, got a confused look on his face, and said "Was there a point to all this?" That set everyone off again. You had to be there.
But I didn't want useless filler or busywork. Maybe now that I've gained in confidence I'll start introducing additional material altogether. One of my colleagues straight-up ditched the ethos pathos logos stuff, considering it a waste of time. I'm not brave enough to do that. I tried to emphasize skills and principles that will benefit them no matter what they do in the future. I don't think I've had a single English major in my classes yet. I tried to teach them to think, to overcome their own biases and blind spots and respectfully engage with other points of view. If I succeeded, I made them smarter than most Americans and they may save our civilization someday. Though I kept my personal views to myself for the most part, I frequently used American politics as an example of how not to do constructive discourse.
Next semester I will replace the Zoom broadcasts with in-person meetings but keep the online content, because I like it. Teaching in person frightens me but I think it will make discussions easier and smoother, and it will be nice to know what all of my students look like. I'll miss the chat and screen sharing features, though. Also, it will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays now, so ninety minutes instead of fifty, and still two classes back-to-back. For now I'm on vacation and trying not to think about the scary future too much even though it will be here before I know it. Granted, it might not even happen because I might get fired. A couple weeks ago I said something rude to a racist maggot on Facebook and he claimed to have screenshotted it and sent it to "your boss." I'm sure he wouldn't lie about something like that and I'm sure my boss just hasn't gotten around to doing anything about it yet. I'm not sure who my boss even is, though. There are like five people in various positions who could be considered my boss, but none of them tell me what to do very much. I'm not sure the best person to reach out to if you want to get me fired in a hurry. I'm impressed that the maggot figured it out so fast.
I also got this cool certificate earlier this week - it doesn't confer any rights or privileges on me, but it gives me a warm feeling.
Ironically - wait, no, that's not it. What am I trying to say? Oh yes. Coincidentally, which does not mean the same thing as ironically, last weekend I posted about an assignment I wrote about memes I had made, and then a few days later I was looking through the hard drive from my computer that died in 2014 (not to be confused with my computer that died in 2013, my computer that died in 2015, my computer that died in 2019, and my computer that died a couple weeks ago) and found a couple more that I had forgotten about. Well, there was this one, which I hadn't forgotten about as such but which wouldn't have been the best choice for a secular college assignment even if it had come to mind at the time.
I've probably shared that here before. You know, I was just so frustrated with all the people I saw regurgitating that talking point who weren't scientists, didn't know anything about DNA except how to spell it, and made no attempt to acknowledge or engage with anything already written on this subject by people far more educated than them about why DNA testing can neither confirm or disprove the book's claims. That was before the Church's website had its own essay on "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies". A year or two ago, I was in this Christian evolutionist group on Facebook where some guy who may or may not have been an actual scientist said that the missionaries had shared it with him, and because of his a priori assumption that my religion is ridiculous, he was sure it must be misleading and would somebody please refute it for him? In the time that I observed the thread, nobody attempted to do so, but people did helpfully provide additional unrelated reasons why my religion is ridiculous.
And then there were a couple I had forgotten about. In late May and early June, I chatted with a girl I met in the Facebook group "The Awesome Mormons' Secret Society of Awesomeness", which constituted an embarrassing proportion of my social life for years. I still interact to several people from that group more than almost anyone I went to school with. This girl isn't one of them. But I chatted with her for a while, and she sent me a bunch of pictures of herself which were also in a folder on the hard drive. I don't remember how that got started. I'm pretty sure I didn't ever say "Please send me pictures of yourself." But she did, and I praised her beauty and I think that's why she kept doing it until she got tired of me. In a couple instances, I turned her pictures into memes and sent them back to her.
Smoother than the chunky peanut butter on your chunky peanut butter toast, that's me. But speaking of the genetic plausibility of the Book of Mormon, the foremost Latter-day Saint apologetics organization FairMormon has changed its name back to FAIR. Now, though, instead of "Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research" it stands for "Faithful Answers, Informed Response". This is because most normal people don't know what apologetics is and wonder what they're apologizing for.
President Scott Gordon noted, "At this time of name changing, we have also done some reflection and subsequent course adjustment.... This means avoiding personal attacks or derogatory language." You may remember that once upon a December I wrote a post blasting their CES Letter videos, which were full of personal attacks or derogatory language, and their subsequent doubling down against the backlash by disabling comments, banning dissenters from their Facebook page, and issuing a damage control statement. I acknowledge that my blog has also had its share of personal attacks or derogatory language, but I think it's fair (pun intended) to hold the foremost Latter-day Saint apologetics organization to a higher standard. I'm sure it did far more damage than me by making itself and the Church look bad. President Gordon's statement makes no mention of the videos, which FAIR has now quietly removed. It hasn't yet apologized for banning me from its Facebook page for criticizing them, but that's okay, I know people are busy. I'll wait.
Although FAIR has lost my respect, it did me a lot of good in the past and I hope it does more good for people in the future. And I don't share or understand some Saints' blanket condemnation of apologetics. Of course it isn't science or straightforward scholarship because it works backward and looks for evidence to fit an assumed conclusion, but that's okay sometimes. It can be done well or it can be done poorly. Trying to prove a religion by such means would be dishonest - but demonstrating plausible grounds for the religion, acknowledging that faith ultimately lies outside the scope of empirical evidence and reason but showing that it is nonetheless compatible with them, is necessary and desirable. In the example above, good apologetics assert (correctly) that DNA testing, because of its limitations and the unknown variables and shifting populations and genocides over a couple thousand years, can tell us little or nothing about the Book of Mormon. Bad apologetics, which also exist, assert that DNA testing proves Native Americans in the Midwest are direct descendants of Israelites.
Another purpose of apologetics is to respond to criticisms of the religion which may be objectively wrong or may just be founded on interpretations that are up for debate. If the critics are right about everything and the apologists are wrong about everything, as those Saints who disdain all apologetics seem to imply, then the Church has virtually no redeeming value and why are they still in it? Of course, I doubt they really belief this logical conclusion of their contempt. I think they have more in common with one Salt Lake Tribune commenter who posed the rhetorical question, "Why does the truth need apologists?" And I get the straightforward assumption embedded in his question. Why can't the truth speak for itself? Why does it need to be explained and defended so much? But his assumption is erroneous. The truth is, anything confusing and/or controversial needs apologists. Even science needs apologists. For example:
Critic: Vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue.
Apologist: No, they don't. Several vaccines are developed in cells grown from cells taken from two fetuses that were aborted for unrelated reasons in the 1960s, but refusing to save millions of lives with the vaccines won't un-abort them.
Critic: Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, which states that systems will lose energy and go from order to disorder, not the other way around.
Apologist: No, it doesn't. The second law of thermodynamics only applies to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system because it constantly receives more energy from the sun. Your logic would preclude ordinary water droplets from forming into intricate snowflakes.
I am not a scientist, but I am a science apologist. I don't pretend to have credentials or do groundbreaking research in my own right but I do have enough expertise in a few areas to explain misconceptions or misrepresentations of people who don't. For that reason, I have no regrets about my time spent in a major that wasn't English. And apologists like me are needed. A field of science is not less true because people may not understand some aspects of it, or because they may choose to fixate on anomalies and as-yet unsolved mysteries to delegitimize the entire thing. Granted, the actual scientists can do the apologetics themselves too, but I imagine they get even more freaking tired of it than I do and would like to get back to doing actual work like saving us from this pandemic.
Quote of the day, from the chat of Dialogue's Zoom Sunday school this morning: "Darius [Gray] is sharing the real Easter message right here: the resurrection means that Christ wins over the worst that the most powerful men in the world can do. The resurrection is a holy middle finger to oppression and death. It is the destiny of the restored church to overcome racism"
Folk Art & Material Culture
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.