The Mighty Mt. Vesuvius

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Mt. Vesuvius – when we traveled to Italy last summer, I became totally obsessed with Mt. Vesuvius and the once-buried city of Pompeii. It was a magnet against which I had no control. It is a magnet that is active, that is full of magma at some deep level, and that hisses and emits plumes of hot steam near its base. The word from experts is not “if,” but “when” it will one day repeat its spectacularly horrific performance over Pompeii.

The infamous eruption that buried Pompeii occurred in 79 A.D. The city had experienced a series of preceding earthquakes with a major one in 62 A.D. that did considerable damage to the city’s quite advanced infrastructure. As the time for the major eruption neared, seismic activity in the area increased, but having been used to their ground regularly shaking, most citizens went about their business as usual.

On an August day, it was after the noon hour that all hell broke loose and a huge cloud exploded into the sky while the ground shook, and poisonous gases and ash spewed all over the city of Pompeii. Many people gathered some belongings and escaped while others decided to hunker down and wait it out. The ones who waited literally smothered to death.

Visiting the city of Pompeii was like walking on sacred ground where the ghosts of those who died whisper in the bakeries, bathhouses and brothels that remain crumbled in the ruins. Most haunting are the casted remains of those who died in exactly the positions in which they died. When the ash came, it encased the bodies and when it cooled, it made actual casts of the bodies as seen in the photo.

Vesuvius has had a few belches since 79 A.D., including one in 1631 that destroyed the city of Naples which lies at its base, and one in 1944, during WW II. No one was injured in the latter eruption, but lava and ash ruined bomber military planes and other equipment that were stationed at the Pompeii Airport. Since then there have been many small earthquakes.

Now comes the issue of “when.” As the only active volcano in Europe, the city of Naples has precariously draped itself in an area surrounding the volcano’s bottom. Scientist Michael Sheridan of the University of Buffalo says Vesuvius is due for a major blow as catastrophic, or even more so, than the one that destroyed Pompeii. The city has designed emergency plans for an eruption, but these plans don’t cover the magnitude of a Pompeii-style one that could completely destroy this thriving port city.

So, what if? What then? The answers are out of our control. And those in Vesuvius’ shadow can only respect their mighty neighbor and bear witness to the havoc she may one day wreak upon them.

A Solution to the Rising Cost of College Textbooks

Would you believe that since 2006 the cost of textbooks for college students has risen an astronomical 73 percent? For some students, this equates to a yearly bill of up to $1,200 just for books! What do they do? Many students lasso some of their financial aid, which is really meant for tuition as well as room and board – the things that enable an education in the first place. Others take time away from studies and work! It’s estimated that a student must work 28 hours to buy just one textbook. (Ethan Senack, advocate at Public Interest Research Groups as told to NBC). And some take their chances and don’t get the book at all.

So, what’s with the high cost of these books? First, the academic publishing industry is run by just five publishers who control 80 percent of the market. Second, in most cases, professors decide what textbook is required for their courses, which means students have no choice but to pay whatever those books cost. There are two issues regarding professor choice. One is that some professors do not know the cost of their chosen text and second, some professors know and simply do not care: not an acceptable approach in today’s high-pressure, exorbitant academic expense (let’s not even begin to talk about tuition!) world.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? The answer is a resounding yes. Enter Open Education Resource, a rapidly emerging approach of incorporating academically sound, free digital materials into instruction. I volunteered to take my class materials online when an opportunity arose and after my first go-round, the course received the highest student evaluations of any time I have taught it using traditional texts. Of course, part of the rave reviews was the fact that the students didn’t have to pay $125 for the book I had been using. But I think the main reason was the true fun associated with exploring new and varied resources to support the learnings in class.

So, if learning is more effective and the students actually have fun, why isn’t OER more widespread? Here’s why: it’s hard! Putting together an array of materials that matches your teaching goals and objectives is just plain arduous whereas teaching from a textbook is comparatively easy.

When I volunteered to convert my course, a cadre of librarians joined with me in the hunt. The process was enjoyable – like a treasure hunt, seeking the perfect resource for a given objective or activity. We discovered, we discussed and we designed, using some things, and discarding others. The bottom line: all the resources were free and were easily either transported into or linked to our learning management system. Voila! Free, quality resources.

What are the real benefits of OER? According to William Blick and Sandra Marcus of Queensborough Community College, they are as follows:

  • They lessen the college cost burden for students
  • For faculty, there is far more freedom in choosing sources than if texts are mandated
  • The assembly of materials adds to the greater academic pool of knowledge on a given topic

As I look towards my fourth semester of using OER, I am excited because based on changes in business communications methods and technologies, it’s time to engage in another hunt for the exactly right resource for the topic at hand. Let the hunt (and fun) begin!

College Classroom Behaviors

speakers-414562_960_720The semester is over – almost. Usually I experience a letdown at the end of a semester. Not so this year. Let me tell you why.

I enjoyed most of the students, with “most” being the operative word. But what I experienced more this semester than in my 25 years of teaching was attitudes of self-righteousness. And those that exhibited it were almost militant in their demands and brash in their behaviors. They showed a disrespect for me and their fellow students that was astounding.

Here is an example: I had one young man whose hand stayed up in the air for the entire semester. He had it up to answer every question I asked, to make a multitude of comments, some relevant, many not, and to respond to one of the other poor souls who dared venture out from under the shadow of his hand. Not only did he do these things, the hand was perpetually raised regardless of whether I was in the middle of a lecture or another student was speaking. Because of that hand, the other students mostly shut down so the semester set out to be the “Lionel” (not his real name) show. His other disruptive (to me) behavior was a constant current of facial expressions with furrowed brow, unnerving, to say the least.

It was time to get my class back!

I did. Here’s how. When his hand went up and the rest of the class sat silent and stoic, I called on one of the others who in fact seemed happy to participate. Of course, I still called on Lionel (as a good and fair teacher I could not ignore this hand forever), but more often I “volunteered” the participation of others and things seemed to balance out.

Now, you may ask, why didn’t I speak with Lionel about his hand and behavior? Mid-semester I did indeed. Things improved … for a week. Then it was as if we never spoke.

For years, I have had an item in my grading rubric called professionalism, which gives me a tool for addressing things like lateness, inappropriate in-class behavior, late work, and disrespect for peers and professor. This year, Lionel’s wasn’t the only professionalism score to suffer significantly, and in fact, I doled out more poor scores than ever before, so I set about to ponder why.

Entitlement. For many of today’s students it’s all about “me, me, me.” In addition to the hand, which clearly did not care about the remaining 20 hands in the room, I had two students who came in late to class, and I mean 10 to 15 minutes late, nearly every day. Then there was the issue of the cell phone and incessant in-class texting. I’ve decided that they think if they put their heads down and behind their computers they can’t be seen. It’s the “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” thing.

So, I will spend my summer thinking about how to improve my classroom atmosphere, handle this increasing attitude of entitlement, and give all students a better experience.

Nick DiChario

Reader, writer, life-long mistake-maker

Judith Shenouda

Author of Living Well in Froggy's World of Plenty: Sweet Talk to Read Aloud; A Bisl of This, A Bisl of That: Eating Our Way; and Career Success in 12 Easy Steps: A Journal; and Owner of Shenouda Associates Inc., Provider of Technical, Marketing, and Business Communications

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