top of page

"My Huge Basketball IQ" by Jason Koo

Updated: May 2, 2020

Finally finished “The Origin of the Work of Art,”

which is not an essay but a confrontation:

you have to be engaged with it at all times to see

what is being said, to see even a part of it,

only sixty pages long but taking me two weeks

to read. Yesterday on the first day of class,

after thinking so long over break about some

nasty student evals I received, how to get better

as a teacher, how to get more out of my students,

specifically how to make them feel more

comfortable while still pushing them,

as the #1 complaint is always that I am not

“sensitive to students’ needs,” I was confronted

by students already looking away when I

made eye contact or just staring into space

as I spoke, still staring into space when I returned

my gaze to them half a minute later, and

I could feel my frustration creeping in again,

all the hopeful theorizing I’d been doing

about how best to help these students being

met, on the first day, with anxiety, insecurity,

boredom, indifference, though my energy level

and enthusiasm were higher than usual,

and “enthusiasm for the material” is always

my highest mark on evals, begrudgingly

marked 4 out of 5 by even the most hateful

students, and I joked how already I was

seeing people stare off into space, saying,

It’s only the first day of class, people!

using a little sarcasm, then I caught myself,

because I vowed to try to be less sarcastic

this semester, more direct and sincere,

and I made a point of saying something about

what class participation means to me: you

don’t have to talk all the time but you do

have to be engaged, which starts with looking

at someone when they’re speaking, beginning

with the teacher: it’s just rude, isn’t it,

not to look at someone when they’re talking

to you? We all know this outside of class

but for some reason in class we think it’s okay.

After that all the students started to look

at me when I spoke, one girl in particular

who was flustering me by staring into space

began speaking a lot, this worked so well

I think I’m going to make a point of putting

it down as an official policy on my syllabus.

On the current student evals my university

employs, the students are asked at the top

of the form to evaluate themselves first,

whether they tried their best to learn

the material, whether they took from the course

skills they can use, and they always rate

themselves highly, on average usually 4.5

or higher out of 5, never once have I seen

any students rate themselves lower

than a 3 (neutral) out of 5, even though

some failed to turn in multiple assignments.

And, I don’t know, this seems to me to be

um, what, disappointing? This total lack

of accountability on the part of people

entrusted to hold me accountable?

They are prompted by the system to confirm

their accountability first, then given free rein

to attack me personally with no accountability

whatsoever. At least my name is by their grades.

And my job, ultimately, as a non-tenure-track

prof, is always on the line when I give out

bad grades that have been earned for poor work.

And I have long experience and expertise

in evaluating this particular work of writing

that they do, which is why I was hired.

But what experience or expertise do they have

in evaluating teaching, my body of work,

especially bad students? They naturally just

record what they thought of me as a person,

or compare me, perhaps, to some other teacher

or class in which they had a more favorable

experience. And of course by favorable

what we’re talking about here is a good grade,

without fail every class I’ve taught

in which I’ve given higher grades netted

marks on evals that on average were higher.

I don’t think I’m a better teacher in those classes

in which I’m rated higher, if anything I think

I’m worse, as the students seem to be performing

well without much need of help from me.

There is always an unraveling that happens

out of pure beginnings, as I have just read

about again in Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings,”

which I’ll be teaching to my Intro to Creative Writing

students, even this very sentence is an illustration,

as I had the pure beginning of the phrase

“There is always an unraveling that happens”

as I sat on the toilet just a few minutes ago

and then it took another hundred clauses

just to include the sidebar of the info about

rereading “On Beginnings” and teaching that.

We have an idea how to change things,

a new hope, as Star Wars might say, and then

we start to move through time and interact

with other people and pretty soon the Death Star

detonates that hope from a million miles

away. On the second day of Intro to Creative Writing

I come in prepared to talk about my engagement

policy then lead a fun abecedarian exercise

but before I can even talk about engagement

a new student who missed the first day of class,

looking like he’s just emerged from the sleep

that caused his absence, starts doodling as I speak,

even after I’ve just made a point of introducing

him and—when everyone sat there awkwardly

without greeting him—prompted the class to say hello.

Already the unraveling is happening and the class

hasn’t even begun, this dude comes in having missed

the first day, gives zero fucks about what he missed

and proceeds to ignore me by doodling.

Imagine showing up one day late for a new job

or an appointment or a date or your own wedding

and immediately starting to doodle when the person

you’re there to see speaks. The behavior is absurd,

but we’ve come to accept it, and I’ve had it.

I suddenly have the memory of balancing

my checkbook at the beginning of a teaching

practicum—oh the irony—I took my first year

in the PhD program at the University of Missouri,

I had contempt for the class as I’d already had

a practicum in my MFA program and had been

teaching for four years and the teacher leading

the class wasn’t giving us any practical tips

for teaching but just going over pedagogical theory,

which is so useless for your particular classes,

i.e. reality, so I’d decided to tune out in class

and mock it and the teacher any chance I got,

and on this day I really needed to balance

my checkbook for some reason, and the teacher,

probably raised to a boil of fury as she noticed me

doing this for several minutes, finally snapped

at me and told me to put my checkbook away

and I did, shamed. She was right to do that.

I was extremely rude for doing what I did.

But why has no teaching practicum I’ve taken

talked about engagement, setting ground rules

for how teacher and student interact with each other,

starting with looking at each other as we speak?

The concept feels oddly revolutionary.

When I notice this new student doodling

I immediately address the matter of engagement,

asking everyone to look at the person speaking

unless you’re taking notes, and I ask him,

Oh, wait, were you taking notes? And at first

he nods, thinking of lying, but then I say,

Or…no? and he says, No, I was just doodling.

He already seems to resent me a little

because he’s being singled out, and I say,

You probably think I’m rude for singling you out,

trying to preempt this notion, and he says no,

but we’ll see. After that everyone in class

looks at me as I speak, there’s a new energy

in the room as I’m guessing none of them has ever

heard a teacher say this before, as I have not,

and I ask them to write down some things

they look for from a teacher, some standards

they want a teacher to meet, we’ll make up

our common ground of engagement together.

And the list is amazing: relatable, enthusiastic,

passionate, cool, respectful, patient, fair,

challenging, knowledgeable, understanding—

amazing because even as I demonstrate

to students that I’m “enthusiastic,” “passionate”

and “challenging,” they bludgeon me on evals

if they don’t think my grading is fair.

I tell them if they think of anything else

they should tell me, that we’re going to hold

each other accountable and try to get better

every day, as LeBron James likes to say,

that we’re going to approach the classroom

as a space of engagement, turning on our best selves

when we walk through the door, coming in

with intensity, purpose, enthusiasm, curiosity,

care, patience, understanding, good humor,

that we’re going to put in the time outside

the classroom as well, so that the time we have

together inside the classroom is energized.

Most are listening intently though I notice

new guy shuffling his feet and looking away

as I speak, seeming physically uncomfortable;

I can tell he’s going to be a bit of a problem,

he seems to have dumped himself here

as a place where he expects nothing to be

expected of him and he can just doodle

his time away when he’s not high, as he seems

most likely to be. Already an unraveling

and we’re in the first week of class, by March

time will have taken over and all the weight

of students’ other obligations and the shit they have

to deal with personally, they’ll have gotten

writing back with comments that discourage them,

some will decide they just don’t like me

and don’t care about my engagement policy,

some will decide creative writing isn’t that

important to them, they were just doing it for fun,

they didn’t sign up for all this work. The sag

is inevitable, and then the rationalizations,

the wriggling free of accountability, even as

you hold the person you blame for your troubles

accountable. And so LeBron talks to the media

about how he has never undermined a coach,

never gotten a coach fired, which I’m sure

he believes, even though he did several different

things over the course of one and a half seasons

under David Blatt that got him fired, incredibly,

last Friday, with the Cavs in first place at 30–11

in the Eastern Conference with the third-best record

in the league (though they were 0–3 against

the two teams in front of them), and a Finals trip

under their belts from last season, when, despite

injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, they came

within two wins of beating a historically great

Golden State team. All the reports (from anonymous

sources) were that the players didn’t like or respect

Blatt, despite the winning record, that there

was resentment seething in the locker room,

especially from veterans who’d lost playing time

without being told why, that the players thought

he was arrogant about his overseas credentials,

because really he was an NBA newbie, if not

an actual rookie coach—he didn’t know shit

about this league. LeBron never bought into

his Princeton offense, so he just ditched it

without asking for permission early last season;

to be fair that offense probably wasn’t going

to work with the personnel the Cavs had then,

but still LeBron was clearly undermining

the coach when he did this, then told

the media he was at that point in his career

where he didn’t have to ask for permission

anymore. Just as he was undermining the coach

when he told the media he’d “scrapped”

the play Blatt had drawn up at the end of Game 4

of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against

the Bulls, demanding he take the final shot himself

and burying it, tying the series at two and propelling

the Cavs into the seven-game winning streak

that got them to the Finals. Of course you could

argue—and I’m sure LeBron does this in his head,

if not to friends—that he wasn’t undermining

his coach if he was helping him get wins,

which he was, because if Blatt had lost more

regular season games with an offense that wasn’t

working, or had lost Game 4, which he almost did

by calling a timeout he didn’t have—saved only

by his replacement, Tyronn Lue, who caught him

before the refs noticed—he certainly would

have been fired last season. And maybe it’s true

that the real problem with Blatt was that he wasn’t

holding LeBron accountable, that he pandered

to him too much, because LeBron clearly has a problem

holding himself accountable. But firing Blatt

hasn’t made that problem go away, as evidenced

by LeBron telling the media he has never undermined

a coach, what was he supposed to do, put away

his huge basketball IQ? Not one word of support

for Coach Blatt from his mouth, not one kind

or sympathetic thing to say, not one word

of gratitude for at least helping the Cavs reach

the Finals in his first year back in Cleveland.

Amazing. Not one word from the other players,

save for Matthew Dellavedova, who thanked

Blatt and said he was a “great person” because

he believed in him last season when no one else

did, which is true, I remember screaming

at Delly every time he turned the ball over

or took a horrible shot during the regular season,

cursing Blatt for overplaying him, then

the playoffs come and Kyrie Irving gets hurt

and guess what shitty guy steps in to fill his role

and makes huge plays to help us win games,

most importantly the two games we win

in the Finals? Delly. We don’t win those games

without him, without Blatt giving him enough

reps and confidence in the regular season

to step in. And now, this year, Delly is one

of our most reliable players, a legit backup PG,

playing so well he’s moved ahead of Mo Williams

on the depth chart, who was signed in the offseason

to replace him. Dellavedova, an undrafted player

not blessed with obvious physical gifts, clearly

holds himself accountable in a way the other Cavs

do not. Being talented, i.e. privileged, lets you

get away with not holding yourself accountable,

or lets you define holding yourself accountable

in different ways, as I’m sure LeBron does with wins,

not by how many ways he undermines a coach.

At least LeBron is uncommonly talented, generally

mans up, backs up his word, puts in the work

and leads his team to victory, if anything he clashes

with coaches because of just how uncommon

his gifts are, his basketball IQ is indeed probably

higher than that of any coach he’s played for,

most of whom have never played in the NBA.

But what of my college students who are

privileged but not uncommonly talented, who

give themselves outs for disrespecting me

or try to get me fired on their evals without

also writing the best poems of their generation?

And what of me, who is also privileged but not

uncommonly talented? I feel for Blatt but

at the same time understand why the decision

was made, at the end of the day the Cavs

are looking to win a title and “pretty good,”

as GM David Griffin said, just isn’t good enough.

Maybe the players were as much at fault

if not more so for Blatt not working out as coach,

but you have to make a change once the resentment

sets in, once the relationship is ruined,

sometimes the fit is just wrong. And I think—

despite all my growing annoyance with the word

“accountable,” at least how all these people

are using it—maybe my problem is that I am not

holding my students accountable enough,

to the absolutely highest standard, not just a high

standard, as seemed to be the case with Blatt,

he already thought of himself highly because

he’d won titles overseas and is revered in Israel,

he didn’t think he had anything to prove in the NBA,

but that’s wrong, he did, just as LeBron always

has something to prove even though he’s won

two titles now. I am tough on my students

but not tough enough, perhaps, I am in between,

perhaps the “toughness” of my grading comes

off as bias, spitefulness for them not meeting

my lowered standards, my threshold requirements,

rather than holding them to the highest standard.

I have put in the work but have I put in the highest

work, am I committing to that every day?

Perhaps I used to, or try to, but not lately.

When it comes to teaching there are days I let

slide, when I rely on prior knowledge of poems

for discussion instead of rereading them, when

I’m not holding students to the highest standard

but just getting frustrated with them for not talking,

not doing the reading, not following

instructions, those are not the same thing

as coming in with my own mindfulness

about how I can get the best out of my students,

how I can continue to get better, and I know

I have not been doing those things lately, if ever.


Jason Koo is the author of the poetry collections More Than Mere LightAmerica's Favorite Poem and Man on Extremely Small Island and coeditor of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. He has published his poetry and prose in the American Scholar, Missouri ReviewVillage Voice and Yale Review, among other places, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. An associate teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.

Recent Posts

See All

"Mavis and Bruce" by Angela Townsend

Bruce and Mavis, Mavis and Bruce. They blow through my hair like the Holy Spirit. Our double helixes have never danced, but they are braided into my lanyard. We are some sort of three-stranded cord. T

"Existing As Glass" by Aarron Sholar

It was nearly 7pm. I stood at the drop-off counter at the pharmacy as I waited for help from the man behind the counter. People walked all around me, shopping carts in grip and filled with dozens of i

Two poems by Mckendy Fils-Aimé

sipèstisyon If people say your child is beautiful, your child will become ugly. ok, i confess. once, i said fuck you to danny perkins on the last day of kindergarten after a miserable year of being pu


bottom of page