Thursday, April 16, 2015

On not knowing what we don't know

At first glance, it appears that the primary problem in this pile of student drafts is that my students just don't know what they're doing, but that would be wrong. Most of my students know some of what they're trying to do but none of them know all of it and, more seriously, they don't know what they don't know and therefore they don't know how to find solutions to the questions they don't know they need to ask.

By this point in the semester they ought to know some things really well, like how to punctuate and cite quotations, which is why I get frustrated when I have to remind them to go back and review the quotation handout that the class covered thoroughly back in January and reviewed several times since then. I post all those handouts on the class website for a reason: because I refuse to re-teach the concepts individually to every student on every paper. Some of my students are probably sick of hearing me tell them to go look at the handout first and then come to me if they have more questions, but they'd save us all a lot of time and angst if they'd just go look at the stinking handout.

It's less easy at this point to try to re-teach the difference between summary and analysis; I can't do that in a handout or in a marginal note on a draft, and if they haven't mastered it by this point, how much can they improve in the next seven days? Nevertheless I'm telling them, for instance, that there's not much point in identifying metaphors if they're not going to unpack the implications of those metaphors and examine how they contribute to meaning. Naming things is not enough! Let's shake 'em upside-down and see what falls out.

(Which provides another metaphor they'll need to unpack. Practice makes perfect!)

And then we have the whole complicated issue of citing sources, which is a problem when some students don't even know what those sources are. Asked to produce articles from peer-reviewed academic journals, students find book reviews or quote from the article abstracts they find in the library's research databases, suggesting that on the internet, no one knows if a source is a dog. And then I'm once again explaining to a student that the word "Print" in a Works Cited listing means that he has relied on an actual hard copy of a text with pages that turn and therefore have actual printed page numbers that ought to appear in parenthetical citations, and I'm hearing, "Oh, so that's what 'Print' means. I guess I don't have any print sources." I guess not. Time to go find some!

And don't even get me started on the student who assures me that no one has ever written anything about a particular topic when a cursory search would reveal that among the many scholars who have examined that topic is, ahem, your obt. svt. 

But we are all still learning, aren't we? I'm learning diplomatic ways to tell students to go back and do it right this time, and they're learning the consequences of not having learned some essential skills earlier in the semester. So far, I give myself a B+. The students' grades will have to wait until after they revise their drafts.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Blossom time--for students and wildflowers

All Scholars' Day brings out the best in our students--their best suits and ties or dresses and heels, their best presentation skills, creative ideas, and enthusiasm for learning. This morning I heard students describe results of research into fruit fly development, learning disorders, and the impact of romantic fiction on attitudes toward domestic violence, and I heard artists describe the impetus behind their painting, photography, or graphic design projects. I learned about tendencies toward depression among migrant farm workers and I marvelled that students I knew as raw freshmen are doing research on topics that can make a real difference in the world.

Then I went home and stomped around in the mud to see how our long, bleak winter affected the wildflower population, and I'm pleased to report that things are booming on the wildflower front. I saw trout lilies, trilliums, wide swaths of blooming bloodroot, dutchman's breeches, squirrel corn, coltsfoot, and even some perfoliate bellwort blooming where I've never seen it before. I saw a few delicate fronds of Solomon's seal sprouting from the wet hillside, and I enjoyed once again the delicate pinks and greens of buckeye buds popping open. 

It's hard to believe in trilliums in the dead of winter, but here they come again just when I need them. Likewise, the chill wind blowing through academe may fill me with gloom, but here comes a whole crop of talented students to prove that what we're doing still matters. 

So I'm going to try to stop griping and bloom where I'm planted--even if I'll never be as adorable as a clump of perfoliate bellwort.   

A lasting blow

Two nights in a row I've awakened in a cold sweat from nightmares of thwarted communication: I'm writing a book offering advice to first-year students and the manuscript is due at the printers but I haven't finished the first chapter, or I'm struggling to produce a newsletter for a scholarly organization that suffers from a severe dearth of news. These dreams suggest, I think, continued angst over campus events too sensitive to be fully bloggable.

The good news is that several endangered programs seem to have escaped the chopping block--for now. The bad news is that a group of junior faculty members serving in threatened departments have seen the writing on the wall and announced that they will be leaving at the end of the semester, all for perfectly understandable reasons: to take a better job, to be closer to family, to live in a less--er, more culturally vibrant location. Nevertheless, these departures represent a real blow to the College, a blow that will echo far into the future.

Why? Because my departing colleagues are all champions of the liberal arts and really terrific teachers, mostly on tenure lines, who contribute to campus in a variety of essential ways inside and outside the classroom. Not all of them will be replaced immediately, raising questions about whether those tenure lines will be lost and how that will affect the future viability of certain programs. Departments permitted to fill these suddenly empty spaces will be searching for one-year replacements; since contingent faculty are not expected to serve on committees, this will reduce the number of faculty available to staff the committees that will  work very hard to help the college emerge from its current difficulties. And in the long term, these departures create a serious age and experience gap and decimate faculty diversity. Even after we emerge from the current budget crisis as a stronger and healthier institution (as I sincerely hope we will do), I don't know how we will fill those gaps or regain those losses.

Last semester a committee I chaired sent a letter to top administrators pointing out the outstanding level of teaching skills on campus but warning that we would have difficulty holding on to these terrific teachers if conditions continued to deteriorate, and while the administrators agreed that our concerns were valid, it was probably already too late to prevent the current exodus of talented colleagues. I love my job and I believe in the future of the institution, but before I can roll up my sleeves to start working toward recovery, I'm taking a little time to mourn our losses. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Writing on an obstacle course

A financial windfall never covers as many purchases as I expect, so I shouldn't be surprised when a gift of unscheduled time fails to accommodate as many projects as I'd like. In the distance it looms toward eternity, a big blank spot on the calendar, but as time goes on I pencil in projects and meetings and other commitments. Three whole free days! I can do anything.

But I can't. I can write a chunk of an essay before running to a meeting and then write a letter of support for a student before going to another meeting and then maybe scribble a little more on that essay before the jazz concert tonight. And then tomorrow? All Scholars' Day: I'll support students' research projects by attending presentations scheduled at various points in the day starting at 9 and ending at 5, but I do some more writing in those odd-shaped hours tucked between presentations.

And then Thursday? One class and then a whole lot of writing time to finish the essay that's due at the end of next week--except I also have student drafts coming in and a pile of papers to grade.

So my three relatively free days to focus on writing have turned into three days of snatching a few moments to write here and there between other important (and therefore distracting) events. My big empty landscape somehow got crowded with obstacles! Fortunately, there's nothing like a looming deadline to keep me focused while traversing those welcome empty stretches between all the obstacles.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

The recognitions

Pinecone, anyone?
A time of recognitions: I watch my granddaughter sing and laugh and play and I see my daughter's energy and her soundtrack and her constant curiosity about the world, but then I confront an unexpected reminder of my own childhood and for a moment I don't recognize that girl, the resentful little pleaser always working too hard to entertain her friends and not disappoint her parents.

I don't particularly like the little girl I was, the one who was always embarrassed by her clothes and who couldn't stand coming home to an ugly house but lied about loving it to protect her parents' feelings (when they had so many burdens to carry that the little girl's dislike for that house would not have even registered a blip on their radar screens), and I'm also not especially fond of the adolescent know-it-all who confronts me in an old note to a friend, the smarty-pants trying to turn every iota of pain into comedy.

But maybe it's time to embrace the little girls who turned into the adult me. Somewhere deep inside I'm still carrying their pain, but maybe it's time to say "there, there" and let it go. I wouldn't want to pass that pain on to the next generation, which has other things on its mind: spring puddles and potty training and singing singing singing. I recognize the tune and no one can stop me from singing along.   

Thursday, April 09, 2015

So much water so close to home

Ah, the sounds of a spring morning: the birds cheeping; the spring peepers peeping; the creek roaring...

Wait a minute: if I can hear the creek roaring while I'm lying in bed, then something is amiss. What did all that dramatic thunder, lightning, and rain do to my calm little creek?

Turn on the radio: flood warnings, school delays, further rain in the forecast. Will I make it to campus?

My creek is over its banks but hasn't quite reached the driveway or covered the bridge. I drive between farm fields that have turned into sudden lakes, skirt overflowing ditched and debris washed over the road, and make it to campus, where more rain keeps the morning dim and gloomy.

If the rain keeps up I may have trouble getting home later on, but inside my office I'm warm and dry and surrounded by books. I just hope I don't have to sleep here tonight!


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

How do I shut up the internal critic?

When I start urging my husband to stop being so darned reasonable, you know I need some help disabling my tiny puritans.

They live in my brain, these tiny puritans, passed down through generations of workaholics suspicious of pleasure. Their squeaky little voices shriek at me that I'm not working hard enough or wasting time on silly things or being selfish. They shriek loudest when I'm thinking about spending money on something frivolous instead of  saving for a rainy day or putting it to more practical use. If I want to spend money on myself, they kick and scream and ask what I've ever done to deserve something so nice.

You can't reason with the tiny puritans that live in my brain because they simply don't care about reason. Right now they're jumping up and down angrily simply because I'm thinking about buying a new camera, which would be a perfectly reasonable purchase, but they don't care. Selfish, they say. What did you ever do to deserve a new camera? You broke the old one!

This is true: it took me more than a year to quiet the tiny puritans enough to permit myself to buy a canoe--a used canoe--which anyone who knows me would tell you was the smartest purchase I've ever made. The tiny puritans wanted me to spend the money on paying down some debts, which would be prudent and reasonable, but here's the thing: the canoe money came out of the sky when I won our college's top prize for excellence in teaching. I earned it! If winning our top teaching prize is not evidence that I deserve a (used) canoe, then something is wrong with the universe.

So now I need a new camera but the tiny puritans are having a hissy fit. Even when my husband marshals all the reasons, the tiny puritans can't be persuaded that it wouldn't be selfish and frivolous and not at all deserved. They are loud and annoying and they won't leave me alone. 

Someone needs to beat them to a pulp, those tiny puritans, or at least bind and gag them long enough to let me have some fun. But where do I put out a contract on my tiny puritans?   

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Running out of words

Ineffable, anthropomorphic, symbiosis, syncretism--all words I've written on the board in classes this week, and if you think it's easy to define ineffable in terms a freshman would understand, go ahead and give it a try. A.R. Ammons once claimed that "Nothing that can be said about [poetry] in words is worth saying," but I haven't yet figured out how we're supposed to talk about poetry without words. 


And speaking of words, a student this morning had trouble with the word nestles, pronouncing it nest-less. A freshman shoved rudely out of a warm, cozy home without a reading habit might well feel nestless, lacking words to describe the ineffability of her overwhelmedness, but the cure is to nestle into a world of books, starting, perhaps, with the dictionary.

But this is the time of the semester when words fail. We're all too tired, too busy, or too lacking in energy to seek out the words we need. I find myself speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in this naked and endless head--or wait, that's not me; that's Allen Ginsberg.