Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A little creative problem-solving

Finally, a way to put my creative impulses to work! For every academic department required to find "creative solutions" to staffing problems because of a budget crisis, I offer my services as  Creativity Consultant. Here's just a taste of the creative problem-solving I can offer:
  • You're not allowed to replace that retiring botanist but no one else in the department has the requisite expertise to teach plant biology and no qualified adjuncts are available? Here's a creative solution: sign students up for an online origami course so they can learn to fold their own flowers!
  • Upper-level courses cancelled due to low enrollment? Majors beating down the door for independent studies so they can graduate on time? Here's a creative solution: let them take three 100-level courses to substitute for one 300-level course!
  • Your department will be unable to staff a popular program because of a hiring freeze but the Powers That Be assure you that the freeze is only "temporary" and therefore should not affect the long-term viability of the program--but what will you do with majors currently in the pipeline? Here's a creative solution: put the students into a medically-induced coma! Then when the hiring freeze is over, wake them up and let them continue on their course toward graduation. If you give them enough of the right kind of drugs, they'll never even notice that missing year! (Or years, as the case may be.)
Creative solutions like these can be yours for a fee roughly equal to the amount of the raise we haven't received for the past few years. But act quickly! This is a limited-time offer! Wait too long and you won't have a department left to save!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Noteworthy give and take

Some write on blackboards or whiteboards or overhead projectors; others distribute outlines or put material on PowerPoint slides, but regardless of their methods, all the professors I've observed over the past few years have one thing in common: somewhere on their course evaluations some student will complain that the professor "needs to give better notes."

Sometimes they'll get more specific: if the professor uses blackboards, they'll demand handouts; if she switches to handouts, they'll demand PowerPoint; if she uses PowerPoint, they'll demand that she record all her lectures and make them available online. Trust me on this--I visit a lot of classes and read a lot of course evaluations, and I rarely see a professor who does not frequently receive a request to "give better notes."

If I could give every student everywhere one small piece of advice, it would be this: Professors don't give notes; students take them.

Except when they don't.

This happens often: I'm standing in front of a class explaining in great detail some essential concept that I've written on the board, and then I casually mention that I would not be at all surprised to see this concept on an upcoming exam, and then I pause silently as two-thirds of my students dig deep into their voluminous backpacks to locate pen and paper so they can write down this essential concept while I stand there wondering why they haven't felt the need to write anything down before this point.

And you know those students who demand that important concepts appear on PowerPoint? I do that--not often, but a few times each semester I'll put together some interesting words and pictures to show in class and I even and pop the presentation into Moodle so students can review the information later on, but the nice thing about Moodle is that it provides usage details so I can see how many students ever go back to open that PowerPoint, and the numbers are pretty discouraging, suggesting that you can lead a frosh to PowerPoint but you can't make her think.

So for students who really want to succeed in challenging classes, I offer this advice: take notes! If the professor talks quickly, write quickly! If your writing muscles have become atrophied from disuse, practice! If you can't figure out which material is important, ask! In class! Or during office hours! Take some initiative--don't just sit there waiting for "notes" to fall out of the sky!

(I hope you've been taking notes on this. There's a quiz at the end.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Had a great fall

The sky cleared and the rain went away and the sun shone brightly and lo, it was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods with my birding-and-botanizing buddy and her new (and very well-behaved) dog, except the sudden onset of gorgeous weather inspired many other people to go walking in the woods with their dogs, which led to some tense moments. We saw trees on fire with fall color, geese tipping tails up in the pond as they ducked for supper, and berries glowing scarlet, coral, pink, and blue. (The blue berries grow on an invasive prickly vine imported from Asia; it grows up to six inches each day and is aptly named Mile-a-Minute Vine.)

We were so intent on looking up at all the loveliness when we should have been looking down that we each on separate occasions missed our footing and fell flat on our faces in the dirt. I'll be sore tomorrow but at the time I was more concerned about my camera, which hit the ground pretty hard. So far it seems to have escaped serious harm, as did my buddy when she turn her turn to slip. The only one to come through the hike unscathed was the dog. 


 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Where's my getaway car?

A friend keeps sending me information about job openings elsewhere--jobs for which I am not remotely qualified, like directing a graduate program (when I've never even taught in a graduate program) or chairing a department of 60 faculty members (when the only department I've ever chaired topped out at 7).

I know she means well and I appreciate the help, but I like my job. I even love (certain parts of) it (most of the time). I don't want to even think about leaving my job. I fear, though, that my job may be leaving me--not that my department will be eliminated (unlikely) but that our role will change so drastically that I can no longer love what I do. 

But that doesn't mean I intend to start begging to do things for which I'm eminently unqualified.

****** 

I recently discovered, entirely by accident, that the official name for the color of my car is Hero Blue. I'm embarrassed to tell you how happy this made me. I'm still hopelessly in love with my car well past the normal honeymoon period, and discovering its heroic nature only makes me love it more. 

 ******

Lately I've been having nightmares nearly every night in which someone I love is lost or endangered and I'm frantically trying to go to the rescue, but I'm thwarted by the department store that grows into a labyrinth or the pesky injuries that make me fall on my face and claw my way desperately across the floor. I keep moving because if I stop, all will be lost. I know that if I keep trying, I'll reach the goal.

But then I wake up, which is a relief (she wasn't really lost!) but also a disturbance (how will I ever rescue her now?). 

******

A freshman student sits in my office, stoically absorbing the news that the paper he thought was just fine actually needs more work--much more work. He look impassive, shifts in his seat, acts as if he can't wait to get out of the room and cuss me out--but then, a sudden change: his eyes light up and he grins widely and says, "Mr. Hogue! I love Mr. Hogue!"

All it takes to lighten the atmosphere in my office is for one of my husband's former students to notice his photo on my desk. I long ago came to terms with the fact that he's way more popular than I am; whenever we go out to eat or go shopping, students of all ages will come running up and say, "Mr. Hogue! When are you coming back to teach my class?!" 

They love him--for good reasons. He shows up in class, spends a day or two teaching them interesting things, cracking jokes, and cracking the whip, and then he goes away to teach another class on the other end of the county. He makes learning fun, and he rarely has to deliver bad news about grades or writing skills or behavior problems. He's their hero.

(I'm not.)

 ****** 

When I look over the job postings in the Chronicle, I don't see many calls for heroes. I see few jobs in my field, all either entry-level or out of my league. This is a relief: if no suitable jobs exist out there, then I don't have to worry about applying. I'll just have to stay here and adapt to whatever happens in the decade before I can think about retiring, and if I can't love it, maybe I can learn to claw my way through it without too much grief.

But part of me keeps wondering when I'm going to wake up from this nightmare. 

 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Talking trash

"I get so jealous when you talk about garbage," said a student in my African-American Lit class this morning. Garbage wasn't even on the agenda today, but I made an off-hand comment about how the poem under discussion seemed to be exploring a landfill, which made one student groan and another grin and express the sentiment above.

Why? Because I've already announced that the theme of the senior capstone class I'm teaching next fall will be Garbage. Yes: I'll be teaching the trash class, teaching students to excavate literary landfills. Current juniors are puzzled over how they can possibly spend an entire semester considering garbage, and it doesn't do any good to quote A.R. Ammons ("Garbage is the poetry of our time") or mention how garbage ties together all levels of human culture in, for instance, Don DeLillo's Underworld and Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend--or, more recently, how discarded, neglected, and buried experiences can be retrieved from the trash heap of history to create new narratives, as in Ruth Ozeki's Tale for the Time Being.

Students also seem skeptical when I assert that the need to deal with garbage marks the essence of human culture: groups work together to assign meaning to stuff, placing every material thing, person, or experience on a continuum from "highly valued" to "worthless," and then they make adjustments when those values change. (That old broken-down butter churn is suddenly an expensive antique? Says who?) And of course we'll be dealing with language itself as a compost heap of buried meanings that decay and combine and nourish new growth. We'll read some texts and examine some Garbage Theory (yes!) and then I'll set the students loose on their own research into garbage in (or as) literature. 

I try not to bring up garbage too frequently but I can get a little passionate about the topic, so when garbage gets dumped into the conversation, students tend to roll their eyes and groan. A few, though, are envious. We take turns teaching the senior capstone and focus on very different topics, which is fun for the faculty members but not always for the students, who have no choice but to take the class  offered in their senior year. Some students find the prospect of spending a semester studying garbage unpalatable, but for the rest--let's get ready for some literary dumpster-diving!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tragicomicacademics

While leading my Comedy class in a discussion of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, I tripped on Dromio's name and came out with Romeo, and then of course I had to riff a bit on whether Dromio and Romeo could exist in the same world. What would a mash-up of Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet look like? Would we see twice as many suicides or half as many beatings? Would Dr. Pinch and the Apothecary come to fisticuffs? Would the Abbess emerge at the end to reveal that Romeo and Juliet were actually her long-lost twins? Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?

I've grown accustomed to asking students to consider what separates comedy and tragedy and what happens when they overlap; lately, however, I've been struggling to recognize the distinction outside the classroom as well. I keep going to meetings in which I can't decide whether to laugh or cry or run screaming from the room, where I'm faced with incompatible options and impossible demands and I'm expected to make sense out of them. 

On the one hand I'm told to dream big and imagine a new, sparkly, unprecedented way to reconfigure this important program--the only limit is my imagination! But on the other hand, I'm supposed to figure out how to do more with less and imagine a world in which whole programs and perhaps departments disappear entirely. I keep hoping a deus ex machina will drop from the sky and provide a miraculous happy ending, but I fear we're heading instead for a stage covered with bloody bodies.

Is this play comedy or tragedy? Am I Dromio or Romeo? Dromio may take a few beatings, but he's always good for a laugh--and best of all, he's still breathing in the end.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Turning up the heat

Here's a quiz for all the husbands out there, or maybe I should say all the spouses or anyone sharing living quarters with a dearly beloved human being (animals not included):

When your beloved complains that it's really cold in the house, which response is acceptable?
a. "You're cold? I'll start a fire in the fireplace--and here, let me bring you some hot herbal tea."
b. "I'll bet we could find a way to warm each other up!"
c. "I'm not cold."
d. "Why don't you iron some shirts? That'll warm you up!"

I'm here to tell you that ironing shirts does indeed warm me up, but maybe not in the way my loving spouse intended. To be fair, he was out in the cold changing the oil in my car while I ironed--and he did start a fire in the fireplace--but it's useful to remember that the practical solution is not always the one most likely to promote marital harmony.

Let's face it: it's not easy being linked for life with someone whose internal thermostat runs counter to my own. If I'm comfortable, he's sweating; if he's comfortable, I'm buried under sweaters and blankets and thick wool socks, or else I'm finding alternative methods to stay warm:

Chop some veggies,
clean some rugs,
fold some laundry,
share some hugs.
Drink hot cocoa,
dim the lights,
burrow in blankets
and snuggle tight.

(Or if all else fails, I can always get caught up on the ironing.)

Any other suggestions?