Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Relaxing before Thanksgiving--a command performance

In the few weeks since I last saw her, my granddaughter has mastered the imperative mood. "Dump it!" she says, and then she grabs the bin of toys and dumps it. "Read book!" she says, and I read her a book. "Cookie--want it!" she says, and I give her a cookie. That's what grandma is for--or, rather, Gamma, which is what she calls me. I am happy to be that Greek letter.

This morning we colored pictures, played peek-a-boo, and wandered out in the cold to visit the neighbors' chickens, which is a lot more fun than anything I've done on campus lately. At sushi lunch she begged for chopsticks to mimic the rest of us, but it turns out that stabbing sticky rice with a chopstick is not the most efficient way to get it to your mouth.

But that's okay. Save a few skills to learn later, right? And while she's learning to master her world, she provides plenty of free entertainment for the rest of us. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Abandoning the lookout post

Five years ago this week, after I'd finished my final chemotherapy session, I asked my oncologist what to expect next and he said, "We watch you." And he has: through five years of periodic CT scans, blood tests, and checkups, he's faithfully manned the lookout post to watch for any hint that those nasty little cancer cells might be massing for invasion, but today we're done watching. Last week's tests came up totally clear, so I don't need to do any more follow-ups. As much as I appreciate my wonderful oncologist, I'm hoping that I never have to see him again--professionally, anyway. Time to close up the lookout post and head on home happily because all the watching is over.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

But whose failure is it?

Grading a pile of freshman papers at this point in the semester really should not make me feel like a complete and utter failure as a human being. After all, a few of the papers demonstrate an impressive ability to appeal to readers, assemble an argument, and employ evidence effectively to support that argument, and a few others reveal significant improvement in writing skills. I ought to focus on those instead of the others.

Oh, the others.

You don't want to know about the others.

Did they badly paraphrase whole paragraphs from sources and then tack on the barest hint of a citation at the end? Yes they did.

Did they copy and paste from an online source without even bothering to change the font so that the copied material fairly screams "Search me!"? You know they did.

Did they mangle their in-text citations and Works Cited listings in so many incomprehensible ways that it's virtually impossible to detect which source is actually being referred to at any given moment? Of course they did.

Did they upload the wrong paper to the course management system? Don't even get me started.

This isn't even the final paper of the semester; these students have one more opportunity to prove to me that all the work we've been doing all semester long has actually made some sort of impact on their skills. Maybe it's not too late! Maybe they'll all spend Thanksgiving break working extra-hard to make sure the final paper is a resounding success!

And maybe I've got cranberry sauce where my brains should be. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

It's not just Friday--it's Penultimate Friday!

Any professor on campus can tell you exactly how many Monday classes remain on the schedule before finals week and exactly how many student assignments we'll need to grade before it's all over and exactly how many long horrible meetings stand between us and sanity, and it makes us a little giddy. Today, for instance, is Penultimate Friday: since we have next Friday off for Thanksgiving break, today's classes are the second-to-last Friday classes I'll teach before finals. This calls for a celebration!

When we proffies go a-stumbling
'cross the campus in a daze
all distracted and a-mumbling,
"Just a few more bleeping days,"

When the steaming stacks of papers
fill our minds with undelight
but we cheer and cut fine capers
when one student learns to cite,

When the calendar confronts us
with its dwindling stock of days,
then we pray for no more dunces
in our Penultimate Friday way.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A question for the Plagiarism Police

Here's the situation: The paper is due tomorrow and you've already read and responded to student drafts a week ago. A student whose draft was barely there asks you to look over another draft just in case he missed anything. You quickly skim his draft, note tremendous improvement except for a few format and grammar problems, and then get the sinking feeling that part of this work was copied and pasted from somewhere else. How do you respond?

1. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and tell the student he's getting an F on the paper and you're writing him up for plagiarism.

2. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and warn the student that he'd better rewrite the plagiarized sections before submitting the paper for grading.

3. Send the student an e-mail (paper trail!) reminding him of the importance of properly punctuating and citing sources and suggesting that if he has unintentionally (!) copied and pasted from online sources without proper punctuation and citation, he will get an F on the paper. Then Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and wait for the student to submit the paper for grading so you can pounce on the plagiarized passages and give him his well-deserved F.

Some sub-points to consider:
a. Would the level of the course affect your answer? (First-year vs. sophomore vs. upper-level?)
b. Would the time of year affect your answer? (First major assignment vs. final paper?)
c. Would your previous experience with the student affect your answer? (Reliable but rushed student vs. committed slacker?)

I know how I would deal with this because I've just done one of these three things this week, but one of the occupational hazards of thinking for a living is that I never stop second-guessing myself. So let me know what you would do and then I'll share what I actually did.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just laying the line

We've reached my favorite part of the African-American Literature syllabus--Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days--and this morning we considered what an ordinary working person has to do to become a mythic hero. Why, for instance, isn't anyone writing a song about Dr. Hogue, the mythic English professor?

"Because she didn't die with a red pen in her hand" is the obvious answer, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve a folk song. I work my brain at least as hard as John Henry worked his body, so where's my statue? Where's my legend? Where's my postage stamp? Who will write the song about the thesis-driving woman drilling holes into mountains of prose to let the train of truth steam on through?

"It's only heroic if you die doing it," said a student, and that's one of the central paradoxes of Whitehead's novel. His main character, J., recalls seeing a filmstrip on the John Henry myth back in elementary school and wishes he could have asked his teacher a question: "Mrs. Goodwin, why did he have to die in the end? Mrs. Goodwin, if he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?"

I ask myself sometimes whether I'm winning or losing. I drill right through one mountain of papers and another rises up to take its place, so it's hard to see whether I'm getting any closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. If the entire mountain collapses and buries me, will anyone even notice?

Days like today, though, I've shoved the mountain aside to spend some time discussing fascinating literature with students eager to play with ideas. It may not be the stuff of myth, but all the same, it feels like winning.

Monday, November 17, 2014

But where are the ping-pong balls?

It's not every day that the college president name-checks Captain Kangaroo at a faculty meeting, but on a Monday full of odd moments, that one was just the tip of the oddness iceberg. 

There was the extremely large man with earbuds in his ears who fell asleep in his chair in the waiting room at the hospital so that this petite young woman in a scrubs who came to fetch him for his tests had to find a way to wake him up: pull out the earbuds so he can hear or just poke him? What part of an extremely large stranger's anatomy would you poke to wake him up if you didn't want to startle him into falling off his chair or injuring someone? 

And then another young woman in scrubs told me she always gets the needle in right the first time but left me with THREE separate bruises on two different arms, for an average of 1.5 bruises per arm. "You'll feel a little stick," she said just before she drove a needle right through my vein and out the other side. "Is it still hurting?" she asked. "It shouldn't still be hurting." Eight hours later, it's still hurting.

There was the sudden blinding snow that made my six-block drive from the hospital to campus treacherous and persuaded me to leave my umbrella in the car so that I was totally unprepared just seconds later when the snow turned to big fat cold raindrops. 

Then there was the first-year student who e-mailed me to insist that he doesn't need to use any sources for his research paper because he's writing about a topic he knows so well that he doesn't need sources. I've heard a lot of amazing excuses from students but I think this is the first time a freshperson has claimed to be the world's expert on a complex problem of contemporary life. Clearly someone doesn't understand the assignment.

Then the meeting in which we reviewed survey data showing that our students claim that they're not writing drafts (on what planet?) and they're not doing the reading (no surprise) and they're not talking to other students outside of class (what?) so it's no surprise that they claim to rarely learn to think differently about anything.

And then the other meeting--the one that invoked the name of Captain Kangaroo, whose gentle antics would probably appear moronic to the Sesame Street generation. I loved Captain Kangaroo! And I loved Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear and especially Mr. Moose, who made ping-pong balls fall from the ceiling for no apparent reason. I don't recall ever wondering whether some ordinary guy might be manipulating those puppets just out of sight, but apparently there was such a guy name Cosmo Allegretti, and I would love him just for having such a great name and for being Mr. Moose if I hadn't just learned that he, sadly, died just about a year ago but not before arranging a generous bequest to his alma mater, which would be the college where I teach.

Mr. Moose saves the day! It just doesn't get any odder than that.