Friday, September 04, 2015

A roller-coaster kind of week

I don't have the right word to describe the week I've had, marvelous and dreadful by turns. I got to color purple puppies with my adorable granddaughter and hear her say her socks are "all cattywampus" (hurrah!), but I also had to spend two hours in a meeting discussing an important issue on which my feedback is destined to have no discernible impact (boo!). I enjoyed seeing my daughter show off her teaching skills (yay!) but also grieved with valued colleagues who learned this week that their positions are being cut (sob!). There simply isn't an emoticon sufficient for the current situation.

But a little verse can't make it worse.

The roller-coaster rises high
then makes me catch my breath
by swooping toward the earth as if
straight toward the doors of death--

but then (relief!) we rise again
to burst earth's surly bonds
and touch the sky--what's that? Oh my!
We're headed for the ground!

I close my eyes and scream and cry
and laugh and grin--and then
the end is near! No more to fear!
(Who wants to try again?)

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Off the cuff--and off the syllabus

Things I have told my first-year students this semester:

"I'm not a Staple Nazi." (Because I'm more interested in what's written in the paper than in how the pages are connected.)

"You may do this activity in small groups or independently. You pick." (Because sometimes a little self-direction is helpful.)

"Everyone who lives long enough eventually turns into Rush Limbaugh." (Not entirely true but relevant in context.)

"You have a moral obligation to visit the new ice-cream shop in town." (Because I believe in educating the whole person.)

"You're right, but why are you right?" (Because that's why we're here.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Learning curves (and clicks)

I'm the expert, right? I'm the one who has spent, literally, years researching the topic, reading all the foundational texts and tracing tangential ideas through footnotes, endnotes, and endless references. I'm the one who wrote the conference paper and presented it at the conference and discussed the topic with experts and who is now working on revising the paper for publication, and I'm the one who did yet more research to feed the demands of a grant application to fund future research on the topic. I'm the one who designed the course, assembled the syllabus, ordered the readings, developed the writing assignments, and established the basis for class discussions. I think we can agree than no one in the room knows more than I do or has thought more than I have about the topic of today's discussion.

And yet all it takes is one line in a short student paper, one small comment, to make me see something I'd never before considered. I wonder whether the students can hear the little click of two ideas suddenly fitting together very neatly in my head, like puzzle pieces that complete the picture. Yes: I, the acknowledged expert, just learned something important from my students.

This is what it means to be part of a community of scholars. And this is why I love teaching the senior capstone.

(Do you hear the click? It's kind of contagious.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

We have ways to make you talk--sometimes

The classroom is abuzz with chatter as small groups of students discuss what they've observed in a film clip--one group focusing on setting and costumes, one on character development, one on plot--but I notice that one group is strangely silent. 

"You need to be discussing what you've observed," I remind them. 

No response.

"In a minute I'll be asking your group to report to the class, so be sure you've got something to report," I say.

They just sit. They're not even looking at each other. One of them leafs through the textbook while another bounces a tennis ball on the desk.

Time is up. The class needs to move on. What do I do?

The other groups provides plenty of fodder for class discussion, but that one silent group offers essentially nothing. I ask leading questions that end up being answered by members of other groups, but the silent group maintains its silence throughout the class.

After class I ask one of the silent group's members what the problem was. "I don't know," she shrugs; "Nobody wanted to talk."

From my perspective, it didn't look like anyone in that group even tried to talk. What is the problem here? 

I suppose it's possible that the silent group contained only students who hadn't done the reading, but here's the thing: they could have answered the question without having done the reading because they were responding to a film clip I had just shown them. 

So there's something wrong here but I don't know what it is. Maybe those four students have some history with each other (already?), or maybe they thought I wouldn't notice that they weren't doing the work. I don't know.

What about next time? It's a small class, so in future I may have to arrange group work so the silent ones don't all end up in the same group. What I'd really like, though, is a way to make them talk.   

Friday, August 28, 2015

Frivolous Friday

What kind of professor gives a reading quiz during the first week of classes? Not to mention requiring written homework in just about every class, even in the first week! Who does that?

Guilty as charged. I know the first week is fluid: students are still figuring out their schedules, so some are bound to drop my class while others may add. If I require real work during the first week, those students will start my class already behind.

But that's not stopping me. I refuse to spend a week doing meaningless stuff for the benefit of those who add the class late; learning starts on the first day, which means reading and writing start on the first day and anyone who starts class a week late will be a week behind on some real work. 

Including that reading quiz. On a Friday. In the first week of class. (Yes, I am a despicable human being.)

Gee whiz--a quiz!
On Friday, too!
This really is
too much! Boo hoo!

I'm barely here!
I'm still in flux!
I don't know how
to get my ducks

in order! I can't
think or write
on Friday--I've
been up all night! 

I'm sick! I'm tired!
I'm overwrought!
I can't recall
what I've been taught!

There's just no way
I can perform!
(The Friday quiz:
a perfect storm.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Standing on shifting metaphors

A disturbing side effect of the current budget crisis has started to hit home: I see news about other colleges' struggles and I secretly wonder how their pain can become our profit. For-profit schools going out of business? Colleges getting bad press because of cuts or scandals? Embattled schools cutting programs? Maybe we can snag some of their castoff students!

I hate myself every time such a thought comes into my head. When did a devotion to the life of the mind start to feel like all-out war, like a winner-take-all battle to the death?  When this kind of cutthroat thinking takes over, I fear that the biggest casualty will be the quality of the education we offer and students will become collateral damage.

One response would be to turn my back on the battlefield, retreat to the ivory tower, and wall myself in with my books and my students, stuffing wax in my ears to drown out the battle sounds in the background. But the ivory tower was never real--it's a metaphor, just like the battlefield (or, for that matter, "the life of the mind"). I'm not inhabiting a fairy tale or a metaphor or a nebulous concept; I'm teaching real students in a real world that sometimes gets a little messy and contentious, and if my world feels a little less stable than it once did, that's no excuse for passing that discomfort on to students or rejoicing in others' suffering. 

If we're all in the same boat, I think we're gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wrinkles in time

An hour is an hour is an hour--except for the faculty office hour, which sits in some sort of anomaly in the time/space continuum so that the time slows to a standstill or speeds up depending on the circumstances. 

If it's the dullest time of the afternoon, when my body is tired from teaching back-to-back freshman classes and my brain is oozing toward snoozeland, and if the only thing standing between me and home is that afternoon office hour, time stretches until the clock simply stops moving forward at all and I sit there, stuck in a holding pattern without respite until the end of time.

If I've scheduled student conferences and I need to meet face-to-face with students who need intensive help with their reading or writing or scheduling problems, the hands on the clock speed up until I don't have time to breathe between appointments, much less run to the rest room or refill my cup of tea.

I'd like to find the happy medium, but someone absconded with the local tesseract.