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. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The secret lives of college professors

After the reading, one of my first-year students bounced up all bubbly and said, "Dr. Hogue! That was great! I didn't know you could write!"

It was intended as a compliment and I took it that way, but that last line rankles a bit. Didn't know I could WRITE?!! Writing is who I am. Writing is what I do. But I suppose I can't blame a student who has seen my writing only in the margins of papers, where's it's not easy to wax poetic:

This comma splice
just isn't nice.
Don't make me read
this sentence twice.

To make a splash,
please use a dash.

I was of three minds,
like a sentence
in which there are three verb tenses.

No, my marginal comments are too blunt and fragmentary to sound at all lyrical; they're less like poetry than like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The same must be true of my colleague the poet who is diligently trying to teach my Sports Lit students how to write coherent sentences. Last week one of our shared students said, "I didn't know Dr. A was a poet!" And I had to point out that he's not just a poet but an excellent poet whose work appeared in the Best American Poetry 2013 anthology. Didn't know he was a POET?!!

I suppose it's difficult for students to see us as more than critics of their writing, correctors of their errors, but maybe that's our fault. Last night at the end of the student reading sponsored by the English Department, after students had shared their essays and short fiction and poetry, three of us who teach creative writing classes shared short works of our own, something we haven't done in quite some time. I always enjoy hearing my colleagues' work, but most of all I enjoy showing students that we who teach writing actually know a thing or two about how language works. 

But the glow of the spotlight won't last. Today I face a pile of student drafts, and as much as I'd like to, I can't possibly pour vast amounts of creativity into marginal comments:

The apparition of a thesis in the intro--
Pablum on a wet, black void.

Whose words these are I think I know;
Their house is Wikipedia, so
You will not see me reading more.
I'll just write down an F and go.

Nah, not a writer. Not a writer at all. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Salad, she wrote

"Commas are the plastic wrap that divide one package of pre-washed salad greens from another....Cutting up our food, they infantilize us."

So said Gordon C.F. Bearn last night in a lecture on "Punctuation in Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein: Legacies of William James, MD." Bearn, a philosophy professor at Lehigh University, was referring to Stein's attitude toward punctuation when he took us all on a mental excursion to the produce department. 

Stein, of course, died too soon to welcome the era of pre-wrapped, pre-washed salad greens, but one wonders how warmly she would have welcomed that innovation. Salad, she wrote, is "a winning cake," but that doesn't tell us whether the cake should be constructed from a head of iceberg, a leaf of romaine, or a bag of spring greens. 

(No word on Wittgenstein's views on the topic.)  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What I would write in the Permanent Record

A Permanent Record! That's what I need--for my students.

Remember back in elementary school when teachers threatened that if you misbehaved you'd earn a black mark in your Permanent Record? I pictured horrified teachers and principals hovering over a manila folder in which was written, in bleeding red ink, "Runs with scissors!" The fear of earning a permanent blot on the Permanent Record discouraged many a schoolchild from committing acts of mayhem.

Why don't college students have a Permanent Record? Of course we keep records on their academic progress and infractions of the student code, but those records are scattered amongst various offices and collect only limited types of data--and, moreover, those records are hardly permanent. I'd like a Permanent Record that haunts a student forever. 

Picture this: the student has applied for his dream job, the job that would make his heart sing, his bank account burgeon, and his student loans vanish overnight, and he's reached the final stage in the screening process when the interviewer says, "Let's take a look at your Permanent Record. says here you're an expert at manipulating other students to do the lion's share in group work but that you always manage to take the credit. Just the person we need in this office! Welcome, brother!"

Okay, that didn't go the way I'd expected. What if potential girlfriends could check a guy's Permanent Record before agreeing to take the relationship to the next level? "It says here that you're an arrogant prick. No news to me. Your place or mine?"

Again, not the result I was looking for. Suppose our student is in the final stages of applying for a mortgage for his first house but before he can sign on the dotted line, the loan officer checks his Permanent Record: "I see that you generally perform the minimal amount of work necessary to earn a passing grade, turning assignments in at the last possible moment and barely squeaking through difficult classes. Sounds like a guy who can get his mortgage payments in on time! We're good to go!"

Well, okay, but eventually this slacker will end up at the Pearly Gates and Saint Peter will gaze down at his Permanent Record and say, "I see that you once admitted to your academic advisor that it didn't matter what classes you took as long as you remained eligible for financial aid." And then Peter will sigh, rub his forehead, and say, "I'm sorry, but rules are rules. I don't want to let you through the gates, but you've earned just enough heavenly credits to remain eligible, so in you go!"

Maybe a Permanent Record isn't such a great idea after all.