Friday, October 31, 2014

I'm armed with a red pen and I know how to use it!

One of my students, a chemistry major, told me he's going to the mall to demonstrate fun chemistry concepts to children this weekend, and I said, "Funny, they never ask English majors to demonstrate fun concepts at the mall."

"That's because we can't make meth," said a colleague.

"Right," I said, "but we can make metaphors."


One thing I can't make, if you ask my first-year students, is sense. Here we are umpteen weeks into the semester and a student finally admits that no one in the class knows what this word means when I write it in the margin of a paper.

Which word?


And they never asked until today?

And speaking of asking, every day for the past week I've started off the comedy class by showing the study guide on the screen and asking if anyone had questions about any of the terms listed there, like satire and parody and trickster. One or two students asked for clarifications, but the rest of the (large) class sat there stony-faced, unable to think of a single question.

Until last night (or I suppose it was early this morning), when a student e-mailed me a list of six or eight terms and asked me to explain them because he "couldn't find them online."

I don't respond to e-mail in the wee hours of the morning, but eventually I responded by pointing out that most of the terms he listed can be found in a particular chapter of the textbook and the others are on a PowerPoint slide available on Moodle.

They're taking the exam right now. Yes, I'm giving an exam on Halloween while the campus is seething with costumed colleagues bearing candy. I'm dressed as the scariest thing I know: an English professor armed with a red pen. Look out or I'll write vague all over you--and that's not a metaphor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Objects in Internet may be closer than they appear

Yesterday a student complained because the grade his paper earned did not agree with the grade assigned by no fewer than four online essay-checking sites. If four different online sites say his paper deserves a certain grade, how could I assign a grade so much lower?

I pointed out that the online essay-checking sites are not necessarily aware of the requirements of the assignment, particularly the requirement that I harped on in class, explicitly stating that failing to complete this part of the assignment would result in a Very Bad Grade. But what I really wanted to say is this: 

I'm tired of being ganged up on by robots. I'm tired of being told that a faceless computer totally unfamiliar with the content of my course knows what counts for good writing in my class.  I'm tired of dealing with the assumption that requirements are arbitrary and grades are endlessly negotiable. 

And while I'm at it, I'm tired of receiving papers submitted in formats my computer can't open. "Open Freely" doesn't open anything but instead assaults me with error messages like "Object reference not set to an instance of an object." I can't grade that. Well, I could, but the student wouldn't like the grade.

I'm tired of being told that my class ought to reflect some arbitrary idea of excellence promoted by robots. My class is not a mirror. If grades in my class are smaller than they appear online, then it's time to pay less attention to the Internet and more attention to my class, where grades are not endlessly negotiable and requirements matter. Welcome to the real world, baby!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Well, if you insist

Actual conversation with an English major:

Student, dubiously: "'re teaching the American Lit survey?"

Me, grinning: "Of course! Every spring!"

Student: "Doesn't anyone else teach it?"

Me, still grinning: "Nope. You're stuck with me. But it's my favorite class!"

Student, sighing heavily: "Then I guess I'll have to take it."

And I'm just exhausted enough that I can't tell whether he's joking. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ooh big! Big weekend!

Big pumpkins!
If I played a recording of every word my granddaughter said over the weekend, you'd have a pretty good idea of how much fun we had: 

Read books! 

Ooh big! Big book!
Rocks! Ooh big!  Big rocks!

Pumpkin! Big pumpkin! 

Bounce bounce bounce! 



Up up up!

Eat eat eat! 

Bounce bounce bounce!


The bouncing and book-reading occurred on the couch but the kicking was an outdoor activity involving a huge pile of dry leaves. We hunted for pumpkins at a local farm and wandered through the corn maze, and we ate ate ate some great stuff. I always laugh a lot more when the little imp is present, which makes me wish I could take her to a few of my classes, where my students sit silent and unresponsive. 

Maybe I need to take my students out to jump in a pile of leaves....

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ingenuity stew

The rock keeps the engine running.
You've just finished browning the beef and putting it in the crock pot with a mess of garden vegetables so they can stew all day until suppertime--when suddenly, without warning, the power goes out. Who ya gonna call?

Times like these I'm happy to share my life with clever people. Here's what it took to keep the crock-pot bubbling through a four-hour power outage:

1 undriveable car with gas in the tank
1 set of jumper cables 
1 driveable car (to jump-start the first one)
1 rock (to keep the accelerator cable in the "on" position)
1 power inverter (to plug into the cigarette lighter and tap the car's battery)
1 son-in-law who happens to be an electrical engineer
And there's our supper!

Piece of cake. The car kept chugging along all morning long to keep the crock-put running, which may not be the most energy-efficient way to cook supper, but at least we got some use out of a car that normally does nothing but sit there looking derelict. Now the whole house smells like beef stew. Supper, anyone?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

New excuse--how well will this work in your class?

Actual conversation one minute before an exam this morning:

"Three...six...nine...twelve...okay, looks like everyone's here except [student A] and [student B]. Where's [student A]?"

"He's on the way. He'll be here."

"Where's [student B]?"

"He's not coming."

"Not coming?"

"Yeah....he doesn't like tests."

Um....right. Doesn't like tests. Unlike the rest of us? 

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!