Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New text, new class, new challenges

At 9 a.m. I teach from a Norton anthology so old that the pages have gone all soft, and some are falling out or so scribbled-on they're barely readable--but if I want to find a specific passage, I know exactly where to look.

At 1 p.m. I teach from a brand-new Norton anthology so pristine that the spine crackles when I open the book and the pages still have that new-book smell, but I've never taught these texts before so I can't always put my finger on the specific passage I seek.

Teaching from a new text poses certain challenges, but a new text in a class I've never taught before raises a whole new set of issues. This is the situation in my Literary Theory class, which is going well so far--but we're only a week into the semester. 

The class was taught for ages by a colleague who retired a few years ago and is no longer in the area, so I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder to tell me I'm doing it all wrong. Further, it fulfills no General Education requirement and isn't even required for the English major, although it's strongly recommended for students planning to go to grad school and those seeking certification to teach high school English. This results in a small cadre of students (nine), all English majors and all interested in teaching or graduate study, and they're all motivated to maintain a high gpa. Further, they know each other from other classes so they're comfortable asking questions. I can't imagine a more congenial situation in which to teach a class for the first time.

When I planned the syllabus, I thought long and hard about what these students need from the class. They need to be familiar with important ideas associated with specific literary theorists and they need to be able to put concepts in conversation with each other, so that means they'll take a few exams (three). But they also need practice in applying theories to specific literary works, which means they need to write some papers (five, roughly a paper every three weeks).  Since it's not a Writing Proficiency course, we don't have to devote time in class to peer review of drafts, but they realize the value of getting feedback on their writing so I've encouraged them to meet outside of class for that. So far, so good.

But these students are in the class because they're interested in graduate study or teaching, which means they need to know how to explain ideas to others and how to engage others in meaningful discussion, so I added a set of assignments requiring students to serve as discussion leaders for specific works. Twice over the course of the semester, once before Spring Break and once after, each student will briefly introduce a text and then guide the rest of the class through a discussion of that text. I gave them a list of texts and asked them to rank their top three, and I was able to give most of the students their top choice. (The only wrinkle arose when three of them wanted to lead the discussion of Freud, but that was resolved without resorting to fisticuffs.)

On the date assigned, the student has to come to class equipped with written questions, so we spent some time last week talking about what makes a good discussion question and practiced writing some; however, I've reminded them that sometimes the best discussions veer sharply away from our best-laid plans, so they'll have to demonstrate their ability to guide a discussion even when it doesn't follow the rules. I've also encouraged them to support each other by responding to questions (and, if necessary, to bribe their classmates), but based on what I've observed so far, I don't believe they'll have a problem getting the class to talk.

In fact, my students' careful reading of the texts has come in very handy when I'm struggling to locate a specific passage in a book so new that all the pages all look alike. I'm up there fumbling through the pages and asking where the author says some interesting thing, and sure enough a student jumps in and tells me a page number. 

That's my kind of class. I knew there had to be an advantage to teaching from a brand-new book that sometimes makes me feel a little lost: if we're all a little lost sometimes, we can all learn the benefits of helping each other out, taking turns leading the way toward enlightenment.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Smiles by the miles

My daughter and I are sitting on the floor playing keep-away with the imps--rolling a ball past my grandson, who runs around shrieking "Bat-ball! Bat-ball!", and tossing another ball over the head of my granddaughter, who screams with joy when she catches it--and all that laughter hits me like a stimulant. I can feel brain cells waking up, no longer sleepy from the two-hour drive, and the big rolling belly laughs feel like a whole-body workout. 

There's nothing like a visit with the grandkids to remind me that I don't get enough laughter in my daily life. I feed on the kids' silliness, knowing that I'll soon have to go home and deal with serious issues, like course preps and grocery shopping and doing our taxes, which is more likely to make me laugh than cry.

I need a laugh--a big, helpless, all-consuming belly laugh--and I'm not getting it from the pile of reading quizzes on my desk. What my office really needs right now, then, is a mess of little imps running around and being silly--but I don't believe I can get them from the office supply store, and if I could, the College would never approve the purchase order. 

Think he's enjoying his swimming lesson?

Instant snowman kit. Some assembly required.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Will someone please help me dig out of this mess?

Guy shows up to class in shorts and I want to tell him, "Dude, it's 6 degrees outside! Put on some clothes!" But then I remind myself that he's dressed appropriately for the classroom, which is so beastly hot that I've been teaching with the windows open.

Am I going to complain about the weather again? Seems like all I ever talk about lately is the weather or local road conditions. Fun fact: two of the city's snowplows are out of commission just when they're most needed, making the brick streets even more treacherous than usual. 

And here's an even more fun fact: before Christmas, the state started a resurfacing project on a stretch of highway that I drive every day; they got as far as scraping off the surface of the road before the snow fell and the salt-trucks spread salt all over that rough subsurface, and then we had a brief thaw and a ton of rain and a sudden freeze, and now that 15-mile stretch of highway is pretty much Pothole City. Every day I face a challenge: drive on the slushy, icy spots or barrel right through the potholes? Making a frequently traveled highway virtually undriveable: my tax dollars at work!

But on the plus side, the snow drives birds to seek a more steady source of seeds, so they're all over our feeders all day long--tons of juncos plus one solitary towhee that doesn't get along well with the juncos, and then we'll sometimes have a dozen or more cardinals out there all at once, providing frequent bursts of scarlet against the white winter landscape. 

The even better news is that I don't have to go to campus today, so I'm working from home, where the temperature regulator on the wood burner is on the fritz so the house is holding a pretty steady temperature of 62 degrees. So it looks like I just can't get away from complaining about the weather.

But seriously, folks: I ought to celebrate my 12-year blogiversary by writing about something more interesting than the weather, but I'm going to need a little help. Put a topic in the comments--any topic, large or small--and I promise to write something about it before the end of the month. I can't guarantee that I'll say something profound or life-changing, but at least we'll distract ourselves from the massive pile of winter that's burying us alive.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I dream of readers

I don't know why I do this to myself. On the first day of a literature class I call roll and ask each student to respond by answering a simple question: "What's the most interesting thing you read over break?" I tell them it doesn't have to be a book--could be an article, a blog post, a tweet, whatever. Nevertheless, on Monday nearly half of my American Lit students said they hadn't read anything over break.

Is that the saddest thing you've ever heard?

Well, no, not really. The news about 13 siblings tortured by their parents in California is a lot sadder, and when I think about historical horrors like slavery, the Holocaust, or the Black Death, the decline in reading among college students pales by comparison.

Nevertheless, every time I hear a student admit to not reading at all, it feels like another nail in the coffin of the English department, another stab in the heart of the literary enterprise, another reminder that the world in which I grew up is fading into the ether.

But maybe I ought to see it as a challenge. Unless they're English majors, I'll see these students in one class and never again, so I have exactly one semester to persuade them that reading matters. If a student has read nothing for the past month but gets motivated to read the four poems we'll discuss in class today, I've already increased that student's time spent reading, and I'll increase it even more when we move to longer works. If I can engage them in reading interesting texts for the next 15 weeks, maybe reading will become more of a habit than a hated chore.

Am I dreaming? Maybe, but if I didn't succumb to pipe dreams once in a while, it would be really hard to keep on teaching.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Keep calm and carry markers

While my subconscious mind creates unlikely nightmare scenarios--showing up to class in a ragged nightgown, forgetting to write a syllabus, forgetting about a class entirely--my conscious mind writes little reminders to make sure the first day of class runs smoothly. Take markers, I tell myself, mindful of all the times I've arrived in a classroom far from the supply closet only to find no visible means of writing on the whiteboard. 

Today I'm obsessing over what to wear to class tomorrow, provided that I can get out of my driveway in the morning, which is another story entirely. (When snow falls on top of ice, there's only so much a plow can do.) I've already crossed "ragged nightgown" off my list of first-day clothing options, and despite nightmares to the contrary, I'm not going to show up to class naked. 

But I have to wear something appropriate to the outdoor weather, something that will serve me well if my car slides off the road somewhere and I have to walk through snow and ice, but also something appropriate for the indoor weather, which varies so much from one side of my building to the other that dressing for success is pretty much hopeless. Something professional but not brand-new; something amenable to layering, that will look nice over long-johns and a turtleneck sweater. I look at my closet and my heart sinks. Suddenly the ragged nightgown is starting to look like a possibility.

I am not worried about syllabi or first-day activities; if anything, I'm overprepared. I do worry, however, about learning students' names, a greater challenge every semester. Here's a real-life nightmare scenario: I encounter an unusual name on the roster and I don't know how to pronounce it, so I ask the student, who turns out to be a mumbler. Am I really supposed to call him "Brhhhmhhm"?

Do my students worry about how to pronounce my name? What do their first-day nightmares look like? Do I play the role of fearsome beast out to destroy their lives? Or are they too busy enjoying their last day of winter break to worry about what horrors the semester may bring?

I don't have time to think about that. Instead, I'll go look at my closet (again) and maybe write myself a few notes along the way. Wear boots, I tell myself. Print rosters. Check classroom computers. Find green gel pen.

Here we are on the runway, about to take of for another exciting journey. What could possibly go wrong? Wear clothes. Take syllabi. Don't fall on your face. And if you do, keep calm. (And carry markers.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

What am I do-do-doodling now?

This morning I finally put away all the books cluttering up my desk and when I got to the bottom of the pile, I found Doodling for Academics: A Coloring and Activity Book by Julie Schumacher, with illustrations by Lauren Nassef. Schumacher, as you will recall, wrote Dear Committee Members, a novel composed entirely of letters of recommendation from a harried English professor, which is hysterically funny when it's not tragic, displaying a sharp eye for the more ridiculous elements of academic life. 

Doodling for Academics was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows me really well, obviously. On Christmas day the book circulated amongst the academics in the crowd, who took turns chortling in bitter recognition over pages illustrating, for instance, officemate hobbies (like amateur kombucha brewing and bad taxidermy) and souvenirs of academic conferences (don't we all need a T-shirt that says "Fungal Genetics and You"?). 

Especially apposite over Christmas break was the "Cheering Section" page, featuring family members' responses to academic careers: "That must be nice, working only a few hours a day" or "Aunt Mary says that a monkey with a computer could...." Other pages invite readers to "Circle the items in the department refrigerator that most closely resemble lunch" or "Color the new football stadium subsidized at the expense of the library."

A page titled "Tidying Up" asks "Which office objects spark joy?" Among the objects are a dropping plant, a pile of dried-out highlighters, a file folder full of rejection letters, and a slide carousel collection, but the object in my office that sparks the most joy right now is my copy of Doodling for Academics. Now I just need someone to bring me some crayons so we can doodle together.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Screaming eyeballs syndrome

My eyeballs are screaming, but why are they screaming and why didn't I notice how fatigued they were getting before they reached full scream mode? Because when I get really involved in assembling a syllabus or creating a new writing assignment or constructing a presentation, I lose track of....um....what was I doing?

This week I've spent entirely too much time staring at a computer screen and not enough time looking at birds or books or literally anything else, like, for instance, the new minion in my office, a birthday gift from my daughter, who surely knows me well. I can't tel whether the minion is protecting Jane Austen or threatening her, but I do know he's absolutely no help when it comes to writing syllabi. (Fun fact: he comes with spare parts, so you can transform the two-eyed pirate minion into a one-eyed caveman minion, but I doubt that he'd be any more helpful with one less eye.)

And speaking of eyes, I clapped my eyes on two eagles yesterday afternoon and one this morning. With the Muskingum River mostly frozen over, birds congregate at the open water below the dams, where sure enough we saw an adult and a juvenile eagle swooping yesterday afternoon. No photos, though: yesterday we were looking straight into the sun (ouch!) and this morning the sky was too overcast to allow good shots. I could go out there right now, but I'm not sure I'd be able to see any eagles because everything is blurry. Have I mentioned that my eyeballs are screaming?

One more day to get everything ready for the start of classes. I've copied my syllabi, prepared first-day-of-class activities, posted piles of stuff on the course management system, and put everything in place for a successful first day except for printing out my class rosters, and there's no point in doing that until the last minute because they change. Tomorrow I'll start tackling the administrative task I'm handling this semester (in exchange for a course release), which will not require quite so much staring at little screens.

And here's the really big news: soon I'll be staring at a big screen! Yes: our IT folks have promised to bring me a new wireless mouse and a humongous (well, bigger, anyway) monitor that will dock with my laptop, possibly providing a break for my eyeballs and preventing future episodes of screaming. That's about the best solution I can come up with--at least until my minion offers to trade eyeballs with me.