Wednesday, January 22, 2020

When it's time to waive invisibility

My helpful colleague suggested that I wear a hoodie and dark glasses and slump down in a seat at the back of the room, so I said "Sure, and I'll wear a big name tag saying 'Not the Unabomber,'" but my colleague said, "Don't bother--they don't know who the Unabomber is anyway."

He has a point.

The larger point, though, is how I'm supposed to be inconspicuous when I observe teaching in a class with only two students enrolled. The question comes up periodically on the tenure and promotion committee, which sends multiple members to observe different classes on different levels and sometimes has no choice but to include low-enrollment classes.

In large classes, I generally sit in the back trying to be invisible so that the students forget I'm there, and I know it works because sometimes students in front of me do things they probably would not do if they remembered I was watching, like visit web sites one would not normally share with a professor. Once (this is true) I watched a videotape of a classroom that knew it was being videotaped and saw, right there on the videotape, a student watching porn on his laptop in the middle of class.

But those instances are rare. I've seen students check email and shop for shoes online, but mostly they just take notes, inspiring me to take note of the fact that they're taking notes. All we need is for someone to observe my observations and we'd have note-taking on my note-taking concerning students' note-taking, which seems a bit superfluous.

But I digress.

The point is that soon I'm scheduled to observe a class with only two students in it and I don't know how to hide in that kind of crowd. How does one escape notice in a room containing only four people, one of whom clearly does not belong? I suppose I could sit next to a ficus and try to look leafy, but alas, so few classrooms come equipped with potted plants.

Should I slip into the back of the room when students aren't looking--and scare the bejeebers out of them the first time I sneeze? Hide above the ceiling tiles--and evoke the climactic ceiling-collapse scene of Richard Russo's superb academic novel Straight Man? Or follow my colleague's suggestion and go full Unabomber?

It looks like I have little choice in this situation but to waive my right to invisibility and park myself boldly in the classroom without attempt at obfuscation. (But I'll slip those fake glasses with the big nose and moustache in my pocket just in case.) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Blinded to the obvious answer

It's the easiest kind of reading quiz: print an excerpt from the reading on the quiz and ask students to analyze what that excerpt suggests about some relevant topic--in this case, what  Longfellow's poem "The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz" suggests about the relationship between people and nature. Other quizzes will be more challenging, but this one early in the semester is intended to set a baseline, to show what conclusions students can draw about a poem that presents a metaphor as obvious as the nose on your face: nature as an "old nurse" tenderly teaching children what is written in the "the manuscript of God."

I tell them that there are many possible right answers, but I also point out that there are even more answers that are wrong, misguided, or incomplete. "Just be sure to support your response with evidence from the text," I tell them, and they do it, most of them.

Most students pick out the "nurse" imagery immediately and assume that it's referring to a medical professional rather than a nanny, but as long as they make the point that nature is trying to nurture and guide, I can accept that. A few argue that the poem portrays people as eternal infants dependent on nature's guidance, an interesting point we'll expand upon in class. With a few exceptions, the class performs well.

Those exceptions, though--I worry about those students. Generally they scribble superficial cliches with no apparent relationship to the reading; they repeat in several different ways the fact that the relationship between people and nature is complicated and deep without attending to the most obvious images in the poem, or else they offer arguments they think I want to hear (about how people take nature for granted by polluting too much) without offering a shred of evidence from the text. These are the students who will come up in a huff after class and tell me my grading is too subjective and the poem can mean anything to anyone, an argument that is true as far as it goes but willfully ignores the "nurse" metaphor that screams from every other line.

How can anyone ignore that screaming? Fear of poetry, I suspect, is the chief culprit, causing some readers to freeze when they see lines arranged in stanzas. Searching for secret meanings, they ignore the blatantly obvious. I need to know who these students are at the beginning of the semester, before we get to the less obvious stuff. (I'm look at you, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with your blighted "Blight.") 

Every semester I waffle about whether to start with a really difficult reading quiz (to signal high standards) or an easier one (to establish a baseline). This time I went with the easy choice and learned something important about my students, but I warned them: the quizzes will get more challenging as time goes on as I lead them, like Longfellow's nurse, toward more distant and difficult adventures.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Adventures in editing, plus a love song to the semicolon

How many tabs can I simultaneously keep open at the top of my browser screen? As I begin the long process of editing essays submitted for the anthology I'm assembling, I find myself needing to refer repeatedly to Merriam-Webster (which is the preferred spelling, wacky or whacky?), the MLA Style Center (when do I need a suspended hyphen in late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century?), and the style guide for this specific book series (subheads: boldface or not?). I think I know MLA style pretty well, but the questions that come up in editing a collection of scholarly essays are more complicated than those I generally encounter in student work.

Fortunately, I'm the kind of person who gets a kick out of reading style guides, so all this attention to picky little details suits me just fine. I'm more concerned, frankly, about how to communicate with contributors, especially when substantive changes are needed. Educated people can disagree about placement of commas, but some scholars can take stylistic suggestions very personally. I'm trying to be diplomatic. I do not intend to get into any screaming matches over the suspended hyphen.

If only I could resort to poetry! In "His Love of Semicolons," Amit Majmudar elegantly defends a punctuation mark facing increasing neglect:
The comma is comely, the period, peerless,
        but stack them one atop
the other, and I am in love;...
I am in love, too, with the final line of the poem, which appears in two different versions. The online version ends with a full stop, but in his poetry collection Dothead, the line ends as it ought, with a semicolon. 

If I had to write elegant verse about every stylistic issue I encounter in editing these essays, I'd never get through them all, so I'm sticking to straightforward sentences in the indicative mood. No one is going to fall in love with my editorial suggestions as Majmudar fell in love with the semicolon, but as long as contributors don't scream at me, I'll be content. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Like square clouds in a round sky

It's the first day of class and instructions are simple: look at the work of art on the screen, describe what you see in some detail, and then speculate about what it suggests about the relationship between people and nature. "There's no right answer," I tell my students; "I just want you to give me an idea of your writing and analytical skills," but when I read their responses, I am dismayed. Is there a farmer in the class? How about an artist? Not even one?

The class is Concepts of Nature and the painting is Grant Wood's Spring Turning, painted in 1936 (see it here). I've used this painting before so I'm accustomed to seeing students struggle to figure out what's going on: What are those brown squares on the hills? Baseball diamonds? An arena for horse-racing? Or just an attempt to impose symmetry on the face of nature?

They notice the grass, the intense green of the rolling hills, and I encourage them to walk up close and look at details, but maybe they're shy or maybe they're in a hurry to finish so they keep their seats and fail to notice so many small things: the tiny farmer and his team of horses tilling the ground, the road and farmhouse and fence-line tucked between the hills, and the phalanx of clouds rolling along the top of the painting.

Most of all I want them to notice the clouds. So much depends upon a white cloud rolling over a square field, and a few students pay lip service to the clouds, mostly to note that the clouds are white and fluffy. Not a single student notices that the clouds are also square.

Clouds are not supposed to be square! Why would Grant Wood have painted something so unnatural in a painting immersing the viewer in the natural world?

I'll ask that question on Monday when we look at the painting again, and I'll nudge students to notice the contrasting shapes: the hills are rounded and rolling, while the only straight lines and right angles are imposed by human beings, inviting us to associate roundness with nature and squares with culture. But then why the square clouds?

In fact the clouds perfectly mimic the shapes of the farmer's fields, providing a visual metaphor for the nineteenth-century belief that Rain Follows the Plow. Wood, painting in 1936, could look back at the Dust Bowl, the disastrous result of plowing without regard to the contours of the land, but he was clearly also looking back even further to the time in the late nineteenth century when farmers were enticed to settle in too-dry areas by the promise that cultivating parched land would change the weather--that plowing dry land would cause rain to fall on it.

Wood's painting mocks that concept by taking it literally, which ought to cause viewers to step back and question other assumptions. Yes, the peaceful setting evokes nostalgia for a pastoral lifestyle, and yes, the massiveness of nature dwarfs the tiny farmer with his tiny team, but step back and look at the painting as a whole and suddenly the whole landscape looks like a human body covered with a quilt of verdant green, perhaps a sexy pun on planting seeds or fertilization or perhaps a reminder that we see nature always through human eyes and shape it in our own image. 

None of my students saw that today, or if they did they lacked the confidence to write about it. If I accomplish nothing else in this class, I hope that by the end of the semester every one of my students will notice the little details that stand out like square clouds in a round sky, and I hope they will start asking questions and keep asking until they find some answers.


Thursday, January 09, 2020

Rez says

So a friend of mine started an online group for creative people, challenging us to post projects in response to a theme each month. The January theme is "Resolution," which sent me in several different directions. Here is the result:


Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Cozy copy corner

The zoop-zoop of paper running through the photocopier puts me in a meditative mood, or maybe it's the heat of the stuffy copy closet or the complete and utter boredom involved in waiting and watching while the big white machine spits out piles of syllabi, assignment sheets, and handouts.

This beginning-of-the-semester photocopying takes a ton of time, but technically I don't have to sit there waiting for my copies. I could walk away from the tiny stuffy copy closet and do something more useful, like watering my neglected plants or putting together a PowerPoint presentation, but I prefer not to. For one thing, the copier is bound to break down or run out of paper the minute I walk out the door, or else someone else will come in to run some copies while I'm gone and will shove my unfinished copy job out of the way and I'll never find it. 

Besides, sitting beside the thrumming copier provides a moment of peace before the chaos of classes resumes. I think of my fraught relationship with copying technology over the years--the blots of black ink leaking through stencils in my junior high newspaper print shop, the copier cover I slammed too hard and broke at a newspaper where I worked,  the sweet and tangy scent of mimeograph stencils at my first grad-school institution, where grad students were forbidden from running the equipment themselves but instead had to hand the typed stencils over to authorized staff well in advance of need.

Things had changed by the time I started my second round of grad school. Photocopying had replaced mimeograph machines, and asking the administrative assistants to make copies was strictly forbidden. Everyone was expected to make their own copies, which was fine when the copier was functioning properly but not so great when it jammed or otherwise malfunctioned, which always happened at the very moment when everyone in the building needed to copy syllabi for every class. Under those circumstances, we were well motivated to make as few copies as possible.

I remember when one of my grad-school profs handed each member of the class a thick accordion file full of photocopied journal articles, and we marveled over the amount of time he must have spent standing over the photocopier. "Oh, I don't do photocopies," he said, and we asked how in the world he managed to persuade the office staff to make all those copies for him. His eyes twinkled as he explained, "I always remember them generously at Christmas," which taught me more about the academic life than several of my classes.

A few years ago I tried to take the next step and go paperless, posting syllabi and handouts on the course management system and trusting students to print what they needed themselves, but the problem is that they don't, which would be fine if they could be counted on to make a habit of actually looking at the course management system regularly, but again, they don't. Well, some do, but not enough, and the rest miss out on too many important requirements and deadlines. 

And so I sit in the copy closet listening to the zoop-zoop of paper zipping through the drums and the sharp click of staples biting into the top left corners, and no matter how much I miss the smell of fresh mimeographs, I'm content to let the copier do its job.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Life's a blur and then you cry

I'm driving along the Ohio River when I see what I swear is a man fly-fishing, which is highly unlikely both because it's the wrong time of year and the wrong type of body of water for fly-fishing and because anyone standing that far out of the water at that point in the river either has legs 20 feet long or is performing a miracle, and that's when I know I need to give my eyes a break.

I've been spending way too much time in front of my computer pointing and clicking and typing and deleting so now I'm seeing double, but I'm also not seeing things that ought to be there. For instance, I know I have an eye exam scheduled soon, but I've looked all over my calendar and I can't find it listed anywhere; also, when I went looking for the W.S. Merwin documentary Even Though the Whole World is Burning, I found the DVD case exactly where I expected it to be but no DVD inside. I last used that DVD for a class three years ago, so now all I need to do is retrace my steps for the past three years and I'm sure to stumble upon my DVD somewhere. (As if.) 

To make the eye fatigue worse, I haven't been sleeping well because my subconscious mind refuses to believe that the semester can start on a Thursday and therefore keeps waking me up in a panic to remind me that I'm not ready to start teaching on Monday, AKA today. I don't have any Thursday classes anyway so I don't need to be in the classroom ready to roll until this Friday, but deep inside me this schedule feels so wrong that it disturbs my sleep, or what passes for sleep these days.

There's one place where I wish my vision were less acute: every time I look at my computer monitor, I see behind it stacks of books waiting to be restored to their proper places. These are books I pulled from the shelves for various reasons last semester, and now I need to put them back where they belong so that they'll be easily findable next time I need them, but how can I get my books into alphabetical order when my vision is so blurry that I can't read the authors' names on the spines? Time to give my eyes a break, maybe go out and look at the river for a while...but then there we are back where we started and I still don't know what that guy's doing out there fly-fishing in January. 

Please, somebody, help!