Friday, December 09, 2016

Reading Merwin on my birthday

On the morning of my birthday I'm reading poems by W.S. Merwin at 4 a.m., which is not the ideal time to be awake but if I'm awake anyway I may as well redeem the time, plus I have a whole new volume of Merwin to peruse because some wonderful member of my family is familiar with my Amazon wish-list. 

Merwin makes me read slowly and retrace my steps to try to locate the magic beneath the words. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"--a fairy-tale retold or an interrogation of the story-telling process? Which is more real, the mundane world or the fairy tale that overlays ordinary life with mystery and wonder?

"On the Subject of Poetry" I have to read three times and then return again later to the variations on "in" in the second stanza, the closing line's subtle lament for an inexplicable world, and the third stanza's picture of a poet's work:
                                    He does not move
His feet nor so much as raise his head
For fear he should disturb the sound he hears
Like a pain without a cry, where he listens.
I want that passionate attention, that patient listening to a world grown more inexplicable by the minute. I looked this morning at the "year in review" video Facebook assembled from a year's posts and I found it sorely lacking; yes, I see those lovely photos of birds and grandchildren, but I note the gaps: the family crisis that will never make it to Facebook, the shocking murder of my daughter's high-school classmate, the weeks spent attending my mother's final illness and then the gaping wound left by her death.

This sends me to another Merwin poem: "Rain Light," which is worth reading in full (here). I hear reassurance in the voice of the mother who says, "I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right" and then directs the son's attention to the flowers, the sun, and the hills: "see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning."

I wonder what my students will make of that poem when they read it next semester. Maybe you have to be older than the federal speed limit and know some loss before Merwin's quiet poems can sear your soul and then pour healing balm on the wounds. I don't know what I would have made of Merwin at 20 years old, but at 55? He's just my speed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pet Peeve #8,742: repeating the prompt

I posed a question for my teacherly friends on Facebook because I really wanted to know: How do you react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of the essay--good thing/bad thing? And a colleague responded thus: "How do I react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of her or his essay? Although sometimes it can be a good thing, often it is a bad thing."

Ha! (See what he did there?)

I've railed against this practice in the past. I see some familiar sentences in the introduction to an essay and I say, "Those are my sentences! Write your own! And don't tell me what I already know!" But then students claim that they're just doing what they've been told to do: always repeat the prompt in the introduction.

I can imagine contexts in which this would be a fine idea. If you're writing under time pressure on an essay exam and the question asks about the principle products of Peru, it makes sense to transform the question into a statement and start right in on the principle products of Peru. But for an essay written outside of class with drafts and feedback, you've got time to ruminate on the prompt and spit out an original idea--or at least an unoriginal idea cloaked in original language.

But inevitably I get that student who not only repeats the prompt as the introduction to his paper but also restates it again in the conclusion, perhaps in reverse order, which means that two major paragraphs of his paper are constructed from sentences I wrote. A highly efficient way to write a paper! And this student is well equipped to succeed in the cut-and-paste world we've created for ourselves. 

So maybe I should stop screaming about students who steal my sentences and claim them as their own. (But I'll still reward such behavior with a Very Bad Grade--very quietly.)

Monday, December 05, 2016

When the exploding ducks come home to roost.

"I'm getting all my ducks in a row," said my student, "but unfortunately some of them keep trying to fly off and a few of them are exploding."

I know the feeling. This is the time of the semester when Exploding Duck Syndrome reaches epidemic proportions on campus.

And it's not just students: between now and Dec. 20, I have to read, respond to, and/or grade 116 separate drafts/papers/projects/exams/presentations, plus a handful of bonus assignments a few people may decide to turn in. Make it an even 120. If I could grade 10 each day I'd be home free, but I can't do that because of the way the deadlines are staggered--and I have no control over the final exam schedule, so don't blame me.

Of course I did this to myself, as usual. It's hard to get around requiring final research projects at the end of the semester. If the project is supposed to represent the culmination of the student's learning over the course of the semester, then it can't really be due in the third week of classes. The right time for final projects is right now, and the right time for finals is next week, which adds up to a whole flock of exploding ducks.

But what am I complaining about? All I have to do is grade 'em; my students are the ones doing the hard work. Those taking multiple literature classes are typing their little fingers off this week, walking around with dark rings under their eyes and wondering whether they'll have a single coherent thought left in their brains by the end of next week. At that point we'll all congratulate ourselves on surviving the Exploding Duck Syndrome epidemic, even if it leaves us all feeling like birdbrains.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Just what we need: more automated hand-holding

Yesterday I was among a group of faculty members previewing a new online student-success system that guarantees--GUARANTEES!--that it will improve student retention rates, which is tempting if true, but the whole thing feels so intrusive and Big Brotherish that it's one step away from providing every student with a personal robot to make sure he gets to class and then nags him to do his homework. Whether it's called Student SuccessWorks or GradeGuardPro or MyMomBot, that system is going to make someone a billionaire.

Which makes me wonder: If I provide some essential scripts for MyMomBot, will the inventor cut me in on the profits? Can't hurt to try:

[Gentle chimes.] Rise and shine, [insert name here]! I've laid out your clothes and ironed your socks, so you've got just enough time to dress, print out your paper,  and head to the dining hall before your 8:00 class! Press 1 to accept this reminder, 2 if you'd like just five more minutes of sleep, or 3 to indicate illness and initiate a call to MyDocBot.

[Rooster crowing.] I said rise and shine, [insert name here]! I see in my databank that you've already reached your quota of absences in your 8:00 class so missing another class will endanger your grade. We care about your success! If you get up right now, you've got just enough time to print out your paper and get to class if you skip breakfast! But I don't want you to go to class hungry--I am prepared to distribute a quick breakfast on the go. Press 1 for a granola bar, 2 for a banana, 3 for a hard-boiled egg.

[Foghorn.] Okay, no more messing around, [insert name here]! No time to lose if you don't want to lose more points in your 8:00 class! Don't even think about the socks I ironed for you--just roll out of bed, print out your paper, and dash into class a few minutes late. I'm prepared to issue an excuse to suit your need: press 1 for dead grandparent, 2 for computer virus, or 3 for roommate's suicide attempt. 

[Sirens.] Are you planning to get out of bed at all today, [insert name here]? We care about your success! But after all the time and money we've invested in your success, all you want to do is lie there like a bum. Don't you care about your future? Do you want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers and living in your parents' basement? If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times--all we want is for you to be happy! But you'll never be happy if you fail freshman comp. So are you going to get out of bed on your own or do I have to drag you out? Press 1 for "drag me out," 2 for "pour cold water on my head," or 3 for -- wait, what are you doing? Put that sledgehammer down! We care about your success! We care about your success! We care about y----

And the rest is silence. 


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Random bullets of--squirrel!

Because we've reached that point in the semester was I saying? Oh yes: because all these interesting but utterly unbloggable crises keep walking into my office or ringing my phone, and because assignments keep piling up at the very same time that holiday events eat into my free time (whatever that is), and because--squirrel!--and just because, here are some random bullets of just can't think straight:

  • I have come to the conclusion that dealing with the surgery scheduler at my doctor's office is bad for my blood pressure. I've been trying to schedule a routine colonoscopy since April, but various obstacles have arisen and been dealt with in due course, with the result that I'm scheduled to undergo that delightful procedure on Dec. 19. But just now I got word that I will be charged a large fee for failing to show up for the procedure on an earlier date--a date the doctor had previously cancelled! Is it any wonder that I have the surgery scheduler's phone number on speed-dial?
  • In case you're wondering how I'm going to get my final grades in on Dec. 20 when my last final exams come in on Dec. 16 and I'm doing colonoscopy prep on Dec. 18 and the colonoscopy on Dec. 19, well, I'm wondering the same thing.
  • If I'd known that all it would take to change a student's life forever was to demonstrate how to format hanging indent in Microsoft Word, I would have done it weeks ago. (Which I did, but apparently some people weren't paying attention.)
  • And if you want to feel old, take a look at some of the things my students wrote about what was happening "back in the 1900s": women were not allowed to work outside the home and had to wear long dresses all the time; slavery had only recently been abolished; and poverty drove people to desperate measures to feed their families. Ah yes, back to the thrilling days of 1997, when everyone dressed like Granny Clampett and cooked road-kill possums for supper!
  • This morning on the way to work I heard Alvin and the Chipmunks singing "Christmas Don't Be Late" (click here), but at this point I'd like to request that Christmas just slow down and move a week or two into January. Whom shall I call to request that schedule change?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Missing a magical voice

Last night in the middle of a big confusing kerfuffle I was suddenly overcome by a desire to call my mom and find out what she'd have to say about the whole situation. But of course I didn't. No phone lines in the grave.

This doesn't happen often. Of course I think about my mother, especially at this time of year when I recall how she used to grill me for information about what sort of Christmas gift every member of my family might want, and then she would come through with the book I'd been longing for or maybe a nice warm sweater. Today, it's not the gifts I think of but the warmth in her voice when we talked on the phone. We lived 800 miles apart for most of my adult life, so we talked on the phone a lot.

Once upon a time my mom had a magical voice full of love and caring. Years ago when my daughter was a toddler, a 17-year-old girl driving a borrowed Firebird ran a stop sign and crashed into my car. I was bruised and shaken and my daughter screamed her head off until the police car pulled up with its flashing lights, stunning her into sudden silence. 

My car was totalled but I was fine--or at least that's what I kept telling myself. My husband was in the middle of grad-school final exams and couldn't be disturbed so I needed to deal with the insurance people and find a new used car quickly (with a toddler in tow), and I really didn't have time to be anything but fine so I held myself together for two full days. Then my mother called out of the blue just to chat. That's when I fell to pieces.

Sometimes I just need to talk to my mom--but how did she know?

If I could talk to my mom today, I'd talk to her as she was back then, before disease started eating away pieces of her personality, diminishing her ability to understand and communicate. But even at the end, when she was suffering so horribly, she kept trying to comfort the rest of us and take care of our needs. Lying on her back in the hospital bed, helpless, inert, she would look right at me and ask, "Can I get you anything?"

Last night I tried to channel that voice, to embody the warmth and caring while dealing with a different family member in crisis, but being far away from the situation made me feel helpless, as if my hands were tied. How did my mom manage to convey all that caring across the miles, across the years, across the phone lines? That's what I wanted to ask her. But, sadly, she's not taking calls.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Okay, so maybe I am a lemming

They tell me that today is Cyber Monday, but who gets to decide these things? If I officially declared this entire month No-Shopping-Vember, would anyone listen? Probably not, and yet apparently millions of people listen to the mysterious forces who have declared this Cyber Monday, the forces behind the Facebook ad that keeps telling me to go ahead and shop at work today because my boss is shopping online too! (A statement, by the way, that demonstrates utter lack of understanding of both business ethics and my boss.)

The only way Cyber Monday would tempt me would be if Amazon offered a Get-Out-of-Cyber-Monday Free card, but then I would have to indulge in Cyber Monday Madness to order it, which would defeat the purpose. 

Which is what, exactly? Why resist an activity that millions of cyber-shoppers find irresistible?

I don't resist online shopping. In fact, in the past week alone I have dedicated a significant number of minutes (not hours) to perusing my children's Amazon wish lists and oohing and aahing over all cute things at the Melissa and Doug Toys site. But I employ a similar shopping method both online and off: write a list; dash in and buy what I need; and then dash out again as quickly as possible without being distracted by shiny pretty things. Since this kind of shopping is incompatible with massive crowds, I've never shopped on Black Friday, even though I know this makes me un-American. (So sue me.)

What I resist is the herd instinct, that desire to shop simply because everyone else is doing it, lured by "deals" that really aren't that great. Here's an example: I love to visit the local shops on Small Business Saturday because they offer special sales and holiday snacks, and I always get a chance to chat with interesting people. However, I did not participate in the local promotion: buy something at 15 different downtown shops in one day and earn a gift card. Why not? I had only three items on my list and I do not know how to spread out three purchases over 15 different shops, especially since all three items were available in only one shop. To earn the gift card, I would have had to find some small thing to purchase in another 14 shops, many of them specializing in the kinds of gift items I resist. I do not need any more smelly candles or "primitive" crafts or festive flags to hang in my yard, and I'm not going to buy them for others just so I can earn a "free" gift card.

So I may be a crank and a Grinch and un-American to boot, but when it comes to shopping, I am not a lemming! Of course, scientists tell us that even lemmings aren't lemmings in the metaphorical sense either, so I'm in very good company.