Thursday, May 31, 2007

The real groundbreaking

I arrived this morning to find the center of campus being disassembled in preparation for the new library. Not much ground was actually broken at the ceremonial groundbreaking, but today the sound of ground being broken is echoing all over campus. It's a sound we'll have to get accustomed to because construction is expected to take about 18 months. Some trees have been removed to make way for the library, but smaller plantings in front of the old library are being moved to other places on campus. The process is loud and dirty and not very attractive, but it's the price we have to pay for a new library and I can live with that.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poetry candy

In a big pile of articles I've been meaning to read I found "American Poetry in an Age of Constriction" by Anis Shivani, published in the Cambridge Quarterly late last year. Not a tremendous fan of American poetry is Anis Shivani. His polemic savages Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Philip Levine, and Billy Collins, and their ilk, if so unsavory a word as "ilk" can be applied to so august a group. His lively argument is amply supported by evidence from texts, but I prefer his sentences to his sentiments. Look, for instance, at the article's second sentence:

The contemporary American poet inhabits a perpetual comfort zone, choosing to restrict him or herself to articulating private sorrows and occasional joys in language that does not inspire, in metaphors that do not invigorate the life beyond the page, and in rhetoric that suggests a closing in, a shutting down of means and ends, rather than an opening up to the excitements and thrills that might be beyond the immediate ken of the hemmed-in poet.

Or consider this, from his discussion of Jorie Graham:

The irrepressible poetics, impossible to conceive of as trespassing against any rules, suggest a pervasive unaccountability, of the poet towards history, of history towards the poet, of all towards all.

Okay, so the guy knows how to employ parallel structure, but what about vivid, memorable images? Decrying the dearth of humor in contemporary poetry, Shivani writes, "Satire, the stooped uncle with welts on his back, has been utterly homeless for some time." Or see how he excoriates Sharon Olds: "The poet's persona is now that of a woman leery of confession even as all she does is confess." Or Billy Collins: "He is like a happy adult solving the Sunday paper's crossword puzzle, having skipped the front-page headlines, the mayhem and chaos on the planet." He goes on to characterize Collins as a purveyor of "poetry candy": "Although he appears to have departed from the self's nervous tics, he hasn't replaced this with anything more serious than cute intellectual puzzles."

Shivani's critique may be a bit reductive, but I have to applaud his ability to produce such a charming and civilized polemic. Most of all, though, I applaud poetry itself. Any genre that can inspire 25 pages of such articulate prose cannot be entirely moribund.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Knees needed

Today I have been coveting my daughter's knees. I realize that this puts me in violation of the tenth commandment, but since it's unlikely that my coveting will move me to action, I may dodge divine retribution.

I need her knees because mine are old and cranky and not accustomed to all the stooping and squatting required for gardening. Today I planted nicotiana, salvia, and two kinds of basil, but I didn't get around to putting in the rosemary because my knees were begging for mercy. Oh for a younger pair of knees, some limber knees undaunted by gardening!

Maybe if I'd spent more time in the garden for the past decade or so, I wouldn't be so sore today. The truth is that I don't really enjoy gardening. I don't much care for creepy crawly bugs or dirt or sweat, but I do appreciate a flower garden and fresh tomatoes and basil and rosemary, not to mention sweet corn, peppers, okra, beets, beans, carrots, parsnips, peas, and let's not forget the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, and even the lowly rutabaga.

Normally I rely on the rest of the family to plant it all and weed and water and harvest while I focus on processing the produce, but my Gardening Angel has been gallivanting all over Italy with her college choir and will soon be heading for a summer job in another state while my son the reluctant gardener will be working at a real job this summer and so will have an excellent excuse to stay out of the garden. That leaves my husband--a lean, green gardening machine, but even he needs help sometime.

And so I stoop and squat and try not to covet my daughter's knees. Come to think of it, those knees are heading home this weekend. Think we can do a quick trade?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Please don't feed the reptiles

My little nephew was befuddled by an ad he heard. "Hey Mom," he said. "What's a reptile dysfunction?"

And no, he wasn't talking about the Geico gecko.

H&H Inc.

Yesterday my son's valedictory speech focused on of the vital link between hard work and happiness, so this morning I went out to the strawberry patch to test out his theory. I'm normally not the one who tends the strawberry patch; in fact, for years the entire family has experienced strawberry-flavored happiness as a result of my daughter's hard work in the garden. She's in Italy right now performing with her college choir, though, so the strawberry patch has been rather neglected. (Come back, little girl! The strawberries need you!)

My task this summer will be to determine whether my love for fresh strawberries can overcome my hatred for slugs. This morning the strawberries won, but it took some hard work: I had to pull some weeds first, and all that squatting and bending sharply reminded me of a few neglected muscle groups. The result, though, was instant happiness. About three quarts' worth, I would estimate.

Now I can report to my son that his speech was correct: there is a connection between hard work and happiness. I'd be happy to go and tell him so right now, but he's out in the garden planting tomatoes, a form of hard work he does not particularly relish. Keep up the hard work, son! Happiness is a fresh tomato!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A new kind of scholarship

My son the valedictorian will graduate from high school this afternoon, and the event has been shrouded by a lively controversy: should students who did not pass all sections of the state graduation test be allowed to march in graduation even if they can't receive a diploma? Most schools do not allow students to march in graduation unless they've passed the test, but my son's school decided to be different this year and let 'em march. Of 52 seniors, three did not pass the test, but they will still be allowed to participate in graduation.

The local paper has been printing abundant articles and editorials and letters, some coherent and some less so, but I have a hard time getting worked up about the topic. I graduated from a high school where students who did not pass the state test received a Certificate of Attendance instead of a diploma, but there were more than 700 people in my graduating class so it's unlikely anyone was aware of the contents of those diploma cases--except for the students themselves. My son goes to a small school in a small, close-knit community, and the absence of three students out of 52 would be quite obvious. I agree that students who don't earn diplomas shouldn't get diplomas, but I don't really care whether they walk in graduation or not. It's just a ceremony. The real rewards will come later on.

But there's one thing I find quite amusing: last night my son went to the annual alumni banquet, where the alumni association awarded three $500 scholarships to students selected on the basis of criteria known only to the elect, although they do seem to favor athletes and students related to members of the alumni board. The result was that one of those three scholarships went to a student who did not pass the state graduation test.

Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the word "scholar," don't you think?

Friday, May 25, 2007

The toothless spud

Overheard at a candidate dinner: "That committee was a political hot potato, and it had to be defanged."
Many thanks to Andrea for creating Spudzilla!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How I'll spend my summer vacation

Bardiac got the ball rolling by listing summer goals; now it's my turn to follow suit. What academic projects do I plan to tackle in the next three months?

1. Hire someone (or several someones) to cover four classes in my department in the fall.

2. Write a paper to deliver at a conference in South Carolina in June.

3. Revise and submit the Atlanta essay.

4. Finish research and begin writing the follow-up to last year's big publication.

5. Revise and resubmit the recently rejected article.

6. Write syllabus for fall capstone class.

7. Revise syllabi for composition and postcolonial lit classes.

8. Write departmental assessment report.

9. Attend conference in Washington in July.

10. Write preliminary notes for book proposal with my colleague.

It's a daunting list but I'm excited about getting started. Will I still be able to blog? Only time will tell.

The sob is the story

Interesting article about Abe Lincoln's death and famous quotes and history in the May 28 New Yorker. Adam Gopnik's "Angels and Ages" ends in a particularly poignant paragraph describing his visit to the tiny room in which Lincoln died:

In the brief moment given to each visitor to look inside, I wished for a machine that would be able to re-create every breath of air, every vibration that ever took place in a room. And then I knew that we probably would not have understood any better had we been standing there than we do now. Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob--the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn't what's heard, and what is heard isn't what gets repeated. Civilization is an agreement to keep people from shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre; and then we all try to remember afterward when we heard it, and if we ever really smelled smoke, and who went first, and what they said. The indeterminacy is built into the emotion of the moment. The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The birds & the boys

I was washing dishes last night when I looked out the window and saw a red-bellied woodpecker pecking on my picnic table. It's an old picnic table and I'm not too concerned about damage, but I have to wonder what joy a woodpecker can get out of pecking on furniture. Perhaps the woodpecker sees my picnic table as a buffet of juicy little bugs, which is bad news either for the bird or for the table. Perhaps the bird is trying to hollow out a nest in the leg of the picnic table--a foolhardy pursuit--or perhaps the bird is drumming to attract a mate.

The woodpecker won't explain its motives any more than my 17-year-old son will explain why he regularly drums on furniture. It started when he was about six years old and started using his chopsticks to drum on the dinner table. "We have a percussionist in the family!" I said, but he contradicted me. "I'm not a percussionist," he said. "I'm a drummer."

Millions of paradiddles later, he admits to being a percussionist but he still drums on everything: sofas, chairs, steering wheels, shoes, dinner plates, picnic tables. I doubt that my son is looking for bugs or building a nest--and if he's drumming to attract a mate, I hope he plans to continue drumming for a few more years. But his motives may be more elemental than that: perhaps he drums because that's what drummers do, just as woodpeckers peck because that's what woodpeckers do.

I can live with that. I'm not so sure about the picnic table.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Once upon a workshop

This morning I sat down with an accountant and a physics professor to write a little fiction--not a particularly normal way to spend the day but rewarding all the same. Our annual teaching workshop featured a session designed to help professors across the curriculum understand the power of narrative in teaching and learning, and one of the sessions required small interdisciplinary groups of professors to write small chunks of short stories: set the scene and introduce the character, then pass it on to the next group; develop the character and introduce the conflict, then pass it on to the next group, and so on. The results were collaborate stories each bearing the stamp of a dozen different professors.

My colleague who led the session said that when she does this exercise with her students, their stories generally include space travel, car chases, gun fights, or hordes of armed ninjas, but we seasoned professors wrote about our own particular horrors: committee meetings, campus security, sexual harassment, and accounting. My group's story featured a student named Alex who makes a heroic decision to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by doing his accounting homework--because "Someone would have to fill the shoes of all those accountants killed in the blast, and it might as well be Alex."

Okay, our group is probably not going to win a Pulitzer, but the exercise forced us all to write clearly, read carefully, and think about the kinds of choices authors have to make to produce a work of fiction. Best of all, though, we got to spend time being creative with colleagues from across campus whom we generally see only in committee meetings. We laughed, we learned, we ate some bagels, and best of all, no ninjas were harmed in the writing of these stories.

Monday, May 21, 2007

High-flying fiction

If you moved Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy to Afghanistan, the result would be something like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In both works, childhood cruelty plants a seed of guilt and shame that grows silently for years before bearing fruit. One shameful childhood act binds together disparate characters for life--or death.

This idea is not terribly original, and neither is the subplot of a son's desperately seeking his father's favor; what makes Kite Runner different is the setting. In my first high school journalism class, I was warned of the dangers of what journalists used to call Afghanistanism: the tendency to focus on news from places so out-of-the-way that readers are unlikely to have heard of them. Hosseini relies on his readers' familiarity with Afghanistan as well as the air of the exotic that surrounds front-page news stories, but his descriptions of place rarely move beyond mere adequacy. For instance, the title of the novel suggests the importance of competitive kite-flying, and in fact the first kite-flying scene leads into the pivotal event in the novel, so it ought to be richly realized and dense with visceral details; instead, it feels very much like the scenery in a low-budget video game: the streets define an arena for the main character's exploits but they don't hold up to careful scrutiny, nor do the side streets lead to a real world pulsing with life.

I realize that I'm the only one in the known world who failed to read Kite Runner when it was published four years ago, but I've read it now and this is what I have to say: not bad for a first novel, but now that he's moved past all that, maybe Khaled Hosseini's next novel will be a little more original and less reliant on a video-game aesthetic.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The invisible library

Just got home from a major campus shindig and I'm trying to decide which part of it I liked best. The sushi bar was great, but then my motto has always been "Never refuse free sushi." The little packets of M&M's imprinted with the name of the college were quite adorable, although I have to wonder who had the tedious job of fitting all those little candies into the typewriter. The little shovel-shaped lapel pins were also a nice touch. The deejay played some pretty good classic rock from the 60s and 70s in honor of the major donors who made the event possible, and the donors kept their speeches mercifully short and sweet. The governor demonstrated his ability to connect to the crowd, and the college president and provost managed to remain elegant and dignified despite the fact that their high heels were sinking into the wet ground while they wielded their shovels with aplomb.

Today about a dozen dignitaries took symbolic stabs at breaking the ground for a building that will be under construction for the next 18 months: the new college library! Soon the real construction workers will arrive, and they won't be wearing high heels or packing sushi in their lunchboxes, but they will do the important work of transforming the invisible library into a real one. That was my favorite part of today's event: the new library. Can't see it just yet, but I know it's coming, and that's better than sushi.

Outragges spelling

Recently I've noted an outbreak of outrageous spelling: nouns that would normally form adjectives in -ous being spelled -es instead, as in "outragges" and "couragges." It hurts my eyes just to look at them. What's interesting about this is not the fact that students don't know how to spell these specific words, but that they seem blissfully unaware of the pattern that allows certain nouns to becomes adjectives by the addition of some variation of -ous. How does a native speaker of English grow to adulthood without noticing this pattern?

Thursday, May 17, 2007


This week Rate Your Students has been publishing diatribes from angry professors explaining why they're quitting teaching. It's depressing reading, although it's not necessarily a bad thing when someone who bitterly hates teaching quits. The last thing we need is another bitter professor running around loose.

But then I look around and try to locate a professor who is not bitter and I come up empty. Throughout academe, this is the bitter time of year: we've given our best time and energy and expertise to the students and the institution and what do we have to show for it? Whining e-mails full of complaints, excuses, lies, and requests that add up to additional work and stress just at the moment when the gas tank is fading toward E.

If the entire school year were like this week, there would be no professors left. But that's what summer is for: time to refuel. We'll start today at the departmental picnic, where the menu includes grilled bratwurst served with a side dish of hearty laughter, and we'll watch the bitterness blow away in the sweet spring breeze. Let the summer come. There will be no resignations in my department this week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fiction: faulty or fabulous

Often after reading allegedly excellent literature, I wonder whether I've lost the ability to immerse myself in a good book. For instance, recently I read A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve, a novel that earned blurbs of praise from authors I respect and that was favorably compared to Ian McEwan's Saturday. I found Shreve's novel turgid, vapid, and amateurish, but when I looked at all that lavish praise, I wondered whether the fault was mine.

"This is it, then," I thought. "Gone are the days when a great work of fiction could grab me by the eyeballs, ream out my innards, and fill me with molten gold, when a good book could take such total possession of my mind that turning over the final page was physically painful. It's all academic now. Fiction is a closed book."

Then I read something really wonderful like Ian McEwan's Saturday and I realize that the fault lies not in me but in the mediocrity that makes its way into print these days. I understand why readers would compare Saturday with A Student of Living Things: both novels explore the evolution of particular families in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and both are concerned with the challenges of survival and reproduction in the midst of daily danger. Place the books side-by-side, though, and the Shreve book suffers: it is peopled with paper dolls manipulated in support of an overworked metaphor, while McEwan's novel explores depths undreamed of by Shreve.

Like a skilled surgeon, McEwan exposes the human condition in all its complexity, laying out for readers' inspection the secrets of human dignity in the midst of struggle. The pace is slow and many of the events are mundane and unexceptional, but the characters live and breathe and love and think in a manner entirely believable and worthy of attention. At the most intense point I could not wait to turn the pages, hoping for a swift end to the characters' suffering, but turning the last page left me with a sense of loss, a sadness over leaving the world of the book.

But it's not the end after all. Reading a book like this restores my faith in fiction. I haven't lost it! Fiction is not a closed book but an open door! Now if only I could get someone to paint a big bold M on the doors opening only to Mediocrity, I would be a happy reader.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Assessment the easy way

Classes are over and grades have been submitted, so why am I sitting in my office tapping on the keyboard for hours on end? The answer, of course, is the A-word: Assessment.

The college is committed to assessment at every level, but this commitment takes various forms. The English Department recently instituted an online portfolio system to assist us in assessing whether the English major is achieving its objectives, and we assess the freshman writing program through in-class writing assignments evaluated according to a common rubric. I don't mind doing either of those types of assessment because our methods produce meaningful results that help us improve as a department and as individual teachers.

When it comes to general education assessment, though, I get a little cynical. Okay, maybe that's an understatement. Everyone who teaches any course that fulfills a general education requirement must assess how well that course achieves an objective--just one objective--from a master list of general education course objectives. We are given total freedom in selecting which objective to assess and how to assess it; as long as we turn in the assessment report to the assessment committee, there's no reward for choosing meaningful methods and no punishment for taking the easy way out. Is it any wonder that some of us choose the easiest method possible?

Here's an example: every student is required to take two courses identified as Writing Intensive. These courses appear in many departments, but the highest concentration of W courses appears in the English department. Now, really meaningful assessment of our Writing Intensive requirement should involve some long-term evidence of improvements to students' writing skills, such as a portfolio system or a timed essay written at the beginning and end of a student's college experience. However, no one is interested in doing this kind of assessment across the curriculum, so assessment is left in the hands of individual professors in W classes. I teach one or two W courses each semester, with 25 to 30 students in each course, and I struggled for a long time to create an assessment system that produced meaningful numbers. Then I had an epiphany: if the committee in charge of assessing general education courses doesn't care about meaningful numbers, why should I toil and sweat to produce them?

So I took another look at the objectives for W courses, and I found one stating that students will "learn to write as a process that follows a series of steps." Perfect: I already require this kind of writing in my W courses. These days all the assessment reports for my W courses look about the same: I set a goal that one hundred percent of students in the course will participate in all stages of a multi-stage writing project, and at the end of the semester I discover that 99 or 100 percent of students in the course have indeed done so. The fact that failure to participate in every step of the writing process will have a dramatic negative impact on the grade assures compliance among all but the most apathetic students.

What does this method of assessment tell me? Nothing much. What does it tell the assessment committee? Only that I am able to fill out an assessment report form and turn it in on time. What use with anyone make of this information? None that I'm aware of. But until the college as a whole adopts a meaningful method to assess writing proficiency across the curriculum, I'll stick to assessment the easy way.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Purge and plant

I celebrated Mother's Day weekend by purging my garden of Creeping Charlie and my briefcase of final exams. Weeding hurt my muscles and grading hurt my brain, but I appreciate the results: moving all those final exams out of the way left room to fill my mind with excellent fiction (Ian McEwan's Saturday), and pulling out all that Creeping Charlie left plenty of space to plant columbines, foxglove, and salvia. Now I'll just sit back and watch it all grow.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Baffled and baffling

Recent experiences with birdfeeders have left us both baffling and baffled, and I'm not sure what the answer is but at least we're getting a little entertainment out of the deal.

For four years we've had two feeder stations in the front yard: a small forked pole holding two finch feeders and a large pole holding a complicated array of feeders, including a suet feeder, nut feeder, tray feeder, and a large hanging feeder usually full of sunflower or safflower seeds. The smaller pole with the two finch feeders is of no interest to squirrels because the holes in the feeder are too small to allow them access, but lately chipmunks have been climbing up the pole and just stuffing their little cheeks full of seeds before scampering off to hide them. Yesterday I sprayed cooking oil on the pole, though, and since then we've been watching chipmunks jump up onto the pole and then slide right back down again. Around here, watching chipmunks slide down a pole passes for cheap entertainment.

The other feeder station is posing a more mysterious problem. A squirrel baffle keeps squirrels from climbing up the pole and the tray is too high for squirrels to jump up; however, a really determined squirrel can jump down to the feeder from a nearby tree, but they often miss the tray entirely and end up falling farther than they had intended. I have not seen any squirrels on or near that feeder this spring, but something is getting up there, and whatever it is must be large and heavy enough to snap the weld on one of the bars, remove the screened bottom of the tray feeder, and totally dismantle the large sunflower seed feeder, sending it tumbling to the ground. This has happened twice so far and we are tired of it.

What is it? So far, all we've been able to determine is that it comes by night. A raccoon would be big enough to do that kind of damage, but I can't imagine how a raccoon could climb up the pole, and I don't know whether a raccoon would make that difficult leap from the tree.

How do you baffle a creature big and smart enough to take apart a birdfeeder station that has proudly baffled squirrels and chipmunks for four years? Frankly, I'm baffled.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The secret of invisibility

I have learned the secret of invisibility: rain. If I go out the front door, the grosbeaks fly away and refuse to return until I go back inside, no matter how quietly and patiently I wait; but if I go out the front door during a light drizzle, the grosbeaks stay where they are and let me take their picture.

A great place to sit quietly and patiently is the new deck on the back of the garage apartment. It's cozy and secluded, and if you lean your head back in one of those chairs, your vision is filled with trees and sky. Look a little to the side, though, and you see clumps of fire pinks and other wildflowers, which are thriving this year.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Had to be there

So we're having dinner with a candidate and I need to get the waiter's attention, but since I am generally invisible to waiters, I ask a colleague, "Are you any good at gesturing meaningfully at waiters?"

"I used to be," he says, "but then I found someone."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The well-oiled dynamo

Dear Student,
Let's face it: your writing is not perfect. Your love affair with adjectives and adverbs sometimes results in sentences weighed down by excess baggage, and your lighter flights of fancy can be a bit rococo. Paragraphs grow like Barthelme's balloon, expanding to fill the room and bulge well out into the hallway, leaving me gasping for air in the corner.

And yet: I'd rather read your papers than most others. Here's why:

1. You take risks. Those flights of fancy? Always original, always meaningful, always interesting, even when they're outrageous. Especially when they're outrageous.

2. You love words. Your extensive vocabulary grows not from a desire to impress readers with your erudition but from sheer delight in the wonders of language.

3. You live literature. No mere water-strider skating over the surface, you plunge in and inhabit the text, developing gills if necessary to keep breathing in the depths.

4. You respond to advice. Rough passage? I make a broad suggestion and you run with it until your prose hums like a dynamo. So what if it sputters now and again? It runs with energy and rhythm and precision and power, and it makes me want to keep reading.

So keep writing. And while you're at it, if you can infect your classmates with some of these characteristics, you will make your English professors very very happy.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Sum search!

Say you're assembling a search committee and you need to make sure the committee has the right balance of innocence and experience, knowledge and power, gravitas and charm--not to mention the whole gender balance issue and the need to avoid stocking the committee entirely with cranks and bores. Wouldn't it make your life easier if each faculty member were assigned certain numbers expressing those nameless qualities so important to the makeup of a search committee?

Schmoozability, for instance. You need a certain schmooze factor on a search committee, but there's a fine line between just enough schmoozing and too much. Suppose we assign each faculty member a Schmoozability Quotient, or SQ, and anyone whose SQ fell outside a certain range would be banned from search committees.

Then of course you'd want to quantify other characteristics as well: the Charm Factor (CF) might be helpful, as well as the ratio of Expertise to Experience (E:E). It would be necessary to know each faculty member's TAEQMOS score (Tendency to Ask Embarrassing Questions or Make Offensive Statements) as well as the strength of his or her Ability to Suffer Fools Silently (ASFS).

There must be more, but for the sake of illustration, let's stop here. Now suppose I have all these numbers at my disposal and I want to know which faculty member is the perfect pick to fill that last spot on the search committee; the sum might look something like this:

E:E + ((SQ + CF) - (TAEQMOS + ASFS))

There now. Doesn't that simplify the whole process?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

From oriole to Inferno

Orioles are back! I heard them singing high up in the sycamores while I was out on the deck grading papers, and I would still be out there listening to them if I hadn't needed to babysit my geriatric printer while it labors to spit out proof of plagiarism on two papers. I loathe plagiarism in any circumstances, but plagiarism that drags me away from newly arrived orioles--well, these students are about to experience a circle of Hell Dante never dreamed of.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Continental divide

"Today there are many global issues all across the world." It must be true because I read it at the beginning of a student paper. Unfortunately, that paper fails to consider the global issue that currently has me a bit befuddled: global ignorance, or possibly ignorance that is merely hemispheric or continental.

I was alerted to the problem when I stumbled upon the following sentence in a student paper: "According to Regina Saskatchewan who works for the Leader-Post,...."

A yes, Regina; I know her well. Simply capital, even if she tends toward the cool side.

I was willing to grant the student the benefit of the doubt and entertain the possibility that there might be an actual journalist named Regina Saskatchwan working for the Leader-Post, but no. It took me maybe 30 seconds to confirm that the student was referring to an unsigned article in a newspaper published in Regina, Saskatchewan. Why didn't the student realize this?

1. Time crunch. Thirty seconds? Too much!
2. Apathy. Looks like a person's name, sounds like a person's name, must be a person's name, and if it isn't who cares?
3. Ignorance. Saskatchewan? Isn't that some Eskimo word for "Gesundheit"?

This is just one of several students whose Works Cited pages were stuffed with articles from Canadian newspapers despite the fact that they were writing about topics that had nothing to do with Canada. I noticed this trend on the drafts and I mentioned it in class, along with a stern warning about relying heavily on secondary or tertiary sources. Why rely on a Canadian newspaper's account of a speech given by an American government figure when you can easily find the full text of the speech itself online? This little warning did not make much of an impact, however, and now I understand why: I assumed that students would recognize a foreign source when they found one. A student who thinks Regina Saskatchewan is the name of a reporter may not be equipped to make informed decisions about the provenance of his sources.

The other day I had to explain to a student that conspiracy-theory websites ranting about the Illuminati and their ilk might not be the most reliable sources of information for his research paper, but then he wanted me to explain to him who the Illuminati are and how one becomes one of them. I already have my hands full trying to teach thesis statements and keep the Semicolon Fairy off my back, and now I'm supposed to also teach conspiracy theory AND geography? I need a vacation someplace where my students will never find me. But where?

I'll ask Regina. She'll know.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friday night lights

We've got some real Friday night excitement going on here: the young man is upstairs ironing shirts and the old guy is in the kitchen baking bread. I'm just goofing off. Technically, I'm supervising the ironing process, but the kid seems to have picked up the technique pretty quickly, so I'm supervising from a distance. Is there any better way to spend a Friday night?

I am ashamed to admit that this is the first time my 17-year-old son has taken iron in hand. I've mentoned it a few times in the past only to encounter a solid wall of resistance, and I already spend enough time banging my head against various walls so I didn't push it. This week, though, it came to light that the young man had forgotten to return his prom tux to the rental shop last weekend despite being reminded repeatedly to do so, and he was facing a largeish extra charge if it didn't get returned by noon Tuesday. I agreed to return the tux on my lunch hour provided that he compensate for the inconvenience by doing something nice for me. Hence, he irons.

For the old guy, bread-baking is just a normal part of his Friday-night routine. He mixes dough long into the night, leaves it to rise for a few hours, and gets up at 4 or 5 a.m. to put the loaves in the oven in time to get them to the Farmer's Market by 8. I understand that there are other possible ways to spend a Friday night and perhaps one day we'll experience them, but for now, the old guy bakes, the young guy irons, and I supervise.

Celebration, anyone?

Just taught my last class of the semester! I'm done!

Granted, there's a huge pile of freshman papers and a less huge pile of literaure papers on my desk, not to mention a pile of material related to an upcoming teaching workshop and another pile related to a paper I'm supposed to give in June and another pile related to the A-word (Assessment), and I'm giving two exams next week and interviewing two job candidates, but so what? For now, I'm done!

Woo-hoo! I survived!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Do you C what I C?

Candidate: gone.

Committees: meeting.

Columbines: blooming.

Calm: fleeting.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A glut of excellence

We have a candidate on campus today for a position in our department and two more coming next week, and I'm reminded of my most and least favorite things about serving on a search committee: I love spending time with intelligent, interesting, articulate people--but I wish we could hire them all! Granted, there are the occasional pompous bores, like the candidate several years ago who emitted deadly tedium rays reaching from here to Poughkeepsie (note to candidates: no one wants to hear you recite your dissertation abstract over dinner), but this year I'm delighted with all three of the finalists and I don't want to send any of them away. Can't we just hire all three?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Neither here nor there

Interesting article on Inside Higher Ed about the problem of absenteeism (read it here), including some data and a great deal of speculation about the reasons students skip class. For instance, a study at the University of California at Santa Cruz found three common reasons students miss a class: " a) they are sleeping, b) they are preparing for other classes or c) they feel like the class is 'useless.'" Some blame professors for relying too heavily on technology, while others blame professors for avoiding technology or relying too heavily on lecture; others place all the blame on students for being lazy, overcommitted, or irresponsible.

One of the students in my 8:00 class confessed that sleep was to blame for two weeks' worth of absences: she just can't get up that early in the morning. "When I make it to your class," she explained, "It's because I've stayed up all night the night before." A few weeks ago we worked out an arrangement that would allow her to pass the class, and since then she has made it to every class and skillfully completed every assignment. Because of her willingness to work on the problem, I have no doubt that she will pass the class.

Another student missed a month of class because of involvement with a sport. The student has turned in assignments late or not at all, and he has taken no initiative to meet with me or visit the Writing Center for one-on-one attention. Further, he does not even bother to pick up his drafts before revising them, and he has missed so many classes that he would not even know what some of my comments meant even if he read them. Will he pass the class? Unlikely.

Rampant absenteeism is a problem, but it's always the same problem, and therefore it will not respond to the same solution every time. I am happy to bend a little for students willing to take responsibility and work toward a solution, and for the rest--well, that's why we have the letter F.