Friday, November 30, 2007

The could have been camels

So I'm driving to town along the river this morning, way up in the sticks where the land along the river features not fast-food restaurants but campgrounds and mobile homes and hunting cabins, when I saw camels, three of 'em, kneeling in a row in a low, foggy clearing. They looked like refugees from some Living Nativity scene; I looked around for magi bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Maybe they got lost following a bright star in the fog and stopped at this campground to wait for morning.

Or maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me. I looked again, and instead of camels I saw three neat stacks of firewood, one two three, all in a row, each with a tall post at the front and a humped-up pile toward the back. Of course they weren't camels! The river's name allegedly comes from a Native American word referring to elk, but elk haven't lived here for centuries and camels never. A town up the river suffers from a plague of elephant statues, but I've never seen or heard of a camel, living or dead, dwelling along this river.

But early this morning, still bleary-eyed from sleep and pumping the caffeine into my system, I could have sworn I saw three camels sitting in the campground along the river and patiently awaiting the next stage in their journey.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Supporting what I support

Dear freshperson,

I have read the draft of your so-called persuasive essay and I am a bit befuddled. You show evidence of having done at least a modicum of research on your topic, and your thesis suggests that you will take some sort of stand on the topic although it fails to specify the exact nature of that stand. But after reading six pages of "on the one hand this and on the other hand that," I was really hoping that at some point you would raise one of those hands and provide an answer. Instead, you give me this: "Most of the time people will support the study they personally support."

I am willing to admit the truth of this statement. It is undeniable that people support what people support. However, this assignment asked a specific person (you) to support a specific thesis (proposing change) to persuade specific readers (in a position to act on your proposal) to take some specific action (change the world!). Your paper fails in every respect.

Here is my question: if, after carefully researching your topic, you are unable to come to any conclusion about the matter, why write about it? And if you can't be bothered to actually say something about the topic, why should anyone read your paper? If all you can do is throw your hands in the air and say "People will do what people will do," then what's the point of writing at all?

True, people support what people support--and after reading your draft, I support the idea that you need to take a stand on the topic. But students will do what students will do and there's not much I can say to change that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A real community of scholars

From the depths to the heights: yesterday morning I taught my disastrous freshman class, and then last night my senior capstone students gave their final presentations. The presentations were lively and polished, the audience was large and responsive, the food was fine (despite a bit too much garlic in the hummus), and as far as I know everyone survived the after-presentation party (which involved, I've been told, two pitchers of margaritas).

One of my primary goals this semester was to encourage my eight capstone students to form a supportive community of scholars, and it worked: they read each others' papers with care and made insightful suggestions; they met outside of class on their own time to struggle through complex ideas in their reading and writing; and they even scheduled an extra practice session for the presentations over Thanksgiving break--all I had to do was show up on time to unlock the door, and I left them alone in an empty building to practice presentations and offer suggestions for improvement.

Last night, the results were clear. The papers were amazing, and even the weaker ones were delivered so well that the weaknesses were not readily apparent. That's the way a class should work: everyone struggling together to create something worth sharing, something that advances the scholarly conversation on a subject. I don't know why this is so much easier to accomplish in some classes but virtually impossible in others, but I know that when a class performs the way my seniors performed this semester, it makes all the struggles worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Diary of a disastrous class

I have to face up to the fact that I've utterly failed to reach my freshman composition class this semester. I've suspected for a while that I was getting nowhere with them, and the most recent drafts confirm that fact.

The papers are bad in a way I expect early in the semester, but far too bad for late November. The students are bad at skills we've worked on repeatedly, skills they should have mastered no later than midterm. Nothing I say or do seems to make a difference.

The class is quiet. Not just reluctant to respond to questions or enter into discussion, but completely silent, unwilling to respond regardless of how I phrase the question. If I stood in front of the class and offered to toss a Krugerrand to the first person who said a word--any word--I'd still be standing up there holding the gold next Wednesday.

When I open my mouth in front of that class, a curtain seems to fall between me and the students. They close their mouths (and some close their eyes) and act as if they're playing a private game of Statues. I want to reach out and sweep away the curtain, but nothing works. I can't make them laugh and I can't make them listen and I can't make them angry enough to want to respond.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I lie in bed and ignore the alarm clock, hoping I'll suddenly fall sick enough to cancel my 8:00 class but not so sick as to ruin the whole day. It never happens. Do I hate that class? "Hate" is a strong word; a more accurate one might be "dread." Some of the students I quite enjoy outside of class, and we've made some significant progress working one-on-one, but as a group, they make me want to run screaming from the room and hide in a dark closet gibbering like an idiot.

Today I managed to get a smile out of a few students by announcing that I'm cancelling the final exam so we can spend the final three class sessions focusing on improving their research papers. I'll try to salvage the little time that remains and do my best to help the few students still making an effort to improve, but this class will go down in my permanent record as an F.

Monday, November 26, 2007

That deer-in-the-headlights look

Back to school today! Only a few students missed my 9:00 class, but many wandered in a little late and sat looking like lumps on a log. I know how they feel: I've had a nagging headache all morning that I choose to blame on the weather. The rain started late last night and has not stopped yet, nor does the sky look particularly promising. Cold, wet, gray, icky: this weather makes me want to put my head down on the desk and close my eyes for a long, long time.

Yesterday was better--blue sky, mid-fifties, bracing breeze. I went for a walk away from the woods and I wore my bright red wool coat even though it was warmer than necessary because I wanted to look as un-deerlike as possible. Gun season starts today, but for weeks the hills have been alive with the sound of gunshots, which makes this a good time to work out at the rec center, where the chance of being mistaken for a deer is significantly reduced. Some public schools in the area cancel classes today because who would show up on the first day of deer gun season? Of course, these are the same schools noted for their annual gun raffles, when impressionable students learn that the best way to support education is Gambling for Guns.

So even if it's a lousy day to be an English professor, I'll just stay inside my warm, dry office and be glad I'm not a deer. Come to think of it, some of my students this morning had that familiar deer-in-the-headlights look, as if something really bright and scary were about to slam right into them. Look out! Finals week is on the way!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Only half loopy

Three of us got half-loopy yesterday while the fourth had visions of armadilloes dancing in his head. Okay, it was a singular armadillo, and I doubt that it was dancing. The Texas kid had classes on Wednesday and is still having car trouble, so instead of coming home for Thanksgiving break, he went with his roommate to Oklahoma, where they saw an armadillo and got snowed on while picking cotton, both experiences unlikely to happen in Ohio.

The Kentucky kid is here, though, so the three of us have been doing typical family things like building a fire in the fireplace and playing games of Trivial Pursuit that drag on for days. (I won handily Thursday afternoon, but the kid and the old guy have been playing for second place on and off ever since.) Yesterday afternoon we took a break for a long walk, a four-mile round trip on narrow country roads I've recently come to know and love.

I take two routes up through that area, one that follows the creek through a wooded valley beside a steep hill and another that climbs the hill and follows the ridge up above. I normally walk out a mile and two and then back, but a few weeks ago I realized that the two roads must come together at some point and therefore it should be possible to make a loop and enjoy both hilltop and creekside scenery in the same walk. But where do the roads come together, and how long would it take to walk that loop?

So not long ago I drove the loop just to see whether walking it is feasible. The roads get narrower and twistier and more like corduroy before they come together, but the scenery is absolutely astonishing and the walk would be well worth the effort.

How far is it? 5.9 miles. I've been doing three miles fairly regularly and yesterday we walked four, but it'll take some effort to make a nearly six-mile walk full of steep climbs and drops. I can't do it now, especially with the weather turning quite cold, but it's the kind of goal that can keep me working out at the rec center all winter: one pleasant day next spring I'll walk the whole loop. Yesterday was just a preliminary warm-up, a sort of half-loopy lope. It was good to be together and even better to get back to the house, sit in front of the fire, drink hot cocoa, and defrost after our cold winter's walk.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


This morning my adorable daughter, home for Thanksgiving break, declared today FWUMP day: this is the day when all the lovely golden leaves that have been clinging so tightly to the maple tree out front will all fall FWUMP to the ground.

We've been sitting on the sofa doing schoolwork (music ed for her, student drafts for me)and watching as every once in a while a big wind comes along and denudes a section of the tree. At this rate, the tree will be naked by midafternoon.

Later we'll do some preparation for tomorrow's feast (which will, for the first time, include sweet potato ice cream), but for now I'm thankful to be able to sit and read and chat and watch the lovely golden leaves go FWUMP.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pursuing parity of effort

"The works that have been addressed in this course seem to connect in one way or another."

This is the brilliant opening line in a draft of what is supposed to be a three- to five-page paper, although the alleged draft is only one paragraph long. The title of the paper is "Title," a singularly inauspicious beginning. The draft's five sentences are models of muddled syntax and wordy constructions (such as "the ability to be able to"). On the plus side, most of the words are spelled correctly.

In my responses to student drafts, I'd like to achieve a sort of parity of effort here: more feedback for students who are clearly doing their best work, less for those who are clearly not trying. Assuming that the student spent no more than three minutes composing this draft, how much time should I devote to responding? Or have I already done too much?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Teaching in the engine room

I walked into class this morning to find the room abuzz with sound--and not from students talking. It sounded like helicopters landing on the roof just above our heads, but I found out later that the heating system is having problems and we'll just have to put up with the noise and vibration until the part arrives.

Meanwhile, my class met in what felt like an airport terminal. The constant vibration made me sick to my stomach, and I can't even get away from it by going downstairs to my office because the whole building seems to be vibrating. By the time my class was over, I felt as if I'd spent the hour having my teeth drilled.

But all is not lost: I immediately went downstairs and requested a different room for Monday's class, and then we'll go on Thanksgiving break so the nasty thing can make all the noise it wants. When will it be fixed? "Soon," say the Powers That Be. Maybe we'll come back after break to a lovely sound of silence. That would be something for which to be thankful!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What do students want?

I know what they don't want: I've been reading big stacks of student evaluations, and students state fairly clearly what they don't want. Homework, for instance. Also exams, especially difficult ones. Also reading assignments, writing assignments, math problems, and science labs. They don't like lectures that seem to be "random," although no one offers a really clear explanation of what that means. A truly random lecture would be a sight to behold: you could use a random-number generator linked to an online dictionary to create the text, and then find a similar method to select visual aides online--but if anyone on this campus is doing that type of performance art, I'm certainly not aware of it.

Students are less clear about what they like--at least in the comments they write on course evaluations. You might think students would applaud easy exams, but I've seen many comments in which students show contempt for a class that is perceived as too easy or "too much like high school." Students do express a desire for "good notes," but they tend to characterize notes as something the professor "gives" ("he gave good notes," they write, or "he needs to give better notes"), as if notes could be distributed like chocolates from a box. I suppose the practice of distributing PowerPoint slides contributes to this perception, but somewhere along the line the student needs to put some effort into acquiring information from the course. (I'm always befuddled by students who ask for copies of my lecture notes. You want this little sticky note with three words on it? Or would you like to see the questions scribbled in the margins of my text?)

Students want to be listened to and they want their questions answered, which is a reasonable expectation, but they also want the professor to spend more time explaining difficult concepts, doing problems on the board, providing one-on-one assistance, commenting on homework problems, supervising small-group projects, and (believe it or not) lecturing. "Just stand up and teach the material!" they write, as if lecturing were the only way to teach. In some cases, the best teaching method is to sit down and shut up, but that doesn't necessarily look like teaching, so that's not really what students want.

What do students want? In some cases they're painfully clear: they want Prof Blimp to lose weight, they want Prof Drudge to buy a new sweater, and they want Prof Sunshine to stop smiling so much. I don't find these kinds of comments terribly useful, and neither, I suspect, does anyone else.

Looking at all these evaluations from all sectors of campus has convinced me that students want mutually exclusive things--that is, when they know what they want. Most of them haven't a clue--which puts us all in the same boat, paddling away in random directions and hoping we eventually discover new worlds.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No papers (knock wood)

I probably shouldn't admit this out loud lest the sky open and drop down upon my head a deluge of student writing, but I have to say it: I have no student papers to read tonight.

In fact, I may be free of papers for the entire weekend. I'm collecting drafts in two different classes Monday and Tuesday, but aside from that, I may--dare I say it--have an entirely paper-free weekend.

I don't know what I might have done to deserve such a boon, but I intend to enjoy every minute of it.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Eye-rolling epidemic

I don't whether to blame the bleak weather or the crunch time in the semester, but my colleagues and I are suffering through an epidemic of eye-rolling. I encounter it most in my composition class, where students are not shy about using body language to express the anguished question, "Why do I have to learn this?" And yesterday one of my departmental colleagues, who was working very hard to help a small group of students to improve their writing skills, actually had a student reject his suggestions with the brilliant question, "Don't you know we're paying your salary?"

I've been trying to think of a good response to that question, but the best I can do is "Of course you're paying my salary. That's why I'm doing my best to help you learn," which is true but not very satisfying. Likewise, "You're paying my salary because I'm the expert, so you ought to appreciate the opportunity to benefit from my expertise." The problem with reasonable statements like these is that they are unlikely to pop into mind when a snotty-nosed pipsqueak who can't form a complete sentence is rolling her eyes and expressing contempt for the value of the education we are trying to provide. The sentences that come more readily to mind, some actually containing the words "snotty-nosed pipsqueak," are unlikely to raise the tenor of the discussion. And so we stand there stumbling over our tongues.

There must be a better way! I welcome suggestions--otherwise, I may have to indulge in some eye-rolling of my own.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Attack of the wall-stompers!

Yesterday at the rec center I noticed the profusion of little pink signs saying "Do not put feet on the wall." From my perch on the elliptical machine I could see at least a dozen of them, and if I'd turned around, I would have immediately fallen on the floor and broken both my ankles, but that's beside the point. The point is that it is impossible to get to that room without passing many copies of the infamous pink sign prohibiting people from stomping all over those nice clean walls, but somehow that's not enough: every little spot of wall must be likewise decorated with a pink sign, suggesting that the campus is crawling with people just looking for an unprotected square inch of wall on which to prop their feet: "Look--they missed a spot! Pink signs abound to the right and left, but I'm sure no one will mind if I put my feet on the wall right here!"

How many times must the Powers That Be scream in garish pink that the walls are the wrong place for feet to be put? Likewise, how many times must they warn against spitting in water fountains, with multiple exclamation points reinforcing the urgency of the message? How many signs would it take to stifle the urges of all those serial wall-stompers and fountain-spitters, not to mention wearers of inappropriate T-shirts or those dastards who dare to wear street shoes in the building?

If 20 signs are not sufficient, will 30 work? How about 130? 1300? Why don't we just paper the walls with prohibitions? Then we wouldn't have to worry about keeping the walls clean because we wouldn't be able to see them.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Just call me Dennis

Today for the second time I became a point of interest on a tour, and I don't recommend the experience. I'm not always prepared to be put on display for the benefit of prospective students, but today I couldn't find a way to avoid it.

I hadn't intended to work out at the rec center this afternoon, but the weather looked pretty iffy and I know I'll be too swamped to work out tomorrow--and besides, I have to meet with a group of prospective students and their parents later this afternoon, so since I have to be on campus anyway, why not get in a little exercise?

So there I was walking to nowhere in a virtually empty facility. Three of us in the cardio room, all women. One of my students was running on a treadmill. (I envy people who can run on treadmills: I can't even walk on them without falling over sideways.) Another student in hot-pink short-shorts pedaled a stationary bike in a desultory manner while chatting on her hot-pink cell phone. Down below on the track a couple who looked like a dad and his teenaged daughter ran smoothly around the oval, side-by-side for the first few laps until the girl pulled out ahead and dad fell farther and farther behind, finally falling into a slow, loping walk, hands at his sides--but he kept going! He didn't give up!

And neither did I, although I've been tempted to eschew the rec center ever since Monday, when I was slogging my way through a strenuous workout, sweat pouring down my face, my baggy sweats streaked with paint--looking, in short, as if I'd been running a marathon straight through Death Valley while being attacked by rabid weasels, when suddenly a student led a tour of prospective students and their parents right through the cardio room and right past my elliptical machine, where she stopped and pointed me out by name as if I were a notable piece of architecture, not failing to mention that I am the chair of the English Department.

"I don't always dress like this," I wanted to tell them, "And I am often capable of articulating sophisticated and complex ideas, but right now all I can really do is breathe and sweat, and I'm not really sure about the breathing part. So you go on and enjoy your tour, okay?"

But I didn't say that. I smiled weakly, nodded, and waited for the tour to move on to something more interesting, like the climbing wall. Why would they want to watch me sweating when they could be looking at a climbing wall?

Today, though, I thought I was safe. With the rec center nearly empty and no one around campus, I thought I could get through my entire routine without suddenly finding myself in the spotlight. And I almost did it, too, but then as I was walking up the steps after my shower, my hair still wet and my face still red, I saw a huge clot of nicely-dressed strangers standing between me and the exit.

A tour. A big one. No way around it if I want to get out of the building--and the tour guide is one of my capstone students. Surely he'll let me slip on past without a fuss, won't he?

He will not. In fact, he will draw attention to me, invite everyone to look at me as if I've just stepped off of Mount Rushmore, and tell them all my name and my title. All I can do is wave and move on--out the door and down the sidewalk, which is blocked by, you guessed it, another clot of well-dressed strangers. Another tour. And the only way through is right past the tour guide, another one of my students. Not again!

If this keeps up, I'll need to invest in a mask and wig to wear to the rec center, or perhaps several to keep the tour guides on their toes. I'll be Dennis Kucinich one day, the Dalai Lama the next, and Katie Couric on the third. If that doesn't work, I could add to my already considerable entourage a biggish oaf whose sole duty is to stand stupidly in doorways so that tour guides and their followers can't slip past. We'll call him Dumble-Door. He'll work for peanuts.

I'm dreaming, of course. I've always known that the chief danger of working out in the campus rec center is that I will at some point humiliate myself in front of my current students, but now I have to worry about prospective students too. One of these days I'll figure out some clever thing to say when I stumble all unprepared into the spotlight, but right today, just call me Dennis.

Friday, November 09, 2007

It's a bird! It's a plane!

Yesterday I awoke at 4 a.m. with nightmares about confronting Plagiarism Girl, and in the course of the day I had two surreal encounters with her, one in which she claimed innocence ("It's just a coincidence that my paper is identical to hers!") and another in which she tried to apologize her way out of trouble ("But I said I was sorry!"). That was enough for me: I cut short my office hours and came home early to go for a long relaxing walk around the countryside. Got a little windburn, but I'll survive. At one point I heard the sound of distant jet engines, but when I looked up, all I saw was a red-tailed hawk circling lazily above the meadow. I was just addled enough to think, "That's odd. A hawk with jet engines."

Students need to stop plagiarizing. It takes too much out of all of us.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Advice to potential plagiarists

First of all, don't do it. Plagiarism is theft, lying, and evidence of academic laziness (if not moral turpitude), and it can be deleterious to your precious gpa.

But you've already heard that and yet you insist on plagiarizing, and you can't understand why you keep getting caught. Plagiarism indicates a devotion to cutting corners, while avoiding detection requires careful attention to details--two mutually exclusive skill sets. But if you think you can slip your plagiarized paper past your canny professors' watchful eyes, here are some hints:

If you must copy a document off the Internet, you really ought to take the time to remove the little url address printed at the top of the page as well as the hyperlinks scattered throughout the paper.

If you must turn in a paper you wrote for another class, think about changing the heading on the first page--you know, the place where you put the name of the class, the name of the professor, and the date of submission. And while you're at it, take a look at the documentation style: if the class is using MLA style and you turn in a paper full of APA citations, the professor will suspect foul play.

Finally, if you must turn in a paper written by another student on the same campus, you ought to take a few moments to find out for which class the paper was written. If you hand me a paper identical to one I received from another student last year, I can guarantee that I'll recognize it. I'm not senile yet: I can still recognize examples I've read before, and I can still detect vast changes in your writing style from one week to the next. It may take me a little time to track down the source, but I'll find it eventually, and you will not enjoy the outcome. Trust me.

And then after you're caught, the question is: how can I ever trust you?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fall color

This is what's left of my creek after the long drought: just a few disconnected puddles and a creekbed full of fall leaves. The meadow behind the trees is where we often see red-tailed hawks.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...turn right to go upstream and left to go home.

This is where I saw the buzzards and pileated woodpeckers last week. The creek is on the right and the trillium hill is on the left. This is the beginning of my favorite walk.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Playing the numbers

We're halfway through spring registration and so I'm seized by suspense daily, repeatedly checking online course listings to see whether certain classes will attract enough students to be offered in the spring. Will that learning community class soar or flop? Will the numbers in the new creative writing courses remain low, or is there a huge flock of sophomores out there just waiting their turn to sign up? I breathe a sigh of relief when I notice that one literature course has moved above the magic number--there's one colleague's schedule I won't have to shuffle again. But I keep going back to check on two or three other courses, and I silently cheer every time the enrollment number rises. Go students! Fill that class!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Happy bird day

This morning while walking along creek banks and ridges, I saw a blue heron (flying), two red-tailed hawks (squawking), a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers (pecking), and four pileated woodpeckers (chattering). I've never seen more than two pileated woodpeckers together before, and at first I couldn't believe my ears: I heard that distinctive chatter coming from first two and then three different places high in the sycamores along the creek, so I looked up, followed the sound, and found them, three on one side of the creek and one on the other. Were they arguing or agreeing? Hard to say, but whatever they were doing, it was a pleasure to make their acquaintance.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Signing my week away

Hypothesis: there is an inverse relationship between the number of students seeking my signature on little pieces of paper during the week and the number of brain cells still functioning by Friday afternoon.

What a week. I have endured budget meetings, pedagogy meetings, and career center meetings. I have met with my advisees, other people's advisees, and my capstone students. I have fielded requests for special treatment from angry seniors, pleading juniors, befuddled sophomores, and whiny colleagues. (I expect to hear from the freshmen next week.)

I have worked out, walked out, and wigged out, and now I'm worn out. But the good news is that the weekend is on the way! I'll take a pile of papers home, but anyone who comes to me looking for a signature is going to be sorely disappointed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

With great power...

Q: When is a prerequisite not a prerequisite?
A: When I say so.

At least that what I've been told.

Last year while we were revising our program to add a creative writing concentration, one of my courses gained a prerequisite. It was a good move intended to ensure that students taking an upper-level writing course have the preparation necessary for success in the course.

Next semester is the first time the course will be offered with the prerequisite in place, and now comes the deluge. Students didn't know there was a prerequisite, didn't pay attention to any of our publicity on the topic, planned their lives around taking that course, and now they won't be able to graduate unless I waive the prerequisite.

I gained some time by telling them I don't know who has the authority to waive a prerequisite, but then I found out that I am empowered to sign students into the course using whatever criteria I choose.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Now I have to decide whether I ought to waive the prerequisite and, if so, under what circumstances. Admit the students with the best writing portfolios or the best sob stories? I was happier before I knew I had this power: I can't just let the computer decide who can take the class but I have to actually think about it and then inform students of my decision.

Or not. I could Just Say No.

Let in students who may not be equipped to pass the course or keep them out and make it difficult for them to graduate? I'd like to put the whole question off until tomorrow, but I have a feeling solving this problem is a prerequisite for a good night's sleep.