Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fun with midterms

I'm snowed in with a pile of midterm exams, which could be drudgery--but it isn't. My students did not appear to be having much fun while writing these exams, but I'm having a lot of fun reading them. This particular exam allows students to show their understanding of particular works of literature, and some of them have some really exciting ideas.

I use this exam format about once each semester in a sophomore-level literature class, this time in my American Lit Survey. It's a one-page exam listing seven or eight bold-faced topics, with three works of literature listed beneath each topic. Student write about four topics, one that I choose and three that they choose. For instance, since this class just finished a unit on modernism, everyone had to respond to this topic:

Jean Toomer, Cane
Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
Susan Glaspell, Trifles

I'm reading a lot of responses talking about the use of fragments and various perspectives in each of these works, the primacy of the discrete image and the difficulty of developing a definitive understanding of "truth." Other topics students could select include The Human Condition (Prufrock, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and a poem from Spoon River Anthology), The Past (Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, "The Gift Outright," and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"), and the Purpose of Literature ("The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Langston Hughes's "I, Too," and Marianne Moore's "Poetry").

Students like this exam format because they can write about what they know--but they dislike it because they have to write like crazy to complete four responses in just 50 minutes. I tell them up front that I'm not looking for well-crafted essays; instead, they should do whatever it takes to demonstrate understanding of the topics and the works of literature. I'll even accept bullet points and lists as long as the meaning is clear.

It's true that students end up writing about only four topics and only twelve works of literature, but here's the glory of the format: they don't know what topics and works will be on the exam, so they have to be prepared to write about everything we've read. I give them an example of an exam from a previous year, and I tell them that the required question will concern modernism, but each year I change some of the topics and some of the works, so they have to study everything.

And here's my favorite part: instead of grading memorized mind-dumps, I'm immersed in real ideas. Some of the handwriting is pretty rough, but the ideas I'm encountering are worth the effort. They get it! They really get it! Most of the points I'm deducting are for failure to complete a topic, although there are some occasional gaps in understanding of topics or works. And occasionally I encounter an idea that makes me smile and say, "Huh. I've never thought of it that way before."

A literature exam that can teach me a thing or two--that's my idea of a good time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Notes from my happy place

People keep asking where I spent my day off yesterday and I keep saying "In my happy place," but the truth is not really all that interesting:

I spent the morning doing some writing on a project totally unrelated to my academic life, and I got so caught up in the writing that I didn't realize it was lunchtime until my stomach started growling.

Then lunch: ramen noodles. Boring. Then I bundled up and took the dog for a long walk up the big horrible hill with the wind at our backs, which felt great until we had to turn around, when the sharp, cold wind reminded me that I'm alive.

Back in the warm house, I sat down with the hubby and watched three episodes of Numbers one after another without a break. Utterly frivolous, I realize, but much more fun than dealing with the contents of my e-mail inbox.

Which, by the way, I should have avoided all day long because every time I checked it I got more annoyed. Which is more exhausting, cancer treatment or faculty governance? I'll let you know in April.

Finally, last night I curled up on the sofa with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a remarkable piece of reportage that grabbed me and wouldn't let me go until my eyes screamed from fatigue.

Today I'll pay the price--for walking away from class work, ignoring my inbox, losing myself in a writing project that won't feed my vita and a book I'll never teach in a class--but I hope my day of frivolity will strengthen me for the challenges to come.

If not, well, only one more week until spring break!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Taking a break from ubiquity

For the past few weeks I've been a bit ubiquitous on campus (although I know it makes no sense to modify "ubiquitous" with "a bit," because how can you be sort of everywhere?)--or maybe campus has been ubiquitous in me. I've taught classes; I've attended meetings and plays and musical events; I've dealt with hordes of people requiring my immediate assistance, and I've taken campus concerns home with me every weekend. But even Superman takes his cape off once in a while, so tomorrow Ubiquitous Girl is taking a break.

I'm calling it a Mental Health Day. I have no classes or meetings scheduled and I'm caught up on my grading (until Friday, when I'll give two midterm exams), so I intend to stay away from campus and its concerns for an entire day.

Where will I go? I don't know, but I'm accepting suggestions. I could stay home and read a good book. If the weather cooperates, I could go somewhere interesting and take a long hike with camera in hand. Tomorrow is payday, so I could even go to Columbus to shop and take myself out to lunch (although that would be more fun with company). The possibilities are endless--as long as I can get there and back in time to teach my morning classes on Friday.

The only place I refuse to visit is campus. So if you're looking for me tomorrow, you're bound to be disappointed--unless you want to flee ubiquity too. Instead of being a little bit Everywhere, we can aim directly west of Nowhere.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A PhD in Transcending Puppy Studies

This morning my creative nonfiction students convinced me that I'm in the wrong business. Several of them went on a fact-finding mission to a nearby institution of higher education: International Metaphysical University (visit here). It's not easy to tell from the web site, but IMU's headquarters are just downriver from here, although why such an institution needs a headquarters is beyond me. They ought to be able to hold all classes and meetings on a purely metaphysical plane.

IMU's home page entices students with a barrage of questions: "Have you already decided that you're not like everyone else? Are your interests great than sitting behind a desk? Do you want to create life? Do you want to own your own time?" Who could resist such an appeal? Sign me up!

IMU boasts an impressive list degrees available at the undergraduate through PhD level in programs like Shamanic Studies, Intuitive Arts, and Ufology. Tuition runs a flat $300 per credit hour, although those hours are unlikely to transfer anywhere since IMU is currently unaccredited. You could earn an Associates of Science in Galactic Shamanism with only 60 credit hours of classes with titles like "Our Purposeful Universe," "Basic Shamanic Journeying," and "Intro to Crystal Science." The Doctorate in Galactic Shamanism looks pretty intense, with courses including "Metatronis Cube Sacred Geometry" and "Becoming a Galactic Guide and Transformer."

Creating life, becoming a transformer--I never get to do this kind of stuff in my classes. I'm definitely in the wrong discipline. All I have to do is get that second PhD and then I can apply to work at IMU! A colleague asked if I would write her a letter of recommendation for IMU, and I said, "I won't need to write it. I'll just think really hard and they'll use their intuitive arts to receive it."

But alas, who has time to pursue another degree? Duty calls, sounding like a bunch of yappy little puppies that need attention. One of these days I'll learn the metaphysical art of transcending the yappy puppies, but right now I'm going to a meeting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dances with chickens

A week of ridiculousness reached its high (or low?) point last Thursday just before the celebration of the college's 175th birthday party. Faculty members in full regalia had already processed into the auditorium but then endured an awkward gap while awaiting the arrival of the Grand Poohbahs--the platform party and college trustees. A colleague near me began grumbling about the delay. "Someone should get up and make an announcement," she said, to which I responded, "Why don't you go up there and lead us all in the Chicken Dance?"

She didn't take me up on the offer, but the mental image of all those regalia-clad professors flapping their arms like chickens was a small point of light in a tempestuous week.

It was bad enough that I had blood tests on Monday, papers due on Wednesday, classes to prep every day, and eight different meetings throughout the week, but the presence of the college trustees combined with more bleak winter weather produced a case of the midwinter crazies all over campus. Everyone who has been nursing a gripe suddenly felt an urgent need to share it with me, either face-to-face or via e-mail. By Thursday night my inbox was seething with angst unlikely to be resolved by a few extra meetings.

Good thing the evening's speaker offered some perspective, reminding us that Abraham Lincoln weathered the Civil War with grace and integrity, characteristics we'll require if we are to endure our own campus controversies. Honest Abe never did the Chicken Dance (or if he did, why isn't it on YouTube?), but he showed us how to keep his head when all about are losing theirs. If that lesson can't lead us through the midwinter crazies, then nothing will.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Normal is my middle name

On Monday my oncologist called me normal.

Me! Normal!

I don't feel entirely normal. Maybe normal-ish. Looking in the mirror no longer gives me a fright, so I've stopped wearing scarves and hats indoors. I'm taking only one regular medication (for the numbness in my fingertips that just won't quit). I'm not in pain and I'm not anemic so my energy level is better than it's been for the past three years. I'm not spending all my spare hours hanging around the cancer center--no chemotherapy, no radiation, just occasional CAT scans and blood tests.

And the numbers on my blood tests are downright boring: normal, normal, normal. My white blood count is still a little low, but it's on the way up. "You probably just got some radiation in your bone marrow," says the oncologist. "Nothing to worry about. Perfectly normal."

All my life I've wanted to be exceptional, extraordinary, way beyond average, but these days I'm happy to aim for the mundane, the ordinary, the boring middle ground. Cancer treatment was an extraordinary experience that I hope to never repeat, and now that it's over (for now? forever? who knows?), go ahead and call me normal.

Well, maybe normal-ish.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Story of my life

teach teach breathe prep meeting meeting breathe meeting prep drive sleep
...but when am I supposed to eat?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Driver's Ed

This time of year, the key to getting over the hill separating my house from the highway is the correct combination of speed and control. The road twists uphill toward a blind curve, with a sharp dropoff on one side and a hillside on the other. When the road is covered with snow or ice (as it often is this time of year), you have to get up a pretty good head of steam going up the hill. Too little speed and you lose forward momentum and start sliding backwards, and it's not easy to control a car sliding backwards down a hill. Too much speed and you'll fishtail and skid right over the cliff or overshoot the curve at the top.

I tend to drive on the side of the road farthest from the cliff, even when that's the wrong side of the road. If a car came whipping around that blind curve we would hit head-on, but fortunately, most people have the sense to stay off my road this time of year. A few times I've started fishtailing or skidding toward the cliff, but one of the advantages of living where I live is that I've developed an amazing ability to steer out of a skid, thanks to lots of practice.

Once I get out to the highway, I face a whole new set of challenges. This morning a snowplow decided to turn right in front of me without signalling and I had to stop pretty quickly on a snowy, slushy road in a car with no anti-lock breaks. Somehow I don't recall practicing that skill back when I took Driver's Ed in Florida. Good thing I'm committed to lifelong learning.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tenure is not the villain here

At church yesterday one of our parishioners mentioned the tragic faculty shooting in Hunstville and asked me, "You don't have any professors down at Marietta like that, do you?"

My immediate response was "No, of course not," but the problem with this kind of tragedy is that the perpetrator seems like a fairly harmless person until she suddenly starts shooting. We do have a lot of fairly harmless people here, but if I suspected any of them of being capable of committing such an act, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. And if I thought the tenure process could bear the entire blame for transforming a fairly harmless person into a killer, I would quit my job today.

Amidst all the shrill voices eager to blame academe or the tenure process, an interesting statement caught my eye. Professor Robert O. Lawton, who chaired the committee that recommended against tenure for Amy Bishop, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that "a tenure denial is a failure for everyone involved. 'It means you screwed up a hire and you screwed up a mentoring'" (read it here).

I don't know the details of Amy Bishop's case or how Hunstville's tenure process differs from ours, but Lawton makes a good point: we hire people because we believe they are tenurable and we mentor them to help them become tenurable, so denying tenure feels like failure for all of us. I suppose there are academics out there who take pleasure in setting bars impossibly high and then laughing when their colleagues can't make the jump, but I've more often seen faculty members and administrators going the extra mile to help their colleagues succeed. We mentor, we workshop, we support research and conference travel, we welcome new faculty members into the campus community, the faculty bowling league, the faculty publishing group, and more. That's one of the reasons I love my job--I get to be part of that process.

Right now information about the Hunstville shooting is sketchy and incomplete so it would be a mistake to draw firm conclusions about what made Amy Bishop snap. The tenure process is tough all over and it would be the height of hubris to say it couldn't happen here, but I will say it shouldn't happen here. Not while we're all in this together holding out a hand to help our colleagues jump those high hurdles.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hair update #21.3B

Okay, I'm tired of the topic too, but people keep asking when I'm going to unveil my new hairstyle, and all I can say is, "It's too stinking cold!" But I'll show you--first with scarf and then without. Please note that the expression in the "without" photo is what we in the Hogue family call "The Mom Face." It's very therapeutic. Everyone should make this face at least once a week...and then send me a photo!

Infernal argument

I spent some time in Hell this morning, taking American Lit students on a guided tour through "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and then introducing my freshman composition students to critique by means of a hellish argument:

When Princess Diana died, there was some debate in the press about whether she had gone to Heaven or Hell. One prominent authority in the Anglican church published an article claiming that because the Princess had committed sinful acts, she must be spending eternity in Hell. This was disappointing to Diana's fans, who would like to spend eternity with their idol; clearly, for those who idolizes Diana, spending eternity separated from their idol would make Heaven a sort of Hell. But how can Princess Di's fans make sure they spend eternity with their idol? Even if they perform some really immoral act--an act vile enough to get them condemned to Hell--they might eventually repent and seek forgiveness, ending up in Heaven, which for them would be hellish. The only solution is for true fans of Princess Di to commit a mortal sin and then die immediately, without hope of repentance. Therefore, anyone who truly loves Princess Di ought to commit suicide.

I have used this little argument in composition classes for years and so far I have utterly failed to persuade any of my students to commit suicide, which suggests that the argument is a failure, but on the other hand, the exercise offers students an opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills by identifying the flaws in the argument, which makes the argument a big success.

And best of all, no one has to go to Hell.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bullet-points of unhappiness

  • Twice now a student has spent the first five or ten minute of class carefully applying makeup, from foundation and blush on up to the complete glamor-girl eye treatment. Doesn't she realize that the proper time to apply mascara is while driving at rush hour with a cell phone in one hand and a latte in the other?
  • People keep telling me things--interesting, instructive, even entertaining things about which I would love to blab or blog--but for various reasons I have to keep my mouth shut. Confidentiality and all that. Watch while I bite a hole in my tongue!
  • Although tiny snowmen are amusing, tiny blue ice-melting pellets are not, and neither are patches of slush and ice all over campus. Thank heaven the Powers That Be have planned special informative meetings on the importance of not falling down. Next: a meeting to inform us of the dangers of sticking beans in our ears, followed by a collective chanting of the SafetyMama Mantra: "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I'm a stranger here myself

Last week a student e-mailed me to ask for a letter of recommendation for a campus position. She was in my freshman composition class last semester and I clearly recalled where she sat in class, what topics she wrote about, how she interacted with other students, even her final grade--but no matter how hard I tried, I could not recall what she looked like. Then today I saw her on campus and I was suddenly able to put the name to the face, but earlier, her image had utterly eluded my memory.

I've noticed that much of last semester has become a blur in my memory. This semester I learned all my students' names by the end of the second week, but last semester there were some students whose names I never learned. People ask me about classes I taught and events I know I attended, and sometimes I just come up blank. A few high points stick with me, but much of my experience last semester seems to have fallen victim to a memory-purge.

Not that that's entirely a bad thing. Frankly, I'm happy to forget parts of last semester, like the times when I felt so weak I had trouble holding my head up to follow class discussions and the late-night sessions of compulsive obsessing over whether radiation was rescuing or killing me. I'm delighted to forget the horrible way everything tasted after chemotherapy and the annoying need to know at every moment the quickest route to the nearest rest room.

But my students? Last semester I saved all my best energy for my students--planning, teaching, meeting, making their learning experience the best it could possibly be under the circumstances. My students were the center of my universe last semester, but now they're slipping right into the black hole that seems to be swallowing last semester bit by bit.

I could blame the drugs or I could blame the trauma of treatment, but what matters is the fact is that the horrors of last semester are fading from view, but they're taking the joys of last semester with them. Good thing I wrote so much of it down. One of these days the only place those memories will exist will be on this blog, and at that point I'll approach them as if they belonged to a stranger.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

(Un)friendly signs

When someone asks how to find my new office, I usually say, "Second floor of the library, behind the elevator." So you get off the elevator and look around for a way to get behind it. Turn right and you find a locked door and some bathrooms. Turn left and suddenly you find a path that leads behind the elevator and into a lovely open seating area connected to two offices, a conference room, a computer lab, and a small kitchen.

Now, though, we suddenly have explanatory signage attempting to say the same thing. This sign appeared yesterday, provoking a bit of debate. You come up to the second floor and see this sign immediately in front of your face. It's telling you to turn left, then left again, and then left again and you will enter the CTE, where I have my office. This meaning is clear to anyone who takes the time to think about it.

But who takes the time to think about signs? Someone in a hurry will see the arrow pointing to the right and think, "Right! Right...that would be the right choice." And there is a door to the CTE to the right, but it's the back door and it is always kept locked. I predict an epidemic of people banging on the back door and wondering why we're so unfriendly.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Bullet-Points of Happiness

  • Several dozen tiny snowmen are sitting on the benches in the outdoor amphitheater, looking eager and attentive. They make me want to go out and teach them something.
  • I got most of my tax stuff together yesterday afternoon, a lousy way to spend a Sunday, but the effort will pay off when my refund arrives nice and early.
  • Working out in the rec center with Michael Buble on the iPod--cry me a river, baby.
  • Only seven more freshman drafts to read, and so far they're not at all awful.
  • What I really love about my administrative position: putting together people who need help and the people who can help them.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Snow birds 'n' beasts

With thick snow covering just about everything, our birdfeeders are pretty popular today. Just a few minutes I saw eight cardinals gathered around all at once, and earlier in the day I tried to count all the birds but gave up at 30 because they just wouldn't keep still.

While the birds have no trouble getting around, our newspaper carrier never arrived and the mail was about an hour later than usual. We were expecting ice last night but instead we got thick, wet snow that piles up on trees and makes limbs fall down. Power was off in some areas, but we haven't lost ours.

Hopeful has been slithering and sliding belly-down in the snow like an otter on a slick rock. She'll pause and point and then plunge her nose into the snow, following the scent of some small creature but generally coming up empty. The snow is too wet and sticky for sledding--and besides, what fun is sledding without little kids? For now we'll settle for watching the dog and the birds.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: singing the blues

Last night when my husband and I ran into some of my colleagues at a local Mexican restaurant, one of them predicted that I'll be snowed in all weekend. "No problem," I said. "I've got the keys to the Faculty Helicopter."

Except this morning I don't have any keys at all. House keys, car keys, office keys, mysterious keys that don't seem to belong to anything--they all spent the night back at the restaurant, no doubt whooping it up over a pitcher of margaritas. They'll be bleary-eyed by the time I get over there to retrieve them.

So here we are finishing the fourth week of the semester, and while the honeymoon is over, winter is not. We seem to be stuck in the bleak midwinter, which is the title of a hymn sitting in the Advent section of my hymnal not far from "Joy to the World" and "Angels We Have Heard on High," but no one ever wants to sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" at Christmas despite the lovely Christina Rossetti lyrics because (a) the tune is lugubrious and (b) Christmas doesn't exactly fall in the MID-winter, does it? But no one wants to sing "In the Bleak Midwinter" now that we're in the genuinely bleak midwinter because it's a Christmas song.

No, the bleak midwinter is the time to sing the blues:

Got those fourth-week-of-the-semester, just-gave-my-first-exams-back blues
Yes I've got those those fourth-week-of-the-semester, just-gave-my-first-exams-back blues
Now it's time to close the office door and kick off these dress-for-success shoes.

But I'm locked out of my office and I can't locate the key to my car
I said I'm locked out of my office and I can't locate the key to my car
And if I don't find those keys real soon I won't be getting very far.

Oh the sky is getting darker and the snow and sleet and ice arrive tonight
They say the sky is getting darker and the snow and sleet and ice arrive tonight
But you go tell the bleak midwinter I ain't giving up without a fight.

Now where's that helicopter?

Now it's your turn to sing some blues.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Who let the peeves out?

"I usually keep my pet peeves locked in a cage," I told my creative nonfiction class, "but every once in a while I have to let them out so they can run around the room yapping and chewing on your ankles."

"So you're saying your pet peeves are chihuahuas?" said one student.

"More like wolverines," I said, but another student pointed out that the wolverine is essentially a cross between a chihuahua and a piranha.

While they were debating, though, I opened the cage and let the chihuahua/piranha/wolverines ramble and scramble around the class, nipping ankles and yapping about weird things that happen to ordinary words and phrases used as adjectives.

One peeve was all worked up about the difference between "everyday" and "every day":

I pet these peeves every day.
These are my everyday peeves.

" 'Every day' tells when," explained a student, "but 'everyday' is more like an adjective."

"That's because 'everyday' IS an adjective," I pointed out. In the English language, words used as adjectives tend to cling together for dear life, as if to protect their precious nouns against an onslaught of wolverines. The same thing happens with hyphens:

That peeve is twelve years old.
He is a twelve-year-old peeve.

See how the hyphens glue the words together to form an adjective? You, too, can use hyphens to form free-range, strangers-on-a-train, never-before-combined words into fresh-from-the-factory-floor adjectives, as long as you let the hyphens fence in the nouns to protect them from the wolverines.

But who will protect our ankles from the pet peeves roaming the room? It's not so easy to persuade a pet peeve back into its cage after it has tasted ankles.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A model problem

While grading this semester's first big pile of student papers, I'm struck by a recurrent problem: students have trouble extrapolating patterns from models. I give my writing students a variety of models: sample papers to show proper MLA format, sample Works Cited listings, sample thesis statements appropriate for specific assignments, a list of the most common ways to introduce quotations with the appropriate punctuation for each. "Make it look like the model," I tell them, and some of them do it quite well, but others don't and I can't figure out why.

Suppose you want to introduce a quote and you're using a word like "said" immediately followed by the quote; you look at the model and you see a comma after "said," and you see that the quote starts with a capital letter, while a quote introduced by "said that" has no comma and no capital letter. I point out that what works for "said" works for similar verbs, and I even list some of those verbs on the handout. I give them examples in class and get them to compare the examples to the models in order to make a decision about punctuation. During the first half of the semester, I even make my composition students chant the Quotation Mantra at least once a week: "Integrate, punctuate, cite; integrate, punctuate, cite." (It probably doesn't accomplish much, but it makes me feel good.)

And then I get a pile of papers with the punctuation absent or wrong, and when I ask the student to compare her sentence with the models, I get something like, "But my sentence is different." And I hear the same thing about citations, thesis sentences, and even page numbers: some students look at the models and when they don't see an example exactly like their own, they give up.

I suppose there's some research out there showing that models are outdated and I ought to be doing something entirely different, but really: what could be easier than looking at a sample paper and saying, "Ah, that's where the page number goes!" Maybe they're not really looking. Or maybe they're looking and seeing something they don't quite understand and throwing their hands in the air. I just know that I'm seeing more and more evidence that my models aren't working, and I wish someone could tell me why.

Into the Bonus Round

It's not even noon on Monday morning and I've already met my weekly quota of mistakes. That kind of efficiency doesn't happen every day and I certainly don't intend to repeat it, although you never know.

I blame multitasking: I'm talking on the phone while attaching return-address stickers and the sticker ends up in the wrong corner of the envelope, or I'm doing Inbox Triage and I send the urgent request for help to the trash bin, the literature paper to the freshman comp folder, and the witty personal response to a colleague's entire list of advisees.

Last week I sent the entire faculty an agenda that neglected to mention the time of the meeting, and this week I sent the entire faculty an agenda that listed the wrong date. I can check those two particular errors off my Life List to make room for new types of errors in the future.

Indeed, now that I've so efficiently met this week's Error Quota so early in the week, any additional errors I make take me into the Bonus Round. If you should happen to see me fall on my face while carrying a pile of student papers and a steaming cup of tea through the quiet library, please hold your applause.