Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some findings

First we found a parking space and then we found our bearings and then, in no particular order, we found John Wesley, live oaks draped with hanging moss, steep and narrow stone steps, the Savannah River, a shop full of hats, wasabi peanuts, gator gumbo, a bank willing to change a hundred-dollar bill (don't ask), a resplendent white wolfhound, a tree full of cormorants, gooey chocolate-caramel clusters, and our way back to the motel. Tomorrow morning we'll head off to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to see what else we can find and then we're off to Florida. First, though, we'll find a way to ring in the new year. Welcome, 2014! I hope the new year finds you happy and healthy.    

Monday, December 30, 2013

On hiatus

How many able-bodied men does it take to disassemble a picket fence? 

Sounds like the setup to a joke, but I don't know the punchline. Today it took three men and a teen to remove a section of picket fence at a house my brother is renovating in North Carolina. My husband swung a sledgehammer and wielded a crowbar, which suits his vacation requirements just fine.

We left Ohio yesterday in a cold, drizzly downpour that threatened to turn into ice and snow, drove through more cold rain and wind down though West Virginia and Virginia and finally saw the sun for the first time all day as we were entering North Carolina. Today we're walking around in short sleeves while Ohio braces for an Arctic blast of ice, snow, and bone-chilling cold.

Tomorrow we'll head for Savannah and later in the week we'll dip down into Florida, where we'll see more relatives and old friends and the ocean and lakes and green growing things and birds. I brought a little work along with me, but none of it requires sledgehammers or crowbars so at this point I think I'll just chill out and enjoy the show.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Busting out the syllabus

I've got my textbooks, my hot tea, and my laptop computer--time to bust out some syllabi and then noodle through some Moodling!

Spring classes don't start until January 13, but we're leaving for a long road trip Sunday and I'll get back to campus around January 8 with my brain and body still recovering from the long drive home, and then, of course, I have meetings. So unless I want to finish my syllabi on the road, today's the day. (And tomorrow too. But not Saturday. At some point I need to take down the Christmas tree and pack for the trip.)

Over the years I've streamlined my syllabus-construction process, but it's still more complicated than it ought to be. I like to keep my syllabi concise and simple, but by the time I add the whole page of required college policies (academic dishonesty, accommodations, academic probation blah blah blah), it's a monster. I resent being required to use the official college statements because they were written by someone utterly tone-deaf to the music of the language, but I'm a good little proffie so I do what I'm told. The rest of the syllabus, though, is MINE.

I've worked out some pretty effective ways to state important things on the syllabus, and I've saved all this syllabus boilerplate in one file that serves as a template that I can customize for each class. Nothing flashy, but I do like to set a tone for the semester from the very start, so I include some playful language and even a title at the top. (Honors Literature: Life is a Highway. Concepts of Place: Florida Frontiers. And so on.)

And then it all goes on Moodle. Here I probably make the process unnecessarily complex: our standard Moodle layout is annoyingly busy and ugly, so I take some extra steps to make my Moodle pages uncluttered and easy to follow. I don't just upload a bunch of files and hope students find the right one; instead, I create a separate block for each day of class and upload the files needed in that block, and then I hide all the blocks that aren't immediately relevant so students aren't overwhelmed with too much information.  And then I format the individual blocks uniformly, using font size and color to create a predictable pattern and flow. And all of this requires an incredible amount of clicking and typing and scrolling and clicking. 

Of course, I could just post the first few weeks of the semester and add the rest later, but I'm obsessive enough to require closure: I load up the whole semester now and open blocks as they become necessary. I'll thank myself in March when I'm so overwhelmed by grading that I don't have time to breathe, but today I'll be pushing that boulder up the mountain all day long and hoping it doesn't slip out of my grasp and go sliding back down again.

Copy, paste, customize. Click, type, scroll. Repeat repeat repeat. That's today in a nutshell--and probably tomorrow too. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Making a joyful noise

Days and days of gray skies, rain, and rising rivers have finally yielded again to winter. This morning we woke to a light dusting of snow and a temperature in the teens but we're enjoying the warmth of family holiday fun.

Tonight we'll hear our daughter sing O Holy Night solo at her church's Christmas Eve service, and two nights ago we enjoyed hearing the Little Drummer Boy play percussion for his church's Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve service. (I don't dare call my son The Little Drummer Boy to his face. For years now he's been the tallest person in the family and he doesn't even play The Little Drummer Boy, which is a good thing because how annoying.)

Yesterday, though, I enjoyed watching my adorable grandbaby help Grampa play Christmas songs on the piano and bang away at the baby xylophone (when she wasn't chewing on the mallet). She's definitely making a joyful noise, even if it's sometimes mixed with slobber. Joy to the world! (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Crying over spilt something

If there's no point crying over spilt milk then there's certainly no point crying over spilt pilaf, even if that pilaf includes both white and wild rice and savory vegetables and mushrooms and even if it was in my favorite casserole dish that slipped right out of my hands and spilled all over the floor that I just mopped YESTERDAY and even if sharp ceramic shards scattered throughout the rice pilaf made it unsalvageable--but since there's no point crying over spilt pilaf, I must have been crying over something else.

I blame the phone call that came between the assembly of the pilaf and its ultimate disassembly on the floor. It was, in some ways, a long-awaited and welcome phone call from the mother of the woman who died in our creek last month (read it here). Since that traumatic night I've often thought of the family and wondered how they're doing, but my attempts to contact the survivors have been thwarted.

The caller proved two comforting facts: the little girl we rescued from shivering in the creek that night is fine, and her dead mother died instantly of blunt-force trauma rather than drowning, which means we'll no longer have to agonize over whether we could have saved her if we'd done things differently. So that's good. But we spoke for quite some time and it became clear that some lives defy comprehension and there's really not much we can do about that.

I would really like to see the little girl again, maybe even establish a relationship, but at this point the obstacles seem insurmountable. However, the family is planning to erect a roadside shrine in memory of their daughter and they promised to let us know when they're coming so we can have a chat. Maybe we'll figure out how to maintain a connection with a little girl who crashed into our lives out of nowhere and threatens to disappear once again into that same oblivion without leaving any mark.

The rice pilaf didn't leave any mark either, and the broken casserole is already out in the trash. Everything is entirely back to normal, so there's no call at all for tears. None whatsoever. So why do I need a Kleenex?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I wasn't even planning to READ my evaluations this fall!

For weeks--maybe even months, since about the third day of class--I've been predicting that a certain class would lambaste me on course evaluations this fall, but the evaluations came out yesterday and that class showered the love on me while another class that I enjoyed all semester long sent me a bitter Arctic blast. 

Well, part of the class did. The rest simply didn't respond. We've been doing course evaluations online for several years now but with little incentive, many students don't bother. The campus-wide response rate this fall was a little over 60 percent, and my classes had a 58 percent response rate, but that doesn't tell the whole story: my two literature classes had response rates closer to 70 percent, while the two freshman classes were closer to 50 percent.

What kind of student is more likely to respond? I've always assumed that angry students would be more motivated to express themselves on course evaluations, but I'm not seeing that this fall. Only half of my freshman writing students responded, but they seem to be the happy half: the numbers are the highest I've ever received in a freshman class, and the comments are uniformly positive, with one even calling my class his or her favorite. Freshman writing! That never happens.

Wait, the comments aren't entirely positive. Here's an endearing bit of advice: "If you want me to nitpick, I guess she sometimes sounds like she puts herself down a little when she talks, mostly because she doesn't seem to be confident with her technological know-how or lack thereof." Guilty as charged--but isn't it just cute?

My other freshman class had a similar response rate but more negative comments. The numbers are not bad, especially for a required freshman class, but they're lower than I would have expected considering how much I enjoyed that class. On a positive note, 100 percent of respondents agreed that my class improved their ability to analyze, which deserves a pat on the back, but the lowest marks appeared in response to the question on whether students feel comfortable asking questions in class. That's alarming, but at least it gives me something to work on!

Because let's face it: at this point in my career, course evaluations don't make much difference. Tenured full professor at a college with no post-tenure review means that I'll never again need to submit a portfolio testifying to my worth and responding to course evaluations, so I really don't even need to read them--except that I do. I need to know that 11 percent of students in a freshman class don't feel comfortable asking questions, and I also need to know that 100 percent of the respondents in my two literature classes approve of the job I'm doing and say things like this: "I felt like she treated us as equals, asking thought-provoking questions and taking our own thoughts seriously. She genuinely cares about us and wants us to learn and succeed. Loved going to class every day and didn't dread writing the papers."

That's the kind of comment that keeps me going to class even when it feels like things are going very badly. Would the non-respondents say the same thing, or would they raise concerns? Until we develop reliable mind-reading skills, we'll never know.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Deck the halls with guns & ammo

Quick holiday-shopping quiz: If you see a billboard urging you to "load up for the holidays," what is the ad pushing--eggnog, legos, or lumps of coal?

No, in this case Santa's sack is loaded with guns & ammo. Yes: a big billboard on my route to campus wants me to lock 'n' load for Christmas. Did the three wise men pack gold, frankincense, and guns? How vastly different A Christmas Carol would be if Scrooge had turned a bazooka on those visiting ghosts! Can we be certain that Santa's red coat doesn't hide a shoulder holster?

But that's not the only befuddling sign of the season. Today at the grocery store--just an ordinary chain store in a middling town on the not-very-wealthy edge of Appalachia--I saw a sign posted near the gift-card display: "Gift-card purchases totaling more than $10,000 must be cleared at the service desk."

Who buys $10,000 worth of gift cards at the same time? Nobody carries $10,000 in cash to the grocery store, so it would have to be someone with a credit card allowing that level of spending all at once--definitely not an English professor, in other words. 

Say you're a retired gent with too many grandchildren to keep track of and no clear conception of what sort of gifts they'd like, so you decide to give each imp a whole deck of gift cards, so you haul off several hundred of them. Or maybe you're an employer who wants to award employees bonuses in the form of gift cards so you need a whole sack all at once. I can imagine this happening occasionally, but often enough to justify posting a sign?

I didn't see any guns & ammo gift cards, so I guess I'll have to scratch that off my list.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A year in the Cloud

Twelve months after I welcomed my Kindle into my life, I've just downloaded my 50th book. Time to take stock. 

(Or maybe it's time to buy stock in the company--even if some of those downloads were free or cheap, it still looks like I've spent around $400 on e-books this year. Please remind me of that figure next time I complain about being broke.)

I read twenty-four books written by women, twenty-five by men, and one anthology embracing multitudes. Most of the authors are American, with a few exceptions (Clarice Lispector, Malcolm Lowry, Victor Hugo, Tan Twan Eng, Herman Koch, and the globetrotting adventuress Isabella Bird, among others). Three Canadians appear on the list: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Ruth Ozeki.

Authors who appear on my list more than once include Atwood, Bird, Eng, and Lispector along with David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carl Hiaasen. (I'm embarrassed to admit how many of Hiaasen's books I read this year, but he's tied for first place!)

Some of these were guilt reads: authors I ought to have read before but never got around to them, like Kingsolver, whose novels I found underwhelming and manipulative, and Malcolm Lowry, whose Under the Volcano knocked my socks off stylistically even though I dislike the characters. Other books were associated with my teaching or research: I needed to read Lucy Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious to prepare for the paper I gave at MMLA, and the two Margaret Atwood novels helped me answer students' questions about what happens after Oryx and Crake.

I look over the list and I see titles that spark no specific memories. Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories? May have been interesting but I don't remember. Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic? I have some vague memories of a long road trip, a wedding, and Russo's usual dry wit, but plot and characters are moldering in some dark, dusty corner of my mind's attic.

Which books were most memorable? I've recommended Herman Koch's The Dinner to just about everyone I know this year. I read it through quickly the first time and then had to start over at the beginning again because I couldn't quite believe what Koch had accomplished and I wanted to track how he did it. An astounding novel, certainly the best I've read all year--and that's saying a lot when Faulkner is on the reading list!

Similarly impressive is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a boundary-crossing novel assembled from fragments of overlooked history. The various narrative voices are engaging and believable, even if some of the plot twists are not.

Several novels gripped me for a time but don't claim any permanent devotion. Kate Atkinson's Life after Life and Emma Donoghue's Room are compelling tales told with originality and ingenuity, but I don't foresee reading them again. Odds against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich feels like a movie treatment rather than a fully developed fictional world, but it's entertaining and even profound in places. And Peter Carey's His Illegal Self ends just when it's getting interesting--I want to read the rest of the story! But I was utterly incapable of finishing The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, despite several attempts. I just can't care about her characters.

Several novels provided way too many characters to keep track of--and yet I couldn't put them down. Both David Foster Wallace novels fall in that category (Infinite Jest and The Pale King), along with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a sort of puzzle book that made me want to go back and read it again right away despite its brick-like length.

The advantage of reading on the Kindle, of course, is that a book the size of a brick weighs no more than a brief novella, but both can stake out similar plots of mental real estate. I read The Dinner in an afternoon--a novel that covers the course of a single meal shared by four people--but in my mind it feels just as weighty as Catton's sprawling, Dickensian The Luminaries.

One disadvantage of reading on the Kindle, of course, is that I've developed no mental image of these books as books. What do their covers look like? No clue. Does that matter? I don't know yet--but I do know that I have a terrible time remembering the authors and titles of books I read on the Kindle, perhaps because I don't see the books lying on the nightstand or stacked on the bookshelves. They live in the Cloud, a nebulous place where authors dead and alive rub shoulders--Faulkner and Atwood, Ozeki and Hiaasen--while their words and titles mingle and dance and dissolve like vapors. It's a nice place to visit, but I'm not sure I'd want to live there.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Don't sleet on my parade

Today I violated the first rule of Christmas-card preparation: don't lick all those envelopes yourself, and if you do have to lick them, don't do it on an empty stomach. Blech. What can get that glue taste out of my mouth?

Grading is done, grades are in, and so far I've had only two complaints (one accompanied by tears) and one very nice e-mail message from a student thanking me for helping him become a better writer. Neat. I saw a colleague in the line at the post office today and she was heading back to campus to finish grading after her long sojourn in that very long line, but I've mailed my last package and I'm ready to concentrate on the holidays.

I was not, however, ready to stand in the rain, wind, and sleet to watch a Christmas parade this morning, but I drove down the parade route just before it started (trying to get home before traffic came to a dead stop) and I saw plenty of parade-goers bundled up to the eyeballs and fighting to keep their umbrellas from blowing away--including Santa and Mrs. Claus, whose colorful umbrellas clashed badly with their festive attire.

I was following a jumbo pickup truck that was apparently associated with the parade. In the back of the truck stood a woman trying desperately to keep hold of a pop-up shelter that partly covered the truck bed--it looked like a good gust of wind could blow both the shelter and the woman right into my windshield. I would bet that standing in the back of a moving pickup truck is illegal even in West Virginia, but none of the many uniformed police officers who lined the parade route took any notice of the scofflaws. 

It looked like every police officer in Vienna, West Virginia, was standing along the parade route, and at the end of the line of parade floats stood a dozen or more fire trucks with lights and sirens blaring. Burglars and arsonists could have been wreaking havoc unhindered all over town, but maybe they decided to watch the parade instead.

I didn't. I don't get my holiday jollies from standing in the sleet and fighting to keep hold of an umbrella while homemade parade floats battered by wind and rain lumber past, so I went home and started writing cards and licking envelopes. Yum, glue! Why can't they make it taste like chocolate?


Friday, December 13, 2013

Long uphill slog followed by free-fall

At what point does the grading pile move from intimidating to manageable? When do I feel as if I've reached the peak and it's all downhill from here? With freshman essays, the magic number is 6: I'll postpone, procrastinate, and piddle around between papers until I have only 6 left, and then I'll grade one after another without a break until they're done.

I'm not there yet. When I look back at everything I've graded this week, I ought to feel as if the end is very near: one set of researched essays and one set of final essay exams in the novel class; a final essay exam in the Concepts of Nature class; and one set of synthesis essays and one set of final exams in Sports Literature. That's a huge pile of grading already done, but somehow the freshman essays loom like Mount Everest over my desk.

I've graded a few but I have 10 more left, and that's just enough to feel impossible. Compared to all the grading I've already done, how can 10 measly papers carry such weight? I'll never be able to slog through this mountain of essays! It simply can't be done!

But it can be done and it will be done because I'm going to do it. Just four more before I reach the magic number, and then it's downhill all the way. It's as easy as falling off a cliff!  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lead us not into temptation...

I'm sitting in a classroom full of students who are busily scribbling on my last final exam of the semester (yes: it's the final final!), but it's not my usual classroom. A colleague and I switched rooms so I could put some space between students, some of whom have roaming-eye problems.

All their cell phones are sitting on the desk in front of me. (At least I hope that's all of them.) It's an early exam, so I brought in juice and muffins so no one will quit early because of hunger or refer to notes written on their own water bottles. And I asked a male colleague to make a sweep of the nearest men's room in case anyone has stashed a cashe of helpful notes or texts in there.

My students may think I'm cruel, but the way I see it, I'm taking these security measures to help them avoid temptation. They should thank me! (Dream on.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best of times, worst of times

It was the best of essays--elegant writing, coherent argument, analysis that made me look at the text in a new way--but it arrived in the same pile as the worst of essays--clunky sentences, slippery reasoning, hackneyed analysis. In the next pile, the best of final exams (clear, concise, insightful) gets lost beneath the essay produced under time pressure by a student who thought "open book" meant "use your neighbor's notes."

Yes: it's finals week! I find myself alternately rejoicing and groaning, and sometimes the urge to run screaming from the room is almost overwhelming. I read a brilliant analysis focusing on two difficult novels by William Faulkner and I feel like practicing my acceptance speech for the World's Greatest Teacher award, and then in another essay I read an entire paragraph composed of correctly spelled words that say absolutely nothing and I wonder why I didn't pursue a more socially useful career, like garbage collecting.

The piles of papers and exams are dwindling, but not quickly enough. I'll be up to my ears in grading today and tomorrow and probably Friday too, up to my ears in the best of papers and worst of papers. I only hope I get more of the best and fewer of the worst!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Smells like lutefisk in here!

Definitely not impressed.

Today I shall celebrate my birthday by giving a final exam to a student who shares my birthday and grading a final paper by another student whose birthday is also today, and along the way I'll give a shout-out to a colleague whose birthday is also--you guessed it--today.
According to every freshperson's favorite reliable source (Wikipedia), today is also Anna's Day, the appropriate day to begin preparing lutefisk. I'm afraid lutefisk-preparation does not fit into today's schedule, unless I can do it in the classroom while my students write their exams. Today is apparently also Independence Day in Tanzania, National Heroes' Day in Antigua, and International Anti-Corruption Day. (I'll remind my students of the importance of independent thinking and ask them to be academic heroes by avoiding corruption on the final.)

Also celebrating birthdays today: gymnast McKayla Maroney (who is, presumably, not impressed), singer Imogen Heap, and Masako, the Crown Princess of Japan, who, when her husband ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne, will become Empress Consort. 

Also John Malkovich, Senator Tom Daschle, Dick Butkus, Beau Bridges, and Judi Dench. Redd Foxx! Put Judi Dench and Redd Foxx in a room--that's a conversation I'd like to hear. Kirk Douglas. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West!). Emmett Kelly, the famous clown to whose son I once curtsied (here). Hermione Gingold. Joel Chandler Harris. And let us not forget John Milton. (Sing, heav'nly Muse!)

Not to mention Donny Osmond. I have written previously about my youthful infatuation with my co-birthday-mate (here), but Donny shares one important characteristic with almost everyone born on this date: whatever else he may accomplish, he will never be Empress Consort to the Chrysanthemum Throne. 

And neither will I, but that's okay. I'm happy to be me, because today I get to give a final exam that will knock my students' socks off--a joy Masako may never know. (But still McKayla is not impressed.)

Friday, December 06, 2013

The most blunderful time of the year!

It's the most blunderful time of the year!
They'll be there, their, and they're-ing,
contrasting, comparing,
and copy-and-pasting with verve;
they'll mix your/you're and do/due
and create quite a to-do
when they don't get the grade they "deserve"--

It's the slap-happiest season of all.
There'll be no thesis showing,
no qualms about throwing
in quotes without proper citation;
there'll be lame introductions
to papers constructed
entirely of vague generalizations--

Oh it's the most blunderful time,
it's the most blunderful time,
it's the most blunderful time of the year! 

(Everybody sing along! Feel free to add a verse!)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What, you mean I was right all along?

This morning's classes left me wondering whether I ought to laugh, cry, or run screaming from the room, but I've calmed down enough to do a little reflecting on reflections.

For their final low-stakes writing assignment of the semester, I asked my freshman writing students to reflect on what they've learned about writing this semester, how their writing process has changed, and what they still need to know. Several students didn't turn in these reflection papers, consistent with their behavior throughout the semester, but those who did the brief assignment had all kinds of interesting things to say, from "No one ever told me how to evaluate sources before" to "this class helped me write better lab reports." (We don't do anything about lab reports. Not sure how that happened.)

The comment that showed up more often than any other concerned the regular writing assignments students have to do for my class. They write five formal essays (one in class under time pressure, the rest out of class with drafts), but they also complete frequent low-stakes writing assignments that aren't graded but accumulate points toward their homework score. On the first day of class I point out that they'll be writing, on average, about 1000 words each week for my class, which makes them gasp or roll their eyes or gripe about "busywork," but I also promise them that all that exercise will improve their writing not just in my class but in others. 

They never believe me--not at first. Today, though, I read their end-of-the-semester reflections and saw, over and over again, the same story: "I thought I would hate doing all that writing but then I started to enjoy it and it definitely made me a better writer." More than one even said something like this: "I hated writing before I took this class and I still hate it but I'm better at it."

I hate to say "I told you so," but I wish I could get these students to pass the word to my next freshman writing class!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Summing up the semester

Classes aren't over yet but some of my students have definitely checked out--and so have I. Yes, I'm still planning meaningful learning experiences for my final three (count 'em, THREE) classes, and yes, I'm still meeting with students to discuss their drafts, and yes, I'll devote a great deal of time and energy to administering and grading final exams next week, but mentally I'm already moving on to next semester.

So before it slips away, here's a rundown on this alternately middling, maddening, and muddling-through semester:

Student I'll miss the most come January: our wonderful English-major exchange student who's returning to Brazil next week. Aside from being the only male in an upper-level lit class, he brings a lot of energy and interesting perspective into discussions of literature.

Student I'll miss the least: who's that guy who used to sit in the front row in that one class? He's still on the roster although I haven't seen him since Midterm. How can I miss someone I never really saw enough to know?

Most surprising student: sat in my office literally trembling in panic over the first essay assignment, earned the highest grade in the class on the last essay assignment, and gained enough confidence to become a significant voice in class discussions. 

Harmonic convergence of texts: discussing Don DeLillo's White Noise in one class just before beginning Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake in another. (Is the fear of death an essential element of humanity? What makes us human, anyway?)

Text I've taught before that I now find disappointing: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. The novel's flaws are much more visible now that I've read the two remaining novels in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam, which move away from science toward magic--and not in a good way. Okay, a worldwide epidemic wipes out the human race with the exception of a handful of plucky survivors, and three of those survivors--the only three women of childbearing age--are ex-girlfriends of one main character. What are the odds? And the plot twist involving the ability to communicate telepathically with pigs is just too ridiculous for words.

Text I've never taught before that I'll happily teach again: a tie--The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and On the Verge by Eric Overmyer. Both deal with the way preconceptions shape understanding of the Other, and both employ language in a way that fills me with delight. Students liked them too, although some found Overmyer difficult.  
Best pedagogical tool: That prezi I made for the Sports Lit class (see it here) helped structure class discussions and activities from the first day of class to the last as I kept urging my students to take the next step up that learning ladder. Many of them made it, albeit kicking and screaming all the way.

Most thought-provoking question from a student: "If postmodernism is over, what do we call what writers are doing right now?" That question could inspire a whole new literature course!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

An empty apology

An apology ought to be a good thing, indicating a measure of remorse, humility, and acceptance of responsibility, but a certain type of apology makes me crazy. It usually comes in an e-mail message: "Dear prof. I won't be in class today because [insert lame excuse]. I apologize."

For what? A student's absence isn't going to break my heart, and if the student has missed a month of class already, apologies are the least of his concerns. Instead of apologies, I'd rather see some explanation of how he intends to keep up with the course material.

And then what am I supposed to do with that apology? Offer forgiveness? I'm not going to absolve the student from doing the work just because he said the magic word.

If he's determined to apologize, he ought to look in the mirror: "Self, I'm sorry I can't get my act together to make it to class. I apologize for consistently spending more time playing Grand Theft Auto than doing homework, and I resolve to lock up the liquor while working on my research paper. I'm willing to accept the consequences like a man and to take steps to improve my self-discipline." 

And then he ought to chain himself to his desk until the research paper is done.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Newfies loose chewed moose

I thought that the story couldn't get any stranger, and then I encountered the offhand mention of Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom. It's a crazy world out there, folks! Read it and weep:

According to a whole mess of reliable sources (read the CBS News version here), two guys are just ambling along the beach in Newfoundland when they notice an eight-foot-long Greenland shark in the shallows struggling to consume a large chunk of moose. So they did what any right-thinking human being would do: run screaming into the woods.

I'm kidding. If they had run away, there wouldn't be any story. Instead, they decided to HELP the shark, which was trapped in the throes of a Thanksgiving cliche, having bitten off more than it could chew. (One expert, though, says the shark probably didn't need any help: it may have "just been enjoying a large meal," says Jeffrey Gallant, lead scientist at the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group, which raises an important question: what, precisely, is an Elasmobranch and where can I get one?)

So back to our two intrepid shark-rescuers, Derrick and Jeremy, who performed a modified Heimlich maneuver on the Greenland shark, tugging the hunk of moose flesh and hide out of the shark's mouth, at which point the shark, irate at being deprived of its dinner, gobbled both men down feet-first. 

Okay, I'm kidding again. Our guys shoved the eight-foot shark into water about three feet deep--the exact depth at which the Greenland shark loves to stalk its prey, except our Derrick and Jeremy must not have looked much like prey, or maybe the shark decided to eschew chewing on moose-loosing Newfie lunatics, but at any rate, the shark swam away.

But what about the Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom? Ahem:

Greenland sharks are rarely seen on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It is a lumbering bottom dweller that spends most of its long life blinded from parasites feeding on its corneas.

This would be a great place to insert some clever little moral about the predator becoming prey, but the very idea of Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom makes me want to whimper in a dark closet with my hands firmly clapped over my eyes. If there's anything scarier than a shark that can swallow a moose, this is it!  

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Confusion amongst the cousins

Definitely cousins. First cousins once removed?
Cousin is a useful word, flexible enough to cover a variety of relationships but still meaningful when used with precision. Case in point: my husband's parents died young so he lived with his aunt and uncle (who were like parents to him) and his cousins (who were like his brothers). So this aunt and uncle served as grandparents for our children, while these particular cousins served as uncles, but then what do we call those cousin/uncles' children and grandchildren, and how do we define the relationship between those descendants and our own children and grandchildren?

Definitely cousins, but what kind?
My son-in-law the engineer knows his cousins as well as his cosines, adept at unraveling all the ins and outs of first and second cousins or first cousins once removed, but those labels aren't particularly helpful in casual conversation: "Hey first-cousin-once-removed! Pass the gravy!"

So I opt for cousin even when it's not quite right. Get all the relatives together and see the resemblances, the repetitions of hair color and facial shape and long, skinny fingers, the common blood showing amongst the cousins, and even the adopted cousins share facial expressions, tones of voice, and baseball teams. Go back far enough and we're all cousins of one sort or another, first or second or many times removed--just don't ask me to do the math!

Not cousins--but aren't we cute?!

Definitely not cousins: uncle/nephew, with complications.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who invited Elvis to this feast?

I didn't know that a certain local radio station had switched to holiday music already, so it was a little jarring when I hit the tuner and suddenly heard the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley singing "Blue Christmas," possibly the worst Christmas song ever recorded but someone must like it because it comes on EVERY TIME I switch from NPR to the holiday music station (which generally inspires me to switch right back), and so today in the car 100 miles from home when my son was scanning through the channels to find a Cleveland station, the first voice we heard was Elvis singing "Blue Christmas."

What could we do? We all sang along, adding smarmy yodels as needed. It seems I am doomed to have a Blue Christmas with Elvis, but I refuse to infuse my Thanksgiving with that obnoxious song. Among all the other things I'm thankful for this year, I'm delighted that the radio has an OFF switch.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Snow day!

I believe my class is important but not important enough to die for, so this morning I looked at the weather forecast, considered the number of students who had already informed me that they were leaving campus early to travel home before the big storm hits, thought about how annoying it would be to get stranded in town, and cancelled class.

A free day! Pork loin with apples and root vegetables bubbling in the crockpot, chocolate-orange cookies cooling on the racks, cranberry chutney in the fridge, and just a few student papers to read--and wonderful papers at that. Who could ask for more?

How about birds? Juncos have arrived along with the snow, and a chunk of seed-studded suet is attracting woodpeckers and nuthatches. The red-breasted nuthatches so abundant last year seem to have stayed in the north woods this year, but we have plenty of the white-breasted variety.

And plenty of time also. I've read all the drafts I needed to read and prepped my classes for next Monday so the next five days are wide open for baking, traveling, visiting family, and maybe getting a little ahead on next semester's syllabi. The storm may yet bring good reason for complaints, but at the moment the weather makes me nothing but thankful.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Unremarkable me

I like to tell my creative nonfiction students that an attentive writer shouldn't require remarkable events for inspiration but ought to be able to write compellingly about anything--or nothing. Personal essays do not require personal trauma, I tell them, hoping to head off an outbreak of the Peel-Off-the-Bandaid-and-Let's-Compare-Wounds game.

Nevertheless there's no denying that trauma attracts readers--and as evidence I offer my recent adventure with the car in the creek (here), which produced a readership spike like the ones I used to see when I wrote about cancer treatment (here). If I could produce a wreck in the creek or a needle in my arm every day of my life, I'd be the world's most popular blogger!

But frankly, I'd rather not. Once was enough. I'd rather write about birds and teaching and visiting my grandbaby and life in the very slow lane where I live, but this morning that slow lane took me to the cancer center for my annual round of blood tests and CT scans, and the results are clean. That's right: four years after finishing chemotherapy, my body snows no evidence of disease. I'm entirely unremarkable!

But who wants to read about that?     

Friday, November 22, 2013

Is it time to buy stock in Woolite?

My Sports Lit students were discussing Garrison Keillor's short story "Where Did We Go Wrong," which features the (fictional) first female professional baseball player in the U.S., who plays baseball like one of the guys but also chews, spits, cusses, and makes hand gestures like one of the guys, which creates problems for fans who want their female athletes to remain "ladylike" (whatever that means), and my students pointed out that it's kind of like Lingerie Football.

Now I've never heard of Lingerie Football (not that I'm complaining!) but apparently it's a real thing that's been around for a while. I mentioned it to my husband, whose first concern was the danger of rug-burn if they're playing on artificial turf. I worry more about the mistreatment of all those lacy little underthings. Who does the delicate hand-washing? What's the best way to get grass stains out of silk? They must order Woolite by the barrel!

I'd like to say that this is The End of the World as We Know It, but we who live in a cave in Appalachia don't know it very well at all. We've only recently learned that people who ask "What does the fox say?" aren't interested in the fox kits that romped along our cliff, and we still think of Venice when we see the word "doge," so how are we supposed to know about Lingerie Football?

Maybe this is one of those cases when ignorance really is bliss.

If I ignore it, will it go away?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

When cheating doesn't "count"

Another year, another futile attempt to make my academic dishonesty policy airtight. No matter how much I revise the policy, students try to wriggle through loopholes. A few examples:

1. An online upper-level writing course requires students to submit a proctored writing sample before the course begins, but a student submits a sample mostly copied from Wikipedia. The student says there's nothing I can do about it because it doesn't really "count" toward the grade, and besides, she would never cheat on something really important. I point out that I am obliged to report dishonest students to the provost, but if she drops the class before the semester begins, she will no longer be my student. That's called "fighting loopholes with loopholes."

2. In my sophomore-level literature classes, students are required to submit 20 reading comments over the course of the semester, each one worth 5 points, for a total of 100 available points. A few years ago a student copied and pasted just one of the comments from SparkNotes and then tried to shrug it off by saying, "It's only 5 points." The assignment sheet now specifies that plagiarizing any one reading comment will result in a 0 for the entire reading comment assignment--100 points. Loophole closed.

3. In most of my classes, students must submit drafts or receive an F on the final version of the paper, but the draft itself is not graded, so students caught plagiarizing tend to shrug it off with "It's just a draft. I'll fix it on the revision." This is a tricky issue. If it's early in the semester and the student has been sloppy with quotation marks or citations, I'll highlight the problem and explain that failure to revise properly will result in an F on the paper, which works. But what to do when the draft is largely copied? The slippery student insists that I can't give a 0 on an assignment that "isn't worth anything," a statement that's misguided in so many ways. 

I really need to add a line to my academic dishonesty policy specifically covering this circumstance, but the more examples I add, the more students niggle about how the rules don't apply to their particular circumstances. I'm tempted to toss out all the specifics and boil it down to one broad statement: "Don't even think about submitting someone else's work as your own or you will fail, with a capital F and a letter to the provost." But I can imagine the excuses: "I wasn't thinking about cheating; it just happened. I have a different learning style, see, that makes words just fall onto the paper without ever passing through my thoughts. It's not my fault!"

And if that's the case, it's not my fault if a big fat 0 accidentally falls into the gradebook.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mysteries of you-don't-go

There comes a time in every semester when I'm tempted to throw my hands in the air and go home, and this is that time. I'm tired of time-wasting senseless meetings, freshmen who won't follow directions, advisees who can't keep appointments, and students who try to convince me that their plagiarism was entirely accidental. (What are the odds that nearly identical paragraphs would turn up in two separate papers by accident? If you gave a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters, would their research papers be any better than the ones I've been reading?)

But no matter how often I've been tempted to slam my office door and stomp off into the sunset, I'm still here, still teaching, still smiling (most of the time). Maybe in a few weeks I'll remember why, but right now it's a total mystery. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Further evidence of the futility of education

This morning a student came up after class to ask about a comment I'd written on his draft. "I don't know what this word means," he said. Which word? "Italics."

"I was just pointing out that you've put the title of the book in quotation marks when it ought to be italicized," I explained.

"But what does that mean?"

"What does what mean?"


Here we are 13 weeks into a semester in which I've mentioned the need to italicize book titles approximately eleventy-seven times and he's just now realized that he doesn't know what "italics" means?

"I never really wrote papers before," he explained. Except that's what we've been doing in my class all semester long.

Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Maybe her first word will be "Eureka!"

My mailbox runneth over with holiday catalogs sparkling with shiny plastic toys, but yesterday the only thing my adorable grandbaby needed to entertain herself was a slice of raw carrot. She gummed it with glee and then waved it around with an expression of sheer joy, as if to say, "You won't believe this amazing thing I've just discovered!"

She was less impressed with the chunk of parsnip in her other hand. At first she alternated between the carrot and parsnip and then briefly tried to stuff both in her mouth at once, but she finally shook the parsnip free and settled in to study that carrot from every angle.

Every time we see her she's learned a new skill and on the verge of developing another. Now she's using her hands together to grab and pull things (watch out for your glasses!), and she rolls effortlessly over and over to get from one side of the room to another. When Grampa plays the harmonica, she turns her head and looks intently until she locates the source of that interesting sound, and then she stretches out her hand to try to reach and touch this amazing new thing.

A baby's life seems simple--eat and sleep, roll and play, eat and sleep some more--but she's exploring her world with the diligence of the Mars Rover, moving a little further every day and building a vast repertoire of skills and knowledge. In fact, she's making so many discoveries that her days are filled with one "Eureka!" after another.

Maybe that's what all that babbling means: Eureka! I found it! Come and see this amazing thing! And she's right--it is amazing, even if it's just a chunk of carrot.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Walking away from the wreck

We've had an enormous outpouring of support since our encounter with the car wreck in our creek the other night, for which we are grateful. People keep asking how we're doing and I keep saying we're fine, which we are, mostly, except for a few lingering aftereffects:

  • Sore muscles in the legs and back from hauling around bodies and babies.
  • An obsessive need to keep talking about what happened, trying to illuminate the darkness of that chaotic night.
  • A growing anger as more details come out concerning the causes of the wreck. Drunk driving is stupid and irresponsible wherever it happens, but drunk driving on a narrow, twisty, poorly lit country road like ours is simply suicidal.
  • A raw spot inside like a scrape that's slow to scab over.
But we're fine--really. And this weekend we plan to get some grandbaby time, which is always good for what ails you. One of these days we'll be able to enjoy our creek again without seeing the ghostly image of that car marring the view, but for now we're concentrating on walking away from the wreck.     

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A crash in the night

A woman died in my creek last night, a sort of neighbor although I never knew her (and now I never will).

I don't know how the car flipped into our creek but the police were out there investigating all night long (in the cold, in the drizzle, in the snow) so I suppose we'll learn the rest of the story in the local newspaper just like everyone else. 

For us, it started with a loud noise in the night. I thought it was thunder but my husband thought a tree might have fallen on our neighbor's garage. "I'll just step out and take a look," he said, but immediately he came back in yelling, "Call 911!"

I called but I didn't have much to tell them--a loud noise, a voice calling for help from the creek--but then I threw a coat over my nightgown, grabbed a flashlight, and made my way down the hill to a scene growing more chaotic by the minute.

A car in the creek, wheels spinning in the air. A man stumbling around yelling frantically, a small child (his daughter?) strapped in a car seat sitting in cold water, my husband on the other side of the car, our neighbor too, turning off the car, pulling someone out of the window, the man screaming "She's dead! She's dead!", the little girl sitting in the car seat, in the water, in the cold.

I carried her up to the house, a shivering three-year-old unaware of how much her life had changed. "The car broke," she said. Indeed it did. I stripped off her wet clothes and wrapped her in a blanket and waited, watching out the window at the flashing lights. Soon my house was swarming with emergency personnel who checked over the little girl (hardly a bruise on her!) and took her to the ambulance, and then I thought to text my son and warn him not to come home.

But he had already arrived to find an ambulance blocking the driveway, a fire truck and police cars all over the road. When the ambulance finally pulled away and I could cross the bridge, I found my son on the other side with the neighbors, grateful that all were safe and well (except the dead woman in the creek). And then I tried to find my husband.

He'd been in the thick of things from the start. I don't know how long he crouched in the creek holding the woman's head above water (a futile gesture by that time but he couldn't bear to let her go), and after that he took the hysterical husband to our car and sat with him with the heat on to help him calm down and warm up. And then he had to talk to the police, give a rudimentary report, although he knew practically nothing. They couldn't find the marks where the car left the road (in the dark, in the cold, in the drizzle), and there were questions about who was driving and who smelled of alcohol and who got the little girl out of the car.

When I finally found my husband he was drenched and shivering so I took him to the house and helped him warm up. The lights were still flashing out there long into the night, the last one finally leaving at first light this morning. Sometime in the night they hauled the car up that steep, slippery bank and took it away, and then the snow fell and covered all signs of last night's events, the creek still flowing silently as if nothing had happened.

A woman's life ended right in front of us last night and even now, all these hours later, I don't even know her name.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Conference flotsam

Leftover flotsam from the weekend conference:

At several conference sessions I was the oldest person in the room by at least a decade. When did they start granting PhDs to 12-year-olds?

I am no longer interested in hearing conference papers in which the thesis statement is something like "I am interested in [obscure topic]." Trust me: I already know you're interested--that's why you're giving the paper! The trick is to make me interested, and telling me that you're interested is not the way to do it. This is simply the grad-school equivalent of everyone's least favorite freshman thesis statement: "I can really relate to this topic because it's really important to me and has a really big impact on me in my life and how I feel about my future and my career." Please, people: if [obscure topic] is important, show me why I should care! 

And while you're at it, how about demonstrating a little awareness of context? I heard way too many papers that focused narrowly on extremely special topics that seemed to exist entirely in isolation from, well, everything else in the whole entire history of the world. 

I'm still dumbfounded by the professor who told me she can't assign novels in literature classes because students don't have time to read them. They're just awfully busy and they won't read anyway, so why try? But I'll bet she's still dumbfounded by the fact that I assign seven novels in my Later American Novel course--and my students read them. "They're English majors," I told her, and she said, "But where do they find the time?"

Milwaukee's airport offers a last-minute opportunity to purchase cheese curds at overinflated airport prices, but it also offers a used bookstore right in the airport. That's not something you see every day. Periodically that generic airport voice announced over the PA system that wireless internet was available throughout the airport, but that voice neglected to mention the cost ($4.95 for one hour). Tiny little Yeager airport in Charleston, West Virginia provides free wireless access all over the terminal, but Milwaukee has to lure travelers in with vague promises and then charge outrageous fees. I reject your $4.95 internet access, Milwaukee! (Which is why there was no blog post yesterday.)

When the pilot's voice comes on to explain that there will be a slight delay to allow the maintenance people to determine whether that little bump we felt did any damage to the plane--"It's probably nothing, but we'd like to get it checked out to make sure the landing gear will deploy when we need it"--there's nothing to do but sit there and wait and hope that the flight gets to Chicago in time, and then when the delay in Milwaukee eliminates any hope for lunch in Chicago and you end up close to sundown in Charleston without having had anything to eat since breakfast in Milwaukee and then there's some kind of mechanical failure in the gates at the exit from the parking garage so that you sit there in your car surrounded by other cars while maintenance people run around trying to get the thing working again without giving you any way out or any indication of how long you might be sitting there and whether you have time to get pizza delivered to the line of cars waiting to exit the parking garage and then when the gates finally open after 40 minutes you actually have to PAY for the time you've spent sitting there involuntarily with no way out--well, it makes for a very long day. 

So I'm glad to be home. I have a whole different set of annoyances to deal with on campus this week, but at least I won't have to worry about whether the landing gear will deploy correctly.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Six degrees of Xavier Cugat

Here's the most interesting fact I've learned at this conference so far: Francis Cugat, the artist who designed the familiar cover art for the first edition of The Great Gatsby, was the brother of bandleader Xavier Cugat, a fact that led my errant mind to stray far from the topic of the panel I was attending as I tried in vain to recover the stage name of Xavier Cugat's fifth and final wife, whose antics on the Merv Griffin Show frequently enlivened the afternoons of my adolescence. (Charo. I had to look it up later. I only wish the paper's presenter had looked up the correct pronunciation of Cugat, which sounds nothing at all like "coo-zhay.")

From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Charo in four easy steps: that's the kind of serendipity an academic conference can produce. Although this particular chain of connections is unlikely to enrich my research and teaching in any discernible way, other panels inspire more usable connections. This morning, for instance, a discussion of ekphrasis in film made me want to do more research on prehistoric cave art and its relationship with graffiti, a topic relevant to the paper I'm writing and a novel I'm planning to teach in a year or two. That inspiration alone made this conference worthwhile.

Just don't ask me to try to put that kind of insight onto a balance sheet. I attended this conference without any indication of whether my travel grant request will be approved, so I've been obsessing a little bit over how I can justify this trip to anyone who might questions the expense. I'm tempted to do a cost-benefit analysis, but it's complicated.

Costs: airfare, lodging, conference fees, food, incidentals. (Forgot to pack toothpaste, which isn't cheap at a conference hotel.)

Benefits: a line on my vita, an opportunity to share ideas with other scholars, potential to boost the reputation of the college, a chance to learn new things.

Complicating elements: Some of those "new things" aren't very useful (like the Fitzgerald-Charo connection). How much sharing of ideas can occur when there are more people on the panel than in the audience? If I say something really stupid, I could actually harm the college's reputation instead of helping it. And how will I ever get caught up on my classwork after spending four days away from campus?

I give up: I can't make the columns balance out, not even if I factor in the fact that Charo studied classical guitar with Andres Segovia. Worthless trivia or useful insight? I wouldn't want to try to judge.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Not art-smart

From the outside it looks like a sail unfurling or a whale's flukes rising into the air, but inside it's all airy cathedral. I spent a few hours this morning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where I was more impressed by the building than the art it houses.This is entirely my fault. I'm just stupid when it comes to art: I know what I like and I know what I'm supposed to like but they don't always match. The Dale Chihuly glass left me cold, for instance, but I couldn't take my eyes off a little fuzzy hat a woman was knitting in the cafe. I tired quickly of the gallery of portraits by Thomas Sully (too many big-eyed children and simpering women), but a room full of Haitian folk art knocked my socks off.Part of my problem in museums is that my mind groups things perversely. I wanted to put the Haitian folk art next to an amazing 16th-century Russian portable iconostasis and a painting of chickens by Picasso, but alas, the curators had other ideas.If I could take any piece of art home with me I would pick something bright from the Georgia O'Keefe galleries or from the Haitian space, but more than anything I'd like to take home that soaring building. Too bad it would never fit in my carry-on bag!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The right(ish) stuff

I'm sitting in the terminal at Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, hoping someone will find a way to turn off the soul-piercingly obnoxious squealing alarm before I'm forced to propel myself through the plate-glass window in despair when suddenly, without warning, Lisa comes running up.

Who is Lisa? I don't know, but her flight is about to leave and an increasingly insistent disembodied voice keeps coming over the speakers to urge her to get to the gate before it's too late. Just as the disgusted voice says "This flight is closed," here she is! Running to the gate! Getting her boarding pass scanned and running up the ramp to the plane! I've never seen her before and I'll never see her again, but her just-in-time arrival provides a satisfying sense of resolution for those of us observing from the cheap seats. Lisa has arrived! My heart will go on!

And my body will go on too, eventually. Sitting in Yeager Airport always reminds me of Chuck Yeager, the test pilot whose lightning-fast flight exploits, distilled through the tornadic prose of Tom Wolfe's  The Right Stuff, represent the extreme antithesis of modern commercial air travel. In Wolfe's portrayal, Yeager is a force of nature blazing his way through barriers to burst the surly bonds of earth, while airlines today herd people like cattle through queues and security checks only to make us sit and wait and sit some more and wait some more while ear-splitting alarms pierce our eardrums and continuous urgent blather blares from televisions over which we have no control. 

In times like these, we all need our Lisas. You go, girl! And take me with you!    

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Traveling light

Packing my bags for an academic conference is much easier these days than it used to be. No need to pack an interview suit; no stiletto heels, sparkly earrings, or shiny silk blouses--just sensible shoes, warm sweaters, wool socks. A few books, of course, neatly packed on my Kindle. No papers to grade (until Friday when a new batch comes in electronically), no advisees to meet (until next Monday), no crying students in my office (unless they want to cry via e-mail).

I'm trying to travel light but I fear stowaways--a nagging concern about an absent student, a desire to help a struggling colleague. I really need to leave this headache behind because air travel alone is headache enough.

A colleague who is presenting at the same conference has borrowed a projector to take along, but I refuse. A few weeks ago the conference organizers responded to spiraling costs by cancelling the contract with the company providing projectors and other audio-visual equipment, so presenters are expected to provide their own. I'm on a panel on the portrayal of animals in film and I would love to project some wonderful images to illustrate my paper, but that would require borrowing a projector from the college, transporting it to Wisconsin, and returning it unscathed next week. 

But I'm not doing that because (a) I'm a klutz; (b) can you imagine trying to haul a heavy projector through airport security along with all your other miscellaneous detritus? and (c) I refuse to carry the emotional burden of that added responsibility. The smart thing, of course, would be for me to share a projector with my colleague, but we're presenting two days apart and she won't even be there on the day of my paper, and by the time she presents, I'll be gone. Besides, what a pain. I simply prefer not to.

No, I'm traveling light, taking just what I need and hoping to leave nonessentials behind. If anyone's in the market for a good used headache, I'm selling to the highest bidder.    

Monday, November 04, 2013

Where's Beowulf when we need him?

It's draggin' time! Students are draggin' backpacks stuffed with capstone research and cold pills, and faculty members are draggin' stacks of student papers, advising folders, and travel grant proposals. Today I dragged home papers to grade that turn out to be better than expected, which is a tremendous relief after the previous batch. Electronic submission may make student papers weightless, but they're still fully capable of weighing me down until my nose scrapes against the sidewalk.

What we need is some serious draggin'-slaying, but where's that pesky sword? Must be buried under the leaning tower of advising folders. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A wish for Wisconsin

I've just finished my conference paper for next weekend (hurrah!) except for the excruciating part where I brutally cut out great big chunks of brilliant writing because it's too darned long for a 20-minute presentation. But now that it's written I can allow myself to start thinking about the trip to Milwaukee, except just this minute I realized that I haven't heard yet whether my travel grant has been approved. 


I leave on Wednesday. I bought the plane tickets and reserved the room weeks and weeks ago. I applied for travel funding well before the deadline, but the committee just met last week to discuss funding. That's cutting it a little close. If the Powers That Be decided to cut off faculty travel funds this year, I certainly hope someone will tell me before I sink a pile of money into four nights at a conference hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

Milwaukee--virgin land for me. I've been asking people for weeks what I ought to do between conference sessions in Milwaukee and they keep telling me Milwaukee's a wonderful town but no one can tell me why. "Breweries," they say, but I'm not really a beer person. "It's like Chicago only smaller" they say, or "It's like Detroit only with less bankruptcy and more cheese." Right. Just what I need!

I'll probably spend most of my time chopping my paper, reading my paper, hearing other papers, and grading students' papers, but just in case I find a little free time on the schedule, I need some suggestions. So help me out: what can I do for fun in Milwaukee? Aside from hope I get travel funding, that is.   

Friday, November 01, 2013

Get the lead out of the paste, or something like that

To judge from the current round of student drafts, someone has been eating the paste again--or perhaps the phrase "memories of times pasted" refers to scrap-booking. And what's with all the lead in these papers? Maybe lead (the noun) in the paste led (the verb) to the nearly universal inability to spell the past-tense form of the verb lead: today I lead; yesterday I led. Or lead, if you've been indulging in too many memories of times pasted.

This calls for some doggerel:

Don't waste
my time
with paste.

Don't lead
my brain 
to read

as verb.
It's dumb

to paste
the past.
You raced

to lead:
you led.
(Please heed,
she said.)




Thursday, October 31, 2013

A modest proposal

It's the answer to all our problems, an answer so obvious I don't know why it never occurred to anyone before:

No more freshmen.

See? Absolutely revolutionary. No more freshmen means no more problems with freshman/sophomore retention rates, no more desperate searches for adjuncts to cover excess sections of freshman composition, no more frantic attempts to revamp the first-year program, no more hand-wringing about lack of preparation among first-year students.

Because we'll have no first-year students. We'll admit only sophomores, who will all be thoroughly prepared to dive into second-year coursework.

Brilliant! Innovative! Thinking outside the box!

But until someone takes up the cause and puts this plan into effect, I guess I'll have to go back to educating the students I have. Even the freshmen. 


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You do the math!

Let x equal the number of handouts I've distributed explaining the requirements of the assignment and y the number of times I've explained it in class, and then assign value q to the quality of the examples and templates I've provided showing what a successful result should look like; let a equal the number of times I've urged students to meet with me outside of class to discuss their progress on the assignment and let b be the number of class sessions devoted to work designed to help students handle the assignment.

1. At what point in the wee hours of the morning on the day the assignment is due will students e-mail me to ask for clarification of the requirements?

2. How many students will complain on course evaluations that the requirements were not clear? How many will write the exact words "We never knew what she wanted"?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wait, I'm supposed to be in class right now!

You know it's a rough day when only one student in the class did the assignment correctly (or at all). 

That was my first class. In the second class, not a single student did the reading. Not one! And it's wasn't even a lot of reading--just 15 pages from a highly readable novel. There goes my entire lesson plan!

What do you do? In the first class I reminded the students that the assignment sheet includes a handy list of the four items that needed to be included in this assignment. Only four! It's not a huge number! But exactly one student included all four and most of them included only one. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that completing one-fourth of the assignment results in an F. No second chances on this assignment!

The second class got a little bit of a second chance: they're up in the classroom right now doing the reading (except for those who have not yet purchased the book). "Come and get me when you're done and we can talk about it," I told them, but that means we won't have time in class to work on the papers due on Thursday--and they really need to work on those papers.

I don't like making this kind of dramatic gesture, giving the come-to-Jesus speech and leaving them to stew in their own juices. I don't like the time and energy I have to spend trying to force students to do things that are in their own best interest. I especially don't like feeling as if I'm working harder on their learning than they are. But everyone once in a while, there's nothing to do but to kick a few butts and hope that the message gets through.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Strictly parenthetical

I forgot to mention: we saw three wild turkeys and an eagle going to church yesterday (meaning we were going to church and not the turkeys and eagle (although there's nothing wrong with birds going to church if they really want to (except that someone might be tempted to put them on the menu for the next church dinner (simmered for long hours with home-made noodles (the turkeys, that is--maybe not the eagle (although you never know what some people will put in their crock-pots (and how many people have a palate sensitive enough to detect the presence of well-seasoned turkey in a casserole?))))))) and we felt first a bit befuddled (because why did the turkeys cross the road? (they're not saying)) and then, later, blessed (when the eagle soared overhead) because it's not at all the right time of year to see eagles around here (although wild turkeys are in season (and if they don't watch out they'll end up in that crock-pot, well seasoned)) and I don't know why it was where it was or where it might have been going (except we're reasonably sure (unless I'm mistaken) that the eagle was not going to church).