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). 

When the national pastime was dragon-killing

Some students are complaining about all that "Old English" language in the reading assignment for Sports Literature class. All those old-timey words slow them down. Can't they read something more, like, modern? 

I know what you're wondering: What are Old English texts doing in a Sports Literature class? Did someone declare dragon-killing a sport?

The problem, of course, is that students apply the phrase "Old English" to any word not in their everyday spoken vocabulary, like gossamer or spheroid or even converged. In this case, they're complaining about Bernard Malamud's The Natural, published in 1952.

That's right: 1952.

That's something like modern, but the students don't even know it.



Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday poetry challenge: the Song of the Nearly-Fatal Error

So I'm grading this big pile of essays and getting more and more annoyed because I don't see any significant changes from the earlier drafts when it suddenly occurs to me that maybe these are the earlier drafts. Yes: I accidentally downloaded a whole set of papers from the wrong electronic drop-box.

In some ways this is a tremendous relief: my students didn't totally ignore all my comments on their drafts! Hurrah! On the other hand, my error erased all the progress I've made on grading this pile of papers. Better to find that out after grading only three essays instead of 23.

And what if I had finished grading the wrong papers and then lambasted my students for failing to heed my suggestions on their drafts? Ouch! Good thing I stopped myself in time!

Time to sing the Song of the Nearly-Fatal Error. All together now:

I didn't hit "Send," 
stomp off in a huff,
or tell a good friend
"Enough is enough";
I didn't berate
my class for my error,
didn't foment their hate,
derision, and terror.

But I could have.
Yes, I could have.
Something stopped me just in time,
made me turn back on a dime,
thank my lucky stars that I'm
not quite blundering (this time).
But I could have.
More verses, anyone?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

No more severed penises! (Made you look.)

I was absolutely delighted this morning to discover that it's Thursday. What a great day! What a wonderful day! What a gift, a blessing, a smack on the lips by a fuzzy puppy! 

What makes this Thursday so great?

1. It's not Wednesday! Wednesday was a pain: two classes, two observations of colleagues' classes, two long meetings, a bunch of short meetings with advisees and panicky students, PLUS horrible dark cold wet gloomy weather. My calendar had exactly one blank spot, a 20-minute stretch I could devote to all my course preps and grading OR put my feet on the desk and relax. Which would you choose?

2. It's not Tuesday! Don't even get me started about Tuesday. Tuesday was a train wreck wrapped in a typhoon bundled up in soggy spinach and left to rot for a week in a Detroit dumpster.  In fact, Tuesday was so awful that all future Tuesdays ought to slink off the calendar and hide in a dark closet trembling in shame. But will they? Probably not.

3. Elvis has left the building! Three of the long meetings that crowded my calendar this week focused on our current Messiah, an external consultant who will produce brilliant results if he can get us to do everything he says he can get us to do, which remains to be seen. It's great to get an outside perspective on every single thing we're doing wrong, but piling all that on top of horrible weather is just gratuitous suffering. Now, though, he's gone away and left us alone to dive right into this huge task of examining data and developing action plans OR putting our feet on our desks and relaxing. Which would you choose?

4. No class observations today! I've been immensely enjoying observing my colleagues' teaching and I've learned something interesting in every class, but if I shove one more commitment into my calendar, it's going to collapse like a house of cards constructed on a camel's back during a sandstorm in the Sahara.

5. No severed penises today! Yesterday I observed a brilliant lecture on the male reproductive system, a highly clinical and scientific presentation accompanied by full-color diagrams and Latin terms, but I was the only non-scientist in the room and perhaps my literary studies have endowed me with an overdeveloped ability to visualize metaphors, so I couldn't help cringing every time I heard a line like "If you cut off the penis right here..." or "Let's take a cross-section of this penis...."

6. It's not Friday! What awaits on Friday? Two classes, one two-hour meeting (important but potentially exhausting), another pile of papers to grade, another round of advisee meetings, AND my final class observation of the week. Tomorrow's topic: the female reproductive system. I'm sure it will be brilliant and enlightening and wonderful and entirely lacking in severed penises, but I'm tired and I don't expect to get any less tired by tomorrow afternoon. So can we just call off Friday and declare a National Napping Day?       

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What to do with a flawed assignment?

The paper is due tomorrow morning, so this is a really bad time to realize that the assignment's design is deeply flawed--especially since I'm the one who designed it.

I don't know what I was thinking. Well, yes I do: I welcomed the opportunity to totally revamp my freshman writing class, which was supposed to be linked in a learning community with a mass media class, but then we didn't get enough entering students interested in mass media so halfway through the summer the two classes got unlinked (delinked? antilinkified?) and I didn't feel like totally revamping my syllabus again, so I ended up with a few assignments that would be perfect for students of mass media but not so perfect for students whose interests rarely extend beyond the baseball diamond.

Some of these assignments have worked out just fine, even the one that most worried me: students had to log every contact with media over a six-hour span (not while sleeping), and then they had to spend six hours avoiding media of all types (again, not while sleeping) and keep notes on what happened. These two experiences provided evidence for a paper analyzing the influence of the media in their lives in response to some readings on the topic.

Frankly, I was really worried about this assignment: would students actually do it? Would they walk away from their smartphones, Twitter feeds, earbuds, and ambient media messages for a full six hours? Or would they skip the whole thing and lie about it? Would they turn in a seething mass of whining rants?

Thankfully, they did not. In fact, the media analysis essays were the best freshman drafts I've seen in ages, full of concrete details and interesting insights. One student couldn't find a place to eat on campus without coming face-to-face with a television screen so he sat outside and asked a friend to fetch him some supper, and others had trouble navigating through the dorms because of their classmates' constant devotion to screens beaming media at every angle.

So that worked well, but tomorrow's paper is another animal entirely: each student has been assigned a lengthy article from an anthology of recent prize-winning magazine articles, and they have to find coverage of the same event in two other types of media and write a brief rhetorical analysis comparing the impact of various media on the shaping of the stories. They have to present their conclusions in a brief in-class presentation, and then later they have to do further research on their topics and write a longer paper evaluating the credibility of the three versions of the story and arguing that one is most credible. So that makes three separate assignments related to the same material: a short rhetorical analysis, an informal in-class presentation, and a longer argumentative researched essay.

Sounds doable, yes? Except the schedule does not allow for any feedback on drafts or revisions for the shorter essay. They've had this assignment long enough to have sought out feedback outside of class, either from me, from their classmates, or from the Writing Center, but how many first-semester students will do that? 

And tonight I've been re-reading some of the articles in preparation for the first student presentations tomorrow, and I realize just how hard my students are working. The articles they're analyzing are long, yes, but they're also complex, sophisticated, and nuanced in a way that will stretch their minds and abilities and sheer endurance beyond anything else they've done in my class.

So now it's panic time--for me if not for my students. Am I asking too much? What if they bomb the essays? Should I give them the chance to revise?

I often complain about the amount of hand-holding and spoon-feeding we do with first-year students, but now I'm worried that I've tossed the babies out of the boat without a life-vest, just to be mangling some metaphors. Maybe they'll surprise me and swim like Mark Spitz--but if not, I'd better be ready to toss 'em a lifesaver.

Mmm, butter rum! My favorite flavor!    

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Required reading from Orion

Everyone ought to read the November/December issue of Orion magazine (subscribe here), and not just for Robert Dawson's photographs of abandoned golf courses being overtaken by nature, Barbara Kingsolver's evocative essay on knitting, or J. Drew Lanham's "9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher." ("Don't bird in a hoodie. Ever.") You really need to read "What the Body Knows" by Joni Tevis.

Why? Because I said so, that's why. 

In 2009 I sat next to Joni Tevis on a bus in Victoria, British Columbia, as she and her husband set off on their journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and I really wanted to drop my entire life and go along for the trip. This essay in Orion allows me, finally, to accompany them, if only in my imagination. You too!

I first encountered Joni Tevis in 2007 at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. She read selections from her book The Wet Collection, and my first thought on hearing her read was "I need to buy that book," and my next thoughts were "My students need to read this book" followed by "My students need to meet this writer."

Which they did. Joni Tevis did a reading on our campus and met with my creative nonfiction students, and the next time I taught the class, she was unable to visit so we set up a Skype interview. I continue to assign The Wet Collection (here) every time I teach creative nonfiction because it inspires remarks like this one: "I didn't really understand creative nonfiction until I read Joni Tevis." 

So I was already a big Joni Tevis fan and I'm eagerly awaiting her next book, due out in 2014, so seeing this essay in Orion was like greeting an old friend. And then I read it, and it left me speechless.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to shut up.

Tevis excels at lyrical descriptive passages such as this one:

The river shapes us and our days. We sleep on its banks, drink it in chalky quarts, dip our cook pot into it to boil our noodles, soak our feet in the raft's self-bailing bottom. We bear right when we can and read the water ahead, trying to dodge the shallow places that send us swinging, or the shelves where water pours strong over submerged benches and snagging there means getting dumped.

But sometimes painful reality punctures the lyricism--mosquitoes swarm their faces, boulders the size of recliners trap their raft. In their isolation, she and her two traveling companions belt out rock songs at the top of their lungs, bonding over "Beat It" as the placid landscape rolls past. Joni examines the tiny growing things, seeking out "powdered sunshine, rippled rockfrog, and fairy puke" and learning lichens:

Lichen gnaws stone, making earth from raw quartz and flint. It grows slowly, sometimes as little as 0.02 millimeters per year--a hand-sized patch can be a thousand years old....Lichen reveals the air of the past, two, taking heavy metals into itself and dispensing hidden knowledge to those who know how to ask. Fabulous secrets, kept since the world was young, and I step over them....

Along the way, Joni discovers other hidden secrets I'd prefer not to give away. (Read it yourself!) Encounters with lichens, musk oxen, caribou, and oil drums lead her to contemplate the impermanence all that seems so solid: "All of it passing away--rivers carrying mountains out to sea, lichen eating stone, the spinning earth hauling the long darkness closer, one minute at a time." 

And yet in the end what the body knows is not death but life, not decay but growth. I've never paddled a raft through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and I probably never will, but when Joni Tevis takes the trip, there's plenty of room on the raft for all of us.    


Monday, October 21, 2013

Where the music never ends

My soul starved for beauty after a week crammed full of cranky classes and mindless meetings, so I lugged myself, body and soul, to the college choir concert Friday night. About halfway through the choir sang a soothing lullaby that drained the anguish and tension from my being and lulled me into serenity--but then, as the final note dissipated into nothing and the director began to lower his arms, some dimwit's cellphone rang.

And it wasn't a quiet ring, either, but a shattering jangle of obnoxious inanity.

I saw the choir director's neck tense up and knew what he was thinking: Ruined! All that beauty drowned out, overshadowed, deleted, stomped into the mud, ruined ruined ruined!

And to tell the truth, I would have been angry too. Everyone had been asked to turn off their phones, but all it takes is one scofflaw to ruin it for everyone. That's why we can't have nice things!

But you know, it wasn't really ruined. Over time I'll forget about the ringing cell phone, but I won't forget the music that transported me beyond the clanging inanities of life into a realm of pure serenity.

It's still out there, that music, still singing through the wind, and it's still in here sweeping out my soul. Hush! Be still! Maybe you can hear it too.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

There's a reason they call it 'comfort food'

I came home crabby and cold--really cold, the kind of cold that comes from sitting too close to the air-conditioning vent while observing a colleague's teaching and then running across campus through a sudden downpour and then sitting at my desk dripping wet while meeting with one advisee after another in my cold dark cave-like office and then driving home still damp, and did I mention crabby?

But with my husband's help, I soon discovered the recipe for warmth. First step: dry clothes. Next step: hot stove. Saute onions, peppers, and garlic in olive oil, then add salt, pepper, fresh basil, a touch of wine vinegar, and tomato paste made from our own tomatoes and still carrying the glow of the sunshine they absorbed all summer long. Simmer a while and serve with tortellini and garlic bread.

Finally I'm warm, dry, and well fed. Now I can read some student papers!


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Closing the book on the zombie apocalypse?

"No More Zombies!" declares Adam Brooke Davis in a terrific essay in the Oct. 18 Chronicle of Higher Education, available online (here) only to subscribers. He writes about how difficult it is to persuade creative writing students to aspire beyond creating another chapter in the Zombie Apocalypse. My favorite paragraph concisely distinguishes among various types of popular fiction:

If it makes you want to buy something, it's advertising. If it makes you want to kill people, take their land, vote them in or out of office, it's propaganda. If it just jerks you around by your reproductive instincts, it's probably pornography. And if it's warning you of the dangers of not brushing your teeth, it's a public-service announcement.

What these genres tend not to be is art, although of course there are always exceptions. "There is, of course, nothing so vacuous and banal that a strong mind cannot make something meaningful out of it," admits Davis, "But some literary works sustain conversation, attention, and rereading more than others." A hundred years from now, will readers be more likely to reach for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or plain old Jane Austen?

Wait, don't answer that. I think I'm about to get really depressed.

Purple passion right out in public

I wanted to write about lovely fall colors but instead I'm distracted by words. Nature is doing a strip-tease in our woods, complete with fluffy white fans and garish pink fleshy fruits. What are they? 

My birding-and-botanizing colleague identifies this as euonymus atropurpureus, which sounds almost obscene but means, essentially, "purple bush." It's also called bitter ash, eastern wahoo, and Hearts Bursting with Love, which sounds great until you learn that the poisonous fruits were formerly used as a purgative, so that's one case of heartburn you won't soon forget.

But what about wahoo? Chief Wahoo is the Cleveland Indians' (probably offensive) logo, and the wahoo is also, according to Wikipedia, a fish, and not just any fish but  a scombrid fish, whatever that means, known in some parts of the world as the ono or peto, a warm-water mackerel often parasitized by the Hirudinella ventricosa, which sounds much more appetizing than giant stomach worm.

But the wahoo in my woods is clearly not a fish, so that's no help at all. (And if there are any giant stomach worms in my woods, I don't want to know about it.) When I look up wahoo elsewhere, I'm told that it's the common name for the euonymus atropurpureus, which takes me right back where I started, which was an attempt to applaud nature for her colorful strip-tease. Three cheers for  euonymus atropurpureus! My heart bursts with admiration.  



Once years ago I noticed in the middle of a church service that I was wearing two different shoes. They were both black pumps, but the ornamentation was different and one heel was about half an inch higher than the other.  No wonder I kept feeling off-balance...

Nobody noticed, of course.

I wonder whether anyone will notice this morning's faux pas? How did I get all the way to my office without noticing that I was wearing two different shoes--and they're not even the same color?!!

But I'm sure no one will notice. So let's keep this between you and me, okay? Our little secret. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When trust is all you've got to stand on

Last night a colleague asked me what I thought of a proposal for a new major in another department, and I struggled to respond. The proposal is way outside my discipline, my department, and my area of expertise, and I'm simply not qualified to judge whether it's rigorous enough or coherent enough to line up with what our college stands for (which is another question entirely but let's not go there today). I have only one basis to evaluate the proposal: Do I trust the colleagues who developed the new major?

It's astounding how many of our decisions on campus really come down to trust--or its absence. We might come up with a whole chain of reasons to rationalize our vote for or against certain proposals, but often our support depends upon a simple question: How much do I trust this colleague or this department to carry out what they have promised to do? How much do I trust them to serve the needs of the college as a whole above their own needs?

The problem with this approach, of course, is that trust is such a wobbly concept, vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and exploitation, and violations of trust are hard to forgive. Often discussions in faculty meetings veer into peculiar territory when someone starts responding not to the current question but to some violation of trust going back months or years or perhaps even decades. It's hard to fight that kind of prejudice when no one will admit it openly, so we couch our arguments in jargon or niggle about rigor until we're all approaching rigor mortis.

In the past I've trusted unwisely and been badly burned, but I like to begin from the assumption that people will do what they say they will do, especially if they put it in writing. So I answered my colleague by saying, "I don't know if the program is great, but I trust the people who wrote it." I'm taking my stand for trust--but if someone violates that trust, look out! 


Monday, October 14, 2013

Getting and spending and grading and grading and grading

I'm feeling a little grumpy after spending most of a beautiful weekend grading papers without ever getting outside for more than a few minutes or even getting caught up on grading. What a contrast--a weekend of relaxation and no papers followed by a weekend of papers, papers, and more papers, spilling right on into the week and probably next weekend too. 

What I need is some Wordsworth. Good thing the Concepts of Nature class is discussing "The World Is Too Much With Us" first thing this morning! Wordsworth can go ahead and condemn our tendency toward "Getting and spending," but I don't even have time to get and spend with all the grading I'm doing. "Grading and grading we lay waste our powers...." Somehow it lacks oomph.

I'd like to see old "Proteus rising from the sea," but only if he's willing to help me grade these papers. And will someone please tell Triton to turn down the volume on his horn? How am I supposed to grade papers will all that racket going on?


Friday, October 11, 2013

Seven steps to a rotten meeting; or, shaking my spear of influence

1. Make sure attendees have no clear idea why they're there or what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.

2. Connect the computer, projection system, and phone-conference setup and then walk away and let the meeting run on its own--voices of experts at a remote location accompanied by PowerPoint slides.

3. Make sure the consultants speak with the monotonous squawk of the teachers in the Charlie Brown cartoons--in fact, their presentations skills should be so awful that if any of us taught like that in the classroom, we'd get fired in a heartbeat.

4. Insist upon inept use of PowerPoint--slides crammed with jargon and ugly acronyms.

5. Make sure the jargon is almost, but not quite, totally incomprehensible. "Spear of influence." (Where can I get one of those?) "Transparent foundations." (Won't people trip?) "Sharp focus on many dimensions." (Sorry, but my eyes don't work that way.)

6. When the absent consultants need to demonstrate something on a web browser, make sure that there is no discernible relationship between what the voice is droning on about and what appears on the screen in the browser.

7. Remind attendees that we are paying good money for the absent consultants' expertise so we'd darn well better get our money's worth out of them. You definitely want your attendees to devote their thoughts to just how much more money they could be making if they'd chosen another career path, like droning on to no clear purpose in conference calls all over the country.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Random bullets of recovering from fall break

Thursday? THURSDAY? How can today be Thursday when yesterday was Monday? Oh wait...right. Thursday.

After all the time I've spent unpacking and putting stuff away, why does my house look like the debris field left after a cargo plane explosion? Whose socks are on the breakfast bar? Why is the ice chest sitting in the living room? Did my shampoo bottle give birth to a whole bunch of tiny baby shampoo bottles?

What's in the fridge? Leftover cheese and crackers, some sort of rice casserole assembled sometime last week, a single tomato, and a glass of orange juice. Want to make something of it?

Papers? PAPERS? How can students be handing me more papers to grade when I just finished a pile of papers? Oh wait...right. Another class. Papers.

Why no, I do not want to attend a meeting on Thursday that was just announced yesterday to kick off a task force I volunteered for in August to complete a task that's due in May. Not at all. Unless, that is, someone can squeeze an extra day into my week so that it won't yet be Thursday. Because you know what comes after Thursday!

At least I hope you do. As for me, I haven't a clue.


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Ducks in a row

My daughter and I were canoeing in a swampy cove the other night when we saw six--no, seven mallard ducks all sitting on a tree limb stretched over the water, but the minute I reached for the camera, they scattered.

That's kind of how our family vacation weekend went: one cabin, three cars, two boats, five adults, and one baby gathered and scattered, grouped in various configurations: the two young men on the sailboat, the two women in the canoe, and grampa with the baby; grampa and daughter in the canoe, mother and son playing Bananagrams, daddy with the baby. I think we had every possible combination of adult pairs in the canoe without ever throwing the baby to the wolves.

But of course we saw no wolves. On the first night we heard a great horned owl outside our window and over four days we saw hosts of kingfishers, cormorants, and carp, plus herons and waterfowl and five deer running through the woods. Several fish were caught, none big enough to eat--but that's okay, because we had plenty of food. More than enough. One of the great thing about vacationing with adult children is that one brings the meat and one brings the snacks and I bring the pots and pans and everyone helps in the kitchen and before you know it, we're feasting like kings.

After four days with no cell-phone service, television, radio, or internet access, I feel a little clueless, a little sunburned, a little sore in the lower back, but I wouldn't trade this vacation for all the grading in the universe. I've got the rest of my life to grade papers, but for one weekend I enjoyed having all my ducks in a row.  

And if we have to scatter for a while, well, it's only a matter of time before we gather again.  


Friday, October 04, 2013

All packed up and nowhere to go

My bags are packed. My car is packed. My canoeing gear is packed. I have finished grading the two exams I gave this week and I have prepared next Wednesday's classes. I am all set to head on up the highway for four days of fun at our secret fall-break getaway cabin on a lake in the woods with my husband and son and daughter and son-in-law and grandbaby, BUT I have to hang around campus all afternoon to attend a meeting.

Yes, scheduling meetings at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon ought to be illegal, but this is a really important committee that has a real impact on my colleagues' lives (cough-cough tenure cough) so we need to meet--for at least two hours a week--and Friday afternoon is the only available time. So I will dutifully attend today's meeting because that's just the kind of person I am, but that doesn't stop me from inventing creative excuses that could allow me to leave early:

I was waylaid by aliens,
stomped by a rhino,
torched by an arsonist,
slugged by a wino.

I suffer from whooping cough,
shingles, and scabies.
I'm having hysterics 'cause
my hamster had babies.

The dog ate my laptop.
A squirrel's in my pants.
My nervous extremities
do nothing but dance.

I'm a sniveling bundle
of guts, gloom, and blood.
--Wait, the meeting's been cancelled?
I'm hitting the road!  


Thursday, October 03, 2013

What's the point of a study guide if students won't read it?

Yes, you need your book. It's an open-book essay exam, and the study guide clearly states that you will need to use evidence from the texts, so you'd better have the texts with you. Forgot your book? What do you plan to do about it? 

No, you can't borrow my book. I didn't even bring my book. The only people who need the book are those who are taking the exam. That would be you.

Yes, you may run to your dorm room to fetch the book, but don't ask for more time to complete the exam. Everyone gets the same 75 minutes; how you choose to use them is your lookout.

No, it's not a good idea to show up for an essay exam without having read the works to which your essay is supposed to respond. I warned you about this! But again, it's your 75 minutes, so if you want to spend half of that time reading the texts you've been avoiding for the past six weeks, be my guest.

Yes it is fair, no matter how much you may claim otherwise. I told you that you would be allowed to refer to daily writing assignments and even incorporate relevant material from those assignments into your essay, which certainly gives students who completed the writing assignments a tremendous advantage over those who did not. But here's the thing: every student had the same opportunity to complete those writing assignments, but you chose not to take advantage of that opportunity. You'll have to work twice as hard to write a good essay for this exam. Sucks to be you, but don't say I didn't warn you a thousand times.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Just Say No to the New

I'd like to declare a moratorium on new passwords. This morning I visited three web sites all associated with my employment (college portal, retirement account, health insurance site) and each one required a different password. I'm tired of clicking on "forgot my password" or changing passwords periodically to satisfy some mindless robot's inane requirements.

And while we're banning new passwords, let's Just Say No to new academic computer programs and websites. I post assignments on Moodle, post grades on Datatel, monitor students' progress on MapWorks, maintain my professional portfolio on eFolio--and soon I'll be required to submit assessment information on Elumen. That's enough. Let's just draw the line right here and give the software developers an extended vacation. They deserve it--and so do I.

No new passwords, no new programs, no new committees or task forces or working groups or (new nomenclature alert!) dimension committees. I'm on a subcommittee related to one of our big campus-wide initiatives--is it assessment, accreditation, or retention? I don't remember--and although I'm ostensibly serving on the Roles and Functions subcommittee, I'm unclear on the Roles and Functions of the Roles and Functions subcommittee. I'm waiting for the person in charge to tell me.

But frankly, we have enough persons in charge. Just Say No to new administrative positions or pseudo-administrative positions or mini-deans, and let's eschew new policies until we figure out how to implement our current policies. We don't need any new crises either--we've got enough unresolved crises to last us til Armageddon.

And at that point, I guess we'll have to Just Say No to Armageddon--especially if it requires a new password. 

From fine art to schlock, all in one class

A colleague up the hall likes to start every class period with music, but I'm more inclined to kick off my literature classes with images. Scanning over my Moodle page for the semester so far, I see that I've shown my Concepts of Nature class images of paintings by Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, and  Guercino, along with photos of Hemingway fishing, Gene Stratton Porter hiking, and Euell Gibbons hawking Grape-Nuts (here).

I've shown photos of chalk, flint points, Claude glasses, and fringed gentians, a gigantic hedge spelling out Dawes Arboretum, and Malcolm Cochran's sculpture Field of Corn with Osage Orange Trees (here). I've shown Isabella Bird decked out in her Hawaiian riding costume and my California Lit students visiting Muir Woods in their students-on-a-trip costumes.

I've shown fantasy future cities and Thomas Kinkade cabins, and on Friday I'll show treehouses, cave dwellings, and Robinson Jeffers's Tor House and Hawk Tower, along with Sean Parker's outrageous wedding at Big Sur and Wendell Berry looking right at home in a farm field.

I suppose it would be possible to study nature in literature without photos, but the pictures take us places otherwise inaccessible to the stationary student and help me introduce concepts we'll encounter in the literature. Friday's theme is home, including Wendell Berry's poem "Stay Home" with its urgent command, "You stay home too." What does it mean to be at home in nature? You'll have to come to my class to find out.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Walking a fine line

This week I'm reading drafts and writing exams and walking a fine line, a very fine line, between offering support to struggling students and propping up posers, between suggesting methods of approaching writing tasks and ramming students into narrow templates. How much help is too much?

I've always offered models and samples showing what I expect--sample essays, sample thesis statements for various types of prompts, sample Works Cited listings for common class readings. I've distributed sample exam questions and talked about how to respond to them, and sometimes those same questions end up on the exam. This fall I'm even trying out the They Say/I Say text in first-year writing and encouraging students to fit their ideas into handy templates. I want to give students every possible resource to help them succeed in my classes.

But sometimes this feels like hand-holding. Today a tough-love colleague told me providing sample papers or thesis statements or Works Cited listings is a bad idea because "they ought to know how to do this," and if they don't know, then too darn bad. 

I sort of agree--I could come up with a long laundry list of things students ought to know how to do, starting with laundry and moving on through note-taking, critical thinking, and basic politeness. But the fact is that they can't, or some of them can't quite manage tackling these tasks without a little nudge in the right direction. 

Sometimes a big nudge. 

Sometimes a nudge that propels them right out the door.

But let's start with the little nudges first. My students who already know how to write a thesis or format a Works Cited or analyze literature can just go ahead and get to work, but I'm happy to spend a little extra time helping the others find their way, and if a model, sample, or template helps them shape their nebulous ideas into coherence, then I'll give them models, samples, and templates.

Baby steps, training wheels, too much hand-holding--I hear that, but I have my limits. When the time comes to take off the training wheels, I'm very happy to push them off, even if they crash. The challenge is in knowing just when to let go.