Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eternal questions

When I ask interesting questions in a class in which students have just taken a reading quiz demonstrating that they know the answers, why oh why do they sit there staring blankly as if I were speaking Swahili?

When I insert extensive marginal comments into a student's draft and then he makes an appointment to meet with me to discuss his draft, why oh why can't he read my comments first? And then when I ask him why he hasn't read my comments and he tells me that he can't read attachments on his cell phone and then I ask why he doesn't read it on one of the many computers over in the library or in a computer lab and he has no coherent response, why oh why am I surprised?

Monday, September 29, 2014

A lost Las Vegas of the mind

I'm at an event when suddenly the red punch I'm drinking transports me back to childhood: that cloying sweetness, that familiar medicinal aftertaste--where have I tasted that peculiar combination before?

And then I remember: it tastes like children's cough syrup. Yuck.

One of my students yesterday said "I miss being a kid," but I don't. Sure, it would be nice to never have to worry about paying the mortgage, filing taxes, or changing the oil in my car, but there are elements of childhood I would never want to repeat:

Alphabetization requires that the child whose name starts with Z is always called on first or last, always in the front or the back of the line, never able to hunker down amidst the miscellaneous middle.
Bullying wasn't invented in the Internet age, and it's not any more pleasant face-to-face, especially when you can't just turn it off.

Cavities, eight at one time, filled by a scary man wielding power tools that sound like chainsaws.
Dentists. See above.

Escape? None. Sit in the chair and let the nice man in the white coat stick that chainsaw into your mouth.

Family fights last loud and long into the night.

Gum, terror of: "When you chew gum, you look just like a cow!"

Hair, tangles of: "How can I get these rat-nests out if you won't sit still?!"

Ice cream that my brother gets to eat after he has his tonsils removed. I'd rather have ice cream than tonsils, but I'm stuck with tonsils.

Jump-rope games are suddenly all the rage that one year, which would be a lot of fun if the mean girls would let me play. 

Kitty, my first pet, doesn't travel well and disappears while we're on a trip, sadly becoming the first of many ex-pets.

Lose one shoe one time many decades ago and never again since then, but certain members of my family still won't let me forget that I once lost a shoe and insist on thinking of me as a person who's always losing things, which is ridiculous.

Monsters live under the bed, in the closet, and down in the cellar, but I'm lying in bed paralyzed with fright because this strange shadow on the wall just might be a spider.

Nicknames stick like glue, the most humiliating one dropping away only when my family moves out of state.

Omnipresent, obnoxious, abhorrent boys.

Punched in the stomach by a fourth-grade classmate angry because I won the spelling bee.

Quiet in the library! Even when your classmate punches you in the stomach! Shhhhh!

Really! I mean quiet!

Stomach-aches after eating all that Halloween candy.

Thanksgiving with the cousins that time when I break out in chicken pox and endure tortures on the long ride home.

Untold miseries of fear when I know I know the answer but I can't raise my hand or open my mouth in class without turning beet-red and inspiring the bullies to whisper that horrible humiliating nickname.

Vegetables must be eaten even when they are overcooked, mushy, insipid.

Witless, scared, while walking home from a friend's house in the dark after telling ghost stories, running quickly past the vacant lot in case some ghoul is lurking there awaiting a little girl to gobble up.

Xenophobia: "Here come the Polacks in the Polack car!"

Yellow dress, the one I love until the day I start my period at school without being prepared.

Z-nophobia: Why do names starting with Z fluster people to the point that they stuff all kinds of superfluous letters into a perfectly normal name? It's not exactly Zczjrsnkjy!

Other results may differ, but I prefer to treat my childhood sort of like Las Vegas: what happens in childhood stays in childhood. I fear, though, that one of these days I'll enter my second childhood and it will all come washing back up onto the shore of the present.

If so, I'll keep my eyes open for that one lost shoe.

Friday, September 26, 2014

My week, by the numbers

Number of hours

  • teaching classes: 11
  • observing colleagues' teaching: 2
  • attending meetings: 5 (presiding at two meetings, co-presiding at one)

Number of 
  • one-on-one conferences with Sports Lit students: 14
  • Sports Lit drafts read and provided with extensive written feedback: 14
  • freshman composition papers graded: 12
  • African-American Lit papers graded: 12
  • Concepts of Comedy drafts read and provided with extensive written feedback: 21
Arrived on campus between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. every day; left at
  • Monday: 9:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday: 6:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday: 4:30 p.m.
  • Thursday: 5:30 p.m.
  • Friday: lucky if I'm out of here by 7:00 p.m.
College-related tasks I must complete this weekend:
  • pick up rental van for field trip (Saturday morning) 
  • make cookies for field trip
  • take students on field trip (four or five hours Sunday afternoon)
  • write three midterm exams
 Every time an administrator insists that faculty members aren't working hard enough, a little piece of me dies inside.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I've got those Early-Morning Oompa-Loompa Earworm Blues

Oh I woke up this morning with the Oompa-Loompa song in my head.
Yes I woke up this morning with the Oompa-Loompa song in my head.
If I saw an Oompa-Loompa in front of me
I would shoot that bugger dead.

(If I had a gun.)

(Which I don't.)

(Which is probably a good thing.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Marginally interesting

I've often said that stamping out ignorance is what we do--and it's a good thing ignorance is a renewable resource or we'd all be out of a job. But here we are, another semester, another brand-new group of students submitting drafts of papers, and another opportunity to insert the same old marginal comments, including yes, you have to put quotation marks around the quoted material and also cite it even if it came from the dictionary, but on the other hand, starting a paper with a dictionary definition is not the best way to lure reluctant readers. 

This week I have pointed out (repeatedly!) that what my students like to call "slave times" ended well before 1929, that not every poem by an African-American author deals with slavery, and that a poem composed of rhyming quatrains is not by any stretch of the imagination considered "free verse." Also, poems are not novels and short stories are not poems and essays are not novels and plays are not stories. And saying a poet "uses diction" is certainly true but no more interesting than saying my body "uses oxygen," which is why I don't go around saying "Look at me! I'm breathing! How about a great big round of applause!"

By far the most common comment this week, though, goes something like this: We're doing literary analysis here, not literary summary, and it is not possible to analyze a work of literature without including specific evidence from the text. Like, for instance, words, metaphors, elements of form, details about structure. Analysis--it's what we do.

I get really excited when a paper comes along that launches out into risky territory and makes me look at a text in a new way, but alas, those papers are as rare as watermelon in the Mojave. Instead, I write a poem is not a novel or why no citation? or here's how to use an apostrophe to indicate possession, and then I give examples. 

Stamping out ignorance, one student at a time. It's what we do. Yee-haw.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Snippets of everything

1. "I liked your latest blog post. I don't get to read it as often as I used to because of too much everything, but I read that one."

Thanks. I don't get to write as often as I used to because of too much everything.

2.  "You know what we need? We need a special faculty counselor we can talk to when we're wondering what's the point and whether it's all worthwhile."

Whether what's all worthwhile?

"You know--all this. Everything."

Too much everything.

3. "How was the meeting?"

Which one? I had three, or more if you include individual meetings with my Sports Lit guys, some of which were held in a dim office after the power went out.

"You had student conferences in the dark? Why not just cancel them?"

Because if we get behind on this project, I'll have to push the next deadline after four-day break and cut out a whole mess of poetry later on.

"That ought to make your students happy. After all, they can't read everything."

Why not? If I have to read so much everything, so should they. 

Hmmm...maybe it's time to call a moratorium on so much everything.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Sometimes the gap between where I live and where I work can be disorienting. Case in point: while my students are studying mathematical equations so they can get good grades on their petroleum engineering exams, I'm being run off the road by a brine truck serving a hydraulic fracturing well.

I survived that encounter, but my neighbors' frequent small misunderstandings about where I work and what I do act as a constant irritant. Since the college's budget problems have been in the news, I get questions everywhere I go--at the grocery store, at the gas station, even at church. Most of these questions can't be answered effectively in the time I spend pumping gas or standing in the check-out line, such as "Why doesn't the college just dig into that huge endowment fund?" First, I would have to explain why "huge" is not the appropriate term to describe our endowment, and then I would have to explain the difference between restricted and unrestricted funds, and by then my interlocutor would be asleep.

This morning, though, I got a question that really threw me for a loop: "Don't they teach anything besides petroleum engineering down there at that college?" 

That's right: an apparently intelligent and alert person who has lived in this area for more than 50 years is somehow not aware that we teach anything other than Petro.

Which makes me realize that those of us who teach English majors or history majors or journalism or education or biology majors are simply not doing a very good job telling our story.  

So sweet it'll make your teeth hurt

Did we have a fun weekend? Yes indeed we did!

We found rocks--lots and lots of rocks--a whole driveway covered in rocks! What could be more exciting than rocks?

We ate cherry tomatoes straight out of the garden!

We pounded on every single drum on Uncle Steve's drum set!

We went to The Wilds, rode in a great big open-air bus, and visited all kinds of cool animals!

And now we have to get back to work.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Thanks for everything! (A little late)

I was doing a bit of research over the summer and I kept running into the name of one of my grad-school professors, a marvelous scholar and teacher I hadn't thought about in years but suddenly I wondered how he was doing, what he was doing, whether he was still inspiring students and pushing them to greater levels of achievement and understanding. I ought to write him a letter, I told myself, but then the very next day I saw his name in the Chronicle of Higher Education, listed among the dead.

Too late! Here was a wonderful person who helped me through my Masters degree, gave me my only Incomplete in grad school (because I was giving birth to a baby and a thesis at about the same time), and then gave me an A in the class despite the fact that my seminar paper was written in the throes of new-baby sleep deprivation--yes, the same professor who demonstrated how to elegantly and efficiently cut an arrogant know-it-all down to size in the middle of class--and I'd missed my chance to tell him Thanks. 

And now I wonder how many others I never got a chance to thank. What would I tell them if I could?

Dear Dr. H,
I hated it when you chewed me out in an elevator crowded with students and professors and I prayed that the elevator would go up those twelve or fifteen flights a little faster, but you know what? You were right. I needed to hear it. (Not necessarily in that time and place, but I survived.)

Dear Dr. K,
Yours was the first seminar I took in grad school and I was the only first-year student in the class, so I didn't know how ridiculous it was to request an extension on my class presentation. Thanks for making me stick to the schedule! You didn't dismiss me as a flake but pushed me to spend whole days in Special Collections immersing myself in fascinating material and preparing my first grad-school presentation, and then you hired me to proofread your book and gave me my first formal printed acknowledgment. Thanks for treating me like a scholar!

Dear Dr. P,
I didn't like your class, didn't like your jargon, and didn't like your dog. (Nothing personal, but small seminar room + hairy dog + allergies = misery.) I especially didn't like the way you made me read things that made me uncomfortable. But you introduced me to an author who inspired some of my best research and writing, and that was definitely worth a few sneezes.

Dear Dr. C,
I remember when you put James Joyce on the syllabus for an American novel class--you wanted to focus on the city as a character in fiction, and you insisted that students couldn't comprehend the concept without seeing how Dublin functions in Ulysses. That kind of risk-taking left me speechless with wonder and inspired a desire to push students beyond the expected. Well done! I hope you and Joyce are enjoying some long conversations in the authorial afterlife.

Dear Dr. C-squared,
You were the best. You're still the best. You will continue to be the best far into the future because you've passed your greatness on to others. There's really nothing more to say but thanks!

I could go on--but so could you.

(Extra credit to anyone who puts names to the initials.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Failing my own quiz

I knew that something was amiss in my Concepts of Comedy class this morning, but I couldn't figure out what. My students were quieter than usual, unwilling to respond to what I thought were softball questions. Were they upset by the reading material? Granted, David Sedaris's "Brother, Can You Spare a Tie?" does draw awkward attention to humorous aspects of the male anatomy, but on Monday we'd discussed Nora Ephron's "A Few Words about Breasts" without a problem.

But today was different: they weren't just quiet; they looked physically uncomfortable, and they kept shooting me these looks that made me wonder whether my fly was down or maybe the heel of my shoe was dragging a long line of toilet paper around the room.

I stumbled my way through the class as well as I could despite my students' lack of participation, not to mention a certain sluggishness caused by an annoying stomach bug that kept interrupting my sleep last night. (If you're interested in experiencing Total Energy Drain along with the feeling that you're passing barbed wire through your intestines, have I got the virus for you!) Then I cancelled my office hours and went home to get some sleep.

I was halfway home before I remembered: that class was supposed to take a reading quiz this morning. There they were, all set to disgorge piles of interesting insights from their overstuffed brains, and instead I was up there babbling about the Comic Body and the Licensed Fool and when are penises funny?

Twenty-two students in the room and not a single one of them pointed out that they were supposed to be taking a quiz. No wonder they were uncomfortable. I'll bet they're all deeply depressed over my oversight and in danger of moving into suicidal despair if I don't intervene. I know: I'll send them an online quiz! They'll be so relieved that they'll vote me Greatest Professor on the Planet and throw a ticker-tape parade down the middle of campus!

Or maybe we'll just forget about the whole thing and move on. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Last gasp of summer

I'm sitting in the middle of a long, horrible meeting but I'm having trouble paying attention because I need to finish prepping a class for tomorrow and writing an exam for later in the week, but I really need to pay attention because I fear that the changes being discussed will inevitably increase my workload even more when I'm barely keeping up with all I have to do right now, and I'm sitting next to a colleague who confessed that she feels guilty when she spends time with her children because she's not grading and she feels guilty when she's grading because she's not spending time with her children and all that guilt gets in the way of being in the moment and enjoying life, and all this angst is roiling about the room in an oppressive and distressing manner when my cell-phone buzzes and I discreetly glance at the message from my son informing me that he has a softball game at 6:30 and wouldn't I like to watch?

And I know I have too much work to do and I really can't spare an hour or so to watch a softball game, but the fact that I'm too busy too watch my son play softball suggests that I really need to watch my son play softball, so I put down my big ol' bag o' work and trot on over to the field to watch the game.

And they only play seven innings in church-league softball but I don't really relax and get my mind in the game until the fifth inning, which is a good time to start paying attention because they suddenly have this amazing inning in which my son's team bats through the order and my son makes it to base on an accidental bunt, if such a thing exists, and his team pulls ahead 18-9.

And it's a beautiful evening, cool and clear with a sky full of clouds that look like waves breaking on a beach, and it's the last game of the season and the last gasp of summer and the last opportunity I'll have to be in this moment right now, and I don't want to ruin it feeling guilty because I'm not grading or prepping or writing exams. 

So I don't--for now. Ask me again tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the classroom

I've been spending the week visiting 8 a.m. classes to observe my colleagues' teaching, and this morning I was a bit less bright-eyed and ready to learn than I had been at the beginning of the week--but so were the students in the class. Their energy level was low. They weren't jumping into the class discussion with enthusiasm. They appeared to be barely awake, which I can certainly understand. We may spend our days (and nights) differently, but we all arrive at the end of the week feeling slow and stupid. 

But here's the thing: when the professor handed out the take-home exam at the end of the hour, I just smiled and walked away. Because guess what? I don't have to take the exam! Yet more evidence, in case we need it, that being a professor is WAY better than being a student.

Here's more:

I take no tests,
receive no marks
in scarlet ink,
don't have to park
my car where angels
fear to tread.
I don't approach
a book with dread
or totter under-
neath the weight
of backpacks (stuffed).
Love my roommate!
I'll never do
a Jello shot
or argue whether
some dude's hot--
but best of all,
they never send
tuition bills 
to me. (The end.)

Anyone else want to give it a try?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lobbing in the guilt grenades

When Sherman Alexie visited campus last night, he demonstrated the power of comedy as a rhetorical device: he made us laugh so hard we let down our guard, and then he started lobbing in the guilt grenades. It was a beautiful thing to see, but at the same time it felt a little dangerous. We are, after all, in Appalachia, where you wouldn't have to be a gun-toting redneck to take Alexie's comments out of context and get a little hot under the collar.

He urged Christopher Columbus to commit an anatomically impossible act.

He reminded us that the land of the free and home of the brave spent centuries doing its best to stamp out braves.

He pointed out that even if we do not consider ourselves racists, we are nevertheless complicit in the institutional systems that perpetrate racism.  

And he criticized Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians mascot.

Alexie lubed us up with laughter so well that the harsh truths just slid right past our defenses, but it was a pretty big crowd and it's possible that some people weren't laughing. Take a little clandestine video, post it to the blogosphere without proper context, and BOOM, we're accused of forcing innocent students to drink the socialist anti-American multicultural Kool-Aid.

And maybe that's a conversation we need to have, but it's much more pleasant when we leave the guns at home and do it with comedy.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

For better or for verse

We had a little trouble in class this morning while discussing Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "A Cabin Tale" (read it here). It's not Dunbar's best work but it's an excellent example of the kindly-slave-telling-trickster-tales genre popularized by Joel Chandler Harris. Our problem first arises when we encounter "a ole black bah" that "used to live 'roun' hyeah somewhah." What, pray tell, is a "bah"? One student interpreted "bah" as "boy," which adds a surreal twist to the poem, and others assumed from context that it was some sort of large animal but couldn't figure out what kind.

It's a bear, of course, but I sympathize with my students: Dunbar's dialect verse tosses so many obstacles in the way of comprehension that we have to wonder why anyone would write it (or read it). Which is why I told them about James Whitcomb Riley.

All you really need to know about the aesthetic judgment of American readers in the 1890s is that they propelled Riley to the kind of fame and fortune that most poets can only dream of. Riley appealed to readers with sentimental rhyming verse full of nostalgia for a lost pastoral innocence, like "The Old Swimmin' Hole" (here) and "When the Frost is on the Punkin" (here), along with dialect verse told in the voice of a child, like "Our Hired Girl" (here) and "Little Orphant Annie" (here). 

Riley was also the perpetrator of what may well be the worst poem ever written by a professional poet: "The Happy Little Cripple" (read it here, if you dare), a heartwarming bit of jingly-jangly verse glossing lightly over the plight of a crippled child abandoned by his father (a violent drunk) and living with his weepy aunt. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll toss your cookies when you see Riley's skill in rhyming "cryin'" with "curvature of the spine." If there's a more execrable poem out there, I'd like to know about it.

But here's the question: do we judge poets on their best verse or their worst, by their current reputation or their popular reception? The late nineteenth-century reading public gave Riley a huge vote of confidence by buying his poems by the bucketload, which helps us understand why Paul Laurence Dunbar kept producing dialect verse even when his heart was often elsewhere.

Dunbar expressed his difficulty succinctly in his eight-line poem "The Poet" (here), which portrays the dilemma of a poet whose lines touching the heart of mystery are ignored by readers who prefer to "praise / A jingle in a broken tongue." Today's readers appreciate Dunbar's poems written in standard English, but if we imagine the mindset of his readers trained on Riley and develop fluidity in reading dialect, maybe we'll read his dialect poems and respond with something other than "Bah."  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Of metaphors and manure

This week I've been observing my colleagues' teaching in fields way outside my own and I confess that I don't always understand what they're talking about. (How well would you understand an upper-level class in a field of science that you last studied in 1978?) However, not knowing what they're saying frees me up to pay attention to how they're saying it, especially when they say it with metaphors.

I've heard colleagues invite the class to step in the Way-Back Machine or imagine a perfect world or put their metaphorical hands in their metaphorical pockets. I've seen syllabus language challenging students to explore new ground and dig deeper and go on a journey, and then I've seen the professor translate those metaphors into classroom activities that feel like adventures.

This experience reminds me of an exercise I've used to help faculty members write their teaching philosophies (because every tenure and promotion portfolio must include a teaching philosophy): Describe what's happening when everything is going well in the classroom. Somewhere in that description a metaphor will pop up--taking students on a journey or guiding them through a labyrinth or coaching them to build skills. Grab that metaphor, examine it, and see what it tells you about what kind of teacher you are. 

Now comes a document attempting to crystallize who we are and where we're going as an institution, and it is mostly pretty free of metaphors. I see several calls for develop mechanisms for success, which suggests that the college is a machine, and I see concern about spreading ourselves too broadly across the academic landscape, which makes us manure. 

There's a big difference between machines and manure, but a larger issue arises in a brief but pivotal statement intended to shape our future: our reputation is a foundation, but the building metaphor is immediately abandoned in favor of a gardening metaphor (rooted, nurturing) and then a medical metaphor (contributing to the health of a community). 

A building that employs mechanisms to remain rooted and grows to improve health? That's going to take a lot of manure.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seismically speaking, not too earth-shaking

I'm still getting used to my new position as a professional Seismic Services Provider, but so far it's far from earth-shaking: a few festive pink ribbons in the woods, the occasional mysterious silent Texan wandering the meadow, an extra fifty bucks in my wallet--it's a tough job, but someone has to do it. On the other hand, if the current budget crisis propels me forcefully into the academic job market, at least I'll have a new title to put on my vita: Seismic Services Provider. That'll make my vita stand out in the crowd!

How did I achieve such exalted status? Well, it's either a very long or a very short story, depending on whether you want to go clear back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and then suddenly didn't, instead being buried, along with wads of vegetation, far beneath the earth's surface, where they slept peacefully for millennia until men started drilling deep shafts through solid rock down down down to the dinosaurs' final resting place, and then those sharp, spiky drill bits poked the sleeping dinosaurs and startled them so much that they farted out great masses of combustible gas. (Did I get the science right there? It's just astounding that I've never been asked to teach in our Petroleum Engineering department!)

The short version of the story goes like this: fracking happens. Not terribly nearby but close enough to make others want to get in on the boom. But first they have to figure out what the rocks look like far below this broad section of Ohio, and they've figured out an ingenious way to do it: they insert tiny seismic sensors along a criss-cross network of lines covering this entire sector of the state, and then they set off a small explosion about 30 feet underground ("You won't even feel it! Cross my heart and hope to die!"), and the waves from the explosion travel in all directions, and if they happen to bump into any sleeping dinosaurs deep beneath the earth, the angry dinosaurs jump right up and eat the sensors. Or something like that.

Of course they (yes, that mysterious "they") first have to get permission to insert tiny sensors on private property, so they sent a guy around to explain the whole process and get us to sign on the dotted line. ("It can't hurt! You won't even notice! Pinky promise!") And then they sent a check for the princely sum of FIVE DOLLARS per acre (don't spend it all in one place!). And then they sent around a trio of silent mysterious Texans in a pickup truck to decorate various spots in the woods with festive pink ribbons and flags. (Both my husband and I, on separate occasions, have gently informed the silent mysterious Texans that the dog will not hurt them but if they leave the door of their truck open, she will jump in and eat their lunch. In both cases, they just stood staring silently. The door stayed open. I don't know what happened to their lunch.)

Judging from what I've seen on my walks through the area, the next stage will be the insertion of the actual sensors, followed, at some point, by the underground explosion ("Just a teeny-weeny explosion. You won't even hear it!"), followed by the collection of data from the sensors, followed by a bloody invasion by sleepy, hungry, gassy dinosaurs.

But we got the check. We're total pros at this. Want to know what it said in the "memo" line on the check? "For seismic services." Yes: we are Seismic Service Providers. Way to rock my world! 

Friday, September 05, 2014

When comedy fails

How do we become whole people in a broken world?

That's the question I asked my Comedy class this morning, and we agreed that comedy is a common response to the world's brokenness. Look at Sherman Alexie's short story "Do Not Go Gentle": suffering children, grieving parents, comedy as a way to cope. Case closed.

But then I went to my office and heard about some real brokenness right up close, a colleague whose child suddenly died, and I'm not the least bit tempted to respond with comedy. I promised myself that I would write a bit of light verse every Friday this semester, but I'm having trouble coming up with playful lines and silly rhymes. If comedy is tragedy plus distance, then maybe next week I'll be up to sharing a dazzling piece of doggerel, but not today. Let's keep it short and simple:

Branch breaks. Baby falls.
All the king's horses
stay in their stalls.
Broken people. Broken world.
Crack the oyster--
where's the pearl? 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

A new step in student self-promotion

I predict that everyone's going to be talking about this today: Inside Higher Ed reports that Goucher College will now allow applicants to submit a two-minute video instead of all those pesky piles of paperwork other colleges require. Goucher was already test-optional in admissions, but now students won't even be required to submit a high school transcript. Instead, students are free to emulate Elle Woods's self-promotion skills in Legally Blonde (bikini optional).

Goucher's brand-spanking-new president, Jose Antonio Bowen of Teaching Naked fame, explained that standardized test scores aren't useful because they "correlate with family wealth" rather than academic success, but he doesn't explain whether access to video recording equipment and skills also correlates with family wealth, so I guess that's irrelevant.

He expects the video option to appeal to students who have "a smudge or two on their transcripts," but he doesn't explain how the program will distinguish between those with a few smudges on the high school transcript and those whose transcripts are nothing but smudge. What if the student is not able to graduate from high school? Will students divulge that information in a promotional video?

Here's the part I'm still puzzling over:

[Bowen] added that while transcripts may predict academic success in college, that's not all that matters. "They are predictors of how well you will do in school, not how well you will do in life." Bowen said he believes many people are unfairly judged based on less-than-perfect grades and test scores, and sense that they won't be admitted to a good college--despite their many abilities.

A few questions:

1. If you're throwing out the best predictor of student success in college, then won't you be admitting students who are not equipped to succeed? What will that do to retention rates and graduation rates?

2. Given that some people may be "unfairly judged" based on transcripts, isn't it possible that some will be unfairly judged based on promotional videos? Bowen later says Admissions officers won't be swept off their feet by slick production values but will instead look for "authenticity," but how will they distinguish between true authenticity and a really good performance of authenticity?

Maybe one day Bowen will be hailed as the brilliant thinker who revolutionized college admissions, but right now I'm worried about the student who looks really good on paper but can't handle technology or freezes up in front of a camera. (That would be me back in high school.) How will a technologically inept student compete against someone willing to don Elle's bikini and hop into the pool for a video?

To avoid unconscious bias and level the playing field between the bikini-clad student with slick production skills and the schlumpy frumpy technologically inept shy student, Admissions officers should be required to watch the videos blindfold. (Which sort of defeats the purpose.)

Alternately, they could require students to articulate their pleas for admissions in coherent sentences on paper. Nah--that would never work.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Things that go "piph" in the night

I'm supposed to be sound asleep right now but my mind kept gnawing on an upcoming reading assignment in my Comedy class and I had a sudden epiphany about how to introduce an important concept, so of course I had to get up and write it down. 

This happens a lot--unexpected epiphanies disturbing my sleep. Just the other night I woke up in the middle of the night knowing how to present a particular concept in African-American Lit. But here's the thing: these late-night epiphanies are always in aid of literature classes and not freshman writing classes. Always.

So right now I ought to be getting a good solid chunk of sleep so I'll be prepared to teach my two freshman classes in the morning, but instead I'm obsessing over something I won't even need to think about until next week. My epiphanies clearly have no concern for my teaching schedule. Halfway through class I'll be struggling to make sense through a sleep-deprived fog and I'll just have to apologize to my poor suffering students. "Sorry," I'll say; "The epiphany ate my homework."

Powering down, temporarily

This morning as I brushed my teeth I kept marveling over the presence of water. What a wonderful thing to turn a handle and suddenly find clean, fresh, cold water pouring into the sink. Amazing--especially if you've ever had to do without.

It was just a little power outage, only around 300 houses affected in what the local media like to call a "remote pocket of the county." We happen to live in that remote pocket and our house is all electric, including the well pump, so when the power goes out, we're good for about two good flushes and then it's all gone--water, light, air conditioning, the ability to cook, everything.

But it really wasn't so bad. I didn't get any school work done, but who's complaining? And we had harvested eggplants over the weekend and made baba ganoush, and my adorable husband had made two big loaves of ciabatta bread in the morning, and of course we had an abundance of fresh tomatoes and cantaloup from the garden, so we weren't exactly suffering.

It gets very dark and very quiet at my house with the power out, but the Kindle battery was freshly charged so we played our favorite word game until we got too tired to think. And then we went to bed and slept soundly in the quiet darkness until midnight, when the power suddenly came back on and turned on lights all over the house.

And water! Two years ago when the infamous derecho turned off power to our house for a week (read it here and here), we started talking about the necessity of buying a generator, but of course at the time every store within 100 miles sold out of generators before we could dig up the funds. Since then we've looked at generators and talked about generators and debated the finer points of generators, but what we have not managed to do is buy a generator. Maybe it's time to revisit the issue. Take it off the back burner. Make a decision.

Or maybe we'll just sit in the quiet and the dark and eat homemade bread and baba ganoush while playing word games. If only every power outage were this harmless!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes.

I'm driving to work with nothing but blue sky and sunshine visible through the windshield while a deluge of noachic proportions falls on my car. How can all that rain fall out of a clear blue sky? And what must the part of the sky that I can't see look?

Yes, we have entered the Crazy Weather Season, when gorgeous sunshine lures you outdoors only to instantly fog up your glasses so you can't see where you're going so you stumble into deep muddy puddles left behind by the most recent deluge--and don't look over your shoulder, because there's another one on the way.

Yesterday I hydroplaned through standing water all the way to campus but at least I didn't have to fight with traffic since everyone else was staying home to have their Labor Day picnics rained out, but today I had to maneuver through standing water, heavy traffic, and sudden blinding deluges falling out of blue skies. This would be a perfect day to stay home with a cup of tea and a good book, but duty calls.

By the end of the week I'll be deluged with drafts, papers, reading quizzes, and committee responsibilities, but at least they won't arrive without warning. And I'm prepared: I've got my umbrella. Let the deluge begin!

Monday, September 01, 2014

(Unless it's Bozo's funeral)

Today I kicked off the comedy class with a one-question poll: "Would you ever wear a clown costume to a funeral?"

Although several students came up with very specific circumstances under which wearing a clown costume to a funeral would be appropriate (e.g., the funeral of a clown), the majority agreed that in most cases such attire would be disrespectful if not outright offensive.

But where is it written that Thou Shalt Not Wear a Clown Costume to a Funeral? How do we learn these things? How can we all be so certain that wearing a clown costume to a funeral is unacceptable without ever being specifically instructed?

Moreover, why do we sing the national anthem before football and baseball games but not before bowling, surfing, or poker tournaments? ("Because football and baseball express the national character but gambling doesn't," said one student, but how does that square with the number of people who gamble on sports?)

And why don't Catholic churches have to post big signs in the foyer saying "Please don't drink the holy water"? ("Because everyone knows"--but how do they know? And what if they don't?)

And why do we accept all these practices as "normal" without ever questioning them?

The topic of the day was the nature of rituals and their unspoken conventions. We are working our way through Matthew Bevis's excellent Comedy: A Very Short Introduction, in which he asserts that "comic riot is predicated on ritual." Comedy, he claims, provides a safe place to expose, illuminate, or critique the unspoken rules that guide human behavior.

Today we looked at those unspoken rules functioning in Eudora Welty's short story "Petrified Man," in which comedy provides a stage to playfully critique the gender conventions of the 1940s. A sideshow freak and a little boy bear the brunt of women's repressed anger, but the men get the last word. 

There were some puzzled expressions in my classroom today. Welty's story is peculiar and puzzling and not entirely funny, while watching intelligent people try to draw fine distinctions between football and poker was pretty amusing. I'm definitely going to enjoy this class. Whether we all learn a thing or two is another question entirely.