Friday, October 31, 2014

I'm armed with a red pen and I know how to use it!

One of my students, a chemistry major, told me he's going to the mall to demonstrate fun chemistry concepts to children this weekend, and I said, "Funny, they never ask English majors to demonstrate fun concepts at the mall."

"That's because we can't make meth," said a colleague.

"Right," I said, "but we can make metaphors."


One thing I can't make, if you ask my first-year students, is sense. Here we are umpteen weeks into the semester and a student finally admits that no one in the class knows what this word means when I write it in the margin of a paper.

Which word?


And they never asked until today?

And speaking of asking, every day for the past week I've started off the comedy class by showing the study guide on the screen and asking if anyone had questions about any of the terms listed there, like satire and parody and trickster. One or two students asked for clarifications, but the rest of the (large) class sat there stony-faced, unable to think of a single question.

Until last night (or I suppose it was early this morning), when a student e-mailed me a list of six or eight terms and asked me to explain them because he "couldn't find them online."

I don't respond to e-mail in the wee hours of the morning, but eventually I responded by pointing out that most of the terms he listed can be found in a particular chapter of the textbook and the others are on a PowerPoint slide available on Moodle.

They're taking the exam right now. Yes, I'm giving an exam on Halloween while the campus is seething with costumed colleagues bearing candy. I'm dressed as the scariest thing I know: an English professor armed with a red pen. Look out or I'll write vague all over you--and that's not a metaphor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Objects in Internet may be closer than they appear

Yesterday a student complained because the grade his paper earned did not agree with the grade assigned by no fewer than four online essay-checking sites. If four different online sites say his paper deserves a certain grade, how could I assign a grade so much lower?

I pointed out that the online essay-checking sites are not necessarily aware of the requirements of the assignment, particularly the requirement that I harped on in class, explicitly stating that failing to complete this part of the assignment would result in a Very Bad Grade. But what I really wanted to say is this: 

I'm tired of being ganged up on by robots. I'm tired of being told that a faceless computer totally unfamiliar with the content of my course knows what counts for good writing in my class.  I'm tired of dealing with the assumption that requirements are arbitrary and grades are endlessly negotiable. 

And while I'm at it, I'm tired of receiving papers submitted in formats my computer can't open. "Open Freely" doesn't open anything but instead assaults me with error messages like "Object reference not set to an instance of an object." I can't grade that. Well, I could, but the student wouldn't like the grade.

I'm tired of being told that my class ought to reflect some arbitrary idea of excellence promoted by robots. My class is not a mirror. If grades in my class are smaller than they appear online, then it's time to pay less attention to the Internet and more attention to my class, where grades are not endlessly negotiable and requirements matter. Welcome to the real world, baby!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Well, if you insist

Actual conversation with an English major:

Student, dubiously: "'re teaching the American Lit survey?"

Me, grinning: "Of course! Every spring!"

Student: "Doesn't anyone else teach it?"

Me, still grinning: "Nope. You're stuck with me. But it's my favorite class!"

Student, sighing heavily: "Then I guess I'll have to take it."

And I'm just exhausted enough that I can't tell whether he's joking. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ooh big! Big weekend!

Big pumpkins!
If I played a recording of every word my granddaughter said over the weekend, you'd have a pretty good idea of how much fun we had: 

Read books! 

Ooh big! Big book!
Rocks! Ooh big!  Big rocks!

Pumpkin! Big pumpkin! 

Bounce bounce bounce! 



Up up up!

Eat eat eat! 

Bounce bounce bounce!


The bouncing and book-reading occurred on the couch but the kicking was an outdoor activity involving a huge pile of dry leaves. We hunted for pumpkins at a local farm and wandered through the corn maze, and we ate ate ate some great stuff. I always laugh a lot more when the little imp is present, which makes me wish I could take her to a few of my classes, where my students sit silent and unresponsive. 

Maybe I need to take my students out to jump in a pile of leaves....

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ingenuity stew

The rock keeps the engine running.
You've just finished browning the beef and putting it in the crock pot with a mess of garden vegetables so they can stew all day until suppertime--when suddenly, without warning, the power goes out. Who ya gonna call?

Times like these I'm happy to share my life with clever people. Here's what it took to keep the crock-pot bubbling through a four-hour power outage:

1 undriveable car with gas in the tank
1 set of jumper cables 
1 driveable car (to jump-start the first one)
1 rock (to keep the accelerator cable in the "on" position)
1 power inverter (to plug into the cigarette lighter and tap the car's battery)
1 son-in-law who happens to be an electrical engineer
And there's our supper!

Piece of cake. The car kept chugging along all morning long to keep the crock-put running, which may not be the most energy-efficient way to cook supper, but at least we got some use out of a car that normally does nothing but sit there looking derelict. Now the whole house smells like beef stew. Supper, anyone?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

New excuse--how well will this work in your class?

Actual conversation one minute before an exam this morning:

"Three...six...nine...twelve...okay, looks like everyone's here except [student A] and [student B]. Where's [student A]?"

"He's on the way. He'll be here."

"Where's [student B]?"

"He's not coming."

"Not coming?"

"Yeah....he doesn't like tests."

Um....right. Doesn't like tests. Unlike the rest of us? 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A little creative problem-solving

Finally, a way to put my creative impulses to work! For every academic department required to find "creative solutions" to staffing problems because of a budget crisis, I offer my services as  Creativity Consultant. Here's just a taste of the creative problem-solving I can offer:
  • You're not allowed to replace that retiring botanist but no one else in the department has the requisite expertise to teach plant biology and no qualified adjuncts are available? Here's a creative solution: sign students up for an online origami course so they can learn to fold their own flowers!
  • Upper-level courses cancelled due to low enrollment? Majors beating down the door for independent studies so they can graduate on time? Here's a creative solution: let them take three 100-level courses to substitute for one 300-level course!
  • Your department will be unable to staff a popular program because of a hiring freeze but the Powers That Be assure you that the freeze is only "temporary" and therefore should not affect the long-term viability of the program--but what will you do with majors currently in the pipeline? Here's a creative solution: put the students into a medically-induced coma! Then when the hiring freeze is over, wake them up and let them continue on their course toward graduation. If you give them enough of the right kind of drugs, they'll never even notice that missing year! (Or years, as the case may be.)
Creative solutions like these can be yours for a fee roughly equal to the amount of the raise we haven't received for the past few years. But act quickly! This is a limited-time offer! Wait too long and you won't have a department left to save!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Noteworthy give and take

Some write on blackboards or whiteboards or overhead projectors; others distribute outlines or put material on PowerPoint slides, but regardless of their methods, all the professors I've observed over the past few years have one thing in common: somewhere on their course evaluations some student will complain that the professor "needs to give better notes."

Sometimes they'll get more specific: if the professor uses blackboards, they'll demand handouts; if she switches to handouts, they'll demand PowerPoint; if she uses PowerPoint, they'll demand that she record all her lectures and make them available online. Trust me on this--I visit a lot of classes and read a lot of course evaluations, and I rarely see a professor who does not frequently receive a request to "give better notes."

If I could give every student everywhere one small piece of advice, it would be this: Professors don't give notes; students take them.

Except when they don't.

This happens often: I'm standing in front of a class explaining in great detail some essential concept that I've written on the board, and then I casually mention that I would not be at all surprised to see this concept on an upcoming exam, and then I pause silently as two-thirds of my students dig deep into their voluminous backpacks to locate pen and paper so they can write down this essential concept while I stand there wondering why they haven't felt the need to write anything down before this point.

And you know those students who demand that important concepts appear on PowerPoint? I do that--not often, but a few times each semester I'll put together some interesting words and pictures to show in class and I even and pop the presentation into Moodle so students can review the information later on, but the nice thing about Moodle is that it provides usage details so I can see how many students ever go back to open that PowerPoint, and the numbers are pretty discouraging, suggesting that you can lead a frosh to PowerPoint but you can't make her think.

So for students who really want to succeed in challenging classes, I offer this advice: take notes! If the professor talks quickly, write quickly! If your writing muscles have become atrophied from disuse, practice! If you can't figure out which material is important, ask! In class! Or during office hours! Take some initiative--don't just sit there waiting for "notes" to fall out of the sky!

(I hope you've been taking notes on this. There's a quiz at the end.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Had a great fall

The sky cleared and the rain went away and the sun shone brightly and lo, it was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods with my birding-and-botanizing buddy and her new (and very well-behaved) dog, except the sudden onset of gorgeous weather inspired many other people to go walking in the woods with their dogs, which led to some tense moments. We saw trees on fire with fall color, geese tipping tails up in the pond as they ducked for supper, and berries glowing scarlet, coral, pink, and blue. (The blue berries grow on an invasive prickly vine imported from Asia; it grows up to six inches each day and is aptly named Mile-a-Minute Vine.)

We were so intent on looking up at all the loveliness when we should have been looking down that we each on separate occasions missed our footing and fell flat on our faces in the dirt. I'll be sore tomorrow but at the time I was more concerned about my camera, which hit the ground pretty hard. So far it seems to have escaped serious harm, as did my buddy when she turn her turn to slip. The only one to come through the hike unscathed was the dog. 


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Where's my getaway car?

A friend keeps sending me information about job openings elsewhere--jobs for which I am not remotely qualified, like directing a graduate program (when I've never even taught in a graduate program) or chairing a department of 60 faculty members (when the only department I've ever chaired topped out at 7).

I know she means well and I appreciate the help, but I like my job. I even love (certain parts of) it (most of the time). I don't want to even think about leaving my job. I fear, though, that my job may be leaving me--not that my department will be eliminated (unlikely) but that our role will change so drastically that I can no longer love what I do. 

But that doesn't mean I intend to start begging to do things for which I'm eminently unqualified.


I recently discovered, entirely by accident, that the official name for the color of my car is Hero Blue. I'm embarrassed to tell you how happy this made me. I'm still hopelessly in love with my car well past the normal honeymoon period, and discovering its heroic nature only makes me love it more. 


Lately I've been having nightmares nearly every night in which someone I love is lost or endangered and I'm frantically trying to go to the rescue, but I'm thwarted by the department store that grows into a labyrinth or the pesky injuries that make me fall on my face and claw my way desperately across the floor. I keep moving because if I stop, all will be lost. I know that if I keep trying, I'll reach the goal.

But then I wake up, which is a relief (she wasn't really lost!) but also a disturbance (how will I ever rescue her now?). 


A freshman student sits in my office, stoically absorbing the news that the paper he thought was just fine actually needs more work--much more work. He look impassive, shifts in his seat, acts as if he can't wait to get out of the room and cuss me out--but then, a sudden change: his eyes light up and he grins widely and says, "Mr. Hogue! I love Mr. Hogue!"

All it takes to lighten the atmosphere in my office is for one of my husband's former students to notice his photo on my desk. I long ago came to terms with the fact that he's way more popular than I am; whenever we go out to eat or go shopping, students of all ages will come running up and say, "Mr. Hogue! When are you coming back to teach my class?!" 

They love him--for good reasons. He shows up in class, spends a day or two teaching them interesting things, cracking jokes, and cracking the whip, and then he goes away to teach another class on the other end of the county. He makes learning fun, and he rarely has to deliver bad news about grades or writing skills or behavior problems. He's their hero.

(I'm not.)


When I look over the job postings in the Chronicle, I don't see many calls for heroes. I see few jobs in my field, all either entry-level or out of my league. This is a relief: if no suitable jobs exist out there, then I don't have to worry about applying. I'll just have to stay here and adapt to whatever happens in the decade before I can think about retiring, and if I can't love it, maybe I can learn to claw my way through it without too much grief.

But part of me keeps wondering when I'm going to wake up from this nightmare. 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Talking trash

"I get so jealous when you talk about garbage," said a student in my African-American Lit class this morning. Garbage wasn't even on the agenda today, but I made an off-hand comment about how the poem under discussion seemed to be exploring a landfill, which made one student groan and another grin and express the sentiment above.

Why? Because I've already announced that the theme of the senior capstone class I'm teaching next fall will be Garbage. Yes: I'll be teaching the trash class, teaching students to excavate literary landfills. Current juniors are puzzled over how they can possibly spend an entire semester considering garbage, and it doesn't do any good to quote A.R. Ammons ("Garbage is the poetry of our time") or mention how garbage ties together all levels of human culture in, for instance, Don DeLillo's Underworld and Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend--or, more recently, how discarded, neglected, and buried experiences can be retrieved from the trash heap of history to create new narratives, as in Ruth Ozeki's Tale for the Time Being.

Students also seem skeptical when I assert that the need to deal with garbage marks the essence of human culture: groups work together to assign meaning to stuff, placing every material thing, person, or experience on a continuum from "highly valued" to "worthless," and then they make adjustments when those values change. (That old broken-down butter churn is suddenly an expensive antique? Says who?) And of course we'll be dealing with language itself as a compost heap of buried meanings that decay and combine and nourish new growth. We'll read some texts and examine some Garbage Theory (yes!) and then I'll set the students loose on their own research into garbage in (or as) literature. 

I try not to bring up garbage too frequently but I can get a little passionate about the topic, so when garbage gets dumped into the conversation, students tend to roll their eyes and groan. A few, though, are envious. We take turns teaching the senior capstone and focus on very different topics, which is fun for the faculty members but not always for the students, who have no choice but to take the class  offered in their senior year. Some students find the prospect of spending a semester studying garbage unpalatable, but for the rest--let's get ready for some literary dumpster-diving!

Monday, October 13, 2014


While leading my Comedy class in a discussion of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, I tripped on Dromio's name and came out with Romeo, and then of course I had to riff a bit on whether Dromio and Romeo could exist in the same world. What would a mash-up of Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet look like? Would we see twice as many suicides or half as many beatings? Would Dr. Pinch and the Apothecary come to fisticuffs? Would the Abbess emerge at the end to reveal that Romeo and Juliet were actually her long-lost twins? Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?

I've grown accustomed to asking students to consider what separates comedy and tragedy and what happens when they overlap; lately, however, I've been struggling to recognize the distinction outside the classroom as well. I keep going to meetings in which I can't decide whether to laugh or cry or run screaming from the room, where I'm faced with incompatible options and impossible demands and I'm expected to make sense out of them. 

On the one hand I'm told to dream big and imagine a new, sparkly, unprecedented way to reconfigure this important program--the only limit is my imagination! But on the other hand, I'm supposed to figure out how to do more with less and imagine a world in which whole programs and perhaps departments disappear entirely. I keep hoping a deus ex machina will drop from the sky and provide a miraculous happy ending, but I fear we're heading instead for a stage covered with bloody bodies.

Is this play comedy or tragedy? Am I Dromio or Romeo? Dromio may take a few beatings, but he's always good for a laugh--and best of all, he's still breathing in the end.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Turning up the heat

Here's a quiz for all the husbands out there, or maybe I should say all the spouses or anyone sharing living quarters with a dearly beloved human being (animals not included):

When your beloved complains that it's really cold in the house, which response is acceptable?
a. "You're cold? I'll start a fire in the fireplace--and here, let me bring you some hot herbal tea."
b. "I'll bet we could find a way to warm each other up!"
c. "I'm not cold."
d. "Why don't you iron some shirts? That'll warm you up!"

I'm here to tell you that ironing shirts does indeed warm me up, but maybe not in the way my loving spouse intended. To be fair, he was out in the cold changing the oil in my car while I ironed--and he did start a fire in the fireplace--but it's useful to remember that the practical solution is not always the one most likely to promote marital harmony.

Let's face it: it's not easy being linked for life with someone whose internal thermostat runs counter to my own. If I'm comfortable, he's sweating; if he's comfortable, I'm buried under sweaters and blankets and thick wool socks, or else I'm finding alternative methods to stay warm:

Chop some veggies,
clean some rugs,
fold some laundry,
share some hugs.
Drink hot cocoa,
dim the lights,
burrow in blankets
and snuggle tight.

(Or if all else fails, I can always get caught up on the ironing.)

Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

How doing more leads to doing less

In a post called "Do More" (see it here), Bardiac describes the common dilemma of faculty members facing falling enrollments and rising budget deficits: the administration tries to solve the problem by making faculty work harder, dumping on our heads the responsibility for attracting and retaining students while also reducing access to the resources we need to do our jobs.

I've come to the conclusion lately (and if you need proof, look at this post) that I am simply not capable of working any harder than I currently do. My body won't take any more long hours over the computer and my brain is being reduced to mush by huge steaming masses of pettifogging paperwork, contentious committee service, and the often irrational demands of underprepared students. Fortunately, an administrator assured me--to my face!--that budget cuts will not affect workloads in my department. 

And then they raised course caps in freshman writing courses.

Granted, that's only an extra two students per class, but that's two more drafts needing detailed responses and two more papers to grade for each assignment and two more needy and underprepared students requiring one-on-one assistance during office hours, multiplied by however many sections of freshman writing we happen to teach.

At the same time we're dealing with the administration's desire to cancel underenrolled courses, which in my department tend to be upper-level literature classes, but since our majors need those classes in order to graduate, we are pressured to teach those cancelled classes as independent studies--which amounts to an uncompensated overload.

Something's got to give, and in my case all the options have significant drawbacks:

I could require less writing in all my classes and switch to less labor-intensive methods of assessing student learning, like multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a Scantron machine. Less work for me, less feedback for the students, more opportunities for cheating, fewer opportunities for students to develop their writing, critical thinking, and literary analysis skills. And let's just put some blunt truths out there: teaching writing is the best thing I do and I'm pretty darn good at it, and it would be a shame to cut students off from the opportunity to benefit from my skills.

Alternately, I could cut down on the things I do besides teaching: committee work, service to the department, research and writing and publishing and conference presentations. I don't need to worry about how this might affect my annual reviews since I'm a full professor and there are no more rungs to climb on the ladder, and I know my colleagues are perfectly capable of taking care of campus business without my input. 

But if we are all expected to "do more" with more students, then we will all have less time available for work outside the classroom, and who will chair those important committees then? If we're up to our eyeballs in papers to grade from larger classes, who will come to campus on a Saturday morning to meet with prospective students during admissions events? Who will write program reviews and assessment reports? Who will do the extra work required to teach learning communities and first-year experience courses and capstones and other labor-intensive classes?

As for research and writing and publishing, I'm already astounded at how much my colleagues manage to do despite our heavy teaching load, but making that load even heavier is not going to encourage further professional development. Will we have to change our expectations for tenure and promotion? How will that change affect the college's academic reputation and its ability to attract and retain high-quality faculty members?

The letter granting me promotion to Professor reminds me that senior members of the faculty are "expected to provide the administration with wise counsel." My wise counsel is this: faculty members are not teaching machines but human beings; if you keep piling work on our backs, eventually we're going to break.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The slow rise of Fall

Hopeful leads the way up the big horrible hill, stopping periodically to look back and check on whether I'm still following, which I am--slowly. 

Why so slow? Well, I'm carrying the camera and I keep getting distracted by glimpses of marvelous things through the trees: a pileated woodpecker and a blue heron, steam rising from round bales, colorful leaves that light up the woods. The trees here are not as brilliantly colorful as those I saw two hours north over the weekend, but they're well on the way. The paw-paws are earning their keep by creating vast swaths of brilliant yellow in the woods, compensating for their refusal to produce fruit this year. (I blame the Easter weekend freeze that decimated fruit trees across the state.)

This is the last day of my fall break and I had really hoped to get the canoe out on the water one last time, but the weather did not cooperate, assaulting us with wind, sleet, rain, and the kind of wet cold that inspires us to put a fire in the fireplace and a mess of chili in the crock-pot. Now that the rain has stopped, I've taken a break from grading to see the fall trees lighting up the woods with color. Tomorrow I'll get back to campus and start slogging on up a hill of committee work and teaching, but today I'm happy to follow Hopeful wherever she cares to lead. 

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Next stop: Xanadu

I dreamed I was writing this amazing collection of interconnected short stories, a work certain to delight readers and illuminate the human condition as never before, and when, in my half-awake state, I decided to write the whole thing down immediately, I forgot that I wasn't at home, got up on the wrong side of the bed, kicked a piece of furniture that would not have been there if I'd been in my own room, and promptly forgot everything I'd been writing in my dream except for the name of one character: Vilma.

Coleridge dreamed up Kubla Khan; I dreamed up Vilma. Now what am I going to do with her?


Friday, October 03, 2014

Butts in the seats, minds on the highway

My students are writing an essay exam and I ought to be grading papers but my  mind is already racing down the highway to my daughter and son-in-law's house where I'll spend the weekend having a blast with my adorable granddaughter, so I'm torn. On the one hand, fall break is upon us so I'm breaking free to spend four days doing anything other than teaching; on the other hand, midterm grades are due soon and at the end of today I'll have five sets of papers or exams to grade. This calls for some doggerel:

There was an old prof who neglected
to grade, although students expected

their grades to appear.

By the end of the year,
the prof's "employed" state stood corrected.

(So yeah, I guess I'd better grade those papers.)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Who's winning the cheating-aids arms race?

A YouTube video shows students how to conceal a tiny cheat-sheet in an altered pen (here), and another shows how to write answers on a stretched-out rubber band (here). Need a downloadable image of a water-bottle label you can use to conceal answers? The owner of a site where you can easily download an editable water-bottle label (here) insists that he does not "condone cheating" in any way, but he's providing this cheating method as a public service to those who do not share his commitment to integrity.

Before I attended a workshop on cheating, I knew about many of these methods along with some other old-fashioned, tried-and-true methods like writing notes on a wrist, a shirt, a shoe, a desk. I wasn't aware that students who nervously tap pencils on their desks during exams might actually be employing elaborate codes to share answers (here), and my students don't wear watches anymore so I don't really worry about a clever method of concealing notes on a watch-face (here). 

What really shocked me were new methods of employing technology to enable elaborate cheating schemes. Students can use a tiny camera hidden within a pen (here) or a necktie (here) to take pictures of test questions, transmit them to a conspirator outside the classroom, and then receive answers through a tiny hidden earpiece. A website that sells these earpieces (here) offers a warning to customers:

Most students cheating exam behave like crazy--they look at the professor all the time or make much noise. The reason is their nervousness, but that's what unmasks them in the majority of cases. So cheating exam with a secret earpiece remember the main rule--to be patient and to behave like a student who have learned the subject by heart and has nothing to hide.
Alternatively, a student could actually become a student who has learned the subject and has nothing to hide, but that's apparently too much work.

I don't know what to do about the burgeoning cheating-aid industry. I've required students to hand over their cell phones before an exam and I've prohibited bathroom breaks (to thwart the old low-tech "hide the textbook in the bathroom" method), but apparently I need to take away pens, pencils, paper, watches, ties, and water bottles--and I fear that the day is coming when we'll have to strip-search students to make sure they're not smuggling in cheating aids. I heartily agree with something a colleague said at the cheating workshop: "I don't want to see my students naked."

Students' naked desire to get the grade supports the cheating-aid industry, but I despair of ever winning this arms race. I do what I can to discourage cheating by changing questions, writing alternate versions of an exam, and relying on questions that resist easy cheating. This means no multiple choice or one-word responses and lots of essay questions and application questions that require students to explain how a particular concept or technique functions in a particular literary work--questions that are time-consuming and difficult to grade but certainly preferable to strip-searching students.

Despite my best efforts, I know cheating happens. I detect a few cases each year, but I worry that cheaters are like cockroaches: for every cockroach you kill, hundreds more remain undetected. But I can't treat my students the way I treat cockroaches, spraying them all with the same toxic mist of distrust. I head into midterm exams this week trusting that my students will do the honorable thing and behave like students who have learned the material and have nothing to hide, and I hope and trust that that behavior is not just a facade. 

But I'll keep my eyes and ears open just in case.