Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy accidents in the Comedy class

I conducted an experiment in the Comedy class this semester and I wasn't sure whether to call it a success until I sat down to grade this pile of reading quizzes I've been avoiding since last Monday. The truth is in the quizzing, and this time it's a happy truth: they got it--they really got it.

The experiment arose accidentally while I was assembling the reading list: because we had Sherman Alexie coming to campus this fall, I wanted students to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is much shorter than the novel I used last time I taught the class, so I ended up with a week's worth of class sessions with no reading assignments. I recalled the most common complaints from students last time I taught the class: "This isn't funny--when can we read something we like?"

I wondered what would happen if I gave the students a chance to choose some readings--but I wouldn't want to hand the entire semester over to them because I feared they would delete Don Quijote in favor of "Mean Tweets."

But why not give them a few days? I left those days blank on the syllabus and asked students to submit short readings or brief audio or video clips (no more than 5 minutes), which I then arranged into a reasonable order and posted on the course management system. On the days devoted to those readings and clips, students had to explain what principles of comedy were illustrated by their submissions. 

I feared that I'd have to deal with a pile of obscene video clips or lame Facebook memes, but no: they came through with an eclectic and interesting variety of material. We watched some Mean Tweets, but we also read an excerpt from Jonathan Tropper's novel This Is Where I Leave You, watched Chris Farley parody motivational speakers, laughed as Steve Carell drove a car into a lake (because his gps told him to), listened to Uncle Ruckus explain what slavery was really like, and sang along to the Angry Browns Fans' Christmas Album. It was an absolute hoot.

But did we learn anything? The quizzes I've just graded asked students to return to a principle we discussed in the first week of the semester--"A shared joke is a shared world"--and write about what sort of shared world two of the student submissions suggested. And you know what? They did great. They correctly employed analytical vocabulary we've been developing all semester long, and they demonstrated critical thinking skills as they examined the values conveyed by various submissions. 

I worry a lot about that class, because most of the students are taking it for General Education credit and aren't terribly committed to literary analysis. Will they take away any useful skills or concepts, or will they forget everything the minute they see that little L on their transcripts? This assignment suggests that if nothing else, they can think critically about the comedy they encounter in their everyday lives. 

Also, if the gps says drive into the lake, don't.

Friday, November 28, 2014

My kind of snow day

Long before dawn I was lying in bed when I heard the distinct sound of a snowplow scraping down the road--and then, a few minutes later, going back the other way--and I knew right away that this would be a good day. And lo, it came to pass that by midmorning this puffy pink snow-bunny was helping me pull her sled up a slight hill and then sliding down with a "whee!" And when our cheeks had turned rosy and our mittens were crusted with snow-clumps, we went inside for cookies and milk and some fun piano time with Grampa.
What am I thankful for this year? It's hard to count that high with mittens on. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Relaxing before Thanksgiving--a command performance

In the few weeks since I last saw her, my granddaughter has mastered the imperative mood. "Dump it!" she says, and then she grabs the bin of toys and dumps it. "Read book!" she says, and I read her a book. "Cookie--want it!" she says, and I give her a cookie. That's what grandma is for--or, rather, Gamma, which is what she calls me. I am happy to be that Greek letter.

This morning we colored pictures, played peek-a-boo, and wandered out in the cold to visit the neighbors' chickens, which is a lot more fun than anything I've done on campus lately. At sushi lunch she begged for chopsticks to mimic the rest of us, but it turns out that stabbing sticky rice with a chopstick is not the most efficient way to get it to your mouth.

But that's okay. Save a few skills to learn later, right? And while she's learning to master her world, she provides plenty of free entertainment for the rest of us. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Abandoning the lookout post

Five years ago this week, after I'd finished my final chemotherapy session, I asked my oncologist what to expect next and he said, "We watch you." And he has: through five years of periodic CT scans, blood tests, and checkups, he's faithfully manned the lookout post to watch for any hint that those nasty little cancer cells might be massing for invasion, but today we're done watching. Last week's tests came up totally clear, so I don't need to do any more follow-ups. As much as I appreciate my wonderful oncologist, I'm hoping that I never have to see him again--professionally, anyway. Time to close up the lookout post and head on home happily because all the watching is over.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

But whose failure is it?

Grading a pile of freshman papers at this point in the semester really should not make me feel like a complete and utter failure as a human being. After all, a few of the papers demonstrate an impressive ability to appeal to readers, assemble an argument, and employ evidence effectively to support that argument, and a few others reveal significant improvement in writing skills. I ought to focus on those instead of the others.

Oh, the others.

You don't want to know about the others.

Did they badly paraphrase whole paragraphs from sources and then tack on the barest hint of a citation at the end? Yes they did.

Did they copy and paste from an online source without even bothering to change the font so that the copied material fairly screams "Search me!"? You know they did.

Did they mangle their in-text citations and Works Cited listings in so many incomprehensible ways that it's virtually impossible to detect which source is actually being referred to at any given moment? Of course they did.

Did they upload the wrong paper to the course management system? Don't even get me started.

This isn't even the final paper of the semester; these students have one more opportunity to prove to me that all the work we've been doing all semester long has actually made some sort of impact on their skills. Maybe it's not too late! Maybe they'll all spend Thanksgiving break working extra-hard to make sure the final paper is a resounding success!

And maybe I've got cranberry sauce where my brains should be. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

It's not just Friday--it's Penultimate Friday!

Any professor on campus can tell you exactly how many Monday classes remain on the schedule before finals week and exactly how many student assignments we'll need to grade before it's all over and exactly how many long horrible meetings stand between us and sanity, and it makes us a little giddy. Today, for instance, is Penultimate Friday: since we have next Friday off for Thanksgiving break, today's classes are the second-to-last Friday classes I'll teach before finals. This calls for a celebration!

When we proffies go a-stumbling
'cross the campus in a daze
all distracted and a-mumbling,
"Just a few more bleeping days,"

When the steaming stacks of papers
fill our minds with undelight
but we cheer and cut fine capers
when one student learns to cite,

When the calendar confronts us
with its dwindling stock of days,
then we pray for no more dunces
in our Penultimate Friday way.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A question for the Plagiarism Police

Here's the situation: The paper is due tomorrow and you've already read and responded to student drafts a week ago. A student whose draft was barely there asks you to look over another draft just in case he missed anything. You quickly skim his draft, note tremendous improvement except for a few format and grammar problems, and then get the sinking feeling that part of this work was copied and pasted from somewhere else. How do you respond?

1. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and tell the student he's getting an F on the paper and you're writing him up for plagiarism.

2. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and warn the student that he'd better rewrite the plagiarized sections before submitting the paper for grading.

3. Send the student an e-mail (paper trail!) reminding him of the importance of properly punctuating and citing sources and suggesting that if he has unintentionally (!) copied and pasted from online sources without proper punctuation and citation, he will get an F on the paper. Then Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and wait for the student to submit the paper for grading so you can pounce on the plagiarized passages and give him his well-deserved F.

Some sub-points to consider:
a. Would the level of the course affect your answer? (First-year vs. sophomore vs. upper-level?)
b. Would the time of year affect your answer? (First major assignment vs. final paper?)
c. Would your previous experience with the student affect your answer? (Reliable but rushed student vs. committed slacker?)

I know how I would deal with this because I've just done one of these three things this week, but one of the occupational hazards of thinking for a living is that I never stop second-guessing myself. So let me know what you would do and then I'll share what I actually did.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just laying the line

We've reached my favorite part of the African-American Literature syllabus--Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days--and this morning we considered what an ordinary working person has to do to become a mythic hero. Why, for instance, isn't anyone writing a song about Dr. Hogue, the mythic English professor?

"Because she didn't die with a red pen in her hand" is the obvious answer, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve a folk song. I work my brain at least as hard as John Henry worked his body, so where's my statue? Where's my legend? Where's my postage stamp? Who will write the song about the thesis-driving woman drilling holes into mountains of prose to let the train of truth steam on through?

"It's only heroic if you die doing it," said a student, and that's one of the central paradoxes of Whitehead's novel. His main character, J., recalls seeing a filmstrip on the John Henry myth back in elementary school and wishes he could have asked his teacher a question: "Mrs. Goodwin, why did he have to die in the end? Mrs. Goodwin, if he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?"

I ask myself sometimes whether I'm winning or losing. I drill right through one mountain of papers and another rises up to take its place, so it's hard to see whether I'm getting any closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. If the entire mountain collapses and buries me, will anyone even notice?

Days like today, though, I've shoved the mountain aside to spend some time discussing fascinating literature with students eager to play with ideas. It may not be the stuff of myth, but all the same, it feels like winning.

Monday, November 17, 2014

But where are the ping-pong balls?

It's not every day that the college president name-checks Captain Kangaroo at a faculty meeting, but on a Monday full of odd moments, that one was just the tip of the oddness iceberg. 

There was the extremely large man with earbuds in his ears who fell asleep in his chair in the waiting room at the hospital so that this petite young woman in a scrubs who came to fetch him for his tests had to find a way to wake him up: pull out the earbuds so he can hear or just poke him? What part of an extremely large stranger's anatomy would you poke to wake him up if you didn't want to startle him into falling off his chair or injuring someone? 

And then another young woman in scrubs told me she always gets the needle in right the first time but left me with THREE separate bruises on two different arms, for an average of 1.5 bruises per arm. "You'll feel a little stick," she said just before she drove a needle right through my vein and out the other side. "Is it still hurting?" she asked. "It shouldn't still be hurting." Eight hours later, it's still hurting.

There was the sudden blinding snow that made my six-block drive from the hospital to campus treacherous and persuaded me to leave my umbrella in the car so that I was totally unprepared just seconds later when the snow turned to big fat cold raindrops. 

Then there was the first-year student who e-mailed me to insist that he doesn't need to use any sources for his research paper because he's writing about a topic he knows so well that he doesn't need sources. I've heard a lot of amazing excuses from students but I think this is the first time a freshperson has claimed to be the world's expert on a complex problem of contemporary life. Clearly someone doesn't understand the assignment.

Then the meeting in which we reviewed survey data showing that our students claim that they're not writing drafts (on what planet?) and they're not doing the reading (no surprise) and they're not talking to other students outside of class (what?) so it's no surprise that they claim to rarely learn to think differently about anything.

And then the other meeting--the one that invoked the name of Captain Kangaroo, whose gentle antics would probably appear moronic to the Sesame Street generation. I loved Captain Kangaroo! And I loved Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear and especially Mr. Moose, who made ping-pong balls fall from the ceiling for no apparent reason. I don't recall ever wondering whether some ordinary guy might be manipulating those puppets just out of sight, but apparently there was such a guy name Cosmo Allegretti, and I would love him just for having such a great name and for being Mr. Moose if I hadn't just learned that he, sadly, died just about a year ago but not before arranging a generous bequest to his alma mater, which would be the college where I teach.

Mr. Moose saves the day! It just doesn't get any odder than that. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The secret lives of college professors

After the reading, one of my first-year students bounced up all bubbly and said, "Dr. Hogue! That was great! I didn't know you could write!"

It was intended as a compliment and I took it that way, but that last line rankles a bit. Didn't know I could WRITE?!! Writing is who I am. Writing is what I do. But I suppose I can't blame a student who has seen my writing only in the margins of papers, where's it's not easy to wax poetic:

This comma splice
just isn't nice.
Don't make me read
this sentence twice.

To make a splash,
please use a dash.

I was of three minds,
like a sentence
in which there are three verb tenses.

No, my marginal comments are too blunt and fragmentary to sound at all lyrical; they're less like poetry than like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The same must be true of my colleague the poet who is diligently trying to teach my Sports Lit students how to write coherent sentences. Last week one of our shared students said, "I didn't know Dr. A was a poet!" And I had to point out that he's not just a poet but an excellent poet whose work appeared in the Best American Poetry 2013 anthology. Didn't know he was a POET?!!

I suppose it's difficult for students to see us as more than critics of their writing, correctors of their errors, but maybe that's our fault. Last night at the end of the student reading sponsored by the English Department, after students had shared their essays and short fiction and poetry, three of us who teach creative writing classes shared short works of our own, something we haven't done in quite some time. I always enjoy hearing my colleagues' work, but most of all I enjoy showing students that we who teach writing actually know a thing or two about how language works. 

But the glow of the spotlight won't last. Today I face a pile of student drafts, and as much as I'd like to, I can't possibly pour vast amounts of creativity into marginal comments:

The apparition of a thesis in the intro--
Pablum on a wet, black void.

Whose words these are I think I know;
Their house is Wikipedia, so
You will not see me reading more.
I'll just write down an F and go.

Nah, not a writer. Not a writer at all. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Salad, she wrote

"Commas are the plastic wrap that divide one package of pre-washed salad greens from another....Cutting up our food, they infantilize us."

So said Gordon C.F. Bearn last night in a lecture on "Punctuation in Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein: Legacies of William James, MD." Bearn, a philosophy professor at Lehigh University, was referring to Stein's attitude toward punctuation when he took us all on a mental excursion to the produce department. 

Stein, of course, died too soon to welcome the era of pre-wrapped, pre-washed salad greens, but one wonders how warmly she would have welcomed that innovation. Salad, she wrote, is "a winning cake," but that doesn't tell us whether the cake should be constructed from a head of iceberg, a leaf of romaine, or a bag of spring greens. 

(No word on Wittgenstein's views on the topic.)  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What I would write in the Permanent Record

A Permanent Record! That's what I need--for my students.

Remember back in elementary school when teachers threatened that if you misbehaved you'd earn a black mark in your Permanent Record? I pictured horrified teachers and principals hovering over a manila folder in which was written, in bleeding red ink, "Runs with scissors!" The fear of earning a permanent blot on the Permanent Record discouraged many a schoolchild from committing acts of mayhem.

Why don't college students have a Permanent Record? Of course we keep records on their academic progress and infractions of the student code, but those records are scattered amongst various offices and collect only limited types of data--and, moreover, those records are hardly permanent. I'd like a Permanent Record that haunts a student forever. 

Picture this: the student has applied for his dream job, the job that would make his heart sing, his bank account burgeon, and his student loans vanish overnight, and he's reached the final stage in the screening process when the interviewer says, "Let's take a look at your Permanent Record. says here you're an expert at manipulating other students to do the lion's share in group work but that you always manage to take the credit. Just the person we need in this office! Welcome, brother!"

Okay, that didn't go the way I'd expected. What if potential girlfriends could check a guy's Permanent Record before agreeing to take the relationship to the next level? "It says here that you're an arrogant prick. No news to me. Your place or mine?"

Again, not the result I was looking for. Suppose our student is in the final stages of applying for a mortgage for his first house but before he can sign on the dotted line, the loan officer checks his Permanent Record: "I see that you generally perform the minimal amount of work necessary to earn a passing grade, turning assignments in at the last possible moment and barely squeaking through difficult classes. Sounds like a guy who can get his mortgage payments in on time! We're good to go!"

Well, okay, but eventually this slacker will end up at the Pearly Gates and Saint Peter will gaze down at his Permanent Record and say, "I see that you once admitted to your academic advisor that it didn't matter what classes you took as long as you remained eligible for financial aid." And then Peter will sigh, rub his forehead, and say, "I'm sorry, but rules are rules. I don't want to let you through the gates, but you've earned just enough heavenly credits to remain eligible, so in you go!"

Maybe a Permanent Record isn't such a great idea after all.     

Saturday, November 08, 2014

You're not getting older, you're getting--oh wait, you are getting older after all!

A student pointed to a phrase in a reading assignment--je ne sais quoi--and asked me what it meant. I performed an exaggerated Gallic shrug and said, "I don't know what."

"Well, okay, then I guess I can look it up."

It took a little while to unravel that misunderstanding, the latest in a long line of misunderstandings in my classes, most of which remind me of the ever-increasing age gap between myself and my students. Here are some things my students found utterly unfamiliar in recent classes:

The Cold War.

"Fran" as a unisex name. (The fact that my parents are Francis and Frances may make me especially sensitive to this issue, but seriously: they've never heard of a woman named Fran before?) 

Chuck Yeager (despite the fact that his name is attached to an airport just down the highway).

The fact that The Godfather was a book before it was a movie.



Logical Positivist.

Sang froid.


"Not with a bang but a whimper."

And that's how I'll go out one day, carrying immense amounts of increasingly irrelevant knowledge in my woefully overcrowded brain.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Minimal effort, minimal reward

Sometimes I feel the need to unleash a harangue and let it run around the classroom for a little while before locking it securely back in its cage. Today's harangue went something like this:

If you were taking a multiple-choice math test and realized that all you needed to do to pass was to get 60 out of 100 answers correct, would you answer 60 questions and then put down your pen? Probably not, but let's say you did that and got all 60 questions right. Congratulations! You've done the minimum you needed to do to pass! Enjoy your D-!

But if doing the minimum required to pass the math test earns a D-, why do you assume that doing the minimum required to complete a writing assignment should earn an A--or, at the very least, a B+? If the assignment requires at least three reputable sources and you use exactly three reputable sources but still don't have enough evidence to support your claims, you may be disappointed to find a D- at the top of your paper. But don't come crying to me about the injustice of it all. If you do minimal work, you'll get a minimal grade. Enjoy your D-!

Now let's corral that harangue and lock him back in the cage. We wouldn't want him to get loose and wreak havoc all over campus. Watch out--he bites!

Vogons invade my classroom!

I'm trying to make my Concepts of Comedy students think about the human condition but they sit there staring blankly at my well-conceived questions, so it's time to bring some Vogonity into the classroom. No, I'm not planning to read them any Vogon poetry, but I'm giving them some group work with questions like these:

1. The Vogons are coming! The Vogons are coming!
Those repellant aliens want to destroy Earth to make room for an interstellar bypass. Fortunately, you have penetrated the Vogons’ massive bureaucratic labyrinth and you now wait in line to submit a form claiming that the human race is worth preserving—however, only one type of evidence is admissible. Argue that the human race is worth preserving based entirely on evidence from Fran Lebowitz's "Better Read than Dead" and Woody Allen's "A Look at Organized Crime."

2. Greetings, Vogons!
You’re just trying to do your job, clearing away an insignificant little planet called Earth to make room for an interstellar bypass, but those pesky little Earthlings have filed documents claiming that the human race is worth preserving. You could just read them some Vogon poetry and drive them all to suicide, but instead you employ the vast labyrinthine Vogon bureaucracy to reject their claims for sound reasons. Demonstrate that the human race is worthy of destruction based entirely on evidence from Tom Wolfe's "The Secret Vice" and Ian Frazier's "Laws Concerning Food and Drink." 

Will my students step up to the challenge? Will they recognize the Vogon reference or sit there scratching their heads? Does it matter? Only time will tell. Ask me tomorrow after class.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

You've come a long way, baby!

From "The Secret Life of James Thurber":
My own earliest memory is of accompanying my father to a polling booth in Columbus, Ohio, where he voted for William McKinley. It was a drab and somewhat battered tin shed set on wheels, and it was filled with guffawing men and cigar smoke....A fat, jolly man dandled me on his knee and said I would soon be old enough to vote against William Jennings Bryan. I thought he meant that I could push a folded piece of paper into the slot of the padlocked box as soon as my father was finished. When this turned out not to be the true, I had to be carried out of the place kicking and screaming.
This morning just after 7:00 I found my polling place's parking lot crowded with pickup trucks and the interior surprisingly busy. Neighbors were greeting each other and some laughter may have bubbled up, but I saw no overt politicking, no guffawing men smoking cigars. All the precinct workers were women of a certain age; I was the only female voter in the place, but it was early and I'm sure more will follow. I pushed a piece of paper through a slot in a padlocked ballot scanner, but only after a card reader scanned my driver's license and I signed my name on an electronic pad. Best of all, no one was carried in or out kicking and screaming. 

(That comes later, after the results are released.)

Monday, November 03, 2014

(And I feel fine)

I drove to work suffering from a particularly persistent earworm, a hymn we've sung in church two Sundays straight and it's a catchy enough tune but I keep obsessing over the grammatical error in the third verse and of course that's the part that keeps running through my head (and I keep wondering whether my recurring earworm problem is another of those incipient signs of total mental collapse due to aging), so I try the universal earworm cure--humming "Bohemian Rhapsody"--but even that isn't strong enough to send the ungrammatical hymn-writer to certain doom, so finally I'm getting ready to introduce my comedy students to a series of poems making light of The End of the World as We Know It and I decide to open class with this R.E.M. video, which drives out the ungrammatical hymn tune and sends me out of class with a spring in my step even after discussing The End of the World as We Know It, and you know what? I feel fine.