Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Avian abecedarian

White ibis
Roseate spoonbills
Roseate spoonbill
Little blue heron
Anhinga, avocet, bald eagle, black vulture, black-billed cuckoo, coot, cormorant, great egret, snowy egret, white egret, reddish egret, great blue heron, little blue heron, tricolor heron, green heron, white ibis, glossy ibis, northern shoveler, roseate spoonbill, white pelican, wood stork...I'm sure I'm forgetting someone important. While our Florida vacation has been full of delights, nothing has made me happier than communing with roseate spoonbills.
Reddish egret!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Whose toys are they anyway?

Kinetic sand--ooh, neat!

Who's having more fun with the stickers?
People ask me sometimes why I keep toys in my office. Do I study them? (No.) Do I keep them around in case a small child visits my office? (That might be the official reason, but unofficially, no.) Do I use them to distract students from despair over a B-minus? (While I do encourage students to give the Potato-Heads makeovers, no again.)

Why do I keep Mr. Potato Head in my office? And why the little Bugs Bunny bendy figure and Buzz Lightyear and a Slinky and a miniature Etch-A-Sketch? 

Because I like them, that's why. I realize that I long ago reached the age when unironic admiration of plastic bendy figures becomes unacceptable, but I'm not ashamed to say that I still like toys.

And I'm not the only one. On Christmas Day seven adults gathered to watch my granddaughter open her presents, and at some point during the day each one of those adults ended up on the floor playing with toys. The pink kinetic sand was quite popular, but the magnetic building blocks were a big hit as well, and I certainly succumbed to the charm of the moveable magnetic barnyard-animal stickers.

It wasn't purely child's play, either. You could just about see the gears working in my granddaughter's head as she experimented with the properties of kinetic sand, but the adults had to find more formal answers: What is it made of? Why does it behave that way? Let's look it up! And suddenly we were engaged in a lively holiday discussion of non-Newtonian solids whilst squishing slimy pink goo between our fingers.

Sure, toys are educational, and we can pat ourselves on the back for buying things that encourage inquiry and creative play. But the main reason to keep toys handy is much simpler: I like toys.

And maybe that's why it's so much fun to have small children around: they give me a guilt-free excuse to get down on the floor and play. 


Friday, December 26, 2014

A candle in the darkness

It was a dark and stormy night. 

No, really--it was a very dark night made much darker by a small localized power outage so that our little country church sat nearly invisible next to a pitch-black parking area where parishioners, most of them elderly, would soon be arriving for the Christmas Eve service. How would we get everyone into the church without any broken hips? And how would we sing without lights to illuminate the hymnals?

In the beginning there were flashlights, many of them. You'd be surprised how many people carry tiny flashlights on their key-rings or larger ones in their cars. The flashlights helped everyone find their way to the sanctuary, which we lit up with as many candles as we could find (probably violating some kind of fire code). Everyone kept their coats on and huddled close together to share their warmth and light, which wasn't entirely necessary since everyone knows most of the common Christmas carols by heart.

A parishioner led the singing to spare the pastor's voice, which was barely there. He kept the message short--a brief reminder about the importance of sharing the light--and then closed with a prayer that was dramatically punctuated by a sudden violent swoosh of thunder and lightning, rain battering the windows and wind gusts blowing around anything that wasn't nailed down.

And then it was over. Those with flashlights guided the rest while a few of us blew out all the candles, one by one--except for the light we carried inside, a light that can't be extinguished by a dark and stormy night.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Unhelpful hints

For a week we've been tormenting my husband about his big birthday surprise. All he knew was that he had to keep the whole day clear, but when he asked other questions, we kept offering tantalizing hints: "You'll need some scuba gear. And an elephant gun. And a yak. And a badminton racket. Oh, and you'd better find some ballet slippers in your size."

When the day came, though, he found everything he needed in an envelope from our son: two tickets to a professional hockey game--tonight! The Columbus Blue Jackets are having a pretty exciting season, so off they'll go to cheer them on. 

And the best part? No ballet slippers required.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Ho-ho-ho holiday links

Because we all need a little a little distraction during that too-brief hiatus between turning in the final grades and reading our course evaluations:

Do you have a burning need to eat toast displaying your own image? How about some practice doing acupuncture on a plastic pig? Dave Barry can tell you where to get them (here).

In "The Regift of the Magi," the Three Wise Men becomes the Three Suspicious Loiterers (here).

Robbing Frosty's grave in "Climate-Change Christmas Carols" (here).

Was that the sound of failure or the sound of learning? An interview with Adam Savage of Mythbusters (here).

Gift suggestions: every English professor--or any kind of professor--on your gift list needs some of these "Citation Needed" stickers from xkcd (here). Except there aren't enough of these in the world to meet the needs of our students.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Giving a ghost the old heave-ho

At the stroke of midnight the Ghost of Christmas Past barged into my room and shoved a sheaf of legal papers into my face.

"What's this?" I asked.

"I thought we had an agreement!" she growled, wiping drops of sweat from a faintly mustachioed upper lip. "It says right here on the contract: You give your heart and soul to make Christmas beautiful for everyone, no matter the cost, and I don't have to come here during the busy holiday season and harangue you in the middle of the night."

I rolled my eyes. "Been there, done that," I said. "Now go away and let me sleep."

"Just a cotton-picking minute," she said. "You may have done amazing things in the past--"

"May have?" I asked. "Since when is baking 14 dozen cookies 'may have'? And what about the year I sewed a dozen costumes for the children's Christmas program and successfully wrapped both a sandbox and a wheelbarrow?"

"Yeah yeah whatever, next you'll go on and on about all those Christmas letters with their cutesy little family photos--and by the way, while we're on the subject, why didn't you write a Christmas letter this year? Why no outdoor lights on the house? Why no cookies in tins all over the kitchen? And what's with all those orders for gift baskets from Harry and David?"

"I'm tired."

"Tired? You don't know from tired. Try knocking on the door of every Scrooge on the planet and listening to his whinging--'Everyone else got to spend Christmas with their families but I had to stay in the schoolroom by myself'--Whah whah whah. Tired is no excuse."

"But I've been sick! And busy! And no one reads those stupid letters--hey, stop that!"

She'd rolled up the sheaf of papers and bonked me on the nose--hard. "Stupid? You don't know from stupid. Try looking into a magic hat and seeing all these sickly-sweet holiday scenes in soft focus while panpipes play gently in the background. It's enough to turn your stomach."

"So why do it?"

"Because it's Christmas! And if you can't send sentimental slop to your friends and loved ones at Christmas, when are you going to do it?"

I had to admit that she had a point. Suddenly scenes from past Christmases flashed before my eyes in soft focus, with panpipes playing: the hours spent stirring fudge on the stove, licking envelopes, baking little loaves of cranberry nut bread for my colleagues, rolling and cutting and baking and frosting cookies, sewing matching holiday outfits for the children, sending my friends and loved ones gifts hand-made with love. Surveying the vast landscape of Christmases past filled me with warm feelings of love and joy followed by the intense desire to kick my past self firmly in the shins and yell "Stop! You're setting the bar too high! One day you won't have the energy to do all this and you'll spend the entire holiday season feeling guilty!"

But it turns out that making physical contact with a past version of yourself makes time go all wibbly-wobbly. Something fizzled like a small appliance shorting out and when the smoke cleared, I was alone. The Ghost of Christmas Past had disappeared, leaving behind only the faint scent of flatulence. (I blame the figgy pudding.)

I'd like to say that the visit from the Ghost left me a better, stronger, more generous person, but I would be lying. I was snoring within minutes, and while it's true that visions of sugarplums were dancing in my head, I took comfort in knowing that if any real sugarplums were to end up at my house, someone else would have to make them.

Monday, December 15, 2014

An open letter to a very bad cold

Dear nasty little microbes currently colonizing my lungs,

I really owe you a big round of applause: you've avoided the Forbidden Zone for the entire semester. Thanks to your admirable self-control, I didn't miss a single class session because of illness for 15 weeks, and I was able to enjoy concerts and meetings without causing a ruckus with my coughing.

But all that changed last week when you decided that it was time to mobilize. Thanks to your efficiency, I went from glowing good health to Total Sinus Impaction overnight, and then you started invading my lungs.

I have to admire your sense of timing. After all, it doesn't really matter if I'm up all night coughing right now since I don't have any classes to teach in the morning, and I'm fully capable of plodding through piles of final papers despite that annoying tickle in the back of my throat. If I occasionally have to stop to cough up a bit of lung, it only makes me appreciate my decision to accept final papers electronically--at least my violent coughing fits aren't propelling nastiness all over my students' papers.

It's possible that the cough-syrup-and-antihistamine haze may affect my clarity of thought, but grading slowly and deliberately seems to offset that problem. Of course, you've slowed me down enough to make the grading stretch over an entire weekend that I'd hoped to devote to other things, but I persevered through the coughing and the grading is now done. 

Now it's time to get started on the Eight Million Things I Need to Do before Christmas list, but here's the thing: I can't breathe. Well, okay, that's an exaggeration; most of the time I can breathe pretty well, but when a coughing fit hits, I'm pretty much incapacitated--I can't even keep my eyes open, which pretty much rules out driving anywhere.

So here I sit, ready to plunge into my winter break and start enjoying non-teaching-related activities, but all I can do is sit and drink hot tea. And cough. I've gotten really good at that.

The good news is that the coughing fits are coming farther apart today, so there's hope that they may end soon. Soon I'll be bidding farewell to all you nasty little microbes, and as much as I've appreciated your efficiency and power, I can't say I'm sorry to see you leave. Your commitment to colonizing the damp recesses of my nasal passages and lungs suggests some real affection on your part, but if you really care, you'll do one simple thing: lose my address and forget you ever knew me. 

So goodbye! It's been real! Don't let the door hit you on the way out!  

Friday, December 12, 2014

I need the Angry English Professor app!

What bothers me, as I respond to my students' last-minute requests for feedback on their drafts before they turn in final papers, is not so much that they seem unfamiliar with common conventions of punctuation and spelling but that they don't seem to care. Sure, if I make a big deal about it they'll insert an apostrophe to indicate possession, but they make it clear that they're just humoring me, submitting to my stodgy and outmoded standards just for the sake of the grade. For my students, I realize, punctuation is becoming a dead language.

Which is unfortunate, because punctuation can impart clarity and elegance to complex ideas--and besides, it's not that difficult. I sympathize with students whose texting habits have made punctuation seem superfluous, but I firmly believe that anyone capable of learning to operate a smartphone or play Angry Birds is capable of learning how to use apostrophes to form possessives or semicolons to link sentences.

I admit that I'm on shaky ground here since I don't own a smartphone and I've never actually played Angry Birds, so I found a web site offering a tutorial called "How to Play Angry Birds" (see it here). "It's a simple game to learn," promises the site, "but mastering it takes time and practice," which could also be said of punctuation. The site breaks down the mastery of Angry Birds into 13 easy steps (with pictures!). I can break down the formation of possessives into two easy steps, or three if you break the second into two:

1. To form a possessive of a singular noun, write the noun and add 's.
2. To form a possessive of a plural noun, write the noun's plural form; if it ends in s, add an apostrophe, and if not, add 's.

See? Two steps versus 13. Why, then, am I regularly called upon to instruct college students--even senior English majors--on the formation of possessives? And why do I have to repeat the lesson for the same students when they reappear in other classes later? Why don't they take the time to master these two simple rules and practice them until they can form possessives in their sleep?

Here, in a nutshell, is the rule for using semicolons: semicolons connect two complete sentences. Yes, there are other uses involving phrases in series, but for most students, this one rule will serve all their semicolon-related needs. However, half the time when I suggest that a student needs a semicolon, what ends up appearing is a colon--so not only do they not know when to use a semicolon; they don't even know what a semicolon is.

I'm tired of hearing myself say this, but listen: it's not that difficult! If only punctuation were as addictive as Angry Birds...hey, there's a get-rich-quick scheme! Time to invent an app that bombards nouns with apostrophes and sentences with semicolons to earn points and to avoid the wrath of the Angry English Professors. 

But then students would find a way to hack the game and before you know it we'd have an epidemic of Angry English Professors being battered to bloody death by weaponized semicolons.   

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Exams can't compete with cuteness

When I left the house this morning, my sweet husband was sitting at the dining table rolling Play-Doh with our granddaughter and I really wanted to stay home and cancel this morning's final exam. I'm sure my students wouldn't have been disappointed. But duty calls so here I am watching my Sports Lit students scribble furiously on their finals.

"Any questions before I hand out the exam?" I asked, and a student said, "Are we allowed to sing you 'Happy Birthday'?" Not exactly the question I was expecting, but I'll take it.

Last night my husband and I went out to dinner and I was surprised to find my son and daughter and granddaughter awaiting us at the restaurant. What a terrific birthday surprise! Great food and great company followed by some great playtime: we cut a door and window into a gigantic box to make a rudimentary house just the right size for Little Miss Adorable. Later, after the exam and our departmental holiday lunch and a meeting, I'll go home and play some more.

I really ought to take some exams home to grade this evening, but I'm not sure they can compete with the overwhelming cuteness filling my house. Grading can wait. It's time to play!

Friday, December 05, 2014

Not quite a winter wonderland

Keyboards click--are you listening?
students' mistakes are glistening
all over their drafts--
they're making me laugh,
Chalking up a fall semester's end.

It's a strain to keep reading
Their inane claims are pleading
for textual support--
I read 'em and snort,
Chalking up a fall semester's end.

Maybe on the exam they'll build a strawman
only to rhetorically knock him down!
I'll read all their essays and say "Oh, man!
I never knew such brilliance was around!"

More exams pile higher--
Later I'll build a fire
and burn 'em to ash, 
then southward I'll dash,
Chalking up a fall semester's end.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Crunch-time conversations

Your computer crashed again? What a coincidence! It crashed last time you had a draft due, and the time before that too! In fact, every time you've had a draft due in my class, your computer has mysteriously crashed just as you were getting ready to save the file and you've had to turn in whatever mess you could throw together in the five minutes before class. Quite an amazing computer you've got there, correctly predicting the worst possible time to crash. Does it do this trick for all of your classes or just for mine?


Student: Can you tell me how to fix my paper?
Me: Sure! What have you done since I sent you suggestions on your draft two weeks ago?
Student: Nothing. 
Me: So what do you want from me today?
Student: Tell me how to make my paper better.
Me: Well, first you could do the things I suggested when I responded to your draft TWO WEEKS AGO.
Student: Can you tell me again? 


No, you may not borrow my book to use on the open-book essay exam. I don't care why you don't have the book--whether you've already sold it back to the bookstore or never bought it in the first place--but no, you can't use mine. The syllabus clearly states that you will need the textbook on the final exam and I've mentioned that fact in class repeatedly, so don't pretend you didn't know. And no, you may not share a book with a classmate during the exam. You may use your own book. If you don't have one, may I commend to your attention a remarkable institution: the library.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Two types of assessment (and is there any title more boring than that?)

Is there any uglier phrase in the English language than "assessment instrument"?

I exposed my first-year students to an assessment instrument today, stretching them on the rack until their joints snapped and their eyes popped out. 

No wait, that's not right....I made them use #2 pencils to fill in bubbles on a bubble sheet in response to multiple-choice questions designed to measure their skills in a variety of writing-related tasks, not including actual writing. I don't make any secret of my dislike for this particular assessment instrument, so while they were bubbling away, I read the results of a different type of assessment.

It's the final homework assignment of the semester, the final piece of low-stakes writing before the high-stakes research paper is due, and this time I asked them to write a brief essay reflecting on what they've learned about writing this semester and how much more they need to learn. Even though this reflection essay is worth only five points, they generally produce a fairly polished example of their writing skills, which I can compare to their earliest writing in the class in order to see improvement. 

But I also enjoy reading their feedback about which elements of the course have made a difference in their writing. They gripe and whine about being required to write, on average, 1000 words each week for my class, but many of them admit in their reflection essays that those frequent writing assignments (with feedback) improve their writing skills and increase their confidence more than anything else in the class.

Only two students mentioned the textbook and how its templates helped them structure their writing more effectively. This accords with what I've seen on papers throughout the semester: the students who benefit most by the textbook's templates are the more competent writers, while others just can't manage to translate templates in a book into coherent sentences in their own writing. 

Several students mentioned how much they've learned about research and citation, and one even used the magic phrase "critical thinking," which made me want to pump my fists in the air (except I didn't want to disturb their bubbling). One even name-checked the reference librarian who introduced the class to the online catalog, which, says the student, changed her life.

I don't fool myself into thinking that my first-year students adore my class or that I've changed all their lives forever--after all, they wrote this reflection essay for credit, with names attached, knowing I'll be grading their final research papers next week, so they're not going to throw me under the bus. But the quality of their writing and the elements they highlight suggest that we've moved them at least a little way down the road toward writing competence.

Bubbling competence they've got down pat.  

Monday, December 01, 2014

A happy absence

When was the last time you received the gift of nothing? I'm not talking about random nothingness but a big wad of nothingness just where an annoying thing used to sit--in my case, a car. My son's car. The nonfunctioning car that hasn't run for months except to run the crock-pot (read it here). 

I don't remember just how long it's been since my son replaced the dead car with a real live reliable car, and I know he made an effort to sell the old car but no one was interested in a 21-year-old nonfunctioning car that looked as if it had been painted by a colorblind uncle suffering from serious tremors. I don't know, maybe that Minnie Mouse applique on the passenger-side sun visor scared buyers away, but the car just sat there in front of my house reminding me, every time I saw it, that we live in Appalachia, where having a car carcass in the front yard is de rigueur.

But finally my son gave up on selling the car and junked it, which posed a slight problem: how to get a car to the junkyard when it (the car, not the junkyard) lacks a license plate? His ingenious solution: map a route that follows the narrowest, twistiest country roads, emerging onto the highway only when the junkyard is in spitting distance, and get someone (his dad) to follow him in another car in case the nonfunctioning one gives up the ghost for good. And so Sir Stephen and the Grey Knight made their royal progress through country lanes and o'er gravel paths until they arrived at yon junkyard, where they traded the car to the knackers for a sack of magic beans, or something like that.

And now every time I look at the spot in the driveway where the car carcass once sat, I see the most wonderful gift I could ever imagine: a great big chunk of empty space. Absence: it makes the heart grow fonder.