Monday, August 31, 2015

We have ways to make you talk--sometimes

The classroom is abuzz with chatter as small groups of students discuss what they've observed in a film clip--one group focusing on setting and costumes, one on character development, one on plot--but I notice that one group is strangely silent. 

"You need to be discussing what you've observed," I remind them. 

No response.

"In a minute I'll be asking your group to report to the class, so be sure you've got something to report," I say.

They just sit. They're not even looking at each other. One of them leafs through the textbook while another bounces a tennis ball on the desk.

Time is up. The class needs to move on. What do I do?

The other groups provides plenty of fodder for class discussion, but that one silent group offers essentially nothing. I ask leading questions that end up being answered by members of other groups, but the silent group maintains its silence throughout the class.

After class I ask one of the silent group's members what the problem was. "I don't know," she shrugs; "Nobody wanted to talk."

From my perspective, it didn't look like anyone in that group even tried to talk. What is the problem here? 

I suppose it's possible that the silent group contained only students who hadn't done the reading, but here's the thing: they could have answered the question without having done the reading because they were responding to a film clip I had just shown them. 

So there's something wrong here but I don't know what it is. Maybe those four students have some history with each other (already?), or maybe they thought I wouldn't notice that they weren't doing the work. I don't know.

What about next time? It's a small class, so in future I may have to arrange group work so the silent ones don't all end up in the same group. What I'd really like, though, is a way to make them talk.   

Friday, August 28, 2015

Frivolous Friday

What kind of professor gives a reading quiz during the first week of classes? Not to mention requiring written homework in just about every class, even in the first week! Who does that?

Guilty as charged. I know the first week is fluid: students are still figuring out their schedules, so some are bound to drop my class while others may add. If I require real work during the first week, those students will start my class already behind.

But that's not stopping me. I refuse to spend a week doing meaningless stuff for the benefit of those who add the class late; learning starts on the first day, which means reading and writing start on the first day and anyone who starts class a week late will be a week behind on some real work. 

Including that reading quiz. On a Friday. In the first week of class. (Yes, I am a despicable human being.)

Gee whiz--a quiz!
On Friday, too!
This really is
too much! Boo hoo!

I'm barely here!
I'm still in flux!
I don't know how
to get my ducks

in order! I can't
think or write
on Friday--I've
been up all night! 

I'm sick! I'm tired!
I'm overwrought!
I can't recall
what I've been taught!

There's just no way
I can perform!
(The Friday quiz:
a perfect storm.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Standing on shifting metaphors

A disturbing side effect of the current budget crisis has started to hit home: I see news about other colleges' struggles and I secretly wonder how their pain can become our profit. For-profit schools going out of business? Colleges getting bad press because of cuts or scandals? Embattled schools cutting programs? Maybe we can snag some of their castoff students!

I hate myself every time such a thought comes into my head. When did a devotion to the life of the mind start to feel like all-out war, like a winner-take-all battle to the death?  When this kind of cutthroat thinking takes over, I fear that the biggest casualty will be the quality of the education we offer and students will become collateral damage.

One response would be to turn my back on the battlefield, retreat to the ivory tower, and wall myself in with my books and my students, stuffing wax in my ears to drown out the battle sounds in the background. But the ivory tower was never real--it's a metaphor, just like the battlefield (or, for that matter, "the life of the mind"). I'm not inhabiting a fairy tale or a metaphor or a nebulous concept; I'm teaching real students in a real world that sometimes gets a little messy and contentious, and if my world feels a little less stable than it once did, that's no excuse for passing that discomfort on to students or rejoicing in others' suffering. 

If we're all in the same boat, I think we're gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wrinkles in time

An hour is an hour is an hour--except for the faculty office hour, which sits in some sort of anomaly in the time/space continuum so that the time slows to a standstill or speeds up depending on the circumstances. 

If it's the dullest time of the afternoon, when my body is tired from teaching back-to-back freshman classes and my brain is oozing toward snoozeland, and if the only thing standing between me and home is that afternoon office hour, time stretches until the clock simply stops moving forward at all and I sit there, stuck in a holding pattern without respite until the end of time.

If I've scheduled student conferences and I need to meet face-to-face with students who need intensive help with their reading or writing or scheduling problems, the hands on the clock speed up until I don't have time to breathe between appointments, much less run to the rest room or refill my cup of tea.

I'd like to find the happy medium, but someone absconded with the local tesseract. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

What I need on the first day of class

What I need, I think is a series of warm-up sprints, opportunities to stand in front of a class yammering for 5, 10, 20 minutes so I won't get winded when I have to do the full 50 minutes three classes in a row--start practice slowly in shorts and flats and then work up to teaching suit, pumps, and full makeup.

What I need more is a key to the upstairs classrooms so that when that annoying high-pitched mechanical whine starts up out in the hallway just before class starts, I can shut the door without locking out students. (Or maybe what I need is a sledgehammer so I can smash whatever is making that obnoxious noise.)

What I need is an extra hand to carry all the books and materials for my classes plus dry-erase markers for one class and chalk for another, and I probably need to brush up my chalkboard skills since I haven't taught in a classroom without whiteboards in years, and I need chalk-resistant teaching clothes or a full shower every time I inadvertently lean against the blackboard.

What I need is more caffeine so I can be alert and coherent in front of a room full of first-year students at 8 a.m. three days a week--or maybe they're the ones who need the caffeine. 

(What I really need is another week of summer.)

What I need is patience--with my students, yes, especially the one who came up after class to ask if there's any homework after I'd spent a good ten minutes thoroughly explaining the homework assignment, but more than that I need patience with myself. I'm not exactly new at this game but every year brings new challenges and I'm definitely getting less nimble at adapting to sudden changes. Give me patience.

But first give me a sledgehammer.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sew what?

You know you don't need to go to the fabric store but it won't stop calling you--ever since that grandbaby was born two years ago, you've been itching to go in there and get sucked back into the sewing-for-kiddies vortex, the all-consuming desire that leads inevitably to little old ladies waiting an hour for the store to open and then knocking each other over in their race to get to the one rack of calico fabric selling for one dollar a yard. You've been through that scene before, maybe even have yards of lovely fabric still stuffed in a box somewhere waiting until you get around to making something wonderful out of it, except nobody in the house still fits the size of the pattern you bought for that project and when would you have time to sew anyway?

Right now is the answer. Right this weekend you have time to sew: no work until Monday, and besides, you need to do something to keep your mind occupied so you won't brood on all the alarming office news. Besides, what would it hurt to just take a look in the fabric store? You don't actually have to buy anything.

Except you really do. So much cuteness! So many prints! Soft flannel with an owl pattern would make great jammies--but wait, the print is too big for a little girl and the owls would end up chopped up in bits. This great lightweight linen looks bright and summery--but who wants to iron for a two-year-old? Better to get an easy-care jersey print, like this great cornflower blue zigzag stripe enlivened by the zing of fuchsia. Just right to bring out the blue of her eyes! It'll make an adorable tunic paired with blue leggings. Just find the right pattern, thread, buttons, and elastic--and better pick up a ball-point needle just in case you can't find any back home in the sewing cabinet.

Speaking of the sewing cabinet, how long has it been since you've cleaned in there? Better clear the dust out of the sewing machine, then turn it on only to discover that it insists on moving slowly, moaning, and then coming to a stop. Just a drop of sewing machine oil ought to get it going again, but then what will you do about those sewing scissors, so dull they'll never get through the fabric? Good thing you've got a spouse who knows how to sharpen scissors or all that fabric shopping would have been a waste.

Which it may be anyway. You recall that patterns tend to run larger than the same size in ready-made clothes, but this thing looks immense. So you cut it down a bit and spend the afternoon cutting, piecing, stitching, trimming, and in the end you've got an adorable zigzag tunic that looks about three sizes too big plus a pair of leggings that look like they'd fit on a Barbie doll. You won't be seeing the little imp for another week so you can't even try the clothes on her. What if they don't fit?

Fortunately, she won't go naked. She has plenty of clothes and her mom can always make more, so it won't exactly be a disaster if the new outfit doesn't work. Your granddaughter doesn't really need you to spend your Saturday shopping, cutting, stitching, trimming, and straining your eyes to thread the needle, but who cares? Remember: you're not sewing because she needs it but because you do.

So go ahead and sew. Consider it therapy: it's more effective than brooding, and you just might end up with something cute.     

Friday, August 21, 2015

Some start well, some finish well, and some stand on the sidelines and cheer

This morning I spent some time with my incoming Honors Odyssey students and then dashed away to the funeral of a retired colleague. It was an odd switch: a room full of bright-eyed first-year students dressed for summer camp and eager to jump the next hurdle in the race, followed by a room overly full of current and retired faculty members dressed in black to cheer on a former colleague who has finally crossed the finish line, tired and hurting but unafraid.

I didn't know him particularly well, my dead colleague, but very early in my career he encouraged me at a time when I really needed encouragement, helping me understand some campus events that were relatively  incomprehensible to a newbie, and then when I was faculty chair he shared the wisdom built on decades of institutional memory. Some saw him primarily as a curmudgeon, but his gruff exterior camouflaged a gentle soul. He will be missed.

And my new honors students? They seem lively and energetic, curious about this whole college adventure. If they're frightened, it doesn't show. I haven't learned their names or figured out what characteristics they bring to the classroom: Who will be the problem child? Who will be the clown? In my book they're just blank pages waiting to be filled.

It's not easy seeing a former colleague get consigned to the cold ground, knowing that his work here is done and we'll no longer benefit from his wisdom except in memory, but it helps to come back to a campus bubbling with potential, where gleeful hordes of new students are standing at the starting line and ready to take off.

We're in this race together, and if some get to the finishing line faster than others, the least we can do is stand up and cheer.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When the past is a threat

Who's afraid of the big bad antiquities scholar?

Apparently ISIS is. As this morning's news informs us, they beheaded 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad and hung his body from a Roman column outside Palmyra, Syria.

I can understand why a fundamentalist group would consider journalists threatening--they uncover news that might counter the group's master narrative. But Khaled al-Asaad was an expert on 2000-year-old ruins, so any news he unearthed would be severely out of date. Who finds an antiquities scholar threatening?

The answer is simple; according to the AP, "The Sunni extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, believes ancient relics promote idolatry. IS militants claim they are destroying ancient artifacts and archaeological treasures as part of their purge of paganism." So they're going to purge the past along with the present? Where will it end?

Furthermore, "IS had tried to extract information from him about where some of the town's treasures had been hidden to save them from the militants."

How horrible would it be to spend your entire adult life unearthing ancient artifacts and spreading knowledge of the ancient world and then finally turn to hiding the artifacts and burying the knowledge from those who find them threatening? And then to lose your life in an attempt to protect antiquities from people determined to wipe out any knowledge that contradicts their own narrow master narrative?

Knowledge is power, I tell myself, but then I think of that 81-year-old scholar's beheaded body hanging from a column and I wonder what kind of knowledge can disempower the forces of know-nothingism now rampant in the world. Learn about the past or the terrorists win! (Who knew history was so subversive?)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Preparation aches

Is it possible to be too prepared? Classes start Monday and I'm ready to go--so ready that I worry that some disaster will disrupt all my careful planning, like the year the flood delayed the start of the semester by a week but I had already printed all my syllabi. Being unprepared makes me nervous but being overly prepared makes me differently nervous. I'm afraid there's no cure for this malady.

But what great syllabi I've prepared! I've got a peculiar schedule: three freshman classes  three days a week plus the senior capstone two days a week. The capstone class is studying garbage, which makes me really happy. We'll start with Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, read some garbage theory, learn about trash art and recycled music, and then set the students loose to pursue research projects in their own literary landfills. 

Of the three freshman classes, only the Sports Literature remains pretty much unchanged from last year, except that I've added a brief reading from The Odyssey (the aging Odysseus proving his manliness by engaging in games with young studs) and some poems from Jill Bialosky's The Players. Also, I dumped the Sherman Alexie novel we read last year, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, although they'll still read Alexie's great poem "Why We Play Basketball" and watch the movie Smoke Signals. Instead of the Alexie novel, they'll read The Rider by Tim Krabbe (hat tip to Bardiac for the suggestion!), which will stretch students outside their comfort zones by taking them on a European bicycle road race. Let's see how many different ways they can spell derailleur! (No matter how I spell it, it never looks right. It derails me every time.)

The other two freshman classes posed a different kind of problem: for years I've taught freshman writing classes on a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, but this year I'm switching to Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Spreading the reading and writing assignments across more class periods left me with a great opportunity: Workshop Wednesdays, when we'll do hands-on activities designed to improve research and writing skills. Instead of one or two obligatory library research sessions, we'll have more frequent sessions in which students have to locate actual resources and evaluate them. I hope this helps. I heard a horrible story last week about students who think the best source for any information is simply to post a question on Facebook, and I fear that my classes will be full of that attitude.

But I'm not afraid of being unprepared. I get the gold star for advance preparation. What could possibly go wrong between now and Monday?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Old faculty re-orientation

What I wish someone had told me when I first started teaching here:

1. Where to park. (Seriously--I was an adjunct, so I was not included in New Faculty Orientation, and the sum total of my instruction in parking was "You can park along any of the streets around campus," which led to my first-ever parking ticket, which I could not well afford on an adjunct's paycheck--which, by the way, has not increased in the entire 15 years since I've been teaching here. I'm grateful I no longer earn an adjunct's paycheck, but why are we still paying today's adjuncts the same amount per course that I earned 15 years ago?)

2. Who was sleeping with whom. (Information that would have made some department-meeting discussions much more transparent.)

3. That colleagues may become friends but they're always colleagues first, and some so-called friends will eagerly sacrifice friendship on the altar of professional advancement. (Social Relations 101 in the School of Hard Knocks.)

4. The Law of Conservation of Curmudgeonliness on Campus: the minute one career curmudgeon retires, another rises up to take his or her place. (And someday I might become that person!)

5. That some day I would be mourning the loss of a long-lived curmudgeon whose notorious name is totally unknown to my younger colleagues. (Aging 101 in the School of Hard Knocks.)

6. That the wonderfulness that sometimes happens inside the classroom can make all the outside-the-classroom awfulness worthwhile. Or, to quote a former colleague of mine: "The students! The students!" (He was a little drunk at the time so maybe you had to be there.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A big fish story

The high point of our canoeing adventure today, I think, was when we were attacked by a fish. Well, may attacked isn't quite the right word. Challenged? Charged? I'm sure I heard a bugle playing the cavalry charge as that big, fierce catfish skittered away from our canoe across the mud flat, whirled around, and then swam toward the canoe at warp speed, as if to say, "Get away from my mud flat!" 

It was not a bad mud flat as mud flats go, but we weren't really in the market for a mud flat so we posed no credible threat. Why would we want to paddle our canoe across six inches of water when there was a perfectly good two-foot-deep channel stretching before us upstream? All we did was pause at the mouth of an inlet to watch some catfish messing around in the shallows, but this one big fat fierce fish decided that we were a threat.

I'll bet charging our canoe gave him pretty good street cred. (Creek cred?) I'll bet he went back to the school and bragged about how he showed that big red fish who's boss.

Meanwhile, we went paddling up a stream so serene and unpeopled that we could have slipped unknowing into a previous century. Early this morning we followed an osprey up Forked Run Lake, and then at the top of the lake we ducked under a tree and followed the feeder stream into a quiet wood where goose down bobbed on the still water and bullfrogs croaked in the reeds. We felt like sovereigns of a lost world--until that pesky fish had to charge up and challenge our sovereignty.

I hope that fish relished his moment of power. At least he'll have a big fish story to tell--a story about the one that got away!    

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Who says men can't mentor?

Ten faculty members in a conference room, all bright, active, energetic women in their 30s and 40s (plus one fiftysomething--me!), all eager to serve as mentors for incoming faculty, and as much as I'm enjoying their company, I have to wonder: where are the men?

Men were asked to serve, but apparently they're too busy.

Which is more likely to be true:

1. Male faculty members really are more busy than female faculty members.
2. Male faculty members are better at saying "No" than female faculty members.
3. Male faculty members are less nurturing and therefore less interested in mentoring new faculty members.
4. Male faculty members have less hope for the future of the institution and therefore less investment in new faculty members.
5. Women will do anything for a free lunch.
6. All of the above.
7. None of the above.

Frankly, people who don't want to serve as mentors probably shouldn't, but I know some men on campus who would do (and have done) a great job mentoring. Where are they this year? 

Oh, that's right: they're busy. Good thing the rest of us have so much time on our hands! 

Friday, August 07, 2015


It was a malfunctioning capacitor that caused our air conditioning unit to stop functioning, and it took the repairman about three minutes to fix it. I say "repairman" but this kid was barely old enough to drive the big white plumbing-and-heating-company van, and he carried his tools in a backpack that made him look as if he'd just stepped out of his eighth-grade shop class. He spent more than three minutes on the repair, testing things to make sure nothing else was wrong, but I wondered: if a cocky kid barely out of high school can fix this thing in three minutes, why can't I?

The answer is obvious: I don't know what a capacitor is and I wouldn't know how to determine that it was the culprit causing our lack of air conditioning. I can look up the word "capacitor" on Wikipedia and see a lot of electrical terms and equations, but that doesn't mean I understand it. I like the idea of a component that smooths out energy flow, though, and I wish I could install one in my bipolar brain, which tends to be bubbling with energy and ideas and plans and worries at 4 a.m. but then later, when I really need it to respond to a request for important information, wanders off for a cat-nap.
Do you see what I've done there? I've turned an electrical component into a metaphor for the human condition. Making metaphors is what I do best, and helping others make or interpret metaphors is my second-best skill, so I'll be assured of steady employment as long as the world recognizes its need for metaphors.

But if what you really need is a capacitor, call the repairboy with the backpack.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Great midweek reading

Links to good reading on reading, writing, and teaching:

Joanna Scott on "The Virtues of Difficult Fiction":
The familiar criticism that difficult literature is elitist assumes that the reading public is not capable of learning more than it already knows. Do we need our athletes to explain the value of testing their limits? It is both logical and democratic to defend those books that test ours.  The familiar criticism that difficult literature is elitist assumes that the reading public is not capable of learning more than it already knows. Do we need our athletes to explain the value of testing their limits? It is both logical and democratic to defend those books that test ours. (Read the rest here.)
Catherine Nichols explains "What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name":
Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25. (Read the rest here.)
Amy Berard on her resistance to teaching like a robot:
I wore a bug in my ear. I didn’t have a mouthpiece. Meanwhile an official No Nonsense Nurturer, along with the school’s first-year assistant principal and first-year behavior intervention coach, “controlled” me remotely from the corner of the room where they shared a walkie talkie. I referred to the CT3 training as C-3PO after the Star Wars robot, but C-3PO actually had more personality than we were allowed. The robot also spoke his mind. (Read the rest here.)
Mindy Kaling on recycled tropes of television writing, including the recurring "Hot Serial Killer Who's Kind of Literary" plot:
He leaves sonnets pinned to the corpses. The murdered prostitutes all have the first names of Jane Austen heroines. The kindly police commissioner’s name is Chuck Dickens. The whole thing takes place in a tough housing project in Newark, called Stratford-up-by-Avon. A melancholy English actor plays the lead in this mystery-drama, and he uses his accent no matter what country it takes place in. This is everyone’s mom’s favorite show. (Read the rest here.)

And, finally, Jesse Ball on the joys of nonsense:
There’s a misunderstanding about what nonsensical things are—the idea that they're just funny, and that's the beginning and the end of it. Nonsense is not “not sense”—it operates at the edge of sense. It teems with sense—at the same time, it resists any kind of universal understanding....The wonder of it is not that it makes something out of nothing, or that it is without sense—but actually that it’s exploding with sense. It's not for when you have nothing to say, but when you have many things to say at once. (Read the rest here.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The positive-thinking arms race

Day One of my Official Fall Semester Attitude Adjustment Program started well enough: I rose bright and early, feeling positive and ready to apply a positively positive attitude to every single element of this positively positive day. Tried to check e-mail. Computer froze. Rebooted. Froze again. Brand-new computer, not one sign of trouble for a solid month, and now it won't even boot up all the way. Where's my sledgehammer?

Kidding! Just kidding! Maybe a walk will help: gorgeous morning, blue skies and a nice cool breeze until halfway up the big hill when the sun comes out and starts the sweat-rivers flowing while a parade of fracking-company pickup trucks goes zipping past, raising a cloud of thick dust right in my path, and then along comes a horsefly assiduously attempting to attack the one part of my back that I can't reach when I use my baseball cap as a horsefly swatter--gah! Where's my blowtorch?

LOL! What good would a blowtorch do against a horsefly and swirling dust and sweat and pickup trucks? None at all! I would need, at the very least, a grenade launcher and lots of ammo! Do they stock grenades at Wal-Mart? I'll just crank up my brand-spanking-new positively positive attitude and drive to town to find out! 

Wait, why is that guy standing in the middle of the intersection? Why are none of the traffic signals working? Who does that guy think he is, trying to make a left turn at the busiest intersection in town when the traffic light isn't working? We'll be here all day! If only I had that grenade launcher. Or better yet, a drone! Think of all the ordnance I could drop on that pickup truck with my own personal weaponized drone! Make that every pickup truck in town! Death to pickup trucks! Wipe 'em all off the face of the planet!

See what we can accomplish with a little positive thinking?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

One way to choose a major

Nell Zink’s novel Mislaid is as lightweight as drifting dandelion fluff, full of superficial characters acting in outlandish and unbelievable ways, but certain passages ring true. Here, young Karen demonstrates how to choose a college major: 

She was planning, tentatively, to major in English. As she explained to her mother in a letter, she knew English already, so she could probably get okay grades. There was no point majoring in something she didn’t know already, as she would just get into trouble or, more likely, major in the wrong thing. Employers always need English. Besides, she had to take all sorts of electives to graduate anyway.
I wonder how many of my students follow similar reasoning--because what, really, is the point of studying something you don't already know? Seems like a colossal waste of time.