Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sartorially challenged; or, coming to terms with my inner Grandma

I've often told the story about the car I drove during my first stint in grad school back in the 1980s: a used Mazda GLC, which, depending on your perspective, stands for "Great Little Car" or "Ghastly Lemon Crap." Among the car's many foibles was a tendency for the doors to freeze shut in the winter, so that I would go out in the morning all dressed up for my T.A. gig--wool skirt, silk blouse, high heels, faux-pearl necklace, long wool coat--and find that the only way to get into the car was to open the hatchback and climb over the seats, taking care not to nudge the gearshift lever into Neutral and set the car rolling. Not a particularly graceful way to start the day.

I've often talked about that car in the context of terrible-car stories, but these days I look back and want to slap myself silly for dressing so unsuitably for the weather. Seriously, what was I thinking? Silk, high heels, and faux pearls do nothing to protect the body from the hazards of ice, snow, sleet, and slush.

But in my defense, I was a newbie tackling my first teaching gig, just a few years older than my students, and I felt the need to Dress for Success. Over the years a sense of sartorial inadequacy has led to wardrobe choices that in hindsight look pretty egregious: the infamous peacock dress; the red and black faux-moleskin interview suit that made me sweat buckets; the polyester double-knit jacket with nautical trim that made me look like a rear admiral who'd slept in his uniform--not to mention decades of uncomfortable shoes.

Today I'm sitting in my office in plain black chinos, sandals (because they don't make my feet hurt), and a print blouse that I almost didn't buy because it struck me as something a Grandma would wear. No pearls, no earrings, no jewelry at all (because ever since my brief encounter with peripheral neuropathy, it bothers me to have stuff attached to my flesh). I'm wearing a little moisturizer and powder but I have finally and definitively given up lipstick (because I can't find a brand, no matter how special and expensive, that doesn't make my lips crack and bleed). All told, I look like someone who has given up trying to dress professionally.

But I'm okay with that. I admire and envy colleagues who somehow manage to look stylish and professional every single day while carrying a heavy burden of teaching, professional development, and service, but that doesn't mean I'm going to expend any energy on joining their ranks. I long ago realized that no one's ever going to award me a chili pepper on ratemyprofessors.com, and I've come to terms with my inner Grandma. If students get distracted by colorful Grandma blouses and scarves, maybe they'll find it easier to stay awake in class. (Besides, I'm a better teacher when my feet don't hurt.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Eyes on the prize, nose to the grindstone

When sore eyes prompt me to raise my head from piles of grading to stare blankly into space, I see a shimmery vision materializing at the end of the week: a silver van with a red canoe strapped on top waiting for me to get in and drive off to a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania where we'll spend my four-day break with family on and near the water. Getting from here to there, though, will take some doing.

Four committee meetings, one promising to last several hours, are the least of the hurdles standing in my way. Today and tomorrow I'm holding individual conferences with all my Sports Literature students plus a few other first-year students whose recent paper grades offered a wake-up call. I have to lead my capstone students through the next stage of their research and lead my honors students through a chunk of the Civil War plus grade their presentations.

Essay exam in my composition class on Wednesday--and I don't want to take a pile of grading to the cabin in the woods so I'll be grading between meetings all day Thursday. A set of quizzes in one class and a homework assignment in another--if I grade papers in the middle of a meeting, will anyone notice?

Cleaning the van (not my job, thankfully). Packing the van full of clothes, fishing gear, camera, kitchenware, linens, and other essentials--definitely my job. Strapping up the canoe--a joint effort. Then at noon Friday, after a full morning of teaching, grading, and teaching again, I'll take my place in the passenger's seat and settle in for a long drive to a rustic place lacking cell-phone coverage, internet access, and television--not to mention committee meetings, campus drama, and grading. At this point in the semester, that sounds like heaven.

But first I've got to get there.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition--especially in the middle of class!

I'm sitting in front of the room while my students scribble merrily away on their first exam of the semester and all I can think about is getting out of here--not just because it's Friday and I'm tired and I have a ton of grading to do but because I've never given an exam in this room before so I was not aware that the chair up front was designed by the guys running Guantanamo or maybe the torture experts whose skills were so central to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact if the actual Spanish Inquisition were to come bursting through the classroom door carrying chains and shackles and thumbscrews, I'd fall at their feet and thank them for the interruption. Anything to get out of this chair!

If I'd known at the beginning of the class period that this chair would soon have me begging for mercy, I would have dragged one of the student desks up front, but making that kind of racket right now would be a bit disruptive. I can't sit on the big desk up front because it tips. I suppose I could sit in the window well, but then I'd have no place to put my laptop. Getting up and wandering around the room offers temporary respite, but I can't pace and proctor and grade papers at the same time.

And so I sit here squirming and inventing vivid scenarios vis-a-vis this wretched chair: beat it, burn it, toss it out the window. Somehow I doubt that this chair would inspire anyone to stand and recite "O Captain, My Captain," but can pain inspire poetry? Let's see:

The spot on my back
where the chair hits aches, tests my
patience. Where's my hacksaw?

Nope. Better go ahead and send in the Spanish Inquisition.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

This excuse is for the birds

As I set off on my 22-minute drive to campus 10 minutes before I was due to begin office hours, I prepared the perfect excuse for my lateness: I was unavoidably detained. It's vague enough to cover a variety of delays--speeding ticket, wardrobe malfunction, car breakdown, intestinal distress--but dire enough to deter questioning.

Which is a good thing because I wouldn't want word to get out that what unavoidably detained me was a kingfisher.

I heard him chattering down by the creek this morning and welcomed the sound. Kingfishers have been pretty scarce this season, so I checked the weather and the clock and calculated that I had just enough time to walk the one-hour loop, shower, change, and get to campus in time for my 9:30 office hours (that no one ever attends). But the kingfisher proved flighty so he demanded more time than expected, and then of course I was delayed by a chat with some donkeys, a search for some woodpeckers, and a futile attempt to capture on film the morning sun's rays raising feathers of mist from the neighbor's meadow.

So I was late getting to campus, but I came equipped to work. This is the result of an early-morning walk: some decent photos, a refreshing workout, and a mind brimming with ideas for my stalled writing project. Why don't I do this every day?  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Please do feed the librarians

"Reference librarians thrive on questions," I told my first-year writing students this morning. "In fact, if they don't get enough questions, they shrivel up and die, which stinks up the library something fierce."

Fortunately, my students fed the reference librarians some fresh juicy questions this morning. We're doing our part to keep the library smelling sweet!

This semester I've totally changed my approach to teaching research skills. Instead of having one or two full-class sessions in which my students are expected to absorb everything they need to know about research, I've broken up the task into specific skills that build in complexity as the semester goes on: evaluating online resources, locating books, using subject headings on the online catalog to browse related topics, using databases and interlibrary loan, and so on.

Each lesson is tied to a hands-on activity linked to the students' writing projects, so they immediately have to put in practice the skill I've introduced. Today my first-year writers enjoyed a tour of the library and then had to check out books; meanwhile, my honors students are finding resources in three different databases, reading abstracts, writing Works Cited listings, and evaluating the usefulness of these resources for their research projects.

The best learning happens when students encounter obstacles and have to figure out ways to get around them. They ask me questions ("How can I narrow my search terms so I don't get 8000 items?") or they share strategies with each other. 

And some students ask the reference librarian, who sits caged behind the big reference desk all day eagerly awaiting a chance to put his expertise to use on something more challenging than clearing up paper jams in the printers. So please do feed the reference librarians! We wouldn't want all that expertise to go to waste. A question a day keeps the librarian from decay (and helps students produce better research).

Monday, September 21, 2015

Potholes on the road to success

This morning I told a panicky student that he doesn't need to figure out right this minute how he'll be spending his whole entire life because (a) he'll be spending his whole entire life figuring out how he'll be spending his whole entire life; (b) even the most complete and detailed Road Map to Success is likely to get piddled on by a puppy at some point; and (c) that essay isn't going to write itself, so let's postpone the existential crisis and sit down and write.

But the whole time I kept flashing back to the movie I'm currently showing in my Sports Lit class--Breaking Away, the 1979 film in which a bunch of recent high-school graduates commit themselves to the goal of spending their whole entire lives not figuring out how to spend their whole entire lives.

Today we saw the scene in which the long-suffering dad takes his son on a walk through the Indiana University campus. Dad points at a building and says, "I cut the stone for that building," but his stonecutting days are long behind him and he wonders whether anything he's built will last. He asks whether the young folks still swim out at the old quarry, and when his son says yes, Dad says, "So the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?"

In 1979 when the film came out, I identified with the misunderstood son; today, though, I sympathize with the disillusioned dad looking over the meager evidence of his impact on the universe. Just those big holes in the ground? That's it? I don't remember any holes in the ground on my Road Map to Success!

But here I am at a point that I couldn't have predicted or planned 30 years ago, and here's this student in front of me so overwhelmed by the prospect of mapping out his whole entire life that he can't focus on the task immediately in front of his face, and it's my turn to offer the voice of experience. Don't worry about the holes up ahead, I tell him, and don't worry about comprehending every possible permutation of the route through the obstacles; let's just find enough light to take the first step down that road.

For today, that means butt in seat and hands on keyboard, because the Road to Success starts in my classroom.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Margaret Thatcher walks into a bar...

Margaret Thatcher walks into a bar and runs smack into George Washington.

(Did I mention that this bar is just down the street from the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing? It's where all these green-tinged fellows hang out after a long day spent posing for the currency.)

So Margaret Thatcher walks into this bar and stumbles up against George Washington and the first thing he wants to know is "Who's your wig-maker?" Because let's face it, George's curls look limp and lifeless next to Margaret's gravity-defying hair.

"It's not a wig," she says, and when George reaches out to give her curls a hearty tug, she draws away in high dudgeon. The Iron Lady is not amused.

What is she doing here in the haunts of American heroes? That's what Alexander Hamilton wants to know.

"I hardly know myself," says poor Margaret. "I was dragged into this debate by Jeb Bush, who thinks my face should grace the 10-dollar bill."

Poor Alex is torn: make way chivalrously for the weaker sex or stand firm for his right to fill the green oval? Before he can decide, his compatriots step in:

"She's not even an American," says U.S. Grant, "and besides, she doesn't have a beard."

"Well, a beard isn't strictly required," says Maggie.

"Beard or no beard, what have you ever done?" demands Honest Abe. "How many slaves have you freed?"

"And how many did you breed?" asks Jefferson.

"Have you fought any battles with your own tender hands?" asks Andrew Jackson, but before Thatcher can mention the Falklands, he charges on: "We whipped you fair and square in the War of 1812, and we don't want losers on our currency. We want winners! How many elections have you won? Ever been elected President in a landslide?"

Margaret draws herself to her full height, looks Jackson straight in the belly-button, and marshals all her baronessial hauteur, but before she can speak, gentle Ben Franklin grabs her elbow and moves her smoothly toward the bar. "There, there, my dear," he says, "there's no need to fuss. My colleagues have forgotten both their manners and their history. Everyone knows that you don't have to be elected president to appear on the currency."

"Then what does it take?" she asks. "Come, Ben, tell me your secret."

"You must be willing to be passed from hand to hand, collecting dirt and germs and miscellaneous marks. You must endure a million caricatures without complaint. You must maintain a smile that convinces consumers that you're thinking profound thoughts when maybe your teeth hurt. You must, above all, be willing to become common."

"Common?" Lady Thatcher bites off the word as if it were a bit of sour persimmon.

"Yes, there's nothing more common than currency," explains Ben. "And yet despite your commonness, very few who see your face will come to know you deeply, and many won't even know your name."

"You can say that again," says a dour-looking man at the bar. He turns toward Maggie and holds out his hand. "Allow me to introduce myself," he says. "I'm Salmon P. Chase."

"Who?" she says.

"I rest my case," says Ben.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A lesson from a tinkerer

Young John Muir had two great passions: walking in the woods and tinkering with mechanical things. As a teen he constructed a peculiar alarm clock that shook the leg of his bed to wake him up, and later, as a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s, he created a desk-clock that held a book open for half and hour and then closed it, moved it aside, and replaced it with the next book Muir needed to study. (See a photo here.)

Muir won prizes for his mechanical wonders and might have pursued a career in engineering if he hadn't suffered an eye injury that hampered his tinkering and sent him on a trek that would consume the rest of his long life: walking in the woods (and fields and mountains and glaciers) all across the North American continent.

Muir walked from Indiana to Florida, took a boat to California, and walked all over the west to pursue his passion for wilderness--all without the benefit of cell phones or GPS or modern hiking gear. The titles of his books map his journeys: A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, and more. Today he is remembered as the guiding force behind the formation of our national parks and the father of the Sierra Club.

What would happen to Muir if he were a teenager today? A fidgety boy with a foreign name (Muir was an immigrant born in Scotland!) shows up at school carrying an odd contraption he has created and no one can figure out what it is--he'd be arrested, of course, just like Ahmed Mohamed, who took a homemade clock to school in Texas and was hauled off in handcuffs for constructing device that looked threatening (read it here). 

The charges have now been dropped and young Ahmed is coping with his fifteen minutes of fame. Muir, on the other hand, didn't make his name until he'd walked those thousand miles, hopped that boat, and written those books. But his life would have taken an entirely different path if he hadn't had the freedom to pursue his passions. 

Let the kids tinker; let them walk in the woods. You never know where they might end up or what kinds of wonders they'll discover or who, in the end, might be inspired to follow.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

It's nice to share--except when it isn't

The handout sitting in the copier tray looked familiar--same sample sentences, same font, same page layout as a handout that I've used in first-year writing classes for years. Yep, that was definitely my handout, but not my print job. Someone else is using my material, for which I can only say Hurrah and give myself a pat on the back.

I'm generally not possessive of my course materials; over the years I've been happy to share rubrics, class activities, and handouts with anyone who asks. When I was on the tenure and promotion committee, I frequently encountered familiar-looking syllabi in my colleagues' portfolios, evidence of the impact of a syllabus template I've shared dozens of times; further, among the more popular posts on this blog is one outlining a paragraph development exercise I use every semester (see it here).

And I know I'm not the only one willing to share course materials, often without credit or thanks. The Dreaded Quotation Punctuation Exercise that I use every semester was created by a colleague to whom I always give credit (so my students will know whom to hate), and I have a handout in a literature class that gives credit to a grad-school professor who died years ago. 

So I think we can agree that it's nice to share--except for that one thing.

You know what I'm talking about: that handout or presentation or activity so special, so totally yours that you can't imagine how anyone else could possibly make it work. You developed it, nurtured it, carefully watched it grow--it's your baby!

And then someone else comes along, grabs hold of the results of your hard work, and says, "I'll take it from here, thanks."

What do you do when that happens? Say "Oh no you don't! That's mine and you can't have it!"--and then watch while they replicate your material with just a few changes without offering any credit.

Or you could give your work away knowing that your colleague can't manage it correctly and hoping you'll be present to watch the whole thing crash and burn--except that a spectacular failure of your material is likely to taint its creator.

Or what? Frankly, I don't know the answer. I'm always happy to support my colleagues in any way possible, but that doesn't mean I don't have limits. Go ahead, ask for anything--anything else, that is. Just not that one thing. That one's mine!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Limpy gimpy hearts

The halls are alive with the clack of crutches as an inordinate number of my colleagues have recently injured themselves: one stepped off a curb wrong, one fell off her shoes, and others are suffering flare-ups of old injuries. A colleague in a knee brace claims that all these injuries are an outward sign of the pain we're all feeling after recent budget cuts hit the faculty hard, so the awkward clanking of crutches in the hallway speaks for dozens of achy-breaky hearts.

We haven't yet developed an effective way to process the impact of these budget cuts. When a colleague dies, we go to a funeral, share stories about his life and teaching and foibles, and spread hugs all around; when we hear that a position has been cut and the colleague will be leaving at the end of the year, we lack a ready-made ritual or a method to manage our emotions.

Further, the most human responses don't help the hurt: withdrawing behind closed doors to congratulate ourselves on surviving the carnage makes the wound fester, while spewing anger and bitterness all over the hallways spreads the suffering.

So instead we carry on doing what we do best: teach, research, attend endless meetings where we talk and talk and talk about the cuts without finding a way to stanch the bleeding. Maybe there isn't a way. Maybe this pain is something we'll have to carry long into the future, along with all the other burdens that weigh us down. In that case, maybe what we all need is a brace, a cane, a crutch to lean on. 

That clanking you hear is the sound of a damaged faculty hobbling onward through the pain.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Let the engine do the citing?

"Let's be honest," said the first-year student. "We're going to use online citation engines. What are your thoughts on that?"

Good question! Why would I require first-year students to practice using an MLA guide to create citations by hand when they can plug the information into a machine and get perfect results instantly?

Primarily because so many of the machine-generated citations I receive are far from perfect--and too often, students don't know how to fix them.

It all comes down to that old cliche: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The citation is only as good as the information students insert into the machine, and if they don't know the difference between an online article and a print article accessed online, or between an anthology and an essay in an anthology, or between an editor and an author, then they're going to produce flawed citations. (And don't even get me started about the student who confused the dateline with the byline and cited as author Regina Saskatchewan.)

The problem is compounded when students read so many of their sources online. If all the information they need pops up on the same little box, how can they tell what they're looking at? That's why we spend time in class figuring out how to distinguish between types of sources--and that's also why I require all my first-year writing students to go to the library and check out a book at least once during the semester. They need to know that there's more to research than Google.

Then they need to know what to do about works with no author or multiple authors, and how to handle names of translators and editors. What about E-books? What about multiple places of publication? 

And what about format? Aside from the fact that citation engines often result in inadequate information (and the multiplication of "n.p., n.p" throughout a Works Cited), students aren't always particularly adept at making the resulting citation match the required format for the paper: the Works Cited shows up in an entirely different font from the rest of the paper, or it's all single-spaced or (horrors!) centered on the page. Sometimes the Works Cited features different colors of ink or large highlighted sections. When I comment on these problems on drafts, students too often shrug it off with "That's the way the citation engine did it." Either they don't know how to change the format or they'd simply rather not bother.

In the end, what I'm looking for is a Works Cited that includes all the required information formatted correctly; if students can achieve that goal through a citation engine, I have no complaints. However, I do my best to equip them with some knowledge of how citations work and some practice in creating their own citations so that when the citation engine produces something dreadful, they'll at least have a clue about how to fix it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

When vegetables attack!

I look over the mass of vegetables colonizing my kitchen and I think,What I need is a harvest festival. Yes: a house full of people chowing down on the spaghetti squash, watermelon, pumpkin, and peppers crowding me out of house and home.

The potato bin is full and the spuds won't quit. The sweet potato patch looks healthy but we won't know how abundant the harvest will be until we figure out how to dig out the tubers without disturbing the hornets guarding their territory. (Current score: Hornets 4,  Gardener 0.)

Squash! Don't get me started. Usually parasites destroy the zucchini and summer squash vines long before the beginning of August, but we're harvesting lovely yellow squashes in September and they just won't quit.

Corn is done and beans are done and the carrots wimped out ages ago, but we're still picking tomatoes nearly every day. The other day I had a slice of tomato that covered half my dinner plate, and tasty! I could have made a meal out of that one tomato.

Pumpkins! We have half a dozen, which doesn't sound like much until you see the size of 'em. Any one of those pumpkins could keep me in pumpkin pie from now until Doomsday, not to mention pumpkin loaf and pumpkin soup and pumpkin decorations for the front porch.

I'm tired of carrying bags of vegetables to work with me and pushing them on unsuspecting colleagues. They see me coming with my bag of zucchinis and they duck around the corner or hide in their offices and pretend no one's home. My freezer won't hold any more zucchini bread. Won't somebody take them off my hands?

In the bleak midwinter I'll look back on this time and long for the taste of a freshly-picked tomato or the bright colors of brussels sprouts, chilis, and squash, but today I'm laden with more vegetables than I can handle and I wish someone would take a few off my hands. Hungry? Come and get it! 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

When (lack of) technology causes tension

I had lunch yesterday with a colleague who retired in May, and what a contrast we presented: one of us looking rested, relaxed, and full of smiles, the other carrying a tote bag full of books and student papers and the harried look of someone who doesn't have time to breathe between bites. Guess which was which.

Yes, we've reached the third week of classes, when things suddenly start getting very real--the papers, the class preps, the eye-rollers and phone-texters and students crying wolf--but right now what weighs me down most is what's happening outside of class:

1. I show up to a meeting to discover that it's my turn to take notes but I've left my computer on the other side of campus and all I have is a very small notepad and a pen that drops globs of sticky ink all over the tiny pages. It's a two-hour meeting in which people have many important things to say about important topics, and my pen hand has to scramble to keep up. Today's task: typing up those notes, if I can read them.

2. I need to show a DVD to my extremely small capstone class, which generally meets in my office. My new computer lacks a DVD player and just about every classroom on campus is filled at that hour, so I decide to test out the ancient TV that lives in our media storage room. I fetch the heavy rolling cart to my office, hook everything up, turn it on, and try every possible setting without success. The DVD player is running and the TV is running but they don't seem capable of cooperating with each other. Maybe I'll just hold up the DVD case and say, "See?"

3. A technical glitch prevents me from accessing information my students submitted online so I put in a work order, but it turns out that the glitch won't be fixed in time to be useful, so I have to ask the students to take one extra step and send me the information via e-mail, which half of them do right away while the others...don't. So now I need to spend class time urging the remaining students to cooperate, and all this would have been avoided if I hadn't been trying out a whizzy new way of employing technology to engage students in learning activities. Some days I'm tempted to simply pull the plug.

It's no wonder I walked into the restaurant carrying the world on my shoulders. As we chatted, though, I felt that tension slipping away and I left with a lighter step. My colleague's peaceful demeanor is contagious! I just hope she didn't carry away any of my tension.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Laboring on Labor Day (again)

I'm required to labor on Labor Day--but not too hard. While my blog takes a holiday, here are the Rules for Laboring on Labor Day that I published two years ago:

1. Dress down. They can make me teach on Labor Day, but they can't make me dress up.

2. Pack your own picnic. No way I'm eating at my desk when the rest of the world is outside grilling burgers!

3. Don't begrudge the revelers their revels. The people who clean our bathrooms, make our photocopies, and answer our phones work hard for very little money and deserve every minute of their day off. I do not wish they were here working, but I do wish I could join them on their day off.

4. Office hours? Are you kidding me? No one comes to my office hours on a normal day, so what are the chances that anyone will show up on Labor Day?

5. Enjoy the commute. No public school = no school buses holding up traffic, no 20-mile-per-hour zones, and no teens racing around curves on country roads.

6. Be there. Nobody's fooled by the Labor Day flu; if my students are required to be in class on Labor Day, then I'm going to be there with them.

7. Don't try to explain it. I know we have reasons for teaching on Labor Day, and some of them may even be valid ("We can't shortchange Monday labs!"), but the real reason we teach on Labor Day is that we've never been sufficiently motivated to change it. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Oh, the places we'll go!

I don't want to suggest that my personal happiness is dependent upon a fancy-shmantsy bit of electronic equipment, but my brand-new camera has already brought me great joy. It arrived here on Wednesday during a very busy week, so I barely had time to find the "on" button before I had to figure out how to find the right settings for taking creek-stomping photos of my granddaughter and then find the flash for inside shots. 

Now that my house is empty again, I've been spending more time with the instruction book and running the camera through its paces. It offers cool options that I'll never use unless I can find the right button without the book, so that's what I worked on: take the photo on one setting and then another until I could switch back and forth without too much thought. 

After a good trek up the hill and down to the garden, I sat on the bench out front and tried out the zoom lens on the few remaining hummingbirds. Earlier in the summer it was not unusual to see six or eight hummingbirds hovering around a feeder, but they've thinned out considerably. Still, I saw enough to inspire a bunch of shots at different settings--and then I went inside to try out my new photo-editing software. 

The results were decent and they'll get better with time as I figure out all the wonderful things my new camera and I can do. A new adventure! Come along for the ride!


Friday, September 04, 2015

A roller-coaster kind of week

I don't have the right word to describe the week I've had, marvelous and dreadful by turns. I got to color purple puppies with my adorable granddaughter and hear her say her socks are "all cattywampus" (hurrah!), but I also had to spend two hours in a meeting discussing an important issue on which my feedback is destined to have no discernible impact (boo!). I enjoyed seeing my daughter show off her teaching skills (yay!) but also grieved with valued colleagues who learned this week that their positions are being cut (sob!). There simply isn't an emoticon sufficient for the current situation.

But a little verse can't make it worse.

The roller-coaster rises high
then makes me catch my breath
by swooping toward the earth as if
straight toward the doors of death--

but then (relief!) we rise again
to burst earth's surly bonds
and touch the sky--what's that? Oh my!
We're headed for the ground!

I close my eyes and scream and cry
and laugh and grin--and then
the end is near! No more to fear!
(Who wants to try again?)

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Off the cuff--and off the syllabus

Things I have told my first-year students this semester:

"I'm not a Staple Nazi." (Because I'm more interested in what's written in the paper than in how the pages are connected.)

"You may do this activity in small groups or independently. You pick." (Because sometimes a little self-direction is helpful.)

"Everyone who lives long enough eventually turns into Rush Limbaugh." (Not entirely true but relevant in context.)

"You have a moral obligation to visit the new ice-cream shop in town." (Because I believe in educating the whole person.)

"You're right, but why are you right?" (Because that's why we're here.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Learning curves (and clicks)

I'm the expert, right? I'm the one who has spent, literally, years researching the topic, reading all the foundational texts and tracing tangential ideas through footnotes, endnotes, and endless references. I'm the one who wrote the conference paper and presented it at the conference and discussed the topic with experts and who is now working on revising the paper for publication, and I'm the one who did yet more research to feed the demands of a grant application to fund future research on the topic. I'm the one who designed the course, assembled the syllabus, ordered the readings, developed the writing assignments, and established the basis for class discussions. I think we can agree than no one in the room knows more than I do or has thought more than I have about the topic of today's discussion.

And yet all it takes is one line in a short student paper, one small comment, to make me see something I'd never before considered. I wonder whether the students can hear the little click of two ideas suddenly fitting together very neatly in my head, like puzzle pieces that complete the picture. Yes: I, the acknowledged expert, just learned something important from my students.

This is what it means to be part of a community of scholars. And this is why I love teaching the senior capstone.

(Do you hear the click? It's kind of contagious.)