Saturday, October 31, 2015

The tell-tale fingers

Early on Halloween morning I was sitting in bed reading when I heard the sound of heavy breathing. What foul beast could be crouching outside the bedroom door? I looked and saw--horror of horrors--fingers! Reaching under the door! Scrabbling as if searching--for what? At once a sound rang out, a high-pitched call that brought me suddenly to full alertness: "Grandma? Are you awake?"

(What did you think it was, werewolves? This is Ohio! We killed off the last werewolves decades ago.)

Yes, I'm spending Halloween weekend with my daughter and son-in-law, mostly because I needed to get away from the campus horrors that have been invading my sleep. There's nothing like following a two-year-old through a corn maze the help you find the joy and energy you've lost under a pile of student papers.

I brought some grading with me along with some reading for Monday's classes, but I'll put it aside this evening to help out with the candy distribution. My granddaughter will dress up as a horse. Won't that be scary? (Neigh!)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

If I were writing the questions...

You found the course evaluation site! Hurray for you! At the end you will be prompted to print out a Certificate of Achievement! Now get to work:

How big a bribe did your professor offer you for completing these evaluations?
A. Bribe? What bribe?
B. Five points extra credit
C. Homemade cookies
D. She promised to give me a passing grade if I let another student complete my course evaluations for me

My professor's appearance
A. Distracts me from learning--doesn't he/she know plaid and stripes don't match?
B. Distracts me from learning--doesn't he/she know those clashing colors make him/her look really hot?
C. Is irrelevant to the quality of teaching.

My professor inspired me to
A. Get a few more hours of sleep every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
B. Put my cell phone down in class at least once a week
C. Read a few paragraphs of the textbook
D. Conduct further research on a topic I'd never thought of before
E. Change my major, change my career plans, change my life

The textbook for this class
A. Textbook? What textbook?
B. Made a sturdy coaster for my energy drinks
C. Cost way too much considering how little I used it
D. Cost way too much, but considering the long-term benefits of what I learned, it was worth every penny

I would encourage other students to
A. Take this class for an easy A
B. Take a different class because this one pushed me to perform beyond my abilities
C. Take this class because it pushed me to perform beyond my abilities

(Can't hurt to dream, can it?)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Gone Fishin'

One thing I can say about my fellow faculty members: when the Admissions office says "Let's go fishing," we say, "Toss me the bait and point me toward the boat." Which is why I'm setting off this afternoon on an expedition--fishing for students.

Faculty members have always been willing to meet with prospective students at odd hours or show up on weekends to man information booths about our majors. This year, though, we've been urged to join Admissions recruiters as they visit college fairs and high schools, helping them lure prospective students into our pool. The response has been encouraging, demonstrating that faculty members are willing to dive into unfamiliar waters for the good of the school.

Tomorrow morning I'll be visiting three high schools a few hours north of here along with an Admissions recruiter, which I'm sure will be an eye-opening experience. It may not be entirely coincidental that those schools are located near my daughter and son-in-law's house so that I can stay with them instead of incurring motel bills. And if I get to spend a little time with my adorable granddaughter, I'll just chalk it up as practice. I'm taking her a fishing game I made--a bunch of colorful little stuffed fishes she can "catch" with a tiny fishing pole baited with a magnet. This evening we'll be reeling in toy fishies by the bucketload. 

I only hope tomorrow's fishing expedition will be similarly successful. (Is someone planning to chum the waters?)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Lost and found in the wet red woods

I found myself at the top of a hill today, but only after I'd lost myself first. 

I blame autumn leaves. Apparently I spent so much time with my camera in front of my face that I entirely missed the sign pointing the way back to the bottom of the hill, but I didn't know I was on the wrong path until I ran smack into a barrier I knew I hadn't seen on the way up. Wrong side of the hill. Miles from my car. Shortest way back was up over the hill. By the time I'd backtracked far enough to find the missed path, the rain had started, so I ended up spending significantly more time wandering through the wet woods than I'd expected.

But the stunning colors made me smile, especially when the woods looked like they were smiling back. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Ridiculous Things I've Been Told Lately Blues (sing it with me!)

The breaking point for me came when someone who knows very little about our faculty proclaimed that "the faculty need to stop whining and take one for the team." What do you do with a statement like that?

Turn it into a blues song. Here I humbly offer the Ridiculous Things I've Been Told Lately Blues:

"Oh you've got to stop whining and take one for the team today.
I say you've got to stop whining and take one for the team--today!"
But the next hit I take for the team
is gonna send me to an early grave. 

"If you can't get it done in 40 hours, you'll just have to work a little more.
Oh if you can't it done in 40 hours, you'll just have to work a little more!"
But if I worked a measly 40 hours
It'd feel like a vacation for sure.

"The numbers suggest that this change won't cause a lot of pain.
I say the numbers show us this change won't cause a lot of pain."
But I am not a number
And numbers ain't no cure for the pain I'm in.

Who wants to add some more?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

When we can't afford to make mistakes

Pity poor Hocking College: the tiny two-year school has long served a neglected population in the heart of rural Appalachian Ohio, but recent problems have sparked some really bad press. An article in Inside Higher Ed today provides an overview of problems starting in 2008, when an investigation revealed theft of college funds that led to the resignation of several administrators. The numbers tell a bleak story: "Last year, facing a $4.4 million deficit, the college laid off 36 employees, and the president was forced to resign. Enrollment has fallen 38 percent since 2010."

What to do? Start a football program. Considering how football is worshiped in rural Ohio, this looks like a great way to attract students, but new controversy arose when one of the players turned out to be Trent Mays, "a former high school football player who was convicted in 2013 of raping a 16-year-old girl." (Remember the famous Steubenville rape case? This is the guy.)

He was convicted as a juvenile and served his time and by all accounts he seems to have turned his life around, but this has not stopped students from fearing for their safety; however, yet more missteps have exacerbated the situation. Suppose you're a student who wants to file a complaint against a player on the football team; who ya gonna call? The campus police? Oh wait, the chief of police is also the head football coach. How about complaining to the VP for Student Affairs? Oh wait, he's also the athletic director. Conflict of interest, anyone?

Just when you think it can't get any worse, you read that the college's official spokesman is being investigated for misrepresenting the results of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault and for trying to silence complaining students. Oh, and that spokesman also serves as announcer at college football games.

When you're dancing so close to the edge, you really can't afford a misstep. That's what I kept thinking as I read this article, and it's a sentiment repeated frequently on my own campus. And it's true! However, I fear the results of that kind of thinking.

I was raised to believe that every small misstep would lead to certain doom, and through the years I've repeatedly heard myself express the same message: We can't afford to make mistakes. One little error and we're off the edge of the cliff. Better play it safe.

And while this approach has helped us skirt a few cliff edges, it can't prevent the kinds of disasters that come out of the blue, like dishonest contractors, 100-year floods, and cancer. Sometimes we suffer from other people's mistakes, and sometimes we suffer because suffering happens.

In addition, the "can't afford to make mistakes" mentality may lead to a fear of risk, a paralysis in the face of important decisions. Lately, as my campus tackles its own difficulties, I keep hearing the same cliche: "When you're in a hole, stop digging." Which is great advice, but that doesn't mean we ought to cower in a fetal position at the bottom of the hole with our eyes shut and our hands over our heads. To get out of the hole, we have to be up and doing--and that may mean taking risks. If we're dancing on the edge of disaster, the solution isn't necessarily to stop dancing but to move a little farther from the edge of the cliff.

I admire Hocking College for having the courage to try something new, adding not just football but archery, cheerleading, and basketball (both men's and women's teams). If their execution of the athletics program has resulted in a whole new range of problems, they'll have to prove their mettle by finding new solutions. Or not. Either way, they'll have taken a step, and if it leads over the cliff, at least they'll go down still dancing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Two novels that bridge distances (but one needs a "Bridge Out" sign)

"With enough time," writes Rebecca Hunt, "the emotional impact of any tragedy becomes fossilized. The wrongness or sadness can still be appreciated, but it can no longer be felt." Hunt sets out to counter this trend in Everland, a brief but gripping novel following the fates of two fictional Antarctic expeditions, one in 1913 and one in 2013. The 1913 expedition ends in disaster, but the members of the 2013 group believe they can avoid a similar fate; they are, after all, better trained and equipped with modern technology, and they have studied the history of the first failed expedition so thoroughly that they believe they're aware of all potential pitfalls. 

What they don't know--and can't know--is that the history they've studied is deeply flawed. While Everland is first a suspense-filled novel of survival against the elements, it also serves as a meditation on the difficulty of understanding the past, a difficulty that endangers the 2013 group. Believing the earlier explorers' tragedy to be attributable to the intentional evil acts of one person, they fail to consider their own potential to make simple mistakes that become life-threatening in the harsh Antarctic climate. Placing their faith in technology, they withhold trust from one another, unintentionally repeating the errors of the earlier expedition.

As different as the two expeditions may be, the parallels between them are striking. For instance, just as Jess attempts to hide an injury from her colleagues on the 2013 expedition, Millet-Bass conceals a wound that could threaten his ability to contribute to the survival of the 1913 expedition: "On Everland, his health was their health, his wound a problem for everyone....Millet-Bass didn't get to decide how well or ill he was. It was decided collectively." But collective decision-making suffers when trust is lost, a lesson both expeditions learn all too painfully.

It's true that some of the parallels between the two expeditions seem forced and some characters remain underdeveloped, but Hunt's novel novel provides a page-turning journey into the depths of human hubris, the disasters wrought by a belief that technology inoculates against the consequences of human error.

Another recent novel similarly juxtaposes past and present to drill home a message about human hubris, but alas, far less successfully. Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights starts with an awkward title (two years of nights or just 28 nights?) and pursues a peculiar premise: the eternal battle between faith and reason, with denizens of Fairyland stepping up to champion each side.

Part of the problem here is that Rushdie is just trying to do too much, covering too much time and distance and too many characters in a relatively short work. He's capable of writing sprawling epics covering vast distances of time and space, most masterfully in Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses and the charming but neglected The Enchantress of Florence. Here, though, he's trying to cover a span of 2000 years and a space that moves beyond our accustomed earth to stretch to Peristan, home of the jinn, erstwhile mythical beings that take occasional interest in human culture. In this case, some battle on the side of faith while others support the side of reason. It's as if  Stephen Hawking and Pope Francis decided to debate faith and reason using as their spokesmen Tinkerbell and Chthulhu: it would make for an entertaining spectacle if anyone could come out from quivering under their couches long enough to watch.

Rushdie loads the deck in favor of the forces of reason and aims frequent pointed digs at fundamentalists, such as when the jinn Zabardast proclaims, "We are in the process of instituting a reign of terror on earth, and there's only one word that justifies that as far as these savages are concerned: the word of this or that god. In name of a divine entity we can do whatever the hell we like and most of those fools down there will swallow it like a bitter pill."

Meanwhile, the long-dead Ibn Rushd, the rationalist from whom Rushdie's family took its name, finds hope in the belief that the enemies of reason are stupid. "There is no originality in tyrants," he says, "and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate."

While these battles can be suspenseful, they are conducted in such cartoonish terms that it's hard to feel that they could have any bearing outside the cartoon realm. In fact, few characters in the novel rise beyond the two-dimensional comic-book world Rushdie creates; of those, the most compelling is Mr. Geronimo the gardener, "the man who came unstuck from the world," an Everyman who becomes a hero by curing people's dysfunctional relationships with earth.  I kept hoping that I'd get to see more of Mr. Geronimo, but he gets crowded to the corners by the thousand and one other characters Rushdie briefly introduces and then dismisses into oblivion.

Both Hunt's and Rushdie's novels suffer from similar flaws--underdeveloped characters and infelicitous sentences and a tendency to draw large universal conclusions based on limited data points--but Everland very quickly convinced me that the life-or-death situations Hunt describes could make a difference in the real world of human error while Rushdie's novel never lifted me beyond the bounds of Fairyland.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Who's been coloring all over my woods?

All through this ridiculous week I've been leaving for work in the dark and arriving back home after sunset, so I had no idea what wonders were transforming my woods. I walked up the hill behind our house (without pain!) and found an explosion of red, orange, yellow, and brown, while down in the dry, dead garden a few bright yellow habanero peppers glow like neon lights under the pepper plants. 

The temperature dipped into the 30s last night, so this morning the resident gardener went out and picked everything worth picking from the garden--some green tomatoes, two buckets of sweet potatoes, a lone zucchini (and when have we ever had zucchini still producing this late in the season?). And he also brought in every pepper worth picking, which inspired me to make massive amounts of rice-and-sausage filling to stuff into peppers and bake. We'll be eating stuffed peppers for the rest of the weekend while processing the piles of habaneros and red chilis for the drying. 

That nip in the air feels refreshing and the colorful leaves make us embrace autumn, but they warn us of long, cold, monochromatic months ahead when nothing will warm us so well as the memory of autumn leaves and the red-hot fire of preserved peppers. 


Friday, October 16, 2015

Slap-happy survival song

On Wednesday I had classes full of coughing students and this morning I had an inbox full of messages from sick students, and oddly enough, I believe them. Lots of people are sick, both faculty and students, and those who aren't sick have been battered by this ridiculously busy week. I, on the other hand, feel great! I'm patting myself on the back for having the foresight to get my sickness out of the way before the general malaise set in.

By this point in the semester, anyone still standing deserves a round of applause. (A round of applesauce would be nice too, but it's all gone.) Let those of us who still have voices will solemnly unite in singing a little ditty in celebration of The Semester's Gone to Hell but I'm Still Standing Day:

Take me up to my classroom,
Take me up to my class,
Show me excuses and empty seats--
I don't care 'cause I've got this thing beat!
Let me root, root, root for the healthy
And hope the sick ones come home,
'Cause it's one, two, three empty chairs
In my old classroom! 

(Now play ball!)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Laughable links

This seems to be a time for complaining, for frustration with students and despair about the future and constant awareness of severe joint pain, so I surprised myself this morning by dissolving into laughter over something really inconsequential: a cashier who wished me a "good afternoon" at 9:30 a.m. Maybe she was approaching the end of her shift or maybe I was approaching the end of my ability to cope with the insanities of this meeting-heavy week, but we both had a good laugh before moving on to face whatever the morning/afternoon might bring our way.

Maybe what I'm suffering from this week is a dearth of laughter. And maybe I'm not the only one. And maybe this will help:

From McSweeney's, "Nihilistic Password Security Questions," including "On what street did you lose your childlike sense of wonder?"

From The Onion, "SAT Prep Tips," including "Take a minute to read over the question, take several additional minutes to panic, and then take another couple minutes to kick yourself for not doing any prep classes, while being sure to leave yourself enough time to fill in a convincing-looking pattern of bubbles."

From Fake Science, tips for surviving in the wild--including "Train a small bunny well, and you'll have a friend who will be very sad when that bear eats you."

Not funny but wondrously cheering: "Photographing the Microsopic" in The Atlantic--and if you've never seen a close-up of scales on a moth wing, you're in for a treat.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

There's really no good way to say this...

1. I admire your dedication to personal hygiene, but I'll bet your classmates would prefer that you pop your zits elsewhere--like, anyplace but in my classroom.

2. When you ask if there's anything "special" you can do for me to make sure you can pass my class, I sincerely hope you're asking for extra credit. Asking for extra work when you're having trouble completing the required assignments may be a futile gesture, but trying to offer a bribe opens up a whole new level of pain.

3. This is a small campus in a small town where our primary source of entertainment is talk, so the lie you tell on the other end of campus is going to reach my ears eventually, and then every time I look at you I'll see a scarlet L on your forehead. Just try to sell me some shaky excuse! No mercy for lying slackers.

Now that we've dealt with these peripheral issues, can we please get back to serious learning?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Strictly quizzical

Everyone prefers open-book quizzes, right? It's much easier to analyze a work of literature when the text is right in front of your face, so if I want to assess aspects of students' literary analysis skills, I give them a text and a question and let them run with it.

Sometimes, though, I use reading quizzes to motivate students to complete reading assignments before class and to assess their level of comprehension. In that case, they get a question that requires them to call up details of the text from memory.

In the past two weeks I've given both kinds of quizzes in the same class, both focusing on short, easily readable poems, one with the poem printed on the quiz and one without access to the poem, and the results were stark: 90 percent of students earned an A or B when they had the poem in front of them, while 90 percent earned a C- or lower without the poem.
I asked the class why they thought their performance differed so drastically on the two types of quizzes, and of course they said it's easier to write about a poem that's present on the quiz than one that isn't, and then I asked, "What can you do to make the absent poem present even when it isn't?"

Tough question. I had to ask it a few different ways, but eventually we talked about effective note-taking habits and the need to read texts deeply instead of skimming the surface and moving on. It doesn't help that they're afraid of poetry, convinced that the poem hides some secret hidden meaning accessible only to the elect, and it also doesn't help that they don't seem to feel the power of language so that little of their reading sticks with them. (Then again, maybe they're just not doing the reading.)

Maybe someday I'll find a way to convince reluctant students of the living, breathing power of literature, but until then, I assess what I can: reading comprehension; ability to summarize main points; ability to connect those points with larger concepts. I dream of a sort of literary Last Judgment, with students standing before a Great White Throne and trembling before the Final Question: "How has literature changed your life?" 

That quiz definitely won't be open-book.     

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sentenced to simplicity

I want to applaud my wonderful students for the surprising ways they're taking hold of ideas and developing them in interesting essays, but I'm puzzling over what to do with a small group of students who keep tripping over the same problem in pursuit of clarity.

Sometimes a complex sentence can create within its nesting clauses a profusion of ideas competing for attention, with the result that the reader attempting to untangle the knot or, if you prefer a different metaphor, emerge unscathed from the labyrinth eventually discovers a verb so far removed from its subject that he or she (the reader--remember?) has to scan back over the sentence to figure out who is doing what to whom and why. But that's not the problem with these students.

They eschew confusion. This is a good thing. Clarity is better. Short, simple sentences are easy to read. Just put one small idea in a sentence. Then stop. Then put the next idea in the next sentence. Then stop again. Keep going. The result will be easy to read. It will be clear. It will require no semicolons. Why don't we always write like this?

"Because we don't want to sound like three-year-olds" is the obvious answer, but it's not particularly helpful. I could cry wordy or choppy or I could point out the lovely rhythms that can be produced when ideas are connected more smoothly, but first-year students in required writing courses aren't always particularly interested in wordiness, choppiness, or pleasing rhythms. I could remind students that sophisticated ideas sometimes require sophisticated structures, but they've been traumatized by past attempts that went awry, resulting in red ink bleeding all over their jumbled prose--their run-on sentences crying out for semicolons or their sentences that start out in one direction and then veer sharply, stumbling aimlessly through the woods before falling off a cliff.

Because of past difficulties, a handful of my students have given up trying to produce anything beyond simple sentences that don't demand any extra punctuation or subordinating conjunctions. That's right: in a few short years, I've moved from students who believe that although must always be followed by a comma to students who never use commas and don't know although from Adam.

The problem, I tell them, with all those short, simple sentences lined up in a row is that they obscure relationships between ideas, presenting every single sentence as if it were of equal importance with the next. Although the sentences may be clear and grammatical, they don't build or grow or connect; they just stand at the party with their hands in their pockets refusing to mingle with others. Yes: these short, simple sentences are like students who sit in their seats staring at the little screens that define the margins of their private worlds, sharing space with other students without ever reaching a hand across the void to connect.

Do solipsistic students write solipsistic sentences?

Maybe I'm reading too much into this trend. Maybe this small group of simple-sentence aficionados never learned the miraculous functions of subordination and coordination, never spent sufficient time immersed in the labyrinth of language to understand the magic in the etymological relationship between grammar and glamour. That's a deficit too deep for me to cure in a single semester, but if nothing else, I can introduce my struggling students to some sentence-combining methods and see how they do. 

So simple! Let's hope it works.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

An unexpected windfall

Here is how my family reaped a windfall: on Tuesday morning we packed up all our things from the cabin we'd been staying in--all the board games, pots and pans, bed linens, stuffed animals, fishing gear, and piles and piles of dirty laundry--and stashed them in our vehicles so we could sweep the cabin clean ahead of the 10 a.m. checkout time, and then the men moved the two boats across the inlet while the women drove the cars around to meet the boats at the campground, where it's easier to pull them out. We spent some time that morning paddling around and doing a little fishing before enjoying a picnic lunch and heading for home, but first we'd promised to take Little E to visit the very impressive playground.

The path to the playground took us past a scraggly apple tree that could date from the Johnny Appleseed era, but despite its unkempt appearance, it was absolutely loaded with ripe red apples, with many more piled on the ground. Two park workers were going at it with long rakes to shake more apples out of the tree. Little E was fascinated by the process and asked, "Can I have an apple?" 

"Take as many as you want," said the workers. So we did. 

The apples are small and spotted but they snap sharply when you bite and they taste like fall: tart and cool and juicy. They'll make good applesauce, which is my task this morning. A nasty allergy attack has knocked my feet out from under me the past few days, but I think I'm capable of sitting quietly in the kitchen and peeling apple after apple after apple to put into the applesauce pan, and while I do it I'll think of that final morning at the lake and how a child's simple question resulted in a juicy and delicious windfall.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Gulls just wanna have fun

Gulls are the pigeons of the waterside world: ubiquitous dumpster-divers willing to live on whatever scraps we toss aside, they're common as dirt and easily ignored (except when they're trying to snatch your French Fries before you've finished eating). Toss a piece of stale bread amongst them and they'll squabble like crabby children, but catch them in the right light and they dance in midair, feathers rippling, like angelic beings come to bless us. 



Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Toddler therapy

I've found the antidote to campus angst: spending a few days in the constant company of a curious two-year-old. It helps if you're in a lakeside cabin full of family, food, and fun and you don't have any Internet or cell-phone access, but if you really want to forget all the horrors of that disastrous freshman class, try taking a two-year-old canoeing. Likewise, it's impossible to think about campus politics while constructing a hat out of newspapers or inventing stories about the Little Fishes that Could.

Fish stories became a theme after the Attack of the Alarming Large-Mouth Bass. Little E loved tossing bread to hordes of squirming carp as big as she is, but they did their squirming at a safe distance; the bass her mama caught, on the other hand, was throwing a fit right there in their little boat, which was apparently alarming. "I just like little fishes," says Little E. At any rate we didn't get a chance to try out bass for supper because the fish squirmed its way right out of the boat.

I feel as if I've been gone for weeks because we packed so much into four short days: fishing, walking, playing on the playground, paddling into the sunset in our canoe, playing endless games of dominoes into the night. On a rainy day we caught a glimpse of a pair of sandhills cranes at the edge of a distant cornfield, and every day we heard or saw kingfishers, geese, and cormorants.

But we heard no committees crying in the night, saw no frantic students begging for extensions. I know they're still out there waiting in the distance, but for just a few days it felt good to live in blissful ignorance of anything that doesn't interest a two-year-old.