Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 as a fever dream

Here we are on the final day of this bizarre year but instead of celebrating, I'll be swigging cough syrup and popping aspirin and taking long, fevered naps. Yes: I'm sick. Fortunately, this wretched cough didn't strike until our final day visiting relatives in northern Ohio, but since we've been home I've done little more than cough and sleep. 

The cough syrup fogs my mind and I fear that attempting any profound thought about the year just passing will be impossible. Besides, what can I say about 2016 that I haven't already said before? Here, then, I offer highlights (and some low points) of my year:

In January I celebrated my 10-year blogiversary with an abecedary of reasons to keep blogging (here) and bought a sweater with zipaulettes or epaulippers (here). I photographed birds in Florida in January (here) and April (here) and May (here and here), which is three times the normal rate of visiting Florida but I had a good reason.

I said goodbye to my sweet mom (here) and hello to a new grandson (here) and tried to make sense of our circle-of-life summer (here). We welcomed the onslaught of  17-year cicadas (here)  and flipped the canoe in the Ohio River (here). Later, we took a left turn at Normalville (here) and enjoyed some R&R in southeastern Pennsylvania (here).  

I railed against writing as punishment (here) and the selfie stick as research tool (here) and lame introductions (here and here), and I wrote a sonnet to plagiarism (here). I tangled with imaginary mindless bureaucrats at the  Crisis Scheduling Service (here) and real ones at Frontier Communications (here).

Simon Newman of Mount St. Mary's recommended drowning and/or shooting the "cuddly bunnies" in our classes (here), but I found some other ways to engage students in learning: through interpretive maps (here), comedy (here), adding Bob Dylan to the syllabus (here), and making my students write for a real audience (here and here). Along the way, I read an extra 27,000 words of student writing (here). 

I gave a paper at a conference in Toronto (here) and later tried to explain my work to the nurse prepping me for a colonoscopy (here).  I wondered about degrees of evil in Catch-22 (here) and let a song transport me back in time to an annoying memory that turned into my second-most-popular post of the year (here).

I reviewed poetry by  James Massey (here) and celebrated the tasty casserole that is Winesburg, Indiana, by Michael Martone and a mess of other interesting writers (here).  I reviewed Ethan Canin's A Doubter's Almanac, which won me over in the end (here) and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, which did not (here). I reviewed two books bringing troubled childhood to vivid life: Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomcomer and Robert Gipe's Trampoline (here). I found Don DeLillo's Zero K disappointing (here) but enjoyed Ian McEwan's Nutshell (here). And Hope Jahren's Lab Girl may have been the best book I read all year, but it also inspired my most popular post of the year (here).

After all that fuss and bother, the year ended on a quiet note: reading W.S. Merwin on my birthday (here) and decorating Christmas cookies with my granddaughter (here). And now come the cough and the sniffles and the long, fevered naps. Happy New Year! Now I think I'll go lie down. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Snippets of holiday cheer

Favorite Christmas gift: Fun and games with my kids and grandkids. That cast-iron casserole dish with the lid even I can't break runs a distant second, but nothing else comes close to the joy of putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my adult children on Christmas Eve or helping my granddaughter figure out her new binoculars (which she pronounce binoc-lee-ars), and when the grandson starts up his adorable laugh, everyone laughs with him.

Holiday serendipity: For weeks we've been hunting for my husband's birthday/Christmas gift--a new suit, badly needed. Nearby stores offered prom-worthy suits, suits apparently constructed from recycled Hefty trash bags, and wonderful suits marked way, way down to a price higher than our monthly mortgage payment. So here we are visiting relatives a hundred miles from home and we're looking for a place to get out of bitterly cold wind so we step into a tiny boutique, where I grab a jacket from the rack and tell my husband to try it on, and there it is: his new suit. Perfect fabric, perfect color, near-perfect fit, and a price we can manage--and they're willing to mail it to us at no extra charge after they do some minor alterations. "Seek and ye shall find" is one way to shop, but sometimes it works better to stop seeking and let it find ye.

Why I'm not sending any postcards this week: Normally we head to Florida the week after Christmas, but we went there three times last spring during my mother's decline, so we decided to stick closer to home. So here we are in the cold north, dashing from house to car to little boutique in an attempt to keep the cold wind from transforming us into Abominable Snowmen. My husband loves cold weather, but he's from here. I keep wishing we were walking on the beach--and not on the shores of Lake Erie. But at least we're getting to spend evenings with the grandkids. Their warmth is the best escape from winter's cold.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Visions of sugarplums

It took two of us to roll out all the gingerbread cookie dough this morning: my granddaughter standing on a chair and rolling as hard as she could and me pressing down on the rolling pin just a little bit harder. I think we both worked up a sweat, but the result was a whole mess of bells, trees, snowmen, stars, and, of course, gingerbread men.

More hands pitched in on the decorating--because let's face it, you're never too old to decorate Christmas cookies. Little E decided that all the cookies she decorated needed a LOT of sprinkles, but her mom used individual sprinkles to make tiny carrot noses on the snowmen while a visiting friend put a colorful holiday sweater on a reindeer.

In the end an eclectic gathering of colorful cookies covered the table begging to be gobbled down. When the UPS truck made its trek up our driveway to deliver a package, I took a plate of cookies out to the driver, who handed me a package and said, "I think I'm getting the better gift." For me, though, but the greatest gift is the presence of family and friends willing to put their own special touches on a crop of creative cookies.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Never quibble with the person holding the needle

It's hard enough to explain to someone outside my field why I'm doing research on garbage in literature, but when the person asking the question is holding a needle and trying to stick it into my arm, it's hopeless. "You're doing what?" she'll ask and laugh so hard that the needle will slide right through the vein and pierce my elbow joint and come right out the other side.

Why would I even want to talk to the nurse about my research while she's trying to insert an IV? My blood vessels are notoriously uncooperative so I ought to shut up and make things as easy as possible, but it all started when she got to the part on the pre-colonoscopy questionnaire about whether I'd been out of the country in the past 30 days. I had to think back to exactly when I was in Toronto, and then she wanted to know why I was in Toronto, and I told her I was giving a paper at a conference, and she wanted to know what kind of paper, and I said something vague like "a report on my research," and then she wanted to know what kind of scientist I am, and then I said I'm an English professor, and she said she thought research was something scientists did so what could it possibly mean for an English professor to do research, and what am I supposed to say to that? "I'm working on a project on the portrayal of garbage in literature"? 

So I told her about the two post-9/11 novels I talked about in Toronto, with their portrayals of the tension between repulsion from and attraction to the ash from the falling towers, the fear of being showered in bits of other people's bodies linked with the increase in status that can arise from closeness to disaster, and she said "huh" and "oh" and "interesting," and then she said, "You have an accent. Are you from Minnesota?"

And I said, "No, I'm from Connecticut."

And she said, "But where are you from originally?

And I said, "Connecticut."

And she said, "No, I mean what state?"

I was in a state, all right, but I wouldn't want to specify what kind.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ooh and aah or retch and gag?

This morning I left the endoscopy center with a band-aid on my arm, a hunger in my belly, and, in my purse, four small photographs of the interior of my colon.

Want to see 'em? 

Neither do I. I don't know if my bowels are any more or less photogenic than any others, but frankly, my view on internal organs is that they're kept out of sight for a reason. 

Nevertheless there they are in living color: four views of my colon, including one of the inky-dinky polyp that the doctor efficiently removed. (Probably harmless.) What am I supposed to do with these photos, paste them in a scrapbook? Post 'em on Facebook so all my friends can ooh and aah? (Retch and gag is more likely.) Keep them as a precious reminder of an experience I'd rather forget?
The colonoscopy itself was not unpleasant, thanks to anesthesia. The last thing I remember is wishing someone would switch the radio to a station that wasn't playing "All I Want for Christmas is You," and then boom, there I was waking up in the recovery room after it was all over.

But the 24-hour span leading up to the colonoscopy--that was memorable, but not in a good way. I don't want to go into detail here, but trust me: they're not kidding when they say this regimen will "clean you out." No photographs of that part of the procedure exist, and if they did, I'd burn them.

Maybe that's what I'll do with my colonoscopy photos: ignite a little sacrificial pyre, sending every memory of the unpleasantness wafting to the skies. Goodbye, colonoscopy! And good riddance!   

Friday, December 16, 2016

That's one way to banish the craziness

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I had totally lost my mind: when I saw the sentence describing how certain people "wok well with the Chinese" and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it. I mean, doesn't wok work really well in that sentence? (Except that it's supposed to be work.)

After a week of nearly non-stop grading, I no longer feel as if I can work the English language. Minor things take on inordinate importance: I see ect. instead of etc. and I want to stomp up and down on the paper and write FFFFFF!!! 

But that would be wrong--and the fact that I can make that judgment  suggests that I still have a little more mind left to lose, which is good because the grading isn't quite done yet. Fifteen final essay exams to grade and I'll be DONE. (If not done for.)

I saw a wok that made me awk,
an ect. that made me eek,
some commas that should take a walk
to the middle of next week.

I saw the letters dance, the words
assume bizarre positions.
And as for logic--it's absurd!

Such errant propositions!

I saw alot a lot and squawked
when affect stood for effect;
I huffed at stuff and it's' and clocked
a dozen other defects.

I've seen it all! I'd like to call
a halt to all this worry.
I know! I'll close my eyes and fall
asleep til January!

(But who will finish my grading?)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Final exams, fueled by muffins

I'm proctoring the final exam in my first-year composition class when a student comes up and asks to use the bathroom, but before I can say a word, he pulls out his smartphone and wallet and places them on my desk. 

I understand where this comes from--I've certainly proctored exams in which I wouldn't let students out of the room at all, or else I've confiscated their communication devices if they had too leave. This exam, though, is different: students have two and a half hours to write a complete essay in response to a prompt, drawing evidence from two short readings and the film we watched last week--but they are allowed to use any resources they can carry into the classroom. (Except for people: No, you may not carry your roommate into the room to write your paper for you.)

Only two students elected to write the essay out by hand; the rest brought their laptops. They may refer to notes, prior writing assignments, books, anything they've got on that laptop; the only rule is that they're not allowed to access anything online during the class period. I require them to turn their desks toward the back wall so I can see the screens, which may discourage them from seeking out online summaries, but realistically, I can't watch 20 computer screens constantly for two and a half hours, so anyone really determined to cheat could find a way. On the other hand, the prompt is so specific that they're unlikely to find any ready-made essays out there in Plagiarism Land, so cheating would be more trouble than just sitting down and writing the essay.

I told them before class, "If you need to use the rest room, go right ahead--you know where it is. If you need some juice or muffins, here they are at the front of the room. Just don't disturb your classmates." By this point in the semester, they know the value of keeping their nose to the grindstone, so there they sit, hard at work. You can just about see those little hamster-wheels in their brains whirling--if you could harness that power, you could light the world.

And yes, I bring juice and muffins for an 8:30 a.m. final--because they had to walk across campus in subfreezing temperature, and because I want them to think clearly for this exam even if they've been up all night studying and skipped breakfast. Also, they've worked really hard this semester and deserve a treat. Getting out of bed for an 8 a.m. first-year writing class for 15 long weeks (with very little absenteeism) is an accomplishment deserving of some sort of reward.

But where is my reward? Right here in this room, where fingers are flying across keyboards and ideas are flowing and the essays will soon be streaming in.

(And if there are leftover muffins, they'll make the grading go much more smoothly. Have one. Plenty for all!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Two extra students, tons more work

I'm struggling through finals week and wondering why the grading burden feels so much greater than usual this semester and suddenly it hits me: those two extra seats added to first-year composition classes. True, two extra students can't make a huge difference in the amount of grading I'm doing this week, but let's look at what they've added to my reading, responding, and grading burden this semester:

15 reading responses  @ 400 words each = 6000 words per student 
x 2 students = 12,000 words

Two in-class essays @ 750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

Two drafts requiring extensive feedback @ 750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

Two papers @750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

One research draft requiring extensive feedback @ 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

One research paper @1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

That adds up to 27,000 additional words of student writing for me to read and respond to this semester--if they wrote the bare minimum. It doesn't include one-on-one conferences (two required, more requested), in-class exercises (many), frantic e-mails requesting help, or two extra students to haul around on the library tour. 

That's a lot of work.

The good news is that the seat numbers for next semester have been restored to a more reasonable level. The bad news is that the people responsible for setting that number seem blissfully unaware of how big an impact two extra students can have in a writing-intensive class, so there's no guarantee that the number won't increase again in the future. 

One of these days we'll all be replaced by robots. Meanwhile, I've got 73 more papers and exams to grade.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing for a real audience, part 2: The results are in!

Last month I wrote (here) about my attempt to liven up my first-year writers' research papers by requiring them to write for a real audience: write a memo to the provost arguing that every Marietta College student should be required to engage in some common experience--take a class, learn a skill, take a field trip, whatever. Now the results are in and I couldn't be more pleased. 

The papers are about evenly split between those arguing that all students should take some sort of class (in personal finance, personal fitness, nutrition, or American government) and those arguing that students should share a specific experience (playing intramural sports, volunteering in the community, joining a fraternity, playing Scrabble to aid in language-learning). One student argued that all first-year students should be required to visit an art museum and write about the experience, which demonstrates an unusual awareness of the objectives of a liberal-arts education.

I had hoped that this assignment would inspire students to write with passion about matters important to them, and for the most part, they did. I had hoped that requiring them to write for a specific audience (the provost) would help them avoid the vagueness that enters so many first-year writers' research papers, and for the most part, it worked. (Okay, you really don't need to devote a whole paragraph to explaining the rules of Scrabble. I can guarantee the provost knows how to play.)

But the assignment also achieved an objective I hadn't thought about: all of these students expanded their understanding of how higher education works. I know this because I required them to consider and critique an opposing view, a common requirement for first-year research papers. I encountered the usual "how could anyone disagree with my great idea?" complaints, but I had a ready response: Count the costs. Every change to the curriculum will cost something, but how much and who will pay? I encouraged them to track down some numbers (Some may argue that my plan will be too costly to implement) and then show why the program is worthwhile despite the costs.

For some proposals, estimating costs was not too difficult. If you want to take the entire first-year class to a decent art museum, you figure out how many students can fit in a chartered bus and how many buses you'd need and how much it costs to get into the art museum and feed the students lunch and pay their leaders, and then you compare that number to the amount we spend sending the entire incoming class whitewater rafting and you've got a nice tidy argument.

Others were more difficult. I kept having conversations like this one:

Me: How many sections of the class will we need?
Student: [blank look]
Me: Well, are you planning to pile the entire first-year class into a great big auditorium and lecture at them, or do you need to break them up into smaller groups?
Student: I guess they should be in smaller groups--like 20 or 30 students.
Me: Okay, then you can easily estimate how many sections you'll need. Then you need to think about who will teach them.
Student: Oh, someone from the political science department can teach the class.
Me: Okay, so you're going to take someone from the political science program out of his regular classes to teach a bunch of sections of the class you're proposing. Who will teach the regular political science classes? 
Student: Well, maybe we can hire some new professors.
Me: How much will that cost?

That question always stumped them, but fortunately, they were highly motivated to find some answers. I showed the class how to locate data about Marietta College on our website and average salary data on the Chronicle's website (here). Some of them were befuddled by faculty ranks and assumed that "full" means "full-time," and some failed to consider specific disciplines and so assumed that the average incoming Assistant Professor of Political Science would earn the same amount as a tenured full professor of Petroleum Engineering, but those are minor points. I also didn't ask them to consider the cost of benefits or office space or any of the other miscellaneous items; I just wanted them to consider what it takes to hire a qualified person to teach a new class and then muster up evidence that the costs are nevertheless worthwhile.

And they did it. Some of their arguments are quite convincing while others are at least well constructed, showing signs of increased understanding of how higher education works and improved skill in writing persuasively for a real audience. Do any of their proposals have any hope of being approved? That would be up to the provost--and the general education task force and the curriculum committee and the full faculty in its role as keeper of the curriculum. But if I were the provost, I'd fight for some of these changes.

And then when I got tired of fighting, I'd relax with a good game of Scrabble. (Your move.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Glitter litter

What happens when you take laundry out of the dryer without being aware that you've got glitter all over your clothes?

Well, the next time my husband puts on a dress shirt, he'll sparkle like a Christmas tree.

I didn't intend to buy wrapping paper encrusted with glitter, but it was pretty and on sale and nothing on the packaging screamed BEWARE OF GLITTER! So there I was yesterday wrapping a couple of gifts in the dining room, which we will now call the shining room--see how it sparkles! Glitter on the placemats, glitter on the trivets, glitter on the chairs and embedded in the floorboards. 

Glitter on my clothes, which I wore all over the house. Glitter on the sofa and in the bathroom and on the bedspread and glitter all over the clean laundry.

How could that little bit of glitter spread so far from its source? Glitter has an amazing ability to multiply and expand and adhere to everything so stubbornly that it's almost impossible to remove, and then when you think you've got it all cleaned up, there it is again, sparkling on the doorknob or the window or a computer keyboard. It's alive! Scientists ought to study glitter's reproductive processes so they can figure out how to stop its spread before the entire world drowns in a sea of glitter.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Reading Merwin on my birthday

On the morning of my birthday I'm reading poems by W.S. Merwin at 4 a.m., which is not the ideal time to be awake but if I'm awake anyway I may as well redeem the time, plus I have a whole new volume of Merwin to peruse because some wonderful member of my family is familiar with my Amazon wish-list. 

Merwin makes me read slowly and retrace my steps to try to locate the magic beneath the words. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"--a fairy-tale retold or an interrogation of the story-telling process? Which is more real, the mundane world or the fairy tale that overlays ordinary life with mystery and wonder?

"On the Subject of Poetry" I have to read three times and then return again later to the variations on "in" in the second stanza, the closing line's subtle lament for an inexplicable world, and the third stanza's picture of a poet's work:
                                    He does not move
His feet nor so much as raise his head
For fear he should disturb the sound he hears
Like a pain without a cry, where he listens.
I want that passionate attention, that patient listening to a world grown more inexplicable by the minute. I looked this morning at the "year in review" video Facebook assembled from a year's posts and I found it sorely lacking; yes, I see those lovely photos of birds and grandchildren, but I note the gaps: the family crisis that will never make it to Facebook, the shocking murder of my daughter's high-school classmate, the weeks spent attending my mother's final illness and then the gaping wound left by her death.

This sends me to another Merwin poem: "Rain Light," which is worth reading in full (here). I hear reassurance in the voice of the mother who says, "I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right" and then directs the son's attention to the flowers, the sun, and the hills: "see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning."

I wonder what my students will make of that poem when they read it next semester. Maybe you have to be older than the federal speed limit and know some loss before Merwin's quiet poems can sear your soul and then pour healing balm on the wounds. I don't know what I would have made of Merwin at 20 years old, but at 55? He's just my speed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pet Peeve #8,742: repeating the prompt

I posed a question for my teacherly friends on Facebook because I really wanted to know: How do you react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of the essay--good thing/bad thing? And a colleague responded thus: "How do I react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of her or his essay? Although sometimes it can be a good thing, often it is a bad thing."

Ha! (See what he did there?)

I've railed against this practice in the past. I see some familiar sentences in the introduction to an essay and I say, "Those are my sentences! Write your own! And don't tell me what I already know!" But then students claim that they're just doing what they've been told to do: always repeat the prompt in the introduction.

I can imagine contexts in which this would be a fine idea. If you're writing under time pressure on an essay exam and the question asks about the principle products of Peru, it makes sense to transform the question into a statement and start right in on the principle products of Peru. But for an essay written outside of class with drafts and feedback, you've got time to ruminate on the prompt and spit out an original idea--or at least an unoriginal idea cloaked in original language.

But inevitably I get that student who not only repeats the prompt as the introduction to his paper but also restates it again in the conclusion, perhaps in reverse order, which means that two major paragraphs of his paper are constructed from sentences I wrote. A highly efficient way to write a paper! And this student is well equipped to succeed in the cut-and-paste world we've created for ourselves. 

So maybe I should stop screaming about students who steal my sentences and claim them as their own. (But I'll still reward such behavior with a Very Bad Grade--very quietly.)

Monday, December 05, 2016

When the exploding ducks come home to roost.

"I'm getting all my ducks in a row," said my student, "but unfortunately some of them keep trying to fly off and a few of them are exploding."

I know the feeling. This is the time of the semester when Exploding Duck Syndrome reaches epidemic proportions on campus.

And it's not just students: between now and Dec. 20, I have to read, respond to, and/or grade 116 separate drafts/papers/projects/exams/presentations, plus a handful of bonus assignments a few people may decide to turn in. Make it an even 120. If I could grade 10 each day I'd be home free, but I can't do that because of the way the deadlines are staggered--and I have no control over the final exam schedule, so don't blame me.

Of course I did this to myself, as usual. It's hard to get around requiring final research projects at the end of the semester. If the project is supposed to represent the culmination of the student's learning over the course of the semester, then it can't really be due in the third week of classes. The right time for final projects is right now, and the right time for finals is next week, which adds up to a whole flock of exploding ducks.

But what am I complaining about? All I have to do is grade 'em; my students are the ones doing the hard work. Those taking multiple literature classes are typing their little fingers off this week, walking around with dark rings under their eyes and wondering whether they'll have a single coherent thought left in their brains by the end of next week. At that point we'll all congratulate ourselves on surviving the Exploding Duck Syndrome epidemic, even if it leaves us all feeling like birdbrains.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Just what we need: more automated hand-holding

Yesterday I was among a group of faculty members previewing a new online student-success system that guarantees--GUARANTEES!--that it will improve student retention rates, which is tempting if true, but the whole thing feels so intrusive and Big Brotherish that it's one step away from providing every student with a personal robot to make sure he gets to class and then nags him to do his homework. Whether it's called Student SuccessWorks or GradeGuardPro or MyMomBot, that system is going to make someone a billionaire.

Which makes me wonder: If I provide some essential scripts for MyMomBot, will the inventor cut me in on the profits? Can't hurt to try:

[Gentle chimes.] Rise and shine, [insert name here]! I've laid out your clothes and ironed your socks, so you've got just enough time to dress, print out your paper,  and head to the dining hall before your 8:00 class! Press 1 to accept this reminder, 2 if you'd like just five more minutes of sleep, or 3 to indicate illness and initiate a call to MyDocBot.

[Rooster crowing.] I said rise and shine, [insert name here]! I see in my databank that you've already reached your quota of absences in your 8:00 class so missing another class will endanger your grade. We care about your success! If you get up right now, you've got just enough time to print out your paper and get to class if you skip breakfast! But I don't want you to go to class hungry--I am prepared to distribute a quick breakfast on the go. Press 1 for a granola bar, 2 for a banana, 3 for a hard-boiled egg.

[Foghorn.] Okay, no more messing around, [insert name here]! No time to lose if you don't want to lose more points in your 8:00 class! Don't even think about the socks I ironed for you--just roll out of bed, print out your paper, and dash into class a few minutes late. I'm prepared to issue an excuse to suit your need: press 1 for dead grandparent, 2 for computer virus, or 3 for roommate's suicide attempt. 

[Sirens.] Are you planning to get out of bed at all today, [insert name here]? We care about your success! But after all the time and money we've invested in your success, all you want to do is lie there like a bum. Don't you care about your future? Do you want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers and living in your parents' basement? If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times--all we want is for you to be happy! But you'll never be happy if you fail freshman comp. So are you going to get out of bed on your own or do I have to drag you out? Press 1 for "drag me out," 2 for "pour cold water on my head," or 3 for -- wait, what are you doing? Put that sledgehammer down! We care about your success! We care about your success! We care about y----

And the rest is silence.