Monday, October 30, 2017

Playing catch-up in the admissions arms race

I haven't worked an admissions event in several years, so yesterday when I manned the English Department information table, I was shocked--shocked, I tell you!--at advances other departments have made in the battle to attract students.

It's an admissions arms race out there: one department offered candy, while another offered candy AND pens, and the next provided imprinted cups full of candy and pens. Some tables featured massive displays of colorful photographs of students doing exciting things in and out of the classroom, while others offered photos AND videos that looked professionally produced. One prof dressed like a mad scientist while another donned a gigantic hat resembling the one worn by our college mascot. The biggest crowd, though, gathered around a fraternity's colorful display--not to read their informational materials but  to pet the dog.

I looked at the table in front of me and saw folders full of printed materials about the English major and stacks of copies of our college literary magazine. No photos, no video, no costumes, no candy, no pets. Clearly, the English Department needs to step up its game--but how?

I brainstormed a bit with the English major who was helping to (wo)man the table (which attracted a total of TWO prospective majors). Sure, we could post some photos or get someone more technologically advanced that I am to produce a video, and we could even order pens or cups or t-shirts or jump drives or kruggerands advertising the department, but we would still be way behind in the admissions arms race. 

Costumes? I suppose we could dress up like famous authors, but I'm not sure the mournful face of Edgar Allan Poe is the best lure for prospective students.

Pets? My dog is uncivilized and most of my colleagues have cats, but I suppose we could come up with a goldfish. Name him Moby Dick. That'll bring in the crowds!

Finally, it hit me: the prospective students who stop at our table always want to know what they can do with an English major, and I thought of a great way to show them. We'll ask our director of tutoring services to hang some silks from the ceiling and demonstrate the acro-yoga skills she teaches, and then when she's drawn a sufficient crowd, she can talk about the advantages of pursuing dual majors in English and biology and how much she loves the job her major led her to. Then we can invite the prospective students to pet the goldfish and hand them each a kruggerand imprinted with the college logo. That should get some attention!

Then I'll hand them a folder full of printed materials about the major, and that's when they'll all turn and walk away--because, let's face it, nobody wants to be forced to actually read things.

So maybe my plan needs work. I'm accepting suggestions! (And kruggerands too, if you have a few to spare.)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

From book to film and back again

The disadvantage of showing a film for students starting at 8 p.m. is that I get all keyed up keeping myself awake to drive home in the middle of the night and then I can't calm down enough to fall asleep easily, so good thing I don't have to teach this morning. On the other hand, the great thing about showing a film for students is hearing their spontaneous responses: 

"That's not how it happened in the book!" 

"Why did they change that scene?" 

"They left out the best part!" 

"Too much emphasis on the romance."

And my favorite: "Where's the bear? It's not Cold Mountain without the bear!"

I've been teaching Cold Mountain in my Honors Odysseys class for years but I've never shown the whole film in class for the very reasons mentioned above. This year's group really wanted to see it, though, so I arranged an out-of-class showing, and while they enjoyed the film as a film, they agreed that it leaves out much of what gives the novel depth: the philosophical musings about the problem of pain, the painstakingly slow development of characters over time, the preacher's brief but compelling moment of redemption, and, of course, the bear.

Meanwhile, in my comedy class yesterday we were discussing the small chunk of Don Quixote I'd assigned (and it appeared that most of the students had read at least some of it), so I showed the tilting-at-windmills clip from Man of La Mancha. I was surprised to learn that none of my students had ever seen or heard of the film, although I probably shouldn't be surprised since it hasn't aged particularly well. I took along my Don Quixote and Sancho Panza figurines to serve as our inspiration and started the discussion by pointing out that the pedestals the characters stand on are shaped like books, which led smoothly into a discussion of metafiction that eventually sparked the question, "If reading books can drive people crazy, what are we doing here?"

What I'm doing here today is sitting around in my pajamas long past the time when I'm usually in class and then donning my rusty English Prof armor to do battle with a pile of student papers.(If I ever follow Don Quixote over the edge into insanity, don't blame the books--blame the student papers.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


The highlight of my day arrived in the hallway after class when a student--not an English major!--asked me to briefly explain postmodernism; he listened attentively, asked great follow-up questions, and seemed to understand--and then expressed interest in taking another literature class even though he doesn't need one to graduate. I walked away feeling competent, quick-witted, and ready to tackle any challenge.

That's not how I felt later when I tripped over an errant piece of office furniture and fell flat on my face in front of my first-year seminar students. Even while I was insisting "I'm fine, I'm fine" (I'm not fine), I wanted to kick myself for being such a klutz, and I would still do so if I could find a part of my body that wasn't already hurting.

It wouldn't have happened, of course, if I hadn't been trying to do too many things at once. I used to be pretty good at multitasking, but yesterday I spent 14 hours on campus with only one break from work and by the time I got to the point last evening when I had promised to show an out-of-class movie for my students, my multitasking skills had been thoroughly depleted. Further, this is the time in the semester when the tank empties out pretty quickly, and as I look ahead, it will only get worse: advising appointments and evening meetings crowd my schedule for the next two weeks. In fact, today is the only day this week when I can foresee leaving campus before 5.

And so when I'm told that we need to be doing more to help our students succeed, I want to lie back down on the floor and cry. If I can't competently do what I already need to do, how can I possibly do more?

I know I sound like a stick-in-the-mud, especially since I've always been among the early adopters of new methods and programs. When learning communities were supposed to transport our students to new heights of engagement, I hopped on board the learning communities bus and did my best to keep it running, and I've been involved in teaching and sometimes helping to design every iteration of our freshman seminar. I have assessed and workshopped and engaged enough to fill up thousands of Buzzword Bingo cards, and I've continued to teach learning communities even after the stipend was reduced to a pittance.

But I've reached my limit. My schedule is filled to bursting, my patience is worn to shreds, and  my ability to remain upright in front of my classes has taken a beating. Pile one more demand on my back and I'm likely to fall to the floor--and next time I may not be so quick to get back up again. I can explain postmodernism from a prone position if the need arises--just be careful not to walk all over me.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A small-scale color season

The weather gurus tell us that we had too much rain at the wrong time, or not enough rain at the right time, resulting in a fall color season characterized by hillsides shifting straight from green to brown with just a few splashes of yellow or red in between. If fall color will be rare this year, I thought I'd better find some before it all fades away.

Just outside the house I saw orange in the air everywhere--Asian ladybeetles flittering around looking for warm places to winter. They're preferable to what we smelled in the air this morning: burnt plastics from a factory fire more than 20 miles away. Fortunately, by noon a shift in the weather had pushed the stink away.

The upper meadow smells of rotting leaves and bristles with many shades of brown, from milkweed pods bursting and dried teasels rustling in the breeze. A few spots of color--orange oak leaf, purple brambles, bright red berries, and a lone violet blossom, rare in October. Down in the garden orange flashes warn of heat--ghost peppers and habaneros still ripening beneath the green leaves. The woods offer up a few yellow and orange trees, and two tiny pinkish leaves nestle among the verdant green on a rotting log.

The show is not particularly spectacular and would be easy to overlook, but they're better than nothing. Better enjoy them while we can!

Friday, October 20, 2017

How would you grade a great weekend?

"Have a great weekend," I told my students, "And that's an order. I'll be grading your weekend on Monday."

But how would I do that? Compose a rubric measuring how many hours students spent studying, drafting, learning their lessons? Frankly, some of my students really need to walk away from the books and go outside for while.

They could wear little digital video cameras all weekend to record their activities and then do a presentation in class on Monday--"My Weekend and Welcome to It"--but that's a Panopticon I'd prefer not to enter. 

Or I could ask them to write an essay reflecting on what makes a weekend great and how their  weekends measured up to their own standards of greatness, but that sounds like a excellent way to wreck a student's weekend. I know that all the cool profs are requiring students to write metacognitive reflection essays about, essentially, everything, but at some point they'll have nothing to reflect on but the writing of reflection essays, which is way too meta for me.

I want my students to keep learning outside the classroom but I also want them to rest and recreate and renew themselves so they can learn more in the classroom. If I really had to grade my students' weekends, I'd have to base the grades on how prepared they are to tackle new challenges on Monday morning. Wide awake and ready to discuss the reading? A+. Dozing at the desk and unable to  respond to the simplest questions? D-. How they achieved those conditions is really not my concern.

(One day I'll write an essay reflecting on why I resist asking students to reflect on the writing of reflection essays, but right now I'm all out of meta.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nothing to write home about...

What if my students wrote letters home about today's classes?

Dear Mom and Dad,
This morning in my freshman comp we talked about goose rectums.  We read an essay about the Berkeley Pit copper mine in Butte, Montana, which is full of water polluted with all kinds of nasty stuff. It's kind of pretty, but you wouldn't want to drink it. We read that a flock of geese landed on the polluted water and then when they took off again, they evacuated their bowels and released a microorganism that grew into a film on the water. "Goose poop had made the pit come alive," said the article. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've heard an English professor mention goose rectums in class, so I thought you'd want to know about it.
Joe Q. Freshperson

Dear Mom and Dad,
Today in my honors literature class I drew a hand turkey, just the way we used to do it in elementary school: trace around the hand to make feathers and add a beak and feet. It was neat! We were drawing maps to illustrate important points in the development of a character in Cold Mountain, and our group thought the turkey incident was pretty important. Another group drew a rattlesnake that looked like a French horn, and we talked about what kind of instruments we'd like played at our funerals. We also drew pants. I wish we could do this every day instead of all that heavy reading! I miss elementary school! Please may I go back to third grade?
Your straight-A student

Yo wassup?
College is crazy. Watching a movie about some old dead dude with a funny mustache, Chaplain or something, ain't even in color. You paid money for this? When u bringing me home?

Dear Grandma,
You wouldn't believe the short videos we watched in my comic literature class today! We've been reading all these boring stories by famous people I've never heard of like Thurber and Cervantes, but today we watched videos chosen by students, who had to talk about the theories of comedy illustrated by the videos. It was so much more fun than reading, like, Shakespeare! First we watched a video by a comic making fun of grandmothers--not that there's anything wrong with grandmothers. Some of my best friends are grandmothers! 👧 Then there was the one called "Show Me Your"--never mind. And the one about the dead kid and the rape and the Silly String--um, what do you think about the weather we've been having? Anything exciting happening in the nursing home? I can't wait to see you and tell you all the neat stuff I've been learning!  (Well, maybe not all of it....)
Your grandkid

Maybe it's just as well that they don't write letters....  

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Score one for the humanities

It was one of those days when I really ought to have been given a prize for refraining from throwing any students out the window: a bleak, damp, cold Monday morning when three freshman classes before noon just felt like too many freshmen, when an entire class expressed ignorance of a major assignment we've been talking about for two weeks, when a student asked a question so ridiculous that I didn't even have to answer because the rest of the class rose up as one to respond--loudly.  The kind of morning that makes me wonder why I didn't pursue a career in welding or glass-blowing or bead-sorting or anything involving inanimate objects that can't talk back (which is a pretty good description of a few of my students yesterday)--the kind of day, in other words, that makes me wonder why I keep banging my head against the same brick wall semester after semester. 

And then I opened an e-mail from a student--not even a current student but a student I taught a few years ago, who later transferred to another school. So I haven't seen or heard from this student for three years and I probably haven't thought about him either, but here he is suddenly in my inbox thanking me for urging him to pursue an English major.

It took me a few minutes to remember this kid, but he included a few clues in the message and then it all came flooding back: a student determined to pursue a major in engineering even though he hated his intro-level engineering classes, who wrote elegant papers analyzing literature with a depth of insight rarely seen in freshman writing, the kind of insight that screams "English major." I remember meeting with him to hear him list all the reasons he hated engineering but felt that he had to major in it anyway, and I remember urging him to major in English or, if that wasn't possible, to take as many courses as he could in the humanities and try to squeeze in an English minor.

All these anguished meetings may have felt like a total waste of time three years ago, but today I have in my inbox a message explaining that he's sick of engineering and wants to pursue his passion, so he's switching his major to English, even though this will delay his graduation by three semesters. "Engineering has never been my passion," he writes, adding, "Already, I feel much happier thinking about studying something more enjoyable."

In the midst of a chorus of complaints about how unreasonable I am to expect students to find six sources in only three weeks or to read a five-page story before Wednesday's class even though it's incredibly boring, consisting, as it does, of too many big words, I celebrate a student who applies the word "enjoyable" to the study of literature. Please send me more of those students! Otherwise, one of these days I won't be able to stop myself from throwing someone out the window.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From one frontier to another

On the same day that I flew home from Florida, I found that my home landline was once again out of service, so within a few hours I moved from lauding Frontier Airlines to complaining to Frontier Communications. But now the phone is working again after a mere three days of silence, which is much swifter service than we've received in the past. I find that mentioning my willingness to file a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio tends to get Frontier's attention, but I only know that because I've had to deal with this same problem so many times. 

On the other hand, my house didn't burn down this week, and neither was it hit by a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or zombie apocalypse, so what do I have to complain about, really? Okay, so the van rental for my field trip got messed up, but then nearly all of my students realized (after much finagling to find a workable date) that they had better things to do and wouldn't be able to go on the field trip anyway, so I cancelled it. Sure, they'll miss a valuable educational experience, but on the plus side, I'll have some unexpected free time Sunday afternoon. Maybe I'll take myself on a field trip and try to see some fall color.

And I can be grateful that I can still see, after dealing with a vision problem that resulted in two optometric appointments in two days and a whole lot of prodding, measuring, and testing of my eyeballs. I have had my corneas poked with a wand. I have stared intently at bright shimmery blue lights while listening to shrieking lasers. I have viewed detailed photographs of the inside of my eyeball, which looks about how you'd expect. Now I'm awaiting results of tests while being reassured that the current problem probably won't get any worse--but if I see something that looks like a rain of black pepper or a dark curtain closing over my vision, I'm supposed to call my eye guy right away.

I just hope he's more reliable than Frontier (Communications) and gets me where I need to be as efficiently as Frontier (Airlines). 


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Enlightened at the library

"How many of you have ever checked out a book from our library?" I asked my first-year seminar students this morning, and only one responded: "I haven't checked out a library book since second grade."

And this, dear reader, is why you could have seen me leading two of my first-year classes on a lively tour through the library this morning, once at 8 a.m. and again at 11. I show them how to make the stacks move, where to find reference books and bound periodicals and DVDs, and how to check out materials, but I also introduce them to a reference librarian--"They live on questions, so if you don't toss them a question once in a while, they'll shrivel up and die right here in the library." 

I like to take them up to the top floor and show them the giant yellow light fixture and say, "This is the light of knowledge shining down on you. When you get stressed out, come up here, lie on the floor, look up at the big yellow sun, and take some deep breaths while you bask in the glow of enlightenment." (Yes, they give me funny looks, but so what? If a little goofiness will make them remember their library tour, I'll get goofy.)

I take them down to the basement and explain the value of a cell-phone-free study zone, and then they spend 15 or 20 minutes in Special Collections, looking at some fun materials our stellar Special Collections director has laid out: letters written by George Washington and Ben Franklin, the hand-written journal of one of our earliest African-American students, a collection of early photographs of the college. David McCullough has been spending some time down there doing research for his next book, but he's not on campus this week--but if my students encounter him, they will at least have a clue who he is.

In the end I require them to use the online library catalog to find a book of interest to them and check it out, and then I sit by the circulation desk to make sure they do it. I can't be sure they'll read the books, but now none of my first-year students will be able to say they haven't checked out a library book since second grade. 

The sun, the sun!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Give your future self a gift," they said, and so I did

A four-day break before midterm in the fall semester usually provides me just enough time to get caught up on grading and class preps and maybe take some long walks or visit the grandkids. This time, though, I went further afield without taking any work with me, which means I had to work like a maniac last week to clear the decks.

Not much sleep any night last week, thanks to piles of papers and essays to grade. Only a few hours of sleep Friday night because I had to listen to the 13-inning Indians game (!), which got me all wound up, and then I had to get up at 3:30 the next morning to drive to the Cleveland airport in time for my flight out to Florida--and not much sleep last night because I had to get up at 4:30 to get to the airport for my flight back to Ohio.

But in between, I had a blast. No papers to grade, no classes to prep, just a few days to stay with my dad while my daughter and son-in-law and grandkids were visiting. I got to visit an old friend, visit my mother's grave, and watch the grandkids race around the house while shrieking with laughter, but the highlight had to be spending a day with my daughter and granddaughter at Sea World. 

When I lived in Florida, I always had friends working at the theme parks who were happy to help me get in free, so it's always a little painful to have to pay the full ticket price. But then the first thing we encountered when we got in the park was the dolphin nursery, where my granddaughter  raced to the window and starting making friends with young dolphins right away. Her delight was worth every penny we paid for the ticket.

I watched her work up the nerve to touch a baby shark's tail, ride a child-sized roller coaster, and climb a high rope bridge at a playground; I heard her laugh with delight as dolphins and whales leapt high in the air, saw her waddle like a penguin and ride a squid on the carousel. We visited injured manatees and learned what dangers the gentle creatures face, and we marveled at sharks swimming over our heads, rays in a shallow tank ready to be touched and fed, and flamingos standing so still they looked like statues.

I came home bone-tired and ready to collapse and thankful that I didn't find a pile of grading waiting for me. I want to go back and thank my past self for giving my present self a gift of a few grading-free days, but at the moment I'm too tired to go hunting for a time machine. 

We saw ibises everywhere.

White pelican, up close and personal.

They look like statues or stuffed toys.

Touching a baby shark


Thursday, October 05, 2017

Midweek madness

When I catch myself writing an e-mail message beginning "Dear Essay, I have attached your April," it's time to take a break from responding to student papers, so I walk up the hall to the department office to get an aspirin, and along the way I overhear a colleague loudly telling her class that "young boys are nuclear bombs!"

And I wonder: has the entire world gone mad or just my little corner of the world? 

My students have given me some marvelous gifts this week, including a couple of great names for Shakespeare-inflected garage bands: "The Switching Antipholuses" and "Syracusan Doppelgangers." They've presented material in class with panache and professionalism, and some of them wrote some really stellar papers. 

But (you knew there was a but, right?) this week I have been called upon to explain an analytical term that we have been using in class since the first week of the semester, a term that students have been quizzed and tested on repeatedly, and I've been compelled to read short response papers from students who think the best way to analyze the work of a visiting author is to complain that he uses too many big words. (Apparently "casserole" counts as a big word.) 

Right now my brain is swimming with ripe little words, many of which I do not care to utter aloud. I'd like to go out for a walk to clear my head, but first I need my colleague to explain that whole young boys = nuclear bombs thing. If I'm in danger of running into a ticking time bomb, I'd like to be sure I have the proper equipment to defuse the danger.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Fifty shades of blue (heron)

I've been wishing I could rewind the tape to a conversation I had with a student last week, but I'm afraid a week's worth of thinking hasn't offered any better answer than the sorry one I gave. The student asked me how I can "justify" considering Cold Mountain literature since, in the student's considered opinion, it's simply "The Civil War version of Fifty Shades of Grey." I mumbled something about the beauty of the language and Frazier's exploration of the human condition, and I suppose I should be grateful that I refrained from sputtering on about the word justify or asking what the heck she's doing reading Fifty freaking Shades of Grey.

I know where the student's coming from: brand-spanking-new freshperson trying to protect her virgin eyeballs from anything untoward, but I fear this will end up like the time I taught Jose Saramago's Blindness and a student wrote a long comment on my course evaluations excoriating me for forcing students to read pornography. (Which Blindness isn't--not by any stretch of the imagination.) 

Among the many ways in which Cold Mountain differs from Fifty Shades of Grey is the sheer number of sex scenes: two in Cold Mountain, both fairly discreet. In fact, one of the sex scenes reminds me of the "Squeal like a pig" scene in Deliverance: more terrifying than titillating. But then if you stretch your definition of sex scenes, you might come up with a third--the story Stobrod tells about Ruby's mother being ravished by a great blue heron:
The tale Ruby's mother told, as recounted by Stobrod, was that the heron strode up on its long back-hinged legs and looked her eye to eye. She claimed, Stobrod said, that the look was unmistakable, not open to but one interpretation. She turned and ran, but the heron chased her into the house, where, as she hunkered on hands and knees trying to squeeze under the bedstead to hide, the heron came upon her from behind. She described what ensued as like a flogging of dreadful scope.
"A flogging of dreadful scope"--if that's all it takes to make Cold Mountain is the Civil War version of Fifty Shades of Grey, then all I can say is, guilty as charged.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A pumpkin-spiced grading break

Some weekends are made for grading papers, prepping classes, and getting caught up on the laundry, but this was not one of those weekends. On Friday I told my students that I probably wouldn't be grading their papers over the weekend unless my visiting grandkids were willing to help. My granddaughter would have been happy to draw a pumpkin on someone's paper, but I don't know how to translate a pumpkin into a grade.

We saw a few pumpkins at Sweetapple Farm, but apparently the local crop isn't particularly abundant this year. We hiked through a corn maze in flawless fall weather, hugged a straw-bale minion and picked a million paw-paws (or maybe slightly fewer), ate chili and went to church and read not quite a million Shel Silverstein poems. We watched our grandson turn salt-shakers into percussion instruments, attempt to eat his weight in Kool-Whip, and practice stepping up onto the hearth and back down again, each time uttering a close approximation of "up!" and "down!" and then pausing for applause.

Now they're gone and the house is quiet. The papers still need grading and I probably ought to think about laundry and dishes and tomorrow's classes, but frankly, I'd rather hug a minion--but since I don't have a minion nearby, I think I'll just chuckle at the memory.