Friday, May 22, 2015

Out With a Wimper

I finished grading and submitted grades.

I was in the office for a fair bit this morning, and almost no one else was around.  That's fitting, I suppose.

There are a few people who won't have jobs here next semester.  There may be others who take early retirement, though I don't know who's likely or not.

But with all the bad budget news here, this end of the semester is less celebratory than any I think I've ever experienced.  It's more just a slow winding ending.

I Should Be Grading

The universal feeling around here right now.

It's weird when it's hard to start a new pile even though you've made decent progress and a half day would probably see you through the pile.  And yet it's hard to start.

I came to campus today, the last day of finals, to give a final in a colleague's class because they're still unwell.  I'm grateful to be the one able to fill in, and not the one who needs filling in, if that makes sense.

Utterly flat day at the Giro today, so a sprint expected.  Still, I'll have it on in the background while I grade before the final.  It's been an interesting Giro so far; breakaways have been more successful than usual, it seems, in part because on expected sprint days, there's only one team really working for the sprint, and they alone can't bring back a strong breakaway.

Okay, and now I really AM going to get back to grading.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Little MA Program that Couldn't

We have a small MA program here at NWU, and the colleague who's been ill has been teaching a course, and since we're sort of in the same field, I'm helping with that one, too.

Last week about half of the students gave their presentations (which we taped for my colleague's grading pleasure); my job was to oversee and to make suggestions to help with the final write up.

This week, the other half of the students did their presentations, and we did the same taping, and I made suggestions.

So, last week, I suggested to some of the students that they should look at EEBO for some texts, and they gave me blank looks, so I showed them how to look at EEBO, and then they vaguely remembered that they'd already been shown EEBO and taught how to do a search earlier this semester, but they'd forgotten.

This week, I asked a student who was presenting if they'd looked at their text on EEBO, and they gave me one of those looks like I was crazy for asking, because what was EEBO anyway.

And another student talked about the one critical essay they'd read, and how it quoted another essay, and so on, and when I asked if they'd looked at the quoted essay, they looked at me like I was crazy for asking because why would they want to do that?

When I first got here, I was very supportive of our grad program.  I taught the basic research and bibliography course several times with great success.  (We also had an intro to grad studies in our field course, and a theory course required.)  And then when some budget decisions made cutting one of the three required courses out (the research and bibliography course was the cut, of course), I revised the other intro course to include some research and taught it a couple of times. 

But over the years, I've grown progressively more frustrated with the program for two interrelated reasons.  First, we don't have the resources to give our students a really good grad experience.  I'm not saying they need to have the sort of experience someone at an R1 doing a phud needs, but having gone to a pretty good MA only program, I'm thinking that they need to have a certain variety of course options, certain resources, and so on available.

Second, our students mostly aren't very focused on their graduate work, and because the program's so very small, there isn't a culture of focus, and many students go away while they're writing their thesis and then either do a panic thing and write something or take a lot of professorial time and then decide not to bother finishing because it's too hard.  I've experienced this side of both of those, and I'm not given any sort of time reassignment or extra pay for the ton of extra work it is to respond to graduate work; now one of those was pretty rewarding, but mostly the quality of rushed work isn't at all rewarding, and the students who decide not to bother finishing are even less rewarding.

Last year, more budget decisions, and the faculty voted to cut out the theory requirement, and some other folks revamped the one required course to include some theory.   That makes our program even weaker, so far as I'm concerned.

And this last couple of weeks has really reinforced my sense of how weak our program is, and how weak most of the students are.  You really can't run a strong program with two strong students a year, and six weak ones.  And if you try, you spend a lot of resources that you could use elsewhere. 

So, this course has ten students enrolled.  The other grad course this semester has thirteen.  (And yes, other, as in there are only two.)  (Across all the upper level undergrad courses that are cross-listed, there are 7 students.)  If those two faculty members taught GE courses with even 25 students, that would help our GE numbers a lot over the course of a year. 

Glory Days

As I mentioned a long time ago, I used to play Everquest.  A lot.  (Way too much.  True.)

I'm still in touch with a couple of people I knew who also played EQ, mostly people I was in guilds with (guilds in Everquest are an organization within the game that lets you communicate in certain ways; the communication infrastructure is used by players in lots of ways, mostly having to do with playing together).  Most of us quit playing EQ years ago now.  In order to do more in the game, you need to play the game more, and a fair bit of that playing is what EQ players call "grinding experience."  You basically do the same thing over and over.  And then your avatar is supposedly better at it, though after the first few iterations, you as a player aren't really improving at all, and then you go up levels, gain spells or other abilities, and so forth.

In EQ, I spent a lot of time as a spellcaster sitting to gain mana to be able to cast spells.  In the early stages of the game, when you were sitting to gain mana (or meditating, or medding), your graphic had to have a spell book open, so you basically couldn't see any of the in-game graphics, though you could see a chat box.  That meant we spent a lot of time chatting, with the non-spellcasters (the hand to hand types who either withstood damage well, tanks, or dealt out damage well, dps, or damage per second classes) standing around impatiently.  Further, classes (basically in game "jobs" such as healing, dps, tanking, and such) were really dependent on each other, especially certain classes.  Clerics, for example, really, really needed someone to deal out damage for them.  Tanks needed someone to heal for them.  Some classes could work alone pretty efficiently using a variety of strategies.  In the early stages of the game, traveling took forever.  Your avatar had to run everywhere, and there were often pretty dangerous areas to run through, or boats you had to take, which seemed risky because the game sometimes seized up and your avatar would end up in the middle of the sea and drown.  And as baby avatars, we had no way to run fast, even.

In contrast, in games such as World of Warcraft, mana came back way more quickly, and characters from a wide variety of classes could solo, or work alone, to gain experience.  And in WoW, avatars gain experience way more quickly (or maybe it just seemed that way), and could gain more experience in quests and such.  And travel is way, way faster, though often at a cost.

So, sometime in the early 2000s, a lot of people left EQ.  Some left to play other games, bored by the gameplay of sitting around waiting for mana, interdependency, and slow experience.  Some got frustrated by political stuff in their guilds or servers.  (The game developers made travel way easier, though.)

I hung around longer than a lot of people, but I finally left, too.

So now, there's much buzz among the people I played with because the game company (which is different than it was, so I think it got sold) is going to start a new server with the game as it was in 2009 or whenever it started, and then open up content (that is, the newer areas of the game world and stuff that got added as additions you paid extra to get access to, which are/were added occasionally, at least once a year, I think?) as avatars get to whatever level that requires and choose to open the content (by vote, I guess?).

And what's amusing to me, is that the folks I played with are waxing nostalgic about the very things that made us leave the game: they want to have time to chat in the game, and they want classes to be interdependent, and they want to run through the world without advanced equipment available now.  They want to do tradeskills and have bronze armor be pretty impressive.

For me, I'm slightly tempted only because some of these people are really fun to play with, and it would be fun to play with them again, especially since we'd find each other as baby avatars, and we'd all understand how the game play worked enough to avoid some of the most frustrating aspects of the game.

On the other hand, the thought of grinding through levels (they call it "grinding" for a reason) to do what I've already done just doesn't sound even the least appealing.  And the huge world would be huge again, but not amazing in the same way it was when everything was new.

Kirtland's Warbler

Taken Saturday, May 16, 2015.  (This is more for me than for you folks.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Red Head


Here's a Red-Headed Woodpecker.  I also saw my first Bobolink today, and got a couple of very blurry pictures.

Recent Birding

I took a road trip of sorts last week, and did some birding.  And saw some nice birds.
 
 
Here's a Solitary Sandpiper:
 
 And here's a Least Sandpiper:
 And here's a Lesser Yellowlegs:

 
And here's a big white bird:
 


More birding soon, I hope.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

And Just Like That...

It's the last day of teaching for me this semester.

I still have one more class to teach, very shortly, but it's the class I'm subbing for, so it feels a bit different.  And what's planned is mostly student presentations, so there's that.

Otherwise, I'm done except for writing the final and a load of grading (the final exam and big projects).  At least I don't have to grade for the other class.  (Is there anything better than getting to talk about Shakespeare to a class without having to worry about planning the whole course or grading?)

***

I have colleagues, both in my department and across the university, who've been basically told they won't be back again, won't be hired to teach here.  So while we're generally happy for the end of the semester, there's also a sense of mourning across the department and university.

Happily, I have a couple of colleagues who won't be back because they've found tenure track jobs.  And we're happy for them.  We've had a couple positions over the past few years, post-doc-ish positions, designed to be for very limited terms, and the people in these positions have been steadily moving from us to tenure track jobs.  The chair and others in the department have worked with these folks in various ways to help them with teaching and with their applications, and it's worked really well, better than I had thought it might when we started.

***

The department will be celebrating students who've accomplished a lot this past year (or more).  But we're also having a get together to acknowledge the people who aren't being rehired or who are leaving, and to generally thank our adjuncts.  We depend on them a lot, and we do appreciate their work.  We're troubled that we're not re-hiring some, and those of us with tenure or on the tenure track are also cognizant that we're privileged, and grateful not to have lost our positions.  (There's a chance that some tenure-track folks at the university won't have a job here next year, I've heard, though their reviews were fine.  But I think our tenure track folks will be okay because we've not rehired adjuncts.)  (There's a chance that down the line, some tenured positions will be eliminated through department eliminations, but I don't think that's happening right now.)


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Grading on a Curve

I was chatting with a HS student the other day, and they told me that they'd been learning about normal curves in math, and the math teacher had told them to be prepared because in college their work would be graded on a curve.  The student was really worried about the idea of being graded on a curve, so they asked me if I grade on a curve.

I don't.  I doubt many humanities types do.

And, to be honest, I think there's been a change in approach, and not many of my colleagues at NWU do, not in the sciences, social sciences, or business areas grade on a curve, either.

I'm pretty sure folks at super elite schools never graded on a curve in the sciences.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't imagine chem profs at Harvard thinking that half their students should get Cs or below, not in recent history, anyway.

When I was an undergrad, my big science and math sorts of courses were graded on a curve, or at least we were told they were.  I remember a chem test where the median score was 86/100, and that was a C.  And I was terrified and horrified.

The attitude at my undergrad school (a then smallish public R1 known for ag/science) seemed to be that first and second year chem, calc, physics, and bio type courses were "weeders," and were supposed to make students who weren't going to get into vet or med school rethink their career goals earlier rather than later, and change majors to something else.

And that's one place where I think professorial attitudes have changed.  I think now, my science colleagues think that it's their job to help their students succeed rather than to weed them out.  The courses are still tough, and students fail, but my colleagues don't talk about weeding students, but rather figuring out how to help students.

The other place I'd say attitudes are different here (but I don't know if they've changed), is that we worry a whole lot about retention and graduation rates.  Did my undergrad institution worry about retention back then?  I don't know.  But we do here.

We do lose students who decide they aren't getting into our nursing program, especially, since we can serve way fewer students than wish to be nursing majors; they go elsewhere to study nursing, often.  (If we could afford to hire more nursing faculty, we could easily double the major with no real difference in student quality; the entry is that tough.)

What about you?  Do you folks grade on a curve? 

What are attitudes at your school about grading on a curve?

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Filling In

One of my colleagues has been pretty ill.  As I understand it (and I'm the wrong sort of doctor), it's an acute illness, one they're likely to recover from over the summer, but for now, it's been a rough go.

We do this "fill in" thing around here if someone's going to be away or gets sick.  (I've written about it here.)  If you're able, you send an email to the department list and ask for someone to fill in for these classes on this day, with a short comment about what they'd need to do.  And usually, if things are planned ahead, people can arrange something another faculty member can fill in for. 

When it's tougher, you contact the department chair, or have a loved one contact the department chair, saying that you're ill, and then the department chair takes over. 

Since our basic load is 11 credits (over 3 courses), usually 1 writing course (about half the load), a lower level area course, and an upper level area course, that's a lot of courses to get filled in.

Where possible, of course, colleagues in the area help with the area courses, and the writing course can be filled in for with just about anyone who has the hour free and is willing.

At any rate, I'm now on my second week covering one of the courses.  Another colleague took the first week, and then passed it along to me.  I could pass it back, but it's Shakespeare, and a play I'm good at and love, and did I mention, Shakespeare?  Yes.  And I don't have to grade (at least not so far), and I didn't have to try to plan out the whole semester.  So basically I go in for 3 hours a week and work with students on understanding Shakespeare.  It takes maybe half an hour to prep for each hour, just to make sure I've got line numbers and such.  (And filling in for one course means I feel absolutely no guilt that I don't think about the others.)

It's seriously the best way to teach ever.  Just the fun part of talking about Shakespeare, and not the hard parts of organizing or grading.  I could do this a lot.

(Let me say, I think my academic life would be a whole lot better if I were in a place where I taught an equal or slightly greater course load but all in my field instead of having my energies sapped by teaching first year writing.)

I wonder how many other departments or schools practice some sort of filling in for ill or absent colleagues?


On the other hand, filling in like this makes you realize just how selectively some of your colleagues arrange their courses to make rather minimal work for everyone involved.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Budget Despair

I went to a meeting with the Headmaster and my college the other day to hear the latest news on the budget crisis.  One problem is that we really don't know how bad it will be.  Various lawmakers have expressed anger at different state schools for doing proactive budget stuff, like offering early retirements, or not rehiring contingent folks who've been around forever, but schools work on fairly long time frames.

We already have students enrolling in courses for fall, and so we have to have staffing in place for those courses.  We can't offer courses, have students sign up, and then pull them at the last minute, except in the case of the course not filling. 

So the Headmaster laid out a couple of different scenarios, with real dollar costs, and the shortfalls look more and more dire, and the hope of relief less and less likely.  If a certain number of people take early retirement, then the shortfall looks like this.  If fewer people take early retirement, then it looks even worse.  But there's really no good news.

One of my students needs to take a first year foreign language.  She should have taken it this year, but for whatever reason, she didn't.  (The intake advisor maybe?  Or classes weren't available when she signed up?)  And now she's my advisee, and we've met, and so I sent her to ask the foreign language folks about her placement (because she doesn't remember). 

And then she emailed me: the placement puts her in the 101 course, but there's only one section of popular language 101 offered in fall, and it's already full.  (Most of our first year students come in ready to take a second semester of a second language, if they need one, and some students don't need a second language at all.  But unless something changes, since this course is already full and has a waiting list, not a single first year student will be able to take the first semester of this language.  Not one.  Holy cow.)


Monday, May 04, 2015

Hunting Snipe

So much to learn, always.  This is, I think, a Wilson's Snipe, though one of my bird books calls it a Common Snipe (apparently, the birding experts have decided the American Snipe is a separate species rather than a subspecies of the European Snipe.  So there.

It's bill looks way too big for its head, doesn't it?

(Photo cropped).

Sunday, May 03, 2015

That Time

It's that time of the semester when everything is overwhelming; there's so much work to do, and yet it's spring and what I really want to do is play outside.

I've planted some early plants, kale, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, and the other day I seeded some carrots.  I've also weeded; how do the weeds take off so early?

And while all that's happening, it feels like the world is falling apart, as usual.  Things are more dire all the time here at NWU.  And then there's all the violence against Black folks.  And more violence.

I can't quite wrap my mind around what the report says happened in Baltimore.  How do you even conceive of doing that to another human being.  I mean, I believe that there's such a thing as a "rough ride" (and how common is it that there's a slang term!), but I can't wrap my mind around it.  I bet I'm not the only white person in the US who's feeling that bewilderment.

***

Fitbit question:  when I gave blood the other day, the person taking my pulse and such said it was 64.  But in almost the same moment, I looked at the fitbit and it said 74.  Which seems more likely to be wrong?  Or are they both wrong and the real number is somewhere between?  (Plus or minus 4 seems pretty much what I'd expect, especially since the person is looking at 15 seconds and then multiplying by 4.  But a more than 10% difference seems high?

Friday, May 01, 2015

Chatter

I went to give blood today during some unscheduled time.

The phlebotomist was all chattery, about nothing really, but seriously, I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise if I'd wanted to.

Then in the donation area (this center has four small rooms for the questions and doing blood pressure bits, and then a larger area with four donation spots, and then a spot for someone to rest if they need to, work areas, and then a small canteen area set off a bit), there was a woman maybe a bit older than me, who seemed to recognize me.  (I didn't recognize her, but that happens, since I do community presentations and such.)

Then this woman started to chatter and the phlebotomist was chattering, not really listening to each other, but almost holding two separate conversations.  Every so often one or the other would raise their tone slightly in a questioning way and look at me, and I'd nod as if I were closely paying attention.

When we two donors got to the canteen (where we were the only people), the other woman started talking about campus stuff.  She's doing an MA (at a neighboring campus) and it's so much better than anything else, and much more rigorous, and real MAs are like hers, and then she went into how some adjunct in some department here (one I don't know well) got "totally screwed" because she didn't get a job even though she was way better qualified and so forth.  Now I don't know one way or the other, but I'm willing to bet that this woman doesn't really know, either.  Yes, screwage happens.  But also, sometimes, the search committee chooses someone else for really good reasons.  And I said that, but then she was off on something else, and I gave up.

I feel like I can usually hold a conversation, but today I wasn't doing much.  Some days it's like that.  As if someone can hold a conversation by themselves, and all I'm supposed to do is nod or agree or something.  Sort of like out-loud blogging, eh?