Friday, April 29, 2016

Fourth Finger

I had a violin lesson yesterday, and began learning how to use my fourth finger (my pinky, since violinists don't seem to count thumbs for fingering the strings).  It's really hard.  Let me say that again, really, really hard.  I have to try to super stretch my hand, and press just on the one string, and it's hard!

So I'll practice, and it will get more do-able, I hope.  Since other people have done it, and since I've experienced learning difficult things before, I'm pretty confident that I can learn this.  Prior experience in life helps.

Last week, Strings took away the tape for my second finger, so all week I was working on trying to get the second finger position right by listening/looking without the tape there.  Strings wants me to focus on the tactical feel, especially when the finger comes down next to the third finger.

Broken thirds and arpeggios are especially hard without the second finger tape.  And now with the fourth finger in play, and broken thirds and scales being especially valuable to practice for the fourth finger, it's all hard!

And so fun.  Did I mention?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Going to a Talk in Town

I went to a talk yesterday evening sponsored by a social justice group, and given by a colleague I respect immensely.  The talk was held in a newish space, one attached to a small shop associated with a local arts magazine, and was standing room only, which, in this space, probably means 40-50 people showed up (I counted chairs one one side of the room and used that to start my estimate).

The talk was great, as I expected.

What I really noticed, though, were the folks who set things up, the board of the sponsoring group.  I recognized a few of them, and know one from a lot of interactions around.  The thing is, I wouldn't have guessed she'd be a leader in a social justice group.

Her name is Mildred, and she's an older woman, probably in her 70s, white, always well-dressed in a classy way, who comes to community talks on Shakespeare and such, and who is also friends with another friend of mine, also a retired woman.

The other board members of this group seem also to be mostly women of, shall we say, a certain age.

Of course, these white women have all been active in social justice work for a long time, before the arts magazine started, before my colleague and I were hired here, they've been working, often quietly in the background (as last night), but working nonetheless.

The local arts magazine gets a lot of attention around here, along with related projects.  And mostly, all that attention is about men.  And they make all the right sounds about social justice.

But in the background, those same women come and go, working as they have for years, with little attention and little credit.

I'm feeling humbled by Mildred and the other women who've been working in my community all this time without my really noticing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

That One Hour a Day for Seven Years Thing

I keep reading the claim that if one reads in one's field an hour a day for seven years, one will become an international expert in the field.  (I keep reading it all over the place, but I don't know where it originated, so I'm not linking.  I'm guessing you've either read it or heard it or could find it with a quick internet search if you look.)

I call BS.

First, it's only 2555 hours.  That doesn't get close to Malcolm Gladwell's mythical, minimally supported 10,000 hours to become an expert.

Let's think about, say, grad school.  Say someone who's thinking about grad school starts in their junior year of a traditional undergrad program and starts reading, say, literature in English.  They average an hour a day reading, more if you count time in class.  Certainly, if they're taking 9 credits of lit courses each semester (assuming a semester system), that's, say, 18 hours a week reading and/or discussing, minimally.  Even if they don't read much over the summer, they're still doing the hour average.

Then they start grad school, where they'd better be reading more than an hour a day.  And they spend five years in grad school.

So there's seven years, reading more than an hour a day.  And you know what we call that person?  A grad student, a beginning expert.  Sure, they know tons.  But compared to people who've been doing work in the field for 20 more years, not international experts.

Second, to become an international expert, one doesn't simply read about or learn about a field, one contributes.  One gets challenged by other experts at conferences, in papers, in classes, seminars, conversations, and one thinks harder and says something interesting and new.

On the other hand, if you spend 2555 hours learning about something, you're going to learn a whole lot about it, aren't you?  So there's that.  You may not be an international expert, but hopefully you're using your knowledge to make helpful contributions.

***

I don't usually practice an hour a day on my violin.  Usually, it's more like 40 minutes or so before my arms are tired and I get sloppy in that tired way, and my practicing loses focus and becomes less useful.

I've now been at it 12 weeks, and yesterday, I had a tiny breakthrough.  I've been playing this piece from the Suzuki book, "Perpetual Motion," which is hard (for me) and at my level includes practicing a lot of "crossings" which are when you change from one string to another. 

My tiny breakthrough involved being able to play it better yesterday than I had before, and in three different keys.

At the most basic level, I'm beginning to "get" how violinists can switch between certain keys so much more easily than I ever could when I played wind instruments as a kid.  If you start on an open A string, and do a basic A scale, you're in A.  You can learn songs (the intro Suzuki songs so far are mostly in A).  And then you can do the same basic stuff (same finger positions, same bowings) on the G or D string, and you're in G or D.  (I'm totally thinking it's way harder when you move into other hand positions or other keys.)

I don't think 2555 hours of violin is going to make me an expert.  It will, I hope, make me a whole lot better than I currently am.  But not an expert.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Independent Studies and/vs Sexual Harassment

Last week, The Little Professor wrote in "In Which I Declare Independence" that she disagreed with Rebecca Schuman's Slate article suggesting that universities ban independent studies.

In her beautifully calm way, The Little Professor explains why independent studies are beneficial to students in her program, and not rife with sexual harassment problems, though she does note that most faculty aren't paid for the extra work involved.

Like The Little Professor, I also think independent studies have their place, especially for graduate students.  And like The Little Professor, I don't think independent studies are where most sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior are taking place.  That's not to say no one has been sexually harassed during an independent study, of course.  Rather, most independent studies are times when students can get extra help, delve more deeply into an area of interest, or have a chance to complete their degrees in a more timely way (especially in this era of budget constraints and cancelled courses).

Let me say this:  I probably wouldn't have made it through graduate school if it weren't for the kindness of a professor who was willing to do an independent study with me in my second term. 

During my first term, I'd taken a course on "The Renaissance" during which the instructor assigned an explication.  I'd never done an explication, never heard of one, even.  So, like a good little graduate student, I went to office hours.  Unfortunately, this one faculty member didn't think it was worth his time to explain what an explication was, and basically told me so.  He said, just explain how the verse is doing what it's doing, or something similar.

You should know, about this time in the story, that our program's qualifying exam included an explication which was reputed to be graded rather harshly.  And I was supposed to take this exam in the fall of my second year (I think that's the timing).

I asked other grad students, the ones from places where "explication" was a thing, including the one already deemed our crown prince by our Renaissance instructor.  But, of course, they were beginning grad students, and even if they could do an explication, they weren't inclined to teach me, or didn't know how.  So I muddled through, and didn't do very well on the assignment.

Before the next one was due, I went to another faculty member, one I'd felt comfortable with during my interviews the spring before, and talked to him.  And in an hour, he taught me the basics.  And on that one, I did much, much better.

And the next term, he agreed to do an independent study with me on reading poetry.  Each week, he'd set me a poem, and I'd work it up, and then we'd talk about it together. 

I credit that independent study with teaching me how to read poetry, how to explicate, and perhaps most important, how to teach others to read poetry.

So, while I now recognize how much of an imposition my request was on a junior faculty member, I remain eternally grateful for his help, his brilliant teaching, his kindness, and his willingness to take on a rather dim student.

But what about the other side, the sexual harassment?  The biggest sexual harassers in my graduate department didn't need independent studies.  One was the grad director of our program.  So he had power and the ability to call students into his office and wield that power or not (he didn't always, of course).

At mixed social events, the big sexual harassers would start drinking and park themselves at the drink table, and any woman who approached alone was pretty much assured that she'd be harassed.  The other male faculty who were hanging about didn't seem to think this was a problem.

Female students complained about both behaviors to other female students and to female faculty, but at the time, only two or three female faculty had tenure, and none was willing to stand up to the male faculty (for all the reasons you could imagine; the same reasons no female student went to the chair or beyond).  So the female students got the word out to other female students: no female grad student went to the drink table alone; we went in pairs.  And eventually he wasn't grad director any more.

I guess what I'm saying is that sexual harassers don't need independent studies to harass.  What they do tend to need is complicity from other faculty members, especially senior faculty folks.  I hope my old grad program has changed in that respect.  I know there are more senior female faculty.

But some students, people like me, perhaps, really do need some extra help to do well in grad school and beyond.

Now, even as I write this, I have to admit that I've said no to more requests for independent studies than not, especially in recent years.  That has to do with the increases in class size, in assessment paperwork, and so on that really force us to stretch our time in all sorts of ways.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mowing

I mowed the lawn today, after most of my neighbors had done theirs.


I don't think I've ever mown so early in the season!  SPRING!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

If Only More Professors...

I was scrolling through my effbee feed this morning, holding off getting up for a few minutes, and saw a video link that said something like: she had to bring her baby to class and you'll never believe what the professor did...

And then of course, what the professor did was utterly believable; he was kind to the baby (and carried it around during his lecture, because he's apparently a baby whisperer).

There were numerous comments after the video, many of which gave little anecdotes about how the writer had needed to take a small child to a class and the professor was somehow especially nice to the child or about the situation, and sometimes that classmates were nice and helpful as well. 

And most of these ended with something along the lines of "if only more professors were this nice."

I saw one comment saying that a professor hadn't been nice/accommodating.

The thing is, the overwhelming majority of the anecdotes basically demonstrated that most professors in the situation were, in fact, pretty nice and accommodating.  But the "if only" statements would lead you to believe that professorial kindness and accommodation were markedly unusual.

I'm guessing students experience the small child in class situation relatively rarely, so they think that a professor who's nice about it and accommodates the child is, indeed, rare.

Parents of small children who are in college probably experience the situation more often, but perhaps usually with the same professor, so they still think of that professor as the exception?

Instructors experience the situation relatively rarely, mostly (though I imagine at schools with larger non-traditional student populations it happens more often), but still, over the course of several years, we're likely to experience it several times, enough to figure out that we can deal with a small child in the room so long as they're not super disruptive.  And perhaps we grow through life stages which lead us to be more accommodating to the difficulties of parenting small children.

***

Speaking of life stages, I recently saw an article (I'm not that motivated to find it again) about how we (middle aged and older female instructors) should eagerly embrace and encourage students to think of us as their grandparents (or grandmothers, more specifically) because students love their grandparents and will look on us with affection and trust and such.

Effing BS.  Most students don't need faculty to be grandparents to them.  Nor do they need me to be their mommy and wipe their noses.  They're ADULTS.  We need to treat them as adults, sure, young adults, but adults.  Don't infantalize students!

I don't love my students unconditionally.  Nope.  I respect them as human beings and adults.  And the more they demonstrate themselves worthy of respect in whatever ways they do, the more I recognize that they've earned my respect.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Poetry - Peach Question

Okay, poetry folks.  You all know the moment in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" where he asks "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

What the heck is that about?  I've always wondered.  People nod knowingly, and I just don't get it.

What's daring about eating a peach?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Assessment - Vent

If you're in education, you know that we've been working in a variety of ways to "assess" student learning for something like two decades now.  Before that, we graded students.  It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was there.  We assumed that a student who got an A on an exam had demonstrated that they'd learned the material being tested (and hoped that exam grades weren't primarily a matter of being good at bubble tests or whatever).


But, assessment folks have told us forever that grades aren't the same as assessment, but that assessment has to be "outcome driven" and such.  And the assessment people told us that what's important is that we all use the information to tell us how we're doing as teachers, and to help us improve.


And we needed to assess programs and not just how students do in individual courses.  So we couldn't assume that a straight A math student was succeeding at learning math.  We had to set goals, and then figure out outcomes that would reflect those goals, and then figure out a product that would demonstrate the outcomes that would reflect the goals.


Let me tell you about some of the history of our Underwater Basketweaving Program's assessment adventure.


In Underwater Basketweaving, they set some program goals.  For example, they want students to understand the structure and context of underwater-woven baskets. 


Some years ago, the idea was that they'd look at the baskets the students wove underwater and the papers they wrote about baskets woven underwater in a sort of portfolio.  But then someone would have to collect the portfolios, and someone would have to read the portfolios, and there was no money to pay someone to do this, since the expensive assessment guru was too busy making forms for departments to fill out to actually do any assessment himself.


So portfolio assessment went away, and the department struggled for several years to meet the ever-moving targets and to do the paperwork the assessment guru set for them.


Finally, the assessment guru said that they had to do a grid for their department goals, and even though they started with 25 goals for their students, they quickly realized that they couldn't fill out paperwork for 25 goals, not without making paperwork the primary job rather than teaching and research and weaving underwater.


So in line with the assessment guru's rules, they had to make an outcome to go with the main goal, which was that all students should be able to describe the structure and context of an underwater-woven basket, since you have to be able to measure understanding in some way other than "student nods knowingly." 


And then they decided that in one of the early courses in the major, students would do an assignment where they'd describe the structure and context of an underwater-woven basket.


So the guru suggested they make a grid and turn in the numbers this way:  for each goal, they'd have three possibilities: the student exceeded the expectations of the outcome, the student met the expectations, or the student didn't meet the expectations.  And then someone would look at the assignments and fill in a separate grid piece for each of the outcomes.  And to make it easy, they'd rotate the outcomes, one a year, so that someone would only have to fill in one of the grids after reading all the papers for these sections.


But again, there was no money to pay people to look at the assignments for assessment.


So the assessment guru said that each faculty member should be responsible for filling out the grid for their section.


And the faculty met, and noticed that they were already grading these assignments, so how about if they found a way to translate grades into the assessment grid.  So they decided that As would be exceeding expectations, Bs and Cs would be meeting expectations, and Ds and Fs would be not meeting expectations.  And when the assignment came in, they dutifully tabulated the grade information into the assessment grid.


Last week, the assessment gurulings in the department gave the department assessment feedback (called "closing the loop" in assessmentese).  And here's what they found:




58% of students were exceeding expectations
36% of students were meeting expectations
6% of students weren't meeting expectations.


You would think this would be pretty good news, right?  That department must be doing something really good to have so many students meeting and exceeding expectations!  Let's give them a raise!


You would be wrong.


No.  The department was chastised.  They obviously had low expectations if so many students were exceeding those expectations (besides, you know, grade inflation?)


They needed to change the way they do assessment so that the numbers will be more in line with what the assessment guru says they should be.


Let's consider: is there a way to tell if the department really is doing a great job preparing students (who are also, perhaps, dedicated, smart, and hard-working)?


In the new competitive world here, the department will be competing with other departments based, in part, on assessment data.  Isn't it reasonable to think that all departments will have, perhaps, inflated numbers?  Or perhaps everyone is doing a really good job (how could you tell?)


In the new competitive world here, we're working hard to retain students, so we put a lot of effort into helping students learn stuff and demonstrate that learning.  Gone are the days of more than half of students in an intro chem course getting Cs or below based on a brutal curve.  Instead, we expect chem teachers and departments to work some amazing magic, and they seem to do it.


In the new, brutally competitive world here, a world where the unions are broken and tenure is more imagined than real, are departments being asked to do a sort of confessional move to help prepare people for firings to come?    (I'm listening to a book on tape of a history of modern China, and it sounds more like some of the brutal movements which led to a lot of people suffering and dying because some cadre or other forced them to confess and then beat or executed them.)


It's not hard to imagine our crazy administrator saying, "look, that department [say, philosophy] I don't respect has self-confessed and shown that their students are only meeting expectations, so let's can the major, keep adjuncts to teach some GE courses, and use canning the major based on bad assessment as a good reason to fire those pesky professors who ask hard questions about ethics and such during meetings."

Friday, April 15, 2016

Helpless Student - Vent

In one of my courses, students turned in a big assignment today.  We spent much of our last class session going over the assignment, looking at the rubric, and then having them make revision notes.  (This was after peer revision the session before.  This is an important assignment.)

So I walk into class early, and one of the students comes up and says something along the lines of "You know how you told us that [x needed to be done]?  I didn't do it."

And I looked at the student and said, "I can't do it for you."  Which was true.  Of course, they wanted me to say "Oh, don't worry, it's okay."  But I didn't, because it's really not so okay (though, honestly, it's also not the end of the world.

When class started, I set them to doing final proofreading, at which point this same student said, "Remember how you told us to put our citations in alphabetical order?  I didn't."  And waved their "Works Cited Page" vaguely.  It's in quotation marks because while they thought it was a works cited page, it wasn't, really.  It was just a list of web urls.

So I told them that they hadn't cited correctly, and that they should remember that we talked about that, and I had shown them how to use OWL at Purdue, and I reminded them of the rubric part about formatting, proofreading, and such being acceptable in order to pass, and theirs wasn't. 

The thing is, they can make neat corrections in ink or pencil during the proofreading process, and they had 30 minutes to do that, so it wasn't just me being mean.

So the student sort of whined that they had tried but couldn't find authors, so I said that OWL at Purdue could tell them how to do the works cited when they don't have authors.

The student whined and said that they couldn't figure out how to cite using OWL, holding their laptop open three or four feet away, and I said that I couldn't read what was on their laptop, but that they might want to look for how to cite electronic sources.

And the student looked, and said that OWL said to put media, so should they put "internet" and I asked them what the model showed, because as a Shakespeare person, I always have to look up how to cite internet sources, which is why I know about OWL.  And they looked, and no, it didn't.  And then they asked if they should do what OWL said.  At that point, my inside brain wanted to yell at the student, but I merely said, yes, please, and answered another student's question.

Then the student whined that they couldn't write all the information down, and I suggested that what I'd do is retype the page and print it out again, since they still had 20 minutes or so.

So the student types.  And types.  Which is fine, because other folks are making corrections, too.

By the time the student finished, everyone else had finished and gone.  And the student whined that they didn't have paper to print out.  Nor, of course, did I. 

Finally, I let the student email me just that page.  Except they just copied and pasted so it looks crappy and improperly formatted.

The upshot is, I feel like a failure.  This student needed their butt kicked, and I let them get away with being whiny and incompetent, helpless.  It's not that I want the student to feel horrible or anything, because seriously, formatting a paper isn't a life or death thing for me.  But I do want them to realize that they need to do their work and be prepared, because sometimes it really does matter.

***

In other news, I have some super colleagues.  That is all.  :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I Got Up at 3AM, and Then This Happened

Don't you hate click bait titles like that?  Yet I couldn't resist. 


I've already lied.  I got up at 3:15 am.  And then I dressed in as many layers as I own (I had two upper long johns, or, maybe more accurately, technical base layers).  And then I drove out to the middle of nowhere, not far from my motel in a little town.  The stars were amazing.


There, I met up with a guide and a couple of other people, and the guide led us (in our cars) to a side road, and we all got out.  The guide gave us a short orientation, that basics of which had to do with keeping quiet and not opening certain windows.


And then she led us half way down a trail, and wished us a good morning.


The four of us walked out to a plywood structure, yes, a bird blind, and we got into the two areas of it, got settled and waited.  We got there about 4:45.


At about 5:35, once we'd had a chance to chill (literally), light started showing.  And then at 5:49 (by my watch), a male Prairie Chicken started strutting his stuff in front of the blind, a ways away, but clear in binoculars.  Then a female showed, looking at him from a ways away to our left.  That was at 5:59 (by my watch).  Then another female showed, this time closer to him on our right.  The first female moved a bit closer, all the while he was doing his male Prairie Chicken thing, which was beautiful in the early soft light.  Then another female showed up.


The three females roamed close to him, and he strutted his stuff.


(Meanwhile, my camera seems to have died after a few very blurry pictures.  So I just watched with binoculars and eyes.)


We also saw a Short-eared owl fly by, and a Northern Harrier.


And then at about 7:15 or so, one of the females took off.  A moment or two later, the other two females took off.


The male looked around for a moment, and then he, too, took off.


And that was our morning. 


We waited a few minutes, then crept out of the blinds and chatted, still quietly, in the early light.  We walked together back to our cars, turned the observation sheets in to the can thing, and then went our separate ways.


I went back to the motel, took off some of my layers, and had breakfast, and then drove, singing loudly (and badly) songs from my violin practice to stay awake.


All in all, a pretty amazingly good day! 


(Note: I don't teach on Tuesdays, and did a load of work this weekend so that I could not work most of today.  But I still made it back in time to go to a colleague's very good talk.)


Alas, none of my pictures came out, and I'm not sure what's up with my camera.  But here's a link that's probably way better than any picture I could take, so you know what I went to see.  Cornell University About Birds Page.