Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Damned Ad and Security Stuffs

I got emailed an ad for a webinar on campus safety from some campus safety company.

The ad cites as recent some incidents in 2013, and says something about it being lucky that no one was hurt in these incidents.

Words aren't adequate to express my disgust in oh so many ways.


Our campus did some security stuffs a while back.  I think administrators had some training, and they put little flip cards in the classrooms, so that we can refer to them during a disaster.

One of the buildings I regularly teach in was built in the 70s, and so was built for riot control.  I teach up a couple of floors, and the door has only a little window in it.  I can imagine we could, if we heard something scary, block off the door with a table and hide, though I don't think we can lock the doors.

The other building I teach regularly in is almost brand new; it's built for light, pleasant study areas, and flowing movement.  The classrooms tend to have nice big windows either to the outside or to the inside (the fishbowl thing seems sort of weird, but the room I teach in isn't too fishbowly).  We get nice light, and the people walking by don't seem to bother to look in, and the students don't seem to get too distracted, and I'm busy teaching.  But while the glass is "shatterproof," I doubt it's bullet proof.  Someone could drive by, lower their car window and shoot at people in a row of classes or standing at the bus stop, and then drive off.  It's discomfiting to say the least.


I don't know what to say about the shooting.  Have I gone numb?  Exhausted by the situations here?  Defeated?

I've lost any expectation that politicians will do anything meaningful about gun violence, school funding, or infrastructure.  And I have every expectation that they'll do more and more to regulate women's bodies, advance fundamentalist Christianity as the nearly state religion, and make war on people who I don't want to make war on.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Another Little Step

On Friday, we had a meeting about our grad program.  And when it came time to vote, I was the only no.  I think I voted no the last time we had a vote about the grad program.  I'm not sure about the time before.  Or the time before that.

When I came here, we had a middling grad program.  We had three required courses, an Intro to grad studies type course, a research methods and bibliography type course, and a critical theory course.  We served mostly students in the area who wanted an MA in English to give them a salary boost as local teachers or students who weren't sure, but maybe wanted to go on to a PhD program.

The Ed school implemented a program where teachers could get an MA in teaching without writing a thesis or whatever, and that drew off a significant number of our student population.  Our Enrollments were low, and there were pressures, and students weren't finishing on time.  So we decided to add an MA in writing, which would attract more students.  So we did that.  And in doing that, we basically split the MA level courses being taught (three a semester, including the required courses) to be half writing courses.

The pressures continued, and we were assured that if we just got rid of the methods course, the program would be in good shape.  So we dropped the research methods course.  I took on the job of trying to integrate the necessary research skills into the Intro course.  (I think I did a pretty good job.)

And things went on a bit.  And the pressures continued, and we were assured that if we just drop the theory course, the program would be in good shape.  And we voted to drop the theory requirement.  (At least I wasn't the only no vote on that one.)  (And someone else took on the task of adding some theory to the Intro course.)  (There are now two regular grad courses taught each semester, one writing, one lit, and the intro course added in fall.  Our students take about half undergrad "double-numbered" courses where they're supposed to somehow get a graduate level experience.)

And this year, we've had another vote, and now we're implementing a new thing which will, we're assured, save the program.

We have a fairly weak program.  We have great librarians, but a minimal library budget, minimal resources in all sorts of ways.  Some of our students are really solid, most aren't.  About a third come from our undergrad program, and mostly they're pretty good, and should go elsewhere.  Here, they were pretty good sized fish in our tiny pond.  But they don't seem to have any sense that our pond is tiny, and our grad director (and some other folks) are telling them that they're basically swimming the ocean, or at least a great lake.  The new program is set up to encourage the best of our undergrads to get an MA here.  I think that does them a disservice in so very many ways. 

But, apparently, I am wrong.

Friday, October 02, 2015


It seems like this semester, more of my students are having mini-disasters disrupt their lives than is usual.  While I've labeled these "mini," I do recognize that for an individual student, they're not minimal at all, but can be incredibly serious.  But they're not widespread or shared with everyone in the area, either.

I think with the budget problems and the changes to the Federal Perkins loans, and so forth, everyone around here is under a fair bit of stress.  And that goes double for students who are most financially vulnerable.

Some of my students seem so move from one disastrous problem to another.  So, they'll run into a family disaster, and then they'll have a health problem or a car breakdown, and then they'll have further transportation problems (we don't have great public transportation in the area, though there is some in town).

I have one obviously middle-class student who had a mini-disaster to start the semester, but he has family resources to help him, and he or his family are savvy enough to get hooked into the services he needs, and so he seems to be not caught up in a cycle of one problem adding to another.  For him, the services are working as they're supposed to for everyone.

But then I have another student and even though he's hooked into the campus services and they seem to be trying, it's one problem adding to another and another.


In other news, the faculty and staff on nine month contracts around here are celebrating Octobercheck, the first paycheck since June.  Here again, social class seems to matter a lot.  Folks from the middle class (like me) mostly seem to adapt after a year or two, and are able to save enough during the school year to be fine over the summer.  For folks like me, Octobercheck is nice, but it's nice because it's good to see the checking account stabilize again, not because I wouldn't be able to pay my mortgage or rent, or wouldn't be able to get groceries. 

But I have friends and colleagues from more challenging economic backgrounds, and even though I know they're paid about what I'm paid (some more, some less, depending on field and rank and such), they can't seem to get ahead enough to make summer reasonably secure.  They'll be on their way, and then a family member will desperately need a loan, or their student loans are so immense that they're always almost crushed all the time.


One of my colleagues told me the other day that s/he has switched to multiple choice exams in most of his/her lit courses and has students do only minimal writing, most of which s/he doesn't respond to or grade.  I'm conflicted.  On the one hand, let's face it, a lot of people have harder teaching loads than we do and manage to assign and grade papers and writing, and to work with students on writing.  On the other hand, it's really hard.  This person way outranks me, in no small part because his/her research record is far stronger than my own.

And, on that other hand, I'm getting 35 short papers from my intro to lit class today, and 10 or so revisions from my writing class (a class this other colleague has creatively managed to avoid for 3 years).  Yep, I'm going to have a fun weekend.  (And they have to get done this weekend because next week is packed and then next Friday I get a set of projects from a class of 30.)

In the meantime, let's all celebrate Octobercheck!

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Worrysome Ones

Do you ever have a student, and you're meeting with them, and you can't figure out how to communicate about what's happening in a text that seems completely straightforward and "easy."  I'm not talking Derrida, but a short news article or the basic plot of a short story or a basic assignment explanation in a syllabus.

I had two of those conversations today.  We're looking together at the text, and the student can't seem to get what seems to me a fairly basic sentence.  And I can't seem to help them.

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'd sometimes be "part of" a conversation in Spanish, and I knew I wasn't quite getting the conversation.  (This also happened with television shows, usually in contexts where I couldn't stop to look up a word or ask for help with a word.)  That always worried me because I knew I couldn't be certain that anything I said would make sense in the context, and there seemed a good chance that I'd say something totally wrong or inappropriate. 

I wonder if my students are feeling the same way a whole lot of the time?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Truthiness and the Stupid EffBee Meme

If you're on EffBee, you've seen the recent meme going around again, about how you need to copy and paste a whole post in order to survive some apocalyptic thing that will destroy your privacy and such.

I saw it first in this go-around on one of my cousin's posts.  So I checked on Snopes, and dropped a link into the reply section to say there's nothing to worry about.  And my cousin replied, basically, "yeah, I thought it wasn't true, but it couldn't hurt to put it in, so I did."

For the past several days, I've seen that pattern repeated several times.  Person A posts the meme, Person B links to a Snopes type article, or says that it's a hoax, or whatever, and Person A says that they thought it wasn't true, but it couldn't hurt to post anyway, so they did.

On one or two, I've seen Person B or another come back and say, yes, it does hurt, and they should delete the meme.

That pattern of response interests me (way more than the meme, because our privacy is already all gone if we're on EffBee and such).

I've seen several faculty members, including one who's a historian of WWII post the meme and then come back with the response that it doesn't matter.

Does it?

If we post something untrue at base, doesn't it matter?

I guess maybe I'm rigid, but it seems to me that it does, that we debase the truth when we unthinkingly post falsehoods or promulgate lies.  It's orders of difference from denying the Holocaust, but it's the unthinkingness, the multiplication that makes people think that the message is more likely.  It's the "hey, lots of people think that vaccines cause autism so it must be true" multiplication of falsehood.

If my cousin (and others) really believed that disaster was on its way, then I'd just think she was uninformed.  But she doesn't really believe it, she just unthinkingly passes it along, and then responds with a shrug.  There's a weird intellectual laziness.  She's got the energy to ctrl c and ctrl v into her status section, but not the intellectual energy to think for even a second before hitting post.

Okay, so my cousin is my cousin, and my Mom does the same things with email memes, but it worries me a lot more when academic colleagues, the people who are supposed to teach, encourage, and support critical thinking do it.  (One of these colleagues also posted a meme about how Planned Parenthood is being misrepresented, so don't believe that part.  Yes, posting lies matters.)

On the other hand, I'm given a bit of hope by the fact that the first comment on pretty much every posting of this meme I've seen has had a Person B who calmly explains the hoaxiness.  And now I've got a couple of posts either mocking the original (Batman slapping Robin for starting in on it, or one about mythical beasties giving the message) or a preemptive missive (along the lines of "hey, this stupid meme is going around again, don't believe it").

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Simple Call

I took on being chair of a special program curriculum committee.  The special program is interdisciplinary, but doesn't have department status, and so depends on the willingness of others to serve on its committees and teach many of its courses.  I'm not a specialist by any means, but I'm interested and willing, so here I am.

In tight budget times, special programs are easy to cut down or ax altogether because there's no one with real power and utter commitment to speak against it, especially if the alternative is "my" department (any of the departments with interested folks).  And so, the special program needs to look seriously at its course array, several of which serve as vital courses in general education, and see if it can condense some things, do some things a bit less without totally making a hash for the students.

And the curriculum committee is an obvious place to start this discussion (which then must go to a wider body).  And in order to start the discussion, we need to have a clear sense of what's been happening.

So I asked for a couple of things.

First, a list of our courses and enrollments for the past several semesters.  What have we taught, and how many students have we taught in those courses.

I asked the program leader if we could get that information, and was told that no, the only way would be to go through the computerized class search and search for each course individually and copy out the numbers.  Hmmm.  But surely, someone knows how many students have been in each course, especially when those courses serve major GE needs, right?

The curriculum committee is also responsible for curricular review; every course on campus is supposed to be reviewed every five years, and a review filed with a college committee. Early last week, so, second, I asked the program leader and last year's curriculum committee chair if they had the information, and the previous chair said she'd send it right away.

That was early last week, with the leader finally emailing me some information (and the no about the other) on Saturday afternoon.

So this morning, I called the office staffer over in the college office, since they get our reviews and tell us what is due for review.  Within ten minutes, she emailed me the information (and also emailed the chair from last year, who almost as quickly sent me an email to tell me that there was special information I needed to know about the late reviews so we need to meet urgently!).  She also told me that while she didn't have the enrollment information, the person to talk to in the enrollment office would. 

So I called the enrollment office, and the person there directed me to an online request form, and by the time I got back from teaching, she'd given me the full information.  And also sent me a not quite snarky email that the program leader already had access to the information.

I'm sometimes a bit of a bull in a china shop, if you know what I mean.  But I know the effective office staffers in enough offices that I can call and get help, and voila, I get information.  (This isn't highly classified stuff at all.  This is stuff we should have easily to hand.)

So here's the thing.  This program is pretty low priority for most of us most of the time.  It would help a lot if someone else would do the work.  And that really shows.  You know?  But if the program is to survive, then we actually have to make it a priority.  And if that's not worth doing, then we should let it go. 

That sucks, but that's how things are in tough budget times. 

The previous committee chair complained a lot about how much work she had to do, so I offered to take this on.  I'm pretty sure it's a fair bit of work, but I'm also pretty sure that I'm reasonably efficient about the sort of work involved.  Unfortunately, I can also be a bit of a bull in a china shop, and I need to rein that in to work with this committee as effectively as possible.

Reading Anew

I'm teaching a play I've taught many, many times in my Shakespeare and Ecocriticism course, and I've been rereading with an eye to what to say about ecocriticism and this play.

And suddenly, I feel like I'm reading a new play.  Stuff I've totally missed jumps out.  Coolness!

I can say this about teaching Shakespeare: I'll never be bored!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Time, Time, Tickin'

Here at NWU, the administrative folks have apparently just discovered that student suicide is a thing.

Since I've been here, we've had those memorial notices, usually along the lines of "X, a [something] major from [name of town] died unexpectedly last week.  Memorial services will be held at [local church] at [some day and time]."  And "everyone" knew these were almost certainly suicides.

But in that administrative way, they've suddenly decided that we all need to be aware and do something about the problem.  I don't know what prompted this sudden interest (maybe there's a new deanling in charge who always thought it was important but didn't have power or something), but this fall, student suicide is a thing.

I don't take suicide lightly.  But sudden administrative turns make me prick up my ears, so to speak.

Anyway, among other things, there's an "interactive module" educational thingy that NWU has signed up for, and our chairs are being encouraged to encourage us all to do the "interactive module" educational thingy.  There's even some special thing for the first department to have everyone do it.

Being the sort of faculty member who tries to be supportive of the chair (who's evidently being "encouraged" to get us all to do this), I did the "interactive module" thingy.  I will never get those 40 minutes back.  What a waste.

First, it feels like one of those "tick this box" things. 

Second, like much mass-produced interactive stuff, it's clumsy and irritating, and not actually very educational.  (I don't think I have any expertise in this area at all, but damn, this was stupid.)

It's set up as a "you're consulting" with a faculty member (a business prof, apparently) who's noticed some potential problems with five students.  Interestingly, the cartoon faculty member is a Black man, which has to be the result of a conscious choice by the folks who made this.  One of the cartoon students has a Hispanic name, but other than that, they're all white students.  The idea is that you read the faculty member's observations (which seem cranky and sort of hyper-observant), and then you "are there" while the faculty member meets in an office with the student, and you choose from bubble choices what approach to take next.

There are maybe 20 or 25 students in the class, and the faculty member has observed stuff from one student's apparent weight gain to a student wearing the same clothes often, and so on.  Hell, I can barely remember what I'm wearing right now without looking down; am I REALLY supposed to track what every student wears?  (And my classes aren't 100+ person lectures.)  Or whether they've gained a couple pounds?  Seriously?

Then we get to the interactions.  One is with a young woman who's been visibly upset; in the scenario, you learn that she's recently broken up with her boyfriend.  She says she wanted to kick him out of the apartment, but it's his, so she didn't.  And then the right choice is to tell her about the counseling center, but not to insist that she make an appointment.

Nothing about women's resources, domestic violence resources, homeless resources.  Nope.  Though I think we all know that a female student who was living with a male and then left might need those resources.  Except apparently, nope, we're supposed to think she's got friends and everything's hunky dory.

And so on.  There's the male student who's seemingly hearing voices, the student who's working too much, the student who doesn't feel like he fits in.  (He's the one with the Hispanic surname, but there's no option to recognize that systemic racism might be contributing, even though you'd think a Black professor would be aware of that possibility.  At least, I'm pretty sure all my Black colleagues are pretty aware of systemic racism.  Way more aware than I am, for sure.)


So, I don't think this interactive module thingy is really going to make a meaningful difference.  The thing is, I don't have any clue what might make a meaningful difference.

I have one clue: smaller class sizes.  I think I'm way more likely to notice a student's problem if I'm teaching 50 students in a semester than if I'm teaching 100.  And the likelihood that I'd notice one in 300, not likely at all.

Now, we've held our first year writing classes to 20 students through some very creative juggling.  But first year language classes are at something like 30 right now.  And Intro Women's Studies is at 55. (Intro to Women's Studies courses are, in my experience, a place where students recognize problems in their relationships and might feel that faculty members have skills to help change things.)

Students who are in big 100+ person lectures?  Those profs are going to have a lot harder time recognizing problems.


My questions of the day are:  is your administration suddenly making student suicide a thing?

And is there any meaningful way to help faculty members make a difference?  What are your experiences?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Grading Thing

When I first studied in a teaching composition program, the faculty emphasized that we needed to create assignments that we would actually like (or at least not hate) grading.  And I try to do that in my classes.

The thing is, after the first 7 or 12 or 25 papers (or any sort of assignment, really), grading becomes progressively more difficult, harder to make myself do.  And that's when I give assignments I've created carefully with an eye to not being tortured.

In our writing courses, we're pretty much expected to follow a course plan and give assignments that are pretty similar and based on the course plan.  And that means to me, they're boring as hell.  It's not a matter of grading 7 before I'm bored, it's facing grading the first.

And the boredom isn't the boredom of, say, weeding, or riding my bike for a couple of hours.  It's longer, for one thing.  And I have to pay a lot closer attention.  When I'm riding my bike, I have to pay attention, of course.  I look at the road ahead and make sure I ride safely.  I listen for cars or other bikers and such to make sure I know where they are and can try not to create problems.  But I can also sing to my bike, ponder questions, do short bursts of higher energy riding, and so forth.  And the whole time, I'm outside, and usually (since I'm a fair weather biker) enjoying some fresh air, nice scenery, and so on.

When I'm grading, I have to pay pretty close attention to what I'm doing in order to try to figure out what and how to communicate to the student to help them understand how they've done on the assignment and (hopefully), to help them do better in the future. 

I know I'm not the only one who finds grading difficult.  Friends of mine do complex reward systems: grade so many of these, get some reward.  And so on.

People develop grading rubrics in hopes that they can put a few checks or circles on a piece of paper and satisfy students that the assignment has been evaluated fairly and that they know why they got the grade they did and how to do better in the future.

What do you do?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


In my department, we can often manage to schedule our teaching for four days a week, which gives us one "non-teaching" day to grade and do prep with fewer interruptions.  For many people, the ideal is to cozy up at home with the cat or whatever and grade away.

Today is my non-teaching day, but I'm heading to the office early because I have 4+ hours of meetings spread over the day, from 9am to 4:30pm, for maximal disruption of grading and prep.  Grrr.

One of the meetings is about the changing requirements of our travel policy.  We've gotten pretty draconian warnings that we must, must, must attend one of these meetings, and today's is the only one that doesn't overlap with my teaching schedule.


You may have read the news about a certain presidential candidate being "called" to drop out of the race.  I think he was "called" by a certain pair of brothers who are worried about the possibility of another candidate.  All of them worry me, to be honest.

There's a vague fear around here that the erstwhile presidential candidate who's been absent much of the summer and fall will return his attention to smacking down the people he smacked down before to make his reputation with all the more vengeful fury.  Since I've been smacked before, I'm not looking forward to further smacking.

I'd love to ask though, since the university system has in recent years turned its attention to the fact that the faculty throughout the system doesn't take the expected numbers of sick days, and has put in place rules to insist that if we're not working, we must take a sick day, has this erstwhile presidential candidate been paid for campaigning around the country instead of working "for" the state?

(My theory on the sick day thing is that faculty folks pretty much go to work and do their job unless they're hospitalized because that's the work ethic here and because trying to "make up" missed classes with our students is abysmally difficult.  We're also encouraged to do that by a benefits policy that, for now at least, turns unused sick days into health insurance coverage at the beginning of retirement.)


I've already had two students slammed by disasters this semester.  I think they'll both be okay, but life is very hard for them right now.  I wish there were more I could do beyond being supportive and working with them to catch up when they can.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


I've watched the episodes of Vicious up on a local PBS video site (because I never remember to watch during the televising time), and I really want to love this show and think it's hilarious, but it's not quite there somehow for me.

The premise has potential (two long-time male partners and their friendship circle), and the actors are good (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi are the leads), but somehow it's not nearly as funny as I want it to be.