Monday, June 26, 2017

Failure and Resilience

These are the code words these days.  You've probably read the recent article by Jessica Bennet in the New York Times, about an initiative at Smith to help students deal with failure.  It's an interesting article, with discussion of not only Smith's initiative, but several other schools' work in the same area.

The basic idea is that the students at these schools have never really experienced failure, and then when they get into college and don't do as well at something (they're talking B-land grades and such as failure), the students have difficulty dealing with it.  First recognized, according to the article, at Stanford and Harvard as "failure deprived," these students basically haven't fallen down and picked themselves up enough to shrug off the next fall.

The article talks about programs at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and Davidson College, all of which encourage students to try things and be willing to fail at them.

I gather from Meansomething (in a facebook conversation, mostly) that there's so much pressure and competition to get into the right college that High School students are being taught to focus primarily on what they're good at, and not to try as much new stuff that they're not already good at.  That way, they get to show how wonderful they are on transcripts and stuff, and don't have to risk having that poor grade in [subject they aren't already good at] to hold them back.

I guess I have a couple issues with the idea.

First and foremost: The schools listed above pretty much are all way elite.

NWU isn't elite.  But I've had relatively few students in my time at NWU who have emotional difficulty when they fail.  Usually, they mess up on something, get a little upset, and either work harder, figure out how to do better, or get over it and mess up some more.  If the colleges told their admissions offices that they want students who've demonstrated an ability to fail and deal productively with that failure, they'd get a different population of students, probably including some like my own.  Those schools can change their perceived problem if they decide they're willing to risk admitting students who've demonstrated failure and resilience.

In fact, I'm guessing their really exciting students have already experienced lots of failure and recovery.

Which brings me to my second point: if you're doing anything difficult and working to your capacity at it, you're failing a fair bit.  That goes for athletes, musicians, scientists, humanists, everyone.

I bet every single day, Yo-Yo Ma fails at something in his cello practice/playing.  His failure's probably pretty much at the level of not playing quite as he wants a given piece, or missing a fingering slightly, or whatever.  But he's a darned good cellist, and yet working at his level, challenging himself, he probably fails a lot.  And then he practices more, and in performance, most of us wouldn't hear the slight imperfection that he knows is there at some point or other.

The same goes for athletes.  How many incompletions did Joe Montana throw.  A lot.  But he also threw some amazing, beautiful passes.

A high school musician who's really doing their thing is failing a lot, and then practicing some more, and dealing with it.  The same with an athlete.

But if all the science students are doing is cook book science, following recipes in the chem lab and getting an A for following directions well, then they aren't really doing science, and they aren't really working at a high enough level.  Of course, there's a point at which chem students have to learn basic stuff without being in danger of blowing up their schools.  But somehow, they aren't doing in their field what the musician or athlete is doing in theirs; they aren't figuring out what's been done before, a bazillion times, on just some level for themselves.

The musician playing a C major scale isn't doing something new.  And they should have guidance.  And yet, they're doing something cognitively different than following a chem class recipe book, no?

That Girl Scout who plans a camping trip, even with adult guidance, is doing the cognitive work, and may fail on some level, in fact, probably will.  And hopefully, she'll learn from that failure.

I'm guessing the really exciting students at Stanford or wherever, are the ones who've done something like music, athletics, scouting, started a business or community project, failed, and figured out how to go on again.

And I'm guessing the ones who are less resilient, less able to deal with failure, are the ones who've done really good work at cook book chemistry (or whatever).  They've followed directions really well, and worked hard to do things just right.  And they did things just right.

So how do high schools teach students to fail?  Or would it be enough for colleges to look for signs of successful failures when they're admitting students?

I'm not picking on chemistry, but it seems to me, from my own experience, that beyond learning basic lab safety and procedures, I didn't do much chemistry in my chemistry labs, not in two years in high school, not in several years in college.  And I don't know if there's a way that could be done differently, since there's so much pressure to teach large numbers of students in lab classes.  But somehow, in biology, we did little actual experiments, often trying to grow some plant with this or that different condition, and sometimes, they failed.

Can students productively fail assignments/exercises in my courses?  There's certainly lots of room for students to fail at their research projects on some level and still get an A on the project for failing well.  (When they really try to learn something and run into a brick wall, and learn something else, for example.)  But other work?

What about you?  Did you fail and learn from it early?  Or no?

Do you teach students how to fail?


Learning violin is taking me to whole new levels of failure these days.  But Strings says that she's never satisfied with her performance at a concert, even though other folks don't even realize she's made a mistake or something.  She just has expectations about the level of playing she wants, and doesn't (she says) ever quite get there fully.

The good news is that I'm improving on violin by failing and working through difficulties.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Progress: Floors and Summer Projects

As of last night, the floors are laid, sanded, and stained.  At this moment, the floor folks are putting on the second coat of finish.  Then it dries for the weekend, and on Monday, they'll come put up baseboards and such.  It looks every bit as good as I hoped!

In other progress, here's what I had to do, with the done parts stricken out.

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I've made MOST of my reservations for the UK. 
Hotels for August before birding and December (for the British Library)
Between Birding and Starting << suggestions?  I'll be in Scotland for birding, near Cairngorms National Park.  Should I go to Glasgow?  Inverness?  (I've been to Edinburgh, and while it's wonderful, I'd like to see something new.)

In the violin world, at my last lesson, my teacher agreed that I'm ready to start memorizing and working towards my Book 3 test.

So, lot's to do this weekend, and then in the coming week, I get to move back into the rest of my house!

Thursday, June 08, 2017


The wood has arrived!  This is a lot of red oak, and from the great North Woods, I'm told.

(My sliding glass door is super dirty, but it seems silly to clean it before it gets exposed to all the more dust.)  

I submitted my syllabi for the courses at the Abbey today.

I still have some paperwork to submit (emergency info, for example), and have to have a physical so a doctor can fill out a form (because they won't fill out a form if you haven't been in within the year, seems).

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I think it's time to stop, drop by campus to pick up a book (because parking anywhere near my building during working hours during the week is impossible this next month) so I can work on the third hurry up project.

Then time to practice.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Emptying the BardiacShack

As I've posted before, I'm getting new hardwood floors in part of the BardiacShack.  That means I have to empty out about half of the main floor, and put everything either in the basement or in the areas that are tiled.

This is the empty living room (the last picture was taken at night to avoid some of the window glare from afternoon sun).  I'm thinking next year, I may paint a new color...  (taking suggestions, please!) (The floor folks are going to move the heaviest of the furniture, which includes empty bookshelves.)

Here's a view of my home office.  I'm the only academic I know who actually has plenty of bookshelf space at home.  (There's a case behind the door on the right, and additional cases in the master bedroom, a bedroom downstairs, and the great room.)

This last is my red room, which is where a lot of stuff is piled.  There's also more in the dining area.  And in the basement.  (I put plastic over the windows in the red room during winter, and haven't taken them off yet...)

Editing to add a few more empty house photos:

The Hive Mind is Magic

I've put out several calls for suggestions on facebook recently, and it's amazing how helpful the hivemind is, and how much people know and are willing to share knowledge.

I've found a hotel that looks good for when I want to work at the British Library.

I've found texts.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Things are Getting Real

I've gotten some of the official paperwork to go teach at the Abbey!

So that's feeling more real.  I've started working on syllabus stuff, and book orders, and now have to do more, and fill out official forms and such.

Before there was any hint of going to the UK, I'd arranged to have carpet taken out of half of the main floor of the BardiacShack (tm) and hardwood floors put in.  (The other half is tile.)  We've firmed up a date, and it's coming soon.

I started packing up that half of the house last week.  One day, a friend came and we had a good time packing my office (many books).  It's so much more fun with a friend.  I still have some to do, but it's within easy reach now.  But the house looks increasingly strange, with empty walls (because art needs to come down to avoid dust and such), and empty rooms.

The floor folks are going to move the few big furniture pieces, but smaller ones I've moved or will move ahead with a little help from my friends.

I'm working on a new violin piece.  It's beautiful, a Bach piece, but pretty darned difficult.

On the other hand, I started going back through my early Suzuki books (#1 so far) and it's surprising how easy those pieces are now.  They were really hard when I started working on them, not so very long ago.  So that gives me hope.  (Regular Suzuki kids are expected to practice their older pieces at least once a week, but I don't do that.  On the other hand, I also work through the easier parts of new pieces in practice sessions because I can read music and, well, because I do.  So I don't have everything by memory the way regular Suzuki kids do forever.  But I'm learning in a way that's not frustrating to me.  Early on, I asked my teacher if it was okay to work on the piece just ahead if I felt like the current piece was going well, and she was fine with it, so I did, so now she gets me started on the hard parts, and I work on the easy parts, too, and then she helps me with those in lessons, and I work on making them better.)

One of my musician friends plays violin as a second instrument, so we're talking about working on a duet.  But it's way harder than I can do now, and Strings suggested to hold off starting on it (it's the last piece in the next book) so that I don't teach myself bad habits.  That makes sense.  She thinks it will be a year or two before I'm ready for it.  (And thinking how much I've learned this past year, that gives me some sense of how far beyond me this piece really is right now.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

There's That...

I participated in my first recital today, playing a short piece (Dvorak's Humoresque), one of 5 of my teachers students to play.

The world didn't end.  I didn't lose my job.  And I didn't vomit in front of everyone (or at all, even).

Other than that... well, I'm really disappointed in how poorly I played.  I've been playing it pretty well, but today, in front of people, I just didn't.  At least I didn't completely fall apart when I made mistakes.  I suppose there's that.

Everyone was nice, of course.

But I'm pretty disappointed.  Gah.

I guess that's part of learning.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Scholarly Editions

When the semester ends, I always seem to sleep for a week.  This year, the weekend seems to have sufficed.  It probably helps that it's been too rainy to do much out of doors, so I've read, slept, and packed.

I'm having hardwood floors put in the main floor of my house, the BardiacShack, replacing the carpet that was put in when it was built.  Let's just say the carpet has seen better days.

But it means that I basically have to move everything out of half the house, including the half with my bedroom, living room, and home office.  So that means clothes and books.  Holy cow, I have a lot of books!

I'm probably the only person in academics who has more shelving than I need, thanks to inheriting three big barrister cases when my Dad died, after having bought sufficient shelving before.  And having a regular office where I have most of my books.  It's rather nice!  (But the big shelves all need to be moved!)

I took three boxes of books to the local library to donate to their sale; I hope they can sell them.  I'm sending some scholarly editions to a grad student I know.

It's weird, these scholarly editions, mostly from the Renaissance Text or Medieval and Renaissance Text Societies.  They're incredible, and beautiful.  But they're not something I use a lot.  A few of them I do.  I use a George Herbert facsimile edition about once every other year, when I teach poetry.  And there are a few other editions I use, or just plain like.

They're one of those things that you really want your library to own (if you're at an R1 and have grad students), because the occasional grad student will find them useful, but unless the specific edition hits your needs, you probably don't need them.  But I didn't really get that when I joined the organization.  And I'm not sorry I joined, because I found various sorts of editions like this so useful when I was a grad student.

But in a way, EEBO and other on-line resources have solved immediate access problems for many people, though the editorial apparatus that makes these editions especially helpful at times isn't there.  For medievalists, EEBO is no help at all, so maybe the editions are still really useful?

I'm guessing there was about a hundred years where these editions were absolutely invaluable.  And now, maybe less so?

Do you folks find yourselves using scholarly editions of less well-known texts?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Requesting a Search

The Powers That Be around here let our department chair and personnel chair know last week that they'd be letting every unit put in a request to search for a new TT position in the fall.  These decisions need to be made earlier rather than later for a number of reasons.  The big one is that if we decide in summer, then the committee can be basically set up and write up a job description early.  That way the ad goes out, and we can request materials early.  And we can do phone interviews early.  And then we can invite candidates to campus at the end of spring semester.  Otherwise, since we don't start back until the end of January, it's February before we have campus visits, and then we're late trying to make offers and such (and paperwork here takes forever).  Then, as sometimes happens, our first choice candidates already have offers we can't compete with, and on down the line.

So we met to discuss the issue.  (And here, let me explain that all meetings of State agencies are completely open to the public unless we invoke a specific state law, and we didn't invoke that at this meeting because it wouldn't have been appropriate.  So you all could have come and sat in this meeting, and even asked to speak.  Which is all to say, I'm not violating any confidentiality stuff here.)

Our chair prepared some numbers about enrollments, and so forth, which pretty seriously demonstrated that in three of our core areas for student majors, and for our first year writing courses, we're having serious difficulty covering our courses.  (In a given semester, most TT faculty teach one first year writing course with 5 meeting hours per week, and two other courses.)

One of the suggestions is that we hire someone in comp/rhet in hopes this person would solve some of the difficulty of first year writing courses.  Basically, they're thinking this person would come in and have a steady, long term diet of first year writing courses, all year, all the time.  And upper level comp/rhet type courses are already well covered; it's one of only two areas that could add a number of students to each section at the upper level.  So we really don't need someone more to teach upper level courses.

That seems to me like a recipe for a really unhappy colleague.  I just haven't met anyone who's done a PhD in comp/rhet who really wants a full time first year comp load.  Maybe they're out there...  And it seems like that load would also really be hard on a research agenda (unless they were totally doing SOTL work on first year writing class stuffs).  (The response to my concern about this was that the person could also teach some lit, and yes, but then it doesn't solve the first year writing coverage, and it adds people in a likely area where we already have plenty of coverage, pop culture.)

We also discussed areas A and B, including the possibility that we try to find someone who does both A and B.  The A folks rejected that, since anyone who does both probably likes B better and isn't wholeheartedly A.  (And we have some folks who could do some A along with their B, but the A folks always, always refuse to let them.)

The A folks made an impassioned argument for a specialized position within A because they want someone who looks different, but not someone who looks TOO different (as in, too B).

The B folks made an equally impassioned argument for a specialized position within B in case our current person there goes off to be a deanling, which they really want to do and which seems likely.

I suggested a different specialization within B that could also reasonably offer serious help to area C.  That didn't go far.  But I conceded that the other area was probably more important to us.

And so, with much discussion, we came to a consensus which makes me very glad to be part of a department where folks can make an impassioned argument for something and yet be convinced that at this point, something else should probably have priority.

And so we'll put forward our recommendation.

And in all likelihood, since we searched this past year, the few searches there are will go to other departments and programs.

We have some 15 people there for an hour and a half.  That's half a week of work, and probably for nothing, really.  (And more work in the prep the chair and chair of the meeting did.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hit the Ground Running

And we're back!  At least I'm back.  From Kalamazoo, where I met Dame Eleanor to say hi, and also other medievalists. 

I felt good about my paper, and heard some stellar work.  I learned to play a game, and am trying to think how I might make that work in my own courses.

But I barely slept.  Blanketgate. 

Just so we all remember: at some point a short while before the conference, word got out that people staying in the dorms wouldn't be provided with blankets, but would need to either bring their own, go without, or buy one.  Some smart folks figured out how to arrange so that the bought blankets could be donated for one or more shelters for people more needy than most medievalists, and also worked to fund some blankets for more needy medievalists (especially grad students).

I bought a blanket.  It was an okay blanket, but nothing to blog home about, mostly because it was too short.  I'm about 5'5", and I had a choice of either shoulders or feet for coverage.  Fortunately, it wasn't super cold.  (And in case it had been, I had long johns and sleeping socks packed.)

Most important, I reconnected with a friend and had several lovely long talks with her.

But now, holy cow, back trying to catch up on all the stuff I put off.  I have papers to grade by Wednesday morning (so I can give them back at the final).  I had a final to write, but it's now written.

My home is a mess, my office is a mess, my life is chaos, and I haven't practiced the violin since before Kalamazoo.  (This afternoon, I promise myself.)

I need to figure out all sorts of things before summer really starts, but can't do some of those until official paperwork happens, and we all know how paperwork getting done sometimes is.

And the Giro d'Italia is on, and Nairo Quintana is in the lead!  (It's a rest day today, the second during the three week race.)  Tomorrow is a time trial, which I don't find much fun to watch, alas, and which may also spell the end of Quintana's time in pink for now.  (Since the Tour de France is more familiar, folks may be more familiar with the yellow jersey worn by the general classification leader of the Tour.  The general classification is the total time to finish the race.  For the Giro, the general classification leader wears a pink jersey.)  There's also a cyclamen/purple jersey for the points leader, which is basically a jersey for sprinters, currently held by Fernando Gaviria; a blue jersey for the leader of the mountain competition, currently held by Jan Polanc; and the white jersey for riders under 25.  (There are other competitions, but only four result in distinct jerseys.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

At the 'Zoo!

I'm in Kalamazoo, pretending to be a bit of a medievalist.

And, I got really good news today.  Back in 2011, I did a semester of teaching abroad at a place I called the Abbey; well the person in my department who was scheduled to go there in the fall doesn't want to go, for a very reasonable reason.  So my chair reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to go.  But, you'll remember, I'm scheduled for a sabbatical this coming year.

Well, it all worked out.  I'll go to the Abbey this fall, teach at NWU as usual in spring, and then the next year, will take my full year deferred sabbatical!  Things couldn't be better for that!

Except... I'll be teaching a course in Victorian Literature.  Uh huh.  I mean, I can pretend to be a medievalist, sure, but a Victorianist?  Fortunately, one of my colleagues offered to help me put together the course and prep for it.

I'm thrilled!

And now, back to pretending to be a medievalist!