Saturday, December 31, 2005

Road Warrior...

I'm at my third stop on the road trip, several good driving days from the NorthWoods, and having a GREAT time.

I had high expectations for my trip, but so far, my expectations are far exceeded. Right now, I'm visiting friends from another internet life, and I have to admit, it's odd in some ways. You know someone through the internet, and you imagine them in all sorts of ways, and then you go hang out with them, and they're not at all what you've imagined, and at the same time, very much what you've imagined.

I have noticed that my very typical Northwoodsian car is far less common around here. My Flying Spaghetti Monster sticker on the back of the car (opposite the Darwin sticker) got a second look at the gas station.

I had a weird urge to test my assumptions about attitudes towards emergency contraception by going into urgent care centers all along the way, telling them that I needed some, and paying cash for the care/prescription/whatever. I try not to act on ALL my weird urges, to be honest, really I do. I wonder if I could get arrested or something for falsely seeking emergency contraception? What about giving a false name at a medical facility?

I haven't been arrested. So far.

I hope everyone in the blogosphere has the best New Year possible, and that we all find our way toward peace together.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Knowing what's ahead?

So, after getting off the road yesterday, I read some blogs, because, seriously, I have no life. Well, I do, but...

Anyway, I read this entry over at RedStateMoron, a guy who also seems to live up somewhere in snow country, and who seems thoughtful and interesting, both of which are always good. Red's post refers to parents not wanting to identify their new born baby as having Down syndrome to people who haven't already met their baby. Red says he thinks that letting people know would be better, but I'm not sure.

And, since I couldn't sleep and was mulling over stuff, I started thinking about how teachers approach students who are identified as "special" in some way. At NorthWoods University, we admit some students, let's call them NW Scholars, who wouldn't get in under the normal criteria, but who are admitted as NWSs because NWU thinks they'll succeed and do well in a special program, because NWU tries to promote diversity amongst its students (at least nominally). In the case of the NWS program, most students are admitted because they're first generation college students, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or from sub-populations of the state community which are underrepresented in post-secondary schools.

Research I vaguely recall shows that if you tell teachers that they've got a section of "highly gifted" students, something will happen so that the students will actually work at a highly gifted level and the teacher will grade them accordingly. The corollary is that if you tell a teacher s/he's got a section of remedial students, then the students will work at a remedial level and the teacher will grade them accordingly. Therein lies a problem, or at least a potential problem. At the most basic level, we teach to our expectations.

Every fall term, I got an email (sent to the whole of my department, no doubt) asking if I'd accept NWS program students into my first year writing class. The "catch," if you will, is that the NWS program wants to schedule its students into classes in a group, so a typical first year writing class will have, say, about one quarter to one third NWS students if the instructor accepts. The second "catch" is that the email implies (or more than implies) that these are remedial students, and that we might resist having them in our classes because they're remedial. And then the email tells us that these students will have a special skills class and other help so that they won't be a burden on their first year writing instructors.

Out of laziness, I hadn't accepted this fine invitation previously. Out of less laziness, I accepted the invitation a year ago last fall.

I couldn't tell which students were NWS students, and knowing the issues related to expectations and research, I was fine with that. But since the NWSs are in several classes together, and since they know they're in a special program, they often come out in class by talking about the program they're in or talk about classes they're in, so it wouldn't be that hard to figure out if I bothered. (Again with the laziness thing!) They also tended to talk with frustration about the special study skills class they were taking, and how it wasn't really addressing their needs as students.

About half way through the term, the NWS program organizer called a meeting, and met with those of us with NWS students in our classes as a group, several people in my department, one person teaching their college skills class, and one person teaching a large lecture class with all NWS students (who also teaches a section of the same class to non-NWS students). Despite my distaste for meetings of all sorts, I dutifully attended.

And innocent that I am, still, I was irritated to hear the ways that the people not in my department talked about these students. Seriously, if you're {fill in your favorite expletive] administering a program to help underrepresented people, don't put them down behind their backs!

At the end of the meeting, the program organizer suggested that we should look at the list of NWS people in our class, so that we'd know who was who.

I said I wasn't really interested in who was who, so I didn't look; but actually, I was feeling really irritated because these people should know the research about teacher bias.

When I gave out final grades, I wasn't sure which students were or weren't NWSs, but my impression was that they did about as well, on average, as the other students.

I didn't have strong feelings about the students either way, but I'd decided I didn't want the BS of dealing with the program organizer, so I didn't respond to the email this year, and didn't think twice about it, to be honest. I have plenty to keep what few brain cells survived my youth fully occupied.

A couple weeks into my first year writing class this fall, though, some of the students talked about their study skills class, and another class they had in common, and I realized that despite my non-answer, the NWS organizer had assumed I'd continue and put students into my class. I didn't think anything more of it until about half way through the semester when the organizer sent around an email telling us when we'd be meeting, which I promptly ignored. The day of the meeting, one of my colleagues stopped at my office to remind me of the meeting, and I told him I didn't want to go and was going to close my door and hide out. He laughed and went on to the meeting. (Did I mention that I have plenty to keep me busy without an additional irritating meeting?)

I wonder if we aren't doing our NWS students a bit of a disservice by identifying them to their instructors. By all means, admit NWS students and give them the academic and social support they need to take advantage of the opportunity. Sure, put them in a special skills class. Yes, encourage them to take advantage of all the academic tutoring opportunities available on campus.

But don't tell their instructors that they're here through a special program which implies remediation. Don't put them all in one big special section of a class with an instructor who thinks s/he's doing them some sort of favor. And don't put them in groups in first year writing courses.

So, to the original issue of Red's post: yes, of course I'd be able to tell if someone with a serious disability were in my class at some point. But. But, I know research suggests that peoples' reactions to students with dis/ability and giftedness/remediation are closely correlated to their expectations. I don't blame parents for wanting to let people expect their child to be normal, and so hopefully to treat their child as "normal" and to value the child as a child first, before thinking about his/her dis/ability.

PS. I think one of my two strongest students in my first year writing class this past fall was in the NWS program. But, of course, I'm not sure. I try to just assume they're all really smart, capable, interested, hard-working students and let them prove otherwise if not.

PPS. Despite the date shown, it's really Wednesday morning, absurdly early...

On the road again

I haven't done much travel driving for the past couple years, so I've been looking forward to this trip. I've done the first, very short leg, and it went well!

Last week at the local public library, I made the somewhat questionable choice of a book on CD about the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month to listen to. Fascinating book, but my brain keeps thinking of "Dulce et decorum est" and I'm not exactly in a cheery mood. Still, "an ecstacy of fumbling" is as good figure of speech as I've ever heard, and the thought of a face "like a devil's sick of sin" brings me to a mental stop every time I think of it. If I could only write like that...

As I was driving on Christmas Eve, late for where I was supposed to be, I listened to the section about the truce on Christmas Eve 1914. Driving along through the bleak darkness, with bare hints of snowiness in the air, and snow visible along the sides of the road as far as I could see, listening to the ways that soldiers made momentary piece against the wishes of their superiors and national leaders, I just felt such despair.

I've never learned much about WWI, really, beyond the basics, certainly not about the causes and beginnings of the war. But this book certainly gives the impression that the war was totally avoidable if the people in charge, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, had just had cooler heads. Cooler heads. I wish we had some cooler heads in leadership positions today.

Beyond driving, though, I had a chance to do some regular reading, and reread Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories and to read Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter. Haroun was as brilliant as the first time I experienced it (on tape, Rushdie reading, as a matter of fact), and The Bonesetter's Daughter seemed especially fitting, there in a house with three generations of family women.

Well, I'm on the road again tomorrow morning!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The toughest assignment from last term

Well, I'm late getting on the road, and I've been writing instead of other things. Is it me, or does everyone end up taped to various pieces of wrapping paper?

I've been rereading and and thinking about my graduate students' work today.

The class had a series of writing assignments, something short due every week, except for weeks when something longer was due, until the final couple of weeks when they primarily worked together on their research paper drafts. We used an electronic message board to turn in papers, and in addition to other assigned reading, each student was required to read and respond to the work of every other student every week. It was a lot to ask of them.

I didn't grade a single piece of work during the main part of the semester. Rather, I commented and made suggestions in writing, and we spent much of each class talking about what they'd written, as an opening to talking about what they'd read for the week and also in order to talk about their writing as writing. Basically, it was a hyped up writing class with some theory and a small canon of poetry. (Imagine! Several of the high school teachers talk about how useful they find Christensen's paragraph analysis; a couple others mentioned it, too.)

Their grade was based on a portfolio which had to include a variety of pieces chosen from the different things they'd written during the semester (which they could revise if they chose) their final research essay, and reflection/self-evaluation pieces in which they should talk about what they learned by doing a certain piece of work and so forth. The final section of the portfolio required them to evaluate their contributions to discussion, both in seminar and through the electronic message board.

I've done this seminar before, and used the same format, but for some reason, I didn't really get a sense of what a struggle writing their reflections was with the last class. Maybe I did something differently enough, or these people are just different enough, but their portfolios reveal a striking vulnerability this year. I get much more of a sense that they're putting things on the line: they're much more up front about their perceived weaknesses in writing, discussion, reading, and critical thinking than last year's seminar. There's more at stake with this class in some way.

The result is that some of them have written just incredible reflections, and if they're honest (hey, I can write lies, and I suspect all of us can), they learned a lot about their writing and thinking in the class, and less about discussion. Some of them hint at pain in recognizing weaknesses; after all, they're in graduate school and they got here because they were pretty darned good undergrads, and now they've spent a semester having their writing and thinking publicly critiqued. It can hurt when you put your best foot forward and someone criticizes your work, even if you recognize the validity of the criticism and learn from it.

It's a bit humbling to read these portfolios. I'm just feeling that some of them are so exposed, for lack of a better word. And how the dickens do they trust ME to read and respond to their recognition of their weaknesses? Me? (Heck, I'm over 30, so I don't trust myself!)

I've simply read too much Freud and Lacan to take the self-evaluations totally at face value. Yes, there's all sorts of stuff going on here, and I'm just inadequate to deal with it.

As I'm rereading these, I can't imagine how I'd respond to a portfolio reflection assignment such as this. I write my little blog, and I'm safely anonymous (or at least I pretend to be safely anonymous), but even so, I don't really blog about anything that would make me vulnerable. I may joke about my lack of winter skills or think in pixels about how writing or teaching writing works, but I'm pretty close about self-censoring. What would I do if asked to do a self-reflection?

Yeah, I'd probably fake vulnerability, pick out things to talk about that aren't really scary, and say exactly what I think the authority figure wants to hear. I'd talk about how I'd moved from weakness I to point of greater strength J, and how I still need to learn to get to K, but that I can now see that there must be a K out there. (Mr. Ramsey, anyone?)

And I bet I write well enough that the authority figure would buy it.

Do my students write that well?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Disappointed by the internet and road trip

Not so long ago, I ordered some stuff off the internet. Nothing terribly exciting, certainly nothing to arouse anyone's prurient interests, but I thought this stuff would make a fun gift for a family member this year.

And, alas, I'm mildly disappointed. It wasn't so expensive that I'm thinking I was ripped off, or anything, it's just not as fun as I'd hoped, not as interesting, and not really going to work as a present. On the other hand, my Flying Spaghetti Monster car sticker thing came, and I'm jazzed about THAT!

I'm heading out on a road trip shortly, and probably won't have internet access or anything remotely academic to say. If you see a car with an FSM sticker thing on one side, and a Darwin fish on the other, wave! It might be me, it might not. But it probably won't get you shot or anything.

I hear there are still parts of the world not covered in cold white stuff. I aim to go find out for myself!

Grading avoidance

Yes, I've been avoiding grading. I've taken procrastination to a high art form. I've written and rewritten blog posts, read the instructions on my vcr, taken my car to get oiled/lubed/washed, played a computer game, more or less planned a completely unplanned trip for over New Year's, and basically managed to waste a heck of a lot of time.

Some papers are a real pleasure to grade, but they're still an effort, and still take a lot of time, especially when they're research papers or graduate papers and I have to try to say something useful or helpful in response. But lousy papers make me want to play Gloucester, except I think my Mad Tom would gladly walk me to a real cliff and push me over. I can only hope.

What have I learned from all my procrastination, you ask? I've learned that there are things on the internet that I never wanted to know about. And I'm not even talking about various efforts at photographic or textual pruriency. I'm talking about basic life stuff.

First, I discovered that the site meter things can tell you stuff about where your readership is, sort of. (It's vague enough that even I don't feel spied on, but I do have my ultra special aluminum foil hat on today anyways.) Most fascinatingly, it can tell you (sometimes) how people find a site, that is, which pages "refer" them.

When I look at my own site, some of the referral pages make no sense: a soccer site, for example, in what seems to be Portuguese. Others make perfect sense; I have New Kid to thank for many, it appears. (Thanks, NK.) Some of my referrals are from searches: someone out there's looking for information on St. Crispin, and they get me. (I hope you're citing, Shakespeare students!) My most popular referrals seem to come from searches for information on letters of recommendation (and by "most popular" I don't mean wildly popular, just two or three lately).

And a few are just a bit odd. I got a referral from a search for "pleasure rape" and one for "legal prostitution." I'm guessing the searchers were disappointed to find stuff on The Rape of Lucrece and questions about the economics of medieval prostitution in England.

Armed, then, with my new found knowledge, and bored of looking at my own referrals, I decided to look at referrals for some blogs I read, especially the searches people do that land them on that blog. And that's when things get really disturbing. Not, "oh, look, there's some guy trying to write a last minute Shakespeare paper and he thinks he's going to find something useful on the internet" disturbing. More disturbing in that "why are there 12 recipes to reduce breast pain in this early modern recipe book?" way, except it's modern and on the internet and stuff.

The good thing is that those papers I have to grade look a lot more attractive right now.

PS. The spell check on Blogspot wants to replace "Lucrece" with "licorice."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Graduation notes from Saturday

As I mentioned before, Saturday was our winter graduation, and I went to see off three of my favorite advisees.

It was, all in all, great.

My office building is right across the street from the building where we hold graduations and such, so I got to campus early so I'd get easy parking. (Heaven forefend I should walk an extra step! If I thought about it, I'd be really irritated at how often thoughts of parking dictate my behavior. I'd better not think about it.) By the time I got there, though, the lot was half full, and people were getting out of cars, dressed in that Northwoods' winter dress up with extra layers way, graduates gathering their black robes and trying to get their mortarboards to more or less stay on.

I barely got a glance getting out of my car and heading to the office building. I had on my usual several layers, and could have been just about anyone but a student or parent, too much grey to be a student, and not dressed well enough to be a parent. Just a nobody in layers.

I stripped off the layers in my office, put on some music, and did a little necessary, short time work until it was time to dress up. At graduation, we faculty folk are asked to meet about a half an hour ahead in a room in the big building across the street, separate from the official folks, who meet in another room. We adjust each others hoods, admire finery, and contemplate the idea of teaching in robes. (Imagine, you'd NEVER have to worry about your stupid wardrobe again!

So I tucked on my hat (which may look better than my usual winter hat, but really doesn't do the trick for Northwoods' weather) on my head at what I hoped was a rakish angle, and headed out to brave the cold of crossing the street.

When you wear finery, people stop and look. It's weird. A half an hour earlier, I was nobody. Now, they look at me as if I'm somebody, somebody very important. A path opens up for me. There's magic in them thar robes, I tell you.

Somehow, at the ceremony, I ended up in the first row of faculty, centered where students come off the stage as they cross, which was great for greeting my advisees. I reached out to shake their hands as they passed, and I even got a hug from one of them.

(She apologized when she saw me later in the week. I think she was a little embarrassed that she'd hugged me in front of a large room full of people. I, on the other hand, was honored. Sometimes I worry that my work in teaching has no meaning, but when I get a hug at graduation, or a genuine thank you, then I have hope again.)

The speaker was dreadful. But then, I think graduation speeches must be about as difficult as any. What can you say? Go forth, don't screw up as badly as my generation did. Take time to smell the roses. Work hard. Play hard. Don't drink and drive. Rotate your tires.

Afterwards, I went to the reception and spent some time talking with one of my advisees and her family. What great fun.

She sent me a copy of a picture her family took of she, another faculty member, and I, standing posed together. I look like a total idiot, but a happy idiot.

My magnificent regalia is really wasted on me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Writing Basics - paragraph analysis

I use and teach a method developed by Francis Christensen,* which I was taught way back a life and a half ago. (There's a short explanation here, in case you're interested.)

Christensen's method analyzes paragraphs based on levels of specificity. The more specific a sentence in a paragraph relative to the sentences around it, and especially the one before it, the higher the number it gets. It's not at all the only way to analyze paragraph organization, but I like it because it's easy to teach and remember, and works pretty well for students.

Christensen names three types of paragraphs, coordinate (aka listing), subordinate (aka step), and mixed sequence.

A coordinate paragraph is basically a topic sentence with a list of sentences following, each developing from the topic sentence, and each at the same basic level of specificity. Here's an example:

Good students develop good study habits. They take good notes when they read. They do the readings before class, and visit office hours to ask questions. They start assignments early and don't procrastinate. They make connections between the things they learn for different classes.

So, it's not a great paragraph, but it will do. The first sentence, the topic sentence, gets labeled a 1, because it's the least specific sentence in the paragraph. Each of the following sentences says something about good students and their study habits, developing some more specific information related to the topic sentence. And each of the following sentences could pretty much be put in any order, and the paragraph would still make decent sense. Each of the following sentences thus gets labeled with a 2 to show that these sentences have one step greater specificity than the topic sentence.

In a subordinate, or step paragraph, each sentence develops a greater level of specificity relative to the sentence just before it, and thus gets numbered with a bigger number. Here's another example:

Good students develop good study habits. They take good notes while they read, and in class. They usually have a specific format for taking notes, so that their notes are clear and readable. For example, they date their note pages, and number them, and leave room for definitions or questions. They may write definitions or questions in different color ink, or in pencil, so that they'll be easy to spot when it's time to review for classes.

Ok, another brilliant Bardiac Blogger bit of bombast... but, here we go: The first sentence is a topic sentence, so gets a 1. The second sentence gives some specific information about one good study habit, so gets a 2. The third sentence provides more information about taking good notes, so gets a 3. And the fourth sentence provides specific information about the definitions/questions raised in the third sentence, and gets a 4.

Easy peasy. And not that exciting. Still, if the fourth sentence came as the second sentence, the paragraph would be confusing to read. The information builds to a greater level of specificity, and each sentence depends on the information of the sentence before it to make sense. (Narrative paragraphs often work in this step fashion with each sentence depending on the one before it for meaning.)

Here's where Christensen's method gets most powerful, the mixed sequence paragraph!

A mixed sequence paragraph mixes the strategy of listing with the strategy of coordinating, and voila, you actually get a reasonably interesting paragraph. Ready for an example? Here goes:

Good students develop good study habits. They take good notes while they read, and in class. They usually have a specific format for taking notes, so that their notes are clear and readable. For example, they date their note pages, and number them, and leave room for definitions or questions. They may write definitions or questions in different color ink, or in pencil, so that they'll be easy to spot when it's time to review for classes. Good students also review their notes after each class while the material's fresh in their mind. After reviewing, they visit professors in office hours to ask questions. Asking questions gives them a chance to make sure they understand the material fully. Good students start early on assignments, and avoid procrastination. When they write essays, they take time to brainstorm, do necessary research, and get help from a tutor. Starting early gives them time to draft and revise, and helps them write much better papers.
And here's the same paragraph with levels of specificity numbered.
1. Good students develop good study habits. 2. They take good notes while they read, and in class. 3. They usually have a specific format for taking notes, so that their notes are clear and readable. 4. For example, they date their note pages, and number them, and leave room for definitions or questions. 5. They may write definitions or questions in different color ink, or in pencil, so that they'll be easy to spot when it's time to review for classes. 3. Good students also review their notes after each class while the material's fresh in their mind. 4. After reviewing, they visit professors in office hours to ask questions. 5. Asking questions gives them a chance to make sure they understand the material fully. 2. Good students start early on assignments, and avoid procrastination. 3. When they write essays, they take time to brainstorm, do necessary research, and get help from a tutor. 4. Starting early gives them time to draft and revise, and helps them write much better papers.
We could argue about whether the sentence beginning "Good students also review" should be a level 2 or actually a level 3 (does it develop from the idea of taking good notes, or from the topic sentence), and that's where the analysis becomes interesting and useful. It helps me (and students) see how a paragraph may work, see how readers make connections between sentences, and depend on each sentence to relate to previous ones in some way.

I think teaching students at all levels how to analyze paragraph organization helps them do better peer editing, and helps them analyze their writing, and thus helps them revise their writing. I find it especially helpful because it gets us thinking about the ways sentences in a paragraph relate to each other. After I teach students this method, I really can write "org" next to a paragraph in an essay and know that they'll have some method of figuring out how to understand the paragraph organization, and then they'll be able to figure out how to organize it. It also gives us a common understanding when I ask them to develop a paragraph to a greater level of specificity. They know what I'm looking for and have a way of developing their paragraphs.

One of the problems with presenting the Christensen method in a blog is that my sense of what a paragraph is and how it works changes when I change contexts. In my usual writing, I tend to write fairly long academic paragraphs. In my blog reading, though, I have a difficult time with really long paragraphs, so when I write my own blog, I tend to cut paragraphs short, to add spaces so that sentences aren't in a long paragraph, but in shorter sections.

*Because I'm just a little obsessive about such things, I found a reference to Francis Christensen's work. Christensen, Francis. "A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph." CCC 16 (October 1965): 144–56.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Do as I say?

One of the biggest things we teachers of writing tend to share these days is a focus on writing as a process. Every instructor I've talked to about such things teaches a variety of brainstorming techniques: freewriting, listing, circle mapping (by many other names) are the big ones I use. In first year writing courses here at NWU, we also spend a lot of class time doing on peer editing, having students read and respond to each others' texts.

When I was in grad school, one of my friends who also taught writing was complaining about her writing block; she just couldn't get started writing, just couldn't put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. We were hanging out down in the dungeon where TAs hid, kvetching as usual amongst ourselves. People nodded, all having been in that boat.

I asked her, what she'd tried. She looked at me as if I'd done "To be or not to be" from Hamlet in the original Klingon.

"You teach brainstorming stuff in writing class, right?" She nodded. "So, which brainstorming stuff have you tried?" This time she looked at me as if I were speaking Entish. Everyone in the kvetching circle frowned and shook their heads.

I told her she should try some of the freewriting and other brainstorming techniques she taught in her writing class. And I swear, for the first and only time in my life (and trust me on this, it's not a usual reaction people have to me), people in the room looked at me as if they thought I were a [fill in your favorite expletive] genius.

For some reason, it hadn't occured to them that they might actually be teaching that stuff for a reason. If it's worth teaching, it's worth trying myself, you know?

Me? When I work, I use freewriting and listing extensively. I use them for "real" academic writing, for writing my syllabus, for drafting letters of recommendation, for just about anything more than a quick email. (And, believe it or not, I usually run my blog posts through a couple of drafts. Scary, isn't it, the thought of what you'd be reading now if I didn't revise a couple times.)

So here are my questions: How many of the people who teach writing use those process methods when they write themselves?

And how many of us peer edit?

How many of us reiterate these strategies when working with students in sophomore or upper-level classes? (And if you do, does it help?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Some Chaucer help, please!

Well, in grading avoidance mode, I've been thinking about my Chaucer class next semester. Teaching Chaucer's a delightful treat for me, maybe even better in some ways than teaching Shakespeare. But, there's also a different level of difficulty because of late, I've only gotten to teach Chaucer about every 5th year. So I don't keep up as well as I should between times.

This isn't ideal, but it's what we've got for now, anyway.

Here's where you, dear reader (I'm sure there's one out there!) come in! One of the assignments I give in my seminar level classes is to write a book review. It's useful because students actually read a book of criticism, think about criticism in a different way (I hope), and then write a review of the book. The reviews are shared by all seminar members and we discuss them in class, so that by the last third of the term, when students are buried deep in writing seminar papers, they have a ready made bibliography to help them find useful secondary sources. (It also helps them see a model of critical writing AND gives us a chance to talk about genre in their writing.)

I spent some time last summer prepping, so I've ordered a number of books for our library, but I see that the enrollment is higher than I'd realized, and some of the books I ordered are just too hard for our undergrads, so I'm looking for, desperately seeking, some help.

Can you suggest a recent (last 5-10 years) book on Chaucer or related issues (social history, for example), that's appropriate for advanced undergrads, and in print (preferably available in soft cover)? (Is there a medieval source as useful as the SEL annual review for early modern drama and non-drama work?) If you've got a great older suggestion, I'll happily check that out, too.

While I'm at it, I've also started wishing I had some CDs or tapes of someone else reading Chaucer aloud (in Middle English) so that students can hear a better, or at the least, different accent than mine while they're learning. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Thanks in advance for any help you folks can provide!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Writing Basics - what's an essay?

Well? Like most people, I went through 12 years of schooling and wrote numerous bits of abysmal stuff, and I never remember being told what an essay is. Similarly, when I ask my students what an essay is, they often don't feel comfortable giving an answer. I know because I make a point at the beginning of all my courses of asking students to tell me what an essay is.

Yes, most of the time, even students who've been through our first year writing class don't feel comfortable answering. Maybe it's first day nerves, or maybe it's real lack of knowledge, but I'm usually lucky enough that at least a few students risk setting up a definition and we can work with that to create a working definition for the purpose of the course.

In my first year writing class, I turn to the related word, "assay," to try to help them see that I want essays to test ideas, and work things out, and when we're lucky, they'll make a point, too.

I have a couple of "essays" I picked up from my instructors (Thanks B and R!) a life and a half ago that I use at the beginning of every writing course. The first has five "chunks" of writing (yes, that's the technical term), all giving some information about the writer's hometown; it's basically little more than a jumbled encyclopedic entry. But it's in five "chunks" so it looks like it's five paragraphs. The second has one larger chunk of writing reminiscing about the writer's hometown, and making the point that the writer misses the way the town used to be.

I hand these out to my students, usually on the first day of the course, and ask them to grade the pieces over night, and be prepared to explain what they thought of the pieces. When we start the next day, they write their grades on the board.

Most people give the first piece a generous grade, and grade the second piece with a lower grade. Then they get to explain what they think of the pieces, and the things they've been taught to value come out.

They've been taught to value the five paragraph essay, and so most prefer a piece of writing with five "paragraphs." That gives me the opening to ask them what a paragraph is. Not surprisingly, they don't have a good definition. They've been supposedly writing them since age six or so, but no one's bothered to tell them what a paragraph is? So we look it up, and create a working definition for the class.

They also assert that the first piece of writing is "well organized," so I ask what they mean. How many times do I write "org" or something similar on a paper? I do it all the time, to be honest. On one level, I know I shouldn't, because it's not the most meaningful or helpful comment; on the other hand, it takes a long time to explain how to organize a specific sentence, paragraph, or essay/section, especially if I have to write it out.

In the case of the first "essay" in this exercise, organized to most first year students means that it's in five chunks. There's no coherence within a chunk, no overall sense of structure or movement. But the visual power of those five chunks is strong for most of them.

A few students usually argue that the second piece of writing's actually better, and the class goes back and forth about their preferences regarding sentence length and complexity, "facts" (the first has lots of numbers, the second has anecdotal evidence of changes, a field become a bank, for example).

The exercise takes most of a class, but it gives us a chance to explore (and explode!) many of their values about texts. The point, from my point of view, is that the second piece of writing is actually an essay because it makes a point, even though it's all in one paragraph, and it doesn't have a hugely obvious thesis statement.

And the other is just five chunks of badly organized encylopedia type information that doesn't have a point. By the end of the day, we have a collective understanding of what an essay is (a piece of writing that makes a point or tries to answer a question or problem), what a paragraph is (a piece of writing that addresses one point or topic, or part of a point or topic in a larger development, usually characterized with a topic sentence and a series of sentences developing the point or idea), and what a thesis statement is (an arguable assertion).

They also learn that at least some of the rules they learned in high school aren't going to apply in college. A five paragraph essay won't suffice for most college assignments (most students actually appreciate the freedom from that prison); they can use "you" as long as they're aware of being inclusive of their audience; they can use "I" in even formal writing; they can use contractions.

Part of the rest of the course involves learning how to understand genre and context for their writing, and thinking about their audience's response to the texts they create. To be honest, I talk about these same issues in all my courses, undergrad and grad, because they're important to me, and I want my students to have some clue about my expectations. I think they often write better papers for me as a result. (And if someone already knows all about them, well, they can contribute lots that day!)

Every semester during this exercise, students ask me why five paragraph essays are bad, and if they're bad, why did their high school teachers teach and even insist on the form. It's not that five paragraphs per se are automatically bad. But the five paragraph essay as it's taught in high schools is highly formulaic, rigid, and allows little room for exploration, creativity, development, or complex thought. College writing should demand exactly what the five paragraph essay restricts.

So why do high school teachers insist on the five paragraph essay? It's a mystery to me.

My guess is that most starting high school students will do minimal work, and the five paragraph essay is a minimum a teacher can actually enforce. Teaching it is better than letting students think that four sentences constitutes an essay. Teaching the five paragraph essay also allows high school teachers to give students a sense of structure: the thesis introduces points a, b, and c, and the body paragraphs talk about points a, b, and c in that order. All in all, it's probably about what most students are ready for, at least when they start high school.

The five paragraph essay, precisely because it's so rigid and formulaic, has the blessed advantage of being teachable, too. It's much harder to teach students to write in response to complex rhetorical conditions, to think about how their audience will read, how their writing creates a persona. Rigid rules don't work so well in adult writing.

What strategies do you folks use for teaching students what an essay is?

How do you get them to consciously break free from the five paragraph essay?

Writing Basics

I've been reading Ancrene Wiseass's entry about why "Johnny [can't] write a thesis statement" and thinking about teaching writing. I teach writing every semester, not only in my first year writing class(es), but also in pretty much every other class I teach. I continually re-discover that many of my students, even the best of them, need to reinforce writing skills again and again.

When I returned to college after taking a different path for a while, I figured I could write. And, I basically could; having been an ardent, though uncritical, reader, I'd picked up a basic sense of sentence structure in my native tongue. But I'd never taken a writing class in college the first time around, so I really had very little ability to articulate what I was doing when I wrote, and no strategies for writing. If I had to confess one serious weakness about my writing then, I'd have to pick my infallible ability to write everything in the passive tense. Or, as I'd have put it then, if a serious weakness in my writing were to be confessed, my ability to write everything in the passive tense would have to be picked.

At various points in my schooling after that, I learned more about writing. On more than one occasion, peers and professors critiqued my writing, or taught me to teach students not to overuse the passive tense, and why overusing the passive tense makes for bad writing. But I was three or four years into a PhD program in English before a peer managed to teach me about my own overuse of the passive. I guess partly she was just a great teacher, and actually cared enough about me to be critically honest. But partly I probably wasn't ready to actually understand what I was being taught until that moment.

So it shouldn't surprise me that my students, too, need to be taught writing skills more than once, and to practice them again and again. When they don't "get" something, it doesn't necessarily mean they're inattentive or stupid, nor does it necessarily mean I've done a bad job; it may mean that they're just not ready for whatever skill or practice at that point.

As I finish up this semester, then, and begin to think about teaching my classes for next semester, I'm going to ask for some help with the things I teach again and again, and also offer some ideas about what I've found effective when I teach them. I'm not going to go in order, but here are some basic "stuff" I'm thinking about. I hope those folks who read occasionally will pop back to make suggestions and share ideas and resources.

What's an "essay"?
Thesis statements
Paragraphs, especially paragraph analysis and organization.
Essay organization
Peer editing
Using quotations

I'll gladly add to the list if folks want to make suggestions, and we can brainstorm together.

Friday, December 16, 2005

For Dindrane, re quizzes

Dindrane was kind enough to ask for some sample questions from my quizzes. You're going to be disappointed, but I'll reveal my deep dark secret. Ready? My quizzes are EASY.

In Shakespeare classes, I'm really interested in checking that students have done the basic reading AND taken decent notes. I don't want to spend more than a few minutes on quizzes in a class period, so they're short. I grade them on a ten point scale, because tens are easy to add.

A typical Shakespeare quiz looks like this:

1) What important gift has Othello given Desdemona? [The play revolves around the danged handkerchief, and we're going to talk about it, so I sure hope they've noticed it.]

2) How does Othello die? [Did they finish the play? Did they understand Othello's final speech? ("That in Aleppo once...")]

That's it, pretty basic. Most of my students do quite well.

I used the Brief edition of Allyn and Bacon for my writing class, and quizzes tend to come directly from reading. One of the things I like about Allyn and Bacon is that they talk about three stages of college student thinking, dualist (there's a right and wrong answer for everything; definitions basically require dualist thinking, for example), multiplist (any answer is as good as any other; you need to guess what the prof wants), and relativist (there are multiple potential answers; you have to decide which you think is right and be ready to explain and support your decision). (I don't have my book or notes here with me, so I can't give you a page ref, sorry.)

So, I try to ask one question that will use dualist thinking, and one question that will push my students towards relativist thinking.

For example, when we first hit these concepts, I may ask my students to list and define the three stages of college student thinking presented on page X. The next question can then ask them to explain which of the three stages of college student thinking that the first question asked them to use.

So, students should give the quick list (remember, my quizzes are open notes) and definitions. If they understand the definitions, they will be able to explain that the first question asks for dualist thinking, it's right/wrong, as are most definitional questions.

Here's another example, also from Allyn and Bacon; at one point, they introduce Freire's concept of the "banking method" of learning. So I'll ask them to define Freire's concept of the "banking method." The second question would then likely ask them what Allyn and Bacon's attitude towards using this method in teaching is. That's a bit more complex: do they really understand what they're reading?

I generally write quiz questions in my class prep notes for the day, and then put them on the board in class for the quiz. I always give students an opportunity to ask questions about the reading before the quiz, and if one of them asks a quiz question, the whole class benefits.

When I do well, the quiz opens up the points I want to discuss about the reading on a given day.

Hope that helps!

I'm always looking for suggestions to help my teaching, so if you have any, please help!

Graduation /happy dance

I'm probably one of few professors who actually finds graduation stuff pretty fun and fascinating.

First, there's the dress up aspect. What could be better than a dressy outfit that you can wear with shorts and Birkenstocks/Tevas? (Well, not at this time of the year, but for spring, certainly!) Everyone looks good in regalia, especially with the soft, octagonal tam worn at a rakish angle. Then there's the fun of old college collors. I'm still sort of jealous of Johns Hopkins grads in their bumble bee outfits! Who isn't?

My regalia, a graduation present from my parents, who'd pretty much given up hoping for me producing usual big occasions in a parent's life, looks like it should belong on a Gilbert and Sullivan set; I'm the very picture of a modern professor, complete with velvet and gold piping. Renquist's self-designed robes for the Clinton impeachment, obscenely silly as they were, come nowhere close to the absurdity of my regalia.

Adding to the absurdity, and thus the fun, is that old medieval clerical clothing was never intended for people like me to march around in, much less in with shorts and Tevas underneath. I like to think that every graduation, whatever's left of a bunch of medieval monastics (going for the alliteration there) is spinning in their graves.

Second, graduation is one of the few rites of passage we still hold onto in meaningful ways. Every graduation is basically the same, and has been for lo these many years. Think about it, Edgar Elgar's first "Pomp and Circumstance" march (c. 1907 or so?) is practically a brand spanking new addition to the whole thing.

(Ever notice there are just names that seem so perfect for someone. Could Edgar Elgar have been a basketball player? I don't think so. Could Lancelot Andrews have been anything but a preacher? Not a chance. Do you ever wonder how my parents KNEW I was going to like that Shakespeare guy enough to name me Bardiac? Me, too!)

Graduations all over the western world go through the same basic rituals, and have for ages, and yet, each one is singular, especially for the students graduating. For them, graduation is a momentous occasion, perhaps a bit anti-climactic, but still a one time event.

Well, I'm assuming most don't get a second same degree; my experience of each degree was quite distinct. When I got my bachelor's, I was part of a sea of students, all in black, in a huge arena, and yet I was also sitting next to my best friend. Afterwards, I invited my college friends and we (together with my family members who came) sat around and drank the champagne my parents so generously and supportively provided. It was really the first time my college world and family world came together, and I was pleased that everyone was happy to meet each other and hang out, and happy with each other, if that makes sense.

My PhD hooding was more alienating, if that makes sense. It was probably about as big a sea of graduate students as I'd swum with in my bachelor's graduation, but I didn't really know any of them; most people I knew either didn't bother with the ceremony or weren't graduating. To be honest, I did the ceremony more for my parents than for myself, and I'm glad I did. I owed them that.

So family was the focus, and friends really didn't enter into the picture, and that fit, too. My undergrad friendships are stronger and more lasting, and my graduate friendships more dependent on chance meetings at conferences rather than late night calls to share conversation.

At my bachelor's graduation, my plans were defined, at least for a short time, and I knew where I was going, or at least the first steps on the path. At my PhD hooding, I was uncomfortably set to stay in the same area, with a contract to adjunct for a year; the future didn't look nearly as promising as it later turned out.

I'll be attending graduation tomorrow, not because it's required, but because three of my favorite advisees are graduating, and I want to honor them. Each of these three is remarkable in his/her own way, each a good student, and yet each has created a very different path through our major, and into the future. I'll guess that for each, graduation will involve a meeting of two worlds that rarely meet, college career and family. It's joyful to be part of that meeting, an all too rare opportunity to thank the parents for sharing their child with me, and an honor to congratulate my advisees one last time on their accomplishment.

Ok, that and it's darned fun to make them blush with pride and embarrassment.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Some fun blog reading

New Kid on the Hallway's done a great job posting Teaching Carnival IV. NK was kind enough to include me, and I'm honored!

For Science geeks (or wannabes /sigh), Tangled Bank #43 is up, too, over at Rural Rambles. Among the most interesting posts, there's one for the more humanist types, on menstruation over at Philobiblon (a title I'm truly jealous of!). (Menstruation: A Cultural History, edited by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie, is winging its way to my house even now!)

In the fun holiday reading department, the surprisingly noir Intueri seems to have put together some medbloggers for some fictionalizing fun. Each of them starts with the same Intueri provided opening, and then finishes a story in 999 words or fewer. Here's the link to Intueri's story, where you'll also find links to the others. Fun reading.

Another adventure in (Land) Yachting

Snow's covering the upper midwest these days, so here's another one about the Land Yacht in winter.

When I moved to My New Hometown in the Northwoods, I lived in a typical residential street in a 50's area of town. And as in most 50's residential areas, the streets had been paved a few times and ours had developed a bit of a crown, no doubt convenient because rain ran off into the gutters quickly.

However, with the Land Yacht, there were other considerations. First, the Land Yacht had rear wheel drive. For those of you blessed with unsnowy winters, rear wheel drive may be great technology, but it's not snow friendly. In snow, ice, or even mud, you want weight on your powered wheels to help them gain traction. Otherwise they spin futilely, quickly creating a trench the depth of the tire rubber.

The solution my more snow-experienced friends suggested was to put a big 70 pound burlap tube of sand in the trunk along with a couple bags of "super traction mix," also known as kitty litter, the idea being that if you got stuck, you'd pour the super traction mix under the tires and voila, off you'd go.

Second, the Land Yacht was big, wide enough to intimidate oncoming traffic in a two lane street, almost as long as my street was wide, and the driveway was narrow, all the more narrow when snow drifts towered on the sides because, did I mention, I'm just not that great at shoveling? So backing out involved staying straight until the front end cleared the snow drifts and then turning sharply so I could aim one way or the other down the street.

Turning sharply was also vital at that point because if the Land Yacht's rear wheels passed a mysterious and ever changing point of no return over the crown of the road on an icy day, the car would slip down, unable to gain traction to go forward, and I had to hope one of my neighbors would appear to sit on the trunk to add weight. And, of course, the road icyness varied, which meant that the point of no return changed depending on snowfall, coldness, time of day, and whether or not the salt/sand truck had passed by recently.

I was running a bit late one very cold, icy, nasty day, which meant, of course, that the point of no return was closer to the crown than I'd realized, and I was a hurry and didn't turn as quickly or carefully as I should have. I felt the Land Yacht slip back as I gently braked to switch into drive. GRRR. I got out, leaving the motor running, and tried to push or rock the car forward over the crown, but to no avail.

I opened the trunk and took out my sacks of handy dandy super traction mix, opened them, and poured one each down into the troughs forming under the rear tires. Then I got back in the car to try to go forward. Instead, voila, insta-(very foul looking) mud in the now deeper tire troughs. So much for super traction mix. (I'm sure the neighbors across the street thought some St. Bernard with loose bowels had wandered by.)

Then I did what any normal, red-blooded Bardiac would do. I opened the car door, and stood outside, ready to push, while sticking my right foot in, and pressing on the accelerator. I pushed, I rocked, I pushed, I accelerated slowly and carefully, pushed... and the Land Yacht began to move forward.

Did I mention the road was icy? And sloping down on either side of the crown? Yes, I thought so.

Instead of hopping forward with the Land Yacht, or better yet, deftly hopping into the driver's seat like Indiana Jones into a Nazi tank (which would have been smaller than the Land Yacht, by the way), I slipped, performing a classic Buster Keaton heel above bum maneuver the likes of which would make many a vaudeville star of yore green with envy.

And the car rolled slowly forward.

You can see the headlines, now, can't you, in 24 point font? NWU PROFESSOR RUNS OVER SELF WITH OWN CAR.

It would surely have made the local news, perhaps an "after" shot of the car surrounded by the local firefighters and cop cars, lights spinning, played right after the local high school football footage. Heck, who knows, I might even have gotten lucky and been featured before the local high school football footage.

Happily, though, I didn't slip under the car.

You'd already guessed that, because you haven't yet seen me featured on one of those Darwin award sites.

No, instead the Land Yacht crept by within inches of me at minimal speed (which was still faster than I could get up and try to get in and put on the brake) until it burrowed gently into the rather impressive snowbank next to the driveway left by some very lucky lousy shoveller.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Small Victories

Some days, most days, actually, I enjoy my classes. Today's Shakespeare class just made my day. At the beginning of class, I had them freewrite or list some questions they had about the text, and then they got in small groups, chose an issue or question, and discussed it for a few minutes to talk about with the rest of the class.

I semi-listen in to the group discussions, answer basic questions (and am prepared to try to get them back to the task if they get into non-Shakespearean stuff), but mostly I hang back so they can work things out themselves.

Today, I could have just sat down in a corner because they focused well in the groups, and then as a whole talked about The Tempest in ways that make it clear they've read it carefully, actually responded to each other and contributed to a real discussion about Caliban, the ending, and the chess game. (Several of the groups discussed various aspects of Caliban and the ending, and one group brought up the chess game.)

I wish I could take credit, but I think this was just one of those classes with a good balance of sharp, hard-working students who pulled a lot of people up to their level in discussions.

It was a wonderful finish for the semester. I'm grateful for and to my students.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ceres and fun with *The Tempest*

In Act 4, scene 1 of The Tempest, Prospero shows his daughter Miranda and her soon-to-be husband a show, a masque of sorts put on by Ariel and the spirits under his control. I love teaching this bit of the play because it's crystalizes for students how important Miranda's virginity at marriage is to Prospero and helps them see that love (yeah, say it in that hot voice so it really means "sex" and not "emotional attachment") can be scarily dangerous, at least to protective parents.

We did 4.1 in Shakepeare class the other day. I always start out getting students to identify the basic players: Iris (Juno's messenger; hey, it says so in the notes), Ceres (Think Cereal! That works well in an area where lots of students grow up around serious farming), Juno (I weirdly imagine Miranda Richardson asking, "Who's queen?" What can I say?), Venus, and her arrow-enabled son, Cupid. We read a bit of the masque section aloud, focusing on the part where Ceres asks Iris if Venus is in attendance because she does not want to deal with Venus.

I ask my class why Ceres doesn't want to see Venus? The other day, one of my students actually knew the story of how Proserpina, Ceres' daughter, was raped by "dusky Dis" and taken down to Hades, where she made the mistake of eating pomegranate seeds. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or rather, back up above ground, Ceres got upset that her daughter was nowhere to be found. My student did a good job telling the basics.

So how do Venus and Cupid fit in? Dis takes Proserpina because Cupid hits him in the eye with one of his golden arrows, and when Cupid hits, people and gods get stupid.

Then I jumped in a bit to remind students that an upset Mom is nothing to mess with, and an upset goddess Mom is even more dangerous. (I assume my students know about dealing with upset Moms.) When Ceres gets upset, things get BAD here on earth. I waved toward the outside, recalling their attention to the snow and cold. THAT'S what happens when a goddess Mom is upset!

Then, the gods started getting worried because it was winter, and even they didn't like hockey THAT much, so they made a bit of a deal: half the year, Proserpina gets to hang out with her Mom, and during that half of the year, the world is full of growth and crop fertility. And during the other half of the year, Proserpina has to go back to Hades, and Ceres is upset. And when Ceres is upset, WINTER. (Winter makes a big impact here, even this early in the season.)

Your physics profs tell you that it's all about the rotation and tilt of the earth relative to the sun, but they are WRONG! It's a goddess Mom being upset! Ok, not really, but it IS a great story!

And Shakespeare gets it all in there by allusion in about five lines, probably knowing that any early modern English(wo)man with a basic education would know the whole story and get it completely, and that if someone didn't have much education, those five lines would go fast enough not to be a bother. The play'd be less rich and fun for them, but it wouldn't be unintelligible or overly confusing.

This guy, you know, he's darned good at this playwrighting gig.

Ceres is as much of a mother as we get in the play. Otherwise, we get a comment to Miranda that her mother told Prospero that he was her father, and he believed her because she was "a thing of virtue." And we hear about Sycorax, Caliban's Mom, mostly via Prospero and Ariel's nastiness, with a few complaints from Caliban that he inherited the island from her.

So it's really interesting that the one mother who actually appears AS a mother is the one most famous for having a daughter raped and taken from her. And she's the one Prospero has his spirits represent. (And then there's the fun of the metatheatricality involved and all, which is its own delight.)

It's like textgasm!

PS. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Well, not really, and I'm not trying to protect anyone's identity here, so I'm going to tell you the REAL names!

Here goes, Bardiac blogger names names!


(Pretty exciting stuff, eh?)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Whatcha reading?

Our undergrad majors association recently sent out a questionaire, asking for winter break reading suggestions. Being endlessly good at grading procrastination, I suggested Mary Roach's Stiff, which I'd finished over Thanksgiving (that seems inappropriate somehow, but I really needed a good laugh), and Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, which is simply one of the coolest and most challenging books I've ever read.

So now, I'm looking for books, first, for my Most Wonderful in Law. MWL reads a lot, is smart and lots of fun, and I enjoy getting books as presents for (and from) MWL. Any suggestions? MWL reads lots of novels mostly, I think, with an emphasis on more recent ones (you know, books written after 1660).

And I'm looking for some break reading for myself; I enjoy all sorts of fiction and non-fiction, with an emphasis on fun and wit.

So, I ask, whatcha reading? And what should I be reading?


No doubt I'm a little slower than your average bear sometimes, but I never knew there was a name for this sort of behavior. In case you didn't, either, we're not talking about the economics of prostitution here.*

Nope, I read a couple medical blogs recently that talk about the ways senior docs, quiz junior docs or med students in sometimes torturous ways. Evidently, part of the pimping thing comes down to pretending a Socratic method, part comes down to sheer Sadism, and the tiniest part comes down to that moment when the junior person actually knows something and realizes it.

My dissertation director, DD, was brilliant at pimping. As I've experienced it, pimping only works if the juniors involved really care in a big way, care about getting the answer right, and more important, care about one-upping someone else or showing off their knowledge. If your students don't care, pimping simply gets blank stares. But we cared; we especially cared when DD pimped us, because DD took such obvious pleasure in watching us squirm, and, perhaps surprisingly, even more obvious pleasure when we could actually answer a question. And we were desperate graduate students.

In my first seminar with DD, long before I became a dissertation advisee, I watched with amazement as DD pimped Very Advanced Student. We were about 2/3rds first years in the class, so most of us didn't know enough to be worth DD's pimping. VAS, though, knew many of the answers; to be honest, it was a little like S and M, with we voyeuristic beginners watching experts at play.

(VAS was supremely helpful and kind when I asked questions outside of class, by the way, unlike, apparently, many junior docs who enjoy pimping more junior types harshly.)

We newer folks quickly realized that being pimped was a sign of favor, a sign that DD either appreciated the opportunity to show off considerable wit and intelligence, or a sign that DD thought you might actually know something. It was also scary, because DD is incredibly witty, and not shy about exercising that wit on lower life forms. And gradually, we got in on the action.

My first pimping (in that very seminar): I was trying to say something not particularly brilliant, and then got cut short by another student. (Cutting off happened all the time, since we weren't actually talking TO each other or caring what anyone else said, we were talking to make points and hear ourselves talk. There was also a good deal too much hormonal stuff happening in the room.) After the other student finished, DD looked back at me and asked if I were finished. I said yes, I'd shot my wad.

DD's most expressive eyebrow raised (both were expressive, but the right one especially so), and a scary glimmer took over the eyes. "Do you know what that means?"

Ok, I'd meant to be a little playful with language, a little risque (did I mention the hormonal stuff floating about?), but I wasn't about to be faced down or intimidated because it was sexual, after all, this is SHAKESPEARE we're studying, people! I bucked up (yes, pun intended) and responded, "Well, usually it means ejaculation, bu..."

DD's head quite literally smacked the seminar table as DD roared with laughter. I turned bright red, of course. Just about everyone else either looked at me with total superiority, knowing I was an embarrassed, incompetent idiot, or looked away, embarrassed at my obvious incompetence. I squirmed, and gulped out something about musketry and running out of ammunition. Yep, just another moment of grad school glory.

There's an important lesson to be learned about pimping. Ready? Here goes. When a student asks you a question, s/he's not pimping. When a job interviewer asks you a question, also probably not pimping. And when a colleague or peer at a conference asks you a question, not pimping. Most of the time people actually want an answer they can understand, communicated generously, rather than a smirky flash of your whatever. (I should have learned that lesson LONG before I did, alas.)

*On the economics of prostitution. In another grad seminar, long ago and far away, we were discussing how one could make useful economic comparisons when there's little overlap in things we buy and things people bought "back then" in the time period covered by the class. One of my peers helpfully suggested that the best way to make comparisons was to compare the cost of a prostitute.

I can't tell you how horrified I was, but I was totally silenced, as was everyone in the class.

Not only that, but totally confused. I don't know about my peer, but I've never actually paid for or been paid for sex, and I have no clue how much a prostitute charges (note that I don't use "cost" but "charge"). Then there's the added issue of wondering what the economic differences are in different parts of the country or even different parts of a large city. Do prostitutes in NYC make more or less than those in rural Iowa? Does one charge more in the Village than Queens? Are there gender issues as well? Do male and female prostitutes in a given area charge similar fees?

I also have no clue about the economics of prostitution in the early modern or medieval periods, but the same questions about geography come to mind (well, except that it's English geography rather than US geography.)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Land Yacht meets Winter

I wasn't the only one who had problems adjusting to the move to a world of "real weather."

My old car was euphemistically called the Land Yacht. It was a typical car for rich people in the early 80s who'd decided that fuel efficiency was for fools and conspicuous consumption was the way to go, which I'd bought cheaply over a decade later with insurance money after my grad school lemon had gotten totaled by someone who thought stop signs didn't apply to him.

The Land Yacht was in most respects singularly great, but it was huge. I joked about painting a white X on top for emergency helicopter landings or offering a parking place in the trunk for people with small cars. I could start gassing up in synch with a Humvee and the Humvee would be full and driving off before the Land Yacht was sated. I slept fully stretched out across the front seat more than once.

The back seat belonged to my dog, who stood sideways, head out the window, braced against the seat back, in all weathers, hot and cold.

You could tell what the person who had first bought it thought was important: leather seats. The "stereo" was an am radio hi fi (no, I didn't forget the /fm), and the engine was small for the size of the car, so it didn't exactly surge forward when I accelerated. But it had leather seats, a soft, cushy ride for long drives across country, and a low price tag.

Like most older cars, it had its rattles and quirks. The air conditioner died before I got it, so I drove around in warm weather with the windows all the way down. The dog preferred things that way, and since the alternative was hot dog breath over my shoulder, I tended to keep windows down even in winter. And for some reason the windshield sprayer never worked, which wasn't an issue most of the time, but meant I stopped a lot to wipe the windshield semi-clear in mucky weather.

The Land Yacht may have originated in Detroit, but it had long since adapted to the warmer clime where I lived previously. That's not to say it refused to start or ran badly during cold weather. Nope, it was practically "Old Faithful."

But... At my first apartment, the Land Yacht lived outside in a gravel driveway. It was a shortish hike through the grass (or snow, depending) and up a hill to the front door; the apartment was laid out so that the bedroom was at the back. One cold and dreary night, after grading late, I went to bed in my usual brand-spanking-new-and-utterly-exhausted-looks-hungover-but-can't-afford-alcohol assistant professorish way, only to be woken at some ungodly hour by serious banging on my door. It took a couple minutes of banging before I became conscious enough to be more than mildly aggravated.

I fell out of bed, contactless (I didn't own other glasses at the time because I couldn't afford the luxury), struggled into a t-shirt and some sweatpants, and felt my way downstairs, followed by the always-ready-for-a-fun-adventure (but not much a watchdog) dog. At which point he realized the threat that loomed outside, and started putting up a ruckus, warning whatever danger there was that he was on the job. I grabbed his collar and opened the door to see a cop. Yes, I was about to be arrested in small town USA for?

I wasn't sure what, but between the dog barking and the horrendously loud noise of a storm siren blaring, I wasn't figuring out any time soon. The cop yelled; I strained to hear. Had there been an accident? Were they wondering if I were a witness? Did they have some kind of special personal warning system for winter tornados?

No. The dog finally decided that the cop could be his new best friend and quieted down, and the cop was finally able to make me understand, "we have a complaint about your car." A complaint about my car? Yes, as you've guessed, the storm siren was really the Land Yacht screaming for warmth.

The cop asked me to get my car keys and open the car up. I got on my Birkenstocks and what counted for a winter jacket, and followed him down to the car. We opened it up, whacked the horn thingy in the center of the driving wheel a few times without effect, and then he told me to start it. I did, and after a couple minutes the horn stopped.

So I apparently had a choice. I could run the car all night, or I could get up every half hour or so and run it long enough to get warm before it started howling again. I took the car into a mechanic the next day, and he said there was probably a short in the horn part of the electrical system and disconnected the horn for me. Yep, it's probably illegal to drive around with a non-working horn. But it's better than getting arrested for disorderly car conduct, right?

I drove the Land Yacht until it was just about old enough to legally buy alcohol on its own, but it still couldn't toot its own horn anymore.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Wrathful Dispersion Theory, or, how I learned to love linguists

I used to have a theory, based on my undergraduate institution, that all geologists were fascinating, brilliant, warm, and funny, because the ones I met at MUI had that reputation, based, in part, on a "class" called Geology 500, held every Friday afternoon in the Geology department, complete with keg and free food for majors and friends. I'm now doubtful that all geologists really are that wonderful (though I'm certainly willing to be convinced!), since the other places I've been, they simply haven't had that reputation.

However, I'm now convinced that all Linguists are even more fascinating, brilliant, and funny.

My grad school English department didn't have much contact with the Linguistics department (if there even was one) and had one lone person stuck trying to teach us dismal grads some slight history of the language. She was probably the kindest professor in the department, gentle and understanding, and tough as nails at the same time. But I didn't know her well at all.

And the college where I had my first job didn't have a linguist in residence. So one of the big surprises for me when I moved to Northwoods U was sharing a departmental identity with Linguist. To a person, the Linguists here convinced me that they're not only great colleagues, who bring a completely different and useful perspective to our conversations, but witty and wonderful in all sorts of other ways. For a while, I've thought that we somehow lucked out on our little crowd of linguists, probably cornering the best ones up here in the snow somehow.

But recently, one of the linguists forwarded a Livejournal link about Wrathful Dispersion Theory. I love the Flying Spaghetti Monster as much as the next person, but this is even funnier.

For the uninitiated, Wrathful Dispersion Theory argues that linguistic difference comes about not through a process of evolution or gradual change through contact and such, but through the Wrathful act of a superior being, probably divine. This theory evidently used to be called Babelism.

If you're looking for a really good laugh, or just further evidence of how much Linguists rock, click the link and have a read.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Cough Cough Hack Hack

Nope, not me! I'm lucky so far.

One of my first year students just left my office after coughing and hacking her way through an office hour. I read her draft of her final essay; let's just say she has a lot more work yet to do on it than she's done so far. I hope I convinced her!

And now my throat feels suspiciously scratchy.

But I've noticed that a significant percentage of my first year students are missing class, while far fewer sophomores, juniors, and seniors seem to miss class. Why is this?

My Mentor suggests that the more advanced students "just suck it up" because they realize they can't afford to get behind, especially at this time of the year. She also said that maybe older students have better immune systems after being exposed to college germs for a year.

Both of those sound good, but I'd guess that the greater percentage of first years living in close dorm contact also contributes, as well as, maybe, less awareness of preventative stuff and a crappier diet.

Oddly, I recently heard someone assert that teaching employees take fewer sick days during the semester than non-teaching employees. But the person didn't say why.

So, I'm guessing the "suck it up" factor's big because most of us can't stand the idea of falling behind and can't easily pass off class sessions to other instructors. So we come even when we feel like crawling under covers and hiding from the world.

I'm also willing to hazard a guess that instructors average more income than non-instructors, and that we may be able to afford better preventative health care, diets, and so forth. My general and totally unscientific observation is that instructors are lots less likely to smoke than non-instructors, and that there's a correlation between smoking, upper respiratory infections, and sick days taken.

All of which further proves that I know nothing about anything medically relevant.

I'm of two minds in wanting my students to come to class sick: yeah, don't miss class just because you feel a little under the weather... and on the other hand, if you're really sick, don't come to class and share your germs with everyone else.

I washed my hands after my student left BEFORE I touched anything else in my office. So yeah, I'm a bit paranoid, sure.

And that scratchy throat I'm feeling. I definitely need to settle in with a nice hot toddy tonight to beat back those germs! Oh, yeah, it's Friday for sure!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In the mail today

Today was bill paying day at the BardiacShack. So I had to face down the mail.

The hardest thing was the end-of-the-year dog license reminder. I had my very old dog put to sleep in May, and to be honest, I don't think about him much lately. I think I'd mourned him for six months or more before I was ready to take him to the vet for that huge dose of barbituates, and he'd probably been ready for six weeks or so before I was. So when he was dead, I felt more relieved than mournful or saddened.

I opened the envelop last night when I planned to pay bills, mistakenly thinking it was the usual city service fee, and stared at it a while, feeling crappy and wondering if I was supposed to write in the change section that "I had my dog put to sleep" or something? Did I need a vet certificate, as with the rabies certification?

But as I looked this morning, I noticed a little check box for "if you no longer have this dog" so that's what I checked and signed my name. But then that didn't feel sufficient, somehow, so I wrote a note that my dog had died.

I think I feel worse today than the day he died.

On a completely different note, one of the local Northwoods companies included some anti-meth advertising along with their bill. It has five sets of before and after pictures, purporting to show the horrible effects of meth. I don't know from meth; caffeine and alcohol are my drugs of choice. But do they think anyone is actually going to be convinced by this insert? Remember, folks, we pay for these inserts. We pay for the paper, the printing, the machines that blow them into envelops (okay, that's a seriously cool kind of machine), and the extra weight they collectively make in our mail system.

I couldn't help noticing about the before and after pictures, though, that on two of the male sets, the pictures of "after" showed a SIGNIFICANT improvement in hair, quantity AND style. In the before pictures in these two sets, the men showed serious signs of male pattern baldness. And in the after pictures, they had a lot more hair, not exactly a full head of lush curls or anything, but more.

So I'm thinking...


Being a rank beginner, and not someone who kept a personal journal at any point, I'm interested in how people blog.

Do most people write up a couple entries in draft, and play with them until they seem ripe for posting? Or do most people write off the cuff, responding to the day's news or events?

I suspect most of us do a combination, working through some entries in draft form for days/weeks, and writing others quickly.

I read some blogs that feel very well worked, trimmed, revised, and near perfected. And I really enjoy them. (Maybe it's the writing teacher in me, but I read most of the "spontaneous" feeling blogs as having been worked over and revised rather than as spontaneous toss-offs.)

I also enjoy some blogs that feel very spontaneous, especially the entries that seem to respond quickly, sometimes questioningly, to some event that just transpired.

Or maybe people actually spent hours carefully revising their prose between the event and posting even in these entries? How much time do people spend revising their average posting?

Do people feel a need to post every day?

Do those that feel the need tend to save up multiple posts, so they'll have something to enter even on days when they don't have time to write much?

How do other people "read" the "blogquiz" blogs? (You know, the ones that link to a quiz of some sort about what color your blog is or something, and have a graphic to show the blogger's result.) I take those quizzes, sometimes wasting a fair bit of time on them, but I don't tend to pay much attention to them when I see them on blogs, nor do I have much desire to post my results. What about you folks?

ps. Does it seem strange that Blogger's spell-check doesn't recognize "blog" or any similar/derived words in this post?

Twenty five years ago today...

John Lennon was shot to death outside the Dakota.

There's a period of my life punctuated by murders or attempted murders. Those a generation ahead of me remember Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassinations. For me, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and John Lennon's deaths stopped the world momentarily. My memories of these events are like a yesterday far away, fresh and faded at the same time.

Can it really be 25 years since Lennon was killed? And more than that since Moscone and Milk were shot dead? In between, of course, Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan.

(But what I most remember from that event is driving along, hearing that Reagan had escaped injury completely, and learning by the end of my trip that he'd been hit, and then wondering if we could trust what the government let the media report. Well, that and the secret service agent, Tim McCarthy, who had the total courage to jump in FRONT of Reagan and take a bullet. I wonder still if I'd have the courage to go against every instinct of self-preservation to save someone else.)

It was a scary time, when people seemed to be assassinating political figures in the US, maybe a holdover from the 60s, but I was less aware then. Now we have orange and yellow alerts, and we're supposed to be afraid of terrorists, but political assassinations scare me more for some reason.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pearl Harbor Day

Worth remembering, for sure. (I always have an easier time remembering important medieval and early modern dates than modern ones, for some reason.)

Orac over at Respectful Insolence has some pics up.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

I work at a public university.

Think I'd get in trouble for wearing a Flying Spaghetti Monster T-Shirt? To class?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Snow shoes and the new professor

I moved to the Midwest for my first tenure track faculty job, and like most new tenure track faculty, I had some student loans to pay off. For those not in the "ed biz," it helps to know that most educational contracts start in either late August or early September, so faculty members get their first pay check of the academic year in early October. Meanwhile, if you're moving from graduate school funding or adjuncting, you were probably last paid in early June.

Note the gap of several months.

If you're like me, you've also moved across country, cash up front to the moving company. I'd also paid first and last month's rent on an apartment, and had to insure my car anew. Fortunately, my first job paid half a pay check in September to those of us who'd just moved to join the faculty. That helped with some of the expenses that had to be paid for real, moving, rent, student loans, but didn't really leave much left over. So we all lived on our credit cards and tried not to overextend ourselves beyond redemption.

I moved to the Midwest complete with a massive oldish automobile euphemistically called the Land Yacht and four pairs of footwear--a pair of old, unlined leather boots complete with multicolored fungus that looked (and still looks) like someone missed the porcelain god after a bout with too much alcohol, a pair of Birkenstocks, a pair of ratty tennis shoes in even worse shape than my boots, and a pair of horribly uncomfortable pumps I'd bought to match my power blue interview suit.

Things were a bit tight that first month: My apartment didn't have a refrigerator, but I was used to living without one in a previous life, so that was manageable. I taught in Birkenstocks. And since I'd already lived on half my October salary through September, things were still tight through October.

Only one thing had really changed, and that one thing was the weather. It got cold. And when I say cold, I don't mean the I-should-put-a-sweater-on-in-the-evening cold that I'd mostly grown up with. I mean the cold that comes when that white stuff falls out of the sky and sticks to the ground, the cold that leads every plant in the area to wish it could follow migratory birds south, the cold that makes a refrigerator seem warm.

The upside was that I no longer really needed a refrigerator to keep food overnight.

The downside was that I was still teaching in Birkenstocks. I unfashionably wore socks with my Birkies, remembering with horror the comments at my undergraduate school about how we knew it was winter when the profs "wore socks with their Birkenstocks." My hope was to hold off until long enough that my credit card closing date would pass so that I wouldn't have to face paying off the card before my November paycheck came and cleared.

Then the day came, oh glorious day! Credit card closed, I clambered into the Land Yacht and drove to the "city" half an hour away where there was a mall with clothing and shoe stores, found myself a pair of regular SHOES that didn't collect snow under the toes the way Birkenstocks do and that didn't slip all the heck all over the place when there was a hint of moisture on the linoleum in the classroom building.

It was HEAVEN! I could barely contain my joy, and practically danced into the office building to show my co-workers. One of them looked a little disappointed.

I found out a couple years later that they'd started a pool and taken bets on when I'd break down and wear something other than Birkenstocks, and she'd lost. And yes, I was a source of some amusement to the faculty who'd already adjusted to snow living.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Snow Observations

I shoveled snow yesterday. While still a complete novice with regard to such things in comparison with my Northwoodsian neighbors, I've become considerably more adept at dealing with snow since I've moved to the midwest.

Before I moved to the midwest, snow was something I drove to see, a special trip, once a decade, perhaps. We'd stop the car on the side of the road or whatever, just to get out and touch the stuff. After a few moments, our ungloved hands would grow cold and we'd hop back in, turn on the heat, and scoot back towards home.

Before I moved to the midwest, a friend and I saw Fargo together. She'd grown up in Minnesota and decided that I needed to see Fargo to understand what I was getting myself into. Despite having grown up in the shadow, so to speak, of serial murders and kidnappings, I was terrified by the idea of living among duck-decoy-painting, rifle-weilding nuts. I was also completely befuddled by the snow shoveling scene, you know, the one where they discuss the weather in excruciating detail?

Now, I have had that very conversation many times. And I'm no longer befuddled or concerned. I expect that most of my neighbors have a veritable arsenal of hunting weapons in their garages. I've been to a gun show, and contemplated blaze orange camoflauge infant suits with equanimity. A Prairie Home Companion has gotten a lot funnier since I moved out here. And I've developed my own, personal, quirky system of snow classification.

Yesterday's snow was perfect shoveling snow, very dry, light, a tad grainy but without a crust except where my car tires had compressed it. It was maybe two inches thick, perfect for easy shoveling, but thick enough that shoveling felt worthwhile because if I didn't shovel, the sidewalk would end up icy and treacherous at some point. I could easily push it to the side without having to lift much, and the ground underneath was largely dry.

I'm still surprised by the dryness of snow. Yes, in spring things get very wet, but most of the time, snow sublimates rather than melts, and that fascinates me. It's like dry ice, only not.

Coming up, some snow stories.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Plagiarism, gah!

I detest plagiarism.

I barely slept last night. I was grading a few papers, and ran across one that felt completely out of the norm for the student who turned it in. I couldn't even finish grading it, and went to bed instead, but of course, didn't actually, you know, sleep. Then instead of just being irked at the student's plagiarism, I got irked that the plagiarism was messing with my beauty rest. (And yeah, I need all the help I can get on that front.)

Background paragraph: The assignment asks students to write a review, and requires them to use two professional reviews in the process. We spend a day in class working on using quotations appropriately, introducing author's, giving context, quoting, citing. We spend additional time talking about appropriate paraphrase, again, introducing another's ideas, giving context, and citing. One of the things the assignment does is to help students practice using other peoples ideas/words to agree/disagree, give background, context. Just to be clear, my syllabus has a clear statement about plagiarism which we've discussed in class. We've also discussed questions of plagiarism at other times in class, emphasizing the importance of representing someone else's work and ideas fairly and ethically.

I reread the essay this morning. There are a couple complications. First, the opening paragraphs of the essay don't sound like the student's usual writing. Now, I know this student has been going to a tutor. The opening paragraphs sound like a tutor took over the paper a bit more than s/he should.

The bulk of the paper sounds much more like the student's previous writing. (I'm not usually the master of individual student styles, but this student has an easily notable style for reasons I won't go into here.)

The transition area involves one of the reviews the student uses. First, the student uses one of the reviewer's exact words without acknowledgment. One of these words stands out like a dystopic thumb, if you get my drift. It's just not a word students use. A few sentences later, the student introduces the critic and then uses almost a full sentence of his without quotation marks.

My general read on the student is that he's earnest and needy, smart but behind in some ways, not as attentive in class as I'd like (I consistently have to repeat instructions for his benefit). I don't think he was trying to fake the paper. I think he made some mistakes. First, the tutor probably took over the paper and the student let that happen because he's a first year student and the tutor is helping him and so on. Second, he didn't use quotation marks when he should have. Third, he missed our peer revision day, and didn't turn in a required rough draft.

Now, of course, I'm second guessing myself. What if the student's inattention isn't inattention but a comprehension problem? So maybe he understands a lot less from class activities and discussion than I realize? What if the quotation/citation day wasn't nearly enough for his understanding?

So now, what to do? I can clearly demonstrate the lack of quotation, and technically it's plagiarism. But it's petty plagiarism, if that makes sense. It's the kind of first year student mistake that deserves a little generosity and instruction rather than seriously punitive measures.

And yet, our first year writing class is the single writing requirement on campus. A passing grade in the course is supposed to somehow certify that the student is competent at writing at the first year level. And this paper doesn't show evidence of that level of competence.

So, I think I'm going to fail the paper, have a talk with the student to make sure he realizes that he must use quotation marks and cite appropriately, and that he can't let his tutor take over his paper too much. Then I'm going to call the tutoring centers to ask the directorial type to remind tutors not to take over papers. And, of course, I'm going to have to document the plagiarism so that if the student complains, I can demonstrate clearly to the powers that be that I've behaved appropriately.

(Failing a paper is one of the acceptable things we faculty can do in the face of plagiarism. We're given a lot of leeway. We can also fail the student in the class, or pursue measures up to and including expulsion. I've gone to the fail my class, suspension, and letter in official file stage once since I've been here, for a really blatant misrepresentation of work. But, rightfully, we have to document the problem and how we handled it.)

Considering how much I hate plagiarism, I generally take a teacherly stance towards it when I can, and make sure the student recognizes the problem and corrects it. At least that's what I do when the work seems misguided rather than purposefully deceitful.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday Fabulous Friday

What a great day.

First, The Winter's Tale, what a play! What a GREAT play to teach. Today the Oracle/Trial scene and Autolycus. We're going to do the statue scene on Monday, and I can't wait. I doubt there's a more delightful play to teach.

If there IS, it's The Tempest,* which we'll start Wednesday. Act 1, scene 2 is one of my favorite scenes in all of Shakespeare. Why does Prospero keep interrupting himself to check on Miranda's attention? yes, yes, of course he's breaking up the otherwise endless exposition for the audience. But the scene has to work theatrically: either Miranda's NOT paying close attention to what he's saying, OR, he's a speaker who's really quite inattentive to his audience. I like the second interpretation because he got where he is by being inattentive to his brother and political activities in Milan.

And of course, there's the HUGE reveal that the terrifying storm in 1.1 was a total fake, and that when you're in the theater, you can't tell a fake storm from a real storm, so metatheatricality in motion!

Next, I had some really great office hours today. A student came to talk to me about her first year writing class final essay. She's done a ton of good work, we hashed out a rough rough outline together, and she went away to lock herself in a room in the library. Who could ask for more? A first year student who's going to lock herself in the library on a Friday afternoon?

One of the really fun, energetic, positive students in my Shakespeare class came by to talk to me about her paper; she, too, had done the prep work to make our conversation really useful, I think. AND, she told me that she's taking my Chaucer class next semester, and asked what she should start reading over break. Just the thought of teaching Chaucer next semester put a huge grin on my face. But here's the kicker: she's already taking a class that's given her a taste of Middle English, so there's going to be a little head start there. AND she's one of those students who makes a class better.

One of my grad class students stopped by just to chat, which was very pleasant. He's personable, friendly, smart.

Good office hours fill me with happiness. It's a little awkward to have a line of students sitting on the floor outside, waiting to talk, but I think I do some of my very best teaching in office hours.

AND, one of my colleagues emailed around and got the gang together to go out to dinner at a great restaurant tonight! What a great finish to a pretty darned productive, good week! Thanks, Pal!

*Well, actually, Titus Andronicus is even more fun to teach in an over-the-top, did-that-really-just-happen?? kind of way.