Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Writing Basics - Proofreading

I'm lousy at teaching proofreading. I'm not the best proofreader in the world myself; I especially can't spell well. (I'd like to blame Chaucer, but I think it's more a factor of reading tons of student papers.)

So, here's the question! How much do you teach proofreading skills in general writing classes at the college level? And how the heck do you do it?

I don't teach a lot of proofreading skills. What I do teach I try to do through group work in a way that reinforces peer review group skills.

On the day an essay's due, I take a BUNCH of small sticky note pads to class. I have students get back in their peer groups, and exchange papers. (I pass out sticky note pads to everyone.) Then I ask the students to read the papers backwards, sentence by sentence, and to put a sticky note wherever they think there's a grammatical, spelling, or other proofreading error. They shouldn't write on a peer's paper, but rather on the sticky note, indicating the problem they see.

When they finish, they should read the paper forwards, too. And if they have time, they should trade papers again.

After they've finished reading their peers' papers backwards, they trade back so each has his/her own paper. At that point, they work through the sticky notes. At that point, they can make a change neatly in pen or pencil on their paper. Or, they can decide not to make a change. Or they can ask me about the problem, or look up spelling in the dictionary. And again, they can make any corrections in pen or pencil.

Then they take off the sticky notes, and I usually have them write some stuff on the back of their essay; since the peer groups have now had a look at the final draft, I'll often ask them how well their peers did at doing real revision on their essays, what they think this essay does well, and so forth.

The big benefit is that I don't have to stand up and try to lecture about grammar or punctuation problems. Students learn a bit about proofreading and practice. They learn about the specific mistakes they've made, rather than having to worry about problems they don't have. And the whole process of teaching and proofreading takes about half an hour for each essay.

Finally, the corrections mean that I don't have to mark as many proofreading problems on essays, which saves me time, and also means that the student may actually LEARN something from his/her peer, which I KNOW won't happen much from seeing a bunch of "tick marks" or quick notes from me.

On the other hand, they often make the same kinds of mistakes repeatedly, and I still end up making more proofreading marks than I know I should, so it's sure not a perfect system.

Who's got better ideas to share, please??

Monday, January 30, 2006

The signifying disconnect

So, as I was prepping class wandering through the internet between classes earlier today, desperately wishing I didn't have anything to do with Hegel on the theory calendar, I came across an interesting post: Doctor: Perhaps We can All Work Towards This on a blog called, simply enough, Doctor. Doctor's post begins as a response to a journal in the New England Journal of Medicine about physician's committing suicide. Bummer, I thought, and read on (because, really, I'm a cold so and so; did I mention how much I like Titus?).

Doctor then talked about an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it was then that something stuck my Hegel-benumbed eyes. First, (and I'm copying from Doctor):

Thirty-five percent of physicians do not have a regular source of health care, which is associated with less use of preventive medical services supporting the observation that the medical profession does not encourage physicians to admit health vulnerabilities or seek help. [Emphasis mine]

Now, I'm going to lay out my assumption about physicians. Assumption: Most can afford health insurance or health care, or have health insurance/care through a job.

So, why do more than one third of physicians NOT have a regular source of health care? After all, these are the people who tell us to have this or that test taken at this or that age, have screening procedure X done every year, or every third year, blah blah.

But more than one third choose NOT to have a source of regular health care. Why is that? Okay, a FEW physicians are no doubt the only health care provider in a rural area, and there's just no one else. But if my assumption holds, then the choice IS a choice, and NOT about lacking money or health insurance.

What is it about? Do 35% of physicians not believe the stuff they insist on about tests and preventative medicine, wellness, and such?

Do they think that being asked if they wear a seatbelt is inane as I do? (Really, I've jumped out of an airplane in flight on purpose, and not because it was falling out of the sky. My seatbelt is the least of anyone's worries. And yes, thanks for asking, I do wear my seat belt. I'm nuts, not stupid.)

Or is the decision not to have a source of regular health care about other things? If so, what?

If so, here's one possibility from the first article Doctor quotes, "Taking their own lives--the High Rate of Physician Suicide" (NEJM), which says,
It has also been noted that physicians tend to neglect their own need for psychiatric, emotional, or medical help and are more critical than most people of both others and themselves. They are more likely to blame themselves for their own illnesses. And they are apparently more susceptible to depression caused by adverse life events, such as the death of a relative, divorce, or the loss of a job. [Emphasis mine]
Maybe it's because they think their peers will be critical and judgmental about their own foibles, perhaps because they themselves are critical? And just don't want to hear the criticism from someone else? They don't want to feel that they're to blame for their own illnesses?

Back to the JAMA article, "Confronting Depression and Suicide in Physicians" (the link is to the abstract), which argues that

It is reasonable to infer that physicians' concern about disclosure of mental health records is widespread, although studies are lacking. Breaches of confidentiality also are believed to harm openness between the physician (as patient) and the treating clinician and may result in needless disclosures to coworkers. Those concerns, coupled with professional attitudes that broadly discourage admission of health vulnerabilities, are likely the driving forces behind physicians' disinclination to seek mental health care.
So, physicians are worried about breaches in confidentiality. Do they know something about the effectiveness of HIPAA confidentiality rules that I don't? Like that they're not respected?

Doesn't this strike you as a bit of a disconnect? Physicians (who tend to tell the rest of us to get regular preventative health care) don't get it themselves, at least 35% of them don't.

Perhaps, they don't get it because they're already critical, and, perhaps, don't want to open themselves up to the criticism of others? And/or, they're worried about breaches of confidentiality. Or there's some other information they have that they're not sharing.

I'm trying to imagine a parallel in my own field: don't encourage your own kid to go to college because college is useless? Maybe a better parallel would be don't subject your work to the scrutiny of others who might be critical because you are?

I don't know. I do know that I see a disconnect between what people in the medical profession SAY and what they DO themselves, and the disconnect is statistically significant, and, according to these articles, significant enough to affect depression and suicide rates among physicians.

Now, I'm reading against the grain here, obviously; Doctor wants his readers to be concerned about physician suicide, and more specifically, wants to encourage his physician readers who are depressed to click on his link to the Physician Suicide Project.

In reading against the grain, to try to understand something else about the community textually represented in this study, I'm not dismissing the articles' or blog's concern about physicians committing suicide. But it does make me wonder why.

I know the stereotypical college professor gets up with caffeine and starts in on alcohol at 5pm, but I have to admit that I don't know any college instructors (at any level) who've committed suicide. (I know one grad student who committed suicide.) I know plenty of college instructors (and grad students) who seem depressed, though. Certainly, anyone without tenure might reasonably be concerned about breaches of confidentiality, especially about depression or suicide attempts.

We're a pretty self-critical bunch, and we, too, experience a serious level of disconnect between what we say and what we sometimes do: I teach Marx, but I have retirement "savings" in mutual funds which invest in the stock market. We're supposed to respect and care about our students, but every instructor in the world has complained about students at some point.

But the disconnect isn't quite the same as it seems in the article above; I think I have a strong sense that what I do is meaningful enough that I want to participate in it, teaching, learning, studying, contributing to understanding, knowledge. And I think most college instructors share that same basic sense that what we do really IS worthwhile and meaningful.

I guess that's where I see the significance of the disconnect I've been pointing to in those articles, and in the blog: if 35% of doctors don't see regular health care as worthwhile and significant, then at least some of them don't see what they do every day as worthwhile or significant.

I don't know if I could get up in the morning tomorrow, and face Hegel again if I didn't think doing so was worthwhile and meaningful, that it mattered. (And that's JUST Hegel! Imagine facing people who haven't been dead for 100+ years if you feel that what you do doesn't matter!)

It sure would be interesting if the researchers who wrote those articles, or if Doctor, himself, were to figure out if there's a correlation between the 35% of doctors who don't get regular health care and the doctors who experience depression or commit suicide.

(Okay, and because I can't resist the irony: Doctor says that physicians are more successful than most when they try to commit suicide.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chaucer: "raptus" vs "stuprum"

My Chaucer class read "Adam Scriveyne" (text and audio at that link, via the Chaucer MetaPage) last week; we got through a bit on Wednesday, and I asked them to think about the "rubbe and scrape" bit for Friday.

Before I sent them off Wednesday, we talked a little bit about writing on parchment, and making corrections. As I understand it, when you make parchment, you stretch it lots, and then you rub it to "polish" it, preparing the surface to take ink without blotting it all over the place.

When you make an error in writing on parchment, you take a knife and scrape away the inked layer of parchment, and then you rub the parchment again to polish it. If you leave it as just scraped, your ink will tend to blob and run on the uneven surface.

So either Chaucer is an idiot and can't remember how to correct a manuscript mistake, or he's a lousy poet and couldn't think of a rhyme for "rubbe," or there's something interesting up in the order he chose.

So, Friday, I reminded them of the release record their biographical introduction talks about, the May 4, 1380 entry where Cecily Chaumpaigne releases Chaucer from everything related to his "raptus" of her. (The original's in Latin, of course.) And then I introduced them to Chris Cannon's finding of a second release, dated May 7, 1380, on the public roles [see: Raptus in the Chaumpiegne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer By: Cannon, Christopher; Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, 1993 Jan; 68 (1): 79-94. (journal article)], and so forth.

I want to get them thinking about how "Adam Scriveyn" imagines Chaucer's text as raped, and metonymically, perhaps, Chaucer as rape victim, so that when we get to "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and such, we'll have a better starting point.

But, as we were talking, it occured to me that in Shakespeare's Titus, "stuprum" is the word used to describe a sexual violation, Lavinia's rape, not "raptus." I looked it up in my English/Latin dictionary, and it suggests that "stuprum" has more the meaning of sexual violation, while "raptus" is more about abduction (which is one of the meanings Cannon talks about, of course). But, my little English/Latin dictionary is pretty basic, and certainly not going to be specific about medieval legal terminology.

So here's my question: any medieval or early modern Latinists out there have a sense of whether "stuprum" was or wasn't used in legal writings?

Thanks, o great scholarly community!

A joke from my friend

With K's permission:

(Background information for non-English buffs: Before inventions like printing presses, all books had to be hand copied. In times before paper, books were written on thin animal hides with ink. If you made a mistake while writting (white-out not being an option), you scarped off the first layer of skin to remove the ink. As you can tell books back then cost a good deal of money and most people that had 1000s of hours on their hands to make books were the more religious types.)

Teh joke: One day a young scholar decided to visit the Vatican because he was bothered by the accuracy of translated texts. He was speaking privately to the priest about his concerns.

"Father, I just dont think that ever word could have been written down exactly as it was first scribed. Not after several hundreds of years and several different monks making copies."

The Father assured him that the priesthood takes great pride in exactly every word being identical as the original. To prove his point, he offered to let the young scholar view the original copy of the church rules (on of the few originals they still had on the grounds) and today's version.

The Father stepped back into the archive room and left the young scholar to wait in the library for him. The scholar waited....waited.....waited... seems that the priest had gotten lost at this point. When all of the sudden he heard someone crying out in great agony.

The scholar jumped up and ran in the direction of the noise. When he arrived, he saw the priest curled into a ball rocking back and forth making a horrible pained noise.

"What's wrong, Father?"

"It said 'Celebrate.'"

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Writing Basics - Peer Review/Editing

It's that time of the semester, coming up quickly, when I'll have my first year writing students do their first peer review/editing session together.

Most writing instructors at the college level that I know use peer review/editing with our typical first year writing classes. It's part of the process oriented teaching of writing that most of us do. And it can be great. Or it can be useless. It all depends how much the students put into the effort, and what I can do to encourage their efforts.

I use peer review for four basic reasons. First, I think students benefit from having feedback on their papers, especially feedback from peers. Second, I think students learn about writing and communication by practicing critical reading and response skills. Third, even if they do a lousy draft for peer editing, their final draft will be a lot better than without. And finally, by making peer reviewing an integral part of the writing process, I can make plagiarism less attractive than otherwise. (In an ideal world, I'd have time to sit with every single student to give feedback on drafts. Alas, I don't live in an ideal world. I do give feedback to students who come to my office hours as much as I can.)

I think students figure out quickly that getting good feedback on their work helps them write a better paper. The difficulty is that many students don't quite understand their responsibility to give good feedback to their peers, or they're not sure what useful feedback is or how to give it. Nor do they realize how much they stand to benefit from practicing critical reading and response skills. (I think they understand that even a bad rough draft will make their final draft better; and I don't really worry about whether they realize that part of the purpose for peer review is to discourage plagiarism.)

What I want to focus on here, therefore, is how to encourage students to take the critical reading and response responsibility seriously, how to get them good feedback about their responses, and how to help them learn to respond more usefully.

Typically, my peer review days work like this: I group the students into small groups, preferably with three or four students. The pure numbers mean I couldn't sit with every group even if I wanted to, and I'll admit that I don't generally sit in any groups, unless a group seems to be having great difficulty.

Students must bring a copy of their draft for everyone in their group. Each student has a turn, and each student begins by reading his/her essay aloud while his/her peers read along on their copies, making marks or questions. Then the peers provide verbal feedback (I hope) using the form I provide ahead of time which asks them to focus on the big picture, on areas where their peers can develop ideas further, and on areas they find confusing. (I specifically ask them not to worry about grammar or spelling issues, after explaining that if they do their job, their papers will change in such large ways that sentences will change; I also set up proofreading before they turn in the final draft.)

So far, I think what I do is pretty much what most of us do. Here's where I've found an additional twist: the next day, each peer must bring in two copies of a written review which focuses on the big issues again, and gives specific feedback.

When they arrive in class, they give both copies to their peer. The peer reads the review, and on both copies, underlines the parts that seem most useful, and then numbers those parts most to least useful. On ONE of those copies, the peer writes a response to the peer reviewer, explaining what s/he finds most useful, and making suggestions for what would be more useful. They hand that copy into me. They take the other copy home to work on their revisions.

This is where I end up with some extra work, but the extra is manageable, and pays off.

I basically read quickly through responses. I make checks or write "good" or "good point" in the margins as applicable. During the early part of the term, I tend to write a quick note asking them not to focus on spelling or grammar if they're doing that, or suggesting that they make specific suggestions (in other words, say which paragraph needs work), and noting that asking questions may be a good way of helping their peer. Then I take a quick glance at the peer's response, focusing especially on the suggestions, underlining the best ones and writing "yes!" or "good idea" where that makes sense. Finally, I grade them on a 1-10 scale, and record those grades for each student.

I return the graded response to the peer reviewer. The upside is that s/he gets usually pretty good feedback about his/her response from the peer, with a little additional feedback from me. That gives them a good opportunity to learn about giving better responses. They also receive a grade, and for students motivated primarily by grades, that provides an incentive.

The next upside is that I learn something important about my students as reviewers and responders, and I use that feedback to help me set up peer review groups for the rest of the term.

Here's how that works: I don't have much clue about my students' writing skills before I grade the first essay; I read a diagnostic, but when I do, I'm worried about BIG problems, dyslexia, sentence structures that just don't work, and so on, so I can refer those students for specific tutoring. So I randomly assign the first peer review groups.

For the second and third essays, I make a quick chart ranking the students' previous peer reviewing grades, and organize each group so that each has one strong, one moderate, and one weaker reviewer. (These grades usually match essay grades roughly, but there are enough surprises that it's worthwhile to use the different grade.) I also change the groups with each essay. My goal is that the strongest reviewers will get some leadership opportunities, and the less strong reviewers will get some good modeling.

For the fourth essay, I again make a quick chart ranking the students' previous peer reviewing grades, but this time I organize the student so that the strongest reviewers are working together. That rewards the students who've been giving good feedback with equally good feedback on the paper which is more heavily weighted in the grading scheme. Students who've become better reviewers get matched with students who are doing a similarly good job reviewing. (Most students do a good job by this time of the term.)

By this time of the term, the people who aren't doing a pretty good job reviewing are generally the people who aren't making a real effort in the class. Often, that means they're missing class, or not bringing in real rough drafts. And grouping those students means that the people who are making a good faith effort don't have to deal with missing peers on editing days, or peers who don't bother to bring in a real draft.

For the final essay (I assign five during the term), I ask for student feedback by email about anyone they really want to be grouped with, or anyone they don't want to be grouped with. The emails are confidential, and they don't have to give me a reason. Most students don't provide feedback, but I try to use the feedback I get as I start making up groups. I finish by using my chart and putting the strongest reviewers together. This is their final essay, and I really want the people who've put in good effort at reviewing to benefit from the good efforts of their peers. By this time, most students have been grouped at some point with everyone else in the class, so they've had a chance to get to know each other and form a sense of community.

I arrange two peer review sessions for the final essay because it's a research essay, quite a bit longer than the others they've done for class, and a major part of their grade. I think it pays off. But I don't have students hand in the second written response.

The coolest email feedbacks directly refer to what a good job a peer does reviewing essays; and very often, two peers request to be in the same group for the same reason, even though I don't have much sense of them being pals or friends outside of class.

At the end of the term, I average the response grades, and make a small adjustment for anyone who's dramatically improved. In general, the only time response grades "hurt" a student's overall grade is when the student has missed peer review. Those who've done a seriously bad job as reviewers usually have similarly less than stellar essay, quiz, and journal grades, so the review grade just reinforces the sense of their lack of effort. Some weaker writers do a surprisingly good job peer reviewing because they willingly ask questions about their peers' work, and thus provide really helpful feedback.

At this point, I'm sort of happy with the way my system works. Students find it confusing at first (especially the two copies of their review bit), but most do improve as reviewers. Mostly, I don't like having to read an extra 30-60 pages of student work (including handwriting) for each essay assignment (though I am pretty fast about them).

Still, I could use better ideas! Got any to share?

Friday, January 27, 2006

A new vacation destination

Yes, over on Creek Running North, news of a new vacation destination.

I wish I had half the wit there. Just one half... is that so much to ask? Yes, apparently, it is.

Job Talks from the Other Side

I've spent a lot of time lately listening to job talks. Trust me, it's an education. And since I've learned a few things, I thought I'd share.

1) Time. If the committee doesn't give you a time limit for your talk, look at the time alloted in your schedule for the talk. Split it in half, so that your audience will have time to ask questions. Then cut that by one third, and write up your talk. Everyone in the ed biz knows that once you "know your stuff," you can elaborate on things, and will tend to add in as you talk.

Corollary: if you are asked to give a 20 minute talk, and your talk runs 19 minutes, no one will complain. This is especially true at MLA.

2) Structure your talk. Make your points, and make your points clear. You can't teach an audience everything you know in 20 minutes, or 200 minutes. And that's not your job on the job talk. If we've invited you for the job talk, we KNOW you know your stuff. We want to know that you can communicate, that you can bring forward the most useful points in a given situation. Choose what you think are the mosts important 2-4 points, and make sure you communicate them clearly to your audience.

3) Know your audience. If you're talking to an English department, you can assume everyone's read Hamlet, perhaps. You can't assume we've all read The Spanish Gypsy. So fill us in where you need to in order to make your point. Pay attention to your audience: if everyone's squirming, you've either gone on too long or there's a flea infestation. In either case, you should finish up fast.

4) After one or two job talks, it becomes really apparent that everyone in the field has read the same several books. Some job talkers teach me to think about the issues in the books in more interesting ways, perhaps even critiquing something important. Some job talkers refer to the books as if they're doing a high school book report. Do the former, not that latter.

5) Don't undercut yourself. You can say all the nice words you want about appreciating diversity in the faculty/staff, student body, and curriculum, but if all your examples of student interactions come from the men's glee club, or your sole example about teaching comes when you say "we all have kids" and then talk about coaching the boy's sailing team, you're hurting main argument.

6) Humor. If you're going to use self-deprecating humor, it works best when you play with an obvious strength. Chaucer making fun of himself as a narrator is funny. Making a joke about how you always talk too long after talking for 45 minutes isn't nearly as funny. But unless you're doing a job talk for a comedy club, it's not really about the humor. Or the powerpoint. (Leave it at home, PLEASE!)

That's it, folks! Bardiac's rules for not losing yourself the job at the job talk.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Am I a "nice" colleague?

One of my colleagues (not an early modernist or anything near) told me recently that s/he wants to teach a course in the coming year using early modern British text X as a central text.

Cool, I thought. The more early Brit lit people learn to love, the better. (And, hey, around here, we early lit folks who teach intro classes often teach weird and unusual stuff, you know, like novels and films, so I'm used to asking for a bit of help or advice about those things. I'm also happy to help a colleague teach their first Shakespeare play or old poems or whatever in intro to lit type classes. We all learn, including the students.)

Then s/he asked me which passages I thought would be most appropriate for the class.

Turns out s/he's never actually read text X.

That should be interesting, eh?

In telling me why text X was perfect for this class, S/he informed me that a specific word wasn't used before some way too recent date. I said, but, wait, of course it was used, and proceeded to start listing various examples off the top of my head. (This is a VERY common word, but one which would give very specific information about this colleague, and so I'm not going to say.)

S/he said but it doesn't mean the same thing it does now.

I shut my mouth. Neither does "nice."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Viva la differance!

The difference between a stack of 20 and a stack of 30 assignments from my first year writing class lies in how appealing the bottle of bourbon on the shelf at home seems in my imagination as I sit in my office reading.

At least these are just quickie diagnostics. I'm not grading them, just making some friendly comments and noting anyone I need to point in the direction of some kind of help with disability or writing or language.

Just so you're clear, the fact that I'm THINKING about how appealing that bourbon is means I have 30 students in my first year writing class this semester. Thirty.

So far, the diagnostics aren't bad.

AND, Chaucer and Theory both went swimmingly today. Even if I've totally forgotten how to teach, at least a few of them remembered how to be students, and that makes all the difference. Thank goodness for real students with good questions!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Which Chaucer tale?

Yesterday, I wrote a rather long post about Chaucer editions, derived in large part from what I found on Amazon or had lying about the office.

Happily, Dr. Virago of Quod She suggested that most Chaucerians prefer the Coghill translation (which was my second choice), and also suggested that the newer Norton Critical edition (ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson) has more tales and much newer critical essays, making it a really good choice, too. I'll have to ask for a review copy or something!

Thanks, Dr. Virago! I appreciate your help.

The next question I'd take up with someone wanting to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales just for the joy of reading them (and it is, indeed, a joy), would be about the order. For those who haven't read the CT, it's a collection of tales headed by an introductory section called "The General Prologue," which describes a group of pilgrims on a trip to Canterbury and sets up a story-telling contest in which each pilgrim is supposed to tell a story along the way, and a story along the way back. The "GP" ends with an invitation to the Knight to begin, and off he goes.

Like so many medieval texts, the CT doesn't exist in a single, authoritative manuscript. Rather, there are manuscripts of varying quality, scribed at different times, with different (overlapping) tales, and with the tales in different orders. Between most of the tales, in most of the manuscripts, there are bits of dialogue and response between various pilgrims, sometimes with one pilgrim claiming the right to tell or being assigned the next tale. Usually these bits are called "prologues" or "introductions" to whichever tale.

From these bits, Chaucerians (ie. People smarter than me!) have put together a couple tentative orders for the text. There are, of course, problems with these orders and groupings, but most of us can enjoy the basics of the tales without worrying too much because the Chaucerians are hard at work figuring things out.

The first option, therefore, would be to read the tales in a generally accepted order, such as the order within the Riverside edition.

The problem I see with this for the casual reader is that the "General Prologue" and "Knight's Tale" are pretty dense reads, and not as immediately rewarding as some of the other tales. I think most readers would get more out of the GP and KT if they had either someone else to talk about the issues with (a class, for example), or if they came to those tales after getting more into Chaucer overall.

So, what would I suggest the casual reader read first?

"The Franklin's Tale." It's not the funniest tale. It's not the most perfectly structured tale. But it's an amazing and beautifully told tale, and it's my favorite, so there. I think it introduces some of the issues common to many tales, especially those within the so-called "marriage group," and as such, it would make the "KT," for example, make more sense. (It's also optimistic, and after the despair of yesterday's classes, I'm in need.)

Next? "The Miller's Tale." Okay, so I'm sure Dr. Virago likes this one, and those of you who know it now know exactly where in the gutter my mind lives. Structurally, I think this is about as perfect a story as can exist. By the time Absolon gets "revenge," I've forgotten about John. No matter how many times I've read it, the structuring gets me every time.

One might read "The Reeve's Tale" next, but I'd skip to the "Nun's Priest's Tale" and then "The Merchant's Tale," and the "Wife of Bath's Tale."

After reading those tales, I'd invite the casual reader to go back and read the "GP," and think about the representations of the story tellers s/he's seen so far, and to keep that in mind. And then, I'd invite the casual reader to enjoy the "KT." And then the rest of the tales, to his/her preference. (And yes, I'd warn him/her to skip Melibee, and even the Parson's Prologue and Tale.")

How about you guys? Which order would you suggest to a casual reader to get a taste of Chaucer's CT?

Monday, January 23, 2006


Three classes, three crash and burn sessions.

Theory (for which all students have a prerequisite class [aka PC] to be taken earlier or concurrently):

Bardiac (having ascertained that all but three students have taken PC already): So, let's review a bit. Who can tell me what a sign is?

Students: [that's the sound of silence]

Bardiac: Err, how about the three kinds of signs?

Students: [silence]

Bardiac: Okay, so let me remind you then, a sign is something that stands for something else. [This is NOT rocket science, people! How are you going to understand Lacan if you can't remember even the tiniest bit of Saussure?] [Writes, or should I say scrawls, the definition on the board.]

Students: [staring silently, motionless]

Bardiac: Umm, if you don't know what a sign is, you might just want to write it down.

Students: [sound of shuffling papers]...

And so it continued until about one third of the class said that they'd never heard these terms in PC. I'm guessing which of my beloved colleagues didn't introduce the barest hint of semiotics in PC. Except I really don't have to guess, and I'm not happy.

Either students learned nothing in PC, or managed to remember nothing, the two being the nightmare all teachers at all levels share, the nightmare of wasting our very breaths for a career marked by student forgetfulness. And one of my colleagues really shouldn't be teaching PC.

First year writing: There's nothing to say about this class, except that when you have students read the syllabus aloud, you can get a pretty good sense of their inability to read aloud. Someone who doesn't read in sentences, or can't accurately read basic college level words (like "attribute" or "baccalaureate") probably doesn't have college reading OR writing skills. I can teach writing, but I'm completely unequipped to teach reading.

Chaucer: The black death would have been more fun, seriously. And the supposedly technological classroom didn't work.

This is all to say that whatever little bits I once knew about teaching has completely disappeared over the break. I despair, and we haven't even started reading Marx yet.

Which Chaucer?**

A visitor kindly asked which translation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales I'd recommend (in the comments here). On the off chance that it's a real question rather than an internet politeness, I'll try to give an answer.

Beware, however, that I'm not a REAL Chaucerian, or even a real medievalist. I don't even play one on TV. (Though, seriously, how cool would a show like THAT be?) So if there's someone real out there, s/he will probably have a better, more informed suggestion. And if s/he shares, we'll all learn something!

I have to confess, I've never used a translation for reading Chaucer, though I understand why someone might want to use a translation. So it's a difficult question for me. (That and the "not a real Chaucerian" thing.)

Stage Whisper/Aside: Chaucer's Middle English isn't really horribly difficult for an experienced reader of English verse to read. There are some different words, but most editions gloss these and also explain more difficult readings. The word order of Chaucer's verse won't feel super strange if you're comfortable reading, say, Shakespearean verse. So, for someone who's comfortable with verse and looking at notes occasionally, I'd suggest going with an edition in Middle English. (If you're a lousy speller, you'll feel right at home with the orthography, too!) However, the question asks for a modern translation.

Here's what I think about when I consider a modern translation of Chaucer; I can't answer some of them for a reader, but his/her answers would guide my suggestions.

First, are you comfortable reading verse?

Would you prefer to read prose, knowing that it's not going to have the feeling of verse, or do you prefer a verse translation?

Do you tend to read introductory material to this sort of text, or do you tend to jump right in?

Do you like a more guided reading, or do you not want the feeling of an editor "between" you and the text? That is, do you like a text with footnotes, or do they distract you? Do you prefer not understanding some metaphors, or do you prefer foot or endnotes to explain things? (In other words, if you run across something about Zephyrus or Rams running, are you going to slide on by, or do you want to know what that means?)

Here, then, are some quick notes about what I found available on Amazon dot com. For most of them, you can look at some excerpts. You can compare the same stuff between different editions, so to get a sense of what you're most comfortable with. If folks have other suggestions I've missed, or considerations, PLEASE help me out here!

Caveat emptor: My personal preference would prioritize some notes or glossing; I'm neutral between verse and prose, except that I really like Chaucer's verse. I prefer notes in a text to having to run over to the OED or something. I also like information about cultural, classical, and Biblical stuff.

So, here are my winners:
First, in modern English translation: The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse, Trans. Joseph Glaser.

Second place: Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales - Trans. Nevill Coghill

And, should you be willing to try a Middle English edition: Everyman Canterbury Tales, ed A.C. Cawley. In fact, I'd probably get this edition so that I had better notes and introductory material than any of the translations I found.

Bonus selections: On CD: The Canterbury Tales read in Modern English. I had this, but lent it to a friend. I vaguely remember enjoying it on a long drive.

And Helen Cooper's Oxford Guide to the Canterbury Tales is a helpful introduction, especially good at providing introductory material to the individual tales.

And the overall mini-reviews: NB. None of the modern translations has good enough notes for my taste.

Prose Translations:
Canterbury Tales: Side by Side - ME on the left (verso), Prose translation in italic on the right (recto). Few tales, and in a strange order in the table of contents. The prose translation seems okay, but the italics would get hard on my eyes quickly. No footnotes or vocabulary glossing. (I vote NO.)

Puffin Classics The Canterbury Tales. A "retelling" rather than a translation; the prose seems readable. No notes or glossing.

Verse Translations:
The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse, Trans. Joseph Glaser - The verse feels very fluid and readable. There are a few marginal notes to help the reader. Some of the tales are abridged or summarized. Interestingly, the GP at least is in tetrameter. Maybe that's why it feels so light? My first choice for a translation.

Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales - Trans. Nevill Coghill; the verse of this translation reads very well for me; no notes or glossing. The table of contents gives a good sense of the organization of the tales, which I suspect reflects a good explanation in the introduction.

Viking Portable Chaucer - Basic verse translation, no notes or glossing. Some additional text excerpts, which might be of interest.

Bantam Classic The Canterbury Tales - ME on the left (verso), linear verse translation on the right (recto). No footnotes or glossary in text; glossary appended. The verse translation seems okay.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales An Interlinear Translation - no images available, and I'm not familiar with this edition. Not the complete tales, and seems to miss some obvious winners (the "Knight's Tale" for example). I don't find interlinear translations readable for very long.

Editions in Middle English:
The Riverside Chaucer, Ed. Larry Benson - This edition has all of Chaucer's known works. It's great, but also expensive, and probably more than a casual reader wants. Footnote glossing, line numbers, glossary in the back of the text, introductory material about Chaucer, the tales, and individual tales. There's tons of textual information that most readers won't find helpful, and may find distracting.

Everyman Canterbury Tales, ed A.C. Cawley - A basic edition, and one I really like, probably because my first CT was an Everyman. Some footnote explanations, with marginal glosses for vocabulary. Less full introductory material, and not much for individual tales.

Norton Critical Edition Canterbury Tales, ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson (no images available on Amazon, so I'm working from the copy I had sitting around). - Nine of the tales, including (with prologues) "General Prologue," "Knight's Tale," "Miller's Tale," "Reeve's Tale," "Wife of Bath's Tale," "Clerk's Tale," "Franklin's Tale," "Pardoner's Tale," Prioress's Tale," and "Nun's Priest's Tale." It also has excerpts from the Cook's, Friar's and Merchant's prologues. Not the complete tales, but the ones most people read, probably. Explanatory footnotes and marginal vocabulary glossing.

This edition has bunches of excerpts from source texts and culturally significant texts to give context. It also has critical essays, most are of the "classic" essay variety, rather than the "wow, this is new and cool" variety. (In other words, this is like reading Darwin vs reading a current evolutionary theorist.)

The Signet Classic Canterbury Tales - degree mark glossing (the kind with the little circle degree marks, which you then try to find at the bottom of the page, not really user friendly). Selected tales, including most of the usual suspects.

Editions Amazon lists but without textual images or much information:
Ed John Fisher and Mark Allen, The Complete Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. This looks expensive.

Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Original Spelling Canterbury Tales. I'd guess this a fairly good edition, but that's a guess.

Next time: Which tales should someone read just for the fun of it? [I realized doing this little post that I have at least 7 texts of CT (counting the Riverside and Major Poems, which include CT, but also other stuff, and not counting various anthologies which include a Chaucer text or two). I cleaned out a shelf of excess Shakespeare editions last spring; looks like I should have included some Chaucer, too.]

**My title alludes to the very helpful Which Shakespeare? a user's guide to editions by Ann Thompson with Thomas L. Berger. If you're interested in learning about editions and editing of Shakespeare, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Blog for Choice Day

It's Blog for Choice day. You can find out more about the, errr, movement, here.

I'm pro-choice. No ifs, ands, or buts here. I believe that if a woman doesn't want to carry a fetus, she should be able to get a safe, legal abortion; not only that, she should be able to get it within a reasonable distance (I guess in Alaska that's a lot further than in most places), without a 24 hour wait, without notifying her husband/partner or getting his permission. I trust women to make decisions for themselves.

(I'm not quite as certain about parental notification because I think we need to protect girls from coercive sex, and I'm not sure very many 10-15 year olds have non-coercive sex. But even in those circumstances, girls need to be protected from abusive family members. The primary focus in those cases should be on the girl's health and choice.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about what to post today, what to say that hasn't already been said about choice and women's rights, and civil rights in general. I'm sure other people will say things better than I would, anyway.

And I'm a bit ambivalent about the idea that blogging about something will change anything. Who reads a blog that doesn't have a set opinion about choice already?

On the other hand, I remember being a teen in the 70s, and people talking about abortion very differently. Yes, there were people opposed to choice, but the dialog seemed more open; even anti-choice people seemed to be thinking about the issue rather than rehashing the latest from some fundamentalist organization.

And that changed. At first the change was slow in coming, but I think it started in the 80s along with so many other social changes in the U.S.

I wonder how pro-choice people let anti-choice people take over so much of the rhetoric and poison so many people's thoughts?

I wonder how we can change the discourse again, not only about choice and abortion, but about other social issues?

As I look around the blogosphere, I notice that the Blog for Choice list shows a lot of academic blogs I'm familiar with, and lots and lots of general blogs. I'm disappointed that I've seen very little notice or response so far in the medical-blogging community. Those are the people who make the most direct decisions about access to birth control and abortion on individual levels, and most of them are either silent or at least vaguely anti-choice (and a few seem overtly anti-choice).

Or maybe they're afraid of what the anti-choice people will do to them? (After all, the fundamentalist nut-cases haven't been shooting random Shakespeare professors who support choice or talk about early modern recipes for "bringing on flowers.") On the other hand, I'm doubting that even pretty rabid anti-choice people will attack bloggers physically.

Or do they inhabit a blogosphere or blog-culture where one simply doesn't discuss choice or abortion? Is that also how they approach their practice?

And beyond the blogosphere:

Given my views on choice and such, I don't want to support businesses that are anti-choice. Nor do I want to have a physician who'd limit my access to contraception, emergency contraception, or abortion (at least information) based on ideas that have nothing to do with my health. So, how do we know what our pharmacies or physician's attitudes are up front?

Want to know about pharmacies' responses to pharmacist "refusals" of birth control? Look here.

On the subject of emergency contraception, did you know that:
“Every Woman, Every Visit,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ [ACOG] public education campaign, urges Ob/Gyns to provide advance prescriptions for emergency contraception at every office visit. (Source)
And look here for a statement from the ACOG about the FDA's refusal to license Plan B for OTC use.

For the women here, does your physician do this? (Mine hasn't; I just learned about it while doing some other blog reading. Somehow, I'm thinking this "public education campaign" isn't very succesful if this is the first I've heard of it.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

UCLA and current woes

It's been all over the news lately, and now it's hit the blogosphere in a big way: a UCLA alumni group is offering to pay students $100 (per course, NOT per class hour) to tape, take detailed notes (especially, it seems, notes about the reactions of fellow students), and to turn those materials over to the alumni group. They even have a list up of the professors who concern them most.

Most of the reactions in the blogosphere I read take a comic approach, and some of them (Pharyngula, who wants in on the action until he realizes its NOT $100/class hour, but $100 for a whole term's worth of work; and Michael Berube, who does a great question/answer entry) are downright laugh and thought provoking. The responses there make for fun reading, too.

Part of me wants to jump in on the laughter. In some sense, getting on that list has to be an honor somewhat akin to making Nixon's blacklist or McCarthy's investigation. Those people have it made in the shade for liberal leaning credentials. I want to write a couple people I know at UCLA and ask them why they didn't make the list, how they missed the cut, because, seriously, why not?

But on closer inspection, I don't want to make light of this. First, as I read the "radical professors" blurbs, I realized that this group isn't after professors for things they said in classes, or indeed, for things they said in classes that were off-topic or inappropriate given the class subject. This group wants to track professors based on letters to the editor they've written, petitions they've signed, parties in lawsuits they've professionally represented. That is, this group wants to attack basic civil rights of freedom of association, freedom of speech, fair trials, representation. That's just wrong on so many levels.

And it's upsetting to think of the good people I know on that list who now have to put energy into dealing with this stupidity. They can't just ignore it because it's going to come back in questions from students, comments from colleagues, BS from administrators, and second looks from random people who have their name and face. No, they aren't likely to lose their jobs, thank goodness. But the level of just stupid harassment that's likely just irks me.

On top of that, I doubt that professors have nearly as much influence as this alumni and other right wing radicals sometimes tend to think.

Here are things I've tried to convince my students of, time and again:

* Do the reading. (Yes, I know, shocking, aren't I?)
* Come to class and bring your text with you, along with paper and a writing implement to take notes.
* Do your homework.
* Come to office hours, ask questions in class and out, take responsibility for your education.
* Focus on your studies.
* Join a student or community organization and contribute actively to your community.

Do you think I've had one iota of influence? All of us wildly leftist professors who want students to study and such, all the conservative, even right wing professors who want students to study and such? One iota? I only hope!!

Yes, some professors DO have a political agenda, and do talk about politics, and sometimes add inappropriate political content in classes where it doesn't belong.

I had more than one professor who openly commented that women shouldn't be allowed into medical or veterinary schools because women just get married and have kids and quit working, so educating women is a waste of resources, or asserted that women just shouldn't be allowed in some professions or allowed to hold some jobs. I heard many times that women shouldn't be paid on the same scale as men because women's husbands were the primary wage-earners.

And you know what? By the time I was in college, I didn't believe them. I knew that what they were saying was wrong. I also knew that I'd better hunker down and keep my mouth shut, and just do whatever work was required. The conservative professors of the 50s and 60s didn't make the students of those decades into conservatives, and liberal professors aren't going to turn our students into wild radicals.

My students tend, by and large, to be more conservative than I am. Straight professors who talk about their spouses or kids, especially male professors who talk about their stay at home wives, don't get a second look from these students. That speech doesn't count as political for my students.

But a gay professor who mentions a partner or is seen at a local restaurant touching the hand of that partner across a candle-lit table? a straight, married female professor who doesn't wear a wedding ring? For some of our students, those are political statements; some students are shocked and outraged by such "radical" behavior.

Along with the sexist remarks from some professors, I heard lots of challenging ideas in college, ideas which made me rethink my assumptions from positions both left and right of where I'd learned those assumptions. Those challenges helped me become a better thinker, helped me get an education.

So, from me, a heartfelt thank you to all the educators who have challenged me (and still do) to rethink my assumptions, to support my positions with good arguments and logic, to understand different points of view.

And a heartfelt thank you and condolences to the UCLA professors now being harassed by that alumni group.

And another thank you to all the educators out there who get up in the morning and try to help their students get a real education.

And to all the students out there who come to learn, and I know it's most of you, thank you for getting an education, for thinking critically, for approaching questions with an open mind and a generous spirit. I'm looking forward to seeing you in my classes on Monday, and every class for the rest of my career, however long it may be. It's a privilege to know and work with you.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sudoku and signification, and more Chaucer

Like so many others these days, I have to admit, I really enjoy playing Sudoku puzzles. (The site I've linked is the BEST I've found for playing on line. Whoever programmed this did a great job letting the player (?) fill in possibilities, take out possibilities, and so forth. It's SO much better than my messy erasure filled puzzles on paper. If you have other great sites, please please share!) I limit myself to three games a day (which is convenient at that site).

In general, I like logic puzzles. I'm the type who'd do GRE analytical sections for fun.

One of the things I most like about Sudoku is the way the numbers work as signifiers. The game's not about the numbers, if you know what I mean. You don't add them up or anything. The sign "9" doesn't signify the number 9 (as in xxxxxxxxx things) in any sense at all.

You could, indeed, use any nine signs for the puzzle. The only requirement is that the signs be easily remembered and recognized by players. You could use (*&^%$#@! and all would be well.

So, in fact, the numbers as signs signify primarily (only?) through difference. The player has to recognize only that 5 is not 4 and and that one 5 is incompatible in a row, column, or box with another 5. So, on some level every 5 is the same, but also different because of its placement. So placement also works as a signifier in the game, right?

Hmmm, I wonder if playing Sudoku would help my theory students get at the arbitrariness of signs at a different level, or in a different way?

In other news, I put together the Chaucer calendar (the parts about when to read what and all), in large part, of course, using the one from the last time for numbers of lines to read on a given day. I came up with a tight fit, so to speak, until I realized that I hadn't put in time for peer editing of their research paper. In the past couple years, I've become a HUGE fan of using peer editing at the upper levels; if it's useful in first year writing, it's WAY more useful for juniors and seniors. That shouldn't have been news to me, but it was.

And I want to fit in two hours for my linguistic colleagues to teach my students about Middle English and the Great Vowel Shift. So now I have to drop something. I thought for a moment about tossing The Parliament of Foules, but I really don't want to. I'm thinking "The Reeve's Tale" will have to go, and I'll have them read the link between "The Miller's Tale" and "The Reeve's Tale" along with "The Miller's Tale." (I don't by any means teach all or even nearly all of The Canterbury Tales (they aren't all in the text I ordered, so even if I wanted to, I couldn't).

I've got "The Franklin's Tale" down for three hours. Can I realistically cut it to two?

I've got what I think is a good list of words for an OED assignment: kind, ask, melancholy, romance, clerk, lady, wise, keep, default, game, lust, fowl, crafty, hound, sweven, rage, courage, sad, truly, beside, tercel, nice, rede.

That should be enough, too! YAY! (Have I mentioned lately what great colleagues I have?)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Carnival of Feminists up!

Here's the latest Carnival of Feminists. Lots of great reads in there. Hosted this week by Feministe. Gendergeek will be hosting the next CoF on February 8.

Trying NOT to explode... laughing and horrified

I'm almost laughing at myself because I'm completely astounded at this moment.

I got an email cc'd this morning from one of our Administrative Assistants, a person responsible, effective, efficient, and wonderful. She'd noticed some weird annotations on a printout the bookstore sent her (dot matrix printout, so very difficult to read), and asked the bookstore contact person about what she had listed. Here (roughly) is what she had emailed:

English XXX - Bardiac - Canterbury Tales (Sparknotes?? hard to read this word
on the report).

So I sent an email to the contact person basically reiterating what I'd ordered for the class, and wondering if instead of "Sparknotes" it should have said, perhaps, "seminar"?

Within a very few moments, I got a note from the bookstore contact person explaining that they'd

put in some "Bookstore Recommends" texts to be available as supplements for your
And, apparently, what they recommend for my Chaucer seminar is, yes, you guessed it, the Sparknotes text for The Canterbury Tales. And the way the contact person worded his message is so innocent, in a sort of "look at this GREAT thing we did to help our students" kind of way.

I think that's why I'm laughing. He has no clue that the whole English department is going to be sending outraged emails shortly, perhaps even stomping down there for a personal visit. I imagine professors from a variety of disciplines will have similarly delighted reactions when they realize what the bookstore's done.

Bonus fun: The bookstore's apparently ordered such "supplements" for ALL of our classes, including not only the stupid notes books, but other texts as well.

Our Admin Asst didn't know what Sparknotes are, but (since she now knows) just sent out a department email so everyone knows what happened (she'd been sending them out one by one, but that would involve, apparently, one email per class).

Yes, since you're asking in your head, our NWU bookstore is now run by an outside chain. Not hard to guess, was it?

A pretty happy ending: I emailed the contact person again, and even had a colleague check to make sure my language wasn't too strong, abrupt, or whatever. I asked him to have the Sparknotes book moved away from the shelve to discourage students from buying it unnecessarily, and just got an email saying that he would take care of it, and even thanking me for my feedback, because they need to know if we don't like something that lots of other professors do.

Does anyone order Sparknotes for a Chaucer or other upper level literature class? Anyone? Bueller?

ps. In case it's not clear, perhaps I should explain why I object to our bookstore putting Sparknotes texts as "Bookstore Recommended" alongside the books I ordered on the shelves.

Chaucer, when you first encounter the language, is hard. It took me about HOURS to get through the "General Prologue" the first time, for my very first Chaucer class (five hours for 25 pages in that edition). My old Everyman paper edition of The Canterbury Tales is covered in inked notes, lots of glosses on words especially. (I made my own glossary in the front cover: the first word in it is "eke." It's VERY important to me to remember that I had to learn "eke" and had to write it down along the way. I keep that in the front of my tiny little brain when I teach Chaucer.)

There's value in working hard to read, learn, and understand a text. There's value in working hard to learn anything, pretty much.

Putting the Sparknotes text next to the Chaucer edition implies first that I've recommended it (yes, it may say "Bookstore Recommended," but many students will see only the "recommended" part), and I haven't.

The most careful and studious students are actually the most likely to trust the recommendation and spend the extra money (just under $5.00 in this case) to buy the extra texts. These students aren't rich: that $5.00 could be better spent in so many other ways. Yet the bookstore is misleading them into spending it on Sparknotes.

Sparknotes may be validly useful for some students, but in my experience, students use such "supplements" to avoid struggling with really difficult texts. They read the explanations, and then don't really work through the text.

With Middle English, especially, the language itself is incredibly wonderful; by working through it, you learn to read it (I find it takes most students 3-4 weeks to get a basic grasp), you learn to feel it in your mouth. In the process, you learn a lot about Modern English and something about medieval English culture, thought processes, and even some great stories. You also learn that you're capable of learning something if you work at it.

That very lesson is one of the most important things everyone should learn in their education.

What's your line?

There's a post at Intueri about having a conversation with someone and answering the "oh, what do you do for a living?" type question. Maria at Intueri , a psychiatrist, finds that the information pretty much destroys any conversation rather quickly. I can see that. It wouldn't with me, but then I'm too curious for my own good sometimes. (She also uses imagery in really strong ways, so I'd be asking about her writing all day anyways.)

I usually get one of two initial responses when I answer the question about making my living.

In a general (rather than academic) context, I tend to identify myself first as a teacher, because, saying I'm a professor just still sounds pretentious. And saying I'm a Shakespearean sounds even more pretentious. And what I actually DO, most of the time, is teach in some way or another.

How do other academics handle this one?

Sometimes folks let it drop at teacher, but there are two follow ups: what grade and inevitably, what subject. It's at the "what subject" question when the responses generally split off: if I'm lucky, someone tells me about their favorite teacher in high school or college, the English teacher who taught them so much, who cared about his/her students, who was funny, brilliant, all those things I'd like to be if only I had the brain cells left after being a young adult. These conversations are easy and fun.

If I'm not lucky, the person looks at me suspiciously, gets self-conscious, defensive, or offensive about his/her grammar or knowledge or whatever they think about when they think about English as a subject.

"So, I bet you're just cringing at the way I talk." Nope, not in the least. I like hearing variants in people's dialects, accents, usage.

"So are you going to correct my grammar?" Nope, I get paid to correct grammar. I don't do it for free. (Okay, I do on occasion help people with written stuff or grammar questions for free, but ONLY when they ask, or if it's a close relative under the age of ten.)

"I hated/failed my high school/college English class/teacher!" Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that. I failed my high school English tests on Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I hated Shakespeare in high school.

The absolutely most completely delightful reaction I ever got came from a couple friends of my great Aunt Em, when I was teaching my first Chaucer class some years ago. My great Aunt Em was supportive and fun; we were pretty close, writing letters back and forth while I was away, and she was very proud that I'd earned my PhD. I think she was also happy that we'd gotten close (for which I'm very grateful) and that we'd always get together for lunch or something when I hit the old hometown area. At any rate, I think she was happy because she gladly introduced me to her friends, and proud because she always told them what I was up to.

One day she told her friends I was teaching Chaucer. Her friends' reactions? They BOTH started laughing and joyfully reciting the "General Prologue" to me in Middle English. We must have chatted about Chaucer and other literature in various ways for a good hour. What a great way to spend part of my afternoon.

Let's do the math: These women were both in their 70s (at least), and neither, I'm pretty sure, had beyond a high school education, and yet they were having a great time reciting verse they surely hadn't read for what, 50-60 years?

Something, somewhere along the line, went VERY right in their educations for them to have such a joyful reaction to their experience with Chaucer and for them to remember lines 50-60 years later. Yes, so no doubt it was rote learning, but surely there's value in learning to memorize at some level?

Alas, my memory for recitation is best demonstrated by the now old Robin Williams bit where he's "doing" Hamlet, "To be or... damn!"

Anyone else have good "what's your line?" stories?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Online discussion discussion

Over at Timna's place, there's an interesting discussion about facilitating on-line discussions for classes.

If you look at the comments, Deb has a great suggestion for sharing student work through on-line programs. I find it really hard to share student work in the classroom (except in my grad class) because classes are fairly large and time is always short. But this seems like a great idea; students could see models of good work, and also have a sense of accomplishment when their work is posted for others.

This kind of discussion is one of the best things I've seen about academic blogging.

I'm hoping Another Damned Medievalist will share some rubrics and guidelines now, too!

Academic Nightmares

It's that time of the semester! Making up syllabi, trying to get a paper done, meeting with a student about a thesis, committee work, letters to write... the semester hasn't started, but the pre-semester stress has. I think my stress usually evens out once I get into the rhythm of a semester, unless I'm teaching a new class.

At about 3am this morning, I woke up with my heart pounding, having just convinced a very large black bear that s/he didn't actually want to come into the dining room of the house where I grew up. I really hope that I'm not nearly that stupid if I come face to face with a black bear at close quarters outside of a dream. (And, yes, I did have time to identify it properly, and it was Ursus americanus.) In the dream, I was jumping up and down in front of the window yelling and he was trying to come in through the window. Outside of a dream, of course, I'd have quickly been lunch.

I have no idea what the imagery there was about, but it wasn't academic in the usual way my nightmares around the beginning of the semester are. And it sure didn't fit the Chaucerian dream vision from "The Book of the Duchess" I've been reading; though, really, is there a better description of insomnia than the opening of that poem?

Usually my nightmares about this time are much more explicitly about school, classes, tests, books.

I think lots of us in academics have had them. They're pretty telling, sometimes, about what our anxieties are. The one I share with most people I've talked to is the one I had a LOT as a student where I'm enrolled in a class but haven't actually bothered to go all term, and then I realize it the day of the final, go to take the final, and find out that the course has been moved to another classroom. I used to have that one all the time as an undergrad.

My scariest single-shot nightmare, which I had as a grad student: I'm walking on the campus of my Pretty Darned Good grad school, and run into another grad student (D, really, another grad student) who asks me how I'm feeling about the lecture I'm giving in class today. I gulp, having totally forgotten, and ask D what play we're doing in class. D tells me we're doing Henry IV, Part 1, and I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking that I can pretty much teach 1H4 in my sleep. Doesn't seem like much of a nightmare, yet, does it?

Then I realize that I don't have my copy of 1H4, and I ask D if I can borrow hers. But she doesn't have a copy either. So I go to the English library, but there's no copy there, and then I go to the Little Library, then the Big Library, and there's no copy in either. At which point I'm running wildly all over campus trying desperately to find a text.

I only had that nightmare once, and I know exactly what textual and life anxiety I was worried about. And just thinking about it still makes me shudder inside.

When I started teaching, a lifetime ago, I had a recurring nightmare that I'd walk into a classroom the first day of class, check that I was in the right place, and then realize that I was somehow supposed to teach a math class, and woke up completely terrified.

At the time, I was on a committee with G, a highly respected faculty member who was absolutely adored by students at this school. Before a committee meeting, sometime during the first week of classes (but, thankfully, after I'd taught my first class), we were chatting about classes starting, and my beginning teaching. G sympathized about my nightmare, but then WAY overmatched me when he told me that he regularly threw up before every class at the beginning of every semester, and only stopped about the middle of the semester, though he still felt nauseous before every class. I don't know how he went on, really. And he'd been teaching for probably several decades by then.

After I'd taught for a few years, and had my teaching math nightmare any number of times at the beginning of terms, I had it again, but with a difference: that time, I shrugged, opened the Calculus book sitting on the table at the front of the room, and started in. I haven't had the nightmare since.

Do you guys get these?

*I just love the Blogspot spell check. And not because it's good. It wants me to replace "Chaucerian" with "Caesarian." For some reason, I find that very funny.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

I was a kid when MLK was assassinated; my memories of the civil rights movement of the 60s are vague, as vague as my memories of space shots. Yes, I'm doomed to have lived the 60s without LIVING the 60s, so to speak.

I didn't know what a Nobel prize was when King was so honored in 1964, but his acceptance speech still strikes me strongly. Here's a little bit. (The full text is available at the NobelPrize site.)
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men
other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaimed the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that We Shall overcome!

Rest easy, sir. I hope someday we do manage to live up to your dreams and hopes.

Teaching Festival 5 up!

Teaching Festival 5 is up at Ancarett's Abode; GREAT job, Ancarett! (And thanks for including me.)

I love reading festivals. They're a great way to learn about new blogs, especially when people put together entries and ideas in ways I've not thought of.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chaucer Dilemma

I've started actually putting together my Chaucer syllabus. I love doing a syllabus (note the not so subtle avoidance of the plural?). I dug out my last Chaucer syllabus, in large part because I felt the class went really well, and I want to teach basically the same works, I think.

I have one problem with choosing the works: For reasons I won't really go into here, it's MUCH easier for me to order Chaucer's Major Poetry (ed. Baugh) for my students than the Riverside Chaucer (which is appealing available in paperback these days, at about half the price). (It's uncertain if I'll be teaching Chaucer much in the future; we offer it only every other year, it's five years since the last time for me, and I know one of my colleagues would probably also be happy to teach it. Also, there may or may not be another colleague who wants in. So it may not be worth pushing for a new textbook.) Naturally, my layers of notes are in my Riverside. And naturally, the fragment and line numberings of the two texts for the CT don't coincide.

Here's my dilemma: In the last class, also a spring term, I started with a few shorter poems, "The Book of the Duchess," then taught "The Parliament of Foules," and then went on to selections from The Canterbury Tales. In many ways, it was a satisfying structure. But, most students typically want to write about CT (because, seriously, who can resist?), and putting it at the end means that they've read fewer tales by the time they're ready to start brainstorming about their research questions, and so seem to have fewer choices.

I REALLY like starting with a few short poems and the "Book of the Duchess." It just feels like a great place to start for me; I've split it into short sections for daily reading to start students more slowly on the language, and to be honest, I love the poem.

One possible solution is to move "The Parliament of Foules" to the end of the semester, and move the CT up. That moves the CT up by about three class hours (the class meets three days a week, one hour each day), ie. one week. That would help a bit with the research paper issue.

On the other hand, the way my syllabus was set up last time, we read the "Parliament" over the week of Valentine's Day. I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day, but it's VERY hard to resist teaching the "Parliament" on Valentine's! Because we all KNOW that birds choose their mates on February 14th. Duh! (I also love teaching Henry V so that we're doing the St. Crispin's day speech on October 25th.) The "Parliament" also gives students another great example of a Dream Vision poem, which follows nicely from the "Book of the Duchess" and prepares them to really "get" "The Nun's Priest's Tale." And, chronologically, it makes some sense (though teaching "Adam Scriven" early on doesn't make chronological sense at all).

Ending the semester with the "Parliament" would mean that we'd end on a really fun note, remind them of the joys of the Dream Vision, and it's not like my students won't remember what Valentine's Day is all about in May...

So, advice?

Here's another advice request: One of my friends suggested I have the students do a short OED word exercise early on, which does sound great. But now I need a list of 15 good words. I could put an early modern list together pretty easily, but a Middle English list will be a bit harder for me. So, I'd appreciate suggestions there, too!

Thanks in advances for any and all responses and suggestions!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tools of the trade

For a bit last summer, I taught a "class" in a theater space, and I missed my usual tools of the trade. I was reminded of an old Tom Lehrer bit where he talks about working a room without a board.

Like Lehrer, I need a board of some sort. I prefer blackboards, but NWU is turning more and more to whiteboards as we install more computer teaching "stations" in classes. Evidently chalk dust causes problems for computers. I also end up pretty much covered with chalk dust so I look the fool in ubiquitous black teaching clothing.

But I still prefer chalk to those stupid whiteboard pens. The ones in my rooms always seem to go dry at bad times, so I've now gotten in the habit of bringing my own pens from my department to my classes. (I've had to liberate chalk from other rooms before, but there aren't enough rooms with whiteboards to make them easy to borrow without a multi-room search.)

Then there's the problem of erasure, or lack of erasure. I feel like Derrida some days; the whole board is a palimpsest of someone else's notes. (I only wish I had Derrida's brains; though since he's dead now that might not actually be such a grand idea.)

I'm also fidgety. With chalk, it doesn't show so much, but with those pens, I'm constantly clicking the tops on and off, on and off, on and off. Or I put the top in my pocket so that I won't fidget with it, or on some table or surface, and then I can't find it and have to walk around holding an open pen. And me walking around with an open pen means that I'll inevitably write on myself by accident. (I also write on myself with chalk, but it's not as obvious because I'm pretty much covered with chalk dust after a typical class.)

The pens also smell, which makes me wonder if I can get high from them. Worth a try, perhaps, on the occasional day when my teaching hits a nadir. (Yeah, you'll be seeing me on the Darwin awards for that one: NWU Prof loses mind to pen sniffing.) And there's the problem that they smell so bad that they'd have to be really potent stuff, because they don't stay near my face long.

The other tool I find absolutely vital is a big dictionary on a rolling stand; we use it a lot. I like rolling the dictionary around so different students get to look up words. I also tend to read definitions while students are taking quizzes or tests, or just doing a writing exercise. (Yes, I know, if I were good at pedagogy, I'd freewrite along with them. I'm not, and I don't.)

I'm undecided about some tools of the trade: I'm uneven in using computers when they're in the class. Sometimes, they're incredibly useful because you can show a whole classful of people how to access a search engine and use it, or put up a short video, or whatever. But when I see someone teach with powerpoint type stuff, I just cringe. Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve me from such teaching. (Okay, I have seen some art type folks use powerpoint well to display pieces of art. Mostly, though, powerpoint doesn't float my boat.)

I've started using an electronic "blackboard" program available here at NWU. It's got a lot more features than I use: quizzes, gradebook, and so forth. I tend to use it in two ways: I have my graduate class post papers, and require all members of the class to read each others' work weekly. (The class is mostly organized as a writing workshop, so this is appropriate and works very well.) I also tend to make some articles or documents available in one section. Unfortunately, students don't look at these when they REALLY should. So maybe I'd be better off giving out handouts in class, or emailing reminders, or something. (Not that students actually look at handouts, either. And then, why waste the trees?)

I've tried with no success at all to facilitate discussion for various classes on the forums section of the program. I know people who've been or claimed to have been quite successful, but I've had absolutely no luck. I read a couple different internet forums on occasion, and I have to admit that they rarely provide good discussions as such. At their best, they provide a good place for specific questions to get specific, even well-thought-out answers. But rarely do different posters really respond to each other; instead, it's more like a bad class discussion, with each person adding a bit without any sense of conversation, listening, or response.

I'd LOVE someone to give me really good help at making those forums more helpful for students!

And there's one new teaching technology I absolutely refuse to use: NWU is exploring a "clicker" option; the idea is that you can instantly give your students a true/false type quiz to make sure they understand what's being said. I just can't get my brain around the idea that anything in literature worth asking can be asked as a true/false question.

I gather, though, that the some administrators think we NEED this new technology badly. Alas, they seem to think this primarily because they want to increase our class sizes, and recognize that reading essays and stuff makes a huge class unwieldy. So their solution is to push us to use true/false clicky quizzes in massive lecture classes rather than ask students to write and actually read and respond to what they write.

Just because a technology's available, doesn't mean we HAVE to embrace it!

What a luddite am I!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Discussion on my mind

In my first year writing course, I give a final research assignment that asks students to research a real life question they have. We do a number of activities in class (brainstorming, etc) to help students think of good questions; at about two thirds of the way through the assignment, each student has to do a short presentation on his/her research so far. The research doesn't have to be complete; rather, we use the session to help students see where they need more research, clarify their definitions, and refine their questioning or presentation, depending on how far along they are. (Yes, of course, the process activities also help me discourage paper-buying or plagiarism.)

[I also teach them the single most helpful thing I learned in graduate school about giving class/seminar presentations. Ready? This is SUPER SECRET! Don't tell anyone! Always try to set up two people in the class/seminar with a good question each, a question that you're eager and ready to answer. Two good questions. They look smart and attentive for asking good questions. Plus for them. The presenter looks smart and prepared for having good answers. And the prepared questions usually give the presenter a chance to loosen up and feel more at ease, and thus do better with other questions. Plus for the presenter. The questions give other people a nudge for asking more questions, as well as a few moments to formulate decent questions/comments. Plus for the whole class. Win/Win/Win all around. I actually set my first year class up in groups so that they prepare questions.]

A while ago now, one of my students researched Down Syndrome. Unless the whole class gets into asking good questions (sometimes, really!), I generally try to add one or two questions or ideas. At my best, I try to ask open questions which may get the class thinking. This particular student didn't give the best (nor worst) presentation I'd ever seen, but he did introduce the idea of pre-natal testing, and when one would do such tests.

However, he never thought about any of the implications of such tests, one of which (only ONE, there are many others) is that a woman could choose to terminate a pregnancy if she found out that her child would have Down syndrome or another disability. I usually pull away from questions related to abortion in my classes. To be honest, I don't want to hear that abortion should be illegal no matter what, and I don't think most of my students want to hear what I have to say. I'm tired of trite approaches to a complex question.

But, this time I asked about the ethical implications of a decision to have testing done, and perhaps to choose to terminate a pregnancy based on such tests. My students responded thoughtfully, more thoughtfully than in the past about more generalized questions about abortion related issues. There were, of course, students who said that it was totally unethical to abort just because the child would be disabled, but they said so thoughtfully and respectfully. Others were more hesitant. Some, of course, were silent (but then, the same people are silent when we discuss paragraph organization).

I said that a woman my age, according to the statistics our presenter had given, would have a rather high risk of her fetus having Down Syndrome or another serious disability. And, given that our presenter had told us that people with Down Syndrome now routinely live to their 50s, I pointed out that IF a woman my age had a child with Down Syndrome, she would probably expect that child to outlive her.

I said that worried me, as a potential parent, because I'd worry about who would be responsible for the child's care when I died. The state? A sibling? Another relative? My choice to have a child (assuming it was a choice because I had testing and access to abortion) would not impact only me and the child, or even my immediate family, but would likely impact other people, and not in easy ways.

Again, we had a thoughtful and interesting discussion, better even than at first.

After class, one of my other students came to my office. This student had told me that s/he had a relative who is seriously mentally and physically disabled, and had come to realize that s/he would likely be responsible for this relative's care at some point. Certainly, his/her life had been dramatically impacted already, and s/he had revealed that s/he'd had a lot of resentment toward the relative while younger, and claimed that s/he no longer felt any resentment. So I wasn't surprised that she wanted to follow up on our class discussion.

S/he asked me about the ethical issue; clearly, his/her relative was on his/her mind. I responded that I support a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, and would also support that right in this circumstance. She asked me about an abortion for "convenience," and I reiterated that I supported a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, and that I trust and respect women to make choices for themselves. She nodded quietly, and dropped the subject, turning instead to her own research paper.

It's NOT a simple issue, of course. I know women who've had abortions, and not one of them took the decision lightly, or danced into the clinic shouting with joy. Yet they were all grateful for the choice and for the medical care they got. Similarly, none of them would have had root canal and gone in dancing for joy, but again, they'd have been grateful for the choice to have appropriate dental care.

The simple part is that I trust women to make decisions about themselves. I know I won't agree with all those decisions, but I trust them to know more about their situations than I do, and to make those decisions.

I don't think it's necessary to look to extremes, incest, rape, or whatever. I think it's a basic issue of trusting women to make decisions about their bodies and lives.

Yes, there ARE ethical questions. What, one might ask, about abortions based on gender. (These abortions seem to target female fetuses, of course.) Is it ethical for someone to choose to abort because she's pregnant with a female fetus?

I have to answer yes. My answer is based on two issues, one individual, one cultural/societal.

First, if a woman wants to abort because her fetus is female, then (assuming no outside pressure), she's making that choice because her experience of being female in her culture/society is miserable. I trust her to choose not to subject her potential girl to such misery. I trust her to know her experience.

In a culture/society which doesn't value females highly, parents who choose to have female children are self-selected to value females more highly, take better care of their girls, and so forth.

Second, Malthus, simple economics and biology. A culture/society that values females so poorly as to abort a large percentage of female fetuses is going to come up with a shortage of adult women at some point in the not so distant future. At that point, women will become a relatively rare commodity, and maybe that culture/society will have to value women more highly. (Yeah, that could go all wrong, but there's at least potential that it will go right, and in the meantime, not as many girls/women are being treated horribly.)

Further, we simply don't need more people on the planet. Yes, one-child laws in China seem harsh, but we're over-populating ourselves into coming disaster, and at least that's a realistic attempt to avert that disaster in one nation. And if the number of adult women is artificially limited by abortion, that limit will likely help reduce the exponential population growth.

(At this point, perhaps, you're thinking I'm a cold-blooded so and so. Remember, I teach Titus regularly. You just may be right.)

It's Blog for Choice month, as BitchPhD points out, and January 22 is Blog for Choice Day (fittingly, the anniversary of the Roe V Wade Decision).

Be there.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Writing Letters of Recommendation

As I was driving along on my trip, I had a lot of time to think. Excessive time, one might say, especially since I couldn't really look at books or anything while driving (having to use reading glasses makes even looking at a map iffy).

The most frequent internet searches to reach my blog thus far seem to be aimed at some combination of "letters of recommendation." They get my previous entry about what students should provide for their letter writers, which you can find here. But from the ways the search terms usually appear, and from the people who seem to read my little bloggobit, I think more people are looking for help writing letters rather than for help preparing materials for letter writers.

Indeed, some other bloggers are talking about writing letters of recommendation lately. Notably, A Ianqui in the Village has asked about writing for students who are less than stellar in a post entitled, "Saying No to Recommendations." The responses are interesting, and mostly very helpful. Most agree that we need to be honest with our students if we can't write them good letters. One of the responses linked another blog, PEA Soup, which I'd never read before, but which asks some ethical questions about writing letters of recommendation. The most difficult question is about the student who is well qualified on paper, but abhorrent in some way (the example PEA soup gives has to do with racism).

My response, like most of the responders to both posts, is to be honest with students about my ability to write a good letter for them. I think I'm less reticent than some, perhaps, about writing letters which don't claim that my particular student not only walks on water, but doesn't get his/her shoelaces wet. But then, maybe I'd feel more pressure about that if I were writing letters for PhD candidates in this dismal job situation?

I generally write letters for students looking for jobs (I also get phone requests for these), scholarship or other undergraduate opportunities (study abroad, education department), and graduate placements (MA/PhD programs, Med and Law school, and others). Here's my take: most of us in this world aren't mind-stoppingly brilliant or wonderful, and yet most of us manage to hold jobs and contribute more or less to our communities. Surely the people reading these letters realize this?

When I was in grad school, and first asked to write letters one of my professors taught me a basic generic letter of recommendation. (Yes, it's problematic to write letters as a teaching assistant, but in my Pretty Darned Good graduate university, most undergraduates saw professors only as smallish dots at the front of a lecture hall, so they tended to ask teaching assistants for letters. Yes, my letter as a teaching assistant wasn't hugely influential, but I COULD talk intelligently about the student in ways those big named professorial dots couldn't).

Now, I'd love some suggestions for making my letters better, or at least easier to write, but the basic genre Lola taught me seems pretty useful.

First, I try to figure out what my audience needs: I think, mostly, employers and graduate admissions folks want to know that the student is smart enough to do whatever it is, communicates well (verbally and in writing), listens, has ideas, and has at least the potential to contribute to whatever community is at stake. In order to "trust" my evaluation, the reader has to know how or why I've come to have my opinion, and then needs some good examples to see that my opinion is well-founded.

So, I start out with an introductory paragraph that tells a little about how I know the student, and for how long. The first sentence usually says something about how pleased I am to write on my student's behalf. That "pleasedness" is somewhat coded, of course. But I don't push that coding with any real skill, I'm afraid. I'm generally "pleased" or "very pleased" to recommend student X to program Y. If I'm not pleased (and for some reason haven't convinced the student that I'm a BAD choice), then I am just writing this letter for student X, rather than recommending student X. (I've written perhaps one of those letters?)

In the introductory paragraph, I introduce the student by first and last name, give information about classes (with semester/dates, if appropriate), advising, and so forth, being as specific as possible.

In the next section (which may be one or two paragraphs), I talk about the student's written work, again, as specifically as possible. This is where my previous advice about getting papers for letter writers helps me tons. I can quickly glance over the paper, get the title, thesis, and my response. I can also remind myself how well the student constructed the argument or whatever. If I've had the student several times, I emphasize the most recent work, and may also talk about the student's growth over the time I've known him/her. I use Ms/Mr X to talk about the student in this section.

In the third section, I talk about the student as a member of the community, in class, in the department or university, and so on. At this point, I generally switch to using the student's first name because I think this reflects the more personal nature of this sort of evaluation. If I don't switch, the letter seems cooler, somehow. Again, if I've known the student for a while, I can talk about his/her growth, his/her interests, and so on. I try to be as specific as I can; it helps a LOT if the student gives me his/her letter of application or statement of purpose, or reminds me about activities s/he's been involved with.

This section is where I deal with apparent problems in the application. For example, a couple years ago I had a rather wonderfully smart student who just didn't apply him/herself much. C had good ideas, was an intelligent, helpful participant in class when s/he was there, and was very capable. I LEARNED from C's work. C was also busy with things in life that had nothing to do with school, and so managed mediocre grades.

A few years after graduating, C decided s/he wanted to go to graduate school, and came to talk to me about a letter of recommendation. I responded honestly that while I thought C had great potential and could certainly do the work of graduate school, his/her grades didn't reflect that very well, and so forth. We talked a good bit about why C wanted to go on, what C wanted to do, and so forth, and I agreed to write the letter. In this section, then, I talked about our conversation, C's grades, C's strengths which I believed could lead to great success, why I thought C was ready to take real advantage of opportunities, and why C would be a wonderful member of a graduate school community. Whether because of or in spite of my letter, C was accepted to the graduate program s/he most wanted, and appears (from recent communications) to be thriving there.

In the final paragraph, I quickly reiterate my recommendation and offer to provide further information if the reader wants it. Here, again, I should probably do more with the code words, but I just don't seem to have them down in a meaningful way.

Were I writing letters for applicants for professorial jobs, I think I'd spend a fair bit of time on teaching right after talking about the written work, but we don't have a PhuD program, so that's a worry I don't have.

So, I'd love to learn other tricks of the trade or suggestions people have for writing better letters. Those of you who read a lot of graduate school apps, what stands out as a good letter of recommendation? What are the code words you look for?

What am I missing?