Monday, April 30, 2007

Day of Despair

Recently, my department had a meeting during which we discussed assessment, specifically, the porfolio type assessment, and more specifically, we talked about student writing. The assessment report, iffy in some ways, may show that (on average) students improve their writing skills at the university, but not as much as we'd like. Shocking, startling, I know, because unless they come out writing brilliantly, all of them, we'd like them to write better.

I could say the same for my own writing, which has improved dramatically over the years, thanks to help from my friends.

We discussed the information. We asserted, as we do all the time, that writing isn't the purview of the English department, nor something that can really be mastered at the university level in one writing class. Instead, as everyone knows, students should work on writing in many classes, and have feedback about their writing, guidance, and instruction. If you've been in any English department in the land, or any liberal artsy sort of place, you've heard the same sorts of discussions.

But, of course, we argue that faculty in other departments don't work on writing enough. And we argue that we might not be perfect, either.

By way of demonstrating this, one of my colleagues said that he asked a senior level class what sorts of writing instruction they'd had (other than in the first year college writing course). And all of them said they hadn't had any. None. Zip.

Today, one of my classes is doing peer editing work on a major project. So we brainstormed first about the requirements of the project. During this section, I asked them if we'd talked about paragraph organization yet. They all said, nope, never heard of it. So I started talking about Christensen and paragraph organization.

And about five minutes in, one of them said, "we did this already."

And indeed, they started digging through their notes, and we had talked about paragraph organization. They can't remember from what we did in preparation for the first paper. (Okay, I didn't remember, either, but I work paragraph organization into paper writing at some point in almost every course at some point in the semester. I only make it REALLY formal in my first year writing class; other than that, I talk about it when we're working on a paper. And this time, I wanted to make sure I'd talked about it even now, rather than never.)

I told them about the meeting, and about my colleague, and I asked them what they'd tell him if he asked them about writing instruction.

And you know, if they're asked in two or three years about what writing instruction they've had since first year composition, they're going to give that big blank look and ask, writing instruction? Not us. Nope, not a bit. Never heard of it. No one has ever talked about writing, thesis statements, paragraph or essay organization, citation, nope, not a bit.

I despair.

ps. I'm trying to figure out how to upload from flickr so that I can show off my work on a poem. But I keep getting the red X of nothingness. Any suggestions?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Angry Bardiac

In grading procrastination mode this morning, I saw this article in CNN.

Apparently, in lovely Woodburn, Indiana, a student newspaper published an editorial (written by a student, Megan Chase) calling for "tolerance and acceptance of gays." And Amy Sorrell, the teacher in charge of the paper, is going to be transferred to a different school and won't be allowed to teach journalism. According to this article from the local newspaper (well, it's hard to tell on-line, but I think it's local), she was placed on paid leave because she
she did not comply with an agreement to alert the principal about controversial articles.

What part of accepting and toleration is controversial? She was supposed to let the principal know about upcoming articles that might be controversial, and (according to the article) did let the principal know about upcoming articles on teen pregnancy and such.

You can read the full text of Chase's editorial if you scroll down a bit here, in the Fort Wayne paper.

I'm not sure what's up with the prior notification thing. I don't have a huge problem with the principal getting a heads up about stuff that's going to appear. I think there is a problem if s/he's able to use that lead time to censor the paper. I'm not clear from reading the couple articles that the heads up was about censorship or not. At least one of the articles hints at that, though.

My hat is off to Megan Chase, who was trying to be supportive of a friend who'd come out. Good on you!

Condolences to Amy Sorrell, who is being punished for doing her job and helping students put out a newspaper. I'm glad she's not totally being fired, and angry that she's being moved. That seems like a half-assed work of cowardice on the part of the administration: they want to be publicly seen to "punish" her, but don't want to bring on the legal battle that firing someone without due cause would bring.

I look around sometimes, and people are smiling as if they're friendly. But don't be fooled. Some are, sure. But others, nope. Sometimes, I just hate the midwest.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Geekitude Complete - Nothing Left to Live For

I did it. I bought a bike. Well, I ordered it, and put money down, but it will be a bit coming.

And, it looks like I've decided to go with clipless pedals (at least on one side).

I went today and tried out another bike, and decided on a different one. (I tried out a standard, first with the seat a bit forward--result: wrists, arms, shoulders happy, legs not happy--then tried it with the seat back to normal--result: wrists, arms, and shoulders unhappy, legs happy.) So, we checked the measurements and I'm going with a women's specific design.

Test-riding the bike twice took a bit more time than I'd planned, and I wanted to go to the local Pow-Wow. So, yes, I went to the Pow-Wow in my biking clothes (and shoes). And I danced (it's harder than it looks!!).

I'm pretty sure there's no more geeky look than a middle aged woman in biking clothes "dancing" in a Pow-Wow.

No, apparently, I have no shame.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Questions from the Back of the Room

The questions I have the most difficulty with in the classroom have to do with the "why did he do that?"

Why does Posthumus in Cymbeline brag on his wife Innogen/Imogen enough to get in a fight (before) and do the whole bet thing with Iachimo/Jachimo/Giacimo?

It seems like a poor strategy to jump to a "men are idiots" sort of answer. I don't think I've ever seen men actually argue about their wives' chastity; I certainly haven't seen them come to blows over such. And even if I had, there are men in the room who may not be idiots, right?

I can go to the later Iachimo refers to Tarquin, so there's a kind of pattern answer, which satisfies few students. It's a great tie in once you've got Iachimo in the room, but it doesn't really make sense of the original bet (though it provides at least one very famous precedent for stupidity).

Sometimes I just want to go pragmatic and say that it would be a piss poor play if Posthumus and Iachimo agreed that women aren't perfect, and perhaps it's best not to tempt them, and while we're at it, let's convince Cymbaline to just pay the tribute up front and be done with it, and send Cloten to his room. Fifteen minutes in, a conversation or two and some threatening stuff about poison, and we're done. Boring!)

Even harder are the "why did Shakespeare do that?" sorts of questions.

Trust me, if I could channel Shakespeare, I wouldn't be living in the ice cold winters of the upper midwest. Heck, I wouldn't be half sad if I could channel Marvell, or Herrick. I'd probably freak some people out talking about Julia's paps and such, but oh well. (I would be considerably more unhappy to channel Eliot or Blake. I don't think I have much to worry about in any case.)

(Now there's an idea that could get some interesting responses: which famous author would you most hate to channel, and why? Hemingway for the win!)

I don't know why Shakespeare did "that." I can explain the effect, perhaps, and how it works. And I can guess that Shakespeare could predict that doing "that" would be effective, given that he seems to have been a pretty good dramatist and all. But beyond that? I can draw parallels with other plays or whatever, maybe. I may be able to make connections with theory and historical information. But alas, I don't know why.


I was in one of those meetings the other day, where a faculty faction was feinting and parrying about the difficulties of their situation. I feel like such a noob, because it was only three quarters of the way through the discussion that I realized that some of the deeply injured feelings on display were being produced at least in part because the chair of the committee is part of the other faction.

It's like theater, except really bad theater with grown adults chewing the scenery for all to behold. And it's evidently a rehash of the same drama the participants have been having for a number of years.

Members of the committee kept asking how things could be made better, but instead of focusing on that, the same person kept going back to how hurt the feelings of everyone are, and how they'll never get over the hurtness.

Please, please, let me learn to put aside bad feelings about the past when something's over, and learn to look to solving problems rather than reliving them in high dudgeon at every opportunity.


Speaking of high drama: Last night, I went to see the rehearsal for the spring play I've been involved with. It's cool for someone like me to see the partially built sets and such, to see the duct tape holding the production together.

I got there a couple of minutes before the rehearsal was supposed to start and the students were going a little wild. But this crowd seems really able to switch quickly between loose chatter and focusing on rehearsal; I was impressed. Most of them seem to have the language down, and seem to be thinking about the meaning of what they're saying rather than just saying words.


I read that Stephen Hawking is going to go up and experience zero gravity in a short free fall. I hope he has the biggest blast ever. Man, there's a guy who's been put in a bad situation and still manages to work productively and effectively. (I wonder how he is to work with on committees, though!)

UPDATE: Looks like Hawking had a great ride. I don't know quite why, but I'm really glad for him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Not a Link between Abortion and Breast Cancer Post

I gather that the anti-choice folks have glommed onto some less than reliable research that claimed a link between having an abortion and later getting breast cancer. Evidently there's no link.

There is a correlation between carrying a pregnancy to term and a lowered risk of breast cancer, especially if you do the breeding thing earlier rather than later. But that seems like a lousy reason to choose to have a baby. I'm just saying.

Anyways, The Blog that Ate Manhattan posted the other day about better research that's come out about the LACK of a positive correlation between abortion and breast cancer, and asks that folks link to the better research so that when people do google searches, those links come up instead of the anti-choice propaganda.

So, here are some of the links that TBTAM points to:

National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet on Breast Cancer Risks
American Cancer Society Information on Breast Cancer Risks

TBTAM also suggests an article by CNN: Harvard Study Latest to Discount Abortion -Breast Cancer Link

Here's TBTAM's challenge:
I challenge those of you who value scientific opinion and review over politics to blog about this topic and to provide your readers a link to one of the above information sites on your blog. Let's give these sites the hits they deserve and get them their well-deserved place on a google search.
Just trying to do my part to piss off the religious right and such. Let's try to respect the scientific process and make it as rigorous and useful as possible, and as little influenced by religion as possible.

If you want to help, I'm sure TBTAM would appreciate hearing from you!

(Sorry for being slow. I was too busy whining. Bad bad Bardiac!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


So, the other day I got an evaluation form from the local medical clinic I go to.

I seek to be as medically boring as possible, really, and have largely succeeded in this through most of my life. But, since I'm going overseas to teach (and to play tourist on either side of the semester), I thought I should make sure my vaccines are up to date and such.

Anyway, this evaluation form from the clinic.

See, I had an irritating visit to the clinic, irritating in the most petty ways, and the petty part of me wants to fill out the form to reflect that. The lazy part of me wants to put it aside until it finds its way into the trash. And the not petty part of me wants to find a useful way to fill out the form.

The paranoid part of me wonders if my petty irritations, expressed on a form with the name of the travel clinic doctor and the date of my appointment, might make for a less than pleasant encounter with the needle when I go to get the second Hep B vaccination. And the third.

The cynical part of me thinks that responding is a time-consuming (for me) exercise in pretending that someone there cares. Circular file.

The teacher part of me that gets evaluation forms myself doesn't want to be mean, but also recognizes that filling out the form and saying things were GRRRRREAT! would give someone an excuse to do petty irritating stuff in the future. And not filling out the form doesn't help someone who wants to do better but doesn't realize they're not doing a good job communicating on a basic level.

Or maybe people were having a bad day? (or several people, several bad days, over several weeks, actually.) Maybe the travel clinic doctor's a petty jerk and not a sexist jerk? It's so hard to tell the two apart sometimes, when I only have myself as a sample size.

All the parts of me agree that chocolate malt balls would be more pleasureable than filling out the form. They also all agree that chocolate covered raisins would be an acceptable second choice, and also far more enjoyable than filling out the form.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Advising Joys and Frustrations

It's advising season here at NWU.

I had a fantastic meeting with a student last week; we put together a schedule so that each of her classes speaks in some way to another class. Environmental lit with human geography and so forth. I felt a strange sort of jealousy, because I think she's going to have one of those really amazing semesters. In an ideal world, part of advising is helping students look for connections between and among their classes. It's especially important to make meaningful connections between work in general education type classes and their majors/minors. The fact that this student was actually going to have a semester where those connections were explicitly emphasized makes me happy, and seemed to please her as well.

I've also had some less satisfying meetings. I have a couple advisees who are changing majors. I don't regret in any way the change, or even losing them as advisees. But I worry when someone tells me she wants to change majors but she hasn't even read through the catalog to learn what the requirements for her new major are. The frustration increases when the new major is in a field for which licensing plays a large part, such as nursing, accounting, or teaching. I do my best to set things up, and then tell the student to hie him or herself to the new department to talk to someone who really knows the show.

And I worry when a student who talked to me during our meeting last semester about changing majors has another appointment with me this semester because it means they haven't followed up on the change for some reason. If they haven't followed up because they changed their mind, fine. If they haven't followed up because they just didn't bother, then that's not so fine. I see some of each.

I don't worry at all about first or second year students who aren't leaning towards a major/minor combination so long as they're in exploration mode, trying out different things, and familiar with the catalog possibilities. I worry a lot more when a junior or senior seems undecided and unfocused. Most students, though, work through their decisions, sometimes without my help, sometimes with more specific help. I have a tendency to send students to career counseling, especially if they're talking about doing a teaching degree so that they'll have job security. Job security means little if you hate your job, I figure. So I try to get them to do some tutoring or classroom observation at least.

We have to give certain advisees a registration code, and we're supposed to advise them before we give the code. The idea is that they actually have to talk to someone about their academics before enrolling in their next semester of classes. That makes good sense to me.

But it's so very different from my own advising experience. I would have benefitted a LOT from actually talking to someone once a semester about what I was doing, but I'm a stubborn so and so, and would have fought such a system. I have students who fight this system, too, and while I understand their irritation, their sense that they should be able to make totally independent decisions, I also don't give out the code without seeing them and trying to advise them. But I can tell when I get their frustrated email about how they need to register and don't have time to come by to talk.

One of the more frustrating meetings this semester involved a student who didn't want to come see me last semester, but who came. We talked, and I wrote down the classes he planned to take. And this semester, he's not taking any of the classes I wrote down. Sometimes students can't get into classes, but sometimes, I think they change their minds.

I remind myself, it's their education. I can talk to them, listen, advise, and try to help them go in the directions they seem to want to go, but when push comes to shove, they have to register for classes, go to classes, do the hard work involved. And they'll get the degree. Or not.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

So, Why DO I Blog?

Midwife with a Knife tagged me with a meme asking for five reasons why I blog. I've read some other folks' responses to the meme, and they're all more interesting than mine, so feel free to skip.

But, if you're HeoCwaeth, Chaser, Ancrene Wiseass, Styley Geek, or New Kid, I'd love to read your response! (A lot of folks have already been tagged, but if you haven't and I missed you, please consider yourself tagged and let me know so I can come read!)

So, my reasons:

1) I have an ego the size of a large city or a small state. I'd be willing to pontificate at length in person, but no one wants to listen.

2) I like to read what other people write, and once I started reading blogs, I thought I might be able to contribute something. I thought I'd have something useful to say. I'm less and less convinced of that. Nonetheless, I love what I do, and I blog in part because I want to talk about what I do, what I read, what I care about. And sometimes I want to complain about things, because even the best academic department, colleague, administrator, or student can make me crazy sometimes.

3) I think we academics do a lousy job explaining what we do and why it's important to everyone else, including our students. I guess I hope blogging will help communicate what happens with education and why college and university education is so important and actually worth paying for with taxes. I also enjoy reading about what other people do, and what their work means to them. It's like a fascinating conversation that I can have at my leisure with multiple people. Cool.

4) A few years ago, I was part of a vibrant on-line community, including forums. I enjoyed the interactions with people across the world, enjoyed the connections, and enjoyed exploring the ways on-line personae work. When I pretty much left that community, I missed the on-line interactions. When I ran across blogs, I found a new sort of on-line community, which I enjoy.

5) I live far from where I grew up, and I'm sometimes uncomfortable here. Being part of the blogging community is a way of having contact with people who aren't from here, or who, if they're from here, are engaged with the on-line world in more open or different ways. Sometimes I like to blog about things that are new and special to me here, birds, gardening, riding or kayaking. And sometimes I just want to scream about how things here frustrate me.

There you are.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


The press at its best is one of the greatest institutions in the US, no question. A good reporter following a story to tell us what we need to know should be cherished, especially when we need to know about political machinations.

But. And this is big. We don't always need to know everything a reporter can find out. At some point, reporting shifts from a useful activity to something harmful.

The problem is that all news media runs on money, on selling ads, and they'll sell anything they can, pretty much, so long as people will watch, and the advertisers have hope of profit and so are willing to buy time or space.

I don't know how to judge the moment when the press turns from responsible reporting to vultures circling for profit. And, were I a good capitalist, I would enthusiastically support circling for profit. (But I'm not. Write me down as "not a good capitalist" when it comes time to bring charges against me.) Once it happens, though, once the line is crossed, I recognize it, and so does everyone else.

The public doesn't need to see some grieving family member have a camera and a microphone stuck in his/her face along with a "how do you feel?" I'll tell you what, we can all answer, "terrible." Seriously, that's not reporting, that's savagery.

Some time ago, I lived in a big city. And disaster struck. Okay, actually, I've been in a couple big cities for a couple of disasters.

Weirdness is watching a big building in the next block burn, and looking up to see news helicopters circling around, and then going inside to see footage from the same helicopters, and recognizing your apartment building.

Anger is seeing some intrepid reporter, say Dan Rather, dressed in safari clothes to report on an urban event days after it's happened, getting in the way of people trying to repair things and working for the community. (For some reason, the safari clothes seemed to add insult to injury.)


Dear Reporters,

Go follow up on the political issues making recovery difficult in New Orleans. Go follow up on the decision making processes in DC.

Get the [expletive deleted] out of people's faces in Virginia. Get out of the way of investigators, get off campus, don't hassle families. You're not doing good or informing the public of news we need at this point, but rather you're causing more pain. Stop. Think.


Dear Public,

Quit watching lousy "news" on television. When the lurid photos come across, turn off the television. Let advertisers know that you're not interested in seeing microphones jammed into people's faces when they're facing difficulties and need help, not hindrance. Make this sort of reporting unprofitable, and they'll stop, because unlike me, they ARE good capitalists!


Last week, news reports talked about Julia Campbell, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Phillippines who was missing; and then her body was found, evidently revealing that she'd been murdered. Campbell's death didn't make the headlines in the week that was.

I'm sad for Campbell's family. In the release, she sounds like a good PCV, someone who was working hard to make a positive difference.

There are no Peace Corps cheers, no bands, no shared color symbolism. Peace Corps Volunteers' deaths are remembered by family, by other volunteers, and by the local people with whom the volunteer worked. But the memories tend to be separated; PCVs don't tend to gather in large crowds to hold candlelight vigils because they're usually separated by travel distances from other volunteers, working with local people rather than other volunteers. PCVs don't tend to know the family of other PCVs, and the family members don't know the community (though some visit, and so know a little).


Last night, I went for a bit to the campus "Relay for Life" event (to raise money for cancer research) because there was a memorial part for my colleague's partner. At one point, student readers read names, in memory of, or in honor of, people who've died of cancer or who are being treated for cancer.

I couldn't help but remember one of the PCVs I knew in country, a guy who was pretty much admired for his work. He'd had cancer as a child, and then, in his 20s, he suddenly had bone cancer and died within a very short time. At least, that's how it seemed to me; we heard rumor that he'd been med-evaced to the US and then a week or two later, the office sent out telegrams or something to inform us PCVs that he'd died there of bone cancer.

Fade to black.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Yard Birds

Over the past several days, I've seen some new yard birds.

My first ever pretty much for sure for sure Tree Swallow. (It courteously and kindly perched on the birdhouse that wrens used last summer, and posed so I could be pretty sure with binoculars and the book, and sang to tell the world how absolutely wonderful s/he is. I was convinced, anyways!)

Brown-headed Cowbirds, following a Robin around. Sneaky! And yet another one of those amazing evolutionary adaptations!

Two Downy Woodpeckers feeding on suet, not quite together. I love watching the way these guys keep watch on the world around while they get some suet in, so very alert and ready.

A Red Winged Blackbird (male) came by to feed a little on the deck (where I spread out some sunflower chips), not at all unusual in these parts, but I'd never actually seen one in the yard.

Not in the yard, but out on the bike trail, I saw a Pileated Woodpecker fly by, calling. That's one remarkably spectacular bird, with the white against the black as it flew, big, too. (Oh, a rhyme!)

The Juncos seem mostly to have moved on further north, but lots of Goldfinches, and a pair of House Finches seem to be hanging around.

Spring makes me happy!


Every year, we have a campus celebration of English studies, mostly student organized and run, with lots of presentations, talks, readings. And every year, the students running the thing come up with a theme, often centered on word-play, and always, since they're English majors and stuff, verging on or alluding to sexuality.

This year is no different. Very witty.

Today, for the first time, I saw the t-shirts they've made up, and just started laughing.

Books in different named positions. I'm just cracking up, totally. I love how creative and playful our students are, how willing to step up and laugh while they're also working hard and putting things together.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Week that Is

As I was going to class, my first after I learned about the tragedy at Virginia Tech, prepped to teach Hughes' "Theme for English B" and Thomas's "Do not go Gentle into That Good Night," I got that tight feeling, the inception of doubts and worries. I wished I'd had time to talk to some of my colleagues who'd had classes since the tragedy.

I wondered if I should address the issue, give students a chance to talk? Does opening up the issue give students a way to reduce anxieties, or does it contribute to their stress?

I'm in no way a trained counselor. Do they train high school teachers to deal with this sort of thing? I don't know about other college instructors, but I've never had any sort of training about dealing with any sort of disaster, except through experience.

While I was in a training program for teaching college writing, there was a disaster in the area. The master instructor for the class had the students write about it, using their own experiences and what they were seeing in papers. At first, students were eager to talk, but by the time papers were due, they wanted to move on as much as they could.

Like Dr. Virago, I opened each of my classes with an offer to talk about the Virginia Tech tragedy if folks wanted to, and I shared a little about my experience after that tragedy. Each of my classes seemed to want to talk a little, but not much.

The most common concern was about what kinds of plans our campus has for dealing with an act of violence like the one in Virginia. I'm sure my campus has all sorts of plans, but I have no idea what they are. We wouldn't be able to get out windows, for sure, though.

We talked about academic freedom; I mentioned that I teach Shakespeare's plays, some of which are disturbingly violent, and yet I've never worried about Shakespeare as a person who would have committed acts of violence, per se.

And I told them that they should take care of themselves; if they're feeling stressed, they should talk to friends, RAs, the campus counselors, and so forth. And they should be caring for their friends who might also be stressed. Dr. Virago's post about the issue is well worth reading on this.

I'm conflicted about Thomas's "Do not go Gentle into That Good Night" in general, but yesterday, specifically, it was particularly difficult. I tend to want people to go gently if possible. We focused on the stanza

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

for a while, talking about the imagery, the tone of "frail deeds," "danced," "crying," and the "last wave by" until we'd gotten a good sense of the difficulty of doing well enough, even for good men. And we talked about masculinities in the poem. All in all, it was a better discussion than I'd feared heading in.


I'm upset about the Supreme Court decision to uphold the ban on a specific late term abortion procedure. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is my hero of the moment. You can read her dissenting opinion starting at about page 49 in the decision document above. Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer joined Ginsberg in dissent, and each has my profound thanks and respect.

Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts, on the other hand, have earned yet again my deepest scorn and contempt.

The Blog that Ate Manhattan (TBTAM) and The Well-Timed Period have blogged about the issue from the medical perspective.

I think Planned Parenthood needs my money right now more than the bike company or bike shop.


I seem to have acquired ants in my kitchen. I feel sort of bad for them, but I have to admit, I value the relative peace of an ant free kitchen more than I value ant lives. I am, indeed, a humano-centric being, one who is willing to kill other creatures rather than be even inconvenienced (much less actually hungry).

I got some liquid bait and put it out last night, and I find myself macabrely fascinated by watching them find the bait and such. For a while, I thought one had gotten stuck in the bait, but it wandered off. I'm guessing they don't go directly from nest to food quickly or easily until they've really got a path going? And I'm not sure quite where they've been coming in or nesting.

If there's a god and she's an ant, I am going to be tortured in the worst ways. (Hey, just because I'm humano-centric doesn't mean I think a god would actually have to be humanlike in any way, right?)

Monday, April 16, 2007


My thoughts are with those at Virginia Tech. Chaser is safe, for which news I'm grateful.

After hearing the news this afternoon (because I'd been teaching, of course), I stared out my window for a while. This is my first spring in this office, and it faces out to some trees (my old office faced a brick wall). In the trees today, I noticed some Cedar Waxwings for the first time. And once I'd noticed one, I could see a lot of them. They were perching a few feet in from the edges of branches, and then taking off, flying rapidly up at an angle, and then dropping again, and flying even faster to another branch. They looked sort of like swallows. I'd thought that Cedar Waxwings were primarily fruit and seed eaters, but I looked it up and they also eat insects in just the way I was seeing out my window.

I've never seen so many Cedar Waxwings at a time, though I know they hang out in the neighborhood of the school in numbers. I just hadn't seen them or watched. Or hadn't noticed to think about it.

There they were, trying to eat. Killing off insects, I suppose. I wonder if there's substantial food now, or if they're basically always hungry. They seemed to be feeding for a good while without leaving the area, so I'm guessing they haven't got hatchlings yet.

I wondered, watching them, if they gathered in like numbers before people changed the environment around here so much. I wondered much the same the other day, watching American Robins gathered on my neighbor's lawn at intervals of only a few feet. Where would they have fed in such numbers before humans took down the great northern pinery and put in lawns? Did they?

We humans muck things up like no other species, don't we? We make a mess of the earth for other species, and we treat our own as badly as we can.

If we humans all died off tomorrow, in some way that didn't take out every other species, how long would it take the earth to recover?

Farmland, well, 20 years, perhaps more?

Suburban areas, a couple hundred years or so?

Cities would take even longer, all that concrete in such large blocks.

But eventually, in geologic time spans, the fertility would blot out much of the damage we've done to the earth.

It's much easier as a human to have a really deleterious on the earth and our community than it is to have a really positive effect. Much more difficult to do things that make a positive difference, and downright difficult to know what makes a positive difference, even. Do our activities contribute to problematic overproduction of some species at the expense of others, even when we try to do well?

And when we try not to do well? Heartbreak and worse.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Question of Numbers

I went to a play the other night with a couple of friends. There, I saw a couple of students I know, including one who's a theater type, in the audience.

The play was so-so. Another play by a famous living white guy, supposed to be terribly existentially meaningful. But the play felt so slow that I kept imagining if Shakespeare had written it. First, there'd have been a fair bit of murder or mayhem. And, I realized, there'd be more than the very small cast.

How irritating was the play, you ask? The people behind and next to me needed to consult their programs and explain to each other what the heck was happening, not because things were confusing, but because so little was happening that they couldn't quite believe that nothing was happening. (Now I'm just being mean.)

The theater was lit and small enough, and semi-in-the-round, so that I could see the audience, and I couldn't help looking over at the theater student I know.

The play has one female role, and a couple of male roles. That's it.

For the modern playwright who probably thinks about getting his play produced professionally in expensive venues, a small cast must seem like a very good idea, fewer people to pay and all that.

But even so, I want to kick the playwright where it counts and ask, why ONE female role? I don't know the playwright's work well enough to make broad assertions, but my vague sense is that he usually writes plays with one or two female roles and several more male roles, or no women's roles at all.

And I can understand that imbalance when I think about how Shakespeare's theater companies were organized, but nowadays, we have, you know, women and they act and all professionally. So why the continued imbalance?

Thinking in terms of the modern collegiate theater department, I can't imagine why anyone would choose to produce this play. The theater department has more female than male majors. The theater department has an abundance of students who want to be involved and audition for productions.

Why the heck would one choose to produce a play with so few parts, and only one female part?

I can hear a certain backlash from the folks who think that kids who try out for little league shouldn't get on a team if they're not "good enough." Disappointment does build character. But what's the point here?

If little league is intended to develop future professional ball players, then I don't want my taxes paying for the local fields, because it's a waste of money. (Professional sports could disappear tomorrow and the world would not be adversely affected; heck, if half the couch quarterbacks got out and threw the ball around themselves, at least they'd be making less of a mess.) If, on the other hand, it's intended to get kids out in the sunshine playing, learning to work cooperatively, having fun, etc, then I'm happy for my taxes to contribute.

At the collegiate level, what's the point of theater? Is it to develop actors who will become professionals? Maybe at Julliard it is, but out here in the Northwoods, not so much, I hope.

I think we do theater productions so that our students can learn teamwork, learn drama and theater, learn skills at presentation and performance, learn management and balancing skills, learn about culture and the arts, and yes, have fun. Some students learn a lot by going to plays. I'm one of those learners. Some will have a life enriched by years of community theater.

The opportunity to be in plays is special, and we should be extending that opportunity more rather than less widely, encouraging more students from across the campus community to be involved.

I'm sure the theater folks choose the plays they do carefully and thoughtfully. Their choices just don't often make much sense to me (well, except when they choose Shakespeare, as one did this year). I don't think it's that I don't like modern plays, either; I enjoy modern plays a fair bit, and teach them when I teach our intro to drama class. I can think of a dozen modern plays that would really be great to see here, that would challenge and entertain the student actors and the audience members.

There's an easy solution to the gender imbalance in this play, of course. They could have just gone with gender blind casting.

A decade or so ago now, I saw a fabulous performance of Richard the Third by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. A female actor played Richard, and she was stunningly good in the part. It wasn't about her gender, it was about her acting.

I've never seen our theater department use gender blind casting for any but the spear-carrier type roles, and then the extra women always do the parts. (My colleague in the department DID use a female actor to play a male role in the high school summer production last year, though; so it's not impossible.)

I would be thrilled beyond belief to see them try gender blind casting where it counts.

But, I've heard it said that the two most conservative institutions are the academy and the theater. I have medieval robes in my office, so I know the one is true. The other seems pretty true from where I sit.

Yay StyleyGeek!!

I got my promised post card today from StyleyGeek. Is it wrong that I got all excited even though it has a picture of a frog and not a parrot?

StyleyGeek, thank you!!!!

StyleyGeek also cruelly mocked the sorts of postcards available here in the NorthWoods. Heck, I mock the postcards available here in the NorthWoods, about one third of which feature a sports team or logo, one third of which feature a mythical character. The remaining one third feature an agricultural thing or related product.

To be fair, more than one state claims the mythical character, and more than one state features the same agricultural thing or related product, though that state enjoys making fun of ours. No one wants to share our sports team, I guess.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut has died, I read.

Like many who write in the blogosphere, I went through a period when I read a lot of Vonnegut. About the same time I was reading Tom Robbins and such, late college and through my Peace Corps years. (We passed a lot of books around.)

I remember especially reading Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of short stories, and especially the short story "Welcome to the Monkey House." Basically, the story takes place in a period when overpopulation is widely recognized as deeply problematic, and the problem is approached from two angles: first, people are encouraged to commit suicide in special places, where their suicides are managed by a sort of super woman type (highly sexualized clothing, etc, but also supposed to be virginal, if I recall; a certain version of straight male fantasy land, for sure). Second, everyone takes pills to basically prevent sexual feeling by making them physically numb. (The title has to do with a guy who saw a monkey masturbating at a zoo, and decided that this sight was inappropriate for children, so figured out how to make monkeys numb. And then the numbness drug gets used on humans to reduce human sexual behavior.)

There are, of course, rebels, and one of the lead rebels disguises himself as an old man who wants to commit suicide, and kidnaps one of the women who assists suicides. The rebels hold her until the numbness medication wears off, start her on birth control, and then rape her. The idea is that they'll teach her to enjoy sex and prevent pregnancy with the pill. And, this being literature, it works. She joins the rebels, stays on the pill, looks forward to lots of sex, and the story ends.

I remember being disturbed by the story, even in my relative innocence, and without any feminist critical apparatus for talking about texts. I was torn: overpopulation is a serious problem, and so is denial of sexuality. But the thought that one might "solve" denial of sexuality through rape, well, no.

The conservative movement to "teach abstinence" isn't at all about overpopulation; these are the same folks who encourage married white women to breed like rabbits and who try to make choice in matters of abortion and birth control illegal. There's an interest in controlling sexuality, but the conservatives (especially, but not solely males) really don't want anyone controlling or limiting their sexual practices.

The sexualization of the suicide assisting women was disturbing, but also rings true to the ways our society has continued to develop; where men have power and want to be served, they get what they want. We have restaurant chains dedicated to the idea, a sort of slow suicide by bad food.

But the rape, as I recollect it, seems to feed male fantasy about controlling female sexuality, about hurting women to "help" us, and I'm still disturbed by that.

I guess what I'd like to say on Vonnegut's passing is a thank you for being thought provoking, for making me begin to think about the ways rape and women are represented.

Thank you for caring about overpopulation enough to work out ways to address the problem and test them out in literature. Thank you for testing out lots of ideas in literature, and getting people to think about things.

Thank you for this: *

I'm hesitant to go back and read some of the books I found challenging and exciting in my late teens and early 20s because I know I'll be far more irritated at the sexism. Sexism from people who've been alive within my lifetime irks me far more than sexism from Shakespeare. I think I'd be all the more irritated because those books seemed to herald change in some ways, but not in terms of gender hierarchies.

So, goodbye Kurt Vonnegut. Listen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Some weeks are full of disappointments.

I overheard a couple male colleagues talking about their wives the other day in the hallway. I felt like I'd been transported in time to overhear a conversation between male faculty members in the 50s. Disappointing. When I was young, I had hopes that my generation would do things better. On average, I'm disappointed.

I tried to teach "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" today. Emphasis on tried. I thought I had a brilliant way to introduce the concept of writing in utramque partem (arguing both sides of an issue), but, alas, the class proved otherwise. I still find Altman's Tudor Play of Mind useful! So there! These are great poems, but I just didn't do them justice today. I get another shot on Friday.

I worry too much about some things, way too much. I expend endless energy stupidly worrying or being angry about things I can't change. I should know better, but I disappoint myself.

Snow in April. I surprised myself by being unsurprised, but I'm still disappointed. I'm so tired of being cold! I got more seed today for the local birds, and threw some on top of the snow so they'd be able to get at it easily. Several juncos were eating already when I left this morning, fluffed out and a bit wind-blown, but I got home too late for any birds to be out, alas.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Reading Gardens

I started reading a really fascinating book the other day, Kenneth L. Helphand's Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. I saw someone talk about it somewhere, and decided to get it, and then the other night it was read or grade, and reading won at least temporarily.

Basically, Helphand covers mostly 20th century conflicts, starting with WWI, and trench gardens, and comes up to current war gardens in Iraq, though I haven't gotten there yet.

In some ways, the book's fabulous. I find the pictures fascinating, and it inspires me to want to plant more shrubs and such in my yard (because seriously, bad as the soil is, it's got to be better than the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto).

In other ways, it's frustrating. I want to know a lot more about what soldiers were thinking when they made gardens behind the lines in WWI, and who they were. Were they making gardens in a sort of cyclical way, one soldier starting it, passing the care along to another when he went back to the front and such? Or were they made by a soldier who was pretty sure of staying in one place for a while, say someone whose main job was in supply or support work? But I suppose it's an incredibly narrow topic and there just aren't good resources to make researching easy. I'm guessing there are lots of WWI era letter collections, but mostly probably still in family hands or being passed to local archives/historical associations. At any rate, it would take years of reading just WWI letters to answer those basic questions, but I'd still like them answered!

Of the chapters I've read so far (the WWI and Jewish Ghettos in Nazi Europe chapters), the Ghetto chapter was painfully interesting. I'm not someone who's read tons about the Holocaust, but I find the struggle to survive, well, terrifying and more.

When I was a small child, and my Aunt En had married fairly recently, Aunt En's parents-in-law came to one of the massive family dinners (think 30+ people, grown up tables, kids tables, people all over). I didn't really know them except from the wedding, and I remember seeing numbers on Julia's arm, and I asked my Mom about the numbers. My mom explained that Aunt En's in-laws were Holocaust survivors, and the numbers were tatoos that the Nazis had put on them when they were prisoners. At the time, all I knew about Nazis came from Hogan's Heroes, so I really didn't have an idea about what it meant to be a Holocaust survivor. But as I grew up, I came to understand a bit more about what it meant. The first sight of those tatoos remains with me.

Aunt En's in-laws had two sons and no other family surviving, so they joined the big family gatherings often, and rightly felt like family to me as I was growing up. Part of my growing understanding came through understanding why our family was important to Aunt En's in-laws, why they came to our Christmas and Easter dinners, and why we included Channukah and Passover greetings and practices to include them. So when I think of the Holocaust, it's George and Julia I think of, not pictures in history books.

Reading Defiant Gardens made me think about how hard people strove to take care of themselves and their community, how much effort just living took, and how just inhuman people can be to one another. There's always that in the background.

When I think about the Jewish Ghettos, concentration or PoW camps, the Holocaust, I have complete doubts about what sort of community member I'd be. I fear that I'd be one of those peoples in the community who turns out to be greedy, or who turns traitor, or who just collapses. I've never been in anything like that sort of situation, and I hope I never am, but I wonder about myself. Reading the book brings back the wonder, the terror, and the feelings of unknowingness I had when I first saw Julia's tatoo.

I think a book that can make me think, remind me of terror and my unknowingness, well, that's a book worth reading, even if it doesn't answer all the questions I want to ask.


I taught Ben Jonson's poems on his dead daughter and son today, and I had tears in my eyes. And the students knew. And it was okay. Sometimes it's not okay, but today, it was okay.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Not bicycles for once. Student cycles.

We get a new influx of students every year; they start as first years, and if all goes well, graduate in four or five years with a good education, changed in important ways through our work.

Each semester has cycles, too. There's the introductory phase, when I'm trying to learn names, get classes going, introduce students to my expectations and class style, get a sense of them as people and students. Then there's the hard work phase, work in class, writing work, grading work. And finally, towards the end, for most students, there's a short time when they're really having fun in class, when they know what's expected and know enough of the material to do a higher level of intellectual work. Then there's the final work, papers, exams, whatever. And it's all over, and we start again with new classes.

Mostly, cycles are great. When good students graduate, I know there will be more good ones in the incoming class, and I look forward to getting to know them and doing my small part in their education. The rounding of the academic year has its pleasures, though grading is not one of them.

But cycles are also frustrating because students make the same basic mistakes endlessly, just different students. Okay, so we aren't supposed to talk about mistakes, but let me get away with it for a short moment.

At some point, most students hear certain things often enough and/or care enough that they know the basic academic writing conventions. But each semester, new students aren't there yet.

I feel like I've endlessly written

"Periods and commas go inside quotation marks." (at least in the US; if you're elsewhere, your conventions differ. But it's no more difficult to learn than which side of the street to drive on!)

"Italicize or Underline play titles."

"Use quotation marks for titles of short poems."

The fact that I'm grading stacks of 30+ papers at a time means that I'm writing the same thing over again, though not to the same student. So for the student, it's maybe new information. But for me it's hellish repetition.

And I know, there's a point at which marking conventional stuff just doesn't work, but I can't get myself past it with lit papers somehow.

I "know" my colleagues teach things like topic sentences in paragraph writing in our first year class. Okay, I hope they do. But I still feel like I have to endlessly talk about paragraph writing. I know it's a matter of practice and such, and that it's not something most people learn instantly when they hear it once, but I'm still frustrated.

In academic blogs, I think there's also a cycle. And now, with finals and such coming up for those of us on the semester system in the US, we're coming into the heights of grading whining. Ugh.

Linkalicious Goodies

Tiny Art. I just love this sort of creativity.

Road ID. Solving the problem of carrying light ID when I'm out riding. I got a shoe one and a wrist one to try out, and am using the shoe one on my riding shoes now. Very light and cool.

Birds of Spring

Birding report: In the past 24 hours,

At the suet feeder: Black Capped Chickadees, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker (female)

At the thistle feeder: Goldfinches!

Eating thistle off the deck: Juncos, lots of Juncos! House Finches (male and female)

And sitting on the post of the new bluebird house? Yep, a very fluffed out Eastern Bluebird (male, I'm pretty sure).

And around: American Robins, Crows.

I think it's spring! (But dang, it's cold!)

Edited to add: a Song Sparrow on the suet feeder, and weirdly, one of the Juncoes has decided it likes the suet, too, and managed to stay there long enough for a snack.

ps. Blogger's slow like anything lately. Are other folks having issues, too? (Loading to post, loading blogs, slow all around.)

Saturday, April 07, 2007


I'm thinking about getting a new bike. It's a tough decision because I don't NEED a new bike. My old bike works well and feels pretty darned comfortable riding.


I was out and about yesterday, and rather than grade, I went to the three basic bike shops in town and sat on all sorts of bikes. Then I went home, changed into long johns and biking tights, and went and tried out a bunch of bikes at one of the shops. All in all, it was an educational day.

I was looking mostly at Trek bikes there, though I also tried out a couple others (a LeMonde or two). I tried out the women's specific bikes and the standard bikes (the women's specific bikes, I learned, have a little shorter top bar, and slightly narrower handlebars); I tried out the Pilot (comfort model, with the handlebars a little higher) and the regular street set up. I tried them in different sizes.

It was almost scary getting on them because they felt so fast, just starting off, very fast. Happily, the shops are all right near the bike path through town, so I could take a fair test ride without too much hassle. And wow, all of them felt so smooth, I can't even describe it.

(I've only driven sporty cars a couple times, once an '83 Mustang on the freeway. Anyway, that's the closest I can compare: my bike's like driving a Valiant and these bikes are like driving a Mustang. The Valiant worked perfectly well and was a pleasure to drive, but the Mustang was a world apart in terms of fun.)

I have to think hard about this, because, again, I don't NEED a new bike. But a new bike would add to my fun.

And then which kind? I tried 54 and 56 cm bikes, and want to try a 52 cm bike (though they didn't have any on the floor that day).

There's a lot to think about. Sizes, styles, components and such.

I learned a LOT. I couldn't figure out what was weird about a couple of the bikes, so I got on my old bike and within a few seconds, I realized that the handlebars were narrower. The bike shop guy measured different ones, and indeed, they were. It's amazing how much difference a couple centimeters can make in handlebar width. I never even realized drop handlebars came in different widths.

It took me a while to get the hang of shifting with the gears on the brake pedal things, but I ruled out one kind of shift because you have to have your hands up rather than on the drops, and I tend to ride on the drops.

On one of the standard bikes, my fingers could barely reach to pull the brakes. Turns out the distance you need to reach to the brake levers is bigger on standard bikes than on women's designed bikes. Who knew? I also liked having a second set of brake levers up on the upper part of the handlebars; my old bike has those, except on older bikes they're very different.

Over the past year or so, I've had a bike shop change a couple things on my old bike. Specifically, they put on a strategically designed seat (for women) and added an adjustable higher stem for the handlebars. And when I took my bike in, it turns out the way I have it set up is pretty much the geometry that the comfort bikes have. That was interesting to see, and made me feel a little less self-conscious about the changes I had made for my whussiness.

I'm impatient with the weather. It would have been a lot more fun to try out these bikes in weather over 30F. I suspect that part of my wanting to try out bikes comes from my frustration with the coldness around here. I just want to get outside and go! But it's so danged cold!

I went to look at bikes on the way home from my travel vaccination appointment. It was sort of irritating, so I went to look at bikes as a sort of reward. Maybe I was just nuts from the vaccines? Maybe there should be a warning on them: may inspire stupid shopping?

So I'm stuck trying to decide. Bike? I'd enjoy it, for sure. I enjoy riding now, and I certainly wouldn't enjoy it less with an even cooler bike.

On the other hand, if I already average 15 mph, does going a little faster make it more dangerous? Does it add to my fitness level? Add to or reduce my birding fun? (Because no ride's complete without some birds, right?)

At my age, it's unlikely I'll get another bike. That's weird to say, but in 20 years, I doubt I'll be biking. Maybe I have 10-15 years of biking on a bike like this? (This is weird, and makes me feel old.)

Am I just being a stupid consumer? If I sent the same money to the local food bank, I could feed a family of four for a month, probably. I could pay down my mortgage and shorten it by 6 months to a year.

I take forever to make these sorts of decisions; I ponder and mull and ponder and mull.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Rental vs Purchased Textbooks

Inside the Philosophy Factory kindly asked me in a comment on my last entry about our rental text system from my point of view. And since I aim to please, here goes:

Basics: Our bookstore offers both purchase and rental texts; each instructor chooses texts for his/her classes (though I understand that in some departments, faculty all use the same text for a given class) and says whether they should be purchased or rentals.

Our students play a flat fee of about $50. each semester for the rental texbooks, no matter how many they use or not.

Ordering: In order to get something NEW ordered as a rental, we have to make a commitment to re-use the book for 2-3 terms (I think 3, but I can't remember for sure) when we teach the same class. The bookstore loves it when we re-use the same textbook for years on end; they probably love the old Riverside Shakespeare anthology.

For rental texts, the bookstore really likes when people re-use the same books from semester to semester, and when people teaching different sections use the same books. So when colleagues who used the same first year writing text wanted to change to a new, briefer edition, the bookstore strongly encouraged me to change. It worked fine for me, so I changed. SOMETIMES, if you're using an older edition, you can't get new desk copies (because the publisher has put out a new edition); but the bookstore will let you use a rental.

The bookstore sends my department a list of all rental texts that we've got on hand (that is, that we've used within the past 3-5 years); once a text is part of the rental collection, you don't have to commit to using it more than once.

Advantages: Cheaper for students. I think this is HUGE, especially for science and language studies texts.

As an instructor, I like that I can order an anthology by rental and have students only read 3-4 essays out of it, and students won't have spent $60.+ for the text. I regularly use McDonald's Bedford Companion to Shakespeare for contextual readings for my Shakespeare classes, for example. I like to have students read from it, but wouldn't expect them to really want to keep it long term.

Disadvantages: Students don't plan to keep these books, and tend not to take good care of them over the years. Students write all over the texts, but not in ways that will necessarily help the next person. Within a few years, the books are falling apart, literally, even hardcovers.

On the other hand, because they don't plan to keep the books, they don't write notes in them the way I want them to.

There's at least slight pressure not to get a new edition; now, not every new edition is an improvement over the last, but sometimes that's an issue. Also, once a book gets to a certain age, the wear and tear means there are fewer available, and they can't really be replaced (or not in a cost/effective way), so that can be its own problem. Our bookstore tends to under-order purchase books, though, so order problems happen both ways.

Gen Ed vs Majors Classes: I'm more likely to order a rental text for a general education class (lower level, introduction to lit, poetry, drama sorts of classes are what I teach) rather than a majors class (though I have used Richter's theory anthology in my theory class for a few readings in addition to purchase texts). I hope that majors want to write meaningful notes in their texts and keep their texts to reread. Yes, I live a rich and full fantasy life.

To Sum Up: I basically like that we have the option, though I use it less than I might.

I think rentals are probably really helpful for science type books since they go out of date fairly quickly (so students wouldn't be likely to keep them and read them in coming years) and are incredibly expensive.

For lit anthologies, I use rentals, generally (for poetry and drama classes, lower level, often general education students). But, what if I didn't? Would students resell the books (at a big financial loss) or keep them to read and reread? I think for most classes, students would resell anthologies.

Novels and plays and such don't really work with the rental system because most of us don't teach the same novels or plays from one term to the next. And we want students to write in their books and hope that they'll keep them.

Philosophy? As I was writing this, I started thinking about books I still have and use from undergrad classes. Not too long ago, one of my grad students was talking about his interest in existentialism, so I read up a bit before we met to talk about his work. I started with two books from my intro lit class at a community college (An old edition of Hakim's Historical Intro to Philosophy and Lavine's From Socrates to Sartre) and was able to remember enough to be at least minimally useful to my student. I was never a philosophy major, just someone who wanted to learn and found the reading challenging and enjoyable, but I'd kept the texts and they've come in useful at least once.

On the other hand, I was a science major, and have only saved one or two books from that part of my life, because I just don't imagine rereading biochem and such for fun.

ItPF, I hope this helps at least somewhat. If you have questions about specifics, feel free to ask, or drop me an email and I'll try to respond.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Little Spark

Sometimes students just make me happy. The other day, one of my poetry students dropped by to chat, and in passing said that she was reading poems from our anthology that weren't on the syllabus, just because she was enjoying poetry so much. She was, she said, thinking about not turning in the rental copy she had, and paying for it so that she could continue to read poetry out of it.

I happened to have an extra copy, so now she has her own, new and clean copy, and can turn back the rental one.

Some days, I really need that little spark of joy from a student. And I got it.

Monday, April 02, 2007


At the panel presentation recently, we were discussing one of the forms for getting on-campus grants, and giving the person in charge some feedback. One of the areas that has to be filled out is the usual research method/methodology.

We humanists have difficulty talking about methodology in the ways that science folks do. They say, well, I'm going to do X to one group, and not to another, and measure the differences in reaction in this and that way. And there's method, and measurement, and you can use statistics and all.

But we humanists, our typical response runs more along the line of, well, I've got this questions, so I'm going to read some books and think, and then I'm going to read some more books and think some more, and then maybe I'll look at some pictures and think some more, and then I'll try to explain what I've been thinking about in writing. There's no measurement, and the statistics suck.

So we asked the person in charge to use more inclusive language, something along the lines of research methods and/or theoretical approach.

The responses on my last post (thank you, folks, very helpful) made me think about teaching research stuff to grad students next term, and how difficult that's going to be, yet again. And you folks are totally right, I think, that most folks could do a research course, but don't want to put in the necessary time. Unfortunately, I put in the time already, so now it's slightly less onerous.

But, yet again, since I'm supposed to teach it, I'm thinking of changing up the class somewhat.

In the past, I've given the students a project that requires some set work that tends to prompt lots of questions because I think having real questions to answer makes research interesting. I tend to think that the hardest parts of research are coming up with good questions and then thinking of possible answers. Figuring out how to test out the answers is easier, and involves finding and reading what other people have had to say, understanding the cultural contexts, thinking about theoretical issues, and so forth.

The thing is, in the past, I've set up this project (which works well, shockingly well), but not given much guidance. And I'm thinking now of spending more time working specifically guiding the process, doing pre-writing sorts of exercises to brainstorm ideas and possible answers, and then trying to be more transparent about the ways of testing out the answers.

But still, the whole methodology thing brings me to a halt. I don't know how to tease out my methodology or describe it, and that makes teaching it all the more difficult. How do the humanist types out there describe their research methods?

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I had a conversation the other day with a senior colleague about a grad program class. It seems no one wants to teach our introductory class in Research Strategies and Such. I've taught the RSS class before, and thought I did it reasonably well. The students who took the class with me, in exit interviews, seem to have thought the class was very helpful in their work here.

It's distressing that no one wants to teach this class because our students seriously need help learning to do research. But, my colleague told me, s/he doesn't feel qualified to teach the class, and most other faculty members don't feel qualified, either.

My brain is still reeling. Almost everyone who teaches for the program has a phud; a few have terminal MFAs. In English, a phud is considered a research degree; in order to get one, you basically have to convince several phuds that you have fulfilled a bunch of requirements, one of which is making a new contribution to your field. That contribution generally comes through research.

And yet, a phud in English sat in my office and said s/he isn't qualified to teach research in our field.

Every graduate seminar should involve some degree of teaching of research in the field. Every single seminar.

If people with phuds in English don't feel qualified to teach students how to do research in the field, what the dickens DO they feel qualified to teach?

Why do we have a graduate program? Heck, why do we have an undergraduate program, even?

We have a grad program for several reasons: the grad program gets some funding. We serve local people who want to get MAs, and giving people further education in our field serves our community broadly. It's a long drive to the next opportunity for MA study, and many people are geographically limited.

Those are reasonably good reasons to have a program. Of course, having an MA program also is a bit of a tiny ego booster for faculty folks, and means we get to teach the occasional graduate seminar in our field. Most people are eager to teach those.

But, seriously, if faculty members don't feel qualified to teach basic research, we aren't qualified to have a graduate program.

My brain is reeling. A senior person in my field sat in my office and told me s/he was unqualified to teach research in our field and it didn't seem to occur to him/her that what s/he said was even slightly problematic.