Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year in Review

Last year at this time, I posted about what had happened in the previous year. Can it really be two years now since I visited the Everglades? On December 31st, I talk about going for a bike ride. I'm not biking outside nowadays because we've had snow, loads and loads of snow, and we're due for more. And it's colder this winter right now than last.

On the other hand, I got a new bike this year, and it's great fun, and I've been biking a lot more than last year. Except not so much lately. I'm just not as happy at indoor biking.

And getting ready to teach abroad is very much at the center of my mind these days; I leave in a few short weeks. [Stop for a momentary panic attack.]

I had three goals for the year that I didn't put in writing, and I'm happy to say I've done pretty well with two of them. The first is about grading in a more timely manner. I really succeeded at that pretty darned well this past semester especially. I'm not perfect, but I did a whole lot better.

I'm mostly happy with my teaching this year. I'm not so happy with some of the university politics, and less happy with regional and national politics. I need to focus on what I can change, rather than on what makes me unhappy. That's the big goal for the year. New Kid has a post today on being mindful as her goal, and that seems like a great goal to me: think about what you do, and act with purpose.

The one I didn't do well with is still a goal, and something I need to focus more on.

On January First of this year, I posted about trying to get my retirement planning more organized and thought out. Now, indeed, my friend has retired. And I did go talk to the campus retirement planning person, and it was helpful. Before going abroad, I've rebalanced some stuff, mostly to give me more cash day-to-day while I'm overseas. And I've cancelled some of the monthly charge stuff (and still need to cancel the TV cable).

My travel plans are in place, tickets purchased.

All in all, then, a year in which I had good health, did decent work, enjoyed riding my bike, tried to be a good friend (and sometimes succeeded) and a good relative (and sometimes succeeded). Good bye, 2007, and welcome 2008 and a really big adventure!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A List of Lists

I'm so overwhelmed that I need to make a list, and the first thing on the list is to make several lists.

I'm waiting on a couple things:
My visa. Yep, I sent my application off, and the consulate said they'd have plenty of time, but until it's in my hand, I'm waiting.

A bird book for Asia. I'm okay with the one I ordered, but if anyone has reasonably priced suggestions, I'd appreciate hearing.

A battery for my laptop. I'm one of those naughty laptop users who tends to leave the laptop plugged in, and that messes up the battery, especially after 5+ years. So I ordered a new one, hoping that I'll be able to work without plugging in for at least a couple hours at a time.

I need to take care of some things:
I need to get a pair of decent walking/hiking boots, and break them in. I should go try some on, now, very now. I should also get a pair of walking shoes anyway, with good support and stuff. And break them in.

I want to get a camera. I'd like to wait for the credit card to close, but it's cutting it close for my departure date, and I want to learn how to use the camera, first. I've pretty much decided on a digital Canon Rebel. I loved taking pictures when I was in the Peace Corps, but my camera died from mold or fungus and the repair place declared it unreparable, and I haven't chosen to replace it (for like 20 years, because rent and stuff seemed more important). [Added: I got a camera! And I bought myself a class session to learn to use it, too!]

Taxes. They've got to be done! I'm hoping to get everything I need so that I can do them and get them taken care of before I leave. So I need to run over and get a tax program. (I've used TaxCut in the past, and it seems to work well for me.) Otherwise, I gather that I need to apply for a delayed filing. [Added: I got the program, so that's a start.]

Luggage! I need some actual luggage that will be acceptable on an airline and all.

Prep the class I'll be teaching! Yes. I need to work up everything, the assignments, the readings, everything, so they can be printed out so students can get the course packet. I'm not usually a course packet sort of person, but I need to be this time.

Finish up some grad paper notes. And grade/respond to a portfolio from a class several years ago for which a student took an incomplete.

Clean the offices (home and school). I really made progress with things this year. Serious progress, but I need to have a second go and really take care of it. I put all my financial stuff in organized envelops and stuff, but it's still a mess with research stuff. I need a better way of organizing photocopies and stuffs.

I've decided to get rid of some of my books, mostly novels. I figure most of them I don't want to read again, and won't ever need/want to teach (because seriously, 19th century American novels aren't what I usually need to teach). And if I suddenly decide I really want to teach Billy Budd, I'd need to get a new edition. Happily, there's a free books shelf on my floor at work, and I'm certain that some students would be happy to find some paperback novels there. And books are made for reading and sharing!

I also need to get back to studying language #4, and to learning the writing system.

And books, because it's all about reading!
I'm about halfway through Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the His Dark Materials series (which begins with The Golden Compass). I'm enjoying the series in that quick read over vacation way. Growing up, I had a habit of reading tons, but the best reading was over vacation, when I could read late without getting in trouble, or read early, or whenever. It's a real pleasure.

One of the dark secrets about being a lit prof is that you read tons, but not much of it is the sort of reading that brings most of us to loving literature. I read tons of student papers (some of which are great, but the shear amount of reading is overwhelming), texts I teach (which I love, generally), and then there's criticism, historical stuff (including some deadly dull sermons and stuff), and endless committee work. So doing some vacation reading without thinking about how to teach the texts is a pleasure! /End Digression

The Constructivist suggested a couple other books for me to read, and I went and got one at the local library. The suggestions look great, and I'd appreciate more!

The local library catalog system is really counterintuitive. I'm pretty decent at figuring out library catalog systems. At least, I've had reasonable success at any number of libraries. But when I did a search on this system, I had problems. First, it gave me different results with the author and title searches. I wasn't successful with one, but was with the other (and yes, I checked my spelling). Weird! And then the system searched the entire area libraries, and listed other libraries first. Wouldn't it make more sense to list the library where the person actually is first? And then when I looked for a catalog number with the book list where I was, it merely told me that the book was in non-fiction. So I looked around and there's no map of the library to say where collections are. Then I asked a librarian, and she said I need a number. But to get a number, I have to click on the book in the list. Doh, I didn't realize that I could click on it because it didn't show up in the usual way. But I was able to find it.

I think the local library thinks I'm illiterate because I usually just walk around the books on CD area and pick out whatever looks interesting at the moment. This is the first book I've checked out from there. End Digression

I actually feel better not that I've done a sort of master list. Okay, deep breath. If I get a couple of things worked on each day, I'll finish just fine. Right?

I don't even know where to start.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Winter Awareness

I just finished digging out the driveway and path to the door, complete with the hedgerow left by the city plow, because despite the Weather dot Com's radar showing clear skies above the Northwoods, it's been steadily snowing since last night. The snow's light and fluffy, and so easier to dig through than heavy stuff. I dug the drive out last night, a couple inches, and another inch or so this morning. I'd rather dig often than wait until there's six or so inches of heavy packed stuff.

I grew up in a part of the country where snow was a real rarity, and even a real frost was a couple-times-a-year thing. Moving to snow country, both here and in the LincolnLand State where I once lived, makes me think differently about the great outdoors.

Where I grew up, you could have ended up outside overnight most of the year without much serious damage. Sure, you would have felt chilly, but either moving around or getting minimal shelter would have solved that. Survival before westerners moved in and dug wells and such was more dependent on getting enough fresh water than on keeping warm. And when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, living in a rain forest area, I was always warm enough. Even drenched from the rain, I'd be reasonably warm (and drenched from the rain was a near daily occurance).

My folks tried to teach me to think ahead to be prepared for problems, especially when out driving alone. My car has flares, a flashlight, and so forth. I used to carry a gallon of water or more when I travelled. (Here, though, it would be frozen.) Now, I also carry a shovel, an extra jacket, gloves, and a warm sleeping bag, just in case, because around here keeping warm is vital.

Around here being careless in the cold will get you killed. There are times when it's so cold around here that they warn on the news that exposed skin will get frostbite within a minute or two. Last winter, the news had a spot on about some elderly person who'd gone missing. She was found the next morning not far from her house, having wandered in the middle of the night into the deadly cold.

If I were digging out some evening, slipped and whacked my head, it wouldn't take long before I'd die. And yet, I need to dig out, and so I do, trying to take reasonable precautions (decent boots, long johns, etc) without going nuts. At least if I were knocked unconscious, it would be an easy death, right? (Yeah, I'm that kind of an optimist.)

I want some sunshine!

I miss my old haunts where keeping warm wasn't a worry, really. I hate being cold.

But I sort of like being aware of my environment in a different way.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

So shaken as we are

My first memory is of John Kennedy, Jr. standing during the funeral procession for his father. My Mom, trying to help me understand why everyone was so upset, told me that his father had been killed.

From afar, my life has been punctuated by assassinations. I'm lucky to have been far from the violence, far from all sorts of violence.

I don't have illusions that Bhutto was going to somehow solve the myriad problems in Pakistan. But when I read the news this morning, I felt gut punched.

She was about my age, close enough, anyway. And she'd had more impact on the world, for better or worse, than I ever will. And now she's dead, leaving behind her family.

She'd survived another assassination attempt when she first returned to Pakistan, and yet she went on, facing certain knowledge that there would be other attempts.

I wonder if I'd have the courage to go on in the face of even slight danger?

Shakespeare opens 1 Henry IV with Henry IV's speech calling an end to civil war. Alas for Henry, he was wrong, and the play quickly moves to civil wars with Percy and the other rebels.

And yet, it's a great speech, evocative, shocking in recalling the violence to the very land itself. I love working through the opening with students, talking about the image of the mother with her children's own blood on her lips, and the trenches marring the motherland, and the hooves bruising her very flowers. It's a hopeful speech, too, and today, I'll share it with you:

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood;
Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces: those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred and allies:
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.

We sometimes think there can be peace, but it's always marred and never lasts more than an imagined instant. There are always enemies, even within one's own country.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Best Part

I'm not much into Christmas, until... we just finished putting out the stuff from Santa. Traditionally now, I write Santa's note and get a bite of one of the cookies. It's fun to write the notes, answering the questions and stuff, being a little silly.

Tonight, one of the kids wrote a short note, wanting his gifts left hidden with clues. So hidden with clues it is. Only his stocking is at the fireplace, and in it, along with the stuffers, is a note from Santa with clues. I can't wait to see his face in the morning!

In my childhood, Santa always wrapped gifts in a special paper, and didn't label anything. Things were clustered with our stocking, which has our name on it. My best present ever came in an oatmeal container, one of those cylindrical cardboard containers, covered with the wrapping paper. Inside, was a wooden jigsaw puzzle, which I had to put together to read the note, a letter from Santa, which told me that I was getting riding lessons. My Mom made the puzzle after figuring out what present I would most want in the world (well, after my very own horse). It was amazingly creative, and perfect for a kid who loved puzzles and horses.

So, whatever your traditions this holiday season, I wish you happiness, safe travels, and a wonderful new year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Snow Day

I was planning to travel today, but there was snow and wind, and it was worse where I was headed, so I put it off til tomorrow. But I dug out the driveway, including the huge pile left by the city plow, and now my back's tight in that ucky snow-digging way.

On the news during winter, they always talk about snow shoveling heart attacks. Do people really get heart attacks shoveling, or is that just a snowcountry myth? The snowplow leavings are really heavy and slow to shovel, and it was cold. Brrr!

I turned in grades yesterday, and the consulate isn't open to call and find out about my visa, so what to do?

During the semester, sometimes friends recommend books. So I read one of those, Catherine Friend's Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn. It was a good end of the semester book with some laugh out loud bits. It's an autobiographical account of Friend and her partner, Melissa, buying a farm and starting to farm in Minnesota. But not Lake Wobegon. The two raise sheep, chickens, some grapes, and an assortment of other animals, including a couple guard llamas.

I was reminded, reading of the llamas, of one of the farms I ride by on my bike during the summer where I see llamas in pastures.

But there's something missing in the book, a sense of bigger things, perhaps? Friend touches on raising organic broilers and such, but doesn't get very deeply into questions of economics or such. It's like she's not that into the farm (which becomes pretty clear through the whole text), but finds it a good pretext for writing (which is also clear).

So, it's a good read for an evening, especially if you live in the midwest. I'd guess it's less interesting if you actually know anything about farms, but if your knowledge of farms comes from riding a bike along midwestern country roads, then this is a pretty amusing read.

Now I'm starting to read The Golden Compass. So far, the prose is a little clunky, but I'm getting into it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Grappling with the Future

I just finished reading David Mura's Turning Japanese last night, a book I blogged about early on in my reading. As Sisyphus expected, I was struck by Mura's discussion of his relationship with his wife and other women, and by his relationships with his parents. The afterward was interesting to me because I'd expected Susan (his wife) to have left him, but apparently not; but during the main part of the text, he represents their conflicts, and her calling him on his sexism and racism. In the afterward, he talks about heightening some aspects of the main text for effect, including some of their conflicts, and so on, and I found that a helpful reminder about how writers choose to represent relationships. What's written isn't transparent, ever, even if the writer's trying very hard. And mostly, writers aren't trying to be transparent about relationships and such.

And most of us take a long time (if ever) to really get a very deep grasp of other people and relationships we're involved with. Maybe that's just me? Maybe I'm the only person who takes forever to realize things.

But Mura's relationship with his parents was interesting because he's sort of unwilling to recognize that we probably all tell ourselves daily lies just to get through.

One of the things that fascinated me about his book was his sense of basically looking Japanese but not speaking the language, and not actually having all the body language of someone more culturally vested in Japanese life. That comes out well when he talks about his parents in Japan, and how his parents' language skills quickly surpassed his, as they drew upon childhood memories.

I'm getting more and more set to go out to my own adventure, and I'm excited and nervous. At times, the nerves dominate, but that will settle once I get there, I think. I hope.

Some of my colleagues across campus have been giving me advice. One of my colleagues was warning me about culture shock and how different it's going to be to not look like the dominant race. I don't think my colleague's ever been to a place where s/he doesn't speak the dominant language, but s/he has always lived where s/he was easily identifiable as not being the dominant race. And I think that must be hard in a way I won't ever quite grasp fully. In the Peace Corps, I could always hold in the back of my mind that I would go home, that my country wasn't the country I was in, and that it was okay to feel like an alien. Can you really do that with your birth country?

I don't know quite how to react to some of the warnings. I expect culture shock, indeed. But that doesn't mean I know how it will be for me now, at this time of my life. I know how it was when I was in the Peace Corps; I know how it feels to look very different, to be the one pulled off the bus to fill out forms and get checked over. But what I did there was so very different that I don't quite know what to expect of myself. For one thing, I'll be in a university atmosphere, teaching, so there will be a degree of familiarity, and a degree of estrangement where things depart from my expectations.

I don't have a lot of knowledge or fascination with Asian culture; one of the reasons I applied for this opportunity was my unfamiliarity.

But I do know that living in a different culture, a different country, and dealing with a new language prompted a tremendous level of growth for me when I was in the Peace Corps, and I know that challenging myself now will be good for me. And yet I'm also a bit hesitant now, nervous about taking each of the next few steps.

Friday, December 21, 2007


That's how I've felt getting up the past couple of mornings. All without benefit of alcohol in weeks (well, since Thanksgiving). I think this is my body telling me that being middle-aged sucks. Thanks, body.

I'm almost done with grading everything; I need to make the final push, but what I really want to do is get warm and sleep. It was almost balmy today, above freezing for a while!

I made my final reservations for traveling abroad today. The costs for my side trips are scary. Not quite buying my house scary, but scary. I have a bad feeling that I'm going to regret doing something nice for someone else as a result of all this.

I finished Christmas shopping this morning with a friend. Thank goodness for friends! And hooray for Frontiers, the bookstore that means I don't have to go to the mall!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fiat Justice

This made me laugh:

(And should anyone wonder, I am WAY to scared to get anywhere near cars, much less touch them on my bike!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Not a Valetudinarian

And that's a good thing. (And a nod to Austen lovers!)

When I was in grad school, a couple female friends and I were kvetching at table outside the department one day. (Our department was near a coffee/food area, and the tables were between the two, so we spent a good bit of time at those tables.) We were talking about menopause, or ovarian cysts, or endometriosis, or some other very specific female complaint. We'd been talking a while, when one of the young, rather dashing male junior faculty members asked to join the table. So he did, and someone continued describing some symptoms she'd had with whatever female problem.

And the male faculty member said completely innocently, "I think I have that!" And we all burst out laughing and explained that he couldn't. He was a bit of a hypochondriac, but self-aware and quite wonderful, and so he laughed along with great relief at not having whatever organs were required for the problem.

I was thinking about that faculty member as I graded this batch of writing class research papers. My students write about a question they're really interested in, after a great deal of brainstorming about questions, and then research to find the answer. In a way, I suppose, it gives me some insight into what's on their minds.

What's on my students' minds in any given semester often relates to health problems: is alcoholism genetically inherited? What causes diabetes? What happens with [internal parasite of your choosing] infestation? What is [think of a scary disease, now think of a couple more] and will I get it if my [brother, aunt, grandparent, etc.] has it? What happens when you tear your rotator cuff?

I'm pretty resistant to hypochondria, probably because I'm luckily healthy, but there's one this semester that's sort of got my skin crawling, because I'm thinking, ermm, I could totally get that... (/shudder)

I need to finish up this set and get on with the next!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Observations from Grading Jail

A couple observations:

*I have some really smart students. Seriously! A goodly number of my students have written thought-provoking, really original research papers. It's not that they're all perfection or something, but many students really do good thinking, and it's a pleasure to get to see that happening in papers they've worked on in conjunction with my class. Remember, I teach stuff that's not usual US reading, but my students have really engaged with the plays and texts, and I'm excited by their work.

*Mastering the art of procrastination is tough. Ideally, the master procrastinator would put off work to the point where s/he could finally do it under pressure, quite well, and get it done with perhaps moments to spare before the due date. I'm not so good at this, and, alas, my failing isn't in finishing too quickly. Still, one class is done!

*I'm weirdly uncomfortable about some things. I'm not good on the phone, for example, and am especially uncomfortable trying to get things done by phone. (I prefer person to person, face to face contact.)

I got my basic trip reservations done! (Note to self: procrastination is BAD!)

And, in the very recent past, I've managed to get six months of my prescription filled (because I'll be out of the country); I must admit, I was expecting every stage of this to be a struggle, from the doctor's office to the pharmacy to the insurance company. And it wasn't! It probably helps that birth control isn't a narcotic, but still, YAY, and thanks again to the pharmacist who was so helpful! (And seriously, I'm guessing the insurance realizes that birth control is WAY more cost effective than a potential high risk pregnancy in someone my age!)

Honestly, if I could get refills without the usual hassle, I'd be happy to buy OTC without any involvement from the insurance company!

*I'm not Christian, but most of my family is, so we do Christmas. I've stumbled on some presents so far, but not all the important ones. Have I mentioned that I'm really bad at malls? And apparently have few or no ideas? What board game is really fun for 10 year olds? (And fun for their aunt to play, too!)

*We have some student workers in the department office; one of them has been working for us for a while, and is getting ready to graduate soon. He's enthusiastic and just so danged cool. When I hear people complain about the "younger generation," I want to introduce them to some of the students I know and work with. I hope they do better than MY generation! (Yeah, I used to think my generation would do better. I'm not so optimistic at this point.)

And it's time to get back to grading!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Must Grade

In grading jail here, alternating between hope and despair, between papers that make me think and smile, and those that make me wonder. Even at best, grading requires good concentration and attention for extended periods of time.

It would be easier if I didn't have to write responses and all, but responses are the point, after all, so I'm doing my best. It's a struggle, always something difficult.

I've done tons better this semester than most at returning papers in a timely manner. If I can just concentrate through the end of the week. Concentrate!

I wish I could go back to those old word problems from grade school: If Bardiac got in her car, and drove south at an average of 65 miles an hour, how many tanks of gas would it take before she was warm? (Alas, I'd have to travel through the ice storm zone. /shudder)

If Bardiac drove south, how many days would it take before anyone noticed she was missing?

Must. Grade.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Time to Relax!

Yep, all done! I'm hopping in my Porsche and heading for the mall, where I'll buy many pairs of death stilletos so that I can properly stomp all those in my way. Then I'll buy a couple new big screen TVs for the viewing rooms and watch some first run movies in the privacy of my own home, while groups of buff young people, all scantily clad, shovel snow in my yard into artful patterns. Then off to Vegas, where I'll hobnob with the divine Miss M in the high rollers' rooms.

Okay, not really. That's a fantasy. What's scary, is that it's someone else's fantasy.

Alas, I'm not done. I have three massive stacks of grading staring at me right now.

Porsches are nice to look at, but my all wheel drive wagon carries stuff really well.

Anyone who knows me would be laughing at the death stilletos; if there's death involved in my shoes, it's from me tripping over the laces. I have vices, but they don't involve heels.

And while I do have a television, it's only a big screen if you're a bug being squashed against it.

And while I wouldn't mind if anyone cleared the excess snow off my drive, that anyone will be me, and I'm not buff, nor do I plan to be scantily clad while I dig. There will be no artful patterns involved, unless I trip on my laces and decide to make a snow angel while I'm down there.

And finally, while I think Bette Midler would be lots of fun, I can't imagine a worse much nightmare place than Vegas (unless it involves CIA questioning), nor anything that would be less fun than hanging out in a high roller room, especially if it involved hazarding what money I have. I've been to Vegas twice, once for a pilgrimage to the rotating bar where Dr. Gonzo got the fear, followed promptly by an early morning escape to the desert where my friend and I saw a big horn sheep!!!!!!! (The ONLY reason to go to that area is beautiful desert wildlife and such. Early morning works best.) The second time involved the co-pilot seat in a small jet, a single keno ticket, and going to a movie for the rest of the afternoon. We flew over Mt. Whitney (the highest point in CA) and the part of Death Valley that's the lowest point in CA.

My personal fantasies right now involve temperatures above freezing, hot cocoa, and well-written papers that are interesting and exciting. If I get two of three, I'll be a pretty happy person.

Here's the hope: We did proofreading exercises before students handed in their final essays. So things were relaxed, pretty much. And here's what students had to say (paraphrased from memory):

"This is the best paper I've ever written."

"My roommate just started her [writing class] paper on Monday, and I told her she was nuts! I'd finished my draft a week before she even started!"

"I'm going to start my paper for Monday now."

"This was the least stressful term paper I've written. And it's good."

"I had a nightmare about bibliographies!"

"I always work to deadlines and procrastinate, but I this time the deadline was early, so even though I procrastinated, I had time to work more."

In all my classes, I've taken the whole writing process thing really seriously, and built in question forming and research stages, and set up peer revision. When I looked at the drafts for peer revision in one of my classes, they were about half done as drafts. Still, that's half done over a week before the paper's due, and not the night before the paper's due. So I have high hopes for my students' papers this term. In my real fantasy, the students write wonderful papers.

If they do, I'll totally credit myself for being a great teacher. That's the way fantasy works.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feeling Language

Hanging out with linguists makes me suspicious of my sense of what "feels" right in usage sometimes.

Lately, I keep hearing that this or that character "has relatability." That sounds weird to me. The idea is that the reader is supposed to be able to relate to this character (not something I tend to look for, but then I'm a big fan of Titus and stuff). It also seems to carry the idea that this ability is located in the character rather than in the reader, or as part of the reading process. If so, then there's a sort of implication that the character would have this quality across time, culture, and readers, no?

What say you, folks, does a character "have relatability"?

Another one I've heard fairly often of late is "X places importance on Y," where X and Y are characters in a novel or something. Placing importance doesn't work for me somehow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My Favorite Assignment

One of the things that's supposed to be important in writing classes is getting students to write a lot. I do okay at this, I think. My students write about 60 pages of prose ("typed") over the semester. It's a lot, for them and for me.

I just graded one of my favorite assignments; it's a journal assignment that asks students to reflect on their first semester of college. It's a fun assignment to grade because they usually have lots to say, and can articulate what they're trying to say well, so I get to make encouraging remarks and they earn fine grades.

Their responses are generally wonderful. They usually love their school; that's been true at every school I've taught at, so I'm guesing it's a fairly common response. They value the friends they've made, but are sometimes aware that friendships based on a few months' acquaintance may not be the same as those built over years growing up. They may love or hate their roommate, but they seem to value the dorm living experience and see a lot of growth in themselves through living semi-independently. They generally talk about what a huge adjustment they've made from high school to college work loads and expectations, and most of them seem to find that they can meet our expectations, though they don't have as much free time as they thought they would. If they've joined a club or organization, they talk about how important it is to them, and how much they've learned.

Lest you think it's all a love fest, they also talk about struggles, sick family members, personal difficulties, problems with classes, conflicts with parents. I'm fairly certain that they minimize their troubles when they write for me. They don't complain about our writing class, unless to say that they really struggled but learned a lot. And I'm sure they tell me less about personal and family troubles than they'd tell a friend; that's quite sensible.

Still and all, I love seeing them they think about how they've changed, and how they're understanding their new, usually more adult selves and their new relationships.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter Biking

I finally cleaned up my bike this weekend, brought it inside, and put it on the trainer.

And then I fell off. Yes, it takes special skill to fall off when you're riding a trainer. I think I hadn't put the axle thing on tight enough, because the whole bike went over with me, but the trainer didn't.

I rode 15 minutes yesterday, and 30 today. I'm dripping. So I'm guessing that counts as an okay workout?

The problem is that riding indoors isn't that exciting, so it's not like I get to go ride for a couple hours out on some lovely road. I just want basic exercise as relatively pleasantly as possible.

Is there some trick to riding a trainer? Should I try to do some sort of interval thing, or is it okay to just steadily ride along at a reasonable clip (say, 80 pedals/min, not too hard resistance)? (I can tell it's about the same resistance as a flat, smooth road because I'm in about the same gear I ride flats in and end up just a little bit slower at about the same pedal rate, but then there's no inertia as there is on the road.)

A Little Hope in a Sea of Grading

I'm grading the final peer review responses from my writing class, finishing them up so I'll only have a journal, another response, and the final paper yet to grade.

Most college writing teachers do peer editing or peer review; it's a pretty accepted, standard practice. In order to try to get students to take peer work more seriously and to help them improve at it, I have them write a response (as well as give verbal feedback in class). They bring two copies of each written response to class, and give them to their peers.

The peer underlines the most helpful comments on each copy, and then on one copy writes a response to the response. This response notes what's most helpful about the peer review, and what things the peer could do to make his/her review more helpful. Often, these responses talk about giving specific suggestions, being specific about which paragraph needs development or what part is confusing, and so forth. Then they hand that copy in to me (with the response and underlining). They keep one copy to use as they revise their essay.

I give each response a basic grade (1-10, with 10 being an A+), and early in the semester, make suggestions about asking questions, being specific, and so forth. I glance at the response, and may put a check next to an important point, or a smiley face or "good job!" next to a comment about how helpful the review is. Then I hand them back to the reviewer.

That way, the reviewer gets a peer's response and my response (with a grade). When things work, by about the third essay, students begin to write more specific and helpful responses. They think about what they want in a review, and what their peers want, and do the work involved. Overall, this class has made outstanding progress in this area of writing. (I think reviewing and revising skills are especially important in the real world of jobs and such, too, so this isn't just a classroom exercise.)

And today, as I'm reading, I noticed that several responses made very specific references to things we've discussed or read in the semester. A couple students refered to language from Graff and Birkenstein, others to Christensen's paragraph organization, and a couple others to their "inner English professor." I take these references to mean that at least some students have somewhat incorporated what we've worked on in class into their reading and writing practices. You know, it's almost like they've learned something!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I Want an Ice Bear

Think of the benefits!

*Winter commuting would be fun for a change.

*Department meetings would run smoothly (or else!).

*No whining in class!


(I once did a special evening behind the scenes visit to a zoo, which involved standing in the polar bear hibernation room with the door closed for a few minutes, and I have to say, the stench was pretty daunting--though it was obviously clean, and summertime. So maybe the whole cuddling thing is out? Hmm, do Ice Bears hibernate? That would mess with my whole winter commuting plans.)

And could I also get a compass, please?

Compass says, "no, your grandma is alive and well in a city filled with snow!" Go directly to your final. Do not pass go. Do not collect an A.


As you can guess, I went to see The Golden Compass yesterday, and enjoyed it. I thought the music was mostly especially good. I'd read a review on Pharyngula the other day, so I wasn't expecting to like it, but I have the advantage of not having read the book, so I wasn't disappointed in that "can't live up to the book" way. Myers specifically talked about being disappointed by the lack of blood in the fights, especially the bit polar bear fight, but it reminded me of the fantasy way of some MMORPGs I've played, and that's sort of the point of being a fantasy. (WOW has little drops of blood fly when something's been hit, if I recall, but it doesn't collect or anything. EQ just has a sort of rebound effect when something's hit--only, I think, for the one doing the hitting or being hit?)

There's a bit of ado in Wisconsin about the movie; a Catholic bishop in La Crosse has "cautioned" priests about the movie. The idea is that it's supposed to be anti-religion or something. Okay, the Magisterium maps onto the Catholic church fairly clearly, but a lot of US culture is pretty anti-Catholic, and yet pro-religion, no? To me, the movie didn't seem so much anti-religious, as anti-kill kids for stupid reasons.

It took me a moment to recognize Derek Jacobi as the Magisterial Emissary; but for me, he's not quite scary enough somehow? Maybe it's all those Brother Cadfael mysteries where he's a Benedictine (?) monk in the middle ages who somehow has shockingly humane views on human foibles?

And why, oh why, does the movie do a weirdly stereotypical thing with the daemons? Why are servant daemons dogs? Is there some essentialism to class in the GC world? Why aren't the best folks daemons bees or snakes? Those are some danged cool critters, no? Why, if it's going to be anti-religion, can't it at least THINK about shaking up the whole Genesis anti-snake thing? I like snakes. In much the same way I like wolves; they fascinate and amaze me, but I don't want to interfere with them except to admire from afar. But they don't scare me in some deep way, more induce grateful respect, if that makes sense? Okay, being too close to a cobra OR a wolf would be scary.

I thought Dakota Blue Richards was outstanding as Lyra; she carried the movie rather well, no? And, it's nice to see a girl look like a girl in a movie for a change rather than looking like a sexpot in the making.

I'm going to read the book (when I get a chance after Mura and such), because I'm interested in the Mrs. Coulter part. Sexy woman=evil. Hmm, where have I seen that before? If that's the point, though, Nicole Kidman hit nailed it in a scary fantasy way.

What did you folks think?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hiring a Colleague: Job Talks

A while back, I did a couple posts on the job market from the other side: in general, a bit more specifically, the calendar, and a question/answer/link post.

And here's the academic job wiki page.

Editing to add: Look at this great post on job interviews over at Tenured Radical's place!

Today, I want to talk about job talks. There are several sorts of job talk, the give us a paper talk, the answer a topic question talk, and the teach this class section talk. In my experience at SLAC and regional schools, I was usually asked to answer a topic question and teach a class. I'm guessing that more research oriented schools are more likely to ask candidates to give a paper.

If you're asked to give a paper, I'm guessing your department is looking for two things, brilliance and understandability. Your potential colleagues, I'm guessing, are hoping that you'll be able to translate your brilliance into terms they can understand, even if they haven't mastered Zizek or Gower or whatever.

What's far more important to me are the topic question talks and teaching a class section talks. Let me say, every topic question talk I've ever seen is utterly bizarre. They're always something along the lines of "discuss the importance of teaching poetry in a school of engineering," or "explain how your work fits into the broad field of so and such," or "why does this field fit in a school of liberal arts." Don't take the questions personally; they're nuts, but they're nuts in important and interesting ways. Too often, there's one "right answer" for the job, and you probably know what it is: if you're materials science program is at a liberal arts school, then the right answer is basically that the liberal arts are vital to educating people in materials science. Sometimes that feels either adversarial or preaching to the choir.

But, these questions usually give the candidate the opportunity to show that s/he understands audience contexts. So my first suggestion is to do your research. If you're talking to a liberal arts place, look at what they have to say about the liberal arts and look at what the AAC and U says about the liberal arts. Make sure you have a quick and dirty definition that gets across the basics in a way that will make sense to the people you're talking to. And if you're talking to the engineering school, then figure out what they and their professional groups have to say about communication and such, and work from there. (And if you decide that you don't want their job based on your research, then that's important to know, too.)

Here's what I think people are looking for with these questions. Can you communicate with other folks on campus about what's important to you and your potential department, and can you communicate in ways that will work with their students? Can you make sense of something bizarre and do something useful with it (vital for most committee work). Do you understand what sort of place you've applied to, and are you really ready and prepared for that work?

The teach a class questions are more explicitly about your ability to communicate with and motivate students.

So here are my big suggestions:

Be VERY organized. Map and signal! These talks tend to be in the late afternoon when everyone is tired, and if you're hard to follow, they're not going to be happy.

Be concrete about examples, especially related to teaching and research! A lot of folks like to think in terms of goals/objectives for an assignment and then of ways to get there, so it can be useful to set those out a bit. Be ready to talk specifically about assignments in different classes at different levels.

For example, I do an assignment where I ask students to look up a single article on a text and write an accurate summary of the article in two pages or so. I want students to practice using the MLA or other academic index and to practice reading carefully and summarizing accurately. Secondarily, I want students to begin to get a sense of how critical arguments work, so that assignment may lead into (or be combined with) outlining the argument at some point. I do this assignment in a lower level class where I want to begin building research skills without being overwhelming, and where most assignments are close-reading oriented. Then if I can talk specifically about how I teach summary skills to prepare students for the assignment, and how students demonstrate reading and summary skills in a concrete way, I can show what the assignment's trying to do and how it works pretty well. You don't have to use assessment language (I don't! and I hate assessment language), but showing that you're aware of having goals and teaching students how to succeed might be useful.

Run short. Seriously, at 5 pm, no one is going to complain that you've timed your 45 minute talk out to 35 minutes to leave time for questions. If you're talk is incredibly good, you'll get plenty of questions. But no one will be sorry that it's a little short. (This is especially true in departments with a variety of fields, such as foreign languages. The X field profs want to know that you can teach Y field and make it sound fascinating, but they probably really aren't that thrilled with Y or it would already be their field. In most departments, you aren't just talking to people in your sub-field.)

Be flexible. If you have a powerpoint, have a back up plan for something not working. Have it on a flashdrive and a cd. Be ready to teach in a classroom with or without chalkboards. On any given day, every teacher runs into obstacles. If you can show your potential colleagues that you'll go around the obstacle and not make their lives miserable in the process, that's good. Your potential colleagues will recognize that you're under a lot of stress, and seeing someone handle a difficulty gracefully under stress is doubly impressive.

Answer questions. Make sure you've understood the question, and make sure that you answer it concretely. If you don't have a good answer, it's probably better to say so and posit a conditional answer rather than blathering on about something else for ten minutes. Yes, there are tough questions. I always hate the "should we have a Shakespeare requirement?" question because it's a landmine. But if you've done your homework and seen that the department doesn't have a Shakespeare requirement, you should be work with that. If it does, then be aware that the requirement may be a source of tension.

Questions or other suggestions?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Disappearing Students

It happens almost every semester; at some point, a student stops coming to class. Sometimes it happens after a conversation where s/he realizes that there's no way to pass the class, so s/he decides to cut losses and focus on the classes s/he can pass. Sometimes it just happens.

When it just happens, I email the student expressing my concern.

It's always the students at the low end of the class grades who disappear.

The students in the middle email to say that something happened and they're going to miss a couple days. The students at the high end email to say that something happened, and they're going to miss a couple days, but they've attached the assignment due later in the week and hope that I'll be able to accept it. (Usually works out fine.) Sometimes I get notice through an administrative office.

It bothers me, though. Maybe it's my having grown up in a household where I was supposed to leave a note or call if I were going to be late or something? Maybe it's a remnant of maternal instinct?

Dear Students, Please email if you're going to just stop coming to class!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Nerdly Joy

I am stupidly happy that ERTS is sending me my own edition of Tottel's Miscellany soon!

Edited to add: You, too, can join the Renaissance English Text Society and get all sorts of exciting texts in your future!

Here's a link to the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies site! You KNOW you want to!!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Seven Random Things

I've been tagged for the seven random things meme by Kermit (at Kermit's Log) and by Rebecca at Proto-Scholar. The rules are below, except I'm going to break some because if two people both tagged me, then I'm guessing most folks have already been tagged.

So, here goes, sharing seven random things about myself.

1. I share a birthday with a famous fictional character. Not Hamlet.

2. I'm a cyborg. No, really, I have this implant thing...

3. I jumped out of an airplane for my first midlife crisis. Actually, it was more like falling gracelessly. (You're supposed to hang from the strut until you get the signal to let go. I couldn't hold on. Heck, YOU try holding on in the wind at 80 mph!) It was FANTASTIC, though. For my second midlife crisis, I bought the biking equivalent of a Miata. I fell over learning to get in and out of the clipless pedals. I'm always looking for suggestions should I survive to my third. (I'm hoping it involves relatively soft impacts.)

4. I have an artifact set from the building of a famous structure in my office, a piece of the safety netting and a piece of cable flattened into what looks like a letter opener.

5. You know how some kids have toys they carry everywhere? I'm told that when I was a kid, I took the jeep driver from my older brother's army set and that was my carry everywhere toy. I'm told I called it "Sitting Man," but I have no memory at all of the toy.

6. I have a faded set of striped scars up the side of one leg from when I fell on a radiator as a very little toddler. I have no memory of it, just the scars. (Hmm, I seem to be posting about things I don't remember... wonder if the implant has something to do with that?)

7. "Zeugma" is one of my favorite words. Alas, I don't have much cause to use it in casual conversation, but I would if I could.

The Meme Rules:
1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

If you haven't been tagged and want to be, consider yourself tagged. And try not to be as boring as I am! (I always feel utterly boring when I do these things. Am I really all THAT boring?)

Saturday, December 01, 2007


A group of my friends and I signed up to cook at the local "soup kitchen" today. On Saturdays, they do a single brunch meal, so we started in the morning and finished up in the early afternoon.

When I got there, it wasn't snowing, but it started not long after, as we could tell when people came in shaking snow off their coats.

We didn't have many "customers" today, but most folks had at least two servings, and they said the food was really good, so I hope it fills them up. I was surprised that few children came today; I wonder if a lot of people decide to stay home when it's so snowy and cold, rather than try to bundle up their kids, walk or bus a ways across town (the kitchen is near the center of town, but it's a pretty spread out town). We served 90 some serviings, but I'm not sure if that's counting seconds (and thirds) or not. Still, that's a lot of people who are hungry enough to come out on a snowy, cold day for a meal.

Driving home was slow; I'm not confident about driving in snow, so I try to compensate by giving myself reaction time. But I was glad to get home and have myself a hot cup of tea! I'm going to layer up and go dig out a layer before long. Brrr.

Reading Mura

I'm reading David Mura's Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. It's a fascinating book so far, recounting Mura's doing a fellowship in Japan, having grown up as a third generation Japanese-American.

Last night, I read a section where Mura talked about reading Derek Walcott's poem about imagining himself in Westminster Abbey where a great many English poets are buried. Here's what Mura has to say,
In its anguish, Walcott's expression of his plight helped me clarify my own. I might love T.S. Eliot or John Donne, but I realized that were I to have met them, they would have considered me either a curiosity or a savage; in any case, an unlikely candidate for a poet of the English language. And I could not help but recognize Eliot, the Anglican, royalist defender of the poetic tradition, and the cleric John Donne as two members of the elite, the voices of power. My admiration for their work would always be tinged with detachment, even anger, and a political awareness of my place in the world. Those who think this detachment and anger mean I want to dispose of Eliot or Donne distort my position out of fear and an unconscious desire to keep the tradition white and intact. (76-77).
I think it's important to be careful not to conflate experiences of people (women and men) of color with experiences of white women, but I'm interested in the ways Mura imagines Eliot or Donne considering him as a poet because I sometimes wonder what Shakespeare and the other folks I teach would have to say at the idea of a woman teaching their works.

Of course, the whole idea that one would teach early modern drama would probably shock all of them. But imagine what Knox would make of a female professor teaching The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). (It's a diatribe against women rulers, focused especially on the Catholics Mary Stuart [Queen of Scots] and Mary Tudor [Mary I of England]. Knox was a prominent protestant theologan.) The thought amuses me now, but when I first read Knox, I found little to amuse. (Nor am I amused by those who still think that women shouldn't have political or civil rights.)

While Donne might have found Mura "a curiosity or savage," what would he have thought of a 21st century feminist teaching his poetry, talking about the homoerotics of some of his sonnets (among other things)? I don't think I feel much anger towards long dead poets for their sexism and such (I save the anger for those still being sexists and such), but I am interested in the complexity of gendering and sexuality in the early modern period, and how it feeds into the complexity of our experiences today.

I think there's an inevitable sense of detachment for those of us who study earlier periods. None of us speaks early modern or Middle English as a native. As a professor, I try to get my students to sense both profound detachment and connection to early modern texts; detachment or alienation keeps us alert to the changes our cultures have undergone in the past 400 years or so. And connection helps us realize that there are important commonalities between different cultures and periods, commonalities that are well worth understanding.

Mura, David. Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. New York: Grove Press, 1991.