Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Almost the Light

I'm almost caught up on my grading. But I get a new stack tomorrow, another Friday, and another Monday. Why do I do this to myself?

I'm almost prepped for my meeting tomorrow. That will be hour number five for meetings so far this week.

I'm almost fully prepped for my classes tomorrow. I was laughing in my office as I reread "The Miller's Tale" earlier. Tehee! I tried explaining the basics to a colleague (who had asked) after a meeting today, but she couldn't quite get past the beard bit. I don't think I told it well, alas.

I haven't even started the big report thing that's due on Monday. Okay, well, I started. I did a small chunk of the work and had two meetings about it that I read for and all. And I tried to get some information from our assessment person via the chair, but the information doesn't exist. It could be really useful information if it existed, but the purpose of assessment isn't to give us useful information, not really.

Tomorrow is the first. For those of us on 9 month contracts, this is the first payday since we came under contract in mid-August, and the first since June 1.

My nose itches. Not inside, on top. I smacked a really hard-shelled bug with it while I was riding the other day, which made it sting for several hours. But it didn't hurt deeply, and didn't swell or bleed or anything. (And can you imagine the weirdness of a middle-aged woman showing up in an emergency room place in lycra complaining of a bug crash? My nose would have to be pretty much totally smashed and uncontrollably gushing blood before I'd dare that one.)

Oddly, this week is already going so much better than last week! I can almost have hope! (At least until I hear the news on the radio as I'm waking up, and realize that I'll never be able to retire.)

Monday, September 29, 2008


I gave my first year writing students their first graded paper today.

Let's just say that it wasn't universal cheers and happiness.

It's hard for students to get back a paper that didn't earn a high grade. It's uncomfortable, maybe embarrassing, frustrating, too.

Yes, some students don't put in the time or hard work to do a really good job, but I have to assume that most try and do put in some time and effort. It may not be as much time as I'd put in to do the same assignment, but it seems like a lot of time to first year students. And their sense of working hard on something may be different than mine, but their perception is that they worked hard. And then I hand them back the paper with a grade and a note.

It's especially bad when students won't look at me afterwards. But I know as bad as I feel, it's not really about me, and my feelings aren't the issue.

I try to get students to see that the grade isn't a judgment on them, but having earned my share of criticism, I know it always feels like it is. And it hurts.

I'm guessing it hurts doubly from a professor in a small class because there's a sort of friendliness we try to establish in a small class, but then the grading makes it clear that ours is a professional relationship, and not about friendship. The friendliness can feel forced and hypocritical, rather than a natural and valuable part of a professional relationship.

In my senior year as an undergrad, I took a class from one of the professors I most admire from my undergrad days. I vividly remember the day he handed back our papers because he talked to us about his disappointment with our writing, and about how important writing was. And I was deeply shamed, sitting there listen, though he spoke gently enough. And I was even more deeply relieved when I saw that my grade was actually pretty good, and hoped that his disappointment wasn't really focused on me.

One of my students came to talk to me in office hours about the paper, though, and I feel really good about that, and how s/he is approaching revision. I hope s/he is the first of many to come talk to me like that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Abusing Adjuncts

There's talk about one of the bigger schools "nearby" (and "nearby" is relative, and means within a gas-tank's drive) that they've got a rule about adjuncts not teaching more than three consecutive years. So people who've gotten degrees there often take adjuncting work there, but after three consecutive years, they can't teach there for at least one full semester.

One one hand, local lore has it, the policy prompts adjuncts to move on and get on with their lives, either to other adjuncting elsewhere or to leaving academia (or, if they hit the jackpot, to a TT job somewhere). And so, the policy-makers assure us, the policy is for the benefit of the adjuncts.

It also means that newer graduates can get a couple years of teaching under their belts to help them get experience and have time to look for the elusive TT job. It also reduces the likelihood that adjuncts will be around long enough to get together and try to improve things.

I can see wanting to give newer grads a chance to get some experience; that seems reasonable. Though weirdly, it also means that those who've gotten the experience are less employable, which is weird.

But claiming that it benefits adjuncts to be forced out seems hugely paternalistic, doesn't it? Who's to say that the adjunct isn't geographically bound for some reason and wants to continue adjuncting (though we all know it's not an ideal for most of us). A lot of decisions other adults make seem less than ideal to me, but I respect their decisions. (I'm sure my own decisions seem equally less than ideal to many people.)

As with so many decisions about adjunct hiring, damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

In the interests of full disclosure: I adjuncted for a year after finishing my phud at the school where I'd studied, and then I got the brass ring, of sorts. And now my teaching load is lower than it might be because my school employs adjuncts at a lower cost than TT faculty; we've dealt with budget shortfalls by hiring adjuncts more and more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Short Break

"Naught may the woful spirit in myn herte
Declare o point of alle my sorwes smerte
To yow, my lady, that I love moost,
But I biquethe the syrvyce of my goost
To yow aboven every creature
Syn that my lyf may no lenger dure.
Allas, the wo! Allas, the peynes strong,
That I for yow have suffred, and so longe!
Allas, the deeth! Allas, myn Emelye!
Allas, departynge of our compaignye!
Allas, myn hertes queene! Allas, my wyf,
Myn hertes lady, endere of my lyf!
What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, withouten any compaignye.

(This is the first part of Arcite's death speech, from "The Knight's Tale" in Larry Benson's Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.)

Allone, withouten any compaignye... what a devastating line.

Sometimes, different texts work better for me or not. This semester, I'm getting more out of teaching "The Knight's Tale" than I have previously. I think I'm getting the irony of despair in there, and thinking about how the Knight is leading off this pilgrimage with a story that's setting out god-figures that are anything but benevolent, and lives that are more full of violence than meaning, and Arcite's question remains despite Theseus's attempts to declare order and meaning. What does it mean to take a pilgrimage with this story?

One of the privileges of teaching lit is that I get to come back to literature in different ways and at different times, and often enough, I get more out of the work, depending what I'm bringing to it.

And now, back to my regularly scheduled prepping.

In Over my Head

I feel like I'm inundated, buried by papers, bouncing almost uncontrollably from task to task, from task to class, from class to meeting, meeting to reading, and back, all under deadlines.

It's dissatisfying because I feel like things are getting done; they have to get done because when you walk in front of a class, whether you're as prepared as you like, you get 50 minutes or whatever, and that's it. There are no do-overs. But I feel like not everything is getting done as well as I should be getting it done. And I'm waiting to realize that I've totally forgotten something vital that must be done by 2 pm.

And if I mess up, it's not like the government is going to bail me out, right? No one is going to say, hey, Bardiac, you messed up your investments for retirement, but don't worry, we're going to buy you out with a golden parachute. And no one is going to say, hey, don't worry about doing the reading for that class, I'll come help make sense of it all. (Because it's never enough to do the readings; I need to do the readings in a way that enables me to help my students make good sense of things and make connections that are useful in all sorts of ways.)

And so, blog silence for a bit.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Frustration, Act II

One of the really good things about the training was that it was focused on structural and systemic thinking, rather than on trying to be a nice person. It's good to be a nice person, but racism is structural and systemic, and if we're going to work against it, we have to work there.

It's the basic stuff of women's studies classes, of African American history classes, of development work, of any Marxist analysis. Folks have been working through this analysis for ages; there's nothing new in it, nor does it require a college degree. I know folks who've had a high school education who could lay out the basics, though they wouldn't quote Marx while they did it.

It's certainly stuff that anyone who votes in the US should think about. And certainly, anyone who teaches in the US should educate themselves about. It's that basic and important to understanding US culture.

So when the white male administrators talked at the end about how they'd never really thought about these issues, I was frustrated. (The female administrators knew the readings the trainers brought up, knew how social structures and systems work. Both had clearly thought about these issues plenty.)

How can you think you're competent to vote in these United States if you haven't thought about these issues?

How can you think you're competent to teach (especially at the university level) if you haven't thought about these issues and done something to educate yourself about them?

And how the hell do you think you're competent to administer anything more complicated than your cat's litter box if you haven't thought about and worked to educate yourself about these issues?

Throughout their careers, they've been promoted in part because they haven't thought about these issues, and the people who have thought about them are stuck working in the basement (which is where our Women's Studies program lives). Can you imagine if they were at a workshop and admitted that they'd never thought about budgeting? At a workshop and admitted they'd never thought about running meetings effectively? But somehow, it doesn't occur to them that working with human beings is important? And that "human beings" isn't the same as "white men"?

Here's my plan. We're advertising right now for an important administrative position on campus. I want to ask every candidate who comes to campus what he or she has done to educate him/herself about matters or race, class, and gender in the US. Then I want to ask a follow up question about how this work has changed his/her approaches to his/her work.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Some of us on campus had anti-racism training recently. There were good discussions, mostly. But I left frustrated because at the end, there was a basic message that white folks on campus need to step back and leave leadership to people of color.

On one level, I really understand that. In the Peace Corps, one of the aspects of development I learned about is that you have to start with peoples' perceived needs, and on some level, you have to work with those. If people perceive a need for clean water, you address that issue.

But I also see two really important problems with that approach here.

First, the people who control money on campus are all white, and pretty much all male. Those people need to hear what the people of color on campus are saying, but they need to take leadership on allocating resources, until and unless we hire (and keep) some people of color with power in the administrative building. (I don't think the overall whiteness of the administration is going to change in the next ten years, but I think we can--and have to--do a whole lot of anti-racist work on the way to changing that status.)

Second, if our campus is going to do anti-racist work, then it needs to happen in classrooms, and in my classroom, I have most of the power. It's unethical to expect any student(s) to design curricula, put together a syllabus, and so forth. And it's unrealistic to think that my mostly white students are going to come in with that as a priority now (maybe in ten years if we really do make anti-racism work so that people come here because we're known as an anti-racist campus).

Here's what I'm asking: focusing on the classroom, how do we make the classroom an anti-racist space, starting from the assumption that I'm a moderately aware white who's made and making efforts to be an ally. (That is, don't tell me I shouldn't point to an African American student to explain all of African American culture to the class. My high school pretty much taught me that.)

Are there ways to make a syllabus anti-racist in different classes? In a writing class? A poetry class? A Shakespeare class? (Beyond teaching, say, poets of color, or using colonial/post-colonial theory.) Is there structural stuff in writing the syllabus? Making assignments?

I was a little frustrated at the training session that we started at what I thought was a pretty basic level talking about stuff I learned in high school, college, the Peace Corps, and so forth. But my frustration ebbed when I realized that these were pretty new issues for a lot of people. I guess I sort of assumed that everyone talked about race, class, and gender issues in their dorm hallways, as we did 30 years ago. I guess I assumed that all grad programs at least give grad TAs some basic discussion of these issues in the classroom.

(I don't assume most people have had a Peace Corps like experience. So at least I'm not totally naive there. But I really did realize at the training once again how much that experience formed my adult self.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Meet Up

I met another blogger recently, which was way cool. This other blogger is even more interesting and smart than on the blog, and in person, the genuine friendliness and charm of the blogger come out in ways the blog only hints at.

And I'm looking forward to meeting another blogger soon.

But now I need to grade. Yes, it's Friday evening, and I need to grade because this is one overwhelming weekend leading into an even more overwhelming week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For the Win!

I did something really stupid today. Yep. Unforgivably stupid. You see, my writing class meets for 2 hours on Wednesdays, rather than the usual 1 hour, and the first hour starts an hour before our usual first hour. So guess who forgot to go to the first hour of class? Yep, that would be me.

And when I went to the second hour? Pretty much every student was there. And what had they done in the meantime? They'd mostly gone for a visit the art gallery on campus, which is part of a writing assignment for the class. Yes, that's correct, my incredible students used their time wisely, more wisely than I. What else did they do? They exchanged their peer editing responses.

So basically, these students just rock!

I'd gotten a couple bags of candy as a thank you to them for yesterday's wonderfulness, so at least they sort of got an immediate reward. Inadequate, perhaps, but it was something.

And now, in a few minutes, I get to meet a visiting blogger! I'm jazzed! (LOL, that's so appropriate, sort of. I crack myself up. If I had any more wit, I'd make a mean volleyball.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Taking Bets

It's peer editing day for my writing class today. I reminded them yesterday that they need to bring copies of their draft for every member of their group. Then we counted off groups so they'd know how many people are in their group so they can make the right number of copies. Then I reminded them again that they need to bring copies, just as class was about to end.

So I'm taking bets on how many students will appear at the beginning of class without copies.

Additional bets on how many of those didn't bring paper to print out and how many didn't bring change to make copies. (Printing from campus computers is free, but you have to supply the paper; copy machines aren't free, but you don't have to supply the paper.)

I'm jaded, aren't I?

The thing is, it happens every year with first year students, again and again, an endless cycle which is totally new for the students every time and totally repetitive for me.

I know it's because they're overwhelmed with new stuff and learning to be responsible adults. But it's still frustrating because one person can pretty much disrupt the class by not bringing copies: first they'll stop me at the beginning to ask what they should do, and I'll suggest they run and make copies (there's a copier in the building). Then they'll discover they didn't bring the original, or didn't bring money. So maybe they'll try to borrow money. Or they'll wave their flash drive at me as though I can stick it in my ear and produce copies out my... well, you know. Then they'll need to borrow paper.

And having borrowed money or paper, they'll exit the room in a fluster, only to return ten minutes later, disrupting with their entrance. And in that time, their group has tried to work without them, and now has to try to incorporate them back into things.

But what's the alternative? Sorry, you don't have your essay, you should leave? Or maybe more workable, sorry, you don't have your essay, but you can help your peers.

Actually, I should try that. Thanks for the advice!

!!!!! SPECIAL REPORT !!!!!

I lost the bet! I'm so excited! Every single one of the students brought a draft, and every draft I saw was several pages long!

I think I'm so excited I'll bake them cookies this evening or something!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tour de Northwoods

Recently, TBTAM did a post about the West Side Greenway Bike Path in NYC. Her post is full of great pictures of a place to get a free kayak ride, places to dine or picnic, famous places from movies, a place to play volleyball, and even a lighthouse!

And then she encouraged me (in a comment) to post some pictures.

So, let's just say my ride is a little different.

My ride usually starts at a parking lot on campus because it's right along the bike path, and on non-teaching days, pretty empty. Across the Next County River, you can see the Little Famous Waterfall. There's a walking path up the side of the bluff there behind the waterfall, and it's lovely, especially if you've got a dog that likes getting really muddy.

The path goes along the river, passing a small boat ramp where folks park to go fishing.

Be vewy vewy quiet and no one will notice this huge big truck! While I've never before seen a truck done up quite this way, I have seen camo'd trucks a fair bit. But that's not quite as unnerving as seeing someone in full camo with large weaponry (often bows, sometimes rifles) come out of the woods along a road or trail as I ride. In the background here, you can see an outdoor hockey rink next to the hockey stadium thing.

And eventually we pass over the river on an old, converted railroad bridge. Have I mentioned that I love riding on overpasses and bridges? It's just way cool. It's a little tight with folks sometimes, but we all squeeze through.

About half a mile or so beyond this bridge, the trail crosses a road where you can turn off to go on a couple County roads. The advantage to the trail is that it's a converted railroad bed, and thus fairly flat, and avoids most traffic. The disadvantage is that it's fairly flat, and what traffic there is is often people wheeling SUV sized baby stroller things, or dancing across the trail while in-line-skating with ipod thingies in both ears.

Today, we're taking the road. We have about a mile before we hit a little hill, and then about half a mile before we make another choice. Today, we're going to turn right, and go up the hill that's almost a mile long. The other way has shorter but steeper hills, and lots of them.

Here's the big hill. It doesn't look like much, but for me it's long, anyway. And I'm slow. Go have a snack, use the restroom, whatever. I'll be inching up for the next few minutes at about 7mph.

Still climbing. When I see the Moose lodge (which is up after a couple bends), then I know I'm almost to the top and I'm going to make it. At this point, I'm pretty sure my legs, lungs, and heart are all working. My legs are equally sure that my brain needs to have its head examined.

I've now made it up and over the hill, and the crowd goes wild! No, seriously, doesn't this horse look like it's thinking "stupid human"? These two are always there, and they pretty much always glance at me with that look in their eye that says they could run so much faster than I will ever bike. And it's absolutely true.

I suppose you could stop for a picnic here. I doubt the horses would mind sharing their fine dining.

After that one big hill, there are little rolly hills, but it's another seven or so miles before the next hard one. In addition to little rolly hills, we have soy fields. In the past couple of weeks, the soy has turned from green to orangy yellow, mostly. From the farm reports on the radio, I gather that we got too much rain in spring and not enough in the past month, so the crops aren't doing well, and the rain on photo day is too little, too late.

Supposedly the corn has been hit especially hard by the rotten weather. It's already looking brown here (on the right). And look, what's that on the left? More of my adoring fans, thrilled to see me ride by! Rather bucolic, no?

Lest you should think all is livestock and corn, here's a fixer-upper. It's fairly common to see an abandoned looking house and then a few steps away, a newer double-wide trailer type or other house. I guess it just gets to a point where the upkeep on the old one doesn't make sense or something? Anyway, I'm guessing those of you in some urban areas could buy this for what your parking costs.

But for really big buildings, of course, you look for the newer farm outbuildings. This is a bean (soy?) operation (or so it says on the sign on the far side). Look at all that machinery!

So you get the idea. Once I get outside of town, it's pretty much soy, corn, some alfalfa or clover, the occasional horse, and more occasional dairy cows in a field. I can ride for 25 miles, just about, before I hit another town. I run out of bike motor before I run out of road around here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Good Question Deserves an Answer

"Bill Maher's Fan" asked an interesting question the other day, as a response to my post on loving university life:
Just curious. Would you bother to explain why "feminist" is NOT a politically incorrect affiliation? White-ist...Black-ist...Nativist.... male chauvinist...etc are usually supposed to be disgusting. Yet "femi-nist" is always okay.

I would be happy to bother to explain my understanding of this question and answer it!

Let's break down the question a bit, and ask what "feminist" means, and what the other terms mean. Then let's ask what it means to be a "politically incorrect affiliation" and "disgusting." And while we're at it, we'll look at the "are usually supposed" passive voice there.

What's a feminist?

When I say I'm a feminist, here's what I mean: A feminist starts by trying to understand how inequities in power and injustices are tied to gender differences, and works from there to critique inequities and injustice, and to work for equity and justice for all.

Most feminists I know are straight, female or male, and all (including those of us who aren't straight) love men in their lives. I know no feminists who hate all men, or who want men to be systematically abused or treated poorly. Feminism isn't about hating men, but about changing the patriarchal system which disempowers women and some others so that we all have a just and equitable system. Feminism recognizes that individual men may also suffer under patriarchal systems, and works for justice and equity for men as well as women.

US Feminism has been rightly criticized in the past for being more concerned with white, middle and upper class women than with women of color or economically disadvantaged people, for focusing on straight women rather than all women. These critiques have been foundational in my growth as a feminist, and I work to be open to the words and works of those whose views aren't "easy" for me to see or hear, and to respect human beings fully. I also recognize that feminism has blind spots, and we feminists will need to continue to work and rethink our positions as we critique our theory and practice.

What about the other terms?:

I'm not sure what a "white-ist" is. If it's someone who believes in the supremacy of people with some pinko-gray skin shading, then it's a position which seeks to promote inequity and injustice, and I reject that position. If it's a group of people celebrating their Norwegian heritage in some way, that's a different matter. There are lots of heritage groups around (and in this area, most are about European heritages) and they help us understand and enjoy our cultural wealth.

Similarly, if by "black-ist" you mean an organization such as the NAACP, which seeks to promote justice through a focus on African American experience and history, then I support that fully. I know lots of people (and I include myself) who think promoting justice for people of color is very important, and that we can't really have a just society if we don't have justice for all of us. If that's what you mean by "black-ist" then I could willingly put that label on my blog. If, on the other hand, by "black-ist" you mean an organization which seeks to promote the supremacy of people with "black" skin, then I'm against that organization because it's promoting inequity and injustice.

My understanding is that "nativist" means someone who opposes immigration into the US and believes only people who were born here should live here (the link is to the Wikipedia article). That seems to me an unjust and inequitable position.

Similarly, "male chauvanist" indicates a support of male supremacy, and since that's supporting inequity and injustice, I'm against.

In general then, I tend to support positions and approaches that are focused on promoting equity and justice, as I understand them. The openness with which many people claim a feminist position leads me to believe that many other people believe that approach is valid and useful. That includes a fair number of people in academics.

What's acceptable, and to whom?

If what you're getting at with the label "politically incorrect affiliation" is that most people don't openly support organizations and activities which promote injustice and inequity, then I think the incorrectness has to do with the realization that being outright racist really is disgusting to most people in the US today. That's not to say we're not (as a society) racist still, but our attitudes about the acceptability of racism have changed a lot in recent history.

Let me give an example: I recently listened to a book on tape about the role of the press in the 1960s civil rights movement, and I was rather shocked to hear again the extent to which African American people were abused and disenfranchised. (I was a little kid in the 1960s, and not really aware at all of things in the South.) I can't believe that any governor today would even consider trying to prevent a high school student from entering a school because that student is black. And yet, that happened, and it happened openly, and an awful lot of white people didn't seem to think it was wrong. Today, I think most white people would agree that such an action is wrong. That's a huge change. For most white people today, racism is disgusting.

What's the deal with the passive voice?

Okay, now onto the passive voice, the "are usually supposed" part. The problem with the passive voice is that it disembodies the action of the verb. Who supposes feminism is a good approach? Who supposes that racism is bad?

While I just wrote that I think most white people today think racism is disgusting, there are plenty of people who seem to think otherwise. Similarly, there are lots of people who think that feminism means "hatred of men" or something. The passive voice sounds like we all agree, but that's not at all true. What's true is that on this blog and in life, I'm openly feminist, and openly trying to promote equity and justice. Most of the regular visitors are either comfortable with that, or haven't said they aren't.

But if you went to a blog by someone who's really patriarchal, you'd probably read jokes about "feminazis" and such. There are plenty of people for whom the term "feminism" is, at best, uncomfortable. Part of my work is to convince them otherwise, to convince them that using a gendered analysis as a step in promoting equity and justice is useful because promoting equity and justice is worthwhile. There are other approaches, and the more approaches to promoting equity and justice we can bring into play, the better.

I hope that answers the question! Thanks for commenting.

Taken for Granted

You know that physics law, the second law of thermodynamics, not the one about the air conditioning always being too cold in summer, but the one about entropy increasing? It's happening, all around.

Okay, so maybe this isn't actually an example of the increase in entropy for real, but more about the increase in inconvenience.

I gave an assignment to my Chaucer class that involves looking in the OED. For most of my students, that pretty much means the on-line OED, which they can easily access through our library website. The earliest they could start was Monday, because that's when they got their word.

I just got one of those desperate emails letting me know that the library website has been down since yesterday afternoon (and it is down right now, for sure).

I've gotten to the spoiled point where I depend on websites to be up and running, and they usually are. So when they aren't, everything that depends on the technology comes to a crashing stop.

You know, I've had chalk break on me, but even a broken piece of chalk is pretty functional up to the point where it becomes too small to hold.

Other misfunctions: the construction in our building continues. That means that we get to teach through drilling and hammering noises. The dean has communicated with the folks in charge of the construction company, but the noise continues. (Want to bet that the folks in charge of construction stuff ask for a bigger budget next year so they can supervise construction during the semester more closely?)

The entire city is desperately trying to get road construction season over with before it becomes too cold to do concrete or just work outside. This means, on my short commute, there's two separate areas where the road's are torn up. I could go a different route, but there the whole way is torn up and down to one lane each way, with total stops while big tractor things move dirt around. We joke about having two seasons here, winter and construction, and it's true.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I try not to be too boring all the time posting about biking, since my biking isn't all that thrilling. It's not like I'd be giving reports about this or that alp, or playing domestique on some tour de coolness. My ride reports would be more along the line of "went for a ride" or "rode County [enter a letter here], slow!" or maybe "rode with group." You get the picture. I have a good time, and usually a big goofy smile plastered on my bright red face.

Yes, my face turns bright red. You know you see those pictures of Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador finishing an 80 mile stage straight up an alp and they look cool and collected? Not me, just riding my little rides gives me a BRIGHT red face and the look of someone who's undergoing a really horrid nightmare about being chased by zombies. And that's on the flats. Uphills, I look worse. Did I mention that I usually have hair sticking out the top of my helmet somehow?

But anyway, when I finished my "recovery ride" (Bikers call it a "recovery ride" when they're feeling too lazy to go ride hills. It makes it sound like you weren't lazy, but rather strategically thinking about preparing for your next race.) this afternoon, that's the number that showed on my odometer. That's miles. (I'd go even faster and further in kilometers; why haven't I switched to kilometers?) It's a little thing, this number, but it's been a lot of fun biking.

Yes, I could have ridden to New York and back (mostly?), or to California, except I'd be stuck on the way back in a desert or something.

To celebrate, I bought my bike a new bottle of teflon lube. Yeah, fine times here at the BardiacShack this weekend, let me tell you, fine times. We're going to turn on some Marvin Gaye, clean the chain up a bit, lube it nicely, and then probably go play in the street.


I'm teaching a senior level class this semester, and so was in on a meeting where we talked about our goals for our majors and how we assess those goals, which includes a piece directly from students that they have to turn in as part of their graduation requirements. After the meeting, I printed out a copy of the information sheet and took it to class so that I'd remember to talk to students about this project.

Being an English department and all, we have goals for our majors that include things like communicating well orally and in writing. It's way at the top, along with reading and thinking critically.

I started talking about the student piece, and got those desperate looks of students wondering what else was going to jump out of the woodwork to impede their progress to degree. It turns out that most of them had never heard about this particular piece of the major requirements.

I think the faculty has failed the communications part of our work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Trying to Balance

For some reason, several of my first year students seemed to have forgotten the part of the syllabus we went over the first day of class that said that assignments were due on the day indicated at the beginning of class. I know this because I've received journals a day or two late, just stuck into the pile.

Did their high school teachers not talk about due dates, or were they just suggestions?

So I mentioned it today in class, trying to be gentle, and certainly not pointing out that Joe and Mary messed up, and OMG how could you!

And then a student in one of my earlier lit classes was using a really old looking edition with no notes or glossing or line numbers, so I mentioned that I found glossing really helpful for such texts, and did she want to borrow an extra copy of the text I had in my office?

And later, I got an email apologizing profusely about the text. The email made me think that she thought I was mad or upset that she didn't have a glossed text, but I was more thinking of how frustrating it is to try to read earlier lit without glossing sometimes, especially when you're fairly new to the stuff.

It's a hard balance for me, trying to point out problems, even small, really inoffensive things, without making students feel like it's something big. Partly, I think, it's because I'm very coastal, far more Woody Allen than Garrison Keillor, and my students feel way more comfortable laughing about Norwegian bachelor farmers than about angst and despair. So my style freaks them out from the get go. (It took me about 3 years to sort of get the Prairie Home Companion thing. Sort of being the operative term here.)

Added to that, I'm just not maternal. I'm no one's idea of a mothering type, and students really often want a mothering relationship with female faculty. (K8grrl has blogged about this recently, with added complications of being fairly youthful still.)

And no one wants to be told they made a mistake, even if it's not a huge thing.

I want them to take seriously my admonitions about not turning in work late as if it's no big deal (at least have the courtesy to talk to the instructor!) without sounding really harsh, but I have difficulty striking that balance. And so forth.

More despair, and it's only the second week of classes!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I Love University Life

I was grabbing lunch over at the student center before a big meeting today and saw a colleague from the math department carrying a sack that had e to the i pi, except using math symbols that I don't know how to reproduce in blogger or wordprocessors. (So, that's e, the symbol of the base of the natural logarithm thingy; i, the symbol of the imaginary square root of negative one; and pi, the ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter--which has to be one of the coolest things to learn is a constant, no?)

Now, I pretty much understand the concept of i and pi, but e I just didn't get at all. I remembered from sixth grade math or something that it's the natural log, but what the heck does that mean?

So I asked! And it's SO COOL! My colleague started drawing stuff on the campus newspaper lying nearby, and it made sense! (My colleague's stuff looks much like these Wikipedia illustrations.)

What a very, very cool number! Why didn't they teach us that part in sixth grade?

I love that I can learn things in casual conversation that answer questions I never quite knew I had until the conversation starts.

Now I want to track down a chemistry colleague and ask why there are 6.02 x 10 to the 23 (10 superscript 23, however one does that on blogger) particles per mole. Why did ol' Avogadro choose that number? Because it always seemed to me so arbitrary, like a dozen, just an arbitrary extra name for a weird number that we had to learn. But, knowing chemists, there's some really great reason for that particular number.

There are lots of things in life that I semi-remember from grade or high school, and love to get a good explanation from my colleagues about. And the delightful thing is, my colleagues here are usually incredibly good at explaining things and helping me understand them, and willing to do so with a generous spirit and great kindness.

What questions would you line up?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Quizzes and Worries

I graded my second set of quizzes from a class this afternoon. I know a lot of folks find reading quizzes infantalizing, and I sort of get it, but I don't think being asked questions is infantalizing, especially if you've got reason to know the answers. I also think it's incredibly important for college students to learn to keep up on readings, take good notes (my quizzes are open notes), look up words in a dictionary, and read questions carefully. And it's really painful to try to hold a discussion with people who aren't at all prepared. So I give quizzes, especially early on in the semester.

I try to give quickish quizzes, about three questions, the first one or two very focused on a definition or the main point of a reading. For example, I might ask, "What does [author's name] mean when she uses the term [term that's defined in the text] ([page number in text of definition])?"

And then I try to give a question that calls for some thought and justification. For example, I might ask something like, "which of the items [the author] lists do you think is most important and why?")

Mostly, my students did well, full credit on all three questions. Some didn't answer any questions correctly.

It's always interesting to ask why someone didn't answer questions correctly, especially on an open note reading quiz. I never worry if I ask and someone says s/he didn't have time to do the reading, or didn't take notes because the TV was on, stuff like that. I figure the student has an opportunity to learn my expectations and can make decisions about how to proceed. And I recognize that I'm not exactly the center of the world, and that students have lots of other classes and responsibilities.

I confess that I find it a little irritating when a student who hasn't done the reading writes a BS answer, because it feels like it takes more time to read the BS than the student bothered to spend on the homework. I'd much prefer a student just write a short note saying s/he didn't do the reading, sorry. My feelings aren't hurt, and my time isn't wasted.

I worry way more that some students don't actually have the reading skills to be in college; maybe they can't really process the class readings even though they've put in effort. I don't know quite what to do about the problem of inadequate literacy. I don't know how to teach reading skills, even if I wanted to. And I don't know that a student can really "catch up" in college courses if his/her skills aren't basically at beginning college level already.

I also worry about students who can't seem to interpret quiz or exam questions, though I feel that I can help students with these skills (and that it's part of my job to do so). Similarly, I work with students on notetaking skills a little, and try to get them over to talk to the folks at the skills office to help more, if they seem shakey on notetaking.

So now I'm at the point of writing little notes to the students who did very poorly, asking if they missed doing the reading, or if they need help. It's hard to word those little notes well without taking a long time to write them.


Over the weekend:

Graded 1 set of quizzes and 1 set of journals.

Read a chapter in the new Oxford Chaucer Guide book thing, reread the General Prologue, my notes on the GP, part of a book on EM drama, some sonnets, two short essays on education

Wrote a new "lecture" to get from "Adam Scriveyn" ("rub and scrape") to the GP through manuscript transmission problems, anthologizing, the Decameron, and into framing narratives and narrative persona. (It didn't work brilliantly, but it sort of worked okay.)

Prepped three classes, advising for a student

Rode 60 miles

It kept me busy, along with a bank run, farmer's market visit (apples are in season, but not the Honey Crisps yet), grocery, bike shop, food co-op, but when I write it down, I wonder where the weekend went. A lot of sleeping in there, too. The first week or two of classes always makes me extra tired.

And now, I've collected a set of quizzes and a set of journals, taught two classes, and am thinking about the last minute stuff for the third class.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Home and Unheimliche

I handed back the first set of short pieces of writing, and got a quiz and a journal set in return. I have only myself to blame, of course. If I had any brains, I'd give bubble or clicker quizzes and tests, and that would be that. My ethics would suck then, though, so it's just as well that I don't. Besides, I can't think of a decent bubble or clicker sort of question about anything worth reading. Is there an interesting bubble question that can be asked about Othello?

The short pieces were a nice start in getting to know my students, and in getting a sense of who has sentence level writing problems.

One of the things my students wrote about was feeling at home on our campus when they came for a campus visit. It's interesting to think about what they mean by feeling at home; few of them give the sort of details (yet!) that make an English professor's heart go pitter patter, alas, but a few do, and for them, the home feeling seems to be a reaction to having people smile and be helpful when they visit, to feeling that the campus and city aren't too big, but are a little big (it's the Goldilocks thing, Flagship U is too big, and the local SLAC seems smaller than their high school and thus too small).

In some ways, it's great for students to feel at home. For one thing, it means they chose to study here, and that's a plus for our recruitment folks. And there's real benefit in life to being comfortable where you are, safe, warm enough, well-fed, and around people you feel connected to.

But there's also a hazard for students feeling too much at home, because home is often such a conceptually safe place that we don't feel the urge to change, and learning requires big changes. If the education a student gets in college doesn't change them, then they're not getting the full benefit. I don't mean that students have to turn their political positions upsidedown, but that real learning changes the way you see the world, and if you change the way you see the world, you change what and how you act.

We talk about trying to get students to feel safe enough in class to take intellectual risks, safe enough to raise their hands and ask questions, try out answers, discuss stuff. But we also talk about making students feel uncomfortable with some of the things they'll encounter. Entering students often talk really well about how important it is to be open-minded and value other people's opinions, but sometimes they're uncomfortable when they really have to deal with someone very different or with very different opinions. Usually our students really do put forth an effort to mainitain their open-mindedness, but it's hard work.

As I read the writing pieces, and read about campus feeling like home, my mind went to Freud's concept of the unheimliche, the un-homely, or as it's usually translated into English, the uncanny. (This is what happens to your brain when you play etymology games instead of just reading the danged papers!)

Freud's sense involves the familiar and unfamiliar, synthesized or combined in a way that attracts attention and perhaps repulses, giving a sense of discomfort and strangeness. So really, uncanny is a good translation in some ways, but unhomely gets at the sense from a different direction, starting with the expectation of homeliness, that comfort that comes from familiarity, and then reversing it with the prefix "un." For Freud, encountering the unheimliche can lead to moments of revelation and understanding, though we often reject the unheimliche instead of getting to understanding.

Naturally, I turn to the OED, and find a definition I expected:

4. Of persons: Not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers. b. Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c 1850.)

But I also find definitions:
5. Unpleasantly severe or hard.
6. Dangerous, unsafe.

Interestingly, canny is a word not about homelyness, but about knowledge and wisdom, especially practical wisdom about the way the world works. It's related to "cunning" and "can" (in the way that German uses "kan" to talk about being able to use a language, too). It implies a level of caution in its wisdom, too.

In trying to educate our students, giving them enough sense of homeliness to feel secure, our real goal is to use the sense of security through homeliness to help them embrace the unheimliche, the uncanny, in hopes that the encounter with something discomfortingly unfamiliar will foster growth and learning.

You can stand in front of a student all day telling them that they need to encounter the unheimliche without rejecting or turning away, but it means nothing until you or the student come(s) face to face with it, especially when you're not expecting it. It's a lot to ask students to trust you enough to go with the discomforts or real learning, isn't it? And I, and my colleagues, don't much like to be uncomfortable either; we resist change, too, even as we embrace it on other levels.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I'm reading papers. Yep, already.

I tried procrastinating, but finally got down to it. And they're really pretty good, but there's a point when you're reading papers you've assigned when you've read the same basic thing and you wish there were something different. Happily, once we get going in the semester, students write more interestingly because they approach assignments in different ways. But for this short diagnostic, they pretty much have the same sorts of things to say.

Unfortunately, when I get to the point where I wish there were something different to read, I slow way down. Or post to the old blog. Or think about eating again. I start counting papers to find out how many I've read and how many I have left to go, when what I should do is just power through two more, then three, then four, and so forth.

Hidden Treasure

One of my colleagues retired this past spring, and gave me a bunch of books, including a number of books I could pass along to my students. So yesterday I passed them along.

And as I was doing so, I happened to see a paper in one, folded over, actually several papers, a mimeographed syllabus from a class on an author that I've not read (or if I have, I don't remember). And yet, this looks like a whole undergrad class focused on, yes, Gower.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Breaking the Rules

One of the fun things about the early part of the semester is talking to first year writing students about breaking the rules they've been taught.

Five paragraph essays? Break that rule! Write ten paragraphs! Go wild! Develop your ideas.

Starting sentences with "and" or "but"? Go for it!

Using "I" or "you" in essays? Go for it!

Some students get into the idea of breaking rules, and some look concerned. After all, they've learned these rules, followed them, and succeeded by doing so (they made it to college, right?), and now I'm telling them the old rules just won't work.

I'm not just about breaking rules, really, because these aren't really rules; they're fake rules imposed by people who needed some control, usually some minimum standards. If you require five paragraph essays, then you don't get someone handing in three sentences and pretending it's an essay.

But in college, we get to push beyond the minimums, so no more five paragraph essays. Instead, we ask students to take on the much harder task of communicating rhetorically, of working to communicate more fully while mindful of their audience. And that's much harder, and requires lots of judgment.

So it's also scary, because students shouldn't necessarily trust their judgment right off. And because while we can try to make them aware of some of the new rules and limits, we don't even think about some of them.

Serif or sans serif fonts. I like serif fonts for essays, but it's not like I'd beat someone for a different choice, right? But what if I'm subtly influenced?

And maybe a student wants to break away from the standard looking serif font? Then do I as a reader "get" that? Do I see it as intelligently, strategically working against expectations, or do I see it as an unnecessary distraction in communication?

It's not enough to break the rules. Students have to learn which rules to break, and when to break them meaningfully.

It's an exciting, challenging time here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

First Year Students: So Wonderful Sometimes

My first year students have a short assignment due tomorrow, just a really basic couple of pages of writing that will build into their first real assignment.

So this evening I've answered a number of emails asking for direction about things like where to put the page number.

I love that they're trying so hard. They really want to do things well, you know. I hope I can somehow keep that feeling strong in them and combine it with the confidence to put the page number wherever the heck they want.

Between Despair and the Hard Place

Some of our meetings lately have been about our plan for coming times, or, as the local Marxist in the office nearby says, the next five year plan, that's why we worked our rears off to get phuds.

We all have a task now, though the heaviest part falls to department chairs and program coordinators. Each department and program has to write a report that explains how we fit into the plan for coming times, how we're cost efficient, and what we're willing to give up if we have to. We're even encouraged to talk about what we would like to get if we give up something we have. It's a cheerful thing.

Over in the Underwater Basketweaving department, the person who teaches "Baskets by the Really Famous Anglo Male from 400 Years Ago" is only somewhat worried. After all, they wouldn't get rid of BRFAM400YA, right? Except that the plan for coming times is all about coming times and not at all about basketry from 400 years ago, even by that Really Famous Anglo Male. And while the headmaster and other higher administrators talk about going to sport events, I've never once heard them talk about going to a basketweaving demonstration or a show of old baskets woven underwater.

Do you think the football coach is writing this report, too? And is there ever any chance that football will get cut (except at the U of Chicago)?

But the Underwater Basketweaving department isn't just full of people who teach BRFAM400YA. There are also the folks who graduate only a couple people a year in Mathematical Underwater Basketweaving, and while everyone should know at least a little MUB in a Basketweaving department, we don't graduate many people in that major. And there's talk that part of the plan for coming times is focused on churning out larger numbers of majors. And MUB doesn't churn out majors at all; it nurtures them a few at a time. It's also hard to make a case for MUB with the part of the plan that talks about economic development; MUB, like BRFAM400YA isn't really focused on fostering economic development in the area. Critical thinking and analysis, yes, but direct economic development, not really.

The Interdisciplinary Program for Weaving of Color folks are also feeling edgy. They've been underfunded forever, and so have little to show in the way of "progress" as far as majors or economic development. The fact that they don't actually have an office or administrative staff support means that the Underwater Basketweaving chair will have to include them in that report, though he never weaves with color. He's sympathetic, but it's just not his thing; what he really cares about is reed preparation studies, and you know they need a new reed preparation lab, have needed one for years.

With budgets the way they have been for the last 10 years or so, NWU is in tough straits. Cuts have been made, and cuts will be made again; the question is where. Do we cut back on BRFAM400YA classes? Maybe cut an FTE or two? They won't fire the BRFAM400YA tenured faculty, but there will be no BRFAM400YA courses, so s/he will be teaching intro basketweaving techniques endlessly until s/he decides to "retire." Or let BRFAM400YA stay, since at least it deals with a white male from a dominant culture, and cut the Interdisciplinary Program?

At most of the meetings, men talk. Sometimes women ask questions about decision making and transparency, but the men have the answers. That's because they've been the ones designing the plan for coming times and the ways we'll implement the plan. The MUB and Interdisciplinary folks who don't have tenure yet? They don't even ask questions at the meetings, but they're jittery and stressed, and when you talk to them after meetings, they blurt out their concerns. But you have to talk to them individually, one human being to another.

I'm guessing the German faculty isn't feeling great about things either.

Do you think the offensive line coach worries about his job? (How many football majors are there again?)

And the word is that in the end, with all the reports handed in, decisions will be made. Hurrah for the passive voice! And we're to trust the good judgment of the people making those decisions, which, by the way, will happen over the summer.

Summer, glorious summer, double-edged summer.

Part of me respects the administrative folks. Most of them are smart and capable. But I really don't deep down trust them, and I don't feel much enfranchised through this process. On the other hand, I think they've already done better than at the famed U of Toledo, so I shouldn't complain.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Easier, but more Frustrating

Not so long ago, I was having a short conversation with someone (who has a graduate degree, but isn't in academics) and she asked me who chose the books for my classes. It sort of startled me, because I think most college graduates realize we have a lot of autonomy in our courses (though maybe not as much in some fields?).

I'm working on my last syllabus for the semester, trying to balance the work load of writing and reading, and the sorts of reading (plays, theory, crit, period texts that aren't plays).

Right now, it would really help if someone said, just teach these two plays from that book, and the others you've already decided on, and yeah, do these period texts, and these theory readings, and here's the exact criticism you should use. But it would also be really frustrating, wouldn't it?

I'm trying to decide which one or two plays from the following we'll do. The plays under consideration are Selimus, A Christian Turned Turk, an The Renegado. (They're all in the same text, so I've put off choosing.)

We're also reading The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, The Fair Maid of the West and The White Devil in the play department. I also ordered Oroonoko for the last reading for the semester, since I'm that kind of wild rebel. (One of these things is not like the other things.)

I wonder if it's too late to run off and join a circus?