Friday, October 31, 2008



"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Emily Dickenson

I like the way Dickenson figures hope as birdlike; I imagine a small bird, maybe a warbler of some sort, or maybe a bolder bird, a Jay or a Crow, a bird that actually sticks around in winter here. Maybe it's a Downy Woodpecker, small, but sticks around? Except I don't know that they sing much (I've never seen one making noise other than pecking), whereas a Jay or a Crow, you can hear them, and while the song isn't lyric in quite the way that a warbler's is, it's thrilling and insistently alive.

One of the benefits of teaching first year students is that every year, some of them really "click" with college, and do it publicly enough that you get to watch. So the kid who maybe didn't fit in so well in high school fits in much better, and it shows in class.

One of my students has clicked. S/he was consulting with the class mentors after class today, and then came to talk to me with revision work, taking what we'd done in class, applying it to a different writing project, and using it well. S/he talked about how exciting a science class is, how much s/he's learning in college, and how much s/he's enjoying classes. And I don't think it was just BS for the professor.

That short conversation paid me back for several hours of soul sucking meetings this week. If there were some magic way to get every student there, my job would be a whole lot more fulfilling.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Done Good?

If a prof goes into the university system, s/he can see who's signed up for a course ahead of time. This past semester, I looked, and saw that one of the really smart, really fun and challenging students had signed up for a course I was teaching. Then I looked just before classes actually started, and s/he wasn't signed up anymore. And I felt a little sorry, because this is a great student. But s/he didn't want to take my course, and I didn't know why. Was it because s/he'd found a better professor? Did s/he think my course is stupid sounding? These are the things that go through my mind.

The other day, the student stopped by my office, smiling, and said s/he'd wanted to come thank me for advising hir to aim hir studies in a different direction. Yes, s/he said, s/he'd started taking courses in this other area, and it was working out great, s/he was happier than ever before with hir education. S/he told me excitedly about some work s/he is doing with another prof. It sounds like really interesting, useful work.

I'm happy for the student, and glad I gave appropriate advice.

But still, I advised a student to basically go elsewhere academically, away from the field I love, away from my class, and I feel a little loss there, too.

I shouldn't feel sad about doing a good job, should I?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Feeling Ancient

Every so often, I get reminded that I'm no longer young. Earlier this week, rereading the Wife of Bath's Prologue, when she talked about how she was forty and married Jankyn, who was 20, I couldn't help thinking, "Forty! Why that's not old at all!" But even as I thought that, I recalled the decades of work that sees the Wife of Bath as a rather dirty old woman.*

When I first studied Chaucer, I had an older male prof who clearly identified with Pandarus. At least, it seemed clear to me. I wonder if my students think I identify with the Wife of Bath?

Then there was class the other day, when I walked in and said something about what a fine day it was, and one of my students responded cheerfully, "holler."


(One of the advantages to having linguistics types as friends is that they explain all about things like this.)

*And before anyone gets all "life expectancy" on me, remember that a huge cause of a low life expectancy was infant and child death, and death in childbirth. Anyone who made it to 20 in the middle ages, had a pretty good chance of making it to, say, 50. Making it to 20, though, was really iffy. And if you were female and got past your child-bearing years, life probably got safer. The Plague becomes an issue in England in 1348, but that didn't sort much by age.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Sound of my Soul Being Sucked Forth

It's past the midpoint of the semester, and yet I'm constantly writing on papers to remind students (even in my upper-level classes) to cite their sources.

And also, in academic papers using MLA style, you underline or italicize book, film, and magazine titles. Every time. Is it really that hard to remember?

And the formatting problem I mentioned on the first day of class, and have reminded some people about on ever effing piece of written work since, remains.

There simply isn't enough chocolate in the world for some days.

I have a meeting today for which the agenda says we're going to respond to the same piece of poor work we responded to a couple weeks ago. Then, we effing peer edited this piece of "work"; talk about a total waste of time (including the time of the assistant headmaster, a couple deanlings, and maybe five faculty members).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Beyond the Midpoint

We're just past the midpoint of the semester, and here's how things stand.

1) Everyone's sick. Okay, not everyone, but there's a hollow cough going around, and a stomach bug. I'm counting myself lucky to only have the cough (so far?).

2) We don't get a fall break of any sort here until Thanksgiving. Reading about everyone else's break, trips to Paris, grading in bed, whatever, makes me feel whiny and tired. And I'm behind on grading.

3) My writing students, mostly, are writing better papers. Yay students!

4) I tried to teach the Wife of Bath's Prologue today. I'm miserably bad at that piece; I just can't bring it together for my students, though I try. This year I made a handout to lay out the structure a bit and try to make it visible, but what I really need to do is figure out how to bring out a couple really important passages and work them. On the other hand, the Tale itself promises to be a joy to teach.

*If anyone has suggestions for the Prologue, I'd be very grateful to hear them!

5) The sky is falling! Well, white stuff fell out of the sky yesterday. Or, to be more precise, white stuff was pushed around horizontally, yesterday, and only coincidentally hit the ground. Snow in October to snow in April. That's unacceptably long. Tell Ceres to stop being such a helicopter parent!!

Does anyone in a warm area want to adopt a Shakespeare person? I'm housebroken, and don't bark too much at the neighbors. I'm good with dogs, but not so good with children.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Naif at a Meeting

Every so often I get smacked in the metaphorical face by my naivety. It happened again the other day at a meeting with some deanlings and faculty folks, some of whom have been here a long time.

One of the deanlings made a joke about how we reorganize high level offices/groups whenever a powerful faction of the higher ups want to get rid of a 2nd/3rd tier administrator but don't have the guts to actually fire the person.

People laughed. I sat there and tried to stop my mouth from gaping before it became too noticable.

But you know, we've had a surprising number of high level reorganizations in the few years I've been here, and every time some 2nd tier administrators have had their positions disappear and gone elsewhere, while minions of the survivors have taken their places. There's always an official line about how the reorganization will make us a leaner institution, of course. Maybe just meaner?

Friday, October 24, 2008


One of the things we mentioned in passing at a recent meeting was accomodating students with "a sincere religious feeling or belief." The phrase stuck in my head all the rest of the day, and not in a good way.

You might think that I, a pretty open athiest, would have problems with accomodating students' religious needs (we're talking about dealing with students who need to skip class for a religious observance and such, primarily). But I have no problem with that. For one thing, it almost never comes up; the state holidays pretty much cover the big Christian holidays, and most of our students are at least nominally Christian. I've had a few students here skip Ash Wednesday morning class and a few students need to not attend something for another religious observance. For the other thing, it's usually one or two students who are easily accomodated. We simply whatever plan what work needs to be done ahead of time, and in every case, the student has handled his/her part well.

But the part that stuck in my head was about the "sincere." How am I supposed to judge a student's religious sincerity? And why do I care? Because, honestly, if a student wants to celebrate Talk like a Pirate Day, then why not? And if there's nothing sincere beyond a strong sense of humor and irony, well, why not?

But in my life, every time I've seen someone's religious sincerity questioned, it's been someone with relatively little power who is exploring a non-Judeo-Christian tradition whose sincerity is questioned by someone from the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition. It's the student who is beginning to practice Buddhism or Baha'i who gets questioned, and who has little defense because s/he is trying to understand a new, complex tradition without family or community support.

I would like to see more students exploring different traditions seriously, working to understand the value in those traditions, and using whatever insights s/he gains to think critically about Judeo-Christian traditions.

And even more, I'd love for a student to want to celebrate Talk like a Pirate Day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Voter Frustration

Today I don't teach. I have a ton of grading to do, but it's flexible, so I decided to do my political research and go vote (it's legal in my state to vote ahead of time, and encouraged, even).

Where I grew up, before each election, the Secretary of State (for the state) sent out a voter information pamphlet on cheap newspaper quality paper. In the pamphlet, each person running for an office could make a short statement. And for each of the voting decisions, there was a short explanation (in pretty neutral language), and then a short pro and con statement, written by someone who was identified, and then a short list of organizations that supported the statement.

So, for example, if there was a bond issue up for a vote, you'd see a description about how much was to be raised and what it would be used for. And then there would be a statement by someone who supported the issue, maybe a state legislator, or a school board official (for school building bonds). And then a short statement by someone opposed (sometimes there wasn't an opposing statement, but a blank space).

The pamphlets made it easy to spend an evening reading up on local bond stuff and such, and to form at least a minimally educated decision.

I was shocked when I moved to a new state to learn that it didn't send out an information pamphlet. And here? Here, there's no such thing, either. The political ads for local officials tend to talk about how Joe Schmo has lived in NW since birth, is married with four children, and loves the community. What does that mean that has anything to do with political decision making? (And the anti-ads tend to talk about how the opposing person has only lived in the area for 10 years, and thus doesn't understand anything. UGH.)

So I spent my morning trying to read up on the ballot information. I looked at websites for my party and even the other party. Both are focused pretty much exclusively on the presidential race. But I want information about my local legislators, about the County Clerk race and such.

I called my party headquarters, and they were sadly useless. People, I'm giving you a chance to say, "We support person X for this position, and here's why" and you send me to the city site?

The city site is great if you want to find out how to register or vote early, but doesn't give sample ballots or anything.

I finally called the city, and the person gave me the web address for a state government site, and after about 15 minutes of exploring, I found a way to find a sample local ballot, and voila, I was able to use that to find other information.

It shouldn't be that hard. We really need to make information way more accessible.

But then, I wonder, given the budget crisis in the state where I grew up, if they spend the money to send out the pamphlets anymore?

The New Blogger Response Thing

What a pain! I always get an error with it at least once, and often more than once (at which point I give up, sorry).

But it doesn't seem to be in effect on all blogs.

What's that about?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dreams and Visions

How do you know if what you're dreaming has meaning, and what sorts of meaning it has?

And how do you convince anyone else of the validity of that meaning?

It's the question of the day tomorrow in Chaucer! Guess which tale is up!

Monday, October 20, 2008

By the Numbers

Some numbers rolled across my desk today, and though I'm not deeply in touch with my inner bean counter, I found them interesting.

In ten years of fairly deep and serious budget cutting, NWU has reduced it's TT faculty by 16%. (Through retirement and not replacing those lines, primarily.)

In those same ten years of budget cuts, NWU has increased it's non-teaching administrative staff by 17%.

We've increased adjuncts by 18% in one category, and 34% in another. (The total growth in adjuncts just about equals, in numbers, the decrease in TT faculty.)

Our enrollment has remained pretty stable over that time.

I know, logically, that in a market where we're competing for students, especially for well-prepared students, we have to offer a lot of services--new dorms, alcohol training, an office for parents, and so forth. But a 17% growth in ten years is pretty noteworthy; I wish my investment portfolio were doing as well.

Yet even though I know that, I get a sense that we've lost focus on the educational mission, most of which does happen in classes and through contact with faculty members. Despite all the language to the contrary, students don't pay tuition so they can get alcohol training and whatnot; they pay tuition so they can go to classes.

Despair. Or, to bring this back to where I started

... all is confounded, all!
Reproach and everlasting shame
Sits mocking in our plumes.
Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame!

(Bonus points for identifying the source!)

ps. The numbers from which I've run percentages are a matter of public record, and publicly available in my state.

Flu Shot?

The local clinic finally put up their flu shot schedule, so now I have to decide whether I should bother. For the past several years, I've gotten flu shots, mostly because I work in a germ infested world. I'm not overly paranoid (I think) about the whole germ thing, but I do try to remember to wash my hands a bit more frequently during the sickness season (which is long up here).

(We get really hit with bugs right after Thanksgiving. I think the students all go home and get exposed to different stuff, just long enough to get exposed, and then go back to the dorms to get sick and share the germs in close quarters, and then they share with the whole campus. We get hit again after winter break, and then again after spring break, and then everyone gets time to get healthy sometime in June.)

Pros: Reduced chances of getting the flu. That's the big one. Reduced chances of passing the flu around, and that's also good. (I'm the biggest whuss in the world about hating to be sick.)

Cons: Time, hassle. (My insurance seems to cover the cost.)

But, I have to admit I have my doubts that it does any good, really. I'm under 50 (for a bit longer), and delightfully healthy (I'm delighted, anyway, and I remember to be delighted every time I go for a nice long bike ride.), so at fairly low risk for really bad stuff.

I'm not bothered much by shots, and tend not to react in uncomfortable ways, so that's not really an issue for me. But it's a hassle to make time in the day to get to the clinic place and all. Never underestimate my laziness in the face of even minimal hassle.

I've read that flu strains change every year, but after a number of years, shouldn't there be some repetition? I also wonder how long the immunity to a given strain lasts, should that strain come around again.

(I meant to talk to the doctor about it last summer, but in between all the questions about whether I wear a seat belt, smoke, or if there's yelling in my home, I didn't remember. And can I just say, I lie about the yelling in my home thing, because I do occasionally yell at certain politicians when they're on TV, but since I live alone and the politicians don't hear me over the TV anyway, it seems too long to explain.)

This is how pathetic my life is. It's either blog about the flu shot decision (DECISION 2008!) or about grading hell, and grading hell is too darned depressing. And so is the real decision 2008...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Photography Peeve

You know how when you open up a page, especially a blogger's page, and see an extreme close-up of a person, either a baby, kid, or the blogger him/herself, and you sort of startle back? That's my peeve.

Back in the dark ages of film, I wanted a camera and did a bit of reading about photography. One of the few things that stuck with me was from someone who did portrait photography, about taking pictures of babies and children.

This portrait photographer noted that parents, especially mothers, are used to seeing their babies and young children really close up, but everyone else is used to seeing babies at a social distance of a few feet. So, this photographer suggested, if you're taking a picture of a baby primarily for the parent, you want to take it closer, so that the baby's face takes up a larger area of the photo. That closeness mimics the closeness that a parent is used to, and thus tends to make parents feel comfortable with the photo. But that same photo will tend to make non-parents less comfortable, so for a photo for non-parents, you adjust your lens/distance so that the baby's face is less big in the picture. And that mimics the social distance other people are used to, and so makes them more comfortable.

Now babies and little kids close up are bad enough. I know I'm an old stick-in-the-mud, but I don't need a close up of the runny nose and drool, really.

But you can tell when an adult is doing his/her own picture, especially using a camera lens on a laptop or cell phone, and you get a close up of their pores. It's way too close.

I would guess that we're used to looking at ourselves up pretty close, because we look at ourselves in mirrors while we're cleaning those pores and all.

In the old film days, I doubt most people took many self-portraits of themselves alone, and when they did, they probably tried to make it look like an art portrait and so were using a pretty good social distance. But now, taking self-portraits with a laptop or cell phone camera, where you're at most an arm's length away? That seems too close for the social distance that makes us comfortable, doesn't it?

That's my peeve. Step back from the lens, people!

My extra peeve is when someone does a video capture of themselves talking while they're driving; you not only get the extreme up-close, but the impression that they're so effing important that they have to multi-task instead of focusing on driving. Here's news: if you're that important, you probably would have someone driving you. And you'd have someone else doing the video, too.

Caveat: there are PLENTY of bloggers who take great pics of their kids, who take pics at a good social distance, manage to clean the slobber up. My peeve isn't about those folks at all.

And yes, I have noticed that I have a greater tolerance for close-up animal pictures than people pictures.

NB. It was either this or starting grading right away and live-blogging my grading. :(

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Theater Night Out

I went to a play last night with some friends. It was a pretty good play, overall. The acting was pretty good, though the dialog was slower than I'd have liked. It's not that I want actors to really rush through lines, but a slightly quicker pace would have suited me. I think that's a direction issue more than an actor issue.

What really drove me nuts were the scene changes. I'm not enamored of a lot of scenery and such in theater; to me, it distracts more than it enhances. And I don't need it, because I've got a plenty active imagination. Tell me that we're in the woods of Arden, and I'm with you; I don't need a bunch of fake trees to convince me. And fake trees aren't convincing anyway.

The scene changes last night were especially irritating because they were long and they were loud enough that the tech folks turned up music to cover.

I don't know how to get around scene changes for some plays, though, because they need furniture or whatever. Knowing that somehow doesn't make me less impatient. It's interesting how playwrights choose to use the theatrical spaces they know (or imagine) for their work.

I noticed something last night about how my theater experience has developed through working with the different productions I've helped with. I think a lot more about how the theater is working as a theater while thinking about how the play is working as a play, if that makes sense. Mostly that's really positive and makes the play all the more interesting.

However, at one point last night, an actor was dumped into a pit (his character had just been brutally murdered), and I almost chuckled thinking how hard it must be for an actor to learn to be totally limp while he's dumped, even if he knows there's plenty of padding and the drop isn't that big. Take it from me, chuckling would have been inappropriate at that moment.

I was reminded by last night to think to check next semester's scheduled productions to include a play for my drama class.

I saw a number of friends of various sorts from campus during the intermission and after the play; but, of course, I didn't see the headmaster. Woudln't it be cool if, instead of informing us at the big bi-monthly meeting of the latest sports event he's been to see, the headmaster would talk about going to the theater or an art show?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dancing in the Halls

I just graded a midterm, and the class did great overall. They made good connections with the material, wrote pretty well, and just rocked my socks.

Grading a set of good midterms is almost fun.


Question of the day: this assistant coach (basketball) contributes more to the mission of education at Kansas State thank how many associate professors?

The article says he earned $400,000 last year. Let's pretend that the average (mean) salary of an associate professor at Kansas State is $80,000. (That's probably a very high pretend average associate prof salary, from my experience.)

So he's contributing five professor's worth to the mission of Kansas State. And this is an assistant coach. Imagine what a contribution to the mission the head coach must be making! (The same article says he makes $760,000.)

Here's what the Kansas State University website has to say about the mission:
Kansas State University is a comprehensive, research, land-grant institution first serving students and the people of Kansas, and also the nation and the world.

Since its founding in 1863, the University has evolved into a modern institution of higher education, committed to quality programs, and responsive to a rapidly changing world and the aspirations of an increasingly diverse society. Together with other major comprehensive universities, Kansas State shares responsibilities for developing human potential, expanding knowledge, enriching cultural expression, and extending its expertise to individuals, business, education, and government. These responsibilities are addressed through an array of undergraduate and graduate degree programs, research and creative activities, and outreach and public service programs. In addition, its land-grant mandate, based on federal and state legislation, establishes a focus to its instructional, research, and extension activities which is unique among the Regents' institutions.

Through quality teaching, the University is committed to provide all students with opportunities to develop the knowledge, understanding, and skills characteristic of an educated person. It is also pledged to prepare students for successful employment or advanced studies through a variety of disciplinary and professional degree programs. To meet these intentions, the institution dedicates itself to providing academic and extracurricular learning experiences which promote and value both excellence and cultural diversity. Kansas State University prepares its students to be informed, productive, and responsible citizens who participate actively in advancing cultural, educational, economic, scientific, and socio-political undertakings.

Research and other creative endeavors comprise an essential component of Kansas State University's mission. All faculty members contribute to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. These efforts, supported by public and private resources, are conducted in an atmosphere of open inquiry and academic freedom. Basic to the pursuit of this mission is the University's commitment to broad-based programs in graduate education at both the master's and doctoral levels.

Kansas State University's mission includes enriching the lives of the citizens of Kansas by extending to them opportunities to engage in life-long learning and to benefit from the results of research. The University addresses this charge through mutually supportive activities on its Manhattan and Salina campuses, research and extension sites at numerous locations, outreach programs offered throughout the State and nation, and international activities.

The mission of Kansas State University is enhanced by symbiotic relationships among the discovery of knowledge, the education of undergraduate and graduate students, and improvement in the quality of life through research applications. Coordinated teaching, research, and extension services help develop the highly skilled and educated work force necessary to the economic well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community.

Mission Statement for Kansas State University (1991)

I seem to have missed the part about basketball in there.

(I bet the coach or coaches for the women's basketball team aren't making quite the same money, either.)

I wonder what happens if we compare Kansas State's academic standing compared to other universities; do you think it ranks as high in academics as it does in basketball coaches' salaries?

The much flawed US News & World Report rankings shows it at #132 among national PhD granting universities. No doubt Kansas State's basketball team could whoop a lot of those other schools. And really, that's what's important, right?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Midterm

Alas, the perfect midterm is something will never be found, but might, at best, be approximated at a moment in time. I haven't gotten there yet, but every time I write a midterm, I try.

I wrote one this morning. But not a perfect one.

A perfect midterm is one that let's students who've worked hard and learned lots really shine. Their work stands out, and the midterm gives you a way to reward it. And the students who haven't bothered to come to class or do any reading, they fail miserably, and you can see it as they stare blankly at the page, unable to make a meaningful beginning.

Most students do a fair bit of work, and in my classes, usually come to class and even participate pretty regularly. They're usually reasonably engaged. The midterm should help them show what they know, and ideally, should help them put things together a little better.

Because the most important aspect of a perfect midterm would be that students learned something from writing it. Sometimes, you can help students put things together better if you work on reviewing for the midterm well. But there are so many variables that I couldn't tell anyone how to do that except for my own classes.

Most folks have a fairly set format for midterms. Mine--which I adopted from working with my mentor in grad school, and which he adopted from his mentor, and which she, well, I have no idea where she got it--gives students two separate sorts of tasks. The first task is a short identification and explain what this has to do with what we've been working on in class; the second asks students to do a sort of mini-explication with passages.

There's one more thing about the perfect midterm: it's relatively painless to grade. Mine isn't, but it's not too horrible, either.

If ONLY I could think of a reasonably valid way to give a scantron midterm in an English class! But I never learned anything useful from taking scantron exams (and trust me, I took my share), while I did, in fact, learn from exams in many classes.

My favorite exam question of all time (from my mammology class):

at the bottom of one page of a short answer exam: What's the most important question in mammology today?

And on the top of the next page, otherwise blank: Answer it.

Of course, I wasn't one of those smart students who previews the test before I started writing, and I wrote in pen, and didn't go back to erase. I remember that I answered the first with a question about the development of body temperature regulation (endothermy) in mammals. And then I answered the second with a review about what we knew about the development of body temperature regulation (drawing also on a couple paleo classes), and then talked about why that development was important to the evolution of mammals.

I think it says something that I remember the question and more or less what I wrote after almost 25 years. I know I'd been thinking about such things in different classes, but the question helped me put together what I knew and made me realize that I had actually learned a lot.

I wonder now, thinking back, whether the answers tended to be interesting or irritating? Did most students write about a real problem and give thoughtful answers? Or did most write vapid questions with really uninteresting (though perhaps correct) answers? And how would you grade those? (And heck, maybe my own question was pretty vapid, but it seemed important to me at the time.) It's the potential pain of grading vapid questions that keeps me from using that sort of question in my own classes. But maybe I should try it some time? Just trust that at least some of my students will come up with really good, interesting questions?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Questions You Can't Ask

When I talk to some colleagues and read some blogs, there are a couple questions I always want to ask, but I know you're not allowed.

At the risk of sounding mean, though, I still want to ask.

Picture: Professional woman, straight, married, kids (usually at least two, not twins), talking about how she gets up, makes breakfast for everyone, irons her husband's clothes, packs lunches for everyone, takes kids to day-care/school, goes to work, works, works, and works some more, gets off work, picks up kids, takes kids to activity, does grocery shopping, makes dinner while supervising homework, cleans the house, serves dinner and does the dishes, puts the kids to bed, and then gets up and does it again every day.

Picture me: "Um, what is you're husband doing to contribute?"

That's it, that's the question I want to ask.

And if you did, you know you'd hear that he babysits sometimes, or does his own laundry, or helps pack lunches. But it's never anywhere near 50%.

Picture me: "So why did you choose to breed with this person? and more than once?"

Yeah, that second question. We're never supposed to ask about breeding choices, except that those of us who haven't, we get told how miserable and empty our lives are, and how we need to make up the extra committee work because we don't have kids, and how could we just pick up an extra class so a new parent can do the parental leave thing. (Though non-breeding males don't get asked to make up extra work, ever notice that?) (And yes, I've picked up an extra class to help a new parent. I support parental leaves in theory and in practice.)

Picture me, the question I really want to ask: "Why the hell do you put up with him?"

But we're not allowed to ask, not supposed to ask, because asking de-romanticizes the whole straight marriage/happy mom paradigm, and asks women to think about why they make the choices they do, asks them to recognize that they really are making choices, even if those choices are based on strong ideological impulses. Because if we recognize the ideological sexism of straight marriage, then people, women specifically, will realize how really sexist their husbands are, and how unequal their relationships. And men can't have that.

So don't ask.

*Yes, there are single fathers who do a wonderful job taking care of their kids. But I don't know any straight, married fathers with working wives who contribute anything like 50% of household/family maintenance. They may be out there, but I sure don't know them or hear about them on blogs.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Greenblatt on Modern Politics

Hat tip to the Seacoast of Bohemia!

How often has someone actually asked a Shakespeare scholar anything rather than just tossing off Shakespeare references? Usually, it's the econ folks that get airtime.

I like the Bottom stuff, especially. Great comparison!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Down and Up Again

In my junior level course today, my students, all English majors, couldn't give even a basic, working definition of "ideology," until one brave person made a stab and got close to the issue. And they couldn't make sense of the word "structure."

So much for English departments as hotbeds of postmodern theory and Marxism. It's frustrating because they should have a handle on basic theoretical terms as a starting point for discussion in upper-level courses, and they should have heard these terms in at least two pre-requisite courses before. That is, they should have heard these terms repeated and used in more than one course, so they should really have the idea.

And then in my senior level class, they had a lovely discussion, somehow making connections with each other, responding to each other, listening, and making good points about the play.

And so in one day, I've moved from despair to delight.

The load from the weekend thing has lifted, and I only have two big stacks of grading!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

On Duty

It's Sunday afternoon, and three of us are in the hallway. Two of us are working separately on our parts of the same thing. The other is just insanely grading.

Our thing has to be done by tomorrow.

You know, when it comes to procrastination, our students are rank amateurs compared to us.

EDITED to add: I have some great colleagues. This one I've been working with today, especially great. Thank my lucky stars for great colleagues!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

From the Garage

Come play.

It's not really cold out here... come play!

It could snow any day... come play!

You know you want to!

It's sunny out, and there's no wind!

Come play in the street with me!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday Fun

I did it! I hit a 17 mph average for 18 miles today (just got it as I was coming to the first of many slow downs in the last two miles of my ride). That's like 25 kilometers per hour! (I'm way faster in metric!)

For real bikers, of course, a 17 mph average would be a joke, but for me it's a pretty big milestone. Back in May 2007, I was working on trying to get to an average of 16 mph, and when I got close, I posted about it. So to be totally self-referential, here goes again.

I don't always think of myself as really good at putting together social stuff, but I've put together a dinner out group for tomorrow night at a bakery place in a town about 40 minutes away. On Saturdays, they do a "make your own pizza" thing; when you "order," they bring you a tray with a spread out pizza dough, and you go over and put on whatever toppings look good. Then you hand the pizza over to a staff person, and a while later, you get it back, cooked! It's really fun, and the pizza I had before was amazingly good. They have a Thai peanut sauce that brings a smile to the taste buds. The folks I've invited don't mostly know each other, but they're all good folks, so they should!

And now, I should be grading, but it's almost 9pm, and I'm going to bed. I'm trying to fight off a cold. [Question of the day: Should someone bike with a cold? Obviously, I wasn't having any trouble breathing or anything, and didn't feel lousy. In fact, once I got on the bike and got my rhythm, I was really happy to be outside having fun. And I was dressed warmly enough to be comfortable (hat under the helmet, long-fingered gloves, tights, long sleeve "technical" undershirt under my jersey, wool socks).] But now, it's definitely time for a medicinal toddy!

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Since Sisyphus was kind enough to ask, here's the handout I give when I start teaching explications. (And I can always use help making this better, please!)

An explication is an unfolding of a passage, a thesis-driven essay that makes an argument about how a passage works by focusing on aspects such as diction, form, metaphor, imagery, and so forth. While an explication may include a short paraphrase of the passage, the main focus is on how the passage makes its meaning, rather than what it means.

How to write an explication:

Explications are HARD to write well, but are great at developing skills in really careful, attentive reading. They do take a good deal of work, though, so give yourself time, and don’t plan on doing them at one sitting.

Here are the steps I use (and I use explication when I work on understanding a text to teach it or write about it). I do freewriting and draw in my pre-writing brainstorming because it’s important to me to have notes to work from when I start writing the essay or working on class/essay notes.

1) Read the passage. Look up words. Figure out what the passage means at a basic level.

2) Look up more words. Think about what alternatives or other words might have been used. Think about the connotations of different words and how you react to them.

3) Read the passage aloud (more than once or twice), and think about how it feels in your mouth and how it sounds. In the case of verse, you want to think about enjambment and end-stopping, rhyme and how strong it is, rhythm, aspects such as alliteration, and so forth. Are there places where the verse makes you slow down? Why? What’s the effect? Conversely, are there places where you speed up? There's no singel answer for what a technique such as alliteration "does." On the most basic level, these things make you pay closer attention, draw words together in your mind, and so forth.

4) Draw or work out imagery in some way. This is especially important for literature that describes art (ekphrasis) because there’s often a sense that talking about how graphic art works also gives us a sense of how textual art works. That is, literature about art is often also literature about literature.

5) What do you think the passage is doing? How is it doing that? Is it effective? Ineffective?

Okay, now you have your working thesis (how the passage is doing what it’s doing). Outline or rough out your argument, quoting from the passage when it helps you make your point. Develop your point with examples. You may need to reference other works (the OED, or a work on poetic techniques, if you want to talk about how metaphor works or something).

Once you’ve got your draft written, think of a title that has something to do with your argument. Don’t use “Explication” because it doesn’t help your reader get a sense of your argument.

Final notes: You probably don’t need to talk about the verse being iambic pentameter unless there’s a moment that makes that interesting. Just noting that in and of itself isn’t that useful, mostly.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I'm not the brightest light on my family tree, alas, and when I'm trying to learn something, I usually need a couple tries. I need practice, sometimes more than once.

I've been sort of dreading getting my first bike flat. I watched the bike shop guy change a tire one day, and got a sort of lesson, and even helped, but it's not quite the same thing.

When I was yearning for my first driver's license, my parents had a rule; before I could go to the DMV for the test, I had to show them that I could parallel park with only a few inches on either end of the car and that I could change a flat. The parallel parking involved some old picnic table benches, set up on end and moved closer each time until I could, indeed, parallel park with only a few inches extra space. The tire changing involved taking the car to a flat spot, taking the tire off, going to get a parent, then demonstrating that I knew how to put it back on, including which order to tighten the lug nuts.

At the time, I remember thinking it was sort of stupid. Duh, I'd read the stupid drivers' ed course booklet. But in my late 20s, alone on a freeway at night, when my tire blew out, I realized it wasn't at all stupid. I knew where my flares were, and got them lit and put out properly. And then I changed the tire, and that was that. Because I'd done it before, I wasn't really worried about the steps, and not being worried helped me do the job.

Today, I changed my bike tire tube. It wasn't flat, quite, but I'd broken off the presta-valve mini-screw so that I couldn't fill it with air, and over the past several rides, the tire had gotten a bit mushy even for me, so it was time. And it wasn't that hard. Happily, I was able to change it in my nice warm house instead of out on a cold road. But now I've done it, and I'm dreading the whole flat thing a lot less.

What does this have to do with a Shakespeare blog, you wonder?

Today I also collected a set of explications from my Chaucer class. Explication is an important skill for people who want to really work closely with texts, so it's important to give students a chance to practice. Our students, though, don't get a lot of practice with verse, especially. I think most classes work closely with textual passages, but don't explicitly explicate them together. So we took a full class day about two weeks ago, and worked together, using the steps I'd given them on my assignment sheet, to work through a passage and come up with a good thesis for an explication. Then we'd worked on how we'd organize the actual explication. So while we didn't actually write an explication together, we did the preparatory work and figured out what it would look like.

If I taught them well, the explications should be pretty good, and relatively painless to read. So why am I afraid to even look at the first one?