Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Colleagues Should Know about Composition

I was at a celebration recently, and hung out with some colleagues from the music department. These are friendly, nice folks, and I was grateful to hang out with them between stages of the festivities.

With classes starting soon, we got to talking about campus stuff.

You might think that all professors do the same thing, basically, and so know all about each other's lives. You'd be wrong.

Music profs, for example, spend a lot of time giving private lessons to college students. And that's not just a matter of a kid walking in and you teach them the next note, as I understand it, but about teaching the student all sorts of stuff about the music, choosing music for them (or helping more advanced students), helping them build related skills. And if you have ten violin students, that's five to ten hours a week of close contact with each student. And maybe then there's group work, too.

Then there's recruiting. The trumpet prof probably doesn't have to go far and wide to recruit, but I bet the viola person does, and the bassoon prof certainly would.

And they hold auditions, because not every student who plays the flute in high school gets into the flute studio.

For me, I just take students as they come; we welcome high school visitors in my department, but it's not like I go looking for a potential Shakespeare student. For one thing, that's just not how an English lit undergrad looks (at least not in any places I've been), nor are high school students self-selected to work on certain areas the way they are to practice clarinet. (The ones who really don't want to be clarinet players either don't join high school band or don't practice much and certainly don't push to do it in college.)

Inevitably, we get around to questions about how frustrating it is when these folks give writing assignments and the students turn in really poorly written papers, papers full of grammar errors and whatnot.

So here's what I'd like my colleagues to know about teaching composition at NWU.

1) For most NWU English folks, teaching writing is more "outside" our field than teaching intro biology or whatever is in most fields. Intro to lit is way more like intro biology. Teaching writing is a stretch for most of us, something we had to figure out or get trained in separately from our phud field.
This has implications. One is that profs in other fields can learn to teach writing some, too, and should. The other is that teaching writing is way less fun than teaching intro lit for those of us who love lit enough to get a phud in that field. The third is that academic writing for lit is what I know best, and to the extent that your field's needs are different, I'm going to have difficulty teaching them. But you should be able to teach them your field's practices.

2) I can't teach a student to be a brilliant writer in one semester any more than you can teach your best incoming tuba student everything s/he needs to learn about playing the tuba in one semester. A really promising high school student has probably learned a fair bit about writing by the time s/he gets to college, and I can (one hopes) help him/her improve. A less promising incoming student should also improve. It's worth noting that I'm teaching all of these students in a class of 20, so I don't have the one on one intensity of your trombone studio private lesson.

3) What worked for you as a student might not work for others. So the fact that someone learned to write well enough to succeed in college by reading "great literature" and then writing about it, doesnt' mean that works for everyone. One of the difficulties of changing anything in the academy is that the people who are running the academy did well the way things were, and don't really "see" the people that way didn't serve well because they didn't succeed or enjoy it enough to stay in for grad school or whatever.

Which is a long way of saying, I'd love to teach "great literature" in my writing course, but research shows that it doesn't work well for a lot of students, and that there are better strategies. High school students, remember, get a lot of lit in their English (or language arts) courses; the ones who learned to write well did well in that system. The ones who didn't come out of that system writing well need another approach.

4) Yes, I hate misplaced commas as much as the next person, but teaching grammar for the sake of teaching grammar teaches grammar, not writing. Writing is way more than proper punctuation.
A caveat: a lot of people think they "know" correct grammar, but they know some weird rule that they've internalized, which really isn't about correctness, but about the weirdness of some rule. When you want to correct a student's grammar, make sure you're correcting grammar and not enforcing a regional practice or some 19th century weird rule. You CAN start a sentence with "and," and you CAN end a sentence with a preposition. And no, using "I" in an essay shouldn't result in an automatic F.
I'm way more cautious about correcting grammar after having taken a grammar course and worked with some linguists than I would have been before that.

5) When we teach writing, we run into the same overwhelming problems you do. I focus on big issues first, and then, if there's time and so forth, on a small issue. So, I worry about an essay being an essay, making a point, being logically organized, and focus on those things in my response to a student's writing.

I worry about grammar and punctuation primarily when they're repetitive (the student makes the same error over and over) and even then, I may mention try to help the student learn one correct usage in responding to a paper. If I list twelve grammar problems, then the student isn't going to "get" any of them; it's simply too much for someone to grasp all at once. If I see the same error repeated, then it's not actually twelve errors, it's the same error made twelve times, and maybe I can teach the student to correct that one thing. If I see the same error repeated across many papers in a class, then I might try to teach the class about that one issue.

6) Writing well usually involves a writing process. We try to teach students that process in our writing classes, and if they get it, then they'll use it again later. But they may not really get it until they bomb a few other papers by turning in a one-off draft. So, if you can build some process practices into your writing assignments, then you'll help the students develop their writing processes, and you'll probably get to read better papers.

7) Student development isn't linear. They don't enter college and steadily improve in all areas. It's like music in that way. Say a student is at X level in tone, and Y level in technical proficiency, and Z level in interpretive practice. S/he doesn't move smoothly to X+1, Y+1, and Z+1 and so forth, step by step. In fact, the student's tone may go all kablooey while s/he's working on a particularly difficult technical piece, and the interpretation may be just dismal. But you work through it, and once the technical stuff is in place, you refocus on tone, and bring that back up, and so forth.

Similarly, when a student is grappling with really difficult ideas in your upper-level classes, his or her basic grammar writing about those difficult ideas may just wither. When I first tried to write using a more theoretical approach, every sentence I wrote was totally stilted and horrible, but I had to write through that to get a better grasp of the theory. Only once I grasped the theory better, could I use it more fluidly. (That's one reason grad student writing in English tends to be so utterly horrid at some points.)

That's a normal part of how we people develop. You've seen it in two year olds, where suddenly they're dealing with the world in a way more complicated way, and they have really irritating behavior that you thought you'd gone beyond when they were 16 months. But then they get the complication and things get easier for a bit, until they reach the next complication, when things get tough again. It doesn't stop with being a four year old, alas. Most of us don't throw tantrums the way a two year old does, but our grammar might go to the devil.

For those who teach comp, what else would you want colleagues to know?

And for those who don't teach comp, what sorts of things do you always want to ask your comp-teaching colleagues?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Afternoon Meeting

One of my tasks this year is to be secretary to a legal beagle sort of committee, so today I went to the legal meeting. It's amusing to see a bunch of pretty smart folks with absolutely no clue trying to learn stuff. Or not.

I vaguely remember hearing a George Carlin bit a long time ago, where he was talking about going to Catholic school and testing out what some priest had to say about some problem in Catholic practice. There was a part about how you were supposed to go to confession before going to mass at Easter, but then what if you were dying, but then you recovered, but it was already 12:01, but then blah blah, and so forth, all these impossibly complicated "what ifs" ending with the final complication of crossing the international date line, what then, Father? (Found a transcript, anyway!)

That's how I felt about some of the questions. Yes, it's important to consider contingencies and difficult situations, but what if there's a flood on the day you're supposed to hold the meeting, and you can't get to campus, but then a boat comes by, and some people can get to campus, can you still vote on the issue?

On the other hand, some of these questions just seem to come from an expectation that there's bad will on the part of colleagues. Maybe that's so. I have colleagues (a few) I don't trust greatly, but not necessarily because I think they have bad will or intentions. Maybe I shouldn't trust them nearly as much as I do? Probably so.

A lot of the meeting was about trying not to get sued or whatever. I know it's important to try not to get sued, but more important is to try to act ethically and honestly, to work for justice and do what's right. If I do that and get sued, well, I guess I'd change my mind, wouldn't I?

This is yet another reason why I'd make a bad lawyer or administrator. I used to belong to an on-line community whose only real rule was along the lines of "don't be a dink," and mostly that worked pretty well, though not entirely. I think it's a pretty good general rule, though.

The meeting was important, because it's important to do this work as fairly and well as possible, but also irritating.

The convener likes to repeat things at an increasing volume. I made the mistake of not sitting in the very back of the room. Irritating. REALLY IRRITATING! His voice sounded more and more irritated as he got louder, so it wasn't just the volume, it was the irritation in there. I'm glad I'm not his kid, because I had plenty of irritation voiced at me when I was a kid, and it wasn't great fun.

Weirdly, he took a phone call during the middle of saying something. I don't know that it was a real phone call, though. He said it was a call from the person who'd formerly held that job, a person who has gone elsewhere for a new position higher up in administrationland. And that's what our side of the conversation sounded like. But seriously, who doesn't have the sense to turn off his phone when heading in to lead an important meeting?

And the person who left for the new position? While he was here, everyone but everyone in adminstrationland was licking his boots. Now, I'm hearing a lot of nasty little jabs about him from those same folks. It's not really inspiring me with great trust in the folks who are here, you know? (And I'm not saying he was wonderful; I don't know, really. It's the total attitude shift I'm thinking of.)

The meeting lasted three and a half hours, and yet the administrator only got through three quarters of the slides he'd prepared.

Administrative meeting fail.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Morning's Full of Meetings

And these meetings were good. Shocking for me to say, but there it is.

We met with the new assistant headmaster, who said many things well. Now we hope for success and leadership.

We had a talk about the state of race and inequity on campus, and while the news was bad (we've been doing about a year of research to learn just how bad and to try to get evidence for what we're doing that doesn't work well for our students and community, and what we're doing that does), it was helpful. When you see the numbers, if you hope for any sort of social justice or equity, then you pretty much have to commit to working for a better situation. That's where we are now.

Working towards justice and equity is hard, and we're floundering a bit, but having numbers convinces people who aren't convinced by anecdote or impressions. Hard numbers has a chance of convincing people who really, really don't want to be convinced (and you can tell who they are by the questions they repeatedly ask). Having the numbers means that folks who want to work towards justice and equity can point to the numbers to say that this is important, and that what we're doing now isn't sufficient.

Then I went to a talk on campus writing, and it, too, was good. The speaker did a fine job explaining what we do in our first year writing class, and how student writing develops over time. The speaker did a superb job explaining to the folks who wondered why we don't teach students to read the classics in composition classes (they way they did when the doubters were young) and why we don't just teach every student grammar and more grammar.

Now, now, I feel ready to talk to students again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two Lost Hours

I just finished a meeting for the special programs for entering students thing. That's two hours of my life I won't get back.

Did you know there are things called "rubrics"? Apparently, they're not just for medieval scholars writing in red ink anymore, either. (Seriously Maybe I'm wrong; is there anyone out there with a phud in academics who doesn't know what a rubric is?)

We spent an hour listening to a guy who's never taught in this program talk about teaching in this program. He had ten minutes worth of good stuff and spread it out.

I hope my bike is waiting at home to take me for a ride.

The Patriarch

Senator Edward Kennedy died last night. I admired what I understood of Kennedy's legislative abilities and accomplishments. I was happy to have seen him during a roll call vote in the Senate one day in the 80s, when I visited Washington D.C.

As I was waking this morning, I vaguely heard the news report talk admiringly about how after his brother Robert's death, the youngest of the nine Kennedy children became the family patriarch.

Um, yeah, that's because he was the only son left alive, and by definition a "patriarch" is male. Why the admiration for his maleness?

Imagine if Eunice Kennedy Shriver had the opportunities available to her brothers during the 50s and 60s? She managed to do some impressive work without the law degrees Robert and Edward, or the grad work her other brothers had before they went to WWII.

All the money and privilege that helped the three brothers achieve political office and power makes me wonder how the women of that generation fit in that family, what opportunities they had, what pressures, what restrictions.

How many more restrictions and pressures women who didn't have that money and privilege experienced, and how many of those restrictions and pressures are products of patriarchy?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Begin Again

Today was the meetings where big shots talked. We have a campus breakfast, and then the talking begins with thanks to the corporate sponsors. It's no accident that the corporate sponsors are all represented by white men. Two banks and a car dealership, all represented by white men. The campus fund-raising folks, another corporate white male.

All but one of the head folks who spoke today, white male. The one exception was a faculty group leader. Go her.

The first meeting was all bad news, as expected. Cuts will be made, but we'll all get input into deciding who/what is cut. I'm guessing the white men at the top figure they'll do this fairly, after all, it's only about merit, right? They'll figure it out together while drinking single malt whiskey on the porch.

The second meeting was equally dismaying, mostly. Why do I even go to these?

We've identified a "new problem" on campus which wasn't recognized as a problem before for us, but is now recognized as a problem, four year graduation rates. Okay, so I can recognize that this is a problem from a couple points of view, but from others, not so much. Evidently the data related to this is one of the big new things colleges and universities are being judged by. I'd like to see the graduation rate data put up next to data about students who work off campus, first generation students, and students who are economically disadvantaged.

I made it through in four years, but I was one of few in my social group who did, even way back when. The biggest factor I could see was that my parents paid for my school, books, and room/board; my summer jobs and a part-time job for a year in college paid for other stuff. My friends weren't so lucky. I left my undergrad institution without debt; again, many of my friends weren't so lucky.

I left campus in a bad mood, and stopped at the grocery store on the way home. What I really wanted was to buy candy, or malt, or something. But I controlled myself.

I came home, took the guest dog out for a bit (she ran off to explore a neighbor's yard, surprising me with how fast her 17 year old self could run), and then sat on the couch to mope.

And while I was moping, I knew that if I could only get myself out on my bike for even a short ride, I'd feel better.

I finally did, planning only to go for an easy ride on the trail, but remembering that half the city streets on the way there and back are torn up and detoured, I decided to park at the swimming pool park and go south of town.

And you know, once I got started, I did feel good. I felt so good that I did ten miles out, and ten back. At the ten mile point, working fairly hard, I had an average of 16.1 mph, which is pretty fair for me. I decided to try harder for a while, at least, until I was too tired, on the way back. But then, about four miles from the end, I saw a biker in front of me, and I decided to try to catch the other biker.

Now, I've been known to put big energy into chasing another biker only to find that it's a fancy mailbox, and I barely caught it anyway. But today, this biker was the perfect pacer for me, and inspired me to push a whole lot harder than I would have otherwise. And just after the crest of the second to last hill, I passed her.

And yes, my bike did make me feel a whole lot less mopey and unhappy for the evening. Thank you, bike.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Petty Decisions

I'm stuck on a couple of decisions. And when I tell you about these, you'll realize just how dull and unimportant my life is.

Heart Monitor. I'm thinking about getting a heart rate monitor for working out. What I'd really like is to just rent one for a week or two, but I'm guessing that's not so common. I'd like to know what my max rate is, and how I do at a couple different riding intensities. For example, when I try my 15 mile "go as fast as I can" ride, how hard am I actually pushing? When I go up Moose Hill, how hard am I working?

But once I know the basic numbers, I doubt I'd really wear the monitor so much. One hint I have about this is that I have a couple friends who've said they have a heart monitor, but they don't use it or know where it is, even.

Or, I could get obsessive about it, which might not be so great. Or maybe it will help me stay focused on exercising this winter?

Fat Cyclist Jersey. I don't really need a new bike jersey. And I'm uncertain about men's or women's (my shoulders like men's, my hips like women's). And I'm also uncertain about the color. I like the orange color better (I'm not a pink sort of woman) but I like the Team Fatty part.

Have I mentioned that I won't be paid until October? Yeah, and this summer was expensive, not only in the trip to Yellowstone, which I'd planned on, but having my Mom and niece here added up (especially in gas/travel money and eating out).

The heart monitor would be more fun to get while it's still decent biking weather. Reading the reviews makes me think I'm thinking about a Polar F11, but that's probably way more than I really "need." And the Fat Cyclist jersey is on pre-order for a limited time.

You know what I'm probably going to do? Wait until the F11 is no longer made, and then rethink over again, and then decide to get a jersey the day after the pre-ordering period is over.

I'm really pathetically bad at real life.

Inner Beancounter

I'm most in touch with my inner beancounter, the part of me that organizes and plans ahead, at this point in the semester.

It's sort of a beautiful thing, a well-planned syllabus, with readings prepared, assignments more or less ready to go, the web-thingy in place. It's the part of the semester that holds the most promise, when I can imagine the readings going well, students being able to access the web-thing without problems.

I'm hesitant to print out the syllabus and calendar for copying at this point, because there are always last minute things I need to add and change. But pretty much, I could start teaching one of my classes in the time it takes to print out and copy things. The other two classes aren't nearly that close, but one is good to go, pretty much.

Of course, despite all my plotting and planning, things never work out quite the way I think. There's always fine-tuning to do, adjustments to make.

Looking around NWU and the news, I'm guessing we might find ourselves making a lot of adjustments if there's a bad flu outbreak, especially if I get it. (I don't think I'm high on anyone's priority list of people to get the vaccine, though that's not an issue most years.) Certainly, the campus health folks are talking like they're worried and trying to prepare.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rare Sight

The top of my office desk!

I spent part of yesterday cleaning my office up. I got rid of old papers and finals students never picked up. (I'm getting way better at getting papers back to students before the end of the semester, finally, but still end up with some.) I put away class materials from last semester, filed teaching notes, rearranged books to put the current semester's texts on my teaching shelf.

It's nice to be able to see my desk. I'm a terrible clutterer. It's genetic. My dad cluttered his desks like mad, too. There'd be piles, but somehow he knew how to find things, usually, I think. I'm not that good.

The taxpayers should be happy when they see my so-old-it's-hip-ultra-retro desk and furniture from the 50s. I'm guessing every piece of office furniture supplied by the university (the wooden rack thing I brought myself) is older than I am. You're welcome, taxpayers. Yes, that's a rotary phone. It works until I need to press a button to talk to someone specific in the registrar's office, and then I have to use my cell phone.

Last evening, my clean desk inspired me to go home and work up the syllabus, calendar, and assignments for one of my classes. Today, the clean desk inspired me to work up the calendar for another class.

I've got two really tough committee assignments this year (and one not too tough one); I ran for one, and then got the other (after I'd been elected to the one) because one of my colleagues claimed to be unable to do it, and I was "next in line" sort of.

I'm not thrilled that this colleague says s/he can't do the committee job. It's pretty essential, and fairly painful. Either s/he's really sick/tired and needs to retire or this is essential to the job. Or maybe s/he just doesn't want to? Or maybe s/he's sick enough that I should feel really horrid for having such ungenerous thoughts. Maybe I should be grateful to be well and healthy and all.

The chair of the committee has publicly said that I've "volunteered" without mentioning the other colleague's refusal. I don't know if the chair knows about the other colleague's refusal. Seems s/he should know, no?

I need to put my resentment about this extra, painful duty behind me and just do the job.

So that's why the clean desk. I need to clean up, get organized, and start the semester with whatever good will and generosity I have, and follow through from there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Over in the Underwater Basketweaving department:

One of the folks (Joe) hired fifteen or more years ago to teach reed preparation (back when it was a field in its infancy, before many people actually got phuds in reed preparation) always really wanted to teach brackish water weaving, and hasn't kept up in reed preparation at all. All his publications are in brackish weaving, as are his projects. And he's well-qualified to teach brackish weaving.

But, that means the current person teaching brackish weaving isn't getting the upper level courses in brackish weaving she likes to teach, and she does't have tenure, so is getting pushed into more introductory weaving courses. What happens with that line if Joe really does claim that field (Joe has 5-10 more years before retirement, probably). UB can't afford two brackish weaving people, especially if they also need to hire another reed preparation person.

The newer folks in reed preparation, though, the folks who did phuds in reed preparation and are really into it, want to hire more reed preparation specialists, since Joe really isn't qualified any more and doesn't want to teach those courses anyway. We need more reed preparation classes taught all around because it's a growing and important field.

What to do?

Then there's the newish hire, Alice, whose spouse Guy was hired a few more years ago on the tenure track. Alice was hired for the patterned weaving position, and while she did patterned weaving in the past, she's turned all her attention to non-patterned weaving, and really isn't interested in patterned weaving at all.

She's teaching patterned weaving, not very happily, but what's going to happen in three or four years when she comes up for tenure? Assuming Guy gets tenure, is there really any possibility that she won't? And will she totally toss aside the patterned weaving stuff if she does? Need I mention that Guy is one of the men who hangs out drinking with the dean on the back porch, and has for years? (Yes, the very dean who (in an earlier position) appointed the hiring committee that drew up the job description for the patterned weaving job, back when folks thought she was really into patterned weaving?

What to do?

How do we balance people's desires to do whatever it is they want to do with our needs to offer courses and keep within our budget? How do we keep the young brackish weaving scholar happy without upper level courses? What do we do with the tenured person who wants to move into other territory? What do we do with the non-tenured person who wants to move into other territory?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First Day Thoughts

We have an hour and a half session with our Special Program For First Year Students students a day or two before real classes begin. Because some students won't be able to be there, we're not supposed to cover any course content that would put those students behind. But we're supposed to give the students some meaningful experience. Keep in mind that the students have moved into the dorms and been inundated with new information, and that they'll continue to be inundated and overwhelmed for at least the first three weeks of classes.

Here's what I generally do in those first 90 minutes:

I usually spend some time trying to begin learning names (and to get them to begin to learn each others' names). And then I talk about what a syllabus is, and how to read it.

I introduce my mentors, and they do a short intro to campus life.

And I tell them that they should never, having missed class, ask a professor if s/he said anything important. (At which point I have them exchange email/phone information with several other students so that they can email or call ahead of time to get a rundown of what happened in class.)

And I tell them that it drives instructors nuts when a student walks into a class and stands in front of the professor at the beginning of class (while 30+ other people wait) and expects the professor to solve a problem the student had with not being able to print out his/her homework just before class. (At which point I suggest that planning ahead so that you have time for computer disasters is a great idea when you can. And when you can't, the world won't end, probably.)

This semester, I'm also planning to get extra copies of the local "what's happening in town this month" newspaper and handing them out.

Imagine your first 90 minutes of class with new first year students no "content"); what would you want to do or talk about?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Balancing Academic and Non-Academic Stuff in Classes

I got an email from one of my favorite administrators* this morning, a mass email offering some overtime appointments (two) to work on revamping our Special Program For First Year Students. I was mildly interested (except for the overtime part) until I got to the details, which said that of the two appointments, one would be a faculty/academic staff appointment and one would be a non-academic staff appointment.

And my immediate reaction was, nope, ugh, not for me.

Yes, I'm afraid I had a negative reaction to the idea of a non-academic staff person revising this program.

From the teaching side, we've felt the program has had problems for a long time of having too much emphasis on non-academic stuff, and too little on academic stuff. And by non-academic stuff, I don't mean time management or anything, I mean "alcohol awareness," mostly, that sort of thing.

On our campus, the SPFFYS works through special sections of regular classes, where we're given fewer students (which is really important for courses typically taught as large lectures, but still helps to keep our comp classes down to about 20 rather than about 30). The trade off for smaller classes is that we're supposed to add content about adjusting to college and academic skills and to work with one or more mentor students. The students are, as it were, a captive audience in our classes; they rarely choose to attend alcohol awareness sorts of programs without some carrot/stick.

The pressure from the non-teaching folks is to add more and more non-academic content ("alcohol BAD!"). Of course, if you add an hour of alcohol awareness to the calendar, you take out an hour of something else. And that something else is basic biology (or whatever). You might say, "but Bardiac, you teach a writing class, you could give an assignment about alcohol awareness and they could write about it!" Kill me now. Seriously, you want me to read 20 essays on alcohol awareness? (Don't laugh; it's been suggested by the non-academic folks more than once. I can't help thinking how much those essays would induce me to want to drink, thus adding to the adult drinking problem in the state.)

(As a side note, this state has one of the highest levels of adult binge drinking and alcohol abuse, supposedly. Our students learn at their parents' knees.)

I know a little about the "content" vs learning arguments, the idea that faculty have focused on getting through a syllabus of material without sufficient attention to what the students were actually learning and knowing at the end of the term. So it's not that I'm lecturing on grammar habits of 19th century school marms (as if they were all bad teachers). But at some point it comes down to wanting my writing students to learn what an essay is, what a thesis is, how to make different sorts of arguments, how to think rhetorically about their audiences, how to use resources, how to represent someone else's point of view or argument fairly. Writing classes, like chem labs, are both content and skills courses; students need to practice to make the knowledge really theirs.

Once I got through my initial reaction, I realized that from the non-teaching folks' side, their stuff is also important (and yes, I know they hate being characterized as "non-teaching" or "non-academic"). Yes, we have a drinking problem on campus, just like every other campus I know of. (Hm, I wonder how the military academies do?) And like pretty much everyone these days, we're emphasizing taking care of students, and that's not all bad.

If a student came to class all upset and crying, I'd certainly stop the class and try to talk to the student privately, see what help I could muster. But at some point, that's not really my job; my job is to teach writing and literature, to advise students, to work as a member of my department, to research about really dead writers' lit.

I guess I feel like the balance here in this program and elsewhere has tilted for a long time too far to the "caring" side, and too little to the academic side. There are students who should fail out. That probably sounds cruel, but some students simply don't do the work to be in college, and we should put our resources to the students who do do the work.

Unfortunately, I don't see that tilt changing; the fact that there are two spots divided between the academic and non-academic folks means that the pressure to give equal weight in our classes to stuff such as alcohol awareness is going to continue in the revamped program.

*This is totally without sarcasm, by the way.

A moment for critical self-awareness

You see what I did in that paragraph about "content" vs learning?

A typical reductive argument I hear here about faculty is that we're poor teachers who focus only on getting through a syllabus rather than on student learning. That is, we're focused on inputs rather than outcomes. It's a reductive argument, of course, and guaranteed to get any faculty person's hackles up. So I tried to pre-empt that bit.

But, and here's the critical self-awareness part, I did much the same thing in reducing the work of the non-academic side to alcohol awareness. They do more than that, or course.

It's hard for me to get a good handle on the other things they do, but here are some of the things I'm aware of: rape/sexual assault education, counseling, student health, student recreation, student government. I'm sure there's more, often nebulous stuff that's hard to put a finger on. Where do students learn, say, leadership skills? They learn in classes a little; some learn by being student mentors, but I'm guessing that the ones chosen to be mentors already display those skills pretty well. They learn at home, in band, in sports, in clubs, wherever. How about compassion? Where do students learn that? And should they learn it in college? Is that our business?

To the extent that such things are the business of a university, they're important. Folks I know want a critical citizenry, citizens who are critical thinkers, who make good decisions, who work well, parent well, and treat other citizens well. But how much of that is the business of the university? And if that's our business, how does that fit with educating nurses?

Hard stuff.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Petty Frustration

I hate Word. Not words, but the program, Word.

I went to the office today to try to rough out the calendar for my writing class. It's going to be significantly different this year, since I've dropped the old rhetoric and we're using a new common text. Nonetheless, there's also stuff I can use from last fall's calendar.

A couple of weeks ago, when our admin assistant was bored silly, I asked her to do up a basic calendar for me. It's just a list of dates and days, with some campus activities. Thus, for a Monday/Wednesday/Friday class:

8/10 - Mon -
8/12 - Wed -
8/14 - Fri -

To which I'll type or paste in reading and writing assignments, due dates, class activities and so forth, so that students will know what's happening on a given day from the get go. It also helps me keep on track with what I need to have prepped and if I need to make copies or whatever.

I started pasting: introductions on the first day, an activity that I'll hand out. It helps to work from a previous fall's calendar because I don't have to totally rework the timing for assignments and such.

I pasted in a journal assignment, something about what they like to write about, what sorts of topics, assignments, and so forth.

And all of a sudden, when I pasted, the line went all crazy and changed fonts on me to an ugly one without serifs. (Yes, I'm a fogey, apparently.) I tried to delete here and there to straighten out the mess, but it didn't work. And after a couple minutes, and doing it a couple times, I realized that each time it was using the center function for what I was pasting (though it's not centered on the old document), and changing fonts whenever I pasted anything over a line break. So I selected the whole document, did left justify, and Times New Roman, thinking that would help. It didn't.

Rather than get totally frustrated, at this point I decided to call our computer help desk. I got a young sounding person on the line. (I'll call him/her X.) I explain the problem to X, and s/he asks my username. I spell it. S/he asks again, and I spell it again, because my name always looks mispelled, so people tend to "correct" to what looks right or something. I spell it again, and finally s/he finds me. (B-A-R-D-I-A-C. Brad? B-A-R-D-I-A-C. Bradic?. You get the point.)

They've got this neat function where they can share control of my computer and see what I'm seeing somehow, so we do that.

X asks me to demonstrate the problem, so I do.

It shouldn't do that. [no kidding? really?]

X decides I don't know how to cut and paste, and does the same thing, getting the same lousy result.

Oh, it shouldn't do that. [yeah, I got that part.]

X tries again.


I ask if there's a way to see the coding, to see what's happening and where, so I can delete it. But, no, there isn't, really. At least not that X can tell me about, besides, s/he is almost off work soon, and doesn't have time to look. [How I miss the old WordPerfect function!]

I suggest that maybe I should just save it as a text file, and see if that clears things up, because it would be easier to redo the few formatting things already on than to reformat with every single cut/paste I do.

X says that would work, but it should be fixed with just a few more key strokes. It's not.

So X plays with some stuff, and when I ask what s/he's changing, so if I don't like it I can change it back, s/he says this is the advanced stuff, and I shouldn't have to change it. [Because, yeah, I totally trust you.]

X is stumped, and I'm frustrated by the program and by X. Seriously, if we supposedly force everyone to use this program, at least be able to solve the problems, please?

We give up.

I saved the document as a text file, and then reformatted it (adding italics and such to titles). Amazing how that works.

I'm thinking whatever the admin assistant did in making this calendar, it didn't actually save me much time, did it. (I'm guessing she was playing with centering things and uses this "cute" font, perhaps, so both are somehow coded into the original?)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Just Another Brick

I got a polite email the other day from a student asking to be overloaded into a class that's already overloaded. I politely said that I couldn't further overload the class.

From the teaching point of view, it's perfectly reasonable not to overload the class further. (I figure one or two students will drop to bring the load to reasonable levels with the current overload.)

I'm betting from the student's point of view, I'm just another brick in the wall of hoop jumping to finish the degree, though.

We all have fantasies that help us get through the day. One of mine is that I actually do meaningful work, make connections with students and colleagues, and make a positive difference on an individual level. Maybe sometimes I do, but sometimes, it's just an enabling fantasy, a fantasy that helps me stand in front of a class and try day after day, a fantasy that keeps me behaving with minimal composure at most meetings I go to.

One of the results of the budget crisis here, the furloughs, and the general pain is that it's harder to pretend my fantasy isn't just a fantasy. The crisis and the way the state and university are dealing with it make it clear that we faculty folks are really just bricks to be thrown around, to be mortared together here and there in some shape that pleases somebody with more power, who themselves feels like a brick being thrown or mortared or remaindered.

I really don't like feeling like just another brick.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Five Thousand Miles of Smiles

My bike's odometer crossed the 5000 mile mark this evening after three seasons of riding.

I was on a special, celebratory ride around a local lake (30 miles, about) with friends.

I'd baked brownies so we could celebrate when we got back, and make pbj sandwiches for mid-ride. The ride was great, the pbj sandwiches did their job of making the second half more fun, and the brownies tasted properly celebratory.

I've ridden 1566 miles this year.

It may be time for an intervention.

(In reality, though, many people ride 5000 miles in a year, but I'm hoping most of them have better riding weather year round and are in way better shape than I am!)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Inventing Death

Prepping for the seminar has gotten really interesting. I'm learning lots, and have backed up to reading Philippe Aries (backwards accent thing on the e, for those who know how to do such things?).

I guess I hadn't really thought about it when I had my teen fall from grace and began to really question Christianity, not only the sect I was being raised in, but in a basic and fundamental way, but death isn't as natural in Christianity as it is in the world of natural science.

In natural science, one can't necessarily explain why death (through aging, especially) happens in all sorts of plants and critters (but not in all, go bacteria!), but most of us think about it happening for the people and other critters we care most about, ourselves, our friends and family, the animals we care for in our lives.

I'm dogsitting my sibling's family's 17 year old dog these days, and we know she'll probably not make it through the next winter (though she stuns me by romping up the hill and around the house every day). She's old, and though she's doing really well for an old dog, she also shows her age. Anyway, most of us see death as inevitable, and natural, though a 17 year old dog is anything but natural, since she's been fed and cared for and doesn't have to starve by not being able to catch her own food or get eaten by a bigger, badder predator.

Nor, of course, are our practices about death and dying "natural," and that's where I was planning to go with this seminar.

But Aries (and others) have really got me thinking because in Christianity, death is invented.

Isn't that an amazing idea. Death is invented.

In Genesis, Book 3, God invents death to punish Adam and Eve, along with kicking them out of Eden and messing with the snake and all. So in Christianity, death is the very opposite of natural (though, of course, in Christianity it's all invented by God anyway).

That inventedness and the use of death as punishment make the stakes in getting it right, dying the right way, or in the right frame of mind, or with the proper rituals, all the more important.

I'm thinking we'll begin the seminar with Genesis, and talk about the invention of death. I've got more and more stuff to read, and now I'm thinking that the stuff about Death being Satan's spawn in PL would be great, too, because it revises the invention into something very different.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Birthers Question

You've heard of them, the folks that claim that Barack Obama isn't a US citizen because he was born in Kenya and not in Hawaii.

Here's what the US constitution says:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
Isn't any child born to a citizen of the US automatically a "natural born citizen," no matter where s/he is born?

(No, I think there's plenty of evidence that he was born in Hawaii, but even so.)

Small World Wide Web

Sometimes, the web makes things seem much closer. There are people I've only met through some internet this or that, and I feel that I actually know them. There are people whose words I've read, and not even typed back to, and I feel I know them.

The Fat Cyclist is one of those folks; I've been reading his blog for a couple years now, off and on, skipping and then catching up. Except for the past couple weeks, I haven't skipped.

For those who read Fatty (his nom de blog) regularly, you know that Fatty's wife Susan Nelson died the other day of metastasized breast cancer after years of chemo, radiation, surgeries and suffering.

I'm not the only one who feels the smallness of the web about this; there are over 2000 comments on his post announcing Susan's death. Sure, some of those people knew Elden before he became Fatty, or apart from his blog, but lots didn't. And I bet there are lots (like me) who didn't respond with a comment.

I don't know quite what I want to say; it's like I'm mourning a fictional character except I'm not, and I know there are family members with very real pain.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Book Club Guilt

I'be been part of a reading group, a book club, if you will, for a couple years now. Mostly we read pretty good books, and I enjoy them. Sometimes, I don't. A couple times I haven't even opened the book because I've been too busy or whatever.

But this time, I'm about one third done, and blah.

It's a murder/detective/police procedural sort of book, and I must admit up front that I don't find those that interesting usually.

There's a point at which most of these feel really formulaic, and I just don't care. That's not to say that there aren't differences, and I'm sure there are some wonderful ones out there, but... (and Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies Detective Agency series is a whole 'nother wonderful thing altogether!) I also confess that Shakespeare's comedies are pretty darned formulaic; but somehow they don't bore me silly.

Here's the current formula:

For example, the protagonist is usually:
...divorced or unhappily separated or in a bad marriage. (subtext: women are demon-spawn)
...very special at detecting. (subtext: everyone else is an idiot, especially the higher ups on the force or at the agency)
...obsessive about something I couldn't care less about.

and the crime is usually:
...murder. unusual/creative that you'd hear of it across the world if it really happened.
...committed by a male (subtext: women are demon-spawn but not usually murderers)
...solved. (unlike many crimes in the real world; rape in the US has what, an 18% conviction rate?)
...proof that law and order are good, no matter which civil rights get stomped on.

and the complications usually involve:
...the way one crime leads to another. (subtext: did I mention women are demon-spawn? or else, teh gay!) least hints of a conspiracy theory.

I just sent out an email offering to pass along my copy to someone else, not mentioning that I haven't actually read it.

The other day I ran into someone else in the group, and made the mistake of asking who'd chosen this book. S/he waxed poetical about the wonders of the book and how much s/he loves this author and yes, s/he chose it and isn't it the best thing ever? Oops.

Our reading group seems to have dropped off considerably in actually reading the texts. I think that we started when most of us were fairly recent transplants, and since then people have become more involved in relationships and community stuff, gotten busier at work in various ways, and so just don't find the readings a priority. I'm okay with that.

I wonder what percentage of reading groups last more than about 3 years? And of those that do, how do they do it?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I sleep on a futon on a frame; I have since a friend gave me the frame in grad school. In total, I'm maybe 8-12 inches off the floor.

Generally, I don't think my futon preference is of much interest to anyone. It's a little unusual, I suppose, but I don't think it ranks up there in sleeping weirdness with my friend who has to use a stool to get onto her massive bed.

Anyway, file that information under TMI as soon as my little rant is done.


My sibling's 17 year old dog is staying with me once again (I guessed wrong at her age last year, but here's a pic). As you can see from the pic, she's fairly small, say about 10 inches at the shoulder.

My little guest has decided that we should get up sometime between 5 and 6 am. She alerted me to this decision the other morning by sticking her face up to mine (see, the futon information makes sense now, doesn't it) and breathing. I'm sure there are worse ways to wake up in the morning than a blast of dog breath right to the face, but I don't want to experience them; heck, I don't even want to know about them.

Dog breath is, well, nasty. People will tell you that their dogs don't have bad breath, but if the dog breathes in your face before 6am, you'll know they do.

People will also tell you that their cats never get on the kitchen counters. You shouldn't believe that, either. The kitchen counter thing is one of the great advantages most dogs have over most cats; dogs are usually too unagile or stupid to get up and walk on the kitchen counters. This isn't a moral issue; they would if they could. The other great advantage to most dogs is that they aren't really smart enough to revenge-pee, which some cats do. I knew a woman whose cat peed repeatedly on her boyfriend's stuff when he'd spend the night. That's a relationship killer right there.

The thing is, when a dog blasts you with its breath in the morning, it means only one thing, and I can't ignore that. So up I get, slip on something so I won't get arrested (because it's summer! Yay!), put on my glasses, and trudge to let her out.

She comes along quite happily, hits the grass, squats decisively, and then it's time to play. Seriously, she wants to play. I've tried going back to bed, but she stands there looking disappointed and concerned, and breathing at me, eying my face up close. (I don't think she can see much at this point, but she fakes it well.)

I'm going to have to start going to bed earlier. She's training me.

My Blinders

I looked up some Donne texts in the library, in my search for one or two appropriate sermons, and was sort of surprised to see the first texts in the BV and BX section, and one in HV. HV?

I'm thinking PR, and he's in HV?

I figured out the BV and BX ones after only a moment; B is for philosophy and theology, specifically practical theology and Christian denominations. Practical theology? That seems like an oxymoron in a way. But then, if by "practical" it means "the practice of" or "practices of" rather than "useful in the real world," then that makes some sense.

HV is weirder. H is social sciences, but HV is social pathology, social and public welfare, and criminology.

Quick guesses as to what Donne wrote that fits into HV?

Monday, August 03, 2009

In the News Today

I just saw that an alum is suing Monroe College in New York because they haven't helped her sufficiently in her job search. She graduated with a 2.7; the article says
[The alum] suggested that Monroe's Office of Career Advancement shows preferential treatment to students with excellent grades. "They favor more toward students that got a 4.0. They help them more out with the job placement," she said.
Yes, a 4.0 IS going to get more effective help, in part because a 4.0 is probably easier to place, so the same level of help is probably more effective. And a solid attendance record? Seriously?

(But doesn't the quotation sound weird? I wonder if she's a non-native speaker, or if CNN got it wrong? CNN's headline is a bit misleading, in that headline way.)

More to the point, wouldn't it be great if phud grads could sue their departments for "not helping them out" enough to get a job?

I don't know whether she's gotten appropriate help in her job search or not. And I'm no legal beagle, and couldn't tell you if the suit is reasonable. I can't imagine that the college promised to find all grads jobs, but if they promise to provide job search help and didn't do that adequately, who knows? (In the article, it says she hasn't hired an attorney, so who knows what sort of legal advice she's gotten.)

Now I'm sort of wondering how this made the CNN front page. Does some stringer watch the New York courts, and this was the most exciting thing he saw today? ("Hey, Mom, I got a by-line!")

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Ride for Pie

Last year, I went for a ride along one of the local lakes on the big river, and got pie.

Today, I went on the same ride with a couple of friends. I rode thinking about what kinds of pie they might have at the bakery. Once again, Passionfruit cream pie.

It was a beautiful ride, all the more fun because I went with fun friends.

Two of us rode yesterday, too, a hilly ride out on the crest and then back, fast through the valley. My legs are tired!

I know this is the stupidest thing ever, but until this summer, I didn't really stretch the front of my thighs (quads, I think they're called by those who exercise them). But since I've been stretching them, my legs aren't nearly as sore, even after riding hard. Or maybe I'm just not riding as hard?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Reset Button

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find one. But I feel like I need to get restarted on things after a summer of not getting much done. I was getting things done while I was here after my ride in June, pretty well. But then July was a mess. (I only rode about 300 miles in July, after more than 500 in June.)

Now the summer camp is over, and my sibling's family dog is here for three or four weeks. I need to get back focused on getting some work done again.

It's 62F out, and that's just way too cold to count as summer. Logically, I know that heat is more dangerous than cold, usually, but there's something totally wrong about being so cold in summer that I'm wearing layers. (And yes, I've lived in a rain forest, and I was pretty comfortable and happy with the weather. It did rain a lot, though!)

I finished my birthday cake this morning after my sib's family left (they spent the night to drop off the dog), and what I'd really like to do is feel warm enough to go out and ride or even weed, but it's depressingly cold. (My apologies again to the thousands of people who would love to cool down to 62.)

A new month, and I really need to get moving, but all I want to do is curl up under a bunch of blankets with hot cocoa.