Thursday, December 31, 2009

Old and New

I woke up this morning to NPR's report on the financial crimes of the decade in the US. And it got me thinking about my decade.

In 1999, I moved to a new job, bought my first house (with the bank owning most of it, of course), had a dog, and had my father die. My niece and nephew were rug rats.

Over the past ten years, I've lost some weight (though I should lose more and have instead regained some of what I'd lost), played and quit EQ, put my dog to sleep, lost my great aunt M (who I was close to), bought another house (also with the bank's considerable investment and significant help from great aunt M), gotten a new car. I've taken up biking, gone skydiving, started learning to cross country ski, and done some kayaking. I've made some good friends here, people I really enjoy spending time with. I've enjoyed good health, better than in 1999 even, probably (since I exercise more). I've tried to be a good aunt and increasingly enjoy my niece and nephew.

I've been to Yellowstone twice, once on a bus, once on my bike. I've taught in Japan for a semester, seen Orangutan in Malaysia.

I've taught a lot, served on endless committees, and tried to do some other work less successfully. I've had a lot more wonderful students than not, for which I'm endlessly grateful.

All in all, it's been a pretty good decade for me. The last few years have been a lot rougher for most people than for me

My hopes for the new decade? More and better effort on research. Less BS on committees. Continued teaching, biking, skiing, kayaking, good health. Deepening friendships. My niece and nephew are more fun all the time; I hope it stays that way and look forward to seeing them become adults. I hope my ratio of wonderful to not wonderful students continues.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spa Day

at Bardiac's shack:

I figure the border between cat person and crazy cat person is four cats. I'm not sure what the border is between biker and crazy biker, but this can't be a good sign.

But yes, that's the dork disc still on there, along with the side reflectors. I guess that's the way I roll.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I drove back home today amidst a rather magical looking landscape. It looks like it should be a movie landscape, and an ice dragon should be out there, somewhere, or maybe some other sort of icy monster. As I drove, it got sunnier, and the frost wasn't sticking to the trees any more. But it was still pretty darned wintry.

Here's a self-portrait of me snow-shoing. I haven't actually gone anywhere snowshoing yet, just around my sibling's yard. It's funny how light my feet felt when I quit, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Committee Anxiety Dreams

This was a new one for me. I've chaired committees before, but I've never had an anxiety dream about prepping for a committee meeting.

Up for the semester: secretary to one committee, chair of a department committee, chair of a maybe committee (it's complicated, but maybe doesn't exist now), and chair of a college committee (but only for the semester).

The first is going to be full of weekly meetings, the second is going to involve two or three big meetings (and possibly some contentious decision making), the third is going to involve at least one painful meeting, and the fourth is a weekly thing, mostly rote but with mataphoric quicksand and ROUS along the way.


I want to get out and do something. I think my biking and stuff has changed my sense of self enough so that I get more antsy now if I don't play outside fairly frequently. My Mom would be ready in an instant, the others, not so much. I have to say that for my Mom: if I said there's something to do and we need to be ready at 6am, she'd be ready at 5:45, and rarin' to go.

It sometimes amazes me that two so very different people came out of one family as my sibling and I. I'll eat pretty much anything, and would rather try something new than something familiar mostly. My sibling seems to feel just the opposite. I'll try almost anything new sportsy/physical (except for boxing and bungi jumping); my sibling will try things if I make it very easy to do, and then like it well enough, but not do it again. On the other hand, my sibling is quite good at the one or two sports he does, and I'm not nearly as good at the sports I try to do, even biking.

My sibling is much better at some things than I am, and those are important things. For example, my sibling can cook and tries new sorts of cooking things, and me, well, I'm an uninspired cook, and I don't enjoy it enough to want to try a lot of new things.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Something Useful

I've pretty much finished Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?", and I found it interesting. The part I found most provocative was the idea of actually putting up front on job ads the requirement to have demonstrated experience/effectiveness in working in multiracial settings (124-5). I think we could probably use something like this in our job ads along with the demonstrated effectiveness teaching comp and so forth.

It's important, and if it's important, we should be looking explicitly for those experiences in our candidates.

Like many English departments, ours has more diversity than some other departments on campus. But, also like many English departments, our diversity is based on people of color teaching the literature of people of color. We've got a poor record of hiring people of color to teach theory or Shakespeare or romanticism. (And our local population includes a far greater percentage of people of color than either our student body or our faculty. So this is a matter of recognizing and serving our community.)

Can you tell I'm feeling housebound and antsy? It's true. The freezing rain hasn't helped, either. Now I'm on to some Shakespeare reading.

The War on Christmas

A typical modern Christmas film was played on the dvd the other night, a rather poor and moderately reprehensible, but totally typical film. Every modern Christmas film has basically the same plot: the spirit of Christmas is threatened by people (or kids or dogs) who don't believe in Santa. Someone has to learn to believe in Santa and the spirit of Christmas, and helps Santa deliver presents, and so the whole of Christmas is saved. (This one turned one character's Buddha statue into a snowman. Really. So much for multi-cultural respect, eh?)

As the film started, it came to me that the people who think there's a war on Christmas have seen way too many Christmas films, and believe the propaganda.

Really, no matter how many people don't actually think there's a jolly elf living at the north pole, there's no war on Christmas. And no matter how many people believe there's a fairy flying through the sky controlling things, there's really not.

But if getting together with family/friends and giving each other good food and stuff makes one happy, then the whole fairy business isn't really necessary.

But please, for the love of dog, can we stop making such bad movies?

Another Night, Another Academic Anxiety Dream, and a Chaucer Bleg

After my anxiety dream last night, I looked up the times, made up the calendar template for my classes this semester, and then roughed out the Shakespeare calendar for the semester.

So, of course, last night's anxiety dream was about Chaucer. I was looking for a book on Chaucer and couldn't find it. I think it was one of those Cambridge Companion to books, and I know where it is in the office (I think), but of course I'm not there to get it.

So, I'm going to attempt to relieve my anxiety by asking the medievalists out there: what's the best book about Chaucer stuffs (esp CT) out there in the last 5 or so years? Feel free to disagree and tell me why your choice is better.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Schedules Dream

I had an academic anxiety dream last night, the one where you're supposed to be somewhere because it's the first day of classes, but you don't know which classes or where, so you don't go. It's a bad dream when you're a student, but somehow worse when you're the instructor. Or not. I mean, no one is going to drop me from the class for not showing up, right?

So I looked up my schedule and wrote it down in my book, and I'll do out my syllabus calendar, and hope that helps.

I'm reading a book for our anti-racism work on campus, Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?". So far it's pretty good. I'm about a third of the way through, and there are some helpful insights, stuff I just hadn't thought about.

The best one for me so far is on page 60 where she explains an incident on page 59, in which a school teacher made some offhand comment that a Black student took as racist, but a white student brushed off in the "he didn't really mean it to be racist way." But other Black students, the kids at the Black table, understood immediately that there was a racism issue and the student wasn't being too sensitive or whatever.

I hadn't really thought about the experience of having other kids not affirm or affirm a Black student's experience of racism, I think because I think of teachers and students interacting more than I think of students and students interacting.

And then when it's pointed out, it's so obvious, isn't it? I feel like duh, what an ignorant so and so I am.

But what does one do to change the white kid's reaction or to help the Black kid get the affirmation s/he needs to process his/her experience? Tatum talks about one program which had Black students get together with an adult facilitator to provide that support in a formal way to students at a school where there were very few Black students and they didn't have the support otherwise. But it seems to me that we need to change the white student's perceptions as well as provide support for the Black students.

At any rate, it's helpful to change my thinking about the Black table as a positive rather than a negative thing in many ways.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Living with a Panopticon

I'm going a bit nuts here.

I can be having a conversation with X, and Y walks in, and insists on asking what we're talking about and being caught up. The same thing happens if Y is in the next room over and I'm chatting with X. What? What? What?

I have an evil urge to say that we're discussing masturbation, and I'm wondering if Y prefers a vibrator or not. Did I mention I'm evil?

Y also keeps a fairly constant running commentary on everything, most of it negative. No one is up to snuff, especially me. I'm so tired of being compared to a couple relatives. No, I'll never be as wonderful as they are. I get it. Thanks.

Hope whatever holidays and new year's stuff you celebrate is lovely!

I wish I could just stay home and be by myself.

Monday, December 21, 2009

So I Think a Bit More 'bout the Foot and the Door

I think I've begun to figure out how to articulate the problem I have with giving academic credit for non-academic stuff. I think that there are skills everyone should learn as a young adult, including lots of life skills about how to live, survive, and hopefully thrive in one's culture/society. For folks in the US, that means learning how to file taxes, figure out a budget, live with others (whether as family, roommates, or neighbors), do laundry, cook a basic meal, follow a recipe or directions, manage time, show up for work every day on time, all those sorts of things.

People don't go to college to learn those things, they take steps towards independence after a long adolescence. And it's not like everyone becomes great at all of them, but most people learn these skills as they move into adulthood. Sometimes young people are thrown in the deep end and learn the skills early (I know someone who became emancipated at 15 and did just fine), other times, well, some people never learn some things. Some people get lots of help from parents in learning these skills, others, alas, don't. But most folks in the US do get the basics.

Maybe we should consciously teach some of them earlier, so that as people approach young adulthood they know how to sew on a button, figure a basic budget, do taxes. If we need to teach those skills in school, though, we need to teach them early so that all students get to learn them. (I'm thinking junior high or earlier.) They're important, and worth teaching.

But the things students should learn in college specifically should be academic. They should learn to think more critically, understand experimental basics, analyze information (numeric, graphic, verbal), manipulate data, communicate better, and so forth. They should learn information/skills specific to a field/area of study, and be able to work in depth with that information. And they should refine their skills in learning so that they can learn what they need to learn better. That's what makes college different from getting a job. Yes, we all learn on the job, but college should push you further, faster, harder to a greater depth of critical thinking and analysis.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Foot in the Door

I had coffee the other day with a student, one of my favorites. Also there was a youngish male, Joe. I'd thought at first that Joe was a student, but he's a youngish looking student life administrator.

Joe was talking about a project he wanted to work on, a project aimed at teaching young men not to sexually assault women. That's a laudable project, for sure. Go Joe. His specific idea was to hire an administrator to run this project and also teach a joint class in two departments, one male dominated, one female dominated. He said, this would give them a chance to "get a foot in the door."

A foot in the door?

Let's just admit up front that I wasn't nearly as politic as I should have been. But seriously, we need to hire a new administrator of teaching men not to rape women? And that person's going to design and teach a class for academic credit to teach men not to rape women?

Did I mention we already have an office of sexual assault prevention on campus? The difference is that he wants this administrator to be a male in control, because that's how we teach men not to rape women. And no, that person can't be part of the current program.

It made me realize how totally different Joe's and my views of education are. And, alas, Joe's is winning. We will, I'm guessing, hire someone whose job it is to teach men not to rape women (and while this is a laudable goal, do we really need that to be a job description?). They can put the office right next to the people we've hired to make sure our students are aware of alcohol. We've hired several people into new positions related to student life lately, while losing tenure track lines in academic fields.

We have a small number of courses in adjusting to university life and learning to study, each of which carries academic credit and is taught by someone without a terminal degree.

So is this just me being a snob about academic credentials and academics?

I'm guessing the reason Joe really wants to attach academic credit to the course is that academic credit counts. It shows up on a transcript and counts towards the credits a student needs to graduate, and that means (some) students may be willing to use it to progress towards their degree though they wouldn't participate in it without the attached credits. Of course, the men who most need the course wouldn't take it anyway, unless it were required. But men who need to learn about resisting other men's rapes of women might take it. And they'd probably learn something. At the baseline, students go to college for academic credit; they don't pay all that money just to hang around in the dorms (well, mostly).

But does this potential course deserve academic credit? My tendency is to think it doesn't.

My tendency is also to think that the more feet the non-academic folks get in the academic door, the worse for the university. I'm sure they'd disagree and tell me that lots of student learning occurs in dorms. It does, but that doesn't mean I think we should give students academic credit for living in a dorm, either.

(It's easy to see how the competencies stuff some assessment folks love so much compounds our fundamental disagreement. The idea of competencies is that students should be able to demonstrate competencies; they could demonstrate competencies without classes or after taking classes. It's a lot cheaper, too, if students can demonstrate a competency and not actually take classes. Credit for life experience; I'm sure you've heard about that, right?)

I don't know where to go with this. I can't articulate my position well enough. And the student life folks are very, very good at articulating theirs.

But I actually think students learn a lot in classes, through reading, writing papers, studying, discussing, trying out ideas. And I don't think just putting people together without a real purpose accomplishes much. Taking classes and working towards a degree, while individual goals, are also group goals, and I think the groupness contributes to individual learning. That learning is both academic and social/non-academic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Creativity or Disaster

There's a stereotype among professors about students whose grandparents seem to get seriously ill or die at key moments in the term, preventing the students from attending, taking midterms, turning in key assignments, and so forth.

I've had very few ill or dying grandparents in my teaching career. Either my students are more creative, or they have real problems.

The big one seems to be depression. I spent part of the other day talking to a student who'd decided to go back on hir depression meds after pretty much near failing the term. I'm glad ze's going back on the medicines, since I've known the student for a couple terms, and ze's generally a good student, and so I have hopes that things will work out better.

I spent another part of another day talking to a student who may be depressed (or not, because Shakespeare really doesn't qualify me to say). I tried to talk hir into seeing a doctor or counselor to get checked out and get some help, but ze resisted because ze doesn't want to become dependent. Our culture has this fantasy that if we try hard and just pull on our bootstraps, we can do anything, and that anything includes dealing with chemical problems. Well, some chemical problems. I've never heard anyone talk about diabetics being "dependent" on insulin in a bad way, for example. Nor do any of the folks who can avoid bad migraines seem to feel morally inadequate because they've found better living through chemistry. But depression seems to be one of the areas we most have that fantasy about.

I've wondered if I've been depressed at different times in my life. But, being full of the cultural fantasy, and scared of the potential truth, I've never really sought to find out. And, even at its worst, my lows were way less difficult than the lows some of my students seem to experience. So I at least somewhat understand the reluctance to subject oneself to medicalization or whatever. And while I can talk the talk about not being biased about depression or medicine or whatever, it's sort of like racism: I know I've been raised to be a racist, so I fight it. I also know I've been raised to believe our cultural fantasy about bootstraps, but do I fight that as conscientiously?

I wonder what the real rates of depression are for college students in the US? And I wonder if it's worse up here with so little daylight during the winter?

But depression's not the only thing. This semester, I've had students sick with flu (to be expected), deal with family/friends' suicides, cancer diagnoses, unemployment, displacement, and so forth. I wish I thought my students were being creative rather than having real problems.

Even having real problems, though, isn't always a full excuse. One of my students has a time-limited documentation of a problem. Ze came to the final, having missed almost every class during the semester and having turned in no assigments. (Ze did fail one quiz and take the midterm with an okay grade.) Ze stopped at the desk after turning in the final to tell me that Ze had emailed me all hir work for the semester. Having checked my email for something else just moments earlier, I told Ze I hadn't received the email. And then I asked ze why I should accept the work that hadn't been turned in before the time-limited problem, how that would be fair to the students who'd turned in their work on time. Ze looked at me. I said that it was a real question, that I really needed to understand why ze thought that would be appropriate or fair. Ze said it wouldn't. (Yeah, I'm sort of expecting to hear from a deanling about this.)

Let's hope for a less disastrous new year, with classes full of students who don't get sick, who don't have friends commit suicide, and whose parents are employed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Exams

It's finals season here in the Northwoods. For students, that means studying and taking exams. For faculty, that means writing exams and then grading them.

Here's my ideal for exams: a good exam should be a miserable experience for anyone who hasn't come to class or done the reading, should allow most students to show how much they've learned and to put things together in a way that helps them learn something more about the subject of the course, and should give a really good student a chance to shine through with how much they've learned and put together and worked.

The stakes in writing exams are high because a poorly written exam almost inevitably leads to poorly written student exams. It's the rare test taker who can rise above a poorly written exam. But it's incredibly hard to write good exams because you have to try to think of what will help students write and what will confuse things as minimally as possible and what will lead students into errors that aren't revealing anything about how much they've learned.

One of the difficulties is that you have to write an exam specific to the class focus and discussions, so my Chaucer exam wouldn't necessarily look like another Chaucer prof's exam even though we're both good, concientious instructors. I may focus on gender issues a lot, while the other prof focuses on economic underpinnings or religious understanding. There's too much in any good lit to cover it all in one class or exams, so our exams have to reflect and build on what we taught students.

Another difficulty is that it's hard to get good feedback on exam questions. When I have a chance, I get a colleague to give me feedback, but that colleague isn't generally in my field, and so can give me general feedback about what's confusing or interesting. S/he also hasn't been in class, so can't speak to how well the question speaks to class discussions. On the other hand, my colleagues do a great job helping me write less confusing questions, and I'm grateful for that.

Finally, a good exam question should elicit essays that don't make me want to tear my eyes out a la Oedipus.

So, I thought I'd put up an exam question from a class I taught a couple years ago, and ask for your feedback and suggestions about exam writing. Help me write better exams, please!

This is from the essay portion of the exam, for a sophomore level Shakespeare class covering four play genres. It speaks to something I love to talk about in drama classes (though not all Shakespeare profs do, of course). I expect students to spend about an hour writing this essay; they should have a general sense about three possible essay prompts during the week before the exam (because we work through possible prompts as a way of reviewing).

First, here's the general assignment:

Write an essay in response to ONE of the two prompts. In the prompts, I try to ask some questions to help you get started thinking. You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but may focus on whatever issue in the prompt you wish.

Take a few minutes to brainstorm and outline before you begin writing. You may brainstorm on this paper or in your bluebook. Underline your thesis statement.

Be as specific as possible; give examples from the texts. Write on at least three texts, including one from before and one after the midterm.

And now, here's one of the prompts:

During the semester, we've talked a lot about the ways that Shakespeare uses metadrama, a term indicating a self-reflexive practice of using drama to explore what drama is and means.

Choosing three or four texts, including one from before and one from after the midterm, make an argument about the effects of metadrama in Shakespeare's plays. Do metadramatic moments make you think differently about what you're experiencing when you read or see a play? If so, how? Do metadramatic moments make you think about the world as a sort of stage, with all of us merely actors upon it, full of sound and fury and such?

Should we differentiate the ways that metadrama works in different genres? Is disguise always a tool for metadrama, or is it only sometimes used to set up metadrama? How does gendering work (especially cross dressing) in metadrama? Does class cross-dressing tell us something about the ways that the plays conceive human being and character? Does metadrama feed into or provide tension against essentialist themes in plays (essentialist themes might include, for instance, ideas that people are born into a specific social status, and that their birth has more effect than the way they've been raised).

What do we learn from watching deliberate staged stagings of scenes that we wouldn't learn otherwise?

So, wisdom of the internet, help me write better exams, please!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


My plan was to grade at home today, and maybe if it's warm enough, go outside for a bit of exercise with a friend. But then I got an email, and there's a paper I need to sign because I'm the secretary for a committee of people who pretend to have power organization (C3PO). And it has to be signed today, though I didn't even know it existed and signed the other part, the part I knew about, last week sometime.

But because I'm responsible, and something good could happen for a colleague as a result, I'll head on in and sign.

A friend is moving in with another friend; I'm very happy for them. One of them has cats, the other a cat with FIV, so apparently the two can't be mixed or the healthy cats will get sick too. (I'm guessing you can't teach cats to keep their bodily fluids to themselves any more than you can teach them not to get on the kitchen counters when you're not in the room.) They've asked me to foster the FIV cat.

The thing is, I'm not a cat person. I'm perfectly happy to catsit for friends on occasion, and can give pills and stuff. I'm happy to get a little kitty therapy when I visit, and will pet the cat that comes by and seems to want to be petted when I visit.

I am a dog person. I know that dogs are dirty and disgusting beasts, but they stir my heart. Maybe it's my overblown ego, and the easy adoration of most dogs feeds it. I'll go out of my way to interact with dogs.

Part of me feels a bit bad saying no. But I don't want the responsibility of finding a cat sitter when I leave town or even the responsibility of cleaning a litter box daily. And while it's supposed to be short term ("fostering," not adopting), I worry that once the cat is in my house, the previous owner would feel a lot less pressure to find another home. The difficulty is that cat people already have a cat, and you can't just add an FIV cat to the household. So you have to shop around for a non-cat person who wants a cat. Even if you're really energetic about searching, it's tough, and the toughness is why they've asked me. All the cat people they know already have at least one cat, but here I am, catless.

I'm responsible enough to drive to campus to sign a form, but also responsible enough to now want to be responsible for a cat.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Wow

These are craft kits. You unfold them and there are several pockets inside where you can put your craft materials. They're gorgeous. The tan one has a wooden button!

I try to find unique sorts of gifts, and I think I hit the mark with these. Now I want to send my aunt one, too!

I don't usually do advertising stuff, but here's where you can get craft kits: Artbeco on Etsy (Disclosure: One of my long and good friends makes these. She's a wonderful artist in all sorts of ways.)

Off to the Finish Line

One of my seniors did her big presentation today, and did a fine job. For some reason, I think that the big presentation reflects on the prof who's class she did it for, so I was sort of stressy about it. I really wanted her to do well because she wrote a good, interesting essay and I wanted her to get that across.

She seemed much more relaxed and happy afterwards. Me too.

I finally ordered my texts for the third of my courses next semester. It's always a sort of hard decision which Shakespeare texts to teach; if I taught out of an anthology, I could just figure it out as I wrote the syllabus. But I've abandoned the anthology in favor of paperback editions. They're a bit more expensive for students, but they're a heck of a lot better as editions, generally, and way easier on all our backs. I'm planning to further my quest of teaching every Shakespeare play by teaching All's Well for the first time next semester.

Other than that, I'm not planning to teach any new texts in any of my classes this coming semester. That's a big change for me, after teaching three new plays in one class, and new texts in each of the other classes this term.

Now up: grading, mostly senior work, most of it pretty good from my first impressions.

And I have to write a final exam. Oh, that.

One class is all graded, though I haven't done the spread sheet math.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Weekend of Grading

I've been grading the final essays for the writing class this weekend; mostly, they're pretty good. A few are really good.

I switched around the assignments this semester so they turned in their research essay a couple weeks ago, and then we did a short reflective essay for the final essay. I was able to return the research essays and give them good feedback. And now I'm almost done with their reflective essays, and am giving good feedback on these. It worked out really well for me and the class, I think. (And I got the idea from a good colleague. Yay colleague!)

The thing about weekend grading is that it's flexible. I'm about to settle into the final few essays and other work to get it all done by tomorrow. On the weekend before finals, I have no classes to prep, no committee work to prepare for, just grading. (And an exam to write during the week.) It's amazing how much less stressful it makes the weekend.

I went skiing earlier, for the first time this season. The hip/thigh muscles that pull my leg forward don't get nearly enough exercise biking compared to skiing. And my elbows are sore from poling. I think I need to grip the poles more loosely. Yeah, loosely, as in relaxed. That's a tough one for me, but I was looking up about elbow soreness, adn this is the same soreness I get kayaking, and I think I probably grip too tightly in both cases. Maybe there's a tendon stretching exercise I can do to help it?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Day of Classes

My drama students did a really good job writing draft essay questions for that part of their exam. My goal for an exam essay question is that an okay student should be able to write an okay exam, while a student who's really worked hard and put things together should be able to write something that synthesizes material and shows their learning in some interesting way. So I have some more work to do, but they're on the way.


I'm tired of students putting work in my box late and pretending it's on time. Yes, my syllabus states that work is due in class. I know it's hard to actually print stuff out ahead. And staple technology is apparently well beyond some people. But I'm tired of the constant bits of lateness. And no, I'm holding the line today.

I'm tired of last minute excuses. You didn't participate in peer editing TWO weeks ago and you want me to somehow find a way for you to make that grade up today? Seriously? What do you suggest that would be fair to the people who put effort into peer editing?

I'm tired of students wondering why I haven't responded to their email while I'm in class, a meeting, or a conference with another student.

I'm tired of students who can't do basic percentages. It's like they know what percentages are, but when faced with figuring out their grades, they can't put the workbook math into real math or something. Well, some of them can, but others can't.

I'm just tired. I should be grading.


On the other hand, I just got an email from a colleague responding to my bemoaning the dearth of grading gnomes at my house. She said she's a few elves short of a workshop. I just laughed.

Not Electric Sheep

I woke from a dream at 4am. I'd dreamed about running; I was running, and was trying to cross a big bridge to get back to my starting point, but there was bridge construction that wasn't otherwise marked, so I was near the end of the bridge heading when I realized there was a huge gap and no way to get across. So I asked a worker, and he said I had to go back. And only then did I realize I'd basically been running on a freeway and hadn't noticed there were no cars on the bridge.

Also, I was running way better than I do in real life. My stride was smoother, and easier, and I was running way further. That was quite satisfying. It would be great if dreaming about running actually counted as running. I don't remember ever dreaming about biking, though.

And then suddenly I became deeply concerned with literacy in classical Rome. That concern turned to curiosity about their writing technologies. Did they use vellum? Papyrus? It seems weird to think of using stone, but then didn't the ancient cuniform writers use clay tablets? I asked The Wayward Classicist on his blog, so hopefully he'll be able to allay my concerns.

How did I get from not being able to cross a bridge (and what sort of weird Freudian interpretation does that get? And does it matter that I'm pretty sure I know which bridge it was, having grown up in a place of bridges and bridge dependency? Except somehow that bridge got translocated here, where it would basically take up the whole city.) to worrying about Roman literacy rates? I'm not quite sure. It's one of those weird 4am things.

There was also something else I was deeply worried about, but then I fell asleep and so I can't remember.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Low Tide of My Patience

My patience is running low these days. I was going to say I was having a neap tide of patience, but I looked up neap tide; I'd thought a neap tide was the lowest of a low tide, but instead I find it's the lowest high tide. I love dictionaries.

We had a snow day, and I had to make some adjustments for final work. (You know, having it turned in the next class day, or making the final assignment optional because some people who couldn't do it because of the snow thing.) And now I'm inundated by people wanting to make sure that their special case is indeed, very special.

Some want to be assured that if they do this optional assignment, it can only help their grade. No, if someone does F work on the optional thing, it's an F, and unless your grade is already an F, it will tend to hurt it.

One wanted me to say whether s/he should do it or not, as if somehow I can predict what grade s/he'll get without seeing the work. I emailed back asking how the drafting and revision process was going so far. I haven't heard back. I'm guessing I won't get the optional assignment from this student.

I got emails on the snow day asking me to look over papers and give feedback. So I did. One of the students sent back an enthusiastic thank you with a couple specific questions. I felt really good about that. It was worth doing. The other didn't even bother to acknowledge that I'd read the paper. I didn't feel as good about that. (But it was still worth doing. At least I'm going to tell myself it was.)

Someone else desperately emailed me asking about his/her grade in the course. I wanted to tell the student to pull up his/her big kid pants and do the math because we'd gone over the math in class, and s/he has everything graded back, and I don't have my grade stuff here, nor do I memorize their grades. I didn't. Nope, I've learned that it's always better to answer an email like that after an hour of shoveling snow, when whatever sunshine/exercise chemicals are at their winter max for me. So I was polite, and suggested that while I didn't have the grade information at home, s/he could use the handout on figuring out grades to figure it out. She emailed me a polite and thankful response, so I'm glad I wasn't rude.

I was reading a group blog, and a guest poster is an undergrad taking a first year college course and complaining that some assignment isn't appropriate but is a grad level assignment. How does an undergrad in a first year course think s/he has more understanding about levels of assignments than someone who's actually been to grad school? I didn't write a response. I tried going out and digging some more snow, but even that didn't help, so I just clicked it closed.

It's cold outside, with a wind chill that makes it even colder. So I have to ask, does the wind chill just count for people and stuff (that is, living organisms that change their chemistry in some way to deal with temperatures), or would a piece of metal also be colder because of it were it to be hanging out in the wind?

Finally, I'd like to ask what stupid idiot forgot to get raisins at the grocery store so that I could at least make oatmeal raisin cookie dough to get myself through the snow day.

At this point, I don't even have patience with myself.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Report

This is a self-portrait of me digging out. Yes, it snowed. I made the mistake of opening the back sliding door to toss out some seed for the juncos, and a load of snow fell into the house (it had been built up between the glass door and the screen door). Then the ice made the screen door come off its track and it's too iced up to get back on.

I don't think we even had a blizzard. (I looked up, and a blizzard is supposed to have winds of 35mph or higher, and mostly we didn't.) But it was darned windy and snowy anyway. Compared to the high Sierras, of course, we barely got snow. But it was plenty to dig through.

I put some seed on the deck for the juncos, and later, I saw a Downy Woodpecker actually land on the flat surface and pick up a big peanut piece. I think the hanging feeder and suet thing were just too windy for it, maybe? Anyway, I haven't seen Downy's land on the deck surface before. I'm guessing just because it's cold and windy doesn't mean you don't have to eat if you're a bird!

And now, back to student papers.

Monday, December 07, 2009

We Need Another Internet Law

You all know how there are ten internet "laws" right?

We need another one, maybe related to Godwin's law (that's the reference to Hitler and Nazi-ism one). I'm not quite sure how to word it, but it's gotta go like this:
When any feminist criticizes patriarchy or male privilege, no matter how gently, someone will tell her to lighten up or explain that feminists have no sense of humor.
So that's it, more or less, but it needs to be worded better.

As an aside, Twisty has taken time to explain that feminists do, indeed, appreciate good comedy.

Thinking Back about the Drama Course

I teach three courses a semester, in general--a writing course, a lower division course, and an upper division course. It can be hard to figure out the workloads for a given course, especially since I don't often teach the same course from one term to the next, or one year to the next, even (except for the writing course).

I'm trying to figure out a better way to balance the lower division course. I think I've assigned a tad more work than I should have (and thus given myself more grading), though I think each of the assignments has been valuable in itself.

Here's what they've had to do:

A short performance project
A short response to the performance project (writing)
A short response to seeing each of two plays (writing)
A short analytic essay (writing)

I think the four writing assignments could easily have been two, but which two should I have dropped?

I think having them see plays is really important for those who haven't been involved in theater; that's about half the class at least. But my sense is that students think a lot more about their experiences if they write about them. I think writing an analytic essay is important in developing analytic and critical thinking skills. Finally, the performance project is usually really wonderful to get students thinking about what they're doing, and again, they think more about it if they write something.

How much writing do you require in a lower level (freshman, sophomore) lit course?

In addition to the grading excess, I hurt myself this semester by teaching three plays I've never taught before: an American mid-century play, a play by an African writer, and the Ionesco. The American play was the least stretchy for me, but the others were really good experiences. I think I learned a lot and did some good teaching. Still, it's a lot of extra work. Were I to teach this course every year, I'd build a stronger repertoire within a few years; but I've taught it three times in 10 years, and not really regularly. Using plays the theater folks have chosen to perform is important, but it will always be likely to challenge my teaching repertoire for the class (since they seem to teach things other than Shakespeare for some reason!).

I'm feeling like I'm digging out of the grading burial (until I get three sets on Friday), so I'm starting to think about how to do better another time.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I Have a New Motto!

On the one hand, I'm feeling deeply disturbed.

On the other hand, I'm feeling pretty good about my teaching.

What's the text for today?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Shocking, Perhaps?

Dear Football Coach,

I have four members of your football team in my first year writing class. If I recall correctly, they've missed a total of four classes. That's pretty darned good.

In addition to being in class every day, each of them has done all the assignments in a timely manner. It would be nice if they didn't sit together at the back of the room, but they willingly move around for group work.

None of the four is exactly a shining example of active class participation, but each will respond when called on. And often enough, they have something smart and interesting to say when they respond; at the least, their responses indicate they've been following the discussion.

Two of the four have worked really hard on their writing and peer editing; the peer editing is especially impressive. They've really improved their writing, and their research papers are quite good.

In conclusion, you're doing something right. I hear about study sessions and fill in the progress reports, and I gather you're encouraging your team members to take their classes seriously and work hard. Each of these men in my class seems to have learned something about mutual respect, teamwork, and effort through their football experiences. So even though I gather the team has a losing record, I want to encourage you to keep up your good work.

Sincerely, Bardiac

ps. I'd be happy to have more of your football players in my classes.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Basic Checklist for Turning in Papers

Sometimes, I just get so tired of telling students the same thing over and over, so I'm thinking of handing out a basic checklist. Here's the first draft.

1) Name. Put your name on the paper. Don't put just your first name, but also your surname. If you want to put the instructor's name, the class, and the date, too, yay you.

2) Title. Your paper should have a title, and that title should not be "Essay #2" or "Title of a Famous Piece of Art." Think of a title that communicates something about your paper. Unless otherwise instructed, center your title near the top of the page, not too far below your name. Don't put your own title in quotations marks, or italics, or in 24 point font.

3) Format. Use reasonable margins. 1 inch is good. Number your pages. Left justify your paper unless otherwise instructed.

4) Font. Use a reasonably sized font, say a 10, 11, or 12. Use a readable font, one that will inspire confidence in your reader.

5) Paragraphs. Indent paragraphs.

Don't add an extra space between paragraphs. If you have the latest version of Word, and it's set to add an extra space, change the setting.

Here's how to change that setting:

a. Open Word. (I start at the beginning.)
b. Click the "Page Layout" tab at the top.
c. About 2/3rds of the way to the right, find the "Paragraph" box. Set the "before" and "after" spacings to 0 pt.
d. Celebrate with me!

6) Sources. When you use a source, introduce it in some way, even if you're paraphrasing. Cite your sources at the end of the paper, in foot or end notes, or in whatever way is appropriate to your class. If you're in a literature class, it's likely that you need to use MLA. If you're in a social or natural sciences class, it's likely that you'll need to use APA. If you're not sure, ask your instructor!

Cite any source you use; give people credit for their ideas, words, and cultural productions (art, graphs, and so on).

If you didn't know something before the term began, then figure out how you know it now, and cite that. You can cite your textbook or a lecture.

7) Titles. In typescript, use underlining or italics for the titles of journals, magazines, newspapers, books, plays, films, TV series, long poems. Use quotation marks for the titles of articles, short stories, television series episodes, short poems. The general rule is that if something is published in a stand alone format, it gets underlined or italicized. If it's published as part of something else, it gets quotation marks.

Your own title doesn't get either.

8) Punctuation. If you're in the U.S., periods and commas go inside quotation marks, and we use double quotation marks unless we're quoting within a quotation.

9) Staple. Staple your paper in the upper left hand corner unless otherwise instructed. (With thanks to MommyProf [see comments]. See, even on a blog you can acknowledge other peoples' ideas!)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Piece of Advice for All Writing Students

You can never go wrong citing your sources. Really.

If you paraphrase a bit from a play, cite it! If you read something in a textbook, cite it! If you interview someone, cite him/her!

Please, for the love of all that is Shakespeare, cite your sources.

This message brought to you by the letter A.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Little Things that Bug Me

We have a bookshelf full of free books in the hall near my office. We put books there for students to pick up, and (we hope) read and enjoy.

We also have numerous book buyers coming around; they come around and pay some minimum money for fairly new books we might have around that we don't want. Mostly, they're interested in freebie textbooks we've been sent that we didn't adopt, but that they can resell where someone else has adopted them. Okay, free enterprise and all that. (I tend to donate my books to the student organization with separates out the ones that might be useful for overseas donation and sells the rest off for money to mail the useful ones. If the book buyers were offering real money, I might be tempted to sell them. Most of what I have, they wouldn't want anyway.)

But it bugs me when the book buyer goes from my office to peruse the free shelf. It shouldn't, right? But it does.


We worked on thesis statements in the writing class today. One of the students had a word up, and didn't know what it meant. Not just wasn't sure about double meanings, but really hadn't thought about it at all.

It bugs me when people don't think about the words they use in a writing class.


It also bugs me when someone puts a thesis up in the writing class and then acts all bored by a basic question. If someone in class asks you for an example of something related to your thesis, you should have a better response than "I dunno" with a side of shrug.

In all honesty, I should not be thinking harder about your essay than you are at this point.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Listening to Robinson's Home

I've been listening to Marilynne Robinson's Home in the car recently. (I generally have two audio books going at a time, a CD in the car and a casette for bedtime. The other right now is Sandra Cisneros reading her own Caramelo which is just great so far. I love the way Cisneros uses language.)

I'm about two thirds of the way through Home and I'm of two minds about it. It's really well written in a lot of ways. It's interesting, and I want to keep listening, mostly. But the reader is a little irritating in the way she does the father's voice. Or maybe I'm just irritated with the father.

The NPR site has a bit on an interview with Robinson from way back in 2008, in which she talks about the novel as a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable from Luke.
Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.

"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life." [Source at NPR]
I think there's a lot in that quotation that piques my irritation.

In the novel, Robert Boughton, an ailing, aging, retired preacher, awaits his son Jack's return, and then deals with their interactions; the story is told through a third person narrator with the eyes of Glory, one of Boughton's daughters who has returned home to care for her aging father. From Glory's point of view, Jack has always been a much admired big brother who was also always a trouble-maker. He's been gone from home, where he never felt he fit in, for 20 years, and now has returned for a visit of some length, while he tries to figure out his relationship with a woman in St. Louis.

I think I find Boughton irritating because he seems to think his kids, specifically Jack (but let's not ignore Glory's contribution) owe him a whole lot of subordinate obedience, specifically with respect for Christianity. There's a really interesting scene where Jack and his younger (and much approved) brother Ted talk about Jack's desire to tell their father something that will please him, that he has faith in a Christian God. But he doesn't really, so Jack feels he'd be lying on a deep level.

There's also a really fine undercurrent in the text about race issues in the late 50s or 60s. Jack's been in St. Louis; there are hints (so far, I haven't finished) that lead me to think that the relationship Jack's trying to figure out is with an African American woman. At any rate, he consistently thinks about race issues and tries to reconcile his father's and Ames's (his father's old friend) racism with their Christianity. He clearly has read and thought about religious issues more deeply than his father.

I think those two aspects of Jack's character are what make me find him appealing; he's thought deeply about whether he believes in Christianity and he's thought about how wrong racism is. So while he's an alcoholic and detached from his family, I find myself thinking I'd much rather meet and chat with him than with Boughton (even when he was younger and less self-centered.)

So, with the Prodigal Son story from Luke, the son is basically a wastrel and takes a chunk of his father's wealth and wastes it, then comes home to be welcomed with a party. Robinson says she sees the important thing as love not being earned.

Here's the problem. Children shouldn't HAVE to earn their parents' love. Parents have no right to expect their children to be permanently subordinate and obedient, especially about matters of ethics. That's not an equal relationship; ONE side of the relationship made a choice and the other had no choice. (I'm not trying to say that children should be horrible to their parents, of course, but trying to make the point that parents don't own their children the way Boughton seems to think he has a right to Jack.)

Boughton's self-righteous, selfish, self-centered attitude is really irritating me.

I can't decide if that means this is a really great novel or not.