Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A while back, Sisyphus over at Academic Cog was kind enough to share a really great assignment.  It's a short writing assignment, low pressure, but really useful.  The idea is that you give students a short pre-assignmed passage from the reading, and ask them to choose the most important word in the passage and write a paragraph explaining their choice.

I use these in pretty much all my lit classes these days because they're not that hard for students to write or me to grade, but they develop and reinforce all sorts of close reading sorts of skills that are way important.  Sisyphus is a genius, what can I say?

But I'm sometimes surprised at the words students choose, not because they're bad words, but because they sometimes choose adjectives without considering the noun it's modifying in their paragraph.  For example, let's imagine I've assigned this passage from Lear:
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer'd.  (1.1.31-43)
The student chooses the word "great" in the line "Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love."  And then zie writes about how "great" is the most important word in the passage because Lear is a great king, and powerful, and he's doing this massively important action here, and so forth.  But they don't mention the rivalry.  And it's the fact that they're great rivals (rivals who are both great men, and also big time rivals, both meanings are there) that really matters.  How do you look at "great" in that passage and not start from the context of the noun it modifies?  I don't know, but sometimes they do, and it mystifies me.

And now, back to grading word paragraphs.  When I finish this stack, I will be officially caught up in ONE of my three classes.  As unimpressive as that sounds, it's a big improvement for my life.

Monday, October 29, 2012


We're supposed to help our writing students develop digital literacies, so I planned my class day to introduce them to a couple of programs which might be useful in their research for the current project and the later project.  One was a curating program and one was blogger; the idea is that either of these can be used to link an electronic resource of some sort and make notes about it.  I've also suggested they try folders and or index cards.  I really don't care how they do it, but I want them to read and take good notes.

But first, we had a quiz.  So I turned on the projector and put up an image for the quiz.

And the screen looked like the image had been washed over in blue.  It was a really nice, deep, intense blue.  But it made the image uninterpretable.  It was like a variant on the blue screen of death, except the computer was fine, and it was a much more intense blue.

That's never happened with a book.

Fortunately, our tech folks are pretty darned wonderful.  I called the number, and a few minutes later, a nice woman showed up and started checking things out.  She eventually climbed up on a chair on top of a table (with a couple of students holding the chair steady, and standing by), and restarted the projector manually, and it was fine.  But it was still a good 20 minutes into class working around it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Voice in the Wilderness

On Friday, my students read a chapter in Graff and Birkenstein's They Say / I Say.  In the chapter, Graff and Birkenstein suggest that writers "also need to avoid sounding like a lone voice in the wilderness" (58).

One of my students asked for an explanation.

Isn't it weird? 

First, I'm pretty sure most of my students profess Christianity (I didn't ask), but none of them made a connection to John the Baptist.* 

But more than that, Graff and Birkenstein are trying to warn students that taking a stand totally alone might be unwise, and that they should think hard about whether their position is something they can justify with good reasons.

In John (the gospel), though, John the Baptist is right.  He's absolutely correct in predicting that there's a messiah coming.

So wouldn't you want to be the lone voice who, like John the Baptist, is right?  I guess it's just that of all the ways to warn students about taking a stance all alone, that's one where the character is absolutely right (within the context of the text).  They should have chosen a different way to say that, no?

*Sometimes an individual student will repeat something they seem to have heard in religious contexts, but their lack of real knowledge about what they're saying bothers me.  It's not like I think I need to live my life based on precepts I don't share, but it would be a lot less irritating if they actually knew what they were talking about in a real way.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein.  They Say / I Say.  New York: WW Norton, 2007.  58.  Print.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alone in a Theater

One of the local movie places in town is doing this newish thing, well, it's new to me, though it looks like they've been doing some sorts of this stuff for a while now.  What they do is offer something different on one or two weeknights, on occasion.  The different seems mostly to be some cultural stuff, opera, ballet, stuff we don't generally have much access to out here in flyover land.

But I went last night because they're showing a couple of the productions from the Globe Theatre in London, and I heard about it, and so I went.  It turns out they'd done the first one (All's Well)  a couple of weeks ago, so this one is the second.  And it was Much Ado.  (And Faustus is coming soon!  It's the 2011 season, the one where I saw All's Well and Faustus at the Globe.)

This town's pretty, well, erm, not exactly high culture oriented.  If it were a local high school sports team on film, the theater would have been packed.  As it was, I walked in, and the ticket booth was closed with a sign on it saying to go right to the concessions area.  At the concessions area, the young women behind the counter had to look up to make sure what they were showing, though she was happy to sell me a ticket once she found it.  (The ticket was $12.50, which is actually, I think, more than a standing ticket at the Globe runs.  It may not seem steep to folks with city salaries, but around here, that's steep.)

As I was walking towards the theater, a guy stopped me and asked if I were going, and when I said yes, told me he would start it about five minutes late because there were no intro commercials.  That was fine with me.  I took the opportunity to ask him about the Globe thing, and he showed me all about the operas and ballets and all, and I told him I teach Shakespeare at the university, and if I knew what they'd have access to in advance, I'd think about teaching the plays and try to get students to see them.  So we exchanged contact information, and on I went.

Let's just say, I didn't have to fight anyone for a seat.  Not anyone.  I was alone.  (Three more women came in after the film was running about five minutes.)

I was really hoping that the film would catch the feel of the playing space, and it did a little, but not as much as I'd hoped.  I think it would work better for my students who haven't experienced the playing space itself than it did for me.  I had high expectations.

Much Ado.  It's a hard play, not as hard as, say, Measure for Measure, but hard.  There has to be something, some chemistry or something that makes you (as an audience member in the 21st century) buy that Hero and Claudio could be even a little okay as a married couple.  For me, in playing, that depends on a couple things:  The way they show the initial relationship "developing," Claudio's rejection and how intense that is, and how they play the reveal and Claudio's reaction.  In a way, then, a lot depends on Claudio.

This production didn't do it for me.  The end felt flat.

Partly, I reacted strongly to the way they played the rejection scene, with Claudio being pretty physically violent.  He was violent again in the Leonato/Antonio challenge scene, pushing Leonato over. 

And then at the end, he didn't convince me that anything had really changed about him.  I left feeling like he'd be a wive abuser.

Benedick and Beatrice were fine, but not stellar, and didn't get across to me a sense of real pleasure, either.  And the dance felt choreographed and just there, rather than anything like an expression of spontaneous joy.

In a couple of weeks, they'll show Faustus, and I'll pay my $12.50, and it should be interesting because I saw the production in London.  (And I wrote a bit about how much I liked it!)

But I don't think I'll go back to see Much Ado again next week.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

One of those days...

when you're in a conversation, and you realize there's an idiot in the conversation, and you realize you're it.



I had a colleague observe my teaching the other day.

And I was nervous, really nervous.  And when I'm nervous, I talk about 20 miles a minute, and I'm a fairly fast talker anyway, especially for this part of the country.

I was nervous despite the fact that there's nothing big at stake and that my colleague is basically friendly and decent.

And now what I'd really like is for my colleague to say something really supportive, but nothing.  And in my mind, it's getting worse and worse.

So, I taught this class, and it wasn't one of my best classes, but it also wasn't one of the worst classes.

But it's a really good reminder, as I visit colleagues' classes, to think about how it feels to be observed, especially since a lot of the observations I do have much more at stake.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Reading Applications

I'm reading applications.  There are a lot of them, so I need to get started.  And, of course, I've read applications before.  So this post isn't just about this search.

Say we have 100 applictions for a position in Underwater Basketweaving, and we've put in the job description that someone needs a terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field, and that the job is in deep water basketweaving, with a subspecialty in weaving theory.

We're bound to get some applications from people in Reed Cultivation, who've taken a couple of courses in Basketweaving, and they can do a great job teaching deep water basketweaving.

At least those apps recognize what we've advertised for.  They're stretching, but they're trying.

But the application letters that don't even seem to try to convince us that they could do the job we're advertising for?  Just weird.

This is the first year I've read an application from someone whose terminal degree is from an on-line program.  I'm working on being open minded about this.  But this person doesn't seem to have any idea about the genre of the job application, none at all.  Zie has sent a resume, listing a variety of jobs and qualifications, including one for judging 4-H rabbits.  I get a feeling that hir advisor or advising program, or hir cohort, doesn't communicate about what the academic job search is like, or what the genre of the application looks like.

So I was thinking about the genre of the job application letter, and my expectations.  And I wanted to ask you folks to talk about job application letter expectations, about the genre in, say, English studies (rather than accounting).

Here's what I expect:

Letter type: research

A short intro paragraph telling us that you're applying to our specific job, and addressed to the person listed or the search committee.

A paragraph or two describing your thesis or dissertation project and why it's exciting and vital.  If you can make a connection to our job description, to.

A paragraph or two describing your teaching experience, especially relating to our position (including intro courses or whatever)

A paragraph or two addressing secondary concerns.  In the basketweaving example, one might talk about having coursework in theory and being excited to teach it.  Or one might talk about something we wouldn't know, but that's important.  If you have experience in a learning community, a few sentences about that.  If you've worked with non-traditional students in meaningful ways, taught on-line, have done assessment, this is the place to write a sentence or two about how those skills will help you contribute.  If you're applying to a liberal arts school, look at the AAC&U, and see if you can say something meaningful about your experience with liberal arts.

A concluding paragraph thanking us for our time, telling us if you'll be at MLA or whatever, and done.

Letter type: teaching

A short intro paragraph telling us that you're applying to our specific job, and addressed to the person listed or the search committee.

A paragraph or two describing your teaching experience, especially relating to our position (including intro courses or whatever).  Looking at our catalog is a good idea, but be aware that we might be working on changing our curriculum, so don't be too wedded to it.

A short paragraph describing your thesis or dissertation project.  Make sure to connect it to teaching.  (Also, recognize that many schools with a firm teaching orientation will expect you to also do scholarly or creative work, so don't underplay this too much.)

A paragraph or two addressing secondary concerns. In the basketweaving example, one might talk about having coursework in theory and being excited to teach it. Or one might talk about something we wouldn't know, but that's important. If you have experience in a learning community, a few sentences about that. If you've worked with non-traditional students in meaningful ways, taught on-line, have done assessment, this is the place to write a sentence or two about how those skills will help you contribute.

A concluding paragraph thanking us for our time, telling us if you'll be at MLA or whatever, and done.

For a community college, I'd make the thesis or dissertation project description really serve the teaching.  Let people know you've done something, and that you've thought about teaching.  Focus the teaching on introductory level courses.  Think about how you can teach the population of the specific community college and talk about how you've prepared to teach that population.

What say you?  What are your expectations, and how are they different?  (or not?)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Short Victory Dance

One of my writing students told me today that zie had done really well on a writing assignment for another class, specifically because zie had used something we'd learned in my class.  Zie said that the other instructor had specifically mentioned that something in the feedback as a positive feature in the assignment.

The student made my day.  And I could tell that zie was pretty happy, too.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thoughts from the Other Side of the Market

For the first time in my career, I'm reading job applications through an on-line format.  That means our applicants have to upload things in a specific format, and we have to try to keep track of them in new ways, and on line.

It's really different, and makes me realize how much I like taking notes at a desk with things spread out before me.  I don't have a good space to write notes at a computer because there's always a keyboard around.  On the other hand, since we were never supposed to take paper application files out of the department before, we'd all come to campus and read applications.  On more than one occasion, I was reading applications in droves on a Sunday, while other people on the search committee (or another search committee) were also trying to read files.  We'd be there, three or four faculty folks, bleary eyed, reading the many applications, taking notes, plugging along into the upper-midwest dark on a Sunday evening, knowing we had an early meeting on Monday to discuss candidates.  There was a certain camaraderie to that, especially since most people in my department get along pretty well.  But the idea that I could read those same applications in my PJs at home is enticing, for sure.

On the other hand, there are difficulties opening some of the files because they're supposed to be loaded in one format but some people upload them in other formats.  So, a quick note to candidates: whatever format they ask you to load up in, please use that.  (And if ours isn't clear about the formats it wants, I'm sorry to be critical.  I don't know what the system looks like on the candidate end, and that might be a problem.)  It's really hard to open up stuff in different formats, though our computers use those same formate regularly for everything else.

Another quick note: as always, candidates, make sure your materials are complete.  I'm not sure, because its hard to tell, but it looks like something I read starts not at the beginning.  Maybe it doesn't, or maybe the candidate put something in there that's way different from what everyone else has submitted.  I can't tell.

I'm at that stage in my career where I'm way more likely to know the people who write letters of recommendation than I am to know candidates.  One of my colleagues is on the other side, and hir comments made me realize that I've moved on.  We English department types could play seven degrees of Michael Berube or something as we read the files.

The good news is, I've been able to procrastinate on some grading (though probably for longer than I should), and from what I've seen, the candidate pool is really strong.  There are so many really fine candidates out there that it gives me hope, even up in icy country where we sometimes have difficulty enticing people in some fields.  (Accounting is a tough one, for example.  Lit, not so much.)  On the other hand, for candidates, well, there's some serious competition.  And not many jobs to go around.  It's the latter that's the really bad news for all of us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Student Conferences

I'm meeting with students in my writing class for a couple of days (starting last week).  It's good in many ways.  It gives me a chance to get to know the students a bit better, which is good.  It's also good because in an office hour with one student, you can push the student further.  They don't like it, mostly, but they can't hide, and that's good.

In a way, I wish our students were more like two year olds.  (But only in one way.)  You know how two year olds always ask "why?" about everything, again and again?  I wish our students pushed more like that, had that sense of unsatisfied curiousity.  Or at least a little sense of curiosity.

Mostly, I'm hopeful that they're curious about other things in their lives, just maybe not things in this class.  But then they tell me about those things, and most of them seem to have this very surfacey understanding of even the things they purport to care about. 

I'm reminded of that line from Deteriorata: 
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls

Would scarcely get your feet wet.

Welcome to Monday.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Luddite that I am...

I just turned in a review file with five different DVDs in it. 

The administrative types are all up about how we need to work in different media and such.  Let's see if they really mean it.

I wish I had a weekend to recover.  Bleah.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Begin Headbanging

It's that time of the semester, that time when a lot of first year students come banging head first into the wall of expectations and find that they can't hop over with ease.  They hopped over with ease in high school, they tell me, but now they have too much to do.

How much are you working, I ask?  How hard?

And then I tell them that we expect 2-3 hours outside of class for each hour of class time, and they do the math and maybe realize that our expectations are greater than what they've been doing.  And then they rise to meet our expectations.

In an ideal world, that happens.  In a less ideal world, they want us to tell them that it's okay, that they're fine and don't have to change a thing.

But we're asking them to make changes, often big, dramatic changes.  And most of them will make some changes, perhaps not quite what I'd wish, but enough to do well enough.

In my fantasy world, there's a way to convince most students coming to college that they really do need to work hard, and that what they've done previously doesn't meet our expectations now.  In my real world, the only way to convince students is through painful experience.  Or experiences.

I hate these conversations.  I wish I could make them easier.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Conversation with a High Schooler

My phone rings. 


"Hi Aunt Bardiac."  (It's my niece/nephew, in high school.)

Hi [Name]!


How are you?


Life treating you well?


What are you up to?


At which point, I want to say, hey, YOU called me!  It's your turn to say something.

And after a few more minutes of monosyballic responses, my niece/nephew gets to the point, which happens to be some question of moderate import.

Now, niece/nephew used to be able to carry on a conversation and actually say stuff, but I think there's a thing that happens, and suddenly, monosyllables.

The thing is, I remember being monosyllabic for YEARS whenever any adult tried to have a conversation with me.  I was too embarrassed, too shy, too angry, too defensive (depending on the circumstances) to talk to pretty much any adult.  And it took me YEARS to get over that.

Now I feel bad for all the adults who had to put up with me for all those years.  So, adults who put up with me, I'm sorry.  I apologize for the many years of monosyllables.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Across Campus

I'm on a committee for the university, a small one, with a closely defined task.  It's a lot of work, but it's fascinating.  I don't often get to chat with people from really different areas about our common work, but we have a chance to do that in the context of our task, and it's quite an education.  Something I take for granted here in my department, in my college, someone in another department or another college thinks totally differently about.  Stuff they spend a lot of time thinking about, I may not.

It's fascinating.

It's also, I hear, sort of hard to get faculty to agree to do this extra task.  I mentioned that to my chair, since we were having lunch today, and zie said something along the lines of, well, it counts for service, right?  But I pointed out that it doesn't count for service in our department, since I'm still expected to carry my full department committee load.  (I didn't point out that I had tried to get out of some of my department load in a conversation with hir because of this, and zie had said "no.")

Still, at least it's a really interesting committee.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Nerd Despair

My seminar students are working in groups to bring in critical essays for which they're supposed to lead a discussion that focuses on the argument as an argument.  It's not going well.  Today, the group chose an essay that uses a postmodern structure to make an argument for a postmodern reading(s) of a play.  It's not a bad essay, not at all, but it's hard.  And the group sort of bombed.

The essay basically jumps up and down waving and says, "I'm doing this as a postmodern essay to make a postmodern argument!" because making a postmodern argument without a postmodern structure would be less effective.

The thing is, my students didn't recognize that gesture (which was more jumping up and down waving a bright flag than subtle), and so couldn't make out what the argument was doing.  And it took me a while to figure out that they weren't.  So then I sort of stopped things and had them read the first part of the jumping up and down paragraph, and learned that they had no clue what "postmodern" might mean, nor what "modern" means.  And then I despaired.  And tried to teach them (by showing them graphic art, because you can look at a cubist piece and know it's doing something really different from a Turner).  And maybe it worked a little, and maybe it didn't. 

I guess the whole thing just brings out two real weaknesses in our English majors' preparation and training. 

1)  They have no idea of intellectual movements.

2)  They haven't read much, so they don't have lots to compare things to.

I'd rather not think of myself as a stodgy old traditionalist, but maybe I am.  But I think when you say "Renaissance" or "Modernism" or "Realism," an English major should be able to name a century and think of a piece of literature or art that might fit, and be able to tell you in what ways it fits.

I was venting to a colleague about my class, and my colleague, commiserating, said that she'd had a student in a class recently complain that everyone talked about Heart of Darkness but that she'd never read it.  And, fortunately for my colleague's sanity, the other students in the class said that she should go out and read it.

(I hear there are these places called "public libraries" where they'll let you borrow a book for two weeks FOR FREE!  And you can renew it, even!)

I'm going to go yell at the neighbor kids to get offa my lawn now.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


in just about every history play from Early Modern England.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Multiple Meanings

It's time for the text of the day!

And, I think you folks have talked me into teaching Troilus and Cressida next semester.  What play(s) work especially well with it?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Beyond All Understanding

Sometimes I do something of which I'm proud, inordinately proud, proud beyond all reason.  Today is one of those days.

Let me be clear: I have nothing to be proud of, here.

It's beyond silly to be proud.

And yet I am proud.

And happy.

There's no good sense to this pride I have.


Are you wondering what it is I'm proud of?

I'll give you a hint: it was done with a very simple paint program, the very same sort of simple paint program I use to create my artistic masterworks.

Still wondering?

Do you really want to know?

Okay then.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

It truly is beyond understanding.  If I'd have had access to photoshop and a bit more time, I would be even more insufferable.


That moment in grading when you realize a whole class of students doesn't understand a word you took for granted that they did.

In this case, the word is "proofread."

Worse, they didn't seem to realize that they don't know what it means.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


One of my students is struggling quite visibly.  Zie gets confused about assignments, can't find assignment sheets, and so on.  It's not that zie isn't trying or working hard, because zie said zie looked at the course web management site for the sheet, and didn't find it (because I hadn't put it up, though now, thanks to this student, I have).

I think it's more of a cognitive difficulty.  Zie needs a lot of support, but this college isn't really a place that supplies that sort of support effectively or easily.  I'm trying in my class, of course, but obviously blew it at least a bit by not putting up the latest revised calendar.  And, naturally, the calendar revisions are my way of trying to deal with the ever changing stuff coming from the head honchos, so things are way less organized for the students than they usually are in my classes.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


One of the really great things about being in a small city with a mid-size comprehensive university is that there's a lot of free or cheap cultural stuff available.  Last night, for example, I went to a recital by three music faculty folks.

Now, if you regularly go to one of the big, important symphonies around, you'll be unimpressed.  But that's okay.

For the rest of us:  while our faculty might not be among the top 100 musicians in the country on their instruments, they're pretty darned good.  They're way better than my ear or understanding, for sure.

And the concerts are free.

That means if they're listing some really hard modern piece, I might just go and listen and get something out of it.  But I wouldn't spend $50 for tickets, probably, because I'd think that there's a chance I wouldn't enjoy it.  Here, if I don't enjoy something, well, it's an hour or so of time, and that's all.

There's also the benefit that I know the musicians, at least a little.  So I get the fun of hearing people I know, people who are really good at what they do, performing in a small concert hall, and then I get a hug after, and get to chat about how much I enjoyed the piece, or I can ask why they chose this piece, or how it fits with their other interests. 

Of course, anyone in the community or area can come, not just faculty folks, so it's not quite a job perq.  But it's a small city with a university perq, I guess.  I have a sense that a lot of people think about taking advantage of going to see concerts and art and such, but they never quite get around to it.  It's like when I went to Japan and some of the other visiting teachers there didn't quite get around to going to see some of the local attractions (museums, temples, etc).

Last night was good.  If you're in a community like mine, make sure you go to a concert.

And there was a bonus: one of the musicians looks like he should practically be in one of those old Danny Kaye skits where he plays the crazed musician from eastern Europe with the wild hair and such.  It's almost funny, until you hear him play, and then it's just rapturous.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Happy OctoberCheck!

Yay, it's the OctoberCheck holiday!  For those of us paid on a nine month schedule, this is a feast day, a day to get grocery shopping done, buy things we've been putting off, and, yes, start saving for taxes, gift season, and the next summer's pay-drought.

This comp class is beating me up.

We're supposed to have students turn in things using an electronic drop box thingy.  They're supposed to turn in all their biggish assignments with it.

Today, my students turned in the second assignment that's supposed to be electronically submitted (and hardcopy, too).  And still, the drop box thingy isn't up.

I spent half an hour last week trying to get it to work, then asked one of the big shots, and zie couldn't get it to work, either.  Zie suggested I ask the other big shot, but that person wasn't around, and then I got busy with my THREE plus hours of meetings. 

I tried again this morning with no luck.  I sent an email to the big shots.

And finally, this afternoon, I ran into the second person, and zie said that it wasn't working, but that there was a meeting later this week, and it should be working soon.  (And then zie offered to come teach me how to use it, as if I'm a techno-idiot because I'm stupid enough to ask for help getting in the system when there's  no way in.)

We're in our fifth week;  that's about one third of the way through the semester.  And this thing isn't working.  And there's no communication about it unless I ask, and ask again.

It's hard enough to teach a new class based a lot on someone else's plan.  But it's even harder when the stuff we're required to use doesn't work yet.  (And I know it's not the big shots' faults, really, but rather the tech folks on campus who are supposed to make sure these things work; and I know that by next semester, things should be in place.  But it adds to the stress when you've told students something is supposed to work, and then no one can access it.)

And now I get to prep Macbeth, and all will be fun.  I'm doing another library series (I've done several of these over the years) at the local library starting later this week, and there are 17 people signed up.  The librarian in charge emailed me to let me know that they'd had to change the room because the usual place wasn't big enough.

Taking over the world for Shakespeare!