Friday, April 28, 2017

Bird School!

Some months ago now, in that fantasy time when spring seems like it will be reasonable, I signed up for bird school at a local nature reserve.  And today's the day!

But holy cow, what a time to have it!  Of course, for migration and such, it's perfect.  But for the academic schedule, not so perfect.  Or not at all perfect.

Still, I did the homework, and read up on anatomy and physiology stuffs, and prepared a handout for my group.  And I've found set my camera battery to recharge today.  And I've got stuff ready!

I should be grading, but I'm going to go learn about birds, starting this evening, and then early Saturday and Sunday mornings, all day Saturday, and Sunday through noon.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Teaching Peer Revision

This coming week, my senior seminar students will turn in their essay drafts (to our course management system, in the discussion area, where they're grouped into small groups), and then the next class session, they'll do peer revision.

So, taking Earnest English's suggestion, we spent a little time today reflecting on (in writing) and then talking about what made peer revision effective for them, and what made it ineffective.

My students suggested that really reading the draft carefully was vital.  yes.

Another suggested that they worry less about hurting feelings and more about giving real, honest criticism and feedback.  yes.

Another suggested that they give feedback in terms of questions, rather than directions.  (So more, a "I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, can you explain it in different words?" than a "do this" sort of response.)  yes.

And one suggested that real, full drafts were much better to work with as revisers.  YES!

And we talked about problems, which mostly came down to people not reading carefully, or focusing on grammar rather than bigger picture stuffs.

I've asked them to give their peers one or two things to think about when they submit their drafts, so that they'll get the most helpful response possible. 

What do you do to help your students have a better peer revision experience?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Several Things

I was looking at the CVs of applicants for a deanling position here, and one of the CVs lists a book out from Scholar's Press.  So I looked at some on-line booksellers, and didn't see it.  So then I thought, hmm, that's odd, and googled the press, which basically looks sort of like an academic vanity sort of thing?  It accepts manuscripts, and prepares to print them out and bind them "on demand," pretty much.

Is that your folks' impression?

What does it mean that a deanling candidate has listed this on their CV?

Does the fact that this person is a finalist for the position mean that the search committee doesn't realize about the press?


I'm working on a conference paper along with my seminar students.  They're required to do an abstract and annotated bibliography.  I really don't want to do the annotated bibliography, but I really should.  Ugh.

The upside is if I get this done, then I'll have a much better conference paper than otherwise.

Do you folks ever write alongside your students (as in, visibly to them)?


One of the things we'll do with this is peer revision.  In my experience, my upper level students do a much better job with peer revision than lower level students do.  This is especially true when there are creative writing students in the mix, and English Ed students, because they get a lot of practice in responding to and critiquing peers' works.  My sense would be that lots of practice helps people learn to be better peer responders.  But we lit folks don't tend to have students do as much peer response as other folks.

In the Grade Information thread, Doc said that he basically found that peer revision didn't work well with upper level students.

What's your experience with using peer revision for upper level students?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Being Ungraded

As regular readers know, in February 2016, I started violin lessons.  One of the cool byproducts is that it's got me thinking about being a learner in a big way again, because I'm not just learning little extra stuff here and there from reading, but I'm learning whole new skills and vocabulary and concepts. 

In light of our recent discussion about grade information, I was thinking about being ungraded in violin. 

At one point, I did ask Strings, my teacher, if I were progressing okay.  I worried about it when I started.  But once she reassured me when I asked, I really haven't worried about it.  I think two things have happened.  One is that she reassured me.  And the other is that I'm pretty much at the limits of useful challenge in my violin playing, so it really doesn't matter if someone else progresses faster or not, because the only way I'm going to progress faster is to add a whole lot more time to my practice sessions, and I accept that I'm probably not doing that.

In private lessons, it doesn't matter how fast I progress.  I'm not holding anyone back, or being frustrated by someone else not keeping up.  And that's very, very different from being in a larger class.  Of course, in a large enough class, I wouldn't be aware of how others were doing, mostly, whether they were more or less lost in the material than I was.* 

At this point, I can pretty much tell how I'm progressing because when I'm playing my current piece well enough, Strings starts me on the next one.  And if I'm not playing it well enough, she helps me figure out my difficulties and helps me with strategies to work through them.

In my last lesson, for example, I was having difficulty with some areas of the Becker Gavotte.  So she had me trying playing a couple section without fingering, just playing the open strings.  (It's weird to do that, too.)  In another spot, she showed me how to use one finger that was already down to place a finger on a different string, but nearby.  And in another spot, she helped me realize that I had to lift my third finger quickly to be ready to put it down somewhere else after a different note.  And so on.

Even though I hadn't practiced as much as I might have in the preceding period (I skipped a lesson for SAA and didn't practice while traveling), she was able to find really specific ways to help me, all while being encouraging.

And this week, I'm back practicing the Becker.  (And technical stuff, of course.)

So how does it work without grades?  There's basically a sort of pass/fail, with opportunities to go work on doing better when I don't pass a given piece.  And encouragement. 

If I were being graded at the end of the semester, then it would probably feel different.  I'd probably ask, or want to ask, how I was doing in terms of a grade, because if you're in a system where grades matter (and they do for music majors, and for people getting financial aid, and for people who want to go to grad/professional school, and at some level, for people who want to graduate), you pretty much have to care about grades.

And there's the passing on to a new piece thing.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean I've earned the equivalent of an A at playing a given piece, even for my level.  I think it's more that I've demonstrated that I can play it acceptably at my level, and that the Suzuki system/teachers think I'll gain more by focusing on a new piece with new skills challenges than by continuing to focus primarily on that piece.  (With the reminder that in general, Suzuki students are expected to practice all the pieces they've learned previously with fair regularity, like once a week, for a long time.  With Strings permission, I don't do that.)

So if I were in a sort of portfolio system, how would I feel about moving on?  Me, I want to learn to play the violin, so I practice stuff that Strings doesn't check me on, scales, technique books, in hopes that those skills will help me as I progress.  But I don't keep working hard on pieces I've passed, mostly. 

What about students in a writing class?  Given that time is always tight, should a student keep working on revising a piece if they don't know the grade, just in hopes that they really need to?

There are times when I look at a paper, and it's very B land.  Minor, little things could make it B+ land, but to seriously improve it, the student would have to rethink the paper completely, pretty much.  Is it worth asking the student to take time to do that?  (My students are all pretty busy, with most working a lot of hours in addition to their courses and family responsibilities.)

*I remember when I went back to school, I was in this Shakespeare class, and just really enjoying it, but also not feeling super confident about my skills in lit.  At the beginning of the semester, I'd been in a long line on campus, and made friends with another student who also ended up in the Shakespeare class.  So we went along in class; this friend and I'd say hello and such, but didn't talk between classes about the class.  And then when the midterm came back, I was happy to feel good about my A, and totally shocked that my friend earned a D.  I was totally unaware that he wasn't getting stuff or writing well or whatever.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Grade Information?

You know how a fair number of the young folks you see on campus are looking at their phones at any given time?  What are they looking at?

I mean, I can check facebook, and my email, but all the folks I'm likely to text work (except my Mother, but she keeps plenty busy) and don't text me unless there's something up. 

So I asked my students while we were waiting for the class hour to begin.  A few mentioned texts or facebook messenger, and email.  But weirdly, several of them were looking at our on line course management system, looking for grades.  One said they'd turned in a paper the week before break, but still hadn't received a grade on it.  And that was like opening the spigot, because pretty much all of them said they were having similar experiences.

So, in a big course, papers, it can take more than two weeks (and certainly an instructor may actually have taken a break over break).  But the number of students who talked, in those few minutes, about their frustrations with not getting graded stuff back, or not getting feedback, was pretty high, and each person who came in as we were talking, quickly chimed in.

Now, let's take these with a grain of salt.  One student who complained about not getting anything back in a first year writing course acknowledged that she'd received extensive feedback on her work, just not actual grades.  It turns out she got an A in the course.  I don't know what the feedback looked like, but usually when I give feedback on an A paper, I write things about the smart ideas, good organization, strong thesis, overall high quality, and then maybe make a suggestion about how to tweak one thing to make it even stronger.  And the student said that others in the course got grades.

So, I don't know.  It seems weird that the student didn't ask the teacher, doesn't it?

On the other hand, it also seems weird not to give students feedback that includes a grade unless you're using a portfolio system, in which case your feedback includes revision suggestions and opportunities, probably.

Do you folks post grades on a course management system?  (I don't.)

How long do you think is okay to take to grade and return a short essay assignment (under, say, 5 pages)?  (I aim for one week, but sometimes take two.)

Do you give feedback without grades?  (I'm sure you have a good reason.  Please share.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The More Things Change

I ran into a colleague in the "research room" (which is what our room with a microwave, coffee maker, water pot, refrigerator, sink, and seating is labelled, it being illegal to call anything on state property a "break room" apparently), a colleague who's retiring at the end of the semester.  And, as we do when waiting for water to boil, coffee to drip, and so on, we chatted.  I asked him how he was looking forward to retirement, and he said that while he's loved his job, there are changes, some for the better, some for the worse, but the detrimental ones are bothering him more than the positive ones these days.

So we started talking about some changes.

There are structural changes which make it seem more possible to give a wider group of people opportunities to go to college, but now those changes seem to be eroding.  So, here, he said, when he first came, the students were pretty much all white, middle class.  They're still mostly white, but now not mostly middle class.  We still have a long ways to go to serve the racially diverse population around NWU, but we're doing better at serving a more economically diverse population.  (You may think of the great North Woods as a land of unmitigated whiteness, but if you look, you'll realize there's more diversity in the area than you might think.  For one thing, there are more Native Americans in the area, but we're not serving them well here at NWU.  There are also more Latin@ folks than you might think, but we're not serving them hardly at all.  And there are more refugees and immigrants, often second generation now, too. 

Technology is a mixed bag.  It's great to be able to get texts, to access them in class, to not have to use a microfilm/microfiche reader, to be able to get texts PDFed from afar, to be able to look up some factoid quickly.  On the other hand, it's frustrating when students don't buy literary (or no doubt other) texts, but try to read them on their phones.  And it's even more frustrating when students pay more attention to their phone than to the human beings in class with them.

(What are most students doing on their phones?  Playing games?  Twitter?  Snapchat or something?)

I started here pretty much in the year my colleague feels was the beginning of local structural changes hurting students, so to me, those changes are sort of normalized for me as a faculty member.  I was totally unaware of them at most of the schools where I was a student (except for the years I was at a community college and regional university; the regional university hadn't bought books for the library in years in the lit field.  When we really needed something, the advice was to go to either the big public R1 15 miles east, or the smaller private R1 30 or so miles south.  Fortunately, both would let people read in their libraries, though we couldn't borrow books, of course.)

For colleagues who've come more recently, there've been drastic recent budget issues, but we're all weirdly adjusting to them as the new normal.

What have you found changing over your career in academics (or whatever)?  More positive or negative?  Mixed?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wild Dash to the Finish

How much do you work with undergrads on research/writing strategies?  How do you do it?

It's that time of the semester when we're all dashing to the finish.  We have five more weeks here.

In my Intro to Lit course, students turn in their critical essay next week.  I held open office hours last week, before leaving for SAA, and got some students, but this week I've had bunches.  So I'm in on a non-teaching day, holding office hours, hoping to help some more. 

In my senior seminar, I've been trying to be more proactive about the seminar paper stuff.  Just after break, I took a class session and we did a bunch of freewriting and other brainstorming activities about paper ideas.  Then students turned in a basic paper idea, and I responded to that.

In our meeting before I went to SAA, I spent time talking about strategies for writing a good paper, figuring out what to say, using research, and so on.  And while I was gone, I set them to get started, with the suggestion that rereading was a good start.

They seemed to appreciate talking about strategies.  I hope they weren't just BSing.

Yesterday, we spend time talking about what they'd accomplished, where they were stuck, and tried to help each person with some suggestions.  I also told them about my Kalamazoo paper, and that I'd be working on a paper along with them.

My plan going forward is to spend some time each week talking about progress and problems, and trying to help solve the problems.

And yes, I need to work on my Kalamazoo paper, too!

Here's wishing us all good work!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Catching Up

SAA was good, once I got there.  That was a bit of an adventure.  My original flight plans had me getting to the airport at about 4:45 am (to get the check in and so on.  My local airport is so small that the same person checks people in and then goes to do the security screening.  That means if you haven't checked in before they go to do security, you pretty much can't check in.)

Anyway, I got out of the car and saw a "flight cancelled" note scotch-taped to the door, went inside, and learned that yes, the flight was cancelled.  I texted my friend (who'd risen early to give me a ride), and she texted back that she was back outside the door.

And then I waited for a bit while the airline folks rerouted me.  This route meant that I'd fly out on THE afternoon flight (two flights out and in a day here), stay overnight in Chicago, and then fly out of Chicago super early.  (The desk clerk at the Chicago hotel said I pretty much needed to be on the 3:15am shuttle to get to the airport, through security and such.  I could have made it on the 3:45 shuttle, probably, given that there were no lines at 3:30 when I got there.  But maybe there would have been lines at 4am?)

At any rate, I made it to Atlanta mid-morning, and spent the rest of the morning rereading papers for my seminar.  I went to the lunch, had a delightful conversation with a friend, but couldn't hear the speech very well (bad sound system?).  Then my seminar, which was really good and interesting, and which gave me some good ideas for revision.

Then it was evening, and I went and got an early dinner, took a bit of a walk, and was in bed by 8:15pm.  I felt so much better the next day!  I went to a morning session, went to the book exhibit, and got on the MARTA to get to the airport.

It was really frustrating to miss so many seminars and talks I'd wanted to see!  But I travelled safely, and had a good seminar, good talks with friends, so that was worthwhile.

And now I'm getting back in the swing, taking care of school stuff, trying to sort out adding office hours for my desperate students.

I don't remember being so helpless as a first year student.  Maybe I was.  But I sure didn't talk to my professors so they'd know it!  (On the other hand, it's probably actually way better that my students DO talk to me and other professors, since my strategies weren't particularly successful.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

To the Shakespeare Association Conference

I'm headed out early tomorrow for SAA, which is in Atlanta this year. 

I have mixed feelings about conferences.  On one hand, it's great to go and see Shakespeare folks, talk Shakespeare and early modern lit.

On the other hand, it reminds me how isolated I feel intellectually here, and how many resources just aren't anywhere near.

It's great to get away, especially to somewhere warmer.

But it's also a pain to make arrangements for classes to be covered, plants to be brought in/taken out, travel, and to pick up the extra expense, because NWU never quite covers everything.

At any rate, I'm heading out.  I'm not taking my computer, so I won't be posting.

Death on the Internet

For years now, I've read Steve Tilford's blog.  If you don't follow cycling, you've probably never heard of Steve Tilford, but he was the first US mountain biking champion, four times the US cyclocross champion, five times world mountain bike masters champion, twice world cyclocross masters champion, an inductee in the mountain biking hall of fame, and three times a member of the US world road team at the world championships.

He was also just a bit older than me, but still raced and road tons, and wrote wonderfully about racing and riding, and all sorts of things.

But today, I opened  Cycling News and saw this.  And then I opened his blog, and saw a post by a friend of his.  (It was a car accident, a really horrible car accident.)

I never met Steve Tilford.  (I don't even feel like I can call him by his first name, certainly not by the nickname many seem to use.  But just his surname doesn't seem right, either.)  But I'm really sad.  Reading someone's blog, following their life, learning from them, seeing pictures of their dogs, family, friends, adventures, it all makes you feel sort of like you know them.  Except you don't.  Not really.

But still, what a life the man led, and how he'll be missed by his family, friends, the whole cycling community, and his blog readers, including me.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Why an MA in English?

We had a meeting about our MA program last week; there's a new colleague directing the program, a colleague who very much wants to be a deanling and so approaches everything as an administrator.  They really wanted to present their idea, have us all nod obediently, and move forward.

Instead, people started asking questions.  And the best question asked us to think about what the MA program is trying to do.  It's a great starting point for rethinking our program.  (I've blogged before about my frustrations with our program, how weak it is, how much of a disservice I think we do for students who should be encouraged to go elsewhere.)

So the question of the day: what should an MA program try to do?  Or, to put it another way, why should someone get an MA in English?

(Note: we're a regional comprehensive with the only MA in English for 100 miles in most directions.)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Crocus Smile, the Fourth Year

I know you've all been waiting for pictures of this year's blooming of the now famed art installation, "Crocus Smile"!!  Here it is!

And yes, an individual crocus bonus, because they're so amazingly beautiful.  Once again, let me say, the crocuses are more obvious in person.

And, this year, I've tried adding more bulbs (that I'd left in the garage over winter).  Hopefully next year's smile will be even better!

Crocus Smile, the beginnings
Crocus Smile, Year Two
Crocus Smile, Year Three

Friday, March 31, 2017

Sometimes, It Works

When I finished teaching yesterday, I felt really good.  I'd prepped the heck out of my classes, especially for the novel, and both classes went really well.

I usually feel pretty good, like I've taught say, a B+ class.  But today, I felt way better, and that's sort of rare.  But oh so good!

On the other hand, I played less well than I'd hoped at my violin lesson.  But I got a new exercise, got some encouragement and tips, and will practice to improve. 

After several weeks of practice, I'm able to get a slight variation in sound when I use the bow while doing slow vibrato.  That's a huge improvement, but it's going to take a lot more practice!


On Tuesday this week, I spent pretty much the whole session in my senior seminar doing brainstorming type work for their seminar papers.  I think it worked.  They all seem to have come up with at least basic ideas for things they want to look at.  If it helps their papers, it's time well spent.


I bought a new toy this week.  I'd been thinking about it off and on for a few years.  Over the weekend, I went birding up to this amazing pond, filled with geese, swans, ducks.  But while I could pretty much tell the Canada Geese from the others, I couldn't tell whether the smaller white geese were Ross's Geese or Snow Geese.  It's hard to tell size at a distance, and the other big field mark is beak marking, with the Snow Goose having what my Sibley's calls an "obvious black 'grin patch'" (79).  Let me say, the patch isn't at all obvious at a great distance through my binoculars, much less in my pictures (taken with a 400 mm lens).  I was so frustrated!

So I got a spotting scope.  My 400 mm camera lens basically does 8x magnification.  My binocs are 10x.  My spotting scope is 27-60x.

It's utterly amazing.

I need to get a new tripod before I can take pictures with it (there's an adaptor to fit on my camera), but when I do, it should be pretty darned exciting!  I can't wait to go look at those geese again!  (I can hold 10x binocs okay; in good light, so the shutter speed is fast, I can hand hold the camera with lens.  But it's way easier with a tripod.  But there's no way I can hand hold this huge spotting scope and actually see anything!)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Novel Teaching

I always feel a bit at odds and ends when I teach novels.  I know that's weird for those of you who teach lots of novels all the time, but I usually teach plays and verse stuff, long or short.  I'm pretty comfortable teaching The Faerie Queene or Donne's sonnets, and super happy teaching plays.  Short stories seem more straightforward to teach.

But novels!  First, they're often pretty darned BIG!

I assigned the novel for over break reading.  I hope they did it! 

So I started in today trying to introduce characters, and trying to weave bits of those characters through the whole of the text.  I'll pick up more, but I want the students to start paying close attention, and I can tell they didn't.  Of course, it's an intro to lit course, and they're in the course to learn to read better, so it's completely reasonable that they didn't read with quite the attention I did.

Still, For a couple of the characters, I traced bits through the novel (Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie): one character's a bit of a bully.  Later, we learn that he's been sexually abused as a child by a priest.  And they also cut his hair off.  Then later still, the mysterious Big Mom character tells him he has to forgive the priest. 

Students need to learn to pay close enough attention to tie these things together, to remember the sexual abuse incident when the forgiveness talk comes.

But I don't feel like I know quite how to teach students to read this way.

Or how to teach them to get at the bigger picture at the same time.  I tend to be a smaller, tight focus sort or reader, I think.  I like to work through small passages and explode them to get at the bigger issues.

How do you more expert folks teach novels?

Monday, March 27, 2017

No Wonder Non-Academics Think We're Lazy

NPR has a story up today by a UC Berkeley psych prof about balancing parenting and being a professor, "A Day in the Life of an Academic Mom."  The intro says, "Blogger Tania Lombrozo is an academic — and a mom. Here, she gives a window into what that's like day-to-day."  From that intro, I have a sense I'm going to read about a whole heck of a hard day's work.  Don't you?

But she gets to work at 9am: "9:00 a.m. I'm finally in my office, a glorious hour of uninterrupted work time ahead."  From there she gives an hour by hour run down of her day, until the 4pm entry, which says, "4:00 p.m. I ignore my escalating email and return to the paper I'm writing. Forty-five splendid minutes speed by; it's time to pick up the kids."

So, she's worked 9am to 4:45.  Nice.

Except every single factory worker in the US got to work at 7 or 8am (or started a night shift or whatever), and did their job for 8 full hours.  Yep, they probably got some time for lunch.

Lombrozo does say she emailed a little later in the evening: "9:00 p.m. The kids are finally asleep. I email my student the experiment idea. I book my conference travel. I open the document with the paper I'm working on. Can I sleep yet? I close it again."

It's not that I don't think she does her job.  Heck, she's probably way smarter and harder working than I am.  But this hour by hour thing isn't convincing.

Let's imagine that factory worker's a mother as well.  She, too, gets up at 6am, maybe earlier.  She gets the kids ready, makes a lunch for everyone, gets herself to work by 8am.  She works a full 8 hours. (with, say, a half hour for lunch.  That's how my non-academic jobs generally worked.)  She gets off at 4:30, and picks up the kids from afterschool or day care.  She goes home, makes dinner.  (In the real world, most mothers do most of the cooking in their households.)  She cleans up, bathes, reads to kids, and all that.  Gets them into bed.  Then maybe she pays some bills, reds up the kitchen, does some laundry.  Then bed.


How about me?

It's the first day off after break.  I don't teach classes today.

6am.  Get up.  Get ready. 

7:30 - At the office.  I start in on my to-do list.
--the list starts with bureaucratic paperwork.  I do that.  I do more of that. 
--I arrange travel for a conference.  I register for the conference.  Then I do bureaucratic paperwork (except, of course, it's all on computer, so "paperless.")

10:00 - I start working on the agenda for a committee I chair.  I get frustrated by the word processing program adding indents to my list, and make a quick call to the help desk.  The quick call takes 20 minutes (but I finish the agenda while I'm on hold!).  Then the help desk person asks me if the next person up the line could call back with an answer.  I say sure.

--I do a task related to the committee, email the chair, adjust the agenda.  I send out the agenda!

11:30 - The help desk person calls back, can't figure it out, and asks to come over.  I say sure.
--I grade some student work, and prep some for class presentations in the coming weeks.

11:45 - The help desk person comes with two helpers, and they work at my computer.  I get tea and wait.  I go talk to a colleague.  I keep checking back, but they're not having an easy time.

--They think they've got it!  But no, it doesn't work.  I clarify what I need to happen (no automatic tabbing) and they finally figure it out and show me.  It should have taken the first person two minutes to explain it over the phone.

--I reshelve some books, clean up my desk, and check for the next tasks on my list.

--I get an email to tell me that some of the bureaucratic paperwork I did actually worked, and I'm getting reimbursed!

--I do some conference prep.

12:30 - I think I'm almost ready to go home, but a colleague stops by to ask for help with a course she's teaching next semester (our first year writing course).  It's a complicated course, but I print out my course materials from last year and walk her through what I do.  Then we talk a bit about what she wants to do.

1:20 - I reorganize a couple of files for my senior seminar reading materials.  I put together my stuff to take home for this evening.

1:30 - I leave campus. 

1:50 - I get home, have lunch, relax, read this article, get pissed off, write a blog post.

3:00 - Time to get back to work: I need to reread a play, prep to intro two plays in my senior seminar and talk about seminar papers.  I need to prep to teach a novel (which I reread this weekend). 


What do your days look like?

Sunday, March 26, 2017


We're coming to the end of spring break here in the NorthWoods.  A friend from college spent the week here visiting.  They were recently "made redundant" in their job, and so are unemployed, but got a decent severance and such.  And their profession is one where there's lots of job movement through a career, so I expect they can find a job pretty quickly in their field.  Unfortunately, they're also really burned out on their field.  So we'll see.

At any rate, it was wonderful having a friend from my previous world visit.  Since my friend was feeling tired and burned out, we spent a lot of time relaxing, chatting.  We did some driving around, going out for meals, and hanging out.  I introduced them to some favorite Netflix series.

My friend left yesterday.

Now life feels quiet.  My house feels quiet.  (Not that my friend is loud, but it's quieter.)

I did some grading and such, so I'm all caught up there.  I spend yesterday rereading a novel to teach this coming week, and still need to reread a play or two.  And plan classes, of course.

I'm working on a really difficult violin piece.  I missed two days of practice over the break, so that's not too bad.  Strings suggested an exercise book for third position, and I've been working on that.  The biggest difficulty with third position is reading notes and putting my fingers in different places than before.  (The position thing has to do with where the fingering hand is on the fingerboard.  First position is nearest the end.  Third position is with the first finger where the third finger usually is.)

I'm also working on additional scales, in second and third position.  Some are physically difficult for me (reaching up the violin), and all are mentally difficult in terms of thinking about what notes I'm playing.

So I'm plugging along there.

I haven't been birding at all yet this spring, but I've heard about a great pond about 40 miles away, so I'm heading up there in a bit, I think. 

And my crocus smile is up.  I've got a new plan to try to fill in spots.  I got some crocus bulbs in fall, and left them in the garage all winter (so they'd get cold enough, but not too cold).  So I'm going to stick them in the empty areas today using a dibble stick thing and some bone meal, and hope they'll come up!

Meanwhile, Gent Wevelgem is on (it's a bike race in Flanders) and very exciting.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kwame Alexander and Li-Young Lee

I'm teaching two amazing poems today.  First, Kwame Alexander's "LIfe" and second, Li-Young Lee's "The Gift."

Days like this, I have a really, really good job.

Thursday, March 09, 2017


Earlier this week, I had a chat with a student who's missed more than half the class sessions this term because they're suffering from anxiety and depression.

I don't know what to say.  Shakespeare doesn't help here.  Don't kill a king.  Marry someone who's wit and personal qualities match yours if you can.  Don't ignore your day job if someone else is going to come in and cause problems for your dukedom.

It's not that I want to be unsympathetic, but I'm at a total loss.

I don't have much experience with real depression, but from the far sidelines experience I've had, it's horrible.

The thing is, if someone is too anxious or depressed to come sit in a classroom where little is demanded of them (a little small group discussion, maybe sharing ideas, but it's not like we're doing brain surgery and someone's going to die if we mess up), then really, my class is the least of their worries.  How can you hold down a job?  How do you deal with relationships?  (Bad things happen in relationships: loved ones get sick and need care and love, for example.  That can be hard under the best of circumstances.)

What I want to say, but don't, because I know it's not helpful is "just get up and drag yourself through the day like most of us do."

I don't say that, and I know it wouldn't help.  But seriously, I think for an awful lot of people in the world, getting up and dragging themselves through the day is how they get by a lot of the time.

And I think it's probably always been that way.  There was probably some Homo erectus out there who really didn't want to get out of the nest they'd made the night before, but then got hungry enough to either get up and go forage or decide to just lie there and get eaten by something else.  And until they couldn't any more, they got up and went to forage.  And even if they went out to forage, something else might have eaten them.

Those of us who are lucky, mostly get up and are happy to do what we're paid to do, at least mostly.  (I would be happier not to have to grade or fill out assessment paperwork, but there you go!)

I tried to help this student, gave them an option to help them catch up, dug out handouts for them, and so on.  I wish I felt even slightly confident that I could be helpful.

What's the most helpful thing for students with anxiety/depression (for an academic instructor) to do?

Edited to Add: I should have mentioned the counseling services stuff before.  The counseling services and the student were already working together, along with the Dean of Students office coordinating.

Thanks, all!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Losing Touch

There's a recent article by Deborah K. Fitzgerald in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about how "Our Hallways Are Too Quiet."  In the article, Fitzgerald laments that after a ten year absence (deaning), she returned to the faculty area to find it feeling empty.  She notes that faculty are busy working elsewhere, especially at home, something made possible by changing policies (allowing folks to work at home as a way to make things better for families, for example), and technology (networked computers enable us to work away from specific offices in ways we couldn't earlier; though to be honest, I've had networked computer capabilities for about 18 years now, and I'm guessing my campus isn't as tech quick as MIT, nor am I as tech savvy, in all likelihood, as she is).

Fitzgerald suggests that it's hard to get "work" done in campus offices, and that tenure demands for publication fuels faculty needs to work off campus.   (At NWU, requirements for tenure and promotion subtly shift up all the time, at least partly the faculty's fault, but also in response to administrative pressures.)

While that seems likely, I'd also suggest that faculty may be in their offices with doors closed, doing the additional paperwork sorts of work that seems to keep getting added to our loads in various ways.

Even basic stuff, such as writing syllabi, seems more complicated.  A while back, I found a syllabus I got in college.  It's one side of one page, and basically gives the readings for the semester and test dates.  We're now expected to give information about how we're evaluating students, what plagiarism is and how we'll deal with it, absence policies, various sorts of help available on campus, and on and on.  Some of it's cut and paste from previous terms, but sometimes we add new stuff; I have a colleague who wrote up a civility policy after dealing with a particularly rude student last semester.

And then there's "delivery," how we try to teach students whatever we're tying to teach.  How much time do people spend on powerpoints so that they can make them available to students?  I'm guessing a lot more than my art history prof used to spend picking out slides for a lecture.  In addition, we probably all spend time setting up course management sites, putting up assignments, arranging whatever.  (Does this take longer or less long than the copies of readings that were stapled into folder  for check out at my undergrad library for readings not in the textbook?  I don't know.  I think I probably assign more out of text readings than I was assigned, but I wasn't an English major.)

Don't forget about advising and student services: we're all asked to send notes to the Dean of Students if we have students "of concern," students who aren't coming to class enough, students who seem depressed, students who come to class hungover.  We're supposed to track these students' emotional states and notify whatever offices on campus seem appropriate.  (And in order to do that, we're asked to take special computer modules about student depression or whatever.)

Finally, there's the endless assessment game, and all the meetings we have to attend to decide what and how we're going to assess whatever it is, and then the additional time to fill out the forms that the assessment folks demand, with ever changing goals and targets.

And all the committee work that needed to be done ten years ago still needs to be done, but here in my department, we're down about 20% of faculty from 10 years ago, so we have fewer people doing the work, and more work (assessment, especially) is required all the time.

So here's what bothered me about the article.  Fitzgerald seems surprised by these changes.  But here at NWU, at least, people write bigger syllabi in response to administrative requirements (read: the dean's office sends a mandate).  People make up powerpoints and study guides because administration pressures them to in some fields.  And by golly, administrative pressures are behind every single bit of endless assessment work we do.

Did she not notice as dean that the administration was making continually increasing demands on faculty?  (Was she not making those demands or seeing them made somehow?)

Fitzgerald comes up with a typically deanly remedy: she praises the creation of
events such as regular colloquia, lunches, teas, and happy hours to give people a chance to interact. Some may view those social opportunities as a huge time-waster. I would argue that, on the contrary, collegiality and collaboration are part of what we are paid for.
I'm not the best happy hour person (I have a low enough alcohol capacity to not drink anything alcoholic if I have to drive), but these sound pretty nightmarish to me. 

If we really want to make departments more sociable (and I'm not sure we do, for a variety of reasons), then reduce workloads, and give people opportunities to chat over whatever relaxing beverages they like.  But it has to come with a workload reduction that means my friend with a two year old isn't worried about making the pickup from daycare on time, and so the TT colleague who's desperately working on an article can take a breath away.  And the atmosphere has to be actually welcoming.  (My department's social functions pretty much always feel like straight, married folks sit in pairs and talk about being straight married folks in the most gender-normed ways you can imagine.  Maybe that feels welcoming to some straight married folks, but it doesn't to me.)

We also need to recognize that if the sociability fantasy is based on everyone "back in the day" having had a stay at home spouse, having been all white, all ivy-educated or whatever, then we need to rethink whether we want that sociability.  If we've done anything right in the past 20 years (and the closed door thing has certainly been a problem for more than 10 years), then we've increased the diversity of our faculty in many ways: we have more people of color, more LGBTQ folks, more women with children, more folks from different social classes.  Not everyone may want "tea" if it means pretending we're all upper crust British wannabe aristocrats.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Coughing and News

I've had a cold for about two weeks now, it's all stuffy nose and coughing.  Ugh.  It's not as bad as the one earlier this academic year, that lasted until I took antibiotics (prescribed by a PA) after a couple of months of hacking.

But coughing gets very old, very fast.

I haven't practiced my violin for about three days.  It feels like months.  I keep coughing and sneezing, and it's really hard to play anything when I'm coughing and sneezing.  I've also spent a whole lot of time trying to sleep, wishing I were asleep, and on the verge of sleep.  It's hard to sleep when I'm coughing, and that makes me more tired, which makes me go to be earlier, and get more frustrated when I cough instead of sleeping.  And it probably doesn't help much with getting better.

I had two pieces of good news this past week.  One was the official notice about my sabbatical.  The other was that the search I chaired has finalized a very good hire.  I blogged a little about diversity issues in hiring here (Hiring Faculty of Color) and here (Diversity Statements) this fall.  I'm very pleased with our hire, and so is pretty much everyone else who's talked to me about it.  (I've been stopped in the halls, gotten emails, and such.)

But can I say, as someone who's in a department that teaches writing, and so, one would hope, is likely to attract people who've been trained in writing and stuffs: holy cow, some people in our field can't write their way out of a paper bag.  It's not the majority, but there are definitely some.

Here's a hint: if the ad says that the ideal candidate will show evidence of X, then by golly, show us some evidence of X.  If X is teaching excellence, talk convincingly about your teaching excellence, about the work you do to teach well, and so forth.  If X is doing handstands, talk about doing handstands. 

Can I also say, our HR department is a real mess right now with all the retirements and people leaving for better jobs.  Their messiness added a lot of stress to certain people's lives in regards to the search.

I've had it up to here (hand at forehead) with colleagues who don't do some basic aspect of the job, but who expect the rest of us to fill them in.  And when these same colleagues make snotty comments about the job we did in their absence, I don't want to hear them.

On the other hand, I'm going to Kalamazoo!  When I started back to school to study English, one of my first teachers was a medievalist who talked about what a great conference Kalamazoo is, and for the first time, I'm going!  And that teacher and I are going to be able to get together and catch up a bit, which will be splendid.  She's one of the best teachers I had, and was always super encouraging to me.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Step: Vibrato and Shifting

At my lesson yesterday, Strings had me practice a small bit where I shift my left hand (the one that fingers the strings) up the violin so that the first finger is where the third finger usually is.  This is "third" position.  It's a little step, but I'm excited.  And I got a shifting practice exercise and a vibrato exercise.  I know someone who plays the violin (non-professionally) who said that for him, when he learned vibrato, that made everything so much better.  Since I'm pretty happily playing what I can, it will be fun to have it even better when it gets there.  (I think vibrato takes a good while to get on violin.)

We also talked about learning how to play by ear.  The plan is for me to start with really basic tunes, the sort of things we know deeply, like "Row, Row" and such, and just work them out. 

So after my lesson, when I did my practice so that I can remember what I learned at my lesson session, I worked out "Happy Birthday" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Row, Row."  It's going to take some practice!

We had 6-8" of snow last night, so it's time to rev up the snowthrower and clear some ground!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

First Outside Bike Ride of the Year!

I don't think I've ridden outside this early in the year since I moved here.  Pretty amazing.

I almost fell because I hit an area of ice without being able to stop in time.  My rear tire slid out, but I was able to unclip and get a foot out in time, so I didn't fall.

It was really great to be outside!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Public Performance

I performed on the violin before an audience of more than my teacher or one other amused person today.  In front of a fairly good sized group, in fact. 

It went pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, it was no big recital or anything.  Just a good step for me.

Strings is primarily a violist, and put together a viola day on campus today, with master classes for three different levels of student (middle school, high school, and college), lecture/workshops, and a big concert (and rehearsals for that).  All of them open to the public and free.  (You had to sign up ahead to play viola, though.)

But let me start from the beginning of my day.  The first thing I was going to was mid morning, so I decided to practice before.  Except my strings were all out of tune.  So I went to tune my A string (second over), but instead, wound the peg for the E string (the highest, thinnest one), and yes, broke it before I even realized.  (But, the good news is that I had bought a set of replacement strings about a month ago; the bad news is that I don't know how to change strings yet).

So, I went to the master class, and before it started, while folks were in the milling about stage, I asked one of the college viola players how long/hard it is to change a string (and explained that I'd broken my E string; the viola folks on campus know that I'm learning violin).  She said it takes about five minutes to change a string, and anyone here (all the viola folks) should be able to do it.

So after the fascinating master class (I sat in on the college one), I went home, had lunch, picked up my violin (and strings) and went back.  When I got there, one of the college players I'd met before was sitting at the registration table, so I asked her, and she changed my string for me, and tuned me up.  (I'm ever grateful.  These students are super!)

Then I went to the workshop by Strings on performance anxiety, and learned some strategies (because, as I've written before, I got so nervous playing for a "test" that I was shaking).  There were a few minutes before the time was up, so Strings asked who wanted to play something for the rest.  A couple of students volunteered, and while they were getting instruments out, Strings reminded everyone that we're all rooting for people, we're a friendly audience.  Which was true.  Three students played, and they did well, but there were still a few minutes, and Strings asked for more.  Silence.  So I finally asked if I could play violin, and she said yes, enthusiastically.  So while I was getting my violin out, she explained to the students who I was, and that I've been playing about a year.  And I got up and played the opening two sections of the first piece of Book 3.

And you know what, it was pretty good.  I didn't have time to fret, and everyone was very nice about it, and I sounded pretty good (for where I'm at as a violinist so far).  And I didn't die, or shake even.

So that was great, to at least do it and stand in front of a group, on a little stage, and play.  To have at least done that was very good for me.

I don't think Joshua Bell (or whatever other violinist comes to your mind) needs to worry about competition for gigs just yet, though.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Politcal Conundrum - Interdisciplinary Basketweaving Style

I just got off the phone with a colleague over in Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  They've got a special course taught once a year by a deanling with an MA, during one of our breaks in the regular semester.  They've been teaching the course for at least ten years, maybe more.

One group of basketweavers finds the course and the deanling's approach to it unsatisfactory.  The deanling isn't qualified as a basketweaver, and doesn't teach the sorts of things that basketweavers think are really vital.  The course might be better housed in Underwater Arts, but the Underwater Arts folks said "no" many years ago because the course wasn't using an approach that's vital to the faculty over in Underwater Arts.  And so, it found its way to Interdisciplinary Basketweaving, where it's been taught pretty much with the deanling doing their thing, ever since.  And Interdisciplinary Basketweaving doesn't really have the power of a department such as Underwater Arts, and there's a deanling involved, so it happened despite some people's reservations.

The deanling wants to make the course fit a campus requirement.  That in itself isn't unusual, since lots of courses fulfil one or another requirement.  But this iteration of this course the deanling teaches isn't the only iteration, and the other iterations don't really fit the same requirement. 

So, in order to make this work, it looks like the deanling needs a new course, something that's not umbrella-ish, and just includes what the deanling does.

Some folks want to stand up against the new course because it doesn't really work for Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  And the deanling really isn't well-qualified to teach the course.

On the other hand, to be honest, the deanling's been teaching this course for 10 plus years, and if I'd taught anything for 10 plus years, you can bet I'd be pretty well-qualified to teach it by then.  (Because I'd have studied my ass off to do so.  Wouldn't you?)

It seems to me that the time to draw the line was back when the deanling first started teaching this course.  To suddenly say, "you've been teaching it for ten plus years, but now you're not qualified" seems stupid now.  Why has Interdisciplinary Basketweaving not stopped it way back?

The answer, of course, is that the deanling is a deanling, and so it's convenient to let deanlings do what they want.  It was then, and it probably will be now.  It was easy to imagine the deanling would do this course, and then get bored, and give it up.  But that hasn't happened.  (There's a political payoff for the deanling, I think.  Also a bit of financial, I bet.)

I guess one question is, is the course doing what it should be doing well enough?

If not, is there a way to get it to "well enough"?

Students who've taken the course (mostly first and second year students) tend to think it's wonderful.  It makes them feel good.  They think they've learned lots.

Maybe they have learned lots, but they haven't learned the "lots" that either the Basketweaver faculty or the Underwater Arts faculty think they should, mostly in terms of critical thinking and theoretical understanding (these aren't grad school sorts of theoretical understanding, but the sorts of theoretical understanding introduced and taught in lower level Interdisciplinary Basketweaving and Underwater Arts courses).

Take a stand or no?

I'm so bad at political stuff.  I hate the idea that faculty folks didn't take a stand 10 plus years ago, but I also understand why they didn't.  But I don't want to stick my neck out, either.

Except, you know, isn't this flattering of authority types a slippery slope to worse?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Red Lips?

The local college feminists are sponsoring something called a "Red Lips Project."

My initial reaction was to just wonder why.  I don't really want to criticize young feminists, but this seems so... heteronormative or something.  Traditionally, in western culture, red lips are about looking sexually appealing to men, no?

Then I figured, this must be a "thing" that I just don't know about.  And I found out that the idea comes from this tumblr called The Red Lips Project.

The idea, according to the about page on the tumblr:
Women are intrinsically powerful. But I realized that many of the women in my life don’t always have a space to express their power. I wanted to create a project to change this and give them that space. 

As a photographer, I have always been fascinated by the imagery of red lips. To me, red symbolizes power; it is a sign of strength and courage. This was corroborated further when rapper A$AP Rocky stated that dark skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick. He certainly wasn’t the first to say this and he certainly won’t be the last. This inspired a movement where women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick. These pictures were just one way in which women were able to fight back the beauty norms and instead revel in their own ideals. 

When I saw these pictures, what stood out to me was how powerful each woman looked; they had all maintained their individual identities, but the underlying power behind each picture was the unifying element. 

I took inspiration from this movement to create The Red Lips Project. Each woman I photograph is asked the question, “What makes you feel powerful?” My only other request is that they wear red lipstick as it serves as both an aesthetic and symbolic unifier. Every other detail in the photograph is the subject’s decision. 

The Red Lips Project serves to remind women everywhere of their intrinsic power. I find this to be a therapeutic process for both myself and the women I photograph; we don’t always take time to pause and remind ourselves why we should feel powerful. I hope in exploring this blog you too can find ways to remind yourself of why you are powerful. 
So, I gather there's a critique in this project about a rapper who said that dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick.  From reading what he said (here's [a version of?] the interview and an article about the interview that has the quote where he says dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick, and also an article about how he responded to criticism about what he said from women of color) he's not making a feminist critique of makeup, but more saying that he doesn't like it much. 

This complicates things, doesn't it? 

My reaction is still that red lipstick doesn't feel empowering to me.  But having read some critiques and responses of the general idea (not specifically aimed at the rapper's comments) (here's one from Essence (2014), and here's one from Essence in 2016), I think there's a whole lot of thinking I haven't done about lipstick, especially for women of color. 

I don't know if my students have, either.  (The college feminists here tend to be pretty white, and overall, this isn't a campus where most white students are really thoughtfully critiquing racism.)

What are your thoughts?

(I don't wear make-up, and am unlikely to notice if someone else is, unless it's really sparkly or something; I'm also very bad at noticing what people are wearing unless it's a really strong color that appeals to me.  The bonus is that you can wear the same thing to see me every day and I won't be bored.  The downside is that I probably won't notice when you've put on an especially wonderful outfit and look especially wonderful in it.  I try to dress myself so that my clothes are reasonably clean, weather appropriate, and won't get me arrested.  So far, so good on the arrest part.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A String

The last week, before my violin lesson, I was getting sort of frustrated by how bad I sound on the violin.  It was like, every time I hit the A string, I wouldn't set it vibrating right off, so there'd be this scratchy nastiness.  And then it would "catch" and start vibrating, and sound less nasty.

Still, the scratchy nastiness was frustrating.

So when I started my lesson, I told my teacher about my frustration with the A string.  And I tried to play a note on the A string, but it came out sounding pretty well.  Argh!

Strings had me play my piece, and I did okay, but again with the scratchy nastiness.  Except Strings being Strings, knew what was happening, and could explain and help me solve it.

The scratchiness tended to happen when I crossed to the A string, especially from the E string (which is a fifth higher).  As Strings explained, you have to bow each of the strings slightly differently.  The higher strings, you bow more lightly, and a bit quicker.  The lower strings, your arm feels heavier, and you can move the bow a bit less quickly.  So, there's a point where on any string, the bow "grabs" the string just so and vibrates it.  Voila!

But when I was crossing (that means switching strings), I had played the E string appropriately lightly, but that lightness doesn't work on the A string.  And I was unconsciously adjusting, but only after I'd played a note (or two, or three) on the A string.  And then when I crossed down, I had the same problem on the D string (but I was spending way less time on the D string with this piece).  And up again, I'd be too heavy on the A string, and make a slightly different scratchy nastiness.

So, for example, if you look at the Gavotte I've been working on, the starting B is on the A string, and then the jump from the D to G puts me on the E string, and then back down to the A string.  That's where I'd have the first scratchy nastiness.  As you can see (at least if you read music in a basic way), there are a lot of string crossings in this piece from the A to E and E to A.  (At my level of violin playing, I can play up to the E at the top of the music staff on the A string (by using my pinky.  From the E up, is on the E string.  Deciding when to use the pinky E vs the open E string E seems to be about what makes sense in fingering.).  I was having a lot of opportunities for scratchy nastiness, and pretty much making a lot of scratchy nastiness out of each one.

Strings gave me two exercises to work on for crossing down to the A string.  One is to sort of hold my bow in a fist, which makes the arm feel heavier, and makes it easier to get the weight right when I cross down.  (But clumsier in other ways.)  The other is to hesitate just before crossing, and think about the heaviness of the arm, and then cross to the A string.  That moment of hesitation is enough to get the weight right for me (mostly).

Do you know about TwoSetViolin?  They've got a youtube bit about how it feels when your teacher solves your problem.  It was like that. 

It's fascinating, because real string players are constantly making these fine adjustments, but as a beginner, I really have to slow down and think my way through things.  I mean, I was sort of aware of the different arm weight feel, and was doing it okay with scales and such, but when I was focused on my piece, I wasn't doing it.

After my lesson, the next day, I worked through book 1 and part of book 2, paying close attention to the arm weight on crossings, and it was so fun to hear how much better I sound.  (I also did my scales, technique exercises, and worked on my new piece a bit.)

The next day, I finished working through book 2, still focusing on the bow feel, and it's so much better.

I think about April of last year, I found some sheet music on the web.  One was the "Ashokan Farewell," which you probably have heard if you've seen the Civil War documentary.  (It's a recently written piece, though, and not from the period.  But it's absolutely beautiful.)  The other was "Turkey in the Straw."  "Turkey in the Straw" was my Father's go to piece when he pulled out his violin if there were songs to be sung, kids to be entertained.  He and my great Aunt (a professional organist) would play by ear for Christmas carols and such, but "Turkey in the Straw" was always in the mix.  So the piece is special in my memory.

Anyway, I found those, and I could sort of muddle through "Ashokan Farewell" a bit, but "Turkey in the Straw" was totally beyond me.

And then yesterday, for some reason, having practiced my stuff, I pulled them back out, and boy, I could really hear a difference.  I could play them both, slowly, yes (which makes total sense for "Ashokan Farewell"), but play them.  I'm going to add them to my practice a bit.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Teaching Sonnets

When I teach sonnets in a poetry course or in Shakespeare, it's pretty easy to spend a fair bit of time, and that means I can tease out how English Sonnets and Italian Sonnets work, slightly differently.  (I don't usually teach Spenserian sonnets.)

But in my intro to lit course, I'm not teaching a lot of sonnets, and the one I really love to teach for this course is Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel."

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

The thing is, if you work out the rhyme and big punctuation, here's what you get:


(I put the big punctuation, periods, colons, semi-colons in, because they help you get a really quick sense of how the sentences work.)

Punctuation-wise, it first looks like a variation on an Italian sonnet.

And the change in rhyme scheme sort of supports that.

But the rhyme scheme also feels more like an English sonnet, and the volta to me comes more with the couplet.

If I were taking several days to look at sonnets, then I'd play with some obvious Italian and English sonnets, and then use Cullen (though even Shakespeare does the mix thing in terms of playing with the volta placement), and my students would get a better sense of how darned amazing Cullen is.

The question of the day is: how do you get all that across with just Cullen?

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Doing Assignments

Back when I was doing basic pedagogical training (you know, when we baked our syllabus onto a clay tablet), one of the strongest suggestions was that every time we give an assignment, before we give an assignment, we take the assignment and write it ourselves (this was in the context of an English department, so the assignments didn't involve other production than writing).

At various times, I've done this pretty regularly.  At other times, not so much.

But I've found for certain kinds of assignments, it really helps if I do them, and then give my work to the whole class as a model.

This semester, for one of my classes, I've adopted a discussion leading assignment from a really smart colleague.  However, I was a bit late getting students to sign up, and even though I offered to move the first one from tomorrow to a week from tomorrow, everyone asked not to do it.  So I moved it back to tomorrow and did it myself.

First, I have to say, it was good in a good way; you really have to put in some real effort to do a good job, and have to read carefully, and that's good.

It took me about 5 hours to do, and that's after having thought about stuff this semester and such.  So I started with an advantage there.

On the other hand, the students get to work in small groups to help each other, and I didn't get to work in a group to get help, so that's perhaps a small disadvantage.

What's really good is that I was able to tell the students (in an email) how long it took me to do, and to encourage them to give themselves plenty of time as they work on the project (it counts for a fair chunk of their grade, so I don't feel bad if they put in a like number of hours).

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

All Occasions do Inform...

Of course, they don't. 

But, it's barely the second week of the semester, and I feel so bummed.

I didn't teach yesterday, but was on campus for a meeting (which I chaired) and to do a bunch of related paperwork afterwards.  Then I needed to set up the grade books and enter the first grades.  I'd almost finished that when a student appeared in my doorway, in that way some students have, expectant, like of course I'm just there waiting for them.

It was an advisee I've seen once before, whom I had to prompt to remind me of her name.  (Hint: if I've met you once or twice over a month or two ago, introduce yourself again.  If I remember, I'll graciously say so, and if I don't, I'll be very grateful for your courtesy.  If you appear at my door, I assume you know who I am.)

And because I try not to be a jerk, I talked with her.

She wanted to talk about her schedule for next semester, so we did.  At which point I noticed that she isn't taking the courses this semester that I recommended, but instead, has switched from an upper level course (suggested) to a lower level course.  The problem is, a student can only take 2 lower level courses in the selected electives area, and she's already taken those, so this course won't count towards her major requirements.

You know that will be my fault, somehow.  When she doesn't graduate in a timely manner, the advising folks are going to look at that course and blame me for bad advising.  So, yep, I made a note in the file.  (I hate that I've learned to think this way about advising, too.)

You know how it is when you put two and two together, and it comes up four?  Well, yes.  One of my friends over in [Mathematical Forestry] mentioned giving a talk in [another place] recently (in an email), so I asked what the talk was about.  And heard nothing.  Okay, so usually this friend is pretty excited about their work, and happy to talk about it. 

And then I realized, this place/time doesn't seem likely for a conference.

And my friend is in a fairly small field.  So, yeah, I looked at the job listings, and sure enough, there's a job there, and my friend would be superb at it, and geographically, it makes such good sense for them.

It's not like we're super duper close friends, and they've haven't told me they're on the market or anything, but it would totally make sense.  But I can't just say, oh, if you're going to give a job talk there, I know [an administrator] and they're a really great administrator.  (And I do know an administrator, and they're probably the best administrator I've ever worked with.)  (Besides, I don't want my friend thinking I'm stalking them in a creepy way; and of course, if they don't get an offer, then it's best not to talk about it.)

I'm so bummed at the thought of this friend leaving (for me, totally selfishly), but also, I know it would be a much better situation for the friend personally and professionally.  And given this university's devastating budget situation, everyone who can leave should.

Then there's the political situation.  I can't even begin...

It's cold and grey out, and I'm so ready for some warmth and good news.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Just Frustrated

I got an email related to work today that's worrisome and frustrating.  And I just want to say, "really?  You sent me THAT?"

It's not bad in any official way, just worrisome and frustrating, and there's no really good way for me to respond, that I can see.


Friday, January 27, 2017

On to Book Three (Suzuki Violin)

I had my lesson yesterday, and played two of my three pieces significantly better than I had last week, though not as well as when I practiced the day before.  The third piece, the one I'd played really well the week before was just a little less well played.

But, Strings says I can start on Book 3, and started teaching me about the structure of the piece (which is important) and how the dynamics and such worked.

She also gave me a sort of overview of Book 3, which I think is helpful.

The random practice over the past week really helped! 

My new piece (the first in Book 3) is a Gavotte by Padre Giovanni Battista Martini.  Here's what the first page looks like:

Time to get practicing!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Already Grading

I already have stuff to grade.  They're just small, low stakes assignments, but there they are, two small "stacks" of paper.

Why do I do this to myself?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Under Way

I don't teach Wednesdays, but I needed to be on campus for a meeting, and I have a ton of prep for tomorrow morning already (why do I do that to myself?).

But I started cleaning up some of the clutter... and then I could see my desk!  And I cleaned up some more clutter, and then I could see the top of my file cabinet.  So I cleaned some more clutter, and now I can also see the top of my window ledge.

I'm not quite sure why, but having redded up my office makes me feel more ready for the semester.  I dumped a bunch of old committee and advising paperwork (much of it in the shredder thingy).  I got rid of a class file from 8 years ago. (That was the oldest.  I kept stuff from this decade, for now.)

Now I feel like I can really prep.

Here's to a momentarily cleaned up office!

Monday, January 23, 2017

New Semester, More Violin

It's the first day of the semester around here.

I have a reassignment this semester, so I only teach 6 credits (instead of 11).  I've got a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, which is unusual for me.  But it's nice, because I mostly won't have to be in the office on Mondays and Fridays (well, every other Friday for sure I'll be in for meetings).

But today, I'm here.  Plugging away.

For my senior seminar, I make one-time use PDFs for readings from journals and such, and put them up on our closed system.  (My understanding is that this is legal under fair use.)

Last week, I put in some copy requests for the department student worker.  One of the requests was a book.  I filled in the card: 1-14, 35-52, and 220-228 (I just made up those numbers).  I penciled the bibliographic information on the first page, at the top (it's a book I own, so okay to write in, and bibliographic info doesn't offend me), because I want students to have access to the information, and I require that they cite texts, so they need it, and I want to model how to keep track of bibliographic information.

I got this one request, PDFed, except it had page 114 (and the rest), and was organized so students looking at a screen would have to move backwards rather than forwards in the usual way.

I took it back to the student, and she said "oops."

Then I got the PDF, and it had completely cut off the bibliographic information, but at least was oriented properly.  So I took it back.

And finally got it PDFed so that it's readable and has the bibliographic information.  WIN!

But boy, having to check every single PDF and go back and forth is irritating.  (The student just stopped by to double check something, because I have made her very careful.  Maybe that's a good thing.)


I had a violin lesson last week.  I'd practiced well, and hoped I was ready to move on.  I was very not ready.

I played the first piece quite well, for me.

The second piece, my memory slipped a couple times, and it wasn't good.

By the third piece, I was nervous and botched it badly.

So my teacher (very kindly) reminded me of two practice strategies and taught me how to do harmonics, which is necessary for one of the later pieces.  And she also reminded me (even more kindly) that I'd basically taught myself the last two pieces.  (She'd had time to point out some spots, but not enough to teach me the harmonics thing.)

I was really upset at myself after the lesson because I hadn't played as well as I should have, and I'd gotten nervous, and I'd really wanted to play well but hadn't.  By evening, though, I'd gotten over myself and practiced.  (If I practice the same day as a lesson, then I can incorporate what I've learned way more effectively.  It makes a noticeable difference.)

Here's what I learned: harmonics.  Usually, when you finger on the violin, you press your finger pretty hard to stop the string from vibrating beyond your finger up the fingering board.  That changes the pitch.  For harmonics, though, you barely touch the string at JUST THE RIGHT PLACE up the fingerboard, and both sides of the string on either side of your pinky vibrate, but at a higher pitch.  (The part I'm doing has me basically cutting the string two halves, which makes it vibrate a full octave higher.)  It's so so very cool.

Practice stuffs.  Two things.

The first is what's called "random practice." 

So, usually, you practice by taking your piece and working through the parts that are hard, and then you work through them again, and then again, and so on, and then maybe try the whole piece, or move on to another hard part.  The thing is, you work on a part again and again.  That's called "blocked practice."  It's how you learn stuff.

For random practice, you split out the parts you want to really learn (I've split my two less successful pieces into 8 parts that make sense musically as parts), and then you do something to randomize.  (I roll an 8-sided die, but you can also put numbers on pieces of paper, whatever.)

You roll the die (pick a paper), check the part (because I haven't memorized which is which number), and play it (by memory, in my case, since memorizing is hard right now for these, and a big part of the problem).  You play it ONCE.  And you make notes about where you mess up, or if you don't, whatever.  And then you move on to the next number.  It's sort of fun.  (If you don't need to memorize it, you could be looking at the music.)

What happens, is your brain says, not, "I'll do better next time" but "I have to get this because I don't get another chance."  So there's this pressure that's a bit more like performance.  And you're doing things not in an order, so you really have to know them.  But it takes a while for my brain to switch over.

After you've done this a bit (it doesn't take a long time for me to hit each of my 8 parts a few times), you look at your notes about your playing and find patterns.

Then you do block practice to work on the pattern of problems.  Except before you move on, you make sure you can play the part at least 5 times IN A ROW well.  (For me, "well" is different than it is for a more experienced student, of course.)  So, you play it once well, good.  Twice, good.  Three times, mess up, start over.

It's incredibly frustrating, and boy, by time #4, I'm getting really careful!  But it also works if you're ready for it.  (That is, if you can actually play the bit well enough once, so after you've done your learning blocked practice.)

I have my next lesson Thursday, and my plan for today is to play each of my 8 parts well 5 times, but in random order.

My teacher had taught me both of these strategies before, but I wasn't using them.  And I need to.  I think I wasn't using them because I hadn't really thought through the problems I was having well-enough to recognize them and use the strategies.  For most of the stuff I've learned, blocked practice has worked well enough.  But when I really have to learn it by memory for a "test," it's not enough for me.

It makes me think about the cognitive work we ask students to do in literature courses.  A lot of times, we read something, talk about it, introduce a concept, incorporate it, and move on.  But we don't do tons of repetition.  Of course, using a music model, students would be doing repetition through review and rereading the way I practice the violin, on my own, a little bit every single day.  But the reality is that students don't really do that repetition unless it's quite overtly assigned or there's a test coming up (which, frankly, is also inspiring my practice right now).

So, how do I get students to learn a concept or skill well enough to employ it independently when they read something else?  That's the real key, in a way, isn't it?  I mean, I want them to know the basic plot and stuff of As You Like It or something, but even more, I want them to know how to read verse well, to think about theatrical issues, social stuff, cultural stuff, textual stuff, so that when they read or see 1 Henry IV on their own, they get more out of it.


(edited to change the title, since I used that title more than once before.)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

One of Many

We had a couple hundred people marching in our small city.  It was good. 

But it wasn't much.

I would have been impressed if our headmaster had been there, or chairs, or deans.  (I saw one or two department chairs from around campus, but not many.)

I marched with some friends, and that made me happy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Milton Lost and Milton Regained

For some reason, over break, I had the desire to reread Lycidas.  It's been a long, long time since I've read it, since, probably, I was preparing for my GREs.  At that time, I was reading in a study group, four of us at a city-located state university that (rumor had it) hadn't been able to buy new books for the library for some years.  We were all in the MA program, and all wanted to go on for a PhD.  So we got together and studied the Norton's, English, American, and World.  We met a couple times a week for most of a summer (all while working, too), and at the end of the summer, we took the GREs.

We worked really well together, each of us pretty much caring about an area, and having taken courses in that area more than the others.  So I helped a lot with the medieval and earlier early modern, and Eve did modern British, and Joy did modern American.  And there was a man whose name I don't remember right now, but he loved Romantics, and so he helped with the Romantics.  He made "Tintern Abbey" work for me, and it wouldn't have without him.

But none of us knew much about what we then called the "long 18th century" and so, well, that was my weakest area. 

And yes, Lycidas was there; I know we read it, and I know I didn't appreciate it.  And over this break, I was thinking, maybe I would get it now?

So when I got back from visiting family, I looked in my school office, and couldn't find my copy of Merritt Hughes.  I think pretty much everyone who studied earlier lit in my era had a Merritt Hughes, right alongside our Riverside Chaucer and our Witherspoon and Warnke.

Anyway, I looked in my school office, where I found an edition of Paradise Lost I used last time I taught it.  And I looked at my home office, where I came up empty.  And when I was at school, I looked again.  And at home, I looked again.  I'm pretty organized about my books.  At school, I have three big shelving units.  Top left shelves are Shakespeare editions.  Middle Left and bottom left is for books I'm using, reference books, oversize books, and some storage.

Middle is criticism, alphabetically by author.  All the way.

Upper right is modern plays.  Then medieval and early modern texts excluding Shakespeare.  Then a few novels and modern poetry and such.

And then reference series (MLA Approaches to Teaching, Cambridge Companions, the sorts of books that I'm likely not to remember the author, but to remember the series.). 

Then there are school stuff: advising manuals, catalogs and such.

At home, in the office, two big shelves: Left is criticism, alphabetically by author.  Right is Shakespeare, then early modern lit by author, then some reference stuff (dictionaries, etc).

Novels are in another room, as are birding books and such.

So, I should have been able to put my hands on Milton right away; he should be there, right after Middleton and before Rowley.  But no.

And this evening, for some reason, I looked again in my home office, and I noticed a thick book in the criticism section with a brown paper bag cover, the sort of cover I put on books that are worn but worth taking care of.  And yes, it was my Merritt Hughes Milton.  What it was doing there, I don't know.

But now I get to reread Lycidas, and I'm hoping I get more out of it than I did the first time.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What if?

I really need to start working on my syllabus and class planning for my classes.

When I think about it, I suddenly wonder: what if I don't remember how to plan a class?  How to make a syllabus?  How to set up assignments?

Of course, once I get started I'll be fine.  It's the getting started that's so hard.

Do you folks ever have that feeling, that even though you've done this a lot, tens of times, maybe you won't be able to pull it off this time?

We need a longer January!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Changed Light

I was outside digging away at my driveway (which I didn't finish, but the neighbor will with our snowblower, I hope).  It was dismal, windy, cold (but not super cold).

And then suddenly, the light changed.  It was like when you switch out a regular yellow-cast light bulb for the ones that are supposed to be more like outside light.

Except I was already outside.  But suddenly, the light was suffused with blue and pink.  It might have been that the sun hit just at that height off the horizon to make the colors come out.  Or it may have been that some of the clouds moved out of the way. 

But it was beautiful, and shocking.  I sort of stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure it out.

And then, of course, I went back to digging.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading a Colleague's Work in Progress

One of my colleagues is working on a book, and was talking about it to me, since it's something I'm at least tangentially interested in, and I said I'd be interested to read it, so they emailed me the first chapter draft, and I'm reading it.

I don't know quite how to respond.

Here's the thing.  You know how students sometimes spend a long time winding up, setting up stuff, quoting "as X says" and such, just bits?  It does that in a major way.  It doesn't engage with the Xs it quotes, just takes quotes and does the "as X says" thing. 

And I'm 11 pages in to a 30 plus page chapter, and I have no idea why I'm reading (except that I said I would).  What I want from an introduction or introductory chapter is to know the basic argument, and how that argument differs from, disagrees with, or adds to what's come before.  This chapter, so far, gives me none of that.

So if I say that, what I'm basically saying is, you really need to totally rework the first chapter, and I'm pretty sure this colleague has worked very hard on this and doesn't want to hear that the chapter isn't working.

And if I don't say that, I'm not responding helpfully or ethically.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Unexpected Benefit of Blogging

Today in a facebook thread, I wanted to know when something I asserted happened.  So I came to the blog and did one of the little searches from the upper left corner for a keyword, and voila, I was able to read my reaction to hearing about the event.  I hadn't been terribly specific, but I'd used the keyword, and it was specific enough.

I have to admit, I can pinpoint a lot of things to dates/times because I've put them in the blog.  It's sort of cool, actually.

So, on that note: I need to go work on my pieces for the violin book 2 "test"!  I'm having difficulty memorizing the pieces.  And playing with a full bow.  And playing dynamics.

Yeah, time to go play!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

In the Blink of an Eye, a Week Goes By

It's been a week, very quick.  I feel as if I've gotten nothing done, but of course, I did.

I worked through the parts of two history books I wanted to read to understand early modern slavery practices in Western Europe and the Americas.  Horrifying, as you'd expect.

I got frustrated enough with the ice forming inside at the edges of some windows to take action.  I started out using painters' tape and bubble wrap.  But then I went to the home improvement type store and bought kits and insulating tape, took off the bubble wrap and painters' tape, and taped up areas, and put plastic sheets over some windows.  There's a noticeable difference in the house, especially in my bedroom (the window in my bathroom was bad, and the sliding glass door, just as bad.  Now it's pretty darned good.  And the red room, which is the TV room.  It's a problematic room anyway, because it was built as a conversion from a second story deck; underneath is enclosed, but not heated.  It's got a tile floor, and six big windows, basically the three exterior walls are mostly windows, and they're sliding windows, which tend not to be really airtight, anyway.  (In summer, it's a delightful space, and it's got great light in winter, and is lovely for watching birds on the deck.)  It's still not exactly toasty, but at least there's not a breeze now!

I should have done this years ago.  The good thing is, I'll have a good idea where to put more caulk, and will put plastic sheeting up much earlier in the future.

Here's a housing question: from the way all the plastic sheets bow in slightly, like sails with a bit of wind, it looks like the air pressure inside the house is less than the air pressure outside.  Why is that?  (Wouldn't it even out very quickly from doors opening and closing?  Wouldn't the warmer air inside tend to make it higher pressure inside?)

I'm progressing on the violin pretty well.  I posted this in August, when I had a "test" to pass from Book 1 to Book 2.  Now I'm working on the three pieces for my "test" to pass from Book 2 to Book 3.  (Or, as I like to think, leveling up.  Ding!)

I should post more about practicing violin because it's really fun and interesting.  I've learned a lot.

First, I really trust the process.  I know that even if a piece is really super hard for me, there are three year olds out there who've learned it, and generations of Suzuki kids have learned it at my stage, so I can learn it.  That really helps.  Strings, my teacher, does a great job of breaking things down for me so I can focus on the one hard part first, or learn this fingering, or practice X to help with Y.  She's so good at teaching!

Second, I like scales.  I was having trouble thinking of a note when I played it, which was making playing certain things more difficult (like, you see an F, where do you put your finger, especially if you're not coming from an adjacent note).  So I found a chart on-line, and printed it out and filled it in.  It's in two parts, the sharp scales and the flat scales.  I filled in all the notes, and they're in order.  Now the cool thing with these is that each scale starts a fifth from where the last scale started; the sharps start a fifth up, and the flats a fifth down.

So on my chart, I start with a C scale (a weird one on the violin), and then move up a fifth to the G scale, adding one sharp, and so on.  And since the violin strings are a fifth from each other, it's relatively easy once you get the concept to follow on.  I practice either the sharps or flats every day, with broken thirds.

Third, Ševčík!  I have two practice exercise books, one for bowing, and one for fingering.  Holy cow, they're HARD!

The bowing book starts with long notes, full bow.  Then you practice with half bows, and then with two strings and some fingers, and finally, you do a full long note with a full bow, and then a quarter note with a full bow.  It's way harder than it sounds to make the quarter note not sound bad.

The fingering one is even harder.  It starts like this (link here):

And then, once you can do these individual measures (at different speeds), you play them more, and then you get to this (same source, different screen capture technique):

And that's just the first page.  There are more to come.  The thing is, I may be able to play the quarter note version with one bow (since these are slurred), but unless my fingers move pretty fast, I run out of bow before I finish the eight note version.  I'm getting way better, but I'm still on the first page.  (I think I started working on Ševčík in mid-summer.

Again, this is part of trusting the process.  There's no way to teach your fingers to play the violin without doing lots of playing.  If you do structured exercises (Suzuki, the Ševčík, etc), then you're trusting that a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time and found these effective.  You're not going to get some magical moment where you pick up the violin and ta da, you just whip off a concerto.  At least, I'm not.  (If you're good, of course, then you can make it look like ta da, but people aren't seeing the hours of practice, just the result.)

Four, I like the Suzuki music choices.  I already feel like I'm playing real music, little bits, sometimes simplified, but real.  I'm working on a piece by Lully, another by Beethoven, and another by Boccherini (the minuet).  But they're also really hard (for me), and I need to memorize them and play them well.  So, you know, I need to go practice.

Five, practice is actually really good.  Hard, but good, and satisfying.

Strings is away for break, and we talked before she left about my goals for break.  In addition to working on my pieces, I'm focusing on dynamics (playing louder or softer is so hard) and on bowing (using the full bow, which I tend not to do when I'm learning a piece, and then have to rework everything, but it sounds so much better when I use a fuller bow!).