Sunday, December 31, 2006


A year ago this time, I was visiting the Everglades for the first time. That trip set the tone for my year in many ways. For me, it was the year of the road trip. First my trip south, the Everglades, visiting friends, seeing a part of the country I hadn't seen before. Then my trip out to my Peace Corps reunion, visiting more friends, and seeing parts of the country I hadn't before. A wonderful year of trips.

I'm planning next year's trip now, river rafting in either Washington or Idaho with a friend or three. Right now, I'm thinking of the Snake or the Wenatchee, and would be happy for suggestions! I hope this trip goes as well as the ones in 2006 did.

In many ways, 2006 has been a really good year, but it's also been a little rough in patches. I'm probably healthier than I've been since I was in college mostly because I've been exercising regularly. It's raining today, but yesterday I had a bike ride that was about perfection: the bike felt really good, the wind was behind me going out, so I felt smooth and easy. I saw a super friendly dog being walked, and stopped for some dog therapy (with permission from the walker, of course). There's not much better in life than to pet a really happy dog, and this one was wonderful. He was a yellow Lab (and I have a soft spot in my heart for yellow Labs after my last dog), about 5 months old, and totally joyful at being on a walk, being petted, just being.

I did the first 15 miles in just under an hour, and the last 5 or so at a slower time (against the wind), partly because I slowed to chat with someone who was roller-blading, mostly because I was relaxed and happy. Biking has added a lot to my year, not only in basic exercise, but in going with friends and in being outdoors enjoying the area.

I taught some good classes this past year; I think I did a really good job on my graduate class and first year writing class last semester, though the body class didn't go as well. Last spring's classes went pretty well, too, especially the Chaucer class. I've learned a lot teachingwise by doing new classes, though I have to admit I'm really looking forward to doing Shakespeare and poetry, familiar territory, this coming semester. I'll also be teaching an entry class to our major, which is writing-focused and takes the writing class slot for the semester.

I'm doing some reading this break on teaching and stuff, so I'll be blogging about that in the new year. One of the things I love about what I do is that there's always something to learn and think about. I haven't written as much this year as I'd hoped, but I'm planning to do better this year.

My family's mostly had a good year. One uncle died after a long illness, and he's sorely missed. One of my friends died after a not so long illness, and he, too, is sorely missed. But mostly the folks I care a lot about have been pretty happy, with good health. One was laid off, but found another job quickly. My Mom's happier with her living situation than in years.

Next year about this time, I expect to be preparing to go teach abroad. I feel odd scheduling my life more than a year in advance, but that's how these things have to work. It doesn't quite feel real to me, but my Mom got me a [Insert Foreign Language] for Dummies book and a set of language learning tapes, so I should start soon!

But before that, I'm going to have dinner with some friends.

Happy New Years, everyone. I hope the coming year treats you and yours well.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Late Night Musings

Over the past couple days I've noticed on the TV news and elsewhere a LOT of information about dealing with hangovers and New Years. I don't remember the focus on dealing with hangovers in past years, but maybe I just didn't notice?

The big focus seems misplaced. Who are they talking to? Don't most people learn to drink a couple big glasses of water before turning in, some juice and more water when waking to pee in the night, and a couple aspirin along the way? This is news?

When I was a teen and thought staying up late was cool, my folks were of the opinion that New Year's Eve was amateur hour, when a lot of people would be drinking and driving who weren't used to it, and so the roads were more dangerous. (Apparently the theory was that people who regularly drink a lot are better drunk drivers? I try to stay off the road for the half hour on either side of bar closing time wherever I am. Call me careful or something. Just call.) I'm such an amateur that I have the capacity of whatever it is that has no capacity. My amateur status is further signaled by the fact that I wake up to pee in the night and don't just sleep through making a mess. Sometimes there are benefits to being an amateur.

Speaking of being on the road: My last bike ride ended with me having a muddy, wet stripe up my backside, although I didn't really notice the nastiness until I got off the bike and my rear end was suddenly really cold. (I keep pretty warm so long as I'm working at peddling and stuff, but once I stop, I'm grateful for the heated car seats. Great invention that!)

My bike was muddier than I was, so I spent some time Friday cleaning it up, lubricating it with some special teflon stuff a friend suggested I get. My friend is way into his chain. That sounds more exciting than it is. He cleans it obsessively. I got the gunked mud off mine and pretty much called it good enough.

As wet and cold as my ride the other day was, I'm glad I made my 700 miles then, because it's gotten way colder and nastier since.

I'm hoping that it's nice on New Year's morning, though, because I think a nice ride would be a great way to ring in the new year.

I've gotten the calendar part of my Shakespeare class worked out for spring. Looking back over my old syllabus for the poetry class, I realized that I haven't taught it for four years! Too long! I'm getting all excited to teach poetry again.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Musicals Meme

Artemis did it, and got it from FatDoctor; nope, it's not some kind of odd infection, but a meme about musicals. I'm not quite sure of the rules, but I sure hope it's not about what musicals I've seen in the past year or so, because I haven't.

When I was a kid, I played a band instrument or two. My Dad had long played violin for local community orchestras, and since violins are always in short supply at high schools, or at least they were at my high school, my Dad and several other adult string players usually played in musicals at my high school. And conversely, we high school kids played in adult community musicals. My dad played in the pit orchestra for my high school graduation, partly so that both of my grandmothers could come, and partly for the opportunity to stand on a chair to take a picture as I walked across the stage.

Playing in pit orchestras together gave my Dad and me a chance to develop our relationship in a different way, as somewhat equals working towards a goal. It also meant he met and knew most of the young men I dated in high school, and thus my high school dating was probably a lot less stressful for everyone than it might have been.

So I have a soft spot in my heart for staged musicals. They remind me of my Dad and of the crushes I had on young men in orchestra or on stage, of trying to play up to the standards of the adults. I wasn't a very good musician, but playing in bands and orchestras made my high school years tolerable, sometimes even enjoyable.

Here then, are my all time favorite musicals, mostly because I've played in them and have good memories associated with them. [Edit: And just in case you need some academic affirmation, you can look at DA Miller's work on the Broadway musical. Because it's all about academic affirmation!]

1. How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Oh, what a crush I had on one of the actors. Okay, two of the actors. I was a pathetic teenager, totally pathetic. Neither of the young men knew I existed.

2. Iolanthe. I didn't play in the orchestra, but my friend C was directing and invited me to participate, which I did by making smoke and explosions. I was in college, but C was a grown up who hung out in the athletic group I was in and we just got along great. Strictly speaking, this is probably a light opera rather than a musical, but what the heck! Just thinking about it reminds me of great times, learning, accepting, growing. I helped paint the stage one evening, working with a guy who was pretty flaming, and one of the first openly gay men I got to know. He was flicking paint across the stage to give the pebbled effect, and laughingly told me that painting the stage is "all in the wrist." I was so lucky to get to know those adults and be part of their community.

3. Guys and Dolls. Could there be a more sexist musical (yes, and it's called My Fair Lady), but dang, good, fun music!

4. The Music Man. Again, great music, fun to play. Our show involved the whole of the high school marching band coming down the aisles at the end.

5. Gypsy. I wonder if the local high school here could even get away with this one? It all seemed very sophisticated. Hah!

6. West Side Story. Some of the most difficult musical music I played; it was like Bernstein didn't trust anyone to swing by themselves, so wrote in all the syncopation or something. But dang, there are some great songs. And I still cry at the end.

7. Top Hat. Okay, so it's a movie and not a stage musical. But Fred Astaire! Ginger Rogers! And one of my all time favorite character actors, Edward Everett Horton. If the old Thin Man movies were musicals, I'd have fit one of them in here, too!

There are my seven. If you love (or hate) musicals, consider yourself tagged!


I switched to the new blogger today. Here's hoping it works!

So far, most things look about the same, but there's a labels section. That looks fun!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Another Version of the Midwest

I listened to Michael Perry's Population: 485 while I drove recently. Perry writes about living in New Auburn, Wisconsin, and volunteering for the volunteer fire department, which not only fights fires, but does lots of first response and rescue work.

Perry's midwest is very different from mine. First, he's from New Auburn, so going to live there after years away was going home, going back to a place where he had history. He talks about that history at one point in terms of familiarity with the geography. That resounded strongly with me; I remember driving across country the first time, and being overwhelmed by the size of the sky in the midwest. The sky goes on forever here, and feels very low to the ground, especially when the clouds are heavy and stormlike. My geographical sense depends on knowing which way mountains run, and where the ocean is. When I lived in Latin America, I could pretty much tell which way was which by where the mountain range was. Here, I'm constantly lost. Where I lived in grad school, I could only get oriented if I could imagine where the water was because you couldn't always see hills for the polution. But you could usually see the air. Ugh. I don't miss seeing the air.

Second, Perry's midwest is small town, while mine is small city. The sub-title of the book is "Meeting your neighbors one siren at a time." I get the feeling listening, though, that most of the neighbors we meet in the book are the dozen or so other firefighters and EMTs, not only the ones in New Auburn, but the ones Perry worked with during his training and early experiences. Despite the small population Perry talks about, I don't get the sense that he knows folks in the small town the way I imagine small towns. But I've never really lived in a really small town, so he's more likely to have it right than I am.

As I drove, though, I kept thinking about what would happen if I got in an accident, which small town volunteer fire department would get called out to clean up whatever mess I left on the pavement. It's weirdly comforting to think that all across the US (and probably elsewhere), there are volunteers (and paid folks, too) who come together to help their neighbors and strangers. The rural midwest feels especially stark and lonely in the winter, even without much snow.

Every so often, Perry comes up with a really good image, a really good word usage. For example, he talked about a woman whose face was jerked by years of smoking into looking aged. Wow, "jerked" is totally evocative for me, there. I know what he means, I can imagine and visualize the way the face looks, dried and tired.

All in all, then, a good book, well worth listening to, though not as informative about small town midwestern living as I'd hoped. There were moments, though, when I felt that I really understood what Perry was getting at by volunteering and how that helped him connect with the community in a fuller way. It made me want to be a volunteer firefighter in a small town for a few minutes; I romanticized and fantasized, and then realized that my small city has numerous fire stations with lots of pros. And there's no way I'm moving out of my home to move into a small town to try to fit in. That thinking made me think about the ways I do and don't fit here.

It's the end of the year, and time for introspection, I suppose, so that's where I went.

Last evening, I went to visit with a friend's family, to meet her son, another rpcv, and his family. Meeting her mother made me feel right at home somehow, like there's a connection. And there were four generations in that house. Four. I played silliness with one of the kids, which I'm fairly good at. Once a little kid is willing to try the lap, I'm good for an hour or so of entertainment, usually.

We got into a rhythm last evening. We'd do the lap game, then the kid would go do something else, and a few minutes later, come back to the lap game again. It was nice, fun to make him giggle and be silly.

Today I went out and made the final miles to the 700 miles since August on the bike computer. When I woke up this morning, the news said we were expecting freezing rain, but it didn't come, and still hasn't come, and I had a nice ride.

So when I think about fitting, I guess I'm okay. I'm probably as okay here as I would be where I grew up in the suburbs. I always wanted to grow up either in the city like some of my cousins who seemed so sophisticated and savvy or in the country so that I'd get that experience. Instead, I grew up in the almost Disneyesque safety of the suburbs.

I don't know what to call the small city experience; it's neither THE city, nor country, nor suburbs of a big city. We have lots of shared stories in this country about growing up in big cities or in rural areas or small towns. But I don't know what stories we really have about small cities, although lots of people live in them, grow up in them, grow old in them. I don't know the story we're supposed to be living here, so I'm just muddling through.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Running off to join the circus

Not really. But I am going to visit my sibling's family, complete with the most amazing in-law and their two kids.

From the moment I get there, til the moment I leave, I'll become and remain a total sappy aunt. Auntie Bardiac. Make of it what you will.

The kids are at perfect ages. They still want to play tickle-bug, even the older one. And I can make them squirm and giggle from across the room by making my tickle-bug buzzing sound and wriggling my index finger in their direction. I fear that won't last much longer, but for now, I'm as delighted as they are.

They still jump eagerly on my lap to play at the "why can't you sit properly" game, which involves me pretending to be all serious about the kid sitting properly while all the time doing silliness that makes them fall in one direction or another (and catching them before any bones are broken and such). It's harder all the time to make the "fall" meaningful, since their legs almost reach the ground from my lap. But we manage, especially since a little buzzing sound distracts them and sets them to squirming.

I think parents get tired of silly games, so the kids value me for them, perhaps. Or maybe because pushing swings is still a bit of a treat for me even now? If I spoil them, it's by letting them go with silliness a bit more. I can live with that.

But they're also old enough to play less boring games, to ride bikes a bit, and to converse with.

I eagerly participate in deluding them about Santa Claus. Last year, I wrote a longish note about how good the cookies were or something, in my most readable hand, which they were sure not to recognize.

It makes no logical sense, sort of like much of modern American life at the beginning of the 21st century, but there it is. I play my part with pleasure here, at least.

As I'm off to enjoy the holiday. Here's wishing you happiness, health, and much tickle-bug and other play as the year comes to an end.

I'm off to be sappy Auntie Bardiac for a bit.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Sometimes a Weird Notion

I went to the store this evening before the alcohol cut off time. I'd run out of my "medicinal supply" (you know, cold prevention!) a couple weeks ago, and after all the grading, I felt some desire, let's say, for extra relaxation.

So there I was, Jim and I, standing in line behind a teenage girl dressed in clothes specific to a religious sect (which, I think, would not approve of my pal Jim) and a man I took for her father buying a couple containers of yogurt. Behind me, a woman with more grey than I by say 20 years had her single large container of oats, complete with the smiling Quaker guy face on the packaging.

If I'd have had more than one thing, I'd have let her go first. But then, I couldn't resist.

I looked at her, then at Jim, and said, "You know, if we got together, we'd have the weirdest party ever."

The woman had the BEST laugh, full and joyous. And then she said, "We'd have a good breakfast after, anyways." And we all cracked up again, including the woman checking us out, who had to card me (no, alas, I don't look underage).

Silliness with Titles

I couldn't resist after I saw this at Pharyngula:

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Imperial Majesty Bardiac the Sentient of Herring-le-hole
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

That's right, it's Imperial Majesty Bardiac to you, internets!


I live in subsidized housing. What's that, you're thinking? You've got a phud and a job and stuff, what do you mean?

I'm talking about middle class housing subsidies, being able to take mortgage and property tax payments off my income tax.

I'm especially aware of this today because I went to pay my property tax this morning. The local property tax office closed at noon today, so I went before that so I can go out of town and not worry about coming back in a specific time or day and such. I'd like to whine about the tax office closing early today, but I just don't have the energy. I'm so far behind on grading that I'm thinking of going out to get more chocolate covered raisins. But I bet the people who got the afternoon off really appreciate the time, and I don't grudge them that.

I'm not thrilled with the middle class housing subsidy, but I take advantage of it because it amounts to a lot of money in my budget. All said, I'm guessing it sort of evens out with my overall income tax burden. I pay taxes, the government lets me take off, and so forth. I probably pay a little to let others off, or maybe someone else pays to let me off. And we all pay the IRS workers to figure the calculations out.

The policy benefits people who make enough money to buy a home and afford a mortgage.

And because most middle class folks know about it, we take on mortgages that might be bigger than we should, running up our debt, building our equity at the expense of the community. But we're also as a nation running ourselves further into debt. I know folks who've been living in the same house for nearly 20 years, who keep re-financing, and so who've never managed to actually build much equity (though, given where they live, when they sell, they'll probably make solid capital gains).

So I wonder if we're not doing ourselves a disservice nationally by encouraging middle class people to take on higher debt?

Would we actually do better to get rid of the middle class housing subsidy? I'm guessing it would be better for some folks, worse for others. And I'm guessing the people it's best for are the ones who having higher mortgages and property taxes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Retrospectives on the Body Class - Orlan

During the final week of my body and lit class, we talked about Orlan, a French performance artist whose work includes body modification and plastic surgery.

To be honest, Orlan's work strikes me as both incredibly interesting, and weird as all get out. The hybridity stuff, for example. What does it mean that a white (well, she looks white) woman from a country (France) that was involved in colonialism is making herself into hybridized figures of Native American and African peoples? Is it a hyper-aware critique of colonialism? Further acts of appropriation? What does it mean to "adopt" momentarily and for the making of art, a small part of the practices of another people? (Hybridizing with robots seems less troubling to me. But then, as someone who's a cyborg, I find it discomfiting to see that appropriated, too. Cyborgness wasn't fun to get, and isn't fun to have, but I depend on it. Does Orlan making it art seem too easy?)

Given the nature of her work, I think it's a critique, but even within the critique, there's slippage, it seems to me.

I guess it gets to my discomfort with what it means to encounter other cultures. I'm uncomfortable with some aspects of tourism, the practices of going to "see" other cultures on display, especially when the seeing of those cultures on display involves people having to dress up in a way that isn't practiced really? But then, I feel a bit strange when I go see "pioneer" museums or whatever with white folks dressed up as pretend pioneers. It's a job, right? But still, the theatricality pretending to be the "real" (yes, I went all Lacan on you, sorry), when the "real" really isn't accessible in that way.

I want the "real" but can't get at the real, really. Authentic experience is always changed by my presence, inserted into spaces real and metaphorical. (Angsty, me? Why do you ask?)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Results are IN!

Believe it or not, despite procrastinating and bike riding, I've managed to grade my first year writing students' research papers!

There are two really good ways to organize this sort of paper; one is the traditional "here's the thesis, and then I argue for it" and the other is the almost as traditional "I have a question, explore it, and end with a thesis point."

The best papers were of the latter sort. In the very best, the student asked a question about a fairly complex contemporary question. As this student has been working, s/he's tended towards one answer. In reading the final essay, s/he came down on the other side, explaining in a footnote that s/he'd had an epiphany and realized that s/he'd become convinced by the evidence that s/he should support the other side. How cool is that? My student actually learned something from his/her research, and continued learning through the writing process. I think there's not much more I can hope for as a teacher.

As I've talked about before, students sometimes write about familial problems. One of my students wrote an essay that's bitterly angry about a parent's addictive problem and the parent's unwillingness to change. It was painful to read, though not badly written. The only comfort I can honestly give the student is that s/he has moved away from the problem, except s/he'll be going back to it at break and probably over summer. Sadness.

On the other hand, a student who researched a behavior and found it was dangerous decided that s/he'll continue with it. Pleasure 1, Logic 0.

I become really aware of the stupid grammatical things that irritate me out of all reason. Today, it's using "amount" when "number" makes logical sense. As in, the amount of dollars rather than the number of dollars. It's stupid that I obsess, but it's cropping up repeatedly.

Some students wrote about where they might choose to live after college. I actually wrote on one, "but you'd have to live in _____!" You can fill in the blank with a medium sized US city you think I'd run from. I've actually been to the city in question several times. It was probably inappropriate to write that, but I did. Maybe I should go back and erase? I always write paper comments in pencil, so I can judiciously reword if I need to.

I'm once again stunned, though I shouldn't be, at some of the attitudes my students have. I have several female students who seem to think that it's bad for women to work outside the home, though they plan to do so. When they talk about the not working outside the home thing, I want to ask them if they think I should starve to death because I don't have a husband to support me. I think, though, that they don't "see" me, in a way, and certainly haven't thought things through about the working world.

Dinner at Bardiac's

When I was a graduate student, some professors made a practice of inviting the students in their graduate seminars for dinner at their home at the end of the term. Often we sat around, discussing what we'd read during the seminar, talking about books, poems, the state of the world. Usually it felt great because we'd turned in our papers but the prof hadn't had time to look at them, so I didn't feel too anxious about the grade thing. I remember one prof talking about how he wanted us to feel like junior colleagues rather than students. (And he tended to treat us as junior colleagues whom he was mentoring, especially his TAs and research assistants, much to my benefit.)

Since I've come to NorthWoods University, I've invited students in my graduate seminars to my home for dinner at the end of the term. Even in our MA program, I want my students to feel like junior colleagues to the extent I can contribute to that.

I feel awkward as a host for any sort of gathering, but that's life. For these gatherings, I get some pretty good take out food, plenty of soft drinks (yes, you can tell I'm not from the midwest), and we go from there. Usually some students bring some cookies or whatever, which adds to the mix.

Tonight was the night. It felt odd at first. But after a while, we sat around and chatted, and it was fun and relaxing. The food's mostly all gone, and people seemed full enough, so that went okay.

Still, every time, I wonder if I should continue. I think the students like it, like seeing that professors are human beings with homes and lives and rooms full of books. I know I did when I was a student. And yet I seem to be the only professor who does anything like this here, and that feels a little strange. I think some of my more senior colleagues think I'm soft because of it. Or maybe they disapprove for some other reason?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Morning After

No, not the morning after a wild, dissolute night out on the town.

Nor the morning after an orgy. (Though yay for Plan B being legal and otc and stuff!)

Alas. But, dream on. I'll be here when you get back.

I'm talking about the morning after returning my writing class final research essays.

I've had several appointments with students who want to talk about their papers. You can guess that they don't want to thank me for my incredible generosity, for all the wonderful help I gave them, and for my insightful comments. Nope, they really want to talk about their grades.

Grading is painful for most of us. No one wants to turn in work and get it back with an F or even a C minus. I've had students cry over a B+ (but not today). No one wants to read a really horrible paper, either. It's demoralizing to try to communicate well about choosing and using sources, setting up arguments, contextualizing evidence and then read a paper that cites Wikipedia or Google to justify a controversial point. (I know; I use Wikipedia here to set up links for definitions on occasion. Pot meet kettle. But, if anyone thinks what I write here is a peer reviewed academic piece that actually counts for anything professionally, please step forward and write the Dean a letter saying so!)

So morning after meetings and conferences are vitally important and difficult. (But, in the grand scheme of difficulty, probably a 2 on a scale of 1-100. Let's be real here; my students, so far as I know, aren't packing guns to shoot me with if I say something slightly wrong.)

I know the student's coming because s/he is unhappy about the grade. But I don't know the source of unhappiness, or how to resolve it in a useful way until we start talking.

Sometimes students really do want to understand how they could organize the paper better, or want reassurance that they're not stupid for getting an F or that I don't dislike them. Under stress, students (and the rest of us) do sub-par work; it doesn't mean they/we are bad or stupid. But at the same time, it doesn't mean we get do-overs or endless revision opportunities.

Sometimes they need to just let go and the paper for my class is the straw that breaks the metaphor into tiny little atomic pieces of big bang unhappiness. I actually feel that I can be useful to students at that point, that I can help them refocus on their remaining work.

Sometimes students want me to explain "how many points [they] lost" for doing (or not doing) something. I don't give points on essays, I explain. Each essay starts as an F. Hand in a blank piece of paper, and it gets an F. Papers work up from there.

Sometimes students want to argue that a specific sentence isn't "confusing" or whatever, so I have to explain what I think is the source of my confusion. Often it's some sort of definition. I had one of those today; the student used a term from some sort of social studies field, and I found it confusing. So, right there in the meeting, I asked her what it meant. She didn't quite know how to define it, and quickly recognized the source of my confusion. [There should be a rule of writing: if you can't define a word or term, don't use it; if you need to define it for your reader, take the time to define it. That simple rule would prevent galaxies of readerly misery (at all levels! Kristeva, I'm looking at you!).]

If I do my job well, the student leaves feeling that they've gained something, even though they usually haven't gained a change of grade (unless I couldn't add correctly on an exam). I hope they feel that my grading is fair and just, and that they know how to do something better the next time they write an essay. I also hope they leave feeling some little human connection, that I care about them and wish them well (because I do).

ps. It's also the morning after a nearly sleepless night. Why do I stress so much about little things that usually go pretty darned well?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

New BlogHome for G Bitch

G Bitch has left the old blogger building and moved to new digs!

Here's the new URL:

If you haven't read G Bitch before, take a look. She calls herself a "mad Black woman" who "rants about New Orleans, insomnia, teaching, various -isms and anything else involving a bitch, a spot or the letter g."

I find it fascinating to learn about New Orleans post-Katrina from someone who's also in academics, and who talks about the difficulties in specific and concrete ways.

And yes, I remembered to update my sidebar. Are there other updates I need to make?

Racing against the Weather

I'm trying to exercise regularly, and since I'd rather do that outdoors than in, there's that weather thing to consider.

My goal of the moment is to put 700 miles on the bike computer before the end of the year. I pass the 650 mark yesterday, so I'm pretty close. That's the goal, and then for next year, to double the total miles for the year (since I got the bike computer put on in August, that's not wildly unrealistic).

But, I'm also lazy as all get out, which means I use whatever excuse is handy to support my laziness.

The weather's a big one right now. It's cold, maybe not arctic cold, but for me, cold. I have on right now, high tech (well, REI said so) long underwear, biking tights, a T-shirt. I'll add a windbreaker before I brave the outdoors, and full gloves. It's a matter of balancing the "way too cold to bear" and the "too hot when I'm going well" problems. This outfit seems to work well as long as I'm going fairly full out; when I slow down, though, I get cold quickly.

I can go fairly full out for 15-20 miles now because I've been lazy and haven't been biking much. That and the white stuff that comes out of the sky sometimes, and the rain. I'm a fair weather biker. I'm not high tech or tough or whatever enough to want to bike when it's really nasty.

Just as an aside, when you see those people in bright colored, high-tech biking gear, muscles rippling? That's not me, just so you know.

Last weekend, I went out rather later than I'd intended, and went further before I turned back, and so I was still on the trail for 20 minutes after the sun had fallen behind the landscape bumps that count for hills in the midwest. The temperature dropped a bit, and riding that last bit was colder than it had been before. It was still light out, and I was pretty near the trail head, but I felt stupid anyways. How embarrassing would it be to get a flat and have to walk back in the early dusk? And how fast would I get cold enough to be really miserable?

So weather and my middle-aged carefulness make good excuses.

I also use classes, office hours, meetings, and the like as excuses. And laziness. There's no way I'm getting up at 5am to go out in sub-freezing weather for an hour so that I can rush home, shower, and make it to campus in time to get parking near my building. (I know! If I went late, then I could pretend that walking across campus counts as exercise! But I hate walking across campus and pretending that's exercise!) The sun going down early these days means that I can't really ride after the office stuff is done for the day as I did in early fall.

When I looked at the weather report yesterday, I saw that we were supposed to have snow flurries today, so I decided to "be good"* and go out for a ride. Usually, I ride out and back on a nice bike trail, so I pretty much have to decide how far I'm going to go by the halfway point of the distance. Yesterday, I thought about turning back at the 7 and 1/2 mile point, which would have made my ride about 15 miles, but I thought, weirdly, that I'd feel "defeated" if I only went 15 miles. Why is that? When I started biking a bit, just over a year ago now, I was proud when I'd gone about 8 miles.

*And what's with my "being good" thing? I'm not a six year old, really, but deep down, I'm a six year old on some level, still. And I'm telling the internet, "look, I was good!"

It's supposedly above freezing now, and I'm wrapped up and ready to ride. It's me against the weather for the final 45 miles. Fifteen miles or 20 today. My legs are a little tired from yesterday, but I want to go today because it may snow or something tomorrow. And then, of course, if I don't go today, I would have to start grading now.

Riding even in sub-freezing weather sounds more appealing than grading. Excuse #1 loses to Procrastination!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Pass the Question

I've been trying to explain to a couple Christians I know why I, an athiest, am cranky, but it's hard to explain. If I'd grown up a non-Christian, I might be able to feel neutral, but I grew up in a Christian denomination, so my non-Christianity isn't "natural" but at least partly a reaction to my early experiences.

Here's a question for the blogosphere: When I was a kid, the denomination I was in didn't ordain women or allow women to serve at the altar. Women (and girls) were responsible for cleaning up, though, for polishing metal and wood stuffs, for dusting, for washing linens. This service, I was told was an honor, a privilege. (It was the 60s. Yeah, I'm old.)

At this point, that denomination now ordains women and allows women to serve at the altar. But still, at the parish where I grew up, all the cleaning is done by women (and girls). So women now do men's work, but only after and in addition to doing all the women's work.

So, those of you in the blogosphere who know parishes in denominations where women are ordained and serve at the altar, do men participate in the cleaning activities, or are those still considered women's work?

Whatever the parish's practice, why that practice?

Friday, December 15, 2006


Ever wonder what faculty folks think about while they're grading?

First, I think most people try to grade ethically. We try to be fair and just.

But especially when essays, presentations, and such are involved, grading is difficult. Today, having finished one stack of papers this morning, finally, I'm going to talk about the difficulty on a sort of mechanical level. But there are emotional complexities to grading, too. That's for another time, perhaps.

Horace over at To Delight and Instruct has a post on random bits of grading hell. He asks about the grading of specific problems in papers. What to do about the paper with a brilliant premise that's a structural and stylistic mess? What about the paper that applies the obvious theory to an overdone text?

There's no "right answer" to questions of grading essays. Some people try to be more "objective" by creating an extensive grading rubric* that breaks down the grade into numbers earned by some feature of the assignment. Sometimes these rubrics seem really helpful, but by and large, when I try to use them, I feel like I'm pretending to objectivity.

I find it more helpful to spend time in a given class talking about the requirements of the assignment (an essay, for example), starting with what makes the essay "competent" as a C. (C as competent seems to make more sense in our discussions than C as "average." I'll rant some other time about the problem of "average.") In a first year writing assignment, for example, basic competence will happen when

~an essay addresses the assignment in a meaningful way (if you write about your summer vacation when the assignment asks you to explain a chemical reaction, it's not competent)

~an essay has a thesis that makes a point, and then argues, demonstrates, or develops that point

~an essay has an introduction that sets up a context and a conclusion that helps the reader understand why s/he's been reading, why the essay's important, or something similar

~an essay has appropriate organization and paragraphing

~an essay acknowledges the ideas and words of others appropriately

And so forth. Down at the bottom somewhere is proofreading and grammar. But if I can't make heads nor tails of the prose because of bad grammar and proofreading, the paper fails, even if there's a brilliant central concept because the essay hasn't communicated the concept.

I find thinking in terms of competency helpful as I grade my first year writing papers because that's the basic stake. Does the essay demonstrate competency at the first year college level?

Moving beyond the competency question gets tougher, but once I've answered that basic question, at least I know which direction I'm headed in.

Grading isn't only a matter of sticking a letter grade on an essay. In fact, that's not really what's most important, though our system values it highly (by recording GPAs and such). What's really important is what the reader communicates to the writer, the dreaded note. Students dread notes because they often feel harsh and don't seem helpful.

Instructors dread the note because it's hard to write, and we know that some students, probably the students who most should read them carefully, won't actually read them. We've all seen students get a paper back, flip to the grade, and then stuff the paper into a book bag. Ugh. On the other hand, most of us have also had a student complain about a note we've written, overreading, perhaps, or picking up on the weakness of our note. (I once had a student complain because I wrote "huh?" in the margin of the paper, right next to where she talked about a plot point that didn't have anything to do with the play she was writing about. I was a TA at the time, and got reprimanded by the prof for writing "huh?" No, he said, I was supposed to explain that the plot point wasn't actually in the play. In other words, I was supposed to take more time writing MY marginal response than she'd taken to actually write the paper.)

It's really easy as an instructor with a massive stack of papers to want to write a note that starts with a positive point and then moves to the contrast set up ("but," or "however") to explain why the paper got the grade it got. Let's face it, it's easy to justify putting an A on a great paper. But I know that when I give a student a B, if I praise the paper extensively, s/he's going to come wondering why it didn't get an A. So for anything less than an A, I feel the need to justify the lower grade. That's a systemic problem, I'm afraid. I don't know how to change it.

I do know that I'm unsatisfied with trying to write a meaningful response that reads basically [something positive] "BUT" [lots of negative]. (This is so stereotypical that Eye of a Cat actually did a Zork take-off on grading; hat tip to Ancrene Wiseass. I LOVE that!)

So I try to do things differently, without great success. I try to talk about what I see happening in the thesis, and how it could work better. I try to talk about the overall organization, or an especially smart point. I try to write more than one positive sentence, and to avoid transitioning with a "but" or "however."

And I suck at it. Really.

It's easier early in the term, when my first year students will have the opportunity to revise their papers for a new grade because then my comments really DO have a chance of helping the writer make positive changes. But at the end of the semester, grading is more fully evaluative than helpful, and that in itself is frustrating.

*Rubric - A rubric originally is a note on a manuscript in red ink (some sort of red lead concoction, if I recall). Here's a picture of a music manuscript with a BRIGHT red rubric. I think of rubrics as a sort of medieval hypertext, like medieval and early modern Bibles complete with massive commentary (a practice copied from the ways Jews commented on Torah and Talmudic texts, as I understand it). Just way cool, anyway, and having little to do with the grading rubrics as we think of them.

Oh, my, I've learned to use colors now. This could get ugly FAST!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Procrastination

My graduate class had the best discussion of the semester last night; I managed to ask the right question at the right time. People were uncomfortable because the question challenged a fundamental assumption most have made about reading practices. People dealt with their discomfort well, listened to each other, made points, and thought about what we were doing. One student, especially, a student who's been relatively quiet this semester, but who's also demonstrated real growth in writing at least since the last time I had her in a class, spoke brilliantly to the point, bringing up a salient example at just the right time and in just the right way. For just those few minutes, I thought maybe I can do this teaching thing decently.

I forgot an important duty; fortunately, one of my colleagues emailed me asking about it earlier in the week, and now I'm taking care of it. I hate when I mess up like this. When I talked to the colleague who reminded me, I cussed out loud at myself (which I try not to do too much) and we laughed about creative cussing. While my favorite cuss is the early modern 'slid (God's eyelid), that's purely intellectual and never comes to my tongue in times of need. In regular usage, I tend to combine short words for bodily stuff. The fact that we both became immediately fascinated by my chosen cussword says something about our willingness to be distracted at this point in the semester.

Distraction plays a big part in my procrastination (as does writing in my blog, evidently).

I've suddenly become interested in the differences between arras/orras (alternative spellings, at least in early modern texts, of a plant from which hair powder was made) and arrowroot.

I'm also deeply curious about the difference botanically between a rhizome and a tuber. And how is a rhizome different from a bulb?

I don't know how I survived without an on-line OED.

Edited: I just finished the task. Is it wrong that I laughed out loud in my office when I read a student evaluation for a remedial writing class that said the class was too much like high school?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Joys of the End of the Semester

I know I've been letting off a little steam here lately about the stresses that come at the end of the semester. Without forgetting those, I want to talk about the joys of the end of the semester.

Today my first year writing class worked on proofreading their final research essays, and turned them in. In addition to proofreading each others' essays (which they do backwards, one sentence at a time, using sticky pads to mark things so the writer can make neat corrections), I asked them to write answers to a couple questions on the back of their packet (which also includes a rough draft or three).

Then they could leave. Some people finished quickly, fast readers, perhaps, or their peers and they had done a good job proofreading already, or written short papers. There was plenty of time, so no hurry. We looked up spellings, and I answered a few grammar and punctuation questions.

At the end, one woman was finishing up alone. I sat across the room, out of the way. She looked up and said, "I'm really going to miss this class."

I asked why, and she told me that it's the one class she has where she actually knows her classmates, and where they do assignments together. She mentioned going to a performance with a classmate for one of the small assignments, and how much fun it was to go with someone. She talked about how she likes working in peer editing and proofreading groups with everyone, and feels comfortable with them.

To be honest, this particular group of students has been overall marvelous this term. Even the nuzzlers were great once they quit nuzzling. And what I've read of their research drafts are really good. If I didn't know how my department and school work as far as grading scales, I'd worry that I'll seem like an easy grader this term. But they've really done good work, treated each other well, and clicked as a group nicely.

One of my stuents said it was another's birthday, and we should sing "Happy Birthday" to her. The Birthday Student begged off. So I said, well, BS doesn't want us to, so we won't, just as I wouldn't want to embarrass anyone else. Another student said, but I'd love it! Turns out he's got a summer birthday, and never had a class sing to him, so we sang to him. Everyone cracked up. That's how well they get along. Birthday Student was out of the spot light, and laughed about singing to someone else.

As I was waiting for the final student to finish up answering her questions, another prof from another department wandered into my class. Normally, profs don't usually wander into each others' classes. But the door was open, and it was obvious that the class was finishing up, so he wandered in and chatted. I don't remember meeting him before, but it was fun to chat about the end of the semester, grading, and teaching stuff.

The other day, I walked from a meeting with someone in the sciences, and we talked about how he tries to teach writing in his classes, how his students find peer editing helpful. We talked about what students learn in first year writing, and how he can use the process stuff we teach there to help his students in his major classes.

Faculty folk seem both taut and loose, stressed about grading, but anticipating the end of classes and the more flexible scheduling of finals.

I'm going to miss this class, but I'm also eager for the new semester to begin.

I finally ordered my texts, so it feels like it's really around the corner. Of course, there are stacks of papers to be graded between now and then. It's more fun to blog than grade, a self-evident truth.

A Letter I'd Like to Write

Dear Student,

Yes, I remember the conversation in which you explained how much smarter you are than your peers here. But that draft you turned in, really was not up to snuff. Did you read your peers' drafts? Did you notice how many of them had, even at the draft stage, full arguments, sensitive to the critical conversation about their texts? Did you notice how some of those arguments were critically sophisticated? When you read your work in the context of your peers' work, do you really think you're heads and shoulders above the rest? If so, you might want to reconsider. You're plenty bright, but you're not a halogen lamp in some dark dank basement of our program.

Your draft revealed that you'd read one book of historical interpretation, based on one historical text, and used a cookie cutter to fit that information onto your text. If you'd even read that one book attentively, you'd have noticed how careful that historian was to contextualize the one source text and to acknowledge that his/her information is incomplete with regard to broader cultural interpretations of the issue.

No, I'm sorry, but I wasn't impressed when you said you had "done feminism." Do you think your single grad paper with a feminist focus exhausts the critical power of the approach?

Nor am I impressed when you interrupt your peers during class discussion. You're right that I just don't seem to understand why talking about your job and spouse contributes to our discussion of a 17th century text.

Yes, I'm glad you read the second book I suggested after I read your draft and critiqued it with attention and care. But no, I'm not impressed that you're "way ahead of [me]" when I suggested that the book might not only be useful for this paper, but for your thesis work. If you hadn't read the book before, how did you get ahead of me about that, I wonder.

No, I don't actually want to read a one or two page reworking of your argument so that you can then "fill in" the textual stuff. No, I don't think revising your paper so that your whole argument hangs on a cursory reading of the second text I recommended is going to make it a whole lot more interesting or informative.

No, thanks, but I'd rather decline the privilege of writing you a letter of recommendation for a phud program. I think I just don't adequately recognize how you're going to revolutionize the world of literary scholarship. Chalk it up to my myriad inadequacies.

Sincerely, Bardiac

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Beyond Cool

At a forum board I visit more than occasionally, there was a post up about famous people folks had met.

The best yet: someone who played D&D with Gary Gygax.

Yeah, I'm a nerd. But, DANG!

For a while, I gamed with someone who designed one of the famous computer games of the 70s, but NOT in the very game he designed (and not in the 70s).

I'm vaguely consumed by jealousy. I wasted the better part of my undergraduate years playing D&D, but never with Gary Gygax!

What quirkily famous person have you met?

(My most quirky is Torsten Wiesel. I dare anyone to know who he is without looking him up.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Deficit of Patience Today

We've started our final week of classes.

My writing students had an important (well, I think it's important or I wouldn't have assigned it) assignment due today. And of course, one of them said right off that she'd forgotten to do hers, and could she turn it in during office hours. I relented and said that was okay. Then someone else said she'd forgotten hers at home, and could she bring it. Minimal fairness means I accept that.

So three other people have brought theirs in late, too. They didn't bother to ask, just assumed. Blah. I should have just said, "no, suck it up." I'm such a bleeping idiot.

(I need to remind myself that forgetting an assignment isn't about me, or disrespecting me. It's about the time of the semester, being a first year college student, impending finals, overwhelming assignments. Deep breath, Bardiac.)

The one that irritated me most brought her boyfriend's assignment in, too, saying only, "here's my assignment." She'd tucked her boyfriend's paper underneath hers.

If there's a stereotypical way to play the subordinate female in a het' relationship, she's been displaying it all semester. I want to shake her and say, "you'd better be on birth control!"

The room has table seating, all arranged in a circle so there's a big empty space in the center, and you can see everyone really well. This couple didn't seem to realize that the seating provided no privacy. At least I hope they didn't intend for me to see them fondling each others' legs.

I finally called their behavior inappropriate in class one day when she nuzzled his neck, my words prompted as much by their classmates' looks of irritation as my own. At my next office hours, the young man came in to say how mean he thought I was to embarrass them. I added that I'd appreciate it if they'd quit rubbing each others' legs under the table. I'm VERY pleased that they did quit the fondling, but she's still playing the subordinate thing to the hilt.

I want to shake them and say, "YAY, you've discovered SEX! No human being before you realized how fun touching someone else's body could be! Get over it."

Surprising as this may be, I've never actually grabbed and shaken anyone. Only in my fantasies.

I've managed to control my patience today (visibly, at least, I hope) with the students who've come back three times for me to look at their papers again. The first time was great. The second was okay. The third... well, it would have helped if she'd made the changes we talked about the first time by now. Mostly, though, they've improved their papers dramatically and I shouldn't be impatient. But I still am.

And, I just got a nice emailed thank you for the help I gave a student with her paper earlier today.

I take everything I said back!! Do-over!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Stimulating Post from the Paper Chase

Sometimes I read a blog and just have to share. Today is that time.

The Paper Chase (aka Lisa Chaser) has an absolutely fantastic post about the difficulties of dealing with students who have chronic problems, especially chronic health problems.

Read it. Seriously. I'll wait.

I'm right, aren't I? That's totally worth reading.

I get worried when a student's prose gets all wound up, pages and pages without paragraphing, rounding logic. The prose reminds me of conversations I used to have with (and notes I got from) a roommate who later told me she'd been diagnosed as bipolar. The prose just feels scary somehow. (And I read early modern sermons and stuff, so I know from scary prose.)

I have a little anecdote.

I was at a meeting a while back when faculty folks were talking about advising. Some folks in a field like social work or nursing started talking about how they advise on way more than academic stuff, and how we all should.

I couldn't keep my mouth shut, I'm afraid. I said, "My professional training is in Shakespeare and early modern lit; do you really want me counseling students based on my knowledge of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet?"

They got that nervous look people sometimes get. It's a wonder I ever got tenure. (And hey, I didn't even MENTION Titus! But only because I figured they wouldn't get the point.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Student Dilemma

I've been having some email exchanges with a student whose smart, thoughtful, and critically stuck in the 50s. He's realized that when he reads, he reads like a white male from the 1950s or so. He's concerned, and not really finding much new to say. As my first Shakespeare prof told me, it got to a point where it was hard to come up with basically competing close readings of the same canonical texts and it wasn't rewarding to read more close readings of canonical texts.

Our conversations have me thinking about Frankenstein, the part when Victor Frankenstein's new professor can't believe he's been spending all his time reading Paracelcus instead of more recent science texts.

I've suggested some ideas to help him write a good paper for my class, but it's the longer term I'm thinking about.

He says he's totally uninterested in cultural criticism; he reads articles and is just uninterested. He wants to read Shakespeare for Shakespeare, as Shakespeare. He's mostly self-taught about his Shakespeare, and read the one or two books you'd guess he'd have picked up at the local bookstore, uncritically, with much admiration. Those one or two books are very big in his experience.

I'd really appreciate some suggestions of readings for him, not about Shakespeare, but readings that will help him get a better sense of the development of the profession and of the value of understanding cultural contexts for any text.

It's hard, because I like Shakespeare a LOT, but for me the real pleasure comes in trying to understand the complexities of the culture, theater, history, textuality. I understand how valuable close reading skills are (invaluable for teaching, especially), but I want more of a pay off to reading criticism than I find in most close readings.

So, wisdom of the blogosphere, what would you suggest?

Am I totally off base thinking that he's going to find a lot of frustration trying to do new criticism now?

How can I help him find what he's looking for in literature AND succeed in his graduate program.

There's a lot to be said for just enjoying and appreciating Shakespeare (or any lit), but that's not really what graduate work in lit is about. Or is it? Should it be?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Into the Cold

Two of my students have disappeared from class for the past two weeks. I emailed both last week, and neither has responded. (My note basically said, "You haven't been in class and I'm concerned. Are you okay?")

I don't have drop information about either, so I really don't know what's happening. And I'm concerned. My concern is somewhat allayed because when I asked in class, other students said they'd seen the two around. So at least they haven't disappeared into the cold.

The parent of a colleague apparently got confused and went out for a walk on a cold night recently, only to be found dead at some point in the morning. Much sadness, as you can imagine.

Cold scares me. Around here, people sometimes disappear into the cold. Sometimes students drink and think they can cross thin ice or go for a swim, but don't succeed. Sometimes hunters get lost. And sometimes elderly folks get confused and try to take a walk.

I don't think I'm the only one who's weirdly scared of freezing to death; CNN dot com has been covering James Kim's death in Oregon as its main feature for a couple days now. I'm sorry he died and all, but focusing the main feature on his death for a couple days makes it seem like there's no other news, nope nothing we need to be aware of or think about, no political decisions to be made. Of course, we could focus on the president's catchy new catchphrase (but I'm not watching the CNN video to see what it is).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sad Search

In my typical grading avoidance mode, I looked at the Sitemeter referrals today, and here's the saddest search: I HAVE NOT DONE THE WRITING ASSIGNMENTS AND NOW I AM GOING TO FAIL THE CLASS, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW?

What to tell the student who's doing this search? What to tell the student who comes to my office, or the one I see crying in a hallway?

First, take a deep breath. It's not at all good or fun to fail a class, any class, but when you think of the really worst that can happen, it's not the end of the world, either. It's not a major nuclear disaster coming at Earth from all sides, leaving only cockroaches and fungi deep in caves.

One of the things I really admire about this search term is that it takes responsibility. Taking responsibility means you can probably learn to do differently.

What to do?

First think about your options. Can you retake the class, and if so, can you do something substantially different when you do? Have you learned from your experience, and can you change the way you did things?

In most colleges and universities, when you retake a class, your new grade replaces the old for your GPA, though both show on the transcript. So, focus on doing well when you retake the class. If you want to go on to grad school or something, then you're going to need to think about how to frame your failure and retaking in a way that helps your application. Maybe you'll want to argue that you messed up, took responsibility, learned from your mistake, and became a much better student. Maybe something horrid happened and you learned from that.

Here's a dirty little secret: I had to retake two classes in college. I'm not proud that I had to retake two classes, but it was a learning experience. One thing I learned was that my parents loved me even when I messed up. I remember phoning them when I realized I was failing a class, and how wonderful they were, how calming and caring.

That brings me to the second thing you need to do, perhaps. If your parents are helping you in school, then be honest with them (or whomever). You may lose financial aid, or get put on probation. You're likely to have some painful conversations in your future, but the sooner you start having them, the better.

Talk to your parents, spouse, or whomever else is important in your life.

Talk to the financial aid people if you need to, the probation or dean's office. Most colleges and universities have academic help or tutoring centers, counseling, and other services to help you if you need them. Take this opportunity to commit to getting whatever help you think is appropriate. Make a plan for how you're going to change your study habits or whatever.

You get big Bardiac bonus points if you go to your professor's office hours and apologize for doing poorly, take responsibility, thank the professor for being a good teacher, and say that you're going to use this experience to learn to do better. I'm willing to bet your professor doesn't hate you for failing, but will be decent and sympathetic, and probably suggest tutoring or something.

The third thing you should do is review and revise your curricular planning. If you took too many classes with too many working hours, but you have to work to eat, then plan on taking fewer classes. You may need to plan in a summer course or something.

The fourth thing may sound odd, but if you've figured out you're failing a course and can't possibly pass, then put your primary efforts into your other courses for the rest of the term, and try not to worry about the one problem course. If you can do better in your other courses, you'll help your overall GPA.

And finally, take care of yourself in the deep ways. Taking responsibility, focusing on changing what you need to change means that you don't need to spend time feeling sorry for yourself any more than necessary. You don't need to go out and get so drunk you can't think. You don't need to drive like an idiot or beat yourself up or punish yourself.

What do YOU want to say to the student who did that search?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Using Other Critics

I got an email from one of my students, one who hadn't cited any work after the 1970s in her graduate course research essay. She wrote to tell me that she'd read later critics, but didn't find much in them she could use.

The way she wrote the note gave me the sense that she's looking at critics to support her argument. I know that's certainly the way I looked at works of criticism when I started writing papers. I'd want to argue that "green means fertility and growth" in some work (I vaguely recall trying to write something horrifically dull like that about one of Toni Morrison's works. Morrison, forgive me, please!) So I would go look up critics who'd say that green means fertility and/or growth, and use them to support my argument (in all the dreadful ways that such assertions really don't work across cultures and such). Or I'd look for critics who'd written about Morrison and try to find handy quotations. Too often, I thought what I was reading was somehow "fact" because it was in print. I think that's a common mistake when students (and sometimes others) write about literature (and probably other fields of study).

I want to teach my students to read criticism for itself, to understand the argument and think about why they find it useful or not, why they agree or disagree. I want them to think about the argument as an end in itself, and not as a means to their end. (Obviously, I haven't succeeded so far with my grad student this semester.)

Disagreeing with another critic is often most helpful, because it makes you think about why you think what you do, and why you disagree. Are you wrong, is it possible? Do you start with different assumptions? If so, why? Do you interpret something basic about the text differently? Why? Do you interpret historical information differently, or do you have access to different historical information? Do you find the methodology problematic? Why?

In my own experience of learning to write, I went through a period when I'd basically start out an essay by working through some other critics' approach and trashing it. (Forgive me, Writers and Former Teachers, for what I have done.) I gradually learned that the trashing writing is useful as pre-writing, and not so useful in actual drafting. But it still helps me figure out why I think I have something new to say when I respond to another critic. At least I learned to read arguments carefully and to think about them as arguments.

I also learned to rethink my arguments in response to other critics' works. I start out with an idea of what I think is happening in a text, and then try to learn about the text so that I can figure out if my thinking makes good sense or not. Sometimes, it doesn't. I think I've got a GREAT and wonderful argument, and learn something that just overturns it completely. That sucks, but it's better to be honest about things than to fake things. More often, I learn something that helps me fine tune and adjust my argument, making it stronger.

This semester, I had my graduate class find and read critical essays for each work, and asked them to write about the question they thought the essay was trying to answer (whether explicitly or implicitly), and about the assumptions and methods the essay was using to get at the answer. It's a different sort of assignment, but they had several opportunities (including for revision), and I thought it would be useful in getting my grad students to read essays for the argument and such.

I'm not sure if the students who've written promising drafts learned from my assignment or already somehow learned and knew.

I need some better ideas for this student!

Grading H E Double Hockey Sticks!

I'm buried in grading so I think it's a great time to update my blogroll! If I've missed you (and let's face it, I'm not the bestest updater ever), please let me know and I'll add you.


And if you're also in grading purgatory or worse, my sympathies are with you. I read drafts for my grad papers today. Two of the drafts were under five pages, and they weren't five pages of brilliance, alas. One was incredible. One was darned good. One has incredible promise, and brings in Basilikon Doron in interesting, cool ways. Two need to recognize that the world of literary criticism didn't actually end in 1979. Some were drafts.

They're peer editing tonight (yay for night classes), which means that good things can still happen! I have high hopes. I also live a rich and full fantasy life.

For final peer editing in any class, I try to put the people most likely to really challenge each other in the best ways together, and work from there. And yes, before I saw the drafts, I made up the groups, and yes, the two under five pager drafts are in the same group. And the incredible and darned good drafts are in the same group.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

AP Credits and Frustration

I had a conference with a student in my upper level class earlier this term about her essay, which earned an F. She was shocked by the grade. I was equally shocked by the essay. It was creative, but it wasn't an essay, really. It didn't make a point, or work with the text, or work through a process of thinking.

I asked the student about her writing practices, and she gave me the stare of doom. So I asked her if she'd taken our first year writing class. No, she told me, she'd taken an on-line course in high school last year and transfered it in.

There are two problems here. First, what's a first semester, first year student doing in an upper level course? Bad advising, I'm guessing? And second, what did she learn in that on-line writing course?

It's the second I'm thinking about today, because I'm looking at the transcript of a new lit major advisee who's come in with all sorts of college credits taken while in high school. I see a fair number of students with additional credits; I'm guessing it's not all that unusual.

I think there's a big difference between high school and college level learning; a lot of that difference has to do with the difference between absorbing factoids and learning why people think something is or isn't a factoid, or should or shouldn't be practiced. I want college level students to be able to justify their thinking, and given my field, they need to be able to justify it in writing and orally.

That's a huge transition from high school learning, which is far more absorbing factoids and learning skills (math skills, for example). We read and talk about the differences in my first year writing course, and students seem to begin to recognize how the differences play out in their work in various classes.

The problem is that the AP type courses that students transfer in don't seem to push them to a college level of learning, and so they're basically telling students that they've had a college experience without giving it to them. That's bad enough at a public high school. Even worse, the on-line course my student took charged good money for those credits.

It seems to diminish their real college experience, yet they don't recognize that until they've been in college level courses for a while.

I wonder if they're taking these courses because the public school classes are generally uninteresting, and AP somehow makes them palatable? Or are they under some pressure thinking they're going to be competing wildly for placement in a college or university?

(Because, really, unless they're aiming for an ivy league school, the competition seems hyped rather than real. Certainly we accept about half our applicants, and about half of those choose not to come, presumably because they got in somewhere else they prefer. But colleges and universities work HARD to get more applications--even from very unqualified students--so that they can show how selective they are. But this is a rant for another time.)

On average, what kinds of experiences do you see your students from AP classes having? Are they better or differently prepared for college learning? Do they actually seem to have had a college level learning experience?

(I'm especially interested in lit experiences. It seems that my students are all basically taught that the only way to read is to identify with the protagonist. That means male students are basically taught that they shouldn't bother with books about females, and female students are taught that they should learn to identify with male characters, because, hey, male experience is human experience. Isn't there more to reading than that?)

Reaching the House of Bardiac

If you scroll way down to the bottom, you can see how people reach Bardiac, virtual home of me.

I was taken aback today by this search:

I have no answer. I can't imagine decorating for an anatomy class, much less Christmas decorations.

Maybe an up-close of those medieval pictures of Jesus being crucified with a vaginal looking side wound? (Thanks, Caroline Walker Bynum!)

With my decorating skills, I'm not going to be asked to do any Trading Spaces type blog switches, am I?

Monday, December 04, 2006

I Tried Something New!

And I think it worked!

A couple days ago, I read Addy N's comments about teaching writing in her class (which isn't a humanities class). She notes that in her field, one only uses quotations in rather specific circumstances, citing a legal document, for example. But otherwise, the writer paraphrases.

Addy's got a couple really good points there. For one, she worries that her students are only learning to write in English classes. Writing classes can contribute nicely to a student's writing, but students need to work on writing in a lot of classes, and in different fields; they need to learn that we approach writing differently for different purposes and genres. That means, of course, that people in every field have to work at teaching writing, and I know that's a pain. I know it because teaching writing isn't MY field, though I do it all the time (in my regular first year writing classes AND in my literature classes).

For a variety of reasons, including the practices in lit (we like quotations! word play, yay!), I tend to work with students on using quotations, and haven't thought as much about working with paraphrase. Except that when we use quoations, we often to lots of paraphrasing to set the scene, or to begin interpreting the quotation, so I've done it there.

Today, I had my first year students write up an example for one paragraph of their research paper. Then we talked about their strategy in presenting the example, and I had them rewrite the paragraph using a different strategy (paraphrase or direct quotation, for example), and asked them to think about how they introduced the source and such (which they need to do somehow, whether they're paraphrasing or not).

I thought that trying a different strategy would actually get them to rewrite the example, but most of them found writing a new paragraph a no-go, mostly (I think) because they feel that once they've put something down on paper, it's not worth the time to seriously rethink their strategy in that. FSM knows I've tried to teach them to take revision seriously, but I don't think I've succeeded.

Then we turned to talk about why they chose the strategies they did, and what they thought about in choosing their specific strategy. That led us (by clever professing, if I say so myself) to discussing what sorts of information we should be quoting and paraphrasing, and how that related to fields of study and genres of writing.

In our brainstorming, it seems that the humanities and law (and especially religious studies) tend to find direct quotation most useful. Sciences tend to find paraphrase most useful, except, for numerical data which they reproduce, but usually in a paraphrase.

Interesting. I hope it helps them. Their rough drafts are due Wednesday, and I wasn't overly impressed with what I saw of the "section" they were supposed to bring to class today (some looked fairly complete, but a number were single short paragraphs).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Even Better!

Remember that guy, David Armand, who did the mime to Natalie Imbruglia's song "Torn" (from her album Left of the Middle)? (In the character of interpretive dancer Johann Lippowitz.)

YouTube has an even better version up now. (I haven't been able to figure out how to get the whole YouTube thing to show up here, but the link should work.) This looks to be from an Amnesty International Performance (The 2006 Secret Policeman's Ball, I learned).

(Hat tip to Suman, who DOES know how to embed the video thing. I couldn't get it to work even when I tried to cut and past his html code; that's how lame I am!)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Tough Meeting this Week

My department spent part of a meeting this week talking about the "common book" some of us chose to work with this past semester, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. (I've blogged about it before.)

One of my colleagues said that she'd hoped she'd get a sense of community from teaching a common book, and that she really hadn't. People in general agreed with her, expressing disappointment.

During the part of the semester when we were generally teaching the common book, we were reeling from the E's death. But I felt like there was an elephant in the room, and we needed to acknowledge the unique (I hope) effect of the departmental experience because in a normal semester, I might chat about a book when I run into a colleague in the lunch room, but this semester, almost every conversation I had in there for weeks was about whether someone had visited, or was planning to, about what we could do to help or be supportive.

So, I sort of said that about the missing sense of community, and then I felt bad because no one wanted to be reminded; almost everyone looked found the floor more interesting than before. But I looked over at the colleague I think was closest to E in our department, and he caught my eye and nodded.

It's been maybe 2 months, and what overwhelmed us around here has mostly disappeared from our daily conversation. It's not that we've forgotten, but the busy-ness of our teaching has made E fade from day to day talk; and we've healed. The echoing silences in the hallways are back to normal footbeats and voices.

I hope we'll do a common book again, because I think the potential of better community remains, and we'll be able to develop that way if we want to and make the effort. But it doesn't happen without conscious effort, and it doesn't happen when we're all busy dealing with the extraordinary situation of this semester.

Strong Reaction

I've been catching up on my blog reading this morning a bit after a week that was less than stellar.

Sometimes when I read a blog, I have a really strong reaction. I usually recognize the reaction, and choose to comment or not depending how much I like the blog, and whether I think I'll offend someone on their own blog. I'm not always good at judging that, though.

The Blog That Ate Manhattan (aka TBTAM) did a post about preparing a hot bath for one's partner when she has PMS. You can read my response there, but let's just say I still feel strongly. It's not that I object to hot baths. Or hot cocoa. But when I was young, a hot bath was all anyone ever bothered to suggest for pms or menstrual cramps (and I know that's not the case with TBTAM; see this post on bcps and their benefits). And they didn't help.

Also, a hot bath isn't an option if you live in a boarding house and share a bathroom, or if you live in housing without bathtubs.

And a hot bath for an hour has never been practical for me in the middle of a school or work day.

Even so, TBTAM writes a really great blog, complete with scones. Scones! Yum! (Maybe I should go to the local bakery for lunch instead of grading?)

A Poetry Meme!

I saw this up at Kermit the Frog's place, who saw it at Light Reading, started by Cam.

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was
I remember being forced to read some Robert Louis Stevenson (I think, but not sure) poem as a little kid, in our school reader. The picture next to it was a boy playing with blocks. I hated it. (That pretty much sums up my reading experience of poems until I was in grad school and people actually taught me to read poetry.)

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and
I was forced to memorize Goethe's "Erle Konig" (pretend there's an umlaut over the "o"). I didn't do well, and hated it. I totally didn't understand why my German teacher was so in love with romanticism. I still don't understand why anyone is so in love with romanticism. Put it this way, Marlowe's Faustus can take Goethe's Faust in a fight any day of the week, with one Act tied behind its stage.

3. I read poetry because
I really like Kermit's answer, that she (I think!) reads poetry that she's familiar with, and likes rereading. I do, too. Poetry is HARD! I tend to like reading poetry that's playful with words and ideas, that makes me think or laugh, and that feels good on the tongue.

4. A poem or poet I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite is
Shakespeare's sonnets, the opening of The Faerie Queene, Donne, Herrick. "Dulce et Decorum Est."

5. I don't write poetry, but
When I tried for an assignment in my first college lit class, my iambs all came out trochees. Seriously.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature
Again, Kermit has a great answer. It IS slower. Poetry is like looking at really great art, I need to sit down with it and think, read and reread.

7. I find poetry
Kermit's answer is that she finds poetry underappreciated in her department. That takes me aback in a way, but when I think about it, my department is very heavily novel and short story oriented. We have a poet in creative writing, but other than that, only the people who do older lit much teach poetry or verse per se. My own answer is that I find poetry challenging and exciting because challenging.

8. The last time I heard poetry
Um, people I know tend to spout bits of poetry in the halls, so I hear pieces a lot. One of the local philosophy profs likes to recite Shakespeare sonnets when he sees me, and bits of Shakespeare's dialogue. He's WAY better at it than I am. I'm all "To be or... um..." (shamelessly stolen from Robin Williams).

9. I think poetry is like
Um, I want to say sex, but that's likely to weird people out. It feels good; sometimes familiar is good, and trying new things, and hitting just the right sensual spots in your mouth, and imagery is so important. I so shouldn't go there.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Wall

It's that time of the semester; we're all walking around with hangdog looks, a combination of timing and the nasty weather.

Every semester, we come up against the wall at this point, smacking our faces every time. People are snippier than usual, more likely to go off on someone else, less likely to laugh at the absurdity of life.

Thanksgiving was a total change for me, but not really restful in any meaningful way, and since my Mom was here until Tuesday, I still wasn't full on board til Wednesday, and still feel like I'm recovering from the "break" to some extent. That's just downright stupid, and every year I tell myself I'm not going to do it again, and every year I do. Stupid. I'm looking more hangdog than most and making a conscious effort not to be short-tempered.

(Like with the charming student who appeared at my office door a few minutes before 5pm for my office hours from 5-6pm [before my night class], but left because she decided I'd already left, and wrote me an email to that effect. I doubt she looked at the oversized schedule on my door or that she really meant to sound that rude, right? And when I got there at 5:01, my colleague mentioned that someone had stopped at my door and then left.)

Hitting the wall makes me wonder about a couple things, though.

First, we make our semester schedules. Why do we always do this to ourselves? Is it just inevitable with the work we need to do in our different venues, and our expectations of what we'll teach in our classes and how?

Second, I know academics work pretty hard. But I also know that lots of people work hard, and plenty work harder. So I assume plenty of folks all around are hitting walls, feeling stressed, overworked, and tired. Do we just notice our wall because of the rhythm of the semester, when we all hit at the same time? Do non-academic work places just run with some people constantly hitting the wall, while others find their own rhythms and go up and down?

Or are we just whusses?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Reading Roach's Stiff and talking about it in my body class has brought up the inevitable topic of donating one's body to science.

Two of my students have family members in medicine who've done human gross anatomy classes, and they talked about what their family members have said; one says his sibling plans to donate her body to science, while the other says her sibling decided not to donate her body to science because of her class. Interesting stuff.

I don't have any religious convictions that would stop me from donating my body. When I read

At the round earth's imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
of souls, and to your scattered bodies go...
(Donne, "Holy Sonnet #4")

I understand the basic theology, but I don't have an emotive response to the religious imperitive. And then I start thinking about all the "what if" cases: what if your arm were cut off in youth? Do you end up armless in heaven/hell? If you die a horrible death, would you be resurrected in that kind of pain?

Enough of that. The point is that I don't have a religious need to try to keep my body whole, and I don't think there's a spiritual afterlife.

I've never done human dissection, but I've dissected other critters, from bugs to mammals of various sorts, and it didn't gross me out. On one level, I'm not really grossed out at the thought of someone cutting me to pieces once I'm dead (I'm totally against being drawn and quartered while alive, though, just to be clear.)

But I'm stopped cold by the thought of people making nasty comments about my dead body. Why is that? I mean, it's not like I'd be there to hear and get hurt feelings, right?

People in my classes did name their dissection critters names (there was a "FatCat" in my vertebrate morphology cat dissection lab, I recall). We weren't a nice bunch, I guess, or sensitive.

And the thought of being in a post-mortem car accident: I somehow can't get beyond the idea of pain in an accident, while that doesn't really get me when I think of dissection. I don't know quite why that is.

On the other hand, what Roach has to say about buried and cremated bodies doesn't make those sound appealing, either. I can't bear the thought of being buried in the cold winter ground of the upper midwest. I'd sort of figured on being cremated and tossed into the ocean, but I've read somewhere that human ashes aren't really good for the ocean. So I don't know.

It's time to go read something more fun. The Changeling's up for my drama class, so that should be a pleasant change! (I adore this play, by the way, just adore it, but I've never taught it before! I'm so excited!)

Meanwhile, what do you think: donation or no?

ps. Yes, I have an organ donor sticker, but that seems totally different to me, for some odd reason.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Travel Days?

The subject of travel days came up in one of my meetings today. This time we were talking about officially cancelling classes the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (which probably also means Tuesday evening classes).

We already officially cancel classes the Monday after Easter so that people can travel more safely. (You can insert my very non-Christian thoughts about kow-towing to religious practices at a state university here. I dislike it, but it's not worth fighting this particular aspect of the oppressive power base that is Christianity in this area.)

Some instructors here unofficially cancel their classes, and that practice gives students impetus to leave early, and puts the rest of us in a position of having half-filled classes on Wednesday. Do we reward students for coming? Punish those who aren't there? One quarter of my students in my first year class missed Monday of this week as well. What to do about that?

Safe travel's an issue here in the upper midwest this time of year, as we can get some nasty snowstorms and such.

On the other hand, if we officially cancel classes on Wednesday, we'll have the same pressures to let students off on Monday and Tuesday.

What do you folks think?

(And don't forget, we also have students who take off days for hunting season.)

Meme Research Meme

In the department of redundancy department, Acephalous (aka Scott Eric Kaufman) is trying to run an experiment to see how fast his meme travels across the blogosphere. It's for the MLA, and we all know, anything for the MLA. Okay, in my case, make that almost anything in gratitude for not going to MLA this year, not being on the job market, and not having to go up and down in elevators packed with stressed out job-seekers.

So, Acephalous is writing an MLA paper, and asks that folks link to his meme, and ask their readership to follow suit. If you're interested, go for it.

I feel silly; compared to Pharyngula and Bitch PhD, my blog's barely a blip on the blogoradar, if that. And the making of a meme specifically about spreading through the web seems to have little relation to the spreading of a meme "organically" (cyberically?). It would be more interesting to have some blog-folks start odd memes, maybe even lit or language related (since it's MLA and all) and track how they go, wouldn't it?

Anyway, I consider this my little part in promoting the MLA or Acephalous's career or something.

Monday, November 27, 2006

U Turn Queen

That's me. I used to get really upset at myself when I got lost and had to make U turns, but then at some point, I accepted my lack of geographic sense and decided not to get upset at having to hang u-ies, and travel got a lot less stressful.

The visit's been going far better than I anticipated, and I'm thankful!

My Mom and I took a couple day trips over the weekend, visiting a geological park focused on the glaciation of the upper midwest. It was fascinating, AND I got to hold a Fox Snake, which is a species of local snake. I haven't held a snake since I was a little kid, and I forgot how wonderful the snake's muscles feel against my hands and arms as it moves over them. I was totally fascinated.

Then we got lost in two states, and ended up on a dirt road near some wildlife reserve, and with total luck I saw my first ever wild swans. Looking in my book, I was pretty much convinced that they were Whistling (aka Tundra) Swans, which are the most common swans around here. But looking now, and listening to some recordings, I think we may have seen some Trumpeter Swans.

They were in a reserve, banded with broad yellow bands around their necks. There was a small group of four swans in a wetlands area, the two all-white adults banded, and the two darker sub-adults (I think) not banded. And then a group of three all white swans flew over and landed on the far side of a small islet, and then another group of swans flew by. So it's possible there were two different species, even.

There's evidently a project in the area to help Trumpeter Swans.

On the other hand, Trumpeters are REALLY rare compared to Tundra Swans.

I'll have to recheck my books again, and look up the specific reserve to see if there's a project there.

At any rate, it was pretty darned exciting, and it wouldn't have happened except that we got nice and lost.

Research and Dead Ends

My Body class is reading Mary Roach's Stiff now, and started discussing it today. If you haven't heard of it, well, it's a journalistic account of what happens to cadavers.

One of the things I like about the book is the way she talks about actually doing her journalistic research. She talks about getting books in a library, about meeting up with people or interviewing them. And occasionally, she talks about research dead ends. For example, on page 50, she tells the story of one Oscar Rafael Hernandez, who woke to find himself in a vat of formaldehyde, having been smacked over the head when someone attempted to kill him to sell his corpse to a medical school. There's a note on the page that says

With the help of an interpreter, I got the number of an Oscar Rafael Hernandez living in Barranquila. A woman answered the phone and said that Oscar was not in, whereupon my interpreter gamely asked her if Oscar was a garbage picker, and if he had been almost murdered by thugs who wanted to sell him to a medical school for dissection. A barrage of agitated Spanish ensued, which my interpreter summed up: "It's the wrong Oscar Rafael Hernandez." (50n)

So I find this fascinating. On the most basic level, I think it's really important to reveal to students that sometimes research just doesn't work out. You spend a week reading some dense manuscript only to realize that it doesn't help answer the question you have. Or you think that Junius Brutus in Coriolanus is also Junius Brutus in The Rape of Lucrece and then find out that he's not even related, but changed his name to that of the hero of the rebellion against the Tarquins some 30 years later.

It's a hard balance with students to get them to understand that it's okay, even necessary, for research not to "pay off" in a big and obvious way sometimes, that it's more intellectually honest to acknowledge that things don't always work. But then they also have to turn in their research papers, and it's hard to grade a research paper that's about failed research, isn't it?

Undergraduates tend to have such a short time to work on research papers that any misstep or false trail can really mess them up. That's especially true in a class where they're working on really new material. In my case, I imagine it would be easier for students to work on texts from cultures they're more familiar with (say, late 20th century US lit) than on medieval or early modern lit. (But then, surface familiarity sometimes misleads itself; my students reading Middlesex earlier in the semester really didn't understand what the Nation of Islam section was about much, and I was only a little better off than they.)

How do we teach students that it's okay for research to sometimes not work out while encouraging the preparatory work that helps research work out well?

How do I judge research that just doesn't work out in undergraduate papers?