Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 1 - data?

Northwoods U tries to encourage our students and faculty to do what's called faculty/student collaborative research; since we're a regional university with a few MA programs, almost all our student research is undergraduate research.

For the next while, I'm preparing to go to a conference on faculty/student collaborative research. And as I'm preparing, I'm brainstorming, trying to figure out how models work in my field, and how I may be able to do this sort of work well. For me, there has to be double pay-off: the work has to benefit me and also the student. There's no bonus at NWU for this, so it has to help my research or some area of my work for me to add in the extra effort.

Here's my difficulty:

In the sciences, from what I remember, there's a model for research that goes something like: faculty member has a research project and can fund a couple students to do parts of the project, often parts involving repetition (measuring something, for example). On some level, those activities are good learning experiences for the student, and can be made into excellent learning experiences if the student has the gumption and the faculty member provides guidance. Perhaps the student also does a literature review of related materials, and provides them for the professor.

In the humanities, my sense of the model is a LOT more vague. Partly this is because my methodology just isn't nearly as well articulated as typical scientific methodology.

Let's take Shakespeare research, for example. Say I want to argue something interesting about the body parts in Titus Andronicus, a play noted for body parts. First I have to have read the play, and decided something about what I want to argue; then I probably have to do some reading around in the critical literature to see what other people have said about Titus specifically, always testing my idea against what others have been writing. Then I have to read more widely and learn what people have said about body parts, especially theoretically and historically, again, testing my ideas and refining them. Then I may turn to other early modern works, plays, sermons, laws, broadsheets, medical texts. Once again, I test out my ideas and try to refine them, make cultural connections, and so forth.

Where do I fit a potential student collaborator in on this sort of project?

I could ask someone to do the sort of thing I did as a grad student research assistant, read the basic argument as started, then read everything related and make summary notes and suggestions for the professor to read specific pieces/areas. It was good experience for me, and helped me find a dissertation topic. But my mentor had to help me develop my understanding and my judgment about issues in the field (and read over things I had summarized and said probably weren't material to his argument anyway).

In a parallel to the sciences, I could ask someone to "collect data." In the sciences, that might mean the student measures some plants in different growing conditions. You can teach someone to measure plants with some reliability in a couple of hours, I'm guessing. In my field, the "data" is in texts, often in textual wordplay or anecdote. And it took me several years to begin to get a sense of how to really make good sense of texts without a modern editorial apparatus. Give a solid undergrad student a good edition of Shakespeare and s/he can get the point, understand some historical or cultural relevance, and enjoy the jokes. Send that same student to EEBO to read a broadsheet or whatever, and life gets much more complex.

And typically I'd say I spend 10 hours reading stuff for even the smallest "find" that works its way into an argument. Sometimes the "find" (a group of letters between spouses) can give you weeks of joy and fruitful learning. But sometimes the find is something you put on a backburner to remember, and hope that when you have something to say about it, you remember the source accurately (and have good notes).

So it doesn't necessarily help me if the student's read something and I haven't, because the student may not have the experience to make textual connections, and I certainly won't have the memory or notes in a couple years to recall interesting tidbits.

In a way, then, doing textual research is more like doing observational biology than experimental science; so maybe I should think about that sort of model. My memory of doing observational biology is basically that you decide to observe something (say your local Goldfinches) and then record either EVERYTHING you can about the behavior, or record specific incidents of behavior. When you're starting out, you probably try to observe and record everything, because you haven't decided what's important. As you begin to get ideas about what's important to you, you get more focused on specific aspects of behavior.

So, say I'm observing Goldfinches, and I write everything down. Then I become interested in how they share a feeder. So I might start focusing my observations at interactions at a specific feeder.

In either case, I might not realize that something is really important and so not record it (say an alarm call). But if I record absolutely everything, I can go back later and mine my notes for data to help me do more focused observation. If I've videotaped, then I can look over a subset of the data for more observation, but it will take a lot of time.

In English studies, especially early modern stuff, we have the luxury often of being able to go back over our "data" again and again, noticing new words, wordplay, meanings, possibilities. It happens when I reread Lear and realize that I'm blown away by a speech I've read a dozen times without READING it carefully.

But because language represents in such a fragmentary way, and cultures are so complex, it's probably as complicated to teach good reading as it is to teach good observation in young biologists. And it probably takes more time than the usual semester we're likely to work with a given student on a project.

Like biologists, we teach these skills probably in every class. I spend lots of time having students read aloud, talking about words, meanings, wordplay, jokes, cultural contexts, all in short passages. And at the end of a semester, some students get pretty good. But in all those classes, we have the benefit of modern edited texts (though I've done projects using Early English Books On-Line).

All this still leaves me wondering how I can teach a student to do useful observation or reading of complex texts not available in modern editions?

I had a really interesting discussion with a scientist here about these issues, so I'll be posting more about that in coming days.

Fifteen Thousand

According to my Site Meter thing (down at the bottom), sometime today (assuming an average number of visitors), I should have visitor 15,000.

Except that until I figured out how to get email alerts about responses, I pretty much visited my own blog every fifteen minutes during the day, except when I was actually in class and such.

So, it's a number, but it doesn't mean all that much. And in the grand scheme of things, it means even less.

Still, if you happen to notice that you're number 15,000, congratulations! You win!!! (Something grand, like your own personal choice of a Shakespearean sonnet post or something equally thrilling!)

If you happen to notice, let me know who you are.

And thanks to all the fine readers out there who've shared even a little time with me. I'm enjoying myself, enjoying reading other blogs, and especially grateful for the many people who've answered lots of questions for me and shared ideas.

(But seriously, if you're here to get ideas for your Shakespeare or other class paper, don't forget to cite me!)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Queen of Lists

Back when I was in grad school and actually organized about my life, I made lists to help me break down tasks into do-able parts and actually get them done. When I was bummed out or stressed or whatever, my lists became sort of minutely obsessive, including everything I could think of so that I'd get to cross out several things early on. Crossing out stuff made me feel that I was actually accomplishing something, so I would focus on trying to accomplish the next thing.

It's not a bad strategy for me.

Summer's the best of times and worst of times. It's great to relax, and a problem to relax too much. I'm a lazy bum, to be honest, and I really need to not be lazy this summer because I've got lots on my plate, or many balls in the air, or choose your metaphor.

So today I made a list, and yes, I accomplished a fair number of things on it, certainly more than I would have if I hadn't made the list. My favorite entry on my more obsessive lists is: make new list. It's good when I've accomplished a lot because it feels really good to see the list shrink, and then I brainstorm about what needs to be done and it grows again.

Notable accomplishments: I finished Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World for my book group, which doesn't meet until next week. But it was a fun, quick read (relative to Derrida or Milton), and I enjoyed it. It doesn't exactly shock me, but does sort of horrify me that I know so little modern European history.

I'm pretty good at England 1580-1642, and half good at England 1350-1660.

And I can remember the big US things, stuff about the state where I grew up, and the BIG 20th century wars. I even vaguely can keep track of the big European and American wars of the 18th and 19th century.

But I know little of Spanish history once Phillip II and the Spanish Armada fade from the scene. And Franco? I only remember some vague stuff about fascism and dictatorship.

I should go BACK TO SCHOOL! yeah! (except not really).

I am especially happy to have finished making extensive notes on a student's paper by request; it was a good paper, given the context and all, but steeped in unacknowledged romanticism about how artistry works. I am so not a romantic at heart.

A couple friends brought over a rented rototiller and dug up some of my back yard for me! YAY! Whoever landscaped my yard should be stoned with the stupid gravel and river rock they put in all over the place. Fortunately, in the back it's small gravel and we just dug it in with loads of manure. Yummy. Tomorrow a friend and I are going to a nursery and going to pick out some shade plants for one area, and sun plants for another. I'm thinking LOTS of perennial flowers! I also got cocoa shell mulch, which smells GREAT!

Tomorrow, I have a couple other appointments, some reading to do. And I have to get working on a small grant application and a "school self-study" for a conference.

How stupid am I, you ask? I put in to go to this conference; it's one of those professional development things, specifically "student faculty collaborative research," rather than a Shakespeare type conference. And then I ran into another colleague, also on the list, who told me that she'd basically been told she should go by her chair (not in my department). So, guess who's the self-torturing schmuck? Yes, that would be me!

I was asked to be the group leader (hah, there's a position of power), which basically means I get to do the school self-study. I actually had a really fascinating meeting with the person here who's been most involved with such things last week as part of my preparation. The fact that I found it fascinating probably says a lot about the state of my synapses. /sigh

So, adding to the list: grant application, school self-study, pick out and put in plants! (See, it gets better.)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Blogging about poetry blogging

I don't know where the Friday poetry blogging thing got its start; I could probably try to follow it back, but I'm just guessing Jo(e) had something to do with it. (Anyone know off hand?)

I do know that I really like Friday poetry blogging, though. For me, poetry is like really good graphic art. When I go to a big city, and have the chance to go to a museum, I sometimes do. I used to have memberships when I lived near one big city or another. The advantage for me of the membership was that I could go in, spend a half an hour or 45 minutes really looking at one or two pictures, and then leave.

There's a certain Monet I've spent a fair bit of time with, and some Japanese pottery in celadon green. I really got to know those pieces, and enjoyed them in a new way. I'm sort of slow about some things, so it really helped when I went to museums with an artist friend who could explicate works for me, help me see the purples and greens in the "skin" of a portrait, or when I went after taking an art history class and a ceramics throwing class, and could think about how the pieces were put together and how they worked on a deeper level.

Alas, though, I don't make time in every day to visit a piece of art for a half an hour, even. (I make time for other things that are more important to me.)

If I go to a new museum now, I fight the urge to try to "see" all the pieces or areas. I've learned about myself that I can't focus in a museum for more than a couple hours, and after that I just don't enjoy it. But if I relax and just visit a couple pieces over the course of two hours, I feel very good about my experience. More focused and with a fuller sense of why I care about those couple of pieces.

Poetry's the same way for me. With the exception of narrative poetry (Paradise Lost, a Canterbury Tale, The Rape of Lucrece) or drama in verse, I rarely sit down to read poetry for a long time. I don't devour books of poetry.

So when I teach poetry, I tend to have students only read a poem or two per session, and then really take time to work through that poem a lot. I love having students read a poem several times aloud, as a group or on their own. When you start, they sound all chanty, but once they get used to it, they really begin to feel the poem in their mouths and go at their own speed, to listen to the ways the sentences and lines are put together and let that drive their speech.

Friday poetry blogging is perfect for my style of poetry reading. I take some time to think of poems I enjoy and that I'm in the mood for, reread some aloud, and find my way to my choice for the week.

Then I look around for poems other people have posted, and give several a quick read through until I find one I want to sit down with for a bit longer.

And in the process, I learn something about a poem (especially since some other people post poetry by poets who haven't been dead for 300+ years! Gosh!) or I get an introduction to a writer.

That once a week, I can take time to sit and enjoy a poem, especially on a Friday afternoon, after all my classes are taught for the week, while I'm winding down a bit.

Thanks to all the other Friday poetry bloggers who are opening my eyes to new (for me) poets. I really like when you say a few words about why you chose the poem. Here's a GREAT example from Heo Cwaeth yesterday. This poem just came alive for me when I read what she had to say about it, and spent some time with the poem, mulling. I bet it would be even better if I were good at Old English! (Don't worry, Heo Cwaeth gives us a translation.)

To the blogger who came up with the idea, a bigger thanks!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Book club and Friday poetry blogging

The other night a group of women from the university got together at a local bookstore to choose some books to read and discuss together. Most of us had gotten together once before to discuss a book we'd chosen and had a grand time of it.

We met, then split up to wander about. After a while, we got back together at a table and laid out our suggestions. Then we talked a bit about each, and chose some. My suggestion was Octavia Butler's Kindred. We chatted and enthused over books, and came up with a few for the summer, and planned some days to meet, too.

While I was looking over books, I recalled one of my very favorite poems by a poet who's not actually dead yet. I'd run across it in some anthology for an Intro to Lit course at some point, taught it, enjoyed it. And then I lost track of the anthology, and couldn't find the poem again. But I remembered the poet's name, and then had the great good luck to actually find the book of poetry with the poem I was after! So I bought it. (Having a disposable income to buy books still sort of shocks and elates me.)

I love this poem because it seems almost medieval in having a deeply religious sense along with intense irreverence. But maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to hear what other folks think, and especially if you've had experience teaching it.

Sharon Olds - "The Pope's Penis"

It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
halo of silver seaweed, the hair
swaying in the dark and the heat--and at night,
while his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.

(Olds, Sharon. "The Pope's Penis." The Gold Cell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 19.)

Go buy the book! You know you want to! (Her poetry's GREAT!)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Tracking grades

I know there are a lot of ways to track grades (and attendance, if you choose). I do two different ways, though I sometimes think I should adjust things and learn another, better way.

For writing classes, I keep a folder with a separate page for each student, so I can make notes about things. Each page is laid out on Excel, and printed out with boxes for assignment grades, notes about percentage for each assignment, lots of room for quiz and journal grades.

For example:

Journals (10%): 1) ___ 2) ___ 3) ___ 4) (and so on: room for 15 journals, each student does 10)

Quizzes (10%): Same basic layout as above, except room for 30 quizzes; I try to give 15+ quiz grade type assignments per term, so missing one won't mess them up totally. I ended up giving 20 this term. That also gives me flexibility. (I also put random small assignments into the quiz grade.)

Peer editing (10%): same as above, room for peer editing for each of the five essays; each student should get 2 grades for each essay (one for each peer in a 3 person group), so it comes out nicely to 100 total available points.

Essay 1 (5%): ___

Essay 2 (10%): ___

Essay 3 (15%): ___

Essay 4 (15%): ___

Essay 5 (20%): ___

Presentation for Essay 5 (5%): ___

(And if I did the math right, I have 100% even!)

The advantage to this is that I can have preplanned assignments to fill in, but still be flexible about quizzes. And I can make notes, especially if someone's sick, or has a specific kind of problem on an essay. (When I am at my very best responding, I can give positive feedback about how a student improved on something that was a problem on an earlier essay in a later essay. And I can only do that by making notes, because I seriously won't remember with even 20+ students in a writing class.)

It's easy to add journal, quizz, and peer editing numbers in the left margin, and then enter totals into Excel for the final math.

Another advantage is that at any point in the semester, I can show a student very clearly where s/he stands in grades that have been entered, without having to hide other students' grades in a grade book. It's also easy to visualize which assignments a person has done, which quizzes they've missed (I keep a master sheet with info about the date and topic of quizzes), and so on.

I don't have to be in my office to enter grades, don't have to worry about a grade book. But I do have to keep track of a folder. And, I have to transfer numbers from the sheet into Excel at some point to do the math more quickly. (Though I used to just do the math on each sheet, and it didn't actually take THAT long. It's probably a toss up time-wise.)

Who can help me with a better system? One that wouldn't involve double entering, but would allow flexibility AND notetaking?

What systems do other folks use, and what do you like/dislike about them?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I turned in my grades. On time. Yay.

So I went for a celebratory bike ride, thinking that I'd have a short ride today, then a long one, maybe 30 miles tomorrow, starting early in the morning.

It's now really early in the morning, and I can't sleep. Let's just say for a celebratory ride, it wasn't so great.

First, a guy passed me almost like I was standing still. I'm such a whuss. He had muscles where I have none, I'm convinced.

I turned around after the 9 mile marker (which means I've ridden about 8 miles, because the trailhead I use isn't at the 0 mile marker).

There are a couple really nice wood bridges along the ride, spanning little rivers and such, marshy areas. They're a little narrower than the main path, but pretty smooth riding, with nice high sides. I saw a Sandhill Crane off one the other day, stopped and watched it for a good ten minutes.

I rode towards one of the bridges, and saw two people, the guy in front, and someone I'll just call the -- in back. They were coming towards me, not riding fast, but then, neither was I, because, did I mention, whuss? As I close, the -- in back decides to look over the bridge rail to my right, and crosses into my path to do it. And rides there. I slow down.

The guy in front and I neared, like normal people, each holding to the right side of the path (being that we're in the US and all, this is the usual practice).

Somehow, I can't quite believe that the -- isn't aware that I'm oncoming (since I've seen them for like 45+ seconds, and at a fairly slow speed, remember, I'd been passed earlier) and that -- is in my "lane" such as it is. I put on my left (front) brake (the right/rear one has slowed me down mostly), and am almost at a stop, and yell, and the -- hits me head on. We whacked helmets, I think.

I fell off my bike, backwards, because all the inertia at that point was with --. Yes, weak and whussy here. I don't think -- fell off --'s bike at all, but I'm not sure.

The -- apologized. The -- had been looking at the bridge. No kidding?

I should have swerved to my left, where -- should have been, but where the guy in front had been just a moment earlier. But seriously, I couldn't believe that a bike rider was that completely unaware, and I thought -- would swerve into --'s "lane" at the last moment, as so many do.

I'm such an whuss. I think I was more scared than hurt. I can imagine all the bad stuff that can happen when someone just isn't paying basic attention. And that reminds me why I'm not buying myself a motorcycle any time soon.

I rode back the 6-7 or so miles to the trailhead, then drove home. Meanwhile, my left hand started hurting, and I developed a rather impressive bruise on my thigh. (However, on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the worst pain you can think of, I think of Fox's Book of Martyrs, and being burned alive, or drawn and quartered, or what the heck, just broken on the wheel, so let's put my pain at about a point oh five on that scale. And can I just say, I hope I never get drawn and quartered or broken on a wheel?)

My friend came by to assure me that I should just continue icing my hand, and a couple of us went out to dinner, which was great. Thank goodness for friends. And Ibuprofin. I took three, talk about a walk on the wild side.

In the hours since, some more bruises have asserted themselves, but the swelling on my hand hasn't gotten worse. I think some part of the other bike must have hit it because I was pulling the left brake extension lever (and I have those old double brake levers, one traditional in the turn down part, one an extra bar just in front of the lazy person's handle bars on the horizontal part; they used to be on lots of bikes, but I don't see them much these days) so it was exposed, and the left brake was twisted off kilter afterwards.

My bike helmet doesn't even have a scratch on it. My bike's reflector broke, and the left brake handle thing got twisted, but that seems the extent of the bike damage. -- wasn't hurt, nor was --'s bike, I think.

So, all in all, a not bad accident.

I've been thinking lately about when I'd fall off my bike. I guess I've done it now, and can quit worrying about it.

ps. My new Oakley M Frames were the BEST part of the ride; the road dust was MUCH more manageable!

Monday, May 22, 2006


When I was a kid, I was old enough to watch (on TV) Secretariat win the Triple Crown, and I adored horses. My experience of horseracing came from TV and the Black Stallion books, so I knew little.

I remember watching the match race between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian on TV in those heady days, the mid-70s, when I was a budding proto-feminist, hoping that things would change, rooting for any female able to stand up for opportunity. Ruffian stood up and ran, but not for female opportunity, of course; she ran because she'd been bred and trained to run in hopes that she'd breed more horses who could run fast and would earn money for the breeders and owners.

(For all that I sometimes think the patriarchy wants women to be as broodmares, it's helpful to step back and realize that it's literal in the case of racehorses. Not that they think about such things. I have no idea what mares think about, though I guess physical comfort or lack of discomfort, food, water, and companionship/herd on some level are high.)

Hearing about Barbaro's broken leg the other day reminds me of Ruffian. I've not gone out of my way to see a horse race since then (though I've seen them on TV in bars or whatever). Ruffian's death gave me a slight sense of the stakes in the sport, and they just didn't seem worth it, I guess. I gather others felt the same way after watching Ruffian in that race. Still, I hope Barbaro survives.


I seem to have hit the publish post button twice. Even I don't have enough ego to think I should hit publish twice on purpose.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Worst college class

I talked to my In Law today. First, let me say that IL is FABULOUS in every way I can think of. IL's caring, thoughtful, smart, a great conversationalist, fun, witty. And, IL started back to college this January, having completed two years elsewhere. Now IL's signed up for a summer course, and called to chat about it. The instructor sounds less than ideal, but I have confidence that IL will do well in the class and make the best of things.

Our chat got me thinking about my worst college class, at least the one that most comes to mind as bad. No, it's not the 1 pm genetics class in for which the two instructors who team taught the course had written the text book and during which whichever was lecturing that day would turn down the lights and project illustrations from the book onto a screen before droning about the chapter we'd read. Though that one was painful in a lot of ways, it wasn't the worst.

Nor was it a Russian culture class I took during which we were somehow supposed to learn to love Mussorgsky without ever listening to his music (or ever mentioning any other Russian composers or writers).

Nope, it was my very first class on literary theory, taught by a full professor at a school where most of my instructors were just wonderful.

We spent about half of the semester learning about hermeneutics. Actually, we spent most of our time learning what hermeneutics was not, because the professor refused to actually define the term for us. And it wasn't in my ten year old dictionary. (Nor did I know what an OED was at the time.) This was in the days before the internet, so it's not like I could just google it, either.

Admittedly, I probably should have known about handbooks of literary terms and such, but I didn't.

The problem for me was that all the things he said hermeneutics wasn't, my car carburetor wasn't either, but I was pretty sure it wasn't hermeneutics.

The other half of the semester we spent reading and "discussing" the poems of some poet whose name (and works) I've completely repressed. We would read a poem; then the prof would ask some interpretive question, and a student would proffer some answer.

Since I have no memory of poems or student interpretations, I can't assert that we were brilliant. Certainly, I was pretty unequipped to read poetry at the time. But I had a fairly decent vocabulary and had done well enough getting through Chaucer and Shakespeare the semester before to assert that I was probably reading sentences in a basic way, getting the basic grammar and vocabulary to understand on the literal level at least.

Almost without exception, though, the professor would dismiss the student's interpretation, explaining that he KNEW the poet, and offering a reading based on his knowledge of the poet's biography, life, poems, and conversations.

I came away from the class frustrated, and convinced that I hated poetry and theory.

The professor of that class mystified poetry reading as something to be done only by those "in the know" about the poet's personal life, rather than showing and teaching us how to interpret the text before us. He acted as if there really are "hidden meanings" IN texts, and never helped me see the complexity of making meaning between text(s) and reader(s).

And rather than defining his terms and helping us understand hermeneutics, or methods and practices of (poetic) interpretation, he made theory incomprehensible.

I should reread the poet in question, and think about his stuff more, perhaps. But I'm convinced that what counts as a "good" poem for me doesn't depend on knowing the poet's biography or conversations. Rather, having a good vocabulary and willingness to look up words, and an understanding of the cultural contexts, one should be able to make basic sense of a poem. If one can't, then I don't think it counts for me as a good poem.

And still, when we talk about hermeneutics in theory class, I get the heeby jeebies. And I make sure to define it as clearly as possible because I still have doubts that I get it; the definition seems clear enough in my dictionary and handbooks, but that only makes me wonder why he couldn't make it clear.

I'm not sure what he got out of teaching the class the way he did; I'm sure we were incredibly frustrating for him, stupid lugnuts that we were. A few students were worshipful, thinking that he held the keys to something, which may have fed his ego. But most of us were just frustrated.

FSM, protect me from ever teaching like that!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Quick bike question

I've worn contacts for 20+ years, and lately, biking, I get so much dust and stuff in my eyes that I look like I'm crying pretty much all the time. Yes, it's agricultural country, and pollen and plowing season.

I NEED contacts; they work better for my vision issues than glasses, and I love having peripheral vision and such, so I'm not switching to riding with glasses.

Does anyone have good suggestions for biking goggles that won't look any more ridiculous than necesary?

Another graduation

They moved their tassles, and voila, all done.

My colleague graduated, too. Dang.

My MA student was all grins, got hooded. We took a picture together. I bragged up her thesis in the "green room" while we faculty folks waited for the ceremony to start.

And now, back to grading.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Graduation poetry blogging

One of my very favorite colleagues is retiring, and he's going to put on robes and be honored at the graduation ceremony tomorrow. He's the colleague I want to be when I grow up. He's open-minded, willing to ask challenging questions, unafraid of work, thoughtful, caring, respectful, funny as all get out, and wise. I've learned so much from his example here, and I'm going to miss him. But he's been a great example, and if I keep him in mind, I'll be a better person.

So, tomorrow afternoon, I'll be all gussied up to watch my colleague "graduate."

In my colleague's honor, and in honor of our graduates, here's pretty much THE carpe diem poem from Robert Herrick (of "The Vine" fame).

"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may forever tarry.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Trust and hard times

Recently, someone I know here at NWU got seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. S/he and his/her partner were very open about the illness, going so far as to create a blog to communicate with members of their family and community. The NWU community, so far as I can tell, responded as you'd hope: people cooked for them so they didn't have to eat hospital food, someone took over their spring yard care, people visited, etc. The partner told me it was the first time s/he'd actually felt the possibility of a real community at NWU.

In the discussions I've had with folks since we learned about that illness, a variety of people have talked about health issues they've had, which they didn't tell anyone at NWU about for a variety of reasons. Often, they were new and didn't know what to expect in terms of support or discrimination. Most of the people I've heard these stories from were other women, and not surprisingly, anything remotely to do with reproduction was hidden from the powers that be as much as possible.

I think the women, especially, worried that they'd be discriminated against if NWU administrators thought the women might get pregnant (especially the unmarried women) or have some potentially long term issues. I think they also worried that the administrators would perceive them as "hysterical" and discriminate against them.

I don't honestly know if different department chairs or administrators would discriminate about reproductive issues, but I can easily imagine the possibility. Married women who want/have children worry about discrimination; an unmarried woman faces far worse discrimination, not only academically, but in the community at large.

It's also easy to imagine department chairs or administrators discriminating against someone with depression or other mental health problems. It's not that someone would be fired, necessarily, but what would it mean if the chair or tenure committee mentioned it in a letter, even "nicely"? (As in, "X continues to produce outstanding research despite struggling with depression.") And certainly, it's easy to imagine a chair not taking someone's complaint seriously if s/he thinks it's "hormonal" or depression.

(No, of course it wouldn't be legal, but it would be danged hard to prove, and harder to resolve positively.)

On the other hand, when I look at the way people around here have responded to our colleague who's sick, I think about the support the other people missed having, and how much that support might have helped.

It makes me rethink my own feelings about what information I'd share if I had a health issue, and how I'd share it.

Of late, I've felt more comfortable being more open with some people here, and really felt, too, that I have a community in a way I haven't felt before here. It seemed so much easier to have that sense of community when I was younger, maybe because, a product of my white middle-classness, I hadn't really seen discrimination at work, and didn't realize it could happen to me?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Sometimes, living in the midwest leaves lots to be desired.

Signage, for one thing. Why can't our highways have decent signage?

Roads that actually lead more or less directly somewhere else. There's no real road to here, and hence no direct road from here to anywhere I need to go. I long for roads that go from where I am to where I want to be without slowing to 30 miles an hour through every small town. Okay, what I long for is freeways. There's one, but it doesn't go where I need to go.

I'm thanking my lucky star (or the good sense I had to buy a reliable car and take care of basic upkeep) that my car was reliable and ran well.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Open or closed book exams?

Thanks for the responses to the last post, especially anonymous's. You gave me lots to think about, but I don't have time to respond tonight and have to go out of town tomorrow. But I promise I'll respond more fully. Again, thanks!

The short identification and passages sections of my exams are always closed books/notes. But I give my students a choice about whether they want to have open books/notes for the essay section. I think it's a wash, except for students who'll find having books and notes available comforting somehow.

Here's a little story: when I took my very first Shakespeare class, the professor said we could use our text(s) for the essay part of the exam. She also gave us three potential essay topics, and said that two of those would be on the final, and that we'd choose one for our essay. Being just a tad obsessive about school stuff by that time, I checked with her to make sure that it was okay to write notes in my books. She assured me it was.

So, I spent DAYS brainstorming about the essays, and finally wrote a thesis statement for each, along with an outline in the inside cover of my texts, and indexed the texts so that I'd have good examples at hand. (Did I mention I was a bit obsessive?)

And, of course, I barely cracked the books writing the exam (I think I used one once for a quotation), and did pretty darned well. I didn't do well because I had the text, though; I did well because I was incredibly well prepared to write all three essays. (Yes, I know, I could have prepared only two of the essays, but I wasn't sure which I'd want to write, and did I mention the obsessive thing?)

I pretty much always have students brainstorm possible essay questions during our review session, and adapt those to the real exam, so they should be able to prepare well. I don't limit their brainstorming to three questions, but do try to provide guidance during the review session so that they hit the big, broad issues we've been discussing during the term.

Here's the issue as I see it: Taking an open book/notes exam, someone who's unprepared stands a good chance of wasting a load of time looking for some information they want. Someone who's done an obsessively good job preparing should do well in either case.

The big question for me comes with those in the middle; someone who's fairly well prepared can mess themselves up by looking for some piece of information rather than paraphrasing and moving on. Or they can find the information quickly enough and look way smart.

My students always choose to have open books and open notes, though I do warn them about the searching and time issue things. And every semester, I inevitably see some student with my kind of indexing and such, who really wouldn't need the text or notes. It's the students in between I worry more about.

So, what do you folks see as the upsides or downsides to open book/note essay exams?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Finals - thoughts on academic ancestors

In the ed biz, it's time to grade like a demon and yes, write final exams. (Unless you're lucky enough to be completely finished with your term, in which case, you're not reading this anyways.)

Depending on the course, I have a couple different exam formats I write. Whichever format I use, I have a couple goals for every exam, some of which I achieve, and some I just aspire to.

From most mundane to most important:

I try to write an exam that a student who's never bothered coming to class or doing the reading will fail miserably. (Yes, sure, someone who's already expert in the field should do just fine, but my students don't come into my classes as experts, or they wouldn't be in my classes.) (I think I generally succeed pretty well at this part.)

I try to write an exam that a student who's come to class, done the reading, and put forth a solid effort in preparation and studying should be able to show what they've learned and pass. (I generally do okay here, too. An exam isn't about showing that I can trick people, or that I'm smarter than they are. I could trick them; what's the point? And I'm not smarter than many of my students, so trying to demonstrate that I am would be a waste of effort.) As a corollary, I want a really stellar student to be able to show how stellar s/he is.

I try to write an exam that will be a useful learning experience in and of itself. I want it to help students put together the information they've been learning so that it makes better sense to them (a goal of the comprehensive essay part). In an ideal world, the student who's been working hard all semester will realize through preparing and taking the exam that s/he's learned a whole lot, and that the hard work was totally worth the effort. (I don't think I succeed here too often.)

The exam style I use most often for Shakespeare or lit classes looks basically like this:

Short identification section - terms, concepts, dates, etc. Write a 1-3 sentence definition and connect the term/date to something we've read or discussed in class. There's always some choice in this section, do 6 of 7 or something, so that someone can forget a term and still do well.

Passages - from whatever text(s) we've been working on. Identify the text, speaker, and context in a few sentences. Write a short explication of the passage focusing on some aspect of word choice, imagery, concepts, poetics, etc. Don't paraphrase, but do feel free to make connections to other parts of the text, or to other texts from class. Again, there's always some choice in this section.

The final looks the same, except there's also an essay section which tries to get students to make connections across the whole semester. Again, I give two essay choices, and each student chooses the one s/he wants to write.

The format, of course, isn't something I made up myself. Nope, in fact, I adopted it from my graduate school mentor, for whom I TA'd a number of classes (as well as grading other classes). My graduate school mentor adopted it from his graduate school mentor. And I'm guessing that person adopted it from her graduate school mentor, though I can't be sure.

So, writing my Shakespeare exams, I have an academic grandmother who I've never met (and probably never will), but I use her exam format.

Ideally, I suppose, adopting teaching techniques and strategies comes from the apprenticeship aspect of graduate school teaching. (At any rate, I don't remember any pedagogy classes teaching me to write exams.) The exam format works well enough for me in general that I continue to use it. It's somewhat a pain to grade, though since my grad school mentor and his were both in PhD programs with lots of grad students available for grunt work, I suppose they didn't much worry about that. And it's no worse to grade than a lot of other formats I've seen.

I was talking to a colleague in another field recently about exams; she's in a field where multiple guess exams are pretty standard, and so she gets to grade at least part of her finals via a scantron machine. I realized that I'd have no clue how to write a decent multiple guess exam. But she learned through her apprenticeship not only how to write them, but that they're appropriate to her field.

Since my apprenticeship was moderately long (3+ years of TAing in various ways, and more grading for additional classes), I had lots of opportunities to pick up exam formats, watch others teach (which, of course, I'd been doing since I was 5 years old). And there are other formats I use occasionally, especially when I want to challenge students in a different way. One of the best is to give students a group of passages from texts, and ask them to explicate one fully, while referencing another. That one works well as a take home exam, especially in a class where there's a fair overlap of conceptual or stylistic work, such as a single author type class.

Even though I picked up exam formats from my various exemplars in graduate school, we almost never talked about exam writing as such. I didn't think to ask most of my professors why they wrote exams the way they did, or what they wanted to accomplish with exams. I just wasn't "there" yet, wasn't ready to think about teaching that fully. It's a shame, really.

And my graduate program really didn't encourage students to talk about teaching as such, to talk about what we wanted our students to learn or reveal by taking exams. (We did, on occasion, talk about such things, but not out in the open.) Our professors rarely talked to us about teaching per se, either.

Now, when I'm so much more ready to think about strategies for teaching, I'd love to go back and ask the best teachers from my past about their strategies and their exams. I wonder, though, how conscious some of them were about what they were doing? Or how much they just adopted their mentors' formats, assuming that the mentor had thought things through better than they could?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Morning After

Since Dulci was kind enough to ask, here's the lowdown on the party.

I have no idea how many people were here. The BardiacShack (tm) was VERY full, upstairs, downstairs, the garage (the grills were all just outside the garage so that the grillers could be mostly out of the rain). When I first thought of the idea, one of the people in the know suggested that we usually get 40 people at the picnic. Estimates last night ran from 50-70 from different people.

Everyone kept telling me how happy they were not to be outside. The proposed outside version somehow got the name "ick-nic" as opposed to the real indoor version, which wasn't icky at all. Outside it was in the 40s, and nastily wet. Someone said there was snow, or at least ice crystals in the drizzle.

Inside was an abundance of body warmth and the only wetness involved beer, wine, and whatever else people were drinking. (I'm an anxious host; so I forgot to eat or drink until the grill stuff had come off the grills and there was a major lineup in the food area. Then I found some food and had some water.)

A colleague from another department came and told me, late in the day, that while her department seemed to get along well, she could tell that we really like each other, and that it makes for a whole different level of interaction.

Happily, the students who were a big part of the sponsoring organization and their faculty advisor stayed to clean up, and by the time they left, the BardiacShack (tm) looked pretty darned good. I stayed up to vacuum and mop the tile areas because they were sticky and I hate walking through a sticky kitchen on the way to my morning caffeination. I still have to wash down the garage floor, though.

So, my anxiety level is back to grading red or something. A couple bottles of unopened wine have found their way to my cellar, an unexpected bonus.

The worst of it is that one of my favorite colleagues is retiring, and we're all going to miss him in big ways. He's the colleague I'd like to grow up to be someday. It's good to have role models, and better to have them near to remind you.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I wasn't going to post anything today because of the picnic that's not a picnic after all, but I have a few minutes, and I'm going to share the scariest thing I've heard all semester (well, the scariest thing that doesn't come out of anyone in national politics. Those things are too scary for even ME to repeat!)

From a student: "When I try to focus, I can't think."

Said with a smile, all happiness. This student wants to be a nurse.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Early Friday Poety Blogging

I'm blogging my Friday poetry early this week.

We're having seasonal weather up here in the Northwoods; it's in the 40s today, and someone said it may even snow. Some people would call this unseasonal weather, but the truth is that since I've lived here, we've always had nasty cold spells during the end of the final week of classes.

This is also when we have our department picnic to honor our students and colleagues, in the big park off the ice cold lake.

Shivering as I walked with a couple colleagues over to the pretty darned good drug coffee place this morning, I pondered about the nasty cold, and wondered how long I'd tough it out. And then I came up with a shockingly stupid brilliant plan, and to my colleagues, hey, what if we moved the picnic to the BardiacShack (tm)?

My colleagues thought that was a great idea.

Of course, none of us is in charge of the picnic. So I emailed the person who is in charge, and offered to host the picnic if we want to change the venue.

She hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. Then went into the coffee room to poll the available thinking heads, all of whom thought a change of venue was in order. So she began making arrangements and sent out some mass emailings.

One of the administrative assistants hugged me in the hallway to thank me. (NB. I'm not exactly the most cuddly of persons, nor is she; but the moment was right.) Two other people stopped me to say how happy they were. One person said she had been planning to skip, but would come now. And a couple other people emailed me to tell me it was a great change.

And it was all to preserve my own delicate constitution.

In order, then, to be prepared, I've cleaned out my garage some (for storage and barbeque space), and now I have to clean up the BardiacShack (tm).

But in honor of tomorrow's picnic, I'm sharing another winner by Ben Jonson (see last week's great poem, too), this one more apropos to the hosting theme.

Inviting a Friend to Supper

TONIGHT, grave sir, both my poor house and I
. Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
. But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
. Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
. The entertainment perfect; not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
. An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
. If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons and wine for sauce; to these, a coney
. Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
. The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I'll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
. Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can,
. Knat, rail, and ruff, too. Howsoe'er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
. Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we'll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
. And I'll profess no verses to repeat;
To this, if ought appear which I know not of,
. That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese, and fruit there sure will be;
. But that which most doth take my Muse, and me
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
. Which is the Mermaid's now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace or Anacreon tasted,
. Their lives, as do their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring
. Are all but Luther's beer to this I sing.
Of this we shall sup free, but moderately,
. And we will have no Pooly, or Parrot by;
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men,
. But at our parting we shall be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
. That shall be uttered at our mirthful board
Shall make us sad next morning, or affright
. The liberty that we'll enjoy tonight.

(Being an html idiot, I don't remember how to add spaces, but there should be an indent to the second line of each couplet. I tried to imitate that with the weird space period space thing.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A tale of four emails

We're in our last week of classes here at Northwoods U, and as usual, everyone has spring fever, students are worn writing papers, faculty are bleary-eyed already from grading, and the administration is trying to figure out how we can do ever more with ever less funding.

I just got back from an evening out.

My first year writing students have been frustrating me with absences and what feels like inattention. I feel like I've failed my seminar students by not structuring their time and giving lots more pre-writing assignments to get them focused on papers earlier. And theory, the class I most struggle with has been still more of a struggle. I'm tired and frustrated, and likely to be short with students.

And then, I got some emails today. Now, I got lots of emails, actually, but these stand out:

Someone has a family health crisis. I never had to handle anything nearly this serious when I was his age, and I've come to admire the way he handles himself through things. The only thing I can do to help is offer an extension or an incomplete.

Someone else has a family health crisis. I can't even offer an extension or an incomplete. Extensions offered by people smarter and more well-equipped than myself have failed.

One of my students was in the play I saw tonight, and she was wonderful in it. I saw her afterwards, and told her how fantastic she was, and how proud I am of her, and that we should talk about the play in class because it shares themes with some of the things we've been talking about. She emailed me to thank me for coming, and said that she really appreciated seeing folks from the department there (I went with my usual crowd).

So, just by going to a play, and enjoying myself, I actually managed to do something positive.

It's a heck of a day when the best thing I do for anyone is go to a play.

And, finally, I got an email from someone I used to know well, and whom I'm so happy to be back in touch with. The best thing in my day is a short email from someone who, I'm sure (because I know what she does with her time), did some really hugely positive things today; the email to me was probably the littlest thing amongst all the rest.

I need to go to bed now and think about emails and the day.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Stepping up?

I've lamented the dearth of women in positions of power in politics, academia, and business. Getting into positions of power requires one to start small, balance options, give up some opportunities for others.

In academics, it often means taking on extra responsibilities, dealing with the good and the bad, taking the heat for things you can't change (state budgets, for example), and not focusing on the stuff you really love (Shakespeare).

There's maybe an "opportunity" coming up. Someone's going to have to step up, and I'm looking around at some of the women in my little corner of the Northwoods, including some who complain loudly about the few opportunities for women to move into positions of power. Some complain more loudly than I do, even.

Sometimes, I think Nietzsche is totally wrong about the will to power. In Measure for Measure, Escalus (the guy who's second in command in Vienna to Angelo when the Duke goes off) questions Elbow, a constable who's completely inept.

[Okay, what you should know is that there was no standing police force in early modern England. Within parishes (the basis of civic organization), "responsible" citizens (those perceived as responsible by the locals, so usually male, landholding or leaseholding, married, fairly stable, guild members, etc.) were elected or selected to small time posts to keep the peace. They might be responsible for setting a city watch, making sure that people didn't make too much commotion, or whatever. Big problems would get big attention, but most petty stuff got handled at the local level, at least initially.

The job seems to have been somewhat onerus, and not really rewarding mostly, and most people didn't jump at the chance to do it. But it got done.]

Elbow is that guy, the constable. In Measure for Measure, he brings the tapsters before Escalus, complaining that they've abused his wife about some stewed prunes. Except he's a stereotypically comic idiot, the kind who's full of malapropisms, more Car 54, Where are You? than CSI.

So Escalus asks him how long he's been a constable (seven years and a half; 2.1.260 in the old Riverside edition), and then questions how he's been put upon to serve in the position so often.

At that point, Elbow reveals that every time someone else is chosen, they pay him off to do the job. (Escalus then asks for a list of six or seven of the most "sufficient" men of Elbow's parish, and you get the sense that someone else is going to actually have to do the job for a change.)

The difficulty is that no one wants the job, really, but when the job's badly done (as it is by Elbow), it results in problems for the community. Academics and self-governance works that way: if we don't do it ourselves, then someone is going to impose stuff on us, and we're not going to like it. If we want the freedom we say we value, we have to put in the effort to make it work. (And it's not like I'm talking about getting shot at in the army here, either, so let's not panic.)

I have a feeling that like the men who've paid off Elbow, many of the women (and men) here, would rather someone else take on the responsibility of this "opportunity." Some, like Elbow, would be ill-suited to take on the task, but there's a risk to all that they'll end doing it because no one else steps up. Elbow volunteers, and people are too embarrassed or reticent to nominate someone more qualified, so Elbow ends up on task and the community suffers.

I've been doing some self-evaluation lately. I don't think I'm Elbow, but I'm also no Escalus. I hope I'm neither Angelo or the Duke here, to be honest, but I think I'm not Angelo, at least. The Duke is somehow more insidious, using inside information to manipulate people paternalistically (well, that's a generous way of saying it) or just nastily.

I know I'm capable of working with certain kinds of responsibilities. I'm even good at some things.

I worry more about my wisdom in working with people. I don't like everyone in the world, alas. Can I be fair to everyone anyway? Can I communicate with someone well if they screw up and I need to get them to change what they're doing? Can I not only BE fair, but be SEEN as fair? (Does that worry one male administrator who lets on about hanging out with the guys, sipping whiskey and discussing official decisions?)

I know someone who makes a big deal about keeping secrets while s/he's telling them. I worry about that possibility in myself. I've never really been tested, though; I never knew who DeepThroat was, nor could I have made millions selling insider information.

And yet, I also wonder at my self-doubts. Since I was a girl, I've been told that I couldn't do certain kinds of work, that trying to do X or Y was useless because I'd just get married and have kids and stop doing X or Y anyway. I'm not unique in this, and most women in the world have things far worse than I ever have. And I've been fortunate that mentors have encouraged me all along, in more ways that I could ever repay. Yet, I wonder if a male in my position would have the same kinds of self-doubts.

But someone has to step up, and maybe I am that person?

There are trade-offs and risks, of course. I would miss doing some things I love. If I put myself up, I might be rejected; it wouldn't be the first time, but that doesn't make it fun to think about, either.

In my fantasies, another, more perfect (easy that) woman (or man) steps obviously into place, providing leadership, mentoring, and wisdom.

Common texts?

Next term, a number of colleagues in my department have decided to use a common text in a course we all teach (first year college writing). An ad hoc committee suggested a couple possibilities, and we chose one as a department, and then those who wanted to teach the text said yes, and those who didn't opted out (I guess; no one's made a big deal of that, but it was always an option).

So, this text isn't something I've taught before, nor much like stuff I've mostly taught before (it's not in verse, and it's not 300+ years old, for example). But it seems like a good, interesting choice.

Has anyone else out there worked with common texts across classes before?

Did you find good strategies for helping each other prepare to teach the text?

Did you try common assignments, joined discussions, or other strategies to help each other out?

I've taught a first year seminar program at another school, where we had mostly common books, and worked very hard for a couple weeks during the summer prepping. But that's my limited experience.

The problems there were sometimes with buy in, sometimes with confidence (how do I, as an X prof, teach texts from some other field?). But mostly the hard work paid off pretty well.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

How do you know it's a good weekend?

This is how:

It starts with a 20 mile bike ride with weather just cool enough that it takes you a bit to get really warmed up, and you never get hot even though you're peddling fairly hard.

You bake some really yummy bread, and have the first piece HOT with butter melting from the heat.

Then, later, as you're looking at websites trying to learn something about bicycling for very basic fitness, you realize that one of those fancy strategically designed bike saddles would look good on your bike. So you go to the Bike Store Where Everybody Knows Your Name and find a saddle that seems a really good fit, reasonably priced, and strategically designed. You try it out on a quick ride, during which your rear is thinking, "wow, where have you been all my life?"

When you come home, you plant some seeds in the planters on the deck, and watch the gold finches eat from the thistle bag feeder thingy.

You read a couple chapters of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

You go to grade at a local bookstore, and notice that the car next to you is sporting some GREAT bumper stickers (Something about Bush and "Osama bin Laden still has his job, do you?") and a Flying Spaghetti Monster decal just like the one on the BardiacWagon! (Okay, the grading part is optional, but at least some got done!)

After grading, you call a friend and go out for a good dinner.

The next morning, you have some of that fresh baked bread with butter and cinnamon melted into it.

Then, you get a call from another friend with an invite to come on a bike ride on a new (to me) trail, ride 22 miles, all relaxed and chatting with friends and having fun. And the whole time your rear is thinking, "oh, I love my new bike saddle!! Such strategic design! Such tactile pleasures!"

Along the way, you stop and have a sub sandwich while sitting and chatting on an old rail now trail bridge over a gorgeous river, and watch an immature bald eagle do its thing, flapping and soaring over the river. Then you ride some more, and before you turn back, you stop for the best malt (chocolate, extra malt) you've had in 27 years (yes, I know exactly where I had the last one this good, but alas, the place burned down), with a shopowner so friendly he comes out with a big pitcher of ice water to fill the bikers' water bottles before we leave.

The malt was so good, I swear, that my friends teased me for the next five miles about how big my grin was.

When you return to the trailhead, you see your first EVER Baltimore (or Northern) Oriole posing patiently for you while you bring out the rather spanking new, very light and cool binoculars you spent your tax return money on, and get a really good look, and so do your friends.

Of course, the perfect way to end this weekend would be relaxing on the deck, soaking in some (blocked by whatever sun screen I have around) rays. But I have to go to a reception thing shortly, and try to be polite to a minor on-air personality I've never actually heard of before. There will be hors d'oeuvres made by several folks who are incredible cooks, so it shouldn't be torture at any rate.

My friends, THAT is how you know it's a good weekend.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Student presentations

My Chaucer seminar students gave their public presentations this past week, and for the most part, I was very pleased with the quality of their thinking and their presentations. We'd talked some ahead of time (and they'd practiced together in class) about summing up their arguments rather than reading papers, and especially about giving a quick intro to the tale or poem they're working with so that folks in the audience can follow their argument. Overall, I was especially happy that they did such a good job at that; one of my students from another class even mentioned how helpful that was as he listened to the papers.

A couple of the students weren't prepared, and it showed. That's not fun, but at least it's not like I have to point out that they didn't put the work in, because they knew it.

One of my students said before the presentations that s/he was terrified of talking in public, but she justs went to town on her presentation, so I hope that gives her a bit more confidence.

The dean came in during one of the presentations, at the end, during the discussion and question time. Which one, you ask? The one where we were discussing the student's use of "catamite" and whether it was useful in discussing the Pardoner and his tale. /nod.

(I tend to think "catamite" is a pretty negative term, probably because of the way it's used in early modern contexts, so I don't think it's a great choice for this student's discussion. And the OED doesn't show it used in English until the 16th century, so it's not that helpful for Chaucer, anyway. I asked, and the student said she'd learned the word in a classics class, where maybe it didn't have such a negative connotation?)

The dean stayed on for the next (and last) talk on Alison and May, and women in fabliaux, which was pretty darned good.

All in all, I think it was a solid learning experience for my students doing presentations, and for them learning to listen carefully to presentations. And I heard some darned good presentations from other classes and programs. Thumbs up!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Wrist-Slitting Friday Poetry Blogging

In keeping with my preference for wrist-slitting poetry, I give you Ben Jonson's "On My First Daughter." Jonson (1572-1637) was roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare's (1564-1616), and wrote important plays (Volpone, The Alchemist, Epicene), masques (The Masque of Blackness and the Masque of Oberon), and enough verse to please even me. If there's been no Shakespeare, we'd probably have a Jonson requirement in a lot of English majors.

On a trip to Scotland in 1618, Jonson hung out with one William Drummond of Hawthorndon, who recorded Jonson's conversation, included ribald stories about that other playwright guy. Poor old WD, also a poet, will be remembered for his notetaking skills rather than his own poetry. Maybe, though, that's not so bad; his "conversations" are one of those weird quirky artifacts that give those of us who care about really dead folks grist. Thanks, WD!

So, this poem. When someone tells you that medieval and early modern people didn't care about their kids because they died so often, think of this poem, and of Jonson's poem after the death of his son Ben, and know better.

On My First Daughter

HERE lies to each her parents' ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth:
Yet, all heaven's gifts, being heaven's due,
It makes the father, less, to rue.
At six months' end, she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven's queen, (whose name she bears)
In comfort of her mother's tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth.
Which cover lightly, gentle earth.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Converging conversations on grad school

The other day, I was talking to a departmental colleague about a student who's planning to go on to graduate school, and we somehow got onto the question of talking to students about the difficulty of the job market. My colleague told me she doesn't think it's her job to inform the student that the job market's bad. In fact, my colleague said, she'd feel a bit hypocritical telling a student that the job market's bad when she got a job.

I said that I try to balance telling students how much I love my job with how difficult it is to get a job, but that I do think it's important that they go into grad school with their eyes at least a little opened about the job situation. I want my students to understand that PhD programs use grad students, but that actually getting a degree and then a job is seriously tough.

My colleague disagreed, and said that students already know about the job problem anyway, by the time they're thinking about grad school.

I was amazed, because I really had no clue at all until I was into my PhD program that the academic job market was bad (and had been for years, and probably will be for years); seriously, I must have been incredibly stupid and naive not to realize it, in any of the three schools I'd been to previously (an R1, a CC, and a Regional U) before my first year in a PhD program.

My colleague said she'd been aware of it basically forever. And then stopped, grinned, shook her head, and said that her father was a professor of English, and maybe that had something to do with her knowing. A goodly proportion of our students are first generation college students, and they just can't have access to the kinds of information my colleague learned as a kid. So, she agreed, we probably do need to tell our students.

Later, I was out to dinner with my gang; I'm the only lit person in the bunch, but we're all humanists, pretty much.

We're all moaning about grading and enjoying an evening of escape complete with a great dinner and wonderful conversation. And of course we get to reminiscing a bit about grad school, how wonderful life is when all you have to do is teach a couple hours a week, sit in a couple classes, and read your eyes out.

It does, indeed, seem tempting. It would have been a lot more fun at the time if I hadn't been so incredibly stressed about the possibility of finishing my degree and getting a job.

I remember a grad school friend noting once that when men in our program talked, they talked about when they'd finish their degree, and when the women in our program talked, they tended to talk about if they'd finish their degree, until at some point, usually in the final year of writing, you'd notice a shift in the way a woman talked, as if she'd convinced herself that she actually would finish her degree, and she'd start using when instead of if. My friend noticed when she made that shift, and since she'd pointed it out, I noticed when I made the shift.

But few had the confidence to use when to talk about jobs.

There were people who didn't finish for whom I was really happy because they made a decision to leave a program that wasn't making them happy, preparing them for a job they didn't want. For them, leaving was right. I knew a few people who were cut, but my program wasn't viscious about cutting people (though, of course, I feared for several years that I'd be cut).

But I knew more unhappy people who couldn't bring themselves to leave though they weren't happy doing grad work and didn't expect to be happy teaching; some of them just seemed to hang on and off, getting by.

Then there were the people who'd finished their degrees who were working as adjuncts, year by year, until they got a job elsewhere or the department cut them loose in order to provide adjuncting spots for the next folks. Basically, you adjuncted there because you hadn't gotten a tenure track or other job in your first or second year on the market, and had finished your dissertation.

I adjuncted for a year there before getting my first tenure track job, and when I did, I noticed something that I'd participated in without consciously noting it before. People who'd finished but hadn't gotten tenure track jobs were sort of treated like pariahs by a lot of people, not consciously, but it was like people who hadn't finished didn't want to see us, wanted us to disappear, to comfortingly have or get other jobs. But that we'd gotten the degree but not the job meant that not getting a job was a painful possibility for most, and a likelihood for some.

Remembering, I know I treated other adjuncts before me that way, especially the people I didn't know well enough to think of first as friends rather than first as another grad student. It's not something I'm happy about.

In a way, being an adjunct smelled of failure, and no one likes the smell of failure. Being an adjunct was also, for many of us, a great opportunity to get some further teaching under our belts, to be able to talk more convincingly when interviews came our way, and to practice actually communicating about literature rather than being a grad student.

I wonder how happy I could have been in grad school if I hadn't worried all the time about being cut from the program or ending up jobless, unemployed, living on the street.

Here at NWU, we talk to our students a lot about what kinds of skills they're learning as liberal arts students, and how they can translate those skills to do well in all sorts of different career options (we also talk about being engaged responsible citizens, but they're more worried about job potential).

In many ways, my thinking has been changed by my experiences here at NWU. I do love my job, but I recognize in myself the same kinds of skills that make people valuable at other jobs, too. When I was in grad school, "job" meant one thing, and one thing only, a tenure track job at a college or university of some sort. I think it would have helped me immensely in grad school to learn to think of myself as a person with lots of skills which I could use toward different kinds of career opportunities, and to think of those career opportunities as potentially fulfilling, engaging, and exciting.

Where I sit now, I work with people who see an undergraduate education in English or other liberal arts areas as valuable in and of itself, and as good preparation for meaningful life work. By extension, we see MA and PhD work as great preparation for professing, but also as even deeper preparation for the kinds of critical thinking and communication skills that are really valued by a broad range of employers. No, those employers don't care that you know lots about Shakespeare. But they do care that you're really good at communicating complex ideas to a variety of people, that you can understand and analyze information in texts, that you can manage people and time.

I feel relieved by that realization, somehow. The world of employment possibilities wouldn't end if I lost my job here, though I'd certainly be upset and distraught. But it's good to realize that there are other paths I could have taken that would have led to other experiences, perhaps as happy, or more happy.

Maybe that's the message I should try to get across to students who want to go on to grad school in English? Focus on the fact that the degree really isn't only of use if you get that elusive tenure track job, but that getting it can be meaningful in other ways, and potentially for other engaging and exciting work?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A lesson about what you read on blogs...

The other day, being silly, I copied onto my blog a phishing email, purporting to be from a business well known to those who use the internet, which was named in the phishing email, and so named in my post.

The point of my post was first to mock the phishing since I hadn't ever done business with that particular company, and second to acknowledge the creativity of threatening legal stuff by purporting to quote from the company's own legal materials (I didn't actually check the quotation. It's enough of a pain to double check quotations in my own writings!).

Anyway, I could tell from sitemeter that I was getting a lot of referrals from a certain search engine's finance page, and those referrals (and there were lots of them) lead me to believe that there are people who "research" investment information by looking at blogs.

You know that liberal arts education thing I talk about sometime? Well among the things I hope my students get from their education is an ability to evaluate source material for information, and to recognize potential biases in sources and information.

So, to those who read blogs for financial and investment information, here's some totally free advice from someone with a fairly extensive education: people write blogs for self-interested purposes. Me, I write about Shakespeare and Chaucer and stuff. You should read more Shakespeare and Chaucer.

That statement is pretty self-interested, because the more people read and love Shakespeare, the better for people like me. If everyone read lots of Shakespeare and begged for more Shakespeare lectures and performances at every venue imaginable, and endowed chairs at every college and university for Shakespeare studies, well, then I would be one quite happy Bardiac.

So, when you see information on a blog that tells you to buy buy buy stock A, you should consider whether the source 1) actually knows anything about stocks, 2) has an interest in selling stock A, 3) or has some other interest which might bias them as a source of information, or 4) would be stupid enough to share really lucrative information of that sort without making money off it. (Which, seriously, is why I have all sorts of doubts about get rich quick investment schemes of all sorts: why would anyone with a lick of sense share the scheme???)

As I was thinking about writing this post today during my bike ride, I had a naughty idea of starting a brand spanking new blog, to be called something "creatively witty and brilliant to do with stock purchases and finance" and putting total BS up there about various companies, along with a disclaimer statement that nothing on the blog was to be taken seriously at all, and that it was a total and complete joke. Then I'd put a sitemeter thing up, and watch the hits roll in!

I reconsidered when I thought about the effort to actually come up with a "creatively witty and brilliant [name] to do with stock purchases and finance" and about the danger that someone somewhere would decide that my disclaimer meant that I was really someone with inside knowledge trying to cover my tracks so big investment firms wouldn't realize their info was being scooped for the whole danged internet to see! Then they'd invest, and because my blog would be total gibberish, would lose everything, having taken loans out on their children's kidneys in order to invest in whatever company I mentioned that day. And, as you might imagine, I don't want that on my conscience.

I will, however, still gladly advise one and all to read (or watch, either in a theater live or on film, or listen to a book on tape!) MORE SHAKESPEARE and CHAUCER!

There you go. Free blog advice from the internet. Remember, in general, you get what you pay for. If you feel this has been valuable advice, please send a donation to your favorite local charity or institution of higher learning and tell them Bardiac sent you!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Uh Oh!

The other day I got an email warning me that my ebay account's been suspended!
We regret to inform you that your eBay account has been suspended due to concerns we have for the safety and integrity of the eBay community. "Abusing eBay" of the eBay User Agreement states, in part:"...we may limit, suspend, or terminate our service and user accounts, prohibit access to our website, remove hosted content, and take technical and legal steps to keep users off the Site if we think that they are creating problems, possible legal liabilities, or acting inconsistently with the letter or spirit of our policies."

Due to the suspension of this account, please be advised you are prohibited from using eBay in any way.Please note that any seller fees due to eBay will immediately become due and payable. eBay will charge any amounts you have not previously disputed to the billing method currently on file.To be considered for reinstatement of this account, click [the MISSING LINK] below and provide us additional information to confirm your membership.

Thank you for using eBay!

Copyright © 1995-2006 eBay Inc. All Rights Reserved.Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respectiveowners. eBay and the eBay logo are registered trademarks or trademarks of eBay, Inc.eBay is located at 2145 Hamilton Avenue, San Jose, CA 95125.

This would be a whole lot more convincing if I'd ever had an ebay account.

I have to admit, I love the way they quote the legalistic stuff. Gosh, that's just cheeky genius! If only they'd use it writing sonnets or something!

What do we want from an undergrad education?

It's getting near the end of the semester, exams, final projects, and graduation. NWU has a couple big events this week during which our students will do lots of presentations about their work. It's a great time to rejoice in the education some of our students get here, and in the work they do.

I'm also working with students on their final projects for my classes, which are at three different levels, and thinking about what I've been trying to teach students, and what, maybe, they've actually learned.

Last week, I blogged a bit about trying to teach research and our senior level projects, and that got me thinking about the things I want students to take away when they graduate. Like most colleges and universities these days, NWU has a mission statement and goals that we want to achieve. I'm not going to be specific about these because really, most schools have pretty much the same goals overall.

But one of my colleagues the other day was talking about something she wanted all of our students to be able to do when they graduate. Here, paraphrasing, is basically what she said: She wants students to be able to formulate a research question and answer it.

There are a lot of skills that go into formulating a research question and answering it, of course.

Just formulating the question: you need an awareness that there are questions to be asked, and of how they're asked in a given field, perhaps. You need to be able to conceive possible answers, which will lead you to the formulation part of the project.

In my field, one might ask, "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?"

Teased out, one might ask what "Shakespeare" means here, first a specific historical individual, and then a body of works for which a name stands metonymically.

Asking about a historical individual means you need to think about what history is, how it's written, what kinds of documentary or artifact evidence counts in making history. You need to think about what you mean by an individual, perhaps, and individual experience. You'll start historicizing our concept of the "author" and realize that it's not what an early modern would have likely conceived.

If you start thinking about the body of works, you need to tease out which works you accept as being in the canon and why. That means you have to think about the canon, and historical formations of the canon, and especially about plays as texts or scripts. You'll think about the history of Shakespeare and Shakespeare studies, and the stakes in claiming "Shakespeare" or Shakespeare's works.

"Write" is especially interesting when we think about plays, which were written, but written for performance. You'd start thinking about transmission of manuscripts, printing issues, playing practices, licensing, revision. We have different versions of some plays attributed to Shakespeare (Lear and Hamlet, for example).

So, my question for now is how do we teach students to formulate good questions?

How do we get them to recognize the complexity of knowledge? To what extent can we expect any college graduate to approach complex questions in any field, and to what extent does deeper knowledge in a major feed or restrict approaches to questioning? (For example, I think every college graduate needs to understand the basics of scientific method and inquiry. But scientific method may not be the best approach for every question.)