Sunday, June 25, 2006


"I read for escape," the Reader said. Take "read" in both the past and the present.

That's the conversation we had about books. Since I can remember, many of my memories of the Reader involve her reading; she read(s) mostly murder mysteries and romance type novels about 18th century English sailors (there are endless series of such novels).

I don't think she really heard herself speak about the escape, though. I wonder what she felt she had/has to escape from? I'm not sure I want to know, really.

The Reader complained that her life hasn't been as exciting as the lives of people she's met in her retirement community. I tried clumsily to say that she'd made choices, but she said she hadn't had choices. I tried, again clumsily, to say that maybe she hadn't recognized her choices as such. She chose to have kids, and before that to marry. And she read to escape.

I'm one of the kids. Did she read to escape me? Was I that painful a choice to have made?

She chose to marry, and says that she couldn't imagine not having married our Dad, that he was the best of men. But she read to escape.

My memories of my Dad are pretty much totally positive; he was a gentle man with a sense of humor, quiet, competent, caring. (When I first learned the poem about My Papa's Waltz, I had no clue that the kid saw the waltz as problematic, that the Dad in the poem was drunk, because I didn't comprehend at all that a Dad would get drunk or be frightening, or that dancing with one's Dad could be anything less than pure happiness.)

But I guess the Reader wanted more travel and excitement than my Dad and his work and sense of family responsibility entailed. They made "safe" choices, responsible choices. And she read to escape.

The Reader complained that we kids aren't responsive, aren't proactive in calling and such, that we've chosen to live across the country. She praised my cousins for their dedication to their Mom and step-Dad.

At breakfast, during a discussion of the importance of reading aloud to little kids, she laughingly told the other women at the table that she'd always had her nose buried in a book, and that when I'd come to ask a question or want to do something, she'd always have me wait until she'd finished a chapter or whatever.

And she reads for escape.


I think many of my choices, especially my choice to join the Peace Corps, to go back to school afterwards, simultaneously make the Reader jealous and frustrated/disappointed. She reads for escape.

I didn't worry about security or safety the way people who grew up in the depression did because she and my Dad made safe, responsible choices. So I am more free to take chances, more free to see and recognize choices, perhaps. They gave me that freedom while she read for escape.

I don't read for escape.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


I just got into the Bay Area after my Peace Corps group reunion, and I have to say I had a wonderful time. After the last reunion, I would have expected to have a wonderful time, but this reunion even passed those expectations, and in a big way.

There's something about this group of people; maybe it's that we met at a liminal time in all our lives, a time of massive change, but getting back together is like being with kindred spirits. We've all changed, pretty much, but there's still a core there at the center where we bonded and it holds. Some folks have kids, and seeing them as parents is completely weird and natural at the same time. Others brought partners, and they mostly seemed to fit right in.

We met up at Donner Park, and managed to keep plenty busy, even beyond the standing around talking and feeding each other. What is it about RPCVs? When we were PCVs, a visit from another PCV was basically an excuse for a feast and a fiesta, and that just hasn't changed.

Even more than before, we're good at taking care of each other. Someone always just seemed to have the extra piece of camping equipment, coffee, food, car space, knowledge or whatever to make the reunion work.

I don't think I've ever known another group of people like this; my colleagues in grad school were great fun and good people; my colleagues at various jobs, too. But these people are special to me in a way I've never really experienced elsewhere. The closest I've come, perhaps, is in gaming, oddly enough. But with RPCVs, the shared challenges, difficulties, joys, and tragedies are real.

Standing around talking, I realized in a new way just how close some of my group's come to tragedy lately, and became a bit surprised that we've all managed to survive. Take a bunch of self-selected risk takers (I'm the most boring of the bunch), set them free on the world, and watch what happens for 20 some years. What seems to have happened: cancer, near fatal and not so fatal; accidents and near misses. And yet somehow we've all made it this far. And most of us seem to be doing cool things (Again, I'm probably the most dull professionally, yet my career path's been anything but predictable).

And even more than when we were PCVs, I'm sort of shocked to be one of them. How did I manage that?

Our recently retired program manager joined us for one day, and filled us in on what's happening in our various sites, the PC programs, the country. Everything's changed, and nothing, apparently. We made differences, but didn't stop the progress of floods, erosion, poverty, drugs, etc. I was filled with pride and despair.

Anyways, I managed to go rafting a bit, bike riding a bit, to talk a LOT, eat, see petroglyphs, watch the Donner Party movie, and laugh and laugh and laugh. Good times. For a totally spontaneous bunch of outings, we managed to do a lot together!

And yes, one of the RPCVs is also a Pastafarian. How cool is THAT?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Washoe and Washington

My friend IF is as ironic and fun as ever, and has been showing me a great time here in Washington!

IF and her partner took me to downtown Seattle, the Sci Fi Museum, and up to the top of the Space Needle for a glorious view of the city and area.

And then IF and I went to see Washoe, the chimp that has been taught to sign, and that I've read about since I was a kid and such. Washoe and her pals (Loulis, Dar, and Tatu) were fantabulous. Really!

There's just something incredible about the intelligence in a chimp's eyes, I guess, striking, like there really is somebody at home. The porch lights are on. The elevator goes all the way to the top.

They live at Central Washington University, in a special Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute; you need reservations (or you're supposed to make them), and the Institute's open for visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from March to November.

We went in, got a ten minute orientation with a docent, then another short orientation while we sat in front of the indoor observation rooms area. Then we got to spend about 20 minutes observing the chimps from behind a glass window while they were in their outside area. In the orientation, we learned basic signs for "hug/love," "shoe," "hello," and so forth, and when Loulis was agitated, we did the "hug/love" sign. It didn't seem to calm him hugely, but we tried. He seemed more interested in showing us what a tough guy he is than in signing to us, though.

But Washoe herself came over and signed "shoe" at a little girl in the group, which we were told means she wants to see our shoes. Evidently, she likes shoes. So the little girl showed off her shoe, but Washoe seemed to lose interest and went back up to the sunny area.

All in all, the only downside was that we couldn't just sit there for a long time watching.

Today we went to visit Mt. St. Helens, but we turned back in the fog because I'm a whuss driver, and went off to see Mt. Rainier, driving up to some area called Paradise. That's about as far as you can drive. And we weren't set for walking through the snow, so we looked up at the fog and clouds from there. Still, a fun, fun day.

Topping off my time here, I met another blogger in the area whose blog I like, which was just way too cool for school. (And since you know I think school's pretty darned cool, you can guess just how much fun I've been having!)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Buzzed and Friday Poetry Blogging

So far, the trip is way beyond even my wildest dreams. It's been great reconnecting with friends, and the driving's been beautiful and relatively easy, except that North Dakota goes on forever.

There's a scenic view just off I-90 (and not, as some people would have it, THE I-90, but that's for another day) before it passes over the Columbia River not far from Ellensburg, Washington, so being me, I got out to look. It was windy, and cool, and stunning. And as I turned to walk back to my car, I heard a roar, overwhelmingly loud, like death itself. I turned to look, and there was a fighter plane of some sort, practically close enough to reach up and touch, buzzing the scenic view parking area. Naturally, coward that I am, I crouched (like that's going to help).

And I couldn't help thinking, my tax dollars at work. And yours, if you're lucky enough to pay taxes in the US, I suppose. (Take that as you will.)

The buzzing reminded me of one of my favorite poems, another light and cheerful one. /nod

Here it is: Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

*What's a Ball-Turret Gunner, you ask? Click here to see! Yet another job I'm happy I don't have!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Random Sunday early Monday

I meant to write a quick post Sunday, but now it's early Monday morning, and I'm getting to it.

One of my favorite former students was in town for a family thing, and visited me, too. She's just amazing, a neat person, already wonderful, and headed for more wonderful things. I'm so glad we had a chance to sit and chat and relax.

I talked to two of the friends I'm planning to see along my trip today; one of them is making an appointment for us to visit Washoe, the signing chimp. I'm blown away that I've read about Washoe since I was in college (and studying critters and such), and I'm actually going to go see her. Just, wow. More than that, I just can't wait to see Ironic Friend again; she makes me laugh in a way few people ever have, and she's so self-aware and just brilliant, way beyond anything I could dream of. When I'm with her, it's like in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where Mr. Ramsey thinks about how far along the alphabet he is or isn't intellectually. When I'm with IF, I can see there's an L out there; I may only be at D, but I know L's out there. That's IF, probably the smartest person I knew in grad school, certainly the funniest.

I also talked to my best College Pal. I'm not sure I was ever as important to him as he was to me, but he's one of probably the two or three best people I've ever known, and I've had the privilege to know a lot of fine people. Still, CP is something special. There are probably three people I really miss from my homeland, and CP is the one I most miss. So I can't wait to just sit quietly and chat and talk for however long we can.

I've been getting ready for the trip, putting out clothes, tying up loose ends. I have a couple hours of work to do at the office in the morning, and then packing, but I'm hoping to get out on the road by early afternoon. Yeah, right.

Anyway, I probably won't be blogging much for the next month or so because I'm off for an adventure.

Adventure, here I come!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Michael Drayton does Friday Poetry Blogging

Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is one of those guys you run across in big old anthologies with a few choice poems. I've never read much more of his works than those few poems, to be honest, but I enjoy the sharpness of his wit.

Now, during the late 16th century, just about anyone who fancied himself or herself a writer wrote a sonnet sequence. Some of these sequences are dreadful; some reveal a surprising gem here and there. Spenser's, Sidney's, and Shakespeare's sequences, probably more than any others, get read in the whole still, but not so much. Sometimes it feels like going to a massive art museum when I read these sequences; I know there's a lot in there, but after a certain point, I just can't focus well enough to get much out of any given poem.

That said, I love teaching sonnets. They truly work for me when I take the time to work with them.

Drayton first wrote his sequence as Idea's Mirror in 1594; he revised them and republished them as Idea in 1619, well after the craze for sonnets had passed.

And so, sonnet 61 from Michael Drayton's sequence Idea.

Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have giv'n him over,
From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 4 - Doing research?

I'm back again, having just had a fascinating meeting with The Scientist and The Humanist about collaborative research and stuff.

I've been trying to put together my thoughts on faculty/student (undergraduate) collaborative research for a bit now, as you can see from here (the collection). I'm not working in any real order, so much as putting things together for myself slowly, brainstorming, and typing where things fall. So today's post responds more to the second post in the series than to the third. Think of it as hypertexting my brain.

In that post, I talked about research as creating new knowledge, and about a research project I did back in the dark ages. Today I'm thinking about the creation of new knowledge and student class work.

When I talk to scientists around NWU, I've taken to asking them what kinds of papers students write for their upper level courses. And what I'm hearing almost exclusively is that they ask students to basically do literature reviews for papers. Lit review work is common to every academic field so far as I know; basically, you trace out the conversation, debate, discussion about a question or problem or topic, going back as far as seems useful and coming up to the present.

In my field, one sometimes starts such review work by seeing what people in the early modern period had to say about a play or topic. More often, one starts where things seem to start or get interesting in the last century, and then follow the conversation or debate forward, summarizing, explaining, and pointing out the problematics your own work is going to help correct.

Lit reviews are useful, but rarely add to new knowledge.

In contrast, in upper level English and Humanities courses, my colleagues and I generally ask our students to make an original argument about some text or issue. The best students do indeed come up with something original and interesting. Less good students often don't, instead creating a poor lit review and getting overwhelmed by more expert arguments about the question or issue.

We don't think of our work with these students, even the best, as collaborative; we'd never think to put our names on the paper as co-authors. And yet, our (best) students are doing original research in our field, saying something new (though usually without enough depth, cultural context, theoretical sophistication or whatever to be publishable in a professional journal). And we're facilitating that work. In a real way, then, we're doing faculty/student research within the parameters of our field discourse (about authorship, ownership of arguments), perhaps even more than the folks in the sciences.

Talking to The Scientist tonight, I got the sense that we might want to think further about using language of mentoring and advising in our fields, rather than "collaboration." That might help us communicate (with administrators, people in other fields, and funding folks, maybe?) about what we're doing with our students so far as research.

If we are already doing research with students in meaningful ways, then we should think further about teaching all our students how to research. Is teaching research in our field appropriate for all undergraduates? (In English, I sure think so.) Now, if we want students to learn to do research, and we recognize what we're doing as collaborative (or mentoring, or advising), then we should take more time to really teach research better.

For me, I've tried to break down my research teaching a bit between my sophomore, junior, and senior level classes in the past, but without articulating my teaching in terms of mentoring, and certainly without getting any of the "credit" for it that scientists get. I have more thinking to do about teaching research now, for sure, and new ways of trying to articulate what I want to accomplish.

I'm thinking that one really good way to think about teaching research is to break out and teach lit review work separately from making an argument about a piece of literature. In the sciences, I think you probably start with a question, figure out what people have thought about related issues or questions, make up a hypothesis, and proceed. So the lit review is fairly primary; what you're interested in is applying a new methodology, or using a known method to work with new data or in a new place or something.

But for my literature students, I find that they do much better work if they work rather differently. I want them to think about their possible answers, hypotheses, before they do a lot of work with the existing conversation, so that they'll have ideas about what argument they want to make. Then I want them to look at other theoretical or primary texts to test out their argument. And only then, as they've got the beginnings of an argument, do I really want them to dive into the critical conversation.

I want them to wait because I find that when they start with the critical argument, they find published papers so convincing that they feel they have little to add. Of course, they DO have little to add, really, on a professional level; but as students, they can make a good, original argument if they start from the text, and work it out, and then figure out how their argument differs from others'. Then they can use the others' arguments to disagree, to fine tune their own (with proper acknowledgment), and so on.

(The process changes as you get more involved and steeped in the field; still, there's something to be said for trying to answer one's questions first, and then check the ideas that develop.)

It's usually really hard to convince them to work in that order; too often, they want some kind of official answer rather than to do the hard work of trying to interpret texts for themselves.

If we're doing research with students, then part of the process needs to involve communicating with other students about their findings. One way to do this is through peer review and class presentations. Another way is through campus presentations or undergraduate conferences.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Loose ends

Blogger was being recalcitrant today. Not unusual, but a bit frustrating. I was forced to clean my office up. It's amazing how liberating that actually is. And how much less irritating it is to go in there when I can comfortably use the desk and all.

Last week, a friend and I agreed to ride our bikes in the morning; I'd put mine on my special rack, and meet her at her house. When I got there, she'd invited her neighbor, Biker Woman, to come along. And off we went. BW also teaches at NWU, though in a very different field. It's great to meet someone like BW, and so we went on another ride yesterday. During the first ride, we eventually settled in with me setting the pace a bit, trying to figure out what was comfortable. I pretty much ride along in tenth gear on the "rails to trails" trail because its slopes are always gentle and minimal.

Yesterday, BW started going faster, so I tried to go faster. We sped along, me trying to keep up. And then I heard her shift gears. I had nowhere else to go, gear wise, and she just pulled away like it was nothing. WOW.

Today we went on a bit longer ride, on some county roads, and up what we began to call "BW's Bump"; it's a hill, to be sure. Okay, it wouldn't slow Lance Armstrong down, but I'm not Lance Armstrong. (There's that mystery solved!) BW pretty much kept up a good pace going up, but my friend and I really slowed. way. down. I barely made it up. And after that, every time we'd see a hill of any sort, we'd tease BW about how big it was and stuff, and she'd tease about how they were gentle, minimalist slopes. Quite fun and silly.

I can't even imagine having the muscles to ride up the French Alps or something.

I'm trying to finish putting together NWU's self-study for the collaborative learning thing later in the summer. After much back and forth emailing, I arranged to meet with one of the other folks going today, and got some great feedback on the stuff I'd put together with The Scientist and typed up. S/he couldn't meet in the evenings; someone else wants to meet only in the evenings. So I met with the first this afternoon, and asked others if they could meet some evening.

And then someone else emailed me asking if s/he could still do some brainstorming.

I know people are in and out, and not wanting to think about this self study thing any sooner than necessary. But it's frustrating that some have pretty much totally ignored the earlier emails, and can't seem to put two and two together, or answer, or whatever.

In a more formal or departmental setting, I can sort of figure out schedules, set a meeting time, and figure that most of my colleagues will come and get the task done. Here and now, though, the lack of communication's sort of irritating.

On the other hand, I've pretty much done my part, and I can send off what I've done, and leave, and just ask others to send their personal statements directly to the organizers if they don't have them in to me on time for me to send them off with the other stuff.

I also really don't know what's expected, but I think The Scientist will look what we have over and give me some feedback, too, so that should help. And I'm assuming the self-study is primarily to get us thinking about our issues, rather than some kind of super official public document, because you just don't let random Bardiacs write up super official public documents, not if you have an ounce of common sense.

Finally, my book group met last night to discuss The Basque History of the World. We had such a great discussion; it's just amazing to see the different, interesting ways people contribute based on their academic knowledge, travels, and so on. One of the folks brought shrimp made according to a Basque recipe she'd found, and they were about as good as anything I've eaten ever. WOW. All in all, a lovely evening out on the deck.

I also finally finished Middlesex and ordered my books for next semester. I still haven't finished the reading lists for my Body class or my early modern drama class, but I've definitely got some ideas going. And I just realized that I forgot to order one of the books I'd meant to order. Lovely!

On that note, I'm going to go have some leftovers from last night, and then start reading Octavia Butler's Kindred, which I've been meaning to read for ages. Or I could finish one of the two more "academic" books I'm in the middle of.

Monday, June 05, 2006


I've just made a couple pages so I can store lists of posts that relate to given topics, and stuck them up. Were I brilliant about technical stuff, I'd use some sort of tagging system, but I'm not, so that's that! I think this should work pretty well for now.

In other news, I've finally joined the demonic forces. I got myself a cell phone today. I can't figure out how to turn it completely off, though. I can make the ringer silent, but off, not that I can see. Does that seem weird?

I spent an hour or so trying to enter some phone numbers in.

I'm planning a rather cool trip now, to my Peace Corps group reunion, so I've spent time lately trying to get things taken care of, stupid things, but they need to be done.

But the trip! The trip is going to be GREAT! In addition to seeing my old Peace Corps gang, I'm going to visit some friends from former lives and grad school and stuff, driving across country.

I'm planning to drive across to Montana to visit one friend, then Seattle to visit another, then Oregon, then the reunion in California, then another friend in the Bay Area, then Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma! I still have to figure out how much time I need for my visits, but I'm getting things in place.

/happy dance!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Poetry Blogging

The Bardiac blogs 'bout poetry! (Most recent at the top.)

Thanks to Jo(e) for starting the whole Friday poetry blogging thing!

Friday Poetry Blogging, resisting Donne puns! (Donne, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning")
Blogging about poetry blogging (Just me blathering on.)
Book club and Friday poetry blogging (Sharon Olds, "The Pope's Penis")
Graduation poetry blogging (Herrick, "To the Virgins")
Early Friday Poety Blogging (Jonson, "Inviting a Friend to Supper")
Wrist-Slitting Friday Poetry Blogging (Jonson, "On my First Daughter")
Conceiving research and Friday poetry! (Sidney, #1 from Astrophel and Stella)
Ah me, Herrick! (Herrick, "The Vine")
The Winter's Tale and Friday poetry blogging (C.S. Lewis, "Hermione in the House of Paulina")
Friday Poetry Blogging (Stephen Crane, "A Man Said to the Universe")
Friday Poetry Blogging and Humiliation (Shakespeare, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold")
Friday Poetry (Chaucer, from "The Knight's Tale")
The Friday Poetry Blog Thing (Edna St. Vincent Millay, "I being born a woman and distressed")

Advice for students

Some thoughts and suggestions. (Most recent posts on top.)

Worst college class (and why it was so bad)
Open or closed book exams?
Student presentations
What do we want from an undergrad education?
Why didn't I learn?
High school readings
Sidle on up and share
Advising frustration
Seminar Happiness
Sick, sick, sick
It's like a rash...
Graduation notes from Saturday
Graduation /happy dance
Plagiarism, gah!
Some useful "how to" articles for students
Theory rant
Letters of Recommendation: Help your writers!
Students: what not to do

Grad School Issues and Questions
Converging conversations on grad school
Grad School Reality Check
Job Talks from the Other Side
Writing Letters of Recommendation
Further thoughts on the grad school question
To grad school or not to grad school
Grad Assistants on Strike

Collaborative research

Some posts on collaborative research and such.

Collaborative research issues - post 3 - crunching numbers
Collaborative research issues - post 2 - creating knowledge?
Collaborative research issues - post 1 - data?
Faculty Student research?

Teaching Writing

Here's what I've had to say about teaching writing.

Writing Basics - essay assignments
Writing Basics - Proofreading
Writing Basics - Peer Review/Editing
Writing Basics - paragraph analysis
Do as I say?
Writing Basics - what's an essay?
Writing Basics

The Worst (and Best) Mistake of Last Term

Other Literature and Teaching Stuff

Here's a list of posts on non-Shakespearean lit and teaching stuff.

Because one pudendal posting is never enough
Pudendum, etc
The REALLY Dead Women Writers Meme
Auctoritee and Experience
I really AM 400 years behind
Chaucer: "raptus" vs "stuprum"
Sudoku and signification, and more Chaucer
Which Chaucer tale?
Which Chaucer?**
Sudoku and signification, and more Chaucer
Chaucer Dilemma
Tools of the trade

Shakespeare Posts

Here's a list of posts on Shakespeare:

Textual pleasures
The Winter's Tale and Friday poetry blogging
Happy Death Day and Traditional Birthday, Big Guy!
Ceres and fun with *The Tempest*
Shakespeare's death
My Winter's Tale
Veteran's Day / St. Crispin's Day
Taking Pleasure, or the Ethics of Reading Rape and Murder (Part I)
Sonnet Day
A Teachable Moment

Collaborative research issues - post 3 - crunching numbers

I'm in the throes of trying to work on two projects related to collaborative research, specifically between faculty and undergraduates. I'm doing a lot of brainstorming in these posts, and really, post 2 should logically come before post 1. But I didn't think things through in that order because I'm at the beginning of my processing about this stuff.

Thanks for all the suggestions and encouragement so far. Here's a quick review:

In Post 1, I tried to think through the differences between "gathering data" in the sciences (with biology as my example) and in the humanities (with English as my example). Sciences generally have a methodology, and the research planning includes methods for data collection and so on. In contrast, in English, mostly, we start out by reading lots of texts (more or less randomly, depending), come up with some question or idea about one or another of them, and then research in other texts of various sorts to test out our idea. If there's a clear methodology, I never learned it.

In Post 2, having thought through some questions about methodology, I realized that methodology is really a big question for me in collaborative research, and started trying to articulate what we (The Scientist and I, in our talk) mean by research: research seeks to create new knowledge. Then I talked specifically about a Peromyscus research project I'd done as an undergrad, and asked if that would have been considered collaborative research now. I came to the conclusion that an important part of research is articulating new knowledge to communicate with others.

Today, I'm thinking back on a conversation I had with a Dean here a few weeks ago now. We were coming from a meeting that had been discussing one aspect of undergraduate research, and he was talking about collaborative projects he'd been involved with as a science professor. He said he'd had a student come up with a great idea for a project, and then he'd facilitated the project.

I thought, wow, I must suck as a teacher, because I rarely have students who can initiate a good research paper in an upper level seminar. I've never had a student come in with a really good independent research idea and ask for help.

I asked The Scientist during our conversation, if the Dean's experience was also one she'd had, and she said she'd pretty much always had a different sort of experience. In her experience, a really good student, often an advisee, comes in and expresses interest in doing some research project, and she invites the student to help her with some research project she has going.

Well, now, that's a world of difference, isn't it? That could happen in my field, I imagine.

Let's imagine, for every 20 majors, you have one who's got the initiative and such to come in to an advisor or other professor and say s/he's interested in doing a research project.

How many English majors are there, The Scientist asked. I don't know off hand; we have four different majors housed in our department, and are home to another major shared between several other departments. I advise only lit majors, though I teach theory which is required for all. I told her that I have 15-20 advisees. Her eyes bugged out a bit. 15-20 advisees? How is that possible?

Here's the thing, in a field such as English, of the 11 credit hours I teach every semester, 5 are in composition. Almost half my teaching load thus goes to service the needs of the university and general education. In addition, for about half the English department faculty, 3-6 credit hours per year probably goes to courses taken primarily by general education students, rather than English majors. (Faculty who specialize in education teach fewer general education courses, while those in literature and creative writing seem to teach more.)

The fact is, compared to other departments, we have a large ratio of faculty to majors, say, 1:15. That's good on some levels because it means we can offer fairly specialized courses to our upper level students; we have specialists in American Ethnic literatures, in Shakespeare, in Romanticism, and so on. We have one of the bigger departments on campus. (Math is about as big, and Foreign Languages; both of these also have huge gen ed service components to their teaching loads.)

Most departments teach some primarily general education courses, but few contribute to the load the way English, Math, and Foreign Languages do.

The Scientist's department, in contrast, serves far fewer general education courses, has fewer faculty (who thus have to teach more introductory and intermediate level courses outside their specialty).

There's a possible downside, in terms of pure numbers, for collaborative research, though. If there's that special student (1 in 20) who decides s/he wants to do a research project, s/he has LOTS of faculty to go to; most of my colleagues are good folks, and happy to do collaborative work if it comes along. If the student wants to work with, say, someone who teaches Shakespeare, s/he has four choices here. I may be the Bardiac, but there's another Shakespeare person, and two others who teach Shakespeare fairly regularly and any of them could do good work with a student.

Then consider that most students starting out as English majors tend to lean towards American lit, and especially novels, since their previous experience heavily leans towards American novels, novels in general, and stuff written since, say, 1850. I can't assign numbers to this, but I see it as a trend. (Do other folks see the same trends?) (This is easy to see with our MA students; we have at least ten American 19th-20th century novel theses to every one in pre-1800 lit.)

So, if I want to do collaborative research with students, I have to find ways to introduce them to the idea, introduce them to my own research stuff in classes (which seems egotistical, but also seems potentially helpful in getting them interested in research in general), and then encourage them to take opportunities to do research.

Also, I have to think more about how we teach research in classes, and consider how we talk about the research students do in classes, and how we disseminate their findings (if we do). That's up for the next post, I think!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I have muscles!

I know this because they hurt whenever I move, both of them.

Some people get biker legs, all buff and defined.

I get a little sore, but no buff or defined. On the other hand, I rode 40 miles today and it felt pretty good until the last 8 against the wind (okay, a minimalist breeze, but it felt almost like wind--perhaps because I was riding so very fast? Or because I'm a wimp).

I need to go out to the back yard and water some new plants. Unfortunately, that means either walking down (and then UP) the stairs, or walking outside and around, down the hill along one or the other side of the BardiacShack (tm). If I'm going to go down there, I should probably just go hog wild and do some weeding. At least I could sit on my rear (which isn't as sore as my legs, thank the good makers of the strategically designed bike saddle).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging, resisting Donne puns!

I'm a bit worried about a couple friends, and somehow this seems to fit my mood today.

John Donne is one of my favorite early modern poets and essayists. He seems to get at the complexity and difficulties of faith and sexuality more fully than other poets for me (though Herbert's not half bad at the faith part). Unfortunately, he's also become the subject of so many bad puns that it's not even funny anymore, so I'm resisting!

A quick note: a "compass" is the tool you probably used when you were a kid in geometry class to draw circles. In the illustration on the Wikipedia link, the one on the right is basically what you should picture when you get to the compass conceit. The idea is that it's got two "legs," one of which has a pin for a "foot," and stays put at the center of the circle or arc you're drawing, while the other has a lead or other marking tool, and produces a circle or arc. You can draw the second leg up to the first, which makes the instrument "taller" and "erect."

The compass here provides a nice example of a metaphysical conceit, which is basically a drawn out metaphor (a metaphor is a replacement of one term by another, figurative one, a process which invites the reader to think through the ways the terms are alike and different) where the point(s) of similarity tend to stretch the imagination. Basically, it asks the reader to think about the ways in which a compass is like a pair of lovers, and then to realize how difficult that comparison is by thinking about how unlike the things are. (If you like this sort of thing as I do, you should check out other metaphysical poets!)

by John Donne

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise, [5]
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant; [10]
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove [15]
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss. [20]

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so [25]
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam, [30]
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, [35]
And makes me end where I begun.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 2 - creating knowledge?

Today I'm thinking about my post's title, and especially what we mean by "research" when we talk about faculty/student collaborative research.

Let's start with a basic definition we used in the conversation I had with the Scientist: research seeks to create new knowledge.

In the sciences, that makes sense. We go to a lab, measure the effect of X on Y, and then, voila, we now know the effect of X on Y. At least that's how my brain basically thinks about science, usually.

But really, of course, we'd have to design an experiment to control for other factors, and choose how to measure X and Y, make measurements, manipulate the information involved so that it revealed something, and then explain in writing and maybe with graphics why we think we know the effect of X on Y, and why we think that's worth knowing. Communicating the information is a vital part of creating new knowledge.

That process differs from the class lab experiment of lower level science classes because in those experiments, students are recreating what's already been done, usually in order to practice using materials and methods, observating, collecting data, and so on. It's useful and valuable, but it doesn't create new knowledge.

Sometimes the scientific new knowledge model sort of works in English, too. We take some text, think about it in terms of other texts, theories, cultural and historical issues, and say something really new and different.

A lot of times, though, what we do is manipulate information to present it in a new way, often a valuable way, making a new argument to help readers understand text(s) and cultural/historical issues better. Like the scientist, then, what's important here is the articulation of the knowledge, the part about helping readers understand something new or better.

Like science labs that teach skills through repetition, we teach skills that can help students learn to do original knowledge building in classes. On a basic level, when we work with students to explicate a sonnet we aren't creating new knowledge, but repeating an exercise. When we use some other cultural text to read alongside a playtext, we're teaching skills (and information that's new to students). These are useful, but don't create new knowledge overall.

But there's a real jump from doing repetitive skills building exercises (in whatever field) and actually creating new knowledge on some level.

It's not a secret here that I was a science major, so I thought back a bit to what sorts of research I'd been taught to do as a science major. Mostly, I remember doing library research that led me to a sort of lit review on topic X, not creating new knowledge, but learning what the current conversation was. (Though in medicine the meta-review of research publications seems to create new knowledge, so I guess that potential's there in other fields.)

On the other hand, in two classes, I was expected to go out and create new knowledge. It was VERY localized knowledge, but it was new. And BOY HOWDY was this sort of project totally difficult to conceive and carry out. One of my projects was a success because my lab partner and I had a real question, and figured out how to answer that question if only on a tiny scale. The other wasn't because we didn't have a real question, and so couldn't figure out what to do that meant anything. (I sure wish I'd been able to articulate the difference back then, or had someone articulate it for me!)

In the first case, we'd been reading for the class about how to estimate populations of rodents and other small mammals through live-trapping and release, and had learned that some researchers thought there might be problems with estimations because some rodents learn that being trapped means a yummy free meal of peanut butter and oatmeal. If I recall, such animals are called "trap-happy" or something, and they make the population estimate higher than it would otherwise be, and complicate the statistics.

So we asked, do deer mice in our little area get trap-happy?

We designed a SMALL experiment where we live-trapped at a university site (with permission and such), marked the deer mice (on the belly with non-toxic hair dye using unique letters for each different animal; on the belly so we wouldn't interfere with how predators might see the mice, non-toxic so they could groom themselves without danger, and letters so we could tell when we'd trapped the same animal), and then kept records of the date and success of every trap, and of every animal trapped. We trapped for maybe a week, going out early every morning to check the traps and reset them in the same place.

It wasn't a brilliant experiment by any means, but it did create some small local knowledge, and it sure reinforced our practical skills. (And I got to see a bird rarely seen by casual birders because it decided to hop into one of our traps and we got to watch it for a couple seconds when we released it and it scooted off to the underbrush. Cool that!) We concluded that at least several mice were recaught (one five times), and that the recaptures might indeed skew population estimates.

Would that count as "collaborative" research today? We got some planning help from our lab TA, and used university property, traps and such. If it had been more than a week or so of actual trapping, we could conceivably have put together a poster for a modern undergrad research day, I suppose.

But would it be collaborative? Would it "count" for the faculty member in some way (or for the TA)? As part of a class, it probably counted somewhat in the teaching part of their portfolios or whatever they used there. But I doubt it counted or contributed to their research in the least.

And I have no memory of anything else anyone else in the class did, so to the extent that research is valuable because it makes information and knowledge accessible to others, we failed miserably. We wrote it up, and I seem to remember that we did well on the paper.

My experience led me to ask about the ways collaborative RESEARCH works for the science folks here at NWU, and to think about how much research and the creation of new knowledge (or at least new arguments) happens in various classes--humanities, social sciences, and sciences--around here. And where/when it happens outside of classes. More on that tomorrow.