Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Scheduling a Seminar - Options?

I'll be teaching a senior level English seminar in the not so distant future, and I'm trying to decide on how to request it be scheduled. The two big options I'm considering are to schedule it as a 3 hour, once a week block, in the evening, or to schedule it as a regular 1 hour a week class, meeting MWF. I could also ask that it be scheduled for 1:15, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (Academic hours here are all 50 minutes, so a 3 hour block is really 150 minutes, and so forth. That gives everyone 10 minutes to get from one class to another.)

I'm already teaching one evening, three hour block class that term, and doing my athletic event, so that would mean three evenings out every week. That's do-able, especially since I would then ask to schedule my 5 hour writing class in the early afternoon or something. (It's 5 hours, but not necessarily an hour every day.) But it's also fine for me to teach mostly early in the day, with one evening class.

What I'm trying to figure out is what makes the most sense for our students.

I took three-hour night classes every night Monday through Thursday when I was working full time and going to a local community college. As a student, I had to be always focused for a long class, and that was difficult. It worked well for me because I was pretty much a red-hot at the time, but I know it didn't work well for every student. With a once a week class, if you get sick and miss a day, you've missed a week, and that hurts. And if you just aren't ready for class for some reason, that hurts. And being ready for all three hours of a class took good planning and effort.

So, my sense is that there are some down-sides from a student's point of view to a three hour class. For full time working folks, an evening class makes a lot of sense. Most of our students work part-time, and usually do classes during the days and fit work around, in the evenings, and on the weekends.

On the other hand, with a three hour session, you can really sink your teeth into stuff. That also seems to work well for the hour and fifteen minute session, but one of my university duties ties up Tuesdays pretty badly, so I couldn't teach my other classes on a Tuesday Thursday schedule; the combination would mean my teaching five days a week. (I like to avoid that, if I can.) An hour at a time means you break things into smaller chunks. That has it's upsides and downsides, too.

Upsides to the three hour chunk: Time to get a real discussion going. Time to work on things in class in a differently focused way. Once a week prep; I can keep track of a single conversation; once a week really focused grading when short assignments are due.

Downsides to a three hour chunk: A student who misses a day misses a LOT. Students have to be really prepared for every meeting; unprepared meetings would make for a just horrific class experience. Prep three days a week, spreads out the grading potentially.

As undergraduates, what were your experiences with longer class sessions? What upsides or downsides do you think I should think about that I haven't mentioned?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Visitors in the Classroom

Every so often, one of my beloved relatives makes noises about coming to visit me in flyover country. Most recently, she and her partner were going to be in a neighboring state for a couple days, and she proposed flying up to see me. I happily assented. She said she wanted to see me teach.

I'm uncomfortable with having family members come see me teach. Mostly, it just makes me uncomfortable. I've been a student in classes when profs had their parents visit, and it didn't bother me, but did seem a little weird. And yes, I've let my Mom visit my classes when she came to visit once. Guilt is a powerful motivator in my world.

I hesitantly told my relative okay, partly because I know I live in flyover country, and that actually coming to visit, even if she's within a few hundred miles, is unlikely. As it turned out, I was right about the odds, and she decided not to visit after all.

I find having extra people in a class slightly disruptive at best. Sure, we're all observed, and we all observe, and it's okay. The disruption is slight. And there's a purpose served in being observed, and in observing. When I observe, I learn from other teachers, and when I'm observed, I learn from my observer.

I don't think most students mind much one way or another. Some probably feel a little shy or uncomfortabel about having an instructor's family member in the room; others probably enjoy getting a sense that their instructor has parents and such. It's probably a wash for most students most of the time.

I don't quite get the urge to watch someone teach, though. I can't imagine asking my sibling or cousins if I could come watch them do their jobs.

But then, on the RARE occasions when I went to work with my Dad (when there was a small project I could do to make some spare change, wrapping stuff, or stuffing envelops, and mostly on weekends), I didn't watch him work. And when I worked there on occasion as I got older, I was busy doing my own tasks, although I did get to see him do some kinds of work (such as asking me to make copies of something, or type up stuff). My Dad spent a lot of time at work doing figures, keeping track of things, making phone calls, and handling questions. So maybe it just wasn't the kind of thing that seemed likely to have entertainment value for a kid?

I think the relatives who want to watch me teach think that there's going to be some entertainment value involved. While I do make an effort to be less than fatally boring when I teach, I don't really think I'm generally entertaining. And a lot of what value I bring to a discussion depends on my audience bringing in knowledge and context. If you haven't read Titus, then seeing me talk about it really isn't likely to be interesting.

I also think the relatives who want to watch me teach have a sense of ownership, a sense that my performance reflects on them, perhaps? I'm uncomfortable, often, with the ways family members express ownership or possessiveness; one effect of living so far from the home turf is that I confront the issue infrequently.

The next likely confrontation is just ahead, though, when my Mom comes to visit for a few days. I think she's once again going to want to watch me teach, and I want to say "no." That guilt thing will get me, though.

Still, why is it that she thinks it's okay to want to come to work with me, when she wouldn't dream of bringing that up with my sibling?

Is it the teaching thing, or is it something about our relationship?

Do other instructors have family members who want to watch them at work? Do people in other fields?

Or is my family just special?

Saturday, October 28, 2006


One of my colleagues is giving a famous Halloween party, and it's tonight.

I spent the better part of an hour searching for the second part of my costume. I knew where the first part was, because frankly, it's hard to miss wherever it is. Whenever I open the closet it's in, there it is. One day I was looking for something with a friend over, and opened the closet without warning my friend and she practically screamed. Once she'd got over the initial fright, she laughed, though.

When I was a little kid and into my teens, my Mom was part of a group that raised money for a charitable organization by creating and staffing an annual haunted house. I have lots of fond memories of helping with the easy decoration parts when I was little, and then volunteering to help staff as I got older, until I went away to college.

My Mom did lots of things for the haunted house, along the way creating the most personable and charming ghosts you could ever hope to see. They weren't scary, but she managed to give them a wry sense of humor and sophistication, a little wire, some ping pong balls, gauzy white material, and whatever props she'd decided to use that year, all suspended on thin wires or heavy threads from the ceiling so they hung in mid-air. One year the ghosts were having a dinner party, complete with a wine glass being toasted, and half-spilling. Another year they were playing tennis.

She also made costumes. My Mom's a fantastic seamstress in all sorts of ways, but her creativity really goes with costumes. One year, she made herself a Ben Gay tube costume, much to the amusement of everyone at her work.

But this costume's probably my favorite. The body is basically a white fake fur full-body pajama for an adult, head to toe, fake fur, with a zipper up the front, and a little hook in back for the tail. (It's for an adult considerably taller than myself, but I've rolled up the lower legs. The crotch is so fashionably low that I could be a 20 year old male.)

The head, though, the head is a masterpiece. It's a giant dog head, a specific dog head, protected by copyright, big, white, with small black button eyes, a large black nose, and soft black floppy ears. She made the head by making a frame out of metal and chicken wire, which attaches to a hard hat, and then covering it all with the same white fake fur cloth. Except the mouth is black gauzy material to see out ahead, and the chin has white gauzy material to see where your feet are going. The head's about 30 inches from snout to occipital, and 17 inches wide. (Which is why it's so obvious in the closet!)

If you see a LARGE white dog walking upright tonight, or in the near future, say hi!

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Nearest Book Meme

I've seen this around a couple places now, notably Dr. Crazy did it, and so did Horace over at the brand spanking new To Delight and Instruct. It's a tag yourself kind of thing, so feel free to pick it up and run with it. Here are the rules:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

So, here goes:

One of you give him a crown.
And, sirrah, leave this kind of life.
If thou beest 'tainted for a penny matter
And come in question, surely though wilt truss.
Come, Master Arden, let us be going;
Your way and mine lies four mile together.

Yes, I was prepping class, can you tell? That's because I was in the middle of rereading some Jonson (in an anthology) when I decided to check some blogs. I am so busted!

PS. I've let the Friday Poetry blogging go for a while now. I'll probably come back to it soon.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Because I couldn't resist

It's grading time, which means it's also procrastination time. You know you're in for it when you're grading by the inch, but I've made a good deal of progress. Still, I couldn't resist rooting around between the stacks, when this came to my attention:
After numerous rounds of: "We don't even know if Osama is still alive," Osama himself decided to send George Bush a letter in English, in his own handwriting to let him know he was still in the game. Bush opened the letter and it appeared to contain a real strange, perhaps coded message: *370HSSV-0773H*

Bush was baffled, so he emailed it to Condi Rice. Condi and her aides had no clue either, so they sent it to the FBI. No one could solve it so it went to the CIA, then to NASA. With no clue as to its meaning, they eventually sent it to the local university Department of Literature and Languages to ask for help. The professor who got the message cabled the White House: "Tell the President he's holding the message upside down."

Wow, there's a guy here with polished black shoes and dark glasses on indoors. Wonder what's up...

More happiness with students

I was about to write a post about a new advisee who totally skipped an appointment she'd made with me. I try not to take such things personally, but I spend time prepping for advising, so skipped appointments can irritate me.

As I said, though, I was about to write that post, but the student for my next appointment stopped by early to see if I was free, and yes, I was.

He was a student in one of my writing classes a couple years ago now, pleasant, reasonably hard-working, and had emailed me the other day to ask me if I'd read a statement of purpose for an internship application.

Can I just say what a pleasure it is to get to see a student I taught as a first year, now into his upper-level work, succeeding, doing well, and looking for a meaningful internship?

My irritation with my advisee pretty much fades when I get to have really fun appointments.

Absence and Ethics Questions

I have a problem. I've had similar problems before, and I've never figured out a really workable solution.

I have a student with an apparent chronic health problem. He misses a LOT of classes, and hasn't turned in work.

So, we have an office that handles these sorts of things; they basically send us a note that says something along the lines of:

The Office of Such Things is notifying you that Student X has been contacted our office about a problem. You're required to work with Student X to resolve any problems in your class resulting from the problem which we can't specify.

PS. The Office of Such Things doesn't document health or other problems; we're merely reporting that Student X has contacted us.

Okay, so there's a problem, perhaps, with the total lack of documentation. But I sure as heck don't want to ask students for their grandfather's death certificate or a note from their doctor saying they had a really bad cold or whatever. I seriously do NOT want to have to deal with those sorts of things. And I think students are adults, and need to be treated as adults.

So let's stipulate that I totally believe that Student X has a legitimate problem. (No, I'm not naive enough that I believe all students are always telling the truth, or that no one has ever decided to hang out in bed because they don't feel absolutely A-one, but let's assume that some problems are legitimate.)

My problem is in accomodating Student X's needs. He hasn't been in class for two or three weeks at a time. Am I supposed to spend 6-9 hours going over material with him that we worked through and discussed in class in those 2-3 weeks? Am I supposed to somehow reproduce class discussion to incorporate the voices of all the other students? And who do I contact about getting an extra 6-9 hours in my week, anyway?

And how do I involve him in Peer Editing when he hasn't been to class, didn't write a paper (so no other student could peer edit his work), and he wasn't there to peer edit another student's work. Once the work is turned in, I don't really see a point to doing some artificial exercise in which I'd what, write a fake paper so that Student X could pretend to peer edit? Make a copy of a paper I've already graded so that Student X could pretend to peer edit?

Peer editing in this class is 15% of the total grade, and Student X has missed half of that.

10% of the grade will be a group project. Do I assign Student X to a group knowing that he's going to contribute minimally if at all, that he hasn't participated in discussions, and so hasn't built up the common experience and knowledge groups will need to do well in the presentations?

I've suggested dropping my class, in more extreme cases, but not all cases are this extreme, of course.

And yet, I'm not totally unsympathetic to a student with a health or personal/family crisis during the semester. I don't want to be punitive.

In a term, be it 10 weeks or 15, we do a fair bit of work in two weeks. In a 10 week term, a student who's out for 2 weeks misses 20% of the learning and work in the class. Some of that s/he can make up by reading a text book, but if the instructor is earning his or her pay, some of it can't be made up by reading a book.

Pedagogical theory and research, especially research into writing practices and learning, stress the importance of group projects of varying sorts, peer editing, presentations, and so forth, as part of the learning students should do in college.

But cases where students miss classes repeatedly, their absences will have an adverse effect on other students, and it's my responsibility to make sure that other students don't suffer because someone else isn't doing the work.

Let's imagine that all absences and such are legitimate.

How do you handle missed peer editing?

How do you handle missed group work or presentations?

How do you handle missed assignments which are time sensitive? (By time sensitive, I mean assignments we'll be working with in class or something, and which won't contribute to if late.)

How do you accomodate missed exams and quizzes?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How to commit self-Bardiacide

I was at a public NWU meeting today at which a high muckety-muck, having attended for the first time ever a contest of a women's sport for which he coached men's teams, said, "it wasn't as boring as I expected."

I have a near-suicidal urge to make sure that gets quoted exactly in the notes of the meeting.

Revision Conferences

I give my writing students opportunities to revise during the first half of the semester, and encourage extensive revisions, as in, re-thinking the thesis and whole argument revisions.

I decided to require that students come talk to me with a revision plan in hand about their revisions before I'd accept them, and it seems to be working! Only one student so far didn't have a revision plan, and that was because she really didn't understand the basics of the assignment. So we went over the textbook section on the issue we were writing about, and talked about questions and problems until she seemed to have a basic grasp. And then we worked on brainstorming a new thesis and focus for her revision. I hope it "took" and that she understands the problems.

She was frustrated because her peer editors hadn't done a good job with the thesis and essay, and hadn't given really critical feedback, and because the writing center tutor apparently hadn't either. (I'm more worried about the writing center tutor at this point because I think it's pretty typical that peer editors learn that they didn't do a very complete job on their first peer editing responses. That's part of why they're here, after all, to learn to read critically and communicate and all.) Here's where the revision thing is great, because I could acknowledge the frustration, but could also get the student to see that she hadn't actually done everything possible to get a good grade (always the grade) because she could still revise, and I'd happily read a draft of her revision and such.

While I mentioned the two dreadful papers in the last stack, I have to also mention that two of the papers were outstanding. One of the writers of those papers came to talk to me about her second BIG draft of her next paper. And that's why she wrote such a great paper the first time. Each time, she started out with a not very successful draft, came and conferenced early, and then went out and put in the time to totally rethink and revise the essay. The next step is to help her write stronger first drafts. I hope that will com with time, but maybe I can encourage her to come brainstorm before she begins writing? (Though maybe she really needs to write things out to find out where she wants to go? Her first drafts have both had some really smart, thoughtful kernels to work from.)

Now I'm beginning to read a stack for another class. The first essay was just wonderful! YAY, go students!!! This one was written by a student who'd done a ton of serious revision work after her draft, and again, she did a great job. I'm filled with hope!

I love conferencing. I love the performative part of teaching in front of a class and trying to get points across effectively, but in a one on one conference, I have a much stronger sense of the student as a person and writer, and I can really focus on helping them get where they want to get. There's something elementally pleasurable in making a connection and helping someone write more effectively or whatever. I think that's one of the reasons I'd really balk at trying to teach on-line. I just want to talk to people, see faces, see (or hope for) changes happening. (I know, sometimes the changes are momentary or illusory, but I live a rich and full fantasy life, so shush!)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Random fun from the web and something to think about

It's tenure file season, but it seems that one Professor Indiana Jones has been denied! (Okay, please don't let that get you all anxious about stuff if it's your turn. Surely you haven't garnered the anger of that many South American nations!)

And finally, someone is editing Shakespeare's Hamlet.

This just out: Edward Castronova from Indiana University is getting a MacArthur Foundation grant to work on developing a MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game based on Shakespeare's Richard III. Watch out Everquest and World of Warcraft!

It looks like Castronova plays WoW and other on-line games, and his blog looks interesting (Terra Nova), so maybe he'll pull it off. Heck, I'd find an excuse to try it out at least! (edit: correction: Terra Nova seems to be a multi-writer blog, but it was linked in the article, and looks fascinating!)

And some unsettling discussion from Effect Measure about the potential environmental effects of widespread Tamiflu use. Holy cow, I never would have thought of the potential problem, but revere explains how Tamiflu gets processed in the human body and expelled, and it sounds convincing and bad environmentally.

And now, back to my regularly scheduled grading and committee work. I'm still looking for someone to volunteer to wear my regalia at the big important upcoming function. Anyone?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Stress Responses

I've been under a fair bit of stress lately, not only the presentation, but a couple of projects under close deadlines, two new classes, and then there's the whole country involved in an unethical, illegal war and occupation thing, the joys of the upcoming election.

In the good old days, I would have stopped at the store and gotten myself a bag of chocolate raisins or malt balls.

But a while back, I actually began to take things like my diet and health a little more seriously, lost some weight, and am pretty careful about eating emotionally, especially when it involves bags of chocolate (it was never a matter of a piece of chocolate for me).

So what did I do when I felt stressed out?

In the absence of chocolate and warmth, I went shopping and bought one of these. So now I can do things indoors all winter!

Yes, my new shopping habits are probably a lot healthier than my old ones. But they also get expensive! (On the other hand, I bet lots less expensive than cocaine, eh?)

A while back, there was the rack. And then there are the two pairs of gloves (cut off and full fingered, one each), a new windbreaker, pull over hat for cold days under the helmet, a fancy schmancy strategically designed seat, and yes, a tire repair kit.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Your brain on Bardiac

There's this fun little quiz up at BBC to help you determine what kind of thinker you are.

Me? I'm a "Renaissance Ideal." How funny is THAT?

Actually, I think it's mostly a polite way of saying that I can't decide what I want to be if I grow up.

Yesterday's workshop

I think the workshop went well, but I'm not totally sure.

There was NO pastel. At least not on me.

They had four cameras set up; when I got there about a half an hour early, they already had things pretty much set up, and were doing finishing touches and positioning. And the room had no board, not a blackboard, not a white board. None. Remember that old Tom Lehrer song, "New Math"? During the intro on the album, he talked about how odd it was for him to work a room with no board? I feel much the same.

But I'd made some handouts of my little "poem," so I was pretty prepared, two lines on a half sheet of pink paper (and I had a red sweater on, too!) because the poem involves "red sand." So I figured I could work around the lack of a board.

One of the tech guys figured out how to put up the words to the poem across the screen. They were incredibly tech-friendly. I'm tech friendly, too. It's just that my level of technology involves a board and a piece of chalk or something. And print! I love print technology.

Then the kicker. They had set us up to sit on stools at a rather high table so that we could be tethered to a microphone thing. So, no board, which is just as well, I realized, because we also wouldn't be able to stand up and move around. My stomach started grinding because when I do presentations and stuff, I run on adrenaline, and I really like to try to engage with whatever audience there is. I'm a rather physical talker, I suppose.

Stools? who can sit comfortably on a stool for two hours?

We were about ready to start. They turned on the lights because cameras need a lot of light. Then they tethered us to the stools. And waited for the camera stuff to be ready. Hot lights. Tethered. On a stool. Waiting.

They had a camera off to either side, one behind me, one behind my colleague, then one in front with the audience point of view, then one from the opposite point of view.

For a Friday afternoon, we had a decent audience of friendly faculty folks. In order to make the cameras able to record questions, they put the audience on one side of the audience space, the side behind me.

We finally got started, and my colleague gave his talk. No doubt, I should have been calm, cool, and collected, but the camera totally freaked me out. I tried not to scratch anywhere inappropriate, not to drool when I drank a sip of water, not to sit inappropriately on the stool. I tried to look interested, but not stare like an idiot, and so on. I took a few notes.

The whole time, I kept trying to figure out if we were trying to talk to the audience, to the moderator and commentors sitting at the table with us, or to one or another of the cameras. My colleague mostly talked to the commentors at the table, it seemed. But that meant he was also pretty much facing and talking to the audience.

My turn came, and just before, I couldn't help thinking, I just have to talk and then it will be over, no matter how badly I do.

So, how did it go? On the positive side: the audience was fantastic. They nodded in good places, and were responsive and willing when I asked them to read the poem aloud and talk about how it tasted and felt in their mouths. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster! Because they were responsive, I got into my talk well, and didn't worry nearly as much about the cameras. I found I could indeed sit on a stool and still get some level of animation across.

I was happy that I knew my talk well enough that I didn't have to look at my written version at all, and I thought my new conclusion worked pretty darned well.

I got to do a Robin Williams bit in an academic context. (I've lived yet another fantasy now!)

On the negative side: I stumbled over some words in ways that will sound stupid on tape. I forgot to come back to someone who'd made a good point about imagery before I was ready to go there (though I did bring back other earlier good comments when we got to the imagery thing). I misspoke the poem!

The commentor did a really nice job bringing the two presentations together, and bringing in points helpful to the specific audience where we were talking. Everyone was nice, and said nice things.

But when you give a talk or a presentation, you really want someone to come up at the end and say, "Wow, that was fantastic." I've had my share of positive feedback, but in a sad way, it's never really enough. So I'm not sure that my presentation was up to fantastic, despite the nodding heads and active participation.

I manage to balance on the fine line between having an ego big enough to fill the state all by myself, and wanting to be reassured that I wasn't a complete dud. After all, maybe the participation and nods were all just some sort of shocked and kindly reaction to my incompetence?

I do know that I will NEVER look at the DVD when they send it.

The tech people said afterwards that they'd be making the video available on the campus system.

So, if I looked really stupid, I'm sure some student will be happy to make a short youtube video with mocking commentary and music to let the world know. That's a cheerful thought, don't you think? Like the famous youtube thing of the guy being attacked by a deer, or the lecturer who's obviously high. I can get my fifteen minutes of fame looking like an idiot tethered to a microphone system and almost falling off a stool. It's something to look forward to.

Another great positive, though. It was neat to get to know some of the faculty there a bit, and to make some connections. I can see that we could do some cooperative work that would benefit all of us. Sometimes it feels intellectually lonely here in the NorthWoods, and I'm sure they get that, too. Now I have a little less sense of loneliness, and a little more sense that these other folks are out here, teaching their best, and thinking and willing to talk. I'm glad that they arranged this and invited my colleague and I over. I want us to follow up.

Friday, October 20, 2006

And it's Friday!

Alas, the paper I complained about yesterday wasn't the worst in the stack.

And now, between reading, writing a note to the student, and writing this, I'm convinced I've spent more time on the paper than the student did.

In better news, I slept on the problem of the end to my own workshop presentation for this afternoon, and I've figured out how to make the final paragraph work better to really make a conclusion, I think.

All in all, happiness prevails!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Horror

I just read a paper whose main argument was that Famous Novel is a novel, and that it's not real.

I want to rip my eyes out.

I will never get that half hour back again.

There is not enough chocolate in the world to make that paper tolerable.

Public personae

I'm going off to another school to give a workshop talk tomorrow afternoon, as I've mentioned before a couple times now.

I just learned that they're going to videotape the presentation; the organizer suggested that we should wear pastels.

I don't think I own anything pastel, well, maybe one Hawaiian pattern looking shirt in light blue. I have black, plenty of black and even some grey, which usually suits pretty darned well for academic occasions short of regalia. But pastel?

My sense of fashion at this time of the year runs rather heavily toward long johns under whatever shirts are clean, and then a sweater over. But it's a little past Hawaiian pattern light cotton shirt time, isn't it? There's probably some fashion rule about such things.

It wouldn't matter so much, except that my fashion faux pas will be forever preserved on film.

My talk? I'm at a semi-final draft by now, getting some fine-tuning feedback from colleagues. But the clothing anxiety is now at full throttle.

My ability to appear publicly presentable provides challenges on a daily basis, but nonetheless, I've been asked to represent the department at a public function next week. This may sound like quite the honor, but the fact is, I have regalia, and that was the main qualifier. I've been trying to talk all my colleagues into wanting to go in my stead, even offering to lend out my regalia (complete with gold piping! GOLD PIPING people!), because it's basically a one tent fits all sort of clothing. So far, people are saying no, sometimes more, sometimes less amusingly. I need to learn to say that word more quickly!

Anyone in the Northwoods want to parade around in regalia? I'll even let you borrow my tam!!!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Returning papers

Except for the fact that it removes a pile from my desk or bag, I hate returning papers, especially early on in first year writing classes.

Of the papers I turned back today, about half were failing. I'm just guessing, but most of our students have decent GPAs and class ranks out of high school, and they probably didn't fail many assignments. But if you turn in an essay talking all about how wonderful or crappy a reading was, without addressing the actual topic of the assignment, you've turned in a failing essay.

I get a strong sense that these students feel betrayed because they think I've judged them harshly. Partly this is because they think a grade on a paper is a personal judgment of their worth, though it's not at all from my point of view. And partly this is because writing classes tend to work a lot on a mentoring model, with instructors trying to encourage students and help them through the pre-writing process. It's a tough balance, the mentoring vs evaluation balance, but it has to be done in our educational model because I'm responsible for assigning grades. Still, watching them leave the room, looking down, unhappy, unwilling to meet my eyes, that's just hard.

Then there's also my disappointment. What did I miss that the students didn't address the assignment well? I know we put that up on the board as one of the things that would demonstrate competence for the assignment before their peer editing.

I got a feeling from one of the essays that one of the writers was trying to play me. I'm betting this young man has been taught to play the system well for a long time; he wrote a "heartfelt" whine about how difficult life is for women and how badly he feels for us. Even if I really felt it to be heartfelt (and I can't decide), it doesn't address the assignment! The point isn't to play to what you think I want to read!

I didn't read drafts of this assignment. Instead, I give students back a graded paper, respond to it as fully as I can as an argument and essay, and then give them the opportunity to revise for a totally different grade. (The revision policy encourages revision, yay, but also makes the tough grade less painful to for me write down.)

I did read drafts for those who came to office hours, sometimes several times. And as I was leaving, I heard one young man (who'd redrafted his essay completely after our first meeting, and then revised and added considerably after our second) remark that he thought his peer could do a lot with revision.

The upside is that getting a failing grade will provide some needed incentive for some students to actually take assignments seriously. It's easy in college, especially when you're starting off, to think that the same strategies that got you to college will get you through. If they do, then either you had great strategies and study habits, or you're not getting much of an education in college. The reality check of early grades can shake things up, especially when the student can replace the grade by revision. (Too bad it's not that easy to get a "do over" for other parts of life, eh?)

The sucky part about giving up emotional and comfort eating, especially chocolate, is that you've given up chocolate and comfort eating. That's hard to replace with something equally socially acceptable for office "consumption." I think I'll wander down the hall to see if someone wants to walk over to the coffee stand to get my fix.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Getting an education

Today was one of my subcommittee meetings. This is a subcommittee that covers one aspect of the whole university, and I feel like I'm being schooled.

Today we discussed a proposal that students not be allowed to sign up to repeat a class they've failed until just before the term begins. The argument was that students repeating a class get in (because they've got more advanced class status, for example) before students who want to take the class for the first time and that's unfair. (And, given the budget cuts we've suffered in recent years, almost all of our classes are full to whatever limit when the term starts, so students often have to wait a semester to get into crowded courses.)

Let's make up an example: say, math course 21 which fill the entry level calculus requirement for many science courses. Let's imagine that there are 30 seats in Math 21 each semester, and that in any given semester, 33 students would sign up for the course if they could for the first time. And two students would need to repeat the course.

If we use the current rules, then students get assigned a number based on their progress (basically, seniors go first, then juniors, and so on), and randomly within their progress level. That means that the people who failed Math 21 last year as first years, are now sophomores, so they get to sign up, leaving only 28 positions for the 33 people (mostly first years) who want in. That means 5 people have to wait a semester, and that there will continually be at least a rolling wait for some people.

Under the proposed rule, 30 of the 33 people who want in will get to sign up. And the two people who failed would pretty much never be able to get back in. Rule-wise, they would be allowed, but in practice they would have no chance of access. (At least in classes that are always full.)

We had a lot of questions, and not many answers.

A few people talked about students "gaming" the system by signing up for an extra course and deciding late in the game which course to drop. Thus, they take a seat that someone else might fill, and drop it (assuming that all classes are full, and intro level classes often are). Or the student stays in the course, chooses to miss the final, guaranteeing that s/he will fail, and be able to retake for a better grade.

On the other hand, it seems likely that many students who need to repeat a course are first years who got a rough start; they probably aren't doing this a lot, and they'll take good advantage of the opportunity to repeat a course and do significantly better.

The thing is to balance access to classes, fairness, without being over-punitive or whatever. (Yes, we want students who aren't capable or interested in being students to drop out and do something else with their lives; but mostly we want our students to learn lots and succeed here.)

There are impacted courses in different departments, but mostly the problems seem to come in courses that are gateways to schools or areas of study, courses that students have to finish as pre-requisites before applying to or continuing on in an area of study.

Any change one department makes is likely to change things for students elsewhere. There's a whole unintended consequences thing with big complex organizations.

There is also, it turns out, a committee whose job is to oversee course availability! Aha, the best of all committee acts, turn the problem over to another committee. (Fortunately, this subcommittee gets lots of "guests" sitting in on our meetings, since what we do has potential to make big impacts all over the place, and one of the guests today knew about the other committee.)

In truth, this is a budgeting issue. We have politicians complaining in their campaign ads that our public universities don't offer students enough opportunities to take required classes, and at the same time, they've been voting our budgets down and down. So it's a zero sum game at this point. Even deans and provosts can't magically create new classes out of thin air; they have to budget for adjuncts, pay for lab equipment and such. And of course, creating a new class by hiring an adjunct for one department means not hiring an adjunct in another department (and the same goes for tenure line faculty, though it's more complex).

On yet another level, the budget really is the responsibility of the Head Honcho, the bossman who's supposed to go to the legislature and educate them about why they shouldn't cut our budgets further, the guy whose job it is to sweet talk business leaders into funding scholarships, projects, and such, and yeah, it's also a matter of convincing voters that public education is a public good, and worth paying taxes for.

So, this election season, please tell your candidates that you want more public education! And while we're at it, let's tell them that we want music and art programs in grammar schools!

(Meanwhile, while deans can't make courses out of thin air, could we at least require that they not let the snow start before Halloween? It's a small enough thing to ask, isn't it?)

League Play!

Nope, not the NFL, NBA or anything else, but my happy little athletic league begins tonight!

My team actually practiced once in September, and no one got injured, so we're ready to rock and roll!

Think of me tonight: I'll be out exercising my somewhat silly athletic "prowess" before we go out for a team dinner with our honorary family members. Meanwhile, I have to go home because I forgot to bring my team shirt to school today.

(In high school, the football team always wore team shirts to school on Fridays when they had games. And I can't help thinking of that when I think of the idea of wearing my team shirt on league days.)

And have I mentioned that we all have special team nicknames? We're all over this team thing!

Monday, October 16, 2006


Somehow, by adding to my blogroll area, I seem to have messed up the sidebar.

I know other people have run into this before. What did I do, and how do I fix it, please?

Teaching Carnival No. 14 is up!

At M2H. I had to look here to get the M2H thing, but now it makes perfect sense! Have I mentioned that I love witty blog names? Yep, I only wish I had some wit. Or sprezzatura.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Poetry is like baseball

Now there's an opening, eh? Especially at this time of year.

So, you're thinking, Bardiac, make good on that analogy.

Every play in baseball pretty much begins with a pitch. If a pitcher threw every pitch at the same speed, to the same part of the imaginary "box" of a good pitch, the hitters would be very very happy. And fans would get quite bored.

Groups of words have rhythms; rhythmic poetry emphasizes the repetition of rhythms. Ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, Doo wop, doo wop, doo wop. But just as pitching at the same speed to the same spot would be so predictable that most hitters would hit a lot, so rhythmic poetry that's really regularly rhythmic would get irritating or worse, boring, fast.

As readers, we're like batters. And poets are like pitchers. Except we're not opponents, we're cooperating. So the analogy breaks down a bit.

Poets may choose to give us rhythms to help us build expectations, to give us the pleasures of repetition. But if they gave us nothing but the same repetitions, we'd quickly find them boring. That's why we make jokes about someone with a really nice voice reading the phone book. A phone book has lots of poetic features: repetition and patterns set up our expectations; information is tightly condensed; words stand metonymically for physical people and physical addresses, arabic numerals stand for the dialing (or press-button) pattern we could follow. But the repetition is overwhelming, too overwhelming to make for long pleasureable reading.

Back to the pitching analogy. Pitchers try to set batters up, and batters (and their coaches) try to outguess pitchers. If a pitcher throws a couple fast balls, a hitter starts expecting fast balls, starts thinking in terms of the fast ball. So the pitcher has to throw a curve, or a change up, or to the inside or outside of the imaginary box, or high, or low, something to mess with the batter's expectations.

A good pitcher sets up batters with patterns and changes, which leaves those who watch baseball endlessly interested in what the next pitch will be, and in how the batter will react.

Similarly, a good poem gives us expectations, whether through form or repetition, for example, and then gives us changes so that we're always looking with interest at what's happening, always feeling our way through what's happening and how we're reacting. Some poems use repeated patterns of rhythm, and some resist repeated patterns of rhythmic repetition, but even the least "regularly metrical" poem has rhythms, and we can observe them if we're careful, and think about how they affect our understanding of the poem. The poems that use regular rhythmic repetition give us more help, but may also seem deceptively easy.


At this point, I'm going to work with another example, but I'm not sure quite yet what I'll work from. I want to work with something that's going to be reasonably familiar, but not so familiar as to be boring. And what I want to do is look at and tease out the ways that poets toss in trochees and spondees at the beginnings of lines, because that's often where they get interesting.

I also think I need to talk a bit about an exercise I do with students to think about the rhythms of various formations of their names. My legal name has what I consider an abysmal rhythmic structure. Bardiac, on the other hand, has a pretty nice rhythm. So, I need to work that in as well, probably to an earlier part.

Potentials: The master of the "yet" and "but" is Spenser. I could put up the first two stanzas of book one of the Faerie Queene and work out the ways that he plays with meter there. The big disadvantages to Spenser is that his spelling is so off-putting that many folks are uncomfortable with it AND I doubt most people ask students to read any part of the FQ in most intro to poetry classes. I want my talk to be immediately useful, so that someone uncomfortable with poetry could walk into a classroom and make them work.

Then there's that Shakespeare guy. The first sentence of "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediment" is pretty much a gold mine of poetic play. Too familiar? Students start out thinking they know all about it, but then they realize there's a lot more there once they're paying close attention.

Or, dang, I hate that I love Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress" so much, but I do (of all the long dead poets I study or teach, I think Marvell and Herrick would actually be the most fun to meet and hang out with, and maybe Ben Jonson, all of them sexist as all get out, but so fun, too). It's also got some absolutely masterful changeups. I can make a lot of rhythmic hay talking about:

Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Advice? Other examples?

Teaching metrics - background

I'm working on another section of the workshop presentation.

Just a bit of background, which I won't be giving in the paper, since everyone involved in the workshop probably has at least an MA in English or a related field. (It's worth mentioning in passing that many English verse terms are taken from Classical Greek, though they measured vowel length in ways we don't. So the whole terminology thing isn't perfect, but it's what we use anyway. Jack Lynch at Rutgers has a helpful page on terminology.)

In English metric verse, we measure by stressed and unstressed syllables. Stress is when you say a syllable or part of a word with a little more emphasis or loudness. As a native speaker of English, when you say the word "important," for example, you're likely to stress the second syllable, "port." If you speak Spanish, and say "Importante," you'll stress the "tan" syllable. Unlike Spanish, which has pretty regular rules for stresses, English is all over the place; that's one of the things that makes it a hard language to learn as a second language.

Say "important." Now say "impotent." In "impotent," you get a pattern of stress, unstress, and either another unstress or slightly stressed final syllable. (In my accent, I pretty much swallow the end "tent" syllable. Your accent will probably be different. This is one of the reasons why reading verse aloud to feel it in your mouth is so very important.) When you say "important," you have an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed pattern.

English tends to rarely stress two syllables in a row, but fairly often has a couple unstressed syllables between stressed syllables. The easiest patterns in English involve two syllables, one stressed, one unstressed. And, probably 90% of metrical verse in English falls specifically into the pattern of iambs: an unstressed followed by an stressed syllable.

Here's an example:

If she should write
Some verse tonight
This dimeter
Would limit her. (John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason)

We could also write this:

If she / should write
Some verse / tonight
This di / meter
Would li/ mit her.

The slash marks (aka virgules) separate each foot. (A foot is a measurement, as in inches, feet; it's easier to think of in terms of a musical measure. So when you see poetry talking about tripping over feet, or making "pedestrian" jokes, you know they're joking about meter.)

This example being iambic, when you read it aloud, you'll probably feel the second syllable in each foot stronger in your mouth.

So, iamb: unstress, stress
Trochee: stress, unstress

And because we sometimes see a foot with two stresses, we have a name for that:
Spondee: stress, stress

English verse is sometimes written in three syllable feet, with one stress and two unstressed syllables.

Anapest: unstress, unstress, stress
Dactyl: stress, unstress, unstress

(Want a mnemonic? An anapest is "all the BEST"; the word "anapest" is itself a dactyl.)

We also talk about the lengths of line using Greek-originated prefixes.
Monometer = one foot in a line
Dimeter = two feet in a line (the joke in Hollander's verse above)
Trimeter = three feet in a line
Tetrameter = four feet in a line
Pentameter = five feet in a line
Hexameter = six feet in a line (Also called an Alexandrine, because we LOVE our terminology.)

Most English metrical verse is in iambic pentameter, with a fair minority in tetrameter, trimeter, and hexameter.


The temperature outside, according to the NWU website, has reached 45F, so I'm cutting this short to go take a bike ride, get some fresh air, exercise, all that good stuff.

If you see someone wending along on an old ten speed in several layers of long johns and sweats, wave to me! (I'm actually thinking of getting a pair of those long biking tight things so I won't be so cold, but the idea of wearing ANYTHING remotely spandex makes me tense.)

The background stuff took me LOTS longer than I'd planned, so I'll come back in a separate post to add what I'm really going to talk about. I wonder at myself typing all that in because it's not at all what I'm really after.

Edit: Thanks to Dr. Virago for correcting a typo!

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Last night was the benefit to help pay for our friends' bills, and hopefully to endow a scholarship for students in need in his field. The evening included a silent auction with lots of interesting stuff and services. Some of the best cooks in the area offered meals, others deserts. Bottles of wine, handmade quilts, and so forth were on the block.

My favorites, though, were things that seemed regional: One renowned gardener offered to come and plant a load of daffodil and tulip bulbs. Someone who's well-known for sounding like a horny female turkey offered a morning of calling. I sort of wanted to get that and have him call at high noon in the university mall, but as he pointed out, he'd have been overwhelmed by turkeys in the area (from the administration building). And someone who's known for making great venison sausage and such offered to process a deer.

Now, I don't hunt. I don't object to other people hunting responsibly (the folks I know who hunt seem respectful and responsible), but I have no urge to shoot anything.

But I do like venison.

My newly retired colleague who loves to hunt was there, and I was telling him that if X had offered some venison sausage, I'd have bid, but I wasn't going to go hunting. X said that he had plenty of venison at home, but had a tag, and would be happy to try to get a deer for me for the processing if I wanted to bid.

So I bid.

Then I was outbid! I heard about it and went to look, learning that my newly retired colleague had agreed to hunt for another colleague (Y) if she won, too!

So Y and I decided to collude and share the deer if we won and our retired colleague shoots one. So much for our bidding competition, eh?

Now it looks like Y and I are going to get ourselves a serious stock of venison. Anyone want to come over sometime this winter for a chili feed?


On Friday, one of my students had a bright red face. She didn't look good, but I didn't want to comment, because the likelihood of my stuffing my foot deep down my throat is just too high. She kept rubbing her face with her hands, the way you do when you're really tired and trying to get the sleep out. But after collecting the quiz, I went to hand her the essay assignment to pass along, and she refused, saying she couldn't pass to others because she might have pink eye.

Um, I said, you just handed me your quiz, no?

She just laughed and said, oops.

Want to bet that I washed my hands before going back to my office?

I'm so not going to be happy if I'm sick when I go to do that presentation next week.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Market question

I was talking to a friend from days or yore recently, who's going on the job market again. A few years ago, she quit her tenured position and moved to be with her partner while they started a family. In the meantime, she's racked up impressive publications, though not directly in her dissertation field, and now she's ready to go back to full time academia.

We talked about how to frame her applications, how to best deal with the several year absence from an academic job.

As people who've written and maybe read job letters, what would you suggest?

(My thought is that she should be fairly up front, because people ARE going to wonder, and while there are jobs she won't get because departments devalue women having families or putting family responsibilities ahead of a tenured position, she wouldn't really want to end up in those departments. But maybe I'm too accustomed to my department which is fairly sane though not perfect?)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Blog block

I've started two or three entries this evening and deleted each of them.

What's happening is both too personal, and not my business to talk about, if that makes sense. So I don't know what to write here. But I like the discipline of writing most every day (though I often don't write on my long teaching day).

This weekend is the memorial service, and I've just finished preparing the beds at my house for some family guests from out of town who need a place to stay. Mine is just one of many houses being readied this week for visitors. I'm grateful to be part of the community here. Seeing people help each other is astonishing. I've never in my life experienced this sort of community except as part of Peace Corps groups.

I'll probably not be blogging much for the next while. I, we, have to get through this weekend. And then I have a number of projects to finish. I'll try to get back with the next chunk of my draft stuff early next week, perhaps, since that's one of the projects.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A year in the life

I remembered the other day that I started my blog sometime in October, and by chance after finishing my class tonight, I happened to check. Yep, a year ago today, I started my blog.

Mostly, this has been a great year, in some ways the best in my life so far. I did more travelling than I've done in years, and especially got a chance to reconnect with some friends from various stages of my life.

Lately, things have been more stressful, but mostly around me, rather than directly for me, if that makes sense.

I'm not sure when I put up my site meter, but it was a couple weeks after I first posted, and it looks like within the next day or so, the blog will have gotten 25,000 hits. There's power in them thar zeros, right? Except that I'm sure the first thousand were me alone.

To all the people who've found my blog looking for paragraph structure: I hope you find it helpful!

To the people who've found my blog looking for "pleasure rape": I guess I just don't know what to say.

And to the people who've been kind enough to comment, and especially those who've helped me with various ideas and shared thoughts, thank you!

On not making an impression

When I was in college the first time, I had a habit of wearing a rather unique piece of headgear. During my final year, a guy stopped me one day, and said we'd had a class together when we were freshmen, a huge chemistry lecture. I was abashed and shocked to be remembered, but he said he recognized my hat. I don't wear that hat anymore (maybe I should!!), but... I'm not the most memorable person you'll ever see, should you have the (mis?)fortune to see me. But I've been told that I have a sort of style these days, even if it's not exactly a stylish style. And yet...

I'm part of a big campus committee thing, which has subcommittees to do lots of the business. Mostly the subcommittees do their business and then bring things before the whole to make the final decision. Last week, one of my subcommittees had a typical meeting, during which an administrator came to present something we needed to act on. It took a while, but people asked good questions, and I think by the end we understood the issues and were comfortable with the decision to bring it before the whole.

This week, we had the big meeting. About half way through the big meeting, X, one of the people also on the other committee came in late, and sat down in a spare chair next to me.

My subcommittee's report came up, our chair presented the committee findings and decision, which everyone had also received in written form a couple days ahead of time, and the administrator gave a short, succinct explanation. One or two questions followed, and then we were ready for a vote.

After the vote, X turned to me with a tinge of disgust in her voice and said, "Last week, the sub-committee spent an hour on that!"

I was laughing inside, because, no, we hadn't spent an hour on it, and X had been late anyways. And, believe it or not, X had sat next to me at that committee meeting when she came in late. But all I could say was, "I was there."

I guess I've made just a splendid impression on X, eh?


Things have been chaotically busy here. This weekend, one issue comes to a peak, I hope, which should help.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Poetry and observational skills

I'm still working on revising my paper. One of the things I've become more conscious of the longer I teach is that I should actually try to define my terms and explain what I'm after. Yeah, years of teaching composition have actually managed to help me learn some basic composition skills.

In the first version of the paper, I jumped from my narrative (which was a different narrative then) to talking about working with a specific poem. Now, though, I think what I need is a section that explicitly talks about what sorts of observations I want students to learn to make when they learn poetry.

When I teach poetry or verse reading, I start from the assumption that my students are every bit as uncomfortable reading poetry or verse as I was when I entered grad school. To be honest, I wasn't one of those kids who grew up knowing lots of nursery rhymes or memorizing poetry. Maybe my folks didn't much like reading poetry or rhymy books aloud, or maybe they did and I just didn't get into them. My point is that most of my students don't come to poetry easily and don't read poetry for pleasure. If their primary school experiences are anything like mine, they can remember being absolutely tortured by a poem or two in grammar school. I still vividly recall the illustration that went along with some Robert Louis Stevenson poem we read early in my grammar school career, but I remember nothing of the poem itself. My high school experiences taught me only that I had no clue what an iamb was, and when told to write lines in iambic pentameter, I got an F for writing in trochees. It wasn't exactly a promising start for a future Shakespeare person. So, I start with the assumption that my students need a lot of help reading poetry. I'm happy when any student invalidates that assumption, but it doesn't happen often.

In fact, even when students come to my classes, as they sometimes do, thinking of themselves as someone who wants to write poetry, they often don't read lots of poetry, so they still need help reading. And, of course, along with my colleagues who teach creative writing, I hope that reading poetry well will contribute to my students writing it well.

So, what parts of poems do we need to focus our observations on? First, the taste. I want students to read poetry aloud and think about how it feels, or how it tastes in their mouth. My students always look at me rather askance when I ask them how the poetry feels or tastes when we begin, but since poetry is for me a very verbal and aural art, I think it's central to reading poetry.

When I ask students how the poetry feels or tastes, I'm not looking for any sort of technical terms. What I want is real observation. Do you speed up or slow down at any particular words or lines? Do you stumble over words? Do you like the way one or another word feels coming out? Is one word harder to say, or less comfortable? Do you notice yourself saying some words more or less strongly?

The second thing I want students to observe carefully is how the poem sounds to them. I want them to think about how it sounds when someone else reads it aloud, and when they read it aloud themselves. What words sound strong? Where do readers speed up or slow down? What seems to slip off the tongue, and what seems to make the reader stumble or whatever?

Let me admit here that I spend a lot of time waiting when I first ask students about the way a poem tastes in their mouth or sounds. I don't think primary schools talk about reading aloud in that sort of way; they're mostly interested in basic competence. I've learned from experience that I can't assume basic competence, but with some practice and a bit of repetition, even a student with difficulties reading aloud can get out a few lines of poetry enough to start talking about how it feels and sounds to them. I try to separate out observations about reading aloud and listening, but they also come together and overlap.

Without much technical vocabulary, my students can begin to talk about their observations. They generally know what rhyme is, but haven't thought about it in terms of repetition of sound. Once they think about rhyme in terms of repetition of sound, then they can see that the other repetitions of sound are like rhyme, but different. They hear repetition of consonants, and once they get a feel for that, then my telling them that we have a name for it, alliteration, gives them a way to talk about what they've felt and heard. But feeling and hearing have to come first.

They don't need to know about formal metrical structures to begin to talk about what feels strong in their mouth or sounds strong, but we're getting at the issues. I think it's worth a lot to hold off on more familiarly metrical poetry until they trust their mouths and ears a bit. I don't want them just seeing a line and saying "it's iambs!" without thinking about how it feels and sounds, even if they're mostly right that a line is iambic.

The next, probably most difficult step, is to think about how the things they feel and hear relate to the connotations and denotations of the words. For that, I have to make sure they understand the words of the poem. At the beginning, I'm careful to choose a poem with very familiar words. But as they progress, looking up words becomes central to the experience of reading poetry or verse.

The greatest difficulty here is that there's no one to one necessary correlation between the way something feels and the denotations or connotations of words, or the meaning of a given poem. We recognize general patterns, and can teach those, and they can help students find limits, much as my knowing the large mammals in my area meant that I didn't have to worry about the differences between pigs and wart hogs.

So at some point, it can help students to play with very short lines of verse, and think about how those feel, especially when they rhyme. We can get a feel for the silliness of lots of rhymy short lines, the Doctor Seuss feel. It's hard to write a really serious poem in trimeter couplets. But only after a lot of experience can students begin to feel the expectations that comes from having a sense of generic history, that a sonnet in iambic hexameter feels different somehow from the expectations, that a subtle move to couplets in dramatic verse is meaningful. We can begin to give students a taste of generic expectations, and to talk about those issues, but in an introductory class, I don't think we can get very far in actually developing that sense.

Once I've had students talk about how a poem feels in their mouths or sounds, and how that seems to relate to what it says, I start focusing on imagery, and asking them to do quick sketches of imagery. Maybe it's because I have a really visual memory, or because I rather like really silly line drawings, but quick sketches help me visualize and remember imagery. Sketches help me focus students on what's important in the imagery, help me teach them to observe the imagery closely, and to ask questions when something about it doesn't quite add up or make sense, if only because they don't have the background story.

So, there's the next section. Is it enough, do you think, to spend so much time talking about the taste and sound of poetry, and to leave the denotation/connotation thing with far less attention?

My plan at this point is to move from here to discussing the specific poem I use to begin teaching poetry.

Another question. I can, if I want, I suppose, make a bit of a powerpoint to show the poem or an overhead. I much prefer writing it on the board. I think writing it on the board lets me be more fluid about what people feel in their mouths or hear when they read this poem. And yes, I'm going to have my audience read the poem aloud and start to talk about it. And maybe even put up silly sketches.

I'm also thinking as I read it over that I should dump some of the detail about my own school experiences, because, really, who cares about the details?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Teaching talk

One of the projects coming up soon for me is a workshop talk I've been invited to give at another regional school not so far from here. Why was I asked, you ask? Evidently, the organizer talked to someone here who suggested me. And I was stupid enough to feel flattered and say yes when asked.

I talked to the organizer about what sort of thing might be of most interest to the participants, offering up the opinion that I was best at teaching Shakespeare or poetry, and the participants chose poetry. The goal is to help people do a really good job getting students to understand why learning poetry matters, to learn about strategies for reading and understanding poems well, to begin to talk and write about poetry, and to learn some poems.

Anyway, I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about what I'm going to say. I've written an introduction, and more, and rewritten.

I want to talk about getting students to think about reading poetry as a way of practicing close observation skills because I think good reading comes first from close observation. So I want to start by talking about practicing and learning observation of poetry.

I'm thinking of starting my talk with a short narrative to set up the observation issue.

In a time long ago, in a galaxy far far away... wait, that opening's been done.

Hwaet! Not quite original.

Whilom... oh, yeah, that's not gonna work, either. Why have all the good openings been taken?

Back when, I used to be a science major, the type of science major who focused most of my classwork on animals, especially mammals and birds. I was by no means a stellar undergraduate, either. My major required a little flexibility, so at one point I ended up in a botany class about local plant communities, and off I went on a botany plant community field trip with assorted other students, mostly botany types.

We basically hiked in a line along a trail in single file, with the professor at the front of the trail, pointing to a plant, identifying something about it, and the rest passing on that information in a sort of chancy game of post office. I was sort of near the end of the line, in a bunch of botany students. As we'd walk along, various students would point to whatever plants, identifying them by family, usually, and then moving along, all very easy. I would dutifully draw whatever plant was pointed out, and label it with the family name they told me. I didn't know enough to care about the plants, and the whole day was going pretty miserably for me.

Then we passed a large skull nailed to a fence post. One of the botany students said with confidence, "it's a horse" and I corrected with even more confidence, "no, it's a pig." The student looked at me and asked how I knew. I pointed out the teeth, the area for neck muscle attachment at the back of the head, and so forth, and explained why the skull belonged to a pig.

I'd been trained pretty well about what to observe in a vertebrate skull, so I wasn't paying attention just to the size, or the fact that it had some age or sun cracks. I was able to use what I knew of the local vertebrates around to limit the possibilities, but mostly I knew what I was supposed to care about when I looked at a skull: dentition, muscle attachment areas, and so forth. I knew how to observe what we all saw, and how to make it meaningful, how to interpret it. But only that day did I really realize that I'd learned about observing vertebrates in quite that way, because I also realized that I hadn't worked very hard to learn how to observe plants yet. I saw the same plants those botany students did, but I didn't observe them with the same skills or attention.

Similarly, we all see the words when we read poetry. What I seek to teach students are skills in paying attention, observing what's important. The nice thing about poetry compared to skulls, is that we can use those observational skills honed on poetry to read the written word wherever we find it.

Well, that's the new revised beginning. What do you think? I'm hoping for something not too long, but something that will help make the point that observational skills are my primary focus in teaching poetry.

If you hear a really familiar talk like this in the near future, please don't let on, okay? But I'll buy anyone a cup of coffee who says something to me!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A quick break from grading

I've got two BIG things due in about two weeks, and another in one week.

What was I thinking? Why do I say yes?

On the other hand. I've been accepted to teach overseas for a semester next year. Now I have to learn another language!

I've been practicing my one usable foreign language a lot lately, chatting with my friend's mother-in-law, and today I actually realized that my ease is picking up again.

Sometimes life levels out. But this semester feels like I'm on a very uphill learning curve. Everything's a challenge, new classes, new committee tasks, social stuff.

Back to grading.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


I'm really slow sometimes.

I've come to realize in the past week or so how strongly my reaction to grieving issues intertwines with the times I've grieved in the past, and my experiences of grieving.

Shortly after my father's death, I got angry with the way a well-meaning neighbor handled something. My father died a couple weeks before my birthday, and I went to the family home along with my sibling, and stayed for a while, almost until my birthday. The neighbor, in a totally well-meaning way, decided that she needed to make a birthday party for me before I left, complete with cake and such. I think I told her that I'd rather not celebrate my birthday there and then. But maybe I didn't tell her. At any rate, she went ahead with the party plans.

And at the party, she made a big point about how now my birthday and my Dad's new birthday could be celebrated together. Now, for her, a Christian, maybe that seemed like a perfectly cheerful idea, but it didn't do much for me.

I tried not to reveal my anger because making a big deal would have upset and hurt other people needlessly. So I hope she never knew how upset I was. As happens, my anger diminished greatly over time. It's not something worth focusing on, really, and I didn't. It hasn't ruined my birthday practices since nor my otherwise happy relationship with my former neighbor.

But in the past week or so of long walks and conversations, I couldn't help thinking about my neighbor. And even though it wasn't pleasant, she taught me an invaluable lesson by throwing me that birthday party, a lesson I hope I'll keep as long as I have need. It wasn't the Christian lesson I think she hoped to teach me, but it's my lesson. And recognizing the lesson has helped me put my anger fully aside.

The stupid thing is, I should have been smart enough to see the lesson long ago, but only lately have I been observing grief in quite this way, inside and out, seeing how differently people deal with their loss and how many conflicts and hurts they can cause by not being open to the differences. There's more than one way to grieve. That's the lesson.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Where's the Outrage?

Since I can remember, I've heard various news pundits and read various opinion pieces expressing outrage that moderate Muslims don't condemn all acts of violence by other Muslims, especially acts of violence against westerners or specifically against people in or from the US.

Most of these folks subtly (or not so subtly) lump all Muslims together because those not committing acts of violence aren't visibly (visibly to popular western and US media) acting against those who commit acts of violence. These folks make a lot of noise. Not surprisingly, most of these folks are white and male, and most represent conservative points of view.

Last week, I was horrified by the news of the school shooting in Bailey, Colorado; the news reports all mentioned that the shooter chose girls.

Last night, when I got home, I saw the news about the Amish school girls killed in Pennsylvania; again the news reports all mentioned that the shooter chose girls, and released boys and women.
Why isn't the press focusing on the fact that these are acts against GIRLS, and not acts against random children? These men chose to kill GIRLS, and not boys. (Aunt B. at Tiny Cat Pants does a good job articulating the issue here.)

I know my feminist male friends share my outraged and recognize that the violence we've seen against girls in schools is only the latest most visible tip of the larger social violence against girls and women in our culture. I know many of them actively work to end violence against women, supporting feminist activities on campus and in the community, working to support the local domestic violence shelter, mentoring women.

But I want to hear is some public outrage. I want those same conservative pundits to recognize that as American men, they should hold themselves to the same standards they want to hold all Muslims to: they should be responsible for standing up and publicly taking a position against violence against women. I want all those preachers I see in the media to preach against the violence. They should take responsibility for the way their community acts.

If every man in the US took a stand and decided that he would never commit an act of violence against a woman, that he would never rape or condone rape, and that he would act to stop violence against women in his community, we'd pretty much end problems with violence against women. (Some violence is committed by other women, of course, but compared to the violence enacted by men, it's rare. And I'd be willing to take that on if we could get the men to do their part.)

I want the president to stand up and say that violence against women is unacceptable. I read today that the White House will be hosting a discussion about school violence; these recent shootings* aren't random school violence, they're violence against GIRLS. The president needs to recognize that.

He uses strong language to suggest that people against the US war on Iraq are somehow disloyal. I want him to use strong language about the violence against women. And then I want him and every single member of congress to back it up with real action, and I want every police officer, every prosecutor, every mayor and councilmember to take violence against women seriously.

I don't want to hear about women deserving violence or bringing it on ourselves. I don't want to hear that those Amish girls made the shooter execute them. I don't want to hear that the girls in Bailey deserved to be assaulted.

I want to hear the press actually analyze how violence against girls and women happens, and to be self-critical in their reporting of these acts of violence.

Terrorism should be defined as the inflicting of terror on others. Women are being terrorized by men. Men need to recognize it, take responsibility, and end it. NOW.

*The third shooting this week killed a school Principal in Wisconsin. I don't know what the shooter's intentions were. Violence all around is unacceptable, but we need to distinguish violence which focuses on females as females specifically because something different is happening when someone enters a school and selects only girls to attack and/or kill.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I was observed by a colleague today for a teaching evaluation. We do this on a periodic basis, much more often before tenure, but also after tenure.

In a way, after tenure is much more useful, or maybe just for me, or maybe just this particular observation.

My colleague came to observe me teach my writing class. Now, I'm a Shakespearean at heart, not a composition specialist. That divide is something a lot of English faculty members experience in a deep way at regional and small liberal arts type schools. We're incredibly trained in our field of literature, but we end up teaching a LOT in a field we're far less trained in.

I have some clues about research and findings in composition studies, but not nearly in the way I do about Shakespeare or early modern studies. I've adopted techniques and tried to make them my own, and I think I do pretty well, but it's not the same teaching experience for me. In lit classes, I'm more at home, so it's easier to take a real chance, to teach a novel I've never taught. In writing classes, I tend to stick closer to what I've found that works, and it's harder to try new things, even when they seem really smart and useful.

I try, though. For one thing, I try to use essay assignments that other professors have successfully developed, adapting them to my own classroom and teaching practices. Doing that helps me repeat specific assignments less often, so I can think of better ways to teach them more easily, since they're fresher for me. And because I adapt the assignments I get from my colleagues, it means I can fight the possibility of plagiarism a bit more effectively.

For me, then, today's observation of my writing class was a challenge, and I certainly did feel a bit of stress, but it was also an opportunity, because the colleague (I'll call this colleague, C) approaches teaching from a different angle than I do, but with a lot of the same goals. C, though, because s/he has a different specialty within our department, sees things a little differently, and can articulate some things I have difficulty with.

So, let me just say, my students were fantastic. While I struggle often to teach composition, it's also probably the most rewarding class I teach because the students generally really respond actively and well; they want to learn, want to engage with difficult material. They jumped right in to respond to questions, revealed that they actually learned what I thought I taught them last week about paragraph organization, focused right on their group work. I couldn't really have asked for a better showcase.

And mostly, I did a good job teaching and was able to bring some of my strengths as a teacher to the class.

Better yet, C was able to help me see one of the teaching "problems" in a new way. By teaching "problem," I mean the kind of problem where you ask, how can I best teach X here and now. Then you figure out what seems like the best way, and off you go. I don't mean "Bardiac's a bad teacher" sort of problem.

So, the issue has to do with how to help students work with the Christensen method of paragraph analysis in order to learn how to revise paragraphs more effectively. We'd worked through the list and step sequence paragraphs last week, so we reviewed those quickly (because the students were able to explain them and make up an example well, revealing that they remembered! Go students!), and then I taught them the mixed sequence paragraph. They all wrote a mixed sequence paragraph, and checked them together, so I knew they had the basics.

Then I had an overhead of a paragraph from a student's rough draft (by permission), and we numbered that, figured out where the numbering wasn't working right, and talked a bit about how to revise it. (C suggested that I should have given them more time and actually worked on revising it right there and then some; see, that's what I mean! C saw with a slightly different angle and was able to make a helpful suggestion.)

Then I had a photocopy of old student paragraphs (also by permission), and had them work together in groups to revise that. I basically told them that these were from a previous class, from an essay assignment they wouldn't see. They seemed to have a reasonably easy time numbering the sentences and showing the relationships, but then got stuck at trying to make revision suggestions. (And, revision suggestions are the name of the game in learning paragraph analysis! It's not just the fun of numbering sentences.)

Now, here's C's genius. C said (afterwards) that I might have set up the paragraphs with some rhetorical context. If I'd given them a copy of the essay assignment, and said, here's a paragraph trying to make a point in THIS assignment, then the students would have had a "problem" to help the writer solve, and so probably would have had an easier time suggesting revisions to solve the specific problem. As it was, I asked them to solve a problem without enough context, and since they're inexperienced, they had a much harder time.

And, of course, in real revision, we pretty much always have the context, be it the essay assignment or an idea of what the boss wants in a memo. So giving them the context would be better preparation all around.

I've got to revise my handout now!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Head down, getting through

Like lots of folks, I'm at odds these days. Surely what the US government is doing in the new terrorism bill deserves, I don't know, massive protest? Something. Shouldn't we be marching on Washington DEMANDING that these evil inhumane beings be subjected to just the treatment they're so willing to treat others to?

Crooked Timber has a post on waterboarding linking to David Corn's post on waterboarding. Really, we're in great company with the Khmer Rouge on torture. It takes me back to the not so new question, "Who would Jesus torture?" I have no religion, no religious beliefs or feelings, so I don't really have a stake in the Jesus thing. But there are bunches of people who think the US should torture people who seem to claim a connection to Jesus and Christianity. If I'm wrong, oh well. But if Bush and the congressmembers who voted for this bill and who believe in a benevolent god who said to turn the other cheek and an afterlife and all are right, then there's hell to pay.

For an "If it weren't so scary it would be funny" post, check out what happens when Ryan bird wrote "Kip Hawley's an Idiot" on a plastic bag and tried to take it through airport security. (Hat tip to Pharyngula's post on the subject.)

Something's terribly wrong. I should literally be up in arms. I should be demanding that my representatives move to impeach Bush.

But I'm barely getting by, teaching two new classes (my own idiotic fault), doing service stuff that needs to be done, but takes huge time, getting things together for a talk, and a conference, and bureaucratic stuff that has to be done.

Is it a grand conspiracy to work people til we're grindingly tired so that we can't do what we ought, what we should? Why am I letting this happen?

PS. Why yes, it's 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon, and I am in the office, mostly working with a short blog break. What's sad is that there are at least three of us here this afternoon.