Wednesday, November 29, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, what do you think: donation or no?

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Travel Days?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you folks think?

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

Meme Research Meme

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2006

U Turn Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research and Dead Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Test - The Wine Clip

We ran a test, semi-scientifically and everything.

My guests brought something called a "wine clip," which is a magnet device that fits over the neck of a bottle of wine. It's supposed to be a special "rare earth" magnet, and when the wine pours through the magnet, the magnet's supposed to instantly aerate it. Uh huh. When my guests first told me about this gadget, I was skeptical and dropped an email to one of the physics profs here at NWU, because seriously, if a little magnet could rearrange the molecules in wine that fast, what would an MRI do to people? Or one of those electromagnetic turbines making electricity in a hydroelectric dam?

He kindly emailed back agreeing that my skepticism was reasonable, and sent me to this website reviewing the thing. As you can see, the reviewer wasn't impressed.

But we decided to run a test, though only with one bottle for the moment. (Ideally, I wanted to test it with a couple of bottles, but we only opened one at a time. Great restraint we have, eh?)

I sent my guests out of the room, flipped a coin, and poured one glass without and two with the magnet, putting a marked index card face down under each glass. Then I sent my guests in to do the taste test and left the room.

I asked them to record their observations, but they just wrote down their conclusions about which glass(es) were treated. So much for our scientific method.

Statistically, they failed. There's a 1/3 chance that they'd guess correctly about any single glass, and they hit that pretty much.

Now the question is, why did my guests actually think a magnet could do anything to wine? And for when a magnet really is working (on my refrigerator, for example), why would it matter if it's "rare earth" or just magnetized iron? Isn't a magnetic field a magnetic field?

So much for Thanksgiving Day science at the BardiacShack!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Preparing for Visitors

This made me laugh: Amy Sedaris Seems to have a book out entitled I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence.

Here's a suggestion: "A good trick is to fill your medicine cabinet with marbles. Nothing announces a nosy guest better than an avalanche of marbles hitting a porcelain sink."

I'm totally cracking up. I would so want to run home and do this except that I don't have a medicine cabinet (what's up with building houses without medicine cabinets in ANY bathrooms?) and my one predictable and not very exciting medication lives in the kitchen so I can take it with breakfast and not forget.

A student in my class on the body suggested Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper, and I got it the other day when I went to the bookstore to grade. I didn't get much grading done, but I'm about halfway done with Picoult, and it's readable, interesting, and engaging. The book is narrated by several characters, and each one gets a different type-font; I'm interested in how two of the characters who seem quite close in some ways share similar type-fonts. Now I'll have to look for similarities in other fonts. The book starts with the basic problem that a thirteen-year-old (Annie), who was selected as an embryo to be genetically similar in certain areas with her sister, who'd been recently diagnosed with a serious leukemia, doesn't want to donate a kidney to her sister who's having kidney failure. It's a challenging premise, and working out in ways that aren't totally predictable, so I'm enjoying that.

On not Biting

Happy Thanksgiving!

I used to love Thanksgivings when I was a kid. Now, I tend to stress over things, worry them to death, and I really shouldn't.

My Mom's visiting; she got in last night. She decided to try my bike trainer (it holds the rear wheel in place against a rolling bar whose pressure and resistance you can change so you can sort of ride your bike inside) and declared that my bike seat (strategically designed!) was uncomfortable. I said to make sure she's sitting back on the pads on her bones, and she responded that I probably just have a lot more padding back there. Um, thanks. I bit my tongue.

I can't change things, but I can change me. And that's the goal for this weekend: not to bite at the bait. To just let things roll off.

So far, I'm not having great success.

It's so easy to fall into old patterns, even though I hate them.

When I was a kid, adults seemed to have such control, to be adults. I feel like I've never gotten there on some level.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Class Presentations!

My first year writing students are doing their class presentations for their research papers now, and by golly, they've been doing a really super job! Somehow, this group seems to have figured out how to make a powerpoint presentation that works, few slides, but meaningful ones, minimal bullet point stuff (instead, graphs, pictures, and such), and good information.

We did some brainstorming ahead of time about what makes a good presentation and what makes a lousy one, but I've done that for years without much success. This group somehow seems to understand and be able to put the good stuff into practice. Not all used powerpoint, but the ones who did, used it well. And the ones who didn't used other strategies to communicate.

Sometimes their thoughts still surprise me. For example, one student talked today about how much she wants to go spend the summer at home. Me? I found myself an internship in order to avoid going home my first summer, and would have avoided it every summer if I could have realistically afforded to. But these folks seem to like home more than I did, or something. (And it's not that I went to college in some happening place. The saying at my school was that the men were men, the women were too, and the sheep were nervous. On more than one occasion, I actually went to watch cows chew their cud just to see something different. I never participated in cow tipping, however, so no worries on that front.)

More presentations on Wednesday. I should take bets on how many students are absent. Quiz time!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

What's "Women's Lit"?

We have a requirement for lit majors here at NWU for one class on "Women's Literature." Now, when I see that requirement, I think first and foremost of writing by women. Similarly, when I see a requirement for a class on American ethnic lit, I think of writing by people not in the majority ethnic group in the US. (I'm thinking of primary readings here.)

There's a disagreement, however, among some folks here who want to use primary readings by men and talk about the ways they represent women.

At this point, I'm unconvinced, but I'd like to hear from the wisdom of the blogosphere.

Here's my basic thinking: in any course I teach, I'm likely to talk about the ways the text(s) represent women and men (since most of lit is about representing people, right? And no one is a non-gendered person, just as no one lacks race, culture, ethnicity; my courses also talk about representations of whiteness when appropriate). So students in my Shakespeare class, for example, get opportunities to talk about the ways a man (working in a male dominated theatrical tradition) represents male and female experience. Students have far fewer opportunities to talk about the ways women represent male and female experience, and I think that's my goal in voting for a requirement for women's lit.

I find value in Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own that men have been writing about women for a long time as if they own knowledge about women, but women's writing about their own experiences is different.

Yet I'm unwilling to essentialize bodies in terms required by ecriture feminine; I think gender experience is cultural AND physical. Add in complications about anonymous or pseudonymous writers; is George Eliot working culturally as a male on some level that makes her writing inappropriate for a women's lit course? Is anonymous really a woman?

Here's another complication: our film courses on Native American's in Film, or Film and African American Experience use films/texts produced, directed, and acted by mostly whites, and find those texts useful in their analyses.

The question matters because we write course descriptions and decide which course will meet which requirements. Do we write the course description as "writing by women" or as "writing about women"? If I do a course on women in Shakespeare, should it count for the women's lit requirement? (I'd argue no at this point, for the reasons I've stated above.)

What do you think, oh voices of the blogosphere?

Friday, November 17, 2006

This is a good idea (NOT)

The Bush administration has appointed Eric Keroak to head up the federal Office of Population Affairs. That's the office that's supposed to help women with family planning.

The problem? Seems the guy doesn't believe in contraception. Or pre-marital sex. [I'm guessing he doesn't believe that lesbians and gays should ever be allowed to have sex outside Massachusetts (and then only when legally married).]

News link to CNN (may be time sensitive).

And here's Yahoo's version of the event (also likely to be time sensitive).

And here's what Planned Parenthood thinks.

So the family planning thing? Are we supposed to "plan" for lots of babies, whether we want them or not?

This sort of thing infuriates me. Not that anyone in the administration cares what I think, obviously.

I sent off a check to Planned Parenthood early this month, and got back a nice note. It was more than I could really afford, sort of, but I feel like things are going badly (socially, I mean), and these folks have my back, so to speak.

Something to hold on to

I've been feeling out of sorts for about a couple of weeks now, the culmination (or current culmination, more aptly) of something not great happening. Now, in the grand scheme of not great things, this is probably a 1 on a scale of 1 to 100. But still, I've been down. It's enough a work thing that I don't want to be here, and enough a home thing that I don't want to be there.

I'm trying not to open my mouth because I'm afraid of what I'll say. What comes out of my mouth sounds false no matter what it is. "Hello" in the store sounds wrong, even.

When I'm down, I get through by holding onto things. This morning, I'm holding onto a blue "chamois" shirt, not the leather, but the cotton. The fabric's a little thicker than regular cotton.

Some years ago, my friend B gave me this shirt because I'd admired one she had. I wore it occasionally as a sort of makeshift sweater because buttoning it and all was a little tight. But today for the first time, I'm wearing it as a shirt, tucked in over my long johns.

That's what I'm holding onto today. I can tuck in a shirt that used to feel too thick to tuck in, and I can tuck it in over long johns, into my jeans, and they don't feel too tight.

I've lost about 10 pounds since the beginning of October, when I really put my foot down and decided it was time to finally lose the rest of the weight I need to lose. That's incredibly slow weight loss, but at least it's incrementally something, and wearing this shirt feels like the first sort of "evidence" I have for myself that I've succeeded a little for now.

Last evening, I needed to do some grocery shopping. In the past, when I've been down, I've turned to chocolate; my weaknesses center on chocolate covered malt balls, chocolate covered raisins, and when things are at their apex, chocolate covered "honeycomb." I assiduously avoided the aisles with candy and such yesterday, and when I was hungry at home, had some chicken salad. So I'm holding onto that today, too.

A ten year old shirt and chicken salad. That's what things have come down to today. FSM, I'm pathetic.

Secrets of The Writing Class Research Assignment (Part 1)

Thanks for all the encouraging and kind comments about the research paper assignment. I really needed some encouragement this week, and in that virtual way, your comments helped tons.

Since a couple folks asked, I'm happy to share the assignment. Please feel free to use what seems useful to you. I also thought I'd talk a bit more about the assignment, especially what I've learned that makes it work well for me.

I hand out this assignment in two parts, the first part coming quite early in the mid-semester. At that point we begin brainstorming questions for the research paper while we're also working on another shorter paper. That way, they should have a good question going, ample time to start research and time to request interlibrary loans by the time we're really working on the research essay as a class.

Here's what I hand out at first, followed by the some secrets of the assignment:

Develop skills in asking useful research questions
in “wallowing in complexity”
in using the library effectively
in putting together a strong thesis statement
in compiling information and relating it to readers
using information fairly and accurately in an essay
arguing a point and answering a question

The assignment: Ask a real world question about an important issue in your life or in your field(s) of study; research that question and write a strong, thesis-driven essay which argues for a specific answer to your question. Your question needs to be real, practical, well-developed, thought-out, do-able (by you and in the time alloted). Your essay should use primary and secondary sources, and should explain the question and argue for a specific answer. That answer MAY be about the current state of knowledge, of course.

Why? This essay is modeled on real research, especially research as I experience it in doing real academic research and writing. I’m going to draw examples from my research, because that’s fairly formal, generally. Though usually longer than any of your papers should be, my research essays seek answers to a question in a specific field.

The most important step in starting this essay is developing a strong question. One of your considerations should be “do-ability.” By “do-ability,” I mean that you must consider whether you can find an answer to your question. For example, if your question is about ancient Sanskrit writing, and you don’t read ancient Sanskrit, you are as yet unqualified to work on this question and so will have HUGE problems. You should choose another question. Similarly, say you have a question about conditions in Kobe, Japan since the 1985 earthquake that requires you to travel to Kobe; you probably don’t have the resources or time to travel to Kobe. Again, you should choose another question.

A sample question:
What kind of imagery do scientists use in scientific papers and in popular writing about science to discuss human fertilization? Do gender stereotypes influence this imagery? Has this imagery changed in the recent past (and if so, is the change related to increasing numbers of women in the field and the feminist movement)?

Note that my question has several sub-questions. It’s also a question I could do, since I was a science major as an undergraduate and am comfortable with scientific writing, and since I have well-developed skills in analyzing.

We will start this essay now in order to get a good start on asking real questions; then we will turn to [the other essay]. So while you’re working on your research question, you can also start thinking about [that].

For now, begin brainstorming about possible questions. Having a really good question is the BEST way to write a great essay. I’ll give you a more specific handout with assignment details before long.
[end of handout]

Secret 1) The key for good essays from this assignment is to get students thinking of really good questions. Lousy questions lead to lousy papers. Good questions give students a better chance to write really good papers.

It's my job to help them come up with good questions. More on this in the next post.

Those who teach writing know that teaching process skills, helping students break things down into smaller parts, practicing brainstorming exercises all help students write better papers. This assignment comes at the end of a semester in which we've been working on these skills, and hopefully builds on these skills. But just having practiced the skills a few times doesn't work; I have to reinforce them throughout. I work in several opportunities for different sorts of feedback from myself, from peers, and from a large group.

Secret 2) The questions have to be "real" for the students. That is, the students can't "know" the answer (or have a really strong opinion).

So if a student of mine says she wants to write about how feminism is wonderful, I steer her clear, even though I agree. Instead, I try to get her to think of questions: what are current movements in feminism? What are the questions facing feminists in local politics? At the school? What programs does our school have to teach or support feminism? What's the value of Women's Studies classes? Any of those questions will allow her to explore and learn about something she cares about. None will let her just repeat what she "knows."

The "real" question thing means that I can steer students away from writing about why abortion is bad if they've already decided it is. And the student who comes to me saying that they know a lot about X because they did a paper on it in high school I also try to steer to a different topic. (Why do they even come to me about that? If they really want to just do it, why do they talk to me about it?)

The "real" to them thing means that their research may lead them to learn about knowledge built up by others. That's fine, so long as they're learning how to find information, put things together, and can explain why they think what they do at the end.

Secret 3) Everyone procrastinates. So that's not really much of a secret, but most of us do. So I structure the assignment so that my students have some smaller assignments due along the path. Completing these smaller assignments means they're getting started, and each of the assignments helps them with the overall process. I also arrange for a library learning session early on in the process because my students don't generally have good skills at using library resources.

Many students will need a lot of guidance and reassurance about the project. I resist giving page limits, or time limits for the presentations, but I give broad parameters. This assignment often lends itself well to one of two overall organizational structures. We talk about these structures in class. We also talk about breaking the essay down into parts, especially separately labeled sub-sections.

Secret 4) I don't know everything. (SURPRISE!) That means that I can't always help my students with their learning, but I have strong research skills, I know people, and I'm not afraid to sound stupid by asking questions. I encourage students to meet with me, but also to interview other professors, professionals, family members, and so forth. And I strongly encourage people to get to know the reference librarians at the NWU library because reference librarians rock. They know how to find pretty much everything, and they're superbly willing to help.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Writing Class Research Assignment

At some point, our department decided that all our first year writing courses should include a research assignment of some kind. Our goals are to begin teaching students how to work out research questions, how to find their ways around the library (physically and virtually), how to begin to evaluate sources, and how to use sources in an argument. It's a lot, but in reality it's just a beginning, and other classes are going to have to teach research skills specific to those classes in order for students to really master the overall skills.

I ask my students to research a real world question they have. They can choose any real question they have, so long as they don't already "know" the answer and they can "do" it (if they don't read Sanskrit, they can't work on a question relating to ancient Sanskrit). My students have to meet with me about their research (my big activity this week for the class), and give a presentation on their question and answer. A lot of times, the answer comes basically in the form of telling us what the experts think is the answer. That's fine. Sometimes it comes in the student finding an answer for themselves; that's even better.

Most semesters, at least one student writes about choosing a major, choosing a place to live after graduation, or choosing a location for studying abroad. One student wrote about the question of which car his mother should buy; the project culminated with his mother taking three test drives and giving him feedback for the essay. These are great questions, usually pretty do-able. They have to think about their criteria, weight their criteria, and then see how things match up.

The most disappointing essay like that I ever got came from a student who asked whether she should move to a different school to study a really specific subject not taught here. Her essay answered yes and gave a well-reasoned argument for making the move. But my disappointment came when after the semester ended, she stayed in town working at a local eatery. I asked her about moving, but she said she just hadn't, and sounded overwhelmed with family requirements and demands. I wish she'd at least tried, but maybe she will someday.

I also usually get good research papers from questions about family health stuff. They ask what they can do to avoid becoming alcoholics, whether it's learned or genetic. They ask how what causes certain birth defects, and whether their children are likely to inherit such defects genetically. And they ask what different diseases are (diabetes is a common choice, so are some cancers), and how they might avoid getting them. There are big stories behind these questions, and sometimes students are (to my mind) startlingly open about their concerns.

I've learned two things about the health-questioning students from this assignment. First, a lot of my students have dealt with devastating family issues the likes of which I've never faced. I can't imagine growing up with some of the difficulties some of my students have had. Second, my students are curious and often uninformed about the problems they've faced in their families. Maybe they were told but didn't understand, or told as little kids, and then things didn't get discussed much as they got older, or maybe their families weren't interested in discussing the issues, but they're really interested in learning about whatever problem.

I met with all my students this week in conferences about their papers, and not one of them missed or was even late for their appointments. Can I just say, "HURRAY" to that?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blogger Comments Question

A quick question for those in the blogger know: I used to end up with comments emailed to me, but in the past couple days, there have been comments, but no emails. I even tried commenting myself but got no email.

Any ideas?

(Nope, I didn't change settings.)


Ethelred II has, in my humble opinion, the best epithet of any English King, including Farmer George. He's usually known as Ethelred the Unready, or, if you like Old English, Aethelred Unraed (where the "th" should be a thorn, and the AE is an ash). "Unready" here doesn't mean "unprepared," but "unadvised," or "poorly counseled." Evidently his attempts to buy off the Vikings was considered a bad idea. Ironically, Aethelred may mean "noble counsel" in OE, so the nickname's a bit of a pun.

It's advising season, and yes, my student Ethelred dropped by. Ethelred's a new advisee for me; in this case, Ethelred is a first semester student (a freshman, in the old parlance), so I've got an advising sheet from his summer meeting with a faculty advisor. Sometimes by the time late summer advisees get their classes, they have few choices, but usually the faculty advisor figures things out pretty well for new students. Unfortunately, what the faculty advisor wrote down about a suggested course of study for the first semester bears little relation to what classes Ethelred signed up for.

Now, sometimes the summer advisors make mistakes. I have an advisee who put down a totally different major, but was somehow assigned to me at that first meeting. Go figure. But usually the faculty member who takes on the summer advising job is beyond competent and smart.

Ethelred, on the other hand, seems to have decided that the summer faculty advisor was totally wrong, and so he chose different classes. Unfortunately, he's basically spent a semester taking courses that won't help him go where he says he wants to go as a course of study. Some of them will work for general education, but not in a way that makes for a really useful general education. (In my fantasy life, people actually think about what general education classes they take, and form a kind of coherent, meaningful set of experiences. But then, I live a rich and full fantasy life.)

I advised Ethelred on the classes I think he should take this coming semester, and why, and gave him a couple of "assignments" (in the form of: go talk to person X, go talk to the career center folks, and such) so that he can get himself a bit better informed about his major (no, teaching High School isn't actually the only job one could imagine with an English major, and besides, it's a very specialized major within the department) and the opportunities he's got here at NWU. We'll see how he does with signing up and the tasks.

Maybe he'll lose the epithet. I can hope!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


I went home yesterday to grade on the couch, and just couldn't get warm. You know the feeling, just cold through and through, and can't get warm. It's been coming on for me over the past day or two; I've woken up okay, but in the evening just feel like I can't get warm. Bad cold coming on.

Then this morning, I woke up at 4am, almost shivering under my quilt and blankets. I eventually forced myself out of bed for some hot tea, wrapped in a blanket, turned on the space heater, and tried to get warm with little success.

I decided to give in and turn up the thermostat, and there, lo and behold, it said the house was at 56F, because the batteries were low.

It appears that I've found the cure for the common cold, and it's two AA batteries.


I saw this up at Ancrene Wiseass.

Your results:
You are Jean-Luc Picard
Jean-Luc Picard
An Expendable Character (Redshirt)
Mr. Sulu
Geordi LaForge
Will Riker
Deanna Troi
Mr. Scott
James T. Kirk (Captain)
Leonard McCoy (Bones)
Beverly Crusher
A lover of Shakespeare and other fine literature. You have a decisive mind and a firm hand in dealing with others.

Click here to take the "Which Star Trek character are you?" quiz...

I actually look NOTHING like Picard, either. But we both like that Shakespeare guy, so that's something. I feel more like an expendable red-shirt, sometimes. It's interesting that Picard and the expendable red-shirts seem to have a lot in common.

I am a cyborg, so maybe that's the connection?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Student Troubles?

I just had a chat with a colleague.

This morning, she'd talked eagerly about a student doing a research project, how smart the student is, how driven, what a perfectionist. I know the student from a class a couple years ago, but I haven't really seen her since; she was a good student then, but has since become stellar. My colleague hinted that it would be cool if I'm around today to get a chance to see some of the results of this student's work. She's interested in going to graduate school, and my colleague's enthusiastic about her prospects. Yes, her work as an undergrad is that cool.

We chatted on, and my colleague said that she'd learned this student had health problem X recently, a serious health problem we don't usually associate with female college students that had involved a visit to the hospital. And, my colleague noted, there have been a lot of difficulties for this student's family in recent times, accidents and tragedies. I remember noting that if she was having health problem X already, as an undergrad, well, grad school didn't get easier stress-wise, right?

Later, as I was thinking, my brain clicked. Click. Click. Something struck me about health problem X, unusual in college students. Except, I recently read or heard about health problem X as a particular problem for young women with a certain eating disorder.

I stopped my colleague in the hall a few minutes ago, before she's supposed to chat with her student, and said vaguely, disconnectedly, "You know, colleague, that health problem X, I haven't seen your student, but you know women with this certain eating disorder sometimes get that health problem. And the really perfectionist thing, and stresses, lack of a sense of control over one's world, also associated with that eating disorder."

My colleague got that sick look.

I'm guessing if the student's weight's an issue, and she has health problem X, then a competent doctor at the hospital would at least think about the eating disorder, right?

Except the doctor wouldn't necessarily see the perfectionist thing, or know about the family stresses, or the other school stresses my colleague's noticed. My colleague, though, is a soul of wisdom and sensitivity, and will talk to the student well if anyone can.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Election Returns

I've been slow to talk about the election returns because I'm of two minds. Most of the candidates I voted for (or would have voted for if I'd lived in the right area) got elected, and I'm happy about that, especially for one or two local candidates. But I'm also not thrilled because the Democrats barely control the House and Senate; they don't have enough control to override a veto or get anything really important done, but they've got enough control to be blamed when nothing happens during the next two years.

The ballot initiatives, referenda, and amendments worry me. My adopted state passed a horrific amendment to name marriage as only between a man and a woman, AND to deny that any non-marital relationships would be treated equally. Basically, that means that not only does the state deny gays and lesbians marriage, but it opens up the possibility that the state could be sued for allowing partner benefits.

Weeks like this, I want to run away and join the circus, preferably a liberally-oriented, friendly circus. Unfortunately, I'm guessing the only circus skill I really have would involve shovels and the wrong ends of the elephants and horses. I suppose I could also get eaten by a lion, but the career options there seem foreshortened.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Some Reading

My book group is reading Emma Donaghue's Slammerkin now, and I just finished it the other day (Harcourt, 2002). I'm unenthused, though I'm not quite sure why.

Lots of folks seem to love it, though. The New York Times calls it a "romping novel." The reviews on the Powell's site sound positive, too (though, of course, they're trying to sell books, so I'm doubting they list many negative reviews; I'd have to look for a while to decide).

I'm trying to figure out why I didn't enjoy the book much, and the thing that seems to stick out is the language. It doesn't feel right or something. Yes, it uses bits of what is (I think) supposed to sound like "authentic" language, especially for body parts ("yard," "cunny," etc). But most of the language feels contemporary, especially through the third person narrator, rather than 18th century.

Admittedly, though, I'm no 18th century scholar, not at all. I'm not someone who reads lots of 18th century novels for fun, even. But this book made me want to go read Tom Jones or something. I can't say that of many books!

And I guess my imagining of 18th century London (and England generally) is lots more chaotic than the book made it sound. Somehow, the book made London sound sparse, if that makes sense. In my imagination, early modern London is full of not only people, but animals. I imagine lots of people kept chickens if they could, dogs were running around, and so on; that would hold even more for Monmouth.

The book makes a big deal of candles, but I didn't get a feel for the period from it, the way I do from, say, a Jane Austen novel. Again, I don't know what I'm expecting, but this book didn't do it for me.

I'm looking forward to hearing what the other members of my reading group have to say; one of us suggested the book with great enthusiasm, so things should be interesting!

On the other hand, I'm in the middle of Patricia Crawford's Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England and it's not only a great read, compelling and fascinating, but has me thinking about lots of fun stuff.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Back to the Past with Friday Poetry Blogging

I have a sickness. It doesn't so much bother me, but it drives my students batty. You see, I love metrical jokes and such. It's pathetic. I'm pathetic.

On that note, here goes, back to poetry blogging:

Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heav'n knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, "This poet lies--
Such heav'nly touches ne'er touched earthly faces."
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage
And stretched meter of an antique song:
But were some child of your alive that time,
You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme.

Yes, that's sonnet #17 from Shake-speares Sonnets. Never before Imprinted. (London, by G. Eld for TT. 1609).

See the bolded word, "stretched"? As you read it, if you haven't already, try saying it two ways, as you normally would [stretch'd] and as a two-syllable word [stretch-ed]. If you say it the second way, it scans perfectly as an iambic pentameter line. And it becomes a "stretched" meter, which makes it part of an antique song fit for scorn, that no one will believe.

My students always give me "that look" (you know the one) when I teach this poem. But I just love the joke here. All the wordplay on "fresh numbers" (lines of verse, metrical verse) "numbering" (counting) all the beloved's graces and stuff just makes me smile.

Then there's the play on the impossibility of getting at real beauty in language, the refusal to actually describe the beloved (eye color? hair color? gender? nada!), finished off by the "make a baby" trope!

I'm teaching a poetry class next semester. Want to suggest some other fun poems?

Teaching a poetry class is a little like living in a candy store, except it's a candy store with a bitter section, with chewy caramel sections, and with joke shaped chocolates. So the analogy doesn't really work, but there we are. And yes, I still need to order my text(s?) for the class.

First Snow

More than once, I've insisted that I'd be perfectly happy to have snow from December 23rd to January 3rd. But when the first snow of the season really hits, I'm as bad as my students for wanting to go outside and play. The way the damp snow this morning lines even the smallest twigs outside my office window charms me. Driving on the slippery roads this morning didn't charm me.

While I consider myself a pretty average driver in general (even though most of us supposedly consider ourselves above average drivers), I'm scarily below average among NorthWoods drivers when it snows. My only defense is to go agonizingly slowly, because I've never really gotten a good feel for sliding around and controlling myself out of a slide. I know and follow the rules, but I don't have the feel of it. I think people who grow up around here have a lot more experience driving on slippery surfaces. (I keep promising myself to someday go out in the middle of an icy night and do car ballet in a big empty parking lot, but I never have.)

My very favorite snow showers happened in the middle of the night; when I had my dog, we used to go play in the new snow. You've probably seen pictures of coyotes hunting mice, doing a sort of pounce thing with their forelegs? My dog would do that with his toy in the snow, submarining it (and himself) into the new whiteness. Our yards never looked pristine and lovely for more than a few minutes, but we had great fun in the quiet middle of the night playing.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

Every so often, I'm struck anew by my strangeness in a strange land. I'm a transplant, and I'm afraid it still shows.

The other day, when it was really cold, I was reminded by the doubled doorway to my office building, and how much I appreciate it. Where I grew up, buildings large and small had pretty much single doorways. But here in the midwest, you enter one doorway, and about ten feet in, you enter a second doorway. When winter hits, you appreciate the second doorway a whole lot.

I finished teaching my evening class last week, and left the office about 9:15 to head to the grocery store for a quick stop. I considered buying a bottle of bourbon to have a nice hot toddy. But, of course, you aren't allowed to buy alcoholic beverages at a store after 9pm or something. You can go to a bar and have a couple drinks, get in your car, and drive on home. But you can't buy a bottle at the store, drive home, and make yourself a drink. I still deep down don't understand this rule (or when it kicks), and I never remember it until I see the ceremonial plastic warning chain in front of the liquor aisles at the store.

Grocery stores in general are very different. Where I'm from, no one gives you a strange look when you buy a couple artichokes. Here, I have to identify them for the check out person, and then I have to explain that they're good, and that yes, I do eat them, and that they're not actually hard to cook at all. Aisles are wider here. So are parking spaces. But local "ethnic" food here leaves a lot to be desired.

When you go to the mall in fall, you can tell the season has changed because the display involves deer stands and not canoes. Every year, I have students tell me in advance that they'll be out of class for the first days or week of deer season. This is normal here. One is advised to wear blaze orange when taking a bike ride or walk on the trail out of town these days.

Where I lived before, people in the movie Fargo made me laugh when they had conversations about snow. Now I've had those very conversations, standing in my driveway, shovel in hand. I don't quite sound like the people in the movie. Yet. But you know the weird hat Frances McDormand's character wears in the movie? I have a hat like that, except without the badge in front. Laugh if you will, but it's nice and warm. People all over town know me by my hat, which is saying something with the winters we have here.

I expect to have some free time this weekend, and I'm planning to put in bulbs. I don't remember people planting bulbs where I grew up, I think because they need more cold to go dormant or something. We get enough cold here and more. I really like bulbs. They give me hope.

I searched out my office bandaid supply this afternoon. I spend from late October through early May every year wrapping one or another finger in a bandaid with a little Neosporin cream because I get these stupid little cracks in the skin that hurt! They get irritated constantly by writing, typing, any old day-to-day activity. This week it's my left thumb. Last week was my right thumb. Tomorrow, the world!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rereading Patchwork Girl

I taught Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995) for the first time in ages recently. I had my first exposure to the text way back in the mid-1990s. I assume most people haven't heard of, much less read the text, so before I ramble on, I'd like to describe it.

Jackson's text responds primarily to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, secondarily to L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl, Mary Shelley's biography, history of science/medicine, and so forth. The text talks about the imagined (and much desired by Victor Frankenstein's Creature) female Creature, except that in this text the female Creature has been created and has a story to tell; indeed, each of her body parts has a story of sorts about its source person. In addition, there's a journal "by" a character identified with Mary Shelley, that talks about creating the creature out of stuff, including textual passages.

Jackson's text is what's called a "hypertext," which means it's a text with "links" one can click; web pages are probably the form of hypertext you're most familiar with, including the blog you're reading right now. But Jackson writing in the early 90s, didn't have great html to work with (because html was being developed in the early 1990s). So the text is in a format/program called "Storyspace." While Storyspace works pretty well, it's different from what those of us who surf html documents a lot are used to.

In short, then, you enter Patchwork Girl by opening it in a program (which may happen automatically if you've loaded it into your computer and moved the shortcut icon to your desktop). The first screen you see is a picture of a naked "female" body, white against a black background. You click on the body with your cursor, and you get a title page telling you the title, Patchwork Girl; or a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley, & Herself. Below the title you have some choices, each of which takes you to a different path of screens, with texts or pictures (often of the body picture rearranged by parts).

When I first encountered the text, I was blown away by its creativity, by the ways that the text forces the reader to put things together in sort of the same way that the creature's body is put together. But I was also frustrated, because it's difficult to put the text together, and requires me to either take extensive notes, basically recreating the screens and joining them together to try to make narratives that I can coherently hold in my head.

My experience with the text also made me really aware (hyper-aware! hee!) of how physically I respond to texts. I really like to write on books, to read leaning back in a chair, or hunched over a table with notes. But even though Storyspace provides a way for readers to take notes within (or not?) the text, I've never typed in notes. And I think that's probably part of the point of a hypertext, at least of this particular hypertext.

My students were also frustrated by the text, more than I'd thought. They found Storyspace more difficult to use than I remember, perhaps because we're so at ease with html, and the ways html texts "help" us find and make sense of links, with underlining, colors for untried or previously used links, the ways the text shows stuff when we move a cursor "over" things.

In one sense, my reading of a text comes through my balance of time/effort and reward. A really good text amply rewards my time and effort; one of the glories of getting to teach Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or any number of other fun writers is that rereading the texts enriches my experience more and more each time.

And working with it again, the clunkiness of Storyspace compared with html pages is beginning to balance the text in the wrong direction.

We were talking, my students and I, and we started talking about reading technology, and how, despite it's being a really old technology, the book (ours are printed, but manuscripts also work pretty well) is just amazing. Imagine moving from a scroll, where finding your spot took rolling and unrolling, to a book. Imagine the genius who first thought to number pages! And the genius who made the first table of contents linked to page numbers.

Alas, Patchwork Girl, despite its creativity and very cool mode of story-telling, seems technologically dated in a way that Frankenstein doesn't. That isn't to say that Frankenstein is a transparent or easy narrative in any way, but that we're so practiced at reading books that we know how to approach most books. We should learn anew how to read with each book, at least a little, but the basics apply: open the cover, start at one end, continue to the other end. (Okay, so some mystery readers break the "rules." Rules are made to be broken, right?)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Representing Shakespeare

My Shakespeare class next semester is supposed to be a representative class, basically including plays across genres and the playwrighting span of his life.

I have a not-so-secret goal that I'm slowly accomplishing; by the end of my teaching career, I want to have taught all of Shakespeare's plays. (I'm afraid I have no such goal for teaching all the narrative poems or sonnets, though I do teach Lucrece and a variety of sonnets fairly often.) Mostly my goal isn't that difficult to work on, but I have a hard time thinking Timon is going to fit into a syllabus easily, or the Henry 6 trilogy. King John I can imagine, but I haven't really gone there yet.)

I'm roughly thinking:

Comedies: Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labors Lost (a NEW play for me)

Histories: 1 Henry 4, then either Henry 5, OR 2 Henry 4 (a NEW play for me!)

Tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, or Othello. (I love them all, and had I world enough and time...)

Romances: The Tempest, The Winter's Tale. (I've taught all the romances. They're about my favorites!)

One of the plays I've chosen because the university will be putting it on this spring, and I'll be working on it with the production, AND it will be a great thing if my class can all go see the play, and maybe we can get the actors to come in and so on and so forth.

But other than that, they're up for grabs, pretty much. There are some obvious plays that work nicely as pairs: Othello and The Winter's Tale, for example. Lear and 1 Henry 4. But there are other combinations I haven't thought much about.

What do you think? Suggestions?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Weekend Biking Report

I went shopping this weekend, mostly at LandsEnd, but also at the bike shop, where I got some biking tights. Now, lycra and spandex aren't usually textiles I favor (because they don't favor me, to be honest) but it was so cold the other day that I gave in. Shockingly, I tried on two sizes, and fit the lesser size, something that's not at all common in my life. It's equally shocking that I actually tried on clothes, because I absolutely HATE trying on clothes. But at least it was easier with just me, not having to "model" what I was trying on for someone else's opinion.

To celebrate, more or less, I went for a ride, and it was the kind of glorious day outside that makes me full of joy, glad to be alive, grateful to be able to get outside and ride around. I did 20 miles in 1:18, which, for those of us doing the math, makes an average speed of just under 15 mph. My target lately has been 15 mph, but I hadn't done if for a full 20 miles since I got my bike computer put on (thanks to some friends) in August (and before that, I didn't really measure or time myself so much). The last five miles just rocked; I felt good and pushed hard!

I've never been the kind of person who's all hot on exercising or doesn't feel good if she doesn't exercise every day. But I think that's changing, and I'm rather shocked. I think it's a combination of getting outside, getting fresh air, seeing some nature, and maybe a little getting exercise. But I've been really trying since last year, for all those middle-aged health reasons.

The result? I passed 500 miles on my bike's computer this weekend (outdoor miles; it measures from my front wheel, so doesn't record the inside trainer thing). And I'm probably in the best shape I've been in since I was in my early 20s. I'm amazed. And tired in a good way.

Remember Remember the Fifth of November

I love when planning works: I'm teaching Macbeth in my graduate seminar, and yes, they're reading an early modern text relating to the Gunpowder Plot. Reading about the Gunpowder Plot as a grad student (first I'd heard of it), I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Guy Fawkes and company had actually managed to blow up parliament. I don't feel much sympathy with monarchs, British or otherwise. But I'm also not a big fan of violence in general, including torture. And I tend to sympathize little with people on any side willing to kill for religious beliefs.

Of course, everyone involved is long dead, so my curiousity matters little. However, I'm fascinated to see there's a Gunpowder Plot Society! Their website says they're trying to make information available. Check it out, lots of pictures and stuffs!

Want the rest of the rhyme? Check it out on Wikipedia or from a songs site.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Things I've Done, meme

I saw this up at Anastasia's blog, and it looked fun. What's with me and the memes lately?

Oh, look, it's also up at Terminal Degree, The Paper Chase and One Bright Star (Reignited)!

The idea is that you bold-face the ones you've done. Pick it up if it seems fun for you!

01. Bought everyone in the bar a drink
02. Swam with wild dolphins
03. Climbed a mountain (not all the way up, but to about 16,000 feet)
04. Taken a Ferrari for a test drive
05. Been inside the Great Pyramid
06. Held a tarantula
07. Taken a candlelit bath with someone
08. Said “I love you” and meant it
09. Hugged a tree
10. Bungee jumped
11. Visited Paris
12. Watched a lightning storm at sea
13. Stayed up all night long and saw the sun rise
14. Seen the Northern Lights
15. Gone to a huge sports game
16. Walked the stairs to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa
17. Grown and eaten your own vegetables
18. Touched an iceberg
19. Slept under the stars
20. Changed a baby’s diaper
21. Taken a trip in a hot air balloon
22. Watched a meteor shower
23. Gotten drunk on champagne
24. Given more than you can afford to charity
25. Looked up at the night sky through a telescope
26. Had an uncontrollable giggling fit at the worst possible moment
27. Had a food fight
28. Bet on a winning horse
29. Asked out a stranger
30. Had a snowball fight
31. Screamed as loudly as you possibly can
32. Held a lamb
33. Seen a total solar eclipse
34. Ridden a roller coaster
35. Hit a home run
36. Danced like a fool and not cared who was looking
37. Adopted an accent for an entire day
38. Actually felt happy about your life, even for just a moment
39. Had two hard drives for your computer
40. Visited all 50 states
41. Taken care of someone who was drunk.
42. Had amazing friends
43. Danced with a stranger in a foreign country
44. Watched wild whales
45. Stolen a sign
46. Backpacked in Europe.
47. Taken a road-trip
48. Gone rock climbing
49. Midnight walk on the beach
50. Gone sky diving
51. Visited Ireland
52. Been heartbroken longer than you were actually in love
53. In a restaurant, sat at a stranger’s table and had a meal with them
54. Visited Japan
55. Milked a cow
56. Alphabetized your CDs
57. Pretended to be a superhero
58. Sung karaoke
59. Lounged around in bed all day
60. Played touch football
61. Gone scuba diving
62. Kissed in the rain
63. Played in the mud
64. Played in the rain
65. Gone to a drive-in theater
66. Visited the Great Wall of China
67. Started a business
68. Fallen in love and not had your heart broken
69. Toured ancient sites
70. Taken a martial arts class
71. Played D&D for more than 6 hours straight
72. Gotten married
73. Been in a movie
74. Crashed a party
75. Gotten divorced
76. Gone without food for 5 days
77. Made cookies from scratch
78. Won first prize in a costume contest
79. Ridden a gondola in Venice
80. Gotten a tattoo
81. Rafted the Snake River
82. Been on television news programs as an “expert”
83. Got flowers for no reason
84. Performed on stage
85. Been to Las Vegas
86. Recorded music
87. Eaten shark
88. Kissed on the first date
89. Gone to Thailand
90. Bought a house
91. Been in a combat zone
92. Buried one/both of your parents (well, not literally, but I assume cremation counts?)
93. Been on a cruise ship
94. Spoken more than one language fluently well enough to have a decent conversation
95. Performed in Rocky Horror
96. Raised (raising) children (child)
97. Followed your favorite band/singer on tour
98 seems to be missing?
99. Taken an exotic bicycle tour in a foreign country
100. Picked up and moved to another city to just start over
101. Walked the Golden Gate Bridge
102. Sang loudly in the car, and didn’t stop when you knew someone was looking
103. Had plastic surgery
104. Survived an accident that you shouldn’t have survived
105. Wrote articles for a large publication
106. Lost over 100 pounds
107. Held someone while they were having a flashback
108. Piloted an airplane
109. Touched a stingray
110. Broken someone’s heart
111. Helped an animal give birth
112. Won money on a T.V. game show
113. Broken a bone
114. Gone on an African photo safari
115. Had a facial part pierced other than your ears
116. Fired a rifle, shotgun, or pistol
117. Eaten mushrooms that were gathered in the wild
118. Ridden a horse
119. Had major surgery (it's pretty much major anytime it's me, right?)
120. Had a snake as a pet
121. Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
122. Slept for more than 30 hours over the course of 48 hours (I think, see #119 above)
123. Visited more foreign countries than U.S. states
124. Visited all 7 continents
125. Taken a canoe trip that lasted more than 2 days
126. Eaten kangaroo meat
127. Eaten sushi
128. Had your picture in the newspaper
129. Changed someone’s mind about something you care deeply about
130. Gone back to school
131. Parasailed
132. Touched a cockroach
133. Eaten fried green tomatoes
134. Read The Iliad - and the Odyssey
135. Selected one “important” author who you missed in school, and read
136. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
137. Skipped all your school reunions
138. Communicated with someone without sharing a common spoken language
139. Been elected to public office
140. Written your own computer language
141. Thought to yourself that you’re living your dream
142. Had to put someone you love into hospice care
143. Built your own PC from parts
144. Sold your own artwork to someone who didn’t know you
145. Had a booth at a street fair
146. Dyed your hair
147. Been a DJ
148. Shaved your head
149. Caused a car accident
150. Saved someone’s life

Wow, I need to get busy doing some things!

Though, some of the things on the list don't seem that appealing, the tattoo thing, for example. I'm all about avoiding pain.


I lifted the phone handset in my office, dialed the number for the NWU registrar's office, and got one of those recordings with choices, telling me to press one if I wanted this option, two if I wanted another option, and so forth. Once the message was over, it looped through again, escape proof. Press a number or wait endlessly.

There's one problem. My NWU supplied office phone, which works perfectly, is a dial phone, so I had no buttons to push.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Banging my Head

Some days, I just feel tired.

When I got my first TT job, the SLAC I worked at was just starting into an accreditation cycle, and everything was all about assessment. Basically, the accrediting organization mandated strongly suggested that the SLAC adopt portfolio assessment.

The idea of a portfolio is that students would collect evidence of their work together in a folder, and towards the end of their college career, they'd share this with the college, which would look it over. From the student folders, the college would be able to learn if the college was actually teaching the students what the college said it was teaching students. One of the keys to such assessment is that it's NOT about evaluating student work or learning, it's about evaluating the school. That is, the system imagines that the college does things to "add value to" students, and that portfolios are a way of measuring the "value added." In the system my SLAC adopted students can't be graded on their portfolios, and that portfolio quality can have no impact on graduation or grades; as I understand it, that's typical of most portfolio assessment systems. So students have no stake in the portfolio system. If they do a half-way job, no problem for them. If they hand in an empty folder, there's no problem for them. But for the College, it matters.

I've used "the college" here, but in reality, the college as a corporate entity isn't what does the teaching, and certainly isn't what does the evaluation of the portfolios. So, what happened was that each faculty member was required to help students (primarily advisees) set up a folder, and forced strongly encouraged to maintain a folder (either THE folder, or a copy) in his/her office. This project, we were assured, wouldn't add to our workload, and would be good for us and our students.

I was a new, untenured faculty member who'd never really had any liberal arts experience, so I nodded with whatever enthusiasm I could muster after teaching my four classes that term, and tried to do what needed to be done. I encouraged my advisees to put materials in their portfolio; any materials they thought would show what they'd learned could go in, so my advisees put videos of class presentations, recordings of music sessions, programs from performances, papers, art work, papers, you name it. We were told that our students could use these portfolios to get jobs! To impress people at cocktail parties! Yes, we were told, these portfolios should really be of great benefit to students!

Then graduation time came. The administration told us that we needed to evaluate the portfolios of students graduating in our department, and write up a report about what we were doing well or not. I didn't see any other reports, but my department was doing brilliantly! We were stunning! Our students were miracles of learning and erudition!

Fast forward several years. Take a geographic jump to a colder clime.

When I first came to NWU, the school was also in the throes of accreditation, and by golly, the accrediting organization also strongly suggested we adopt a portfolio system. Being a much larger school, NWU eventually adopted an electronic portfolio system, into which our students might enter anything they wished so long as it's in Microsoft Word (dot doc) format; no need to worry about artwork or performances! And instead of individual advisors or departments reading these portfolios, NWU actually named an Assessment Guru to put together a team every year to read and evaluate.

At the tiny SLAC, an advisor could do a lot to encourage students to actually keep a portfolio; at NWU, there's no incentive for students to keep a portfolio. It adds extra work to their lives without any benefit. Even the pretend benefit of keeping materials together for potential job interviews fades quickly when, within a few short weeks of graduation, students lose all access to the electronic portfolio they've put together, and within a short time thereafter, their work is purged altogether.

Being non-tenured, I nodded with hopeful enthusiasm, and did my best to encourage my advisees to put documents into their portfolio. The Guru encouraged us to give assignments in our first year writing AND other classes that would fit in the portfolio slots, and to require students to put these assignments in their portfolio. And being non-tenured, I complied. The Guru asked us each to let one of the student workers come spend half an hour doing a portfolio presentation for our students. Being non-tenured, I complied. (The presentations were not universally well-done, alas.)

I've toed the party line. I've told students that they should do the portfolio for the university, and also try to benefit from it themselves, by using it to reflect on their university education. I've tried to meet student cynicism with good cheer, with explanations about how reflecting on their experience would be valuable to them. I've given assignments appropriate to the portfolio, and required students to turn in print-outs showing that they've entered documents into the electronic system. Mostly, it's just extra effort to think of ways to get students to put things in their portfolio, make a note of some sort when they do, figure out how that portfolio bit fits into the class.

Doing all of these things gets me no credit; there's no place on MY departmental evaluations that cares about my attempts to work with the portfolio system in various classes. Being known to not do these things could, I suppose, get me some frowns. Making large noises about not doing them would earn me some mutterings.

In the past several months, the Guru has said (publicly) that the portfolio project really isn't working. It seems perhaps (I've only heard hints) the portfolio analyses show that we aren't actually doing something we say we're doing. And the students aren't taking it seriously in high enough numbers. And maybe we're just going to dump the system.

Ten plus years down the line, people (at other schools) I talk to tell me they're dumping their portfolio assessment system because it's unmanageable, doesn't work in some way, adds costs, etc.

So what I'd like to ask all the assessment folks out there: Wouldn't it have been a good idea to actually figure out if portfolio systems really WORK and are do-able before forcing all of us to engage in this process?

Now I'm beginning to hear rumblings about other modes of assessment. These, I'm hearing, will be super effective! They'll be meaningful to our students! We'll know what the "value added to" each student is!

Can I be forgiven for feeling just the slightest tad cynical?

Can I be forgiven when the Marxist inside me wants to know why we're unquestioningly treating human beings as products?

Can I be forgiven when I want to ask what the student is contributing to his/her education?

Because I really do want to profess well, I will try to be reasonably open to the next coming thing.

Because today I feel tired, I just want to smack my head against the wall for comfort.

And I want to ask of the Guru, what research have you done to demonstrate that THIS mode will work more effectively than the old one?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Teaching Carnival #15

New Kid on the Hallway did a great job on this month's Teaching Carnival #15. The organization really works, and there are tons of great posts to read, all of which are way better than grading any day of the week!

Shakespeare: anthology or individual editions

I'm behind on book orders for the courses I'm teaching next term. But I'm nearly caught up on my grading for this term, so maybe there's justice and balance in the universe after all.

Here's the book ordering question of the day: for my Shakespeare class, an anthology or individual editions?

If I order an anthology, then I don't actually have to choose the texts until near the beginning of the semester. This obviously appeals to my inner procrastinator.

But, there are other considerations, and let's face it, it's not all that difficult to choose a representative selection of Shakespeare's texts. As difficult problems go, this surely has to be very low on the list. At any rate, I do use Russ McDonald's wonderful Bedford Companion, so even without an anthology, my students have general introductory information.

Another consideration is book rental; NWU has a system wherein instructors can have the university buy a supply of books that they plan to use and reuse; students in a given class "rent" the books from the university, except that they pay one overall fee, whether or not they're in any class with rental texts. NWU has several Shakespeare anthologies from over the years, mostly rather aged, with an archeological nightmare of layers of notes and highlighting. If I choose an anthology, then my students don't have to buy books for the class, and it saves them a fair bit of money.

One the other hand, rental texts mean they don't buy books. That may make some sense for an intro level chem class where textbooks change every three years and are really expensive, but I'm not sure it makes good sense in a literature class of any sort where relatively cheap paperbacks are readily available. I want my students to own books because I value books in that sort of way. I want them to write in their books, to keep their books, and to reread the notes in their books in 20 years, perhaps to be amused by their insights as young adults. For the average reader, a Shakespeare play isn't going to change much in 20 years.

When I took my very first ever Shakespeare class, I remember admiring greatly Professor J's Riverside Shakespeare, covered in notes, rebound at least once. Just the penned glossings seemed magical.

When I teach Shakespeare, though, I use paperback editions, usually the New Cambridge or Oxford, with the occasional Bedford Contexts or Arden 3. It depends on how much time I've spent with the text, how many editions I've worked with, how my notes are layered. My edition of The Tempest, for example, has a rough map of the Mediterranean drawn on the inside cover, so that I can more or less put it up on the board to give my students an idea of the relative positions of Algiers, Tunis, and Italy are. I'm loath to replace that text even though it's falling apart.

The state of our rental texts demonstrates pretty amply that students feel free to write or highlight those texts, but they don't get ownership of the text, they aren't the ones who've written the notes, and they're likely to get waylaid by reading other students' notes at times.

At this point, I tend to write in just about any text I own, but I think it's easier for students to write in paperbacks; paperbacks are also easier in their backbacks. I'm more likely to bring along a paperback to read with my coffee than a big anthology, and I hope my students are, too.

I remember fondly, during my years at Big Urban Comprehensive U, sitting in the Ec-House across Main Drag from campus, reading Shakespeare, novels, poetry while I drank coffee and felt like part of a community of people who cared about literature and ideas. (The Ec-House had a great reading atmosphere, one I've never seen equaled at another university.) So I want my students to have the sensual pleasures of reading their Shakespeare's in some coffee house (we have a couple good ones not far from campus) or lounging in some random reading chair on campus.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


A while ago now, I had a conversation with a colleague about her research, the kind of conversation one might expect academics have all the time. We stood in the hallway talking about ways to answer a question, and then more about other difficulties with the long-term project, not bad difficulties, but the good difficulties of thinking through complex questions.

The sad thing was that my colleague mentioned it's the first time she's had a conversation about her research with another colleague or gotten any feedback on research in our department in literally years. Equally sadly, I haven't gotten to hold up a wall while talking about anyone's research in ages, either.

We get so busy with committee work, teaching, and so forth sometimes that we miss the trees for the forest.

I miss the times in grad school when people would actually care enough about ideas to stand around and work them over, when people had enough of a shared body of knowledge to hash over questions, and then bring forward other sorts of knowledge to advance the issue.

Flavia over at Ferule and Fescue has a recent post up about the benefits of developing blogging relationships; I think she's totally right, but I still want to stand in the hallway with a colleague, arguing genially about what critic or theorist X thinks, and how that might be of interest or problematic.

Did I lose that, or did it only ever exist in my fantasies?