Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hating Class-missing Activities

Not really. I know extra-classroom activities are important to students' college experiences.

But I hate the number of times I get excuse notes from a given activity coordinator or faculty member. The rules say that I have to accomodate the students, give them make up quizzes or whatever.

And mostly these students are good folks. Typically, they're earnest, hard-working, disciplined, good classroom contributors. So I'm not irritated at the students, but at the extra work these excused absences require of me (because I'm a lazy so and so).

The questions of the day, then: Does your school limit the number of excused absences any given activity can request?

For example, can the Football coach request that students on the team miss 7 Fridays out of 15 in a fall semester? (For travel days, or practice on Friday morning before travel.)

What number of excused absences do you think is reasonable to allow?

Do you think it's okay for a school chorus to go on a tour for a week and miss all classes that week?

Can I require students to miss a sport practice in order to do a required activity for my class? Should I be able to?


Editing for further thinking.

I should be able to just easily accommodate these students, and the ones who are sick and don't do the assignment, miss the quiz, or whatever.

BUT, I plan the heck out of my classes. I try to make sure that readings make sense in their order, discussion topics and readings build on one another, quizzes contribute to student learning, in class activities and exercises help students learn in different ways. I try to accomodate different learning styles, using different strategies to help students practice skills in reading, writing, discussion, group work, notetaking.

I've been averaging 10-15 emails or excuses a week lately. Any one of these, by itself, isn't outrageous in any way. But if I plan on about a quiz a week, and even one student in each class needs to take a make-up quiz, then I have to write not three, but six quizzes. And if the students can't all make it to my office hour at the same time to take the make up, then more.

If I get sick, of course, we probably cancel class, and then I have to figure out how to make things work for the students.

BUT, I don't lose my paycheck. If I get sick, I can take a sick day. If I miss meetings, they'll probably happen without me, though I may get stuck with extra work (Hey, Bardiac would probably be willing to do task X, right?).

And in most adult situations, if I get sick or need to do X that I consider important, people at my job will accommodate my needs. As an adult, I hope for and expect reasonable accommodation. I can file a tax extension, reschedule most appointments, and so forth.

So I'm conflicted: sure, I should accommodate my students as adults. But dang, having to think of and write six useful quizzes instead of three? Having to figure out how to recreate an exercise for a student who missed working with other students?

I guess the planned excused absences for activities feel as if their schedulers actively disrespect the work I do, and I resent that. They put their activity ahead of my class.

I don't mind students putting health, family, friends, whatever ahead of my class. I just don't think they should expect me to put their stuff ahead of my own stuff. Maybe that's it?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New Year's Question

I'm rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for one of my classes; they're using the Tolkien translation (because it's in cheap paper and I like the attempt to get at alliterative verse), while I'm using that and my old trusty ME edition.

So I have a question for the real medievalists. I'm used to figuring the new year at Lady Day, March 25th, for early modern texts. But the fourth stanza (line 60) of Gawain begins
The year being so young that yester-even saw its birth (Tolkein)

Wyle Nw yer wats so yeth that hit watz nwe cummen
(Davis, 2nd ed; I've transliterated the yoghs to "y" and the thorns to "th" because I don't play with a full deck, so to speak).

The poem is clearly set at Christmas, so what's with the year being new thing?

Did they count the new year at January first, Lady Day, or both? Or at some point, did the new year move to Lady Day (and then back again, in 1752)?


Monday, February 26, 2007

One lie and three truths

The other day, I did the three truths and one lie post. And we have a winner, KermittheFrog, and for almost exactly the right reason! Good reading, Kermit!

The lie is that in college, I worked in a lab and did histology on rat brains.

In truth, I worked in a lab in college, and doing histology was part of the job. We didn't work on rats, though. We worked on cats.

I learned amazing things, the most important of which was that I didn't want to work in a lab like that as a career. The theoretical stuff was mind-blowingly fascinating. Once I'd learned the basics, the day to day practicality wasn't.

I've heard somewhere along the line that if you're going to lie, you should stay as close to the truth as possible. I guess it worked in this case, mostly.

The issue of telling the not-quite-truth, of changing details, is at the heart of pseudonymous blogging, and interests me of late. When I write here, I try to get at what's important about whatever issue is on my mind, without revealing so much that my identity is obvious, or that someone can google my school and hit my blog. But I change details and stuff. I sometimes write a post and don't "publish" it for a couple months. I especially change mundane stuff, because that's beneath the radar, or so I think, so people will be quickest to identify it.

On a certain level, the difference between cats and rats is minute and mundane, one little letter. On another, the differences aren't at all minute. And in the lab where I worked, the specificity of cats was vital.

Since more people love cats than rats, there's more of a chance that revealing that I did lab work with cats will offend peoples' sensibilities. I've thought a lot about the ethics of using animals in research. I hope the research we did was meaningful, though there are never guarantees of that before the research is done. And I know we treated the cats with basic respect, never subjecting them to pain, and making efforts to keep them from even feeling frightened. I still feel uneasy sometimes about animal research; in the end, I value human lives and the potential of helping humans more than I value cats' lives. Or dogs' lives. I can draw a clear if uneasy line. But maybe I'm too inclined to be easy on myself?

As for the others:

I rode on the top of a train down the side of a large mountain range, through tunnels and all. These aren't my pictures, but they'll give you a good idea of the ride I took. You'll notice that there are a lot of people riding on top. Incredible experience, one I'd do again in an instant and highly recommend it to others.

I swam with wild penguins in the wild, close enough that I could reach out and touch one; it felt rubbery. Yep. I spent a week vacation in the Galapagos Islands, and along the way, we did some snorkling. Once, while we were snorkling, a group of penguins came around, swam by, close, taking a good look, and scooted around. I never saw them coming; they were that fast, but there they were, swimming around with absolute ease and grace, making us truly aware of what land lubber mammals we were.

I reached my hand a little bit out, and one swam against it for a hint of a moment. I was probably wrong to reach out, but I don't think it hurt the penguin. When they were done looking at us, they sped off.

I officiated at a wedding ceremony. I'd known C and A for a while; when they needed someone to do the honors, they asked me. It was a casual thing, purely for their friends in a small community. The ceremony was completely and totally outside the legal system and purely symbolic for those who participated.

(Christine might actually remember C and A; she'd know the Oasis where we did the ceremony, at any rate.)

I'd love to see some other folks do this little game! Pick it up and pass it along if you'd like.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Blogging the Blizzard

I wrote a big long post about the snow. But let's face it, it wasn't that bad here because most of the bad weather skirted south. I'm still a snow noob, even after 10 years in the midwest.

Friday night, it snowed. Saturday morning, I dug out. My neighbor, the Gadget Guy (who has snow mobiles, ATVs, a boat, etc all rotating through his parking pad depending on the season) said that maybe I could count it as a REALLY small blizzard. That would make it my first. (I know! I'm so proud.)

And then worked at home, reading and grading.

Saturday night, it snowed. Sunday morning, I dug out. Then the snow plow came and left a huge triangle tube of snow in the driveway, the width of the driveway, eight feet wide, and almost three feet high at the top. I cursed the city plow quietly (I didn't shake my hand at him because I didn't want him making a second pass or something!), and I dug out again.

It's supposed to snow a little more tonight, so maybe I'll dig out again tomorrow morning.

It counts as exercise, all this digging, right?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Laughing at Theory

I don't often laugh in the middle of prepping for classes, but today I was reading Bennett and Royle's Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory (3rd ed), the chapter on ghosts, where they talk about Lacan's essay on Hamlet.

I lost it when I read, "In an appalling pun, [Lacan] calls Hamlet an 'hommelette,' a little man" (134-5).

Is there any chance that my students will laugh even a little at that?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Three truths, one lie

One of my friends showed me this (well, her version) a while ago. The idea is that you put forward four things, three of which are true, and one of which isn't true, and see if people know you well enough to know which is which.

So, here goes. Can you guess which is false?

I rode on the top of a train down the side of a large mountain range, through tunnels and all.

In college, I worked in a lab and did histology on rat brains.

I swam with wild penguins in the wild, close enough that I could reach out and touch one; it felt rubbery.

I officiated at a wedding ceremony.

Feel free to play yourself.

What I don't worry about and what I do

The BBC (and lots of other news sources) are running a story about Abdel Kareem Soliman who was tried in an Egyptian court and sentenced to four years in prison, three for insulting Islam and sedition, and one for insulting the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Soliman is supposed to have done these things on his blog.

News like this reminds me how amazing freedom of speech is. It's no secret on this blog that I think Bush is inadequate, unqualified to be president, unethical, unthinking, and so forth. And yet, while I joke sometimes about men in dark suits and highly polished shoes being at my door, none are. That's not because I'm in super deep cover and totally anonymous. I figure it would take someone who cared and had the right technique and equipment maybe 12 minutes to figure out my identity, and that's if their connection were slow that day. Another three minutes to get the local police to my door, and voila.

But there's no local police at my door.

And in fact, were I to be in a room with the president, I expect I could tell him what I think, and so long as the secret service agents didn't think I was threatening, no one would do more than try to yell louder or turn away. I wouldn't be tried and put in jail.

(But in reality, I'd be too intimidated by the formality of the situation to say anything, bravado aside. I'd be more likely to try to avoid being in the same room so that I wouldn't be confronted with even the possibility of "having" to shake his hand. Deep down, I might want to refuse, but in the moment, confronted by all the conventions of politeness and manners, it would be impossible for me to refuse, I suspect. But not because I think I'd be put in jail.)

Nor, despite my questioning here of Christianity, and my open atheism here and in general, I don't really fear that I'll be put in jail. I can openly say that I think the Catholic Church's attitude toward female ordination and birth control is absurd and stupid. I can openly say that I think Billy Graham's (or any other figure you name) belief in a benevolent god is wrong without worrying that I'll be tried and jailed.

I realize these freedoms aren't at all unique to the US, and indeed, I would guess that people in some countries have even greater freedoms.

Nonetheless, when I read about Mr. Soliman, I know that through no doing of my own, I'm exceedingly lucky to have been born in a place where I have the freedoms and opportunities I have. I worry about those freedoms being degraded in the name of "security." I worry that we do jail people because someone in the current regime feels they're a threat, without benefit of due legal process.

I do fear that women's ability to obtain and use birth control is threatened. And I worry about that issue a lot, because it's sort of a synechdoche for me of all women's rights.

But I'm not worried that I'll be arrested because I said that. And I won't be arrested because I blogged for choice.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Two Meetings and a Class

I said I'd do a task for a committee, and it involved working with another faculty member from a very different area of the university. We agreed to arrange a meeting by email, and met this week. We both had notes prepared, and went through what we thought was important. She taught me what I needed to learn about the process (because I'm a noob). We chatted a little as we worked, in a friendly, well-focused way.

She said she'd write up what needed to be written up, and send me a draft, which she did by the next morning. I said I'd read it and make revision suggestions, and revised it with an explanatory note to her by that afternoon. She liked the revisions, and I sent it on to the committee chair before I left that afternoon. The task got done days ahead of the deadline, which means everyone else has more time to review and think about what we've done.

Task accomplished. I got to work with a colleague I've learned to respect and admire, who approaches things differently than I do. It's very cool to work with someone whose training produces really different approaches and thinking than my own, very smart and effective approaches, approprate to different problem solving. Our work meshed well. I would be very glad to work with her on another project.


This morning, I had a meeting related to a group presentation we were trying to work out. One of the difficulties is figuring out the timing of the presentation. The group leader suggested a time, and invariably, one of the group members made a face and clicked away on his laptop. We're all busy people, but most of us manage not to make faces and hold up the whole meeting with our busyness. I'd like to have smacked him.

I'm reminded of a Brecht story, "Bad Water," in which a guy kills his wife and another guy who just happens to be having sex with the first guy's wife. The killer asserts that he didn't kill them because he was jealous, and the story explains that he'd basically prostituted his wife to the second guy, but had decided to kill her because her housekeeping was inadequate. The second guy was just in the way when the killer went to smack his wife with a big stick, so he got killed, too.

I didn't want to smack a perfectly reasonable and decent person because she was in the way, though, so I didn't smack either of them. I also didn't have a big stick or other weapon handy. So I'm not in jail right now, as I might be if I'd started smacking people at the meeting.

I would be very glad to never be in a room with this colleague again.


The less fortunate downside is that I tried to lead discussion of three Brecht short stories today. If more of the students had actually read the assigned stories, I think my leading would have gone a little better.

Five down, ten to go.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I had one of my worst teaching classes ever today. It was a misunderstanding, not really a matter of "fault," but frustrating anyway.

I tried to make do by using the media available in the room, a computer, projection system, etc. Unfortunately, the sound didn't work, so my attempt failed, frustratingly for all of us. You know, chalk has never failed me. Computerized classrooms fail me at least once a term.

Someday, this will be funny. Now, I'm just tired. Three down, twelve to go.

I have to finish reading for tomorrow, in hopes that things will go better.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Handout Weirdness

My students have been doing short presentations in class. Some give their classmates handouts with appropriate definitions and such, and some include a citation (yay!).

Here's the handout weirdness: one student gave a handout with the definitions printed out except for underlined blanks for specific words or phrases. She said something about how hard it is to take notes, but that sometimes getting a handout means no one bothers to take notes. Having her peers fill in specific words or phrases was her alternative; she hoped they would be more active in their learning.

It struck me as weird, partly because the missing words and phrases weren't necessarily really important ones.

Imagine, for a moment, getting a handout of the preceding sentences with the underlined parts missing, and being prompted to fill in the blanks with the exact words she's reading aloud. Sometimes, the exact words matter; but sometimes they don't. (Notetaking lets students paraphrase and quote so that they organize the material a bit for themselves AND gain the benefit of using their hand to write which contributes to their learning.)

It reminded me of the class I hated most in high school (and there was serious competition for that honored position), a psych class in which we were expected to read a handout with specific words and phrases underlined, and then were expected to COPY those exact words and phrases onto a handout that was exactly the same except for blank spaces. (That and the horrible seventies sexist version of Freud and such promulgated. Really, "penis envy" or not wanting to be treated like chattels, which explains female attitudes better?)

The other students seemed familiar with this teaching practice, and were very concerned to get the exact words down as she said them, even asking her to repeat what she'd said several times.

Have you folks seen this? Is it being pushed in ed classes or something, or used in high schools?


I can't seem to convince the three students named Joe in my class to put their surnames on their work. Is that really so much to ask?

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I'm prepping today to teach a colleague's class, and reading a section in the book he's assigned, a chapter on figurative language.

The chapter starts by explaining that figurative language is sometimes defined as language that deviates from the norm. Then it challenges this commonplace to argue that all language is figurative from the get go (like that? hee!)

So basically, all deviant, all the time, baby!

I'm reviewing important terms, including "paronomasia," which is the cocktail party word for "pun." (For cocktail parties, I've always thought it would be important to have a ready vocabulary of fun words. But then, I don't think I've ever been to a cocktail party. My crowd doesn't tend to hang out in fancy dress drinking sherry and opining about the declining state of western civilization--or if they do, they aren't inviting me.)

My favorite figurative trope is zeugma. It's just fun to say (zoog-muh). Zeugma!

I make an effort to work zeugma into my conversations, but unless I'm using wit and words equally well, I fall to new levels of stupidity and the floor, breaking my spirit and ankle. My students are equally unimpressed by my brilliance and agility.

On the other hand, I tried to use hyperbole the other day, mentioning to someone that I have such a poor sense of geography that I get lost in [name of my office building]. It's lots less funny when you have to explain that you've exaggerated just slightly. (And I was too embarrassed to actually own up to the fact that I have on more than one occasion walked out of the stairwell onto the wrong floor and felt quite lost, even walking into the wrong classroom.)

Can you tell that I'm procrastinating about prepping for this class?

Just to be Clear

I categorically deny that I am the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

I also did not have anything to do with prescribing or providing whatever medications she was or wasn't taking.

Had she asked me, I would have suggested she read Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar, along with, perhaps, Doctor Faustus. Had she been busy reading those, she would have had far less time to do other, potentially more dangerous, activities.

Alas, she didn't ask.

If other people wish to ask for early modern reading suggestions, I would be happy to share ideas.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Out of Touch

I think like most people, I get wrapped up in my own little world. I read about the big blizzard over the northeast, but it went south of here when it passed through the midwest before gathering water over the great lakes to really dump snow and I thought, "wow, that's a lot of shoveling," and went back to my work. It's not that I'm unsympathetic, and I did desist from blog-whining about the weather here, but it's hard to gather the full impact of even a bad snowstorm on people's lives. And some people, safe and warm in their homes, or in big cities with subway systems, pretty much were fine. Others weren't.

And even for those in the area who were safe, there wasn't a lot an individual could do other than shovel out, be neighborly in a local way.

I heard on NPR this morning that the Mardi Gras weekend celebration has begun; the newsbit was about New Orleans.

I think New Orleans has largely disappeared from the minds of people not near New Orleans, that we've rather forgotten about Katrina. Sure, people in the northeast are thinking about their snow issues, but New Orleans still hasn't really recovered, as I understand it. But the northeast, I suspect, will recover much more easily (because as bad as this storm was, it wasn't a once in 500 years type event).

I've lived through a couple natural and other bad events, the kind of thing that makes the national news. It's surreal to see news helicopters circling overhead, and then go inside and turn on the TV and see the view from the helicopters and recognize your apartment building. But I didn't have the sense in any of those times that there was much I could do to have a positive impact except by checking that my neighbors were okay, and they were.

I wonder at myself for feeling that way. I've felt like I could have a positive impact generally; heck, I joined the Peace Corps, and there's the organization for optimists who think they can make a little difference and that little difference will matter. (But, alas, the Peace Corps hasn't managed to work itself out of a job yet. I think the problems overall overwhelm that effort and the efforts of all sorts of relief agencies, fine and laudable as the efforts are.)

I like to think that little, local efforts do actually matter--that donating to the local food bank, or donating blood, actually make a real difference. Neither effort really addresses the root problem, perhaps, but each recognizes and serves an immediate need.

I have an extra thing on my plate for the coming three weeks; I said I'd do something, and now the time has come. It's a little enough thing to add on one level, but it's important in the context. So blogging may be scarce. Or I may really blog-whine.

Happy Mardi Gras, New Orleans. And good luck with the shoveling, those in the northeast.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Poetry Blogging Iraq

Brian Turner, "Ashbah"

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulfull call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

NPR on Brian Turner's poetry, including some audio recordings of him reading.

Last week, I posted about teaching war poems by Walt Whitman and Richard Lovelace, and G. Lupino kindly answered my request for help with a more modern war poet by pointing me to Turner. So I found a couple poems on the NPR site, made some fair use copies for my students, and tried to teach this poem today. I went all high media and we even listened to Turner read it!

I failed miserably. I think it's an interesting poem, but also one that's difficult for my students to discuss in class. Having chosen the poems I have, I think it's likely my students think I'm anti-war in general. It's a reasonably supposition, given the poems I'm teaching and they're reading. (But even if I were totally pro-war, it would be hard to find much war poetry that's really pro-war.)

But the Iraq war is so divisive that it's hard for students to talk openly about what we think. We've heard too much nastiness about how being against the war means we're pro-terrorist or whatever.

My students are uncomfortable confronting people (especially professors) with disagreement, though sometimes they're ready to complain to higher ups that a professor hasn't been open to disagreement. My sense, and it's only from my point of view, is that I try to be open, but that my authority in the room makes disagreement difficult nonetheless.

There was one stellar moment in the class, towards the end of the hour (which is really not an hour, of course), when one student said he hadn't really liked the poem (because we'd devolved to that level) because it felt pointless. Another student said she thought that WAS the point, that the pointless feeling reflects the pointless wandering of the American soldier ghosts, and maybe the pointlessness of the war. But boy, getting there was painful.

I'm looking forward to next week. We'll be taking up the always fun "My Last Duchess." I think my students find it a lot easier to talk about wife-murder. But I'm not comforted by that thought.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Interdisciplinary Dilemma

Here's the latest dilemma, one that makes it clear that I'm glad I'm not one of the higher ups who has to actually make the big decisions around here.

We have a small major in Underwater Basketweaving, so small that it's served by one faculty member. Of late, the major has been housed in the Underwater Studies department, along with the broad array of underwater studies, from oceanography to submarine design. Students in the major take a number of basic courses in Underwater Studies, but far more in Basketweaving, and they have to demonstrate basic Basketweaving skills to get into the UWBW major. Of course, they then take specialized courses in underwater basketweaving.

But there are a couple problems with this arrangement. The Underwater Studies department recently reorganized, and they're really not a good place now to house the UWBW major. Depending on one faculty member to maintain a major or department is a weak strategy, especially since people age, get sick, and so forth.

The accrediting agency for Basketweaving has said that so long as we have a UWBW program, it needs to be located in the Basketweaving Department, AND it needs more faculty resources, at least one additional full time faculty member. But the Basketweaving department is already strapped for resources, and really needs another basic weaving skills faculty member, since so many students really need those skills. So a faculty line will have to come from another department at the university if we want to keep the program and the Basketweaving accreditation. Basketweaving is one of our really excellent, well-known departments, and serves many students in a couple majors. They'd probably be willing to take on two new faculty members, but not at the expense of their current resource allocations.

At this time, the UWBW faculty member teaches majors almost exclusively, and contributes minimally to the broader educational needs of the university (general education and so forth), though there is a shallow-water basketweaving class that carries general education credit. The UWBW major is fairly uncommon in the Northwoods, and there's a fair potential for graduates in the major to get good jobs in the Northwoods or elsewhere; it's a small but slightly growing field.

So that's the problem: do we move UWBW to the BW department and add at least one faculty member, or do we drop the program altogether, perhaps continuing to teach one or more shallow-water basketweaving classes of different sorts?

The pros if we move the program: a small number of students have a good major, with employment possibilities. It's an uncommon program, and thus serves our state by providing underwater basketweavers. It makes our Basketweaving department even stronger and more impressive, but the underwater basketweaver will have to carve out a new niche and have underwater facilities moved there for his/her work and teaching.

The cons if we move the program: resources, resources, resources. There's no department in the university that doesn't feel a pinch for faculty positions. We've lost tenure track lines in many departments in the past several years as the NW state budget has been balanced, in part, on the back of the NW university system. The program serves a relatively small number of students, and doesn't serve the broader programming much.

Things boil down to this: what do we value most? Do we want to hire or maintain a faculty member in some other department or field, or do we want to continue to support this program?

Unlike the recent Indiana State decision to drop the Physics and Philosophy majors, this decision is about an even more marginal program, one that doesn't serve to help outside students with pre-requisites, even. Most universities don't have UWBW at all, and probably for good reasons. If we all had these programs all over, there'd be a glut of graduates, and the job potential would go way down.

One of the aspects of this dilemma I find most compelling and interesting is the truly interdisciplinary nature of the major and field. You just can't do UWBW without working seriously in underwater studies, nor without lots of preparation and work in basketweaving. It brings together two fields that seem unrelated, and makes them matter in a really new way.

At NWU, we talk about valuing interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work, but it's difficult to put into practice. Were I to want to teach an interdisciplinary course with someone in the theater department, we could probably arrange to teach a course together, but it would be an unpaid overload for one or both of us faculty members. This term, when I work with a theater department colleague to help students prepare for a Shakespeare production, I'll be doing it on top of my regular expectations, and without additional pay.

So, here's a program that's totally interdisciplinary, and it's lost between its two departments. It's totally doing what we ask on one level, providing a useful academic major and being fully interdisciplinary. BUT, when we talk about interdisciplinary studies, we usually talk about general education and broader goals for our students, and this program doesn't do that much.

The fact that most of our work happens within the scope of specific departments, each of which values specific methodologies and practices, means that really crossing departments is difficult and unusual. We have a few good interdisciplinary programs, but few: American Indian Studies, for example, which brings together faculty members in a variety of fields, but which asks faculty members to regularly teach overloads. If we really value interdisciplinarity, we need to put our resources behind that work, whether it's teaching, research, or advising.

In some ways, then, UWBW is a kind of test case for how we value truly interdisciplinary work and how we fit it into the sometimes arthritic university structures. But even saying that, it's also about how we value this individual area of study and how it fits into the university's goals and overarching purpose.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I'm doing a task now that I think needs to be done, reading a colleague's materials and writing an evaluation letter for our committee.

We split the work on letters, so that one person works on the teaching end, one on the research and creative work end, and so forth. The two people are then supposed to put the letter together and forward it to the committee, which reviews all the materials and revises the letter before submitting it to the whole, and then to the powers that be.

I've only done the research and creative work part once before. When it was done on me or for me, no one ever bothered to respond to my work or talk to me about it. It felt like I was putting all this stuff into a sort of departmental vacuum.

I decided when I did my first response to the research and creative part that I would actually read the person's work (you KNOW it doesn't always get read, right? For my own letters, people often basically paraphrased what I'd said in my statements about my work.) and would try to respond in some helpful or useful way to what I'd read.

And I did that the first time, and I think it made a difference. But right now, doing this work in the midst of much other busyness, I wish I could just be reassured that what I'm doing actually matters, that it makes a difference. Too often, the paperwork for the bureaucracy feels like empty paperwork. I know that it does matter, of course, in keeping the bureaucracy happy, and that keeping the bureaucracy happy helps keep individuals employed. But I want it to actually mean something to other human beings.

(Just to be clear, it's not like reading someone's research helps me with my own work necessarily. When am I likely to teach a 19th century slave narrative that's not anthologized? Or a Victorian triple-decker? I keep busy enough teaching and learning about the things I work on and the things I already teach, Shakespeare, poetry, drama, theory. I'm spread thin enough that knowing more than a sort of top forty hits of 20th century drama or poetry doesn't happen. On more than a vague level, I don't want to know what high school English teachers need to know, or how best to teach grammar school kids to read. Nor does a theory person get a lot out of reading my work, nor my education colleagues.)

Monday, February 12, 2007


Literally, not metaphorically.

Taking a shower this morning, I noticed that my pinko-yellow-grey-purple-green skin is noticably pale these days, pale as in hasn't seen the sun in months, pale as in I nearly blend with the snow cover.

A while back, one of my writing class students decided to ask about the effects of tanning booths on users. She found a list of deleterious effects, but then decided that she'd still be going to the tanning salon. I asked her what she was missing, because if she still wanted to go, she must be finding something in the experience that felt good, beneficial, or positive. She had trouble articulating that aspect, as you might guess. It's easier to channel the authorities than to articulate the way warmth and light feel on bare skin.

I know logically that sunlight exposure shows a postive correlation with skin damage and cancer. But my body craves sunlight. I can think of little more pleasureable right now than feeling the warmth from within that I get when I've got the barest hint of a sunburn.

I learned last summer that several of my Peace Corps cohort have had skin cancer, possibly related to our service and to outdoorsy lifestyles. I certainly have had my share of serious sunburns all along my life. And I know it's dangerous. And it's been painful more than once.

Maybe it's partly that I feel better about my pinko-yellow-grey-purple-green skin when it's more tan. I do. But I don't think it's purely ego about my glamorous good looks. I think the embodied feeling of pleasure in the warmth of sunlight makes me feel good from skin through inside.

I've learned since moving north from the central midwest, that from February through May, the whole of the Northwoods goes a little nuts. We do okay through the beginning of winter, but after four months, we're ready for sunlight again and it shows.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


A student emailed me on Saturday, asking how to drop a class ASAP! He'd tried to drop the class on-line, but we're past the date when that works and he needs to get a form, fill it out, and such.

He thinks I check such things and do advising on the weekend.

What's pathetic, is that I emailed him already, with a link to the form he needs.

Pathetic. I need to get a life. And I need to get it where it's above freezing.

Congratulations are in order!

I just got an email that my cousin earned his PhuD. Congratulations, Coz!

Depending on your definition, and given lots of blended and confusing family stuff, I have around 25 first cousins, and uncountable second and third cousins.

Of my 25 first cousins, three of us have doctorates (that I know of; I've lost touch with a couple, and never met one set), another has a masters.

None of us is perfect, but most of us enjoy each other and get along well when we're around each other. My sibling and I are (at this point), the furthest living from the family center, pretty much, but on one side, the others see each other fairly often for get togethers of various sorts.

Most of us are decent, kind, caring people.

When I miss home, it's the sense of having lots of family around that I miss, the sense that I could take a drive and have dinner or whatever with some relative. When I was at the urban regional university, back to school after an absence, I used to try to arrange my schedule so I could drop in on one cousin for a chat, and then go just about across the street and meet my Dad for lunch at my grandmother's place one day a week. On other days, I could drop in for tea and a chat with either, or stop to have dinner with one of my aunts. And then I'd drop in on my other grandmother on the way home. Sometimes I'd go to the shop (the family business) to have lunch with my Dad, uncle, or grandfather; I worked at the shop myself at times, and would get to see my aunts when they dropped in to see their brothers or dad.

So now my Cuz has his phud! I wish I were there to celebrate with the rest of the family!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Poetry Blogging Walt Whitman

I never thought I'd put Walt Whitman into a poetry blog. I'm not a big fan, I have to admit. But my poetry class did such a wonderful job talking about a couple of his poems today that I'm totally elated.

We're doing a section on war poetry, having started with Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars." We're comparing the ways they imagine war, the parts they focus on or leave out, the sense of distance or intimacy from the experience, and so forth.

Here's Lovelace. I'm not quite sure what to make of the moves from "thy" to "you" to "thee" here. But dang, he packs lots into a few lines. Off to, I think, the English Civil War.

T E L L me not (Sweet) I am unkinde
That from the Nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To War and Armes I flie.

True ; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.

Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov'd I not Honour more.

And now Whitman, writing about the US Civil War.

VIGIL strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade -- not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

I bet some of you can guess where I'm going with the war stuff. If you're thinking Owen and Jarrell, you'd be right. Anyone have suggestions for post WW II war poetry?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thinking and Creeping Myself Out

I don't usually follow the doings of the rich and famous, and when I do, I usually feel pretty distant. Today, I noticed in the headlines that a female celebrity died (you know who, but no need to add mine to the search hits). For some reason, her death makes me more than usually thoughtful tonight, probably because unlike most celebrities who die, she's a good bit younger than I am. To steal from Tom Lehrer again, by the time Christopher Marlowe was my age, he'd been dead for [nearly 20 years].

I sort of creeped myself out recently. I looked up the information for the closest medical school in the state and sent away for body donation information; they haven't answered yet, so I may try the next closest ones. Obviously, I'll have to have a chat with my Mom and sibling about this, to make sure it won't freak them out beyond compare. And then I'll have to decide and such. But I think I'm pretty close to deciding. I've even blogged about it before.

But thinking seriously about it, I'd like to write a note to the future medical students who may get to (have to?) cut me up. I plan on being in and with my body for a number of years yet, but who knows, a truck could smack me on the way to work some morning.

Dear Future Medical Students,

Here I am. You may look at me lying there and think, man, she should have taken better care of herself. You're probably right. Maybe I died earlier than I might have. Or maybe the body is old and pretty worn.

Maybe you're thinking, boy, she's old and wrinkly and yucky. Let me tell you, though, the body you're looking at managed to have some good times.

But I'm done with the body now, so it's yours. I mostly had a blast with it, and I hope you find joy in it somehow, too. I hope you learn, and I hope you do good work.

Best wishes, Bardiac

ps. Check out the cybernetic eye!! Coolest thing ever!

(Some of my friends would say, instead, "Go for the eyes, Boo!" Such geekhood!)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And now, for something completely different

Over at Blogging the Renaissance, Truewit is working to rebirth some lost art forms, and has started with an acrostic! Look and try to enjoy! (I have to admit, even trying to do a couplet made me both want to do more--the temptation!--and to want to crawl under my computer desk.

I think there's great potential here. We could do commendatory verses on other blogs, kissing up in hopes of linkage. Imagine the people who would write for, say, Bitch PhD or Daily KOS? It could be a new sort of patronage, just as sycophantic as the old sort. Brown-nosing brought to a new digital low.

We could pass it around as a meme: write a short commendatory verse to three other bloggers, tag them, and ask them to continue it.

Or we could all start writing sonnet sequences again. After all, there is nothing new that is not old,* right? And those bazillion sonnet sequences that went around the first time, well, no one reads 99% of them anyways, so we could borrow freely. Plagiarize, let no one else's work evade your eyes**!

* Paraphrasing Chaucer.
*Tom Lehrer's wit, not mine. The man is/was a bleeping genius. If anyone is cut out to take on political stuff in verse, it's him. Why oh why did he "waste" himself on math? Come back to the public poetry sphere, Professor Lehrer!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fantasy Time - General Education

Today I went to an interesting meeting during which we discussed ideas for general education. One of the difficulties is that we university and college folks have a lot of self-interest tied up in what we teach, and the history of general education requirements is full of history.

I don't have a clear memory of my undergraduate general education requirements. I was a science major, so I have no memory at all of what my school required by way of general education science classes. I took so many science classes that the general education part wasn't even on my radar.

I remember the humanities type requirements. I entered college with ten credits of English, and didn't take even one other English class; so I'm guessing those ten credits counted for something. I took a couple foreign language classes early on, and those counted. Maybe my cultural anthropology class counted for something.

The one requirement that was hard for me to fill, that took conscious effort, was an upper level humanities class. I felt that was unfair because science majors had to take an upper level class in the humanities, while the humanities types only had to take the easy lower division science classes, the "physics without calculus" type classes. Because I'd already (mis)spent a good part of my youth reading 19th century Russian novels (not that I understood them, but I got the basic plots), I signed up for a Russian Culture class. It was a less than wonderful experience for me in more ways than one, and from my perspective now, it can't have been fun for the prof, either. I was the only person in the class who wasn't a Russian major. So even though our readings were in English, they had a world of knowledge beyond me. And since what I really wanted to learn was how to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I wasn't really getting what I wanted, anyways.

On the other side, when our English majors end up in a beginning chemistry class for a required lab experience, I'm not sure it's a great help to them. They're in class with people who want to be science majors in all sorts of ways. How many of those science majors are served well by the same class? Does a geology major need the same chemistry preparation as a genetics major, or as a food sciences major?

When I think of my fantasy then, what would general education look like? In my fantasy world, I don't have to worry about departmental boundaries or such.

I've given myself 7 courses to play with to start. What do I want every single college graduate to leave college understanding?

1. Ethics - a course that will introduce students to ethical thinking and decision making.

2. Philosophy of science/scientific method - a course that will teach students what science is and how scientific knowledge gets investigated, demonstrated, disseminated, understood.

3. Statistical understanding - a course that will teach students statistical concepts and how to understand statistics when they see them in use in contemporary arguments.

4. Economics and policy - a macro-economics type course that will help students understand how taxation, banking, stocks, and government financial institutions are organized and used.

5. Language and texts - a course that will teach students about rhetorical practices and textual production, that will teach them to read contemporary arguments critically; the course will also teach them to think about their language linguistically.

6. Intercultural experience - a course that will defamiliarize students' own culture and teach them to think about the breadth of human experience.

7. Making Art - a course in which students will make art (that could be music, graphic stuff, etc) and learn about that art in human experience.

So, there it is, the Bardiac general education experience, to be taken by all majors. In my fantasy university, people from different departments could teach sections of the basic course in broad fields, though economics and philosophy are pretty much going to have a hold on a couple of them. But a language and texts course could be taught by philosophers, linguists, literature folks, anthropologists, and so forth.

Do students need a lab science course? I know they often feel that they learn a lot from lab courses. I took a ton of lab courses, but my best understanding of the scientific method and philosophy of science came from a non-lab science course. If I'd have had that sort of course as a first year student, instead of in my final term, I'd have learned much more in my other science courses. So I'm not sure they need a lab course.

I also haven't put in any foreign language requirement. I find foreign languages challenging and intensely interesting. But I don't think most students learn enough language to actually speak, and focusing on the language means they don't focus on other things.

When I think back over my early education, the most useful courses were statistics and introductory paleontology. In my later education, when I went back to school, but before I focused on English lit, then I'd point to my economics classes as most useful. With art history coming not too far behind, because it gave me a sense of a historical framework.

I'm interested in hearing what general education type courses other people found most useful or memorable. What general education experiences would you want all students to have in common when they leave college?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sometimes I Wonder

I'm teaching several lower division courses this term. One of the things I do in these courses, typically, is give reading quizzes. They're open note quizzes usually involving specific words or plot points. If someone reads and takes reasonably good notes, they usually do well. The quizzes reward note-taking and reading without being too irritating or time-consuming. At least that's my hope.

I don't mean for the quizzes to be really difficult or tricky.

I start most classes by asking for questions on the reading. Say, Student A did the reading, but got really confused during this passage or that. If Student A asks, I'll answer the question fully; we'll look at the text, talk about what was confusing, and make sure Student A understands. Some days, people ask questions about exactly what's on the quiz. Good for them, I say. I don't change the quiz.

So, the other day, a student had a question about what happened to a character in the text we're reading for the class. We talked about it, read a paragraph in the translation. Knowing what was to come, I made sure we answered the question fully. I think it's important to, in effect, reward someone for asking a good question by giving an answer that will help them in whatever way, even on a mundane quiz.

So how in the dickens did someone miss that question on the quiz not fifteen minutes later? (Nope, not the person who asked the question. That student did fine.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Practicing Patience

I've been grading poetry assignments like a mad Bardiac all weekend. There's a huge pile, and I grade in chunks of five. Then five more. Then five more. You get the idea.

I like the assignment. And most students do okay with it. If not for the large class, it wouldn't be an onerous assignment for grading. But it's a large class for what I do. (Okay, all the people with 200 person lectures can laugh at my numbers, but it's not like I can really use multiple guess meaningfully, and I don't have TAs or graders.)

I'm trying to get them all graded by tomorrow morning, which would pretty much be a record and would mean that I'd feel really positive about the beginning of the week and being prepared.

Friday afternoon, when I checked my email, there were a couple of late assignments. I detest late assignments. But I'd rather late than never, because never really messes students up, even at the beginning of the term.

And just now, when I checked my email, there's another, from a student who was (or says he was) sick.

It's all about me: I HATE that the diminishing pile has grown. I hate that there's yet another paper to grade, one I hadn't counted in the original count. It feels like I've been banging my head against a wall, and the wall just got harder or something.

Yeah, of course I know that the student didn't turn it in late to frustrate me. I'm totally willing to believe he's been sick. That knowledge SHOULD make me not frustrated. But I'm still frustrated.

It makes no sense, either. If the student had turned it in on time, it would have been in the original pile. It's not like the lateness has really added to the grading task. But I'm still frustrated. Deep breath, and back to grading.

Update: (Because reading my blog is just as exciting as watching cable news and getting the latest information about celebrity diets, divorces, and dopiness.)

I finished the on-time stack!

I think the assignments show that the students have gotten a basic understanding of the form and function of this type of poem. A couple of them really demonstrated that effectively in more than one way. So, maybe they've already learned something, and we've only finished the second week!

I'm not quite dancing around the house about being done, but I am in my head!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

When Home Isn't

Over our break, I met with the retirement counseling person on campus, and she was really helpful. She has programs that figure out what your likely income will be in X number of years, and shows how your state pension fund plan will probably look and so forth. IF social security isn't already broke by then, and IF the state isn't broke, and IF the financial stuff I've been doing works out okay, I will probably be financially okay. If social security breaks down or my state gets destroyed somehow, I'll have bigger problems to worry about.

I used to think I'd retire "home," back in the area where I grew up, or maybe in the nearby City that held my youthful fantasies. But home isn't home anymore. The extended family I grew up with is mostly scattered, and the college friends I felt closest to I've grown less close to. When I see them, it feels like old times, but they have kids and friends who are physically close enough to see frequently, and I'm an infrequent visitor.

My Mom has moved 20 miles distant from where we used to live, which is a fair distance in that area, and my sibling's family has ended up happily close to me here in the midwest for now. That will probably change, and change again.

I grew up in one of those areas that's had incredible real estate growth and will probably continue to have that sort of growth. At the urban comprehensive university I went to for a couple years, younger faculty folks tended to commute at least an hour or two, or live in tiny apartments. There's a trade-off to being in Fantasy City, of course, and folks on faculty salaries feel it in housing costs.

Now, though, I live in an area that hasn't had much growth. That means I can afford a house and all. (Well, the bank and I; why don't they ever mow their half of the lawn?) But the investment in my house will never pay off in a way that will allow me to sell it and move "home," even if home were still home.

So thinking of being here for my retirement is what I'm doing now. We academic types sometimes talk about the opportunity costs of going to grad school (forever) and taking academic jobs that we love but that don't pay well for the time we've spent preparing. But I see another cost, the cost of making that series of decisions that led me here, all of which were reasonably good decisions, but which lead me to the conclusion that I'll be here for my retirement.

There's the weather, for one thing. I hate winter. It's okay while I'm busy and working and stuff, and I'm healthy and can dig out my driveway. But I hate walking on the slippery ice, and I picture myself in my 70s worrying about slipping and feeling confined to my house or fearful of the cold and ice.

My ancestors left homes in various parts of Europe and later in the US, traveled and settled in new areas, and they did it without cars, phones, or great mail systems. I wonder if they ever looked around when they got old and wondered if leaving were such a grand idea after all.

And, of course, I've developed friendships here, but they're different than the extended family relationships or college friendships. But those aren't the same as they once were, either. I can't live in the past, and I'm weird about worrying about the future sometimes. On the other hand, some stupid truck could smack me on my way home next week, and that would be that. Or global warming could continue and Fantasy City could end up being partly under water.

I'm really in a cheerful mood, what with the cold and all. It's cold enough here that tPtB have cancelled the local swim in the ice event. That's where they break through the ice on a local lake and people with more fortitude than I jump into the water (and right back out again). Despite the local fortitude, tPtB have canceled it because they consider it dangerous.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Law Stuffs - Suspensions

Following up on my recent post, there's another rule set come down from on high as a result of the problems at Flagship U a few years back. Basically, the rule is that if one of us is arrested or charged with a crime, the Provost can suspend that person without pay, and that suspension can continue even if the person isn't convicted of that charge.

The powers that be sent the first version of the rule down to campuses a while back for our response. In addition to our general dislike of the whole idea, many of us really surprised that we were supposed to notify the provost when we were committing the crime. I try to imagine the scene, some random faculty member about to, say, light a joint at home, some Saturday morning at 1am, calling the provost to make sure he's informed. Yeah, right. Well, that and the Fifth Amendment thing, you know the part about
nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor
be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Yep, so we sent it back to the system lawyers, reviling the whole thing, but suggesting that they try to make it legal nonetheless.

The rule set's been back and forth a number of times now, and seems on the verge of taking force. They've limited it to crimes that negatively impact the university or one's ability to do one's job, or that happened at the university. So, someone could try to evade taxes or something, but wouldn't automatically be suspended, perhaps. (Except that you KNOW if the provost wanted to suspend the person, he'd argue that evading taxes took money from the university or got the university negative publicity.)

And they've managed to get put in place a rule that if the person is unsuspended, the system has to pay back-salary.

One of the parts that seems to remain is that the provost can suspend someone, and maintain that, even if the person has been tried and not found guilty of whatever. The PtB answer that in the case of a serious crime (fraud, embezzlement, because it's all about the money), a criminal might plead down the case, and so plead guilty of something not serious enough to warrant firing, even though the university wants to suspend and then fire the person. Still, this area seems like something that could be abused, doesn't it? And it seems like being punished despite not being found guilty of whatever. Something about due process seems off there.

How far do we trust our Provosts? Would a provost stand up for a worker (this isn't only about faculty, of course) in the face of a negative publicity report? In the face of a board of trustee member asking questions? Alas, I have doubts.

When I was a graduate student, it never really occurred to me that universities and university systems really dealt with these problems. Sure, there were rumors of the university president there having an attack helicopter on call, and a secret escape route should his offices be attacked by evil liberals, but I never thought faculty members had to worry about this sort of thing. Gosh, was I an innocent!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ethnicity and Food

February is Black History Month.

Here in the white part of the Northwoods, Black History isn't something most of our students grow up knowing lots about; they have relatively little contact with Blacks.

The faculty and administration here recognizes that the area isn't incredibly diverse, and have been working for a good long time to make opportunities available here for diverse students, to make NWU welcoming to diverse students, and to help all our students learn about cultural and ethnic diversity in hopes that learning will be a step along the way to bigger and better things.

We have a hard time attracting African American students from elsewhere in the state or from nearby states because we're pretty far from areas with large African American populations, this part of the state doesn't feel really welcoming to ethnic minorites (easily seen, and readily acknowledged by folks I know with first hand experience), and there are other, closer, state schools to choose. We do better with African American and African faculty because people are more willing to come here when there's a salary involved.

Today, we're kicking off Black History month, as, I'm sure, are many campuses across the country. It looks like we've got some interesting, stimulating events planned. Last night, for example, was a really thought-provoking talk. The questions at the session afterwards were interesting (they aren't always) and revealed that the community at large is interested and engaged.

I've noticed since I came here, and probably should have noticed before, that the first introduction many Americans get to other cultures comes through food. I learned to eat with chopsticks in Chinese restaurants before I went to school and met kids from Chinese backgrounds. I ate in Indian restaurants before I knew any Indians. (I could say that for most foods I identify with specific cultures, except for where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and "typical" African American foods.)

Here, when we have events recognizing and celebrating our diversity, we start with foods.

Now I like food, but it does strike me as odd that one of the big features on the advertising for today's event is that we'll have fried catfish, okra, etc. And macaroni and cheese.

(I'm laughing. I thought there was no more WASPy food on Earth than mac and cheese. Apparently, I'm wrong.)

I think NWU starts with food because students will come for food sometimes, when they won't come for information, music, or whatever. The trick is whether we can get them to stay for more than the food, to see that there's an effort being made, further effort to make, and that they have a place in those efforts and these activities.

So, I'm off to check out the food learn something.

Light Hearted

One of my colleagues takes the best meeting notes ever. He usually manages to get a touch of humor in. Mostly, he does this with little Latin tags. Alas, I usually have to ask him to translate, but it's worth the effort.

The thing is, I always read the notes he sends out carefully because I know they're going to have a good tidbit. I don't always read notes from other meetings as carefully.

In pale imitation of my colleague, I made some comment about how we <3 having our next meeting on Valentine's Day. I wonder if anyone will notice? ;')