Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Not Being Special

I used to think that I was special, that being the good daughter meant something. And then I learned differently.

One of the things I see in my female students sometimes is what I think of as the "good daughter" thing. They think, as I did, that being a good daughter means that sexism isn't going to get you, that you're somehow special and protected. And because you're special, you don't have to support feminism or other women. That was my idea, anyway, and I see it in some of my female students, too.

But as I said, I learned differently.

In my family, when I was growing up, there was a family business, a metal working shop. When I was a kid, the boss was my paternal grandfather; my father also worked there. In legend, my grandfather had started in the shop after high school, working for his father and grandfather, cleaning up welding splatters and racking steel, and then been promoted to the office side to learn that end of the trade. In legend, my father and his brother, too, had started in the shop after high school.

Then my father went off to college (go GI bill!), working in the shop summers, and eventually made his career there. That was the legend.

My brother, several years older than I, started in the shop the summer after high school, before going off to college; he came back to work summers. My uncle's son, cousin Joe, a year older than I, too, started in the shop the summer after high school, before going off to college.

And when I graduated high school, I thought that I'd work at the shop. (I knew that there are rules about how much you can make people lift and carry without mechanical aid, and I knew I could lift that much.) And I knew, for a summer job, the money was good, far better than the usual summer jobs. And it was a family tradition.

Except, as you might guess from what I've said so far, I didn't go to work at the shop. My father told me, frankly, and not trying to be unkind, that he wouldn't hire a "girl." (And yes, if you've got a small enough business, this is--or was--quite legal.)

And that summer, Joe's younger brother, Ray, who'd also graduated, joined my brother and Joe working at the shop. I got a job at the local mall department store, making maybe one third what my brother and cousins were making.

In seeing the family tradition, I'd just seen all the men who'd gone to work at the shop, and somehow thought I fit in the family. I somehow, blindly and stupidly, hadn't noticed the aunts and female cousins who'd never been welcome at the shop. And I thought I was different, special.

But I wasn't. Because I was always defined more as a female than as a family member.

I wish I could have learned that lesson without it hurting as much as it did, and I wish I could communicate that lesson to younger women without it hurting them as much as it inevitably will. The truth hurts. But only if you see the truth can you work towards changing things, and that would be my goal.

I wish I could say things have changed substantially, but I can't. Early in its history, disaster hit and the shop burned, leaving only one small piece of equipment surviving the destruction. By the time I was a kid, this one piece of equipment had been framed and put up on a wall with a commemorative plaque. And when the shop closed, my Dad gave the piece to my brother.

That's how family heritage works. Because he'd worked at the shop. Because he's male. And he plans to pass it along to his son. Because he's male. I didn't belong in the same way, and now my niece doesn't. It kills me to see this sexism persist in my family.

The last huge fight I had with my Mom involved this sexism. (It's too late to fight with my Dad about such things, seeing as he's dead.)

And yes, this is unfair. Life sucks and then you die.

PS. Later, I ended up working in the office part of the business doing a variety of jobs. But in my family's terms, I never worked "at the shop" and I will never count as a family member the way a male does.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Winding Things Up

I met with an advisee this afternoon, one who just hadn't managed to get in to see me during the semester. But we managed to set up a time and things went mostly well, except that I put my foot in my mouth, sort of. There are times when I just know I'm an idiot about things, and today was one of those times. (Or not. It's hard to tell, sometimes.)

As long as I was at the office, I went through my advisees' grade reports. A couple did outstandingly well, most did pretty okay, and a couple had rough semesters, apparently. I'll follow up with some emails.

One of my students stopped by, and we had a nice chat. He'd had the beginning of a really rough time in another class, but the prof talked to him, suggested the counseling center, and apparently, he followed through, got help, and did pretty well. Nice when things work out that way, when someone who needs help gets pointed in the right direction and then gets the help s/he needs. Too often, it seems that there's either a lag in getting the student pointed in the right direction or in the follow through.


I finished Berube's book. I found the final section more satisfying than the rest.

There's a conflict (well, many conflicts) among the left, a sort of more leftist than thou competition that some folks get into. One of my colleagues disdains Berube because he's too "liberal" and not far enough left.

I'm pretty far left, but I don't have a lot of admiration for people who think that violence is a good way to accomplish political work (either for the left or the right). I don't like the way some folks romanticize Guevara, for example (though I'm willing to joke about things enough to buy a leftist friend's new baby a Che onesie, so I'm warped).

Let's face it, I grew up pretty much petty bourgeoisie. My father's family had a small business for several generations, employing a small group of working men in physical labor (reasonably paid, thanks to the strong unions in the area). So if we're talking about a violent overthrow of the merchant class, my family would be right in line of the firing squad. (The ultra-rich, of course, would escape.) Knowing that has long tempered my revolutionary leanings.

At the same time, I've seen real poverty, and sympathize with folks who are absolutely desperate. I think the basic economic principle that resources are limited means that those of us who are relatively wealthy (and I'm one, compared to the folks I knew in the Peace Corps, and indeed, compared to some folks right here in the Northwoods) are going to have to work through better redistribution. I don't have illusions that the whole world can live economically like middle class US people.

Which brings me to my reaction to Berube's book. I think his biggest strength in the book comes through his willingness to embrace real disagreement, and to think hard about what it takes to deal with incompatible positions. He seems to be able to get students (and me) to think hard about the ways we deal with incompatible positions, with deep disagreements, and I deeply respect that. Berube seems very much on the mark when he argues that liberal education really is about engaging other people and their arguments on a respectful, rigorous level.

He seems able to understand that violence from the right (or left) may need to be met with violence, but to see a violent response as a later resort rather than a first resort.


Next up: Shakespeare Without Fear by Mary Janell Metzger.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Running off to join the Circus

Not really, but it feels like it. I'm visiting family.

Family visits can be wonderful, and this one is. Something about what Tolstoi says about happy families being happy in all the same ways, but unhappy ones having unique and individual ways of being unhappy.

I'm lucky, and I realize that especially deeply when I'm around family. But I'm not sure that happy families really aren't happy in unique and individual ways.

But it's totally a circus compared to my relaxed solo living. A fun circus!

I'll be back to the BardiacShack in a couple days. Meanwhile, I've gotten through most of Berube's book, and have found it interesting. I'm generally doubtful about post-modernism, and I wish he'd done more to really try to actually explain it, since he seems to think it's worth teaching about. But I do like that he talked about aspects of earlier lit being post-modern.

I think he could have teased out the conflict between Habermas and Lyotard more fully, and especially talked more about how he teaches them. (As in, what he has his students read by or about Habermas and Lyotard, rather than what he does with what novels. And why the heck doesn't he teach poetry in those post-modernist classes? Or drama!!)

Berube's discussion of how he dealt with one student who was quite conservative was interesting, and did a good job showing how much faculty folks make accomodations for some students. I'd think it would be worthwhile for Berube to think about how gendering works in those accomodations further, though, since when he talks about accomodating students, he seems always to be talking about male students. I'm not quite sure how to read this part of the text, but I haven't finished yet, either.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Once you turn in your grades, it's clean up time, in all sorts of ways. You write notes explaining to students that yes, I was disappointed by the final assignment you wrote, too, because it's obvious to me that you can do really smart work, but alas, that assignment wasn't up to snuff, and here's why. You write back and forth with the registrar's office about students who disappeared late in the semester.

Then there's the retirement party. We had a cluster of retirees this year, and had a nice party for them. That party makes me realize just how wonderfully witty my colleagues can be. There were a couple lines that wow, just make me wish I were that witty.

But mostly, the party made me realize how very much I'm going to miss one of my retiring colleagues. This colleague's always pleasant, somehow always calm, enthusiastic, happy to chat, supportive. We need more folks like that. Heck, everyone needs more folks like that. But I wish my colleague a long and happy retirement.

(Will we get tenure lines to make up for the colleagues who've retired, or will we just hire a couple more adjuncts and get pressured to increase our class sizes? State Budget says: HAH!)

That past, I'm transitioning into summer work. I have a non-academic related thing; when it needs attention, it needs attention. It needs attention, and if I get it in order, things will be back to good, and needing relatively little attention as usual.

My reading group met last night at the local Frontiers book box. We put some great looking books on the table, so I'm really excited by that reading! And yeah, what a good, cool, fun group of people. (How the heck did I get involved with cool people? It's a mystery!)

It's strange to get up and not be thiking about what I need to teach or grade; I need to get my brain around the other stuff. For some reason, this was a really tough winter for me. I need to both enjoy the summer and find strategies to enjoy winter more. (I hate being cold! I need to get more exercise! And so on.)

Summer Goals

I need to set aside a half hour+ a day to work on my new language. There's a whole writing thing I need to learn, in addition to the basic vocabulary and grammar stuff. It's fascinating, but the only way I can learn this sort of thing is a slow slog.

Study for a century ride. (I feel silly talking about "training" for something, but I can study for it! And seriously, would it hurt to not rain so much now that I have some time to really ride?) (No, my new bike won't be in until JUNE! I'm mildly frustrated.)

Revise and resubmit a paper. Revise another paper for submission. I have a third paper idea, but need to do some background work to figure it out and see how my idea fits with all the things that have been said about the text.

Read! First up, Michael Berube's What's Liberal about Liberal Education.

Get connected with a local birding group I just heard about. Saturday mornings, 6:30 am. I can do that, right? Learn more birds and about more birds.

Plant two trees, and some other plants in the yard. Plant some shrubs. Make the area a better bird/bug habitat.

Figure out and put in my book orders!!!!!! (Weirdly, late as I am, I'm in the pack, I've been told.)

Spring clean the house, weed the garden, enjoy the warmth.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Losing What Little was Left

I've been having this weird hallucinatory thing lately, only in one area of the house (not the kitchen). I keep smelling really good buttered toast. Think of really good buttered toast, the warm perfection of the bread with butter melting into the little air pockets, browned, but not the least burnt. Toast begging for some peanut butter or jam.

However, I rarely eat bread, and probably haven't had bread in the house for over a month. My toaster (which lives in a cupboard unless there's bread in the house) is reasonably clean and doesn't smell like toast (yes, I checked).

So, unless someone is breaking into my house and making toast in the sunroom while I'm away, I have no explanation. But it's driving me batty! Usually it hits me about 10pm, the wafting smell of toast, setting my mouth to watering. But, of course, I don't have bread in the house or I'd make toast.

In better news, I finished my grading. My students did well on that poetry essay, mostly, with lots of good specific examples and such.

My bike still hasn't arrived, and the weather forecast says a couple days of nasty rain are headed our way.

I may have to stop at the store and get some bread...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Things in my Office

I'm finishing up grading, especially the final project for the majors class I taught this semester. It's sort of a flakey project, one I borrowed from the profs who designed the course, and one I'm ambivalent about. But on the positive side, it's fascinating, and reading these doesn't bore me to tears.

The basic idea is that the students put together a collection that represents themselves and then uses the terms and concepts of textual study to talk about how the collection works as a collection. So, right now, I have some pretty cool things in my office. A few of them are mine, and would be in my collection were I to do this project

A light sabre. Way cool.

A cigarette.

A collection of Beatles trading cards.

Baby Pictures. LOTS!

A Pop-Up Book

Little magnet of an American Indian symbol: a bear idol

Several diplomas and graduation caps

More Bibles than I can shake a stick at (I have three in the office myself, but the students included several as well.)

A My Pony doll/toy thing.

A Matchbox car.

Concert ticket stubs. For bands I've never heard of. I feel OLD.

Rolling chair. My office chair, like most of the furniture in my office, comes from the 50s. It's wood, and has some creaks, but is surprisingly comfortable, and since I own WD-40, well lubricated. I could have chair races. Seriously.

An empty Birth Control Pill package. (Okay, seriously, could we save some packaging on these things!?!?!)

Reading these projects makes me realize that certain things really stand out for my students, especially things they were involved in through high school (most students in this class are first and second year students).

Sports. Male and female students talk about having played sports and such. Sometimes they talk about how their coaches got arrested. Or how miserable they were. Or how they feel like failures. Or how they learned to work with other people.

Band. This one time at band camp... not quite, but people who play in high school bands seem to take a lot away from the experience, and most of it seems positive.

Travel. My students come from deeply disparate backgrounds. Some have traveled tons, others haven't been to the state capital. Some have traveled as tourists, some as missionaries, and some as soldiers.

Money. Again with the disparate backgrounds. The students who are poor are, well, poor. Some worry about getting dinner regularly. Others worry about the latest ipod or something. Tenured Radical has recently posted about becoming more aware of basic hunger amongst her students. I don't usually think about my students being hungry, because so many of them display consumer ability so broadly, but I'm not seeing as well as I should.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


So, the question of the day: someone I know has asserted that a male owning a dress to go in drag at halloween proves that he's not sexist.

I think just the opposite, that drag is often undergirded by serious misogyny, especially drag as done by straight men at halloween. Nor do I think there's anything necessarily pro-woman about gay drag.

Movies about how men in dresses are really superior to women, you know, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, To Wong Foo? Also not pro-woman.

So, what do you think, oh wisdom of the internet?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Biking Bits

So, I found a century training schedule here:

.....easy pace brsk.......pace .pc..pc
Week Mon Tues Wed Thurs Friday Sat ...Sun Total
1 .......6....... 10 ....12 ....30 ......9 ......77
2 ......10...... 13 ....15 ....44 ....17......112
3 ......10...... 15 ....17 ....53 ....20......123
4 ......11...... 16 ....19 ....53 ....20 .....135
5 ......12...... 18 ....20 ....59 ....22 .....149
6 ......13...... 19 ....23 ....64 ....24 .....162
7 ......14...... 20 ....25 ....71 ....27 .....177
8 ......16...... 20 ....27 ....75 ....29 .....187
9 ......17...... 20 ....30 ....75 ....32 .....194
10.....19...... 20 ....30 ......5 Century .184

I've really never done anything seriously athletic, but I think I'm going to give this a try.

I have a question for anyone who's done training for a long ride or other long thing: Should I cut back my riding from the usual 15-20 for the rides that are marked shorter here? Or should I really focus on hills for those days? (Except it says "easy" on the schedule, so maybe that's a give your legs a break day?)

I usually ride on a bike trail that's mostly really flat, being one of those rails to trails things. It's GREAT, really, but I will need to practice riding on hills at some point. There are smallish hills around, but I haven't ridden very much on them because I'm a lazy bum.

I'm also not sure what the difference between "pace" and "brisk" is.

Any athletic types out there with advice?

I've started looking for a century in mid-August or so. If you have exciting ideas, let me know, please! I'm thinking upper midwest so I don't have to travel too far for too long.

In other biking news, I finally feel totally vindicated! Sometime last summer, I saw a guy stopped on the road with a flat, and offered to share my spare tire and such. But he had wheels you need a wrench to get off, and since my wheels are those new-fangled (well, in the 80s when I got my bike, they were!) easy release wheels, I didn't have a wrench. So I couldn't actually help him. So I got a little monkey wrench and put it in my pack, just in case. And today, it actually came in handy! YAY!

Still no new bike. And lots of grading. Grr!

ps. Sorry about the periods in the graph thing; I know there are ways to add spaces, but I'm a lazy bum about remembering html!

pps. Thanks to Artemis, I smell like I just had my diaper changed. But no saddle sores!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Truths about Finals

My Dad was a pretty wise man who was wont to note that very few people frown when they're eating chocolate. It's true. It's also true that if you bring a class of people donuts for their final exam, most of them will smile and enjoy a donut. The smile seems to last even longer than the donut.

It's also true that if you leave the leftover donuts in the department lunch room, they will disappear, but people around the department will also be smiling more.

If you have a few essays left to grade, and plan to grade them during the first part of a class's final, it is a well-known truth that the first person to finish will be the one whose essay is on the bottom of your pile.

It's WAY cool when you read one of those papers, and it's so good you want to laugh. It's a little weird to have a whole class of finals-takers look up to figure out why their professor's laughing, though. I read a couple of very good finals today; I don't know that I taught these folks anything, but they sure learned stuff somewhere! What's best is that they learned to put things together in interesting ways that make sense and make me think.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


A while back, at some point I can't find any more, I talked about using the board and not powerpoint. I like to think that when I teach, I can respond effectively to student questions and interpretations on the fly. And I think that what I do on the board, on the fly, sticks in part because it's, well, memorable, but not in a necessarily good way.

But we all know that academics all want good examples, right? So I thought I'd give you some.

Here's one of my favorite poems, Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," with three bits highlighted from Bartleby:

HAD we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave 's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run

I also added line breaks to emphasize the three part structure of the poem: If X, but Y, so Z.

The first highlighted part pretty much sets up the poem up; the speaker's saying, hey, if we had all the time and space in the world, then we could take our time about this lovemaking. I think we often see carpe diem type poems, poems that tell us to "seize the day" and get on with living our lives. What blows me away about this poem is that it goes beyond the time dimension and thinks about the importance of space, taking space really seriously.

So, let's look at the next highlighted spot, and notice that it, too, includes both space and time. You've got this image of the speaker, moving along, and realizing that he's being chased down by Time's winged chariot. So Time's personified as a sort of person, one who has a darned fast chariot.

Here's my special genius:

I know what you're thinking, stunning, amazing... or, just dang, there's a crappy stick guy running from a badly drawn horse and chariot. But you can really get the sense of the spacial motion, no?

Now, let's look at the final bit of imagery, and remember, if you will, that the sun gets personified all the time in poetry as well. Not surprisingly, as a guy in a chariot. That's right, it's an appearance by Apollo!

So here's my go at Apollo:
Note the similarity, eh? Except this time, the speaker and the beloved are making Apollo have to run to get across the sky because they're just that hot and stuff.

Now, look at the poem again, and think about those pictures. They're crap, but don't you see the way space works differently?


I gave my poetry final today, and wrote one of my best final essay question options ever. I sure as heck hope that my students chose to write on it and really went to town. Want to see it? I thought you would!

Imagine, for a moment, that your friend has asked you for help reading and interpreting a poem you’ve never seen before. Explain what you would do to help your friend understand the poem. Using specific examples from poems we’ve read from before and after the midterm, explain what strategies you’d use, what you’d look for structurally, how you’d help your friend understand imagery, and so forth. When you use poetic terms, be sure to define them, as if you’re explaining them to your friend.

I think there's a lot of possibility for students to do really well with this, and for them to actually be reasonably fun and interesting to read. Cross your fingers for me!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May's Sad Thoughts

May's been a tough month for me for a long time. Professionally, of course, it's finals time, and I'm buried in grading.

But before I knew anything of grading, May was the month C died. With C's death, I lost one of the wisest friends I've ever known, someone who made me realize there was a level of understanding so far beyond my own I could hardly imagine. It's been more than 20 years now, and still, some of the memories are so sharp, the memories of the stones in the walkway from the hospital when M and I left after visiting for the last time, the smell in the room, the mere thought of which nauseates me.

And May is the month I put my Packboy to "sleep." He was old, and in pain, and probably more ready than I was. I miss the total joy and anticipation with which he greeted every door, expecting something wonderful just beyond, no matter what or where the door was. I miss the way he most loved to drink from a river when he was in it up to his neck, and the way he loved to go for walks. I miss driving everywhere with him, coming back from whatever errand to find him in the driver's seat of the car looking out the window as if it were his turn to drive.
He traveled across country four times, once by plane, three times with me in the car. It's a pain in some ways to travel with a dog, but also a special pleasure. Each stop is a new adventure and there's always some child who really wants to pet the dog; he was the perfect dog for kids to pet, reliable, gentle, big enough to seem to encourage hugs, and totally happy to make a friend.
He was one of those dogs who knew he was a dog, and figured people were just inadequate dogs who somehow managed to control access to food and to open and close doors. He didn't choose to come live with me, but he accepted me when people made the decision for him.
I've never had such a mutual relationship with a dog, never had a sense that the dog felt responsible for me, and depended on me at the same time. The relationship was a pack more than a family, on his terms, and it worked for me, too. I was honored to be his pack leader, even if I was woefully inadequate at peeing appropriately or keeping loud storm noises at bay.
If I were half the person he was a dog, or half the person he thought I was, I'd be a really good person.
Something today reminded me of the Mayness, and I'm sad as if it were 20 years ago, or two.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Full Stop

I was grading a paper just now, and ugh. Okay, so it was a bad paper, not plagiarized-bad, just showing clearly that the writer didn't understand some basics, didn't read carefully, and so forth.

For some reasons, papers like this one set me off. I just come to a full stop and don't want to go on. I can read good and mediocre papers with a reasonably amiable and happy spirit. Hey, you did this well, I'll note. You could do that even better by using the text as evidence, working closely with it, blah blah blah. That's an interesting point, I'll write in the margin, could you develop it further with an example?

But a really lousy paper infuriates me, I'm ashamed to say. I can feel my heart pounding, my teeth mash together.

It's as if I take the paper as a personal affront, and really, I shouldn't. It's a paper. A piece of student work. The student did what the student did, and it's not at all about me, right?

Okay, calming now. And back to work.

This student cried in my office before when a paper earned a B-. I hope s/he understands why this paper failed. But I fear there's a painful conference ahead.

Quiz Reading

I teach a lot of first year writing classes, and in that role, I tend to respond to a lot of student writing. Often, my responses ask the student to give more detail, give an example, explain something further, define a term, and so forth. In short, I ask students to expand on their ideas and give more information.

At some point, if I'm lucky, students begin to internalize these responses. I call this process getting in touch with their inner English professor. It's a joke, sort of, but we all have editing voices in our heads when we write (well, or something), and if I can help them think about their internal editor and incorporate the better aspects of English professorhood (without the pedantry some of us have, or the alcoholism, depression, pettiness, all that), then they'll give more detail, better support, examples, and all that other good stuff we look for in academic writing in the first draft. (Yeah, imagine me doing a Yoda impression, except about the inner English professor. /nod You have the idea.)

I read the final quizzes for my entry English major class. The quiz question asked them to identify one or two of the university goals, and write a paragraph or so about what they did in terms of our class to build the skill(s), and what they did in another aspect of their life to build the skill(s). It's a sort of easy self-reflexive idea for a quiz, to get them to think about what they've learned and start putting things together.

With one or two exceptions, the students just went to town, not in a flattering "Bardiac's class was the best ever" sort of way, but in a "hey, I developed this skill in this class, especially by doing this ... and reading that ...." And so forth. They all gave examples and developed a point from the examples. I feel like waving the quizzes around when they go to take the final and talking about what they did.

Their inner English professors are strong, these young ones!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Thoughts on Grading and Other Stuff

Back when I was a grad student, I was in a group conversation in which one of us complained about grading. There was a professor there who offered advice that we shouldn't give assignments that we don't want to read. In fact, it's good advice as far as it goes. Unfortunately, I can't much think of any assignment that I don't hate after reading 20+ iterations, much less 30+.

In one of my classes, I thougth I did a much better job of mixing up assignments, so students chose which text to write on for two assignments, with some limitations. It helps me tons to only have five papers on text X, and know that there will be five more on text Y. Unfortunately, most students do the very last choice, so I end up with 20+ on that text. Still, it was a good plan, just not good enough!

I think I'm back to having a mid-life crisis. It's not the first time, either. Last time, I chose to jump out of an airplane. This time, I've ordered clipless bike pedals for the new bike I've ordered. I'm pretty much guaranteed to fall any number of times. I'm trying to reassure myself that falling is okay, but I had an eye problem once, a detached retina, and was warned to give up my otherwise promising boxing career (well, I'd never lost a bout, but that happens when you've never boxed or even been in a fist fight). They scared the beejebus out of me about doing anything that might bump or move my head quickly.

Seriously, do you know that you can totally repress all need to cough or sneeze for two months? I did, even though I got a cold. That's why when I see movies where someone really scared sneezes, I don't buy it. (But since then, I've wondered if they weren't just trying to scare me figuring it would make me minimally cautious? I think I was way more terrified than the situation warranted, but I'll never know for sure.)

Sometimes, I have all the common sense of a stereotypical 14 year old boy; if it looks scary, I'm willing to try. I'm thinking of trying to do a "century," which is a bike ride of 100 miles. Um, I need to get my rear in gear if I'm going to do that because while I may have the common sense of a stereotypical 14 year old boy, I don't have the testosterone or restorative powers.

If I put a sign up in the backyard that says "prairie restoration project," do you think my neighbors will notice that I don't mown the lawn? I actually did mow over the weekend, and in the past week or two since I'd been out back, my two little pine trees have gone nuts growing. They've put on about 6 inches of new growth. Amazing!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Learning from Grading

One of the good things about grading (there has to be something, right?) is that I get to figure out what assignments work, and then I can try to figure out how to make things work better.

I've been struggling for a while now with teaching research skills. When I say it like that, it seems silly, probably. But research isn't just a matter of doing something and then, voila, research comes out. It takes a bunch of different skills, each of which has to be developed to some extent.

In my field, some of the big skills are:

Developing a real question
Getting some ideas about possible answers to the question
Trying to be aware of one's biases and assumptions
Thinking of ways to test your answers (with historical evidence, evidence from texts, etc)
Figuring out what other people have said about the issue
Finding the historical and textual evidence that will help you answer your question
Reading and understanding historical and textual evidence
Coming up with a more solid answer
Making the argument for your answer

In between are all sorts of other sub-skills, and I've probably missed some, but that's a start.

I decided this year to work on helping my students develop their research skills in a lower division class. But I didn't want to try to make them all do a separate huge research paper. Or even a separate small research paper. What I wanted was to break out a skill or two and work on that.

In one class, I chose to work on helping students read critical essays better. Speaking broadly, I find that most college students in the early stages read critical essays in order to find information to support their argument. I'm guessing that's what they're told to look for in high school for such papers. It's certainly where I started as a student.

But, ideally, students should read essays to get a sense of the conversation scholars have been having about some question, problem, or topic. In order to do that, they need to learn to focus on the critical essay as an argument and to read for the thesis and to read for how the argument's being made. But that's a tall order.

So this semester, I did two things in my Shakespeare class to try to teach my students to read critical essays well. First, I gave an assignment asking students to use the MLA database to find a recent essay on some aspect of one of the plays we read, and then to read the essay, and write a summary. They were required to turn in a photocopy (or printout) of the essay along with their summary. Second, I ordered the Norton Othello edition, and assigned several critical essays in there for reading. We took time in class to work with the essays in depth, looking for the thesis, teasing out what sorts of evidence the writer uses and how s/he makes the argument.

The Othello readings came just before the midterm, while the summary assignment could be turned in on the second day of working with whichever play a student chose. That meant that some students turned in their summaries before the Othello readings, and some after. In general, the summaries turned in after the Othello readings were stronger, more focused on identifying the thesis and basic outline of the argument. I hope that means that working closely with the readings in class taught the students something about reading essays well.

I've decided that the assignment needs some fine tuning. For one thing, I need to work closely with some critical readings BEFORE the students do their summaries, so they get a better sense of how to read critically. And then I probably need to be more specific in the actual assignment about identifying the thesis and such.

I'm teaching our intro grad course in research and such next semester, and I'm thinking about how I can adapt this assignment so that we'll start by really critically reading some lit crit and thinking hard about theses, what counts as evidence, and how arguments are made. Just one more thing to work on revising this summer!

I'd be really interested in how others teach research skills, especially (but not only) in English studies. I'd love to see some assignments if people have them, or to hear about strategies people use.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Ending on a Fine Note

One of my students from last term came by today to talk. It looks like she's going to be my special programs first year class mentor next year, and I'm very happy about that. This student did a great job last term using the writing process to work and revising papers, and if she can pass some of that along to the students next term, she'll be a great help. She's also really come into her own working in student government, so I think she'll have a ton to contribute. And she's excited about the opportunity.

So that made a pretty good day.

Then one of my retired colleagues dropped by the department, and a number of us sat around the conference room chatting and such. I really miss this colleague, but it's such a treat to see him again and chat at the end of the term.

That added goodness.

And this evening was the department picnic. I'd told my English majors class about it and encouraged them to come, and was happily surprised that five or six of them came! They seemed to enjoy themselves. I'm taking it as one of those small victories that they came because I encouraged them; it means that I did a good job working with them in becoming majors, right? Learning to value the community, wanting to be part of things? I hope so!

So my students made the evening. Maybe it's just that the involved and fun students go to the picnic, but the students there tonight are all folks that I enjoy seeing and talking with. What a life!

And there was pecan pie. Mmmm. Pie>cake.

26 miles yesterday at just a bit over 15mph. My legs are still a bit tuckered tonight. I'm trying to work on both speed and endurance this summer. The end goal is to start averaging 16 mph (or maybe faster with the new wheels?) and the endurance goal is to ride 35+ miles to a malt shop in another town, get a malt, and then ride back. So I'm working up to 70 miles.

I think it's pretty telling that my real goal is a chocolate malt.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Garbage In...

The other day, I was at yet another meeting, this one involving the appropriate reed type and weaving pattern for our underwater basketweaving class. (Not really, but go with me and you'll get the point.) One of our colleagues (the Guru) was responsible for presenting data on the success of the various reed types and patterns in making baskets.

The Guru had given us information on the baskets, which, it seemed, were sort of successful, but not as successful as one might have wished. The purpose of the meeting was to get our feedback about the results: does the "sort of successful but not as successful as one might have wished" result seem to fit with what we see?

Then the questions started: why were there only a few reeds tested, and only a few types? And why didn't the data say something about the basket patterns? What if some patterns were better than others? How could we tell if the data didn't say anything.

The Guru got a little cranky. No, he said, he knew there were problems with the data collection and further problems with the method of analysis, but that wasn't our purpose today. He wanted to know what we thought of the results.

Then the Guru's pals started in. Anyone who focused on the data or methodology was, well, almost unAmerican. Not quite, but definitely uncooperative.

Some people made vague noises, yes, we thought the baskets weren't as good as they might have been. We should make better baskets. And that was that. The Guru left satisfied that his results are full of meaning.

Except they aren't. The input (data) and the methodology for handling the data were so poor that any resemblence of the results to reality is purely accidental. We just paid for a totally useless basketweaving analysis. Further, we were intellectually careless enough not to push against the poor results we were given. So we're going to be stuck hearing about those results again and again for the next year.

I hate it that I didn't push that, but the Guru's pals run things, and I don't. And I made noises. But what I didn't do was outright say that the Guru and his pal are intellectually careless (or unethical), and that at a university, we really should stress intellectual rigor and ethics.

Also, the "results" are so predictable as to be useless. Think about what we do here at the university. Yes, we make some good baskets, but some aren't as good at they should be at the end. There are tons of reasons for the failure to make 100% perfect baskets. Some of those reasons involve the way we make baskets, and some the reed, and some the pattern used.

But even if our baskets were, say, 90% perfection, we'd still say that we're doing pretty well, but not quite as well as we would like to. So frustrating!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Midterm Grade Reporting?

Here at NWU, we are required to give our freshmen (and I use the term advisedly) students some sort of grade report during about the 8th week of the semester. We're also required to give all students some evaluative information by the fourth week of classes (that can take many forms, quizzes, short papers, and so forth).

Giving midterm grade reports adds extra math to my life. I don't especially dislike math, but if I have to figure out midterm grades for, say, 30 students, that's not insignificant.

According to the powers that be, students do better in college (that is, they stay from first to second year, and eventually graduate; that's how we count success at the most basic level) when they get midterm grade reports. So the practice is demonstrated to contribute to student success.

A request has come from the students that we give both freshmen and sophomores midterm grade reports.

The rationale are interesting. There's the argument that getting midterm grade reports in the sophomore year will help students in the transition to college. And there's the argument that since many students come in with significant college credits, they aren't classified by the university as "freshmen" during the second semester of their first year, and so don't get grade reports even for their full first year. (Thus the importance of the category "freshman" distinct from "first year.")

I'm sort of torn. Yes, I'm pro-student success, really. But, I want students to transition to college more fully. Part of that transition involves learning to keep track of one's work and learning to do basic percentages. I think those are valuable and important skills, and shouldn't be underrated. Maybe it's the old Peace Corps, "teach a man to fish" thing, but I think that being able to keep track of work and manipulate basic percentages is useful in ways way beyond the college experience.

Then there's time. Let's imagine, for a moment, that it takes five minutes for someone to do the math on a midterm grade. Adding, say 20-30 sophomores to my calculations means I get to spend an extra hour and a half or two calculating midterm grade reports. I keep fairly busy in life, and I haven't yet found a way to add hours to the week, so before I jump to do this, I want to know where I'm going to get an extra hour or so in my week in the middle of the semester. Time is a zero sum game, and I spend a fair bit more than 40 hours working in any given week during the semester, so adding an hour means I don't do something else for that hour.

(I have it "easy" for this calculation because I teach writing type courses with relatively smaller enrollments, 30 rather than 60 students on average. Double the numbers for colleagues in some departments. And, of course, the nursing folks won't much be affected, since they have almost no freshmen or sophomores; same for education departments. If you serve general education in a big way, you'll be sucking it up.)

Now, let's imagine that your average sophomore is taking 4-5 courses, and takes five minutes to calculate the midterm grade for each. That's 20-25 minutes of the student's time. It's not that the time should be any different overall, just that it gets spread over a lot more people. And the student who cares learns how to think about numerical data and such, or reinforces that knowledge. (And, of course, they also save time because they don't have to email the information to the student. Part of the system automatically forwards some information to advisors, too, so we don't have to deal with that on the other end.)

I'm curious about what happens at other schools with grade reporting at midterm. Do you do them? For which students?

Does anyone have research that talks about midterm grade reporting and student success that they could suggest?

And as advisors, what do you do with grade reports you get for advisees?

Monday, May 07, 2007


I'm in grading hell right now. My hell is all the worse for things I didn't say this semester, but which I guess I should have said. What didn't I tell students that I should have?

Number your pages. (Yes, really, if your paper's several pages long, you should number your pages.)

Cite your text. (Yes, you need to cite your Shakespeare edition. Really. Other texts, too. No, copying the computer print out from the computerized index isn't the same as citing your text.)

Come up with a good title. (No, "Essay #2" is not a good title. All's Well that Ends Well IS a good title, but it's already been used, so you need to think of something else.)

Paraphrasing is not analysis.

When you summarize someone else's argument, you actually need to figure out what the thesis is and explain it.

Don't treat your thesis as a punch line, holding it until the very end when we're supposed to ooh and ah or laugh. Seriously, in most academic writing, your reader wants to know what you're arguing about fairly quickly.

When I ask you not to slide your late paper under my office door, surprisingly, I actually mean I don't want to step on your paper and slip as I try to enter my office with arms full of books and assignments.


I am going to do something I very much don't want to do this evening. I expect it will be painful. But I will do it. I'd like to say I'm doing it for good ethical reasons. I'd like to say I'm doing because I'm a good and caring person. I'd also like to say that I'm fabulously good looking, totally fit and trim, and caught up on my grading.

What I will say is that I've made some progress grading today, and that I'm going to do this because doing it will be less likely to cause someone hurt feelings than not doing it.


There is not enough bourbon. And I'm unlikely to make it to the store before the stupid plastic chains go up to indicate that they can't (and won't) sell me any more.


The word "said" looks totally wrong, awkward and misspelt, unless we're talking about Edward Said, and then it looks fine. Why is it that the most familiar words look wrong when I think about them? The great tragedy of my orthographic life is that I don't live in the fourteenth century. Of course, I wouldn't have survived long enough to learn to talk (much less spell) in the fourteenth century (go go antibiotics!), but at least I wouldn't have had to grade!

Sunday, May 06, 2007


I went to the Shakespeare performance the other night! I find it more amazing to see a full performance after I've got a good idea how much work goes into it, and they all pull it together.

The director had a conception for the production and a lot depended on the costumes and stage dressing, and they worked wonderfully. I really like minimalist staging, but this was more spectacular in the literal sense, and it certainly seemed to work well for the audience.

The students did a fine job. Some of them were a bit difficult to understand. I'm not sure if it was a matter of not feeling comfortable enough with the language, not having voice support or a loud enough voice, or not speaking clearly while projecting. (I'm sure the director has a better idea, and has worked with them, but students don't learn everything instantly, alas.) One or two moments didn't quite work for me, but overall, it worked well.

In any given play, there are moments that I really love and imagine staging. For example, I imagine staging Gloucester's "suicide jump" in Lear and how to really get across to the audience how serious that is. And then there's the final bit in Measure for Measure, when the Duke proposes to Isabella, and she has to respond somehow. This play wasn't Lear or Measure for Measure, but it has a moment. And happily, the moment worked. You could hear the audience draw in their breaths sharply with that stunned sound. Cool!

One of the joys of doing Shakespeare is that I know the plays pretty well, so when I read them, I feel the lines with a sense of fullness. Unlike "The Miller's Tale" (which surprises me every time), Shakespeare rarely surprises me (okay, there was that one Tempest where Ferdinand ended up with Caliban, but other than that, not so much). But that sense of familiarity also means that I miss the feeling of shock when something unexpected happens. Sometimes I forget that there's supposed to be that sense of shock, though usually teaching plays reminds me where the surprises are and where I'm going to need to help students "get" something. Often, those places are one and the same because there's something unexpected. It was fun to hear the audience respond to the unexpected during the play.

People in the audience seemed to be enjoying it. I ran into a former student in the lobby, and he spoke enthusiastically about the play and seeing Shakespeare, and his friends seemed equally happy to be there.

I'm glad I was part of it all, but this was basically a volunteer effort. When we talk about doing interdisciplinary work, the theater and history departments are where it makes most sense for me to look for colleagues. But our history department, while full of friendly folks, doesn't exactly emphasize English history or early modern Europe. So I hope our theater department encourages this director to go to town and do more Shakespeare or early modern theater in general.

But the volunteer thing. Next time, I'll know to talk to the dean and try to get my work recognized in some way because unless the powers that be recognize it, it doesn't count. And if it doesn't count, then it takes away from all the other things I need to do, and there are plenty of those. (The program did graciously recognize my work, but since I expect few if any of our deans or administrators to see the show, that doesn't necessarily mean much as far as the university.)

Resources are always limited, but the powers that be seem to find them for some folks, so it's at least worth asking if the opportunity knocks again.

All in all then, a really good experience for me. I think I contributed significantly to the success of the production and the understanding of the actors. And I learned tons myself!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Reading Groups?

In the past year or two, I've become aware of several sponsored reading groups on campus, and have been participating with one. (Whether I became aware when they started, or not, I'm not sure, but they're pretty new.) The one I read with is sponsored by a women's organization through a grant. One of my colleagues gets with a committee, chooses a book, then sends out an email inviting participation. Once she's got a list, she sorts us into groups by time availability. We buy the books through the organization, so that we pay less for them.

Last year, my group was really interesting, especially because I met some women across campus that I hadn't met before. We have a silo approach, produced in part by our physical layout, that tends to separate people, but the readings groups got people talking to new people. Also, the groups are open to anyone on campus (though men tend not to sign up), so we have faculty folks, staff folks, administrative folks, depending on who's interested.

At the end of the semester, we all get together and talk as a larger group. And suddenly, with the appearance of food, men show up and suddenly dominate the conversation. In part they dominate because our discussions provoke questions for the upper administration, and without exception, everyone with real power on this campus is male. (Alas, my campus seems to be taking backwards steps into more overt sexism.) There's a certain level of irony in hearing a male whom I've heard make some stupidly sexist comments in public forums wondering how anyone could believe that men on campus aren't totally supportive of women. It's not funny ironly, though.

The first year I did this, we read a book on gender and negotiation, which everyone in my group found informative (sometimes in horrifying ways) and interesting. The book gave us lots to talk about.

This year, I had a sort of unique group, informed feminists who'd read a lot of theory and such, and one old school feminist who'd been through consciousness raising and had a lot to contribute through her smarts and experience. We had tons to talk about, but the book was less than wonderful, too full of unsupported generalizations and sort of boringly written.

Here's the question of the day, should anyone care to help: What would be a good book for next year's reading?

The book has to be useful for people at different career stages and in different careers. We're at different places in our feminism, some folks are used to reading and thinking theoretically, some aren't. What we have in common are interests in women's issues and education.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Humble Ride

I went for a ride today, pushing myself hard. At the end, I was slowly catching up with a guy, except that he looked like he was barely trying and I was pushing hard, breathing that hard rhythmical way, red-faced, mouth hanging open, nose dripping, you get the picture. He looked back at me once or twice as I gained on him up the trail. But then I finished my 16 miles and slowed way down to cool off for the last little bit and he pulled quickly away.

Pushing hard, I did 16 miles in 1:00:27. That's only 27 seconds off my 16 miles an hour for an hour goal. I wanted to make excuses: if only those guys running three abreast hadn't made me slow down; if only the guy with the little dog hadn't made me slow down, blah blah. In truth, if only I were in a bit better shape and/or pushed a harder.

It's humbling to realize, though, that there are people who can RUN a mile that fast. Yes, I could ALMOST be a pace bike for a runner. Okay, so people don't run that fast for an hour, but still, they RUN. (The best male marathoners, from what I can figure, go from 12-13 mph. HOLY COW, they run for HOURS, FAST!)

Real bikers, I gather, ride into the mid-20s over distances. Pro bikers go WAY faster. I don't think they have anything to worry about from me.

On the other hand, I saw a buteo hawk today (a red-tail, I'd guess). And I had a really nice time out in the sunshine.

When I first started trying to keep track of my times and distance to get an idea of my fitness, my big goal was 15 mph for an hour. Adding one mph seems pretty minimal, doesn't it? Oh, well.

Students Rock

We're having our English celebration now, and some of my Shakespeare students did a performance project for the celebration. I have to say, they were fantastic, just outstanding.

Each group solved some basic problems (explaining how the scene fit in the play to an audience that hadn't read the play, for example), learned lines well, worked cooperatively, and put on a scene. Even better, everyone I talked to had really enjoyed working together and putting on the scene, though some had doubts at the beginning.

Way cool!

And, tomorrow night I'm going with some friends to see the play I did dramaturgy for, so I'm all excited. I ran into a couple of the students involved the other day, and they were both excited and enthusiastic. Interestingly, one of the students talked about how much he's learned through the process of preparing and how far he's come in his skills.

Back to grading!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Small Victory

In one of my meetings today, we were nominating committees for some campus work. And lo and behold, several of the draft lists were all men. So I suggested that perhaps some gender balance was appropriate. And yes, everyone agreed, that made sense. It's a positive sign that I didn't actually have to fight for that one, isn't it?

So, every nominated group of three people has one woman. None has two.

At least there's some balance now, and that's important given the work of these committees. But still, in a world of about 50% women, the overall list doesn't exactly represent balance. Day to day mundane sexism wears on me.