Saturday, August 30, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

Let's put this in non-English terms.

We have a deepwater basketweaving specialty area within our underwater basketweaving department. Deepwater basketweaving has recently (within the past 20 years) become way more developed as a specialty; before that, interested underwater folks used to teach the class. Or maybe deepwater basketweaving used to be a bigger area, but student interest in other areas has led us to drop our faculty coverage down.

At any rate, it's a specialized area, but any basketweaver knows a little about it, so when we can't cover the intro classes with our TT faculty, the chair calls an adjunct at the last minute and says, basically, hey, want an extra course? And the adjunct, happy for the course and usually eager to please, says sure. The chair breathes a sigh of relief and moves on to other explosive problems.

And because the adjunct is eager to please, s/he gets good student evaluations for the course. And the next time, well, the adjunct is experienced in the field, and so teaches it again, and again, and again. Each time, the adjunct puts in a good effort (because adjuncts work their tails off), coming to deepwater basketweaving from his/her specialization in brackish water basketweaving, or reed preparation.

And eventually, maybe we hire a new deepwater specialist. Or maybe the students feed into the open water basketweaving courses. But at any rate, someone begins to notice and then, after a while, to complain sotto voce that the students really aren't getting what they should be getting in that introductory level course. It's not being taught as a true deepwater course.

Or maybe we realize that we need a TT line in deepwater basketweaving, and our beloved adjunct applies.

In whatever way, we come up against the hard fact that an adjunct we really like, one who has worked his/her tail off for us in all sorts of ways, really isn't doing the job with the deepwater class, but expects to teach it again, or to be looked at seriously for the TT position. And the adjunct has pals. Or the adjunct's spouse teaches in the department (or is an administrator). Or the adjunct got his/her BA or MA here and is geographically limited. So there are people who really want to go to bat for the adjunct. (And always, in my experience, the adjunct is a straight, married, white person who's deeply connected to our area, who looks and talks just like our students, makes jokes about having gone to the local high schools.)

We've been depending on this person we shouldn't have depended on in the first place for this course because it was easy at the time. And a lot of people remember when deepwater wasn't even a specialty, and people from all over covered that course.

So we have a conflict between being jerks to the adjunct, who we've been exploiting all along, or doing a disservice to another colleague (who has to deal with inadequately prepared students) and doing a disservice to our students, who don't even realize they're being cheated.

If you're friends with the adjunct but think we need a real deepwater specialist, what do you do? And what if deepwater specialists aren't too common, and we're going to have a hard time recruiting one because we pay poorly and are far from deepwater research opportunities?

Friday, August 29, 2008


So close, and yet so far. If I'd only had a bit more nerve, I could have held on without touching the brakes a bit longer. And if I'd had more nerve than that, I could have pedaled a longer. Who knows how fast I could go?

Still, my inner 12 year old was very happy going down that hill. (My outer 48 year old was very slow going up it, though!)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Overwhelmed and Underwhelmed

Meetings and more meetings. Meetings about meetings. I feel like I've had so much information tossed at me, with few connections or intersections, and no real time to process which I want/need to think a lot more about, and which I can put on a back burner. I would have done way better with one or two presentations today instead of five.

Why is it that when the Teaching Teachers to Teach group head gives a presentation, he stands at the front of the room and reads off his powerpoint slides of the TTT website? (Which have print too small for middle aged faculty types to read from the seating area.)

I had one moment of real happiness going into a meeting this week, when I saw a colleague who, last I saw her in winter, had been going through some sort of chemo and was looking tight in the jaw (in the way that seems to happen with chemo sometimes) and wearing a scarf. When I saw her now, she had a way more relaxed face and hair, and said she was feeling way lots better.

And I heard something very interesting, though I'm not sure how much to credit it. According to one person here, our residence hall student leadership is heavily evangelical Christian. According to the one person, the evangelical Christian groups pretty much control residence hall life, and strongly encourage their members to apply to become RAs and such. This same person says that Christian groups controlling residence hall life is a trend across many campuses.

Surprised me. Does anyone have a sense of this? Is it just something said to get folks like me riled up, or is there something to it?

An anecdote: when I went to college, the two guys (M and J) living across the hall had gone to a Catholic high school, and our crowd had talked about this because we'd all talked about what high schools we'd gone to as part of our getting acquainted chatting. Then one day, L suddenly asked M if he was Christian. I was all shocked, and thought that L somehow didn't know that all the protestant sects had developed from Catholicisms, so of course he was Christian. But after when M said that he was Catholic, and L said that meant he wasn't Christian, M explained (privately) to me that some evangelical Christians don't believe that Catholics are Christians.

The upshot, of course, was that I learned a little about evangelicals, with whom I had had no experience before. I knew nothing about evangelical Christians at all. I mean, I knew there were different groupings within Protestantism, but I had no idea that they didn't see all those groupings and all the different Catholic and Orthodox folks as belonging to the same broad group of "Christians."

Seriously, the most I knew about evangelical Christianity was that Jimmy Carter was Baptist or something, and talked about how he lusted in his heart. I don't remember anyone in my acquaintance being impressed by Nixon's being a Quaker, despite a generally positive characterization of Quakers by people I knew. Maybe he just didn't seem like much of a Quaker?

I meet with the special first year class tomorrow. I should start drinking now, because I'm really not at all ready.

I've already had one student athlete contact me to say that the team was doing an away practice and he'd miss class. I'm impressed that he contacted me ahead, indeed, but also irritated that the coaches scheduled a first year student to miss this supposedly important thing. I mean, it's important enough that the administration requires ME to be there, so why isn't it important enough for coaches to avoid taking first years to the away practice?

Having this come up already doesn't bode well for Friday's this semester, does it? Even I know that this student is going to miss a lot of classes for team travel and such. And they'll all be excused absences, of course.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Meetings and More Meetings

This week is full. Today's morning meeting was mostly interesting, though there was no coffee, and I was working on short caffeine (my own fault for assuming there would be coffee).

But, at one point we were supposed to be discussing problems on campus, and one of the folks at the table said that a problem is that all students don't learn in the same ways, so faculty shouldn't lecture all the time.

Stupid me, I thought this was a meeting about identifying problems, so I said that I thought there was a structural issue here, and that it was really hard to teach a class with 85 students without lecturing.

And I think this is true. Our larger classes have "nailed down" seats. They may rotate a bit, but the motion is limited and they're set in rows with some sort of writing surface in front of them. Want to do group work? Someone is going to have to sit on the desks. You can do pairs, but it's hard to not have the same pairs.

And complicated group stuff, in a class of 85? How many times will you explain the instructions that everyone needs to have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil? At least six. When the directions get more complicated, it goes even more slowly.

Well, she turned on me, at which point I realized she's from the Heaps of Learning Intensity Group (HOLI-G) (okay, that's a psuedonym, but you get the point), and started talking about the HOLI seminars we should attend to teach us not to lecture all the time.

So what could I say? The last time I lectured in a class was in grad school, and it was either a 250 person survey of the middle of the English lit history thing, or a 200 person lower level Shakespeare class. In either case, I didn't have strategies to make a big class work well without lecturing (especially given the structures of lecture halls), nor the power to say that I wasn't actually going to do the lecture I had the opportunity to do to get a little lecture hall experience.

But day to day, I'm fortunate not to teach 85 or 200 or 400 person classes, and usually I teach in rooms without nailed-down chairs, so I can get students to move around, and I can use discussion, focused group work, and all sorts of other stuff to help students learn. (I've had students sit on the tables when necessary, too, but it's not comfortable and doesn't work really well over the long haul of a semester.)

But my fortune in class size comes at the expense of some other folks who do teach large lecture classes, because that's the reality of university life. My 35 person lit classes help support the 15 person writing intensive classes, but the cost efficiency on campus comes from large lecture halls full of students with one professor standing in front.

So what could I say? I didn't say anything else because I didn't think it would be productive.

But now I wonder what sorts of great strategies she's got in mind for teaching great classes of 85 or more students in nailed-down seating. And, alas, I'm not going to go ask her, because I don't actually like to be treated like I'm an incompetent for making a suggestion that I don't think was all that idiotic.

And yes, inside I was thinking about the fact that one of us has actually lectured to 200+ people, and one of us has done visiting lectures, and one of us plans out and teaches classes all bleeping semester that most students seem to have found pretty decent. And a few students find them more than decent.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to learn to be a better teacher. But I don't think someone who reacted as she did will really help me do that.

Oh teaching wisdom of the internets, what are the best strategies you've learned for teaching in large lecture halls with 85+ students?

(Yes, if I were a member of the HOLI-G, I'd talk about "promoting learning" rather than "teaching." I've become a curmudgeon, haven't I?)

But then, later, I had a less official meeting with Harriet, Columbia, Don, and Angel.

This is Don. He's a Golden Eagle. See the dark eye? Cool! Don got whacked by a car and failed the test to go live in the wild, so he lives at a center not too far by car.

He lives with Harriet, Columbia, and Angel, who are Bald Eagles, female, and thus (so the docents said) larger than Dan (because they're female and female eagles are bigger than males, though Golden and Bald eagles are pretty close to the same size; also Dan was from California, while the others were from more colder climates, which tends to correlate with larger size, too). Note the lighter, amber/yellow eyes? Way cool! The eagles spend part of the day in a viewing area, but because they all like the big window seat, they get moved around. So I'm not sure which bald eagle this picture shows.

The big windows look out over the Big River, so you can see why any eagle would want to sit there.

Meeting these four probably wasn't as productive work-wise, but it sure made me feel better about life.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Well, Why Not?

I got one of those emails from a student the other day, explaining that s/he was going to be away for a couple weeks during the semester, and hoping that we would be able to work out an arrangement so s/he could do the classwork ahead and such.

My first reaction is to wonder why a student makes plans to be away for two weeks during a semester. The thought it alien to me; it's just something that seems so impossible.

My second thought, though, is to wonder why I'm so rigid about this sort of thing. I can think of numerous things I've missed out on in life because I just thought I wasn't allowed or shouldn't do it. And then later I find out that someone else did it, and things worked out.

One problem is a sort of Kantian dilemma: if every student takes off for two weeks during the semester, we'll have problems holding good discussions (this is an upper level seminar, and not a class where one lectures or something). But that's never going to happen, right? Even if every student did it at some point in his/her career as an undergrad, it wouldn't all be in one semester. It's the sort of false dilemma that I tend to use in my rigidity to make sense of saying "no."

And it's not like the world is going to come to a stop if someone's missing. I know a lot of faculty members who just don't miss class, even if we're pretty darned sick, because we feel like we're the center of the class and that it can't really happen without us. But things can happen without us, and even if they don't, missing a day of class won't bring the world to a stop.

For so long now, I've arranged my life in terms of the academic schedule that I don't question it, though I should.

I have to think about how to make this work because it really is a special opportunity for the student, and the class isn't going to come to a total stop because s/he's not there for a couple weeks. On the other hand, I do think class is important or I wouldn't be teaching it. The class isn't a hoop to jump through, but something that I really try to make meaningful every single day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Road Trip

Last night, my athletic team went for a team dinner (with family folks) to a pizza place an hour or so outside of town (good pizza is worth a ride). And then we took the scenic ride home, along the Lake of Charlemagne's Son, and through a couple small towns there, where my friends S and L pointed out their favorite restaurants and snack places. We stopped finally for an ice cream cone at one of these places before finally heading home.

From the back seat, the road looked well-paved with a good shoulder, and didn't seem to have many steep hills, so this morning, I decided to drive back out and ride my bike along the lake from one small town up to a bakery in another small town and then back, and if I felt like it, up a bluff to the birthplace of a Famous Local Author.

When I got to the Town of Charlemagne's Son, I saw a tourist information place, so I stopped and went in to ask about riding trails or roads, and about the birthplace stuff. I like these sorts of small town places because you invariably get to talk to someone who loves the town and the area and will share hints about fun places to see and go. And sure enough, that was the case today.

It turns out, we're from the same area, and she's from very close to my college town, so we chatted a bit more, and she gave me some pamphlets and information and told me I could leave my car in their lot while I went for my ride. So off I went.

The road was, indeed, well paved with a good wide shoulder, but it was a bit hillier than I remembered from the car.

Here's the thing, though. I'm really happy to say that I feel pretty confident on the usual hills around here, so I wasn't overwhelmed by these, and had a really good ride going up and down. It's a surprisingly good feeling to have, this feeling that the hills around here are okay and that I'll have fun and be fine for 20-40 miles on them (so long as the paving is decent and quiet or the shoulder wide enough). I don't know how to explain it, because it's a really new feeling for me to have this sort of physical sense of myself.

I wasn't the only one who went out for a ride today, though. Every other biker in the area was on the road, too, except they had motors on their bikes, often big, very loud motors. And they went a whole lot faster. They also don't look silly wearing lycra and all. But I'd nod at them, and mostly they'd nod at me, and we seemed to have a sort of okayness about each other. I'm sure some of them were thinking that even a bike without a motor is better than no bike at all, and I was certainly thinking that they looked like they were having almost as much fun as I was.

Then I reached the bakery. In a town (of the Stone a Woman who didn't want to be Forced to Marry Jumped off of) with a double digit population marker, there's this absolutely great bakery. I parked my bike on the porch next to a rocking chair and went in to see what was what, and there were pies, and cookies, and this and that. I asked for a pie suggestion, and the bakery guy suggested Passion Fruit Cream Pie, and, as he said, when was I going to have another opportunity to have Passion Fruit Cream Pie? So I did, and he was right. It was refreshing and sweet without being at all cloying, light, flavorful, and every so foodgasmic. I ate my piece on the porch in the rocking chair, and people coming up to the bakery commented on the happiness of my face eating the pie. My pie hole was very pleased, that's for sure. And it showed.

I also bought some cookies to bring home, three each of lavender/ginger sugar cookies and chocolate oatmeal cookies. (The nice bakery guy gave me two bags so I could fit the cookies in my jersey back pockets.)

And then I headed back, and eventually reached my car again. 26 miles, and my legs are tired.

I took a lavender/ginger cookie in to give to the woman I'd chatted with at the tourist information office, to thank her for her help earlier.

And off I went to see the fake log cabin that stands in for the long gone real log cabin where the Famous Local Author was born. I took some pictures, even, though it's Not the Real Cabin, and the landscape in the area looks nothing at all like it sounds when one reads the Famous Local Author's work.

Around the Not the Real Cabin are fields of corn and soy (I'm guessing soy wasn't a big crop in those days?) I grew up in the suburbs, and though we grew some veggies in our yard, we didn't grow soy. In fact, I don't think soy is a big crop where I'm from; at any rate, I've never seen soy up close. Usually these days, I see a big field, but I don't feel right about getting out of the car (or off the bike) to get off the road and go to someone's field. Here, though, the field was right up next to the tourist area, so I did go over to look at how soy grows. And I even took a picture. To me, this seems like the bean pods are still pretty immature, but only a couple weeks ago soy was flowering around here, so they seem to grow pretty fast once they get started.

I thought I'd share the picture since I'm guessing a lot of folks haven't seen soy growing up close and personal. This blog is nothing if not educational, right?

ps. Since coming home, I've eaten one of the lavender/ginger sugar cookies. They sound weird, but it sure tasted good!

Saturday, August 23, 2008


If you're in Shakespeare studies or a related field, you probably already know about the petition to reinstate Patricia Parker's contract as editor of the Arden 3 edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. If, by chance, you hadn't heard, then take a gander.

I don't know Parker, but I've read some of her work and admired it since grad school.

I've got a feeling that all the petitions by academics in the world don't amount to a hill of beans compared to a company's cost/benefit analysis.


On a related note, reading the petition made me think about some folks I know, which was cool. But it's also weird to realize that someone you know fairly well has switched jobs and you weren't aware.

I feel very out of Shakespeare things sometimes, out here, teaching nearly a half-load of comp and not enough Shakespeare.

It would be fascinating, though, were one able to trace back the connections among folks signing the petition or reading emails and such.

On a further note, Parker's been working on her edition for ten years. That seems like a long time, but having seen just a little of the editing process from the sidelines, it's an amazing process and ten years isn't as long as it sounds. The editor I know pretty much knew every line in the play by memory, including it's act, scene and line number, tln, and textual issues. He could just about give page numbers for issues raised in previous editions or criticism. It's an impressive level of knowledge, a level few of us actually reach with anything, I'm guessing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Sometimes, I get my hopes up, and then they get dashed. Sometimes, I get my hopes up about utterly inconsequential stuff, and then they get dashed, and I'm more disappointed than makes sense.

I was at a store yesterday and saw artichokes that looked pretty darned good.

Now, I'm not much of a foodie, nor a cook, but artichokes are my favorite vegetable by far. When I was a kid, my Mom would often let us choose our birthday dinner food (and birthday dinners often involved grandparents and such), and I always chose artichokes. One time, my Mom decided that my brother and I could each choose a vegetable to try to grow in our yard, and I chose an artichoke, and even years later, after many splittings, those plants were producing great and yummy artichokes.

But the artichoke I had for dinner tonight tasted like cardboard. It didn't have an actively "bad" flavor but it didn't have any artichoke flavor. I'd gotten my hopes up, and blah.

I don't think I've ever said this before, but I wish I were in Watsonville.

How did I ever end up so far from good artichokes?

Prerequisites and Hoop Jumping

I got an email the other day from a student asking to be added to my senior seminar as an overload. The email talked about the special situation that had made it impossible for the student to enroll in time, so of course I considered it. Part of considering it involved looking up the student's record here to make sure that s/he has the prerequisites and such. There are several prereqs for the class, specifically the lower division core classes for majors. I didn't see any of those classes on the student's record, but maybe the student transfered in and had completed similar classes elsewhere and they just didn't show on our campus record. I emailed the student, asking if s/he'd taken the classes, noting that I'd designed the class with the expectation that all students had taken them, and offering to consider hir request if s/he had taken them.

I got an email back saying that no, s/he hadn't taken them, but was hoping to take the second one without the first, if s/he could convince the professor s/he's smart enough.

Smart enough, of course, isn't the issue. Now, I could go off being all offended that the student doesn't respect professors or think that we actually teach anything in our classes. But I'm sure the student didn't go out of hir way thinking, hey, how can I offend Bardiac today?

I think the student just doesn't understand the point of prerequisites, especially in less linear seeming subjects such as English.

In math, students seem to understand prerequisites: Algebra leads to trig leads to calculus leads to advanced integration or something.

But even in the more sciency areas, things aren't clear. My biology type major required two terms of chemistry before one could enroll in the first biology class. But other schools start with biology. (Mine used chemistry to weed out pre-meds and pre-vets, I think. I wonder how the inter-departmental politics of that worked out?)

But English, well, they've been reading since they were little kids, and they like books, so of course they're prepared for an upper level seminar. Except they're not.

For better or worse, part of the problem is that our lower division core classes aren't generally standardized in the way, say, an Algebra class is. We don't share a "Text studies I" textbook, but choose a variety of texts. Partly it's just that we lack some real agreement (as a field) about what exactly people need to study English. Does an undergrad need theory, and if they do, is Aristotle or Derrida what they should read? Should we require Old English/Anglo-Saxon? How about a Chaucer course? Shakespeare? American Ethnic lit (and if so, which? an overview? or more focused?) How can an English major not know about iambic pentameter? And just who really cares about iambic pentameter? And so on.

But within a department and major, hopefully the faculty has put together a curriculum that gets an English major to what we all really want (I think), a student who's got a certain set of strategies for approaching and thinking/talking/writing about a variety of texts, and a certain level of sophistication about and appreciation for that variety, which probably includes some historical understanding of contexts, and linguistic understanding of the way language works. An individual student can probably get there from a variety of paths, some of which will be more effective for different students, and all of which will leave different students with different depths of understanding.

That's what our faculty have done. We went through a long argumentative process of talking about what we think English majors need to know, and how we can get them to know that, and then we designed some core courses to teach those skills and concepts. We still argue heatedly about those courses, especially the theory course. We've had our new major for about 8 years now, which means that we've had time to see a couple years of students graduate with the new curriculum, and we feel like it's doing a better job. (How to assess that is a more difficult matter.)

But my student emailer doesn't see those discussions, doesn't see what we're trying to do the way we do, and so things look rather arbitrary and a lot like just making people jump hoops.

In a way, I'm that student, too. I hate feeling like I have to jump meaningless hoops to do X or Y. It's hard for me to see sometimes that other people have put in the work to figure out that what I see as a hoop is really useful and necessary.

(Though some meetings feel so like a waste of time that I get really frustrated, especially at this time of year!)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Safe Space

I did Safe Space training today. It's the first time our campus has had Safe Space training, and I'm a little excited that we had it. But also a little weirded out by some of the comments. I know, however, that I probably sound as stupid at diversity ally training.

Safe Space training is training to support GLBTQ community members and allies in hopes of changing campus communities for the better. (I think they mostly work through educational institutions, but maybe other communities, too?)

So I changed one of my old rainbow stickers in the door window for the new "Safe Space at NWU" one. So now I have a rainbow sticker that still has stickiness (since I had it in the inside of the window looking out, so to speak). My office door proclaims, as it were, that I've at least had the training, and so should be an ally. I'll get a "certificate of completion," too; the idea of a certificate of completion seems a bit meaningless, because you could sit through the training without actually learning anything. But the rainbow sticker seems more positive, somehow.

I thought about putting the old rainbow sticker on my car.

During the training, we were asked to think about our biases. One of my biases is that I think my car is going to be trashed or I'm going to be beaten up in a parking lot somewhere for having a rainbow sticker on it. It's not that I think that everyone in the upper midwest is hateful and violent, but all it takes is one person, and I'm a whuss. On the other hand, my Darwin fish doesn't seem to have provoked anything more than the occasional smile.

My campus window feels pretty safe; even the jerks on campus tend to limit their jerkitude. But off campus doesn't feel safe for a rainbow sticker.

What do you think? Sticker on the car with my Darwin fish and Flying Spaghetti Monster thingy?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sharing a Syllabus Hint

When I started teaching, we all kept things in physical files. You know, those paper manila thingies that look like file icons, but way bigger? Yep. I still do. Back in those days, when I worked from an Amiga 500 (what a great machine, too!), with minimal memory, an external hard drive added, and 3.25" floppy disks, I came up with a system for keeping teaching files that works pretty darned well. And a year or two ago, when the chair asked for copies of our syllabus materials (like the way I snuck around trying to figure out if it's a Latin or Greek root for the plural?) in electronic form for the first time, I sent mine in, and the chair sent me a "hey, that's a really good idea" response, which led me to believe that not everyone does it this way.

I start with a master folder for each class, labeled by course number and semester. Within that, I start with files for each class. One is the "syllabus" document and the other the "calendar" document. (I also usually have a book order document.)

The syllabus file includes the information students need about the class in terms of who I am, contact information, office hours, a description of the class, goals (some of these are required by our programs or the university), policy statements (services for students with disability, academic honesty, attendance). Then there's information about requirements, and most of the time basic information about assignments. The first part of this is pretty "boilerplate" for a given level of class. My first year writing class introductory materials look pretty similar every year, though my office hours change. My senior seminar classes have the same basic policies, and so forth.

I think it's important to cite policy information so that students see an active model of citation from the beginning. It just seems silly to quote the plagiarism policy without appropriately citing it, doesn't it?

The second part changes lots depending on what I'm doing each semester. I like to try new things, which is great, but adds a lot of prep time. Still, I find that if I put in the prep time ahead of the game, and really think through how assignments will fit and work to build a class experience, things work better than if I wait. I also like my students to be able to look at the materials on the first day of classes and know when things will be due, and what they need to do to complete assignments and such. I think that's especially important for students whose lives are complicated by jobs, family responsibilities, etc.

I label the syllabus by course number, semester and "syl" so that I can know what it is with a quick glance.

Over the summer sometime, I ask a student worker to type up a calendar for the semester, with all the important campus dates. (Because our summer workers aren't really busy, and they can do that fine.) There's a space between each week. It looks like this (or some variant):

9/01 – Mon. – No Class.
9/03 – Wed.
9/05 – Fri.

9/08 – Mon.

I title this one with the course number, semester, and either sched or cal, depending on what the student uses.

So within my course folder, labeled Eng 123 f2008, I have two files, one Eng123 f2008 syl.doc, and the other Eng123 f2008 syl.doc. (You could do the calendar on another program, but I'm a pretty basic computer skills person, so I like a word processing program of some sort.)

So why?

First, if you're like me, you do up your syllabus and calendar, and then print them out to proofread. Then you find a problem, make a change, and reprint. The four page syllabus (because how many goals do we all have to put on for every class?) looks good, but then I decide to change some due dates on the calendar. So I can print out a two page calendar, and not waste the extra paper. (It's a small thing, but it's trees.) So it saves in that way.

But even better, when you go to teach the same or a similar class another semester, you pull out the syllabus, and change what needs changed, and you're good to go. You can't often use the same calendar dates. But you can open two word processing windows, side by side, and cut and paste from the old into the new with adjustments and jiggling, additions, subtractions, and so forth. I find it saves me a bit of time to not have to start totally from scratch. And if you have to adjust the calendar during the semester, it's easy to just redo the weeks to come, save it as a separate "revised" file, and print out only one page for each student (or email it).

When I'm actually ready to get copies, I can print both out and have them copied as one chunk of stuff, all in one color (because I love colors!). Or I can hand out the syllabus and calendar separately if I prefer.

Physically, for each class, I make a real folder. I staple a copy of the syllabus with the calendar on top to the left side, and a copy of my course roster on the right. Then a copy of anything I hand out goes in. I carry it to and from classes (I always write the time and place of classes in big letters on the front, so I don't mess up and go into someone else's class too often), and then at the end of the semester, put a copy of the final grade information in, and file it away. If I need to find something later, it's there.

Over my years here, I've taught 20 different courses (with different numbers), so being organized helps keep me a bit saner. I have super master folders, with several semesters of Eng 123 (a made up class here, I think). That's especially important for the writing course I teach pretty much every semester.

So, care to share other strategies for keeping your teaching materials organized and accessible?

I'm the Biggest Whuss

Sometimes, I have to laugh at myself.

Big speeches this morning. Hope and despair, all in one. The state's broke, the job outlook for graduating students dismal, our pay plan in disarray, and yes, we're going to make everything better!

Better, stronger, faster!

Will the semester never end?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth 5.5.19-28)

I want tomorrow not to come and to be over with. I've been waiting since June 5th, which is a long time. And yet, it's stupidly foolish to make such a big deal over something so petty.

But, is this not just the most incredible speech? And perfect for a blog, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

I love wrist-slitting tragedy speeches, and Shakespeare is GREAT at them. I also love wrist-slitting blues.

I was all blah today fretting needlessly, and then I went for a bike ride. Immediately, things start looking up; it was warm out, but not too hot, a little wind, but not bad. The first little hill was slow, the first bigger hill was better than usual. And then I got a rhythm, mostly. I only rode 15 miles (because being blah, I started late in the afternoon), but I did it at an average speed of 16mph, which is, for me, just really, really good for a semi-hilly ride.

Last year at this time, I could average 16mph only on the flat bike trail, and only on good days. On this road area, I was doing well to hit 15.2 mph (yay for bike computers, which make things sound a lot more exact than they probably are).

Lately, though, I've been getting more of a rhythm feeling on my rides; my legs just go, at least on the relatively flat parts. (I'm frustratingly slow on hills; walkers could probably pass me.)

And sometimes, I must admit, I look at my bike in wonder that I'm allowed to ride such an incredible piece of machinery. It's way more bike than I will ever be rider (though, no, it's not a really high end all carbon or titanium bike). But, yes, I get to get on, click in, and go. If my bike were sentient, it would long for a much stronger rider.

Maybe after the hurly burly's done tomorrow, my bike and I will go up the hill on County C? It kicks my rear, that hill, but coming down makes it worth it.

Good Campus News

Last year, I complained about the sorts of speakers we were bringing to campus, the Hollywood-has-beens talking about drinking, the child of famous people talking about imaginary beings.

In my first year writing class calendar, I make a habit of listing campus speakers so that students know about them. So I was getting my list ready just now, and was very happy to note that we actually have five really interesting, intellectually stimulating speakers scheduled for this year.

I need to call the office that arranges the speakers and tell them how happy I am! No Hollywood-has-beens! No imaginary beings! Real problems, real issues!

Added: Yes, I did call. I think the student worker who answered the phone will be happy to pass along the message.

Getting Started on the Semester

Today's the start of the new contract period, and when I looked at my email this morning, it looked like a bunch of people had been just waiting for the moment to send off this or that urgent email.

The big meetings start tomorrow, though, but I'm going to miss at least one. I'm not exactly heartbroken about missing that one, I must admit.

Goals for today:

20 miles
Finish rereading the text for the writing class
Add important NWU events to my personal calendar
Rough out calendar for the writing class
Write an email to my mentors for the writing class
Pick up glasses
Mow the back lawn

I'm usually excited at this point in the semester, but not today. Maybe after tomorrow, I'll be more in the mood?

I'd better get started!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Secondlings of my Mind

Now that the pressure is off, I've been reflecting on the Macbeth experience a bit.

I think most Shakespeare folks think about how the texts work theatrically as we read them, but it's a fuller experience when you see them actually performed, and yet more intense when you participate in creating the performance.

The thing that really struck me as I watched last night was that while I've always thought of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as "grown ups," mature adults, say in their 30s or 40s at least, the high school students playing the parts brought things through for me in ways that made the youth thought-provoking and effective. When I think of Macbeth as a grown-up, then Lady Macbeth's attacking his sense of masculinity feels odd, but seeing Macbeth as a very young man, those attacks really worked.

When, in 1.7, she asks
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?

and he responds,
Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

their youth really made his protest feel real, as if he's so young and still working on what it means to be a man in his so very violent culture.

One place where youth worked against our production was in Macduff's responses to the horror of the regicide of Duncan and to the worse horror of learning that his wife and children have been killed. Similarly, Malcolm never quite got the hang of looking really scared, worried, or griefstricken. Our actors, happily for them, don't seem to have had much experience with real grief, so acting it was difficult, and they didn't always pull it off. And grief seems to be a hard emotion to act because you have to be able to say your lines clearly, and you can't actually do that if you're choking back tears and all. So you have to get the response from the audience with more subtle stuff.

That struck me as especially difficult; I've experienced a lot less grief than a lot of people, and my reactions have been very different, physically, at different times. But my reactions always felt weird or off, too, as if even though I was sitting alone in a room, I wasn't performing grief right for my culture or something. So I don't think I was able to help our actors much with the grief thing.

Another thing that struck me last night is how absurdly funny bits of Macbeth are. The porter scene worked way better for me live than it does in the text, especially the second part, where he's talking to Macduff and Lennox. I think seeing Macduff and Lennox react made it work for me. When I read the play, the porter is more of an intellectual exercise, I guess, and so less funny.

It Worked!

I went to see the play last night, and it worked!

Scenes where no one was really reacting during rehearsal somehow came together, and the actors reacted. People who hadn't been convincing in their lines, were more convincing. And it worked as a play.

Yes, some lines were forgotten, but most people wouldn't have noticed because the other actors picked up and went on without getting flustered.

It's pretty cool, when you think that a bunch of high school students put together a pretty darned good production of a Shakespeare play in basically two weeks.

One thing I noticed looking at the program was that our students are from so many different academic backgrounds, different high schools (despite our being a fairly small community), home schooled. They worked well together, though.

And so many of them really put things together in the two weeks of camp; they began to think like actors, if they hadn't before, to think about how things work on stage, how to get audience reactions, how to interact with other actors. Very cool.

I did have one weirdness after the performance, though. One of the students who hangs around but wasn't in the play decided to tell me that the secret to Hamlet is that he's gay.

What does that mean? I think she was about to expound on some sort of psychopathology, but I cut her short with a historical question about what it could mean to be "gay" in an early modern play. And then I escaped.

There's a level of enthusiasm in SOME young actor types (similar to that in SOME ren faire types), that just weirds me out.

So now I'm off to ride my bike, with a level of enthusiasm guaranteed to totally weird out most people.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Attention to Detail

The Shakespeare camp production opens this evening, and I have high hopes. Last night, I was a bit worried, but after seeing today's dress rehearsal, I'm optimistic.

It's amazing how it always seems that theater stuff comes together only at the very last minute. I guess that's true of a lot of things in life, though. So while amazing, it's not surprising, if that makes sense.

Today's dress rehearsal was fun; you could see where things were working out, and we made some last minute changes to make things work better. The last minute things were often fairly small details, but have a bigger impact than you might think.

It's fun to see the actors developing in their work. Some started out being good at the moment they were saying their lines, and then looking like a kid standing on stage. But now they're looking more "in character" all the time; they seem to be paying attention to what someone else says to them, and actually responding with lines, rather than looking like they're waiting for their cue and then reading their lines out.

It's fun, being a text person and all, and then being part of actually putting on a play. It's a little weird when the director asks what I think of this or that, but also way fun, and very cool to try to work out how things will look and work best. And I think I've contributed well on that end.

And here's a truism, I think, about staging this play: everyone wants to use stage blood.

Heck, I'll admit, I'd like to check it out, if only I could think of a reasonable excuse. (oooo, wouldn't it be fun to go into the first meeting of the semester just covered in gore and say something about problems with the wo/man eating copy machine?)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Murky Place

Hell is, according to Macbeth. My mind sometimes, too.

Theaters seem to share the dimness, and during rehearsals, utter chaos, at least to my untrained eyes.

We ran through the play on stage today, and the whole time, someone from the scenery gang was screwing pieces of wood to the front of the stage in a sort of messy picket fence effect, and then taking them down. Lights were going on and off, sound effects were going or not.

I was sitting, trying to notice things to help the actors with notes; next to me was a director type, also trying to notice things. Now, I really should have had my script (though as a lit person, I tend to call it a text, not a script, but since I'm visiting in a theater...) on me, because one of the actors still doesn't have his lines down well and needed prompting. But the director is really responsible for that, right? Except every thirty seconds, one or another student, tech or scenery person was interrupting her to ask a question, so she was only semi-following, semi-paying attention, semi-answering questions. (This may be how theater is, or just how working with high school students is. I don't have the theater experience to know, really.)

If it had been my show (and it's not), I would have needed to have people wait, and then taken a short break between acts to answer questions. I just don't multi-task well. It took me until about my fourth year in college to really understand that, to know it in a Platonic way (in which to know the good is to do the good). And suddenly, everything changed; my grades went up, I got stuff done, I learned a second language when I needed to.

I don't think I'm unique in not multi-tasking well; I think most people don't multi-task well, and I wish that my students would learn that earlier rather than later.

But a lot of people tell me they multi-task really well. If you teach, you've seen it in class: the student playing sudoko, texting, whatever, claiming that they're multi-tasking and paying good attention to the discussion. But they aren't participating in the discussion, and have to ask me to repeat instructions all the time.

And the people who try to multi-task in cars, talking on cell phones, doing their hair, shaving, reading, and semi-driving everyone else off the road? Yep, I had a closer than I'd like moment with a car the other day (while I was riding my bike), and lo and behold, the driver was chatting on the phone.

There's concentration and focus, and there's half-assing one's way around, and I prefer concentration and focus. I need it to get pretty much anything done. Yes, I can have quiet music on in the background for some reading, but not even that for really heavy theory. But if I really want to do good work and get it done, I have to focus on just that for at least a few minute solid.

Only when I know something really well can I see a whole picture, gather the scene and know where things are working and where not. Gaming is one place I've managed that, teaching is another. But interrupt my flow and I lose the focus I need. I would really need to have that feeling about a production were I to try to direct; it's just all complicated and intertwined.

I kept wondering if we wouldn't have been more effective at working through the play if people had been more able to focus on doing just that. Yes, it means a lot of people sit around waiting, and I know that can be frustrating and tiring. But maybe we wouldn't have had to do and redo some things because we'd have done them better the first or second time.

Or maybe it's just me? Maybe things were working effectively for most of the other people there?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shakespeare Camping

I'm a little dissatisfied with the way my teaching is going at the Shakespeare camp. It's not that I'm doing a bad job, but the way the camp is organized this year focused a lot on stage combat and less on the playtext. Even I recognize that if you're going to do stage combat, you have to do it safely, and doing it safely takes time and effort. But that time isn't spent doing other things.

So I met with the students as a group twice, and yesterday met with individual students who wanted to ask question and such. Talking with one of the young actors was a blast; he's clearly thinking about the play in interesting ways, trying to understand the contexts and acting and putting things together. But most of the others had really simplistic questions about word meaning. It's vital to know what words mean, and I'm happy to answer those questions, but I don't think individuals asking word questions one at a time, alone, really helps people put things together for the play as a whole.

And the actor who most needs to work on his stuff doesn't really see that he needs help, and so isn't responsive to offers. There's a point in life where you realize that if you practice something as if it's real, focusing and paying close attention, then you get it a lot faster and better. This student hasn't gotten to that point, and I don't think my telling him convinced him. (I don't know how one learns some things; I can't remember learning that one.)

But the one questioning actor got me thinking, so tomorrow I'm supposed to work with the group, and I think I'll take in a couple show and tell things and get students thinking about them. First, I'm going to give them Simon Forman's diary entry on seeing Macbeth, and try to get them to think about what Forman thinks is important and not, what he remembers/sees or doesn't see that we may or may not see. (Like Duncan creating Macbeth Prince of Cumberland, rather than Malcolm.)

Then we're going to look at a bit of the 1577 edition of Holinshed, especially at the woodcut of Macbeth, Banquo, and the witches. (Shakespeare may never have seen the 1577 edition, but the woodcut is still interesting. He worked with the 1587 edition extensively, but it doesn't have that illustration--or many at all as I recall.) The woodcut is fun not only for the witches, but because Macbeth and Banquo SO do not look like 11th century warrior guys, but like court fops from the late 16th century. And the scary heath looks like a parkland or something. The woodcut's representation is neat because it gets you thinking about what counts as history and how history gets represented, especially on stage.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lawn Shame

I've got to admit, my lawn is the shame of the neighborhood. It's gotten out of hand; basically, I'm mowing weeds as much as lawn when I mow (which I need to do today). It's bad, bad enough that even I'm ashamed of it.

Lawns in this area seem to require a couple things, watering and weed control of some sort are up there, along with mowing. But I don't tend to water my lawn, and I'm wary of putting chemicals on there, and too lazy to go pull every weed. Then there's fertilizer, too, the kind that lawn plants like and weeds don't as much, I suppose.

I'm thinking of a couple choices.

I could take out the whole lawn and put in a vegetable garden. But the yard is huge, and I can't even imagine the level of work it would take. I have trouble now keeping the weeds in check in the garden areas.

More realistically, my choices involve either trying to take care of it myself or hiring a company. I could water; indeed, I probably should water it, just on a basic level, but I dislike pouring water into the lawn. I'm okay with watering trees or newly transplanted plants, but the constant lawn watering seems more wasteful. But either way, I'm guessing I'm going to need to add some lawn watering.

The chemical stuff is more difficult. I don't want to poison the local birds and such. (Okay, so I wouldn't be totally adverse to getting rid of some of the rabbits, but even so, poisoning wouldn't be my first choice.) So I'd try to be careful. But I'm no chemical expert, and I suspect the chemicals you can buy yourself at the local homesupply place are less effective at weeds than the stuff the lawn companies use. And so there's probably a temptation to overuse the homebought chemicals, trying to get quicker results, which would actually be worse for the environment. Fertilizer complicates things.

The lawn companies probably have more effective chemicals, and know how to use them, at least in theory, but don't care a whit about the local birds and probably hire college students to apply the chemicals with minimal training.

In theory, then, hiring a lawn company might be more effective; even a minimally trained person has lots more training than I do.

And what's the problem with the lawn? Me, I see weeds. But someone who knows about lawns might see specific weed problems, or insect problems, too. Or they might just sell me the most expensive treatment, because I won't know the difference anyway. But let's hope for the moment that they're reasonably ethical. If so, their knowledge is lots greater than mine, and hiring them would make more sense.

But then, there's the shame thing. If I just go to the store and buy a bunch of chemicals, well, my neighbors already know I'm a lousy lawn care person, but I don't have to face some expert and hear all about what a horrible thing I've done to my lawn, and how I probably shouldn't even be allowed to have lawn at all. Even if they don't say anything, you know they're thinking that I'm a horrible lawn person. (Why does it matter? I don't know, but it does. Feeling shamed at my inabilities to do basic life stuff is pretty strong for me.)

There's also the budget thing. I'm guessing initially, hiring a lawn care company would be way more expensive. But doing it myself would take a lot more time AND since I'd probably buy chemicals less wisely (which fertilizer? bug stuff? what weed treatment?), might add up to more in the end.

Oh wisdom of the internet, what do I choose?

Shame in front of the expert, but likely success at having fewer weeds and a minimally decent lawn for next year?

Or quiet desperation as I try to take care of it myself?

Things I've learned recently

I drove by a local wings restaurant the other day, coincidentally on one of the regular weekly "biker" events. As I drove by, I suddenly realized that the bikers they were attracting weren't wearing much lycra. I had been thinking of going sometime, but I don't think my road bike will impress all the guys on Harleys.

I went to the local observatory for the "open to the public" viewing tonight. I think I've actually found a group of people (in the local astronomy club) who are geekier than the people in my department. It was almost scary.

I think the ancient Greeks had some powerful mind-altering chemicals in their systems when they were identifying the constellations as Pegasus, Sagitarius, and so forth. I'm lucky to make out the big dipper, but you just can't convince me that Perseus is up there with the Medusa's head.

I did get to see the stripes on Jupiter, the shadow of the side of a crater on the Moon, and another galaxy (well, they said it was another galaxy). Also the Milky Way, the North star, and lots of other stars. There's a lot to be said for geekiness, especially when the geeks have cool telescope toys and do show and tell with the stars.

My legs are more tired than seems right for 24 miles.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Road More Hilly

There's a place in a smaller town a ways out from mine that serves an incredible chocolate malt. I discovered it a couple years back, biking with some friends on a trail from another small town, along a river, where we ended up in MaltTown needing a bathroom. So we went into this restaurant, and being hungry, got ourselves something. I got myself a malt, and the rest is history. It was the best malt I'd had in well over 20 years (not for lack of trying them, either).

Since then, I've biked out (and out and back) along the bike trail a couple times. It's just about 34 miles (as I recall) on the bike trail out, so that makes for a long ride. But there's also, as you can imagine, a road that goes there. The bike trail is a rail-to-trail trail, which means it doesn't have much in the way of hills, but it's also not well paved for two-thirds of the way, being either uneven asphalt or packed gravel; it's doable on a road bike, but the last time I did it, my arms and shoulders got really tired. The road, on the other hand, is well-paved but has some hills. There's one hill that's not really steep, but it goes on for a mile, so by the time I get up it, my legs have had a workout and I'm sure my heart and lungs are working well. (I'm equally sure I should get my head examined every time I start up it, however.)

Last year, when I first thought I could make the 30 some miles out on the trail, I arranged with a friend to leave my car (with the rack on the back) at her place, and then meet her at the malt shop for a treat a couple hours later. We had our treat, and then I put my bike on the back and we came back to NorthWoods. Except her son rode with me. (Later I rode out and back a couple times, again on the trail.)

So let me tell you about this young man. Then, he was a high school senior; now, he's about to enter his first year of college. And if you have any doubts that young men can be good conversationalists, pleasant to have around, and good riding friends, you should meet this young man, and your doubts would disappear. He rides so much more easily and fast than I do, without the near-daily riding that I do, that it would be a little discouraging, except I have 20 years on him, and distinctly less testosterone. And he's pleasant to ride with.

I've been wanting to ride out on the road, and today was the day. Weirdly, and to my surprise, the road ended up being a lot shorter (24 miles), and the hills were hard, but doable. The company was good, and the malt excellent, and worth every hill. My friend met us there with my car, and we had a bite (I had a malt!), and then came home.

And now my legs are tired in that really good way; while I'm sitting, they don't actually hurt or anything, but when I get up, they're good and tired.

We rode a lot faster this year; whether because I'm in better shape, or we had a better tailwind, or going down the hills was faster than going up was slower, I don't know. But there's nearly a full mile per hour difference (and when you average 15 or so mph, that's a big difference). I'm going to pretend I'm just in better shape, but we had a sweet and gentle tailwind most of the ride, and that really helps me a lot, especially on flatish areas.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Tourist Season

It's tourist season here at NWU, time for students from high schools in the area to visit campuses and think about where they want to go to college.

I was on my way to get my parking permit and ran into a threesome, middle-aged couple, younger woman, looking at a map, so I pointed them the direction they needed to go. It's really nice to know my way around. I mean, it's not unusual or anything; someone should know their way around a campus after a couple years (heck, after a couple months for most campuses), but it's still nice to feel like I belong somewhat.

I remember when I started feeling at home on my own undergraduate campus; it took a while, and then I just was pretty much there. I didn't know where everything was (it was and is, a HUGE campus), but I knew where I mostly needed to get. And I was happy there. I hope the students looking at campuses all around find a place they enjoy as much, and learn even more than I did.

(And then I jumped the parking permit hoop! Yay me! One down!)

The Shakespeare camp students have been working with a stage combat person, mostly outside, with fake swords, spread out big over the central lawn area. I watched for a bit before my session was to start today, and they looked pretty cool. And I watched the tour groups watch as they went by.

Yes, prospective college students, you, too, can learn to pretend to whack people with really big dowels! What's more, you could be learning even now! (Now, now, very now.)

I taught my session outside today, too. Later this evening, at an Olympics opening ceremony potluck and party, my friends said they'd seen me teaching. Teaching is a performance in all sorts of ways, but usually it's to a more closed audience. I'm pretty aware of the students I'm teaching, but I didn't notice my friends going by, and once I was going, I didn't notice the tour groups, either.

But this Shakespeare guy we were working with? Dang, he's really good. I mean, there are just some killer bits in Macbeth.

Today, we worked through the bit where Duncan's talking about his recent discovery that it's hard to tell what people are thinking or like (refering to the recently treasonous Thane of Cawdor), and then he greets Macbeth. You notice those reading, but they really jump out when you think about how to stage things.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Theatre!

They may have found the Theatre, which is the name of the theater where the Lord Chamberlain's Men played, among others, Shakespeare's plays (until they decided to lease a different piece of land and took the structure down, moved the timbers, and rebuilt).

So very, very cool!

Rules and Advising

I saw a student today for informal advising. I'm not the student's advisor, but I was asked, and I'm around, so there we are. (Nope, the contract period hasn't started yet, so this was a freebie. You're welcome, State of Northwoods.)

We talked about this, and we talked about that. I tried to make some suggestions to help the student find hir way. Happily, the student was pleasant and the questions not troubling or really worrisome.

Except for one thing that really bothered me. The student's regular advisor gave hir some wrong information about a university rule, and it was something the advisor really should know (though it's weird enough that a student would have difficulty finding it out without guidance). But this is a rule that's common to every college or university whose catalog I've ever looked at, and it's always about the same thing and means the same thing. I would be willing to bet ten bucks that any four year college catalog you look at would have this rule, right in the first section of the catalog. It's that central.

Of course, I tried to tactfully explain that the issue is complex, and confuses lots of people, here's what the rule means. It means X and not Y. It's trying to make sure that students do Z before getting a degree from this school.

The good thing is that the real rule is very freeing for most students rather than restrictive, so this student gets to apply to do something really cool now.

Yes, I know advising isn't exactly a glamourous part of faculty life. (I'm still trying to find the glamourous part. Any ideas?) But still, you need to take it seriously, learn the major/minor advising information, learn the ins and outs of the school you work for, and learn the basic rules that govern academics.

And mostly, you have to put the student's interests forefront. That doesn't mean you sign off on everything, but that you try to figure out how to make the system work for the people who come for an education.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


I taught my first day of Shakespeare camp today. My first real day, anyway, after going to the auditions and a read through.

It's more difficult to teach high schoolers because (while most are wonderful) there are always a couple who want to hear themselves talk but don't listen. So this couple just says off the wall things and then I have to try to get them back on track without losing everyone else. Most, though, are really fun, and since I've taught for the program for a couple years now, they've heard some of the spiel before, and know how to do their part. They have a good sense of how to read verse, and know to care about what they're saying.

In previous years, I've taught an hour or so each day for the first week, but this year the director has changed it up, so I'm teaching an hour and a half here and there for both weeks. I'm not getting the sense of continuity, but maybe it will work better for what the students need for this production.

I'm a bit weirded out trying to explain concepts from Christianity. Usually it's no big deal, but there are some homeschooled students who are being homeschooled in pretty overtly evangelical Christian programs. I don't want to step on their toes about stuff, but early modern ideas might be different, and are important to understand, at any rate. So some of these kids know about Golgotha and such, but others don't at all, which makes sense to me (I have to look it up).

The other weirdness is that we're doing this later than we've done it before, so it will run close to the beginning of the new academic year, and it's already feeling crowded to me.

Still and all, there's something incredibly cool about talking Shakespeare with students who are working on acting in a play. They're engaged, and really thinking about the play (mostly), and trying to figure out how to do what's to be done. And it's Shakespeare, and working closely with a production reminds me powerfully of just what an amazing practical playwright the guy was. It's like his plays feel inevitable, like every line pretty much has to be where it is for things to come together, but each is also fresh and unexpected in a way.

For example, we talked about Macbeth and Banquo's first entrance together. We've heard all about Macbeth before, what a hero he is and all, but we don't know who these guys entering are, and while Macbeth gets a toss off line about the weather, Banquo starts talking to the witches. So you have to think, for just a moment (if you've don't know the play already), that the important guy is the one who's speaking lots. And then it's not. Even in that little structural moment, you get a sense of the confusion of doubling that's so important in the play. We get all the great speeches, all the big stuff, but Shakespeare also manages the little moments to put things together.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Alexander Solzhenitsyn died today; so says the news.

In the mid-1970s, Solzhenitsyn was in the news a lot, enough so that even I, a self-absorbed, pretentious-as-anything high schooler heard about him, and being pretentious, I bought myself a paperback copy of The Gulag Archipelago (the work that was most in the news at the time), in several volumes, and struggled through it. I remember having to constantly try to figure out what the heck the footnotes were about, looking people up in the dictionary and being really confused. It was the first book I ever read that shocked me into realizing that I hadn't read anything, that I had no clue about the literature he talked about as if everyone knew it by heart, that I didn't understand even the basics of anything.

And then I read Cancer Ward, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which were (of course, being novels) a whole lot easier. From there, in what I laughingly call my "depressive Russian lit period," I started reading some of the books Solzhenitsyn assumed I'd read, assumed we'd all read: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, with a bit of Gogol for extra confusion. I struggled through them; I'm sure I didn't get much out of reading them, but I got the basics, and thought lots about them. Those were the books I was reading when I wasn't reading the assignments for high school English (and consequently doing lots worse in class than I should have).

The experience of reading on my own, and never really having the sorts of things I was thinking about discussed in my English class in high school probably made me think that classes discussing literature wouldn't do much for me, and so I never took an English class in college.

But then, when I went off to college, I made friends with a woman who'd actually studied Russian lit/language, and really knew the books in ways that made my head spin. She was the first person I knew who really talked about literature with me, who took me seriously as a reader, and who expected me to think hard about what I was reading.

So, in a way, I have to thank Solzhenitsyn for teaching me that there was a lot more to reading than horse books, that there was a sort of incredible conversation between writers and readers, and that to even understand that conversation, I needed to read books that were difficult and complex enough to make me think about life and death, ethics and murder, faith and doubt.

Funny how things work out, isn't it?

Friday, August 01, 2008

A Positive Note

The other day, I wrote a couple letters of recommendation for a student and sent them off. And then, as is my habit, I dropped her a quick email to let her know that I'd sent the letters. I remember worrying about everything when I was applying to grad school, and I assume that at least some of the students who ask me to write letters worry too, so a quick note gives them one less thing to worry about. It's also a nice opportunity to say something encouraging, since I pretty much only write letters for good students and it's sort of fun to remember how good they are.

Today I got a nice email thank you.

I complain as much as the next person about things, but sometimes it's really good to step back and realize that most (by far) of my interactions with students are very positive, often fun, and usually make me glad I'm in the ed-biz.

One of my goals for the coming semester is to procrastinate less, and doing this letter early was a little step. We'll see how it goes.

In other news, my bike took me out for a good 20+ mile ride today, on the local mini-rolling hills (as in, the Tour de France folks wouldn't notice them enough to change gears), and I averaged 15+mph. I realize that for a real biker, 15mph is slow as anything, but for me, it's a good speed. I worked hard at pedaling, and now my legs are nicely tired.

I'm thinking of taking a bike tour vacation thing to Yellowstone next spring. It's a supported tour thing with a company, but it seems like an incredible way to experience the park. But I'm worried about keeping up with other folks, especially in the altitude. I need to make some inquiries, but if I'm going to do it, this coming spring would make sense in a lot of ways.