Thursday, December 31, 2009

Old and New

I woke up this morning to NPR's report on the financial crimes of the decade in the US. And it got me thinking about my decade.

In 1999, I moved to a new job, bought my first house (with the bank owning most of it, of course), had a dog, and had my father die. My niece and nephew were rug rats.

Over the past ten years, I've lost some weight (though I should lose more and have instead regained some of what I'd lost), played and quit EQ, put my dog to sleep, lost my great aunt M (who I was close to), bought another house (also with the bank's considerable investment and significant help from great aunt M), gotten a new car. I've taken up biking, gone skydiving, started learning to cross country ski, and done some kayaking. I've made some good friends here, people I really enjoy spending time with. I've enjoyed good health, better than in 1999 even, probably (since I exercise more). I've tried to be a good aunt and increasingly enjoy my niece and nephew.

I've been to Yellowstone twice, once on a bus, once on my bike. I've taught in Japan for a semester, seen Orangutan in Malaysia.

I've taught a lot, served on endless committees, and tried to do some other work less successfully. I've had a lot more wonderful students than not, for which I'm endlessly grateful.

All in all, it's been a pretty good decade for me. The last few years have been a lot rougher for most people than for me

My hopes for the new decade? More and better effort on research. Less BS on committees. Continued teaching, biking, skiing, kayaking, good health. Deepening friendships. My niece and nephew are more fun all the time; I hope it stays that way and look forward to seeing them become adults. I hope my ratio of wonderful to not wonderful students continues.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spa Day

at Bardiac's shack:

I figure the border between cat person and crazy cat person is four cats. I'm not sure what the border is between biker and crazy biker, but this can't be a good sign.

But yes, that's the dork disc still on there, along with the side reflectors. I guess that's the way I roll.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I drove back home today amidst a rather magical looking landscape. It looks like it should be a movie landscape, and an ice dragon should be out there, somewhere, or maybe some other sort of icy monster. As I drove, it got sunnier, and the frost wasn't sticking to the trees any more. But it was still pretty darned wintry.

Here's a self-portrait of me snow-shoing. I haven't actually gone anywhere snowshoing yet, just around my sibling's yard. It's funny how light my feet felt when I quit, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Committee Anxiety Dreams

This was a new one for me. I've chaired committees before, but I've never had an anxiety dream about prepping for a committee meeting.

Up for the semester: secretary to one committee, chair of a department committee, chair of a maybe committee (it's complicated, but maybe doesn't exist now), and chair of a college committee (but only for the semester).

The first is going to be full of weekly meetings, the second is going to involve two or three big meetings (and possibly some contentious decision making), the third is going to involve at least one painful meeting, and the fourth is a weekly thing, mostly rote but with mataphoric quicksand and ROUS along the way.


I want to get out and do something. I think my biking and stuff has changed my sense of self enough so that I get more antsy now if I don't play outside fairly frequently. My Mom would be ready in an instant, the others, not so much. I have to say that for my Mom: if I said there's something to do and we need to be ready at 6am, she'd be ready at 5:45, and rarin' to go.

It sometimes amazes me that two so very different people came out of one family as my sibling and I. I'll eat pretty much anything, and would rather try something new than something familiar mostly. My sibling seems to feel just the opposite. I'll try almost anything new sportsy/physical (except for boxing and bungi jumping); my sibling will try things if I make it very easy to do, and then like it well enough, but not do it again. On the other hand, my sibling is quite good at the one or two sports he does, and I'm not nearly as good at the sports I try to do, even biking.

My sibling is much better at some things than I am, and those are important things. For example, my sibling can cook and tries new sorts of cooking things, and me, well, I'm an uninspired cook, and I don't enjoy it enough to want to try a lot of new things.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Something Useful

I've pretty much finished Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?", and I found it interesting. The part I found most provocative was the idea of actually putting up front on job ads the requirement to have demonstrated experience/effectiveness in working in multiracial settings (124-5). I think we could probably use something like this in our job ads along with the demonstrated effectiveness teaching comp and so forth.

It's important, and if it's important, we should be looking explicitly for those experiences in our candidates.

Like many English departments, ours has more diversity than some other departments on campus. But, also like many English departments, our diversity is based on people of color teaching the literature of people of color. We've got a poor record of hiring people of color to teach theory or Shakespeare or romanticism. (And our local population includes a far greater percentage of people of color than either our student body or our faculty. So this is a matter of recognizing and serving our community.)

Can you tell I'm feeling housebound and antsy? It's true. The freezing rain hasn't helped, either. Now I'm on to some Shakespeare reading.

The War on Christmas

A typical modern Christmas film was played on the dvd the other night, a rather poor and moderately reprehensible, but totally typical film. Every modern Christmas film has basically the same plot: the spirit of Christmas is threatened by people (or kids or dogs) who don't believe in Santa. Someone has to learn to believe in Santa and the spirit of Christmas, and helps Santa deliver presents, and so the whole of Christmas is saved. (This one turned one character's Buddha statue into a snowman. Really. So much for multi-cultural respect, eh?)

As the film started, it came to me that the people who think there's a war on Christmas have seen way too many Christmas films, and believe the propaganda.

Really, no matter how many people don't actually think there's a jolly elf living at the north pole, there's no war on Christmas. And no matter how many people believe there's a fairy flying through the sky controlling things, there's really not.

But if getting together with family/friends and giving each other good food and stuff makes one happy, then the whole fairy business isn't really necessary.

But please, for the love of dog, can we stop making such bad movies?

Another Night, Another Academic Anxiety Dream, and a Chaucer Bleg

After my anxiety dream last night, I looked up the times, made up the calendar template for my classes this semester, and then roughed out the Shakespeare calendar for the semester.

So, of course, last night's anxiety dream was about Chaucer. I was looking for a book on Chaucer and couldn't find it. I think it was one of those Cambridge Companion to books, and I know where it is in the office (I think), but of course I'm not there to get it.

So, I'm going to attempt to relieve my anxiety by asking the medievalists out there: what's the best book about Chaucer stuffs (esp CT) out there in the last 5 or so years? Feel free to disagree and tell me why your choice is better.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Schedules Dream

I had an academic anxiety dream last night, the one where you're supposed to be somewhere because it's the first day of classes, but you don't know which classes or where, so you don't go. It's a bad dream when you're a student, but somehow worse when you're the instructor. Or not. I mean, no one is going to drop me from the class for not showing up, right?

So I looked up my schedule and wrote it down in my book, and I'll do out my syllabus calendar, and hope that helps.

I'm reading a book for our anti-racism work on campus, Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?". So far it's pretty good. I'm about a third of the way through, and there are some helpful insights, stuff I just hadn't thought about.

The best one for me so far is on page 60 where she explains an incident on page 59, in which a school teacher made some offhand comment that a Black student took as racist, but a white student brushed off in the "he didn't really mean it to be racist way." But other Black students, the kids at the Black table, understood immediately that there was a racism issue and the student wasn't being too sensitive or whatever.

I hadn't really thought about the experience of having other kids not affirm or affirm a Black student's experience of racism, I think because I think of teachers and students interacting more than I think of students and students interacting.

And then when it's pointed out, it's so obvious, isn't it? I feel like duh, what an ignorant so and so I am.

But what does one do to change the white kid's reaction or to help the Black kid get the affirmation s/he needs to process his/her experience? Tatum talks about one program which had Black students get together with an adult facilitator to provide that support in a formal way to students at a school where there were very few Black students and they didn't have the support otherwise. But it seems to me that we need to change the white student's perceptions as well as provide support for the Black students.

At any rate, it's helpful to change my thinking about the Black table as a positive rather than a negative thing in many ways.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Living with a Panopticon

I'm going a bit nuts here.

I can be having a conversation with X, and Y walks in, and insists on asking what we're talking about and being caught up. The same thing happens if Y is in the next room over and I'm chatting with X. What? What? What?

I have an evil urge to say that we're discussing masturbation, and I'm wondering if Y prefers a vibrator or not. Did I mention I'm evil?

Y also keeps a fairly constant running commentary on everything, most of it negative. No one is up to snuff, especially me. I'm so tired of being compared to a couple relatives. No, I'll never be as wonderful as they are. I get it. Thanks.

Hope whatever holidays and new year's stuff you celebrate is lovely!

I wish I could just stay home and be by myself.

Monday, December 21, 2009

So I Think a Bit More 'bout the Foot and the Door

I think I've begun to figure out how to articulate the problem I have with giving academic credit for non-academic stuff. I think that there are skills everyone should learn as a young adult, including lots of life skills about how to live, survive, and hopefully thrive in one's culture/society. For folks in the US, that means learning how to file taxes, figure out a budget, live with others (whether as family, roommates, or neighbors), do laundry, cook a basic meal, follow a recipe or directions, manage time, show up for work every day on time, all those sorts of things.

People don't go to college to learn those things, they take steps towards independence after a long adolescence. And it's not like everyone becomes great at all of them, but most people learn these skills as they move into adulthood. Sometimes young people are thrown in the deep end and learn the skills early (I know someone who became emancipated at 15 and did just fine), other times, well, some people never learn some things. Some people get lots of help from parents in learning these skills, others, alas, don't. But most folks in the US do get the basics.

Maybe we should consciously teach some of them earlier, so that as people approach young adulthood they know how to sew on a button, figure a basic budget, do taxes. If we need to teach those skills in school, though, we need to teach them early so that all students get to learn them. (I'm thinking junior high or earlier.) They're important, and worth teaching.

But the things students should learn in college specifically should be academic. They should learn to think more critically, understand experimental basics, analyze information (numeric, graphic, verbal), manipulate data, communicate better, and so forth. They should learn information/skills specific to a field/area of study, and be able to work in depth with that information. And they should refine their skills in learning so that they can learn what they need to learn better. That's what makes college different from getting a job. Yes, we all learn on the job, but college should push you further, faster, harder to a greater depth of critical thinking and analysis.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Foot in the Door

I had coffee the other day with a student, one of my favorites. Also there was a youngish male, Joe. I'd thought at first that Joe was a student, but he's a youngish looking student life administrator.

Joe was talking about a project he wanted to work on, a project aimed at teaching young men not to sexually assault women. That's a laudable project, for sure. Go Joe. His specific idea was to hire an administrator to run this project and also teach a joint class in two departments, one male dominated, one female dominated. He said, this would give them a chance to "get a foot in the door."

A foot in the door?

Let's just admit up front that I wasn't nearly as politic as I should have been. But seriously, we need to hire a new administrator of teaching men not to rape women? And that person's going to design and teach a class for academic credit to teach men not to rape women?

Did I mention we already have an office of sexual assault prevention on campus? The difference is that he wants this administrator to be a male in control, because that's how we teach men not to rape women. And no, that person can't be part of the current program.

It made me realize how totally different Joe's and my views of education are. And, alas, Joe's is winning. We will, I'm guessing, hire someone whose job it is to teach men not to rape women (and while this is a laudable goal, do we really need that to be a job description?). They can put the office right next to the people we've hired to make sure our students are aware of alcohol. We've hired several people into new positions related to student life lately, while losing tenure track lines in academic fields.

We have a small number of courses in adjusting to university life and learning to study, each of which carries academic credit and is taught by someone without a terminal degree.

So is this just me being a snob about academic credentials and academics?

I'm guessing the reason Joe really wants to attach academic credit to the course is that academic credit counts. It shows up on a transcript and counts towards the credits a student needs to graduate, and that means (some) students may be willing to use it to progress towards their degree though they wouldn't participate in it without the attached credits. Of course, the men who most need the course wouldn't take it anyway, unless it were required. But men who need to learn about resisting other men's rapes of women might take it. And they'd probably learn something. At the baseline, students go to college for academic credit; they don't pay all that money just to hang around in the dorms (well, mostly).

But does this potential course deserve academic credit? My tendency is to think it doesn't.

My tendency is also to think that the more feet the non-academic folks get in the academic door, the worse for the university. I'm sure they'd disagree and tell me that lots of student learning occurs in dorms. It does, but that doesn't mean I think we should give students academic credit for living in a dorm, either.

(It's easy to see how the competencies stuff some assessment folks love so much compounds our fundamental disagreement. The idea of competencies is that students should be able to demonstrate competencies; they could demonstrate competencies without classes or after taking classes. It's a lot cheaper, too, if students can demonstrate a competency and not actually take classes. Credit for life experience; I'm sure you've heard about that, right?)

I don't know where to go with this. I can't articulate my position well enough. And the student life folks are very, very good at articulating theirs.

But I actually think students learn a lot in classes, through reading, writing papers, studying, discussing, trying out ideas. And I don't think just putting people together without a real purpose accomplishes much. Taking classes and working towards a degree, while individual goals, are also group goals, and I think the groupness contributes to individual learning. That learning is both academic and social/non-academic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Creativity or Disaster

There's a stereotype among professors about students whose grandparents seem to get seriously ill or die at key moments in the term, preventing the students from attending, taking midterms, turning in key assignments, and so forth.

I've had very few ill or dying grandparents in my teaching career. Either my students are more creative, or they have real problems.

The big one seems to be depression. I spent part of the other day talking to a student who'd decided to go back on hir depression meds after pretty much near failing the term. I'm glad ze's going back on the medicines, since I've known the student for a couple terms, and ze's generally a good student, and so I have hopes that things will work out better.

I spent another part of another day talking to a student who may be depressed (or not, because Shakespeare really doesn't qualify me to say). I tried to talk hir into seeing a doctor or counselor to get checked out and get some help, but ze resisted because ze doesn't want to become dependent. Our culture has this fantasy that if we try hard and just pull on our bootstraps, we can do anything, and that anything includes dealing with chemical problems. Well, some chemical problems. I've never heard anyone talk about diabetics being "dependent" on insulin in a bad way, for example. Nor do any of the folks who can avoid bad migraines seem to feel morally inadequate because they've found better living through chemistry. But depression seems to be one of the areas we most have that fantasy about.

I've wondered if I've been depressed at different times in my life. But, being full of the cultural fantasy, and scared of the potential truth, I've never really sought to find out. And, even at its worst, my lows were way less difficult than the lows some of my students seem to experience. So I at least somewhat understand the reluctance to subject oneself to medicalization or whatever. And while I can talk the talk about not being biased about depression or medicine or whatever, it's sort of like racism: I know I've been raised to be a racist, so I fight it. I also know I've been raised to believe our cultural fantasy about bootstraps, but do I fight that as conscientiously?

I wonder what the real rates of depression are for college students in the US? And I wonder if it's worse up here with so little daylight during the winter?

But depression's not the only thing. This semester, I've had students sick with flu (to be expected), deal with family/friends' suicides, cancer diagnoses, unemployment, displacement, and so forth. I wish I thought my students were being creative rather than having real problems.

Even having real problems, though, isn't always a full excuse. One of my students has a time-limited documentation of a problem. Ze came to the final, having missed almost every class during the semester and having turned in no assigments. (Ze did fail one quiz and take the midterm with an okay grade.) Ze stopped at the desk after turning in the final to tell me that Ze had emailed me all hir work for the semester. Having checked my email for something else just moments earlier, I told Ze I hadn't received the email. And then I asked ze why I should accept the work that hadn't been turned in before the time-limited problem, how that would be fair to the students who'd turned in their work on time. Ze looked at me. I said that it was a real question, that I really needed to understand why ze thought that would be appropriate or fair. Ze said it wouldn't. (Yeah, I'm sort of expecting to hear from a deanling about this.)

Let's hope for a less disastrous new year, with classes full of students who don't get sick, who don't have friends commit suicide, and whose parents are employed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Exams

It's finals season here in the Northwoods. For students, that means studying and taking exams. For faculty, that means writing exams and then grading them.

Here's my ideal for exams: a good exam should be a miserable experience for anyone who hasn't come to class or done the reading, should allow most students to show how much they've learned and to put things together in a way that helps them learn something more about the subject of the course, and should give a really good student a chance to shine through with how much they've learned and put together and worked.

The stakes in writing exams are high because a poorly written exam almost inevitably leads to poorly written student exams. It's the rare test taker who can rise above a poorly written exam. But it's incredibly hard to write good exams because you have to try to think of what will help students write and what will confuse things as minimally as possible and what will lead students into errors that aren't revealing anything about how much they've learned.

One of the difficulties is that you have to write an exam specific to the class focus and discussions, so my Chaucer exam wouldn't necessarily look like another Chaucer prof's exam even though we're both good, concientious instructors. I may focus on gender issues a lot, while the other prof focuses on economic underpinnings or religious understanding. There's too much in any good lit to cover it all in one class or exams, so our exams have to reflect and build on what we taught students.

Another difficulty is that it's hard to get good feedback on exam questions. When I have a chance, I get a colleague to give me feedback, but that colleague isn't generally in my field, and so can give me general feedback about what's confusing or interesting. S/he also hasn't been in class, so can't speak to how well the question speaks to class discussions. On the other hand, my colleagues do a great job helping me write less confusing questions, and I'm grateful for that.

Finally, a good exam question should elicit essays that don't make me want to tear my eyes out a la Oedipus.

So, I thought I'd put up an exam question from a class I taught a couple years ago, and ask for your feedback and suggestions about exam writing. Help me write better exams, please!

This is from the essay portion of the exam, for a sophomore level Shakespeare class covering four play genres. It speaks to something I love to talk about in drama classes (though not all Shakespeare profs do, of course). I expect students to spend about an hour writing this essay; they should have a general sense about three possible essay prompts during the week before the exam (because we work through possible prompts as a way of reviewing).

First, here's the general assignment:

Write an essay in response to ONE of the two prompts. In the prompts, I try to ask some questions to help you get started thinking. You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but may focus on whatever issue in the prompt you wish.

Take a few minutes to brainstorm and outline before you begin writing. You may brainstorm on this paper or in your bluebook. Underline your thesis statement.

Be as specific as possible; give examples from the texts. Write on at least three texts, including one from before and one after the midterm.

And now, here's one of the prompts:

During the semester, we've talked a lot about the ways that Shakespeare uses metadrama, a term indicating a self-reflexive practice of using drama to explore what drama is and means.

Choosing three or four texts, including one from before and one from after the midterm, make an argument about the effects of metadrama in Shakespeare's plays. Do metadramatic moments make you think differently about what you're experiencing when you read or see a play? If so, how? Do metadramatic moments make you think about the world as a sort of stage, with all of us merely actors upon it, full of sound and fury and such?

Should we differentiate the ways that metadrama works in different genres? Is disguise always a tool for metadrama, or is it only sometimes used to set up metadrama? How does gendering work (especially cross dressing) in metadrama? Does class cross-dressing tell us something about the ways that the plays conceive human being and character? Does metadrama feed into or provide tension against essentialist themes in plays (essentialist themes might include, for instance, ideas that people are born into a specific social status, and that their birth has more effect than the way they've been raised).

What do we learn from watching deliberate staged stagings of scenes that we wouldn't learn otherwise?

So, wisdom of the internet, help me write better exams, please!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


My plan was to grade at home today, and maybe if it's warm enough, go outside for a bit of exercise with a friend. But then I got an email, and there's a paper I need to sign because I'm the secretary for a committee of people who pretend to have power organization (C3PO). And it has to be signed today, though I didn't even know it existed and signed the other part, the part I knew about, last week sometime.

But because I'm responsible, and something good could happen for a colleague as a result, I'll head on in and sign.

A friend is moving in with another friend; I'm very happy for them. One of them has cats, the other a cat with FIV, so apparently the two can't be mixed or the healthy cats will get sick too. (I'm guessing you can't teach cats to keep their bodily fluids to themselves any more than you can teach them not to get on the kitchen counters when you're not in the room.) They've asked me to foster the FIV cat.

The thing is, I'm not a cat person. I'm perfectly happy to catsit for friends on occasion, and can give pills and stuff. I'm happy to get a little kitty therapy when I visit, and will pet the cat that comes by and seems to want to be petted when I visit.

I am a dog person. I know that dogs are dirty and disgusting beasts, but they stir my heart. Maybe it's my overblown ego, and the easy adoration of most dogs feeds it. I'll go out of my way to interact with dogs.

Part of me feels a bit bad saying no. But I don't want the responsibility of finding a cat sitter when I leave town or even the responsibility of cleaning a litter box daily. And while it's supposed to be short term ("fostering," not adopting), I worry that once the cat is in my house, the previous owner would feel a lot less pressure to find another home. The difficulty is that cat people already have a cat, and you can't just add an FIV cat to the household. So you have to shop around for a non-cat person who wants a cat. Even if you're really energetic about searching, it's tough, and the toughness is why they've asked me. All the cat people they know already have at least one cat, but here I am, catless.

I'm responsible enough to drive to campus to sign a form, but also responsible enough to now want to be responsible for a cat.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Wow

These are craft kits. You unfold them and there are several pockets inside where you can put your craft materials. They're gorgeous. The tan one has a wooden button!

I try to find unique sorts of gifts, and I think I hit the mark with these. Now I want to send my aunt one, too!

I don't usually do advertising stuff, but here's where you can get craft kits: Artbeco on Etsy (Disclosure: One of my long and good friends makes these. She's a wonderful artist in all sorts of ways.)

Off to the Finish Line

One of my seniors did her big presentation today, and did a fine job. For some reason, I think that the big presentation reflects on the prof who's class she did it for, so I was sort of stressy about it. I really wanted her to do well because she wrote a good, interesting essay and I wanted her to get that across.

She seemed much more relaxed and happy afterwards. Me too.

I finally ordered my texts for the third of my courses next semester. It's always a sort of hard decision which Shakespeare texts to teach; if I taught out of an anthology, I could just figure it out as I wrote the syllabus. But I've abandoned the anthology in favor of paperback editions. They're a bit more expensive for students, but they're a heck of a lot better as editions, generally, and way easier on all our backs. I'm planning to further my quest of teaching every Shakespeare play by teaching All's Well for the first time next semester.

Other than that, I'm not planning to teach any new texts in any of my classes this coming semester. That's a big change for me, after teaching three new plays in one class, and new texts in each of the other classes this term.

Now up: grading, mostly senior work, most of it pretty good from my first impressions.

And I have to write a final exam. Oh, that.

One class is all graded, though I haven't done the spread sheet math.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Weekend of Grading

I've been grading the final essays for the writing class this weekend; mostly, they're pretty good. A few are really good.

I switched around the assignments this semester so they turned in their research essay a couple weeks ago, and then we did a short reflective essay for the final essay. I was able to return the research essays and give them good feedback. And now I'm almost done with their reflective essays, and am giving good feedback on these. It worked out really well for me and the class, I think. (And I got the idea from a good colleague. Yay colleague!)

The thing about weekend grading is that it's flexible. I'm about to settle into the final few essays and other work to get it all done by tomorrow. On the weekend before finals, I have no classes to prep, no committee work to prepare for, just grading. (And an exam to write during the week.) It's amazing how much less stressful it makes the weekend.

I went skiing earlier, for the first time this season. The hip/thigh muscles that pull my leg forward don't get nearly enough exercise biking compared to skiing. And my elbows are sore from poling. I think I need to grip the poles more loosely. Yeah, loosely, as in relaxed. That's a tough one for me, but I was looking up about elbow soreness, adn this is the same soreness I get kayaking, and I think I probably grip too tightly in both cases. Maybe there's a tendon stretching exercise I can do to help it?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last Day of Classes

My drama students did a really good job writing draft essay questions for that part of their exam. My goal for an exam essay question is that an okay student should be able to write an okay exam, while a student who's really worked hard and put things together should be able to write something that synthesizes material and shows their learning in some interesting way. So I have some more work to do, but they're on the way.


I'm tired of students putting work in my box late and pretending it's on time. Yes, my syllabus states that work is due in class. I know it's hard to actually print stuff out ahead. And staple technology is apparently well beyond some people. But I'm tired of the constant bits of lateness. And no, I'm holding the line today.

I'm tired of last minute excuses. You didn't participate in peer editing TWO weeks ago and you want me to somehow find a way for you to make that grade up today? Seriously? What do you suggest that would be fair to the people who put effort into peer editing?

I'm tired of students wondering why I haven't responded to their email while I'm in class, a meeting, or a conference with another student.

I'm tired of students who can't do basic percentages. It's like they know what percentages are, but when faced with figuring out their grades, they can't put the workbook math into real math or something. Well, some of them can, but others can't.

I'm just tired. I should be grading.


On the other hand, I just got an email from a colleague responding to my bemoaning the dearth of grading gnomes at my house. She said she's a few elves short of a workshop. I just laughed.

Not Electric Sheep

I woke from a dream at 4am. I'd dreamed about running; I was running, and was trying to cross a big bridge to get back to my starting point, but there was bridge construction that wasn't otherwise marked, so I was near the end of the bridge heading when I realized there was a huge gap and no way to get across. So I asked a worker, and he said I had to go back. And only then did I realize I'd basically been running on a freeway and hadn't noticed there were no cars on the bridge.

Also, I was running way better than I do in real life. My stride was smoother, and easier, and I was running way further. That was quite satisfying. It would be great if dreaming about running actually counted as running. I don't remember ever dreaming about biking, though.

And then suddenly I became deeply concerned with literacy in classical Rome. That concern turned to curiosity about their writing technologies. Did they use vellum? Papyrus? It seems weird to think of using stone, but then didn't the ancient cuniform writers use clay tablets? I asked The Wayward Classicist on his blog, so hopefully he'll be able to allay my concerns.

How did I get from not being able to cross a bridge (and what sort of weird Freudian interpretation does that get? And does it matter that I'm pretty sure I know which bridge it was, having grown up in a place of bridges and bridge dependency? Except somehow that bridge got translocated here, where it would basically take up the whole city.) to worrying about Roman literacy rates? I'm not quite sure. It's one of those weird 4am things.

There was also something else I was deeply worried about, but then I fell asleep and so I can't remember.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Low Tide of My Patience

My patience is running low these days. I was going to say I was having a neap tide of patience, but I looked up neap tide; I'd thought a neap tide was the lowest of a low tide, but instead I find it's the lowest high tide. I love dictionaries.

We had a snow day, and I had to make some adjustments for final work. (You know, having it turned in the next class day, or making the final assignment optional because some people who couldn't do it because of the snow thing.) And now I'm inundated by people wanting to make sure that their special case is indeed, very special.

Some want to be assured that if they do this optional assignment, it can only help their grade. No, if someone does F work on the optional thing, it's an F, and unless your grade is already an F, it will tend to hurt it.

One wanted me to say whether s/he should do it or not, as if somehow I can predict what grade s/he'll get without seeing the work. I emailed back asking how the drafting and revision process was going so far. I haven't heard back. I'm guessing I won't get the optional assignment from this student.

I got emails on the snow day asking me to look over papers and give feedback. So I did. One of the students sent back an enthusiastic thank you with a couple specific questions. I felt really good about that. It was worth doing. The other didn't even bother to acknowledge that I'd read the paper. I didn't feel as good about that. (But it was still worth doing. At least I'm going to tell myself it was.)

Someone else desperately emailed me asking about his/her grade in the course. I wanted to tell the student to pull up his/her big kid pants and do the math because we'd gone over the math in class, and s/he has everything graded back, and I don't have my grade stuff here, nor do I memorize their grades. I didn't. Nope, I've learned that it's always better to answer an email like that after an hour of shoveling snow, when whatever sunshine/exercise chemicals are at their winter max for me. So I was polite, and suggested that while I didn't have the grade information at home, s/he could use the handout on figuring out grades to figure it out. She emailed me a polite and thankful response, so I'm glad I wasn't rude.

I was reading a group blog, and a guest poster is an undergrad taking a first year college course and complaining that some assignment isn't appropriate but is a grad level assignment. How does an undergrad in a first year course think s/he has more understanding about levels of assignments than someone who's actually been to grad school? I didn't write a response. I tried going out and digging some more snow, but even that didn't help, so I just clicked it closed.

It's cold outside, with a wind chill that makes it even colder. So I have to ask, does the wind chill just count for people and stuff (that is, living organisms that change their chemistry in some way to deal with temperatures), or would a piece of metal also be colder because of it were it to be hanging out in the wind?

Finally, I'd like to ask what stupid idiot forgot to get raisins at the grocery store so that I could at least make oatmeal raisin cookie dough to get myself through the snow day.

At this point, I don't even have patience with myself.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Report

This is a self-portrait of me digging out. Yes, it snowed. I made the mistake of opening the back sliding door to toss out some seed for the juncos, and a load of snow fell into the house (it had been built up between the glass door and the screen door). Then the ice made the screen door come off its track and it's too iced up to get back on.

I don't think we even had a blizzard. (I looked up, and a blizzard is supposed to have winds of 35mph or higher, and mostly we didn't.) But it was darned windy and snowy anyway. Compared to the high Sierras, of course, we barely got snow. But it was plenty to dig through.

I put some seed on the deck for the juncos, and later, I saw a Downy Woodpecker actually land on the flat surface and pick up a big peanut piece. I think the hanging feeder and suet thing were just too windy for it, maybe? Anyway, I haven't seen Downy's land on the deck surface before. I'm guessing just because it's cold and windy doesn't mean you don't have to eat if you're a bird!

And now, back to student papers.

Monday, December 07, 2009

We Need Another Internet Law

You all know how there are ten internet "laws" right?

We need another one, maybe related to Godwin's law (that's the reference to Hitler and Nazi-ism one). I'm not quite sure how to word it, but it's gotta go like this:
When any feminist criticizes patriarchy or male privilege, no matter how gently, someone will tell her to lighten up or explain that feminists have no sense of humor.
So that's it, more or less, but it needs to be worded better.

As an aside, Twisty has taken time to explain that feminists do, indeed, appreciate good comedy.

Thinking Back about the Drama Course

I teach three courses a semester, in general--a writing course, a lower division course, and an upper division course. It can be hard to figure out the workloads for a given course, especially since I don't often teach the same course from one term to the next, or one year to the next, even (except for the writing course).

I'm trying to figure out a better way to balance the lower division course. I think I've assigned a tad more work than I should have (and thus given myself more grading), though I think each of the assignments has been valuable in itself.

Here's what they've had to do:

A short performance project
A short response to the performance project (writing)
A short response to seeing each of two plays (writing)
A short analytic essay (writing)

I think the four writing assignments could easily have been two, but which two should I have dropped?

I think having them see plays is really important for those who haven't been involved in theater; that's about half the class at least. But my sense is that students think a lot more about their experiences if they write about them. I think writing an analytic essay is important in developing analytic and critical thinking skills. Finally, the performance project is usually really wonderful to get students thinking about what they're doing, and again, they think more about it if they write something.

How much writing do you require in a lower level (freshman, sophomore) lit course?

In addition to the grading excess, I hurt myself this semester by teaching three plays I've never taught before: an American mid-century play, a play by an African writer, and the Ionesco. The American play was the least stretchy for me, but the others were really good experiences. I think I learned a lot and did some good teaching. Still, it's a lot of extra work. Were I to teach this course every year, I'd build a stronger repertoire within a few years; but I've taught it three times in 10 years, and not really regularly. Using plays the theater folks have chosen to perform is important, but it will always be likely to challenge my teaching repertoire for the class (since they seem to teach things other than Shakespeare for some reason!).

I'm feeling like I'm digging out of the grading burial (until I get three sets on Friday), so I'm starting to think about how to do better another time.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I Have a New Motto!

On the one hand, I'm feeling deeply disturbed.

On the other hand, I'm feeling pretty good about my teaching.

What's the text for today?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Shocking, Perhaps?

Dear Football Coach,

I have four members of your football team in my first year writing class. If I recall correctly, they've missed a total of four classes. That's pretty darned good.

In addition to being in class every day, each of them has done all the assignments in a timely manner. It would be nice if they didn't sit together at the back of the room, but they willingly move around for group work.

None of the four is exactly a shining example of active class participation, but each will respond when called on. And often enough, they have something smart and interesting to say when they respond; at the least, their responses indicate they've been following the discussion.

Two of the four have worked really hard on their writing and peer editing; the peer editing is especially impressive. They've really improved their writing, and their research papers are quite good.

In conclusion, you're doing something right. I hear about study sessions and fill in the progress reports, and I gather you're encouraging your team members to take their classes seriously and work hard. Each of these men in my class seems to have learned something about mutual respect, teamwork, and effort through their football experiences. So even though I gather the team has a losing record, I want to encourage you to keep up your good work.

Sincerely, Bardiac

ps. I'd be happy to have more of your football players in my classes.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Basic Checklist for Turning in Papers

Sometimes, I just get so tired of telling students the same thing over and over, so I'm thinking of handing out a basic checklist. Here's the first draft.

1) Name. Put your name on the paper. Don't put just your first name, but also your surname. If you want to put the instructor's name, the class, and the date, too, yay you.

2) Title. Your paper should have a title, and that title should not be "Essay #2" or "Title of a Famous Piece of Art." Think of a title that communicates something about your paper. Unless otherwise instructed, center your title near the top of the page, not too far below your name. Don't put your own title in quotations marks, or italics, or in 24 point font.

3) Format. Use reasonable margins. 1 inch is good. Number your pages. Left justify your paper unless otherwise instructed.

4) Font. Use a reasonably sized font, say a 10, 11, or 12. Use a readable font, one that will inspire confidence in your reader.

5) Paragraphs. Indent paragraphs.

Don't add an extra space between paragraphs. If you have the latest version of Word, and it's set to add an extra space, change the setting.

Here's how to change that setting:

a. Open Word. (I start at the beginning.)
b. Click the "Page Layout" tab at the top.
c. About 2/3rds of the way to the right, find the "Paragraph" box. Set the "before" and "after" spacings to 0 pt.
d. Celebrate with me!

6) Sources. When you use a source, introduce it in some way, even if you're paraphrasing. Cite your sources at the end of the paper, in foot or end notes, or in whatever way is appropriate to your class. If you're in a literature class, it's likely that you need to use MLA. If you're in a social or natural sciences class, it's likely that you'll need to use APA. If you're not sure, ask your instructor!

Cite any source you use; give people credit for their ideas, words, and cultural productions (art, graphs, and so on).

If you didn't know something before the term began, then figure out how you know it now, and cite that. You can cite your textbook or a lecture.

7) Titles. In typescript, use underlining or italics for the titles of journals, magazines, newspapers, books, plays, films, TV series, long poems. Use quotation marks for the titles of articles, short stories, television series episodes, short poems. The general rule is that if something is published in a stand alone format, it gets underlined or italicized. If it's published as part of something else, it gets quotation marks.

Your own title doesn't get either.

8) Punctuation. If you're in the U.S., periods and commas go inside quotation marks, and we use double quotation marks unless we're quoting within a quotation.

9) Staple. Staple your paper in the upper left hand corner unless otherwise instructed. (With thanks to MommyProf [see comments]. See, even on a blog you can acknowledge other peoples' ideas!)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Piece of Advice for All Writing Students

You can never go wrong citing your sources. Really.

If you paraphrase a bit from a play, cite it! If you read something in a textbook, cite it! If you interview someone, cite him/her!

Please, for the love of all that is Shakespeare, cite your sources.

This message brought to you by the letter A.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Little Things that Bug Me

We have a bookshelf full of free books in the hall near my office. We put books there for students to pick up, and (we hope) read and enjoy.

We also have numerous book buyers coming around; they come around and pay some minimum money for fairly new books we might have around that we don't want. Mostly, they're interested in freebie textbooks we've been sent that we didn't adopt, but that they can resell where someone else has adopted them. Okay, free enterprise and all that. (I tend to donate my books to the student organization with separates out the ones that might be useful for overseas donation and sells the rest off for money to mail the useful ones. If the book buyers were offering real money, I might be tempted to sell them. Most of what I have, they wouldn't want anyway.)

But it bugs me when the book buyer goes from my office to peruse the free shelf. It shouldn't, right? But it does.


We worked on thesis statements in the writing class today. One of the students had a word up, and didn't know what it meant. Not just wasn't sure about double meanings, but really hadn't thought about it at all.

It bugs me when people don't think about the words they use in a writing class.


It also bugs me when someone puts a thesis up in the writing class and then acts all bored by a basic question. If someone in class asks you for an example of something related to your thesis, you should have a better response than "I dunno" with a side of shrug.

In all honesty, I should not be thinking harder about your essay than you are at this point.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Listening to Robinson's Home

I've been listening to Marilynne Robinson's Home in the car recently. (I generally have two audio books going at a time, a CD in the car and a casette for bedtime. The other right now is Sandra Cisneros reading her own Caramelo which is just great so far. I love the way Cisneros uses language.)

I'm about two thirds of the way through Home and I'm of two minds about it. It's really well written in a lot of ways. It's interesting, and I want to keep listening, mostly. But the reader is a little irritating in the way she does the father's voice. Or maybe I'm just irritated with the father.

The NPR site has a bit on an interview with Robinson from way back in 2008, in which she talks about the novel as a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable from Luke.
Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.

"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life." [Source at NPR]
I think there's a lot in that quotation that piques my irritation.

In the novel, Robert Boughton, an ailing, aging, retired preacher, awaits his son Jack's return, and then deals with their interactions; the story is told through a third person narrator with the eyes of Glory, one of Boughton's daughters who has returned home to care for her aging father. From Glory's point of view, Jack has always been a much admired big brother who was also always a trouble-maker. He's been gone from home, where he never felt he fit in, for 20 years, and now has returned for a visit of some length, while he tries to figure out his relationship with a woman in St. Louis.

I think I find Boughton irritating because he seems to think his kids, specifically Jack (but let's not ignore Glory's contribution) owe him a whole lot of subordinate obedience, specifically with respect for Christianity. There's a really interesting scene where Jack and his younger (and much approved) brother Ted talk about Jack's desire to tell their father something that will please him, that he has faith in a Christian God. But he doesn't really, so Jack feels he'd be lying on a deep level.

There's also a really fine undercurrent in the text about race issues in the late 50s or 60s. Jack's been in St. Louis; there are hints (so far, I haven't finished) that lead me to think that the relationship Jack's trying to figure out is with an African American woman. At any rate, he consistently thinks about race issues and tries to reconcile his father's and Ames's (his father's old friend) racism with their Christianity. He clearly has read and thought about religious issues more deeply than his father.

I think those two aspects of Jack's character are what make me find him appealing; he's thought deeply about whether he believes in Christianity and he's thought about how wrong racism is. So while he's an alcoholic and detached from his family, I find myself thinking I'd much rather meet and chat with him than with Boughton (even when he was younger and less self-centered.)

So, with the Prodigal Son story from Luke, the son is basically a wastrel and takes a chunk of his father's wealth and wastes it, then comes home to be welcomed with a party. Robinson says she sees the important thing as love not being earned.

Here's the problem. Children shouldn't HAVE to earn their parents' love. Parents have no right to expect their children to be permanently subordinate and obedient, especially about matters of ethics. That's not an equal relationship; ONE side of the relationship made a choice and the other had no choice. (I'm not trying to say that children should be horrible to their parents, of course, but trying to make the point that parents don't own their children the way Boughton seems to think he has a right to Jack.)

Boughton's self-righteous, selfish, self-centered attitude is really irritating me.

I can't decide if that means this is a really great novel or not.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What doesn't Count

I just had a conversation with a student (from my writing class) about what classes to take next term. The student's a first year, who declared as a major right off, and so has a major advisor. Let's just say that major is as far off from English as it's possible to be here at NWU.

The problem is, after taking the intro course in the major, s/he's not sure s/he wants to study that field. And when s/he went to the major advisor to talk about what to enroll in next term and get the enrollment computer thingy, the advisor wasn't as much help as he might have been. Basically, according to this student, the advisor pretty much said, "this is what you need to take next term for this major," and when the student told him s/he was thinking of changing majors, the advisor basically repeated the same thing.

Okay, I know the advisor's another faculty member and busy. I recognize that. And I'm guessing the advisor wasn't quite that abrupt. But the student ended up in my office for a reason, and it's not because I'm warm and fuzzy.

But still, here's a student who's a first year student, and what s/he needs is a little help exploring and figuring out what sort of major s/he wants to pursue. Most of our students seem to change majors a couple times, so it's not like this is a once in a lifetime issue. It's going to happen, and more than once. And to be honest, it's healthy for students to change majors and explore.

For early on in a student's career, basic advising involves talking about exploration, general education, and opening up opportunities. I ask a few questions about what the student's taking, what s/he enjoys, what sorts of things s/he wants to learn about. I listen and take some notes. We look at class offerings and schedules.

So we had a nice conversation and figured out what looks like a reasonable schedule; there's one more advanced class the student seems well-prepared for and several introductory classes that will serve for exploration and general education. The student seemed pleased by the possibilities and interested in the courses, and also has a couple classes to look forward to in the fall.

As pieces of the job go, this one's sort of important. But you know it doesn't get marked on my "good job" list by anyone, nor does the other advisor lose anything by not caring what the student's doing. The thing is, it's not that hard to do a good job with little advising things like this, and it makes a difference to a student who needs some help. It's one of those things that's important enough to do well, but not counted, like so many other things.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disappointed, but not Surprised

My senior seminar students are peer editing tomorrow, so they were supposed to post their drafts to the campus system by 5pm on Saturday. That would give them Sunday to read each other's papers and be prepared to give feedback.

I'm disappointed to see that only 2/3rds have uploaded a draft. I haven't looked at the drafts yet, so there's room for even more disappointment, I suppose.

On the other hand, I'm really glad that 2/3rds at least have something draftish to post. That's a few papers that are likely to be reasonably well-written, right? (Hey, indulge my fantasy! It's all I have!)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Really the News?

The network evening news opened tonight with a story about a golfer's car accident (no fatalities, a few thousand dollars of damage) and the couple who went to the state dinner without an invitation.

Seriously, folks, those are the lead stories? We have our priorities totally out of whack, don't we? Does anyone really care about the golfer's car or whatever? Or is this yet more evidence that I'm totally out of step with the broader culture?

The St. Petersburg train accident came in third.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meeting of Musical Minds

There used to be an old TV show where the host (Steve Allen?) would have guests on pretending to be famous people sitting around discussing whatever.

I want to invite Tom Lehrer and Arlo Guthrie to a den with a piano, acoustic guitar, and a tape recorder.

Better yet, if I could invite them in their early 1070s incarnations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

For Sale

I check my inbox each day for blog comments; they cheer me when they're there. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

But every so often, I'll get a spam comment from a company selling "research papers." I got a couple of those today, so I clicked over, hoping there was a way to do something about it. There may be, but I didn't really look long enough to figure it out because I started seeing basic grammar and punctuation errors in the ad copy. The grammar feels off in the way it does when someone who's pretty good at English as a second language sometimes writes. The basics are there, but just a bit off.

Sadly, students who are most likely to buy a paper from that site are least likely to notice the errors, I bet, or to proofread the paper they buy.

I looked at their pricing, and it seems a little out of reach for a lot of my students, so I wonder who's buying these. (Yes, my students mostly have ipods and such, but those are one-time purchases. If you're doing the research paper purchasing thing, I bet you aren't doing it just once a semester.)

The pricing gets more expensive as the time gets shorter, so for a 24 hour turn around, it's just under $25/page, but for a one week turn around, it's about $15 a page. A 5 page paper, with a week's turn around is about $75.

I'm not in denial that some of my students will plagiarize or buy papers, but I can't see them affording these prices often. (I think most of my students' plagiarism is the quick grab off the web, cut and paste without fixing the font even, with a smaller helping of "hey, my roommate has a paper on that topic from last semester!" thrown in to keep things interesting.)

Who's writing these papers? Seriously, if you think of a page taking half an hour or less with no research, then I can imagine lots of folks being willing to do it. That's $30 an hour at the worst, and if you have the university of Google, then even the "research" isn't going to be that difficult (not like you'd actually have to take out the books; you just list them). But if there were actual research involved, then even $25 a page is a poor way to make much money. Once you have to get up from your computer and actually go to a library, there's no point. So I'm guessing the papers are written somewhere with a lower wage structure than the US. That would fit with the non-SWE feel of the site. There's got to be profit in it and customers, or they wouldn't stay in business, right?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teaching a New Text, Part the First

I started teaching a new text yesterday; it went pretty well. But it got me thinking about how I approach teaching new texts. I'm sure most lit folks teach new texts periodically. And by "new" I don't only mean "written within recent history," but also "not yet part of the teaching canon."

At the end of my grad school teaching, I had the opportunity to teach a seminar for English majors, so I chose to teach something on early modern women or something. One of the texts I tried to teach was Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Miriam. Let's just say, I did a miserable job of it.

First, I hadn't been taught at all to read early modern texts by women. I hadn't had any classroom experience with closet dramas, even. And as a very inexperienced teacher, I didn't have a lot of strategies for dealing with such texts; I mostly had the example of what I'd been taught, with a lot of dissertation research on the side.

(I'm sort of ashamed to say that I've never had the guts to go back and try to teach Miriam again.)

When I check my sitemeter thing, I regularly see someone hit my blog searching how to teach [some text], so I know other people struggle with how to teach new to them texts, too.

I'd like to start thinking about how we're taught to teach, and what that means when we teach new texts, and also articulate some strategies for teaching new texts. I hope you folks will tell me about your experiences and talk about the strategies you use, too.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another One Clicks the Mouse

I finally broke down and joined facebook. I searched for one of my aunts, and used her friends to ask some other people to be friends; then I did the same with a couple friends.

I was feeling far from family and college friends out here, so I did it.

About the first news I got was that my cousin is recovering. From what, I wondered, so I dropped my Cous' a line, and learned that Cous' is recovering from a heart attack. A HEART ATTACK. My cousin. My cousin who's a few months older than I am and way nicer. So I'm sort of freaked out. This is one of those cousins who's just a really good person, kind, thoughtful, caring, smart, funny, fun. A heart attack. I'm glad Cous' is already recovering, or I'd be worried sick.

I wonder if my Mom knows or would remember to tell me if she found out.

On the happier side, now I've gotten friend thingies from some of my college pals, and it's so good to see their pictures and just see how they're doing. I've been scrolling back a bit to catch up.

When did we all go so gray?

It's sort of weird to put together this friends list thing from different parts of my life. There are the family folks. I have enough cousins to make plenty of friends. There are college folks. Some of the college folks know some family folks. And grad school folks. Then there are gaming folks; it's funny to add them because I tend to think of them as their avatar names.

I haven't friended any work folks yet. Nor have I looked for students. I'm thinking I'll keep my facebook pretty basic, and any students who want to friend me, fine. They'll look at my page for half a minute and be bored.

I'm guessing people who just start a facebook thing mostly go through this, but I'm at the stage where you stare at the screen and hope someone will appear to chat.

I feel totally clumsy about figuring out facebook. I'm grateful that I haven't drowned in Surefall or fallen off Kelethin to my death. But it has that same feel of total newness in a weird way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Am

... a total pushover.

I accepted a nomination to chair this committee. The alternatives seemed, well, one person would have done a good job but is already chairing a major thingy or two. Another would have, but is junior and shouldn't be exposed. The other two, well, I wouldn't really want either chairing a committee to take out the garbage.

... in deep trouble.

Tomorrow, I'm teaching a text I've never taught before, or even actually finished reading. I'm almost finished, but that doesn't mean I feel adequate about teaching it. I had a good reason for choosing it, but now that it's hear, I'm not feeling any too good about things.

Sometimes, my blog gets hits from people doing searches for "how to teach [some text]." I can guarantee, I'd get no hits at all if I did a search on this text. It's not that it's a bad text, either.

... irritated at a colleague and none too happy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ten Ways To Drive Students Crazy

Sometimes students make us crazy. It's true.

But often enough, instructors and professors drive students nuts as well. Here are some few of the ways. Feel free to add your own!

1. Have a sexual or dating relationship with a student. This may seem okay to the one student, if s/he doesn't feel that s/he's forced, but it's still creepy. To other students, it's obvious that the one student is going to be favored in ways that will disadvantage them. Extra points for flaunting your relationship in front of the whole campus.

2. Grade erratically. Don't tell students what you expect on an assignment or how to do better. If you can use the stair method in front of your students, all the better. Don't tell students what a grade of 16 means, what scale it's on, or how much the assignment counts for in the course.

3. Consistent lateness. The prof who always comes in ten minutes late is bad enough; when that same prof holds the class ten minutes late to "make up" for his/her lateness, that's close to criminal. Or at least really, really rude. And, of course, be absolutely firm that you don't accept student work even a minute late for any reason whatsoever.

4. Miss office hours or blow students off. This is most effective when you've been busy with your favorite student for an hour, while other students are lined up sitting on the floor hoping for some help. And then you just don't have time to talk to those students. Double points if you can decline to talk to the students with a sexist or racist comment thrown in.

5. Don't hand out a syllabus or assignments. Just give information verbally at some point. Or not. And change your mind about things several times for maximum unclarity.

6. Wait forever to grade papers. Procrastinate until the end of the semester, and then just assign grades randomly. If you can blog about procrastinating, all the better.

7. Don't respond to emails or phone calls, even if you're sitting in the office while they're on the phone. Double credit if you're avoiding an advisee who needs a form signed before the deadline and s/he's been trying to reach you for three weeks or more.

8. Complain endlessly about how hard you work and how underpaid you are. Complain especially loudly while standing in the store where your student works as a checkout or stock clerk for minimum wage. Extra credit if you hire a student worker to clean your house or babysit your kids but don't pay even minimum wage because you're so devastatingly underpaid.

9. Teach from your own text, which you "update" every year by changing the pagination and one or two illustrations. Otherwise, make no changes in your lectures, because really, it's not like the laws of physics have changed in the past billion years or two.

10. Make rude comments. Comment on your students' tattoos, especially if you can talk about their "tramp stamps." Note that some students are just stupid or whatever. Tell female students that they shouldn't worry about grad school or grades or whatever because they're just going to get married anyway and it's a waste of resources to teach them anything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A student who was in one of my classes before came by to talk about a Herbert poem just now; she needs to write on it for another class, and wanted some help.

Herbert totally blows me away. In a way, I'm surprised by how deeply I love some of his most religious poems though I'm not Christian. I admire how difficult folks such as Herbert and Donne found Christianity; for them, it wasn't about easy answers, but about grappling with the complexity and difficulty, and working through it.

And Herbert, well, Herbert works through it so incredibly playfully and seriously.

I have the Medieval and Renaissance Text and Studies facsimile of Herbert's The Temple, but being a drama person mostly, I rarely think to pull it out and read, so today I pulled it out and showed the student. And now I want to reread Herbert. (That may partly be avoidance thinking about grading, however.)

Monday, November 16, 2009


I just spent some time helping a student find some early modern texts. S/he'd "looked" but hadn't found many on the list s/he'd put together from another resource of texts that might be useful. And so I helped.

There are tricks to finding early modern texts. You have to be willing to play fast and loose with spelling, and switching "v" and "u" typographically (along with "i" and "J" and "w" and "vv"; the name "doubleyou" makes a lot more sense when I think about "u" and "v" being different back then.)

But the most important trick is that you have to be willing to try this and that in different ways; you have to be willing to bang your head about the search engine (and praise be for search engines, because it's softer than banging my head against a card catalog!) for a while.

I know my students have to learn to be persistent about research. But these are the same students who probably parse their dps in WoW or tell me the exact ERA for their favorite pitcher or tell me exactly which shade of nail polish J.Lo wears. The information they care about, they'll put in the time to find or figure out.

The good thing is that I get to feel a little useful.

Those Stepping Stone Assignments

I think a lot of us who teach writing in various forms have developed stepping stone assignments along the path for bigger essays. For example, we might require a research question(s), bibliography, annotated bibliography, response to an essay, abstract, draft(s), and so on.

In theory, these are a great idea. They do help students avoid procrastination at least somewhat.

But when they all pile on my desk, even if I just need to take a quick look and put a checkmark, they really add up.


Friday, November 13, 2009


I taught the first day of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun today, which means I reread it just before teaching to prep. I've liked the play pretty well since the first time I read it, and I've found it wonderful to teach, but it was even better this time. I was pondering my response, since I was almost in tears in my office (you should see me when I merely pick up a copy of Cyrano). I think the thing that's changed for me is that my father has died, and I've seen my mother's loss, and I've thought long and hard about what it means to get and/or spend money left through someone else's death. (My Great Aunt also died and our family friend Hillis.)

There's a scene in the play when a white man (Karl Lindner) from the neighborhood "welcoming committee" comes to the Younger apartment to convince them to sell the house they've just gotten a mortgage on rather than moving into the all white neighborhood. When Lindner comes to the door, the husband and wife, Walter Lee and Ruth, are dancing to some music, and Walter Lee's sister, Beneatha, answers the door. She turns to mouth to the couple dancing that there's a white man at the door, and they turn off the music and recompose themselves before Walter Lee introduces himself as the man of the house.

I think there's something absolutely brilliant in that little moment. There's an African American family, just relaxing and being a family happy for having bought a house, and then a white man comes, and the family immediately stages itself anew for this white audience, this white interloper. They suddenly play at being "respectable for a white audience" and drop the sense of homeness.and relaxation.

And Lindner is coming to tell them that it's not a racial prejudice issue, but the whites in the new neighborhood really don't want a Black family moving in. His insistence that it's not a "racial prejudice" issue brings out the racial prejudice point, of course.

And then we step back. Here we are in the audience, probably, in 1959, and maybe even today on Broadway, a mostly white audience, watching an African American cast stage itself for us in a play by an African American woman (and originally directed by an African American director, I think). We're watching the staging of blackness, the performance of blackness, and it redoubles the experience because the play stages blackness for a mostly white audience, and that blackness is about respectability and what it means to be Black in a white dominated society.

I love metadrama, where a play talks about itself as drama, or talks about all our experience as being dramatic. But this moment goes beyond that pleasure and really asks the audience to think about the staging of blackness and what it means to play blackness in a white theater tradition. We get to see what seems on one level to be a "real" African American home, but it's a staged African American home; we can't get the real in the theater, but we're reminded again of how much staging is often involved in our relations, especially between members of dominant and non-dominant groups. We're asked to identify with Lindner for this passage, and to think about our own racism, too.

And yet, of course, on another level, it's not really about me at all, right? If I imagine an audience made primarily of people of color, then I can't put my white dominant self at the center.

I love when a moment in art can totally make me feel and think at the same time, when it moves me to sadness and anger and hope and thoughtfulness.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Late Adopter

In the senior seminar, the students are (I hope) hard at work on their papers. At any rate, they have a stepping-stone assignment due tomorrow, so yesterday we were talking about paper writing strategies.

One of the strategies I picked up during grad school, when I began word processing on a computer that could actually open two files at the same time (Go Amiga!) was to have a second file open while I was writing, and every time I'd use a reference in the essay or chapter, I'd tab to the second file and add it in to the work cited list in the proper alphabetical order. That meant that I wasn't trying to figure out the works cited at 7:50 am to turn in at 8am.

So, I was telling my students about this and suggesting they could also use something such as Endnote, and one of my students raised his hand and asked why I don't use the function in Word that handles works cited.

I'd never even noticed that, but it seems to be new with the new Word program! And it's cool! We played with it for a few minutes in class (I can project my computer screen in the classroom) so that everyone knew the basics of where to find it and how to get started. Other than that one student, none of them seemed to know about this function.

They were laughing at me because I was so excited. Indeed, there was no hiding my excitement. (They all should have been equally excited.) I'm just a nerd. Except I'm a late adopter nerd, which is really unimpressive.

How did I miss this? Laziness is part of it; I just use what I've used as long as I can get away with it. I still do control keys mostly, because I type a LOT faster if I don't have to move my hand to the side to use a mouse. But I also looked, and my old Word program on my laptop has nothing like this, and I do a lot of word processing at home. (My computer at home is from 2002, so it's got whatever program was available then.) Is it worth trying to upgrade a 7 year old laptop? Could it even run the newer program? (A new laptop is not in the budget.)

Naive at the Theater?

Some of my students recently went to a play we'd read for class and then wrote a response to it. Some of them are acting majors; others have never been to the theater before, so there's an interesting range of responses.

A couple of the responses talked about how helpful it was to go to the play after they'd read it, because they got so much more out of it. And that response got me to thinking.

Pretty much all plays are written for an original naive audience, that is, and audience that hasn't read the play. It's unlikely that folks in Shakespeare's audience had read a play before seeing it. And today, the first audience for a play probably hasn't read it.

So there's a sort of very special occasion when the audience hasn't read the play. Yes, the audience likely knew the story of Henry V well before they saw it; and the opening of Romeo and Juliet pretty much gives the plot away anyway, but seeing it would still offer surprises. But it's still a very special occasion; no one knows the jokes ahead of time or is waiting for their favorite line. No one is dreading the Macduff household slaughter or waiting for Hermione's statue to come to life.

I've never been part of an audience at a play opening like that; I can't even imagine the excitement.

I have been to plays I hadn't read and didn't know. I remember going to Cyrano, the first play I saw (as part of a junior high school, take the kids to the big city for a matinee program), expecting that Cyrano would "get the girl" (because that's how TV always worked), and then... well, I won't tell you what happens.

When you haven't read the play, you get certain pleasures in the surprises, in the turns, in the language and staging, and I don't know that you can get quite those pleasures if you've read the play before.

On the other hand, if you've read the play, you get the pleasures of anticipation, of thinking about how the production reinterprets the play for you, how embodying the characters changes everything from your imagination.

I have a vague sense that the difference is bigger for students who haven't seen many plays before than for those who've had more experience seeing plays. What do you folks think?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Marginal Comments

First Paper: Interesting idea; will your readers agree? Develop this point to greater depth. Cite your sources, please. Do you have evidence?

Second Paper: Cite your sources, please. Gram: dangling modifier; come ask and I'll explain. Number your pages, please. Develop this example further? Good point!

Third Paper: Is this your thesis? Evidence? Good example. Cite your sources.

Fourth Paper: Interesting, develop? Number your pages, please. Indent new paragraphs.

Fifth Paper: Thesis? Gram: run on sentence; use a semi-colon or a connecting word. Cite your sources. Can you develop this point further?

Sixth Paper: Develop example to bring out your point. Gram: fragment; use a comma to avoid the fragment. Number pages. Gram: dangling modifier; come ask and I'll explain.

Seventh Paper: Confusing sentence. Number pages. Cite sources. Gram: run on sentence; use a semi-colon or connecting word.

Eighth Paper: Thesis! Cite sources. Gram: fragment; use a comma. Number pages.

Ninth Paper: Gram: run on. Number pages. Evidence? Gram: dangling modifier. Really? Indent Para.

Tenth Paper: Example? Gram: fragment. Can you develop this example to make the point stronger?

Eleventh Paper: Cite sources. Evidence? Dev. point. # pages. Dangling modifier.

Twelfth Paper: Gram: frag. Cite. Dev. Example? Indent.

Thirteenth Paper: Cite. Ev? Run on. # pages.

Fourteenth Paper: Cite! Frag. Dev? Ex?

Fifteenth Paper: Thesis? Frag! # pgs. Really? Cite! Indent!

And, now I'm half-way done with the stack.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Lit

(Does it help if I acknowledge that this isn't early modern?)

(Maybe if I redid the speech thing to say, "Meine begriffsstutzig Kindern!"?)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Stick Figure Game!

I have a feeling his arms wouldn't fit within the Da Vinci circle figure thing. He's got what climbers call a positive ape index (or something like that).

Nonetheless, this is the lit of the day! Enjoy!

Missing Notes

As part of my ancilliary duties for being stupid enough to offer to be secretary to a rotating committee I got put on because someone else refused to do his/her job, I get to be chair of another committee. I seriously would not have offered to be secretary of the other committee if I'd known, because it's a change, but oh well.

This is the "Oh Hell the Future is Upon Us, Crap!" committee, which is responsible for worrying about the future of the department. The Oh committee, as I'll call it as part of my rebellion against the ever-increasing acronyms around here, is actually supposed to do some important stuff, stuff like making decisions (or recommendations to the chair and dean) about tenure-line hiring.

I waited to get this committee going this fall until we'd had our meeting with the new Assistant Headmaster about where things are going; we had that meeting, and now we need to get started deciding where we want to go, strategically and tactically.

So, I made up the agenda this morning; if you've done committee work, you know that the first thing on the agenda of most committees is approving the notes of the last meeting of the committee. At NWU, we keep our notes on an alphabet drive, so I went to the alphabet drive, and found the committee folder (I love the idea of a computer folder, by the way).

The last thing put in the folder was an agenda from spring 2008. Yes, spring 2008.

There are no other minutes or agendas (ae?) for the whole of that academic year. None. Nada. That means there's no record of the decision to do our last round of searches, no record of a decision not to search this fall, nothing. Did the committee meet last year? Got me.

This lack of committee records is pretty common around here. It's like people think that they were at the meeting and that's all that matters. But every so often, it really helps to be able to look back and see what was done, what issues came up, even in the most sparse and undetailed way.

I don't think this is about hiding things, but about being lazy and careless, but it irritates me nonetheless. The longer I'm around, and the more I need to lead committees, the more irritating it is. (I'm sure I've been guilty of not getting notes posted, too.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Professor Fail

I'm reading along, and I get to this:

X: What hast been -- of what profession?

Y: A bone setter.

X: A bone setter!

Y: A bawd, my lord. One that sets bones together.

I'm not getting it. I get the idea that a bawd puts bodies together, and that bodies have bones, and Y has been carrying around his dead fiance's skull and all.

Is there more to the joke?

(The OED shows "boner" in the sense of an erection first in 1962. Bone-ache as a sign of STD is recorded in the 14th century, but that seems to be about whole-body bone aching, rather than sexual.)

Recommendations Rant

I'm writing recommendations today.

Back when I started, I could pretty much do a set of recommendations in an hour or two. I'd start by writing a letter, and then I'd fine tune the letter for each of the schools by changing the address and the name of the program as I'd print out copies. Even so, to get the first page on letterhead and the others not (if more than one page, which most aren't) means I have to print each document twice, making sure to change which tray the paper comes out of on the printer, then go to the printer in the department office, collate and make sure the right pages were together, then type an envelop (because feeding an envelop from another room doesn't seem to work well), and go back to my office to do the next one.

Now, half the programs want a standard letter and half want me to fill in something special via the web. I CAN cut and paste, but the specificity of the questions means that the basic letter I've written won't necessarily cut and paste well. Yes, the paragraph about how long and in what capacity I've known the student basically does, but the others, not so much.

Each grad school has it's own web thing (if they have it), and the web thing sends me an automatic email about how to get in.

And every automatic email gets read by our system as spam, so I have to check our spam box to make sure I don't have vital emails dumped in there. (I still get a variety of male-oriented medication and enhancement ads in the regular in-box, though, and also a really enticing financing offer from Nigeria.)

One of my students has complicated things a bit by not deciding what sort of grad program s/he wants to go into yet. Imagine, for example, a biology undergrad who can't decide if s/he wants to go into a PhD program in crop-plant genetics, or one in large mammal wildlife management, or maybe med school. How much do I tweak the letter for each? Do I talk about my experience teaching this student's microbiology lab? Do I talk about their project in deer population control through culling? It's like that.

Part of me enjoys this student's limitless enthusiasm, but part of me worries that s/he doesn't really have a sense of the commitment it takes to do graduate work and keep plugging on at a dissertation through all the funding hassles and hoop-jumping. But then, I sure didn't know how much commitment and just plain stubborness it would take for me to get through, and here I am.

It does feel awkward to be doing two separate recommendation forms to different programs in the same department at the same grad school, though.

I guess I should get started and quit complaining.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Dangeral Studies

Like many colleges and universities, we have some fields of studies that aren't actual departments, but field offices. Unlike departments here, field offices don't necessarily have a separate budget, staff support, an office (yeah, the irony), representation in governance, etc.

There's an idea over in the administrative fort that we should combine all the field offices into a single department.

Historically, our field offices got started whenever someone would recognize that there's an interdisciplinary field and we're not doing it but we should, but we don't want to put any money in, and besides, faculty from all different areas across campus can teach in the field studies, because "we" don't actually recognize this as a real academic area worthy of funding and tenure lines.

Typical field studies offices have names such as: Black Studies, Women's Studies, Asian Studies, and so forth. You get the idea. They represent marginalized groups that suddenly got recognized by white administrations in response to some state or federal funding opportunity or mandate.

So, now the fort wants to combine them all into one department. It would, so to speak, give the fields a "chair at the table" for governance and funding decisions, and that would be good. On the other hand, it makes little sense to combine these disparate fields into one department. That difficulty is easy to see when you try to think of a name for the department.

Here are some we've come up with: Department of the Othered; Department of Not-White Men.

My favorite plays with Michael Berube's Dangeral Studies; imagine, a department of Dangeral Studies! The white male Marxists would clamour to get in! Heck, maybe someone from chemistry who likes explosives could teach a team teach a special course in activism!

Think of the reaction over in criminality studies! And over in business!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Poem for Grading

Nor the wit nor the wile
But the size of the pile
Most engenders despair.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


My campus is having a "15th century" dinner in "the spirit of Elizabethan times," including potatoes and coffee.

Claude Levi-Strauss

One of my students told me today that Levi-Strauss had died.

I feel so far out of all loops; a student told me because we were talking about theories of desire. I hadn't heard about it in the department or anything.

Ranting about Profs

I occasionally check a discussion board from an on-line community I used to be part of, mostly to see the old names and what folks are up to. Most of these folks are younger than I, and right now there's quite a rant up from one member about a horrid college prof s/he has. Of course, a couple people then responded by adding their own horror stories.

Some of these stories sound really bad; others sound like a prof said something a bit uninformed, and the student knows better, and now thinks the prof is an idiot. I know I've done that. (What the heck was the 30 years war really about? How did it start?) (And, to be honest, don't a fair number of 18 year olds think older women are idiots anyway, just for existing and not doing their laundry?)

But when I think back, I can think of maybe two or three profs I had who were sort of bad, but no horror stories. I had a prof for Fortran who basically read off overheads for every lecture; our text was a photocopy set of all the overhead slides. Not great, but I did manage to learn some Fortran. Then I had a genetics class for which the profs (one of whom is very famous) basically lectured from their textbook, complete with slides taken from their textbook, in a large, darkened lecture hall at 1pm. It wasn't that they were awful or uninteresting, but everything combined to make it hard to stay awake. (You know these folks are all doing the same thing in powerpoint now, right?)

I had a couple others who were boring, or worse, got off topic and went on for a bit about other stuff. (I avoided enrolling in a class where the prof was reputed to spend 45 minutes trying to take roll.)

But true horror stories? Nothing I can think of that would qualify. But maybe time has whitewashed my memory?

I feel sorry for the folks on that board if their profs really are that bad. And I know one poor prof can stand out even though most are pretty good.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Three Students

I met with a student about his/her research paper. The assignment asks students to come up with a real world question, for which they don't already have an answer (that's key), do research to answer the question, and then write a paper.

The student started off telling me that s/he had an idea about X and planned to look around and find support for his/her idea.

I tried again to explain that if s/he already thought s/he knew the answer, then it wasn't really a research question, and that the way humans are wired, if we start out looking for the answer we think we know, we'll inevitably find that we're right. That's why science is set up, at least theoretically, to remind people to look for ways to disprove the answer they think they have.

I think the student really "got" some high school practice of deciding what s/he thought about something and mining for support. What I'm saying just isn't getting through. It's gotten through to some of the students, I think, because they're asking real questions and being at least a little suprised at the answers they're finding.


I got a call from someone who wants to audit my Shakespeare course next term. I said the person was welcome as long as there are enough seats and spaces in the room. I thought that pretty much ended the conversation, but no, the person rambled on about how much they love Shakespeare and on and on, for a good fifteen minutes. Now I'm wishing I hadn't said yes. (But, I've had some auditors who were great, and it's all part of my nefarious plan to take over the world for Shakespeare and biking.)


A couple of years ago, a student in my first year special program class completed the assignment to go to two student organization meetings by going to a residence hall meeting; the student became his/her hall representative to the student government, and has continued in student goverment. S/he's passionate about classwork, student government work, and being involved in making things work as well as they can.

We had coffee yesterday, and a nice chat; students such as this one are the reason teaching is worth the low salary and hassle.

I like to think I had some small part in this success story. And when s/he's the governor, I'm going to point and brag.