Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Watching the National Parks Documentary

Ken Burns does interesting work, but this one is irritating me. And it shouldn't. I should be totally in love with a film about National Parks. I love parks.

Partly, there's this idealization of some of the men who were involved in the parks' creations. Okay, Muir, great guy. Roosevelt, great guy. Wait. It's like being a wealthy white guy who uses his power and wealth (especially when his father or grandfather robber-baroned the way to wealth) to do his thing. It's handy that the thing involved the national parks, but let's at least think about white, male privilege.

They're talking about Mt. McKinley, and this older looking man smiles and says that it's cold, "colder than the heart of an elderly whore" and sort of chuckles. I guess sexism is just so effing amusing.

Why is that there? Was that the best statement about cold that Burns and the crew could edit?

Can you imagine a similar sort of statement being made in this documentary about Native Americans? I can't.

(Okay, there's often a sense in Burns' films that being a manly man is really, really important, and what he's interested in is manly men being manly and playing baseball or jazz or killing each other. These aren't about women's history, are they? Okay, one is, but otherwise women are pretty much afterthoughts to what he counts as history.)

Then there's the moment where the narrator is reading some man's entry about how "tired and haggard" tourists look in the "official" photos taken at the Grand Canyon, and the camera focuses in on a woman's face, which doesn't look particularly haggard or tired at all, or nervous, which is part of the commentor's humor. Why her face?

There are those places where someone extols the virtues of all Americans sharing and being equals at the parks, where the documentary shows pictures of all white folks. I've read somewhere that the parks really underserve African Americans. I think that would be interesting to explore, don't you?

(Yes, the film so far does have an African American park ranger talking, and does talk about "Buffalo Soldiers" being stationed at Yellowstone, and how white visitors didn't like taking orders from anyone, especially not Black men.)

And one last thing. There's this undercurrent where someone will say something about how no one is really happy that anyone cuts down a tree or something. But, realistically, unless we're going to go try to live in caves, we do cut down trees. Ask any farmer, and s/he appreciates that someone cleared the field, even though s/he may love trees, may plant them and reforest areas.

People who are hungry want to eat; people who are cold want shelter and fuel to make warmth. Those people will use resources, and it's just not realistic to make using resources sound like a bad thing. The fact that I don't have to go out and cut down trees to get my fuel or go kill a cow to eat dinner doesn't mean I'm not using the resources involved. It means I'm separated from recognizing my usage to some extent, but I'm using plenty. And so is Ken Burns, and so was John Muir, and so are all the people (it's mostly men) rhapsodizing about the spiritual experience they have in the wilderness. (You know Burns must love Wordsworth, eh?)

Okay, for all my complaints, this is one beautiful documentary. The music, as always with Burns' films, is lovely and works well with the images. The moves from black and white and still images to color imagery work really nicely. The narrators do a good job, though when the Law and Order buy narrates, I keep waiting for the double note thing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Imagining our Future

Tight times make for hard decisions, and for now, some delayed decisions.

As a department, we have some time this year to think about our future, where we want to be in ten years and in twenty.

If you think back, say 20 years, in most US English departments, we've changed a lot. We teach a lot more literature by writers of color, though not as well as we should, probably. We teach more literature by women, and more texts that wouldn't have counted as literature in most departments 20 years ago (graphic novels, for example).

It's hard to really imagine where we'll be as a profession or within our department in 20 years.

Will we continue to teach lit by writers of color primarily in classes devoted to ethnic lit, leaving the surveys populated by mostly white men? Will we teach surveys or reimagine what and how we teach? Will we imagine new sorts of literature altogether?

When I think of English departments 20 years ago, I think of departments centered on literature; will we become more centered on textual production? What would that look like?

Will our departments be ever more populated by adjuncts with little job security, lower pay? Will regional universities use more MA-trained instructors and fewer PhD-trained instructors? Does it matter? Will schools in more urban areas hire more PhD-trained adjuncts without providing any sort of security?

And without that sort of security and less overwhelming teaching loads, who will have the time and incentive to undertake curricular revision at departmental, program, or institutional levels?

Technology has changed the way classrooms work in some dramatic ways just in the 20 years I've been teaching. And the changes are going to come faster. And yet we've retained some aspects of teaching, not necessarily because they're great ways to teach, but because they're cheap. We continue to use grad students in R1s and we still have students sitting in rows, often in large classrooms, packed to the rafters.

It's daunting, isn't it?

It's tempting to want to hide in my office, reading and teaching and stuff, but it's also our responsibility to try to shape the changes rather than react to them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Mom Would be Proud

The party thing went well. The weather cooperated, too, so lots of folks hung out on the deck, which is really the primo area of the whole house.

One of my friends cracked me up: she said that someone had spilled some water on the tile (the kitchen, dining, and sunroom area are all tiled, as is the entrance area), and she'd cleaned it up with a paper napkin, and then was so impressed that there was only water on the napkin, no dirt. Because who, really, gets a floor that clean? Apparently, in obsessive mode, I do.

And now I probably won't clean again until just before Thanksgiving.

Everything was cleaned up nicely before the last folks left (the caterers did most of the clean up, but a couple folks helped me move chairs back and such).

Does it seem like people drink a lot less alcohol than they used to at parties? We had beer and wine, and water, soft drinks (pop if you're from around here). Lots of drinking, but more water than anything else.

Maybe we're just all getting old? Or we're very conscious that it's a work party, or that we'll be driving home? I'm not complaining, just noticing.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I spent a couple hours this morning doing the final cleaning for the party, vacuuming, mopping, and making sure the kitchen isn't disgusting. And now the caterers are here. It's weird having someone totally busily taking over my kitchen, while I, having done my part, try mostly to stay out of the way.

Other than cleaning the house and such, I have no real responsibility for what happens about the party, so I'm feeling sort of detached. They ask me questions and if it's not about the house, I sort of shrug.

And now it's time to take the computer out of the sunroom and put it where nothing will spill on it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Not fatally, not yet. But a bout of laziness yesterday, and now I'm behind. Argh.

I need a grading gnome to get busy. Also a house elf.

I was asked to have our department fall get-together at my house this fall; we usually go to a restaurant, but in the interest of saving money, we're doing it at a home. And I said yes. My house is actually pretty well set up for get-togethers, so long as they're casual, but this means I have to have my house pretty cleaned up and presentable by Saturday early afternoon, when the caterer will appear to set up.

I sometimes don't go to the fall get-together because it's very couples-oriented. The seating at restaurants is pretty much always set up so partners sit next to each other, so as a single person, I usually end up either with an empty chair or one of the other single folks. The other single folks are mostly fine (though there's one who creeps me out a bit), but the whole couples thing works way better for couples than for single folks. (There are exceptions, but I find few couples are really easy to hang out with when I'm the single person. I value those few highly, but they aren't in my department.)

Maybe it's just my near total lack of social skills. Even if it's my fault, I find it less than comfortable or fun.

I'm hoping the eat around the house thing will encourage people to mingle a little bit more. Or I can go hide down in the laundry room or something, right?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Word of the Day


It's a personal possession (chattel) (including, I think, livestock) that causes the owner's death and is forfeit to the Crown.

I know that's something I need to talk about in a lot of my day to day conversations.

Don't you feel all educated now?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Test

A number of years ago, the students on our campus decided they needed a new student union, so they voted to put money in a pot through an extra fee every year. They've been doing so for a while now; the original students are mostly long graduated, and finally the money is saved up. It can't legally be used for anything else, but the state budget folks keep pointing at it and saying we can't have this or that from the state budget because we have all this money stashed away. (Welcome to one of the the Catch-22s of NWU!)

For the past four or so years, we've been working our way through the permissions process: the university system, the legislature, all the folks who have a say. And the word was finally "yes." So about three years ago, the administration started holding open meetings about what the building should look like, where it should be, how it should be built and so forth. Brains were stormed.

At first there was some hope that we could remodel the current building and save some money. But nope, not feasible, because the current building is so outdated that it can't be brought up to code without basically tearing it down and starting from scratch.

An architectural firm was hired to do planning, and more meetings held, more brains stormed.

In May of last school year, they came forward with a proposal; the drawings look beautiful. The building is to go in a green space near the current union, so that we can use the current union for now, and then take that down and make a new green space there. It's not a perfect solution for a couple reasons, but it's the best the architects could come up with given what we have to work with. They've planned in nice spaces, green technology, and done a good job meeting the needs we expressed.

Earlier this month, the city fathers passed their approval for the building.

And then this week, a complication appeared. I say "appeared" because I don't know how exactly things happened.

Here's the complication: Our campus is built on an area held to be of importance to the Native American people in the region. There was special significance to a tree, and that tree survived the early building and even got put on one of the school icons.

In the latter part of the last century, the 70s or 80s, the tree was toppled in a big storm, but in the last decade, a new tree was planted, blessed by people from the local American Indian tribes who were invited to the planting. A promise was made, we're told, by the administration then, that the university community would protect the tree for seven generations.

And now, it appears, the new building would require removal of the tree. I gather there's some objection to moving the tree, because the tree is there more because the space is sacred and the tree is special because it's the special tree in the sacred space.

As I was crossing campus the other day, I was asked to sign a petition to save the tree, but I declined because I haven't decided where I stand on the issue.

Let me state here that I'm an athiest. When someone tells me the tree has a spirit, I don't see evidence, nor do I think any one tree is more spirit-filled than another. I like trees. I planted trees during my Peace Corps service. I think they're really important. But I don't believe in spirits or gods or a god; I see no evidence and no logic or reason in thinking they're hanging out. And I must admit that I tend to resent that a lot of civic decisions in the US are based on religion rather than reason. Of course, usually they're based on Christianity.

A whole lot of money has been spent to figure this building out, and this is the best spot/plan they've come up with. But money isn't the be-all and end-all.

When I was first thinking about this, and when I read the responses to the local newspaper article, I thought something along the lines of "hey, why didn't they say something earlier?"

In the newspaper article responses, there've been comments about how the objectors waited until the last possible moment. But I don't think so. I know some of these folks, and I think they're people of integrity and good intention. I think they didn't realize until very recently, and then they spoke up.

There was a lot of public planning, but no one involved seemed to remember the tree as an issue during those stages, including all the public meetings. Somehow, despite all those meetings, the people who finally remembered didn't get included or didn't realize that others weren't aware of the tree.

I've been thinking. If the administration back then made a promise, then we should have kept track of that, remembered it somehow. It's not the responsibility of someone else, but of the administration, even though there's always administrative turnover.

I've also been thinking, when we talk about how our students of color don't succeed in some classes, we tend to start by thinking they need to change--to work harder, get tutoring, be better prepared. But then if we think about our responsibilities to work with the students who come to our campus, we have to think about how we need to change--to find ways to be more inclusive, to reduce barriers, and so forth. Those are hard adjustments for instructors to make, and there's probably an ideal balance between making tutoring and such available and reworking our teaching and curriculum. The connection I'm trying to make is that we somehow didn't make the process communicate with all the people who needed to know. And that's our responsibility.

There's the inevitable connection I'm sure you've already made between promises made by a white, governmental authority about a tree, and promises made a white governmental authorities about lands, rights, hunting, fishing, and so on.

It's not convenient, is it, sort of like it wasn't convenient for the US government to respect the treaties it made with various Native American tribes.

I still don't know where I stand. I guess I think the ethically right thing to do is to abide by the promise made, and rework the building somehow. But financially, we're sinking fast.

In the past year, we've actually put our stated commitment to diversity in our goals for the year. It's written down and we've at least talked a little about it. We might be actually making positive changes.

I'm interested to see how our stated commitment to diversity will stand up to this test.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Something I Learned Along the Way

It's 6:24 right now, and I'm thinking about leaving the office. Our meetings lasted a while, and I was the secretary for one, and that leads me to share something I learned along the way in life.

Here goes.

When you're the secretary for a meeting, type up the minutes before leaving the office for the day. (Unless, of course, you're high tech enough to take notes on a laptop, in which case, you win, and would you like to adopt me, please?)

See, you know this. You've probably told students to go over their lecture notes after class to clarify things. You've probably told students to write things down as soon as possible so they'll remember.

But when it's 5pm on a Friday, it can be hard to remember. But as onerous as notes are at 5pm on a Friday, they're a lot more onerous at 5am on the Friday three weeks hence when you need to get the minutes copied and distributed before noon.

I've finished all the work that came out of the meeting I was secretary for. I've finished prepping all the stuff for the meeting I have to chair on Monday. I've sort of prepped for the meeting I don't have to chair that comes before the meeting I chair on Monday. My inner bean counter has been very busy, alas.

Now I have all weekend to grade and prep for Monday. Okay, not all weekend because I have some other obligations, but at least there's time to put on the face to meet the faces that I'll meet.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Putting my Saturday Insight into Practice

Maybe you remember the insight I had on Saturday morning?

We spent the full class hour today working on brainstorming, focusing, and bubble-mapping the short response essay due on Wednesday. I hope they found it useful.

The thing is, it's sort of fun, working through how to write a response paper.

We started by listing. I had them list on their own paper, then we put a big list on the board.

Then I asked them to choose one thing from the list and freewrite.

Then we went back and expanded the list a bit, and I talked about how important starting over can be.

And then I asked them to choose something else from the list and freewrite, to just put aside their inner editor (or inner English professor) and get ideas down on paper.

We talked again about how important it is to start off exploring and thinking freely.

Then I asked them to freewrite about why one of the things they wrote about already is important, or what they learned from that aspect of the project.

Then I asked for a volunteer to tell us what s/he'd written about, and the person who volunteered gave us basically the topic and thesis. I had the class freewrite for a bit about the topic and thesis, and then we bubblemapped the essay together. (And I said that no one other than the volunteer is allowed to use that bubblemap for his/her paper.)

I know it's hard when you're a college student to take the time to freewrite and list and list and freewrite and bubblemap, but I hope that at least some of them left class with a couple really good ideas from the freewriting and a strategy for organizing those ideas and using examples. If they left with that, then I did a good job.

Of course, it's difficult to judge. If a student turns in a fabulous paper, then it's unlikely that it's my doing in a big way in that one class hour. And if a student turns in a poor paper, it doesn't mean s/he didn't get something helpful from the practice we did in class. It might be that a given student isn't quite ready to click with that aspect of the writing process. Or maybe that poor paper is a huge improvement over what the student would have turned in.

Students aren't widgets.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


That's the grand total of miles my bikejournal journal shows for the year.

For perspective, the Tour de France guys ride further in about three weeks. They also ride a heck of a lot faster. But lest anyone get confused, I'm not a twenty something male in absolutely tip-top shape who gets paid to ride a bike. And they're not a forty something female in pretty okay shape who gets paid to teach English and stuff.

UNLESS, of course, this whole blog is a bluff and I'm really secretly Alberto Contador, dancing on my pedals and pretending to worry my head about pedagogy and Shakespeare (not in that order).

Rules and Committee Hell

I'm on a college committee now; our job involves a lot of looking at what's being taught, what people want to teach, and so forth.

But, of course, we don't actually go into a classroom to find out what's being done; instead, we look at the syllabus. And we have a lot of rules about what has to be on a syllabus. Sometimes, these make good sense. A syllabus should give students an outline of the work involved, contact information for the instructor, and so forth.

One of our rules says that we all have to put the NWU goals on every syllabus. On one level, this makes good sense. Students should look at the goals of their school, and if they don't like those goals, they should go somewhere else. That's what I tell students when we're looking at the goals. I can imagine the horror in the retention tsar's face. I also tell them that if they don't like the GE requirements, they should find a different school or work through student government to change them.

But, no matter how many times you tell students that they're here to learn critical thinking skills, telling them that doesn't make them critical thinkers. In fact, if they put their critical thinking skills to work, they may recognize that having a bunch of supposedly smart, critical thinking instructors mindlessly obeying the rule to put the goals list on each and every syllabus doesn't suggest a lot of active critical thinking on the part of those very same instructors.

I digress.

In this committee, we look at a course renewal proposals. It's basically a procedure that's supposed to happen every five years wherein the last instructor for a course says, "yes, we should continue teaching this, and here's what I do" and the department (or its curriculum committee, depending on the department structure) says, "yes, we should continue teaching this, and this approach seems good to us." They hand in the syllabus, fill out the form, and turn it over to us. And we look at it and ask if it fits our curriculum broadly, fits NWU's mandate, and so on. And if it does, we stamp our approval and the department continues on its merry way.

It's a system that depends on a lot of cooperation; there's no way to make a faculty member fill out the little form, no way to force a department to do it if they have other big things happening. If we want these done, then making them as minimally onerous as possible is a good idea for everyone.

The other day, we looked at a renewal proposal. It seemed like a good course, interesting, well-fitted to our curriculum, suited to the department. At least to me. One of the other members of the department wanted to know how the instructor grades, what the number breakdown looks like.

The secretary to the committee said she'd email the instructor for further information, and the first guy said she should email the chair, too, because chairs have to know when an instructor isn't doing a good job. The secretary declined to email the chair, however (because there is no evidence that the instructor isn't doing a "good job"). (Have I mentioned that sometimes I love this faculty member?)

And sure enough, at the next meeting the secretary explained that the instructor had a full set of information on our web system about grading stuff, and the secretary was satisfied that students had access and could understand the requirements.

And we looked at another renewal proposal, this one for a very different course, equally interesting, appropriate, etc.

This time, the same member wants to see the grading rubric for the course. The other member chimes in, saying, that he has no clue what the course is about, because he can't even pronounce the words (hard words such as "Allende" and "Anzaldua"), so he sure can't tell if it's a good course, but he wants grading rubrics because he can judge grading.

Dude, I did not say, Dude, do you really think you can judge the grading on an essay, exam, or quiz for this class? Really? You can't say "Allende" and yet you think you know how to judge grading for this class?

But instead, I suggested that many instructors don't find grading rubrics particularly helpful, and to impose a grading rubric rule from outside would be a problem. Further, I suggested, I tend to trust that my colleagues know how to teach and grade in their field.

Apparently, it didn't occur to this member that someone might do something differently than he does. At any rate, it's clear that he thinks we should all do exactly as he does.

And then he wanted to make sure that the chair would monitor this person's grading because we just can't trust instructors.

At which point, thank goodness, the (yes, male, and quite white and authoritarian looking) chair of another department said that chairs get information about each instructor's grade distributions, and if they perceive a problem, they can talk to the faculty member about it. And he also hears complaints, and follows up when appropriate. And the department has a committee that looks at course evaluations and such, and looks for patterns.

As I listen to members #1 and #2, and their anxieties, I really am glad I don't have many departmental colleagues like them. There's this real privilege that comes through, the privilege of white men (though not exclusively) who are used to having a lot of power to tell people what to do and how to do it, and whose own methods are rarely questioned. He really wants the authority to tell people what to do and how to do it. Where does that authoritarian impulse come from that didn't go away when he hit 8 or 9? (Because little kids LOVE the rigidity of rules, especially when they can impose them.)

Hearing member #1 talk, I get the impression that he really doesn't respect his chair. Yet his chair is widely well-respected on campus for being smart, thoughtful, and really understanding the way the university works. His chair is one of the people who quietly gets a lot of good work done across departments and throughout the university.

And it's not that I'm an anarchist. I just don't see that imposing my way of doing stuff on everyone is practical, and I sure don't have the energy to police the whole world. I want rules to protect people but not oppress them, and I realize that's a hard balance, but here at NWU, we're not talking about deciding whether torture is necessary to save the White House from a nuclear attack by rogue terrorists ala 24.

Bleargh. This committee's work has the potential to be really interesting and educational (for me), but I have a bad feeling that members #1 and #2 are going to make me wish I weren't there a lot of the time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Moment of Morning Insight

I woke up this morning with some belated insight.

Yesterday, in my drama class, we discussed the short writing assignment they're doing in response to the performance project. One of the students asked what she should do is she just had too many ideas and couldn't organize them. I said that it sounded like she was still in the brainstorming process, and should work through on organizing with a bubble map or something. I said something about what they'd learned in composition (except by class name/number around here). They looked befuddled.

Another student wanted to know exactly what I wanted with the assignment (there's a written assignment, but I'm guessing it's not specific enough for her).

When I woke up this morning, I realized there are a bunch of first semester students in there, students who either haven't taken comp yet because they didn't get in, or who have like two weeks of comp under their belts.

Yeah, I'm slow like that.

The course is numbered at the sophomore level, but it's a GE, and it's fine for first year students. It's just right, in fact. But I have to give them some more help and support in writing their papers, and for some reason I just didn't realize that to build it in. Of course, this isn't supposed to be a "writing class" and so it's set at 37 students. But if I don't help and support their writing, I'm going to end up reading a lot of papers that could be a lot better.

I'm imagining a lot of faculty members across campus do the same sort of thinking: writing skills/process is taught in comp and I don't need to do it. And indeed, even if I spend some time on writing, it won't be the same as a comp class (nor should it be), but it will help. Perhaps a difference is that I know a fair bit about teaching writing, so I have resources that a lot of faculty don't.

I sent the class an email this morning telling them that we're going to work on paper stuff on Monday, and that the paper won't be due until Wednesday (thought if someone wants, s/he can turn it in on Monday).

Then on Monday, we're going to do some listing, freewriting, bubble-mapping, and talk a little about what a thesis is and why many profs hate five-paragraph essays.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Inner Bean Counter

I've spent the last several hours scheduling out a bunch of schedules and stuff for a committee. It's not what I signed up for when I got a phud in English, you know? It's time-consuming, nit-picking, playing with numbers and dates and stuff, and not at all metaphorical or fun.

And yet, I feel strangely satisfied that I've completed a draft of something, and that it is potentially useful.

I am, right now, deeply in touch with my inner bean counter, and she is happy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Yesterday afternoon, I was on a ride with a (mostly) women's group I like to ride with. They're good folks to ride with, considerate, good conversationalists, reasonably careful. They know lots of the roads around here, so they've taught me some good back roads to ride.

We did pretty much a straight out and back on Joe's River Road, one of my favorite rides because we wanted to go fairly quickly on a short ride, since it gets dark earlier and earlier these days. (I think Ceres is getting cranky.)

And as we were almost to our planned turn around, one of the women said she'd just seen an uncommon flower. So I asked her to point it out to me when we went back, and we all stopped and looked at the flower and she told us a little about it while the mosquitoes had dinner. (If I were really from the midwest, would I have used "supper" there instead?)

Today I went back with my car and my camera (my bigger slr and the little biking one) to take some pictures. The flower is, according to my fellow-biker, a Gentian, maybe a Bottled Gentian. It's not really, really rare, but pretty uncommon in these parts.

I have to say, one of the coolest things about this group is the unexpected fun of realizing that someone's a master gardener or something and willing to share their enthusiasm. So, yesterday, I learned to see a wildflower that I'd never noticed or seen before. It was a good day.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Everyman: the Board Game

If Milton Bradley were a medieval company, they'd never have called it "The Game of Life." Instead of a car marker, you'd use different pilgrim's symbols, a sea shell for St. James Compostela, a key for Rome, a cross for Jerusalem.

Instead of going to college or getting married, you'd meet up and see how long Fellowship stuck around; then you'd see how long your worldly goods helped. And there'd be progressively less explanation, because by the end of the game, you either get it or you're going down. You could have a fiery pit going for anyone who didn't "win" and watch their little symbol burn to a crisp!

Maybe we could make it into a mmrpg! WOW watch out! Think of the fun. Think of the quests.

You'd go up to the old looking dude with the red exclamation point over his head at the beginning of the game, and off you'd go. We could even have the protestant version with a Spenser zone, where you slay the printing press dragon and beat Orgoglio, and then face off with the Blatant Beast!

I need to get a life.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kids These Days

On Friday, my drama class did performances of their class project. There were a couple new people, so I fit them into groups. And one missing person, who'd notified his group (so they got a new person). The performances went well enough; there were a few laughs. My favorite is that "hola" becomes "holler" in the local accent, and everyone finds that amusing, including me.

After the class, one of the students came up to let me know that she needed to drop the class. I thanked her for participating with her group in the project, even though she knew she'd need to drop.

She gave me one of those wide-eyed looks, and said "I couldn't let my group down!" as if it would be the most impossible thing to even think of letting a group of near perfect strangers down on the second day of a class.

Kids these days, you know?

When I get cranky at my students (and you know I will), I need to remind myself that mostly they're good, thoughtful, caring people who get a bit overwhelmed and nuts sometimes.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Three Items and a Picture

Not too long ago, I went out and got a heart monitor after all, not the one I'd been thinking of, but a simpler, more basic one.

And contrary to all expectations, I actually have a heart. It may be cold, stony, and shrunken, but it seems to beat a lot when I'm out riding my bike. (My lungs also seem to get quite involved, for what that's worth. My legs think I'm nuts.)

I did the 220 minus my age (or 226 minus my age, which some people think works better for women) calculation and came up with 171-177 for my theoretical max. And then I took it out for a spin. So far, the max I've seen it at is 175, going up Priory Hill. I didn't feel ucky or whatever, so I suspect it could go a little higher. (To be absolutely honest, I have no desire to push myself to the point of wanting to throw up, yet another reason I'm not and never was nor will be a stellar athlete.) Today it hit 174 up Priory, but I did a much better job of riding through the hill (keeping pedaling up and over, rather than pooping out at the top).

From what I've read, the max heart rate is a matter of genetics and age, so it's nothing to be proud of or whatever one way or another.

I went for an hour and a half today according to the heart monitor (I started it when I was getting the bike ready), with a max of 174 and an average of 146. That seems to be in the 80-90 range I've read about exercising at, and I'm happily tired but not unhappily tired, if that makes sense.

I did a nice loop: out F to Priory, up the horrid hill, then out Elm to B, up B to HH, over HH to Joe's River, and back to the swimming pool lot. Just that is a 20.5 mile loop, but I can also go out B to Pine Ridge and then across and down W, or even further on B to Birch and then up and over W. So I can add a couple extra miles with good hills pretty easily. B has lots of rolly hills, as does HH, but Joe's River has four hills in my mind, and is otherwise pretty easy.

When I first started riding out Joe's River Road, two of those hills were really hard for me, almost as hard as Priory is now. But lately, I've been doing much better (for me) riding up them.

For perspective: real bikers wouldn't even use their small front gear for any of those, but would maybe stand to power up Priory (or gear down).


A couple of my friends are talking about doing a century together one weekend, just figuring out a route that would take us by places we could get extra food and water if we wanted and pretty much doing our thing. They're good folks, and we ride well together and have fun, so I said I'm game. I've never ridden a century, so now I have to get myself to build quickly within the next couple of months. Eep. (It's not that unrealistic, since I regularly ride 20-30 miles on any given day, four or five days a week.)


Right now, at this very minute, there's a peach cobbler baking in my oven.

If you knew me, you'd be sceptical. But really, there is, complete with lime zest mixed in, just as the recipe says.

I'm not much of a cook, but last winter I asked my Mom for a Joy of Cooking book for Christmas, and so far I've made a couple of quiches (fairly easy, even for me). This week the farmers' market in town had lovely tree-ripened peaches and beautiful apples (but not honeycrisps yet), and once I got my small bags of them home, I had to figure out what to do.

If it seems okay, I may take it into the department and share it tomorrow. And if it seems okay, but isn't okay, you can all consider that my contribution to the MLA job market: English Faculty Decimated by Peach Cobbler. Tenure Lines Open!

And yes, every time someone has a lovely peach from the market in the lunch room, we all make comments about how daring we are. We really are that pathetic.

Mmm, the timer just sounded!

This is "real time blogging"! The cobbler is now out of the oven! Mmmm, brown sugar! (I think I need to ride another 20 miles on my trainer tonight.)

Just a quick addition: The verdict is in! The cobbler is pretty darned good. Maybe too good to go to campus? I may have to have a second piece before making that decision.

And I also have a question: why would the recipe have me using a biscuit dough rather than a pie dough? It's fluffy, but... a little weird. The lime zest is nice!


Most of the time, I ask my first year writing students to write a short diagnostic paper about why they're here at NWU. This weekend, I'm reading them. Okay, I didn't read them this weekend, but I'm reading them today.

So far:

The groundskeepers deserve a big round of applause; many students talk about how beautiful the campus is and say that they decided to come here when they saw it.

It's close to home and not scary. I'm guessing a fair number of our students self-select to come close to home. And the ones who want to study far from home either come here from the other side of the state (some) or go elsewhere. From my point of view, it seems a little stifling or something, the sense that my students really want something very familiar and familial. I remember wanting to go where I could sort of reinvent myself and have a separate life. But a lot of my students seem to want to come here because a sibling is here or went here, or their parents did, or they have family in town, so they've visited and it's familiar. I worry that they really don't want to challenge themselves to deal with new things. Or maybe they want to limit the challenge?

We're quite the financial deal. I understand choosing a school you can afford, but being the cheapest deal around may not make us a good value. There's a point at which you get what you pay for. But a number of students talk about applying to a private SLAC and only after getting accepted realizing that they just can't afford it. (They get financial aid grants, but not nearly enough to make up the difference in costs.)

A couple people have made vague references to the school having a good reputation.

A couple people have mentioned that we have the major or sport they want. Or they didn't get into the major/team at the school they really wanted, so here they are.

Not a single student has mentioned even word one about wanting a liberal arts education or wanting to be really challenged in their education.

I'm guessing that students who are really aware of education to the point of knowing what a liberal arts school is are probably students whose parents are college grads. Maybe they're students who go to private schools because they can afford it or value it enough to go into debt. (Just to clarify: I had no clue what a liberal arts school was even in grad school, except it was what some peers who'd been to private schools called their schools. I went to an ag' school and sure wouldn't have known the difference.)

It's also telling how much influence their parents' educations have. You can sort of see the different ways parents who themselves have been to college handle getting their kids to college. The first generation students talk differently about their choices, and talk less about their parents being involved. (Though they may depend more on a sibling's input if that sibling is older and already in college.) The students whose parents went to college may talk about their parents telling them something about their own college experience or choosing schools.

We supposedly identify as a regional comprehensive liberal arts school, but it doesn't seem to reach our incoming first years' collective consciousness. It's not easy to see if you look at our website, either.

What we do is get them in with the beautiful campus and then try to teach them to appreciate the liberal arts. It works for lots of them. They mostly learn lots here, and do get a good, solid education.

What would happen if we tried to push ourselves for real as a liberal arts school? Would we lose application numbers? Would our applicants change? Would we get fewer first generation students? (That would be a bad thing, I think, because our purpose for being is to serve the students of the state, and there are a lot of first generation students who need us.) I doubt we'd compete with the midwestern private SLACs.

Friday, September 04, 2009


It's been a big year for ants this year around here. They've been digging up the yard in huge ways, and getting in the house. I had them in the kitchen earlier, but got them away for the time being with Terro and maybe help from diatomaceous earth (which I spread around outside on the hills).

But over the past week or so, I've found an ant here and there, every so often crawling on me when I sit in the sun room. But I couldn't figure out where their path was. Today, I saw one on the sill, so I put out some Terro. I think I found the path.

There are a lot of hungry ants in that pile, so I put out another bit an inch or two away; maybe they'll use that one, too.

I try not to kill critters just to kill them, but ants, cockroaches, and any rodent that finds its way into the house (outside of a cage) is fair game. (I haven't seen a mouse or rat in this house, thank goodness!) It still bothers me to kill critters just for doing their natural thing (even out in the garden).

Thursday, September 03, 2009


I met with all three of my classes yesterday.

The first year students are understandably anxious. They've got a writing assignment, and I've been getting emails about what form the date should take. Seriously, they aren't coming up with this on their own, right? Someone, somewhere, has scolded them (or graded them down, or whatever) for using a date format the someone didn't like.

The anxiety is understandable, but tiring. I've had emails from about 1/4 of the students in the class about date formatting sorts of questions. That's a lot of anxious students.

My seniors are too cool for words; I know some of them from other classes or elsewhere, and I'm happy to have them in class. We had a good discussion of Genesis yesterday. I have hopes!

My lower level lit class, I'm just not sure. There's one student in there who visited my office before class to make sure it was okay not to bring the book because she just couldn't bear going to the bookstore with all the freshmen around. I think it was her tone of voice that got me, the way she talked about the other students. Ugh. And seriously, if the "mob" in our bookstore bothers you, you need to get out and walk in a city sometime.

I start class with a short acting project that my former grad school roommate shared with me after an NEH seminar. It involves the first 69 lines of a famous play by my favorite really dead guy where a ghost visits the stage. I told them before I handed it out that they might know the play, but not to tell their group if they did. And, of course, they immediately did, loudly enough that I could overhear. And then the student who'd visited started giving a really bad rundown of the play to her group.

Here's the thing: if you take those first 69 lines, and really think about what's happening, it will inform your reading of the whole play, and you'll think hard and well about reading plays, and you just might come up with an interesting performance. If you take your preconceptions from having read the play in high school, then you've missed the point.

The same student raised her hand about four times in class with questions, not bad questions, necessarily, but asked in the tone of "I'm already so bored because I know this stuff." I try not to judge students harshly from the first days, because I know people are trying to find their places and all, but I'm going to need to make more of an effort. She could use an anxiety transfusion from one of the first years.

At the beginning of last week, we got a little spiel on being nice to students who get the flu and can't come to class and so on. Okay. Not a word, though, about helping ourselves. I have to say, if the flu hits the dorms, then it's going to hit the faculty. And most of us are in the age group that won't be eligible for vaccines (until everyone else has had their chance) and hasn't gotten immunity from the 40s.

So, of course, one of our student workers got a call yesterday while she was working in our office. Her roommate had just received the test results, and was positive for H1N1, and our student worker was feeling a little feverish, so she went home early.

Now everyone in the office is sort of looking suspicious and wondering how badly hypochondriacal we are. And the local big clinic is saying, if you get sick, don't come in unless you're in one of the special groups.

I figure if I get it, I'll stay home, and if I die, no one will notice until some student complains that I haven't held class for a month, and even then, the admin assistant will just call and leave a message, until finally someone calls the police who will find me in mid-January, frozen like a popsicle because I hadn't turned on the heat yet and the whole house is frozen. If I suddenly stop posting for a long time, you'll know why.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Scheduling Hell

Imagine someone hands you this form, and asks you to fill out your schedule so that s/he can figure out a committee meeting time (Scroll down, please, because I can't make the html not leave a big space):


And so forth.

How do you fill it out?

An odd question, perhaps, but you have two choices, of course. You can fill in the times when you have classes or other obligations, or you can fill in the times you're free.

Maybe your obligations look like this:

9-10ClassOff HrsClassOff HrsClass

And so forth. Maybe you put X's in.

Or maybe you put in when you're free:


Okay, so technically you have neither class nor office hours at 8am, but really, no one wants to get to campus at 8am, so you either don't put it down or you X it out.

I have a theory that there are two sorts of people in the world; the ones who will put in the hours they have obligations on the form, and the ones who will fill in the hours they are free. And the ones who fill in the obligations will have perhaps 15-18 hours filled in for classes, meetings, whatever. There's a subset of these who will fill in exactly what the obligation is, so the scheduler knows if it's somewhat flexible (office hours, for example). That leaves, say 22 hours open for scheduling meetings. And the ones who put in only free hours will have 10-12 hours open for meetings.

I don't think one group is really any busier than the other, but we seem to have really different perceptions.

I was in a meeting today where we spent almost an hour trying to figure out when we could meet as a committee. Three people filled out the form with classes/office hours/other meetings, and two filled it out with the free time.

It's not that anyone is lazy, but between the five of us, there were three hours in the week that could be used for a meeting, and each of those times was on one or another person's non-teaching day (a day we can grade or prep at home, pretty much). We pretty much all teach 11 hours a week, in class. That's inflexible time; some of us have additional meetings that are inflexible. (I'm on a college committee, for example, that just schedules itself every week from 3:30 on one day and has for years; you know when you run for it that you have to have that slot open.)

There was a fair bit of rigidity in there, too. Someone who teaches til 9:45pm doesn't want to come in at 8am that morning or the morning after. Someone with a kid or kids wants to be home by 3pm on certain days. Someone with a longer commute doesn't want to come in just for an hour meeting, and doesn't want to wait four hours between a morning class and an afternoon meeting. All these are understandable and reasonable, but they sure do make scheduling a pain.

I'm only grateful that my non-teaching day is the worst teaching day for two other people, and so there were no times at all open for meeting.

ps. My html skills sort of suck.