Friday, February 25, 2011


I'm part of a voluntary group through our Be a Better Whatever office on campus for using writing in our classes. The idea is that we discuss stuff and do some reading, not necessarily in that order. And then we'll become better at using writing in our classes.

Today we were talking about writing assignments, and the facilitating faculty member sent out a note to remind us, and as a ps suggested that if we wanted to workshop an assignment, we should bring it.

So I did.

I make my students do peer editing, and it's something I really believe in, but putting my assignment out there was humbling. It's an assignment I used last year with poorish results, so I know there are problems with it. But, deep down, I'd like to hear that I'm just the most wonderful, brilliant teacher who comes up with the best ever writing assignments. Trust me: that didn't happen.

And I knew it wouldn't.

What happened was that everyone said they wouldn't be able to do the assignment.

Inside, I cringed, as you'd imagine. Outside, I picked up my pencil and started taking notes. I filled the paper with revision suggestions. And then I turned it over and filled the other side with more revision suggestions. And then we were done, so I thanked everyone for their help.

Then I went back to my office and started from a blank word processing page. I didn't cut and paste a word, but reworked the assignment totally. And, you know what? It's a whole lot better assignment now. It really is.

I still have some reworking to do, and then I'll run it by the facilitator for additional feedback.

And then I need to take it to the class and put the new assignment information in place of the old. And that means coming clean about working on revising my assignment and needing to make it better. I should probably ask them for further feedback.

And that will also be humbling. It's one thing to feel vulnerable in front of colleagues from across campus, but it's harder to feel vulnerable in front of students.

Of course, our students are that vulnerable all the time. It's okay to be that vulnerable, but it is hard. It's also important to remember how hard it is.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What the Governor Should Have Said

If you've listened to or read the transcript of the call from the fake David Koch to the governor, you heard the part where the fake David Koch suggests planting trouble-makers in the protests.

The governor answers something about how they've thought about it, but decided against it because it might cause people to support calls for negotiation even more. The chief of police in Madison is questioning the governor's response, and rightly so, because the governor should be enhancing the safety of the citizenry rather than thinking about risking it.

In my world, here's what the governor should have said:
David, you don't understand. The people here on both sides are smart, reasonable, hard-working, and doing what they think is best for themselves and the state. What I need to do is convince the protestors that my approach really is the absolutely best solution for the state. If I can convince everyone of that, the protests will end and we'll all move on.
That's what a real leader would have said in my fantasy world.

I disagree with people a fair bit, but if we're trying to do what we honestly think is best and if we're willing to recognize that in the other people, we can work without acrimony and actually move in a good, useful direction.

But that's not what the governor said, of course. He doesn't think the folks against the bill are smart, reasonable, hard-working, or doing what we think is best for ourselves and the state. So he doesn't think we're worth convincing or even trying to convince, or even negotiating with in good faith.

I think that says a lot about the governor, and what it says doesn't reassure me at all.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Verging on Farce

At times, the political ups and downs around here verge on farce, but in the most terrifying ways. Or just in weird ways.

An Indiana state assistant attorney general, Jeffrey Cox, was fired for suggesting that the police should use live ammunition to fire on protestors in Wisconsin. Story at CNN.

It's frightening, isn't it.

There's talk here about boycotting companies who've supported the governor's plan or given money to his campaign. Some of the companies are pretty obvious. My local car place, alas, is on the list. I like them, but I'm going to look for another car place. There are also some food companies on the list, and I'll avoid them. (Most of the companies on the list aren't general retail, but make stuff they sell to other companies or builders and such.)

One of my friends said she saw a Tea Party reaction to the boycott idea that suggested that boycotting was "unAmerican." Seriously? Wasn't the original tea party about refusing to allow tea to be landed in American colonial ports where there would be tariffs due?

Here's a shocking idea: those tea party folks not only boycotted, but they destroyed the property of capitalists! And now they're heroes to the modern Tea Party folks, but those very same modern Tea Party folks would react very differently to any suggestion that anyone destroy the property of the companies we're talking about boycotting. Just to be clear, no one I've heard from in any way has suggested destroying property.

(I don't think boycotting is likely to do much good unless it's widespread and consistent. But I don't want to do business with people who don't recognize that I, too, am a taxpaying, voting citizen, and that the money I've spent on their goods and services comes from my paycheck, a paycheck provided by state tax dollars. And if I'm taking a 10% cut, I'm going to cut back further on stuff that's not absolute necessity.)

And then there's our governor, taking a phonecall from someone who pretended to be a big money backer, David Koch, and then got recorded talking about strategies to break the union. The sound recording is all over the internet now, courtesy of the Buffalo Beast.

And now the governor's office is supposedly saying that the call demonstrates how open he is to talking with his consituents.

Do you think I could get through with a call? I actually AM a constituent, after all.

Some of the local folks here had an appointment last week in the capitol with a local lawmaker. But the local lawmaker stood them up, having gone to an out of town thingy instead. That's access to one's lawmakers, for sure, eh? At least it's access if you have a boatload of money.

A Moment of Insight

I have this assignment I give in my poetry classes. I ask students to write a specific sort of poem, and then I ask them to analyze the writing process, or how/what choices they made, and so forth. The thing I care about is the analysis, because I really don't think that most of my students are into writing poems, but they can learn a lot by trying.

It's a really good assignment for learning. Most students put a lot of time in trying to come up with this or that rhyme or metrical pattern, and grapple with word choice and such. They think really hard (often for the first time) about using language in specific sorts of ways or with specific structures.

But, the poems tend to be painful to read. And the students really, really want to hear that they're wonderful, insightful, brilliant, whatever. But I'm a Shakespeare person: I value a highly crafted sort of poetry, and that's not what most people can produce in response to this assignment.

Most of the poetry tends to be vague at best. There's a lot of hinting about stuff, without really saying what they mean. And I find that frustrating.

And the analyses are semi-painful to read, because a lot of them tend to talk about how they usually just write what they think, and they don't revise, because revision is fake-oh (can you hear Holden Caulfield here?) and so forth. Then there are those who want to just paraphrase the poem rather than analyze their process or choices. In there with sometimes really smart analysis of their difficulty tends to be a lot of tortured genius talk, and I don't really have much interest in tortured geniuses.

One of my students, though, had a really helpful insight. S/he said that s/he found the poem difficult to write because s/he felt vulnerable being too specific about things or saying things explicitly.

And I wonder if that isn't a big part of the vagueness and hinting. I tended to think of it as more being about thinking they were being highly allusive and poetical tortured geniuses, but maybe it's really about feeling vulnerable. They can't grasp the concrete image because then the reader might learn too much about them.

It makes me a little less frustrated to think that might be part of it, anyway.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thoughts with New Zealand

News reports of the earthquake are horrific. My thoughts are with the people of New Zealand as they work to rescue their fellows.

Report on TVNZ.

BBC News report.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Digging Out

The city plow hasn't made it up to my street yet. I live on a cul-de-sac, and it would take them an extra seven minutes to swing up here, circle and go back to the rest of the route, but that's not how it works, I guess.

I cancelled my morning class this morning by email, and let my chair know. Our campus policy says that's what you're supposed to do if you don't think you can make it safely to campus when there's bad snow. (Handily enough, I suppose, I have furlough days I need to take, too.) And then I dug out my driveway again, so that when the plow does come through, I'll just have the berm and then I'll be clear.

I was doubting my decision about cancelling classes as I made my oatmeal for breakfast because when I was out digging, one of my neighbors made it out in his SUV, but then I saw a stuck car on the road leading up to mine (which ends as mine begins, though "they" have plans to put it through to another road). So, I ate a few more bites and went to help dig the car free.

Before I got there, I helped dig free another car, which I hadn't seen before because a house was in the way. And then the guy in that car ran back and helped dig free the second car.

I'm guessing my decision not to try to drive out was actually a good one.

There's a bit of... irony, perhaps?

The cars I helped dig free belonged to people who are customers of a woman who runs an in home daycare. And that house is one of the few on my block that puts up Republican signage during elections.

After I finished helping dig out, I went to return to this woman the shovel that the first guy had borrowed (it saved him a four block+ walk to the house and back to his car on the plowed road below). (She, quite appropriately, was caring for the children she cares for, and thus didn't come out to dig.)

And she complained about how the city doesn't plow our street fast enough.

Now, I complain about that, too. But I'm not the one who votes for people who want to cut our public workers' pay and benefits and the services we get.

The rhetoric of the right is that we're all supposed to take care of ourselves, and screw everyone else. But when that comes to digging people out, we all want the plow to come to our street. We want the fire folks and EMTs to come help us when we're in trouble (and the EMTs are going to be affected by our state cuts).

The thing is, I'm willing to pay taxes for those services, and not pretend that they'll just happen or that I can dig out our street by myself.

*PS. Who in this state drives in winter without a shovel in the car? I mean, really! Neither of these people had their own shovel in the car. The guy had the initiative to go borrow one, but the woman in the second car was just sitting there. (She had called her husband to help, but by the time he arrived, we had almost gotten her to the plowed area.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


The troubles here are pretty public. The threats include reducing state workers' pay (in practice) and busting state workers' unions.

The paycuts will also affect K-12 teachers across the state through their access to pension funds (and health care?), as well as by weakening unions, even though they aren't actually state employees.

The PTB don't really care about messing up the schools and university system, so they can propose some pretty outrageous legislation (including splitting off the flagship), which would cost the state a lot more money, all in the name of supposedly cutting costs.

The vilest proposal (though union busting is a close second) is deciding that "limited term employees" will lose access to health insurance and pension benefits. A little time and you'll realize that the majority of such employees are women, and that they often provide the only insurance for their families.

Did I mention that the PTB also want to cut the state funding for medicaid. So the families that will lose insurance through employment won't even have access to medicaid for their children.

There's some bluster on both sides, of course. But the bluster of state workers is so much less effective. I was thinking about how ineffective our bluster is.

And here's what I figured out: our problem is that we actually care.

We value education and care about educating our students.

We care about doing jobs we think are important enough that we take less pay than we'd get in the private sector (it's in the news, not just some opinion I have).

So we aren't going to mess with students or do less work.


I'm really worried about the direction this state is moving. We compare our self to a nearby state, and always complain about the differences. The other state has higher employment rates, higher average wages, and so on. It's also consistently made the decisions over many years to pay taxes to support solid K-12 education and state universities. This state, at least in the 10+ years since I've been here, has tended to make very different decisions.

And now we're going further in that direction.

I'm pretty close to despair right now.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I went into the yard today, and the guest dog went to a corner of the fence, where I noticed a dead rabbit. Ugh. The rabbit looked like it was stuck in the fence (a cyclone fence). It looked to me like the dog had chased it, and it had tried to get through, and gotten stuck. It's rear was chewed a bit, but it didn't look like enough to be deadly, and didn't look like it had bled a lot, so I'm guessing the chewing happened after the rabbit was pretty cold?

I put the dog back in the garage and pulled the rabbit through the fence (which took a strategy I hope not to repeat). The body was limp, and didn't feel frozen, but cold.

Maybe it got stuck last night and "froze" to death? Or something?

I get frustrated with the rabbits eating my plants, but ugh, what a horrid way to die. I guess there's probably no good way to die as a wild animal, but getting stuck in a fence seems less good than most. (Getting eaten alive is no doubt worse, but maybe animals go into shock or something? I don't know. I don't want to think about it.)

The thing is, the gates have been open pretty much all winter, but I dug them out and closed them so the guest dog could be outside without supervision. (I can let her out in the morning while I make my coffee, for example; it's too cold for her to stay out while I'm away, and I don't want her to bark enough to bother the neighbors.) I can only guess that the rabbit didn't realize that the gate wasn't open, got into a corner because the gate right there was closed, tried to squeeze through one of the little squares, and didn't make it. And the dog was all excited, but not experienced enough to realize that it was food and not just something to chase.

As I was dealing with the dead rabbit, it occurred to me that if I were a hungry person, I'd be darned grateful for a fresh meat meal. I'm not that hungry.

Monday, February 14, 2011


My students don't quite want to say that the Duke in "My Last Duchess" is right to kill the Duchess, but they seem to think she really was at fault in a serious way. I'm seriously creeped out.

I was with some friends this weekend, and someone called our state "The Mississippi of the midwest."

We had some major melting this weekend. It was above freezing by a fair bit, and that was lovely. I had raked my roof in the two places it seems to get an ice dam, and it melted off nicely.

I try to imagine what I would have thought when I was a kid of someone saying "I raked my roof." I don't think it would have made any sense at all. But now, I'm truly a midwesterner, and I rake my roof. And everyone here knows exactly what I'm about.

My neighbor's dog is visiting for the week, so I dug around the back yard fence gates so I could close them. I don't tend to wander into the backyard a lot during winter, especially since we have more snow than usual on the ground.

So I was disturbed to see how much visible damage the rabbits have done. Many of my shrubs live in cages, but the snow's been so high that it's over the cages, and the rabbits have been feasting.

I keep the gates open in winter because I have a fantasy that the local fox will come in and eat the rabbits. I apparently live a rich and full fantasy life. The rabbits live off my garden shrubs. They're winning.

I know winter is coming back next week, but yesterday I was standing on the deck out in the sun in just long johns, sweats and a normal shirt, and it felt so good. I'm definitely ready for spring, but spring isn't coming until May (usually). Three more long months of winter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I went to a writing thing for instructors yesterday, part of a series for folks on campus who are interested in using writing more effectively in their "content" courses. (Are there really any courses that aren't "content" courses?)

One of the things the facilitator talked about what the difference between "Writing In the Disciplines" and "Writing Across the Curriculum" approaches. I'd always thought they were basically the same thing--everyone should write!--but I was wrong.

It was helpful, because it made me think a bit better about why I give some writing assignments, and how that should help me direct my grading more effectively.

For example, I've been using some journal prompts that StyleyGeek shared with me a while back, about having students pick the most important word from a passage and write about why it's the most important word.

This sort of assignment is, I think, very much a "write so that you think more about something and learn what you think and why" sort of assignment. Yes, it would be lovely if my students had and used all sorts of sophisticated literary terms, but really the assignment doesn't care. It's for students to look more carefully at a passage and think about it, and writing helps their thinking.

So I should grade it more like that, looking for learning and ideas, and focus less on grammar sorts of stuff.

But then, I always get cranky about citing texts, and I think part of that assignment is also to get them in the habit of always citing their texts, because that's an important habit to have in English classes (or college in general). So, it's also a little about writing in my discipline.

It was helpful to have a slightly different framework for thinking about these journals and focusing my grading so it's more efficient.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Modern World

Someone I know just posted (on FB) what looks to my Shakespearean-trained eyes like an ultra-sound, the sort that shows a fetus in the uterus, the sort that pregnant women are given as a "first picture."

I think this is supposed to announce a pregnancy. People who know the poster better may have heard elsewhere, but I didn't, so it works like an announcement to me, except that I'm not quite sure what I'm seeing. For all I know, she has a kidney stone or something. (I dare any untrained person to look at a dozen photos of different ultra-sound thingies and tell what they are. I know they're used to show other things, though I've never actually seen anyone wave around a picture from those other things. But it's the sort of picture we've grown used to seeing to indicate pregnancy.) But there's no other explanation posted, just the poster's name and the date on the ultra-sound-looking picture.

I really AM 400 years behind, thinking this is a weird way to announce one's apparent reproductive success, aren't I?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sometimes a Great Wonder

Here I am, in a department full of people with advanced degrees, most of whom teach writing and are supposedly good writers themselves.

So why is it, sometimes we're shockingly poor at some basic communication skills.

Do psych departments end up full of people who can't deal well with other people?

Do kinesiology departments end up with people who can't bring themselves to exercise?

Do health departments end up with meetings full of smokers?

Do graphics departments end up with boring grey walls?

(Thank goodness for the admin person who figured things out and kept me from being a total mess!)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Plan

I spent some time with a student today who'd gotten a letter from the Fort telling her that in order to get this or that approval, she had to get an advisor to sign off on a plan to deal with a problem.

That was it. The student brought in the form she was supposed to get signed.

So I asked her about the plan, and she gave me one of those looks, the kind that says that she really didn't get that this letter and signature was supposed to be more than jumping a hoop.

We talked about why she'd gotten into the trouble, and how she was going to find strategies to avoid the trouble in the future. It's hard, but I talked about having some students with drinking problems, and some with drug problems, and how those are important. And I talked about how for some people working a lot and having money problems keeps them from doing well in classes, and how having to care for someone who's really sick can add difficulties. I started to get a sense of this student's own source or difficulties, and then we talked about how to change things.

We talked about getting help early, going to the study center to learn study skills and how to deal with test anxiety. We talked about being more pro-active in class work, especially in groups, sitting nearer the front, etc.

And all of it seemed so new to the student. And it frustrated me, not that the student was clueless, because that's why she's a student. No. It frustrated me because the Fort office that was sending her this letter to get signed was basically sending her a hoop rather than helping her figure out that she needed to change some things.

I had the student come back later with a typed list of things she's going to do, and based on that plan, I signed the paper. Now she has a list of strategies, and in my fantasy life, she's going to do at least some of the things on the list, and they're going to help her do better in her classes. And then later, she's going to find the list, and realize that some things have been useful, and she'll try something else, and that will be helpful, too.

I live a rich and full fantasy life.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Secret Bonus

I'm working on some committee stuff for a meeting later this week. I'm reading course descriptions from different departments. It's not usually all that exciting.

Except today, some of the descriptions are for history courses, and some of them include interesting sounding books for me. There's a history of English this and that, and then a history of the other English thingy, too.

I emailed one of my colleagues in history to see is s/he has an extra copy I can borrow (since the library copy isn't available).

Score Bardiac!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Now What?

We've gotten bad news from the powers that be this past week.

According to all sorts of reports from and to those very powers, the faculty of the state institutions are underpaid relative to faculty in our peer institutions in neighboring states, and when I say underpaid, we're talking 10-20%.

The redeeming thing is that we've had pretty decent benefits, including a pension plan and health insurance. The state has put aside some 5% of my pay (but not taken out of my pay) for the pension; it didn't have to, but it did. I pay less than $100 each month for my part of the health insurance, and the state pays something like $650.

So now, it looks like the benefit part is gone from the pension, and that 5% will be taken out of our pay. So that's an effective 5% paycut.

And it also looks like we're going to be asked to pay for most of our health insurance, which is also works out to a significant paycut.

Between those and the furloughs, which we're supposed to expect to continue indefinitely, we're looking at basically ~10% paycuts.

Now, of course, if you're one of those who's unemployed, you're probably thinking that a 10% paycut would be a privilege, as opposed to unemployment. But most people, even in this sucky economy, aren't unemployed. And I'm willing to bet that most employed folks have seen a pay raise in the past 6 years. (We haven't gotten even COLA adjustments.)

So what's the ethical response? Yeah, I mean our brand new campus (not state-wide) union will probably make some noise, but are we willing to go out on strike? Would the whole faculty of the state be willing to go out on strike (not just our one or two unionized campuses)?

How many people who are barely holding on in terms of mortgages and such will lose that grasp?

We know academics in many fields are pretty desperate in terms of jobs, but our first choice candidates often have more than one offer: do you think ours will be less competitive now? (One of our departmental candidates turned us down already this year because we couldn't compete. That was before this particular round of bad news.)

In communities such as ours, a fair portion of the population works for the state, either the university, the resources departments, or the state offices of legal stuff. How much of an impact will a 10% reduction in incomes to this population have on local businesses?

Again, what's the appropriate ethical response? I'm not going to refuse to go out to dinner with the job candidate this week, because punishing him/her for something out of his/her control makes no sense, nor does being less able to contribute to the hiring decision make any sense.

I'm not going to grade 10% less carefully, or teach 10% less. I'm not going to be 10% more cranky at students, or do 10% less in other aspects of my job.

I might start looking for another job, but not until I come back from my study abroad next fall, because I'm not willing to shoot myself in that particular foot and miss that opportunity.

But I am 10% more frustrated at the people of this state who voted in this administration. As a reader of Roxie's World, I'm familiar with the idea of "Excellence without Money." I'm guessing the people of this state think they can have good enough schools, roads, and such without money, too. I hope they really aren't honestly thinking they're going to get "excellence" without paying for it, though.

Saturday, February 05, 2011


My nephew took me downhill skiing today. It was my first time in very many years. And it was fun!

I have a few observations: it's WAY easier riding a ski lift than climbing on cross country skis. Way easier.

I felt like I wasn't working nearly as hard skiing at any point, though it was lots of fun. But after several hours, I was good and tired.

The poor young men who babysit the ski lifts must get bored silly.

Snowboarding looks even more fun and more difficult up close.

ps. No Bardiac was injured in the preparation of this post. (Much to my surprise, I did a lot better skiing than I thought I would. And did I mention, I had a LOT of fun? Did I also mention that my nephew was patient, kind, and helpful getting me started and helping me ski? He was. I wish I could take credit, but I'm proud of him anyway.)

Friday, February 04, 2011

Thursday, February 03, 2011

California Towhee!

Happily, GrrlScientist put up a much better picture!

If Houses Were Like Essays

I spent the better part of the morning more or less chatting with the handyman and grading. Sometimes there was more chatting, sometimes more grading.

I live in a fairly new house, which the bank and I own, even if they never bother to come dig out the driveway. The problem is, apparently, it was built on spec, and at the height of the tiny rush/boom here. That means, I am learning, that what could be done cheaply was done cheaply, and what could be done fast was done fast, even though that meant not doing it as well. So, the gas fireplace was put in without a blower, because it's cheaper that way, and not something that's likely to make or break a buying decision. And the electric socket stuff was put in without pushing the insulation all the way around, because it takes time to push insulation around. And so forth.

So, today the gas fireplace got a blower, so I should be able to sit in front of the gas fireplace and grade in relative warmth. And he added insulation thingies and caulking in places that were obviously leaking.

But the thing is, if my house were an essay, I could just pull the pieces apart and rework the thesis, and then rebuild, and it might take hours or weeks of work, but it wouldn't be a matter of freezing to death in the meantime or something.

But, a house is not like an essay, so there are things it's just not worth trying to fix until something big needs to be fixed. Though, of course, that's quite essay-like in a way.

I kept thinking, as the handyman found more and more places to caulk, about how daunting it is for students when we point out a whole slew of things that really, really need total revision in an essay. I felt that way about my house. For example, when the time comes to reshingle the roof, I'll need to get them to add some insulation in this one obvious place. But it's apparently not worth doing it at this point because it would mean reshingling a portion.

So I guess what I'm really saying is that I'm as daunted by the never-ending stuff that needs to be done to maintain and repair my rather newish house, just as my students are daunted when I make tons of suggestions for their essays.

The title of this post then? Scratch that. Revise and resubmit: "My House is Like an Essay."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Turn Off the Email

I got an email from an administrative office about a program said administrator is putting on about how to avoid unintended racism/sexism, etc.

Said administrator is a founding member of the all men's porch sitting club.

Do you know how tempted I was to hit "reply all" and ask something about eliminating intended racism/sexism?

I turned off my email instead.