Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Happens During Spring Break . . .

comes to my office.

Because, what evidently happens to many students around here is that they go home to work for a week at the local whatever, where they've had a job since high school and can always pick up a few hours bussing tables or bagging groceries, and then while they're home, Uncle Ed asks them what they're going to do with the rest of their lives, or Gradma Barb asks them if they've found a major yet, and they come back and all decide it's time to declare a major!

I swear, I've had a big upswing in declaring a major requests this week. And since I like this part of the job, talking with students, helping them figure out the curriculum, it's good!

I know, you're imagining college students all going to Florida or something, but our students are much more likely to go home and bus tables or go off to do some program helping out in a poverty stricken area than to go to Florida. I imagine some of our students do go to Florida, but given the pasty white we white folks are sporting, I think I'd notice anyone who looked like they'd seen the sun within the past five months.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Real Question

So I hear computer people talking about "the cloud." What exactly is "the cloud" and how does it work?

I know it's metaphorical and all, and supposed to give us this impression that there's all sorts of computer data that we'll be able to access from anywhere at any time (all the while remaining secure and safe from predatory types), but what exactly is "the cloud"?

Because despite assertions to the contrary, computer stuff either exists materially (electrons and stuff!) or *poof!* It may only exist virtually on my screen, but if there are electrons hanging out in some binary organization, it's either got to be physically recorded somewhere or not, right?

Only in my Mind

Over the past couple of days, I've several times run across, mostly in blogs, the suggestion that someone turn to Jameson.

Here's what immediately hits my mind: Hmm, I read The Political Unconscious, but I'm not remembering anything that would be particularly helpful for this situation. I wonder which book this person is thinking of.

Only just now did I realize that there's another Jameson, and that it doesn't have lots to do with post-modernism.

I am at the lows of sophisticated alcohol consumption.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Admissions on NPR

I was half awake this morning and heard this report on NPR about the admissions process at Amherst.

Did you hear it?

I couldn't help wondering about FERPA. Did they read real admissions letters? (If not, it's more like a movie of the week than a journalistic report.) (Maybe FERPA only covers enrolled students?)

Imagine being the student who said he was uninterested in anything except music. Now imagine hearing the response of the faculty to what he thought was a decent letter (surely he thought he was sounding different from the pack). Ugh.

I've heard (but only heard) that there are people out there who sell their services to help students write their essays and such. Then I imagined what a disadvantage it would have been to be the music guy who would never have written that letter with coaching.

And then I thought, ooo, what if his admissions coach (I just heard them use the word in the report) told him that would work for sure. Ouch.

This seems to me like more commentary that adds to the worries and stresses of the (mostly) very privileged few who even bother to apply to a place like Amherst. Those same students would get in immediately at a place like mine. They wouldn't get the hand-holding that I was required to give students when I worked at an SLAC, but they'd be here, and they'd probably do great and get a great education. (Face it, students who excelled in their high schools and had this sort of privilege will do fine wherever they go. They won't make the same Wall St connections here that they would at an east coast SLAC, but they'd get a good edudation.)

I wonder what sort of chilling effect these reports have on our sorts of students, who hear these sorts of reports (or not? maybe the NPR audience doesn't include many of our prospective students or their parents?). I wonder if the student with a perfectly respectable ACT/SAT score, with some good school activities in a regular school (where there just aren't three clubs for people with interests in different religions or AP courses for HS freshmen) hears these and despairs.

If you were the admissions folks at Amherst, why would you agree to give NPR access to that meeting? Are they going with "any publicity is good publicity"? Are they playing the "we're so selective!" game that everyone plays?

I guess it's time to be done with spring break and back to the office!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Standing with Cronon

William Cronon, the guy the non-historians among us might know best for his fine essay "'Only Connect':The Goals of a Liberal Education," has made the news in bigger ways of late. First, he's now blogging at Scholar as Citizen. And unlike some of us, he isn't using his blog to talk about the endless winter we're having. Nope, in the opening post, he talks about the recent political happenings in Wisconsin (he teaches at the U of W Madison), giving us a helpful historical perspective about the backgrounds. You should read it; it's interesting and, yes, I know I said it before, helpful.

If it had ended there, I would have known about it from the network of folks with a vested interest in Wisconsin politics, but most of the blogosphere would have taken a while to take note. It didn't end there, however.

Nope, on March 22nd, Cronon published an op-ed piece in the New York Times, where he argued that the current Republican movement in Wisconsin is out of step with the state's history, and a break with its tradition. (Read it here.)

And on March 24th, Cronon wrote in his blog that he's been subject to a request under the Wisconsin open records laws asking to see his email since March 1st with a list of words and names in them. Cronon argues convincingly that the request is politically motivated, made by Republican party folks, looking for specific key words relating to exactly the names and such you'd expect. [Corrected to add: the request was made before his op-ed in the NYT was published, looks like?]

I don't imagine Cronon has much to worry about. First, he's way smarter than most of us, and keeps a separate email for non-work stuff. Second, I'm willing to guess that any number of schools would be willing to hire him yesterday if he indicated an openness to moving, at a pay raise. Third, well, you get it.

I'm willing to guess that Cronon has professional emails with those words in them, though, especially if he's been thinking about some of the issues involved, discussing them with other historians he knows, perhaps with legal folks he knows, testing out his arguments/points, etc. The thing is, that's exactly what the faculty at the university are supposed to do. As a historian, he's supposed to produce and disseminate arguments about US historical issues. Do the Republicans not think that a historian has a legitimate reason to study current historical processes and to discuss those with colleagues?

In one of the comment threads, Historiann suggested that (since the folks who requested the information in the interest of freedom of information) all public university professors should forward emails to them.

I laughed at that, really. But I think the folks who put in the request have taken on a way bigger issue than they realized, and taken it on in the form of a historian with way more intelligence and understanding than they even imagine. I think they'll be plenty busy without any extra email help.

Vaulting and Vellum also wrote about this the other day.

Tenured Radical writes about it in an open letter today.

If you're in Wisconsin, make sure to be prepared and vote on April 5th. We're electing a justice for the state supreme court, the body which will likely decide on the legality of the bill that drastically reduces the rights of public workers to collectively bargain.


Edited to add: Historiann also has a post up about the issue today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

At Last

I finally managed a contribution over at the Pseudonymous Exchange: Double Guest Exchange. Imitating other people's style is something I'm weak at. But I tried :) (I hope Roxie isn't offended!)

One of the things I find fascinating about stuff such as LOLCats is that people can pick up the style markers and hit them without necessarily being able to describe what they're doing. It's an "ear" thing, I guess, like picking up music when you hear it.

I have to go grade now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Real Literature Question for Modernists

I've wondered this for a long time. You know how the notes for texts never answer the really hard questions? Well here's one for modernists:

Why is Prufrock afraid to eat a peach?

a. Duh, fiber! It will give him the runs!
b. Duh, he's afraid the juice will run and get all over his nice white flannel trousers.
c. He wanted to say "medlar," but the editors made him change it. And he's afraid because he knows all the real lit characters are going to mock him.
d. Other. (Seriously, why? I'm tired of being clueless in front of poetry classes.)

In other observations: Remember how the little birds in the "General Prologue" sleep at night with an open eye because nature pricks them in their "courages"? And "courages" there is tied to the Latin for heart?

Have you noticed that Pertolote chides Chaunticleer for being heartless, meaning, in this case, without courage?

I bet he doesn't sleep at night with an open eye, either! If he did, he wouldn't have silly nightmares and need to eat a peach*.


Proserpina Slipped Backwards on the Stairs

Last week: Here

That same area, today: It's the sort of thing that helps make evolution so darned cool, because under that snow, the crocuses are just hanging out, not too bothered at all, waiting to enjoy some more moisture from the melt. Yeah, they'd be happy for some sunshine. But despite the delicate looks, those things are tough, way tougher than I am.

The local seedeating birds have been busy at and about the feeder all day. Sometimes, the wind will just blow them the heck around, but they seem to handle things with such grace. It's got to be tough if you're a bird around here, though.

And just because I can, here's a graphic and gratuitous picture of a maple tree. You're just a little bit shocked, aren't you?

I hope Proserpina didn't break her ankle!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Begin Bike

I got my bike back from the shop today after it's annual spring tune-up. It got a new chain and a new rear casette. My chain is so clean, it's just delightful.

Here are the starting numbers.

Odometer miles: 7173.3

Goal for the year (which will end halfway into summer, when I leave for an island place): 1500

Wish me luck!

The Test of Humor

I graded the journals. The assignment is borrowed mostly from Sisyphus; I'd asked the students to choose the most important word in a short passage. I'm not concerned at all that they choose a word I think is important, but that they explain their choice well.

This passage is a funny one. And you can really see which students totally get the humor, and which don't. And the ones who get the humor, get the whole thing, while the ones who don't, just don't.

It's not usually as clear as this, because when they're working on a more serious passage, they can do pretty well focusing on a word even if they don't get the whole thing. But humor is more demanding.

Break Week at the Office

I expect to come to the office three or four days this week, during our break week. I have a ton of work to do and this is a place I can do certain kinds of work especially well.

I'm not the only one here, of course.

Imagine, we have, say, 12 tt women and 10 tt men on my floor. What numbers of people of each gender do I see here?

You may be right. Now, that isn't to say that some people work better at home, and they're hard at work. Or sleeping. Whatever suits them.

Does it say something which people are here working during break week. Or does it say more about me that I'm here and notice who else is here.

Why are the people who are here, here?

Is it because, like me, they get distracted at home a lot?

Historiann has an interesting post up about gender issues at MIT. You should read it. It's way better than anything coming through my keyboard!

So far: I got a late start this morning. I've written a letter of recommendation, graded a few random things, and am settling into more grading.

I have a stack of papers, a stack of journals, and a stack of partly graded midterms.

I also have to analyze some qualitative data from a survey thingy.

This is the work of the week before I go off to see if I can see some birds at the marsh.

But today, shortly, I'm off to pick up my bike (spring tune up, including it's first new chain and rear casette), visit the library, and see what trouble I can get into!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Spring - First Bluebird!

Yesterday, when I got home, it was like the garden had popped. There were crocuses coming up all over, and not just barely out of the ground, but an inch or so up. I left in the morning and could barely see any green, and got home and there they were.

There are also daffodils coming through! These, too, give me hope for spring!

I took a picture of the dogwood. You can see that the tips are getting ready to do their thing. And bonus: you can see what a lovely blue our sky is this morning. (What looks like a shadow down at the lower right is really a very out of focus other branch, because I was using my close-up lens.)

I was standing in the yard, listening to the red-wing blackbirds do their trilling call, and say my first bluebird, too. It seems early for the more buggy birds, but I trust that evolution has prepared them well for dealing with early spring.

I put out a half an orange yesterday, but I'm guessing I'm a couple weeks early there. But since finches seem to like it as well as orioles, I'm willing to hope that I'll see some of them, too. I got my hummingbird feeder out, but I did manage to not put it out or fill it yet, because there's still a little realism in me.

And, of course, we could easily get walloped with some more snow, and it's likely to feel a lot less springlike in the coming weeks than it does this fine morning.

Still, a bluebird definitely means spring is on its way, right?

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Break for Joy

One of the candidates we hired this year is visiting today to look for a place to live and show a partner the community. This is a really great candidate, one we're all happy about hiring, and it's so nice to see hir come visit and be enthused about being our colleague.

We start a week of break at the end of the day today. I have a ton of work to do.

It's weird, because I love teaching, but sometimes it feels like I'm so fragmented between this and that task that I can't do anything all at once without being interrupted and needing to pay attention to something totally different.

For example, I think I helped five students change their majors today. I met with each, and had a good conversation (at least, I felt they were all good conversations) and got them started with a new advisor and some sense of the program and all. And I wrote two letters of recommendation from our departmental POV, which meant coordinating stuff from other folks. And I taught two classes, put together a mekeup midterm for a student who was ill but has recovered (thank dog), and helped a colleague with advising questions. It's been a good day, but my brain just isn't that good at jumping centuries (From Chaucer, to Coleridge, to Smith) or programs (we have five programs in our department, and one other affiliated program).

So this coming week, I have some things to get caught up on.

1) Grading. I have three stacks to grade. Three. Stacks.

2) My own research project, which I need to pull together and write up and make a poster for. A poster. (Maybe I can put a picture of Sir Olifaunt on it!)

3) Prepping for the rest of the semester. I'm teaching a new book of poetry, so I need to reread it and be really ready.

4) Meet with the study abroad folks about my responsibilities while I teach overseas. Responsibilities, yeah. (You know that TV show, The Middle, where the kid repeats words under his breath? Imagine me doing that here).

So, as soon as my student finishes making up this midterm, and I send out the final versions of the letters of recommendation, then I'm good to go meet with my new colleague and some other folks! And then, let the weekend begin! Sleep! Gardening! A bike shop visit! Running! and more Sleep! And reading for fun! And sleep!!!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

One Last Thing

I was looking at a course syllabus that purported to represent a bunch of European culture, and had a section on "race, class, and gender" which included two upper class white male writers and two upper class white female writers. In fifteen weeks of readings, those were the only female writers represented.

The "contemporary" section of the course had a single text from the 1960s, the most recently written text in the course by about 20 years. Now I have nothing against really old dead writers, but they're "contemporary" only in geologic time.

I spent time today in this meeting hearing someone opine that Tolstoy was great enough to represent all of human nature, all social classes, etc.

That same person opined that there just weren't people of color in Europe before the 20th century.

Guess THAT will show the Ottomans and the Moors, eh!

Another person said that there just weren't many female writers.

Another person worried that I would be mean in a meeting if his course ever came up and I realized that he taught out of a textbook authored by a male. (Because, you know, I would never teach a text authored by a male.)

I felt like we'd somehow timewarped to a 1950s college meeting.

Sir Thopas

Was it that hard? Are there just too many three headed giants out there in romances?


Could someone tell me, please, just when it was I became an old fogey?

Because I went to a talk today, and I've either become an old fogey or the speaker was BSing something awful. Some of the other folks in the audience were nodding as if the speaker were saying smart things, things that made sense and were groundbreaking. But I kept hearing jargony emptiness and the sound of self-congratulatory name-dropping.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No, Really

sonnet #60 isn't really about how grateful the speaker is to God, unless you can explain how you get there a whole lot better than you do.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Text o' the Day

Edit to add: See, I think this is as good as my stick figure lit ever gets. Is it just too darned obscure?

Suddenly Spring

All of a sudden, it feels like spring. I looked out the window and saw the first Robin this morning, and a few minutes later, I saw the first Goldfinches feeding at the feeder. (I don't know if they migrate here, but I haven't seen them all winter, and I've fed, and I'm pretty sure what birds I've been seeing on the feeders this winter, and I don't think I'd be confused by them, even in winter plumage.) The goldfinches aren't in their breeding plumage yet, I think, or maybe I saw three females and no males?

Birds this winter:

Blue Jay
American Crow

Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Dark-Eyed Junco

Tufted Titmouse
Black-Capped Chickadee


House Sparrow

Monday, March 14, 2011

Right Foot Forward

I've realized over the past couple of days, since Sunday morning, really, that I tend to step forward first with my right leg.

I'd never much thought about it, but apparently running a 5k after almost no running all winter has provided me with much valuable new insight.

My lower back is tight, my quads are tight, and there's some muscle or something near my hips that reminds me what a whuss I am every time I move. I need to go out and run some more to loosen things up!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring May Come

Last year, I posted a picture of the earliest buds here on March 3rd. And the first flower pictures appear here on March 15th.

We seem to be a little behind this year. Here are some sprouts coming up, just uncovered by the melt. Of course, the weeds are already getting a good start, too, as you can see.

One of the other things I look for in spring is the ways that some of the trees start coming out of dormancy and get their tips going.

This is a picture of one of my pine trees, getting ready for spring!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Run, Walk, Smile

I did my first ever organized "run" this morning, a 5K casual fundraising thing. I finished, and I smiled most of the way.

My friends are great. They're much better runners than I am, and they make me feel like I can go and have fun and it's all good. Everyone should have friends like these.

Some of my students and I ran as a "team," which was added fun.

Friday, March 11, 2011


My thoughts are with the people of Japan. An earthquake of 8.9 is (for me, having experienced a 6.9 and a 7.1) unimaginably strong.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I've learned that a number of departments here have reported that candidates with signed contracts have backed out and said they've changed their mind. I can't blame them.

They signed a contract for one salary, and suddenly that salary has been cut by 8% or so. I wish I felt like I could get out.

It seems like, throughout my life experience, with few exceptions, the left has come up with ideas that seem reasonable and beneficial, only to be outmaneuvered by the right. And once again. It's like the folks on the left are smart, but not as savvy at politics or something, and that at almost every level. But we think we're smarter, so we don't respect the smarts the opposition has or something.

I need to decide about selling my house. It's a bad time, but it seems like things could get a lot worse, and I could rent an apartment fairly cheaply, and put my money into something less scary than real estate here.

I Hate Field Trips

I got a note this morning from a student who's supposed to take a midterm in my class tomorrow letting me know that s/he's on a school sponsored field trip, and oops, was supposed to let me know, except the organization left yesterday, so s/he'd like to know if it's possible to schedule an alternative.

The note's polite enough.

But seriously, why do school organizations schedule their field trips during the weeks in the middle of the term, when we have so many midterms scheduled? (Okay, I know that with the variety of courses, there are always exams of some sort happening in one or another class. But still, it seems like the middle of the semester would be a time to avoid trips, doesn't it?)

Normally, I get notified by students going on such trips a week or more in advance, and I know it when I'm writing the midterm, so I do a second one at the same time or maybe I'm lazy, and I arrange for the student to take the exam the day before s/he leaves on the trip. And I collect his/her exam. That way, even if I'm lazy and don't write a second exam, the odds are that s/he isn't going to remember everything exactly enough to pass along information to mess up the class. (Maybe that's wishful thinking. Probably.)

But having a whole classful of exams (students keep their exams, because I change them every time I teach a class and I think it's good for students to see how I do things and also to have the exam to save along with their bluebooks should they care to) with one student who hasn't taken the exam yet would be way more wishful thinking than even I'm willing to go with.

What I'd like to do is read the student the riot act, but what's the point.

Or hit reply to the student's email, CCing the faculty advisor, offering to arrange to reschedule the exam. Except I'm sure the faculty advisor told the students to arrange for exams ahead of time, and there's really no point in playing some mean spirited game against the advisor.

So, what I'm going to do in all likelihood is wait a bit to calm down, and then email the student about arrangements and spend an extra hour or whatever writing this student his/her very own special snowflake exam.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I think I'm either getting a head cold or not. I've been curled up on the couch with a space heater, blanket, and warmed buckwheat in cloth tubes, and it's taken almost an hour to get warmed up. But that may just be because it's winter, and I'm a whuss.

I don't think I've really had a cold all winter so far, but the timing of this one isn't great, and not only because it's a busy part of the semester. You see, on Saturday, I'm signed up to do a fun run sort of 5k thing. I don't think running/walking 5k should be a problem, but it will be a lot less fun if I'm coughing and hacking my way through it.

Bleargh. It's 7pm now, and I think I may head to bed. :(

Monday, March 07, 2011


I was teaching this poem today. It's a great poem, and it moves me every time I teach it. But while I was teaching it today, I was totally struck by the bit about the blood from the gas victim's lungs being "bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues." And when I say totally struck, I mean I had no clue what to say. I don't know why that line has never brought me to a standstill before, but it was like I was seeing it and thinking, "what the hell? Where did this come from?"

Take a minute, read and think:

Wilfred Owen

"Dulce Et Decorum Est"

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

See, isn't that a weird thing, this bit about cud, a rather pastoral (though unappetizing to me) thing, suddenly appearing in this totally unpastoral poem?

Fortunately, my students are smarter than I am, and did a great job explaining how well the image fits in so many ways, and how it speaks to other areas of the poem.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

At Odds and Ends

I feel like I'm stuck in really deep, thick mud these days. I'm worried about political stuff, but ineffectually. I need to get all these things done, but I'm not getting it done.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Despair in Another Form

I was talking to one of the powers that be here, someone I like and respect a lot, about how our department might do the evaluative work that we're under pressure to do, with the constant threat of "if we don't do it, they'll do it to us."

We were talking, and I asked if we didn't already have a sense of how well our students did X task by grading a given kind of paper.

Well, yes, my colleague said. So, why don't we use that?

My colleague said we might be able to do a special form so that it all looked alike so we could analyze it together, and that what we really should do is take random samples, say 5 papers from each of the courses in question, and all get together and read them all so that we make sure we are all on the same page about the quality thing.

Seriously? We have, say, ten of these classes, and you want me (and any number of other colleagues) to read and evaluate 50 extra papers about this one aspect?

I said I might be talked into spending an hour together with some colleagues to norm ourselves on the form, but there was no way I was reading an extra stack of papers.

Not even for money, my colleague questioned?

This school can't pay me enough, I said.

We're doing a separate program and there's going to be serious faculty development, and it's built into the program that faculty involved with spend about a week on faculty development and be paid $500.

I'm one of the lower paid folks in my department, but my paycheck grosses (for 9 months a year) at about 5K. So paying me $500 is asking me to work for a week (during summer) for less than half of my regular pay. So I have an idea of how much this place is willing to pay me for extra work. (Or not pay me, as last summer's fiasco of administrative incompetence demonstrated.)

I expect that faculty development to be useful to me, so I'm willing to do it despite the low pay.

BUT, given that that's the sort of pay this place is willing to give us, and given how torturous reading a stack of papers is, and given how utterly useless I have found all such processes in the past, I'm really not willing to spend my time reading an extra stack of papers.

We were talking about this stuff because that evaluative work might get tacked onto my little cheese administrative thing I'm doing this year. And if this evaluative work gets tacked onto the work I'm doing as interim next year, I sure as heck won't be putting my name into nomination to do the job again. That's an easy decision.

I have to say, I'm so sick of the threat that "if we don't do it, they'll do it to us" that I could spit. The they of that threat isn't doing diddly that's of use. There's no serious evaluative stuff happening here, despite blathering and spending money up the wazoo to talk about it. And what is being done is being done to us already, in ways that make me lose a class day in intro writing every fall.

I've never yet seen anything useful come out of all the money they've spent and all the crap they've made us do. I have seen viscious nastiness happen, however. And I've seen threats of more to come.

But right now, there's a bigger threat, and it sort of makes me want to say no to the evaluative stuff that doesn't seem useful. (If and when it seems useful, I will be happy to help and to get help.)