Friday, April 27, 2012

There's Got to be a Better Way

Here's a typical classroom layout in my building.  The student seating is either at those small, uncomfortable student desks with foldy desk parts or at bigger tables.  The tables are hard to move around, but give students more room for spreading out stuff, which is great for writing classes especially.  Even for lit classes, it's helpful to have room for notes and a text, and the little foldy desks are pretty tiny.  Our classes are usually packed.  We may have a few empty chairs, but few, so students are against both walls and all across (except for the walking space between big desks, which I've sort of indicated here.  (Think of the "student seating" as either indicating several longish desks in rows or lots of small foldy desks.)

Our building was built in the 60s, I think, and the powers that be have done a lot to update and improve classes within the structure that we have.  Since I've been here, we've added desks in some rooms, and also added computer stations, internet access, projectors which work with computers, document display, and a big screen so that you can see stuff from across the room.  The computer station is set up so that a person can stand at the computer and see the screen, which means it's about 3-4 feet tall with the monitor in place. 

All this technology is great in so many ways.  I regularly use the document display and computer stuff.

But except in very rare cases, I don't do powerpoints.  Instead, I write on the board.  I think writing on the board is better for some sorts of information.  It works better, for example, when you're asking students to contribute ideas and want to be open to their order of ideas and to ideas you hadn't thought of.  Yes, I could write on a small piece of paper and use the document display, but the board seems more natural to me (though natural is a crazy word to use for such an artificial environment). 

And now you grasp the problem: the red area indicates the board space that's really usable, that's not blocked from access by the huge screen, by student seating, or not blocked from view by the computer monitor.  (The classes that are more horizontally oriented have better board access, but a lot is still blocked.)

What I'd like to know is how your spaces work, and if you have the same problems or has someone figured out a better way to have all the computer and high tech stuff while still preserving access to board space?  And if you have, can you tell me what it looks like, please?


*Blogger will no longer let me change the size or location of inserted pictures.  Bleargh!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Writing: What We Really Need

We need a book for folks who've never had any training in teaching writing to help them teach writing.

We all sort of know this, that a lot of people who get PhDs in English never took a composition class and never had any training in teaching composition.  As a group, we tended to be the folks who figured out writing more or less pretty early and found it fairly easy, and cruised through the writing part of college.  We also probably loved reading (a likely contributor to the ease with which we picked up writing).

And so, we're exactly the wrong people to teach writing on some level.  We don't struggle with writing the way a lot of students do, and we haven't had to work through steps to getting writing projects done.  We probably struggled with the dissertation, but that's a different thing than struggling with a three page paper on whether you support campus efforts to stop using cafeteria trays.

If there were a book on teaching writing for folks who are suddenly teaching writing in college, what would it look like?  (Is there such a book already?)

Audience:  for English and related fields: grad students, faculty members, others?  What about people who might be getting involved in writing across the discipline or writing within the discipline?

Background stuff, short and positioned, on the current thoughts on "correctness" and writing.  Also, something about how non-linear writing development is, and how utterly crappily we all write when we're using writing to learn difficult, complex, new stuff.

Assignment strategies, specifically for writing assigments that will work well for a college writing class, including research type assignments, and also a variety of writing assignments for writing in and across disciplines.

Grading strategies, omg, there must be a better way than what I've done and it must not involve a machine.

Pre-writing, both strategies and a why do this section: freewriting, listing, bubble-mapping (call them what you will), summarizing.

Teaching critical reading skills, I can't even begin to list this stuff this morning.

Teaching research skills

Proofreading strategies

Should the book include syllabus writing strategies?  Building skills stuff?  What else?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Do You Do?

Not long ago, a student came into my office and asked for help getting started on a paper for my class.  This is a fairly advanced student, and a really solid student.

I started by suggesting free-writing, and then asked what zie'd learned in hir first year writing class, the one I struggle mightily to teach.   Nope, zie hadn't done free-writing in the first year writing class, but zie was familiar with free-writing from other classes.  So I suggested free-writing about each of the sources or passages zie thought would be important, labelling each, and then using them to create a bubble map.  Nope, zie hadn't done bubble maps in hir first year writing class, but was familiar with them.

I didn't ask who'd taught this person's first year writing class, but zie said that a number of other instructors here have asked basically the same question of the student and been surprised to learn zie hadn't learned these writing strategies. 

My question is, what the heck do you do with a writing class if you aren't teaching them to use brainstorming and other writing strategies?

I don't think I have all the strategies, nor do I use them all well, but I do tend to have my writing students do freewriting in class (because it's the only way I believe I can convince them to actually do it until they learn that it actually works for them, and I know it doesn't work equally well for everyone).  We also do listing, peer responding (to lists and other pre-writing as well as to drafts), bubble mapping, thesis brainstorming, and topic sentence writing.

I know one of my colleagues spends time diagramming sentences, and would probably be shocked to learn that I not only don't diagram sentences, but that I've never even learned to diagram sentences.  (Is that shocking?)

What do you do in writing classes to help your students write?

What are you shocked to learn that I don't do?

And finally, when you're writing, do you use pre-writing strategies at all?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

So Tired

I'm just feeling worn.

Today was a non-teaching day for me, but there are student presentations on campus, so I went in to be supportive, planning to have lunch with a visiting faculty member and some colleagues, and then go to presentations from 1 to 4.

Instead, just before 11 am, I got a desperate email from a colleague who's responsible for much of the organization asking me to come to a presentation since there was no one else in the room but her.  So I ran over, literally, ran.  (I'm a lousy runner, but there you go.  At least I can run across campus still.)  By the time I got there, two other people had gotten there, but I stayed.  And I tried to ask a couple good questions. 

That seemed to be my role today: trying to ask good questions.  Unfortunately, I failed at the "good" part, since most of the presentations were on 19th century lit, so I'm not as up on stuff.  So the questions I tended to ask were mostly beyond the students' experience.  I wasn't trying to be mean, but I think I seemed that way.  And since I was sometimes the only person trying to ask a question, it probably didn't feel great to the students.

Last year, I had one class do presentations in groups, and had ten groups.  It was overwhelming.  This year, I didn't do that.  I haven't figured out how to give an assignment with two options, one a presentation and one not, in a way that is about the same amount and level of work for students and which I can grade well and fairly.  But that would be ideal.

There's a bit of disagreement about the student presentation program.   No faculty member wants to take it on (and the current person is ready to be done after several years of good service).  But some people have strong ideas about how it should be run.  Unfortunately, they aren't people who've had classes do presentations (in recent years) or who attend presentations, but they have strong opinions and are very critical of what's been done of late.

After I finally got back to my office, I started printing out an assignment that students had turned in electronically.  Along the way, I noticed that about one third don't have names on the assignment.  Now, I know from the students' point of view, they know who they are and don't think everything needs a name.  But from my point of view, well, I send stuff to the printer, and then I go to the office where the printer lives and pick it all up, and I don't want to go back and have to figure out which person attached which file for the whole class.  (I won't.  I'll grade them, and ask students to claim them and put their names on when we meet next, and then I'll collect those again and record them.)

But at this point, I feel defeated by this place in all sorts of ways.  (There's all sorts of craziness coming out of the fort and capital, all of which adds to the feelings of defeat.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Aunt for the Win!

I usually have a lot of difficulty thinking of good presents for my niece and nephew. They're middle class enough to get all of what they need and most of what they want, and don't seem to have a lot of desires for stuff just to have stuff.

It's actually a lovely combination, but tough for an aunt.

My niece has recently decided that she wants to go to a certain university. It's a fine school.

So I got her a t-shirt with the logo and name on it for her birthday. She found an excuse to put it on last evening (I got here after dinner and gave her her present after dinner). And this morning she had it on again when we went out.

I win at being an aunt!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Da Vinci

We're having discussions these days about how we can give our students "integrative learning"* experiences. One model, of course, has instructors from two fields working together on some level to show how two fields speak to each other, think about a common issue, etc. That can be an expensive proposition if we're thinking of two instructors team teaching or coordinating two small classes. And expensive isn't something that happens here, especially of late.

Another model has one instructor doing something "integrative" in a given course. That's cheap, because the school only has to pay one person.

And, of course, cheap is where we're aiming.

Yesterday, I was at a meeting where a faculty member suggested that since Leonardo had demonstrated expertise in all sorts of fields, we should be able to, too. She also suggested that she'd had a professor once who talked all about the relationship between Shakespeare and Delacroix, and how influential that professor had been on her own learning.

You may be thinking that I was extraordinarily polite in not interrupting to say that Shakespeare and Delacroix couldn't have had a relationship unless Shakespeare had come back from the dead, but mostly I wasn't able to understand what she said well (I have difficulty with her accent; I know this is my failing, so I keep my mouth shut).

I think learning to think in different ways, thinking creatively, and certainly understanding different fields is really important. I'm guessing I've taken more in depth courses in vastly different fields than most of my colleagues. But I also know how well I know my own field, and how little and outdated my knowledge of other fields is.

And I greatly respect other peoples' knowledge.

Now, English lit folks are notoriously unchaste when it comes to dabbling all over. We read psych, anthro, history, you name it. But we don't read in those fields the way experts in the fields do, nor do we read the same things, nor do we keep up in the field. We still teach Freud, for gosh sakes. Seriously, the last time anyone in Psych actually took Freud seriously was sometime around 1953, wasn't it? We still read Levi-Strauss as though he's the latest, coolest thing. And that's sort of okay, so long as we think about what we're doing in terms of teaching literature, perhaps. But if we think we have anything useful to say about thinking in the field of psychology or anthropology, we're probably wrong.

And imagining that we faculty folks here at a regional comprehensive university can somehow reproduce the multi-disciplinary learning of one of the top 10 or so minds in western Europe in the past thousand years? Well, I'm sure as heck not there.

I'm frustrated, too, because some of these folks talk about how exciting and liberating it is to teach all these wonderful new courses, and I can't think of much more exciting and liberating course to teach than Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or a seminar on early modern left earlobe studies. And then I secretly feel sorry for them that they don't get to teach Shakespeare and stuff, and don't seem to be endlessly amazed and fascinated by the stuff they do teach. Shhhhh. Don't tell or they'll all decide they're expert enough to teach Shakespeare and how Hamlet is all about the Oedipal.

* "Integrative learning" is the latest catchphrase here, along with "operational outcomes" or something. It's a way of trying to talk about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary and just two or more fields of study somehow having something to do with each other without actually carefully thinking about how or what we're talking about.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Teaching Comp Frustrations

My writing students are working on a big essay. It's a pretty good chunk of their grade and we've spent a good amount of time on it in class, brainstorming, bubble-mapping, talking about sources, and so on. They peer edited together yesterday, so today we worked with their peer editing responses to improve the papers. And then we worked on some other improvement stuff.

For example, I asked everyone to go through their essay and note when they'd used someone else's idea(s) or word(s) by marking in the margin. Then I asked them to check for each one that they'd introduced it appropriately and that it was in the works cited section (and to put a check by it there). Then they could see that everything in the works cited section actually had been cited in the paper easily, and they'd made sure they'd introduced sources well.

Good, right?

The thing is, the people who've written really strong drafts and who've cited sources have a lot to check, and it takes them a while to check stuff, revise source introductions and such. So they're busy.

The people who haven't done a strong draft look at their two or three pages and finish in a moment or two. Then they sit in the room looking bored. Because they don't have as much to check, they seem to think that they've got no more work to do. And mostly, they're likely to be wrong.

I can't seem to figure out how to warn them effectively with a general statement about people with fuller drafts taking longer, and those who finish quickly might have more to do overall. And making a more specific statement seems like I'm picking on them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Wow, sometimes stuff comes out of someone over at the fort that sets us all in a kerfluffle, and that happened today.

I was mostly busy trying desperately to finish grading a stack, but I was just as happy not to worry too much about the stuff I can't do much about.

Interesting times around here. Wish us well.

Monday, April 16, 2012


This cold sucks. What's stupid, of course, is that it's a little cold, probably not even all that bad as a cold, and certainly something like one tenth of a percent as bad as being really, seriously sick.

I haven't slept a whole night in over a week.

Remember the movie Alien, when the alien comes out of the guy's chest? Yeah, I feel like the alien is up my nose. And not in a good way.

My niece mentioned that whooping cough is going around her school (not at all near me), so I started googling symptoms of whooping cough. I don't think I have it, and I sure hope I don't, because 4-6 weeks of this (only worse) would be truly miserable.

I'd love to crawl back into bed, except I wouldn't actually sleep, and it wouldn't make me better (or I would have gotten better over the weekend when that's pretty much what I did with my life). I am trying to be really careful not to share my germs.

Friday, April 13, 2012

That Time of the Semester Thou Mayst in Me Behold

My office is a mess. I get cranky when my office is a mess, and need to take some time and clean it up.

Mostly it's a mess because there are stacks of books that I've used or referred to but not reshelved appropriately. And it's time. I've also gotten a few new books that need to find their proper place.

Then there are stacks of papers, revisions, research stuff, committee work. I have a bad stacking habit. The thing is, when something I stack will get done and moved on (for example, a stack of papers gets graded, recorded, and handed back), then the temporarly stack isn't a problem. It's the stacks that stick around for very long that are a problem.

This weekend's task list looks like this:

1 big stack for my seminar
1 smallish stack of revisions
1 smallish stack for my seminar
1 play to read for the first time every (I know! What was I thinking?)
Prep that same play for discussion

I've got an idea for a paper, but it's out of my usual comfort zone. Still, it's an idea. I went to the library yesterday and got a couple of books by the same author whose one text I want to look at. I'm going to read through them, just to make sure I'm familiar with what the author's written, and to check if there's something similar happening in these other works that should be included in my argument. Fortunately, these works don't involve learning a new language or anything. And the writer is pretty readable.

Oddly, this writer reminds me in some ways of a blogger whose work I enjoy (but who isn't on my sidebar, though maybe I should add the blogger?). Except I find the blogger more successful as a writer, though the blogger isn't a professional writer in the same way.

It looks like a good weekend ahead. It may rain, in which case I won't mow. And there's a bike race on (Amstel Gold), and I think I'll be able to watch a live feed of it if I get up early on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

If you Give a House a Repair

Do you know those kids' books, If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?

If not, what you need to know is that if you give a moose a muffin, then he'll want something else, and if you give him the something else, then he'll want something more, and if you give him the something more, then he'll want another thing, and if you give him other thing, then he'll want yet another thing, and so on. It's like the old for want of a nail the horse was lost thing, except it's backwards; that is, the thread isn't about lack, but about having/getting something, and that causing further desire.

My house is feeling like that lately:

I have a deck, but it has problems, so I asked the handyman to come look at it and think of some ideas, and so on. He did. And while he was doing that, he noticed (quite rightly), that the roof is in really bad shape.

So I called the roofing contractor, who came out (well, a couple of them) to give me an estimate, and said that yes, the roof really IS in bad shape (and showed me pictures from up there), and said that when you're having roofing done, it's an ideal time to have an energy audit, and then you can hire someone to add insulation.

So I called the energy audit guy, and he did the audit, which was pretty disappointing (but his toys made me oh so jealous! I love the infrared reader thingy!) because my house loses heat badly.

So when I get his report, I need to call an insulation contractor and have them do a proposal to do the work that's most cost effective for the roofing portion, and so on. (Some things are more cost effective for heating and cooling than others.)

But, the energy audit guy had to turn off the furnace to do the energy audit thing (because they suck air out of the house with a fan and then can tell where more cold air is entering from outside or moving around inside). And when he turned the furnace back on, it didn't come on.

So then I had to call the furnace company and ask them to send someone out. And he came, and then the furnace was more or less working, so he serviced it, and gently reminded me that I needed to change the filter, too, and also get the air conditioning serviced once it's warm enough outside.

So then I went to the store to get a filter, and remembered also that a number of people (including the energy audit guy and some friends) have told me that it's not too hard to put in a programmable thermostat, and if I do, it will be more efficient.

So I bought a programmable thermostat at the store.

And now I need to either woman up and put it in myself (which means turning off electricity somewhere, mostly, and doesn't look all that hard), or call and ask the handyman to come put it in for me.

And that's how getting ready to get an outside deck repaired can lead to a probable hospitalization for electrocuting myself. Or not. I really hope not. Remind me to get a really small screwdriver, though!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Two Random Things, Unrelated So Far As I Can Tell

I missed the Paris-Roubaix bike race (on TV, as well as in person) this Sunday because I was travelling. But I did get to read a bit later, and see some pictures, too. What I noticed is that Tom Boonen (who won the race) wasn't wearing gloves the whole time. A couple weeks ago, looking at pictures from the Tirreno-Adriatico race, I noticed that Chris Horner wasn't wearing gloves (at least in the time trial portion), either.

I wonder why not? (And especially, I wonder why not on cobblestones, where falls seem more likely, and where I'd imagine a tiny bit more padding would be welcome.)

(It sounded like a great day for Boonen, too! From television and such, he's a very likeable biker, so I was rooting for him in the absence of Fabian Cancellara.)


Sunday morning, I set the alarm on my ipod thingy for 5:45 so that I could get showered, packed, and dressed to get into a taxi by 6:10 to get to the airport for my flight at 7:45. Unfortunately, I hadn't changed the time zone setting on the ipod, so it was an hour behind the eastern time zone.

Uh oh, you're thinking.

Only not. I woke up and went to use the bathroom, and on the way back to bed, I looked at the room clock, and saw that it was 5:50. And then I thought, shouldn't my alarm have gone off? So I looked at the ipod, and it said it was 4:50. And I looked at the room thing, and then looked at my phone, which said 5:52. And finally, I realized the time zone thing and got my rear in gear.

How lucky was I to 1) need to use the bathroom, and 2) look at the room clock rather than my ipod? I'll count that as very lucky.

When I got to the airport, I asked and was let off at US Airways, because that's who had sold me the flight I was on. But it wouldn't let me check in. Finally, one of the service folks there pointed out that while US Airways had sold me the flight, it was actually a United flight, and I needed to go to the United area to check in. And that was a ten minute walk. Fortunately, I had plenty of time.

But again, how lucky was I that I wasn't already an hour behind? Very!

Some days, I feel like I'm in one of those Buster Keaton movies where the wall comes down but he ends up with the glassless window area coming safely around him.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Observations from SAA

I had a good time, heard a couple of really interesting papers, and got to see some friends (the best part, to be honest). My seminar was run well and had a good discussion.

I felt like I noticed a few things, and checked with someone else, who thought maybe to one, and yes to the other.

1) People from my generation were there in relatively low numbers compared to the people 10+ years ahead of us, or 10 years behind us. Maybe folks my age are mid-career and what with the holiday and such, didn't come? Or they've moved into administrative stuff? Or we're just in lower numbers?

2) When I first went to SAA, there was a fairly strong and visible group of African American scholars. I saw none of that group, and few African American scholars overall compared to those years. I'm not sure what's happened or happening.

3) Looking over the crowd, it seemed very male, and not only older men. There were several men who looked like they were posing as enfant terrible types, right down to the pony-tail.

4) There was an anime conference going on at the same hotel with the Shakespeare conference, and the two crowds were very different. It was really odd seeing someone in anime costume walk through the Shakespeare crowd. (The Shakespeare crowd, we like to think we're among the edgier folks in the English department, but we looked very staid compared to the anime crowd.) Thus, the enfant terrible men looked like real posers in comparison.

(Do women ever get the cache of being the enfant terrible, with the combination of admiration, exaltation, and admonishment from the good old boys, or does a woman just get the criticism?)

And a related observation: I caught a cold. I could feel it coming on last night, and it's been getting worse. Blah. It's amazing how something relatively as innocuous as a cold can make you feel lousy.

I rode back on the shuttle with a man who was way more revealing of his private life than I was quite comfortable with. And he had that too wide eyed look that some people have.

Friday, April 06, 2012


I made it, some 11 hours after I got on the shuttle. My second plane was delayed, and it meant my afternoon conference plans didn't work out.

I did have a lovely dinner with a friend, which was great in every way except it made me wish we lived closer!

Thursday, April 05, 2012


I'm packing to go to SAA tomorrow. It's the first really short weekend packing I've done since I was in England going away most weekends, and it's weird.

For one thing, I have to be at the shuttle pick up at the rather brutal hour of 4am, so I have to leave home by 3:30. So I'm heading to bed shortly to try to sleep some.

I usually enjoy SAA, and I'm sure I will once I'm there, but I'm just tird now and not feeling the joy much, except when I think about getting together with a friend from grad school, one of those really good, really special people I don't get to see very often.

Let's compare:

England: Get a taxi or take the shuttle to the train, take the train for 2-3 hours, be somewhere great!

Here: Drive to the shuttle, take the shuttle for an hour and a half to an airport, get on a plane for a while to a stopover place, get on another plane for a longer while, be somewhere great! But not somewhere with a shambles, castle, Roman ruins, or really dead folks to visit.

Okay, time for bed, and then jetting off to a conference!

ps. I rode my bike today, and went up a hill that's about a mile and not too hard, and it was so good (not fast, mind, but good).

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Local Election, Part the Second

The election results were put up on the county site last night, and the local school board results were circulated among folks I know this morning. There was a lot of discussion among some folks I know about that election, and it went the way my crowd was hoping.

This wasn't just a school board and county supervisor election, though. It was also used for the primaries. But I went for the local stuff because I was among those who were worried by some of the school board candidates. In fact, some folks in my crowd made a big effort to "get out the vote" because they worried that a lot of Republicans would turn out to vote for that primary and then also vote in the school board election for the "tea party" type candidates, and Democrats wouldn't turn out because we didn't have a primary to vote in and thus the less "tea party" candidates for school board wouldn't get elected.

So imagine my surprise when I realized that I could also vote on the primary. Not only that, but I could vote in the primary for any of the candidates, Republican or Democratic, or even write in a candidate. (I didn't vote in the previous primary because I was out of the country and didn't make arrangements in time, and before that, I don't remember if I did or not.)

This morning, I was interested to see how things came out, and a bit surprised. For example, in the primary races, Barack Obama got more votes than any other candidate. But added together, the Republican candidates got about twice as many votes as he did. I'd guess that means a fair number of Democrats turned out and voted in the Democratic primary, even though Obama was running unopposed. On the other hand, some Republicans coud have voted for Obama, and I know at least one Democrat who voted for one of the Republican candidates just to mix things up (or something).

For the school board races, the two non "tea party" candidates got more votes each than Barack Obama did. (You could vote for two candidates in the race, so the information to be gleaned from that is limited, but since each of those candidates got more votes, that means that it wasn't just a matter of the same people voting for those two candidates as voted for Obama, if that makes sense.)

That suggests that some people voted in the school board election who didn't vote in the primary, or voted for a Republican candidate in the national primary but for a non "tea party" candidate locally.

(The candidates I've characterized as "tea party" seem fairly extreme to me, and I could easily imagine someone who's a moderate Republican choosing one of the other candidates.)

My car repair guy got re-elected (in another county district).

Monday, April 02, 2012

Local Elections

There's an election tomorrow; for me, there's a county supervisor seat and school board seats to decide about. And there are clear splits between candidates.

The school board part is fairly easy to find information about. But the county supervisor part isn't. I went to the county site, and tried to figure out who my representative is. Finally, I found a map of the area split into supervisor districts, and made it big enough to find my street (which is near an edge). Then it was a matter of figuring out who the supervisor for the district is. But then there's the redistricting question, and I can't quite figure it out. It looks like the person who's my current supervisor has been redistricted into another area. But the newspaper doesn't say anything about my district as it shows on the current map.

So, is the current map the map that the election uses, or does the election use a new map that I can't find?

It really shouldn't take this much work to figure out a basic local election.

When I look at the pictures of the local supervisors, I have to say, the pictures mostly aren't flattering. I recognized a couple of the people I know around town, which was sort of cool in that small community way. But I didn't recognize the person supposedly representing my district.

(Now ask me how much time I spent looking at the satelite view of my community spaces! A lot.)