Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Holiday Music

It's time for some holiday music, appropriate to Thanksgiving.

Here's a video.  You should listen.  Really. 

Here's wishing you a Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat if you so indulge.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Grand Jury and Feguson


I watched the news announcement last night, and knew from the way the man in charge went through things that there'd be no indictment, and there wasn't.

What I didn't know, until friends started posting about such things, is that it's actually really rare for a grand jury in the US to return a "no true bill" finding.  (Here's a source: FiveThirtyEight: "It's Incredibly Rare for a Grand Jury to do What Ferguson's Just Did")  According to this article,

The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
The article goes on to note that you can't directly compare a Federal and State Grand Juries, but it still gives a sense that it's really rare for a Grand Jury not to indict someone when a prosecutor argues they should. 

The Nation has an article up about "Why It's Impossible to Indict a Cop."

And Think Progress has an article up where "Legal Experts Explain Why the Ferguson Grand Jury Was Set Up for Failure."

It's a busy day here, as always, but I'm feeling ignorant and subdued.  I really don't understand the Grand Jury process at all (though I've been learning a lot in the past few days).

I have a feeling that I'm witnessing, though from afar, one of those moments that's going to be very important in history.  Or maybe I just hope that this will be one of those moments where you point back and say, "a big change began as a result of this."

Sunday, November 23, 2014


I spent the weekend at my siblings, hearing one of the kids play a concert.

I'm supposed to go there for Thanksgiving, too.

But the drive beats me up.  It's not horrible, but it's long enough that I want to relax after, and not do work.  But the work needs to be done.

My in law and I were watching a Netflix show (since I subscribe), and enjoying it, and talking about how we could watch more over the Thanksgiving weekend.  But then my sibling said that no, the TV would be on football.  My in law suggested that there wouldn't be that much football, but my sibling insisted that there will be three games on Thanksgiving, and they will be on, one after the other, on the TV.

As I drove back today, going slow because the fog was intermittently nasty, I just felt grumpy and headachy.

And when I got back, one of my friends had invited me to Thanksgiving, and it sounds casual and relaxed, and there will be chatting, and laughter, and good potluck food.

So I just decided to accept my friends' invitation.  And as soon as I did, I just felt so much better.

I have no urge to drive a long ways, sit around while my sibling dominates the family room with football on TV, and then drive a long ways home, and hope to get some of the work I have to get done done.

Now I have to call my sibling and tell the news.  Or call my in law, who's likely to be the only person disappointed, but I know zie will be fine.

My driving this weekend was more stressful than usual:

1.  About two weeks ago, the left turn signal started not working sometimes.  It's about half the time, and if it doesn't work, I can flip it again and it will work.  Still, it's irritating, and I've been trying to find a time to get the car in.

2.  On the way, my check engine light went on.  It's done this before, and the car repair people say not to worry about it.  Why have the light and then say not to worry?  I do worry.

3.  I discovered that one of my rear brake lights is out.

4.  My CD player isn't working.  It's got two CDs stuck in there (it holds up to six), and it won't do anything now.  That meant instead of listening to a book on CD, I had to find radio stations to listen to.  There are WAY too many religious and country stations for my taste, and way too few rock stations, and no Spanish language stations that I can find.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quiz Time

It's been a long time, but here's a stick figure lit quiz!  What's the text of the day?

And the next question: why do my students hate it so much? 

Sunday, November 16, 2014


I visited a colleague's class on Friday as part of the personnel review process.  It was really good.  There was smart conversation about some interesting texts.  When I have classes go that well, I feel pretty darned good about things.

And tonight, I'm prepping to fill in tomorrow for a different colleague who's ill.  Fortunately, it's comp, and we're all supposed to teach comp in basically the same way using the same basic program.  Frustrating in some ways, but it means that there's a shared vocabulary.  And, theoretically, if someone walks into my class on a given day, they should find themselves in familiar territory, and within a few days, give or take, of their own class.  That is, at this time of the semester, we're all doing the Blue Project, and probably finishing that up and starting the Green Project.  So, my class has peer editing its Blue Project, and has the assignment for the Green one, and we'll begin working on the Green while they put the finishing touches on the Blue and then turn it in.  Voila.

Except the course I'm filling in on tomorrow seems to have cut one of the projects completely. 

I don't really know what's up (the chair and head of comp stuffs do), but it makes me feel like my own abundant inadequacies with this comp program aren't quite as inadequate as I sometimes think.

In other news, tomorrow is the anniversary of a VERY big day in history.  Or at least it was big when it happened.

It's also the anniversary of a mildly famous concert which became, in one form or another, the name of an album that contributed to a rock and roller's rise to fame and fortune.

Anyone want to take a shot at the anniversary game?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Back in the stone ages, when I was a student, it was pretty common to have class MWF from 3-4.  And not unheard of to have a lab on Friday from 2-5, even. 

It was common enough that the Geology department had a legendary course, Geology 500, which met every Friday at 5pm for departmental beer and chat.

In more recent times, Thursday has become the new Friday, and around here, at least, it's rare for us to have a class on Fridays that goes later than 2pm.  I taught a MWF 1-2pm course last semester, and the classroom wing was nearly empty except for me and my students. 

I feel the urges, too.  Most of us in my department can manage a "non-teaching" day during the week, working around our usual 11 credit hour load.  For folks on a MWF basic schedule, that usually means you choose either Tuesday or Thursday for the "non-teaching" day. 

Folks who teach most of their classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays usually choose either Monday or Friday for their "non-teaching" day; there are times when you can manage both, or sometimes one and Wednesday.  It's easy to see the appeal, isn't it?

Students, too, like the same scheduling, often.  That's especially true for students who try to fit a whole week of work into four days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, to support themselves while they work at classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Or some of them like to "go home" a lot, and plan their schedules around those visits.  Or whatever.

I think there's been a mutual movement, with faculty and students both wanting more Tuesday/Thursday courses, and fewer courses late on Fridays.

Yesterday, I was advising a student and talking with him about what courses to take in the coming semester.  He's in a fairly rigid program, and has to take certain set general ed type courses.  So, he'd filled in his schedule, but was on the low side of credits for the semester, especially if he wants to graduate in a timely manner.

Here's what his schedule looked like:

Monday afternoon, late, three hours, upper level option for major.

Tuesday / Thursday, starting at 9:30, running three straight courses.

Every single course he needed, except for the Monday afternoon course, was only offered during those three prime slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting at 9:30.  We looked at options for general ed courses, all T/T in the three prime slots.  We looked at program courses, all T/T in those prime slots.

So I looked.  And out of 40 some courses in my department from sophomore level up, only 10 are on Mondays, Wednesdays, and or Fridays.  (Some are a late evening one day a week, and I counted those).

I think we (including me) have done ourselves a world of hurt this semester by scheduling so many of our courses against each other.  In budget-driven times, I wonder if some of our courses are going to be cancelled, and those of us with contracts will suddenly be teaching more comp or something. 

Here are my fingers crossed for decent enrollment in my Chaucer course!


Monday, November 10, 2014

On Assessment

Recently, Jeffrey Alan Johnson had an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed, "On Assessing Student Learning, Faculty are not the Enemy."  It's a smart article, and makes good points about how assessment isn't "neutral" and will require change in curricula.  Johnson notes that administrations using assessment to demand changes in curricula is a change in the power structure; rather than faculty controlling the curriculum, administration uses assessment to control it.  (Administrators may say they don't, but Johnson argues against that.)

Part of the problem Johnson notes comes in what gets assessed.  If we assess Pattern Regularity in Deepwater Basketweaving, and not Basket Shaping, then faculty folks are going to be forced to focus on pattern regularity, and the basket shaping parts of the curriculum are going to fall by the wayside. 

And the faculty may, given the mandate to choose to assess something that can be measured and proven, choose to assess pattern regularity, rather than basket shaping, just because it can be measured.  A regular pattern may mean nothing without a well-shaped basket, of course, but we can't assess every single thing we do, because we do a whole lot in any course, so what gets assessed is going to be what can be assessed most easily because it can be measured.

Business folks are all about how you have to be able to measure something in order to manage it.  That's easy if you're measuring how many widgets get produced, but considerably harder if you try to figure out the quality of different foods cooked in a restaurant, or even more, the education of a student.  If you measure food quality by taste, then that's one thing, but if the consumer gets horribly sick from food poisoning four or five hours later, then the food quality was bad no matter what it tasted like.  That won't make it onto the survey at the end of the dinner, though.  Education is even more complicated because many people won't really gain an appreciation of their education until they've been out of college for a couple of years or more.  And some students won't put things together fully until they've had a chance to mature a bit.  Let's face it, Jane Austen in your 20s is good; Jane Austen in your 30s is WAY better.  It's not Austen's quality that changed, it's the reader.

Johnson also talks about the dismissive ways administrators talk about faculty when they talk about assessment, as if faculty are recalcitrant children.

The comments to Johnson's article are also useful and telling.

Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, the Dean reads Johnson's article and talks about how difficult assessment is to do when there's no obvious capstone (as in most community college programs, especially those intended for transfer).  One thing he talks about is that his college has an assessment committee made up of people whose workloads are adjusted so that the assessment work counts, and those people read assignments and make recommendations to their colleagues.

If you've read here for a while, you've probably gathered that I have a negative attitude towards assessment.  Reading the two articles has made me think about why.  So, here, in no particular order, are some reasons I'm negative about assessment.

1)  It's not actually about student learning, but rather it's always about accreditation, and especially about accreditation on a sort of business model, which sees us as turning out products (we call them "students" but assessment measures products) and asks how much value we've added as the products pass through our system.

When we're told, as I've been told lo these many times, that we have to "assess ourselves or someone else will 'do it' to us" with the "do it" being characterized in somewhat violent ways, that's coercive.  And it doesn't help me be a better teacher.  

2)  What's important can't necessarily be measured.  And what can be measured may not be all that important.  If you want to measure that students can learn how to think critically by taking courses that ask them to think in different ways, to learn about thinking, and to solve problems, how do you measure critical thinking?  You don't do it by telling students that you're teaching them critical thinking and then asking if they know you've been teaching them critical thinking.

I have a colleague who thinks I should write down all the goals for a semester long Shakespeare class so they can be measured.  I could begin, but the list would go on and on, everything from thinking about how racialized thinking in early modern culture contributes to our own racism, to how playhouse structure matters in theatrical experience, to ... well, I don't even want to go on.  How do I measure those things?  Some students will learn more, and be able to integrate what they've learned about race in US history, and something good will happen.  Other students in the very same class will deny that race can even matter because they think we're post-racial somehow.

3)  Administrators communicate that they think faculty have never ever in our lives thought about teaching, and can't even begin to think about teaching until we've been taught the official language of assessment-speak.  It may be that some few faculty never think reflectively about what the heck they're doing standing in front of 30 or 200 students, but I've never met a single faculty member who didn't talk as if they thought reflectively. 

4)  There's an ever-changing target, and it always involves a lot more work for faculty.  I recently wrote about spending hours in department meetings figuring out how we were going to apply for our courses to move from the old general education to the new general education system, even after we've all been told that the new system was specifically designed so that the top 70 courses from across the university would be the same top 70 courses in the new system.  That is, the system is designed to be almost exactly like the old system in everything but names.  We fill out the forms in good faith, spending hours to get the language just as the committee has told us it wants, and then the committee comes back and says that we have to do all those forms differently because what they said they wanted isn't it after all.

5)  There's an ever-changing target because the folks who claim to be assessment experts have little idea about what they're doing, and so keep constantly coming up with new ways of figuring out how to measure students as products because students as products aren't measurable.

I've been through assessment systems based on: portfolios, exit interviews, "embedded" assessment, and on and on. 

6)  It takes an administrator just a few seconds to demand hours of work from faculty and staff in any department, and none of that work seems at all helpful to our teaching.  Time is not flexible, not really.  If 20 people in my department spend an hour in a meeting working on assessment stuff, that's an hour we could be spending another way, and 20 hours altogether, which is half a work week for normal employees.

That's it.  I have to work on some stuff that actually may be of use to my colleagues.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

When You Just Shouldn't

My pal over in Underwater Basketweaving needs to write the basic thank you letters to the people who served on their deepwater search.  It's a basic thing, partly to acknowledge the extra work these folks put in (extra work anyone on a search puts in), and partly to make sure that they get something for their file, which can be important for tenure and promotion and such.  For that purpose, the UB person always CCs the chair.  It just means that a copy goes into the personnel file, so that folks can see it if they look.

But this time, my UB friend says he wants to also CC the dean because he wants to make sure that the dean is aware that her decisions matter, that her putting off the decision meant that people did work for nothing, more than they would have if she'd made the decision two weeks ago, or if she'd not given hints that the search was going through.

While tempting, perhaps, this seems like a bad idea to me, and I've told him so.

What do you folks think?

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Ax

Budgets are being cut again here at NWU; supposedly our beloved state had budget problems, and the state university system is where such problems get balanced.

We're running pretty lean here, but cuts are happening, and more are on the way. 

Word is out that each department chair is having an individual budget meeting with the Dean, and getting the word on cuts, and the word is painful.  So says my friend who had her meeting already.

The bad news in Underwater Basketweaving is that their job search for a Deepwater Specialist is cut.  They've sent out letters to all the applicants, more than 100 of them, explaining the search's elimination.  And all that time faculty put in, staff put in, to prepare and start reading the applications, all that time is gone. 

Why didn't the Dean make that decision a month ago?  Instead, the signals the basketweavers got was full steam ahead, until it wasn't, and then it was a complete turn around.  Not a complete surprise, because everyone knew it was a possibility, but a turn around.

If the Dean decided a month ago, then that would have saved faculty time, but also the time of 100 plus candidates, all of whom spent (in all likelihood) a goodly bit of time preparing their letter for the UB department's ad.

So, I'm grumpy.

But.  I'm not supposed to know.  Yes, the cancelled searches seem to be being kept secret; I only know this one because I know the staff person who had the unhappy duty to send out all the cancelled job letters to the applicants.

It seems to me, the secrecy thing is really unhealthy.  We're in this together, and we should all learn in a timely manner of decisions that affect us, shouldn't we?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Happy Opportunity!

I've finally (after at least a decade) get to teach Shakespeare at the upper division level!

Our lower division Shakespeare is a genre-oriented survey type course.  The upper division Shakespeare is a theme-oriented course.

So, now the question is, what theme?

I'm thinking of a couple.  I have a secret goal, too, which is to teach the last of the Shakespeare plays I've never taught before, Timon of Athens.

So, what themes sound fun?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


Like lots of schools, we here at NWU are busy reforming our general education system.  In large part, this is prompted by the corporatization requirements of our accreditor, which demands that we measure output to prove that our students actually learn stuff.  (Our accreditor also accredits one of the more disreputable for-profit "educational" corporations, so I might be a little cynical about it as an accrediting body.)

In part this is prompted by everyone's sudden interest in producing graduating widgets at the fastest rate possible.

At any rate, we're supposed to measure output using criteria we develop ourselves, and then prove to the Committee for Professional Output Optimized Performance and Institutional Excellence that we've measured the output so that they can prove to the accrediting organization that we've measured and are putting out the output we claim we're outputting.

And now all the stuff is phasing in.

Right.  Last year, the Committee for POOPIE requested that all the "bigger" courses (that is, the courses that served the most students overall) that had previously given general education credit under the old system be put through a process to request POOPIE credit under the new system.

The new system has different categories.  One is content, or C.  There's content that's math, and content that's science, and content that's historically oriented, and content that's artistically oriented, and so forth.  That is, we have CM, CS, CH, CA, and so on.

There's a Social category, or S, for getting students to learn about civics and so forth, with three subcategories, organization, action, and international, so SO, SA, and SI.

And then there's the Practice category, or P, which include writing (PW), arts (PA) and so on. 

Each student is required to acquire a certain number of POOPIE stuff in each category.  (A course can count for POOP stuff, but supposedly other, err, stuff, can also count as POOPIE stuff.  This makes the housing folks happy, because they want to count dorm parties as POOPIE stuff.  As they tell us, most POOP happens outside of classrooms.)

The Department of Underwater Basketweaving duly (so my contact reported) spent many hours of department meetings deciding which categories to apply in.

"Intro to Understanding Underwater Basketweaving" folks applied for CH and CA POOPIE categories, because they study both the history of underwater basketweaving and the artistic aspects of underwater basketweaving.

"Social Underwater Basketweaving" folks applied for SA and PA POOPIE categories, because they make baskets and teach about how underwater basketweaving is social action, because the personal is the political in underwater basketweaving.

Intro to Underwater Basketweaving Reed Cultivation" folks applied for CS and SA POOPIE categories, and so forth.

From what I heard from my Underwater Basketweaving friends, many hours of brainstorming went into these discussions.  Over the years, the department has developed lots of general education courses to serve the university, so they had a number of courses to do applications for, and a number of them applied under CH and CA POOPIE categories.  And sent them off for review in April and May, as required by the Committee on POOPIE.

And now, this year, the Committee on POOPIE is meeting regularly to decide which categories of POOPIE each course is going to qualify for based on the applications put forward by the departments.

And now, they've apparently decided that no single course can teach two Content categories (or two Practice categories, and so forth).  So all the courses that had put forward as CH and CA (a fairly common request in the Underwater Basketweaving area, because the courses teach an art form and often historical contexts for the art, and so forth) have all been rejected, while the courses requesting SA and PA POOPIE categories have been accepted.

Why didn't they tell departments across campus last year that no course would be allowed to claim it taught both CH and CA content?  If they had, departments across campus would have decided during all those hours of brainstorming and work which they'd apply for, and not spent time needlessly trying to word things just right in both categories.

And thus ends my tale of woe.  Or, perhaps, tail of woe?

Sunday, November 02, 2014


I was reading through effbee posts this morning; one of my friends, a native upper Midwesterner whom I'd met in a big coastal city, and who's since moved to another not quite as big coastal city, had linked this article by Darcey Steinke on Salon about "Growing Apart on Facebook" (Link).

Mostly the article's about how Steinke moved from a smaller, Southern community to NYC, but finds the Facebook connections to her old high school friends at once alienating and thought-provoking.

But as she's talking about growing up in the 70s, she has this to say about their mothers:
All our mothers were discombobulated. They’d been raised to be housewives, but the new culture insisted they get jobs and personal checking accounts. Seventies culture glorified working women like Mary Tyler Moore and Hill Street Blues’ Joyce Davenport. Our moms had become outmoded, female versions of Willy Loman, with a skill set no longer valued.

I read that, and my brain went, "yes, exactly."  I'm often frustrated by my Mother, but I've never quite put the frustrations together like this.  I'm thinking now about how difficult it was to grow up, and have all these expectations about how the world was supposed to work, and then have your kid (me) adore Mary Tyler Moore (I fantasized about being able to have my own studio apartment someday because that seemed to me the greatest heights a woman could aspire to), and have that same kid pretty much reject the life you were leading.  Now, my Mom sometimes seemed pretty unhappy in that life, stifled, but still, she also seemed happy much of the time.

The article goes on to say
A few of our mothers went to work or back to school, but most of them, disoriented and threatened, put even more pressure on us, their daughters, to be traditional, to define ourselves through boyfriends and, later, husbands, to hold our looks as our most valuable asset and to uphold the sanctity of the traditional home.
And that's where my Mother was different, because even though she was uncomfortable, and even though she would have preferred me to want to be traditional, to marry and be a stay at home mother, she completely supported my going to college, and joining the Peace Corps, and all the other crazy stuff I've done along the way.  She's proud of me, even as she's hurt that I've rejected the sort of life she led, and even though she often seems to feel that my rejection is a condemnation of her.