Monday, December 28, 2015

And We're Back!

I hope you've had wonderful holidays if you celebrate at this season.  I did.

And, I became smart phone enabled (I had a flip phone before), which is exciting.

I got a bonsai redwood tree, which I love, and am afraid will die here.

I spent much of the afternoon working on a small project, and am just about finished.  I'm pretty happy with the way it's turning out.

I've got a lot of stuff to do this break.

SAA paper
Revise another paper
Prep three courses, one pretty darned new
Committee work
Different committee work
Prep a library program for February

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why is Grading so Hard?

It's not hard like breaking rocks or using a short-handled hoe, but it's hard.  Anyone who grades knows that.

But why?

It's repetitive, but so is playing solitaire.

It's repetitive AND takes a bit of concentration, but so does playing solitaire.

So why is grading what I'm avoiding, and solitaire what I've been doing to avoid?

I think solitaire has little rewards built in; you feel a little good when you solve the game.  But shouldn't I feel a little good when I grade an exam?  (I'm down to exams now.)

Maybe grading is higher stakes?  So it's repetitive and takes concentration, but unlike solitaire, you have to focus on getting it right or there will be problems.

And unlike solitaire, real people will be affected if there are problems, and I care about those people a fair bit, and want them to succeed for real.  (And not just in a letter grade sort of way.)

I wish I felt that there were an ethical way to give scantron exams in a lit course.

So, what is it?  Why does grading feel so hard?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Wrapping Up

I gave my two finals yesterday, and by the end of the second day, I'd graded the easy "half" (essay) of each.  I still have the passages and short answer parts, but I feel suddenly totally less stressed about grading.

My goal for the essay part of exams is that students will put what they've learned over the semester together somewhat, that they'll be able to work with what they've learned in a somewhat fuller way.

To that end, I start a couple weeks out with brainstorming, and have them make a list of topics that might be good on the exam, and give them the parameters (works from across the term, theory/critical works if an upper level course).  They take that list, and then do some work (either individually or in groups, or both) to try crafting some essay questions.  Then I take their essay question and work them into a list of questions, shaping them a bit. 

At that point, I bring those questions back to the class and they narrow the choices.  Then, if need be, I narrow the choices, until I have five, which I work into real essay questions, so that I think each of them could be used to write a really good exam essay.

And then, about a week before the exam, I take those to the students, and they choose the final three.  Of those three, two will appear on the final exam, and they'll write about one of them.  They can use books and notes on that part of the final.

So, they have a week to prepare to write about two of the questions, and can do whatever level of preparation they wish.  (I do warn them about the dangers of not preparing and thinking they can just look at notes or whatever during the exam.)  A lot of students do two essay outlines, and then mark things in their texts or notes to bring in.  A few write the actual essays and then copy them out during the exam.  (That seems overkill to me, but oh well.)

The thing is, they have time to spend really thinking about the essay questions, so by and large, they tend to write good exam essays, and some of them really bring things together in super ways.

In my intro course, which I blogged about re the calendar, and the initial challenge, back in May, and choosing the longer works here, students brought up race/racism, family, social class/wealth, and other good stuff in their initial brainstorming, and when I gave them the final, with a question about how the literature represented race/racism and a question about how the lit represented families, about half chose the race/racism question, and overall, everyone did a good job.  A few of them really wrote well (or else they wrote well about what they thought I wanted them to write about.  Is there a difference?).

More than one or two of the race/racism essays talked about being a white person, and not having experienced racism, and so reading about it made them think about their own experiences in different ways.

A few of the family essays were insightful and thoughtful, too.  (Most intro writing course essays were intro writing course essays.  They did the job as such, and did it just fine.)

Overall, then, I'm feeling pretty good about that course, the literature I taught, and what students learned.

My favorite piece from the semester is Kwame Alexander's "Life" (which is still under copyright, so I guess you have to go look in a library!).  I showed students pictures of termites, and talked about what it means to be a "liberal" and why that might not be enough, and what it means to use "termite" as a metaphor for white folks, and how that makes me think, and so forth.  So I felt a bit vulnerable teaching it, but it made me think and rethink!


I taught Timon of Athens in the Green Shakespeare course (and it worked pretty well, and I liked it a whole lot more on rereading than I had before).  As I'd blogged about here, Timon was the last play I hadn't yet taught.  And now I've taught it, so I've finally achieved one of my weird goals from when I first started teaching.

All in all, a challenging semester with lots of new stuff to teach, and all in all, I think a good semester.  Next semester, new challenges!  But for now, a massage and then some more grading.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reading Papers

I'm reading this stack as they're stacked, which is the reverse of how they were handed in, if that makes sense.  The first few were stellar, and then I had a couple of very much less stellar ones.

Symbolism here, symbolism there, but nary a definition or thinking about what they mean or why anyone should care.

Unsupported assertions.  Character X responds thusly.  Except she doesn't seem to in the words I read. 

I have to get back to it.  I'm behind on my self-imposed schedule for how many I'm supposed to read in a given time.  The lousy ones really, really slow me down.  How the heck to respond?

I hope the next one is stellar again.  Please, let them be good!

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Morning of Interruptions

I came in this morning with two big tasks: to finish writing an exam for a student to take early (because they have three exams on the regular day, and thus have a right to request one early), and to finish (and record) a set of papers.  I started out with about four hours to do that, and it was perfectly reasonable.

Meanwhile, the department was also having a lunch potluck (I made and brought cookies) from 11:30-1:30.

Then I wasted some time getting a slow start.  No problem, still plenty of time.

Then a colleague came by and wanted to talk, and that turned into an hour or more.  It was important, but not expected.

No problem, still enough time if I'm careful.  I finished writing the exam, and started in on the leftover papers (most of which I graded over the weekend).

Then a student came for an appointment to talk about the final later in the week, and that took over 45 minutes.  The problem was that they hadn't reread or really thought about the essay questions for the final (questions they've had since last Monday), and so they weren't really ready to go to town on the brainstorming.  Still, in that 45+ minutes, I think I helped them a whole lot to prepare.

Then I took my cookies in to the set up room, with just about an hour to go.  I went back to the office, closed my door, and restarted grading.  And within just under an hour, I'd finished the grading and recorded the grades. 

I went to get a bite of the lunch food, leaving a note on the door so the student coming for the early exam could find me, and before I'd even had a chance to put food on my plate, the student showed up early.  Fortunately, she let me get some food, so I did, and then got her started on her exam a few minutes later.

Then I went to turn back the papers (there's a "final" that I have to be at, but I don't have to give a final or take attendance), and picked up the next stack from this class.

I have to say, I think I just graded the single strongest stack of papers I've ever graded.  Holy cow, over half were As, and I'm not known as a super easy grader.  They just really, really put in the work on these projects!  I hope the next set is also pretty good!

And now: I need to write the regular exam for that class, and an exam for another class.  And if I do that before I go home, and make copies, I don't have to come back until Thursday!  (Between now and Thursday, I have a big stack of upper level course papers.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Modes of Grading

I was at a collegial gathering last night, and of course some of the conversation turned to the end of the semester, and grading.  And then a couple of folks started talking about modes of grading, of getting through big stacks of papers, especially.

One of my colleagues says he grades alphabetically, except that if he's pretty sure the first paper will be horrid, he moves it to the back.  He told me that grading alphabetically means he doesn't choose to grade the papers he thinks will be strongest first, leaving him a stack of much harder papers at the end.

My dissertation director told me that he mixed, "salted" was the term he used, the papers he knew would be good into the stack so that he wouldn't get a long string of bad ones.  I remember being vaguely horrified by this, wondering how it was he knew who'd write a good paper or not.  I'm less horrified now because I know how he knew. 

I graded some yesterday, by choosing the ones I've seen a lot in office hours, which meant they were quicker to grade, and they were good, and so not unpleasant to grade.  And now I have a mixed bag left, mostly ones I haven't seen repeatedly in office hours, and one I have, but know isn't going to be easy to grade despite the best efforts of a very nice student.

I often have students write something on the back of their papers, so that I can read something different.  During the main part of the semester, I tend to have them write something about how they feel about the paper, and what they'd change, and then a question that's more random, often (excluding my class), what's their favorite class, or how's college treating them, or whatever.  And then if I get frustrated, I read the notes, and it often helps somehow.

If I just have to put a grade on (as with final exam essays), it's much faster, but since I'm returning these papers during the final, I need to write a helpful note, too, and that makes it so much harder.

Then there's the deal making: if I grade three papers I can have a cookie (or whatever), which I find not so useful because I'm able to get the cookies if I want them at any time.  And also, I have to make the cookies, generally, which takes more time than just eating one, and is time that I'm not grading.

And housecleaning.  How many of us have cleaner houses at this point of the semester than at any other (except maybe midterms)?  Guilty!

What are your grading modes? 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Little Boost

One of my colleagues posted today about how hard he's finding it to teach first year students, and contrasting the ways his MA students and intro students have handled their respective assignments, in class discussions, and so forth.  He sounds really beaten down.

Then I went to the final peer revision day for my first year writing course.  Now, these students are exceptionally motivated, because they all want to get into our nursing program, and it's really tough to get into.  We've been working cooperatively with a nursing class, so they've been mostly writing on related topics that they're really interested in.

Anyway, I read and gave feedback on several really excellent drafts.  At the end, I gave one last student feedback.  They'd written a really strong draft for the project, and were commenting on how much they'd learned doing to last two projects. 

And then they talked a bit about how much they'd learned in college, and how, sitting with some friends, talking into the wee hours, they'd really felt like they're in college, like they're having the sorts of deep conversations that college is supposed to be about.  (We try to foster those conversations in classes, of course, but sometimes, the best college conversations happen in dorms and stairwells, with nary an instructor in sight.)

It really gave me hope.  These particular students have come a long way in their writing; they're all thinking more complexly about things than they were just a few short months ago.

And they'll continue to grow.  That does give me some hope.  Really, it does.  I feel so much better after talking with her than I did before.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Crying in Class

I cried in class yesterday.

Yeah.  A bit embarrassing.  It's the Paulina's last speech in The Winter's Tale that gets me every time.  It didn't used to.  But then my Dad died.  And the thing is, I'm not crying out of thinking about my grief that my Dad died, but rather, I cry because I'm thinking about my Mom's grief.  It's been 16 years, and my Mom's doing well, but I know that she misses my Dad, her husband of many years, deeply every single day.

So when I cry at those lines by Paulina, I'm not grieving Antigonus, but grieving for Paulina's pain, which feels very real to me in a way it didn't 17 years ago.  And I know, despite Leonte's attempt to wrap things up neatly with the marriage to Camillo, Paulina's still going to know grief.  Or, well, I imagine the character would if she existed at all once the scene ends.

Shakespeare doesn't really represent many grown up married couples who seem to have good marriages, and even fewer widows or widowers who grieve their partner.  Macbeth doesn't have time, nor do Antony and Cleopatra, and their in such a different world, where suicide makes sense as a response.

Antigonus and Paulina seem to have a decent relationship.  In 2.3, the scene where Leontes tells Antigonus to make Paulina "stay her tongue," Antigonus basically says he can't, and doesn't seem particularly bothered that he can't.  Leontes threatens to kill both Antigonus and his wife if Antigonus doesn't carry out his wishes regarding the baby (later Perdita), and thus can force Antigonus to commit what he's pretty sure will be murder.  Thus, his tie to Paulina distinguishes his act of obedience to Leontes' murderous intent from Camillo's avoidance of obedience to the order to kill Polixenes.  Camillo can, apparently, go into exile because he leaves no one behind for Leontes to attack, while Antigonus leaves Paulina and
 ... three daughters; the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, nine, and some five (2.1)
 He has a lot to worry about.  (The daughters are never mentioned again, and seem to be there more for momentary effect than plotting; in 2.1, Antigonus is trying to convince Leontes that Hermione was chaste, as was Paulina, and if they aren't, he'd "geld" his daughters to prevent them producing "false generations."

And so, there's Paulina 16 years later, seemingly alone with her grief, still remembering Antigonus in the midst of others' celebration:

There's time enough for that;
Lest they desire upon this push to trouble
Your joys with like relation. Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost. 
She reminds us that death and grief are, in this play, still real and powerful.  So, yeah, I cried.

(All quotations from The Winter's Tale from: the MIT Text site.)

Monday, December 07, 2015

Special Arrangements

It seems like this semester, I have more students than ever before needing special arrangements for stuff at the end of the semester.  It's all reasonable and legitimate: too many finals on one day, emotional health issues, and so forth.

The thing is, though, I'm getting to capacity.

In one course, I got an electronic thing asking for a rescheduled final because the student had three finals on one day.  But the electronic thing basically asked me to just set a time.

So, I chatted with the student, and found a time that makes sense for both of us, and filled out the form.  That means I need to write a second final exam for this student.  Okay, it's extra work, but it's reasonable and has to be done.  (I do write a different exam because I don't want a copy of the one this student takes to find its way to other students, giving them an unfair advantage on their final.)

Then I got an electronic thing from another student requesting to take the same exam in the services office, but asking for it to start after the real exam had finished.  So, maybe this student has no nefarious plans (I don't think they likely do), but that seems problematic, doesn't it?

I called the office, and the people in charge weren't there, and the student worker answering the phones suggested that the student probably had another final after mine and so wanted a different time because they get extra time.  And I said that they'd asked for the exam right after mine, and that I'd have to write another exam.  Then he said that most professors don't write a different exam.  Which pissed me off.  First, I think that's BS.  Second, how would he even know.  Third, what does it matter?  If I, as the person responsible, say that I'd need to write another exam, then that's so because I'm the person responsible.  I didn't tell him off, but did say that even if no one else ever wrote a different exam, I would have to.  (Only many hours later did I realize I could use the other exam I will have already written.)

So I asked the student, and the student said they just wanted an extra couple of hours to study.  I suggested that making me write an extra exam so that they got a few extra study hours was inappropriate (and actually, against the rules), and could she take it at the regular time.  She agreed that she could, and filled out a new electronic form, which has the correct starting time.  I clicked my clicks, and sent it in.

Then the wrong starting time form got re-sent to me, probably because it's an automated thing.

I have two students in another course that need different sorts of accommodations.

So I make the accommodations as best I can.  But inside, I'm tired of having to make accommodations.  It's especially frustrating when the accommodations are for mental health issues, which look through the semester like the student isn't coming to class or doing their work.  When they communicate with me earlier on, and the deanlings that work with them communicate, it's less frustrating.  But when I get an email just before the last week of class suggesting that we faculty folks might be able to make accommodations, well, again, I probably make the accommodations, but I do feel frustrated.  (Yes, I know my frustrations aren't anything like as hard as clinical depression or anxiety.)

It's hard to balance the special arrangements with the requirements that other students are meeting without feeling like things are a bit unfair to someone.  (At the same time, one of my colleagues is dealing with a death in the family, and we've been covering in various ways for them.  And that's what colleagues should do when it can be done, of course.  So, special arrangements ARE good and important.)

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that we have bigger courses, and students are more fragile (because the economy sucks, primarily, around here) and more easily derailed/hurt, and we're under more pressure to feel responsible for them (without having any real power in the world), and we're under more pressure to do more bureaucratic stuffs (assessment fail) for more students.  Because of the budget crap, we're admitting students who are less prepared than our students on average a few years ago,  and admitting international students who are less prepared and whose English is weaker than our international students on average a few years ago.

I have another student who's looking very fragile right now, too, and who's going to need special arrangements as well.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Project Season

It's that time of the semester when pretty much any course that has projects assigned, has them coming due.

I have two courses doing big projects, and one not.

The Intro to Lit turned in their second paper before Thanksgiving, and I've turned it back.  I figure, on average, they've written 12-18 typed pages for my course.  That seems about right for an Intro to Lit course, with a good part of that low-stakes, small assignments, and two papers of 2-4 pages.  They'll have a final exam during finals week.

The writing course has a big project in the works, and they'll start peer revisions (over three days) on Monday.  Today, we're working on brainstorming for the third part, and checking in with everyone on the first two parts.  They won't have a final exam, but will turn in the third part of the final project during finals, and (if all goes well in my grading life) get back the first two parts of the final project that day as well.

My upper level Shakespeare course (using ecocriticism and Shakespeare) did peer revision of their final project on Wednesday.  I've given them today as a "panic day" to work on their work, and then they'll turn in the final project on Friday of next week.  Then they have a final during finals week, when (again, if everything goes well in my grading life), they'll get back their final project.

Next week, the two lit courses will wrap up talking about the lit, review for finals, and voila, be done.


I like having the upper level courses do peer revision.  I think they get a LOT more out of peer revision than they did as first year students.  (But I also think they need to practice as first year students, and in several courses, in order to be really good by their upper level courses.)

The other reason to really like peer revision in the upper level course is that every single one of my students had a rough draft turned in to share with the other students (and which I could see) by Monday of this week.  And now they have until Friday of next week to revise. 

If I'm the only one who uses peer revision to get them to draft early, then that means that they're giving work for my course more attention.  And, yes, I think that's good.

If everyone's using peer revision a week early, then it means they've drafted all their projects for everyone and have a good week to revise and prepare for finals.  And yes, that would be ideal.


The question of the day is: how many people have upper level students either peer revise together or turn in draft stuff ahead of time?

How many of use have upper level students do a proofreading exercise before turning in their paper (or in some other way take class time to proofread their work one last time)?

Why or why not use these practices?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Talking After Returning Papers

Note: I don't know what to day about yet another day of multiple mass shootings.  I don't think saying anything much matters.  Like pretty much everyone I know, I'm tired of people saying that we need to stop gun violence without actually doing anything to stop gun violence, violence against black men, violence against black women, violence against women of all races, violence by white men, yeah, gun violence in so many forms, overlapping, but all too often resonating with the same explanations.


I handed back papers in my intro to lit course the other day, and there were a couple of dissappointed students, several of whom have come to office hours to talk to me.

They had a lot in common.  We went over the papers together, and in each case, they could see where their paper had problems.  In each case, I basically said something along the lines of them being smart and capable, and what they should learn for the future from this paper, how they can do better on the final, how they'd done better on other written work, how this is a stressful time.

And in each case, I think they really needed to hear those things, especially that I think they're smart and capable.  I think their response was only partly about the grade, but more about feeling disappointed in themselves and not wanting me to think they're stupid or lazy or whatever. 

I don't think they're stupid or lazy or whatever.  I think they wrote a poor paper, but that has no reflection, really, on whether they're smart or hard-working or not.  I've certainly written poor papers or done poorly on exams, and it usually meant that I didn't study or work quite hard enough on that thing.  But the poor paper or exam wasn't me as a human being, and I eventually learned to work a whole lot harder on the things that are important to me.  And I'm certain they'll learn and do better in the future.

And, finally, it's okay for 18 year olds to need a little reassurance. 

(That said, some of the papers were really good, too.)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Required vs Available

We've had a physical activity requirement since time immemorial.  Students usually complete it by taking one single credit course in some physical activity, from power walking to weight lifting to whatever.

Except, in recent years, we haven't offered enough places in these courses for students to be able to take and complete the requirement.  In a school of about 10,000 students, we have a backlog of 3000 one credit courses, and the backlog grows all the time.

I'm all for students being active and such, but the idea that they had to take a formal class in walking or whatever just seems so 1950s to me.  I'm sure it worked well for all the assistant coaches of this and that back when, but as assistant coaches weren't rehired, the backlog grew, and the assistant coaches who are absolutely vital, you know the ones who coach football, they don't have time for all the students who are required to take the course.

We're trying to get rid of the requirement, and many folks are trying to make the getting rid of part count for students already on campus.  And a few folks are arguing against that since some students have actually done the requirement, and won't they feel bad.  Seriously, we have a backlog that's more than a year's worth, which means it's a requirement that's causing some students not to be able to graduate when they otherwise would, and we're worried that some students who've managed to take the class will be cranky.  (They might, but I think we should just say something along the lines of "we're sorry, we messed up, and we're trying to make things less crappy for people as we can.")


We've reformed our general education.  We spent years, literally years discussing what we want students to do here, and one of the things we mostly really wanted was for all students to have an experience of creating some sort of art.

That's unaffordable, though.  We aren't actually willing to use our minimalist budget for arts.  And the budget is even smaller and more minimalist than it was when we started brainstorming and talking about what we wanted.  So now pretty much every single major program on campus is writing up a senior level course (or several) to count as a creative endeavor. 

I do believe that all sorts of work is creative, that figuring out how to design an experiment that tests what you want to test, that's creative.  Figuring out how to market products is also creative.  And so on.  But when we brainstormed, we really wanted this to be a creative endeavor in the arts.

So, yeah, not so much the arts anymore.

I'm going to hear some opera tonight.  I'm happy about that!  I may not be making music, but I'm sure glad some of our students are!

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The [Name Brand] Conundrum

My school has this program for students who are parents; they can sign up, and write down their kids' (or kid's) ages and what they want for Christmas.  Faculty and staff sign up, and buy and wrap the stuff, and give it anonymously, putting a paper tag with the appropriate number on it (which is taken off so the kid doesn't feel like a number).  The gifts are supposed to be no more than $20.  That's important, of course, because if there are three kids in the family, and someone goes out and spends $100 on one, and the other kids get the $20 gifts, there will be very hurt feelings.  For me, $20 isn't much to spend, but it's a lot and adds up quickly, so it's probably a reasonable amount.

Anyway, the paper tags came out.  I have a 10 year old girl who's listed as wanting "Sculpey Clay" and a writing journal.  So I looked up "Sculpey Clay" and apparently it's a name brand and not just a different way of saying "stuff to shape with" or something.  I found a local craft store that has it, and off I went.  (I scoped out some journals the other day in a bookstore, so I'd have an idea of prices to balance for the $20.)

At the craft store, there's the Sculpey Clay, and next to it, another polymer sculpting clay.  The thing is, the other brand is WAY cheaper, so if I got that, the girl would get a bigger hunk (or multiple mid-sized hunks) to play with.  The Sculpey clay is more expensive, almost twice as expensive.

And there's my conundrum.  Get more of what's probably basically the exact same stuff, or get the name brand that someone (a parent, I suspect) has written down?

If I were buying the clay for myself, I'd get a big hunk of the other brand.  But maybe that's because I don't know the difference.

But I also remember being a kid and really, really wanting the name brand of something, and then being really disappointed when I got the non-name brand that was probably just as good but never seemed as good in my little kid eyes.  You know?  I also remember times when I got the name brand and was thrilled.  So there's that.

And maybe it's the parents who want the special name brand stuff for their kid? 

So, anyway, I bought a multi-pack with some hunks of bright colored Sculpey clay.  And then I went to the bookstore and bought a writing journal that felt well-bound, was aesthetically pleasing with a good number of pages.  I may be a few cents over the $20, but not too much.

Should I have bought the bigger hunks, or was it right to buy the special brand?

Cooperating Professor

That's what they call it over in the history department when a student working on their capstone asks another professor for advice.  Usually, it's another history professor, which totally makes sense.  For a student who's interested in Tudor stuffs, it's me, I guess, because there's no one in the history department who does English history.  (They've made a conscious choice to focus on US public history, with a few offerings from around the world, but they're not big enough to cover everywhere equally, and that's that.  They do a good job with the US public history stuff, and contribute a lot to regional work.)

Just over a month ago, I met with the student, who'd asked me before to be the cooperating professor.  At that meeting, I'd made some suggestions.  And then I didn't hear from the student, and since I've been busy in the way we all are, I hadn't much thought about the project until I turned the leaf on my weekly calendar and saw that the presentation was last evening.

So I got there a bit early, and the capstone professor was happy to see me, but also embarrassed because the student was supposed to have sent me a copy of the paper so I could read it ahead.  I did have time to read it while things were finishing up with the previous student, and then I joined the room of students sitting around a seminar table all civilized and such.

They have this pattern.  First, the professor in charge asks the student a friendly question about why they chose the topic they did.  Then the whole group looks at a manual of writing history papers and they talk about the formatting issues.  Then one of the students who was assigned as "editor" talks about the suggestions they made and what more they'd suggest.  Then another student who was assigned as "critic" makes some suggestions.  While this was happening, I was making some notes to prioritize what I thought would be helpful to say, having only quickly read the paper.  I came up with four points I thought would be helpful, one of which built on what the "critic" had to say.

And then it was my turn.  So I tried to be helpful.

The thing is, I'm not a historian.  I think I'd find a real historiography class fascinating, and I've read a tiny bit of historiography, but not much; I don't have the training to think like a historian.  But, I read historian's work.  I read, and admire, and reread, and think, and reread, because what historians do is amazing and fascinating, and how they work with the evidence they find is just so interesting.  And I've got a sense that a lot of the hard thinking that historians do gets sort of hidden when they write things up because they make it look so much easier than it really seems when I look at the sorts of records they work with.

Anyway, I hope I was able to be helpful.  It was weird because the professor in charge is pretty senior around the university, very smart and well-respected, and I partly felt like I needed to perform for him in providing feedback.  But, the paper was really not very good.  So, I don't know.  I'm guessing (hoping!) this wasn't typical of the capstone papers, but rather was a pretty weak paper.  I'm guessing (hoping!) that the papers written on areas he's more familiar with and the department's stronger in are stronger papers.

There was a core of an interesting idea, but really, not the sort of thinking about evidence and sources that I expect in my own students' senior work, and our students don't have two semesters to focus on writing a project.  So, is the capstone professor embarrassed by the student's work?  Was I too harsh because he thought it was a good paper?  I don't know.

I don't know if the student secretly was aware the paper was weak and so didn't send it to me or remind me, or if the student didn't send it to me or remind me because the student is a weak student who let's things go. 

At any rate, that task is done.  I tried to give helpful feedback, and the student has two weeks to work before the paper is due for real, so maybe the student can pull it off.

November is over.  Finals grading looms, though I have only a few straggly things to grade right now and an SAA project to work on (and, of course, some class prep) for the next couple of days.

Happy December, everyone!  May your students all head into finals with their pens poised!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Back at It

There was a break.  Glorious break!

I went to visit my sibling's family.  After a three hour drive, I got there before half-time of the first game on Thanksgiving, and watched a bit of the game.  Then I borrowed a chair in the home office and graded.  I started with 23 papers to grade, and graded away because I wasn't interested in football, but the others either were watching football or doing other stuff off alone.

I graded through the second game.  And then we had dinner, and chatted together, and it was good food, good company, good conversation.

We cleared up.

The third game started, and I watched a bit, and then went to bed.


Day two, I got up, had some coffee.  Then I graded, because the others were either sleeping or doing their own thing.

I finished all my grading.  I'm that boring.  Or something.  But it was better than shopping or watching yet more football stuffs.  In the evening, I drove three hours to get home.

So, basically, I drove six hours for an hour meal and some conversation.  I could have graded at home, but I was MUCH more efficient when I was avoiding football.

I DID introduce my niece to Jane the Virgin, and we did chat, which was lovely.


And now we're back at it.  Papers are being written (I hope); endless questionnaires are being sent out (why, oh why, now?). 

My students have nothing, nothing at all to say about Persepolis.  Grrrr.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's No Wonder...

My Mom called yesterday, just after noon, on my cell.  I was between classes, so I answered, and asked if she was okay.  She said something about it being lunch time, so she'd called.  And I told her that I was working, which is pretty much what I do during lunch time.  (I have an hour between two back to back classes, and another class, so I refresh my brain for what we'll be talking about in that third class.  I do need to refresh my brain.)

And then she went on to chat, but not as long as she usually does.

She does this sort of thing occasionally, calling while I'm at work, and then seeming surprised that I don't have time to chat.

I doubt she calls my brother while he's at work and expects him to chat.

The thing is, she thinks my brother works, and works hard.  And she thinks I basically lie around and read for fun.  Or something.

Whenever she tells me how hard my brother works, I think of that meme picture showing some women in Africa hauling big jugs of water up a hill with the caption something about if people were actually paid based on how hard they work, the women of Africa would be millionaires. 

If my Mom will never believe that the one professor she knows actually works for real, then it's no wonder that our governor and legislators think we lie all day around having grad students feed us grapes.


I'm a little cranky today.  Some folks I know have no classes tomorrow because their school(s) have no classes.  The local K-12 schools have no classes ALL WEEK!

We have classes here until 5pm on Wednesday.  And so, I have plans for my three classes.

And then I hear about this or that colleague who's cancelled their classes.  I'm so tired.  I wish we could all just cancel classes.  Or I wish that I felt like I could just cancel my classes.  But instead, I resent the people that do cancel their classes and take off.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I had a most special day yesterday.

It begins like this.  Back in the beginning of time, the first house I lived in was across the street from a family.  That family had three kids, right around the ages of my brother and I (that is, toddlers and infants, basically).  Our mothers traded babysitting one afternoon a week for a couple of hours, so that the free mother could have a break.  So we played together.

Then my family moved.  But we still kept in touch, just not as much.

And their family moved, but we still kept in touch, just not as much.

And we started school, at different schools, but we still kept in touch, still felt affection, in that way.

And then, a year or so ago, we reconnected on facebook, the younger sister and I, first, learning that one of my cousins is in the same line of work in the same area, and they know each other and respect each other a lot.  And then the older sister, who'd gone off to the City Like No Other to become an actress.  She's successful enough that you've probably never heard of her, but have probably seen her on TV, or if you go to plays, on stage.

And she's now touring with a touring company of a Broadway show, with her name in lights, so to speak.

And the tour is in the Midwest.

So, we arranged to get together, and I got myself a ticket to the show.  (The matinee, because I'm a rube who had a longish drive just to get to the city.)

I was a little intimidated because we haven't seen each other in a long while, and we live very different lives.

But, you know, it was just wonderful.  We had the same feelings of friendship, but as adults who care for each others' families, too.  I don't know how to explain it, but my heart felt full and happy.  My friend was wonderful in the show, getting the laughs just where she was supposed to.

I'm so glad I went, so glad we reconnected in person.

We have vague plans to reconnect in the summer.  I'm excited!

I know a lot of people complain about facebook and the hatred people post.  I don't deny that some people post some awful stuff, and others post irritating stuff.  But I've reconnected with this friend, and my uncle's older sister, and a few other people, and I'm so happy to have those people in my life, even at a distance.

Friday, November 20, 2015

That Time of the Semester Thou Mayst See

It's that time.  We're all stressed and it shows.

I spent Tuesday grading like a madwoman, and that made my whole week better.  I could spend Tuesday grading like a madwoman because I graded last week tons, and entered the weekend with no grading, so I got to read and prep well, and that meant I was rested and could grade like a madwoman on Tuesday.  I feel like I can breathe again, and for this weekend, I only have a stack on paragraph assignments, which I think I'm going to try to do before I leave campus.

I have two big grading stacks for Shakespeare, two big grading stacks for Intro, and two big grading stacks for writing, and then the semester's done.

I have one thing to grade now, one of those revision things that I stupidly let a student do. 

I'm at the point of the semester when I'm so tired of being the softie that lets students revise crap to be less crap.  But I often am that softie.  (I try to be that softie equitably, of course.)

I have an assignment due on Wednesday in Intro to Lit, a short paper.  Of course, many students want to leave early, so they plan to turn it in on Monday.  That's fine, except some of them also want me to make extra time to see them at their convenience today, and I've run out of time.  (I saw one student at 8am, offered another an 8:30 appointment, but never heard from the potential 8:30 person.  I have three hours of class, an hour for lunch and prep between classes, and then a meeting this afternoon that will last as long as it needs to last.)

The student I met with this morning has worked very hard on their paper, and it's okay as a paper.  But the writing is just not great at the sentence level.  They aren't bad sentences per se, they aren't grammatically horrible.  But they just sit there, all doing basically the same sort of thing, not really achieving any depth or nuance.  I think it's a developmental thing; this student isn't quite intellectually ready to make sentences with depth and nuance.  The problem is, I don't know how to get this student to the point of depth and nuance, or even really how to help the student see what depth and nuance look like so they can aspire to those qualities.

That means grading it, well, right now, it's pretty much in B land.  How do I explain why it's B land and not A land, when the student has worked very hard with me on more than one occasion, and I've said encouraging things (because they're improving the paper each time).

Here's a random question.  We have class on Wednesday, though many students leave earlier in the week.  I know some schools have no class on Wednesday.  I think if we did that, our students would leave on this Friday and not come back until after Thanksgiving.  That would be fine by me on one level, if we all got that week, but if I'm expected to teach, and half the students are there, then what to do when the other half want to be taught that same stuff again (in our age of "customerizing" students)?

And a random point.  I had a massage earlier this week.  It hurt so good. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Narratives of Research?

In our first year writing course, we're required* to teach the same basic course, with four modules, the third of which is basically a lit review sort of module, where students read in an area to understand "the conversation" (a metaphor most seem to find incomprehensible), and then write an essay talking about their research.

The materials for the module suggest that research works like this:

You think of a question, and spend some time thinking of what you know and don't know, keywords, and so on.

You go to a database (or Google), and type in some key words, look, and find a source that seems appropriate.  You read the source, take notes, and then rethink things, and follow things in a slightly new direction.

You go back to a database, type in key words, look, find a source that seems appropriate.  Then you read that source, take notes, and then rethink things, and follow things in a slightly new direction.

Rinse and repeat.  So the idea is that the narrative thinks students read a source carefully, and use what they learn to figure out something newish about their question, and then follow along that.

But that's not the way I look for/at articles.  And while students pretty much obediently repeat this narrative in their essays about their research, it's not what they're doing when I observe them during our library sessions.

Here's what I do.

If I want to know what's up in a newish area, I start by asking around to see who knows, and who can suggest someone/something good.  Then I read that, and ask some more.  And then I start looking around more independently.

Or, I try to figure out some basic key words, then I go to the database, find a bunch of articles, like five or more, and save them in some way (usually emailing them to myself, or requesting them through the interlibrary loan program).  When I get to my office, I print out the articles, and start reading.  I take some marginal notes, and mostly, try to get a sense of who they've talked about as important, make some bibliographic notes for who to look for.  Maybe make a list for the library.  At this point, I'm treating these articles like the person I know who can suggest some basic readings, and looking for sorts of foundational pieces, the pieces that everyone knows and has in the back of their mind for the field.

When I'm through that five, I probably have a good sense of some foundational readings, and then I go looking for those, especially if I can find one of those overview anthologies, Foundational Readings in This Topic sorts of anthologies.  And then I sort of start over.

Here's what my students do.  Google search (unless I can convince them to start with an academic database, if appropriate).  Find three articles that are instantly available, save links somehow (only to find that those links won't work off campus, often).  Promise to read them later.

When they do read their articles later, they take them all at basically the same level.  So while I look for foundational articles, and then work forward to more recent, specific, work, they read the first articles and assume they've got the "conversation."

I'm sure my way of starting something new isn't the most efficient or even effective.  I don't think anyone ever "taught" me strategies.  But I also don't think the strategy we try to teach our students with our narrative is actually one they can use well.

Tell me some of your strategies for learning new or newish stuff.

For example, if I want to follow up on the research about how students research, and what research strategies might be most useful, how should I do it?

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Have a List

I don't think my tenure track colleagues generally realize this, but we, the tenured governance committee and it's leadership subcommittee, have a list, and they're on it.  The list is the future rotation of people to serve on the leadership subcommittee.  (There's also one for chairing the leadership subcommittee.  They're on that one, too.)  Pretty much, the first year someone's here on the tenure track, the leadership chair adds them to the tentative lists.  (The lists are tentative because people go on sabbatical, retire, have new children, or get sick, all of which require adjustments.)

The thing is, the list, that's our expectation that we're going to see our tenure track colleagues tenured and in this committee.  We look forward to it, because it's hard work, governance and reviews and such, and we want to share it with our newer colleagues, and we hope and expect that we will.

I think if my colleagues really believed that we have these lists, and that we've already put them on the lists, they'd be less stressed about reviews.

It's review season, starting now.  I have a letter to review and another letter to write this week; it's hard to write a letter that's totally positive without sounding gushy or impossible, but that's my task.  The dean in charge of such things wants our letters to be three pages, max.  We, being the English department, tend to write four and five page letters about our wonderful colleagues.  It's not just us being long-winded, but rather us trying to specifically show just how wonderful our colleagues are.

Three pages.  At least they're single spaced, right?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Night

I finished all my grading, all of it, by Friday afternoon, so for the first time in many weekends, I'm grading free.  After grading, I went by the recovery place, I don't know quite what to call it, but they seem to be all over the place these days, a sort of not quite hospital, and not a nursing home, for people who are recovering from surgery.  They stay and have help to recover, lots of physical therapy, and so on.  One of my friends is recovering from a knee replacement, and so was there since the last week. 

I didn't visit long, because my friend was tired and another friend of hers came to visit.  As I was walking out by one of the lounge areas, I saw the TV.  President Obama was speaking, but of course the sound was off, and the scroll said something about the President speaking about Paris.  I felt that sort of sick when you know something bad has happened, but you really don't know. 

I turned on the news while I drove home, but NPR was doing some other report, and the drive was short, so it wasn't until I turned on the news at home that I found out.

I really have no idea.  I'm sad, but empty.  My facebook feed showed me a flashback of a picture I took just over a year ago in Versailles, but I didn't put it up.  I didn't change anything on my facebook.  I just don't feel like I can make a difference that way.  I don't know how I can make a difference.  Such violence is beyond my comprehension. 

The next day, I saw something in the news that used the word "massacre" and I thought of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and I wondered if people in France think of that when they see the word "massacre" now?  Or has it lost that allusive sense for most people?

It's been a quiet weekend, without the usual drudge of trying to grade everything.  I've read in preparation for the coming week, prepped classes (I had prepped some on Friday, too).  I've mowed the lawn one last time, and done some of the fall garden clean up I need to do.  (I have plenty more left to do, but it's a good start.)  I visited with my friend, now moved on to her sister's home for further recovery (unfortunately, her sister lives 25 miles outside of town via rural roads, so it's not going to be easy to visit).  My friend's making a very good recovery, walking well, feeling good, and happy to be improving.

And now, I'm going to finish reading M. Butterfly again, and then take a shower and go to bed early.  Going to bed early is an amazing luxury sometimes.

And tomorrow morning, I get a new stack of projects to grade.

Counting tomorrow's stack, I have two big grading piles for each of my three courses over the next month.  In five or six weeks, the semester will be over, and all the grading must be finished.  EEP!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Rules for Blogging, Academically?

Someone linked to someone on my effbee feed an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about three rules for blogging.  (Easy enough for you to find, should you choose to do so.)

The writer's first rule has to do with platform.  F platform.  If that's what you're all hot and bothered about, really, don't even bother.  There are a couple of easy platforms.  Choose one and start.

What he should have started with is "branding" or "marketing," since that's what he seems to think blogging's about. If you're blogging to market yourself as an academic, you better be damned good, because I don't see it working for many people that way.  (But maybe we aren't marketing ourselves properly?)

So, in contrast, here are my rules for blogging.

1.  Blogging is either a private journal or about community.  If it's a private journal, that's all well and good.  Enjoy.  But if it's about community, then make sure you join the community.  Put up a blog roll and include people you read, even if you don't always agree with them.  It's not that hard to do.  And comment on the blogs of people you read.  Encourage others, recognize their work, their good ideas, their contributions.  Learn from others.

--Don't be like the occasional creative writing student I've talked to who doesn't read anyone else's work, and isn't interested in anyone else's ideas, style, work.  But they think someone should read their work and laud it.

It's no accident, I think, that the blogging community that I see as most interesting is largely comprised of women, some of whom blog, some of whom comment but don't blog.  (If you have an urge to say "what about the menz!?!?!" right now, you should calm down.  I didn't say that no men ever were good community members.)

2.  Enjoy.  Life is too short to do something without a good reason; enjoyment is a good enough reason to blog.  If you don't enjoy it, find something else that you do enjoy. 

Thus endeth the rules of academic blogging.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Talk Amongst Yourselves

I really wish we lit folks here at NWU had more time and energy to talk about lit stuffs together.  We're an unwieldy group, a lot of us, spread all over lit, theory, and pop culture sorts of stuff, but I'd really like to know what sorts of assignments my colleagues assign at different levels, how we see our assignments building skills and knowledge (if we do), how much reading we think is reasonable for our students at different levels, how much time we expect our students to spend on our courses, and so on.

It's hard, also, I think, because we're often a bit defensive.  The older folks are worried that we're not cutting edge enough, not theoretical enough, or doing the "wrong" theory.  The younger folks are worried that the tenured folks will use information against them somehow.  And we're all a bit worried, maybe, that people will think we're not working hard enough.  (I think I've mentioned, critically, a colleague who decided to use multiple choice tests for her intro courses?)

And we're all feeling absolutely overworked and looking for ways to make things a bit easier.

How much do you communicate with colleagues in your field about work loads and assignments for students?  About managing your own work loads?

Is there a good way to facilitate this sort of discussion?

(I'm thinking of inviting my colleagues to my house for hot cocoa and cookies during the winter "break" period to talk about lit and share assignments and such.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Suggestions, Please!

Well, I've now tried this assignment I call an "article report" for two semesters.*  The first semester was an out and out experiment, and it sort of worked for some students, and not for others.  This semester, I'm just frustrated.  It's not working well for more students, and it's a pain to grade.

So I'm looking for suggestions.

What sorts of assignments do you give to junior level courses that don't have (m)any prerequisite requirements, but fulfill major requirements?

I teach lit courses.  Few if any of the students have had any early British lit, or early lit period, when they take the course.**  The majors have often had theory.  The junior level courses are basically umbrella type courses.

What I'm looking for are assignments that help students build towards writing lit type research papers, but that don't require those skills.  So, I'm looking to build skills in one or more areas: asking good research questions, finding and reading "secondary" sources well (lit crit work, theoretical work, historical work), finding and reading "primary" sources well (early modern, theoretical), writing arguments about texts.

I want students to think better about what they use as evidence and how they use it, especially.

So, what sorts of assignments do you give that will 1.  help students learn (some of) the skills to write real research papers, and 2.  not require much background in the field.

How much writing do you have students do at this level, realistically?  How much reading?

*  The "article report" asked them to read a "secondary" source carefully, paying attention to what it uses as evidence and how it uses the evidence.

** We have no "survey" sorts of courses/requirements.  We do have sophomore level courses that look part of a field, but they don't do survey sorts of stuff.  So, instead of Beowulf to Virginia Woolf in a year, our students may take one or two lower-level courses looking at Shakespeare, Women Writers, Asian American lit, 19th century British Novels, and so on.  They're way better experiences for instructors AND students than most big survey courses ever seem to be, but the downside is that our students have no sense of literary development and change over time, nor of historical change over time.  So they don't have a framework.  If I ask them what "Romanticism" is, they generally have no clue.  On the other hand, they don't start out hating Chaucer.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Budget Bust in Person

I went to the local hardware store.  It's one of those sort of hole in the wall hardware stores, run by an older guy who seems to know just about everything hardware related, and who seems to be a mentor to the usually high school kids working part-time.  It's a great store.  I usually get in there one a month, more or less, usually to pick up something smallish, garden gloves maybe, fertilizer, or, this time, a small metal file.

Because I had no idea where such files would be, I stopped at the checkout counter to ask.  But I was surprised to see one of our former adjuncts working the counter.  And having a problem with the register or something.  The older mentor guy was there, gently guiding him to figure out the problem, while another customer waited. 

The adjunct and I said hi, and I waited.  And then when he'd figured it out, we had a short chat.

This particular adjunct didn't get rehired some four or five years ago, I think because he just wasn't a great teacher, though he was always a nice person.  His partner was a significantly better teacher, a real go-getter, who wasn't rehired in the recent round of budget horrors.  The partner has, it seems, landed a decent job managing or training for a company that has some local truck stops. 

And this guy is working the checkout at a hardware store.  He's probably in his 50s, and seemed new at the hardware store, and seemed embarrassed that I'd come in while he was having difficulty with the register.

And I was embarrassed because I still have a job at NWU, and those two don't.  It's not like I think I could have done anything to keep them both hired, but I still felt embarrassed.

Curricular Dance, Part 2

I met with a deanling yesterday about the curricular dance of getting some of an interdisciplinary program's courses to count for a requirement in her college.  (Here's the first post.)

Can I just say, some deanlings are wonderful.  This one is.  She basically said, yes, let me know, I'll add them to the list.  Glad to have them, makes totally sense for our students to take those courses!

She also gave me some helpful insight into the new general education requirements and how different departments are suddenly working to fit stuff in.  The fact that the stuff people are fitting has nothing to do with the original intent of the requirement, well, that doesn't matter.  We can't afford the original intent and don't want to put resources there (and don't have any spare resources), so it's pretty much out.  And you can't step this back, I don't think.

Cynical much?  Around here, so very.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Watching TV

Sometimes, when I grade, I watch TV.  (I'm less efficient when I do, but I do it to keep from going crazy.)

Yesterday, I started watching Jane the Virgin.  I liked it.  I like the bilingualism, and the way it plays with ideas of virginity and desire, the family dynamic, and it made me laugh.

The aesthetic of the costuming and set design reminded me a lot of Ugly Betty, I think for the sort of pastel fantasy, not quite real sensibility.  But, in both cases, the aesthetic works for me with the show as a whole.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Sometimes, grading poorly written papers is just so dismaying.

This isn't to say that all the papers in the stack will be poorly written, but if you start with a few that are, it's dismaying.  (And now I'm all wanting to go look up the origins of "dismay" in the OED, because "maying" seems odd, unless it's something to do with the May celebrations?  Or allowing?  Did I mention that when I'm grading poorly written papers, I get easily distracted?  "Distracted" also looks like I need to look it up in the OED.  Something to do with "tract" as a space, perhaps.  Oh, shiny...)

I'm tired of students no remembering that they need to use quotation marks for article titles, and italics or underline for book and journal titles.  It doesn't seem like it should be that hard to remember, does it.  And for some reason, it bothers me.  I can deal with some typo/usage stuffs, and I know we're not supposed to focus on typo/usage stuffs in grading, because it doesn't actually work, but the titles thing bothers me.  It just does.

I'm tired of students making broad, unsupported claims about pieces of literature.  Did you know that Macbeth doesn't believe in violence, and only kills Duncan because Lady Macbeth shamed him.  Yeah, that whole unseaming bit at the beginning of the play, that's not at all violent.  Nope.

I may have to promise myself cookie dough if I just grade this bleeping pile.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


I made a good start to the weekend last night, and read half of a play I'm teaching next week.  I can't seem to find teaching notes for it, which probably means I've never made a folder (either physical or virtual).  GRRRR.  I've taught this play several times before, and enjoyed teaching it, so I should have notes.  But I couldn't find them.  So I need to make sure I make a folder this time.

I have about 50 papers to grade this weekend.  But what I really want to do is go buy some things!  I've gotten to a point where a lot of my winter socks are wearing at the heels.  They're going to wear through soon, and I want new socks!  And I want some new long johns (tops).  I have four "technical" long johns base layers sorts of tops, and they're great.  But I want another color.  (First world problems!)  (Long johns make winter way better!)

I have really good news.  A couple I know, really fine, good people, are formally adopting a child they've been fostering.  I'm so happy for the whole family!  I've even arranged for someone to teach an hour of my class so I can go witness the happy event.

I need to think of a present.  Maybe a game?  Maybe a book for the child and flowers for the parents?  Something joyful.  (The child is a girl, about 11 years old.  Because we don't live really close, I don't know the child very well.  What I know of her, though, is that she's really fun, plays soccer and such.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Curricular Dance

The budget crisis here means we're all competing for students at all levels.  The university is competing, desperate to raise enrollments some.   Departments and Programs are competing for majors and minors, desperate to survive.  Courses are competing for enrollments, both for the instructors' survival and for their program/department.

Part of the competition for courses is to fulfill general ed sorts of requirements, some of which vary by college or department.  Letters requires languages, education requires special stuff, business requires other special stuff.

I'm chairing the curriculum committee of an interdisciplinary program this year, and we're even more desperate than most others, because we don't have a department, the budget is a joke, and we're teaching almost all our courses through the extension arm, but the dean has threatened that we can't do that again.  (The threat has gone out to lots of programs that are teaching through extension this semester.)

 There are two related special requirements in one of the colleges, and some courses fill one, some courses fill both of those requirements.  In our meeting yesterday, we looked at those courses, and looked at what the catalog says, and tried to figure out if some of our courses could also fill one or both of these requirements. 

As chair, it was my job to email the dean to ask about the criteria for courses to fill those requirements, with the goal that we might meet those criteria, and so our courses might fill those requirements, and so a few students from this college might be encouraged to take our courses.

And the dean basically wrote back that they don't really have criteria, they just come to an agreement about courses, and yes, the dean thinks they'd be interested in having more courses fulfill the requirement, and ours might, and I should get hold of a deanling to talk specifics.

Now maybe this means, no problem!  Our courses will fit for sure!  YAY!

Or maybe this means, we have secret criteria which we won't tell, and since we don't have much respect for your program, your courses will never fit, but I'm not going to tell you, and neither will this deanling, but we'll just never quite agree that they fit.

One or the other?

I'm hopeful for the first.  But this dean is, in my experience, pretty much a stickler for rubrics and details and micromanagement, and politics, so it might be the latter.  Or it may be that the dean hasn't had time to get all detail oriented with this particular issue, and so there really aren't good criteria, or maybe they think it's sort of a BS requirement, so they're willing to go with anything that sounds somewhat reasonable to get their students through?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sent Off

I just sent off what I hope is the final draft of an essay for publication.  It's been a long process, and I hope it's done.

Revision is my greatest weakness as a writer.  It really is. 

One of the difficulties was that the editors didn't get back to me with revision suggestions until after the semester had begun, and needed it by, well, last Saturday (I emailed and got an extension until Wednesday, and sent it today, so not too bad).  But this semester I've been swamped with stuff, especially since I'm teaching two lit courses that are pretty much totally new, and my comp course is somewhat new. 

I think folks who teach 2 or 3 lit courses a semester don't see the work of teaching comp the way someone who teaches comp does.  And just as I, teaching 11 credit hours a semester don't quite see the work of someone who teaches 15 credit hours.  And so on.


1.  I need to be less willing to teach new preps, and instead teach the same basic prep again, as most of my colleagues do.

2.  I need to use my time better.

3.  I need to use my time better in oh so many ways.

I'm now way behind.  I have a book to finish rereading (I've never taught it before), a play to finish rereading (again, one I've never taught before), a stack of midterms to grade, a stack of lit papers to grade, and a stack of comp papers to grade.  And I'm supposed to turn in midterm grade reports for all my first year students (50+) by Friday.

On the other hand, a couple I'm friends and their child are having the official adoption court date soon, and I'm thrilled for them all.  It's such wonderful news!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Courses in Spring

It's advising season here in the northwoods, so our master undergrad adviser sent out the list of topical course descriptions.  (We've organized many of our courses as "umbrellas" by geography and broad period.)

It would be fun to look back ten years and see how we write courses to follow our developing interests and trends.

Ten years ago, we'd likely have had one transnational course.  This spring we'll have three very different ones, focused on different areas within transnational studies. 

We have a couple courses on a small geographic area, following a faculty member's interest.  The courses are different (film, novels), and both sound interesting, if not my cup of tea.

We've got one very traditional white men write novels and short stories in the 19th and 20th century US, sort of course.  Ten years ago we would have had two, probably.  But one of the faculty folks has since retired.

One of my colleagues is teaching a course on "nature" that sounds really cool and fun.

Still, ten years ago and today, we had and have similar looking women's lit courses, post-colonial courses at the introductory level.  We still have Shakespeare.  And there's a course on early modern race, which I hope turns out to be interesting, since I have a vested interest!

I have to admit that it's fun to see my colleagues' courses, and to follow their developing interests. 

When I was on the market, one of the practice questions I most enjoyed was the "what's your dream course" question.  I consider myself very lucky that I get to teach these sorts of courses, to develop and change and use my teaching to help that development.  It's one of the best things about my job.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Six Hundred Years

This is the 600th year anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, memorialized so stirringly by Shakespeare in Henry V:

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

A good many people died that day for the ambitions of Henry V and others, and though they were promised, by Shakespeare at least, to live in memory to the ending of the world, they don't live in most of our memories.  And they didn't when Shakespeare wrote the play.

Let's be cautious about what we promise will be remembered to the ending of the world, and careful of our ambitions.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Another Shooting Today

I clicked over to the BBC for a quick look at the world, and I saw a report of a shooting near Tennessee State University at Nashville:
One person has been shot dead and three others wounded in a shooting incident at Tennessee State University in Nashville, US police say.
Police in Nashville tweeted that the violence arose after an apparent row over a dice game on Thursday night.
A 19-year-old man was killed in the argument, and three female students who were passing by were wounded.
The latest incident comes a week after three people were wounded by gunfire at an off-campus party near the college.
The suspect fled the scene on foot.
A university spokeswoman said the two men involved in the argument were not students and were believed to have been gambling.
The report is short, and says that the two men involved in the argument weren't students, but three female students passing by were wounded.  And, it says, three people were wounded a week earlier at an off-campus party near the college.

Our state legislature is, among other things, proposing that concealed carry be allowed on campuses of the state system here.  I know that folks off campus conceal carry at times, and I know that this incident happened off campus.  But it still worries me, allowing people to carry guns into campus buildings.

A couple of years ago, a really good student of mine, one of those gentle men who's kind and who study well, who's sort of geeky in the best way, was walking through the dorm entry area (you know the sort of area, where there's a TV, sitting places, and so on), when another male student, quite drunk and a good deal bigger and tougher than my student, started beating up my student.  Other students pulled him off, but he still got in a few punches.  The bruises lasted visibly for a few weeks.

If the drunk student had had access to a gun, my kind, smart, geeky student might have been killed, or more seriously injured.

Despite all the "specials" every deer season offering cheap beer and ammo at local gas stations, guns and alcohol are a bad combination.  Add young men with less self-control than we'd like, and it's a worse combination.

Even so, I worry more about students using guns to commit suicide.  If they don't have easy access, then committing suicide is just a little more difficult, and maybe a little less successful.  Access to a gun makes it so damnably easy.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


I had two weird dreams last night.

In one, I was eating at a cafeteria with someone from grad school, and complained about my grading load.  Until he, with the totally confident look he always had, mentioned that he taught four courses of comp every semester.  (I don't think he does, though, but in a dream, these things happen.)

The other dream was far weirder.  I was visiting a hospital, walking in with a friend, K, who wasn't well somehow, but was going to see the Pope, who was in the hospital ill.  I was also hoping to visit a famous writer, perhaps James Baldwin, who was also ill.  (Dreams are weird.)  K (in my dream, K is Catholic, but in the flesh, K isn't, I don't think) went in to visit the Pope.  And I waited outside.

Then there was a little electronic ding that meant I was to go in, so I did, and there, in separate but nearby beds, were James Baldwin, the Pope (Francis), and my friend K, who'd now been admitted.  There weren't any staff folks around, and the Pope wanted to go use the restroom, so I helped him up out of the bed.  He was spry, despite being ill, and sort of bouncy, but also in need of an elbow to hold.  He was also in his white cassock, and quite pleasant, in the way he seems publicly.

So we walked through a sort of labyrinth, trying to find the restroom en suite with the hospital room, and were having trouble, and the Pope was thinking of using a floor drain, but I suggested we'd find the restroom.  And then my alarm went off.

I can only think: I shouldn't complain about the grading load, or teaching or whatever.

And the Pope thing?  I have no idea.  When I woke, it made me think of the Sharon Olds Poem.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Everything Has Changed

We faculty folks were protected a bit from the budget fallout this fall, because courses had been long scheduled and students signed up for courses before the worst came down on us.  About half of our adjuncts in our department were laid off, but the chair and dean jiggered things to make the first year writing courses survive with relatively small enrollments (20 for each) though there are fewer sections.* 

We lit (broadly defined) folks just voted to change what our majors need to graduate, loosening up the breadth requirements considerably.  This follows the news that we'll be offering only 8 upper level lit courses a term; instead, most of us will be teaching general ed courses, and we'll up the enrollment caps a bit, and that's how we'll survive as a department.  At least, that's the hope.  With our numbers, it means we'll each teach about one upper level course a year, three lower level, and two first year writing.  (In the past, most of us taught one upper, one lower, and one writing every semester, for an 11 credit load.)  The talk is that we're going to rotate based on faculty rather than period.

For me, it means I'll probably never teach Chaucer again, because I can't see choosing that over an early modern course for every other year.  And I can't see teaching it well if I do it only every fourth year.

We have four people (for now, one is nearing retirement) who teach lit before 1800 (roughly) on either side of the Atlantic, and 11 who teach lit after 1800, all but one mostly Americanists, mostly 20th century, with fairly strong representation of folks who teach ethnic literatures.  As a result, there will be semesters when, if the one retires, there will be no earlier lit taught at the upper levels.  There will likely be semesters when three out of four courses are 20th century American lit.

We hired because we assumed things would stay sort of the same, and we were wrong.  So our fairly strong representation in ethnic literatures is great in that students will have opportunities to learn some great literature, but makes the 20th century feel a bit overloaded.

*It was some very creative, and not unreasonable jiggering, truth be told.  I've seen some folks across campus come up with very creative solutions.  A bunch of general ed type courses are being offered through our extension arm; they look the same to our resident students, but they're paid for differently.  It takes money from the college because there's some tuition that goes to the extension arm, so the college doesn't like it.  But the college wants the courses taught for the big general ed needs, and the college doesn't want to pay instructors (often adjuncts) to teach them, and the departments/programs haven't been allowed to hire tenure track folks to teach them and the major/minor courses, so the tenure line folks are mostly teaching courses for majors/minors. 

What the college really wants is for the tenure line people to teach big gen eds, and for the small majors/minors to disappear.  Some of those small majors/minors are exactly the ones you think: those based on ethnic, gender, sexuality.  Others, not quite what you'd think. 

Monday, October 19, 2015


I'm worried about a student.  The thing is, I know nothing about the student's problem(s).

It's as if I'm watching someone and their bread isn't turning out, and they really need a baker to help because a baker might know how to suggest ways to improve the bread that actually make sense.  But me?  I don't know whether they're using not enough yeast, or not kneading enough, or whatever.

I'm in contact with the folks who are supposed to know about baking bread, and I hope they can help the student. 

But meanwhile, I'm worried because this is way more serious than baking some bread.

Friday, October 16, 2015

More Disaster News from the Front Lines

Our state government wants to allow concealed weapons on campus.  We're not talking about a sharp wit, either.  (I know retail workers are in far more danger from guns than I am.  I don't want them to be endangered, either.)

It came up in one of my classes, as we were winding down, and the students were really disturbed by the possibility.  One said she'd be afraid to live in the dorms if weapons are allowed. 

I got an email from a student whose friend is suicidal, and my student is trying to deal with what this all means.  I emailed and suggested that s/he's doing the right thing, helping the friend, and not to worry about my class.

And here we get to the real issue with guns on campus.  Guns are really good at killing people, and students are under loads of stress, and sometimes suicidal, and making it so that they have easy access to guns seems like it will enable suicidal students to have very effective means of committing suicide.

I got another email from a student who's going to miss class because s/he has to go to a relative's funeral.  The student politely apologized and said s/he'll get notes from someone else.  (The class session isn't an exam or anything.)

It feels like for so many students this semester is spinning out of control in all sorts of bad ways.  Others are caught up in the eddy a bit, but still keeping their heads above water for now.


My department is going to add a program that will have some of our students clamoring for independent studies and so forth.  Stuff that's great, but takes a lot of faculty energy and time.  And I don't think there's any provision for helping faculty find that energy or time.  We're going to be asked, and perhaps pressured (asking a non-tenured faculty person is always/already potentially pressuring them) to do extra work, but it won't "count" towards our load in meaningful ways.  (I'm sure our personnel letters will note the work, but that's not the same as having an independent study seen as a real part of the workload.)


I was in a meeting in a far away silo earlier this week, and one of my colleagues told me that in her department, the chair is teaching a large lecture course, using four multiple choice exams for all the grades, and claiming that he's doing 900 student contact hours, and everyone else should be doing what he's doing to contribute to teaching.  My colleague is feeling chastised for teaching a senior level course for majors with small enrollment, lots of writing and such.


This has been a week of meetings.  I had a 2+ hour meeting on Monday, an 1 hour meeting on Tuesday, a 1 hour meeting on Wednesday followed by a 1.5 hour meeting, and today, I have a 1.5 hour meeting and another 1 hour meeting scheduled.  This on top of meetings with students, teaching, grading, writing a report.  Each of the meetings was (so far) worthwhile in itself, but I am pretty much mentally done with meetings for the week, but the afternoon meetings must come.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Indigenous People's Day

We had a ceremony on campus to honor our local tree.

I think I hadn't quite realized what the tree means, so it was really good for me to learn.  And the ceremony was good (except that the way the Headmaster included our Native American "guests" misrecognized the campus folks who are Native American and aren't "guests" on the campus.  He tried, though, which is more than any other Headmaster here has really done).

Our students really led on this one, and they did a good job!  Yay students!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mid-October Smackdown

Two of my students are in the hospital right now.  Disasters continue.

A few students are recovering from their disasters.

When I meet with students in office hours, I try to take a bit of time at the end to check in with them, and see how they're doing.  By and large, my first year students are both overwhelmed and enjoying college.  I think that's about right.  A few seem more overwhelmed.  A couple seem like they should be more overwhelmed, but don't quite realize it.

My intro to lit students are having a midterm this coming Wednesday, so Friday was our review session.  They filled the board with stuff they should know, and a couple of them commented that they didn't realize how much there was they should know.  Better they realize that on Friday, with most of a week to study, than realize it on Wednesday during the exam.

I have to write the exam.  And then grade them, of course.

I had about 10 hours of conferencing this past week.  The thing about conferencing is that you have to stay pretty focused.  Or I do.  I can't think about what's happening in a different course, or whether I did laundry.  I have to think about what's happening in the room, how I can help this particular student with this particular project and with the course in general.  It's really tiring. 

I talked to one of my colleagues who cancels class and uses that time to meet with his students.  So, for the writing course, he cancels five days of class, and each of the 20 students gets to talk to him for about 12 minutes.

I cancelled three hours of class, scheduled 20 minutes for each student, and used huge chunks of time over three days.

I think he may have the better idea, frankly.  Maybe I can cancel another day, use some extra hours, and still schedule 20 minute meetings?  (I find that 20 minutes is about right.  I finish with most students within three minutes either way, and every five students or so I give myself a 20 minute break in case I've run over, and to use the restroom and such.  I rarely get more than 15 minutes of that time, and I need it.)

My question for you: how do you handle conferences for, say, a writing course, where students really do need one on one help?

If you're meeting with students in time that you normally use to grade and prep, you need to prep at other times, and grading tends to fall behind.  Which is where I am today, and why I should be grading like a demon.  And I will.

But in the meantime, I've baked some pumpkins (now cooling) to make pumpkin mush for stuffs (pumpkin bread/muffins, probably).  I've got the seeds roasting, having tossed them with olive oil, chili powder, cumin, brown sugar, and salt.  I may have over-salted.  :(

Yesterday I went on a short hike with friends, and took a bunch of pictures on my newly cleaned camera, only to find this morning that the cleaner took out the card and didn't replace it, so I got NONE of the pictures I'd taken!  GRRRR!  I'm disappointed about these pictures, but the card is pretty easy to replace, and I'm pretty good about downloading from the camera after each session, so it's not a disaster.

Trust me.  The fall colors were AMAZING!  The friends were wonderful.  And getting outside was superb.

Thursday, October 08, 2015


I'm pretty much conferencing all day today with writing students.  I set the appointments at 20 minutes each, but I still can't see them all today, so I saw some yesterday and will see some tomorrow.

The conferences range from the student who comes in and says "I don't know why I'm here" to the student who comes in and says "Here's what I'm thinking of writing for this paper." 

I read somewhere that if you meet Queen Elizabeth, you should relax because she's so good at meeting people that she'll sort of help you chat.  (I can't remember where I read that, and have no idea if it's true.  But I also can't imagine what I'd have to say to Queen Elizabeth, or pretty much any celebrity, though I'd be very willing to try to say something worth responding to if I ever met Sherman Alexie!)

At any rate, I try to guide the students to something useful even if they don't quite understand.

I've been having pretty busy office hours in general this week, and I have to say, the quality of conversation with someone who comes in to ask about some, say, literature we've been reading is orders of magnitude more fun than with someone who hasn't been to class and so doesn't know what the assignment is.  I had a lovely conversation with a student who asked if poets just find themselves writing sonnets, for example.  That's a great question, and it came after some questions about how sonnets work, and had something to do with what we've been reading in class. 

On the other hand, I had a student basically ask if I shouldn't make my lecture notes available.  She was unbelieving when I said that my lecture notes wouldn't do her much good because I know the works we've been discussing so well that I put a few words on a piece of paper, some page number/line number type information so I can find passages quickly, and that's it.  She's missed class a bit, and hadn't gotten notes from another student, despite my suggestion (at our previous meeting) that she do so.  (The extra depressing thing is that I have students in all my courses exchange emails and such with several other people in class so that they can do so, and when I have them do it, I explicitly tell them that's why we're doing it.)

So far, I've seen nine students for these conferences (plus a few from other courses), and I'm pretty pleased.  I'd say seven of the nine were prepared and give me confidence.  The other two, I think, are way more ready to write this paper than they were before we met, so I count that as success.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Damned Ad and Security Stuffs

I got emailed an ad for a webinar on campus safety from some campus safety company.

The ad cites as recent some incidents in 2013, and says something about it being lucky that no one was hurt in these incidents.

Words aren't adequate to express my disgust in oh so many ways.


Our campus did some security stuffs a while back.  I think administrators had some training, and they put little flip cards in the classrooms, so that we can refer to them during a disaster.

One of the buildings I regularly teach in was built in the 70s, and so was built for riot control.  I teach up a couple of floors, and the door has only a little window in it.  I can imagine we could, if we heard something scary, block off the door with a table and hide, though I don't think we can lock the doors.

The other building I teach regularly in is almost brand new; it's built for light, pleasant study areas, and flowing movement.  The classrooms tend to have nice big windows either to the outside or to the inside (the fishbowl thing seems sort of weird, but the room I teach in isn't too fishbowly).  We get nice light, and the people walking by don't seem to bother to look in, and the students don't seem to get too distracted, and I'm busy teaching.  But while the glass is "shatterproof," I doubt it's bullet proof.  Someone could drive by, lower their car window and shoot at people in a row of classes or standing at the bus stop, and then drive off.  It's discomfiting to say the least.


I don't know what to say about the shooting.  Have I gone numb?  Exhausted by the situations here?  Defeated?

I've lost any expectation that politicians will do anything meaningful about gun violence, school funding, or infrastructure.  And I have every expectation that they'll do more and more to regulate women's bodies, advance fundamentalist Christianity as the nearly state religion, and make war on people who I don't want to make war on.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Another Little Step

On Friday, we had a meeting about our grad program.  And when it came time to vote, I was the only no.  I think I voted no the last time we had a vote about the grad program.  I'm not sure about the time before.  Or the time before that.

When I came here, we had a middling grad program.  We had three required courses, an Intro to grad studies type course, a research methods and bibliography type course, and a critical theory course.  We served mostly students in the area who wanted an MA in English to give them a salary boost as local teachers or students who weren't sure, but maybe wanted to go on to a PhD program.

The Ed school implemented a program where teachers could get an MA in teaching without writing a thesis or whatever, and that drew off a significant number of our student population.  Our Enrollments were low, and there were pressures, and students weren't finishing on time.  So we decided to add an MA in writing, which would attract more students.  So we did that.  And in doing that, we basically split the MA level courses being taught (three a semester, including the required courses) to be half writing courses.

The pressures continued, and we were assured that if we just got rid of the methods course, the program would be in good shape.  So we dropped the research methods course.  I took on the job of trying to integrate the necessary research skills into the Intro course.  (I think I did a pretty good job.)

And things went on a bit.  And the pressures continued, and we were assured that if we just drop the theory course, the program would be in good shape.  And we voted to drop the theory requirement.  (At least I wasn't the only no vote on that one.)  (And someone else took on the task of adding some theory to the Intro course.)  (There are now two regular grad courses taught each semester, one writing, one lit, and the intro course added in fall.  Our students take about half undergrad "double-numbered" courses where they're supposed to somehow get a graduate level experience.)

And this year, we've had another vote, and now we're implementing a new thing which will, we're assured, save the program.

We have a fairly weak program.  We have great librarians, but a minimal library budget, minimal resources in all sorts of ways.  Some of our students are really solid, most aren't.  About a third come from our undergrad program, and mostly they're pretty good, and should go elsewhere.  Here, they were pretty good sized fish in our tiny pond.  But they don't seem to have any sense that our pond is tiny, and our grad director (and some other folks) are telling them that they're basically swimming the ocean, or at least a great lake.  The new program is set up to encourage the best of our undergrads to get an MA here.  I think that does them a disservice in so very many ways. 

But, apparently, I am wrong.