Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Truthiness and the Stupid EffBee Meme

If you're on EffBee, you've seen the recent meme going around again, about how you need to copy and paste a whole post in order to survive some apocalyptic thing that will destroy your privacy and such.

I saw it first in this go-around on one of my cousin's posts.  So I checked on Snopes, and dropped a link into the reply section to say there's nothing to worry about.  And my cousin replied, basically, "yeah, I thought it wasn't true, but it couldn't hurt to put it in, so I did."

For the past several days, I've seen that pattern repeated several times.  Person A posts the meme, Person B links to a Snopes type article, or says that it's a hoax, or whatever, and Person A says that they thought it wasn't true, but it couldn't hurt to post anyway, so they did.

On one or two, I've seen Person B or another come back and say, yes, it does hurt, and they should delete the meme.

That pattern of response interests me (way more than the meme, because our privacy is already all gone if we're on EffBee and such).

I've seen several faculty members, including one who's a historian of WWII post the meme and then come back with the response that it doesn't matter.

Does it?

If we post something untrue at base, doesn't it matter?

I guess maybe I'm rigid, but it seems to me that it does, that we debase the truth when we unthinkingly post falsehoods or promulgate lies.  It's orders of difference from denying the Holocaust, but it's the unthinkingness, the multiplication that makes people think that the message is more likely.  It's the "hey, lots of people think that vaccines cause autism so it must be true" multiplication of falsehood.

If my cousin (and others) really believed that disaster was on its way, then I'd just think she was uninformed.  But she doesn't really believe it, she just unthinkingly passes it along, and then responds with a shrug.  There's a weird intellectual laziness.  She's got the energy to ctrl c and ctrl v into her status section, but not the intellectual energy to think for even a second before hitting post.

Okay, so my cousin is my cousin, and my Mom does the same things with email memes, but it worries me a lot more when academic colleagues, the people who are supposed to teach, encourage, and support critical thinking do it.  (One of these colleagues also posted a meme about how Planned Parenthood is being misrepresented, so don't believe that part.  Yes, posting lies matters.)

On the other hand, I'm given a bit of hope by the fact that the first comment on pretty much every posting of this meme I've seen has had a Person B who calmly explains the hoaxiness.  And now I've got a couple of posts either mocking the original (Batman slapping Robin for starting in on it, or one about mythical beasties giving the message) or a preemptive missive (along the lines of "hey, this stupid meme is going around again, don't believe it").

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Simple Call

I took on being chair of a special program curriculum committee.  The special program is interdisciplinary, but doesn't have department status, and so depends on the willingness of others to serve on its committees and teach many of its courses.  I'm not a specialist by any means, but I'm interested and willing, so here I am.

In tight budget times, special programs are easy to cut down or ax altogether because there's no one with real power and utter commitment to speak against it, especially if the alternative is "my" department (any of the departments with interested folks).  And so, the special program needs to look seriously at its course array, several of which serve as vital courses in general education, and see if it can condense some things, do some things a bit less without totally making a hash for the students.

And the curriculum committee is an obvious place to start this discussion (which then must go to a wider body).  And in order to start the discussion, we need to have a clear sense of what's been happening.

So I asked for a couple of things.

First, a list of our courses and enrollments for the past several semesters.  What have we taught, and how many students have we taught in those courses.

I asked the program leader if we could get that information, and was told that no, the only way would be to go through the computerized class search and search for each course individually and copy out the numbers.  Hmmm.  But surely, someone knows how many students have been in each course, especially when those courses serve major GE needs, right?

The curriculum committee is also responsible for curricular review; every course on campus is supposed to be reviewed every five years, and a review filed with a college committee. Early last week, so, second, I asked the program leader and last year's curriculum committee chair if they had the information, and the previous chair said she'd send it right away.

That was early last week, with the leader finally emailing me some information (and the no about the other) on Saturday afternoon.

So this morning, I called the office staffer over in the college office, since they get our reviews and tell us what is due for review.  Within ten minutes, she emailed me the information (and also emailed the chair from last year, who almost as quickly sent me an email to tell me that there was special information I needed to know about the late reviews so we need to meet urgently!).  She also told me that while she didn't have the enrollment information, the person to talk to in the enrollment office would. 

So I called the enrollment office, and the person there directed me to an online request form, and by the time I got back from teaching, she'd given me the full information.  And also sent me a not quite snarky email that the program leader already had access to the information.

I'm sometimes a bit of a bull in a china shop, if you know what I mean.  But I know the effective office staffers in enough offices that I can call and get help, and voila, I get information.  (This isn't highly classified stuff at all.  This is stuff we should have easily to hand.)

So here's the thing.  This program is pretty low priority for most of us most of the time.  It would help a lot if someone else would do the work.  And that really shows.  You know?  But if the program is to survive, then we actually have to make it a priority.  And if that's not worth doing, then we should let it go. 

That sucks, but that's how things are in tough budget times. 

The previous committee chair complained a lot about how much work she had to do, so I offered to take this on.  I'm pretty sure it's a fair bit of work, but I'm also pretty sure that I'm reasonably efficient about the sort of work involved.  Unfortunately, I can also be a bit of a bull in a china shop, and I need to rein that in to work with this committee as effectively as possible.

Reading Anew

I'm teaching a play I've taught many, many times in my Shakespeare and Ecocriticism course, and I've been rereading with an eye to what to say about ecocriticism and this play.

And suddenly, I feel like I'm reading a new play.  Stuff I've totally missed jumps out.  Coolness!

I can say this about teaching Shakespeare: I'll never be bored!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Time, Time, Tickin'

Here at NWU, the administrative folks have apparently just discovered that student suicide is a thing.

Since I've been here, we've had those memorial notices, usually along the lines of "X, a [something] major from [name of town] died unexpectedly last week.  Memorial services will be held at [local church] at [some day and time]."  And "everyone" knew these were almost certainly suicides.

But in that administrative way, they've suddenly decided that we all need to be aware and do something about the problem.  I don't know what prompted this sudden interest (maybe there's a new deanling in charge who always thought it was important but didn't have power or something), but this fall, student suicide is a thing.

I don't take suicide lightly.  But sudden administrative turns make me prick up my ears, so to speak.

Anyway, among other things, there's an "interactive module" educational thingy that NWU has signed up for, and our chairs are being encouraged to encourage us all to do the "interactive module" educational thingy.  There's even some special thing for the first department to have everyone do it.

Being the sort of faculty member who tries to be supportive of the chair (who's evidently being "encouraged" to get us all to do this), I did the "interactive module" thingy.  I will never get those 40 minutes back.  What a waste.

First, it feels like one of those "tick this box" things. 

Second, like much mass-produced interactive stuff, it's clumsy and irritating, and not actually very educational.  (I don't think I have any expertise in this area at all, but damn, this was stupid.)

It's set up as a "you're consulting" with a faculty member (a business prof, apparently) who's noticed some potential problems with five students.  Interestingly, the cartoon faculty member is a Black man, which has to be the result of a conscious choice by the folks who made this.  One of the cartoon students has a Hispanic name, but other than that, they're all white students.  The idea is that you read the faculty member's observations (which seem cranky and sort of hyper-observant), and then you "are there" while the faculty member meets in an office with the student, and you choose from bubble choices what approach to take next.

There are maybe 20 or 25 students in the class, and the faculty member has observed stuff from one student's apparent weight gain to a student wearing the same clothes often, and so on.  Hell, I can barely remember what I'm wearing right now without looking down; am I REALLY supposed to track what every student wears?  (And my classes aren't 100+ person lectures.)  Or whether they've gained a couple pounds?  Seriously?

Then we get to the interactions.  One is with a young woman who's been visibly upset; in the scenario, you learn that she's recently broken up with her boyfriend.  She says she wanted to kick him out of the apartment, but it's his, so she didn't.  And then the right choice is to tell her about the counseling center, but not to insist that she make an appointment.

Nothing about women's resources, domestic violence resources, homeless resources.  Nope.  Though I think we all know that a female student who was living with a male and then left might need those resources.  Except apparently, nope, we're supposed to think she's got friends and everything's hunky dory.

And so on.  There's the male student who's seemingly hearing voices, the student who's working too much, the student who doesn't feel like he fits in.  (He's the one with the Hispanic surname, but there's no option to recognize that systemic racism might be contributing, even though you'd think a Black professor would be aware of that possibility.  At least, I'm pretty sure all my Black colleagues are pretty aware of systemic racism.  Way more aware than I am, for sure.)


So, I don't think this interactive module thingy is really going to make a meaningful difference.  The thing is, I don't have any clue what might make a meaningful difference.

I have one clue: smaller class sizes.  I think I'm way more likely to notice a student's problem if I'm teaching 50 students in a semester than if I'm teaching 100.  And the likelihood that I'd notice one in 300, not likely at all.

Now, we've held our first year writing classes to 20 students through some very creative juggling.  But first year language classes are at something like 30 right now.  And Intro Women's Studies is at 55. (Intro to Women's Studies courses are, in my experience, a place where students recognize problems in their relationships and might feel that faculty members have skills to help change things.)

Students who are in big 100+ person lectures?  Those profs are going to have a lot harder time recognizing problems.


My questions of the day are:  is your administration suddenly making student suicide a thing?

And is there any meaningful way to help faculty members make a difference?  What are your experiences?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Grading Thing

When I first studied in a teaching composition program, the faculty emphasized that we needed to create assignments that we would actually like (or at least not hate) grading.  And I try to do that in my classes.

The thing is, after the first 7 or 12 or 25 papers (or any sort of assignment, really), grading becomes progressively more difficult, harder to make myself do.  And that's when I give assignments I've created carefully with an eye to not being tortured.

In our writing courses, we're pretty much expected to follow a course plan and give assignments that are pretty similar and based on the course plan.  And that means to me, they're boring as hell.  It's not a matter of grading 7 before I'm bored, it's facing grading the first.

And the boredom isn't the boredom of, say, weeding, or riding my bike for a couple of hours.  It's longer, for one thing.  And I have to pay a lot closer attention.  When I'm riding my bike, I have to pay attention, of course.  I look at the road ahead and make sure I ride safely.  I listen for cars or other bikers and such to make sure I know where they are and can try not to create problems.  But I can also sing to my bike, ponder questions, do short bursts of higher energy riding, and so forth.  And the whole time, I'm outside, and usually (since I'm a fair weather biker) enjoying some fresh air, nice scenery, and so on.

When I'm grading, I have to pay pretty close attention to what I'm doing in order to try to figure out what and how to communicate to the student to help them understand how they've done on the assignment and (hopefully), to help them do better in the future. 

I know I'm not the only one who finds grading difficult.  Friends of mine do complex reward systems: grade so many of these, get some reward.  And so on.

People develop grading rubrics in hopes that they can put a few checks or circles on a piece of paper and satisfy students that the assignment has been evaluated fairly and that they know why they got the grade they did and how to do better in the future.

What do you do?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


In my department, we can often manage to schedule our teaching for four days a week, which gives us one "non-teaching" day to grade and do prep with fewer interruptions.  For many people, the ideal is to cozy up at home with the cat or whatever and grade away.

Today is my non-teaching day, but I'm heading to the office early because I have 4+ hours of meetings spread over the day, from 9am to 4:30pm, for maximal disruption of grading and prep.  Grrr.

One of the meetings is about the changing requirements of our travel policy.  We've gotten pretty draconian warnings that we must, must, must attend one of these meetings, and today's is the only one that doesn't overlap with my teaching schedule.


You may have read the news about a certain presidential candidate being "called" to drop out of the race.  I think he was "called" by a certain pair of brothers who are worried about the possibility of another candidate.  All of them worry me, to be honest.

There's a vague fear around here that the erstwhile presidential candidate who's been absent much of the summer and fall will return his attention to smacking down the people he smacked down before to make his reputation with all the more vengeful fury.  Since I've been smacked before, I'm not looking forward to further smacking.

I'd love to ask though, since the university system has in recent years turned its attention to the fact that the faculty throughout the system doesn't take the expected numbers of sick days, and has put in place rules to insist that if we're not working, we must take a sick day, has this erstwhile presidential candidate been paid for campaigning around the country instead of working "for" the state?

(My theory on the sick day thing is that faculty folks pretty much go to work and do their job unless they're hospitalized because that's the work ethic here and because trying to "make up" missed classes with our students is abysmally difficult.  We're also encouraged to do that by a benefits policy that, for now at least, turns unused sick days into health insurance coverage at the beginning of retirement.)


I've already had two students slammed by disasters this semester.  I think they'll both be okay, but life is very hard for them right now.  I wish there were more I could do beyond being supportive and working with them to catch up when they can.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


I've watched the episodes of Vicious up on a local PBS video site (because I never remember to watch during the televising time), and I really want to love this show and think it's hilarious, but it's not quite there somehow for me.

The premise has potential (two long-time male partners and their friendship circle), and the actors are good (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi are the leads), but somehow it's not nearly as funny as I want it to be.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Delta State University

Many blog posts ago, there was a fine blogger who blogged about academic stuffs, and then, as happens, slowly stopped blogging.  But before this blogger disappeared, it happened that I met hir, and in fact, we had a mutual acquaintance, too.  We friended each other in the way that we folks with on-line friends do.

And so it happened that my first realization that something horrible was happening at Delta State University came through my friend saying that zie was on lockdown, but safe.  That prompted me to look at the news, and then I started following.

Things have been quiet in the blogosphere about Delta State, but in my little on-line world, things have been busy, with folks there and elsewhere writing on my friend's page, responding to hir posts, wishing hir and the school and community well.

I'm sad about Delta State; evidently the victim there was a fine person, a good colleague, a good teacher.  (I know less about the other victim.  And little about the murderer.)

What I'm reading in various places sounds confused and confusing, so I'm not going to comment much, except to say that early and partial explanations seem to be quite misleading here.

I do want to express my condolences to the community of Delta State University, and to the community of Cleveland, Mississippi. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tenure for Sale?

The other day, a lot of faculty folks around here got a questionnaire from a professor at a pretty fancy university in a nearby state.  The information said it was for research, and had the usual IRB letter.

And then rumor went around here that the research was being funded by a political policy organization which has been advocating for getting rid of tenure in the Northwoods state system.  And even though the letter promised that the information would be confidential, it asked questions about where one had done one's last degree, and elsewhere said that information might be connected with information from public sources.  (And in our state, lots of information is public, so I'm not counting on the confidentiality at all.)

Much discussion ensued.  (That's how I take notes for heated discussions in committee meetings.)

Anyway, stupid me, I answered the questionnaire when I got it, thinking that it was for something real, and not wanting to be uncooperative with another college instructor somewhere.

There were a number of questions, but the most interesting ones basically tried to get at how much the respondent would sell tenure for.  The question asked to give a percentage number of how much additional salary you'd need before you'd willingly give up tenure.  There was not "I wouldn't" option, nor was there any place on the questionnaire for open-ended responses.

The question of the day, then:  How much is tenure worth?

Would you give it up for 25% more salary?  200% more?

The questionnaire also asked about the effects of post-tenure review.  I don't think it has much effect here because pretty much everyone post-tenure is working hard, and the potential for post-tenure review raises isn't anywhere near in line with how hard people work post-tenure.  But, of course, that wasn't part of the question, and there was no open-ended space for comments at all.

Conclusion:  bad questionnaire designed to make interpreting answers easy to come into line with the funding organization.

Conclusion 2: I'll probably never be willing to answer a research questionnaire again.  A big EFF U to the fancy pants faculty member who sent this out.  May the fleas of a thousand camels infest his armpits (and elsewhere).  May he grow like an onion with his head in hell.  (Feel free to add your own.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sherman Alexie on the Best American Poetry of 2015

I ran across an interesting article (Thanks to Mike the Mad Biologist's link list) by Sherman Alexie.  I think it struck me especially strongly because of my Intro to Lit project this semester.  But, at any rate, it's worth reading, and I'm guessing Alexie's edition of the best poetry will be compelling and interesting!

Here's a link to Alexie's essay.

And here's an article in the Washington Post about the poet Alexie's talking about.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Teaching Before/After Trying?

I have a habit of giving low stakes assignments in many of my courses, assignments where, for example, students write 10 journals over the course of the semester, and together the journals count for 10 or 15 percent of the final grade, so that each journal is about 1-2 percent of the final grade.

This year, in my lit courses, I've been very consciously spending a day modeling and discussing how to do these sorts of assignments successfully.

But I realized today that in my intro to writing course, I tend to ask students to try something out for their journal before we have an in depth discussion of that thing.  (These aren't really difficult things, but not easy for first year students, either.)

So, for example, if I ask them to write a journal in which they summarize an article, that journal will be due the day we discuss the article in class.  And that day, we're also likely to work on building  summarizing skills further.  (There are maybe four journals on summarizing, as we work on developing their skills for the bigger assignment.)

I'm not sure I'm happy with the way I arranged these first journals.  Maybe I should have had at least the discussion of summary before they had to start trying to summarize?

On the other hand, teaching summary is hard because until they've tried to summarize some more difficult arguments, they think it's easy-peasy, and some of them really tune out in class.  But once they try their hand at it, then I think they're more attentive because they've begun to realize that it really is hard.

I'm conflicted.  I don't want to expect them to know how to do stuff that I'm not yet teaching them, but I do want them to have tried stuff so they know it's important and actually difficult.

I guess the equivalent would be having math students do some type of homework exercise (to turn in) after reading about that sort of math problem, but before discussing the type of math problem in class.  (Yes, they could go to the math help center or writing help center, but they don't, at least not this early in the semester.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Thank Dog for Poetry

We're into the second week of classes now.  My ecocriticism/Shakespeare class was rough today because most of the students didn't have context to read the article well, and didn't bother to look up the stuff mentioned to get that context.  What happened in 1789, and why might that be important?

Yeah.  (It's going to get us to Shakespeare, really, but they need to get there with some work.)

My writing class was better, but still tiring.

And then there was Intro to Lit, where we talked about Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel" and it was so, so very good.  First, it's a stellar poem, just great for discussion.  And second, the students were ready to discuss it.  Thank dog!

Now to grade some small stuff and prep for tomorrow.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Those Panicked First Night Emails

I think I got five last night, which isn't bad.

A couple of them wanted to check how to cite something for an assignment due today.  Yes, citation information is in the syllabus, but this is probably their first college assignment, so they want to get it right.  Wanting to get it right is something I appreciate.

A couple were checking the homework, just to make sure they understand what to do.  Again, they want to get it right, and I appreciate that.

One was a late addition.  That's okay, too.

I think there are a couple of big differences between these students and my experience as a student.

1.  We only typed pretty formal stuff because typing sucks way more than word processing does.  So we didn't worry about whether a homework assignment was supposed to be typed because it wasn't, in all likelihood.

2.  Once an instructor left the classroom, I didn't imagine there was a way to contact them.  I mean, I knew about office hours, but only in the most abstract way.  Our students have email, so when they're doing something in the evening, they email.  When I was confused, I wandered around the dorm asking people, or just did whatever.  And sometimes I did whatever very wrong because I didn't know better.

I don't know if students today are less independent than we were, or if they're just used to having email access in ways we couldn't have imagined.  But I'm pretty sure I never had to type a homework assignment.  (And I had very few homework assignments to turn in that weren't math.  I can't remember ever having a homework assignment for a entry level class other than math.)

So, when I have students write journals, am I giving myself more work than an instructor would have 25 years ago?  35 years ago?

It seems to me that a lot of times, my undergrad courses had a midterm, a final, and maybe a paper (graded by grad students in bigger classes).  In science classes, we had lab reports and such, too.

I've read that US students feel better about classes when they have smaller assignments due of different sorts rather than a midterm and final and that's that.

When I went back to school, which was after word processing became pretty common, and was at a community college and then a regional university, the humanities sorts of classes had more short papers than my undergrad (mostly science) classes had.  But the social studies type classes were mostly midterm and final exam based.

And now, on to day 2!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Things Fall Together

Last night, I was pretty overwhelmed, and this morning, when I came in, I didn't even bother to write a list because I felt like I had so much to do.

And now, somehow, miraculously, I'm ready for tomorrow.

There are still a few things I can take care of in the morning, but I'm pretty much ready for the semester, full steam ahead.

And I'm going to take some time tonight and put together the month in my planning book.

Sometimes, I think I have the best colleagues ever.  I asked four of them for reading suggestions for the Intro to Lit course, and ended up with so many cool readings that I could have taught the course twice over.

(And thanks to Brian's insightful comment on my last post, I've done some thinking and thinking, and it's been so helpful!)  (And why didn't I have a title on that post?)

I'm headed home to mow and decompress a bit, and then over to see some friends for dinner.

Tomorrow, the fun begins!