Friday, April 28, 2017

Bird School!

Some months ago now, in that fantasy time when spring seems like it will be reasonable, I signed up for bird school at a local nature reserve.  And today's the day!

But holy cow, what a time to have it!  Of course, for migration and such, it's perfect.  But for the academic schedule, not so perfect.  Or not at all perfect.

Still, I did the homework, and read up on anatomy and physiology stuffs, and prepared a handout for my group.  And I've found set my camera battery to recharge today.  And I've got stuff ready!

I should be grading, but I'm going to go learn about birds, starting this evening, and then early Saturday and Sunday mornings, all day Saturday, and Sunday through noon.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Teaching Peer Revision

This coming week, my senior seminar students will turn in their essay drafts (to our course management system, in the discussion area, where they're grouped into small groups), and then the next class session, they'll do peer revision.

So, taking Earnest English's suggestion, we spent a little time today reflecting on (in writing) and then talking about what made peer revision effective for them, and what made it ineffective.

My students suggested that really reading the draft carefully was vital.  yes.

Another suggested that they worry less about hurting feelings and more about giving real, honest criticism and feedback.  yes.

Another suggested that they give feedback in terms of questions, rather than directions.  (So more, a "I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, can you explain it in different words?" than a "do this" sort of response.)  yes.

And one suggested that real, full drafts were much better to work with as revisers.  YES!

And we talked about problems, which mostly came down to people not reading carefully, or focusing on grammar rather than bigger picture stuffs.

I've asked them to give their peers one or two things to think about when they submit their drafts, so that they'll get the most helpful response possible. 

What do you do to help your students have a better peer revision experience?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Several Things

I was looking at the CVs of applicants for a deanling position here, and one of the CVs lists a book out from Scholar's Press.  So I looked at some on-line booksellers, and didn't see it.  So then I thought, hmm, that's odd, and googled the press, which basically looks sort of like an academic vanity sort of thing?  It accepts manuscripts, and prepares to print them out and bind them "on demand," pretty much.

Is that your folks' impression?

What does it mean that a deanling candidate has listed this on their CV?

Does the fact that this person is a finalist for the position mean that the search committee doesn't realize about the press?


I'm working on a conference paper along with my seminar students.  They're required to do an abstract and annotated bibliography.  I really don't want to do the annotated bibliography, but I really should.  Ugh.

The upside is if I get this done, then I'll have a much better conference paper than otherwise.

Do you folks ever write alongside your students (as in, visibly to them)?


One of the things we'll do with this is peer revision.  In my experience, my upper level students do a much better job with peer revision than lower level students do.  This is especially true when there are creative writing students in the mix, and English Ed students, because they get a lot of practice in responding to and critiquing peers' works.  My sense would be that lots of practice helps people learn to be better peer responders.  But we lit folks don't tend to have students do as much peer response as other folks.

In the Grade Information thread, Doc said that he basically found that peer revision didn't work well with upper level students.

What's your experience with using peer revision for upper level students?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Being Ungraded

As regular readers know, in February 2016, I started violin lessons.  One of the cool byproducts is that it's got me thinking about being a learner in a big way again, because I'm not just learning little extra stuff here and there from reading, but I'm learning whole new skills and vocabulary and concepts. 

In light of our recent discussion about grade information, I was thinking about being ungraded in violin. 

At one point, I did ask Strings, my teacher, if I were progressing okay.  I worried about it when I started.  But once she reassured me when I asked, I really haven't worried about it.  I think two things have happened.  One is that she reassured me.  And the other is that I'm pretty much at the limits of useful challenge in my violin playing, so it really doesn't matter if someone else progresses faster or not, because the only way I'm going to progress faster is to add a whole lot more time to my practice sessions, and I accept that I'm probably not doing that.

In private lessons, it doesn't matter how fast I progress.  I'm not holding anyone back, or being frustrated by someone else not keeping up.  And that's very, very different from being in a larger class.  Of course, in a large enough class, I wouldn't be aware of how others were doing, mostly, whether they were more or less lost in the material than I was.* 

At this point, I can pretty much tell how I'm progressing because when I'm playing my current piece well enough, Strings starts me on the next one.  And if I'm not playing it well enough, she helps me figure out my difficulties and helps me with strategies to work through them.

In my last lesson, for example, I was having difficulty with some areas of the Becker Gavotte.  So she had me trying playing a couple section without fingering, just playing the open strings.  (It's weird to do that, too.)  In another spot, she showed me how to use one finger that was already down to place a finger on a different string, but nearby.  And in another spot, she helped me realize that I had to lift my third finger quickly to be ready to put it down somewhere else after a different note.  And so on.

Even though I hadn't practiced as much as I might have in the preceding period (I skipped a lesson for SAA and didn't practice while traveling), she was able to find really specific ways to help me, all while being encouraging.

And this week, I'm back practicing the Becker.  (And technical stuff, of course.)

So how does it work without grades?  There's basically a sort of pass/fail, with opportunities to go work on doing better when I don't pass a given piece.  And encouragement. 

If I were being graded at the end of the semester, then it would probably feel different.  I'd probably ask, or want to ask, how I was doing in terms of a grade, because if you're in a system where grades matter (and they do for music majors, and for people getting financial aid, and for people who want to go to grad/professional school, and at some level, for people who want to graduate), you pretty much have to care about grades.

And there's the passing on to a new piece thing.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean I've earned the equivalent of an A at playing a given piece, even for my level.  I think it's more that I've demonstrated that I can play it acceptably at my level, and that the Suzuki system/teachers think I'll gain more by focusing on a new piece with new skills challenges than by continuing to focus primarily on that piece.  (With the reminder that in general, Suzuki students are expected to practice all the pieces they've learned previously with fair regularity, like once a week, for a long time.  With Strings permission, I don't do that.)

So if I were in a sort of portfolio system, how would I feel about moving on?  Me, I want to learn to play the violin, so I practice stuff that Strings doesn't check me on, scales, technique books, in hopes that those skills will help me as I progress.  But I don't keep working hard on pieces I've passed, mostly. 

What about students in a writing class?  Given that time is always tight, should a student keep working on revising a piece if they don't know the grade, just in hopes that they really need to?

There are times when I look at a paper, and it's very B land.  Minor, little things could make it B+ land, but to seriously improve it, the student would have to rethink the paper completely, pretty much.  Is it worth asking the student to take time to do that?  (My students are all pretty busy, with most working a lot of hours in addition to their courses and family responsibilities.)

*I remember when I went back to school, I was in this Shakespeare class, and just really enjoying it, but also not feeling super confident about my skills in lit.  At the beginning of the semester, I'd been in a long line on campus, and made friends with another student who also ended up in the Shakespeare class.  So we went along in class; this friend and I'd say hello and such, but didn't talk between classes about the class.  And then when the midterm came back, I was happy to feel good about my A, and totally shocked that my friend earned a D.  I was totally unaware that he wasn't getting stuff or writing well or whatever.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Grade Information?

You know how a fair number of the young folks you see on campus are looking at their phones at any given time?  What are they looking at?

I mean, I can check facebook, and my email, but all the folks I'm likely to text work (except my Mother, but she keeps plenty busy) and don't text me unless there's something up. 

So I asked my students while we were waiting for the class hour to begin.  A few mentioned texts or facebook messenger, and email.  But weirdly, several of them were looking at our on line course management system, looking for grades.  One said they'd turned in a paper the week before break, but still hadn't received a grade on it.  And that was like opening the spigot, because pretty much all of them said they were having similar experiences.

So, in a big course, papers, it can take more than two weeks (and certainly an instructor may actually have taken a break over break).  But the number of students who talked, in those few minutes, about their frustrations with not getting graded stuff back, or not getting feedback, was pretty high, and each person who came in as we were talking, quickly chimed in.

Now, let's take these with a grain of salt.  One student who complained about not getting anything back in a first year writing course acknowledged that she'd received extensive feedback on her work, just not actual grades.  It turns out she got an A in the course.  I don't know what the feedback looked like, but usually when I give feedback on an A paper, I write things about the smart ideas, good organization, strong thesis, overall high quality, and then maybe make a suggestion about how to tweak one thing to make it even stronger.  And the student said that others in the course got grades.

So, I don't know.  It seems weird that the student didn't ask the teacher, doesn't it?

On the other hand, it also seems weird not to give students feedback that includes a grade unless you're using a portfolio system, in which case your feedback includes revision suggestions and opportunities, probably.

Do you folks post grades on a course management system?  (I don't.)

How long do you think is okay to take to grade and return a short essay assignment (under, say, 5 pages)?  (I aim for one week, but sometimes take two.)

Do you give feedback without grades?  (I'm sure you have a good reason.  Please share.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The More Things Change

I ran into a colleague in the "research room" (which is what our room with a microwave, coffee maker, water pot, refrigerator, sink, and seating is labelled, it being illegal to call anything on state property a "break room" apparently), a colleague who's retiring at the end of the semester.  And, as we do when waiting for water to boil, coffee to drip, and so on, we chatted.  I asked him how he was looking forward to retirement, and he said that while he's loved his job, there are changes, some for the better, some for the worse, but the detrimental ones are bothering him more than the positive ones these days.

So we started talking about some changes.

There are structural changes which make it seem more possible to give a wider group of people opportunities to go to college, but now those changes seem to be eroding.  So, here, he said, when he first came, the students were pretty much all white, middle class.  They're still mostly white, but now not mostly middle class.  We still have a long ways to go to serve the racially diverse population around NWU, but we're doing better at serving a more economically diverse population.  (You may think of the great North Woods as a land of unmitigated whiteness, but if you look, you'll realize there's more diversity in the area than you might think.  For one thing, there are more Native Americans in the area, but we're not serving them well here at NWU.  There are also more Latin@ folks than you might think, but we're not serving them hardly at all.  And there are more refugees and immigrants, often second generation now, too. 

Technology is a mixed bag.  It's great to be able to get texts, to access them in class, to not have to use a microfilm/microfiche reader, to be able to get texts PDFed from afar, to be able to look up some factoid quickly.  On the other hand, it's frustrating when students don't buy literary (or no doubt other) texts, but try to read them on their phones.  And it's even more frustrating when students pay more attention to their phone than to the human beings in class with them.

(What are most students doing on their phones?  Playing games?  Twitter?  Snapchat or something?)

I started here pretty much in the year my colleague feels was the beginning of local structural changes hurting students, so to me, those changes are sort of normalized for me as a faculty member.  I was totally unaware of them at most of the schools where I was a student (except for the years I was at a community college and regional university; the regional university hadn't bought books for the library in years in the lit field.  When we really needed something, the advice was to go to either the big public R1 15 miles east, or the smaller private R1 30 or so miles south.  Fortunately, both would let people read in their libraries, though we couldn't borrow books, of course.)

For colleagues who've come more recently, there've been drastic recent budget issues, but we're all weirdly adjusting to them as the new normal.

What have you found changing over your career in academics (or whatever)?  More positive or negative?  Mixed?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wild Dash to the Finish

How much do you work with undergrads on research/writing strategies?  How do you do it?

It's that time of the semester when we're all dashing to the finish.  We have five more weeks here.

In my Intro to Lit course, students turn in their critical essay next week.  I held open office hours last week, before leaving for SAA, and got some students, but this week I've had bunches.  So I'm in on a non-teaching day, holding office hours, hoping to help some more. 

In my senior seminar, I've been trying to be more proactive about the seminar paper stuff.  Just after break, I took a class session and we did a bunch of freewriting and other brainstorming activities about paper ideas.  Then students turned in a basic paper idea, and I responded to that.

In our meeting before I went to SAA, I spent time talking about strategies for writing a good paper, figuring out what to say, using research, and so on.  And while I was gone, I set them to get started, with the suggestion that rereading was a good start.

They seemed to appreciate talking about strategies.  I hope they weren't just BSing.

Yesterday, we spend time talking about what they'd accomplished, where they were stuck, and tried to help each person with some suggestions.  I also told them about my Kalamazoo paper, and that I'd be working on a paper along with them.

My plan going forward is to spend some time each week talking about progress and problems, and trying to help solve the problems.

And yes, I need to work on my Kalamazoo paper, too!

Here's wishing us all good work!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Catching Up

SAA was good, once I got there.  That was a bit of an adventure.  My original flight plans had me getting to the airport at about 4:45 am (to get the check in and so on.  My local airport is so small that the same person checks people in and then goes to do the security screening.  That means if you haven't checked in before they go to do security, you pretty much can't check in.)

Anyway, I got out of the car and saw a "flight cancelled" note scotch-taped to the door, went inside, and learned that yes, the flight was cancelled.  I texted my friend (who'd risen early to give me a ride), and she texted back that she was back outside the door.

And then I waited for a bit while the airline folks rerouted me.  This route meant that I'd fly out on THE afternoon flight (two flights out and in a day here), stay overnight in Chicago, and then fly out of Chicago super early.  (The desk clerk at the Chicago hotel said I pretty much needed to be on the 3:15am shuttle to get to the airport, through security and such.  I could have made it on the 3:45 shuttle, probably, given that there were no lines at 3:30 when I got there.  But maybe there would have been lines at 4am?)

At any rate, I made it to Atlanta mid-morning, and spent the rest of the morning rereading papers for my seminar.  I went to the lunch, had a delightful conversation with a friend, but couldn't hear the speech very well (bad sound system?).  Then my seminar, which was really good and interesting, and which gave me some good ideas for revision.

Then it was evening, and I went and got an early dinner, took a bit of a walk, and was in bed by 8:15pm.  I felt so much better the next day!  I went to a morning session, went to the book exhibit, and got on the MARTA to get to the airport.

It was really frustrating to miss so many seminars and talks I'd wanted to see!  But I travelled safely, and had a good seminar, good talks with friends, so that was worthwhile.

And now I'm getting back in the swing, taking care of school stuff, trying to sort out adding office hours for my desperate students.

I don't remember being so helpless as a first year student.  Maybe I was.  But I sure didn't talk to my professors so they'd know it!  (On the other hand, it's probably actually way better that my students DO talk to me and other professors, since my strategies weren't particularly successful.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

To the Shakespeare Association Conference

I'm headed out early tomorrow for SAA, which is in Atlanta this year. 

I have mixed feelings about conferences.  On one hand, it's great to go and see Shakespeare folks, talk Shakespeare and early modern lit.

On the other hand, it reminds me how isolated I feel intellectually here, and how many resources just aren't anywhere near.

It's great to get away, especially to somewhere warmer.

But it's also a pain to make arrangements for classes to be covered, plants to be brought in/taken out, travel, and to pick up the extra expense, because NWU never quite covers everything.

At any rate, I'm heading out.  I'm not taking my computer, so I won't be posting.

Death on the Internet

For years now, I've read Steve Tilford's blog.  If you don't follow cycling, you've probably never heard of Steve Tilford, but he was the first US mountain biking champion, four times the US cyclocross champion, five times world mountain bike masters champion, twice world cyclocross masters champion, an inductee in the mountain biking hall of fame, and three times a member of the US world road team at the world championships.

He was also just a bit older than me, but still raced and road tons, and wrote wonderfully about racing and riding, and all sorts of things.

But today, I opened  Cycling News and saw this.  And then I opened his blog, and saw a post by a friend of his.  (It was a car accident, a really horrible car accident.)

I never met Steve Tilford.  (I don't even feel like I can call him by his first name, certainly not by the nickname many seem to use.  But just his surname doesn't seem right, either.)  But I'm really sad.  Reading someone's blog, following their life, learning from them, seeing pictures of their dogs, family, friends, adventures, it all makes you feel sort of like you know them.  Except you don't.  Not really.

But still, what a life the man led, and how he'll be missed by his family, friends, the whole cycling community, and his blog readers, including me.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Why an MA in English?

We had a meeting about our MA program last week; there's a new colleague directing the program, a colleague who very much wants to be a deanling and so approaches everything as an administrator.  They really wanted to present their idea, have us all nod obediently, and move forward.

Instead, people started asking questions.  And the best question asked us to think about what the MA program is trying to do.  It's a great starting point for rethinking our program.  (I've blogged before about my frustrations with our program, how weak it is, how much of a disservice I think we do for students who should be encouraged to go elsewhere.)

So the question of the day: what should an MA program try to do?  Or, to put it another way, why should someone get an MA in English?

(Note: we're a regional comprehensive with the only MA in English for 100 miles in most directions.)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Crocus Smile, the Fourth Year

I know you've all been waiting for pictures of this year's blooming of the now famed art installation, "Crocus Smile"!!  Here it is!

And yes, an individual crocus bonus, because they're so amazingly beautiful.  Once again, let me say, the crocuses are more obvious in person.

And, this year, I've tried adding more bulbs (that I'd left in the garage over winter).  Hopefully next year's smile will be even better!

Crocus Smile, the beginnings
Crocus Smile, Year Two
Crocus Smile, Year Three