Tuesday, December 29, 2020

So Much Has Happened...

 since I last posted.

We made it through finals.  One of my students says they're going to go through the process to grieve their grade.  I think the grade I put in is the grade they earned.  

Most of the other students did pretty darned well.  In their final reflection, a number talked about working harder on my class than on other classes, and learning really valuable skills about critical reading and research.  So that was good.

The person I talked about hiring here and here has quit for another job.  I don't know whether this has to do with me being a poor manager and not doing a good job bringing the person on board, or the person being a job-hopper, or what.  

But it means trying to hire again for that position, which is a huge additional task.

In the meantime, Covid continues apace and more.  The Northwoods' hospital is supposedly overbooked and in difficulty.  And the numbers of people who just won't wear masks is frustrating.

And the numbers of people who insisted on traveling or getting together with large groups for Thanksgiving and Christmas is even more frustrating.  I GET that it's hard.  Really.  But if we can all hold on for six months, things will get so much better, and fewer people will be sick, or die, or have long term problems.

Thanksgiving for me:  called with family, not zoom, but you get the idea.  That was nice.  A friend invited me to pick up a lovely dinner and bring it home.  So I did.  It was a lovely dinner.  And a bit lonely.

Christmas for me: called with family, not zoom, but you get the idea.  That was nice.  A friend invited me to pick up a lovely dinner and bring it home.  So I did.  I was a lovely dinner.  And a bit lonely.

I did a fair bit of Christmas prep for my Mom from afar: first, I sent a package with some things she needed and some reindeer antler hats for her and a friend.  Then I sent a package with a flannel Christmas tree thing, treats, and a note.  Then I sent another package with cute ornaments in various "people" shapes (elf, Santa, snowman, gingerbread man, etc) with pictures of family members in the face area (I got the ornaments, and family members sent me pictures, which a local place printed in the right size).  I think that was helpful for her.  I hope so.

Before Christmas, I started taking a walk about once a week with the dinner friend's six year old kid.  We walk to a local coffee shop, get hot cocoa or cider, and then walk to the park area where there are big rocks and such to play on, and play with our imaginations for a while, drink our drinks, and walk back.  It's little enough to do to give a friend a break from homeschooling and such.

About two weeks before Christmas, I got one of the ornament things, and asked the kid if they wanted to give his parents a present.  They did, of course.  They're at that age when giving a present is important, too.  So we took a picture, and I said I'd get it printed and put it in the package.  And then they drew a picture to go with it.

And then the next time we went to get cider, I gave them the wrapped package and they put it under their tree.  They were excited.

On Christmas Eve, my friend called to tell me that the first thing when they were going to open presents under the tree, the kid had wanted them to open their present, and was so proud of it.  And, of course, my friends loved it, too.

I got the kid some legos, and arranged with their Mom to do a scavenger hunt.  So I wrapped five gifts with clues and put a little sticker on each about where it should be hidden (so they'd be in the right order), and the kid got to do a scavenger hunt for their present on Christmas, which I'm told they enjoyed a lot.  (I'd left the gifts wrapped in the back of my car while we went on our walk for cider, and their Mom took them out and took care of the rest.)  The Mom really wanted to make this a good Christmas for the kid, even though they wouldn't be with family, and I think this added a little.

So now, things to do:

Hire a new person.

Year Evaluations for everyone but me (the Dean does mine)

Assessment stuffs, both our programs and the GE program

Scheduling stuffs (I need to schedule our non tenure track folks for fall)

Budget work

Prep my spring course and get it all on line and ready, as much as possible.  My spring course is too big to fit all together in a room, so I have to do what they consider a "hi-flex" thing: one third of the students in class each day, the rest on line.  What a flustercluck!

Evals for our non tenure track folks with our writing program and personnel committee chair.

Write letters for two tenure track folks' reappointment.

Work on a scholarship thing.  This is actually the BEST news lately.  A generous donor asked us what we'd do with a couple thousand dollars, and we said we'd love to give scholarships to a cohort of underrepresented students entering, thinking of English majors/minors.  And now we have to find students!  But it's all very late in the game, so...

And yet.... I feel absolutely no energy to do this stuff.  I really need to just power through.  Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020


 I got copied on some emails today sent out by an administrative aide telling colleagues in my department that they need to do X before the year is out or else.

I get these sorts of emails fairly often.  We're supposed to do time sheets, pretty much like any other job, saying when we took sick leave and such.  But some people don't do them or skip some, or whatever, and so I got a bunch of copied emails telling people to get caught up or else.

I can sure understand missing a month.  It happens.  But not doing them for an entire year?  That's not just a mistake.  That's on purpose.

And we have a departmental email that goes out at the beginning of the month as a reminder, and then a week later as another reminder.  

This time, it was trying to get people caught up on "training" stuffs we're all supposed to do before the beginning of the academic year.  There's one on email and other security, and one on not sexually harassing students, and so forth.  Yes, they're useless.  And yes, someone is making way too much money supplying these mandated training things to large employers.  For each, it's about 90 minutes of stupid irritation.

But just do it and it's done.  (I did three for the coming year over Thanksgiving break.  Two one day, and one the next, and now I'm done for the year.  Yay me.)

I'm sure pretty much every largish employer or government agency has these for employees to do.  And mostly, I'm sympathetic to the goal: don't think you're going to get millions of dollars if you send your bank info to that Nigerian prince.  And don't sexually harass people.  And try to treat people with respect and decency.  All of those are worthy things, even if the training module thingies are dreadful. 

What I've decided to do is send one follow up email about whatever, reminding the person of the consequences (you lose some benefit that's nice, usually).

Today, I got a polite email back, thanking me for the nudge.  Okay.  Nice.  At least it was nice.  But seriously, I shouldn't have to nudge someone who's been here for nearly 10 or more years.

I think the biggest shock for me as chair is the constant reminder that my fellow faculty members haven't bothered to "read the syllabus" or "do the reading" or "do the homework" or whatever that we all complain that students don't do.  

And for exactly the same reasons: we're overwhelmed, and the things we're supposed to do don't seem as important as other things, and so on.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Advising Woes

 Like many other campuses, NWU has moved to a system of centralized advising, with students having faculty advisors assigned rather late in the game, and not having any perceived "need" to contact the faculty advisor.  All their registration codes come through the central system advisors.  And those advisors are really pushed to get students through in four years and to keep them as happy as possible in that customer service sort of way.

But they seem really easily riled.  Mostly, this seems to come from a lack of understanding about how departments work.  And, no doubt, from pressures to keep students happy.

So, for example, there's a senior special basketweaving course that some majors absolutely need, about 26 a year.  Ideally, this would be taught with a max of 20 students per section.  And that's what we do.  But that means there are often sections with 12 to 15 students, and that feels like a problem in some ways.  First, it means we have an instructor teaching a small student contact hour load, and that feels unfair to the folks whose senior courses are packed full constantly, and who also teach bigger lower division courses.  And it means that the faculty member can't teach a bigger lower division general education type course.  And the administration wants us to offer lots of those.

So, we've talked about whether we can move to teaching the special course once a year, only in, say, fall.  But for next year, the plan is to teach it both semesters.

But holy cow, the central advising folks had a massive panic and were trying to get permission for students who aren't ready for it to take it this spring, because they can't possibly graduate without it and blah blah.  I think I've written them three or four emails trying to calm them down, and they seem calmed now.  But they needn't have gotten panicked anyway.

My best solution would be to teach it three of four semesters, but I'm not sure that will happen.  If it does, then doing a good job advising students will be vital, and I'm not sure our advisors can handle the complexity.

Then there's also the patterned basketweaving major.  It's super popular, and students need to take five special courses in patterned basketweaving, starting with a second year course, two third year courses, and two fourth year courses.  But students can take two of these at the same time.  So, if they don't get into the second year course until their fourth year, they can take the other required basketweaving and general education courses, and then take two third year courses in one semester, or two fourth year courses in one semester.  

Almost all students who have to delay a bit still get through in four years.  

This situation is nothing new, of course.  We've never been able to offer so many patterned basketweaving courses that all students get to take them the first semester they want to.  

And in the old days, all the faculty advisors knew that, and advised students not to panic, and things worked out just fine.

Now, though, there's major panic over in the advising center, and they're upset because an instructor with a course for spring that already has a full waiting list suggested a student (who contacted him about the course) talk to their advisor.  What else should they have done?  (They're not a TT person, and so aren't expected to do advising, and so they don't know the advising stuff, quite naturally.)

And they're implying that the basketweaving department doesn't know what it's doing and is purposefully scheduling too few patterned basketweaving courses.

The thing is: NWU hired 30 plus advisors, and that means, say, we didn't hire 15 faculty members across the university.  Those 15 people could make a whole lot more classes happen, couldn't they?  (Even though I don't think there'd be another patterned basketweaving hire.)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Feeling the No Power Position

 Let's imagine, for a moment, I've received a letter of complaint from some students about a colleague.  The students meet with me, and say that their instructor didn't give them a syllabus for the class until after the fourth week of classes, and they spent the first four weeks of classes doing "introductions" to "get to know each other."  

They also note that the instructor's a really nice person, very kind and supportive.

The instructor's supposed to be teaching reed management, but spends most every class session on reed dying, though the big project is on reed management, which (they say), they aren't spending much time on in class, even though it's a really complex subject.

That big project is coming due, and they've asked for help, but didn't get it.

They asked me specifically not to talk to the instructor until after the semester ends, and not to use their names.

And did I mention, the instructor's a full professor?

As a chair, and especially a new chair, I really don't know what to do.  I think an email to the Dean is in order.


Sunday, November 01, 2020


 As chair, I'm responsible for doing my own classroom visits (aka observations) of tenure track and newer adjunct instructors.  Because I was worried about being shut down, I worked pretty hard early on to visit the in person classes I could.  

And now I'm trying to do the last on line observation.  It's totally different, way harder, and more time consuming.

Typically, around here, when we do class visits, we have a chat with the instructor to learn about what they're doing in the class, what their goals for the class meeting are, what difficulties they're experiencing, what concerns they have.  We get a copy of the syllabus and any assignments that are relevant.  Then we visit the class for an hour or so. (If it's an hour and fifteen minutes, we probably visit the whole session.  If longer, we visit part.)  And then we meet again with the instructor to get their take on how things went and give feedback.  Then, in most cases, we write up a report and a copy gets put in a file and given to the instructor.

On line: I visit with the person, usually virtually.  Then I'm invited into the course management site.  And I start looking at the overall organization, which is what I'd get by looking at a syllabus for a few minutes, but usually it takes longer on line because it's been split up.  And then I start in on the material I've been asked to look at.  Except usually people teaching fully on line don't teach day by day, but organize by the week.  So I end up needing to look at a whole week of material.  And sometimes it's hard to know when a week is ending or not, especially with a longer work (such as a novel).

I use the Chico State Exemplary Online Instruction website and rubric (and have told the instructors ahead of time that I would be), because it gives me a foundation to work from.  It's super helpful.  (Thank you, Chico State!)  But it also takes a fair bit of time.


A couple of my colleagues now have covid, and I'm worried.  Before, a colleague was quarantining because a family member had it, but they're back now, and never caught it. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Little Stuff

 As instructors, we all have little stuff that needs to get done.  

We have monthly time sheets, which basically ask, did you take sick leave.  If not, you say no.  If you did, you put in the days you were out. It takes about 3 minutes once a month, and one of our administrative assistants sends out a reminder each month with directions how to do it.

And yet: this past week, I've gotten emails from the deanling letting me know that about a quarter of our folks were missing at least one, and of those, most were missing significant numbers.  Some people were missing the whole year's worth.  It's a little thing, right?  Except when we retire, unused sick leave gets converted into payments towards our group health insurance, and for me, at this point, having been here 20 years, I have about 5 years of insurance (unless I get sick and have to take sick leave now).  That means, for a lot of people, retiring before 65 is a real possibility.  And that's incredibly valuable!

So I sent out reminders with specific months that folks had to do.  And still, even now, some people haven't bothered.  (The notes I sent out specified that people would lose x hours of sick leave, because that's what the deanling told me.)

Another piddly thing: we're all supposed to turn in a syllabus for each course to be kept in an electronic file.  This way, if a student needs a copy of the syllabus for a transfer or something, the office staff can help them with that easily.  

So, the same admin assistant sends out requests.  And then reminders.  And at this point in the semester, they're sending individual requests to the people who haven't sent them yet.  

I don't get why.  Seriously, you hit "reply" and then "attach" and go through your computer files, attach the file, and hit send.  Two minutes?  And this is for things you're currently teaching, so you probably have the files somewhere pretty handy, right?

These piddly things come to me, as chair, to send reminders and such, or to try to add my urging to the admin assistant's.  For all the good it does.

And yes, the irony: faculty are FAR worse than students at turning things in, even when reminded repeatedly.  We don't, as it were, read the syllabus.

Except, like most students, most of us do the things we're supposed to do, if not immediately, after one reminder.  It's just the ones who don't cause extra work for other people, and the work adds up.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Reviewing the Review

 This past week, our former chair, several high level administrators, and I had a meeting to review the department review that was done in 2019.  Usually, they said, the reviews of the reviews happen in summer, but as we all know, this summer was something else, and so, it was delayed.

The review was good, as was the initial review.  There are problems, but we all knew that, and we also know that we can't mint money, so we can't easily solve the problem.

Over-reliance on instructors with short term contracts.  They're great, but we're constantly juggling how we're going to pay them (we being the department during planning season), rather than them being paid through the base plan as tenure track folks and more permanent folks are.

We were advised to hire some people on more permanent contracts.  And, of course, we'd put in a request to do so last spring, and the administrators didn't give us the go ahead, because they had a massive budget shortage looming, of course.  So then they said, well, it's a good idea to hire people on more permanent contracts.  And we agreed.  And nothing is likely to come of it because the state is in more and more dire circumstances.

And even when things ease up, we'll never get back to where we once were.  Or we won't unless the voters decide that they really do want to fund public education in a more meaningful way again.  And I hope they do, and I think they should start with K-12 schools first.

And thus, we all performed our little performance for each other, yes, these things would be good, and maybe someday.  But today is not the day.  Nor is next year, in all likelihood.  Nor the year after.  And in the long run, we're all dead.

I can't imagine how disheartening it must be for the administrators at the meeting to have these meetings with chairs of recently reviewed departments, and to know they're just performing, and that they'll never have the money to throw at the problems in a meaningful way.

Our former chair asked a GREAT question during the meeting: What are [the highest administrator's] priorities for us?

Of course, our work had been focused through the last five year plan, but now there's a new one... and it's even more STEM focused than the last.  F the humanities, is the latest word.  But if we just find a way to be more STEM focused!

My favorite was from our Dean, the person most directly responsible for giving us, or denying us, permission to do searches and make hires: catch up on hiring people.  Well... yes... but...


It's been over a month since I posted.  So much keeps happening, and there's constantly something new to learn.

Next up: I have to cobble together the plan for how we're going to pay our short term contract people next year.  That should be fun.  Oh, so very much fun.  Except, yeah, not really.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


 I can't get the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" out of my head...

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
I'm not in a war zone, and not in nearly as much danger as your average roofer, I'm sure.  Still, I'm worried.
I did my first class observation as chair the other day.  The class was super, as I'd expected, but I couldn't help feeling a bit on edge.  As chair, I'm going to be doing a fair number of class observations this semester, most in person, sitting in an empty chair amongst the students, all of us masked, all of us socially distanced, and still.
The administrators tell us that the public health people assure them that the masks and social distance works really well to make the risk of transmission really low.  But sitting there for over an hour the other day, I was still worried.
I'd be a bit reassured, I supposed, if the administrators were making their presence on campus felt, walking between classes with folks.  But I see on effbee that some are working from home, and others are hunkered in their offices, staying far from the rest of us plebians.
Most of our students are being reasonably careful in classes, but what of the weekends?  The bars?  I doubt they're empty these days.
And the dorms are already a concern.
Several of my students have decided not to come to class, but to attend virtually, and since I organized my class so that they could do that, thinking that there'd be some quarantined at some point, it's fine by me.  I did a check in with the class on Friday, and most were feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and worried, pretty much like everyone I know.
I'm hearing from colleagues that they're hearing from students who want to attend virtually, too.  And some are able to accommodate that, and willing, and some aren't.
One colleague resents that students feel that they should get to stay safely at home when my colleague doesn't get to do that.  But officially, none of us is supposed to be so worried that we feel staying home is imperative.  

It feels like we instructors are caught in the middle between administrators tucked in their offices insisting that we all have to teach face to face, and students who don't want to be face to face, and the administrative pressure to help those students who are quarantined keep up, but not caring about the students who are anxious...


I went to a training session by our teaching center folks, the ones who act like they know so much more about teaching than anyone else, even though most of them have never stood in front of a real class to teach it.  Anyway, they said we could take attendance through our streaming system.  That sounded good.  But I couldn't find my notes, so I went to their site to try to find the ppt they'd used, which is supposed to be available.  (They're not.)  So I asked in a 9 am Q&A session.  And the person showed me.  So I went to do it, and it lists students by first name and then last name, and some with middle names.  Unlike EVERY other thing done by any large organization ever...  So I went back to the Q&A session, and the facilitator sounded like she'd never even thought of how to move from the list to the official attendance record.  So she decided to show me on her fake class of five... and started taking out the middle names, one at a time.  I stopped her and said she couldn't do that because it wasn't practical for a large class (where about 20% of my students show middle names).  And she was befuddled.  I wanted to say: put 150 students in there, and then come back to me and show me how to do this without a massive work around.

There's no way to do it without a massive work around, apparently.  So I suggested she needed to contact the provider and let them know this would be a good feature.  And she said no, she couldn't do that, that they weren't going to change things.  

But here's the thing: I bet thousands of instructors would find that useful across the country, and if the company doesn't get told, doesn't have customers INSISTING, then they're going blithely on with crap.


I dropped by some friends' house yesterday afternoon to drop some stuff off, and they invited me to dinner, so we had lovely hot soup in the back yard, socially distanced and all.  But it was chilly.  And soon it will be far to chilly for dinner outside to be pleasant.  I'm so going to miss that.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Weirdest Change So Far

 The weirdest thing about being chair so far is that people seem to think I know stuff.  Not special, secret information, but stuff no one would have asked me about six months ago.

I've had a long conversation about balancing demands on a colleague's time.  Six months ago, I pretty much knew what I know now, but no one would have bothered to ask me.

And then there was a conversation about how to deal with a split class (we have to put fewer students in a room, due to social distancing, so classes with say, 30 students, meeting on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, might have to be split into three groups, one meeting Monday, one Wednesday, and one Friday.  I've thought a lot about how to do this during the summer, but I assume everyone around here has.  I don't have any brilliant insight, but I still got asked.


I had a problem doing the split class thing myself, it just became physically impossible to do because of an accommodation a student needed.  So I asked another chair, and was told that since there are a lot of classes on line now, there are sometimes extra larger rooms, so we might be able to move to a larger room at the same time and not have to do a split class.

I emailed the staff person in charge of that, who is an absolute gem of a staff person, and they said, yes, and were able to change my room.  Then I asked about our first year writing courses, a couple of which were scheduled on a split option.  And they fixed those (I gave the instructor a choice).  Then I asked about lower division courses, and a few could be changed, so I asked the instructors, and most said yes with great enthusiasm.  And then we moved to other upper division courses, and so far, a couple good options.  Overall, I'd say we went from having all but one (non-first year writing) course split, to having about 8 not split, so maybe one fifth?  That's a pretty good change.

The semester begins next week. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020


I got this idea from Dame Eleanor, here, where she looked back over her decades.

Six decades ago, my parents brought me home from the hospital in a large city, to their suburban house on Hamilton Lane.  My Mom purposefully chose to go up to the City to give birth, so that I could tell people where I was from, and everyone would know what that meant.  I don't remember the house on Hamilton Lane, since we moved from there before I was three, though I've driven by it as an adult.  I'm told it looks very different now, with a second story added on.

Five decades ago, I was having summer between my grammar school and my middle school, and rather dreading being with "big kids" in the middle school.  Middle school was a more miserable school experience than grammar school, for sure, but I was eager to start learning oboe, which I'd wanted to learn earlier, but they'd made me start on clarinet.  (This turned out to be a problem, since I basically had to try to teach myself oboe in middle band standing outside the band room until I could play a bit, with none of the basic help that everyone got in the fifth grade beginning band classes, while all the other kids who'd played for a year worked on stuff together.  I didn't know, for example, that you were supposed to start in the middle of the instrument's range, and tried to start with the lowest note on the fingering chart.  That's the B-flat below the staff, on oboe, and not an easy note to play.)  I lived in the house I still think of as home even though no one I know lives there now.

Four decades ago, I was an undergraduate, studying Zoology, and trying to figure out where my life would go.  I spent way more time than I should have playing D&D with friends, but those friends are still friends.  I was lots less "outdoorsy" than most zoology students, though I desperately wanted to be.  It just wasn't something that really interested anyone else in my family.

Three decades ago, I had recently started a PhD program moving from one part of my home state to another.  I was thoroughly intimidated by the educational backgrounds and brilliance of my fellow grad students and working desperately hard to catch up despite having studied already in an MA program at a regional university.  But I was very lucky to have connected with a wonderful mentor and some kind and friendly other graduate students.  I was living in a really big city (instead of a suburb or quite small city) for the first time, and taking a while to figure it out. 

Two decades ago, I had recently moved to the great North Woods, into my very first house, a two bedroom GI Bill starter house in a neighborhood of GI Bill starter houses.  I used to call it the neighborhood of dead presidents and heroes of WWII.  I lived with a big, lovely Lab who took me on walks every day, and would have been happy to take me on two or three walks a day.  My Dad had died about a year before, just before I moved to the great North Woods, and that, with the move to a new place and my Mom needing to talk for a long time pretty much every day made for a hard couple of years.  I was a fairly new assistant professor, at a fairly new job, trying to figure all the things out at my still fairly new job.  I'd moved from my first tenure track job, and was very happy to have moved.

One decade ago, I was living where I live, having earned tenure where I still work.  I was in better shape than I am now, physically, though maybe not emotionally.  My dog had died and I'd started biking and doing a little bit of camping, and gotten back into birding a bit (which I'd learned a bit in college as an undergrad).  I'd started making biking friends, and that has been wonderful.

And now: I like to say I'm one cat away from "crazy cat lady."  (No, I don't have a cat.)  I'm much happier now, and would have to say that since high school, my life has gotten mostly happier with each passing year and experience.  I'm the brand new chair of my department, experiencing a steep learning curve, and looking forward to trying to do a good job and then retiring.  I like my friends, and feel valued and supported in my community.  The Covid and "safer at home stuff" has made my Mom once again much more needy, and she wants to talk pretty much every day.  I still need to work on my patience.  My house is a home, and fixed up and painted in ways that made me happy.  I enjoy the spaces and like being here.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Getting Someone Started

To continue my story about the not real reed prep person:  they started on Monday.

And because they'd come from a sister school's program, HR here at NWU couldn't bring them fully on board until the actual start date.  (You evidently can't work two full time jobs in the same system.)

That meant they couldn't establish an email for the person, let's call them Reed, and without an email, the chair of Underwater Basketweaving couldn't start getting permissions in place for all the different computer systems.

Here's a sample of permissions, most of which are established using an electronic form:

keys.  yes, Reed needs to be able to get into the building, the reed prep rooms, the growing areas, etc.
purchasing.  Reed needs to be able to initiate purchases of equipment and such
payroll.  Reed will be in charge of some student payroll stuff
course scheduling.  Reed will be in charge of scheduling some of the Reed classes, even though not teaching them.
budgeting.  Reed has some reed materials budget responsibilities
and so forth

On Monday, the Underwater Basketweaving Chair, Ona Stool, met Reed (because, of course, Reed couldn't get into the building or reed prep areas otherwise) to get them started.  They checked, and there was no email for Reed.  Uh Oh.

Ona signed Reed in on her account, so Reed could at least see some basics, and went to make a call.  HR said that for sure, there'd be an email on Tuesday, since it couldn't get started, and would have to go through a "batch" that happens over night.  (It seems like all the updates are put through in one big go overnight rather than piecemeal.)

And after a bit, they went on a walk around the area and campus, to get Reed acquainted with things, and stopped into the centralized Employee Corral, where the folks who help employees with everything and anything are now centralized.  The idea is that you call in or walk in, and the person at the front desk can answer any and all questions and help with whatever.  Got a question about changing your 403b contribution, go to the Corral, and they'll help!

(In reality, the people who can actually do anything aren't the ones at the front desk, so when you call or go in, you inevitably get told that the front desk person will ask someone else and get back to you.  And then you just hope you aren't forgotten or put on a back burner because they're incredibly understaffed and overworked, and things get put aside while more important stuff gets taken care of first.)

At the Employee Corral, they met Sierra, and had a short hello chat, asked about the email, and once again received assurances that it would be up and running once the overnight batch  went through.  And then Ona could do all the electronic forms, and they'd go through an overnight batch, and so forth.

Fortunately, Reed could do some preliminary reed prep back in the department, and that was a nice, low stress activity.

Tuesday morning, no email.  So Ona called Sierra and asked, and Sierra said they'd check into it.

And about 3pm, someone from the Corral, one of the people who is usually super knowledgeable and on top of things, and definitely overworked, emailed a short apology for not getting the email done earlier, and said they'd get one made.  And by 4pm, it was made!

But while Ona could use the email, and Reed could log in with it, the system wouldn't recognize it until, yes, you guessed it, the overnight batch.

And so it was Wednesday before Ona was able to begin putting the electronic forms through to get Reed going, and Thursday before things started working.

Still, Ona reports that they're happy at the way Reed's handled things!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Uncomfortable Question

Imagine, a fable:

Underwater Basketweaving hired a new non-teaching person recently to do reed and materials work and preparation. 

There were a surprising number of candidates, and some from our campus with similar jobs; someone in the regular basketweaving department, someone in underwater studies, another from agriculture and turf studies.  They'd surely be able to do the job.  Other campus candidates were less qualified.

UB hired someone from off campus, from another underwater basketweaving field, with good experience, a great attitude, and super references.

So, the search chair sent out an email to the candidates who didn't get the job, the usual regrets, many fine candidates, and so forth.  All of it true.

And then one of the on campus people, one of the less-qualified on campus people, someone who'd worked in raising frogs for the biology department, emailed to ask who'd gotten the job.

What do you do with that?  It seems wrong to ask, doesn't it?  And yet, once the person starts, it's not like it's going to be a secret who they are.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Throwing Spaghetti at a Wall . . .

You know the saying, probably, when you're just trying everything you can think of to see if something, anything, works: Throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.  (Yes, I've heard it with a different word other than "spaghetti.")

That's sometimes what our (collective) Covid responses feel like.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked if I wanted to participate in a Q&A session with newly enrolled English students, on line, synchronously.  I said sure.

And today was the day, so I logged in (early, as requested), navigated a bit of difficulty with the student worker who's trying to make this all happen, and waited.  I asked her how many students have been showing up for these programs, and she said anywhere from zero to ten.  I waited around for the hour, and had zero.  Alas.

You know, it's a good idea, but this time, for our students, it wasn't appealing.  I don't know why, but I know folks are trying to find just whatever ways they can to make new students feel welcome.  Since we're worried about first year student enrollments (as are a lot of schools), it's especially important right now.  But, we're also in a totally new mode of interaction, and not quite sure what's going to work, and what's not, and why, and for whom.  If another department got ten students, then that was probably really valuable for those students.


In other news, I had a student sort of disappear into depression during the Covid closure.  And then he sort of reappeared, and asked for an incomplete.  I said yes, and not only because he'd been a really stellar student up to that point.  I also asked him for a schedule for turning stuff in, and the first things on that schedule were due last week.  And nothing.  I've emailed him, with a warning that once the faculty are back under contract, I simply won't have time, and he must turn things in before that.  Fingers crossed!


Between our administrative assistant retiring, hiring a new one, and doing this on line Q&A (which I did some prep for), I'm suddenly feeling a bit freer and more relaxed.

Or maybe it's that I reserved a camping place for a couple nights in the middle of next week at a county park I've heard is great (but haven't been to).  I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Fingers Crossed

So much depends, sometimes.

When I first came to NWU, the Underwater Basketweaving department had a administrative assistant who was less than friendly and less than efficient.  I had to wait for my travel reimbursement forever, because they hadn't sent it in for a long time.  The also took the office furniture and arranged it as a sort of fort so that they were sort of hidden from students.

Then that person retired, and we got the most wonderful person; they were friendly and efficient, helpful, kind, just great. 

And the feel of the department changed totally.  People wanted to drop by the office, to say hello, to get a smile in return.  Things got done and done well, and if you asked for help, you got it, and it was done kindly.

So, one of my first acts as chair is hiring a new administrative assistant.  I had help, thank goodness, from a couple of really smart, good colleagues.  And we've hired someone, and are waiting on paperwork to finish things up.

In the meanwhile, I'm hopeful and worried.  I have good reason to believe the new person is both friendly and effective as a worker.  But if they aren't, then it's on me, and the whole department's going to have a hard time of it.

I've never really been the final say on hiring anyone before.  I've served on plenty of committees, but there's always been a lot of input from others, and I wasn't the final say.  But this time, I am.  And it's scary.

I hope I quit being scared about my job.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

So Many Acronyms!

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time filling in forms lately.  Each form has it's own acronym, which is what everyone calls it, but isn't what it's always called in the form-filling-out thingy.  And, as I've now learned after having problems twice, the forms you need to fill out only work well using Internet Explorer.  Not Edge, Firefox, Chrome... just the old Explorer.  So now I need to remember that.

A few years ago, I prepared a "cheat sheet" or acronyms for our new faculty folks, but this is a whole new level of obfuscation!

And then, of course, a new administrator comes in and renames committees and such, and gives them all new acronyms, to put his mark on things.  (It's always a he doing that here.  In part because our administrators are almost always he.)

I'm breathing a big sigh of relief now because I just submitted a thing I needed to do, and I'm happy with the result.  I hope I'm still happy in six months time.

Can I say, some of the admin assistants over in the main building are saving me so much heartbreak and frustration!  They're just so smart and helpful!

Friday, July 03, 2020


Mine has taken a hit with the new chair stuff.  Working on it.

Early last week, I got a desperate email from a transfer student's core advisor telling me that the student needs Underwater Basketweaving 101 (the intro to UWBW) for an early ed program.  At this point, any UWBW 101 course slots are reserved for new first year students.  But I relented, because it seems to me more important not to hold back this transfer student's progress than for a first year student to get that specific course.

And then I got an email from the Deanling about it.  And I explained, and it was okay, but obviously not something that made him happy.

And then I got another request from a core advisor about a different student with the same problem.  So this time I emailed the Deanling.  And he requested a meeting (on line), and so we met.  I was prepared to get chewed out for wasting his time when I should have known what to do.  And that expectation says something about my confidence issues right now.

But nope.  We talked about other possible courses, and the Deanling emailed another Deanling over in the early ed program, and that Deanling said yes about that student, but not the sort of general yes we were looking for (to let transfer students with a lot of credits already take a different course).

And so it worked out okay, and I wasn't chewed out, which is very good.

I've picked up the balls I dropped before, and was pretty successful at not dropping any this week.

My workspace is filled with notepads with notes of various levels of urgency.  Some can be recycled once a specific problem is taken care of.  Some need to be kept.  It would be a lot easier if I were mostly in my school office, where there are good places to put such notes.  Here, I'm not as organized.


Like a lot of places, NWU is planning to be mostly face to face in fall, but also planning to accommodate those with health issues so they can work from home.  That, according to our HR will be processed under the ADA, except people feel uncomfortable because they don't really have disabilities, just need accommodation during Covid times.  Anyway, I knew of three colleagues who asked for and got accommodations and I'm very happy.

We also have a few colleagues who are asking for accommodations for other reasons, a spouse's health, a child's, or something similar.  Those are being handled separately, and I haven't heard about any of them.  I have a bit of a plan, though, that I'm willing to use but hope I don't have to.


I'd be willing to make a small bet (the only bet I could afford) that we'll actually be pretty much all on line in the all, because the pandemic seems to be getting so much worse in the US. 

Either way, it's scary.  I don't want my colleagues or students to get exposed if we can possibly help it.  So I'm hoping we'll be on line.

On the other hand, a lot of administrative folks are very worried that first year students (especially) will decide to take a gap year if they learn that we're going to be on line, and if another 5-10% do, then we'll be devastated.  We're already down about 5% on first year admissions, and it's scary; and we're WAY down on budget allocation from the state because it's expecting FAR less tax revenue AND paying out WAY more in unemployment.


The upshot is that I'm pretty much planning to put my one course (an upper level Shakespeare course) on line, and then if we're meeting in person, will use that time for discussions and projects.

Monday, June 29, 2020

So Many Dropped Balls

Right now, this chair thing feels like juggling, only there's sharp knives mixed in with porcelain cups and rubber balls of varying sizes and weights.

I just realized I dropped a ball.  Not a knife, and not a porcelain cup.  But still...

Sometimes, the balls just bounce once and I get them, but this one rolled to a corner and I didn't notice it for far too long.  But I'll get it sorted.

In other matters: I got a desperate email from the deanling asking me to overload 1-2 students into each of several first year courses.  It reminded me of when this use to always happen.  (And yes, that was before the bad downturn of 2008.)  But we had an assistant headmaster (now a provost elsewhere) at one point who seemed to have stopped the practice for a while.  Now, my colleague, the previous chair, says she's been getting these emails every year, and when i consulted with a couple of other chairs, they, too, say they regularly get them.  And all of them warned me that there would probably be a further request for more seats later in the summer.

So I emailed the deanling that I would look into it, but that it seemed like they were asking for almost a full section of a first year course (like, a humanities general ed).  And they got a bit defensive, and claimed it wasn't like the old days.  I get that there are budget issues, but we all work hard around here, and spending a couple thousand for an extra intro history or lit course would be a much better solution.  (It costs, say $3800 in salary to hire an adjunct to teach one 3 credit course here.  Add half again that for benefits.  $5900 for a course.  I bet we have an adjunct on campus who doesn't have a full load and would like another course...)

Another ball that's almost been dropped is training for the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee).  It's basically like the IRB is for humans, intended to make sure that any vertebrate animals used in teaching and research are properly cared for and not caused pain or harm if possible.  Mostly, NWU uses zebra fish so students can watch embryo development and mice/rats they can train with clickers and such.  But I still need to do the training (again) by the first of July.

Speaking of the first of July, I got a fabulous weekly planner that I just love.  It's an 18 month planner from Moleskin, orange, and really good.  Each week is on the verso, and then the facing page (recto) is lined for notes.  So when I need to remember to do something in September, it goes into the notes section for the first of that month.  I got it in May, and I've been filling it in and looking forward to using it for real soon!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

People Change

In the past, I've heard department chairs lament that once they became chair, people (specifically, the people in their departments) changed the way they treated them.

In my short time, I've noticed that I've changed.  I'm even more careful in my communication.  I mean, I always tried to be reasonably careful, to not hurt people unnecessarily, to not use unkind language, and so forth.

That's not to say I was perfect, but I tried.  (I still regret the student who was deeply hurt that I'd marked on a very short paper, very bad paper that she should spell the title of the play [King Lear] correctly.  Having dyslexia, she took that as a personal attack, and presumed I knew.  Though, of course, I didn't know, since the paperwork a college instructor gets to provide accommodation just tells us the appropriate accommodation, and not the reason.  And even if I were told, with 50 or 60 students at a time, I might not have remembered.  Still, I regret hurting her.)

But now?  I'm WAY more careful.  It's like I have no confidence in my ability to communicate clearly.  I can barely bring myself to post on facebook, though I'm happy to comment on my relative's posts, and feel at east doing so.

When I email someone now, I stop and wonder how what I've written can be misconstrued or misunderstood.  I'm not nearly as worried that I'll look stupid as I am that I'll mess things up badly.

I hope I gain a bit more confidence in the job before the new semester starts because this hesitation, this uncertainty, adds a lot of time to things that should be relatively uncomplicated.

So far, my colleagues are treating me pretty much the same as ever.  If anything, they're exhibiting more patience in teaching me what I need to know to take care of departmental stuff.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Meetings with Chairs

There's much uncertainty these days!  The other day, I was in a meeting with chairs and the Dean, and several deanlings, all on line.

You get a sense of who is dealing with real issues (some departments just don't work as well on line, nor do some activities), and of who likes to talk, and of who is really uncomfortable with uncertainty and just wants things nailed down.

Some people say a few words, a single question, a response to a question.  Other people say a lot.  And some people say absolutely nothing.

Apparently, our plan right now is to be face to face for most classes on campus.  There's planning to figure out how to accommodate instructors who have health risks, but it's not clear how HR is going to do that.  (This is a massively busy time of year for HR anyway, with new faculty and adjuncts, some retirements, hiring permissions, etc.  And our HR was really cut a few years ago and hasn't recovered.)  So HR is figuring that out, and it has to be done legally, with regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act and so forth, and that's important.

I get that.  I've assured the colleagues who've contacted me that we're going to have a way to accommodate their health needs.  I'm pretty sure that part will happen.  (Though I'm also attentive to folks who tell me that the university hasn't been very accommodating of previous health or disability issues.)

I don't think we'll be much accommodating, at least officially, to preferences.

And I'm not sure how we'll handle students' health issues.  It's a nightmare to think that faculty would have to teach in person and also have basically an on line independent study with one person.  But, we need to make sure we're not putting anyone with health needs at unnecessary risk.

A lot will depend on chairs.  If an instructor says, "the best way to teach X in this circumstance is to go on line," then is the chair going to try to override that and say, no, you aren't the expert at teaching your thing?

There will be administrative pressure to do that at the top.  But chairs can resist pressure if they want to and so can Deans.

What about students?  If an instructor meets the first day of classes and says, "this is how it's going to be for this class," will students complain way up the line?  If not, then who's to know?

If they complain to the chair, then the chair can say that they respect the instructor's expertise as a teacher and academic freedom to teach in the best way possible, and leave it at that.  But the student could contact the headmaster (ours is very visible), and then the headmaster may set things in motion that aren't so easy to control.

I think a lot will depend on how many instructors want to move on line.  If 10-20 percent want to, we'll probably be pretty relaxed about it.  If 80 percent want to, I think the administration won't be relaxed at all.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Big Assessment Question

Like a lot of people, I'm in a couple of facebook groups, including several aimed at academics.  There are a couple feminist groups, and pandemic response groups and so forth.  They're interesting, especially the one with most members in another country.  Today I was reading, and saw an acronym I didn't recognize, and asked.  And the person responded partially, which sort of helped, and then I asked for the rest, and I think they thought I am especially dense.

It was one of those assessment acronyms, the ones we all use at our different schools, some of which mean the same things even though we use different words, and others. . .  well, they don't.  And it really made me think about how thoroughly the language of assessment has taken over academics.  For me, it started right after grad school; I don't think I ever heard anything about assessment in grad school, but right after, BOOM!

A whole lot of academics (at all levels) have been working very hard on assessment stuff for a LONG time now.  And here's the question:

Have students gotten better educations as a result?

The one program around here that clearly points to a change is Introductory Underwater Basketweaving.  Where, before, we all used a hodgepodge of strategies and techniques to teach students the basics, the field has sort of redefined the basics to focus on a lot of terms to do with weave patterns and such.  And our entrance exams all focus on students recognizing weave patterns.  And, by golly, at the end of our course, when they're assessed, they all recognize and can name various weave patterns better than ever before.

But, you know, the baskets they weave don't look much different than they did 20 or so years ago when I first got here.  Some students learned good weaving strategies in high school, and they still use them with great success.  Some students need help preparing the reeds for weaving, and don't really get it, so they're baskets are a mess, but they can name the weave patterns. 

If the point really is that students can name weave patterns, then we've done a good job.  But if the point is that they can weave baskets underwater better, than we haven't.

That's how assessment feels: where we've defined something and focused on that, yes, students can often do that thing better.  But if what we really want students to learn is hard to measure, then are we actually doing a better job educating students?  Seriously, because every school I know of has poured tons of money and time and effort into doing massive assessment.  But by and large, students earning degrees seem no more or less educated than in previous years.  They learn different things, as they should, but overall, are they better critical thinkers?  Better able to understand the world?  Better able to communicate? 

Further: are they more humane?  better citizens? 

Friday, May 29, 2020

New Car

Early last week, I had my car (a 2003) in for servicing.  It was due for 60K mile servicing, which I'd missed early on, and left to 100K, so this time, it was due for big stuff, and had 162K miles on it.  It's had a small oil leak for about a year.  It wasn't huge, and didn't worry me overly, but I kept an eye on it, and made sure to get the oil changed and checked and all.

So, they called me and said they'd changed the oil, but... in addition to the oil leak, there's a coolant leak, and also, it was going to need new brakes shortly, and to fix it and all was probably going to be a lot, and much more than the car is worth.

I brought it home to think, and texted with my incredible, wonderful brother.  I texted him a link to a newer used car (same model) at the dealer, and he said it was a bit pricey, and took a look at an on line car thing, and found a really good looking car, a newer model, with low mileage, and suggested that.  The on line place delivers to your house!  (The car is fairly local, so they say.)  So I went to the dealer and test drove one like it, and then started filling out the on line forms.  And I got to the place where I needed to submit my old car's title.  But that's in my safety deposit box.

Like a lot of people, I keep somewhat important but not safety deposit important stuff in my freezer (because someone told me it's the last place that burns when the house burns).  So I looked in my freezer for the little tiny envelop with the safety deposit keys.  Not there.  (All the other expected stuff is there.)  And then I looked everywhere else I could imagine.  Nothing.  I'm guessing when I had to get a new fridge, I missed taking out the tiny envelop, and it went with the fridge, back maybe six months ago, in mid winter.  (A good time for a fridge to die, since you can move things into coolers on the deck and fill them with snow.)

I called the bank.  They need to drill out the thing... and there's a charge and they have to make an appointment and such.  So, the charge is about $125, they said, so we arranged an appointment.  The earliest is June.  Uh oh.

I sighed, and the next day texted my brother my tale of woe.  And he sensibly texted back that they weren't going to give me much for my car, so why not get the on line one with low mileage, and then just take my old one to the junk yard when I get the title.  SMART! 

He looked at the on line place again, but the car he's suggested was gone, pending sale.  He looked some more, and I looked.  Then he suggested a different model, which I've never driven. 

I told him I'd go test drive one at the dealer, and then texted him the link to the dealer, and asked him which used car I should ask to drive, and also, if there were some of the other model I might look at.  And by the time I got to the dealer, he'd texted me four cars, and so I started test driving.  I really didn't like the second model as much.  But I drove one of the used cars he suggested, and really liked it.  It's not as fancy a version as my old car, but has all the things I really need in terms of extras: namely, heated seats.

Reader, I married it.  Or bought it, at any rate. 

It's very comfortable to drive.

My brother also helped me figure out to get the extended warranty (mostly for electronics stuffs), and also suggested that I go get a "bra" put on.  Basically, it's plastic sheeting that they adhere to the front parts of the car to protect the paint from dings and such from stuff that gets thrown up at the car. 

I had my appointment for that yesterday, and picked it up this morning.  So now it feels like it's really mine, and I've started adding stuff.  I put on things so the seat belts are more comfortable (they're always made to be comfortable for someone who's like 5'11" or something, and I'm not).  And I added a thing to hold some emergency money and a check, so they're not super visible, but are easy for me to get if I need them.  Finally, I added my park stickers for the state and county.  So now it's really feeling like we're ready to have some adventures.

My old car was really good, low worry for the most part, and good for camping and such.  If this car is as good, and lasts as long, then I'll be pretty darned happy.

Feeling My Way Forward

I've been the new chair since Tuesday, and I'm learning about all the things I need to start actually learning.

On Monday, I had an email conversation with the deanling Dan (not their real name).  Dan wanted to talk on Teams, which is fine, so I told him when I had stuff to do, and he sent me one of those outlook calendar thingies.

And then he sent an email that said "your calendar is grey" and sort of chastized me for my calendar being grey.  It doesn't look grey to me.  In the past, I've never much used the outlook calendar because I carry a calendar book, and like being able to flip pages easily and see things, which honestly isn't the same.  Anyway, I remembered this incident, when a student was able to make an appointment in my calendar somehow.  (The magic of blogging is that I can find stuff that happened way back when if I can remember a searchable keyword.  "Calendar" in this case.  Deanling Dan is the "deanish" person whose incompetence in checking how things should be done resulted in this post.  Fortunately, Dan seems to have learned a LOT in about ten years.)  And I remembered someone helped me figure out how to make people not able to change my calendar or even see it.

In the past couple of weeks, preparing for chairness, I've reset the calendar so the admin assistants can see and add things if they need to (because I trust them both to take good care of the department).  So I went in and reset the whole thing so that anyone can see when I'm busy.  And then I emailed deanling Dan and that was that.  I seriously have to check that outlook thing way more than I have been.

We "met" virtually yesterday, and I learned a lot.  And holy cow, that's a whole lot more to learn!

I need to find a system of keeping track of pending stuff easily.  I'm thinking a board with post it notes would do (in addition to my bullet journal and calendar).  That way, I can quickly see and review them, make sure anything that needs to get done is done, and then remove the post it.  But that doesn't really work unless I'm more or less in one place, and there's an organized office sort of space.

We're going to play office dominoes.  The previous chair needs to move our of our chair's office (which is close to the department office, and on a corner with big windows and a gorgeous view).  But the chair will be moving into an office previously occupied by Adjunct A.  Adjunct A got hired by the communications department onto the tenure track (hurray!  nothing could be better!), and is probably waiting to get a real office over there to move into.  (We're hoping he'll have his stuff out of our office by mid June.)  Then the previous chair can move, then I can move.  And then one of our new hires will take my office.

The things that have happened so far have been sort of, "yes, these happen, some not too often, some pretty much every week, and you need to figure them out" things.  No disasters yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

I'm Out with the In Crowd

A couple times in the not so distant past, I've seen or heard someone in my field use terms I don't understand.  In one case, it was before the shelter at home orders; in the other, it was on the interwebs, in an academic effbee discussion group.

First, I'm older rather than hip and young.  Heck, even when I was young, I was never hip.  Now, it's even worse.  And yet, I'm absolutely sure I used terms such as "Other" or "other" in ways that indicated I was "in" on the cool critical studies stuff.  And I don't imagine I was terribly thoughtful about making sure that everyone in the conversation knew what I was talking about.

I remember, in the mid-nineties, using the term "queer" in a women's studies class in my small, midwestern, SLAC, and realizing from the shocked looks that I needed to stop and talk about reclaiming the term.  For me, I'd long felt it was reclaimed and owned by the LGBTQ communities.  But for my students, it surely wasn't.  And so we talked about it.

At this point, I tend to be at least moderately aware of my audience when using lit studies cant, the semi-secret language of humanities fields; I avoid it if I'm talking to people outside of academic contexts, just as I avoid talking about quirky bits of Shakespeare.  In classes, I'm going to define the term, write it on the board, and make sure that my students understand it, and what I'm after when I use it.  And in hallways with my colleagues, I'm sensitive to whether my colleague is more or less a lit crit type theory person, and might well avoid some terms if so.  (If they're a music theory person, that's a whole different world!)

This change is largely, I think, the result of a lot of teaching, and partly the result of feeling reasonably comfortable with myself.  I can't think of the last time I felt the need to "prove myself" in terms of theory, or pretty much anything except when I had my department interview as part of the chair decision.  And that was about trying to prove that I would be a decent and responsible chair.

In these cases I'm thinking of, my impression is that the users of the terms are both "young" in terms of the profession.  Maybe they were just totally comfortable using the term, the way I was with "queer."  Maybe they're trying to prove that they're in the know about things. 

In person, I asked (the word was "Ace" but clearly not about cards or sports or flying), and the person said what it meant, someone who identifies as asexual.  (I would have just said, "asexual," but I guess that's not the preferred term??  No doubt there are subtleties.)  There may have been a slightly patronizing look, or maybe it's just me feeling stupid.  On the web, I looked it up (the word was "DisCrit," which I thought at first might be criticism of dystopian lit, but nope, it's Disabilities Studies using a Critical Race Theory approach, I think).  In the latter case, I don't know the person, but they were asking for help finding resources about DisCrit in a way that didn't seem like a more experienced person's approach.  (I may be wrong, of course.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Student Communications and Canvas

We use Canvas as our course management system.  It lets me put up announcements for each course, comment on student documents, and other cool stuff.  It's actually a really workable system, I think.

If only students would read the announcements and such.  I know, it's the age old "students don't read the syllabus" and "students don't read my comments on their papers" thing.  I think Socrates makes the same comments somewhere, maybe in the Theaetetis?

Alas, there's no easy solution.  If there were, we'd all be using it.  (Like with the age old complaint, "I get cold at night," to which someone answered, "Hey, I could throw a hide or cloth over myself!  I shall call it 'blanket!'"  Only in some language more ancient than Socrates' upstart Greek.)

When we switched over to on line, about half way through the semester, I put up an announcement that I wasn't moving my grades over to Canvas, and only new grades would show up there.  I also sent every single student a mail merge email showing exactly where they stood with grades for the semester at that point. 

I give frequent short writing assignments (journals, let's say), at least 15 in each course, of which students need to turn in 10.  So, with 80 or so students this semester, and already about 7 of those done and recorded in my excel grade sheet, plus other assignments in all three courses, I'd have over 400 grades to transfer into Canvas.  So I told students I wasn't doing that.  I also don't know how to make Canvas count only 10 of those journals either.  (I have a similar problem with short papers, where students got to choose which one they wanted to do, out of three choices due at different times.)

So with that email, they should have known exactly how many journals they'd done, and very simple math would give them the answer to how many more they need to do.  (On the paper syllabus, I put spaces labeled to help them keep track.)

And yet, I got panicked student emails:  "Canvas says I've only done [some percentage close to 50%].  Could you tell me what I'm missing?]  So I told them.

After a number of these in one day (it was six, maybe seven), I put up a new announcement about the grades in Canvas.  That cut down the panicked emails slightly.

The other day, though, I got an angry sounding email from a student who'd turned in an 11th journal.  So in Canvas, I gave it a 0, and noted in the comment box that they'd already done ten, that they'd gotten xx/100 (a very good grade) on the journals, and didn't have to do more.  But apparently, the student had seen the 0 and hadn't bothered to read the comment (which, alas, shows up in small pixelation just below the grade: it needs to be BIG and BOLDFACE to catch their attention.)

So I made up a "testing one two three" file, and submitted it as a test student in one of the grades.  Then I graded it, and commented on it in the box and on the "paper" (which you can do in colors on Canvas).  And then I switched to "student view" and sure enough, there was the comment, right under the grade.

Finding the comments on the "paper" was more difficult (I had to ask the wisdom of the interwebs on effbee), but it's do-able.  And I had sent the students the exact same "how to look at grades and comments" page on Canvas at the beginning of this whole fiasco.

And then there's the student who panic emails about how their journal hasn't been graded yet, and why isn't there a grade, even though they turned it in a day ago, late (because I leave the "box" open an extra two days, just to help folks who are having difficulties, and don't grade them until a couple days later).

So, there's nothing new here.  It's just a bit of venting.  I can't vent with colleagues in an office behind a closed door.  When I email with students, I don't berate or belittle them, just try to be polite and answer their question.  Very few bother to even thank me for that. 

But, I did get a couple of very lovely emails from students thanking me for what I'm doing to try to make things good.  And that's been so very nice.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Not Quite Bald

The hair on the back of my head is darker, less gray, than nearer the front.  So it looks like there's more here than on the frontal picture.

I'm quite liking it now.  I haven't shown a lot of people, but the ones who've seen it have been nice about it.

It's nice to touch, like velvet, with a strong direction, so it's super smooth in one direction, and sort of prickly in another (but still not super much).

Friday, May 01, 2020


Not quite.  But yesterday, I shaved my head.  I have what might be a two or three day stubble, so it wasn't all gone, but pretty much gone.

If you've seen Unorthodox on Netflix, you'll remember the scene where the other married women are shaving the head of Esty and she's crying.  That's not how it went down here.

I borrowed a shaver thing, put on the lowest plastic shaving guard, went out onto my deck, and went at it.  As I was shaving, I had a moment of doubt.  I'd just taken a huge swath from one side of my head, and I suddenly was filled with doubt.  But at that point, I was pretty committed.  I'd thought about shaving my head on and off for years, pretty much every summer.  But I never did, because it seemed like... well, it would be weird going into a new class with a barely fuzzy head.  Or something.

I was committed, but had a doubtful twist in my gut.  And then I caught my reflection in the window and burst out laughing.  The doubt didn't totally disappear, but it wasn't twisting in my gut.  And I kept laughing.  I cut what I thought was everything, and went inside to shower, and saw myself much better in the mirror, and realized I'd missed parts.  So I went back and did more.  Even so, at the end, I couldn't get all the little hairs behind my ears, so a friend helped.  (We'd planned to go trash walking in a big park, so I took scissors and we violated social distancing for a few minutes.  When I went to the park, I wore a hat, and when I took it off, she and I both laughed a lot.  It was fun!)

So now my head's shaved, pretty much.  It's a CoronaCut!

We're preparing for the possibility of teaching on line in fall, and it's not pretty.  The students mostly don't like it, and neither do most professors.  I think we all enjoy the human contact.  And, whenever we get back to face to face, I imagine there will be a couple of weeks of really appreciating being there.  (And then it will be back to normal, and we won't think about it quite that way.)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sunday Evening Reflection

It's Sunday evening.  I had a good day of grading and reworking some things for the on line classes, using students suggestions (which I'd asked for) to try to make things clearer.

I feel better prepared for this week than I have since going on line, and that's good, but I'm frazzled and feeling a bit anxious this evening.

I've posted a weekly summary of things to do for each class, and a little keeping in touch thing that I'm trying to do each week.

I'm caught up on on-time grading, though there are many late things that I need to find in email and grade.  That's the hard part about late things, that they get buried in email...

I made a "late box" for turning in late assignments for each class, so I'm hoping that will help me find them more easily.

One of my students emailed me asking when I would be posting all the grades from before we were on line into our course management system.  Let's see, 80 students, and if each student has done 5 small assignments with grades, that's... yes, 400 grades to move over.  It's not happening any time soon.

I have three biggish committee meetings this week. 

I'm mostly prepared for the one on Monday afternoon, but will need to do a couple hours of work for it this week.  (But not for tomorrow's meeting, for the next meeting.)

I have a meeting Wednesday afternoon, late, that I have a couple of hours of work to do for.  It's generally a once a semester committee meeting, so that's good at least.

On Thursday I have an ad hoc committee meeting that I've done maybe three hours of work for already, and need to do at least another four hours of work for.  The work's at least interesting and not too onerous at this point.  It will get more demanding in the coming weeks.

There's a standing meeting on Thursday morning, but it doesn't take a lot of prep on my part right now.

I have a set of papers coming in tomorrow.  Students can turn in either this short paper or another (later in the semester), and it's looking like there's one in for now, which means that later, there will be a ton.  Okay then.

What I really need to start doing for my courses is looking at all the discussion posts, and seeing more fully how they're going.  And responding some.  I gather I should set aside time each week to do that, and that's the goal for this week, probably Tuesday morning.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

It Had to Happen. . .

One of my NWU colleagues has died.  It seems like it was sudden, but unrelated to the Covid-19 epidemic.  I don't know.  It's not someone I was really close to, but someone I kept in touch with on facebook and was happy to see on campus on those rare occasions when we did. 

Facebook is how I found out.  Her daughter first, and then some other people posted on her page announcing that she'd died. 

It's the sort of thing that leaves me wondering, though I really shouldn't put any energy there.  And she was younger than I am by a few years, so it's one of those times when my own mortality seems a bit fragile again.

I'd love to know what sorts of things people are doing to try to make their classes feel like there's at least a little community.

I'm trying to post a little video thing once a week, wearing a different hat each time, mostly saying hello and wishing them well.

I really need help making discussions more effective.  If we go on line in fall, I'm going to do them more like I did on D2L.

So much grading. . .  so overwhelming and not easy.

Monday, April 13, 2020

A Weekend of Grading

We started back to classes last week, all on-line.  We were told we needed to have students doing something by April 2nd, and really dig in starting April 6th.  We'd left off just before I would have given midterm exams, and I'm sure a lot of my colleagues were in the same boat.  So, late last week, I had students turn in short essays for their midterms. 

Mostly, given the constraints, they did well.  Some were really excellent.

Today, we were supposed to turn in midterm grades for our lower division (first and second year level) courses, which meant I spent the weekend and much of today grading their midterms so I could give them a real midterm grade and turn it in.  I got them all done, but it wasn't easy.

Grading on line is hard.  We use a system called "Canvas" for doing on line course stuff, and it works pretty well, though it's not super intuitive.  The grading thing is good, but I'm really slow at reading and responding on line, MUCH slower than I am with paper.  So my responses on the midterms were minimal.  I'm hoping I get a bit more efficient with longer essays!

I have students do a fair bit of writing in short one or two paragraph assignments; they do ten of these over the semester, which ends up being about the equivalent of a 5-8 page paper.  Except it's less stressful, and they get a lot more frequent feedback, so more developmental.  Because these are short, it takes about half an hour to 40 minutes to grade a full stack (there are 15 for each course, and students do 10 of those).  That means I often have smallish grading tasks two or three times a week (for the three courses I teach).  So I'm constantly grading, but not huge tasks, if that makes sense.  It means I can keep up well with those, and pretty much turn them back at the next class session, which is as good as it gets in terms of low stakes feedback for developing writing skills.  Most college students can write a decent paragraph in well less than an hour, so it's not a massive burden on them, and certainly not as stressful as a 5-8 page paper would be.

If the semester had gone to plan, I would have had spring break to grade midterms, and never really fallen much behind.  But as it went, I'm buried in midterms now (I still have my upper level course midterm to grade), and another biggish developmental assignment for the upper level course (which scaffolds into their semester project), and I haven't even looked at those small writing assignments this week.

I think most of us, instructors and students alike, are feeling pretty ragged now.

I've gotten good feedback from my students on the material I put on line.  With the Canvas system, you can give students short quizzes, which aren't graded, but do the prompting memory thing; you can make short videos where you show what's on your screen and talk over it, or where they look at your face.  You can put up discussions (I really need to figure those out better), and you can put up writing.  So I've tried to do combinations of those so that it's familiar, but not exactly the same for each text.  (My classes are organized by text, mostly, so students can work at their own pace.)

Students say they like the quizzes (low pressure, ungraded, and mostly 3-4 questions), and the videos I've done (mostly with text showing, or pictures that I drew or something).  They also tell me that the course is organized so that they can find what they need to do pretty easily, and follow along.

All that is good news.  The organizational strategy seemed obvious to me, but I have no idea how other people are organizing their courses.

Last Monday, and today (also Monday), I sent each class a group email telling them what was happening as far as grading and such, and what they need to work on this week, and whatever due dates are happening this week (for those short writing assignments, mostly).  I'm planning to do that every week, and also put up a short video of me talking, just saying hi, how are you sort of thing, every week.  My plan is to wear a different hat or something every time.

That's the week that was.  Now that the courses are up and I've turned in midterm grades, I have more committee work to turn to, and more grading.  Of course.

Monday, April 06, 2020

The Not So Obvious Agenda in Assessment

I was at a meeting today about some assessment stuffs.  It was one of those meetings where people look at assessment info and decide if the course gets to keep its qualification for GE.

One course was flagged because every student in the course met the goals.  That's a problem, a colleague said.  They should tell us how and why they're doing that.

It's a small upper-level course, I said (well, not in these words, since it was on line and all, and it seems like it would be a problem if the instructor weren't reaching most students with this rather modest goal.

And the other person wanted more information about the meeting the goal thing, because they suspected it couldn't be so.  It might be that the faculty member wasn't doing more than clicking a number.  Which could be, of course.

So, I understand, but what I want to know is, what's the secret number that will or won't provoke Professor A's suspicion?

There's really no answer.  But 100% for sure, unless there's a good explanation.  Though the form didn't ask for any explanation like that.

It's one of those things where, ideally, everyone would be aiming for 100%, but if you get there, suddenly you're suspect.  Damned if you do, damned if you don't.  Frustrating!

Back in Session

After suspending our semester (which starts later than most), we're back in session today.

I spent a bunch of time sending emails to all my students yesterday detailing exactly where they are in terms of their course grade as of the suspension, having graded all the things handed in then.

We've been advised to go totally asynchronous, given how many of our students live in rural areas with uncertain internet or live in households with uncertain computer access at a given time.  If another sibling has a class meeting that has to take place, then better not to put that pressure on our students, and hope they can get things done at other times. 

So, I've tried to imagine what I'd want to communicate about a work to students, and tried to think of how to best do that on line, and that's what I've done.  It means I've basically done all the reading and prep for six weeks of work in three weeks, along with some grading. 

In a face to face class, I do short bits of information, and then tend to have longer times when I'm asking students to read and think, draw, write, discuss, and then share out, so that they learn to read and discover for themselves what's important in the reading.  In those cases, I'm trying to be more like a guide who focuses folks on where to look and helps them see something for themselves.  My goal is to help students learn skills in reading, in learning to identify what's important, and in learning to tease out how metaphors and  such work.

I'll give students passages to look at in groups, say four passages, 8 groups, 2 groups on each passage.  They'll get time, I'll wander around, try to guide them, and then we come back together and they tell each other what they've come up with, and I try to reinforce it.  My difficulty figuring this out on line stems from not knowing how to divide students into groups looking at different passages, and not knowing how to have students report out from groups, and not knowing how to get everyone else to read the reporting out part.

I've got two of my three courses totally up for the rest of the semester, and the third up through May 7.  I'm trying to finish that up by tomorrow, and start grading midterms that they're starting to turn in. 

My guess is that I'll feel less stressed and anxious as students show that they can get through the on line stuffs.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Virtual Meetings

As proto-chair, I've started participating in meetings, and now those are going virtual.  We've got a meeting program embedded in our course management system and it works pretty well.  But none of the deans or deanlings I interact with wants to use that.  So each has their preferred program, for whatever reason, and everyone needs to get on board with that. 

So upload I do, and then...  for a meeting tomorrow, the deanling's assistant thought I needed to practice on the program, and so called me on it, and then it took close to an hour because there was another dean's assistant on the line and both wanted to make sure I knew how to show documents and such, except they couldn't get it to work on her thing (though I got it to work on mine).

And now back to trying to put my courses on line.  I'm putting up the stuff for Hwang's M Butterfly now, and it's been really hard to figure out how much background to give on Orientalism, history, and the opera, in order to help them read and enjoy the play and make something of it.

I did a bad drawing of a set:

Super sophisticated, for sure.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Checking in

I have a Garmin watch that tells me when my phone's ringing because it's connected by blue tooth.  So this morning, I was in my bedroom dressing when my watch buzzed and I saw I was getting a call from my Mom, so I ran into the living room, except I didn't get there because for the first time ever, I tripped on a rug and went splat, onto a hard tile floor and head into a wall.  Fortunately, my head hit the wall to the side rather than, as it were, head on.  Still, it was a whack.  I took a moment to get up, wondering if I'd given myself a concussion (pretty sure I didn't at this point some hours later), and realizing I'd also whacked a knee. 

I'd missed the call, but called back right away.  My Mom had called.  The week before last, she'd asked me to send her some playing cards, and I had, but stupidly sent pinochle cards.  I didn't even look at the labeling, and even if I had, I don't think I'd have realized that pinochle cards aren't a regular deck of cards.  (My Mom let me know that, and has repeatedly every time we talk of late.)  I offered (last week) to get a another deck and send it to her, but she declined, assuring me that her friend plays bridge regularly and can probably lend her a deck. 

This morning, she was calling to ask me to go get a deck and send it to her.  So I asked, didn't your friend have a deck to lend you?  Yes, she said, but it's a brand new deck, and I don't want to open it.  And I said that if I sent a deck it would also be a brand new deck, so? 

I think the point was that she doesn't want to wear out or ruin her friend's cards.  So I said when the virus was over, I'd get a brand new deck so she could give that to her friend.  And I think that satisfied her.  At least about the cards.

My Mom isn't mentally all together these days, and I realize that, but still, it seems wrong that she wanted me to go out and potentially expose myself in a grocery store just so she could have a deck of cards that wasn't new from her friend. 

I think I've figured out why I'm so slow putting my classes up on line, other than just procrastinating a bit.  I'm basically doing the rereading and rethinking that I'd do for a regular class, AND doing more thinking about trying to teach it on line.  And I'm doing it for three classes, and trying in three weeks to put together six weeks of teaching. 

It's far less satisfying not knowing how things are going to work for the students and not getting feedback.  I hope things will feel less strange when I see that students are working on things and get some feedback.


It's been two and a half hours since my head banging, and it doesn't hurt on the surface, and I don't have a headache or any other issues, so I'm pretty sure I didn't give myself a concussion.  Still, as I was flying (literally) for the wall, I did think, that could be it.  And then it wasn't.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Koan Enigma and On-Line Teaching/Learning

In some Zen Buddhist practices, there's a way of teaching / learning called "koan."  There's a LOT of variety, but in one basic practice, a koan is a question, problem, or riddle given by a teacher to their student.  The student then ponders and comes back with a response.  At some point, if everything's going well, they figure out a correct response.  And then the teacher gives them another koan.

One of the most famous koans is the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

If you're like me, you ponder for a very short bit of time, and then look up the answer, thinking that it's like math, and if someone shows you the answer to one, you can repeat it and then learn how to do the next one.  But koan really aren't like that.  The point is more the pondering than the answer to the question.  Just getting the answer doesn't teach you what pondering and finding a correct response will.

Some of the things I'm doing for my on-line classes are sort of like koan: I ask students to freewrite, not because there's a specific answer, but because working through and thinking about things, even for 3-5 minutes, will help them learn in a different way because reading literature, thinking critically, writing well, these are skills, and to do them, you have to practice a lot.

In person, I ask my students to freewrite, and say I'll give them x amount of time, and wander around (warning them off phones if those are out, which is rare, but not unheard of), and most of my students, because they're cooperative, will appear to be doing something. And then when I ask them to share some ideas, they actually tend to have stuff to say.

But how do I convince them that it's actually worth taking that time on-line?  If they're like me, they just want to get through things, get to the "punch line" or point or whatever.  I know from personal experience that I don't do freewriting or whatever unless I really have a committed purpose that I'm convinced it will help with.  But I'm not sure I can convince very many of my students to feel that commitment or purpose when they're doing a class on line.

Are there ways to actually convince them?