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? 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Administrative Musical Chairs

Another administrator has left NWU for greener pastures and a higher title.

It's been something like 10 years since my college has had a dean for more than 3 years, and about half of that time, we've had interim deans.

If they're good, they move up and away, and fast; dean is just a minor checkmark on the way.  Associate and assistant headmaster is a step up to headmaster, and there... well, there must be a lot of turn over at higher ranks because people seem to move a lot once they move into administration.

Or not.  If they're questionably competent, they can get stuck.

And sometimes, we've had GREAT mid-level administrators who stuck around a while; the folks I'm thinking of were hired from within and really found a way to put their smarts to use in creative ways here, and didn't move, for whatever reason.  (Though one recently retired, and what a loss that is to us!)

One of my grad school friends is now a headmaster, and a surprising number have served as chairs of various sorts of institutions.  (I'm late to the chairing game.)

I have a feeling my current chair could be a really successful dean if they want to go that direction.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Time in the Time of Covid

I talked to my Mom today; she's 88, and feeling her age lately.  At her retirement community, everything is locked down; they're supposed to stay in their apartments.  It totally makes sense; the managers want to try to keep anyone from getting or sharing the virus.

But my Mom's bored.  And anxious.  She keeps watching the news and stuff about the virus, and then she reads stuff about the virus.  Who wouldn't be anxious.

I get that she's bored.  I think there's two ends on the spectrum of reacting to the sheltering in place thing: people with a work at home job and kids in the house are at one end, desperately trying to get things done and not finding much time for sleep or even basics.  And at the other end are folks like my Mom, who don't have other responsibilities or easy access to the internet (my Mom could, but she doesn't get on because she found it all too confusing).

I'm closer to the other end, trying to get classes up and ready while also trying to get some exercise and sunshine every day.

I'm now part of two on line teaching communities, and they're both a little overwhelming, just because there are so many people posting all the time.  What I really want is one easy answer, and done, but I don't think that's happening any time soon.

In other news: I checked nesting boxes today, saw many Robins, and the American Goldfinches are getting their bright yellow already.

So, last week, my Mom said she was going to run out of TP.  So my brother ordered some on line.  But then he got a notice that the order was cancelled.  So, on Friday my Sister in Law texted me, and made it sound really urgent to send some since I'd seen some at the store, restocked.  I went to the store and got my Mom some TP, and called her to see if there was anything else she needed while I was at the store.  No, she said.  I got a card and some licorice and sent the package to her (she gets a bit of a treat and surprise).  It's supposed to get there early next week.

Today, she called and said she needs instant coffee.  She doesn't like the coffee they bring her at the retirement place (they're delivering meals to everyone's apartments, along with whatever...  basic dietary stuff).  Like, I could have easily gotten the coffee while I was at the store and sent it on Friday.

I asked her to check and make a list of whatever she needs.  But she said she really doesn't feel like it.  (I hope I convinced her, anyway.)

I'm a little freaked out because if she gets sick, like really sick, there's probably no way I can go to see her.  And the same thing for all my other family and friends.  I can't be the only one thinking of this?

I saw a news article on the BBC about a family where four members died, but each alone in their hospital room, without knowing about the others.  The survivors are understandably devastated, and in self-quarantine hoping they didn't catch it at the family gathering.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

One Done

I made some good progress yesterday, considering.

I've now put up the basic structures for all three of my courses, and did one day's teaching material for one course.  We're finishing up Persepolis, so in order to do it, I had to pdf some pages, and then made three short videos (3-5 min each), some short quizzes that don't count for grades, and two discussion areas with specific questions.  I'd love some feedback on it, but truthfully, what I want is to be told, "that'll do" and feel okay about it.

Today, I'm going to work on finishing up "The Reeve's Tale" in the Chaucer course and work on The Tempest stuff for the Intro to Critical Studies course. 

Yesterday was a steep learning curve.  I was at a meeting on Tuesday (sitting far apart in a huge room), and the teaching center director was there, assuring us all that there's lots of support available.

So, I figured out how to make my little video things (voiceover with screen pictures of the appropriate pages of Persepolis), but then I couldn't figure out how to upload the video or embed it.  I figured out how to upload it, finally, but still couldn't figure out the embedding into a page.  Turns out, the "upload video" button isn't what you use.  Instead, you use the "other media" button, and then another button, and voila it's there.

At each problem, I tried calling the Canvas support folks or the campus support folks or the on line Canvas chat, but all of them were backed up, and the chat session timed out before they got to me. 

So, I finally got desperate enough to read the directions, and that helped.  (It's a pain to have to go back and forth between screens trying to read directions and then do them on another screen, isn't it?)

A friend has been joking about starting a blog as the "Pantless Professor," but it sort of seems problematic for a female professor, doesn't it.  And problematic in a different way for a male.  Still, funny to joke about, and we needed a joke.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

You Read it Here, First

I'm predicting an upsurge in blogging.  Buy those blogging stocks now!

Blogging is at its best when the blogger is doing something relatively new to them and processing a lot.  And by golly, we've got a lot of people who are going to be doing something relatively new to them and needing to process.  And a lot of folks are mostly going to be inside, trying to work on line.

I must admit, I miss the community from those heady days of blogging when lots of folks blogged, and then when it turned out that I knew a fair number of academic bloggers off line, too.  (I think my grad program somehow produced a disproportionately high number of bloggers.)

We're going on line, too.  We have a week of suspended classes, spring break for a week, and then another week of suspended classes in which to prepare, which is a whole lot more than a lot of people. 

My goal for today is to decide what I want to focus on and what leave out for at least one class, and maybe two.  We're suspending classes for two weeks, so it's reasonable to drop some stuff, two weeks worth.

As incoming chair, I've been to a lot of meetings this past week or so, and it seems like everyone up the chain is on board with being reasonable: try to do a reasonably good job putting courses on line, but recognize that things aren't ideal.  Try to do a reasonably good job in other ways, but recognize that we're going to need to treat tenure track colleagues' progression reasonably.  (People, especially people with kids, can't possibly do the same sort of research agenda while learning to teach on line and having their kids home, and so forth.  And people will get sick and lose time.)

In terms of first stage planning, here's what the Chaucer course calendar looked like:

Week 7
M - Mar 16 - The Reeve’s Tale
W - Mar 18 - Midterm Exam
F - Mar 20 - The Wife of Bath’s Prologue; read essay on prologue in Open Access Companion; Article Report #2 Due


Week 8
M - Mar 30 - The Wife of Bath’s Tale; Word Paragraph #7: 1109-1124; Article Report #3 Due
W - Apr 1 - The Wife of Bath’s Tale; read essay in Open Access Companion
F - Apr 3 - The Friar’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #8: 1447-1554

Week 9
M - Apr 6 - The Friar’s Tale
W - Apr 8 - The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #9: 2216-2237
F - Apr 10 - The Summoner’s Tale

Week 10
M - Apr 13 - The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #10: 1319-1339
W - Apr 15 - The Merchant’s Tale
F - Apr 17 - SAA

Week 11
M - Apr 20 - The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #11: 862-880
W - Apr 22 - The Franklin’s Tale
F - Apr 24 - The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #12: 941-957

Week 12
M - Apr 27 - The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #13: 502-529
W - Apr 29 - The Prioress’s Tale
F - May 1 - The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #14: 3705-3719

Week 13
M - May 4 – Peer Revision of Research Project
W - May 6 - The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale; Word Paragraph #15:  141-154
F - May 7 - The Manciple’s Tale (Guest lecturer)

Week 14
M - May 11 - Review for Final; Research Project Due
W - May 13 - The Parson's Prologue; Chaucer's Retraction
F - May 15 - Last Day of Classes; The Pilgrimage; read “Two Kinds of Anxiety” essay in Open Access Companion

The Manciple's Tale is going away, for sure.  But what else?

The article reports are assignments to read and write about a single critical article, and are preparation for the final research project, which is basically a lit review of a critical conversation around a topic/issue (I gave them a list).

What else should I lose?

I'm thinking: Second Nun's for sure, and Parson's Prologue; what else?

Friday, March 13, 2020


Reading Spenser (I'm pretty sure), I was taught that being "astonied" or "astonished" meant being turned to stone, or, you know, like stone.  And "amazed" means being as in a maze, lost, without direction, confused.

That's where I was yesterday, when our headmaster put out the word that we're cancelling classes.  I was pretty sure we would get to that, but didn't expect it yesterday, since he'd put off and made it sound like he didn't think it was that serious.  I think something changed his mind.

So, we're moving on line.  But unlike lots of schools, we have a couple of weeks to get our courses in shape and moved over.  That's really helpful, because it's a daunting idea.

On the other hand, I'm guessing there will be a lot of alcohol consumed in the dorms and student housing this coming week...

I've never taught on line before, so I've got a lot to learn in the next couple of weeks.  And I see all sorts of folks are putting lists of resources together, so I'll definitely be looking at them.

I read a couple of weeks ago that some expert (sorry, I can't remember who it was or where) thinks that having the Covid-19 virus around will be the new normal, like having the seasonal flu.  No one knows yet if getting it once will make you (mostly?) immune or not.  And no one knows if we'll develop an effective vaccine.  It's more dangerous than the flu so far, and may always be.  Or it may become less dangerous if exposure makes you immune and it doesn't evolve different forms quickly.  (That fast changing of forms is what makes the common cold so difficult to deal with, and also helps make the flu difficult.) 

My (vague!) understanding is that the common cold is also caused by a corona virus, so maybe that will mean this one evolves as fast.  I don't know.

It's especially worrisome for older folks and those with immune problems or chronic illnesses.  And the economy is worrisome now, too. 

Of course, there've been bad, bad pandemics before, but not for a long time.  And I wasn't worried (because I wasn't alive yet).  Now, I'm worried.  Like folks during the Black Plague, and folks during the Spanish Flu pandemic.  (I don't think this is as fatal as those, but it's still plenty serious, no?)

Take care, lovely readers.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

A Voice in the Hinterlands

Sharon O'Dair wrote "The Lies Graduate Programs Tell Themselves" recently over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I'm sure O'Dair is absolutely right in some of her analysis, especially in recognizing that graduate school acceptances for PhD programs are driven by the needs for cheap labor to teach introductory and writing courses.

And yet I can't help but feel my hackles rise when I read the following sentence:
The decades-long overproduction of Ph.D.s has spilled highly trained graduates of elite programs into assistant professorships in the hinterlands, "places like East Podunk University or West Jesus State College," as Jeffrey J. Williams memorably put it in 1995.
Does she not think that students at schools in rural areas or the Midwest (which is what I think she's after with her "hinterlands" comment) deserve to be taught by highly trained graduates?  Or is it graduates of elite programs?  (Surely she doesn't think only elite programs produce highly trained graduates.)

Who does she think should teach at our schools?  Unqualified people?  People who didn't go to elite schools?

Well, [expletive deleted] that.  My students deserve great scholar/teachers every bit as much as anyone from whatever elite university you can think of.

NWU also benefits from the abundance of stellar graduates from PhD programs.  We don't tend to get many applicants from Grand Old Ivy type places, but we get really superb applicants from public R1s.  And that means we have highly trained graduates coming to become highly trained assistant professors, and developing into associate professors and so forth.  Even our non-tenure track  colleagues tend to be pretty darned amazing.

If PhD programs all agreed to accept only 10% of the students they currently do, we'd have troubles down the line.  But at 50%, we'd probably still be in great shape.

I'm guessing economically, the only ways R1s could do that would be by increasing the teaching loads of faculty or by hiring even more non-tenure track faculty.  So, R1 folks, you can make that choice.  Everyone teach an extra class or two a semester, and cut your grad program acceptances in half.  (No worries for O'Dair, since she's retired.)

I'm in total agreement that PhD programs should produce fewer graduates.  And yet, I don't want that to happen at the expense of people such as myself or my students.  As it is now, I'd be willing to bet that 90% of the PhD students in English at Yale or Harvard come from pretty elite educational backgrounds.  They don't come from places such as NWU.  And if PhD programs reduce their graduate student acceptances by cutting off people from less elite undergraduate schools, then that seems totally wrong.

But whatever happens, don't think that just because we don't live on the coasts or live more rurally that we're somehow less worthy of educational opportunity than someone from a coastal or more urban (or, really, suburban) area.