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I welcome students readers to this blog. However, be aware that, although I do not use anyone's actual name, the descriptions of behaviors and conversations are not disguised. This is a space in which I may rant, vent, and otherwise express responses that I would do my best to mask or at least tone down in professional interactions with students. This is my personal, gloves off, no holds barred, direct from the gut expression of what it feels like to do my job. If you think you might be hurt or offended or upset by that, read no further. The person I'm ranting about could be you.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I can't resist

I just finished one class worth of assignments and only have one more to go. Of course, since I've been accepting assignments for about 2 weeks and have returned almost nothing, that still means enough work to do that I'll have to get up at 5 to have it ready for tomorrow's class. And I really do have to return this wodge to everyone tomorrow, not just because I said I would but because a) I got more assignments today and will get more tomorrow from my 101s, b) I am now behind on 229, and c) next week I get first actual essays, which I know I put way the hell too much time into but the insanity is about to rachet up significantly.

And let's not even mention that as yet untouched promo folder, or the fact that I now have other people's sabbatical folders that I have to review....

So, you may ask, what in the blue-eyed world am I doing blogging? My excuse of course is that I need a brain break (and indeed that is true; I can only go so long before I have to wash out the accumulated sludge), but also, honestly, I just really am enjoying blogging and, well, I just want to.

As I mentioned yesterday (I think), we had the first meeting of the conviviality committee tonight. Very sparse but enthusiastic attendance. Only one of the newbies was there, but he's great and clearly is right in the spirit (and spirits) of things. I ended up having a very interesting conversation with a colleague who I think was new last year (I lose track) and whom I have not had a chance to talk with at any length prior to tonight. Overall, among us all, lots of telling of "war stories" and assignment strategies and classroom discussions. We always get into the "what do you have them read" conversations, and those are always fascinating, as we hear about stories/essays/articles/books we don't know. (Not like my "jeez, I'd love to read that someday" list isn't already insanely long--and that's just talking about the books I already own.)

It's also very affirming to know that we are all on the same wavelength when it comes to what education is, especially as in, it's not a business and it's not a service. The corporate and retail models do not apply, much as many administrators would like them to. I liked what Randall said about how it used to be that the professor was a gauge against which students would measure themselves and their work to see where they stood: we were valued for having a store of knowledge and experience that students were striving to match. Now we get the "I ordered a B+, not a C-; take this back and give me what I paid for" attitude. (It always strikes me as peculiar when at semester's end a student tells me that a grade is "unacceptable." Um, ok. Don't accept it and see what ends up on your transcript.) And in our culture at this point, professors are absolutely, categorically not what our students want to emulate. I think for many students, their worst nightmare would be to discover they had become like us (musty, stodgy, hung-up weirdos that we are).

At some point I want to try to remember and blog about the stuff we were delighting over because it completely blows our students' minds, pries the backs of their heads off and scrambles their brains. Another time. We also got into a conversation about assessment, about which I have many apparently contradictory thoughts. But if I open that can of worms right now, there will be worms running amok for ages, and I really do have to turn my mind back to squeezing out just a few more assignments tonight. I'm not sure how well I can actually see (even with my reading glasses, which I tend to forget about; I'm still not used to the idea that I actually need glasses for some things), and I'm really not sure how well I can process, but even if my evaluations are dodgy, done is beautiful. (Quotation from a guy who helped me with props one time when I thought maybe I could have a career in theater as a props mistress, since acting and stage managing were washouts.) I can't think too much about the fact that once I get all this done, I just am facing more of the same: I have to be willing to celebrate getting this batch out from under my feet. By 4:00 tomorrow, it'll all be over but the shouting (metaphorically speaking of course. At least I hope it's metaphoric. I see the asshole student I posted about on Monday at 4 tomorrow... We'll see how that goes.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I needed that

I got up early, got to the office early, and still managed to accomplish significantly less than I wanted/needed to. I worked at the office yesterday (the "holiday") to similar end. On the up side, I was ready for today's class and am ready for tomorrow's, but Thursday? Still in trouble. Still not enough hours left that aren't already dedicated to something else. I didn't go to my writers' group tonight: was at the office until 7 (when I would have had to be in Manhattan), and was by that time seriously hitting the wall. But then--happy sigh--I corrupted Paul and persuaded him to go out for steak with me. Ruth's Chris Steak House, huge, guilt-producing slab of meat (guilt on many levels, not least of which my conflicted feelings about eating meat at all, especially the feed-lot, corn-fed variety): I managed to shove down the guilt and enjoy the steak, along with the side dishes and the nearly requisite scotch that went with it. And I felt all sorts of stress knots untie as Paul and I did our usual mix of talking about students, scholarship, lives, relationships, whatever. And laughing, of course. Rather a lot. I reiterate: I am blessed that my among my colleagues are such terrific friends.

And then I got home and have been revising and re-revising an e-mail to an old friend with whom I have recently re-established communication, and now it's almost 11:30, and I wanted to get up at 6 but I'm not sure I'll be able to make myself do that. Not sure what I'll do to create out of nothing the time I need to get those fucking assignments ready to return on Thursday, but I'm getting myself into the kind of situation I warn my students about: once one gets too far behind, catching up becomes more and more impossible. So they have to be back on Thursday, no matter how utterly wrung out that leaves me by the end of that day.

And now I really must just stop, dammit, and go to bed. This may be my shortest post yet. Probably a relief to you dear and generous souls who actually read this bilge.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Anxiety Attack

Seriously. I am having a full-blown anxiety attack, brought on just by reading a student's assignments. I couldn't even bring myself to read his entire "self evaluation." Apparently this kid thinks he is just too clever for anything as dull and insignificant as my course and that I cannot possibly have anything to offer him. He knows he's wonderful because he reminds himself of New York Post sports writer Mike Vaccaro--and because he's going to write for the school newspaper. Clearly he is therefore brilliant, and the fact that I expect him to write according to some kind of rules is just evidence that I'm an idiot and hate students.

Example of his brilliant thinking, in a freewrite in response to a quotation by Einstein about experiencing wonder: "This one time, my friend took a dookie in my backyard and my doge ate it. That was mysterious to me."

Another example: in a reading journal asking what the author's argument is: "She is trying to bore us out of our minds." Later, when asked for something to bring up for class discussion, "Her details are very descriptive and the place she is describing sounds nice, but it almost like if she was given more pages she would've [illegible] describing the dog crap she stepped in there."

Example: in his so-called self evaluation, in which he is meant to reflect on his strengths and weaknesses as a reader and writer: "Well, my mind kind of works like this: Hitting the monkey skulls, hitting the monkey skulls, knocking them all about, smooth surface, monkey. Hitting the monkey, hitting the monkey skulls, No, I'm the monkey! Flipping them up, kicking them, 'that's not in the rules!', who are you? You're no one, I got the bamboo, monkey."

He says he amuses himself. He is apparently easily amused. In his self-evaluation, he lavishes great praise about a teacher who "actually cared," evidenced by the fact that she understood kids can't write about what they're not interested in, so "all we had to do was write a 2 page essay about anything." Oh, yes: that's serious preparation for college--and for life as a professional writer (which he says he is destined to be), particularly in journalism. We know that newspapers are just wild to publish stream-of-consciousness solipsism that comes out of the ability to write 2 pages about "anything."

When I see him next, I am going to tell him that since he clearly doesn't need my class and has no respect for the material or for me, then he should go explore his career as a brilliant writer--and withdraw from my class. I don't need to take his shit, and I won't. But I'm still having an anxiety attack, largely because I am so fucking angry with the little asshole that I want to nail him to a wall and rip his head off. I want to tell him that he is an arrogant little prick with less brains than the monkeys he writes about and that he richly deserves the incredibly painful awakening that is coming to him, the one where he is shamed into understanding that he is seriously inadequate in every sense. I want to cut his ego into teeny, tiny shreds and set them on fire. I want to make him squirm--and, more to the point, I want to make him understand just how horrific his behavior and attitude are and make him ashamed of himself and how he has conducted himself in his assignments for me (which, honestly, would be more difficult than any of the rest of it).

And I know that feeling this way is only bad for me. It does nothing to help me handle the situation with him as an adult professional--and I do not know why that kind of snotty, disrespectful arrogance gets under my skin so immediately and with such volcanic results. What's it to me, after all, if some 18-year-old kid has delusions of grandeur? I don't have to teach him (and couldn't anyway, as long as he has that attitude). Someone else can try to reach him--or let him continue in his delusions. All I have to do is tell him that he is no longer in my class and let him go. He's one kid. He's just a kid. And even if he goes the rest of his life believing in his own magnificence, more power to him. He isn't worth the lint in my pockets, and here I am all worked up about him. These are the moments that I have to learn to manage better. I am calming down as I write this (though my cheeks still are flushed and my heart rate a little elevated), but what I devoutly hope is that I can learn to reframe my relationship with students like this kid in such a way that I don't have the rage reaction at all, instead of having it and then gradually working my way out of it.

I am a little nervous about being able to keep my temper with him on Thursday, but I just have to remember not to engage in any debate with him. As far as my classroom goes, I am God: I say what happens and there is no other choice. I'm not even going to give him a second chance: he's just plain out, as of right now. If he argues, I'll ask him if he seriously thinks it's a good idea to stay when he has insulted me so profoundly. If he still argues, I'll send him to Bruce--but I won't deal with him again.

I will photocopy his work before I eject him, though, in case he tries to bring up a grievance against me (though my syllabus says anything I consider disruptive is cause for ejection, and I do consider his attitude disruptive). Paul always points out that we cannot let one kid--or even a few--poison the classroom experience for everyone else, and given how I feel about this kid, he will poison things. If he were to stay in the class, I'd dread going there every day, because I'd have to keep such a tight rein on my temper. And that wouldn't be good for the kids who are there who honestly want the class to work and are trying. Many of them don't like the material any more than he does, but they're at least willing to give it a shot. And they deserve my attention. He doesn't deserve even as much of my energy as he's already claimed.

God this just makes me sick. I hate when this happens. But I am grateful that I saw his work now, that I no longer have the feeling that I have to somehow rescue him or turn him around, and that I already know what I'm going to do. In fact, I think I'm going to e-mail him and suggest that he come see me before class meets so we can get this over with. The sooner he's gone, the better.

I was going to try to do some more marking today, but I doubt I will. I'll carry it home with me, but I suspect I'm going to just carry it right back in exactly the same state. That's OK. I'll push like hell tomorrow and Wednesday, and I'll be back on track. I'm kind of sorry now that I have my writers' group tomorrow evening and conviviality (the evenings when colleagues meet to have a drink or two and chat) on Wednesday: I could use both evenings to work late. Ah well. Just means having to get up early instead. One way or another it all will work out. It always does. I think of Geoffrey Rush's character in Shakespeare in Love: whenever people ask him how something will work out, he just says, "It's a mystery." But work out it does.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday office day

So I've been here in the office since noon. It's now after 3, and so far I've made some copies of assignments (and updated some for this semester and next), completed the attendance census (an administrative chore), sent out an e-mail to 101MB (M/W section) to test the NCC student e-mail, put papers in stacks in priority order (and put one class's stack in order by students' last names). Seems like there must be some other stuff I've forgotten, but the point is, I've spent three hours clearing my feet and haven't set pen to assignment. I think it's some genetic trait: I just don't know how long anything will take. (The joke is that I think everything takes half an hour. How long to make a cup of coffee? Half an hour. How long to climb Mt. Everest? Half an hour.) Consequently I think, "Oh, I have time for that, it's only going to take..." and next thing I know, someone has to send out the St. Bernard dogs to find me under the avalanche.

I do have a little bit of an excuse today, however: once again, not enough sleep (and very interrupted sleep at that--storms of dreams). I am wired up, but the lack of sleep makes it difficult for me to focus enough even to read homework, never mind figure out how to mark it.

So, I'm doing the Scarlett O'Hara thing again: "I'll think about that tomorrow, when I'm stronger. After all, tomorrow is another day." I am going to take the enormous pile of stuff home with me (and hope it doesn't spontaneously combust), but what I need more than anything is to somehow knock myself out for a serious nap. I expect tomorrow I'll be useless (it's usually a day or two after I go on a sleep-deprivation binge that I feel it), so I'm not going to pretend I'll do anything. Sunday, though.... And I will come back to the office on Monday and take advantage of the classless day.

God, I'm starting to bore myself with this refrain. What's the contemporary equivalent of a broken record? (Though vinyl is coming back, so maybe the simile will make sense again.) As I write this I realize how tedious I must sound to my nonacademic friends--and even many of the ones in academia--when I'm in the throes of the semester. Paul calls our existence bulimic, and it's an apt analogy. When we're working, we're buried in it, absolutely consumed by it--and then we get periods when nothing requires urgent attention, so we pretty much turn into sea cucumbers (you know, wash with the tide, ingest at one end, excrete at the other, that's it). And I front-load the semesters, so generally in the last month of the term I have a little respite before the deluge of final papers. I have at least given up putting together a complicated final grade accounting and giving that to students along with their graded final papers on the last day of class. I'll do the accounting thing for anyone who asks, as I will actually comment on a paper for anyone who asks, but without the specific request, I'll just read the final papers, compute grades, and turn 'em in. Basta. Genug. Can't remember the French. Enough.

That feels like it's millennia from now (though the last few weeks of the semester suddenly seem to ramp up to warp speed). But it is some solace to remind myself that the breathers will come from time to time.

So, I'm going to pack up, head home, and, well, remember to breathe.

By the way, I think David Quammen wrote one of his funny and fascinating essays about sea cucumbers. I'll have to check. And if you haven't ever read his essay about crows, find it. It's great.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Late and tired

I woke up this morning at 3:55, finally unable to ignore the fact that I was starting to build a migraine. Took Excedrin (drug of choice in that instance) and hoped to fall back to sleep, but nope, brains had already hopped on the hamster wheel and wouldn't get off. What to say to students in class, what assignments to prep, how to present X, do Y, be sure to remember Z and Q. Then, in addition to that one, brains got on another hamster wheel: for the promo folder I need to remember this and this and this and...

And at a little after 5, I gave up and got up. The headache was lurking but I'd caught it early enough that it never fully developed--though the "hangover" part still was going on. But in the early morning dark, I finally read the preface and intro a conference colleague had sent me for the book project he's working on: we've been on some ecocrit/sci-fi panels together, so he wanted my feedback. It pretty much amounted to "Geez, this is really good and boy did you give me a long list of stuff to find at the library"--but I did see a connection between Dune and Le Guin's Always Coming Home (don't worry if you have no clue about either 0f them). So hooray, I crossed something off my to-do list other than "mark assignments, mark more assignments, keep marking assignments." I also did some corrections to a reading list for a revised course description (just editorial stuff but gratifying). Signed up for the Methods and Materials committee (no, I'm not insane: I'll just be listening to other people's presentations; I don't have to do anything other than be there with something approaching a brain). I want to find out when Literary Theory meets, too: I'm trying to find ways to get scholarship back in the mix, even with the insanity of what I do to myself at Nassau.

And classes went well, I think, despite the post-migraine, post-insomnia lack of smooth and coherent brain function. (The migraine hangover feels like the synapses don't quite line up correctly, so things take longer to process and there are odd gaps.) I told my students I might be a little slow and incomprehensible, but once I got going, I just got daffy. I made bad jokes (some students even found a few of them funny, go figure) and generally put on a show. All to explain their first formal essay assignment. And just going over the assignment and what I look for and how they need to think about it took the entire class period. The RB section is the most fun so far: I have to haul them out of the chandeliers on occasion, but I'd far rather that than having to reach for my cattle prod.

However, a student did bring to my attention that in my concern to get the "Tuesday is a Monday so we only meet on Thursday" stuff clear, I completely left off the reading that I intended to assign. It's on the M/W (section MB) syllabus but didn't make it onto the T/Th syllabi. That wouldn't be a problem, except that it is one of three essays they can use for their papers. Enormous oops. On the other hand, this has given me an opportunity to test the brang-spanking new NCC student e-mail system. I sent out group e-mails to both T/Th sections and told them that if they do the reading, it'll count as extra credit. (I'm usually adverse to extra credit, but ... well, I'll talk about that some other time.) It'll be interesting to see how many get the e-mail and do the work. To increase the odds that at least a few will read the essay, I may also send the message to their personal e-mail addresses (which I collect on their attendence cards).

In any event, I didn't bring any work home tonight. There was a concert on campus this evening in honor of my dear friend Denise, who died last September at age 38. Prior to the concert, I went to dinner with Kristin--who was part of the "clover leaf" of friends with Denise and me. It was pretty sad--especially as the last piece was a taped version in which Denise read Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning" (hearing her voice was wonderful but painful)--but I'm glad we went. I did cancel the ride tomorrow and instead intend to go back to the office to work for a while. I'll try to go in on Monday, too. I'll have to bring work home in between, as I've gotten myself into such an enormous hole, but I really do work better in the office than at home.

I cannot believe my eyes are still open so... end of post.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Well, I got enough marked that I could profitably talk to students about journals and what to do better on the next go-round. Students in 229 were confused about what was due today, so only a few had done the reading and homework they needed to be ready for class. (I made one tiny change to the syllabus but apparently that was enough to throw all but 6 of them.) But it ended up being a good thing, actually, as we got a chance to go over the very difficult material from Deloria's God Is Red, in a way that helped them, I think. In 101 I mostly talked about the upcoming paper assignment--took almost the whole period. Back in the office I took care of some loose ends that have been flapping around (like finding out when I'm going to be observed and figuring out what I need to get Bruce so he's ready for the observation). I debated staying to try to push through some more marking--and just couldn't face it. Brought some stuff home (not reading journals: I'm journaled out for the nonce) but I don't think I'm going to look at it. That wall I hit yesterday I keep hitting (or different walls--sometimes it's like being a rather dim rat in a very complex maze), so I have at last decided fuck it, I'm going to just read mental popcorn while I eat my dinner (and maybe eat some actual popcorn: I am a popcorn addict, literally and metaphorically). To bed early, up early, and tomorrow is, as Scarlett O'Hara said, another day.

Thinking about the popcorn reading, one of our newly hired colleagues dropped in just to chat today. He's a friend of William's (who wasn't there) but he also says he just likes our office (and honestly, it is friendly in atmosphere). He was talking about how William manages to find time to read for pleasure when usually we are so busy with teaching and scholarship that we can't. I had to confess that in my case, it's the scholarship that gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Teaching and committee stuff take precedence, so I need a ferocious motivation to drum up the mental time and space for my own intellectual work--and I generally don't have anything to provide that motivation. But reading for fun, that I can always squeeze in. Of course, fun for me is not Wonderbread America fun: I checked out Barnaby Rudge from the library, and as soon as I finish the mystery I'm reading, I'll dive in. It's getting to be Dickens weather (something about autumn calls for Dickens: crisp apples, hot tea, and a prolix Victorian novel). Plus, I've not read Barnaby (or have forgotten it if I did), so... But scholarship? Um, can we change the subject please?

Thank god, this is an extra-long weekend, because of the Jewish holidays. No class Monday (though that does mean that Tuesday follows a Monday schedule, which always completely throws the students off--and is not all that easy for me, either). I'm seriously considering also cancelling my ride on Friday, so I can collapse for a bit and still have enough time to get at least a little caught up on work. But it doesn't make sense to cancel if I fritter away the time (which I am all too likely to do) and the weather will be gorgeous for riding: 70s and sunny, just perfect. I need to decide tomorrow--but not tonight. Right now, it's just time for my dinner and that mystery. And remembering to breathe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

10 down, 10 zillion to go

I'm taking a brain break from reading journals. I managed to get the journals back to my T/Th classes today (not the review sheets from their style guide--and of course I got another batch of journals today), but now I'm grinding through the journals for 229, and haven't yet embarked on the two sets I have from the M/W 101. I've got each batch of assignments clipped together and in a stack in priority order, and periodically I take a break from marking to do something brainless, like put a batch into alphabetical order (or, um, blog): I can only read/respond for so long before A) I start to get fiercely crabby and have to work very hard not to make snotty comments or B) my brains seize up and I can't take in what I'm reading, never mind formulate a response. I really do have to get at least most of 229 done tonight or I won't be able to get even one batch of the M/W journals back tomorrow--and they've already been waiting longer than I wanted. (insert your favorite sound effect denoting exhaustion, frustration, and/or determination to continue the slog)

Today the R section of 101 (the one that meets at the end of my day) was a blast. They sort of wigged out about the marks on their reading journals (which weren't as high as they wanted, of course: they don't know yet what I consider good work), but once I got them to put that aside and work on pulling stuff out of the journals they did for today, they did a terrific job. I had one of those lovely moments when I stood there and simply watched them in their groups, all engaged in the material, looking in their books to find quotations, pointing things out in their reading journals, talking over ideas: the sight and sound of students learning. I hated to interrupt them for the whole class part of the discussion (and I told them that I hated to interrupt the great work they were doing, how pleased I was). They just flew after that, disagreeing (or agreeing) with each other, adding ideas, practically leaping out of their seats with the vigor with which they raised their hands--even trying to remember to call each other by name. I got contributions from students who have never spoken up in class before. Man, if every class were like that, I'd be in hog heaven. If their writing matched their work in class, I'd be in some even more wonderful heaven: horse heaven? I'd be ecstatic. It won't be that wonderful, not even close, and they will be crushed at first to realize that what they thought was good writing just plain isn't. But I don't want to go into a downer about that now. Class was GREAT.

Now if only I could ask the cats to mark the rest of these journals for me. (My buddy Jane suggested I rubber-band pens to their paws--and noted what a soothing experience that would be for the cats.) I'm going to have to consider whether I'm better off trying to shove through a few more journals before I go home or if I'll do better to go home, eat something, and then get back to it. Really tough call: once I'm home, it's extraordinarily difficult to get myself working again. But the fact that I'm blogging instead of marking does seem to indicate that I have hit some sort of wall here. I'll sit very quietly for five minutes and then decide. Om. Om. Om.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Oh, Arrrgggghhhhh

Ok, OK, I do it to myself, and I do it repeatedly. I don't know precisely how I frittered away the weekend, but I didn't do the assignment marking I kept telling everyone (including myself) that I was going to do, and now I've buryed myself in stuff that I have to get marked and back to the students. As I've said before, the stupid thing is that if I didn't assign it, I wouldn't have to mark it--and as some of my colleagues know, I tend to mark just a little obsessively. (Me? Obsessive, especially about having something to say in writing? Heavens no, what could give one that idea.) I did a reasonable whallop today (got a lot done at the laundromat, as I often do) but I still have a small mountain of reading journals in particular that need to get back to the students so they have some feedback about how to do better on the next ones. Of course, only a small handful pay any attention to my comments, but I don't know this early which handful that will be. (Once I do, I stop giving feedback to the ones who clearly don't give a rat's petite patoot.)

But the upshoot (as students would say) is that I've screwed myself out of an evening with colleagues tomorrow. One colleague invited me to join her and two others for a dance concert in Manhattan. I am utterly, totally terrible about saying "yes" to invitations of this sort, even though I enjoy going once I can force myself to accept. My rut (trench, ravine, canyon) is very compelling to me--and I can always find reasons why going is a problem (the late night, the train ride, the dealing with celiac-friendly food, blah blah blah). But this time I said yes before all my glitches could get in my way, only to have to cancel out at the last minute so I can stay at the office until gawd knows when tomorrow getting things marked for Wednesday.

I know perfectly well that I do this to myself. A lot. And part of my delusion is that I keep thinking I won't do it to myself. Consequently, I empathize profoundly with my students' procrastination and the fact that they get caught in the same bind. I talk to them about it, in fact. I try to be transparent about why I do things the way I do, what the point is, and why it's supposed to work (and I'll confess when it doesn't)--and I want them to see that we all go through the same struggles in one way or another, so they are not alone in their anguish. But the point is, I realize I have to work on making some kind of adjustment to accommodate the fact that I behave this way, because clearly, at my age, it ain't gonna change.

Quick note: student who joined 229 late did pick up his stuff prior to class today (when I went in this morning it was gone), and although he was late for class, he was there. Hope springs eternal. We just watched a video about the Ghost Dance today (necessary historical background), so we'll see if he's ready with a reading journal on Wednesday. And on the other good news front, all but one student in 101 was ready with a reading journal in class today. Hooray! A Triumph! Let's not discuss the fact that only 3 had their required dictionaries....

I was going to say something else, but it's slipped my mind. (As Steve Martin said in one of his comedy routines, "Oh, I remember, I'm radioactive." No, that wasn't it.) I'm very tired, I haven't eaten yet, and so I'm only going to read this over incredibly quickly and then post it: forgive me my grammar, spelling and punctuation transgressions.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Really cool video

This video from BBC is about network theory. It really has nothing to do with me, pedagogy, students--but I thought it was fascinating. It's a little on the long side (47 minutes) but worth the investment of time. One thing about it that I love is that models from the nonhuman world apply even to stuff we think of as entirely "artificial"--such as the internet. We are, after all, part of "nature" ourselves, so it makes sense that those chemical and biological models would appear in human constructs.

By the way, if you view this full screen, the annoying little icons at the lower right won't get in the way of the subtitles.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday again

Once again, I was too whipped yesterday to post. Not that I had much to say (though that never seems to stop me from nattering on at great length). Just a quick update: as of 8:30 p.m. last night, the student who showed up on Wednesday to his first session of 229 had yet to pick up the materials he'll need (such as syllabus, reading handouts, reading-journal forms, etc.). Doesn't bode well for Monday's class--unless he downloaded the syllabus and is going to prepare for Monday's class and let former assignments wait. (OK, well, unlikely, but it's part of the delusional thinking that goes with starting every semester thinking this year will be different.) And the student who wanted to transfer into my 101 has not contacted me. I am assuming (or more accurately, hoping) that means she's seen the light and will wait until next semester. I hope she doesn't show up on Monday...

I also am annoyed with myself; I gave a bunch of students a pass on the rule of no homework = absence. I did tell them it was a one time mercy deal--and I did tell the students in one section that I'd only accept their homework late if I didn't have the rest ready to hand back on Tuesday. I find I now have great incentive to be sure everything is ready. I know that the one good student will be frustrated but accepting if he does the work and I end up not accepting it; the slackers will be frustrated and argue. I should have just stuck to my fucking guns, but I really am a softie--up to a point (at which point my claws and fangs grow to enormous lengths). In my later class, a student was texting (I told him very sternly that he was now absent and that next time he'd have to leave the room), and the same student didn't have his homework--but he tried really hard (and actually did fairly well) in the class discussion, and at the end of class, he begged me not to penalize him with the absence. I told him I would have mercy this one time.... but of course the problem is that the precedent is set, so students will be able to argue "you let X get away with it, why not me?" Argh. Well, I'll just have to be nice but firm: the Anna approach (one of our colleagues who seems able to be sweetly loving and kind while she buries an axe in their foreheads).

Speaking of Anna, I continue to be reminded how incredibly blessed I am in my colleagues. In the wake of my father's death, I have gotten such outpourings of concern and support--even, from many, love--that I am humbled. Not only are some of my dearest and closest friends among my colleagues but even some with whom I am simply friendly are terrific people, fun to hang out with, fun to talk to, smart and unpretentious and genuine. Among academics, that's rare as hell. I know I've talked about this in previous posts, but it does bear repeating. I'm very much looking forward to 9/30, when we will have the first meeting of the "Conviviality Committee" (the status as a committee is, of course, a joke, but it's come to be something of an accepted "real" entity). We'll meet for drinks--this session is the unofficial welcome for new faculty (a tradition that started when my "class" of new hires was a year old; we'd gone out drinking on our own a few times our first year and decided it was a nice way to help new faculty relax and begin to understand the friendly nature of this gi-normous department). It's a great little gathering (sometimes not so little) and we generally have a terrific time.

But now, early as it is, I feel my eyelids beginning to droop.... Still adjusting to the schedule, I reckon, but I'm trying to learn to pay attention to when I'm tired and actually do something about it. Like stop blogging and lie down.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Turn-around

Decompressing again at the end of the day, still in the office, telling myself I really need to go home. I need loooooong wind-down time before bed, and I have to get to bed early tonight as I have a meeting at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow. That means I should get up at 5:30: ungodly early for me. I'm doubtful I'll be able to make myself do that; I'll probably go for 6 and try to truncate the routine. (Scintillating stuff, yes?) The meeting is of a committee I have mixed feelings about, too: our department's Assessment Committee (I'm also on the college-wide version). I got assigned to the departmental one by the chair of English because I was chairing another departmental committee (or two at the time? I forget (and how many times can I say "departmental" in one sentence? I'm sure I can squeeze in a few more...)). I'm not chairing anything any more, but somehow I'm still on departmental Assessment. I keep wondering if I can beg off--and yet (here we go), I actually am concerned about what's going on, and being the control freak that I am....

But getting to the title of this post, remember the "I'll bring a gun" student from Monday's post? Complete turn-around in the kid's attitude today. He came to class with his reading journals, came to me to tell me that he'd done his best but wasn't sure he was getting it right, was participating to the best of his ability in class discussion, listened very carefully to his group mates (all of whom are smart, smart, smart) and shared what he had--even apologized when his phone went off; he'd forgotten to turn it off (which I do all the time, so I can't fault him for that). I still am not sanguine about his chances for success, but now the issue is simply that I don't think he's ready for the difficulty of work I think appropriate at the 200 level. But as long as he stays on his best behavior, I'll do what I can to help. It's possible he'll come through, but more likely, he could potentially earn a mercy D at the end of the semester.

And also in 229, a student showed up today for the first time. Immediate impression is that he's smart and capable, but I always worry when students come in after we've already flung ourselves into the deep end. Very, very rarely do they make it; usually they get caught in a rip-tide of previous assignments they're trying to make up while the new assignments keep piling up in front of them, and they drown. I hope this young man makes it. As I said, he seems smart--and, more important, cheerfully willing.

On top of that, at the end of my 101, a young woman introduced herself to me and wanted me to allow her to switch from another professor's 101 into mine. This was also her first day in class, and the other professor told her she'd already missed too much and should withdraw. Honestly, I think that's her best bet (and I support my colleague in her refusal to allow the student to continue in her class). Plus I'm not entirely sure the registrar will allow her to switch at this stage. But I made her a deal: she needs to read the (huge and terrifying) syllabus very carefully and then seriously consider whether she believes she can get caught up and keep up. I told her the world won't come to an end if she doesn't take 101 this semester--and her education won't be significantly delayed. She shouldn't switch into my section only to end up withdrawing anyway. Caveat, caveat. But if she reads the syllabus, thinks about it carefully overnight, and tells me tomorrow that she wants to try, I'll allow her in. Again, in my experience, her chances of success are awfully damned slim (I should only be so slender), but I'll give her the chance and let her think I'm nice. (Hah! Little does she know the "take no prisoners" Professor Payne!) Who knows, she may be the exception to prove the rule.

The class discussion in 101 was a little tough today. The students were interested (for the most part; I did see some drooping eyelids) but they were reticent to bring up their questions, comments, etc. Still, we got some important issues out for future consideration, and overall it seems they are starting to herd in the right direction. Their reading journals will reveal a lot about what they got--and didn't. I'll be interested to see how different tomorrow's 101s are. William pointed out that almost invariably the sections we like at the beginning of the semester end up being difficult and vice versa. I'm reserving judgment on all of 'em. I won't fully know what I'm dealing with until I get their first papers.

I am feeling a lot better about 229, however. There are some seriously smart cookies in there--not just James (student from last semester's Nature in Lit) but at least five others as well. That's plenty as a catalyst. I've had classes where all the really bright students drop by the wayside for one reason or another (and youch does that hurt), but if I can keep the smart ones plus a few more through December, this could be a lot of fun.

I'm very much aware that for a few semesters now I've shifted away from the "fucking little ingrates" feeling about students to a position of more compassion. I also am a LOT more willing to let the resistant, the incapable, the paralytically lazy deal with the consequences of their deficiencies. (You don't want to do the work? No skin off my nose. Go enjoy yourself somewhere else, away from my class, and I wish you the best of luck.) I see better that most respond out of fear of failure, fear that they will be inadequate. And yes, most of them are kids. (Apologies, darlings, but even the few in their 20s are not truly adults, though some are more mature than others.) I do get the occasional genuinely adult student--as in over 30--but most are closer to 18, so they are not fully formed and still resist the hard stuff that comes with being an adult (or a good adult anyway), like knowing why you hold the opinions you do, and what the consequences of your choices are--even that everything you do is a choice and has consequences of one sort or another. (I'll try to remember to talk about how they see the word "consequences" in some other post; not tonight.) But that's my job: I tear open their minds and move all the boundaries way further out than they may find comfortable. But some of them really get off on it, and that's where the joy of teaching comes in.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesdays are tough

I've been home about an hour, long enough to feed cats and respond to a few e-mails. My creative writing group (which meets in Manhattan every 3rd week as a rule) was cancelled tonight, thank god, so when I finished today, (office mate) Paul and I went out for dinner and a drink--ok, two drinks. We talked about personal stuff, scholarly ideas, students, general pedagogy, all the usual. Delightful--and I wish I had more of that, not just with Paul but with various and assorted high-quality and fun colleagues. I truly am blessed that I work with so many people who are cool just as people, in addition to being crackerjack academics.

The reason the drink/talk/decompress session felt urgent tonight was that it's Tuesday, and as a general rule, Tuesdays are going to be my hardest days this semester. I almost always have a meeting during "club hour" (clubs for students--the few who actually participate in clubs--but committee meetings for faculty), then class, then P&B, then class: no breaks, no stopping. I eat lunch in P&B; if I take time to pee, it means I'll be late to the next thing. Meetings also tend to run long, so then I'm racing to class. (It's hard to insist that students be on time if I'm not.) In terms of actual hours, it's about a normal work day: I get to campus at 10, prepping for meetings and classes until that first meeting at 11:30, then straight through until 5:15. Nine-to-fivers usually actually work seven hours (given an hour for lunch) or maybe seven and a half: it's seven and a quarter for me. The exhaustion factor is that it's nonstop--and I have to be "on" the whole time.

OK, I'll stop bitching about that. It is exhausting, but I have to admit it's self-imposed: I chose to be on the committees (either by requesting assignment or by running for election)--and I'm on the scheduling committee, so I can't complain about the lack of break: I picked the days and times. Ah well. The refrain will be: heavy sigh.

I am feeling pretty lousy about my 4-5:15 T/Th comp class: for one reason or another I can't seem to get my shit together to get to that class on time and with every piece of paper I need. Apparently my brain is essentially out of commission on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after 3. I think I told the stupid saga of last Thursday in a previous post, but today I was late again (P&B ran long), and although I had the folder, somehow I didn't have enough reading journal forms--which everyone in my other classes had last week. These poor kids are seriously not getting the best of me. Today I set them to filling out their information cards (their contact info on one side and attendance and assignment records on the other) while I speed-walked/jogged back to Bradley to get more forms. The students in that class have been very sweet about my addled unpreparedness and dutifully do whatever I ask--including behaving like civilized adults waiting for me to get back from my cross-campus jaunt today. Because I am not enough of an athlete to sprint from S to Bradley and back, my absence meant they didn't have quite as much class time as the other classes did to work on the rjs and discuss the essay--but I think we're pretty much on track now, despite the fact that I've unintentionally been treating them rather like the neglected step-children among my classes.

Of course in the 101 classes I'm running into the usual handful of students who are stunned at the amount of work I assign. ("I have to do the whole thing???" I loved it when another student said, with gentle sarcasm, "No, just do half of it." Nice when students speak my subtext.) The stunned complainers will either butch up or fall by the wayside. The majority, I'm glad to say, just gulp, accept that this is what is required, and set themselves to doing it. I know it's hard. I know it's a lot. I know my reputation as one of the toughest teachers in the department. I also know that if they stick it out with me, they'll learn.

I think I'm starting to sound like a broken record. Wow, that's an old cliche. I wonder if it means much to people born after the vinyl generation. Even changing it to "a scratched CD" may not have meaning much longer. I wonder what the iPod equivalent will be? And while I'm on this tangent, I am simultaneously amused and frustrated by the fact that they have zero clue about many standard turns of phrase. I'll make a list some day of the weird versions we get. Just as an example, however, my personal favorite is, when enumerating a series of points, "firstable...". I know U.S. Americans are notoriously mush-mouthed (some people think I have an accent because I enunciate a little more than most), but because these kids have also never seen stuff written down, they just make up something that makes some kind of sense to them. Refrain: heavy sigh.

And ah well. This is the name of the game, yes? At least I'm working hard on socializing the 101 kids to correct classroom behavior, including making them wait until I say we're done before they start packing and shoving desks around.... Small victories, but we'll take 'em where we can.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Trouble already

OK, I'm noodling around the office, like I usually do after my last class of the day. I can do this pretty much endlessly, finding things to copy, trying to get organized (hah!), trying to figure out which of the brazillian things I haven't done needs to be done most urgently. Blogging, of course, is not really on that list of priorities, but it's a hell of a lot more fun--and it gives me a chance to blow off some steam.

And I have some steam to blow off already, a moment with a student in 229 who is going to be hell on a stick until he starts to realize that in my classroom, he actually has to behave like a college student. This moment isn't even as bad as I've experienced in terms of being an uncomfortable confrontation--not by a long shot--but this early on, it does not bode well. Here's the story:

I started class with a dopey little ice-breaker thingy that I always do at the beginning of the semester. (I don't know if it does anything for them, but it gives me a huge leg up on remembering their names--at least until the semester is over, when I promptly forget all but a few of the names, though I remember faces.) As we were doing that, he kept talking to a buddy until I finally had to ask him to pipe down. (If we'd been doing real work, I'd have come down on him harder and sooner, but it was a game, so, oh well.) Then he kept talking when I started to explain their next task (that time I did shut him up). Blah, blah, other annoying stuff, but ultimately he was freaking out about the reading journal forms. I readily concede that they can be confusing at first, but the whole point of the exercise at that moment was to work with his classmates to figure them out. And yes, they require some work, but students who actually do them invariably say they were enormously helpful. He wouldn't even begin to read the damned thing; he just kept waving it around saying he didn't get it, asking if he really had to do all the work by Wednesday. (Um, yes, this is why I gave it to you last week, so you could get a head start on it.)

I finally got him to calm down a little and realize he was making it more difficult than it is--but even then he said it was too hard, too much work. I said something along the lines of "This is a college-level English course. We do college-level work." Of course, a few minutes later, I saw him texting under his desk (like we don't know what's going on when their hands suddenly are under the desk and their attention focused downward... at least we better know what's going on with those hands under the desk!) I read him the riot act about that, and reminded the class about the policy with some vehemence, particularly as I had already quite sternly told them about it. Then at the end of class he came up to me and said he needs this class to graduate this semester. (Subtext: I need to make it easy for him to pass.) I nicely said if he was worried, he should come to me for help as often as he needs it. He kept on walking out the room and said over his shoulder, "Or you could make the class easier." I said something back (why I bothered I don't know)--and then laughed about it with the students who were there for my help. I mean, really, there are too many like that to get my knickers in a twist about them.

But then (saga continues), a minute later, as I was still getting new students caught up on what they'd missed the first day, he was back:
Him: "Can I change to an easier class?"
Me: "You can go to the registrar to find out."
Him: "Isn't it too late for that?"
Me: "I think it is, but you can go to the registrar to find out. Or maybe you can take a summer class, or something in the Winterim session..."
Him: "Nah, I'll stick it out..." and then as he once again was leaving the room, mumble mumble, something I didn't catch until he suddenly said, much more clearly, "A fake one, not a real one, just a fake one. Don't call security on me!"--at which point I realized that the mumble mumble was something about he'd stick it out but would just have to bring his gun....

I was not worried. I figured it was a joke--granted, in seriously bad taste but not an actual threat. But in today's climate, and what we know about school shootings, I now wonder if I took that too lightly, even if he wasn't serious. I mentioned it to Paul, who got very adamant about it, saying, "That's it, he's out. HE'S OUT." And maybe if the student had said it loudly enough that I was sure what I heard, I would have had a different reaction--or maybe not, I don't know. It just didn't feel like he was scary or serious--just a serious asshole, doing standard "I don't want to work or think and there's something wrong with you that you think I should" schtick--so I still don't feel apprehensive about any threat of violence from this kid. But if he presents any kind of problem, even just in obstructive behavior, I will call security and ban him from class. I've never had to do that before, and I don't want to now, but I also will not have him in there poisoning the class for everyone--or threatening me, even in jest.

Gawd almighty.

But to leaven that--I do like to remind myself of the positives--a student from one of my T/th comp classes came to my (as yet unposted and therefore unofficial) office hour to go over the reading journal with me--even though it's not due until Thursday. He is sweetly earnest and already working very hard to do well. He keeps saying he really struggled to get into college so he just can't mess it up. I truly hope he can come through for himself, so I praised the behavior: I told him that I was impressed that he came for help and encouraged him to continue to do so. There you have it: one flaming asshole, one dedicated young man. It's just a crap-shoot what one will be dealing with from moment to moment. And it's early in the semester; I have yet to begin to see all the assholian behavior--and all the earnest hard work--that I'll see as we go on. I hope by December the good kids are still hanging in there and doing well and the detritus is long since swept away to annoy the shit out of someone else.

By the way, I have a prediction about the young man in 229. He'll probably disappear before the end of the semester, but if he sticks to the end, he'll sure as hell fail. In any event, I'll wager he won't pass, even if he needs it to graduate. Any takers on that bet?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Early Sunday evening

Gack, the anxiety starts to mount as I face the first real week of classes. By that I mean it's the first week that I'll teach the whole week in the correct order--and the first in which the students will have done work of some substance in prep for class. And that means I have to actually do something with them other than noodle around. I feel terrible for my late T/Th comp kids: long stupid story (I don't think I told it, but not worth telling anyway), but the upshot is I got to class late and without the folder that contained all the handouts and work for the day. It's not a complete catastrophe, as the homework from the handouts isn't due until Thursday, so they'll still have time, but all the other classes got to look stuff over and try to figure it out on their own prior to their first class this week, and that group didn't.

I wasn't entirely sure what to do with the T/Th classes anyway, as I am trying to keep all the sections sort of in sync (as I've mentioned), but I ended up talking to them about how to read. (Did I talk about this already? God, I can't remember; my brain is just pancake batter, to borrow a phrase from Bonnie.) Anyway, I realized two things recently: one, they don't know how to skim something, and two, they also don't know how to read with attention to depth. I already knew that many of them don't like to read because "it takes too long" (extremely heavy sigh), but they also can't stand description. They were reading an amazing paragraph in Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful essay "Knowing Our Place" in which she describes the aftermath of a rainstorm in Appalachia, filled with rich, beautiful language and vivid imagery--and they thought it was "dry." Another extremely heavy sigh. But I keep fighting the good fight--and believing it is a good fight, one worth fighting.

I did work on those wretched study questions for Native American Lit (from now on I'm going to call it 229 to save myself some typing). Again, I face a dilemma: the essay I'm prepping for them right now is one that is valuable in part as they look at traditional stories/myths but will be even more valuable when they start looking at traditional "poems," some of which are actually portions of ceremonies (without the most sacred parts, of course, which are not to be shared with just anybody). But I know that they won't remember the essay well enough to be useful by the time we get to the poetry section, and--despite my best efforts--may not be able to keep the two threads of the essay's argument distinct in their heads. And that sort of fun continues: the week after that, they read an essay about humor, which is filled with reportage of Native jokes--and despite all I say, they always want to simply re-tell the jokes in their papers, instead of understanding what the author suggests is the purpose of the jokes. Argh.

This is the continual dilemma, of course: many of them genuinely are not ready for (or able to handle) college level work, but I cannot in good conscience "dumb down" assignments to the level of their actual competence. If I had more time with them, I could gradually work them from their level to where they need to be, but I don't. And interestingly enough, thinking about my rant about fixing public K-12 education, almost no one talks about that huge gap, between where most high schools leave students and where we expect them to be when they walk in the doors of college. I can't tell you how often students say to me, "Why didn't anyone teach us this in high school?" I don't know how to answer that. Because no one thought it was important? Because the people who make those decisions were focused on something else? Because a select few of the high school teachers are themselves not really ready for real academic work, despite having bachelors or masters degrees? (Another hobby horse I will refrain from riding around right now: the fact that degrees in education don't seem to prepare most graduates to effectively educate, in part because so many of those graduates don't know the actual field they're supposed to be teaching. I know this is a gross generalization--and in fact, I work with some spectacularly good teachers who have degrees in education and are more effective than some Ph.Ds I could mention. But I remember Sam Sandoe's mom--a junior high art teacher--talking about a student teacher who blanched at the thought of arranging the display cases, saying, "But Mrs. Sandoe, I haven't taken 'Bulletin Board' yet!" OK, that's an extreme case, and probably not at all typical--there are idiots in any degree program after all--but I could also tell some stories from my time at Beach Channel...)

And again argh. Followed by a few heavy sighs. And perhaps even a little grinding of teeth. But I care about this shit, I really do, so I keep slogging away, and bashing my head against numerous walls, hoping I'll be like that damned ram in the song "High Hopes." One has to be just a little nuts to take this on, as one must continually hope that this semester, somehow the experience and outcome will be different....

But to finish on a more positive note, at least I did re-read the essay, and all I have to do now is get the format for the study questions I already did (it's on the computer at work; silly me, forgot to transfer it to this one) and type it up. Piece of gluten-free cake.

Midnight musing

Well, I put in a little work on the promo folder today, which is the only productive thing I did. I should be reading an essay I've assigned for Native American Lit so I can put together the study questions but I didn't have the brain juice for that. The parts of the promo folder were pretty easy--and barely scratch the surface of what I need to do. But at least I think I remembered all the committees I'm on (or have been on since I got tenure). Funny, I almost forgot P&B, which is the biggest one, has the most responsibility, meets most often. But all I did at this point is list them and how long I've been on each one; I haven't started to detail what I've done on each one (and do you think I remember? some of the big stuff, sure, but I'm sure there's stuff that needs to go in there that I've forgotten. It's my favorite joke: my mind is like a steel trap: anything that goes in gets mangled.)

And meanwhile, I am aware that the deluge of student work to mark is about to begin. The bitch of it, of course, is that I wouldn't have to mark it if I didn't assign it--and yet I assign it because I think it is pedagogically important for one reason or another. Hell of a catch 22.

But it's late, I'm pooped--and it's hard to type with a small calico cat on my lap, so I'll chuck it in for tonight.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wonderful comment from Stacy

My friend (and former publishing colleague) Stacy was among those having trouble commenting to posts, so she sent this to me via e-mail. It's great, so I wanted to share it with y'all.

"I'm loving your blog.

"Your riff on student responsibility hit home, but I have to say I put more blame on the parents than the kids. Parents, starting in, oh, I don't known, preschool, maybe, insulate their children from reality in all forms, up to and including assessment. 'No, dear, Johnny isn't smarter than you because he can read already -- his mom's just pushing him too hard.' 'Honey, you're just too bright for this class. That's why it's boring.' 'A B+? That's ridiculous. I'll talk to the teacher. And while I'm over there, I'm going to see about waiving you into the higher math class.' Boards of Ed aid and abet parents in this well-meaning pie in the sky of self-esteem: Ya gotta please the constituents. 'We HAVE to introduce sentence structure in kindergarten! The parents are demanding it!' 'We don't have enough in the budget for an extra teacher, Superintendent Jones. All the schools in the other
district have SmartBoards, and we have to buy them, too!' 'Yes, Mr. Duncan. In first grade we offer Spanish, art, music, computer literacy, and special media.' 'For children planning to apply to the most rigorous colleges, we offer A.P. courses in 45 subjects, including Whale Bones of Yesteryear and Redefining the Pixel.'

"The current environment, in which college admission, interesting work, and high salaries are perceived as scarce resources, only serves to exacerbate parental anxiety. At the same, the government (allow me to take a short ride on the high horse of politics and money), which I
would argue would be more effective working to regulate the legal, banking, or health care industry, took the lazy way out and decided to focus on that old chestnut: 'The children.' So we have No Child Left Standing and a host of legislation that forces teachers to focus more on what comes out of a kid than what goes in. Which we all know shortchanges the student and leads, paradoxically, to worse outcomes. Why, I'd say it's socialized education if I weren't afraid of sounding
like a neocon.

"At the same time, teachers, who in the ideal world would have more time to actually teach, are put in the awkward position of being educational gatekeepers, the magic door to that coveted 'A.' They thus become obstacles to be scaled, not the precious resources they are. (Or they
can be. Yes, we've had a few doozies. Remind me to tell you about the year Tyler taught himself Chemistry.) Now of course lot of parents (like me; here comes a big spoonful of parental self-justification) want their kids in the highest level classes because that's where students not only practice critical thinking, but also have the ability to 1) sit sill, 2) do their homework, and 3) bring something interesting to the table. These kids also bring out the best in the teachers. I found it fascinating to watch as Tyler (now 20) actually got better grades in English every year as he -- irritated at the lack of responsiveness of his fellow students -- pushed himself from English B to English A, skipping Honors and testing himself into A.P.

"None of this will come to a surprise to educators. The architects of public education in the 21st century have left no place nor plan for kids who are fidgety or prideful or have a difficult time focusing -- it just shoves them down the pecking order. I suppose in that sense you
can't "blame" the parents for trying to work a system that doesn't work for so many kids.
Heck, sure you can. I blame us all for not calling a spade a spade and reforming education. So public schooling becomes more bureaucratized/politicized, and people who can opt out system do,
weakening it further. Their kids enjoy smaller class sizes, high expectations, and (along with parental pressure), a big dose of parental support. Listen to Libertarian radio sometime. You'd think public schools were part of some Matrix-like plot. I see education as a three-pronged partnership: Teachers, children, and society (which these days mostly means parents). From my seat here in suburban Connecticut, I'd say society is dropping the ball and expecting teachers to pick it up."

Hooray, Stacy. Yes, and yes, and yes.

Post-week musings

First, I understand some of you have wanted to join as followers and have had trouble doing that. If I weren't a techno-idiot, I'd offer a solution: the only thing I can think is that maybe you need to join up with Google first? It's easy to do and does not contribute to your spam. But mostly I'm delighted that you are out there, reading this.

I was too tired to post last night; Thursday nights I'm generally pretty whipped--and I only teach a four day week. I grant you, the four days are pretty intensive, but I have absolutely no clue how people in K-12 do five days, the number of hours a day they do, with as many students and classes as they do. Just standing up and talking that much is exhausting (and--as all you educators know--the teaching part is the easy stuff; it's all the prep and grading and committee crap and other administrative flotsam that takes up most of our time).

And thinking about those in the K-12 trenches, I just read an article in Time magazine about Arne Duncan (Obama's Secretary of Education) and his ideas for how to fix the problems with public education. So often, at all levels, the focus is on teachers. Would-be reformers talk heatedly about how we need to be held accountable for our students' success--and talk about teacher union resistance to that as if it arises from fear of scrutiny. I think I'm going to have to write a letter to Secretary Duncan (and maybe send copies off to various news organizations as a potential op-ed thingy), because this is an issue I have some pretty strong feelings about.

First, of course there are good and bad teachers. And of course the quality of the teacher can affect student learning. We all know the horror stories about classroom praxis that is awful for any number of reasons: it isn't challenging enough, it's the same syllabus the teacher has been using since 1952, or it is too much for the level of student (and I've been accused of that), or the teacher is flat-out hostile to the students--I could go on. And we hear about the brilliant and innovative teachers and wish we could be more like them (if we care at all about what we do, that is). We hear about the wonderful quality of teachers at magnet or charter schools and the "consequent" brilliant test scores. But why why why is the focus always only on the teacher? At an assessment symposium some time ago, one of the deans at NCC was wonderfully honest about the other part of the equation: he called students the "black box" of assessment, as in, we don't know and can't see what's going on in that part of the equation--and it's a big part.

Students have responsibility for their own success, god dammit. And so do their families. When I was at Beach Channel high school, in that dreadfully misguided "College Now" program in 2000-2001, I saw the impact horrific family lives had on the students and their ability to handle school in any way. We see it all the time at Nassau, too: the students who have been kicked out of their homes, who are single parents of multiple children (even at horrifyingly young ages), who have to work 2 or 3 jobs in order to have enough money to get to school. At La Guardia, I had a student who came to me in tears: she had missed class because she didn't have the (at that time) $1.50 for the subway fare. Another wrote about how hard it was for him to study because just getting to his apartment without being robbed, beaten, or shot at was a triumph. How can students in those situations possibly put the kind of time and energy into school that will lead to good outcomes?

But beyond that, students also have to be held accountable. I am sick to damned death of the pandering to their "self esteem," as if young people cannot stand any kind of set back, challenge, or genuine assessment of the quality of their work. We get students who were in their Honors programs in high school who, when evaluated for their genuine abilities and knowledge, are capable of C- work at best. We get students who complain bitterly about their grades because they always have gotten A's before--and yet who have no clue what constitutes a coherent sentence, or a logical argument, or a thought that has any substance. They are trained in solipsistic naval gazing, and when they are asked to actually fucking think, they act like we're demanding something wildly inappropriate and absurdly difficult, as if we expect them to be able to master quantum mechanics without ever having passed basic math.

And, when we get them at NCC, many--most, I'd say--are shocked that a deadline really is a deadline, that an attendance limit really is a limit, that instructions really do need to be followed. Another speaker on campus referred to them as the video-game generation: they expect always to be able to hit the "re-set" button and get extra lives. And they think their tuition buys them the grade they want. And all they want is the grade: they don't stop to think that the grade is merely evidence that they have, in fact, learned something, mastered some area of knowledge or a certain set of skills. Learning? What's that? Who needs it?

Their parents aid them in that feeling, too. I know K-12 teachers have to deal with parent complaints all the time; thank god at the college level, not only are we not obligated to, we are not allowed to talk to parents (assuming the student is at least 18). But the parents only care about their child getting the grades so their child can get a good job. Again, learning? Education? Qu'est que c'est?

And I haven't even gotten into the problem of standardized testing when it comes to testing anything that really matters. Show me a standardized test that can actually measure critical thinking or the ability to structure an argument coherently. One of my colleagues talks about the idiocy of trying to quantify the unquantifiable. But some kind of unified measure has to be found in order to tell whether students really are learning; it's a genuine problem for which standardized tests are not the solution.

Ok, ok, ok. I'll get off this particular hobby horse in just a second here (you can see I can gallop around on that one quite a while; I wish I could ride real horses as well). But all those issues about students and what they bring to the equation are continually overlooked when people talk about reforming education (and even many educators are guilty of this, witness much of the focus of assessment initiatives on the college level). But until we start paying significant attention to both sides of the desk, education will not be reformed: we'll just be engaged in teacher bashing. Teachers can't teach unless we have students who are ready, willing, and able to learn.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Classes, day 3 (or day 1, depending on POV)

I've felt woozy all day today (maybe a little dehydration--all that talking and chalk dust--but also grieving for Dad seems to have this effect sometimes), so it was a little weird in class. Looks like there are couple of intelligent faces in Native American Lit (in addition to the students I had in semesters past), possibly enough to make it work. Possible evidence of their overall intelligence is that this is the first time I have ever explained the reading journal process without facing profound confusion. I'm not sure I really explained it all that well; maybe the ones who are confused are just willing to be confused. Who knows.

I have made some changes in my tactics for all my classes this semester--again, looking for that magic key that will open their eyes and minds to the joys of intellectual exploration. Plus, experimenting from time to time keeps me from getting stale. In the 101 (beginning composition) classes, I have built in 10 extra credit assignments--but they really are extra credit: I won't accept them unless the student has also done the regularly assigned work. Students usually want "extra" credit that is actually make-up credit, something they can do to fill in for the assignments they blew off or to rescue them when they are going down the drain. As I've structured these, only the really ambitious and hard-working students will get the grade boost of the assignments. (Plus, as I admitted to my class today, it's a way for me to say, "I really wish I could require you to read/do this in addition to everything else, but I know it's too much for most of you...")

In 229 (Native American Lit), the change in tactics is that instead of having students produce reading journals for both primary and critical material, I'm having them do journals only for primary material. They have to answer study questions on the critical material. I still want them to read the critical stuff (or try to), but it's incredibly hard to get them to understand the difference between the two, so I'm hoping this will help. They need to understand that critical material is used to support their analysis; it isn't something they analyze the way we analyze the literature. God, I'm even confusing myself writing this; no wonder the students struggle. The only down side is that I have to come up with the damned study questions, which means I have to a) re-read the assignments, b) come up with questions that will show students why the assignment is worth reading, c) type it all up in a way that makes some kind of sense and doesn't seem overwhelming. I'm pretty bad at that last part. (Prolix? Me? Overly verbose? Moi??)

Already trying to figure out what to do with tomorrow's 101 classes that is productive but doesn't get them too far ahead of the Monday/Wednesday section. (I get confused if the sections get out of sync. And I'm confusing enough when I'm not confused. (See what I mean?)) Probably I will let them go early yet again. I'd just cancel the day (and take the car in for an oil change and muffler check instead), but I have a CWCC meeting: that's College-Wide Curriculum Committee; I'm an elected member--points toward promotion--so I don't like to miss, and in fairness it's too late to ask the alternate to cover for me. Gack. I can't believe committee shit is starting up already. Personnel and Budget (P&B) yesterday (that one meets every week), CWCC tomorrow, another committee next Tuesday, and on we go. I am clearly certifiable--and need to get the hell off some committees. If only I weren't interested in them all--and aiming for full professor before I'm 60. Heavy sigh.
I should have been in bed and asleep an hour ago; that alarm is going to go off right in the middle of my best sleep. Ah well. Not the first time, won't be the last. I'm having little butterflies about meeting the new classes tomorrow (i.e., the ones I haven't met yet), especially about Native American Lit. It's a class that can work really well, but it is not easy, and a lot of the students just are not ready for the challenge of the material. Before I left for Montana, I was worried that the class might not run: only 12 students were signed up, and since the course is capped at 30, it's hard for Bruce to make a case to run it less than half full. But by the end of my time in Montana, the class roster was up to 28 (it's bounced up and down a few times, as students get dropped for non-payment of their tuition--or hear about my reputation and run screaming for the exits--but it's settled back at 28 as of earlier today).

The fact that it filled so late leads me to believe that many of those students signed up just because they need an English credit and it fit their schedule. Not only did they not select the course because they're interested, they probably are not wild about English classes in general. That makes the difficult material even more difficult. I do have that one student from last semester, and I think I recognize another few names on my roster (one in particular: if she's the girl I remember, she was registered in the class once before and seemed very bright and capable, but her life outside of school was a train wreck so she had to drop the class--a real shame. If that is her, I'll be delighted to have her back.)

All I can hope is either that there is the requisite critical mass of good, intelligent, dedicated students so the lunks don't kill the class chemistry--or that there are miraculously few lunks (and they leave early; they often do, scared away just by the mere size of the handouts on the first day). That sounds so nasty, but it's just painful for the students and for me when they can't get the material, don't even know how to start. We all get frustrated and cranky. I'll knock myself out to try to help students who earnesly want to do well, but there is always that maddening percentage who feel too discouraged, or insecure, or just plainly don't give a shit. I'm trying to get better at just opening my hands and letting them go with no hard feelings: truly, this isn't everyone's bag, and why should these kids kill themselves over something they just don't want? But I love what I teach so much, it's hard to face the "yuck, who wants it, this is bullshit and it's too hard" attitude.

And yet, today I realized that little things can be so lovely and can lift my spirits so easily. I love it when students come to ask questions after class--especially this early in the semester (shows they believe I will help them, which makes me happy). And I love it when, as students leave at the end of class, they look me in the eye and say things like "see you next class" or even just "goodbye, Professor." That little bit of human contact makes me think I've begun to draw them in, that they are starting to realize that we do collaborate on this whole education thing. I like it. And I do take pride in the fact that they always know my name, well before the end of the semester. They often don't know their other professors' names, even after the entire semester has gone by (I don't understand that, but it's true). Of course, some know mine because they loathe me, but at least I'm not a non-entity to them.

Anyway, we'll see how tomorrow goes. I'll be glad when I've had a chance to really take the temperature of all the sections and have a sense of what I'm facing each day.

And now I'll try to put my butterflies to bed...

Monday, September 7, 2009

There is a screaming infant in the apartment next door. I kind of know how he feels. It isn't that the new semester has started--that's actually OK. It's more that I don't want summer to be over. I know that seems contradictory, but it's just the anticipation of the rapidly building insanity of keeping up with classes (and of course I'm always tinkering with them, trying to find the magic thing that will make everything suddenly work just right), keeping up with committee work, and this semester, putting together my application for promotion to associate. I already can't wait for next summer. I do love my career, truly--though I know I bitch about it constantly--but I am a championship noodler. I can noodle around endlessly and I have yet to get tired of it.

Strange start to this semester, too. I got back from family time in Montana on Wednesday, met with two (of four) classes Thursday, and then went into a long weekend. Today feels like it ought to be Sunday, tomorrow Monday. It's going to be strange the first few weeks that my week actually starts with my Monday classes, as I'm going to have it in my head that I start with the Tuesday/Thursday sections.

Things went pretty well, I think. I didn't overwhelm them with the syllabus and handouts yet (I wasn't sure how many students would actually show up, what with the holiday weekend and all--and was surprised that most of them were there). I talked to them a little about general navigation around campus (many are new to NCC, most new to college at all)--I don't even know what all. Did a little exercise with them in which they had to list things that they thought would lead to student success and another of things that would inhibit student success, then in groups, they organized the lists as they thought a professor would prioritize them. Interesting results. We'll see if they respond in a more sanguine fashion to the rules and regs as a result. Can't get a read on the classes yet--and as office mate William points out, the classes we start out thinking we're going to love often turn out to be the monsters by the end of the semester, and vice versa.

One good piece of news: a favorite student from Nature in Lit last semester is in Native American Lit this semester. He's also, apparently, in my Wednesday 101. All I can think is he's retaking the class for a better grade--and from me because he knows about the environmental theme. I'm thinking I'll talk to him about treating the class as an independent study instead: he's WAY too advanced for the work I give students in 101. But we'll see when I see him on Wednesday.

Anyway, I do have to get up early (for me) tomorrow so I can do some organizing in the office before I meet the Tuesday/Thursday crowds again, so off I go...