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Student Readers: A Warning

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.

Hi! And you are...?

My readership has suddenly blossomed, which is a lovely development--but I don't know who is reading the blog, how you found it, and why you find it interesting. I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to use the "comment" box at the end of any particular post to let me know what brought you to this page--and what keeps you coming back for more (if you do).

Not you, Barry. You already told me--and thanks!

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Monday, November 30, 2009

About comments

I heard today from Sara that she is among the many who has tried to comment only to have the comment disappear. I finally took a moment to look into the problem, and I've changed the comment settings; I think you all should be able to comment now, freely and at will. I'd be grateful if someone--other than William, who has commented successfully in the past--would give it a whirl to see if it works. (Of course, the present setting means that any random stranger can post comments--but I highly doubt random strangers are reading this, though I could be wrong.)

In a minute

I'll get back to work soon, but I wanted to blog now. I'm finding it very difficult to focus--or make any sense. Students in 101 were working in their groups today; I interrupted to talk to them a little about works cited pages (which they struggle with, understandably) and about the different ways a source can appear--and I would be astonished to hear that they understood what I meant at all. They also don't care much (again, understandably), particularly when they are mostly concerned about getting their projects pulled together. I, on the other hand, apparently can't focus on anything other than the popcorn reading I did over the weekend, and which I would very much like to continue, work be damned.

I did get a few of the papers for 229 done yesterday, and have promised to return them on Wednesday, so that will make me get them off my desk. I hope to also have homework for the 101s done as each class comes up Wednesday and Thursday, so I can go into the weekend with no student assignments following me around. It's not terribly likely, but it's a good goal to have. I don't collect anything else until next week; gawd, what a blessed relief.

Instead of focusing on anything (especially student papers), my brains are ping-ponging around among all the flotsam that litters the shore of my life. I'm thinking about all the little niggly bits I need to pull together for my promo folder, wondering what committee work I may be letting slide (inadvertently), thinking about next semester, thinking about the break and the work I have to do then--some of it paid placement readings, but a week of scheduling. (We construct the schedules for the full-timers in the department--and right at the moment, that's an even 100 faculty members. Making sure everyone has a schedule that is as close as possible to what he/she wants is a remarkably complex puzzle, but it's cool when we get it to work--or almost work, as we always make mistakes.) I'm thinking about bills, Christmas shopping (what little I'll do: I'm going to tell the nephews that their present from me is my presence, which is costing me a chunk), I have no idea what else. Just flotsam.

But it's easier to think about that than to face the papers for 229. The first two I graded were OK (though one was 14 pages, or some absurd thing, when I asked for 5-7--and a great deal of it just the student blathering on about how wonderful Native cultures are and how we "should" this that and the other, very little in the way of poetry analysis). I have a couple more that I know will be somewhat painful--and a couple that should be good, which I'm saving for last. I generally have to read a few bad ones, a good one, a few more bad ones, gradually zig-zagging my way up to the best (in this case, James's paper). There are mercifully few to read because there are, sadly, so few students left. I'm pretty sure I'm going to lose another two because of excessive absence. One is an athlete: I know because we get a request for a mid-term progress report for any athletes in our classes. I believe he's hanging on because he wants to continue to play, not because he really cares about the class--but he's getting himself into a hole I don't think he can get out of. Ah well.

But that just made me think about the "early warning" system that NCC is going to institute: it's been approved by the Academic Senate (argh), so the only question is what form it will take. I HATE what the administration proposed (a condescending, hand-holding, "I'm worried about poor little baby you" letter). I want to suggest instead that we institute something like what is done at Adelphi: for each student, a simple check-list on homework, major assignments, attendance, class participation, tick-tick-tick-done. Even that annoys hell out of me: shouldn't they know how they're doing? They get their assignments back with marks/grades, and they should know how many times they've missed class, so why do we have to tell them in some other form? (I believe it is a part of the ripple-effect from the helicopter parent generation--and last week's Time magazine did a cover story on the detrimental effects of over-protecting and micro-managing kids' lives, which I think every educator and parent in the U.S. should be required to accept as credo.) But as long as we're going to have to let them know what they should know already, let's at least do it in some way that suggests they have a trace of adult comprehension and responsibility. I wonder to whom I should express this particular opinion--and whether it will make a damned bit of good?

But now it truly is time to get off the hobby horse (fun as it is to gallop around on it) and turn my weary eyes and brain back to those papers. I'd give a lot to figure out how to get student assignments to grade themselves. Barring that, I wish I could turn everything into a brightly colored rubber stamp. I say the same thing over and over anyway....

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A little whine with that?

I've managed to do nothing at all the last two days. Thanksgiving I spent with my dear friend Szilvia, laughing and talking and relaxing (ate a little, too), but yesterday and today, I've been holed up at home. I went for a walk yesterday, just to get out of the house for a while, but today was incredibly windy and I didn't feel like wrestling against it, so I've been house-bound. And truly, I've done nothing--except to being getting caught up on sleep, which has been heavenly. I'm hoping that by tomorrow I'll be able to suck it up and get some work done. Or at least vacuum, even if I can't face the stack of student work I should be working through.

I know the students and I are in the same boat; we're just done with this semester. There is still a lot to do (more for them than for me, at this point; I've wound them up and now I just turn them loose to show me their stuff), but I have very little enthusiasm for it. I'm already starting to think about next semester, especially my 102 classes. I'd kind of like to change the readings a little bit, but I don't know if I have the oomph to find replacements that I like; nothing springs to mind, and I don't really want to go digging. But honestly, I don't really want to do anything related to teaching. The next three weeks seem hardly worth the effort--even though this is for all the marbles for the kids.

Part of the problem, of course, is that having just graded the second papers from 101, I see all the same mistakes they made in the first one--this always happens--and I truly wonder why I bother, as nothing I say or do seems to stick at all. I'm sure there are small improvements in some of the papers, and intellectually, at least, I am aware that there is often a lag between when one understands something conceptually and when one can put it into practice (so the students probably have learned more than they can demonstrate in their writing just yet). But I am also painfully aware of that horrible chasm between where they are and where I believe they need to be.

But the other part of the problem is that I wonder if I'm living in some time-warp, and if what I believe should be expected of a student at the next levels is no longer correct. It's been a long time since I was an undergrad, so I know the rules and expectations have changed. Oddly, in some ways, I expect more from my students than was expected of me (I never had to document my sources in any of my English classes, and the one paper where I was expected to footnote and provide a bibliography, I was very much at a loss--and had to teach myself, probably pretty badly. I didn't learn MLA citations until I was in grad school.) But in other ways, I wonder if our society has given up on a particular kind of literacy. I don't know if my vision is skewed because I work in the odd backwater that is a community college (so students and society in general seem worse than they are) or if it's skewed because I am a mastodon, still working under assumptions that have long since died away (so my students and the society I see reflect a reality I do not want to believe in).

This doubt plagues me because I see the lack of literacy--even basic, fundamental stuff that I thought people were supposed to learn in 4th grade--all around me, even in sources where one would expect better. Certainly amongst the hoi-polloi, the kind of word use that I think is vitally important as the mark of a thinking, modestly educated individual, is decidedly not practiced--possibly not even valued. I sometimes get the impression that all but a few of us in the Ivory Tower think "What's the fuss? None of that word shit really matters." So why do I bother?

Um, yes. One can see the despair galloping in. I do what I can to hold the line against the barbarian hordes, but I often get the feeling there aren't many of us in these trenches. The vast majority don't even seem aware that there is a fight going on.

Right. Well, I'm whining. All I can do--as I say to the students--is all I can do. One cannot do more than one's best at the things one finds important. But about this point in semester, it always gets hard to keep up the slog. I can't imagine grading papers for 229 tomorrow will help with this particular malaise, but it needs to be done. And hope springs eternal: maybe a few students will have done a better job on the second paper, having had my feedback on the first to help them along. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

another quick one

Read one of those "cute things little kids say" e-mails or something, in which a boy said he was "motionally and fizzily zausted." Me too. I contemplated canceling my ride today but since the barn has a 24-hour cancellation policy, I decided not to waste the money and ride anyway. Maybe being around the ponies will rev me up. If nothing else, it will restore some kind of equilibrium: horse time is good for the soul.

I got the last of the papers for MB done in class (as I suspected I would)--and of course two of the students whose papers I was sweating over this morning did not come to class. It would be nice to know in advance, so I could grade only for the students who will actually be there. Ah well. The best thing is, they're done. I have a small stack of papers for 229, but those I grade differently, as they're supposed to know how to write. (Well, that's the theory anyway.) I have some piled up homework bits--and I'm once again applying the philosophy of "I've had them so long the students don't care about the substance; they just want to know the mark." That gets me through the flotsam more rapidly, which is also nice.

I think part of my exhaustion is let-down. I know I don't have to push right now, and so my body is going, "OK, if you don't need me to be in panic mode, I'm going to collapse." But I have to bounce around on a horse first--and if I don't leave soon, I'll be late, so off I go.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Postponing Swing

I really really really wanted to go to that swing class tonight, but I just cannot do it. I also cannot grade another paper tonight. It's early, but my brains have utterly shut down and my eyes don't work. I can't see the papers well enough, metaphorically or literally--even with my glasses on--to be at all sure what I'm doing. I have seven more to grade by tomorrow's class. I may end up grading the last two in class itself. (I've been returning papers at the end of class, so that helps.) I've saved a lot of the better ones for last. There will still be a few that will be in that difficult middle ground, but I'm hoping a few are just downright good. (One I know will be.) The good ones are much faster and easier to grade, not to mention being more pleasant.

So I'm doing the Scarlett O'Hara thing: "I'll think of that tomorrow, when I'm stronger. After all, tomorrow is another day." I can try out swing next week; it'll still be there, and I'll still be on my 2-week special deal. And if I go home and get to sleep early, dammit, and sleep through until the alarm, dammit, I'll be able to wake up at some ungodly hour in the a.m. to get back here and grade more effectively. I don't know why it's hitting me so hard tonight, but I'm going to succumb to my body's demands and just go home. I'd say more, but I'll just whine and complain if I do, so enough already. More tomorrow.

Oh, but post scriptum: Jack is still a cat, not a chapeau.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ah, hell...

Caught the first deliberate plagiarist of the semester. I hate when this happens, but it also makes me realize that students do not understand how distinctive "voice" is in written work--and that any professor can tell the difference between student and professional writing. This one was easy to catch, too: simple Google search of the key phrases, and bingo. It's harder when they use a buy-a-paper website (and why are those things legal??)--or the boy/girlfriend, or Mom. It's maddening--and disappointing--no matter what the methodology. Paul put together a lovely letter expressing regret and in very professional terms explaining why a plagiarized assignment gets a zero. I've stolen his letter and adapted it to my purposes. I think this student can mend the error of her ways and overcome the whalloping bad grade, if she tries; I'm sure this was a panic maneuver, not laziness. That's most often the case, actually, though there are a few who believe that if cheating gets a better result in terms of the grade, then that's the intelligent way to go. (Why fail on your own merits when you can cheat and pass? I'm sure they'll get through life just fine on that philosophy....)

I got through 7 of the 18 papers I need to have done by Wednesday; not as many as would have been optimal. (One I started but didn't finish because it may also be plagiarized--but I couldn't prove it as quickly and easily: I need to run it through my home computer's Plagiarism Detector, which is at present malfunctioning, dammit. But it's also possible the student used group work to come up with a better intro paragraph than she could have on her own, which I permitted on this assignment.) In any event, in terms of my own productivity, I don't quite know what happened to this morning. The feline alarm went off at 5 (the electronic one was set for six). I tried very hard to ignore the attention-seeking bad-cat behavior (ASBCB) and yodeling that indicates Jack is bored and wants to play, but I hadn't been sleeping well anyway, so I gave up and got up at about 5:20--and I still didn't get much done. Paul was in when I got here (very early of a Monday
for him, indicative that I'm not drowning in papers alone); I did talk to him a little, but it seems to me we were both pretty focused on the work we needed to do. And yet I only got three papers done before class at 11. I only managed to crank out the other four this afternoon because I could pretty much ignore the last pages of several: when papers are bad enough--or good enough--they don't take long because there isn't much to say. It's the ones in that blurry middle ground that impel me to comment madly. I'm still trying to control the impulse, but the success on that front is spotty at best.

Ah well. I'm taking this quick moment to blog, then I'll snarf down a little food and dash off to dance class. Since I'll be home late-ish, I'm not sure how well my self-discipline will hold up in terms of getting up early tomorrow, but I swear, if Jack wakes me up an hour before the alarm, I'll turn him into a charming little hat.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sleepy Sunday

I've got a Sue Foley song running through my head: "I'm so tired / at the end of the day..." I got the 12 done--despite a longer than I intended phone-call with my sister, a longish walk, two phone calls (one short, one longer) with my mother, plus random bits such as eating lunch--so I'm ready for Tuesday. I'm not entirely sure what I'll have to do to be ready for Wednesday, but we'll see.

A few hours ago, I very confidently set the alarm for 5 a.m. I'm about to go reset it for 6, as my intention to get under the covers at 9:30 and be lights-out by 10 is obviously a non-starter (it's 10:37 as I write this). I also know I'm fighting off some virus thingy--and I'm doing the whole ecchinacea/zinc/Vit C/Emergen-C/astralagus/whatever herbs and spices remedies to combat it, but crucial to fighting off any bug is sleep, and over the next few days I'm unlikely to get as much as I need. But I just refuse, utterly refuse, to spend Thanksgiving break feeling like hell. Not gonna happen. I can get sick in January if necessary, but not before then. (Are you listening, Body?) So since my eyelids are apparently lined with sandpaper and my throat is sore and I have to get up predawn tomorrow, even with the reset alarm, this is going to be a very quick post.

But I got the 12 done! So often I set a goal like that and then don't make it, but this time, dammit, I did it. And one way or another, the remaining 18 will be done by Wednesday. Probably won't be any hell or high water involved, either. I just have to control my compulsive red pen....

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Three today, 12 tomorrow, 18 by Wednesday?

Taking a little break here, clearing out the mental sludge. The three papers I have left to mark for RB are from the three best writers in the class--at least that's been the case up to now, though they can always surprise me. Sometimes a student will take a quantum leap forward (genuinely, not through a [cough cough] "ghost writer"), but sometimes a reliably good student will stumble or even fall down completely. One of the three good writers is also one of the students who is resistant to the topics (an anti-environmentalist: I can never understand that attitude--the way people of different political parties can never understand how those in the other party can feel as they do). Because of his resistance, I'm curious to see how he handles the topic. Monkey Skulls is also resistant (largely, I think, out of a deep-seated need to rebel against anything and everything), and so although his paper was better in terms of approach, it ran away with him because he so desperately wanted to prove that organic farming is idiotic (without proof, by the way, beyond a Penn & Teller video he watched, which I wouldn't let him cite, so instead he cited nothing at all). I'm hoping the same doesn't happen to the other resistant student--and it shouldn't: he has much more control over not only his writing but also his attitude. I know he hates the material, but he does his best to handle it objectively anyway, which I applaud.

In an earlier break today, I did pay an atom-sized bit of attention to the promo folder. I got an e-mail from one of my mentees, and her question about a specific form of documentation reminded me that I need to request the same thing for myself--so I sent out the e-mails asking. It isn't much, but I do feel better for having done it. And two pieces of needed documentation came in. I haven't looked at them yet, but I know they're there, and that's comforting.

(As I write, I hear the troublesome downstairs neighbor stamping around: very heavy footsteps. I'm glad I live above, not below. But when I hear her tromping about like that, I get self-conscious and try to literally tread lightly. I know I can stomp pretty hard for someone my size, so I attempt to walk softly. As for carrying a big stick, if you ask my students, I do indeed--and they get whacked with it, poor dears, on regular occasions.)

I just looked at my calendar to see when I have time between now and Wednesday to finish up the papers for the M/W class--apart from tomorrow, which I will spend on KC (the other T/Th section). I decided for a change to put RB first, in part so they get the candy end of the lollipop this time but also because I only see them once before Thanksgiving. True also for KC. And the answer to how much time I have for grading apart from tomorrow is "not much." We have a damned department meeting on Tuesday (and I have to be there, as we'll be discussing assessment stuff, which I'm part of). That means Tuesday will be a back-to-back-to-back-to-back day, reducing the size of any window of opportunity for grading. Monday's windows will also be small: I know I'll be seeing at least one student during my office hour. And on both Monday and Tuesday I want to leave campus by 7 to go to dance class. Consequently, I may be looking at a few very early mornings--and the other upshot is that I won't be able to cancel class on Wednesday: it's when I'll be able to return their papers (no can do by Monday, not and still have KC done on time). Ah well. Three days of getting up early won't kill me--and will be followed by four days in which I can sleep in as late as the cats will let me. And it will be worth it to push a little bit on the school stuff to make time for the dance classes. I tend to back-burner my personal life, and I hate it when I do. So next week I won't, even if it means that poor candle gets burned at both ends, in the middle and from all sides. Worth it, worth it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pretty embarrassing...

I got virtually nothing graded today, entirely defeating the purpose of canceling classes. Well, not entirely: I did get bills paid (had to be done either today or tomorrow), plus a few other life maintenance things that have been buzzing around my head like gnats, wanting attention. I'm hoping that having graded a few, I've now broken the resistance to doing them and will chip away at a few tomorrow, and then be more productive Saturday and Sunday. I did reschedule one of my appointments for tomorrow to buy myself a little time in the morning, so here's hoping.

I will be interested to hear from the students next week, whether they took advantage of the canceled class time to meet in their groups or whether (as I suspect) they instead took the time as a chance to do nothing (or at least nothing having to do with school--or my class in particular). But I truly am in a zen-like state of taking each moment as it comes: I'm not planning ahead, or anticipating much, just rolling with whatever happens. I sometimes get knotted up in a desire to control everything (even stuff I can't, in fact, control), so it's very good practice for me to open my hands and let go. At the end of my riding lesson, there's always a time when I let the reins slide through my fingers, keeping almost no contact with the bit, so the horse can stretch his neck out and relax. I feel somewhat the same way about the semester (though in this case, I think I am both the rider and the horse). Letting things go on a long rein, just sitting back and letting myself be carried. Kinda nice, I must say.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yippee and Yippee--and maybe a few more

The first yippee is because the smirk twins from 229 dropped today. Not only does that mean those brats are out of my hair, it means I don't have to grade their miserably stupid papers. I took a quick look at them when they came in: clearly they still think that the way they wrote in high school is plenty good enough, dammit, no matter what the bitch of a professor says. Indeed, for their next English class they may get one of my colleagues who does not have my standards, which will confirm the smirkers' opinion of me as the insane monster--until they get to a 4-year school and suddenly the professors not only tell them their writing is shit but also make them take their F and live with it, instead of giving the opportunity to revise that I allow. My fervent hope, however, is that even while still at NCC they end up in a class with someone who is every bit as ferocious as I--or even more so. (I'm tough, but I'm not hostile--and unfortunately, some of my colleagues have gotten jaded enough that they can be.) But whatever happens, they're not my worry any more.

Of course, they are very likely to go onto and say awful things about me--but I'm used to that, and actually don't look any more. I've said before and will say again, it's easy to bash someone when you can do it anonymously, so how seriously can one take those ratings? I rather agree with the professor who started his own "rate my students" web page, in which he could engage in similar character assassination: turn about being fair play and all that.

On another note, another student in 229 was going to withdraw because she got snarled up in stuff and didn't do her second essay. She was hovering in the hall to talk to me after class had begun. I usually make students wait until class is over, but for some reason I decided to go talk to her. I persuaded her to come join the class and to seriously consider taking an incomplete instead. By the end of class, she was fired up to finish the semester and do the missing assignment to complete the class once the semester is over. I'm glad: she's been an asset to the class, and it would have been sad to lose her. So I guess that's a yippee, too.

But the real second yippee: I finished the last of my observation write-ups. Whew! I still have two cover letters to write (for the two promotions I'm mentoring), and I need to go to Human Resources and make sure my file and the files of my two mentees contain all the needed bits. I'm sure there are folders I need to review that I'm forgetting about. And of course we won't mention my own promo folder, which has been sitting, forlorn, on the table in the living room, waiting patiently for any crumbs of attention. Still and all, it does feel awfully good to have the bulk of this semester's P&B stuff done.

Third yippee: I've decided to cancel classes tomorrow. I still have to drive to the area: I'm dropping off a wheelie thingy in the a.m. for office mate Bill so he can lug a box of photocopied readers to his class, then I have an appointment near campus. I'll probably return to that general neck of the woods in the evening, too: I test-drove a new dance studio tonight and had a blast, so I'm going to use my special introductory offer (unlimited classes for 2 weeks) to check out a different form of salsa tomorrow, then swing next Tuesday--maybe tango as well. (They don't offer waltz, which is too bad, as I loved waltzing back in my theater days, but I'll have enough to do with the other dance forms. I could even do belly dance there if I wanted....)

Of course, here I am going on about dance class and all those other bits, but the real reason for canceling class was so I can get papers graded. I'm a little abashed that, despite my best intentions and what I thought was genuine resolve (obviously not), I have not graded a single paper since the one I did last Sunday: since I decided not to rush, I guess my other option was complete stall. (I am beginning to think I only have two speeds: full blast and off. I can putter endlessly in my life in general, but in terms of work, I seem to be the original all-or-nothing girl.) Friday will be pretty much lost to routine doctors' appointments and my ride, thought I may be able to squeeze in a little "in the office" time between doctors, so I hope I get a good whack in tomorrow. I really would like the damned things out of my hair before Thanksgiving. That would be something to be thankful for indeed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ahhhh, home early

I let RB go a teeny bit early today, went back to the office, did the bag swap (this stays in the office, this goes with me), made a list of stuff to remember tomorrow, talked to Paul for a while, and came home. It's pretty wonderful to be here, in my sloppies, and about to go make dinner; usually I'm still at the office at this hour. Since I decided not to rush to get papers back to the 101s, and to postpone (maybe make optional) their revisions, I have been finding time to recharge my batteries--and I feel infinitely better as a result. And the students are relieved to have a break too: no significant homework for my class this weekend. I've driven them very hard to this point, and I know it, so backing off a bit feels like a gift for everyone, them and me.

Tonight, in fact, I'm going to try not to think about what I need to do tomorrow, never mind beyond that. Tomorrow will be soon enough for that. There's a little teeny bit of breathing room in terms of P&B business, too--and I just started to write about the stuff I have to do for that end of things: it's a compulsion. But no, I'm stopping myself. Tonight, I won't think about what next. Tonight, I'm just going to be here, home, quiet, brain turned off.

A nice thing happened today, though, that I want to record. I was in a meeting of college-wide assessment, and inadvertently facilitated the opening of a can of worms about an issue that should not be complicated at all (but has gotten too complicated to explain here). At the end of the meeting I went up to the VP for academic affairs, who is also the head high honcho of assessment, and apologized for adding to the ruckus. She reassured me that the can of worms was already open--but then, after we talked about that for a bit, she asked me if I'd like to join with her and a few other people on a committee she wants to form--long story about (and in fact still not entirely clear) what the committee would be working on, but it's essentially a "visionaries" committee. I said yes. Not only am I genuinely interested (and very much want to stay actively involved in all discussions about assessment, as I often have grave concerns about motivations), but also, a loud voice in my head said "this will look great on the promotion to full professor." I'm thinking about my next promotion and I haven't gotten this one yet. But little moments like that make me realize I am more visible than I often think--and visible in good ways. Her invitation was an awfully nice stroke, professionally speaking, and I'm very happy to have gotten it, like getting a gold star. Cool.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nope, it's gone

The post I wrote yesterday (Sunday 11/15) just vanished into the ether. No clue. I wrote about my decisions to alleviate stress, largely about a different way to handle the essay 2 revisions for the 101s--but ah well. I'm not going to try to reconstruct it, but it is odd that it just disappeared. I wonder what I did--or didn't do?

Can't See

I think it's a function of being tired--and of spending too much time reading (and forgetting to wear my reading glasses: I'm still not used to the idea that they help). I probably should stay and work some more tonight, but since I literally am having a hard time seeing (feels like there's a veil over my right eye), I think I'll pack it in. Oddly, when I checked in to the main blog page a minute ago, a post that I put up last night seems to have vanished--and yet I'm pretty sure it was there, as Sara (dear friend and colleague) mentioned something this morning that suggested she'd seen/read it. Hmmm. Maybe it will reappear when I post this. Anyway, classes went pretty well. Mr. "I'll Bring My Gun" from 229 finally got the idea and dropped today. Another student officially withdrew, much to my regret--she was great (but she seems to be interested in taking Nature in Lit next semester, which would be terrific). A few more have simply racked up too many absences, and I don't think they'll be back (and another 1-2 are on the verge of serious trouble in the attendance department). Yet another student was making noises about dropping, but he was overreacting (not focusing on the fact that he can revise his papers, thought he was already in grade trouble because of attendance, when in fact he isn't), so I think I persuaded him to stay. Still, I think we're down to about 14--which would be 50% attrition. I don't much like that, but it happens--and not just to me, even to some of the gentler and less-demanding professors. In any event, since the class is now that small, instead of group work, from now on we'll do our discussions in a circle: everyone has to ask a question or make a comment. It went well today--even the smirking couple asked legitimate questions and seemed to be paying attention to the answers. (I also caught a cute moment between them that made me laugh. I didn't say anything to the rest of the class, but Miss Smirk and I exchanged a few smiles over it. I don't think I've broken any ice there, but it may have persuaded her that I am not entirely monstrous--despite the rigor of my assignments.) In 101 the students mostly churned away at putting together the logic of a rather complex essay they'd read--and did pretty well at it. I spent the time trying to figure out their groups. I have a rough idea, but I need to do further adjusting: I'm aiming not only for gender balance but also for minimal negative impact from the lumps--which is harder, in part because some of the lumps want to work together and in part because some of the other students specifically asked not to work with the lumps. I am very careful to ensure that people aren't working with someone they specifically asked to avoid--but unfortunately I won't be able to be as accommodating in making sure they work with exactly the group-mates they requested. I was very interested to see a definite gender divide in the requests: the girls wanted to work only with other girls, the guys mostly only with other guys. Very few crossed the gender divide in their requests. I wonder how much of that is a hold-over from the hormonal difficulties and confusions of junior high and high school. (Um, showing my regional roots there--or possibly a time thing, but here and now it's called "middle school," not junior high.) It truly seems odd to me, so I'm wondering what accounts for that divide. Apart from that, I cranked through some P&B business and a bunch of that antique 101RB homework, though a few bits are still left for tomorrow a.m., prior to my meeting. First meeting, I should say: it's another meeting/class/meeting/class day, no break from 11:30 to 5:15. Not sure how early I'll be able to drag my fanny out of bed, either: I originally intended to get up at 6 today, so I'd have that extra hour to get stuff done--and changed my mind before I even went to bed (later than I'd intended, of course). I also feel a bit like I'm coming down with something (scratchy throat, muzzy head--though that could just be lingering effects of yesterday's headache), so definitely early to bed tonight, and maybe not early to rise tomorrow. We'll see. I'm playing everything by ear these days (very playful ears I have, apparently). So far, the improvisational technique is working--and the stress levels have definitely receded to much more manageable levels. Whew.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lost pearl

I think I used the analogy my ex used in reference to someone who was trying to handle too much chaos: it was like standing next to someone whose strand of pearls had just broken. I've felt very much that way lately, with precious things bouncing around and potentially out of sight. Not so precious--but rather ironic, given yesterday's post about perhaps skipping a meeting--on Thursday I missed a meeting simply because I utterly forgot it was happening. I'd been looking at my calendar all week, but somehow I managed not to see that meeting there, Thursday, 8:30 a.m. No doubt there's something Freudian about it (not a meeting I particularly wanted to go to and not at an hour that I particularly relish). But it's odd to me that I felt sick about having missed it. It's one thing to miss a meeting on purpose, but to miss it because it fell through the cracks, that bothered me.

I'm still in the process of thinking through what I can do to alleviate some of the pressure. I have an idea, but I'll blog about it tomorrow--or whenever. I do need to wind down for bed now, but just wanted to make note of that moment when something did indeed slip unnoticed, out of sight. I've dreaded it all semester, and now that it's happened? No harm, no foul, as they say in baseball. Oddly enough, the world did not come to an end, nor was I de-tenured, because I missed a meeting. Nice to be reminded of perspective from time to time.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I've meant to post every night this week and just haven't been in the right head-space. I'm not entirely sure I am tonight, either. I've fallen off some sort of ledge and have been in an rank mood most of the week. I think it's largely cumulative effect: I've been nagging myself pretty hard all semester and at the same time trying to find balance, looking for bright sides wherever I can find them. The bright sides are decidedly there, but this week it's been harder to focus on them, and the nagging voice has gotten so loud I think I'm rebelling against myself. When I lose sight of the bright bits, I tend to get into a negative feedback loop: I feel crappy, so it's hard to focus on work, so I don't get "enough" done, so I feel more stressed, so I feel even more crappy, yadda yadda yadda. And random detritus in my personal life has been feeding the negative cycle lately, so I'm struggling to snap out of it.

I didn't get those homework assignments marked that I talked about on Monday: they're still sitting in a pile (on the office floor at the moment, as I contemplate where they belong in the ever-shifting list of priorities--which in turn dictates whether they stay here or go home with me). And now I've got first versions of the second paper for my 101 classes to mark; those have to be back as soon as I can manage, so the students have time to revise without doing damage to the time they need for their final projects and papers. P&B business is piling up (though I did crank out drafts of letters of support for sabbatical applications today, one of my myriad responsibilities crossed off that list). I just spent hours adding to and refining the final project assignment for the 101 classes. This is the time of semester when I feel as if we're cranking our way toward the highest point on a roller-coaster: one can see that insane rush downhill toward the end looming, but we're still chugging painfully toward the crest--and yet I have a white-knuckled grip on the safety bar, trying to prepare myself for that wild ride. Once we hit that point, everything happens so fast there's no time to anything but hang on and holler until final grades are turned in.

I came in this morning for a symposium (good for the promo folder--and as a bonus, I actually got some decent ideas out of it), and I've been in the office since. I think on Monday I talked about how full my (metaphoric) dance-card is this weekend, and because I've got so many other things going on--and am in this crabby state--I'm not at all sure how much I can realistically expect to get done.

I keep reminding myself, however, that 99.9 percent of the pressure I feel is self-imposed. Even the P&B pressure is in a sense self-imposed, as I chose to run for the committee. (And--evidence of something, perhaps my lack of sanity--I think I will run again this year, for another 2-year term.) I've picked the committees I'm on; I put together the assignment schedules; I decide how much to comment on papers, and so on. In turn, that means I can decide how to proceed. I can cancel or reconstruct assignments; I can handle paper grading in a different way; I can duck out of some committee meetings instead of always being the good Do-Bee (a reference for those of you who remember Romper Room). I need to seriously think through what I can let go of, what I can do differently--without feeling that I'm compromising my standards. And that includes considering whether it would do any significant damage to my students were I to cancel another day or two of classes. It feels a little ridiculous that I cancel classes in order to do what I need to for my classes, but it's a relatively simple solution to the time crunch. The main thing, though, is to make a decision that leaves me feeling good about myself professionally and doesn't ride me ragged personally.

It's relatively early--not even 6 yet--but I think the most productive thing I can do this evening is attitude adjustment (and take care of my bodily health). I do wish I could run away to the Virgin Islands for a few weeks and then pick up from here--but as capable as I am, I haven't yet invented a time-dilation device, so I can't squeeze a two-week vacation into 12 hours, more's the pity. But I have pictures of beaches up on my bulletin board, and there are times when it is immensely soothing to stare long and lovingly at them and daydream: me, creamy sand, crystal waves, gentle salt breeze, delicious book lying idle in my lap--and infinite stillness all around. Ah, heavy sigh. Imagination is a wonderful thing.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I got a bunch of homework marked this weekend and it actually went pretty quickly, so I haven't pushed myself to finish up the stuff for the Tuesday/Thursday classes yet. I've got a jump on it, but I think I can get most of it done before my first class tomorrow. Students are also doing peer review of papers tomorrow, so I can chip away during class while they work, and finish (I hope) in the break in between--and still have time for lunch. Because I wasn't feeling time crunched, I did a fair amount of noodling today: silly housekeeping things that require very little in the way of mental lifting but still make me feel as if I'm accomplishing something, not just reading fluff and (metaphorically) eating bon-bons. I did get the first batch of the next round of 101 papers today (oh argh), but I'm hoping madly I can get a good whallop of those done on Wednesday so I don't have to chain myself to the office this weekend in order to get them back in time for the students to revise. I have a relatively full calendar this weekend too (symposium Friday a.m., placement reading Saturday a.m., long-overdue double birthday celebration with a friend Saturday p.m.; laundry in there somewhere), so any window of time I find in which to crank out papers, I'll have to take advantage. (I'm saying this mostly to myself, to gird my loins, so to speak.)

Among my housekeeping chores was to make a list of the little bits and shreds of things I have to prep for later this week and next--even slightly beyond (trying to get a fraction ahead of the curve before all hell breaks loose again). I didn't actually do any of those bits, mind you: noodling means making a list instead of simply getting something done. But in all honesty, I need the list: while I'm accomplishing one thing, much will vanish from my mind, and then I'll have another of those "oh shit" moments. Taking a breath to jot 'em down gives me something concrete to refer to--and the gratification of crossing things off later as I do them. Assuming I don't lose the list, or bury it under a pile of other things I need to attend to, which seems to be happening a lot this semester. I think about vast and complex cultures without written language and the consequent feats of memory they are capable of that seem so impossible to us. Writing stuff down has led to memory atrophy (imagine having to remember the entire Odyssey and your shopping list, at the same time). But here we are, and that's what's happened to our brains. Funny that we're so dependent on the written word and yet so many are scarcely able to decipher a marginally complex sentence. A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha). (Any Gilbert & Sullivan fans out there? Sing along...)

I did the last of my observations today, most interesting. At one point, the students were working away in their groups, and my colleague came over to chat with me for a moment. I told him our 200-level classes are pretty much interchangeable: same kinds of students (good and bad), same struggles with their writing (and their insistence that we are wrong to find any problems in what has always been good enough before), and so on. When he sent an e-mail last night to give me a little context about the class, I was enormously comforted to see how similar our experiences have been. I'm relieved to discover yet another colleague who shares my views on the standard to which we must hold our students. Many don't (witness the lack of preparedness among so many students), but enough do that I can feel secure in my position. I'm not the only one in this trench, facing the bombardments from all sides--including some "friendly" fire.

Just noticing how quiet the building gets at this hour. Not as quiet as it is on Saturdays, but still. The little dust-pan thingy that the maintenance staff uses makes a distinctive noise--and the slight reverberation of that sound down the hall is evidence of how little other noise there is to interfere. Very quiet walking across campus at this hour, too; little traffic, few students, occasionally the avian calls of geese or (at certain seasons) plovers on the quad. A breath, a small peaceful moment at the end of the day.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Couldn't pull my brains together well enough to report in last night--although a couple of things happened that I think are worth reporting.

In the KB 101, I put the kids in groups, as I had done with MB on Wednesday, to have them work on thesis statements. One group simply would not work. Every time I listened in on them, they were just chatting about whatever. One young man in particular was a lot of the problem: he is a nice enough kid, but in groups he just talks nonstop about anything and nothing. However, the problem was worse because he was also in a group with a young woman who doesn't seem invested in anything having to do with school--but especially not group work. It was luck of the draw that they ended up together--and that the two other students in the group didn't have strong enough personalities to rein them in: in terms of a personality combo, it was a disaster. I kept going over to get them back on task, with increasing firmness. Finally, I said, "OK, if you don't want to work, you can split. Go ahead and take off." A minute later I looked back and saw that no one was moving but no one was working, either. I said, "I'm serious: you can split--you can go. If you're not doing anything productive, there's no reason for you to be here, so you might as well leave." I didn't say it in an angry way (I don't think, though their perception may be different); I was just matter of fact. The young man explained that they had thought I meant they could split up into pairs instead of a group of four--but I reiterated that no, they should just go away, and then I heard him say, "Well, I want to work..." and lo and behold, they did. Not terribly well, perhaps, because the "I don't care" girl pretty much did her own thing and didn't interact with the rest of them, but it did make me wish I'd resorted to that tactic before, as they might have gotten productive earlier if I had. It's very strange, psychologically: sometimes students act like they don't want to be in class, but if you tell them to leave, they want to stay. Go figure.

The other thing was a nice little interaction between me and Monkey Skulls--a name I know use with some affection rather than the hint of bitterness I felt previously. He was working in a group--not being very effective, I have a feeling, as I don't think he'd done the reading, but at least he was there and participating in some way. At one point, another student in his group had a question, so I was standing next to him, explaining--and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him imitating my hand gestures. So without turning my head, I whacked him (gently), a little backhand across his shoulder. He laughed, as did the rest of the group. I then looked at him and said, "Would you like to just get up and teach this?" (Shook his head, did a little "no, no" waving gesture with his hands.) "Are you sure, since you seem to have my hand gestures down exactly, maybe you want to just take over for me?" (Laughing, again, shook his head, and mumbled something about it being OK, I should just go ahead.)

It was all very light-hearted and fun--and then at the end of class, when I was returning papers, he said, "Did I do OK? Were you proud of me?"--and I think he genuinely wanted the reassurance, the approval. It was lovely that I could give it, and tell him his paper was indeed much improved, and that I was, in fact, very proud of him. Today I got an e-mail from him: he had asked in class if he could use a Penn and Teller video as a source for his paper: at first I said yes, but today he sent me the link--and I had a moment to consider--so I had to rescind the permission. But he signed his message, "your favorite hand-gesturing student." The funny thing is, he is becoming one of my favorite students, simply because of the transformation in his attitude. Now I just hope he does enough work to pass....

There were other things going on that I could probably dig into and explore, but I'm just not in the right frame of mind. Sea cucumber time rapidly approaches.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

9 more...

First, correction to yesterday's post: Pollan's essay was published in 2007, not 1997. (What millennium is this again?)

And the title of today's post refers to the papers yet to be graded for tomorrow's 101RB: I've got a zillion miscellaneous homework things piled up, but only 9 more actual papers to grade--until next week. Very sad today: one of my best students in RB--the young woman who first started following this blog--had to withdraw, not just from my class but from all her classes. There is a family crisis going on, so she has to leave school and move, probably upstate. I'm very sorry to lose her. When she appeared at the end of my class today with the withdrawal slip, I said, "Oh, Laura no! Oh, please no!" She started to cry; made me feel awful. I didn't want to add to her distress, as what she's going through is hard enough, but I genuinely am very sad to lose her--and I'd welcome her back into any class of mine, any time, should she return to NCC.

Oh, and speaking of papers for RB: remember Monkey Skulls? He wrote a lovely evaluation of my comments, in which he said he'd expected our conference to consist of me telling him to withdraw but that instead, he said, "All I got was positive re-assurance and a guideline of which [sic] I should follow." He ends his report saying, "I believe that I did infact [sic] improve upon my repertoire, making myself not sound like a high school boy, but a college man." And he turned in a paper that was appropriate on all levels. If he'd done that for his first draft, he'd have been able to get a fine grade in revision, I'm sure--and even with the flaws of his second attempt, I'm tremendously proud of him. He may not manage to do enough work and attend enough classes to pass, but he's learned something possibly more valuable, which is how to gain respect. I am thrilled to my socks--and, quite honestly, pretty damned proud of how I handled that whole situation.

But apparently it was a day for withdrawals: I lost a student from 229, too--again, he wasn't withdrawing just from my class but from everything. Family issues there, too, I believe. He's a sweetheart, so it's a shame--and he made a couple of buddies who hugged him goodbye, which I thought was lovely. I find it gratifying when students make friends in my class (and my classes are responsible for a couple of long-term and very close friendships. I don't think a class relationship has led to a marriage yet, but who knows.) The class itself went OK. We cranked through a bunch of poems, so we only have two more to do on Monday, plus starting in on Ceremony.

But there are two students in the class who are starting to get my goat. She is the one who, on Monday, suggested that my standards/assignments were responsible for the uniformly low level of papers on the first one. He is her boyfriend. They are patently in the class only because they need an English class to graduate and this one fit their schedules. They equally patently hate being there. He doodles or writes notes to her; she reads them and smirks. Monday was the first time she ever said a word (to complain, mind you, not to get clarification). Today was the first time he ever said anything: one student remarked that it was pretty ridiculous that Europeans thought they could claim someone else's land simply by planting a flag--and he flung his hand up in the air to say it wasn't ridiculous because it had been going on for thousands of years, ever since the Greeks and Romans. (I don't think the ancient Greeks and Romans did the whole flag thing, but never mind.) If we follow his logic, slavery is also OK because it has been going on for thousands of years, as has subjugation of women (though he'd probably agree with that one)....

He's of the "we [Euro-Americans] won, so they [indigenous peoples] don't have any thing to complain about" school. Not worth trying to argue with him. I did point out that just because something was ancient didn't prevent it from being ridiculous, and then I moved on. But her smirking is starting to crawl all over me. I have to think about how to handle it. The nasty bitch in me wants to call her on it: "What's funny? Do please share it with all of us." "You're smiling; what's occurring to you about the reading?" that sort of thing--every time I catch a smirk, ask her about it. Or I could tell them to sit on opposite sides of the room, but I suspect I'd encounter resistance, and the showdown would just make a bad situation worse. If their behavior were more egregious and affecting other students negatively, I'd take them aside after class and politely tell them that they would not be coming back. As is, the only person who is being bugged is me--and theoretically anyway, I'm adult enough to figure out a way not to be bugged. So, stewing about that one. I'll consult with Paul. Somehow we always find it easier to deal with each other's classroom problems than to handle our own.

101MB went great. I walked in with zero plan, no clue what to have them do. The homework didn't provide a clear focus, so I figured I'd let them decide, and if they decided they didn't want to do anything at all, I'd let them go. I asked if they'd had any problems with the homework: no takers. I said I'd help with the sentence-level stuff they were supposed to locate in their papers for in their homework: no takers. I finally reminded them that their second papers are due Monday, and said they know what they need: help with research, help with thesis statements: suddenly, enthusiasm. Yes, please, help with thesis statements. So, I put them in groups according to which topic they had chosen and had them work through a thesis, then an introductory paragraph, and from that, search terms to fill in the blanks they discovered. I told them that it's OK if all the students in a group used the same thesis/intro, as I know the rest of their papers will be unique. And I emphasized that even though they'd worked hard on coming up with something in class, they shouldn't consider them final: those statements are still works in progress. If the students write the paper and suddenly realize (as often happens to all writers), "Oh, that's what I'm really talking about," they need to be willing to go back and change the thesis. Or if their research turns up something. Or whatever. But they were very engaged in the work--and actually came up with pretty good theses, as far as I could tell on the fly. So, now I do know what I'm going to do with the 101s tomorrow--and we'll see if it goes as well.

But I don't have it in me to deal with any more papers tonight. I'll be a lot more productive after I've slept--and eaten something at least vaguely nourishing. I wish I could fax myself home: right now, walking to my car and then driving the 20 minutes home seems a journey of epic proportions. However, it is the only way to get home, so....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


...and that's not just because it's hot as hell in here. Every year, when we're in this in-between weather, those of us on the "old" side of campus generally swelter: the old buildings have heating that is either on (cranking full blast all the time) or off (so the indoor temps quickly approach those outdoors). As a good environmentalist, I am driven bats by the energy waste, as we run the AC in the office and have the windows in all classrooms wide open (and some of those rooms still approach sauna temps). Among other things, the overheated rooms exacerbate the problem of keeping students who are operating on about 15 minutes of sleep from dropping off altogether.

But they didn't today. I'm delighted to report that KB did a great job for my observation: they worked well in their groups; they were (mostly) prepared; they were alert and participatory during class discussion--and it was a pretty interesting discussion. (If you're curious, you can find the article we were talking about--Michael Pollan's "Unhappy Meals"--on the NYTimes website: it was in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1997, September, I think...?) The students seemed to get a kick out of the study questions on little slips of paper: something like a fortune cookie about it, I guess. (I folded the slips in half and put them in a paper bag; a student from each group reached in to grab two slips, so there was an element of random surprise that I think felt a little bit fun.) In any event, I'm happy with how the observation went--and more to the point, the observer was, too. Cross off one more thing I need for the promo folder.

We also went over promo apps in P&B today: I was told mine looked great, which was nice. Still, considering the competition, "great" may not be good enough. Each year, there are 24 slots for promotion beyond assistant for the entire campus. So everyone across all the departments who is applying for associate or full professor is vying for one of 24 slots. The Promotion and Tenure committee can divide the 24 up any way they like: they don't need to maintain any specific balance of full to associate. But the English department alone is sending up 12 candidates (2 for full professor, TEN for associate), and I just can't see P&T giving so many promotions to one department. I grant you, we are the largest department (approx. 100 full-time faculty; the next closest is Math, with about 70), but even so, the rest of the departments would surely think it was unfair for us to get half of what's available. (And the department is already resented by some, partly because we are the 800-pound gorilla of this campus, partly because we teach a 4-4 load, whereas other departments teach 5-5.)

So you see why I am not counting on getting this promotion--this go round anyway. I can always apply again next year (and I can keep applying every year, if I want, until I get it), but I have to say, it would be nice to get it first time out of the gate. If I can get associate now, and then can get full professor as soon as I'm eligible for that, I can make full before I'm 60. That would be wunderbar--for the status; for the fact that at full, one doesn't have to keep pushing to produce scholarship, do committee work, go to "professional development" functions and so on; and, quite honestly, for the money. At my level, we get paid pretty much bubkes. At full, salaries allow for a nice living, thank you very much. Hope springs eternal.

Anyway, in the discussion with P&B, a few points got clarified, and the binder is now back in my hands for me to finish up. I know that the time will fly by at supersonic speeds, but I do have a little time, so I can get some other things crossed off my list of tasks to attend to before I have to go back to the promo thingy. One or two tasks I need to do before I forget (and before I put someone else in a time crunch because I've not been on the ball), but generally, the application can wait a bit while I turn my attention elsewhere.

Like to the rest of those papers for the T/Th classes. I'm going to try very hard to do NOTHING ELSE when I come in tomorrow morning: just start grading and keep on (with time out for my classes) until I'm done. My time keeps getting sucked away by other things. This morning, for instance, I got sucked into reviewing the promotion applications for the two colleagues I'm mentoring; took the whole morning, essentially, leaving just enough time for me to snarf down my lunch, make sure I had what I needed for class, and stride purposefully off to be observed. I'm glad to have it done (crossed something off the list--hooray!!), but there those papers sit, taunting me....

Paul keeps reminding me of "the rule of three": give them three things to work on--and only three. And stop marking so damned much. I'm compulsive about marking. That red pen in my hand exerts a frightening influence on me, and I find myself writing treatises in the margins of the papers--scaring the shit out of the students and probably giving them a hell of a lot more information than they can process anyway. Gotta stop--but it's like having some bizarre form of OCD. Sometimes I make myself put the pen down and read with no writing implement of any kind in my hand. Helps a little--but doesn't last very long. Gack. Does anyone know where I can purchase a little self-control over this?

And perhaps a little self-control over the time I spend blogging? Though it truly is a great release--and a wonderful reframing device. But the clock says it's 8:28, which is late enough--and my body still thinks it's 9:28--and the cats don't know what time it is except dinner time. They're at home, tapping their little wrist-watches, saying to each other, "She should have been home by now. Where is she? Doesn't she know we can't open cat-food cans? We don't have thumbs!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Can't do it.

About an hour ago I realized I will not be able to get those papers back to my T/Th classes tomorrow. I feel sick about it, but I just cannot do it. In a minute here I'll get back to them, but I'm already trying to figure out what to do with the assignment that hinges on these returned papers when I don't actually return the papers. And I'm trying to figure out when it makes sense to look at the promotion folders for the two colleagues I'm supposed to be mentoring, before tomorrow's P&B. I won't get to anyone else, but I really do feel I need to do at least those two. I wonder what my blood pressure is right about now?

It was pretty painful in 229 today. The students were not merely devastated with the grades on their papers; many were angry. The emotion in the room was palpable--and very uncomfortable. In the past I'd have told them that these grades are a genuine appraisal of their ability to do college level work, and the problem is that no one has ever held them to that standard before. And I do believe that's true. But this time I was painfully aware that they were feeling shock, and shame, and despair. One student suggested that, since they've been writing papers since they were freshmen and getting better grades than I gave, the problem (of course) is my expectations and my assignment. Bearing their emotional state in mind, instead of defending the validity of my assignment and telling them that the problem is their lack of preparation, I said, "I'm teaching you something new. This is new, but it builds on what you have learned in previous classes: you can take what you've learned and put it to use in a new kind of assignment. I understand that it will be difficult and confusing at first, but it's my job to prepare you for the next level, and at the next level, you will be required to do this kind of work. What I don't get is why you were so confused, where the miscommunication happened so you didn't understand what you needed to do." She told me that the assignment was confusing, and I said, "So you needed to ask questions. I can't help you if I don't know you're confused, or why you are confused." Not the answer she wanted to hear, but true. She did ask why something was considered plagiarism (response: the lack of quotation marks around someone else's exact words), but other than that, she asked no questions of substance that might have helped her clarify what she could do better next time. (Because, of course, the problem is with me and my expectations. I'm just an insane bitch, obviously, so what would be the point of asking me for help?)

I could not get them to help me understand what went wrong in the previous assignment, but at least I got them to talk to me about their confusions and concerns for the next paper. I have no idea if they are any less confused--I doubt it, somehow. I think they were just too ashamed to try to explain what went wrong, even though I said repeatedly that I had some of the blame because I made assumptions about what they understood. The problem is talking in the abstract: they don't want to reveal their personal mistakes (which I truly understand), but they also need to see how their own papers didn't do what was required.

So I reminded them they can revise. I reminded them they can--and should--meet with me. I told them they can e-mail papers in progress to me and I'll give them feedback (though I won't read/comment on the whole thing). I told them I will do whatever I can to help them. I ditched the research portion of the next assignment. I postponed the paper: even though we have no class on Wednesday (Veteran's Day), I said they can bring their papers to me on Thursday next week: three extra days to work on 'em. We're going to have a tough, bifurcated day on Monday, as we'll have to finish up talking about the poetry and begin the novel--which will really throw them: if they thought what we've done so far is hard, wait until they start to grapple with Silko's Ceremony. Most of the students who last out the semester will eventually get it--and usually they end up liking it--but I freely admit, it's very confusing at first. I don't want them to be so miserable, but I won't compromise my standards: they do have to do college level work, no matter how hard and scary and shaming it is for them to try.

But I've felt sick to my stomach all day--since last night actually (some personal stuff mixed in there, too, which doesn't help). The 101 class went a little better: God I hope it goes well for my observation tomorrow. Going over the study questions I composed at least helped reveal what they misunderstood about the reading, so I could clear some of that up. As for the rest of their comprehension (or, more to the point, lack thereof)... fortunately, they don't have to use the Pollan essay for their next papers if they feel they understand the other essays better.

I'm just in a bad place today, emotionally. Not conducive to doing one's best work. But back I go to try to crank through a few more papers before my brains completely shut down for the night.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The tightrope

I had completely forgotten that today was change the clocks day until my sister reminded me about an hour ago. My god, what a relief! It means I can still take a little more wind-down time and yet get to bed earlier than I anticipated. It's another "up at 5" week for me--at least for a few days. Grading revisions is a lot easier (usually) than grading the first ones, as I don't have to explain as much (usually), but it still takes time--and I still have 36 papers to go by Tuesday. Even at four an hour (a hugely accelerated pace for me, and not always possible), that means finding an additional 9 hours of work time in the next 36... Meanwhile, my patience and Zen-like calm are fraying rapidly, particularly in the face of the way some students chose to fulfill one of the assignments. I had them write a report on my comments on their papers (specifically not calling it a response. though that's still what I got from a lot of them). The idea was for them to show me 1) that they understood what I was telling them they needed to do and 2) that they understood what to do to fix the problem. I feel compelled to quote two of the responses verbatim:

Student 1 [my comments in brackets]: "The comments that I have received back on my paper were helpful. [And yet she followed none of them.] I thought that you were trying to make me understand that was [sic] no point to my paper. Well there was, [says you] but just not a clear one. I was unable to fix that part of the essay because of lack of time, considering my new job has completely taken over my life. Anytime I am not attending school, I work, therefore I have lacked in school work and my grades ave [sic] slipped. [OK, so we see where your priorities are.] Anyways, I had plagerised and I fixed it. My grammatical errors were small but they were also there. I fixed it. But the main point of the one on one conference was to get a better understanding of how I could make my paper better. To be totally honest, it probably would of [sic] made more sense if I liked and was in [sic] the topic given. Being that the essays were a little boring, it made me not take the paper serious and just write whatever just to get it over with. [And boy do teachers love hearing that.] I am not happy with the way I went about writing this paper. And since this analysis part was missing, I probably failed it anyways. But here I am writing it because I would rather get a C rather than an F. [Again, something teachers love to hear.] I promise to work ten times harder on my next paper, considering how serious papers are taken in college. Sorry about the inconvenience." Inconvenience??

Student 2 [again, my comments in brackets]: I understand what you mean by looking deeper into the essays, but I have a lot of trouble doing it. I'm more of a literal person. [Apparently she doesn't understand that paying attention to details and specifics is "literal."] I added the "physical importance of nature" paragraph because I feel that it was important to prove my point. Nature provides the essentials for life on a deeper level, but the physical level is there too. [And yet her point was supposed to be to explain what the authors of the readings are saying, and neither of them talks about the importance of nature to our physical survival. But in her estimation, because she wanted to say it, it's worth saying, and I'm just too stupid to see its validity to her argument.] I corrected the 'misread' and 'not necessarily true' portions." She corrected them partially, perhaps, but nothing else. She changed about 10 words total, across five pages of "revision."

I grant you, these two students are the exception, but after the rush of anger I initially felt (you truculent, arrogant, ignorant little snots), I thought, "OK, let 'em go. If they don't care about learning anything or don't believe I know what I'm talking about, they have three choices: they can drop, they can do what I ask, or they can continue not to do what I ask and get the grades that come with that choice. Their decision; no skin off my nose."

Still, I am waiting for student 2 to turn up in my office to complain about the reduced grade on her "revision" (reduced because, well, the assignment was to revise, and she didn't; she's actually lucky I didn't flunk it).

Most of the students' revisions consisted of a few changes that don't go very deep, but they're very new at this, so I'm not surprised or unhappy. Conversely, I am delighted when I run across the papers that are genuine revisions, with actual, real live rethinking and reworking going on--and usually a better result. I know they'll be frustrated that their grades don't suddenly rise to A's (and some don't rise at all--though at least they don't go down), but a few made significant enough changes to raise their grades quite a bit.

Doing this, however, I always think "Damn, I need to give lower marks on those first versions so I have somewhere to go with the second ones." I also tend to mark a little high with the first batch of papers (though I'm sure the students would be shocked to hear me say so): I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because, if I were to give them honest appraisals, I fear they'd be so discouraged that more of them would disappear and sooner. I truly do not want to chase them away or make them feel despondent. It's this tightrope walk, always, between providing encouragement and telling the truth about where they are. Seriously, I wish I could teach and never, ever have to assign a grade. Just providing an evaluation would be hard enough, as even then I'd have to say to a lot of them, "This is not good enough for this level. You are not where you need to be to succeed." I'd much rather build from wherever they are and not have to measure them against any external standard. This is why I used to love tutoring in the Writing Center: I didn't have to measure, I only had to help. And that part, I love.

Here's hoping I can hang on to my patience and not get insanely crabby while I crank through those 36 remaining papers....