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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

End of semester--finally

I just got back from the post office, sending my paper rosters to the office and--in a last-minute fit of "just in case" worry--all the papers, grade sheets, etc., to myself at home. At least I don't have to lug them, and I will have them in case a student complains about a grade (which may happen). I'm a bit annoyed, as I sent the rosters Express Mail, expecting they'd be received tomorrow, only to find out that in order to get mail out of this bitty town, it has to be over the Post Office counter before 1 p.m.--and I got there at 3. That means the rosters won't arrive at the department office until the 31st, when the office is probably closed entirely, certainly will close early. Which means I might as well have carried the rosters home with me: they'd have been in the office the same time, would have cost me nothing, and I wouldn't have to worry about the package going astray. Argh and likewise murmph.

I really thought I'd be done and have grades recorded by the 27th, too, so it's all the more annoying that my rosters will arrive so late. I expect some students have been biting their nails, checking Banner daily, hoping to find out whether they passed. I just e-mailed one student from RB: on the last day of class he was in a panic about whether he'd pass the class, and I really couldn't tell for sure without seeing his final paper. He'd bombed on his second essay--both in the first version and in revision--so he was very upset (tears in his eyes, poor love) and deeply worried and insecure. But he did great on his final paper: got a B, which led to a C for the course overall. I wanted to reassure him right away about that: I want him to go into ENG102 feeling good about his work, not shattered.

In terms of plagiarism, it was a pretty good semester: there were only two papers I suspected. However, I didn't want to take the time to try to Google phrases to turn up possible sources--and one of them I suspect wasn't that kind of plagiarism anyway: that was Mr. No Thesis, who argued with me because his sister told him he did have a thesis, so I have a strong feeling his sister wrote the bulk of the paper, maybe even the whole thing. Because of my need to just whip through the grading--and because the Plagiarism Detector software I have is on my home computer--I decided that I'd take the risk of using the "I've been teaching long enough that it's plagiarism if I say it is" defense. If either student complains about the final grade for the course--and, coming to understand that he failed the class because he failed the final paper, complains about that--I will run the papers through Plagiarism Detector, just to cover my bases as well as I can. But I have a feeling neither will complain: they weren't doing very well anyway. I feel bad for No Thesis, as I know his family may tell him that he's blown his last chance at college, but on the other hand, I can't pass him if he genuinely does not deserve it. And he doesn't. Sad, but there it is.

On a lighter note, several students showed actual improvement on their final papers. Some clearly demonstrated that they didn't learn a damned thing about citing sources (despite a million lessons on how--and why--to do it), and I confess I was not entirely objective in deciding when to hammer the paper grade for that and when to give the kid a break. Sometimes it's helpful to have a justifiable reason to lower a grade that has been inflated because of their final group projects. I need to talk to Paul about that: I know he sometimes allocates X points to the group and tells them to decide how to divide them up (they can all get the same number, or some can get more or less, depending on how the group feels about the individual's contribution). In the past I've had students write an evaluation of the group dynamics--who did most work, whether the grade should be equally weighted--and have allocated individual grades for the group stuff on that basis. I need to go back to something along those lines in the future, as I know damned well that some students passed--and one passed with a much higher grade than she deserved--largely because of the group grades. Clearly this needs some rethinking. I don't have to worry about it for next semester, however: Paul has students in his 102 and lit classes do presentations, but I don't think it's as important, and doing so would feel forced--and the assignment pretty much bullshit, given the way I teach the course. Paul has it worked into the fabric of his assignments, but I'd be doing it just to do it, which seems pointless. So, never mind for now.

One more "I need to rethink" bit: I don't know what happened in what passes for my brains when I put together the course requirements and weighted assignments in terms of final grades, but the weighting made zero sense. I think I was trying to make miscellaneous homework count for more in 101 (so students have a reason to put in the effort), and was trying to make the final paper in 229 less monstrous, but the way I did both was just stupid. Lesson learned.

Thinking ahead to spring semester, I am very worried about my Nature in Lit class: still only 3 students have registered, and if I don't get the numbers up soon, it won't run. Once I'm back, I'll have to run off flyers and post them around campus as well as checking to see if there will be in-person advisement sessions I can haunt to dredge up bodies to fill seats. I've blogged on this topic before, I know, but it's a worry. If the course doesn't run, I'll probably end up with a fourth section of comp--maybe even a 101 (and spring 101s are usually awful). If that happens, the paper grading alone will damned near kill me--not to mention the deep disappointment I'll feel at not getting to teach my favorite course. Still, I have some time to get the numbers up--and I need to remind myself that I was worried about 229 this summer, yet it filled to capacity pretty much in the last week of registration, so the worry may not be needed.

But for now, I can legitimately not think about school, classes, anything having to do with my profession, until Jan. 4. I will think about it all, of course (sometimes I fear I have become incredibly boring, having essentially only four topics of conversation, the dominant one being teaching), but it's nice that I don't have to.

So I will go sweep the light dusting of snow off Mom's driveway and front walk, then snuggle up with my current "just for fun" read until Mom gets back from her errands and my sister, Lia, and her youngest son turn up for a family dinner. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

Monday, December 21, 2009


The silence on the blog front for the last few days is an indication of collapse--and now I'm in a mad panic. (Typical: I don't seem to know what "middle ground" means.) I'd love to natter for a while about final classes, final presentations, final papers (which are ungraded as yet, however, so I'm not sure what I'd say about those)--but all I can think about is the 50 Brazilian things I have to do before I fly off tomorrow... and I'm already at the office later than I intended. So I'll sling my incredibly heavy book bag over my shoulder, knowing that the reams of paper inside it will soon be in Mom's recycle bin, having been read and the grade recorded. I'm sure I'll blog some over the break--teaching is always on my mind--but for now, Merry Christmas (or whatever holiday suits you) to all and to all a good night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


My stamina is diminishing rapidly. I'm slogging through the revisions (and a few teeny bits of homework) for RB; I have seven more to do (only seven--seven too many), and I'm trying to persuade myself that I should do as many as I can bear tonight, so tomorrow I can turn my attention to final grading, not backlog. The current frustration is with the students who did not cite sources even when they were told in no uncertain terms that, without the sources, they were guilty of plagiarism. It's just inattention leading to "accidental" plagiarism--I know they don't intend to cheat--but accidents can be deadly. If we had more time in the semester, I'd give them all zeroes and make them revise again to show me they know what to do. As is, they need to take some kind of grade hit, but what? I was talking to Paul about this earlier: I think I'll have to take a full letter grade off the first version mark--but I'm also writing notes to them saying they must see me: they will have zeroes until they do. On the one hand, I'd like to turn this into a teaching moment (especially because a few of them are good students who should be able to get this)--but I'm also frustrated and tired of trying to help. Argh.

About the students in 229: one of them apparently disappeared entirely. She wasn't in class on Monday or today--and I'm disappointed, as she had been in one of my classes several semesters ago and withdrew relatively early. It's sad that she made it this far, only to bail again. The student with seven absences didn't seem angry; I did offer him three choices, not two, tossing an incomplete into the mix at the last moment--but he chose to withdraw, even though it will probably mean he can't play whichever sport it is he wants to play. He said his GPA was more important--and I think he realized he wouldn't get a decent grade in any event, so the W will hurt him less in the long run.

The student who thinks he can write the paper without reading the book swears he is reading it (I don't have evidence of that yet--and if he is reading, he isn't understanding, so it's rather a moot point). He also argued with me about whether he had a thesis, saying that his sister/cousin/whoever is an adjunct at Queens College and told him he does have a thesis. I said no, what you have is a statement of fact. So what? He got very heated about it, but as I poked him with questions, he at last came up with something that would make a thesis. And he promptly lost the idea. I told him to write it down, and we went over it again; then he tried to restate it to me--and lost it again. I went over it with him a few more times and told him to type it up and think it through a little more fully. He just e-mailed it to me--and he's lost it again.

But he is at least in the neighborhood of the ballpark, so I'll approve the proposal, mostly because he's so desperate to finish the class. When I walked in to class, I asked him if he'd gotten my e-mail about his proposal. He said, very defensively, "Yes, and I know what you're going to ask me next and the answer is no." Since I was going to ask him whether he understood my comments and thought he could revise the thesis, I was rather surprised, so I said, "What am I going to ask you?" He said, "You're going to ask me to withdraw, and I won't. I'm not going to do it." Turns out, his family has told him that if he doesn't pass this semester he can't continue to go to college. I hate to say it, but his family is probably right: I'm not sure his interests are best served by his attempts at a college education. He might do much better finding another avenue to making a decent living. But he is (as my father would have said), very "ego involved" in being a college student, so I'll let him finish the course and will give him a mercy D. It won't transfer, but it will let him graduate from Nassau--and maybe let him salvage a little pride and keep his family supportive of his attempts.

While I was struggling with that poor kid over his thesis, James (super student extraordinaire) was sitting there waiting to talk to me about his paper for 101. When No Thesis left, James asked if he has Asperger's syndrome. I said no, that wasn't the problem (he doesn't have the social problems that are the hallmarks of anything in the autism spectrum), but that probably No Thesis has some kind of learning disability. He may, but in all honesty, I think the disability is simply that he isn't very smart. And I'm being tactful and politic at that. James and I talked about it a bit: James wants to be a teacher, so he's very interested in observing the teacher-student dynamics and seeing how I handle difficult cases like this. I didn't say so to James, but the awful truth is, some people just are not smart. It's not a matter of functioning differently (which is what I believe defines a learning disability); it's a matter of not being able to function at all. No Thesis is by no means the worst case I've seen, but a proportion of students here (everywhere, I suspect) simply do not have sufficient intelligence to make it in academia. That doesn't make them less valuable as human beings, but it does make them dead weight in a classroom. Sad (and decidedly un-PC of me to say so), but true.

But in writing that paragraph, I found I kept shying away from saying that they are stupid, or dumb. Those are such hurtful words--especially in my profession--but in my deepest heart of hearts, those are the words I mean. So as un-PC as I was, I was still more PC than I really feel. Poor, sad things.

In any event, off I go to chip away at a few more of the RB revisions. I'd give a lot right now for a miracle that would make them disappear. ("I'm terribly sorry that I can't grade or return your revisions: they were sucked up into an alien spacecraft....")

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Another quickie

I feel like I'm in some ridiculous gauntlet in which students hurl papers and assignments and sources and questions at me--or perhaps like Alice when the Queen of Hearts et al. turn into cards and fly around her head. It took me an hour just to sort out what I have: yet-to-be-marked homework, yet-to-be-marked revisions, end-of-semester self-evaluations, sources for final projects, peer responses to final projects, my notes on final projects (with six more to go)--and a few panic, last-minute proposals for 229. One I could approve; one is damned close (and I think he'll be able to respond to my comments and get me something approvable tomorrow). One student missed class on Monday and hasn't contacted me. One student missed class, dropped off something completely inadequate--but is out of class anyway; I just need to tell him so (he's over the limit in terms of absences). And one student apparently thinks he can write the paper based on his extremely uncertain understanding of class discussion, without having read the novel, never mind having understood it.

I do not understand this kind of student. In class he'll freely confess to being bewildered, but he steadfastly refuses to come to me for help. (Is he afraid I'll bite? Do I have bad breath? What??) He apparently won't get help anywhere else, either (for instance, from the Writing Center). He doesn't hesitate to ask me to reconfigure the assignment so he doesn't have to do the required work, but he won't do what he needs to so he can do the work I require. (Prolix sentence, but you get the drift.) He will not pass. I know he won't, and I suspect he knows he won't--but he won't withdraw either.

I used to knock myself out trying to rescue kids like that. Not any more. I will make the offer of help--I've made it repeatedly, in fact--but if he isn't motivated (or brave) enough to take me up on it, then I wash my hands. I'd rather deal with the student who didn't show up to class (for the 7th time), left that inadequate proposal in my mailbox, and hasn't bothered to check to see if it was approved. If he turns up tomorrow (doubtful, but one never knows), I'll simply lead him back outside, explain that his only options are withdraw or fail, and let him be pissed off until he realizes that it won't get him anywhere. At least with him the issue is clear. The one who's still floundering around as if he wants to make it--showing up, turning in unmitigated bilge but at least turning in something--is harder to eliminate.

Heavy sigh.

I'm still doing the rotation of putting out fires, trying to figure out which assignments need my attention first. Meanwhile, all committee work is at a stand-still. If it bursts into flames (metaphorically speaking), someone else will have to find the fire extinguisher. I'll deal with committee stuff when I'm back in January. For now, I want--and need--to have as much grading done as possible before I get on that plane on Tuesday, so I have a fighting chance of getting my final grades turned in before the paper-pushers start tsking at me. I had a little panic attack earlier, worrying that my final grade sheets might not be available before I leave--and then I remembered that we don't get those on paper anymore: that's all on the online system (Banner: a somewhat user-hostile industry standard program for keeping administrative records, registering students, and so on). So I have only one stupid paper record to bother with, not two--and I already have that one.

Despite the problems with Banner, one of its advantages is I can check who is registered in my classes any time I like. I'm flattered that a number of 101 students--generally among the better ones--have chosen me for 102 as well. I'm a little worried about low enrollment in 281 (Nature in Lit), but it's early days yet. If it's still looking dicey in January, I'll see if there is any kind of advisement going on that I might haunt with flyers, metaphorically body snatching, working to fill seats. Sometimes I've gotten terrific students that way--but with Banner handling registration, very few students actually go for advisement any more (and those who do are often not exactly top drawer). Makes student rustling harder.

In any event, right now my eyes are burning, but I am still going to go to swing class. I'll have to miss the next two weeks, so I want to get as much into my muscle memory as I can before I spend my vacation forgetting it all. And I have just enough time to look at my calendar, think about tomorrow, and strategize a little before I go.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nothing much

I graded a few papers on the train on my way into the City last evening, heading for what may be the world's greatest party (an annual event hosted by the husband of one of my friends from the old days at the Met). The first paper, I automatically started marking stuff--not much, but I caught myself and sternly told myself to stop. I will allow myself a "better" in the margin (when that happens) or something equally brief and to the point, but that's it. However, I find that not marking makes it harder for me to remember what I thought as I read, so I end up having to read once, then skim again at least one more time, sometimes several, in order to mark the rubric sheet and remember why I'm thinking "C" or whatever. (I also find I check the grade I gave on the first version--and sometimes wish I'd given that one a lower mark so I could give some credit for the attempt at revising while still reflecting the actual quality of the paper.) Even with the re-skimming, however, the process is still infinitely faster than my usual (even my usual for revisions), so I'll stick to my guns about it. Especially because I didn't touch any papers today, except to load them back in the tote bag to return to campus with me tomorrow. Instead I wanted to get my feet clear--and since I was in the neighborhood of the mall anyway, tried to get some Christmas shopping out of the way so I wouldn't be worrying about that--and ended up walking around in a daze. (Malls. shudder.) I haven't quite recovered. So early to bed and early to rise for me. In fact, I blissfully forgot until just this minute that I'll be getting proposals from the 229 students tomorrow; that's going to gobble up time I hadn't planned for when I blew off grading today. So I'll see how quickly I can churn through those and then get back to the 101 revisions before the 101 final papers come in. Paper jam! Like when the photocopy machine has chewed up several sheets of paper and is hopelessly out of order....

OK, so REALLY early to bed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lost day

A migraine took over yesterday: I managed to make it to the assessment meeting--late, but I was there (bearing enough coffee for all committee members to drink themselves into jibbering, hyper-caffeinated wrecks)--but I quickly realized that staying long enough simply to collect papers, give two handouts, and do a quick explanation of what's coming up was more than I could handle. I tried to pull some stuff together in the office before heading home and couldn't even do that. I managed to write a note for the students about where to leave their papers and instructing them to pick up the handouts, but I had to ask Paul to read it to make sure it made sense. (Of course, I have evidence that a number of the students didn't bother to read all of it: I specifically said not to leave papers on my office door, but when I came in today, of course there were about 8 papers sitting there, instead of in my box in the mail room. So it's an open question how many of them picked up the handouts and will be ready with the assignment on Tuesday.) In any event, I left the note and handouts for each class, went home, and spent the rest of the day and well into the night trying to get the railroad spike out of my right temple. No dance, obviously: there are some things that cannot be cured so easily.

The migraine is still lurking today, but it's infinitely better, so I've been chipping away at little niggly bits that need tending to. I ordered the students' books for next semester--and was shocked to find that a new copy of the required style guide for 102 is $90. Used, it's $67.50. And it's just a plastic-spiral-bound paperback. The textbook publishers have a hell of a racket going on, is all I can say. They know they've got a completely captive audience, so, like the airlines, they can pretty much charge whatever the hell they want. I agree with Paul that students should expect to buy books and to make a serious investment in them, but still. It's one thing to spend $150 (or more) for a hardcover complete works of Shakespeare; it's quite another to spend it for a biology textbook that will be replaced by a new edition the next year. And it's yet another to spend $90 for a book that surely cannot cost the publisher much to print and distribute--not at the volume they're dealing with. I know there are a lot of costs to be covered in any book's price--not just printing and distribution but all the salaries and so on for the human beings involved, the upkeep on the buildings, blah blah--but I also know a gouge when I see one.

Consequently, I'm going to give students time to buy their books from online sellers, from whom they can certainly find them much cheaper. I'm going to encourage them to do that, especially because there will be a new edition coming out in the fall (thanks to the new MLA documentation guidelines), so the bookstore won't buy back the current edition. My only concern is that the kids get the correct book: apparently there are a bunch out there, all listed as the 5th edition, and if students get the wrong one, they won't be able to do the assignments. It's maddening--to me and even more to the students.


Since I'm here in the office, I also pulled together the print orders for the photocopied readers I use in 102 and 281. It's always dicey trying to figure out how many to order for 281: if the class fills, I won't have enough. If the class has just enough students to run (which often happens), I'll have too many--and the reader is pretty huge, so I want to try to guesstimate as closely as possible. If I have too many, I'll just hang onto them until next time I teach the class (that's what I did in the spring: I still have 4 left from that run), but I'd rather not have them hanging around.

And even though I've been saying all along that once we hit this part of the semester, it would zoom past, it's still astonishing to me how rapidly we went from "will this never end?" to "yikes, I only have 2 more classes with these students--and there's so much I meant to do!" I'm not entirely happy that I have all the second versions of papers to crank through now and will hand them back just in time to get final papers Thursday and Monday: that's a paper jam of epic proportions, even without marking them. Blech.

I'm already thinking about what I'll have to lug to Montana with me to finish up the grading. Stupidly, there is still a paper form we have to fill out for each class: most of our grade and attendance reporting is electronic, finally, but for some reason they're still holding on to this idiotic paper form that we have to fill out so it can be stored in some way (I think on microfilm; talk about antiquated). I'll express mail those back to the main office. Last year, when I did that, a numbskull student aide saw my name on the return part of the label and, instead of giving the package to the departmental secretary to whom it was addressed, put it in my mailbox, where it sat until I came to campus two weeks after the forms were due. I had to walk them over to the appropriate functionary and grovel about their being late while he scolded me for mailing them (they might have gotten lost in the mail! and then the world would come to an end!!). This year, I'm going to tell the department secretaries to keep an eye open for a package from me--and to watch the students aides closely for similarly moronic mail-sorting.

But now I'm going to trudge through the arctic wind (it really is cold out) across campus to drop off my copy orders at the print shop, then trudge back to put myself and the tote-bag filled with student stuff into the car and head home. Once home I'll probably noodle around with my personal grade forms, which I talked about in an earlier post: it will make me feel like I'm being productive without requiring much in the way of brain. And I'll be back here tomorrow morning for placement reading. And so it goes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Petite break

I've been churning through the homework backlog and am seeing definitive signs of progress--but I also just got revisions of the second essay for my M/W 101s today; I'll get the two T/TH batches tomorrow, so I'll again be buried. However, I told the students I won't mark anything on the revisions: I'll just read and provide a grade. I mean it, too. I'm not going to even have my pen in my hand (or the compulsion to mark will become irresistible).

I'm debating whether to use the rubric sheets I have, so the students see a brief rationale for the grade. The rubric sheets are based on a SUNY explanation of what is considered appropriate at this level for papers in general and for revisions: the SUNY panel that put together the parameters divided the evaluation possibilities into four categories: exceeding expectations, meeting them, approaching them, and not meeting them. I in turn pulled out 11 specific areas to evaluate--from theses to sentence-level stuff--and put a check line for "exceeding," "meeting," etc. next to each area. I can then just go through and, for each area, simply check the appropriate line. It helps me keep in mind why I'm thinking of the grade I'm inclined to assign. It also gives the students something concrete to consider, and they like that. (I also think concreteness is pedagogically useful: it isn't merely comforting, because they like things to be codified; it's also a quick visual expression of where their trouble spots are or where they are doing well.) I probably will use the rubric sheets--I just have to be very careful not to write anything in the "comments" section of the form. I don't have the time. Or the energy. Or the patience. Or compassion. Not at this end of the semester (and my rope).

I am not very happy with myself about the last few weeks of my T/Th classes. I haven't found time to give them some of the lessons on documentation that the Monday 101 got, and in general I feel they've gotten short shrift at the end of the term. Of course, they don't know what they didn't get, so they can't feel ripped off (if in fact they would: they might actually feel relieved that I didn't try to shove one more thing into their heads). And tomorrow I'm going to keep them for about five minutes and then turn them loose in their groups; I might be inclined to keep them longer, but the best bunch from RB need time in daylight to work on part of their presentation, and I want to be sure to give them as much time as I can.

In terms of their presentations, I keep emphasizing "have a back up plan," but I'm not sure they understand the concept--and they may not until the first time they are ready to do a presentation and find themselves missing a crucial component (the video won't play; a group member is absent and has the only copy of the script...). And I feel a little unhappy with myself that I didn't allow myself time to think over their presentation grades and give them feedback. (I can for MB, as I'll see them one more class after their presentations are finished, but I can't for the T/TH classes.) Kinda didn't think that part through all the way. Ah well.

And somehow my brain just switched over to worry about next semester, and I realized that for weeks now I've been saying to myself "I have to pull together the materials for the photocopied readers for next semester's classes and send them over to the print shop"--and I still haven't done it. I seriously need to, if not tomorrow then early next week. As is, the print shop may get snooty about it and say I didn't give them enough time. Which is horseshit, of course, as it takes them about two minutes to run the copies plus another ten to bind them--and I don't need the readers until the third week in January. But they usually say they require two months lead time. Still, worst case scenario? I don't have the readers for the first week of class, and I'll make copies of the first assignments on my own. Still, it is something I must take care of.

So is going to Human Resources to check the personnel files for the two colleagues I am mentoring who are going up for promotion. I also have to check my own file, just to be sure everything is in there that should be (and nothing that shouldn't).

But if I start thinking like that, I'll drive myself screaming around the bend. Right now, getting that backlog of homework out of my hair and back in the students' hands is the fire I need to stamp out. No dance tonight, but dinner with Paul after his last class: that will keep me here in the office and at least somewhat productive until about 8, which is fine. And then I'll be back here at 8:30 a.m. for a freaking assessment committee meeting. Gack, ick, ptewy. But I'll bring coffee for everyone (myself included) in an attempt to make the event seem more festive. If I were truly altruistic, I'd bring donuts too, but since I can't eat them, damned if I'll sit there and watch other people enjoy munchies I bought but can't consume. I do get cranky about having to get up at what is for me an unholy early hour in order to get here on time (with or without stopping for coffee), but looking always for that silver lining, since I don't have another meeting tomorrow (miracle of miracles), I will be able to sit here from 10 to 1 (or thereabouts), clanking through marking whatever is next in line to be marked. Here's hoping I get through a lot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


A good dance class provides an instant cure for crabbiness. I'm completely content right now. Hooray for equilibrium restored.


I don't know whether I'm crabby because I don't feel well, or if I don't feel well because I'm crabby, or if both are because I'm tired, or if I'm tired because I just want this semester to be over, or what. Murmph murmph murmph, as Pogo would say, expressing general disgruntlement. Classes went OK today (KC won in terms of having the most interesting, productive conversation), but enh, I just can't get into it. I'm sure the poor beleaguered students feel the same way. And we're so close to being done. I will see my T/Th classes a grand total of three more times--ye gods! It's a little frightening to look at it that way: I'm being dragged helter-skelter toward that end-of-semester mad crunch of paper grading and final grade calculating, which will happen while I'm flying to Montana and my first day or so there--yikes yikes yikes! And I am having to fight a desire to cancel classes (what would be the point? I'm barely doing anything with them anyway, so it's not like there's heavy lifting going on).

I'm so all over the place physically, emotionally and psychologically that I am also half tempted to skip dance class--even though I love it and know I'll have a terrific time once I'm there. I just want to (metaphorically) crawl under the sofa and hide out with the dust bunnies (ok, in my house, dust rhinos) until January. Even getting ready to travel seems more effort than I can summon up--and I don't have to do anything extravagant (apart from a little bit of Christmas shopping, which sounds like a byzantine and excruciating form of torture.)

See? Crabby. But since I don't have anything productive to say about pedagogy, classes, student relationships, anything along those lines, I'll take my crabby little self out of here and trust that dancing, followed by (I hope) a largely vegetative state until the morrow, will turn my mood into something less porcupinesque.

A bit of good news: I got all but two of the 229 proposals marked, and the last two are the best and will be a pleasure to finish up tomorrow. In fact, I think I'm going to ask James if I can use his as a model for future classes. I already asked if I could use his first 101 essay (both versions) as a model; I have model final papers for lit classes but little else, and I want to start pulling together more models. I do think it helps the students if they can see what makes a paper good.

But now it's time to slip into those high heels and triplestep triplestep back step, triplestep triplestep back step (East-Coast swing...).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Well, let's see

I started chipping away at the backlog of homework for tomorrow's 101s, but then I got final paper proposals for 229, and the student need them back by Wednesday so they can revise (and they will need to revise), so I've turned my attention to those. And I'm suffering, so needed a break.

First, apparently I didn't stress sufficiently that the proposals are formal, worth 10% of the final grade, and need to be tended to carefully. I did say it was better to turn in something, anything, rather than nothing--and they took me at my word, as I got three that were simply a couple of scribbled ideas on a sheet of loose-leaf paper (or in one instance, a sheet torn out of one of those marble-cover composition books). Two students say, "I don't know what I'm going to write about yet." How am I supposed to evaluate a working thesis from that? Most hadn't done any research--or had neglected to supply a copy of it for me to evaluate (and since students often completely do not understand the sources they find, it's important for me to be able to evaluate those sources). They are, in short, hardly worth my time to even glance at.

The few that did try to produce something formal and more complete generally don't have anything to prove, dammit. "Tayo's mixed race ancestry is important." (To what? Why? So?) "The women in the novel either help or hurt Tayo in his journey." (OK, setting aside the fact that that tries to have it both ways, even if you mean that some help and some hurt, how? And what makes the difference between the ones that help and the ones that don't? And why does that matter to Tayo's journey or the main ideas in the novel?)

Oh argh.

The only consolation to the fact that so many of them are so deficient that they won't take long to "evaluate" (if one can even use that word in this instance). The difficulty is to keep my annoyance in check long enough to say, "Well, you knew you'd have to revise and resubmit, so here's what you need to do."

Shifting gears, about the two plagiarists. I met with one of them today, and she was sufficiently contrite. I asked her why she felt she needed the source she plagiarized from, and she had a good explanation: she even said she had a note for herself to cite it and then forgot. Well, maybe, maybe not, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. I did lecture her, though, about turning to the internet to clarify an issue instead of finding a vetted source (through a database, for instance)--or even coming to see the professor for clarification (ahem). I'll let her revise.

The other student, the more obviously deliberate plagiarist, was waiting outside the class with a withdrawal slip in her hand. I told her I would not allow her to withdraw. She cheated, and she therefore does not get to evade punishment by withdrawing; she needs to take the F. She made zero attempt to explain, apologize, or even acknowledge what she had done. I wonder if she gets it at all. Reminds me of those stories that make us laugh and shudder about students who say, "I didn't plagiarize: my brother put those sources in there." Or "I wasted that $40 I spent for that paper, because I didn't know the person who wrote it plagiarized." I kid you not: true examples. This young woman from 229 may fall into that camp: she may simply not understand what she did wrong. (She probably can't understand The Letter, come to think of it.) She said, "I did my proposal for today but I couldn't get my printer to work." I replied, "I'm not concerned about that. You plagiarized your previous paper. You cheated. If you'd gotten help, maybe you could have succeeded on your own, but because you cheated, you need to accept that you cannot withdraw but must take the F." She looked at me a moment blankly and then said, "OK." She shrugged, folded up the withdrawal slip and walked off.

For all I know, she turned the corner and burst into tears--and indeed, in the past I've often had such a student boomerang: I've thought they were gone only to find them in my office a day or two later, pleading for a different outcome. But my real worry is that she was sanguine about it because she's so used to failing classes that it feels familiar, that she is so beaten down that she believes she will always inevitably fail. Sadly, that may be true. I don't know how much innate intelligence she has, but it's very clear she has not been served well by her education (I use the term loosely). For her to get to this point and be as deficient in both reading and writing skills as she is clearly demonstrates the disservice her former teachers have done for her. Makes me sad, but I don't know what I can do without turning myself into an emotional pretzel over every sad case.

MB was mostly a loss today. I tried to have a general discussion about values, altruism, considering the consequences of life choices, and it fell pretty flat. One student who has not spoken up in class before got involved (very intelligently), and a few times they started to take each other on, without referring to me (which I like, as long as they're civil and don't run roughshod over what someone else is trying to say). But it didn't fly very well. Since it's unlikely I'll have homework ready to return to students in tomorrow's classes, I won't be able to do the works cited thingy I was planning (I'll do it on Thursday), so I may make the same attempt with the KC and RB students to see if it flies any better. I'm afraid it might fly out of control in RB, but at least it will be interesting. We're all getting bored (I know, a word I won't let my students use), so anything to liven things up a bit would be good at this point. We're cooked: we need to just kick some ideas around.

But now I need to kick a few more 229 proposals around. I almost wish I could kick the students around, but not really. I just wish they'd demonstrate that they give a teeny bit of a shit about their work. It would make it easier for me to give a teeny bit of a shit....

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Two days of no work

I have been doing stuff, of course--life maintenance, mostly, and I read placement essays today, but I have spent two whole days not doing anything pertaining to my classes or committee work or my promo folder (apart from going to Staples to get dividers that can be seen beyond the edges of the plastic sleeves enclosing all the stuff in the application). It has felt right to ignore everything for a while--this has been the theme of recent posts (except the ones about plagiarism, of course). I am aware that I will feel better on many levels if I get all that stupid homework marked and back to the students. And I will feel better if I do some busy-work that will ease things at the end of semester. For instance, I put together detailed grade sheets, showing every assignment with a numeric value, and demonstrating the math I use to weight categories as stated by my syllabus. I used to get final papers graded before the last day of each class, fill out those sheets, and on the last day, give the students their grade sheets and marked papers. My logic was, if there were going to be any complaints, I'd know about them right then and could handle them one way or another on the spot, instead of having them trickle in via e-mail over the winter break (which annoys the bejabbers out of me).

My new logic is, A) the vast majority of the students don't give a rat's petite patoot about the marks on their final papers: they just want to know their grades and 2) why should I knock myself out over a detailing of the procedures when those rat patoots are going ungiven. But it does help me quantify the unquantifiable when it comes to figuring final grades. I will fudge grades sometimes--or, as a student wrote in her placement essay today, I'll "fangle" them (I think she meant "finagle")--if the math and my genuine evaluation don't match, but there's only so far I can go with that. (Which is why the extra credit thing I tried this semester is a bad idea that must be either adjusted significantly or deep-sixed.) Usually I enjoy organizational futzing around, but I haven't got it in me to do even that--at least not today.

My emotional state also has not been entirely conducive to looking at student work: I don't want to be unnecessarily harsh--or too distracted to evaluate at all--and at the moment, those are likely to be the options if I try to handle even dopey homework detritus. So, I'm going to lapse into my sea-cucumber impersonation for the evening and re-evaluate my level of preparedness and discipline (self and otherwise) on the morrow.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Since I changed the "comment" parameters, some older comments have aparently been allowed out of limbo: I just went back and found a bunch--and responded to many of them. Saw a comment from someone I don't recognize (Melissa I think?); if that means people other than my colleagues and friends are reading this, I'm thrilled. I'm delighted for this to be a conversation rather than a monologue.


It was a pretty uneventful day. Meeting (blech), class, break, class. The break was actually pretty fun: James came by to talk over his paper ideas for 229 and 101, and we went over the 229 paper he was getting back; he truly wants to learn all the fine points, so it's a pleasure to go over them with him and to see him pick up on them. And his paper ideas for the two classes are great; I'm actually looking forward to reading them. Imagine that.

The classes were spent in part going over basic sentence-level stuff (particularly the specific rules for comma use), then the students worked in their groups. I'm wondering why, when I reworked the assignment schedule, I decided to require the reading they're doing for next week--and put a much more interesting (if difficult) reading in the "extra credit" category. I must have had a reason, but damned if I can remember now what the hell it was. In any event, they are mostly concerned about their presentations, and rightly, so I don't feel like I'm giving them short shrift to back off and just let them do their thing--and if we finish up with a simpler and less thought-provoking essay.

About the extra credit idea, which I was test-driving this semester, I don't think I'll do it again. If I do, I'll have to specify that the total can only raise the final grade by X amount: one student has been consistently turning in extra credit, but her papers suck, and I don't want her to get a grade she genuinely doesn't deserve for a writing class. I don't much like the idea of extra credit anyway: I just did it because there are so many essays I want them to read and we have time for so few, I hoped it would be a way to get them to read a few more. But most of them aren't doing it, or if they are, they're not understanding what they read, so it's pretty much wasted effort on everyone's part.

I was talking with colleague/friend Duane today about the struggle to get students to understand how critical material works, that it leads us to our own ideas: he used the word "distill," which I like very much to describe the process. We read something, and from it we distill an idea, which we then connect to a point in our analysis (untying) of the primary material. When he shows them how it works, using his own ideas, they can see it, but they still can't do it, and I realized (duh!) that they can't distill because they're still struggling so hard just to understand. We're talking how to synthesize, but that requires incorporation first, and that's where they fall down.

Talking to him, though, I further developed my cooking analogy. Students were worried that if they all had the same sources in their groups, they'd all end up writing the same paper. I explained that if I gave each of them the same ingredients--eggs, flour, milk, sugar, whatever--and told them to go off and make something from them without specifying what they should make, they'd all come up with something different. So, here's the new analogy: the readings are the ingredients, critical material is one of the tools used to assemble them, and the paper is the recipe you create. I can (and no doubt will) elaborate on that, but I think it sort of works. It probably won't make a damned bit of difference to their papers, but it may help them understand conceptually what they're supposed to be doing.

I just had an idea: at one of the seminars I went to a while back, a philosophy professor from Stony Brook gave a whole bunch of demonstrations about how to make ideas more concrete and visual, and his advice was, whenever possible, to turn something into a visual (not words, but an image). We are, after all, a visual species. So, what if I were to bring in a grocery bag filled with ingredients, as in the analogy above. The bag filled with stuff is the primary material. You need to take all the ingredients out of the bag and figure out how they work together and in what amounts. That's analysis. The cooking tools are your critical sources and your own intellect. You need to explain how to put them all together in some detail: that's the recipe/paper. Hmmmmm. Let me think about that. Might be worth a test-drive in my 102 classes next semester.

And speaking of which, I really do need to order my books and get the readers printed up. I haven't checked to see if anyone is signing up for Nature in Lit: I should do that to see if I need to plaster flyers all over creation.

And now I need to shut up and go to bed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Another one, dammit

Yet another plagiarist in 229. Hell and hell and damnation. This one is a good student, too; she's not brilliant, but she's earnest and works hard. (She also says she's an English major; it frightens me how often students who say they are English majors are not very good at either reading or writing--it rather makes me wonder why they want to major in the subject. Actually, we don't have majors of that sort at NCC, so she's expressing an intention for her education at another institution, but I worry about her choice.) In any event, she got The Letter--and she couldn't stand to wait the stipulated 24 hours before contacting me: she e-mailed me right away to say she wants to cry, feels ashamed, never ever ever meant to plagiarize. And honestly, I believe her: in this instance, I do think she just messed up and wasn't careful enough to ensure she'd cited everything she used. I've asked her to meet with me to discuss the problem; the shock she's already been through is probably enough of a learning experience, so I'll let her revise the paper to show me she knows how to do it right. But I want to talk to her face to face first.

The plagiarist I found last night seems more obviously deliberate in her intention to cheat--probably out of panic: I looked back at previous grades and this young woman got a 48 on her first paper (out of 100), and that was probably generous. An example of her typical sentence structures: "This gives the understanding of the awareness of breathe in which is a connection when we speak, we let in breathe to let spirit in." (Huh??) This is why I'm annoyed with myself for taking so long to pick up on the plagiarism. I grant you, the sources she stole from are not wildly erudite, but still. I'm very much on the fence about whether to let her revise. My inclination is not to; a lot will depend on how she responds when she gets her paper back. (Of course she missed class today, so her paper is sitting on the office door, waiting for her to pick it up.)

On a tangential topic, I realize that at this stage in the semester, I tend to let a lot of my rules slip--at least for the students who are genuinely making an effort. I'll bend over backward to give students chances to pull out some kind of success--even though I know that often the ones I give the most rope to end up hanging themselves (and pissing me off, the little ingrates; I hate when I give them chance after chance and they abuse my generosity). But my shattering of my own rules isn't really any sort of altruism; I'm just too tired to put my foot down. I can still do it, if I'm pressed, but most of the time I don't want to fuss. "Yes, sure, OK, whatever--can we just get this over with?"

And more broadly on the topic of students dropping the ball, I'm also dealing with a group in KC in which one group member has screwed everyone else: she said she'd handle a significant portion of their proposal and didn't, so now they're scrambling to do the work she said she'd do. This happens all too often; it's one thing when they don't come through for me but even worse when they don't come through for each other. For that reason, I'm letting a lot of students stay in class who probably should know they're certain to fail: I don't want them to abandon their groups and leave everyone else in the lurch. I have yet to figure out how to time it so I am absolutely sure who is going to fail before I assign the groups, so we don't end up in this bind, but there's always an awkward time when some are teetering on the brink and I don't know for sure which way they'll fall until it's too late. This particular problem--keeping students in a class they're failing just so they don't mess up a group--is merely one more thing for me to try to find a magic bullet to fix. (Awkward sentence but I'm entitled to a few here and there, dammit.)

So I'm crabby and dehydrated (crabby from lack of sleep; dehydrated because the heat is cranked up all over campus so it's Sahara-dry), and despite my earlier determination to get all homework cleared off my desk before the weekend, I steadfastly refuse to do any more work tonight. I'll get done what I can tomorrow before my 11:30 meeting and between classes; the rest I may not even take home with me but may leave to work on here in the office next week. I'm improvising every step of the way.

It's wildly early, in terms of my usual work schedule, but I'm going to stagger off home, have an early dinner and (as Szilvia would say) "deluxe." I hope I'm not forgetting something of vital importance that I need to tend to, but if I am, well, I'll just have another "oh shit" moment. And life will go on, regardless. Funny how that happens.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Another one

Caught deliberate plagiarist number 2 today. Of course, it took a while for the suspicion to grow loud enough to send me to Google--and then once I started looking, I found more and more instances in the paper. It's a measure of how out of it I am that I was so slow picking up on the fact that what I was reading could not possibly be this student's work; I feel a bit of an idiot about that, but at least I did catch it. She'll get the infamous letter (and Sara pointed out the irony of the fact that I have, in essence, plagiarized the plagiarism letter--although I have carte blanche from Paul to steal it, so I think that lets me off the hook at least a little). In any event, getting that all sorted out took most of the paper-grading time I had after class and before dance lesson, dammit; that means I have to get up revoltingly early tomorrow to get the rest of the papers graded for 229--and to get at least some of the homework done for MB. Normally I'd try to get some done in the break between classes, but tomorrow that break will be filled with a placement reading norming session. It is tremendously helpful to have these periodic norming sessions (I almost wish we had them for grading papers), but it's a pain in the patoot that it will eat up that precious break. (I'll also have to bear it in mind when I figure out my lunch for tomorrow... hmmm.)

But back to the plagiarist: I admit I was slow on the uptake this time around, but I realize I do need to repeatedly explain how easy it is for us (generally speaking) to recognize what is or is not student writing--and by this time in the semester, even to recognize whether the writing is likely to come from any particular student. I can't say I'd be able to tell one bad student from another, or one good student from another, but I sure can tell when a bad student suddenly starts writing like a good one, never mind when he/she begins to write like a professional. And I am repeatedly surprised that students don't seem to think we'll notice--or realize that if they can find a source by googling, we can find it too.

But there is a thornier problem which I am also facing in 229: I suspect another student of plagiarizing. He didn't do the cut and paste from the internet thing, but it is clear that if he actually did the writing, he had a hell of a lot of help. I suspect someone else wrote it for him (or at least most of it), but I can't prove it. One of my colleagues (who has been teaching longer than I) is completely content to say to her students "It's plagiarism if I say it is: I don't have to prove it." I don't feel right about that--but I do think I have to have a little talk with this young man. If I accuse him, he'll almost certainly get defensive and deny (which students are all too likely to do even when one catches them with the proverbial red hands), but if I offer a gentle warning, I'm hoping that will be enough to stop him from going any further down that particular path.

That, in turn, gives me a thought: I have been wondering what to do for a freewrite topic for this week's 101s, as there is no assigned reading I can use for inspiration. But if I can find it, there is a wonderful quotation in Dorothy Sayers' (Sayers's?) Lord Peter Wimsey novel Gaudy Night, in which a professor asks what satisfaction can come from claiming credit for work one has not done. Might be interesting to get them musing about that aspect of cheating.

I'll mull it over. But I really do have to fold up my tents for tonight: 5 a.m. is going to arrive far too soon as is, and I still need to wind down...

Two post scripts: 1) The comment function is now working for people other than William (hooray! and thanks for checking, Stacy and Sara), so comment away, dear readers. 2) In the furor over nailing the plagiarist, I came close to bailing on swing class again--but I gave myself permission to go, and had a blast. East Coast swing: loads of fun. I'll have to ask what the difference is from the West Coast variety, but it doesn't matter. I'm moving my dainty feet and enjoying myself utterly. Life isn't just about work, thank God.