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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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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Catching up a little

I wish I'd had time/energy to write on Thursday, while it was fresh in my head. It was another of those days in which I did not have a meeting (bliss), so I did crank through a couple of promo folders for P&B. I still have one to go--and I still have to make myself just dammit GO to personnel to double-check everyone's folder (including mine). I was even in that building yesterday, and it didn't even cross my mind to take advantage of the opportunity and get that done. Clearly this just seems like a snorting pain in the patoot to me, so I keep conveniently "forgetting" to do it.

The 102 class was OK, but as I suspected, the lesson on literary terms didn't go quite as well as it had on Wednesday. In a previous post I said I thought the T/Th class would be the more lively; now I'm not so sure.

But I'm already getting flurries of e-mails from students in all classes, asking for clarification on assignments, meeting times... I hope this is a good sign. At least they feel already they can come to me for guidance, which is nice.

The best part of the teaching week was the Thursday 101 class, which took off in terrific ways. I've mentioned before that I have returned to an essay I haven't taught in a while: in the past, students seemed to utterly miss the point, and I got tired of banging my head against it. But I have since gotten tired of banging my head against the Kingsolver essay "Knowing Our Place," which I've taught the last umpty-ump years, so I figured at least I'd have a different head-mashing experience. I needn't have worried. There were two new students, who clearly couldn't have read it, but of the rest, only one student hadn't done the reading (Miss "I Read People Like Books," naturally). As they worked through the reading journal form, they were coming up with exactly the right questions. They did get a little hung up on whether Lopez is Hispanic (for the record, he isn't, though I should probably find out where that last name came from; possibly from his step-father?)--but they found textual evidence in his essay to support themselves in the conclusion that he is not, and more interesting, they were very aware of the class issues that are important to his piece.

They also got into a terrific discussion about what it takes to be a writer and to feel one has a voice, especially whether one needs to have diverse experiences in order to become a good (or great) writer. They are still trying to believe that, when Lopez advises any aspiring writer to travel, he doesn't mean it literally (he does), but at least they're getting the idea that they may have to explore stuff that would initially be alien and strange in order to "become someone," as Lopez puts it. All of the thinking they've been doing on his essay is going to feed into their diagnostic essay (written in class) on Thursday, as well as their first formal essays. (I still have to come up with that assignment, but I think it's going to require less fussing to revise the topic I've been using than I'd feared.) I won't get their reading journals until Tuesday--and they will have to read Kathleen Norris's "The Beautiful Places" and do a journal on that, too, so I won't be surprised if many of them are unprepared on Tuesday. But I don't think the Norris essay is significantly more sophisticated or difficult than Lopez (I don't; they might), so here's hoping. In any event, I'll know a lot more about how well they really got the essay once I see those journals.

Another nice moment: similar to my experience with the concerned student from 265 (did I write about her? don't remember), a student from 101 came to see me during what will be my office hour (we hadn't officially started holding them yet, so I kinda forgot that it would be). She was very nervous about whether she was understanding the essay, about how to do the journal form, about the fact that she's shy and so has a hard time asking questions in class. I told her that if she's too shy to ask in class, it's fine by me if she e-mails or comes to see me. I also told her that if she has a question, others probably will, too, and they will be grateful to her if she asks. Further, I said I expected she'd be a lot more comfortable speaking up in class by semester's end. It didn't take her that long: she jumped right into the conversation about the Lopez essay, making a fine contribution.

On the other side, there is an older student (male) who may become a bit of a problem. He's pretty rigid and narrow in his thinking and doesn't seem to want to have his ideas challenged. I understand why he'd be resistant: in effect, I'm telling him he needs to reevaluate his experiences to date and consider whether they've been sufficient for his future success. (I suspect his experiences have been pretty narrowly confined to his particular subcultural milieu as a working-class black man.) But we'll see. I'm glad he's challenging ideas, taking on the material, not blindly accepting whatever I say. And it was cool to see the younger students arguing with him. It was one of those heavenly classes in which the students were responding to each other without much reference to me (though I did have to periodically ask them to rein it in so no one was monopolizing the conversation, as one young woman had a tendency to do). Our Miss Books made some fine observations (I suspect she actually did read the essay, or at least most of it--or she got enough specific detail from the group discussion that she wasn't talking through her hat). It was a fine way to end the week.

Today I've gotten lots of little nit-picky record-keeping stuff set up: the students' attendance cards; grade sheets, so they can keep track of their own progress; the abbreviated and annotated versions of the syllabi for me (so I know what needs to be handed out when, and what to collect when). I started marking the response sheets from 265, but my brains seized up, so I hope I can find a little time/energy to do them tomorrow. If not, I'll be up pearly early on Monday, as I refuse to fall behind on the second week of classes. I also have self-evaluations from the 102s to look over, so I'll have to do the ones for GD either tomorrow or Monday morning. (I actually should do those first: that class meets first, which I'm having a hard time keeping in mind: I keep thinking the poetry class meets in the G hour, as I'm so used to 229 meeting during G). Once the Monday assignments are marked, then I'll get to the ones for RD either Monday or Tuesday.

And the meeting mishigas begins on Tuesday, with College-Wide Assessment (otherwise known as ASAC, for Academic Senate Assessment Committee), oh joy. I went to a webinar yesterday that arose from that committee: it was a presentation about an externally designed and administered standardized assessment test that some SUNY campuses are using. As standardized tests go it seems to have the right idea (more than most, though I'd still be highly skeptical about its value in testing anything important). In any event, the upshot is a consensus it is a rotten idea for us. The webinar was nothing wildly exciting technology-wise (a conference phone call and we could all see a PowerPoint presentation on the computers at our remote locations), but I was curious to see how it would work. (Now I know.) The good thing is that I was there with three other faculty members--one, the chair of the Academic Senate; one, the chair of ASAC; the third, the chair of sociology (and a statistician, so he gets off on this stuff)--and one relatively important administrator. Getting my face/name known in these situations is important if I intend to eventually go up for full professor--and yes, I'm already thinking that far down the road. I don't even have associate yet, and I've got my sights on the next one. Anyway, the meeting, of course, lasted longer than we expected (we are academics, after all), but it was nice that we all were immediately sure that the test was just not for us. Janice Grackin, the administrator, seems pretty reasonable. She is a proponent of assessment generally (she has to be: she is the Associate Dean for the Office of Assessment and Program Review), but she also understands that capital A-assessment is only worthwhile if it helps us understand on an institutional level what we're doing right and what we can do better so our students leave actually having learned what we think we've taught them.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll rant about Assessment more as time goes by. Janice has tapped me to be on a special committee she's putting together, purpose of which is still unclear, but she said she wanted me because she thought I'd have good, clear ideas. I'm sure when I'm attending the meetings (when/if they actually begin) I will find a lot to tear my hair out about.

But--shifting gears--pretty soon I'm going to hop in the shower and get ready for a dance party tonight. Then tomorrow I'll go to two dance classes and another dance party (a benefit for the Red Cross efforts in Haiti). And I think I'm going to get homework marked? Perhaps I should revise my expectations--unless the party is a dud, in which case I'll be home early (ok, early-ish) and might have a shot at sufficient brain clarity to work. But work be damned: I haven't danced since Tuesday, so I'm going through withdrawal, and I am going to feed that addiction and figure out how/when to get the work done around my dance time. I won't be able to do that all semester, but I can certainly do it now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

So far...

The one moment of furor today took place because the room for my 102 was double-booked. For some reason, which no one has adequately explained to me, occasionally classes will meet in one room on one day and in another room the other day. Insanely confusing for students and faculty alike--and in this case, another English course (actually dual English/theater) meets in the G building on Mondays but, oops, was booked in "my" room in North on Wednesday. My colleague from English was a bit snooty about it and suggested I check my schedule to be sure I was in the right room. (I didn't get testy about it at the time, but the more I think about her method of presenting the suggestion, the more ticked off I become.) In any event, I made a panic call to the office, and Ethel, the administrative assistant, determined that yes, indeed, the room was double booked--it wasn't that either professor had been stupid about what room he/she was to be in. (Ahem.) I was very happy that my colleagues offered to find an empty room for the day instead of arguing that we should move--and the SNAFU has now been sorted out to my complete satisfaction. At first, whoever is in charge of room assignments was going to make my class also split between two classrooms, but Ethel, god love her, pointed out that that would be somewhat stupid, so, whew, we remain where we were.

It's madness that we have to flop around over this kind of thing. Can't the computers that generate our schedules be programmed to pick up on problems of that nature and red flag them? (Oh, right, of course not, that's way too much to ask.)

In any event, once that flapdoodle was dealt with, things went well. I didn't have much of a plan for 102, so I went over the reading journal form in relatively exhaustive (and exhausting) detail and then had the students spend a few minutes writing down everything they know about literature. They looked stumped at first, but gradually they started to remember all the stuff they learned in high school. Often they didn't remember what a term meant, but at least they remembered the term. We defined those that are important to fiction in particular (and some of the general ones that apply across the board), and they seemed comfy with it all. The lesson was a little dull, but it's the kind of "chalk and talk" they're used to (a few were even taking notes, imagine that). They contributed answers and suggestions without a lot of prompting, and I think they're set up as well as possible to read "Sonny's Blues" for next week.

Of course, since I think it went well today, I'll do it completely differently tomorrow and will forget some of the stuff that worked great but do other stuff I will wish I had done today but forgot... and it's possible I'll have the lead balloon experience (though at first blush, I'd say that tomorrow's 102 may turn out to be the more lively). I wish I had a script of all my best "performances" so I'd remember what to say and in what order. Instead, stuff just falls out of my head as it pops up from random-access memory. And it is random as hell sometimes. But there you have it.

Poetry went well, too. Had a full house today: only one student from Monday was missing, and in addition there were three students who were not on the roster at first, plus most of the ones who weren't there on Monday. (Among the latter group is another student I've had before. I knew I recognized his name, and his face is familiar, but I cannot remember where or when he was my student before--and I have a sneaking suspicion he didn't finish the course with me. But he seems smart enough, so I'm glad to have him back.) It was a little chaotic at the end, trying to get information across to (let me count...) eight students, covering for them in five minutes what I'd covered for everyone else in 30. And of course, the eight missed a lot of the content-driven part of my spiel from Monday, but ah well. They'll have to get caught up on their own. I almost forgot to distribute the readings for next week (and may have missed a few students who got out the door before I caught them), but, well, we'll just continue the tap dance. In any event, we got some productive work out of the two poems for today and the students were coming up with good observations, good questions, solid stuff. I'm happy. I'll see what their response sheets look like. They were freaking out at the number of poems (each requiring a response sheet) for next week, but I told them to focus primarily on one poem and then do their best with the rest. If it's a little half-assed, I'll talk to them about what I really want--and remind them how valuable the sheets will be when it comes to doing their big papers.

I've just spent some time fiddling with paperwork sort of stuff: making sure the officially distributed rosters match what I have (yes and no)--but I'm not sure why they bother to give us the rosters, as a) we can print out our own that are just as current and b) the students are still shuffling around: drop-add goes until the end of this week. In fact, one of my students from the rambunctious 101 of the fall met me in the hall today: her father had not paid her tuition bill on time and she was de-registered, so she is struggling to get back into one of my 102 sections. I'm not sure she'll be able to: the one that works with her schedule is already officially overloaded, unless some students drop in the next day or so. I hope she manages to get in, however: she's another sweetheart, and a good student (solid B-level), so I'd love to have her back.

Shifting gears back to the poetry class: two of the newly registered students were particularly good in both the group work and in the full-class discussion, so I'm quite happy to have them. Seems like--so far anyway--there is a sufficient critical mass of bright lights to make the class hum. In fact, I don't have a sense of overwhelming lunkishness in any of the classes--yet, anyway. Here's hoping.

Now, thinking ahead: I've checked my calendar multiple times, and I think I really, truly do not have a meeting tomorrow--and to have no meeting on Tuesday or Thursday of the same week is freakish, but wonderful. So I intend to come in at 10 as usual and crank through P&B business until I run out of time or get through it all, whichever comes first. If by some divine happenstance I get through it all and still have time before class, I can futz around with record-keeping stuff. I have an idea about how to help students keep track of their own grades: perhaps I'll natter about that tomorrow. Or later. Or not. I'm pretty much cooked for the nonce. I'm just hanging out, waiting for Paul so we can go out for one of our wildly hedonistic carnivorous blow-out dinners. Beef and booze: I set aside my ethical dilemmas about eating sweet and gentle bovine mammals and just enjoy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day 2: Ditto

OK, I've met 'em all. Today's 102 was more amenable to the rules and regs (or didn't fuss out loud about them anyway). It was a rather odd day--and will be unique in the semester--as I did not have a committee meeting, nor did P&B meet, so I didn't start "work" until 2:30 p.m. Of course, if I'd gotten into the office at 9:30 a.m., I'd have had plenty to keep me busy, but I took advantage of the late start and slept a little later this a.m., then ran a few errands I'd been putting off for days (still left one undone, but I'll get it done eventually). I got a little wound up about not being in the office earlier--I actually got in at 11:35 (and miraculously, got here just as a colleague was leaving a legal parking spot behind the building, so I'm parked right out back and not even risking a ticket). I finally marked two papers from last semester's dream student, James: he asked about them, which was just the spur I needed to finally get them done. Got some copying done. Put a few last bits of documentation into my promo folder (found the stuff I had freaked out about over the weekend--and it wasn't even hard to find). Oh, I don't know, noodled around doing stuff until class.

So, brief anecdotes from the day. 101: At the end of class, and older student shook my hand, introduced himself (I didn't catch his name but I'll know it in a week or two anyway), and said he was already enjoying class. (Nice to hear, but based on what, I wonder?) Another student surprised hell out of me. She had come in late and had spent the class making sotto voce comments about the syllabus and the first reading (obviously the first too difficult, the second too long: the precise comment, as she counted pages of the reading, was "Holy crap!"), but at the end of class she came to the desk, gave me a big hello, and said, "You're a cool professor." I said I was gratified by the compliment but surprised she would say so after the first class. She said, "I read people. Like books. I also read books." (The latter, tossed over her shoulder as she waltzed out of the room.) She's one to keep note of: we'll see what happens with her as the semester goes along. A student came up to ask a good question about the reading journal form: nice to see he was paying careful attention. Another asked a question about the books, what she needs to own and by when. Finally, a gentleman from South Asia (I'd guess India, but I'm not good at judging the accents precisely) couldn't seem to get out of the room: he told me he'd read that I'm a good educator (interesting: perhaps my rep on Rate My Professor has changed?), so he chose me; that he needs my guidance (um, OK...); he needs help on everything (ah, again, OK...). Clearly he's nervous: he also is a somewhat older student, coming out of the work world and with English as a clear second language, but he's very concerned to do well. He may become one of those energy-drain students, but I'll just have to be firm about how much time I give him.

102: A student from last year in the class. He'd been in my 101 in fall '08, took my 102 in the spring but ended up having to withdraw. He came up to me after class to say that he was taking more credits than he has in the past, so he hopes he can keep up with them all--but he's not dropping my class again; he's determined to make it. I don't see any reason why not--but he also can be a bit of an energy drain. Still, it pays off: I've seen visible improvement in his work in the past. Another student confessed (shyly) that he didn't know where Y212 is (my office: their photocopied readers are outside the office door)--very sweet, and when I said that Y is Bradley Hall, he was greatly relieved: that he knew. Another, who had come in late, first apologized for coming in late and then thanked me for asking him for his name so I could mark him as being present: "I didn't even have to come up to you," he said. Very polite, and nice that he felt he should say "thank you." And as I was waddling back to the office, dragging my huge rolling pack behind me, I encountered a student from that 102 who had just picked up his reader and who told me it was easy to find, well marked (I should hope so: I've got signs all over the box).

Overall, students seemed to respond more warmly to the information about the class and to me and my approach than was the case yesterday. I have no idea why: I might have exuded a different set of pheromones, the class chemistry might simply have been different, could have been the time of day or the weather. Always a mystery why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Same joke: laughter one day, stony silence another. Who knows.

But now I have to start actually teaching. Wouldn't it be nice if I never had to help them get smart? Well, no, not really: those moments when they suddenly get something are the whole point to doing this for a living. But the heavy lifting is about to begin, and I already feel like my energy is low.

Actually, physically that's true. I don't know what's up, but no amount of sleep seems sufficient. When the alarm went off this morning (an hour later than usual), I woke up, thought "I'll just lie here one minute before I get up"--and damned near fell back to sleep, even with the radio going, which is bizarre for me. I think my body has to adjust to this earlier schedule, and it's protesting. I'm still dancing, too: I'm not going to cut back until I truly have to--and that does mean I don't get home until almost 10 p.m. I'm trying to truncate my wind-down so I'm still in bed by 11:30, but that'll take some doing. Still, I'm not really operating at a sleep deficit, so I trust that next week this will all feel comfy.

Meanwhile, I think I may have the next block of readings for 265 figured out--maybe even the next two (miracle!), but I'm just going to listen to my iPod (Christmas gift from Szilvia, which I am ridiculously delighted by) and read Prairyerth, by William Least-Heat Moon. If I can't teach Nature in Lit, at least I can read some: I've wanted to read the thing for years, and I am loving it. Makes me want to read everything else he's written. I want to re-read--and read further--Barry Lopez, too.

Wouldn't it be nice if I were paid just to read whatever I want?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day 1: Finis

Gadzooks, what weather we had for our first day back! I remember being all fetutzed when Hurricane Gloria came through NY: she ended up not doing much at all in the city, and in my recollection, anyway, was not any worse than what we had today. Ferocious wind, ungodly downpours--and all of us slogging around campus to and from classes, umbrella struts bending under the force of the gale. I felt particularly bad for a bunch of students who had the wrong room on their schedules: students for an ESL course were showing up to my classroom and students for my class showing up where the ESL class was meeting--and the two rooms are at opposite ends of this part of campus (for those of you who know NCC: My class meets in S, the 030 here in Bradley). So, as I was trying to get through first day of 265, I had to interrupt not only as students arrived but also to make sure they were arriving for the correct class. I suspect I'll have a few more days of that before all the ESL kids are sorted out. Oy.

And of course, because of the weather, I suspect a lot of students chose not to come--especially true of 265. Most of my 102 students were there, so the room was full--in fact, it's officially overfilled: apparently, a whole bunch of students signed up for a class they thought was at 9:30 a.m. but which is actually at 9:30 p.m., so the one administrative secretary who was in today had to find classes for them all--and two ended up in my section. This is the serious downside of self-registration, but also reveals a howling problem with Banner (which I kinda hate anyway, though it is nice to be able to do at least some things online). I won't go on about Banner right now, but ye gods, what a cluster fuck for poor Ethel to sort out. (She doesn't even drink, which would have been my thought: "As soon as I'm off work...") Of course even and hour later the students were grumpy and bitter and bitching right and left--and refusing to believe they might have missed the "p.m." thing. Ah well.

In any event, I'll be interested to see how this 102 shapes up. As I was going over the attendance and late paper policies, three girls were shaking their heads and doing the "what the...??" face and gestures: clearly my policies are insanely strict and I should be consigned directly to the loony bin. I'm not taking bets yet about whether they'll drop, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did, if not now then certainly before semester's end. Their attitude changed a bit, however, when I asked the entire class if they'd ever been in a group in which they had done the homework but others had not: a little look of surprise there ("oh, yeah, I guess if I don't have my books/homework it's annoying to other students, the way they annoy me when I'm prepared and they're not." Wow, whole new thought! Our behavior affects others!)

In any case, there is one student from last semester in the class--a real sweetheart and a good student--and a few others who look like they have possibilities, at least from the alert facial expressions. We'll see. Classes never turn out like we think they're going to (though we're often right about individual students).

And so far, 265 looks like it could be fun. To my delight, a student I had last spring in Nature in Lit turned up on my roster today, and everyone was at least paying attention and contributing to discussion--already, first day. We were missing a lot of students, so the dynamics will probably change, and change again, and again, as students appear--and, later, more frequently, disappear. The classroom is a bit of a disaster area (I have no idea what's going on the period before I get there, but I felt like I was in some sort of chaotic storeroom: furniture all akimbo, broken desks and a dismantled file cabinet...), plus it's one of those long, skinny rooms in which the kids in the back feel like they're in some distant state; I may need a telescope and perhaps a megaphone in order to keep them engaged. We'll do some group work for a while until I see how things go, but we may quickly switch over to sitting in a circle and going around, taking a question or comment from everyone. It was actually a pretty cool class, got into some interesting preliminary discussion--at the culmination of which I said that as far as I'm concerned, the best students are the ones with the best questions, not the best answers. I saw a couple of faces light up at that. Glad I could give them that idea right away.

I also am glad that I just happened to copy an e. e. cummings sonnet about the wind (on this windy day), which we read and talked about briefly, just to get them in the groove. To my infinite satisfaction, I have pulled together five poems for next week, loosely around the existential malaise/WWI shattering of faith in a reasonable world idea. At the moment I'm thinking to work partly chronologically but also partly thematically (shifting themes to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, but also some themes just as themes--like what is poetry for). I'm mulling about next week--and wondering how soon I can get to "Prufrock"--and how much other Eliot I can reasonably ask of them. But they know I'm tap-dancing these first few weeks, and they seem fine with that. Whew.

I should take these moments before I head out to come up with topics for 101 assignments (the in-class diagnostic essay, the first real essay assignment, etc.--since I've done the juggling my old assignments won't work)--or perhaps finding poetry for week three in 265. But instead I've just had a nice long catch-up with Paul and will just noodle around until it's time to go salsa. Mercifully, it has also stopped raining and the wind has died down to virtually nothing, so I can get back to the car without doing the Mary Poppins thing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Amazing again!

Dragged myself kicking and screaming (well, metaphorically) into opening the promo folder file on the computer and chipping my way through it. Apart from one moment of abject panic, when I could not find a document I knew I had, it all went relatively smoothly. (And I found the document, right where I'd first looked for it.) I'm still missing two documents (one I know I got but I'm trusting it's in a file in my office; the other I may not have gotten in final form)--and there's one thing I want to see if I can track down (an event I know I attended but for which I don't have any proof--and we can't claim anything we can't prove). If I can't track down the event, no harm. I do have to find those other two documents, but I'm pretty confident I can. I may need to renumber stuff (not sure how that's supposed to go) and I have a few other fiddly little questions for the other members of P&B, but whew! I can turn it in on Monday without feeling like I'm turning in a rat's nest--and an incomplete one at that. And I don't need to feel guilty about dancing tomorrow. I even have some time to dig through poetry anthologies for stuff for 265. (In the "god smiled" department, turns out I have an extra copy of one of the big anthologies here at home, so I don't even have to go to the office to rummage.)

It's a beautiful, bright, sunny day with an absolutely clear blue sky, which helps raise my mood even further. I can let down for a bit, and I am grateful for this respite. Now I intend to lapse briefly into sluglike torpor until my brains can shift from promo head to poetry head. I know I'll feel better if I attend to that, even if only for a brief moment today. And who knows? Maybe this gift of things being easier than anticipated will carry over to that task as well. Contented sigh.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Got another slow start this morning and still managed to get pretty well set for next week. I'd be happier if I had the following week ready too--especially for 265--but I'll take what I've done and be grateful. I also caught an incredibly lucky break: I think I mentioned that the main office (and mailroom, along with copiers) was going to close at 2 today, but they didn't close until later, so even though I was still futzing around at 2:00 (can't remember on what: I did a lot of futzing today), I still got everything I could for 265 done and copied and am ready for Monday. That includes having everything in a folder, labeled, for each of my classes. My desk is--relatively speaking--uncluttered. (Compared to Bill's it still looks like a junk pile, but given what it can look like, even what it did look like a mere hour ago, it's tidy.)

The only teensy wrinkle is that I thought I had a response sheet done for 265 (thought I could just raid one I used to use for 102), but when I looked at it again just a moment ago, well, no, it won't quite do. So I printed out the one I used in 2005 and will photocopy that sometime before Wednesday. I don't need it before then anyway--and I still need to come up with a couple of poems to bunch with Arnold's "Dover Beach" for next week, so I'm going to be copying stuff for Wednesday anyway.

Earlier today I was murmphing to myself about having canceled my ride: the weather was warm (for January) and it would have been a great day to be on a horse, so I was thinking, if I had to stop being productive at 2, when I thought the office would close, that would have been a hell of a waste. But in fact, I have been working nonstop--and it's now almost 7 p.m., so turns out it was wise to cancel the ride after all. I do, however, have fingers and toes crossed that next Friday is not frighteningly cold. (The fingers and toes crossed thing does make it hard to type--and walk--but....) I'd hate to miss another week of riding. I'll have plenty to do next weekend to finish this organizational process for the smooth operation of the semester, but I'm hoping I'll have time for both the webinar I'm participating in at 1 on Friday and my ride at 3:30. (I'll blather about the webinar later: no energy to think about that right now. It's the Scarlett O'Hara thing.)

Got another e-mail from a student wanting to know in advance what books to buy. She's smart, wants to get them online--where they are infinitely cheaper. My only concern is that she get the right edition of the style guide: if she doesn't she'll be screwed.

Oh, and back to 265: as I looked again at the "not really a syllabus" from 2005, I saw that I had assigned mini-papers throughout the semester, in which students were to do a 1-2 page close read of one poem in essay form. They could then build on those for their longer papers. I was impressed with myself: I think it's a great idea, so it's back in the class this year. And this year, dammit, I'm going to make notes about what I teach, even if I tap-dance the entire semester and never come up with a codified assignment schedule. I'm not going to get stuck reinventing this wheel again.

I was thinking to lug home the huge anthologies from which I will be picking poems to use, but, oh, yeah, right, I keep forgetting: promo folder, dammit! That has to take precedence over everything else this weekend--and part of Monday, too, as I need to ask the administrative staff for some official paperwork (committee descriptions, observations) and make sure that's included. So the anthologies might as well live here, as I won't be looking at them this weekend anyway.

I still haven't gone to human resources to check my file and those of my mentees. Fortunately the first few weeks of the semester are pretty light in terms of marking assignments--and committee work--and we get that blessed break in three weeks. The promo folder doesn't go to the campus-wide committee until March 1, so there is still time to pull that together, even after I resubmit to the department on Monday.

Oy, ay, ach. Time to figure out something for dinner--and to see if I'm still amped up enough to get duded up and dance at 9:30. Unlikely, but one never knows.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Of course I got going much later than anticipated today--somehow all the "getting my feet clear" stuff always takes forever--but nevertheless I managed to get most of my copying done for 101 and 102. I'm still pretty much in the dark about 265, but I figure if I have something for the first week at least (and I think I do), and can come up with stuff for the second week before Wednesday--doesn't have to be much--I'll be OK. I can sort of tap-dance my way to the Presidents' Week break and then sit down and come up with a more codified (albeit still flexible) schedule of assignments for the rest of the semester at that point. I generally find the Presidents' Week break annoying as hell: it breaks the continuity just when things are starting to pull together, so essentially we have to start all over, building momentum, once we're back. It's better now that they give us the whole week--when I first started, we had Monday classes on Friday (how incredibly stupid is that?)--and there are times, like this semester, when it can be a genuine god-send. I'd be in an even worse state of panic if I didn't know I have that moment to pull my head together. By that time I'll also have a better read on the students and how much material (and of what complexity) they can handle in any given week.

I picked up two more in the past week: class count is now at 19. And one of them e-mailed me today to find out what to do to be prepared for the class--what books to buy and so on. This is a transfer student, which suggests someone who flunked out of a four-year school and so is determined to make a success at NCC and return to the four-year institution redeemed. It'll be interesting to see if this enthusiasm and determination last through the semester.

Tomorrow I need to get in to the office early tomorrow: the main office (and thus mailroom with copy machines) closes at 2, and I want to get some more photocopying done--including those poems and handouts for the first week of 265--before the weekend, so I really can turn my attention to the promo folder without any looming worries about getting through the first week of classes.

But I realize I really desperately need a wife--or a personal assistant. Little niggly bits of life maintenance languish unattended for idiotically long periods of time while I either work frantically or collapse into slug status and refuse to move at all. Which is what I'm going to do in just a moment here. I hope by Monday I feel a little less like I'm in the middle of a game of blind-man's-bluff (or whack the pinata--in which I am both the blindfolded and dizzy person with the stick and the buffoon-like toy that's getting whacked). Only way to get there is one day, one hour, one task at a time. Much as I'd like to pole-vault past the worry and anticipation part to the "I got past it" part, the only way out (as they say) is through.

So, yeah, well, excelsior.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Oh, and

I forgot to mention, yet another student contacted me this week to say he was shocked that he didn't pass the class. He thought he'd turned everything in. A) no and B) a fair amount of what he did turn in wasn't passing. It is so hard to break them of that high school mentality: if they show up breathing and turn in work of any quality whatsoever, they'll pass. Nope, sorry, not any more...

I also just looked at the ads that Google thinks are appropriate for this site. Apparently I have to stop talking about my psychological state, as now the ads are all for anti-anxiety meds and therapy. Do you suppose it would help if I said, 700 times, "I am an English professor; that means I teach at a college; my audience is largely other professors. We're already professors. We work as professors. We're already professionals at the college level" and so on?


Bad news again: I went to campus yesterday, looked through all my files--and truly saved absolutely bubkis when I taught Modern Poetry in 2005, so I'm reinventing that wheel, dammit. I may have to make peace with either giving the students a schedule of assignments late or doing what I did last time and just winging it week by week. I'm not entirely happy with the latter option: as good as I am at classroom improv, with my schedule as overpacked as it is these days, simply remembering that I have to come up with a bunch of poems for the next week in time to get them to the students to read may be asking too much of myself. In my dream world, I'll somehow manage to get some kind of assignment schedule--even a tentative one--pulled together before Wednesday at least, and will be able to get a photocopied reader made by, say, week 3? Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, I've searched for other people's syllabi for similar courses on line; I've even (to my chagrin) done a little Wikipedia refresher on the generally accepted dates when Modernism was a genre/cultural movement. I am not, however, going to stick strictly to narrowly defined Modernist poets: I'll range a little further afield (and set up the roots of modernism in poems such as Arnold's "Dover Beach"), but it did help to get a sense of thematic blocks I can use. And I've made note of about 20-some-odd poems I could (or definitely want to) include.

However, as I was wading through all the various Norton anthologies I have in my office, I got to the point where I couldn't absorb any more poems even well enough to go "I think that will work." As it is, a number of the poems I think I'll assign are ones I don't actually know, so I'll be working out my own analysis along with the students. I won't feel that way with "Prufrock," which I've known since I was a teenager, nor with the Jeffers poems I want to assign, as I use them also in Nature in Lit, but I'm including some poets and poems simply because on a first read they seem to fit thematically. Still, I think the students might find it cool to go through the process with me instead of feeling like I'm on some pinnacle of expertise and know the "answer" that they can't find.

I did reconfigure 101 a bit: I now will have to rework the first essay assignment (which I don't think will be unduly difficult) as well as a few other assignments along the way. But I'm happier with the first set of readings, which will allow students to draw and expand on their comfortable habits of being able to "relate"--from which I will (I hope gently or, barring that, forcefully) move them into a more analytical stance. I am resurrecting a midterm idea: students read a Muir essay opposing Hetch Hetchy dam and then an essay by Madison Marsden supporting the dam--and in their in-class essay, they have to take a stand about who makes the more compelling argument. I think I'm then going to have them build from that (using another of our readings plus a soupcon of research) to discuss a particular dam of their choosing (perhaps even one in NY) and argue for or against its dismantling. I like the idea of the midterm acting not just as a stand-alone piece of writing but as a springboard into a longer and more formal assignment. We'll see how that flies.

And yesterday I went through byzantine torture trying to figure out how to space paper assignments for 102 so the students would have enough time to do all the readings their papers are based on and still have the breaks free of paper grading for me. (In the past I've had papers to grade over either--or both--spring breaks, and I loathe that. It always means I spend the last two days before classes resume driving myself insane--because I can't bring myself to grade a few each day of the break: I want to play, dammit!) It meant I had to ditch a thematic block of poems--but I hardly ever get a chance to adequately go over those anyway, so I figured it wasn't much of a loss. I will allow the ambitious students to write papers on those poems anyway, if they feel confident enough of their analysis without class discussion. I did that last spring (though we at least talked briefly about one of the poems in that block in class), and one student took me up on the challenge--and wrote quite a lovely paper.

Today I took a break from it all to go play in Manhattan with Szilvia. We had lunch and had intended to go to a movie, but we misjudged times repeatedly, so ended up just browsing around Barnes and Noble together, talking about books, looking at beautiful photos, laughing at things that struck us funny. (You'd have had to be there.) Then I raced back through Queens for a dance class, which was also good playtime. And the whole day, I herds of mastodons were galloping in my stomach and periodically I felt as if my pulse was racing and that I couldn't quite breathe--because, of course, I "should" have been working. I know the brain break was good today (I could hardly compute blurbs on the back of book jackets, so it's beyond me how I think I'd have been able to do any substantive work), but I wish I could just relax into the brain break/day off instead of driving myself up a tree.

Tomorrow I intend to be on campus most of the day. I think I'll get 101 and 102 completely nailed down and get preliminary photocopies made on those, then turn my attention back to 265. As I said above, if I don't have a schedule of assignments completed right away, they'll be able to deal with it. The students in a lit elective are more likely to be willing to experiment and wander, as long as they feel confident I know what I'm talking about (and I do--at least well enough for a sophomore-level class). But Saturday and Sunday, no work on classes unless/until the promo folder is done. The weekend is reserved for that. But that means no dance until Sunday afternoon (if then: I may have to bail even on that, though it's one of my two favorite classes), and no ride this week (though I don't feel too broken up about that as it's going to be pretty damned cold again). Today's experience made it very clear that I'm not going to be able to enjoy much until I feel more secure in being ready to start the semester--and submit the promo folder on the 25th.

I'll probably need to blog, though, as decompression time. This reframing truly helps me a lot--and reduces stress significantly. Perhaps not as much as the glass of scotch I'm about to have, but still....

Where the hell does time go? If anyone ever invents a time stretcher, I'll be the first in line to buy one, at any cost.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


That's how my best-laid plans "gang" the last two days. (OK, my Scots isn't up to snuff here: I know that "gang agly" is present, not past, but damned if I know how to shift the tense.) The "agly" plans are because I insist on dancing, despite the abject panic about the reconfiguration of courses. I keep meaning to get to campus to see if by some miracle I saved the photocopied poems I used last time I taught 265 (in fall 2005! no wonder I can't remember anything about it): if I have at least that much, it will be infinitely easier to put together a syllabus. But yesterday all the getting my feet clear/life maintenance stuff I did in the morning took longer than I anticipated (always does), so I had to choose between a trip to campus and dance class (guess which won); then I thought I'd get into Manhattan well before my dinner date with Kristin and could sit in a coffee shop (even the hated Starbucks) to chip away at the syllabi I can do (101, 102)--but between the route I took to get from Queens to Upper West Side and the driving around looking for parking (I hate driving in the City), I ended up only having about 20 minutes to spare. So I got exactly zero work done--but I had a very nice day, got some good exercise and good friend time, well worth the lost productivity.

I could not bring myself to set the alarm for this morning: Last night I was almost wound down enough to sleep when the downstairs neighbors came home drunk and had a screaming fight that included slamming something (a door maybe, but sounded more like flinging something very heavy), shaking the entire house. The fight didn't last all that long (I'd have called the cops--except among other problems I won't go into here, he is a cop), but still, that meant very late getting to sleep. So now, the morning is gone and I have done nothing but feed myself and the cats and wash myself and the dishes. And I'd start working on syllabi, but by the time I start rolling I'd have to quit to go to dance class--and I refuse to miss today's classes. By the time I get home, it will be about 5 p.m., so once again, it's unlikely I'll get any work done. A colleague has asked me to read a screenplay he's written (we've done this before: he pays me to read and give him feedback--and it's kinda fun), so I'll probably do that tonight instead of doing "real" work. At least that will be one more thing out from under my feet.

I won't be going to campus tomorrow, either, as my car has to go into the shop for an oil change and about 400 other little dinky problems that need attending to (which will probably end up costing me about $5 per problem...). But that means a day at home, which in turn means I can at least get 101 and 102 nailed down. It will take all day (possibly more), and on Tuesday, I have to be in the campus area anyway for a doctor's appointment, so, maybe.....

I will have to cut back on the dancing however, pretty soon. I won't be able to devote so much time to it once I also have homework and papers to mark, not to mention committee crapola to tend to. Ah well. Somehow this will all sort itself out and everything will end up getting done. Including the promo folder--which now has another piece to add, since my book review just got published in Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy (an online journal--and a very good one, I think). Those of you who are also my friends on Facebook already know about it, but for anyone else who might be interested, here's the link:

And now time to brush teeth and put on my dancing shoes. Literal, not metaphoric.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Serious panic attack

So, bad news is, Nature in Lit was indeed canceled: I got word today. The somewhat good news is that, because I talked to Bruce (and because he's very sweet to me), I did not get another comp: I got Modern Poetry--but that meant switching me out of one of my sections of 102, and I got a 101 instead. I don't much like spring 101s (students fall in 3 varieties: 1, just got out of remediation; 2, failed 101 in the fall; 3, applied to NCC so late that they missed fall semester, none of which would be one's choice of motivated, skilled students to work with)--but it beats hell out of four comps. I feel somewhat bad for the two students from my 101s who signed up for my section of 102: I e-mailed them today to tell them that they won't, in fact, have me for their teacher after all. I don't think it will hurt them to have a different professor (always good to have a variety), but I will miss them--especially one of them, who will do great in 102. I just hope whoever gets the 102 is good, as those students deserve a great experience.

But now I'm in a flat-out panic to pull together readings for the Modern Poetry class (265). I've taught it before--under the exact same circumstance--so I thought, "No problem, I'll just pull up the syllabus I used last time." Oops, problem: last time, I didn't actually prep any readings: I just said "reading due" and made it up week by week--and like an idiot, I didn't keep track of what I assigned. It worked pretty well last time, but damn, I wish I'd made a note of it, so I wouldn't have to reinvent that particular wheel.

And in terms of 101, I want to reconfigure some of the assignments--including doing different readings from what I've been doing the last six thousand times I've taught the class. I used to use a different first reading, which I think I'll go back to: it is about how our experiences in different places change how we read, write and think, rather than being about the need for wild places. I think that will fly better with the students--but then I want to do the whole first thematic block using similar readings, heading into their first paper, and that will require some juggling. I may go back to doing an in-class midterm and final (timed writing is an important skill)--and I may completely refocus the preliminary research project.... I'm just thinking to myself here, but as I think about this, a voice in my head is saying, "and I have exactly 9 days to pull it all together--for both 101 and 265." The panic swells to epic proportions.

Especially because I also don't want to start giving up some of my fun stuff just yet: I rode today, and I fully intend to do a double dance class tomorrow, followed by dinner with Kristin (whom I haven't seen all break). And I intend to see Szilvia on Wednesday--unless by that time the panic has built so much I truly won't be able to enjoy it (which is possible). So that means I have to get onto the early to bed and early to rise thing as of tomorrow, or I truly will be insane next weekend.

Because of course I also have to work on the promo folder, which is due the day we start classes.

Meanwhile, the task is to do something to relax enough tonight that I can sleep instead of sitting here feeling like I'm plugged into a socket. I know it is a bad idea to try to work (if I do, I really won't get to sleep), but until I feel like at least one of these tasks is somewhat under control, I'm just going to be tied in knots.

Shifting gears, however, on the very good news front: a book review I did for an online journal is getting published (book reviews for this kind of publication are done on spec, and for no pay, just for the prestige of being tapped to do it--so there is never any guarantee that the work will actually be seen). When I submitted it, I knew it was way longer than they usually like--and I said I'd be happy to cut, if they'd suggest where--but it seems, from a cursory glance, to have been published intact, even long as it is. Extremely cool beans. And of course, that goes into the promo folder... If you're interested, you can check it out at

I already had a huge dinner and a drink out at one of my favorite places (on my way home from my ride: this is a Friday routine), but I'm thinking perhaps another drink won't hurt. I hardly ever have more than one, but the winged elephants in my tummy indicate that I need some serious tranquilizers. Bourbon or scotch will do.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Time flies

The new semester is rapidly approaching, and I'm accomplishing nothing. I alternately feel like that's OK and have panic attacks about it. I did go so far as to print out the week-by-week grid I use to plan due dates for assignments, and I've taken a look at my 102 syllabus from last spring: there are a few assignments I want to add and/or put in different order (the most crucial of which entails more work on thesis statements earlier in the semester), but essentially I just need to shift dates to accommodate the slight differences in when the semester starts, when spring break falls, and so on. I also need to build in a snow day or two--and a contingency plan in case (as happened one year) there is a school-closing when I've scheduled paper conferences (man did that require a scramble to get the conferences done and the revision due date shifted). And as I avoid working, the promo folder sits on the table and in the back of my mind, untouched....

The good news is that the fall semester is finally receding, which helps improve my mood about the rapid approach of January 25. I still haven't been able to bring myself to mark the three papers that students wanted back (maybe tomorrow?), but at least I haven't had anyone asking about a grade in a while. Poor No Thesis asked me if I could pass him because he'd done his best. I told him that I honestly didn't think his reading or writing skills were sufficient for him to move on, so in good conscience, no, I couldn't. I didn't confront him about the plagiarism concern, but that is what removed from my mind the possibility of a mercy D, which I'd previously considered. No word from him since. I'm sure that my e-mail was painful as hell for him to receive, and I don't like that much: despite what some of my students believe, I truly am not a sadist. But I also don't think it helps to allow students to delude themselves about where they stand academically. Painful truths have their purpose.

Quick side note: I talk all the time about how my students loathe me (or fear me, or both), but one of my colleagues, with whom I do placement readings, told me that whenever he tutors my students in the Writing Center, they say they like me (and kids don't pull punches in there: I used to tutor, so I know). Of course, that's a self-selected population: the students who use the Writing Center are the ones who care and are willing to work hard, so they're the students who are more likely to appreciate being challenged. Still, it's nice to get the positive feedback. I shouldn't care so much about being liked, but of course I do. Not enough to change my teaching methods, but still.

Shifting gears, this evening at the laundromat, a woman struck up conversation; we were having a "what do you do" sort of chat, and when she discovered that I teach English, she immediately asked me if I'd be willing to tutor her 14-year-old son and how much I'd charge. Off the top of my head I said $45 for an hour (she didn't blanch, as I'd hoped she would: if this ever happens again, I'll have to pick a much higher figure). She says she's going to talk to her husband and then contact me to try to set up a time. She's talking 3-4 sessions, which isn't terribly much, but even so, I'm thinking A) I'm insane to consider even for a nanosecond taking on one more thing, but B) I sure could use the extra cash. I'm going to make a spur-of-the-moment decision if/when she contacts me. I'll either say sorry, I can't find a time, and get out of it, or I'll say OK--and tell myself it's worth giving up an hour of my weekends for a little extra dough.

Meanwhile, as long as I'm not doing any work, I'm doing as much dancing as I can. Two hours of hustle today--the dance kind, not the running around like my ass is on fire kind. I could very easily go to at least one dance class (often two) every day except Friday. And after class it becomes very easy to say, "Oh, gee, it's really kinda late; I shouldn't do any work, or I'll never wind down to sleep." Of course, the solution would be to set the freaking alarm so I don't sleep so late--and I do have to set the alarm tonight, as I intend to actually put up the damned flyers advertising 281 prior to meeting the scheduling committee at 10. Still hovering at 4 students in 281. Nail-biting time for sure. If Bruce is around tomorrow, I'll ask him if there are any lit classes unassigned that I might snag in case 281 doesn't run--though I'm still praying madly I can get the numbers up before Bruce has to axe it. I need to find out when that axe falls, too....

But this post constitutes my "work" for tonight.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Haunted by students past

I blame Sara. OK, not really, but today she and I went out for lunch and she did ask if I'd heard anything from No Thesis about his failing grade. I hadn't at that time, but when I checked e-mail tonight, what do you know, there he was, telling me he was shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that although he had completed every assignment, he hadn't passed the class. I said that he needed not only to complete the assignments but to complete them so they average out to a D or better--and his hadn't. Notice I didn't mention the plagiarism thing: ostrich-like, I'm hoping madly he won't ask for details of why his paper grades didn't average out to above a 59. It's almost certainly a vain hope, because I'm pretty sure his sister (who wrote his paper) will be in a huff about why her brilliant work didn't lead to a passing grade for her brother. If he does ask about it, I'll tell him he needs to come talk to me, thereby gaining a little time for myself to A) do a real plagiarism check to see if maybe he didn't rely on his sister but relied on a web source I can nail him for and B) failing that, can figure out how to approach the whole issue. I know I'm tenured and all that (and I don't see the school bringing me up on charges because I failed a student for a plagiarism I can't definitively prove--nor do I forsee a court case, though in our litigious society, one never knows). But I still don't feel comfortable with the "it's plagiarism because I say it is" thing. I just have to remind myself that it is, in effect, my football, and in this case, the game is played entirely by my rules: I don't have to explain, justify, or make sense. I want to for my own reasons, but I have the authority to be as arbitrary and capricious as I like, as long as I don't break the rules of my own syllabus.

Ack, argh, yuck, blech. I HATE this kind of thing.

And although I've been on campus the last two days, doing placement readings ($), I have yet to post a single flyer for 281, or to check with advisement about whether there will be opportunities for a captive audience I can try to lure into my class. I did ask the web master if I could send out an e-mail to all students to "advertise": got a pretty vehement "no" on that idea. Ah well, it was worth a shot. I just checked, however, and I have gained one student: that brings me from 3 to 4, a 25% increase in enrollment! Hope springs eternal. As other classes fill, I'm hoping kids get chased into mine. It's a bit discouraging, because--as I experienced fall semester with 229--the ones who end up in the course because it fits their schedule (and the one they wanted was closed) usually hate the class and end up dropping. But if it runs, and if I end up teaching it as a sort of seminar to a very small group, I'm happy. Please, God, let it run!

Favorite student blooper of the day: "I was following the speed limit, driving precariously like I always do." Watch out for those steep drop offs!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The bitching begins

This will be a short post, because I don't want to deal with it (and feel a bit sick to my stomach about the whole thing), but I have three student e-mails saying "I don't think the grade I got is fair; it's a shock; how could I get the grade I did; can't I do something to get a better grade?" I'm just going to send each one a grade detail, so each sees why the grade was given and take it from there. But I HATE this shit.