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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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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Paving the road

And we know what paves the proverbial road to hell. I'm not so certain it's the road to hell that I'm on (in fact don't feel that way at all), but the paving material is identical. I shoveled a ton of snow on Friday and then promptly collapsed into a heap, kept saying "I really will feel better if I do even five student assignments" but, well. I foolishly counted on being able to grind madly on Saturday, but woke up at 5:30 a.m. with a monster headache, which I couldn't shake until late in the afternoon, by which time I was zonked. I still got a little work done--including drafting a letter of recommendation for Paul--but when I woke up this morning, I was wondering if I'd have to set the alarm for 5 a.m. tomorrow. Facing that fear, I worked to make up the lost time--and actually did relatively well. Took the train to and from dance class (and yes, I still gave up two hours of assignment-marking time to do the other kind of hustle), and I got quite a bit done on the train. I like this system for my Sundays: I feel less guilty about the dance time because I spend almost as long on the train, working.

The most important things to get done were the draft working theses for 102 and the mini-papers for 265, as in both cases the students need lots of feedback before embarking on their first significant papers. Both sets of students will be shocked--especially 265. As I feared, most of the papers were dreadful. I got too many "I could relate to this poem" papers (aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!) and overall, far too much unsupported blather having nothing in particular to do with the poems. Not to mention all the sentence-level stuff--and these are students who have passed not one but two levels of composition to get where they are. I know I also pass students who are still struggling with sentence-level stuff, because I know it takes a while for the surface knowledge to work its way into the end result. But this is also why I am glad I am grinding away at process process process with my comp students: it's OK to make the mistakes, but students need to learn to catch and correct them in steps between first thoughts and final product. I am more and more unhappy when I get papers that are clearly just what fell out of the student's head in one (shaky and not very well thought through) pass by the ideas.

Well, the 265 students will have heart failure when they get their mini-papers back bloody with red ink: I am going to have to tell them that I won't mark their long papers so extensively, or I will go mad. Theoretically, I don't need to focus on teaching them how to write any more--though of course I can't stop myself from trying. I just have to be a lot less obsessive about that attempt--or how much of it I put into ink.

I also need to try to remember to tell the comp students (101 and 102) that I won't mark their entire papers fully: I'll put one of my little slips in at about the half-way point, saying that I'm going to mark less if at all beyond that point, and then by gum I'm going to mark less if at all beyond that point. I wish I had a system like Paul's. He has standard boiler-plate comments in the computer, so he can essentially Chinese-menu his way into printed comments: one from column A, two from column B.... That way he doesn't have to repeatedly write out the same remark about missing thesis, or transitions, or whatever. (I'm still looking for the best way to say some of those things, so I use different versions with different students as I use up gallons of red ink.) At least I have made myself confine remarks to the relatively small blank portion of my review sheets; that keeps me at least somewhat concise. Somewhat. For me.

The main problem is that I am very much my mother's daughter and am an information junkie (OK, only certain kinds of info, unlike Mom's all-inclusivity, but still). Consequently, I assume that students will want more information, and I forget that they simply get overwhelmed. So I continually try to balance my "need" to over-explain with the genuine need to keep things concrete and clear for the students.

That said, however, I do find value in the shock factor of those bloody first papers. The sea of red certainly gets their attention, which is the point.

But right now, there are two cats trying to get my attention. I'm getting very clear messages that they don't have thumbs and thus cannot open their own cans of food, so dammit, what am I waiting for.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Missing: One functional brain

I am praising heaven and doing the yippie-skippy happy dance because I don't have a club-hour meeting tomorrow. I can get up at the usual time, come to the office, and then crank through student assignments until my 2:30 class. I should be able to muscle through a fair chunk in that time. I certainly hope so. I have quite a bit to do over the weekend, no matter how much I get finished tomorrow, so the more the better. As always.

Today's 102 was pretty awful. The students were completely stuck on the story we were discussing (Ursula Le Guin's "Ile Forest," from the Orsinian Tales, which I think is a truly beautiful story--but then I would). They were so stuck that they couldn't even answer the most leading of questions. And I ran smack into a shocking level of socio-historical ignorance. When I asked about one character's social status, they were saying things like "He's not married" or "He has a bad memory." (OK, I made an assumption: I assumed they would know what "social status" means.) They didn't know why a nobleman wouldn't have a job--or wouldn't be rich. A lot of the subtleties of class and expectations were simply lost on them. I've taught this story many times before, and students often have a bit of a hard time with it, but I've never before encountered such a wall of incomprehension. Fortunately, Monday is just a review day, so we can chip away at the story more then, as well as going over nuts-and-bolts stuff. But talk about heavy lifting: too heavy for me to get even a millimeter off the ground. I suspect tomorrow's class will go better, as even at the end of class they seemed more ready to dive in. I do hope.

The poetry class, on the other hand, sailed. Their analytical abilities are improving with each class--and most of them contributed in class, too: there are only three students who are pretty routinely silent, out of 18. Some talk more than others, of course, but just about everyone has something to say. I'm happy with it. I'll know a lot more once I grade their mini-papers, of course (they will, too, once they get them back)--and I'm glad they'll get two mini-papers back before their first big paper is due next Wednesday.

I did think, however, that I had staggered the paper due dates so I wasn't getting papers from 265 the same week I got them for 102. Instead, I'm getting papers from all four classes in one week. Dad used to say there is no defense against random moments of stupidity. Case in point. Ah well. At least I don't have to have the papers for 265 back to the students in an all-fired hurry.

Right at the moment, I'm hanging out waiting for a student from 265, who wants to talk to me about being an English major, wanting to become a writer, what to do with her life. I love that kind of conversation with students. I wish I got to do more of that end of teaching, the part that talks about education in terms of a much larger picture. She's a bright young woman, too, so I'm looking forward to meeting with her. I also am looking forward to a few minutes to talk with Paul. I always like to talk with Paul, of course (my office husband), but also, I shared some essays I use in Native American lit with him, as I thought they'd be helpful to him in something he's working on; he left me a note saying they were, so I want to get his feedback.

I am, however, tired and hungry (despite the Payday bar I snarfed a minute ago), so it will feel very nice to head home relatively early. The latest offerings from Netflix call to me............. Student is here. Posting without proofing, heaven help me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The shoulds

I should be sorting through the folder for ENG102GD (tomorrow's 11 a.m. class) to pull out the assignments that were turned in on Monday and at least get them organized if not start in on the marking. Or, barring that, I should do the same for ENG265, or for today's 101 and 102 classes. Or, I should start making some of the photocopies of the poems I'll be teaching in 265 in the last weeks of the semester. But I. Just. Won't.

I have become the total absent-minded professor. I just exchanged several e-mails with a student about the assignments for 265--only to see, prominently noted in the subject line of her messages to me, that she is in Monday's 102 class. Poor thing; she must be utterly bewildered. I have tried to straighten everything out, but then I sent a message to her and forgot to attach the attachments. (I know we all do that on occasions, but this poor young woman is confused enough.) What the hell is wrong with my brains?

And I am utterly unhappy with how I taught 102 yesterday; today went infinitely better. I gave the right handouts in the right order and explained things much more clearly and fully today. I also made up a little lecture in 101, right on the spot, about the stages of the writing process (drawing in part on an illustration in that style guide I reviewed a bit ago, which clarifies the iterative process of writing). It worked so well, I did it in today's 102. So I'll do it in tomorrow's 102, but I feel all geenchy that the 102s are not in sync in terms of handouts and lessons taught. Argle-bargle-yagh.

Deep, cleansing breath.

So, I've written off my brains for tonight. They are clearly barely functional, so I'm not even going to try to accomplish anything. Instead, I will eat a little dinner; I'll read more of PrairyErth, then go to dance class, then go home and (I hope) fall quickly into bed and a profound slumber. The fantasy is that I'll wake up tomorrow with a shiny newly refurbished brain. And I'll tackle the chaos of papers and handouts (what's been given out, what hasn't, what I should give out when and why) when that sparkling tuned-up brain has been installed.

I think of the Geoffrey Rush character in Shakespeare in Love, saying that things will work out, they always do. How? It's a mystery. But they will. And things work better with sleep.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


This weekend, so far, some work, more noodling. Lots and lots of noodling. And I am going to go to dance class tomorrow, which will eat up a good bit of the middle of the day. So the big question is, do I pay to have my laundry done, or do I do it myself after dance class and get a little marking done while things whirl around in various machines? I buy slightly more time when I don't have to be there to do it, but there is also the question of when do I pick it up again. Normally I'd be able to get it after work on Monday, but I'm going out with Szilvia after classes: we've had to postpone a couple of times, so I hope very much that this time works, even though it will mean a relatively late night. Still, I'll be able to get some work done on the train, too...

And I did hash out an assignment schedule for 265, so, whew.

Now, back to my regularly scheduled popcorn.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Sometimes the wall is a lot closer than others. I was a photocopying fool earlier, which of course also necessitated sorting it all out and making sure the right stuff went in the right folders. (Mind numbing and time consuming, but a nice feeling of cleared space around my feet.) And of course, in that process, I thought of about 40 more things I need to prep and copy, very very soon. However, I did decide to make the 102 students download their own review sheets for next week's assignment. They can use their paper and ink, dammit.

I also chipped away at the schedule of assignments for 265. I even have everything photocopied up through the week after spring break, which is a huge relief. I still want to figure out the rest of the assignments, even if I don't get them all copied right away. (I hope to use the copy center for the rest so all I have to do is get the master ready.) Of course, as I was driving away from the house, running late for my morning appointment, I realized I'd left my volumes of Sexton, Atwood and so on sitting on the whatnot by my front door. Much cursing ensued, followed by resignation. I'd hoped to nail the whole thing down today, but I'll just have to pull that end of things together later. I already know that the students won't be happy with the number of poems I have assigned for one week coming up, even though I'm only requiring four response sheets. I just couldn't keep myself from assigning just one more cummings poem.... As it stands, it seems we'll alternate a relatively easy week with a pretty tough one (and I think I have the readings staggered so the tough ones do not coincide with a writing assignment, but I can't guarantee that). Ah well. They'll live. So will I. We all have to remember to relax and breathe and know that it's all open to change.

After all that, I started marking homework left over from what feels like several decades ago--and that's when I hit the wall. Nothing particularly awful about the journals I was marking, but I was saying pretty much the same thing over and over, and obviously that gets tedious. And since I didn't sleep well (or enough) last night, I quickly ran out of focus and patience. It's damned early yet--mid-afternoon, for heaven's sake--so I have this fantasy that I'll go home, nap, and then be charged up to do more marking. Getting some more stuff marked today will help me feel OK about the weekend, so I don't feel like I have to grind myself to a nubbin to be ready for the resumption of festivities next week--but I still am hanging on to this "It's the break: I should be having fun" mentality. And quite rightly.

So I will go home and nap and then see how I feel. But pre-nap, I'm going to go to the Apple store to get some accessories for my delightful iPod nano. It's entirely possible that will sap the last of my energy, nap or not (the mall! the mall! aaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!), but it's something I wanted to do for myself over this break, so I'm just going to. So there. Funny how I feel the need to justify these things (to myself, not to you, dear readers). I need to remind myself that I make up the rules, and since they're my rules, I can arbitrarily change them at any moment. Like now.

Side note: I am interested to see what the spell-check function here picks up. For instance, it recognizes "dammit" as a word but not the hyphenated prefix "pre" as part of a word. Curious.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chipping away

I finally got into the office today. Meant to come in yesterday but it was snowing, and even though the roads were perfectly passable, it just was too cozy staying home and frittering away the day (tea and jigsaw puzzle: perfect noodling activity). I had a bunch of errands to run before coming in today, so didn't get here until afternoon, and then ended up spending some time on the phone with my sister, dealing with some family hullabaloo (nothing critical, just garden-variety tangles, but tangled and thorny nonetheless). I also spent a lot of time figuring out what I need to get copied so I can get the students ready for their first papers, which are coming up any minute. I also decided I do want to create a schedule for 265 after all--again, having to do with their papers. I'm thinking especially about their final papers, and the fact that we're going to do more reading after they submit their proposals and (in theory at least) start working, so I want them to know what's coming. That way, they can consider the last few weeks' worth of poems in making their choices for their final papers.

I hope I'm making some kind of sense. I find my brains feel very much like someone is playing pinball in them. (Not me: I don't feel in control of this at all. Things are boinging around and making all sorts of odd thumping and dinging noises, so I have little sense of order or logic.) I keep glancing over at my desk and thinking, "OK, now what??" In order to finalize the schedule for 265, I have to refer to some poetry volumes at home, as the anthologies I have here don't have some of the pieces I know I want to use--or at least I want to consider a wider selection before choosing, especially when choosing from some of my favorite poets. I have my own volume of e. e. cumming poetry here and had a very hard time keeping the selection to a reasonable minimum--but at least I'm happy with what I chose. I know I'll face similar problems with Anne Sexton and Margaret Atwood. I have, however, lightened the load for the students a little: there are several weeks in which I'm assigning six poems to read, but I'm only requiring response sheets on four, their choice. I hope they feel they can handle that; it doesn't seem unduly onerous to me.

For the comp classes, I have a bunch of assignments to mark, but mostly I'm thinking ahead to what I need to set up prior to those papers being due. I have postponed the paper for 101: originally I had staggered the due dates so I'd have their papers a week before getting the papers for 102 (would have made life easier for me), but I need time to go over their draft intro paragraphs, and the snow days necessitate a shift. Fortunately, I'd left a day without a specific assignment, so I can easily shift things into that gap and then we're easily back on track--assuming we don't get another snow day (or several; my friend Martha, who lives in Missouri, says they've had something like 10 snow days already this year. I'm counting blessings and praying that we stay blessed.)

In any event, I will feel better about everything once I know I've done all I can to explain the paper process (to explain that it is a process). The assignments, enh. I'll chip away at them tomorrow: I have an appointment near campus at 9:30 tomorrow morning, so I'll simply roll into the office when I'm done and crank through whatever I can. However, first I need to do a fair amount of photocopying (which is good to do over the break, when I don't have to compete for the copiers), but I'm hoping I can crank through relatively quickly--and that I'll have slept enough that when I start marking, I'll have brain energy to last a while. If I'd get my head together sooner, I could have the copy service do my photocopying for me, but I never think of it in time. I do hope I can get them to do most of the copies for 265, however. That will buy me some time and energy.

I almost feel guilty for packing it in right now: I'm not absolutely falling over with exhaustion and am not ravenously hungry, so shouldn't I keep working? Um, no. I got the letters done for my two mentees; I finally visited human resources to check on their personnel files (and my own); I've sorted and cleared and thunk enough. I think more frittering is in order. It is supposed to be a break after all (hah!).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow Day #2

Yesterday, in between bouts of shoveling, I finalized my promo folder (done, by cracky! whew and again whew), reworked first essay assignments and posted them (wish I'd looked more carefully at the assignment for 101 before I copied it and handed it out last week, or whenever that was: I left out some of the adjustments I'd made last semester, dammit--but they're in the version that's posted), posted the review sheets on the schedule for the next few weeks, e-mailed students from 265 about what I'd like them to read for after the break. One 101 student told me he/she couldn't print the review sheet (but gave no further information--including his/her name); two students from 265 have responded to let me know they got my e-mail, the same two who got the last one. Ah well.

And today is gorgeous and sunny, and, at least around here, the roads are perfectly clear, so the powers that be were a bit precipitous in canceling today's classes, as there would have been no problem going in--at least not for any class starting after about 9 a.m. But they couldn't uncancel, so those of us who don't teach night classes get the benefit. I will still go to campus around 4:30 to do the placement reading I was scheduled for tonight: there were some books left over from Tuesday, and they are testing again today, so there will be plenty to read. I will probably be there solo, but that's OK. I'll just crank through what I can in whatever time I spend and then whoever goes in tomorrow will provide the second read. The batch I/we read on Tuesday was surprisingly good: the majority were pretty clearly ready to go into 101, and that's unusual.

So now that I've been given the gift of an additional two days tacked on to the Presidents' Week break, I have to try to do at least a little work as I go along so I don't end up trying to grind through everything I brought home on the 21st. I need to revise the letters for my mentees (both of whom saw what I had written and gave me very helpful feedback, in addition to the feedback I got from P&B), and there are, of course, about a gazillion other pearls bouncing around that I want to catch before they fall through the floorboards. Today, however, I figure that the placement reading, plus the feedback I just gave to the publishers of a new handbook, constitutes sufficient attention to work. (I did, after all, have to read sections of the handbook and give intelligent responses to their questions. And it's a pretty great handbook in most ways. Depending on what the new edition of Keys for Writers looks like, I may switch.) I can feel my brains already starting to shift into white-noise mode, and my body edging toward sea-cucumber status. Blog entries may be somewhat curtailed over the next week as a consequence.

It's a good thing there isn't any chocolate in the house, or I would be lying on the sofa literally eating bon-bons. mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Home from dance

Just got home: it was a hell of a day, even though I did ditch the curriculum meeting today; in exchange, I did placement reading after my class right up until I had to leave for dance. (I did dance, two classes in a row. Nice to be moving, but man howdy was I stumbling around tonight. Never mind two left feet: felt like I had fourteen of them, all going in wrong directions.)

Both today's classes went fine, I think: I was rather in a blur today, seriously absent minded. I've been feeling very much like things are beginning to spin out of control in ways that have me bewildered, so I'm not quite sure how to prioritize and I am so afraid of forgetting things that I keep forgetting things because I'm worrying about what I might be forgetting. (Yep, that sums it up. My brain doesn't make things much clearer at this point.) In any event, I am incredibly grateful that they've already made the decision that tomorrow is a snow day: I won't be awakened by the snow chain phone call at 5 a.m., and I will have the day to get caught up and prioritize stuff, in between bouts of shoveling. I'm half tempted to make my "to do" list right here--but on the other hand, I think what I really need to do is stop thinking at all, let my brain make white noise (mmmmmmmmm), and hope that when I wake up in the morning, I'll be slightly more compos mentis. Too tired to even proof this, just going to toss the post up there and fade gently into the night.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Petite break

Trying to clear some silt out of the brains before returning to reading journals for tomorrow. I already know I'm not going to get one assignment for 101 finished (review sheets from their style guide), but I do want to get journals back to them so they have feedback: they're going to be submitting their third journal tomorrow and have yet to see anything from me to help them understand what I want. I didn't quite get the poetry response sheets done before class this afternoon (ended up frittering away too much of Saturday, despite my blog-stated resolve to get to work), but those students are willing to skate with me--not that they have much choice. I also have a set of journals for my T/Th 102 to do before that class, and of course some P&B business before that meeting. (Let me reiterate: Tuesdays are an epic pile-up.) I may end up bailing on the departmental curriculum committee meeting: I'm the department's rep to the college-wide committee, so I ought to be there, but if something has to give, that's probably it.

We're also facing a potential snow day on Wednesday, so there's a fair amount of tap dancing involved: it wouldn't be much of an issue except we're also about to have that idiotic (though admittedly much enjoyed) Presidents' Week break, so if we miss classes on Wednesday, I won't see the students again until after the break. I'm also thinking: depending on how bad the storm is and how bad the roads are on Thursday, what are the odds there will be enough students in class to make it worth coming in? The Thursday before a break (most students don't have class on Fridays), rotten driving conditions, young drivers with worried parents ... hmmmm. On the other hand, I do have an appointment near campus in the morning; I am supposed to give phone feedback to a publisher about their new style guide on Thursday, and I'm scheduled to do placement reading that evening (though if testing is canceled on Wednesday because of snow, there won't be many essays to read). All of which makes it sensible to come in anyway. Maybe I'll flip a coin.

Classes went well today. The students in 102 did a good job with "The Red Convertible," and we started talking about theme--quite productively I think. I hope we get to return to the conversation on Wednesday, and it would be great if I could go over the essay and draft thesis assignments before the break, but... In any event, I think most of the students are doing well. A few did not have the reading done and hadn't done their journals: instead of throwing them out, I pointed out to them that they were doing a disservice to their group-mates. It was a shame tactic, but I think that may be more productive than making it about rules. There were a couple of students who had barely been there before, so that was a bit odd: I'll hardly have a chance to see them before the break, and I'm uncertain whether they'll be able to get themselves caught up. I have to remind myself that it's their responsibility--and their problem if they don't. But it leaves me feeling unsettled not to be sure who is really in the class and who isn't.

The poetry class went well too. We cranked through the three poems untouched from last week (and I hope they learned something about reading what is actually there instead of what they think will be there: a lot of them completely missed the irony in Stephen Crane's "War Is Kind" or Siegfried Sassoon's "The Glory of Women"). I collected their response sheets for the two Wilfred Owen poems I assigned (which we did not go over)--but of course (because, as I keep telling them, I am the absent-minded professor) I forgot to hand out the poems I want them to read over the break. That's not a problem if we have class on Wednesday. If not, well, we're back to a tap-dance (and at least we'll have the Owen poems to go over on the first day back).

Paul and I were just talking about "habits of mind" that the students need to develop. I was reading a journal about the Barry Lopez essay "A Voice." Lopez makes it clear that at certain times of his life his family was affluent; he also describes the various places he lived at those times. At the beginning of the essay he says, "I was born in a watershed in New Rochelle"--and the student was confused: "I thought he was rich." I can only try to imagine what that student envisioned a "watershed" to be, but clearly he thought it was Lopez's abode. And yet, faced with something so glaringly inconsistent in his understanding, it never occurred to the kid to look up "watershed" to be sure it meant what he thought. That's the kind of brain blockage I find hardest to flush clear: the assumption of comprehension in the face of obvious incomprehension. That's why students missed the irony in the poems in 265 as well: finally one student pointed out that the refrain "war is kind" didn't seem to match the descriptions of the war. Yes, darling, that's the whole point. All I can do is perpetually point out to them what they are doing and hope that, like water dripping on rock, eventually an impression begins to be made.

OK, clearly I'm tired and cranky, and I obviously don't want to wade through any more journals. If I don't I'll be unhappy with myself tomorrow, but if I do, I may be facing diminishing returns in my "helpful" commentary. I'll look at a few more at least, but I make no guarantees. (And if I don't get them done? Yet another reason to suck it up and come in on Thursday, despite a potential paucity of student bodies in the rooms.) (Isn't it fun to be able to use "paucity" in a sentence?)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thursday recap

There is a big stack of stuff to mark in the living room, and I will go in there and get rolling in a little bit here, but I wanted to report my continued surprise and delight with my 101 class. They struggled with the Norris essay, but ultimately they got the important stuff out of it. There was one young woman (urban, black, feisty) who began by being angry with the essay; she didn't understand how Norris could feel as she does about the Dakotas--a common student reaction--but she was genuinely angry about it. I finally said to her, "It makes sense that you don't understand this, but why are you angry about it? Look into that, see if you can figure out what makes you mad." Finally we got to the realization that she was angry because she didn't understand: she felt that this was something completely alien and yet the author was trying to show her something she didn't get. Once we identified the anger as coming from frustration and the sense of missing something--of being left out of a secret, in a sense--the student suddenly found she could dig into the words of the piece and determine what Norris was saying. She did great in the overall class discussion; they all did great. A few of them even made very smart connections to the Lopez essay--without any prompting from me. Their reading journals are on the top of that stack of assignments, so I'm almost looking forward to marking them: it will be interesting to see how much of that thinking got onto the forms. Not a lot, I'm guessing, but I hope I can see the places where I can help focus or redirect or frame their understanding, which I can only do if they show me what they do--and don't--understand.

The 102 class went pretty well, too. After two days, that one is more of a blur, which suggests A) that nothing wildly important happened, positive or negative and 2) that by the time that one rolled around, I was pretty crunchy and consequently without much grey matter to hold memories.

I'm trying a new assignment this semester--have I mentioned this? (Christ, my memory utterly sucks)--which is for students to bring in draft introductory paragraphs, including a thesis, before they turn in the first version of their papers. For one thing, I'm sick of spending the conference week saying to every single student "You need a stronger thesis," so I want to be able to say that to them before they do the damned papers. For another, I want them to understand process--and that coming up with even a draft thesis requires "prewriting"--which is actually writing, it's just not the writing one ultimately turns in. Process, process, process. I'm going to hammer that this semester. They don't want to believe it: they still want to believe they can write a paper in one pass--and that there is something wrong with them if they can't. If I can make a few cracks in that edifice, I'll be content.

But I am very aware of the procrastinatory nature of this post: those assignments are not marking themselves (nor are the cats marking them, the useless animals). So off I go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I'm happy to report...

...that 265 went much better today. I don't know why: any number of variables could account for the difference. One could be that we already struggled through the resistance, so they got their ya-ya's out and could just do the work today. Another could be that they were in different groups: sometimes simply a different mix of personalities in a group will make a big change in what work gets done and how. A third could be that there were two students in the room who weren't there on Monday. One of them was a late registrant who came once, missed, and then was back (I was afraid I'd lost her, and she's smart, so it's nice to have her back). One missed the first three classes: she e-mailed me yesterday to tell me she hadn't actually disappeared but would be joining the class. I told her she'd be way behind and might want to look a the syllabus and assignments before deciding if she wanted to jump in. Of course she didn't get that e-mail, so she showed up today, bright and chipper--and promptly got buried in a barrage of handouts. She seems intelligent and sufficiently motivated, but I've been fooled by first impressions before. I'll know a lot more when I start getting assignments from her (if in fact I do). I think she did OK today, just rolling with whatever was going on and trying to do her best, seeing the poems for the first time. I'll be interested to see what comes on Monday.

In any event, we got through "The Second Coming," and they understood it pretty well. (I did have to remind them not to pole-vault to what it "means" but to work through the details first. Once they started to do that, they did well, picking up on images that led to sensible interpretations.) We still have three poems from this week to churn through next week, so I only gave them two Wilfred Owen poems ("Apologia Pro Poemate Meo" and "Dulce et Decorum Est"). I also gave them a handout of common themes in Modernist poetry, and we went over what the language meant (making sure they understand phrases such as "social norms" and "despairing responses." I know it seems like one shouldn't have to check that sophomore-level students get language that basic, but one does.) They then started to look for some of those themes in the poems we were reading--and what do you know: there they were, even in pre-Modernist "Dover Beach."

Today's 102 went pretty well, too. They got to some good stuff in "Sonny's Blues"--in fact, some things that no one has ever noticed in any class I've ever taught with that story. (They were the first to ask about the "cup of trembling" reference at the end, for instance.) There seems to be a good critical mass of decent brains in there (albeit one poor kid who is already completely drowning and who very likely will not make it even half-way through). I was quite happy with the discussion--and could have done more with it except I forgot to bring my little box of clips, mini-stapler and chalk with me, and of course there was not a hint of a sliver of chalk anywhere in the room. I didn't feel like we could productively start on the process of identifying theme, as that requires a number of steps that they need to see. Shelved until Monday.

(Oh, and that reminds me: I want to try to remember to schedule time with the computer in each class so I can visually demonstrate revising a thesis in real time. Mmmm, put that on the list of things to remember tomorrow--along with writing the letter for my mentee's folder.)

In any event, I still have a slew of things to mark--as per last night's post--but for various reasons, I'm hanging it up for the night. (Yes, Scarlett.) The alarm is still set for six, so we'll see when I get in and how much I get done. Right now I feel much like I'm trying to swim through cotton, and that is not conducive to evaluation of student homework. So, next on my agenda: food, fun read (or DVD), and sleep--soon. And I'm parked right out back tonight, so I don't even have to walk across campus to get into the car, which means I'll be home 5 minutes earlier....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Just scrolled through some recent posts, wondering if there were any comments--and ye gods, I do go on, don't I? 40 minutes later, still scrolling through the same post....

Revised acronym for the day

MMCCMBFO: meeting-meeting-class-class-mark papers-blog-fall over. The "dance" part I thought would be included got pushed aside by the "mark papers" part. (No tragedy: the instructor I like is out this week, and I'm not over-thrilled with the sub, so I don't mind missing.) The "fall over" part obviously is still to come, as I'm just now embarking on the "blog" part.

Of course, being me, I marked too much on the M/W 102 self-evaluations, so it took me lots longer than strictly necessary. However, I wanted them to see how I mark (albeit in blue on this assignment) so it won't be such a shock when they see it on their papers (though the red ink will still cause paralysis). But that's one class worth. I still have another 102's worth of self-evaluations--and two sets of reading journals for 101. I have tomorrow afternoon to work in, thank god, and various chunks of time on Thursday prior to the back-to-back classes, so I have a faint, vanishing chance of getting it all done and back to them. I want 102 to have the self-evaluations so they get an idea where they stand with me. I want 101 to have the reading journals back so they have a better idea how to do the next one.

I already had to adjust the syllabus for 101, in fact. I gave them some handouts so they could be thinking ahead to assignments due next week: huge mistake. First, they were completely confused about what was due when. Second, I had to explain what I was looking for, which took a long time--in part because they aren't really quite there (which is why the assignment is for next week). Third, I had to have the discussion about why they can't just write about their own experiences. I was blunt: no one cares about you and what you think and feel. They don't care about me, either. You may think you're the center of the universe, and your friends and family may care, but beyond that, really, no one cares. You are not that important. However, if you come up with strong and compelling thoughts, then people will be interested. I also reminded them that they already know how to talk and write about themselves because that's what they've been doing for the past 13 years or so. I'm here to teach them something new.

But by the time we finished that, and the little ice-breaker (which helps me learn all their names and faces), we had 10 minutes left to talk about the Kathleen Norris essay "The Beautiful Places," which is no cinch to analyze. They get the pretty facile "she finds inspiration" point out of it, but there is a hell of a lot more going on--and we need time to talk about it. So the easy fix was to ditch the in-class essay. They were not unhappy. (They didn't quite cheer but damned near.) No real loss. (But consequently, it turns out I didn't need to be so fertutzed about pulling the topic out of my left ear--or wherever those things come from.) Anyway, Thursday is now clear so we can talk about Norris--and it will help them to have their journals for that process. However, I know that if I don't manage to get the journals marked, I can always give them back for use in class and re-collect them to mark over the weekend. It's all about priority juggling and strategic planning.

And I do have to write a draft of the letter for one of my mentee's promotion folders--tomorrow or Thursday, no later--so that may bump the 101 journals. We'll see.

I also gave 265 a break on their response sheets--did I mention? I gave them until tomorrow to do whatever they hadn't done (which is also a petite break for me: now I don't have to mark them until the weekend). I'm on the fence about how many poems to copy for next week. I think I'll copy four but be willing to give only two if we haven't gotten through the poems from this week. They're floundering enough that everything I said about it being OK to assign stuff one doesn't cover in class doesn't hold. I may eventually be able to turn 'em loose, but not at this particular juncture.

I also repeated virtually everything I said in yesterday's blog to Paul yesterday afternoon. In response, he talked so beautifully and intelligently about "Dover Beach" and "The Second Coming" that I invited him to guest lecture tomorrow. He may take me up on that. I'd love it. He had such brilliant stuff to say about how to get them into the poem, how to connect it to something they can understand, I want to just hand them over to him and let him work his magic. (My magic wand apparently is in need of repair.) If Paul decides not to step in for whatever reason, I will fully understand--and will do my damnedest to remember what he said and to do my own version thereof. Won't be a patch on what he could do, but it might help. Man, I'll do just about anything to break through to those kids. If I don't, it's going to be a hell of a rough semester.

I am also going to copy some of the apparatus from a couple of the big anthologies as background/critical material. I know most of the students won't read it (as I won't assign homework on it--and it is lengthy, and somewhat dense), but at least they'll have it to refer to. And those who do read it may find some help.

I am pleased to report, however, that several students in that class took me at my word about the fact that I won't teach them how to write or how to do MLA format, so they'd better have a good writing guide. They've been asking my advice--and bringing in what they bought for my approval. Cool beans.

I did also accomplish a little foot-clearing: I got some info to my promotion mentees, and I finally got the last bits of documentation I need for my own folder. I do have a little reworking/rewriting to do (among other little bits and orts, Paul made a suggestion last time that I ignored, but he made his case again, and I see that indeed he's got a very good point, so I need to address it). I don't know what else, but I've been going full-bore since 9:45 this morning--and it's almost 9 p.m. now. Take out about 20 minutes for snarfing down food in between tasks, and that's been my work day. But I leave tonight feeling like things are under control for tomorrow. Now I just have to hit myself upside the head with a frying pan tonight so I wind down and get a decent night's sleep before tomorrow's 9:30 a.m. assessment meeting. That six a.m. alarm is starting to feel like normal, not an hour early. (I know for many of you, the idea of getting up at 7--maybe even at 6--seems luxuriously late, but for me, 6 is about the limit before it becomes too painful to contemplate.) I was in bed, lights out and asleep by 9:45 last night. I won't be able to repeat that tonight, as I may not even be home by 9:45, but I'll do my best.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Well, that was a bit painful...

I'm afraid I lost two of the three new students in 265--plus a fair proportion of the ones who were on my roster from the beginning. I bet they were daunted by the amount of work and fled. Too bad, as I could have used a few more smart and motivated students in the class today: the smart to lunk ratio is starting to tip the wrong way, unless some of the missing brighter lights come back.

I gave the students in 265 five poems to read and respond to, and I grant you, there is a lot going on in the poems. However, I had hoped for better attempts at comprehension than I got. (Note the word "attempts." I wasn't even asking for actual comprehension, just the attempt.) Somehow, because the first two poems were about immigration issues, and because in "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold mentions England and France, they thought it was an immigration poem, too. Or a poem about war. (They know the word "armies.") One student picked up on the issue of Faith/religion--but the rest were either way off base or so worried about "getting it" that they froze. Somehow, they didn't notice that the response form never once asks them what the poem is about. Never. I ask them to notice images, to notice figurative language, to notice sounds and rhythms; I ask them whether they think the poem is expressing a thought or simply an image--but nothing else. (I should probably bring in the Billy Collins poem "Introduction to Poetry," in which he ends with his despair that students only want to torture a confession out of poetry....)

So, faced with their petrified silence, I did most of the heavy lifting today, taking them through the poem image by image--and then I gave them the cultural milieu in which the poem was written and talked about the crisis of faith, the sense of emptiness and confusion left in the wake of the loss of faith--in response to which, one student said that Arnold was just "overthinking" things and that life just "is what it is," that we should only pay attention to "facts" and why make such a fuss over something we can't change? After all, Arnold chose to not believe any more; he could have still believed if he wanted to, so why does he have to go on about it like that? I had quite an exchange with that student (which I let go on because I think he was talking for a lot of them, and I wanted them to understand the issues at stake)--and then one student said, "I thought this class was modern poetry." So I explained that the cultural shift into the modern era was beginning with writers like Arnold--and that if they didn't get the importance of the ideas in his poem, they wouldn't get anything else that arose from those ideas. "So all the poems we're going to read are going to be about religion?" she asked. Oh, arrrrrrghghg. I shudder to think what's going to happen on Wednesday when we discuss Yeats' "Second Coming"--never mind the other poems that express the same sort of cultural malaise. And then I think ahead to them reading "Prufrock," and my toenails turn over. I'm going to be totally bald by the end of the semester if this goes on. But it does show me that I'm going to have to slow way the hell down in terms of what I think we're going to accomplish in class. Paul and I have often discussed the fact that there is a place for giving reading assignments that we don't go over in class--it doesn't hurt them to read beyond the class discussion and to flounder around on their own--so I may still assign the number of poems I originally intended: I'll just know we're probably not going to get very far in class.

By the way, I did find a source that revealed to me a little more of what I taught in 2005 than just "reading due." On the grade sheets I put together at the end of the semester, next to assignment dates, I at least gave poets' names, if not the actual poems. I'll no doubt be raiding from that as I go along. But today's experience makes me think that it might be best if I don't put together even a tentative schedule of assignments for them: I think I'm going to need the wiggle room from week to week.

Man howdy do I hope I can bring them along and get them reading and thinking more deeply. Maybe I'm seeing the past through a rosy haze of misremembrance, but it seems to me that in 2005 the students were more able to handle difficult material. They still struggled, of course--they should--but they weren't as close to completely drowning as the students I have now. I keep thinking about what Cathy said once, regarding the fact that we're getting the products of No Child Left Behind (also known as No Child Left Uneducated or All Minds Left Behind). Now that all our assessment initiatives focus on critical thinking across the disciplines (a catch phrase one cannot escape--and I grant you, among the most crucial aspects of a college education), it's relatively ironic that we're getting more and more students who have not been trained at all how to think critically. (It's too hard to measure quantifiably on a test.)

But today's 102 went better. We didn't actually discuss the story much, but they asked a lot of very good questions about the journal form and got clarifications that will help them. Wednesday will demonstrate how well they read the story: I did set them up to expect flashbacks and flash-forwards, and I overheard one group trying to sort out the sequence of events, so I'm guardedly optimistic. (Very guardedly. Steel bank vault guarded.)

Of the work I intended to do over the weekend, I did get the response sheets marked and back to the poetry students; I didn't get the self-evaluations done for the 102s. I was going to try to get them done for tomorrow's class first and then turn my attention to Wednesday's--but then I realized that tomorrow I'm not going to have time to breathe, never mind do much marking: it will be a typical Tuesday, meeting-meeting-class-class-blog-dance-fall over. That leaves no time to get the M/W batch done before Wednesday--unless I start them now and finish up tomorrow before MMCCBDFO (see above). I will, however, have time on Wednesday after class and on Thursday before class to do the T/Th batch, so the priorities shift accordingly.

I also have one more promo folder to look at before tomorrow's P&B, so I'd better do that now. Shouldn't take long, as it was very clear and well-done in its first incarnation. But it does need doing. And yes, dammit, I forgot again about the visit to human resources to look at personnel files. I think I need to tattoo that to my forehead so I'll remember. It's the "brain too full" syndrome: can't find what one is looking for any more than one can find that little doohickey in a packed-full closet.

Not sure if I've got the energy to dance tonight, but I have my shoes with me, just in case. I'll see how I feel after cranking through a little more work....