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


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






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Monday, August 30, 2010

"You may fire when ready, Gridley"

As in, I'm as ready as I'm going to be for the first two weeks of classes. Came in to campus today, spent what felt like four or five years at the copier (aware of the vulture-like circling of fellow faculty and office staff awaiting their turn but steadfastly continuing to copy away). Of course, as I was copying 101 syllabi, I also had the Michael Pollan pieces in front of me and thought, "I don't think I need to copy these now; I've got some time. When did I assign them?" Frantic riffling through syllabi. Oops. Big, major oops. Hadn't assigned them. The copies for the M/W 101 section had already been run, and the copier was just starting on the 60 prints for the T/Th sections when I quickly deleted that print run. Finished copying everything else, ran upstairs, made changes to the syllabi, reprinted just the changed pages for the M/W class, printed the corrected syllabus for the T/Th classes, changed my abbreviated copies of the syllabus, changed the student record cards (where I keep track of all their assignments: fortunately I'd not printed that part yet)--and just spent a nice, brainless 20 minutes pulling apart the M/W syllabi and inserting the new page.

Of course, one might think there had been some brainlessness going on prior to that point, but at least I caught it before it got too far--and had a place in the syllabus where I could put the Pollan articles without sacrificing anything else. I now have 11 reading journals assigned for the 101 classes, which means I can cancel one--or, if we have time to get to all of them, at least drop the lowest mark when figuring final grades. I always like to have a little wiggle room like that.

Everything for the first few weeks is also posted on my faculty homepage (though I do want to add a link to Pollan's official web page). I've got preliminary rosters printed from Banner. I have an idea for a first-day exercise with the 101 students regarding time management. I have an idea how I'm going to start things off with the 101s on the first day, have to come up with a good opener for the short-story class (and of course that's the one I teach first: 11:00 on Wednesday morning). If I'm forgetting anything, I'll either remember it with a jolt sometime along the way or it will just mercifully be forgotten.

I had a nice little talk with Paul, too, and one of the topics of discussion was a furor that's been going on through the faculty e-mail circuits. One administrator said that students could continue to register for classes all the way up through the end of the second week of classes--not drop-add, mind you, but register. The reasoning? Why not let them if there are seats available? Huge bruhaha from the faculty about the importance of the first day of classes, not to mention the second. It really is insulting as hell to act as if the first classes don't matter--and gives the students the impression that this is, indeed, 13th grade. (Why do administrators hate that reputation and then do everything they can to bolster it through their expectations--or lack thereof?)

I have to say, the drop-add period is similarly problematic, and I may face that issue, but I don't think I'll have new students registering for my classes because the sections are filled to the brim (the new caps are absurdly high, and all my sections are filled to those new caps--a problem to discuss another time). In any event, my plan, should new students crop up on the second day (second week), is to let them know that they have already used one of their three allotted absences. If anyone tries to come in on the third class--which is actually the third week of classes--he or she will be told that even one absence beyond that will result in the need to withdraw. And any fuss from the student will mean he or she will withdraw immediately. There may be the incredibly rare student who can come into a class that far down the line and get caught up, but I've yet to encounter one. I'll give a student a chance to be the one rare exception, but I also don't believe in giving out false hope, or setting up failure.

This whole registration idiocy is simply more of the institutional madness that we're facing these days, in which--as is all too often the case--decisions that are made for financial reasons work directly in opposition to our ostensible educational goals. I have to say I'm glad I'm not the person who has to try to figure out how to cut however many million dollars from an already too-tight budget, but somehow, doing things that are detrimental to the stated purpose of the institution seems, shall we say, ill-considered.

Ah well. My new mantra about nearly everything in my life is "We'll see." We'll see how things shake out in terms of the current budget crisis and administrative realignments. I'll teach my classes and weigh in when I feel I've got something important to contribute that isn't already being said--sometimes even said better than I could (imagine that!)--by someone else.

And now, it's a matter of breathing deeply for a little bit, disengaging my brains for the balance of the evening, and tomorrow turning my attention to that book review, which I will, goddammit, get done and out of my hair. It'll make for a hell of a day tomorrow, but it'll feel good to have that checked off the freaking endless and ever-growing "to do before it bursts into flames" list.

And the semester hasn't even started yet. Yeesh. Now, however, it's time for food. Fooooood....

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Well, duh...

Lying in bed last night--OK, technically early this morning--trying to let go and fall asleep, it suddenly dawned on me: I teach a couple of thematically paired short stories in my 102 classes: why not start with something I use there? And suddenly, thinking of one of the pairs, I realized that a couple of the stories in the anthology I chose would work nicely to continue the theme--a theme I hadn't initially considered when I read (and liked) the stories in the anthology. So, I've got specific stories assigned all the way up to when I've scheduled the first significant essay, and have now bought myself a few weeks in which to finish reading the anthology and select the stories for the rest of the semester. Whew. With the feeling of "duh, well, why didn't I think of that sooner?" this morning I did all the writing up of the schedule, polishing off the rest of the syllabus, and am ready to go in to the office on Monday to print, copy--and post stuff to my faculty homepage.

After that huge sigh of relief, I started to read in the book for the imminent review, and am fighting "monkey mind": having a hard time concentrating, as my brain keeps jumping from thought to thought to thought about other stuff. Argh. So I'm taking the blog break, and I think it will help calm the monkey down if I turn my attention back to school work for a little bit here: one of the branches the monkey keeps jumping back to is "I need to pull together the mini-paper assignments and essay assignments for the short-story class; I can do that without the kind of specificity I need for the 101 paper assignments...."

In terms of 101, I've got dates set up for the classes to go to the library and get a lesson in doing database research. I've usually done that myself, but this semester, since I had the assignment schedule planned out enough in advance, I realized I could let someone else teach it (and hope like hell that the person conducting the lesson is one of the better ones: my one experience having a librarian teach the lesson was monumentally awful, but I know there are very gifted teachers among the librarians who conduct the classes). The added advantage to having the lesson taught in the library by a librarian is that the students can stay in the library for the rest of the class period and actually start work--well before the paper is due. They may not appreciate the gift that is, but I know what I'm giving them by getting them rolling on it sooner.

I do need to refine that paper assignment, too, but I certainly don't have to do that this week: it's their second major assignment, and there is a lot I need to pull together before we get there. Which set the monkey off again, jumping around: "Oh, right, and I need to figure out review sheets for the new handbook assignments...."

It's kind of fucking endless. But--I need to remind myself--actually very interesting to me. I resist this work like crazy, but once I'm doing it, especially once I feel like I'm nailing it pretty well, I find it gratifying. Of course, then I use the assignments, find out the problems with them, and the next time I reconfigure, rework, fuss around more....

What's endless is the quest for the perfect assignment, the perfect sequence, the perfect course. No such animal exists, but the search is intellectually satisfying even in all its frustrations. Huh, whaddaya know: it seems I actually like what I do for a living. Who'd a thunk it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Moving mountains with a teaspoon

I haven't had the right brain energy to read much today, but I've been digging away at prepping the short story course anyway. I have a feeling I won't have a real schedule of assignments ready in time to copy prior to the first day of assignments--and realize it doesn't really matter whether I do, as chances are a number of students won't be there until the following week (if then). I do want to pick a story to start with, and a few stories beyond the first week--and that is turning out to be extraordinarily difficult. I'm not delighted with most of the thematic groupings I've got so far: they all seem too simplistic and tailor-made for stereotypic and unthought responses. But after I read a few more stories, both in the anthology and elsewhere (specifically some of Le Guin's stuff--naturally--and out of the Lorrie Moore collection I just bought), I think I may at least have a place to start. Maybe.

I did come up with the course description for the the beginning of the short-story syllabus, the little blurb that seems so important to set up the tone and focus of any particular section of a course. In doing so, I have to say I kinda cheated: I quoted rather extensively from a Lev Grossman article about Jonathan Franzen that was in the 8/23 edition of Time magazine, in which both Grossman and Franzen wax philosophical about the value of reading as a counter to busyness "in the Kierkegaardian sense." Students are likely to have zero clue who Kierkegaard is, so I'm happy to at least introduce them to the name and the notion that he's an interesting philosopher.

By the way, the same article also has a rather wonderful riff on freedom (which is the title of Franzen's latest novel). It ends with the following: "There is something beyond freedom that people need: work, love, belief in something, commitment to something. Freedom is not enough. It's necessary but not sufficient. It's what you do with freedom--what you give it up for--that matters." (If you want to read the whole article: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2010000,00.html.)

That quotation could (should!) inspire some real thinking and debate amongst any students who are even half awake: it yanks firmly on the reflexive "America/Freedom!" cant that students have swallowed wholesale and don't really think about. I do this periodically: I start to collect articles, thinking maybe someday I'll teach 101 using just articles with ideas like this--or even the extracted idea--instead of the reader I've been using. Jesus, I just want them to THINK. And it's monumentally difficult sometimes.

Speaking of which, I don't remember if I wrote about it in here, but after my smug self-satisfaction about the blurb I rewrote for the 101 classes, I talked with Lia about it, and she rightly pointed out that kids whose primary interest is their cell-phones, shopping, and who's hooking up with whom, probably don't care much about having minds that command respect. Unless--I thought, I hope--I point out to them that having such minds also A) makes them better job prospects and B) makes them sexier. (That second is something Ed pointed out as a benefit that students will be persuaded by--if one can in fact persuade them that such will be the benefit of whatever one wants them to do or become.) So I drafted the blurb again--and probably will at least one more time before I end up copying it for classes.

And when will said copying take place? I had kinda hoped it would be tomorrow, but I think I'd rather give myself another few days to try to pull something more concrete together for the short-story class and go in to do the copying on Monday. I do wish my brains didn't feel quite so much like pancake batter at the moment, but can't be helped.

And I all but promised that I'd have that book review done by the first day of classes, too, so at a certain point, I have to shelve futzing around with the class and turn my attention to that. It's only 1500 words, and I don't feel the need to be terribly erudite, but I do have to finish reading the book first....

But each spoonful of mountain leads to a cupful, and one cupful at a time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Progress made...

I think I have a schedule of assignments for the 101 classes that will work. I think. I'm feeling surges of anxiety about it all, largely because I know I'll have to do a fair amount to have assignments to go with the readings, much of which I'll be creating from scratch. I'm working on a plan to have students generate their own review sheets for assignments out of the handbook (that way I don't have to do it--and as "active learning" praxis, it allows the students to focus on what they want to get out of the material, and to "own" it more, as well as helping undo the old high-school "my job is regurgitation" paradigm of learning). I haven't read the pages of the handbook as carefully as I'd like--and I have a no-doubt unrealistic hope that I will manage to go back and reread the pages more carefully, annotating and getting more familiar with the specifics--but at least I know what is covered and why I think it will help the students. So, whew.

I also spent a fair amount of time going through the textbook again (A Forest of Voices--which needs a new edition, as a lot of the readings are getting pretty dated), trying to decide if I could make relatively easy substitutions for some of the readings I'm frankly getting a little tired of. Found one wonderful replacement to assign for the first batch of readings, heading into their first paper (very happy, even excited, about it), another new one that I hope will get some of them worked up (Terry Tempest Williams's "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," about the cancers in her family caused by open-air testing of atomic bombs)--and I am resurrecting a few I haven't taught in a while (which may show me why I haven't taught them in a while). The triple objective was 1) to have stuff that will provoke thought and potentially feed into writing assignments, 2) to shake things up a little for me, so I don't die of the sameness of it all, and 3) to ensure that I have a nice, round number of assignments, which makes the final grade calculations easier.

I look at my own enthusiasm at this stage with a certain cynical slant, however: I know damned well that this carefully constructed schedule will not work in practice as well as it works on paper. Never does. Can't--as it can't account for the vagaries of what happens in the classroom, with the specific bodies (literally and metaphorically) of the students.

I also went through the schedule for the short-story class, and I did find ways to assign more mini-papers. I just think they're a good idea, as a way for students to test-drive their ideas--and as a low-stakes way to find out about my draconian grading. I've found room for six of them: that way I can eliminate the lowest grade and still have a number that works for the grade percentage (which I have yet to figure out, but one thing at a time). I just got the collected short stories of Lorrie Moore, which is wonderful, exciting--but ye gods, it's more to read, and I'm already feeling somewhat frantic about the reading.

But the alarm is about to go off to remind me that I have to go to campus to do placement reading. I'll be on campus tomorrow, doing more of this sort of thing. It will feel good when this is at least nailed down well enough to start with--knowing that everything is subject to change.

Breathing. Breathing is important.

And there's the alarm.....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Choices, decisions....

I've spent a good deal of time on campus today, after doing placement reading, trying to figure out what to assign in 101, at least in the first few weeks, leading into the first paper. I've been thinking that in the past I've led into the environmental theme of the course from the wrong direction, when it comes to countering student resistance to the topic. The resistance is not uniform: there are students who do care about environmental issues, more who pay lip-service to the notions, but a good number of the students generally don't give a rat's petite patoot. I have my long open letter, which I've often assigned in the past, to some good effect (again, not uniform)--and indeed, I've just spent some time revising/updating it: the letter directly confronts the major points of resistance I encounter, and that kind of "transparency," as I call it, tends to help.

But lately I've been wondering if I should try to start the semester with readings that are not about the spiritual value of nature (which is what I've done in the past, and it's a hard sell to the resistant, even lip-service students) but rather assign readings that are more pragmatic, in effect saying to students, "Look, this is what happens to human bodies; this is what people in urban environments have to deal with; your health, your community, could be on the line here." These are obviously important points to make, but that approach changes all the paper assignments--and do I really want to take that on right now?

Um, don't know.

In the process, however, I started looking for other articles by Michael Pollan that I might use in place of the one I've been using--and oh, Lordy, am I ever faced with the hateful problem of too many wonderful options. (Check out his "Article" links on his home page: http://michaelpollan.com.) I want to assign three that I downloaded, but I fear doing so would just be overwhelming. Oh, argh.

On the other hand, I was talking with several colleagues about the problem of the new "cap" for class sizes: I will almost certainly end up with three 101 sections each with 27 students (even though right now one of them only has 6: I know that "leveling" will happen--students being moved from one over-filled section to another at the same time that has fewer bodies--not to mention all those students who are taking their placement tests right now--though God Forbid I have a class full of students who are testing now: you know perfectly well who it is who is usually taking the test at this stage in the game, and the proportion of those who get passed into credit bearing courses by the veritable skin of their teeth). OK, so three classes, each with 27 students. Check my math, but I believe that's eighty-one first papers to grade (and I'm not looking at the lit class, as their papers will be on a different schedule)--unless I can set the bar high enough that the attrition hits before the first paper. I hate to try to chase students out of my classes: I am an educator; I want them to stay and get educated, dammit. But there is a measure of self-protection I have to consider here--not to mention the quality of educating I can do for that many students. Argh again.

But I just sat here staring off into space for a blank moment: clearly the brains are seizing up--and I'm about to head off for dinner with former student Natasha, so I'll just let everything marinate overnight.

Classes start two weeks from Wednesday--but I really do need to get all the handouts for the first two weeks done and photocopied as much earlier as possible, because I don't want to have to deal with the usual first day mailroom panic ("I need these copied for my class that starts in 5 minutes! and one of the copiers is broken!! and there are 40 people in line waiting to get their copies made!!!") Well, absolute worst-case scenario: students don't get their "first day" handouts until the second day--which is actually the second week. This semester is just going to have a weird start, that's all there is to it.

Sigh. Ah well.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Plagiarism traps

I was so smug when I chose the short story anthology I'll be using in 263, as it seemed to me that a number of the stories were unusual enough to be plagiarism resistant (nothing is plagiarism proof, probably not even in-class writing, with today's cell-phone technology). Hah. Guess again. I did a quick search on some of the stories I thought were surely relatively unique: even if there aren't ready-made papers on them, there is something that the desperate (or "screw this") student could potentially raid from. Hell and blast and hell.

However, I have found some reasonably good critical articles on a few of the stories I think I'd like to assign. I need to read them more carefully myself, but I like to provide critical essays for the students' second papers, as a gradual introduction to the use of critical sources before their final research papers. As I pull together themes (I'm pretty well set on that approach now), I will continue to do some quick and dirty research to see what I can turn up.

I'm trying to figure out if it's worth doing the mini-papers I did with the poetry students last semester. Looking at the schedule, there would really only be time for three (three minis and three larger papers). I like the idea of allowing students a relatively low-stakes shot at a narrow focus that can form the backbone of a larger paper--but I also don't want to completely overwhelm them (or myself) with writing assignments. I've reworked the reading journal form, too, hoping to make it somewhat more useful to them and to me. I'm not sure whether I'll assign more than one story in any given week--but if I do, I don't think the forms will be overwhelming time-wise for the students, even if they have to do two in a week. I don't think, but their idea of what takes too much time and mine tend to be very different. (Obviously, I think my class deserves all the time they've got to devote to it, even as I recognize that they have other classes that may be very demanding, as well as jobs and, well, lives.)

I've been working on assignment schedules today: what a snorting pain in the ass. I have to try to make sure I reduce the size of the log-jams of papers to mark and return (a certain amount of pile-up can't be avoided, but I at least try not to collect papers from the comp sections and from the lit class in the same week). I'm also trying to get myself out of here a day early: meet students with their final grades on the final Monday and Tuesday, and then be done, instead of having to be here on the final Wednesday (when I'd ideally like to be flying to Montana). I think I'm OK with the timing of papers (though I just realized I didn't schedule a midterm or in-class final for 101: I go back and forth on whether to do that, may not this semester; that kind of in-class exam seems of dubious value to me at this particular moment, but I may change my mind). The mini-paper decision will probably have to wait until I nail down the stories I'm going to assign.

So I'm hacking away at the underbrush here, trying to get a path cleared to the start of the semester, but it's slow going. Today is also a gray, dull day--not hot, but dank--and that is putting a damper on my energy and enthusiasm. (ho ho, pun, "damper." It is "damper" indeed.) But I'll do a little more reading today, at least, before I head over to do placement exams. Tomorrow, I intend to do zero work. I'll bounce around on a horse in the afternoon (first ride in over a month) and spend the rest of the day doing my three-toed sloth impressions. In fact, what with one thing and another, I'm guessing I won't be doing much work until Monday. But that's OK: I work well in fits and starts like this--and one way or another, I'll be ready come September 1.

And no doubt I'll be nattering more about the process here in the interim. But for now, happy weekend to all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Musings

"Working" at home today: had vague plans to do various things, including possibly going in to the office (knowing that doing so increases my chances at productivity), but woke with a monster headache so have been doing more noodling than actual work. I started reading one of the books I've agreed to review--the one I'd forgotten: it arrived yesterday, and the review editor has put in a plea that I get the review done by 9/1, as other reviewers have dropped away and the fall issue is looking pitifully slender. I'll do my damndest: it's not a long book and is an easy read. However, since my brains are already starting to segue into thoughts of this semester's pedagogy, I find my mind keeps wandering off into vague musings about teaching, classes, how to approach material, what to assign.... None of this is leading to anything concrete just yet, but I realize how frequently I think about what to say to students, how to present ideas to them, musings I generally forget or lose focus on by the time I get into the classroom.

So today, I decided to write some of it down--very informally, and with no particular intent, except (as I will be sure to point out to students) that writing things down often helps make them more clear. Getting an idea into words clarifies it, but writing adds another layer to that process of clarification, as one can go back and re-read (and revise, of course, a not insignificant factor).

And rather than maunder on here, I'll insert what I was jotting down:

Myth 1: papers start with a thesis or outline. Bullshit. They start with ideas—and the ideas aren’t very clear at first.

Ideas can exist—sort of—without words, but an idea isn’t clear, to you or anyone else, until you’ve got it into the right words. How do you know if the words are right? You keep working at them, moving them around, making substitutions, until you feel pretty sure they capture what you’re getting at, and then you bounce them off an audience and see if the audience gets what you wanted to convey. If not, you go back and fuss around some more.

And ideas come from somewhere. Where do your ideas come from? What makes one idea “better” than another? What makes you listen to and respect someone else’s opinion? (Opinions are vastly overrated by students. Sure, you’re entitled to your opinion: I’m entitled not to give a crap about it unless you give me a good reason to.)

The cool thing about writing, as opposed to speaking, is that you can go back and rework, reword, refine until you get it right. Ever have the sense you wish you could erase something you just said? Ever have the experience of trying to work something out with a friend or family member and saying, “No, that’s not what I meant,” then trying to find another way to say what you wanted to say? That’s what writing is for.

Writing isn’t just what falls out of your head onto the page. I’m pretty fucking good at this, and anything that is going to be seen by anyone other than just me gets reworked (even e-mails and text messages). Anything I’m going to distribute publically, never mind professionally, gets extensively reworked—and often shown to colleagues first. I know you don’t want to be me, but in this case, really, trust that I have some knowledge and experience that you can benefit from.

Not to mention the fact that you can make a huge, I mean HUGE, difference to your grade by reworking.

However, if you start out worrying about getting it right, that’s a recipe for disaster. You need to start by just letting things fall out of your head and onto the page. You need to start by pulling together everything you know, or think, or guess, or wonder about on whatever the topic is. The “right” words come later. The “right” organization comes later.

You start by letting things fall out of your head, but you don’t STOP there. Or if you do, you get a crappy grade. Some of you may be skilled enough as writers, thinkers, that you can do a passable job with just what falls onto the page the first time out of the gate—but I will not be impressed. I did too much of that myself, and recognize it, and will demand more of you. I’ll challenge you to work your ass off, no matter how good you are coming in the door.

My job is to get you to think. Really, seriously think. It isn’t as easy as you might believe right now.


That's as far as I got. I may print that out to take in to the first day of classes with me--or not. The start of this semester is so stupid in terms of continuity, I am not at all sure how I want to deal with the first class--or even the first two weeks. I've even considered not assigning any reading at all until the third week, when I can demand that students have their textbooks--though honestly, I doubt I'll go that route: it's too important for them to get a sense early, rather than late, of the kind of reading they'll be doing.

Well, anyway. I'll continue fussing with ideas and chipping away at the actual work. Tomorrow I'll be in and out of the office, in between various (routine) medical appointments and the evening placement reading. I'm hoping that makes for a much more productive day. And pretty soon here I'll head off for this evening's reading.

Two student bloopers of the day:

1) Children are not allowed to be user friendly.

2) Nine times out of ten, majority rules.

Hard to argue with that second one.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chip, chip, chip

I'm in the office today, between and after "instant scoring" sessions of placement essay reading. (Students are applying and testing at the last minute, so they wait to get their test scores while we read, so they can register immediately. Ironically, one of the topics is whether the student believes in the validity of the cliche "haste makes waste.") One nice moment in this morning's reading session: a student wrote about how he wants to major in environmental science, his love of nature and the outdoors, and all the exciting career possibilities that he sees arising from that major. It was a decent essay--he got placed into 101--so I found him in the hall and made a pitch for my 101: might as well have at least one student who is there because the subject matter is appealing to him. (I could advertise my sections as theme based, but there are reasons why I don't. Among those reasons is that, unfortunately, given issues of timing in terms of when we get our schedules versus when courses are available for enrollment, it isn't possible for me to note the theme on the description for my sections--unless I also restrict enrollment, and I don't want to do that, for reasons I won't get into here.) Anyway, only one of my sections still has seats available (though students may still get disenrolled for non-payment of tuition, so the rosters aren't cast in stone just yet), but I'm hoping this student will make the effort to get himself into that section. We'll see.

I had a good time between placement sessions working on my 101 syllabi--not the assignment schedule just yet (that will be a complication for another day) but reworking the course description, some of the rules and regs, putting in the info about the new style guide, that sort of thing. Looking through the style guide, I realized that it does not contain info that was in the old one, something I will miss having handy: a little how-to about setting up a document on one's computer. That in turn made me think that it might be worth spending a class in a computer lab so students can learn all that stuff hands-on. Some won't need it, but a surprising number do. (For this generation, the generalization is that they are incredibly tech savvy when it comes to entertainment and social networking but completely clue-free when it comes to applications such as word processing or spreadsheets--you know, the stuff they might actually have to use in their academic, not to mention professional, lives.) I've contacted our tech guru about scheduling a period for each section in the lab: idea in the process of becoming a reality.

I also am working (still) on about a million ideas I've had over the past year about how to help students approach writing, trying to translate those into assignments, or adjustments to assignments. I feel a little like the students right now: I know what my assignment is (construct this semester's syllabus and accompanying assignments), but there are a lot of questions I need to answer before I can start doing it....

And I'm gradually chipping away at the short story volume, making determinations about which stories to assign. Another realization: some of the stories I most want to teach are not included (especially now that Ed shared some Lorrie Moore stories with me when we were on our travels: I absolutely must include something of hers, and I don't think she's in the anthology I chose). I will certainly be handing some stories out in photocopied form, or seeing if I can find online links to them so the students can download them on their own. And I begin to feel it may, after all, be easier to teach the course thematically instead of chronologically. (Doing so will also help the students think about theme, which is always difficult.)

But thinking about that class, as the start of the semester approaches and I see the enrollment holding steady at a full section, I am uneasily aware that a fair number of the students are likely to have signed up because of the words "short story"--emphasis on "short," which they no doubt think means "under five pages and easy." Hmmmm. Well, it will be interesting to see how early the attrition sets in, and how severe it becomes. But again, as with 101, I still have more questions than I do answers about how I'm ultimately going to put all this together.

I've got a little more time here to noodle around with stuff before I feed myself and head to dance class. Since I have some momentum going, I'll take advantage: it's rare for me to feel momentum without accompanying anxiety (or downright panic), so in the interest of taking better care of my adrenal glands, I'll get back to the noodling.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

August, argh

And no, I'm not being a pirate for the day. That's a groaning sigh at being back in the office--as usual, getting less accomplished than I intended. For one thing, I seem to have been carrying around some kind of bad printer juju, as first I struggled with my printer at home for about an hour before I got it to work, then just went through a similar problem here at work. Argh. Then, a book I had promised to review by August 15 has not yet arrived from the publisher. I confess, this is partly my fault: I agreed to review the damned thing, then completely, utterly forgot (in my wild excitement over the trip to the Northwest): not only did I not look for it before I left, I didn't even think to look for it and to raise a red flag about the fact that it wasn't here. So the other day, I got home to a message from the review editor, explaining how to upload our completed reviews. Major oops. And major panic attack. She's being very sweet about it, however: if I get the book and think I can get it read and reviewd by September 1, it can still go in the fall edition of the journal (the inaugural edition: the page is under construction but can be found at http://www.ecozona.eu). If not, I have until January 1, and it will go in the spring issue. Whew.

Meanwhile, the other book I'm supposed to review is languishing, partly read, on my coffee table. I'm finding it a real slog, particularly for the kind of review I'm supposed to do. I reviewed for them before: It's a very interesting process, as it requires one to think not just about the book but more about personal/practical considerations of teaching with an environmentalist focus. That one is greentheoryandpraxis.org/. But the book is a very practical, how-to manual for setting up community-supported agriculture, and that doesn't work very well with my pedagogical slant. I wish now I had said "no" to it: after I agreed, others came along that would have been much more appropriate for me and my work. Ah well. It will be a good challenge for me (and a lesson in trusting that I can be more choosy about what I agree to take on).

I have started working through the new style guide I'll be using for 101, and I like it very much. The organization is a little different from my personal approach to beginning comp: it focuses on research way before I do, but even so, that helps me remember to talk to the students about the importance of gathering information from sources before starting to write, certainly before trying to formulate a thesis. It's also giving me some good ideas for pre-writing assignments--such as having students write a brief overview of what they think my essay assignment wants them to do, and what they need to ask questions about in order to feel confident beginning the task. There is an example of that kind of response to an assignment in the style guide, and I think it's a great idea. I'm also chipping away at the short-story collection I'll be using for the American Short Story class: haven't gotten very far, but the stories are getting more interesting. I still am waffling about how much structure to predetermine and how much to just let the students explore ideas with much more general guidelines from me. But the more serious, albeit subterranean, mulling and stewing has begun.

And as I do this work, and write about it here, of course I am also feeling the upsurge in anxiety levels. Argh again. This is a new project for me personally: how to build sufficient motivating energy without having to resort to wild anxiety and panic. I'm sure it can be done--but it certainly will be new to me.

I cleaned off a little patch of my desk but ran out of that particular kind of brain energy pretty rapidly. I expect I'll get the bug to clean up and organize eventually, but it hasn't blossomed just yet. In a little bit here I will embark on the first of a slew of instant scoring placement readings (we read while students are finishing up their other placement tests, so when they are through, they can find out exactly what their placements are and go register right away). It's not much different from the regular reading, except there is a certain amount of time pressure to get them read--and we don't leave until we've finished the batch from that testing session, no matter how long it takes. Usually, the first few sessions are not heavily attended and we're done pretty quickly. By the end of the process, students are showing up in panic-stricken mobs, not having gotten into any other schools and suddenly realizing that NCC may be their last option--and then we're often there for 3 hours plus. But tonight shouldn't be too hard.

And I realize that I'm still adjusting back into all this after my weeks away: it's a very abrupt and radical shift of gears to go from traveling through the incredible scenery of Montana, Idaho, and Washington with Ed, visiting family and beloved friends on occasion but often just off on our own, and being back here, caught up again in the mill-wheels of my "normal" life. But if you're interested in the trip--a break for you from the experience of reading this blog about work work work--I think you can access my photo album of it this way: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2051027&id=1073272194&l=cd0471b7bc).

And now, a little more work before I go read. Student blooper of the day (left over from last semester): "He became a drug attic."